The caller was usually quite embarrassed.
– You don’t know me – he or she would stutter out – but I got your phone number from so-and-so who said you could help me. You see – again an embarrassed silence – I am of Jewish origin, and I don’t know whom I can turn to…
Being Jewish in Poland in the Eighties was something of a problem. The two officially tolerated Jewish organizations had a joint membership of about five thousand, average members’ age around sixty, and did their best not to be noticed – not by the authorities, not by population, not by anybody. Anyway, my callers usually would not dream of turning to them. One, the Jewish Socio-Cultural Association was tainted by its unwavering loyalty to the Communist party line in a time when the entire country was in revolt. The other, the Orthodox kehilla, seemed way too remote to people who had been brought up in assimilated families, often were children of mixed marriages or had made such marriages themselves. All they knew of their yiddishkeit was the guilty knowledge that they are “of Jewish origin” and, try hard as they can, they cannot make it go away. We called them “the shipwrecked Jews”.
Anti-Semitism usually was the decisive factor in making them interested in exploring their roots. True, some of the “shipwrecked” had managed to conceal their identities from most of their acquaintances, others were accepted by their milieus, their Jewish origins notwithstanding. Still, offensive – if not necessarily ill-intentioned – comments and jokes, occasional articles in the press or comments in Church sermons, all that made them forever cautious and wary. They always had to be prepared, to know how to react, to continuously strike a balance between self-preservation and self-esteem.
Others, living in happier circumstances, were nonetheless intrigued and tantalized by references to a heritage they knew was somehow theirs, and yet they knew next to nothing about. The more they read – sometimes a hodgepodge that could include both Shalom Ash and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion – the more intrigued and disoriented they felt.
Others still simply wanted to know what the whole fuss is all about.
So had we.
In the late Seventies, a group of the shipwrecked was set up almost by accident in Warsaw, a side-result of, of all things, a workshop led by the great American humanist psychologist Carl Rogers. Bonded by that common experience, a group of Jewish participants including myself decided to continue exploring their identities. One of the first shocks was in fact the discovery that we all were Jewish. I had hardly realized many of my friends were, they hardly knew this about myself. Being Jewish had not been something you would be willing to talk about overtly. The anti-Semitic campaign of 1968, which had led to the emigration of some twenty thousand Jews, was ever-present in our minds. It had been both a threat and a formative experience. Our awareness of our Jewishness – or at least of its relevance – dated from that point.
The second part of the Seventies was in Poland a period of intense intellectual ferment. A democratic opposition movement was budding, and many of us were associated with it. As Polish society was critically examining the official truths it was supposed to believe, a new climate of intellectual and moral openness developed. This in turn led, at least among large parts of the intelligentsia, to a reckoning with the darker pages of Poland’s past, a condemnation of anti-Semitism, indeed – an appreciation of things Jewish. Our group – which we had called the Jewish “Flying University”, borrowing a name used by the self-education movement organized by the opposition – flourished in that period of critical openness. Unofficial but not underground, since we did not conceal its activities, it was characteristic of the new atmosphere of the late Seventies.
Together with the rest of the country we then shared the elation of the heady days of Solidarnosc and, again together with the rest of the country, were crushed in the coup of December 1981. The Flying University had to close down.
But, although we still remained a part of the nation-wide democratic movement, and some of us joined the Solidarnosc underground, we also had an agenda of our own. The two precious years we had spent exploring our Jewishness had not been wasted. Developing along different paths – religious, Zionist, cultural – we had matured our identities. No longer was our Jewishness just a reaction to external taunt or threat.
We also knew that we could have never got there alone. The process of maturation had been a collective one, in which experiences were shared, insights developed together, knowledge passed around. And the fact that the none of us had to face it all alone any more was more important than anything else.
Our names and phone numbers were passed around ever since Flying University had been set up. Total strangers would occasionally call to find out our activities, show up, and join the club. Dial-a-Jew, I called it sometimes. Many callers used the convenient alibi of intellectual curiosity to justify their interest. “I’m not a Jewish but I heard about your group and I’m just curious…”. Some of those actually were just that, others felt saver behind the veil. Others still made no bones about their personal reasons for contacting us. I vividly remember a young guy from a small provincial town weeping the first time he showed up. Watching our group – usually some twenty to thirty people came to each of our meetings – he said he had never in his life seen so many Jews together.
The phone calls stopped in the early Eighties. Martial law was not conducive to strangers meeting to discuss intimate secrets, even if they were not Jewish. And then, half-way through the decade, our phones started ringing again.
This time there was no Jewish Flying University to justify the calls: the military took a dim view of any “unofficial” organizations. No veil was available. The callers had simply to state their business.
I always wondered, while talking to them, whether – had I been in their situation – I would have the courage to call a total stranger and, just on the strength of the assurance that somebody had given, reveal my identity and ask for help. My friends and I had been privileged to have had around us a group we could trust. We have made sense of our identities together, have helped each other mature, and knew it was worth it.
How do they know it is worth it, I wondered, while they are still at the very beginning of what, at best, will be a long and tortuous journey back home? What drives them to make that risk, to – in fact – deny what they have been up till now and try to reach out for a heritage they barely know?
And I remembered how, in the black years after 1968, when it seemed that all the Jews have left, I had turned to books to try to make some head or tail of this bewildering new identity that the anti-Semitic campaign had thrust on me. Oh, I had always known that I’m “of Jewish origin”, but that had been irrelevant, as Poland was supposed to be an internationalist Socialist society, in which nation, religion and race did not matter any more. 1968 had changed all that.
I hardly knew anybody else facing the same predicament. But those who had been forced to leave had left many of their books behind. In the second-hand bookstores of Warsaw, it was easy to buy good Polish translations of Shalom Ash, Peretz, Shalom Aleychem, and the elder Singer. Originals too, but my assimilated background had not included a knowledge of Yiddish.
I remember devouring book after book, first marveling at the quaint exoticism of it all – those rabbis, those peculiar culinary habits, those customs that made no sense – and then, suddenly, discovering that I’m completely at case inside the world of these novels. At that point, I still didn’t know what a tallis was, but I understood perfectly well what made the characters who wore tallesim tick. I knew the emotions, understood the jokes, felt the pain. I trusted these people. I was home.
Had I ever helped my callers the way Yossele Kalb had helped me? I’ll never know, of course. Some just talked – from the noise in the background I could tell they were calling from booths, so that whoever was monitoring my calls couldn’t track them down – and then hung up without even giving me their names. Others would make appointments, show up or not, disappear again. Some remained in touch and eventually honored me with their friendship.
They would ask how many Jews are there in Poland – and laugh with me as I answered that the answer depends on who is asking whom, where, when and why. They would inquire again about the oddities of kashrut, state categorically that they never heard anything so silly as that – and inquire again. They would ask why is it that we are hated so much. They would ask why have I stayed in Poland. They would ask why others have left.
These conversations were the deepest test of the Jewish identity I assumed I had matured in the Flying University years. What was tested was not knowledge – although as often as not I had to confess my ignorance – but meaning. Commitment. Bond.
Has it been worth for you? – they seemed to be asking. And have you been worth it? Is it possible to reclaim the heritage? Is there a heritage? What about the price tag? What about the cost of not trying?
I felt naked and vulnerable answering these unasked but ever-present queries. Never in my life had I volunteered for this kind of responsibility. I neither had the knowledge nor the maturity it takes. Why can’t they ask a rabbi?
There were no rabbis.
It has been quite a few years since I had the last one of these phone calls. As Poland passed the water-shed year 1989 and proceeded to build a democracy, free of all fetters but those that are her own to claim, Jewish life started to recover and reorganize. We again have rabbis, communities, youth camps, vicious conflicts over policy, power struggles – the works. We are in the process of becoming, numbers allowing, just another small, boring Jewish community.
Sometimes in synagogue – or “anywhere but!” – I meet people whose voices seem familiar. Or someone tells me: You know, I called you once, way back when…
At times, I dare to ask if our conversation had an impact. I don’t always get the answer. And sometimes I don’t like what I hear.
But those answers – like everything else Jews say or not, do or not do – help modify and complement my Jewishness, sometimes changing it, but always deepening it. This is when I realize that, whatever my impact on the identity of other Jews, mine is also perpetually shaped by them. That the questions I heard unasked in their voices are those I will never stop asking myself.
And the question is the opposite of doubt. One questions only that which exists. To my callers, I will remain forever grateful.