Life after Life: Virtually Jewish 15 Years On
The questions about non-Jewish interest, involvement, and appropriation of “things Jewish” that Ruth Ellen Gruber raised 15 years ago in Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe are still relevant, still unresolved, and still in flux. But much has evolved. There are many persisting examples of the “virtual”—ranging from the astounding 50 or so Jewish culture festivals that take place annually in Poland, most of them in places where no Jews live; to the commercial catering conventions of Jewish-style cafes; to the “living shtetl skansen” project in Jew-less Bilgoraj, where a local businessman has spearheaded a commercial and cultural development that includes a fullscale replica of a destroyed wooden synagogue, set in a fabricated market square lined by replica shtetl houses. The presentation will primarily address the revival of “Jewishness,” but will also touch on the trends that, at the same time, speak to new Jewish input and new realities through which living Jews (be they tourists, congregants, pilgrims, students, teachers, performers, cafe-goers, seekers of family roots, or commemorators of the Holocaust) and living local Jewish communities are staking claims and asserting voices in ways that have an impact on the definitions and manifestations of Jewish space, Jewish culture, and even the concept of “Jewish” itself.
American author and journalist Ruth Ellen Gruber has chronicled Jewish developments in Europe for more than 25 years and writes frequently on Jewish heritage, revival, and tourism in post-communist Europe. With her 2012 book Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe, she coined the term “virtually Jewish” to describe the way the so-called “Jewish space” in Europe is often filled by non-Jews. Among her other books are National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe, first published in 1992; Letters from Europe (and Elsewhere); and Upon the Doorposts of Thy House: Jewish Life in East-Central Europe, Yesterday and Today. A former correspondent for United Press International in Poland and elsewhere in communist Europe, she has also written for The New York Times and many other publications. Her awards and honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship and Poland’s Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit. Currently she coordinates the web site jewish-heritage-europe.eu, a project of the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe. She was the Distinguished Visiting Chair in Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston (South Carolina) in spring 2015.