ROME (JTA) — The High Holidays are a time of reflection, and this year an unexpected honor sent me reflecting on half a lifetime of personal and professional experience.
A week before Rosh Hashanah, I received one of the highest awards granted by Poland to foreign citizens, the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit. I was thrilled and moved by the recognition.
The award honored my work covering the Solidarity revolution and martial law in Poland in the early 1980s, as well as my more recent writing on Jewish issues, which was seen as helping foster greater understanding between Poles and Jews.
My association with both Poland and the Jews of Poland dates back to 1980, when I arrived in Warsaw as a correspondent for United Press International.
I received the Order of Merit nearly 29 years after I was arrested, thrown into jail and expelled from the country by Poland’s Communist authorities on trumped-up accusations of anti-state activity.
And in a wonderful sort of coincidence, the Sept. 22 award ceremony took place nearly 31 years to the day after my very first encounter with Polish Jews in Warsaw. It was Yom Kippur in 1980, when the city had no functioning synagogue or rabbi.
I made my way to a small, shabby room where 25 to 30 mostly elderly people had gathered to pray. Afterward, three of the few younger people in attendance came up to me asking who I was. I was an American journalist, I told them, covering Solidarity. I happened to be Jewish, so I had looked for somewhere to go for Yom Kippur.
For me this was normal. But for those young Polish Jews, it was not.
“You are a real Jew,” they told me. “Come home with us and tell us what we are supposed to do.”
I was scarcely a “real Jew,” I replied. I could not speak Hebrew, did not keep kosher and rarely attended synagogue.
“No,” they insisted, “you have known all your life that you are Jewish — we are just finding out. Come home with us and tell us what to do.”
So I went. And thus began a friendship that has lasted until this day with a group of people who have created rich and multifaceted Jewish lives for themselves and their families — and by now represent the older generation in the ongoing post-communist Jewish revival.
In books and in articles for JTA and others, my work has focused on three main areas of Jewish interest:
* Jewish heritage and heritage sites, documenting and writing about these often forgotten places as an important part of world cultural patrimony.
* The revival of Jewish life and the reassertion and reclamation of Jewish identity. I have followed this process for more than 20 years, witnessing a vast array of developments and permutations.
I think one of the values of my work is that I have a sort of “historic memory” of the complex process of revival and development that by now spans a whole generation.
* The evolution of the vast and important “Jewish presence” in Poland that dwarfs the actual living Jewish community.
I coined the term “Virtually Jewish” to describe how non-Jews relate to Jewish culture, history, memory, tradition and people in places where few if any Jews still live. As part of this, I have looked at both “positive” and “negative” developments — that is, serious and sensitive ways of engaging with Jews and Jewish culture and memory, and crassly commercial, kitschy and hokey ways that sometimes verge on the anti-Semitic.
After I received the Order of Merit, a friend asked how it might affect the way I write and think about Poland. My answer to her was “not at all.”
Aside perhaps from my work on promoting Jewish heritage, my role has never been that of an “activist” but rather a reporter and observer. At the same time, however, because of the nature of life, friendship, work, long association and interest, I have also been something of a protagonist.
If I do have an agenda, it is to make sure that outsiders be made aware of the richness and complexity of what goes on Jewishly in Poland and in the realm of Polish-Jewish relations.
Many people know only about anti-Semitism. And to be sure, anti-Semitism is there. But what I have striven to do is to write about the whole, not just this one facet of life.
I write about new realities and new authenticities, new ways that Jewishness is defined and Jewish lives are lived.
I try to write and observe with a critical eye, of course, but — I think and hope — not a prejudiced one.
And I try never to see things in black and white because, I find, most of the important and most interesting developments are in the nuances.
Ruth Ellen Gruber’s books include “National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe” and “Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe.” She blogs on Jewish heritage issues at http://jewish-heritage-travel.blogspot.com/.