Judith Baumel

The Euro-Maidan

March 19th, 2014

In December 2013 I published this article in the Washington Post. It seemed then that the struggle in the Maidan has been going on for a long time. Many more hopeful mornings and frozen nights later we watched chaos and murder and territorial invasion come to Ukraine. The stakes are high. As I write it seems that Putin won’t stop with Crimea but will continue pressing toward Kharkiv. But as I write those who fight for democracy are fighting back.

: Ukrainian soldiers stand guard at a check point at the border between Ukraine and Crimea near the Salkovo village near kherson, on March 18 , 2014. Ukraine stood stunned on March 18, 2014 after Russia claimed Crimea and both sides suffered their first casualties that threatened to see the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War spin out of control. AFP PHOTO/ SERGIY GUMENYUK


From the Kiev Post

Human Solidarity. Polish Solidarność

November 11th, 2010

Bifurcation is the word that comes to mind Tuesday night at the Polish Consulate in New York City.  Its celebration of 30 years of Solidarność explores free speech and free elections by noting pertinent mirrorings in modern history.  And yet differences more than commonalities stand out.

The plan is cheering:  Drinks first, lectures later.  First we view “Human Solidarity. Polish Solidarność” the exhibit created by Andrzej W. Tymowski with help from Irena Grudzinska-Gross and Malgorzata K. Bakalarz.  Tymowski  uses  a multi-level, multi-cultural approach to his chronicle of a suppressed people creating  their own future.  He places Solidarność within the international legacy of ever-refracting images of change.

Andrzej W. Tymowski

Andrzej W. Tymowski

The story of Anna Walentynowicz,  the fired crane operator who became the female face of the Gdańsk Shipyard strikes, unfolds beside Rosa Parks: “the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”  One thinks of Barak Obama’s recent observation that had Mahatma Gandhi not paved the road, Obama might not be visiting India as president of the United States. One thinks back to Kościuszko in the Continental Army. And forward to the Velvet and Orange and Green revolutionary movements.  One thinks of the Solidarity High Noon poster under which so many Poles voted in 1989.

Anna Walentynowicz, August 1988, photo by W. Górka

Anna Walentynowicz, August 1988, photo by W. Górka

Maybe what I mean by birfurcation is dialectics.

Well-lubricated with wine, we squeeze into our seats for the main presentations. The Poles recount the dramatic events of the 1980s as well as their continuing gratitude to Americans for bringing their struggle out to the world stage and back to them–at a time of complete official censorship, people in Wrocław used Radio Free Europe to find out what was happening in Gdańsk.

Former Times reporter David Andelman, representing the evening’s cosponsor, the Overseas Press Club,  calls to the microphone famous names in American journalism from back in the day.  Dan Rather moves himself to tears.  Bert Quint shows CBS footage.  John Kifner and John Darnton talk about the staff of the Times’s Warsaw bureau.

The American story is the same as the Polish one, but different, shaped by a distance in time and culture.  Speaker after speaker turns the evening, billed as a reunion, into a memorial to the not-so-long-gone days of heroic print and television journalism, to a time when these American journalists mattered.

Maybe what I mean by bifurcation is that in different places the ramifications of the events grew different branches from a common tree.

Polish Consul General Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka introduces Henryk Wujec, Konstanty Gebert, and Zygmunt Staszewski who speak of the victory they never imagined would come.

Wujec  recounts the 1976 founding of KOR (Komitet Obrony Robotników, The Workers’ Defense Committee).  He would eventually serve in the Sejm (The Lower Parliament),  but at the time, a post-grad in physics at Warsaw Polytechnic, he was a leader encouraging students to join the movement to defend the workers:  “ None of us was able to live in the communist system.  The thing we knew was we couldn’t do it alone.”

Henryk Wujec

Henryk Wujec

Konstanty Gebert possesses a dazzlingly agile intellect.  A writer in temperament and practice, he has had many careers, from organizing the revival of the Warsaw Flying University, to championing a revival of Jewish identity in Poland.  He works for human rights around the world, and he advocates human complexity. The newspaper he wrote for during early days of Solidarity has become the great Gazeta Wyborcza (Election Gazette).  Gebert founded Midrasz, a journal for and about Polish Jews.

Gebert says “it is good to remember we were young in a hopelessly old, decaying society that intended to stay that way.”   He insists that a citizen who wants democracy needs to know underground printing techniques.  And despite his optimism (“We can not know which act will cause suffering or which will cause change, but we can be sure that not acting will lead to nothing.”),  he confesses pessimism about the internet as a political tool.

Konstanty Gebert

Konstanty Gebert

To receive an underground newspaper, he says, is to receive the information it contains and also to receive the information that “someone is risking his ass to bring it to you.”  The making and distribution of physical newspapers establishes a web of  obligation which builds collective structures.

Commenting on a photograph of a burning communist party building, Gebert frames the “Polish Earthquake” as a lesson in creation.  “Do not  burn down the committees.  Start your own.”

Zygmunt Staszewski,  is now an American engineer and officer of the Polish American Congress.  He tells of the Transport Workers strike in Wrocław, in August 1980.  They slept in buses in the depot. They did not end the strike until their representatives returned from Gdańsk with copies of the 31 August agreement.  “We didn’t believe the Communists.”  Forced to leave Poland after his release from jail, he came to New York and demonstrated outside the consulate.  Staszewski points to the grand windows of the elegant ballroom.  “It was from these windows that the Polish police photographed us on the street below, so they could pressure our relatives back home.”

Polish Consulate In New York, photo by Cliffy

Polish Consulate In New York, photo by Cliffy

There is a general good feeling.  Those who fought so hard from the outside are now on the inside.  The reversal of fortune mirrors the best novel.   Gebert looks at the international journalists and thanks them for an adventure that was “great fun.”  He adds, “and you can’t imagine how happy we were when you all left.  It was fun to live in a normal boring country.”  The bifurcation that comes from always explaining can put a strain on even the best relationships.

Maybe what I mean by bifurcation is just the necessary imperfection of translation.

The imperfect way Solidarity deployed the iconic image of Gary Cooper, and made new meaning from the weapon of a paper ballot.  The imperfect way those iconic blood red letters, a translation and incorporation of the Polish flag,  supply meaning for so many latter-day movements.

High Noon, 4 June 1989, poster by Tomasz Sarnecki

High Noon, 4 June 1989, poster by Tomasz Sarnecki

Two moments illustrate the uneasy demands of translation.

A young Polish consular officer interpreting Wojec’s memories of the hunger strike says the students were “feasting.”  The room erupts with shouts and corrections:  “fasting! fasting!”  This is one of those lovely precious mistakes the human mind makes.  Feasting and Fasting are so deeply connected, paired as their meanings mirror and oppose each other, paired because they sound so similar to the ear, and look even more similar to the eye.  This is what poets mean by rhyme–two things that have enough in common that their difference makes meaning.

Hunger Strikers

And then John Darnton remembers how his Polish translator would summarize problems by saying, if x or y does or doesn’t happen, there will be “cows in the street.”  Darnton heard reporting of potential “cows in the street” often enough to assume it was an old Polish saying,  originating in the deep rural roots of the nation.  He was even tempted to include the phrase in his copy.  Until he heard his translator reading an English-language article about “chaos.”   Not quite false friends and not quite paired opposites, cows and chaos almost make a new meaning but end up pointing to bifurcations in human solidarity.

Ground Zero in Warsaw: or Praga chestnuts and Pruszków walnuts

November 8th, 2010

Our friends A & Z are the sort of social-democrat intellectuals we connect with.  Their house in Pruszków is filled with books and arty souvenirs of world travel.  Dinners become advanced seminars with noisy debate and occasional recourse to reference volumes.  When the topic of the “mosque at Ground Zero” comes up, Phil and I roll our eyes assuming an easy solidarity:  Americans can be stupid-crazy.   I do a double-take when Z says the mosque is an offense to the memory of those who died on 9/11.

European memory and American memory might as well be different words since they are surely different concepts.  By  “memory,” they might mean the knee and we, the elbow.

Most Śląsko-Dąbrowski

Most Śląsko-Dąbrowski

It had been a rare sunny October afternoon.  Phil and I walked across the Śląsko-Dąbrowski Bridge from the Castle to Praga, with the Warsawa judaica brochure in hand, following Ruth Gruber’s leads on this left bank neighborhood.   We returned via the Świętokrzyski Bridge past the nearly complete Europe 2012 stadium.   Bicycling families put helmets on their children, hipsters wore tight corduroys and Peruvian knit caps, corner supermarkets sealed their bags of freshly sliced cheese with bar-coded labels.  In other words, we were in a modern city.

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In front of the Cathedral of Saints Michael and Florian, a mother and son collected chestnuts in a blue plastic pail.  My father remembers collecting chestnuts with his mother. Maybe he is thinking of Crotona Park, in their early years as immigrants in The Bronx , when immigrants were not necessarily loved but were not automatically suspected terrorists.

IMG_7117

About Ground Zero, I say: All Muslims are not terrorists.  All terrorists are not Muslims.

Z: What you say is a fine idea in the mind, but, in my stomach, I can’t accept this.

I repeat,  All Muslims are not terrorists. All terrorists are not Muslim. Two simple statements.

Z: But they are a violent people.

I repeat, Two Simple Statements.

Z: If they are not themselves violent, they are financed by people who are, who will remove their free will.

I repeat, T.S.S.

Z: Financed by people for whom they will be coerced to act.

We are in a house in an exurb of Warsaw.  Pruszków was founded as an independent town.  Its rail hub was significant enough to attract the Nazis who built a transit station in its yards.  Hundreds of thousands of Jews suffered here between the Warsaw ghetto and death.

Memorial Nazi Victims, next to Pruszków station photo by Krzysztof Dudzik

Memorial to Nazi Victims, next to Pruszków station photo by Krzysztof Dudzik

This history is not the first thing that comes to mind when visiting A & Z.  But now, considering how my own city should negotiate past murder and present life, I want to know details.

My question is real, not a debating point.  I admire contemporary Poles for the way they attempt the difficult negotiation.   A & Z, generation of ’68, could offer me a way to think about horror and history.

–I knew you were going to ask that–Z pushes her hand to stay my question–and this is what I have to say. I don’t think.  I feel.  I feel I could not tolerate a German church in the Warsaw ghetto.

Her simultaneous emphasis and deflection of bloody history bothers me.  And Z’s view of Tea Party Patriots as  pure American populists outrages me.   She needs to know about Jane Mayer’s piece “Covert Operations” in The New Yorker.

Z absorbs the information.  I elaborate.  Fred Koch, the father,  made his fortune building oil refineries  for Stalin.

Stalin? —A asks.  Stalin Who?  You don’t mean that Stalin?

The spirit of the great Lenin and his victorious banner encourage us now to the Patriotic War. (Joseph Stalin)"

The spirit of the great Lenin and his victorious banner encourage us now to the Patriotic War...J Stalin

In the silence that necessarily follows this potent proper noun,  I point out that the Park51 Cultural Center proposes renovating a former clothing store blocks from the World Trade Center.    More silence.

A: Which one?

Burlington Coat Factory.

I love Burlington Coat Factory– A says sadly.  It’s really gone?  Century 21 is still there?  Good.  But.  Burlington Coat Factory…

A is moved by this loss. Turning to his wife, he reconsiders  the cultural center:  Z, do you remember that blue blouse I brought back?  The one you always wear? That is from Burlington Coat Factory.

A sighs.

If shopping is not our most admired export, it might be our most appreciated tourist product.

A, Phil, Z

A, Phil, Z

I wish Europeans were not so smug about our terrible civil rights history. America has confronted its idea of  “the other” periodically, as each excluded group is absorbed into the fight against the next.  The process is not a solution but maybe it is a negotiation of identity.  For better and for worse, American History lumbers forward without memory.   Europeans understand “the other” as a problem created by border disputes and war, and solved by –or in the aftermath of–war.   The difference is a matter of knees and elbows.

As Phil and I rush to make the last commuter train back into town, Z slips away.  When she catches up, her hands are full of walnuts from her backyard tree.  The kind of walnuts children stuff into their pockets in case they need a toy or a snack.  The kind of walnuts parents tuck into packs before putting their children on railway journeys.  The kind of nuts that stand in for the affection of an absent parent or an entire world about to be lost.

Z's walnuts

Happy Birthday Maria Skłodowska (7 November 1867)

October 31st, 2010

It’s not an understatement to say she was the hero of my childhood after  I read a children’s biography and then the biography her daughter wrote.  I decided my life—as another science-focused daughter of school-teachers—should imitate hers.

In Sancellemoz, just before her death

Image in Museum, of M S-C in Sancellemoz, just before her death

And then I forgot about her until a recent visit to the museum run by the Polish Chemical Society. The Maria Skłodowska -Curie Museum is at ulica Freta, 16,  where she was born.  Her life story floods back, seeing one of her dresses by her desk.  She chose this style for her wedding dress because it was heavy and dark and she could also use it for a lab coat.  A woman scientist. A woman scientist whose husband worked for her.  A woman scientist who even had a husband,  and children. The first woman to win a Nobel prize.  The only woman to win two Nobels in two different fields.  The first woman professor  at the Sorbonne.  The first and only woman interred in the Paris Pantheon.  The mother and mother-in-law of Nobel Prize winners.

Marie Curie's Dress and Desk

Marie Curie's Dress and Desk

It is not an understatement to say Skłodowska-Curie had a difficult life.  Her mother died when Maria was eleven.  She worked as a governess to afford her school fees.   Her personal life was filled with erotic complications.    Her husband and collaborator, Pierre, died young.  Crossing the street on a rainy afternoon, he was crushed by a horse-drawn wagon.  After Maria recovered from the loss, she had a brief affair with Pierre’s former student, a younger married man.  The Nobel committee asked her not to attend the ceremony for her second prize after the press published what they said were the adulterous couple’s private letters.  The ensuing scandal included a duel and a sharp rebuttal to the Nobel committee which all working women should keep handy in their briefcase:  “there is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of private life.”

She nursed her grudges and turned them into accomplishments, even as she suffered from what looks to contemporary biographers as depression.  She was also good at self-mythology, highlighting her professional passions and shaping her narrative as one of hard-won triumph against all odds.  She always called her lab, a pretty decent set-up for its time, her “shed.”  She likely would have appreciated the Walter Pigeon/Greer Garson bio-pic, because its distortions romanticize her marriage.

Greer Garson as Marie Curie

Only now do I assemble details I gleaned at different moments in my life.   In a summer program for high school physics students, studying relativity and quantum mechanics at Cornell,  I learned about the the first great Solvay Conference (Topic:  La théorie du rayonnement et les quanta).   But I didn’t learn that Skłodowska-Curie was there among the founding fathers of modern physics.  Rutherford and Bohr needed her work to figure out the nature of the atom.  Her lover, Paul Langevin, was there with her but he hadn’t yet won his Nobel Prize.  She also attended the famous fifth conference (1927: Electrons et photons).  That’s the one at which Einstein supposedly said, in response to Werner Heisenberg,  “God does not play dice.”

1911 Solvay Class Picture.      Seated (L-R): Walther Nernst, Marcel Brillouin, Ernest Solvay, Hendrik Lorentz, Emil Warburg, Jean Baptiste Perrin, Wilhelm Wien, Marie Curie, and Henri Poincaré.     Standing (L-R): Robert Goldschmidt, Max Planck, Heinrich Rubens, Arnold Sommerfeld, Frederick Lindemann, Maurice de Broglie, Martin Knudsen, Friedrich Hasenöhrl, Georges Hostelet, Edouard Herzen, James Hopwood Jeans, Ernest Rutherford, Heike Kamerlingh Onnes, Albert Einstein, and Paul Langevin.

1911 Solvay Class Picture. Seated (L-R): Walther Nernst, Marcel Brillouin, Ernest Solvay, Hendrik Lorentz, Emil Warburg, Jean Baptiste Perrin, Wilhelm Wien, Marie Curie, and Henri Poincaré. Standing (L-R): Robert Goldschmidt, Max Planck, Heinrich Rubens, Arnold Sommerfeld, Frederick Lindemann, Maurice de Broglie, Martin Knudsen, Friedrich Hasenöhrl, Georges Hostelet, Edouard Herzen, James Hopwood Jeans, Ernest Rutherford, Heike Kamerlingh Onnes, Albert Einstein, and Paul Langevin.

In childhood, I focused on  her  impressive dedication.  The hours and hours she spent extracting small samples of uranium from tons of pitchblende–and extracting polonium and radium from the remaining slag–were a  martyrdom to the highest purpose.  If I’d been asked, I would have said Madame Curie was French, but I felt she was a citizen of science,  the first and eternal Prime Minister of the nation of women scientists.

It’s clear  to me in this museum on the edge of Old Town that she was also a citizen of Poland-of-the-imagination.  Her heart belonged to the Poland of Mickiewicz and Chopin.  She was nationalistic enough and sentimental enough to name the first element she discovered Polonium.   And she had enough political sharpness to enjoy how the name called attention to a motherland then under control of the Russian empire.

I can’t resist a strange contemporary tidbit.  Maria Skłodowska-Curie’s element is the poison used in the 2007 killing of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko .  It also killed her daughter, Nobel laureate Irena Joliot-Curie,  after a lab accident.

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In an ABC radio presentation by Robyn Williams,  science writer Marcus Chown announced his Silly Science Awards for 2009.  Marie Curie receives one for Easiest Notebooks to Read at Midnight During a Powercut.  Chown explains:  “You may or may not know that her notebooks are classed as intermediate nuclear waste, and kept in lead lined boxes in Paris [in the Bibliothèque nationale de France].  It seems her fingers were so impregnated with radium and polonium that everything she touched was too.  In fact, if you were to put a photographic plate against one of her notebook pages and develop it, you would see her fingerprints gradually swimming into view.”

Yes.  She loved the warm feel of the elements as they irradiated her hand.  She loved the blue glow of a bedside test tube.  She understood at least some of the power of these elements she isolated.    She inferred from their characteristics that radiation has a medical use.  She developed safety protocols and outfitted vans–little Curies–which she drove to battle sites of World War I.   Do not scoff at a woman who suffered so badly that she lost the tips of her fingers, was nearly blind with cataracts and crippled with spinal problems, yet continued to work barehanded with this source of energy and healing.  I bet you love someone who has consciously chosen this primitive technique to stay the course of cancer because we still don’t have anything better.

After she became famous, she refused requests to return to Poland permanently.  It was still the country she left because, as a young woman, and a Polish speaker, the only way she could gain an advanced education was through the illegal Uniwersytet Latający— the “Flying” or “Floating” University.   Fellow Polish Nobel laureate, novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz  [Quo Vadis], made a personal request and she declined.

This birthplace museum promulgates a biography focused on her love for Poland.  It moves quickly from her orphan-hood in Warsaw to 1925 when she fulfills parental hopes by establishing the Warsaw Radiophysical Laboratory.   It seems a national tendency to understand being Polish as  a biological condition, rather than a nationality.  The mournful connection to soil trumps everything.  We learn that when times got tough, and times were frequently tough, Maria would return to Zakopane and the exhilarating peak of Mt. Rysy.  In 1911, after the Nobel committee scandal, she brought her daughters to a retreat in the Tatra Mountains which, the museum tells us, “were the embodiment of freedom in the country which did not exist on any map.”

Simchat Torah, or Not Dancing in Warsaw

October 29th, 2010

From above, shivering in the women’s balcony of the Nozyk Synagogue, I can see the lamed, clearly, and then I see the bet. The lamed is the last letter of Yisrael, the last word of the Torah. The bet is the first letter of the first word: Bereishit (At the Beginning). I am weeping over Moses dying before he can see his people live in freedom in their own land.

Nozyk Synagogue

Nozyk Synagogue

I am in the last of four hundred synagogues in one of the greatest Jewish cities where the small group of contemporary Jews in Warsaw is led by the American rabbi Michael Schudrich. Charismatic and energetic, Rabbi Schudrich uses the non-governmental title Chief Rabbi of Poland though he is well- connected to–and influential with–the Polish government.

Rabbi Michael Schudrich

Rabbi Michael Schudrich

This synagogue was new at the turn of the twentieth century. It is big, it is beautiful, it shares the affectations of many urban synagogues of post-Enlightenment Europe. It is as elegant as the churches that loomed for centuries over the streets which Jews had only lately been permitted to build in.

I can’t believe that any of the roughly two dozen men I see now ever prayed here before the war. Or ever knew anyone who prayed here before the war.

Where did the they come from? More precisely, where have they been? By the end of communism, there were no  Jewish people in Poland. The Germans did a ruthless job, and the Communists cleaned up the rest, in waves, until 1968 made it definitively impossible to live as a Polish Jew.

My father often said that a Jew can walk into any synagogue, anywhere in the world, and know exactly what is going on. He meant that our link through the text of prayer is what makes the Jews a people.

This rag-tag group gives me the feeling that I might as well be praying among international expats in Hong Kong for all that I’m linked, physically, to my ancestors.

But it is impossible to forget that Nazis stabled their horses in this sacred place, impossible to forget the way one third of the city’s population were disposed of. Poland’s current interest in fixing the Jewish problem doesn’t manage to stitch together the actual genealogical rope that was cut, and cut again, and cut yet again.

“Rejoice on Simḥat Torah.” Simḥat Torah flag, Eastern Europe, nineteenth or early twentieth century. Woodcut. (YIVO Moldovan Family Collection)

“Rejoice on Simḥat Torah.” Simḥat Torah flag, Eastern Europe, nineteenth or early twentieth century. Woodcut. (YIVO Moldovan Family Collection)

Simchat Torah is the most festive holiday in the Jewish calendar. Today I want to dance and sing. Joy in Torah has every synagogue emptying its ark of every Torah, and parading these scrolls around the synagogue in celebratory circuits.  Seven times.  Seven Hakafot. The only woman in the synagogue when I arrive is praying the morning silent meditation. She’s young, very beautiful, covered in a tightly wrapped headscarf and exceedingly modest clothes—a hybrid of Bronx Modern Orthodox and Brooklyn Lubavitch.

More women arrive but the atmosphere upstairs is  stiff and quiet. None of us is singing the prayers.   I worry about offending local custom if I raise my voice.  It is  cold.  I’m uncomfortable in the tense silence.   Eventually a woman my age and her daughter, with strong voices and a kavanah I recognize, join us. At Kiddush, I learn she is Helise Lieberman principal of the Lauder Morasha Day School in Warsaw. Today’s Ba’al Tefiliah is her husband, Yale Reisner, Director of the Jewish Genealogy Learning Center.

"Hakafot" a painting by Shoshannah Brombacher

"Hakafot" a painting by Shoshannah Brombacher

The men dance in big circles, and in pairs, and with the children. They set silly hats on each other. They climb on the furniture like monkeys and the children steal the shoes they’ve set aside.  Still, not one woman dances. Not with another, not even swaying to herself.  Our wildest activity is tossing a single modest Milky Way candy on a man reading from the bimah. We use a  stuffed bear in a sporadic game of catch from our balcony to the children in the main well of the sanctuary. When Yale Reisner starts the musaf, he drapes himself in an extra tallit and others drape him in more. Then in a sheet of blue plastic. As he begins the prayer for rain– Mashiv HaRuach u’Morid Hageshem–his daughter pours water from a plastic cup on him.

Every synagogue has its customs.  Some, like mock rain, are new to me. Others,  I haven’t seen in fifty years. A man brings out paper flags on wooden sticks and I remember the little depressing apples stuck on top of the flags of my childhood. How my mother competitively told me she had it worse. Her Brownsville flags were topped with “bokser,” St. Johns Bread, dried carob pods from the holy land.   Contemporary hakafot in New York are marked by adults throwing pounds of candy and children begging for more candy.

Bokser -- Carob Pods

Bokser -- Carob Pods

In the Nozyk Synagogue I hear the old tunes like a big comforting feather bed. The people who taught me  brought them from over here. I wonder if  some of the important  Warsaw Jews prayed here.  Did Abraham Joshua Heschel or S. An-ski or I. L. Peretz ever stare as the Moorish arches of the choir while brooding about his latest draft?

Prominent Jewish writers, Warsaw, 1922. (Left to right) Esther (Esye) Elkin and her husband, director and actor Mendl Elkin; playwright Perets Hirshbeyn; poet Uri Tsevi Grinberg; Khane Kacyzne and her husband, the writer and photographer Alter Kacyzne; and poet Esther Shumiatsher, later married to Hirshbeyn. (YIVO)

Prominent Jewish writers, Warsaw, 1922. (Left to right) Esther (Esye) Elkin and her husband, director and actor Mendl Elkin; playwright Perets Hirshbeyn; poet Uri Tsevi Grinberg; Khane Kacyzne and her husband, the writer and photographer Alter Kacyzne; and poet Esther Shumiatsher, later married to Hirshbeyn. (YIVO)

The familiar songs force a revision of my father’s assertion. We do not have to choose between liturgy and geography. That’s a chicken and egg problem. While I do not have to be on ulica Twarda, 6 to connect to the Jews of the last thousand years, or even to some distant relatives of the past century; when I hear the call  Ana Hashem Hoshi’a Na (Oh Lord, save us) modulate to the joyful and confident Aneinu, Aneinu B’yom Koreinu (Answer us now on the day we call), I am linked to the place where this prayer once was sung, is still sung.

Inside The Nozy Synagogue

Inside The Noszyk Synagogue

In Out of Egypt André Aciman sets out the ironic details of his last Passover seder in Alexandria . His multi-lingual, multi-temperamental family celebrates the biblical exodus on the eve of their expulsion from an Egyptian Jewish paradise.

Outside the synagogue, trailing the last of the seven hakafot, I think of Aciman’s exquisite agony. I am suddenly exchanging song phrases with a particularly open-faced teenage boy:  L’Shana…Ha’Ba’a …b’Yerushalayim.  Next year in Jerusalem.  Jerusalem Rebuilt.  Silver-and-silk-covered scrolls are dancing around the building in a damp cold early October, followed at a decent distance by Warsaw Police and private security guards.  One old babcia has put her morning shopping  on the ground and is clapping us along. We are doing this a few steps from Aleje Jerozolimskie.

Artificial palm tree by Joanna Rajkowska on Jerusalem Avenue, Warsaw,  photo by Janusz Jurzyk

Artificial palm tree by Joanna Rajkowska on Jerusalem Avenue, Warsaw, photo by Janusz Jurzyk

Ironies of place. I want to know: did I. B. Singer, did Uri Zvi Grinberg, did Esther Shumiatsher, did Menachem Begin, ever stand in this courtyard?  Did “Jerusalems Avenue” signify only underneath their conscious thought as “Park Avenue” does mine?  Or did they play slowly with the irony and the legend of the street’s plural naming?  Did the Zionists stand here and decide to make literal the metaphorical wish for a translation to Jerusalem? Did the poets ask “Oh, Lord, save us,”  hereNow? Or did they breath this air, as I do now, wondering what, exactly an answer to the collective demand would sound like?  Did  they imagine, as I hope to, an answer from an attentive deity?