Posted by Robin Podolsky
So I’ve been quiet lately, election-obsessed, but still trying to work out that ‘non-partisan’ thing in anticipation of becoming a rabbi. No more need for coyness now. If you’re my FB friend, you know who I supported (and if the rest of you should guess that my candidate’s name rhymes with ‘no drama,’ you would not be mistaken).
To my friends on the Left: no, I did not vote for Guantanamo or wiretapping or excessive compromises with Big Finance. I voted for the coalition that put this president into office and which has gained more space in the national conversation. To my friends on the Right: from where I sit, voting for expanded opportunity is voting for personal responsibility. To my friends worried about Israel: what is it you don’t like, Iron Dome or the sanctions on Iran? (Who cares how he and Bibi feel about each other? They’re grown ass men with jobs to do.)
I agree with what the President said in his acceptance speech: “…this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations, so that the freedom which so many Americans have fought for and died for come with responsibilities as well as rights, and among those are love and charity and duty and patriotism. That’s what makes America great.” To me that understanding of community which involves responsibilities as well as rights echoes that which our Rabbis bequeathed us.
Also, I agree with those commentators who observe that this election was, in some ways, more historically significant than that in which President Obama won his first term. Four years ago, we elected our country’s first African-American president in the context of an economic catastrophe that came from the rank incompetence of the opposing party. This time, we re-elected that African-American President whose strengths and weaknesses we now know, in the context of an economy that improves very slowly and based on the contrast between his policies and that of the other guy. Obama is no longer a symbol, he’s Number 44. And that means our country has matured and made real progress in treating one of the biggest wounds in our democracy since our founding.
As I’ve told you before, many of the students at AJR, the Academy for Jewish Religion, where I study are old enough to have extensive resumes before ever starting rabbinical school. One of my favorite colleagues is a healthcare professional, a woman who made her own breaks and redefined her job such that she now leads and trains others. We agree about some political and social issues, disagree about others, and our talks zip past slogans to real exchanges of ideas. I learn from and respect this person.
On Election Day, as she sometimes does, my friend came into the library wearing her Republican brooch. She knows that I am decidedly to the left of her on just about every issue. And when we saw each other, without needing to say why, we exchanged a warm supportive hug. How good to know that our Jewish tradition of fervent, sometimes harsh, contention between committed friends can extend to our lives as citizens.
Later, we did talk about how lucky we are, as Jews and as Americans, to live in a country where changes in the government happen at the ballot box. We knew that, when we awoke the next day, no matter which president would run the executive branch; there would be no shooting, no state of emergency. Neither of us was afraid for what might happen to Jews on the next day. There would be no pogroms, no purges. Thank you, ancestors, for coming here! You did good.
5.1.13 at 9:07 pm | Of clothing, holiness and Bangladesh.
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2.6.13 at 7:39 pm | When good TV attacks.
1.27.13 at 10:32 am | on the perils of carelessness
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5.1.13 at 9:07 pm | Of clothing, holiness and Bangladesh. (11)
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7.1.12 at 6:14 pm | Back home from FASPE trip to Auschwitz via German. . . (4)
October 19, 2012 | 2:11 pm
Posted by Robin Podolsky
We should all be outraged. On Tuesday, October 13, a Jew in the Middle East was arrested, shackled, stripped and roughed up for praying the Shema in public. As it happens, the Middle Eastern country in question is the State of Israel, and the Jew was Anat Hoffman, Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center and chair of Women of the Wall (WOW).
Ms. Hoffman, or Anat as I suppose I have the right to call her, since we’ve met—more on that in a minute—was leading a special service with about 200 women on this Rosh Chodesh to celebrate the centennial conference of Hadassah (which for reasons best known to themselves chose Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu as the recipient for this year’s Henrietta Szold Award. Under the circumstances, they might want to ask for it back. Netanyahu, for his part, showed that he does have a sense of humor in his address to Hadassah, saying, “I will never tolerate discrimination of women.”)
Anat was leading the group in the Shema when she was arrested. The brutality with which she was treated is indefensible. She was shackled and strip searched, made to sleep on a floor, with only her tallis for covering.
I met Anat Hoffman on a trip to Israel with my synagogue. She sold me my most beautiful tallis, embroidered in red and purple and gold, with tributes to the Four Mothers at its corners. She spoke to our group about her passion for Torah and prayer, about wanting the Western Wall to be a space where all Jews can worship freely and the full range of Judaism is appreciated.
My own experiences at the wall were…complicated. I knew, of course, that we would be split up according to a male/female binary, but the experience of it was wrenching. I thought about transgender and intersexed people I know and wondered how they’d feel in my place. I imagined someone immobilized in the upper plaza as the hour grew late, trying to work out which of two lines to join; imagined trying to explain to the police who guard the Kotel why ‘man’ or ‘woman’ is an inadequate menu of choices.
Our group of provisional females made it into the women’s section, past the shnorers, to the wall where women sat in silent devotion, read t’hilim or shuckled, close to the stones. I placed the brief prayer I had written into the wall and then pressed my palm and forehead to the Kotel.
I was utterly unprepared for what happened then: I burst into tears. My conscious mind was horrified, jabbering in embarrassment, arguing frantically with whatever atavistic presence from my psyche had taken control:
“Okay, so this is a little excessive, right? Don’t you think this mystique of place is a retreat from radical monotheism? Do you think really think God can be concentrated in a bunch of material stuff? Suck it up, already. You know this wasn’t even part of the real Temple, right, just a retaining wall for Herod’s Folly, the expanded edifice of a vain unpopular king?”
“You know if you were visibly genderqueer, you couldn’t even be here without passing, right?”
“You know you only have a nice plaza to have this catharsis in because an Arab neighborhood was torn down to make room for it, right?”
“Do you even want a sacrificial Temple back?"
What’s the deal with charged space? How can one place be holier than anyplace else when God is everywhere? How much of the charge is about God and how much is the freight of human projections and needs? Even for this smarty-pants student, the Kotel is way over-determined. It gets around the rational part of people.
That can make for crazy. Since the 1967 war, there have actually been voices in Israel calling for the destruction of the Al Aqsa Mosque, a house of worship which is now situated on the Temple Mount, oblivious to the carnage such vandalism would provoke. The Documentary Praying In Her Own Voice features women rabbis who describe being spat on, attacked with chairs and prevented physically from praying out loud with the Torah at this holy site by screaming fanatics whose own sense of decorum seems more than a little skewed.
When it comes to women praying, the Israeli Supreme Court has upheld the restrictions. The State has given administration of the Kotel over to the Chief Rabbinate, which considers the lower plaza an Orthodox synagogue with a mehitzeh. We wouldn’t march into just any synagogue and disrupt services would we?
No, but most active synagogues aren’t tourist destinations or national heritage sites. They don’t swear in soldiers at most synagogues or film worshippers while prayers are said. Most synagogues aren’t contested sites of messianic or apocalyptic yearnings.
If ever I’m in Israel during Rosh Chodesh, I hope to stand with WOW. They bring a reminder of Judaism’s broad range of practices and understandings, of the fierce love for Torah that drives so many women’s lives and our determination to reclaim it, and they force a discussion about the proper relationship between synagogue and state. But I see their limitations. I don’t expect WOW to address the entangled claims of two peoples to the Temple Mount and all the stories and ghosts that the place invokes.
For myself, I don’t know that I need to pray at the Kotel. I’d rather daven in tallis and tfilin with people for whom I’m just one more Jew, praying our prayers. I can’t get a handle on the slippery relationship between the nation and the people Israel; I don’t want to pray atop the ruins of someone’s house. (The abandoned Crusader castle where WOW prays sometimes would be just fine with me; on those ruins, I could pray with a clear conscience and some glee.) If I’m honored to bless the Torah, I want it to be because Torah is the center of my Jewish world, wherever my body happens to be.
September 16, 2012 | 1:48 pm
Posted by Robin Podolsky
First of all, Christopher Stevens sounds like a decent guy, a real mensch. May his loved ones, those of everyone killed at the US embassy in Benghazi and everyone who died in protests this weekend be comforted.
Second of all, this story is so full of weird wrinkles, it will be a while before we understand it all. A meth dealer and probable snitch decides suddenly that he is going to get his life on a different track—and, hey, how hard could it be to make a movie? A Christian supremacist who wants to alter the religious protection in our Constitution is brought in as a consultant. The bottom feeder dupes hungry actors into creating such a craptastic mélange of dreadful—really it is extraordinary that the direction and editing and acting are on the level of bad 1970s TV and that the script is a compendium of every smutty taunt that your average middle-schooler might bring into a bathroom slapfest and that all that stupid is directed at the founder of one of the world’s great faiths. One would expect that if this steaming pile went anywhere, it might achieve a small cultish buzz for its sheer volume of stunning suck.
But this deservedly inconsequential “film” was dubbed into Arabic and people throughout the Middle East responded in fury. Peaceful demonstrations against the film were pushed to the side by people who wanted to attack embassies. The strikingly naïve idea that the US government even knew about and should have used force to prevent this pathetic, evil and legal exercise of free speech is now promulgated as a talking point. All this over a movie? No, it was as much catalyst as cause.
At least two things seem to be clear: there was a well of anger and grievance with the USA among sectors within Muslim and Arab countries that is deep enough to be tapped by this clumsy provocation; and there is also a complex diversity of thought which, thanks to the Arab Spring is bursting into the public square. Witness the demonstrations in Libya against the embassy killings. Witness the differences between those who wanted to demonstrate peacefully against the stupid film and those who responded with violence. Witness the differences, even among the violent, between armed deliberation and the spontaneous rage. The entire “Arab and Muslim world” does not hate us and is in a state of generative flux. Is it possible, however, that our decades of military intervention and support for those brutal strongmen deposed in the Arab Spring is coming back to haunt?
Third, the intricacies of this story will play out for a long time, and an attitude of curious skepticism—and grief for the departed---might serve us well now. What we in the US, and in the Jewish community in particular can do, is resist any rhetoric or pressure that nudges us toward conflicts of choice—or toward election-year distractions.
The Innocence of Muslims is the latest version of what has become an election season ritual—the introduction of anti-Muslim propaganda into the mix. During the 2008 presidential election campaign, millions of unsolicited DVDs of the film Obsession were sent to homes in swing states. The film portrayed the entirety of Muslim believers as a seething mass of hate just waiting to get their hands on us. (Full disclosure: after its release, I helped to prepare an extended critique of the film, which you can read here.) The film addressed itself to likely voters, framing the election, not as a choice between two starkly different approaches to economic issues, but as a choice between potential commanders in chief during a state of global war. In 2010, Newt Gingrich produced a film called America at Risk that carried the same message and was overtly designed as an intervention in the congressional elections. These films are much more expensive and much more professionally made than The Innocence of Muslims, but they seem to draw from some of the same inspiration.
Both of those efforts, along with “The Third Jihad,” produced by the same Clarion Fund that gave us Obsession, are characterized by a bludgeoning repetition of a few common tropes: collages in which footage of ordinary Muslims at prayer and on the street are juxtaposed with horrific images of the 9/11 attacks and clips of purported religious leaders inveighing against the US. Simply being Muslim is conflated with fervent disagreement with US foreign policy is conflated with mass murder. We are warned in those films that the enemy walks among us—they are our compatriots and neighbors who worship in the Mosque down the street and who accessorize differently from the way that we do. (Not so differently on the male side—it takes an insider to tell the difference between a takiyah and a yarmulke.) Unless of course they don’t visibly do any of those things—then they are especially perfidious because they look just like us! Bad for keeping their culture, bad for assimilating—why, yes, the parallels with anti-Jewish propaganda are striking, aren’t they?
We don’t yet know what is going on overseas, but over here we appear to be confronted once again by two opposing narratives of what this election is about. Is it about economic justice or about an epic global conflict? Are we obliged to go to war with everyone who wants to be at war with us or are there some battles we get to decline? How do we engage with the rest of the world in ways that reduce conflict and don't promote it? Those are questions for all Americans. As Jews in the month of Elul, we face particular questions of our own. Are we doing everything possible to rebuke religious bigotry and stand up for all religious minorities, not just ourselves? We Americans have all seen the results of this bigotry in the murders of Sikhs at prayer and the burning of a mosque. We Jews know the worst of what can happen when categorical hatreds are inflamed, especially in hard times. Time to speak up.
September 7, 2012 | 5:32 pm
Posted by Robin Podolsky
So what I really want to write about are the political party conventions. However, I’m trying to sort my way through the issues around clergy and politics, what it means to be ‘partisan’ and not, and what are the practical how’s, when’s and where’s of it.
So today I’ll distract myself by writing about a forbidden pleasure: the contemplative life.
This week (my first back at rabbinical school after summer break), we learned from Mishnah Avot 2:2: Rabban Gamliel, son of Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi says, “The study of Torah is beautiful (combined) with a gainful occupation; one who toils at both forgets sin. But any study of Torah which is not accompanied by work, ends in frivolity and it brings sin.”
The school I attend, the Academy for Jewish Religion CA, certainly lives this ethic. All programs are structured for working adults. Our school week is short, because most students have jobs and families, and many have a very long commute. Most of us hope for gainful jobs within the Jewish community when we graduate. Of course, we also learn in Avot 4:7 not to use the Torah as a spade to dig with (as a means to enrich ourselves). Our Teacher Rabbi Eli Schochet teaches that what congregations pay for is what the rabbi doesn’t do—she is compensated for the hours she doesn’t spend earning money in the secular world. The point here is that Torah scholars and rabbis are expected to live the life of the people we serve. There are no Jewish monasteries or convents, no Jewish hermitage. Jewish wisdom is meant for everyday life. It teaches us to deal with prosaic tasks and challenges, not to run from them.
But, with regard to time and space for Torah study in particular, there is a separate luminous strand within Jewish tradition. Torah study is so important that our rabbis even exempt diligent students from certain prayers. Torah study, like prayer, puts us in direct dialogue with the Holy One and with one another—that is, with embodiments of the Holy image. We don’t just do Judaism with our kishkas. We bring in our minds along with our heart and guts. Judaism is a holistic way of way of life that offers centuries of accumulated wisdom. To practice and share it, we need to be trained.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai asks, “If one plows in plowing season, and sows in sowing season, and reaps in reaping season, and threshes in threshing season, and winnows in the season of wind, what is to become of the Torah?” (Brachot 35b) Key tendencies in Jewish mysticism trace their intellectual and spiritual lineage to this rabbi, who gave up everything for Torah and led a fiercely ascetic life. In the Yiddish Pale, Torah study was valued so highly that it became a signal honor for Jewish families to host a Torah student at their table for regular essen teg (eating days). Today’s controversy over the stipend that Orthodox Israeli men receive for Torah study is as much about abuse—people with little aptitude or heart for study accepting the money and declining military service just because it makes their lives easier—as it is about a rejection of study as a legitimate focus for a Jew.
Jewish study takes time, not only for the reading itself, but for dialogue with friends about what the text means, for reflection, for chasing references that make the text explode into debates that cross generations. For considering how this reading might change the way we live. If immersion in the wisdom of Torah is not to devolve into a class privilege, Jewish scholars need, at minimum, ways to earn a living that do not exhaust their capacities to the point where they cannot learn. Therefore, I thank God for organizations like Jewish Vocational Services, which has helped me and others to study thoroughly so we can fulfill potential and make the contributions of which we’re capable.
This summer, I felt the tug of that tension between study, prayer and the broader communal life. After my study of the Holocaust abroad, I spent a week in retreat on some friends’ farm in upstate New York. It was green and tranquil, and my phone didn’t always work. The house is on retreat schedule: in silence most of the day, with internet access for about an hour every 48 hours or so. My hosts laid out breakfast on a sideboard in the morning and rang bells for lunch and supper. There was some visiting in the evening, one movie and then everyone retires for the night. They cook for you, they do your laundry and, God bless them, they leave you alone.
On my first full day there, I realized how tired I was. I did nothing much but sit in an Adirondack chair under the shade tree (elm, maple…? Something Eastern) and observe the complex traffic of the birds (there were redwing blackbirds, the first I’d ever seen and swallows and my red breasted namesakes). I saw a fawn on the lawn.
The next day was Shabbat, a more active kind of not-doing. A whole day and night devoted to study, praise and pleasure; Torah, food, the outdoors and good company.
On the day after that, feelings triggered by my trip to Germany and Auschwitz began to surface. I had resolved, while in Europe, not to dissolve into lugubriousness, I was there to think the Shoah. That’s a hard resolve to keep when faced with a room full of human hair. As it happens, I was a big brave girl who didn’t cry too much at Auschwitz. I did, however, break into loud immoderate laughter over a mordant joke right outside the death camp, and I did almost dissolve into tears over a seat belt that didn’t seem to work (it did) and the fear that Air Berlin had broken a piece of my luggage (they hadn’t, only misplaced it for a bit). So: rage, sorrow and a bit of shame under the blue New England sky.
On the next day, my routine emerged. Shachrit in the meditation room where I kept my tfillin, tallis and siddur. Breakfast and then a long walk up and down the twisty country roads. A shower, some journaling and then lunch. Writing on the laptop with no internet to distract me—no interruptions at all except for Minchah. I had set up the little desk in ‘my’ room the way Ii liked it. There was all the time in the world to study. A light supper, some provocative film and a little more writing before nighttime prayers.
Four days on retreat, and my world resolved into nothing but what I love—except community and home. Now I’m back to the people and city I love and back in school and earning a living. Back to the world of missed sleep and trying to move in five directions at once. My challenge, of course, is to deal; to receive back some of the spiritual calm and focus I achieved in that time of suspension and bring it to my daily life.
August 20, 2012 | 5:41 pm
Posted by Robin Podolsky
I don’t think the women of Pussy Riot should go to prison. With their Punk Prayer, they’ve pushed human rights issues in Russia onto the international stage in ways that ‘respectable’ NGOs could not. And they brought in some neon to break up the grey; they’re fun and kind of adorable. All of which may seem like strange sentiments for someone preparing to be a clergyperson, let alone for someone preparing to be a rabbi.
Yes, I do know how bad I’d feel if some people rushed the bima (pulpit) of a synagogue in which I was praying or leading prayer and carried on with a loud ritual of their own devising. No, I don’t think the dangerous tropes about Jews that two of them invoked in their closing statements are defensible. And, no, I don’t think that passion, sincerity and wit are good enough when it comes to activism. Strategy, content and substance are still key. But, as I’ve learned from my study of the Shoah, when religious institutions are used to enforce silence about repression, one of the worst things to do is nothing. These girls cracked a putrefying can of worms wide open.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich took the pulpit of Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral to chant their Punk Prayer, as an invocation: “St. Maria, Virgin/Drive away Putin….Become a feminist!” in order to protest the alliance of the Russian state and the Russian Orthodox Church—whose spiritual leader, Patriarch Kirill Gundyayev, has called the Putin era “a miracle of God”. Amnesty International calls it a regime under which, “corruption, the abuse of power and human rights violations will continue to flourish”; a judgment based on documented attacks against journalists and peaceful demonstrators. The freedoms of press, assembly and speech protected in our Constitution have never been secure in Russia where democratic traditions are weak and imperial traditions flourish. Again, we are hearing, “‘God, Tsar and Fatherland”; and, when those things are conflated, everyone outside the magic circle becomes fair game—like those of our ancestors who were brutalized and murdered in pogroms.
Of course, Pussy Riot stands for more than a protest against corrupt elections and a Church that turns a blind eye. They stand for a female sexuality that does not apologize for itself or submit to Patriarchal discipline (that’s not rhetoric—church fathers in Russia actually are called Patriarchs). They stand for the artist’s need to pull back the skin of conventions that holds the everyday together, exposing the tangle of loss, fear, need and crazy hope underneath.Pussy Riot has been accused, not only of trampling on the very idea of the Holy, but also of invading a place where working and middle class Russians expect to find refuge, to retreat from just those issues that Pussy Riot brought to the fore. These slick kitties from the city stand for subversive cosmopolitan possibilities that the ascendant Russian right is determined to smash.I don’t know how to talk about that without confronting the self-policing aspects of working class culture. The very capacity for self-discipline and sacrifice that keeps working class families together at all can become a powerful drag on social change. A hunger for personal happiness—unwillingness to make do—an irrepressible need to make art for example, draws accusations of self-indulgence, of “elitism” from parents and friends who have rejected the torture of hope. The terrible hunger for respectability on the part of people who have precious little else to strive for can turn a holy community into a communitarian jail that preserves the status quo. Even fighting for better wages and benefits can be framed as greed in that context.
This is different from the religiosity of the prophetic tradition, exemplified by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Z”L, who wrote, ““Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehood. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, and the vision.” Our contemporary Rabbi Jill Jacobs reminds us of Rabbi Heschel’s great insight—that prayer, while it does take us into that timeless time of greater intimacy with God, is not a mere refuge. Prayer is where we confront our soul and confront a Creator who respects our capacities enough to make great demands on them.
And it’s not like our prophets eschewed the lewd, the weird, or the scatological when it came to making their point. Ezekiel lay down in the street for days, eating bread cooked over cow dung to protest social injustice and idolatry. Hosea’s entire married life with a woman who had either been promiscuous or a sex worker can be seen as one big provocative performance. Social/spiritual emergencies call for desperate measures.
The women of Pussy Riot do have a lot to learn. In her closing statement at trial, Tolokonnikova wrote, “Passion, total honesty, and naïveté are superior to the hypocrisy, mendacity, and false modesty that are used to disguise crime.” True—-but those things are not superior to having an analysis. Those who inflect their social justice work with Romance tend to confuse tactics with principles, provocation with transformation. An aesthetic is not a strategy, nor is it wise, let alone kind, to mock potential allies or even to appear to mock them. But Pussy Riot has already apologized sincerely for that, saying that, in the way they did their intervention at church, they made an “ethical mistake”.
It saddens me that both Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina invoked an old and dangerous trope, that of “the Jews” oppressing Jesus, to analogize their own situation in their closing statements. They failed entirely to contextualize Jesus as a Jewish teacher and the Jews as a colonized degraded people under Roman rule. Again, that’s not just sloppy thinking; it’s especially maladroit politics, given that Jews are targets of the same forces arrayed against Pussy Riot. Let’s hope these women bring their creative intelligence to this issue as they have begun to do with regard to religion in general.
Still, it’s a very good thing that, in the face of real danger, these women spoke out. They took risks and tried something new. People have been beaten to death in Russia for less. And the women of Pussy Riot are already learning and growing, critiquing their own behavior while drawing attention back to the conditions against which they acted.
July 26, 2012 | 5:50 pm
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.
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.