26 July 2011

'Black and Jewish:' What Happens When Peoplehood is Shelved

'Black and Jewish:' What Happens When Peoplehood is Shelved

There have been many, many, many satire clips about Jewish life that have become hits, proliferated by Facebook accounts, websites and emails. Once was so offensive that it merited being posted about on this blog as well.

The latest has been gracing my News Feed for some weeks now, and I finally succumbed to watching it. What a mistake. Entitled 'Black and Jewish,' it chronicles two women rapping about their "mixed" identities in a clip that looks like MTV circa 1995, replete with scenes of gangbangers sitting in front of low-income housing spinning dreidels.

Rolling around in stereotypes from both communities (African-Americans as ghetto dwellers, Jews as talit-wearing Ashkenazim), this might be what its creators had in mind. Profiting off Jewish stereotypes is nothing new in the entertainment business (ever see 'The Nanny,' 'Seinfeld,' 'Mad About You,' and 'Curb Your Enthusiasm?'); furthermore, if this clip gives African-American Jews a sense of pride, then far be it from me to impede on such expressions.

But if not, why is this clip so popular and so widespread among "white" Jews? I personally believe "white" is a state of mind, something for immigrants to aspire to in the multicultural mess of early 20th century America as a means of obtaining success (I urge you to read "A History of White People" for more background on this topic). Certainly there's plenty to be said about the racist tinges in this clip, and it should be said, but it detracts from my main point that links this clip with those that have come before and those to surely be produced in the future.

Call me a 29-year old stick in the mud, but clips like this are the opiate for the masses that satiate the young enough to obfuscate our real needs as the under-50 set: greater and affordable access to meaningful Jewish experiences and literacy, representation in communal and institutional policy-making, an understanding of Jewish identity as one that includes AND transcends Western conceptions of race/culture/history/religion/nationality/language/etc, and working together because of our inherent diversity to tackle the day's greatest challenges.

THIS is where the discourse of Peoplehood is so important -- so instead of snickering in the audience like tweenagers, we're digesting the tough issues. We're openly acknowledging both the complexities of what it means to be a Jew in the singular and plural, and taking advantage of said complexity to come up with new solutions and strategies.

David Breakstone recently wrote a response to Misha Galperin's push for Peoplehood, alarmed that Israel is potentially left out of the discourse, thus questioning the legacy of Zionism. Notwithstanding the argument that Zionism never was a mainstream movement, nor is to this day (how many Jews live in the USA?), we can't discuss Israel without the basic conversations of 'Who/What is a Jew' and 'Why Being a Jew is Important,' both of which sorely need to take place. Perhaps that's something that we who grew up in movements/day schools/Israel can't see, but it's there.

Peoplehood is a nuanced pedagogy for an age where we need nuanced talking points. I'm all for having this kind of dialogue, whether in public or private, in Israel or Diaspora. Just don't dare try to engage me with the request to "Challah Back."

09 July 2011

The Week of Days: Bookends

OK, so my last post was a bit audacious in that while I formulated seven different posts about the Week of Days, posting them in a timely fashion proved to be too much.

Instead, I focus on the first and last days of the Week, as they have different and meaningful lessons (and I want to start blogging forward, and fulfilling my previously posted promise will help). The week starts off with the most challenging day for me, Yom HaShoah veHaGevurah. As a day, it's actually very innovative, as it was instituted at a time in Israeli society where talking about the Shoah was a taboo .It's hard to imagine such a time, as the Holocaust has since then inundated every waking moment of Jewish life. As a child, I had nightmares of SS men storming our apartment building in Upper NW, which I later found out was a common occurrence among others my age.

There's a lot to say about this day, perhaps why it took so long to publish the first post, so I broke it down into categories of Jay's Issues with Yom HaShoah:

- Holocaust vs. Shoah: "Holocaust" comes from a Greek derivation meaning a sacrifice which went up in flames, while "Shoah" comes from the Hebrew meaning a catastrophe that suddenly came from out of nowhere. Both have their connotative drawbacks -- the former gives the impression of lambs being led to the slaughter, while the latter gives the impression that 1932 was its inception (and not 1919, or for that matter 1492 or 1099)

- Never Again: I love the irony of this phrase, as it originated with the black sheep of American Jewish mainstream and became the catchphrase of every youngster this time of year. Along with the next entry, it represents the dumbing down of Jewish identity, where education is supplanted by content-less experiential fluff (as I assume most "young Jews" are neither knowledgeable of its origins nor supportive of said organization and its actions). The latest "X-Men" film (which I so badly want to see) turn the phrase around, literally, making its contextual significance visible for all:

The other end of the Week of Days is Yom Ha`atzmau't (Independence Day), or more correctly, the consecutive 48 hours of Memorial & Independence Days. In trying to think how to relate to Independence Day this year, I kept thinking about Yom Kippur. For the twice-a-year observing Jew, the cathartic spirit of the day may be lost in the march to services and countdown to lox and bagels. There's a lot in common between the two days, in that they're both day-long periods for an entire nation to reflect on successes and setbacks, and how to move forward. Perhaps I was reading a few relevant bogs, or perhaps the collective unconscious caught up to me; either way, I was in shock to hear the Speaker of the Knesset's speech at the Lighting of the Torches ceremony (at the 20:00 mark, in Hebrew, on YouTube):

I love this ceremony, as it's one of the few moments every year that viscerally separates Diaspora and Israel through pomp and circumstance. But it was the President's speech that was the highlight this year, as he too was thinking about the connection between YK and YHa, as evidenced by his extensive paraphrasing of Kol Nidrei. Rather than talking only about achievements and accolades, he chose to speak of renewal and relevance in a way that gave me chills and made me proud to be living here. Putting into action, of course, is the next and bigger step; but, after all, it's a holiday.

03 May 2011

The Week of the Days: A count-up/down to Israel's Independence Day

It's a busy week in Israel. The Week of the Days has commenced and I'm back in the country after a short, two-continent jaunt.

The Week of the Days (my own name for this time of year) is a modern addition to the Jewish holiday cycle, which expectantly continues to provide controversy over its content and form.  The Days in reference are Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), Yom Hazikaron (Israel's Memorial Day) and Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel's Independence Day). The Week was unofficially inaugurated in 1953, when Yom HaShoah came into existence and two years after Yom Hazikaron was enacted as the day before Yom Haatzmaut.

I hope to blog each day this week -- an ambitious feat I know, but equally ambitious is this Week, which seeks to encapsulate 140+ years of history and 4,000 years of emotions -- as each of these days redefines time, space, and interpersonal relations between Israeli/Diaspora Jew, Jew/non-Jew Israeli, Diaspora/Homeland and more.

Keep reading!

17 March 2011

Why Saint Patrick's Day is Good for the Jews

We're loud, assertive, neurotic corned-beef eating hyphenated-Americans. Stereotypes and interfaith relationships abound when discussing Irish Catholics and Jews, and to be sure this post could be comprised only of those common traits to attract a few stragglers to read this blog. And the growing Israeli fascination with Saint Patrick's Day, mainly the imbibing aspect of it, is also enough fill a few lines' worth; but the intermediate identity of this holiday – between its Catholic origins as a Saint Day and an excuse to drink green beer – as an institutionalized ethnic holiday in American culture is the source of inspiration for millions of immigrants and its connection with Jews.

Few other immigrant populations in the USA endured the same processes of alienation, assimilation and cultural rejuvenation than Jews and Irish Catholics. And few other diasporas created as deep and complicated multi-generational connections with their countries of origin than these two communities.

Catholics endured ongoing stigmatization, if not outright discrimination, for much of the 19th and early 20th centuries with the brunt of this xenophobia leveled against the Irish. They were quickly stereotyped by the existing Protestant population as backwards and barbaric, with their thick brogues, violent temper and allegiance to the Catholic Church. The first examples of “Black” being used in a derogatory fashion in the USA were not against African slaves, but rather against the Irish. The theories of race, in fashion at the time, denigrated the Irish as sub-human.

So too did the Jews of Eastern Europe face similar discrimination in their initial absorption into American society, at the hands of both the Protestant population as well as German Jews. The American immigration experience created cultural hybridism, with some traditions being eschewed for fear of their isolating effects; some being relegated to the home or place of worship; and others being invented by said population or by the larger society. Think of foods, music, aesthetics; American culture is a composite of its immigrant populations, ever changing and quickly absorbing new experiences. The Wasabi craze of a few years ago turned into the Sriracha frenzy of today. Anyone in a major metropolitan area has experienced first-hand these hybrid zones of cultural manufacturing, tongue-in-cheekly described in a recent post on the New York Times.

There is no single holiday of the Jews in the American cannon like Saint Patrick’s Day, even with the childhood stories of baseball players refusing to play on Yom Kippur notwithstanding. But Jews, like other immigrant populations, contributed in other ways to American culture; furthermore, perhaps because of Jews’ inherent diversity of self-expression that there is no one, single day which celebrates Jews’ contribution to America like Saint Patrick’s Day has become.

The connection to one's homeland, while not exclusive no Irish Catholics nor Jews, has been championed by them in ways many other ethnic communities wich they could emulate. The Fenian raids against the British in Canada in the mid-19th century are a classic example of using diaspora relaities to further homeland ideals. the NORAID scandal of the 1980's, which inculpated Irish-American elected officials, has parallels with AIPAC and accusations of American Jews spying on behalf of Israel. Ironically, this common connection wth one's homeland (called by Jacob Neusner "enlandisment) was not heralded by the IRA but by the Northern Irish Ulster -- ostensibly, as the former was dependent on money and arms from countries hostile to the UK and thus banded with the growing anti-establishment Left of the Cold War era, whose financer was the USSR and Palestinian opposition groups as the go-between (another example of logistics preceeding ideology comes from the Basque separatist group ETA, who boycotted an Israeli food fair).
What was the point of this post's foray into American history, if not to justify my plans (or yours) for imbibing Guinness? To point out the commonalities of Jews with other communities that otherwise get used for more cynical reasons, like non-Jewish support for Israel without reciprocal support of other's homelands (hello, Armenia) or in the course of trying to publicly justify the otherwise personal nature of interfaith relationships, which can potentially help Jew and non-Jew alike in their self-identity development and relationship with their homeland.

Éire go Brách from Jerusalem.

26 February 2011

Is There Room for Fantasy in Israel?

Is there room for fantasy in Israel?
(Attempting to make my way back into the blogosphere by finally publishing a month-old post)

I went to see ‘Black Swan’ with two close friends, both of whom are native English-speakers. The film was like 'Carrie' and 'The Exorcist,' so naturally I was completely mesmerized. The cinematography gave it that realistic feeling found only in dreams, wherein we’re seeing our own actions, and can even manipulate ourselves physically, but are otherwise externally separated from our bodies.
While the three of us agreed that the movie was brilliant, we couldn’t help but become distracted from quite a few in the audience snickering at times during an otherwise intense film. This was a late showing in Tel Aviv, filled with mainly 20- and 30-somethings. I started explaining this as a defense mechanism in relation to Israeli’s jaded nature, and I found my words fading and failing.

Why was I trying to justify this kind of behavior?

To leave the theater meant walking down two flights of stairs, whose walls were covered in an abstract red-and-grey series of geometrics that caused me to say “and now we’re descending into a club.” And sure enough we were, as the exit for the theater was the entrance for a recently-opened club in the basment of a dental college. Bodies pressed up against one another, drinks and cleavage spilling all over the place, music blaring and lights on the verge of inducing fits -- I was ready to leave. In my exhaustion-induced stupor, I saw the lights and wraparound bar as the instruments of self-delusion, to willingly numb ourselves from the realities of the Middle East outside.
At first, I chastised myself for thinking so darkly, so being so jaded. And then I thought, how far is this from actual reality? After all, the movie theater led straight into the club. I personally become engrossed in any film I see, to the extent that my sensory awareness for some time afterwards is linked with the film – I think I’m living the film.

But are we meant, as Israelis, to quickly snap out of such alternative dimensions? Is there space for fantasy in Israel?

When I was younger, I used to create stories that stretched on and on, set off by the smallest of observances. Music is a great passion of mine, as it forces me as the listener to come up with the accompanying visual; but film is so wonderfully engrossing that I lament how much I miss it as soon as the credits roll.
I furst noticed this lack of space for fantasy at least year's Jerusalem Film Fesitval, blogged about here, with the premiere screening of "Andante." The film, avant-garde and entirely in Hebrew, disturbed more than a few people as evidenced by their leaving the theater. Several months later, I find myself less and less able to concentrate on such fantasies, becoming easily distracted by ADHD-inducing mechanisms like the “Shuffle” function on the iPod or the “Recommended” section on YouTube, making me feel lazy for not making the concerted effort in my choices for art.

(I’d also like to think my buying into this mentality is is the reason why this blog hasn’t been updated for a while....)

Perhaps that’s why I hold out in living in Jerusalem while working in Tel Aviv. The latter is a city, but what it lacks in fantasy is made up for here. For example, a short piece I coined in the heat of last summer:

"I was once told that there are no ghosts in the Land of Israel, despite inevitable shivers one feels here. Despite the Witch of Endor and Biblical prohibitions that do not deny their existence, some are too weary to admit to strange shifts in the wind at night.
Maybe not ghosts per se, but definitely supernatural events. The torpid quiet of a Shabbat night that for someone like myself, accustomed to an urban aural landscape, already presents itself as a chilling soundtrack. Or the imminent arrival of rain, as the sky turns asphalt to pave the way for clouds and thunder from the North, appropriately personified in ancient mythology as the storm god riding his chariot. The wind whips the trees’ branches into a frenzy, flagellating themselves and any miserable object not having found adequate shelter. Or the suffocating heat of the sharav, that wind-less heat from the East, whose breath is shortened momentarily by hiding in the air-conditioned indoors."
Here's to more fantasy and inspiration, speedily in our days.

01 November 2010

Am I the Only Under-50 American Jew Who Didn't Like the AJWS video?

Just like how the 'It Gets Better' campaign is all about the featured celebrities and not about the still-harassed LGBT teen, the Judd Apatow-produced ad for AJWS is another example of taking a very worthy and important cause and deep-frying it in ego and smothering it with a side of self-congratulatory condescension.

OK, before I continue on my curmudgeoned rant and in the interest of full disclosure, I did crack up at 4.25 from Brian Williams (I’m a laughing fool for gibberish) and Triumph (who sounded eerily like me at a wedding after a few gin & tonics)….only to vomit a bit in my mouth at the last part of 'goyim' cutting their teeth on one of  'our' languages. But it’s a Judd Apatow flick, which I suppose is meant to automatically trigger one’s gag reflex.

No less important than the argument that such multimedia campaigns satisfy primarily those who appear in them, this is another example of another Jewish organization trying to make itself relevant through online social media/network/blahblahblah to those youngsters among us apparently unable to comprehend the importance of the organizations’ daily mission. Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, Tumblr – whatever it takes to get dem youngins’!

While it’s true that online social networks have the power to make connections between otherwise-distant peoples and resources, and not all online social media users are youngsters (as evidenced by the PS in AJWS’ own campaign to promote its video (*I might be turning 70, but I can tweet with the best of ‘em. Follow me: @ruth_messinger, emphasis added) – I cannot help but feel that social media and the under-50 set are inextricably linked in the halls of Jewish organizations, perhaps as a way of keeping us involved enough to forget we’re still not letting you make communal policy decisions.

Cue the latest example: http://www.facebook.com/#!/event.php?eid=166358540044295. Now my relationship with Jewish conferences is like my relationship with advanced math classes in grade school: I love them but I hate them. I love the euphoria, the optimism, the unending buffets, the unending inspeak with no need for simultaneous translation. All of that is for naught, however, when us youngsters are relegated to the kiddy table like it's one big Passover Seder.

How long ago was it that conferences were held hostage by youth delegates, demanding at least 25 percent representation on communal organizations' boards? Long enough that those same delegates are now in charge and clearly forgetful from where they came. It's all too easy for organizations to lament youth apathy but all too hard for them to alloacte a perceptange of their lay & professional leadership positions to those under 35 years of age.

I, like many in my age bracket, am able to comprehend complexity and nuance without the words “boobs” and/or “poop” being used. And I’m able to hold conversations without the use of my two thumbs or 140 characters.

In other words, it’s the same patronization as usual -- only this time, we're able to see just how many have drunk the Manischewitz in our News Feed.

28 September 2010

Lessons Learned While Traveling Between Three Continents

Lessons Learned While Traveling Between Three Continents:

-Never pack multivitamins in their original container if their country of production uses a non-Latin alphabet -- not only will they be opened but will spill all over one's suitcase as a result of security agents' ability to open childproof lids and inability to close them.

-Combining a frequent flyer membership and the evil eye results in at least two seats to oneself on transatlantic flights, as well as the envy of all other passengers. Guard the seats carefully by getting up when everyone's passed out after the "meal."

-Speaking of which, always order "Vegetarian (Dairy-Free)." It's healthier, identifiable, and reduces looks from suspicious-looking passengers curious as to why one ordered the Kosher meal. Be prepared, however, to explain in the flight attendants' native language, whould they lose your request, why you cannot eat the Halal meal instead.

-Never order the Halal meal. Serving passengers half a raw jalapeño pepper is an airborne disaster waiting to happen that no accompanying packet of fennel seeds can prevent.

-Almost everything in Spain contains some part of a pig. Even the coffee.

-One of the greatest museums on The Mall in DC is the Hirshhorn. Not only are the installations spectacular, the museum as a whole has the highest level of tourist repellant.

-There is a connection between the names of Japanese restaurants in DC and their unintended meanings in Hebrew (examples include Sakana on P Street ("danger" in Hebrew) and this one on K Street (the "n word" in Hebrew). Luckily the latter serves a great Negroni.

-The Starbucks by the 110th Street downtown stop on the Upper West Side serves out sartorial compliments to uncaffeinated customers, leaving them speechless and starting the day on a positive note.

-The best meals are home-cooked, be it butternut squash mac-and cheese in Midtown, 14 pounds of the best beef brisket ever made in Ohio, or roasted brussel sprouts back home.

-It's always good to go back to the States for quality time with friends and family. And television.