Monday, September 28, 2009


Polonia: Poh-lan-ya (God rests here)
- Hebrew saying

Understanding Jewish Polonia

by Staś Kmieć

It is important to recognize similarities between cultures, rather than any differences. Understanding the culture of Poland is understanding all its many and diverse aspects

Poland was in many ways the first multi-racial and multi-cultural society; from the Middle Ages onwards, it was a melting pot of different peoples, traditions and religions.

Polish culture is often synonymous with Catholicism; however to understand the unique and complex history, one needs to look deeper into other religions and cultures of Polish brethren. Substantial communities of Ukrainian, Byelorussian, Lithuanian, German, Armenian,Tatar, Boyk, Łemko, Hucuł and Gypsy cultures, along with Poles of Protestant, Orthodox, Muslim and Jewish faiths were all a part of the tapestry of Poland.

The Jewish name for Poland was Polin or Poyln in Yiddish (etymologically “po” = “here” and “lin” = peace”).

For about half a millennium Poland was home to the largest Jewish population in the world and served as the center for Jewish culture. A diverse population of Jews from all over Europe sought refuge in Poland, contributing to a wide variety of religious and cultural groups.

Ashkenazi Jewish communities, which were numerous in the early Middle Ages in France, Italy and Germany were pushed further eastwards during the persecutions of the Crusades. Many fled to Eastern Europe, particularly Poland. They spoke Yiddish, which is a combination of Middle High German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, written in Hebrew script.

Jews, who had been the victims of pogroms all over Europe were often held responsible for the Black Death.

Under the rule of Prince Bolesław Pobozny (1221-1279), Jews were treated well. In 1264, Prince Boleslaw issued the Statute of Kalisz, guaranteeing protection and granting the Jews of Wielkopolska (Great Poland) their rights.

King Kazimierz Wielki, (1310-1370) was favorably disposed toward Jews. OnOctober 9, 1334, he confirmed the privileges granted to Jewish Poles by Prince Bolesław. Although Jews had lived in Poland since before the reign of King Kazimierz, he allowed them to settle in Poland in great numbers and protected them as people of the king. Jews are granted rights to transit through the whole country, settle in its cities and villages, and lend money.

A law in 1346 expanded the scope of the Statute and specifically protected them against persecution in Poland and was a major factor in Poland’s centuries-long position as the home for the largest community of world Jewry.

Of three important messianic movements (including Sabbateism and Frankism ) the only one to achieve widespread and deep significance was Hasidism.

This popular movement of both a religious and mystical nature originated in Central Poland and the Galicia (Małopolska) area in the 17th century. Within the Jewish population the movement is regarded as Polish with its characteristic philosophy, traditional dress, music, dance, and joy of life.

Many Jews took part in the struggle for an independent Poland, joining Piłsudski’s legions – as their forefathers had taken part in Kościuszko’s insurrection of 1794 and the uprisings of 1830 and 1863.

Yom Kippur

The 10th day of Tishri, the first month of the Jewish calendar, is Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement. It is the holiest and most solemn day of the year and marks God’s forgiveness of the early Israelites after they worshipped the golden calf while Moses received the tablets of the law (The Ten Commandments) from God on Mount Sinai.

Moses ascended Mount Sinai to ask God for forgiveness. The Israelites repented by fasting during the day while Moses was on the mountain. On the tenth day, Moses descended the mountain with the second Tablets. God decreed the tenth day of the month of Tishrei as a day of atonement:

According to Jewish tradition, God inscribes each person's fate for the coming year into a "book" on Rosh Hashanah and waits until Yom Kippur to "seal" the verdict. At the end of Yom Kippur, one considers one's self absolved by God.