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

Posts tagged ‘New Mexico’

Threatened by Jewish Tacos: Identity and Fragmentation


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.

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.