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."

1 comment:

Elan said...

I usually enjoy your insights, but this--don't you think you're taking a silly video a bit too seriously?

Get a sense of humor!