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

Posts tagged ‘Mallorca’

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.

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.

Don’t curb your enthusiasm.

It is not a secret that the Jewish population is getting smaller and older. Much has been written on this subject and we all agree that we need to grow and we need it now. Some have even suggested we should lift the traditional ban of actively seeking converts. By this thesis, one should not only not make things impossibly difficult for candidates to conversion (we all know some contexts where this attitude is overdone ad absurdum) but rather go as far as to encourage people to explore our faith. But let’s leave this controversial subject for a future post.

Going back to the growth of Judaism, we can pinpoint many different causes of the demographic decline. For some rabbis, intermarriage is the big monster that is eating us alive. In my opinion, the trees maybe hiding the forest in this case. See, I grew up in a country whose language and culture are clearly receding. Many thinkers blame immigration and cultural intermarriage, as if the Catalan “purity” were watering down. Catalan speakers marry Spaniards and the whole family chooses Spanish as their home language, since it is always easier to favor the culture of a majority. However, it is evident that in some areas of Catalonia “culturally-mixed” families fare better than in others. A mixed family in Palma or Alacant is more prone to abandon the Catalan language in favor of Spanish than, let’s say, a family in the Garrotxa, just because in that area Catalan is more alive and enjoys better social prestige. Now back to Judaism: in a social context where Judaism is less alive, an intermarried family will be more prone to “go with the majority” and educate the kids as Christians. The culprit here is not intermarriage, but the weakening of Jewish identification. All in all, I think that it’s about lack of enthusiasm for Judaism.

As many of you know, I’m a hazzan with a bunch of part-time jobs. One of them is as a church organist. Two weeks ago I was sitting at my organ and listening to a visiting pastor. His sermon was about the church’s need to proselytize –what they call “the Great Commission”– and make disciples. His argument was simple: imagine your life without a personal relationship with Jay-Cee. How voided of meaning, joyless, purpose-deprived would it be? Now think of your relatives, friends, and coworkers who do not have that. Doesn’t it move you to action?

Allow me the somewhat-risky exercise of bringing the pastor’s argument to Judaism. Imagine your routine, your whole world without Judaism, without its ethics, life-cycle rituals, yummy food, music, and crazy idiosyncrasy. Imagine going through the week without the anticipation of Shabbat and without its rest, or going through the year without the excitement of the holidays. No shivah to comfort you, no seder to prepare for, no Purim frolic, no apples and honey for a sweet New Year. Chances are a considerable number of your Jewish relatives, friends and acquaintances have a life like that. You can’t miss what you don’t know.

Some rabbis and cantors get rather angry with the so-called Kol Nidre Jews. I just find them difficult to understand. Why on earth would you choose to come to shul only once a year, and pick the day that has more fasting, impossibly-long services, and weirder rituals? (Admit it: legally declaring vows invalid and the whole avodah service have some rather peculiar tinges). It is as if they wanted a confirmation that religion is this strange, foreign, depressive thing they witness once a year. To me, the worse part is that people choose to look at their entire Jewish heritage through the prism of a “sad” penitential commemoration. Ask some non-practicing Jews: they may have no idea what Shavuot is about, but they know most details of death and mourning rituals. Why live in “Kol Nidre mode” all your life?

Sukkot is a time of rejoicing, probably the most beautiful holiday of our calendar. Talking about the exuberance of these celebration, the sages said “he who has not seen the rejoicing at the Simchat Bet Ha-Shoeva, has never seen rejoicing in his life” (Sukkah 1:5). It is also the ultimate time to engage in an important mitzvah, hakhnasat orkhim, inviting people to share a meal with you. This Sukkot, make your love and enthusiasm for Judaism something contagious. Show the beauty and richness of Jewish life to those who still don’t know it, Jewish or not. Show your disaffected Jewish friends that there is so much more than fasting and long piyyutim. Show your non-Jewish friends that the external aspects of Judaism they know (all those prohibitions and picturesque attire) are nothing but a small detail in the whole dazzling picture. Let us all spend our whole year in Sukkot mode.

The Flow of Identities: of Puebloan, Cryptos, and American Jews.

Last July at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque NM, a very young native-American guy was telling us how most of his village’s dancers were aging. Traditions were slowly falling into oblivion, and youth were not interested in this art. This moved him to create a new dancing group whose members are all in their teens. The evolution of Pueblo pottery narrates a similar story: after generations of simpler, somehow impoverished styles, mid-20th century archaeological findings prompted Puebloan pottery makers to revive more complex, traditional designs that were long lost. Traditional forms, however, are recreated and updated both for traditional use and for commercial exploitation, in a process that has its enthusiasts but also its detractors.

A couple of days later we met with Daniel Diaz-Huerta, an enthusiastic organizer of New Mexico’s Crypto-Jewish community. Every day more and more Hispanic people of Jewish descend reclaim their identity. In consonance with our times, their newly coined Jewish character often doesn’t fit the narrow criteria of what the English-speaking, “white” Jewish community considers as normative. Like in any other social change, the establishment is often suspicious and prejudiced against a collective who doesn’t “look Jewish.”  This creates interesting sociological and cultural clashes, which I will certainly talk about in upcoming blog posts.

Back home, I read that an Orthodox beit-din from B’nei Brak has decided that Mallorcan xuetes (or chuetas) are actual Jews. Since their forced conversion to Christianity, this Crypto-Jewish community of my country of origin has been discriminated for being Jewish. More than 600 year later, the Jewish establishment is just starting to acknowledge their identity. I understand: the rules of halachah are (relatively) clear; but maybe –just maybe– it’s time to rethink modern Jewish identity and its implications. In my life time I experienced the slow creation (or restoration) of a practicing, Catalan-born Jewish community. In a way, we had to reinvent ourselves and our tradition, lost for almost six centuries. We had to create a new language of faith and a new identity. Even after the years, the existing local Jewish community –almost entirely integrated by Moroccan and Argentinian immigrants– is still having a hard time coping with this emergent Catalan collective.

Are we, as contemporary American Jews, any different? I don’t think so. Our identity is as fluid as it can be, because it doesn’t come imposed on us anymore. In many ways, today we are all Jews by Choice. We choose to define ourselves as Jews; and being Jewish is only a more or less important part of our identitarian cocktail: we are Jews, Americans, LGBTQ, politically progressive… all of them simultaneously, in a combination unique to each of us.

We share yet another feature with our Xueta, Crypto, and even Puebloan fellows: most of us have not received tradition directly from our parents. We have claimed it a posteriori. Jewish tradition and observance in the Western world has often skipped a generation (or two, or three). We are constantly going back to this tradition but, at the same time, we are recreating, updating and reconstructing it. It’s an impassioned and challenging process that will probably result in a Jewish identity that maybe –just maybe– our great-grandparents would have a hard time recognizing. The effort, however, it’s worth every second.

In this time of crisis and changes, we don’t know what the Jewish community will look like in 10 years’ time, but we are pretty sure that it will have to adapt itself to new challenges and new, fluid identities.