Sunday, August 9, 2009

Walking Where They Walked -- Two Views

A woman's tomb in the Jewish cemetery of Radauti -- valuable art and culture that transcends specifically Jewish or family history.
Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

I am posting links here to two very different views of the experience of "walking where they walked" - i.e. visiting Jewish sites in East Central Europe.

One is by Matt Gross in Tablet Magazine, called "Grave Missteps." It is billed as a "critique" of what he calls heritage tourism -- but what, in his case, is sort of "Jewish genealogy lite." Gross misses the point about what heritage tourism in the broader sense is all about, reducing it to his own lukewarm, ambivalent search for his own family roots and making the preposterous statement that on-site travel has little value, at least where Jewish history and heritage is concerned.
[W]hen it comes to digging into the past, travel is not necessarily your best shovel. As Jews, we have a wealth of countries, languages, traditions, and histories to investigate, and one of us has likely written about a book about it already. No need to fly halfway around the world—to museums whose store of knowledge and exhibit design pale in comparison to the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum’s, to Holocaust sites devoid, for various reasons, of details and context, to the poorly marked graves of our ancestors.
Of course, he only seems to see Jewish history and heritage within the experience of his own family. He seems to fail to recognize Jewish heritage sites -- the synagogues, the gorgeously carved cemeteries, such as the one is Radauti, Romania, where I am carrying out my (Candlesticks) On Stone project, the old shtetls and ghetto areas -- as having any cultural, historical, architectural, artistic relevance to general European experience as a whole and thus merit visits on these accounts. Would he say the same about visiting sites like Stonehenge? Roman ruins? Angkor Wat? Hadrian's Wall? The ruins of medieval monasteries? We can read about them in books and online, too.

The other article, from Mondoweiss, is another take by Lizzy Ratner on visiting Poland, with the author (yay!!) realizing that Israel is not the be all and end all the core of of Jewish experience or identity. It's called "In the Beloved Old Country, a Jew Has Visions of Her Homeland."
I visited the synagogue in Tykocin where one of my great grandfathers might have prayed. And I roamed the overgrown cemeteries of Warsaw and Bialystok, wondering which of my relatives were buried there, marveling at the tangled breadth of what once was, mourning its loss, and puzzling over why, if we’re going to insist on having some kind of a “homeland,” so many Jews demand that it be Israel when it so clearly should be Poland. Poland, land of latkes and bialys. Poland shel zahav. This, of course, isn’t the reaction you’re “supposed” to have. In the popular Zionist narrative, the Old Country – and the unspeakably murderous brutality that Jews suffered there – is the (non-Biblical) justification for the state of Israel.

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