Upstate anti-Semitism

An editorial in the Times Herald-Record (the newspaper which covers much of upstate New York, including Kiryas Joel and Monroe) condemns a supervisor in Blooming Grove, an opponent of the KJ pipeline plan, for his remarks about KJ's Chasidim. Among other things, he called them "parasites" and a "racial splinter group."

(Registration required, or at least some of the time - it's a weird setup - but if you're at all interested in KJ news it's well worth it.)


Constructing Jewish culture, III

Just to refresh your memory, we're talking about the article by Alan Brill in Edah. (See the original post.) My friends are dissecting and ruminating like the humanities professors (or assistant professors) they are. Today it's the turn of Ken Moss (whom I know by his Jewish name, Binyomen), a member of the history faculty at Johns Hopkins.

Oh, and to repeat: any stiltedness is due to my translation (we correspond in Yiddish).

Well, I'm not so thrilled by the article. But:

First of all, it's a little bit like reinventing the wheel, because the very idea of creating an all-encompassing Jewish culture is the leading idea of Jewish thought in the 20th century, from Peretz (Vos felt in undzer literatur [What's Missing in Our Literature]) and Bialik (Ha-sefer ha-ivri [The Hebrew Book]) to Rosenzweig and Scholem. The modern Orthodox and the Reform are only today coming to an old idea because they both (and here I disagree with Marc) grow out of the same German milieu in which Kultur had to mean Deutschtum, Schiller, Goethe, and Beethoven, and Judentum meant only "religion." But if this article can lead to your more creative ideas, I'll thank Brill too! It might also be true that we here in America need to rediscover what was already known in Eastern Europe in 1910 and in Germany in 1920, and that we need to discover it by means of "religion," however frum or fray that religion might be.

But there's a more basic objection which I should mention: the fact that Brill sees among the evangelical Protestants a model for the creation of culture outside the framework of "liberalism." His entire style, at the end of the day, with all his theories of anthropology and cultural practice, is to construct "culture" as an all-encompassing concept, in which one can fit all fields and areas of human creativity, among them the natural sciences, ethics, etc.

But in this way he's deliberately removing the division between "is" and "ought." Empirically speaking it's true, of course, that every individual and society swims, so to speak, in a sea of culture, and that there's no field of life which is beyond or over culture (in the sense of a system of discourse, or of communal meaning). But -- and here I'm demonstrating that I'm an adherent of Englightenment a la Kant -- I would say that ethically and philosophically one must make a distinction between different areas of culture which have very different demands and rules.

Ethics and science, for example, in a concrete context, are empirically speaking culturally specific. But cultural specificity should not dominate them - quite the opposite. Science must be brought under the control of rational, trasnparent, human reason, and ethics (and politics as well) must derive from general human grounds. Otherwise we have barbarism, "Deutsche Wissenschaft," "democracy isn't suited to the Chinese," etc.

To say it differently, I will teach my child that one mustn't rob or kill not because our tradition teaches this, but because humanity teaches it. We should familiarize ourselves with the Jewish ethical tradition in its various forms, but our ethics is not dominated by this or that tradition, by this or that culture. Or let's talk about politics: politically speaking, the democratic foundations of our tradition are quite poor no matter how creative you get, and even poorer with regard to non-Jews (an urgent matter in the State of Israel) -- but this is only a problem for those, like Brill, who want an all-encompassing Jewish culture.

In this sense, I'm stuck in the 19th century, but with the point that if "civilization" must belong to all humanity, culture (everything, that is, which has to do with the development of taste, esthetic, and distinction outside the framework of politics, ethics, and culture) must not be German, nor French, but a Jewish culture which is both well-established and open.


Q: What's that copepod doing in my water?
A: The backstroke, rabbi.

If copepods live "almost everywhere where water is available," and it's reasonable to imagine that their distribution has not appreciably changed since the time of Chazal, I would like to know if anyone has difficulty with the following argument. If so, what?

1. The rabbis of the Talmud, and many other righteous Jews of past generations, drank (at least some) presumably unfiltered water.

2. We do not find in the previous halachic literature much discussion of the bugs-in-water issue.

3. The recent "revelations" about copepods are based on observations with a microscope and not naked-eye examination. (To the naked eye, "specks" are just that.)


4. This is (yet another) newfangled stringency made possible by the mistaken application of technology to the realm of ordinary experience and common sense.

5. Prominent Orthodox rabbis and organizations are examining this issue for two reasons, among others.

A. An assumption that even the littlest details of life are to be subjected to halachic analysis. This assumption is problematic.

B. Communal pressures.

6. As these rabbis and organizations devote time and energy to copepods, more and more of them will provide services, products, etc., with their imprimatur, leading to a perception that copepods-in-the-water is a significant halachic problem that an ordinary Jew should concern himself with.

7. This is regrettable.


That was the place*

I'm back from Salt Lake City, where city blocks are 660 feet long and there's not much to do after nine o'clock at night other than send e-mail over the Internet-equipped TV in one's hotel room, a bit of backward technological wizardry that's like sending a fax by toaster. I was there for this conference. Some of the most interesting research presented there had to do with the epidemiology of New York. One abstract presented claims that educational (as opposed to, say, income) inequality is not associated with deleterious health effects at the neighborhood level. The theory, I suppose, is that a handful of PhDs benefit their environment in a way that a handful of rich folks do not. Again, this result is not to be hyped with abandon, merely chewed over and followed up on. Perhaps it might even turn out to be true.

Another study showed that high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets (and we all know which those are) might be associated with increased mortality. These and more juicy morsels of half-cooked scientific progress can be browsed (or ignored) here.

On Friday I went to Temple Square and let the Mormons try to convert me. I very much enjoyed it. How often does one have access to someone whose job it is to answer questions about their religion?

Where did I spend Shabbos, you ask? Thereby hangs a tale. I was a good boy, ideologically consistent to a fault, and called the Conservative synagogue in Salt Lake City. The friendly secretary let me know that the shul wasn't really "set up" for that sort of thing, and suggested I call Chabad. Instead, I had recourse to the hospitality of this very friendly community. Outside of New York, egalitarianism and Sabbath observance often seem to be mutually exclusive. (This is neither logically nor conceptually necessary, but it is the fact of the matter.)

Meanwhile, my friends have been keeping up their e-mails about the construction of modern Jewish culture. It's like a machine for the hands-free generation of blog posts! I'll get those out sometime, but maybe not until I'm back from Germany. (A wedding, mainly. Also, a talk in Hamburg, at the Salomo-Birnbaum-Gesellschaft, on June 30th, on today's Yiddish poetry. Books available for purchase too, of course. . .)

Didja know that folks are writing today in Yiddish? It's true, but not necessarily in the way you expected.

*"This is the place": What Brigham Young is supposed to have said as he leaned out his wagon to survey what would become Salt Lake City, otherwise known to Mormons as "Zion."


Constructing Jewish culture, II

I forwarded the article by Brill to two friends of mine, and we've been back-and-forthing about it over e-mail. Today's comments are from Marc Caplan, now a faculty member at Indiana University, soon to be a post-doc at Penn. His dissertation compared Yiddish and African literatures. Also relevant is that he (and his wife) are both modern Orthodox, and were members of KOE, a modern Orthodox synagogue, when they lived in New York. Oh: we correspond in Yiddish, so any spelling errors are due to my translation.

Thanks to you both for involving me in this imprtant and interesting discussion.

Let me begin by saying that I'm not a disinterested party, since Edah is ideologically connected to the shuls I davened at in New York [. . .]

I believe the first thinker who first truly considered these questions is the rock critic Robert Christigau, who at the beginning of his career, about thirty years ago, wrote that we must create a theory of modern esthetics which includes both Marcel Proust and Chuck Berry—culture with a big C and culture with a small c (though Christigau would never say that Berry represents small-c culture!).

But to create such a concept of culture for (or among) Jews, one must overcome quite a few conceptual difficulties:

1) The divisions between frum and non-frum, tradition and modernity, and even Jewish and non-Jewish are imaginary. The Rambam derives from Aristotle no less than he derives
from Saadia Gaon; Samson Raphael Hirsch probably took more from Schiller than from the Rambam, and so on. Both "the Rav" and A.J. Heschel read philosophy in Berlin (!)
while the Lubavitcher rebbe studied science in Paris. Ovadia Yosef demonstrates his North African roots no less than his Sefardic and Kabbalistic influences, and the fact that he never studied in Berlin or Paris is the first sign not of an "authentic" Sefardic Judaism, but rather of the political situation of the North African populace in his generation . . . Admitting that we're all connected to the eternity of human civilization is no mystical fantasy, it's just a fact of living in the world [. . .]

2) Although there's no authentic culture in the world - though all cultures are a sum of purposeful decisions by people, and so don't develop organically in nature - the problem of "authenticity" for modern Jews is even sharper because both frum and Yiddishist cultures are both separated not from their "natural" roots, but their historical roots, which were torn out by immigration to America and Israel and by the Holocaust.

3) Since our culture is particularly unauthentic, we must deal with ideological and historical influences which come between us and the culture which we would like to reconstruct. Therefore there is no true reconstruction which we could accomplish. Everything is starting from square one, both for modern Orthodox Jews and for the so-called secular Yiddishistrs. Considering how underdeveloped both cultures are to this very day, this "beginning" must begin more or less with our own generation.

If we understand the liberating possibilities of our inauthenticity, we can recognize that modern Jewish culture can really be what we make of it, and say that the purpose of building such a culture is not either on the foundation of Torah u-mitzvot, nor on Yiddish language or humanism, that is, a parallel development, but that the two are connected goals. As the rabbi said to the "weak man": everything is in the Torah. If so, the question for us is no different than for Christigau: creating a Jewish culture which comprises both Rabbi Soloveitchik and Lou Reed - with Barnett Newman, Irving Howe, and
Malke Heifetz-Tussman somewhere in the middle. What would we call this? I suggest "utopia"...

This is all by way of introduction [. . .]

By the way, it's very ironic that Brill writes in his article: "Modern Orthodoxy has adopted a Protestant division between faith and culture” (apparently on the side of Faith against Culture). Reform Jews also adopted a Protestant differentiation between Faith and Culture, mostly on the side of Culture! This reminds me precisely of what my professor Arthur Hertzberg once said about Yeshiva University itself - it's not a true Orthodox institution, but the radical-right wing of the Reform movement!
A disease widespread elsewhere

As a cholera epidemic ends in Mozambique, another flares in Cameroon. And Haiti braces for an outbreak after its flood. (Info on the first two thanks, of course, to ProMed.)


Under construction: Modern Jewish culture as understood by Alan Brill

The Iyyar issue of Edah includes an important article by Rabbi (and Dr.) Alan Brill which tries to navigate the relationship between Judaism and culture.

Its point of departure is the modern Orthodox concept of Torah u-Madda (Torah and science, where "science" is used its older sense of general knowledge). According to Brill, this ideology is predicated on nineteenth-century notions of culture as something external to religion. But in reality, according to modern theorists, culture is by definition the substratum in which all life, the life of Jews included, is embedded. Jews have always been creators and consumers of culture - asking whether the Jewish community should be "engaged" or "distant" from non-Jewish culture misses the point entirely. The question is: what sort of culture should be sought by American Jews? More specifically, Brill asks: how should one understand the Judaism of the lay, suburban Jew in America?

Simply put: what sort of culture do we, American Jews, want? (Note that Brill uses "Orthodoxy" throughout his essay, but I think his line of thinking is relevant to many American Jews. In fact, this is exactly the sort of topic which should be the bread-and-butter of, say, Conservative Judaism, both the movement and the journal. But stop me before I complain again . . .)

Brill's essay is more devoted to the problem than its solutions, but he does, near the end, advance a certain approach. Other religious communities in America, he says, have "reconstructed" various fields of intellectual thought (physics, literature, philosophy, psychology) in their own image. Just as we construct our religious approach ("there is no given of Torah," says Brill), so we construct our intellectual sphere in concert with the spiritual.

There is much to think about here, but two difficulties come to mind.

1. What criteria are to be used in "rewriting" those parts of "liberal culture" which do not conform to Judaism? What does it mean to say, as Brill does, that "[w]e can criticize Romanticism as having values against the Torah"? Which part of Romanticism, Don Juan or "Ozymandias"? And which values? Certainly some views of divine inspiration (to take one example) held by the Romantics are not wholly alien to Jewish notions, I would think. To say the following is very bold indeed, and I wonder how it is to be done:

Jews need the creation of Jewish psychology, education, philosophy, political science, and sociology similar to the works produced by Protestants, Catholics, and Muslims.

The problem with such a "rewriting" is that it requires criteria for what a "Jewish psychology" is. I have my own ideas - which I hope to post about in the future - but this leads me to the second difficulty, viz.:

2. Brill understands the creation of Jewish religious culture as, in essence, a rabbinic project - not only for rabbis, that is, but based on rabbinic literature. His examples of the broad spectrum of Jewish culture are thus drawn from the many rabbis and religious leaders who have written works of literature and science. But Brill overlooks a fruitful source for the construction of a (sub)urban Jewish culture which is both religious and modern: our predecessors and contemporaries, who have created, and are engaged in creating, precisely that! In an important sense, Jewish modernity as an embedded cultural endeavor began in Eastern Europe and continued in the State of Israel, while American Jewry has become afflicted by what Brill points out is the Protestant, nineteenth-century view of culture as opposed to, or a seducer of, the religious tendency.

Unfortunately, in what I think might be an overreaction to ultra-Orthodoxy, Brill tends to characterize Eastern European Judaism as "narrow" or "simple." I find this imprecision perplexing in what is otherwise a thoughtful and important essay. Even the rabbinic culture of Eastern Europe, it should go without saying, is not faithfully represented by the minimally thin cross-section that has survived and thrived as modern-day Haredism.

The project of Jewish cultural construction must draw on a number of sources, both rabbinic and non-rabbinic. Medieval sources seem far afield when one can look deeply into the Jewish culture of Vilna, Warsaw, and Berlin, not to mention modern-day Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

What is Jewish culture? How will we know we're constructing it? I'll get to that in my next post - not to solve the matter but to tilt at it.


Yemenites out of Monsey: smuggling, rescue, or both?

I don't begin to understand the recent news story about the cloak-and-dagger doings of the Jewish Agency for Israel (aka the Sokhnut), which, according to the Agency, smuggled out of Monsey part of a family of Yemenite Jews, supposedly taken there by Satmar Chassidim against their will. (Not by force, but rather, claims the Sokhnut, by false promises and deception.)

I don't doubt that such kidnappings occur, but I also wonder how many Yemen families, or parts thereof, find satisfactory lives among the Satmar. Which of these outcomes is more common? What happened in this case?

You won't find even an attempt at an answer in the articles I read. Haaretz, as well as some other newspapers, basically reprint the press release of the Jewish Agency. (Whoops - that last link is to an article in the Jerusalem Post, but it reads like a press release from the Sokhnut, and it's reprinted on the Jewish Agency's Web site.)

The article in the [Westchester, Rockland, and Putnam] Journal News is quite a bit better in some respects. For example, at least the headline ("Agency claims it rescued family") acknowledges that some facts might need to be clarified, and the newspaper goes to the trouble to interview some Satmar sources. There's also the following interesting tidbit: "A Israeli Consulate official in New York would neither confirm nor deny the report, but said smuggling is definitely not something Israel is not involved in under any circumstances."

The most important point, and maybe the most accurate take on the situation, is buried in the middle of the article:

Asrim Issak, president of the Yemenite Jewish Federation of New York, said yesterday that the Satmars respect the Yemenite Jews' devout Judaism and ancient traditions. But, he said, the Satmars don't want the Yemenites immigrating to Israel. He said Satmar schools that accept Yemenite children force them to speak Yiddish and take up Satmar religious customs.

"I am critical of the Satmars and anyone else that bring Jews out of Yemen without a plan to help them," Issak said. "They take them out of Yemen and throw them into the streets without housing, education and jobs."

The question is this: what is meant by that phrase "the Satmars [sic] don't want the Yemenites immigrating to Israel"? Were the children's passports taken from them - i.e., were they kidnapped? No one seems to bring any facts to answer the question. As was asked on the Volokh Conspiracy a couple of days ago, why weren't the police called in by the Sokhnut?

Before I start making fun of the obvious errors, I should again emphasize that this is the best article that I've read on the story. It emphasizes the important fact that the Yemenites are being exploited in a mini-Kulturkampf. What really happened, and what the Yemenites agreed to, is still unclear - but we're closer to knowing now.

Here are the idiotic parts of the article. We hear from Michael Landsberg, who runs the Jewish Agency's Aliyah Delegation in North America. "Landsberg's family died in the Holocaust," says the reporter. A fascinating and relevant fact, to be sure! Certainly there are no Holocaust victims among the Satmar ancestors. Neither were the Yemenite families persecuted in the not-so-distant past . . .

Here's another wall-pounder:

"The Satmar promised to take them to a 'golden land,' but when they got here they found themselves in more of a Yiddish-speaking shtetl," Landsberg said, using the Yiddish word for small, insular town. "I am serving my people."

"Shtetl" means "small, insular town"? I guess "suburb" must mean "confining, lawn-lined site of Cheever short stories." I suppose also that the speaking of Yiddish (mirabile dictu!) is prima-facie evidence that the Yemenites were being exploited.

Yet another one:

Many of the Yemenite Jews have maintained their ultra-Orthodox traditions going back 2,500 years.

I wouldn't have used the word "ultra-Orthodox", especially in an article featuring both the Yemenites and the Satmar Chasidim.

Update: The Forward has an article this week. Things are still murky, with each side accusing the other of kidnapping. Given, however, that the Yemenite family was moved to an immigrant-absorption center, it seems unlikely that they merely wanted to visit an ailing mother. The real question is now getting clearer: if the Yemenites were in fact kidnapped, why didn't they or the Jewish Agency say anything to the police? Perhaps the Sokhnut kept things under wraps, for fear that the murkiness of the story might create difficulties for their mission.

The JTA has a good article, in which Samuel Heilman expounds on the obvious mini-Kulturkampf that's behind the story.


Here are the results, never mind the study

This sounds interesting, but I hope I remember to read the actual study so I can figure out if the results mean anything.
Happy Bloc Vote Day!

Tomorrow is the Kiryas Joel election for village trustee. I figured I should post something about it, because most if not all of the on-line material is in Yiddish, incluidng an article I wrote a couple of weeks ago for the Forverts.

The contest, as with everything else in KJ*, revolves around the internal Satmar dispute between Zalmen Leib and Aharon, sons of the current rebbe. The Zaloynim support Zalman Leib, the Satmar rebbe's favored successor who's regnant in Williamsburg, while the Aroynim stand behind Aharon, known as the Kiryas Yoel rov (a term used sarcastically by the Zaloynim). The Zaloynim's self-described "dissident group," the Kiryas Joel Alliance, engages in active political pot-stirring in KJ.

The two out of four incumbent trustees whose seats are up are not running for re-election. They are both associated with the KJ Alliance, and claimed that they had to withdraw because Gedalye Szegedin, the top KJ administrator, could not guarantee a free election. (Szegedin denied this in an interview with the Forverts.) In 2001, a court found that several dozen ballots, out of 600 or so cast, were tampered with. No indictments were handed down, though a critical report was issued. (See the Times Herald-Record for the full story.)

The two candidates put forward by the Alliance for the open seats didn't have much to say for their candidacy when I interviewed them for the Forverts. Shloyme Feder said, "The community picked me to run, so I ran." In the intervening weeks, however, the departing incumbents have apparently decided they need to speak on behalf of the Alliance's candidates, and of the job they did during their three years in office, so they sent a letter to a number of KJ residents.

Given the problems of the last contested election, the polarization of the KJ political climate, and the bad blood between the two sides, I would guess that the election will be decided by competing blocs, perhaps yeshive-bokhrim bused to polling places. Katle Kanye suggested I go up to KJ and cover the story, but I have a thesis to finish. Steven I. Weiss (or someone else at the Forward), where are you?

Meanwhile, the non-Jews (i.e. the Times Herald-Record, which does a good job of covering KJ) is on top of things, despite their curious notion that Jews fast on Shavues. It turns out, according to their article, that the Alliance is challenging the legitimacy of several hundred voters on the registration rolls, and demanding equal numbers of poll workers. (A strange byproduct of the Times Herald-Record's non-Jewishness: they never mention the Zalman Leib/Aharon background to the KJ dispute.)

For continuous Yiddish shouting from both sides, check out Hyde Park News - Kiryas Joel.

*As I wrote earlier, the new library that some want in KJ is an idea of the Aroynim, to which the KJ Alliance is opposed. What the KJ Alliance thinks about the aqueduct is another matter, which I don't know the answer to yet.

Update: Says a certain pseudonymous "KJFireman" on Hyde Park (my translation):

"Today, Tuesday afternoon, the Kiryas Joel Alliance scored a victory in court, when the judge confirmed that [the Alliance] will have an equal number of poll watchers and inspectors. Though the Village [i.e. the Aroynim, who control the KJ government] will still have more people in the [voting] hall, this is [still] a big difference, and the Alliance voters will feel a lot more comfortable than they did three years ago when the Village had 50 people in the hall and the Alliance fewer than 10.

"This doesn't mean that they'll win the elections, but it's a big step forward. Little by little, little by little, progress is made."

None of this can be confirmed by blog time. Then again, I'm not going to call the court or the Orange County Board of Elections right now, so it's not going to get confirmed before the election. I'm hankering for some eyewitness reportage. Maybe I'll go beg for some on my Yiddish blog.

Double Super Extra Update: Or perhaps the court settlement (as it seems to have been) was only a compromise, which the Alliance accepted begrudgingly.

Please Stop the Updates, for the Love of Aharon! The Alliance got clobbered.