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Jewish Social Studies 6.3 (2000) 205-228

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Who, What, When, Where, and Why Is Polish Jewry? Envisioning, Constructing, and Possessing Polish Jewry

Scott Ury


"Go back to North Tel Aviv and eat gefilte fish with all the other Polanim! Go already, your Auntie Bella is waiting for you!" With this burst of anger, resentment, frustration, irony, and ridicule, I was once thrown out of a taxi in Jerusalem. For years, the driver's hostile references to Polish Jews--and not the actual act of being kicked out of the cab--puzzled me. How could the authentic representatives of a pure and noble past that I instinctively associated with the words of Y. L. Peretz and a handful of yellowed family photographs be the target of such invective? Little, in fact, seemed further from the fond memories of my grandparents, their fellow immigrant cronies, and the worlds that their stories created than this native-born Israeli's image of Polish Jews. In his eyes, Polish Jews (Polanim in Hebrew) were a snobbish, elitist, and often racist group that had commandeered key positions throughout all sectors of Israeli society and had collectively conspired to exploit and oppress Jews of Middle Eastern origin. Polish Jews had become a metonym not only for larger, more abstract social and political inequalities but also for the very tangible state of inequality in which this driver found himself serving me. 1 [End Page 205]

Later, I would discover that entire generations of Israelis grew up with completely different images of Polish Jewry than the one that I (and presumably others of my generation) had formed in suburban America. Few caricatures seem to embody the Israeli image of the Polish Jew better than those presented in the long-running, immensely popular television series "Zeh-hu-zeh." The pretentious, condescending, tacky women portrayed in this weekly comedy show helped forge an image of Polish Jewry that had almost nothing in common with the one that I had formulated in the United States. (Were Polish Jews purposely presented as either feminine or effeminate, and thus defeated, foils to Israeli concepts of masculinity?) 2 In fact, these differences were so stark that it often seemed as though I were referring to a completely foreign entity when I spoke of Polish Jewry with Israeli students. Although we all employed the same term, our radically divergent images of the same object often turned our discussions into exercises in miscommunication.

Several years later, on a research trip to Warsaw, I looked up from my seat at a sidewalk cafe and was confronted with another image of Polish Jewry. There on the market square stood dozens of wooden caricatures of musicians, craftsmen, innkeepers, and rabbis in traditional Jewish garb. (As opposed to the association of Polish Jews with women in Israel, here, for some reason, most of the images were male.) Their exaggerated noses, lurid grins, and disproportionately large ears as well as their gold coins, oversized books, and, at times, pitchforks made me realize that here, too, several particular images of the Polish Jew--all of which seemed to be wholly distinct from anything that I had come to know in either Israel or the United States--had taken hold in the local culture and public landscape. 3 Later, through discussions with Polish colleagues and acquaintances, I discovered that Polish Jewry filled several different ideological, political, and cultural roles in contemporary Poland and that none of these functions even remotely coincided with the roles that Polish Jewry played in Israel or America. On many occasions, I was both irritated and confused by these and other, alternative interpretations. "How dare they manipulate my (our) past!" I complained to friends, as though the past was somehow exclusively mine to uncover, construct, present, and possess.

These observations--ironic, random, and even angry--serve as the inspiration for this article. As Jewish history ceases to be the exclusive domain of renegade Yeshiva boys and Israeli academics, and as an increasing number of scholars in different countries turn to topics related...


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