Representation is a moving target. Jewish culture is undergoing such changes that to pin it down to one representation is an illusion.
Prof. Jonathan Webber, 1999
I’m a Jewish vegetarian atheist.
Jonathan Ornstein, director, Jewish Community Center, Krakow, Poland, 2009
In the mid-1990s I began exploring a phenomenon that I described as ‘filling the Jewish space’ in Europe. Along with the efforts to revive Jewish communal life and reclaim and reassert Jewish identity in post-Holocaust, post-communist countries, I observed what I called a ‘Virtual Jewishness,’ or a ‘Virtual Jewish World,’ peopled by ‘Virtual Jews’ who create, perform, enact or engage with Jewish culture from an outsider perspective, often in the absence of local Jewish populations.
I wrote about non-Jewish klezmer bands, and Jewish museums and Jewish culture festivals organized by non-Jews for a primarily non-Jewish public. And I also described university Jewish studies programmes whose students were mostly Gentile, as well as the commercial exploitation of Jewish heritage, including the promotion of Jewish-themed tourism to synagogues, Jewish cemeteries and other sites of Jewish heritage where few if any Jews live today.
Although I discussed the ‘virtually Jewish’ phenomenon in a general European context, some of the most visible (and to some observers most troubling) manifestations were — and still are — observed in Poland, the historic heartland of Jewish life in Europe, where, as the scholar Jonathan Webber once noted, ‘the remarkable characteristic of anything to do with Jews…is its intensity.’
A project undertaken by the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) provided a vivid statistical illustration of this. Between May 2000 and April 2001, it attempted to ‘map’ Jewish cultural activities in four European countries with small Jewish communities. The countries chosen — Poland, Sweden, Italy and Belgium — have a total Jewish population of well under 100,000 and had very different Jewish histories both before World War II and during and after the Shoah.
‘The results are simply astonishing, and as yet we have no idea what to make of them,’ Webber, who was an academic consultant on the project, reported in July 2001 at a conference in Budapest on Jewish identities in the post-communist era. ‘There is clearly no correlation between the considerable size of this cultural production and the percentage of Jews in a given total population of a particular country.’ It is almost, he added, as if ‘once one starts to have public Jewish culture, it simply continues to generate further events.’
Indeed, out of the four countries surveyed, Poland, with its tiny Jewish population (depending on how one defines ‘Jew,’ estimates vary from 3,000 to 20,000 or more in a total population of about 40 million), was by far the Jewish cultural champion, with 196 individual events and fully seven Jewish cultural festivals, including the annual Festival of Jewish culture in Krakow — the ‘largest and most important event’ recorded in the JPR survey.
The Festival — founded in 1988 by two young, non-Jewish intellectuals for a primarily non-Jewish public — takes place in Kazimierz, the historic Jewish quarter of Krakow, and nowhere, perhaps, has become more symbolic of the ‘virtually Jewish’ trends and the questions they raise than here.Centered on the most extensive surviving complex of Jewish built heritage in east-central Europe — synagogues, cemeteries, homes, marketplaces and other buildings and monuments, Kazimierz since the early 1990s has grown, and, indeed, been molded, into one of the major centers of Jewish tourism in Europe.
The post-communist development has seen the restoration of several synagogues and has brought new life and new business to what had long languished as the archetypical ‘Jewish ghost town.’ Even 15 years ago, much of Jewish Kazimierz was a derelict slum. At the same time this development has made the district one of the most prominent symbols of what has been called the marketing or ‘commodification’ of Jewish culture. The new Jewish-style cafes, boutiques, souvenir kitsch and constantly roving tour groups create an environment that has caused (and still causes) a deep sense of unease among some visitors, particularly as Krakow is only an hour’s drive from Auschwitz and often serves as a focal point for visits to the notorious death camp.
Writing about Kazimierz in 2006, for example, in a review of Jan T. Gross’s 2006 book Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz, the American journalist Ruth Franklin scorned what she termed the ‘much ballyhooed renaissance of Jewish culture in Poland, complete with sold-out klezmer festivals and a popular brand of spirits called “Kosher Vodka.” She wrote: ‘Half a dozen Jewish-themed hotels welcome visitors to Kazimierz, with names like “Alef” and “Ester” and “Klezmer Hois”; the “Eden” sports mezuzahs on every door and advertises ‘the only mikveh bath in Poland,’ as if it were a Jacuzzi.’ She goes on, ‘This grim carnival of Holocaust tourism and Western capital is neither a sign nor a symptom of a greater change in Polish society. It is evidence only of the Polish national schizophrenia on the subject of Jews. It is lovely to restore old buildings and to cherish a culture that has perished. But the celebration of the Jews of Poland cannot substitute for a genuine confrontation with the manner of their disappearance: when, where and by whom. There is no indication that the consumers of ‘Kosher Vodka’ are interested in engaging in such a reckoning any time soon.’
While it is hard to disagree with Franklin’s assertions, there is a bigger picture which she ignores. Poland does, indeed, have a certain schizophrenia towards its Jewish past but this schizophrenia has been demonstrated in loud and even lacerating public nationwide debates which is infinitely better, and ultimately more healthy, thatn the absolute denial and silence that existed until the 1980s.
‘When I began working in Poland in 1990, it was almost completely taboo to tell your friends that you are Jewish,’ Poland’s American-born chief rabbi Michael Schudrich told me recently. ‘Today, it is just a normal thing to say to almost anybody here in Poland. What was taboo only 20 years ago, is today a curiosity or interesting or [indicates] respect — and for some [it is] of no consequence at all.’
Likewise, in July 2006, Michael Steinlauf, an American academic expert on Yiddish culture and Polish-Jewish relations and the author of the book Bondage to the Dead: Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust (1997), told me that to him, during the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, the Kazimierz district’s main square, Szeroka street, formed a symbolic ‘headquarters of the Diaspora’ thanks to the numerous cultural events and the many international Jewish artists, performers and fans who attended. I was speaking to him after he had enjoyed Friday night dinner with friends and family at one of the Szeroka street restaurants — a newly opened ‘mainstream’ restaurant, not one of the Jewish-style cafes. ‘We had a table for 11 and lit the candles,’ he told me. ‘The couple from the next table came over saying “Shalom Aleichem”. I’ve never done this anywhere else. It’s never been as easy to be a Jew than on Szeroka street the night before [the Festival’s outdoor final concert there].’
Krakow is home to several institutions promoting education on Jewish subjects. These include the Jewish studies centre at Jagiellonian University, founded in 1986, as well as the Jewish Culture Centre, established in 1993, as well as the Galicia Jewish Museum, founded by the late British photographer Chris Schwarz in 2004. The Jewish Culture Festival recently opened its own permanent culture and education centre called Cheder.
These institutions, which offer varied programs of lectures, classes, concerts and workshops, are generally run by non-Jews to serve the general public, including tourists. But all benefit from the input of Jewish scholars and Jewish religious and cultural figures.
The number of Jews in Krakow remains tiny — somewhere between 200 and 400 depending on whom you talk to. But the Jewish community has raised its own profile in recent years, in part thanks to the formation of a Jewish youth group, Czulent, in 2004 and also to the opening in 2008 of a modern Jewish Community Centre. (Mainly funded by World Jewish Relief and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the JCC project had a somewhat high profile from the outset. It came about, remarkably, at the urging of Prince Charles, who had visited Krakow in 2002 and was moved by the plight of the poor and aging Jews of the city. Charles himself returned to Krakow last year for its inauguration; wearing a kippah he helped affix a mezuzah to the door.)
The JCC director, Jonathan Ornstein, is a 39-year-old New Yorker who made aliyah and then moved to Krakow about seven years ago to teach Hebrew at the Jagiellonian University. Ornstein contradicts the stereotype of the traditional Jew as portrayed in the old paintings and photographs that fill books, decorate the local Jewish-style cafes or are caricatured in the wooden figurines for sale in souvenir shops and craft markets. Knowledgeable but iconoclastic, and an avowed ‘Jewish vegetarian atheist,’ he took part in an ‘atheist pride’ march in Krakow this year, carrying a sign reading ‘Thank God I’m an atheist.’ Not only that, he created a Facebook group called ‘I want the Beastie Boys to play the XX Jewish Cultural Festival in Krakow.’
Recently, I noted to Ornstein that that is increasingly little direct memory anymore in Poland of a time when the country was home to Europe’s largest Jewish population. For the student-age crowd that attends Jewish Culture Festival events or hangs out in the music pubs that have made Kazimierz the scene of trendy night life, what goes on today is what ‘Jewish’ means. Few of them can even remember a time before the Festival existed or before the district was a Jewish tourist attraction, with all the attendant commercialization.
He agreed. Kazimierz, Ornstein said, was to his mind not the ‘former’ but the ‘present’ Jewish quarter of Krakow.
‘Nobody alive today has a good memory of Kazimierz when it was better than it is now,’ he said. ‘There was the war, and then after the war it was derelict for decades. Now, it’s the hippest place in the city. The whole ‘former’ thing is based on history, not living memory.’
The success of the Festival of Jewish Culture in Krakow helped spark other Jewish festivals of various types around the country. In 2000, the JPR Mapping project identified seven of them. Today, the number is much greater: in 2009, I counted more than 20, including at least two Jewish film festivals.
Some were one-day affairs, others spanned a weekend or longer. Some took place in towns with small Jewish communities, such as Wroclaw, Poznan and Gdansk. Others took place where no Jews live today. These included the sixth edition of a festival dedicated to the Yiddish author Shalom Asch, scheduled for early December in the central town of Kutno, the third edition of an annual Jewish culture festival in the village of Checiny, a Jewish theatre festival in Ostrowiec Swietokrzyski, the annual Jewish culture festival in Chmielnik, a Jewish culture festival in Bialystok, another in Szczekonciny, another in Przysucha, and so on. Festivals celebrating a diversity of cultures and religions, including Judaism, took place in Lodz, Wlodowa and Szczebrzeszyn.
‘I often joke that now the mayor of every small town feels obliged to make excuses [if] he/she has no Jewish Festival in his/her town,’ Anna Dodziuk, a psychotherapist who is also a Jewish activist and editor, told me. ‘To put it short: it is politically correct now to explore the Jewish history of the local communities, to commemorate Jews of a shtetl who perished in Holocaust, to celebrate somehow Jewish culture. So more and more Jews start to feel secure enough to be openly Jewish (or to be visible).’
In fact, some of the festivals had religious observance at their heart. One of these was a Shabbaton weekend held in October in Kielce. Most of Kielce’s 25,000 pre-war Jewish were killed in Treblinka, but the town is far better known for what happened after the war; it is infamous for the July 1946 pogrom that killed 42 Jews, an attack that formed the basis of Jan T. Gross’s book Fear.
The event brought prayers to the synagogue for the first time since the Holocaust — the building has been used as an archive for nearly 60 years. It also included lectures, workshops, exhibitions, concerts and film screenings. It was the latest in a series of Shabbaton programs in long-disused synagogues in Poland organized by Michael Traison, an observant Jewish America lawyer who has an office in Warsaw and has spent much of his time in Poland over the past 15 years.
Jews and Catholics took part in the event. ‘For the first time in my life I could celebrate the beginning of the Shabbat,’ a Catholic man wrote on the Shabbaton web site. ‘I could feel myself what I already knew theoretically, namely — what the Shabbat means for Jews who treat their faith seriously. Boi kala is also a challenge or a question on how I, a Christian man, treat my “shabbat” — Sunday. Thanks to Jews’ testimony of how they treat their holy day, I treat my one more seriously.’
The biggest Jewish Culture Festival outside Krakow was the sixth edition of the annual ‘Singer’s Warsaw’ festival in the Polish capital at the beginning of September. Singer’s Warsaw is sponsored by the secular Jewish Shalom organization. Shalom was founded in 1988 and is headed by the Yiddish singer Golda Tencer, now in her 60s, who for years was the star of Warsaw’s State Yiddish Theatre — her husband, Szymon Szurmiej, has been head of the Theatre since 1969.
The Shalom Foundation has sponsored events such as high school essay competitions on Jewish topics, concerts, art exhibits, Jewish film festivals, a Jewish song competition, and the like. Outside of Poland, however, it is best known for the remarkable 1996 exhibition and book And I Still See Their Faces.This was a collection of more than 450 photographs of Polish Jews, ranging from formal studio portraits to faded snapshots of everyday life. They were culled from photographs sent in — mainly by non-Jewish Poles — from all over Poland. The number of photos sent in, about 8,000, more or less equals the number of self-identifying Jews living in Poland today.
The exhibit showed the broadest cross-section possible of Jews in pre-war Poland, orthodox and secular; assimilated and traditional. As such it turned somatic and other stereotypes (including that of Jews as victims) on their head. In the pictures, wrote Tencer in an introduction to the book, ‘the light falls on faces still free of terror and fear. We can see on them quiet reflection, the joy of family life, a smile that manifests belief in a friendly world.’
Paradoxically, much of this sensitivity is trumped by theatricality in the way that the Singer Festival is mounted.
The Festival’s stated aim, according to its web- site is ‘to reconstruct the prewar atmosphere here in order to present the annihilated world of the Polish Jews.’ Unlike in Krakow, where the entire Kazimierz district remains largest intact, almost all of downtown Warsaw, including the Jewish quarter and wartime Ghetto, was destroyed during the Second World War. The Singer festival takes place in and around one-block-long Prozna street, one of the only streets in Warsaw’s historic downtown Jewish district to have survived.
During the festival, the dilapidated street is turned into a sort of stage, with old photographs of Polish Jews affixed to windows or hung from wires attached to the buildings. I admit that I haven’t attended the Singer Festival, but — from afar — the costumed, Renaissance Faire-style ‘performing the Jew’ that is described on the festival’s web site (and shown in posted pictures) makes me rather more uneasy than do many of the other manifestations of public Jewish culture:
Along Próžna Street we create Jewish cafés, quaint shops and workshops. We construct an old bookstore and a newspaper office in which [Isaac Bashevis] Singer worked in New York before the war. Each year we make a wine bar and a bakery. Everyone can come inside, and have a look at collected odds and ends in use at the beginning of the twentieth-century. There are lots of souvenirs to be bought from street vendors and many home-made tidbits to be tasted. Many characteristic figures appear in the streets during the festival: Hasidics, merchants, painters, shoemakers, tailors, printers, blacksmiths, barrel organ players, entertainers, florists. All of them contributed to making Warsaw uniquely colorful. During the festival, just as in the past, one can hear klezmer music, chants from synagogues, as well as well-known traditional Jewish songs, in the heart of the Polish capital. The past reality is revived by many exhibitions and plays, artists’ installations, scientific sessions, and meetings with writers and Jewish artists. Yiddish culture returns through prewar films, song and dance workshops, paper cutting, ceramics as well as Hebrew calligraphy, lectures and discussion groups.
My use of the term ‘Virtual’ deliberately played on the cyberspace concept of virtual worlds and virtual communities exiting on the Internet. Even back then, these included many, many Jewish websites.
‘People can enter, move around and engage in cyberspace virtual worlds without physically leaving their desks or quitting their “real world” identities,’ I wrote in my 2002 book Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe:
Online, however, they can assume other identities, play other roles and be, or act as if they are, whoever they want. Like virtual worlds on the Internet, the various aspects of ‘Virtual Jewry’ are linked together and overlapping. One can approach them either passively, as a mere consumer, or ‘interactively,’ in a participatory manner, through, for example, performance and interpretation. They may be enriched by input from contemporary Jewish communal, intellectual, institutional, or religious sources, or they may be self-contained within totally non-Jewish contexts.
Virtually Jewish came out several years before the advent of social networking sites such as Facebook, and also well before what has been called a ‘Virtual Diaspora’ took root in the online world known as Second Life, where a ‘virtual synagogue’, Temple Beth Israel, was established there in 2006.
One year later, reported 2Life Magazine, Second Life’s Jewish community was ‘more diverse in age, religious affiliation and […] geographical origin than any community could be in the real world, and it also includes many religious seekers who use Second Life as a tool to explore their own roots, many of them with little to no Jewish educational background.’
Second Life Judaism, it said, was ‘a unique intercultural dialogue within various streams of Judaism, within various Diasporas and Israel, within various age groups and with Jews and non-Jews. Judaism in Second Life is a mélange of different identities, in which age, origin, gender, and even religious affiliation are unimportant. It is an experiment with an uncertain outcome, but with obvious potential for new and creative ways to explore culture, heritage and identity.’
The ‘virtual diaspora’ in Second Life is symptomatic of an even broader Jewish presence in cyberspace which has grown exponentially in the past decade and which now includes many websites, blogs and Facebook groups that originate in Poland — among Jews and ‘virtual Jews’ alike. Among the most impressive and inclusive of these is the so-called ‘Virtual Shtetl,’ a web portal set up by the huge new Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which is under construction in Warsaw. Its aim is to be both an information portal as well as a sort of Jewish social networking site. ‘The “Virtual Shtetl” is a museum without barriers, a consequent extension of the real Museum,’ the website says. ‘Its main objective is to provide a unique social forum for everyone interested in Polish-Jewish life.’
The website includes constantly expanding databases of historic and contemporary photographs and archival information about specific towns all around Poland, as well as blog-like, frequently updated news items and announcements of Jewish interest related to Poland. In October alone there were more than 60 items posted.
‘Currently, our portal is a source of information but, in the future, it will also include an interactive system by which Internet users will interact with each other,’ the site says, in phrases that echo my own description of interaction in the flesh and blood ‘virtual Jewish world.’
The Virtual Shtetl, it says, ‘will create a link between Polish-Jewish history and the contemporary, multi-cultural world.’
These ‘virtual’ links will enhance links that already exist, creating a sort of clearing house for many activities that already take place. Indeed, the past decade already the Krakow Jewish Festival has included a ceremony at which the Israeli ambassador honors non-Jewish Poles who preserve, conserve and promote Jewish culture and memory.
It is all part of a process of ‘normalisation’ Dodziuk said. ‘I’m sure it has its influence on a Jewish perception of the situation in Poland.’ For local populations in many places, she said, ‘These pre-war Jewish inhabitants have become “our people,” part of our local tradition.’ Earlier this year, she added, on a trip with an Israel friend through eastern and southeastern Poland, she met many people in small towns who now considered the Jewish history of these one-times shtetls part and parcel of their own local past and personal memories.
‘It is,’ she said, ‘obviously much more and much deeper than political correctness.’
Ruth Ellen Gruber’s books include National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe, Letters from Europe (and Elsewhere), and Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe. She blogs on Jewish heritage issues at https://jewish-heritage-travel.blogspot.com