by Samuel D. Gruber
In my line of work I hear many of the same remarks over and over. Two common ones are "Jewish culture (or Yiddishkeit) isn't just about synagogues and cemeteries," and "Why care about old monuments where there is no Jewish life." There are many variants on these remarks - and depending on the place, time and my mood (optimistic or frustrated) my replies vary a lot.
My sister and colleague Ruth Ellen Gruber spends much more time in Central and Eastern Europe than I do (she lives part-time in Budapest), so she gets asked these questions more frequently. In several of her articles in recent months she's given some sense of what she sees in non-synagogue/cemetery contemporary Jewish life in two of the liveliest of the region's Jewish cultural centers. These articles are view from the cafes (which for many European Jews are still considered quintessential Jewish institutions) of Krakow and Budapest.
Though the articles are not about the presence, protection or preservation of Jewish monuments per se, it is clear that the presence of the tangible pieces of past Jewish culture - religious and secular - are essential components for defining contemporary Jewish identity and ensuring new developments and creativity in contemporary Jewish life by Jews - and appreciation for Jewish culture by people of other religions and faiths and of non-believers. The physical remains create something recognizable as a Jewish space, and the lives led there are free to develop (or not) some version, new or nostalgic) or Jewish culture.
One cannot predict the cultural results of any effort to save of piece of the past. But one can - with some certainty - predict that some things will not develop - if no effort to remember and preserve the past - including its physical remnants - are made. The preservationists active in the 1990s in Krakow's Kazimierz and Budapest's Seventh District created hte canvas upon which new Jewish activities and interactions now take place.
Ruth's most recently article is from Krakow in Moment Magazine (Jan/Feb 2010):
"It's a sunny morning in early July, and I'm having breakfast at an outdoor cafe table in Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter of Krakow. I have been sitting at cafes in and around Szeroka Street, the main square of Kazimierz, for nearly 20 years, watching the paradoxical Jewish components of post-communist Poland unfold, and Kazimierz itself evolve from a deserted district of decrepit buildings—some with grooves on their doorposts from missing mezuzahs—into one of Europe's premier Jewish tourist attractions, a fashionable boom town of Jewish-style cafes, trendy pubs, kitschy souvenirs and nostalgic shtetl chic...."
In December, Ruth had stories in the International Herald Tribune and online New York Times and in Hadassah Magaziune about celebrating Hanukah in Budapest's historic Jewish Seventh District.
By Ruth Ellen Gruber
Published: December 8, 2009
by Ruth Ellen Gruber
by Ruth Ellen Gruber
Hadassah Magazine(December 2009/January 2010 Vol. 91 No. 3)
"With a new wave of cultural hot spots, dance clubs and restaurants catering to them—not to mention the growing numbers of spiritual and religious venues created to assist with questions of faith and identity—for young Jews in Budapest these may be the best days of their lives."