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

 

 

My farewell to the other Ruth Gruber

RG and REG - at the launch of my first book, in New York in 1992

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.

 

 

 

My new article in the Jewish Quarterly: Yellow Starlight in Bp

Me at the map of the Budapest Ghetto, at the Ghetto Memorial in the city's 7th District

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. […]

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