Shabbat Weekend In Bulgaria

I prefer not to seem like a dumb American tourist, but I much more prefer not to be called a “Russian.”

It took me a day to get a hold of that in Bulgaria. The young Bulgarian woman at the hostel I stayed at, in the center of the city of Sofia, laid out a well-detailed map to explain the sights to see and the bars to visit when I first arrived on a Friday afternoon. I don’t remember how, but I think, so as to skip the American tourist act, I mentioned offhand that I knew Russian and could get around Bulgaria as a result of the same Cyrillic alphabet being used (along with many familiar words).

As I do, I specifically mentioned Belarus and Ukraine, not Russia, as where my family had come from. But the woman just smiled and said: “Ah, you’re Russian.” I held my tongue – no need to correct her and say no, I’m a Jew. I enjoy the feeling of being largely incognito and anonymous when I travel, preferring to casually deceive to protect my privacy. I smiled back and joked about the best beer to try in Sofia.

I am no Russian.

But walking around, surrounded by the Cyrillic alphabet, my mind began to switch to thinking more in Russian than in English, alternating depending on the subject and how much I daydreamed. So I indulged myself that evening by going to McDonald’s, seeing how well I could order food in a combination of Bulgarian and Russian scraped together by misreading the strange way Bulgarian spells “French fries.”

The ordering went well. But as I waited for my food, a young guy, probably around 18 years old, strolled up to me and began asking something that I assumed was about the menu. To end the awkward questioning, I said that I’m sorry, but I don’t speak Bulgarian. Hearing my Russian, he began intently and angrily speaking at me.

Something about a war with Russia, about Russian troops, about “you Russians.” Caught off guard, I leaned in to try and understand what he was saying and began switching between English and Russian to explain that I’m not Russian, just someone who speaks the language. He ignored me. The guy, in my mind now an interesting (though annoying) punk, ended his aggressive monologue by patting his tricep in what seemed to be a motion about a military uniform and then doing the same to me.

He walked out of the McDonalds, and I caught the eyes of a few older Bulgarians who had self-satisfied looks on their faces. Eating my food, I held back from laughing. What a weird thing to experience – though from then on, I stuck to English, just in case.

The next morning, on Shabbat, I decided to visit the Sofia synagogue, the third largest synagogue in all of Europe, a remnant of the Sephardi Jewish community that was once abundant in Bulgaria before mostly immigrating to Israel. Instead of being in the main sanctuary as I hoped, which is built to seat 1,300 people, services were with a fluctuating group of no more than 15 men and six or so women (behind a partition) in a small side room. To my near-surprise, most of the attendees were Israelis, and services passed without a word of Bulgarian.

When I asked the Gabbai, an older Israeli with a goatee bursting with personality, what so many Israelis were doing in Bulgaria, he responded something along the lines of “you try living in Israel.” So it goes.

As I left, I looked through locked doors at the main sanctuary of the synagogue. It looked dusty, worn, old, big, and very empty in a way that spanned the physical to the spiritual. It made me sad. Bulgaria looked, rightly or wrongly so, one of those places in Europe. Where there seemed to be, legitimately, basically, no Jews. But what do I know? Two days in one city is a poor way to make assumptions.

The next morning, Sunday at 4 a.m., I caught a taxi to the airport for an early flight back to Israel. My taxi driver was an older Bulgarian man, turning up 70s and 80s hard rock and metal on the radio, which I appreciated. We reached the airport, and as I paid him, he said “good luck, my friend.”

I smiled, and said “You too,” but he chuckled and said, “I ran out.” That’s not an answer I like to hear, so I told him with a strange stubbornness that no, I still wish him luck as well. And turning my back on Sofia, on a city of worn-out buildings that looked mish-mashed and mishandled with an array of Soviet, Balkan, and modern architecture thrown in among an empty synagogue, a lone mosque, and large old churches, I got in line for my flight.