Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe.

Author:Lehrer, Erica
Position:Book review

Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe. By Ruth Ellen Gruber. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. Pp. 304, introduction, notes, bibliography, index, illustrations.)

Ruth Gruber, in her ambitious book Virtually Jewish, takes as her subject the recent European phenomenon of non-Jewish interest and participation in Jewish culture. This topic is ripe for research, given the press attention to some of its various elements: new Jewish festivals, new Jewish museums, even new Jews. Virtually Jewish has four main sections, all of which address what Gruber calls the "Jewish phenomenon"--a constellation of Jewish cafes, foods, monuments, celebrations, music, clothing, and identity, constructed by those who "perform .... Jewish culture from an outsider perspective" (11)--in short, the apparent existence of Jewish culture in the apparent absence of Jews.

Part I: "Afterlife" discusses the phenomenon in general, analyzing its existence, participants, and diverse motives. The other three parts of the book deal with what Gruber sees as its main manifestations, namely Jewish monuments, Jewish museums, and Klezmer music. Part II: "Jewish Archaeology" addresses the massive efforts dedicated to the restoration of Jewish sites, following not only Nazi destruction but, also, in eastern Europe, a half-century of often Communist-motivated neglect, ironic transformations of use, and local scavenging. Part III: "Museum Judaism" addresses the wide range of local European Judaica collections, displays, and presentations and their diverse aims. Part IV: "Klezmer in the Wilderness" considers this traditional yet flexible musical form, which is perhaps the most widespread manifestation of Jewishness in Europe.

Virtually Jewish lucidly captures some of the quirky, ironic, and moving passions of non-Jews who have discovered a powerful and inexplicable pull towards Jewishness in their own lives. Gruber frames her discussion with observations of interesting and important tensions--those between sincerity and self-congratulation, appreciation and appropriation, guilt and stereotyping (and whether it is all "good for the Jews" anyway)--that echo those experienced by many Jewish visitors to formerly "Jewish spaces" in Europe.

Gruber, a freelance journalist living in Italy and Hungary and for many years a foreign correspondent for United Press International and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, is well-positioned to write this book. Her two previous books, Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Central Europe and Upon the Doorposts of Thy House: Jewish Life in East-Central Europe Yesterday and Today, as well as her involvement in the early Jewish community revival in Poland, reveal her own longstanding interest and intimate participation in the very reinvention of Jewish culture she portrays in her present work. Indeed, it is precisely Gruber's intensive engagements with Jewishness in Europe that suggest, to me, the value of a somewhat different perspective on "the Jewish phenomenon" than that offered by Gruber. In my view, the easy separation of "virtual" from "authentic" Jewishness can obscure as much as it reveals, indicating Jewish nostalgia for Europe as much as European yearnings for Jews. While Gruber is clearly aware of the slipperiness of her chosen terms (see especially the section "Is It Jewish? Is It Culture?"), the structure of her argument, and most obviously, the book's title, reinforce the illusion that "virtual" and "authentic," "cultural products" and "living culture," as well as "cultural outsiders" and "insiders," are natural taxonomies.

The jacket of Gruber's book shows the flat cardboard cutouts of traditionally-garbed pre-war Polish Jews that inhabit the beautifully restored...

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