A small town like a large castle
Tallinn shines as a little-known Jewish destination whose time has come. With its four-year-old Beit Bella synagogue, containing a sanctuary, mikveh, and restaurant, its active Jewish Community Center and school, and its well-kept Jewish cemeteries and Holocaust memorials, Tallinn is an example of a city coming to terms with its past while advancing confidently towards a tolerant and progressive future.
A cruise ship port on the Baltic Sea, Tallinn is both the capital of Estonia and a 2011 European Cultural Capital! Experience the Middle Ages in Tallinn – its old town with a web of winding cobblestone streets is a World UNESCO Heritage Site, once referred to by a 12th century cartographer as a “small town like a large castle.” Its medieval defensive wall is still extant, telling of its history as an important Hanseatic or sea-merchants’ city. Home to a Jewish community since the 14th century, many were themselves merchants and artisans. After being occupied over the centuries by Denmark, Sweden, Russia, and Germany, the city was rendered with a complicated history but also with a strong sense of identity.
In 1865, during the reign of Russian Czar Alexander II, the Jews gained official citizen rights that lead to a tremendous growth and cultural autonomy. Many Estonian Jews fought in the country’s war of independence between 1918 and 1820. Estonians staunchly defended the rights of Jews even into the Nazi era, electing Heinrich Gutkin as a Jewish member of parliament in 1937! Nazi occupation then decimated the community, members of which were arrested, forced to flee, or killed. The ensuing post-war Soviet occupation did nothing to help. The devastation of the Estonian Jewish community makes today’s revival all the more astounding. In 1988, on the eve of Estonia’s independence from the Soviet Union, a Jewish Cultural Society was founded in Tallinn, followed by a Jewish day school as well as several clubs and unions with roots in the pre-war past. Today’s synagogue with its fantastic all-glass front, mirrors the surrounding city buildings – a fitting metaphor for the metamorphosis that has taken place here.
The people of Tallinn are both proud and welcoming. They will invite you to become a part of their city while also wondering just why it took you so long to come here.
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