Samuel Edelman: Nurturing and Sustaining His Jewish Cultural and Religious Identity

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Samuel Edelman describes his personal choices in nurturing and sustaining his Jewish cultural and religious identity in the face of the many pressures to assimilate and thereby blur the lines separating Jews from their non-Jewish neighbors and friends. Through descriptions of his journeys to Central Europe and to. his hometown in Pennsylvania, Sam explains the alternative possibilities facing Jews in the United States. This essay also provides a larger framework for understanding the experiences of people who must live among and interact with those from more dominant cultural groups.

To Pass or Not to Pass, That Is the Question: Jewish Cultural Identity in the United States

Samuel M. Edelman

Not long ago, with only a few weeks between them, I took two voyages into my past. On the first I toured Poland, the Czech Republic, and Germany with 27 professors of the Holocaust. On the second I returned to my hometown in cen-tral Pennsylvania to see my parents and to show my children where their fa-ther grew up. I returned from these trips a changed man.

In Poland I discovered memorials to millions of dead Jews. Before World War II Poland had a Jewish population of 3.8 million people; today it is 2,500. Yet with almost no Jews remaining, I also found a schizophrenic Poland- anti-Semitic to the core, yet curious about and searching for a culture that is as Polish as Poland but was eradicated. Poland seems to have a split personal-ity. Much of the wall graffiti is violently anti-Jewish, blaming communism and all of Poland's ills on phantom Jews, on the ghosts of the murdered. News-papers, politicians' speeches, and Polish parish priests' sermons rail against hidden Jews; during the last presidential election, one of the candidates was "accused" of being Jewish. At the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp several Polish skinheads even confronted us as we toured. I was stunned by the anger in their words and actions. Yet other Poles forcefully confronted the skin-heads, who were ultimately carted off by the police.

The most disturbing image burned into my mind was a sight in the beauti-ful city of Krakow. Before the war Krakow had one of the oldest and most dis-tinguished Jewish communities in Europe. Now only a hundred or so elderly Jews remain. Krakow boasts of its Jewish section, its fine shops, its restau-rants, a cemetery, and an ancient synagogue that is now a museum. It was there that I heard a klezmer band playing hauntingly beautiful Jewish melodies. Yet the klezmer band had no Jewish members. Jewish culture, burned alive in Auschwitz and Treblinka, was now on display in Krakow at a living museum without Jews.

In Poland I also witnessed a Jewish renaissance without Jews. In War-saw, Krakow, Lublin, and other places there were Jewish film festivals, Jew-ish cultural festivals, and Yiddish readings. There were searches for Jewish roots by thousands of young Poles who had discovered that they had Jewish grandparents or that one of their parents was Jewish.

One warm evening we were relaxing at an outdoor cafe in Warsaw after visiting Jewish cemeteries, monuments, and synagogues. A young man over-heard our discussion and asked if any of us were Jewish. Two of us were, and we said so. He asked if he could join us, and we welcomed him. It turned out that he was 36 years old and his father had died a few weeks earlier. Going through his father's papers he had discovered a packet of letters and other family materials; one of the letters was addressed to him. In the letter his fa-ther confessed that he was a survivor of one of the worst killing sites in Eu-rope. After his escape, his father was protected and hidden by a young Polish woman, with whom he eventually fell in love and then married after the war. Because of the rampant anti-Semitism in Poland, his father hid his Jewish heritage from his children. Now, as he came closer to death, his father wanted to reveal his roots to his son, hoping that he would search out...
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