Friday, June 15, 2012

Time Capsule Thursday

OK, so I've been otherwise occupado with things non-bloggy. I will have some very fresh and frisky new content up here, very soon. In the meantimes... I thought it would be fun to re-publish my (infamous?) letter to Heeb, from all the way back in 2002. It was Heeb's editorial response to my epic which set me off to create my own humble publication, Rootless Cosmopolitan (a 'zine about Roots and Culture). 

I do want to say that in the intervening decade I have refined and reconsidered my feelings about non-Jews and Jewish culture, so I just want to apologize in advance for the harshness of Rokhl c. 2002, at least when it comes to issues of cross-cultural cooperation. She was full of piss and vinegar and too much law school. Rokhl of 2012 values and honors her friends and comrades in the Yiddish world, from all countries, all backgrounds, all religions. 

So, here's the letter (and some bonus content if you read all the way to the end):

(Summer, 2002)


To the cats at Heeb:

OK, I get it. 1. Jewish kids dig black culture (Word to Your Bubbe, Beatbox in Ramallah ad nauseum.). 2. Jews can be vulgar, too (Al Goldstein, and hey, what happened to the Annie Sprinkle feature?) 3. Fundamentalists are dumb (Tammy Faye Starlight, see also 2. Jews can be vulgar, too). Duh, duh and no shit, Sherlock. For this the Jewish institutional world should be forking over the big bucks?

I did enjoy some of your features in issue two, including the interview with Naomi Klein. Klein is right; people, and hey, let's not beat around the bush in a magazine explicitly aimed at Jews, Jewish people long for community based on something more than buying power - the JAP model- or the deferred culture insurance plan- Israel. So what does our rootless, cosmopolitan, mind bogglingly rich and exilific history have to offer the comparison culture shopper? According to Heeb, not much besides trendy cooptation of other, mostly darker, cultures and the opportunity to be as narcissistic as you wanna be. That is, Jewishness is only interesting so far as it allows you to see yourself everywhere. Elvis? Yup, technically we might be related. Black folks? Hey, avadim hayinu, we were once slaves, too! Esperanto? Invented by, you guessed it! Serial killers? No problem, I've got Berkowitz' s prison address, I can get you an exclusive interview.

According to your submission guidelines, this is the point of "The New Jew Review"; to seek the "inadvertantly", "tangentially" Jewish. Further, you say, it's easy to point out what's Jewish about "pastrami, klezmer, dating frustrations and neurotic families." Right, we wouldn't want to be too Jewish, even in a forum devoted to celebrating the very notion.

Look, I'm glad you drew the pastrami line in the sand. No tips on where to find the best knishes, no review of the Woody Allen oeuvre, no agonizing nose job justifications. Thank god. Not only are these things excruciatingly obvious, they are meaningless. Jews eat knishes. Nu? But pointing out the "glancingly" and "tangentially" Jewish at the expense of authentic Jewish culture? Let's not kid ourselves, it's only one notch above yet another rehash of Woody as the neurotic, nebbishy, supposed uber-Jew. With no there there, Heeb is a very expensive elaboration on Adam Sandler's Hannukah Song.

But who's to say if there is such a quantifiable thing as authentic Jewish culture, apart from the participants? What the fuck, I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say that such a things does exist. Indeed, it's much more than the sum of whatever Jews happen to be doing at the moment:  boxing, publishing pornography, whoring for tobacco or just plain whoring. After many lonely Saturday nights deep in the culture lab I have finally discovered the foolproof test for determining whether an independent Jewish culture actually exists.  Here it is: take a look around and see if SOME OTHER LONELY FUCKER DECIDES HE/SHE WANTS TO BE LIKE YOU. Will he/she travel thousands of miles to learn a language your grandparents spoke? Is he/she fucking the culture heroes you won't even look at when you pass them on 106th Street? Is he/she identifying with you, your people and your history as a way of rebelling against his/her own soulless culture? All over Northern Europe, yahoos are paying money for, and MAKING MONEY OFF OF, Jewish culture.

Wake up, sons and daughters of Strong Island! We have something worth co-opting. Take a minute to let that sink in. Some schmuck in Berlin, at this very moment, is singing, dancing and putting on his version of black face and tapping his tootsies to what belongs to you, me, us. I am referring, for the most part, to the truly phenomenal interest in Klezmer music and Yiddish which you find all over Northern Europe. There's even an analog to the wanna-heebs T of Northern Europe. A similar, even more exploitative movement of interest in all things Ladino has taken hold in Spain and Portugal. (Exploitive because often these people know nothing about Ladino or Jews but happily cash in on the wave of interest.)

Yet, I open the music section of Heeb to find? Mogwai, Joey Ramone, Jon Spencer Fucking Blues Explosion? And what is the level of Jewish engagement (if I may take the opportunity to sound like an even bigger asshole) in their work? The High and Mighty "betray their roots" by referencing Chinese food. That young man who wrote to you from Driftwood, TX, is starving for cultural nourishment, and you've just given him the equivalent of a scallion pancake- junk that'll probably give him the trots an hour later. I'd say we left shanda long ago; this is a criminal waste of resources.

There it is, I've betrayed my own little prejudices. For me, Yiddish and Klezmer music are where it's at. These things aren't just hobbies or accoutrements, they are major points of engagement with my Jewishness. When I listen to a klezmer record I'm listening to how the artist engaged with the tradition. I'm plugged into the way the music references (or doesn't) the modes of synagogue music. I may even think about the way function influenced form and the way the music developed alongside ritual and dance. But screw all this intellectual crap, I'm plugging into something joyous and meaningful that many generations before me, and hopefully, many after me, will also be a part of. The specifics matter.

Are the things I mentioned the only real ways to experience Jewish culture? Of course not. At this point, playing Kool and the Gang's Celebration at a Bar Mitzvah is, in itself, tradition. But what's missing from Heeb is any critical engagement or challenge to its material. What makes the Rabbis of the Los Angeles Jewish Commission on Sweatshops any different from other anti-sweatshop activists? The article makes no guess. If there's no difference, why have a specifically Jewish anti-sweatshop organization? There's a sensational story, a really tough story, in there about the conflicts between Jews as bosses and Jews as activists. What kind of moral authority can the AJC wield when it uses such obnoxious tactics as shutting down a whole organizations to squash internal conflict?

Here it is- the bosses, the AJC fat cats, and the Rabbis are all expressing, in some way, their struggle with how to be Jewish and be a boss/activist/worker/sexy jeans entrepreneur etc. The conflict arises because that Jewishness, that peculiar interplay between text, tradition and exigency, no matter how it's lived, has a meaning we share with each other and share with those who came before.

I would think that in New York City, a group of people putting together a magazine by and about contemporary Jewish culture would be faced with an embarrassment of riches. Unfortunately, you've managed to choose material which merely affirms your own, frankly boring, take on modern Jewish culture. And that's just an embarrassment.


Rachael Kafrissen

Whew. That chick was PISSED!

Sof kol sof, she (I) saw that she would have no real voice in a publication like Heeb so she (I) decided to take it to the streets, in the form of a self-published 'zine. This is the email I sent to a select group of friends, announcing my new plans:

I'm sick of this kind of empty-headed, narcissistic, celebration ofknow-nothingness dressed up in the guise of knowingness. I'm sick ofcooptation masquerading as cultural renewal (there is a difference between cooptation and synthesis!) And I'm sick of Timothy fucking "Speed" Levitch. I want to know who this guy is doing that he gets so much attention in the pages of Heeb. Damn.

So, the first issue of Rootless Cosmopolitan is actually going to be about something. The theme will be Culture Heroes, Old and New. Mine include: (but are not limited to) Ben Katchor, Daniel Pinkwater, Maurice Samuel, Gershon Legman, Tuli Kupferberg, Gershon Breastman, Wolf Krakowski, Gershon Assman... you get the drift. I know my list is heavily male right now. I'd love to see some ladies and womens on the list. So send me your love letters and mash notes to the men and women who make jewish culture so fucking awesome.

 ikh vart oyf aykh ale,


  1. Woah, you were pissed! But isn't that a necessary attitude? :0)

    The way I saw it was that Heeb etc. were just a Jewish (Jewishy - as in wishy-washy) take on hipsterdom. (Hipsterdom needs its own conversation.) And, as such, it was a passing trend.

  2. Hello Rokhl:
    Good to see you are fiesty as ever - maybe more so; good for you.
    You really are a voice in the wilderness.

    Ikh dank dir vos di host mir arayngemisht mit di ale barimte und gerotene mentshn.
    S'iz a koved.

    Mit vareme grisn,