KOSICE, Slovakia (Aug. 13)
The Riemer family is something of a rarity in the Jewish world of post-Communist Central Europe.
Not only are Daniel Riemer and his wife Magda both Jewish, but both of their 20-something daughters, Zuzka and Sonia, have found Jewish men to marry.
This is no mean feat in a part of the world where intermarriage is the norm and where tiny, far-flung Jewish communities still suffer the effects of the Holocaust and Communist-era repression.
Zuzka Riemer’s wedding on Aug. 5 made local Jewish history. It was the first full-scale, traditional Jewish wedding for a member of Kosice’s Jewish community in 60 years.
“The message is that they’ve broken the ice,” said Rabbi Hershel Gluck, a London-based Chasidic rabbi who officiated at the wedding. “In a place where for decades people have been battered — by the Holocaust, by communism, by internal squabbling and other difficulties of the post-Communist period — it says that positive and constructive things can happen here, too.”
But the family’s nachas is bittersweet.
Both daughters are marrying foreign Jews and moving far from Kosice, a city of 250,000 in the far eastern tip of Slovakia. Zuzka is moving to the United States; Sonia to Israel.
Not only are they leaving family and friends behind, but they also are moving away from a Jewish community struggling for survival.
“The most important thing is that they’re happy,” their father says with a shrug.
The quest for a Jewish spouse is a universal preoccupation among Jews wherever they live — witness the plethora of personal ads, Web sites, matchmaking agencies and singles events such as “speed dating” in the United States.
But the challenge is particularly great in parts of Europe, where individual Jewish communities — such as Kosice’s — may be only a few hundred or even a few dozen individuals. There are only about 3,000 Jews, most of them middle- aged or older, in all of Slovakia.
“It’s not easy for young Jews to meet and marry in Europe,” says Gadi Gronich, program director for Yachad, which is affiliated with the European Council of Jewish Communities and is described as Europe’s largest Jewish singles network.
With more than 3,000 Jewish singles in more than two dozen countries on its mailing list, Yachad organizes singles weekends, parties, trips and other events that generally attract 75 to 100 people from across Europe. Gronich says the events have resulted in at least 50 marriages.
Other communal and private organizations also aim to help Jewish singles meet and match.
The annual Summer University of the European Union of Jewish Students, for example, provides what one Belgian student calls “the perfect opportunity to meet up with hundreds of Jewish students of all different nationalities — and to think, talk and party.” The weeklong event, held each year in a different country, draws about 400 young Jews from across Europe.
“Except for the United Kingdom and France, we are speaking in Europe about small- and medium-size communities, so the chance to meet new people is very low,” Gronich says. “Young people in Jewish communities grow up together from kindergarten. They know one another very, very well — even too well. It’s like a big family and makes the chance of meeting new people very low.”
Shawn Landres, a Los Angeles-born scholar of anthropology and religious studies, says that such proximity can create problems.
“If young Jews in small communities date mainly in the local Jewish world, it means that many of their friends are de facto ‘exes,’ ” he says.
Landres, 29, has a particularly incisive take on the issue.
He is working on a doctorate in religious studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, writing about “intimacy and memory among Generation X Jews in Los Angeles” — that is, an analysis of the L.A. Jewish singles scene.
He is also the new husband of Zuzka Riemer.
The couple met in 1998 at a winter sports gathering in the Tatra mountains, organized by the Union of Jewish Students for young Jews from several central European countries.
At the time, Landres — who also is working on a doctorate in anthropology at Oxford University — was doing field work in Slovakia, and actively looking for a bride.
“To me, marrying a Jew was a given. There was no question about it,” he says. “The problem came in finding someone whose values and world view were even remotely similar to mine — and I did not meet anyone like this in the United States.”
The couple’s Orthodox wedding was the first traditional Jewish wedding held here since the Holocaust.
The pair had a civil wedding in Los Angeles last fall, but decided it was important to have a religious ceremony in Kosice to make a statement, even though neither is strictly observant.
“I don’t know if we inspired anyone to greater observance by doing the wedding this way, but we felt that it was important to show people the beauty of the ceremony and of Judaism,” Landres said.
Both wearing white, the couple stood under a red, blue and gold velvet chupah, or canopy, in the Jewish community courtyard, flanked by the looming wall of a partially ruined synagogue.
Zuzka wore a floor-length gown in honor of her grandmother, who had not had the chance to wear a wedding dress. Her grandparents wed in haste during World War II, just one day before a mass deportation of unmarried women from Kosice.
The wedding was officiated by Gluck, who for more than 20 years has traveled widely in Europe to promote Jewish revival in small, far-flung communities.
He was aided by scholar Jonathan Webber, Landres’ doctoral adviser at Oxford, who carefully explained each step of the ceremony — from the signing of the ketubah, or marriage contract to the seven blessings — to guests, many of whom had little knowledge of traditional Jewish rites.
“We are celebrating a marriage in the way marriages were celebrated in this part of the world for hundreds of years,” Gluck said. “Thank God we are here again, celebrating a marriage like this in Slovakia.”
Still, Zuzka’s move to the United States, and her sister’s departure next month to marry an Israeli, mean that the critical mass needed for Jewish survival in Kosice and Slovakia as a whole will be that much harder to achieve.
Landres doesn’t see it quite that way.
“I don’t feel as if I’m stealing Zuzka from the Slovak Jewish community, because I maintain close ties here and we plan to visit a lot,” he says.