Tree of life: A tale of Krakow’s new rabbi Boaz Pash…

Born in Jerusalem in 1967, Boaz Pash was ordained as a rabbi at Yeshiva Heichal HaTorah, an academy for higher Talmudic and Torah studies. He helped found and worked at the Yeshiva Maale Amos from 1988 to 1990. Soon after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Rabbi Pash went in 1992 to Kiev, where he taught at the Jewish Education Center. He was also a teacher in Sao Paolo, Brazil, from 1994 to 1998, and at the Shavei Israel Center in Mizorm, India, in  2003. From 2004 until he came to Krakow in 2006, Rabbi Pash served as chief rabbi of the 1,000 Jews in Lisbon, Portugal. He has a wife, Sara, and five sons, two of whom study in Israeli yeshivas.

 
You came to Krakow recently, in late 2006. What did you expect before you arrived?
 
Before I came, I knew something about Jewish history here, the rich history of Krakow itself, and the history of this city during World War II. I came for the people. I thought if I could connect even one Jew to the rest of the Jewish community, it would be reason enough to come. Although Krakow has a long Jewish legacy, with many important rabbis, when you arrive you realize that today?s Jewish community is small.
 
Can you feel the presence of the great rabbis and Jewish thinkers who used to live here?
 
Every student in the yeshiva, the Academy of Talmudic and Torah Studies, knows Krakow well. He doesn?t know the streets or byways of Krakow, the geography of the city, but he knows about the people who used to live here.
He studies their books. For example, we study the books of Rabbi Moshe Isserles every day. (Isserles, who lived from 1520 to 1572, is also known by the Hebrew acronym ReMa.) We live our lives according to his directives. He is the major, most important rabbi, the Posek,  which means he is the one who issues directives on how we Ashkenazi should behave. (The Ashkenazi are Jews who settled in central and northern Europe.)
When we go higher, to the kabala level (the Jewish mysticism level), we talk about Rabbi Megale Amukot. (Also known as Rabbi Natan Nata Spria, he lived from 1583 to 1633.) He is the father of Ashkenazi kabalists. So the history of Krakow Judaism is part of the life of the yeshiva. Every student knows all the Krakow rabbis.
It didn?t feel strange for me to come here and see the place where Rabbi Moshe Isserles used to study or to walk the same streets as Rabbi Megale Amukot and the others.
Still, you don?t learn a lot about Jewish history here and the conditions under which they lived. But being here helps you imagine some things.
For example, you start to understand why Rabbi Moshe Isserles wrote about the lack of wine in Krakow. First you learn that there is little wine production in Poland — they have to bring it in. Second, you learn about the wine taxes they had to pay to the city, to the national government and to the king. Then you start to understand that if you are not a rich man, you can?t get wine. You have to use beer or vodka to perform a Havdalah (a ceremony that concludes Shabbat).
 
Do you consider it a blessing that you knew so much about Krakow?s Jewish tradition before you came?
 
In some ways it?s hard. Consider the Kazimierz neighborhood. It was full, really full of Jewish life, Jewish people, walking on the streets, talking. You know that all the banners on the streets used to be in Yiddish. And you think about the 60,000 people who used to live here, and now there is almost nobody — you can?t see them anymore.
 
Can the Jewish community regain its prominence here?
 
We must understand that a lot of things have changed, including community and religious life. In the past Krakow had separate Jewish communities. For example, Romany had its special customs, special rites of prayer and so on. These don?t exist today. The connection between people and their community has become so fragile that we?ve lost a lot of the traditional identification of a community. We start seeing it as part of a bigger thing. On the one hand, it?s good; but on the other, it?s sad.
Our mission today, in that community, is to take it into the 21st Century. Any community that is unable to change will not survive. It?s like a factory, a firm, that goes bankrupt because it failed to take the steps to be competitive. The product is not the same as it was a hundred years ago, and it?s certainly not the same as it was at the time of Rabbi ReMa.
A lot of times I think to myself, ??Wow, it would have been great to be a rabbi here before the war, or even earlier.?? But then I think about the problems rabbis had in those times. And I say to myself, ??Maybe I would prefer my problems.?? Because their problems were much more difficult than whether we can get 10 people in the synagogue so we can hold a service. (Jewish law requires 10 people before there can be a service.) You know, more people means more problems — and the problems they had were sometimes really, really great problems. I like today?s community because I think it has started to make the changes necessary to adapt to modern life, to assimilate modern ideas — and especially to attract more young people.
 
What do you think about the big Jewish Cultural Festival that Krakow has every year?
 
It?s something special for Krakow, maybe something special for all of Poland. In the city?s general population, I think there?s a nostalgia for something they used to have, something that maybe they didn?t appreciate at the time.
A lot of non-Jewish Poles are interested in Jewish culture because they feel there was once something here, and it disappeared. And now that it is gone, they want to have some smell or taste of it again.
 
How big is today?s Jewish population in Krakow, including those who don?t participate in community life?
I am not trying to escape the question, but it doesn?t matter. As you may know, according to Jewish law it?s forbidden to count people ? for example, to see if there are enough people in the synagogue to start a service. When it comes to souls, there is only one and one and one and one and one, not one, two, three, four, five.
 
What do you see in store for the Jewish district of Kazimierz?
 
I don?t think Kazimierz will ever return to its pre-war heyday. I don?t see a restoration of Jewish life centered around one district, but I do see a rebirth of the community as a whole. I see a modern community that?s not so Orthodox, not so traditional.
The part of the community that leads a really Jewish life, that engages in serious studies of Judaism ? that part will continue, it will continue for sure. It won?t be the same as it was years ago, but it will still be a continuation of the community from 700 years ago.
 
What problems do people in the community face? What questions do they bring to you?
 
The most important question has a lot of faces, but it?s just one question really: What is our identity, who are we exactly? Jews everywhere struggle with this issue but it?s especially important in Poland and Krakow.
Are we Polish Jews? Jewish Poles? Descendents of ReMa or residents of the Third Republic of Poland?
People here want to know who we are and what that means. Each of us wants to find his place. Some will say that being Jewish means knowing more about Judaism. Others will say that being Jewish means being more active in the community. Everyone describes being Jewish in a different way.
Polish Jews have a special identity, I think, because of the interaction between the Jewish community and the population at large before the war. There was a constant flow of Yiddish words into Polish and Polish words into Yiddish, for example.
So Jewish people here have to ask themselves:  Are we Poles first or Jews first? Are we more connected to the Polish nation or the Jewish community?
 
What can Kabala teach us in the 21st Century?
 
I know it?s in accordance with the New Age wave to be a cabalist or to understand the mystery of the world through it. But kabala has two aspects, one is celestial, very mystical and in other hand kabala is very practical. The cabalist asks you to make your practical life oriented by the mythical ideas, very high ideas.
It means to take all you studies, very deep studies of very high quality and bring it to your daily life. And this is the point, if people do it, it?s fine, it?s good. But I feel that a lot of times people study kabala out of curiosity or to feel their need to some feeding  to their soul. But it?s not enough because Judaism says that your soul is ok, and you have to go on with it, you have to make it better. Not just to know it and to feel ok.
 
Have you seen any signs of anti-Semitism in Krakow?
 
Generally what I?ve seen has been positive. My meetings with Poles have been nice, productive, accepting. On the other hand, you know that this is not the whole picture. You know there is another aspect to it, that it?s a very complicated situation ? one which I?d prefer not to analyze.
Generally, I see good feelings toward Jews. You feel accepted, you feel the government wants you to be here, to come back here, and it makes you feel better. And not just the government ? you also feel the people want you to be here.
 
What would you advise a Jew who is interested in getting back the property that the Nazis or the Communists took from his family?
 
The famous Yiddish joke says: ???You are right? and ?You are right,? and nobody has to pay.?? The truth is that I am not interested in the issue of restitution. I am not interested in buildings, stones, wood or money. There are enough people to do that kind of work; that is not my job.
 I didn?t come to Poland to help Jews regain what they lost in the past. I am interested in people who live here now. You know, I have been here almost six months, and I have never gone to Auschwitz or any other concentration camp except Belzec. And I went there only because it was part of my job, not because I wanted to go. I am not trying to connect to the past. My interest is in the people who live here now.
 
How do your experiences in Brazil, Ukraine, India and Portugal compare with your experience in Krakow?
 
I was in Brazil a few years and then Ukraine. I also was in India for some time, and after that in Lisbon, Portugal. The world is like a tree. When you go higher, the parts spread out. Because it?s more separated, it?s more diverse. The more branches it has, the richer and richer it becomes. But when you go down deeper and deeper, to the roots, you see that it is all the same. Just like tree roots, history, too, is the same in many places.I worked in several places where the idea of Judaism is unclear. In places like Lisbon, Brazil and India it is unclear, the answer to the question of who Jews really are is also unclear.

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