From East to West - Hard to be a Jew without community
The founder of the Jewrnalism Organization. For the last 10 years she has been closely working with the Jewish community of Poland and particularly of Krakow.
Being Jewish is difficult with community. I do not mean just people who are alike, but every kind of Jew you could imagine, there are many varieties. A few months ago, while on the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship in Warsaw, I had a chance to listen to professor Schachter lecture using a poster/advertisement displaying various kinds of Jews, by comparing them to the idea represented by Starbucks.
We have a paper cup with coffee, on which we can check little boxes with the options we choose, with milk or without, with chocolate syrup or maybe ground cinammon. Such as with the various Jews, preserving tradition but not practicing, knowing Hebrew but not Halakha etc.
The success of the Starbucks Company is based primarily on a wide selection of coffee as well as the options provided. Belonging to the broadly-understood Jewish community is (many adjectives apply) easy, trendy, egalitarian, avant-garde (in Kraków) or unusual. Judaism (Jewishness) is accessible, because its philosophical limits are flexible. Judaism is a philosophy of life which attracts many, including me. But is Judaism flexible in the form of specific communities? When exposed to the structure of organizations, people, local norms and values, is it enriched or depleted? Is it still egalitarian or perhaps elitist?
This is not the first I’ve pondered this, but the first time I am writing about it. I returned to the idea during my move to Bochum. I wondered how the local Jewish community would receive me, would I have access to it, even physically. In Kraków the JCC is open, anyone can come in, there are no guards, gates or intercom in actual use. The doors are usually open to any visitor. The case with the synagogue in Kraków is quite similar. I witnessed the same thing in Sarajevo. My friends and I came to a Hannukah party and were well received by the local authorities.
The situation was different in Dresden and Munich. In the former, I couldn’t reach the synagogue and didn’t even get to see it, due to the thick wall surrounding it. In Munich I was only allowed in because my uncle is a member of the community and announced with advance notice that he would come with guests.
Considering this state of affairs I can think of only two reasons for having to announce your presence at certain communities beforehand: fear and prudence.
Let’s look at the definition of the first word
Fear: one of the elementary primal traits (not only in humans) with its roots in the survival instinct. A state of intense emotional strain caused by situations of real threat, the body’s natural reaction is, for example, a tensing of muscles and consequently an escape or a fight. It is connected with the ability to store and recall similar situations and in the case of humans - abstract thinking. Permanently connected to the future (the span of time is not important), because past events are felt differently (sadness after a loss), and even differently in the present (pain causes us suffering). Losses and pain that may come can be feared (they make us anxious). Fear can be a positive when the result is the protection of us or our interests, but negative when it keeps us from consistently striving for a goal. It is subjective, because the same expected result will not produce a threatening feeling for everyone.
Is the fact that Jewish communities in Western Europe are protected by walls and security guards caused by fear? Referring back to the definition, do they really live in a constant state of emotional strain and tension caused by a real threat? A threat in the present, or as the definition states, in the past and the ability to think in the abstract, which foretells what may happen to us in the future. The span of time is not important and therefore my question - is this pain and suffering caused by the reality in which we live, or that of our grandparents? Abstract thinking sets us apart from animals, but perhaps it also keeps us from reaching our goals? I mentioned earlier the Jewish philosophy, which has the wonderful characteristic of exceeding its own boundaries. Is that still possible when it meets a physical barrier, such as the separation from other people, as well as the social capital they possess? Social capital is the material each one of us obtains, through collecting life experience, knowledge, emotions, and conclusions from contacts with others. The specific, material volume of a certain human social group, which does not increase or change, limits our perceptive possibilities and thus the community itself.
Fear is subjective. I do not doubt this, since for me a Pole and Poland are nothing to fear, but for a young Israeli it is a cursed place, which one visits with security, in a controlled manner and with the bus engine always on. I am afraid, that the fear caused by the strong shocks of recent attacks in France or Berlin, though perhaps justified, still limits our society very much. I observe the increasing enclosure of communities, Jewish social centers, synagogues, against that which is external in Western Europe and I consider this a mistake. We lose much, instead of gaining all that we could, if we showed more trust and faith in the surrounding environment and wished to step outside the boundaries of our philosophy.
For balance, I will also consider the definition of prudence:
„Prudence: the ability to govern and discipline oneself by the use of reason. Jews do not lack the tendency to think, of that I am sure. We are a nation that thinks plenty and also enjoys discussing it. Thinking is a part of our daily life, reflection however, in my opinion – only sometimes. Reflection is a kind of deeper thought, consideration, a conclusion as the result of pondering, meditation. If I asked the readers whether or not they thought today, surely I would hear a confirmation, but whether they had considered something more deeply, reflected upon it? I think not. We do not have time for this, many mundane things weigh on us and distract us from our internal dialogue. When situations require action we react with fear or well-tread patterns of behavior from previous experience, or sometimes with prudence characterized by moments of reflection. My personal feelings, as a person from the Jewish community in Poland, tend more toward fear, but also the usual patterns, beaten paths. Too often the West utilizes them, but perhaps the East does not use them enough. When we meet Jews from other countries, such as France, Germany, Great Britain and I boast that the Jewish community in Kraków is very open to Cracovians, in the real, physical sense, but also figuratively speaking, I am met with some surprise and also looked down upon. As you would react to someone who is unwise and will soon experience the result of his error. What do I hear? „Psh, well that’s because there are no Muslims here.” Is that really the stimulus which can bring real, terrible consequences for our society? Is that what we should be afraid of? Is that what we are protecting our synagogues from? Engulfing ourselves in thinking of the various forms of security, do we not lose sight of the facts? Like the fact that we often think in set patterns or stereotypes? Is the Kraków community really reckless, or does it just not follow the well-tread scheme of things, instead following the conclusion which comes from deeper reflection?
I return the look of the person speaking to me, looking at them like at someone who is terribly frightened and say, „Maybe you are right or maybe not. We shall see.”
This article contains more questions than statements and I shall leave it that way. I know all too well what the arguments are, for and against, and I won’t advocate for anyone. I encourage you to leave your thoughts in the comments, perhaps an interesting discussion will ensue.
I will not conclude this article with any punch line, theory or statement. Everyone has subjective feelings connected to real experiences. They are not for me to judge. I can only say, that for Sabbath I ventured to the Jewish Community in Bochum. I went into the building unannounced. A man greeted me, asking who I was. In broken German, I introduced myself, saying that I am from Kraków and looking for a new social circle, community, friends. He let me in. I went into the synagogue to pray and later the elder members invited me for Kiddush and tea. We conversed in a pleasant atmosphere, I had the chance to ask many questions and learn something more about the people who come there. A few days later, I visited again to find out what programs were available for young people and again I was met with a smile. I was invited to the Sabbath for students, which is held once every month, as well as other events held during the week: discussions, film clubs, etc. I will go, learn and eagerly join in the life of the Community, because it is difficult being Jewish without Jewish society.
I will return their openness with that which is most valuable within a group of people, the social capital I posess.