One of the things I like about the blog format is that it is episodic. A flash of vision or memory appears from nowhere, and then stays around for a while. I can examine it for a while, tossing it around in my mind until its outlines grow more clear. Rarely does it unfold chronologically. So here it is September in Alabama, six months and half a world away from my trip to Israel, and yet Israel is what I have on my mind.
A big part of it is that I just finished Jackie Feldman’s book about Israeli youth voyages to Poland. Each year, thousands of Israeli youth participate in organized trips to Poland to visit the death camps and to connect more strongly with their Israeli national identity. Feldman shows how the voyages (because that’s what the trips are called) reinforce a particular narrative dividing Jewish history into three epochs: Antiquity, Exile, and Zionist settlement of the Land of Israel (p. 12). Antiquity refers to the period of sovereignty of the Isrealite kingdom. A narrative of the other two epochs plays out on the voyages—from suffering and persecution in Europe during the long period of Exile culminating in the Holocaust, to revival of Jewish national life in the contemporary state of Israel. As such, Poland represents oppression and death in Exile, while Israel represents freedom and life in the homeland.
Feldman argues that these trips, most of which are subsidized by the Israeli government, are akin to pilgrimages—a journey to a sacred place involving a break from everyday social lives and hierarchies into a liminal space filled with intense physical and emotional experiences as well as transmission of cultural, symbolic knowledge. Pilgrims return transformed, ready to reintegrate into society, but in a new social status (in this case, they transform from youths to adults and ambassadors of the lessons learned about their Jewish heritage and Israeli citizenship). I like Feldman’s book because he effectively shows how this transformation is fueled primarily by emotion and sensation—through the body—more than through cognition and learning. This is consistent with my own observations on a Polish pilgrimage to Częstochowa many years ago.
The book also brings home to me another thing I have observed: that the symbolic significance of Poland is quite different for me than it is for most Jews I have met. So are the emotional associations. Many Jews view Poland both symbolically and materially as a vast killing ground and graveyard. I have felt this myself, especially in places like Muranów in Warsaw, the prewar Jewish quarter that was at the heart of the Jewish ghetto during World War II. When the district was rebuilt in the postwar period, the rubble heaps (doubtless containing the bodies of victims) were left in place and new buildings were built right on top of them. This has created a district that is jarringly pleasant. The raised terraces break up the mostly flat city terrain creating intimate interior courtyards and slopes for lush gardens. But knowing the district’s history, it is hard to not feel uneasy about walking on the victims of the Holocaust.
Still, for me, Poland is the lost homeland of my mother—a place she mythologized and longed for. These associations were also tragic, because she knew return was not possible. But no doubt that also contributed to the magic. As an imagined place, Poland did not need to accommodate the harsh realities of postwar devastation or state socialism–or the Holocaust. And also, I’ve built my own memories of Poland over the past 25 years. I’ve witnessed the country’s “colorization” as it evolved from state socialist greyness into consumer-fueled color. My time there has always been marked as “special,” separate from the humdrum of everyday life. It’s become a second home to me. Marked as it is by my use of a second language, I also visit another version of myself in Poland, the Polish-speaking one, the foreigner, but also the native daughter returning to the homeland. In short, unlike the Israeli voyagers (for whom Poland represents death and Israel life), I return to life in Poland. Life in the face of displacement and death, perhaps even in defiance of that difficult history.
I thought I was going to write a description of my visit to Israel, but this has turned into a more reflective piece about place and identity. I’ll have to get to my memories of Israel next time.