July 12, 2007

Jewish Culture without the Jews?

I read an article in the NY Times this morning about a strange revival of Jewish culture and life in Poland. At one time, prior to the Second World War, Poland was home to the largest Jewish population in Europe. Those few Jews who survived the Concentration Camps (remember, please, Auschwitz was on Polish soil), were further thinned out by State sanctioned pogroms and other anti-Semitic actions. When it came to anti-Semitism, it would appear that we have found something that the Poles absolutely excelled at.

Now, however, the Poles are in the process of rediscovering the contributions made by the Jews to Polish culture -- food, music, literature, architecture, language, art, and science. There is a veritable revival. The NY Times thinks this is great and seems to think it is kind of amusing that the Poles are managing to do it without the Jews. The tone of the article, I feel, is ironic amusement.

There is nothing ironic about it, from my perspective. Jewish culture without the Jews who live it and practice it, Jewish culture divorced from the religious observances which gave rise to such culture and around which such culture revolves, Jewish culture there is not Jewish culture. Klezmer music played by Polish, non-Jewish, musicians, to Polish, non-Jewish, diners eating "kosher" Polish, Jewish food (I have to think it is simulated "kosher" or kosher style food because where would they find the appropriate authorities to certify it?) is NOT Jewish culture. It is a simulacrum of Jewish culture.

It is also at once both an appropriation of Jewish culture and perhaps the ultimate example of Polish anti-Semitism. First, Jewish culture divorced from the religious calendar has little meaning. It is simply the Disneyification of Jewish life, celebrated by those for whom a connection to Jewish life is purely theoretical. It is, I suppose, a living museum. It is, in this regard, deeply offensive. Jewish culture is not here for the Poles' amusement and attempting to live it cannot be left for them to feel better about having wiped out their Polish Jews. I understand that they feel a void in Polish culture. It is understandable considering the contributions of Jews to Polish culture. But this way is wrong. Jewish culture is being lived by Jews all over the world in places other than Poland. It is lived every time a Jew celebrates the Sabbath or observes, with joy, a holiday (holy-day, right?). It is not ready for a museum.

Secondly, as I said above, it is the height of the expression of Polish anti-Semitism. After all, what could be better, from the Polish perspective, than taking the best of Jewish culture and enjoying it, all without having to be inconvenienced by the presence of a Jew?

Jewish culture without the Jew. Welcome to Poland. Be real careful getting on a train, you never know what the next stop will be.

Indeed, what better proves my point about how strange this all is than this photo (note the Crucifix, please):


Posted by Random Penseur at July 12, 2007 08:41 AM | TrackBack

As the old saying goes, a picture says a thousand words. Sadly, and I'm really fighting the urge to make Pollock jokes, is that they may think the Crucifix is key to the Jewish religion too.

I mean, Jesus is one of the most popular Jews ever, so why wouldn't the crucifix be the central part of Jewish religion?

Posted by: phin at July 12, 2007 09:40 AM

I mean, Jesus is one of the most popular Jews ever, so why wouldn't the crucifix be the central part of Jewish religion?

Because crucifixion was a Roman punishment administered by the Roman government. And although Jesus was a Palestenian Jew, he was rejected by them - hence the outreach to the Gentiles.

Posted by: Emily at July 12, 2007 10:49 AM

Well, Emily, I am not sure I agree with your second sentence. First, "Palestine" is a loaded political term and was not used by the Romans until Hadrian, some 134 years after the death of Jesus. Thus, Jesus could not be as you described him. Second, the use of the term gentile is another anachronism. Third, Jesus had great success preaching to Jews. All of his initial disciples were originally Jewish. Finally, crucifixion was not a punishment created by the Romans, although it was used by them. It was created by Carthage and used by the Persians, Seleucids, Jews, Carthaginians, and Romans.

Posted by: rp at July 12, 2007 12:13 PM

Also, going back to Phin's comment for a moment, I am pretty sure he was being ironic. Phin's like that, you see.

Posted by: rp at July 12, 2007 12:15 PM

To quote a bumper sticker, Jesus was a Jewish liberal. That's true, actually. The reason he was shunned by some of his Jewish brethren is because he was too progressive.

I like your point about Disneyification. I think that is an outstanding take on it. The only thing they're not doing is making money on it...yet.

Posted by: Linda at July 13, 2007 08:43 AM

My apologies for being imprecise. Not being familiar with Phin's brand of irony, I dashed off a reply to his comment and then went to read the NYT article.

I would like to point out, however, that I did not allude to the history of crucifixion, and was referring specifically to the crucifixion of Jesus. To dissect crucifixion and its users would have been outside the bounds of Phin's comment.

Posted by: Emily at July 13, 2007 03:40 PM

I think you might be taking it a little too personally, RP.

For instance, if I want to attend an Italian festival to celebrate their contributions to American culture by eating baked ziti and playing a round of bocci, must I first convert to Roman Catholicism?

Can't I celebrate the influence of the Chinese by blowing off fireworks and chowing down on some good kung pao without chanting the little red book?

Now, granted, the Polish situation is different because they, under control of the Nazis, killed off their Jews. But, would rather have them not celebrate Jewish contributions to Polish culture at all? Must they roast an egg and a lamb shank and observe Passover before they sing Hava Nagila?

While all cultures are defined heabily by their religious life, must all heuristic nuance be included in order to make the honoring of that culture's contributions "real"?

That photo's pretty funny, though. I promise, they don't mean to offend you, but to honor your long gone kinsmen.

I dunno.

Posted by: Tuning Spork at July 14, 2007 08:34 PM

heabily = heavily. Although I might substitute it with "profoundly".

And I have no idea what "hava nagila" means, so in case the answer to my question is "yes", nevermind. ;)

Posted by: Tuning Spork at July 14, 2007 08:38 PM