Erik Ross

Poland: Of lead and of gold

'The souls of Jew and Gentile floated up in lightness to somewhere under the synagogue ceiling...'
The ceiling of the Progressive Synagogue in Krakow. Instagram.
The ceiling of the Progressive Synagogue in Krakow. Instagram.

The professor paced across the hall and the Polish and American and sundry Eastern European students, most under 25, sat in a torpor. It was hot.

Jacek Malczewski, Muzyka – lewa część tryptyku (Music: the left side of the triptych), 1906.

It was summer in Poland; the end of the 1990s. I was in a monastery that had been transformed into an international school for three dozen college grads. A window in the yard-thick medieval walls was cracked to let air trickle into the breath-damp classroom.

I was part of a weeks-long seminar led by American intellectuals that covered topics ranging from free-market capitalism and democracy to the social ideas of the Catholic Church and the thought of John Paul II. At the time, those were titillating topics in Poland.

The class was one third Poles, one third young people from other ex-Communist countries (Lithuania, Ukraine, Slovakia), and one third Americans. A good bunch.

Even 10 years after Poland emerged from Communism — as anyone who was there at the time will tell you — it felt Communist. I remember the Count Dracula English of people who’d never encountered a native speaker; 21-year-old dudes wearing flesh-beige ankle-socks under ventilated leather lace-ups made from a lattice of straps; the heads and shoulders that Head & Shoulders forgot. (That’s all changed now.)

There had been a rafting trip on the Dunajec river on the Slovak border. There were walking tours of old castles and a trip to the hand-carved underground church in the salt mines of Wieliczka. It was fun. It served to integrate the group.

There had also been a visit to Auschwitz, 45 miles from Krakow, where we sat. That made the group quiet.

And now we were in front of this American. A man with a Coney Island voice and a rind of capitalist fat around his middle.

His lecture had essentially ended 10 minutes prior. Now he was coasting on fumes. In the swampy atmosphere, he was gliding into general musings — dangerous territory for professional chatterers, especially ones in a country they hardly know.

Scanning the Poles in the room, he graveled:

“You know, you Poles… you young Poles today. Well, now you have freedom. You have what people before you didn’t. You can tell your own stories. You can write novels. There needs to be more of that. More reflection. And you should make films. You have a chance now. You have time to consider what’s happened these last years. How people lived; how they acted. That’s interesting. That’s your story. You should talk about that.”

(By that, he meant Communism, mainly.)

The reaction of the Polish students made a hidden continent rise from the waves. Without the use of words, they revealed their world. It was terra incognita to the American, and it caught him quite by surprise.

Into the sticky room came a coldness and a stoniness — a silence not of contemplation but of abstention. The mouth full of dust, the lips shut over uncorrected teeth. Silence.

Then: “We’re not going to denigrate our parents,” a Pole said.

One lump. Of lead. And that was that.

* * *

The flamboyant red-and-gilt synagogue filled up quickly.

Old people came in. So did hipsters with curled mustaches, and portly Polish middle-managers with their nervous wives, and hirsute rabbis in stiff button-downs, and willowy young women (Polish, Jewish, Polish-Jewish, whatever) in immodest tank tops. There was at least one monk.

It was hot. It would get hotter. It was summer in Poland, 2017.

Jacek Malczewski, Muzyka – prawa część tryptyku (Music: the right side of the triptych), 1906. (Wikimedia)

It was the 27th edition of the Jewish Culture Festival.

That might sound quaint. It isn’t; it’s a mega-event stretching over a week with scores of lectures and workshops and dozens of concerts, some featuring real geniuses of contemporary Israeli music.

One such genius was about to take the stage.

The synagogue (called Postępowa — Progressive — because those who built it in the 1860s were trying to bring Reform Judaism to this part of Poland) was carefully restored in the mid-90s and has often served as a concert hall.

But now, as the sun set, its old eyes would see something new.

Into the darkened sanctuary came the fatherly voice of Janusz Makuch, a (non-Jewish) Pole, who founded the Festival. He coaxed and calmed the assembled in two languages, talking fast, praising the artist we were about to see to the heavens, thanking sponsors with baroque courtliness.

Then he subsided.

For a moment there was nothing but darkness and heat and the respirations of so many bodies. And then: a trumpet blast. With nerve.

A man in a turban was playing. Not a Jew, but a Sufi-inflected Muslim from a Manghanhar community in the desert of Rajasthan, on the Indian border with Pakistan. This was the frontman of the Rajasthan Express.

His tootling grew into a six-piece brass section. There were seated drummers ecstatically thumping — with fingers and sticks — on pumpkinlike devices on the floor.

The horns jittered. They whinnied and shivered and insinuated themselves into the toenails of a stolid audience still intimidated by the sacred space.

Then, in a wet-sand voice, soft yet grainy, came Hebrew — beautiful Hebrew. It was Shye Ben Tzur.

His words were mere syllables to most of those present, but they sang of God and of love. They oozed over the crowd like chocolate melting against the hard part of the palate. And the crowd — Poles, Jews and others — started to move.

He had them.

Limbs shifted. They began to mash; to mosh. They began to meld. The businessman nodded his head in time; the rabbi closed his eyes beatifically. The hippie-chicks raised their arms over their heads and their armpits flashed a semaphore in the bleary half-light. Gliding shapes — a light-projection — embroidered the aron kodesh. The trumpets trumped and the drummers thumped, on and on.

He sang:

רוקד לאלוהים.
רוקד מאלוהים.
רוקד באלוהים.
רוקד עם אלוהים.

שפתי נושקות לקברך נפשי עולה.

עולה לאלוהים.
עולה מאלוהים
עולה באלוהים
עולה עם אלוהים

עיני ספוגות במבטך לבי שיכור.
שיכור לאלוהים.
שיכור מאלוהים.
שיכור באלוהים
שיכור עם אלוהים.

Dancing to God.
Dancing from God.
Dancing in God.
Dancing with God.

My lips kiss your tomb, my soul is rising.

Ascending to God.
Ascending from God.
Ascending in God.
Ascending with God.

Having soaked my eyes in your gaze, my heart is drunk.

Drunk for God.

Drunk from God.
Drunk inside God.
Drunk together with God.

I dance…

The bodies exhausted themselves in movement, but felt no fatigue, and the souls of Jew and Gentile floated up in lightness to somewhere under the synagogue ceiling, which is gold like an icon and traced with lines in exotic North African style.

And the souls, dark and light, collected there and intersected with those lines. They formed stars of five points, and 12 points, and six.

They moved together.

Together, they tended upwards.

The ceiling of the Progressive Synagogue in Krakow. (Instagram.)
About the Author
Born in Wisconsin, Erik Ross is a priest of the Dominican Order who lives in Switzerland and comes often to Israel. For many years, he was stationed in Poland. He has long been active in Jewish-Christian conversations. He writes here with the permission of his major superior.
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