For some young Europeans discovering roots, Jewishness is about culture, not religion

Participants in Paideia's project-incubator meeting in Stockholm in August 2009 with Beto Maya, left, the project manager for the Jerusalem-based ROI, a program to foster Jewish innovation. (Paideia )

Participants in Paideia’s project-incubator meeting in Stockholm in August 2009 with Beto Maya, left, the project manager for the Jerusalem-based ROI, a program to foster Jewish innovation. (Paideia )

STOCKHOLM (JTA) — A lapsed Polish Catholic cites the “Jewish sparks in my soul” when explaining his affinity for klezmer and his desire to foster intercultural exchange through Jewish music.

A 25-year-old Hungarian born to intermarried parents and working to create an Israeli cultural center in Budapest says he would not be crushed if his children decide not to engage in Jewish life.

An Armenian Christian wants to start a Judaic studies seminar at an Armenian university that would highlight shared elements of Armenian and Jewish history.

A German Jewish journalist who became interested in Judaism through an ex-girlfriend aims to start an Internet show focusing on the weekly Torah portion and Israeli culture.

Welcome to the emerging Jewish Europe, where Jewish consciousness is rising — among Jews and gentiles alike — amid some of the most secular societies in the world.

At a time when religious identity in Europe is at historic lows — in Sweden, only about 3 percent of citizens attend church regularly – once-assimilated Jews are emerging from the shadows and seeking to reassert their Jewish identities.

The trend has been in evidence in Central and Eastern Europe since the fall of communism 20 years ago paved the way for many to rediscover Jewish roots. But even in Western Europe, the emergence of the European Union coupled with the growing diversity of the region’s population has prompted a reassertion of national identities, including among Jews.

“With that sort of multiculturalism, and I think with the united Europe, your roots become more important,” said Gabriel Urwitz, a leader of the Stockholm Jewish community and the chairman of Paideia, an academic institute in Stockholm working to promote Jewish culture across Europe.

“So even people that three generations ago were Jewish and knew about it, until quite recently they never said a word about it,” Urwitz said. “Now all of a sudden they feel they can somehow search that root and to some extent promote it and find their own way into it.”

The reclaiming of European Jewish identity — Barbara Spectre, Paedeia’s founding director, calls it “dis-assimilation” — is on the march. But rather than taking on religious forms, dis-assimilation among young Europeans often has a distinctly secular quality.

Many young Europeans embracing Jewish culture come from small communities where established Jewish institutions range from weak to nonexistent, the opportunities for Jewish religious community are minimal and the likelihood that they will marry within the faith is low.

“They don’t have those components and yet they choose to be Jewish,” Spectre said. “The question is, of course, why would one do this? It’s a tremendously important question. And I think that they can act as sort of informants to us, the rest of the Jewish world.”

Jews who fit this profile make up a majority of applicants to Paideia’s flagship program, a one-year fellowship in Jewish texts that aims not only to immerse students in the literature of the Jewish people, but to prime them for activist roles in promoting Jewish life across Europe. The institute also runs a 10-day project incubator over the summer, supported by the European Jewish Fund and UJA-Federation of New York, which offers training and networking opportunities to social entrepreneurs with projects to invigorate Jewish culture.

Paideia receives six times as many applicants for the fellowship as it accepts, most of them from individuals who were not raised as identified Jews. Some aren’t Jewish at all but are welcomed because they have demonstrated a commitment to advancing Jewish culture.

Marcell Kenesei from Budapest completed both programs. A self-described secular Jew, Kenesei was born to a Jewish father who knew nothing about his heritage. Kenesei, whose mother is not Jewish, was sent to a Jewish high school to avoid the anti-Semitic harassment his older brother had endured in Hungarian public school. As a result, Kenesei grew interested in Judaism.

As he “came out” as Jewish, Kenesei says, he found he had to overcome the sense that reclaiming Judaism was a “sickness” and the province of “losers” unable to find their place in post-Communist Hungary. Today Kenesei is working to establish an Israeli cultural center in Budapest.

“I felt this huge gap in the family that we have this Jewish thing but nobody knows anything about it, so it was sort of a mission for me to discover this part of the family and bring things back,” Kenesei said.

Paideia, formed in 2001, is the product of a commission formed by the Swedish government in the 1990s to investigate the country’s role during the Holocaust. Though the commission ultimately determined that Sweden bore little legal responsibility for the loss of Jewish property, the government opened discussions with the Stockholm Jewish community to find a way to make some sort of moral restitution.

The result was Paideia, whose name comes from the Greek concept that culture can be transmitted through education rather than bloodline. It was a notion appealing to a Swedish government then at the forefront of efforts to transmute dozens of national identities into a single pan-European union.

But it also has particular implications for Jews living in a place steeped in secularism, increasingly cosmopolitan and heterogeneous, and after the tribulations of the last century, often unable to trace their ethnic origins along purely Jewish lines.

Paideia believes that participants committed to Jewish culture can acquire a post-ethnic Jewish identity through study rather than conversion. That’s why the fellowship is open to non-Jews interested in Jewish life who demonstrate a commitment to promoting Jewish culture.

Piotr Mirski, who completed the fellowship program this year, is a klezmer guitarist from Lublin, a Polish city whose population once was 40 percent Jewish. Though not Jewish himself — Mirski was raised as a Polish Catholic, but left the Church — the experience of separation from his homeland’s dominant religious group offers some insight into the experience of Polish Jewry, he says.

“I realized that I shared somehow the experience of Jewish people in Poland, and it drives me to make something against it, against exclusion,” Mirski told JTA. “My main goal is to build bridges between people.”

Mirski’s project, which he calls Jazz Midrash-The Hebrew Songbook, aims to produce two CDs, including one with original Polish-language songs based on Jewish stories. Mirski wants to promote the book and CDs with a series of street festivals in Polish towns that once were centers of Jewish life.

While some are skeptical that Jewish culture absent any religious component is sufficient to sustain Jewish identity across the generations, Paideia participants insist it is.

“Culture and history is much stickier glue in Europe than it is in the United States,” said Shawn Landres, an American who staffed Paideia’s recent incubator program, which ended last week.

Still, Spectre acknowledges that sometimes she wonders whether cultural projects will be enough to sustain Jewish identity in the long run.

“A nonethnic definition of Judaism changes the whole dynamic,” she said. But, “if you mean by culture the way a European would define it — being literate,” she said, “if we’re talking about forming communities of learning — I would claim that that’s the sustainable element in Judaism.”

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