Sunday, December 8, 2013

Chanukah in Poland


Letter #7

In Warsaw, the public ceremony for the first night of Chanukah took place outside, in biting cold. My hands objected when the gloves came off, but I had to photograph the menorah outlined in chalk on the pavement created by votive candles we placed within the lines. It took place at Plac Grzbowski, a small square overlooked by an abandoned brick building that somehow survived the burning of the Warsaw Ghetto. On the opposite side stands the Jewish Theater, founded during the Communist era, and presenter of the annual Singer Jewish Culture Festival. My friend Ania gave out Chanukah gelt in the form of chocolate euros, while community officials lit the shamash and first candle of a modest-sized standing menorah. Speeches by community officials and a local priest were kept short and everyone happily moved into the nearby Nozyk synagogue to get warm and eat sufganiot (jelly doughnuts), following the Israeli Chanukah tradition. 

Later, I headed for Warsaw’s iconic landmark, the Palace of Culture and Science, built in the early 1950s on Stalin’s orders. The monumental skyscraper used to dominate the city’s skyline but its prominence is shrinking yearly, as new towers showcasing international capital rise around it. I came to a club on the ground floor to hear Rafael Roginski (JMF, 2013) play at the fifteenth anniversary party of the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations.  I also wanted to congratulate the Forum’s founder, Andrzej Folwarczny who I initially met ten years ago, on the first day of my first trip to Poland. Then he occupied a small office, in a small town near the German border. Today, the Forum is one of the principal non-profit organizations conducting nationwide educational programs that aim to expand awareness of Poland’s historic Jewish presence.

The next day was Thanksgiving.  I wanted to bring Chanukah gelt to the dinner hosted by the Fulbright Commission office. After searching in a few stores though, I realized it was hopeless. Why would Polish stores carry chocolate coins? I learned later that Ania had bought her chocolate euros in Amsterdam. In Warsaw, I needed to go to the one store that sells Judaica, located by Nozyk synagogue. Matzah, on the other hand, is readily available, marketed as a healthy type of cracker. After an afternoon of conversation, turkey and all the trimmings, I made my way downtown to Ec Chaim, an egalitarian congregation that broke away a few years ago from the orthodox Nozyk, for second night candle lighting, latkes and lox. Located on the fourth floor, its view of the Palace of Culture and Science provided a perfect backdrop to the menorah flames. Juxtaposed against Stalin’s gift to the Polish people, built as the dictator slid deeper into the anti-Semitic paranoia known as the Doctor’s Plot, the classic Jewish symbol truly radiated. (See attached photo.)

Friday afternoon, I traveled to a hotel on the outskirts of Warsaw for Limud, a three-day conclave organized by the Joint Distribution Committee, that brought together eight hundred people from all over Poland interested in Jewish learning. I’m told that another two hundred were turned away for lack of space.  Founded originally in England in 1980, the concept has spread to many countries, and sessions are presented on a wide variety of topics, based on what volunteer instructors offer. I gave a session on the klezmer revival, which attracted a small but enthusiastic group. I shared the music of virtuosos, such as Naftule Brandwein and Dave Tarras, who had been born in this region (well, Ukraine), and who very few in the room had ever heard. At the end, an older woman came up and kissed me! Another member of the audience was Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (JMF artistic advisor), and Program Director of the Core Exhibition of the new Museum for the History of Polish Jews. She later presented a riveting session about her father Mayer’s fantastic paintings and his life in pre-war Jewish Poland.  (Check out the book, They Called Me Mayer July.)

Menorah lighting and the havdalah ceremony that formally separates Shabbat from the rest of the week took place Saturday night, led jointly by most of the rabbis working today in Poland, including American-born Chief Rabbi, Michael Schudrich; Israeli-born Reform rabbi, Gil Nativ, and Russian-born Conservative rabbi Stas Wojciechowicz, all based in Warsaw; as well as American-born orthodox rabbis Tyson Herberger and Avi Baumol based in Wroclaw and Krakow, respectively.  Havdalah songs gave way to spontaneous dancing and in a flash, hundreds of people of all ages were circling fast and hard, stoked by an Israeli DJ who kept running between his machine and the dance floor.

Also at Limud was the new assistant to the Chief Rabbi, along with his father, Dov Bloom. I knew Dov when we were children at the Young People’s Synagogue in Pittsburgh and hadn’t seen him since. I often tell the story that my love for Jewish music goes back to that congregation whose members would sing as enthusiastically as a storefront Baptist church.  I still picture Dov’s mother throwing her head back and singing to the heavens, totally off key. I caught her joy though, and I was glad to share that memory with her son, especially since she recently died.

Finally back in Krakow for the eighth and last night of Chanukah, I discovered the consequences of a Jewish community that is small, but fractured.  Working at home, I called the JCC to get the time for candle lighting—5:30. I arrived only to discover that the real party had started at 4:00, next door at the Tempel Synagogue, and was almost over. Organized by the official Jewish community or gemina, it had been a catered affair with a live klezmer band.  One had to be “in the know.” There was no mention of it on the website of the JCC. The small reform congregation, Beit Krakow, where I went after, also had no idea. Later I checked the gemina’s website. Not there. So who came? According to one Cracovian Jewish local, about forty people belonging to the actual Jewish community, and invited guests, including a priest.


From there, I walked over to Beit Krakow to finally get my fill of candle-lighting. They meet in the secular space of the Galicia Museum, although at least seven historic synagogues and religious study houses exist in the former Jewish quarter of Kazimierz. They have told me that the official gminah, which controls the communal buildings, is Orthodox, and basically does not recognize them. I went by way of Szeroka Square, the heart of this pre-war Jewish neighborhood, where thousands gather every summer to hear the free finale concert of the annual Jewish Culture Festival. The square, ringed by Jewish-themed restaurants, was dark, in sharp contrast to the commercial streets everywhere else dressed up in Christmas lights and tinsel decorations.  It seems to me to be a good place for an outdoor community menorah, like Plac Grzbowski in Warsaw.  But what do I know?

A mill before the war, the renovated museum is an active cultural and educational center and houses Traces of Memory, a permanent photography exhibition showcasing the physical remnants of the Jewish historic presence in Austro-Hungarian Galicia. As if waiting for me, an impressive bronze menorah replete with nine large white candles stood ready for lighting. As I have discovered before with the intimate Beit Krakow group, my presence, in fact, mattered. I was actually the first to arrive, aside from Marta, who was setting up. A few minutes later, we were joined by two others. All three young people were converts, or in the process of converting. Of all the Chanukah events I had attended over the course of the week, this one made the greatest impression. Dina spoke about the conflict between Hillel and Shammai concerning the lighting of the candles (why left to right vs. right to left). Cordion told me about his first introduction to Judaism (at age five, he kicked a ball over a wall, went to get it, and landed in a Jewish cemetery); what it was like to be Jewish now in Zakopane where he grew up, (there is a light side and dark side to the beautiful mountain resort town); and why he intends to move to Israel. Marta, the organizer, had brought placki (the Polish version of latkes) and herring from her family’s village.

Thursday after Polish class, I walked through Krakow’s Renaissance-era huge main square, the rynek, to browse the dozens of temporary stalls selling all kinds of Christmas gifts, and to see the annual competition of homemade nativity scenes. The smell of grilling meat warmed the cold air, as did the piped-in music, although the soundtrack was what you’d hear in any American mall this time of year. I settled on a dish of bigos, a sauerkraut and pork traditional stew and some roasted mushrooms, and slowly savored a ginger cookie filled with rose petal jam on the way home.

Although I don’t usually attend Friday Shabbat services, it is a way to connect with new friends. Tonight, especially, it feels important to say kaddish for Nelson Mandela. Interestingly, the weekly parshah or Torah reading is about Joseph forgiving his brothers; a fitting homage for a man who epitomized the power of forgiveness.

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