by Rokhl, at the Rootless Cosmopolitan blog, where you can find it cross-posted, along with much more stimulating writing about Yiddish, American Judaism and its discontents, and otherDynamic Yiddishkayt for the New Millennium. –aryehbernstein
The Washington Post brings us an interesting chart from the Pew Research Center. The chart tracks language presence in the United States from 1980 to today. Because Yiddish had the most stark decline between then and now (from #11 in 1980 to dead last today) the Pew chart is labeled The decline of Yiddish, the rise of Tagalog. Which, ok, is pretty accurate. The Washington Post’s headline, however, is How We Stopped Speaking Yiddish. Which isn’t just bizarrely non-descriptive of this charticle (the ‘How’ never comes up), it also speaks to the media’s love of a good ‘Yiddish in decline’ narrative.
For comparison, Greek was at #8 in 1980 with 401,000 speakers. Today it’s at #14 with 307,000 speakers. In 1980 Yiddish had 315,000 speakers and today around155,000. (By the way, I’m pretty sure this is an underestimate given the population explosion in the Hasidic world and how that explosion does not show up in official records.) Between 1980 and today both Greek and Yiddish dropped six positions.
So, why no tears for the dramatic decline of Greek? Italian? Polish?
While the Washington Post leads with the disappearance of Yiddish, Salon reprints Ross Perlin’s Jewish Currents piece on Yiddish on the Internet. Perlin, a Yiddishist living in New York, finds a thriving Yiddish world on line.
I’m not sure it’s healthy to adore short movies as much as I do. Much like a beloved album, it’s tempting to just play them over and over again. I am prepared to play I’m A Mitzvah over and over again. It’s one of those situations you’d pray would never happen to you: you’re stuck in a rural area of a foreign country, watching over your friend’s corpse for the night. The next day, you’re due to escort their corpse back to America. For the night, you’ve got a jury-rigged kaddish, a cardboard shipping container with your dead friend in it, and a lot of tequila. The film was successfully funded via Kickstarter last year.
Content Advisory: half-naked dead man, multiple graphic photos of a penis, a mostly naked late night swim, kissing.
On February 10, Leah Vincent and I met in early afternoon around Union Square. Over cups of hot tea, we discussed her recently published memoir, Cut Me Loose: Sin & Salvation After My Ultra Orthodox Girlhood, which traces her body’s exit from her Haredi upbringing in Pittsburgh to her acceptance at Harvard University–and the detours in-between. For the course of an hour, we delved into the mise-en-scène of writing a book, bodily contaminations, and what it means to live like a zombie orphan.
Sam Shuman: I’m curious about your habits of writing. I don’t think in any of your other interviews, people have asked: where do you write? When do you write? Do you have specific habits around the craft?
Leah Vincent: No. And I feel very guilty about this. I feel like I need to be more disciplined. And that’s my constant resolution—to get more disciplined about it. I have a toddler. So my writing revolves around whatever time the babysitter is there and [whether] I don’t have other pressing things. I write on the couch, or chair, on my bed. With my laptop. And just type frantically. I’m a really big believer in the shitty first drafts. So I’m just always trying to just push myself to write whenever it comes and not judge it. And come back to it. And rework it and rework it and rework it.
I try to write everyday. It’s also depends. It’s very project bound. So when I was in this book, and especially once the draft was done, I worked very heavily with my editor to shape that final draft. So, as soon as she gave me something, it was so exciting to get to work with somebody on it. Because it’s so solitary. I spent two years working on it beforehand. And suddenly I’d have something with comments. I’d throw myself into it. It was just like this drug. Any moment I could grab to work on the edits and to write was just incredibly exciting. I would love to be able to say, “I sit down in my office from 9 AM to 5 PM.” That does not happen at all. Of course, every time I come to a difficult scene, I’m checking on Facebook every ten seconds. Something on Twitter has become very, very important instantly. I know that I should shut off the internet, but I don’t. It’s a very organic, meandering engagement.
I’m particularly interested in women writers. I’m particularly interested in female memoir writers. But let’s say women writers—and particularly mothers who have to balance their motherhood with their profession. That’s really interesting to me. I think a little bit about that–about how I feel like I have to push harder. Even in the most understanding relationship with my husband and a progressive world and community, I still have to push to make the space. I feel like if I could go to an office everyday, doing something like being a pediatrician, I’d have the time for my work. But because I’m a writer, somehow I have to fight a little bit harder to be taken seriously–by myself maybe more than anybody else (laughs). I’m allowed to say, “I’m not taking everything else. I’m just writing for two hours.” There’s this constant pushing of the space that one needs to live and that one has to do on one’s own.
SS: That’s an interesting sense of immediacy, too–all these other things that you’re balancing at the same time. That probably changes the tempo of your writing.
LV: Yes. Especially when you’re writing something that’s so emotional. I’m not distanced from this material. Life is just woven together. The book. The rest of my life. There’s no separate spheres really, which, in a way, is a great blessing. Because it means that the work I’m doing is like my lifeblood. It’s personal to me. To me, it’s so thrilling because it’s something that I care so much about. But, on the other hand, if I was a pediatrician or a plumber, I’d be like, “wait, this is my work life and this is my personal life.” And that might be nice to have that space.
SS: Do you keep a notebook for your writing?
LV: I keep like seven notebooks. Not even notebooks. Documents. I’m so organized in all aspects of my life but my writing is schizophrenic. There’s bit and pieces everywhere. So I have my diary notebook, where I try to records some thoughts. And I just started doing dailies, where you’re supposed to write three pages. So I have that. And then I just started a secret poetry blog, where I try to write a poem every day about my life going on. So I have that. And then I have my to-do list. And then I’m sometimes carrying notes. And then I have my phone, which has forty-six documents from the past week alone. So it’s a little bit totally crazy, but somehow the magic works and it comes together. And one day, I will get more organized with it.
SS: Do you see your work as a break or a continuation of an older genre of literature—something like the Autobiography of Solomon Maimon or the treatises of that other rabble rouser, Baruch Spinoza?
LV: I’ve not read enough of Spinoza or at all of the first [writer] you mentioned, but I definitely think we have a claim to the Haskalah. Before OTD [Off the Derech] became as popular as it was two, three years ago, I was saying we have to call ourselves Maskilim, not because we’re identical to the original Maskilim, but because we carry some of their spirit forward and it’s important for us to realize that we have a lineage. That we’re not coming out of nowhere. It’s not, obviously, an unbroken chain. The themes are very different. For example, they are, for the most part, much more intellectual than say, my book is. But I’m proud to claim them. I don’t know how they would feel about being claimed, but I’m proud to claim them (laughs). And I think we should.
On the one hand, you’re working within the construct of the frum community, which assumes that historical precedence gives you validity. I think that’s part of the urge to claim the connection to them. And I think there’s value to that. I don’t just dismiss that. But, on the other hand, I think you’re right. People got angry at me for saying let’s call ourselves Maskilim, but I was never saying it literally. Obviously, literally, I’m not saying I’m the same as them. I do think that, especially when you’ve been rejected, as some of us have, by everyone we knew and cared about, to claim kinship with people who are dead, to be able to look out onto a much wider world, and say, “listen, the immediate world has rejected me, but I’m going to find family or intellectual counterparts or people I can to connect to.” I think that’s hugely powerful. I wouldn’t want to deny myself or other people who find comfort and confidence and ideas and inspiration from that.
SS: People have been presumably going off the derech since the legal bricklayers paved the path. But leaving the Haredi world is no longer enough—there’s a drive now to change it, whether it be through writing, protests, billboards, or non-profits. Having spoken to people who went off the derech over twenty to twenty-five years ago, they’ve noticed that change, too. How do you account for this change? Why do you think that there’s been a cultural shift now?
Seeking Jewish men to model for a “Naughty Jewish Boys” calendar. Intended as an alternative to the emasculating “Nice Jewish Boys” calendar currently out, this will show the sexy side of Judaism. Seeking Jewish men willing to pose shirtless, in underwear, or tastefully nude. Chubby/hairy ok. Yarmulkes and payess a plus. Previous modeling experience not necessary. Pay $50 for an hour-long studio shoot in NYC. Please e-mail with photograph.
Zachary Solomon is a freelance writer in Brooklyn. (David Levy)
The relationship between Jews and literature is as indelible as the very concept of narrative. For thousands of years, Jews have sought to explain their heritage through story-telling, to reconcile their victories and tragedies by making sense of the world through the written word.
A self-contained supplement to Summer Literary Seminars’ Lithuania program, and set in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, Jewish Lithuania seeks the same. Designed for anyone with a keen interest in Jewish life, personal and historical narrative, and Litvak culture, SLS-Jewish Lithuania aims to become absorbed in the past, present, and future of what was once the cultural, philosophical, spiritual, and intellectual center of pre-Shoah Jewish life in Europe. Through deep relationships with Vilna’s Jewish community, richly consisting of Jewish and Holocaust museums, historians, and lecturers, our Jewish Lithuania program probes at the heart of the city, still beating resolutely throughout the same streets that once comprised the Vilna Ghetto. Beyond Vilnius, Jewish Lithuania explores many other nearby sites of great significance to Jewish history, such as the cities of Žagarė, Kaunas, and Ponary, the site of the Ponary massacre.
Featuring a robust faculty consisting of, among others, talented writers whose work engages with Jewish identity, politics, and life, Jewish Lithuania understands the meaningful, paramount importance of story. Some of those writers that we have brought to Lithuania include Ed Hirsch, Phillip Lopate, Steve Stern, Lynn Tillman, Ariana Reines, Robin Hemley, Peter Cole, Adina Hoffman, Linor Goralik, Vitaly Komar, and Sergei Gandlevsky, among others.
The program runs from July 13 – July 26, 2014. For a chance to win a full-ride to the program, please be sure to enter our 2014 SLS Literary Contest (deadline: February 28, 2014), featuring fiction, poetry and non-fiction categories, and judged by world-renowned writers. The deadline to apply for SLS-Jewish Lithuania is June 15, 2014.
Please be sure to forward this to any interested parties. And, of course, if you have any questions, please contact Zachary Solomon at email@example.com.
Ruben is an experiential Jewish educator living and creating in Brooklyn. He likes to dance. For more on this theme, see Jay Michaelson’s book, God in Your Body. (aryehbernstein)
Jewish tradition distinguishes between the written Torah and the oral Torah, but is their room to talk about Torah of the body as well? Specifically, does Judaism have something to teach us about dance and movement?
I began to seriously think about this question last fall, when taking a course on dance education at NYU. The class focused primarily on tribal dances from Uganda. It was fascinating to learn that most of these tribes have no written tradition. Their values were passed down from generation to generation, not through the written word, but through dance, song, and story telling. My first instinct was to contrast this to Jewish culture, which is so reliant on text. What are the benefits and drawbacks of each method? What are we able to transmit through text, that we are not able to do through dance, and what might be lost in the text that can only be captured through movement?
Then I thought about it a bit more. I grew up in a very Jewish home, but I didn’t look at a page of Talmud until I was 24 years old. Learning text was not a formative part of my Jewish education whatsoever. On the contrary, some of my most powerful Jewish memories are of my mother teaching Israeli folk dances in our community, and of a crazy horah experience when I first visited Tzfat at the age of 12. Even today, though I spend a lot of my time learning Jewish texts, my most uplifting and spiritual moments have involved dancing alone to niggunim in the park by my house, and once again, those Hassidic horahs, this time not in Tzfat, but in Crown Heights. More »
When I first skimmed the press release for Handle With Care, a play currently running off-Broadway in the theater that used to house Old Jews Telling Jokes, I thought I had the whole thing figured out in advance: a non-Jewish playwright married an Israeli actress and wrote a show for her. Simple, I thought. It must be a comedy exploring the hilarity of intermarriage, like an Abie’s Irish Rose for the Pew Report generation. I couldn’t have been more wrong. For although playwright Jason Odell Williams has written a play about love bridging disparate lives, it’s about a burgeoning love affair between an Israeli Jew and an American Jew, finding each other in the most unlikely of circumstances: their “meet cute” occurs when a delivery man loses the box containing the remains of Ayelet’s recently deceased grandmother, which he was supposed to be bringing to the airport for return to Israel. Josh, Ayelet’s love interest, is the delivery man’s only Jewish friend, so naturally he gets the call to help translate the situation to the distressed Israeli who speaks very little English.
The result is a charming romantic comedy that would be right at home on JCC stages anywhere in the country. That the play was written by someone who’s not himself Jewish (although he is part of a Jewish family) is surprising, so I was glad to have the opportunity to speak with both Williams and his wife (and star of the show) Charlotte Cohn about that play, their marriage, and working with one’s spouse. More »
Maybe you’ve heard of the Awesome Foundation. Maybe not. It is, at the end of the day, awesome. You should know about awesome things.
It’s simple: People get together to form “giving circles” and look over very short proposals (it takes 10-20 minutes to fill it out) from individuals with projects ideas, teams working on an experiment, and NGO’s with a little something extra in mind. Then they pick one every month or two and give them $1000 (ish).
If you’re in Israel and/or Palestine, there is something called Keren Ba’ktana (Small Fund). In particular, I am a part of the Keren Ba’ktana SOUTH, which focuses on projects related to the following areas:
Resisting the Occupation
Asylum seekers and refugees
Developing South Tel Aviv
Every two months 15 to 20 of us look over the VERY SHORT proposals and decide on one to give 3000 ₪ (NIS). During the “off” months we meet activists, teachers, and others to learn about issues, movements, and projects. The application form is micro-sized. Seriously, check it out. Then spread it around and remember to let people know to note that they are applying for Keren Ba’Ktana SOUTH.
Last month we gave to System Ali and we are looking for other radical people and projects to connect with. Spread the word. While this is no substitute for education and communication, advocacy and legal change, or direct action in the struggle for a just – not simply charitable – world, it can help here and now. This is fairly awesome.
A. Daniel Roth is an educator and journalist living in South Tel Aviv. You can find more of his writing and photography at allthesedays.org and follow him on twitter @adanielroth.
A couple of weeks ago, an email came over the Jewschool contributors’ listserv asking if anyone wanted to cover a SermonSlam taking place in my neighborhood. As someone who has enjoyed other kinds of slams in the past (poetry, story, and grand – IHOP, not baseball), I jumped at the opportunity. I’m still something of a Brooklyn newbie, having lived here for less than a year. So I want to fully own that my preconceived notions of what a SermonSlam might be were entirely colored by an outsider’s stereotype of Brooklyn hipster culture. Now, to be fair, I have lived here almost a year—it will be a year this Shabbat—and so I have been around long enough to know that most of the stereotypes about Brooklyn hipster culture are true. And I should have been tipped off by the fact that the event was being held at Congregation Beth Elohim (known in the neighborhood as CBE), a very large Reform synagogue that often plays host to community events, many of which I have enjoyed this year.
You see what I’m getting at, right? What I had pictured as a cool, vaguely underground event, perhaps in a dark room with a stage and a bar, turning words of Torah into performance art, was in fact more like a youth group program for young adults, held in a large, well-lit synagogue social hall, with the performers relying a little more heavily on the “sermon” than the “slam.” The only drinks were of the cola variety, and the evening was padded with games straight from my synagogue youth director playbook like Jewish Geography 2.0, affably executed by hosts Ben Greenfield and Samantha Kuperberg, who themselves seemed to have arrived straight from a summer on the staff of Camp Ramah.
BUT! And this is a big BUT! (I like big BUTs and I cannot lie…) I’m pretty sure if you went in to the event with fewer or different preconceived notions, you would have been thrilled. More »
Eli Valley, comic artist and official satirist on behalf of progressive Jewry, explained his hilarious and irascible comics on MSNBC’s talk show “The Cycle” last week, airing for all America our dirty, smelly, intermarried laundry. Kol hakavod, Eli.
I’ve been reading an array of obituaries and reflections on Mandela and his legacy since late Thursday night when I heard that he had died. When I had a chance to reflect on the news as I traveled from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv last night my thoughts turned to my parents and a shoe museum in Toronto, where I grew up. I also thought about why I came here in the first place.
When I was 13 years old, freshly Bar Mitzvah’d with an older teenaged brother spending weekends looking for fights with neo-Nazis, I first became aware that my mom was (and on some fronts still is) a politically active human being. She was a New York Jew of the baby boom generation, a Woodstock attendee, and she had, in those turbulent years of which I have no first hand knowledge, gotten involved in struggles for civil rights, against the war in Vietnam, and toward a feminist future.
Having recently gotten into the Dead, Snoop, and other musical accompaniments for my newly found enchantment with weed (which became the central destination for much of the bounty of my Bar Mitzvah gifts), I would proudly proclaim that my mom had been a “hippy” to my friends. When she was around to defend herself though, she would explain, slightly annoyed, “I was a radical, not a hippy”.
The death of Arik Einstein z”l highlights the jagged seam line where Israeli and Diaspora Jews meet. Or don’t meet. JJ Goldberg comments on this in the Forward and Liel Leibowitz rips the seam wide open in Tablet Magazine. Initially I laughed through my tears at Leibowitz’s in-your-face comments: I have nothing to say to you about Arik Einstein. I’m sorry to sound like a prick, but you wouldn’t get it…But then he went in an altogether different direction to where my own heart was headed.
So I will try to say something to you about Arik Einstein, as many were just recently commenting about what the loss of Lou Reed means to them personally. I never listened much to Lou Reed, but Arik Einstein’s music changed my life.
An Israeli friend from my Hashomer Hatzair group gave me Einstein’s 1971 album, Badeshe Etzel Avigdor (vinyl)in 1974 That album introduced many to the anthem of my generation – Ani Ve Ata. . Members of Hashomer Hatzair were singing it years before it became the go-to song for American Jewish tikkun olam projects. But other tracks on that album touched me more deeply in unexpected ways. The song about his own experiences in Hashomer Hatzair, HASHRIKA SHEL HATNUA placed people like my friends and me at the center of a rock star’s view of the world.
I was one of those marginalized, radical, intellectual but “bad” kids born too late to be part of the Jewish Catalogue crowd of DIY Jews but too early to belong to the Gen X reimagining of alternative Jewish community. In the mid-1970s, our idea of a good time waswatching Arik Einstein’s comedy Lool in tandem with Monty Python. How better to understand the absurdity in being Ber Borochov quoting socialist Zionist Jewish kids in mid-1970s north America?
Fast forward to November, 1995. Right after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Einstein released “Zeh Pitom Nafal ָAleha” זה פתאום נפל עליה -. a public outpouring of sorrow and compassion for Rabin’s widow Leah. I imagine there are those who wish there had been such a song for Jackie when JFK was assassinated.
Arik Einstein seemed to create the soundtrack to which many of us living away from Israel healed from the restach (assassination) from miles away. An Israeli friend sent me Shalom Chaver, the 2 CD live recording of the Rabin memorial concert and, had it been on vinyl, I would have worn down the grooves. All of Israel’s great musical artists offered moving tributes to the slain Prime Minister at that long, poignant gathering. But, as the first disc opens with Einstein’s rendition of Aviv Geffen’s iconic lament, Livkot Lekha–(I am going to cry for you) and closes with his classic Uf gozal-(the little bird flies away) ,his iconic baritone voice was like a comforting embrace, enclosing the rest of the music.
Of course, Einstein induced laughter at least as often as tears. My friend Rabbi Leila Berner captured this in an e-mail, writing that “sometimes I cried so much when I listened to his songs…and sometimes I laughed so hard when he realized that (as Reinhold Niebuhr once said), “laughter is a no man’s land between faith and despair.” Arik gave us laughter when we couldn’t find our faith and when despair was an all too frequent visitor.”
Fast forward to Limmud Conference in the UK, 2008:
I invite a new Israeli friend to join me at a late night sing-along, but he was afraid it would be mostly English tunes he didn’t know. He want on tell me that it was the eve of Arik Einstein’s 70th birthday and he was afraid nobody in the room would understand. He was going to call it a night. I began to sing one of Arik’s silly songs, אני אוהב לישון-Ani ohav lishon (I love to sleep). My friend decided to come along. And many people there did get where he was coming from. Arik Einstein’s songs turned a random group of people, who ranged in age from around 16 to over 60 and who came from places as far flung as Stockholm and Cape Town, into a community celebrating the birthday of a cultural hero.
The beauty of it was that the songs surely meant something different to each singer. For me, it was much more than simple nostalgia. It spoke directly to the piece of me that feels alienated almost everywhere these days, as I feel that most of the Diaspora Jewish world seems to have split into two groups, neither to which I belong: the one for non- and anti Zionists, the other for center to right-wing Zionists. That night, Arik’s music brought me home for a short while.
My friend, the musician Stuart Rosenberg, remembers Einstein’s music like this: In 1971 I was 15 years old, away from home for six-month exchange program, living in an Israeli boarding school while studying Hebrew and working in the fields. That was the summer of Arik Einstein’s hit song Ani V’Atah…. Lying awake at night… with the aroma of night blooming jasmine in the air and the sound of Arik Einstein playing beneath my pillow, I was as far as I could be from my own bed, yet listening to those words I knew I was home. I eventually returned to the states, but forever after that summer that song and those words have been at my core, and, like the aroma of night blooming jasmine, it only takes a few notes to transport me back to those moments when I truly became who I am.
Another friend told me that she watched the memorial ceremony in Rabin Square. In my mind I immediately heard Arik Einstein singing about the night Rabin was assassinated, so I listend to Shalom Haver – .Then I played Einstein’s cover of the Geffen song, from the Shalom Haver album:
When we are sad, we go to the sea. / That’s why it’s salty. And it’s sad —That we can return borrowed equipment But it’s not possible to give back this longing…
This is a guest post by Chava Shervington. A passionate and committed Jewish diversity advocate, Chava co-founded an organization which created opportunities for Jews of Color to connect in safe spaces across the East Coast. Currently, Chava is honored to serve as president of the Jewish Multiracial Network, an organizational leader in a movement to make Jewish racial/ethnic diversity fully embraced in American Jewish life.
In recent years there have been a rash of documentaries of Muslim converts (or reverts as they are called in Islam), as there seems to be a particular fascination with white Westerners who decide to take on Islam. Most of these documentaries focus on the motivation of the convert, the reactions of their families and communities, as well as their adjustment to adopting Muslim law and social customs. ”Mom, Dad, I’m Muslim” is both a unique story and a missed opportunity. While there have been many stories of converts to Islam, this one had the potential to explore an entire range of issues besides the usual family tension and personal struggle, but it barely scratches the surface of the story of Maor, a young Jewish woman in Israel who converts to Islam.
While there is definitely focus on Maor’s family (a hodge podge of characters, including an anti-religious brother, a Kahane supporting father, an increasingly observant mother and younger brother, a confused younger sister, and feisty grandmother), we only seem to get half of the story. Everyone outside of her grandmother seems to be supportive of her religious choice and allows her to exist on the periphery of their traditional Jewish lives. For the most part they seem to express apathy with her choice, but support her out of love. Her grandmother is the only one who ever vocalizes strong opposition to Maor’s new religious conviction, although even though her mother vocalizes her support, under the surface their seems to be a genuine hope that this is only a phase. There seems to be a concerted effort not to ostracize her for her conversion. While her family makes Kiddush and hamotzi for Shabbat dinner, Maor sits silent at the table in her hijab, at a Yom Hazikaron ceremony she stands silently while her family and others proudly sing Hatikvah, she’s obviously strongly connected to her family members, but at the same time completely disconnected from their Jewish identities.
Unfortunately, that disconnection is never truly explored. Maybe it’s because as with many converts (to any religion) she finds the motivations for her conversion difficult to express. When asked by her younger sister, the answer is couched in a metaphor of white roses, but essentially boils down to “because that’s what I think G-d wants from me”. But for us as an audience it feels like we a) came into the story halfway and b) only get half of the story.
As a Jewish watcher I was left with so many questions: What was Maor’s Jewish background prior to her conversion?; Did she ever explore Judaism further? How are the things that appeal to her about Islam-modesty and interactions between women and men-different from traditional Judaism? How does she relate to her Jewish identity? Did she experience any emotional conflict with changing her identity? Has her conversion affected her relationship to the state of Israel? We learn of her strong connection with Arab Muslim classmates from an early age, and the death of one in particular seemed to affect her strongly, but because we know so little about her interaction with the Jewish community all we’re left with are questions.
There are so many topics introduced and barely covered, particularly those things that make this such a unique conversion story. As a Jewish Muslim convert in Israel, Maor, must do more than take the shahada (Islamic creed declaring the oneness of Gd), she must undergo a formal conversion with the government so that she will be allowed to marry a fellow Muslim. We learn absolutely nothing about what that involves, how long it takes, or what she must undergo. When she changes the nationality on her identity card, does she experience hesitation or only relief? (Spoiler—she does find a Muslim husband, but we learn absolutely nothing about the process and/or how her unique circumstances factor into her decision.) One minute she’s talking about starting to look for a husband, the next she’s looking at his picture online, two minutes later she refers to him as her fiancée. It’s a completely unexplored whirlwind.
One thing we do understand throughout this film is how incredibly lonely Maor’s journey is. When not at home or running an errand with her family, she’s shown walking and sitting alone. No one in her community speaks to her; she is the constant subject of stares and is questioned by both Arab Muslim and Jewish communities. The story flows from one scene in a restaurant when she’s questioned by Muslim customers and workers: “Is she Arab, is someone in her family Arab, where does she live, is she married” to a Yom Hazikaron ceremony where she faces the same questions from Jews, along with assumptions such as that she must have grown up not surrounded by Jews, she must have no connection/relationship with her family, etc. It isn’t until almost three quarters through the film that we meet a friend outside of her family, Lital, another Jewish convert to Islam.
As the film ended, I was left with so many mixed emotions; I could only wish her happiness in her journey, yet feel sadness about her path, and continue to wonder how she got there. I’m not sure it’s a story I as a committed Jew could ever feel completely comfortable with, but still wish I could appreciate her story and motivations, but this film left so many topics unexplored, I’m not sure we as the audience can get there.
When I saw the link for the new Maccabeats video, I was excited! Another song to play ad nauseum on youtube as I sit in my office. Those Maccabeats, they’re so catchy. And I love showing the videos to my students.
Then, a friend’s comment gave me pause. She noted that this video (now “unlisted” on youtube) was (probably inadvertently) really awful to Sigma Delta Tau (ΣΔΤ, pronounced “SDT”), a national (and it just so happens, historically Jewish) sorority.
Full disclosure, I was in a (different) sorority at a large state school and am a graduate/alumna in good standing. I was in the sorority for the food, mostly, and didn’t really enjoy it like many of my friends did. It (being in a sorority) seemed like the thing to do at my school, so I did it. While I felt that the Greek system was mostly silly, some of my friends flat-out hated it. My feelings of mild dislike for the system and my modicum of tolerance for the silliness within the walls of my own house stayed with me for the 4 years of school and beyond.
Sigma Delta Tau is a national sorority, formed in 1917 when other sororities at Cornell closed their doors to these Jewish women. Today, many chapters of ΣΔΤ exist, and while they’re no longer 100% Jewish, they are filled with lovely (and, I’m sure, not-so-lovely) young ladies who enjoy the sorority life. I’ve always said that if a ΣΔΤ existed at my school, I would’ve joined it, because I like that the letters look like EAT.
In the video, a pack of stereotypical high school bullies (decked out in Glee-like letterman jackets and hats with Greek letters on them) harasses a kid at his locker. Too bad ΣΔΤ is not a fraternity. It is not a group of high school boys. (If I had to guess, I’d hazard that the Maccabeats chose the letters on the hats of their video’s bullies because the Greek characters look like “EAT.”) Why use letterman jackets and Greek letters to transform “nice” guys into “mean” guys, just by throwing on some emblematic gear? Bullies come in all shapes and sizes, and by stereotyping Greeks and Greek life, you’re not really doing much better than the people you’re attempting to mock.
Maccabeats. Guys. You have to “earn” your letters when you join a Greek house. The nice girls of ΣΔΤ wouldn’t just give their letters to mean high school boys. In fact, a quick perusal of their website shows that, as a national sorority, Sigma Delta Tau supports organizations like Jewish Women International. If you’re going to use Greek letters, do your research. I don’t care if your school doesn’t have a Greek system. Don’t (inadvertently, I hope) falsely make a Greek organization out to be a bunch of teenage bullies.
I know there’s a Greek aspect to the Chanukah story. Those Greeks and the kids in Greek letter organizations are totally different.
It’s Chanukah, guys. Time to rededicate your video. Fix your error. Or, at the very least, apologize to the women of ΣΔΤ.
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
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.
Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish debuted in 2005 and has been a perennial bar mitzvah gift ever since. The book, which features interviews by Abigail Pogrebin with about five dozen celebrities about their Jewish identities, is now an off-Broadway musical. Pogrebin is no stranger to the musical stage; she chronicled her experience as an original cast member of the infamous Stephen Sondheim flop Merrily We Roll Along in her 2011 Kindle Single Showstopper. This morning I chatted with her about the experience of writing Stars of David, both book and musical, and how her evolving Jewish identity has shaped the project.
In the introduction to the book, she discusses that part of the impetus for the project was that Jewish identity had crept up on her. She was married to a Jewish man, had two children approaching the ages when they might want to know something about what being Jewish meant, and she realized that she didn’t have an answer to that question. “I wasn’t necessarily honest with myself about why I started the book in the sense that I didn’t know how at sea I was, in terms of my own Jewish identity, when I approached famous people,” Pogrebin said. “I think sometimes stories are generated by some subconscious impulse to understand something for yourself. And I don’t want to over-analyze my motivations in starting the book, but I would say that having these frank conversations with some of our highest achievers made me look much more candidly at myself, and I realized I hadn’t answered a lot of the questions I was asking, personally.”
Like the zombie living dead trend,Torah manicures fever just will not die.
Starve the cold, feed the fever, or the reverse. Kill it, already. Why is this still being talked about as though it were an innovative thing? It is NOT.
Look, the idea seems innocuous- in order to make Torah attractive to girls, let’s have a middle school club in which they give themselves manicures with things related to the Torah, parsha scenes, perhaps, and (eventually) discuss them. (How bold, how innovative! came the cry from the innovation alter kockers.)
Guess what Midrash Manicures is not, other than innovative? Innocuous. It trivializes both the girls and the Torah. It doesn’t (as some claim) make Torah more accessible, it makes it “cute” – compared to what “boys do” – which is, study commentaries, and use Torah to make laws and meaning. (When boys do things like get manicures, as they sometimes do for events like Manicure for the Cure, it’s funny, because what girls and women do is seen as trivial and silly. Even though they’re stepping outside of traditional masculinity, they can do it in this instance, as long as they make a joke out of it.)
But, everyone howls, it makes girls more interested in Torah! Well, does it really?
Let’s say it does: So, why aren’t they interested in Torah without it then? What is the structural problems with the way we teach Torah that makes girls think, Nope, not for me? The reason girls maybe don’t love the Torah or whatever is that it’s not cute or cool or sexy for girls to be smart, ESPECIALLY in middle school, when this whole manicure thing is going down. Girls are socialized to not be openly smart or bold or interesting because boys don’t like it. (And boys are the most important thing. Duh.) Instead of openly challenging that-or anything else- Midrash Manicures is buying right into it. It’s not unlike fraternities and sororities who coordinate massive efforts around philanthropy and raise money for kids with cancer-it looks like a great thing to do, so no one questions it, or their failure to work on any level for structural change or systemic roots.
It’s not that, in and of itself, there’s something wrong with getting a manicure. It’s the idea that painting one’s nails with the parshah is an innovative way to teach girls Torah instead of a regressive reinforcement of ideas about gender and both the importance of Torah (it’s so simple you can put it on your nails, if you’re a girl) and how girls can be induced to learn. But in several of the articles lauding this innovation, when the girls were asked about it, their responses were along the lines of: My friends say I’m so lucky because I get to do my nails in school. Clearly the Torah study is sinking in.
Rainbow Tallit Baby has written about this as well, and nailed it (pun intended): “While the manicure program may get more girls in the door than a regular midrash class, offering this program sends the message that torah study is not a serious occupation for women and that torah is not appealing on its own and needs to be sugar-coated (or Ravishing Red coated) to be made palatable to them.”