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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 experiences.

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.

My Turn to Host Shmuley

shmuley with camperDuring my time working on my MA at Oxford University in 1994-96, I become lifelong friends with Shmuley. He was then the Chabad Shaliach to Oxford, and he and his wife Debbie helped me and many other students to live an active Jewish life in a city not known for observant Judaism, let alone kosher meals. After I finished my degree, Shmuley asked me to work with him on the L’Chaim Society full time. We organized some huge events with speakers such as Yitchak Shamir, Diego Maradona and Boy George, just to name a few. We launched Kosher Sex in England. We had a great time, and it was a wild ride.

In those days at the L’Chaim society, we had a group of very ambitious fellow students including now Senatorial candidate, Mayor Cory Booker, and many others who have gone on to become prominent in their fields. We created Shabbat dinners that lasted for hours with memorable and sometimes hilarious speakers. Like the time the Jewish monk gave an hour monologue on why we should all convert. We downed a lot of vodka that night to say the least.

Thanks to Shmuley convincing me to stay in Oxford, I met my wife Rachel who arrived in Oxford to do her MA in Jewish Studies!

Since then, Shmuley has gone on to publish more than two dozen books, appear on TV, radio, and tour the world speaking — and making quite a name for himself. Whatever you know about Shmuley, you have to admire his ability to generate controversy that makes the Jewish establishment bristle, tackle relavent subjects, and bring passion to Judaism. He’s a great speaker and debater, and worth hanging out with for Shabbos. He has a drive and mission and is trying to bring a new way of looking at Judaism to a wider audience.

Shmuley Boteach will be speaking Friday night and on Saturday during Jewlicious Festival 9.

Learn more about Shmuley here.