Polands Jewish renaissance comes to the Bay Area

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The last time Konstanty Gebert walked the streets of Warsaw, no one gave him or his yarmulke-topped head a second glance.

“Some people even said they were delighted,” says Gebert, a Polish Jewish journalist currently teaching at U.C. Berkeley. “But in Paris I was harassed twice in public. Things in Poland are not nearly as bad as American Jews think they are.”

Those closely connected to Poland’s Jewish community say there is a virtual renaissance of Jewish life taking place in that country. In every respect — religious, cultural, demographic — Jews are thriving in a land where millions died in the Holocaust.

To educate the Bay Area community on Poland’s Jewish rebirth, the Jewish Heritage Initiative in Poland will present a seven-day symposium titled “Where We Come From: Our Jewish Heritage in Poland, Past, Present & Future.”

The series of lectures, workshops, performances and dialogues takes place all over the Bay Area from Wednesday, Oct. 18 through Oct. 27. The Jewish Heritage Initiative in Poland is a project of the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture.

Eight visiting fellows from Poland — writers, curators, scholars, educators, artists and student activists — are traveling to the Bay Area to participate. Among the headliners is singer/actor Theodore Bikel, who will perform a concert with Michael Alpert and Tamara Brooks titled “Even the Birds Sang in Yiddish.”

Also on tap to speak is Janusz Makuch, co-founder of the annual Jewish Culture Festival in Kracow, one of the most popular and important festivals of its kind anywhere.

Gebert will also appear. This semester he is teaching a U.C. Berkeley course on the subject of Poland’s Jews, but back home he publishes the popular Jewish magazine Midrasz. He is active in all aspects of Jewish life in Poland.

“In numerical terms, we’re almost negligible,” he says. “If we include the unaffiliated we’re optimistically at 25,000, down from 3.5 million in 1939. But this tiny community, with substantial support from outside, has experienced a surprising renewal over the last 20 years, from setting up schools and launching the Museum of Polish Jews [due to open in 2009], to the fact that the Warsaw shul has a twice-daily minyan. This is happening in a country many Jews believe is irredeemably anti-Semitic.”

Tad Taube, through his Taube Foundation, has taken the lead in giving outside support to Poland’s Jewish community. Last year, the Peninsula resident took his board of directors to Poland so they could see the progress first hand. This year, he decided to bring the Poles here, in order to introduce them to the wider community.

“A lot of the people we’ll be introducing to our Bay Area supporters are in the mainstream of Jewish life in Poland,” says Taube. “They’re on the leading edge and are well known there, but they may not be the newsmakers you read about. Now we can expose them to a much greater audience.”

Taube acknowledges that the Polish Jewish renaissance hasn’t dominated headlines in the Jewish world, but he also feels it’s an important part of the ongoing post-Holocaust healing.

“A large percentage of American Jews are of Polish origin,” says Taube. “How are we to look upon our heritage if we view it in a negative light? Look at Poland today. It has an extremely solid alliance with Israel. The prime minister of Poland went to Israel in the last few weeks and spoke of [Poland’s] commitment to Israel and the Jewish people. There is a brand new generation, born after the Holocaust.”

Gebert attests to the Polish national dialogue on the subject. “We are remaking ourselves,” he says. “Poland has a way to go, but having said that, the country had a couple of years back a soul-searching debate nationwide, which the U.S. Holocaust Museum considered the most frank of all the countries.”

Adds Taube: “We have to recapture 1,000 years of Jewish history, 1,000 years when Jewish culture in Poland dominated the planet, when the achievements in literature, music, science, every facet of human endeavor, were nurtured in Poland. Our involvement is oriented towards making sure that vision of Poland, of Polish Jews and the institutions that nurtured that vision, remains alive.”

“Where We Come From: Our Jewish Heritage in Poland, Past Present & Future” takes place Oct. 18-27 at various locations in the Bay Area. For information, call (510) 649-2495.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.