Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe
By Ruth Ellen Gruber
University of California -- 304pp -- $35
Few buildings make as powerful a statement as Berlin's recently inaugurated Jewish Museum. Designed by the young and gifted American architect Daniel Libeskind, the building imposes its stark angular presence on the German capital's Kreuzberg neighborhood. But what is most striking is the interior, where a sheer slice of empty space cuts through the entire structure. The emptiness, says Libeskind, represents "the void that every participant in the museum will experience as his or her absent presence."
It's an appropriate statement. The Holocaust killed 6 million of Europe's 9 million Jews, wiping out communities whose European roots often went back 1,000 years or more. What a wound for Europe--evident in the postwar cultural dullness of lands bereft of some of their most vital elements.
Now, there are efforts to alter that state of affairs. In the fascinating Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe, Ruth Ellen Gruber employs a sociologist's eye and a novelist's style to consider the way countries such as Germany, Italy, and Poland have been seeking to revive Jewish culture over the past decade. Jewish museums are being opened by the score, synagogues and traditional Jewish neighborhoods restored, and Jewish music and culture celebrated. This process is all the more remarkable considering that it is often occurring in countries where there is no significant Jewish population.
There are various reasons why this is happening only now, six decades after the Holocaust. West Germany's postwar quest to become a "normal" nation worked against opening painful wounds. In eastern Europe, anticlerical communist regimes vastly underplayed the Jewish role in World War II: Any 1970s or 1980s visitor to the site of Poland's Auschwitz concentration camp would have seen huge memorials to Polish freedom fighters but virtually no mention of the fact that the overwhelming majority of those who died there were Jewish.
Today, though, Germans are eager to come to terms with their past, often embracing things Jewish with a fervor. Communism's collapse in the east has opened up enormous curiosity about a history that authorities had tried to paper over. A recent resurgence of interest among many Jewish Americans in their European roots is helping as well.
As Gruber notes, many of Europe's most historic Jewish sites now have the unreal feeling of Williamsburg, the reconstructed Colonial-era town in Virginia. That's the feeling in Prague's Jewish Quarter, where street vendors hawk "Jewish" dolls--complete with black robes and sidelocks--for $50. In Krakow, in southern Poland, once one of Europe's greatest centers of Jewish culture, the restored Kazimierz quarter now sports "Jewish-style" restaurants, Jewish art galleries, and even an annual Jewish Culture Festival. These, writes Gruber, are often "the only visible, visitable, active `Jewish' presence for miles around, even if they are run by and are conceived by non-Jews."
But if some aspects of the revival are kitschy and overly touristy, others, such as Berlin's Jewish Museum, are not. All are examples of a Europe finally trying to come to terms with the darkest chapter in its history--and that can only be for the good.
By John Rossant