Category Archives: yiddish & jewish

tsvishn tsvey dibukim, oder in der krizis iz arayn a dibek

i don’t often use this space to just write my way into things, but it feels like the right thing tonight.

to be clear from the top: this is a deep appreciation of the kultur-kongres’ centennial production. they did an amazing job under less than perfect circumstances and i enjoyed the hell out of it. and because it was a good, solid, well-thought-out production, af mame-loshn, it reminded me what i actually want from yiddish theater, and from yiddish productions of our classics.

i want a queerer dibek.
i want a trans-er dibek.
which is how ansky wrote it.

Continue reading tsvishn tsvey dibukim, oder in der krizis iz arayn a dibek

Tisha b’Av, Twice

[original version published on JVoices ז″ל in 2006; rewritten july 2020]

A quick introductory note: Tisha b’Av, the fast of the 9th day of the month of Av, commemorates the two destructions of jewish temples in Jerusalem – first (and not necessarily historically) by Assyrian armies in 587 BC1, and again by the Romans in 70 AD. The Roman conquest ended the hereditary rule of the high priests, which had been centered on the Jerusalem temple. That hereditary rule, and the bloodline-based caste system it created (a three-tier system of Israelites, Levites, and Kohanim) claimed its origins and found its legitimacy in the divinely mandated authority of the mythical bney Amram – Moses, Aaron, and Miriam – who consolidated their power through massacres of those who proposed non-hierarchical alternatives to their family’s rule (see Bamidbar/Numbers 16:3-14).

how long should a community sit shiva for an unjust and exploitative system simply because it was once their own?

One: Time

This year of toppling statues and rethinking the rituals of historical memory has made me think about the destruction of temples, and whether it’s something to mourn.

Continue reading Tisha b’Av, Twice

This Is an Old War – You Better Know What You’re Fighting For

i wrote this a little while ago, but today seems like the right day to post it. today is the 75th anniversary, according to the christian calendar, of the װאַרשע געטאָ אױפֿשטאַנד, the warsaw ghetto uprising. there’s so much to say about that heroic act of resistance, and the years of less-commemorated struggle that came before and after it, but other folks have been saying it for years. look, if you haven’t already, at the wonderful writing of irena klepfisz (in poetry and prose), the songs and poems of shmerke kaczerginski and avrom sutzkever, the memoirs and interviews of marek edelman… it’s a day to think, as well, about the things that we can – that we need to – learn from those struggles. in that spirit: honor to their memories – koved zeyer ondenk – כּבֿיד זײער אָנדענק

like a lot of us – jewish radicals; antifascists of all flavors; folks thinking about concrete resistance to state violence – i’ve been thinking a lot about the jewish partisan fighters of the 1930s and 40s lately. this year, i’ve seen their memory invoked, in many ways, far more often than in the previous decade. i’ve done plenty of that, too, in my contribution to this year’s Radical Jewish Calendar Project, among other places.

but lately, especially after a conversation just before the new year (5778, not 2018) with my dear friend and comrade malcolm, i’ve been thinking about how we talk about partisans, which partisans we talk about, and what we do and don’t say. and i’ve been getting a little worried. this is a bit of an exploration of how this history is used, guided by walter benjamin’s warning that antifascists must think about the past knowing that even the dead will not be safe from our enemies if they are victorious (and that our enemies have not ceased to be victorious).

if you want a tl;dr, just skip to the end. there are conclusions drawn.

Continue reading This Is an Old War – You Better Know What You’re Fighting For

notes on “ashkenazi” (a postscript in advance)

this is the season when i’m working all the time on a purimshpil, and can’t really get anything else done. but this has been nagging at me, so i’m clearing it out of my (metaphorical) drawer.

properly, it’s a postscript to something i’m trying to write out about the current importation of israeli terminology for differences among jewish communities into the u.s. jewish left. unsurprisingly, i’m not a big fan, not least because i don’t see the kind of highly consolidated, deeply racialized two-category system that exists among jewish israelis as something that exists in this country. and the mizrakhi/ashkenazi binary that describes it seems more of a hinderance than an aid to understanding the messy, contradictory lines of racial and class position that do deeply divide u.s. jewish communities. but that’s another post.

this is some preliminary thoughts on one of the things that came along on the way: the question of what we’re talking about when we talk about “ashkenaz”. and, ultimately, whether the term as it’s used makes any sense at all. TL;DR: no.

i’ve still got quite a few questions about this-all, and i’ll lay a few of them out at the end, in hopes that some of you can shed some light in various places.

a postscript
for my grandfather, jules / yidl nukhm schrager,
who said “what do you mean, ashkenazi? i’m a galitsianer!”

Continue reading notes on “ashkenazi” (a postscript in advance)

some slightly out of context notes on ‘tikkun olam’

yeah like i don’t think i would intrinsically mind if a journal wanted to call itself something out of mātauranga Māori but the fact that it’s the most unreadable do-nothingist self-justifying lazy dreck must be super irritating. – cannibality, on Tiqqun –

to me – cranky jewish 4th-generation secular leftist – the name is actually the least problematic thing about Tiqqun. and that’s because it’s actually perfectly consistent with their particular apocalyptic quietism.

“tikkun olam” (as the zionists render it) / “tiken oylem” (as yiddish speakers say it) [see note 1 below] has become a synonym in jewish liberal circles for /some ambiguous form of social justice through a jewish religious-cultural lens/ over the past twenty years, but that’s an entirely new meaning for it. jill jacobs (a liberal zionist rabbi well-regarded in the circles that use ‘tikkun olam’ most) has an interesting and detailed tracing of the term’s uses through time here (intended as a positive account), but the arc is very simple.

up to the 1970s or so, the term’s only political content is in a few places in the mishnah, where it designates small legalistic shifts that ease the conditions of the worst off, in order to ‘repair/maintain [tikkun] the social order [olam]’ without structural change. in the 1970s and 1980s, a new meaning for the term was invented more or less out of the whole cloth by a specific set of young liberal rabbis, and publicized through their participation in New Jewish Agenda, the main national progressive jewish organization in the u.s. during that period.

these rabbis – arthur waskow and michael lerner – were looking for a spiritual vocabulary for their liberal (or, at best, progressive-except-palestine) politics. like many assimilated ashkenazim, their vision of authentic jewish spirituality basically meant hasidism, and the 16th-christian-century lurianic kabala that is the source of much of hasidism’s formal theology. and that’s where they found the phrase “tiken oylem”.

Continue reading some slightly out of context notes on ‘tikkun olam’

what about that star, anyway?

about the “star of david” / “magen david” as a jewish symbol…

tl;dr: yes, the idea that it is an old or universal jewish emblem was completely fabricated by the zionist movement in the 20th century.

after a conversation with a friend & comrade about the chicago dyke march drama of this summer, i finally tracked down the essay i vaguely remembered about the history of the six-pointed star as a jewish symbol. it’s by gershom scholem, the great historian of jewish mysticism, religion, and symbology (and a zionist liberal who rejected his family’s secular leftism). it was written for the right-wing u.s. jewish magazine Commentary in 1949 and later expanded into a book. i’m going to try to track down a copy of the longer version, but nothing i’ve seen about it gives any hint that the basic story it tells is different from what’s in the essay.

so here, summarized from scholem’s “The Curious History of the Six-Pointed Star”, is the story of the invention of a symbol…

scholem’s conclusion from all of this: “The upshot of the matter is this: in the very days of its greatest popularity the Shield of David was a meaningless symbol of Judaism; and the Judaism of those days, in turn, tended to be meaningless.”

Continue reading what about that star, anyway?