Moving Jewish Bodies

dancer1A few weeks ago I attended CIYCL‘s forum on Yiddish art in Los Angeles, where I learned about American Yiddish dance and theater throughout the 20th century. On the flier, there were two pictures of dancers: one of a woman kicking her leg high into the air, and another of a man (Benjamin Zemach) mid-twirl. I was fascinated by them because they were so unlike all my other experience with Jewish dance – the clumsy horahs I’ve muddled through at weddings, the antiquated folk dances from Israel and Eastern Europe. These Jews honed their art form, pushed their bodies. These Jews were daring, dynamic, sexy, and modern. These Jews weren’t artists-who-were-Jewish – they were Jewish artists. How did Yiddishkeyt move from a vibrant, avant-garde art scene to a static focus on constrictive tropes and nostalgia for romanticized Shtetl life? Is it really as simple as assimilation and Holocaust trauma? If so, why has our memory proved so selective? It seems we fixate on what’s safe – food, grandparents, traditional music and dance. So does that mean that what we’ve forgotten is maybe a little dangerous? Why? What is it about Benjamin Zemach’s twirl that has relegated him to obscurity? I’m not saying that klezmer can’t be cutting edge, as well – but you’ve got to admit it’s a bit fishy that half a century or more has been blotted out of our cultural memory.

What fires me up about Yiddishkeyt isn’t the shtetls, the horahs, or the clarinets. Marc Chagall’s paintings are lovely, but they leave me cold. Give me the political radicals, the union organizers, the socialists. Give me the dancers and poets and actors! That’s my Yiddishkeyt. That’s what I’m grasping for. But a Google search for Benjamin Zemach turns up little more than his obituary. Even the footage I saw of one of his performances was recorded in his later years; you could tell his body wasn’t as agile as it had once been.

zemachOf course, Zemach himself – along with the other actors and dancers whose performances I watched at the forum – focused on Old World themes, as evidenced by the costumes in the two photos. The irony of this isn’t lost on me. Is 20th and 21st century Yiddish identity ultimately recursive? Are we destined to circle back to the same modes of Jewish expression over and over again? Was all hope of a kinetic and evolving secular Yiddish identity lost with the rise of Zionism? And do other cultures share this problem? Federations and synagogues constantly complain about the lack of interest among young adults in Jewish identity – but sometimes it feels like Jewish identity doesn’t give us any room to stretch, to question, to move. We go on Birthright, we learn Hebrew, we study the Holocaust, we sing about the shtetls. But the identity that’s painted on our faces and bodies always seems to be expressed in someone else’s terms.

my garden

Image description: close-up of a calendula blossom in a basket hanging from a rail.

Image description: close-up of a calendula blossom in a basket hanging from a rail.

Continue reading

No Comment Necessary

“The Israeli Army is the most moral in the world, and I know what I’m talking about because I know what took place in the former Yugoslavia, in Iraq.”

- Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak

Now testimony is emerging from within the ranks of soldiers and officers alleging a permissive attitude toward the killing of civilians and reckless destruction of property that is sure to inflame the domestic and international debate about the army’s conduct in Gaza. On Thursday, the military’s chief advocate general ordered an investigation into a soldier’s account of a sniper killing a woman and her two children who walked too close to a designated no-go area by mistake, and another account of a sharpshooter who killed an elderly woman who came within 100 yards of a commandeered house.

When asked why that elderly woman was killed, a squad commander was quoted as saying: “What’s great about Gaza — you see a person on a path, he doesn’t have to be armed, you can simply shoot him. In our case it was an old woman on whom I did not see any weapon when I looked. The order was to take down the person, this woman, the minute you see her. There are always warnings, there is always the saying, ‘Maybe he’s a terrorist.’ What I felt was, there was a lot of thirst for blood.”

From NYT.

A bad situation – and a worse solution

From Ha’aretz:

A Dutch judge has ordered four teenagers to visit the Anne Frank House museum after finding them guilty of discrimination for insulting Jews at a rally.

The boys, aged 14 to 17, must turn in a report to the Hague Police Judge about their visit the canal house in Amsterdam where Anne Frank and her family hid from Nazi occupiers during World War II.

The four boys were convicted Friday for insulting Jews who were protesting Israel’s military attack on Gaza. Prosecutors say two boys held a banner with a swastika superimposed on the Star of David, and two shouted “Hamas, Hamas, all Jews to the gas.”

I’m sure I don’t need to explain that someone shouting “all Jews to the gas” is demonstrating a of hatred of Jews, not a love of Palestinians. Especially since they were shouting it at Jews who were protesting Israel.

But sending them to the Anne Frank house? Really? There are two problems with that. First off, their choice of words signals that they already know what happened in the Holocaust. I imagine their reaction to “Look, Jews actually died in those gas chambers!” would be, “Well, duh.” Secondly, the international community is already sick of us talking about the Holocaust all the time. Really. They’re desensitized. They don’t care. That doesn’t mean we’re wrong to talk about the Holocaust – and I do think that often, what others perceive as “talking about it all the time” is actually us trying to own and make sense of our history – but it does mean that it’s going to have zero effect on people who already hate us.

I mean, seriously, people who are engaged in hate speech are probably beyond sensitivity training. What outcome do the authorities hope to achieve? Is this a Dutch thing? Is it because the boys are minors? Is this the usual punishment for hate speech? I don’t know – but I really hope they’re not being extra lenient on the boys because they think Israel’s crimes justify anti-Semitism.

Waltz With Bashir Animator Takes On Gaza

Via JVoices:

(Cross-posted on Alas, A Blog.)

Because I have no meaningful commentary

Here are some gratuitous pictures of Israeli models.

Haaaappy Purim!

What is Anti-Semitic

1. Saying the state of Israel should be dissolved. Unless you’re a) saying the same thing about every nation-state created by violence, and b) sharing your bright idea for what to do with Israelis.

2. Referring to Jewish people as “The Jew.” If you can’t see why collapsing us all into one giant pulsating brain is dehumanizing, try it with your own group. The Woman calls for equal rights, but does not seem to be interested in equal responsibility. The American lacks the intellectual rigor to understand or challenge his privilege in the global economy. The Academic will never admit that his “work” is irrelevant to real people. Wow, see how laughably inaccurate these statements become? See how many real people they erase?

Of course, if you’re doing both of these things at once, you’re probably not desperate to keep your dislike of Jews a secret, so why am I even bothering?

About My Body

(Note: soon after I started writing this this morning, I realized that it’s heavily influenced by BFP and Jess’s (Re)Thinking Walking series at Flip Flopping Joy. I’ve had a troubled relationship with walking for a few years, but their essays helped me crystallize a lot of thoughts that were amorphous, and I doubt I would have come to this essay without them.)

About five years ago, I worked as a computer services aide at a public library. Most of my job consisted of running around the main branch fixing problems and installing software. Sometimes the running around was virtual – we had a program called VNC, which allowed us to freak out librarians by manipulating their computers remotely – but more often than not, it was physical. I’d run around. Well, walk. I loved this job because it allowed me to move, exercise, be active, interact with people, hide out occasionally in the stacks with a book as software installed or there was a lull in demand. So one day I was walking around, carrying a box of floppy disks from one project to another, when on the mezzanine between two floors, I felt a sudden stabbing pain in my hip.

I stopped, stunned. I’d never felt pain like that in my life. Holy shit, was it strong! What the fuck!?

But by the time I’d even registered it, it was gone, so I kept walking. About ten minutes later, I felt it again. It was so absurd that I actually laughed out loud. It was perversely fascinating.

That day, my hip felt tender for awhile but it went away by nightfall. I didn’t even think to mention it to my boyfriend. Over the next few days, though, it started to come back gradually – not a sudden, stabbing pain anymore, but rather a sharp ache, like a cramped muscle or a joint that needed popping. It would almost reach a crisis point and then fade. I’d always had back problems, so I assumed it’d go away on its own, but it didn’t – instead, over the next few weeks, it got so bad that I began to have trouble walking. Not that I stopped walking; after all, I didn’t think anything was actually wrong. I considered myself kind of a sissy about pain. The limping? Oh, whatever, I figured everyone got that sometimes. Every day I’d walk downtown to meet my boyfriend for lunch and ignore the stabbing, aching, and squeezing that was going on around my tailbone. I’d have to stop several times to rest it and rub it (not that either had any effect). I still rode my bike. I refused to take pity on my pelvis. I kept pushing it to do whatever I felt like doing – except, as the pain got worse and worse, I began pushing it just to behave normally. Continue reading

Self-Sufficiency Sundays: Grow Some Beans!


I just can’t believe it.

I planted some pole peans in pots in my window a few weeks ago ago to see if it’d be feasible to create a natural, edible curtain (see The Urban Homestead for a more detailed description) and they’ve gone from seedlings to this:

Image description: three beanstalks in a windowsill.  One of them reaches the top of the window.

Image description: three beanstalks in a windowsill. One of them reaches the top of the window.

Sorry for the bad photography – my mom gave me an expensive digital camera and I don’t know how to work it. But incredible, right? These things have been growing a couple of inches a day. Even better, they’re self-seeding (meaning they don’t need to be cross-pollinated by bees and other insects), so they start producing fruit as soon as they’re mature. Here’s one of the little flowers that started forming once the stalk was a few feet high:

Image description: a small yellow and white flower.

And here’s a wee bean that emerged when the flower died.


Here’s the bean now!


Stir-fry, here we come.

Now, I have this problem wherein any vegetable I try to grow in a pot turns into a bonsai vegetable – so far, I’ve given up on my bonsai spinach, bonsai lettuce, and bonsai scallions. Some problem with root space, I guess, I don’t know. So I’m bracing myself for the possibility that these beans won’t get any bigger. If they do, though, I’ll have to get some stronger strings.

To grow your own bean curtain, you’ll need:

- runner beans (NOT bush beans)
– enough large pots to cover a windowsill
– potting soil
– a paperclip
– a ceiling hook or nail
– yarn, twine, or other thick string

Beans will only germinate in warm soil, so choose a sunny south-facing window. (Planting them here has the added benefit of deflecting sunlight and cooling your house in the summer. Just make sure you don’t bake them – beans don’t produce much when it’s too hot.) Plant them about an inch deep in damp (not soggy) soil. Unfold the paperclip so that it looks like a U, and stick it into the soil about an inch away from the bean so that there’s a little metal loop sticking up. Feed the string through the loop and tie it onto the ceiling hook. (Right now I’m using pushpins, which I know is an astronomically bad idea. I’m currently searching for alternatives that won’t get me in trouble with the landlord.)

That’s… uh, pretty much it, actually. Keep the soil moist (dig down a couple of inches before you water it, since surface soil is often much dryer or wetter than deeper soil), give it a little organic potassium-rich fertilizer if you want, and just watch the magic happen. Remember to pick each bean when it’s still young and tender. The flavor will be better that way, and the plant will keep producing as long as it perceives its beans disappearing.

If you’ve got a yard, you can build a bean teepee. Just take a bunch of long poles, stake them into the ground and tie them together on top, and plant 3 or 4 beans around the base of each one. If you make several small ones, your kids will love you forever, and if you make one big one, you can spend your May weekends reading Walden in your leafy getaway.

Or, if you live in a warm climate, consider using runner beans for Sukkot. You’ll have to do some advance planning here. Build your sukkah out of trellises or poles about two months before Sukkot, and plant the beans around them. You may want to hold off on the roof at first, just to make sure the beans get enough sunlight. If all goes well (keep in mind I’ve never tried this), the walls will fill themselves in gradually, and you can eat your first harvest on the first day! After the vines have stopped producing, simply use them for mulch or compost when you tear down the sukkah. I know having your sukkah up for like three months is a significant departure from Jewish tradition, but I mean, hey, beans. Just think about that. Besides, Sukkot is a harvest festival anyway, and there’s something beautiful about shelter that builds itself.

In conclusion, beans beans beans, I love them. The end.


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