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Around the Jewish World Their Religious Identities Flexible, Slovakian Jews Show Up for Games

March 6, 2006
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A young Chabad volunteer from New York has spent five months in Slovakia teaching the basics of Judaism in Bratislava. Informed that there’s also a Jewish community of some 60 people in Banksa Bystrica, a picturesque hamlet three hours west of the capital, she’s puzzled.

“I didn’t know anything about other Jewish communities. Are they real Jews?” she asks.

Her question epitomizes the divide between some religious Jews in the West and their neighbors in eastern Europe, who often are less observant.

Few Jews remained in eastern Europe after the Holocaust and communism, so Jewish communities in the region today usually welcome anyone with Jewish roots, not just those who are halachically Jewish.

“These young Americans who come here have no idea what it was like to get the knock on your door that meant deportation to the camps, and I can tell you those doing the knocking were not interested in whether you went to a mikva or if only your father was Jewish,” said one member of the Bratislava Jewish community who requested anonymity. “How could we possibly tell someone who survived such an ordeal, or his child, that he is not Jewish?”

At the crux of the divide is how Jews in such countries determine what it means to be Jewish. For Bratislava’s rabbi, Baruch Myers, a Chabad adherent from Brooklyn, it means accepting only halachic Jews in the kindergarten he and his wife run, which puts him at odds with the mostly secular Bratislava community.

For those who identify as Jewish in Slovakia — whether they’re halachically Jewish or not — observance usually is a turnoff.

That sentiment was evident at one of the country’s biggest Jewish gatherings last month, a winter sports contest held on a Saturday. The party celebrating the games’ conclusion included pork dishes.

“If someone wants to know what kind of Jew skis on a Saturday, my answer is a modern, flexible Jew,” said Lucia Belanova, a Jew from Banksa Bystrica who works at a Bratislava bank.

More than 170 Slovak Jews trudged through deep snow on poorly marked paths in remote central Slovakia to compete in the 70th anniversary of the last Winter Maccabee games before World War II, which took place in Slovakia on the same hill. Several athletes from the Czech Jewish community also joined, as well an Israeli who resides in Prague.

The last Europe-wide Winter Maccabee games, held in 1936 in Banksa Bystrica, attracted 5,000 participants from around the world. The games were the second-largest sports event in then-Czechoslovakia.

Following a long hiatus as a result of World War II and then communism, the Slovak division of the worldwide Jewish sports organization was relaunched 11 years ago with only a handful of enthusiasts.

Gertrude Stiffelova, who watched the 1936 games as an 8-year-old, returned to watch the 2006 competition.

“It’s a wonder to be here,” she told the crowd at a ceremony following a day of slalom skiing and snowboarding. She received an award just for showing up.

Belanova and others noted that it would have been difficult for people to attend if the gathering had been held on any day but Saturday.

“We are working and studying and living in different places. Saturday is really the only day that works for those cannot take a day off,” she explained.

Belanova estimates that no Jew in Banksa Bystrica can read or speak Hebrew.

“I guess, for us,” being Jewish “is a social thing,” she said.

Michael Szatmary, an advertising executive and editor of the Jewish-themed newspaper Delet, saw no problem with having a sports event on Shabbat.

“Where does it say you can’t ski on Sabbath in the Torah?” he quipped. “Whatever is not forbidden is permitted.”

There are approximately 3,000 Jews in Slovakia today. In contrast to the Czech Republic, where the 1990s were a time of rebirth for Jewish communities, Slovak Jews suffered during the 1990s under Vladimir Meciar, whose supporters included openly anti-Semitic nationalists.

“My children are absolutely free to celebrate their Jewish identity here in a way that I could have never imagined,” said Dagmar Gavornikova, chairwoman of the Slovak Maccabee organization. “So many of my generation left in 1968 after the invasion of Czechoslovakia.

“We thought those of us here were the last generation of Slovak Jews,” she added. “These games show we were wrong.”

Several competitors said they never go to synagogue, but were glad to associate Judaism with something positive like sports, rather than something negative like anti-Semitism.

In contrast to neighboring Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, Slovakia did not undergo full democratization until 10 years after the end of communism in the region. Slovak government officials are now trying to promote religious and ethnic tolerance, but a recent survey indicated that every third person in Slovakia would prefer not to live next door to a Jew.

Jana Romanova, 25, a reporter for Slovak television, says she’s the only openly Jewish journalist at the station.

“There are a few others there, but they hide it,” said the former president of the Slovak Union of Jewish Youth.

Asked to describe her interaction with non-Jews in mostly Catholic Slovakia, she jokes, “When I told someone I was Jewish, she thought we were all dead.”

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