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Thursday, August 16, 2018

The corner of Kleine Sperlgasse and Lilienbrunngasse is in the heart of Leopoldstadt, the Jewish section of Vienna.

A peek at the display case at Bakerie Ohel Moshe shows the famous Linzer tarts, which are named for Linz, a small city right outside Vienna. Not shown are the Mozart Kugel, because we bought them all.

Mea Shearim is the newest kosher restaurant in Leopoldstadt, serving Asian-fusion cuisine.

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, which indicate growing 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 Vienna, Austria, indicate the community has experienced enormous growth in waves, as wars and political changes have forced and enabled emigration to the region. On the banks of the Danube canal, the Jewish community in Vienna now houses an estimated 15,000 to 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 who survived the war numbered about 8,000 as well, 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 last week’s “yeshiva break” vacation, I noticed that a viable cross-section of today’s modern Jewish community in Vienna was easily seen by kosher-keeping visitors just by virtue of our daily pursuits. While we primarily visited with family and visited 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 (Taborstrasse 20a), an entirely kosher wine store, I learned that the store sells a whopping 300 to 500 bottles of wine each week, depending on whether the store is catering events 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’s synagogues did not survive Kristallnacht, save one, the City Temple, the Seitenstettengasse-based Stadttempel (mainly because it was in the city center and setting it ablaze would have risked torching the whole city), the growth of Jewish synagogues and cultural centers 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 city’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 yeshivot, schools and 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 tri-state 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 sliced bread that is a cross between seedless rye bread and sourdough), are available in peak kosher form at Bakerie Ohel Moshe (Lilienbrunngasse 18).

Vienna has also become a popular first stop for American and Israeli Chasidim from Boro Park or Bnai Brak, as they embark on kever (grave) tours of gedolim, the great rabbis of the past, who are buried primarily 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 (Seitenstettengasse 2). They make use of Vienna’s easy-to-navigate infrastructure, Shabbat-friendly hotels and guesthouses and its excellent array of kosher foods and baked goods to organize, pack and embark on their tours.

The permanent Jewish community in Vienna, however, is made up of both Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews from Central Asia, Georgia, Russia, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Israel. It comprises three parts, which also have subgroups.

The first is the community of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust (and their descendents) 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; some of these are still vibrant to this day.

The second wave of Jews, who make up the second significant part of the Jewish community, are primarily Sephardic, Bukharian Jews from Ukraine and the former Soviet Union, who moved to Vienna during the late 1970s and 1980s. The first Bukharian synagogue was opened in 1990.

A third wave of Jews is from Israel and America, who have come together to join kollels and to staff yeshivot created to educate the Jews coming from the former Soviet Union communities. As this community has grown, it too has become a part of the fabric of the community, bringing with it a taste of medinat yisrael (modern Israel).

Without a fully unifed kashruth authority in Vienna like America’s Orthodox Union to provide hechsherim (kosher certification) to kosher products, the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde Wien (Jewish community of Vienna), like Britain, Germany and France, provides a hefty list of branded food items that are available in Austria that are kosher without markings on packages. The list is updated every two or three years and can be purchased in various community institutions, or viewed on the internet (https://www.ikg-wien.at/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/HaMadrich2014_web.pdf).

For restaurants and bakeries, the various kosher-keeping communities, which comprise both Chasidic and Modern Orthodox Jews, have multiple certifying rabbis. An organization called Khal Chassidim, with kashrut certification provided by Rabbi Abraham Y. Schwartz, is the most prominent. Another Charedi certification is provided to other institutions by Rabbi Michoel Pressburger. Rabbi Moshe Weiss provides certification to another community. Rabbi Aminov, Rabbi Israilov and Rabbi Hotoveli form what is known as the SKK, the Sephardic Kashrut Committee. Israelitische Kultusgemeinde Wien’s chief rabbi is Rabbi Arie Folger, who was born in Antwerp, Belgium, and received rabbinic semicha at Yeshiva University. He was named chief rabbi in 2015, following the retirement of Rabbi Chaim Eisenberg.

This rising number of kashruth certifications is certainly visible because of the rise in the number of restaurants and stores catering to the kosher-keeping community, including a three-month-old restaurant, Mea Shearim (Schmeltzgasse 3), which is owned by a young couple, Janet and Izhak Faiziev. Their Asian-fusion restaurant, serving sushi, Chinese food and noodle bowls, 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 ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem, but from a pasuk in the Torah, about Yitzchak Avinu (and her husband’s namesake), which states “Yitzchak sowed in that land, and in that year he reaped a hundredfold (מאה שערים, mea shearim); God had blessed him.” (Genesis 26:12).

As this young couple join a vibrant restaurant 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, yeshivot 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.

By Elizabeth Kratz