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.

Posted in American Jews, Education, European history, Jewish Education, Jewishness, Judaism, My View, Teaching, Teaching History Tagged with: , , , , ,

Letter from Poland, Day One

Warsaw July 28

IMG_0261I wondered if taking this trip made sense.  My mind and body should be elsewhere.  In no particular order:  I should be in Israel helping Israelis during this war, I should be home helping my family deal with our domestic displacement as we watch the nerve center of our home—the kitchen—be taken apart and put back together, I should be in New York City in the years 1902-1915 hanging out with Solomon Schechter as I try to tell his life story.  Probably because of those things instead here I sit, in as the Jewish legend named it PoLin. 

Tonight I began to answer the question of why I came, and perhaps the more important question of why it matters that here I sit.  Facing History and Ourselves and the Forum for Dialogue brought me, and my fellow travellers, a group of American educators who all in some way or another deal in their schools with Jewish history, Jewish life in Poland before the Holocaust, and the Holocaust itself.

The Forum for Dialogue emerged out of the energy of contemporary democratic Poland as it sought to create a new present, which involved rethinking the Polish past.  The organization fosters Jewish-Polish dialogue, tries to eradicate Polish anti-Semitism, and teaches tolerance through education here in Poland.  Many obstacles lie in its path.

Different pasts and different often competing motives drive all of us who work in this area.  Some of us want to share stories, share narratives, to remember and to be heard, to listen to others and to connect to them.  Some of us want to study the past and get our stories straight, what really happened, as a positivist might put it.  We believe that only by doing so can we not only teach well but also learn the right lessons from that better historiography.  Some of us want to resolve conflicts in the present, want to get beyond “Polish” and “Jewish” and think in richer more suppler ways of our identities.

Three stories hint at the challenges in working through all this, which our opening dinner served up to us.  Yoni shared the existential and pedagogic frustration that five hundred years of Polish Jewish history went up in smoke in five years of destruction, and that no amount of concerted thought and good educational practice seems potent enough to enable students to learn and truly remember the richness of Polish Jewish life “before the Holocaust.”  That is precisely the point:  everything before 1939 is remembered as “before” rather than as a story lived forward of flesh and blood people, of culture, religion, peoplehood, and politics, in its own right.  Memory lies, especially of trauma, it narrows, it distorts, it makes ever more difficult the ultimate task of history which is bringing us to other people in other times and trying to understand their world and all of the choices they made and all of the things that happened to them.

Andrzej, the President of the Forum, spoke about his shock upon encountering Israeli survivors who forgave and related more easily to contemporary Germans than to Poles.   That requires more analysis than I can muster just now but my first instinct tells me that it’s more complicated with Poles because we lived with these people, they were our neighbors, sometimes business associates, sometimes schoolmates, sometimes friends and even lovers, but always our neighbors.

And this place, Poland, a place of hundreds maybe even thousands of communities, was our home.  These communities existed for hundreds of years, and it was quite possible that families traced their lives in these towns and cities for generations.  As Zionistic and as Jewish as I am I still see that such a rootedness suggests that calling Poland “Exile” seems far too limiting to get at the depth of attachment here, and the consequent sadness and rage and loss that must dwell inside of many survivors.

Finally, Zuzanna, a Polish journalist and theologian, spoke about her childhood and how she began to think about Polish Jews, and her grandmother.   As a child she knew little or nothing about Jews here, and the frequent and almost sacralized memory of the war and the uprising and the suffering and the heroism of Poles and Poland never mentioned Jews.  Her grandmother came from what Jews might call a shtetl, a large town/small city that typically contained a large plurality if not a majority of Jews.  One day she asked her grandmother about the Jews.  A young mother during the war, her grandmother replied that of course she remembered Jews, but recalled nothing of what finally happened to them because her mothering duties took up all of her time.  On Zuzanna’s visit with her the following day her grandmother told her something different.  “When I can’t sleep at night I see them.”  Finally, she could speak of it all, and now she wanted to remember the past as it happened, however painful.  She wanted not just a narrative of self but also a moral memory of the suffering of others, of her friends and neighbors.  Grandmother and granddaughter each gave something precious to the other.

I guess that’s why I came.  To hear stories, to see those people, Jews and Poles, to get beyond mythologization of the past.  By listening to stories maybe we can think and write and understand history better, and as Antony Polonsky, a noted scholar wrote, “move beyond strongly- held competing narratives of the past and reach some consensus that will be acceptable to all people of good will and will bring about a degree of normalization both in Poles’ attitudes to the past and in Polish-Jewish relations.”

Posted in American Jews, Education, European history, History, Israel, Jewish Education, Jewish Organizations, Jewishness, My View, Religion, Teaching, Teaching History, The Scholarly Tagged with: , , ,

Mourning and Politics

I join with the Jewish people and the State of Israel in mourning the deaths of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrah.  Their deaths have everything and nothing to do with politics.  Just three boys, three sons of parents, three precious souls, taken in an act of senseless cruelty and violence.  Three Jews, three Zionists, three citizens of the state of Israel, murdered probably because of their commitment to all of those ideas and commitments.

My family asks me:  why does the world hate the Jews, single out the Jews in such iniquitous fashion?  I cannot adequately answer that question because I feel that all rational explanations still fall short of the mark, fail to capture the irrational nature of anti-Jewish prejudice.  But Jews have often looked to the past and to the future for consolation and direction, so consider this.

In a few weeks the world will mark the centennial of the outbreak of World War I, in effect the birth of the twentieth-century.  Since scholars consider Second World War II in important ways to be a continuation of the first, it boggles the mind to contemplate the tens of millions of lives lost, the ferocity of the conflict, the political violence and immorality and oppression loosed upon the world by figures such as Stalin and Hitler and forces like Bolshevism and Nazism.  It takes no great insight to feel that humankind lost–deservedly so–some elementary confidence in itself, based upon what humans showed themselves capable of doing to one another.  We need to continue to work hard to restore a belief in ourselves, to believe that we’re capable of large and small acts of kindness, via acts of caring for each and every single precious individual, and acts of service to the public good.

If, as many of us intuitively feel, that Jews in spite of our small numbers somehow often manage to find themselves on the center stage of history, consider the following.  Compare Jewish life today to the condition of world Jewry in 1914.  Today most Jews live in two great states, Israel and America, two democracies, two free societies of opportunity and intellectual and cultural vitality.  A century ago many Jews lived in poverty or perilously close to it, much of world Jewry lived in oppressive states like Tsarist Russia, most Jews lacked the physical and political means to defend their human dignity.  As the great historian Yosef Yerushalmi often pointed out, history always remains open.  Life involves change.  Who of us would return to Jewish life in 1914?  Who in 1914 could have imagined the world Jewry of 2014?

Now turn to the future.  When we ask ourselves:  why does the world single us out, investing so much negative energy in us, we’re asking not just a socio-historical question, but really a more personal question.  Why should I continue with this people?  How can I get past my fear of what might happen to me because of my attachment to this people?  Is my commitment worth it?  Each of us must answer that question for him or herself.  But if history is any guide, we will continue.  We will survive and I hope thrive because of our ideals and our belief in the dignity of what it means to be human and to be created in God’s image, endowed with freedom and free will.

The earth is stained with our blood, the blood of precious souls like Naftali, Gilad, and Eyal.  But we as a people will endure, and the enemies of justice and mercy will not.  Hang on to our belief in values of truth and goodness and righteousness, they will carry us.  Peace be upon them.  May their families be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.  May we continue together to bring God’s presence into this world.



Posted in American Jews, American Politics, European history, History, Israel, Jewishness, Judaism, My View, Religion

Slavery and Suffering

Slaves at AuctionI make it a habit to choose meaning over happiness on certain auspicious occasions.  For my first date with the woman I ended up marrying, I took her to see Yossi Klein Halevi’s film “Kaddish,” a story about his father, a survivor of the Holocaust.  Powerful film, slightly strange evening.  Still basking in our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, for my most recent birthday I chose to see “Twelve Years a Slave,” the remarkable true story of a nightmare, the account of a free black man kidnapped into slavery in antebellum America, torn from his family in Saratoga Springs, NY and sold into Deep South servitude in Louisiana.  Solomon Northup’s account of his journey from freedom to slavery and back to freedom along with other more famous books like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” hardened Northern hearts in the 1850’s against the Peculiar Institution and convinced Southerners that the South might need to seek its freedom outside of the United States, a set of mentalities that brought us the Civil War.

For people who find history endlessly fascinating for its entertainment value replete with horrors and triumphs, stories like Northup’s remind us we’re sometimes even often telling moral stories when we talk about the past.  Stories about politics and law and money and public matters boil down to stories about choices and who gets to make them and the effects upon self and others of those choices.  One man goes home at night to dine with his wife and children in a house paid for by the labor of a man or a woman or a child he purchased earlier that day.   A woman cries herself to sleep every night, remembering the children sold away from her.

I found it particularly weird to screen this movie in Newport, R.I.  Once upon a time one of the five great seaports in American life, now mainly a quaint city ever in need of the tourist trade, Newport as a shipping center lived connected to an Atlantic economy and a transatlantic one at that, and slavery made up a big part of that set of interlocking relationships and interests.  Slavery touched and tainted almost every aspect and precinct of American life, even as in the case of Newport it prided itself on religious toleration that characterized colonial Rhode Island as a whole.

As a Jew, and as an American Jew, I thought about that when we spent Shabbat at the Touro Synagogue, and viewed some of the history of the Jewish community at the synagogue’s lovely recently built historical center.  I wondered how many of the men and women depicted there in state of the art virtual portrait exhibits owned slaves, how many of them opposed slavery, and how vigorously they fought over such issues at the same time that they embraced and enhanced colonial and early national notions of religious and ethnic diversity.

Jewish notions of chosenness may be properly understood as vocation, being chosen for some future purpose, rather than some base notion of ethnic historical specialness.  But nonetheless chosenness cannot help breed some degree of shall we say excessive preoccupation with oneself.  What does God want of me?  An important question, and one that makes “me” pretty consequential.  Jews may disagree on virtually everything else, but they all seem to agree on this:  they all want to believe that being Jewish matters in some way “out there” in the world, that we’re difference makers.  Jews matter.

So it’s a strange thing to live in a country where in some way we matter relatively little.  In a somewhat understandable somewhat macabre way some Jews can’t seem to handle not being at the center of the story, even when that story contains much that tells of humanity’s penchant for prejudice, discrimination, cruelty and exploitation.  Not white enough for some, but definitely not black, our Jewish story seems pretty small compared to the story we watched up on that screen, THE American story, of race and slavery and freedom.  Whose people’s saga of oppression trumps?  I’m not sure that’s a good question; historians tend to avoid comparisons that eliminate particular circumstances and contexts.  So I’ll leave that for another time.  For now it’s enough to note that there’s more than enough pain and suffering to go around.  Too much.

Posted in American Jews, American Politics, Biography, Education, European history, History, Jewish Education, Jewishness, Judaism, My View, Religion, Teaching, Teaching History, The Scholarly 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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