This is a photograph taken in the late 1980s in a synagogue in Sofia, Bulgaria during Shavuot. Pictured in the photograph are (from left to right) Rabbi Haim Meshulam, his wife, Bela, and Yosif Levi. They are participating in a local Shavuot tradition in which a large, flat cake is prepared and presented to the rabbi. A stairway is drawn on the cake, through which it is believed people can reach Heaven. After the cake is presented, it is cut into pieces and distributed among the people in attendance.
Yosif Levi was born in 1925 in Bulgaria to a Ladino-speaking Sephardi rabbinic family. At home they spoke Ladino, and at school they spoke Bulgarian. Yosif’s father was a rabbi who performed all of the religious functions of the community. As a child, Yosif was a member of the Zionist youth group Hashomer Hatzair and learned Hebrew in school. While in his teens, Germany invaded Russia and fascism rose in Bulgaria. Yosif and his friends decided to fight fascism by helping the Russians. In 1943 he was arrested and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. He spent the war years in Bulgarian prisons. After the war, Yosif worked as a clerk in a government office, and on retiring, he worked for the Jewish community, where he used his knowledge of Hebrew to become a translator for the community.
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Shavuot - Shavuot, also known as the Festival of Weeks – is celebrated on the sixth of Sivan. Shavuot, one of the three biblical pilgrim festivals, commemorates many different things: it marks the day that the Israelites received the Torah on Mount Sinai; it celebrates the wheat harvest in Israel; and it signifies the end of the Counting of the Omer. It is celebrated with many colourful and festive traditions such as holding bikkurim ceremonies, eating dairy food, decorating the synagogue with flowers and greenery, reading the Book of Ruth, and studying the Torah all through the night (Tikkun Leil Shavuot). In modern Israel, kibbutzim celebrate Shavuot and the bikkurim with processions displaying their produce of the previous year, including fruit and vegetables, farm animals, and even the new babies!
The Jewish Community in Bulgaria - The Jewish community in Bulgaria has a long and rich history. The first Jews arrived after the Roman conquest in about 46 AD, and Josephus himself wrote about Jews living there. More Jews arrived in the seventh century, escaping ill-treatment by the Byzantines. Following the lead of other countries, the Church Council demanded the expulsion of Jews from Bulgaria in 1352, although according to records the decree was not executed meticulously. By the time that the Ottoman Empire had full control of the country, there were several sizeable Jewish communities across Bulgaria. For several centuries, the community was split into Romaniotes, Ashkenazim, and Sephardim, until 1640 when a single rabbi was appointed for all three groups. Once the modern state was formed in 1878, Bulgarian Jews were granted equal rights. Jews were drafted into the Bulgarian Army and fought in the Serbo-Bulgarian War (1885), the Balkan Wars (1912-13), and World War I. The deaths of 211 Jewish soldiers of the Bulgarian Army, among them 28 officers, were recorded during World War I. In July 1940, the Bulgarian authorities introduced anti-Semitic laws, and in March 1941, Bulgaria joined the Axis alliance and took part in the German attack on Yugoslavia and Greece. The first wave of Jewish deportation began in the winter of 1943 from the Bulgarian-occupied areas such as Macedonia, Thrace, and Pirot. These Jewish communities were delivered to the Germans who sent them to their death in Treblinka. In February 1943, the Bulgarian government approached the British with a proposal to send their Jews to Mandatory Palestine, but the plan was declined by British Foreign Minister Eden. The next stage was to deport the Jews from Bulgaria proper, but due to protests launched by opposition politicians, clergy, and intellectuals, Bulgarian Jews were not sent to the death camps but were expelled to the countryside and to labour camps. After the war, Israel formally thanked Bulgaria for defying Nazi commands to deport their Jews. In the years following the Holocaust, most Jews left Bulgaria, the majority immigrating to Israel. It is estimated that the Jewish community of Bulgaria currently comprises between 2000 and 6000 people, most of whom live in Sofia. There are two functioning synagogues, a Jewish elementary and high school, youth movements, and representation of international Jewish organisations.