Whose Culture is it? (Ellen Gruber’s ‘Virtually Jewish”)

Does it bother you when a white man sings the blues? Is jazz exclusively an African American art form?

When Eminem (who is white) is the most popular rapper, Tiger Woods (who is part African American and part Asian) is the greatest golfer and Serena and Venus Williams (African Americans) dominate women’s tennis, should it upset us that Jewish Culture Festivals are run by non-Jews for audiences of primarily non-Jews, and that klezmer music is performed by non-Jewish performers for non-Jewish audiences?

These thoughts came to mind reading Ruth Ellen Gruber’s “Virtually Jewish” (University of California, 2002), an account of the renaissance of Jewish culture in Europe often in places where Jews no longer live, and a discussion of the complexities and contradictions it has engendered.

The Philadelphia-born Gruber, who lives in Hungary and Italy, was recently in Los Angeles, visiting family and conducting research for her next book, and I had a chance to hear her give a talk at an event sponsored by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. A few days later, we met to talk about the explosion of Jewish culture in Europe.

The Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, Poland, in the Kazmierz district, the former Jewish neighborhood many know from the film, “Schindler’s List,” has become — in Gruber’s words — “a giant party.” Organized in 1988 by two non-Jews, it has become a major arts festival that attracts fans from all over Europe, many (if not most) of whom are not Jewish, for several days of performances lasting late into the night.

Today, there are annual Jewish festivals in Berlin, Munich, Vienna and Budapest. Ancona, in Italy, hosts a festival of Jewish music. This year there was a Yiddish festival in Italy to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Isaac Bashevis Singer, who has become the portal to the Yiddish world for Jew and non-Jew alike. Above and beyond all this, there has been a boom in Jewish “roots” tourism promoted by the governments of France, Austria, Germany, Poland and Hungary.

Hold on, you may say, how does a European passion for Jewish culture jibe with growing European anti-Semitism? As Gruber explains, they co-exist. It is almost “schizophrenic,” she said. For some non-Jews, participating in Jewish cultural events fills the void created by the murder of Jewish communities during the Holocaust. For others, celebrating Jewish culture is a “healing” or it may be a way to expiate guilt; to interact with nostalgic “virtual” Jews, rather than real ones. Not unlike the way Americans have romanticized Native Americans and the Old West (Gruber’s next book is about how Europeans have taken up Native American and cowboy culture).

Two decades ago, before the fall of the communism, Jewish historical and religious sites were neglected, in disuse and disrepair. Poland was seen as the “graveyard of European Jewry.” It was not a fun trip. Tourists hurried to Auschwitz and other death camps and once sufficiently horrified and chastened, they left the country. Even as late as 1990, it was difficult to find the either reputable guides or the location of sites of Jewish interest in Eastern Europe — or in France, Italy or Spain, for that matter. However, during the mid-1990s all that changed.

Suddenly, there was an explosion of Jewish heritage travel, of the restoration of Jewish sites of interest, of the creation of Jewish museums and Holocaust memorials. Some of the money came from abroad from individuals, institutions and charitable organizations such as the Ronald Lauder Foundation (which was particularly active in Austria, Hungary and Poland). But much more came from the governments themselves — and the creation and management of these new institutions was often carried out by non-Jews. Was this an act of healing or of capitalism? Was it motivated by guilt or greed?

In 1990, the World Monument Fund created a Jewish Heritage Council to identify sites in Europe worth preserving. By the end of the decade, a conference in Paris would celebrate the preservation of several hundred Jewish sites and lay out an ambitious proposal for the reclamation and renovation of hundreds more. Similarly, a 1999 Conference on Jewish Culture for the 21st century held in Paris seeded the creation of a European day of Jewish culture, which is now held annually in cities all across the continent during the first week of September.

Present at many of these conferences was Gruber, the daughter of artist Shirley Moskowitz and Jacob Gruber, an anthropologist, archaeologist and founder of the anthropology department at Temple University.

After graduating from Oberlin College, Gruber traveled to Europe where, as a reporter for UPI, she covered six different countries and spent a lot of time in Vienna, Belgrade and Warsaw. Although not particularly observant (she grew up in a Conservative household) Gruber became part of the “Flying University,” a loosely knit group that distributed Jewish books and knowledge to communist Europe.

In January 1983, while covering the Polish Solidarity movement, Gruber was accused of espionage and jailed. She was held for 24 hours and ignited an international protest before she was released and expelled from the country.

During the 1990s, as she traveled in Eastern Europe, Gruber realized that there was no guide to sites of Jewish heritage, so she wrote “Jewish Heritage Travel” (Wiley, 1992), which became a touchstone for many travelers on “roots trips.” (Personally, it proved invaluable on my trips to Warsaw, Lodz and Lviv. A great book, it is sorely in need of an update — and a publisher willing to commission one.)

Now she has chronicled what she calls “the mainstreaming of Jewish culture. Twenty years ago, hearing klezmer music and celebrating Jewish culture in Europe was not ‘normal’ — and the notion of non-Jews celebrating and performing Jewish music and Yiddish literature seemed alarming. Now it is accepted; it is a regular happening.”

Yet for Americans, Jewish culture still remains in the shtetl.

Let me give one example: I have a group of friends with whom I travel on an annual basis to New Orleans’ Jazzfest. I recently received an e-mail from Ed Serotta who runs www.centropa.org, a Web site devoted to Jewish Central-European history and culture. The e-mail outlined a trip to visit Prague, the Krakow Festival of Jewish Culture and several restored sites of Jewish interest, along with talks by experts (including one by Gruber). In other words, it would be an “all-eating, all-seeing, all-dancing” tour. I passed on the info to my Jazzfest friends.

Their reaction was unanimous, and could easily have been predicted by Reb Jackie Mason: “Too Jewish.”

Keep in mind that we are talking about a festival organized by non-Jews, attended mostly by non-Jews that visits sites restored and maintained by non-Jews. Which brings me back to the question: Whose culture is it, anyway?

Perhaps we need to consider Jewish culture, like the five books of Moses, as our gift to the world. An evergreen garden that can nourish Jew and non-Jew alike. And then we should heed the famous coda of Voltaire (a notorious anti-Semite) from Candide: “Cela est bien dit, mais il faut cultiver notre jardin (that may be well said, but we must cultivate our garden).”