Posted by Robin Podolsky
So, I used to work as a flak in politics, and here’s something I learned. If a candidate wanted to get a controversial opinion out there—say a racially marked dig at an opponent—here is how they might do it: get an unpaid advisor to make the remark for print but not attribution and then deny that the advisor either got it right or even exists. (And, no, my former boss would never stoop that low. That would not reflect her values, and, besides, it wasn’t her style.) Of course, the news outlet will never trust you again, but if you care so little for their opinion that you have (impeccably non-Anglo) surrogates willing to say for attribution that the foreign press just doesn’t count, then you can deny, deny and amplify the original message at the same time.
Yes, of course I mean Romney and the Anglo-Saxon thing. And, no, I have no inside info to offer, just an educated guess as to what might have happened. I bring it up, the ensuing discussion about Romney’s comments highlights an old struggle for the meaning and soul of our country. There at least two competing visions of what the United States is and ought to be.
For some of us, our country is knit together by our Constitution, our secular brit. It offers itself as the first and last stop for people, like the ancestors of most American Jews, who seek a new start and are willing to work for it. In this USA, there is no right way to ‘look American’, bagels are as all-American as pizza and egg rolls, and the government is obliged to respect all religions while promoting none. It is a country whose first president, in his famous letter to the Jewish congregation of Newport Rhode Island, wrote that, “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.” This USA gains the depth of its culture from waves of immigration that revitalize our economy and our daily life. It is not an ethnic state or a religious one, but a polity bound by a social contract.
For others of our compatriots, the United States is a white Anglo-Saxon Christian country, meaning that preserving the (current) ethnic and religious majority is the same as preserving our way of life. Some people who believe that also think that ‘minorities’ ought to, while deferring culturally without making a fuss about it, be granted legal equality with regard to employment and other opportunities, and others think that such guarantees represent an intolerable intrusion of government into the marketplace. Some, like the notorious Pat Buchanan, are pretty flat-footed about their irritation at Jews and others who fail to be sufficiently grateful for “toleration”. Others won’t go that far, but they do not see our country’s astonishing diversity as a gift. They see it as a threat to what they understand the essence of the USA to be.
I adhere to the first position, but I don’t want to romanticize it. Our vision for the future requires honesty about the past.
The reason that any Anglo-Saxon ‘nativist’ vision of the United States is bound to be incoherent is that the founding of our nation rendered those Natives who survived the expansion a minority in what had been their land. (Re: the Bering Strait migration and whose bones are oldest—so not the point.) It’s also the case that those slaves from Africa whose labor was essential to building the American cotton industry were brought by force. They were always as much a part of this country as any Anglo-Saxon (or Americans of French, German, Irish or Jewish descent), but their condition was made different by law and custom. Let’s not forget that the narrative of an Anglo-Saxon country arose out of that difference. Or that it was the creative—dare I say Talmudic—reading of our Constitution by great Americans like Frederick Douglass who discerned possibilities for freedom and equality in the document that had ratified slavery—and pushed that vision into national consciousness and practice.
Jews and other willing immigrants have found great opportunity here. One reason for that is has been their willingness to earn it. Another reason is that the lowest rungs on the social ladder were always already taken. How can we not identify with those whose situation is the one our ancestors escaped? We don’t vote like Puerto Ricans (unless we are, like a significant number of us, actually from Puerto Rico). We vote like Jews. History puts us on the side of side of those who are expanding the American narrative; be they Muslims who wish to build a place of worship or students who wish only to contribute their excellence to the life we are building together.
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July 20, 2012 | 1:22 am
Posted by Robin Podolsky
(I will be writing more about the Auschwitz trip at some point, but stuff is marinating, and it’s time to get back to life in LA. So let me check in about something closer to home.)
I’ve had some pushback about the name of this blog.
It appears that, for adherents of a particularly intricate schema within Jewish mysticism, the erev rav are not only figures from the Bible but also the current incarnates of bad people who do bad things and should feel bad. This badness goes all the way back to the Exodus when, according to this story, the erev rav were not just any mixed multitude but golden calf instigators, sorcerers and even agents of Amalek, the ruthless enemy who attacked the rearguard (those too old, young, ill or female to fight) of the people Israel as soon as they left Egypt. The idea is that these folks come back in every generation to lead the people astray and—now this part really hurts—the erev rav are characterized by their proud and argumentative nature. (Retiring little moi?) This construct comes from Zoharic mysticism and draws from the work of super-intellects like the Vilna Gaon.
I have heard the “call me Erev Rav” joke among rabbinical students for years, and not once has anyone answered by bringing this up. It just never entered into my misnagdisch (Talmudic/rationalist-ish) world. (There are worlds within worlds at AJR. There are students of deep Hasidus. Also austerely logical Maimonideans. There are orthodox yeshiva graduates and lesbian feminists, Conservative Jews and adherents of all the Re-s (Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal). The wonderful thing about the school I attend is that, no matter what sort of Jew you are, you will encounter teachers and fellow scholars with whom you disagree about important things and you will learn to engage in those encounters with collegiality and respect.
It’s not as though I find this particular take on the erev rav convincing. In my first post, I said why I like the erev rav story. It’s about a disparate group of freedom-loving people, of more than one ethnicity, for whom our covenant, our brit, became a sort of constitution; a contract and a way of life that made them one. Now I love me some GRA (Vilna Gaon), but it makes me sad to think about him subscribing to a kind of biological nationalism that disparages the mixed multitude on the basis that they were mixed.
Also, to really believe it, one would have to have a firm conviction of phenomena like reincarnation, about which I am…let’s say agnostic. Truth is, I have an allergy to reified esotericisms through which metaphors for altered states of consciousness—like the Zoharic system of Sfirot and the gorgeous, terrifying prophetic visions referenced in the Kedushah prayer—are concretized into mere descriptions of Real Things. I only bet the farm on the One Big Non-Falsifiable Claim: I really do believe in God. Believe is a verb. I choose to participate in a relationship that I can’t prove is real outside my head. (My teacher Rabbi Mordechai Finley would say that, by subscribing to a non-falsifiable claim that I know to be true, I am trafficking in the mythic whether I want to or not. Of course, he approves of that sort of thing.)
I love the ecstatic visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel. I find Zoharic apprehensions of reality (the material world created from shattered vessels that contained holy light, the sparks of holiness in all things that can be released through mitzvot, kindness and prayer) to be wonderfully apt metaphors, kaleidoscopic lenses through which to see the world in new ways. But when the structures that people build on these metaphors become at once hardened and weirdly specific (whole angel genealogies, for instance, and detailed descriptions of heaven offered with deadpan literalism), I just can’t follow.
Oh yeah, and another thing. On a much less exalted level. A friend told me that a friend told him that, several years ago anyway, some Israelis used the phrase erev rav to refer to those people who are…affectionate for money. Huh. Well, that was news to me. Immediately, I began to imagine future posts: the Erev Rav on business ethics, the Erev Rav on generosity, the Erev Rav on true avodah gashmiut (the service to God which can only be rendered in the embodied human world).
So already, I’ve managed to be more provocative than I intended (a personal specialty). This title was just meant to be a play on words, a little inside joke. (And Erev Rav is also a funk-inflected klezmer band, so there’s that.) But, even though I meant no harm, what about the associative freight that words carry for other people?
For now, the title stays. But, if you have any thoughts about it, please share.
UPDATE: A little exploration in back of the internet reveals some politics behind the revival of this bit of esoterica. Turns out that Erev Rav is now the insult of choice for a peculiar group within right wing religious Zionism to hurl at fellow Jews who: believe in the separation of religion and government (church and state); support a 2-state (or any) solution for peace between Israel and Palestine; believe that there are such people as Palestinians; flash a bit of collarbone now and then.
Right then, Erev Rav it is.
UPDATE 2: Thanks to my brilliant friend, Rabbi Amitai Adler, who along with his equally brilliant wife, Rabbi Julie Pelc-Adler blogs at Speaking of Things Jewish, for his thoughtful comments.
July 4, 2012 | 10:03 am
Posted by Robin Podolsky
Krakov, the Polish city in which we stayed prior to seeing Auschwitz, is, well, charming. That’s such a dicey word—right up there with ‘picturesque’—but, really, it is. Cobbled streets are crowded with cafes and bars and with boutiques that offer the fabulous clothing worn by the women of Krakov: European classicism with touches of Eastern glitz. The central square, with its spired churches, patio cafes, and a market arcade first erected during the Renaissance, has been named the most beautiful outdoor space in Europe. Amber jewelry, a Polish specialty, can be found there, and cool conceptual art and paper maché figures of klezmer musicians and of Jews holding money bags. Wait, what?
The story of Jews and Poland is really, really complicated.
Thousands of Poles risked their lives, during the Holocaust, to shelter Jews, provide false documents and aid the resistance under the leadership of the Zegota, a unit of the government in exile formed just for that purpose. It’s estimated that, for every Jew who escaped the ghetto to live a double life on the ‘Aryan side’, there were about 5 non-Jewish Poles whose work made it possible. Some Polish partisan units fired on Jewish units when they weren’t battling the Germans. There are more Polish ‘righteous Gentiles’ (rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust) named at Yad V’Shem than there are of any other European nationality. Some Poles pretended to befriend fugitive Jews and then turned them in for bags of sugar. Others used fugitive Jews as slave labor. Polish convents were among the safer places for Jews to hide. Nuns armed only with their faith hid many Jews, including some armed resistors. Many Polish families adopted Jewish children and passed them off as theirs. Some of those children were raised in ignorance of their heritage and baptized when they were too young to understand what that meant. Some of those children survived the war as Jews. In Krakov, some people perpetrated a pogrom against Jews—after the war. They had moved into Jewish homes and didn’t much care to give them back. There were also Poles who safeguarded the homes and life savings of their Jewish neighbors throughout the desperate poverty of the war with no expectation of any reward other than having done the right thing.
Every Polish person who escorted us on our journey was, at once, proud to be Polish, excited about what her country has accomplished since the end of Soviet occupation and also determined to scrutinize its Holocaust history. They are young and fervent and smart, and if they are their country’s future, the world has a lot to look forward to.
What the Poles we met most want Americans to understand is this: the end of WW2 did not mean liberation for them. Poland was annexed into the Soviet bloc. We see reflections of this history in the changing Polish narrative of the Holocaust. Prior to the fall of the Iron Curtain, Auschwitz was commemorated only as the place where heroic Polish partisans and Soviet prisoners were tortured and killed. That description isn’t wrong—except for what it leaves out. There was no talk of genocide under the Soviets, or of Jews. (Or of Sinti and Roma, so-called Gypsies.) It is to their credit, I suppose, that the Soviets thought that discrimination based on ‘race’ and religion was just stupid, but not to their credit that they thought it was too stupid to mention; that they absorbed all “superstructural” distinctions into their narrative of class and nation. They simply absorbed the Jewish story into the Polish story and absorbed the Polish story into a myth of Soviet unity.
So here’s a problem: Before Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, when he and Stalin divided up Poland, Polish Jews and non-Jewish Poles tended toward very different perceptions of the least evil. For Jews, the situation was clear—the Soviets might not murder you. Furthermore, while the Nazis were entirely honest about their aggressive, racist aims, the Soviet Communists made promises they didn’t keep. They offered a sweeping away of old hierarchies, a new day of equality and justice. While most Jews were not Communists (or affiliated politically at all), many young Jews were willing to give them a chance.
Not so most Poles, who saw history very differently. They did not want to be dominated by Russia again, under any guise. We learned, in a lecture from Dr. Barbara Klich-Kluczewska of Jagiellonian University, that Poland won its independence in 1918 after a hundred years of partition by Austria, Prussia—and Russia.
We learned that the modern Polish national narrative, constructed by cultural leaders to rally their newly constituted nation, relied heavily on volkish tropes of blood and soil. We see evidence of this in the way that Polish citizens were referred to as “Lithuanians” or “Jews” as distinct from “Poles”, that is the ethnic group. Eastern European ‘nationality’ tended toward distinction from ‘citizenship’ in a way that’s different from the French and American constitutional models—although, let’s be honest, in that time especially, France and the US tended to honor their traditions in the breach. (The Holocaust coincided with France’s depredations in North Africa and the rise of the Klan in the USA, and a US State Department that deliberately delayed immigration for thousands of Jews who might have been saved from their deaths in the Nazi camps.)
While Jews flourished in Polish cities under the new republic; in the countryside, where most Poles lived, they maintained a distinct way of life, at a remove from the peasants with whom they traded. This at a time when difference was seen as a kind of affront, not as something interesting.
And then came various occupations. And everyone had decisions to make.
Today, Poland is engaged in a complex process of mourning and rediscovery of its Jewish past. There are festivals of Jewish culture there—in which many performers are not Jews. Can white guys sing the blues? Can Polish Catholics play klezmer?
Jews are returning to Poland. Not enough to repopulate all of the synagogues which are now museums, but there is growth now, not decay. There are active synagogues again and JCCs and living Jewish neighborhoods and Jewish musicians to play with their non-Jewish friends. And an on-going national conversation about whether Poland is a ‘Catholic country’. So, yeah, it’s complicated.
July 1, 2012 | 6:14 pm
Posted by Robin Podolsky
So I’m back in the States, on retreat(ish) working through the lessons of this trip to Auschwitz.
What did I learn that I didn’t know? Of what was I reminded? Am I changed? (No this hasn’t become a Holocaust blog, but this excursion is going to be my curriculum for the next little while. There will be other subject matter eventually.)
With answers to the above, I’ll get back to you, but here’s a thought for now: this trip itself is a product of the Shoah, proof that people can indeed learn from the past (so there is still a point to studying it). Over a dozen seminarians, people who are devoting their lives to their religious traditions, can have wonderfully crunchy, intricate discussions about theology and about the day-to-day practice of serving God and can treat our differences with genuine profound respect.
Not only did nobody try to convert, or sneer at, or in any other way deprecate the tradition of the others—we were actively fascinated with one another, secure enough on our own paths to appreciate the particular beauty of other ways.
This is, I believe, a product of post-Shoah thinking, what some call postmodernism. Horror at what happens when people try to impose their absolutes, an understanding of human knowledge as partial, situated and interested, and a willingness to entertain the idea that difference is a gift, not a threat.
Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, one of the thinkers we studied together writes, “…universalism is an inadequate response to tribalism and no less dangerous. It leads to the belief, superficially compelling but quite false, that there is only one truth about the essentials of the human condition and it holds true for all people at all times. If I am right, you are wrong…From this flowed some of the great crimes of history…”