Krakow’s “Czulent” association of young Jews — Renewing local Jewish identity and pride

The main ingredients include beans, barley, onions and potatoes. And no czulent would be complete without a kosher meat, either chicken or beef.

An association of young Jews in Krakow has come up with a meatless czulent, however. Their version is not just a statement about their eating tastes. It symbolizes their new, more open approach to being a Jew. Thus, they call their organization Czulent.
?We do not accept the ?one and only? correct definition of Jewishness,? says their Web site, www.czulent.pl. ?We recognize everybody?s right to find his own path. We are open to those who lean towards religion as well to those whose approach to Judaism is secular because the cornerstones of our association are: pluralism, diversity, openness and tolerance.?
One of the key reasons that Czulent was founded was to help members search for their Jewish identity. Several members didn?t know they were Jewish until recently. Why? The answer lies in what happened to Poland?s Jewish community when the Nazis and Soviets occupied the country.   
The Second Republic of Poland, which lasted from 1918 to 1939, had over 3 million Jews ? one of the greatest Jewish societies in the world at the time.
The Nazis killed 90 percent of them, mostly in concentration camps. After the war the Soviet occupiers forced on Poland the notion that religion was wrong. Many Poles, including Jews, hid their faith.
It wasn?t until the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1989 that Poles could feel free to embrace their faiths again. By that time, however, many families had kept their faith-based roots from their children.
?It is quite common that young people in Poland find out about their Jewish roots very late,? according to the Czulent Web site. ?Often it is a big problem for them; they do not know how to deal with it. Sometimes, their Jewish origin is a deep, hidden family secret. The feeling of alienation they experience (from having their roots hidden) may be a big obstacle in their acceptance of their Jewishness.?
Tadeusz Wolenski?s shock at the sudden discovery of his roots at the age of 19 was one reason he became one of the founders of Czulent. At the time he was an international studies student at Jagiellonian University.
He and his friend Daniela Malec came across others who wanted to discuss their feelings about their Jewish identity and to share what they had experienced. They decided to form Czulent.  
Daniela, the organization?s current president, said that when she first began searching for her Jewish identity, she thought she was one of a small number of young Poles with Jewish roots. ?But after meeting one person, then you meet another and you think, ?Well, there must be more. Let?s get together and do something.??
So she, Tadeusz and others started Czulent in 2005. One of the requirments for their second meeting, she said, was: ?Everybody had to bring another Jew.?
?In the beginning, none of us was religious,? she recalled. With no non-religious activities available, there was no way for young people who had just learned about their roots to be involved in Jewish life.
?So we created a group that was for everybody,? Daniela. ?It was focused less on religion and more — especially at the beginning — on identity problems.?
The meetings were like therapy sessions, she said. ?We spent a lot of time talking about our family stories. The stories were similar in a way? because of the common thread of the Holocaust, ?but also very different, very complicated,? she said.
?For many people it was very important to be able to speak about this with other people,? she added.
Soon Czulent grew to 50 members. Most were aware that their living relatives or their ancestors were Jewish.
Many said that because of the terrible experience of World War II, their parents wanted the family to keep a distance from their culture. ?Partly because of the Holocaust experience, our parents think that being openly Jewish is not safe,? Daniela said.
What was parents? reaction to their children joining a Jewish organization? ?Some of them were surprised,? Daniela said.
For a long time, she said, her mother warned her against becoming too involved in Judaism and the Jewish community. ?But now, I think, she has changed,? Daniela said. ?My experience helped her feel easier about her Jewish identity. And it is a similar story with many parents of our members.?
Czulent requires its members to have Jewish roots or to practice Judaism. Some members lack the roots but  are in the process of converting.
Czulent bestows honorary membership on people who work for understanding between Jews and non-Jews ? for example, Jerzy Wojcik. The longtime member of the Polish-Israeli Association of Hope-Hatikvah is a friend of many Czulent members.
Honorary membership is also available to individuals and organizations who give Czulent, donations and other support.
Most of the group?s American sponsors have Polish roots. ?One of our greatest sponsors, Alexander Bialywlos White, survived death at the hand of the Nazis by getting a spot on Schindler?s List,? Daniela said. ?His and others? contributions enable our organization to carry out many of our activities.?
Although Czulent still offers young Jews group support, it has added concrete programs to help them find their identity as well. And it has programs to help non-Jews understand Jewish culture.
Czulent started a Jewish library named after the famed Rabbi ReMa, the Hebrew acronym for Rabbi Moses Isserles. The library has become a hot spot for Jewish studies. Meanwhile, Krakows?s community rabbi, Boaz Pasz, has set up classes in the Hebrew language and Talmud, a collection of rabbis? discussions about Jewish laws).
To help others understand their culture, Czulent has Jewish authors speak about their books each month. They also arrange a showing once a month of a film connected with a Jewish subject — at the Micro theater.

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