Trip to the Baltics, Part V (Estonia)

Estonia sits on top of Latvia, and of course Latvia sits on top of Lithuania. Those three countries, along with Finland and Russia are, to my mind, the Baltic nations, although the term usually refers only to the first three. But you can certainly view the five countries as all being contributors to, and dependents of, the Baltic Sea.

Although Lithuania has a significant Polish heritage, and Latvia’s society shows deep Germanic influences, Estonia is much more related to Finland (and to historical relationships with Sweden and Denmark). Its people tend to be big and blond, and its language is related to Finnish, and not to the speech of its neighbors to the south. I tend to think of it, in addition to its being a Baltic country, as the fifth Scandinavian country, although I don’t believe I have ever heard of it described that way.

Estonia is smaller, both in population and area, than either Lithuania or Latvia. While its rural topography may be similar to the other two countries, its size makes it feel more closely related to the sea, which I believe it has been. You also sense a difference when you look at the rural architecture. For reasons, I can’t explain, the steeply pitched roofs are not as common, and flatter roofs (the buildings themselves sometimes having a modified A-frame appearance), and even occasionally, you see contemporary farm buildings, with sharp angles, flat walls, and much glass – something that for the first time makes you realize that you are eventually approaching Finland.

Driving from Latvia to Tallinn, the Estonian capital (old stamp collectors: it was formerly called Revel), we made one stop at Parnu, a mid-sized city on the sea, which serves as a marketing center, health spa and seaside resort. Altogether pleasant.

It is said that Estonia is the most financially successful of the three newish Baltic states – Latvia being second, and Lithuania currently having the hardest time financially (each country looks just fine). The Estonian success is based on high tech, and on tourism. As you drive into Tallinn, you notice the prosperity as you pass through residential and commercial suburbs, and you note the Finnish influence (or is it the other way around?) on the recent construction.

The heart of Tallinn’s tourism is built on the uniqueness of its old town, which is walled, multi-leveled, extensive, and evocative of centuries ago. Well, perhaps not exactly, but the old town, with its steeples and sharply angled buildings, is very trendy these days – hotels, restaurants, gift shops and more. It resembles not so much a place to live as it does a Disneyland setting, with thousands of tourists, some off tour boats, some off the Helsinki ferry day-tripping, some from the former Soviet Union, and others from all over Europe, including many bachelor and bachelorette parties. Not everyone is here to look at the Teutonic walls, or the Danish churches. Some are here simply to party, and Tallinn is set up for them, not only with the restaurants I have mentioned, but with bars, strip shows, and gentlemen’s clubs.

While you can’t help but enjoy the beauty and completely of Tallinn’s physical old town, I found it not nearly as pleasant as Riga or Vilnius as a place to visit. I know I may be in the minority here.

Our hotel, the Telegraf, is the refurbished telephone and telegraph exchange – I found the rooms quite small, although the five star hotel is glitzy enough. We had some interesting meals, including an excellent dinner at an oriental restaurant of all things, Chedi, and an interesting meal at the Old Hanse where, if you want to be the 45 Euros (and yes, Estonia is the only one of the three countries to be in the Euro zone), you can get a roast of bear (I settled for the fish).

Estonia, like the rest of the area, has always had a prominent Jewish community (apparently increased to a signficant extent by retired Jewish Russian military personnel, the “cantonists” of the regime of Nicholas I, although it has always been small, and today there is a small community (it is hard to get any statistics in the former Soviet countries – if you stick to people who have registered with the Jewish community, the number is too small, and if you look at everyone with a Jewish mother, father or grandparent, even if you could determine this, the number would undoubtedly be too big).

What is interesting, however, is that there is a new synagogue in Tallinn, opened only a few years ago, and a Chabad rabbi, with Estonian roots but from Israel, who has been in the country now about seven years. The synagogue, obviously not in the old city, is not large, but it an archeological delight, with light shining in from several angles, a beautiful bima, and walls that look like decorative paper cuts. The rabbi spoke with us – he is very personable, is enormously grateful for his new sanctuary, and is actively working to bring more Estonian Jews into the religious/social service community. One interesting question was posed to him, however, related to whether or not he encouraged his congregationalists to move to Israel. He answered that there were those who have moved to Israel, that he was obviously supportive, and that he thought that this did not interfere with the work he did with those who remained in Tallinn.

All of this brings up an overall question regarding the future of the Jewish communities in lands with such tortured histories, where the communities themselves are so small, and where Jewish lives generally tend now to be lived globally.

More to come……

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