Menu JTA Search

Year-old magazine aims to catalyze Polish Jewry

ROME, March 8 (JTA) — Why is Midrasz magazine different from all other Jewish publications? Because Midrasz is the only Jewish monthly published in Poland — and because this Passover it is celebrating its first birthday. This first year has seen Midrasz grow from an optimistic experiment into a respected journal that publishes provocative new articles, commentary, cultural essays, poetry and fiction each month. With a print run of 2,500, it reaches a significant proportion of Poland’s emerging Jewish community and is fast becoming that community’s most important voice. “I’m a great believer in Lenin’s maxim that a newspaper is a great collective organizer,” Konstanty Gebert, Midrasz’s editor in chief, said in an interview. “We’re trying to get this Jewish community together again. There is no one single Jewish institution in Poland today to which all Jews can relate without antagonism, without problems,” he said. Gebert, 44, would like Midrasz, pronounced “Midrash,” to be such an institution. “We don’t tell people in what way they should be Jewish, or even that they ought to express their Jewishness at all,” he said. “We simply want to show them that Jewishness is something so interesting they’ll be sorry to miss it!” Poland has seen a surge of Jewish activity since the fall of communism, as hundreds if not thousands of people have stepped forward to reclaim Jewish roots in the new atmosphere of religious freedom. Midrasz — Hebrew for “commentary” — was launched with a generous grant from the New York-based Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, which has sponsored numerous educational and other programs for emerging Jews in Poland, but the magazine is Gebert’s brainchild. A longtime Jewish activist in Poland and a well-known underground militant in the anti-Communist Solidarity movement of the 1980s, Gebert quit his job as foreign correspondent and columnist at Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s largest circulation daily, to take the helm at Midrasz. “I was waiting for years for a decent, Polish language Jewish magazine to appear so that I could write for it,” he said. “It eventually dawned on me that if I didn’t create one, I wouldn’t have one.” Gebert works with a staff of five in a one-room office at Warsaw’s bustling Jewish center, located next door to the city’s only synagogue. Staff members — like the content of the magazine — reflect the diversity of the new Polish Jewish community. “I’m religious, the rest of the staff is secular,” said Gebert. “We’re divided about Israeli politics, with both Likudniks and Labor supporters present. We are divided in the strength of our Zionist commitment, from a strong commitment to a very strong Diaspora identity. “So it would be very hard to nail us down,” he said. “But we don’t want to be nailed down. We want to be as pluralist as possible.” Midrasz’s analyses of the Torah are popular with its readers. “We want to reintroduce the habit of talking [about] the Torah, making it again a living presence in peoples’ lives,” Gebert said. But the magazine does not shy away from controversy. A cover story on kashrut in Poland produced a strong reaction. The issue also revealed kashrut problems at a restaurant that advertises itself as kosher. Another story, on Jews who converted to Christianity — an issue of some importance in Poland, where thousands of Jewish war orphans were raised as Catholics by foster parents — provoked criticism from some Orthodox circles. “We want to generate controversy,” Gebert said. “We want to show that Jewishness is not all Shoah, anti-Semitism and ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ We have no fear of running out of new ideas.” Midrasz also devotes a lot of attention to Jewish life in neighboring countries, and its literary section has attracted the Polish Jewish literary elite. But the fact that the magazine is solely in Polish has alienated some Yiddish speakers among the generation of Holocaust survivors, and its attitude toward Orthodoxy has irritated the Orthodox chief rabbi. “We are being read. We are being argued about,” said Gebert. “And if someone decides not to read us anymore, that means he cares about his version of Jewishness so much that he will not stand ours. From a Jewish perspective, that’s not so bad.” Gebert’s strategy seems to be working. Sales are growing at a modest if steady rate, and the first ads have appeared. “This is important in a country where associating oneself with Jewish undertakings is not necessarily good for business,” Gebert said.