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.

 

 

 

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:

 

 

 

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)