Sunday, November 2, 2008

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.

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