Jewish life in Poland – Towards a sense of joy and wonder

“We were over 1000 this year” – said someone on the bus as soon as we left the venue of the fifth edition of Limmud Poland, which took place between October 26-28, 2012.

Between the prophets and Bruno Schultz, Yiddish film and Jewish social media, feminism and the Holocaust, hundreds of participants of Limmud Keshet Poland spent the weekend running from one lecture to another. Who did you hear? What did you see? Where are you going now? Where's room D? A frantic attempt to reconcile between attending as many lectures and workshops as possible and spending quality time with friends and new acquaintances – such is the nature of the Polish edition of the Limmud Conference.

The first Limmud in Poland was organized in 2008. About 350 participants enrolled. Five years later, Limmud is unquestionably the largest Jewish event in the country. It is not the numbers that count though. The idea of the conference is that everyone is a student and anyone can be a teacher. Limmud is the Hebrew word for 'learning'. And learning, we might say, has been perhaps one of the essential components of the contemporary Polish Jewish experience. In defiance of the persisting conviction of many foreign Jews that Jewish life in Poland ended with the Holocaust or with the communist antisemitic purge of 1968, Jews in today's Poland come together and share their knowledge and experience during this unique event organized by the Joint Distribution Committee. For one weekend in a year, participants of all ages from all over the country – singles, couples and families – gather in a large conference hotel complex in a suburb of Warsaw.

Limmud is the perfect illustration of what being Jewish in Poland is about – it gives ear to the plurality of voices which exist in the Polish Jewish community. And 'learning' itself is in fact the Polish Jewish modus vivendi. Since the fall of communism in 1989, the number of Jews in Poland has been a growing one. Jews are deassimilating, or 'coming out of the closet', if you like, and it is an unprecedented phenomenon in that part of Europe. Twenty years ago, those who 'came out if the closet' and decided to pursue a Jewish identity had to learn about Jewishness mainly from American books, as Konstanty Gebert remembers. Since then, we might say that Polish Jews have reached a level of Jewish literacy which not only allows them to learn from one another – as is the mission of Limmud – but it may also inspire other Jews to begin to learn from them.

Poland has become a true hotbed of contemporary Jewish identity debate — Polish-Jewish issues are discussed in Europe, but perhaps even more so in America and in Israel, where we so many descendants of Polish Jews can be found.

In his lecture at Limmud, Jonathan Webber called for all Jews to appreciate the rich Polish Jewish heritage but also the recent positive developments and activities in contemporary Polish Jewish life. Incidentally, Professor Webber recently moved to Poland from the UK together with his wife Connie. They are now active members of Krakow's Jewish Community Center and they both contribute to raising the awareness of contemporary Jewish life in Poland.

“I meet old friends here, people who I've known for a long time but don't normally see on a daily basis” – says Limmud participant, Ewa who lived in Israel for the past 6 years but has recently moved back to Poland – “But I also meet new people, who only just recently 'came out of the closet'.

For some, participating in Limmud will be the first Jewish 'thing' they do.

It is the specificity of the Polish Limmud that late night conversations tend to turn into emotional discussions about the different experiences of the discovery of Jewish roots. Was it the parent or grandparent who revealed the secret? When? How? Why then? Being Jewish in Poland is not a matter-of-fact experience. The individual stories of the members of the Polish Jewish community are in and of themselves unique narratives of the process of identity construction. And each one of them could be studied and analyzed just like a Talmudic tractate. And in this sense, Limmud Poland is a site of many  narratives – the ones in the lecture rooms and the many more which reverberate in the hallways.

“I participated in a fascinating debate on contemporary Israel – it's amazing how people can have such different worldviews but still be able to talk with each other… I also saw a moving Yiddish pre-war film, I went to a cooking workshop and a lecture on the writings of Bruno Schultz” – says Beata who attended Limmud for the fourth time – “But for many of us the atmosphere here is what is most important. Education is important but meeting people is also crucial. It's kind of like a mini Jewish camp. Some of the people here I already knew from other Jewish events but many of them I only have the chance to meet here – once a year. I think Limmud is very important also for people from smaller towns, where they have no Jewish life on a daily basis. It's like being on a different planet.”

The participants of Limmud Poland 2012 had the option to choose between two alternative Shabbat services – an Orthodox and a Reform one. With the traditional prayer held downstairs and the progressive one upstairs, many ended up gathering somewhere in between, around the staircase – never making it to either one of the services. From there, one could observe the ones who chose to migrate like Rabbi Boaz Pash of Krakow, who was 'caught' sneaking out of the Orthodox service to take a peak at the progressive gathering upstairs. “I want to see what's up there too!” – he would explain as he walked passed the in-between crowd.

The more and the less religious outlooks are visible throughout the weekend and account for some of the most interesting points of discussion. On Shabbat morning, Jonathan Ornstein, executive director of the Krakow JCC, set out to break down the Ten Commandments and offer an alternative set of commandments as put forth by the world's most famous atheist, Richard Dawkins. Both religious and secular participants were in attendance.

Once again, different narratives and different voices coexisted.

The Jewish identity experience in Poland is unfinished and fluctuating in its nature. Jewishness in Poland aims not at an appropriation of its essence; rather, it thrives on not knowing its “essence.” It is an identity that hosts questions and contradictions. And its authenticity is that of a conversation rather than a text. And in this sense, Limmud is the perfect form of expression for Polish Jewish identities. The very nonessential “essence” of post-transition Polish Jewish identity is in being-in-discussion – in a changing configuration of specific situations we find ourselves in and distinct others we interact with. To be a Jew in Poland today is to participate in a dialogue.

The organizers of Limmud Keshet Poland report that the 2012 edition hosted some 800 participants and not 1000 as some have suspected. But it would seem that new Polish Jewish identities’ viability is based less on the number of people than it is on the number of questions Jews in Poland ask themselves and strive to answer every day in an attempt to build a self-awareness of a unique kind—one which is continuously dialogically reconstructed against the outside world.

One of the most discussed during Jonathan Ornstein's lecture was the fifth commandment in the alternative Ten Commandments suggested by Richard Dawkins: Live life with a sense of joy and wonder. Be it a commandment or not, seeing hundreds of Polish Jews studying and laughing together in the 21st Century, does leave one with a sense of joy and wonder. And may Limmud Poland see 1000 participants next year.

Katka Reszke is a writer, researcher, photographer and filmmaker working in the U.S. and Poland. Her upcoming book is called “Return of the Jew. Identity Narratives of the Third Post-Holocaust Generation of Jews in Poland.”

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