Jewish Mother

Translation below the fold. Do read the original, though, even if you don’t know Yiddish; the translation has a completely different rhythm. This poem plays on the iminutive form of the language, in which a noun is “reduced” twice to express intimacy and love. Kats (cat), for example, becomes ketsl (kitty or kitten), then ketsele (little kitten). The repetition of the sounds echoes the blur of “love-talk” that the author remembers from throughout her childhood. You can catch a hint of admonition in the line “not like a little animal,” and one could, if one were feeling anti-Semitic or misogynist, read the poem as an example of the type of smothering, obsessive Ashkenazi mother found in works like Portnoy’s Complaint, but the only reason it could be read as playing into the stereotype is because the stereotype already exists, waiting to distort it.

Mame Loshn (Mother Tongue)
by Sarah Traister Moskovitz

Sorele, zisele, mamele, sheyninke
Tayerinke, liubenyu, malakhl kleyninke
Zisinke Kroynenyu, bubelyu, liubelyu
Hertsele, pupele, zisele, gutele

Likhtiker peneml
Libinke eygelekh
Feyinke hentelekh
Zgrabninke fiselekh

Kluginke kepele
Glantsike herelekh
Roitinke bekelekh
Tseyndelekh perelekh
Es oif di lokshelekh
Pupikl, merelekh

Kum aher ketsele
Sphil zikh sheyn feygele
Nisht vild vi a khayele
Mayn meydele, freydele

Liu liu liu oytserl
Mayn kosher kind
Eyns in der velt mayns
Shlof ruik atsind

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Book Review: Moses the Heretic, By Daniel Spiro

What if…an American Rabbi sparked a worldwide movement for peace? What if he advocated full engagement and alliance with Arabs and recognition of the value and beauty of Islam? What if he suggested that Jews and Muslims and Christians have equal claim to the rich inheritance of the Abrahamic religions; that we are all, indeed, People of the Prophets?

And what if he did all this and looked like Osama bin Laden?

That’s the premise of Daniel Spiro’s novel, Moses the Heretic. Moses Levine is indeed regarded as a heretic by more conventional American Zionists. Spiro creates compelling arguments for his modern Moshe, and places him in a story with lots of action – kidnapping, murder plots, fistfights, synagogue politics. I found the philosophy and theology absorbing and convincing. If Moses Levine really walked among us, I’d probably join his movement.

Unfortunately, Spiro’s writing and characerizations are far less compelling. We know Moses only through the eyes of his friend, Richie Gold, who narrates the story, and much of the action seems to take place offstage. We don’t see the exciting stuff happen; we read Richie’s after-the-fact account. Moses himself never fully takes shape, despite the wealth of biographical information that Richie delivers, and the secondary characters are even more sketchily drawn. Women, in particular, seem to exist only to move the plot forward and to provide pleasant scenery and the required quota of sex – which is again described mostly after it has happened.

Despite those flaws, I enoyed the book. It would be an interesting choice for a discusson group. Spiro forces his readers to confront their own assumptions about Israel and Zionism, and offers a provocative and persuasive alternative to the standard arguments.

Book Review: Righteous Indignation

Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call for Justice
Rabbi Or N. Rose, Jo Ellen Green Kaiser, and Margie Klein, editors

I love me a good social justice anthology, and considering my growing involvement in Jewish social justice, I figured that this book would be right up my alley.

Unfortunately, the most disappointing aspect of the book was its almost exclusive focus on activism from a religious viewpoint. Not only did this fail to address many of the concerns and contributions of secular, cultural Jews (we need love, too!), but it led to a lot of repetition – I ended up skimming a lot of the passages whose main focus was presenting even more Biblical evidence that social justice is a good thing. Which isn’t to say that justice-oriented readings of the Torah and Talmud aren’t very useful for many people. But if that’s not the thrust of your activism, then it can leave you feeling really unsatisfied.

Despite its flaws, though, there were some really interesting essays. The writing of Jay Michaelson, April Rosenblum, and Rabbi Jill Jacobs was wonderful, as usual. And I found that I was moved by some of the Biblical readings despite myself. Take, for example, Rabbi Jane Kanarek’s explanation of what tikkun olam really means. Rabbi Kanarek shows us a peculiar Mishnah on the subject of captivity:

One does not redeem captives for more than their worth because of tikkun ha’olam. One does not help captives to escape because of tikkun ha’olam. Rabban Shimon the son of Gamliel says: because of the decree of the captives. (Mishnah, Gittin 4:6)

Kanarek explains that, even though the Mishnah seems to imply powerlessness – we can’t ransom prisoners because it encourages kidnappers to take more prisoners, and we can’t free them because future prisoners will be treated even more cruelly – it’s actually suggesting that the proper course of action is to create a world in which no prisoners are taken in the first place. It’s not literally saying that we should never try to release people from captivity, but rather that our first priority should eliminating systemic injustice.

The book also gives Jews some ammunition against anti-choicers who use religion and morality to shut down arguments about abortion and stem cell research. Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff points out that “[d]uring the first forty days of gestation, the fetus, according to the Talmud, is ‘as if it were simply water,’ and from the forty-first day until birth it is ‘like the thigh of its mother.'” This means that, from a Jewish point of view, an embryo is not a human being; furthermore, even when the pregnancy is advanced, the fetus is still part of its mother’s body.

However, Dorff explains that late-term abortions are “generally prohibited” because the mother would be doing harm to her own body (just as if she tried to cut off a thigh). But if the thigh needs to be cut off – just as late-term abortions are virtually always necessary procedures, not flighty changes of mind – then she’s obligated to do what it takes to protect her health and wellbeing. (This may seem like a loophole, given the “generally prohibited” clause, but I think we can read it as an assertion that the woman is the best judge of what she and her body need.) Similarly, if embryonic stem cell research will save lives, then we’re obligated – indeed, commanded – to do whatever it takes to save those lives.

Abigail Uhrman tells an interesting Talmudic story to explain the pitfalls of ableism: Rabbi Elazar meets a disfigured man and comments on his ugliness. “Tell the Creator who made me what an ugly, empty vessel I am,” the man replies. Rabbi Elazar realizes that to insult one of God’s creation is to insult God, and begs for forgiveness. Here’s where the story gets interesting, though – the man refuses to forgive him, no matter how much Rabbi Elazar begs. His grudge indicates that the man is just as flawed as Rabbi Elazar. He’s not a saint; he’s just human. This demonstrates that putting disabled people – or any version of your personal Other – on a pedestal is just as myopic as considering them lesser beings.

One essay that really affected me was Rabbi Elliot Rose Kukla’s “Created Beings of Our Own.” He makes a very eloquent case against transphobia:

Although Jewish Sages often tried to sort the world into binaries, they also acknowledged that not all of parts of God’s Creation can be contained in orderly boxes. Distinctions between Jews and non-Jews, Shabbat and the days of the week, and purity and impurity are crucial to Jewish tradition. However, it was the parts of the universe that defied binaries that interested the Rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud the most. Pages and pages of sacred texts are occupied with the minute details of the moment between fruit and bud, wildness and domestication, innocence and maturity, the twilight hour between day and night. We read in the Babylonian Talmud:

Our Sages taught: As to twilight, it is doubtful whether it is part day and part night, or whether all of it is day or all of it is night… Rabbi Yosi said: “Twilight is like the twinkling of an eye as night enters and the day departs, and it is impossible to determine its length.” (Shabbat 34b)

…Jewish tradition acknowledges that some parts of God’s Creation defy categories and that these liminal people, places, and things are often the sites of the most intense holiness.

This essay hit home for me as a half-Jew (an identity which many Jews and a surprising number of gentiles are quick to inform me doesn’t exist – as if I’m supposed to cut my connection to my own family) and a secular Jew (since so much of Ashkenazi culture has been obliterated in the last century). It’s intensely lonely to find yourself straddling a binary; if it feels so bad to be the only secular Jew around, or the person at a Seder who has to dodge questions about her mother, I can’t even begin to imagine the pain that transpeople feel at our society’s ferocious attempts to disappear them. Profundity is a very scary thing to witness, and perhaps cisgendered people’s fear of transfolk is evidence of that. Rabbi Kukla’s essay was nothing short of inspiring.

The editors have put up a website with resources and action alerts; it’s a bit sparse right now, but hopefully they’ll add more content as time goes on. In the meantime, the book is definitely worth a read, even if you don’t find all the essays useful.

Yowza – also, a review and synopsis

Sorry about the hiatus folks – I’ve been kind of busy this weekend!

At any rate, I finally received, last week, the new-ish The Torah: A Women’s Commentary and the less-new Etz Hayim, the official Torah and commentary for the Conservative Movement.

The Torah: A Women’s Commentary is a history-making book; there have been female-centered Bibles before, and female Bible commenters are nothing new – Etz Hayim, for instance, was the first Torah commentary to include the opinions of ordained female rabbis. This, however, is remarkable for being the first of its kind for Jews – the chumash contains opinions and commentaries from women of nearly all the major denominations in North America – Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist. The commentaries are actually very good, with many of the commentators being either rabbis (in the non-Orthodox synagogues) or professors at a variety of schools. I haven’t given it a detailed enough reading to highlight anything specific, but I recommend it.

The other chumash, Etz Hayim, is notably taken from the JPS Torah and Commentary, but the benefit here is that it’s much cheaper, and has a fantastic section of essays at the end on a broad range of Jewish topics regarding history and traditional Torah interpretation, similarity to Mesopotamian myth, etc. from the current leading lights of the Conservative movement. What I like about it is that it strikes a good balance between historical criticism and tradition, much like Conservative movement in general. The essays are probably the key reason to get the chumash, even if one does not necessarily agree with the conclusions.

what neo-nazis tell us

What’s up? Not much here. Ran into some swastikas the other day.

My husband and I were biking on a trail that runs under a string of overpasses. After we’d passed under the zillionth one, he told me he’d seen some swastika graffiti; when we returned a couple of hours later, I stopped to look more closely. The pillar holding up the underpass was completely covered: swastikas by themselves, swastikas with “1488” written between the arms, swastikas as the periods in D.O.S.* There were lots of words in German, along with some indecipherable stuff about Orange County. (I live in Long Beach.) I shook my head at it for a few minutes and then left, feeling a banal sense of bafflement that somewhere very near where I live, people want me dead.

But it doesn’t feel real, you know? It’s hard to believe they’d do anything to me if I encountered them; with Southern California’s large black and Latino populations, it seems more likely that Neo-Nazis here have priorities other than someone who looks like them. It’s easy for me to believe that they wouldn’t hurt a nice white girl; it’s hard to consider myself a target and not just an ally. What am I supposed to do with the knowledge that they’re somewhere nearby? Do I just go on assuming that they’re fringe crazies who are probably living in their mothers’ basements and don’t really care about me anyway? What if I did meet up with one? What would happen?

Because, I mean, they’re here. I passed a wall covered in swastikas.

In what could be called the beginning of a new trend in Jewish American literature, both Michael Chabon and Philip Roth recently published alternate history novels that focus on the hypothetical persecution of American and European Jews. In Roth’s The Plot Against America, Charles Lindberg becomes president and kicks off half a decade of pogroms, forced assimilation, and anti-Jewish propaganda that ends only when the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union explores what would have happened if Israel had been destroyed within a few years of its inception; Jews live in Alaska and are faced with the end of their autonomy. I’ll admit, I was put off when I first read them (and not just because neither book is its author’s best). I’d experienced barely any antisemitism in my life. The Holocaust was over; the world had discovered what hate can lead to and had shuddered and repented and seen the error of its ways. Why were these guys inventing new ways for us to be victimized? It was like they still wanted to feel the piousness and tragic glamor of an oppressed minority, and had resorted to what-ifs to indulge in those feelings. Seriously, there was real oppression to worry about. How selfish of them.

That was before I learned about how antisemitism works – how it ebbs and flows, how Jews are allowed to rise to positions of power and then violently scapegoated. It was before I learned that the same cycles – Jews prosper, enjoy physical safety, and then are abruptly attacked en masse – have been occurring for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years. Whenever I hear a Jewish-sounding name attached to a conservative, I take note of it. Other people do, too.** And after awhile, it really does start to seem like there’s an inordinate number of Jews in high places, regardless of the actual numbers; we hear those names and make those associations and discard some facts that don’t fit with our theses and before you know it, people are blaming globalization on the all-powerful Israeli bankers.

And the main thing I’ve learned after a year of reading feminist and anti-racist commentary is that the most noticeable signs of bigotry – the really outrageous stuff that the mainstream media condemns – is only ever the tip of the iceberg. For every extremist who decides to go out and kill someone, there are a hundred thousand ordinary people who think hate is wrong but, well, just feel uneasy around women or black people or gays or Mexicans or Jews. Overtly sexist and racist crimes aren’t the disease; they’re merely symptoms of broader, low-level resentment and suspicion. My whole life I’ve thought that antisemitism only manifests itself in skinhead rallies and Stormfront message boards. But if it’s anything like other forms of prejudice, there’s no way for me to gauge how pervasive it actually is. Do ordinary people view me differently because I’m openly Jewish? Is that why it took me so long to fully identify as a Jew? Is it why I still rarely feel completely comfortable?

Because I’ll probably never be arrested or denied a job because I’m Jewish. So how do I address this without feeling sanctimonious or paranoid?

At least I’ve arrived at a better understanding of what Chabon and Roth were trying to do. They didn’t write those novels to invent new forms of bigotry; they didn’t write them to cash in on Gentile guilt. They wrote them, I think, because anti-Jewish sentiment still runs deep in American culture (not to mention other cultures – but I’m writing about what I know), even though it’s currently in a lull, marked only by occasional acts of extremism. I think those two novels are pressure valves, venting the fear that all antisemitism needs is one good catalyst to really flare up. Because what do you do when you sense it but can’t see it? What do you do when someone makes an offhand joke – “You’re half Jewish? Well, then half of you is all right!” “If he tries to charge admission to the party, slap him in the nose!” – and you only realize later that you should have been offended? What do you do when everything seems normal and safe and harmonious all the time, except that some invisible entity has spray painted swastikas on your bike trail, and you have no idea what they look like or how many of them there are?

Do you keep assuming that everything will be okay forever? Or do you start wondering who’s going to kick off the pogroms?

Because neither option makes much sense, does it?

*14/88, as I found out on a most pleasant and fulfilling journey to Google, stands for the Fourteen Words – “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White children” – which are adapted from an 88-word-long passage from Mein Kamph. I wasn’t able to find out what D.O.S. means.

** The link leads to Adbusters’ infamous Why Won’t Anyone Say They Are Jewish?, which exposes Jews’ control of the Right. It’s interesting to note that, according to Adam Ma’nit, conservatives have published similar lists exposing Jews’ control of the Left. If we’re so powerful, where’s my damn health care?

I am SO getting this.

From Haaretz:

X-Men mutant survives the Holocaust in new Marvel Comics miniseries

Though the Shoah seems out of place amid the bright colors, tights and capes of comic books, graphic novels have a long history of depicting the Holocaust. Art Spiegelman started writing the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Maus” in 1972, and the mutant known as Wolverine was given a history in the Nazi extermination camp Sobibor. Last week, in Philadelphia, Marvel Comics announced that Greg Pak, best known for writing such characters as Iron Man and the Incredible Hulk, would be penning a new miniseries in September called “Magneto: Testament.”

The miniseries, according to Pak, “follows a Jewish boy and his family through Germany and Poland from 1935 to 1945.” The character is probably best known as the magnetism-controlling supervillain played by Ian McKellen in the X-Men films. In fact, though Magneto was created in 1963, it wasn’t until the mid-’80s that writer Chris Claremont gave him sympathetic origins as a Jewish child during the Holocaust.

The chances that it’ll be original and stereotype-free are admittedly slim (although since I don’t read Iron Man or Hulk, I’m not familiar with Pak’s work – maybe he’s great) but I’m giving it a shot. How can I resist? Jews? Superheroes? Jewish superheros? Those are three of my favorite things! And Magneto is the awesomest X-Man, you can’t deny it.