Telling the Story of the Jews of Poland
I am a documentary filmmaker. And I am Jewish.
Over the years, I worked on films about a wide range of subjects, but never a Jewish one. My Jewish identity has always been a part of me, but I had no interest in merging it with my identity as a filmmaker.
This all changed in 2007, when I read an article in the New York Times about the burgeoning interest in Jewish culture in Poland among non-Jewish Poles. Intrigued, I received a modest grant to go to Poland, where I found that, sure enough, Jewish culture is huge there! Klezmer, Yiddish, Jewish folklore, calligraphy, singing – they’re all widely studied and consumed by Poles, some of whom have never even met a Jewish person. My cinematographer and I went to classes and concerts, taking it all in but, while certainly interesting, it didn’t feel like the kernel of a story that could become a film.
What did engage me on that trip were the young Poles I met who were in fact Jewish. Many of them had grown up Catholic and only became aware of their Jewish identity in their teens. I met compelling folks who were strongly committed to figuring out what being Jewish meant, but who had no access to that history, that tradition, that rich heritage.
Over the past four years I’ve been making The Return, a documentary that follows the journey of four young women as they struggle with issues of Jewish identity. To some degree, they’re the same questions anyone in their 20s might face – but asked within a unique context. What does it mean to be Jewish in the land that was once the epicenter of the Jewish world? To live in a place that once had the highest concentration of Jews in the world, and where most Americans assume no Jews now remain? A place so identified with the Holocaust and anti-Semitism that most visitors think it’s all that exists there? What is being Jewish in Poland really about? Clearly, these are questions without simple answers.
In Warsaw, a city of two million people, there are perhaps just a few thousand Jews. Few of them have actively Jewish families (most people are Jewish on just one side, and due to the Holocaust, that side is usually very small). To engage in Jewish life generally means participating in community events – and for that, there are very few options. I often think of the time I was talking with one of the people in my film, a young observant Jew, who said, “You spend time here exploring the Jewish community in Warsaw. I’ve always wanted to ask you: What is the Jewish community like in New York?”
The question seemed laughable in its simplicity, its naïveté about the diversity of New York City’s Jewish life. In a city with one million Jews, I’m always amazed by the number of choices – literally thousands of synagogues in Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Reconstructionist categories, JCCs, secular Jewish centers, Kabbalah centers, etc. – all in addition to commemorating holidays and events at home with family. With all those choices, many Jews in New York select the path of least resistance – basically, no choice at all. With so many options, they hardly participate in anything “organized,” and their Jewish involvement might be to hold a Passover seder or light a menorah at home during Hanukkah. That may be the entirety of their Jewish activities.
It’s said that the young Jews in Poland are all “Jews by choice.” They have made a choice – and are continuing to make a choice – about what being Jewish means to them. In many cases, it changes and evolves over time (which is what makes for a dramatic film story), but it’s always an active choice, a decision that needs to be made and constantly re-evaluated. In comparison, Jewish identity here in the States often seems passive, a casual process rarely examined.
Sometimes I’m jealous of the Poles’ enthusiasm, their discovery and embrace of what’s new for them. I’m envious of the sense of discovery that comes from being in a community that’s not static, that is itself still in formation. I’m not sure where these Polish Jews will be in 20 years, I don’t know what the institutions will look like or if they will even still be around. But I imagine people will still be making choices, still evaluating, and, hopefully, still evolving.
- If you are Jewish by birth, take a moment to imagine if your Jewish identity felt more like a choice than something you were born with. How would your life be different? If you are Jewish by choice, think about how choosing to be Jewish has affected your perspective. What aspects of your Jewish identity do you think might be difficult for Jews by birth to understand?
- In what ways does your Jewish life rely on community engagement?
- In what ways do you engage in Jewishly on your own?
Adam Zucker is a documentary filmmaker and editor currently finishing The Return, a film exploring the reality of being young and Jewish in Poland today. He has travelled to Warsaw and Krakow eight times over the past four years to tell this story of Jewish identity in the place that was once the epicenter of the Jewish world. Learn more about Adam and the film.