Saturday, April 24, 2010

Budapest -- Book launch a big success!

There was an overflow crowd at the Budapest International Book Festival for the official launch of Zsidó emlékhelyek Közép- és Kelet-Európában -- the Hungarian edition of "Jewish Heritage Travel." It was really great to see so many people -- and I was gratified that most of them were people I didn't know!

We had some technical problems setting up the projector, which delayed the start of the event -- my photo-illustrated talk about Jewish heritage sites around the region. And also, the book's editor at Geographia press, who was supposed to moderate the event, wasn't there -- he got stuck in New York because of the volcanic ash cloud.....

Still, it went off well, and the audience I'm sure would have stayed much longer than the allotted hour.... 

I'm told that even though the book is not yet in most stores, there is a lot of buzz about it, and the publishers are thinking about having a few more events, which would run longer and enable more discussion with the audience.

This interest was certainly demonstrated today -- the book is a handsome, hardback edition and costs the equivalent of $20 a copy -- there were lots of sales during my book signing: one man bought four copies! And I'm told there will be articles and reviews in the press here.

I want to thank all involved for taking on the project and bringing out this edition!

Me with the book's translator, Laszlo Benke, after the signing

Friday, April 23, 2010

Hungary -- Book launch today

Today is the book launch for the Hungarian language edition of Jewish Heritage Travel at the Budapest International Book Festival..... I'm interested in seeing who turns up for my presentation.

Yesterday I attended the opening -- hundreds filled the venue's main theater to hear a "conversation" with Amos Oz, and then see Oz receive the festival's Grand Prize from Budapest Mayor Gabor Demszky.

Israel is the "country of honor" for the festival -- somehow my book (which doesn't touch Israel) is on the program as part of that!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Jewish Quarterly -- Virtual Judaism, festivals and all

Even though I've never used the term "virtual Judaism," that's what the Jewish Quarterly in London titled my article that ran in December.  It deals with festivals and other cultural developments, mainly in Poland. Read the full article at the web site by clicking HERE (you have to register, but registration is free).

Virtual Judaism

December 21, 2009b
by Ruth Ellen Gruber
Representation is a moving target. Jewish culture is undergoing such changes that to pin it down to one representation is an illusion.
       Prof. Jonathan Webber, 1999

I’m a Jewish vegetarian atheist.
      Jonathan Ornstein, director, Jewish Community Center, Krakow, Poland, 2009

In the mid-1990s I began exploring a phenomenon that I described as ‘filling the Jewish space’ in Europe. Along with the efforts to revive Jewish communal life and reclaim and reassert Jewish identity in post-Holocaust, post-communist countries, I observed what I called a ‘Virtual Jewishness,’ or a ‘Virtual Jewish World,’ peopled by ‘Virtual Jews’ who create, perform, enact or engage with Jewish culture from an outsider perspective, often in the absence of local Jewish populations.

I wrote about non-Jewish klezmer bands, and Jewish museums and Jewish culture festivals organized by non-Jews for a primarily non-Jewish public. And I also described university Jewish studies programmes whose students were mostly Gentile, as well as the commercial exploitation of Jewish heritage, including the promotion of Jewish-themed tourism to synagogues, Jewish cemeteries and other sites of Jewish heritage where few if any Jews live today.
Although I discussed the ‘virtually Jewish’ phenomenon in a general European context, some of the most visible (and to some observers most troubling) manifestations were — and still are — observed in Poland, the historic heartland of Jewish life in Europe, where, as the scholar Jonathan Webber once noted, ‘the remarkable characteristic of anything to do with Jews…is its intensity.’ 
A project undertaken by the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) provided a vivid statistical illustration of this. Between May 2000 and April 2001, it attempted to ‘map’ Jewish cultural activities in four European countries with small Jewish communities. The countries chosen — Poland, Sweden, Italy and Belgium — have a total Jewish population of well under 100,000 and had very different Jewish histories both before World War II and during and after the Shoah. 
‘The results are simply astonishing, and as yet we have no idea what to make of them,’ Webber, who was an academic consultant on the project, reported in July 2001 at a conference in Budapest on Jewish identities in the post-communist era. ‘There is clearly no correlation between the considerable size of this cultural production and the percentage of Jews in a given total population of a particular country.’ It is almost, he added, as if ‘once one starts to have public Jewish culture, it simply continues to generate further events.’
Indeed, out of the four countries surveyed, Poland, with its tiny Jewish population (depending on how one defines ‘Jew,’ estimates vary from 3,000 to 20,000 or more in a total population of about 40 million), was by far the Jewish cultural champion, with 196 individual events and fully seven Jewish cultural festivals, including the annual Festival of Jewish culture in Krakow — the ‘largest and most important event’ recorded in the JPR survey.
The Festival — founded in 1988 by two young, non-Jewish intellectuals for a primarily non-Jewish public — takes place in Kazimierz, the historic Jewish quarter of Krakow, and nowhere, perhaps, has become more symbolic of the ‘virtually Jewish’ trends and the questions they raise than here.Centered on the most extensive surviving complex of Jewish built heritage in east-central Europe — synagogues, cemeteries, homes, marketplaces and other buildings and monuments, Kazimierz since the early 1990s has grown, and, indeed, been molded, into one of the major centers of Jewish tourism in Europe.
The post-communist development has seen the restoration of several synagogues and has brought new life and new business to what had long languished as the archetypical ‘Jewish ghost town.’ Even 15 years ago, much of Jewish Kazimierz was a derelict slum. At the same time this development has made the district one of the most prominent symbols of what has been called the marketing or ‘commodification’ of Jewish culture. The new Jewish-style cafes, boutiques, souvenir kitsch and constantly roving tour groups create an environment that has caused (and still causes) a deep sense of unease among some visitors, particularly as Krakow is only an hour’s drive from Auschwitz and often serves as a focal point for visits to the notorious death camp. 
Writing about Kazimierz in 2006, for example, in a review of Jan T. Gross’s 2006 book Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz, the American journalist Ruth Franklin scorned what she termed the ‘much ballyhooed renaissance of Jewish culture in Poland, complete with sold-out klezmer festivals and a popular brand of spirits called “Kosher Vodka.” She wrote: ‘Half a dozen Jewish-themed hotels welcome visitors to Kazimierz, with names like “Alef” and “Ester” and “Klezmer Hois”; the “Eden” sports mezuzahs on every door and advertises ‘the only mikveh bath in Poland,’ as if it were a Jacuzzi.’ She goes on, ‘This grim carnival of Holocaust tourism and Western capital is neither a sign nor a symptom of a greater change in Polish society. It is evidence only of the Polish national schizophrenia on the subject of Jews. It is lovely to restore old buildings and to cherish a culture that has perished. But the celebration of the Jews of Poland cannot substitute for a genuine confrontation with the manner of their disappearance: when, where and by whom. There is no indication that the consumers of ‘Kosher Vodka’ are interested in engaging in such a reckoning any time soon.’  
While it is hard to disagree with Franklin’s assertions, there is a bigger picture which she ignores. Poland does, indeed, have a certain schizophrenia towards its Jewish past but this schizophrenia has been demonstrated in loud and even lacerating public nationwide debates which is infinitely better, and ultimately more healthy, thatn the absolute denial and silence that existed until the 1980s. 
‘When I began working in Poland in 1990, it was almost completely taboo to tell your friends that you are Jewish,’ Poland’s American-born chief rabbi Michael Schudrich told me recently. ‘Today, it is just a normal thing to say to almost anybody here in Poland. What was taboo only 20 years ago, is today a curiosity or interesting or [indicates] respect — and for some [it is] of no consequence at all.’
Likewise, in July 2006, Michael Steinlauf, an American academic expert on Yiddish culture and Polish-Jewish relations and the author of the book Bondage to the Dead: Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust (1997), told me that to him, during the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, the Kazimierz district’s main square, Szeroka street, formed a symbolic ‘headquarters of the Diaspora’ thanks to the numerous cultural events and the many international Jewish artists, performers and fans who attended. I was speaking to him after he had enjoyed Friday night dinner with friends and family at one of the Szeroka street restaurants — a newly opened ‘mainstream’ restaurant, not one of the Jewish-style cafes. ‘We had a table for 11 and lit the candles,’ he told me. ‘The couple from the next table came over saying “Shalom Aleichem”. I’ve never done this anywhere else. It’s never been as easy to be a Jew than on Szeroka street the night before [the Festival’s outdoor final concert there].’
Krakow is home to several institutions promoting education on Jewish subjects. These include the Jewish studies centre at Jagiellonian University, founded in 1986, as well as the Jewish Culture Centre, established in 1993, as well as the Galicia Jewish Museum, founded by the late British photographer Chris Schwarz in 2004. The Jewish Culture Festival recently opened its own permanent culture and education centre called Cheder.
These institutions, which offer varied programs of lectures, classes, concerts and workshops, are generally run by non-Jews to serve the general public, including tourists. But all benefit from the input of Jewish scholars and Jewish religious and cultural figures.
The number of Jews in Krakow remains tiny — somewhere between 200 and 400 depending on whom you talk to. But the Jewish community has raised its own profile in recent years, in part thanks to the formation of a Jewish youth group, Czulent, in 2004 and also to the opening in 2008 of a modern Jewish Community Centre. (Mainly funded by World Jewish Relief and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the JCC project had a somewhat high profile from the outset. It came about, remarkably, at the urging of Prince Charles, who had visited Krakow in 2002 and was moved by the plight of the poor and aging Jews of the city. Charles himself returned to Krakow last year for its inauguration; wearing a kippah he helped affix a mezuzah to the door.)
The JCC director, Jonathan Ornstein, is a 39-year-old New Yorker who made aliyah and then moved to Krakow about seven years ago to teach Hebrew at the Jagiellonian University. Ornstein contradicts the stereotype of the traditional Jew as portrayed in the old paintings and photographs that fill books, decorate the local Jewish-style cafes or are caricatured in the wooden figurines for sale in souvenir shops and craft markets. Knowledgeable but iconoclastic, and an avowed ‘Jewish vegetarian atheist,’ he took part in an ‘atheist pride’ march in Krakow this year, carrying a sign reading ‘Thank God I’m an atheist.’ Not only that, he created a Facebook group called ‘I want the Beastie Boys to play the XX Jewish Cultural Festival in Krakow.’
Recently, I noted to Ornstein that that is increasingly little direct memory anymore in Poland of a time when the country was home to Europe’s largest Jewish population. For the student-age crowd that attends Jewish Culture Festival events or hangs out in the music pubs that have made Kazimierz the scene of trendy night life, what goes on today is what ‘Jewish’ means. Few of them can even remember a time before the Festival existed or before the district was a Jewish tourist attraction, with all the attendant commercialization.
He agreed. Kazimierz, Ornstein said, was to his mind not the ‘former’ but the ‘present’ Jewish quarter of Krakow.
‘Nobody alive today has a good memory of Kazimierz when it was better than it is now,’ he said. ‘There was the war, and then after the war it was derelict for decades. Now, it’s the hippest place in the city. The whole ‘former’ thing is based on history, not living memory.’
The success of the Festival of Jewish Culture in Krakow helped spark other Jewish festivals of various types around the country. In 2000, the JPR Mapping project identified seven of them. Today, the number is much greater: in 2009, I counted more than 20, including at least two Jewish film festivals.
Some were one-day affairs, others spanned a weekend or longer. Some took place in towns with small Jewish communities, such as Wroclaw, Poznan and Gdansk. Others took place where no Jews live today. These included the sixth edition of a festival dedicated to the Yiddish author Shalom Asch, scheduled for early December in the central town of Kutno, the third edition of an annual Jewish culture festival in the village of Checiny, a Jewish theatre festival in Ostrowiec Swietokrzyski, the annual Jewish culture festival in Chmielnik, a Jewish culture festival in Bialystok, another in Szczekonciny, another in Przysucha, and so on. Festivals celebrating a diversity of cultures and religions, including Judaism, took place in Lodz, Wlodowa and Szczebrzeszyn.
‘I often joke that now the mayor of every small town feels obliged to make excuses [if] he/she has no Jewish Festival in his/her town,’ Anna Dodziuk, a psychotherapist who is also a Jewish activist and editor, told me. ‘To put it short: it is politically correct now to explore the Jewish history of the local communities, to commemorate Jews of a shtetl who perished in Holocaust, to celebrate somehow Jewish culture. So more and more Jews start to feel secure enough to be openly Jewish (or to be visible).’
In fact, some of the festivals had religious observance at their heart. One of these was a Shabbaton weekend held in October in Kielce. Most of Kielce’s 25,000 pre-war Jewish were killed in Treblinka, but the town is far better known for what happened after the war; it is infamous for the July 1946 pogrom that killed 42 Jews, an attack that formed the basis of Jan T. Gross’s book Fear.
The event brought prayers to the synagogue for the first time since the Holocaust — the building has been used as an archive for nearly 60 years. It also included lectures, workshops, exhibitions, concerts and film screenings. It was the latest in a series of Shabbaton programs in long-disused synagogues in Poland organized by Michael Traison, an observant Jewish America lawyer who has an office in Warsaw and has spent much of his time in Poland over the past 15 years.
Jews and Catholics took part in the event. ‘For the first time in my life I could celebrate the beginning of the Shabbat,’ a Catholic man wrote on the Shabbaton web site. ‘I could feel myself what I already knew theoretically, namely — what the Shabbat means for Jews who treat their faith seriously. Boi kala is also a challenge or a question on how I, a Christian man, treat my “shabbat” — Sunday. Thanks to Jews’ testimony of how they treat their holy day, I treat my one more seriously.’
The biggest Jewish Culture Festival outside Krakow was the sixth edition of the annual ‘Singer’s Warsaw’ festival in the Polish capital at the beginning of September. Singer’s Warsaw is sponsored by the secular Jewish Shalom organization. Shalom was founded in 1988 and is headed by the Yiddish singer Golda Tencer, now in her 60s, who for years was the star of Warsaw’s State Yiddish Theatre — her husband, Szymon Szurmiej, has been head of the Theatre since 1969.
The Shalom Foundation has sponsored events such as highschool essay competitions on Jewish topics, concerts, art exhibits, Jewish film festivals, a Jewish song competition, and the like. Outside of Poland, however, it is best known for the remarkable 1996 exhibition and book And I Still See Their Faces.This was a collection of more than 450 photographs of Polish Jews, ranging from formal studio portraits to faded snapshots of everyday life. They were culled from photographs sent in — mainly by non-Jewish Poles — from all over Poland. The number of photos sent in, about 8,000, more or less equals the number of self-identifying Jews living in Poland today.
The exhibit showed the broadest cross-section possible of Jews in pre-war Poland, orthodox and secular; assimilated and traditional. As such it turned somatic and other stereotypes (including that of Jews as victims) on their head. In the pictures, wrote Tencer in an introduction to the book, ‘the light falls on faces still free of terror and fear. We can see on them quiet reflection, the joy of family life, a smile that manifests belief in a friendly world.’
Paradoxically, much of this sensitivity is trumped by theatricality in the way that the Singer Festival is mounted.
The Festival’s stated aim, according to its web- site is ‘to reconstruct the prewar atmosphere here in order to present the annihilated world of the Polish Jews.’ Unlike in Krakow, where the entire Kazimierz district remains largest intact, almost all of downtown Warsaw, including the Jewish quarter and wartime Ghetto, was destroyed during the Second World War. The Singer festival takes place in and around one-block-long Prozna street, one of the only streets in Warsaw’s historic downtown Jewish district to have survived.
During the festival, the dilapidated street is turned into a sort of stage, with old photographs of Polish Jews affixed to windows or hung from wires attached to the buildings. I admit that I haven’t attended the Singer Festival, but — from afar — the costumed, Renaissance Faire-style ‘performing the Jew’ that is described on the festival’s web site (and shown in posted pictures) makes me rather more uneasy than do many of the other manifestations of public Jewish culture:
Along Próžna Street we create Jewish cafés, quaint shops and workshops. We construct an old bookstore and a newspaper office in which [Isaac Bashevis] Singer worked in New York before the war. Each year we make a wine bar and a bakery. Everyone can come inside, and have a look at collected odds and ends in use at the beginning of the twentieth-century. There are lots of souvenirs to be bought from street vendors and many home-made tidbits to be tasted. Many characteristic figures appear in the streets during the festival: Hasidics, merchants, painters, shoemakers, tailors, printers, blacksmiths, barrel organ players, entertainers, florists. All of them contributed to making Warsaw uniquely colorful. During the festival, just as in the past, one can hear klezmer music, chants from synagogues, as well as well-known traditional Jewish songs, in the heart of the Polish capital. The past reality is revived by many exhibitions and plays, artists’ installations, scientific sessions, and meetings with writers and Jewish artists. Yiddish culture returns through prewar films, song and dance workshops, paper cutting, ceramics as well as Hebrew calligraphy, lectures and discussion groups.

My use of the term ‘Virtual’ deliberately played on the cyberspace concept of virtual worlds and virtual communities exiting on the Internet. Even back then, these included many, many Jewish websites.
‘People can enter, move around and engage in cyberspace virtual worlds without physically leaving their desks or quitting their “real world” identities,’ I wrote in my 2002 book Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe:

Online, however, they can assume other identities, play other roles and be, or act as if they are, whoever they want. Like virtual worlds on the Internet, the various aspects of ‘Virtual Jewry’ are linked together and overlapping. One can approach them either passively, as a mere consumer, or ‘interactively,’ in a participatory manner, through, for example, performance and interpretation. They may be enriched by input from contemporary Jewish communal, intellectual, institutional, or religious sources, or they may be self-contained within totally non-Jewish contexts.

Virtually Jewish came out several years before the advent of social networking sites such as Facebook, and also well before what has been called a ‘Virtual Diaspora’ took root in the online world known as Second Life, where a ‘virtual synagogue’, Temple Beth Israel, was established there in 2006.
One year later, reported 2Life Magazine, Second Life’s Jewish community was ‘more diverse in age, religious affiliation and […] geographical origin than any community could be in the real world, and it also includes many religious seekers who use Second Life as a tool to explore their own roots, many of them with little to no Jewish educational background.’
Second Life Judaism, it said, was ‘a unique intercultural dialogue within various streams of Judaism, within various Diasporas and Israel, within various age groups and with Jews and non-Jews. Judaism in Second Life is a mélange of different identities, in which age, origin, gender, and even religious affiliation are unimportant. It is an experiment with an uncertain outcome, but with obvious potential for new and creative ways to explore culture, heritage and identity.’
The ‘virtual diaspora’ in Second Life is symptomatic of an even broader Jewish presence in cyberspace which has grown exponentially in the past decade and which now includes many websites, blogs and Facebook groups that originate in Poland — among Jews and ‘virtual Jews’ alike.
Among the most impressive and inclusive of these is the so-called ‘Virtual Shtetl,’ a web portal set up by the huge new Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which is under construction in Warsaw. Its aim is to be both an information portal as well as a sort of Jewish social networking site.
‘The “Virtual Shtetl” is a museum without barriers, a consequent extension of the real Museum,’ the website says. ‘Its main objective is to provide a unique social forum for everyone interested in Polish-Jewish life.’
The website includes constantly expanding databases of historic and contemporary photographs and archival information about specific towns all around Poland, as well as blog-like, frequently updated news items and announcements of Jewish interest related to Poland. In October alone there were more than 60 items posted.
‘Currently, our portal is a source of information but, in the future, it will also include an interactive system by which Internet users will interact with each other,’ the site says, in phrases that echo my own description of interaction in the flesh and blood ‘virtual Jewish world.’
The Virtual Shtetl, it says, ‘will create a link between Polish-Jewish history and the contemporary, multi-cultural world.’
These ‘virtual’ links will enhance links that already exist, creating a sort of clearing house for many activities that already take place. Indeed, the past decade already the Krakow Jewish Festival has included a ceremony at which the Israeli ambassador honors non-Jewish Poles who preserve, conserve and promote Jewish culture and memory.
It is all part of a process of ‘normalisation’ Dodziuk said. ‘I’m sure it has its influence on a Jewish perception of the situation in Poland.’ For local populations in many places, she said, ‘These pre-war Jewish inhabitants have become “our people,” part of our local tradition.’ Earlier this year, she added, on a trip with an Israel friend through eastern and southeastern Poland, she met many people in small towns who now considered the Jewish history of these one-times shtetls part and parcel of their own local past and personal memories.
‘It is,’ she said, ‘obviously much more and much deeper than political correctness.’

Poland -- paying tribute

 Belzec. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

In the aftermath of Saturday's plane disaster that claimed the life of Poland's President and dozens of other senior political, military and intellectual figures, most attention -- naturally -- has been paid to the death of President Lech Kaczynski.

As many of the tributes to him point out, Kaczynski devoted much time and pro-active interest in promoting Jewish causes. He was the honorary patron of the annual Festival of Jewish Culture in Krakow and was a key figure in the decision to found the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, currently under construction in Warsaw: it was during Kaczynski's term as mayor of Warsaw that the city donated the land for the museum.

Others on the doomed plane, however, took an active role in fostering Jewish-Polish relations and, in particular, caring for Jewish heritage and Holocaust memorial sites. Many in the Jewish world lost close personal friends....

Tomasz Merta, Secretary of State in the Ministry of Culture and National Heirtage as well as the General Inspector of Monuments, is described by the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum and  "a man of exceptional insight, understanding and personal sacrifice for the cause of historical memory and the education of new generations."

In an article for JTA, David Harris of the American Jewish Committee pays tribute in particular to the diplomat Mariusz Handzlik and Andrzej Przewoźnik, the  secretary-general of the Council for the Protection of Struggle and Martyrdom Sites.
Mariusz and I shared a deep admiration for Jan Karski, the Polish wartime hero who later joined the faculty of Georgetown University. While serving in the United States, Mariusz befriended Karski, becoming his regular chess partner. They were playing chess when Karski suddenly felt ill and died shortly afterward. Together, Mariusz and I cried for this man who, at repeated risk to his own life, had tried to alert a largely deaf world to the Nazi’s Final Solution
And when Mariusz was assigned to the Polish Mission to the United Nations, he proudly told me that now he would be in a position, together with his colleagues, to help Israel in the world body. He wanted the Israelis to know they had friends at the United Nations, which largely was seen as hostile territory for Israel.
Andrzej Przewoźnik was secretary-general of the Council for the Protection of Struggle and Martyrdom Sites.
I first met him when the Polish government and the American Jewish Committee joined together to demarcate, protect, and memorialize the site of the Nazi death camp in Belzec, located in southeastern Poland. In less than a year, more than 500,000 Jews were killed in an area barely the size of a few football fields. Only two Jews survived.
In June 2004, after years of planning and construction, the site was inaugurated. As the late Miles Lerman said at that solemn ceremony, “No place of martyrdom anywhere is today as well protected and memorialized as Belzec.” That could not have occurred without Andrzej’s pivotal role. He helped make it happen, overcoming the multiple hurdles along the way. By doing so, he ensured that what took place at Belzec, long neglected by the Communists, would never be forgotten.
 Belzec, indeed, is one of the most powerful memorials to the Shoah: the entire area of the camp has been turned into a sculpture... and there is also an excellent museum.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Friday, April 9, 2010

Warsaw -- Festival of New Jewish Music

A reminder that the Festival of New Jewish Music in Warsaw starts today and runs til April 12. Information and program HERE.

For other Jewish music and culture festivals throughout the coming months, see the link in the sidebar of this blog!

Sarajevo -- travel article in Jewish Week

Old Synagogue, Sarajevo. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Jewish Week runs a travel piece by Hillary Larson on Sarajevo,  describing the Bosnian capital as "safe, restored and beautiful." Afterall, the Bosnian war ended 15 years ago....and even when I last visited, five or six years ago, it had regained much of the lively vitality of its pre-war days.

Larson writes:
Now is the time to visit Sarajevo, which has developed a welcoming tourism infrastructure but has yet to be blanketed with Western chains. Bosnia and Herzegovina is still inexpensive by European standards: You can eat well in a restaurant for under $10, enjoy a wide range of hotels for less than $100 per night and take buses all over the country for the cost of a New York taxi ride.
 Larson briefly describes Sarajevo's several important Jewish sites, such as the Old Synagogue (now a Jewish museum), the New Synagogue (a gallery), the Ashkenazic synagogue, and the Old Jewish Cemetery. (But fails to mention the Sarajevo Haggadah, the 14th century manuscript, preserved in the National Museum, that was brought to the Balkans from Spain and is the enduring symbol of Jewish presence in the region.)

 Sarajevo Ashkenazic synagogue. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber
See the much fuller report that I posted here last year, which also links to a wonderfully colorful description of Sarajevo by Bob Cohen.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

List of Jewish festivals is growing

Just a reminder for readers to check the list in the sidebar -- of Jewish culture/arts/music/film, etc festivals coming up in Europe this spring/summer/fall.

So far, I have put nearly 30 festivals on the list.... with more, I'm sure, to come.

Click HERE to see the full list.

Poland -- Long, interesting article on the presence of the Holocaust in Polish art

A long and detailed article.

See full article HERE

 By Katarzyna Bojarska

Polish artists - those born before the war, those who survived the Shoah and its witnesses alike - produced several works pointing to both the presence of war trauma and the impossibility to represent it by means of traditional imagery. Nevertheless, art did not dissolve into silence, nor did culture disappear by the mid 20th century. Attempts at the artistic representation of reality and at overcoming both the lack of Holocaust iconography and the decline of mimetic representation have not vanished. What Eleonora Jedlińska2
and many other authors call "the end of man" was taken up by many artists and in many ways, although - let us put it directly - it has not at all been the only subject of postwar art. It is not easy to give priority to one manner of depicting this historical phenomenon, and it seems obvious that particular generations of viewers and artists favoured different tendencies. The tone which seemed to be dominant for quite a long time was serious meditation connected with lamentation and the limiting of means of visual expression, on the one hand, and screaming associated with the imperative to testify, on the other. War experience gave birth to a conflict between the desire to tell the truth, to testify, and the awareness of the unsuitability of traditional visual conventions as well as of the insufficiency of the hitherto existing language of art.

"Cień człowieka / A Shadow of a man"
"Uwięziony / Imprisoned"
Zbigniew Dłubak, series "Wojna / War"
courtesy of the Museum of Art in Łódź, photo: Piotr Tomczyk

After the war it seemed that on the terrifying phenomenon of dehumanised mass death, one could either scream or cease to speak.

Read full article

Saturday, April 3, 2010

A New Take on the Shtetl

 The road to the old wooden synagogue, Pakruojis, Lithuania 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Alana Newhouse has written a long article in the New York Times magazine that highlights the way -- possibly the deliberately manipulated way -- that Roman Vishniac's famous photographs molded our imaged and collective memory of the shtetl.

She profiles Maya Benton, a young curator who has uncovered thousands of unpublished photographs by Vishniac and also revealed the extent to which he apparently made up captions and descriptions to give his published pictures a more dramatic narrative -- a narrative that highlighted poverty, fear, persecution and poignancy.
As Benton has discovered, Vishniac released, over the course of a five-decade career, an uncommonly small selection of his work for public consumption — so small, in fact, that it did not include many of his finest images, artistically speaking. Instead the chosen images were, in the main, those that advanced an impression of the shtetl as populated largely by poor, pious, embattled Jews — an impression aided by cropping and fabulist captioning done by his own hand. Vishniac’s curating job was so comprehensive that it would not only limit the appreciation of his talents but also skew the popular conception of pre-Holocaust Jewish life in Europe.
Read the full article

Listen to Alana interview Maya Benton on Tablet Magazine

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett is quoted in the article, and the sort of "revivisionist" take triggered by the new discoveries regarding Vishniac's photos sent me back to read Barbara's introduction to a 1995 edition of the classic book Life is with People: The Culture of the Shtetl, by Mark
Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog, originally published in 1952 by Schocken.
Though a great popular success, Life is with People poses several vexing problems, among them the identification of East European Jewish culture with the shtetl. During the fall of 1948, as the researchers struggled over what to call the culture they had been studying, they identified shtetl with the prototypical "enclave community" that carried the "core culture" of East European Jews. Shtetl became, in their thinking, a microcosm of the East European Jewish culture area, visualized as a sea of Christian culture dotted with little Jewish islands. Encapsulated in self-contained shtetlekh, the perfection of this hermetic world was sustained, the team argued, by isolation, hostility, and resistance to change. So palpable was this sense of the shtetl's hermetic seal that Elizabeth Herzog, one of the book's authors, suggested that the researchers ask their informants "Were you ever curious about the world outside the shtetl? Did you ever want to go outside the shtetl and walk around?"
You can read the full introduction at google docs by clicking HERE