Posted Masha Pryven
One of my casual conversations with a friend came to the point of exchanging “cool world news”:
me: by the way, have you heard that scientists have probably discovered another solar system?
my friend: oh yeah?
me: they say it resembles our own – the orbits of its planets lie in nearly the same plane as ours.
my friend (nonchalantly): that sounds exciting. Who knows, maybe the discovery of a populated planet could at least draw attention away from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I actually laughed pretty hard and decided that I should begin my report on the 2012 Muslim Jewish Conference with that anecdote. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has so many eyes, ears, and news sources feeding it, that it sets the only possible frame for Muslim-Jewish interaction. Or so it seems. The conflict that occupies so many minds and produces uncompromising discussions in both the Eastern and Western hemispheres can no doubt be an important point of entry to understanding the mutual claims and clashing histories that have continued for over a hundred years. But is it the only one?
Did over eighty young Jews and Muslims from more than 35 countries, including Pakistan, USA, Libya, Mexico, Morocco, Israel, Palestine, Poland and many others, feel so driven by an urge to express their solid stance on the issue, so as to cross half the globe, come to Slovakia? Or is it possible that the conflict, graciously amplified by its publicity, affect our relationship even more subversively? To be precise, does not it eliminate an excess of other possible topics, questions and interactions? To put it simply, the Muslim-Jewish relationship did not in actuality begin with the conflict between Israel and Palestine. So, why reduce it with our own hands to such?
Having asked all of these questions, I want to suggest another disclaimer for the most persistent pessimists, who would highly doubt the idea of a five-day convention that would end with everybody holding each other's hands and singing "We are the World" in unison. Let me speak on the behalf of those pessimists, especially the ones I identify with: products of academia who stubbornly and persistently come to the conclusion that the world is too complex to allow for naive idealistic optimism. We cling to our pessimism as the most comfortable dark little spot on earth and hurry to throw in our favorite "yes, but", which immediately reveals us to be polished intellectuals. On a positive note, the organizers of the gathering between world Jewry and Muslims were not held back by pessimists like myself, but, on the contrary, carried out their vision.
" 3 years ago, almost everyone told me I am crazy. This year 100 participants from 35 countries came to the 3rd annual MJC and created a dozent projects together. This is a sign to the world that innovative networks of cooperation, in our generation, transcend not just the borders of geography and gender, but also religion. We talk, and we listen. Two things that sound irritatingly easy but are unfortunately not yet common in Mulsim - Jewish relations" said IIja Sichrovsky Founder - MJC
Gulraiz Khan, a participant from Pakistan and chair of the Business Entrepreneurship Committee, shares his thoughts when comparing the MJC 2012 to previous ones: “This year the conference has become more diverse: you have Muslims, Jews from all over, Palestinians, people who grew up in settlements. With this diversity, the conference became both more interesting and complex, which is a good thing. I have seen the participants getting emotional, as core issues that can be very sensitive are coming up. The discussions are ongoing: during the sessions, during lunchtime, in the corridors. During group work, we try to develop a common vocabulary rather than tackle the “big problems”. So, when participants meet outside the sessions, they at least have a common language. They may not agree and in most cases they do not agree. But that is fine. At least the dialogue has started.”
In the course of five days, panels with selected participants were running concurrently, focusing on the role of women in religion, the roots of Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism, positive Muslim and Jewish historical narratives, faithful citizenship, and sustainable inter-communal dialogue. Additionally, two more groups were designed to serve as an incubator for fine artists and entrepreneurs to think through and develop long-term projects.
Joanna Maria Trochimowicz, a participant from Poland who converted to Islam, comments on social bridges created during session time: “In the beginning, we meet each other as young people and students, directly and without any immediate stigma. After all, the commonality to talk and learn about each other brought us together for these five days. I also feel safe here, as I see how in my committee (Women in Religion) people are willing to ask me questions and share their points of view. For sure, there are ideas that I do not accept but I am learning to see them not as a threat but as questions growing out of curiosity to know.”
Many participants came to the conference driven by their professional interests as well. Just to name a few, Symi Rom-Rymer, a free-lance journalist who writes a lot about minority communities, especially about Muslim and Jewish communities in the US and Europe. She came to the conference to be able to talk to a variety of people in situations of intensive interactions and to see what issues, both positive and negative, were being discussed. Last year, Symi with several people in the Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia Committees, initiated a project called The Global Jewish-Muslim Friendship Forum. The idea behind it was to provide a platform for Jews and Muslims around the world to connect. It has successfully become an asset for people to discuss, post articles, arrange local events and to start up public programming. Lotifa Begum, a participant from London, is currently a Development Education Coordinator for Islamic Relief UK. For Lotifa, the conference was a resource for learning, and, upon her return to work she will build a more sustainable relationship across Muslim and Jewish communities based on new perspectives and knowledge.
In the beginning of the report, I was wondering what drove people to come to the conference. Many would not come if a variety of human factors such as curiosity, a desire to prove somebody wrong, or pure interest were not substantiated by one thing alone that deserves veneration. I think it is the courage to confront and challenge oneself, transcending one's own political, social, educational or family background. Also, when it comes to stereotypes in Muslim and Jewish communities, directed at each other in equal measure, it becomes essential to grasp a nuanced understanding: each group is diverse within itself and on its own terms. Each is powered and stimulated by similar dialectics of tradition and reformation; text and life; the religious and the social. Thus, after realizing there is neither a “singular definitive mode of Jewish conduct,” nor a “singular governing body of Muslim behavior,” one cannot continue lightheartedly to hold a grudge against the group as a whole, in all its diversity and irregularity. In short, question yourself and ask the other became an inner motto for me, a challenging and challenged participant of the Muslim Jewish Conference 2012.
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September 19, 2012 | 7:53 am
Posted Ian Shulman / Vienna
People unfamiliar with Judaism often label Hannukah as ‘the Jewish Christmas’. The main argument of parallel lovers here is that Hannukah usually falls in December. Some try to go deeper though, and claim that the real Jewish Christmas is Rosh HaShana, basing this comparison on the spiritual meaning rather than the calendar. Let’s try to find out which holiday is the true Jewish Christmas and why do we need one at all?
Let’s face it: today Christmas is not only the key Christian holiday, but also a symbol of a warm family holiday; a high time to be together with your loved ones, think about the things you value, reconsider your deeds and ask for forgiveness. This modern image of Christmas was recreated by Charles Dickens. Probably the best-known Christmas story ‘A Christmas Carol’ is dedicated to an impressive human transformation from a grumpy Christmas-denier to a happy simple man rejoicing the high holiday, meanwhile reminding us of the core values of this day. The work has made a significant impact, turning the slightly forgotten holiday into the key event of the year.
In other words, Dickens has shown us that Christmas is too magnificent to be neglected. The book makes you want to celebrate the fete. But as the holiday is always bound to the religion it belongs to, the values are usually universal.
Honestly, the image of Hannukah has a lot in common with the image of Christmas. It is probably the main family festival of the Jewish year. Sweet latkes, Hannukiah candles, games, presents - don’t we have similar things on December 25th? Some may argue that Christians give their children toys while the Jews have a custom of presenting money - yet both of the festivals have a common ‘family-home-warmth’ vibe.
Rosh HaShana has its own calendar similarity with Christmas too. Even though it usually falls on September/October and not December, both holidays mark the start of the new year - Rosh HaShana being the Jewish New Year itself and Christmas being just five days before January 1st. But the crucial aspect of Rosh HaShana and the following Ten Days of Repentance ending with Yom Kippur is repentance, asking for forgiveness and striving for improvement. This is a crucial point of Christmas too. Referring to Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ again, repentance was the driving force which made Ebenezer Scrooge ‘believe’ in Christmas.
Of course, there is no Jewish Christmas, just as there is no Christian Hannukah or Christian Rosh HaShana. But would you like to read a story? It would go like this: a greedy Jewish businessman doesn’t believe in, let’s say, Hannukah. His nephew comes to say ‘Happy Hannukah’, but all he gets from his uncle is ‘Oy vey!’ (and no Hannukeh Geld). Next night he got visited by three ghosts - Ghost of Hannukah Past, Ghost of Hannukah Present and Ghost of Hannukah Future, of course. And guess what? He wakes up and says: ‘Happy Hannukah!’...
As long as Dickens’ fans are OK with that, such story should exist. Happy holidays!
September 15, 2012 | 7:20 am
Posted by Klaudia Klimek
Being inspired by the synagogue notes of my colleague Pavel Pustelnik, I feel obliged to add this story to the beautiful collection.
Celle makes you fall in love with Germany. Seems like there was no war in the town - over 400 beautiful fachwerk houses form a truly medieval city center; what surrounds it mostly comes from the pre-war times as well. It’s a true candy town from the old German fairy tales. So is the oldest remaining synagogue in Germany. As synagogues should not necessarily stand out from the town’s landscape, the temple in Celle is just another medieval fachwerk house from the outside. And just a normal European synagogue from inside - two pictures are hard to match. The synagogue is rarely used, but hosts a decent Jewish museum with a number of permanent and temporary exhibitions. The museum banner is the only thing to help one identify the building from the narrow street. Indeed, the town belongs to the different world, where the synagogues are carefully turned to freshly renovated museums, and as for the Jews - maybe they just all returned to Israel, being deeply attached to the wonderful town of Celle and tight connection to their historic motherland?
Bergen Belsen concentration camp located just 30 minutes drive from Cellle was aimed to ruin this lollipop fantasy. A bus took me through the sunny meadows of the German region of Lower Saxony right to the gloomy walls of the concentration camp memorial. But the fairy tale could not end there. The concentration camp has disappeared. There was nothing in the old forest, except for the documentation center built some ten years ago. Nothing has remained. Walk through this forest and you won’t find a single brick remained from the murder machine. Nothing at all, but the opened doors of the memorial.
September 15, 2012 | 7:13 am
Posted Ian Shulman
It’s Rosh HaShana Eve 5773 and I’m stuck in a dusky rainy city in the Northern Germany. Yesterday I got in touch with the local rabbi again, checked the prayer times and received a shiny wall calendar for the upcoming Jewish year. The rainy Jewish New Year’s Eve is on my mind.
Naming the holiday ‘the New Year’ instead of using it’s common Hebrew name puts it on a different level for me. An admired milestone of the Jewish tradition and the Jewish calendar turns to a clear and familiar image, year’s major event, the starting and the ending point. 2012 and 5773 suddenly start to look as two crucial points on two equally important scales.
Yet for me it was always like that. I got to a Jewish highschool when I was seven, where I suddenly realized that I have to let one more New Year to my calendar. Eating apples with honey in October and finding presents under the Christmas tree in January meant twice as much fun and didn’t contradict each other at all. Since then I was regularly updated. All I knew is that the Hebrew month of Tishrei starts somewhere between September and October and there is a Jewish community there to remind me when exactly is the festival. And Tishrei meant a holiday spirit in the air, just like our own rainy humid Jewish Christmas (though during my early schools years the real Christmas didn’t settle in the post-Soviet region yet and all ‘Christmas spirit’ responsibilities were carried out by the December 31st).
This was a period of an unimagined harmony between Judaism and Christianity, grounded on honest secularity. Christmas tree was a well-established tradition exclusively related to the New Year’s Eve and totally disconnected from Christmas by the Soviet regime. It gained a new, progressive, universal and secular image. Rosh HaShana alongside with other major holidays was a first hesitant attempt to get a feeling of how our grandparents used to live and to find some old and new friends.
Rosh HaShana is a high time to sum up the last year, but please allow me to refer back to the last decade. We became more independent, more self-aware, more heritage-aware, more progressive, more green. We started to live in two calendar years, in two traditions - the universal and the Jewish one. Last but not least - it’s been almost a decade now since my family bought a Christmas tree last.
September 15, 2012 | 6:16 am
Posted Pavel Pustelnik
Mumbai. Yes, exotic more than you can imagine. And in the middle of the city there is a huge synagogue. It is blue and as exotic as the whole city.
- Where are you from? - Poland. - Aaaa, Holand, The Netherlands! -No, Poland. - Aaaa, Poland! After the standard conversation with a police officer we just learn that we cannot enter the synagogue. - Come back tomorrow, sir. So we are coming back the next day. The air is humid and smells of everything. The same police officer is around and welcomes us with a wide smile. - Now open, please go. It is hard to call his look into our bags as a security control, but apparently the area is safe.
The synagogue seems to be under constant construction or constant demolition. Workers are walking around, doing pretty much nothing. The walls are covered with some kind of clay in some parts. In some places there is only a bit of shaded paint. The building sits proudly and looks at the small buildings around. It is cut from the outside only to some extent. The noise from outside is very present and it is pointless to look for relief here. It is hard to imagine any celebration taking place here. The whole space is cut into small parts with bamboo scaffold. Not really used, but omnipresent in India.
Talking to anyone here does not help much - apart from the fact that taking pictures relates to a payment of 200Rs there is not much that we can learn from the staff. We head towards an information board. What a surprise! "The Famous Madonna Visits The Synagogue". "The Famous Madonna" is obviously a pop singer who paid visit to the building. Some twenty faded pictures show the whole event in details. Any information about the synagogue or the local community? Not really.
Finally we learn from our guide that the building was constructed in the 19th century and painted in stunning blue that is visible up to today. The building was to commemorate Elias David Sasson, a businessman trading with India. The synagogue is built of bricks and Cooria stone. This is all what can be found for now, but the inquiry is in progress...
*This article has been sent from an internet cafe in Mysore, where the tiles are crazily yellow, krishnas are looking at the computer users and the boss of the place watches Bollywood movies. Greetings from India
ps. You can find more synagogue photos here : http://jewrnalism.com/jewrnalism-gallery/journeys?page=2#category
September 14, 2012 | 7:14 am
Posted Dana Hadadi
Hayden Cohen has always wanted to be a member of the Elders of Zion. A secret organisation controlling the world sounds great. He's Jewish. He thinks like a pensioner. Unfortunately he hasn't received an invitation yet. So he decided to form the UK branch of the Elders of Zion himself. Come to this, the new members open day and see if you have what it takes. Containing performance poetry, music and comedy.
Bit about me
I'm Hayden Cohen. A 26 year old performance poet, singer-songwriter and funnyman from Leeds, UK. I've been performing forever and being Jewish has always been a large part of that.
Aged 8, I played the part of Tevier (with drawn on beard) at my local Jewish primary school; the only one in Leeds.
As a community, Leeds has approximately 10,000 Jews with 250,000 across the whole of the UK. This makes us less than 0.5% of the population. Even so, Jews seem to be a very visible part of public life. Jews own many of the large chain stores or are on their board of directors. They are in politics, law, entertainment and the media amongst others. Whilst the majority of Jews do not have these roles, the fact that there are so many can create negative perceptions of the community.
As an artist, I really want to play with these ideas and show that whilst a lot of the stereotypes are terrible, maybe some of them may have some accuracy.
I love being Jewish, but if we can't laugh at ourselves, someone will persecute us instead. That's history.
To some extent though it's easier being Jewish in the UK than in Israel as you have to work at it. I have to be careful that what I eat is kosher and can't really show my Jewish pride openly; but enough of Tel Aviv.
As Jewish culture is something to be worked at, rather than be constantly apparent as in Israel, it means that I can't take my heritage for granted even though I'm agnostic whilst also a practicing Jew. This perspective also intrigues me and will be exploring it further within the show.
'Secrets of the Elders of Zion' will be my third one man show. I've taken my first two shows 'Rantings of a Young Fool' in 2010 and 'Age of the Geek' in 2012 to the Edinburgh Fringe. Approximately 1000 people have seen the shows so far and the response has been great.
I pride myself on managing expectations as the majority of my performance is multi-disciplinary meaning that not everything is funny or serious. It's somewhere in the middle.
On the whole reviews reflect this with the vast majority giving me 3 stars with a few 4 and 5 stars. At such an early stage of my career this is fantastic.
I look forward to improving my craft and bringing 'Secrets of the Elders of Zion' to the Rushes festival.
September 14, 2012 | 6:56 am
Posted Pavel Pustelnik
The journey through Cieszyn Silesia continues and after Skoczów and Wilamowice we come to the centre of the region – Cieszyn, a town that used to be an important place for the Jewish community before the 2. World War.
It has been raining cat and dogs since days. The Polish summer is not always as nice as it could be for those who are trying to enjoy their holidays. When we approach Cieszyn we see heavy clouds above the centre. Not a good sign if you plan to take some good shots at a cemetery. Arriving from the North we go first to the cemetery called “The New Jewish Cemetery”. A large white gate looks locked but surprisingly after stronger pushing, it lets us in.
The cemetery was built once the old site has been fully occupied and the decision was taken to organise a new structure. The decision has been granted after several problems encountered by the Jewish community of Cieszyn. First of all there was considerable opposition from coming from the neighbourhood that was not happy with an extension of the cemetery. Even though the land for the venue was bought already in 1898, it was only in 1906 when any works could be started. The first funeral took place in 1907.
Today it is not easy to imagine the old good days of the place. By the entrance you can see a golden sign that commemorates the works that were done at the cemetery in 1997-1999. It has been only 13 years ago but in between visibly, not enough care has been given to Cieszyn's site. The graves are covered by a thick layer of leaves, some soil, some of them almost disappeared. The cemetery house practically does not exist any more. A large decorative structure based on several arches has been partially demolished during the restoration. It was not possible to save the building as a whole therefore the roof has been removed and today only pale-yellow walls are witnessing the past.
What is interesting about the New Cemetery is the fact that the War and the German Occupation did not harm the place. In march 1943 the decision was taken to change the role of the Jewish cemeteries in Cieszyn and they were supposed to be reshaped into parks. It is easy to imagine what this would have meant for the site. Fortunately, the implementation of the decision has never happened. Why than the cemetery is almost completely destroyed? The last funeral took place in 1961. The communist regime did not treat Jewish cemeteries as a part of the Polish heritage and there was a silent approval of “using the place”. This has been happening in a very obvious place – the graves became a source for the buildings around Cieszyn. Well, if you flip hamsas and menoras, you can recycle a Jewish grave into a Christian one. This has been a wide practice as well and led to a further decline of the site.
The rain does not stop. The depressive atmosphere of the place is doubled by the weather. Time to find the other Jewish cemetery in Cieszyn.
September 14, 2012 | 6:54 am
Posted Pavel Pustelnik
Cieszyn is called “Little Vienna”, the reason being architecture that was to emulate the city that rich bourgeoisie has been enjoying in the period of the Hungary-Austria Empire. A large, lovely market square, narrow streets and a centre for contemporary design on the Castle Hill. What brought us here is the Old Jewish Cemetery, called a cemetery for the gravestones. Cieszyn has two Jewish sites that neighbour each other. The New Cemetery is smaller and less gravestones has been preserved there (http://www.jewrnalism.org/news/item/118-the-new-cemetery-in-cieszyn).
The Old is a true jewel that literally moves you to the past. It is hard to imagine a more dramatic location than a hill that faces the whole town, its towers and elegant houses. The cemetery is fenced and locked. No signs about how to enter, no information about who could have a key to the gate. We decide to trespass and use a hole in the fence. The area is densely populated, but nobody sees us. Muddy and slippery ground does not really invite to spend more time here. The details of the gravestones are amazing enough to stop caring about the state of the outfits. There are no paths, no idea how to embrace the whole site. Once you enter you can finally see crystal clear why the place is called a cemetery for graves.
There is no structure, some of the graves are lying covered by soil and some are still standing, lining towards the ground. One or two looks as if they were flying barely touching the ground. Another couple of gravestones are barely readable, but nicely smooth after being touched after countless raindrops. The place is awkwardly silent and untouched. As if it was a sanctuary of the past that will never come back. The cemetery conserves a much longer past than its new counterpart. It has been founded in 1647 and is the oldest in the area. Some people suspect that there was a cemetery already in the Middle Ages but there are no strong proofs for that. At the beginning the site was serving only an opulent Singer family who later on sold it to the community and it became the main necropolis in the area. In the 19. century a cemetery house was built together with a house for a guardian and a stable for the horses that were used to pull the caravan. The building is in a painfully bad shape and entering it would be too risky, so we leave the large orange structure behind.
We learn though that this was the place where the German Gestapo killed 81 people taken into hostage, among them 11 Czech scouts. A sad story of the decline that touched the New Cemetery is retold at the older site as well. It did not suffer much during the war, but what hurt it the most was the value of stones used to decorate the graves. The site was regularly used as a free deposit of marble and GRANIT???????????? used later in the area. In this way the cemetery has been slowly disappearing. An interesting project has been organised to help in preserving the site. In 2009 through a cooperation of the prison in Cieszyn and the Jewish community in Bielsko-Biala, the prisoners have been engaged in works at the site. In return the were offered educational meetings related to the Jewish culture. It is difficult to estimate what the impact of the project was. The town that looks at us calls for a further exploration. Given the fact that the two Jewish cemeteries in Cieszyn are so large, there must be some more Jewish traits downtown. Perhaps some Jewish design on the Castle Hill...