WARSAW — When Hagay Hacohen was growing up in the outskirts of Tel Aviv, his mother hardly ever spoke of her childhood in Poland. After all, she had been only 5 years old when she left Warsaw for Israel, and, raising her family in Israel, she didn’t even teach them Polish.
But Hacohen, 32, grew up curious about his family’s background. So in his 20s he took a vacation to Poland, eager to pick up a little bit of his mother’s native tongue and to explore Warsaw, which his maternal grandmother helped liberate during World War II while fighting for the Polish Army Forces in the East.
He had no plans to leave Israel permanently. This was before the social justice protests that rocked Israel in the summer of 2011, before the prices of cottage cheese and, more recently, chocolate pudding were implicated in an exodus of young, frustrated middle-class Israelis to the cities their grandparents had fled during the Holocaust.
Hacohen simply was curious about his roots. But when he got to Poland, he felt strangely drawn to the country – both its culture and its language, which he had begun to pick up in classes at the Polish Institute in Tel Aviv. He was offered a job, and decided to try it out. Five years later, he is still in Warsaw.
“It wasn’t like I planned to go to Poland. Things just progressed for me and it happened,” he says in a phone interview from the city of Poznan, where he works as a lecturer of the Hebrew Language the local university. “I visited Poland, and I found it very interesting. It felt like a good place for me. And my family said that if I wanted to live there, they were okay with it. So I began the road I’m on, and it still hasn’t ended.”
Polish law allows those whose parents or grandparents were born in the country to obtain a Polish passport, and thousands of Israelis, including Hacohen, have taken advantage of the ruling to do just that. A 2012 study conducted for the Business Opportunities in Poland Conference put the number of Israeli citizens who hold a Polish passport at about 20,000, and noted that half of those citizens, or about 10,000, had applied for status after Poland joined the EU in 2004.
Only a tiny fraction of these dual Polish-Israelis actually live in Poland, however. Unlike Berlin, which is home to thousands of expat Israelis and this month turned up at the stormy center of an Israeli debate about Israel’s inflated cost of living, Warsaw is home to only a few hundred Israelis, with Krakow and Breslav clocking in with 100 or 200 more.
In his spare time, Hacohen manages a Facebook page for Israelis living in the Polish capital, which has 204 members. But despite its thin ranks, Hacohen says that the Israeli community in Poland is most certainly on the rise, and for a Tel Aviv-born expat who grew up secular, the Jewish experience of post-war Eastern Europe can be surprisingly fulfilling.
“I am in no way the first Israeli to come to Warsaw,” Hacohen says. “But when I did come here, I was one of the first people in their 20s and 30s to come here, and since I’ve been here the population has really been growing.”
Since his arrival in Warsaw, an Israeli couple has opened the aptly named Hummus Bar, and a Polish convert to Judaism joined forces with her Israeli husband to open The Tel Aviv Café, a gastronomic tribute to Israeli’s cosmopolitan heart (the pair has since divorced but continue to co-manage the eatery, which boasts homemade falafel, authentic limonana, and the same vegan, gluten-free mindset embraced by so many bistros here.) One year ago, the first-ever modern Jewish Community Center opened in Warsaw, a parternship project of the city’s Jewish citizens and the American Joint Distribution Committee. Its opening gala was attended by about 200 people.
When Hacohen arrived in Warsaw, the city’s tiny Jewish community got wind of the fact the is a kohen, a descendant of Jewish priests who have specific duties and honors in synagogue, and they were eager to have him join them in worship. Hacohen had never been religious, but the welcome he received affected him. He began attending services, and he found himself striking up friendships with Jews from across the religious spectrum.
“Here I was, the only one,” he says of his status as a kohen. “And there wasn’t pressure, per se, but there was this gravitational pull to come to shul … and now, I’m definitely not religious, but I am much more aware of the beauty of the Jewish religion and what we do in synagogue.”
Hacohen’s experience speaks to a broader shift occurring throughout Eastern Europe, from Budapest to Prague and of course, to Warsaw. Across the cities where entire Jewish communities were obliterated under Hitler’s thumb, Jewish life, and Jewish pride, are now on the rise.
“We don’t have a clue how many Jews there are in this country. Some of the Jews are starting to come out of the woodwork and claim their Jewishness, and at the same time you have a whole movement of non-Jews who are interested in preserving Jewish culture,” says Rabbi Tyson Herberger, an American-born rabbi who lived for many years in Israel and now lives in Wroclaw, in southwest Poland..
Poland, Herberger notes, has a negative birth rate – more citizens are dying than are being born – so both the Jewish community and the Polish population as a whole are shrinking. But interest in Judaism, and all of the accouterments like kosher-style food and Hebrew-language lessons that come in tandem, are on the rise. That doesn’t mean, however, that Warsaw is the next Berlin.
“Berlin and Warsaw are very different cities as far as the Jewish psyche goes,” Herberger says. “Germany spent a lot of time and energy saying they’re sorry for the war. Poland didn’t, because in the Polish understanding, the Poles were victims, not perpetrators. And it’s cheaper to rent a nice apartment in Berlin than it is in Warsaw.”
That being said, Herberger admits that Poland is still much cheaper than Israel, and he admits that for a cash-strapped young Israeli who has finished his army service but just can’t seem to make ends meet, he understands the appeal
“Things are cheaper here. The salaries are lower than they are in Israel but they still have more purchasing power than they would in Israel. I can go out for a beer here and get a cheap shlish (the Israeli term for 1/3 of a liter) for about 4 or 5 shekels (the same brew would set back an Israeli about NIS 20-25) … if you don’t keep kosher and you’re not worried about being closed to a mikveh or a minyan, it has great appeal.”
Hacohen also acknowledges that he can get more for his shekels – or zlotys – in Poland, but he is quick to point out that the similarities to Berlin end there.
“Poland is not a paradise. Unlike Berlin there is no welfare system, and I don’t think anyone moves here thinking they can ride the system. It’s not a wealthy country, but it is a country going through a process of rediscovery.”
And that process, for him, is what has kept him around five years later.
“If you’re an educator, a reporter, or you want to get something done, if you’re curious about things, it’s definitely an interesting and worthwhile place to be in. It’s such a positive place, at least for foreigners.”
Asked if additions like The Hummus Bar and The Tel Aviv Café have made Warsaw feel more like his home in Israel, Hacohen is diplomatic.
“When I go home, I look forward to the hummus. I want to eat my hummus at home,” he says.