Lucky Jews

This year, the inaugural summer of Festivalt––a new program of site-specific interventions, theater, performance art, storytelling, and visual art coinciding with the annual Jewish Culture Festival in Kraków––included performances of an experimental piece called Lucky Jews, conceived by the Canadian theater artist and producer Michael Rubenfeld.  In Polish folk culture, Lucky Jews are pictures or figurines of a traditional looking Jew handling money, most often sitting at a table with a ledger, a feather quill, and a candle. These images are commonly bought and sold across Poland, including Kazimierz, Kraków’s old and famous Jewish quarter, a key site of Jewish memory whose post-Communist gentrification and Jewish renewal are still actively debated.

The history of the Lucky Jew as a piece of Polish folk culture is long and interesting, and is explored in detail in Erica Lehrer’s excellent book Lucky Jews.  Basically, the image owes to Eastern European peasant mythology of the Jew as a mysterious and somewhat magical figure, dwelling in the transitional zones between the local and the faraway, poverty and wealth, familiar and unfamiliar language, kindred and alien religion.  Folk images of Jews are mostly known in Polish as “Żydki,” a diminutive form of “Żydzi,” the standard plural word for “Jews” in Polish.  When applied to vernacular images of Jews, “Żydki” has an affectionate connotation, “Little Jews,” though the same word in other contexts can take on a patronizing quality, or become overtly pejorative, along the lines of “Little Kikes.”  The particular image of Jews handling money is a relatively recent phenomenon, a post-Holocaust form of Polish folk culture, and is also known as “Żyd na szczęście” or “Jew for Luck,” and “Żyd z pieniążkiem” or “Jew with a Coin.”  Lehrer writes:

“It could be said that in Poland today there are more Jewish figurines than Jews.  Indeed, most people living in Poland today have never met a Jew.  But they are living in towns and cities where Jews once made up 30% or more of the population.  In many places, not a trace is left of the Jewish community that once lived there.  That blank space is filled today with images of Jews––figurines, pictures, magnets, postcards, and more.  Before the Holocaust, Jewish figurines appeared in Poland in connection with Christian traditions such as Easter-time markets.  They spread after the war thanks to efforts by the state to market Polish folk art. Since the fall of Communism, Jewish figurines are available all year round, at souvenir stands, in gift shops, and even at gas stations.”

Michael Rubenfeld setting up for Lucky Jews, Kazimierz, Kraków, June 28, 2017

To many Jews, especially foreign Jews––certainly to me when I first saw Lucky Jews some twenty years ago, in my first visit to Poland––the image often looks overtly antisemitic.  The Lucky Jew seems a caricature of a greedy, secretive Jew, perpetuating the ancient Christian stereotype of Jews as an insular tribe of money-grubbing, scheming manipulators.  The abundance of these images looks to many Jews like easy proof of age-old and still-pervasive antisemitism in contemporary Poland, which is to say vindication of the very negative image of Poles that is widespread in Jewish communal memory.  Many Jews, in other words, see in the figure of the Lucky Jew a reflection of their own preconceptions of Poles:  as indifferent to or even glad about the Holocaust, as betrayers of their Jewish neighbors for their own advantage, as brutes who murdered and tortured Jews on their own initiative, as cowards who scampered under the Communist veil of silence about the Holocaust to escape their (putative) guilt.  Even Jews who distance themselves from these anti-Polish preconceptions typically see the figure of the Lucky Jew as distasteful, perhaps not revolting but at the least repellant, and its visible place in everyday life as shameless, if not outright shocking.

Michael Rubenfeld in Lucky Jews, Kazimierz, Kraków, June 28, 2017

To Polish eyes, the Lucky Jew is altogether different.  It is something like the Polish equivalent of a fat, happy Buddha, a kind of amulet or good luck charm, and does not reflect a Jew-hating stereotype (even as it overlaps with many of its longstanding characteristics).  On the contrary, to many Poles it points to the reverse:  a positive, philosemitic stereotype of Jews as highly talented, a people whose (supposed) skills in trade and business are to be affirmed, admired, emulated.  To use Jewish terminology, the Lucky Jew is a Polish way of remembering Jews for the sake of a blessing, a way of retaining Jews in popular consciousness after the Holocaust, with the imaginary Jew bringing good fortune to Polish workplaces and homes.  And why does this imaginary Jew look this way?  It is, simply, the easiest Jewish image for Poles to reference, and probably the deepest in Polish collective memory––centuries old––notwithstanding that it was perverted by bigots and fascists in the twentieth century, and notwithstanding that it bespeaks an exclusion of secular/acculturated Jews and Jewish women from Polish historical imagination.  Implicit in this attitude is a very different perspective on the Holocaust, which begins from the recognition that there was in fact no single Polish response to the genocide, rather a spectrum of responses from heroic resistance to barbaric complicity with acute helplessness in between.  After all, Poles were themselves terrorized and brutalized by Germans during the war, if not as systematically and not genocidally, and Poland was the only German-occupied country in which assistance to Jews was punishable by death for oneself and one’s family.

Lucky Jews:  seemingly so simple, in fact the reverse.

Michael Rubenfeld in Lucky Jews, Kazimierz, Kraków, June 28, 2017

Michael Rubenfeld in Lucky Jews, Kazimierz, Kraków, June 28, 2017

Michael Rubenfeld in Lucky Jews, Kazimierz, Kraków, June 28, 2017

Michael Rubenfeld in Lucky Jews, Kazimierz, Kraków, June 28, 2017

Michael Rubenfeld in Lucky Jews, Kazimierz, Kraków, June 28, 2017

The idea behind the Lucky Jews performance was to bring the complexities of these figures forward by bringing Lucky Jews to life, quite literally. “If painted pictures of Jews with coins are supposed to bring good luck,” Michael asked Maia Ipp, Magda Koralewska and me on a wintry afternoon in Kraków last year in an early planning meeting for Festivalt, “would real Jews bring even more luck, or would they show the strangeness of it all in the first place?”  Half a year later, Michael and I took turns becoming live Lucky Jews in the middle of Kazimierz, along with our friend Menachem Kaiser.  For our performances, we used a small set created by our friend Aga Pinkosz, consisting of a homemade table fitted with a signboard and the words “Lucky Jew” and “Żyd na szczęście.”  On top of it we attached a large picture frame for the Lucky Jew to sit behind. Our props included an antique ledger book for inscribing luck, a quill and an old-fashioned inkwell, a handcrafted velvet moneybag, a pile of gold coins in many currencies, and a picture of a pair of Lucky Jews.  The three of us shared a costume consisting of a cream-colored shirt, a dark vest, suspenders, and a vintage leather newsboy cap.  All three of us sported healthy beards.

Michael Rubenfeld in Lucky Jews, Kazimierz, Kraków, June 28, 2017

From the initial idea through many weeks of planning, into and indeed past the performances themselves, Michael, Maia, Magda and I wrestled with how to play the part, discovering that the piece contained within itself a great variety of interpretations, some quite divergent.  In the first envisioning, the live Lucky Jew thought himself to be the only authentic Lucky Jew, and was alternately bemused and irritated to see his likeness on the painted and sculpted curios. In another variation, he was a historical remnant, the last Jew trained in the mystical arts of Jewish luck, who trudged from town to town plying his trade.  In yet another version, he was a walking fable, the creation of a Polish artisan come to life without quite knowing how or why.  And in a different take, the live Lucky Jew morphed into a carnivalesque attraction who hawked luck like a barker at Coney Island.  For a while, there was a plan to attach a price list to the frame, “Luck:  1 złoty / More luck: 2 złotys / Even more luck:  10 złotys / Maximum luck:  50 złotys.”  For a while a carnival barker character was added to the piece, and the Lucky Jew became a sensation who sat on display while the barker talked him up.  In a related vision, also with the price list, the Lucky Jew was an ordinary shlub from New York who grudgingly and somewhat cynically did the Lucky Jew thing in a half-hearted attempt to bring himself luck and a few coins in his pocket.  In our brainstorming sessions, one sighting of the live Lucky Jew gave way to the next, and Michael brilliantly improvised them.

Michael Rubenfeld in Lucky Jews, Kazimierz, Kraków, June 28, 2017

This is to say that for Michael, as an actor, the key questions around Lucky Jews were narrative and characterological, a search for what felt like the right story behind the performance.  To find the right story, for Michael, was to find the ground on which the live Lucky Jew could stand, and bring the audience to stand.  This search took a decisive turn in a conversation Michael had with Erica Lehrer a couple of weeks before Festivalt, in which Erica explained that in prewar Poland, Poles had often used real Jews for magical purposes––inviting Jews to their weddings for good luck, stealing their bones from cemeteries, seeking out rabbis for amulets written in Hebrew.  The painted and sculpted figures of post-Holocaust Poland derived from this older intercultural practice, and in a sense replaced actual Jews in the post-genocide situation.  The vision of the live Lucky Jew that Michael came to perform integrated this information.  He really came to grasp what he wanted to do in the last rehearsal, perhaps an hour before the performance itself, in a series of exchanges with Maia, who stepped back and forth between actor and fellow artist, client and critic.  It was the return of the Lucky Jew of old, a re-animation of the Jew from mere paint and metal and wood.  Michael’s re-embodied Lucky Jew was frustrated to see his likeness reduced to what he saw as antisemitic caricature––something that needed explaining oftentimes––and he played the Lucky Jew as a long-lost friend to Poles.  At the same time, Michael realized that we don’t really know how Jews of pre-Holocaust Poland actually felt about being good luck charms, and he played this good-natured Lucky Jew with a touch of sarcasm.  His goal as I read it was not to play an acceptable guest in the Polish lifeworld, happy and non-threatening, but to soft-pedal his way into difficult conversations about Jewish absence and Jewish anger, and Polish trauma around the Holocaust plus Polish antisemitism, through a meaningful interaction not with a Jewish stereotype, rather a real living Jew made approachable through a play on a stereotype.

Michael Rubenfeld in Lucky Jews, Kazimierz, Kraków, June 28, 2017

Michael did the first performance of Lucky Jews on July 28th on Plac Nowy, a busy square in the center of Kazimierz that locals still call “Plac Żydowski” or “Jewish Square,” as in “I’m going to the Jew to buy apples.”  Two days later Menachem became the Lucky Jew, and the next day I took a turn.  The basic actions of the piece were the same for each of us:  we would explain to our “customers” that we were Jews with luck to sell, speak with them about luck they might need, invite them to give a few coins, and write down their names and needs for luck in our book.  The exchange would end with the customer being invited to reach through the frame and giving a little rub to a Jewish beard.  All of us interacted mostly in English, with sometimes a little Polish.  Magda or the filmmaker Katka Reszke acted as bilingual accomplices, recruiting customers and doing translation where necessary.  The differences between our handling of the piece were interesting.  Michael’s performance involved lengthy conversations in which he deconstructed the figure of the Lucky Jew, in the process creating a meaningful interaction with an actual Jew.  Menachem, by contrast, was only minimally interested in figuring out how to play a Lucky Jew, or acting out a didactic purpose.  He decided simply to be a Lucky Jew without explanations to himself or to the audience.  Like Michael, he had a steady stream of customers, many of whom accepted him with at least some measure of belief, for example two nearby regular stallholders in Plac Nowy, each of whom paid more than token amounts––30 złotys––for the blessing of a Lucky Jew.


Menachem Kaiser in Lucky Jews, Kazimierz, Kraków, June 30, 2017

Menachem Kaiser in Lucky Jews, Kazimierz, Kraków, June 30, 2017

Menachem Kaiser in Lucky Jews, Kazimierz, Kraków, June 30, 2017

Menachem Kaiser in Lucky Jews, Kazimierz, Kraków, June 30, 2017

I fell somewhere in the middle, attaching myself to a simple explanation that would account for my appearance in the square.  I had a good number of customers, but fewer than Michael or Menachem, and I met a degree of incredulity that they did not.  Maybe this is because I have neither Michael’s theatrical training nor Menachem’s natural charisma, or maybe it’s because I look less stereotypically Jewish––or all of it.  A typical interaction for me was something like this:

"Hello, hi, do you need some luck today?

"What?  Who are you?"

"I'm a Lucky Jew, and I'm selling luck.  Maybe you'd like to buy some luck?"

"You're selling luck?"

"That's right, I'm selling luck."

"I don't understand."

"Listen––some Jews sell rags, some sell diamonds, I sell luck."

"Where are you from?"

"I'm from California, and honestly I never thought of selling luck until I came to Kraków and discovered there is a market here for Jewish luck [at this point usually I would point to the picture].  So I decided to get in on the business.  I'm an all-purpose luck seller.  I'll sell you luck for anything––love, business, health, whatever you need."

"I have all the luck I need, thanks."

"Really?  I've never met a person who couldn't use a little luck for something.  Come on, be honest, isn't there something you need luck for?"

"Umm...so how does it work?"

"You give me a few zlotys, and tell me what you need the luck for.  I write it in my special luck book.  Then you give my beard a little rub, and the luck is yours.”

Jason Francisco in Lucky Jews, Kazimierz, Kraków, July 1, 2017; photograph by Menachem Kaiser

It is hard to generalize about reactions to the piece, and probably it needs to be performed several more times to really get a sense of how people see it.  But if I had to generalize, I would say that most people understood it to be both playful and a little sharp.  Those who participated understood this was an art piece, and seemed willing to give a few coins.  They were not dupes giving something for nothing, but essentially wish-makers giving token offerings to the universe, much as people throw money into wells or fountains with a certain kind of open heart.  A few people participated from what seemed superstition, seeing the Lucky Jew as in fact possessing some magical power.  Many people would not participate, and I can only surmise their reasons.  For some, the live Lucky Jew was simply too strange, too inscrutable, perhaps a little frightening, inasmuch as the Jewish is still somewhat taboo for many Poles, and the sudden appearance of a stereotypical Jew selling luck seemed a volatile combination of absurd and confrontational.  For other Poles, the piece read as overtly anti-semitic, and to participate would be to endorse bigotry.  For still others, the piece drew antisemitism out of them, for example a bystander who quipped, “If anyone would be trying to sell luck, it would be a Jew, wouldn’t it?”  For Jewish viewers, there was likewise a spectrum of responses.  Some celebrated it as a way of exploding a myth, and others treated it as an unwitting confirmation of anti-Jewish myth.  One orthodox Jew from Israel hotly condemned it as idolatry, believing we were worshiping the figurines.  A Polish-speaking woman who identified herself as Jewish expressed strong reservations about what we were doing, only then to ask to to pose for a photograph with her children and Michael behind the frame.

Jason Francisco in Lucky Jews, Kazimierz, Kraków, July 1, 2017; photograph by Magda Koralewska

Jason Francisco in Lucky Jews, Kazimierz, Kraków, July 1, 2017; photograph by Menachem Kaiser

At one point, interestingly, Erica herself stepped into the role, donning the hat and the vest.  And interestingly, she had many fewer interactions.  Was this accidental, or does Lucky Jewess push the conceit too far, past the point of stereotypical coherence and performative viability?  A string of questions arose with Erica’s performance:  Why is it, anyway, that the myth doesn’t include women?  And is it only the myth?  Do traditional Jewish texts really see women any more clearly?  But maybe it was something about Erica specifically (her facial features?), or Erica only half costumed (is the beard crucial to the magic?), or Erica in that place.  We already realized, after all, that Lucky Jews is a fickle artwork, with richly different meanings depending on where and by whom and under what conceptual auspices it was performed.

Erica Lehrer in Lucky Jews, Kazimierz, Kraków, July 1, 2017

From Michael’s initial performance, I realized that photographing Lucky Jews represented another chance to explore the multidimensional nature of the work.  I could, of course, stand in front of the table and make pictures from what might be called the ordained perspective, in which the Lucky Jew sits in the frame––the frame acting as frames do, marking off inside from outside, in this case isolating the Jew from the rest of the world.  These pictures emphasized the Lucky Jew as an item on display, if somewhat awkwardly and ironically, inasmuch as everything outside the frame was of course just as visible and present as everything inside the frame (unlike a photograph, in which the act of framing by definition precludes seeing what is outside the frame).

But I could also walk behind the frame, in which case it was the customer, usually the Pole, who was separated out, marked for attention and study.  And this is just to say what seems obvious enough, namely that the frame worked in two directions:  it presented one view of the Lucky Jew, and a different view to the Lucky Jew.  Not least, I could stand to the side of the table, and use the frame to segment the picture plane, so that it formed a partition line or barrier between the Pole and the Lucky Jew, in fact many kinds of barriers, depending precisely on where I stood.  In this case, the image registered an encounter in which each side brought purposes, questions, needs, imaginations.  The visual form of Lucky Jews is not merely a document of the event, but an ekphrastic work of its own, a continuation of its problematics from one medium (live performance) into another (photographic).  Because all photographs work essentially by rending, cleaving, and detaching time and space––photography is at bottom an art of suggestive severance, of imbuing fragments of time and space with powers of evocation––new meanings arise in the piece’s visual form that were latent or maybe even non-apparent in the original form.



It is stock-in-trade for a photographer to seek out unscripted eventualities, but it isn’t often in my experience that a work of art seems so poised to outwit its makers, its audiences, even itself.  This seems precisely the case with Lucky Jews.  At the same time satirical and sincere, self-mocking and self-congratulatory, pointed and ambiguous, it could be that Lucky Jews is itself a dybbuk or a ghost, a fairy or a phoenix, a mythic creature of laughter and pain and unrequited love and constantly replenished doubt, which has appeared in different forms to different generations, and happened to appear in a form comprehensible to us now––as a conceptual artwork.  And it could be that if we continue to perform it, and if it continues to perform us, we will come to know.


Michael Rubenfeld in Lucky Jews, Kazimierz, Kraków, June 28, 2017

Menachem Kaiser in Lucky Jews, Kazimierz, Kraków, June 30, 2017

Jason Francisco in Lucky Jews, Kazimierz, Kraków, July 1, 2017; photograph by Menachem Kaiser

Lviv, July 2017

With thanks to Erica Lehrer, Maia Ipp and Michael Rubenfeld for their comments.