Culture, Global, Identity, Religion

Light Unto The Nations?

We often cite Isaiah 60:3 which talks about non-jews being attracted to us as we act as a light unto the nations. I wonder if this is what Yishiyahu was talking about:

“Jewish style” restaurants are serving up platters of pirogis, klezmer bands are playing plaintive Oriental melodies, derelict synagogues are gradually being restored. Every June, a festival of Jewish culture here draws thousands of people to sing Jewish songs and dance Jewish dances. The only thing missing, really, are Jews.

“It’s a way to pay homage to the people who lived here, who contributed so much to Polish culture,” said Janusz Makuch, founder and director of the annual festival and himself the son of a Catholic family.

Poland’s Jewish community fell on hard times during the Holocaust:

Probably about 70 percent of the world’s European Jews, or Ashkenazi, can trace their ancestry to Poland — thanks to a 14th-century king, Casimir III, the Great, who drew Jewish settlers from across Europe with his vow to protect them as “people of the king.” But there are only 10,000 self-described Jews living today in this country of 39 million.

The article goes on to address where the Jewish cultural revival among polish gentiles came from.

Sometime in the 1970s, as a generation born under Communism came of age, people began to look back with longing to the days when Poland was less gray, less monocultural. They found inspiration in the period between the world wars, which was the Poland of the Jews….

The revival of Jewish culture is, in its way, a progressive counterpoint to a conservative nationalist strain in Polish politics that still espouses anti-Semitic views. Some people see it as a generation’s effort to rise above the country’s dark past in order to convincingly condemn it.

It is fascinating to think of cultural appropriation as a progressive response to nativist, nationalist authoritarianism. It makes a lot of sense but it must be weird to show up at a mock Hasidic wedding or their Festival of Jewish Culture and be the only Jew.

This year, the festival had almost 200 events, including concerts and lectures and workshops in everything from Hebrew calligraphy to cooking. More than 20,000 people attended, few of whom were Jewish.

That 20,000 people, Jews or not, show up for a festival of Jewish culture really is an amazing thing. Is it because Poland has such deep wounds to heal? Perhaps because it’s mostly free? Because klezmer is similar to other traditional Polish music? Frankly, I have no idea.
X-Posted: Divinity is in the Details

15 thoughts on “Light Unto The Nations?

  1. I couldn’t say how much love they have for Jews these days,… It is more multicultural than say, Ukraine, but when I was in Warsaw a few years ago on the way back from visiting my inlaws who were then in the Peace Corp, we saw Swastikas and “Jews=Nazis,” all over the city – among other plesant reminiscences of post-holocaust affection.
    COmpared to say, Budapest, where the music is alongside an actual Jewish community, where the people of the city saved Torahs from the beautiful Neolog shul, people rejoice in their Jewish ancestry, and there are several kosher restaurants, not to mention revivals of Hungary’s native strains of Orthodoxy, Conservative and Reform (which are all called different names, which is good because Liberal, Reform and Orthodox, British style, and Reform, COnservative and Orthodox, American style, also exist alongside, if in relatively minute numbers) well, it’s not like Hungary during the war was so much better, but IMO, they seem to have come a lot further since then.

  2. I’ve been to the festival and Krakow and it’s not an experience that’s easily labeled as ‘cultural appropriation’ or ‘healing’ or ‘crass exploitation.’ The truth of the matter is that in Poland, there is a tension between the impulse toward exploitation and the impulse toward genuine cultural rapprochement and understanding. I think the Festival is definitely on the side of genuine cultural understanding. It is not exploitative or disrespectful to Jews. I’ve spent quite a bit of time with Janusz Makuch, the director, as well as other non-Jews, and Jews, who are devoted to the Festival. They are motivated by an intense desire to understand Jewish culture and to celebrate it’s significance to Polish culture. On the other hand, the cheesy, fake ‘Jewish’ trappings of Krakow are often a product of exploitation. Come for the understanding, stay for the wandering minstrels in fake payes. It’s a trade-off, like life.
    Yes, this is a Jewish festival without Jews. Poland has essentially no Jewish population. The bulk of the Jews who remained in Poland after the war were forced to leave in 1968. But consider this- Poland’s population, for hundreds of years, had a huge number of Jews. Those Jews made a tremendous cultural impact (as they did every where they went). What surprised me the most was discovering that for many Poles, Jewish culture IS part of Polish culture and that part of their interest in Jewish culture is that it helps them understand themselves better. Imagine, god forbid, trying to understand American culture if there were no Jews left in America.
    And just as Jewish culture is a part of Polish culture, Jewish culture has also been influenced by Polish culture. It’s weird coming to a place where you can pig out l’havdil on borscht and kasha and kreplakh wherever you go- and no one’s jewish! There is a tremendous amount to be learned about ashkenazi jewish culture from its origins in Eastern Europe. Foodways are obviously just a small piece of that.
    I also think that if we’re going to start throwing around terms like cultural appropriation, you should look at the wider context. Poland is actually somewhat behind the curve in terms of appropriating Jewishness as a sign of protest. Heiko Lehman, one of the most knowledgeble non-jewish klezmer musicians in Germany talks about the history of Yiddish song as a protest against the East German state in this article I definitely don’t find it surprising that a number of young Poles, many of whom may only have one Jewish grandparent, are ‘coming out’ as Jews, left and right, as part of a larger protest against the authoritarian government now in power. Calling yourself a Jew in Poland today, under a regime which has taken to using coded references to Jews to express their extreme xenophobia, is not an act without consequences. The emerging Jewishness in Poland is not something that can be easily dismissed as philo-Semitism or exploitation.
    The new importance of ‘Jewishness’ in Poland, of course raises many questions (which I don’t have room for now) and can be somewhat uncomfortable for visiting Jews. I’m uncomfortable when my culture is used for someone else’s purposes and I’ll be the first to say it. But the situation is hardly black and white. And definitely worth a visit.
    (ps- since the Times didn’t bother to caption that photo, I’d like to give a shout out to my friend, dancer and teacher Steve Weintraub, who is holding the scarf in that photo.)

  3. Great comments, rokhl. It’s nice to see a little nuanced thinking on the subject. And as long as we’re IDing the folks in the picture, the singer in the background with bad-ass ‘stache is Lorin Sklamberg of the Klezmatics.

  4. Everyone seems to love dead jews. When the jews are gone everyone suddenly celebrates jewish cultures and restaurants serve kosher salami and klezmer (none of the musicians actually being jewish) festivals are all over town.
    It is like saying “one of my best friends are jewish” and making up those imaginary friends by imitation.
    Interesting points though, rokhl.

  5. EV is correct; this has been going on for a while. It strikes me as being analogous to Americans – particularly the young – appropriating an idealized notion of Native American culture generations after their ancestors committed genocide. I’ve read that there’s a market for “trinkets” – wooden carvings of elderly Hasidim, for example – and that young Poles are taking Yiddish lessons!

  6. This creeps me out pretty significantly. I know that these young Poles aren’t the same ones who had to be stopped(!) by the Germans from massacring their Jewish neighbors, but it somehow seems a bit spooky. Maybe that’s my prejudice.

  7. That’s the point then, isn’t it, Annie? Jewish history is a couple hundred years more than just death camps and destruction. How come we don’t learn about any of it? I definitely think Poland should be top on the list for young Jews with an interest in travelling and getting a more nuanced picture of Gentile-Jewish history.

  8. i’m really glad that y’all have such a rich experience and knowledge of this set of issues. thanks for bringing to conversation up a notch!

  9. There’s an interesting article in the recent issue of ‘Ethnomusicology’ on the Krakow klezmer scene. It’s basically trying to dull a little bit of the harshness with which Ottens and Rubin ( see their very excellent article here: ) paint philosemetism as the new antisemetim (i bet all the leftist anti-zionists didn’t know they had competition). Obviously the situation is complecated, and i’m glad i’ve had the good fortune to meet a bunch of Germans and Poles who are sincerely and enthusiastically interested in Yiddish culture on its own terms. I don’t have any tools to judge whether they are the exceptions or the rules, however.
    Two things about this philosemetism phenom do make me a bit uncomfortable: the rhetoric on the part of both Polish and German non-Jews can quickly tip to 1) “Well, we were the victims of Nazism too” and 2) “Jewish culture is really our culture too”. It just feels a little too ‘white man’s burden’ colonial to me. When you get members of Poland’s most famous klezmer band basically trumping up fake Jewish ancestry so that they can authenticate their very non-Jewish musical stylings, somethings wrong with that scenario. It’s like every white hippy kid saying they’re 1/16 native american…
    I don’t doubt that the philosemetic thing has done good things for Polish culture vis a vis resistance to the internall opression/repression or that it did good things for German culture vis a vis reunification after the wall fell, but my question is did it do good things for any Jews. I kind of doubt it, if only because there are no actual Jews present. And, anyhow, if the only way we have to define jewish expressive culture is ‘by jews, for jews, as jews’ then doesn’t this cease being jewish culture once it’s by poles, for poles, as poles?
    But anyway, i recomend that Ottens/Rubin article for a more nuanced look at the German scenario circa early-to-mid 90s, which is maybe similar to the Polish scene today.

  10. Remember those jew dolls that you can get in Poland? It reminds me of the little Indian papoose dolls that you can get in the states. Commit genocide, feel a *twinge* of guilt, fetishize those that you murdered. Indeed, they love the *dead* Jews.

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