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The True Face Of Polish Jewry

The True Face Of Polish Jewry

The latest artistic news about Poland’s small-but-emerging Jewish community centers around Pawel Bramson, a skinhead-turned-Orthodox-Jew who’s featured in a new documentary, “The Moon is Jewish,” which premiered here this winter, won an award at last month’s Jewish Motifs International Film Festival in Warsaw, and subsequently has garnered heavy coverage,

“From neo-Nazi skinhead to black-hatted Jew,” was the headline in JTA this week. And this on “From Malicious to Mashgiach.”

It’s exciting news.

For visiting journalists interested in the “revival” of Jewish life in the country that was home to the world’s largest Jewish community before the Holocaust – Jewish leaders here assert that Jewish life in Poland’s major cities has progressed from post-communist renaissance to full-scale Jewish life – Bramson is the must-see story. A one-time hater of Jews (and blacks) who grew in a family of assimilated Jews who had converted to the country’s dominant Catholic faith, he discovered only as an adult, 14 years ago, that he – and his putatively gentile wife, Aleksandra – was a Jew.

Now Pinchas and Tzietel, as they call themselves, are frum. He with a full beard and kipa; she with covered hair and long dress.

But the real news about Polish Jewry today is more than Bramson, as dramatic as his story is.

Like Bramsom, who’s become a shochet (ritual kosher animal slaughterer) and a mashgiach (inspector at kosher production facilities) and assistant to Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, Polish Jews, two decades after Communism fell and the danger of publicly identifying oneself as Jewish subsided, are still discovering – or acknowledging – their Jewish roots.

They’re still coming out of the woodwork, prompted by a relative’s death, the discovery of unknown family documents, offhand overheard comments, or curiosity about some unexplained anomaly in appearance or family custom. They’re joining and helping to quietly revitalize the Jewish community. They’re offering hope for a Jewish future where once little hope existed.

The Bramsons’ story is sexy, but hardly representative of Poland’s contemporary Jewish community; there are functioning synagogues in several cities, kosher restaurants, Jewish youth groups and Talmud classes. Chabad is there, doing its usual good works. And the Reform movement.

The official count of the country’s affiliated Jews is about 5,000, but Rabbi Schudrich and other leaders attest that the truer number of Pole with “Jewish roots” is 10,000, 20,000 or maybe higher. Most of their stories, and their connection with the Jewish community, are prosaic – a few-times-a-year-in-shul, nominal observance of kashrut or Shabbat, occasional attendance at community events, as in any Western Jewish community.

“The Moon is Jewish” – the title comes a line in a work by poet Marcin Swietlicki, of a supposed Jewish claim that everything, including the moon, is Jewish – will undoubtedly bring needed attention to a community that many Jews had undoubtedly given up for dead. It’s hard to overlook a story as compelling as Bramson’s.

But viewers should keep in mind that Jewish life is sustained by quiet acts by anonymous Jews making less-dramatic contributions to Jewish life, away from the camera’s glare.

Which is not news.

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