Letter from Warsaw: Inside and Outside the Sealed Room

Warsaw July 28

IMG_0405We toured Warsaw today, seeing the city in its split-screen way, looking for what disappeared, taking in what filled in those gaps.  Large gaps:  by the end of the war pretty much the entire city lay in ruins and only stragglers remained.  Some Poles thought to move the nation’s capital to Lodz.  But people returned, and the Soviets replaced the Nazis as the Pole’s new rulers.  The Russians rebuilt the city; Stalin “gifted” to the capital its new gigantic Palace of Culture and Science, a statue of Copernicus out front reminding Poles of their own historical treasures.

Hard as they tried the Soviets failed to shut out history.  In an absurdity that only the likes of George Orwell might have truly appreciated, the Rolling Stones gave their first and only concert behind the Iron Curtain in that very palace in 1966, performing to a packed audience of Communist Party families and and others with protectsia.  By 1979 the Polish Pope recited the mass in Pilsudski Square facing the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, praying that God’s spirit would return to this place, this country, banish the Party and the Soviets, and redeem Poland and the Poles.  When you walk down toward the Old Town, the oldest section of the city, completely destroyed by the Nazis and painstakingly rebuilt brick by brick, one can see the march of Solidarity, creating democracy as it went along by actually marketing its electoral campaign by deploying an American cinematic icon, Gary Cooper at High Noon, the lone outnumbered force of good against the larger but hapless forces of evil.

Then we pivoted to Jewish matters.  We walked in the footsteps of Emmanuel Ringelblum, visiting with the archivists at the Jewish Historical Institute.  We saw diaries written in Yiddish hidden in glass bottles inside ghetto walls, we held copies of death certificates of those who perished there, and work permits for those lucky enough to stave off at least temporarily their death sentence.

We went back yet further, back to the vitality of pre-war Jewish life.  We read the texts of a community that experienced its own modernization trajectory from within the sources of Jewish life, a very different sort of change process than the more individualistic, smaller Jewish communities in the west.  Jews fought with one another inside of and over matters of politics, culture, and religion. Here rabbinic Judaism gave way to and battled with the Left, the Yiddishist Bundists and the Communists.  Zionists tilted with each other, with the Revisionists jousting with the Socialists.  Others went to university, became middle-class merchants or professionals, took off their beards and made Polish their mother tongue.   Yet the overwhelming majority of all of these people lived as Jews in some meaningful, overt sense.  They knew it, and the Poles knew it.  That richness, that multi-colored tableau, burnt in the Shoah.

It therefore seems appropriate that we ended the day by visiting the new JCC of Warsaw.  In a small building that practices radical inclusion by welcoming Jews by any definition and non-Jews, the JCC, like the day school founded here by Ronald Lauder, makes an important statement about Jewish life, and about Jewish history.

Many of us tend to think—regardless of whether we’re traditionalist or liberal—that Judaism is a thing, a kind of time Platonic purity.  We negotiate the terms of our encounter with that thing, but we think that that negotiation involves other aspects of life that we also value, and in setting them off in relation to Judaism we purposely or inadvertently reinforce our sense that Judaism is autonomous and set apart.  We may practice pluralism because other values like democracy lead us there, but we’re not truly convinced that Judaism is about process rather than a finite product.

So visiting these post-Holocaust, post-Soviet, post-Communist era Jews shocks.  I should add that the leaders of the current leaders are mostly women under forty, bright, lovely, passionate, dedicated to Jewish life, to Jewish language, to Israel, and yes to Poland too.  Agata told us that her grandfather grew up Orthodox and studied the Talmud seriously, indeed survived the war by serving a Christian as a bible teacher.  After the war, as the next generation plunged into Communism and atheism, she remembered that he would steal away to a small room, shut himself within, and study the Talmud by himself.

Now these young people, locked out of those sacred spaces, in small modest spaces like this JCC, create.  Mostly from intermarried families, some intermarried themselves, they work to get one hundred and fifty people to Sunday morning programs where a few years ago a minyan showed up.  Can they rebuild Jewish life here, given their numbers and their lack of Jewish content?

More to the point, should we rethink the way we view Jewish history?  Must it always be a matter of protecting the precious thing from change and decline and assimilation?  What would it mean for us to think that Jews invent Judaism as much as they inherit it, that communities live and die and grow sideways and every which way, losing Judaism, forgetting Judaism, discarding Judaism, picking up previously discarded Judaism and renewing and remaking Judaism.

I want to make space for continuing to think about Jewish history in this way.  I treasure the memory of those precious souls who lived and died as Jews.  I treasure the sheer excellence that they created in their religious lives, their cultural production and consumption, their commitment to the ongoing welfare of the Jewish people.  But history took them from us, and these bright, passionate, idealistic, young Jews in our time already put us American Jewish spoiled brats to shame.  Without complaints and with very few tools they seek actually to build something here, to replace nothing with something.  And in that they may be telling us that Jewish life depends more on building than on receiving, at least in extreme circumstances.

Founder and Executive Director, Tzion; Teacher and Scholar, Gann Academy

Posted in American Jews, Education, European history, Jewish Education, Jewishness, Judaism, My View, Teaching, Teaching History Tagged with: , , , , ,
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[David] has a brilliant mind; he is a scholar of great range and depth; he is a deeply devoted father and husband; his outstanding abilities at organization are manifest in the splendid Me'ah Program he created and fostered; he is a forceful and moving orator; he is a man of both compassion and commitment; he is a teacher who fortifies and inspires; he is a natural leader; and his contribution to the Jewish community is legendary.
Sacvan Bercovitch, Powell M. Cabot Research Professor of American Literature, Harvard University

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