Brussels 2001

(NOTE: I am on the road again, traveling for the next few weeks for a new short-term contract. This round of travel got me thinking about things I have seen in past trips)

I set out tonight to find some of the Jewish landmarks in Brussels. I had a page torn from The Jewish Traveler (Chapter “Brussels”, page 90 to be exact).

I was relatively familiar with the location of my main goal – the Rue de la Regence Synagogue. I had walked near there several times. However, I found out that “near” and “there” can be worlds apart.

I had walked down to the Grand Place (the center of town) several times, but never by this particular route. I suppose I was trying to get there the fastest way possible. And in my haste, walked by some of the most beautiful scenery the city has to offer.

From the southern tip of the “petite cienture” (little circle, the road that surrounds the old part of the city), I went north on Louis Avenue. I turned right one street sooner than normal, and looked up the wide Rue de la Regence toward the Palace. This is one of those streets that are built to intimidate foreigners and give them a sense of awe, and let me tell you that it worked. Turning around, I realized that the reverse direction led to the equally majestic Palais du Justice. Justice behind me, royalty in front. And I felt like a mouse as I walked with these giant, ancient buildings that towered to my left and right.

The Great Synagogue was just a few blocks down. Looking at the front, I saw a massive 12 foot door flanked by 2 smaller (8 foot) doors. My eye was drawn upward to a great rose-shaped window, surrounded by the names of the 12 tribes. And above that, at the top of the building and flanked by 2 massive towers, stood the two tablets with the 10 commandments chiseled in granite, at least 10′ tall.

The windows were all dark, almost hiding in the shadows. The absence of a mezuzah on any of the doors only added to the sense that this great building had survived the ravages of time and the horrors of our century by hiding it’s nature from people walking by. I crossed street for a closer look. Over each of the 8′ doors was an inscription – Flemish on the left and French on the right. I could only read the French,

N’avons nous pas tous un meme Pere? Un seul Dieu ne nous a t’Il pas cree?

I stood for several minutes with my pocket dictionary trying to interpret the meaning: “Haven’t we all the same Father? The one God, didn’t He create us?”

I lingered around the building for a while longer, feeling the wood and stone beneath my hands, hoping that somehow the building would show some sign of life. Finally the time, cold, and (I have to admit) impatience conspired against me and I moved on.

I walked down the great avenue toward the palace. I passed a garden enclosed by wrought iron contained immaculately sculpted bushes, fountains, and bronze statues of workers. Someone in a nearby apartment was listening to classical music, the sound seeping out and carried faintly on the wind to where I stood. Looking at my map, I realized I was at the “Petite Sablon” (little sand). Further ahead, the Grand Sablon opened up as a steep decline straight down to the Grand Place (“big market”). The spires of the Guild houses that surround the market square looming in the distance.

I had been to the Grand Place several times, and while I am thrilled every time I enter the square, there was one other place I wanted to find. I continued until I came to the Palace Royal, a huge statue of the king standing in the center of an area used by trams, buses, and cars. In the distance (to the east) I could see the dark shadows of the Royal gardens.

I turned south again, walking down toward the steps of the Mont des Arts. This is a rectangular area filled with trees, short mazes of bushes, modern-art sculptures, and fountains. It was one of the places I had been to several times already, but I was brought back by something the book had said. I re-read the page I had brought with me:

“Many of the city’s Jewish sights are in the center of town. There are no signs left, but the stairway leading up from Rue Ravenstein to the Palais des Beaux Arts is the approximate site of the entrance to the Jewish ghetto.”

I found the street signs to make sure I was in the right place, trying to imagine  what the ghetto would have looked like. Ancient gothic buildings had been converted to small shops and apartments, but nothing else could tell me the age of the place. These were all newer structures. I looked up at the sides of the buildings as they flanked the stairway, made  to provide a frame to the view of the gardens below.

The windows. I had never noticed the windows before.

6 on each side, they were each cut into the wall in the shape of a 6-pointed star.

Maybe because it was daytime when I had passed this way before. Maybe I was simply not looking, rushing to the excitement of the Grand Place that waited at the bottom of the gardens. Maybe a million other things that make perfect sense. But at that moment, the experiences of the evening rushed together: the street I had never taken, leading past the great synagogue; the history behind this location, the star-shaped windows.

The words came unbidden, “God was in this place, and I, I did not know it”.

It was a good way to end the evening. I walked back to the hotel in the crisp air, my eyes casting about for other signs of miracles.