Grapevine September 24, 2021: More to Jewish culture in Poland than is generally realized

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

 MICHAL HERZOG, President Isaac Herzog, Avraham and Israel Maidanchik and Avraham's son. (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
MICHAL HERZOG, President Isaac Herzog, Avraham and Israel Maidanchik and Avraham's son.
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)

Before the Second World War, there was an abundantly rich treasure trove of Jewish culture in general and Yiddish culture in particular in every part of Poland in which there were Jewish communities, large and small. Even though Poland’s Jewish population was decimated during the Holocaust, the embers of Jewish culture were quickly rekindled by writers and performers.

For many years, the best known of Yiddish cultural revivals was the Polish State Yiddish Theater located near the famous Nozyk Synagogue, which was the only synagogue in Warsaw that survived the war. The Warsaw Great Synagogue on Tlomacki Street was destroyed by the Germans in 1943, and for many years after the war, the site was spooked, and any other building plans were doomed to failure. This situation prevailed until the end of Communist rule. The Polish State Yiddish Theater was actually established in Lodz in 1949.

There was also another Yiddish theater company in Wroclaw, and the two merged and performed around the country. In a relatively short time the state provided them with a permanent home in Warsaw. Until 1968, the Yiddish Theater was directed by the great Yiddish actress Ida Kaminska (the daughter of Ester Rachel Kaminska, known as the Mother of the Jewish Stage), who introduced simultaneous translation so that performances would attract not only the vestiges of the Jewish community, and Jewish tourists, but also non-Jewish Poles.

When Kaminska emigrated to the US in the mid-1960s, Szymon Szurmiej took over, as theater director and artistic director in 1969, and remained at the helm until his death in 2014. His widow, the actress and singer Golda Tencer, now runs the theater, and has also introduced an annual Warsaw Jewish Festival known as Singer’s Warsaw honoring Nobel Prize-winning novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Arguably, the best known of Polish Jewish festivals is the annual Krakow Jewish Culture Festival, which was founded in Communist Poland in 1988 by Janusz Makuch, a non-Jew who knows more about Jewish culture in all its diversity than most Jews. The Krakow festival attracts audiences of up to 15,000 people who flock to the city from all over Poland and from many parts of the globe, proving that you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy Jewish culture.

While the Jewish festivals in Krakow and Warsaw are the best known and have the largest turn-outs. The Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture, which is one of several foundations supporting the revival of Jewish life in Poland, has published a list of more than 50 Jewish festivals and other cultural events – many of them interfaith – that have taken place in Krakow Kalisz, Gdansk, Bobowa, Bialystok, Kielce, Warsaw, Slupsk, Szczecin, Chrzanow, Rymanow, Tarnow, Lublin, Lelow, Wroclaw, Poznan, Lodz, Radom and many other places.

On Friday, September 24, an arts festival under the heading “Time Recovered – Memory and Participation” is opening in the town of Orla, both inside and outside its historic 17th century synagogue. Like several other synagogues in Poland, the building is used for purposes other than prayer.

The event in itself reflects discussions on innovative uses of “redundant” Jewish heritage spaces with the participation of representatives of The University of the Arts Poznan, the Orla community, the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland, and the UK-based Foundation for Jewish Heritage, which had suggested running an arts event out of the synagogue.

Dating back to the second half of the 17th century, the Orla synagogue was one of the few stone buildings in the town until the mid-20th century. The synagogue’s interior reflected Baroque and Renaissance influences, and the most distinctive feature was the ark. The walls were painted with colorful frescoes mainly of animal and plant motifs. The building was frequently remodeled and a striking classical façade was added.

Until the eve of World War II, the bulk of the town’s population was Jewish. But in the spring of 1942, the community was forced into a ghetto and, later to the Treblinka death camp. The synagogue was used as a storehouse for Jewish property confiscated by German soldiers, and the ark was destroyed.

After the war, the building was occasionally used as a storage facility, but frequently stood empty and neglected, its condition deteriorating. In 2010, the synagogue came under the ownership of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland. Several local civil society organizations are involved in conserving the synagogue and are receiving full support from the local Mayor and municipality.

Devoid of Torah scrolls, a bimah and an ark, the building nonetheless reflects much of its former splendor, and as a venue for the festival interfaces the history and religious life of the past with the contemporary perspectives confronting society today.

Participating artists and academics in the festival are from the University of the Arts in Poznan and the Bialystok University of Technology (BUoT), and include professors – Janusz Bałdyga, Rafał Górczynski, Wojciech Hora, Karolina Komasa, Wiesław Koronowski, Maciej Kurak and Jarosław Perszko (BUofT); and doctors Daniel Koniusz and Piotr Mastalerz.

■ THE FAMILY of former US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, who was recently appointed as State Department liaison to Israel on the Iran issue, is very supportive of Kuchinate - African Refugee Women’s Collective, which inter alia produces exquisitely crocheted baskets, decorative candles, attractively designed hygienic masks, shopping bags, book covers, bracelets, poufs and more. Shapiro’s wife, Julie Fisher, is particularly involved, and can often be found in the Kuchinate studio in South Tel Aviv or the pop-up shops in fashionable Shabazi Street and Gan Ha’ir. To complete the finishing touches to the family sukkah, Fisher went to Kuchinate’s Gan Ha’ir store, and received many compliments for her purchases from visitors to the Shapiro family sukkah in Ra’anana.

Apropos the sukkah, anyone who wants to join a virtual global sukkah hop this Sunday, September 26, can tune into an online broadcast at www.TheUS.tv/succah2, available on the US West Coast at 9 a.m., Argentina 1 p.m., UK, 5 p.m. Israel 7 p.m. and India at 9.30 p.m.

■ EVERY NEW president of the state, brings something new to the role, but among the things that remain constant is an annual visit by representatives from Kfar Chabad on the eve of Sukkot to bring a lulav and etrog to the president for his personal use.

The custom of bringing a Chabad lulav and etrog to the president and prime minister of Israel was started by the late legendary mayor of Kfar Chabad Shlomo Maidanchik, who annually presented them to the president’s late father, president Chaim Herzog. This time, Maidanchik’s son Israel and grandson Avraham, together with Avraham’s son came to the President’s Residence on the eve of Sukkot to make a presentation to the current president. There is an etrog orchard in Kfar Chabad. 

President Isaac Herzog said Sukkot was one of his favorite festivals and that he was happy to continue the tradition. He only regretted that another Sukkot tradition of having an open house at the President’s Residence could not be held this year, nor was it held last year due to the pandemic.

■ NEPAL’S AMBASSADOR Anjan Shakya, who is always clad in one of her mind-boggling collection of saris, hosted a Nepalese dinner in her residence in Herzliya Pituah in celebration of Nepal’s Constitution Day and National Day. Guest of honor and government representative was Minister Eli Avidar. Also among the guests was Adina Gottesman, who received special recognition for her many years of service as Nepal’s honorary consul-general, before Nepal established an embassy in Israel. At that time, Nepal’s ambassador was stationed in Cairo. 

 ELI AVIDAR, Adina Gottesman and Ambassador of Nepal Anjan Shakya. (credit: COURTESY EMBASSY OF NEPAL) ELI AVIDAR, Adina Gottesman and Ambassador of Nepal Anjan Shakya. (credit: COURTESY EMBASSY OF NEPAL)

Other guests included MK Michal Shir, Chief of State Protocol Gil Haskel, former cabinet secretary Tzachi Braverman, ambassadors, representatives of various ministries, tourist enterprises and international organizations, and business executives.

Shakya, who has made a point of attending almost every event to which she is invited, and who has initiated many meetings with diverse organizations and institutions with the aim of intensifying bilateral relations, spoke of how the embassy has brought the relationship to new heights. This was confirmed by Avidar who expressed satisfaction over the friendly relations between the two countries with the emphasis on the taking of initiatives to bring new dimensions into the relationship.

In the course of the evening, guests were introduced to a newly published book, Nepal-Israel Relations, initiated by the Nepal Embassy, following last year’s celebration of 60 years of diplomatic ties.

Edited by Sabita Dishemaru, the book contains contributions by both Israeli and Nepalese dignitaries, and pays tribute to the presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers of both countries.

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