Sunday, May 10, 2015

Life Imitates TV Tropes

Do you guys know about TV Tropes? I love TV Tropes. I can't watch anything without having either IMDB or TV Tropes open on my computer, sometimes both. Despite its name, TV Tropes isn't just about TV, but includes music, film, animation, literature and basically any kind of popular entertainment. As TV Tropes says of itself "This wiki is a catalog of the tricks of the trade for writing fiction." And for anyone who has dared to dip her toe in fiction or playwriting (ahem...), it's an invaluable resource.

Anyhoo, whilst noodling through the back streets of TV Tropes I found a couple things which spoke to the non-TV Tropes side of my brain.

There's been some discussion lately about the erasure of non-Ashkenazi Jews: who is to blame, and how to frame the dynamic between different groups of Jews.  I come to the question from the point of view of a Yiddishist, as well as someone who cares deeply about Jewish history. Both positions put me at the margins of American Jewish life. The American Jewish narrative is not just deeply ahistorical, it is also founded on a great deal of internalized self-hatred and shame about Eastern European Jewish culture. Arguing for the importance of Yiddish is seen as not only foolish,  by many, but by those looking to bring Jews of color and non-European Jews to the forefront of the cultural conversation, such a position can seem downright retrograde.

How can I argue that 'Ashkenormativity Isn't a Thing' when TV Tropes, for fucks sake, has a whole page devoted to this very idea, All Jews Are Ashkenazi.

Which, ok, yeah, it's true. I get it. And here's the thing. We've been suffocated by an avalanche of Ashkenazi representations, 99% of which are about an inch deep. We're drowning in shallow waters here, people. Jews, when they show up as Jews and not Italian crypto-Jews (George Costanza, Everyone Loves Raymond) are written by people with very little relationship to Jewishness outside bagels, rabbis in beards and 'shiksappeal.'

And this is not a new phenomenon. In 1952 Henry Popkin wrote a wonderful polemic for Commentary magazine called 'The Vanishing Jew of Our Popular Culture: The Little Man Who Is No Longer There.' In short, we have almost a century long paradox of Jewish over-representation in culture making, accompanied by a complex process of Jewish erasure from said culture industry, both from Jews and non-Jews.

Which brings us back to TV Tropes. The contributors at TV Tropes have the perspicacity to identify and dissect the presumption of 'Ashkenaziness' but still come up with statements like this, on the page You Have to Have Jews:

Oh, TV Tropes. I guess this is just one of those things that everyone knows, because the American Jewish narrative is a story we tell ourselves about a tribe of upwardly mobile, middle class, white collar, cerebral, shrinking, manual labor averse Woodys and Brendas.

Of course, this narrative is utter bullshit. How and why we reify it is for another post/book... but anyway. It leads to the periodic surprise discovery of the actual Jews in the woodpile: brawny, criminal, sour, working class, radical and yeah, a little bit dangerous.

To my point, there is a wonderful new exhibit at YIVO about the world of Yiddish speaking wrestlers and boxers. Much of the press about the exhibit sags under the weight of the risible narrative I spoke of above. Isn't it kaaarayyyyzeeee? Jews were wrestlers? And boxers? WHOODA THUNK IT?

I dunno? Anyone who knew the first thing about American Jewish history? That wouldn't be so rare if we weren't so god damn invested in whitewashing ourselves and our past. But don't expect the Jewish press to do any of the real intellectual lifting for you. And, it may go without saying, don't get your Jewish history from TV Tropes.

And more importantly, we need to find a way to hold multiple frames of analysis simultaneously: yes, non-Ashkenazi Jews are under-represented and erased from popular culture. And yes, at the same time, Ashkenazi Jews have taken the means of culture reproduction and fucked themselves over, psychically speaking.

If it were possible to see how these things intersect, and how we can build an analysis to change both, then, and only then, we might find our starting point for some very necessary cultural work.




Thursday, May 7, 2015

New Yiddish Theater Coming Up -- Making Stalin Laugh, May 17-18

This comes to me from my friend, the doyenne of the New York Yiddish theater scene, Yelena Shmulenson.

Next week, the good people at New Yiddish Rep will be presenting a brand new, multi-lingual (English-Yiddish-Russian) production of David Schneider's Making Stalin Laugh.  I suggest you get your tickets now, as this is strictly a limited engagement and looks to be pretty fantastic.


In 1921 the GOSET troupe moved into a theater right near the Kremlin.

These flamboyant, neurotic, egotistical actors
performed world-class theater in Yiddish for huge audiences...
...most of whom didn’t even speak the language.

They did it for 28 years, through purge, terror, and paranoia.

Then they went too far.

With
Vadim Krol   Sergey Nagorny   Dani Marcus  Gera Sandler 
Adam Shapiro   Yelena Shmulenson   Suzanne Toren

May 17th and 18th at 7:00pm

Theatre 80 St. Marks Pl.

all seats $25.00

Tickets at

For more info visit

Directed by Allen Lewis Rickman

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Felix and Meira

With its sly nods to Harold and Maude and The Graduate,  the new Canadian indie Felix and Meira beats, if weakly, with the heart of a black comedy. Like those two films, Felix and Meira tells the story of mismatched lovers, with a slightly absurd fairytale air. That one half of the couple is Hasidic turns out to be not terribly relevant to the story, even as Felix and Meira is being hailed in some corners as a great movie about the Hasidic experience.

Meira (Hadas Yaron) is a beautiful young wife and mother living within the Hasidic community of Montreal's Mile End. (If, like me, you have a soft spot for the slushy beauty of Montreal in winter, Felix and Meira is worth the price of admission just for that.) Meira's husband Shulem (Luzer Twersky) can't understand why she is so distant: locking herself in the bathroom, listening to forbidden records, falling into sudden dead faints. 

By chance, Meira meets Felix (Martin Dubreuil), a slightly older, slightly rakish Francophone hispter. If Meira is trapped by a lack of resources and opportunities, Felix struggles with too much. He must make peace with his dying father, and the wealth his father represents. What can Meira do with so little? Why has Felix done so little with so much?

We learn why Felix is the way he is, but no explanation is ever really given for Meira's unrest. Yes, Meira is an artist. We know because we see her sketching when she catches the eye of Felix. But the contemporary OTD (Off the Derekh, meaning those who leave the Hasidic/Haredi community) memoirs (like Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox and Shulem Deen’s All Who Go Do Not Return) hinge on the cracks that form between individual and community, whether listening to a forbidden radio, reading blogs or simply enduring an intolerable dynamic of communal abuse.  

On screen, however, Meira's angst is taken as self-evident. Her husband is confused, but loving. She has only one child, not five. What has brought Meira to such a desperate point where she is willing to jeopardize her entire life, perhaps even sacrifice her child? We never really discover what makes Meira tick, we never see her struggle against the totalizing worldview that comes with growing up in a fundamentalist community. 

And yet, I cried through much of Felix and Meira. Not because I was touched by Meira's characterization (thin as it was), but because having read about, met, and befriended a number of people who have left the Hasidic world, I could fill in the details myself. Seeing Meira and her sketchbook, I thought of Frieda Vizel, a dryly brilliant cartoonist who left Kiryas Joel, went to Sarah Lawrence and now runs tours of Hasidic Williamsburg. Seeing two young people trapped in a marriage not of their making, I thought of any number of people I know who found themselves married off at eighteen to total strangers. 

In that sense, Felix and Meira didn't have to do much to move me as an audience member. These are not stories lacking in drama.  For me, the humorless Yiddishist, all Felix and Meira had to do was get the Yiddish right. And that it did. With one jarring exception, the language and setting were beautifully rendered, a major achievement in itself, reflecting the input of ex-Hasid turned actor Twersky.



Yaron and Twersky give beautiful, understated performances, gracefully moving between Yiddish, French and English. It would have been easy to drift toward melodrama given the storyline, yet the writers stay away from big gestures or lurking trauma. Most importantly Twersky's Shulem, Meira's husband, with his soulful eyes, is no monster, but, like Meira, a young person coping the best he can with limited education in matters of the heart. I found Shulem so sympathetic that when he finally confronts Felix canoodling with Meira, I found myself wishing he had really clocked him, instead of taking Felix down in a comical hail of slaps. The dramatic tension simmers at low, even at the moments when most is at stake.

And that's the quirky, fairytale quality of Felix and Meira. In real life, brutal custody battles are the norm for those leaving the community. Wayward souls like Meira are rarely dealt with in such a gentle manner. Most of those who leave have paid dearly, some have paid the highest cost, either with their children, or their lives. There are few fairytale endings in the real world.

Like Harold and Maude and The Graduate, Felix and Meira relies heavily on a pop music soundtrack to amplify the story. I teared up as forlorn Meira peered through strange windows, watching a couple make love, all while Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat came on, handed me a tissue, and told me it was ok to let it all out. A good cry is one of the fundamental pleasures of cinema, isn't it? 


Unlike Harold and Maude and The Graduate, however, Felix and Meira lacks the nerve for black comedy. Some critics have dinged it for being excessively gloomy. A great black comedy embraces the gloom with glee, wringing comedy out of angst. When Felix dresses in full Hasidic garb in a desperate effort to see Meira, it just comes off as cringeworthy, a throwback to the silliness of a movie like The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob, a French comedy in which a bigot is forced to hide out in Hasidic garb, passing as a ‘Rabbi’ with much hijinks ensuing. But Felix and Meira is too hesitant to really exploit the absurdity inherent in cross-cultural romance.

Indeed, Felix and Meira positions itself as a straight OTD narrative, but with little exploration of what it means to be a woman trapped in that community or what Meira really longs for, besides forbidden music. (How Meira would come to have a record player and rather esoteric taste in records is another matter.)

Had the filmmakers committed to either comedy or topical drama, Felix and Meira might have ended up a minor classic. For my money, the best portrayal of the OTD narrative is still the much less slick, but more psychologically insightful, Mendy: A Question of Faith. (2003). As it is, Felix and Meira is an entertaining but slight Yiddish flavored fairytale.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Commemoration of the 72nd Anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Sunday, April 19th

Last minute reminder for those in the New York area: the annual commemoration of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising will take place this Sunday, featuring poetry, recitations and song, in Yiddish and English.

1946 poster from Poland commemorating the 1943 Uprising 


Where: Riverside Park, the memorial plaza

When: Noon

Co-sponsored by:  Workmens Circle, Congress for Jewish Culture, and Jewish Labor Committee

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Ultimate Yiddish Meme

An attentive reader tells me this image was created to publicize the summer Yiddish course in Tel Aviv. I highly recommend you check out their page

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Why 'Ashkenormativity' Isn't a Thing

(cross-posted at Jewschool)

Maybe you’ve seen it by now, first in New Voices and then in the Forward. Thanks to author Jonathan Katz, the conflation of Ashkenazi with Jewish is no longer the problem with no name. Now it’s the problem with the really, really awkward name: Ashkenormativity. In ‘Learning to Undo Ashkenormativity,’  Katz urges us to uncouple Jewish from Ashkenazi. Further, Sephardic culture, he writes, is suppressed by Ashkenazi hegemony and Ashkenazim justify this suppression by claiming their culture to be more progressive and more egalitarian than the presumably retrograde Sephardim. Now, these are some pretty big claims. But Katz's thesis seems to have resonated with enough people to make it worth a closer look.

Katz’s analysis draws on the ubiquitous language of critical theory. For example, I assume the newly coined Ashkenormativity is a nod to ‘heteronormativity’, a term coming out of early 1990s Queer Theory. Heteronormativity is a discourse which enforces the naturalness of heterosexual male-female pairings and excludes the possibility of that which is non-heterosexual. Presumably, it follows that Ashkenormativity is a Jewish discourse in which Ashkenazi is the default, one enforced by media, education and other communal institutions.

If majority white, European Jewish institutions have done a piss poor job of recognizing that not all Jews are white or European (a gross understatement), at the same time, non-European, non-white Jews have developed vibrant, independent networks of their own. I’m thinking of the Syrian community of Brooklyn and Deal, NJ and the Persian community of Great Neck and Los Angeles, just to start. Heteronormativity is a discourse with state power behind it, one which resists non-heterosexual agency, often violently. The Jewish American scene today is so much more complicated and diffuse than such an analogy would permit.

Katz could have just as easily framed his argument around the even more topical ‘check your [   ] privilege.’ The new vocabulary of power and ‘privilege’ has been incredibly successful at creating dialogue around some of the thorniest questions facing us today. Are there structural advantages and disadvantages accruing to different races, classes, and genders? How does history inflect the individual experience in the world? How can an individual with more privilege use that privilege to be an ally to those with less? The answers to many of these questions require sensitivity to history and awareness that events of even hundreds of years ago continue to shape our present reality.

Katz exhorts his fellow Ashkenazim to learn about Sephardi and Mizrahi history “and ... not in the ‘heroic Ashkenazi savior’ mode.” I’ve never heard anyone refer to ‘heroic Ashkenazi savior mode’ but I’m quite familiar with the problematic figure of the ‘white savior’ discovering the Other; think of Bono in Africa. The White Savior discovers people and cultures which have existed for centuries. He presumes to speak on their behalf, often imposing culturally inappropriate solutions rather than listening to those he claims to help. 

Rather than critically interrogate, Katz reifies socio-racial binaries like Ashkenazi-Sephardi. But if we're dismantling cultural hegemony, mustn't we also be building a discourse with room for the global multiplicity of Jewishness? Nowhere does Katz propose an alternative framework that would make visible traditionally marginalized communities, communities swallowed up in monolithic concepts like Sepharad

I don’t doubt his good intentions, but Katz is too eager to critique without first defining terms. By doing so, he comes perilously close to becoming what he warns against. Indeed, Katz critiques the supposed erasure of one culture by another with an argument itself predicated on erasing cultural differences and ignoring the way one group historically used the other to construct its own Whiteness.

In order to understand that, however, we have to unpack a couple things, starting with AshkenazThe word Ashkenaz is found in the Tanakh and eventually came to be applied to the medieval Jewish settlement in the Rhineland area. As the Jews moved east, they took Ashkenaz with them. And though Ashkenaz came to refer to an enormous area, from the Rhineland to Russia, there was always a tremendous cultural diversity within its boundaries, the most important boundary being between the Jews of Eastern Europe and German language identified Central European Jews. Beginning in the early 19th century, with the advent of the Jewish Enlightenment, the relationship between German Jews and their Eastern co-religionists has been one in which German Jews constructed an identity explicitly predicated on the Otherness of Eastern Jews, an identity which elevated German Jews in contrast to the primitive Ostjudn.

If German Jews were to distinguish themselves from those other inhabitants of Ashkenaz, they needed to look outside for a new cultural model. And where they looked was (a highly idealized version of)  medieval Spain. The great historian Ismar Schorsch describes this historical phenomenon in his classic essay, The Myth of Sephardic Superiority. It’s no surprise that a giant picture of Maimonides appears at the top of Katz’s article in The Forward. The figure of Maimonides was, and apparently still is, among the most evocative in this turn toward Sepharad. One example from Schorsch’s The Myth of Sephardic Superiority should suffice:

Between 1794 and 1795, a German maskil named Aaron Wolfsohn published a Hebrew language satire called Siha be-Eretz ha-Hayim (A Conversation in Paradise.) In it, the founder of the Haskalah, Moses Mendelssohn, arrives in paradise. There he is welcomed by another Moses, the medieval Sephardic philosopher, Moses ben Maimon-- Maimonides. Maimonides is relieved at Mendelssohn’s arrival, saving him, as it happens,  from the uncouth badgering of a Polish talmudic scholar who is demanding that Maimonides test his learning. The Polish scholar cares nothing for philosophy; he’s only concerned with “matters of import-- the laws governing sacrifices, family purity, and financial affairs.” As for theology “he firmly believed that lightning was created to punish the wicked and personally warded off its destructive force by placing salt on the four corners of his table and opening the book of Genesis.”

Maimonides asks Mendelssohn to explain what has brought Ashkenazi Jews to such a vulgar state. In this way Wolfsohn, the author of the satire, is able to place a typical maskilic critique of Eastern European Jews into the mouth of the great emancipator himself. 

At the close of the story, Moses (no last name needed) appears to welcome Mendelssohn to Paradise. It’s a powerful, if crude, encapsulation of a new cultural dynamic ushered in by the Haskalah. As Schorsch writes: “Collapsing the Moses of Egypt and the Moses of Dessau into the Moses of Cordoba rendered the philosophic strain of Spanish Judaism both pristine and normative.”

The imagined Sephardic tradition was so appealing to German Jews because of its ultimate connection to Greek learning and its “implicit univeralism”- one perfectly suited to the new goals of integration and assimilation. The imagined Sephardic tradition was everything the little Polish Jew of Wolfsohn’s story could never be. As Schorsch demonstrates, the self-conscious emulation of an imagined Sephardic Golden Age found expression in, among other things, architecture, literature, and normative Hebrew pronunciation.

If you think the 19th century obsession with an imaginary Sephardic ideal has no political or cultural implications today, try speaking Ashkenazi Hebrew in the 90% of the Jewish world where the havara sefardit is normative. I’m always amazed at the strong emotions – anger, disgust, pity—aroused by the mere sound of a final sof. Forget about arguing for the inherent value of Yiddish. Disgust at the mere sound of Ashkenaz is itself bound up with the history of Zionism, also a product, in large part, of an ideological repudiation of Eastern Europe. 

So, if history is more complex than an Ashkenaz-Sepharad binary, and the cultural dynamic is, among other things, a product of hundreds of years of rhetorical negation of one group to the benefit of another, why does this idea of Ashkenormativity have so much traction? What’s it really getting at?

When I probe people about what they think Ashkenormativity is, and why it’s problematic, what comes up is the presumption of Jewish whiteness.  (For the sake of argument, I’m going to ignore the reality of Jews who are both non-white and Ashkenazi.) American Jews are largely of  European descent. (Though one of the tragic failures of the latest Pew survey was a total lack of inquiry into the linguistic and cultural affiliations of American Jews and thus we're lacking in hard numbers as to how many American Jews identify as Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, Sephardi, etc.)

In any case, white, European Jews still make up the majority of the American Jewish demographic. And the flip side of cultural and racial homogeneity is the uncomfortable possibility that encounters between white (largely European) Jews and Jews of color will be defined by a kind of self-absorption that plays out as dismissive, exclusionary or condescending. 

The exclusion of Jews of color from American Jewish discourse is a problem and we (desperately) need to define and talk about. But we already have a word for it: Racism. With a big dollop of ignorance. I’m all in favor of building a Jewish community which is less racist. Halevai! But does that racism really spring from something unique to ‘Ashkenazi’ culture? Indeed, what unites Jews everywhere is the smug certainty that real Jews look like (and pray like and eat like and vote like) they do. I have Syrian friends whose families would rather die than allow them to marry one of us (Yiddishy Yids). And when white elites in Israel use state power to create permanent underclasses of North African, Arab and Ethiopian Jews, yup, that’s racist. (Really fucking racist.) But to imagine that somehow Yiddish, that reviled, shat upon yerushe of millions of Israeli and American Jews, bears responsibility as cultural oppressor, it really beggars belief. 

The problem isn’t too much cultural specificity on the part of one group, it’s not enough for everyone. A few jokey words of Yiddish sprinkled through American Jewish culture does not a hegemony make. Though I often complain about the marginalization of Yiddish, at the same time I emphasize that I am a linguistic maximalist. The health of global Jewry depends on access to the multiplicity of Jews and Jewishness. The future of Jews everywhere depends on inculcating an understanding of one's history and culture, and that can only come through a respect for cultural specificities.

Katz complains that Ashkenazi and Sephardi institutions exist separately. But it is making room for those cultural differences, and honoring their boundaries, which is what we really need to be fighting for.

Monday, March 2, 2015

BREAKING: Global Coalition of Jewish Leaders Set to Unveil Revolutionary Continuity Program

BREAKING: Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu is now meeting with top American philanthropists and community leaders ahead of the announcement of new continuity program dubbed 'The First Mitzvah.' Details are still under wraps until official launch on Wednesday night, but insiders say 'The First Mitzvah' will be the first outreach program dedicated to increasing sexual engagement among unmarried Jews, across gender/sex/nusach. No combination is off the table, per the findings of a ground breaking strategic plan, the product of a five year study by Steven J. Cohen and Steven J. Boym. According to a Steven: "What we found is that sexual intercourse produces feel good hormones like oxytocin. Young people like sex. Like, really, really like it. Also, did you read that How to Train your Husband article in the Times? It's like that. If we can get young Jews to identify the sensation of orgasm with being near another Jew, our projections show that in-married Jewish couples may increase by as much as 18%."
What's so revolutionary about 'The First Mitzvah' is its cross denominational participation. Reached for comment at 770, Yehuda Krinsky of the worldwide Chabad moment said "Moshiach is coming and we are providing the towel. Borekh hashem" 
Funding of 'The First Mitzvah' is said to be at a mere $500 million for the first three years, until studies can be done to show whether giving young Jews lots of money to fuck can really work. An anonymous source at UJA-Federation was hopeful, though, 'No one thought thousands of Jewish teenagers would take an all expense paid vacation to Israel. Now, if we can make boning as accessible, and as lucrative, we believe we can reverse some of the most worrying trends of the last thirty years. And let's face it, after this, we're all out of ideas."

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Are You There God? It's Me, Intermarriage (Part 2)


In Part Two of Identity Crises and Suburban Jews, we leave Margaret Simon and her intermarried parents and her search for a community with whom to identify. Now, I turn my attention to the story of two middle school boys, also on a quest for identification, also recently removed from extended family, grandparents and an urban environment. But the story of Leonard and Alan is a fantastic one of psychic powers, aliens and inter dimensional travel. Alan Mendelsohn The Boy From Mars is the story of the nerd as crypto-Jew. But even when I first read the book as a kid, I knew. I knew what the book was really about.

Leonard's story spoke to me just as clearly as Margaret's, though I didn't necessarily share much in common with either of them, on the surface of things. But it was the search for a bigger picture, the confusion at being separated from family and history, which rang true. And, as you'll see in the essay, there is something ultimately hopeful about Leonard and Alan's story.  You can go back home. You can find your people. It'll take a hell of a lot of work, but it's also a hell of an adventure along the way.

And if you've been wondering where the phrase 'Yiddish Atlantis' came from, it debuted in this essay.

Enjoy!

********************************************************************

Identity Crises and Suburban Jews: A Quasi-Personal Meditation: Part Two (excerpt)
By Rokhl Kafrissen

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret ends on this somewhat ambivalent note. Margaret gets her period and continues to keep up with her peer group. But her adult identity is unclear. With whom does she belong? And is twelve really too late to learn?
For the answer, I turn back to Daniel Pinkwater's Alan Mendelsohn, The Boy From Mars and Leonard and Alan's quest for the stuff of identity.


Alan Mendelsohn, like Are You There God, opens immediately after a perplexing move to the suburbs, a few days before the beginning of junior high school. The narrator (and protagonist) of the book is actually Leonard Neeble. Leonard's parents have left Hogboro for the suburb of West Kangaroo Park, place without much to recommend it except lots of brand new tract housing. 
Like the Simons, the Neebles have also left behind grandparents. But the Neebles' move is never really explained, not as an escape from them, nor as an escape from the city. It goes without saying that the blank canvas of the suburbs is the American dream. Adults will naturally want a new house where they can do all the things you canʼt do in the city: barbecue every night, buy lots of new furniture, and play around with the remote control garage door opener.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Can I Pass Along a Jewish Identity to My Children?

The Forward has a new column on inter-faith relationships called 'Seesaw.' I find it interesting, especially because the questions asked reflect concerns held by far more than just those in inter-faith relationships. Like, this week, someone engaged to a non-Jewish man wrote in to ask how she could transmit secular Judaism to her children:
I’m a woman engaged to be married to a wonderful man. He’s a non-theistic, pagan-interested Unitarian Universalist, and I’m a non-theistic Jew. Lately, I’ve been preoccupied with the question of how to raise our future children with a Jewish identity. I’m not interested in raising them in the Jewish faith (or any faith, for that matter), but I really want them to connect with the cultural aspect and hold onto that identity, just as I have. So, how does a secular Jew pass along secular Judaism to her children 

Lately, I’ve been preoccupied with the question of how to raise our future children with a Jewish identity.

I've written before about the work that the 'identity' concept has been doing for American Jews. Rather than articulating which aspects of Jewish life are important to them (prayer, history, texts, languages, history, folkways, music, cuisine etc) and then figuring out how to transmit whatever it is that is most vital to their Jewishness, generations of American Jews have been able to wave away the problem of specificity with a single magic word. Identity.


We came to believe, with perfect faith, that there was a thing called identity, a Jewish continuity with a somewhat mysterious Jewish content. Jewish feeling without Jewish doing. And, failing to teach our kids alef-beys, failing to instill a sense of connection to Israel, failing to give them even a rudimentary idea of Jewish history, American Jewish parents could tell themselves at least their kids had an identity. Maybe that identity was ultimately a shared hatred of Hebrew school and ambivalence around Christmas, but at least it was something. Right?


Belief in Identity as a real, transmissible thing allowed us to avoid the hard choices faced by American Jews when being American and being Jewish are so fundamentally at odds.
As I wrote last year, identity has served as a kind of ideology:


The integration of American Jews, especially Eastern European Jews, was the great project of the Jewish elite of the first half of the century. That integration came with many seemingly irresolvable contradictions and tensions. For example, the terms of integration of Eastern European Jews were set, in part, by the German Jewish elite, a group traditionally less than enamored of Eastern European Jews.   
But the most fundamental of these tensions was a reimagining of the Jewish way of life as an American style religion. Turning Jewishness into the Jewish religion was like stuffing 10 pounds of kishke into a five pound casing. It was lumpy as hell, but it worked, sort of. 
As it happened, the vast majority of American Jews didn’t want religion or religious commitments. No matter. Identity as ideology could reframe the multitude of contradictions now at the heart of American Jewish life, including the rejection of religion by American Jews. Identity made it possible for sociologist Herbert Gans to make an observation which, 50 years earlier, would have seemed downright bizarre. In a 1951 ethnographic study he wrote: “In Park Forest... adult Jews quite consciously rejected any involvement in the religious and cultural aspects of the Jewish community, while trying to teach the children to be Jews.”
If the letter writer had come to me with this question, I would have asked her what specifically being Jewish means to her and then tried to help her figure out how to share that with her kids. Actually, I'd like to sit down with the greater Jewish institutional world, the ones always casting about for ways to 'meaningfully' 'engage' and 'revitalize', and ask them: what matters to you? What's the Jewish thing most important to you that you couldn't be Jewish without? All the foundations in the world can't fix the problem that so many leaders, and so many parents, have no meaningful connection to Jewish life and no sense of what they urgently need to pass on to the next generation of Jews.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Are You There, God? It's Me, Intermarriage

For the last few years I've been thinking about intermarriage and related trends in Jewish life. You can't talk about intermarriage without also looking at patterns of Jewish migration. How does movement from first to second to third wave settlements interact with trends in marriage, education and affiliation? These are really important questions, and all too often glossed over in popular coverage of Jewish life and its challenges in contemporary America. We talk a lot about finding 'Jewish values' to transmit, but we almost never talk about American values and how those shape our Jewish lives.

Sure, you can look at sociologists like Herbert Gans and Marshall Sklare. You can study the numbers of eminent demographers like Calvin Goldscheider. But it seems to me, you also must look to popular literature to illustrate how those lives are really lived. A couple years ago I wrote a very long (still unpublished) exploration of these themes. In the following excerpt, I go to classic Young Adult literature, some well known, some less, to see how migration, assimilation and intermarriage play out in real life.

I call this essay 'quasi-personal' because it contains so much of what animates my own personal project: the search for ancestors, for my place in history and the desire to understand why my parents (and grandparents) made the choices they did. Three of my four grandparents passed away before I was born. Both my parents moved away from their home state, away from siblings and abundant cousins. They raised me and my brother mostly without the benefit of extended family, ensuring that we grew up with a very different sense of our place in our own family history. (I wasn't even sure I had a family history.)

That lack was a painful one, but it was only through my study of contemporary Jewish history (migration and assimilation) that I developed a framework for understanding how my fractured family history was part of a larger trauma of mass migrations. Though my story is quite different from Margaret's in Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret or Leonard and Alan's in Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy From Mars, something in their stories touched me, spoke to that place of hurt and alienation, long before I had a detached, academic way of talking about it.



Finally, though I wrote this essay a few years before I started my intensive study of mid-century Jewish sociology, my observations in this essay confirm much of what I've come to believe subsequently. That is, the seismic shifts in American Judaism-- the Americanization of Jews -- was complete by mid-century. Though I'm sure commentators on the right would assign the downfall of traditional Jewish values to the free love, do what you want revolution of the 60s and 70s, indeed, if you look at the data, it was the late 1940s and 1950s in which the ecumenical, mushy liberal version of American Jewishness is really cemented, setting in motion trends whose culmination we see today. In that respect, my analysis of Judy Blume's semi-autobiographical Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself is most pertinent to our discussion. Anyway...

Hope you enjoy!


Identity Crises and Suburban Jews: A Quasi-Personal Meditation (excerpt)
By Rokhl Kafrissen
The shrinking of the Jewish family coincided with a drastic impoverishment of continuity: familial, ritual, educational, spiritual. At my moment of adolescent identity crisis, I was seeking a connection to my people, the ones who had lived, not the ones who had died in the awful movies they showed us in Hebrew school.
I knew I wasnʼt an Israeli (nor did I want to be one), but I had no idea where to find those other people and little clue as to what they might be like and what I might learn from them. And that was a problem. As developmental psychologist Erik Erikson puts it, when the adolescent reaches his identity crisis:
“...the young person must learn to be most himself where he means most to others-- those others, to be sure, who have come to mean most to him...
One cannot identify, or rebel, without the stuff of identification. The inner conditions reach out to the outer circumstances in the identification process. Erikson, in his discussion of the psychosocial milieu of identification, calls this stuff ʻideologyʼ and says that before a young person can envisage his own future, he must have access to an ʻideologyʼ. It could be religion or it could be some other thing but:
“whatever else is ideology and whatever transitory or lasting forms it takes, we will tentatively view it here as a necessity for the growing ego which is involved in the succession of generations, and in adolescence is committed to some new synthesis of past and future: a synthesis which must include but transcend the past, even as identity does.” [emphasis mine]
The work of preadulthood, i.e., preparation for healthy adulthood, is absolutely contingent upon having a detailed, tangible, context and history into which the adolescent views himself as existing.
The problem is, how can the crisis of identity formation be faced if the adolescent has limited or no access to his own past? Or if access to the relevant ʻouter conditionsʼ has been abruptly, inexplicably cut off? With whom is he forming his ʻidentityʼ if his community is removed (or he from it)? In Eriksonʼs terms, what is to come of the identity formation process if the adolescent, at the moment of crisis, is removed from the place where he “means most to others”?