By Ruth Ellen Gruber
My friend Shelley Salamensky muses on three Jewish -- or "Jewish" -- festivals: Krakow, Birobidzhan and Hervas, Spain, in the New York Review of Books blog.
The commercial aspects of Hervás’s festival—funded by the village’s chamber of commerce as a boon to local business—are hardly unique. Birobidzhan’s cultural renaissance, has, similarly, garnered it development grants from Moscow; while on the fringes of the Kraków festival, stands sell hook-nosed “Jew” figurines. Yet much more is at stake in both places than profit. In Kraków, with its rich, traumatic history, the festival is an attempt to confront the still relatively fresh loss of what was once the world’s largest Jewish population, as well as the question of Polish complicity with Nazis in the war, communist suppression of Holocaust history, and continuing European intolerance; it’s also a chance for Poles to reflect on their country’s future as a conservative, culturally monolithic nation in a changing, diversifying Europe. Birobizhan’s Jewish cultural revival appears primarily to enliven an isolated, poor, rather bleak place unremarkable but for its unique history. Despite some silliness and confusion, the more sober efforts to teach Yiddish and Jewish history ensure that important legacies are preserved. And perhaps even theme-park-style memorialization is more salutary than the more common case in places from which vital cultures have more or less vanished: sheer oblivion.
In Hervas, the evocation of a Jewish past is so perfunctory and historically fanciful as to border on the offensive. Stars of David adorn street signs, window grates, and even, for no clear reason, the church. There is a Judería Tavern and a Hotel Sinagoga: the former, on inspection, specializing in ham, the latter indistinguishable from a Holiday Inn. On arrival, I was amused by the kitsch; but by my last day, I felt vaguely sick. The empty symbolism cruelly underscored all that Europe has lost.