Monday, August 15, 2011

Jewish Disneyland

Day 10-Krakow

We left Cz and drove to Krakow. I continued in my role of navigator by charting us a path through various towns and castles on the Jura (Jurassic-era plateaus) rather than going via highway routes, which took us farther out of our way. Though it rained quite a bit, it was a fun way to see the countryside and we made excellent time-- apparently Sunday is a great day for driving in rural Poland (Travel tip!)

As per usual, my good luck ran out as soon as we got into the city-- we probably spent about an hour trying to find our apartment thanks to mis-labelled street signs. Thanks to a friendly employee at a Chinese restaurant, we found the building and unloaded.

Abbot Yid found us a nice place right across the river from Kazimierz, the old Jewish section. We wound up going there every day for the three nights we were in Krakow. Our first stop, as always, was the Tourist Center. While exiting this place and waiting for Abbot Yid to finish buying some postcards, Mama Yid and I got to have this delightful conversation with a young Israeli couple:

Him: "Where are you from?"
Me: "San Francisco."
Him: (Smirking) "There's a Jewish community in San Francisco?"

He was sounding more dismissive than humorous. Already I could tell this had potential to quickly delve into jerk territory.

Me: "And where are you from?"
Them: "Israel."
Me: (No duh.) "I meant, where in Israel."

Long stare while they tried to decide if our limited knowledge included geography...

Her: "I'm from the North."
Him: "I'm from the Middle."
Me: (Really? That's cool, we have cousins in Netanya, Eilat, Rehovot, and the Negev. Middle, you say? What a fun place that sounds like.)
Her: "How long are you here?"
Mama Yid: "Another few days and we'll have been here two weeks."

They were dumbfounded. "You've spent two weeks in Krakow?"

Mama Yid poked me to tell them "the story." I was reluctant since I could tell the guy wasn't going to care, but I tried to be a good sport.

"We've been all over. We started in Warsaw where my father's family was from, and we just came from Czestochowa where my mother's family was from."

I purposefully left out the cemetery story as I was close to positive they didn't care. Mama Yid said I had left out the best part and told them about the cemetery. The woman looked slightly interested but the man seemed bored.

Him: "And next, are you going to Israel?"

I had known this was coming. Just like with the nun, I put out a big smile. "Not this trip."

He frowned. "What a shame. All this way and Israel is only three hours away. Have you been to Israel before?"

My smile got even bigger. This guy was going to be a Sabra par excellence. Just roll with it. "Nope."

He looked incredulous. "And you come to Poland before you come to Israel?"

Abbot Yid had just stepped out the door and caught the tail end of the guy's question-- and his tone. I could tell he was getting irked already, but I played dumb. "Well, maybe we'll try next time."

"Well you have family waiting for you when you come," the woman said with a smile. We all nodded politely.

The man still wasn't done. "How's your Hebrew?"
"Nonexistent," said Mama Yid.
"Low," I said.
"So, just prayers and things?" he asked. I couldn't tell if he was fishing for info or confused at how Jews couldn't know Hebrew. I shrugged.
"Well, enjoy your trip," he said.
"You too," I said as we walked away.
"Shmuck," Abbot Yid said under his breath.

And we had had such a wonderful time with Dina and her Israeli high schoolers in Cz! I guess the universe didn't want us to get too far away from cultural stereotypes. (Does this count as reverse-hasbara?)

After that we walked around the neighborhood for a while. We saw some of the old synagogues and popped into an excellent Jewish bookshop where I snapped up a couple of things. (I had operated with total restraint up until this point, I swear. Besides, who could resist a DK-style book on Polish Jewish history?)

From there we went looking for someplace to have dinner. Initially Abbot Yid wanted to eat somewhere that kept kosher (at least we'd know if something had dairy or not), but the first place that had "glatt kosher food" advertised turned out to be the Izaak Synagogue (now run by Chabad) that, in addition to catering, also served meals out of the shul kitchen. Not quite what we had in mind. So we settled for another spot called Noah's Ark.

The food was marvelous- I had my first taste of cholent, and despite the bad rap it seems to get around the Jblogosphere, I found that this recipe, at least, was delicious. Mine was chicken with kasha, seasoned excellently, and the portion wasn't too large. Real comfort food. (Maybe it's just frum cholent that's bad?)

Over dinner we talked about how interesting it was to be in Kazimierz, where Jewish trappings--if not necessarily content-- were so prominently on display. As Abbot Yid put it, "It's like Jewish Disneyland, except without Jews."

Ok, that line is not entirely fair. There are an estimated 1,000 "active" Jews living in Krakow (with at least two active synagogues), and probably another few thousand of partial Jewish descent. I think what we were talking about, however, was how much "Jewishness" is built into the commercial shtick of Kazimierz, more or less divorced from the actual people. The effect is a bit of a cultural dissonance-- kind of like an Egyptian person visiting the Luxor casino. On the one hand a lot of it was fun to see (especially for someone interested in English-language Ashkenazi history, a lot of times my choices are perusing random Orthodox Judaica shops or attempting to find the few Jewish books in the "Eastern Religion" section at large US chain stores). On the other hand, there was certainly a fair amount of stereotyping and ignorance going on. For instance, at our restaurant a lot of the dishes were named after random Biblical characters, ranging from Miriam to Jacob.

The best example of non-Jews marketing Jewish kitsch to Jews were the various "Jewdolls" that we saw everywhere. They ranged from an inch or two to a foot high, always made of wood or clay. All the dolls had beards and large noses, usually with dark clothes, peyot and a hat. Most were counting money though a few held menorahs or books with Stars-of-David on them. I saw a few holding a pillow-shaped object that could have passed for a Torah if you squinted hard enough. I said, "There's something very odd about seeing our culture simplified down to an extreme degree and then made into a commodity to be sold to tourists." I bought a few Jewdolls as gifts (I preferred the clay ones with slightly cartoonish figures; they reminded me of old French and Belgian comic characters and toys I used to have), though it did make me think about old toys and books like Tar Babies and Little Black Sambo.

As we finished up, my parents mentioned that they were happy that Mrs. Yid and I were invested in finding ways to make Judaism and Jewish heritage personally meaningful to us-- and that we invited them to participate without ever making them feel coerced. Abbot Yid even said something surprising:

"You may not believe this, but even though I don't necessarily do Jewish things, I still feel very Jewish and strongly identify as Jewish. As ambivalent as I might feel about Judaism, a long time ago I realized that if I had been around when the Nazis were here, they would have considered me Jewish. It's just who you are. It's like being black. You can't really run away from it."

I appreciated the sentiment, though I couldn't help wondering where this left people like Mrs. Yid.


Antigonos said...

Well, why DID you visit Poland before Israel? Seriously, I think you and your family are in need of a visit here. I think it would surprise you.

If you want, I'll happily send you my Ashke-Sfard [husband's Iraqi] cholent/hamin recipe. I think you'd like it.

You'd be amazed at how well the Jewish kitsch sells. My mother, z"l, who ran the "Judaica Shop" at her Reform Temple, tried to buy some stuff when visiting here, found that the best of it was imported...from the US.

Jewish roots, for a convert [as I presume Mrs. Yid is], are a big problem. This is where religion takes a second place to ethnicity/peoplehood. It's a bit like making aliyah: I've been here 35 years, but I'm an olah hadasha to my sabra kids, and always will be. America is one of the few places in the world where one can avoid being labelled a Jew, unless you WANT to be so labelled. No Gentile government attaches the label to you whether you want it or not. Most Israelis are far more Israeli than Jewish, although Jewishness is part of the national culture, if that makes sense. Mrs. Yid would probably feel quite comfortable here. In the States, she has to actively "Jew it up" [in my former rabbi's memorable phrase] if she wants a Jewish identity.

Antigonos said...

For some reason, my post above eliminated the "grin" after the first sentence. Sorry. I was intending the question to be light-hearted.

Anonymous said...

"I had my first taste of cholent, and despite the bad rap it seems to get around the Jblogosphere, I found that this recipe, at least, was delicious. "

If it was delicious, than it wasn't authentic chulent. :)

I've never had it with either chicken or kasha. The usual recipe is bone-in stew meat, barley, potatoes, and beans. Flavor is garlic, a little tomato paste, maybe some onions. Add a little water, put in crock and cook all night in a slow oven.

Conservative Apikoris

Friar Yid said...

Hi Antigonos,

Honestly, had we known that Israel is so close to Poland, we might have planned our trip differently.

As for the why, well I'll flesh that out better in an upcoming post, but for me, the big thread on this whole trip was family and history, and it felt like seeing Israel before we'd seen Poland would have been, for lack of a better term, a-historical. I've been learning about the Polish branch of the family for a long time and I owed it to them and myself to finally see it (particularly since we know and are in contact with various folks in Israel, as opposed to our very limited communications with the aging Polish cousins).

Mrs. Yid hasn't converted and isn't sure she ever will, but is very interested in the two of us learning more, joining a community, and raising Jewish kids. The most challenging aspect has been finding the right niche that complements our personalities (snarky/ serious semi-intellectuals), hashfaka (minimum), and age group (mid-20s).

I think Mrs. Yid gets and connects with the peoplehood thing. Our obstacle is finding the right people.

CA- Who knew it would be the Poles who finally made cholent taste good? (Then again, they are trying to sell it in a restaurant.)

Anonymous said...

"CA- Who knew it would be the Poles who finally made cholent taste good? (Then again, they are trying to sell it in a restaurant.)"

That's another thing. Chulent is one of those traditional dishes that is rarely served in restaurants. After all, it's only made for the Sabbath, and a traditional Jewish restaurant would be closed on the Sabbath. In fact, a large part of its mystique, such as it is, has to do with the fact that it's only eaten on the Sabbath, and even then, only on Saturday afternoon. Then there's the tale of the "Spice called Shabbos." (Talmud, tractate Shabbat 116A). The Caesar asked one of the Sages why Shabbos food tasted so good. The answer was "the spice called Shabbos." The Caesar requested some, but the rabbi told him that it only worked for people who keep Shabbos. That might be why Cholent doesn't taste so good to us non-observant Jews. :) (This story is kind of like the Emperor's New Clthes, where the chalatans told the Emperor that the only people who couldn't see the clothes were idiots.)

Conservative Apikoris

Antigonos said...

Dear Friar Yid, I presume you know that if Mrs. Yid doesn't convert according to Halacha, your children won't be Jewish, no matter how much you wish it to be. One Jewish grandparent gets you Israeli citizenship [since that was enough "Jewish blood" for Hitler], but no observant rabbi will accept them as Jewish for marriage or anything else. Considerable numbers of olim whose fathers were Jewish but grew up as Reform Jews have discovered this, and not only in Israel. It saddens me that you are learning so much about your Jewish roots, while destroying the Jewishness of your posterity by snapping the chain which links you to all your previous generations.

Antigonos said...

About cholent/hamin: there are dozens of ways to make it. In fact, my daughter has a cookbook of just cholent/hamin recipes.

It is definitely a cold-weather dish, so I don't make it during the hot months in Israel. It IS very filling -- but after Shabbat lunch it is customary to have a nap!

My recipe uses meat with bones, potatoes, wheat berries, garlic, onions, some paprika and cumin, salt and pepper, water to cover, and a giant knaidel shaped like a pancake to cover the top which seals in the moisture while absorbing the gravy. No tomatoes or beans. I use a slow cooker which can, after cooking the hamin on low all Friday, can be left on "warm" for Shabbat.

Sephardi/Mizrachi cooking has a dish called "tebeet" which is a slow-cooked dish of chicken and wheat berries or brown rice, with seasonings. Your chicken/kasha cholent sounds like a variation of it.

Friar Yid said...

Hi Antigonos,

I decided early on that Mrs. Yid's decisions in this matter will be her own. I am prepared to raise children as Jews in whatever movement will have us. I have never been interested in being Orthodox and am not particularly concerned with halacha (and honestly can't picture Mrs. Yid being at all interested in converting Orthodox, in any case). Reform Judaism accepts patrilineal descent as does (TTBOMK) Reconstructionist Judaism, which are more up our alley anyway. Orthodox Judaism is entitled to its positions but I'm not required to care about them.

In our house, the kids will be Jewish. Whether they are accepted as such at every shul they ever set foot in will be another matter. If it's something that they wish to address when they are grown, they will have my blessing.

I appreciate where you're coming from but I honestly feel like we're going into this with both eyes open. We know that in some folks' eyes our children will not be Jewish. So be it. I know they'll be raised with far more Jewish education and identity than I ever was. I'd take that over accidental matrilineal descent any day.

Friar Yid said...

Now about your hamin-- sounds tasty. Any chance you'd be willing to share the recipe?