POLOCAUST

I’ve come to the conclusion that a steady diet of kielbasa (Polish sausage) causes one to go soft in the head. How else can one explain the recent suggestion of Jaroslaw Sellin, Poland’s Deputy Minister of Culture that a “Polocaust” Museum be erected to honor the victims of Nazi genocide between the years 1939-1945? With the recent passage of a law warning of a monetary fine or incarceration or both for anyone who dares to suggest that the Nazis had an accomplice in the Polish people, as it systematically murdered three million Polish Jews and others, doesn’t Pan (Polish for Mr.) Jaroslaw realize that he’s adding fuel to a fire that was recklessly started?

If Pan Jaroslaw truly wanted to ameliorate a situation that has Jewish leaders world over up in arms, then perhaps thought ought to be given to building a Jewish Heritage Museum in Warsaw or Lodz or Krakow or Kielce? With a rich history spanning over a millennium (in 1264, Boleslaw V actually invited Jews from other countries to settle in Poland), Pan Jaroslaw should have no problem in amassing material that would fill a museum faster than you can say “Jak se mas” (Yak Shemash – Polish for “what’s up.”)

Thanks to our illustrious past in Poland, we Jews can proudly point to a wealth of literature – both religious and secular – that had, and continues to have, an impact on us that is beyond measure. The definitive Talmud (The Vilner Shas) was originally printed in Vilna (Vilnius) when it was part of Poland. Rabbi Moshe Isserless, the (Ashkenazic) redactor of the Shulchan Aruch or Code of Jewish Law lived in Cracow, Poland. The Magen Avraham, a renowned commentator of the Shulchan Aruch hailed from the Polish town of Gombin. On the secular front, great novelists such as Peretz of Bontshe the Silent fame and Sholem Asch, who has left an indelible mark on yours truly with his trilogy (assailable in English translation,) Three Cities can lay claim to Polish ancestry as well.

Close to 30 years ago, I was sitting across the table from a native Pole in a coffee house in Warsaw, as an ensemble was tunic up. “Kapelye, tak?”  “An ensemble, correct”, I asked in Polish. My knowledge of the Polish language is admittedly fairly limited. But one thing I do know. In Jewish music you can find many elements of Polish folk music. The instruments, the key, the tempo all sound eerily familiar. Yet, this should come as no surprise, given how our people living in Poland were influenced by the greater culture.

You don’t have to be fluent in Yiddish to have used words such as “schmatte” (rag) or “farblondget” (lost, geographically), but both words find their roots in Polish. Even though the Yiddish language contains any number of slavisms such as “kishke” and “polke”, there are a goodly number of Yiddish words that are uniquely Polish in origin.

Last, but not least, the recipes of the many ethnic foods we eat, find their origins in the Slavic countries of Europe. A food maven, I am not. I would be hard pressed to tell you exactly which country spawned gefilte fish as we know it, or stuffed cabbage or kreplach or latkes. I would be quite surprised, however, if Poland couldn’t make a claim as the birth place for some of the dishes we claim to be uniquely Jewish.

Pan Jaroslaw. Play it safe. Play it smart. The Holocaust is a “lose-lose” proposition for Poland. Why emphasize the negative when it comes to Jews in Poland? Why not emphasize the positive? Given the centuries that preceded the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939, there is no shortage of areas in which Poland richly contributed to and enriched Jewish life. Let Poland bring a smile to Jews worldwide who typically grimace the mention of its very name.

ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY

The first Yiddish language socialist newspaper in New York, Di Arbetter Tzeitung (the Workers Newspaper,) enjoyed a life span of a mere seven years. In the Spring of 1897, it was succeeded by a daily known as The Forverts (the name was borrowed from Vorwarts a publication of the German Social Democratic Party). The aim of the Forverts was to provide a daily newspaper to appeal to the newly arrived Jewish masses that had settled predominantly in New York, their politics, as well as their lifestyle.

One Hundred and Twenty years later, the Yiddish publication is still being published, albeit twice a month instead of daily. It has anglicized its name to Forward and the circulation is less than 6,000 and falling. It would be interesting to see how many Yiddish Forvertz are mailed to Dallas… (I know of only one.)

There’s a certain irony to the Yiddish Forvertz. To be sure there are still Jews in this country, in Israel, and elsewhere whose lingua franca is Yiddish. With all but a precious few exceptions, contemporary Yiddish speakers are found in the Orthodox communities of Borough Park (Brooklyn), Crown Heights (Brooklyn), and Monsey (Rockland County N.Y.), who, if they do read a Yiddish newspaper, it is highly doubtful if it would be the Yiddish Forvertz. The Yiddish Forvertz places great emphasis on Yiddish culture, Yiddish grammar, and Yiddish orthography; the Orthodox community places great emphasis on their vernacular – grammar, spelling, and syntax be damned. The Yiddish Forvertz is concerned lest a Yiddish word is too “Deitshmerish” (Germanic) and at times, goes to great lengths to replace it. The Yiddish speaking Orthodox are concerned that they preserve Hebrew from becoming the lingua franca.

From its very onset, the Yiddish Forverts labeled itself as “progressive” when it came to politics. To be fair, the Yiddish Forvertz was pro-Israel even before statehood was proclaimed, but it is no secret that over the decades, those who published the Yiddish Forvertz longed for an Israel that understandably reflected their view of society. The Yiddish speaking Orthodox communities of today are far from monolithic when it comes to politics in this country, as well as their attitude toward Israel. Unsurprisingly, Orthodox communities tend to vote in blocs and will quite often cast their vote following the recommendation of the Rebbe (if the group is Hassidic) or Rabbi (if the group is non-Hassidic). There are Orthodox groups that strongly support Israel and have branches in Israel where they live in their own communities. Then there are other Orthodox groups that are vehemently opposed to the mere existence of a Jewish government in power in Israel, in that only with the advent of Moshiach (the Messiah), should Jews be part of a government overseeing the Holy Land. Some fifteen years ago, I encountered a member from an Orthodox community who refrained from offering up a prayer for the State of Israel at Shabbat services, because that community felt that a Jewish State ought to be governed by observant “Torah true” Jews.

Last but not least, the Yiddish Forvertz will publish articles that no “self-respecting” Orthodox publication would ever go near. Some time ago, the Yiddish Forvertz did an article about a Jewish woman who was raised and educated in a highly observant Orthodox community. This woman had abandoned her past and was now entertaining men at a Gentleman’s Club (see Merriam Webster for the definition lest anyone misconstrue), where some of her clients were from similarly observant communities. Such Jewish women do not exist as far as the Orthodox communities, as well as the Yiddish publications their constituents read, are concerned, nor do such clubs. (If such women are acknowledged at all, it is in hushed tones, whispered into the ear of the listener.) As for the Orthodox men frequenting such clubs, that’s a smear tactic on the part of a malicious press.

Alas, the very Jews the 120-year-old Yiddish publication sought to appeal to –those who were native Yiddish speakers, with politically progressive views, who sought to Americanize themselves in so many ways are pretty much extinct. Many of the less than 6,000 who do read the Yiddish Forvertz, learned their Yiddish in college and as our people in this country were once known to have intoned: “On such Yiddish, you shouldn’t depend for a conversation.”