Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, is a large and bustling city, but there is still a thin veneer of sleepiness lying over it, reminiscent of its gray days under Soviet domination, before Bulgaria joined the European Union.
It doesn’t have high-rise buildings rudely poking into the sky. The city center has no wide boulevards lined with sleek brand-name stores. It comes across more as a drowsy, unhurried town that suddenly found that it had grown into a big city, home to millions of inhabitants.
Perhaps that is the secret of its peaceful charm, located as it is in the Balkans, bordering the Communist East and Western Europe. The street signs are written in the Cyrillic alphabet as in Russia, but the language seems to be a mixture of Russian and Western grammar and syntax.
As we drive through the center of Sofia, our car suddenly stops. The narrow road is blocked, and after we move forward a little we find out why. At the end of the street there are hundreds of Muslims kneeling on rugs in front of the historic Banya Bashi Mosque, the only mosque still functioning in the entire city. It was built in the mid-1500s, when the area was under Ottoman control. The worshipers are on their knees, facing Mecca, and reciting their prayers rather loudly. Then the voice of the imam breaks through the din and he begins to preach. The mosque is small and cannot contain the crowd, so hundreds of additional men fill the surrounding streets like pigeons in a plaza. The overflowing crowd stops the street traffic.
Which other city in the world would patiently shut down vital activity to allow Muslims to pray? Certainly not London or Berlin, which have much larger Muslim populations. Sofia is a bridge between East and West, and this small but ancient mosque reminds us that at one time the Ottoman Empire ruled here. The crowd assembled around this gem of Turkish architecture also reminds us that remnants of the Ottoman Empire still exist in this city.
Across the street is a rather large and grand building, proudly sending its gold-trimmed spires up into the air. It is designed in the Slavic style. All of the local streets and walkways lead in its direction, but the church is empty. Unlike at the mosque, traffic does not stop in front of its impressive doors but quickly hurries by. At the entrance stands a melancholy priest. He has a long beard and is dressed entirely in black. He stares out at the cars as they whiz by and waits in vain for parishioners who do not come. Perhaps he listens with envy to the voice of the imam, whose melodic words he can hear easily. Perhaps he is contemplating the name of the city—Sofia means “wisdom” in Greek—concluding that the local people are not wise, after all, if they choose not to attend his church.
Thanks to its geographical location, Bulgaria has historically found itself a buffer zone between the Muslim Turks and the Christian West and between communism and capitalism, influenced by all of them as the country was repeatedly passed from hand to hand.
Between these two edifices—the big, ornate but empty church and the small but crowded mosque—stands another impressive structure that reaches for the heavens as it dwarfs its surroundings. This is Sofia’s central synagogue, the largest shul in Southern Europe and the third largest in all of Europe! Standing proudly as it does between the others, it looks like a hybrid of the other two. On its large dome and adjacent towers are Stars of David, and on its front façade are stained glass windows, each with its own Magen David. To me, this beautiful shul seems to be calling out, “Do not look at me so strangely. Yes, I have turrets, but I am not a mosque; yes, I have pillars, but I am not a church. I am a Jew and I wear my Magen David proudly on my magnificent dome.”
Unlike the church, this is not an empty, abandoned building. The Sofia Synagogue (its official name) is surrounded by police vehicles. Concrete barriers are in place to stop any potential car bombs, and a metal fence surrounds the perimeter of the building to keep out unwelcome visitors. Yes, we Jews are in galus, and sadly, these are signs of the times.
As I approach the guard station, the security cameras all focus on me. A door finally buzzes open and a strapping young blond man steps out. He has the stern affect of a Russian officer as he takes my passport and studies it for a long time. “I’ve come to pray,” I say in English. He smiles broadly and replies in Hebrew, “You can speak Hebrew to me. I am a Jew despite my appearance,” and he allows me to enter. Since I have come to actually daven in the shul, I don’t have to pay the visitor’s fee that tourists must pay to enter.
The main sanctuary is huge and magnificently decorated, truly breathtaking. The high vaulted ceiling is painted sky blue and has small golden stars. A gold and crystal chandelier dangles from the ceiling, and sunlight streams into the room through the thousands of panes of glass that make up the many various-shaped windows. Front and center are a raised bimah and an ornate aron kodesh. The rows of wooden seats are upholstered in red velvet.
As I walk in further, I observe a handful of men wrapped in talleisim, dwarfed by the massive ceiling above. The voice of the baal tefillah reverberates in a melodious Sefardi nusach that fills the synagogue’s interior with an ancient splendor. Rabbi Yoel Yifrach, the local rav, is leading the davening, which ends with the singing of “Non Komo Muestro D-io,” better known among non-Ladino speakers as “Ein K’Elokeinu.”