Posted Pavel Pustelnik
The cultures that are about to die have always been catching a lot of attention. Partly because of the fact that the reasons of their decay are usually exceptional and partly because we want to grasp this touch that will not be achievable in the future. Edna Fernandes in her “Last Jews of Kerala” provides a broad picture of a shrinking Jewish community whose history is unparalleled. To some extent due to certain kind of apartheid going on in Kerala.
Edna Fernandes went to gather material for her book while being pregnant. If you think of a cliché image of India that people have, it seems that this was not the brightest idea. However, as Fernades claims in her book that being an expecting mother was rather a key to open people's mouths and hearts. And this was not an easy task as the Jews living in Kerala are not too forthcoming. As she uncovers, the reason for that were the inadequacies in the literature based on interviews with the people of Kochi (Kochin).
The city she writes about is located some 1400 kilometres South from Mumbai. Today it's densly populated by tourists who usually come for couple of days to a pretty European-looking town full of restaurants serving fresh fish (Kochi is a harbour). Some come just for a day to see the synagogue and so called “Chinese nets” which are used by the fishermen in the area. Fernandes goes deeper, much deeper to understand what has happened to a flourishing Jewish community that has almost disappeared. She does not have a ready hypothesis that she comes with to India. She is just a curious person who wants to touch the truth. If the whole tourist image of the town is build on Jews, where are they and why there are mostly Muslims trading in the Synagogue Lane?
The author tries to approach the last Jews of Kerala in various ways. She embodies the most stubborn journalist in the world when she tries to get to people and make them talk. She never crosses certain borders though. Her persistence is well-awarded as when people start to talk, Fernandes is able to uncover the reasons of decay. It is not about antisemitism or trade issues with the local people. It is nothing else than Jewish apartheid between the White Jews and Black Jews, who struggle to prove who has been first in Kerala, whose blood is more pure and who should feel inferior. The story that is behind the tired walls of Synagogue Lane is painful to unwind and does not leave space for allusions. The discourse of ethnicity used to be extremely powerful in the relation between White and Black Jews in Kerala. The marriages between the communities were forbidden and the use of the Paradesi synagogue restricted. Those who were discussing the rules were becoming enemies. Some of the young Jews disregarded the “apartheid law” with regards to marriages and therefore they had to move to Mumbai or elsewhere. As it is easy to imagine, the whole situation led to a gradual weakening of the community and at the moment when the book was published there were only 12 White Jews in Kochi and around 50 Black Jews.
Given the fascinating circumstances, not only does the book offer a rich historical background but her story develops in a wider context of Israel becoming a country and situation of Jews originating in Kerala who left their homeland. The book is perhaps not to linear, there are certain jumps in between the stories told by the interviewees but this makes it even more compelling and informative. It seems though a bit redundant to include a travel diary parts in a book that actually aims at explaining a problem of a community. Not necessarily a reader wants to know about that much of the interviewer's feelings and plans if the interviewees' stories are so invaluable.
Fernandes's books for sure cannot be treated as a textbook for ethnography students who are preparing themselves to research the issues related to conflict between groups or even Judaism itself. And this was not the aim of the author. It is rather a rich portrayal of a complex situation that has been caused by misunderstandings, envy and lack of communication. Sounds like a scenario for a movie? The content is definitely well-worth filming.
Edna Fernades The Last Jews of Kerala,Portobello Books Ltd, 272 pages, 8,99 GBP (paperback)
More about the author: http://www.ednafernandes.com/
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7.25.12 at 12:48 pm | Unfulfilled murderers, domestic sadists – nice. . . (76)
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October 14, 2012 | 12:57 pm
Posted Pavel Pustelnik
A thousand years is a lot of time. The relations between Jews and Poland have always been complex. Last week in Paris there was an opening of an exhibition that aims at showing the Jews in Poland over the last 1000 years. A suicidal task if you do not have enough resources, creativity and space.
The exhibition was supposed to open at six. At 6:15 there are still people running around as the microphones do not work. There is no extension cord, no stand for the mike. Nobody is too much stressed though. Finally the speeches begin. The director of the College Jérôme Beau talks about the importance of the venue for this kind of exhibition, he is followed by the head of the Polish Cultural Institute in Paris Klaudia Podsiadło and finally the ambassadors of Israel in France and Poland in France have chance to say some words. Yossi Gal formed his speech around certain complexity of the Polish-Jewish relationship whereas hi Polish counterpart Tomasz Orłowski was talking about the richness of the Polish-Jewish relations. “It is a lesson of richness” he was underlining. He mentioned as well that at times Poles were not sensitive enough towards what the Jewish communities needed. Both diplomats could not forget about Shoah. Applause, given by a mostly older audience, and we can proceed to the posters.
Saying that the exhibition is modest is a compliment. There are over 60 stands that are marked with many years of use, on which posters were attached. The simplicity of the exhibition is utterly painful. Here we start, this is how Poland came into existance, this is what happened later and those are the Jewish communities today. It seems that the organisers have missed the recent developments in exhibition trends. Or at least they have heard about them, but were not sure how to implement them. For example there are two beamers that show pictures of Jews living in Poland. There are some short movies as well, but all that is placed up high and which makes it absolutely uncomfortable to watch. Not to mention reading the subtitles (in French only).
How about the posters per se? They are dull. It seems that all the pictures and maps have been extracted from the history text books from the 90'. Do not expect more than just texts and pictures. It is not really an exhibition, it is more of a book printed on large pieces of paper and hang around a room. In relation to that, it is highly informative, but just imagine reading over 60 pages of text standing in front of crude charts. Even the layout is topsy-turvy, which does not make it easy to follow. It appears that the organisers have never tried to walk along all the posters and read them. And if the exhibition is extremely linear, I do not object to this idea, it should be a pleasure to follow and read. This unfortunately is not the case here.
The answer to the problems comes quicker than one could have thought. I was given a booklet related to the exhibition (the person that was handing it to me was an absolutely charming staff person of the Polish Cultural Institute) to collect it home. To my deepest terror, on the first page there is a date: 2004 and the whole booklet presents nothing else than all the posters and duly the same text. Two birds killed with one stone, apparently. Obviously, it is easier to just take a ready-made, magnify it and voilà, we have an exhibition. Given the date of publication, the material has been gathered some 10 years ago. Indeed, for 1000 years of history it does not really make a big change, but for the way of exhibiting definitely yes.
Certain doubts concerning the diligence have came up as on the third poster it appears that the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was in war with its neighbours: Turkey, Russia and Switzerland. Somebody must have spotted the mistake in a very last moment, used a pen to cross “Switzerland” and wrote “Sweden” in a barely readable handwriting. However, in the mentioned booklet there are no errors. Secondly, given that Paris enjoys a lot of tourists, Jewish as well, at least some care could have been given to the translations. The exhibition is entirely in French, with not even a synopsis in English. If it talks about the Jews in Poland, it would be easy to imagine that perhaps some non French speakers would be interested. Well, apparently this was beyond imagination.
The Museum of Polish Jews is supposed to open in Warsaw. The insitution already catches a lot of media attention and will certainly be an extremely important event for the whole Jewish world. What was the reason of showing the 1000 years of history of Jews in Poland in Paris? It seems that the organisers wanted to bite more that they can chew and tackle an extremely complex topic with a slightly outdated pictures taken from a book. A terrible showcase of the lack of creativity and care.
October 11, 2012 | 1:15 pm
Posted Dana Addadi
Jewrotica- a social hub for the many facets of Jewish sexual expression was launched this week parallel to the celebrations of Simchat Tora.
Jewrotica wishes to bring you everything from rabbinic responses to issues such as homosexuality and kink, to reflections on relationships, to straight-up erotic content, and will spark much discussion.
Mainly, the content of what will be found on Jewrotica will be determined by the readers and writers themselves, so declares Ayo Oppenheimer, the founder and editor of Jewrotica, currently located in Texas.
believes greatly in the potential of her passionate crew, and so her main intention is merely to provide the structure that will hold the flame supplied by the people for the benefit of the other people.
Oppeheimer hopes Jewrotica will maintain a variable and pluralistic debate as possible, and will keep a clear orientation of an on-line international community. And so, she plans to expand with Jewrotica from the virtual space of the web to in-person resource in the future: hosting workshops and speakers in Jewish communities nation-wide.
In order to be sensitive to the diverse audience pieces will be tagged according to a rating system that allows further inclusiveness and freedom for the reader to choose the pieces most appropriate for themselves
Jewrotica was born at the 2012 ROI Summit and is an initiative supported by the Schusterman Foundation, as well as a friend of the popular Jewish cultural site Jewlicious.
We invite you to visit www.jewrotica.org, and get on with your sexy confession. Personal request- please be naughty.
October 4, 2012 | 11:50 pm
Posted by Klaudia Klimek
Crossing the street named after Józef Dietl - a once outstanding mayor of Krakow and creator of its modern image, we enter the magical world of Kazimierz. For many of its inhabitants, the pride of this city. But it wasn’t always like that, until recently it was an extinct Jewish district, inhabited by murmuring element of unknown sort. Only the magnificence of the, architecture, rescued by the hand of God, testifies that once, in this place, lived a large population of Polish Jews. A vast majority of the nearly 70 thousand people of the Jewish community of Krakow were murdered during the Nazi occupation, and thus the Jewish Kazimierz was dead for many years. For a long time now, the municipal authorities along with the surviving handful of Jews, have been trying to give the area its proper brilliance. The success of the Jewish Culture Festival and hundreds of thousands of tourists visiting Kazimierz, are a sign of development in the right direction.
The city of Kazimierz was founded in 1335 by King Kasimir III of Poland (Kazimierz in Polish), called the Great. But it didn’t become a Jewish center instantly. Initially, there was to be a university (“Wszechnica”), but the premature death of the king interfered with those plans. Little information remained on bringing Jews to Kazimierz. According to Maciej Miechowita it was in 1492, when a large fire broke out in Krakow, which burned several Jewish homes. It was then that the town councilors took the decision to move the Jewish community to Kazimierz. This information is confirmed in the agreement contained on February 27, 1494 between the guild of butchers and the Jewish seniors of Kazimierz. Soon the so-called baleneum Iudeorum, nothing more than a Jewish Bath, was created and three years later the circulus Iudeorum, the Jewish market. The number of Jews grew rapidly as a result of immigration from Bohemia and Moravia, which they escaped from the continuing persecutions. Jews from Spain and Italy came during this time as well. A Royal Decree of 1537 allowed to build a second synagogue, which was fairly quickly destroyed by a fire, but King Sigismund II Augustus allowed its reconstruction in 1557. Today it bears the name of the “Old Synagogue”. In the XVI century two other synagogues were created, High and Remuh. It can be assumed that in the mid-seventeenth century there lived 5 thousand Jews in Kazimierz. The political downfall of Krakow as well as the dusk of the glory of the country (Rzeczpospolita) affected the number of inhabitants of Kazimierz. At the end of the XVIII century there lived 2 thousand Jews, but one must remember that most Jews still lived in the area of Krakow. After the fall of the Republic (Rzeczpospolita) the Austrian government made a final displacement of Krakow’s Jews, ordering them to leave all of their apartments and shops in the area of Krakow and Kazimierz, with the result that the city population rose to about 4,5 thousand. After the formation of the Free (Independent and Strictly Neutral) City of Krakow in 1818 its Senate announced the “Statue Organizing the Followers of the Law of the Old Testament in the Free City of Krakow and its Environs” which allowed the Jews to live and trade in the whole area of the Christian and Jewish Kazimierz.
Kazimierz grew into the city, becoming, along with its inhabitants, an integral part without which contemporary Krakow wouldn’t be the same.
For a trip to Krakow you need at least 5 days, crossing a couple of streets in the district of Kazimierz may take a whole day if not two.
When deciding about a visit it is best to provide yourself with a guide. But as it is known, no Polish guide will include the most important places, which a local would recommend, furthermore a local Jew and as we all know such sites interest us the most.
To work then! What should you visit, see and what paths should you take to feel as a part of the community living in Kazimierz? Well, you have to realize, my dear traveler, that Jews rather not reside in Kazimierz. We have our offices and synagogues, but this is a typically tourist district. Apartments in old buildings require major overhauls and those in new architecture cost terribly much because living here, nowadays, is quite fashionable. Nonetheless, we spend a lot of our free time and money here, drinking coffee at a charming sidewalk cafe or, as a Cracovian would joke, “eating kosher blood sausage”.
If you came to Krakow and inadvertently did not book a hotel then below you have a couple of ideas and hints. I’d like to note at the outset, that if this is during the Jewish Culture Festival then you have a serious problem – finding accommodation day by day is really difficult at that time of the year.
So depending on your budget I suggest 4 places where you should call and ask about the situation:
1) Hotel Mayaan (www.hotelmaayan.com) is in the heart of Kazimierz on Miodowa street, opposite the Jewish Community Center and Tempel Synagogue. It is a hotel run by a Jew and has relatively low prices giving the area and standard. Usually for 70 zł/person in a room with no bathroom, you can accommodate yourself at a hotel for young people with questionable hygiene standards. This hotel doesn’t officially have any stars, but I’d give it two and a half.
2) If you’re looking for something more expensive and sophisticated then I’d recommend Hotel Alef (www.alefhotel.pl) where you pay 160zł/person including breakfast. What captivated me in this hotel is not only its location on the quiet St. Agnieszki street 5 but the dining room. It is beautifully furnished with antiques, which makes everything taste different. You just want to be there. I hope you will have a similar impression.
3) Another suggestion, a bit more expensive, is Hotel Kazimierz (www.hk.com.pl/kazimierz-home.php) where a hotel night costs 260zł/person including breakfast. This hotel has 3 buildings – two on Miodowa street and one on Starowiślna street.
4) Of the more expensive hotels I invite you to Hotel Klezmer Hois on Szeroka street and Hotel Eden on Ciemna street. Hotel Klezmer Hois (www.klezmer.pl/index.php) offers rooms starting from 200zł and higher, including breakfast. Hotel Eden (www.hoteleden.pl/) starting from 260zł. These hotels have fantastic owners, who are a part of the Jewish community in Krakow. If you are religious and eat kosher then choose Hotel Eden, if not then book a stay at Klezmer Hois. Not only will you have a chance to taste delicious, traditional Jewish cuisine (non-kosher) but you will find decor straight from our grandmothers’ homes, where it smells like old wood, antiques, burned candles and you hear the piano. Each room is furnished a little bit differently and each has its own soul. More about Klezmer Hois in SIGHTSEEING.
If you are already accommodated and your suitcase is in the hotel room, then it is time for a meal. Here we have a problem because there are plenty of places to eat in Kazimierz – follow your intuition and a momentary whims. But if I had to recommend something as “a local”, then I suggest determining whether you want to eat kosher or not. If kosher then it definitely narrows your choices since we don’t have many kosher restaurants.
1) One, which looks quite European and friendly to the eye is The Olive Tree on Kupa 6 street. Its website seems to be out of order so here are contact details: firstname.lastname@example.org, Phone number: 48442 77 00, in case you’d become hungry on a Friday evening and would like to eat a Shabbat meal. For the price of 25 EUR you’ll get an appetizer in the form of fish, a chicken leg with vegetables, soup e.g. chicken broth and dessert e.g. mousse. To all of this, 4 kinds of salad and beverages. On Saturday you can order lunch for 25 EUR as well – Gefilte fish, schnitzel, kugel and dessert, as well as salads and cholent. The restaurant seats up to 96 people but pre-book a table. Preferably a few days ahead. Until recently, Chabad also organized dinner but from what I know it will resume with doing so at the beginning of 2013. For more information go to Isaac Synagogue on Kupa 18 street.
Interested in a reformed service? Get in contact with the Galicia Jewish Museum (http://www.galiciajewishmuseum.org/) for more information. Everyone there speaks English.
2) As I’ve written earlier, Klezmer Hois offers non-kosher but recommendable cuisine. Typical Galician Jewish cuisine e.g. stuffed goose neck, stuffed duck or carrot cake are simply delicious! The prices of lunch range from 10 - 15 EUR. During dinner you may listen to klezmer music played live, after buying a ticket which costs around 5 EUR.
3)If you’re not eating kosher and are fed up with the same dishes, maybe you’d prefer something Polish? Here the choice is much bigger. For a smaller budget I’d suggest e.g. the Polakowski restaurant (www.polakowski.com.pl) on Miodowa street, where waitresses dressed up as peasant girls serve tomato soup. For 5 EUR you can really eat a proper meal!
4) If during this vacation you can allow yourself for more, I’d suggest the Sąsiedzi restaurant, on Miodowa 25 street. For 10-15 EUR you can eat a delicious meal. I’ve eaten “pierogi” (dumplings – Ed.) and tiramisu here. Both meals swept me off my feet.
5) If you aren’t in luck and in a hurry, then believe me that eating fast food on Estery street isn’t the best solution. I’d suggest the famous “zapiekanki” (toasted sandwiches – Ed.) to which there’s a line day or night. I’m not sure if you’ll make yourself understood by the saleswoman, but try because it’s definitely worth it. You can eat a “zapiekanka” for around 2 EUR, which can be with “oscypek” (smoked cheese – Ed.), chive, bacon, spinach… and whatever else you choose. “Zapiekanki” at Endzior’s are at the so-called “Okrąglak” on Plac Nowy. It’s difficult to miss the queue, follow the smell.
6) When having the desire to just talk over coffee, I’d recommend cult places like Café Alchemia on Plac Nowy (www.alchemia.com.pl), although it’s difficult to get a table during the evening.
7) If you smoke then go to Tajemniczy Ogród (Secret Garden – Ed.) on Plac Nowy 9. This place has a smoking room (it’s useful during the winter) and a nice patio. May I warn you that if there’s a lot of customers, the waiters are a bit slow.
8) Staying on Plac Nowy the so-called Jewish Square, you may take a look at the known place on Estery street 20 – Singer - the name came from the famous sewing machines. company. If you’re in the mood for vodka, pickles and then go to Zakąski & Wódka right next to Tajemniczy Ogród.
9)If you already miss Israeli coffee then I invite you to my personal favorite – Café Cheder. It’s a place founded by the Jewish Culture Festival office (they share a door). The café is on corner of Jakuba st. and Józefa st. (www.jewishfestival.pl/index,en.html). I’d recommend the Israeli coffee and some free time because you’ll find many books there, also thematic meetings from time to time. Follow their website!
10) The last place I’d like to recommend is Ariel Café (www.ariel-krakow.pl). I have a soft spot for it. Before Kazimierz became a touristic area, where you see the Star of David and Jewish menus left and right, Café Ariel was a place visited by our parents. Because of its uniqueness it is special. Also it is on Szeroka st. where the culminating concert of the Jewish Culture Festival takes place. Not only do they have coffee but tasty food as well.
As I’ve written before, to see Kazimierz it is best to have a guide, in the form of a book or human. I am not able to recommend a book but you count on a helping hand from the members of the Czulent Association (www.czulent.pl). If you have a question or favor to ask, write them an e-mail, I’m sure they’ll help.
1) If you decide to walk through Kazimierz alone then don’t forget to see places like: the Tempel Synagogue on Miodowa st. 24. It is a reformative synagogue in which services take place only on the occasion of visits of larger groups. Further walking Miodowa st. enter the JCC to talk with volunteers and members of the Senior’s Club. If you’ll be a polite tourist they might give you a taste of “nalewka” (a traditional Polish alchohol, similar to tinctures of liqueurs – Ed.)
2) Next to JCC turn left on Estery st. In building number 6 – at present the NFZ (National Health Fund – Ed.), on the second floor The Social Cultural Association of Jews in Poland (TSKŻ – Ed.) is located. The office is open from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.. If you get on it you can look at documents from ’51!
3) Turn left on the Placy Nowy – the so-called Jewish Square. Each Sunday there is a market here, where you can buy clothes, jewelry, cosmetics and other things. During the week a couple of stands with antiques, jewelry, fruit and flowers, open up.
4) On Beera Meiselsa st. 17 you’ll find the Center for Jewish Culture (www.judaica.pl). Theoretically there should always be something happening there, but practically each time I go in it’s empty. A big advantage is another café in the antique style and the other one on the building’s roof, which is a certain curio in Kazimierz.
1) Head to Józefa st. If you want to buy handmade souvenirs. This street is full of shops with jewelry, paintings, figurines and everything else we admire when being tourists.
2) Reaching Kupa st. you will see the Isaac Synagogue in which there is the only shop with kosher food in Krakow.
3) Also on the same street you can visit the hair salon, which I honestly recommend. The 60s style décor is simply genius! Mr. Tomasz Marut is the boss and if you’d like him to cut your hair you must get an appointment two months before. But his employees are also good in this profession so if you want to get a haircut, this is the place!
4) Walking further down Szeroka st., you’ll see the earlier mentioned Café Cheder and the High Synagogue. At the top floor there is an exhibition but not a very interesting one, in my opinion. But on the ground floor you will find a bookstore with literature on Jewish themes, it’s worth stopping by.
5) Finally you’ll reach the Old Synagogue on Szeroka st., which is now a museum. To my mind it may be more interesting rather for those who have little in common with Jewry. The exhibition shows the Jewish life cycle, from birth to death. Necessary instruments, a ketubah, Passover Seder Plates and other traditional items.
6) If I were to choose then I’d definitely go to the Remuh Synagogue (www.remuh.jewish.org.pl) on Szeroka st. 40. First of all this is the only synagogue operating each Friday, second of all with the adjoining cemetery it creates a unique and invaluable group of Jewish architecture and sacred art from the XVI century. Definitely worth seeing.
7)The last stop is Dajwór st. 18 where the Galicia Jewish Museum is (www.galiciajewishmuseum.org/). You can see a phot exhibition there, drink some coffee, rest a while and buy a book or CD. It is also here that the reformative Shabbat dinners take place. With a little luck you might meet the first female rabbi in Poland – Tanya Segal. Look out for long, curly, red hair.
September 30, 2012 | 11:03 am
Posted Ian Shulman
The moon is high over the roofs of Charlottenburg...’ begins the story a tall slim lady, while the guitar behind the stage starts playing a sweet jazz melody. You are in Charlottenburg, you are in Berlin of the early 1930s. This slightly mannishly, yet extremely elegantly dressed charming woman carries more natural 1930s’ vibe to the stage then ‘Cabaret’s Sally Bowles, which she played once in Berlin. She is a New York-born actress and singer Helen Schneider. She’s going to tell you the story of Heinz Jakob, or simply ‘Coco’ Schumann - a young guy so eager to become a part of the Berlin music scene. Being half-Jewish and playing swing, Coco didn’t get much time to enjoy the stage - when he turned 19 his ‘stage’ was moved to Theresienstadt ghetto. Schumann played swing together with other musicians in a band with a weird and bitter name - ‘The Ghetto Swingers’. He survived Auschwitz and a personal encounter with Dr Mengele. He returned to his Berlin to continue living there and playing swing there. He also returned there to write a book on his life, which became a plot for the show ‘Der Ghetto Swinger’, staged in Hamburger Kammerspiele in fall 2012. Helen Schneider talks about Coco, twists of fate and returning to Germany.
The question I wanted to start our interview with was if ‘The Ghetto Swinger’ is a Jewish show. But after I entered the hall and have seen a huge Star of David on the stage, the answer seemed logical to me. But what’s your opinion?
No, I don’t think it is a Jewish show. I rather think it is a show based on a terrible thing what happened to the Jewish people here. The show is actually about two things which are interesting to me. One is the burning flame in this young man, a burning flame for life. This flame still burns in this man’s eyes. I met him: he is 89 and still has this flame which kept him alive. It is also a story about music; the magic and the power of music not only for this fellow, but for all people in general, and how a music can carry a soul through very tough times. Of course, it is based on a Jewish story, but what’s so fantastic about the show is that on my opinion it’s specific to the mankind in general.
How did Coco Schumann himself reacted on the show? Did he see it?
Yes, he came to the opening night. He was thrilled, which made us all thrilled. We were very true to his beautiful book, a part of which was what we have taken for the script with Gil Mehmet, out director, conceiver and author. It was his idea to play this story. He had a burning desire to put the story on stage for over ten years, and I understand why. He is also a musician. Director, but a great musician. ‘The Ghetto Swinger’ is not a story of a virtual person. It’s a story of a simple guy who loves music so much and has a special kind of aura. He made his own fate because there were always people there to help him.
How would you describe your role in the show? You are playing many different characters - from Coco’s mother to the nurse from the US army, but I have an impression that they all are somehow connected.
I believe that the connection is a ‘big umbrella’ over them. I am the storyteller, I tell the story. And like any good storyteller does, I speak from the characters when it’s needed or when it’s impossible to tell the story in any other way. Sometimes I function in a kind of directing capacity, but essentially I am the storyteller.
What was your way to playing in the show?
Gil Mehmet and I worked together last summer on an extraordinary production of ‘Sunset Boulevard’. I played Norma Desmond, he was the director and I thought his work was remarkable, incredible. I got to like his work and him very much. Together with the head of Hamburger Kammerspiele he came to me and asked me to do this role. I didn’t know what the role has to be, the piece haven’t been written yet, but there was a general idea of ‘a storyteller’ and that I would sing, Later I got the book. It was not only my experience with Gil Mehmet, but firstly my interest in the story itself which brought me to the stage.
Was it your first ‘Jewish’ role?
No, I played Hayyah in ‘Ghetto’ in New York. It’s a remarkable work written by an Israeli Joshua Sobol. I performed with the original Israeli director and a marvelous cast. My mother died young, my father remarried and married a ghetto survivor from Poland. When i did ‘Ghetto’, she was my first hand contact, who knew about it. After I was done with this piece, I promised myself I will not get involved in this topic on stage again, because it was so difficult to get through. However, here I sit. I did it and I’m very glad I did. I don’t think that unnecessary emotions flow from the stage. On contrary, I think the play is quite factual and presents without a lot of extraneous emotions - I think it brings emotions from the audience. Gill was very strict about it - the story was supposed to be clearly told and nothing else. I think it’s a remarkable presentation, and the team is strong. We all have our weaknesses and strength, but it was a group all together because we met in the middle with music. They are actors who can sing and musicians who can act. And it all meets in between. They are all with a tremendous desire to make this this thing work as well as with a tremendous responsibility.
I got the same impression. It seems like there are a lot of things in your career which connect you to the topic of pre-war Germany. I mean your role in ‘Cabaret’ and your involvement in Kurt Weill festival. Can you elaborate on this connection?
I’m an honorary chairwoman of Kurt Weill festival and a great fan of Kurt Weill. Indeed, I’ve been cast in these roles, like the one in ‘Cabaret’. It’s interesting to me, I’m not exactly sure why I have a characteristic which interests directors for these roles. ‘Cabaret’ was clear to me because I think I have this 1920s sensibility. Before ‘Cabaret’ I had done a 1920s one-woman show in New York, which was successful for me and I took it to California. When I was still young and doing rock, I was told: ‘Oh Helen, you would make such a fabulous Sally Bowles, what a shame you don’t speak German!”. So I said well, let me meet with the director. We met, liked each other immediately and I was sent to Berlitz in New York. That was the beginning of my never-ending battle with the German language. And then came ‘Ghetto’. ‘Ghetto’ follows me over years. I was continuously asked to play the role, and was continuously refusing. since the role is extremely hard to get through. So now, in five years, I thought: “Somebody wants me to do it. So I will!”. And I did it. Obviously, it’s some fate which wants me to be involved in this topic. I was born in a Jewish family and raised in a Jewish faith. I believe that Judaism is a religion and not a race, and I do not practice any form of religion, yet I was raised Jewish.
How exactly did you happen to make a significant part of your career in Germany?
It’s a one hundred percent accident. I was working in the United States being managed by a very powerful manager. In the 1970s a producer for television series heard my very first LP, found me, tracked me down in New York and invited me to Germany. I did the show which was very successful for me. I was seen then and invited to do a big national show in Germany. I was having big success here while having some troubles in the United States, so I came to Germany and made a contract. To make a very long and weird story shorter, I had a huge hit in rock in the 1980s, and then i stopped in the middle of the 1980s and started acting in New York. I reinvented myself as an actress who can sing. Finally, it was also because my name was so known here, and in my business you are lucky to have a career anywhere. Five years ago I moved to Germany, but I never called Germany my home before I started to live here, in Berlin.
What was the motive behind your transformation from a rock singer to an actress? You look quite different on these two stages.
My transformation was very organic for me, because my career has always followed my personal interest. I also get older like everybody, so my desires and my interests changed, and my work reflected that. One thing relates to another. I also once had the main role in a film in the States, and I realized that I was looking for acting for all of my life. So I had to stop everything and switch to acting, and that’s what I did. Then I had to keep music and acting separately, so I have done some more acting work in the States. As for my jazz stuff, I got a phone call from a producer almost out of the blue, and I made my first jazz record. It was all very natural and organic movement for me.
Some of you recent works combine jazz standards with classic rock.
I had a beautiful trio in Germany, we were considering ourselves ‘musicians without borders’ and jazz is the core element of our music. One of the records was a tribute to my mother, there were songs I learned from her when I was a child. These are jazz songs, but they were pop songs for her generation. Before I started with the record I was asked how would I picture jazz and I thought of my mother. My father loved Bert Kaempfert music, so I ended up doing a hommage to Bert Kaempfert for my father. Then I was doing a show ‘Hello, I’m Johnny Cash’, where I first met with country music in my life. I was never singing country before, I just never took it serious. But then I realized it was an incredible interesting genre which I loved. So the next record we will be doing with the trio is going to be my tribute to country music. How marvellous that I am almost 60 and I found a genre of music I never sang before and I enjoy it.
There’s a quote attributed to Coco Schumann saying that he was introduced to swing by Ella Fitzgerald...
If I understand the story correctly, Ella came to Germany when Coco was already a part of the music scene there. She came to sing in Berlin and they met at a club, in a particular place where it was a tradition to gather after the show. Everybody said that Ella never sang anywhere off stage. But Coco says that Ella decided to sing and she invited Coco to play with her. And it is possible that the early records of Ella were of the great influence for him.
Who introduced you to music at the very beginning?
I’m a classically trained pianist. I played piano my whole life, but in between I fell in love with blues and rock and ran away with a blues band to the mountains of New England. I’ve been working ever since.
That’s an interesting part! I was carefully watching the play tonight and at the same time tried to trace the reaction of the audience. It might be a tricky question, but do you think such play would be possible in Germany a decade or several decades ago?
Hard to say. I am not a German, I don’t have a lot of experience with German mentality either. I know that the ‘Ghetto’ was presented here in Germany in the early 1980s. So judging from that, I guess my answer is ‘yes’.
The cultural scene of the pre-war Berlin was so beautifully portrayed in the show. Do you think this phenomena belongs to the past? Could it come back during the today’s Berlin renaissance?
I don’t have an answer to this either. There are renaissance for different music and also for different cities. Berlin certainly has a renaissance, but I think it has more to do with the art world then the music world at the moment. Indeed, Berlin is having a massive renaissance. One can say its’ like 1920s for art as it was for music back then. Every city has an event flow.
You was mentioning that even though you’ve been working in Germany for a while, you don’t feel any German.
Well, originally I’m German. My grandfather was German. He was a violinist for Odessa symphony. When the Bolshevik revolution broke up, his father, who was a wealthy grain handler in Frankfurt, sent him to New York, so that he finds his way. Unfortunately, he didn’t; he died selling ties in the streets of New York, a man in an utmost poverty. He arrived in the USA in 1919, so that’s not a war story. But that’s how I got my name, Schneider, from this grandfather. My mother’s family are all Russian, and they came to the United States in the early 1800s, I guess they fled the pogroms. Many immigrants came to the United States because they were running away from something in those years. That generation didn’t have a desire to keep the next generation connected to the past. And some things got lost. It is a sad story I think, but it has to do with this emigration wave of leaving something and wanting to start something new. So they spokek English trying to avoid speaking the old languages. My father still spoke some Yiddish, but my mother did not. I am a fourth-generation New Yorker. So the past is lost, it’s a terrible thing, but it’s the way it was. It’s a twist of fate that I have this career in Germany and that I came here. Coco believed he has a guardian angel; sometimes I think something wanted me to come back here and to develop some relationship with this country and also with the material I play. I honestly think it is so strange that I came back. I think it’s my generation’s job to mend the fences. Because otherwise you can’t go on. The history is there to remember, but one has to move forward. I think it’s people like me who come back, without a direct pain for what has happened. I don’t have this. I know what happened, but in my mind I am an American and I don’t mean it to sound so stupidly naive I’m not, but I don’t come with this first generation agony of what happened here. I was very happy to put my generation and the first generation of Germans together.
It’s also funny how young Germans of the 70s or the 80s were all striving to leave Germany for the USA. For them it was probably strange to see an American coming to work in Germany.
I am in show business. I am an entertainer, but in the end it’s stupid to separate entertainers from other professions - in the end we are all entertainers. I would be happy to be anywhere with the career. If somebody sends me to Mars and ask to learn Marsian, I would do that too, but I’m happy to work in Germany. I also worked in other countries apart from Germany and the USA, but they mostly happened to be German speaking countries. The door is always opened for me here, so here I am. And I’m comfortable in Europe, whether it has something to do with the past life or not. I feel at home here, and I finally can speak the language, which is nice, because you get the window in the soul of the country when you speak the language.
Do you have different ‘at home’ feelings in Europe and in the USA?
As years go by, I started to feel more comfortable in Europe. There’s a special kind of culture here, an attitude about tradition, and after all it’s just easier for me here. There were times when i would go home after working here and say ‘wow, I belong less and less to the United States then to Europe!’
September 21, 2012 | 1:25 am
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.
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.