Friday, June 3, 2016

Friday in Kazimierz

Today was our first full day in Krakow and it marked a full week in Poland.  We started our day with yet another hotel breakfast, and this too featured some foods that we, as Americans, would never consider eating for the first meal of the day: deli meats, pickled fish, marinated vegetables, and strange concoctions of all of those together in one elaborate pastry.  Most of us opted for the breads, eggs, sausages, cakes, and coffee.  These would have to fuel us for our first activity of the day, a walking tour of Kazimierz led by our professors.

Once a town of its own, Kazimierz now constitutes a neighborhood of Krakow.  Before World War II it was the heart of the Jewish community featuring at least eight different synagogues, Jewish community buildings, and markets.  Abandoned for decades after the war when the Jews were expelled to the ghetto and did not return, Kazimierz is now a center of night life and student hangouts, as well as a tourist area featuring Jewish themes.    

front gate of Remu synagogue
We first visited the 16th century synagogue of "the Remu" (the acronym for its famous rabbinic scholar Rabbi Moses Isserles) and sat in its main gallery, which—in the Orthodox practice—was reserved just for its men.  During the worship service women would not be able to sit in the pews in the main prayer room, but instead just sit in back behind a curtain.  

Behind the Remu synagogue is the old Jewish cemetery in Kazimierz.   This cemetery was unique from the others we had visited as it had been refurbished during the post war
the memorial wall 
Remu cemetery
period after being destroyed by the Nazis. Many of the headstones that were left in pieces after the war were placed into a wall around the cemetery, making it a very special monument to those who suffered. Headstones that were not destroyed were placed back in the ground in whatever place was thought fit.  According to local Jewish lore, only the Remu's grave had not been touched, and it had pride of place next to other stones from that family behind a wrought iron fence and under a leafy tree.  This was the smallest of the cemeteries we had yet visited, because the Nazis’ destruction was so nearly complete.

Learning together
the Aron Kodesh (Torah cabinet)
in the Old Synagogue
During our tour we also visited two other synagogues: the "Old Synagogue" is partly restored and most of it is used as a  museum.  It focuses on the Jewish cultural heritage, exhibiting both artifacts and informational plaques. The museum is aimed at educating the Polish public.  As the Jews were nearly wiped out under the Nazis and relegated to the background or completely ignored under communism, many modern Poles are ignorant of the Jewish heritage of their country.

We passed other remnants of Kazimierz Jewish life on the way to the second synagogue,
gazing up at the Jewish study house
the "High Synagogue," which contains an exhibition on the struggles of select local Jewish families during the Holocaust.  These seemed designed to remind the public that not all Jews who suffered from the Holocaust were  über-religious, but many lived "normal" lives with their friends, families, and lovers.  We then stopped at the Galicia Jewish Museum, a coffee shop/bookstore/photo exhibit space where everyone had the chance to look around and also recaffeinate.

Once we'd finished our tour, we stopped for lunch at an Israeli restaurant in the old Kazimierz town square. For many it was the first taste of Israeli food, and the general reaction seemed to be positive. We tried a variety of flavors of hummus dipped in freshly baked Middle Eastern bread, as well as kebabs and lemonades spiked with exotic spices and fruits.  It was great to sit down as a group during the day and socialize over a meal.

How do you get busy college students to take time out to write a trip blog?  It was an ingenious plan that worked well: that afternoon, we trekked across Kazimierz for a writing session at a Laundromat-Café, armed with our dirty clothes, iPads, laptops, and cell phones. Who writes with pencils and paper anymore??

all dressed up for the synagogue
After that it was back to the hotel for a short rest before attending a very different Friday night service than a week ago.  Not only was this going to be held in a free- standing synagogue  building (unlike in Warsaw where the service held in a small building space rented by the Jewish community), but it was also an Orthodox service held in the Izaak Synagogue.  The men went to the main section of the sanctuary with a full view of the action at the front of the synagogue, and the women were relegated to a shuttered-in area on the side where they could view – a wooden shutter!   This is one of the key differences between Progressive and Orthodox prayer services.
prayer on Izaak Synagogue wall

In the Orthodox view, men and not women have the obligation to pray communally, and women are regarded as a distraction to the men's prayers and so should be out of view.  Unfortunately, this meant that the women in our group had to blindly guess what was happening during the first parts of the service based on sounds alone. That and the language barrier made it quite difficult for all but the Jewish students familiar with the Hebrew service.  During the second half of the prayers, one of the presiding rabbis stepped up on bimah (a platform in the center of the entire room) to lead the service and the women could at least view him.  Through the small gaps between the wooden shutters, they could also catch glimpses of the men.  This became interesting when the men began dancing around in a circle to the music, and then the women danced around a circle on their own side.

The most interesting portion of the service was the sermon.  It was delivered in English, so we could all actually understand it.  It was passionate and powerful.  The rabbi referred to the fact that this
Ride for Life cyclists
arriving at the JCC before Shabbat
synagogue—which had been used by Jewish people for hundreds of years, and then had been left bereft because its congregation had been murdered and the region had lost all its Jews—was once again a place of prayer.  He spoke about the importance of uniting the Jewish community in Poland and across the globe, and on how necessary it is to encourage young people who have only just discovered their Jewish heritage to join the community.  He emphasized his point by referring to the Ride for Life event that had just concluded at the local JCC, and using it as an example of what could and should be done.  Some of our students reported that his talk was very much like listening to a sermon in a Baptist Church, to the degree that they had to refrain from yelling “Amen!” or “Hallelujah!” at the more rousing points.  Despite frustrations at the separation of the sexes and the language barrier, this service proved to be an enlightening and enjoyable experience. The familiar aspects from the previous week made the service less foreign, while the use of English for the main speech made us feel welcome and included.

Shabbat meal items display
 at the Old Synagogue 
We then walked to the Jewish Community Center to participate in Shabbat dinner. For those of us that had never done such a thing, it was truly memorable and positive.   Throughout the meal we were welcomed and thanked for our presence.  We were seated with a large group of non-Jewish and some Jewish older people from Norway who were getting an introduction to Poland and Judaism at the same time.  Professor Myers led us in the blessings, and then the rabbi who led the other group did the same for the other group and included explanations in both Norwegian and English.  What an intercultural experience!  While eating our kosher meal and dessert, we heard stories from two members of the JCC and participants in the Ride for Life bicycle event (55 miles, starting from Auschwitz and ending at the JCC).    The entire evening was beautiful and educational on both a cultural and religious level.

It ended at about 11 p.m., and some of us sleepily walked down the street to our hotel and dropped off to sleep, while others went off to town and celebrated life.

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