A Jewish Cultural Revival - Minus the Jews

Throughout Europe, tourists are flocking to restored Jewish sites and heritage festivals, often in places where there has been no Jewish presence since the end of WWII.

Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
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Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

Tykocin, near Bialystok in northeast Poland, is an interesting place. Not a single Jew lives there today, but its synagogue - the oldest in Poland - is a tourist attraction, with over 40,000 visitors a year. The security guard explained with hand motions that the synagogue is closed on Mondays. He spoke only Polish. Afterward, when he saw the disappointment on my face, he scratched his head and signaled me to wait for a moment next to the gate. Two minutes later he returned with a large key and said, "But only for a moment."

The doors of the synagogue were opened and the sight was breathtaking. Large colored paintings cover the white walls. The ceiling is high, there is a large bimah (dais ) in the center of the hall, surrounded by four arched columns that support the walls. The Holy Ark is on the eastern wall. Many biblical verses and proverbs are painted on the walls in black. Next to them are illustrations of animals and plants. When he saw my eyes light up, the guard smiled and signaled that I could stay for another moment.

A spiral staircase leads to the top floor, where a two-room apartment that was used by the synagogue rabbi has been restored. The synagogue in Tykocin was built in 1642, after the revocation of restrictions imposed by the Polish authorities on Jewish religious structures.

During World War II, after Poland was occupied by Nazi Germany, part of the synagogue was destroyed and what remained was used as a warehouse. The local residents carried out several pogroms against the Jews, confiscated property and encouraged them to flee. In August 1941, the Nazis assembled all the Jews of the town - about 2,500 in number - in the central square and sent 1,400 of them to the nearby Lopochova Forest, where they were shot and buried in pits. About 150 people managed to escape to the Bialystok ghetto.

After the end of the war, several Jews tried to return but they encountered a hostile attitude and left. The Jewish community in Tykocin had reached the end of the road, but the magnificent synagogue remained in place. Somewhat surprisingly, the building underwent a thorough and comprehensive renovation between 1974 and 1978, at the height of the Communist period.

The guard parted from us with a handshake, but didn't leave. He pointed several times to a corner of the square and signaled that it was a good idea to eat there. A few dozen meters from the synagogue, there is a restaurant called Tejsza, a Jewish (nonkosher ) restaurant that supposedly recreates the atmosphere in a Jewish home in the late 19th or early 20th century. The menu in Tejsza (the name is written in Hebrew and Polish ) comprises two pages, one listing Jewish foods and the other listing other foods that can be found in any cheap restaurant in Poland.

The Jewish foods are quite familiar: kreplach (cooked or steamed dumplings ); tzimmes, a sweet and quite disgusting carrot dish; and kugel, a kind of greasy quiche. The decor is supposed to be Jewish, with heavy curtains, country-style wooden furniture, tablecloths in two colors.

Above the bar are chains of garlic and on the table are candlesticks, a Hanukkah menorah and several dolls representing Hasidim. A shtreimel, the traditional Hasidic fur hat, hangs in the corner and thunderous Hasidic music blares in the background. An entire quasi-Jewish culture is now flourishing in Tykocin, a town without a single Jew.

Festivals galore

Ruth Ellen Gruber is an American researcher and journalist who lives in Europe part of the time. Gruber has published several books on what she calls "the reinvention of Jewish culture in Europe." Her book "Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe" (University of California Press ) was published in the United States ten years ago.

In a phone interview, Gruber explains that the phenomenon is not limited to Poland, but can be found all over Europe - the west as well as the east. "In recent years there has been a big wave of interest in Jewish culture," she says. "Dozens of European cities hold a Jewish Heritage Day every year, and most of the participants aren't even Jewish."

Gruber cites Italy as an interesting example of the trend, and of the interest in Jewish culture. Only about 25,000 Jews live in the country today, but Jewish heritage days are held in 60 cities and towns, attracting hundreds of thousands of people.

A research project conducted by a British foundation called the Institute for Jewish Policy Research surveyed all the Jewish cultural events that took place between May 2000 and April 2001 in four European countries with small Jewish communities: Italy, Belgium, Sweden and Poland.

The results astonished the researchers, as Prof. Jonathan Webber - one of the heads of the foundation - explained shortly afterward at a conference in Budapest. Over 700 cultural Jewish events took place in those countries during the 12-month period. Among them were 27 Jewish culture festivals, 13 of them in Italy alone. According to a quick calculation by Webber, that year there was one cultural event for every 125 Jews.

Everyone understands, of course, that there is no correlation between the number of Jews and the large number of events. In Poland alone, where the Jewish community is estimated at about 10,000-20,000, there were 196 cultural events and seven Jewish culture festivals.

Gruber believes this phenomenon has become increasingly strong in the past decade. Krakow, in southern Poland, is an excellent example, which Gruber says served as inspiration to many other places. Almost every visitor who comes to Krakow, whether a Pole or a foreigner, visits the Jewish sites in the city's Kazimierz quarter. Krakow is one of the only cities in Poland that was not bombed during World War II and in which all the buildings remained standing.

On the neighborhood's main street, Szeroka, opposite the ancient Rama synagogue (named after 16th-century scholar Rabbi Moses Isserles ), there are about 10 cafes and restaurants of a quasi-Jewish nature, with elements of Jewish tradition.

In one, called Haim Cohen, we listened to music by Israeli clarinetist Giora Feidman for over an hour. More than 10 tour guides, armed with microphones and loudspeaker systems, fought for the attention of their groups. At least half the groups were composed solely of tourists from East Asia, who showed great interest in the small 16th-century synagogue and the large cemetery concealed behind it.

It started in Krakow

Krakow pioneered the trend more than 10 years ago, with the first quasi-Jewish cafe opening in the city in 1992. According to Gruber, the process gathered steam as a sequence of private initiatives that followed quickly on from their predecessors' commercial success. The government had prepared other plans for developing the Kazimierz quarter, but these were changed after officials understood the organic and independent "restoration" of Jewish culture, Gruber explains.

Tykocin is different from Krakow and other places because the synagogue there was restored back in the 1970s, at the initiative of the government. Gruber notes that it's one of the only synagogues in Europe that was restored during that period, making it quite unusual because nothing was then done with it. In other places, synagogues were renovated during the Communist period in order to win the affections of the Jewish community - but, of course, there is no such community in Tykocin. The Jewish sites were opened as museums and were seen at the time as evidence of the government's "broad horizons" and cultural approach.

"It was a kind of commemoration of an extinct civilization," says Gruber, "something reminiscent of the attitude toward the Mayan or Incan cultures. But with one significant difference - the members of those civilizations have become extinct, whereas the Jews live in other places.

"The interesting point is that nobody in the Communist period expected Jewish life to flourish again," she adds. "The museum established in the Tykocin synagogue was designed to sum up the culture that had disappeared. Somewhat surprisingly, 15 years later it turned out that the culture had not disappeared or become extinct. That may have been somewhat embarrassing for the 1970s renovators but, by that point, in the 1990s, they were no longer around to apologize, and people began to exhibit a totally different attitude to these Jewish sites."

Most of the visitors to the Tykocin synagogue are Jews and Israelis. Gruber says the main reason for this is its distance from other sites. If you look at other places, such as Krakow, or Prague in the Czech Republic, or other countries such as Germany or Italy, it's easy to see that the visitors are more varied and include many non-Jews who are interested in the ancient culture, she adds.

Filling a 'black hole'

Gruber says the major turning point was in November 1988, in West Germany, when the country marked the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht (a series of violent anti-Jewish pogroms in Germany and Austria, often called the Night of Broken Glass ). The events that were held aroused tremendous public interest, far beyond the organizers' expectations. "It started a big boom, which picked up tremendous speed in the early 1990s, with the collapse of the Communist regimes in Europe," Gruber says.

"In those days," she continues, "freedom of religion and employment were restored, and the preoccupation with Jewish tradition was seen as another way of getting close to the West. It attracted large numbers of young people who discovered a somewhat exotic culture close to home, something they hadn't known about. And now, they were allowed to take an interest in it. It was suddenly considered cool to study the Jewish past and Jewish sites."

The Czech Republic is the best known example of the swift change. Almost overnight the ancient synagogues of Prague, and its unique cemetery, became a significant tourist attraction, for non-Jews too. Similar, somewhat slower, processes took place in other Czech cities, too. For example, the Jewish quarter in Trebic, today a city without any Jews, was restored and rehabilitated - 123 houses were meticulously painted, repaired and preserved. Today one can visit the two local synagogues. The smaller one is still used as a church. The main synagogue of Trebic, which was built in the 17th century, is considered the city's principal tourist attraction and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

A similar process is also taking place, albeit more slowly, in other former Communist countries. "There was quite an easy opportunity here to restore a 'black hole,' or to fill in empty spaces on the tourist map," Gruber says.

"The intellectuals in those countries took it upon themselves to find ancient synagogues, and documented them." In Poland, the process began even earlier, Gruber adds. In the 1980s it was semi-subversive or opposition activity - a kind of declaration that "we can rehabilitate history and memory. It's part of our culture."

Gruber compares this preoccupation to the search for the lost continent of Atlantis. "An entire world, an entire culture, disappeared for decades from the eyes of young intellectuals," she says. "It was there on their doorstep but they had never heard of it. Suddenly, in the early 1990s, they discovered their history, and since then they refuse to stop investigating it." The presence of Jews in the place is not essential. Gruber agrees with researcher Jonathan Webber, who said recently in an interview: "The Poles are examining themselves when they examine Jewish culture, and they are doing it very seriously."

A few minutes after we finished lunch in Tykocin's Tejsza restaurant, while we were still plodding heavily to the car, a large silver-colored bus entered the parking lot. Fifty young, loud Americans wearing skullcaps disembarked.

Their tour guide, a young man with a heavy beard and ultra-Orthodox garb, explained, in American-accented Hebrew, that this was a group of high-school students from all over the United States. They were touring Poland and had come to pray Minha, the afternoon service, in the famous Tykocin synagogue. "It's important, Reb Moshe," said the bearded man, slapping me hard on my shoulders. "You should join. We have to show them."

I made my excuses and walked to the other side of the square, to see the house where the parents of Eliezer Zamenhof, the inventor of Esperanto - the language of hope - used to live.

The ‘breathtaking’ Tykocin Synagogue in Poland, which attracts over 40,000 tourists a year. The synagogue was renovated by the Communist regime in the 1970s, an unusual step at the time. Credit: Moshe Gilad
The Jewish cemetary in Krakow. Credit: Moshe Gilad



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