Exploring Yiddishland Part I: Poland

By Julia Rothkoff

I applied for The Naomi Prawer Kadar Fellowship last year, but due to COVID-19, Columbia University cancelled the trip. This year, I submitted my application knowing that the entire program would take place online, and I worried that this virtual iteration of the study abroad program would pale in comparison to previous years. However, once I logged onto Zoom for my first meeting with our instructor, Dr. Agi Legutko, and the five other fellows, those fears completely subsided. The “Exploring Yiddishland” course, which commenced the first week of the program, introduced me to Yiddish and Jewish studies outside of Columbia University. We regularly attended Zoom lectures through the Jewish Culture Festival in Kraków, Poland, which presented the incredible Jewish studies scholarship occurring within the country. My favorite event I attended at the Jewish Culture Festival was the “Preserving Memory Awards Ceremony” in which award winners were celebrated for their initiatives dedicated to Jewish memory in Poland. The host called the award recipients “guardians of history” and noted that they complete their work “far from the lights of the cameras.” This awards ceremony gave me a local perspective of the important work currently being completed by young individuals in the field of Jewish studies.

My favorite activities during the “Exploring Yiddishland” course were the ones exclusive to us fellows. Professor Miriam Udel’s workshop on Yiddish children’s literature was one of my favorite sessions because Professor Udel discussed her own struggles when translating Yiddish literature for her book, Honey on the Page: A Treasury of Yiddish Children’s Literature. As a language student, I regularly think about the process of creating a faithful and clear translation, and it was comforting to see these issues mentioned by a professional translator. Additionally, the Yiddish film workshop with Dr. Zehavit Stern felt especially beneficial for me because of my academic interest in Yiddish film. The workshop, titled “Performing Motherhood in Yiddish Film” introduced me to the field of motherhood studies, to which I had never been exposed before. 

Figure 1. Miriam Udel presented on Yiddish children’s literature. Her book, Honey on the Page: A Treasury of Yiddish Children’s Literature, was published in 2020.

While I thoroughly enjoyed learning from scholars, the sessions with individuals from outside of academia taught me the most about Jews in Poland. Dr. Legutko arranged for Gabi von Seltmann to speak to us about her work on the Great Synagogue Project, an art installation that projects the destroyed Great Synagogue in Warsaw on its former location, which is now an office building known as the “Blue Skyscraper.” Although, we could not physically be in Poland to explore Yiddishland, the guest speakers presented the important work currently being conducted in an effort to preserve Yiddishkeit in Poland.

Figure 2. Gabi von Seltmann created the Great Synagogue Project in Warsaw.

Image Sources

Figure 1. https://nyupress.org/9781479874132/honey-on-the-page/. Accessed August 23, 2021.
Figure 2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_KfMdbn6Q5w. Accessed August 23, 2021.

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