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Around the Jewish World Jewish Culture Plays Across Europe, Often in Places Where Few Jews Live

March 18, 2002
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“Berlin boasts its own klezmer bands, and Jewish thought/Jewish art/Jewish spirit is everywhere on the shelves and on the airwaves,” read the liner notes for the CD “Beyond the Pale” by the American klezmer group Brave Old World.

“In 1993, Germany is one of a very few countries where you can make a living playing Jewish music. But for whom? A bord on a yid? . . A beard without a Jew behind it?”

In the dozen years since the fall of communism, there has been an explosion of interest in Jewish culture among non-Jews in many parts of Europe.

The trend is manifested in a wide variety of ways, from the scholarly to the superficial.

Jewish culture festivals, exhibits, study programs and workshops abound.

Klezmer music — performed by Jewish groups and new local non-Jewish groups — draws enthusiastic audiences in concert halls, churches, clubs and outdoor festival arenas.

Old synagogues and Jewish quarters are under development as tourist attractions where new Jewish kitsch fills souvenir stands and “Jewish-style” restaurants name their dishes — sometimes dishes made from pork — after rabbis and biblical prophets.

Since 1988, new Jewish museums or exhibitions have opened in Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, France, Italy, Bulgaria, Greece, Poland and elsewhere. Several dozen have opened in Germany alone, ranging from large-scale museums in Frankfurt and Berlin to small private collections.

Paris-based historian Diana Pinto uses the term “Jewish Space” to describe the place occupied by the Jews, Jewish culture and Jewish memory within mainstream European society.

Jewish Space, she says, entails the ways in which European countries now integrate Jewish history and memory, and also the Holocaust, into an understanding of their national history, regardless of the current size or activity of the local Jewish population.

“There is a Jewish Space in Europe that will exist even in the absence of Jews,” Pinto told a 1995 conference in Prague on Planning for the Future of European Jewry.

“The ‘Jewish thing,’ ” she said, “is becoming universal.”

A recent project sponsored by the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research demonstrated this in statistical terms.

It charted all Jewish cultural events that took place between May 2000 and April 2001 in four countries where few Jews live — Italy, Belgium, Sweden and Poland, whose total Jewish population is well under 100,000.

“The results are simply astonishing, and as yet we have no idea what to make of them,” said British Jewish scholar Jonathan Webber, who was an academic consultant on the project.

He said researchers had counted well over 700 events in all four countries, including 27 separate Jewish cultural festivals — thirteen of them in Italy alone, a country that is home to only 35,000 Jews.

In Poland, whose Jewish population is estimated at between 5,000 and 20,000, the researchers counted 196 one-time events and seven Jewish cultural festivals. The biggest and most important was the weeklong annual Festival of Jewish Culture in Krakow, which was founded in 1988.

“There is clearly no correlation between the considerable size of this cultural production and the percentage of Jews in a given total population of a particular country,” Webber said.

Indeed, across Europe, a very large percentage of consumers — and producers — of such Jewish cultural offerings are not Jewish.

The reasons underlying the attraction are many, ranging from serious scholarly pursuit to political correctness to what can be viewed as “post-Holocaust necrophilia.”

For some, the process is a way of filling in communist-era blanks. For others, it is a means of coming to terms with the Nazi legacy or a key to building — or rebuilding– a democratic and tolerant state.

“Half a century after the Holocaust and a decade after the fall of communism, Europeans are grappling with the legacies of their past as they seek to redefine who they are,” says Sylvia Poggioli, senior European correspondent for National Public Radio.

In Germany in particular, the impact of the Nazi legacy has had a major influence. Interest in Jewish culture has formed part of the decades-long process of working through the past and manifestations are particularly widespread.

This month, for example, the German city of Fuerth is a capital of what can be described as a “virtual Jewish World.”

The Bavarian city, right next door to Nuremberg, is hosting its eighth international klezmer festival, most of whose audience and many of whose acts are not Jewish.

Kicking off events was a non-Jewish group from Berlin called Sukke, which is billed as “the first German all-star klezmer band.”

The festival offers walking tours of the former Jewish quarter, entertainment for children, puppet theater performances, exhibitions, and film showings.

“All of this adds to the infectious festival atmosphere in Fuerth,” says the program. Not only that, “night owls are attracted by Klezmer-pubs.”

At the same time, the publicly funded Jewish museum in Fuerth is hosting an installation by Berlin-based Jewish artist Anna Adam, which deals with her own experiences with gentiles who are pathologically interested Judaism.

The installation transforms the museum into a “delicatessen shop” for people who like Jews, where visitors can find items such as a survival kit for hosts who welcome Jewish guests, bottles of “Jewish breath” and the like.

In Poland and other East European countries, communist-era taboos prevented an objective public analysis of the Holocaust, Jewish issues and history itself for decades — and even dissident historians sometimes shied away from these issues.

“There is no question that the peculiar passion by which issues relating to Polish-Jewish matters are played out is striking to the outsider,” Webber said.

“Poles are examining themselves when they examine Jewish issues,” he said. “They take it very seriously.”

The Borderlands Foundation in the northern Polish town of Sejny, for example, was established in 1990 to promote awareness of minority cultures — including Jewish culture and history — and in doing so fill in the blanks of communism’s monolithic ideology.

Headquartered next to Sejny’s large synagogue, now restored as a cultural venue, the foundation’s activities have covered an impressive agenda, including publications, meetings, exhibits, concerts and other exchanges.

“What’s important is that the meeting takes place in a living cultural space, not limited to the past, in a space where we face modernity, where we ask the most important questions for today and tomorrow,” says Krzysztof Czyzewski, the foundation’s director.

The embrace of Jewish culture by mainstream society has gone on side by side — and at times hand in hand — with efforts by Jews themselves to recover or redefine personal Jewish identities and to revive or enrich Jewish communities, Jewish life and internal Jewish culture in various countries.

There is a growing sense of urgency among some Jews that unless they themselves take positive action, the “Jewish Thing” may become hijacked if not watered down totally — a fear of Jewish cultural products displacing Jewish culture.

They feel it essential to affirm that Jews and Jewish culture are not simply dusty or sanctified museum relics.

Some Jewish organizations, such as the newly founded European Association of Jewish Culture, have begun grant programs and other activities aimed at supporting the production of Jewish culture by Jews.

Without a living Jewish dimension, they fear, the Virtual Jewish World may become a sterile desert — or a haunted Jewish never-never land.

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