04192018

Revival

Jews have always adapted to the changes and challenges of time. Also today, diversity brings forth innovation and helps Jewish culture evolve

 

Reconstruction of the wooden ceiling of the lost 17th-century synagogue of Gwoździec in Warsaw’s POLIN museum Fred Romero / Flickr / 24873632783_e57dd73c96_o / (CC BY 2.0) / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Reconstruction of the wooden ceiling of the lost 17th-century synagogue of Gwoździec in Warsaw’s POLIN museum
Fred Romero / Flickr / 24873632783_e57dd73c96_o / (CC BY 2.0) / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Tradition!” – the opening number for the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof anticipates the tragicomic story of prejudice, tradition and change. At Berlin’s Komische Oper, Barrie Kosky’s German-language adaptation Anatevka is fully booked for months ahead, and you will always meet Jewish visitors who stress how much they can relate to the characters in this production. That’s quite an exceptional statement in a city were Jews find it difficult to come to terms with the way Jewishness is being staged and celebrated everywhere.
In Berlin and beyond, the wider Jewish community is negotiating and re-inventing its identities. How to make one’s heritage chime with a modern world view? Tevye the Milkman embodies this struggle when he shouts “Tradition!” but cannot help adding: “On the other hand…”
Judaism has always been diverse rather than conforming to a single, supposedly “authentic” model. This applies especially to the situation in Germany today. A 2010 Pew study reported a Jewish population of 230,000. Thanks to immigration from the former Soviet Union, synagogue membership has quadrupled since the 1990s. However, the 2017 statistics prove that there are less than 100,000 synagogue members today, with at least another 100,000 unaffiliated: since the rabbinate in Germany doesn’t recognize patrilineal descent, the major part of post-Soviet immigrants whose former passports gave their nationality as “Jewish” were not counted in. In addition, there are some tens of thousands of Israeli Jews who don’t identify as religious, and English-speaking expats. In the light of such heterogeneity, there are as many stories as there are Jews. However, despite cultural cleavages, conflicting memories and diverging perceptions, there is a growing sense of cohesion.
Germany is facing a resurgence of far-right politics, coupled with hate speech and racist crimes. Throughout Europe, anti-Semitism again plays a major role in shaping Jewish identity. With their reference to national heritage and “historical truth”, populist parties devalue minority groups and individuals alike. In Budapest, for example, one of the most un-engaged Jewish communities in the world, the avant-garde Jewish community center Aurora was closed last year, and Hungarian born Jewish billionaire George Soros has become a useful punching bag for the government. Rejection, however, creates a renewed affirmation of Jewishness.

Where do we belong?

For many secular or non-observant Jews one question emerges: Where do I belong? It is impossible to enliven traditions one has escaped from for generations. Some might seek a contemporary Jewish faith that is both spiritually compelling and intellectually honest. The foundation of the Swedish Paideia Institute, dedicated to the study and interpretation of the textual sources that have served as the wellsprings of Jewish civilization, was a milestone in 2001, and so was the opening of the School of Jewish Theology in Potsdam five years ago. Initiatives like Let’s Start Davening! (LSD!) practice, advance and revive Jewish spirituality through davening and “togethering” for young adults, while retreats and summer camps, culture festivals and educational programs provide information and knowledge. But the panacea to engage a majority of the Jewish population and to rebuild a Jewish consciousness is still missing.
To secure and demonstrate Judaism as a living and pluralistic religion, we must think out of the box and listen to the dissonances of Jewishness. We need spaces outside of the Jewish institutions – but within the Jewish mainstream – to discuss the significance of Judaism in the public arena and define the common ground of Jewish identities. So far, festivals, theatres and museums provide such opportunities.
“Jewish museums can offer a big tent for visitors from across the Jewish spectrum, especially for the unaffiliated, the intermarried, those more attracted to culture and the arts than to religious observance, and those who enjoy experiences in mixed rather than strictly Jewish crowds,” explains Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Chief Curator of the Core Exhibition at POLIN Museum in Warsaw. “As a third space, an attractive place to gather, socialize, and engage that is neither work nor home, museums offer a complement to synagogues, JCCs, and other institutions serving the Jewish community.”

Building a Jewish future
Final concert of the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, 2017 FKZ / Michal Ramus

Final concert of the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, 2017
FKZ / Michal Ramus

There are many signs for a Jewish revival in Germany and beyond, against all odds. Some examples: Jewish Heritage Europe is a web portal that maps Jewish landmarks and sites and also conferences, festivals and other events. POLIN, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, has become a success story with more than one million visitors since its opening in April 2013 – though much resentment it stirred in the right-wing sector of Polish society. The Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow is the largest presentation of contemporary Jewish culture worldwide – but why not stop over at the Jewish Culture Festival Trondheim while traveling this summer? Small museums all over Europe, very often in cooperation with the local synagogue, uncover the story of the local Jewish communities and their contribution to the country’s arts and culture – from Oslo to Istanbul, from Minsk to Padua to Porto, reflecting the different realities of each country.
To build a Jewish future, however, we need to think beyond museums and the narratives of survival. Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove of Park Avenue Synagogue in New York reminds us: “In order to win the Jewish future, the Jewish people must field a dynamic and compelling Judaism, a Judaism worth defending, a Judaism that is willing, if necessary, to color outside the lines.” The teachings of Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, pioneers of Jewish learning in Weimar Germany, resonate with Cosgrove’s conclusion: “Engaging curriculum, musical creativity, spirited prayer, ritual innovation – these are the interventions of renewal that seek radical transformations of Jewish expression in order to create a Jewish renaissance.” Tradition? Today, no one lives according to some original Judaism, and neither did Tevye the Milkman. Jews have always adapted to the changes and challenges of time. It is diversity that brings forth innovation and helps Jewish culture evolve. ■

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