By Elizabeth Kratz
(JNS) While much of American and Israeli Jewry view Europe either as a “flyover continent” or as a vast and dangerous pit of anti-Semitism from which all Jews must flee, many overlook the facts and figures that indicate rising numbers of Jews living in relative comfort in many of Europe’s largest cities.
Jewish organizations, schools, stores and restaurants that are cropping up, particularly in Austria’s capital of Vienna, indicate the community has experienced enormous growth in waves, as wars and political changes have forced and enabled immigration to the region. On the banks of the Danube canal, the Jewish community in Vienna now houses an estimated 15,000-20,000 Jews, according to Austria’s largest newspaper Der Standard, though the community’s own last census in 2001 counted only 8,000 Jews. After World War II, the number of Jews surviving the war stood at about 8,000, coming down from well over 185,000 before the Nazis came to power in 1938.
Since I was in Vienna with my family visiting relatives during New Jersey’s January “yeshiva break” vacation, I noticed that a viable cross-section of today’s modern Jewish community in Vienna is easily seen by kosher-keeping visitors just by virtue of our daily pursuits. While we primarily visited with family and stopped at sights such as the famed Vienna Opera House, the Musikverein symphony hall, and various palaces and museums, we also, of course, had to eat and drink. Speaking with a shop assistant in Ferszt Vinothek, an entirely kosher wine store, I learned that the store sells a whopping 300-500 bottles of wine each week, depending on whether the store is catering for bar mitzvahs, weddings or engagement parties. The shop is located in Leopoldstadt, also known colloquially as Matzoinsel (Matzo Island), the second district of Vienna, where there has been an active Jewish community since as early as 1194, when Duke Frederick I promoted a Jew to the role of munzmeister (master of the mint).
While the City Temple (Stadttempel) was the only Vienna synagogue to survive Kristallnacht, the growth of local Jewish life today indicates a rebirth of a resilient, traditional and vibrant community.
While Austrians and the Austrian government have demonstrated an on-again, off-again relationship with their capital’s Jewish inhabitants, alternately expelling them and warmly welcoming them through the centuries, the community is, for now, on an upswing. Ten or more kosher restaurants now dot the city, with most of them centered in Leopoldstadt, which is also filled with Jewish institutions, including Chabad, Tomchei Schabbos (a charity organization) and the Ronald Lauder Foundation yeshiva. The city’s three largest kosher supermarkets, which carry many fresh and frozen kosher brands, rival any in Israel or the New York metropolitan area. Five kosher bakeries are also located in the district. Delicacies such as Mozart kugel, a uniquely Austrian, round chocolate-dipped treat filled with cake, cream and marzipan, as well as pink rum cakes and wienerbrot (a unique cross between seedless rye bread and sourdough), are available in peak kosher form at Bakerie Ohel Moshe.
Vienna has also become a popular first stop for American and Israeli Hassidic Jews from Boro Park or Bnei Brak, as they embark on kever (grave) tours of famed rabbis in Hungary, Germany, Czech Republic, Poland and Ukraine. These visitors arrive in Vienna weekly and are hosted once each week at the beginning of their tour in the Alef Alef restaurant. They make use of Vienna’s easy-to-navigate infrastructure, Shabbat-friendly hotels and guesthouses, and excellent array of kosher foods and baked goods to organize, pack and embark on their tours.
The permanent Jewish community in Vienna is comprised of three parts, which also have subgroups. The community is made up of both Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews from Central Asia, Georgia, Russia, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Israel.
The first is the community of Jewish survivors (and their descendants) of the Holocaust and specifically from European ghettos, most often from Budapest. The Budapest Ghetto was created later than the others, in 1944, and the Jews were not fully deported from there by the time the war ended in 1945. Many young female survivors from Budapest married Jewish men who survived the war and settled in Vienna. While many Jews took the opportunity to leave Europe for America or Israel, some of the individuals who stayed were able to build profitable businesses in the post-war years, many of which focused on Vienna’s textile and fur industries.
The second wave of Jews are primarily Sephardic, Bukharian Jews from Ukraine and the former Soviet Union, who moved to Vienna during the late 1970s and 1980s. Vienna’s first Bukharian synagogue was opened in 1990.
A third wave of Jews are from Israel and America, who have come together to join kollels (institutes for advanced Talmud study) and to staff yeshivas created to educate the Jews coming from the former Soviet Union communities. As this community has grown, it has brought with it a taste of modern Israel.
Without a unified authority in Vienna like America’s Orthodox Union to provide kosher certification, the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde Wien (Jewish community of Vienna), like its counterparts in Britain, Germany and France, provides a hefty list of branded food items available in Austria that are kosher without markings on packages. For their growing number of restaurants and bakeries, Vienna’s kosher-keeping communities have several certifying rabbis.
A young couple, Janet and Izhak Faiziev, own a three-month-old Asian fusion restaurant called Mea Shearim, serving sushi, Chinese food and noodle bowls. The restaurant was recently written up as “koscher, cool und asiatisch” (kosher, cool and Asian) in Wina Magazin, an independent Jewish magazine published in German. The restaurant’s clean lines, ultra-modern design and unique tableware contribute to the hotspot’s modish appeal.
“It was my dream to open a restaurant here where I grew up,” Janet Faiziev told me. She explained that the name of Mea Shearim comes not from the name of the haredi neighborhood in Jerusalem, but from a verse in the Torah (Genesis 26:12) about the patriarch Isaac (her husband’s namesake) that states, “Yitzchak sowed in that land, and in that year he reaped a hundredfold (mea shearim); God had blessed him.”
As this young couple joins a vibrant landscape with at least five kosher restaurants within just a few blocks in the historic Leopoldstadt, it is with cautious optimism that the community continues to grow and support itself. The community is still heavily guarded both by private security forces and the Austrian government, as the Stadttempel was the site of a horrific Palestinian terror attack in 1981 that injured 21 and killed two. Like all Viennese synagogues, the Stadttempel, yeshivas and many institutions are protected by round-the-clock security. Otherwise, the community is as welcoming to its visitors as any other, and kosher food is plentiful and is served to the city’s many visitors with a smile.
Elizabeth Kratz is the associate publisher and editor of The Jewish Link of New Jersey and The Jewish Link of Bronx, Westchester and Connecticut.