Saturday, December 27, 2008

Budapest -- Hanukkah Hungarian Klezmer Rap Party

More from Hanukkah party central....The Hungarian folk-rap band Zuboly added klezmer to the mix at a seventh-night Hanukkah gig in the basement of the Siraly cafe. The concert was part of Marom, the Jewish youth group's, Hanukkah festival. Zuboly has been described as "doing something like taking a folk song, or something similar and a pop song known by everyone and knead[ing] the two together in such a way, complete with rap insert of MC Busa that you can easily miss the transition between the Billy Jean and a Hungarian ancient shamanic song." OK...

With the addition of klezmer, it is described as "transforming into Zugoj."
Zsigmond Lázár and Béla Ágoston are founding members of the Odessa Klezmer Band. Their revolutionary idea was to examine how klezmer mixes with beatbox and all other creativity of Zuboly. Special guest of the band is Flóra Polnauer, who has already proved to be a true ZU-GIRL with outstanding talent in rap and improvisation, which will all be part of the festive concert...

(The klezmer comes in about halfway through this clip)

My friend Rudi Klein (the expert on synagogue architecture and author of the recently published book on Budapest's Dohany St. Synagogue) and I dropped by to listen after going to dinner nearby -- and Rudi noted that the basement, with its pillars and vaulting, is a fine example of original neo-classical architecture from the 1840s. At that time, the street Siraly is located on, Kiraly utca, was expanding outward becoming the main commercial thoroughfare of Budapest' s Jewish section.

Spain -- Yet More on Toledo (and Other Grave Controversies)

Here's a link to Sam Gruber's recent lengthy post on the situation regarding the medieval Jewish cemetery in Toledo, Spain, on which I posted a JTA story earlier today -- for some reason (holiday party-going, perhaps?) I did not see Sam's article when it was posted a few days ago.

Sam added today a long essay on recent controversies over moving graves. Read it by clicking HERE.

Spain -- Construction Work Halted on Cemetery Site

JTA reports that the Spanish government has ordered a month-long freeze on construction work on the site of a medieval Jewish cemetery in Toledo.

The decision made Dec.19 follows high-level meetings at the Spanish Foreign Ministry in Madrid with representatives of the Federation of Jewish Communities in
Spain, the Conference of Spanish Rabbis, the Conference of European Rabbis and the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe (CPJCE).

More than 100 graves have been exhumed from the building site, an expansion of a nearby state school, according to Rabbi Abraham Ginsburg, executive director of the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe.

Toledo regional authorities are currently storing more than 100 skeletons in separate boxes, Ginsburg told JTA Thursday.

"At present our main aim is to ensure that no further desecration is taking place and we are committed by Jewish law and tradition to ensure that those graves are being preserved in their sanctified and dignified manner in perpetuity," Ginsburg said.

Spanish authorities have set the freeze until Jan. 15, 2009. But Ginsburg said that at a scheduled meeting in Toledo on Jan. 12, the Jewish organizations will request that the freeze be extended until the issue is resolved.

A local rabbinic board is currently in consultation with higher rabbinic courts around the world to determine what can be done to preserve the sanctity of the remains according to Jewish law. There are still many graves that remain intact inside the cemetery that dates back to the 13th century.

Back in November, Sam Gruber posted an article giving background on this situation. He wrote:

To my mind the only solution in such a case must be to halt new excavation in any area that can be confirmed to hold graves. It is possible that some surface construction can be allowed that would ultimately protect the graves.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Budapest -- Hanukkah party central

Hanukkah is in the air in Budapest, especially in the old Jewish quarter in and around the downtown Seventh District, where I have an apartment...

Chabad, of course, has huge menorahs where nightly lightings take place -- and Chabadniks also drive around town in little "Hanukkah-mobiles" -- small cars with electric menorahs standing up right on their roofs.

There are various parties, concerts and other events.

I got to town Tuesday night, after a few days in Vienna, where, among other things, I attended a first-night Hanukkah party in the main synagogue, the elegant, neo-classical Stadttempel on sloping Seitenstettengasse, in the heart of the city's core First District (the same synagogue where I attended Sukkoth services this fall) and adjoining Jewish community center.

Sponsored by Centropa, the Central Europe Center for Research and Documentation, it was structured around a meeting a club of elderly Jews who have been interviewed as part of Centropa's online database of family photos and stories. There were prayers and candle-lighting in the synagogue's graceful oval sanctuary; songs by a local Jewish school choir, and food, food, food (delicious vegetarian salads, humus, and the like). Here's a picture of the menorah lighting:

I left Vienna the next day, arriving in Budapest Tuesday night, just in time to high-tail it to the Siraly cafe, a five minute walk from my apartment, and get there in time to catch the last part of a Jewish "dance house" party, with music by Bob Cohen and Di Naye Kapelye and dance-teaching by Susan Foy. (Bob maintains the Dumneazu blog, a lively chronicle of food, travel, music and more in Eastern Europe, and Di Naye Kapelye's new CD, Traktorist, is receiving rave reviews.)

I forgot to bring my camera the other night -- but here's Bob playing a Hanukkah gig in Budapest a few years ago:

Siraly means Seagull but also, in local slang, “fantastic”. The cafe, in a three-storey building with tall arched windows on Kiraly street, is one of the most popular of the new "Jewish" cafes that have opened recently in and around the Seventh District. It is run partly by Marom, the youth organization of the Masorti, or conservative, Jewish stream (which has its office on an upper floor), and partly by a theater group.

In addition to serving up coffee, tea, schnapps and snacks, Siraly serves as something of a "alternative" Jewish culture center, with concerts, talks, book presentations, etc. A highlight each year is the Hanukkah festival Marom organizes, that lasts through the eight days of the holiday.

Each evening features the lighting of menorahs -- one set up on the bar, another an art installation positioned on the wall (the candle flames are symbolically uncovered.)

Then -- concerts, plays, "kosher cabaret" and other events, either in the upstairs gallery or in a (smokey) theater space in the basement. Last night (Christmas Eve, the centerpiece of the holiday for Hungarian Christians, when everyone is home around the groaning dinner table with their family) Marom and Siraly's chief, Adam Schoenberger, played with his own hip-hop band.

Walking over from yet another party, I got there late -- just in time to catch the very end of their set -- because I had dropped in to a neighboring church to get a taste of midnight mass....

Tonight, the concert is in a bigger venue downtown -- headliners are the French group Boogie Balagan (whose slogan is "from Paris to Palestisrael"), following the local bands Pipatorium and Chalaban, which plays Moroccan music.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Poland -- Jazz Suite Based on Jewish Heritage

Tykocin synagogue. Photo (c) R. E. Gruber

Damn! It is so difficult to keep up with all the developments related to Jewish culture and heritage... I just learned, well after the fact, of something I missed at the time -- a jazz suite called "Jazz Suite Tykocin" composed by Polish jazz musician Wlodek Pawlik as part of a Jazz Inspirations from Jewish Cultural Heritage project. It had its premiere last summer in Tykocin, in eastern Poland near Bialystok, where a massive 17th century synagogue was restored in the 1970s and serves as a Jewish museum -- Pawlik and his group performed the suite in the synagogue.

The suite has been released on CD -- here's what the newsletter of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews says about it:

Jazz Suite Tykocin which was recorded within the ‘Jazz Inspirations of Jewish Cultural Heritage’ project is on sale. The album was produced by the Podlasie Opera and Philharmonic and the Radio Phonographic Agency. The Museum of the History of Polish Jews is one of the partners of the project.

Jazz Suite Tykocin is the latest musical project from Włodek Pawlik. The album, widely acclaimed by music critics for its originality, is a six-piece composition inspired by the Psalms of David. The music is a combination of jazz with classical music and orchestral jazz. Włodek Pawlik wrote the Suite with the thought in mind of Randy Brecker, the American jazz trumpet player, whose family comes from Tykocin. The first performance of the suite took place on 4th of July in the Podlasie Opera and Philharmonic Concert Hall in Białystok. The recording was made between July 5-7 with the participation of Randy Brecker, the Włodek Pawlik Trio with Włodek Pawlik – piano, Paweł Pańta – double bass and Cezary Konrad – percussion and the Symphony Orchestra of the Podlasie Opera and Philharmonic under Marcin Nałęcz-Niesiołowski.

You can here a YouTube clip of the synagogue concert by clicking HERE.

Monday, December 22, 2008

My latest Ruthless Cosmopolitan column

This has to do with a virtual Jewish space -- on Facebook


Ruth Ellen Gruber

December 22, 2008

ROME (JTA) -- Not long ago, a Facebook friend of mine wrote that she had had a great time at a Shabbat dinner even if there had been "a wee bit much talk" of religion.

"Why all this American obsession with Jewish identity?" she wrote on her profile page on the social networking site. "Just BE!"

Her comment got me thinking.

Defining Jewish identity, refining Jewish identity, reclaiming Jewish identity, reinforcing Jewish identity -- these seem indeed to be constant concerns among many Jews, and not just in the United States.

"Jewish identity" has been the subject of endless conferences, surveys, books, articles, analyses and movies -- not to mention comedy routines. A Google search for "Jewish identity" gave me 573,000 matches!

What impact, I wondered, does this all have on who we are -- or at least on who we say we are?

I decided to carry out an unscientific study to find out -- a very unscientific study.

My methodology was simple: I used Facebook to see how Jews, or at least Jews I know, define themselves in terms of religious identity.

For those unfamiliar with Facebook, a site that has 120 million users around the world, its software permits you to connect with lists of "friends" who are in turn linked with friends' lists of their own.

Upon joining you create a profile, including information you want to make public about your age, sex, location, profession, personal views and even your sexual preference. You pick and choose what you want to post. Some people post only their name; others provide the whole megillah.

One of the choices is to state your "religious views." You can choose whether or not to post anything at all about your religious beliefs and, if you opt to post, you choose how you want to define yourself; there is a blank space you can fill in with whatever you want to say.

For my study, I simply checked how my Facebook friends I know to be Jewish chose to respond.

Read Full Story

Friday, December 19, 2008

Detroit -- Saving a City's Last synagogue

This is from the U.S., not Europe -- but the issues resonate; dwindling Jewish population; deteriorating synagogue; changing neighborhood.... what's to be done?

The Detroit News reports that downtown Detroit's last functioning synagogue is under threat....

Saving Detroit's Last Synagogue December 18, 2008)

Louis Aguilar / The Detroit News

The Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue is the last of its kind -- the sole building in Detroit still functioning as a Jewish place of worship.

Unless something changes fast, the downtown synagogue may become history. A group of young would-be rescuers find themselves at odds with some of the synagogue's old guard.

Since Rabbi Noah Gamze died in 2003, the synagogue has been void of a spiritual leader. The four-story building on Griswold and Clifford streets barely clings to life; the top two floors are vacant and the roof leaks.

At the Saturday morning Shabbat -- the only regular weekly service -- the handful of members who attend often need to recruit the African-American owner of the nightclub next door to reach minyan -- the minimum of 10 males older than age 13 needed for a Jewish public worship.

The synagogue may have recruited the right gentile: Larry Mongo, owner of Café D'Mongo's Speakeasy. Since opening a little over a year ago, Mongo's club and restaurant have become a haven for Detroit's café society -- the creative and professional class returning to the city's core. Some are twentysomething Jews including D'Mongo's bartender and Wayne State University student Courtney Smith. She and seven others -- calling themselves the Detroit Action Synagogue Committee -- want to save the downtown synagogue. Among them are a nonprofit lawyer, a pharmaceutical salesperson and an academic. They want a chance to turn the synagogue into a major piece of downtown's revitalization, tapping into the arts and cultural scene.

"We don't want to just save the building. We want it to be a hub for the people returning to the city and the energy that represents," Smith said.


Thursday, December 18, 2008

Estonia -- New Jewish Museum

The Federation of the Jewish Communities of the Former Soviet Union reports that a new Jewish museum has recently opened in Tallinn, Estonia, apparently in the Jewish community center complex.

The report says:

The main exhibit includes photographs, historical documents and exhibit items received from private individuals, the state archives as well as other museums. The exhibits demonstrate the community life of Estonian Jews, the history of the community in the pre-World War Two period, during the German occupation, and during the Soviet era.

A separate exhibition covers the revitalization of Jewish communal life in the late 1980s in Estonia
The museum web site has a downloadable pdf catalogue.


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Italy - More on Funding for Jewish Heritage

Synagogue, Florence. Photo (c) R. E. Gruber

A Jewish member of the Italian Parliament, Alessandro Ruben, says that the state funding cuts for Jewish heritage forced by the economic crisis may not be as disastrous as earlier predicted. About 25 percent of the funds allocated in the 2009 budget for restoration and repair of Jewish cultural heritage (amounting to €450,000) are being cut., the online newsletter of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities (UCEI), reports that an order has been issued sanctioning the government to provide extra resources "in particularly urgent cases."

"In particular situations the Ministry of Culture will evaluate, at the request of the UCEI, the possibility of allocating further funding," Ruben said.

"The ball is now in the UCEI's court," writes Daniela Gross on the Moked web site. "It will be up to the [UCEI's cultural heritage] commission to carry out the difficult task of evaluating the numerous requests from individual Italian Jewish communities to restore and recuperate Jewish heritage and to establish priorities, deciding which need to be handled right away and which can be put on hold."

Read Full Article (in Italian)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Moldova -- Bob Cohen Goes "Home" (and Takes Us Along)

I know I have Bob Cohen's blog Dumneazu listed on my blog link list, to the right of these posts, but I must draw attention to his wonderful description of going back to his grandmother's ancestral turf in Moldova.

He begins:
My Grandmother, Bunye "Betty" Tsarevcan, was born in Teleneşti, in the Republic of Moldova in 1893. In my family's history, of course, we always knew the place as Bessarabia. My Grandfather was born in Criuleni, which he knew as Krivilyany in Yiddish. On Di Naye Kapelye's last CD "A Mazeldiker Yid" I included a track of her telling the story - in Yiddish - of how her grandfather, a rich textile merchant, had to send all the way to Iasi to hire the Lemesh family of Klezmer musicians for my great-Grandmother's wedding festivities. She began her tale with the words "We're from Telenesti... we're not from Orgeyev." And so, I had to see Teleneşti, not so much for myself, since I have seen more small muddy Moldavian towns over the last fifteen years than I care to count, but to, somehow, close a cirlce. My Father and my Uncle Eli are the last of their generation, those that were raised on their parents' stories of the Old Country, told in a rich Bessarabian Yiddish dialect with absolutely no nostalgia and no desire to ever return, stories of unfortunate arranged marriages and poverty and broken marriages and pogroms and World War One and Bolsheviks and finally the epic of escape. But as Bessarabians, my father's generation always maintained a natural curiosity - "What is it like in the place our parents came from?"
Read on

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Italy -- Economic Downturn May Threaten Care of Jewish Heritage, the daily online newsletter of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities runs an article today by Lucilla Efrati about how the current economic crisis and state budget cuts "risk reducing the attention paid to a precious and irreplaceable cultural patrimony" -- that is, the wealth of Jewish heritage in Italy that stretches back to ancient Roman times.

In 2009, she writes, the planned state funding for conservation and restoration work on Jewish cultural, architectural and archival heritage is expected to be cut by about 25 percent.

Even limited cuts in the funds budgeted for the care of these sites, she writes, risks rolling back the force of recent legal decisions that have enabled a number of important projects to proceed.

These centuries-old synagogues, cemeteries, and other sites, Efrati writes, "form part of the country's artistic patrimony [and] need care, maintenance and restoration work." Even limited cuts in the funds budgeted for the care of these sites, she writes, risks rolling back the force of recent legal decisions that have enabled a number of important projects to proceed.

Read the Full Story (in Italian)

(The picture that accompanies the Moked article is one that I took at the ceremony in September 2005 redidcating the old Jewish cemetery in Ancona after it was cleared up and restored. Below is another photo I took that day.)

Ancona Jewish cemetery, Sept. 2005. Photo (c) R. E. Gruber

Monday, December 8, 2008

Italy -- Hadassah Magazine Article on Jewish Traces in Southern Italy

Hadassah Magazine this month features an article about the rediscovery (or discovery) of Jewish heritage in southern Italy, "A Spark in the Bottom of the Boot," by Andree Elion Brooks.

Poland -- Useful Web Site

The "Diapositive" web site in Poland has undergone a make-over since the last time I looked at it. It has a useful English language section with a lot of information and links on contemporary Jewish life in Poland, as well as on Jewish heritage sites, resources and events.

Run by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, the site used to carry the full text of Adam Dylewski's Jewish guidebook to Poland,"When the Tailor Was a Poet" -- but now it presents the material (and more) in its "Traces of the Past" section.

Its starting map looks similar to the map that starts the POLIN portal of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Hertiage in Poland, but I'm not sure if there's any direct link or cooperation.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Moldova -- More Other Europeans On The Road

Bob Cohen is back in Budapest and posting his impressions on his recent trip to Moldova with the Other Europeans Yiddish and Roma music project. It's great and informative reading! Pictures and videos, too!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Warsaw -- Cemetery Art Conference

It's too late to go, but today I received email notice of a big conference on cemetery art that's being held in Warsaw today and tomorrow (Dec. 4-5).

It looks as if it is all Polish scholars (and all in Polish), and the topics range over the whole field of graveyard/gravestone studies, both civic and religious, including monumental cemeteries and war cemeteries. One session is devoted to Jewish cemeteries in particular.

You can see the program by clicking HERE.

Moldova -- Holocaust Memorials

While we're waiting for Bob Cohen to post further news of the "Other Europeans" trip to Moldova, Der Spiegel runs a piece on how (slowly, finally) the Shoah is being commemorated in Moldova.

Reviving Memory in a Killing Field

By Michael Scott Moore in Berlin

Holocaust education is normal in Germany. But in some parts of Europe, where much of the killing took place, the past is buried under layers of politics and history. A Moldovan group is installing monuments to the ill-remembered slaughter of Romanian Jews.

Read Full Story

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Czech Republic -- Terezin Tourism Woes

Agence France Presse has run an article about current economic and other woes in Terezin, the town north of Prague that was turned into a ghetto/concentration camp during World War II and serves as a memorial site for the Shoah.

Czech Town with Sad Past Fights Ghost Town Image
Dec. 1, 2008

TEREZIN (AFP)---The old Czech fortress town of Terezin, burdened by its past as a Jewish ghetto and transit camp under the Nazis then an army garrison under the communists, is trying hard not to become a ghost town.

"It would be good to have a magic wand, but we don't have one. Instead, we have a very long way to go," town hall secretary Miroslav Kubicek told AFP.

The town took a blow when the Czech army vacated the garrison in 1997, a move that slashed the population from 7,000 to today's tiny 2,000.

Most of those who have stayed are jobless, with little money to spend.

And efforts by the city council to breathe new life into the locality have so far ended in failure.

Read Full Story

Morocco -- Casablanca Jewish Museum

An article in the United Arab Emirates English language newspaper , The National, highlights the privately run Jewish Museum in Casablanca, Morocco, founded in 1997 and the first and to date only Jewish museum in the Arab world.

Jewish Museum Showcases Unity

John Thorne, Foreign Correspondent

Dec. 2, 2008

Simon Levy, left, the director of the Jewish museum in Morocco, speaks to visitors. Eve Coulon for The National

CASABLANCA // Ten years ago, Jewish fathers in Morocco looked at demographics and decided it was time to build a museum.

Morocco’s once-thriving Jewish community has shrunk to a handful since the creation of Israel in 1948. Today, Simon Levy, a linguist and historian, fights doggedly to preserve its memory as director of the Arab world’s only Jewish museum.

Mr Levy recently played host to a group of high school students. For most, it was their first exposure to Jewish Morocco. While Mr Levy normally sees a trickle of foreign Jewish tourists, his target audience are Muslim youngsters.

“More than anything, I want them to learn that there’s a different way of being Moroccan,” Mr Levy said.


The Casablanca Jewish Museum was the subject of a longer article in The Forward last year.

Interestingly, it was also the subject of one of the papers presented at the conference on Representations of Jews in European Popular Culture, which I attended last week at the European University Institute in Fiesole, near Florence.

Jewish Museums in general formed the theme of one of the conference sessions.

In her presentation, "The Jewish Museum in Casablanca: Formation and Reflection of Contemporary Jewish Identity," Sophie Wagenhofer of the Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin, who also has worked at the Casablanca Museum, gave a description of its history and focus and also dealt with the way in which the museum presents the view of Moroccan Jews as Moroccans, part and parcel of national history, culture and society -- as she put it, "inscribing a minority's identity in the national identity".

She wrote:

[A] vital message of the exhibit is to strengthen the sameness of Muslims and Jews, which was done by referring to culture rather than religion. Muslims and Jews alike share the fields of culture, politics and economy as Moroccans in general, whereas from the point of religion the groups differ. Thus jewelry and everyday life items play a considerable role.

Here is how the article in The National puts it:

[The museum's founder and director, Simon Levy, asks visiting highschool] students to identify the Jews and Muslims in an old photograph. They guess unsuccessfully for a moment, then Mr Levy asks what the picture represents.

“Mixing?” a girl said.“No!” Levy said. “Because they are the same.”

Jews and Muslims share many customs that mark them as Moroccans, Mr Levy tells the students. They speak Moroccan Arabic, eat couscous and tajines, drink green tea laced with mint and make pilgrimages to the shrines of local Jewish and Muslim saints.

For a web site devoted to Jewish history, tourism and travel in Morocco, click HERE.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Synagogues -- Painted Curtains, etc

Sam Gruber has posted a detailed description and commentary on the Kupa synagogue in Krakow, based on a visit he made there recently. It's an excellent guide to the synagogue and discussion of issues raised in the restoration/renewal of the building carried out several years ago. He discusses in some detail the decorative painting on the walls and ceiling of the sanctuary.

The synagogue was in very dilapidated condition when I saw it first in 1990. I was told it had been used as a matzo factory after WW2. In Virtually Jewish, I quoted Monika Krajewska, who first visited the Kupa synagogue in the 1970s, when it was used as a warehouse:

"We stared at the walls, with their paintings: the lions, the deer, all the things that relate to Jewish biblical tradition of synagogue decoration. And there were workers who were just installing additional shelves; they were making holes in the lion's nose, in the instruments of the Levites painted on the ceiling."

Among the decorative elements discussed by Sam is that of curtains painted around the Ark -- in the picture below, Alan Bern, on piano, accompanies Lorin Sklamberg singing in front of the Ark of the Kupa at the Jewish Culture Festival in 2004.

Photo (c) R. E. Gruber

Sam writes:

A second decorative element that interests me a lot is the painting around the Ark, which is a large and impressive Baroque construction. On the wall behind the projecting stone Ark is painted a large red curtain, drawn apart just above the apex of the Ark. Of course this too, can have Temple associations, since a curtain in the Temple hung before the entrance of the Holy of Holies. Here, though, the curtain is hung behind the Ark, and it is open. What does it mean? Is it an earthly curtain, intended to create the illusion of greater synagogue space? Is it a symbolic curtain, representing either Temple or perhaps the revelation of the Torah? Or perhaps is it a curtain allowing a glimpse form this world into another? It could be all these things, or none. I’m not going to decide. But since I’m looking I am seeing these curtains almost everywhere - and they are one of the favorite European (or Polish) synagogue decorative devices carried over by immigrant artists from the old world to the new. I'm still looking for some contemporary user - a rabbi or congregant - who commented on their position and use.

I, too, have seen painted curtains around Arks in synagogues in several countries. Here is a short slide show of some of them: you can see the variety of construction of the Ark itself, as well as the way in which the curtain motif is used.

New York Times -- Houses of Worship Meet Bureaucracy

The New York Times has run an article about the recent destruction of a historic church in Brooklyn despite the objections of preservationists and local activists. The conditions are different in a host of ways, but the article has resonance for those of us interested in the fate of Jewish historical sites in Europe, and particularly in post-communist Europe.

Daunted by the cost of repairing and maintaining the 1899 building, the congregation had sold it to a developer for $9.75 million. He plans to build a 70-unit apartment building, and the congregation will erect a smaller church on the site.

The destruction went forward even though preservationists and the area’s City Council representative had repeatedly implored the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to schedule a hearing on potential landmark status for the church, which was on the National and State Register of Historic Places.

Feelings on the issue ran so high that at a City Council hearing last year on the reappointment of Robert B. Tierney as chairman of the landmarks commission, the city councilman, Vincent J. Gentile, publicly berated the agency for declining to act. “It was a part of our history in this community being torn away from us,” Mr. Gentile said in an interview. “The sad part is, it didn’t have to be.”

Houses of worship are among the most sensitive issues facing the landmarks commission. Mandating that a church be preserved can not only impose a heavy financial burden on a congregation, it also raises the specter of state interference with religious freedom. So the commission has been especially loath to take on churches or synagogues that don’t want to be designated.

Read Full Story

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Ukraine -- Virtual History and Reconstruction of Golden Rose Synagogue in L'viv

I want to draw attention to the online presentation about the Turey Zahav, or Golden Rose, synagogue in L'viv, prepared by my friend Sergey Kravtsov and others at the Center for Jewish Art in Jerusalem and posted on the Center's web site.

Not only does the presentation give a history of the synagogue, which was destroyed in WW2 and remains in ruins, but it includes a virtual reconstruction of it -- layer by layer, renovation/reconstruction by renovation, showing how the building changed over time.

It also presents the building, originally constructed in the late 16th century, in the context of other synagogues and monumental buildings of the time in what is now western Ukraine, and provides information on the architects who designed and built them.

Florence -- Haggling in the Synagogue

Florence Synagogue. Photo (c) R. E. Gruber

I had an experience last week that threw into even sharper relief the contradictions of caricature and irony found in the insider vs outsider use of Jewish stereotypes.

I was in Florence for a very interesting and wide-ranging conference on representations of Jews in European popular culture, organized by young scholars at the European University Institute in nearby Fiesole.

Before the official start of the conference, a group of us visited Florence's synagogue and the Jewish museum housed in its women's gallery. The synagogue is a stately Moorish-style structure with an ornate interior and towering green dome. A grandiose symbol of Jewish emancipation, it was designed by the architects Marco Treves, Mariano Falcini and Vincenzo Micheli and inaugurated in 1882.

The Jewish museum is on two levels -- the lower level is mainly a display of Judaica. The upper level was revamped and reopened last year as a multi-media history exhibit using objects, panels, sound and projected images to tell the story of the Jewish community in Florence.

Florence Jewish Museum. Photo (c) R. E. Gruber

After visiting the museum, I stopped in the gift shop (I love museum gift shops.) It's small, but has a lot on offer -- jewelry, ritual objects, stationery, etc. All seemed rather expensive, but, with Hanukkah gifts on my mind, I found a nice little pair of earrings for €15.

I wanted to get another piece, apparently made by the same designer. The saleswoman showed me a pendant -- for €20.

I didn't want to spend that much, I told her. Her response was immediate. "What would you like to pay? How much do you want to spend?"

Well, the earrings were only €15 -- I didn't want to spend more than that.

"OK -- €15 -- the pendant is yours!"

Damn, I thought. She gave me 1/4 off, just like that. I could have got it for less!

Then I thought about the last place I had come into contact with a reference to bargaining in a Jewish context -- the "At the Golden Rose" cafe in L'viv, where no prices were put on the menu so that patrons could haggle ("like Jews") as to what they would pay...


As for the conference -- I will try to write something on it later. For now, you can see the program by clicking HERE.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Germany -- Forgotten Jewish Modernist Architects and Their Creations

Here's a link to a terrific web site about Jewish modernist architects in Germany and their work, linked to a publication as the Pentagram Papers 37. It's based on the work of the late Haifa-born architect and scholar Myra Warhaftig, who published extensive material about them in her book, German Jewish Architects Before and After 1933: The Lexicon.

Little is known anymore about the more than 450 Jewish architects who were active in Germany before 1933 -- in November of that year, Jews were banned from the state-run artists guild, membership in which was mandatory in order for an architect to work. The web site examines 43 of them, providing biographical information and posting pictures of some of their buildings, many of which are still standing.

Another web site devoted to these architects also arranges walking tours to some of their buildings.

Warhaftig died in March at the age of 78 - see her obituary here, and also an article in

“The Jewish architect wanted to show his achievement in the forefront, and to create a new form of building that people would accept,” she told the author of the article, David Sokol.

“Berlin was a living architecture exhibition,” Warhaftig said of the interwar period. “After Weimar, Berlin was flourishing culturally. Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and other modernists were looking for a peaceful and social world, and wished to express their ideas in architecture. I think the majority of Jewish architects chose to settle in Berlin to prove that anti-Semitism would no longer play a role in their lives.”
Jewish architects were active in the modernist movement in many countries.

In the interwar period several synagogues were designed or remodeled in the modernist style by Jewish or non-Jewish architects.

These include the synagogue currently in use in Brno, Czech Republic (designed by Otto Eisler in the 1930s - you can read my article about modernist architecture in Brno in general by clicking here), that in Zilina, Slovakia (built in 1929-1931 and designed by the Berlin architect Peter Behrens), the remodeled synagogue in the Smichov district of Prague (built in 1863, remodeled in modernist/Functionalist style in 1931 by Leopold Ehrmann), and the synagogue currently in use in Rijeka, Croatia (built in 1928 and designed by Gyozo Angyal and Pietro Fabbro).

Synagogue in Smichov district of Prague, 2008. Now the archive of the Prague Jewish Museum. Photo (c) R. E. Gruber

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Amsterdam -- No More Anne Frank Apartment

I just checked the web site that was advertising an "Anne Frank apartment" where you could "live like Anne Frank" (and which I wrote about on this blog and in a Ruthless Cosmopolitan column).... the site still advertises the apartment, but I'm happy to report that it no longer is named after Anne Frank, nor does it use its tasteless advertising come-on....

Moldova -- The "Other Europeans" project on the road

Several of the Jewish members of "The Other Europeans" project are in Moldova, traveling around the country to explore the lautari musical tradition.

I'm not on the trip -- but Bob Cohen is writing about it, with photos, on his blog -- he has posted some striking photographs of some of the Jewish traces in the town of Edinets, including its Jewish cemetery.

The Other Europeans project, directed by Alan Bern, is an intercultural dialogue exploring Yiddish and Roma music, culture and identity. It joins together Roma and Yiddish musicians -- they are exploring how music stemming from the same general place (mainly Moldova) is transformed by two parallel but related traditions.

I posted some material on the project this summer -- I took part in a symposium held at the start of the annual Yiddish Summer Weimar festival, and I heard the initial concerts by the two music groups, at Weimar and at the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Playing with Stereotypes -- Brokeback Dreidel

In addition to this Jewish Heritage blog, I maintain a blog on the Imaginary Wild West.

This video -- "Brokeback Dreidel" -- encompasses both:

"Brokeback Dreidel" is a delight -- as Ari Davidow said on his Klezmer Shack blog, it raises the bar on funny Hanukkah videos. It also shows how stereotypes (gay, Jewish, cowboy and otherwise) can have different meanings (and elicit different responses) in different contexts. (I love how the line dancing turns into a hora...)

If you look closely, you will see one (or maybe more) of the singers in the video wearing a (kosher) cowboy hat with fake sidelocks that is remarkably similar to the hats with fake sidelocks provided at the Golden Rose "Jewish" cafe in L'viv for patrons to try on and joke with.

Sam Gruber has written a thoughtful (and angry) blog post about the selling of Jews and Jewish symbols. He writes:

Its one thing when Gene Wilder plays a rabbi and dons payes in The Frisco Kid – a funny film that actually is both an affirmation of Judaism and a historic corrective – since there were plenty of Jews who helped shape the American West. And the case can be made for Barbara Streisand dressing up as Yentl. But it is quite another thing when an Ukrainian café owner encourages customers to dress up as Hasids to laugh and eat and drink on the very site the Lviv’s destroyed Beth Midrash, in the shadow of the ruined Golden Rose Synagogue, whose worshipers were rounded up an murdered. No matter what one thinks of the strictures of the Hasidim, the place of their death is no place for caricature. There is no one to answer back.

I wrote about how Jewish stereotypes and Jewish jokes mean different things in different contexts in an essay published in 2005 (in German translation) in the book Gerüchete über die Juden. Antisemitismus, Philosemitismus und aktuelle Verschwörungstheorien (Essen: Klartext Verlag) edited by Hanno Lowy, the director of the Jewish Museum in Hohenems, Austria.

In the essay, I described how I own several miniature figurines of Jews -- two marzipan "Yeshiva bochers" that I bought at a kosher pastry shop in Budapest, and a tiny "Jew" clutching a coin that was given out as a sort of party favor to guests at the "Jewish style" Anatewka restaurant in Lodz, Poland. The figures all are caricaturish, but the bochers were destined for an internal (Jewish) market, and the little Jewish man was destined for mainly non-Jewish (Polish) consumers.
Boundaries between insider and outsider, believer and non-believer, devotee and ironic observer can sharply delineate the differences between kitsch and caricature, art and artifice, stereotype and homage. But perspectives shift, and the boundaries often blur. The images and their meaning are often decidedly in the eye of the beholder. And they are frequently dictated by changing religious realities, philo-Semitic, often engineered nostalgia, and the powerful exigencies of the marketplace.

Many of the markers identified with Jewishness have religious overtones that have long laid the basis for both anti-Semitic stereotypes and nostalgic yearning for the "authentic" Jewish experience of the East European shtetl.

Signs and symbols of Jewish holidays and domestic observance, and the beards, side curls, black hats, yarmulkas, fringes and other outward trappings of the traditional orthodox or Chasidic Jew spell "Jewish" -- even to Jews -- in a way that, for example, the physical attributes of Jews such as the actress Natalie Portman or the actor Kirk Douglas do not. A case in point is a T-shirt sold online at the web site. It features the slogan "Don't Worry, Be Jewish" under a big yellow "smiley face" that is topped by a kippah and long, dangling earlocks. The image, the web site states "shows off Jewish pride." Likewise, I was told recently by a friend that when the Chabad Lubavitch Chasidic movement set up a stand at Budapest's huge annual "Sziget" music festival a couple years ago, its display included a life-sized figure of a Chasid, with a hole cut where the face should be. Visitors could insert their own faces into the image and have themselves photographed in full Chasidic regalia, that is, as a "Jew."

Read the Full Essay

Where does "Brokeback Dreidel" fit in? It's a gay, wild west parody of a Jewish song, loaded with layer upon layer of pop-culture Brokeback Mountain and beyond. The audience is clearly not all Jewish -- nor it is all gay. But they are all clearly "in the know." (The group also parodies other songs, including "Jingle Bells" and 1980s ABBA hits...). The parody is American, in an American pop culture scene where -- as Sam put it -- there is so much real Judaism, and so much reliable information about Jews is available. But it's also an American scene where parody, gay, Jewish, self- or otherwise, is something of a way of life.

Bartholomew's Notes on Christian Philo-Semitism

In a link to my recent posting about the Anne Frank apartment and to my Ruthless Cosmopolitan column, in which I mention the "virtually Jewish" scene in Krakow, L'viv and elsewhere, the Bartholomew's Notes on Religion blog links to a previous post that describes philo-Semitism and the use of Jewish symbols, "products" etc, by Christians in the U.S. and elsewhere. In it, Richard Bartholomew speaks of

a whole subculture of American Christians for whom Judeo-philia goes far beyond simple Christian Zionism.
This means

selling items associated with Jewish culture to Christians: shofars, mezuzahs, menorahs (engraved with a Star of David merged with a Christian “ichthus” sign), Kiddush cups, tambourines (”mentioned in Psalms”) and, in particular, Tallit prayer shawls

The phenomena have a lot of outward similarities. But at heart, what I was describing (i.e. the "Jewish cafe" and tourism scene in mainly Jew-less, post-Holocaust, post-Communist Europe) is quite different, as, in large part, there is little -- if any -- actual religious identification involved by now. The virtually Jewish scene as a whole in Europe does encompass people who were drawn by their sense of religious or spiritual connection, and I go into these aspects in my book Virtually Jewish Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe.

It would be very interesting to carry out a more in depth investigation into the reasons that non-Jewish customers are now drawn to the Jewish-style cafe scene, to see how much of the motivation comes from religious or spiritual interest. The "Please Respond" public art project carried out this past summer by the anthropologist Erica Lehrer, Stephanie Rowden, and graphic designer Hannah Smotrich may contribute to an understanding of this.

I have only recently come across the Bartholomew's Notes blog. But it turns out that Richard Bartholomew and I actually have been published together -- we both contributed chapter-essays to the 2005 book Gerüchte über die Juden Antisemitismus, Philosemitismus und aktuelle Verschwörungstheorien, (Klartext Verlag: Essen), edited by Hanno Lowy, the director of the Jewish Museum in Hohenems, Austria. Bartholomew's essay was on Christian Zionism; mine was on Jewish Kitsch and Kitschy Jews.

, pp. 235-254 (Translated from my unpublished English text, “‘A Curiously Cold Affection‘: Christian Zionism, Philo-Semitism and ‘The Jew’”).

Thursday, November 20, 2008

My latest Ruthless Cosmopolitan column -- "Living like Anne Frank?"

I used the Anne Frank Apartment advertisement (on which I posted earlier this week) as the peg for my latest Ruthless Cosmopolitan column. All my R-C columns can be read aggregated at my Ruthless Cosmopolitan site.

Living Like Anne Frank?

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Nov. 19, 2008

ROME (JTA)—An online accommodation agency I came across recently used one of the most tasteless slogans I’ve ever seen to advertise a holiday rental in Amsterdam.

"Amsterdam Stay Apartments present the Anne Frank apartment," read a banner across the top of the apartment’s Web page. "Live like Anne Frank during your Amsterdam stay," it promised, "with the keys to your own roof attic apartment.

"Live like Anne Frank?"

What on earth could these people have been thinking?

Read Full Story

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Budapest -- Bob Cohen on Kadar eatery and other favorite Jewish quarter haunts

My friend, the Budapest-based musician Bob Cohen, writes a great blog that is largely based around eating..... His latest post describes the Kadar etkezde, a little lunchroom about a 7 minute walk from my apartment in Budapest, which I first sampled back in about 1990 and which remained a favorite of mine for years and which I've written about in the past. Located on Klauzal square in the heart of the old Jewish quarter (and what was the heart of the WW2 Ghetto), Kadar's is the closest thing in Budapest to a New York deli -- in spirit, if not in the choice of food. I haven't been there for awhile, though, as the last time I was there for lunch the food wasn't up to snuff. Bob's description though indicates that everything is back to normal. (For an earlier post by Bob about Kadar, click HERE.)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Anne Frank Apartment -- Action Being Taken

I contacted a friend at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and alerted him about the agency that has named one of its rentals the "Anne Frank Apartment" and advertises it with the slogan "Live like Anne Frank...." (I posted on this yesterday.)

My friend has informed me that the Anne Frank Foundation will be taking some sort of action. The name "Anne Frank" is in fact registered legally to the Foundation, precisely to prevent it from being used for commercial or touristic exploitation.

"The Foundation is the legal owner of the name Anne Frank," he said. "No-one can use it without our permission." Otherwise, he added, "we would have the whole neighborhood filled with Anne Frank cafes and the like..."

(The Foundation does give permission for the use of the name for Anne Frank schools and similar institutions -- and in the past it has been locked in controversy over other use of Anne's name or writings -- earlier this year, for example, over a Spanish musical based on Anne's diary. The Foundation supported the musical, but the Swiss-based Anne Frank Fonds, established by Anne's father in 1963 and the copyright holder of the diary itself, opposed it. )

Monday, November 17, 2008

Destruction of the Memory of Jewish Presence in Eastern Europe -- Interview with Ivan Ceresnjes

Jewish cemetery, Mostar, Bosnia-Hercegovina, 2004. Photo (c) R.E. Gruber

The Institute for Global Jewish Affairs has published a lengthy interview with Ivan Ceresnjes on the destruction of the memory of Jewish presence in Eastern Europe, using the situation in former Yugoslavia as a case study. He says:
"The memory of the large pre-war Jewish presence in Eastern Europe is increasingly being destroyed. Part of this process is intentional; part because of neglect of Jewish sites and memorials. To understand the various factors at work, one can best look at the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Its breakup over the past two decades has accelerated processes that are slower elsewhere. This concerns both attempts to change the collective memory of citizens as well as the physical degradation of Jewish sites, monuments, and memorials. Monuments are usually built to commemorate a significant person or event in history, or a period of time. Memorials are usually related to death and destruction. But the distinction between the two sometimes is blurred."

Ivan (Ivica), a researcher at Hebrew University's Center for Jewish Art in Jerusalem, is a former president of the Jewish community in Bosnia-Hercegovina and former vice president of the Jewish federation in the former Yugoslavia.

He has spent many years documenting and writing about Jewish heritage in all parts of the former Yugoslavia and has been extremely generous with his time and knowledge -- he really helped me a lot in my own research and writing.

His interview is timely and unsettling, even disturbing in parts, and it relates to issues faced in many countries in the region -- not least of which in Ukraine, where some of these topics were under discussion at the Jewish history and heritage conference last month in L'viv.

Published November 2008

No. 75, 1 December 2008 / 4 Kislev 5769

The Destruction of the Memory of Jewish Presence in Eastern Europe;

A Case Study: Former Yugoslavia

Interview with Ivan Ceresnjes

  • The memory of the large pre-war Jewish presence in Eastern Europe is increasingly being destroyed. Part of this process is intentional; part is because of neglect of Jewish sites, monuments, and memorials.
  • The successor states of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia provide a good case study of many aspects of the process of memory destruction. This federation's breakup over the past two decades has accelerated processes that are slower elsewhere. This concerns both attempts to change the collective memory of citizens, as well as the physical degradation of Jewish sites, monuments, and memorials.
  • All successor states are rewriting their histories. The memory of the Holocaust is thus also fragmented according to the national context. In the history of humanity the Holocaust is an unprecedented mega-event. This larger understanding, however, gets lost in societies where no historical research has been undertaken since the Second World War.
  • Collective memory will change further. Yet monuments and memorials stand while societies change. It is important that the physical Jewish infrastructure is not further degraded and that memorial sites in Jewish locations are well kept. The memorials make local people remember what happened to the Jews. For many, the existence of a Jewish memorial does not allow them to forget the crimes of the past.

Destroying Memory

"The memory of the large pre-war Jewish presence in Eastern Europe is increasingly being destroyed. Part of this process is intentional; part because of neglect of Jewish sites and memorials. To understand the various factors at work, one can best look at the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Its breakup over the past two decades has accelerated processes that are slower elsewhere. This concerns both attempts to change the collective memory of citizens as well as the physical degradation of Jewish sites, monuments, and memorials. Monuments are usually built to commemorate a significant person or event in history, or a period of time. Memorials are usually related to death and destruction. But the distinction between the two sometimes is blurred."

Ivan Ceresnjes was the head of the Jewish community of Bosnia- Herzegovina and a vice-chairman of the Yugoslav Federation of Jewish Communities until his emigration to Israel in 1996. At the Hebrew University's Center for Jewish Art, established in 1979, he documents Jewish infrastructure such as synagogues, ritual buildings, and cemeteries in Eastern Europe. He also maps Holocaust memorials and monuments.

Ceresnjes furthermore assists the U.S. Congressional Commission for Protecting and Preserving American Property Abroad. Despite its name, this commission was created in 1985 for the survey and research of Jewish cemeteries, monuments, and memorials. Almost its entire emphasis is on Eastern Europe, because it is mainly there that this infrastructure is rapidly disappearing.

Ceresnjes remarks: "When people in Eastern Europe see or hear the words ‘American property' it has a magic effect on them. Often when one tells that one is Jewish and has come to research the documentation of Jewish monuments, tombstones, and memorials, the reception is unfriendly. However, if you say that you are coming on behalf of the American government you are much better received."

The Role of Collective Memory

Ceresnjes reflects on the role of collective memory in society: "The upsurge of nationalism in Eastern Europe has led to an ideology of memory. In its most extreme form, nationalist ideologues consider that the main role of each generation is to transmit the memories of the previous one to the next.

"This ideological position claims that nations mainly exist to remember their past. In its extreme version the state, society, and economy are largely tools for promoting national memory. Economic growth frees people to spend their time on the recovery of memory. These ideologues say that societies should be dominated by memory-related activities.

"One does not even have to go that far. There is, for instance, the more moderate position that the recovery of memory in Eastern Europe was the essence of national liberation. Indeed, one of Stalin's major crimes was his destruction of national memories."

Ceresnjes comments: "However, focusing exclusively on changing collective memory without linking it to moral judgment remains highly problematic. In this context, attitudes in various countries toward Holocaust memorials need to be assessed. The case of Yugoslavia's successor states illustrates this in many ways."


Amsterdam -- "Anne Frank" apartment: talk about poor taste in advertising!

Thanks to my friend Eli Valley, I have come across a web ad for the Anne Frank apartment, a garret for rent in Amsterdam near the Anne Frank House Museum, for €155 a night...

In what has got to be one of the worst lapses of taste in tourist promotion I've seen in quite awhile, it advertises the place with the promo "Live like Anne Frank, lovely Amsterdam attic apartment".

I mean, what can one say? It ranks with the hats with peyes at the "Jewish style" cafe in L'viv....

New National Geographic Book to Which I Contributed

National Geographic has published a big, coffee table book called Sacred Places of A Lifetime, which showcases "500 of the world's most powerful and spiritual places."

I was a contributing author (and photographer) on this book. I haven't seen it yet -- but I contributed at least two photos and "entries" on a number of Jewish heritage sites in Europe. These range from the ornate synagogue in Casale Monferrato, Italy, to the ruined synagogue in Sataniv, Ukraine, to the spectacular Jewish cemeteries in Siret, Romania, to the haunting monument at the site of the Belzec Death Camp in Poland.

One section briefly highlights ten synagogues (both ruined and in use) in Europe's Jewish heartland.

(National Geographic, of course, last year published the new edition of Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe.)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Poland -- AFP Story on Jewish Heritage in Danger for Lack of Funds

Agence France Presse has run a story about how lack of funding is putting surviving Jewish heritage sites into more jeopardy than they already are. (I published a related story in the London Jewish Chronicle last month, click here to read.)

Jewish Heritage in Poland Jeopardized by Lack of Funds

WARSAW (AFP) — Too poor and too few, Poland's several thousand Jews lack the resources to preserve their heritage, still in jeopardy after the destruction wrought by the Nazis and decades of communism.

"It's urgent. If we don't react now, in 10 years, there will be even more ruins," laments Monika Krawczyk, head of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland (FODZ).

Read Full Story

Ukraine -- Jewish Tour Guide in L'viv

In my previous post I mentioned meeting a Jewish tour guide in L'viv.

Tatyana Kotova is the office manager of the local chapter of B'nai B'rith. Tatyana speaks English and can be reached at:

Phone/Fax: +380322986901

Mobile phone: +380662265301

Warsaw -- Exhibition Planned on Misused Jewish Tombstones

The Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland has posted an announcement that it will be working with the Ethnography Museum in Warsaw to put together a photographic exhibition on a fascinating, little-examined (and rather uncomfortable) topic -- the use of Jewish tombstones (mazzevot) after the Holocaust in improper, even deliberately desecratory (is that a word?) ways.

There are many examples of uprooted tombstones being used as paving stones for roads and sidewalks, as building materials, even as back yard benches... many many tombstones were "simply" smashed -- their fragments have been used to construct powerful Holocaust memorials in a number of locations.

Last week in L'viv, I met Tatyana Kotova, a young woman who is the office manager of the local B'nai B'rith office and introduced herself also as a Jewish tour guide. She took me on a short walk -- just a couple of blocks -- and pointed out paving stones believed to be mazzevot.

Ukraine -- Link to Historic Pictures from Zhovkva

Sam Gruber has posted several historic pictures of the synagogue in Zhovkva, which were provided to him by Sergey Kravtsov.

The pictures show the synagogue under destruction during WW2 and also interior shots, including the highly decorated ark.

By contrast, here is a picture of how the ark looks today, which I took in Zhovkva last week:

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

New Jewish Museum in Germany

Jewish Museum and community complex, Munich. July 2008. (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

According to the Swiss newspaper Thurgauer Zeitung, a new Jewish museum has been opened in the German town of Gailingen, on the border with Switzerland. The opening ceremony, which drew 250 people, took part amid commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the Kristallnacht pogrom in Germany. Before the Holocaust Gailingen was an important regional Jewish center, and it has a well preserved Jewish cemetery. Jews settled there in the 17th century and a Jewish mayor was elected in 1870.

There must be more than two dozen Jewish museums of various sorts in Germany -- there are several major institutions, such as in Berlin, Frankfurt, Fuerth and Munich, but most of them are much less elaborate local affairs, many of them sited in restored synagogues. Most were founded in the wake of the 1988 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht. (I have written about this in Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe.)

Sabine Offe, a Bremen University scholar who has written a comprehensive book on Jewish museums in Germany, spoke on the subject at the recent Jewish history and heritage conference in L'viv, but others have also written in depth on the issue. These include Bernhard Purin, currently the director of the Jewish Museum in Munich, which opened last year.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Rome -- New Kosher Wine Bar

There has been a boom in kosher dining in Rome in the past couple years, with new restaurants, snack bars and other venues sprouting up in the old Ghetto area and also in other parts of town.

Rome's Il Tempo newspaper reports now on a new kosher cafe and wine bar, with a wine list including some 200 kosher vintages.

It's called Kasher Bistrot Caffè, at via S. Maria del Pianto 68/69. Tel 06/6864398.
It is open Sunday to Thursday, from 7.30 a.m. til 11.00 p.m. On Friday, it closes at 4 p.m.. On Saturday, it opens in the evening, after Shabbat, until midnight.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Ukraine -- On Its Crumbling Jewish Heritage

The ruined synagogue in Brody, Ukraine, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The distinguished Brown University historian Omer Bartov will be giving a talk based on his book Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia on November 23 near Boston, as the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Boston's 2nd Annual Genealogy Lecture co-sponsored by Hebrew College. (For details see here.)

Bartov gave a similar talk at the major conference on Jewish history and heritage in East-Central Europe that was held in L'viv, Ukraine at the end of October, and for which I gave the key note speech.

For his talk in L'viv, he basically just showed a series of pictures of ruined synagogues that he had taken on his travels in western Ukraine, stressing the important message that unless they are restored, they will crumble -- and with them will vanish the memory of the Jews who once formed such an important parts of the towns in which these ruins now are found. (I have posted pictures of a number of these sites, either on this blog, or in the photos section of my web site: www.ruthellengruber.com, and have written about many of them in Jewish Heritage Travel.)

Omer's photos are compelling, but I hope that he includes in his upcoming talk some of the issues that were discussed at length during the L'viv conference.

These include many of the issues that I have been dealing with in the blog -- and which Sam Gruber has dealt with extensively, in his blog, on the International Survey of Jewish Monuments site, and in nearly 20 years of trying to raise awareness of the plight (and importance) of Jewish heritage sites (in Ukraine and elsewhere) and also -- importantly -- to raise money to help restore them and to instill the idea that they are important for local communities as well as for Jews.

Omer's book, Erased, which came out last year, touched me in particular ways.

As I emailed him at the time, some of his discussion about attitudes to Jewish heritage and memory reminded me of what we had heard and found elsewhere in east-central Europe back in 1990 -- as I was beginning research on the first edition of Jewish Heritage Travel.

A conference organized by Sam in 1990 on the future of Jewish heritage sites was really the first such conference of its type. Back then, the prevailing attitude, among Jews as well as non-Jews, toward preserving Jewish heritage was "why?" By now, in many places, much has changed, and in many minds, "why?" is being or has been largely replaced by "how?" Many of these issues were further elaborated in conferences on the future of Jewish heritage held in Paris in 1999 and in Prague in 2004.

I summarized some of them in my key note speech in L'viv:

Twenty, and even 15 years ago -- even much more recently in some countries, even simple information on Jewish heritage sites was hard to come by, little systematic documentation existed, and few publications addressed the subject.

Jewish heritage sites, like Jewish history and culture and even the Holocaust itself, were often considered "Jewish things" -- things apart that were not deemed important for mainstream society, and not embedded in the main sweep of national or local history. They could be ignored, destroyed, forgotten, concealed, left to crumble, and it didn't matter -- because, except for a few examples, in the absence of Jews they were deemed to have no value for society at large.
Jews themselves also often felt ambiguous about Jewish heritage sites and their fate, particularly after the Holocaust made Europe a closed chapter in many Jewish minds.

Since then, times have changed, and changed radically in some places, and they continue to do so -- as this conference itself attests.
By the end of the 1990s, Jewish heritage issues were, to one extent or another, on the agendas of national monuments authorities and local organizations, including tourist bureaus, in many European countries; extensive inventories of Jewish heritage sites had taken place or were under way in some countries; and questions about the place and role of Jewish heritage and heritage sites in a changing Europe had emerged as part of a broader debate on European culture, "multi-culture" and identity. For Jews, too, the question evolved -- from simply "why" care for Jewish heritage sites in these countries -- to "how" to do so, "what use" to make of them, and "by whom" and "for whom" should it be done.. . .

These last questions -- what use to make of sites, who should carry out the restoration and for whom should it be done -- are key to their preservation. (We had extensive talks in L'viv on how to "reimagine" Jewish L'viv, for example.)

In considering the future of Jewish quarters, and Jewish heritage sites in general, several more specific questions have emerged -- and I know that some of them will be addressed here in the coming days in much more detail.
Does the absorption of Jewish heritage into mainstream culture accurately portray the past? To what degree is commercial exploitation of Jewish history and heritage legitimate? Does the history of the Holocaust impose particular obligations on non-Jews to consider, learn and even care for Jewish culture?
Also: What role can cultural heritage sites and activities play in shaping modern Jewish communities? And -- what role do they play in shaping modern perceptions of what it is to be Jewish?

In my travels in Ukraine in 2006, researching the new edition of JHT, I really felt as if I had stepped back into those days nearly 20 years ago, in other countries.....who knows if and what may change in coming years; in 2006 I detected a few sprigs of movement, such as the efforts to locate and preserve Jewish cemeteries coordinated by Meylakh Shyekhat -- and the work of a young local historian in Luboml, who is obsessed with local (ie Jewish) history and worked on the big Luboml exhibition and book project in the 1990s. But these still need to be nurtured (and funded) -- and good will and local interest are essential ingredients.

Former synagogue in Sharhorod, Ukraine, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Plaque on synagogue in Sharhorod, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Placing plaques and signage -- as Sam Gruber noted in his recent blog post -- are important steps. For me, for example, the ruined synagogue in Stryj, with its recently installed gate with stars of David and its plaque, makes a powerful statement -- though the plaque could and should contain more information. (In contrast, see the former synagogue in Dolina, which was transformed out of recognition into a church and bears no indication of its former function.)

The recent conference in L'viv and the conversations that some of us held afterward with local officials also give rise to some hope. As does the operation of the new Center for Urban History that organized and hosted the conference. But who knows....