Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Kockleffels and the Bridges to Memory

I've often said Yiddish Eastern Europe is the Jewish Atlantis. Somehow, back in the mists of time, it was the wellspring of a good portion of global Jewish culture. Today, its traces are everywhere: in language, in food, in custom. And yet, like Atlantis, Yiddish Eastern Europe was subsumed by disaster (man made in this case.) Swallowed up by the waves, Yiddishland is gone and, we tell ourselves, all that's left is a giant history shaped hole. How can one possibly know such a lack?


These latest examples appear in a personal essay recently published in The American Scholar. That many of these words are mistranslated, mistransliterated, Yinglish, German, and/or not even Yiddish words appears to be wholly besides the point.



We've conceded the unknowability, and inaccessibility of Yiddish Eastern Europe, thus leaving its interpretation wide open to charlatans and fraudsters. It's a sad fact that many of the people who pretend to speak authoritatively about Yiddish would be more at home in the pages of Fate magazine, holding forth on the latest 'scientific' proof of Atlantis.

Paradoxically, the field of academic Yiddish is flourishing and a new generation of farbrente Yiddishists is making long needed quantum leaps in advancing Yiddish pedagogy.

But there are few points of contact between Yiddishists and the majority of American Jews. While among Yiddishists the narrative about Yiddish may be growing and changing in exciting ways, for most American Jews, the narrative hasn't changed one bit in decades. The path to Yiddish is a rickety, slightly disreputable footbridge across the vast historical chasm between then and now. And the best we can expect from non-specialized, non-academic publications is yet another list of Yiddish words the author thinks s/he knows, strung along the familiar domestic recollections. These are the phrases that connect me to my past, these were the words of my mother, aren't they juicy, aren't they just so delightfully untranslatable? 

These latest examples appear in a personal essay recently published in The American Scholar. That many of these words are mistranslated, mistransliterated, Yinglish, German, and/or not even Yiddish words appears to be wholly besides the point.

schlemiel, schnook, schmo, schmegeggie, schlub, pischer, nebbish, putz, schnorrer, gonif,  fresser,  chazer, schtarker,  faygeleh...

And my favorite: kockleffel (קאקלעפל). A kokhleffel (קאכלעפל) is a cooking spoon. Colloquially it refers to a person who sticks their nose where it does not belong and takes pleasure in stirring things up. Kockleffel is not a Yiddish word, though if it were, it would mean shitspoon, which, I'll admit, would come in handy reading this kind of drek.

Phyllis Rose, the author of the piece, holds a doctorate from Harvard in English literature. She most certainly has the education and the resources to find out that nebbish is not a Yiddish word, but nebekh is.

I found this part especially interesting:
She [Rose's mother] had many expressions for sentimental trash, because that’s the kind of book she liked to read—before casting it aside as too sentimental, just a bubbe meise. I misheard that as “bubble meise,” and thinking that meise meant masterwork, I invented the definition “soap opera,” when the actual meaning was “old wives’ tale.”
Actually, "bubbe meise" has nothing to do with bubbe/bobe (grandmother). It comes to us all the way from the middle ages and refers to a Yiddish version of a chivalric romance, The Bovo Bukh. As Michael Wex writes in Born To Kvetch, a bobe mayse came to mean a cock and bull story, or an "unbelievable tale of knights and their deeds."

Further, the Yiddish connotation of bobe mayse actually has little in common with its common translation as 'old wives' tales.' An old wives' tale is saying that rubbing a frog on your finger will get rid of a wart or going out with a wet head will give you a cold. In fact, Rose's mother's derision of her sentimental novels as bobe mayses is the authentic Yiddish usage of the term, taking us all the way back to the literary origins of the phrase!

What is maddening is that an incredibly accomplished academic like Rose would not show the slightest interest in actually finding out what any of these terms mean. It's one thing to have a personal, sentimental dialect; it's another to turn that idiosyncratic language into fodder for a magazine with the word 'Scholar' in the title.

In the popular imagination, among ordinary civilians and even the most elite academics, Yiddish remains a rigid list of misheard, misapprehended words and expressions, with an emphasis on the vulgar and the 'colorful' (oh how I shudder to hear that word.)  As I said/ranted earlier today on Twitter:
If I had a friend who thought human circulation was the work of lymph gnomes, I wouldn't think it was cute, I would think it was sad. Ignorance about the deepest parts of oneself, one's history, family, language, migration, is a sad thing. American Jews, though, have no shame. It's as if they assume there is no possible way one could learn that it's lymph node, not lymph gnome. Or that bubbe meise doesn't mean old wives's tale.
But there is some hope. There are Jewish culture workers - talented, educated, generous- who have been working tirelessly for decades. They entertain and educate widely, not just to the circles of dedicated Yiddish lovers. One of those culture workers is Michael (Meyshke) Alpert. Today we learned that he had been named by the NEA as a National Heritage Fellow, an honor he well deserves. So, mazl tov, Meysh, and thank you.




Saturday, May 30, 2015

From Wales to Anatevka and Back

Something to consider:  This week has seen an intense national discussion going on in Wales about improving and supporting Welsh language instruction at all levels. As part of Welsh language culture development, the government sponsors Eisteddfod, an all Welsh youth festival and competition. Today is the last day of the Eisteddfod competition.

Within that conversation about the value of Welsh and how best to support it, you can see this Eisteddfod entry: Fiddler on the Roof, sung by children, in Welsh. Not really a surprise, as people all over the world have found Fiddler's themes of tradition vs. modernity resonate within their own lives.

(I can't figure out how to embed the video here, but please click, you won't be disappointed.)

If you only listen to the beginning, keep an ear open for the Celtic reinterpretation of the fiddler's theme. Fantastic stuff.

And since we're talking about minority languages within English language hegemony... This is the first Yiddish language newscast I've ever seen. It's not really news so much as an in-depth look at the 2014 stabbing of a Chabad bokher in Crown Heights..


And just to tie everything together, please check out this wonderful project documenting the Jews of Wales, sponsored by the Reform community there.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

וואס קומט פאר? ?What's Happening

Couple of cool things to put on your calendar, one this weekend and one coming in June:

Greek Jewish Festival

First, this weekend Kehila Kedosha Janina is holding its first ever Greek Jewish Festival. How cool is that? It's Sunday, noon to 6 pm, celebrating the culture of this historic Romaniote congregation.

From the website:
Join the Greek Jewish Festival as we celebrate the unique Romaniote and Sephardic heritage of Kehila Kedosha Janina. Experience authentic kosher Greek foods and homemade Greek pastries, traditional Greek dancing and live Greek and Sephardic music, an outdoor marketplace full of vendors, arts and educational activities for kids, and much more!

Bonus event: Thursday night (tomorrow) at the Center for Jewish History, Sephardic Journeys: an Evening of Exploration  (tickets $36)

From the website:
Rabbi Marc Angel and Rabbi Yamin Levy will discuss The David Berg Rare Books Room's latest exhibit, Sephardic Journeys, created by the Center for Jewish History with the American Sephardi Federation. The rare books and artifacts in this exhibit reflect a rich tradition of scholarship and culture shaped by migrations, and they invite, in turn, reflection upon the physical, emotional and spiritual journeys of Jewish history. The evening will also feature a performance by Itamar Borochov, a member of Yemen Blues and the New Jerusalem Orchestra, who recently played Dizzy's Club Coca Cola (Jazz at Lincoln Center).
Sephardi refreshments by Nahmias et Fils Distillery and desserts will be served. 

2015 Symposium on Yiddish Performing Arts, Media, Language and Literature, June 16-17

And coming June 16-17, some of my favorite people in the world, together at the most inconvenient museum in the world (haha, I kid, I kid), organized by the Folksbiene's Kulturfest. Yes, I know, such a long list of names, still missing the name of a certain acerbic voice of modern Yiddish culture criticism. גיי ווייס

The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene
and The Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University
proudly present
2015 Symposium on Yiddish Performing Arts, Media, Language and Literature
June 16-17, 2015 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage 36 Battery Place in New York

Key Note Speech by Aaron Lansky, Executive Director of The Yiddish Book Center
Tuesday June 16, 2015 at 6:00 PM
Followed by a wine and cheese reception

The symposium is generously supported by a grant from the David Berg Foundation

Tuesday 9:30 – 10:00   Welcome 

Tuesday 10:00  - 11:15 Panel 1
Chair: Sylvain Cappell (New York University)
Barbara Henry (University of Washington) 
Bad Community Theatre: The Afterlife of Jacob Gordin
Michael Steinlauf (Gratz College) with special guests from The Ida and Ester Rokhl Kaminska Theater (Poland)
Polish Dybbuks  

Tuesday 11:30- 1:00  Panel 2
Chair: Magda Teter (Wesleyan University)
Special guest Lipa Schmeltzer
Asya Vaysman Schulman (Yiddish Book Center)
Negotiating the World: Yiddish Theater at Hasidic Girls' Schools
Shlomo Berger (University of Amsterdam)
Lipa SchmeltzerExplaining an 18th-Century “Maskil” to a 21st-Century Hassidic Girl: 
The Novel “Aleyn in Vald” between History and Contemporary Interests

Tuesday 1:15 – 2:15  Lunchtime presentation/ concert
Haryuki Kuroda  (Matsuyama University , Japan) with Jinta-La-Mvta
Yiddish Culture in Japan

Tuesday 2:15 – 3:30  Panel 3
Chair: David Fishman (Jewish Theological Seminary)
Eddy Portnoy (Rutgers University, YIVO)
The Disappearing Yiddish Accent
Kerstin Hoge (Oxford University)
“A Bintl Briv” in the 21st Century: Contemporary Yiddish in the Comments Section of the Yiddish Daily Forward



Tuesday 3:30 – 5:00 Panel 4
Chair: Daniel Soyer (Fordham University)
Joel Berkowitz (University of Wisconsin – Madison)
In the Days of Job: H. Leivick Confronts the Shoah and Its Aftermath
Edna Nahshon (Jewish Theological Seminary)
Subway Dreams: Advertising, Locomotion, and Yiddishkayt in Dymov's “Bronx Express”
Harriet Murav (University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign)
Delay and Desire: David Bergelson in the 1920s

 Wednesday 9:30 – 10:55  Panel 5
Chair: Judith Friedman Rosen (City University of New York)
Eric Goldman (Yeshiva University)
The New Yiddish Cinema: Renaissance or Curiosity?
Anna Shternshis (University of Toronto) with special guest Psoy Korolenko
Red Army Soldier Praying in the Synagogue: Soviet Yiddish Pop-Music in the 21st Century

Wednesday 11:00 – 1:00  Panel 6
Chair: Saul Zaritt (Jewish Theological Seminary)
Valentina Fedchenko (St. Petersburg State University)
Two-faced Itzik Bashevis Zinger: The Less-known Yiddish Original of the Novel “Enemies. A Love Story”  
Jan Schwarz (Lund University)
Bashevis’ Beginnings in Warsaw
Kathryn Hellerstein (University of Pennsylvania)
China Comes to Warsaw, or Warsaw Comes to China: Melekh Ravitsh’s Travel Poems and Journals
Itzik Gottesman (University of Texas at Austin)
Folk Adaptations of Goldfaden's Songs

Wednesday 1:15 – 2:15  Lunchtime presentation/ concert
Alexander Hausvater (Romania) with Zalmen Mlotek  and special guests from the State Jewish Theater of Romania
 Avrom Goldfaden and the Legacy of Yiddish Theater in Romania 

Wednesday 2:15 – 3:45  Panel 7
Chair: Hasia Diner (New York University)
Marion Aptroot (Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf)
Yiddish in German Universities
Rachel Rojanski (Brown University)
From Chernowitz to Jerusalem: The Role of Conferences and Organizations in the History of Yiddish
Sandy Fox (New York University)
Fifty Years of Yiddishist Youth: Yugntruf and Yiddish Farm in the Age of Deassimilation

Wednesday 4:00 – 5:30  Round Table (in Yiddish)
Moderated by Gennady Estraikh (New York University) 
Boris Sandler (Yiddish Forverts)
Saul Zaritt (Jewish Theological Seminary)
Miriam-Khaye Seigel (Dorot Division, New York Public Library)
Leyzer Burko (Jewish Theological Seminary)

Attendance is free for academic institution faculty, staff and students.
For the general public there is a $10 admission per day of events.
RSVP:  Motl Didner  mdidner@nytf.org
For more information about the Symposium and complete festival listings, please visit:  www.kulturfestnyc.com

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."