Lifestyle & Belief

Being Jewish in Europe: Beyond the land of ghosts


A couple dances during the theatrical performance 'Jewish Wedding in Galicia' as part of the International Festival of Jewish music 'LvivKlezFest 2013' in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, on September 1, 2013.


Yuriy Dyachyshyn

The Jewish High Holidays begin Wednesday at sundown. This year's "Days of Awe" bring a somber anniversary. It is 40 years since Arab armies launched a surprise attack on Israel on Yom Kippur. It was as close as the Jewish state would ever come to defeat and remains a trauma for the country.

Much has changed in the last four decades, though the intractable problem of Israel's relationship to the Palestinians remains unsolved. But the biggest change of all is within the global Jewish community.

What does it mean to be Jewish today for the world's 13.4 million Jews? This is not just a question of religion or heritage. It is a social question and a political question. As in all questions about identity, the answer is complicated but what makes this one unique is it has geopolitical consequences for the whole world.

In this series of analysis and commentary, Michael Goldfarb looks at the contemporary meaning of Jewishness in America, Israel and Europe. Goldfarb is a GlobalPost relgion writer and author of Emancipation: How Liberating Europe's Jews From the Ghetto Led to Revolution and Renaissance.

LONDON — To be a Jew in Europe today is to live in a land of ghosts.

In 1933, Europe was the heartland of world Jewry. Almost two-thirds of the world's Jews lived between France and the European territories of the Soviet Union. By 1945, almost two-thirds of them were dead.

Today, the cities where Jewish life thrived and dominated culturally: Vienna, Berlin, Warsaw … have tiny Jewish populations.

Only Paris retains a sizable Jewish presence. More than 14 percent of the city's population is Jewish, a little bit larger of a percentage than in New York.

With that presence comes confidence. The Jewish community in Paris is comfortable and prominent in the media, the academy and politics.

You might think the Holocaust overshadows every aspect of life for Jews still living in Europe. But that would be wrong.

"I am living in the 21st century," says Hungarian Rabbi Zoltan Radnoti. "Jews in Budapest don't feel this weight of 70 years ago. The generations have changed 100 percent."

Radnoti's view will surprise the many American Jews who regard the continent as a graveyard and a place where hatred of Jews continues to thrive.

It will anger Israeli commentators, like Yehediot Aharonot's Guy Bechor, who has written, "A Jew can no longer walk the streets while displaying Jewish trademarks, or visit Jewish institutions that are not surrounded by police officers and guards; they must remain behind locks and bars, scared for their lives."

A more temperate but equally dark assessment comes from Rabbi David Meyer of Brussels, who earlier this year testified before Congress on European anti-Semitism. He wrote recently in Ha'aretz, "...there is a level of tolerance to acts of violence against the Jewish community that is deeply rooted in the European mentality and which is, in my view, more worrisome in the long run than even the radical Islamist brand of 'Jew-hatred.’” 

While anti-Semitic speech is on the rise, particularly in the former Warsaw Pact countries, what is very weird about the phenomenon is how few Jews are there to hear the insults. In Poland, the Baltics, Romania and Hungary, where you hear the most aggressive statements of Jew hatred, there are virtually no Jews at all.

Nevertheless, anti-racism organizations like "Never Again" in Poland work with success to combat the problem
Despite the small numbers, Jewish identity is subject to the same currents in Europe as in America and Israel: the new power of Orthodox movements, the declining ability of secular Jews to shape the community's understanding of itself and Israel's policies in the occupied territories.

In Eastern Europe there is another unique factor — the 45 years of Soviet rule. This meant that many Jews grew up without knowledge of their religion or their roots.

Rabbi Radnoti of Budapest, 41, was one of them. It wasn't until communism began to collapse around him that he began to explore his heritage. "I was 18 before I made circumcision," he says.

Today he heads a congregation of 200 families on the Buda side of the Danube. Most of his congregation is young, between 20 and 40 years old.

Of all the countries in the European Union, Hungary is the one where anti-Semitic thinking has permeated the highest levels of politics.

Radnoti sees a subtle distinction between the genuine Jew-hatred some in Hungary feel and the stance of the government, "Anti-Semitism is politics for them, sadly,” he says.

But, he himself does not have much daily experience of anti-Semitism.
"Everybody knows I'm a rabbi, so with me they don't speak anti-Semitism,” he says. “But a simple Jew in his workplace he will hear things."

Ask him about the biggest change in his identity and his answer is a surprise: "I am living in the 21st century. I am using Facebook, I am a blogger. Fifty years ago it was forbidden."

It is the new freedom of the post-Soviet era that shapes the rabbi's identity, more than the ghostly weight of Hungary's murdered Jews.

In Western Europe also, contemporary trends define Jewish identity more than the terrible events of the Holocaust. Mass media, the battle for hearts and minds between the ultra-religious and the ultra-secular shape what it means to be Jewish.

That's the view of novelist and computer game scriptwriter, Naomi Alderman.

"I think there's an increasing polarization between the secular and the fundamentalists. Not just among Jews, it's a worldwide trend in all religions," says Alderman, who was brought up in an Orthodox household but modified her practice as she moved into adulthood.

She speaks of "moderate fundamentalists' who, 50 years ago, were able to keep the pernicious secular influences of the world out of their houses by simply turning off the television. That's no longer possible, of course.

"This leads to the fundamentalist communities becoming more and more fundamentalist and controlling, and the secular communities responding by becoming more disapproving and hostile,” says Alderman. “The two groups are losing understanding of one another."

This is how she sees the dynamic's impact on her community. "For Jews in Britain, this means that the ‘middle ground’ of traditional Jews who observe some festivals and perhaps have Friday night dinner together but aren't really Orthodox is disappearing. People feel they have to 'pick a side.’"

The side many are picking is religious. "Sadly in Britain, there's not much invitation into a Jewish way of life or identity for people who don't want to travel toward Orthodoxy."

In speaking about her own sense of her Jewishness, Alderman points to a facet of the identity that all sides agree on — "study and learning." She adds, "I think we come from a fascinating tradition, with so much to read and know about. And it's learning and thinking about that which imparts Jewishness over many, many years."

Her view is echoed from Budapest by Rabbi Radnoti, who says he lives with the anti-Semitism because, "I have a calling. I have to teach, to help people who are Jewish learn about Judaism."

Does he ever think about moving to Israel?  "My wife wants to go to Israel. I don't,” he says. “In Israel what can I do? I have a mission here."


Read Part One of this series, For American Jews, an identity crisis

Read Part Two of this series, Identity Crisis in Israel