It was on the train to Zagreb, when I was first challenged to verbalize the finding from my conversational journey. James, an Irishman I’d met in Budapest posed the question between banter. Sitting back in our not-quite comfortable carriage, watching the beautiful Hungarian countryside roll by, I mulled over stories I’d heard, some over and over, and realized then, as I do now, that like I’d heard so many times: it’s complicated . Warning; this is a LONG post.
Two weeks, later, back in Brooklyn and my own shower, my feet rested while my mind still ‘mulls’ over the stories I heard. My journey was initiated by curiosity, passion, and a whim. When asked about my research methodology I had to say I didn’t have one. Nor did I have a plan or expectations, after all I didn’t want to complicate things. I skipped a formal hypothesis about what I would hear or learn and stuck with a premise, a very faulty one, being that Jewish identity was maintained in these Eastern European countries. All I knew was that I wanted to know how – and why.
For those who have traveled with me on this blog you know I gained far more than I could have planned by the stories I’ve shared. My first conversation, on the first leg of my journey with an Israeli left me with the reminder: ‘if you plan too much you miss the best parts,” words I lived by. Each subsequent conversation in each stop was shaped by spontaneity and serendipity and different circumstances resulted in a unique experience. While perhaps nothing I heard should have surprised me, everything naturally did. Each conversation added a dimension to my rapidly expanding view of Jewish identity well beyond the borders of Eastern Europe.
Connecting thoughts now I need to restate my Budapest caveat: ‘all facts are biased and true for some and not for others; (while everything I’ve written was told to me by someone) that person may or may not acknowledge our conversation and admit what s/he said. ‘ Other travelers had different experiences and perceptions. While people are a perfect science, experiencing ‘us’ is not.
The stage is set, it’s time to come front and center and share, right? Here it is: the more I learned the less I realized I know. Again, everything was so complicated. I was reminded there is no substitute for seeing something, walking somewhere, and most of all having a face-to-face conversation. Personal connections can’t uncomplicate the layers of history and the accompanying dense emotions, but it makes them real and easier to understand.
Anti-Semitism didn’t start with the Holocaust. Nor does the end of the Holocaust end with the miracle of survival. On so many occasions I listened breathlessly as Teresa, Inga, Stawek and others shared stories of survival, family unity, and life while I felt myself filling with so much hope and belief in the power of the human spirit that I thought I would burst. There is a reason why so many movies are made about the miracles I heard. I found myself hungering and being nurtured by these stories. I came to expect them as THE story, and what I wanted THE story to be: one of miracles and angels.
Somewhere along the way I realized I was listening for what I wanted to hear and heard, stories of miracles and angels. Yet as I went back through notes hastily penned with eyes on my storyteller, I see I was given strong hints of another story, a different survival, a different hiding. Migrations of power and people drew borders between beliefs and culture, morality and families. Jewish identity was stolen, hidden away, left behind and traded for safety, or seeming safety. This all started before the Holocaust as Jews converted, intermarried and/or eventually went ‘deep’ into the Soviet Union. Of course when identity is given up, the core of who you are is never safe and so slowly emerges. Survivors returned to their hometowns after the war looking for other survivors. Others migrated from one suppressed Communist town to another village of Communist oppression. Communism, where ‘atheism was the main religion’ and any kind of belief other than communism was not allowed.
Fifty years of Communism. Fifty years of no religious expression, no free thought. I can’t quite wrap my head around what that type of culture does to one’s psyche and identity. Simply stating a very complicated issue, many Orthodox Jews ‘forgot’ their Judaism and had secular children whose own children are now discovering their Jewish roots. Among the complications are not knowing about Judaism, and, the difficulty in finding people with two Jewish parents.
I noticed this when I asked about the number of Jews in each city. The response was usually the same: a shrug of the shoulders, a number, but only the declared number, the number of people who admitted to being Jews. Guilt, fear over the past, and people not wanting to be Jewish limited the numbers. Coming forward and embracing Jewish roots isn’t something all people are comfortable with – yet. (New census figures will be coming out soon). But even this is complicated especially when discussed at/with Chabbad . The Rabbis in Vilna, Warsaw, and, Zagreb shared the number of congregants are increasing, which is likely the most miraculous story.
But with every miracle comes a complication, and also I think, a strength of Judaism, the miracle to debate. When it comes to identifying the number of Jews, one has to first define who is a Jew. Orthodox turn to halacha or Jewish law which says that if the mother is Jewish so is the child. I was told the non-Orthodox (non-Observant) are not considered to be Jewish (!), and, by someone else that it’s okay for ‘new’ Jews to be non-observant (and perhaps implied not for us ‘old’ Jews). The Law of Return identifies a Jew as having one Jewish grandparent. The latter becomes a larger problem where documentation has been lost or altered. On top of that there are those who claim and/or want Jewish roots. In Berlin and Poland it is hip to be Jewish which has even led to conversions.
While there may not be agreement on who is a Jew, there is a place and a way for everyone to pray and get closer to Judaism (Yiddishkite). Not that various congregations are without controversy. After all if you get two Jews together you get three opinions. To demonstrate: In Krakow with 100 declared Jews, there are 4 congregations: Orthodox, Chabad, Modern Orthodox (more conservative) and Reform (which accepts Jews who would not be considered Jewish elsewhere). The Reform and Chabad do not ‘get along’, not by the way the first or only place I heard this. Demonstrating even more strength – and I mean this seriously since only a vibrant, confident religion (or group) can have so many different factions adapting to the needs of members to maintain tradition and belief – I heard how some believe Chabad is taking over Eastern European Jewry, and other places where Chabad and a Modern Orthodox congregation have a healthy competition to attract congregants, sometimes working and praying together sometimes not. Chabad is known as a dynamic center where everyone – however tied to Judaism – is welcomed, taught and fed for Shabbat.
Communities live amidst the controversies, even have minyans for the first time in decades in cities like Warsaw and Zagreb. I was told this may not seem like a big deal to me (a New York Jew) – but it is! (How many synagogues in the U.S. can barely get together minyans on Saturdays? My guess is quite a few.) This was all a reminder that World Jewry exitst!
And this was key to me: why and how does Warsaw and Zagreb get people involved when across the U.S. and Israel most of us are ‘once a year’ High Holiday Jews? Surely it has something to do with faith, belief, religion and most of all comes back to connection. Well that and following curiosity to dig into the meaning of Jewish roots. Still something missing closer to home. They’ve learned about prayer: how to pray, follow traditions, and, celebrate holidays, which connected them to the culture and more learning. Miriam in Warsaw’s curiosity was sparked by the Hebrew letters in a cemetary. She is now studying to be an Orthodox Rabbi, a first in Poland and not that common here in the U.S. I heard about connection based on belief, belief without need for fact but belief based on a deeper more real emotion. People connected with young, energetic, charismatic Rabbis including the Rabbi who came to Zagreb in the 90’s and ‘sparked’ Borut Ivanusa and others. More than once I heard about Chabad Rabbi’s in Berlin, Warsaw, Vilna, Zagreb and Budapest who get people excited and involved.
Most of all I heard and felt the power of connecting through community. These small communities are like family. I watched Vilna’s Chabad Rabbi pour whiskey before Simchas Torah dancing, chatted over Kiddush in Berlin, shared the energy of Israeli and Poles celebrating over food and music in the Sukkah of a French couple in Warsaw ( through Chabad), sat in community rooms of both synagogues in Zagreb (they ‘split’ about six years ago) and where the Chabad Rabbi (the third ‘synagogue’) talked about meeting lawyers and Bar Mitzvah boys over coffee. With small populations from Krakow to Zagreb there is recognition that everyone has to feel connected. Centers and synagogues respond by creating a place and way for each and every person to join and participate. It felt like a “Cheer” atmosphere where people can come and ‘everyone knows your name’.
Community is powerful, but I thought there must be more to what it means to be Jewish. There were things I heard repeated, none having to do (specifically) with religion yet focused on the core of Judaism. Andrea Medgyesi in Budapest said it was all about faith, culture and morality or ‘Be a Mensche’. That is so simple and so all inclusive, pointing to a moral code to live and treat others by. Rabbi Pinizaklas in Zagreb said ‘every Jew is a diamond, hug the diamond. It doesn’t matter how ‘religious’, just that they come close to Yiddishkeit.’ The Rabbi talked about creating community and helping people find jobs as a means of tsdaka (charity). Providing people the means to live normally was another simple and powerful way to deal with the whole person and provide a moral foundation – a foundation to connect.
I can’t keep writing and not address problems of assimilation, lack of affiliation, lack of knowledge, lack of connection. They plague us in the U.S., Israel, and I’m sure around the globe. Many Israelis I met said they had no Jewish identity, so this common yet complicated issue is huge! Going beyond stories of survival, population and controversy Andrea and I got to the heart of identity over coffee in Budapest, (interestingly so universal I had an identical conversation with Sarah in Berlin). Acknowledging the ‘issues’, she clearly and concisely offered: ‘Teach kids to be who you are. Be proud. Not more, not less. Be able to explain who you are. Ask questions. Learn. Be informed. Know where you came from so you know where you are and so you have a future.’ Andrea stressed the need for Jews to come to Eastern Europe and see where the former center of Jewish life and where great grandparents came from.
I heard how praying in the Neue Synagogue in Berlin felt ‘special’ and worthy of attendance, and how Birthright’s trip to Israel sealed Steve’s, an American law student in the Netherlands, connection with Judaism. Again, there is no substitute for a first hand experience. Israeli’s live and breathe a Jewish homeland and recycling my oxygen analogy: if ‘it’ is all around you and you don’t have to worry about breathing oxygen to live, it becomes unimportant. Oxygen becomes precious only if you have to worry about breathing. Maybe Israeli’s need to do a Birthright trip to Eastern Europe to connect? Maybe we all need to travel here!
Pursuing connection, knowledge and identity takes courage. Brave was the word I applied to Max and Leon who walked me to the bus station in Vilna, pulling off hats to show yarmulkes when I asked to take their picture. I felt it was brave of them to ‘announce’ their Jewishness. But I realize all the people I met who pursued curiosity and tradition are brave. I think people who have stepped out of comfort zones to learn Hebrew and how to pray, things many of us learned as kids, is brave and demonstrates what it is ‘To be a Mensche”. While some pointed to the newly Orthodox as ‘must be missing something’, I realize these people are brave to acknowledge – and pursue – an unmet need. It’s hard to embrace identity – for any of us – to be ‘who’ you are, especially if that ‘you’ is different. Especially if ‘you’ requires real learning, hard work and admitting you know nothing. Some of the brave people who shared stories and thoughts include: Diane and Sarah (Berlin), Teresa Steiner, Yola, Basha, Michael (Warsaw), Lilly Minevich, (the couple I sat next to at Shabbat dinner, Dina and Rabbi Shalom/Chabad (Vilna), Klaudia Klimit, Anna Gulinska, Stawek Pastuka (Krakow) Andrea Medguyesi (Budapest), Borut Ivanusa, Biserka Krsnik, Rabbi Pinizaklas (Zagreb). Their connection and conversation filled me with pride and strength.
Next Tuesday: a pictoral tour – really pictures! of some of the places and people I’ve talked about. Let me know if there is anything you want to hear more about.
My question for you: If you had to define who you are and explain your identity, what would you say? If someone asked you about an aspect orf your identity, say religion, would you be able to answer questions?
Ask at Thanksgiving! Celebrate freedom, celebrate life!