The Baltimore Sun

Jewish culture goes mainstream

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

May 26, 2003

ROME - Anti-Semitism in Europe exists side by side with a widespread interest in, promotion and celebration of Jewish culture and experience that goes all but unnoticed in Israel and America.

Much of this emanates from Jewish communities, but much is targeted at, embraced and even produced by the mainstream. Jewish culture festivals, exhibits, study programs and workshops abound in Italy, Poland, Germany and Britain.

Klezmer music, which originated in Eastern European Jewish communities in the Middle Ages, draws enthusiastic audiences, mainly non-Jewish, and thousands of visitors each year take part in European Days of Jewish Culture held simultaneously in nearly two dozen countries. Jewish museums proliferate, with new ones planned in Milan, Italy; Munich, Germany; and Warsaw, Poland. Once-abandoned synagogues and Jewish quarters are under restoration as tourist attractions or even, again, as houses of worship.

Mainstream interest in and promotion of Jewish culture combine to form a complex, ambiguous phenomenon that cannot be described in simplistic terms.

Some of it is schizophrenic. The interest and sympathy may have little to do with Jews - as neither, often, does anti-Semitism. And the embrace of Jewish culture (or what is perceived as Jewish culture) may often, too, be divorced from living realities such as Israel.

This schizophrenia, however, long predates the recent upsurge of anti-Semitism, which began with the second Palestinian uprising in September 2000. Non-Jewish European interest in Jewish culture began gaining momentum in the 1980s, a decade in which Israel was reviled in the media and Jews targeted by a spate of terrorist attacks.

Graffiti that I found five years ago scrawled outside the venue of the annual summer klezmer music festival in Ancona, Italy, summed it up: "Yes to klezmer; No to Zionists."

In the 1990s, Paris-based historian Diana Pinto coined the term "Jewish space" to describe the place occupied by Jews, Jewish culture and Jewish memory within mainstream European society - a place that is universal and exists regardless of the current size or activity of the local Jewish population. There are about 2 million Jews in Europe.

Since the late 1980s, Europeans have filled this Jewish space with a virtual Jewish world that often dwarfs the Jewish communal presence.

For some, the process has been a way of filling in the blanks of a communist-era agenda that long made Jewish issues taboo. For others, it's a means of coming to terms with the Nazi legacy or a key to building (or rebuilding) a democratic and tolerant state. These processes are far from finished and continue amid the complicated new conditions that have arisen since Sept. 11.

Motivations range from serious scholarly pursuit to the crass quest for a quick buck. Some of the elements are disturbing, such as the tendency to regard Jews, at times, as cherished museum objects rather than as living, vital entities. But there is much, too, to applaud.

For the first time, Europeans and European countries are recognizing Jewish culture, Jewish history and the Holocaust as part of their own narrative and not as a separate "Jewish thing."

It would have been difficult to imagine a dozen years ago that Jewish culture would have such a prominent and popular - indeed, normal - place in the European mainstream.

Things may change, of course; they often do.

And mainstream interest in Jewish culture doesn't mean that anti-Semitism can be dismissed or belittled; on the contrary. It should, though, help put into perspective the nature of the threat and help devise strategies to confront it.

It's important to note that the mainstreaming of Jewish culture in Europe exists hand-in-hand with a remarkable revival inside European Jewry - in education, religious practice and artistic and cultural expression.

It remains to be seen whether the internal Jewish revival will rise to the challenge of giving a much deeper, living Jewish dimension to the broader interest.

Jews don't, and never did, create anti-Semitism. But today they can help strengthen positive attitudes by further opening Jewish culture to the wider society rather than circling the wagons. The challenge - more so, the opportunity - is there.

Ruth Ellen Gruber is the author of Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe (University of California Press, 2002). She lives in Italy.

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