Meet the Canadian Who Wants to be Poland’s ‘Luckiest Jew’

Michael Rubenfeld has taken an offensive custom and put his own spin on it.
August 13, 2018, 3:05pm
All photos by Jason Francisco.

When Canadian producer/theatre creator Michael Rubenfeld began spending time in Poland he noticed a strange custom. At some shops and markets vendors would sell photos, statues, and trinkets of Jewish people. The merchandise depicted the Jews in traditional garb counting out money and gold coins. Rubenfeld was dumbfounded.

“How could this possibly exist, and in Poland of all places? It made absolutely no sense until my wife Magda, who was raised in Poland, was able to explain that people actually buy these images of Jews with coins as good-luck charms. They believe that if you put them on the wall, it will bring economic luck. On the Sabbath you turn the picture upside down for extra luck.”

For context depictions of the “Lucky Jew” or “Jew with a coin” are akin to North America’s cigar store Indians/the pictures of Indigenous people on sports logos. They’re not ubiquitous but they’re a part of the culture. When you know they’re there you start seeing them around. For Rubenfeld seeing caricatures of his people in paintings and other merch was weird. The depictions were so offensively cartoonish that he couldn’t figure out how to feel. He knew that he should be angry about the stereotypes: the negative portrayal of Jews has had unspeakable consequences in the past. At the same time the whole thing was so wrong that the artist also found it kind of funny. Like, how was this a real? Under what circumstances was this acceptable?

After pondering those questions Rubenfeld knew he needed to create a response. The best thing he could come up with? To begin selling his own “Lucky Jew” merchandise. The merchandise are paintings of Rubenfeld counting coins. For the past few months the artist, along with his company FestivALT, have been attending outdoor markets in Poland selling off the pictures. They’ve also created an online shop. The gimmick around the merch is that people can buy “Lucky Jew” pictures from real life “Lucky Jews”. The whole thing doubles as a meta-commentary performance on a problematic custom and an actual straight-up business. Recently we had the chance to speak with Rubenfeld about the intentions behind his merch, the origins of the Jew with a coin photos in Poland, and the conflicting reactions he’s gotten to this project. You can read the conversation below.

VICE: Can you walk us through the first time you encountered the Lucky Jew in Poland?
Michael Rubenfeld: Believe it or not, I actually saw them for the first time in the main square in Kraków, which is the most popular part of the city. I was shocked that something perpetuating such a problematic stereotype was being sold in such a popular destination. It was just so wrong that I loved it, and I immediately bought one for each of my Jewish friends back in Canada. They all loved them too. I understand that this might not be the obvious response, but these lucky Jews are just so politically incorrect and absurd that it instigates an equally politically incorrect response of delight in me. As if the only sane response is to find it hilarious. And because they are being sold so openly and without real adversity, it was clear that somewhere some wires must have gotten crossed. It reminded me of cigar store Indians. They are so clearly problematic but they’ve become normalized to the point that people don’t really think about it. You’ve said the custom of the Lucky Jew is a fairly recent development in Poland. Tell us about its history.
Jan Gebert, who has done a great deal of research around lucky Jews, explained the history to me. These paintings are based on pre-war imagery of Jews. The images (sans coin) started to appear shortly after most of the remaining Jews were forced to leave Poland in 1968. Jan’s theory is that initially it was an unconscious desire to replace the absent Jewish population, but the specific images of a Jew with a coin started to appear around the late seventies/early eighties. Poles were exhausted by and sick of communism. There was a collective desire to return back to the open market. The lucky Jew image became a mystical manifestation of those capitalistic desires; the belief (or myth) was that the Jews in Poland were good with money. And so putting one on the wall was a wishful act of hoping for money to magically appear.

And this is common in the country?
Definitely. Some people claim not to have heard about it, but when shown the image, they might recognise it as something that would have been on their grandparent’s wall or that they’ve seen in a shop. But honestly more people know about it than not. The images are actually becoming more popular. For instance: there was a recent workshop in the town of Mietne where children were taught how to draw their own pictures of a Jew with a coin. Your reaction to the Jew with a coin images was to create a performance piece. Tell us about what you do.
In the performance I go out into busy markets or central tourist areas in Poland and I sell framed pictures of myself. They’ve been created to look very similar to the other images of Jews with coins. In the images I am dressed to look like a stereotypical Jew and I am holding a coin and looking at it. In the front of me on a table sits a book, a feather pen and inkblot, and a sack of money with additional money on the table. The image has been treated to look like it is from the olden days. When I sell the images in real life, I dress in the exact same costume that I am wearing in the pictures. I sit at a table behind a large frame. In front of me are the same items as in the pictures: a feather pen and ink blot, a book, a sack of money and additional coins on the table. And so the public encounters the same image twice; me in real-life and me in the pictures. I sell the images quite buoyantly, proudly and loudly proclaiming that these pictures of myself are more authentic than the other pictures of the Jew with a coin. I am an actual Jew while the others are simply fake representations. I assure people that if they buy the pictures from an authentic Jew like me, they’ll have a hundred percent luck. The whole thing is presented with as much sincerity as possible in public, but the intention of the piece attempts to draw attention towards and make a commentary on the absurdity of the tradition. I’m trying to do this by making something equally if not more so absurd and problematic than the everyday sale of the Jew with the coin.

You’ve gone to several markets with your booth. Can you talk us through people’s reactions? What was it like for you the first time going out?
The piece is done along with my partners in the arts collective FestivALT. Our first time selling was at an Easter Market in Krakow called Emaus. It’s famous for being a market where people go and purchase lucky Jew figurines and magnets. No joke. We plopped our table and frame down next to a stall selling lucky Jews etched in tree stumps and we became a bit of a sensation. Many people took pictures. I believe that many understood the irony of the performance, however my collaborator Jason believes that the legibility of the irony is one of the things we don’t yet sufficiently understand as performers. We’re trying to work out whether people getting it is as useful as people not getting it. The second time, we did the performance in an outdoor flea market called Hala Targowa. The response was more nuanced. We had more experiences where Poles were critical of what we were doing. We encountered a woman who wanted to buy a Lucky Jew because her grandmother saved Jews during the war, and she wanted to purchase these pictures in memory of her grandmother. It was a really profound and confusing exchange. We also had a few conversations about the ethics of the practise. To me those debates happening in public and being witnessed by others was one of the most successful parts of the project. It should be also noted that for every interaction or sale we made, there was always actually much more indifference to our presence — as if we were simply a normal stall selling normal things. This is perhaps the most interesting, if not problematic response of all; that what we are doing can be so quickly normalised in the context of public space. It’s my hope that one day we’ll be banned or kicked out of these markets for being inappropriate. But until then we’ll keep selling.

You said that during the performances you’ve actually had a lot of sales. Is it weird that you’re making a bit of money off of this?
We are aware of what some critics (Jewish and non-Jewish, Polish and non-Polish) have said about the piece, namely that it perpetuates anti-semitism, and we're either too stupid to see it, or are too morally bankrupt to care. For these critics, we are no better than any other peddlers in Lucky Jew images, and in some ways much worse. What these critics do not grasp is the deep tradition of Jewish satire and auto-irony, and the cultural dynamics of reappropriating stereotypes and stigmatizing labels. A lot of research shows that when groups voluntarily adopt derogatory and stereotypical terms applied to them and then rebrand them from within, the result is to shift their meaning, and weaken the stereotype. Our hope is to undo the anti-semitic image from within, through humor, in effect to push Poles into a critical awareness of the anti-semitism running beneath the Lucky Jew iconography, while at the same time forcing Jews to question their own anti-Polish stereotypes. And if we actually make money doing it, all the better for contemporary art in Kraków, because all the money we make goes toward supporting the contemporary Jewish art festival (FestivALT) that we run. If we make a mint, we'll buy an old synagogue and turn it into a Jewish cultural centre.

Graham Isador is a writer in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.

Rubenfeld’s Lucky Jew Merchandise can be purchased here .

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