Me, defending the Latke….

I took part in the “Great Latke versus Hamentash” debate, held at the JCC in Krakow during the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival.

I defended — of course — the Latke. My opponent was an American-Israeli stand up comic, Benji Lovitt, and the debate was moderated by Benjamin Lorch.

The whole debate was filmed for a documentary film…. see trailer below:

So far I don’t have pictures of the event — but suffice it to say that it got, well, heated! Especially when Benji tried to prove his point by a fabricated email supposedly written by me — Fake News….(I mean, But My Emails….?)

I’ll try to post more, but here, for anyone interested, is the text of my opening statement:

IN DEFENSE OF LATKES

Latke vs Hamentasch Debate, Krakow, June 30, 2018

Ruth Ellen Gruber

“Let them eat cake.”

This is the legendary put down allegedly uttered by a high-ranking princess when she learned that peasants – that is, the mass of the people — had no bread. It has come to represent the height of elitism and insensitivity on the part of, shall we say, the “upper crust” in regard to ordinary folks – that is, in regard to most of us.

The phrase is often attributed to Marie Antoinette, but in fact its origins predate her by decades. In the 1760s, when Marie Antoinette was just a child, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau identified the person who made this disparaging remark only as having been a “great princess.”

“Cake” is the usual English rendition of the original French term, “brioche”. And while Rousseau did not give a nationality for this anonymous princess, he did add a footnote. This stated that the original term that she used was not actually brioche, but – “poche” – short for Poche d’Haman.. That’s Frnech for Hamentash.

Yes, hamantasch. Let them eat Hamantashen.

It makes sense. Because, however you look at it, hamentashcen are – cake. Metaphorically, they are the tasty delight of the plutocracy. They’re dessert. Fun food. And given the wacky excesses encouraged at Purim, they are the ultimate party food. Up there today along with chips, dips, candy, and, yes, even orange-colored Cheetos.

They represent frivolity, folks. Entertainment. Abandon. You can’t really take them seriously.

And this, by the way, makes it perfectly fitting that the organizers of this debate have chosen a stand up comic to defend them.

You can’t live on hamentashen. Unless you patronize a Jewish-style café such as those here in Krakow that serve them all year round, you eat hamentashen only at Purim.

And need I remind you that Purim is a party. You’re supposed to get drunk. Act out. Act wild. Do things that you ordinarily would not do.

Even the very act of eating hamentashen with their traditional fillings can give rise to hilarity, if not derision. The poppy seeds always get caught in your teeth and look comically gross. And need I mention the effect of prunes? What other food is associated with garish noisemakers, anyway?

You can’t change the nature of Hamantashen. You can try — but if you fill one with cheese, for example – it becomes, basically, a baked blintz.

Latkes on the other hand, are the staff – or, given their shape, the stepping stones – of life. Think of them laid out, one after the other, crisp on the outside, cloud-like on the inside — charting a course through the tangled terrain of Jewish existence.

They are sustenance. You eat them all year round. They don’t just feed the people, they nourish them — us. Unlike Hamentashen, they can be eaten as any part of a meal, depending on how you serve them: with sour cream or even a meat sauce as a main dish; naked with a little salt and pepper as a side dish; with apple sauce or sugar to sweetly end a repast. As such they are in many ways nature’s perfect cooked food.

Moreover, they are simple to prepare for a people, like the Jews, who have been historically on the move. You don’t need an oven to bake them; you don’t need to wait for dough to rise; just mix them up and fry them in a pan over any type of heat source. Even, it has been reported more than once – but this could be an urban legend — on city pavements in lower Manhattan on scorching hot summer days.

When my own ancestral family members immigrated to Texas from what is now Lithuania, that’s what they did. They started out poor, like most immigrants. Some of them, like my great-uncle Hyman Simon, who died in 1941, started out as peddlers who plied the dusty roads of east Texas with horse and cart. As part of his travel kit Hyman always had a cast iron skillet and an easy to store and carry bag of potatoes, and bottle of oil, or usually, in his case, a chunk of rendered goose fat lovingly packed by his wife, Sarah, my grandmother’s oldest sister, who lived to be 101 years old.

Likewise, my grandfather, Joe Moskowitz, was a surveyor who traipsed through the Texan swamps, oil fields and snake-infested highlands in a Stetson hat and knee-high boots. He often had to camp out at night and prepare dinner in the wild, in his own cast-iron skillet over a campfire.

What did he prepare? Latkes of course. The cowboys he sometimes shared a campfire with would chow down on their beans and bacon. But Joe Moskowitz kept kosher.

When he was really ravenous, out in the wilds, he would tell folks that he was so hungry he could eat a ham sandwich…. But he didn’t. He didn’t have to. He had latkes.

I have my grandfather’s notebook where he kept track of all this. He noted down how many latkes he ate, what they looked like, what topping he ate them with, and how many potatoes he used to make them.

And my brother still uses that same cast iron skillet in his ultra modern kitchen in California.

I don’t think it has ever entered my brother’s mind to bake Hamentaschen. But he cooks with that skillet every day. It is very well seasoned after nearly a century of oily use, and it’s still perfect for making latkes.

So what’s the “perfect” Jewish food?

Frivolous once-a-year party fare? Pastries whose filling gets stuck in your teeth and may have other, ahem, digestive effects?

Or the versatile latke, whose savory fried goodness, dressed up or dressed down, sustains and, more importantly, nourishes the Jewish people, and has done so for generations?

The answer, friends, is clear. Power to the People!

 

WATCH: me in conversation with Shaul Bassi, in Venice

At the conference Jewish Heritage Tourism in the Digital Age, held in Venice October 23-25, 2017, there was an event celebrating 25 years year the first edition of my book Jewish Heritage Travel was published — and 15 years since my book Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe.

The event was a conversation between me and Shaul Bassi, of  Ca’ Foscari University and Beit Venezia, looking back on my involvement in Jewish heritage over the past nearly 30 years.

Watch it here:

 

 

The videos of all the presentations at the conference are posted online in a dedicated YouTube Channel.

Click here to access them.

 

 

 

My chapters in two new books

I have chapters in two recently published books — one in my Jewish heritage field and one rooted in the Imaginary Wild West.

I wrote the Foreword to this book, Reiten Wir! — edited by Alex Jahnke and a tribute to Karl May (the German author of the Winnetou sagas) published as part of events marking the 175th anniversary of May’s birth. It’s a collection of short stories by fantasy writers, using characters and situations from the Karl May universe.

It’s in German and can be purchased via amazon.

All proceeds from the book will go to the Karl May Museum in Radebeul, Germany.

 

The other chapter is in the book Space and Spatiality in Modern German-Jewish History, edited by Simone Lässig and Miriam Rürup.

The book grew out of a conference I spoke at in Hamburg in 2013, on Invented Jewish Traditions. My chapter (belying the title of the book) has little if anything to do with Germany — but it does also mention the Imaginary Wild West.

It’s called “Real Imaginary Spaces and Places: Virtual, Actual, and Otherwise.”

REVIEWS

“The range of approaches and the sheer breadth of spaces and texts treated here—synagogues and cemeteries, German landscapes, Freud and his reception, philanthropy, urban ghettos, photography, and museums—provide a compelling and rich window into Jewish spaces in their historical context.” · Barbara Mann, Jewish Theological Seminary of America

“This collection makes a convincing case for the application of ‘space’ as an analytic category for the study of minorities in European society, affording new insights into the complexities and fluidities of intertwined and ‘entangled’ histories.” · Jonathan Skolnik, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

 

DESCRIPTION

What makes a space Jewish? This wide-ranging volume revisits literal as well as metaphorical spaces in modern German history to examine the ways in which Jewishness has been attributed to them both within and outside of Jewish communities, and what the implications have been across different eras and social contexts. Working from an expansive concept of “the spatial,” these contributions look not only at physical sites but at professional, political, institutional, and imaginative realms, as well as historical Jewish experiences of spacelessness. Together, they encompass spaces as varied as early modern print shops and Weimar cinema, always pointing to the complex intertwining of German and Jewish identity.

 

It can be purchased from the publisher, Berghahn Books — but alas costs $120 !!

 

 

 

Watch my lecture in Lviv

The Center for Urban History in Lviv has posted the full video of a lecture I presented in Lviv July 27, 2017 at the conclusion of the lecture series “Jewish Days in the City Hall: (Un)Displayed Past in East European Museums.” In the talk I reflected on the changes that have taken place in Jewish heritage tourism since the publication of the first edition of my book “Jewish Heritage Travel” in 1992.

You can watch the entire talk here:

 

 

 

My Article on Jews, Americana, Bluegrass

 

Hadassah Magazine has published my article about Jews and Americana/Bluegrass:

Jews Plus Bluegrass Equals Toe-Stompin’ Jewgrass

Nefesh Mountain

Banjo picker Eric Lindberg loves with a passion the distinctive harmonies of the acoustic country music known as bluegrass. However, he says, as a Jew, he long felt “a bit out of the loop.

“Much of the work from the inception and early days of bluegrass is deeply spiritual and Christian based,” says the dark-haired, darkbearded 30-something Lindberg, who also plays guitar. “Musically, I could connect with the songs on every level, but my identity as a Jew from Brooklyn always kept me from truly identifying with them.”

The solution? He and his wife, singer Doni Zasloff, formed a bluegrass band called Nefesh Mountain whose original songs meld bluegrass and old-time licks with lyrics reflecting Jewish traditions. “Nefesh is a Hebrew word which loosely translates as the soul or animating spirit of all living things,” they explain on the band’s website. “The mountain is a cross-cultural symbol used widely in Jewish text as well as in bluegrass and old-time musical forms.”

Bluegrass and old-time are two different approaches to traditional 20th-century American roots music, performed by ensembles made up mainly of stringed instruments such as fiddle, banjo, mandolin and guitar.

Nefesh Mountain’s 2016 debut album featured bluegrass greats Sam Bush, Mark Schatz, Scott Vestal, Rob Ickes and Gary Oleyar, and it included songs called “Singin’ Jewish Girl” and “Adonai Loves Me.” Lindberg and Zasloff are among the current crop of musicians who blend their deep-seated Jewish identities with an equally deep connection to traditional roots music—a fusion that some performers and critics dub “Jewgrass.”

[…]

Mark Rubin

New Orleans-based Mark Rubin, 51, a veteran of both the American roots and klezmer scenes, takes a different tack on his new album, Songs for the Hangman’s Daughter. In songs such as “Southern Jews Is Good News” and “Teshuvah,” Rubin, who was born in Stillwater, Okla., bluntly attempts to reconcile his experience as a culturally Jewish musician in the American South.

“It is not religious music in the usual sense,” says music critic Ari Davidow. Rubin “is in-your-face about who he is and how he doesn’t fit stereotypes. He is not just making a statement to anti-Semites who see Jews as aliens, but also to Jews of the coasts who find it alien to imagine that there are Jews who live in redneck territory, proudly embracing redneck values.”

Read full article

A podcast and article about my “Dark Tourism” work

During my lecture in Lviv on July 27, 2017

 

Nash Holos radio has published an article and podcast about my work by Peter Bejger– based on a lectures I gave in Lviv and Glasgow on the “dark tourism” aspects of Jewish heritage tourism, as well as on my recent posts on Jewish Heritage Europe from my day trips to Jewish heritage sites in western Ukraine.

Let’s take a moment to consider “dark tourism.”

The concept is elastic, and quite multi-faceted. And it has a distinguished historic pedigree. Evidently there are assertions that Thomas Cook, yes the Thomas Cook that founded the famous international travel agency, took people to see public hangings in England with some of his very first tour groups in the 19th century.

And there is even an academic Institute for Dark Tourism in England that promotes ethical research. Research into a social scientific understanding of sites of death and disaster. And how these sites have, or can, become tourist sites, whether appropriate or inappropriate.

The world offers so many options for dark tourism: the horrifying, like now visitor-thronged concentration camps; the easily accessible, like Ground Zero at the 9/11 memorials in Lower Manhattan; the far-flung and harder to reach, like the haunting ruins of lovely ancient Armenian churches in the isolated reaches of what is now northeastern Turkey. Reflecting on those ruins brings up uncomfortable questions on what happened to those people who once worshipped in those churches.

There is also the edgy. People are usually impressed when you’ve told them you were able to tour the radioactive zone around Chornobyl.

Which brings us to the endless supply of dark tourist sites in Eastern Europe, and specifically Ukraine.

The first edition of Ruth Ellen Gruber’s book Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe was published twenty-five years ago. This was the first, and is still considered the most complete, Jewish travel guide to the region.

….Read more

 

Click to listen to the podcast

 

 

 

 

 

Road tripping in western Ukraine

I recently spent a week in western Ukraine, where I gave the concluding talk, July 27, in a series of lectures called “Jewish Days in the City Hall: (Un)Displayed Past in East European Museums.” 

The series was organized by the Center for Urban History, where I have spoken before — and where I have also taken part in other programs (including as a member of the jury for the design competition for three sites commemorating Jewish history in Lviv — one of them, the Space of Synagogues, was dedicated last year.)

The lecture series focused on a number of questions related to Jewish museums in Eastern Europe: “What are the Jewish museums of Eastern Europe telling us about? What are the challenges that Ukrainian museums face when including Jewish history into the dominant narrative of their exhibitions? What are the perspectives for historical museums of Ukraine in a global context? How do they see their role and mission in developing critical perception of the history of Ukraine and shaping participatory historical culture in the present-day society?”

In my talk, I reflected on the changes that have occurred in the Jewish heritage and Jewish heritage travel field in the nearly 30 years that I have been involved — and specifically in the 25 years since the publication of the first edition of my book “Jewish Heritage Travel” and 15 years since “Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe.”

The themes were similar to those in a presentation I gave a month earlier in Glasgow, at a conference on “Dark Tourism” that focused on Dark Tourism at Holocaust, Nazi and World War II sites; my presentation was called “From Dark Tourism to Tourist Attractions”.

When I started writing about Jewish heritage sites and Jewish heritage tourism, almost any visit to a Jewish heritage site in eastern and central Europe was a form of “Dark Tourism.” Most Jewish heritage sites such as synagogues and Jewish cemeteries were neglected, ruined, abandoned or transformed for other use. There were only a handful of Jewish museums and almost no Jewish heritage sites were mentioned in guidebooks or even local histories.

The evolution since then has been dramatic, regarding infrastructure, information sources, agencies of display and deep-seated attitudes to travel, heritage, and Jewish presence (and fate) in the region.

Ruins still abound, and many sites and experiences remain deeply tragic. But scholars, genealogists, tour guides, governments, cultural and heritage entrepreneurs have studied, mapped and documented almost everything; some continue to sink into oblivion, but others have been opened up for unprecedented travel and educational opportunities as well as for commercial touristic exploitation.

During my week in Lviv, I took two day trips to visit Jewish heritage sites in the region — we visited nearly a dozen. I had wanted specifically to revisit places I had seen earlier, in particular in 2006, when I researched the latest version of my Jewish Heritage Travel book, to see the changes.

Much of what I found was as distressing as I had found in years ago, or in some cases even more so — but there were also some positive developments.

I have published lengthy posts on some of these sites on the Jewish Heritage Europe web site — here are the links:

— AMBITIOUS PRESERVATION PLANS IN ZOLOCHIV

Recounts my meeting with the mayor to discuss a range of planned projects

— IN BRODY, NEW SIGNAGE AT FORTRESS SYNAGOGUE RUIN & IN TOWN; NEW  RECOGNITION OF JEWISH HISTORY

— VOLUNTEERS CLEAN UP STRYI SYNAGOGUE RUIN; WILL SIGNAGE COME NEXT?

— RE-ERECTED GRAVESTONES IN ROZDIL

— THE WEEDS OF HIGH SUMMER (AND THE CHALLENGES THEY POSE)

 

 

First contact with Karl May (& co)

Imaginary wild west at the wild west theme park, Boskovice, Czech Republic

As I posted earlier, I’ve been asked to write the Foreword to “Reiten Wir!” —  an anthology of new short stories based on Karl May characters to be published in October as part of events and initiatives this year marking May’s 175th birthday.

My first exposure to the Imaginary Wild West in Europe (and Karl May) dates back to 1966, when my family spent the summer in Prague — my father was leading an archaeological dig in the village of Bylany, near Kutna Hora, east of Prague.

“Beaver City,” a private Wild West town in the Czech Republic

 

In preparation for writing my Foreword, I dug out the diary I kept that summer — and where I noted the Czech fascination with Winnetou and the Wild West.

“Cowboys 7 Indians are BIG. Esp. the W. German (I think) movies Winnetou and Old Shatterhand. In almost every store window you see color postcards &/or slides with scenes from the films being sold [;] I have seen Winnetou candy bars, books, a poster in a record store for the Winnetou music etc. W. is apparently the solemn-faced ‘Indian’ (typically clthed) who looks like either Sal Mineo or Paul Newman (or both). Shirts, brown with fake buckskin fringe & laced neck are advertised as ARIZONA, & next to them re TEXAS blue jeans….[…] More Winnetou junk: iron on patches, special blue jeans, new cards, packs of cards of the actor who plays Winnetou. Magazine cover…”

Later in the summer, I watched Winnetou, the movie, on television.

“It was a pretty bad movie but interesting for a couple things. The cast was international. Herbert Lom was the baddie & Lex Barker Old Shatterhand. These two are US I think. Pierre Brice (French) was Winnetou. Then there were British & others. I think it was filmed in Yugoslavia. I don’t know in what language — it was dubbed in Czech. This was the first time [in a movie] I ever hear an Indian (Winnetou) who didn’t have a deep voice. He was high & thin & nasal. Also, the Indians were goodies.”

 

Scene from a Karl May festival performance in Rathen, Germany

That summer, our family went to a live performance of the operetta “Rose Marie” (of “Indian Love Call” fame), set in the Canadian west. It starred the pop singer Waldemar Matuska who, I wrote “is a big star here. His pictures are in the shop windows and magazines & record stores almost as much as Winnetou.”

I decided that Matuska would be my favorite singer and bought a picture postcard of him (which I still have) to go with the ones I bought of the French actor, Pierre Brice, who played Winnetou in the movies.

Many years later, when I first started seriously researching the Imaginary Wild West and the European country music scene, I met Matuska, who was headlining of the first Czech country festivals I attended (in around 2004).

 

At the Strakonice festival, 2004

Matuska, who had moved to the United States in the 1980s, died in 2009. I wrote at the time on my Sauerkraut Cowboys blog:

Matuska was a towering figure in Czech popular music and culture and was instrumental in popularizing American folk and country music to the Czech audience. (Singing, as was required under communism, Czech lyrics to American songs.) He also appeared in the seminal 1964 movie “Limonady Joe” — a wonderful send-up of the singing cowboy genre of movies and a classic of Czech cinema.

Matuska was important to me in my connection with Eastern Europe, and in my feel for the music and popular culture of the Czech Republic in particular. He became my idol when, as a kid, I spent the summer in Prague with my family in the 1960s. I bought picture postcards of him — he was lean, bearded and extremely handsome. And I convinced my entire family to go hear him at a rather weird performance of “Rosemarie” at a sort of indoor sports arena…Matuska played the role of the mountie that was taken by Nelson Eddy in the classic movie. I remember that it was a rather static performance, as they all seemed to sing to the microphones that were hanging prominently above the stage…

When I actually met Matuska decades later, at the Strakonice Jamboree folk and bluegrass festival in the Czech Republic in 2004, it was a remarkably emotional experience. I had just begun following the European country scene, and Strakonice was my first Czech festival. And there he was — the idol of my youth!

Matuska — who had “defected” to the United States in 1986 but, after the fall of communism, returned frequently to CZ to tour — was the headline act. Heavier, even bloated-looking, with clearly dyed hair, he didn’t look much like the slim, handsome singer/actor of the 1960s, but he had the audience in the palm of his hand.

I went backstage and spent 20 minutes or so talking with him. I felt shy and fluttery! What I remember are his hands — very small and delicate, with polished nails and an almost dainty ring.

 

 

 

Writing about Winnetou…

I’m delighted and excited to have been asked to write the Foreward to “Reiten Wir!” —  an anthology of new short stories based on Karl May characters to be published in October as part of events and initiatives marking May’s 175th birthday.

Proceeds and royalties will go to support the Karl May Museum in Radebeul, Germany.

Gojko Mitic as Winnetou at the Bad Segeberg Karl May festival

 

 

 

In an interview, I reflect on Jewish Heritage Europe

Me in front of the ruined Great Synagogue in Kalvarija, Lithuania — the town my great-grandparents came from. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber

February 2017 marks the fifth anniversary that www.jewish-heritage-europe.eu — the web site that I run as a project of the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe — has been online.

In a lengthy interview with Liam Hoare of eJewish Philanthropy, I reflect on developments since I’ve been involved with Jewish heritage work — where we’ve been, and where we may be going.

By Liam Hoare
eJewish Philanthropy

Since its launch five years ago, Jewish Heritage Europe has 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 the Bratislava 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 Europes 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 the JHE 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.

Click here to read the full interview