During the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in 2010, my husband Rabbi Allen Maller, and I lived for two months at the Progressive Jewish congregation Beit Warzava in Warsaw. He was conducting services for the High Holidays and I volunteered to sing in the choir.
One morning, I woke early and walked out of my room at the temple heading to the bathroom. I had not even put on my robe and did not expect to find anyone around. I tripped over a pile of items haphazardly lying on the floor. There were piles of dirty clothes, papers, shoes, dropped in the middle of the hallway. That is how I first met Jarek.
He was lying on the sofa half covered in a sheet; a tall, thin body with a mess of long blond hair, his bright blue eyes opened when I nearly toppled on him. Then he sat up and said in English “Sorry, did you fall over my stuff?”
“What are you doing sleeping on the sofa in the hallway?” I asked.
“I came in from Lublin very late and there was no place for me to stay, so sorry.” he replied. “I’m here to help the choir for the High Holidays.”
When Jarek came down later for breakfast; I learned more about him. He was a student at the University of Lublin, majoring in Jewish Studies. That day at practice I realized he played guitar with great precision, and had a strong alto voice. He was talented. I was moved listening to his version of Alvenu Malcanu my favorite song for the High Holidays.
Several days later, Jarek started to tell me about his young life. This is his story: “When I was very young I never felt comfortable in church but I always loved the music. I started to play the guitar when I was about eight years old. In High School, I went with my band buddies to the summer Klezmir Festival in Krakow. I was blown away by this music. It was so joyous and free. My heart beat to the rhythm, my body swayed and I felt my eyes tear. It was pure emotion and very different than anything I had ever heard before.”
“After several years , I got a mentor from the festival who taught me how to play Kelzmir on my guitar. I knew Klezmir music was Jewish, but I knew nothing about Judaism. I started to take classes at the University on Jewish history, customs, and the Shoah. This led me to take even more classes in Hebrew and Yiddish anything that would connect me to Jews and their religion. It felt so right.”
“Finally, I sought out a synagogue and got to Beit Warzava. I told them that I could play Jewish music and they paid me to teach Jewish songs to kids in religious school. I began to do family services. This is the first time I am helping with the High Holiday services by being part of the choir and leading the solo parts of the service.”
“I went to Israel last year.. I felt at home in Israel and made many friends. It was easy to share my thoughts with them. I didn’t have to watch my words. I could talk freely about my love of jewish music and how that brought me to a love of the people in Israel. They were frank, warm, and into expressing emotions with hugs and an open gruffness. They liked to argue even shout. It was so different than the “think before you speak” mind set we learned as children in communist Poland. The Israaelis seemed to understand me better then my Polish friends. I really didn’t want to go back to Warsaw but my visa was up and I couldn’t stay any longer. When I got back to Poland, I changed my major from music to Jewish Studies and will finish my Doctorate degree next month”.
I wondered what Jarek’s family thought about the path he was embracing; so I asked him about his family and how they reacted to his change of studies.
“My dad told me to stop this nonsense or he would cut off my funding for school. When I explained to him that I felt more comfortable in the Jewish temple than in the church, he exploded and said I was no son of his. He stopped my funds. My father gave me a choice, forget what I was doing; or never speak to, or see anyone in the family again. I was never to go back to my village or contact my extended family. He said I was dead to them and would be cut off completely from any inheritance. I am now thirty one and I have not seen or heard from anyone in my family for over five years.”
I felt sad for Jarek. The thought of never seeing my family again was frightening. I would be without my support system and very much alone. Jarek did not feel this way. His father had been autocratic and it was difficult growing up in a family where his mom was not able to stand up for herself.
Jarek continued,“My response was to take the introduction to Judaism class, have a Brit Milah and I officially became a Jew. I have my conversion papers signed by the rabbis.”
In 2012 Allen and I went back to Poland to help start Jewish communities in several smaller towns. We met Jarek again. During the two years we were gone Jarek had been sent by the Jewish Progressive Movement to a program in Germany that trained musicians as lay cantors for two years after a formal conversion. Jarek travelled many hours to G’danz to help us with an emerging congregation for Friday evening services. I was eager to ask him what was new with him over the last two years.
Jarek replied “Things have really changed with me and my family. My mom finally got in touch with me and told me a strange story about her uncle, who was Jewish. She contacted him after my dad forbid me to visit my family. The uncle wanted to meet me so I traveled to Gdanz to visit with him and his family.”
“This uncle told me why he was silent about being a Jew. After the war he had become a Communist and was fairly prominent in the party. His wife and children were not Jewish and everyone knew that to be an open Jew in the party was political suicide.”
“After this I was able to come home again, Mom made it possible and now my father was willing to talk to me again. In Poland the concept of blood is very important. You can be a Pole or a Jew not both; so people have to choose who they want to be. They hide what they consider not acceptable or embarrassing. Poland is still anti-semitic. To be openly Jewish in Poland is uncomfortable for most Poles”
“Maybe my Jewish blood had led me in this direction and now I had the proof that there were Jews in my own family so I had returned to my true roots. My family now accepts me and I think I have chosen the path I was meant to travel.”