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Words

About ShtetlKettle

For the past 2 years, I’ve been blogging about fermentation on behalf of my small Detroit-based pickle business, Suddenly Sauer.

While food, in general, and fermentation, specifically, are central passions in my life, I felt that more theoretical fermentations (read: thoughts) weren’t as communicable in that space.  Thus, I’ve created ShtetlKettle.

In this space I want to think about community and individual identity.  My point of entry is Detroit Jewish identity, but I’m in no way limited to any one perspective.  I see some of the most poignant inquiries developing out of the borders between identities, and I hope to explore my identity, both personal and communal, with the boundaries (real and imaginary) that we create. 

While I plan to post on a weekly basis, I also want this space to be open to any/all those who happen to share in these (rather specific) areas of interest.  Guest posts and comments welcome!

I look forward to growing with you!

-b

 

Courage

Blair Nosan

It was Yom Kippur 2012. I was sitting in the backseat of my parent’s car, driving to the cemetery to visit my Grandpa’s grave. I didn’t know that Yom Kippur is chag, a day for not driving, just as it didn’t occur to my parents that the Jewish graveyard would be closed on this holiest day of the Jewish year. En route to the cemetery my father and I started to compare notes about the services we had attended for Kol Nidre. He shared with me that the Rabbi of the shul where I had grown up had been particularly incensed about some organization called “J-Street,” and was telling the congregation to beware of and denounce these self-hating Jews. He asked me if I was a supporter of J-Street, and I replied that J-Street wasn’t Left enough for me. I told him that I don’t think there is anything visionary about their platform. That I want equal rights for all inhabitants, and that I thought the two state solution was a dead end. Needless to say, the conversation quickly took a turn for the worse.

My father was horrified by my assertions. He retorted with centuries of Jewish suffering and vulnerability. He spoke of Israel and its military as the thing that stands between Jewish life and annihilation. We argued all the way to the cemetery, arrived at the locked gates, and without breaking our vitriolic exchange, turned the car around and drove toward home. He was yelling, I was crying, and my mom was shaking her head in stunned silence. It felt as if we had unknowingly chosen this family outing in search of some temporary autonomous zone in which a total, ugly purge could be actualized. The fight ended with my father, incensed, yelling at me to show him proof of a grass-roots Palestinian peace movement. I cried because I did not know enough to answer his call. Because I feared that I wouldn’t succeed. I cried for shame and ignorance, and for the limitations of my idealism. I cried.

That car ride followed me back to downtown Detroit after Yom Kippur. It followed me to New York the following fall, and it followed me to Israel this winter. I came here to face the challenge that my dad leveled at me. And in a profound way I have not found myself wanting.

My father spoke from a vantage point that I used to be unable to understand. From a place of Jewish fear. He was afraid for the Jewish people, afraid that our position as a powerful minority could quickly shift toward being powerless. The equation was simple: either we’re the victims or we’re in power, and we’d rather be in power, even if it means having blood on our hands. My Dad didn’t say those exact words (and because I know he’ll probably be reading this, because he’s a good Dad, I should underline the obvious– I’m using our story not to single him out, but to share an experience that I believe to be universal).

We Jews have a long memory of being victims. It’s hard to shake off a memory of suffering. Our own history tells us best– the Israelites wandered the desert for 40 years so that a generation of slaves could give way to a new generation of liberated people. But the Israelites were still bound in their freedom, bound in their covenantal relationship with God through Torah. Torah tells us how to be sovereign, but that sovereignty is steeped in responsibility and accountability. Torah tells us of a freedom that understands power to be about radical responsibility. (cue the line from spiderman: “with great power comes great responsibility”).

Yet the loudest Jewish conversations tend to spend significant time focused on the intractability of Palestinian resistance, trying to understand the ongoing Palestinian longing for this land. I posit, Palestinian memory is something we cannot erase, as we should well know from our own 2,000 year exile. It is imperative that we take Palestinian memory and longing as seriously as we take our own. By squandering our communal conversations on questions of when Palestinians are going to change their attitude, we miss out on a far more productive and provocative conversation. For Jews deeply committed to justice and human rights, do we have a vision for the future?  Are we willing to fight for it? And if so, what Jewish communal fears must we address and teach-away as we fight for that vision?

So I find myself asking, is the freedom the Israelites were promised more akin to the current Israeli mainstream, which looks at power as something we, Jews, need in order to be safe? Or can our understanding of power be visionary– seen as an opportunity and a responsibility to be just and courageous, to stand up for what is right. Let us put our questions about Palestinian desire for self-determination aside—not because they are irrelevant, but because we should prioritize the work we need to do on ourselves. Could we, the Jewish people face the future with courage? Can we imagine a framework of human rights for all inhabitants of the land, including the occupied territories, regardless of what it means for Jewish demographics? Can we imagine taking down the wall, and all the psychological walls that have been built? What could Jerusalem look like if we fought for human rights with the same passion that we fight for security? I feel, with conviction, that if we believe in human rights, these are the kinds of conversations we must be having. I’ve been thinking lately of how the literary origins of our peoples are bound together through Isaac and Ishmael’s feud, through Sarai’s jealousy and Hagar’s suffering. Is this not for a reason? The Jewish people didn’t come into being in isolation of other people’s narratives and we can’t hope to thrive by walling ourselves in, or others out. Truth and reconciliation have been put on hold for so very long, can we rediscover what it means to be serious about peace?

Diaspora Day

Blair Nosan

 

“The work of the Boyarins [post-zionist scholars] has been instrumental in deconstructing static notions of Jewish identity by theorizing an anti-Zionist politics without negating the importance of Jews’ connection to a place called Zion.  The Boyarins turn to diaspora as a solution, "we propose Diaspora as a theoretic and historical model to replace national self-determination.’ The Boyarins see a future of permanent and celebrated diaspora, not just for Jews but for all people.  The Jews’ two-thousand-year history of living apart from, and as part of, others’ societies is a model for future interaction of various groups.  For the Boyarins, such a conception ‘allows a formulation of Jewish identity not as a proud resting place… but as a perpetual, creative, diasporic tension.”  

from New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora by Aviv and Shneer

Both David Hartman’s article about Yeshiyahu Leibowitz and Aviv and Shneer’s book New Jews: The End of the Diaspora, speak to the dynamic tension between myth and reality. Their understandings of the Jewish world, though coming from markedly different places, can both be read through the eyes of the artist Maurycy Gottleib in his 1878 painting Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur. Vis-a-vis Leibowitz, Aviv and Shneer, we are the artist in the rainbow kittel. Perched on the edge of the enlightenment, he is neither fully at ease nor fully an anachronism in his own tradition– neither a tourist nor a native. In my estimation, this is the predicament of the modern Jew, particularly as that Jew attempts to understand their relation to the modern Jewish state.

Aviv and Shneer construct an image of a world Jewish community that is in the process of redefinition, they ask, ““how did Jews ideas of home change once the mythic [Israel] had become the real.” (9) They explore how the Jewish state become a “civic religion” for diaspora Jewish communal organizations to rally around and through which Jewish community and identity חוץ לארץ could be strengthened. They recount how the American 'Diaspora Business’ envisioned/s Israel as both a refuge for the vulnerable Jews of the world, and as a site for the preservation of Jewish identity. They explore the voices of post-zionist scholars Daniel and Jonathan Boyarins, who question the necessity of a secular Jewish nation, stating that “the solution of Zionism—that is, Jewish state hegemony, except insofar as it represented an emergency and temporary rescue operation—seems to us the subversion of Jewish culture and not it’s culmination… Capturing Judaism in a state transforms entirely the meaning of its social practices.” (17)

Aviv and Shneer challenge the Boyarins’ diasporism, they posit that rather than defining all Jews as in diaspora, we should define all Jews as creating new and diverse forms of home. “Jews are committing to places, to concepts, ideas, stories, and spaces… and the tension between rootedness and movement should guide our thinking about identities and spaces.” I admit, I have a hard time understanding how their position differs from the Boyarins. Their definition of home is one in which Jews “exert power over space and place, and over one another, across different geopolitical boundaries, and through various media and cultural practices. To call a place home is a statement of power.” (23). Positioning them in a way that is much less ambivalent about particular Jewish power than the Boyarins. And yet they continue, “no home is permanent, no group is ever permanently rooted or permanently diasporic, and power over places, communities, and identities can be gained or lost.” (24) For Aviv and Shneer, it appears that they see promise in a rootedness that is multifaceted and diverse. The Boyarins resolve the modern dilemma of real and mythic Israel through anti-zionism, separating Israel into a (kosher) mythic zion and a fatally flawed political reality. Aviv and Shneer maintain an ambivalence about the centrality of Israel’s role in the global Jewish community, but do not go as far as the Boyarins’ anti-zionism insofar as they still see Israel as one of a multiplicity of Jewish homes. In my estimation, however, their understanding does not ultimately adequately differentiate between the mythic and the real Israel, and I find that their position still fails to address the problem of Israel’s reality, in which mythic and nationalist Zionisms are (seemingly hopelessly) intertwined

I chose to contrast Shneer and David Hartman’s article on Yeshiyahu Leibowitz for the sake of further exploring the tension between myth and reality. Hartman depicts Yeshiyahu Leibowitz as deeply cynical about the conflation of the mythic and the literal zion inherent in both secular and religious zionism. Though Liebowitz’s critiques are born of a religious framework, his critique of the Jewish state has deep reverberations with the secular diasporism explored by Aviv and Shneer. Leibowitz is deeply critical, not of the religious ideal of zion, or of the national aspirations of a Jewish people, but of the conflation of the two. His perspective is that the religious force imbued in the nation is what makes it caustic. It disempowers Judaism’s moral code and it handicaps democratic nationalism. Hartmen explains, “Judaism, with its concern for the worship of God, must serve as a critique of nationalism, it must expose all institutions to judgement. Judaism must make all Jews constantly vigilant about the intrinsic dangers of power.” Furthermore, “for Leibowitz, it is a modern expression of idolatry to make Judaism an instrumental value to serve human purposes. When God and Halakhah are used to enhance our political aspirations, our worship has become idolatrous, if we take idolatry to be the reduction of God to a means that serves human ends.” (72) Yet Hartmen never reveals how Leibowitz resolves this tension between mythic and real, between religious and secular.

Reading Liebowitz in the context of Shneer and Aviv, it isn’t hard to see that however disparate their perspectives, their conclusions are intertwined. I read Shneer and Aviv as a sort of aspirational zionism in which Jews seek justice in the many heres and nows of a modern global Jewish community. I read Leibowitz’s warning that the Jewish aspiration to live a strict moral code and the Jewish aspiration toward a democratic nationalism are irreconcilable. In both of these articles, there is a deep critique of the conflation of the myth of Zion and the reality of Israel. Neither Hartmen nor Shneer and Aviv seem to be interested in elegant solutions, but rather in exposing the complexities that underlie these oft oversimplified categorizations. For me, as for the man in the rainbow kittle, I can yearn for an imaginary time when myth and reality were somehow distinct, but I can never inhabit that reality. Aviv, Shneer, and Hartman, each in their way, deconstruct the religious and secular zionist realities that we inhabit. Yet the paths forward from these deconstructed places are no more distressing than the fate that befell the man in the rainbow kittle. Maurycy killed himself, and it’s my feeling that some part of our dreams will also have to die.

being and becomming

Blair Nosan

There is this complicated feeling that happens internally when I pray in community these days. I feel myself gaining literacy slowly. I hear myself reading words aloud, and wondering why mine are so blunt and edgy while those around me seem to know how to swim through those little black letters like water.

They wrap their prayer shawls, their teffilin, and they shuckle and bow at the appropriate times. And I’m wondering what’s more important– to look like them or to feel like myself? To pretend to know what I’m doing or to be authentically where I am.

It’s strange to me that this question is still coming up. Its been some time now since I committed myself to being a Jew. And yet, I discover anew all the time the things that make me strange. Because when I say that I’ve committed myself to being a Jew, what I really mean is that I’ve committed myself to learning how to be a Jew– and the epistemological paradox of being and becoming simultaneously is both exactly where I want to be, and it feels deeply painful.

I wanted to share about this because I think it cuts to a deep truth that I’m exploring about the process of being an adult learner– possibly in any context, definitely in a Jewish context. When so much of participation is about performance, what are those who are at the stage of learning left to do and to feel?

I’ve developed a few habits for dealing with my paradox in the past 2 months of commitment to daily prayer, and sometimes they work. Those habits are: knowing what prayers I really want to know, and sacrificing my participation in order to move slowly through them. Not taking on ritual objects until I know how to use them. Adding more prayers slowly as I become competent with the core I set out to learn. Being kind to myself. And, allowing myself to chose to say things in english or skip things when I know that I would rather be able to do everything, “correctly” and fully.

It strikes me as odd that I am left feeling alienated so often as a learner. What is it about our communal spaces that make me feel so ill prepared, so ill at ease, in my public praying self? It’s objectively funny to me when I admit the things that make me uncomfortable: knowing that I’ll still be standing when everyone sits for the repetition of the Amida, saying the Amida during 1 or more Kaddish recitations and wondering if that’s “OK,” saying a word wrong, getting lost in my siddur, etc etc.

But who set the bar so high? I think when I really dig, I know that many of the people around me are also as much in process as I. They might be “becoming” in other aspects of their lives than in prayer, but what is so shameful about not knowing in this particular venue? There is a certain measure of shame that accompanies my fervent desire to know how to participate, an embarrassment at my own earnestness, coupled with an utter disinterest in curtailing my search because of that shame. But the added level of strangeness in this emotional goulash is that I also find in me a strong self-criticism that is ashamed for not already knowing. It’s as if I envy others capacity to be aloof in their knowing, and that what I’m actually resenting is that, if I ever want to have a more distant relationship with my Judaism, I’m going to have to start by getting really close first. Uncomfortably close.

Maybe that’s just it– I fear losing myself in the process of committing to something that is, profoundly, not just about me. (it’s not not about me, either, by the way). And yet, I’m doing it. One bow and one prayer at a time. There is no way around it– it is and will continue to be uncomfortable– but I’m not the first and I won’t be the last to take this journey. The process of being and becoming is human. So too I want to carve out the space in which learning and performing are both essential and ongoing parts of being a Jew.