Above is the Wisla River in Plock (pwutsk), Poland, the town where my grandmother Mollie was born. At the bottom of the blog is a map of Poland.


On the way

Tuesday, May 10th is the 21st day of the Omer

This morning I awoke at 6:40 and made yet another valiant and finally successful effort to pack everything into the suitcase, backpack, and briefcase. It would have been easier if I had not been transporting 20 packets of instant oatmeal, 3 pint-sized zip-lock bags of dried tomato slices, a gallon bag containing smaller bags of powdered egg-white protein powder (actually tastes good) and powdered soy milk (vile stuff), not to mention the 1.1 lbs. of kosher jelly beans I am bringing to a Warsaw synagogue which will then be mailed to a 22 year old in Gdansk who wants to keep kosher but is tempted by Polish pork-infused jelly beans – and is the first hint that every food in Poland is similarly tainted by that terribly vilified animal?

After declaring victory, I emptied out the spoilable food from the refrigerator and brought it over to my neighbor Jesse. Noam and Romy were in fine form. Romy was all smiles as she engaged in her latest trick: she takes three or four steps before plopping onto her cushioned butt. Noam was trying to figure out how to engage me in conversation. He had earlier tormented his exhausted mother with his demands and was in the doghouse, but he seemed not to be bothered in the least by her pique. It was clear he was in one of those contrary moods that drive parents to distraction, because he could not tolerate the attention I gave to his little sister and tried to ever-so-slightly push her down as she walked. Nevertheless, they all managed to pose for this photo.

The cabbie who drove me to the airport was from Ethiopia. He spent three years of high school in Prague. Both countries at that time were Communist and it was easy to move from one to the other, and then during some thaw he got into the U.S. as a refugee. He has a wife and a daughter, but the rest of his family is in Ethiopia, stuck there unless he can produce the huge wad of dollars necessary to be eligible for family reunification. He was sad, contemplating his longing for them, and he has put his hopes on his daughter – who is completing her degree in biological sciences and bound for a career as a scientist – for one day earning enough to bring the rest of the family here. Our government, he said, supports the horrid tyrant who has ruled Ethiopia these past 20+ years, and when people are shot in the streets it is with American military equipment. We also talked about lighter matters: the happy growth during the 1990s of the Ethiopian gathering places on Fairfax Boulevard, why the teff “pancake” that is the centerpiece of the meals is so sour (because the grains are first fermented for three days), and the elasticity of the young brain that allows the quick learning of foreign languages.

So when I finally boarded the plane, I took out my Poland tour book and wrote out flash cards for myself with words like prosze (please, or you’re welcome), dziekuje (thank you), przepraszam (excuse me), and the all important jarzynowa (vegetable).


May 11 - May 12, the 23rd day of the Omer

In JFK, the Lufthansa jet looked so big from the outside, and there were 17 outfitted crew members who got on board before the passengers (and who knows how many tiny men were already in the plane’s innards, shoveling the coal into the boiler?), so why was it so terribly cramped? My seat mate was sullen, had a bad cough and a habit of poking her elbows into me. Perhaps I slept a couple hours, but I was rescued from insanity by the Peter Carey book I brought to Poland, Parrot and Olivier in America.

The Frankfurt airport, where I spend 3 hours between flights, was ugly and poorly designed, but it had something I'd never seen before: a smoking booth! It is a glass enclosed room containing a chair and space for about three people to stand and smoke and tap their ashes into ashtrays, and since it's not all cloudy it must have a fan that pulls the smoke up and out away from the rest of us. Festooned with Camel logos, it is clearly a welcome relief for smokers, who bound into it excitedly and sigh deeply as they pull out their lighters.

I slept during the flight from Frankfurt to Warsaw and managed to get sunburned in the process. Approaching Warsaw from the northwest, Poland is a quilt of green and brown strips of farmland. I could see why it served so well as a battle ground over the centuries: it is flat and the armies could rob the farmers of their grains. Despite my fears, I managed quite well at the Warsaw airport to change some of my dollars, withdraw funds from the ATM, and purchase a Polish SIM card and actually get it into the phone and make a call to Lucyna!


Thursday, May 12, the 23rd day of the Omer

My first half day in Warsaw was lovely. The cabbie was nice but didn't know any English, and I guess he thought I knew Polish because he kept explaining sights to me in long sentences in that melodious Polish language (SO much more pleasant than Deutsch). My hotel is downtown and in the midst of the University of Warsaw. My room is about 5 x 10 feet, with a nice view outside the window. I showered and then went online to locate a nearby vegetarian restaurant, and I walked there and ate. It was delicious: cooked spinach, buckwheat groats (kasha! part of my family heritage!), and three little salads of carrot and cabbage.

On the way back to the hotel, I walked in and around the area. There are historic buildings all around - although because only 15% of Warsaw was still standing after the Nazis and Soviets got through with it, many of them are restorations from the Soviet era. It was warm outside
and students were hanging around in the clubs and on the street. I understand why there's a statue of Copernicus in front of the Warsaw Society of Sciences, but why the fake palm trees?

There are so many churches around here that neither my map nor Google names this cool one that is across from the university entrance.* It sports lots of statues, two great steeples, and a new plaque honoring Pope John Paul II. Hanging over it is an Iyar moon.
*Church of the Holy Cross

Now it is time to turn in for the night. Can you believe that I hear a real orchestra playing classical music in the distant? Interspersed with it is an electronic keyboard playing jazz. Not to worry, it's quite pleasant, and the feather bed and I will be in zzzzzs heaven.


Friday, May 13, the 24th day of the Omer

What would I do without in-room access to computer? I mapped out the day’s routes with Google map, checked it out with the people at the front desk, and went on my way. I took a taxi to the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw. What a hodge-podge of tomb stones, no apparent rhyme or reason to the placements, and it was all overgrown with spring vegetation underneath towering trees. Online there is a web link to some sort of map of the stones, but I was not seeking any particular grave so I never used it, and I decided just to walk the breadth and length and read the inscriptions at random. They are very poignant and very Jewish; that is, there were inscriptions like “he was a good man and beloved father who helped the community,” or “she was a modest and good woman.” Here is a photo of one with the inscription: “Here are the bones of the important young woman [unmarried] Miss Sara daughter of the rabbi Mr. Isaac Aryeh the Cohen. She died on the holy Shabbat [so she was righteous] 1860 [I think – hard to see it].” And then it ends with the abbreviated acronym for “May her soul be bound up with the bounds of eternal life.”

It began to rain, neither the overhanging trees nor jackets helped much and I had no umbrella, so I found shelter in a tiny mausoleum housing three graves. Much more pious people than me seek this one out and pour their prayers over the three Hasidic rabbis within. The main attraction is the middle tomb of Shlomo Zalman the author of Hemdat Shlomo, but his grandson and nephew alongside him got their share of little tea candles and notes left by religious Jews who wrote out their prayers on paper and left them on the tombs.

When the rain stopped, I walked about a mile along a busy street (loved this Chinese restaurant that would not be acceptable in p.c. Los Angeles) to the Warsaw Uprising Museum. This is museum built in 2004 to teach Polish national pride and values. It gets a huge number of visitors and appears to be required for high school students. Here’s a good description of the Warsaw Uprising from Warsaw in Your Pocket: “while some cities may have been happy to wait out Nazi occupation [since the German army was on retreat from the Russian army], the Warsaw locals were having none of that. The ensuing uprising which took place in 1944 would become both the most glorious and tragic episode in the city’s history. Doomed from the outset, the Warsaw Uprising enraged Hitler, and his retribution proved swift and brutal. Warsaw was to be wiped from the face of the map, ans cronies set about their orders with a zealous fury. While Red Army tanks stood stoically stationed across the river [because Stalin wanted to subdue the Poles, too!], the Nazis set about blasting western Warsaw . . . . By the time ‘liberation’ arrived, over 90% of the city lay in total ruin.” The exhibit is a shrine to the patriotic Poles who died in the battle, many of them young and of the upcoming professional and intellectual leadership.

It was startling to read about the battles that were taking place in the very streets and major intersections in which I had been walking. It certainly hasn’t been my experience in the U.S. to have historic battles so close at hand. Walking from there to another delicious veggie lunch, I passed a mural featuring the more recent despised Soviet occupation of Poland.

Friday night I went Beit Warszawa, a Reform synagogue in the outskirts of the city, where I thought I’d be teaching but I think it will happen next week. A group of Detroit Jews came, and this was the last stop of their Eastern European tour operated by an Israeli agency. Someone clearly didn’t plan well, because their experience at Beit Warszawa was entirely contrary to the rest of the tour's message. The congregation includes Poles who are not Jewish but who like Jewish worship, people who consider themselves partly Jewish and want to engage with Judaism, and people on the path to conversion. It was a service much like a Reform Friday night service in America: a succession of in-unison singing of the Hebrew prayers (alongside a Polish transliteration), a short inspirational feel-good sermon, and times to greet and introduce and wish “Shabbat shalom” to each other. Then we had kiddush and shared a buffet dinner, and some of the braver congregants sat and talked with the Americans. I watched and participated and then heard directly from one tourist who confided in me her confusion, since the she had been seeing only death camps and hearing only that the Poles exterminated Jews and have always hated them and still do, and Israel is the only place where Jews are protected. Until that evening in Beit Warszawa, she had never actually talked to a Polish person.

Of course, reality is more complicated than a simple narrative of all good or all bad. As my companion that evening, Rachel Feldhay Brenner (a prof from U Wisconsin Madison, in Poland for the conference and to do archival research on Polish writers during the inter-war and WWII era) put it, there is no doubt that antisemitism in Poland, as in all Europe, was growing stronger between the two World Wars, and many Poles hated Jews and would have liked them to disappear (much like many Israeli Jews would like Palestinians to conveniently move elsewhere). But they did not imagine or plan the cruel and vast murder that would shortly ensue, or the death factories and mass graves that the Nazis placed in Poland (so as not to sully Deutschland). Rachel, who is fluent in Polish and loves to chat in Polish with anyone anywhere and whose research now deals quite a bit with antisemitism in Polish culture, says that she has learned to differentiate between people who hated Jews and people who did not regard them as human. And of course, 2011 is not the same as 1940, and an accurate picture of life is one that is nuanced and complex.

In between all these heavy conversations, real life occurs. We go up to the buffet table for dessert, I plan to meet a new friend later in the week in Plock, we laugh and look at photos of people’s children and boyfriends, fuss over the delayed taxi, and end the day in sleep.


Shabbat, May 14, from Warsaw to Bialystok, the 25th day of the Omer

Saturday, May 14, the 25th day of the Omer

I had told Lucyna that I would travel on Shabbat if it would include going to a synagogue. So that is why on Saturday morning, Rachel and I met Francesca, another conference participant, at the central train station in Warsaw to take the train to Marikinia. Lucyna would meet us there with her car and drive us to Treblinka and then go on to Tykocin, a town with a beautiful reconstructed synagogue, and from there we’d go to Bialystok, stay overnight, and then go to the Bialowiecza forest the next day. I found a 50 zloty note at the ticket counter, and Rachel announced that we’d use it for charity during the day. We bought some buns and fruit at the station, and Rachel purchased a challah for us – there it was, braided egg bread (in Polish it is chalka), and it tasted just like the ones at home! Shortly after establishing ourselves in the first class room in the last car, a man walked in and put two pens on the seat with a printed note and quickly walked away. The note explained that our purchase of these pens would help the deaf people selling these pens achieve self respect. Wow, I thought, I’m not at CSUN anymore! Yes, we bought the pens.

The countryside was not what I expected -- I expected lots of forest and shabby houses. Instead, we were riding through flat land, the fertile Polish plain, and trees were in stands of 20 or 30. When there were houses alongside the tracks, they were brick or stuccoed, many of them three stories high, and everything looked plain but very neat. No garbage strewn around, no advertisements or graffiti plastered on the walls, and nothing was in obvious disrepair. At the hour and a half mark we got up and stood near the door, and eventually the train slowed down and stopped. But the door wouldn’t open, so we went to another door, and then Lucyna reached up and pulled it open from the outside, but by then the train had started moving! What to do? Can you believe I jumped off a moving train!??? Yes, ‘tis true. It was not as dumb as it sounds, because the train was not going so fast that I fell down (though I went careening a bit and Lucyna and I had a good laugh at my idiocy). Rachel, right behind me, was not about to follow suit and she didn’t need to, because Lucyna started hollering to the conductor and the train came to a halt.

The double track lines that extend from Warsaw to Bialystok always passed through Marikinia, but the Nazis had added many more tracks in the town, because that’s where the trains were unloaded at first, I think. Then, leading to the village of Treblinka deeper into the countryside there was another track built to the death camp and the forced labor camp that were erected, but that track was ripped out by the Nazis when they tried to destroy the evidence. The countryside is beautiful in the spring, and this area has denser stands of trees so that these awful places could be hidden away within the woods – although of course there was much going on that would betray the truth: the trains, the traffic of miserable human prisoners, the personnel going back and forth, and the smoke from the open-air pyres. It was to here that the Jews of Warsaw were deported – the figures given are that 350,000 Jews lived in Warsaw on the eve of the war, and 800,000 Jews were murdered at Treblinka and 50,000 others, which in the case of Treblinka included a sizable number of Romani. Virtually nothing remains of the camp, and certainly nothing of the people. So there is an exhibition hall with photographs and explanations, and there is a beautiful memorial grounds with stones representing the Jewish towns and cities of the victims.

In the midst of them all is a huge stone structure, very powerful looking, very ominous looking, almost like a clenched fist, though it is decorated at the top with a stone menorah. We walked around and through the grounds. There were a few other people there – some that could have been foreign tourists, but also some that were obviously Poles, such as the youngish mother and father who had decided that this was an important thing to do together with their two children on a pretty Saturday in May.

We drove to the town of Tykocin, but before going into the synagogue we ate in the restaurant next to it called Tayesh – this means goat, and Jews would know that because of the folk dance? but in which language?? Rachel and I could not agree, but Lucyna did not think it is a Polish word. Sitting outside on the ground was an old Polish man carving little wooden statues of a Jewish man – because he had a beard, was wearing a yarmulka and a tallit, and held a violin in his hand. This is where Lucyna had purchased the one she gave me last year in Phoenix, and we were amazed to see a larger, polished version on the balcony of the house next store.

The restaurant is owned, operated, and staffed by Polish Catholics, but it has a Jewish theme. Among the decorations inside was a large doll dressed up like a religious Jewish man, some black and white copies of pages from the Szyk Haggadah, and a seven-branched menorah alongside a kiddush cup and fake challah. But the place also served regular Polish food and drink, and there were local people also in the restaurant. I managed to find a vegetable stew that tasted like something my grandma Rosie used to make: cabbage stew sweetened with raisins. Grandma's version would have benefited from the beets and the coriander seeds in this dish!

The Tykocin synagogue is gorgeous. It was built in 1642. Like the houses in this Jewish part of the town, it was boxy and white masonry, though it was far more massive than the dwellings. Clearly these Jews had been well-off and secure. The information in the synagogue explained that the best years were in the 18th century, and when a new route was made between Warsaw and Bialystok that bypassed Tykocin, the economy in the town suffered and the Jewish population decreased. Yet, there were about 2,000 on the eve of the war. In 1941 the Tykocin Poles agreed to Nazi orders to loot the Jews (this little fact was not in the synagogue handout), and then the Nazis came in, ordered the Jews into the town square, marched the men and trucked the women and children to nearby Lopuchowo forest, and they were quickly dispatched by the Einsatzgruppen – the mobile shooting units that accompanied the Nazi troops conquering Poland. About 150 men ran off along the way, but in the towns in which they found shelter they later were killed along with the other Jews. The few survivors who returned were met with hostility (this was also not mentioned in the handout). I wondered, what must it have been like in Tykocin after the Jews were gone? Think of the sudden loss of those businessmen, the empty Jewish neighborhood. Who would have managed to get possession of those lovely houses?

The town church was far bigger and more elaborately decorated than the synagogue, and the Polish houses were ample and handsome. We went inside the church and hung out for a while on the bridge over the Narew River, admiring the countryside.

There was more. We drove further to another place outside of Tykocin to Pentowo, a site along the Narew where there were dozens of storks. People here believe that having a stork living on one’s property brings good luck. Plus they are gorgeous birds. It is nesting season, and the storks build huge nests on platforms erected especially for them. This place was quite special, with a historic home, very carefully tended fences, and a view tower over the bog next to the river. As you can see, I found a canoe!

After this we drove to Bialystok, but that tale will have to wait.


Bialystok, Poland

Saturday, May 14, the 25th and 26th days of the Omer

Driving on the roads in eastern Poland is a bit of a harrowing experience. There were some patched asphalt streets through some of the villages, and just one short dirt road, but the main highway on the main route through the country is in good shape – certainly it is far better than Pico Boulevard in west Los Angeles! But there is just one lane in each direction, and filling up those lanes are huge trucks carrying goods back and forth for the Belorussians. Lucyna could not bear to go slowly behind those behemoths, and so she’d rev up her Toyota and pass them, and although she is a safe driver and did not take chances, I would see the fleck of a car approaching us from a mile ahead and worry that we would have a head-on collision (I know my sons are nodding their heads at this point). So it was a relief to pull
into the city to our hotel – The Titanic!! Yes, the Bialystok Titanic Hotel is festooned with ship paraphernalia and lovingly painted renditions of that boat in its spanking new pre-disaster glory. Is it any wonder that I slept poorly that night? I sunk into bed at 9:30, woke up at 1:30 and stayed awake until 5 a.m. Good thing I had that book.

Speaking of books. Modern Jewish prose literature first flowered in late 19th century Eastern Europe, and the Yiddish and then later Hebrew short stories and poetry are full of references to Bialystok. It was a major center of Jewish culture and business, and I just hear the name of the city and imagine some tattered Jewish luftmensch (rootless, underemployed, philosophical-type young man) hitching a ride on a horse-drawn carriage into the city where he can schnorr (beg) some bread and pickles and a night’s lodging. I found it quite disconcerting to drive into a clean and up-to-date Bialystok that is empty of Jews.

They were near-totally annihilated, and in the midst of the city is a plaque on a wall marking the site of the huge town synagogue, into which 3,000 Jews were herded and then set aflame.
Lucyna explained that in 1968, when the Polish Communist party began aggressively discriminating against Jews and many left for Israel, the University of Warsaw allowed some of the Jewish faculty to move over to a new branch in Bialystok.

I think the Jew most honored by Bialystok, though, is Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof, who lived from 1859 - 1917 and invented the international language Esperanto. The story
is that he watched the local multilingual population quarreling and thought that the key to world peace would be a new language in which no one was comfortably fluent. See how well that worked?

The city has a big statue in his honor, and here on Zamenhof Street (where he lived for a time) there is even a faux Zamenhof-on-the-balcony gazing at the people babbling together below. I found the city buildings very charming. Lucyna and her sweet husband live in a light-filled small apartment next to trees on the side of the city. In the downtown area were lots of multiple-unit structures with inset windows and colored walls. We walked through a lovely park whose structures seem to be in the model of Versailles, containing cool statues and late Saturday afternoon strollers. The gibbous moon came out in the still-light sky (the days are long in this northern latitude, as I was to learn when the sun rose at about 4 a.m.). In the midst of the city is the rynek, the city square – it’s like the Mexican zocalo: a big area set up for people to hang out and eat and listen to performances. I guess our closest equivalent in L.A. would be The Grove? This place had far less commerce, and the restaurant owners were far more generous about access to their toilets. We were too exhausted and chilled for outside eating, so we found a good Italian restaurant and ate well before returning to our unsinkable ship for the night.


Visiting the forest primeval

Sunday, May 15, 26th day of the Omer, in the Bialowieza Forest

You might ask, what can one say about a forest? This one is pretty special. It is the last untouched remnant of the forest that used to cover all of Europe. Unfortunately, now it only traverses the borderlands of Poland and Belarus (39 sq. miles within Poland and 684 sq. miles in Belorussia). It was lovely to visit it during the springtime when the ground cover was so green and full of buttercups. There were also lots of purple flowers, and a plant called bear garlic. The little white flowers smell of garlic when you sniff up close, and when there are dozens of plants together, the smell of garlic is in the air. The leaves of the plants look like they are covered with fine, white ash, but this is just stuff from the trees and flowers (I think this is what Reagan called "tree pollution"). I can't put these photos in the blog right side up, for some reason, so you'll just have to use your imagination.

The area has a buffer zone in which hunting is allowed and there are fewer rules about access, and there are buildings still remaining there from the period of the Tzars and afterwards. We walked through that. Then there is the protected Bialowieza National Park. No machines may enter there, no planting is permitted, and no one cuts down trees (although trees that fall over the official pathways are cut by hand saw and moved to the side). No one can sleep in it overnight, and you cannot enter without a special tour guide. Also, people can enter only on foot or in a horse-drawn carriage. Lucyna arranged a 3 hour walking tour for us.

Most of the forests I’ve seen in my life have not been “first growth,” so the trees are younger and there is more space between trees. Also, fallen trees are usually removed by agencies concerned to prevent forest fires, but in Bialowieza the centuries of leaves and rotted trees have made the ground quite fertile, and so the seeds grow prolifically. And then, because of all the rot, there are lots of types of fungus and many kinds of wood-eating and fungus-eating bugs (though we didn't see them). The guide called this tree “grandma, mother, and daughter” because the youngest grew out of the older and that one grew out of the oldest. We saw some trees that were 300-400 years old, mainly oak and spruce. Spruce trees have very shallow root systems, so if they are knocked a certain way (say, by another falling tree), they can fall over right from the root. We learned about trees splitting in two because of frost damage, but then continuing to grow with the split between them. The tour guide gave us all sorts of lovely facts. Plus some unlovely ones, like the places where partisans hiding in the forest were rounded up and shot. I guess being that this is Poland, it's hard to escape the ghastly reminder of the Nazi occupation. Mostly, we just took in the fragrant air and the springy ground beneath our feet.

Bialowieza still has lots of wildlife, but during the day we wouldn’t be likely to see it. Our guide told us that she once came upon a lynx very early in the morning. There are wolves, deer, and the bison were hunted out of the forest in the 20th century but then were bred in zoos and reintroduced successfully. The Poles are very proud of this, and there are bison pictures and statues everywhere. Also, a Polish beer company graces its label with the bison, so at first glance you think “how lovely, a wild animal” until you actually read the text.

Before entering the park, we sprayed each other with mosquito repellent and received the scorn of a couple of old Polish men who thought we would drive away the bison or irritate them into not reproducing or something. It wasn’t likely that we’d see bison anyway. Afterwards we went to a bison reserve so we could say we saw bison. “We saw bison” -- dismal, miserable animals, penned up in a bison reserve instead of prancing through the buttercups! Nearby were apathetic balding deer and dispirited indolent wolves. I felt better after Rachel and Francesca bought me a little jar of honey and Lucyna bought me bison grass. Enterprising Polish entrepreneurs have convinced Poles that sticking bison grass into vodka for several days gives a good flavor to the flavorless liquor. This recipe tip, of course, has no allure for me, and bison grass is nice on its own. It smells like the sweet grass on Amy's farm. If I hadn’t left it in Lucyna’s car, I’d go sniff it now and assure myself of pleasant dreams.


News Flash on Lag B'Omer

Turns out that starting on Friday afternoon, May 20, I became a guest of the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs! This is not a joke. Rebecca and I are being escorted around Poland with an interpreter, a driver or first-class train where the snacks are served free like how they used to do it on airplanes, and hand-picked guides. We are meeting lots of official people -- see my Revised Itinerary for details and join me in shock. No one has bowed to me, but one man kissed my hand (actually, that was at the synagogue so it doesn’t really count). And the hotels are the kind that would get Benja's approval!

My blog is several days behind real life, but I will catch up. Meanwhile, I have tried but failed to activate the Comment option for those of you out there who are clamoring to be heard.

This photo, taken of a pillar in Bialystok, is in honor of Lag B'Omer.


Street Charms

Monday, May 16, 2011 * the 27th day of the Omer

After traveling from Bialystok to the Warsaw train station Sunday night, I took a taxi to Hotel Felix, a Best Western that I’d be at for five nights. I unloaded my suitcase and keeled over from exhaustion.

On Monday morning, intent on taking a tram, I received instructions from the hotel reception clerk to walk to the main street, turn right and buy a ticket. “They sell them everywhere,” he said, and he told me I’d find a store on the corner that sold them. I didn’t believe him and made him write for me in Polish what I was seeking so I could, if need be, show it to someone. After a few poor guesses, I eventually found a tiny building labeled “billety” (tickets) and successfully bought a few. I boarded the tram like a know-it-all and rode into the city. Museums are closed on Mondays, so my plan was to spend the day walking through the Old City and New City guided by a map and a free booklet that is far superior to any tourist guidebook. Entitled Warsaw in Your Pocket, it has basic tourist info plus walking tours similar to the ones featured in the 1970s Jerusalem guide called Footloose in Jerusalem. The Warsaw guidebook tells you crucial information as well as concise narratives that include both intelligent and smart-ass remarks about the sites as well as quirky tips such as directions to a fountain topped by a statue of a bear with its bun in the air. I found it very charming, though I wonder whether it is meant simply to be cute, or is it a slap at Russia?

Old Town is actually a new town, and New Town – which is also old but not as old as Old Town – is new, too. After the Poles surrendered and limped out of the city at the end of the Warsaw Uprising, the Nazis then continued to bomb the structures. So all the charming old buildings had been built from the ground up beginning in the 1950s and was designed and decorated to match earlier photos. Other cities in Poland that were not destroyed “contributed” their old bricks and building materials for the effort, thereby sacrificing their own historic treasures for the sake of beautifying the nation's capital.

It seemed to me on my walk that about a tenth of all the buildings are churches, and I walked into all of them. In the entry way there is invariably an explanatory plaque or poster that tells of the church's role in Catholic and/or Warsaw history. There were not one, but two churches on my walk whose nuns and priests provided medical care, food, and shelter for 1000+ people who were waiting out the fighting in their basements. All were killed when the Nazis dropped bombs on the churches. One of these churches informed the visitors that the basement was sealed over with the bodies still there, and we should all pray for their souls.

So today there is a symbiotic relationship between the Church and Polish nationalism. Jews like to describe themselves as victims, but we are amateurs compared to the Poles! They celebrate their national suffering and compare it to the torments endured by Jesus, while our religious leaders generally died at ripe old ages. The claim to fame of the gorgeous St. Martin’s Church in the photograph is that it served as a meeting place for theological and political dissent during the Solidarity era. I don’t know about now. Today the Church in Poland is overwhelmingly right wing politically and associated with nationalistic conservative elements. The most extreme reactionaries are also associated with the church. In front of the Presidential Palace on a street with a long name consisting of 25 consonants and two vowels, I saw demonstrators associated with
the Catholic church waving placards and shout slogans about freeing Poland from the grip of Russia, the EU, the UN, and godless secularism. Graffiti expressed this, too, along with other obscure sentiments. I offer a pierogi dinner to anyone who can figure out the reference to Ruth in graffiti on the right.

My Warsaw colleagues, all academics and non-religious types, are weary of, annoyed with, or fearful of these attitudes. Also, they are conscious of the missing Jewish sites in the city. Who was there to advocate for the rebuilding of Jewish Warsaw? City planners named a New Town street after Edwarda Fandaminskiego, one of the fighters of the Jewish Warsaw Ghetto Revolt, but it is actually just the name of a concrete walking path in between buildings that front on other streets.

After a day walking through the city on my own, it was nice to meet other conference participants for dinner at a restaurant in New Town. We are quite an international bunch, hailing from the U.S., Canada, England, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and Poland. For about two hours we ate and talked all at the same time, and finally it was time to go so we could be fresh the next morning when we would face the daunting task of speaking one at a time for hours in a row. The three of us who are staying at Hotel Felix took a taxi back because of the lateness of the hour. The hotel is in Praga, a suburb of Warsaw with a reputation for being somewhat sleazy, poor, and ugly. Alas, I think this is true. There are good things about Praga, though. They are building in it a huge new soccer stadium that is the size of Rhode Island, and that is sure to increase the safety of the streets. Also one of Praga's main drags is named after the first U.S. president. I puffed up in pride as we drove down Jerzego Waszyngtona Street.


It is hard to find time to write clever blog posts while I am having audiences with important people and getting wined and dined. On Thursday at midnight, my fancy clothes will turn into jeans and sneakers, my stagecoaches (Mercedes Benz and van with a special driver) will transform into a tram, and I will have plenty of time to record my adventures with the Polish princes and princesses.

But in the meantime, here's a semi-public "Mazal tov!!" to Aaron for receiving his B.A. from CSUN. He graduates on Wednesday, May 25 at the ungodly hour of 8 a.m. Although I am not there, I am very proud of his accomplishments, and at that very moment, far far away in Ashkenaz, I will be offering a toast in his honor.


Chews by Choice

Tuesday and Wednesday, May 17-18, 2011* the 28th-29th days of the Omer * SWPS Conference

The conference, “Jewishness in Contemporary Culture: American and European Perspectives,” took place over Tuesday and Wednesday, May 17 and18 at the Warsaw School of Social Sciences and Humanities (SWPS). Several days before I boarded the plane to come to Poland, I completed my conference presentation on the food practices of contemporary Orthodox Jews. It is never easy to squeeze one’s research into a 20 minute talk, but I gave myself lots of time to figure out how to present in polite company a lecture about such topics as the cultural importance of animal hindquarters, the need for bug inspections, and the polluting effect of non-Jews on kosher food. I must have managed to be inoffensive, because afterwards the only members of the audience who exhibited discomfort around me were the Jews.

I was on the conference’s “scientific committee.” What this meant is that I got to read the submitted abstracts ahead of time, agree with all the wise decisions made by Lucyna, and reap the credit earned by her hard work and that of her student assistant Emma.

There were about 30 presentations, and because some sessions were held simultaneously, I heard about 20 talks, and really, they were all good. The plan is to publish them, and if I heard it right, the research falls into two distinct volumes: the first would include the papers with activist, optimistic, we-can-do-diversity themes (these are the American perspectives); while the other would include papers that focus on cultural insularity, denial of mass slaughter, and anything gloomy (the European perspectives). I’m sure that the introductions to these books will express this in more sophisticated academic language.

While the mind is being stretched by theories about the construction of memory, the stomach remembers that it needs food. For weeks – let’s be honest: months – before I departed Los Angeles, I worried that I would starve in Poland. I can’t bear to eat meat and fish, and I heard that the only vegetables available are cabbage, carrots, and beets. Somehow I imagined that I’d exercise exquisite self-control in the presence of the foods that are not good for me, that is, pastries, bread, and milk products. So here’s the truth: I have probably already gained five pounds due to the abundant good food and my lack of self-control. The dairy products are terrific, and I could see why from the train rides when we viewed the rich green farm fields with cows munching happily on abundant grass. There are many varieties of beautiful vegetables in restaurants, market stalls, and grocery stores. Warsaw has a great variety of restaurants: franchised fast food (KFC, McDonalds), every second restaurant describes itself as Italian, and one can even buy a dish that fancies itself Mexican that is called “tortilla.” This is a little bit of stew containing no more than 4 beans tucked into a thick folded wheat pancake that is topped by marinara sauce. The food here is rather bland. They keep the hot spices in locked storage and release them by permit only to South Asian immigrants for use exclusively in their homes and restaurants.

On my days walking through Warsaw, I passed lots of stalls featuring freshly baked rolls, bread loaves, and stuffed pastries. In one “swap meet” type market (somewhere between a regular L.A. farmer’s market and The Farmer’s Market on Fairfax and 3rd), there were meat markets aplenty filled with cuts of cow, fish, ducks, venison, and multiple segments of the poor pig. Pierogies are everywhere, whether stuffed with meat or vegetables (the delightful word for mushroom is grzyb), and in one restaurant we ate “lazy pierogies,” so called because instead of taking the trouble to stuff the dough, all the ingredients are just mushed together and boiled.

Since 1974 I’d been hearing tales about Michael Schudrich (Poland’s chief rabbi) from a mutual friend, so we hung out one evening and we talked about – what else? – shechita (kosher meat slaughtering) in Poland. Among other things, I learned that Poland’s shechita business is in the hands of a non-Jewish Polish businessman. Several days each week, he brings unblemished cleft-hoofed ruminants to a slaughtering house which is staffed half the day by Israeli Haredi shochtim [slaughterers who tremble in awe of God] and the other half of the day by Israeli Hasidic shochtim [slaughterers who are filled with pious joy]. The businessman sells the kosher meat to Jews in Europe and to Israel, and the unacceptable cuts go to European non-Jews or to Muslims in Turkey and yes, even Iran, to be sold as hallal meat. Michael told me with obvious pleasure that anything labeled “kosher” in Poland must have his approval; this is actual Polish state law. He rejected the practice which is becoming more widespread in Pico-Robertson, that of requiring kosher certification for vegetables out of concern for bugs. “People must learn how to wash vegetables,” he said emphatically. He is correct, I said to myself the next day, when a lovely little green aphid crawled delicately over a lettuce leaf in my salad bowl and made its way to my fork.


Warsaw for Jews and Anthropologists

Thursday, May 19 and Friday, May 20 * the 30th and 31st day of the Omer

When I invited Rachel to join me at a Friday night service at a Warsaw synagogue, she responded, “Yes, but I hope it is okay with you that I attend not as a spiritual person but as an anthropologist.” Don’t all academics in cultural studies go through life as participant-observers?

Walking through the old Jewish Warsaw today is an odd experience, because so many of the buildings are labeled and plaque-encrusted – but not like in Israel and America, where these serve to reward the donors who paid for the buildings. Such plaques can be found in Warsaw, too, but there were many signs created to educate people about what is not there. Strolling through the streets feels a bit like being in an open-air museum. I went through Jewish Warsaw on a walking tour with other conference participants. We were guided by Malgorzata Pakier, a conference participant and historian who works in the educational division of the soon-to-be-opened-God-willing Museum of the History of the Polish Jews, and her explanations doubled the sense of a world beneath and between the physical structures.

Of course, I was surrounded by people who are expert in the events of 1939-1945 and who seem to read I.B. and I.J. Singer novels (set in pre-war Warsaw) on a yearly basis. When we arrived at Krochmalna Street, they all gasped in delight because this was where the Singer family had lived. But I remember only those books of Singer books set outside of Warsaw, and what excited me was the spinach-filled pastries across the street.

The Warsaw ghetto is nearly entirely obliterated, but in the midst of the sidewalks there are now printed stones that show where the ghetto wall stood. In the place where there had been a bridge between the smaller ghetto and the larger ghetto, we found a make-shift sign showing that the memorialization of the Jews of Warsaw is an ongoing project. I figure it probably will get replaced in a few years by something more permanent, one that needs no correction of the Yiddish or all those extra degeshim (dots) in the Hebrew. There are still ruins that look like ruins, and then there are buildings from that era that look pretty decrepit but are being lived in. Malgorzata showed us an apartment building whose residential population had probably been 100% Jewish and now is 100% not Jewish, except for Mother Mary in the courtyard.

Synagogue restoration has been of highest priority in reconstruction efforts and may be paid for by the government. In the absence of Jewish worshipers, synagogues can be made into museums or cultural tourism sites. In Warsaw, the Nozyk Synagogue is both a place to tour and a real center of worship. Here’s where you go for daily morning, afternoon, and evening services. It’s an Orthodox prayer service – who else would care enough to establish a minyan at the mandated times? – and I thought that the clock, with its scolding phrases, fit in quite well.

But the functioning Jewish district is not all seriousness. Nearby is the Teatre Zydowski, whose posters of its dramatic productions convey an entirely different unreality than the other unrealities. Costumes! Music! Make up! Prima donnas! Were I in southern California, that would no doubt be a lesbian couple on the theater’s portal. And thank goodness for the arts, bringing people of diverse cultures together. On the tram toward our next site, a friendly Polish giant who would have fit perfectly in the Bialowieza Forest but was spilling over his tiny seat on the tram asked me where I was from. “California,” I told him. In response, he bellowed “Schwarzenegger! Girlfriend!” and followed it with a jolly leer.

Next to the still-under-construction Museum of the History of Polish Jews is the Warsaw Ghetto Monument, which Obama will be visiting when he comes to the city. I was bothered by the muscular athleticism of the Jewish ghetto fighters in the monument, until a colleague advised me to think of the strength as symbolic of their inner spirit. I wonder, would a statue with emaciated bodies be as heroic and noble? The base of the monument was full of little notes and memorial candles, some of which were decorated with crosses.

The next day I walked through another part of the city and, by happy accident, went into Saski Garden. It is a huge park in the middle of the city, shaded by large trees. There are benches along the pathways and cops on the lookout for creeps, a beautiful pond, and in the center is a fountain that shoots out an enormous amount of water. How come we don’t have parks like this in the U.S.? A graffiti covered monument brought back some real life grit, and I went on to an honest to goodness anthropologist hang-out, the Ethnographic Museum. This museum “showcases and highlights all that’s best about Poland’s cultural heritage,” my guidebook says. Oh really? The only indication in it that Jews were part of Poland’s cultural heritage was a little wooden sculpture of a sad looking family entitled “Rodzina Zydowska” (Jewish family). Despite that, I loved the place. The museum is a paean to Polish peasant culture, full of meticulously presented costumes, kitchenware, farm tools, and handicrafts. There was much more to see, but I had to leave and enter the next phase of my trip, when I would put on the guise of a member of the ruling class.


Traveling with the Polish Foreign Ministry

Rebecca Golbert and I participated in a Polish Foreign Ministry “study tour” May 20 - 26. The Polish Foreign Ministry contracted with the Polish Associated Press agency to set up meetings with people who could inform us of their work on Polish-Jewish relations, broadly understood, because this included museum directors and historians. All expenses were covered. It is understood that upon our return, we will write and speak about what we learned.

We each had our own room and breakfast in a posh hotel and lunch and dinner in well-reputed restaurants while meeting with our contacts. We were scheduled from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. with brief “down times” in there for driving from place to place, perhaps a city tour, and here and there we got some free time for a nap.

We were accompanied at all times by Anna, a professional translator hired by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs to keep us on schedule and get us to our next place, to modify the arrangements, and to keep us safe and comfortable. After our meetings with people, the three of us would have great fun analyzing what had occurred. She was loving and warm, fussing over our comfort like a Polish yiddishe mama – this is how she put it. This particular mama also smokes like a stove and complains that the no smoking rule in most buildings makes her a member of the most discriminated minority in Poland today.

Reporting on all of our visits day to day would be boring, and perhaps even my summaries will not interest you because I have to be diplomatic. I will only report selectively, and here is a bit from our meetings with Warsaw contacts.

I found a photo of Ministry of Foreign Affairs specialist for Polish-Jewish Affairs, Sebastian Rejak, Ph.D., with whom we had a stimulating and very enjoyable dinner meeting. I was trying to impress him with my intellectual acuity and sophistication, so I did not pull out my Canon and ask him to say cheese, although I did photograph the awesome desserts we were served (already on another blog post). He is a scholar with an expertise in post-Holocaust theology and the role of the Holocaust in shaping American Jewish and Polish identity, and it was great fun to talk about those issues and the faults in the latest Jan Gross book Golden Harvest. We made plans for future academic programs that could receive support from the Ministry, and with a guy like this helping out, we can't go wrong.

Foundation Shalom is an important Jewish educational organization, and we learned of their classes for the over-50 set – they call it Third Age University. “Third Age” is a term for the underemployed types who elsewhere are described as “seniors” or “old geezers” (others, however, associate the term with the era described by J.R.R. Tolkien that began when Sauron was defeated by the Last Alliance of Elves and Men following the downfall of NĂºmenor). I’m sorry I will not be around to enjoy Foundation Shalom’s week long Festival of Jewish Culture "Singer's Warsaw," which attempts to liven up Warsaw with music, drama, and courses, and to preserve the happy memories of prewar Jewish Warsaw depicted by I.B. Singer, which I hope means lots of spinach-filled pastries for all.

We had a meeting with a representative of an excellent Polish-Jewish magazine that’s been around since the early 1990s, but now it’s published on a bi-monthly basis because the foundation supporting it is losing interest, no one else is taking over, and readers look for free copies instead of paying the subscription. Whereas the previous night’s discussion about mass murder and grave robbing was upbeat and stimulating, this one was so depressing that after twenty minutes I blinked twice at Anna and we were out of there two minutes later, searching for uppers. It's hard to find a visual image for this, so I'll just put in one of my favorites that has not yet been used.

The organization Forum for Dialogue Between the Nations is quite interesting and produced this terrific book which, in its first printing, had been distributed by the American Jewish Committee. The Forum is run by Poles (that means they are not Jewish, like just about everyone we were talking with) who are trying to improve Polish-Jewish relations. But they have to concentrate their efforts on educating Polish youth about Polish antisemitism because they cannot find enough Diaspora or Israeli Jews who care to learn about and talk with real, live Poles. This does not surprise me a bit because I’ve experienced this and heard it over and over again, and I think it is nuts. But I guess if you’re reading my blog, you are the choir I don’t need to preach to.