Saturday, February 19, 2011

Spark among the Ashes

I recently rented the documentary Spark Among The Ashes, a well-done film about a boy from CT who goes to Krakow, Poland to have his bar mitzvah. In 1985. The year is just as important, in my view, as the premise itself; for in 1985, Poland was still behind the Iron Curtain at a time when most people saw no end in sight to the Cold War, or so the world thought. At the time, Poland was going through the solidarity movement and momentum was slowly beginning to shift; today we know the conclusion - the end of the Soviet Union and a democratic, free-market economy Poland that continues to thrive today.

The boy from CT, now 38 and interviewed for the documentary in 2007, found himself in Poland by coincidence. In 1985 there were perhaps 200 Polish Jews still living in Krakow, where one of them was asked by a visiting American Jewish group if there was anything that could be done to help their current situations living in communist Poland. The request wasn't for money, or food, or clothing; the request was to have the very first bar mitzvah in Krakow since pre-WWII. Word went back to the US, where a rabbi in Stamford, CT introduced the idea to a boy who was preparing for his bar mitzvah at the time. The family agreed and the stage was set, with the media catching on. This was a significant undertaking in a place that is largely considered a massive Jewish graveyard. One wonders if such things happen today in Poland, a question I was hoping to have answered with a Fulbright scholarship. Not to be, unfortunately.

Because of the media attention (it was on the front page of the NY Times), the situation was made more complicated as the boy's rabbi was a.) reform, and b.) a woman. An Orthodox rabbi from Brooklyn read about the event and decided to intervene; he denied the female rabbi her right to officiate the event and set out for Poland on his own to intercept the ceremony. The documentary interviews both individuals (oddly, the Orthodox rabbi looks no different in 2007 as compared to 1985, even his English is about the same, which is to say not good), and recounts how the Orthodox gentleman would not allow the female rabbi to wear her tallis while on the bimah. They made a small scene as the boy began his Haftorah, and today, as then, the Orthodox rabbi remains convinced of his righteousness in keeping the moment aligned with Jewish traditions.

What's interesting about the interviews in 2007 was when one of the producers compared 1985 Kazimierz to the South Bronx. It is the second time I've heard that comparison, the first was last May when Rabbi Schudrich, the Chief Rabbi of Poland, made the same comparison during a talk in New York on Polish-Jewish relations. Rabbi Schudrich, a native New Yorker, had visited Krakow in the '70s, when it was in a dilapidated state, apparently. Today's Krakow and Kazimierz quarter are the talk of everyone who visits Poland now. Just yesterday someone was telling me how they thought Krakow was so beautiful. It's fascinating to learn that the Krakow we see today is a recently upgraded version of what it looked like 25-30 years ago while it was still under Soviet control. So while the city was not destroyed like Warsaw or Breslau/Wroclaw during the war, it clearly was not a sight to see until the post-Communist era.

Another fascinating element from the interviews: the director notes that since his trip to Poland in 1985, he has done several other films about Polish Jewry, notably the excellent Hiding and Seeking. He talks about how Poland changed him, and I thought I was watching a mirror image of myself. I can't get enough of Poland. Visiting that country is a life-changing experience in my view. And while the change in my life has not been in terms of career success or monetary reward (yet?), it's the change in mindset, in focus, and in what I think I could be in the future that has made Poland so important in moving me away from business and finding new and more meaningful work in international affairs and perhaps World Jewry. I wonder: where will it all lead?

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