From London to Balchik: Jewish expatriates in Bulgaria

Written by on January 13, 2018 in People - Comments Off on From London to Balchik: Jewish expatriates in Bulgaria

Out of the thousands of British expatriates in Bulgaria, very few are Jewish. To Barbara Reindorp and Stephen Yarrow, their religion might not be the most important aspect in their lives, but being part of Jewish life is something they do treasure. We thank Barbara for contributing this very personal account. 

We are not the most conventional Jewish couple so this is one of the reasons why we emigrated to Bulgaria. A new start together in a new country. How exciting but also a little bit scary. After all, leaving the hustle and bustle of town-life in North West London to come to a small village near the pretty seaside town of Balchik in Bulgaria is quite a challenge.

Our first Jewish experience was the Passover ceremony with the Orthodox Jewish Chabad movement at a Hotel in Varna. We didn’t really understand much as the Rabbi only spoke Hebrew and any translation was into Bulgarian, but we felt a warmth being amongst Jewish people and recognised some parts of the service as well as some of the songs.

Another time, this friendly Chabad group came all the way to our little village to perform the Chanucat Ha Bayit, the traditional dedication of the house ceremony, when the Rabbi fixed our Mezuzah, a thin, small case containing a special prayer, to the doorpost. This is a tradition in most Jewish homes and very important to us. It is a way of identifying us as Jewish people.

I wondered what our neighbours would think, but I don’t believe anyone noticed. As it happens, our neighbour knows we are Jewish and always asks about the Jewish New Year. She is quite interested in our faith and very warm towards us which makes us feel at home and safe here. We find most Bulgarians to be very warm and positive towards Jewish people and Israelis.

There are some cultural similarities between us. The Cyrillic language has 2 letters that are similar to Hebrew: the Zaddick and the Shin. The Bulgarian word for grandma is “baba” and in Yiddush (an old Ashkenazi Jewish language made up of German, Hebrew and Arabic) it is buba.

A Bulgarian dance known as hora (from the Greek, meaning circle) is danced in circles and is similar to an Israeli dance, also known as the hora. There are similar dishes too. Chicken soup, chicken liver dishes and stuffed cabbage were very common in “shtetls” (little villages where many Jews lived together).

We also visited the Sephardic Synagogue in Sofia, the largest in South Eastern Europe and met the Rabbi there. It seems that the Jews of Bulgaria were mostly Sephardic Jews but I believe there was also a strong Ashkenazi influence too.

Barbara and Stephen are two of many British expatriates in Bulgaria.

One of the highlights of our Jewish life here was being able to share one aspect of Jewish tradition with a multi-cultural education centre based in Varna. I was asked to host a Jewish Shabbath event at a well-established restaurant. I provided a menu and recipes for the chef, who excelled and made a delicious 3-course Sabbath meal. During the event, I talked about the Jewish Sabbath, played some music and got people up to dance the hora. We also hosted a Purim event where everyone wears fancy dress costumes.

As well as happy times, we also experienced a very sad, traumatic time, when we planned a Jewish wedding in a hotel in Varna. We had a wonderful wedding planner, a traditional Bulgarian band, a DJ, hen and stag nights all arranged for a June weekend in 2014. We had a simple civil ceremony on 30th May 2014 as it was a legal requirement before a religious wedding.

Stephen’s mother, Anne, flew out a few days before the wedding but her health was very poor when she arrived. We went to the hotel on Wednesday, June 4th. But that night she passed away in her hotel bed. Our Rabbi flew out as planned, but instead of performing a wedding ceremony, he supported us through this sudden bereavement. Writing about it is hard as it brings back memories of this tragedy.

We got through it with the support of our Rabbi, our friends and family who had come for the wedding but were there during this time, the hotel staff who were fantastic, and last but definitely not least the Chabad community, when we went on the Sabbath day and had lunch.

The Chabad community welcomed us and a mixed bunch of our friends, most of whom are not Jewish. There was Stephen’s good friend, an Algerian Muslim, Bruno, Pat an Hugh, an Irish couple, a Greek Cypriot and Englishman by the name of Richy and my best friend, Nicky, my friend Pam and 2 Jewish men, Rabbi David and Rob. We felt such warmth and comfort at this little Synagogue with this community. Their prayers, the food and the atmosphere helped us through those few desperately sad hours on that Sabbath Day.

After this sad time in our life, we then had some happy times, when we visited several Bulgarian cities and the most memorable trip was to Plovdiv. We saw a monument that was erected by the Jewish community of Plovdiv to thank the Bulgarian people who helped save them from deportation to the concentration camps during World War II. I only found out recently that Bulgaria saved about 48,000 people from this horrific fate. This is another reason why we are happy to be here.

Recently, our village has become home to some Israeli families. Our new neighbours are from Israel and we have been to the Chabad Synagogue for Passover with them. We even joke that our village is becoming a shtetl.

Leaving North-West London has been challenging and sometimes difficult as we haven’t managed to learn the language and village life is so different to life in a busy town, let alone, life in a new country. However, we have settled in and found ways to remember our Jewish heritage, celebrate festivals and to identify ourselves as a modern, non-observant but traditional Jewish couple.

By Barbara Reindorp 


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