It seems fitting that I would celebrate Rosh Hashanah for the first time in Poland, considering that generations of my family lived and worshiped here. It’s our removal that is bizarre, not our presence on Polish territory.
I have been told there are only about sixty Jews in Poznan today. Most Jews in this part of Poland left when the region was under Prussian rule in the 19th century. The story contained in a number of sources is that they left because larger German cities farther west offered them more economic opportunity. I can’t help wondering, though, if they were also seeking a place with greater freedom and less persecution (a subject for further research). Over 20% of the city’s population was Jewish in 1837, but by 1922 only 1.2% were, about 2000 residents (Rafał Witkowski, 2012, The Jews of Poznań, Poznań: Wydawnictwo Miejskie Posnania). By contrast, 30% of Warsaw’s citizens at the time were Jewish.
I met the head of the Poznan Jewish Community (Gmina Żydowska), Pani Alicja Kobus, shortly before Rosh Hashanah. She has the energy and charm I remember in my grandmother and her sister, my Auntie Nunia. Pani Alicja established the Jewish Community about 15 years ago. She said nothing was happening in Poznan related to Jewish culture and heritage so she had to start from scratch. All the momentum was in Krakow and Warsaw, and much of worth in and around Poznan was being forgotten. So she negotiated with the city, and got permission to begin operations in a space the city gave her in a rough part of town. Through persistence and a lot of work, she managed to reclaim the former Jewish Community Headquarters, the building that houses the Jewish Community offices today. She said that she has had to fight for everything. She is a bulldozer. She only goes forward; she doesn’t give up. She doesn’t let obstacles stand in her way, even when people refuse her or tell her what she is trying to do is impossible. She attributes her success to this level of effort, along with the unfailing encouragement of others, as well as divine intervention. She often refers to God and miracles.
I asked pani Alicja if I could attend the events she was planning for Rosh Hashanah. She said I could, adding, “We’re such a small community, we have to be open.
I really didn’t know what to expect when I arrived at the Jewish Community Headquarters the evening of Rosh Hashanah. The building is unmarked. Last time, I had to be buzzed in. This time a few people were standing outside. One greeted me as I arrived and told me the door was open. As I climbed the wide wooden staircase to the first floor, I heard the sound of many voices. The main room was packed with people standing and sitting around two long tables laid out with tablecloths, candles, and all kinds of dishes. Two large, round challah were placed at the head of one table, and each plate had a large challah roll on it.
Pani Alicja greeted me from across the room and invited me to sit near the head of a table already full of people. She introduced me to several of the people around her. The atmosphere was warm, and the conversations friendly.
Pani Alicja got the attention of the crowd. She expressed her joy at seeing so many people (I counted over fifty, but there were more; I never saw everyone at once). She called our presence there a miracle (cud). “Just look around you,” she said, noting there were guests from the US, Germany and Israel. She lit the candles at the head of the table. It was a moving moment for me.
The synagogue is one floor up, in a smaller room with high ceilings and windows. Pews fill the back, with room to seat about 30 people. The men sit behind a partition on the side by the windows and the women sit on the side by the door. A table with a lectern faces the pews. A cabinet in the corner behind the table holds the Torah and the crown, gifts from international donors. Along the wall by the door is an old synagogue pew with faded Hebrew lettering. Pani Alicja told me it dates back to the 1800s. Someone had it in his attic, and she convinced him to donate it to the synagogue.
Rabbi Jaakov has the long ringlets (peyot), black coat and hat characteristic of Hassidic Jews. He spoke to us in Polish, explaining a little about the ceremony, how it differs from a typical Shabbat, and how to read the prayer books, which contain a combination of Hebrew, transliterated and in Hebrew lettering, and I think Polish translations. He promised to guide us through the ceremony, telling us which page to turn to in the prayer books, and explaining the various prayers and songs. In other words, he took on a teaching role as well as leading the service. He read the prayers and songs in Hebrew, with his back to us, swaying forward and back.
Some men were given prayer shawls, and removed the Torah from the cabinet. They took turns carrying it around for everyone to touch. Many also kissed their hand. There was a call for a young male volunteer to blow a horn, the shofar. One said he has tried but couldn’t. Finally someone stepped up. He was supposed to make one long and then three short toots. His first attempts didn’t produce much sound. Eventually, some awkward sounds came out. Pani Alicja remarked it was important “tylko żeby było” (just to make it).
After the service, everyone returned downstairs to the tables, which were covered with a variety of dishes. Besides challah, there was carp in vinegar, beet salad, tsimis (sweet carrot salad), pomegranates, and various meat dishes, which guests identified as kosher. Rabbi Yaakov blessed the bread, which was broken and passed around. There were plates of honey to dip the challah into. Pani Alicja made a toast, and the feast began.
The event was strange and familiar at the same time. My secular upbringing makes any religious service unfamiliar. Here, especially, everything was new to me—the language, the rabbi’s motions, the separation between women and men. But the feeling was not strange—that of solidarity, of connection to something bigger than we are. It felt, oddly like a kind of homecoming.
It’s so important that you are writing down all the details of your experiences in this blog. Just imagine if your ancestors had kept journals describing their rituals, celebrations and gatherings. You are seeing these events and their Polish participants with a newcomer’s fresh eyes and a scholar’s mind. It’s wonderful to hear both those voices in your accounts.
Kim O'Leesky said:
Such an interesting post. I know we discussed some of this while we were in Poland. You celebrated a number of the Jewish holidays at our house and similarly I recall doing the same with your family. Fond times. I have found a similar solidarity and “homecoming” in almost all the locations I have visited while on my Jewish mission journeys e.g. Cuba, Argentina, Russia, Germany, Italy, Israel etc. There is a strange pull – the language and food may be slightly different but the common ritual is like a thread intricately weaved in our collective being deep in our souls.
Marysia Galbraith said:
Yes. Your comments resonate with some things I’ve been discussing with a friend here–we were talking about the subjective experience of locality, but it fits with your observation you can feel at home in unfamiliar places. Ritual can be one anchor; family heritage, as I feel in Poland, can be another.