- Polish Jewry:Editors' Introduction
We were enormously honored when we were asked by Shofar to edit a special issue dedicated to Polish Jewry. The shadchan (match-maker) between Shofar and us was our dear friend Harold Kasimow, who is the embodiment of the best features of Polish Jewry. He combines within himself the two great rivals of a Jewish soul—Litvak and Hasidic Judaism. Being a devoted Jew he is also a perfect example of the benefits Haskalah brought to Jewish civilization—openness to different cultures and religions both in West and East.
And that is exactly what we would like to show in this issue. Under the shadow of the Holocaust we tend to forget the glorious Polish-Jewish culture that was created on Polish soil for hundreds of years. We wanted to recall at least some of its aspects. We decided to concentrate on Jews and Judaism in Poland from early modernity till the break of World War II. There are two arguments to support this decision:
First, we thought it better not to touch the Shoah since it is a subject widely researched.1 This horrible event in the life of European Jews cannot be considered a part of the Polish-Jewish existence in any way whatsoever. At times it seems that the extermination of Polish Jewry overshadows its magnificent past achievements of spiritual, cultural, intellectual, and religious creativity. We thought that this past should be presented in its greatness and not its destruction.
Second, we wanted to show mostly the American reader that the existence of Jews in Poland is not totally forgotten in Poland, and there are outstanding Polish scholars who deal with many aspects of the long Jewish presence and co-existence with Poles in that land. We believe that this research and knowledge is worth presenting outside Poland. [End Page 1]
A panoramic view of the special historical situation of Polish Jews between two World Wars, after Poland regained independence, opens this issue. As the historian Szymon Rudnicki writes: "In no other country were Jews, proportionally, such a huge minority as in Poland. Religiously, economically, and politically Jews varied a great deal." Rudnicki illustrates the complexity of the historical situation then in Poland and Jewish cultural and social participation in the new state. Rudnicki concludes: "The second Polish republic can be considered a golden era for Jewish culture in Poland." The fruit of this culture was trilingual in Yiddish, Hebrew, and Polish.
The next article, by the historian and architect Eleonora Bergman, shows that Jews were also visible in the Polish architectural landscape for hundreds of years, and still today there are a few remnants of this great art and religious phenomenon. The article discusses the location, internal arrangement of main prayer rooms, auxiliary spaces, and external appearance of synagogues in various regions in the frequently changing territory of Poland, from the thirteenth until the twentieth century.
There is no doubt that the most original and typical religious and cultural phenomenon of Polish Jews was Hasidism, and we asked the best Polish specialist on the history of Hasidism, Jan Doktór, to present this fascinating and still vivid chapter. Doktór portrays the birth of the Hasidic movement in Poland in the second half of the seventeenth century as an outcome of messianic craving and as a pure elitist society, but after several splits and transformations in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth Hassidism became a mass movement, in the late eighteenth century.
The next article present a less-known religious phenomenon in Poland, namely reformed, or progressive, Judaism. The author, Michal Galas, presents such outstanding figures of reform Rabbis in Poland as Marcus Jastrow, Izaak Cylkow, and Ozjasz Thon and convinces the reader that although, as he writes, "Supporters of progressive Judaism in Poland have never had such a strong position as representatives of the Reform or Conservative Judaism in Germany or the United States," Reform Judaism had a very important role in shaping the religious scenery of Polish Jewry.
An interesting question is also the contribution of Jewish philosophy and thinking to Polish culture. We turned to the Polish-Jewish philosopher Jan Wolenski to portray...