Saturday, October 29, 2016

Where Do Statistics Come From?

The 2013 study Pew survey of American Jews served up some sobering statistics, most notably, that the intermarriage rate for American Jews was now over 70%.

There were lots of other statistics contained therein, like that almost half of American Jews didn't even know alef-beys. For some reason, that statistic barely got any play. But the intermarriage number... hoo boy. 

Now, three years later there's lots of talk about the meaning of these numbers. Lots of 'three years later' blather, and now, I'm one of the blatherers! See, some things do change! 

Over at Haaretz I wrote about how the intermarriage 'crisis' is more of an opportunity for certain establishment types to make themselves seem important at a time of communal danger.  If you've been reading my blog, you won't be terribly surprised to see what I have to say on the subject. I want to understand why the intermarriage numbers are framed as a crisis above, and independent of, the dismal state of Jewish education and literacy in the U.S. Why is 'intermarriage' more crisis-worthy than the many other dismal dimensions of American Jewish life? 

I looked to the sociological theories of Rogers Brubaker for a clue. Brubaker studies ethnic conflict and the way that 'groups' are called into existence by what he calls 'ethnopolitical entrepreneurs.' What if the 'intermarriage crisis' frame is a kind of ethnic conflict used by those entrepreneurs to increase a feeling of 'groupness'? After all, nothing coheres a group more than heightening previously unseen boundaries (and fear of crossing them).

A few weeks after the Pew report hit in October 2013, many of us got an email from the Forward, subject line 'Does the American Jewish community have a future?'


Dear Friend,
By now, you probably have heard the statistics: 32% of Jews under age 30 say they have no religion, and the majority of those without religion have Christmas trees. Fully two-thirds of the Jews with no religion are raising their children without any Jewish identity at all. As historian Jack Wertheimer told the Forward, “It’s the story of a community contracting.”
If young Jews were choosing some kind of secular engagement over a religious one, Jewishness itself would not be at risk. But even ethnic and cultural identifiers are disappearing. America’s full acceptance of its Jewish citizens has led many more to leave their Jewish identity entirely behind.



"The statistics" mentioned in this email didn't just happen. They were called into being by the institution now using them for fundraising - Jane Eisner was the catalyst behind the Pew Foundation taking on the 2013 survey. In January of that year she wrote an editorial calling for a Jewish marriage agenda, saying that whether her kids (my generation) would marry, and if so, would they choose to marry Jews, was what kept her up at night.


Now, I don't know if Jane Eisner's kids will marry Jews, and I'm not that worried about it. But if you got that email, chances are you've at least given it some thought because those who shape the cultural conversation, Eisner and the Forward, and Jack Wertheimer, prominently (though not exclusively), missed no opportunity to hammer home the looming demographic dangers. (Dangers they themselves are involved in uncovering.) 


Luckily, Eisner and the Forward presented both problem and solution (signed by Forward publisher Sam Norich):



What is to be done? The Forward has been out front in raising that question and looking for answers. For us, it’s personal – we feel a direct responsibility to our community and its continued vitality. If you share that feeling, I hope you’ll join us in sustaining our ongoing discussion of the Jewish future. Stay informed. Participate in the debate. And take an active part in supporting the Forward’s continuing role by making a donation. Your membership contribution makes it possible for us to keep the spotlight on the defining issues of our community.

I think it can be true that Jane Eisner (and Sam Norich, and everyone at the Forward) cares deeply about the future of Jews while at the same, also true that they have interests that diverge dramatically from those of average Jews and that as ethnopolitical entrepreneurs, they have an investment in groupmaking that does little to nothing to solve the problems they claim to be tackling and a lot to do with making themselves, and their institutions, be seen as essential to American Jews.

We need information about the American Jewish community and the Pew study was a crucial (if deeply flawed) opportunity to take a snapshot of where we are. That's a good thing. But taking a minute to understand how statistics get made, and why, can also be a crucial part in planning for the future. And, as I point out in my Haaretz piece, it's the past that got us to the future, and it's too important to ignore in the present.




Wednesday, October 5, 2016

How Do You Say Email In Yiddish

How do you say 'email' in Yiddish ?


I'll admit, this New York Times piece about the new Comprehensive Yiddish-English Dictionary isn't aimed at me. I'm probably one of a relatively small number of Times readers who already knows how to say email in Yidish. Or rather, one of a small number of readers who knows (and uses) the terms (blitspost or blitsbriv) suggested by the lexicographers behind the Dictionary, Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath and Dr. Paul Glasser. I'm also one of even fewer readers (I imagine) who bought the Comprehensive Dictionary soon after it came out and uses it in the ordinary course of business.


Please don't mistake that for a brag. If it were, it would surely be the lamest brag ever. But it's to make clear that I consume mainstream journalism about Yiddish with an entirely different set of expectations than the average reader. Now, according to some people, I expect way too much from journalists. According to some people, any publicity for Yiddish is good publicity. To both of those arguments I say HOGWASH. (Or else I would've given up these kinds of blog posts ages ago.)


As I've discussed elsewhere, the way we talk about Yiddish is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Joe Berger has been on the Yiddish beat for the New York Times for 30 years. Our mainstream (non-Yiddishist, non-specialist) discourse around Yiddish is exemplified and magnified in the Berger oeuvre. Yiddish is constantly represented as dying, inherently humorous, weak or any of the many icky tropes regularly invoked by journalists like him. The lachrymose vision of Yiddish culture flogged by Berger and his ilk translates to very real, negative consequences for Yiddish. Grants are turned down because Yiddish is obviously dying. Educational programs that treat Yiddish as a legitimate part of Jewish learning are scoffed at. Artists invited into Jewish schools and camps are explicitly told not to dare bring any Yiddish into the classroom.


So. Back to the Comprehensive Dictionary. It truly is a milestone in modern Yiddish scholarship. It's the product of decades of lexicographical collection (and some good old fashioned neologizing) and will be prized by Yiddish students and speakers for years to come. Here's what a good article about the Dictionary might look like. Larry Yudelson gives a beautiful background on the Schaechter family, on the project of modern Yiddish scholarship, and on the extraordinary talent and skills of the people who finally brought the project to fruition.


What does the paper of record have to say?


Those terms [email, transgender, bingewatch] came into popular usage long after the language’s heyday, when it was the lingua franca of the Jews of Eastern Europe and the garment workers of the Lower East Side and was the chosen literary tongue for writers like Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Though the Holocaust and assimilation have shrunk the ranks of Yiddish speakers — once put at over 11 million worldwide — to a relative handful, Yiddish still needs to keep itself fashionably up-to-date.

So two of its conservationists have produced the first full-fledged English-to-Yiddish dictionary in 50 years and it is designed to carry Yiddish into the 21st century and just maybe beyond. After all, Yiddish has always had a canny way of defying the pessimists.




"How Do You Say Email in Yiddish" opens with a number of familiar tropes about Yiddish, dearly beloved above all by Berger, such as:

  • Yiddish as the province of a specialized, politicized sub-group of Lower East Side garment workers as opposed to millions of Eastern European immigrants who came to the US and maintained a Yiddish infrastructure far longer than comparable immigrant groups

  • Characterizing Schaechter-Viswanath and Glasser as "conservationists" instead of linguists and scholars. The "conservation" trope precludes a discussion of Yiddish as productive and generative, even on a small scale. 

And then...
The 826-page Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary, with almost 50,000 entries and 33,000 subentries, is the work of Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath, a Yiddish editor and poet, and Paul Glasser, a former dean at YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, the major repository of Yiddish language, literature and folklore.

  • The characterization of YIVO as a "repository" rather than as a world class site of scholarly research. Notice how repository is passive whereas a center of research would be active. This trope functions to diminish activity related to Yiddish research.


So, the first problem is the layers and layers of asinine tropes. But what about the story itself. Why is this Dictionary important enough for NYT column inches? For one thing, as minority languages around the world disappear at a shocking rate, the question of language growth and maintenance is more and more urgent, and hardly exclusive to Yiddish. But this is what Berger sees.

Whether the new words, many of which were coined by the editors, will be widely embraced remains an open question.

Guess what? Berger never asks a non-Hasidic Yiddish speaker. I promise you, it's not like he doesn't have our phone numbers. Mant of my Yiddishist friends have spoken with him for background on stories. Even yours truly, on one memorable occasion.


Who does he ask?


“Any word that you’ve got to scratch your head to come up with they’ll use the English word,” said Yosef Rapaport, a Hasidic journalist and translator who is the media consultant for Agudath Israel of America, the umbrella group for ultra-Orthodox Jewish organizations.

Good lord. Where do I even begin? A journalist who does a story about Modern Yiddish research and then goes to the Agudah for comment strains credulity. The European, self-consciously modern project of Yiddish scholarship, of which Dr. Mordkhe Schaechter was a (figuratively) towering figure, is light years away from the American Yiddish used by haredi, Hasidic and other ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities today. Some of them may end up using this dictionary, but this project is not for them because, the sad irony is, there is very little demand for Yiddish scholarship within the communities that use Yiddish most widely today. But this is how Berger puts it:


Hasidim and other ultra-Orthodox Jews tend to absorb new English words just as they are for convenience’ sake without any guilt that they are bastardizing the purity of Yiddish. Email becomes email, though spelled in the Hebrew script that Yiddish adopted when it arose among Ashkenazic Jews in German-speaking lands during the 10th century. 
“For Hasidim, Yiddish is not about culture; it’s about using language in a utilitarian way,” Mr. Rapaport, the Hasidic translator said.


It's hard to believe that a writer who just published a book about Hasidim could write something so remarkably inapt and ahistorical. Though Hasidic communities may not have an investment in Yiddish as a high culture language, one of the main reasons they continue to use Yiddish is, while not on par with loshn-koydesh (biblical Hebrew and Aramaic), Yiddish is viewed as a language infused with Jewishness, and holiness. (Yiddish-only communities are also a form of social control, but that's another story.) When Berger credulously quotes Rapaport as saying it's not about 'culture' he betrays his ignorance of what 'culture' is and how Yiddish functions in the Hasidic world.

Furthermore, there were always (non-religious) Yiddish institutions in the United States which happily Americanized Yiddish as much as possible, the Forverts being the most famous example.

And this brings me to my main complaint. There is tremendous tension inherent in maintaining a minority language within a hegemonic monolingual environment. It's a valid question to ask who this dictionary is for. (Of course that would require to talk to people who DO care about the proper Yiddish word for computer or transgender.) It's also a difficult, contentious question of how to maintain and grow a language which has experienced radical, traumatic loss of speakers. Can neologisms like blitspost be imposed from 'above'? In the days of democratized media and education, is there an 'above' anymore? How have other minority language communities handled these questions? And for secular leaning Yiddish students and speakers, what is to be the relationship between them and the Hasidic/Haredi Yiddish world? What kind of linguistic interchange is possible?

I'm sure I've only scratched the surface of this topic, but that should suffice for now. It's possible that a few people will read this article and buy a copy of the dictionary for their favorite Yiddish curious friend. But at $60, it's unlikely to be a popular stocking stuffer this Khanike. Rather than another lament for the disappearance of Yiddish disguised as a light human interest story, Yiddish needs more journalism that takes it seriously. It needs journalism that educates general audience readers about the accomplishments of modern Yiddish scholarship, and most importantly, it needs people who can explain why Yiddish is not just an important world language, but a vital piece of the yerushe (birthright) of millions of Jews around the world. 





Monday, September 19, 2016

Fierce Guardians of Memory: Female Historians of the Holocaust

Hello friends. I just published what is probably to date the most personally meaningful piece I've written for Haaretz. It's about the intersection of gender and Holocaust historiography using the occasion of two films, DENIAL and WHO WILL WRITE OUR HISTORY and two historians, Deborah Lipstadt and Rokhl Oyerbakh.

[Rokhl] Oyerbakh and [Deborah] Lipstadt — one a writer and public intellectual of the inter-war, European mold; the other an American born and trained historian — both found themselves at historic turning points. By dint of circumstance, talent and personal force of will, both rose to the task as guardians of memory, speaking, each in her own way, for the murdered. 
The two historians also represent the two fronts of memory work left to postwar Jewry: one facing the outside world, refuting those who would deny the murder of European Jewry; the other facing inward, shaping how Jews would understand what had been destroyed, and how. 
For the Oyneg Shabes members, history was to be “an antidote to a memory of a catastrophe which, however well intentioned, would subsume what had been into what had been destroyed.
read more here

I do hope you'll read the piece. I know it's easy to be overwhelmed by the amount of information washing over us all, and even easier to feel 'Holocaust fatigue.' At the same time, there are still relatively unknown aspects to this history and important discoveries and insights being made all the time, especially by historians using a feminist lens to understand the wartime experience. And, unfortunately, holocaust denial is still with us, indeed, at the highest political levels. It is up to us to maintain vigilance on the historical record.

Now, to close on a happier note, some  exciting, historic news from Warsaw:
The Jewish Historical Institute said it will open an exhibition dedicated to the Ringelblum Archive, which chronicles the history of the Warsaw Ghetto.The entire archive also will be available for free on the internet, the Warsaw institute said Thursday at a news conference while presenting details of the project. Individual documents will be described not only in Polish but also in English, and some also in Hebrew.




(A note on paywalls and such: The future of journalism is uncertain to say the least. I'm proud to be contributing to Haaretz, one of the best internationally oriented papers out there. As I'm sure you've noticed, Haaretz keeps most of its content behind a paywall, because producing quality journalism is freaking expensive and only getting expensiver. You should get a subscription to Haaretz. Seriously. HOWEVER, if you cannot afford a subscription, and you want to read what I've written, go to a social media link to the article, through Twitter or Facebook, and click through there. That will take you to the full article. And if you enjoy what you read, please think about subscribing.)

Monday, September 5, 2016

Fyvush

2016 has been quite a year of loss. At times it feels like you've only just registered one when the next comes along. It's not a good feeling, especially coupled with the unpleasant chaos surrounding the US election. 

So, I want to take a few extra moments to talk about the loss of Fyvush Finkel, z''l. I wrote an appreciation of Fyvush for the newly revamped Digital Yiddish Theatre Project and I am delighted to share it with you.  As I wrote for DYTP "Yiddish theatre isn’t dead, but that doesn’t stop folks from publishing its obituary with alarming regularity."

In my DYTP piece I mention going to see Fyvush and Theo Bikel in a special, one night only performance of The Sunshine Boys in Yiddish. In 2007 I wrote about that performance (and much more) for Jewish Currents.

Fyvush and Rokhl backstage at Symphony Space, 2007


(From Jewish Currents)

(click here to read more)

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Dress British, Think Yiddish (Theater)

Through the wonders of social media I recently made the acquaintance of playwright/journalist/historian/mid-western Jew of all trades, Max Sparber. Max has an extremely impressive list of produced plays and publications, so I was flattered when he asked if he could read my play, A Brokhe/A Blessing. We got to talking about the challenges of creating new works in Yiddish/English/Yinglish and one thing led to another and Max wrote a nice little piece about my play over at his blog Dress British Think Yiddish.

I particularly enjoyed this part, both as an artist, and as ME, an artist with a big, challenging play that I would REALLY like people to see one day before I'm too old to enjoy it:

I can already tell that there are some meddling dramaturgs out there who want to know 'why Yiddish?' And this is a play that offers a solid answer to the question: It is a play about a specific immigrant experience, and this was the language spoken by this group of immigrants, and they were in a neighborhood where the language still had everyday currency, where even American-born Jews could understand and respond, to some extent. It’s a play that Yiddish makes sense in, and wouldn’t make sense if absent.
But, as I said, I am not interested in why questions. You probably have noticed that I am interested in how questions. How do we make a play? How do we stage a scene? How do we communicate something unfamiliar to an audience? 
This play has a lot of fascinating hows in it. And the ones that interests me the most right now are the following: How is this play going to get a production? How is it going to have a life beyond that production, which is rare for new plays? And how am I going to get a chance to see it? [emphasis mine]

Anyway, go over to Dress British Think Yiddish and check it out, plus Max's adventures in learning Yiddish in Omaha (OMAHA!), some truly original cocktails and the odd ode to Cel-Rey.


Thursday, June 30, 2016

Master of Ceremonies

Maybe you haven't heard? Joel Grey just published a memoir and it is fabulous. Being a Mickey Katz obsessive, I had a special incentive to read Master of Ceremonies. (Mickey Katz is Grey's father).

Which isn't to say that I wasn't curious about the glittering, decade spanning career of Mr. Grey himself, just the opposite. I adore Joel Grey and Master of Ceremonies doesn't disappoint as juicy showbiz memoir. I just published a short (too short) review over at the Jewish Book Council website. (I'm planning a longer think piece, too, about the second generation of Yiddish-American entertainers.)

As you would imagine, Master of Ceremonies devotes a considerable amount of time to Grey's participation in the creation of Cabaret. One of the incidents he talks about is how, during previews, there was a bit of controversy around the song If You Could See Her (The Gorilla Song). It's the MC's love song to a woman in a Gorilla suit- a thinly veiled commentary on racialized bigotry on the eve of the Nazi era. At the end of the song the MC delivers a rather manic punchline just to really hit the whole thing home: "If you could see her through my eyes/She wouldn't look Jewish at all." As Grey relates it, Jewish groups protested quite loudly, and quite stupidly (having missed the whole point of the song) and so the producers were forced to change the lyric. Obviously, the lyric got changed back for the movie and Grey's performance here is just. so. perfect. He is a national treasure and if you don't believe me, watch the video. And buy Master of Ceremonies!!!


Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Spirit of Cable Street and the Dread of BREXIT

At this point you probably never want to hear the year's most awful portmanteau ever again: BREXIT. It's ugly, it smells like xenophobia, and the success of the campaign to leave the EU (endangering migrants and refugees in the process) can't help but give one a slight shudder as it pertains to the electoral chances of a certain orange demagogue.

BUT! Before you close the tab on BREXIT, please give a read to my latest op-ed at Haaretz,  'They Shall (Not) Pass': Brexit Vote Shows How Cracks in Anti-racist Coalitions Could Win Trump the White House

I look at the Battle of Cable Street (1936) and what it might have to say at this moment of isolationism and racial scapegoating. Art, history, solidarity: these are my comforts in unsettled times.  



(A note on paywalls and such: The future of journalism is uncertain to say the least. I'm proud to be contributing to Haaretz, one of the best internationally oriented papers out there. As I'm sure you've noticed, Haaretz keeps most of its content behind a paywall, because producing quality journalism is freaking expensive and only getting expensiver. You should get a subscription to Haaretz. Seriously. HOWEVER, if you cannot afford a subscription, and you want to read what I've written, go to a social media link to the article, through Twitter or Facebook, and click through there. That will take you to the full article. And if you enjoy what you read, please think about subscribing.)

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Red-Baiting Crawls Back from the Political Fringe

I have a new op-ed up at the English edition of Haaretz. The topic is red-baiting and the target, unsurprisingly, is Bernie Sanders. The perpetrator is a bottom of the barrel, hard-right finger wagger, Dennis Prager.

As offensive as it is, Prager's line of attack is dangerous not just because it is red baiting, or because it seeks to exclude a large portion of American Jews who don't share the same values as the uber-conservative Prager. Rather, it betrays a kind of nihilistic world view, one which sees no potential in Jews who are not already exactly like him.  
But most Jews are not like Prager. Even those who are like him are likely to change positions over time.  If it can be said that there is any one experience shared almost universally by modern Jews, it is the journey, the movement between and among states. Whether if it's as a migrant from country to country, or moving from religious to non-religious (and vice versa), or even returning to Jewishness altogether (as so many new Israeli citizens have done) it is this dynamic quality of Jewish life which defines us, and which teachers like Prager ignore, at their own peril. 

Normally I wouldn't engage with the patently absurd ideas of someone like Prager, but like so many odious concepts these days, red-baiting seems to be coming back into vogue on the right, and I think we'd all do well to be extra watchful.

read more here

(A note on paywalls and such: The future of journalism is uncertain to say the least. I'm proud to be contributing to Haaretz, one of the best internationally oriented papers out there. As I'm sure you've noticed, Haaretz keeps most of its content behind a paywall, because producing quality journalism is freaking expensive and only getting expensiver. You should get a subscription to Haaretz. Seriously. HOWEVER, if you cannot afford a subscription, and you want to read what I've written, go to a social media link to the article, through Twitter or Facebook, and click through there. That will take you to the full article. And if you enjoy what you read, please think about subscribing.)

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Selfie That Broke the Social Justice Internet - My Op-Ed for Haaretz

This week I published my first op-ed for Haaretz (English language edition.) It's on the rise (and fall) of Belgian viral selfie phenom Zakia Belkhiri. What happens when anti-racist/anti-Islamophobia activists don't see any problem with the most vile kind of anti-Semitism?

Zakia Belkhiri Took a Selfie of anti-Semitism on the Left
Belkhiri’s stumble wasn’t an exception in the contemporary social justice narrative, it was another example of how the global Left systematically fails to include the Jewish struggle for self-determination, both cultural and political, within its framework of national and personal liberations.
(
read the rest here)

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Puttin on the Blitz

Netflix recently made the 1990s cult cartoon classic Animaniacs available for streaming. Off and on for the last couple weeks, I've been binging on the madness of the Warner Brothers (and the Warner Sister). Unlike most reminders of the 90s, it's been an exercise in the most enjoyable kind of nostalgia.

I already knew there were a ton of adult jokes I didn't get at the time. (I was 18 when Animaniacs debuted but I really didn't know shit, and yes, the references on an after-school cartoon went over my head), but I've been taken aback on this rewatch, never more so than tonight. 

Episode 31 features a segment set in 1939 Poland, Puttin' on the Blitz. It's a Rita and Buttons segment. Rita and Buttons (a singing cat and dopey dog) take a wrong turn and end up in the middle of occupied Poland. That's kind of a WTF for a kid's cartoon like Animaniacs. Then again, Steven Spielberg was an executive producer of Animaniacs. On a hunch I looked it up- this episode was aired in 1993, the same year as Schindler's List. Go figure.

Rita and Runt have to hide from German soldiers  and cross paths with Nazis searching for the leader of the "Polish underground." The leader has to hide his daughter until they can meet up later at the train station and escape. While hiding, the daughter is saved by scrappy cat Rita (voiced by Bernadette Peters.)

Now, the story never mentions Jews or the Final Solution. It's actually pretty silly, in keeping with the rest of the show. So, why was it so jarring for me? Well, first of all, my generation isn't used to seeing World War II as a normal part of pop culture, especially as comedy fodder. There was a time, though, when war was just a part of the cultural conversation, even for kids, even for comedy. My favorite example being:





And second- where ARE the Jews? One of the criticisms that's been aimed at Schindler's List is that, for what is possibly the most famous 'Holocaust' movie of all time, the story is about a heroic non-Jew and the question of non-Jewish responsibility. And, I mean, are Rita and Runt supposed to be stand-ins for the Jews? Or... I don't know.

I don't think it's a coincidence that this segment came out the same year as Schindler's List. It even features one of the most famous images from that movie- a little girl in a red coat.

Anyway, I think it's an interesting look at the way that serious topics get filtered down through layers of pop culture, especially when you have artists like Spielberg, who are involved at every level.

Go to 7:55 and check it out for yourself.