Decolonizing With My Polish Jewish Ancestors

In my post “Problems of Lineage and Magic” earlier this month, I began to explore the concept of ancestor work through the “decolonization” framework that’s developing in the politically progessive witchy community. I’ve begun taking this four-week online course from White Awake called “Before We Were White: Ceremony and Recovery for Anti-Racist Action”. Organizers Eleanor Hancock and Darcy Ottey describe it as a class for “white-identified people seeking greater emotional resilience in their work against racism and for a sustainable future. Together we will explore how ceremonial practice and a strong ancestral identity help us challenge white supremacy as whole people.”

So, despite my loud-and-proud estrangement from my biological family, I’m cautiously investigating the shadow side of my rootlessness. Maybe there’s a level of unburdening from ancestral trauma that can’t happen until I go towards the ancestors and find out what they need me to resolve. Maybe, also, I should look at the role of my mother’s ethnic and class anxiety–dare I say, internalized anti-Semitism–in my past distaste for the parochialism of Judaism and my flight towards the seemingly universal cosmopolitan individualism of Christianity. In theory the post-tribal freedom and egalitarianism of the Jesus movement and the Enlightenment still appeal to me; in practice Western Christianity and Western rationality have frequently given cover to a new tribalism of cisgender white men.

All right, then, if we’re celebrating particularity, which lineage or geographical place is the framework for my ancestral recovery? Ethnically, on both sides, I’m an Eastern European Jew. My mother’s family emigrated to America in the early 20th century (good move, guys!!) from Poland, though I believe they came from Lithuania before that.

This is where it gets tricky. Polish indigenous magic and folk traditions come from the land where my ancestors lived, but do they come from my people? Are the Poles and Slavs ethnically distinct from the diaspora Jews? Are the Jews a race? (Certain people in Poland infamously thought we were…) I’m not sure whether the Slavic pagan deities are allies of Polish Jews, or of the goyim who threw us out.

Judaism, meanwhile, defined itself from the beginning as opposing all forms of folk magic or worship of local spirits. Tearing down pagan altars was a full-time job for the Hebrew prophets. I feel a stronger connection to Jewish material culture and traditions–folk tales, family rituals, recipes, Yiddish songs, immigrant narratives–than to anything Polish. This the actual heritage of my biological relatives. To the extent that I have any experience of inter-generational oral tradition, this is it. However, the religion is inherently contrary to the witchy project into which I would pour these memories.

Jews also have, shall we say, a troubled history with ethnicity- or land-based identity! The decolonization mindset tells white folks, who have a bad wannabe-Indian habit, to “stay in our lane” and reconstruct the indigenous folkways of our own ethnicity instead. I respect that as a negative command: don’t make up a stereotypical, commodified version of tribal practices and pollute the cultural stream for actual Native people trying to preserve their heritage. But I’m not sure about the positive command to foreground your own ethnic background as a determinant of your spirituality. As Myke Johnson asks in her paper “Wanting to Be Indian: When Spiritual Searching Turns Into Cultural Theft”, one of the resources for our White Awake class:

I believe that finding and sharing our own ancestral resources might be one step, but then what? If White people turn to our own ancestral traditions, how are we being different from racist segregationists? How do we recognize our interrelatedness with all peoples, as well as the brokenness between us?

Look at where a religion of sacred land and ethnicity has brought the Jews today. Atrocities are being committed by the hawkish Israelis who find Biblical mandate for taking back “their” homeland from the Palestinians. (I support a two-state solution.) The decolonization framework of Christian imperialists versus grassroots pagans breaks down when it comes to Jewish political history. We lost our roots in the homeland because we were colonized by pagan Romans and crusading Christians, but to reclaim those roots, we have become oppressive colonizers. Enlightenment individualism suddenly doesn’t look half bad.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I’d like to see the literature address this question. Meanwhile, I’m off to Google “Jewish folk magic”. Tonight is a Super Blue Blood Full Moon, a good time to ask my ancestors for guidance.

Grandma Nettie and toddler Jendi playing the piano, c.1974. She passed away when I was 6, taking her kugel recipe to the grave. I think her default advice would be “Use more schmaltz!”

3 comments on “Decolonizing With My Polish Jewish Ancestors

  1. Naomi Ehrich says:

    Love this! I’m your sister in these explorations!

  2. Aidan Keeva says:

    I really appreciate the exploratory work you are doing. I have a similar ancestry–polish Jews, as well as Austrian and Romanian Jews.

    A few thoughts for you:
    Certainly, if you look to much of Rabbinic Judaism, there has been a lot of hostility to Magic historically. However, outside of the texts–in the actual practices that structured Jewish life–this was not necessarily the case at all.
    Check out the work of Gershon Winkler; a very radical Rabbi, who does a lot of work to trace back the magical–and earth-honoring–roots of our tradition. I would suggest his book Magic of the Ordinary: Recovering the Shamanic in Judaism. And, if you are interested in the Occult in Jewish Tradition, his book Dybbuk is quite good. Also, for a more scholarly historical perspective, check out Gideon Bohak’s book Ancient Jewish Magic.
    And, for two quick article about Judaism and sorcery/magic, check out:
    https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/attitudes-toward-jewish-magic/
    https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/jewish-magic-medieval-anti-semitism/

    Two other resources, for connecting with the earthy, witchy roots of your ancestry:

    The first is the work of Daniel Foor, and his ancestral healing work. Check out his website; AncestralMedicine.org. He offers a framework for connecting with ancient, wise and well ancestors and healing family lineages, in a culturally-sensitive, non-appropriative way. I am currently training to be a practitioner of his style of ancestor-work, and I can tell you from personal experience that it can be profound and deeply healing.
    It is important to remember that every single human being on this planet has wise and loving ancestors, who lived in earth-honoring, pre-patriarchal cultures–some more recently than others. In the grand scheme of things, institutionalized Judaism in its modern form is a relatively new phenomenon. Indeed, the archeological record now indicates that the ancient Hebrews may have engaged in Goddess worship–check out William Denver’s Book ‘Did God Have a Wife?, Archeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel for information on that.
    Along this line, I also want to suggest you look into the work of Jill Hammer and Taya Shere, who founded the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute for embodied, earth-based Jewish Ritual. This is their website: http://www.kohenet.com/ They also have an excellent book on Women’s spiritual leadership in Jewish history, called ‘The Hebrew Priestess’.

    Just wanted to suggest these resources for engaging with your ancestors more actively, for purposes of both personal and cultural healing.

    It is possible to reconnect with our roots (prior to being colonized by the Roman Empire and Christianity) without becoming oppressive colonizers ourselves (in the form of violent Zionism) . We do not have to look to Enlightenment individualism as the only alternative to becoming nationalist fanatics. Indeed, from one perspective, Enlightenment individualism has a lot more to do with the rise of nationalist fanaticism than one might initially expect (Consider the work of the Frankfurt School, and especially the book Dialectic of Enlightenment by Horkheimer and Adorno for a fleshed out perspective on the deep connection between enlightenment thinking and the rise of fascism in Europe). I hope you find that talking with you ancient ancestors–the ones that lived prior to a colonial, patriarchal mindset–may help you find another way.

    • Jendi Reiter says:

      Thanks for these wonderful and well-thought-out comments. I will look into these resources! I heard a great podcast interview with Daniel Foor, on “Bespoken Bones” hosted by Pavini Moray.

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