16 December 2008

16 December 2008

Sorry to interrupt the usual gap between posts, but this is an Op-Ed too important to not read:

"The Shas version of Obama's 'yes we can'" by Alex Sinclair

If you haven't read this yet, do so. The Americanization of Israel is a topic I never find for lacking (as would any reader of this blog); but this example is so cynical and repugnant, it helps remove the so-called "post-Zionist" label given to writers like Tom Segev and Benny Morris and bestow it to its real recipient.
I have a lot of descriptions of Shas , an ultra-Orthodox political party that claims to represent Israelis of all the various Sephardi and Mizrahi communities yet was founded and is still run by Moroccans who went to yeshivot run by Lithuanian-originating ultra-Orthodox; and who claims to represent the interests of Jews of color discriminated by the ruling Ashkenazi elite, yet dress not like their own ancestors but rather those from 17th century Poland.

There's a term for this kind of whitewashing of oneself, taken from American culture, that while applicable is too American-centric to use here. For an actual example of the intersection of politics and the interests of these communities, check out the Black Panthers in Israel.

11 December 2008

11 December 2008

I’ve always been one to make the most out of the seemingly small things in life. Like how amazing the main street nearby my apartment has four cafes, a sushi bar, two bakeries, two gourmet food stores, and a 24-hour market -- and yet everything shuts down on cue for Shabbat. Or getting stuck in traffic for three hours.
After spending the night trying to finish schoolwork, I got my things together and slumped out the door to the bus station. I figured I could sleep the whole way from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, the 45-minute ride affording at least a 40-minute nap. After promptly passing out after finding a window seat, I wake up at some point looking at the airport and the sensation that the bus isn’t moving. Thinking it has to do with the police-escorted convoy zooming alongside the bus on the shoulder, and that we’ll be moving in a moment, I try to go catch a few more minutes of sleep before we enter Tel Aviv. But the bus still isn’t moving. My tired eyes can just make out the shapes of hundreds of cars not moving on the highway, stretching way into the western horizon.
Everyone else on the bus awakes from their respective slumbering to find out we’re stuck in traffic that has started a lot sooner than usual. Then come the cellphone calls and news updates: a truck crashed into a traffic sign bridge on the northbound side of the Ayalon Freeway, closing off the otherwise-packed-at-rush hour-thoroughfare and rerouting all northbound morning traffic. People paced up and down the aisle, heaved big sighs, and watched as the bus driver took us on a scenic tour of Central Israel. We drove on highways and through towns that I always hear about, usually on the radio in the course of traffic reports, but seldom visit. The country always gets bigger with each small discovery like this one. Three hours later, we alighted and landed in Tel Aviv.

In retail news, it’s now official: GAP and H&M are slated to open stores here within the next two years. The two developments were such big news that they each garnered a headline on the front-page of the free daily paper and the news websites. As several people have said in a half-joking manner, “now there’s one less reason to travel outside of the country.”
Whether either or both of the chains will do well remains to be seen, as the Israeli consumer can be incredibly cheap and have expensive taste all at once. If something looks expensive AND has the logo of an American company that can regularly be shown off, Israelis will jump on it; but if it’s marked down to Three for 100 NIS, you’ll need a bat and sharp elbows to keep the competing customers at bay.
Starbucks failed, not because of its logo being unknown, but because the prices were too high and Israelis were already used to high-grade coffee chains. There’s only so long before a Starbucks disposable cup in the hand of an Israeli becomes refuse; but a T-shirt with the logo of Old Navy? That’ll get worn even after it has been stretched well beyond its original size.
Hanes does well because it’s cheap and American. American Apparel (at least in Jerusalem) does not do well because it’s expensive and American. Coffee Bean does well, despite being expensive, because of its free refills, free WiFi and comfortable chairs.

In cultural news, the new musical director of the Israel Opera started his tenure the other week. In his first interview since taking the job, the unofficial ban on publicly performing works by Richard Wagner was upheld. Although he cited artistic reasons for doing so, the ban on Wagner is a time-tested tradition that all conductors in Israel have to uphold, lest they be booed off the stage. Several years ago, the often-controversial Daniel Barenboim began to perform Wagner, only to have audience members boo him and leave the theater (Wagner was a well-known anti-Semite and his works were celebrated by the Nazis).

Why is this issue important?
One, cultural re-appropriation has been an effective tool for different cultures in combating legacies of hate and discrimination. “Black is Beautiful” is but one of numerous examples, such as the TV clip (zoom to 4:07 for the relevant part) of turning the tables on stereotypes and prejudices. American Jews have yet to learn this, instead enabling and internalizing the continuance of stereotypes (the whiny JAP on “The Nanny,” the emasculated man who marries a non-Jew on “Mad About You,” Paul Newman playing the hero in “Exodus”), but that's part of a much longer rant of mine.
Israel has seen some progress in this, albeit sporadic and of questionable taste. True, one sees a lot of kinky-haired folks running around; but there are also plenty of Mizrahi girls who’ve straightened and bleached their hair. There are the “Stalag novels" from the first decades of the State and a bounty of self-deprecating jokes. But as shown from my second point below, we're too busy Americanizing ourselves here to care.

Second there is the issue of aesthetics. I’m less interested in the ban on performances of Wagner as related to freedom of expressions as to the general state of Israeli culture. After the ordeal of the Israeli version of “Survivor,” we’re now suffering through a localized “Big Brother” that is the topic to discuss. When in doubt of a word’s existence in Hebrew, all one has to do is say the English equivalent with an Israeli accent and everyone will understand. One could be dropped off on any thoroughfare in any moderate-sized town and fine the same sight: three different store fronts on the same block, all hair stylists, all decorated with chandeliers and overgrown fleur-de-lis stencils climbing up the walls. All about external appearances, little about our insides.

We’re willing to Americanize ourselves to extents that viscerally blur distinctions, and yet vociferously denounce anything that even remotely touches upon our own history and identity as Jews, much less individuals. A Jewish orchestra playing Wagner to a Jewish audience in a Jewish country seems to me to be an initial small step in moving beyond our past tragedies and focusing on our potential futures.

In the meantime, the Israel Opera is performing "Carmen" in the spring and there's always the following to satiate any potential Wagnerian stirrings whilst in Der Judenstaat: