Saturday, November 17, 2012

The guttural tongue of their ancestors

Memes of the Yiddish Atlantis: As stated in the fine print of the Geneva Convention, journalists may not discuss new Yiddish entertainment or Yiddish academic news without invoking at least one meaningless cliche about the language and culture. 
Here's the thing. These little nuggets of common wisdom aren't just filler. They're signals that the writer has nothing to say on the subject and not the smallest bit of curiosity about it. Reciting the memes substitutes for any real context for the story and relieves the writer from the work of making something like a real historical, artistic or aesthetic judgment. After all, that would require actual knowledge of Yiddish language and history and, c'mon, that's just meshugene.
Grapevine: It’s Yiddish revival,  Jerusalem Post

Yiddish culture appears to be enjoying a revival in many parts of the world, including Eastern Europe, where it was stifled for so long; Western Europe, where it all but disappeared; and even Israel, where, under David Ben- Gurion, it was publicly banned.Now it is being taught in Israeli universities and other institutions, and in fact has been for some time.....

[Legendary Yiddish theater artists Mike Burstyn, Shmuel Atzmon and Bar Ilan University President Moshe Kaveh] will be part of strategic planning team proposed by Kaveh, with the aim of advancing Yiddish language and culture within and beyond academia.
Yiddishspiel, the Israeli Yiddish theater, has been in operation since 1987, 25 years. Yung Yidish (the Tel Aviv bus station based Yiddish organization run by Mendy Cahan) has been around for almost 20 years. What was arguably the most important Yiddish literary journal of the second half of the twentieth century, di goldene keyt, was published from Israel until 1995. The State of Israel is, and has been for decades, an important center of Yiddish culture and publishing. The new (and really interesting) partnership at Bar Ilan and the Rena Costa Center for Yiddish Studies is part of that long history. Why are we not allowed to recognize it as such?

Making Yiddish Theatre Matter in 2012, TDF Stages: a Theatre Magazine

From a review of the Folksbiene's new mainstage production, The Golden Land:
Although American Jews are arguably more assimilated than ever before, Yiddish—and by extension Yiddish culture—is enjoying a bit of a renaissance. Young Jews are increasingly studying the guttural tongue of their ancestors and seeking out live Yiddish entertainment in an attempt to reconnect with their immigrant heritage.
Just. Ugh. Guttural tongue? Really?

Bonus points, though, for working in a bunch of our other favorite memes. This includes the passive (aggressive) invocation of unspecified 'critics,' the ones who think anyone who does anything with Yiddish is fighting a losing battle rather than, oh, fulfilling an artistic mission or trying to make a buck. 
Yet Mlotek admits that some critics think he’s fighting a losing battle trying to keep a dying language and culture alive. “I have that argument all the time,” he says. “It’s no longer the lingua franca of American Jews, so what’s the point? The answer is simple: It’s not about reviving something that was popular once upon a time. It’s about bringing this culture to new audiences in a way that they can appreciate.

 Joe Berger would be proud.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Secret Histories and Self-Hatred: What Jew Spotting Says About Us

Just read a really interesting review of Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall Of Fame, a new collection of essays on Jews and sports by Marc Tracy and Franklin Foer. The Daily Beast's Spencer Ackerman presents a really smart critique not just of this particular book, but of the particular genre to which it belongs.
'The Secret History of Jews in Surprising Places' is a ubiquitous trope in contemporary publishing. Books on Jews and organized crime and Jews in punk are two excellent examples. Finding Jews where they're not supposed to belong, especially in mildly transgressive fields (say, making and performing in porn) is also a staple of magazines which rely on manufactured shock, like Heeb and Davka. 

There's a lot more to this narrative than simply giving voice to forgotten histories. After all, who says that Jews shouldn't be punk rockers or don't commit crimes? (Or don't make and consume porn, for that matter.) Why are these kinds of histories framed as 'secret' or 'hidden'? To whom are these surprises?
Ackerman notes that Jewish Jocks does a much better job of covering athletes of the past (baseball players, boxers etc.) than it does with contemporary Jewish athletes. When the authors get to the present day, boxers and ballers have been replaced with competitive eaters, team managers, and sports writers. What gives? 
If an inescapable premise of the book is that Jewish athletes need recognition, then the book ought to do a more thorough job of addressing the implications of their latter-day absence, before an anti-Semite steps into the void with a few theories.

There are any number of ways to address that absence. Here’s one: It means nothing. Nothing about who we are as a people or who we are as individual Jews follows from our endless cataloging of tribespeople in sports, crime, high finance, media or government war councils. It only reveals the anxieties of the self-appointed ethnic actuary. True, it can be fun to know that this-or-that athlete is Jewish. But if your Jewish son or daughter started to internalize the invisibility of Jewish athletes, you would probably want to instruct him or her that role models don’t come from just one community. It’s a short step to saying that Jewish athleticism is an indicator of Jewish virility, and before you know it you’re in the briar patch of self-hatred. And that’s an unfortunate subtext of this book, so much so that the editors discuss foreskins in the Greek gymnasia during the very first paragraph of their introduction. Guys: relax. [emphasis mine]
What's interesting about books on Jews and sports is not how many Jews have played professional baseball, but why it's so important to us to search out and tally them up.

I think we can extend Ackerman's point not just to the endless search for Jewish sports heroes, but to the related obsession with the over-representation of Jews in comedy, science, and shlock horror films (ok, I'm probably the only one obsessed with that one.) These kinds of narratives usually suffer from a fatal tendency to see (or hope for) some essential Jewish quality to porn, comedy, science or shlocky horror films. It's an intellectually lazy exercise and one, as Ackerman rightly points out, that says much more about the writers' anxieties than it does about their subjects.