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.


My Adventure in Torun

Wednesday, May 24 - Friday, May 27, 2011 * the 36th - 38th day of the Omer

Right after breakfast we were driven to Torun in a passenger van. It is a 2-3 hour drive northwest from Warsaw along the Wisla River. We were entering the region that used to be called Great Poland (Wielkopoland), the part with the most cities and trade contacts with the west. Germans were a sizable portion of its minority population. We sped through the outer margins of Plock, which is the closest I will get on this trip to the archives containing my Grandma Mollie’s birth certificate.

Torun was built on the east side of the Wisla (now it has spread to both sides and is connected by a 2 lane bridge) in 1231 by the Teutonic Knights. They built a huge wall out of red bricks and put their castle in it. Only a remnant of their castle remains – they were such an irritating lot that even after they surrendered in battle to 15th century Polish and Lithuanian kings, the victors destroyed most of it. Sound familiar? Anyway, there are still many massive, somber-looking Gothic (14th - 15th century) buildings and more delicate-looking flowery Renaissance ones, too.

Copernicus, who lived and developed his blasphemous science here, is the official town hero. There are lots of statues of him, his house is a museum, the university is named after him, etc. But perhaps the picture in the town square indicates that another man may be more popular? On a mid-week afternoon, the place was full of tourists, students, and families drawn to the glorious looking buildings. We bought some famous Torun gingerbread, which I did not love because it is dry and spongy. The town was unscathed by the German army during World War II. Our tour guide had bad words only for the Soviet army, which regarded the region as part of Germany and shot and raped their way through the area. Note: the difference between a German and a Pole when they’ve lived in the same place for hundreds of years is that Germans are Lutheran, Poles are Catholics, and the Germans speak more German than Polish but its likely are also bilingual. Many left after the war, fearing reprisals, but not all, and our tour guide has various German relatives in Torun. He also told me not to expect that anyone in the town would know of Rabbi Zevi Hirsch Kalischer. We will see!

The Polish Foreign Ministry made ambitious plans for us in Torun: my lecture would be on Polish TV, we’d give a press conference, meet with the mayor, go to the town archives. We stayed in an awesome, 4-star hotel built into the medieval city wall that looked out on one of the bridges over the River Wisla.

After our Old Town tour, we were driven to the other side of the river to the Higher School of Hebrew Philology in Torun. We met Rivka Gemeinder Halperin, Ph.D., who is in charge of the Hebrew program and, from all the evidence of the students’ Hebrew chattering and their individual testimonies, is also a superb teacher. Born and raised in Israel, given Polish fluency by her mother, educated in and on the faculty of U.S. universities, she was recruited to the school in Torun three years ago, thinking that she was going to Turin.

The brainchild behind the school and its Rector is Father Maksymin, a Franciscan monk who lives in the adjoining monastery. Before I got to Torun, I’d imagined this Father as a Torun version of the elderly John Paul II. So I was astonished when I was introduced to this beautiful 45 year old angel. He has curly blonde-grey hair that puffs up around his face like a cloud, deep-set blue eyes with the intensity displayed by a 7 year old boy, he is tall and lithe, and in his floor-length, flowing brown robe he whisks around the place like a gazelle. Need I say that he is charismatic and has a wildly enthusiastic flock, including yours truly? He seems passionate about Hebrew learning, and though he did not say it, he is determined to be a counter-influence to Radio Maryja, an awful right-wing Catholic cultural force that also is headquartered in Torun. As a young monk, he dreamed of studying in Jerusalem and convinced his elders that he had to go there to complete his doctorate in Bible. When they brought him home after three years, he established this school so as to bring a bit of modern Israel back to Torun, and a wealthy parishioner built a spanking-new three story school building. Every room is outfitted like a language lab, there’s a school cafeteria, guest rooms (a little cross above the doorway), and a real curriculum in Hebrew literature and Jewish cultural studies. The school is an expression of his interfaith mission.

My lecture was scheduled for 7:30 p.m. At 7:25, the school’s auditorium suddenly filled up with a few hundred Poles aged 20 - 80. Father Maksymin swished around greeting people and checking with the TV crew while his helpers handed out flags (these were from the beatification ceremony for John Paul II), and when the festivities began, they waved the flags rhythmically while singing some songs to the accompaniment of a little klezmer. I recognized one of the psalms because they sang it in Hebrew as well as Polish! Then my part of the program began. Everyone who needed was given headphones to hear Anna’s simultaneous translation of my talk, “Religious and Social Challenges Faced by the Jewish Community in Torun: Rabbi Kalischer’s Perspective.”

It may sound rather dry to you unimaginative ones out there, but the audience was very attentive. It was a 30 minute talk that put Kalischer from boyhood to old man (1795-1874) into a human context. My thesis was that Torun was a congenial and religious-tradition-respecting place, so it produced this rabbi who gave the world an optimistic, activist, and tradition-affirming philosophy. Mixed into that was information about Kalischer’s locally-born wife who birthed 14 children (they loved that) and the cultural impact of the arrival of the railroad. When I was done, they all clapped and then Father Maksymin explained to them the “take-away” messages from my talk. They stood up, waved their flags and sang a bit more in Polish and Hebrew, and filed out.

The next day, Rebecca and I, along with Anna and the school chancellor, were escorted to the Mayor’s office conference room. It was a bizarre meeting. Five city officials solemnly explained to us (through Anna’s translation) their plans to transform Torun into a site for Jewish cultural tourism by developing all evidence of Jewish settlement and Kalischer’s residence in the city: buffing up the Jewish cemetery (which was intact until some city workers in 1975 carted away the tombstones to who-knows-where), a plaque on the Kalischer home, and a monument. We were shown blueprints and sketches and all of our attempts to ask questions and speak were stifled by these officials (so why were we there?) until about 25 minutes into the meeting. I threw a wrench in their plans by saying that the sketch of Kalischer did not look like the image that was already circulating in the rest of the world (making it sound, I hoped, that millions gaze fondly at it daily). They said it was based on the photograph supplied by the archivist and besides, it was a done deal. Anna’s able diplomacy budged them a bit from saying it didn’t matter and they’d go ahead with their plans, to a position where they insisted we should go right away to talk to the archivist who’d supplied the image. Anna told us afterwards that one man suggested that the sketch had been modeled after a previous mayor of Torun.

After another struggle to allow them to let me speak, I told them about the January 2012 conference in Jerusalem devoted to Kalischer, and we talked for a bit about how they could maximize the opportunity to spread the word about Torun. Did they realize how lucky they were to have these fortuitous string of events? I’m not sure, but they gave Rebecca and me each a bag of gifts: a coffee-table sized book with colorful photographs of Torun, a little tin house with chocolate-covered dry and spongy gingerbread, and a couple of key chains embossed with the Torun coat of arms.

We were taken to the cemetery, which is now just a pretty park with few plaques, a tree named in honor of Kalischer, part of the original gate, and a photo of the building used for preparing the bodies for burial.

Then we went to the Torun Archives. The first thing we saw was the photo of Kalischer that I’m familiar with, and so clearly the problem is that the artist did not do such a good rendition. He came by during our time at the archives (no doubt dispatched there by someone official, because he said he’d modify the face to look more like the photo). The curator, Mrs. Anna Bieniaszewska, had been the student of the Torun professor, Zenon Hubert Nowak, who’d years ago sent me materials from the archives for my book. She was so excited to have us there and the two us babbled together with Anna’s help. We saw her exhibit on Torun Jews (1820-1943), which was excellent and interspersed with material on Jewish religious and economic life. When I told her about the Jerusalem conference and said she should submit a paper, she started tearing up a bit and saying she couldn’t present before all those professors. Anna gave her a pep talk, and before long, she was beaming and saying “Shana tova!” and “Yerushalayim!” I’m on the conference organizing committee, so I’m going to do all I can to make this happen and have them treat her right.

After eating at the school, Rebecca and Anna returned to Warsaw so Rebecca could go home, and I became a normal person and stayed in the spare guest room.

Rivka and the school’s manager drove me to the train station and helped me purchase all the remaining train tickets I’d need for the rest of my trip. While we were standing on the platform and Rivka worried about getting my heavy suitcase up over the gap onto the train and getting a good seat on the crowded train, Father Maksymin called her and said he would be coming to see me off. I thought, “An answer to all our prayers – he will even get me a spot next to a window!” Sure enough, a few minutes later he came gliding through the station crowd like the divine messenger on the Torun coat of arms, and I swear people parted before him and smiled. I thanked him, he thanked me, and we all shook hands and promised to keep in touch. Then he levitated my suitcase into the first-class car. I found a good seat and watched the Polish countryside roll past my window all the way to Lodz.


Łódź, pronounced Woodge

Friday and Saturday, May 27 - 28, 2011 * the 38th and 39th day of the Omer

My first impression of the Lodz Jewish community (Gmine) guest house, Linat Orchim, struck me as something out of 1940s Jewish Poland, and that is not entirely a good thing. I arrived at 1:30 but it seemed like 7 because of the grey skies and drizzle. In the front hall of the building was a door off to the right which looked like a café in old inn because it was filled with elderly men hanging out and drinking, but in fact it is a “day care center” for the Third Age Jews funded by the Joint Distribution Committee and guilt money from Luxemburg. I stood there looking wet and confused, and a tall 80 year old man came over and took control of my suitcase and brought it up the wide, antique wooden staircase with me tagging behind.

At the top of the landing he led me down a hall decorated with framed faded newspaper articles and other photocopied photos of rabbis and writers who, I guess, used to hang out here, smoke, eat bread and pickles and drink schnapps, and snooze in the guest rooms. We reached a large room with a big wooden table in the middle and heavy chairs, with tables on the side next to the large windows, and one of those cheapo electric hot water-containing appliances with styrofoam cups, instant coffee, tea and sugar. The room is perfect for playing chess, debating endlessly about politics, and writing. The man at the reception counter at the end of the room knew who I was the minute I walked in the door. He gave me an honest-to-God skeleton key for room #1, which opens up to the big room and is next to the door with a Hebrew sign that says mikve (ritual bath). My room contains two made-up beds and a bunk bed, and a weird restoration job has preserved some of the original wallpaper on the walls. Tall old windows are on the side of the wall, free-standing cupboards, ceiling lights that work but an old bed light that did not, and a bathroom that seemed clean but I really did not like the green plastic washing basin on the floor that contained lots of black hairs. “How the mighty have fallen!” I kept murmuring to myself, interspersed with “What was Shelley thinking to recommend this place?!” and “Am I spoiled?” I sat on my bed and wrote for a while, then went out and asked the Polish guy at the counter if he had a bed lamp that worked, and he said no. Then I asked “Will someone else be staying in the room?” He looked at his hotel roster and said, “Yes, today, I think so.” Oy. I began to imagine the strange snoring lady who would no doubt inhabit the next bed, and how I’d be up all night unable to read because I would be too polite to turn on the ceiling light, and how after that I would move elsewhere.

I decided to forget about it for a while and walk through the neighborhood, which has to be just about as ugly as you can get. My favorite guidebook, Lodz in Your Pocket, says it looks like some giant picked up the town in one piece and then dropped it and it remains in its awful disrepair. I’d already seen evidence of this in the taxi ride from the train station, but here it was, up close. If I walked by these buildings in L.A., I’d put on my stern I-am-an-Indian face and run out of there fast. Either the building’s paint is entirely missing and the masonry is grey and brown and stained unevenly with no doubt something unhealthful, or the paint is peeling off or splotchy, but in either case there are many spots where the masonry is eroded through to expose bricks, many of which are broken or hacked away. And did I mention the graffiti on the walls? Of course, there were charming native Polish restaurants, too.

The thing is, the people from Lodz I’d spoken to really adore the place! Joanna from the Hebrew Institute in Torun gave me tips on unusual things to discover, and so I found the synagogue she mentioned on The 1905 Revolution Street in an inner courtyard of a slum. After I took the photo, I looked at it, then back at the real synagogue, and I have to say that the camera cleaned up much of the schmutz and makes the place look rather charming. For some reason, this happens a lot with photos of Lodz, even those I’ve put up in this post.

By pre-arrangement, a friend of a friend named John met me in front of the Guest House at 7. He’d been a graduate student at CSUN in English and has been teaching at the University of Lodz for years. He was born in Winnipeg so his English is normal, and he’s Jewish and looks like my brother, so I told him of my distress and we went to the reception counter so John could advocate for me in Polish. There was a different man there who thought I was crazy for thinking I’d be sharing a room. That settled, John and I went next door for the Friday night service, where I could raise my voice in thankful prayer.

The synagogue is on the second floor of the grey stuccoed Jewish community office building, and it now can be accessed by one door labeled for male people only and one that is unlabeled (for the other type of people). Of course, if you don’t read Hebrew you don’t know this, and John told me this was a recent addition that came along with the recent slide to the right in the community. Almost everybody still walks through the unmarked door, up the stairs into a 1950s kitchen, and so that’s what we did. On the kitchen counters were plates covered with the food that would be the “kiddush” (actually a light kosher meal), a hot-water dispenser like in the guest house, a fridge, and 5 or so folding chairs. Through there is the women’s section of the synagogue containing about 6 pews, and it is separated by lightweight white curtain from the main – male – section of the synagogue, so the sections are side-by-side. The men’s section is about as large as my living room on Hi Point and is decorated in a plain traditional style: pews, reader’s table in the middle, aron kodesh up front, and framed calligraphic Hebrew prayers on the walls. The Joint Distribution Committee supplied the photocopied prayer book, which has Hebrew in the middle, Polish transliteration on the left, and Polish translation on the right. The women smiled at me but didn’t talk – they did not know English – though one tried to be helpful during the service and show me the correct page when she saw me investigating the morning service.

The service was led by Symcha Keller, the titular rabbi of Lodz. Of course I could not take a photo on Shabbat, so I found this bright cheery one one online that shows him in his oikos topos. When I finally spoke to Symcha on Saturday night, I learned that he was born in the 1960s in communist Poland, was a leader of a reggae band, and spent time in jail because of his dissident activities. A few years ago he returned to his Jewish roots, studied in NYC and Israel, and now he dresses like a Hasid and is devoted to the teachings of the rebbe of the Aleksandrow Hasidim. The worship was a Hasidic Kabbalat and Shabbat evening service, with great singing by Symcha and melodious bass voices on the other side of the curtain, and quieter chirps on my side. At the finish, all the women shook hands with every other woman and smiled and said “Szabat szalom,” and John and I left to go for dinner elsewhere.

We walked through downtown Lodz on the main thoroughfare Piotrkowska Street, which is in much better repair than the streets I walked through earlier. Most of its buildings are attractive, and there is a large section where cars are prohibited and that’s where people hang out and eat and drink, or act raucous and shout abusive chants against the opposing soccer team hundreds of miles away. We ate and talked about Lodz and its Jews, and then John walked me back to the guest house in the rain. People were hanging out in the big room and talking Polish, and all those szszszszs helped me drop off to sleep.

My plans the next day were to meet two other friends at 2:30, and I spent the morning dozing and discovering the Israelis in the compound. I was thrilled to speak Hebrew, and in the breakfast room – the late, lamented Café Tuwim, closed for reasons unknown to me – I ate an Israeli breakfast of tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, cheese, OJ, tea, and bread, and in the fridge were 6 half-eaten containers of chocolate spread that were not hard to avoid.

Although it was still grey and drizzly, the outside of the building looked almost charming (but in reality not as good as this photo indicates).

I spent the afternoon talking for hours first in one restaurant with Krzysztof (who, for obvious reasons, I will refer to as Chris) and Kaja (pronounced Kaya), and then we moved next door and talked for another few hours in there. How great is this trip!? By then it was getting dark and poor Chris had to actually do something productive, so Kaja walked me back toward the guest house. I convinced her to walk into the Descent of the Holy Ghost church which I had entered that morning in honor of Shabbat. The pictures and statues were quite engaging, but where was the incense to block out the smell of roasting chicken from the street? Kaja explained the mysterious picture of the polluting city of Lodz in the midst of the chapel display.

Do not think that the Black Madonna and child are evidence of progressive politics, because the paintings of Warsaw, Krakow, and Lodz show each in their 19th century glory, great Polish achievements being offered to God. The feathers are from 16th century Polish military decorations, and the crown and eagle on top are symbols of a strong ruling Polish power. To top it all off, on the shelf in front of the display we found computerized forms for inspired worshipers to wire funds directly to Radio Maryja. Kaja and I took them all with us when we left.

That night, I actually followed through with Shelley's advice when she'd advise me to make a reservation: I sat in the big room with my lap top, drank tea, and chatted with the slightly eccentric people who were drawn to the Jewish community's guest house. I'd met nice people and had grown rather fond of the place. This photo is a pretty good approximation of the big room on a sunny day.


Stories in Łódź

Sunday and Monday, May 29 and 30, 2011 * the 40th and 41st days of the Omer

One of the other guests at Linat Orchim guest house was an Israeli man with whom I chatted in Hebrew. He was rather round with a sweet face and a gentle, lispy voice. We never exchanged names. We were from different worlds, but here in Lodz we were neighbors. He was a Hasid, perhaps 55-60 years old, bearded, and he wore a large yarmalka and his arba kanfot (4 cornered undergarment with fringes) on top of his shirt. I know that outside he also wore a hat because on my first day in Lodz I saw someone like him walking on the street, and I nearly pulled inside a doorway to photograph such a strange phenomenon. Who else would it have been but this man? Later I learned to recognize his face behind the beard and the garb.

His father was from Lodz and was put in the ghetto along with his first wife and five children, and only his father survived. His mother was from a small town outside of Lodz and was married with three children, and only she survived. These two survivors eventually met and married in Israel, lived among the Hasidim in Bnei Brak, and raised a new family together. They spoke to their children about their homes in Poland and the family they had lost, and this son of theirs had already made several trips to discover what graves he could and to discover living relatives. He had even visited his father’s house in the Lodz ghetto (here is a photo of the ghetto's notorious "Red House" that is still there), and with the help of a translator had a pleasant conversation with the family that now inhabits it. “People here in Poland are nice,” he told me. “I walk around outside dressed like this and people are indifferent, they don’t say antisemitic things.” I asked him he had heard that Symcha had to call the police on Shabbat because of the hooligans that came into the courtyard in the afternoon shouting abusive statements. He dismissed this stuff. He was sitting in the big room on Saturday night with photocopied lists from Jewish genealogy web sites, and he told me that each time he went to the Lodz cemetery he found more relatives. Once he even met there an Australian woman who was also seeking relatives’ graves, and they discovered they shared a grandmother, and once in Bnei Brak he was visited by previously unknown relatives from the U.S. Next year he wants to gather everyone together in Lodz.

On Sunday morning, Kaja met me at the guest house for a day of activities that was to start with the cemetery, but we first ate at the vegetarian restaurant in Manufaktura. This is an area about twice as large as The Grove/Farmer’s Market and with the same idea of being a center for shopping, restaurants and movies, but Manufaktura also has a huge area in the middle for public performances and gatherings. Plus, its core buildings are historic, originally the handsome red brick factories of Izrael Poznanski, the mid-19th century pioneer of Lodz’s textile manufacturing industry that was the mainstay of the city’s economy. His home, called Poznanski’s Palace, is outrageously designed on the outside and crafted beautifully and extravagantly on the inside (we went later in the day), and other lovely Poznanski buildings can be found all around Lodz, but the red brick factory buildings are mostly concentrated in the northeast side of the city alongside tenements for the workers.

We took a tram to the cemetery, and I finally saw residential buildings for normal people that are attractive. Okay, so at least they seem to be in good repair. There were other things I learned: all through Poland I was convinced that the frequent appearance of this sign meant that Poles needed stomach specialists to help digest all that meat and pierogies, but Kaja explained that the word means “dentist.” It’s good to have someone around to explain things!

Kaja was happy to explain things, but she made clear that much of her formal schooling in history was inadequate and skewed by communist rules. She illustrated this with reference to Katyn. This is the name of a forest in Belarus where the Soviet invaders, after arresting about 180,000 Poles in 1939 (army officers, judges, professionals, and members of the intellectual classes) and transporting them east, shot nearly 22,000 of them and buried them in mass graves. The Germans discovered the remains in 1943 and of course word leaked out, but after the communists came to power it was forbidden to discuss such matters. Kaja’s mother was a school teacher, and when one of her students did the unthinkable and wrote the word “Katyn” in his schoolbook – simply that, nothing else, another student informed on him, he was expelled, and Kaja’s mother for months was investigated and officially observed in her classroom. It took some time after the fall of the communists in 1989 to write new school books, and therefore much of Kaja’s extensive knowledge about 20th century Polish history and certainly about Polish Jews is the result of her own exploration. She is not Jewish, but she regards the tales of Polish Jews as part of her own story. Her expertise and her fluent English got her a job at the Marek Edelman Center for Dialogue, a non-profit organization funded by the city of Lodz to promote awareness of the four cultures that are the basis of Lodz’s history: Polish, German, Jewish, and Russian. It was not only fun but also a terrific experience to spend so much of my time in Lodz with Kaja, hearing her insights and stories of the people whose lives passed through Lodz, and learning about life from the perspective of a member of this new generation of Poles.

The Jewish cemetery we in Lodz we visited dates back to the 1890s, and all but the oldest part of it has been mapped and is available online. I made sure to visit the graves of the four young Zionists who were murdered after the war, whose graves are decorated with Israeli Zionist youth group shirts, candles, and signs. We wandered through the cemetery, Kaja showing me stones with interesting stories behind them. We followed the guidebook on the cemetery written by Kaja’s boss that explained common symbols: the broken tree symbol (cut down in its prime), hands for a cohen and a pitcher for a levite, and this one for a wife that says that people cried streams of tears for her. We found for a man that praised his work at matchmaking (hakhnasat kalot). All through the graveyard the ground was moist and soft with disintegrating trees and leaves, like Bialowieza. In the Lodz cemetery all the graves face the same direction so that at the end of time when the dead are resurrected, they will know how to walk to Jerusalem, though you’d think that with such a big miracle they’d know exactly where to go. My Hasidic buddy explained that this practice is the norm, and the inconsistent direction of gravestones in Warsaw’s cemetery started as an error and then no one wanted to cast aspersions on the early burials so they kept up the practice.

Afterwards we walked to the Radgast station, the loading platform for the trains that brought in the meager supplies for the ghetto in Lodz, which the Germans named Litzmannstadt Ghetto, where Jews were brought in from Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Luxemburg; and from where the dwellers were deported to Auschwitz. Most amazing to me was the memorial Tunnel of the Deported, a long concrete tunnel as wide as a street, and alongside the walls are the original lists of those bound for the death camp. The head of the Judenrat, Chaim Rumkowski, was exceedingly organized so as to please the Nazis as a way to, he said, to save more Jews. There are all the lists: full name, birth date, place of origin, occupation – all in alphabetical order, so you see families all together, on the original paper, some in handwriting and some typed, with checks next to them when their time came. This photo, which is not mine, gives you a sense of the space.

The thing is, on this trip I’ve learned first-hand that Poles as a group are notoriously disorganized, plan poorly, are careless with details, and read one-fifth of the email message and ignore the rest, so that an email that says “We’re visiting you in July" means “We’re visiting you” and prompts excited phone calls about the imminent event. Every time there was a screw-up (and during the first two weeks of my trip there were plenty), the Poles around me would say “Oh, that’s so Polish!” Of course, all the terrible planning and ridiculous miscalculations of the Warsaw Uprising showed that, on a national level back during the war, the Poles were way outmaneuvered by the superior organization and efficiency of their enemies. There's no way they could have organized a Holocaust. Examining the deportation lists, I got the sense, one more time, of how bizarre and depraved was this event. And I couldn't imagine what it must be like to live nearby the remaining evidence!

The next day I focused on lighter matters. I took a bus to Aleksandrow, former home of the Hasidim but current home of Jaga and Zbigniew, faculty from the University of Lodz who graciously gave me lunch in their flowering back yard. We exchanged tales of our research projects and our travels, and upon hearing my report about Torun, Zbigniew pointed to another unfortunate trait of Poles: their artists don't seem to be able to make good likenesses of their subjects. In downtown Lodz, there is a monument in honor of Artur Rubinstein that looks nothing like him (his daughter made a stink when it was unveiled, but it’s still there in the middle of town), and all the Lodzers I spoke to complained that the portraits painted on the side of this building (supposedly famous people from the city) are unrecognizable.

And then I visited Joanna Podolska-Plock, who is Kaja’s boss and the vision behind the Lodz Center for Dialogue organization. I’d heard about her previous career as a journalist and read a bit of her research on Lodz Jews, and it was fascinating to meet her and hear her talk about the challenges of multicultural programming. It was a good way to end my visit in Lodz. I walked back to the guest house through the town one last time, packed my bags, and left the next morning.


Coming Together in Synagogues

Wednesday, June 1 , 2011 * the 43rd day of the Omer

Krakow is teeming with life, color, good cheer, and it is the home of the current Jewish culture revival.

Traveling south toward Krakow brings one into the region called Galicia with its beautiful hills and valleys. My arrival in Krakow on Tuesday afternoon was the start of my second stay in the city. The first time was over a week ago under the auspices of the Foreign Ministry and the visit went by in a flash, but for me that was okay because I knew I would be returning on my own for four days. When the Polish Foreign Ministry was paying the bill, we stayed in the fancy Kossak Hotel named after the Krakow family that produced four generations of painters. Soldiers on horseback were a central feature of some of these paintings, and hence this noble sculpture in the hotel lobby.

Like Torun, Krakow was established at a high point along the Wisla River and has at its heart the red bricked walls of a Gothic city, though here most of the castle is intact. Unlike Torun, where the Jewish population had already naturally diminished in the late 19th and early 20th century because of emigration to the west, Krakow – which at any rate was a much larger city – still had about 64,000 traditional and modernized Jews at the start of World War II when they were restricted to the ghetto on the city outskirts. The neighborhood called Kazimierz was where the lower-class traditional Jews were living, and when they were forced to move across the river to the ghetto in Podgorze, Kazimierz buildings were either abandoned or re-inhabited by poor Poles, and many of its buildings remained in a state of disrepair long after the war – today, in fact, some look pretty awful and are still in ruins. After the war, some of the synagogues were spruced up or fixed up enough to serve other purposes, or similar purposes for other people. For example, the building that housed the first school to formally teach Torah to Orthodox Jewish women, Sarah Schenirer’s Beit Yaakov, now holds classes for special-needs students.

After the fall of the communist regime in 1989, Kazimierz was the center of the Jewish culture revival in Poland. Already in 1988 the Pole Janusz Makuch created the first annual Jewish Culture Festival, a 9-day long mid-summer event including classes, lectures, and lots of klezmer music. Last year’s open-air (and free) musical performance of the Festival was attended by 13,000 people, making it the largest Jewish cultural event in Europe. During the upcoming festival, 24 students and faculty associated with the CSUN Jewish Studies Program will be in the audience, but I will be back in L.A. watering my garden. To console myself, I have been eating lots of pie at the Cheder Café, which also houses the Jewish Culture Festival office. (BTW, “cheder” is Yiddish for elementary school room.)

In Kazimierz, two synagogues are now hosting prayers regularly. One of these is called the Remuh (ra-moo), which is the acronym for the great Talmudic scholar Rabbi Moses Isserles, whose proud papa built him a synagogue so he could always get the seat he wanted right next to the Torah ark. Next to the synagogue, separated by a wall, is the graveyard, and Rebecca and I visited it on Lag B’Omer, the day of Isserles’ yahrzeit (death anniversary), when it was adorned with more candles and paper scraps of prayer than usual (there is a fence around that tomb to protect it from adoring worshipers, I guess). Like the other synagogues, during non-prayer times it is open to the public for a small fee. Flocks of people stream inside all these synagogues for a view. The thing is, there are lots of glorious cathedrals and churches in Poland that have very high, lofty ceilings and are filled with stained glass, gold, embroidered drapes, statues, paintings, and images of Jesus as a baby and in his 20s (but – and this makes sense – never a teenager). So synagogues intrigue the Poles, and the ones in Galicia have the added benefit of having all these great naive wall paintings or Hebrew texts. Three paintings grace the back wall of the Remuh: Rachel's Tomb, the Jerusalem Temple western wall, and Noah's Ark – and what is that last one supposed to signify?? That the Remuh is the refuge of the pious of the generation? Home-made olive tapenade will be given to the person with the best explanation.

In the Old Synagogue, which was the one that served for official events (like when Polish royalty or officials addressed the Jews), the Nazis trashed the interior so much that it’s been restored as a teaching museum. It’s sort of like a Judaism 101, with panels on the holidays, great books, and life cycle. I thought it was interesting that the reference to divorce was so minimal – there is an untranslated get (divorce document) next to an untranslated ketuba (marriage document, which guarantees payment to the wife if the husband divorces her), like perhaps it would give the Catholics too many ideas? Or perhaps it has something to do with the custom I have seen practiced by Krakow newlyweds, who come to the Old Synagogue in their wedding garb and pose for photos out front.

One thing I find interesting about Kazimierz is that the Jewish culture in the town is created by Poles, and although there are Jewish tourists who come to enjoy it, it appears that most of the culture consumers are also Poles. I went to a klezmer concert held in a posh restaurant called Klezmer Haus, and I swear I was the only one in the room who didn’t speak Polish. Except for the Polish singer, I may have been the only one in the room who understood the Yiddish lyrics. For sure I was the only one not drinking liquor. The non-Jews are interested in Jewish culture, and that's a good thing. Los Angeles Jewry, eat your heart out: the JCC of Krakow, which offers lots of courses and other cultural program, was endowed with a building by the non-Jewish (albeit circumcised) Prince of Wales.

Stores and restaurants are given authentically Jewish names, as well as inauthentic names. And then there are the authentic historic signs that mark useless doors next to the old-looking new signs that mark real businesses. Or, there are buildings still sporting their old names like the study house “Set Regular Times for Torah Learning,” which is now simply an apartment building.

But my favorite sign in Kazimierz is the one nearby the Izaak Jakubowicz Synagogue, originally built in the 17th century and now the base of Chabad (the study room inside is graced with a picture of the Rebbe). Hasidim who hang out at the Izaak Synagogue, as well as other religious
tourists, are known to lodge next door at Hotel Eden. It's got a mezuzah on the doorpost, kosher food inside, and according to this sign on the building's exterior, after the happy couple has gotten married (or, at least, has posed out front) at the synagogue, they can go to Hotel Eden and have everything else they need, including a pub, a sauna, and a mikveh.