Eastern European Jews Reclaim Their Heritage: Long-Suppressed Customs, Rituals Are Embraced
Gruber, Ruth Ellen, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
WARSAW - In a cavernous dining hall at a summer camp near the town of Szarvas in southern Hungary, 450 Jewish children from nearly half a dozen formerly communist states crowd long tables covered with red-and-white check oilcloth.
The meal they are eating is kosher, and even before it is over, they jump up on their chairs and throw their arms around each others' shoulders. To the strains of an accordion, they sway back and forth, singing Hebrew songs at the tops of their lungs.
In Belgrade's only synagogue, a young bride and groom exchanged vows the previous summer under the traditional Jewish wedding canopy. It was the first traditional, full-scale Jewish wedding in Belgrade for decades, and guests celebrated later with a case of kosher wine brought in from Hungary.
"You start a new life when you get married," Dejan Petrovic, 29, who works as the activities organizer for the 2,000-member Belgrade Jewish Community, said six months later. "My wife and I decided to start to keep kosher, to keep Shabbat. We can't do everything, but we try."
On a cold Sunday this past January, more than 150 Jews crowded into a downtown Warsaw lecture hall for a landmark conference on the future of Polish Jewry. There were elderly people in attendance, but most were from younger generations, born after World War II.
Some traveled hundreds of miles from cities such as Krakow, Szczeczin and Wroclaw to take part in a meeting that a decade ago few would have thought possible in this country where the Holocaust claimed 3 million Jewish lives.
"Ten years ago, the common question was, when will the last Jew in Poland be buried?" Rabbi Michael Schudrich, Polish director of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, a U.S. organization that sponsors Jewish education programs in several countries, told the meeting.
The meeting was sponsored by another American Jewish aid organization, the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). "Five years ago, the common question was, are there any young Jews in Poland? Today, we don't have this type of question."
Less than a decade ago, the Jewish communities in Poland and most other countries in Communist-dominated East-Central Europe were generally written off as dying remnants of the pre-Holocaust past.
Forty years of Communist restrictions had compounded the devastation of the Holocaust. Most of those openly identifying themselves as Jews were elderly. Many, if not most, other Jews chose to conceal or deny their Jewish identity. To many observers, the Jewish chapter in this part of Europe was virtually closed.
THE NEW JEWS
The collapse of Communist rule seven years ago changed everything. The institution of religious freedom and the disintegration of communist-era taboos triggered social, cultural and religious Jewish revival.
"Jewish communities are throwing off the mantle of `remnant' like a garment that no longer fits," said Edward Serotta, an American photographer and writer who has documented Jewish communities in Central Europe since the mid-1980s.
"We've been calling them last Jews, but they're not acting like last Jews - with kindergartens, summer camps, schools, youth programs and even Web sites on the Internet," he said.
Precise figures don't exist, but throughout the region thousands of Jews, particularly younger people, have discovered, recovered or reclaimed often long-buried Jewish roots and openly declared a Jewish identity.
"I found out six years ago from my mother that I am Jewish," Uri Filipowicz, a leader of the newly formed Union of Polish Jewish Students said last summer. "Before that, I hadn't known what it meant to be a Jew. In my family, the fact that my mother was Jewish was canceled out. . . . I don't want the fact that I'm Jewish to be just another empty word, so I decided to learn as much as I could and make this my road. …