Thursday, November 26, 2015

Happy Thanksgiving -- with Jewish Turkeys

Happy Thanksgiving!

I'm reposting this item from my Jewish Heritage Europe web site -- an online resource to Jewish heritage across the continent. See the full post here.

Thanksgiving is often called “turkey-day” because of the tradition of eating roast turkey at the Thanksgiving dinner.

The bird that we call “turkey” was native to the Americas, and was brought back to Europe by the first European explorers, where it quickly became popular. As can be seen above in the replica of the early 18th century painted ceiling of the destroyed wooden synagogue at Gwozdziec — now in the POLIN museum in Warsaw — its image was used two centuries ago in East European synagogue decoration.

An almost identical image, for example, appears in the painted wooden synagogue of Chodorow, now replicated at the Bet Hatfutsoth museum in Tel Aviv — see below.

For a fascinating look at the Turkey in Jewish artistic (and culinary) tradition, Samuel Gruber has posted a lengthy description — with illustrations — on his blog.

Among other things, he notes that Thomas Hubka, author of Resplendent Synagogue: Architecture and Worship in an Eighteen-Century Polish Synagogue, writes: “At first, it is difficult to imagine how the North American turkey could have been painted in an early-eighteenth-century Polish synagogue, but books depicting the exotic flora and fauna from beyond the European world were widely available at the time.”

He writes that Hubka links the presences of exotic animals in the decoration to Jewish ethical literature and writings that celebrate God’s creation. According to Hubka:
“The illustrated Perek Shira (chapter of song) was a popular “exotic creature” book specifically written for a Jewish audience. the book was a collection of hymnic sayings in praise of the Creator placed in the mouths of various animals, especially exotic animals. Many animals and their sayings emphasized the wonder and incomprehensibility of God’s creation as, for example, written next to a drawing of a dragon “What does the dragon say? Sing unto him, sing psalms unto Him: talk ye of all his wondrous works (Psalm 105;2). As a measure of its popularity and ethical function,Perek Shira was included in some of the earliest printed prayer books in Eastern Europe…thus the unknown turkey was to be contemplated by pious Jews as an ex maple of the unfathomable variety of God’s creatures. as they did with the exotic ostrich and unicorn, the artists of the Gwozdziec Synagogue may have placed the turkey in a prominent central location so that the congregation would “Lift up [its] eyes…to obtain knowledge of the works of the Holy One” (II:231b).  (Hubka, Resplendent Synagogue: Architecture and Worship in an Eighteen-Century Polish Synagogue, p. 103.)

Gruber also discusses turkeys on the Jewish dinner table, quoting the early 19th century memoirist memoirist Pauline Wengeroff (Rememberings: The World of A Russian-Jewish Woman in the Nineteenth Century, various editions), describing how her family in Bobruisk (now in Belarus) in the 1830s ate turkey for Pesach and Sukkoth.

For Pesach she describes the process of kashering chickens and turkeys, and at a noon meal on Pesach, following the seder, “there had to be stuffed turkey neck.” She also mentions eating roast turkey on Shmini Atzeres and Simchas Torah.
Read Samuel Gruber's full blog post here

Sunday, October 18, 2015

NY Jewish Week profiles me & my Jewish heritage work

Me in Hostice, CZ, in front of the long-abandoned synagogue

Writing in the New York Jewish Week, travel writer Hilary Danailova profiles me and my Jewish heritage and Jewish heritage travel work, including the Jewish Heritage Europe web site. 

Heritage Tourism In Europe


Hilary Danailova

From Poland to Portugal, nobody knows Jewish Europe like Ruth Ellen Gruber.
On a given week, the Philadelphia-born journalist might be checking out a newly opened museum, inspecting the restoration of a prewar synagogue, or picking her way through forest brambles in search of long-lost tombstones. That explains how Gruber found herself recently in the wilderness south of Prague, where she stumbled onto an 18th-century Jewish cemetery in a clearing near a faded sign marking “Synagogue Street.”
“Here’s this place in the middle of nowhere, and actually, there used to be a synagogue here,” recalled Gruber, who was sleuthing with the aid of locals. “It gave me that sense of discovery that I used to find everywhere. When I find a place that thrills me or makes me feel that sense of wonder again … I loved it.”
The thrill of discovery is something Gruber shares with a growing number of enthusiasts through the website she oversees, Jewish Heritage Europe. A project of the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe, JHE is a comprehensive web portal for all things Jewish overseas: festivals, institutions, scholarship, synagogues and cemeteries.
Under Gruber’s direction, JHE has evolved into an essential travel resource. With an engaging redesign and the recent launch of “Have Your Say,” a feature that invites interactive commentary, JHE makes Jewish Europe more accessible — and more communal — than ever.
Gruber has long occupied a front-row seat for the show that is modern Europe. Since the 1970s, she has reported from abroad for many major news outlets in North America; currently JTA’s senior European correspondent, next summer she will lead her first European Jewish heritage tour for The New York Times. [...]

Monday, August 31, 2015

Heads up -- European Day of Jewish Culture is next weekend

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

If you are in Europe -- in virtually any country in Europe -- next weekend, you will be able to experience the European Day of Jewish Culture, an annual continent-wide festival of Jewish heritage and history that is celebrating its 16th edition this year.

Each year events revolve around a common theme -- this year it is “Bridges” — and many events stress aspects of dialogue and inter-religious and other cooperation, while others highlight "spiritual" bridges and other meanings of the concept: anything that "joins or connects."

Events are scheduled in more than 30 countries, and while there are only a couple of events in some countries, in other countries the “day” has become “days” or even a full week of events.

Italy, whose Jewish history goes back more than 2000 years, is one of the main countries taking part in the EDJC — this year events are scheduled in some 72 locales up and down the peninsula, with Florence the focus of central observances. (There are Jewish communities in only about 20 towns and cities in Italy, with total membership in Jewish communities under 25,000 people.)

Highlights include everything from the opening of a Jewish bookstore in Rome, to conferences to book launches to concerts to round-table discussions, to guided tours of historic Jewish quarters; the ancient synagogue in Ostia Antica; Jewish catacombs; the medieval mikvah in Siracusa, Sicily; synagogues and Jewish cemeteries.

See full Italian program here (in Italian)

Spain also has a very rich program, coordinated by the 24-member Network of Jewish Quarters.

See the full Spain program

And Britain, too, has a very full schedule of events, stretching over several days -- see the full UK program here.

All told, all over Europe there are hundreds of individual events to choose from – lectures, concerts, food-tastings, book fairs, and more — plus many guided tours and informal visits to Jewish heritage sites that are generally closed to the public or limited in access.

Events are geared primarily for local people — Jews, but also, in some cases overwhelmingly, non-Jews: the Day is aimed at education as well as tourism.

You can access some programs in participating countries at the website of the AEPJ -- European Association for the Preservation and Promotion of Jewish Culture and Heritage. (Unfortunately the program search does not always function correctly.)

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Lodz Ghetto photos -- my article

Downtown Lodz today

The Jewish Quarterly publishes my review of the book Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross, a fascinating collection of posed photographs and unexpected snapshots taken in the WW2 Lodz Ghetto and hidden underground until after the war.

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

June 22, 2015

The extraordinary images reprinted in Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross are survivors, both physical and symbolic.

Ross, born in Warsaw in 1910, was one of the more than 200,000 Jews imprisoned in the World War II Lodz ghetto. Thanks to his background as a photo-journalist, he was appointed to a privileged position—an official photographer for the Statistics Office of the Ghetto’s Jewish Council (Judenrat).

He worked in that capacity from 1940 to 1945, taking thousands of photographs that documented the widest possible range of ghetto life—and death.

On the one hand, his official work produced everything from ID portraits and group photos of ghetto police, to Potemkin village-like shots of ghetto inmates, smiling at their benches as they laboured in Council-run workshops, or “resorts”, including those that employed young children.

But he turned his lens, too, on other scenes far outside the purview of propaganda—scenes of violence and mass deportations, scenes of murder and malnutrition, scenes of death. Often taken on the sly, from a camera hidden under his coat, these images are chilling but almost familiar in the Holocaust horror they depict.

Ross, though, also immortalized intensely personal moments that put the death, destruction and degradation in a much more intimate, even unlikely, context: kids at play, a smiling bride at her ghetto wedding, friends clowning, a couple stealing a kiss.

Ross, who survived the Holocaust and emigrated to Israel after the war, knew just what he was doing and just what he wanted to do.

“Having an official camera, I was secretly able to photograph the life of the Jews in the ghetto,” he wrote in 1987, four years before his death. “Just before the closure of the ghetto in 1944, I buried my negatives in the ground in order that there should be some record of our tragedy, namely the total elimination of the Jews from Lodz by the Nazi executioners. I was anticipating the total destruction of Polish Jewry. I wanted to leave a historical record of our martyrdom.”

In January 1945, after the Red Army liberated the ghetto, he went back and dug up what he had hidden. Fewer than 3,000 of the 6,000 negatives he had buried survived intact; others were severely damaged from seven months under ground.

But by bringing them back to light, he brought them, and what they represented, back to life. Ross unearthed not only shadowy strips of celluloid; he unearthed direct testimony to the cruelty of life inside the ghetto, and direct testimony, too, to life itself – the lives lived by ghetto inmates, intimate glimpses of humanity side by side with the horror.

    …Continue reading

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Visiting Jewish Heritage in Padova, Italy

Phpto: Gadi Luzzatto Voghera
In the 16th century Jewish cemetery on via Wiel, Padova. Photo: Gadi Luzzatto Voghera

On a stiflingly hot day a couple weeks ago, I spent an afternoon in Padova (Padua), Italy, visiting some of the centuries-old Jewish heritage sites in the city -- they are being developed now as both a resource for local people and as an attractive itinerary for tourists and other visitors.

The sites I visited included the new Museo della Padova Ebraica (Museum of Jewish Padova) which opened in June. As I wrote on the Jewish Heritage Europe web site ahead of the opening, it is housed in the former “German,” synagogue, Sinagoga Tedesca, used by the Ashkenazic community, which was inaugurated in 1525 in the heart of the Jewish quarter, or ghetto, in the city’s historic center.  (Note -- part of this post is a repost of my article on Jewish Heritage Europe.)

The synagogue, on via delle Piazze, was severely damaged during World War II when it was torched by local Fascists, and it stood derelict until it was completely rebuilt in 1998 (the ark was transferred to Tel Aviv in 1956). The museum exhibition includes before and after photos.

The exhibit includes items from the Jewish community’s extensive collection of Judaica objects from past centuries to the present. Among them are a very rare Mameluk parochet from Egypt dating back to the 15th or 16th century.

!5th or 16th century parochet from Egypt, in the Padova Jewish museum

There is also an 18th century Megillah of Esther,  a 16th century Torah scroll, exceptional silver torah ornaments, and several ketubot. A backlit photographic reproduction of the Ark occupies the space where the Ark once stood — the ark now being in Tel Aviv.

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Two films are included in the exhibition. One is a general introduction to the history of the community. The other — projected on the walls of the sanctuary where the exhibit is located — tells the story of Padova Jews through the life stories of several prominent members of the community over the past five centuries or so, portrayed by actors. I was somewhat dismayed that this film does not include reference to any women in Padova Jewish history....perhaps there were no famous women, but it was the women who kept the community alive, and I believe that their role must also be highlighted, even if it simply means through exhibits dealing with food and marriage customs.....

Other sites I visited included the 16th century  Italian rite synagogue, which is still used by the small local Jewish community, and the Jewish cemetery on via Wiel — dating from the 16th century and the oldest of the five Jewish cemeteries in the city. (You can download an article about these cemeteries HERE.)

The ornate wooden Bimah in the Padova synagogue. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber
Bimah in the Italian rite synagogue. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

The sanctuary of the Italian synagogue is a small, rather long and narrow space, with an elaborately carved Ark and a delicate wooden Bimah positioned to face each other from the middle of the long sides of the room. The Bimah is believed to have been carved from the wood of a single tree that fell in the botanical gardens.

Ark in the Italian rite synagogue in Padova. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber
Ark in the Italian rite synagogue in Padova. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

The Jewish cemetery behind a high brick wall in via Wiel, in central Padova near the Old Town and of ghetto, has been restored and is beautifully maintained by the Jewish community. Opened in 1529, with more than 90 16th century tombs, it is the oldest surviving Jewish cemetery in Padova and one of  five Jewish cemeteries that remain in the city. (Fragments from two 15th century gravestones from a cemetery destroyed in 1509 are displayed in the city museum).
Jewish cemetery on via Wiel, Padova, founded in 1529
Jewish cemetery on via Wiel, Padova, founded in 1529

The most famous people buried there are Me’ir Katzenellenbogen, or Maharam, a renowned Ashkenazic rabbi who died in 1565, and his son, Samuel Judah, who succeeded him and died in 1597.

Mainly because of them, Padova is believed to be the only place in Italy where devout followers make pilgrimages to the tombs of their masters. Indeed, Jewish community leaders say that these pilgrims often do not contact the Jewish community to obtain the key to the cemetery, but climb over the wall to pray, leave kvittlach (written messages) and light candles.

Katzenellenbogen gravestones are (rather charmingly) marked by the crest of a crouching Cat (“Katze” in German).

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Another noted personality interred here is Anselmo Del Banco (Asher Levi Meshullam) who died in 1532. A powerful banker (owner of several loan-banks in the Venice area), he was the head of the Jewish community in Venice and represented the community when in 1516 the authorities decreed that Jews there must live in a ghetto. His gravestone is notable for its fine and unusual carving.

Gravestone of Anselmo Del Banco (Asher Meshullam) d. 1532
Gravestone of Anselmo Del Banco (Asher Meshullam) d. 1532

Friday, July 17, 2015

July Jewish Heritage Europe Newsletter is out!

In a 16th century Jewish cemetery in Padova, a carved cat adorned the gravestone of a member of the noted Katzenellenbogen rabbinical family.

The July edition of the Jewish Heritage Europe monthly Newsletter is out — read it by clicking here.

News, information, images and updates from around the continent, with a particular emphasis this month on Italy.

Subscribe on the JHE Home Page — where you can also sign up for the daily Jewish Heritage Europe Newsfeed and follow JHE on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, May 8, 2015

I consider Dark Tourism, in a comparative persective

Tourists visit slave cabins at Boone Hall plantation, near Charleston

Visitors walk past barracks at Auschwitz, which house exhibits

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I've been in Charleston, SC, for the past four months, teaching this semester as the Distinguished Visiting Chair in Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston.

During my stay, I've begun to consider parallels -- and dissonances -- between the way Jewish heritage and history, including the Holocaust, are presented in Eastern Europe and the way African American (including slave) history and heritage are presented in the Charleston area.

Here's a brief essay I wrote, for the web site of the Drayton Hall plantation, exploring some of the issues.

- - - -
More than 20 years ago I wrote a book called Upon the Doorposts of Thy House: Jewish Life in East-Central Europe, Yesterday and Today. The title referred to the mezuzah—the encased prayer scroll Jews place on their doorposts, indicating a house as the home of a Jew.

In post-Holocaust Europe you could often find the grooves or scars where mezuzahs had been removed or painted over during or after the Shoah—thus forming symbolic mezuzahs that indicated a house where Jews once lived. In my book, I extrapolated further, suggesting that the surviving physical relics of pre-war Jewish life—synagogue buildings, Jewish cemeteries, even if abandoned, in ruined condition or transformed for other use, also served as symbolic mezuzahs to mark towns, villages, cities, and even countries where Jews once lived and do not live now.

My intent was to show how buildings and other physical sites can be talismans and touchstones, opening the way into memory and history.

George McDaniel made this same idea explicit in his introduction to the panel of Drayton Hall descendants. “History did not happen to someone, somewhere else, but to you,” he said. “You grow up a product of history. Preserving buildings means also preserving the story behind the buildings, making a connection with people. Why is a place important? How do you feel connected?”

From the Jewish perspective, visiting Jewish historical sites in post-Holocaust, post-Communist Europe can be a very positive experience, emphasizing Jewish life, history and culture; but the experience also falls under what is now known as Dark Tourism—tourism to sites of what we can call “negative” history, “negative” experience: death, destruction, war.

Sites of slavery also fall under Dark Tourism, though this aspect of a historic site (such as a plantation or genteel antebellum home) often becomes masked, elided, or simply footnoted in the presentation of beautiful buildings and gardens for tourist consumption.

Much of this boils down to “who controls the narrative”—and to whom is the narrative directed: issues that we have been dealing with in the class I have been teaching, “Memory, Heritage, Renewal.” Although the main focus of our class is Jewish heritage and memory and their role and representation in Europe, we have been able to draw parallels with the way that African American heritage, history, and culture are presented here in Charleston and the Lowcountry.

I was delighted that students from my class were in attendance at the panel presentation featuring the descendants of Drayton Hall, as the discussion clearly demonstrated the parallels we have been dealing with, touching on issues such as the point of view of interpretation and interpreters; messages and signage; how the same place can have different symbolic meanings and generate different memories for different people.

I found particularly compelling a part of the film about Drayton Hall’s African American descendants that parallels the post-Holocaust Jewish experience in Europe. People were filmed sitting in the African American cemetery at Drayton Hall, speaking about how many of the deceased buried there had no markers for their graves, no one to talk about their history. In Eastern Europe, when I visit an abandoned Jewish cemetery, I often ponder the fact that most of the thousands and thousands of people buried in these places are also forgotten, with no descendants to tend their graves or even remember who they were.

Drayton is not alone in trying to present a more inclusive past in the plantation context. Boone Hall has installed an extensive presentation on slavery and African American history centered on the nine preserved slave cabins there. Magnolia Gardens features special programs to bring to life its recently renovated row of cabins. And Middleton Place, which I have not yet visited, presents a permanent exhibit titled “Beyond the Fields” in a two-family tenant residence called Eliza’s House, in memory of Eliza Leach, a South Carolina African American born in 1891, and the last person to live in the building. The much less elaborate Hampton Plantation also incorporates the site’s slave history in well researched text panels, both in the Big House and along the path leading to it.

After the Drayton Hall panel, I was excited to visit McLeod Plantation with Mary Battle, public historian at the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, and her class. McLeod, which served as local headquarters of the Freedman’s Bureau following the Civil War, has the potential to interpret not only slave life but the postwar experience of the newly freed men and women. McLeod’s signage uses a phrase that could be the site’s “slogan”—describing it as a place of both “tragedy and transcendence.” I found it interesting that this formulation echoes what we sometimes call sites of Jewish heritage in Europe—“sites of tragedy and sites of triumph.”
Read article on the web site

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

March 2015 Jewish Heritage Europe Newsletter is out!

The new Jewish Heritage Europe Newsletter is out!

Click here to read it in your browser.

News & info from Poland, Italy, Latvia, Croatia, Portugal and the UK and more... with a focus on synagogue history,  architecture & preservation.

There also are calls for fellowship applications, papers, workshops and conferences as well a links to a photo gallery of the symbolic decorative image of the hands raised in priestly blessing.

Check it out -- and subscribe to both the monthly newsletter and the regular item-by-item news feed!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Check out the February Jewish Heritage Europe Newsletter!

The Jewish Heritage Europe Newsletter for February shares calls for fellowship applications, papers, workshops and conferences -- including a training session at the National Library of Israel.

We also highlight new books on Jewish heritage in Ukraine, Slovenia, and Poland, as well as preservation initiatives and issues in Poland, Lithuania, England, Italy, Croatia, Spain, and Romania. For a change of pace, we even posted about an 18th century Jewish cemetery in the United States.

Please keep me informed about your own Jewish heritage projects, concerns and ideas so that I can share information with our expanding readership. Thanks!