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.