Saturday, June 30, 2012

June 29, 2012 Arriving in Warsaw

June 29, 2012                       Warsaw, Poland

Stadtner Shabbat Dinner

Simply put, the Stadtner family hosts the best erev Shabbat dinner we have experienced.  Each Friday night, they open their home to the community, offer commentary on the Parshah, chant the blessings, and enjoy Debbie’s fabulous chicken (and a little salad from Larry).  We enjoy it so much we basically got ourselves a standing invitation..and with this post…are essentially inviting any of you who get a chance to be in Marin County on a Friday night to experience this ritual which we know our daughters will remember as an integral part of their growing up, and of their Jewish lives.  Thank  you, Debbie and Larry! 

With that preface, we experienced the first Shabbat dinner that can even flirt with the Stadtners last night in Warsaw.  More to come..

On a very personal note, (and especially for readers who have already asked for some Yiddish translations, and Jewish cultural references (this is for you, Flora J), making a trip to Poland brings up lots of emotions for Jewish travelers.  Poland was the center of world Jewish life for about 500 years.  Then, in World War II, 90% of Polish Jewry was killed in the Holocaust.  We are traveling to Poland under the guidance of the Taube Center for the Renewal of Jewish Life in Poland, dedicated to helping those remaining Jews rediscover their Jewish ancestry (of the incredibly small number of Jews remaining after the Nazi and the Soviet periods, even fewer now have any knowledge that their grandparents were Jews). 

For us, this trip is about the intersection…even the crashing together…of those three parts of Polish Jewish life as much as it is a journey of family genealogy and Shayna’s bat mitzvah.

That said, as a modern Jewish historian, I know and teach what happened here.

That that said, there is also humanity; the idea that the history of Jews in Poland reaches new and different levels when you get to be here; on the same piece of real estate where all that happened, and is happening.  And I know myself well enough to know that sometimes the professor recedes and, as Rabbi Lezak would ask me, “how’s your soul?”

In that spirit, here’s my own diary of the first day in Poland.  Marci and, I hope, the girls, will add their own perspectives.

About 10 minutes from landing in Warsaw, I looked out at the green farmland of Poland and thought, “So this is fucking Poland.”  How’s that for an emotional burst!  It was all Holocaust to me.  I’m looking for railroad lines; looking for people farming their land and wondering about their ancestors who farmed that land three generations ago.  It was WWII in my mind.   I know.  I know. I know all the post-war developments, all the years that have passed, but this is my first moment actually staring at the land where the genocide was attempted and that was real for me.

Jakub, who will be our guide, translator, and driver for Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania met us at the airport and drove us to our hotel.  It warmed my heart (and my soul) when he asked, within minutes, about our Hebrew.   With his time studying at Tel Aviv University and my year there a generation ago, we conversed…and resorted to Hebrew when either had a challenge in translating Polish to English.  The layers and flavors of Polish Jewish life were beginning to build.

He showed us a giant skyscraper designed by Leibeskind, who created the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco (that’s for you David).  Then, he pointed out one of the few remnants of the wall of the Warsaw ghetto.  Then he showed us massive construction for a new subway line all in the midst of the Euro Cup Football/Soccer match that played its last game in Warsaw the previous night. (Italy stunned Germany, 2-1 to reach Sunday’s final in Kiev against Spain).  That was a pretty good overview of past, present, and future for a Jewish tourist entering Warsaw…

Helise, who has created all the magic to make this journey possible, came to the hotel to welcome us.  Not only did we get a bag full of maps, books (including a brand new Jewish walking guide to Warsaw and Krakow), but she included a challah for Shabbat.  The experience is getting fuller and richer by the hour.

Warsaw’s main synagogue is a short walk from the hotel so we changed and headed over for Friday night services.  It’s an Orthodox shul so Marci and the girls headed upstairs to the balcony while I joined about 15-20 men in the main sanctuary.  A few chabadniks, two or three haredi (ultra-orthodox), some (very secular looking) Israelis (at least I wore long pants), tourists, and just a few Polish Jews..  The Chief Rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, an American-born rabbi (with a wicked good sense of humor) who has devoted his rabbinate to Polish Jewish life, led the service.

Orthodox davening (praying) is not my style.  I’d prefer to sit with my family and I get a whole lot more meaning from how I was raised to pray at summer camp.  That said, I have huge respect for the work of Rabbi Schudrich, for the very idea of a grand synagogue in Warsaw in the 21st century, and, most of all, for having Shayna and Rebecca experience that service as part of their Jewish upbringings.   As Marci and I reminded the girls walking back, “you just experienced erev Shabbat in Warsaw.”  In the grand arc of Jewish history, that’s one for memories book.

Rabbi Schudrich invited us to stay for dinner following services.  There, at a long table that reminded me of the Stadtner table (looks like the seder table but it happens every week!), we took our seats and began praying and singing and then washing and eating, course after course.  As it turned out, the four of us were seated across from the Rabbi so we were able to spend the evening learning from him, asking every question we could imagine, and getting a better sense of what it is to tend to the needs of Polish Jewry today.  The fact that the rabbi is American-born helped us in both language and culture as his words and experiences helped bring us more and more into an understanding of Polish Jewish life.

He reached out to Shayna and honored her for her upcoming bat mitzvah.  They made vegetarian food happen for her…and when she wanted more rice, the Polish woman serving the food smiled at her, RAN to the kitchen, and came back with both rice and an affirmation (in Polish) that she would also be another of Shayna’s grandmothers.

Between the rabbi’s teaching, and the singing, and the praying, and the eating, it was after 11 pm before we were done.  We took the walk back to the Hotel full of Shabbat spirit (and in a whole lot different place than just a few hours earlier on the plane).

Old Town, Warsaw

Another hot and humid day...

The border of the Warsaw Ghetto

A wedding

The Leibeskind skyscraper

A really nice hotel!


  1. I had a very similar experience in Munich. Same 10-15 old men, hasids in the main shul. A guy came in and just started leading Kabalat Shabbat. After services I introduced myself and (with little or no German) I tried Hebrew. His response "you're not from around here are you? (with a thick Brooklyn accent!) About 10 of us followed the Rabbi to his apartment, up 5 floors in the dark to a beautiful home with about 20 extra chairs set up around the table (so I suppose they just sort of expected theere would be guests). Many courses, great smells, great hospitality. (Something I think we sometimes forget about here in the US).

    Truly enjoying the blog Mosh. Have fun!

  2. Thanks! Great day today....will take some time to get up to the blog. Moshe