As summer approaches, people are making vacation plans. More and more people are traveling to Poland, to the old shtetl, to see where their families lived for hundreds of years, before coming to America.
They will find that their destinations are probably not at all similar to the genetic memories handed down by their forebears. Obviously there are no longer masses of Jews, many wearing the traditional Chassidic garb. Gone are the sounds of Yiddish, the language of the Vistula. Gone is the availability of a minyan in every town. Gone are the easy opportunities to find kosher food on every corner.
Poland today is not like it was before the Shoah, but with a little effort a traveler can have a good Jewish experience as they connect to the past.
Today there is a chief rabbi in Warsaw leading a very active religious community. The Nozyk Synagogue has regular minyanim, independent of tourists. There is a kosher store that can supply food for your stay in Poland. There is even a kosher kitchen in which hot lunches can be eaten and a coffee house for more intimate, if simpler, meals.
In Lodz the Jewish community also has daily minyan, a Jewish hotel, dairy restaurant and an organized Jewish community that is ready and very willing to help tourists with all their needs. The cemetery in Lodz is one of the largest in Poland and is in the process of being renovated for easier access and cataloguing of the graves, making it feasible for people to find the graves of their family members when possible.
In Wroclaw the resident rabbi, Rabbi Icchak Rapoport, has been working to reorganize the community to bring it closer to Orthodoxy, with regular classes, a kosher kitchen, and by his very presence.
Krakow has been famous for its “Jewish Festival” but in actuality there is not much religion at the festival as it is mostly secular. The festival is more about Jewish culture with only a smattering of religious classes. You can learn about Jewish dance, paper cutting, recently published Jewish books, movies and music, but not much about Jewish garb, prayer and how to keep kosher. It is interesting to note that most of the attendees of the festival are not Jewish.
That is not to say that Krakow is not worth a visit, or that there is no Jewish life in Krakow. Today there is a chief rabbi in Krakow, Rabbi Boaz Pasz, who leads the community in religious practice. The Eden Hotel located just around the corner from the Rema Synagogue is kosher and even has a mikveh, and mezuzot on all the doors.
When traveling anywhere in the world Jews always have to worry about kosher food, a minyan, Shabbat and other religious necessities. It is a lot easier in Poland today. Kosher food is available in all the big cities, and in some places, there are regular minyanim and even kosher hotels.
Gone are the days when Jews had to travel to Poland with one suitcase of clothing and one full of food. Not only is it more convenient for the traveler to buy kosher food in Poland; it also gives a boost to the economic life of the Jewish community and gives one an added chance to interact with those working to maintain Jewish life in the land of our ancestors.
(Continued next week)