Neil Manel Frau-Cortes' blog on music, Judaism and new technologies

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Dress codes and why we should reconstruct them

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Admittedly, it would be disingenuous from me to tackle this subject without two big disclaimers. First, I come from a culture where openly commenting on what somebody is wearing is quite a taboo. One does not tell a person that her clothes are out of fashion, or that he is not dressed for the occasion, the reason being that you have no idea of this person’s circumstances. It may well be that he just does not own better clothes; or she could be too poor or too sick to spend time thinking about wardrobe. However, I am also an American. Here clothes make the man and, up to a certain point, I am willing to play with the rules of the game. The second major disclaimer is that those who know me personally will tell you that I am the kind of guy you see wearing Hawaiian shirts and noticeable large earrings to work, or that if we cross paths in the warmer season outside of work, I could be walking down the street in nice linen clothes but barefoot. It is the islander in me, what can I say. Nevertheless, I do know how to dress up in business suit or even in black tie. Knowing how, however, doesn’t mean that I accept it and even less that I like it.

Here you have three anecdotes so that you understand where I come from. First story: I was hired by some Jewish day school where I was supposed to teach music with an emphasis on Hebrew as vehicular language. It is the day before classes, so not a kid to be seen in the building yet. All the teachers are cleaning up classrooms, decorating, and preparing materials. It is a rather dusty environment so I am dressed comfortably, in a tie dye T-shirt and Thai pants. The principal calls me apart and comments on my attire: “That’s a beautiful shirt. Kids would love it… but from Monday on, please dress professionally.” Then she proceeds to inform me about their business casual dress code, which I ostensibly ignored for the rest of the year. Don’t get me wrong, during my tenure there, I was always correctly attired, but I wasn’t up for dressing boringly. Dress shoes and a tie do not make you more professional; they simply make you more conventional, and perhaps less threatening to the status quo. Second story: it happened to a friend but may as well had happen to me. He was invited to a local Pride fundraiser. A very committed activist for trans rights, he happens also to be a creative, rather unconventional fellow, so he arrived to the event wearing a tuxedo but barefoot, as he just never wear shoes. At this LGBTQ event celebrating diversity, mind you, the organizers were narrow-minded enough to deny him admission even after paying an outrageously expensive ticket for his dinner. His being a barefooter did not fit the mold of normalcy they aimed for. It makes one question when did queer identity become framed in such a narrow cage. Third and final anecdote: it is one of my first Shabbats at an unnamed synagogue. I was partnered with the rabbi, I am ordained myself, and yet I was working there as a volunteer, no salary; that is, I am offering for free services that in any other circumstances I would be well paid for. I am wearing dress pants, a nice silk shirt and leather sandals. A shul-lady wearing a sleeveless top looks me from head to toe with disapproval. Then she comments to the president of the synagogue: “I thought sandals for men were not allowed on the bimah.” Something tells me that if we were to abide by traditional tzeniut (and I do not advocate for that at all), a sleeveless woman would be slightly more objectionable than a guy in sandals.

Dress codes are about eliminating uniqueness and individuality. The concept of dress code often raises in us images of a necessary evil. People chose to believe that it is all in the name of professionality; that whenever there is no dress code, chaos and excess ensue; or even that we wouldn’t need dress codes if people were better educated regarding what is appropriate or not. In reality, dress codes are usually repressive and arbitrary rules with a single purpose: uniformizing and even depersonalizing people. The aim of the most strict dress codes (such as the army’s or that of dictatorial regimes) is to kill individuality so that we become a mass of anonymous peons, pieces of a well oiled machine. Furthermore, be it political oppression or company policy, dress codes operate on the assumption that the higher-ups know better and individuals do not know how to act. At its best, they are patronizing if not blatantly oppressive.

Dress codes are heteronormative (or, if you allow me, cisgender-normative). In our times, the general understanding of gender equality has remarkably improved, compared to that of previous generations. Nevertheless, we still have a lot to learn regarding the construction of gender and the full spectrum of gender embodiment. Dress codes are often a heteronormative relique. For instance, think of business casual and gender equality: while males are severely limited to dark suit and tie, women have a wider range of models and colors. If we add queer people and gender-bending individuals to the equation, dress codes force us to wear whatever is “appropriate” to the gender written in our IDs and to its conventions, no matter if it accurately represents who we are. In one of the schools I graduated from people did not wear academic gowns, but gender-specific attire. The unwritten dress code consisted of suits for men and whatever-is-dressy for women. I insisted on wearing a nice, colorful Indian shirt and dress pants. And yet, I was not dressed as a hippy because I am lazy. I was expressing my creativity and my identity as a queer man. In any way I was less elegant or respectful than my female classmates.

In fact, it is my opinion that we should all be as proactive on denouncing this heteronormativity as the boys who wore dresses to school in order to protest an unnecessary and restrictive dress code policy whose aim was avoiding that guys had long hair or earrings.

Dress codes limit creativity and self-expression. If the principal agreed that “the kids would love” my colorful shirts, and if I am supposed to teach them music, art, self-expression, how on earth is it going to help this purpose if I wear anodyne business casual stuff? Would that make me any closer to the young students? Schools and religious institutions are particularly fond of this paradox. We want people to feel connected with Spirit, to daven in a holistic, embodied way, to feel at home in their spiritual community, and yet we expect the clergy (or even the congregants) to dress like they are going to a board meeting. We want kids to fully develop their creativity and explore their artistic site, and yet we tell them open toe shoes and pink hair are a reason to be sent home with a note to their parents.

Dress codes are culturally homogenizing. Western world standards for dress code do not necessarily agree with what is expected in other cultures. Our work environment is diverse and multicultural, but we still think that there is only one way of correctness. Why shouldn’t it be acceptable for an Indian lady to wear an elegant sari to a work conference? What if males of a particular culture dress up by wearing kilts, dishdasha, or a Boukharian kippah? In what ways would you consider this or this to be underdressed for business or academic purposes? Inforcing westernized random dress codes may reveal a lack of sensibility to cultural diversity.

Dress codes are a not a Jewish value. Many of you will not agree with me in this. My idea is that as Jews we value diversity and individual expression. We value chidur, beauty, and art as a form of worship. We value equality, and we are called not to judge anybody by the price tag of their clothes, by the wealth, or by their appearance. We are challenged to treat everybody as equally worthy. It is true that some segments of our community seem rather obsessed with particular attires. I feel often rather concerned when people bring up tzeniut as a set of rules to be enforced, poorly hiding their sexism. Once one of my classmates –a guy who identified as modern Orthodox, and wore kippah and tsitsit– was ranting about tzeniut and how the school should offer advice to “non-observant” female students of what is appropriate to wear to class (of course by “non-observant” he meant “non-observant the exact way I observe”!). While I don’t share his view, I respect this tradition. The problem was that this fellow had a half open shirt and rather short cut-offs. It made me think that there is way too much written about female tzeniut and a lot less about men’s. Modesty in dress, as a value, has nothing to do with the length of your sleeves, but with your self-respect, and your demeanor.

Can we reconstruct a social use of dress code that is diversity affirming and educational? And, in a Jewish context, is it everything about dress codes, about tzeniut norms ultimately negative? Is there anything redeemable, something we can learn from it?  In my opinion, strict, one-size-fits-all norms are a mistake. Instead of norms, we should aim at teaching values. Both in the Jewish community and in broader society, the values we want to sponsor are diversity, self-expression in respect to other people, and positive embodiment. I think there is nothing inherently wrong about celebrating the human body and its beauty. However, there is something alarming at the way we voluntarily sexualize the body, and this is even worse when we objectivize women or when, chas ve-shalom, we sexualize children. If you have ever been to a bar mitzvah where the kid in question wears an alarmingly short skirt and a skimpy dress badly covered by her talit, ‘nuff said.

Threatened by Jewish Tacos: Identity and Fragmentation

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In many other occasions I have compared the dynamics of Jewish American identity with that of minority cultures in Europe. Being of Catalan origin and having dealt with this kind of situations a good part of my life, I can’t avoid discovering in Jewish identity the unequivocal trends of endangered  cultures I witnessed and studied in my own country of origin, as a sociolinguist amateur of sorts. Just last week, a good friend of mine sent me an interesting article about the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico, knowing my deep affection for this community. My friend’s reflection on the subject was a true eye-opener: he hoped that this NPR segment would become viral so that “finally people get to see and understand that not all Jews look like Tevye.” He also remarked that the author of the beautiful pictures admitted that what he witnessed did not fit the Jewish narrative of his life. “When did our Jewish life-narrative get so small?” asked my friend.

My conviction is that in the measure that people reduce their Jewish identity to a series of cultural stereotypes, they narrow down the collective identity to just a tiny segment of it. The main reason why Hispanic, black and Asian Jews,  do not “fit in” in some people’s idea of Jewish identity is because they break the comfort of their own identitarian schema. And this can happen only because, once divested  from its core essentials (such any connection to Judaism, for instance), their Jewish identity is fragmentary and folklorized, not unlike the Catalan identity I grew up with in Mallorca. To me, it is an eloquent trend that does not reveal a dynamic, alive culture, but one that is in deep crisis and whose survival is endangered.

In past postings I talked about the self-deprecating, stereotypical image of Jews in the American media, and about the use of swearwords as the only remnants of Yiddish language. At a certain stage in the process of minorization of a culture, individuals begin to consider it as something heart-warming, sweet, small and frankly goofy. That’s the way we are, our essence. We can even be proud of our heritage, but we can’t see why anybody else not born in our culture would ever want to embrace it. A painful majority of Mallorcans would speak Catalan at home –a sweet, beloved, hybridized version of if, full of “cozy” swearwords– and even preserve some traditional dances to show to the tourists, but would frown at the idea of a Catalan book on quantum mechanics or any other manifestation of high culture. And they would certainly frown at the idea of a non-Mallorcan trying to learn their language. In fact, they would not help this person learn, but rather always switch to Spanish or English as soon as the outsider tries to articulate a phrase in Catalan. For them, Catalan culture is something dear, even a source of pride, but essentially useless and clearly lower than all other surrounding, modern cultures. I am pretty sure we could find the same patterns of behavior in Native American collectives: the native culture is a source of pride, can even be shown to tourists, but it is not to be adopted by outsiders and can never compete as equal with the modern, western cultures of the world.

What defines the identity of your average secular Jew in America? A vague memory of Old World stories, some Yiddish expressions here and there, a taste for bagels and kugel, perhaps. Nothing alive, vibrant, that they want to share with their neighbors. When the average Josh encounters Jews by choice, Sephardic Jews, or New Mexican cryptos, he can’t recognize them as members of the same tribe. Moreover, he may occasionally feel that his cozy identity is endangered by these alterities. I heard many stories of non-white Jews feeling questioned, even rejected in our JCCs and shuls, sometimes in the name of outdated religious rules, but more often for the lack of a warm, welcoming crowd. I dare to adventure that part of the current obsession with mixed marriages and assimilation is coming from the upsetting conviction that in the not so distant future, average Josh will no longer recognize the folks at the shul where he “was barmitzaed” (note the passive) and never cared to join. Mainstream American identity is so strong and dynamic that it can assimilate millions of immigrants every decade; Mallorcan identity (and American Jewish identity for that matter) tends to see itself as so irrelevant that the assimilation of outsiders constitutes a direct thread to its very existence.

Another thing we can learn from the situation in Catalonia is that minorized cultures seem to have a tragical trend towards fundamentalist visions of the self and to the fragmentation of the collective.  Colonial metropolis often use fragmentation as a tool of political and cultural assimilation of the colonies. In the Valencia region, the tactics have been successful: against any scientific definitions and against the academic community, the government not only convinced the population that their dialect was in fact a language different from Catalan, but also created a legal and institutional framework (which included an extemporaneous Academy of the “Valencian” language) in order to consummate the fragmentation. Why? Because it is is easier to make a language disappear when it is perceived to have only a couple million speakers instead of being part of a bigger, stronger culture. Today in America, a minority of us insists on calling themselves Torah Jews, thus implying that they are in and the rest of us are out. We all know how the Orthodox world is turning to the right, and how questioning of other denominations’ conversions is reaching absurd levels (oh no! what if your grandma’s conversion was Reform?). Does it happen because of a misunderstood, zealous fidelity to Yahadut, or rather because we humans seem to love being “the real thing,” the pure remnant always on the defense from the perfidious outsider? Readers can reach their own conclusions.

We can choose to mourn the seamlessly unified people we never where, or we can embrace our diversity and move on. I think that the cornerstone of Jewish survival in America resides in consciously planned efforts aimed towards regaining cultural dynamism. For some people, Jewish engagement will come through Judaism as a spiritual practice, in its many forms. For some others, engagement will come through literature and the arts, from the emergence and popularization of a new Jewish American culture proud of its past, but definitely grounded in our times, fearless and innovative.

She wore blue velvet: more dangers of co-optation.

 

Some years ago, in Tel Aviv, an Israeli friend of mine told me –in a mixture of wonder and puzzlement–: “I don’t understand how can you call yourself dati (religious), when it’s obvious you are not.” What he meant was clear to me: I don’t wear kippah all the time, only when I feel like doing it, and when I don my yammy, it is definitely colorful, not plain black velvet. My tsitsit do not hang ostensibly outside of my clothes. I observe Shabbat, but I don’t mind turning on lights, taking showers or using my electric kettle on that day. To me, Shabbat is about rest, enjoyment, connection with the divine and other human beings, about spirituality, not about making myself a pretzel considering if pouring soy milk over my cereal is tantamount of forbidden cooking. All these details brought my proudly secular friend to repeat the common motto: “it’s all or nothing!” Either you observe or you do not. Translated in plain words: stop appropriating the beautiful, meaningful, ethically sound aspects of Judaism and discarding the retrograde, anachronistic aspects they define as equally essential. According to this theory, it is hypocritical to light Shabbat candles, bless the wine, smell the sweet havdalah spices, celebrate the new moon, or cry like a baby at neilah, if you are not ready to accept the laws of mamzerut, pray for the restoration of animal sacrifice, and discriminate against random folks (women, agunot, LGBTQ, converts, liberal Jews and anybody who doesn’t look like us). This is just a fallacy, a mistake that is hurting more than helping.

More recently, while writing an article, I was trying to find a good definition of “repentance” in Judaism and I did what most of us do these days: I begun by googling the corresponding Wikipedia articles. The articles on ba’ale teshuvah stirred me and brought to my memory the story I just told you. For those of you that may not know, a ba’al teshuvah (literally “penitent” or “somebody who has repentance,” for short a “BT”) is a person who was born “legally Jewish” but never practiced, and later in life has a religious awakening and comes back to Judaism. Therefore, most of us, average committed Jews of all denominations are ba’ale teshuvah in some form or other. A number of us –born Jewish or not– has experienced the transformative miracle of discovering the richness of Judaism at a point of our lives.

The problem comes when you use the concept of ba’al teshuvah in an exclusive, discriminating way. The fact is that most people have bought into the idea that a BT is somebody who didn’t grow up Orthodox and has later adopted this denomination. If you were secular, a moderate Reform, a committed Conservative Jew, or even a Conservadox all your life and suddenly you “don the black velvet kippah” so to speak, congratulations, now you are a BT, and you are a “real Jew.” However if you were secular and then come back to any progressive way of Jewish observance, you are out of luck: you have not upgraded to BT.

On a deeper meaning, from its inception, the current use of the term BT was intended to discriminate against newbies. The auto-denominated religious will say that somebody is a BT in order to differentiate this person from an FFB, a frum from birth, somebody who is born “into families that are already religiously observant, and who have been conceived, born and raised Jewishly” (quoting the Wikipedia article). And if you are a FFB you can always go wrong and become an OTD (“off the derech”), somebody who has left Orthodox practice, no matter if he is still a very observant liberal Jew.

You see, sad as it might be, it is perfectly Ok if Orthodox people use these terms and look at the rest of us as unauthentic and fundamentally wrong. There is very little I can say or do to change their opinion. My many Orthodox friends know that we will never agree in this subject, so we just don’t bother. But why in the world should the rest of us buy into it and use these words in the same terms? I have already ranted about the need to stop using the term frum or “religious” among us to mean only “Orthodox”, which invalidates the religious experience of must of us. Maybe it is time that we become aware of this other language co-optation and stop using BT with the same implications. Then we’ll realize that the so-called BT movement is immensely bigger than what they tell us. Everywhere I turn I see people who (re-)discover in Judaism a beautiful, ages-old, moving, profound, and living wisdom. And, believe me, not all of them wear black velvet kippot.

Dancing with werewolfs: Jewish identity struggle.

No matter where I go, in my many and diverse communities, I find plenty of Jews exploring alternative spiritual paths, but quite often estranged from their own Jewishness. Sometimes I wonder why people’s spiritual quest necessarily leads  them to other venues; why their search for community hardly ever drives them to seek Jewish community.

Much has been written about this trend. It is obvious than one of the main factors of this estrangement is that for many years the established Jewish community did not offer space for these people’s interests nor for the kind of spirituality they are seeking. And yet, now that any individual can easily find a niche for her or his spiritual practice within the Jewish world, why don’t they come en masse to join and embrace all these new possibilities?

The answers to this question are many, but today I want to focus on something that is not often considered: the fact that a number of secular Jews have “folklorized” their identity, reduced it to the merely anecdotical. For years sociology and sociolinguistics have described the process of assimilation and dilution of minority cultures. I happen to be born in one of them, the Catalan nation, a biographic accident that often helps me draw parallels with the Jewish community. Contemporary Mallorcans in their vast majority are anything but a proud nation, not only because Catalonia is colonized and divided by fictitious borders, but also because they lack what I would call national awareness. That does not mean they do not have a Mallorcan identity, but this identity is folklorized, reduced to some foods they like, phrases and proverbs in the Catalan language, and to an otherwise incomprehensible taste for Mallorcan swearing words, often used even by people who never learned –and has no intention to learn– the Catalan language. There are a good number of self-deprecating Mallorcan stand-up comedians that enjoy great popularity by using and abusing these stereotypes. At the same time, other Catalan cultural manifestations like literature and the arts –both traditional and contemporary– are frown upon and perceived as goofy, provincial and uncool. This new Mallorcan identity is quite comfortable, in the sense that it does not demand any commitment, neither is core to a person’s values or vision of the reality. It is not necessarily informed by a deep self-hate, but it is certainly lacking of any pride in the cultural identity itself. Furthermore, sociology proves that this only is a stage towards the final assimilation of the minority culture into the mainstream.

Can you see any parallels with today’s American Jewish culture? I am sure that we all know fellows for which being Jewish translates mainly on the way they eat and talk. They enjoy bagels and matzah ball soup; they even sprinkle their English with plenty of words borrowed from Yiddish, Hebrew or Ladino –languages they do not know and have no intention of learning. What is worse, they perceive that being Jewish is something nice, sweet, but kind of goofy, funny, uncool. Their relationship with their Jewish identity is often humorous and self-deprecating.

The media feed American Jews with an abundance of equally self-deprecating icons, of characters that pride in the details and stereotypes of being Jewish, but don’t seem to take Jewish identity seriously. To an untrained eye, these cultural products may seem a normalization of the Jewish presence in mainstream America. However, rather than celebrating Jewish culture, they often reinforce its “uncoolness.” I am persuaded that this self-deprecation is not but a mild form of self-hate of equally devastating consequences. Unlike in the past, these TV scripts are not the work of anti-Semitic writers. They come from within our own ranks.

Two popular TV characters come to mind: Josh, the werewolf of Being Human, and Howard, one of the eccentric scientists of the Big Bang Theory. From the first episode it is clear that Josh Levinson is Jewish and wears a magen David. He is also characterized with Jewish stereotypes. He is nerdy, socially awkward, goofy, short and not as attractive or Aiden the vampire; he is insecure, obsessive and a little paranoid. Unlike Aiden, he is the epitome of everything uncool, a fact often stated by the other vampires, who treat Josh the werewolf, quite literally, as a doggie. Aiden’s vampirism is sexy and controlled, Josh’s lycanthropy is unruly and shameful. Josh’s Jewish identity is peripheral to the plot, but it is important enough to appear both in the British and the American version of the show. Other characters of the show have defined ethnic backgrounds, but these are never explored or hyper-characterized: Suren is a girl of Mongol origin who knows the “torture traditions” of her warrior ancestors, but no allusion is ever made to her Asian identity; Sally Malik has an Arab name, but she could equally be Hispanic, Greek or mixed: her ethnicity is irrelevant and does not define the character like Jewishness defines Josh’s.

In the case of the Big Bang Theory, Howard is unequivocally Jewish, and so is his loud, strident and unsophisticated mother. Short and goofy, Howard often makes fun of his Jewish identity, complains that the price of pork makes it harder and harder to be a bad Jew, dates a Catholic only to bother his mom, only goes to synagogue on Kippur –the only time of the year he is not available to play role games– and celebrates Hanukkah, a holiday depicted as funky and lacking the pizzazz of Christmas. Of the group of guys, he is the only one that still lives with his mother and has never finished his doctoral degree. Both Josh the werewolf and Howard the nerd are sweet, goofy, lovable characters who are somehow conflicted with a Jewish identity that is portrayed as profoundly uncool, marginal and folklorized, something not worth taking seriously, an accident, if not a nuisance.

Compare this to the unequivocal and unapologetic Italian-American identity of the family depicted in Everybody loves Raymond. Their names and the food they eat are clearly Italian, they hang out at Nemo’s pizzeria, they go on vacations to Italy. Rob, a third generation American, speaks a rudimentary Italian but is able to get by well enough to date an Italian girl that speaks no English. Here the roles are inverted: despite the dysfunctional vis comica of the Barone’s, they are the norm. What is more interesting: it is them against the world. Their relationship with the majority culture is proud and self-asserting. Anglo-Saxons are here represented by Debra’s parents and they are depicted as snob, richer, sophisticate but vain and hypocritical, people who smile all the time but hide their true emotions. In case you are unfamiliar with these characteristics, all these are stereotypes of Anglo-Saxons you may hear anytime from the mouth of many Hispanic, Greek or Italian Americans. Unlike the Jewish characters’ identity, the Barone’s Italian identity is anything but accessory and self-deprecating.

Five centuries of political persecution had not been able to erase Mallorca’s Catalan national identity. However, the folklorization of this identity is succeeding to do it. Identity is not something inherent and immutable, monolithic and life-long stable, something based in our feelings, some sort of a fixed quality that resides in the individual and never changes. Way too often we see our Jewishness as a birthright, something we can never loose no matter how far from the Jewish community we step aside. In fact, I believe that socialization is inherent of Jewish identity. It is about what Jews do and how they interact and connect. That is why tradition has emphasized minyan and kehilah. Socialization is also a good predictor of Jewish engagement: how many of our relatives and friends are Jewish definitely shapes our own Jewish identity. If one doesn’t live as a Jew, once ceases to be one. I am not suggesting that people forcefully need to practice Judaism no matter what they think. I am suggesting that people should build a more assertive, unapologetic, rich and fulfilling Jewish identity. The American Jewish community should try to find means of reclaiming a healthy, self-aware Jewish identity, both secular and religious. One can only hope that we will react on time, and not keep struggling with our Jewishness as if dancing with werewolfs.

Sects in the city: the strange lure of sectarianism

Sectarians of all kinds

 

First of all, my excuses for this time of silence. I had a very busy Spring: finished my PhD, left my teaching job, and got a full time job in the Washington DC area, which of course implies an impossible commute, since my family and my other two part-time jobs are in PA! I always intend to write regularly, but sometimes it is quite challenging. In any case, I thank you for your patience and for asking me what was going on. And as I always like to start my posts with an anecdote, here it goes.

A couple of weeks ago I was surfing the net and found an interesting site that deals with Sephardic Judaism and contemporary Iberian communities. I am not going to add a link to their page for reasons you will soon understand. They offered their own study materials in Hebrew, Portuguese and Spanish, so I thought it would be interesting to check what they were doing, since I believe that study is the long forgotten mitzvah. I was a little surprised to see that all materials were password protected and that one needed to request access by email. The reason? Apparently their study materials have been “maliciously misused” by “some people and organizations,” so they had to protect everything and reserve the access strictly to those “really interested on Torah study.”   I thought it was quite bizarre but, perhaps moved by my endless curiosity and love for limud, I dropped them an email nevertheless. The answer took more than a week and it was even more surprising: before giving me a password they needed to know the name of my synagogue –the small Reconstructionist synagogue where I work and daven–, a description of its weekly programs, URL, and the name of my rabbi. Quite annoyed, I reluctantlycomplied and sent that information. Their answer took barely a few hours and it was cold as stone: “we are against anybody who wants to ‘reconstruct’ the Torah. Your access is denied.” Even if you think that all non-Orthodox are recalcitrant heretics in need of teshuvah –I thought– how in the world did you come to the idea that the best way of facilitating this teshuvah is barring these heretics’ access to Torah study? Human nature never ceases to surprise me.

Like many other animals, we humans are gregarious. Take your typical high school and see how kids have this imperious need to identify with a group, to which they keep an almost blind fidelity.  In a way, our brains are wired for tribalism and, unfortunately, for sectarianism. Humans are seduced by sects, and I am not necessarily talking about your good old spooky brain-washing, booklet-selling cults. We just seem to need to affiliate with close, dogmatic groups that make us feel secure, safe, and on the winning side of the match.

However, time and maturity, for most of us, brings moderation. One day your teenager grows out of his obsessions and discovers it is quite alright not to wear whatever the fashion is, or to listen to un-cool but interesting music. I think this coming of age has a parallel in most people’s increasing unease with Jewish denominational affiliation. It was just to be expected that, in a post-modern society where identities are very fluid and affiliations are multiple, the need of, and delimitation between, Jewish denominations is probably becoming a thing of the past.

The story of Jewish sects is as ancient as our faith. The reader is encouraged not to buy into the Orthodox view that, before the advent of Reform, Judaism was this idilical alle briden group of harmonious coreligionists. Far from true, our history is full of miss-encounters between pharisees and sadduccees, rabanites and karaites, maimonideans and traditionalists, hasidim and mitnagdim, etc., not to mention the eternal rivalry between people who follow different minhagim. What happen in the 20th century is that some of these denominations and sects reached a higher degree of institutionalization, and managed to create their own seminaries, yeshivot and synagogue federations. Now, are these structures still valid in the second decade of the 21st century? I think the pulse of the street is telling us otherwise.

No doubt, I am persuaded that one of the biggest factors for decreasing affiliation is the fact that Jews got used to having services for free. Why support a synagogue if after all you only need it for your wedding day, funeral and –just maybe– to listen to a decent Kol Nidre once a year. However, another factor that few people seem to have in mind is the increasing difficulty to identify with the global of a denomination, with its organizational culture, beliefs, and decisions. We may identify with some of the ideology of a denomination, but it is really hard not to be very critical of the realization of these postulates.

If I can make a parallel, Judaism has no “party discipline”: we do not feel compelled to support the “vote” of our denominations, nor is our dissension a sine-qua-non like it happens in some political arenas. Furthermore, we have no real dogmas, which makes very difficult to define who is in, and who is out, who is normative and who is heretic. And yet, human nature gets on our way and we still have a tendency to act sectarian. The well-known Orthodox trend to deny legitimacy to everybody else (progressive rabbis, other interpretations of Torah, Jewish identity of some people) is a blatant example, but none of us is totally exempt of this sin. We are happy when the Other comes to our terrain: some are happy to see Conservative kids done talit katan, some are happy to see Reform shuls use more Hebrew, some rejoice when seeing any timid apertures toward women rights in Orthodox milieus, etc. Some get really excited when most of the incoming students at RRC on a particular year are not Reconstructionists but Renewalists.  It is like we are so convinced of our ways that we rejoice whenever the Other gets closer to what we consider the true spirit of Judaism.

Maybe we should stop and reconsider if we aren’t all like those Sephardic folks of my anecdote, if we are not basking in our own groupthink and isolationism. Perhaps we’ll discover that our lack of critical thinking may be one of the factors that is keeping many Jews from affiliation. In my own case, I found it more and more difficult to label myself as belonging to an univocal denomination. What is more, I don’t see the purpose or the benefit of it. I was ordained by the Reconstructionist movement and feel a strong identification with some of its core ideas about Torah, the Divine, retribution, etc. And yet, I’ll never understand or accept the movements lack of definition on hot topics, its negative to the integration of cantors into their rabbinical association, its lack of vision regarding international expansion, or the (willing?) ambiguity of its “trademark” (how many of you can pinpoint the main differences between Reconstructionism, Reform and the Renewal movement?). And since there is no Reconstructionist cantorial association, I do belong the the Conservative Cantors Assembly. I feel identified, again, with some of its core postulates, but do I agree with all of their realizations?

Why so many new congregations and independent minianim choose to be post-denominational? And yet, those shuls which choose to belong are often difficult to label: Conservadox, Reconstructinewal, Reform-but-Traditional, etc. Why should a Jew living in the second decade of the third millennium wear labels created a century ago? I think that maturity is bringing us moderation, and that we are regaining the ability of thinking outside of our denominational box. Here may lay the key of our future.

Jewish Songs: the New, the Old and the Hidden.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are so many things happening in the field of Jewish music that sometimes it is hard to keep track, since –even in the age of the internet– excellent new books and recordings do not get the exposure and diffusion they deserve. If it is hard enough for us in the US to know what is being done opposite coast, what to tell about new publications in Israel or Europe. Today I would like to take some time to present four new books on Jewish music, the new, the old and even the hidden.

 

First for the new songs: some months ago Shalshelet published its 4th International Festival of New Jewish Liturgical Music 2010 Festival Songbook and accompanying CD’s. Like the preceding volumes, this is a must-have for cantors, lay shatz and shul musicians. You will find numerous musical settings that fit the needs of religious services, educational venues and formal music interpretations by choirs and soloists, from quite elaborated contemporary music to congregational, simple tunes that work very well in most synagogues. The book is organized by subjects: psalms, songs of love, songs of memory and healing, etc. Among my favorite melodies I will mention Aaron Blumenfeld’s Song of Songs, Jessi Roemer’s Ahavat Olam, and Marcia Dubrow’s Va-tikach Miryam. There is a wide array of styles, from folk to jazz, pop to Hasidic and mizrachi. Musical creativity in the Jewish world is alive and well! A number of the musical pieces are recorded in a double CD, that is sold separately, but unfortunately the recordings do not cover the whole collection, so it is well worth getting both items, and thereby supporting Shalshelet‘s great task. By the way, the songbook includes a piece of yours truly, Shachar Avakeshka, in a jazz style for choir and piano.

 

The other three books I want to introduce to you are written by the same author and, in my opinion, form an impressive collection that any person seriously interested in Jewish folk music will enjoy. The author is Liliana Treves Alcalay, and the titles are Canti di corte e di juderia, Melodie di un Esilio, Canti della diaspora, all published by Giuntina in Italy. Do not let the Italian text scare you out: they all come with abundant music transcriptions, original lyrics, a CD that contains a selection of the analyzed melodies, etc. Canti della Diaspora [Songs of the Diaspora] is a short, well-written book that serves as a good introduction to the variety and richness of Jewish folk song. After a brief exposition of the major trends of Sephardic and Ashkenazi musical traditions, Liliana Alcalay offers a very nice selection of songs in Ladino and Yiddish, accompanied with Italian translations (although without any music transcriptions).

 

In Canti di corte e di juderia [Songs of Court and Jewry], Alcalay focuses on the origins of Sephardic music and tries to establish the features that make it different from non-Jewish Iberian folk-song. The author compares a number of Sephardic songs to their “original” (for lack of a better term) Iberian versions. It is very interesting to see how both cultures elaborated the same melodies and lyrics according to their own idiosyncrasy. After some chapters of delimitation and contextualization, Alcalay exposes the different treatments of seven musical and literary themes, such as tragical deaths, forbidden loves, lullabies, etc. One of the assets of Alcalay is that –unlike other musicologists that assume a nonexistent medieval “Spanish” cultural unity– her research includes the exploration of the Aragonese-Catalan tradition. For instance, the book contains a comparative analysis of the Catalan song La dama d’Arago and La bella in missa, a romanza from Salonica.

 

In Melodie di un esilio: percorso storico-musicale degli ebrei e marrani spagnoli [Melodies of an exile: a historic and musical survey of the Spanish Jews and the Marranos], Alcalay offers part of her field work among Cryto-Jews, while intending to establish if there is an actual marrano musical tradition, a subject that is highly controversial. In my opinion, this is the most interesting book of the series, although due to the nature of the subject it is prone to be contested, and even more when the author does not go into the academic minutiae but rather tries to expose broad concepts. To begin with, how would a hidden minority make public display of a distinctive musical tradition? How could we “sound different” in a society that punishes the difference? Furthermore, most Crypto-Jewish communities have received the modern influx of music from mainstream Jews, thus making very complicated to establish what is Crypto tradition and what is something brought in only recently. The book opens with some chapters on the history of the Iberian expulsion, immigration of marranos to the New World, and an analysis of the Crypto-Jewish religious practices. If in Canti di corte Alcalay presents a detailed analysis of how Sepharadim have “de-christianized” the traditional Iberian romanzas, most of the affirmations of Melodie di un esilio regarding Crypto-Jewish music are somehow conjectural, although that does not hinder from the high value of the book and CD.

 

Open for Me the Gates of Justice: Reconstructing Conversion.

the Shulchan Arukh, code of Jewish Law

 

One of the most concerning aspects of the future of Judaism is the undeniable fact that Jewish population is shrinking and getting older. When a Christian church’s membership decreases, they can always evangelize the neighbors or move to another part of town with more potential parishioners. When a shul is dying due to demographic changes, we often do not have these options, since the pool of Jewish residents in an area is usually very limited. This is the fate of synagogues in small town America, particularly in areas that used to be important hubs of business or industry but have since waned. When the newer generations move to bigger cities in search of opportunities, there is very little we can do to keep the shul open. We have lost millions to the Holocaust and to assimilation. We are loosing some thousands more due to demographic factors that are not in our hands.

 

It is my opinion that the future of Judaism demands us to reconstruct our approach to conversion seriously. Granted that it is unquestionably forbidden to force anybody to become a Jew, and that Jews have not been active proselytizers for thousands of years. However, I think that there is a big difference between knocking on somebody’s door Bible in hand (white shirt and tie included) and reaching out to non-Jews who are ready to explore Judaism. Most of the negative traditional attitudes towards candidates to conversion are fruit of the times and circumstances that surrounded the Jewish community in centuries past. According to some of these attitudes, a beit din is supposed to reject candidates up to three times before accepting them to the conversion process. Once accepted, a number of right-wing batei din will make practically impossible for the convert to succeed, demanding from the person a level of observance –always interpreted in the narrowest way possible– that they would never dare to demand from those who are born Jewish. While I am not advocating careless leniency on conversion processes, I think it is time to denounce the lack of humanity, understanding, and derekh erets of many a beit din.

 

Once a person is officially converted it is almost inevitable that s/he will not be universally recognized. For those of you who may not know, in principle Reconstructionists accept conversions effectuated by all other movements (caveat: it is the Reconstructionist congregation and not the rabbi who decides whom to recognize). Reform rabbis recognize all conversions, but Conservative rabbis only accept Orthodox or Conservative conversions. As for Orthodox, they only accept their own, and yet not universally: it is not uncommon for Orthodox rabbis to question batei din from other Orthodox trends. Although generalizations are never fair, I would say that the more insular a denomination is, the less welcoming to conversion candidates. When we talk about Israel, recognition also means the right of immigration, and unfortunately the Orthodox monopoly of legal institutions makes things very difficult for everybody else. If it wasn’t enough with the Israeli chief rabbis anathematizing non-Orthodox conversions, lately they are equally nullifying conversions performed by American Orthodox rabbis. What is worse, when the beit din declares that a convert is not such, it creates a human drama that includes this person being denied aliyah, having his or her marriage nullified and his children declared mamzerim.

 

While I don’t think we should accept conversions that skip important steps (namely brit, mikveh, duly constituted beit din, etc.), in my opinion all demands should be reasonable. Even if one is so concerned for the fulfillment of all halakhic minutiae, I still do not see why conversion processes are not being evaluated case-by-case, and why –when there is a serious doubt– the batei din do not deploy all ways and means to “re-convert” expeditiously the person whose conversion is questioned. You are entitled to not consider a conversion valid according to your standards, but it is just not Jewish to leave the person out there and not help her regularize the situation.

 

The more astringent argumentation for the denial of recognition is as follows: according to SA Yoreh De’a 286:12, a convert must have the intention of keeping all commandments at the time of the bet din. Even if s/he doesn’t observe afterward, the conversion is still valid. However, there are rules as for who can act as a judge and witness of a conversion: any public transgressors of commandments are disqualified. And that is where Orthodox operate in the assumption than all non-Orthodox rabbis are by definition public transgressors. Do you see the problem? Nobody is really doing this for the sake of the convert, or even out of love for the Torah, but rather as a political game, because they cannot conceive the possibility of recognizing the authority of a rabbi that doesn’t belong to their denomination.

 

Lately, some other Jewish movements take an apparently more friendly approach to conversion and encourage non-Jews to observe the seven noachide laws. Their argument: why would anybody want to go through the hassle of conversion when they can become one of the benei Noach? Particularly in South America we are witnessing an explosion of websites, groups and even congregations that ascribe themselves to this category. The problem is that the renaissance of this halakhic concept is not exempt of an agenda. Most of what we know about the noachides is codified by Maimonides, who equals a noachide to a ger toshav, a hassid umot ha-olam. The Rambam did not understand this category of people as limited to the physical land of Israel. Anybody who accepts the seven mitzvot is a ger toshav, living among Jews in any of the lands of their dispersion. However, the Rambam says that until the days of the messiah we can only accept a full convert, not a ger toshav (Hilkhot Avodah Zarah 10:6). Why does then Chabad –for instance– encourage non-Jews to accept the noachide commandments? Probably because they would have problems with their full conversion. Firstly, if Schnerson was the messiah, we are currently living in the messianic era and there is dispensation to accept noachides. The second reason is Chabad’s theology of the nature of non-Jews who, according to the second chapter of Tanya, have no neshamah: like Jews, they do have an animal soul, but do not possess that “extra” divine soul reserved for Jews. Jews have a spiritual purpose, gentiles a physical one (Likutei Sichot v. 25, p. 49). How can somebody become a Jew, if it is not in the person’s nature? Nobody can get himself a divine soul if he lacks one! Some Orthodox groups even think that teaching Torah to a non-Jew is prohibited, less the person uses it for idolatrous purposes. If you are not outraged, you should.

 

Without advocating careless leniency, and with all respect for our halakhah, I think we should all do teshuvah for making it difficult for potential converts to adopt Judaism fully. People should be well informed, study Judaism in depth and understand the process before being fully accepted as Jews. However, all demands should be reasonable and all care should be given to treat the person with sincere respect and acceptance. It is true that progressive shuls are a lot more welcoming for converts, but not totally exempt of prejudices. We should all do teshuvah for the way we have treated converts when questioning and “marking” them, which is against the halakhah. Think of the many times a person is casually reminded that they are converts, or a rabbi insists they should use ben Avraham avinu when called to the Torah (less somebody would think that his “real” father’s name was Abraham! I’ve seen this even in a few “progressive” synagogues). In the 1990s I was outraged to hear an important leader of liberal Judaism in Europe say that we should put a cap on conversions because too many converts in a shul would have pernicious effects in the congregation’s culture. Even in this day an age, we all have our own baggage of prejudice and insularism. We should particularly question our congregations’ attitudes toward converts of a different race, transgender persons or anybody who looks slightly different than your average American Ashkenazi. Even in the most liberal circles, some are suffering discrimination.

 

Finally, we should question our misconceptions about “proselytism,” and examine what is allowed when making outreach to non-Jews and what is not. According to the Rambam, proselytizing is actually one of the 613 commandments: the Responsa 149 says it is permitted to teach the commandments to non-Jews in order to drawn them close to our religion. In the Rambam’s Sefer ha mitsvot, the third commandment is to love G-d. He states that the way we fulfill this injunction is by sharing the knowledge of G-d with the world and drawing others close to HaShem. Maybe we will not knock on doors but I see no problem on organizing Judaism courses to target potential converts, or on informing mixed families that our clergy is open and willing to explore conversion studies. In the same context, the mitzvah no. 9 is to sanctify the Name of G-d. Its essence, for Maimonides, is to publicize the faith in HaShem without fear of any harm incurred by doing so. The verb used here is lefarsem, to publicize or proclaim. I cannot avoid to relate it to another proclamation, the so-called pirsuma de-nisa. This Aramaic expression, which contains the same root, is the one our rabbis use when talking about the commandment of lighting our chanukias in front of the window, so that we can proclaim and publicize the miracle of Hanukkah. My wish for this season is that we strive to make our Judaism shine out for whomever wants to see its light.