Tuesday, September 21, 2010

United States -- neglected Jewish cemeteries are also an issue

Sue Fishkoff has written an important article on JTA highlighting the plight of abandoned Jewish cemeteries -- not in Eastern Europe, but in the United States. Brava Sue!

The plight is far worse in Europe, where thousands of cemeteries lie abandoned in the wake of the Holocaust. But it is important for North American Jews to recognize that there is a similar issue exists "at home," wherever Jews have moved away or moved on. Sue cites the Jewish Cemetery Project of the International Association of Jewish Genealogy Societies as listing at least 1,375 Jewish cemeteries in the United States and 72 in Canada. (There are about that many Jewish cemeteries in Hungary alone, most of them abandoned.)

Shouldering the burden of forgotten cemeteries

By Sue Fishkoff, · September 20, 2010
SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) -- The old Jewish cemetery in Eufaula, Ala., hasn’t been used in years.
“The monuments are just crumbling,” said Sara Hamm.
She and her family are the last Jews living in this once-booming cotton and railway town on the banks of the Chattahoochee River.
The Jewish cemetery’s first burial dates from 1845, when German Jews began arriving as merchants and dry goods salesmen. They bought a synagogue in 1873, but sold it in the early 1900s when their numbers dwindled to several dozen. The cemetery, with its 84 burial plots, fell into disrepair.
In the mid-1980s Hamm’s grandmother Jennie Rudderman began restoring it, righting headstones and clearing away brush. After she died in 1999, Hamm took over as volunteer caretaker. But the job is wearing her down.
“It’s been left to its own accord now, like everything else in small-town America,” she said.
Similar stories repeat across the land, from the rust belt of western Pennsylvania to the Bible Belt in the South.
As factories closed down and populations shifted westward, once-thriving Jewish communities declined and synagogues shut their doors. The only thing left behind, in many cases, were the cemeteries -- with no one, or almost no one, to take care of them.
“The Jewish community knows there is a problem of abandoned cemeteries, but they feel it’s someone else’s problem, or the problem of the descendants of those buried there,” said Gary Katz, president of the 4-year-old Community Association for Jewish At-Risk Cemeteries, or CAJAC, which spearheads efforts to clean and maintain distressed cemeteries in New York City. “But throughout Jewish history, cemeteries have been a communal responsibility.”
 Read full story at JTA by clicking HERE


Czech Republic -- interesting web site with photo galleries

Jewish cemetery in Ledec nad Sazavou, with the tombs of Gustav Mahler's grandparents at the rear. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

I've just come across this ample web site, zidovskehrbitov.cz, with  photo galleries of several dozen Jewish cemeteries in the Czech Republic, as well as other information. The name of the site means "Jewish cemetery."

The web site is in Czech -- but you don't need the language to look at the pictures, which provide general views of cemeteries as well as detail of some of the beautifully carved epitaphs and decoration on individual tombstones.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Most beautiful synagogues?

On the eve of Yom Kippur, ynetnews.com  posted an article featuring the favorite synagogues around the world of 10  international cantors.

The article includes photographs of the choices as well as insightful comments from the cantors on their decision. They include historic and modern synagogues in Europe, Israel, the United States and Brazil, inluding grand synagogues in Budapest, Paris and Berlin. Enjoy!

I can think of many other synagogues to add to this list.

Readers -- what are your favorites?

(This is the third year ynetnews has posted a list of beautiful synagogues, but the previous two years dealt with synagogues in Israel.)

Friday, September 17, 2010

Budapest -- Variety at Rosh Hashanah

My latest Ruthless Cosmopolitan column for JTA focuses on how I once again savored the "goulash Judaism" of Budapest when I was there last week for Rosh Hashanah.

English-speaking travelers should note that the two alternative congregations I attended are English- and Visitor-friendly -- at the Bet Orim reform services, I met a mother and daughter who were on vacation from the U.S. Rabbi Raj (who is retired from a synagogue in Berkeley) conducted the service in Hebrew, Hungarian and English -- he even gave his sermon in both English and Hungarian.
Savoring "goulash Judaism" in the Hungarian capital
By Ruth Ellen Gruber
JTA -- Sept. 16, 2010

BUDAPEST (JTA) -- I always try to spend at least part of the High Holidays in Budapest, so I can sample some of the spicy mixture that characterizes the Jewish experience in the Hungarian capital.
As many as 90,000 Jews live in Budapest, the largest Jewish population in any central European city. The vast majority are unaffiliated -- and probably always will be.
Those who do identify as Jews, however tenuously, have an evolving choice of public and private, religious, cultural and secular ways to express or explore their identity.
Gastronomic, too: This year, one friend made challah for the first time to serve at the holiday dinner, and a downtown restaurant even offered a special Rosh Hashanah menu.
Call it "goulash Judaism," if you will -- a simmering mix whose disparate, and often fractious, components combine to form a highly seasoned whole.
Events and observances this year bore witness to the growing array of Jewish options, both inside and outside traditional settings.
The week leading up to Rosh Hashanah, for example, saw the conclusion of the city's 13th annual Jewish Summer Festival, a 10-day series of performances and other events, including a book and crafts fair, that drew thousands of visitors. Also that week, an ambitious Israeli Cultural Institute opened in a refurbished building at the edge of the main old downtown Jewish quarter.
And further afield, in the Obuda district in the northern part of the city, a 190-year-old synagogue that had been used for decades as a state TV studio was rededicated as a Jewish house of worship.
Rented from the state and restored by Chabad, the synagogue will form part of Chabad's growing local network.
Foreign VIPs were in town for all three occasions.
The Jewish Summer Festival culminated with a well-publicized concert by the Chasidic reggae rapper Matisyahu in a major city event arena.
Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky affixed the mezuzah to the doorpost of the Israeli Cultural Institute, which was largely funded by the agency. Institute director Gabor Balazs said the institute's aim was to introduce and popularize Israel's "mosaic-like" culture to the Jewish and non-Jewish public at large.
And Israel's Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Yonah Metzger, joined Chabad rabbis in cutting the ribbon at the Obuda synagogue.
"This is the best possible answer to what the Nazis did," Metzger told the crowd of 1,000 or more, including Hungarian government and religious leaders, attending the ceremony. "Fifty years after the last time Rosh Hashanah was celebrated here, it will be celebrated here once again."
My own holiday observances also reflected new choices.
I usually attend High Holidays services at one of the 15 or so mainstream synagogues active in Budapest, or sometimes I "synagogue hop" to two or three shuls. Most of them belong to the Neolog movement -- the Hungarian variant of Reform Judaism that is the country's dominant religious stream. But there are also several traditional Orthodox synagogues, as well three or four now affiliated with Chabad.
This year I chose to avoid the mainstream. I sampled Rosh Hashanah services at two small alternative groups -- Bet Orim, one of Budapest's two American-style Reform congregations, and Dor Chadash, a young people's minyan associated with the Masorti, or Conservative, movement.
As neither Reform nor Masorti is recognized by the Hungarian Jewish Federation, both operate outside the umbrella of establishment Jewry.
Bet Orim celebrated a formal service in the auditorium of the Budapest JCC, while Dor Chadash held a more informal gathering in the living room of the local Moishe House, a downtown apartment that serves as a combination residence and center for Jewish educational encounters.
Each group numbered about 30 or 35 people, and both offered an American-style egalitarian Jewish prayer experience that is alien to mainstream Hungarian Jewry.
At Bet Orim, in fact, a young woman named Flora Polnauer served as the cantor for High Holidays services.
"It's the first time that a Hungarian Jewish woman has fulfilled this role," Bet Orim's rabbi, Ferenc Raj, told me proudly.
Raj, a native of Hungary, moved to the United States decades ago and is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, Calif.
"We are making history tonight," he said.
I had met Polnauer before under quite different circumstances. The daughter of a rabbi, she sings with several local music groups, including hard-driving Jewish hip hop bands.
During the service, dressed in white, she chanted the familiar melodies in a lilting voice. But she looked a little nervous and was clearly moved by the experience.
"I really feel we deserve the Shehecheyanu!" she exclaimed at the end, referring to the blessing recited to mark special occasions and moments of joy.
We all joined in and chanted it with her: "Blessed are you, O Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe who has kept us alive, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season."

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Article on upcoming Jewish cultural events

The The New York Jewish Week has a nice article by Hilary Larson previewing some upcoming Jewish culture festivals and other events in Europe. (You can see an expanding list of festivals in the sidebar of this blog).
throughout the chilly days of fall, cities across North-Central Europe host Jewish cultural festivals that go beyond mere street fairs to showcase finely curated klezmer, cinema and more.

As airfares drop and drab afternoons shorten, consider planning travel around these cultural events. A trip immersed in klezmer or Yiddish theater, say, will be more memorable than another tour of castles.
For aficionados of all things Yiddish, the 14th annual Week of Yiddish Music and Theater in Dresden, Germany, will take place from Oct. 17-31. Concerts, plays, lectures, and even Yiddish linguistics classes all explore the lingering influence of Yiddish in contemporary culture. The festival’s musical highlights include songs of the shtetl performed by a broad range of musical artists, from Yachad, a Russian-Ukrainian group, to Anakronic Okestra, which sets traditional klezmer tunes to hip-hop for an evening of dancing.
In addition to performances, the festival offers opportunities for visitors to engage with the local Jewish community, which is once again flourishing. Community Shabbat worship is held at Dresden’s award-winning New Synagogue; a guided tour of the synagogue is also on the program. There are also several café afternoons, when visitors can mingle over traditional German-Jewish cake with Dresden Jewish residents. (On that note, don’t be intimidated by the fact that lectures and discussions, as well as most festival websites, are in German: most urban Germans also speak English, music is universal, and Google’s Translate tool can help you figure out the website program schedules.)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Poland -- Conference announcement and upcoming Zamosc synagogue dedication

 Zamosc synagogue. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland announces a conference in April that will coincide with the formal rededication of the synagogue in Zamosc after its restoration.

The Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland and the Polish-Jewish Literature Studies of the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin invite for an INTERNATIONAL ACADEMIC CONFERENCE “HISTORY AND CULTURE OF THE JEWS IN ZAMOSC AND THE ZAMOSC REGION” WHICH WILL TAKE PLACE ON APRIL 5-7, 2011.
The conference will be held in the Renaissance synagogue in Zamosc. It will be combined with the official opening of the synagogue which is being restored by the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland within the framework of the project “Revitalization of the Renaissance synagogue in Zamosc for the needs of the Chassidic Route and the local community”. The project received a grant from Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway through the EEA Financial Mechanism and the Norwegian Financial Mechanism.
The conference will inaugurate a multi-year research project devoted to Zamosc Jews, gathering researchers representing different academic disciplines interested in the subject.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Vienna -- Pebbles on Gustav Mahler's grave

 Pebbles on the top of Mahler's tomb, following Jewish tradition. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

We are in the midst of Gustav Mahler year -- a double whammy anniversary: July marked the 150th anniversary of his birth; next May marks the 100th anniversary of his death.

Researching a couple of articles (see my article in the nytimes.com here), I spent much of the past few days following the footsteps of  young Gustav  in central Moravia -- the lovely Vysocina upland region, one of my favorite parts of the Czech Republic. I stayed in the pension that now occupies the house Mahler was born in in the village of Kaliste, found the gravestones of his grandparents in the Jewish cemetery in Ledec nad Sazavou, visited various Mahler haunts including Zeliv, the village where his first love lived (and committed suicide), and the house in Jihlava, where the composer lived until the age of 15 and which is now a Mahler museum; I also spent hours driving through the wonderful landscape, listening all the while to Mahler symphonies on the car stereo..... (more on all this in a later post, with pictures).

I skipped over his adult life as a composer, conductor, world star and -- because of anti-Semitism -- a convert to Catholicism in order to get the job of director of the Vienna Opera.

But I did conclude my Mahler weekend with a pilgrimage to his grave in the Catholic cemetery in Grinzing, a wine-making village now on the northern outskirts of Vienna.

Mahler's tomb is a simple upright slab. And on its top, in Jewish tradition, visitors to the grave have placed little stones in his memory (I did so myself). As far as I can see, his is the only tombstone in the cemetery where people have done this.

PS -- Mahler's widow, Alma, is also buried in the cemetery in the next row (other family members are also interred there, too). Which compels me irresistibly to attach this video of the classic Tom Lehrer song about Alma and her three prominent husbands: Mahler, Walter Gropius and Franz Werfel.

Lehrer wrote his song after Alma died in 1964. As he put it:
Last December 13th, there appeared in the newspapers the juiciest, spiciest, raciest obituary that has ever been my pleasure to read. It was that of a lady name Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel who had, in her lifetime, managed to acquire as lovers practically all of the top creative men in central Europe, and, among these lovers, who were listed in the obituary, by the way, which was what made it so interesting, there were three whom she went so far as to marry.

One of the leading composers of the day: Gustav Mahler, composer of Das Lied von der Erde and other light classics. One of the leading architects: Walter Gropius of the Bauhaus school of design. And one of the leading writers: Franz Werfel, author of the song of Bernadette and other masterpieces. It's people like that who make you realize how little you've accomplished. It is a sobering thought, for example, that when Mozart was my age he had been dead for two years. It seemed to me, I'm reading this obituary, that the story of Alma was the stuff of which ballads should be made so here is one.

Slovakia -- I find Bratislava's Museum of Jewish Culture disappointing

 These portraits of rabbis in the museum are prominently signed  but it is far from clear if those signed "Boruth A." were actually done by the Slovak painter Andor Boruth, who died in 1955 -- and it's really doubtful those signed "Szekely" were done by the Hungarian academic painter Bertalan Szekely. Yet there is nothng to identify the artists, the subjects, how and why they got to the museum collection. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber.

I paid a visit yesterday to the Museum of Jewish Culture in Bratislava, a branch of the Slovak National Museum that was reopened in 2009 following the revamping of its original exhibition, which dated from 1993, when the museum opened.

Alas, I found the new exhibit a big disappointment. The wonderful collection of ritual objects, everyday materials, textiles, artwork and more is laid out well -- but the items on display are exhibited with almost no contextual or other information about them: no information on the date, the provenance,  who donated the object, the place of origin; nothing  even on the artists and titles of paintings, even when these are known.

 Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

A collection of photographs of Slovak synagogues identifies the towns but omits even rough dates as to when the pictures were taken, not to mention the names of the architects, information as to when the synagogues were destroyed, etc etc etc. One item on display is a decorative paving stone rescued from the great Neologue synagogue next to the Cathedral, which was destroyed in 1969 when the old Jewish quarter was razed during construction of the New Bridge. But the stone just lies there, a decorated lump, without any explanation as to why it is included in the exhibit...

Nor, in a "symbolic Jewish cemetery" in the basement, an installation of fragments of tombstones, is there information provided as to which cemeteries the stones came from, or about the number of Jewish cemeteries around Slovakia. There is rudimentary information about burial practices, and a bit about inscriptions, but that's it.

What's more, no distinction is made between photographs and copies (such as that of a ketubah) and original objects. And some of the items that did have labels (albeit generic ones) were incorrect: it seem as if meal coupons issued by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee are identified as  certificates issued to guarantee kashrut!

All in all, it was very frustrating -- a sadly wasted opportunity.

Modern museum practice does not seem to have entered here: the only provenance shown was a label on an oil lamp bought in Israel guaranteeing that it was ancient. The objects shown could have come from anywhere: there was little sense of their connection with Slovakia, and even when this connection was presented, it was not elaborated.

The young woman who showed me around could answer only some of my questions -- she went somewhere to consult when I asked her who the artist was of a very lovely water color of a Jewish cemetery. (She found the name of the artist, but nothing more: other, Holocaust-related, works of his, too, are hung with no identification, as is a nice installation of collaged photographs of the Chatam Sofer memorial.)

She told me she informed someone on the design team about my concerns and said he assured her that labels were being prepared. But I have my doubts.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

European Day of Jewish Culture article

My latest article on JTA is a preview of the European Day of Jewish Culture -- this year Sept. 5 -- highlighting the way it has become a major event on the end-of-summer cultural calendar in Italy. There are 25,000 affiliated Jews in Italy, but Culture Day activities take place this year in 62 towns and cities around the country. And last year's events in Italy drew 62,000 visitors, the overwhelming majority non-Jewish. Culture Day gets lots of media attention and has the support of civic bodies and is under the patronage of Italy's president.

Tourists shop in a store in the former Jewish district that sells kosher wine, matzah, Jewish pastries and souvenirs. (Ruth Ellen Gruber)

Introducing non-Jewish Europeans to Jewish life

By Ruth Ellen Gruber · August 31, 2010
PITIGLIANO, Italy (JTA) -- In Italy, where there are only about 25,000 affiliated Jews in a population of 60 million, most Italians have never knowingly met a Jew. "It's unfortunate," said the Italian Jewish activist Sira Fatucci, "but in Italy Jews and the Jewish experience are often mostly known through the Holocaust."
Fatucci is the national coordinator in Italy for the annual European Day of Jewish Culture, an annual transborder celebration of Jewish traditions and creativity that takes place in more than 20 countries on the continent on the first Sunday of September -- this year, Sept. 5.
Synagogues, Jewish museums and even ritual baths and cemeteries are open to the public, and hundreds of seminars, exhibits, lectures, book fairs, art installations, concerts, performances and guided tours are offered.
The main goal is to educate the non-Jewish public about Jews and Judaism in order to demystify the Jewish world and combat anti-Jewish prejudice.
“What we are trying to do is to show the living part of Judaism -- to show life," Fatucci said. "What we want to do is to use culture as an antidote to ignorance and anti-Semitism.”
Some 700 people flock to Culture Day events each year in Pitigliano, a rust-colored hilltown in southern Tuscany that once had such a flourishing Jewish community that it was known as Little Jerusalem.
Click to read full story at jta