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From Sofia To Jaffa: Bulgarian Jews In Israel

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My first sustained exposure to Jaffa, a generally rundown neighborhood of Tel Aviv, occurred toward the end of 1971, shortly after I met my wife-to-be, Etti, a student at Tel Aviv University finishing an MA degree in English literature.

We met at the British Council Reading Room in one of the university’s libraries. I was writing an aerogram to my parents, informing them of my decision to return to Montreal. I had spent less than a year in Israel, studying Hebrew at an ulpan and working on a kibbutz, and now it was time to go back to Canada.

Etti upended my plan.

Not long after our meeting, she called to invite me to her parents’ home in Jaffa. Etti and her mother and father, Reni and Moritz Lazarov, were the first Bulgarian Jews I had ever met. From that point forward, I was introduced to their culture, language, history and culinary preferences (ah, Creme Bavaria), and to Jaffa, a bastion of the Bulgarian community in Israel.

As we got to know each other, Etti showed me around Jaffa. I appreciated its ragged Oriental flavor, liked its groceries, boureka cafes, bakeries, and was struck by its flea market, Ottoman clock tower, crumbling facades and wall facing the foaming Mediterranean Sea. I had briefly visited Jaffa in the wake of the 1967 Six Day War, but never before had I been so exposed to its nooks and crannies and nuances.

Six years later, my appetite whetted for all things Bulgarian, my friend Henry Srebrnik and I travelled to Bulgaria, a country Etti has yet to visit, though she was born in Sofia, its capital city. It was there that I expanded my knowledge of Bulgaria’s Jewish community, one of only two in Nazi-occupied Europe to survive the Holocaust more or less intact.

When I learned that Wayne State University Press in Detroit had published Sofia to Jaffa: The Jews of Bulgaria and Israel, I ordered it immediately. Though I had read books and articles about Bulgaria and its Jews, I was eager to wade into Guy H. Haskell’s book.

Haskell, the general editor of the Jewish and Ethnology Review, has written what may be the definitive work on this somewhat esoteric subject. In fluid and authoritative fashion, he traces the history of Bulgaria’s largely Sephardic Jewish community from mainly the Ottoman period to the present. He then segues into the tragic events of World War II, which placed Jews in dire peril and eventually prompted most of them to immigrate to Israel in a historic movement of mass migration.

From the moment of Israel’s birth in 1948 until 1951, 684,000 new Jewish immigrants poured into the country, thereby tripling its population. Advertisement

Forty five thousand of the newcomers, including Moritz and Reni, were Bulgarians. They settled in Jaffa, which had been populated mainly by Palestinian Arabs prior to the first Arab-Israeli war. Their first home was in Jaffa’s Gan Tamar district. Later, they purchased a small and unassuming flat nearby.

Moritz and Reni left a country that had persecuted its Jewish citizens in the early 1940s. Until Bulgaria’s alliance with Nazi Germany, Bulgarian Jews were comfortably off. Bulgaria, during the Turkish Ottoman era from 1389 to 1878, treated its Jewish minority fairly well. “The consolidation of Turkish sovereignty over Bulgaria provided its Jewish population with a measure of security and protection unmatched anywhere in Christian Europe,” writes Haskell.

Whereas the Ottomans regarded Christians with some disdain, they generally respected and valued Jews. “Unlike the Christians, who were largely illiterate peasants, the Jews could........

© The Times of Israel (Blogs)

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