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“Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe”

Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe, by Ruth Ellen Gruber,
University of California Press, 2002, $35

Visiting Warsaw in 1990 shortly after the collapse of Poland’s communist system, I occasionally noticed Nazi swastikas or Stars of David slashed with black paint on public buildings and slogans like “Jews, back to Israel”. What accounted for the anti-Semitic graffiti, when there were virtually no Jews living in Poland at the end of the Cold War era? “You don’t need Jews for anti- Semitism to flourish,” Polish friends explained.

By the mid-90s Jewish cultural activity by non-Jews in Europe—from museum exhibits and synagogue renovations, to heritage tours and commercial kitsch—were in vogue. The irony was understood much like the anti-Semitic graffiti: “You don’t need Jews for there to be a renewal of Jewish culture in Europe.”

But is it Jewish culture or cultural product‘? Can we trust it? Whom does it serve? How did it develop? And is it ultimately good for the Jews who still live in Europe? Such questions form the heart of this important study by Ruth Ellen Gruber, European correspondent for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Since the Cold War’s end, nations across Europe have been confronting their Holocaust histories. Regardless of whether they were predominantly perpetrators, victims or bystanders during the Second World War, the reckoning has generated both a cultural renaissance and a new marketplace offering a smorgasbord of commercial attractions; Jewish-style cafes and restaurants (serving tsimes and kugel alongside schnitzel and goulash), Yiddish theater performances, Klezmer concerts, gift shops, posters, books, CDs and tapes, Magen David tattoos, kosher vodka, and history museums. Located in prewar Jewish spaces such as ghettos and synagogues, the cultural markets make up a “virtual Jewish world,” says Gruber.

[T]he resulting collective vision is quite frequently the product of literary imagination—’Jewish style’ rather than Jewish,” Gruber writes. “Jewish cultural products may take precedence over living Jewish culture: a realm in many senses constructed from desire rather than from memory or inherited tradition. Jewish thus can become a label with a life of its own.”

Gruber suggests that virtual Judaism allows Europeans to atone for the Holocaust, redefine their national histories, and/or posit a multiethnic ideal in their clearly mono ethnic cultures. In what ways, if any, does this “virtual” Judaism help real Jews?

“This Gentile Jewish culture is shaping the perception of what is Jewish. And it has one huge asset that no Jewish culture ever had—it’s so easy,” Konstanty Gebert, a Polish Jewish community leader, told Gruber. “To participate in Jewish culture took an effort. You had to be educated, culturally educated, religiously, secularly, whatever. And here you get the equivalent of McDonald’s.”

No true Jewish legacy remains in Europe, says Gruber, and it is highly unlikely that authentic Jewish values can “counter the torrent of popular artifice wherever Jews already feel ambiguity about their identities and are uneasy about their roles both as Jews and as full-fledged members of general society. For Jews and non-Jews alike, buying a book or theater ticket is easier than mastering the liturgy or language.”

But isn’t this ambivalence, which Gruber describes, similarly experienced by American Jews? No, she says, and reminds us of a crucial difference between European and Ameican Jewry: “For American Jews, it is a cultural and religious heritage that was lost primarily through immigrant assimilation into American society rather than through the destruction of the Holocaust.” A truer comparison exists between European Jewry and Native Americans. After all, how different are the carved wooden figures of bearded, tallit-draped rabbis that line gift shop shelves in the Warsaw and Krakow airports from the Navajo-style, clay models of teepees and “squaws” on display in airport shops in Phoenix, Denver and Albuquerque?

Shana Penna LlLlTH Contributing Editor, is the author of National Secret: The Women Who Brought Democracy to Poland (University of Michigan Press, forthcoming).