Hitting the Polish Road

Trip Start Jul 21, 2013
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Trip End Aug 05, 2013


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Flag of Poland  , Southern Poland,
Saturday, August 3, 2013

Our group is representative of Jewish Americans who came of age in the 1970's, leavened by intense Jewish camping experiences. For the most part, we have had access to the finest university and graduate school education, were able to follow our passions in our life’s work, we never had to worry about the draft or military service, and, if we were lucky, we made a meaningful impact on our communities and the larger society.

We are self-actualized in another way – in a group of 8 couples and 2 singles we have the following dietary choices – kosher, strictly kosher, vegetarian, gluten free and lactose free. Kudos to the Ramah organization for keeping that all straight!

Ramah provides us with an extensive 200 page source book and two great guides – Yael (from Israel), steeped in Polish Jewish history and the Shoah and Piotr, who narrates for us the parallel developments in Polish history and is an all-around "fixer" who seemingly make anything happen.

Later in the trip we meet a leader of the current Jewish community who tells us, “We feel we invented Judaism in Poland.” We find out that that is not much of an exaggeration. If you ever closed your eyes and sung a Shlomo Carlebach niggun, studied the Shulchan Aruch to determine the Jewish answer to your halachic question, sung Shir Hamaalot before benchen, joined a Jewish youth movement, or sung “Hatikvah” your experience was first designed in Poland.

Unbeknownst to me, most of my own Jewish identity formation was a direct result of these influences. I attended Orthodox Jewish day schools in the 1960’s and 1970’s, was a member of Bnei Akivah and NCSY, went to Camp Moshava and Camp Ramah and studied Talmud at Yeshiva University, Hassidic Thought with Art Green at Penn and the Sociology of Israel at Bar Ilan University.

Our bus “schlep” will be taking us from Warsaw to the Polish countryside where all of this started. We will be hitting Tykocin, Lublin, Krasnik, Lezajsk, Jaroslaw, Tarnow, and Krakow.  The Jewish population of each of these towns was 30-60% of the total. Our bus DVDs include “Fiddler on the Roof”, “Escape from Sobibor”, “ The Pianist”, “Schindler’s List”, and “Eagles over Auschwitz.”  We will be spending hours and hours on our bus!

Jewish cemeteries are where we will meet most of the founders and spreaders of charismatic Jewish movements. In the Halachic world we meet and learn about Shlomo Shachner,  the Rema, the Marshal, Yom Tov Heller Lipman, the Taz, the Bach, Rav Haim of Brisk, and most recently Rav Meir Shapira the founder in 1931 of Yeshivat Hochmei Lublin and the Daf Yomi movement. Growing up, in my yeshiva, we lovingly referred to these characters as “the boys in the back” because we would usually encounter their writings and commentaries in the margins or in the back of the seforim we used (in extremely tiny print!). In Warsaw’s cemetery we will encounter the more modern end of charismatic Jewish movements – Zionists, Yiddish performers, Bundists, and even the founder of Esperanto – a new language invented and promoted by a Polish Jew to foster world peace.

I had always been leery of going to cemeteries, but with the recent deaths of my parents and uncles, I began to see them as a mark of “a good end” – a life well lived and a life respected and valued by friends and family. But, Jewish American cemeteries and our synagogues are very different from those in Poland. Our synagogues tend to the non-descript and I have even seen Jewish cemeteries that don’t even allow headstones – giving the visual presentation of rolling fields.

In Poland, synagogues and cemeteries are literally “monumental” – large, decorative, laden with symbolism, and, in the cases of many charismatic leaders, including shrines where followers come to receive answers to their own personal prayers and requests. I begin to value the visual cacophony and the Indiana Jones aspect of discovering the meanings behind the symbolism carved into or painted onto the 15th, 16th and 17th century stones. On our bus trip our tallis, tefillin, siddur and camera will be our constant companion.

We also follow another stream of Judaism that grew up in reaction to the halachic  esoterica and pilpul learning of the yeshiva masters (to be admitted into the Lublin yeshiva you had to have memorized 200 pages (blat) of Gemarah!). The Baal Shem Tov emanates from Rural Russia (just north of us) with a message that G-d can be accessed by anyone, no matter his analytic Talmud skills, through faith and dvekus – cleaving to G-d. We have a tisch in Rav  Elimelch’s  ohel, visit the Seer of Lublin’s  grave, and learn about the development of the various sects of Hassidim, and the concept of the Tzaddik and the Rebbe.

Although the group gets a sense of the growth and vibrancy of these Hassidic and Misnaged movements through the centuries, we find it hard to grasp and hard to relate to our lives. It feels like taking a 3 day art history course, without access to the paintings. But we do sense the tremendous loss to the Jewish people’s culture, spirituality, and intellectual vitality caused by the Shoah as we pass through town after town with Jewish synagogues, mikvehs, yeshivas, and cemeteries and no living Jews.

In Tykocin, we learn about shtetl life. We visit the shul (built in 1642 with a wing for the Jewish community’s prison), the melamed’s house and the marketplace.
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