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.