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.