Sunday, September 15, 2013

Yom Kippur in Kazimierz

Letter #2

Yom Kippur in Kazimierz began with a pre-fast community dinner at the Krakow JCC. Located next door to the former Progressive Tempel Synagogue in the historic Jewish quarter of Krakow, the five-year-old center is a great place to meet locals—mostly seniors and middle-aged, but also young adults and a few families with children, as well as visitors. I sit with a middle-aged couple, who turn out to be from Detroit. But Bella was originally from the Galician town of Tarnow.

She had come back to Poland with her husband Michael to pay tribute to an eighty-five-year old peasant woman whose family had hidden Bella’s father and grandmother in a village near Tarnow during the war. The woman had been one of three siblings, none of whom ever married.  Her family’s legacy is Michael and Bella’s three children and seven grandchildren, who are alive today because the woman’s widowed mother had risked her life and that of her children to hide Jews. Under German occupation, the penalty for aiding Jews was death—a situation unique to Poland.

The day before, in fact, a friend had taken me to the village of Marowa to see a monument dedicated to the Ulma family. Jozef, his pregnant wife Wiktoria, and their six small children were shot and killed on the spot when Germans discovered eight Jews hiding on their farm - the father, mother and four sons of the Szall family and two daughters of the Goldman family.  The Ulmas are now in the process of being beatified, the first step towards sainthood in the Catholic Church.

Before the war, more than sixty thousand Jews lived in Krakow. This year, about two hundred people attended three different Kol Nidre services, located in synagogues within a five-minute walk of each other. An American modern Orthodox rabbi living in Israel, Avi Baumol, just hired part time for the JCC, presided at the Tempel Synagogue, built originally in the 1860s. About thirty women and twenty men sat on opposite sides of a medium-sized mechitsa in a space that holds more than three hundred, resplendent with its renovated gilded painted designs on walls and ceiling. Jewish community officials, as well as visiting tourists attended the Orthodox service in the historic, partly renovated Remuh synagogue, dating back to 1553.  Women prayed in a separate room curtained off behind the main sanctuary. Edgar Gluck, titled the Chief Rabbi of Galicia by the head of the official Jewish community, has been coming to Krakow from New York for the last thirty years to lead High Holiday services there.

Meanwhile, Tanya Segal, a Russian-born Israeli who lives in Krakow and is Poland’s first female rabbi, presided in the Hoch Shul, or High Synagogue, also built more than four centuries ago. This Reform congregation, known as Beit Krakow, attracted about fifty, mostly young people, seated on plastic chairs in a semi-circle around Rabbi Tanya, her guitar, and a wooden table serving as a bimah for the Torah.  The ancient synagogue, now renovated as an open exhibit space had been stripped of its interior furnishings long ago. Services began late because although a sizeable group filled the room, Beit Krakow follows the rules of the European Reform movement. A minyan can be men or women, but they must be halachically (born of a Jewish mother) Jewish. In this community, young people discovering Jewish roots may have a Jewish father or grandparent. Others are students of Jewish Studies at the university. Still others are in the process of conversion or may simply be seeking a spiritual path. There were nine “official” Jews in the room. So someone went to fetch the young director of the JCC from the Tempel service. Beit Krakow is where I felt most at home. And my presence mattered.  I counted as one of the minyan. It felt good to have to get to the closing Ne’ilah service the next day, on time. They couldn’t start without me!

The religious politics of the Jewish community in Krakow are complicated, to say the least. Although very few are observant, most people attend the more prestigious Orthodox service at Remuh led by the Chassidic rabbi. With a lack of enough prayer books, the assumption was that congregants had their own, which many didn’t, and which, of course, are only in Hebrew (which many there, I think, neither read nor understand). Both the JCC modern Orthodox and Beit Krakow Reform services made sure that people had xerox copies of the prayers in Polish and Hebrew, and Rabbi Tanya made a concerted effort to explain and interpret the service as she went along.  Meanwhile, three different community activists looked askance at me when I told them I was going to the Beit Krakow service. When I asked if they had ever been, they said no.  I felt like I was in the middle of the old joke. Two Jews are stranded on a desert island. They build three synagogues --- so that both can have one they won’t set foot in.

The usually long day of Yom Kippur flew by this year. Because Beit Krakow ended its service before Remuh, I was able to get what I needed spiritually in the former, and visit with people I knew in the latter. To break the fast, I went to the Eden Hotel, where Rabbi Gluck hosted a kosher dinner replete with chicken, kugel and gefilte fish for about thirty.  I met yet more good people and went home satiated by the good food and conversation.

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