First, I wanted to register a short piece I wrote on the Newseum flap for Open Zion, entitled “Can You Bomb Hamas Propagandists?”
Second, in the back of my mind, ever since writing a long piece about Modern Orthodox parody of Lady Gaga, I’ve been wondering what to do with this video, in which a Haredi wedding band introduces newlyweds at their party to the tune of various Lady Gaga songs, then transitioning into standard Hasidic “simcha” (celebration) music. It’s significantly less semantically dense than the parody I wrote about above, but I found it oddly draws me, and I’ve never understood why.
Here’s a quick thought. I think part of the video’s draw, especially compared to the layered ironies of the Modern Orthodox parody video (many of which play on the power and gender hierarchies of both the Orthodox and secular worlds), is that of Haredi naivete. We commonly assume that Haredi naivete is valuable largely insofar as it allows Haredim to appreciate their Jewish rituals, text, and traditions more simply, directly, etc. (I’ll bracket for the moment all the manifold ways it’s harmful.) But here, what’s poignant about Haredi naivete is that it allows them to experience our music simply and directly. These men are dancing to Lady Gaga without a second thought about what they’re hearing. That is, they’re actually participating in a cultural ideal surrounding American popular music (an ideal which we could call, borrowing a title from one of the Lady Gaga songs they’re quoting, “Just Dance”). Further, it’s an naivete inaccessible many of us who are supposedly closer to the secular lifeworld that produces Lady Gaga, because of our heightened attention to the various messages, problematics, etc. of popular music.
I’m not sure if others found that video as entrancing as I did. But I suspect I did because, hidden between the charm of Haredi innocence and cluelessness is the irony that they seem to have found a shortcut into mass American culture, a culture which, because of my Jewishness or intellectualism, I find elusive.
My review of Eliyahu Stern’s The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism is up at The Forward:
Would you confuse Moses Mendelssohn and the Vilna Gaon, sometimes called the fathers, respectively, of Reform and Orthodox Judaism? Certainly not if you had seen their pictures. It’s hard to mistake Mendelssohn, with his clean-shaven cheeks and curly, uncovered hair, for the Gaon, usually depicted with flowing beard, enormous black kippah and prayer shawl. And it wasn’t just their getups. Mendelssohn, an 18th-century German Jewish philosopher who mingled with famous playwrights and bested Kant in an essay competition, is known for bucking rabbinic authority and beginning the Jewish Enlightenment. The Gaon, on the other hand, though Mendelssohn’s contemporary, spent most of his life secluded in study, writing recondite commentaries on the classics of rabbinic literature and ignoring the non-Jewish Lithuanians around him. The division between the two men — and by extension, between modernity and tradition — seems pretty clear.
Yet, in his new book, “The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism,” Yale University religious studies professor Eliyahu Stern suggests that the Gaon was as fully modern as Mendelssohn.
To find out how, read on.
After a bit of a break from writing (as I moved to Israel), I’m back at Open Zion:
This may come as a surprise, but the Israeli government doesn’t consult me about public relations. Which is a shame, because I have an idea for some truly inspired Hasbara: let the twenty Eritreans who have been stuck for six days on the Israel-Egypt border—in the desert, mostly without food—enter Israel.
Great photo-op, of course: Israeli soldiers helping beleaguered African women, to the theme-song from “Exodus.” And we’d avoid embarrassing questions, like why a nation founded by refugees forces pregnant women to languish on its borders (and reportedly to miscarry). But those are incidental benefits. More importantly, welcoming Eritreans would powerfully bolster the case for a Jewish state.
My newest review is up at the Forward:
What do we talk about when we talk about Jewish self-hatred? That’s the question Paul Reitter tackles in his new book, “On the Origins of Jewish Self-Hatred.” After tracing the first appearances of the term “Jewish self-hatred” in interwar Germany, and filtering out contemporary polemics, he looks for what remains. The precipitate, achieved through a painstaking literary decanting of both primary texts and secondary scholarship, is odd as well as remarkable.
“Jewish self-hatred,” according to Reitter, originally meant something positive. It was not simply internalized prejudice, nor was it a club with which to beat your political opponents. Rather, it was a distinctive, ironic and redemptive way of being: “the capacity through which the Jews could teach the world how to heal itself.”
If this seems counter-intuitive or bizarre, just read on.
My latest at Open Zion, about why the ADL would do well to steer clear of politics.
I wasn’t surprised that Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, got involved in Romney’s overseas campaign. Romney, after all, is visiting Poland at the behest of anti-communist leader Lech Walesa, who won Poland’s presidency in 1990 in part by calling on Polish Jews to out themselves and asking why his opponents “conceal their origins.” And though he apologized for Polish anti-Semitism in 1991, first to prominent Jews and then to the Israeli Knesset, it was a pretty lousy apology: In his speech to World Jewish Congress leader Edgar Bronfman, Walesa insisted “there never was any genuine racially based anti-Semitism in Poland” just “discrimination and differences of interests between… Poles and Jews.” Little surprise that, in a presidential 2000 election, Walesa returned to Jew-baiting his opponent, and to saying he wished he had been born Jewish, since “I would probably be richer.” Lots for Foxman to talk about.
Wait, what? That’s not what Foxman thought was worthy of comment in Romney’s tour? Crazy. Apparently, though Foxman doesn’t think the Romney-Walesa love-in deserved a press release, he had to weigh in on Romney’s blaming Palestinian economic woes on their “culture.” Which he blessed. While Jews have “a real emphasis on education, on hard work and self-reliance,” he said, “part of the problem” with the Arab world, he said, “is culture.”
Bernard Avishai and Hussein Ibish have already pointed out why Romney’s remark is nonsense. Suffice it to say that attributing Palestinian poverty to culture—ignoring, say, the occupation’s basic inequities in resources like water or its harsh restrictions of freedom of movement—takes some chutzpah. Imagine what the ADL would say if someone blamed Jewish suffering on Jewish culture. But here’s what I want to know. Under what definition of “anti-defamation” work is defending Romney’s, well, defamation a good fit, but condemning Romney’s meeting with Walesa not worth the time?
To get the answer, read the rest.
What is strangest in Roger Rosenblatt’s “How To Write Great“? Not a question Rosenblatt would like. The essay, which appears in Saturday’s New York Times book review, praises moral, heroic writing and disdains the “weird,” the “self-conscious” and the “strange.” And yet it is an essay bristling with the bizarre, a menagerie of misreadings. Here are three moments that most puzzled me.
1. The citation of Quixote as an example of “Honor, heroism, decency, justice and ‘Ah, love, let us be true to one another’ writing.” But Cervantes, after all, was joking. The “burdens of civilization” in Don Quixote are carried by irony, by the light-hearted but epochal imagined dissolution of feudal heroism into—gasp, invention—that “loose, baggy monster,” the new form of the novel. If you don’t appreciate self-consciousness, irony, cynicism, or invention, then why are you praising Quixote?