On a recent trip to Poland, we discovered that figurines of old Jewish men holding penny-like coins in hand are all the rage.
If General Mills created a new Lucky Charms breakfast cereal commercial featuring an old Jewish man, instead of a leprechaun, running around with a pot of gold singing, “They’re magically Hasidic!” It probably wouldn’t go over too well, unless you’re in Poland.
On a recent trip to Warsaw and Krakow, I discovered that “lucky Jew statues” i.e. wooden or clay figurines of old Jewish men dressed like Rabbi Mendelson from my local Chabad — a wizened bearded man with a giant schnoz — are all the rage. Sometimes they're holding a single coin, and sometimes a whole sac of dough, like an Elders of Zion version of Santa Claus.
Unlike real-life Jews, who were pretty much wiped off the face of Poland during the Holocaust, you'll find Jewish “paraphernalia” everywhere: mall kiosks, markets, businesses, homes.
In keeping with Polish tradition, Leszek Kopytko and his wife Joanna keep their own lucky Jew by the door of their home in Warsaw. Why by the door? So money doesn’t leave the house. Duh. The statues are commonly given as gifts on special occasions, such as to mark a new job or moving to a new house and accroding to Leszek are said to bring “happiness, let’s say, from the financial perspective . . . [all] our friends have such statue,” Kopytko told me via Skype. There are other customs too, such as turning it upside down on the Sabbath so all the money the Jew has amassed falls out of his pockets.
Lucky Jews don’t only come in figurine form. There is also a genre of oil paintings that depict Jews counting their money, similar in style to portraits of the Baby Jesus and the Virgin Mary. One scholar put it this way: Poland has a “new Patron saint of capitalism” — and he’s Jewish.
As a bat-mitzvah certified Jew, I found this all kind of offensive at first: I mean, it’s pretty weird how in a place where millions of Jews were murdered, a stereotypic and inanimate version now thrives amongst horseshoes, rabbits’ feet, four-leaf clovers and the act of spitting over your shoulder if a black cat crosses your path.
Curious if others felt as weird about these statues as I did, I gave Abraham Foxman a call. He’s the director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an organization that aims to fight anti-Semitism in the U.S. and abroad. Foxman can’t call for the banning of the statues. That would be undemocratic. He told me all he can do is ask Polish leaders to implement a better Jewish education program, which he told me he does to no avail.
“How many Jews were handed over to the Nazis because of the belief that Jews have money and if you get rid of the Jews you can take their gold or whatever?” he said. “So, yeah, it’s not an innocent stereotype.”
The thing is, many Poles do see it as innocent — or even positive.
Woodcarver Adam Zegadlo is quoted as saying, “I make these wood carvings in honor of their memory . . . It is my aim not to let the traces of this ancient culture sink into oblivion.” Although, it’s not clear where he stands on turning his carvings upside down so all the imaginary money falls out.
Kopytko also spoke of the statues with an air of sympathy and nostalgia for the stories told by his grandparents: “We missed those times and we are very interested in how it looked in the past.”
If you want to get meta about it, the figurines themselves can also be considered a part of Polish history and culture. Dr. Erica Lehrer, an anthropologist at Concordia University and Canada Research Chair in Post-Conflict Memory, told me scholars have traced the presence of Jewish figurines in Polish art back to the late 1800s.
Lucky Jew statues come in all shapes and sizes.
So, what the hell are these things besides the only tschotschkes in the world that aren’t currently cluttering up my Bubby’s coffee table? Are they harmless Polish folklore or anti-Semitic? Are they good or bad?
According to Dr. Erica Lehrer, they can be all of that.
Jewish figurines as Polish art are not new. In fact, Dr. Lehrer held an entire exhibition about the Jewish “Souvenir, Talisman, Toy” in Krakow’s Ethnographic Museum over the summer, which drew enormous interest and received media coverage in national newspapers in Poland. However the ones holding the coin as a good luck charm are, indeed, a new fad. Dr. Lehrer doesn't know exactly when they emerged but probably around the 2000s and she said they've really "exploded."
Dr. Lehrer doesn't know why ones with coins that have messages wishing the owners good business has only emerged in the past 10-15 years, but it's possible there's a link with post-communist pressures to be entrepreneurial. Either way, Dr. Lehrer sees them as a point of cultural dialogue.
“Part of my goal [with the exhibition] was I wanted to make them slightly less problematic for Jews and somewhat more problematic for Poles,” she explained.
“They’re different things to different people . . . As anthropologist and curator I’m not so interested in determining what the figurines mean. I’m interested in using all of their various meanings as a way for people to learn more about each other.”
In other words, these stupid little toys are extremely fucking complicated. But they’re also emblematic of the present-day relationship between Poles and Jews, which is going through a bit of an awkward phase.
Amidst a Jewish renaissance in Poland with Jews moving back to discover their roots, or Poles uncovering their own hidden Jewish ancestry, there are still lingering tensions and fears, stereotypes and misunderstandings.
If these figurines act as a halfway point — somewhere between Manischewitz and perogies — that encourages the two groups to meet for the sake of dialogue, then I’m for it.
Just, please, no breakfast cereals.
Follow Ilana on Twitter: @ilanabelfer
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