Global, Israel

Rethinking Diaspora: New York and the rest of us?

“Indulge your creative side with GesherCity as we present Jewish art and media from New York City blended with Boston’s local scene” the postcard ad says. It’s a GesherCity Boston event on June 12 called HaMisiba (“the Party”), framing itself as a night of hip young Jew scene, at Phoenix Landing in Cambridge. I’m kind of irked. Don’t we have enough Jewish hip things going on in Boston that we don’t need to import it from New York?
I’m third generation Jewish Bostonian. Born and raised in the land of baked beans and frappes, Patriot’s day and the packie, the T and the Sawx, and I love that dirty water. Boston’s Jewish community is vibrant and even innovative. The Combined Jewish Philanthropies is a thriving arm of the federation that single-handedly created the position of synagogue educator by making community education a funding priority. Kosher restaurants, synagogues of every kind throughout the Boston area, young Jews and old Jews, indie minyans and enormous centuries old stained-glass structures — Boston’s a place in which you can make a Jewish life without a struggle.
Now, it may have to do with the Red Sox-Yankees battle of good over evil (and we will prevail, Ruby K, check those standings!), or it may be the smog, or it may be stubborn pride mixed with thinly veiled jealousy, but I really hate it when people act like the only thing cool and Jewish going on in America is in New York City. True, a huge number of American Jews live in New York City, and I think I still don’t fully understand the Jewyness of the place even after having visited it countless times, but still: we’ve got our own thang over here. And so do they in San Fran, Hotlanta, D.C., Miami, Philly, not to mention L.A. Why do we always have to be looking over our shoulder at what New York is doing? Do we really have to import Jewish culture from New York in order to be cutting edge?
And yet… as I write this from an apartment in Jerusalem, approaching my first Shavuot at the Kotel, I do know that it feels like the center of the universe here sometimes. Many times. Maybe because it is the center to my Diaspora. And I know that sometimes sheer quantity of people makes innovation happen, and although we are robust, we in the Hub of the Universe (that’s Beantown for those not in the know) don’t have the several million Jews crammed into one place to birth some of the stuff happening down in New York or happening here in Israel.
Maybe the difference is how we consider our Diasporas? What we consider their centers to be? For many Jews whose families come from New York or who grew up in New York, New York is the obvious Jerusalem to their Ann Arbor, or Washington, or even Boston. As someone who appreciates Israel but has no intention of making aliyah, who values both center and Diaspora equally and defines her role in the Jewish world as being completely tied up in the Diaspora, I submit that when we start appreciating and highlighting the unique contributions of all our many Diaspora communities, both can only become richer.
Oh yeah, and this GesherCity event, HaMisiba? It looks pretty cool. Check it out. Jewschool may show up to wow the crowd, stay tuned.

5 thoughts on “Rethinking Diaspora: New York and the rest of us?

  1. I’m in Houston, which has a decent sized Jewish population, but my family came in through NY and settled in Linden, NJ, so I kind of see NY as the birthplace of my family in America. Plus, the last time I visited some friends in NY, we were in Central Park and heard two people talking about a Jewish music festival…in normal voices…in the middle of the day! I wanted to warn them that if some hillbilly heard them talking about being Jews, they might get their tires slashed. (It’s not just the rednecks, a lot of the black people I work with are very anti-semetic, so it’s a southern evangelical culture thing, not a color thing). Then I realized there are more Jews than rednecks in NY. I also realized that they probably didn’t have cars. I think part of the reason I see NY as the center of Jewishness in America is because I felt safe there as a Jew. Houston, not so much.
    I also saw people (not a lot, but some) there wearing Kippot. That set me at ease. The only people wearing kippot in public here are messianic “jews.”
    I guess I agree, living in Houston is like being in the American Diaspora. I am always envious of the cultural postings on this blog. Anything we get is usually put on by local Shuls or the JCC. It’s not exactly hip but it’s better than nothing.

  2. Where is Boston?
    Just kidding. Being the center of the Diaspora — like being the center of media, culture, commerce etc. — can easily lead to a parochialism and complacency that hinders new cultural creation. Despite its obvious positives, New York City often suffers from being at the center, and from constantly claiming that it is the center.

  3. Yes, there is something particularly special about living in the center of it all and a certain amount of creativity can come from it.
    But there is also something wonderful about being in a Jewish community that is so small that there isn’t room for infighting and is also small enough to respond to the needs of the community quickly… no intrenched institutions to battle. Jews from small Jewish communities can usually better identify with other Jews in non New York settings. I have to say, when I was in NY, there was something so alienating about all the different people, self identifying as juxtaposed with some other Jewish group. The whole posture made me sick.
    As much as I have enjoyed my time here in Yerushalayim this year, I am choosing to go back to Oregon (and Eugene at that) because its too hard to self actualize as a Jew here. Judaism has more to do with nonconformity for me than is possible here, or probably in New York.

  4. Actually from a practical standpoint, and from experience, I think you DO have to import from NYC at first, if for no other reason than it is the heart of Newish Jewish creativity. That can set an example for local artists and presenters to begin their own journeys and explorations, provided they are nutured.
    Calling it “Hip NY Jew culture” somehow minimizes and localizes the phenomenon. No, its not unique to NYC, but NYC has the scale to make the number of people doing this important work seem more like a scene. And there’s no doubt that again due to scale, many of these projects seemed more feasible in the context of NYC.
    The true question is, will it play in Peoria. It does in Chicago, and that’s close enough.

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