Commentary Magazine

Virtually Jewish by Ruth Ellen Gruber

Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe
by Ruth Ellen Gruber
University of California. 330 pp. $35.00



Not long ago, I came across an item in the newspapers about a major new institute for Jewish studies being created in Stockholm by the Swedish government. The news struck me as odd. Why on earth was Sweden, a country with a tiny Jewish population, investing in such a project, and for whom?

But I was insufficiently au courant. And being behind the times, I was not aware, as I now am after reading Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe by the Europe-based journalist Ruth Ellen Gruber, that the Swedish government was thoroughly abreast of them. From London to Bratislava, from Scandinavia to Sicily, Jewishness, it seems, is now “in.” Europe has rediscovered the Jews and is thrilled by it.

To those troubled by the recrudescence of fashionable anti-Semitism in Europe, and the increase there of antagonism toward Israel, this may come as a surprise. And yet, as Gruber’s book establishes, two generations after the Holocaust, in an age in which the Jewish population of Europe is in all likelihood proportionally smaller than at any time since the days of the Roman republic, there is a surge of positive interest in things Jewish. How such a trend might be related, if at all, to its opposite is an intriguing question.



Most of Virtually Jewish is devoted to documenting the trend itself, which has been accelerating, Gruber writes, since the 1980’s. A many-sided phenomenon, it ranges from serious intellectual activity to commercial kitsch and is driven by emotions as different as a genuine sense of loss over the destruction of European Jewry and a sentimental nostalgia for an old-fashioned Europe. Among the forms it has taken are the widespread construction of Holocaust and Judaica museums; the renovation of old synagogues, ritual bathhouses, and other Jewish structures; the restoration and preservation of long-neglected Jewish cemeteries; publicly and privately sponsored seminars and lectures on Judaism; courses in Yiddish; Jewish music festivals; the sale of Jewish artifacts and memorabilia; Jewish heritage tours; Jewish bookstores, theater, and art exhibits; and Jewish cabarets and restaurants.

Often these are found in conjunction; often, too, their initiators, executors, and proprietors are Gentiles. Here is Gruber’s account of Kazimierz, the remnants of the old Jewish quarter of Kraków, Poland:

Three thousand people, most of them young non-Jews, clap and dance past midnight each summer at the gala open-air concert of klezmer and other Jewish music in the main square. . . . At one end of the square stands the Gothic-Renaissance Old Synagogue, now a Jewish museum. . . . A former ritual bath has been turned into an upscale “Jewish restaurant,” which, along with several other such establishments, including a combined Jewish bookshop-café, has become a popular hangout for local Krakovians and tourists. In 1997 a former priest presided over a souvenir stall that sold postcards and carved “Jewish” dolls, yarmulkes, and colorful T-shirts. I even bought a T-shirt there that showed a barbed-wire crown of thorns surrounding a railroad track and what looks like a shower head, plus the infamous Nazi slogan Arbeit Macht Frei and, in Polish, the words “Never Again/Auschwitz.”

This, in a country that had three million Jews before the Holocaust and now has five to ten thousand, is “virtual Jewishness” at its cheapest and most distasteful. Yet elsewhere in Poland and in Europe, many non-Jews, as described by Gruber, are trying to learn about the Jewish life that once existed in their midst, and to salvage physical remnants of it, in ways that are more thoughtful, if not necessarily less troubling.

Gruber goes from place to place, seeking out these people and trying to understand what motivates them. In the Bavarian city of Fuerth, she talks to Gisella Blume, the daughter of a World War II German soldier who has volunteered to maintain the local Jewish cemetery. “Frau Blume,” writes Gruber, “acted as if she personally knew the people whose graves she was tending. . . . She identified with them and the Jewish world they lived in; she championed and protected them: they were ‘hers.’ ” In Bialystok, the author meets the Polish journalist Tomasz Wisniewski; a self-appointed archivist of all the material he can collect about the Bialystok Jewish community, he tells Gruber that “an honest history of Poland does not exist without the history of the Jews,” and the new interest in their history “makes me happy because it is as if the Polish Jews had returned in a metaphorical sense to Poland.” In Berlin, Gruber hears from Cecille Kossmann of the Klezmer Gesellschaft about how playing for seven hours at the former Nazi concentration camp of Sachsenhausen was “a very joyful and deep experience. It was very moving to be there with my feet on the place where thousands died and to play their music—their music survived.” In Italy, Moni Ovadia, a Bulgarian Jew and non-native speaker of Yiddish who is now a star cabaret performer in that language, says to Gruber: “It doesn’t matter that the audience doesn’t understand the words. What’s important is that they hear the sound and cadences of Yiddish, the language spoken by the overwhelming majority of Holocaust victims.”



There are many questions to be asked about these things, and Gruber asks nearly all of them. Where does the line run between crass commercial exploitation of the Jewish past and genuine curiosity or caring about it? Is this caring, at bottom, mostly an attempt to assuage feelings of guilt for the Holocaust? Is it a rebellion against the perceived shallowness of contemporary Europe on the part of Gentiles who associate Jews with cosmopolitan profundity and trenchant irony? Or is it perhaps the expression of a romantic longing for the world of one’s childhood, parents, or grandparents? In the absence of a vibrant Jewish life around them, and often of any Jews at all, are non-Jews fooling themselves in their belief that they can enter into a meaningful relationship with Jewish culture? Do they have a right to such a relationship if it is unmediated and unguided by Jews? Should Jews be pleased by such interest? Or should they resent it as one more form of Christian insensitivity, a superficial appropriation of the ruins of a world that Christians annihilated? Should Jews react as did the biblical prophet Elijah when he accused King Ahab with the words, “Hast thou killed and also taken possession?”

No doubt because she knows there are no simple answers to these questions, Gruber does not spend much time searching for them. Ultimately, of course, every possible answer fits someone. There are those making money from “virtual Jewishness,” and those working out their guilt through it, and those for whom it is a means of protest, and those who feel responsible for preserving the remains of what the generation of their parents tried to destroy totally, and those who honestly wish to know more about Jews and Judaism, and those who are truly drawn to this or that aspect of Jewish experience without always understanding why.

Jews will relate to each of these types in different ways. But, although they may wish to engage some in dialogue while avoiding others, they will have to accept the fact that, like everyone else, they have no monopoly over the culture of their ancestors. The German klezmer musician who tells Gruber, “I’m not a Jew, and I don’t want to look Jewish, or to sound Jewish, but as a musician I have very, very deep feelings for this music,” is not only saying something perfectly legitimate, he is saying what a white American trumpet player might say about blacks and jazz, or a Chinese cellist about Europeans and Bach.

Time will tell, I suppose, what in all this is mere faddishness and what reflects something deeper. Despite Gruber’s impressive catalog of cases, “virtual Jewishness” is still a fringe phenomenon rather than a mania sweeping Europe. Most Europeans probably have no more idea that it exists than I did before reading this book. If some Germans love klezmer music, others go for country or blue-grass, and there are fewer Jewish restaurants in Warsaw than there are Polish-run pizzerias. We live in eclectic and syncretistic times. That Jewish culture, too, is being borrowed from—exploited, if you take the dimmer view—does not necessarily make it an object of unique attention.

More worrisome is something that Gruber alludes to in several places without addressing its full implications. Although the “virtual Jewishness” she writes about has no overt political content, it has a potential political use. This is the propagation of the message that the Jewish experience can be broken down into discrete cultural and religious elements that are abstractable from Jewish peoplehood, so that by appreciating or identifying with any or all of these elements—Jewish music, Jewish literature, Jewish thought, Jewish food—one can be “for” Jews and Judaism while opposing the claims of that peoplehood. One can, that is, be pro-Jewish and anti-Israel at the same time.

Is such a bifurcation taking place? Gruber’s book offers no evidence of it. Although Israel does not seem terribly important to her interlocutors, neither does she report them speaking negatively of it. But the Swedish government has been, for many years now, the most anti-Israel government in Europe. Its decision to sponsor an institute for Jewish studies is a reason to be on one’s guard. One need not fear virtual Jews. Virtual Jew-lovers, though, are something else.


About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.

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