Havana Day 2 December 6,2017



In a cocotaxi in Revolution Square


Pause for a moment while appearing to be a tourist, and not ten seconds will go by without someone offering you some way to lighten your wallet. We were asked repeatedly if we wanted a picture, a tour, a cigar or most likely a taxi. We were down to our last $60,  which in the US has no consequence at all. The credit card that fits into the cell phone case will provide anything from a breakfast roll to the down payment on a new car, but Cuba doesn’t recognize the US banking system. Cash only, Cuban pesos, Cuban tourist dollars, or greenbacks were the only options. And we were running out. We had heard that you get an hour in old American car for between $40 and $50 USD and were debating if we should cut it that close when the coco taxi pulled up and offered us a tour for $25 dollars -we jumped in. Actually I jumped in, Eric remained a bit apprehensive the whole time.


A view of the capitol- not surprising like the one in DC,  Today it is a science museum.

It was barely 8 am and we got to tootle around the city in relatively light traffic. With the help of a motor, even the limited power of a Vesper motor, we were able to cover quite a bit of territory. We passed the domed building that housed the Museum of the Revolution. Once it was the presidential palace in the time of Batista. We saw the larger domed structure that bore more than a little semblance to the US capitol building on which it was modeled.  We saw the pagoda shaped awning that delineated Chinatown, but one can see far more people with Asian features looking out my living room window in any given glance, than we saw the whole time in Cuba. We did watch the city come to life, those in the tourist trade, and subsequently those who earned more than the equivalent of $25 US dollars a month, knew the Norwegian Cruise Ship would depart by noon, and any money to made from the two thousand departing passengers would need to be earned before then. There were many old American Cars on the road, as well as some far less flashy Russian ones. They may have been from a newer era but they did not have the same cache as a pastel painted ‘59 Pontiacs.



We made our way to a very quiet Revolutionary Square. Once Fidel would speechify for hours at a time to large crowds. Today there were only two small tour groups, one arriving in the air conditioned bus and the other in a procession of the old American cars. The driver pointed us to a tall building, Jose Marti Tower which he assured us we could view the whole city from its top. The soldier at the end of the entrance ramp had other ideas. He shook his head crossed arms up in front of him, and we figured it out. It was closed. We left. We looked at the large outline pictures of Fidel, Che and Cienfuegos one more time and hopped back in our little coconut. The driver headed back to cruise terminal.

DSC00249We passed the sprawling buildings of Havana University. “My alma mata,” the driver told us. When we were stopped and able to have a conversation. Eric asked what he had studied “I am a doctor,”, he told us. With two specialities. Doctors in Cuba are paid the equivalent of $25 a month. We paid him more for an hour’s ride in a coconut shaped taxi. “No,” he told us, he hadn’t practiced medicine in over a year but he was hoping he could be assigned to a position in Bolivia or Colombia one day


Our driver’s alma mater- University of Havana



It translates – blockade-(embargo) the largest genocide in history.

Our driver dropped us off at the San Jose Market. I had heard some passengers on the ship discussing it the evening before. It was large and filled with stalls hawking just about everything one imagines would be in a tourist market. But there were aisles and aisles of Cuban artwork for sale. Some of it were the brightly colored palm trees framing a Caribbean sunset that we have seen in just about every Caribbean market we have ever visited (and there are many), but some of it was very interesting artwork, that we could not consider due to lack of cash (and probably a general propensity just not to buy stuff on our travels.). But we did get to have a fairly extensive conversation with Marcos, our resident Marxist. At the age of 21, Marcos had the enthusiasm and strength of his convictions that we had encountered previously in other bright young people who appeared convinced that at the cusp of adulthood they had figured out what we had failed to in all these decades on earth. Communism is the answer he assured us, but what he and his compadres were experiencing in Cuba was not actually Communism. It failed (as did the kibbutz system in Israel, of which Marco assured us he was familiar with) because it had not advanced out of its primitive stage. He was surprised that Eric had heard of Dialectical Materialism, or that we too, had read Engels in our real, if distant university years. But he argued his points enthusiastically and explained that he had intended to study law, but needed to work in the tourist market because his father was sick and he must help support the family. He was one of many that pointed out, that in Cuba everyone who earned entry was entitled to advanced free education. Enviable, even if it led to a dead end.


With our hours in Cuba rapidly drawing to close, we made our way back towards the cruise dock. We passed a church shaped structure near the water’s edge. The sign in front explained it had been used as a music school, a women’s hospital and other things. The woman inside explained it was Iglesia de Paula, the first church founded in Cuba. Religion and especially the Catholic Church has had a uneven experience during the Communist years. The stained glass and murals on the walls were all done in contemporary artstyle completed after the year 2000. The woman explaining the church then asked for a donation to help with the current renovations of the church. I am not completely sure I got the whole picture, but it seems that it was once a church and then it wasn’t and now it is again.


Iglesia de Paula

We headed into the streets of the Old City, passing schools filled with school children enjoying recess in an endless summer climate. We followed the blue dot on our google maps through the old city. We encountered streets of houses not restored to the pastel charm of the streets adjacent to the Cruise terminal. Housing in Cuba, we were told, was free, but salaries were not high enough to make repairs. Some buildings were in poor condition, some were even worse and it was not unusual to see gaps between building where the the building that once existed had collapsed and all that remained was perhaps a front wall, a rear staircase leading nowhere, or a balcony suspended over the street. Eric leaned in to take a picture of the guts of one such void, but was whistled away by a passerby who pointed to the precarious underpinnings of a balcony.


The space where once the building had been

And then we passed a series of outdoor umbrellas that shaded the tables of an outdoor cafe, and just like that we were back in the Old City with the restored buildings, curious sculptures and throngs of tourists. One more trip through the customs, (the officers wore shapely uniforms that Eric admired each time. On their breast pocket the label Aduana was printed. A woman from the ship commented – what a pretty name. I (who cannot mind my business) pointed out that aduana is the Spanish word for Customs. Oops. And as the world had a strange way of messing with me – we ate dinner with a woman named Dawanna.


The customs ladies

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Kids at play in the Old City

And then ship sailed out of the harbor and we got one last look of the city of Cuba.


From the Norwegian Sky


Havana Day 1




December 5, 2017


Anay showed us the picture of the Cuban Delegation to the Maccabee Games in Jerusalem, “I’m the one in the white dress.”  She told us.  They danced in the opening ceremonies and even brought home some medals.  There is no way the Cuban Delegation could afford to send a team to Israel to compete in the games, but Adela Dworkin the head of the Jewish Community in Havana  just happened to tell Steve Tisch that they wanted to compete.  

“How much do you need?” he asked.

“A lot,”  was the answer.   But Steve Tisch who owns the New York Giants and a lot of New  York real estate,  was able to cough up the cash.  All he wanted in return was the initials of his father to be embroidered on the sleeves of the uniform.  And that is how Anay got to dance in the opening ceremonies of the Maccabee games.


Anay, our guide on the Jewish Tours of Havana

How we got to meet Anay is far less interesting.  We booked a tour through Judaic Tours, for Jewish Havana. We squiggled through the debarking process of the Norwegian Cruise Line  Sky, after about an hour and half of doing what we had done repeatedly for the last two days- wait on line. The idea of Cuba, so long forbidden to us, seemed appealing but complicated.  In fact it became even more complicated when on November 8, the rules for visiting Cuba changed again.

But it was not any more complicated in the end, than calling the travel agent who booked the cruise, and NCL happily provided us with our Cuban Visa for $75.  We filled out some forms to be OFAC compliant.  Which just means that we are supposed to visit Cuba not for the purpose of tourism but with some valuable inter-cultural goal..  After reading many opinions, we chose support of the Cuban people. We are required to “self-certify”  which means if we are the first people ever to provide a record of the beneficial activities we participated in while spending a day in a half in Havana, we can provide this record.  And so I type this report.   It certainly must be because of my beloved government’s need to have such a record and not all because I have written up my travels for the last forty years.

We took a short wander around the polished up streets of Havana Vieja- Old Havana.  The city was founded by the Spanish 498 years ago.  There are signs up around the city reminding that it is only two years until the 500th birthday party. Old Havana is just how one would imagine an old Colonial City, pastel building surround spacious plazas , colorfully dressed senoritas  and everyone trying to sell you something, a tour, a cigar, a ride in a  carriage drawn by a horse, a coconut shaped taxi pulled by a Vesper engine, or a classic American Car powered by who knows what generation of engine.

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The Presidential Railway Car in the Old City  In 1912  three Presidential Railway Cars were made for the President of the United States, Mexico and Cuba.


Anay arrived, called a taxi and driver and we were off to tour the Jewish Community.

“Here is our social room,” Anay told us as she showsed us a room covered with blue plastic table cloths. It was sparsely decorated with deflating blue balloons.  It is the place where community celebrations are held and the blue balloons were from a Bar Mitzvah celebrated the past Shabbat.  Behind the room is the kitchen where celebrations are prepared,   “But it is not kosher,” she told us, because it is just about impossible to keep kosher in Cuba.  We leave the supplies we have purchased, and unnecessarily fretted about the possibility of having them confiscated by customs, in the office with David. We had brought some supplies for the Sunday School and a bunch of over the counter medicines purchased in a Miami Target.  All three of the Jewish Institutions we visited said they ran a pharmacy- which seems to be a small health clinic where non- prescription medicines are distributed.

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Synagoga Beth Shalom (Conservative)
Calle I Esq. 13, Vedado, Ciudad de la Habana, CP 10400, Cuba.

Anay took us upstairs to the sanctuary, where the community worships.  There are six Torahs and although the Cuban Jewish Community has shrunk from a high of almost 15,000 before the Revolution to about a 1,000 today, from everything we saw, it is a vibrant community where even without a permanent rabbi, services and celebrations are well attended.  If for no other reason, food is always provided.

Outside the sanctuary, we looked at several exhibits.  One was a poster celebrating Steven Spielberg’s visit to the synagogue. Another showed newspaper ads advertising the once thriving Cuban businesses of Havana.

DSC00134 While we were there a young man covered in tattoos arrived and asked in Spanish if there is a place in Havana to purchase kosher meals.  Anay explained there is none and he rode away on his Vesper.

Our next stop was the Sephardic Synagogue.  There we met Shimon Goldman, and octogenarian who arrived in Cuba from Poland in the 1930s.  He explained the Holocaust Memorial, he presides over, is the only one in the Caribbean



The Holocaust Museum  Centro Sefaradi (Conservative)
Calle 17 esquina E, Vedado, La Habana 10400

It is a standard Holocaust Memorial with a small description of the story of the ship the St. Louis, an ocean liner filled with German refugees who Bautista refused to accept in 1939.  Roosevelt, also refused entry into the US and the ship returned to Europe, where most of its passengers eventually perished in the concentration camps.  “A dark period in our history,” Anay told us.  

Shimon told me of his life in Cuba, pre and post revolution.  He described a farm a Jewish friend owned outside Havana, where Jews would go to experience country life, horse back riding and fresh country air.  The Cuban equivalent to the Catskills I think.


A carved leather chair from the sancturary


We looked at the sanctuary and then we met Mayra Levy, the president of the congregation.  She told us about how the congregation survives, renting space to a dance company, who we heard practicing, and to people who run a gym.  The money is used to support the activities of the congregation.  Mayra’s pride and joy is the senior center, where we watched  local senior working on handicrafts.  “They are our history,” Mayra told us. She went on to tell us about her life in Cuba.  After the revolution every day someone would knock on her father’s door and ask him to accompany them to Miami.  “How long could this last?” her father would ask, “two maybe three years?”

“Inside these doors”  she continued,  “we are Jews.  We celebrate Passover, next week we will celebrate Hanuka, but outside the doors we are Cubans. with all the problems of the Cuban people.”


The last kosher butcher in Cuba

Our next stop was Adath Israel, the orthodox congregation.  The weekend before the trip, Eric found a current copy of the magazine, Kashrut America, in the lobby of our Temple.  In it was one page story about the last Kosher butcher in Cuba.  We met Itzak at the orthodox shul in the Old City.  Eric tells him he is a bit famous in America, since he has read the article.He responds that because of the limits of the Cuban Internet he doesn’t even know when these articles are actually printed.  Itzhak told us about how he almost always has a minyan for morning services. Not in least part, because breakfast is provided. Once a month he is given a cow to slaughter according to ritual standards.  Eric asked if he sells the non kosher parts of the cow to the non-Jewish community.  No, he explained, the whole cow belongs to the government and they take care of who get what.

   He also reminded us that next week is Hanuka and that he will distribute 44 candles to all who come to celebrate.  This, he told us, is a very valuable commodity in Cuba where blackouts are common.  We discussed politics a bit and Itzhak bemoaned the American government’s intimidating policy towards Cuban tourism.  “We depend on the generosity of American Jewish Tourists”

Our last stop was a hotel with Jewish roots and Jewish designs on the wall and arts and craft style furniture throughout the hotel.



We said farewell to Anay, who declined our invitation to join us for lunch.  First she tried to drop us off at the restaurant Cha Cha Cha, but there were police inside the restaurant and it was not open for business.  So we then went Al Carbon, where we had an unimpressive meal.



One example of the many beautiful and relatively unknown Cuban Artworks. (unfortunately and cannot read the label)


We spent the afternoon in the museum of Bellas Artes.  There are two National Fine Arts Museums in Havana.  One with collections from Art from around the World and the one we went to which is exclusively Cuban artists which was incredibly impressive and worth many hours of our time.  Unfortunately we only had about two hours energy left and we barely scratched the surface of what could be seen.

We followed the blue dot on Google Maps past the Museum of the Revolution and the outdoor exhibit of significant vehicles.  Through a floor to ceiling window we could see the boat , La Gamma, the boat Castro rode to return to Cuba from Mexico in 1956. The museum is housed in the ornate former presidential palace. We returned to our ship which required no line standing this time and we stuffed down dinner at the buffet, Back at the room Eric fell asleep but luckily the room steward knocked to offer turn down service.  A luxury, one wonders about, when there are people who can’t count on having enough food, however we managed to return to vertical, leave the boat and head up the Malecon.   The Malecon is the sea wall that separates the city from the bay.  In a city where doctors and street cleaners all make the same $25 dollar  monthly salary, clubs and cabarets  are reserved for tourists with money.  This makes the sea wall the place to be.  We walked up the Malecon passing groups of people playing musical instruments, lovers cuddling, fishermen fishing and everyone socializing.  And this was a Tuesday night.  We heard the cannon fire from El Moro, the Spanish colonial fort. and eventually figured out to get inside the National Hotel.  I didn’t figure on it being particularly difficult as we couldn’t have appeared to be more like foreign tourists if we actually tried.  Entrance was made even easier by the chance of timing, we arrived exactly at the time the tour buses bringing people from the Cruise Ship to the show did.  We followed the group inside, strolled the gardens and listen to the guitar playing musicians at one end serenade a couple  and on the other end a quarter played  Summertime (and the living is easy) on Violin.


Nighttime on the Malecon


We strolled around the hopping club scene on Avenue 23 before returning to the Malecon.   It is not hard to get a taxi in Cuba.  In fact it is much harder to ignore the continuous requests to have one.  Eric waited for the perfect one- which turned out to be a shiny Silver ‘49 Chevy which the driver claimed had its original engine. 



And so ended our only full day in Cuba.



California,  San Francisco, Glen Ellen  August 29- September 2, 2017

A family event brought us to the San Franisco- Sonoma Valley Region the week before Labor Day.

We had a scant 24 hours in San Francisco.  We landed on a day with crystal blue skies, something I never recall experiencing in San Francisco before.  The concierge at the Hotel Fusion, recommended we eat lunch at the Golden Boy Pizza store, which we reached by walking up Stockton Street to Green Street through a pretty familiar looking Chinatown for these Flushing dwellers.  The concierge waxed poetic about the quality of the pizza, and it didn’t disappoint.  But like the Chinatown produce stores it just wasn’t something really unfamiliar.

We had met Marissa and Julia on the way (the miracle of cell phones) and proceeded to take a more than sufficient set of group photos overlooking the bay and Alcatraz. Then we parted ways.  Eric decided it was worth the $7 and 45 minutes wait to take a cable car back to the hotel- and I was skeptical but didn’t argue. In my 15 year periodic cycle of visiting San Francisco I had taken cable cars before- but it ended up being worth it.

We did not rush for a seat, like so many in front of us, and ended up alone, standing on the back platform.We got to see the bay disappear behind us, as well as peer down Lombard Street from its peak and wave at the cheering passengers on the cable cars passing in the other direction.

But, perhaps the best part was sharing the platform with the conductor. He hollered uphill, uphill, hold on as we climbed, yelled the number of spaces available as we approached each cable car stop, chatted shop talk with another conductor who hopped on for a bit and assured us he had the best job in San Francisco.

We crammed a short visit to the San Francisco MOMA the next morning before taking the BART (the public train) back to the airport to pick up a rental car.

Just a short reflection on the snapshot of San Francisco we observed in our short time.  The business section is buzzing with activity, all the name stores were there, Macy’s, Nordstrom’s -Sephora.  We enjoyed a quick tour of the AT&T store, located in what was once the stately and ornately decorated Bank of Italy, but now houses AT&T and currently an elaborate exhibit of Game of Thrones artifacts.  The Iron Throne is front and center.  But among the prosperity is a teeming population of homeless folk.  We gave a dollar to the first person who helped us with directions and was happy to share that his home town was Dallas, where we were earlier in the day.  It was like chatting with any friendly human, but like seemingly every other person on the street he asked for money. The prosperity and the poverty were intricately entwined.

We spent two days in the Sonoma Valley.  We stayed at the Jack London Lodge in Glen Ellen.  We hiked a bit around the vineyard, visited a 2000 year old Redwood tree, saw the remains of the author Jack London’s farm and the stone foundation of the 15,000 square foot home he built but never lived in because it burnt to the ground two weeks before he moved in.We made sure to visit a vineyard, do the wine tasting and spend way too much on wines to ship home. Our personal wine pourer, made sure to tell us that most people never shared with friends the wines they purchased there.  They hadn’t completed the bill when we left and promised to email it to us a short while later.  We opened the email and understood immediately the not sharing comment.

We had dinner at Umbria, attached to the Jack London Lodge where we stayed the first night, and dinner at the Cafe Citti a few miles away in Kenwood.  As we drove around the wine country it wasn’t hard to imagine we were in Tuscany, both restaurants confirmed the similarity.

And then off to the family wedding, a backyard affair in 105 degree weather.

The Ancient Redwood in Jack London State Park

The oncoming Cable Car

A section of the ruins of Wolf House, the remains of the 15,000 square foot house that burnt to the ground before anyone got to live there.

Eric and the Cable Guy

The Golden Gate Bridge

At the pier. Alcatraz in the background.

Jewish Vilnius


The Choral Synagogue, Vilnius

It is a short story.  The Jews first came to the Duchy of Lithuania in the 15th century, they thrived.  They lived their lives alongside their Lithuanian neighbors  and then the Second World War came.  Ninety percent of them were murdered.  That’s it. If that’s enough- skip to the pictures.

Here is the very long story.  I separate this piece from my regular travel journal because there is nothing regular about it.  Still I fill the need to record it.


The Jewish Gate

On the first full day in Vilnius, Myra and I walk up to the Town Hall Square.  The breakfasts are so good, and the hotel so comfortable, that although it is only several blocks away it is almost ten when we reach there.  There are two groups of tours forming, Free Vilnius by foot (maybe not so free-it is just about mandatory to tip 10 Euros at the end) and the Jewish Tour of Vilnius-the cost 10 Euros up front.  We don’t even discuss it, we join the Jewish Tour.

Milde, our guide, explains she is a Christian Lithuanian  but she is a religious studies major in the university and knows much about Jewish life in Lithuania.  So we go through an arch, she explains is known as the Jewish Gate.  For centuries the Jews lived in the two neighborhoods we visit, but it was always known as the Jewish Quarters. It wasn’t until the Nazi Occupation of Lithuania, that the Jews were restricted to living in these areas, and then they were labeled the Jewish Ghettos. We visit a statue of the Gaon of Vilnius, a revered religious leader who could read the Torah by age four and had it memorized by age seven.  According to Milde he was responsible for codifying much of the question, response method of traditional Torah study.  I make a mental note to ask friends or the rabbi if this information is in fact correct, but before I even get home a friend comments on Facebook about how Vilnius is the home of the great Talmudic scholar, the Gaon of Vilnius.

We stop at a playground in front of a school.  Here is where othe Great Synagogue of Vilnius once was located.  Nothing remains but a marker.



Repository of Jewish Information

We stop in front of a one story building.  Milde explains it  is a registry of some sort. Many people from around the world, stop by and try to  trace family members.  Our knowledge of our history really begins with our grandparents (and one great parent emmigrating from other parts of the Jewish Pale, to the Lower East Side- but on the map Milde shows of us of the territory of the Litvaks- Jews from the area-includes names I recognize from Eric’s background).

We look at a statue of  a happy doctor engaged in conversation with a pigtailed young girl.  This is Dr, Shabad, our guide explains, a well known Jewish doctor who treated children as well as their pets. Some think Dr. Doolittle is based upon his story.


We spend the next hour, visiting a library where Jewish books were collected during the War years, looking at courtyards, a couple from California ask how many synagogues were located in the area.  Milde replies, more than a hundred, all sorts of shuls for all sorts of groups.  She  points out a courtyard where once the Tailor’s Shul stood.  We see all traces of Yiddish writing indicating where once Yiddish merchants engaged in all sorts of street level enterprises.


The Courtyard where the Tailor’s Shul was located

Milde brings us to the Choral Synagogue, a synagogue that is functioning today.  Barbara, at the hotel had told us that a Chabad rabbi leads services there at times. Its ironic that community of the Gaon of Vilnius, who raged against the Chasidic movement of the 17th Century, is led by a Hasidic rabbi who does his best to nurture and grow the fragment of the remaining Jewish community.

At the end of the tour, we gather in yet another courtyard and Milde says it is difficult to discuss the role of the Lithuanians in the process of the extermination of the Jews.  She tells us that many Lithuanians (though not all, -more about that later)  assisted the the Nazis in rounding up the Jews, restricting them to the ghettos and bringing them to the forests where they were shot to death and buried.   She spends a few minutes attempting explanations, like the Lithuanian non-Jews felt the Jews were Soviets and therefore the invaders.  She added that it is human nature to want what your neighbor has,  and you do not, and that explained why the Jewish possessions were so easily appropriated.  Myra spoke up.  “It is not human nature.”


I am disturbed to recall an incident in Riga.  In the breakfast room of our hotel, I told the Jewish couple, eating breakfast next to us, that a  New York Times  writer had used the line , “First they  came for…'” from the Holocaust poem,  to title an opinion essay about Trump’s edict (or as it called -today-tweet) about banning  transgender soldiers in the US military,. the husband responded  that writers from the Times and the Washington Post like to put ideas in our heads.

“Name one US citizen that has lost his job since Trump became president.”

I should have said , Sally Yates, James Comey, Preet Bharara,  but I don’t think fast, so I said, how about all the immigrants that have been rounded up.

“I said US citizen,” he replied.

My response was weak.  What I should have said, was -all those non-documented Hispanics, Muslims, Asians (and  I can put so many faces to each of  those categories) are no less worthy of living decent, safe lives, than the Jews who lived in Eastern Europe before the War were.   But I am so eloquent only in hindsight

I cannot understand what happened, but I no longer am unable to fathom why it did.   .


Traces of Jewish businesses

In the afternoon, we hike up past the Frank Zappa memorial.  Yes Frank Zappa, its a head on a pole, and you are supposed to be able to get a phone call from the statue explaining more about it, by scanning in a QR code.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t work, so I have nothing else to say about it.  Our goal is the Holocaust Museum.  It is a green, wooden, house-like structure, that reminds  me of the buildings in the woods at our old summer camp.   There, in a series of rooms, the  low-tech exhibits retell the stories of the Jews in Lithuania beginning with the letter from Duke Gediminas, granting the Jews permission to settle in the area.  The final exhibit is a map of Lithuania where lights indicate places all through the country, where Jews were shot and buried.  The pre-war Jewish population was close to 70.000 and less than 3,000 Jews remained at the end of the War.



A book on display in the Holocaust Museum

I had downloaded an app, Discover Jewish Vilnius, in New York.  There are a series of dreidels all over the map and I  click on any one as I walk around the city and more information appears on my cell phone.  Clicking, sometimes produces  old photos, a few videos, an audio blurb but always some text relating the spot to Jewish Life in Lithuania.  On Monday night, when we first arrived, I attempted to figure out exactly how it worked.  Near the Town Hall Square were two dreidels. One dreidel, indicated the location of the Jewish Theater.  Through the war years, the theater performed to full houses, despite the objections of some to performing theater under the conditions of the ghetto.  Yet the theater served the purpose of employing Jewish actors, therefore saving them from the label of “useless” which would have quickly been a death sentence, as well as ticket sales provided money used to buy supplies for the ghettos, Jews, Non-Jews and even Nazis purchased tickets.

The other site we located, was Zalkind’s Department Store. The  store opened in 1872, was Jewish owned and the first large department store in Vilnius.

It took a while for me to figure out this geo-locating, cell phone thing, and Myra has a large preference for paper maps, so a lot of Monday night consisted of walking a few feet in one direction, deciding that the blue location dot on the screen was moving in the opposite direction and then making an about face and trying it all again.  Then there was the matter of figuring out just how to access the information available.  This took some effort and our technology learning curve is not our steepest.


All this to say, on Wednesday, when I decided I would like to find some of the sites on the map that were not part of Tuesday’s tour Myra was not enthusiastic about the plan.

We split up for the morning.  I take my cell phone, and my umbrella and am off to the area outside of the old city in search of dreidel -notated sites and Myra is off in a different direction.  Walking through the University I am directed to a plaque honoring Ona Simaite. She is one of the Non Jews  that  risked her life repeatedly to save Jews. A librarian who worked at the University, she repeatedly smuggled food and provisions into the ghetto and Jewish children out.  She was arrested three times. Twice her colleagues were able to obtain her freedom, but the last time the best they could do was change her death sentence to imprisonment in Auschwitz.  She was liberated there at the end of the war.

Vilnius, was such an important Jewish community, was sometimes referred to as Jerusalem of the North, that the next two sites are places where Moses Montefiore and Theodore Herzl visited and met with the Jewish community.


Gedimo Place with the Bristol Hotel on the left.

I find myself on Gedimo Place next, a large, lively Boulevard filled with non-tourists working and shopping. There I am directed to a lobby where I should have seen a depiction of a bear eating chocolate.  Alas, I could not locate these chocolate loving bears.  It was once a chocolate shop owned by Jews that provided chocolate for European Royalty.  Next I pass the site of the  Bristol Hotel, a series of silver colored half domed roofs,  it was once the fanciest hotel in Lithuania, now a series of shops, offices and a theater.  As the skies open and the rain pounds, I am directed to the music school where Jasha Heifetz studied.  I pass a building that housed a collection of Jewish Writing.  Through the magic of the app I learn that Vilnius was a major center of Yiddish Texts before the war. In 1925 YIVO,  the Yiddish Scientific Institute had a collection of more than 220,000 texts.  During the Nazi occupation, “Herman Kruk (1897-1944), philologist and historian Zelig Kalmanovitch (1885–1944), poets* Abraham Sutzkever (1913-2010) and Shmerke Kaczerginski (1908-1954), and few dozens others were tasked with deciding which books could be preserved by the Nazis for the their “institute of Study for the Jewish Question,”  and which were to be destroyed.”  (Discover Jewish-Vilnius)


The Music School where Yascha Heifetz studied

I am directed to the Vilnius Rabbinical Academy.  ” These seminaries were founded as an outcome of the 1844  tsarist edict, which tried to combat the influence of traditional Jewish education and promote acculturation”  (the Jewish-Vilnius website) This is the exact opposite philosophy of the Gaon of Vilnius and the great Talmud Yeshivas.
On to Wielka Pohulanka, a section of the New Town where many of Vilnius’s wealthy Jews lived before the War.  As the Jews in the early part of the 20 century gained status and wealth some moved from the Jewish Quarters to the wealthier suburbs.


The Vilnius Rabbinical Academy

A  clock on the street makes me realize time is up and it’s time to meet Myra.  I switch off the Discover Jewish Vilnius App and pull Google Maps.  I follow the blue dot back to the hotel Artogonist.

After lunch, Myra and I decide we have had as much Holocaust as we have koyach (that is the best transliteration of the Yiddish version of the word, strength, my mother would have used in this situation).  But a little bit of pizza and now we are restored and off to find the Museum of Tolerance.

The director sends us up to the top floor where we are treated to  art exhibition of Jewish Artists with Lithuanian backgrounds. Jacques Lipschitz is the one I record and therefore recall.

And then down to the second floor to have our kishkes ripped out again.  (I channel my mother’s Yiddish again, kishkes mean intestines literally,  but used to mean heart wrenching or extremely emotionally difficult.  It was often used to respond to something bad we did, as in you not coming home on time rips my kishkes out.)

While on the topic of my mother, I digress,  (as in avoid the next part) for a moment, by describing a photo album of her childhood.  Although her family was very poor, we have a collection of black and white photos of her and two sisters growing up in the 1930s and 40s.   The pages are full of plump girls dressed in the day’s fashion, as best as could be afforded, romping and smiling through the streets of NYC’s Lower East Side and Brooklyn.  Because their parents  left Europe at the turn of the 20 century they had the privilege of growing up.

The children who did not get to grow old.

On the second floor of the museum, the walls are filled with photos of children, from the same era, who lacked that privilege.  Unlike my grandparents, who worked menial labor jobs and barely got by, these children were often children of doctors, lawyers, engineers and musicians.


Litvak youth before the War

And yet the good life came to a crashing end. On the floor along with the pictures were stories of children who survived.  And here, it is important to tell the story of the Righteous Among Nations, the non-Jews who risked their own lives to save Jewish children.

Some of these heroes did it because they felt the religious obligation to do so, nuns and priests hid children in churches,  some did so because of relationships they had with Jewish families and some, when asked why they would risk everything just to save Jews, responded with, “because they are people.”

On the last day of my trip, because the Vilnius airport is closed we go to Kaunas. We find the still functioning Choral Synagogues as a group of black- hatted Brooklyn young men are leaving.  ( Yeshiva bocha the yarmulke-wearing ,Lithuanian  tells us)  We shtup the donation box and he tells  us zai gezundt– go in health.  (My old Yiddish is getting a workout today.)

At one time Kaunas was the interim capital of Lithuania, and therefore  the place where the foreign diplomats were stationed.

As the hours of my excursion into Lithuania wane, Myra and I head away from Kaunas’s Old City tourist center through the New City up some streets to the old suburbs.  There among the once elegant homes (some are still quite impressive, some have fallen into disrepair) is the one time home of Chiune Sugihara.  It is currently under reconstruction and all that could be seen that indicates what it was, is Japanese lettering on the door posts. Once many years ago, a member of our Temple’s Sisterhood told the story of how her family escaped Europe as the Nazis advanced. They were issued a Japanese visa and were able to leave overland through Siberia, eventually spending the war years in Shanghai.


The door posts in front of the Sugihara House

Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese Ambassador to Lithuania and his wife spent three weeks  staying up twenty hours a day, signing visas for Jewish Refugees.  Japan was aligned with the Nazis and he was ordered not to do so.  Nonetheless he continued to issue the visas and is responsible for saving as many as 2,000 Jewish lives.  He was stripped of his diplomatic post upon returning to Japan.

And so ends a difficult but beautiful trip to Lithuania.  We watch CNN on the hotel’s tv and hear how Trump wants to cut immigration to the USA by half and limit it to well educated English speakers. That, while images of  the destroyed cities of  Aleppo and Mosul appear in the following segments.

Human nature?

It is all painful.




The signpost translated says “Jewish Street”


milda.guideinvilnius@gmail.com (our guide for the Jewish Vilnius tour)


Vilnius, Lithuania   August 1 and 2, 2017

A detail from the ceilings and walls in the Vilnius University lounge. The University is hundreds of years old. This picture comes from a series of rooms that are covered with images from Lithuanian Folklore.

Vilnius is a beautiful city.  Whether sundrenched or sparking after a summer thunderstorm that pops up in an instant and disappears just as fast, Vilnuis”s wide streets and eclectic buildings reflect a city filled with a complex history.

We met Barbara at the hotel breakfast.  She is here for two weeks to study Yiddish at the Vilnius Institute.  She, like me is a retired bilingual teacher.  But though for both of us, or parents and grandparents spoke Yiddish, it Spanish that gave us the bilingual license.  Barbara tells me, she has fallen in love with Vilnius.  And it is  to see why.

Another piece of ruin on Castle Hill

The college book store. It’s like any college book store, filled with a multitude of books in a multitude of languagese except, the walls and arched ceilings are covered with images.

A street in the University complex

Looking out a gated vestibule in the University

Gauja National Park and a little more Old City. July 30, 2017

We were out of the hotel, and in the car with Linda, our guide, by 10 o’clock.  Off for a day’s excursion in the Latvian countryside.    Our destination was Gauja National Park, an area the locals like to call Little Switzerland.  No snow capped mountains to be seen anywhere, but instead we drove up and down pine-covered mini-mountains, with the curving Guaja river sparkling below.   Interspered between are stops were ski-lifts, some still operating for summer recreation, so I guess I get the analogy.

Linda took us to a number of stops, mountain-river valley views, a Lutheran Church in the midst of a Sunday service, but we shared the balcony with the working organist to look at some really elaborate mosaics created with button not tiles.  Linda couln’t remember the word in English, so she grabbed one on my shirt, hard at first to realize that he art media was in fact buttons

At the next stop we didn’t see the Botantical Gardens because they were under construction, But we did see a sculpture of “an army” armed with all manner of kitchen equipment.  “Just like Beauty and the Beast,” an American soldier we ran into, noted.   Myra chatted with the group of young men speaking American English.  They were a group of soldiers stationed in Alaska and traveling together.  What was immediately noticeable to me was the diversity, Black, White, Asian and Hispanic.  One young man wore a Dodger’s Cap and assured me this was there year to win the series. “not too common to see people who are not white in Lativia” Linda told me.

 We visited a cave, “not such a big cave,”  Linda told us, “but the biggest one in Latvia.”  Linda told us the sad story related to the cave. It involves three castles, true love between royalty and a common gardener, and someone getting her head cut off in the end. Just the stuff myths are made of.

Then on to the castle complex, which included Turaida Castle, and a hightower with a round stair case and a lot of steps. At the top was someone wearing a Red Sox cap and views of the surrounding area. (not to worry- the Yankees Cap showed up a bit later at the cafeteria.  Ilga, our local guide, showed us the small but informative Museum of the Liv, the indigenous people  who are related to the Sami, the people we were taught in school who were called Laplanders. There were Arabic coins in the exhibits of artifacts dug up locally.  The area must have been partt of the Silk trade route.

Also part of complex is the Dania Hill Song Garden,  Ilga told us of a man (whose name disappears from my memory) who collected thousands of Latvian Folksongs, the sculptures that dot the well manicured lawns, are symbolic of the characters and legends from these songs.  Friday, in the Jews of Latvia Museum, I read and listened to the collection of Jewish Folksongs also lovingly collected and catergorized.  if and how these collections intersected, I would not begin to know.

We had a cafeteria-food  lunch in a cafeteria attached to one of the many Tarzan parks, parks that have a series of climbing, jumping and tumbling equipment that Myra believed challenged the limits of US insurance practice.

I wandered into the Bourse Art Museum, back in the Old City.  The exhibits were pleasant enough, the most interesting exhibit were a series of painting done in Tibet and Nepal.  Spirutality was definitely a main theme.

Myra experimented with following the blow dot on Google Maps, and is a tiny bit more time, than the stated nine minutes we were able to find the only remaining synagogue in Latvia on Peitavas Street.  The synagogue was not burned during World War II because it’s location in the Old Town risked setting on fire too many other buildings, but it was used for various othe non- religious activities and bombed by neo-nazis in the 1990’s.  It has since beenfully restored and is a functioning synagogue.

Borsch at the Hotel Gutenberg Restaurant. The waiter said it tasted as good as it looked. Maybe.

The kitchen army in Gaulja National Park.

The Peitavas Street Synagogue

The sun setting at 9:30pm over the Old City. I can’t imagine why people outside  the US think 9:00 pm is reasonable dinner hour, but I felt the need to finally be at least outside the hotel room past sunlight hours. We had rooftop dinner reservations at 9, and at 9:30 we jumped up and joined the other people on the roof trying to get the maximum sunset view and the minimum satellite view.

Randon Note:  I wasn’t much of a youthful wander, it took far more years to get over my general anxiety of everything, but even in my earlier travel times, I journaled my trips- just in little notebooks, handwritten with an occasional sketch. 

I would take out those notebooks on trips between destinations and write away for the majority of hours long journeys.  This journaling process has evolved from old PDA’s, notebook laptops, Ipads to a small portable keyboard that I connect with bluetooth keyboard to my cell phone.  This post still took the better part of a four hour journey, but my hand doesn’t hurt.

I do miss the hand sketches though.

The cell phone camera is just too convenient.

Riga, Jugmala, Latvia July 29,2017

This is what a beach town needs:  sun (optional-but very preferable) sand, water, a street with lots of shops to buy everything you don’t need, and few things you do- like sunscreen, and ice cream.

Jugmala is a beach town.  It has all of the above.

We took  a taxi to Jugmala.  It cost about $30 and let us off in the center of town.  We walked through the street of shops up to a park with a watchtower.  Which I climbed and took pictures from but it mostly looks like a bunch of treetops and me.  I am not the best selfie taker.

Then we sat on the beach, splashed in the water, had a version of borsch that tasted like Greek Tsaki and returned to town to repeat the process.

I wandered around town just a bit, and the beach homes are combination of brightly colored wooden structures and modern stacked apartments.

We did take the mini-bus back.  It cost 1.65 Euros or somewhere less than $2.00. I did have to stand a bit, but something I am quite used to from the Q65.

We had a nice dinner at Neiburgs a combination of Litvian specialities, fish and duck liver and all manner of pureed vegetables.  

Not much to write today.  Beach days are for relaxing.

Riga, Lativia July 28, 2017

I woke up early, having reached the limit of my ability to proceed on a night’s worth of airplane sleep by 9:30  pm,  Gone are the days that the best current events one could hope for was the International Herald Tribune at the hotel room’s door,  a little cell phone, a little wifi and the New York Times was in my hands.

Off we went to take a look at Riga beyond the canal that separates the Older part from the newer.   Unlike many cities with old and new quarters, the continuation of ornately built and decorated structures make the transition much less of an instant time travel from one century to another.

Gone are the days of Yellow Pages Directories in the drawer of hotel’s night table as well.  Myra needed her glasses fixed and we (well I did) followed the blue dot on Google Maps to the Vision Center. Myra much prefers the street map and good old fashioned,  “if the train tracks are here and the canal is there we must be…..” navigation.   We found Vision Center, explained in careful English and obvious gestures that the glasses were in need of repair, and proceeded on.

Jugendstil, or Art Nouveau, in English is the name for a style of ornately designed and decorated Apartment Buildings built in the early part of the 20th Century.   The apartment complexes in Ridgewood New York   show that at least some of the style made it to New York City, but nothing illustrates the ultimate realization of the style like the Alberta Street and surrounding neighborhoods.  The architect, Mihails Eizensteins, designed hundreds of these structures that are concentrated around Alberta Street, but liberally sprinkled throughout the city.  I am posting only a very few examples.

We spent an hour wandering through the Art Nouveau Museum.  The architect Peksen, made his home on the first floor, and the museum is the restored representation of his living quarters.  The apartment museum has many interactive exhibits including a program that allows you design your own building as well as have your picture taken in a period appropriate floppy hat.  I checked myself in the full length mirror in a salon, and a pretty lady clad in 1902 clothing preened back.  I’m pretty sure it was a computer animation, far too skinny to be me.

After a coffee stop we were off to the Jews of Latvia Museum.  It is hard to write about the time there.  The museum, which is located on the third floor of a building that houses services for the Jewish Community.  Although Myra and I noticed some animated children dressed in Hasidic clothing earlier in the day (they were probably children from the local Chabad family)  the Jewish Community once thriving, was just about annihilated from Latvia, during the Second World War.  The relatively small museum carefully and thoroughly documents first its pervasive existence and then its destruction. We were given palm-sized MP3 player which explained in detail, exhibitions of both. Its hard to write about and even harder to portray the impact of the experience.

I found the local shopping mall, completely familiar, where I  purchased some electrical adapters.  Our way to dinner was punctuated by loud engine noises. A series of racecars, reminiscent of the old Raceway Motor Park vintage, lined up and farted around the peripheral streets, never actually racing.  We did what everyone else did, took some pictures and moved on.

Dinner was at AlaFolkClub,  which looked and sounded exactly like an underground folk music club in Greenwich Village.  That is  -exactly what I imagined an underground club in Greenwhich would look like.  Even by the time I reached adulthood,  property in Manhattan was worth way too much to house anything quite that Bohemian.

The sun sets late in the Northern latitudes and we strolled back to the hotel through an Old City capped  by pink tinged sky.


A folk band plays American folk music at the cavernous under ground AlasFolkClub



Riga’s Old City at sunset


Details from an Art Noveau building



Stained Glass Windows in the Jews of Lativia Museum