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.
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.
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.”
“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
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 !!
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.