10 Commandments of Jewish Heritage

By Sally Berkovic

‘Thou shall not make it cool to visit the death camps’
and nine other commandments of Jewish heritage.

10commandments.newThe 10 commandments, received on Shavuot, are conceptually divided as commandments between God and Man (e.g. loving God, obeying God) and those between Man and Man (e.g. not to kill, steal or commit adultery) Another term for God is Makom, literally ‘place’ and this essay offers a complementary set of 10 commandments that are between the Place and Man, and between Man and Man (and of course, Woman).

Jewish heritage refers to everything that touches upon Jewish life, culture, art, ritual, history and literature, everything that touches upon Jewish space and Jewish time. A Jewish language, a Jewish building, the Sabbath, the rise of Zionism, Sephardi wedding dress, cantorial music, your grandmother’s Passover plate, an illuminated manuscript, and in our digital age, Jewish websites are all part of a broad definition of Jewish heritage.

This essay introduces a set of 10 commandments – and like any Jewish text, could and should be debated, argued and developed further. These thoughts are based on my experience as CEO of the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe and as such, tend to focus on Jewish heritage in Europe, but with the obvious exceptions of Holocaust-related memorials, could be applied and adapted to other countries.

I would also like to acknowledge the stellar work of specialists in the field who have dedicated their professional lives to preserving Jewish heritage and disseminating information about the challenges of maintaining Jewish heritage. I fear they will scoff at the way I have merely touched the surface of the topics raised, but these ‘commandments’ are construed to introduce readers to the breadth and complexity of the issues, rather than focus in depth on any one particular area.

1. Thou shalt not treat every old, derelict synagogue as sacrosanct

Throughout Europe, there are empty synagogues, abandoned by their communities through death, dislocation or disinterest. For example, the ruins of synagogues destroyed during the Holocaust are a poignant reminder of the communities that were destroyed, while the abandoned and locked synagogues throughout the United Kingdom speak to the centralisation of Jewish life in London. Caring for a synagogue – a commandment between Place and Man – requires manpower and funds. A synagogue is known as a Beit Knesset – a house of gathering for the community – but if there is no community, then who is it for? It is also referred to as a Beit Tefillah – a house of prayer – but if there is no-one who knows how to conduct the services, if the Sifrei Torah are not kosher, and if no-one is coming to pray, then what is the purpose of the synagogue? Sometimes a synagogue can be transformed – in Poland, the restoration of the White Stork synagogue in Wroclaw (formerly Breslau) is now used as a popular concert venue, has galvanised the tiny Jewish community and helped the local community learn more about its Jewish history.

In Turkey, an ambitious project to restore nine synagogues in the old city of Izmir is intended to contribute to the regeneration of the area, highlight the diversity of Jewish life that dominated that area and ultimately attract tourist funds. The Center for Jewish Art, based in Jerusalem, continues to build a wonderful resource documenting Jewish buildings – for example, its project on wooden synagogues in Lithuania is fascinating. The complexities of synagogue renovation, the ongoing issues of maintenance and the spiralling costs of these projects mean that difficult, and often unpopular, decisions need to be made regarding synagogue survival.

2. Thou shalt draw on the stores of knowledge contained in Jewish cemeteries and be programmatic about their ongoing preservation

Cemeteries are replete with the sorrows and achievements of the people that lie within; mass graves are the final indignity where individuality is erased and burial rites are denied. Barely a week goes by without news of another vandalised cemetery in Europe and usually, the host country is quick to condemn such attacks, and paying for the cleaning and restoration of any desecration. At the same time, there is a steady stream of visitors to celebrity cemeteries such as the Chatam Sofer memorial, and the burial site of the Maharal of Prague, the creator of the infamous Golem. Religious pilgrimages to Uman and Lizhensk are popular for men, while women are particularly interested in Krakow’s memorial site for Sara Schneirer, the founder of the Beit Ya’akov network of schools for girls that revolutionised Jewish education for women.

However, there are still hundreds, if not thousands of unmarked cemeteries without fencing or appropriate signage, strewn with overgrown weeds and filled with faded or chipped tombstones. One initiative in Poland to ‘adopt-a-cemetery’ was recently launched and it will be interesting to see how that develops. Cemeteries without advocates fall prey to the property developers who want the land to build upon and without legal representation or communities to defend the cemetery, it may prove difficult to prevent their use for other purposes.

Cemeteries are also a source of rich information about and genealogists think nothing of spending Sundays wandering through cemeteries collecting family history data that is eventually shared online. Ruth Ellen Gruber has done fascinating work documenting the iconography of Jewish headstones – candlesticksonstone.wordpress.com while at www.billiongraves.com, you can collect photos of the headstones in your local cemetery with their phone app and upload the photos to their site which then becomes part of a vast global resource.

3. Thou shalt guard your archives and implement an effective collection policy

Buried in the detritus of attics of abandoned old synagogues, hidden in the locked cabinets of government bureaucracy, stored in shoeboxes in a kitchen cupboard shelf, or haphazardly filed in the papers of Jewish communities are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of documents that form the architecture of our institutional memory. Communal newsletters, government correspondence with Jewish communities, pinkassim detailing demographic data on each community, rabbinic letters, and Jewish military records are just some of the many documents reflecting organised, and disorganised, Jewish life.

However, it’s not always clear what can be found in archives and where they are located. Yerusha is a new project designed to become the online hub of information regarding Jewish and Jewish-related archival materials in Europe, and will bring archival descriptions together onto a single, searchable online platform. It will be hosted by the National Library of Israel and complement the work of the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People which was established in 1939 and holds the archives of hundreds of Jewish communities, as well as of local, national and international Jewish organizations and the private collections of many outstanding Jewish personalities.

In the digital age, there are challenges regarding born digital archives and ephemeral material. Are emails an archive? And are the online menus from the wide array of kosher restaurants worth saving so that, in time, someone will be able to write a social history of the food Jews used to eat?

While archives are particularly important for researchers studying the past, it takes prescient community leaders to organise archives for the future. Ephemeral items such as bar mitzvah invitations, community newsletters, flyers for film festivals and Jewish greeting cards form their own archival collection within a community. A new initiative by the National Library of Israel to proactively collect ephemera from Jewish communities in Europe will ensure that the chronicling of emerging forms of post-Holocaust Jewish life in Europe is recorded, not because of fear that it will be lost, but rather because it is intrinsically noteworthy and that scholars in the future will be able to draw on the material to construct a slice of social history.

4. Thou shalt acknowledge the complex role of museums and encourage their on-line presence

Journalists flocked to report on the opening of the Polin museum in Warsaw in October 2014. At a cost of $100 million USD and occupying 4,000 sq metres, the Museum has eight different galleries that will “immerse visitors in the world of Polish Jews, from their arrival in Po-lin as traveling merchants in medieval times until today… “It is defiantly not a Holocaust Museum and focusses on the 1,000 year long history of Jewish life in Poland.

Berlin, Prague, Amsterdam, Paris, London, Moscow… it seems that every self-respecting European city has a prominent Jewish Museum and they all have active educational programmes for school children in addition to their ‘core business’ of exhibitions and preservation. The Association of European Jewish Museums lists over 60 Jewish museums in Europe however questions of their viability and sustainability are always on the agenda – for example, the Irish Jewish Museum is under threat of imminent closure and many smaller museums can only afford to be open on a part time basis.

In Europe, many museums exist where there is virtually no Jewish community and a study contrasting the impact of Jewish museums in America with its vibrant Jewish population and those in Europe (excluding obvious cities such as Paris and London with large Jewish populations) would be interesting. I have noted elsewhere on this site that Jewish museums have an important socio-political role to play in exploring the tensions between universalism and particularism, i.e. other communities could learn to reflect on their own experiences of immigration, acculturation and assimilation from the Jewish experience. However, events in the last few months, including the attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels, should make us wary of platitudes that museums are a panacea and a cure-all for peace between nations.

5. Thou shalt listen, record and document the voices of experience

The decision to redact the Talmud, after years of oral transmission, ensured that its law and lore are still a core text of the Jewish people. It was a visionary decision because the centuries of ongoing debate continue to resonate in the study hall, and contribute to shaping our communities. Ruth Calderon, in her extraordinary maiden speech at the Knesset, exemplified the ongoing relevance of the Talmud.

Thus the template for recording the story of people’s lives was set, and through the collected diaries of travellers, prominent communal personalities and essayists, we have some understanding of daily life. In more recent times concerted efforts by University of Southern California Shoah Foundation to make audio-visual interviews with survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust has had an international ripple effect, and there are many other important projects interviewing survivors. Arguably, the stories of Jews from Arab Lands have not receive comparable attention and projects such as Sephardi Voices seeks to redress this imbalance.

Based in Vienna, Centropa interviewed 1,200 elderly Jews still living in the 15 countries between the Baltic and the Aegean (from Estonia and Russia to Greece and Turkey). “We collected and digitized thousands of family photos. Our interviewers spent up to twenty hours with each respondent, asking them to paint for us a picture of the world they grew up in – as well as the world they rebuilt for their families after the war.” Its educational resources are used by schools throughout Europe and America.

And what of the lives being lived now – who is documenting these stories? The leaders of Jewish youth movements, prominent Israelis who built the country, the women inspiring change within Orthodoxy, the Ethiopians in Israel, the last Jews in a village, the list is endless. And in what language? Despite the miraculous revival of the Hebrew language, it’s clear that English is increasingly the lingua franca of the Jewish people. Yet, there are other languages that must be captured as part of the story. In small numbers, Jews are still speaking to each in Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Median (Iran), Bukhori, and Juhuri. The Endangered Languages Alliance is collecting information on other past and present Jewish languages helping to preserve it for generations to come. We are a mobile people and those journeys and languages mean that we have interacted with so many others over time and capturing these stories complements the view we get only from the buildings we inhabit or the ritual objects that we use.

6. Thou shall not make it cool to visit the death camps

Jewish tourism is a bourgeoning business. A range of Kosher cruises, luxury hotels offering Passover in the Swiss Alps, and tour groups to countries where there was, or is, a strong Jewish presence are all popular. There are ‘family roots’ tours to Eastern Europe (and let’s not forget that many Sephardi families would like to explore their roots in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Algeria or Yemen) that take young people back to their grandparents’ home in the little villages and towns throughout Europe. A cadre of professional translators, drivers and local ‘fixers’ are available to help families piece together their personal story, and savvy government officials are closely monitoring the revenues generated by Jewish sites and their spin-offs such as hotel rooms.

But Jewish tourism is also being actively marketed to non-Jews – Jewish heritage walking tours such as those promoted by the European Association for the Preservation and Promotion of Jewish Culture and Heritage are gaining ground, the Czech Ten Stars programme and the Slovak Jewish Heritage Route provide information that allows visitors to curate their own tours and there are phone apps offering visitor guides for Jewish sites in Berlin.

‘Holocaust tourism’ including the week-long tour of concentration camps by Israeli high-school children, the day-trips to Auschwitz under the auspices of the Holocaust Educational Trust in the UK or the global March of the Living programme that re-enacts the 3 kilometre march from Auschwitz to Birkenau gets bigger and bigger each year. Handled sensitively, and placed within a context, there is great educational value in many of these trips. However, the psychologically manipulative nature of many of these trips to Poland (which is beyond the scope of this article and has been addressed by others) that uses the Holocaust for building and affirming Jewish identity is problematic, if not perverse. Anxious teenagers suffering FOMO (fear of missing out) if they haven’t been to Auschwitz by the time they’re 18 – since when did visiting the dead become such a cool thing to do?

7. Thou shalt ensure appropriate, sensitive and multi-lingual signage

The first stolperstein, a bronzed cobblestone-sized plaque commemorating Nazi victims, was laid in Cologne in 1992, Now there are 48,000 stolpersteine dotted around 18 countries, and deeply embedded in the Jewish tourist landscape. They are set in the streets, usually placed outside the homes of victims, with minimal information pending what’s known about the person e.g. name, date of birth, date of deportation, place of death. In Budapest, the Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial is a row of shoe sculptures to remember the Jews who killed by the Arrow Cross militia in Budapest during World War II. They were shot at the edge of the water so that their bodies fell into the river and were carried away. The memorial represents their shoes left behind on the bank. In Paris and Amsterdam, the names of Holocaust victims from those cities are etched into dedicated memorial walls.

There’s no shortage of signage, and the attempts to give some physical form to memory seem to grow every year. There are hundreds of Holocaust memorials and museums dotted around the world and a plethora of books and PhD theses attempting to understand the rise and role of memorialization in the collective conscience. In Europe, abandoned buildings that were once Jewish schools, ritual baths, yeshivot, alms houses or community centres deserve some recognition. Designing thoughtful signage in at least two languages is an artful responsibility as that plaque is a micro-history lesson and the story it tells may be the only one that the visitor ever reads. Local government needs to take responsibility for the signage, if only to acknowledge that they are duty-bound to recognise that Jewish life was deeply entwined within local society and is part of the country’s heritage.

8. Thou shalt acknowledge and support the selfless individuals caring for Jewish heritage

Throughout Europe, we owe a debt of hakarot hatov (gratitude) to the people who are the stewards of Jewish heritage, many of whom are not Jewish. The old man in a small village with the only key to the Jewish cemetery, the enthusiastic archivist toiling in a dusty basement, the museum curators dedicating their professional interests to explaining Jewish life to their visitors, the historians gathering oral testimonies – they are all helping to ensure that the historical presence of Jewish life is respected. Developing their skills and professional capacity should be a priority on the Jewish heritage agenda. Without a dedicated cadre of trained people, Jewish museums will have poorly identified objects, educational programmes will have gaps in knowledge, libraries will have collections gathering even more dust. Networks of expert mentors, training opportunities and online technology can help to motivate and encourage isolated staff caring for Jewish heritage.

9. Thou shalt integrate a broad understanding Jewish heritage into the contemporary Jewish educational landscape

There is no one European Jewish life. With over 40 countries, Jews live multi-faceted lives in large and small communities in countries as diverse as Belarus, Holland, Bulgaria and Germany. Some communities are under internal threat from assimilation and emigration, while others face external threats from anti-Semitism and Islamic fundamentalism. Some communities have a strong communal and religious infrastructure, while others are barely functioning. All however, face the challenges of providing a comprehensive Jewish education that meets the need of its various constituencies.

Against this backdrop, the challenges of Jewish heritage are a valuable educational tool that can be creatively used to as a bridge between the religious and secular groups, between the engaged and unaffiliated within a Jewish community. Synagogues have historical, cultural and artistic value and they also have spiritual and religious values – the Place can be used as a tool for developing educational programmes that place relationships between people and an understanding of Jewish practice at the centre. Jewish community centres can help members of the community to learn more about their own local Jewish heritage by developing walking tours, engaging in oral history projects or learning from archival material. The use of Jewish heritage to engage young Jewish people is only limited by imagination.

10. Thou shalt stay informed, think big, centralise information and embrace the digital age

Finally, Jewish heritage needs a global strategy defining an agreed set of priorities and an implementation plan over a designated timeframe. Within such a framework, obviously each country will have its own set of challenges including legal requirements, available funds, government attitudes and competent leadership.

Global Jewish heritage needs a central repository and an international database of experts who can be called on to assist where no local experts exist. The digital age presents wonderful opportunities for capturing images of Jewish heritage and the long term preservation of Jewish related data. Co-ordination is crucial and duplication must be avoided.

Yad Hanadiv, the Rothschild family foundation in Israel, is spearheading the building of a new National Library in Jerusalem, and its misson, as decreed by the Knesset in 2007 is to “collect, preserve, cultivate and endow treasures of knowledge, heritage and culture, with an emphasis on the Land of Israel, the State of Israel and the Jewish people.” As part of our contribution to developing a platform for global Jewish heritage, the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe, together with the Library, created Gesher L’Europa, (literally, a Bridge to Europe) to provide opportunities for exchange and enrichment between the National Library of Israel and European scholars, library and museum professionals, and educators working within Jewish settings.

Further, with backing from our Foundation, Ruth Ellen Gruber, veteran journalist and commentator on Jewish heritage, has consolidated Jewish Heritage Europe as the go-to portal for news and features on so many facets of Jewish heritage in Europe. The projects noted in this article are just a very small sample of the hundreds of heritage projects happening across Europe which can be found on the website.

It’s hard to keep the commandments – whether it be the original ones, or these suggested alternatives. But this Shavuot, perhaps you can reflect on what aspect of Jewish heritage interests you, invite a few friends to share some traditional cheesecake fare, and share ideas to ensure that your personal heritage and your community’s heritage is not forgotten and not lost.

Sally Berkovic is CEO of the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe.