My great-grandmother Shifra left her home in Vienna and moved to America where her daughter – my grandmother – was born as a “real American.”
While my grandmother had many “yekkie” characteristics, she didn’t speak German and didn’t consider herself Viennese. My own very American mother never spoke of Vienna, and in fact, none of my relatives ever went “back” to visit.
I had the opportunity to be in Vienna in June as part of an interfaith women’s conference, but while I enjoyed the beauty and basked in the music and took interesting tours, I cannot say I felt at home in the way one would expect when going back to their ancestral ground.
Perhaps the most difficult moments for me were the “Jewish tour highlights” – the Holocaust memorial, two Jewish museums and one synagogue. They just didn’t move me, weren’t all that beautiful or engaging, and didn’t really recognize Austrian complicity in the Holocaust. They seemed underutilized and underloved. The Holocaust memorial is a stark, cold, grey building that on sunny days is used by shoppers stopping to sit and have a coffee.
The only time we saw real, live Jewish life in Vienna was on Shabbat when we joined the Reform community on Friday night and the Orthodox community on Saturday. I am sure there must be a vibrant Jewish life in Vienna, but we didn’t feel it at all through the museum experience.
Before going to Vienna we visited Prague. Though we have no personal connections with that city, it is totally charming, romantic and sweet, but once again, on the “Jewish tour,” we had the feeling that we were real live dinosaurs visiting museums of our dead dinosaur relatives. I’ve never seen so many non-Jewish tourists being herded around old non-functioning synagogues.
Every single general city tour included “Jew-town” and the six sites that constitute “The Jewish Museum.” Every single tour group hears the story of the Maharal’s golem, turned into a kind of Frankenstein story, with the golem still “mysteriously” trapped in the attic of the altneuschul. They then traipse through the old Jewish cemetery to see the Maharal’s grave. Tacky trinkets line the street, everything from touristy chanukiyot from Israel to miniature golem statues (thou shalt not make a graven image?) The Jewish Museum is listed as a “must-see” in Prague.
There is even a famous kosher restaurant that Michelle Obama visited (with her quote and picture prominently on the front window) and, as in Vienna, there are a few functioning shuls on Shabbat. But also as we did in Vienna, we had the feeling that we were visiting museum Jews.
Of course, these images stand in stark contrast to our just having spent a year in Israel, where every tourist stop is an interactive experience of then-and-now, and every day is the reality of active, breathing Judaism as a lived experience. Even Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum par excellence, ends with the triumph of Jewish viability in present time. Yet, once in awhile, at some ancient site even in Israel, I had the odd feeling that people were looking at their own history as if at relics, curious and quizzical as if they were seeing Aztecs long-gone from this world.
So how does an ancient people acknowledge its long history, speak its pain, document its challenges, and equally meet its vibrant present? How do we treasure our past while not turning it into just another tourist stop on the route? And how do we share our past with others, not overly romanticizing or overly dramatizing it?
As Jews, our history and our present are always inexorably intertwined. As we enter the period of reflection before the Days of Awe, we need to ask ourselves if next year we’ll be travellers on a living Jewish journey, or docents of a lovely but frozen and forgotten past.