WARSAW, Poland – When Rabbi Aaron Katz walks the streets of Warsaw's former Jewish quarter, scenes of that lost world fill his imagination: Families headed to synagogue, women in their kitchens cooking Sabbath meals, his father as a boy with the sidecurls of an Orthodox Jew.
But Katz's life could hardly be more different from that prewar eastern European culture, at least in one key respect: He is Poland's first openly gay rabbi.
Born in Argentina 53 years ago to parents who fled Poland before the Holocaust, Katz is the latest rabbi to play his part in reviving a once vibrant Jewish community that was all but wiped out by Hitler.
He settled into Warsaw's historic Jewish district in March with Kevin Gleason, a former Hollywood producer on such reality TV shows as "The Bachelor" and "Nanny 911," with whom he entered into a registered domestic partnership in Los Angeles two years ago.
They live only three streets from the birth home of Katz's father in a modern and spacious apartment with their dogs, two gentle brown boxers. Katz says he is moved by the links to his past, but keeps his focus on the future.
"I don't think we will come back to this great Jewish life," he said, referring to prewar Poland, a country where one person in 10 was Jewish and where synagogues, yeshivas and shtetls defined the landscape. "But I hope we will have a normal Jewish life in Poland."
Katz is certainly an anomaly in conservative Poland, where to be either Jewish or gay is challenge enough — at least outside the cities. Of a population of 38 million, about 5,000 are registered as Jews, while thousands more have part-Jewish ancestry, and some have returned to their roots since Poland shed its communist dictatorship.
Katz is the second rabbi to serve Beit Warszawa, a Reform community with 250 members that was founded in the capital 10 years ago by Polish and American Jews who felt little affinity with some Orthodox practices, such as separating men and women during Sabbath services. The Reform movement ordains gay rabbis.
Homosexuals have won acceptance at differing levels throughout post-communist Eastern Europe. The Czech Republic and Slovenia recognize same-sex partnerships, as will Hungary from July 1. Poland hasn't gone that far. It has an active gay rights movement and gay nightclubs in the cities, but the Catholic church and some conservative politicians still publicly describe homosexuality as abnormal and immoral.
Katz, a citizen of Argentina, Israel and Sweden, says so far he has not faced anti-Semitism or homophobia in Poland. But some community members, speaking in private, reveal a degree of discomfort.
One woman at a Sabbath service whispered that she found Katz's open sexuality too "aggressive." A longtime male member counseled against writing about the rabbi, lest anti-Semites use it against the community.
A third member, Piotr Lukasz, said he himself supports gay rights, and marched with an Israeli flag during a recent gay rights parade in Warsaw. But he said he had heard others complain that it would weaken an already small and fragile community.
"They say that Poland is not a ready for a gay rabbi because the outside society is very conservative," said Lukasz, a 23-year-old student of cultural anthropology. "An openly gay rabbi is something very controversial."
Others, though, seem comfortable, as evidenced by a recent string of dinners where Jews and non-Jews joined Katz and his partner at their home, digging into goulash or chicken-and-potato meals around the dining room table and socializing through the evening.
Katz is the chief cook — it's because he likes to be in charge, says Gleason, who instead welcomes guests warmly at the door and keeps their wine glasses filled through the evenings.
"I think the rabbi's home should be open," Katz said. "The moment that you take a position, your family takes the position too. It's a role."
Katz's life as a rabbi has been an evolution from one world to another. In the 1980s and early 1990s he was Sweden's chief Orthodox rabbi, married to a woman with whom he had five children now aged 16 to 31. Later he lived and worked in Berlin and Los Angeles. He had a dark beard, but today is clean-shaven.
The only photograph in their living room shows Katz and Gleason on the day they sealed their partnership — which they refer to as a marriage — surrounded by both their families, including Katz's sons and daughters, who are close to the couple and who showed their acceptance of the union with a gift of a ketubah, a traditional Jewish wedding certificate.
Katz's journey away from Orthodox Judaism was part of his "coming out process," he explains, but also was influenced by the realization that some of his children were not attracted to Orthodox worship. He concluded that Reform Judaism was more attractive to the young.
Still, he insists that as modern as he is, he loves tradition.
He keeps a kosher home and has enthusiastically embraced the Jewish tradition of matchmaker, using his dinners to introduce singles — usually heterosexuals but not exclusively.
Asked how many marriages have resulted, he said "a couple," but Gleason jumped in to correct him: "You're being modest," he said.
Gleason, 50, was born into a Catholic family but converted to Judaism for Katz. He left Hollywood and now does administrative and fundraising work for the synagogue. He attends services, sitting in the back and tapping on his watch when he feels the rabbi's lively sermons are getting to long.
Still, the openness of their relationship can catch people in Warsaw off guard.
"I introduce him as my partner they say, 'Oh he's also a rabbi?"' Katz said. "When I say 'my partner' they think I mean like in business. So I say 'no, no, no, we are living together."'