Jacob has a thing for messing with the expected societal order. His story begins with striving to claim for himself what his birth-order denied and ends with his enforcing this switch upon his grandsons.
“When Joseph saw that his father [Jacob] was placing his right hand on Ephraim’s head, he thought it wrong; so he took hold of his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s. ”Not so, Father,” Joseph said to his father, “for the other is the first-born; place your right hand on his head.” But his father objected….” (Gen. 48: 17-19).
One’s first instinct in reading is to simply presume that old habits die hard and Jacob has learned nothing from his own destructive experiences with meddlesome blessing bestowal and favoritism. But in reading Genesis this year, with dynamics of power and privilege at the forefront of my thinking, I’m inclined to believe there’s something deeper at play. A closer look at the stories of our ancestors reflects that the supposed precept of a birthright—privileging/entitling an eldest son to a greater share of blessing simply by virtue of being the first born—simply was not upheld. (Evidence: Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers – our narrative lists and preferences each in a manner contrary to their seniority.) More »
Racial Inequality in America: Judaism, Human Equality, and the Quest for Justice
January 11, 2015
Fifty years ago, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “Few of us seem to realize how insidious, how radical, how universal an evil racism is. Few of us realize that racism is man’s gravest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking.” America has undoubtedly come far since Heschel spoke these words, but how far? Where have we come, and where we do still need to go? Join us for a remarkable day of learning, as we explore Jewish approaches to human equality and discuss some of the most painful and pressing questions facing America.
NPR’s bold headline reads that after 522 years, Spain is inviting me home. It feels good; it feels like something is being done to right a historic wrong.
A Sephardic Jew, most likely an ancestor of mine, taking part in havdallah. (via Wikipedia)
About 15 years ago, we discovered that my maternal grandfather’s family fled Spain during the Inquisition to Meppen, a small town in northern Germany, a few miles across of the boarder with The Netherlands. He chose to buy a Sephardic burial plot and his family heirlooms include allusions of a Spanish heritage. Beyond this loose collection of genealogical evidence, I have no claim to the Sephardic tradition but in this news I feel the intense pride.
It is a visceral and irrational sense of accomplishment that comes from this announcement. I am positive my grandfather would have had his tight lipped, nearly-smug smile on his face upon reading this news; the same expression I had while reading it. I wonder if black Americans felt a glimmer of this gut-based justification when reading The Case for Reparations. More »
Editor’s Note: This post is the second in Jewschool’s series of reflections on Judaism, Jewish identity, race and the events in Ferguson.
Dr. Carolivia Herron is an author and educator living in Washington, DC. Her works include “Nappy Hair,” “Asenath,” and the opera libretto, “Let Freedom Sing: The Story of Marian Anderson.” She has held professorial appointments at Harvard University and the College of William and Mary.
I have nothing to say.
I know you want me to say that the things I know about Ferguson have nothing to do with this specific case of Big Mike and the policeman and can’t be admitted by law so I should just shut up about them or else I’ll be just inciting folks to riot or protest and I shouldn’t even mention that you don’t know the difference between protesting and rioting. I don’t have anything to say because 45 years ago, when I was a black teenager, before I was Jewish right out loud I was a summer missionary for the Southern Baptist Convention there near Ferguson in St. Louis County. I almost got my head shot off by the Klan because I was walking with three other summer missionaries two black, two white, evenly divided by gender and I, like a fool, when the four of us were walking on the wrong side of town (that’s the white side), ran up to the car that was slowly driving beside us, me thinking that the guy wanted directions or something so I just ran up to the car window and there was the Klan man with the sawed off shot gun pointed at my head. Every time I try to say about Ferguson, obey the law, accept the findings of the hearing, my voice chokes because I remember that gun and because the Klan man and I lived in different worlds I ran toward the man with the gun. I had no better sense than that. And why should I say something just because it pops up in my head. That shot gun at my head happened in the late 1960s, what’s that got to do with today? And back then it was the Klan. It’s not the Klan today, so I’m not saying anything.
Fear. It’s what stops us from imagining and building a better world. The deficit model of Judaism can no longer sustain itself. Too long we have been comfortable articulating what we seek to avoid and escape, but the time has come to embrace a Judaism with the vision and audacity to be about something worth believing and embodying.
As we know all too well from the devastating events of last week in Ferguson, fear fuels a viciously unjust legal system which perpetuates the subjugation and silencing of countless Americans. The subject of Ferguson merits its own treatment, and I look forward to hearing more progressive Jewish voices speak out against the systemic injustice and inequality.
Especially in light of the current news, part of me feels like writing about a fearless Judaism right now veers uncomfortably to the parochial. But upon further reflection, I am realizing that refining our own self-definition and collective visions will enable us both to grow internally and also to help others break from the shackles of their own limiting, stultifying, and potentially dangerous fears. For me, an affirmative Judaism has the drive and confidence to be proud and rooted in its particularism while also embracing vibrant difference and growth.
I was at the GA which Naomi describes in her post. One talk which felt a bit different than the others was Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ keynote plenary address. In it, Rabbi Sacks emphasized the imperative of Jewish unity and accountability for each other. What struck me about his language was the refreshing optimism and opportunity for forward movement which he offered. I was especially excited because much of the vision of Jewish unity he advocated resonated deeply with what I wrote for the Yom Kippur sermon I delivered at Anshei Chesed of Cape Cod this past season. Below, I will share an excerpt from my sermon: More »
Note: This is next in our series of posts on visions of fearless Jewish future, inspired by Naomi Adland’s dispatch from the GA, which we ran last week. We’ll be running one every week, and we want to hear from you – our creative, progressive readers- articulating a vision for a what a fearless Jewish future and community might look like. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with “Guest post” in the subject line.
Just now (it’s 6 am in Brooklyn), I woke abruptly from a dream that my MFA program was requiring us all to take a workshop in which we read Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. As soon as one of the workshop members started reading from the novel, the faces of everyone in the room became ghoulish, sharp toothed, black eyed. Terrified, I ran out the door of the building and into the street, but as I ran, I thought, you’ll go back, you have to go back. And I did. I turned around and went back into the building, which I think was a church, and as it turned out, there was a small group of people gathered in the lobby who had also decided they could not be in the room with the vampires.
I have a history of anxiety dreams, and of solving problems, literary ones of my own making, in my sleep. I might have been worrying about writing this piece for this series when I dreamt about the vampires, because in the awake version of myself, it’s obvious what the dream was about. It’s so obvious, it’s laughable: You are afraid, but you’ll go back. The vampires (self hate inflicted anti-Semitic imagery or result of watching too many horror movie trailers?) might be in the same building, but we can be in another room. They can’t have the whole structure. There are more of us than of them. We’ll get it all in the end. Maybe.
Here is where my painfully obvious dream parallels end. Judaism, particularly the observant part of it, and I are not on the best of terms right now, we have not been for a while. I could not build an organizational strategic plan based on my vision of a fearless Jewish community, but I am one hundred percent on the fact that it includes an active ingathering of those who scare us. Those who pose those questions that we can’t and/or don’t want to answer, they get a big space at whatever the table of the future is. Let everyone in, without a political or religious litmus test, if we say we want to be there, even if we’re not sure where exactly “there” is, even if we’re not sure if we can figure it out together, but that’s fine. Certainty is not a need any longer.
The future table isn’t convened by Islamophobia, or racism, capitalism, homophobia, misogyny, or people who have spent all their time sharpening one relentlessly narrow vision of a Jew. Men who claim to have beautiful politics but can neither listen nor hear simply don’t get space anymore, because it turns out, we don’t owe it to them. In the fearless future, that shit is over, because we are calling people out, and we don’t have to worry about what that calling out will do to our livelihood. Risk, intellectual and political, will be a value, but maybe even more important than risk will be accountability and challenge and, maybe here’s the center of it all : not running away, and not becoming a room or an organization or a building or a country full of panicked ghouls, powered by fear.
This week marked the first yahrzeit of Rav Ovadia Yosef. Last year, in the aftermath of his death, and in the midst of a media storm including wildly varying assessments of his life, I posted this piece, “On Heroes and Villains and when They’re the Same: Thoughts on Rav Ovadia“. It got a lot of traction, receiving, we think, the most social media shares in Jewschool history (subsequently eclipsed by Rabbi Oren Hayon’s guest post about BDS campus campaigns). The challenge of fully acknowledging a person’s misdeeds and merits is as relevant a year later. Specifically, in the Rabbinic realm, the past couple weeks’ revelations of Rabbi Barry Freundel’s outrageous violations of privacy and abuse of power at the D.C mikveh have likely been confusing for D.C. Jews who have ever been inspired by Torah taught by Freundel or helped by his pastoral counsel. How can we square the corruption with the inspiration? For this, we bring you this week’s Throwback Thursday, to last year’s post about Rav Ovadia.
I would like to thank Lizzie Busch for her thoughtful response piece to my post “Therapy and the Jewish Left” and for assuming in good faith that my intention in the piece was not, in fact, to drive a wedge between the personal and the political, as nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, if we want to talk about the personal and its relation to the political, when I call for the Jewish Left to relegate its overblown therapeutics regimen to the sidelines in favor of immediate direct action, I speak precisely from my own vantage point as a Jew operating largely on the margins of the traditional sites of class, ethnic, and gender privilege within in the North American Jewish community that Busch suggests might have been missing from my analysis.
Disclaimer: I am the daughter of a psychiatrist. I hope that this will not make me too biased in responding to Danya Lagos’ blog post “Therapy and the Jewish Left”.
When I initially read Lagos’ blog post, I reacted strongly against it. In large part, I was reacting to the basic feminist assertion that “the personal is political”. We cannot separate our political work from our personal feelings. Upon reading more carefully, I assume that Lagos wouldn’t disagree: their argument seems to be that the Jewish Left is focusing on trauma and care to the point that it becomes navel-gazing, and that navel-gazing is happening at the expense of true organizing and political work.
That may be true. My dad’s friend, the late psychiatrist Arnie Cooper, tells this joke:
Q: What’s the difference between the American Psychoanalytic Association and the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union?
by guestpost [➚] · Wednesday, September 24th, 2014
This is a guestpost by Liya Rechtman.
My family’s Passover Seder this year marked two firsts for my boyfriend: his first time meeting my dad and his first time eating homemade gefilte fish. As we read the haggadah around the table, I felt myself tensing up: ‘oh no, what if he gets that passage about Hillel and Shamai and he can’t pronounce the weird Hebrew town names?’ and ‘Worse! What if he winds up with “Tell me morano, my brother” and he has no idea what it’s about?’ When a reading did finally fall on him, and my boyfriend started on with “I am a Jew because…” I sort of giggled, loudly. My mom, tactful as always, told him that perhaps they would let someone else read the passage and come back to him. The first minor, awkward, interfaith hurdle had been managed gracefully by all parties involved.
The Seder moved on that night, and for several months to come the disparity between my Jewish tradition and his ex-Muslim atheism were significant parts of our identity, but not prohibitively so in the context of our relationship. Our faith/non-faith perspectives consistently yielded to thoughtful, extended discussion and debate about God, materialism, and meaning, among other things. That is, until three boys were declared dead in Israel and I stayed up all night crying. More »
You all know what I’m talking about. As much as Jews are working to combat Antisemitism, so do Jews love to refer to anyone who is rude to them or disagrees with them as an Antisemite. And now, as it turns out, anyone who is rude can always be implied to be a Hamas supporter who is also anti-human rights and definitely a misogynist.
“Allies are people who recognize the unearned privilege they receive from society’s patterns of injustice and take responsibility for changing these patterns. Being an ally is deliberate choice that requires intention and understanding. Join JMN in a frank dialogue on the “role” of allies, and how to effectively act to support of Jewish diversity issues. Our facilitators will assist participants in learning ways Allies can develop strategies to assist their understanding of the issues facing the Jews of Colors and Multiracial Jewish families.
We seek to assist allies in supporting a Jews of Color to create a Jewish community where ideas and strategies for enhancing diversity awareness are embraced.”
You must get tickets on Eventbrite, and this event is limited to 20 participants.
"Nazi Party" at Gasthof zur Gemütlichkeit (photo credit: City Pages)
Whereas the local city council did nothing official to condemn the high school students who on Purim masqueraded as members of the KKK for such an egregious display of racism, a group of local Minnesotans banded together to express their disappointment and hurt at the Minneapolis restaurant’s shocking display of insensitivity in hosting the now-notorious annual “Nazi Party.” More »
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.
When there were rumbles about yet another Weather Event in New York on February 6th, I got considerably more anxious than I normally would have, given that I work from home (or wherever) and don’t own a car I have to dig out. If the first ever Jewish Multi-Racial Network Parlor Meeting had been cancelled, it would have been a huge loss to everyone who attended. There’s something that happens in a room when people are being nudged around in their comfort zones, when they’re pushing themselves to think bigger and wider. It’s like an electricity. Not like. It is.
This is a guest post from Erika Davis. Erika is a freelance writer whose work can be found on The Sisterhood, Jewcy, Kveller and more. She writes about the intersections of race, religion and sexuality on her personal blog Black, Gay and Jewish. Erika likes Syrian Jewish cooking and is convinced she makes the best hummus in Brooklyn. She is a board member of the Jewish Multi-Racial Network and works at Hazon.
Last Wednesday, a few brave Jews made a trek to the middle of Brooklyn. I know what you’re thinking, what’s so brave about Jews in Brooklyn? They were brave not only to venture outside during an ice storm, but also because they knew they would be spending the evening talking about privilege and race in the Jewish community at The Jewish Multiracial Network (JMN) Parlor Meeting.
The conversation, moderated by JMN President, Chava Shervington and me, a JMN Board member, asked the tough question: “Am I Racist?” Attended by both white Jews and Jews of Color, in the two-hour conversation, tough topics were brought to the table. Everything from white privilege to reactions to seeing people of color in Jewish spaces was discussed and the participants asked and answered thoughtful questions while sharing individual experiences of prejudice. JMN’s Privilege Checklist was distributed and completed by participants in one exercise. Participants were also asked a series of hard questions. With their eyes closed, they were asked to raise their hands while they responded to the following statements: I have seen a person of color in my Jewish community and wondered why they were there. I have heard prejudiced things said about people of color in my Jewish community. I have said prejudiced things. I want to work for the inclusion of multiracial Jewish families and Jews of Color in the American Jewish community. As the participants answered the last question, I asked them to open their eyes and look around the room-everyone’s hand was raised.
When Chava and I started planning this first Parlor Meeting, we went into it with the idea of bringing together a small group of Jewish change-makers. We imagined that attendees would be individuals as well as employees of Jewish organizations and JCCs. We wanted the conversations to be frank, open, and honest and felt the best way to have such conversations would be to bring the conversation quite literally into a parlor. (Or more accurately, my living room.) We hoped to reach Jews on an individual basis, and hope that through the continued Parlor Meetings to create a network of Jews fully committed to the mission of JMN.
When the meeting was over all of the participants approached either Chava or I to thank us for the important conversation and to ask how they could volunteer to help JMN and its mission, which for us, makes the meeting as success.
Wednesday night’s meeting was the first of a quarterly series of Parlor Meetings JMN will hold in the New York area; the next will be about ally-ship. JMN is also in conversations with Jewish communities in New Jersey, Boston, Washington, DC, San Francisco and Los Angeles to bring Parlor Meetings across the U.S. The Parlor Meetings, coupled with JMN’s work with synagogues and Jewish communal organizations seeks to continue working for the full inclusion of multiracial Jewish families and Jews of Color.
Over the next few months we will be working with communities to bring the Parlor Meetings into new communities, but with all of the work that JMN does, it is important to us that the Parlor Meetings are impactful and reflective of the communities we bring them to. If you would like to bring the JMN Parlor Meeting to your community, please email Chava.
The Jewish Multiracial Network was founded in 1997 by a group of parents who wanted to provide a community and supportive network for multiracial Jewish families. JMN’s initial programming efforts sought to provide Jewish children of color and their families a space where their dual identities would not be challenged — through the organization of social gatherings along the East Coast and the development of an annual retreat, which continues to this day. As the organization has grown, JMN has expanded its impact to include adult Jews of Color and members across the continental United States. What started over 15 years ago as a group of just a handful of families has now grown into a thriving community with hundreds of members.
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.
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.
“Chain gleaming, switching lanes, two-seater.
Hate him or love him for the same reason.
Can’t leave it; the game needs him.
Plus, the people need someone to believe in.”
–Nas, “Hero” (2008)
In the past couple of days, since Rav Ovadia Yosef died at 93, the Jewish media, both published and social, have been abuzz with tributes about his towering scholarship, bold rabbinic leadership, controversial political and cultural impact, and his frequent episodes of vituperative and hostile verbal violence, especially late in his life. I have also seen comments by progressive Jews expressing surprise that so many progressive friends of theirs were showing the love to Rav Ovadia. As one friend put it: “My FB page is full of love for Ovadia Yosef-from lefty people? I thought he was kind of terrible?”