Marin exhibit reflects renewal of Jewish art in Poland

It started with the doorframes.

About two years ago, artist Helena Czernek got the idea to seek out homes once occupied by Jews in her native Warsaw. Many prewar houses still had the outlines of mezuzahs that hung there, before the Holocaust nearly erased Polish Jewry.

Czernek would take tracings of those rough-hewn spaces, and from them cast new bronze mezuzahs. They became the marquee product of Mi Polin, a Judaica business she started last January with former photojournalist Aleksander Prugar, who oversees its business affairs.

Mezuzah made from a doorframe tracing in Warsaw

The business has already done so well that Mi Polin is having its first American exhibition, a two-month display of Judaica now at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael. The exhibition is a presentation of the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture.

Czernek and Prugar, both 29, are in the Bay Area to celebrate the opening, thrilled with their first-time visit to California. Both admit their enterprise has grown much faster than they expected. “A few months ago we couldn’t have imagined this,” Czernek said.

In addition to mezuzahs based on doorframes, Czernek and Prugar also make teak mezuzahs, crystal mezuzahs for the blind (embossed with Braille writing) and a nifty device they call the menokiah: a curved ceramic Shabbat candleholder that doubles as a Hanukkah menorah.

To the two partners, establishing Mi Polin (Hebrew for “From Poland”) was a watershed moment in the Jewish renaissance taking place in Poland. For the first time since the Holocaust, Poles are manufacturing Jewish ritual objects in Poland.

“We design for two groups,” Czernek said. “For Jews in Poland who are rediscovering their Jewish roots and want to lead a Jewish life, and for people from abroad.”

While their product line heats up, the two offer other artistic outlets, including hands-on workshops and what they call “actions,” which resemble Jewish performance art.

One of those, Snapshoot, took place at this summer’s 24th annual Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow. Participants criss-crossed the city clutching what resembled oversized Polaroid frames. The mission: notice the normally unnoticed — from a sign for a kosher winery to a stone wall made in part of old Jewish tombstones — and take a photo.

Their most highly visible action took place even before Mi Polin was formed. Czernek designed the yellow paper daffodil pin worn across Poland during last year’s 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

Aleksander Prugar and Helena Czernek photos/courtesy mi polin

Czernek, who studied design in Poland and at the Bezalel Academy in Israel, credits her mother — who identified as Jewish in a culture still rife with anti-Semitism — for instilling in her a love of Judaism and Jewish culture. It wasn’t easy. Poland had lost 90 percent of its Jews to the Holocaust, and most Jews who remained turned their backs on their heritage.

After the fall of communism, Jews who studied Torah and Hebrew came out of the closet. In time, many Poles came to a belated appreciation for the 1,000 years of Jewish history in their country. Though the Jewish community is small and anti-Semitism still exists, Czernek and Prugar say the climate in Poland is much improved.

“[Anti-Semitism] is not something that will disappear in one, five or 10 years,” Czernek said. “But it’s better.”

She cites as evidence the growth of Jewish institutions there, including Jewish Community Centers, synagogues and the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which opens to the public next month.

Next up for Mi Polin: an expanded line of Judaica products, from Kiddush cups to Havdallah spice boxes, all of them with the “Made in Poland” seal.

Says Prugar: “We want to prove that Jewish life exists, that this renewal is real.”

Mi Polin Judaica is on exhibit through Nov. 10, Osher Marin JCC, 200 N. San Pedro Road, San Rafael. Free. www.marinjcc.org.

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.