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....

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Ukraine -- Old Picture of Galich Karaite neighborhood and Kenessa

The other day I posted a slide show of the old Karaite cemetery in Galich (Halych) Ukraine... Here is a link to an old postcard (from 1910) showing the Karaite neighborhood and kenessa (house of worship) in Galich (in Polish spelled Halicz) that is posted on Tomek Wisniewski's bagnowka web site. The wooden kenessa, whose highly decorated interior is shown on the post card, no longer exists.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Ukraine -- Restoration Works on the Synagogue in Zhovkva

On Tuesday, before flying back to Italy from Ukraine, I spent part of the day in Zhovkva, about a 40 minute drive northwest of L'viv, where a massive fortress style synagogue, built in the 17th century, is under (slow) restoration as part of longterm efforts to develop the entire center of the town -- declared by authorites in 1994 as a historic preservation district. Mihajlo Kubai, who is in charge of the restoration and development plan, took me and two colleagues, including Sofia Dyak of the L'viv Center for Urban History, on a tour of the synagogue and other historical sites in Zhovkva and described the ambitious, 15-year restoration project.

Founded in 1594 by the Polish nobleman Stanislaw Zholkiewski, the town -- known as Zholkva in Yiddish and Zolkiew in Polish -- was laid out as an "ideal city" by the Italian-born architect Paulus Szczesliwy (AKA Pavlo Schastliviy). Jews settled here from the start, and Zhovkva became an important Jewish center -- before WW2, about half the population was Jewish, more than 5,000 people. (See a web site on the town and its monuments.)

The synagogue, one of the key buildings in town, dates from 1687. Its flat roofline has the crenellations and blind arcaded tracery typical of the style and period. The Germans tried to dynamite the building in 1941 but only partially succeeded in destroying it. The interior was gutted, but the outer walls survived. Inside there are also some traces of wall paintings and the decorative carving surrounding the Ark. Some restoration work was carried out in the 1950s and 1990s, but for the most part the grand building has remained empty and derelict. (Read a description by Boris Khaimovich, writing in the Jewish Heritage Report.)

Thanks in part to the efforts of Sam Gruber, the synagogue received a Jewish Heritage grant from the World Monuments Fund and was also placed on the WMF's Watch List of 100 most endangered sites. Work has been going on sporadically, and state funding has also arrived.

Currently, workers are rebuilding the crenelations and also restoring the facade on two sides of the building. Not much is going on inside, but Mr. Kubai said that once restoration is completed, there were still plans to use the synagogue as a museum of Galician Jewish history and culture.

Other sites we visited included the castle (where work was proceeding on restoration of the huge central courtyard), the main market square, which retains some of the arcaded buildings that once surrounded it, and the huge, early 17th century Roman Catholic church of St. Lawrence, used in Soviet times as a warehouse but restored beautifully by international experts after Ukraine gained independence in the early 1990s. It includes the tombs of Stanislaw Zholkiewski and other members of his family.

I was pleased to find that there is a tourist office for the town (near the castle) with material in English and an English-speaking staffer.

Krakow versus L'viv, Sam's view

Sam Gruber has posted a thoughtful piece on his Jewish arts and monuments blog about ways in which Jewish heritage can be reclaimed in L'viv, and he made some comparisons with Krakow's old Jewish quarter, Kazimierz. His post, with pragmatic suggestions, is based on the more detailed paper he delivered at the Jewish heritage and history conference that we both attended in L'viv last week.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Ukraine -- More of On the Road

I wrote the other day about my visit to Bolekhiv and Stryj with Sergei Kravstov and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett.

After leaving Bolekhiv, we stopped briefly at a couple of other places en route back to L'viv.

At the village of Dolina, we looked at the synagogue, which was transformed in the 1990s into a Baptist church. The red brick walls have been covered by a layer of grey stucco, and a little front extension with two pointed towers has been added.

(Dolina former synagogue. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber, 2008)

Behind the synagogue, on the steep slope above a little stream, is the site of the WW2 mass execution and mass grave of local Jews.

From Dolina, we bumped along the country roads to Galich (or Halych, as it is pronounced in Ukrainian, where we visited what looks like a "normal" Jewish cemetery (Hebrew epitaphs and similar decorative carving) but is actually the cemetery of the Karaite community. An ethnic Turkish people, Karaites follow a breakaway Jewish sect that originated in 8th century Iraq. They recognize the Torah and celebrate major Jewish holidays but have modified other Jewish traditions, reject the Talmud and rabbinical Judaism, and do not consider themselves to be Jewish.

Perched high above the Dniester River, Galich was the medieval capital of the province and kingdom of Galicia -- it's the town from which the region gets its name.

Unfortunately we didn't have time to visit the historic sites in the town (though we did catch a glimpse of the castle, from the cemetery). We had to get back to L'viv for a meeting -- our driver, Sergei, absolutely flew back, speeding down the country roads in his Chevy (which lacked a back bumper). I'm glad I wasn't sitting in the front seat.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Spain -- Construction on Site of Ancient Toledo Jewish Cemetery

Sam Gruber reports in his blog that controversy is brewing over excavation for new construction on the site recognized as the medieval Jewish cemetery in Toledo, Spain. There is already a school on the site, built in the 80’s that destroyed a great part of the cemetery. The new excavation is for expansion of the school. He suggests that "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. "

Read the Full Story

Monday, November 3, 2008

Ukraine -- Ber of Bolechow's Tomb (and more)

This weekend, I spent a day traveling south of L'viv with Sergei Kravstov, of the Center for Jewish Art, and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the NYU anthropologist who now heads the project of the new Museum of Jewish History, now under development in Poland.

I organized the trip (meaning, getting a taxi) -- my goal was to go to Bolekhiv (Bolechow) in order to revisit the old Jewish cemetery there to find the tomb of Dov Ber Birkenthal, AKA Ber of Bolechow.

Born in 1723, Ber was a wine merchant and Jewish community leader. He spent much of his adult life traveling to and fro between Galicia and northern Hungary, on frequent wine-purchasing missions to the Tokaj region. Several years before his death in 1805, he wrote a fascinating memoir that provides particularly illuminating insights into conditions for Jews -- and non-Jews -- of the period in Polish Galicia and Hungary. He described everything from driving hard bargains to obtain the best quality wine for the lowest prices to experiencing the perils of the road -- complicated currency exchanges and customs duties, drunken wagon drivers, icy, unfordable rivers, double-dealing business partners, flea-ridden inns, occasional attacks by roving bandits, and more. Ber met the great Hungarian Hasidic Master Isaac Taub when the future Tzaddik of Nagykallo (or Kallo) was little more than a boy. He became particularly friendly with the Jews in the wine-producing village Tarcal, near Tokaj and Mad, and in 1765 brought them a magnificent set of gold and silver ritual objects, which he had ordered specially made by craftsmen in L'viv.

When I visited Bolekhiv in 2006, I found a tombstone of someone named Dov Ber, decorated with the carving of a bear and bunches of grapes -- but it turned out that it was not that of Ber of Bolechow.

This time I was determined to find the real tomb. Sergei Kravstov, who is one of the leading experts on Jewish heritage sites in Ukraine, had seen the tomb before and thought he could find it again amid the hundreds of other stones.

The cemetery, we found, is now being fenced with a concrete wall -- a cemetery group based in Budapest, which does a lot of such work, is carrying this out.

We made our way through the tombstones. Most are large and ornately carved, with images of animals, grapes, and floral designs, and elaborate caligraphy -- either in incised or raised letters . The oldest are believed to date from the 17th century.

After what seemed like an hour, we had not found the tomb... Sergei, a little sheepishly, took out his cellphone and called colleagues in Israel, who told him where and what to look for -- a tomb whose decoration at the top of the stone showed a big seated bear holding a crown in his paws, with grape motifs at the sides. We found it easily -- we had already passed it by several times.

The epitaph was a little hard to decipher, and the lines of text ran down into the earth, where the tomb had sunk.

We found Ber's name toward the bottom of the text that was visible -- Sergei said it was written in a Yiddish, not a Hebrew, spelling.

En route to Bolekhiv, we stopped in Stryj to check on the condition of the ruined synagogue there.

It appeared the way I had seen it 2 years ago; it's a devastated shell, but the entry is closed with the gate and a plaque denotes it as a former synagogue. I had thought it was a fortress style synagogue, but Sergei had a photo of an old postcard of the synagogue that showed it after a renovated in the late 19th century, with a peaked roof and sort of Byzantine decoration.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Barcelona: Zakhor Jewish Heritage Organization web site

Here's the web site for Zakhor, a new study center in Barcelona "for the protection and transmission of Jewish heritage."

Ukraine -- L'viv Conference and Travel

I haven't posted anything for a week, as I have been in L'viv, Ukraine, where I took part in the Oct. 29-31 International Conference on Jewish Heritage and History in East-Central Europe, organized by the recently established L'viv Center for Urban History of East Central Europe. The Center, established by a Swiss-Austrian historian, Harald Binder, aims to be not only a center for research and projects, but also a facilitator, providing a "neutral space" where the sometimes conflictual elements of L'viv's political and cultural society and policy-makers can come together for discussions. The conference coincided with the opening of an exhibition on L'viv's multi-ethnic history, "Wo Ist Lemberg/L'viv A World A Way."

I gave the keynote presentation for the conference -- "Touching and Retouching: Balancing Real, Surreal and Real Imaginary Jewish Spaces," a paper that drew from my previous work and tried to provide some context for the various topics that were being addressed in detail by speakers.

The meeting gathered prominent scholars and other experts from Western Europe, Israel, and the U.S., as well as from Ukraine (among participants was my brother, Samuel Gruber, who I am sure will post some of his reflections on the meeting on his blog).

This was believed to have been the first conference of this nature held in L'viv -- the presentations were pertinent and interesting, and the discussion was very lively and intense. In addition, several of us met after the conference with various officials and others, including the L'viv deputy mayor and the director of the History of Religions Museum. Hot-button topics included the promotion of Jewish heritage and the future of L'viv's derelict former Jewish quarter off the main square, including the ruins of the famous Golden Rose synagogue, and plans for a new Judaica exhibit space in the Jewish quarter.

Questions that were raised echoed those raised in other countries years ago; models for development, the legitimacy of commercial and tourist exploitation of Jewish heritage; the danger of promoting stereotype, etc. Lots was said about the goods and ills of Krakow's Kazimierz district... along these lines, a new "Jewish style" cafe that opened a weeks or so next to the ruins of the Golden Rose stole the show, or part of the show.... We all (or, at least some of us) trooped over to take a me, the interior decor is not bad at all -- rather subdued, with no kitschy carved Jews clutching money, as in Kiev's Tsimmes restaurant or the Ariel in Krakow (and Anatewka in Lodz). There are reproductions of historic photos and motifs based on Bruno Schulz's work.

BUT (and it's a big BUT) -- the cafe displays a collection of black hats complete with long, fake sidelocks (which patrons are encouraged to try on and clown around in). The barman wears a yarmulke -- and patrons are supposed to "haggle" over prices. No prices are listed in the menus -- the waitress is supposed to tell you a price and you have to bargain her down to the actual price the management has (secretly) set..... It's sort of Jewish self irony, without the Jews, or the self or the irony..... The same owner apparently runs several other (debatable) "theme" restaurants in town.

It may take some time to sort my thoughts, so I will try to write some posts on specific issues that came up.

After the conference, I was able to spend a day traveling to four Jewish heritage sites, and I am posting separately on this trip.

Jewish Hungary brochure -- online

A Jewish guide to Hungary called "Shalom Hungary" came out in the 1990s as a magazine-like brochure, published by the national tourism agency.

A updated edition of Shalom Hungary is available online. You can easily download the pdf. The brochure is illustrated and also has a list of addresses of Jewish community offices around the country.