My exploration of Jewish tourism and Jewish kitsch usually centers on what I find in Europe, and in particular eastern and central Europe. In my book Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe and elsewhere I've written about the Jewish knickknacks and sometimes unsetting Jewish trinkets you can find in Krakow, Prague, Kiev and elsewhere -- mainly places where few Jews live and where the main market for such keepsakes and imagery is non-Jewish.
I've also written about "the ambiguities inherent in the popular visual representation of Jews in a world that straddles the Jewish and non-Jewish community and where stereotypes and shorthand often take the place of nuanced definitions. 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. "
This all sprang vividly to mind today, the day before the eve of Passover, when I went with my father and brother to shop for Seder supplies in a Jewish neighborhood in Los Angeles. We went to the "Glatt Market" and a kosher fish store; Eilat Market and a seedy Kosher butcher shop with a broken screen door and miserable looking meat.
The nice man in the fish store (long black beard, thick black-framed glasses, large black head-cover) ground up the carp, pike and whitefish on the spot, and while he was doing so I took a few minutes to explore the Judaica shop just down the street.
The shop was filled with an almost indescribable array of kitsch, much of which would be considered extreme even anti-semitic stereotype if found on sale elsewhere. I zeroed in on a couple of items. One, a ceramic salt and pepper shaker combo, one shaker a figure of a dancing Jewish man, the other his dancing wife, both dressed in shtetl attire. A number of other items including an elaborate Seder plate with figurines decorating bowls for the ritual items, were clearly made by the same hand (or, rather, manufacturer) -- in China.... the salt and pepper shakers cost $15, but -- just as I could not bring myself to buy cowboy boots made in China a couple years ago in Texas, I simply could not buy Judaica made in China.
Among the other items that caught my eye were wooden figurines of Jewish musicians obviously imported from Poland -- they were not only musicians, but they "shockled" or bobbed their heads and even legs. One small one was left, and two big ones. The proprietress of the store, a Persian-Israeli, said she had one client who routinely bought up all the small ones....
As the author of National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe, I have roamed thousands of miles around Europe's historic Jewish heartland, bringing Jewish heritage to light for on-site explorers and armchair travelers alike. On this blog I will post photographs, links and personal experiences related to Jewish heritage sites and travel, particularly in the countries of east-central Europe.
Aside from clearly marked quotations, links and pictures, all material on this blog is copyright ⓒ Ruth Ellen Gruber
I'm an American writer, photographer, and public speaker long based in Europe. I've chronicled Jewish cultural developments and other contemporary European Jewish issues for more than 20 years and currently coordinate the web site www.jewish-heritage-europe.eu. My latest books are "National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe," published in 2007, and "Letters from Europe (and Elsewhere)," published in 2008.
I also am working on "Sturm, Twang and Sauerkraut Cowboys: Imaginary Wild Wests in Contemporary Europe," an exploration of the American West in the European imagination for which I won a 2006 Guggenheim Fellowship and an NEH summer stipend grant. In 2015 I was the Distinguished Visiting Chair in Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston, SC.