Introduction: Joanna Auron-Gorska’s poetic evocation of her search for a HOME — Hebrew, BEIT or BAYIT continues a spiritual theme that marks Jewish life. In today’s Poland, the emergence of Jewish life renews in her (and in all of us) a hope expressed amid both surprise and anxiety.
Almost sixty-eight years after Hitler’s destructive efforts gave way to an additional four years of Polish civil war, chaos, and banditry there is an attempt to build Jewish life in Bialystok!! As Joanna enters the challenges of building a Jewish community in Bialystok, I feel I am a part of her efforts! Beit Polska is proud to support these efforts.
Bialystok has many people who claim Jewish ancestry but they have distanced themselves from Judaism. Perhaps Joanna and her friends with our help can create the conditions for some people to rejoin the Jewish people. Progressive Jewish life in Bialystok will be not only for Joanna but also her daughter and her community. Let us lend our support and good wishes. We appreciate the recent support of Kulanu, a marvelous organization that supports “isolated and emerging Jewish communities.” Joanna’s words echo the collages she created telling a hopeful story not only with words but with images.
Beit Bialystok – A Dream Under Construction
A dream is never complete, because different meanings reveal themselves with every reading. But my dream is a House I build out in the real world, and I never want it to cease constructing itself. It is built upon a Jewish home that used to live inside me. In the external realm of my city that the war had emptied of Jews, my Beit was empty of people. It was so until the time was right to make elements of this private construction a reality.
A dream construct, to move from the internal into the external, needs a time and a space. The time, the summer of 2012, was right. The place was my city, Bialystok.
The dream demanded people. My people have had no place in which to pray together in my city since the 1950s. So the place we were to construct now had to be a safe place. I found a room in which to construct a Beit for Bialystok Jews, a place with double doors and barred windows. It had to be redecorated and furnished, and it all had to be paid for.
We had little funds. But the dream insisted it needed the walls that shelter from bad weather in winter and an evil eye all year round; it wanted food good to eat to be laid on the table, and the wine to make the Kiddush over; it wanted the space to be lit by the physics of an electric bulb which brings light with which to read the words of Torah and by the weekly miracle of two flickering flames that bring that other, much brighter light which allows one to understand what one is reading.
Beit Polska has given us the money to pay for such a place. It gave us the money to pay the prayer leaders who come all the way from Warsaw or Lublin to help us to pray together as Jews. Good Bialystokers lent us their tables and chairs, and gave us their time and their work. Now the Beit had secured four walls, it had to be filled with people. Where are the Bialystok Jews? There they are. But how to get them to come forward? I told all my friends we were about to build a Jewish time and space. I asked them to spread the word. I wrote invitation letters to people I barely knew, or did not know at all. I asked other people to write or talk to the people they knew. I advertised the dream as a new, Jewish time frame. I waited.
I looked around me this past Shabbat, and loved the dream fleshed out in living human bodies.
But dreams are never complete. If you let them speak, they will cry out for more. Now it has seen six Jews, Beit Bialystok wants to see ten Jews study together; it wants to see a hundred, praying together, within its walls. There are Jews in my city who say they support us, but refuse to join us. We need them. We need the university professor who says he has arranged his life to fit the circumstances and cannot change it now that he is old. We need the former Polish teacher who fears the intensity of the pull that she says Judaism exerts on her. We need the old man who holds public Shabbat services in his home and calls it education.
I know you worked hard to be able to live this Jewish-less lifestyle.
You have hidden from yourself so well.
Come out of the belly of the fish.
After the ovens and the pogroms, can you see the return of the Jewish people to Judaism as anything but the work of God? Therefore, to the 613 commandments, a Jew added that Jews should live as Jews. By being Jews together we honor God’s will and we honor our dead the most poignant way possible.
Please do come. We are empty without you.
If we have all been exiled, now we can return.
We may be able to rebuild our home in Poland. Having built a large enough community of Jews, we may be able to continue in Bialystok and be more self-sustaining. The support of Beit Polska and now, Kulanu may sustain us in our efforts toward independence. Our children will be able to live as Jews, if they so choose. They will be able to say the Kaddish for us when we are gone.
Poland once held three million of the six and a half million European Jews. Now six thousand say they are Jewish. The Jewish Houses we are constructing are made of warm and breathing human beings, not dogmas, brick walls, and money. Yet, like Moses asking food in the desert, we must consider these too.
I see our re-gathering in the Beit Polska houses as another one of our returns, the struggle to come closer to living as Jews embodying the hardship and the beauty of the times we have in the past come back.
Soon it will have been 4 months since Beit Bialystok went into construction. There are regular meetings, and we are beginning to learn what to expect from each other during those meetings. The elderly Shoah survivor will not make coffee but will accept it. The young Jewish woman with a son will only come join us when her best friend does. The Christian sympathiser will help clear the table. The Catholic girl with Jewish ancestors will make disparaging remarks. The prayer leader will invariably be late. We will all be together in joy.
Watching this House construct itself out of living people is breathtaking. As I wash the floors before meetings in the little room where we study and hold services, as I iron my white tablecloths I will then lay on the communal table, as I make the challah and buy the wine, I see my inner house build me up like a prayer.
The land may be dry bones, but it is also Jonah aware he can no longer hide within the belly of the fish.