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.