Sunday, 13 July 2008

Vultures of Jewish Culture.

A trend of Jewish culture is taking over Europe. Ori Golan finds out what is behind it.

Last week, during the Edinburgh Book Festival, crowds thronged to hear Amos Oz talk about his latest novel, Another Sea. "How do you pronounce this Jewish man's name?² asked one lady in front of me, "is it Eymos, or is it Ahmos" A play in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Les Juifs de Salonique, with a distinct Jewish theme and Sephardic music, attracted big crowds, while the musical ‘Fiddler on the Roof¹ was sold out days before it made its first appearance. Last July, the Klezfest in London, a celebration of Klezmer music, attracted scores of revellers who danced and jived to Jewish music. There is no doubt that Jewish culture is on the rise. In her book, Virtually Jewish, Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe, Ruth Ellen Gruber charts the resurgence in Jewish culture across Europe. In cities, villages and towns across Europe, she notes, local Jewish history is being reclaimed, recognized, exhibited and exploited as part of local heritage. Books, films, and music pertaining to Jewish life in Europe are proliferating; Jewish museums have opened by the dozens; synagogues are renovated; ruined Jewish cemeteries are reconstructed; and Jewish quarters are being restored. And the most striking aspect of this revival of Jewish culture is that it is also sprouting in places where there are few, or no, Jews. In Prague¹s old Jewish quarter local vendors peddle Hassidic dolls and Golem statuettes. In Krakow, southern Poland, you can find a selection of Jewish restaurants owned and run by non-Jews. From Milan to Munich, Krakow to Cluj, Boskovice to Trebíc, Jewish festivals, conferences and seminars are attracting wide audiences. Why this renewed interest in Jewish history, culture and tradition? Gruber says that there are a number of contributing factors to what she terms ‘the Jewish phenomenon' - the fascination with Judaism, Jews, the Holocaust and Israel: a general sense of vacuum created by the demise of Communism; the change in world order; and the temporal distance that separates the events of the holocaust and the present. "For many individuals it is a physical as well as an intellectual and emotional confrontation with history.² Today, she asserts, non-Jews are more curious and able to come to terms with their dark past. They are prepared even eager to learn about Jewish culture and their common history with the Jews. ’Gelt for guilt' is how one klezmer artist summed it: Europeans are now clamouring to hear the music their grandparents tried to destroy. They are purging their guilt by embracing the culture which their grandparents attempted to eradicate. Claudia Roden, whose cookbook, The Book of Jewish food, was an instant best seller and translated into numerous languages, concurs. ³Shortly after the book came out in the Netherlands, I went to Amsterdam to give a talk about the book, I couldn¹t believe how much interest the subject generated in the Dutch media, and among non-Jewish Dutch people. It intrigued me. After my talk, a number of Dutch people came up to me and said: "We have been guilty for so long. If we had helped the Jews, there would be more Jews today. "But it¹s not just guilt" continues Roden. "Jewish culture captures the imagination. It tells the story of an uprooted, migrating people and their vanished worlds. Even when they stopped being religious, when they dropped their customs, the Jewish cuisine remained the same; it is a tradition. Throughout history, the Jews adapted and adopted local customs, but never lost their cultural identity. In many places Jewish recipes were kept secret. The women were very proud of their cooking. In Egypt, for example, they would never give a full recipe; they would always omit a crucial ingredient. The upsurge of interest in Jewish culture is a trend which lives alongside the recrudescence of anti-Semitic incidents. The number of desecrated Jewish cemeteries and synagogues across Europe has soared in the last two years. But, stresses Roden, the two can occur simultaneously. "When I visited Egypt I came across anti-Semitism, but at the same time, there is still an enormous interest in Jewish cooking." ³There is a fascination not only in Jewish food, but with everything Jewish. Jews are admired; their image is of something that is successful. Jewish food gets more respect than others. It is more unusual, more secretive. Many restaurants call themselves Jewish restaurants and have Jewish sounding names, but actually serve non-Jewish dishes. I once went to a ŒJewish restaurant¹ in Turkey where they were serving Sushi! Of course Sushi isn't Jewish food but just the sign ‘Jewish Cuisine' has a huge ‘pull factor'. This is true everywhere, even in China.² Spiro Ark is a London-based charitable organisation which organises Jewish cultural events and courses in Jewish History, culture and languages. Its director, Nitza Spiro, says that they, too, have seen an increase in the number of non-Jewish students enrolling on their courses. They take up Hebrew, Bible, Jewish History or Yiddish courses. "I would say about 10% of our students are non-Jewish. They come to study here because either they want to get closer to the common roots between Judaism and Christianity, or as an act of solidarity with Israel and with the Jewish people." According to Spiro, the non-Jewish students demonstrate an eagerness to learn which far exceeds that shown by the majority Jewish students. "Our non-Jewish students progress in the most rapid way imaginable. They squeeze the teacher to the last drop; always keen to learn more. Sometimes, when the mood of the Jewish students is melancholic [because of events in Israel] it is the non-Jewish students who offer support and encouragement. Many of them are rallying to Israel in its time of need.² Spiro also concedes that for some non-Jewish students in her establishment their studies are an exercise in exorcising their past; a means of understanding their own history and finding a common ground with Judaism. We have Dutch people studying Yiddish; a German student taking Hebrew lessons and a number of non-Jewish British students studying Jewish history." The revival of Jewish culture has also been recognised by the European Association for Jewish Culture (EAJC) which is based in London and Paris. "Our mission is to enhance Jewish life by supporting artistic creativity and to create the conditions in which Jewish culture in Europe can thrive. We offer grants to promote new work in the performing and visual arts, documentary filmmakers as well as a number of periodicals devoted to Jewish culture," says Lena Stanley-Clamp, the association¹s director.
This year, the EAJC has awarded 33 grants to artists from twelve European countries, including Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. Supported by the EAJC, last March the Operal House in Sofia, premiered Ghetto, a full-length ballet staged by the Bulgarian National Ballet, to a packed house; in February, a choreography Jingele o Maidele, describing the struggle over territory, toured five Danish cities and performed at the international event at Dance Marathon in Copenhagen; and last April the Golem came to life at the Budapest Operetta House who performed to capacity audiences. Stanley Clamp: "The fact that artists emerged from a broad range of countries is a clear indication that throughout Europe people are choosing to give expression to Jewish identity through the creative process". Another Jewish phenomenon to take Europe by storm is Klezmer music. Originating from the Shtetls of Eastern Europe, Klezmer music is today the most widespread and popular ethnic music. There are Klezmer bands in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Scandinavia, Belgium, Britain and France. These countries host Klezmer festivals which attract thousands of fans. In the US klezmania has reached fever pitch and is a thriving industry. "I don't know if anyone can explain why klezmer in particular had a revival², says Alex Kontorovich, clarinettist and musical director of the Klez Dispensers, a NewYork-based klezmer band who played last year in the Klezfest in London. "After the end of WWII and the formation of the state of Israel, the Chassidim, who used to be some of klezmer's best customers, stopped listening to klezmer. Some argue they wanted to forget their pre-Holocaust lives and that listening to klezmer reminded them of the great pain they endured. Still today klezmer is not very popular in Israel, with the small exception of the festival in Safed. ³In the 70s, two major things were happening. First, a great musician and passionate researcher, Henry Sapoznik, set out to find out what had happened to klezmer and Yiddish theatre music that his parents and grandparents used to listen to. He found Pete Sokolow, and together they started playing the lost music of their grandparents and recording klezmer with masters like Sid Beckerman and Howie Lees. Klezmer music became immensely popular in a short space of time." According to Kontorovich, klezmer music has permeated a wide variety of music types, to the point that its definition and boundaries are now disputed. ³Actually, the theme song in the movie Pulp Fiction is called Miserlou, and Greeks say it is a Greek tune, Jews say it is klezmer, and Americans know it only as the theme to Pulp Fiction." So, is Jewish culture adopted and then adapted by the gentiles for commercial purposes? Does it not end up merely a simplified and simplistic version of its authentic roots? Many of the most popular Klezmer groups are proudly non-Jewish, sporting names like Gojim and Klezgoyim. Coffee houses across Europe trading under Jewish names and symbols unashamedly sell pork sandwiches. In the restored Izaak Synagogue in Krakow there are life-size cut-out figures of pre-war Orthodox Jews. Is this a metaphor for the new brand of Jewish culture? Gruber is ‘profoundly uneasy¹ by the intensity of this new-age Judeophilia. "Sometimes I detect a creepy touch of necrophilia," she says, highlighting the "crass exploitation and commercialism" of this trend. "There is growing urgency among Jews that unless they themselves take positive action, the ‘Jewish thing¹ may be hijacked, if not watered down to a homeopathic degree: Jewish cultural products displacing Jewish culture. An affirmation that Jews and Jewish culture are not simply dusty or sanctified museum relics is essential. Without a living Jewish dimension, the virtual Jewish world may become a sterile desert or a haunted Jewish never-never land."

1 comment:

Ruth said...

Hi Ori -- thanks for writing this (and especially about Virtually Jewish). Did it appear in a publication before you put it on your blog?

Ruth Gruber