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.


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.

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