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Po Żydowsku: Telling our Story of Jewish Poland 1991-2001

Here we are back in Warsaw after 13 years. We returned to to participate in events marking the 25th anniversary of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation in Poland. Thanks to Ambassador Lauder, the foundation that he built, his rabbi, and the naive idealism that we shared, Rachel and I spent nearly all of the first years of our marriage, from 1996-2001 in the complex, paradoxical, humorous, tragic, hopeful, ironic, and ultimately lovable universe of post-communist Jewish Poland.

Our lives were so inextricably tied to the future of Polish Jewry that we even celebrated our honeymoon in a Polish Carpathian village so that we would be able to work the rest of the summer at Oboz Laudera, the Jewish Summer retreat where the future of Polish Jewry was rekindled – or as our dear friend Kostek Gebert said – resuscitated by defibulator.

We don’t know how long it will take us to tell our story on Po Żydowsku, a blog that will dedicated to this oral history. I suppose that doesn’t even matter. We are opening the pandora’s box of memories for ourselves and for our children, for the Jewish Polish world of today and for you the reader. Everything is from our perspective, and others might remember things differently. It’s ok. We are not seeking to retell the entire story of Jewish life in Poland. We are offering what we know and our expe

riences.

I remember when I asked Prof. Ezra Mendelsohn, who was in Oxford lecturing about American Jewry, why after such amazing work on the history of interwar Poland he stopped writing about Poland altogether. He replied, “I couldn’t take one more meeting where a Polish Jew would get up in the room emphatically waving their hand and saying – I’m from Poland at it wasn’t like that!”

If you feel compelled to wave your hand and say, “it wasn’t like that, I know, because I was there.” Please remember that we were there too.

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Countering This Darkness With Light: Responding to the Jerusalem Synagogue Massacre

I spent too long on Twitter trying to get CBC News to apologize over the “Jerusalem Police fatally shoot 2 after apparent synagogue attack” headline on their website. Looking back, that time could have been spent much more productively by being a first and foremost a Jewish first responder.

We all have a responsibility to be vigilant about media blunder, bias, and sensationalizing. However, I am afraid that I became so preoccupied on how this horrific tragedy was portrayed in the media that I neglected the Jewish response. I got into this “Honest Reporting Sheriff” mentality and forgot what God wants now that I am faced with his unbearable tragedy.

While my first response at that moment was to mourn — I let is pass by quickly as my emotions turned to anger and frustration. I “got up in the face” of CBC and CNN and who knows else on Twitter. I called them out for what they are.

When I realized that this anger was taking me nowhere fast, I returned to mourning. I cried over the loss of precious life, and to screamed out to God in frustration. I organized prayers for the dead and for the injured at our synagogue, and reached out to comfort students at USC who were in mourning. I hugged my children tightly to calm their sorrow.

Having helped to stem the bleeding of from our hearts, I turn my time to help bring light to the world that was filled with darkness and chaos. It’s time to make the world a more blessed place and tie myself to efforts around the world that are seeking healing.

So I joined a worldwide psalm recitation website to increase the time I am committing to prayer. I organized a new weekly Talmud study partner (chevruta) and a new Torah learning event, Leil Shishi, at Pico Shul. I committed myself to helping someone who can’t pay their rent this month and a young couple that need help making a wedding. I have added psalms to be said at Shul every week for peace in Israel.

Next time tragedy strikes I will only be checking twitter to get updates on what’s happening. I am done being a “Media Watchdog.” I’ll leave that to others.

I am going to be busy organizing a Jewish response to tragedy helping to repair the tear in the heart of the Jewish people and countering the darkness with light.

We mourn the loss of Rabbi Moshe Twerskis, Rabbi Calman Levine, Rabbi Aryeh Kopinsky, and Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Goldberg Zayig Sayif.

And we pray for the complete and speedy recovery of Eitan ben Sarah, Shmuel Yeruchem ben Baila, Yitzchok ben Chaya, Chaim Yechiel ben Malka And those who need healing.

May God comfort the mourners and bring healing to those injured, and may we see the redemption soon, quickly, in our days. Amen.

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Shechita Continues in Krakow

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Olive Tree Owner and Shochet Yitzchak Horowitz

When I lived in Krakow as a Fulbright Fellow from 1993-1994, the thought of having a real kosher restaurant in Krakow, let alone kosher schechita, would have been a fantasy. (The topic of “kosher” restaurants in Krakow in the 1990’s deserves its own long essay.)

Today, thanks to a thriving tourist industry, the profittable exports of Kosher meat, and to some extent consumption by the local community, Kosher food and locally produced meat is available at several establishments. In today’s Krakow Post there is a comprehensive discussion of the issues invovled in the Polish Kosher Meat ban, and a great interview with JCC Director Jonathan Ornstein, who commented:

I don’t eat meat and would like to live in a world where no one else does either, but I don’t accept the idea that a country where you can go out and hunt for pleasure, also something expressly forbidden in Judaism, a country where you can take a live carp home in a plastic bag and allow it to slowly suffocate as you wait in line at the supermarket checkout before Christmas, should outlaw a form of killing that was devised thousands of years go to be humane.

For more on this issue read today’s Krakow Post.

No Justice, No Meat: Polish Parliament Reaffirms Antisemitism

polish meat storesWith great chutzpah and an undercurrent of antisemitism the Polish Parliament has rejected a bill proposed by the government to permit Kosher and Halal ritual slaughter. As has been the case in other European countries that have banned kosher slaughter, the process is deemed “inhumane”. All this has happened during the saddest days on the Jewish calendar and has led to Poland’s esteemed Chief Rabbi, Michael Schudrich, the architect of post-Communist Jewish revival and a lifelong vegetarian, to threaten resignation. Having helped Rabbi Schudrich to reestablish kosher slaughter in Poland in the 1990’s through the importation of a ritual slaughterer form Hungry, and personally supervising kosher meat production, this ban is particularly personal.

As with most Jewish communities, the vast majority of Polish Jews do not keep kosher. Yet, the news that the ban on Kosher meat production in Poland will continue indefinitely is of profound symbolic importance. For a country that is trying to revive its image as being hopelessly anti-Semitic, where a small, nascent Jewish community is rebuilding itself, the renewal of the ban on kosher slaughter is just the latest sign that perhaps Poland has not really changed.

Ironically, Poland is a major supplier of kosher food around the world, including a growing export of kosher meat to Israel. The OU, the largest supervisory agency for kosher products worldwide, certifies production in over two dozen Polish factories. Products under supervision include, bakeries, vegetables, fish and milk and more.

The Polish parliament for its part is going against the obvious economic benefits pertaining to the production of Kosher food, and especially meat. A constitutional court has upheld the ban on kosher slaughter which echoes back to the days during pre-war Poland when a full-blown economic assault was waged against its Jewish citizens. The ruling by most accounts goes counter to the Polish constitution. With this one move Poland’s parliment undermines its relations with the world-wide Jewish community.

Polish Prime Minister Tusk’s enemies are capitalizing on a right-wing shift in the countries political climate. The unpopular Prime-Minister is being hounded by the opposition who have seized upon his weaknesses. One of those weaknesses is his pro-Jewish stance. In addition, the opposition have decried the export of Polish meat which should stay in Poland and not be exported to Israel and to Muslim countries. With unabashed chutzpah, Tusk’s opposition is using the issue of Kosher and Halal slaughter as part of their campaign to wrest control of a government.

Not all of Poland’s politicians are bending. Poland’s agricultural minister for example has decried the decision in sharply worded term calling the ban unconstitutional infringement on the rights of minorities in Poland. However, the Prime Minister stated that the government will not attempt to introduce new legislation making kosher and halal slaughter permitted.

The decision of the Polish Parliament coincides with the days of sorrow for the Jewish communities. This period of national mourning called the “Nine Days” leads up to the largest day of national mourning, Tisha B’Av. These days are known for sorrow and persecution. From the times of the destruction of the Second Temple until today, many tragedies befell the Jewish people during this time including the expulsion of Jews from England (1290) and Spain (1492), World War I (1914), and the deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto (1942).

While the decision to ban kosher meat production and ritual slaughter are not on the scale of these tragedies, its timing could not be more profound. At a milestone in Polish Jewish and Christian rapprochement, the completion of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in the heart of Warsaw, Poland has found itself once again a flashpoint of intolerance. This is not to lessen the intolerance and racism found in other European countries that have enacted a similar bans on kosher and halal slaughter. Yet, because of Poland’s unique history as having the largest Jewish community in the world prior to WWII, and the country that suffered the largest percentage of annihilation of its Jewish community during the war, this turn of events is highly unfortunate.

In the early 1990’s, when we were able to resume the production of kosher meat in Poland, it was sign that Poland’s Jewish community had a future. In a country that prides itself on meat dishes, the availability of Kosher meat to the Jewish community was another step in the direction of communal rebirth. While a vegetarian at the time, I was keenly aware that a lack of readily available kosher meat was critical to a sense of self-sufficiency that is part of the Polish psyche. No longer was it necessary to import canned meat from Israel for use in the Jewish soup kitchens. No longer did families have to settle for un-kosher meat to create Friday Night Dinners, Passover seders, and holiday meals.

With the resurgence of Polish anti-semitism, the reemergence of Polish Jewish life has been dealt another serious setback. On these days of introspection and mourning, the Jewish world has been dealt another blow. We should not look at this as an isolated infringement on Jewish religious practice on a small Jewish community, but as a global Jewish community issue and a harbinger of the winds of change.