As an American journalist, author, editor and researcher, I’ve published and lectured widely and won awards for my work on Jewish heritage and contemporary Jewish issues in Europe, as well as my work on the European fascination — and embrace — of the American Wild West, its mythology and its music.
Among my other awards is Poland’s Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit,one of the highest awards that Poland grants to foreign citizens. And I was the Arnold Distinguished Visiting Chair in Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston, SC, for Spring Semester 2015.
Since its launch five years ago,Jewish Heritage Europehas become an essential one-stop shop for news, information, and resources concerning, as the name indeed suggests, matters of Jewish culture and built heritage in Europe: museums; synagogues; cemeteries, and so on. Ruth Ellen Gruber, the author of Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe who has chronicled Jewish life in Europe for over twenty-five years for the JTA among other places, edits the site, which is supported by the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe. Here, I talk with Gruber about the site’s development and how European attitudes towards Jewish heritage have changed in the time she has been reporting on these issues.
What was the impetus behind setting up Jewish Heritage Europe five years ago?
JHE builds on and expands a previous version of the site that was launched after a major conference on the Future of Jewish Heritage, held in Prague in 2004. The decision by the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe to relaunch and expand came as a follow-up to a conference held in Bratislava, Slovakia in March 2009 that discussed the state of Jewish heritage sites in Europe as well as strategies for their restoration, use, and upkeep. That seminar, attended by international Jewish heritage experts as well as by representatives from Jewish communities in more than a dozen countries, also resulted in theBratislava Statement, a major statement of specific ‘best practices’ about how to deal with Jewish heritage sites.
JHE’s aim is to facilitate communication and information exchange regarding projects, initiatives, and other developments such as restoration, ongoing projects, best practices, advisory services and more. Its primary focus is Jewish built heritage: synagogues, cemeteries, mikvaot, Jewish quarters and other physical traces that attest to a Jewish presence on the continent stretching back to Antiquity, but it also includes material on Jewish museums and other cultural institutions.
Is there anything that stands out for you in terms of how Europe‘s Jewish heritage is discussed, studied, and cared for in the five years since you’ve been running the site?
Jewish heritage and particularly Jewish built heritage is a field that has been continually developing over the past few decades. When I first became involved with Jewish heritage issues in eastern and central Europe nearly thirty years ago, I was entering largely unexplored territory. Little was known about what still existed in those countries – I felt I was ‘filling in blank spaces’ and literally putting Jewish heritage sites back on the map. At that time, even in western countries, Jewish built heritage was often ignored or overlooked.
That is no longer the case. In post-communist Europe, many Jewish heritage sites are still empty or in ruins, and most Jewish cemeteries are neglected or abandoned. But there are lists, inventories, databases, and online resources that tell us where they are. Surveys have documented synagogue buildings and Jewish cemeteries. Projects have mapped old shtetls to position destroyed buildings, and other projects have digitally recreated destroyed buildings or have even recreated them in replica form. Moreover, projects of various sorts have restored, cleaned up, fenced, preserved, or protected hundreds of sites.
I see all this on a day-to-day basis as I compile theJHE News Feed. Probably the site’s most powerful asset, it’s essentially a ‘wire service’ about what’s going on the Jewish heritage world today. To date, I have posted more than 1100 articles from dozens of countries, which probably constitutes the most extensive searchable database on contemporary Jewish built heritage issues. Thus, running JHE has enabled me to recognize the widespread reach, range, and scope of Jewish heritage initiatives all over Europe, as well as the challenges and controversies, from protection and preservation issues to religious concerns, the uses of new technology in research, to the various ways that Jewish heritage sites are used – and also abused.
Of course, Jewish heritage work, and the situation of Jewish heritage, is different from country to country, city to city, and is dependent on many factors: Jewish community organizational matters; local and national politics; funding shortfalls, and actual on-the-ground possibilities. My feeling is that seeing what’s going on in other countries, or in other projects, can be useful to help inspire activists or help them in creating strategies for their own work. I think it is important for activists today, though many are still working on their own or in relative isolation, to realize that they are not as alone as were the Jewish heritage activists who, often on their own, blazed the trail in earlier decades.
RG and REG – at the launch of my first book, in New York in 1992
My namesake, the noted author and photojournalist Ruth Gruber, has died at the age of 105 after a remarkable life and career.
In a JTA article, I reminisced about how for decades people had confused us and conflated our biographies.
One Ruth Gruber Says Goodbye to Another
November 21, 2016
(JTA) — When you share a name with someone you respect and admire, you always try to live up to the connection, because sometimes outsiders aren’t aware of the difference.
That’s how it was for decades with me and Ruth Gruber, the noted photojournalist, reporter and author who died last week at age 105 after a remarkable life and career.
From my first international byline, when I was a young intern at the Associated Press in Rome in the 1970s (when Ruth was already in her 60s), right up to a Facebook comment just a couple months ago, our names, and also our shared focus on Jewish affairs, have led to confusion.
It didn’t matter that she was decades older than I was, or that she had written largely about Israel and Holocaust matters and I mainly write about European Jewish affairs and Jewish heritage. Our biographies have often been conflated, and articles even ran with the picture of the wrong person.
Ruth received checks in the mail that were actually due to me, and a major Jewish organization once sent me an official letter announcing an award – except as I read through the letter I realized that the award was meant for her, not me.
I tried to underscore my individuality by using my middle initial or middle name – Ellen – in my byline and in other professional dealings. But it hasn’t always helped.
In January 1983, when, as a UPI correspondent, I was arrested on trumped-up accusations of espionage, jailed overnight and expelled from communist Poland, Ruth’s answering machine ran out of space because of calls from anxious friends and family.
I frankly can’t remember now if we met when I returned to the U.S. briefly after my expulsion from Poland, or if our first meeting came nearly a decade later, in 1992, when, wearing a striking broad-brimmed hat, she attended the launch of my first book, “Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Central and Eastern Europe.”
But we stayed in touch over the years, and every time we got together or spoke on the phone we laughed about our common – if sometimes frustrating – problem of confused identity.
Over the decades, I have received scores of emails meant for Ruth, especially before she herself had an email account.
A particular flood of them came after a two-part CBS mini-series based on Ruth’s book, “Haven: The Dramatic Story of 1,000 World War II Refugees and How They Came to America,” aired in February 2001.
Scores of viewers who were moved by the story of how Ruth in 1944 escorted 982 refugees from 19 Nazi-occupied countries to safe haven in Oswego, New York poured out their hearts in sometimes very emotional terms.
Even five years later a non-Jewish viewer in Colorado wrote to Ruth at my email address: “Shalom!!” he began. “There are no words to express how your story has impacted our lives! […] Do you have any suggestions as to how we might embrace and love the Jewish population where we live? With all the hatred that has been afflicted on your beautiful people and culture there are so many obstacles to overcome. Any advice you could give would be priceless!!”
Perhaps the funniest example of our identity mix-up took place in person, not in cyberspace.
At an American Jewish Committee annual meeting in the late 1990s, I gave my name when I asked a question during one of the sessions. As I went back to my seat, a woman stopped me.
“It’s so good to see you again!” she exclaimed. “You came to our house in the ‘40s!”
I stared at her for a few seconds before I could gather myself to respond.
“Look at me,” I finally told her. “I know I’m tired, but do you really think I could have come to your house in the ‘40s?”
Farewell, Ruth! I hope I can continue to honor your example.
Me at the map of the Budapest Ghetto, at the Ghetto Memorial in the city’s 7th District
My article on my (sort of) personal connection to the Yellow Star Houses in Budapest has been published in the Jewish Quarterly.
Yellow Starlight in Budapest
Ruth Ellen Gruber
November 4, 2016
In 1999, I bought a small apartment in Budapest. It was on the top floor of a building located at the edge of the city’s downtown Seventh District, just off Király Street and opposite the lavishly ornate Academy of Music.
I was spending a lot of time in Hungary and elsewhere in central Europe—and still do; I bought my little place in order to have a convenient base for travel.
It pleased me to have found a flat in the Seventh District—Budapest’s historic downtown Jewish neighbourhood.
Király Street, the border between the Sixth and the Seventh Districts, was Budapest’s downtown Jewish main commercial avenue, and the inner part of the Seventh District is anchored by three grand synagogues that form the so-called “Jewish Triangle”. Even today, my flat is within a fifteen minute or so walk from most of the city’s main Jewish institutions: several active synagogues, the Jewish Museum, the Rabbinical Seminary, the Jewish Community Centre, Jewish and even kosher restaurants, not to mention the new clubs, “ruin pubs” and cafes that since the mid-2000s have become hangouts for secular young Jews (as well as tourists and other young people).
When I bought my flat, the Seventh District was one of the poorest and least developed districts in the city. I spent hours walking through the run-down streets, photographing the decaying tenements ripe for urban renewal—or the wrecker’s ball. Today, the district is still grimy, but piecemeal gentrification has turned it into a sprawling hub for youth-centred and “alternative” clubs and cafes, as well as a burgeoning restaurant scene. My apartment has given me a first-hand opportunity to observe and chronicle the changes.
According to plaques affixed to the outer wall, my building dates from 1896 and was designed by an architect named Antal Schomann. It has a typical Budapest layout: you enter through an outer street door, walk through a foyer, and then the flats are arranged on four tiers of balconies that encircle an open courtyard.
I never thought much more than that about the history of the building until I was asked to write this article. It was only then that I learned that it was one of the 1,944 apartment buildings in the city to which more than 200,000 Budapest Jews were forcibly relocated in the summer of 1944. […]
In late October I spent an afternoon at a country western festival in Bologna, Italy. It was the very last day of the two weekends that the festival took place, and I was eager to see what it was like: though I have been to wild west and country festivals in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France and the Czech Republic, I have only been to a couple of them in Italy.
This one, called “Festival Country,” took place at the Bologna Fairgrounds, and it shared space in a cavernous hall with a sort of “October Fest” beer festival (featuring what was presented as German food). In a separate cavernous hall there was a so-called “Irish Festival:” vaguely Celtic music, and stalls that mainly seemed to sell “Lord of the Rings” type clothing…..
The path to all three led through the grim industrial landscape of the Fair buildings…..
Once there, what did I find?
The scene — at least on the day I was there — was a sort of distillation of all the most common stereotypes associated with “the west,” “the frontier,” “country-western,” and, in a certain way, “America.” It was almost “paint-by-numbers”– but refreshingly, in contrast to festivals in other countries, I only saw one Confederate flag.
I was hit by a fist of sound as soon as a entered — from a band (whose name I didn’t get) playing on a stage in the middle of the hall: playing so loud that that the sound was utterly distorted, with only the bass and the beat discernable.
The web site promised shows, concerts, food and drink, “pioneers and westerns”, Indian traditions, games, and handicrafts.
At the entrance to the cavernous hall stood a manikin of a Native American, posed outside a tepee as if to pounce.
Or of course pose for pictures.
Nearby, there were basic-type mock ups of a Saloon, a bank, and a corral — which is where, I believe, shows were staged.
All around the edges there were stands selling cowboy boots, cowboy hats, T-shirts, “western attire” and the usual type of wild west tschotsches — most of which I rather assume were made in China or somewhere. Unlike at some other festivals I’ve been so, there was not much of the participatory or performative dress-up.
There was a dance floor for line-dancing (increasingly popular in Italy) in front of the band-stand.
And beyond this were lots of tables where people could eat — the “western” fare included a variety of (mainly) meats, giant hamburgers and other dishes that to me seemed pretty unappetizing (I ate fish & chips in the Irish festival). This being Italy there was also pasta — but thanks to the Americanness of it all, it was the first time I have ever seen “spaghetti and meatballs” in Italy.
One thing that was different from some of the festivals I’ve gone to elsewhere was a series of lectures given on “western” topics, such as western movies. I dropped into one of them — where an Italian from an organization called Sentiero Rosso (Red Trail) that supports Native American rights was talking about how his group brings aid to Native American families.
I was planning to stay at the festival until evening (the last train back to Florence was at something like 9:30 p.m.), but in fact, I only lasted a few hours….I’m sad to say that was it all so empty, stereotyped, and superficial — and that, despite the razzle dazzle and noise, there was such a lack of energy — that it wasn’t really fun.
Along with a team of other writers, I’ve won a first-place Rockower award — the annual award for Jewish journalism — for a Hadassah Magazine report on anti-Semitism in Europe. The awards will be presented November 15 in DC.
Category 11: Award for Excellence in Special Sections or Supplements
All Newspapers; Broadcast; Magazines; Special Sections and Supplements; Web-based Outlets.
First Place Hadassah Magazine, New York, NY
“Europe Through the Lens of Anti-Semitism” by Abraham H. Foxman, Miriam Shaviv, Natasha Lehrer, Ruth Ellen Gruber, Nathalie Rothschild, and Toby Axelrod Click Here to Read Submission
Comments: Well written, excellent reporting on a burning topic.
I’ve previously been awarded third-place and honorable mention Rockowers for articles in JTA and B’nai B’rith International magazine.
Venice university professor Shaul Bassi stops beneath an elegant marble plaque affixed to an inner wall of the Jewish community building just off the Campo del Ghetto Nuovo, the secluded, vaguely fan-shaped main plaza of the historic Venice Ghetto.
The flowery Italian inscription extols one Giuseppe Bassi, a local rabbi who died in 1916. He was, it declares, “incomparable” as a teacher and religious leader; a man who “spent his life in works of enlightened charity, elevating the humble; educating young people to follow in his stead.”
Above the inscription, in Hebrew, appears a line from Psalm 145: “One generation shall commend your deeds to the next.”
Shaul Bassi looks up at the plaque and smiles. “He was my great-grandfather,” he says.
Venice is currently in the midst of a year of events marking the 500th anniversary of the imposition of Europe’s first official Jewish ghetto. And Bassi—who traces his Jewish ancestry here back to the 16th century—is the coordinator of the Venice Ghetto 500 anniversary committee set up by local Jewry and the city.
Dozens of concerts, conferences and other initiatives—the most publicized was a July staging of The Merchant of Venice—were officially kicked off on March 29, 500 years to the day after Venetian rulers under Doge Leonardo Loredan ordered the 700 or so Jews confined to the site of a former foundry, known as geto in Venetian dialect. Jews remained segregated there until 1797, when Napoleon’s forces broke down the gates. At its height, some 5,000 Jews lived amid the cramped alleyways and piazzas. They constructed tenements as tall as seven stories high to conserve space and built five synagogues whose jewel-like sanctuaries are hidden behind austere façades.
Despite economic and other strictures, Jews here lived rich, creative lives. Venice became a renowned center of Hebrew printing, and leading personalities such as Rabbi Leon Modena and the poet Sara Copio Sullam, both of whom died in the 1640s, were well known outside the ghetto walls.
“The story of the ghetto is the story of segregation, but also the story of an enormous quantity of cultural exchanges,” says urban historian Donatella Calabi, who curated an exhibition at the Palazzo Ducale, “Venice, the Jews and Europe 1516-2016,” which is the centerpiece of quincentennial events. “The 500th anniversary should be an occasion to reflect on history, but also to [reframe] things for the future,” she adds.
How to do that is a major challenge for today’s Venetian Jews.
Venice, the Queen of the Adriatic, has enchanted visitors and inspired artists for centuries with its shimmering fusion of water, stone and light. Tourists and poets alike vie for superlatives to describe the atmosphere of an enchanted city built on more than 100 tiny islands in the midst of a lagoon.
The attraction, however, has its downside. More than a century ago, the German Nobel prize laureate Thomas Mann was already describing the floating city as “half fairy tale, half tourist trap.”
Indeed, millions flock to Venice each year, putting a strain on the fragile infrastructure. On any given day in the summer high season, tourists—as many as 80,000 in a 24-hour period—crowd the city’s historic center, outnumbering the people who actually live there.
There’s good reason, of course, for Venice’s overwhelming popularity. Its unique architecture is stunning; the museums and churches display renowned artistic treasures; the cuisine is divine. And the experience of getting lost amid the dense, shadowy network of canals, alleyways, bridges and plazas is the stuff of romance.
So don’t let the crowds put you off. Sights on the well-beaten track may see you joining thousands of others. But it is possible to escape the crowds, especially after nightfall, when day-trippers have returned to the mainland or their cruise ship.
Post-Communist Eastern Europe is experiencing a museum boom as it explores new definitions of national identities not possible under communism. This has generated a wholesale revival of interest in Jewish culture and institutions on the part of non-Jews, paradoxically, in the near absence of Jewish populations. The Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow and Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw are prime examples of this trend, but there are many others.
I have an article in the journal called “Reportage: Beyond Prague’s “Precious Legacy”: post-communist Jewish exhibits and synagogue restorations in the Czech Republic.” In it I describe the Czech 10 Stars project, dedicated in 2014, and also describe the strategic process of renovation and Jewish exhibits that led up to it.
At the symposium, I was on a panel along with Olga Gershenson (who spoke about the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow), Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (who spoke about the POLIN museum in Warsaw) and Anna Manchin, who spoke about museums connected with Jews and Jewish history in Budapest.
Ruth Ellen Gruber’s portrayal of theTen Stars program,a series of ten single-themed exhibitions in significant Jewish sites across the Czech Republic, left me wanting to visit immediately.
She described the session as a whole as
A lively, sometimes contentious symposium [that] emphatically showed that Jewish museums in Central and Eastern Europe have reached a state of fruition worthy of celebration and vigilance […] Its participants threw themselves into exploring the move of Jewish museums “away from nostalgia and toward … a new self-definition,” as Judith Siegel, director of academic and public programming at the CJH put it.
(JTA) – When Pope Francis crosses the Tiber River to visit to Rome’s Great Synagogue on Sunday, he’ll become the third pontiff in history to do so. But his 1.5-mile journey to the towering Tempio Maggiore shows that what was once unthinkable is now the norm.
“Our meeting,” Rome Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni told the Catholic newspaper L’Avvenire, “aims to convey a very topical, important and urgent message — that belonging to a faith, a religion, should not be a cause of hostility, hatred and violence, but that it is possible to build a peaceful coexistence, based on respect and cooperation.”
John Paul II’s visit 30 years ago marked a dramatic watershed in Catholic-Jewish relations. By crossing the threshold of the Tempio Maggiore, warmly embracing Rome’s then-chief rabbi, Elio Toaff, and famously referring to Jews as Christianity’s “older brothers,” the Polish-born pontiff broke down barriers that stretched back nearly 2000 years.
The visual impact alone of the pontiff and the chief rabbi embracing sent out a powerful message of reconciliation.
Formal dialogue between Catholics and Jews had begun only two decades before Pope John Paul II’s visit, with the Vatican’s 1965 Nostra Aetate declaration that repudiated the charge that Jews were collectively responsible for killing Jesus, stressed the religious bond between Jews and Catholics and called for interfaith contacts.
For centuries before that, as Brown University historian David Kertzer wrote in his 2001 book, “The Popes Against the Jews,” the Vatican “worked hard to keep Jews in their subservient place — barring them from owning property, from practicing professions, from attending university, from traveling freely.” Jews were confined to ghettos and often subjected to expulsions, forced conversions and other persecutions. In Rome, the Great Synagogue stands where the papal rulers kept Jews confined to a crowded ghetto until 1870.
John Paul made fostering relations between Catholics and Jews a cornerstone of his papacy.
“What he did was to assert that one could not be a Christian without recognition of one’s roots in the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, a longtime participant in Catholic-Jewish dialogue and a former vice president of the World Union of Progressive Judaism.
Pope Benedict XVI, who had been a key advisor to John Paul and an architect of his theological policy, followed John Paul’s lead. But Pope Benedict lacked his predecessor’s charisma, and some of his policies strained relations with the Jewish world.
His visit to the Rome synagogue in January 2010 reaffirmed the continuity of the Vatican’s commitment to Jewish-Catholic dialogue. But it came amid tensions sparked by his decision to move controversial World War II era Pope Pius XII — whom critics accuse of having turned a blind eye to Jewish suffering during the Holocaust — closer to sainthood.
Rabbi Giuseppe Laras, the then-president of the Italian rabbinical assembly, even boycotted the synagogue ceremony in protest.
Argentine-born Francis had a close relationship with the Jewish community even before his election to the papacy, when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires. Since he became pontiff in March 2013 he has consistently demonstrated attention to Jewish issues and has won over many skeptics with his warmth. He visited Israel, along with Jordan and the West Bank, in 2014.
His visit to the synagogue “will not be marked by a novice stepping foot in an alien place and saying that I need to find my connection, as John Paul II did,” said Bretton-Granatoor. Pope Francis, he told JTA, “is wholly at ease with the Jewish community and Jewish life. His entrance into that synagogue will not be dissimilar to a Jew entering a synagogue in a new place — new, yet familiar.”
In May 2014, Pope Francis defused the Pius issue to some extent by making clear that he had no intention of fast-tracking his sainthood. And a Vatican document released in December to mark the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate reiterated at length how Christianity is rooted in Judaism. It also renewed pledges of cooperation and stated that the Church as an institution should not try to convert Jews.
“Francis’s visit to the synagogue will be far closer to a family reunion precisely because the blessed new positive Catholic-Jewish relationship has become almost normative, and Francis is overwhelmingly seen as a true friend of the Jewish people, which indeed he is,” said Rabbi David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee’s international director for interreligious affairs.
Rosen added, “Three in Jewish tradition is a hazakah — that is, a confirmation. And now,” after this third papal visit, “it will almost be impossible for a pontiff not to visit the Rome Great Synagogue as well as to visit the State of Israel.”
You can see the growing list of stations on the film’s web site — click HERE.
Broadcast venues include channels in New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, North Carolina, South Carolina, Illinois, Tennessee, California, Virginia, Kentucky….
I spent a few days earlier this month in Johnson City,TN, with the filmmakers — Lee Bidgood and Shara Lange. We recorded a commentary track for the film, which will be included in the new DVDs that are being prepared. We discussed the making of the film, but also the history of Czech bluegrass, and the music and musicians featured in the movie.