Onward and Upward with Matisyahu in Krakow

Arts Fest Shows Transformation in Poland's Reputation

Poland’s New Tune: Matisyahu, seen here before he shed his Hasidic garb, attended this year’s Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow.
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Poland’s New Tune: Matisyahu, seen here before he shed his Hasidic garb, attended this year’s Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow.

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Published July 19, 2013, issue of July 26, 2013.
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After all, few if any of the young Poles and visitors who now throng the district’s many new cafes or volunteer at the JCC have any direct memories of Kazimierz before the festival began drawing crowds, when no modern Jewish museums and culture centers offered their programs, and no Jewish (or Jewish-style) commercial venues plied their trade.

“The resonance of the festival has become larger than the festival itself. And maybe this is the important thing,” the noted Yiddish singer Michael Alpert commented backstage during the festival’s traditional marathon open-air final concert on Kazimierz’s main square, Szeroka Street. “There’s ‘normalization,’” Alpert said, “and if it’s normal, it’s not as exotic.”

Nonetheless, he said, the festival’s main museum exhibition demonstrated an unsettling deep-seated sense of the “weird” that still surrounds Jewish issues.

This provocative show confronted the perception of what is understood as Jewish or “Jewish.” Titled “Souvenir, Talisman, Toy” and curated by Concordia University anthropologist Erica Lehrer, it explored the history, meaning and symbolism of the ubiquitous carved wooden figurines of Jews, frequently seen at Polish souvenir stalls and which often perpetuate sometimes toxic stereotypes.

The exhibit placed these figures in the context of both folk art and folk fantasy. In doing so, particularly against the pervasive good vibes of the festival, it served to highlight — and confront — the contradictory ways that “Jews” and “Jewishness” are perceived and represented in contemporary Poland.

One particular focus was on the myriad “Jewish” figures that clutch money and are used as “good luck” charms said to bring purchasers prosperity. Some observers actually view such “penny Jews” as embodying “positive” stereotypes, without ill intention. In exhibition video interviews, vendors and purchasers alike spoke openly about the magical properties of such figures, some of which are so abstract that, though bought, sold and recognized as “Jews,” they look more like aliens than human beings.

“As a Jewish dancer, people look at my physicality as a Jew,” said Steve Weintraub, the festival’s Jewish dance teacher, with whom I visited the exhibit. “What does this mean about how people are seeing me?”

That, of course, was the question. Or one of the questions. Only days after the festival’s conclusion, the lower house of Poland’s parliament voted down a bill that would have allowed Jewish (and Muslim) ritual animal slaughter.

It’s not for nothing that the exhibition advertisement featured the grotesque head of a wooden Jew, all staring eyes, fur hat and flaring peyes, or sidelocks. From posters and banners it glared proudly — even defiantly — out at the manifold new realities of Jewish Kazimierz with an expression of amazement, inquiry and possibly apprehension.

Ruth Ellen Gruber writes frequently on Jewish issues. Her books include “Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe” (University of California Press).


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