Culture, Identity, Israel, Jewschool, Peoplehood, Politics, Religion

In Defense of the Local

The Jewish Literary Salon in Krakow - one of the many complex Jewish projects in contemporary Poland
The Jewish Literary Salon in Krakow, Poland - one of the many complex Jewish projects in contemporary Poland
In Dan Sieradski’s recent web project 31 Days, 31 Ideas, cartoonist and rootsman thinker Eli Valley suggests that the American Jewish community create “Birthright Diaspora.” Awkwardly conceived as a 10-day immersion in a Jewish diasporic site, the manifesto suggests that by creating a program in which Israeli and American Jews visit “global” Jewish communities located far from their own, their Jewish identities will transform into something better. Valley writes:

It’s time to expand our notions of positive Jewish identity and at long last move beyond an ideology that fretfully masquerades self-hatred as Jewish empowerment. By digging through centuries of global Jewish life, Birthright Diaspora will help transform Jewish self-awareness and break the dichotomy of “hero” and “victim” that has handicapped internal Jewish intellectual inquiry for decades. The goal is not merely widespread immersion experiences in global Jewish communities but a renewed understanding of Diaspora as a Birthright that forms the roots of Jewish consciousness. If implemented effectively, Birthright Diaspora can lead to an existential transformation in the way Jews and Israelis view themselves and the world.

It is a heartfelt manifesto, and what it lacks in theoretical precision it regains in passion. For many years now, there has been an emphasis on the next big “program” that will contribute to the strengthening of what we have come to call Jewish Identity and Community. Various ideological camps, including Jewschool, have claimed that by funding the notion of “global Jewish Peoplehood,” Jewish identity and community will bz’h undergo the type of “existential transformation” that Valley describes.
I am confident that longing for this type of existential transformation is a red herring, or even more troubling, a fantasy of our own power. By denying the reality that the Jewish Diaspora has geographically contracted and remained intact, our cultural activists continue to accept a model of a “shackled” community that pivots off a vague notion that, as Valley writes, “in the Jewish world, the interconnectivity often manifests itself through ripples emanating from the perceived center of Jewish life in Jerusalem.”

For those who subscribe to this kind of transnational Jewish identity, Jewishness is something similar to what Homi Bhaba calls “hybrid.” This hybrid Jewishness is in persistent power relationship with its host culture i.e New York, Budapest or Tel Aviv. Jewishness, perpetually renewing its ancient Jerusalemite core, absorbs and remixes other cultures into its own. In other words, if Jews regain a more cosmopolitan understanding of how Jewishness is constructed, they will become more open and accepting to the peoples to which their own culture is indebted. What emerges is Jewish as a kind of hyper-existential way of being, something akin to how scholars conceptualize the African-ness of hip hop culture. I think, however, that Valley is misguided in his claim that the realization of “Birthright Diaspora” would create such an effect. The possibility of a localized, Farm to Table Jewishness is entirely ignored, and it ought not to be.
By positing that Jewishness is mostly freshly reaped on a street level, where local conditions and concerns, rather than ideology, reign supreme , the construction of Jewish victimhood, heroism self-hatred and nationalism can be discussed from local, rather than “diasporic”, perspectives . Rather than spending to create a “Birthright Diaspora,” why isn’t interfaith and intercultural dialogue, foreign language study, public service and artistic creativity explored more experimentally on the local level? Fostering a Jewish youth culture in a city like Chicago or Las Vegas rearranges the grammar of Jewish identity faster than you can explain the term ‘Diaspora’ to a Hebrew school class.
Valley continues:

But it’s time, for the sake of all of us, to change the paradigm. If Birthright Diaspora helps institute new ways of thinking in Israel, maybe it can actually help lead to an end to Israel’s isolation and, who knows, perhaps even a road towards peace between Israel and its neighbors.

It really isn’t a question of paradigms, diaspora, victims, interconnectivity, peace or any of the other catchwords in our current assessments of our Jewishness. Understanding Jewish culture on a local level could change how we assess and approach Jewishness in these times. I’m all for giving youth of every background the ability to search for their roots, to travel the world and to experience kabbalos shabbos in a place like Vilna. After all, the type of transformation that Valley describes is, at its core, an individual one.

15 thoughts on “In Defense of the Local

  1. eli aka gyp the blud, I have no idea what you’re suggesting besides “be Jewish, local”, but I applaud you, wholeheartedly, for challenging Eli Valley’s hysterical notions of a landless, nationless, obedient-everywhere-we-live-Jew as “the good Jew”, and all the rationalizations that stem from that outlook.
    I have NEVER before seen an intellectual challenge of Jewschool writers by Jewschool writers. Seriously, never.

  2. Really, Anonymouse? Did you miss the hysteria over the Men’s Event at BJ? Or when DCC took on Mobius over his editorial in the Forward about the funding available for Jewish social entrepreneurs? We take each other on all the time.

  3. Can someone translate this “challenge” to Eli from radical Jewspeak to English for me? I would like to be part of the conversation, thanks.

  4. I believe what’s he’s saying (and hopefully he’ll correct me if I’m wrong) is that rather than invest so much time, money, and energy into the idea of Judaism is only meaningful when connected to other people in other places, we should rediscover a Judaism that is fulfilling in and among itself.

  5. Did you miss the hysteria over the Men’s Event at BJ?
    No doubt. That kind of PC-lynching usually involves a bogus rape charge and a stripper.

  6. Thanks for the feedback, Eli. I just want to clarify that Birthright Diaspora is not meant to be a manifesto of Judaism as relative to other cultures, or any kind of denigration of the “local,” but rather the opposite. In terms of the ideology behind it, though, it aims to serve largely as a corrective to the distorted conception of non-Israeli existence as corrosive and incomplete — a view of Jewish experience that infuses and infects Jewish self-conception to this day (as evidenced by Anonymouse’s characterization of “obedient-everywhere-we-live-Jew as ‘the good Jew,'”which was seemingly ghostwritten by Max Nordau).
    Although education about the intermingling of cultures would be a vital component of the experiences, it would in no way replace education about Jewish ideas and history, a culture that is, to quote dlevy, “fulfilling in and among itself.” It would do so through the lenses of local permutations of Jewish experience, pointing out the ways in which these experiences were consistent with, and diverged from, Jewish experiences elsewhere in the Diaspora. What makes the program different from current large-scale programs is that Judaism is rarely taught as “fulfilling in and among itself” outside the physical or ideological landscape of Zion.
    I like to think, though, that the Israeli trips to the Diaspora would focus more on an intermingling of cultures, in order to help break Israelis out of an “Us vs. Them” view of the world that has paradoxically expanded the ghetto mentality into a national identity. We have never really spoken about Diaspora Jews educating Israelis in this way. It’s always been a one-way street heading in the opposite direction. I think it’s time to rethink these assumptions, for the sake of everybody.

  7. So deciphering what one can from the rhetoric….. Valley’s going to help people “discover” the fact that….. Judaism’s been forced to exist in Diaspora for 1,900+ years??? Wowsers, I bet nobody ever noticed that before….

  8. Thanks everyone for their comments. I’m not trying to “lynch” anyone, just to start a discussion.
    DK – Just trying to create a highbrow discussion sometimes – it is all in fun, and I know its theoretical.
    EV – I think that there is too much emphasis on how Judaism is “an intermingling of cultures.” or how, more precisely, Jewish communities and Jewishness is a product of an intermingling of cultures. On a theoretical, historical level, this is true – but in terms of communicating this to our youth – it is better done through new forms of Jewish education and local initiatives, not 10 day immersions in Europe. I think what you are getting at is good – that there are emotionally wrought oppositions between Jew and Gentile, Israel and Globe – but these oppositions are also real and part of Jewish culture – I don’t think there is any need to erase them with a ‘program.’ I tend to think that if smaller, more peripheral Jewish communities from Kiev to Honolulu started to engage more deeply with the communities that they live in – Jewish youth would take steps towards what you describe in your post on Dan’s project.

  9. I think there’s an interesting tension in Judaism between the local & the global, which is just an explosion of the same tension between the individual & the community. I spent some time in my 20s feeling cheated by my Jewish education because it spent so much time teaching me about how to be Jewish in community (in my case, mainly via youth group) that when I landed in a place where I didn’t connect with the Jewish community, I felt like I had no tools for an individual religious life / spiritual connection. The truth is, Judaism does provide tools for both, but balancing the emphasis between the I and the We is difficult. Zoom out a bit and it’s the same difficulty that EV and eli are exploring. How do we ensure the vitality (and, dare I say it, feelings of authenticity) of individual (and often wildly divergent) Jewish communities without downplaying the advantages (and, I would say, necessity) of being connected to a global Jewish people? How do we promote Jewish peoplehood without flattening or devaluing the diversity of local Judaisms? (Organizations like Bechol Lashon have started working on this issue, but in many ways, the exponential leaps forward in global communication in the last twenty years have raised the stakes on this conversation to a degree we haven’t seen before in Jewish history.)

  10. I just thought Valley’s idea was cool because I think that Jews have done a lot of interesting things and lived in a lot of interesting places in interesting ways for a long time. I dislike the Israel=the good life/Diaspora=suffering dichotomy. And for that, I applaud Valley for challenging the dichotomy and proposing that some Jews might find a new point of connection in Prague, Uganda, or India rather than just in Israel.

  11. What percentage of Israelis have traveled and lived outside their country, and what percentage of American Jews have been outside the US? I’m willing to bet the Israeli community is better traveled and more exposed to “other” Jewish cultures as a result of immigration and globalization. In my experience, NY and LA Jews can be just as patronizing and arrogant about living in the centers of the Jewish universe as any Israeli.

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