European Day of Jewish Culture Is for Everyone
Spread around them were the remains of the city’s centuries-old Jewish cemetery, notable for its squat white tombstones shaped like truncated pillars, some fallen, some tilted over, some standing erect, their beautifully carved Hebrew inscriptions glinting in the sun.
Ancona’s mayor spoke a few words, and the chief rabbi emeritus of Milan, Giuseppe Laras, offered a benediction. Then the Libyan-born Jewish singer Miriam Meghnagi lifted her voice in a haunting Sefardic song.
The ceremony, in September 2005, marked the rededication of the cemetery after a massive restoration project that had stabilized the land, cleared it of brush and enabled it to be opened to the public. That event formed a centerpiece in Italy’s annual observance of the European Day of Jewish Culture, a continent-wide celebration of Jewish tradition that takes place each year on the first Sunday in September—this year on September 7.
Each culture day has a central theme. In 2005, it was cuisine, and after leaving the cemetery, dozens of people sampled specialties from the varied cultural components that make up Italian Jewry—Sefardic and Ashkenazic Jews, post-World War II immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East, and Italian Jews whose traditions date back to ancient Roman times. On the menu were baked anchovies with endive, fried eggplant in tomato sauce, fish balls made from salted cod and sweet fritters in honey sauce, all washed down with kosher Italian wine.
Now in its ninth year, the European Day of Jewish Culture is by far the most ambitious of a dizzying array of Jewish festivals that annually take place all over Europe.
Begun as a local initiative in the Alsace region of France, Culture Day went international in 1999 and is one of the only such manifestations with a cross-border character. This year the theme is music, and the roster encompasses as many as 800 separate, simultaneous events in 30 countries, from Norway and the United Kingdom to Spain and Italy.
With so much going on in so many places, Culture Day is targeted more at locals than tourists. Its aim is to enable the public at large to discover the historical heritage of Judaism and, in doing so, to combat anti-Jewish prejudice.
“Making physical access to places of Jewish interest easy is one way of showing the non-Jewish world that they live side by side with people who are approachable, accessible and want their culture to be understood,” said Jonathan Joseph, the London-based president of the European Council of Jewish Communities. “We want our places of worship admired, just like other religions; we want our history to be understood; we want our relevance to the local cultural scene to be clear.”
Each year, synagogues, cemeteries, ritual baths, Jewish museums and other Jewish sites open to the public, and seminars, exhibits, lectures, book fairs, art installations, concerts, performances, guided tours and more take place, many in localities where Jews no longer have a presence. Organizers estimate that last year’s events attracted as many as 200,000 people across Europe, most not Jewish.
In Norway, this year’s celebrations coincide with the opening of the Oslo Jewish Museum. Kicking off the four-day programming on September 6 will be “A Night of Klezmer Music,” with Scandinavian acts including Urban Tunnélls Klezmerband, Sabbath Hela Veckan and Channe Nussbaum & Klezmerfobia.
Great Britain’s schedule encompasses three weeks of events, from open houses at dozens of synagogues throughout the country to walking tours of Jewish neighborhoods to concerts ranging from “Jewish Musicians from the East End” of London to the Liverpool Philharmonic performing George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”
Culture Day is loosely coordinated by the ECJC, B’nai B’rith Europe and the Red de Juderias de España, a Jewish tourism route linking 15 Spanish cities. On the ground, however, the operation is staffed by volunteers in each country—Jewish and non-Jewish alike. The level of participation in each country is determined by local interest, resources and capabilities.
Italy is one of the most enthusiastic participants. Last year, events in more than 55 towns and cities attracted 50,000 people—about 15,000 more than the country’s entire Jewish population. This year, even more venues have been added.
“There is a very high level of interest here, more so than in many other countries,” said Sira Fatucci, national coordinator for Culture Day in Italy. This is partly due to Italy’s effective organization and successful publicizing. Jewish communities work closely with public and private institutions, and the event receives government support.
“And then, of course,” she added, “the Jewish patrimony in Italy encompasses a uniquely rich and varied array of treasures, like nowhere else.”
These range from Roman-era sites such as the Jewish catacombs in Rome and the synagogue ruins at Ostia Antica to the medieval mikve in Siracusa to opulent Baroque synagogues in the Piedmont region to the historic ghetto and centuries-old cemetery in Venice.
But in other countries, the story is different. Given funding and logistics problems, only a few token Culture Day events take place elsewhere, while in some areas, the one-day-a-year model has been outpaced by other local initiatives.
“You can’t offer the same things every year,” said Maros Borsky, who heads a Jewish research center in Bratislava, the Slovak capital. “Fewer people are coming, and some museums, for example, are reluctant to get involved—they don’t want to open without charging an entrance fee. In a lot of places, people are organizing local days of Jewish culture and other events on their own.”
The norwegian jewish singer Bente Kahan said her own performance schedule is so extensive that Culture Day has little special relevance. Based in Wroclaw, Poland, Kahan heads a foundation there to restore the city’s historic synagogue and teach residents about Jewish heritage and tradition as well as the Holocaust.
“My way of teaching is through music and performance,” Kahan said. “We will probably have a concert on the European Day of Jewish Culture, but in fact we do things all the time… school performances in the fall, films in the summer, concerts.”
Teaching a non-Jewish public about Jewish heritage is a way to instill a connection to emerging issues of identity and history. “We are living in symbiosis,” she said.
Against this background, Culture Day coordinators are refocusing their priorities. They are concerned that the novelty of the day may be waning, with Jewish culture becoming just one of numerous heritages competing for attention—and funding.
“None of us could have predicted that the program would spread so far,” said Assumpcio Hosta, secretary general of the Red de Juderias. “Can it keep expanding? I don’t think so.”
“In general, I wish the day of ‘Jewish culture’ would instead focus on ‘Jewish life,’” said Italian musicologist Francesco Spagnolo, who is scheduled to give talks on this year’s theme in Florence, Padua and Livorno.
“I hope that by focusing on music this time, the European Day of Jewish Culture will contribute to painting a clearer picture of cultural exchanges between Jews and non-Jews,” said Spagnolo, who currently heads research at the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley, California. “Hopefully, this will go beyond the usual stereotypes: celebrating the culture of ‘dead Jews’ versus being hostile to actual Jews, including Israel and the Israelis.”
Samuel D. Gruber—Syracuse, New York-based president of the International Survey of Jewish Monuments—agrees that Culture Day in its present form may have run its course. But, he said, over the years it has served an important purpose and become a stimulus for related endeavors.
“People use Culture Day to reassess the local angle and the grass-roots potential,” he said. “Jewish heritage is becoming part of the local constellation of monuments to visit—not because they are Jewish, but because they are part of the local heritage. Americans tend to know Prague, Krakow, Budapest, but there’s a wealth of other fascinating Jewish places out there.”
(Gruber, who is the author’s brother, posts updates on synagogue restorations, cemetery clean-ups, museum openings and Jewish cultural events on his organization’s Web site.)
In 2006, as part of their attempt to revamp Culture Day’s focus, organizers created the European Association for the Preservation and Promotion of Jewish Culture and Heritage.
Its stated aim is to break out of the one-day-only model and use the experience of the past nine years to expand into more deeply grounded projects that could maintain momentum and have a year-round impact.
These include an ambitious, transborder European Route of Jewish Heritage aimed at forming Jewish itineraries that will link the countries that to date have participated in the European Day of Jewish Culture. This project, however, has yet to gain much traction, despite being recognized in 2005 by the Council of Europe as a Major Cultural Route.
“What we are trying to do is to coordinate activities of the individual countries involved,” said Hosta. “The AEJP wants to offer a platform to encourage contacts among them, promote the national routes, publicize their experiences and enable the various people involved to learn from one another.”
In fact, several regional Jewish heritage routes already exist, at least as concepts or suggested itineraries.
The most notable—and successful—is the Red de Juderias in Spain, with recommended stops in Avila, Barcelona, Tudela and 12 additional towns. Others include a Hasidic route that will encompass more than a score of towns in southeastern Poland, including Chelm, Jaroslaw and Lesko, currently being formulated by the Warsaw-based Foundation for the Preservation of Polish Jewish Heritage.
In Bratislava, Borsky says that a European Route of Jewish Heritage has potential. City officials, he believes, would be more willing to support an endeavor open to tourists year round than a one-day festival for locals.
Meanwhile, Borsky is working locally to create a Slovak Jewish Heritage Route. To date, it includes synagogues in Bratislava and six other towns, along with several branches of the state-run Jewish Museum and the unique, subterranean burial complex in Bratislava where the influential 19th- century sage Rabbi Moshe Schreiber, known as the Chatam Sofer, is buried.
Borsky has placed plaques at these sites; he has printed illustrated brochures and is promoting them on his Web site, which also includes an expanding database of Jewish heritage. He is also preparing educational programs for schools.
As an architectural historian and active member of the city’s tiny Jewish community, he feels it a “moral duty” to protect and promote Jewish heritage in his country.
“Synagogues are part of townscapes,” he said. “If they are restored, they will add to the quality of life for local residents.
“Jewish heritage,” Borsky continued, “is not something we are keeping just for ourselves now; we save it for future generations who might much more appreciate both these buildings and the complexity of these towns.”
Ruth Ellen Gruber is an American writer living in Europe. Her books include Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe (National Geographic).
– Bente Kahan Foundation: www.fbk.org.pl
– European Day of Jewish Culture: www.jewisheritage.org
– Foundation for the Preservation of Polish Jewish Heritage:www.fodz.pl
– International Survey of Jewish Monuments: www.isjm.org
– Jewish Heritage in Europe: www.jewish-heritage-europe.eu
– Oslo Jewish Museum: www.jodiskmuseumoslo.com
– Red de Juderias de España: www.redjuderias.org
– Slovak Jewish Heritage: www.slovak-jewish-heritage.org