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,

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Kabbalah: The Musical!

Ladies and Gents, katshkes un genz. You all being up-to-the-minute, red hot RSS feed reading demons, you've heard about the arrival of the French klezmofusion band Kabbalah.

What's that, you say? You thought Kabbalah referred to the mystical, esoteric tradition within Jewish thought and practice? I mean... yeah. That, too.

But here is KABBALAH.

Ignore what the DNAInfo article says. To my ears, Kabbalah sounds more like Balkan Beat Box than anything else. Which isn't a dismissal at all.

Seems you gotta catch Kabbalah this week or never.

Kabbalah, 2012 US Tour: Tour Schedule

06/10/2012, Sun
Santa Cruz, CA
Moe's Alley1535 Commercial Way
Tix: $10.00/$15.00Doors Open: 8:00 pmShow: 8:30 pm

  • Ph: 831.479.1854

  • 06/14/2012, Thu
    New York, NY
     Drom85 Avenue A (b/w 5th & 6th)
    Tix: $10.00Doors Open: 6:30 pmShow: 7:00 pm

  • Ph: 212.777.1157

  • 06/15/2012, Fri
    Brooklyn, NY
    XPO 929929 Broadway
    Tix: $8.00/$6.00 presaleDoors Open: 8:00 pm,Show: 9:00 pm

    06/16/2012, Sat
    New York, NY
    Mehanata Bulgarian Bar113 Ludlow Street
    Doors Open: 9:00 pmShow: 9:00 pm

  • Ph: 212.625.0981

  • 06/17/2012, Sun
    New York, NY
    The City Winery155 Varick Street
    Tix: $10.00Doors Open: 10:00 amShow: 11:00 am

    And, no, I'm not going to snark on the DNAInfo article, not today, because who cares?  Also: not only have they informed me of the approaching Kabbalah invasion, they've hipped me to something even more exciting, something that's awakened the slumbering groupie/fan girl inside me: Viking Shtreimel.


    They're ex-Lubab boys who never left Crown Heights and instead formed a death-metal Yiddish band. As I scrolled down I was absolutely convinced that the cutie playing bass, the one in the AC/DC t-shirt, was my ex-Lubab, ex-boyfriend. I mean, it could be, if he got rid of his beard (a crime!) and picked up the electric bass again. Which, why not? could be! Though... in my heart I know he's too much of a music snob to play death metal. On the other hand, he's definitely got the sizzle and rage (and sculpted biceps) to make one a success in such a genre. I dunno, maybe it is him?

    All of which is to say that I will definitely check out VIKING SHTREIMEL next time they visit my local purveyor of fine Yiddish death metal. What about you?

    Mazl tov to a Couple of My Favorite Professors

    I love it when terrific books about Yiddish win praise, love and cash money prizes. I love it even more when said books are written by young, sexy, dynamic, brilliant scholars of Yiddish. (I hope you can't tell I'm also deep green with envy.)

    First, congratulations to University of Ottawa professor Rebecca Margolis. She has won won a Vine Canadian Jewish Book Award in the Yiddish category. Professor Margolis won for her book Jewish Roots, Canadian Soil: Yiddish Culture in Montreal, 1905-1945.  

    I saw Rebecca talk about her book, I think it was last year, at YIVO, in the great hall. One of the most interesting things I learned from her talk was how the development of Yiddish culture and life in Montreal was so different from that in, say, New York. Most importantly, Yiddish speakers in Montreal didn't have to contend with an already hegemonic, Yiddish hostile, German-Jewish elite. How did that turn of events affect the development of Yiddish press in Montreal? You'll just have to read the book now, won't you?

    York University Jewish studies phenom, Kalman 'Keith' Weiser, has also won a Vine award for his book Jewish People, Yiddish Nation: Noah Prylucki and the Folkists in Poland. I don't think I've seen Kalman speak about his book (though I saw him give an excellent paper about Max Weinreich at the Weinreich in America conference a few months ago.) But Jewish People, Yiddish Nation won the Vine prize for Scholarship and I really want to read it. 
    Using hitherto unexplored archival sources, memoirs, interviews, and materials from the vibrant interwar Jewish and Polish presses, Kalman Weiser investigates the rise and fall of Yiddishism and of Prylucki's political party, the Folkists, in the post-World War One era. Jewish People, Yiddish Nation reveals the life of a remarkable individual and the fortunes of a major cultural movement that has long been obscured.

    Big mazl tov to Rebecca and Kalman on their accomplishments and for enriching the Jewish community with their hard work!!!

    Tuesday, June 5, 2012


    You've been waiting for weeks. Three, to be exact. Finally, the video of 'Now What: The Future of New Jewish Culture' (A Town Hall Meeting) is available on the Speakers' Lab website.

    My Satmar friends have to watch it illicitly on their Blackberries, but YOU can watch it in the comfort of your wide screen Mac Air. So don't delay. Watch real, live (on video) women and men on the same stage, using the same microphones, talking about Jewish culture. Do it now, before Town Hall policy events are ossured like bicycles in a Williamsburg elementary school.