Sunday, May 17, 2015

"My Memories are More Complex"

Photo source
My facebook friend Andrew Schonberger posted a poignant reminiscence about his life in Romania, where he no longer lives. Andrew's reminiscence is below:


Padiș, Munții Apuseni – the Western Mountains of Romania. This photo was posted today, and it gets lots of Likes and admiring exclamations. My memories are more complex.

We sat on this very spot, in 1968, admiring the sunset with my classmate. We walked the whole day to get to the area, and we pitched our tent on the flat campsite seen below. Then we climbed the small hill from where this photo was taken. We were both 17.

My classmate asked me a few times if I liked the view. He was very intellectual, sensible, refined. He was well read, and interested in history. I sensed he was uneasy, and there was something he didn't know how to tell me. But our friendship was close enough to allow for sensitive subjects.

Finally, he took the courage to tell me among deep excuses: all the available literature stated that Jews were genetically unable to love their homeland. They could never admire the sunset, and were indifferent to natural beauty. Yet, here I was, his Jewish classmate and I enjoyed the scenery just as much as he did.

I wouldn't call this antisemitism. More like a clash between tradition and reality. I repeat, this was my best friend at the time, and I still don't doubt his sincere intentions. He died some time ago.

Also today, my FB friend Danusha Goska mentioned Shenandoah River. I know that name from John Denver "Take me home, country road". Ten years ago, I came upon a live video recording of that song. Just when the public starts to sing along, the musician stops, looks straight to the camera, and says: "You don't need to know where West Virginia is. Somewhere in the world, there is a country road to take you home."

To be sure, it was a simple PR trick to widen the audience. But John Denver still said it, and I realised no one ever told me anything like this before. I was 50+ and I felt grateful.

I would call what Andrew experienced antisemitism. It's an anti-Semitic stereotype that Jews don't feel attached to their homelands and don't appreciate nature. I certainly encounter these stereotypes when reading about Polish-Jewish relations. I'm sorry that this happened to Andrew. I asked his permission to share this story and he kindly granted it.

Andrew's story occurred in 1968, the year of an anti-Semitic campaign in Poland. You can read about that here.

Reading Andrew's brief, sad, and poignant anecdote, I can't help but think of Julian Tuwim's "We Polish Jews," which you can read here


  1. Hi Dr Goska

    I am going to disagree with you in this instance. I don't think Mr. Schonberger's friends statement anti-Semitic, at least not intentionally.
    The notion of Jews being genetically unable to feel attached to the places they live and not liking the outdoors certainly is anti-Semitic,
    but the sentiment isn't necessarily anti-semitic. You mention in your book that only a minority of Polish Jews were native Polish speakers
    and you quote Leon Weliczker Wells on his own family's separation from Polish society. I think Mr. Schonberger's friend was touching on this
    when he made his comment. There were many Jews who fit into the wider society and culture of the countries where they were living. However,
    there were many more who didn't.

  2. We must remember that beliefs in even a quasi-racial Jewish essentialism--one that survives assimilation and even conversion, and which includes Jewish cosmopolitanism--was commonly held by Jews themselves. To read one such influential Jewish author who propounded this view, please click on my name in this posting and read my review.

  3. I'm less given to quasi-racial essentialism. In my view of history, the accumulated experience survives subsequent changes in circumstances. Jews had two millennia to move from nomad shepherds to settled agricultors. We had another 500 years to learn commerce and banking, all this before year zero. The longer the accumulated experience, the longer it survives in different circumstances.

    In my homeland, Romanians say proudly: we've always been here. Hungarians say the same, with different accents and nuances. And what do we say? "The Jewish people move over large expanses of space and time" [ Abba Evan ]. The values held dear by each culture are proclaimed loud and clrear, without any mysticism.

    In my lifetime, there has been a happy osmosis of previously rigid positions. We Jews have learned again the joys and of exercising control over territory, however small and contested that might be. And the people of Eastern Europe have learned commerce and banking. I saw Poles and Romanians traveling to far-away destinations, then opening their suitcases at arrival, o sell whatever they could, right at the train station. A century ago, such lifestyle was the exclusive preserve of Jewish peddlers in those lands.

    We had a reminder of this last week, when my wife and I visited Paddy's Market here in Sydney. This is a noisy, drafty, colourful hall. All peddlers were Chinese and they seemed to be happy at their cheap stalls, as if it was their genetically inherited lifestyle. At the vegetable section, my Jewish wife said "wait a minute, these are not real farmers. They just buy up the produce and sell it here for a profit". Before we drifted into disapproval, it occurred to me that exactly the same was said about own own ancestors over past centuries.

  4. When I wrote of Jewish essentialism, I was referring to deeper matters than socio-economic status and occupation.

    Your mention of the Chinese as an intrapreneurial minority is apt. The Chinese, and other groups, have often filled the middleman niche of Jews in old Europe. This was very much the case with the Chinese middleman minority in Malaysia. For more on this, please click on my name in this posting. In the first Comment under my review, I provide a link to another work that I had reviewed about middleman minorities.


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