A Tour of Kroke

Note:  Kraków’s historic Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, home of one of Europe’s most important Jewish communities for several centuries until its decimation in the Holocaust, is now one of the city’s most important tourist attractions.  Kazimierz's historic buildings, narrow streets and preserved synagogues serve as a backdrop for the neighborhood's gentrification, and a variety of approaches to the Jewish past and present.  One feature of the tourist economy is the continuous flow of golf cart-like electric vehicles through the neighborhood's streets, a type of transport known locally in Polish as a “meleks.”  Delivering pre-recorded narratives in the style of grade-school book reports of disjointed factoids, the meleks tours render the Jews of Kazimierz as a fossilized exotic people, remote and lifeless. The Google English lends an unintended, pitiable humor.  According to the meleks, for example, you will learn that "...this praying house of the Judaistic cult no longer serves its primordial function."

What follows is a commentary about tourism in contemporary Kazimierz, in the form of a sequence of pictures of touring and tourists, followed by an alternate tour, playful but no less painful than the tours you can take everyday in the neighborhood.  Like the actual meleks tour, this alternative is an exercise in imagination, but of a very different kind.  What if the meleks's framing terms were all reversed?  Could we imagine a tour by a contemporary Jewish tour operator, introducing the neighborhood through storytelling, as insiders do, telling us not about dry history but about life and lifeways, from a position of warmth and familiarity?  And what if this tour occurred in a world that did not encounter rupture and annihilation, a world in which the Holocaust did not happen?  What might it be like to take a Jewish meleks tour through a Holocaustless Kazimierz of 2018?

I wrote the text in the chatty style of Sholem Aleichem, adapting some passages from the opening sections of Der Nister’s mid-twentieth century Yiddish novel, The Family Mashber.  I made the photographs as stills extracted from video footage that I made while taking an actual meleks tour.  The pictures show the view from the tourist's seat––mostly through the meleks's smudgy plastic window flaps, lowered to provide protection against the cold of early spring, on the other side of which the world is already pitched toward irreality.

[The scene:  Kraków's Kazimierz district, March 2018, inside a tourist meleks, in a world in which the Holocaust did not occur.  The voice belongs to the tour guide.]

Hello and sholom aleichem, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Kroke, the town that time left behind, if time were like Shmuel Yitzhak’s shoes––Shmuel Yitzhak, who sells shoes on Józefa street but won’t let you try them on in advance, and if they don’t fit, it’s your problem, but he will however buy them back from you…for a little less than you paid.  This by the way is the same Shmuel Yitzhak who for years has been in a trade war with Yitzhak Shmuel, who also sells shoes, right across the street.  One day Yitzhak Shmuel came to open his shop and saw that Shmuel Yitzhak had put a sign in the window, “All Shoes for Sale at -50%.”  Yitzhak Shmuel said to himself, “that Shmuel Yitzhak is trying to put me out of business, but I’ll show him!”  And he put a sign in his window, “All Shoes for Sale at -60%.”  Business was brisk for Yitzhak Shmuel with such a steep discount, though his profit margin was reduced.  The next week, Yitzhak Shmuel saw that Shmuel Yitzhak had put a new sign in his shop window, “All Shoes for Sale at -70%.”  And Yitzhak Shmuel said to himself, “that Shmuel Yitzhak is trying to ruin my business, but I’ll show him!”  And he put a sign in his window, “All Shoes for Sale at -80%.”  And business was even brisker for Yitzhak Shmuel with that even bigger discount, though his profit margin was so thin that the rib of a carp was actually thicker.  And for the best carp in Kroke, there are two places you could go to, but that’s another story.  Anyway, the next week, Yitzhak Shmuel saw that Shmuel Yitzhak had put yet another new sign in his shop window, “All Shoes for Sale at -90%.”  And as the saying goes, a bad neighbor is worse than rain, because the latter makes you go home while the former makes you go outside, so Yitzhak Shmuel went across the street and entered the shop of Shmuel Yitzhak and demanded an explanation.  As the Talmud says, a person should live at least for curiosity.  “-50%, -70%, -90%––what is this, Shmuel Yitzhak, how can you make any money at all?”  And ladies and gentlemen, do you know what Shmuel Yitzhak answered?  “Well,” he said, “I’ve been doing quite well.  Starting with the first sign, whenever someone comes in to buy shoes at a discount, I tell them I don’t have what they’re looking for and that they should go buy from you…”  Oy, the scoundrel Shmuel Yitzhak!  Anyway, you’ll find his shop at Józefa 22, and word is that he’s thinking of renting the shop across the street that used to belong to Yitzhak Shmuel, the one with the boards now over the windows.

So welcome to Kroke, ladies and gentlemen, where we say that when choosing between two evils, a pessimist picks both.  Some people call our town by the Polish name, “Kazimierz,” which is honestly a little difficult to say, and we know it in Yiddish as Kuzmir, or sometimes Kuzmark, or just Kroke.  Our tour begins here, at the Old Synagogue, built a long time ago, no one really knows how long ago, but it’s the synagogue that no one likes.  And no one even really tries to like it.  Everyone here in Kroke has at least two synagogues––the one they go to, and the one they will not go to.  Usually if you ask someone here in Kroke which shul they go to, they will say the name of the one they don’t go to first.  But even though no one likes the Old Synagogue, it’s not very useful even as a disliked shul.  As the saying goes, however bitter love may be, you can’t make a good rat poison out of it.  Next to the Old Synagogue is the house of the rabbi for the Old Synagogue, currently Rabbi Anshel Teitelbaum, who started living in the house after a long dispute with his brother, Dovid Teitelbaum, also a rabbi.  For awhile, the two brothers lived in the house together, but it never really worked out because they stopped talking to each other years ago in a dispute over a fig tree.  Each brother had a separate entrance to the house, and actually they divided the house inside with a brick wall, but Anshel Teitelbaum eventually was able to gain possession by getting the Chief Rabbi of Poland to give him a new title, so that he became not Rabbi of the Old Synagogue but Ambassador of the Chief Rabbi of Poland Headquartered in the Old Synagogue, and he also persuaded the Kahal that the rabbi’s house was not just the rabbi’s house but the Embassy of the Chief Rabbi of Poland, under the direct control of Warsaw, a tiny independent island of a country, a regular embassy just like any embassy, and that his brother was therefore living without a passport in a foreign country and could be kicked out.  And this is how he got his brother deported from the house next to the Old Synagogue.  Oy, our rabbi.  Everyone here in Kroke complains about a lack of money, but no one complains about a lack of brains.

So this is Szeroka street, the center of Kroke.  It’s been the center of our town for as long as anyone can remember.  Speaking of bad memories, no one knows exactly how old Kroke is, just like no one knows exactly how old the world is.  All we know is that Adam was the first lucky man because he had no mother in law.  Some people say that Kroke is ten generations old, others twenty, a few say thirty, and here and there you’ll find someone who claims forty.  Beware of what you hear, ladies and gentlemen, as it’s well known that a Jew always knows better––and for those who claim to know anything for certain, as we say here in Kroke, you should fear a goat when it’s in front of you, a horse when it’s behind you, and a fool anywhere around you.  Yes, this is Szeroka street, the center of our town, where the rich have their shops and the poor have their stalls, the very poor have their pushcarts and the thieves have their overcoats.  We apologize for the heavy traffic and the bumpy ride, but the cobblestones have been in disrepair for as long as anyone can remember.  Starting in about 1960, the Kahal made an honest effort to renew them, but a dispute broke out between two rival cobblestone setters, and the stones lay in piles for a long time, until finally they were set back in place––badly––in about 1975, worse than they were before.  As you can see, Kroke is highly overpopulated, and it’s been this way as long as anyone can remember.  Living is cheap here in Kroke, and it’s always been cheap, not easy but cheap.  As the Talmud says, if charity were worth nothing, everyone would be philanthropists.  The crowds that you see here are typical for each of our three seasons––summer, winter, and mud. 

Sometimes people dream about what Kroke would be like if it were emptier and calmer.  People say for example that if Hitler’s assassin in 1938 had been unsuccessful and Germany had actually invaded Poland, or God forbid the Germans had invaded from one side and the Russians from the other, and they divided the country––oy, we’re still thankful that someone took care of that oysshteller Hitler before he could do any real damage––but if the Germans had managed to come to Kroke they might have thrown the Jews out or staged a pogrom to make people run away, and eventually our little town would have been emptied of Jews.  It’s a debate you sometimes hear in Kroke, what it would be like if it didn’t have any Jews.  Some people say that Kroke without Jews would be better, more peaceful, and others say that it just wouldn’t be Kroke anymore.  Anyway, boruch hashem we don’t have to think about Kroke without Jews––as you can see, there are so many Jews here in Kroke that you can’t even drive a tour cart on Szeroka without getting stopped every thirty seconds to let a shikker cross the path, and these shmendriks standing next to the cart offering to sell you their discount electronics and secondhand socks or two bottles of kosher water for the price of one, you’d best ignore them. 

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, everything here in Kroke assaults you immediately.  After the tour, I invite you to stroll the streets of our town, and notice the smells––just the smells––that assault your noses, ladies and gentlemen.  There is the smell of curing leathers and the sweetness of our pastries––admittedly a little acrid, but still sweet––and the salty smell of dried fish, and the smells of gasoline and machine oils and cooking oils and burning coal in the winter, and of all kinds of dusty and humid things––old clothes, rusted iron, everything worn out that refuses to be completely useless––and also the smell of new paper, especially near the newsstands, where you’ll find six daily newspapers:  ultra left, ultra right and ultra confused, printed of course in Yiddish and in Polish, though no one reads the Polish ones, leaving three, which is to say one, depending on whichever one you read, minus the two you do not read, leaving a total of negative one newspapers.  This is the reason everyone complains about the lack of newspapers here, though of course all Jews are addicted to CNN and BBC, which you’ll find playing on small TV sets in the back of every shop.  No Jew will miss the parade of interviews with the porn stars suing Donald Trump, which has become the talk of the town, and at least a way to laugh at that shmegegge.

As you can see, Kroke is crowded with shop after shop, squeezed together like boxes on a shelf.  Everything in Kroke is packing and unpacking, packing and unpacking, wholesale and retail, cash and credit.  The normal scheme is to buy on credit and then sell at a profit, then buy on credit again and sell at a bigger profit, and keep doing this until you declare bankruptcy, then open a slightly better shop with the money you’ve made.  You’ll hear constant quarreling here in Kroke, shopkeepers against shopkeepers, clerks against clerks, deliverymen against deliverymen, and if you’re a newcomer, it can be hard to tell the difference between arguing and bargaining, persuading and threatening, cajoling and lamenting, befriending and defrauding.  In the better shops, the owners will carry wads of 100 zloty notes, which they will casually pull out of their pockets at strategic moments to indicate that they don’t need you, that they’re above fighting and arguing, a superior class of businessman whose level you should aspire to.  In the less-than-better shops, these wads are actually 10 zloty notes with a 100 wrapped around the outside.  And in the normal shops, nothing is too small to argue over, and there is no difference between losing 1 zloty and losing 1000.  “See you at your funeral!” is a common thing to hear as you’re leaving a shop with whatever item you’ve managed to buy for as little as possible.

But people here in Kroke make up quickly.  After all, the world won’t disappear because there are too many people in it, but because there are too many non-people.  People drink coffee together constantly here in Kroke, and run into each other’s shops to borrow some change, a quick loan, or maybe they get together if a Pole comes in offering a particularly good deal, or they play tricks on each other, shouting to each other from halfway down the street.  As you can hear, everyone here in Kroke is shouting all at once.  That’s how it normally is here.  On special days it’s even more intense, for example during Christmas, when the Christians come in mobs and there’s hardly room to move.  Christmas is the season when the Christians love to shop, and don’t let anyone tell you that only a Jew knows how to haggle.  The Christians love to spend as much time as possible over a purchase just as much as we Jews do, just for the sheer pleasure of buying, wanting, knowing where to look for something, being made to feel welcome, getting offended at not being made welcome enough, leaving the shop, coming back, shouldering through the crowds, wandering in the desire to own things and searching every shelf and corner for a deal, asking questions and getting bad answers and half-bad answers and good answers and half-good answers, finally indulging in something not really needed but irresistible.  The Christians love to shop as much as the Jews, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.  Here in Kroke, everyone is busy, everyone glows.

People here in Kroke have a way of ignoring everything––not eating from the morning to the night and getting home after dark, exhausted with a freezing face and a freezing nose and freezing ears.  Well, this is more the case in the so-called Rough Market on Plac Nowy than in the so-called Fine Market on Plac Wolnica.  Over there, you have the better sellers and the more refined buyers, not only the small number of Jews you could really call prosperous but all kinds of well-to-do foreign customers, these days a lot of them from Abu Dhabi and Shanghai.  People over there are better dressed, and the clerks are so persuasive that it is a rare customer who can escape them.  As we say here in Kroke, there’s not much benefit to being poor, except that God protects the poor from expensive sins.

Most of the Jews you see around you, ladies and gentlemen, as we proceed on our tour, most of them are decent people, worrying all day long.  Those who don’t have money worry about how to get it, how to borrow a little, and those who have money also worry about where to get it––how to borrow a little more.  Successful shopkeepers worry about how to pay their brokers, and less successful ones worry about how to pay their loan sharks.  Everyone you see from our tour cart has a busy head, worrying about profit when there is profit and also when there isn’t.  As we say here in Kroke, there are two kinds of problems:  those that can be solved with money and those that cannot be.  Those that cannot be solved with money are not a problem but a burden, and those than can be solved with money are not a problem but a cost.  Whole days and years go by here in Kroke like a tram taking you from Burden to Cost and back again.

You should know that things occasionally do get boring here in Kroke, not often but it does happen.  At this point, a Jew will engage in mental exercises, just for the practice.  Jewish women of Kroke are famous for what outsiders see as their gifts of fortune telling.  A customer will walk into a shop, and the woman working will look her up and down.  “This young woman doesn't look like she’s from some small town,” she’ll begin to herself, “and if she’s not from a small town, then she probably comes from Warsaw.  And if she comes from Warsaw, there’s a good chance she’s Jewish because it’s mostly Jews, after all, who you see in this part of Kraków.  And when Warsaw Jews come to Kroke and they don’t know where they’re going, the first place they go is usually to one of the Ariel Restaurants on Szeroka, either Bad Ariel or Good Ariel.  But the woman who works the door at Good Ariel will spot a newcomer and if she’s not well dressed––and this woman isn’t so well dressed––she’ll send her to Bad Ariel.  And in Bad Ariel she’ll be greeted either by Toiba Bernstein or by Shayna Steinberg––Toiba Bernstein who sits all day at a table on the left side of the door, and Shayna Steinberg who sits all day at a table on the right side.  But Toiba Bernstein has been in a particularly foul mood lately and just the sight of her will drive a normal person to the table of Shayna Steinberg––and this woman looks like a reasonably normal person––so she probably sat with Shayna Steinberg and had coffee.  No doubt Shayna Steinberg started talking about her son Velvel, always with her it’s about Velvele, the one she’s been trying to marry off.  Velvel’s twin brother Menachem is smart and a good looker, but with Velvel it’s a problem.  And there are two types of young women who listen to Shayna Steinberg talk about her son Velvel in Bad Ariel, those from decent families and those from not so decent families, and you can tell the difference by the general air of patience––those from not-so-decent families are jittery and lack attention for anything, while those from decent families are collected.  This young woman has a lot of poise and no doubt Shayna Steinberg would have noticed this, too, and she would have sent a signal to the woman working at the door of Bad Ariel, a double flick of the wrist, which means go get Velvel to come into Bad Ariel “by accident” and sit down at the table with his mother and the young woman.  As we say here in Kroke, God cannot be everywhere at once, which is why he created mothers.  And when Velvel arrived, he would have had food in his beard as he normally does, and his mother would have stood up and tried to get it out before the young woman could notice, and because Shayna Steinberg is often careless, there’s a good chance she would have knocked over the cup of coffee on the table, which accounts for the stain on the young woman’s blouse.  Now I know that the coffee at Bad Ariel is particularly difficult to get out, and probably that stain won’t come out, which means this young woman had best buy a new blouse…”  And at this point the woman working in the shop will approach the customer and say to her, “That’s a bad stain you’ve got on your shirt, and while Mrs. Steinberg’s son Velvel isn’t the most attractive, I can tell you that he has a twin brother who’s very successful, and it wouldn’t be hard for me to get you his number, if you’re interested.  But I wouldn’t go meet him without a new blouse…”  And the customer will, say, “…well, that’s, umm, so interesting and nice of you, but how did you know all of this just happened?”  And the woman in the shop will say, “it was obvious.”

Of course we do have our characters here in Kroke.  There’s Pani Pesha, one of the famous citizens of Kroke.  You may see her walking on Kupa Street or on Miodowa––she wears a fur coat even in summer, which she has specially adorned with tassels and fringes, plus beads and dangling ribbons.  There’s Hirsh, our town Socrates, who holds court in the bathhouse and invents new words for other peoples’ moral failures.  Give him fifteen minutes with a person and he’ll be able to say where they were born, when they were born, and why they were born.  And there’s Monish, whose blond Jesus-beard makes his face look a little less pale than it actually is.  People tease him because he’s shy, not too smart, and has a stutter––a bad combination. 

With affection, people will ask him, “Monish, tell us why you want to get married?”

“Three reasons,” Monish will say, smiling.

“What are they?”

“To c…c…cuddle, to k…k…k…kiss, and to t….t….tickle.”

“That’s it, nothing else?”

“Wh…wh….what else sh…sh…should there be?” Monish will answer with a smile, and in that he basically speaks for all of us here in Kroke.

You might be wondering, ladies and gentlemen, about the religious life of our Kroke.  Well let me tell you that there are a hundred types of religious Jews here in Kroke, or a hundred and seven––no one really knows how many––but all of them serve God according to his requirements.  Our Jewish God is a wandering and pensive god, sad with wisdom about the human soul, patient with excuses, full of love for all things frail and passing, among which he counts strength and courage.  When it comes to buildings, he doesn’t ask much of people:  no airy spaces, no fancy decorations.  Love of God, as the saying goes, doesn’t take much space.  The main requirement is that a light should always be visible from the inside of the inside, so to speak, always visible to those in need.  The best measure of a visible light is not if you can see it through a clean window, but through a filthy window, which is why so many of the windows of the synagogues haven’t been cleaned...  Anyway, you will find here in Kroke plenty of synagogues whose doors are never locked, known locally as the Open Synagogues, and these are places for ordinary shlumps and shmos, nars and kadokheses, ordinary alter cockers and momzers, pishers and plotters, your basic shtik dreks and shtunks, in other words just regular people, this is where they can find a bit of peace.  Then there are the synagogues whose doors are always locked except specifically during times of prayer, where you will not find people sleeping and talking and rubbing their hands in winter, and where no one goes to read or study either, and in fact often they have trouble getting ten Jews together even hold services––Jewish law, as you may know, ladies and gentlemen, requires a minimum of ten Jews to hold services, for reasons no one really understands though everyone has an explanation for it, no doubt grounded in Torah.  It can be hard to tell wisdom from folly in listening to Jews try to understand their Torah, ladies and gentlemen, and Jewish intelligence has a way of getting complicated rather quickly.  For newcomers, the intricacies of Jewish law seem often like a deaf man listening to every word of a man who can’t speak talking about a blind man who sees a crippled man running very fast.  But for we Jews, it all boils down to this:  it’s better to die of laughter than fear.

You might be wondering about food here in Kroke, ladies and gentlemen, and we have all kinds of eating and drinking establishments here, because a neighborhood like this one, full of Jews as has always been the case as long as our town has existed, a place as overfed and underfed as ours has a wide range of appetites.  At Miodowa 50, you’ll find one of our best Chinese Jewish restaurants.  I myself was recently in there, and can tell you it’s a fine establishment.  At the next table were two rabbis, and at the end of their meal they got fortune cookies, as usual in Chinese restaurants.  The fortune was written in Chinese, as is customary.  The rabbi, reading his fortune, called the waiter over––a Chinese guy who seemed to be newly arrived.  

“What––” he said, “––you can’t make a fortune cookie in a language a person can read?”

“I would be glad to translate it into Yiddish for you, sir” said the waiter.

And then the other rabbi piped in:  “I mean really, what good is a fortune that a person can't read?”

And the first rabbi said:  “And if you can't read it, is it really your fortune?”

And the second rabbi said:  “I say it becomes your fortune only when you can read it.”

And the first rabbi said:  “I say it is already your fortune waiting for you to learn to read it.”

The waiter said:  “Here is what it says in rough Yididish:  ‘From now on, your goodness will lead to your success.’”

And the second rabbi said:  “So my goodness so far has led to my failure?”

And the first rabbi said:  “What kind of goodness doesn't lead to success?”

And the second rabbi said:  “I say there is no such thing as goodness that does not lead to success.”

And the first rabbi said:  “I say there is no such thing as success that is not already from goodness.”

And the second rabbi said:   “Why doesn't it say, ‘From now on, you will discover goodness’––dayeinu, that would be enough.”

And the first rabbi said:  “Nu, that's already too much.  ‘Now, you, goodness'––dayeinu."

And the second rabbi said:  “What are you trying to write, a Chinese poem?  This is a fortune cookie we're talking about.”

And the first rabbi said, to the waiter:  “What distinguishes a Chinese poem from a fortune cookie, anyway?”

And the waiter, a polite man, said:  “I wouldn't know, sir.”

And the second rabbi said:  “And another thing, when does ‘now’ begin anyway?”

And the first rabbi said:  “And what happened that makes now now, and different from then?”

And the second rabbi said:  “According to the cookie, does ‘now’ start when you finish the meal?”

And the first rabbi said:  “I say it happens when you break open the cookie.”

And the second rabbi said:   “But what if you break open the cookie before you finish the meal?  Do you need to finish the meal before breaking open the cookie, or can you break open the cookie and still go back to the meal?”

And the first rabbi said:  “And suppose it had been another cookie with a different fortune?”

And the second rabbi said:  “In that case, ‘now’ might still be ‘then’…"

And the first rabbi said:  “Something else I’ve been wondering:  what’s the difference between a fortune cookie and a misfortune cookie?”

The waiter, to himself, said:  “A misfortune cookie is a Jewish fortune cookie.”

And the second rabbi said:  “I say if it’s not called a fortune cookie, it’s already a misfortune cookie.”

And the first rabbi said:  “I say that a misfortune cookie is a fortune cookie without the fortune in it.”

And the second rabbi said:  “So is it the paper in the cookie that makes the fortune, or is the fortune baked into the cookie?”

And the first rabbi said:  “A mezuzah without a scroll is no mezuzah.”

And the second rabbi said:  “A fortune without a cookie is quite unfortunate.”

And the first rabbi said:, to the waiter:  “Listen, isn't there a book of fortune cookie commentary we could consult?”

And the second rabbi said:  “What did the ancient Chinese sages say?”

And the first rabbi said:  “Let’s see the Fortune Cookie Talmud.”

The waiter said, politely:  “There is no book of fortune cookie commentary, sir.”

And the second rabbi said, very convinced of himself:  “If a person is going to read a fortune cookie, there must be commentary!  I want to talk to the owner about this. Bring the owner over here, will you?”

And the waiter, breathing a sigh of relief, said “Gladly, sir, just a moment….”

Oy, what the Chinese waiters in Kroke have to put up with!  As I said earlier, ladies and gentlemen, knowledge does not take up much space, and as the Talmud says, “if silence begets the wise, how much more so the stupid.”

So, ladies and gentlemen, this brings us to to the end of our tour of Kroke, our Jewish town bustling and teeming with the life of the whole world, where time didn’t stop from history until now, and where the time that did stop still goes on.  I hope you’ve enjoyed your introduction to our town, which if you were to look for it on a map would not reveal Jewish hands or Jewish feet or Jewish beginnings or Jewish endings, nothing but a pungent Jewish mixture of whirls and lines, a strange and normal braid of people getting ready for the next day by trying to take care of today, and a place where you can learn, as the Torah teaches us, that all people are good…from afar.  



Kraków, March 2018