“Ya’alili” and the cultural poetics of Ashkenazi hegemony

Kosher supermarkets are curious sites of cultural consumption.  And the upscale supermarket, Pomegranate, is no exception to the rule.  Displaying a bag from Pomegranate is a visible social marker of Bourdieuian “taste”–a type of conspicuous consumption not found at KRM Kollel or other affordable kosher supermarkets in Brooklyn.  As explained in a well-deserved critique published in The Forward about a David Brooks article in The New York Times, Pomegranate caters to the top 1% of the religious community.

After attending a Hasidic friend’s wedding recently, I wish to return to a song newly minted in the religious wedding circuit repertoire, “Ya’alili” (performed by the Chabad band, 8th Day), where the aisles of Pomegranate become a dizzying dance floor of choreographed Jewish multiculturalism:

I learned of the song when it was released two years ago.  I’m partial to it, but not simply because a friend of mine dances in the music video.  Its richness lies in its social commentary on the hybridity of form.  The song plays with and against the blurring of Sephardi and Ashkenazi cultures.  But as much as it plays with mixing and matching (as the chorus rings out: “tantz, tantz, chabibi”), it maintains distinct boundaries.  The stanzas line up Sephardi and Ashkenazi cultures in the Structural grammar of a Lévi-Strauss diagram:

את החתן ספרדי/כלה נאה אשכנזי”

“רחל אמנו ספרדי, מאמע רחל אשכנזי

“The groom, Sephardi/the attractive bride, Ashkenazi

Rachel, Our Mother, Sephardi/Mama Rochel, Ashkenazi”

Straddling back and forth between moments of mimicry and of radical alterity, between convergence and separation, illuminates the contemporary tension of Sephardi-Ashkenazi relations.  In the logic of multiculturalism in the reign of late capitalism, the video screams: “we have the freedom to both pray separately and to shop at the same upscale supermarket!”

Supermarkets peddle exotic goods.  And so does the video.  Supermarkets are, after all, secure, mediated sites of consuming other cultures.  But the danger of mediation lies in what obscures.  There is no actual contact between cultures performed in the transaction.  It’s unidirectional.  You can buy without reciprocation.  And that’s precisely what happens in the music video.  A caricatured image of Sephardi culture appears–for the pleasure and consumption of Ashkenazi eyes.  The musicians we are to identify as “Sephardi” bear the trappings of the exoticized, Orientalized subject.

How Ashkenazim simultaneously reproduce hegemony while claiming to resist it–under the banner of Jewish “multiculturalism” (reframed in religious vernacular as achdus)–is a phenomenon I encountered while conducting preliminary fieldwork research in Uman (among friends at Chulent).  A former professor and now mentor, David Roskies, recalls a conversation with noted academic of Hasidic historiography, David Assaf (in an article recently published in Bounded Mind and Soul: Russia and Israel, 1880-2010):

Assaf, our expert on all matters Hasidic, is not merely underwhelmed by what greets the visitor to Braslav, he is angered by the millions in profit made by the Braslaver from Israel who control the Rebbe’s grave and man, which attracts over 15,000 pilgrims a year.  He scoffs at the sterile design of the tomb, so reminiscent of the fake tombs of Moroccan saints that make such a mockery of religion and Israel.  Did we notice the name Israel Meir Gabi emblazoned on the wall outside?  Gabai, the Johnny Appleseed of Hasidic grave sites, is a Braslav Hasid of Sephardi descent.  Why, young Sephardim, Assaf protests, are so brainwashed by the Braslav notion of tikkun neshamot, the perfection of dead souls, that they show up at the Ministry of Internal Affairs to adopt an Ashkenazi surname (like Bernstein and Rabinvoich) and a Braslavian proper name (like Naftali, Nahman, Nathan)…

As described by one of my informants, a living Chabad oral history archive, “gullible” Sephardi baalei teshuva have become infantilized with the same white paternalistic “concern” as the colonial subject–an uncritical, superstitious mass who, already engaged in pietistic devotion at the hillulas of their revered Babas, can be led easily astray.  In the recent sex scandal of the Breslev leader, Rav Berland, Sephardi baalei teshuva became scapegoated (among some) as the source of the problem.  As Toyte Hasidim (lit. “dead Hasidim”), Breslevers do not follow a living rebbe or tzadik (in contradistinction to other Hasidic courts).  Rebbe Nachman is, at least in theory, their one and only master; to unflinchingly follow a living tzadik comes at a cost.  Berland’s scandal was displaced by some Breslevers onto the Sephardim Berland recruited, who in the optic of Ashkenazi hegemony, cannot be trusted to maintain the purity of Breslev’s status as Toyte Hasidim.

While problematic in its representation of Sephardim, “Ya’alili” engages in a subtle politics of refusal.  As Hasidism becomes increasingly untethered from Eastern European culture and history, the invention of the “global Hasid” (to borrow the phrase of my friend, Zach Cohen) has emerged in its stead.  And Rebbe Nachman has most curiously been re-branded as a universal symbol of devotion, which ultimately obscures historical reality and pivots Ashkenazi identity as unmarked and universal, Sephardi identity as marked and particular.  But the video refuses this cultural hegemony.  It marks Baba Sali as a “Sephardi” symbol, Rebbe Nachman as a “Ashkenazi” symbol.  Because if all things were actually equal, quotes from the “Baba Sali” would be embroidered on white kippot the world over.

For further cultural analysis of Hasidic music, listen to the episodes 05 and 06 by Sol Fuerwerker and Sam Katz over at The After Life Podcast.

One Response to ““Ya’alili” and the cultural poetics of Ashkenazi hegemony”

  1. this is jargon filled garbage. the author relies on an inaccurate and over theorized scheme to place ashkenazi Jews in place of “whiteness.” It misses the point.


    leybke · November 20th, 2013 at 11:45 pm

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