This is the first time I have celebrated Rosh Hashanah outside of the United States and since I only knew of one Synagogue in Sofia it only made sense for me to attend High Holy Day services there. The Sofia Synagogue is 100 years old, having been built in September of 1909 and it is the largest Sephardic Synagogue in Europe. It also hosts the largest chandelier in all of Bulgaria. I was looking forward to observing the difference between my own Ashkenazic Reform customs in comparison with Orthodox Sephardic tradition. More so I was hoping to hear some amazing acoustics in the large domed chapel.
I was told services were to begin at 10am — so I of course mistakenly set my alarm too late, leaving myself only 20 minutes to get ready and out the door. Luckily it only took me 15 minutes to walk to the Synagogue and I arrived only 5 minutes past 10 o’clock. On my way I expected to see some people walking to Synagogue or at least when I got to the main gates, but it was quite empty. As was the main chapel when I entered. In fact there was no one there. I heard voices coming from a small room and peaked in to see several men praying in what appeared to be a smaller chapel within the Synagogue. I could see the “mechitza” which is a curtain or divider that separates men & women in prayer, but I had no idea how to get to the woman’s section without walking through the men. One of the men recognized me from earlier in the week when I asked about High Holy day services and directed me to walk around outside to another door, which went through a kitchen area. Two older women pointed me towards to door into the chapel once again.
When I entered there appeared to be only 8 women, almost all of whom were in their 70s or 80s. I took a Siddur (prayer book) and sat down. Looking through the sheer curtain it appeared that there were not that many men either. I knew that the Jewish population in Bulgaria was small – but I had not expected such a small number on the High Holy days. As the service went on more people began to arrive bit by bit. Some did not even come until the very end, but the numbers were still quite small. I’m not sure why I took a Siddur since I could not follow in Hebrew fast enough and did not understand Bulgarian well enough. Instead I listened for familiar prayers and observed the people around me. I was definitely over dressed for the occasion wearing a blazer and skirt. Many of the older women wore their everyday clothes, but some younger women even had sneakers on with jeans.
When the ark was opened – the curtains were moved aside so that the women could see the Torah. At one point the Torah portions were explained in English by the Rabbi and then translated to Bulgarian – I later found out the new Rabbi is from Holland. I recognized most of the prayers/sections of the service so that was comforting – but they weren’t sung or chanted in a manner I am familiar. In the end I realized the Shofar had not been blown and I asked one woman next to me why they had not sounded it. She explained that it would be sounded tomorrow because today was Shabbat – which made perfect sense, but was not something I had even thought about.
At the end of the service they began to pass around wine and challah — and in addition they brought out Green Apple Vodka and Oozo (a Greek liquor that smells like black licorice). Is stayed away from the Oozo, but did have some Apple Vodka – which I thought was a very funny take on the idea of apples & honey for the New Year. Food was also served. All the women & men sat separately, ate apples & honey and had a lunch that included a cheese/egg dish, hard boiled egg, cucumber salad, and a pastry. I said Shana Tova to many of the elderly ladies around me and introduced myself in Bulgarian – and when I could no longer understand what they said I explained that I spoke English. One woman heard this and called me over saying that she speaks English and if I wanted to sit next to her she would be happy to keep me company. Her name was Hannah and she was extremely sweet and explained some of the conversations to me. I was also able to meet the Israel Consulate, a lovely woman who sat a few seats down from me and 2 women from Israel who were on holiday in Eastern Europe. I spoke to them for some time and they told me about their journeys to Bucharest, Romania and Varna & Nessebar in Bulgaria. We left the Synagogue together and I took them a to try banitza, which has become one of my favorite Bulgarian foods. It is a flaky filo dough type pastry found in a “U” or twisty shape made with “cerene” a Bulgarian white cheese inside it.
I was told that the Shofar would be sounded tomorrow at 5PM so I intend to be there. But, thankfully I will not need to be there at 10am again. All and all I think this was great way to begin my New Year!
Shana Tova! Wishing my family & friends a happy, healthy and sweet new year!