Bridges: The European Day of Jewish Culture

poster2015By Hanna Lorer

On September 6, cities across Europe marked the European Day of Jewish Culture, organized by the European Association for the Preservation and Promotion of Jewish Culture and Heritage (AEPJ). What follows is an abridged version of an essay by Professor Hanna Lorer, a reflection on this year’s theme: bridges. It was reprinted here with permission from the author and AEPJ.

* * *

The technical purpose of a bridge is to help people cross from one bank of a river or side of a deep mountain gorge to the other. This simplified notion as a means of passage suggests other allusions and meanings. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov once said, “All the world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to be overwhelmed by fear,” while Ivo Andri? provided a literary interpretation when he said:

A bridge built centuries ago bears silent witness to the good and bad things happening around and on it; it collects, absorbs and keeps them, just like stony memory. The twists in the human fate are concomitant to life, but they happen over the bridge, and the troubled water continues to run under its wonderful and rounded arches.

Ernest Hemingway used the bridge as metaphor to say, “To create mutual relations is tantamount to the building of a bridge. Vitiation of relationships is tantamount to destroying bridges.” Indeed, it is necessary to build spiritual bridges, whose elevated goal is the creations of contact between people, in the name of common humane goals, for promotion of human rights, for respect and forbearance to the otherness, in the spirit of tolerance.

A spiritual bridge suggests deriving knowledge as a result of the exchange of opinions. The ability to understand and accept the others the way they are, to demonstrate tolerance and respect for difference, and to exchange various cultural values results in mutual enrichment. It makes people not only more knowledgeable or clever but it brings wisdom too.

Moral courage within man is conducive to building spiritual bridges to establish durable relations with both the like- and otherwise minded. Upstanding are the people who resist the temptations of destructive causes, unscrupulous friendships, and ethical compromises. They are the creators of the bright spiritual bridges.

There is a need for bridges in the Diaspora. Theories of social structure have defined Diaspora as the presence of foreign elements in nation-states. Often unwanted, they are seen as a corrupting element in the national body. Where such intolerance exists, the creation of a bridge for the purpose of establishing relations between peoples is desirable, necessary, and imperative – but very difficult and under certain circumstances impossible.

What does it mean to be Jewish in Europe, to live in the Diaspora as a Jew, as minority? How can we express our collective Jewish identity, bearing in mind the differences in the way we exist as Jews in the various countries in the Diaspora? Do we differ, like European Jews from the American ones and from those who consider themselves true Jews, those living in Israel? There is also the question of the effect that the experience in the extermination camps had on the Jews surviving the Holocaust. Has the terrible period in the camps influenced their attitude to the non-Jews that surround them in their new existence?

In this light, Diaspora can be compared to a kaleidoscope in which the pieces are differently shaped yet connected to each other and united: under Halakha. The minorities comprising the Diaspora bear the mark of the countries in which they reside – the language they speak, the music performed – which brings nuances to synagogal services, as do the different trends in Judaism. But despite these differences that have established themselves, that Jewish life is subject to Halakha acts as a solid defensive bridge. Judaism has survived for thousands of years; it has managed to preserve itself, resisting all challenges.

The Ten Commandments are today a universal spiritual code, a powerful, global spiritual bridge. The power with which their content is charged determines their boundless importance and obligation to the people around the world, in compliance with a common morality.

In accordance with the resolution adopted by UNESCO, 2015 has been declared the Year of the Light. The world is preparing to celebrate this with various topical events. With the topic for this year’s European Day of Jewish Culture being bridges, we can join in with this global celebration, led by the profound conviction that the positive appeals of the spiritual bridges, addressed to the humanity for tolerance and peace, bring light.

Professor Hanna Lorer lives in Sofia where she is a leading member of the Jewish community.