Saturday, May 30, 2015

From Wales to Anatevka and Back

Something to consider:  This week has seen an intense national discussion going on in Wales about improving and supporting Welsh language instruction at all levels. As part of Welsh language culture development, the government sponsors Eisteddfod, an all Welsh youth festival and competition. Today is the last day of the Eisteddfod competition.

Within that conversation about the value of Welsh and how best to support it, you can see this Eisteddfod entry: Fiddler on the Roof, sung by children, in Welsh. Not really a surprise, as people all over the world have found Fiddler's themes of tradition vs. modernity resonate within their own lives.

(I can't figure out how to embed the video here, but please click, you won't be disappointed.)

If you only listen to the beginning, keep an ear open for the Celtic reinterpretation of the fiddler's theme. Fantastic stuff.

And since we're talking about minority languages within English language hegemony... This is the first Yiddish language newscast I've ever seen. It's not really news so much as an in-depth look at the 2014 stabbing of a Chabad bokher in Crown Heights..

And just to tie everything together, please check out this wonderful project documenting the Jews of Wales, sponsored by the Reform community there.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

וואס קומט פאר? ?What's Happening

Couple of cool things to put on your calendar, one this weekend and one coming in June:

Greek Jewish Festival

First, this weekend Kehila Kedosha Janina is holding its first ever Greek Jewish Festival. How cool is that? It's Sunday, noon to 6 pm, celebrating the culture of this historic Romaniote congregation.

From the website:
Join the Greek Jewish Festival as we celebrate the unique Romaniote and Sephardic heritage of Kehila Kedosha Janina. Experience authentic kosher Greek foods and homemade Greek pastries, traditional Greek dancing and live Greek and Sephardic music, an outdoor marketplace full of vendors, arts and educational activities for kids, and much more!

Bonus event: Thursday night (tomorrow) at the Center for Jewish History, Sephardic Journeys: an Evening of Exploration  (tickets $36)

From the website:
Rabbi Marc Angel and Rabbi Yamin Levy will discuss The David Berg Rare Books Room's latest exhibit, Sephardic Journeys, created by the Center for Jewish History with the American Sephardi Federation. The rare books and artifacts in this exhibit reflect a rich tradition of scholarship and culture shaped by migrations, and they invite, in turn, reflection upon the physical, emotional and spiritual journeys of Jewish history. The evening will also feature a performance by Itamar Borochov, a member of Yemen Blues and the New Jerusalem Orchestra, who recently played Dizzy's Club Coca Cola (Jazz at Lincoln Center).
Sephardi refreshments by Nahmias et Fils Distillery and desserts will be served. 

2015 Symposium on Yiddish Performing Arts, Media, Language and Literature, June 16-17

And coming June 16-17, some of my favorite people in the world, together at the most inconvenient museum in the world (haha, I kid, I kid), organized by the Folksbiene's Kulturfest. Yes, I know, such a long list of names, still missing the name of a certain acerbic voice of modern Yiddish culture criticism. גיי ווייס

The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene
and The Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University
proudly present
2015 Symposium on Yiddish Performing Arts, Media, Language and Literature
June 16-17, 2015 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage 36 Battery Place in New York

Key Note Speech by Aaron Lansky, Executive Director of The Yiddish Book Center
Tuesday June 16, 2015 at 6:00 PM
Followed by a wine and cheese reception

The symposium is generously supported by a grant from the David Berg Foundation

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Life Imitates TV Tropes

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.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Felix and Meira

With its sly nods to Harold and Maude and The Graduate,  the new Canadian indie Felix and Meira beats, if weakly, with the heart of a black comedy. Like those two films, Felix and Meira tells the story of mismatched lovers, with a slightly absurd fairytale air. That one half of the couple is Hasidic turns out to be not terribly relevant to the story, even as Felix and Meira is being hailed in some corners as a great movie about the Hasidic experience.

Meira (Hadas Yaron) is a beautiful young wife and mother living within the Hasidic community of Montreal's Mile End. (If, like me, you have a soft spot for the slushy beauty of Montreal in winter, Felix and Meira is worth the price of admission just for that.) Meira's husband Shulem (Luzer Twersky) can't understand why she is so distant: locking herself in the bathroom, listening to forbidden records, falling into sudden dead faints. 

By chance, Meira meets Felix (Martin Dubreuil), a slightly older, slightly rakish Francophone hispter. If Meira is trapped by a lack of resources and opportunities, Felix struggles with too much. He must make peace with his dying father, and the wealth his father represents. What can Meira do with so little? Why has Felix done so little with so much?

We learn why Felix is the way he is, but no explanation is ever really given for Meira's unrest. Yes, Meira is an artist. We know because we see her sketching when she catches the eye of Felix. But the contemporary OTD (Off the Derekh, meaning those who leave the Hasidic/Haredi community) memoirs (like Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox and Shulem Deen’s All Who Go Do Not Return) hinge on the cracks that form between individual and community, whether listening to a forbidden radio, reading blogs or simply enduring an intolerable dynamic of communal abuse.  

On screen, however, Meira's angst is taken as self-evident. Her husband is confused, but loving. She has only one child, not five. What has brought Meira to such a desperate point where she is willing to jeopardize her entire life, perhaps even sacrifice her child? We never really discover what makes Meira tick, we never see her struggle against the totalizing worldview that comes with growing up in a fundamentalist community. 

And yet, I cried through much of Felix and Meira. Not because I was touched by Meira's characterization (thin as it was), but because having read about, met, and befriended a number of people who have left the Hasidic world, I could fill in the details myself. Seeing Meira and her sketchbook, I thought of Frieda Vizel, a dryly brilliant cartoonist who left Kiryas Joel, went to Sarah Lawrence and now runs tours of Hasidic Williamsburg. Seeing two young people trapped in a marriage not of their making, I thought of any number of people I know who found themselves married off at eighteen to total strangers. 

In that sense, Felix and Meira didn't have to do much to move me as an audience member. These are not stories lacking in drama.  For me, the humorless Yiddishist, all Felix and Meira had to do was get the Yiddish right. And that it did. With one jarring exception, the language and setting were beautifully rendered, a major achievement in itself, reflecting the input of ex-Hasid turned actor Twersky.

Yaron and Twersky give beautiful, understated performances, gracefully moving between Yiddish, French and English. It would have been easy to drift toward melodrama given the storyline, yet the writers stay away from big gestures or lurking trauma. Most importantly Twersky's Shulem, Meira's husband, with his soulful eyes, is no monster, but, like Meira, a young person coping the best he can with limited education in matters of the heart. I found Shulem so sympathetic that when he finally confronts Felix canoodling with Meira, I found myself wishing he had really clocked him, instead of taking Felix down in a comical hail of slaps. The dramatic tension simmers at low, even at the moments when most is at stake.

And that's the quirky, fairytale quality of Felix and Meira. In real life, brutal custody battles are the norm for those leaving the community. Wayward souls like Meira are rarely dealt with in such a gentle manner. Most of those who leave have paid dearly, some have paid the highest cost, either with their children, or their lives. There are few fairytale endings in the real world.

Like Harold and Maude and The Graduate, Felix and Meira relies heavily on a pop music soundtrack to amplify the story. I teared up as forlorn Meira peered through strange windows, watching a couple make love, all while Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat came on, handed me a tissue, and told me it was ok to let it all out. A good cry is one of the fundamental pleasures of cinema, isn't it? 

Unlike Harold and Maude and The Graduate, however, Felix and Meira lacks the nerve for black comedy. Some critics have dinged it for being excessively gloomy. A great black comedy embraces the gloom with glee, wringing comedy out of angst. When Felix dresses in full Hasidic garb in a desperate effort to see Meira, it just comes off as cringeworthy, a throwback to the silliness of a movie like The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob, a French comedy in which a bigot is forced to hide out in Hasidic garb, passing as a ‘Rabbi’ with much hijinks ensuing. But Felix and Meira is too hesitant to really exploit the absurdity inherent in cross-cultural romance.

Indeed, Felix and Meira positions itself as a straight OTD narrative, but with little exploration of what it means to be a woman trapped in that community or what Meira really longs for, besides forbidden music. (How Meira would come to have a record player and rather esoteric taste in records is another matter.)

Had the filmmakers committed to either comedy or topical drama, Felix and Meira might have ended up a minor classic. For my money, the best portrayal of the OTD narrative is still the much less slick, but more psychologically insightful, Mendy: A Question of Faith. (2003). As it is, Felix and Meira is an entertaining but slight Yiddish flavored fairytale.