“The vision of European Jewish renewal speaks not only to my scholarly head but also to my heart.”
By Liam Hoare
On September 25, Fania Oz-Salzberger will be installed as the new director of Paideia, the European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden based in Stockholm. Created in 2000 and led since its incubation by Barbara Spectre, Paideia works for the rebuilding of Jewish life and culture in Europe and educating for active minority citizenship. Jewish Europe and the continuity of Judaism and Jewish life have long been themes and concerns in the work of Oz-Salzberger, a writer and history professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Haifa, in books including Jews and Words and Israelis in Berlin.
Before her installation, I caught up with Oz-Salzberger to discuss her new role with Paideia and the future of Jewish life and culture in Europe.
What motivated you to take on the role as director of Paideia? You’ve written on the importance of texts to Jewish continuity and part of Paideia’s mission is promoting fluency in Jewish textual sources and renewing the interpretation of those texts, so I assume this was part of it.
Paideia is Jews and Words incarnate. The book I co-authored with my father suggests that “ours is not a bloodline but a text line,” and that Jews have survived and thrived for three millennia on reading, debating, and expanding their great library and their in-family literacy. Their educational and social hearths, kept alight in their humble and insecure dwellings, were unique until the modern age. Then, their legacy flowed full steam into modernity itself, at its best. This is what Paideia seems to be all about.
A few years ago I came there as a guest speaker, and found a thriving community of students and teachers from Europe and beyond, Jewish and non-Jewish, delightfully delving into Hebrew sources, Jewish ideas, and universal quests, all under the majestic baton of founding mother-teacher Barbara Spectre. It is an institute abuzz with life and scholarship, well built into its Swedish and European ambiences. It runs an incubator for social and cultural startups, and this year it pilots a joint program with Stockholm’s Muslim community college. Its network of alumni has hundreds of young academics, teachers, and activists. Its network of lecturers spans the best of Jewish studies worldwide. It sends doctoral students to Heidelberg and Stockholm universities. How’s this for motivation?
Of course, I have several other duties, including my full time professorship at the University of Haifa. But Barbara and her team were very convincing, and the vision of European Jewish renewal speaks not only to my scholarly head but also to my heart.
Part of Paideia’s mission or interest is the revival of Jewish culture in Europe. What does this mean to you and how do you assess the health of European Jewish culture?
Two groups of people are in the habit of saying these days that European Jewry is doomed. First, alas, are the anti-Semites old and new. Second, and hugely different of course (as we say in Hebrew, lehavdil), are the sort of Israelis who still misinterpret Zionism to mean the dissolution of the ‘Jewish world.’ I think both are in total error. Europeans are facing strange times: political upheaval, Brexit, immigration, anti-Semitic and anti-Israel brutalities, and in the midst of it all, Europe’s Jewish culture is thriving more than it has thrived since the 1920s.
By ‘Jewish culture’ I mean both historical remembrance and fresh creativity. From the new Jewish book festivals like Sefer Barcelona to institutes like Paideia in Stockholm or the peerless Polin Museum in Warsaw, the scene is becoming livelier by the year, drawing Americans and Israelis – even Latin Americans and Australians – to take part physically or online. Everywhere I go young people are deeply involved. Tel Aviv has never been so attuned to Europe and to Sepharad, with a newfound interest in Tel Aviv’s own cultural origins. I love meeting young non-Jewish and Jewish Europeans alongside Israelis in cultural events in Rome and Berlin, Jerusalem and Brussels.
But will the cultural reawakening retain its demographic basis and human energy? Will those young Europeans with a sense of Jewish belonging be forced to leave Europe if it overflows with anti-Semitic hostility or general nastiness? I don’t know. I hope not, and my time and energy are fully invested in a far more positive outlook.
Especially when it comes to the engagement of young people in Judaism and Jewish life, could Europe stand greater pluralism and non-denominationalism, especially in eastern Europe, which has what one might call an entrenched Orthodox-unaffiliated binary? How would Europe benefit from that?
The Posen Foundation and projects like Limmud FSU and the Polin Museum are already leading ‘the third way,’ which is particularly relevant to eastern European Jews. I have met wonderful individuals, families, and youth groups in Bucharest and Zagreb, Warsaw and Lviv, who are my lost cousins in more than one way. Building their own Jewish sense of belonging (I steer clear of the word ‘identity,’ which is too fatalistic), they are deeply aligned with us Israeli ‘seculars.’ You see, the old shtetl had a synagogue, but sometimes it also had maskilim, Yiddish and Hebrew poets, a Gymnasia Tarbut and youth movements. All this is part of our cultural real estate. So, Jewish religiosity is a perennial option and a fascinating journey, but one can choose to be a secular Jew: to be a global citizen also living within the great library of the Jews; to love the voices of Miriam and Sappho, Thomas Mann and Agnon. This is my ‘Israeli proposal’ to Jews everywhere.
Looking at Europe from an Israeli perspective, has the ways in which Israel and Israelis understand and approach Europe and European Jewry changed in recent years? Do the Israeli government and non– or quasi–governmental organizations like The Jewish Agency do enough to support Jewish life in Europe?
To put it briefly, the official Israeli relations with the EU, with European countries and with European Jewish communities naturally reflect the policy and beliefs of Israel’s current government. I vote for the opposition.
Are you confident that there is such a thing as a future for European Jewry, and if so, what might that future look like? What might we say is essential to ensuring Jewish continuity in Europe?
As said, mine is a hope-based activism, both in Israel and in Europe. More specifically, I think Jewish communities, institutes, schools, and families may well open their hearts to non-Jews who wish to learn and share our lineages. There have to be more of us.
As to naked politics, of course I have a lot to say, but Europe’s Jewish leaders do not need my advice on how to steer between the Scylla of neo-Nazism and the Charybdis of left-wing Jew-bashing. The allegory may be Greek, but we Jews have been navigating between and around monstrosities throughout our history.
Let me end with a twenty-first century prism. My advice to Jewish donors and activists is to turn their gaze to the young, even to the youngest. The Jewish civilization is attractive enough to grip the imagination of every generation. It has never failed to do so, nor will it today, with so many new books and films and arguments and ideas. But let’s talk high-tech. If your kids or grandkids are currently hunting for Pokemon in their city streets, why not fill the virtual space with the bygone Jewish people, houses, and books of their city? I assure you that someone in Tel Aviv is already working on the startup.