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A Jewish Cultural Manifesto

Rachael Kafrissen
November 1, 2005

Rootless Cosmopolitan Logoby Rokhl Kafrissen
I’m a busy woman with no time for nostalgia. My grandparents didn’t have a shop on the Lower East Side, my great uncle didn’t play in a Catskills swing band, and my parents never, ever threatened to disown me if I didn’t marry a Jewish man. Perhaps that’s why I don’t find Yiddish and Yiddish-American culture cute. So why the hell do I bother with it, if not out of sentiment or guilt?
Because to grow up Jewish in assimilated America is to absorb a world of cultural confusion. The Jewish history I learned in Hebrew school moved pretty quickly from the ancient land of Israel to the modern state of Israel, with brief, terrifying stops between 1939 and 1945. As you can imagine, the official erasure of our sojourn in Europe creates a bit of an identity crisis in the average young Jew. Who wants to be a Yid at home and an ersatz Israeli at school? Not me. The mainstream Jewish press and other Jewish institutions have spent the last fifty or so years nudging Yiddish culture into its grave, and, like the man on the cart full of corpses in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, no one can hear it screaming, “But I’m not dead yet!” Yet even before I spoke one word of Yiddish, the language itself was talking to me, telling me that there was more to being a Jew than the empty signifiers, and emptier materialism, of the modern Jewish suburb.

Don’t get me wrong. I have the greatest respect for all Jewish cultures: Iraqi, Syrian, Moroccan, Ethiopian, what have you. I acknowledge that American Jewish culture has been dominated by Ashkenazi Jews, at times at the expense of other Jewish cultures. But it is an equal if not greater crime to see an Ashkenazocentric world view replaced with an à la carte approach to identity! Such an approach assumes that whatever we were in the past — beard-having, matse-ball-fressing, shmate-peddling ghetto Jews — is not only over, but never really happened! No wonder we have a crisis!
It’s not too late to acknowledge the truth about ourselves and start repairing this psychotic split. I’d like to start with six simple declarations:
1. Jewish culture belongs to Jews.
Funny how you never really care about something until someone else wants it. Or takes it. At Klezmer Schack, the most comprehensive klezmer music site on the Internet, you can find listings for klezmer bands all over the world, including twenty-seven in Germany alone. Among those twenty-seven, few Jews are to be found. At the Hackescher Hof Theater in Berlin, you can find someone performing “Jewishly” almost any night of the year. And if you insist on that performer being Jewish, you can always check out Irith Gabriely, an Israeli woman living in Germany. This self-proclaimed Queen of Jewish Soul wears a black hat and tallis and sings khasidish songs for adoring German crowds.
You know how every resident of Alaska gets a check every year from oil revenue? Forget Holocaust reparations. I’d like to see every Jew in the world get a piece of the exploitation of Jewish culture. It wouldn’t be much, I admit; in fact, it would be infinitesimal. But all I want is the tiniest little symbolic recognition that we have something that they want.
The American Jewish Establishment’s attitude towards things like klezmer music has been tepid at best, hostile at worst. Ask any musician who has worked full time in Jewish music in the last twenty years and he or she will tell you: The serious money and serious respect were found almost exclusively in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. While American Jews wanted to believe that Yiddish and European Jewish music had disappeared, the band played on, wherever they could.
2. Secular and observant are not parallel paths.
They are points on a common path. Neither secular nor observant are immutable characteristics, and we all know someone who’s gone both ways. Both sides view each other with so much suspicion, yet we each have much to learn from the other. You heard me. You think khasidim are coming to the (secular) Yiddish theater for the acting? They’re coming because they’re starving for this kind of Jewish entertainment. And secularists, yeah, I’m looking at you, too. I’m well aware that religion is the opiate of the masses. I also know that Karl Marx didn’t know bupkes about the Jewish religion. We all have a duty to know something about the core texts of our tradition and the languages in which they were written.
Which brings me to my next point:
3. Jewish religion cannot be divorced from Jewish culture.
To do so yields the current demographic and spiritual crisis now facing the American Jewish community.
Jewish philanthropists like Michael Steinhardt want to revive the non-Orthodox Jewish community by replacing “victimhood” with “joy.” (See his Jerusalem Post opinion piece in February of this year.) I think we all know that you can read “Europe” for victimhood and “Israel” for joy. Didn’t that attitude get us in this mess? Turn a shul into a temple, a khazn into a cantor and Jewish music into Debbie Friedman — well, you better lock the doors cuz the inmates will be breaking out. Witness our so-called youth crisis. American Jewish culture has turned Camembert into CheezWhiz: It is boring and every young Jew knows it.
Real Jewish Culture is the product of hundreds, thousands of years of joy and pain; it’s the expression of the realities of halokhe lived in a hostile world. It’s the result of every Jew’s struggle between tradition and modernity. Most importantly, Real Jewish Culture is our connection to those who came before us, and without access to it, well, that bagel in your hand is not a symbol of anything, just a bunch of empty calories masquerading as breakfast.
4. I am not an Israeli.
About two thousand American Jews make aliyah every year. Out of a total Jewish population of 5,200,000, this comes out to about .04% of American Jews each year who will choose to live in Israel. I am an American and, like 99.96 percent of my fellow American Jews, I will never become an Israeli. I care deeply about the State of Israel, most of all because my fate is linked to that of every other Jew. But where does the spirit of klal yisroel end and the unquestioning acceptance of Zionism begin?
Open a magazine like Moment and you’d think every Jew in America had already put down a security deposit on an apartment in Jerusalem. Moment bills itself as “Jewish culture, politics, and religion.” Three of four cover stories in a recent issue were Israel-related, with more inside — and this was the music issue! Now, I would understand if this were a newspaper for a small Jewish community somewhere in the world. I doubt that the Jewish community of Honduras has enough news to fill twelve issues of a monthly magazine. But we don’t live in Honduras. We live in the other Jewish state, a country with a Jewish population roughly equal to that of the Jewish state. And let me tell you, we’ve got enough news here to fill up every single Jewish newspaper, magazine, newsletter, leaflet, and zine.
5. Israeli culture is NOT Jewish culture.
Jews have a special interest in Israel, and I don’t deny that we are going to want and need news and other information about Israel that reflects that special interest. But what I need, as a Jew in the diaspora, is a vibrant Jewish culture that will nourish my life here, where I live, worship, and write contentious though charming columns.
Writers like Ahad Ha’am thought that Israel would eventually function like a research and development lab for the diaspora. Real Jewish culture would finally develop and nourish the diaspora Jews, even as the diaspora would wither away. Yeah, that worked well. Can you name the last Israeli band you listened to? The last Israeli novelist you read besides Amos Oz?
As for religious matters, when the rest of the Jewish world sends its sons (and daughters) to yeshiva, they’re just as likely to ship them to Brooklyn as to Jerusalem.
The real problem with the unstated focus on Israel is that it takes our focus away from our lives and problems here in goles. This displacement of expectations shifts resources in a way that leaves Jewish culture here poorer, culturally, spiritually and communally. Our leaders will spend millions of dollars to send every Jewish kid to Israel but can’t find the money to support scholarships for important youth programs like Klezkamp. I guarantee that the kids who discover Klezkamp and develop a Jewish identity through Jewish music, those kids are just as likely, if not more, to marry Jewish and be part of a Jewish community as the kids who go on Birthright. I know from experience that visiting the Jewish state doesn’t make you feel more Jewish; being part of a Jewish community makes you feel more Jewish.
6. Yiddish and Yiddish culture are not dead.
Nor were they revived. They’ve been here the whole damn time, waiting patiently for you to remember to call, perhaps visit, perhaps remember where Yiddish is living. And if you can’t remember where it is, assimilation is only partially to blame. The diminishment of Yiddish and European Jewish culture in general was a necessary part of Zionism. But — see points 1-5 — it’s time to take back our culture and start living our lives in the most Jewish way possible, in the here and now.