Euroculture Report

Live Your Interests! My Immersion into the Local Jewish Community

Kazimierz, the historic Jewish quarter of Krakow is what I am interested in as I sit in one of the Jewish style cafés that have appeared in the last 20 years, looking at hipster tourists from Berlin trying to distinguish themselves from the ‘mainstream’ tourism in the city centre, while a youth group from Israel passes by going their way to one of the seven synagogues.

kazimierz with view on the high synagogue © Lena Wulf

kazimierz with view on the high synagogue © Lena Wulf

Sina Wohlgemuth│sina.wohlgemuth@gmail.com

Why do a research track in Poland when you can also go to study in India or Japan? Because Krakow is simply the best city, to study and to live! The libraries might not offer the best conditions, since they are open only irregularly and the latest until 19:30, but that is just another good excuse to frequent the lovely cafés in Krakow. Sitting in a cozy armchair in the dim light of a banker’s lamp, enjoying homemade szarlotka (Polish: apple pie), and doing readings – that is one part of the research track in Krakow.

What is maybe more important is the fact that the research track in Krakow gives you the chance to freely develop and deepen your ideas and interests. There are no regulations that tell you what courses you have to take, no official programme with deadlines that you have to follow. You can simply decide what interests you most from all that the huge university offers, even though it shouldn’t be too many classes because the main purpose of doing the research track is to conduct independent research which means for me: going into the field! Talking to people, doing interviews, participating at events and observing… but also to learn more about Krakow, Poland and Europe. Every week I meet with my supervisor and we discuss findings, readings and phenomena. The final outcome of this semester will be a 25-page publishable article. So, the entire structure and content of the semester is up to me: Live Your Interests! is my motto for the research track.

And Krakow generates many ideas. For people interested in International Relations, it might be of interest to analyse Krakow’s inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage list. If you have more of a sociological point of view, you can look into Nowa Huta, Krakow’s social realism district where people today re-arrange their life in a communist environment. Or you can go with cultural anthropological lenses to Kazimierz [pronounced: kaˈʑimʲɛʃ]: the historic Jewish quarter of Krakow, that after the Holocaust became an empty and neglected place, but which since the end of Communism is witnessing a revival of Jewish culture by many different actors for diverse purposes. That’s what I am interested in as I sit in one of the Jewish style cafés that have appeared in the last 20 years, looking at hipster tourists from Berlin trying to distinguish themselves from the ‘mainstream’ tourism in the city centre, while a youth group from Israel passes by go their way to one of the seven synagogues. Or the intellectual tourist who just came back from a visit to the near-by Auschwitz and who now wants to learn something about Jewish culture by visiting an exhibition about how Jewish people in Krakow once celebrated Chanukah. But then there is also a group of young Americans wearing kippah, on their way to workshops where they want to find out and learn more about their Jewish roots. However, between all those ‘semiphile’ peoples in this ‘Zydoland’ (from Polish: Żyd = Jew; Jewish Disneyland) – as the Jewish scholar Ruth Ellen Gruber used to call Kazimierz – there is also an increasing Jewish community. And it is here I am involved in now.

Massolit, English book shop and café with good working atmosphere(Left) and Cheder Café, Jewish style café in Kazimierz © Lena Wulf

Massolit, English book shop and café with good working atmosphere(Left) and Cheder Café, Jewish style café in Kazimierz © Lena Wulf

Since the individual path of the research track does not only mean free choice of topics and room for development, but also that you don’t always have peers around you to share funny moments, the common experience of being abroad, and the panic before deadlines. This new experience of ‘being on your own’ thus also offers the chance to be more integrated into the local community. And isn’t that what we are supposed to learn in MA Euroculture? Being an active citizen, flourishing a cultural citizenship? Thus, I am now volunteering in the Jewish Community Centre (JCC) in Kazimierz in order to combine my research interests of the use of Jewish heritage with an active involvement in a community full of interested, open-minded people from Poland, Israel and other parts of the world. During my volunteer service, I am working on a guidebook that aims to present the current Jewish life in Krakow in all its facets. So, I am interviewing people who are central to the community. Thus, the chefs of kosher cuisine in the JCC show me how they make their delicious kosher humus and explain why their kitchen is divided into a green and an orange part: because you are not allowed to use the same dishes for, for example, meat and for dairy products; you even need two dish washers, one for meat dishes and one for dairy dishes. Another member of the Jewish Community Centre is an expert on the Jewish cemeteries in Kazimierz, and he explains to me the ritual of placing stones on the tombstones: because it shows that the family or friends have not forgotten the deceased. Furthermore, the volunteer coordinator tells me the importance of having non-Jewish volunteers in the JCC: because it encourages mutual understanding and a multicultural society of tolerance.

JCC volunteers celebrating the international volunteer day © JCC

JCC volunteers celebrating the international volunteer day © JCC

Apart from these encounters, I can also participate in the celebration of Jewish festivals like in the Shabbat on Friday evening, the most important High Holiday in Judaism. Traditionally, it has been observed as a day of rest and spiritual renewal. In the JCC, which does not consider itself as a religious institution but as a cultural meeting place for people with Jewish origins and their friends, the Shabbat dinner is more casual than I would have expected. Having sung Hebrew prayers, the Challah is shared among all participants and a sweet kosher wine is served with the humus. The atmosphere is very joyful: people meet, discuss, sing and eat. Traditionally, it is forbidden to use any electrical devices, but we were not sitting in dim candlelight but under bright neon light and my table neighbours used a phone while an old lady from the Jewish community told a story from the Torah. The Shabbat then ended with a piece of pizza – kosher, of course.

To conclude..

To conclude, Krakow has opened so many new doors for me and has widened my horizons. And without having come back for the third semester, I would not have gotten these insights into Polish culture, and Jewish culture in particular. Because, according to me, it takes time to get involved in a community and to participate actively in it. If only the library was open more regularly, I would not have to leave this marvellous city!

sinaSina Wohlgemuth, Contributing writer
Sina is from Germany where she also did her BA studies in Cultural Anthropology/European Ethnology. Her first Euroculture semester, she spent in Göttingen and the second in Kraków where she fell in love with the city and stayed for the research track. Sina’s interests are cultural heritage issues, everyday culture and Jewish studies. She likes to discover other countries through food, so in restaurants, cafés or in private kitchens, she feels the happiest.

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