Friday, December 6, 2013

Vos Vet Blaybn - Reflections on Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman

(This is a guest post by Asya Fruman, in honor of the memory of Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman, z"l. Asya is a young translator from Kharkov, Ukraine. She's been studying Yiddish, and immersing herself in yiddishkayt, since she fell in love with klezmer music in 2009.)


Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman.

Of course I had heard of her before and knew some of her songs, but only this year did I really start to listen to Beyle’s songs, not just hern but aynhern zikh. My past several months have been infused with her music, her poetry, her voice.

There’s a thing about old songs — especially folk ones — sung by elderly people. I usually come across it in field recordings. It’s something very subtle and, I think, irreproducible. They sing out every single word with — how should we call it — reverence, feeling of value? As if they were weaving tapestry, knowing how important every thread is.

This has nothing to do with pomposity. No, it’s rather deep awareness; not a single sound is optional. It’s kavone, yes, but a very gentle kind of kavone.

Here it is, I’ve found the word: they sing with care.

And there is something else: the performer might have a beautiful voice or no voice at all, but in any case the manner of performance is not so vocal as it is narrative. By that, I don’t mean that they talk instead of singing, not at all; again, I am speaking of awareness. Their singing is always storytelling, even if it’s a nign (song without words.)

All of the above absolutely applies to Beyle.

I love her intonation: calm and reserved, full of dignity. Lyrical without being sentimental. 
Hers is not a stage voice — and yet she is a great singer.

In mid-November, having failed to make out a few words in a song from the Bay mayn mames shtibele CD, I sent an email to Itzik Gottesman to ask for help — but also to tell how Beyle’s songs resound in me, how charmed and moved I am by her poetry, music and manner of singing.

He answered the very next day, explaining the words I didn’t understand, and told me that he had read the letter to Beyle and that she thanked me.

It was a miracle.

Internetized as I am, I still feel amazed about the fact that one can send a letter to a great person on the other side of the  Earth, and the addressee will receive it instantly, and read it, and answer.

And what is even more miraculous is the connection between countries and generations, the honor and joy to share this language, this culture, to sing Beyle’s songs — because I sing them almost every day, when doing the dishes, when walking up the stairs, they are a part of me now. 

The opportunity to thank the author.
We’ve had a similar happy opportunity when Arkady Gendler came to our  Kharkov Klezmer Teg festival in the beginning of November, and we talked in Yiddish and sang together. Priceless moments of connection, a goldene keyt.


I watched Beyle’s funeral online and sang with everybody, so in a way I was present at the ceremony.
It was so much unlike the funerals I had attended here in Kharkov: oppressing, gloomy rituals that had nothing to do with the person gone. They left an aftertaste of senselessness.

Beyle’s memorial was full of her, as if it were not a funeral but her own concert. It was all about continuity and life: life going on with Beyle, not without her. And the ceremony didn’t leave an awkward feeling, only warmth and gratitude. I’ve realized how vital yidishkayt has become for me, how I want to live within it and transmit it.

What kind of person one must be to make even one’s own funeral inspiring!..
To leave behind oneself not a gap but a garden and a wish to be a gardener.

This is what remains. "Iz dir nit genug?” 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman koved ir ondenk

Thursday night we lost a treasure of the Yiddish world, poet, artist, songwriter Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman. She was 93.

Beyle survived the war in the Czernowitz ghetto and, a few years later, moved to New York City with her family.

(from Wikipedia) After the war, Schaechter-Gottesman lived several years in Vienna, where her husband had a chief position ("Chefarzt") in the DP camps in the area. Their daughter Taube was born there in 1950; the family moved to New York in 1951, where the Gottesmans had two other children, Hyam and Itzik. In New York the Gottesmans took part in an experimental Yiddish community in the Bronx, centered around Bainbridge Avenue. There a half-dozen Yiddish-speaking families bought adjacent houses and reinvigorated the existing Sholem Aleichem Yiddish School. Schaechter-Gottesman became an important member of this community, writing classroom materials, plays and songs for the school as well as editing a magazine for children ("Kinderzhurnal") and a magazine of children’s writings ("Enge-benge").

In 2007 I wrote about Enge-benge for Jewish Currents:

Back in the 1960s, a few dedicated families of Yiddishist activists were trying to figure out where to live and faced similar issues. Three families, the Schaechters, the Gottesmans and the Fishmans, made a decision to move to Bainbridge Avenue in the Bronx. There was nothing particularly wonderful about Bainbridge Avenue; in fact, the families looked at other possible places for their Yiddishist colony, including Roosevelt, New Jersey. But on Bainbridge Avenue they could get spacious houses near parks and transportation, and the men could commute easily to their jobs in Manhattan.
These families made a conscious decision to provide a Yiddish infrastructure for their children. Producing the next generation of Yiddish speakers, in a country and a time where Yiddish was less than a minority language, would take planning, dedication, and the will to leave nothing to chance. Even if the parents spoke Yiddish at home, the children would need peers, activities, and a school — a Yiddish culture of their own.
Many Yiddish-speaking families from the surrounding neighborhood already sent their children to Shul 21 on Bainbridge Avenue, part of the Sholem Aleichem Folksinstitute (SAFI), one of the oldest Yiddish school systems and the one that was apolitical, focused on culture rather than on any particular ideology. But as a supplement to five days a week of Shul 21, poet and painter Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman and her brother, Mordkhe Schaechter, a Yiddish linguist and scholar, decided to started a children’s svive -— an informal club that would give their kids more opportunities to speak Yiddish and do activities in Yiddish. The svive was called Enge Benge, after a counting rhyme made popular by Sholem Aleichem: Enge benge/stupe stenge/artse bartse/gele shvartse/eygele feygele khik. (The words are mostly nonsensical, to be used rythmically for choosing, like ‘eeny meeny miney moe.’)
Never more than a small, local playgroup for a handful of families (with names like Weinreich, Mlotek, Hoffman, Kramberg and others), Enge Benge was nevertheless politically and culturally influenced by the large, vibrant network of Yiddishist youth groups that flourished in interwar Poland. In the pages of the Enge Benge journal (1966-72), written by the kids and edited by Beyle Schaechter Gottesman, you can see traces of di bin (the Bee), a youth group founded in 1927 Vilna by Dr. Max Weinreich, the leader of Vilna’s YIVO. 

Though it seems like a quaint mimeographed relic, Enge-Benge represented a truly heroic task: the struggle for cultural continuity against the ravenous maw of American assimilation. 

With the loss of Chane Mlotek a few weeks ago, and now Beyle, the Yiddish world is that much poorer, that much further from the vibrant multi-lingual world of Jewish Eastern Europe. We are lucky, though, that both Chana and Beyle didn't just transmit that culture personally, but both worked to sustain the Yiddish institutional world in a multitude of ways. 

And as inadequate as I feel to carry on their work, I am inspired by my peers who have invested themselves in the project of Yiddish cultural continuity. They have worked closely with both Beyle and Chana and have taken inspiration, and spiritual nourishment, from both of them. I am hopeful that they can, and will, make Chana, and Beyle, and all our spiritual grandparents, proud.  

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Lou Reed's Red Shirley

You've probably all heard by now that legendary poet/musician/downtown icon Lou Reed has passed away. 

Others will be praising and remembering Lou Reed the musician in the days to come. What a lot of people don't know is that in the last few years Reed had branched out into filmmaking. In 2010 he made a short, experimental documentary about his elderly cousin, Shirley Novick. Novick was the widow of Paul (Peysakh) Novick, the long-time editor of the Morgn Frayhayt (the Yiddish language, American Communist newspaper.) Not that you'd learn that from the film. While I have enormous love and respect for Lou Reed, (and the Novicks), the film was a disappointing mess. (You can watch the whole movie here)...

Lou Reed's Red Shirley  

(January 2011) 

On January 15, the audience at the New York Jewish Film Festival caught a glimpse of a different side of rock legend Lou Reed. He was not there as the eminence grise of punk provocation, but as an utterly respectable director and documentarian, there to show his new short film, Red Shirley.

The subject of Red Shirley is his 101 year old cousin (his grandfather was her uncle), Shirley Novick, but the aesthetic is pure Reed. Shot in beautiful hi-def video, the film flows easily from black and white to color, from still to motion. The soundtrack is Reed’s project, Metal Machine Trio, a hauntingly spare piece of industrial chamber music. Reed’s aesthetic is definitely anti-nostalgic. No sad violins or weepy clarinets straining to approximate some kind of ersatz  Lower East Side authenticity. As a filmmaker, Reed is confident enough to know not to try to bring the audience to a place its subject wouldn’t even recognize.

The  trajectories of the two cousins, Shirley Novick and Lou Reed, couldn’t be more different. Novick was born in 1909 in a largely Jewish town in Poland. She spoke Yiddish at home, but attended a Tarbut Ivrit school where students learned Hebrew and were encouraged to move to Palestine. Two of Novick’s siblings, Rachel and Rosa, did emigrate to Palestine, but she took another path. First to Montreal,  in 1928, and six months later, mandolin in hand and longing for the ‘hustle and bustle of the city’, she made her way to New York and five decades of tireless union agitating in the workshops of the garment industry. After 80 odd years in New York, Shirley still speaks English with a heavy Yiddish accent.

Aside from the whole junkie/poet/rock god thing, Lou Reed's trajectory as an American Jew -- born in Brooklyn and  raised on Long Island-- is far more banal.  He grew up in a middle class, conservative Jewish environment where English was the language of both American and Jewish life. 

Like Shirley, though, Lou was also bound for the ‘hustle and bustle’ of New York City. As most people know, Reed formed the Velvet Underground, was discovered by Andy Warhol and the rest is rock and roll legend.

At 68, he’s done it all- been a rock star, a published photographer, written music for the theater, and just possibly changed the course of world politics (Vaclav Havel calls him when he’s in town). And though he shows no signs of mellowing, it's tempting to read Red Shirley as Lou Reed’s Jewish roots project. 

John Zorn has his Masada, so why shouldn’t Reed find a way to  redeem his own Jewishness from the waste of suburban mediocrity? After all, Shirley Novick, Reed’s onetime babysitter, is everything his parents weren't: urban, working class, a genuine radical. She’s the exotic alien (Novick was smuggled illegally into the country and never took American citizenship on principle) who defiantly continued to live her life in Yiddish, a 'fuck you' to mainstream American and Jewish culture that a contrarian like Reed has to appreciate.

Despite the cutting edge cinematography and music, Red Shirley is, at the end of the day, not unlike a movie that might be made by many American Jews  about a favorite relative from the ‘old country’. As Reed told the Wall Street Journal, “This was an act of love, I realized that if I didn’t do this, a connection to a lot of things would be lost forever.” 

Recording device at the ready, Reed was finally ready to record the colorful stories and native wisdom of a vanishing generation. Novick’s career as union activist, of course, is at the heart of the film. But Reed’s lack of interest in details and gee whiz incredulity keeps Novick’s story from ever really coming into focus. As the on-screen interlocutor,  he can’t seem to think of much of a response beyond ‘Get out of here’ or ‘You can’t be serious.’  

Novick tells us that despite being a young, immigrant girl, she quickly became a leader among her fellow rank and file union members. But why exactly was she in conflict with her union leadership? Why was she attacked in the press? What kind of beliefs kept her fighting for her fellow workers for 47 years? In short it's beyond puzzling that, given the title of the film, we never really learn what made Red Shirley red

What we don't learn in the film is that Shirley was married for decades to Paul Novick, the longtime editor of the Yiddish communist daily the Morgn Frayhayt. Though there’s a brief shot of a photo of marchers with an IWO banner, it's never explained that the IWO, a fraternal organization established as the Communist analog to the social democratic Arbeter Ring/Workmen’s Circle, was at one time the largest left-wing membership organization in American history. The IWO and the Morgn Frayhayt were just two parts of a vibrant network of radical, Yiddish oriented institutions, all of which negotiated the complicated territory between Jewish nationalism and internationalism. 

Those institutions, and that network, are essentially gone now, whether the victim of state sponsored anti-Communist frenzy (as with the demise of the IWO) or they died with their elderly leaders (as with the Morgn Frayhayt which finally ceased publication in 1988.) In Irving Howe’s World of Our Fathers, the popular (and purportedly comprehensive) standard work on the Jewish labor movement, Paul Novick and the Morgn Frayhayt are essentially written out of history. The triumph of anti-Communism was so thorough that even in a movie like Red Shirley, the word Communist is never uttered.

Novick arrived in North America at 19, alone, with an already developed sense of class consciousness. She spent the next 80 years resisting the mainstream Jewish-American narrative of upward mobility and assimilation. Even at the Q&A after the movie, she wanted to talk about conditions for garment workers today. 

At 101 and living in the Chelsea Garment Workers Project in Chelsea, Shirley isn’t just a survivor. She is Zorn’s radical Jewish culture incarnate in a huggable elderly Jewish lady. It’s unfortunate that Red Shirley in complicit in silencing an important part of her story. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Answer is 'No'

Can Minimal Jewish Education Be Made Viable? 

by Leon A. Jick

(from The Education of American Jewish Teachers, a volume of essays on the state of American Jewish education, edited by Oscar Jankowsky, 1967)

"In light of the often-extolled Jewish concern for education, it is nothing less than shocking to review the negligible interest which the American Jewish community has shown in Jewish education. Compared to the enormous effort mobilized by the community to foster Americanization, or to prosecute the relentless multi-fronted war which has been and is being waged on anti-Semitism, the energies and resources allocated to Jewish education are inconsequential.

Perhaps this neglect was understandable during the years when a largely immigrant community was preoccupied with establishing itself. Unfortunately, the pattern has continued without any significant change. Within the past decade, a socially and economically successful American Jewry has built an impressive complex of hospitals, welfare agencies, and community centers; it has founded and financed a new university [Brandeis]; it has established a medical school and is planning a second. Its public relations agencies, undeterred by diminishing hostility, have mushroomed in scope and expertise. Jewish education remains a stepchild at the banquet table of Jewish generosity and concern.

In view of this neglect, all the more credit is due to the devoted band of public servants who have struggled to raise the standards of Jewish education, to innovate, to respond to the immediate and long-range needs of Jewish schooling, whatever its institutional form or ideological content.

During the decades when American Jewry relied primarily on immigration from Eastern Europe to provide teaching personnel for Jewish schools, a handful of farsighted educators established teacher-training centers, The decimation of European Jewry and the evaporation of the stream of immigration precipitated a crisis long in the making. Without the contribution of the existing teacher-training institutions, this crisis would have reached the proportions of a calamity.

The recent colloquium and the present book have reviewed the work of all segments of the American Jewish community in the field of teacher training. This review provides us with an opportunity to acknowledge the achievement of those who labored while the community as a whole slumbered. At the same time, the survey reminds us that what has been done in the past by all segments of the Jewish community is woefully inadequate to meet the minimal needs for teaching and administrative personnel in Jewish education. [emphasis mine]

The provisions for teacher education in the Reform movement indicate that this branch of American Judaism is probably in the most difficult straits of all. Even if we accept the improbable thesis that a one-day-a-week school can provide a minimally adequate Jewish education, we must ask how can such schools function properly without trained teaching and supervisory personnel?

The report presented in this volume spells out the particulars of a disastrously inadequate school system. According to the statistics cited, one-fourth of those currently teaching in Reform Jewish schools have not had any Jewish education at all. Less than a fifth of the teachers have had "a secondary Jewish education of any kind." Clearly, no educational system can be built with teachers who are so deficient in knowledge and experience and whose example seems to testify to the peripheral value of Jewish education. [emphasis mine]


For better or for worse, a substantial proportion of American Jewish children receive their Jewish education in schools which are conducted by the Reform movement. This movement, together with Bureaus of Jewish Education and Colleges of Jewish Studies, must intensify their efforts to provide competent Jewishly oriented teachers for Reform religious schools."

Monday, October 14, 2013

From the Back Wall - Yiddish Songs of Work and Struggle

Welcome to another installment of my series on out of print Jewish records. I'm working my way through a gorgeous stack of records gifted to me last summer. As I listen I'm going to share my favorite bits and pieces with you.

Today we have the Jewish Students' Bund Production of Yiddish Songs of Work and Struggle*, featuring the Yiddish Youth Ensemble (1971). Though you probably can't find this album (or cassette) today, many of the songs appear on In Love and In Struggle: The Musical Legacy of the Labor Bund. That CD was released in 1999 and features the incandescent vocals of Adrienne Cooper (z"l).

I picked one song to share with you today. It's listed as Vinterlid (Winter Song) on Yiddish Songs of Work and Struggle. This track features Susan Finesilver, Judy Gottlieb, Dina Schwartzman and Josh Waletsky.

[WARNING I AM ABOUT TO TALK ABOUT MUSIC THEORY AND I AM BOTH UNLICENSED AND UNQUALIFIED]  I first heard this in my living room with a friend visiting from England. She happens to be both a master klezmer fiddle teacher as well as an early music professional. It was her observation about this particular recording which really struck me. She noted how the spare setting (just voice, no piano) sounded more like early church music than Eastern European Jewish folk music. The whole album, she noted, used diatonic or church modes, as opposed to what we in 2013 think of as Jewish music (freygish) mode.

I should note, though, that this is a product of late 20th century America. And, of course, Jewish music in Eastern Europe reflected both ancient Jewish liturgical traditions as well as shared Western musical traditions. My visiting friend told me of a project right now exploring the connections between Yiddish and German folksong.

Authenicity, you're soaking in it.

In any case, I am in love with this unusual setting of Vinterlid. I hope you enjoy it, too.

(Apologies for the not great photos. If there's something you'd like to see more clearly let me know and I'll try to take a better picture.)

The liner notes for Yiddish Songs of Work and Struggle are great because they include the Yiddish lyrics (in Yiddish oysyes and YIVO standard transliteration) as well as English translation. All Yiddish music should come with such beautifully thought out materials.

Vinterlid - Avrom Reisen

hulyet, hulyet beyze vintn
fray bahersht di velt!
brekht di tsvaygn, varft di beymer
tut vos aykh gefelt

traybt di foygl fun di velder
un faryogt zey fort
di vos kenen vayt nisht flien
toyt zey oyfn ort!

Frolic, frolic, you angry winds;
Freely rule the world.
Break the branches, hurl the trees,
Do whatever you please.

Drive the birds from the woods,
And keep on chasing them away;
And those that cannot fly too far-
Kill them on the spot!

There are many, many recorded versions of Vinterlid. Some have recorded it as Beyze Vintn. One of my absolute favorites is this very different interpretation by Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird. It appears on his CD Dos tsebrokhene loshn/The Broken Tongue. (A must-have for any Jewish music collection.)

Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird doing Beyze Vintn.

*Many thanks to Lorin Sklamberg and the Max and Frieda Weinstein Archives of YIVO Sound Recordings for making Yiddish Songs of Work and Struggle available to share.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Let's Listen to Dirty Yiddish Comedy Records, For a Change

This was supposed to be a post about serious Yiddish music. The idea was to continue my From the Back Wall series on out of print Jewish LPs, this time with the Jewish Students' Bund Production of Yiddish Songs of Work and Struggle. However, I don't yet have those sound files available for sharing.

In the meantime, I thought I'd share something that more closely reflects my own personal mishegas. This is the brilliant Patsy Abbott singing, circa 1965. The upshot is, it's tough being a lady who knows what she wants. Er Hut Nisht Vus Ich Darf*/ He Doesn't Have What I Need.

ער האט נישט וואס איך דארף
ער האט נישט וואס איך דארף
ווײַל וואס ער האט דאס דארף איך ניט
און וואס איך דארף דאס האט ער ניט
און וואס ער קען דאס וויל איך ניט
און וואס איך וויל דאס קען ער ניט
ער האט נישט, ניין ער האט נישט וואס איך דארף

(Neither of these women is Patsy.)

*Spelling reproduced as it appears on the LP jacket. This is obviously not YIVO orthography, the preferred standard for my blog.

Speaking of strong women; for another point of view, here's Sinead O'Connor singing I Do Not Want Have I Haven't Got. I'm not sure if Patsy would approve, though...

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Limits of American Jewish Sociology And Why We Should Just Turn The Whole Thing Over To The Anthropologists To Avoid Further Embarrassment

Rachel Gross has an excellent piece on the Pew survey today in Religion and Politics.

She makes the point, as others have, that the survey is deeply flawed because it reflects a religious bias:

From outside the field of sociology, I find the Pew study’s approach to the age-old question of “Who is a Jew?” admirable but incomplete. By necessity, it makes the category of religion appear rigid, implicitly prioritizing belief where a variety of practices and identities may be at least as important to how people conceive of themselves religiously.
And the writers of the Pew survey rely on unexamined assumptions about American Jews rather than unpacking old narratives and uncovering new ways of understanding:
The story being told here is one of secularism, or, in clichéd American Jewish terms, “assimilation,” a move from an imagined, essentialized religious Judaism that is threatened by American culture toward watered-down Jewish identities or, in more catastrophic imaginings, the disappearance of American Jews altogether. 
But beyond the door of the synagogue or Jewish communal center, American Jews’ spiritual lives are rich, complex, and hard to pin down. Divisions between Judaism (the religion) and Jewishness (the culture) are no longer useful, if they ever were. Simplistic “religious” and “secular” Jews no longer accurately describe the diversity of American Jewish practice, if they ever did. 
Omeyn! If you ask me, the false division of Jewish life into 'religion' and 'culture' lies at the heart of however you want to name our present crisis. 

Gross has her own research methods which aim to undo this unnatural division:

In my own qualitative ethnographic research, I examine the quotidian activities of American Jews across and beyond denominational structures, divisions that have become increasingly fluid. I have found that American Jews with a broad array of religious affiliations and no affiliation engage in the ostensibly nonreligious activities of Jewish genealogical research, attending Jewish historic sites, consuming markedly Jewish food, and purchasing books and toys that teach Jewish heritage to their children. These are mundane activities, yet engagement with them may provide a core emotional connection to a Jewish identity. 
For my own research purposes, I am still waiting for a national survey to ask about attendance at Jewish museums, as the 2000 Jewish Community Study of Greater Baltimore did. That study found that 59 percent of its respondents reported visiting a Jewish museum in the past three years. Sixty-five percent of Orthodox Jews had visited a Jewish museum; 57 percent of “non-denominational and secular Jews” had visited one. These mundane activities are deeply meaningful to American Jews and form the basis of religious identities. As many American Jews have grown increasingly distant from traditional communal structures, they find Jewish meaning in unconventional ones, such as restaurants and museums. The Pew survey tells us some important things about Jews. But it does not come close to revealing the range of everyday American Jewish practices, which continue to fall outside the recognized boundaries of religion. 

If she's waiting for another national survey to ask the real questions, well, she's gonna be waiting approximately a decade, if not longer. That's the real scandal here, that we got a shot at getting some good data, and we blew it. That's a multi-million dollar mistake.

Rachel Gross is hardly the first person to suggest that the whole approach toward surveys needs to be examined. These concerns have been coming from inside the Jewish sociological establishment for decades.

In his 1949 (updated in 1955) landmark study of a Chicago suburb he called "Park Forest," Herbert Gans, the grandfather of American Jewish sociology, noted a significant gap in his own data:

"...however, it should be remembered that there are many Jewish families in Park Forest who, as the 1949 study showed, do not participate in any formal activities, although they maintain some relationship with the Jewish community through Jewish friends. Because there is no public evidence of their affiliation, they are often overlooked in the concern with formal organizations. The Jewish life of these people, who constitute close to half the Jewish population of Park Forest, was not studied in the 1955 revisit, and leaves a gap in the description of the total Jewish community." [emphasis mine]
(The Origin and Growth of a Jewish Community in the Suburbs: a Study of the Jews of Park Forest, 1949, 1955)

In 1992, esteemed Jewish sociologist Egon Mayer wrote a paper called The Coming Reformation in American Jewish Identity. In it he tried to assess our ability to predict the Jewish demographic future. It just so happens the future is here, and it doesn't look that different, all for the worse.

At the end of his paper he points out that his peers in Jewish sociology are stuck within the model of Jewishness they were raised in, one heavy on membership and belonging:

“...the associationalism that had come to characterize modern Jewish identity in the experience of the typical American Jew of the postwar era found its social scientific adumbration in Jewish community surveys that have come to measure "Jewishness" by means of behavior and attitude scales and other social yardsticks pegging identity to belonging. We have been far less adept at picking up the quiet signals of the invisible Judaism that con­tinues to animate Jewish identity alongside or independently of formal affilia­tions or the public and private acts that are generally considered the appropriate operational expression of one's Jewishness.” [emphasis mine]
Consequently, any attempt to peer into the future, whether 20 or 50 years hence, to imagine the shape and nature of Jewish identification, must grapple with both the factual implications of the current measures of Jewishness and the question of what those measures may have missed hitherto in conceiving of Jewish identity.

I don't see a lot of grappling going on, do you? Jewish sociologists have had more than 20 years since Mayer's cri de coeur in which to reckon with their own prejudices and preconceptions.  And what do we have to show for it?

But hey, let's talk about that intermarriage crisis...

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Self-Knowledge and Self-Respect- Some Thoughts From the Archive

"... we say, and we say it boldly but sincerely, that you cannot build either healthy Jews or Jewesses unless you permeate the youth with a healthy self-respect, and that you cannot hope to make men or women respect themselves unless you tell them who and what they are and from whom and from what they originate, who their people were, what their language is and tell them something of the history of their past. Ludicrous though it may seem, it is none the less the fact that our youths or at least many of them are under the impression that all Jews are either the proverbial peddler or rag-picker, and you cannot hope to have them think otherwise unless you teach them otherwise."

-Robert Hess, Milwaukee Folkschule teacher, 1916

Monday, October 7, 2013

What Does It Mean To Be Jewish (Outside The Bubble of the American Jewish Institutional World) Part 3

"Public opinion surveys some years ago indicated that hardly 18% of American Jews attended religious services at least once a month." -Wil Herberg, 1950

"Only 13% were what might be called regular worshippers by Lakeville standards, attending High Holy Days each year, on Festivals, and on Sabbath once or twice a month or more... To Lakeville's Jews, belonging rather than attending seemed to be what mattered about religious affiliation." -Sklare, Greenblum and Ringer, 1969, based on research conducted in the 1950s

[The results of the latest Pew survey are] "devastating... I thought there would be more American Jews who cared about religion." Forward Editor-in-Chief Jane Eisner, New York Times, October 1, 2013

You'll excuse my schadenfreude, but the frenzy around the latest Pew survey has given me a bitter chuckle or two at the expense of our gedolim.

I'm a Yiddishist, which means that I've spent my entire adult life being condescended to, marginalized, erased, and generally having the shit mansplained out of me by the Jewish institutional world and its various representatives, bureaucratic and academic. So, you know, allow me a little pleasure.

Many times I've been informed that the Yiddish language itself is illegitimate (a mere dialect/jargon/pidgin/creole), that it can't be a substitute for religion (as if I would khas v'sholem suggest such a stupid thing), that I myself am a soyne yisroel for daring to suggest that Yiddish, too, is an important Jewish language (an insult to the real sonim yisroel, in any case.)

Don't you know that Yiddish in America failed because it could not reproduce its institutions or even its speakers? To which I can answer today, look in the fucking mirror, buddy and tell me what you see.

One could easily argue that American Jewish religion, as a successor to European forms of Judaism, failed to reconstitute itself in a sustainable, reproducible way. I'm hardly the only one saying this: American synagogue/Temple oriented Judaism is a failure and was a failure, almost from the very start.

I may be unique, though, in calling out the Jewish pundit class for pushing an ahistorical narrative heavy on fear and guilt and light on critical thinking.

"Many parents thought their children might marry gentiles, and most were resigned or only moderately unhappy about this prospect. Love was widely felt to outweigh religion as a criterion for marriage... Opposition to intermarriage was usually attributed to concern over possible personal difficulties rather than over Jewish survival." - Sklare, Greenblum and Ringer 

"What haunts me and the many parents I know who have children in the twenties and thirties is whether they will marry, and if so, whether they will marry Jews." - Jane Eisner, Forward, January 7, 2013

The time to worry about apathy, alienation, affiliation and intermarriage was the 1950s, when anyone who looked at the literature knew exactly what kind of demographic shit storm was brewing. But it's 2013 and the Jewish community is reaping exactly what was sown in the post-war synagogue/suburb boom. Game over. To think that at this point you can, for example, shame people out of intermarriage is so bizarre that it's hard for me to take the notion seriously. And yet, the 'fight' against intermarriage is considered by those with power to be completely legitimate. Am I the only one who thinks real solutions to our problems are never gonna come from these people?

What is to be said about the state we're in today, if we're to take some kind of historically informed perspective? I'd say something like this: post WW II, the face of institutional Judaism changed practically overnight but the people did not. A cultural disconnect is built into the very fabric of modern American Jewish life.

Landsmanshaftn, fraternal organizations, shtiblekh, Talmud Torahs, the entire Yiddish cultural apparatus, all was replaced (or at least declared dead) in the supercessionary march toward Temples, synagogues, two generation families, JCCs, Hebrew schools etc.

American Jewish life had been remade in the image of an imaginary new American Jew. The real American Jews continued to evolve, gradually, as they had been doing for decades- with declining interest in religion and an emotional and personal attachment to their Yiddish past.

Not only did the institutions change, so did the official narrative of American Jewishness. A whole lot of American Jews found themselves and their families written out. Certainly for the tens of thousands of American Jews who had been involved with radical politics before 1950, that past became so politically toxic that it could only be spoken of in the most contemptuous terms possible. Forget about learning that history in Hebrew school, ell oh ell.

But even putting aside that particular (not demographically insignificant) population,  there are innumerable ways the average Jew became alienated from him/herself, distanced from his or her own recent past.

For me, the key image is my dad making brokhes for my family at khanike or pesakh, pretty much the only time we did anything ritually in my house. My dad, having attended an Eastern European style shtibl in 1940s Philadelphia, spoke Hebrew with a lovely Ashkenazi tam. To my callow, Hebrew schooled ears, though, his Hebrew was ugly, grating, wrong.

No one ever explained to me why my dad spoke Hebrew the way he did and had I never learned Yiddish I'm not sure I would've ever figured it out. If I hadn't pursued Yiddish it's unlikely I would've been able to reconcile the gigantic disconnect between the Jewishness I learned at school and that which I absorbed at home, and it's unlikely I would've cared much, anyway.

But who cares about me? What about all these Jews of no religion? This 30% of unchurched Jews? Are they people whose grandparents were khas v'sholem Communists? Or, let's be honest, what about this large majority, with or without 'denomination', who just don't care about religion? Are they like me, everyday Jews turned off by an educational apparatus which did more to alienate than educate?

Who can say? Jane Eisner is the editor-in-chief of the most important Jewish newspaper in America. Her word can summon the resources to conduct a million dollar survey. I'm a nebekh nobody with a blog, So, obviously, I'll take a page from her playbook and put this out there, Pew Trust peeps, if you're looking to do this whole thing over, I've got some ideas:

I just met Pew
And this is Crazy
But I've gotta survey a couple thousand Jews regarding their cultural and educational experiences
So call me maybe?

To be continued...

Friday, October 4, 2013

What Does It Mean To Be Jewish (Outside The Bubble of the American Jewish Institutional World) Part 2

Are you still interested in talking about this Pew report on American Jewry? 


Good, me too. Let me bring your attention to an excellent blog post by Stanford sociologist Ari Kelman. Kelman is one of the only people (as far as I know) to point out that “a religious bias was written into the survey itself.” 

“The instrument [the Pew survey] revealed, however inadvertently, just how rich the vocabulary is for discussing Jewish religious life and how poor it is for understanding other expressions of Jewishness. It asked lots of questions about religion, and it demonstrated a finely-tuned ear for subtle distinctions of religious expression. But when it came to understanding the modes of Jewish engagement by those who claimed to be Jewish-not-by-religion, the survey frequently offered clumsy, ham-handed catch-all categories that tended to blunt any deep understanding of the ways in which Jews-not-by-religion understand and engage in Jewish life....The sophisticated measures and descriptive language around religious differences and distinctions indicate just how finely attuned the American Jewish community has become to the particular formulations of Jewish as a religion, and how far it has to go to truly understand the variety of ways in which people articulate their versions and visions of Jewish culture.”

I’d like to take Professor Kelman’s analysis a couple steps further. Not only does the survey construction reveal the biases of its writers and funders toward a religion/synagogue oriented ‘Jewishness’, it entirely misses an opportunity to learn more about who these complicated American Jews are.

In the section entitled “What Does it Mean to be Jewish?” (pg 54), respondents were asked to identify themselves with three choices: religion, ancestry/culture or a mix of all three. 62% identified with ancestry/culture, 23% with the mix of religion/ancestry/culture and ONLY 15% said religion alone. Which means that 85% of all respondents felt that being Jewish implicates a mix of religious, ancestral and cultural ways of being. 

This openness to seeing Jewishness as more than religion extends even to the Orthodox. Though they are “more apt than other Jews to say that being Jewish is mainly a matter of religion”, even among the Orthodox, large numbers say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture (15%) or that being Jewish is a matter of both religion and ancestry/culture (38%). That is, 53% of Orthodox Jews see Jewishness as some mixture of religion, culture and ancestry.

Clearly, understanding ‘ancestry/culture’ would seem to be of first importance to understanding Jewish American identity.  And yet, as Professor Kelman  points out, the Pew survey almost entirely fails to capture anything outside a synagogue/JCC/Federation inscribed American Jewishness.  Indeed, the Pew survey contains almost no metrics to capture or describe the identity of 85% of American Jews.  As the kids might say, #SurveyFail

About this time, the concerned reader is bound to ask:  What on earth does ancestral/cultural actually mean? And should the two terms even be so inelegantly crammed together? 

I can start by assuming ‘ancestral’ means the commonly held understanding that if one is born to a Jewish mother (or, if Reform, a Jewish parent) then one is Jewish and little short of apostasy can change this. 

Then again, doesn’t ancestral also bring in a whole network of associations and connections? The past doesn’t stop at one generation back. One is Jewish because one’s family is Jewish, because the immediate Jewish history is one’s own history, just as the story of the Exodus is taken on as one’s own at Passover.  I’m not just an American Jew, I’m the great-granddaughter of Romanian Jews, the descendent of immigrants from Eastern Europe, an inheritor of a whole package of ‘ancestral’ signifiers. My identity is quite different than that of my friend whose grandmother is a Polish Holocaust survivor. My friend’s Jewish identity is inflected in numerous, different ways, by her unique ‘ancestry.’ Being a fourth generation American, ancestry means something quite different to me than it does to her.

And what about ‘culture’? In a way, I’m glad that the survey authors didn’t use the dreaded term “ethnicity”, but in essence, that’s what they were getting at.  Culture, it’s like air, all around us, but invisible unless one knows how to make it visible.  Jewish Sociologists don’t  like to talk about culture because it runs contrary to the approved narrative of American Jewishness, one that is post-war, post-immigrant, post-Yiddish, and post-difference. To talk about culture is to be at odds with the monolithic American Jewishness beholden to the Zionist hegemony.  But the reality of American Jews and Jewishness CANNOT be understood without talking about the multiplicity of Jewishness and its many cultures.  Then again, it’s become quite clear in the last few days that those who purport to lead us don’t give a damn about who we really are.

Even though the survey doesn’t set out to detail the ancestry/culture of American Jews, like it does with religion (as noted by Professor Kelman, above), we can still find some traces of it within the results of the survey.  Country of origin, length of time in America, languages, these have to be our starting places. 

Page 45 of the report deals with Ancestry and Place of Birth.  American Jews have become overwhelmingly native born. 86% of American Jews surveyed were born in the United States and 65% have been here for three generations or longer. Only 35% are first or second generation Americans. The most significant groups of foreign born were 5% from the former Soviet Union and 3% from Europe (non-specified.) We also get numbers for those who were born abroad or have a parent born abroad. This increases the numbers to 14% for Europe (non-specified) and 11% former Soviet Union. I don’t know about you, but I find Europe (non-specified) and FSU to be such large categories (and areas) as to be almost useless, not to mention unnecessarily ethnocentric. A Jew from Moldova and a Jew from Moscow have had a tremendously different Jewish experience and different needs.

Given that the large majority of American Jews are here for three generations or more, it also would have been interesting to find out about the ancestry of those Jews. Indeed, as the immigrant experience has been so key to American Jewish identity, it would have been very interesting to see a much greater level of detail as to the birthplace of grandparents and great-grandparents.  

Instead of digging into any kind of useful detail, the next section of the survey goes into Race and Ethnicity. The categories are White (Non-Hispanic), Black (Non-Hispanic), Hispanic, and Other (mixed.) Not surprisingly, 94% reported as White (Non-Hispanic.) Gigantic shockeroo, I know.  You don’t need a million dollar survey to tell me that the majority of American Jews have white privilege. This renders ‘race’ as another useless question.  Why didn’t the survey authors think to use racial categories (it pains me to use the term ‘race’ as it is so problematic, but it’ll have to do for the moment) which actually have meaning to Jews?

Even just an over-simplified Ashkenazi-Sefardi binary would have been welcome, forget about the whole glorius gamut of global Jewish identifications like Mizrahi, Central Asian, Indian, Persian and so on. Seriously, what the fuck does “White (non-Hispanic)” tell me about American Jewry. Nothing.

Language is another important part of ‘culture’ and something that strongly distinguishes sub-groups from each other. Page 63 of the survey investigates Hebrew Language Ability. 48% of respondents don’t even know the alef-beys and only 13% could read all/most Hebrew words. These numbers are shocking, but they don’t do too much to paint a picture of Hebrew ritual literacy.  What I mean by Hebrew ritual literacy is some level of fluency or familiarity with key Hebrew texts: Can the respondent make the blessing for shabes candles? For khanike candles? Do they know the Four Questions? Could they lead a seder? It’s possible to have minimal Hebrew literacy per the survey and still be able to access these texts, by memorization, for example. Or having learned them at a Yiddish shule where Hebrew was taught as part of Yiddish. It seems to me that Hebrew ritual literacy is a topic of much more pertinence to traditional notions of Jewishness than whether one is able to carry on a conversation in Modern Hebrew (one of the survey questions), a skill I doubt many of our grandparents or great-grandparents had.

The Hebrew Language Ability section is the only place on the survey which investigates languages and literacy.  It’s easy to forget that the Jews of America came here with a multitude of languages, many of which created (and continue to create!) important bodies of Jewish American literature, music and scholarship. Even if you yourself don’t speak Yiddish or Ladino or Farsi, the language of your parents and grandparents has shaped your lived Jewish experience. Even growing up mostly without grandparents (who were all American born), and with parents who only spoke English, my Jewishness has been influenced in a million ways by the Yiddish of all those relatives I never knew, as well as the Yiddish which has embedded itself in so much of American popular culture. I’ve said it many times, but I could not understand who I was until I started learning Yiddish.  

If you’re anything like me, you’re wondering what the hell the point of this whole survey exercise was. The majority of American Jews have very little interest in synagogues and denominations. Sociologists have known this for at least sixty years, if not closer to a century. So why write an entire survey oriented toward synagogues and denominations? The obvious answer is that the people who commission and fund these kinds of surveys are, unlike the bulk of American Jews, enormously invested in synagogues and denominations. You could just write them off as an elite which is out of touch with the people it purports to lead.

If you were feeling less generous, you might look at what this elite has to say about us, the oylem.  A propos of the Pew survey, the Forward published what I think is one of the best pieces of Jewish journalism of 2013. They got the Jewish institutional gedolim to say, on the record, what they think of us, the rabble, insofar as our opinions are out of synch with their agendas. While the article focuses on attitudes toward the State of Israel, I think it goes quite a way to illuminating the breathtaking state of delusion and arrogance in which the institutional Jewish bubble functions and why they would write a survey with so little interest in who or what we are.

Officials with leading Jewish organizations told the Forward that the 48% of American Jews who Pew says think the Israeli government isn’t making a “sincere effort” to come to a peace deal are either uninformed, unengaged, or wrong. They also asserted that those respondents don’t represent their constituency.

“You know who the Jewish establishment represents? Those who care,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “This is a poll of everybody. Some care, some don’t care.”“I think it’s interesting, we need to be aware,” he said. “But I’m not going to follow this.”

I don’t know about you, but I know a hell of a lot of Jews who are both deeply Jewish, observant and non, extremely informed on the issues, and deeply, passionately critical of Israel. But according to Abe Foxman, holding an opinion other than his means you don’t care. 

Others officials within the Jewish establishment said that the broad swath Jews reflected in the survey were not within the constituency of the mainstream Jewish groups.
“Do we represent the disorganized, unaffiliated Jewish community? Do we represent the 50% of Jews who, in a calendar year, do not step into a synagogue, do not belong to a JCC, and are jews in name only?,” asked one official with a major Jewish organization not authorized to speak by his group on the Pew survey. “The answer is a complicated one.”

Let’s not mince words; if you don’t uncritically support Israel, if you don’t go to synagogue more than a few times a year (like the MAJORITY of American Jews) well, you're a "Jew in name only" and you can go fuck yourself because you don’t even matter

The actual views and needs of American Jews are irrelevant to those controlling the purse strings. Remember that the next time a member of the comfortable Jewish pundit class tells you that intermarriage is imperiling American Jewry. The intermarriage scare is a gigantic con, a way to deflect criticism and place blame on those with the least power.

Instead of shaming Jews who intermarry (an actual suggestion made by Jack Wertheimer), we'd be better off shaming these so called leaders for holding us in contempt. Withhold your Federation donations until those in charge come up with a plan to study the actual state of American Jewry. Write letters to the Forward expressing your desire to be seen and counted. YOU are the silent majority and those in charge need to reckon with that.

(To be continued...)

Friday Fragments

Spent the last few days reading and writing about the latest Pew report on American Jewry. The report does a spectacularly bad job at capturing anything outside a very narrow, synagogue oriented American Judaism, a Judaism, as the numbers show, with minimal relevance to the average American Jew. Unsurprisingly, there are no questions on the survey regarding languages other than Hebrew, and even the Hebrew section is badly designed. 

Inspired by this latest bit of cultural erasure, I present a fragment of something I wrote a year or two ago:

Yiddish isn't so much marginal to institutional Jewish America as it is asymptotic. A glance at the discourse around Yiddish shows it's ever present, and ever maligned, in ways only a psychoanalyst could love. American Jews love to sprinkle their speech with Yiddish words, but have no compunction about denigrating Yiddish as a non-language or 'clown language' or claiming it as the quintessence of onomatopoeia. In the popular imagination, Yiddish is spoken exclusively by the elderly and by victims, (which raises the question of how new Yiddish speakers were ever made.)

When it comes to transmission of Yiddish, we've got Yiddish for Dogs and Yiddish for Babies, but Yiddish for Dayschool Students is almost unthinkable. Indeed, every year books come out purporting to teach Jews Yiddish (usually in the form of curses), but these same books are riddled with errors, sometimes on every page. In what other Jewish subject would such ignorance be tolerated as 'expertise'?

Yiddish is to American Jews what homosexuality is to closeted fundamentalist pastors- an obsession and an embarrassment. Yiddish is no longer a 'vernacular' but has come to function as a screen onto which can be projected our personal, and collective, anxieties.

And here we arrive at one of the most intriguing paradoxes of American Jewish life. The myth of Yiddish, the myth of bubbes and zeydes, Holocaust victims and vulgar Boscht Belt comedians, is at the very heart of American Jewish culture. But the real Yiddish, the Yiddish with a grammar and dictionaries and literature, is so far on the fringe as to be slightly disreputable, and perhaps even illegitimate. Yiddish has been transformed, not just into a post-vernacular (as Jeffrey Shandler has written), but into something out of time, fantastical. No matter what the 'facts' are about Yiddish, its function as myth is so essential to the psyche of the American Jew that it is almost impossible to discuss Yiddish *except* in these mythological terms. Anything that doesn't fit into these tropes just cannot compute.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

What Does It Mean To Be Jewish (Outside The Bubble Of The American Jewish Institutional World) Part 1

The Pew Trust recently released a huge survey of the American Jewish population. The Pew study is important because a major Jewish population study hasn't been done in ten years. While the survey is far from perfect, it's an important wake up call to an ever more delusional American Jewish institutional leadership. Or, maybe it's a message to us, the so-called constituents, that our leaders not only have no interest in who we really are, but are in active denial about it. (Much more on this soon.)

I've been shocked and dismayed to see the reactions of Jewish communal leaders to this latest report. For example, Jane Eisner, editor in chief of the Forward, was quoted in the New York Times saying she

"...found the results “devastating” because, she said in an interview, “I thought there would be more American Jews who cared about religion.” 
“This should serve as a wake-up call for all of us as Jews,” she said, “to think about what kind of community we’re going to be able to sustain if we have so much assimilation.”

Jane Eisner is a smart woman and a formidable journalist. So why would she be devastated by the state of American Jews when sociologists have been saying the exact same things about American Jews for at least fifty years: American Jews have no use for the Jewish religion. Even more than the statistics, the leadership's reaction tells us that something has gone very wrong in the official American Jewish narrative.

However! Before we get to the polemic, let's go to the numbers. One of the points I want to make is that the demographic findings of today are predicted in the sociological literature of 50 years ago. Synagogue attendance, observance of kashrus, Hebrew literacy, attitudes toward intermarriage: these were all on the downward trend decades ago and it warn't no secret. 

For example, in the mid-50s, the American Jewish Committee sponsored a study of a fairly new Chicago suburb; it was known as 'Lakeville' in the literature. The findings of the Lakeville study didn't come out in full until the mid-60s. Its authors were the cream of the crop of American Jewish sociology: Marshall Sklare, Benjamin Ringer, Joseph Greenblum. Though Lakeville was wealthier, better educated and had a smaller percentage of the foreign born than the greater American Jewish population, the study's authors felt Lakeville was a predictor of general trends among American Jews. And boy, were they right.

I'm going to focus on just one 'metric' at the moment, as it has a good one to one correspondence between the Lakeville study and today's Pew report, and it highlights the true state of American Jewry.

Jews in Lakeville were asked to list what they considered to be the most important criteria for being a 'Good Jew.' The responses are here listed in order of frequency:
  • Lead an ethical and moral life
  • Accept his being a Jew and try not to hide it
  • Support all humanitarian causes
  • Promote civic betterment and improvement in the community
  • Gain respect of Christian neighbors
  • Help the underprivileged improve their lot
  • Know the fundamentals of Judaism
  • Work for equality for Negroes

Sorry for the poor photo quality. This is a snapshot of the Lakeville study published in 1969 but based on research from a decade earlier.

Those are the essentials. What about that which is merely 'desirable' to being a good Jew?

In contrast, many virtues directly connected with traditional Judaism and Jewish identity tended to be considered merely 'desirable,' not 'essential.' Some of the most widely named 'desirable' attributes (again in the order of frequency with which named) were these:
  • Be well versed in Jewish history and culture
  • Marry within the Jewish faith (emphasis mine)
  • Contribute to Jewish philanthropies
  • Belong to Jewish organizations
  • Support Israel (emphasis mine)
  • Attend weekly services
  • Attend services on High Holy Days
  • Belong to a synagogue of temple 

Many interesting observations to be drawn here. One of which is obviously that a new, American, Jewish ideal had come to maturity by the 1950s. This ideal called for being a good person (with some sort of mushy, liberal values), and a proud Jew. And, most pertinent to our discussions today, endogamy and support for Israel didn't even make it into the 'essentials' column. The traditional notions of Torah Jewishness: kashrus, shabes, taharas mishpokhe are certainly nowhere to be found. As the authors of Lakeville write about this new American Jewish ideal: "Virtually all the traditional religious, nationalistic and cultural values were missing." 

You don't have to look too hard to know that the parents of the 1950s gave birth to the Jew of 2013. To wit: what it means to be Jewish, from the Pew report of 2013: 

  • Remembering Holocaust 73%
  • Leading ethical/moral life 69%
  • Working for justice/equality 56%
  • Being intellectually curious 49%
  • Caring about Israel  43%
  • Having good sense of humor  42%
  • Being part of a Jewish community 28%
  • Observing Jewish law   19%
  • Eating traditional Jewish food 14%
(screen cap of the Pew report below)

Obviously, there have been some tremendous cultural shifts in American Jewish life since the Lakeville study. Decades of Holocaust education, for example, have placed the Holocaust at the center of American Jewish life in a way that was unimaginable when the Lakeville material was published. And that 19% who answered 'Observing Jewish law'  in 2013 can perhaps be attributed to another trend that was only dimly perceived in the 50s and 60s, the resurgence of traditional Judaism.  And yet, the American Jew of 2013 isn't that different from that of the 50s and 60s. He's less embarrassed of Jewish humor, maybe, but his Jewishness is sentimental, intellectual,  and only vaguely nationalistic. He may belong to a synagogue, but he has no interest in going there.

The numbers are all there, and have been there for decades. Our most pressing problem today isn't intermarriage, (as many would have it) but an American Jewish ideal at odds with traditional Jewishness and Jewish continuity. To act as if this is a surprise, in the face of decades of research, shows a tragic failure of leadership in the American Jewish institutional world.

(Part Two here)
(Part Three here)
(Part Four here)

Monday, September 23, 2013

Git Moyed and Digital Heritage

It's khol ha'moyed sukkes, the intermediate days of the 8 day festival of sukkes/sukkot. You know, you sit in a hut (sukke) and eat; shake a festive blend of biblical plants; go apple picking if you're Brooklyn Hasidish. To be perfectly honest, I haven't done any of those things yet, especially the apple picking.

Which is all to say that I'm not really having the best sukkes ever.  Though it is kinda cinematic. Picture this: my brother and I on a road trip in a rattling cargo van tricked out with hand cranked windows and functioning FM radio. Our destination: a small city 5 hours away where our mom (OBM) was living when she passed away in 2007. Our mission: to clear out a storage locker stuffed with her pesakh dishes, my first grade notebooks and my brother's comic book collection. The drama: tears are shed, teddy bears tossed, parental approval hoped for. 

As we walked away from the storage space, I thought of the stories you hear sometimes about people living in storage lockers. Even if you could get enough oxygen inside, the storage space seems too close to being buried alive. Wouldn't it be better to take your chances on the street or a park bench? I don't know. Thank god, I've never been in the position to have to make that kind of decision.

My own take-away from this trip is that home is what you make it, from moment to moment. And no one is entitled to an attic or basement  or even just a small holding space for a teddy bear and a journal or 15. You've probably realized this if your parents have moved from what you consider to be your childhood home. Home isn't storage space for your stuff, no matter how long you've had it. As wonderful (or horrible) as it is, or how much love is there, home is contingent. It's got a life span, just like those imperfect folks hanging the drapes. Be in the moment because the moment will soon enough be over. 

There's no more perfect symbol of this than the sukke. It's handmade (slow home movement, anyone?) so you are present at its birth. With its incomplete roof, the sukke epitomizes built-in obsolescence. And maybe best of all, it has no encumbrances above or below. Don't even think about storing your comic books in a sukke, son.

I was taken by the contrast between the concrete cells of the storage units and the brittle fragility of the sukke. You can't really settle into either of them. Both are peculiar abstractions of domesticity. Stage instructions. Teddy bears and photos and good china- these are props. Home is something more- a lived experience animated for a time by the people inside.

Homes come and go. But they never really go away. As with history, our homes have made us who we are, sheltered and shaped us. Which brings me to a cool new website I want to share with you. The World Monuments Fund has created a new interactive map which takes you on an interactive journey through Hasidic Poland. It's called "The Chassidic Route: An Exploration of Jewish Heritage In Southeast Poland."  It gives you pictures of Jewish landmarks in cities along the route, the landmarks' current use, and statistics on Jewish population of that city. The starting point for the route is Zamość   If you want to learn more about any of the cities along the way, I recommend starting with a resource like the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. Consider it a khol ha'moyed adventure.