Monday, August 30, 2010

Book Event semi-washed out....

Heavy rain, alas, washed out my book event today in Budapest promoting Zsido Emlekhelyek, the Hungarian edition of Jewish Heritage Travel .... it was supposed to have taken place in an open-air courtyard of Gozsdu udvar, a long series of connected courtyards that leads from Kiraly street through to Dob street.

For the past few days, Gozsdu udvar was the scene of a book and crafts fair that was part of Budapest's annual summer Jewish festival.

With the weather threatening, the publisher, Geographia kiado, organized another venue for the event -- a slide-illustrated talk by me -- in the upstairs cafe of one of the main branches of the Alexandra book shop, just around the corner from the Dohany St. synagogue.

About a dozen intrepid souls found their way to the new venue, and the presentation was a much more intimate experience than anticipated....

Still, people were very interested -- and the publisher says the books has been selling well, comparable to sales of a paperback novel!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Budapest Jewish summer festival celebrates its Bar Mitzvah

 Part of the festival in 2009. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Adam Lebor in Budapest writes a nice piece in the Economist online about the annual Budapest summer Jewish culture festival celebrating its 13th edition -- its bar mitzvah, so to speak.

The festival opened last night with a magnificent concert by the Boban Markovic Orchestra, the world's best known Serbian gypsy brass band ensemble, in the Great Synagogue on Dohany Street in downtown Pest. The synagogue, which holds 3,000 people, is the centre of Jewish life in Hungary. The synagogue was built in the mid-19th century in a neo-Moorish style and has been beautifully restored to its former glory. Playing to a packed house the orchestra kicked off with a rousing rendition of "Hava Nagila", probably the best known traditional Jewish song. The thumping Balkan beat soon had even dowager grandmas clapping along. The Boban Markovic Orchestra is the latest in a long line of renowned musicians to perform here: a century ago both Franz Liszt and Camille Saint-Saëns played the synagogue's organ.It was an interesting choice to open a Jewish cultural festival with a Serbian gypsy band. Partly because of their shared history of persecution, Jews and Roma often feel a kind of kinship. But despite the glorious life-affirming emotion of hearing "Hava Nagila" inside the synagogue, there was a poignant aspect to the concert, for this corner of Dohany street is a haunted place. The small Jewish cemetery behind the main hall houses the remains of perhaps 2,000 people who died of sickness and starvation during the winter of 1944-45 as the Hungarian Nazi Arrow Cross ran wild and the Red army steadily advanced, until the ghetto was finally liberated in January 1945.

On Monday, the festival features a presentation of Zsido Emlekhelyek, the Hungarian edition of my book Jewish Heritage Travel. I'm due to give an illustrated talk about Jewish heritage in Europe.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Hungarian edition of Jewish Heritage Travel presentation

The new Hungarian-language version of my book "Jewish Heritage Travel" -- Zsido Emlekhelyek -- will be featured during the book bazaar of the annual summer Jewish festival in Budapest.

I am scheduled to give an illustrated talk about the book on August 30, at 4 p.m., in Gozsdu Udvar.

Come one, come all!

Bucharest -- World of Yiddish Festival

 Entering Bucharest's Choral synagogue. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Bucharest will be the scene of a World of Yiddish Festival next week. It starts Sept. 2 and culminates on Sept. 5, the European Day of Jewish Culture.

The program includes performances, lectures, exhibits, concerts, guided tours, conferences and more:
Thursday, September 2 
10.30 - The State Jewish Theater
Official opening of the Festival - Press conference
12.00 - The State Jewish Theater
From the ”Green Tree” to Broadway - Conference – Moderator: Director Harry Eliad
The Yiddish Theater in Romania (Director Harry Eliad)  Jewish Music in Theater productions (Eng. Adrian Cuperman)  Why do we need a Yiddish theater? Director Andrei Munteanu)  From Iași to New York (Director Radu Gabrea)
16.30 - The “Union” Cinema
“And they faded out like the wind…” – the story of the Barasheum Theater
Documentary - Presented by Director Radu Gabrea
19.30 - The State Jewish Theater
The Fools of Helem by Moishe Gershenzon
The State Jewish Theater
Friday, September 3
10.00 – Jewish Community Center
The Shtetl and its world - Conference – Moderator: Director Erwin Șimșensohn
The Shtetl culture in Romania (Prof. Dr. Liviu Rotman)  The Jewish Bukovina (Dr. Emil Rennert – Austria  Rediscovering Yiddishland in Romania (Dr. Simon Geissbühler, Switzerland) Chassidism and Hesychasm: landmarks, origins, connections (Dr. Madeea Axinciuc) The mural painting of Moldavian synagogues (Dr. Măriuca Stanciu)
16.30 - The “Union” Cinema
Itzic Manger
Documentary – Presented by Director Radu Gabrea
19.00 - The Great Synagogue
Kabbalat Shabbat
Saturday, September 4
10.00 – Jewish Community Center
Yiddishland - Conference – Moderator: Dr. Aurel Vainer
Yiddish language – past and present – from mammelushn to art (Dr. Harry Kuller)  Yiddishland: culture and political identity in the Yiddish media at the end of the 19th century in Romania (Drd. Augusta Radosav – Cluj) The Yiddish language – a source of moral support during the Holocaust (Dr. Lya Benjamin)  Memories about Yiddish, from a Shtetl (Dr. Aurel Vainer)
16.00 – Jewish Community Center
Mammelushn - Conference – Moderator: Dr. Jose Blum
Translations into Romanian from the Yiddish classic literature (Dr. Camelia Crăciun)  Peretz- a great Yiddish writer (Ghidu Brukmaier )  From La Fontaine to Eliezer Shteinberg (Writer Carol Feldman)
19.00 - The State Jewish Theater
One Man Show "Alein ist die Neshume rein" - “Alone, the heart is pure”
Yaakov Bodo & Misha Blecharovitz - Yiddishpiel Theater - Israel
21.00 - Green Hours 22 Club Jazz Café
Vienna Klezmer Band (Austria)
Sunday, September 5 – ““The European Day of Jewish Culture” 
11.00 - The Romanian Peasant Museum
Hakeshet Klezmer Band (Romania)  The Hora dance group (Romania)  Mames Babegenush Klezmer Band (Denmark)
17.30 - The Romanian Peasant Museum
Mazel Tov Klezmer Band (Romania)  Preβburger Klezmer Band (Slovakia)
20.30 - Jewish Community Center
One Woman Show
Yiddish Experience
Maia Morgenstern & Radu Captari
Visiting the Great Synagogue from Bucharest – September 2,3,5, from 10.00 to 17.00 h.
Visiting the History Museum of the Jews from Romania – September 2-5, from 10.00 to 18.00 h
Contact: *

European Day of Jewish Culture -- Sept. 5

 Synagogue, Radauti, Romania. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The annual European Day of Jewish Culture is coming up -- this year, it's Sept. 5. This is the 11th edition of the "Day" -- I was present at the meeting in Paris in 1999 when it was decided to sponsor an international, cross-border Culture Day, broadening the effort that had already been under way in the Alsace region of France since 1996.

Organization is at the local level, but each year a different general theme is chosen to more or less link events, which this year are said to be taking place in nearly 30 countries -- though programs for only 16 countries are listed on the web site.

Italy remains perhaps the most enthusiastic participant, with events in some 62 locales, including many places where no Jews live.

The theme chosen this year is "Art and Judaism." Events focus on:

  - Different kinds of art: paintings, sculptures, decorative arts, literature, music, films, theatre
  - Different artists: painters, sculptors, writers, actors, composers and performers, directors
  - Different periods: ancient, medieval, modern, contemporary
  - Others: patrons of art, collections
  - Art applied in religious ceremony or in everyday life

You can see the program by clicking THIS LINK

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Synagogue restored in Beirut

This is a bit out of the 'hood, but Haaretz runs a nice piece about the restoration of the Maghen Abraham Synagogue synagogue in downtown Beirut....

Renovations on the ruined synagogue, which was built in 1925, began in 2009
after an agreement between various religious denominations and permission from the Lebanese government, planning authorities and even Hezbollah. The project received the green light after political officials and community leaders became convinced it could show that Lebanon is an open country, tolerant of many faiths including Judaism. [...]

Renovations have included mending the gaping hole in the Moroccan-style synagogue's roof and repairing the chandeliers that once hung from it. The Torah ark and prayer benches will also be refurbished to their former states, having been seriously damaged in fighting between Muslim and Christian forces during the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war.

Several dozen Jews still living in Lebanon will fund the project to the tune of $200,000, along with others in the Diaspora. The project has also received a $150,000 grant from Solidere, a construction firm tasked with rebuilding central Beirut from the destruction of the civil war. The company is privately owned by the family of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister assassinated in 2005.
Read full story by clicking RIGHT HERE

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Czech Republic --video from Boskovice Festival

Here's a youtube video of a performance in the old synagogue in Boskovice from this summer's Boskovice Festival -- a jazz version of Lecha Dodi prayer, composed by Peter Gyori (also on guitar) and sung by Lenka Lichtenberg.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Lithuania -- Jpost story on Jewish Vilnius/Vilna/Vilne

 Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

There are few physical traces of Jewish Vilnius anymore -- tour guides arm themselves with old photographs when they lead groups, to show them what was there, and where today are found plaques, information panels, a monument or two, traces of Yiddish signage, or simply empty space. Moreover, as I wrote on this blog in December, after I served as an expert during a seminar on the future of Jewish heritage in Vilnius, what to do regarding Jewish heritage -- and how to do it -- has been a controversial issue.

The Jerusalem Post runs a travel piece on Jewish Vilnius/Vilna/Vilne by Norma Davidoff Shulman.
There are fascinating traces beyond the faint Yiddish letters on ghetto buildings. Starting with the Middle Ages, Jews arrived here. By the 1700s, their numbers and influence became significant. Before World War II, Jews made up more than a third of the city.

Then the whole country seemed to disappear for 50 years behind the Iron Curtain; it was the first to break away from the USSR, in 1990. By that time most of its Jews were already gone.

Some had made Aliya, like the Litvak families of Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak. Shimon Peres lived 100 kilometers from Vilnius.

Before the war, there were a hundred synagogues and study houses.

Fifteen years ago Chabad opened its doors in an apartment house. The city has but one synagogue building: the Choral Synagogue in the heart of the ghetto. This Moorish-style edifice, with its blue letters in Hebrew, had a congregation with a progressive outlook when it was built in 1894. It allowed music, thus the name “choral.”

Poland -- Shabbat in Rymanow and other festivals

I have added some new festivals to the growing list of Jewish festivals in Europe. They include a Shabbat in Rymanow festival this coming weekend, August 12-14.

It is part religious observance and part culture festival, with concerts, lectures and even food and wine tastings.



10.00-10.45 Workshops at the Jewish cemetery in Rymanow – Explanation of
function of cemetery and symbolism of headstones and graves. Remembrance of
famous Tzadikim from Rymanow.

11.00-11-45 Ecumenical prayers at the Jewish cemetery.
12.15-12.30 Remembering those who gave their lives to save the Jews of
Rymanow – Catholic cemetery in Rymanow.

12.30-15-00 POLIN film screening with the participation of the director Jolanta
Dylewska. Next, fragments of a pre-war film from Rymanow.
(at big hall, Jas Wedrowniczek – free entry)
16.00 – 18.00 Culinary workshops ( Jewish kitchen at the Rymanow Rynek )
This will be led by a daughter if a Rymanow native, Malka Sacham Doron.
There will also be an exhibit of traditional Jewish dishes.

16.00-17.30 Historic trail of Rymanow properties. A walking tour of the long gone
Rymanow with participation of former Jewish residents. It will be
conducted in English and Polish, starting in the parking lot at the Rynek.

19.00-21.00 Artistic performance "Musical Stories of Chassidim" A dramatic
musical spectacle, which retells the story of Menachem Mendle the great
Tzadik of Rymanow, with Chassidic dancing. Performed by Mendy Cahan from
Israel accompanied by Olga Mieleszczuk.
Big hall – Jaś Wędrowniczek
Tickets -- 10zl. for purchase in the hotel.

21.30 – Rymanow encounter with Hungarian wine – tasting of wine from the
Tokay district, with the participation of members from the Portius and
Krosno district.

10.00-11.00 workshop in Yiddish language and singing of Niggunim. Melodies
without words – Mendy Cahan and Olga Mieleszczuk.
Big hall – Jas Wiedrowniczek

12.00-13.45 March of Remembrance, from Rynek to Wróblik Szlachecki.
Tracing the final walk of the Rymanow ghetto,
Prayer of Kaddish in Wroblik.
Starts at Monument of Victims of Totalitarianism at the Rynek.

15.30-16.30 Monodram " We Also need a Miracle "
Big Hall – Jas Wedrowniczek, free entrance

19.00 – 19.30 Singing of Nigunim in front of Synagogue
19.40 – 21.00 Kabbalat Shabbat and greeting the Shabbat at the Synagogue,
Services will be conducted by Rymanow native Moshe Barth.

21.30 – Shabbat in Rymanow, Festive Shabbat dinner for all participants.
Hotel Bogmar in Rymanow
8.30-11.30 Prayers at the Synagogue
13 .30-15.00 Historic trail of Rymanow properties. A walking
tour of the long Rymanow with the participation of former Jewish residents.
It will be conducted in English and Polish, starting in the parking lot at
the Rynek.

19.30 – 20.30 Havdallah, saying goodbye to the Sabbath.

Poland/Belarus -- Seminar on Jewish heritage preservation

Catching up on some backlog, I have learned about a seminar on Jewish heritage preservation in Poland and Belarus that took place recently at the Borderland Foundation in Sejny, northern Poland.
The seminar was a part of a project called “Polish-Byelorussian summer school for culture animators. Transfer of experience concerning protection of Jewish heritage”, which is financed from a program “Przemiany w Regionie-RITA” launched by Fundacja Edukacji dla Demokracji (Education for Democracy Foundation). “Holocaust” Foundation from Mińsk and “Ośrodek Brama Grodzka-Teatr NN” (The "Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre” Centre) from Lublin were partners in the project’s implementation.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Italy -- Synagogue in Sabbioneta to Reopen after Restoration

The charming little synagogue in Sabbioneta, near Mantova in northern Italy, will reopen next month after a year-long restoration process. The re-opening is timed to coincide with this year's European Day of Jewish Culture, which takes place Sept. 5.

Sabbioneta was built in the 16th century by Vespasiano Gonzaga and laid out as an ideal Renaissance city. The synagogue that stands was built much later -- in 1824 -- to a design by Carlo Visioli on the site of a much older Synagogue

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Poland -- Jewish Presence vs Presence of Jews

My latest Ruthless Cosmopolitan column for JTA again explores the situation in Poland, where the intensity of the Jewish presence dwarfs the number of Jews who actually lives in the country.

In Poland, Shabbatons for non-Jews to combat anti-Semitism

PIOTRKOW TRYBUNALSKI, Poland (JTA) -- Whenever I visit Poland, I'm struck by how the intensity of the Jewish presence dwarfs the tiny number of Jews who actually live in the country. Even with the resurgence of Jewish life since the fall of communism, organized Jewish communities exist in fewer than a dozen Polish cities, and only the Warsaw community numbers much more than a few hundred people.
Yet each year sees hundreds of Jewish-themed festivals, conferences, educational projects, commemorative activities, publications and other initiatives throughout the country.
"I often joke that the mayor of every small town now feels obliged to make excuses if he or she has no Jewish festival," said Anna Dodziuk, a Jewish activist in Warsaw. Dodziuk published a book this year on Poland's largest and most famous Jewish festival, the nine-day Festival of Jewish Culture in Krakow, which has been going strong since 1988. "To put it in short," she said, "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."
The activities are meant to educate and memorialize, but they coincide with a Jewish presence that is glaringly visible in more negative contexts, too, and this is also part of the paradox.
Anti-Semitic graffiti is shockingly widespread. Spray-painted Stars of David hanging from gallows deface countless walls.
Much of this, however, likely has little to do with actual Jews. The ugly scrawls are the work of soccer fans who may have no idea what Judaism is but have adopted Jewish symbols as pejoratives with which to bash their opponents.
Meanwhile, figurines of Orthodox Jews clutching coins fill souvenir stalls in Warsaw, Krakow and some other cities. The imagery harks back to the stereotype of Jews as greedy moneylenders, but the figurines are marketed today as abstract good-luck talismans.
"When a member of the city council from a Polish town came to visit me in the States not long ago, he brought a present," said Michael Traison, an American Jewish lawyer who has offices in Chicago and Warsaw. "It was a painting of a Jew counting money, with a dollar bill stuck in its back. He obviously had no idea that the image could be offensive."
Trying to make sense out of the disparity is a cottage industry among scholars, educators, policymakers, communal leaders and ordinary citizens.
How do you balance an abstract evocation of Jews and Jewish life with the real thing? And how do you prevent stereotypes and skewed templates from dominating discourse?
Traison believes a sort of "public display of Judaism" can be useful.
Toward that end, over the past four years he has helped organize Shabbatons that have brought actual Jews and Jewish practice to half a dozen provincial towns where few or no Jews have lived since the Holocaust. Religious services are held in long-disused synagogues, and local officials and ordinary citizens are invited to join in for prayers, kosher meals and Shabbat study.
Traison says he has four main goals: remembrance; demonstrating that the Jewish people -- and Judaism -- are still alive; outreach to Poles; and enabling Jews and local Catholics to participate in a Jewish religious experience.
"This is all very important for young people in Poland, who often only know Jews through imagery and mythology," he said.
Stanislaw Krajewski, a Warsaw Jew who has attended several of the Shabbatons, agreed. "It doesn't just show pictures but is doing something that is really alive," he said. "It is such an innovation -- a way of bringing a sort of circulation of blood in these places."
A Catholic man who attended last year's Shabbaton in Kielce put it this way: "I could feel myself what I already knew theoretically, namely what the Shabbat means for Jews who treat their faith seriously.”
The song “Boi Kala” – “Come, Sabbath Queen” – “is also a challenge or a question on how I, a Christian man, treat my 'shabbat’ -- Sunday," the man said. "Thanks to Jews' testimony of how they treat their holy day, I treat my one more seriously."
Most of these elements were evident at the latest Shabbaton, which took place this summer in Piotrkow Trybunalski, a rundown industrial town in central Poland where city walls are scarred by anti-Semitic soccer graffiti but also bear commemorative plaques recalling the town's rich Jewish past.
The Shabbaton coincided with a city-sponsored Days of Judaism festival, and posters advertised the religious events along with lectures, exhibits and a klezmer concert. Piotrkow's mayor and other officials took part in a Holocaust commemoration ceremony, a kosher Shabbat dinner and an open-air Havdalah celebration in a public park near the center of town.
Schoolchildren staged a play based on a Holocaust story, and Poland's chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, led services in Piotrkow's former synagogue, which was defiled by the Nazis and then turned into the public library in the 1960s.
Most of the participants were Piotrkow Holocaust survivors and descendants from Israel, the United States and other countries. They included the former Israeli diplomat Naftali Lau-Lavie, who was called to the Torah that Shabbat to celebrate the 71st anniversary of his bar mitzvah. Lavie's father was Piotrkow's last chief rabbi, and his brother is Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, a former Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel and now the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv.
Many in the group had visited Piotrkow before. Some had sponsored commemorative projects such as placing plaques and cleaning up the Jewish cemetery. They came to honor the dead, relive memories and make a positive statement simply by walking the streets.
It was "surreal" to pray where both "fame and infamy reigned," said Irving Gomolin, a survivors' son from Mineola, N.Y., who was making his third trip to Piotrkow. But, he added, "It also helps send the message to the town that we have not forgotten, that the Jewish nation and Piotrkower Jews survive and remember and do not want to forget or have their past in this place forgotten."

Read full story on