Split and Dubrovnik, the two oldest Jewish communities on the Adriatic coast of Croatia (known as Dalmatia, they trace their continuous existence back to the early fourteenth century). "Pearl of the Adriatic," Dubrovnik, also called Rhacusa or Ragusa, sits astride a fine natural harbor on the southern Dalmatian coast. In the Middle Ages, the city enclosed itself with high walls, mounted protective towers on them and flourished as a trading port. As a small city-republic, Ragusa enjoyed its greatest prosperity and growth between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. Most of its trade was with cities on the eastern coast of Italy and in the Aegean basin, all of them locations of thriving Jewish communities. Jews were tolerated as itinerant traders in Dubrovnik from 1352 although the city initially denied them residence. The small kehillah played a significant role in the commercial and maritime development of the city despite harassment and persecution.

Bimah in the Dubrovnik synagogue. The synagogue, built in 1408, still stands despite the heavy damage it suffered during the Serbia-Croatia war in 1991. Click to view enlarged

The sunless cleft of the narrow ghetto alley rises steeply from the Dubrovnik Placa, the main square near the market and port area. In ghetto times, the alley was closed at the top. At the lower end, near the sign Zudioska ulica (Jews' street), ghetto traffic was controlled by a gate-now gone. The synagogue was established in 1408 near the bottom of the alley, in a narrow three-storied stone building dating from the fourteenth century. High windows, ogee-arched at the second level, cut the undistinguished and essentially unchanged stone façade.

A narrow flight of stairs leads directly to the small office, where entrance tickets sell for a token fee. The walls are colorfully decorated with old photos and documents, including a list of the earthquake victims of 1667, a picture of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and a letter from Sir Moses Montefiore thanking the kehillah for its good wishes on the occasion of his 100th birthday. More steps lead up to the sanctuary. The present kehillah and its predecessors have lavished much care and love on the diminutive prayer room.

A dominant bearing partition, pierced by three wide arches, divides the room and the oversize bimah into front and back areas. Between 1652 and 1670, the synagogue was redecorated in Baroque style. To replace the women's seating, formerly in a row at the rear, a raised gallery was added at the south wall by incorporating a room from the third floor of the adjacent building. A decorative latticework separates it from the prayer room below. Men sat on high-backed benches along the north and south walls. The synagogue was probably adequate in size for Dubrovnik's Jewish community, whose numbers between the fifteenth and the twentieth centuries never exceeded the 260 affiliated persons in 1830.

Igor, grandson of Miriam Ferera, leader of the Kehillah. Click to view enlarged

A tasteful white satin parokhet (curtain) covers the inlaid doors of the exquisite Baroque aron kodesh (Ark). The Ark holds several Torah scrolls, one of which may have originated in Spain before the 1492 expulsions. In Sephardic fashion, chains carry bronze Florentine memorial lamps containing glass oil cups in front of the Ark. In style, they resemble lamps of contemporary Balkan churches or mosques. Heavy maroon velvet drapes form a dramatic baldachin above the Ark and deck the windows. The community's most important work of art is a thirteenth century Moorish carpet presumably brought from Spain during the expulsion. With floral design glowing in brilliant colors against the dark silk background, it is a superb achievement. Legend claims that it was a gift from Queen Isabella to her Jewish doctor when he was forced to leave Spain. Often hung before the aron kodesh as a parokhet on the High Holidays, it is presently in safekeeping until it can be displayed in the Jewish Museum planned for Dubrovnik.

Access to the women's gallery behind the high wooden grilles is through the adjacent house, home of Emilio Tolentino. After Rabbi Salamon Baruch was taken to the Italian concentration camp on the island of Rab in May of 1943 and later executed, Tolentino took over the leadership of the congregation. During the night following the German entry into the city, the Tolentino family rescued much of the ceremonial silver. They climbed past the grilles down into the synagogue, gathered the silver and the Torah scrolls and distributed them among Croatian friends. After the war, the few Jews who returned regained the synagogue treasures.

Tourists are beginning again to crowd the Placa. Dubrovnik captures the heart of visitors with its natural beauty and ancient charisma. Yeshayah Cohen, sixteenth-century philosopher, poet, and Latin scholar — known by his pseudonyms Yakov Flavius and Didacus Pyrrhus — crowned his beloved city "Queen of the Illyrian Sea" and glorified her with paeans of poetry.

Si tranquilla meae sedes optanda senectae, Ante alias urbes sola Rhacusa placet. If I had to find a peaceful place to rest in my old age, Above any other city I would fancy only Rhacusa.

sources Abridged from: Rivka and Ben-Zion Dorfman, Synagogues Without Jews (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2000)

Introduction l Preface l Interview l Polná l Rhodes



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