by David (spoiler alerts)
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once offered eight tips for writing. My favourite was the last one:
Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
This is pretty much how I feel about tonight’s final episode of AMC’s Mad Men. There is no cliffhanger. We are not hanging on the edge of our seats. We want to see what “happens” to the characters, but we sort of already know. And that’s ok. Because it doesn’t really matter. And that’s because the protagonist of Mad Men is not any one character, but American history itself.
Mad Men began as a show about Don Draper, creative director of a NYC advertising firm, and the people around him. Draper represented both sides of the American dream/nightmare, a con artist and an adulterer, but handsome and smart and charismatic enough to succeed in New York’s world of advertising in the 1960s. The best thing about Don was how he never succumbed to the racism and antisemitism he saw around him. He could be a sleazeball, but he seemed to conclude that those sorts of prejudices would only get in the way of his ambition.
After a few seasons, however, Don became boring, almost insufferably so. His former secretary, Peggy, became far more compelling, the real embodiment of the American dream, of feminist success in a man’s world world she made her own. Very quickly, the women of the show, Peggy, Joan, and Betty, became more interesting than the men, who stayed on almost as comic relief. That’s because the story of the 1960s belonged to them.
In the world that Matt Weiner and his writers created, women’s struggles in the workforce represented the driving force of the narrative. Other important events occurred: JFK’s assassination, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War. As viewers, we always asked ourselves: how is Mad Men going to incorporate this or that moment in history? Because in the final analysis, though we learned to love and care about the characters, what we were really watching was American history unfold through the lens of the white-collar working woman’s struggle. That struggle is not over, but we know the way it progresses, even if we don’t know specifically how it will go for Joan, Betty, Peggy, and the others. And this lack of a cliffhanger is an achievement of the show, not a flaw.
One of my favourite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation is called “The Wounded.” It aired in season four, on January 28, 1991, so I might have caught it as an eight-year-old, but more likely on reruns. In this episode, a renegade Starfleet captain goes on a rampage with his ship, destroying a bunch of Cardassian vessels, thinking the Cardassians were preparing for war. The Enterprise has hunt him down, and they use transporter chief Miles O’Brien (played by the terrific Colm Meaney), that captain’s former crewman, to try to reason with him. It’s a great episode for a number of reasons: great plot, great acting, heck, anything with an O’Brien focus is pretty great. But the best part of the episode by far is when O’Brien and the rogue captain get together and sing the Irish war ballad, “The Minstrel Boy.”
From the moment I heard it. I loved that song. Perhaps is was because I played Dungeons and Dragons as a boy, and the song had very D&Dish lyrics. At that point in my life, I was attracted to anything that talked of swords and battles. But I think early on, even at this juncture, it was the Irishness of the song, the ethnic-ness of the song. It had survived into the fictional 24th century, yet we still felt its Irish roots, perhaps because O’Brien sang it.
A few years later I encountered the song again. It was a bizarre experience.
If you’re a secular Jewish child of a certain age, and your parents have a record collection, it’s very likely that one of those records is of Paul Robeson. Yes, I’m referring to Paul Robeson, everyone’s favourite African American Communist football player/lawyer/actor, who also sang African American spirituals and gospel music along with traditional folk songs from all over the world. My father introduced me to Robeson through his rendition of the song of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising aka the “Partisan Song” aka in Yiddish “Der Partizaner Lid” or “Zog Nit Keyn Mol” (“Never Say”). It’s a song that energizes me. I always imagined that if I were to have become a professional prizefighter, that would have been my entrance music.
But Paul Robeson has many other great songs. He sang powerful spirituals like “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” He sang passionate renditions of “Joe Hill” and “John Brown’s Body.” He sang the Scottish hymn “Loch Lomond” and the Irish tune “Danny Boy.” And sure enough, he also sang a hauntingly beautiful version of “The Minstrel Boy.”
It makes me shiver every time I hear it. Through song, Robeson united himself to ethnic traditions that were not his own, and yet of course, they were his own, for they resonated with him the way Black spirituals did.
So what is “The Minstrel Boy” exactly? Wikipedia writes:
The Minstrel Boy is an Irish patriotic song written by Thomas Moore (1779–1852) who set it to the melody of The Moreen, an old Irish air. It is widely believed that Moore composed the song in remembrance of a number of his friends, whom he met while studying at Trinity College, Dublin and who had participated in (and were killed during) the Irish Rebellion of 1798.
The article goes on to note that the song was popular among Irish soldiers in the American Civil War and then again in the First World War. It became commonplace at funeral services held by institutions with disproportionately Irish membership like police and fire departments. Though often only the melody is played, the lyrics are simple and beautiful:
The minstrel boy to the war is gone,
In the ranks of death you’ll find him;
His father’s sword he has girded on,
And his wild harp slung behind him;
“Land of Song!” said the warrior bard,
“Though all the world betrays thee,
One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!”
The Minstrel fell! But the foreman’s chain
Could not bring his proud soul under;
The harp he loved ne’er spoke again,
For he tore its chords asunder;
And said “No chains shall sully thee,
Thou soul of love and bravery!
Thy songs were made for the pure and free
They shall never sound in slavery!”
Much to my surprise and delight, I heard the song again, the melody without the lyrics, in the middle of the song “Wandering Ways” by my favourite band, Great Big Sea. Great Big Sea are a folk/celtic/rock bank from Newfoundland. They play traditional Newfoundland, English, Irish, Scottish, Canadian, and French Canadian music spiced up a bit to sound more like rock n’ roll. Their concerts have the intensity of heavy metal/punk performances, but instead of mosh pits there is Irish jigging (I’ve been to seven). Though they write some of their own songs, most are traditional folk songs, and their album liner notes come with explanations of their origins. Their songs are also often medleys, with different ditties contained as a bridge between verses. “The Minstrel Boy” is contained within the recording of “Wandering Ways” from the 2012 album Safe Upon The Shore.
One of the great appeals of Great Big Sea is their incredible respect for the tradition of music that came before them, that made what they do possible. And this reminded me of a passage from one of my favourite novel, The Joke by Milan Kundera. It’s Kundera’s first novel, written in 1965 (published in 1967), a brilliant and hilarious commentary on the absurdities of Soviet era Communism in Czechoslovakia before the Prague Spring of 1968. But Kundera also has a background in ethnomusicology, and in one passage, one of the characters, Ludvik, explains the strength of folk music, and its appeal to socialists and communists:
The romantics imagined that a girl cutting grass was struck by inspiration and immediately a song gushed from her like stream from a rock. But a folk song is born differently from a formal poem. Poets create in order to express themselves, to say what it is that makes them unique. In the folk song, one does not stand out from others but joins with them. The folk song grew like a stalactite. Drop by drop enveloping itself in new motifs, in new variants. It was passed from generation to generation, and everyone who sang it added something new to it. Every song had many creators, and all of them modestly disappeared behind their creation.
While this conception of the folk song may be even too anti-individualistic for my tastes, I appreciate the sentiment greatly. The music I like most is that which makes me feel like I am part of something bigger than myself, bigger than that particular song or artist. Maybe that’s why I love the hora so much. The individual artist is basically irrelevant in the joy of the hora circle. I feel a similar communal spirit at Great Big Sea concerts, or really whenever I hear folk music, especially celtic folk music. I’m not Irish, but I respect and understand the tradition.
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the creativity of individual artists. But I’m also amused when they fail to recognize what came before. A few years ago I was at Nields concert, the folk-singing sister duo of Nerissa and Katrina Nields. In 2008, they had released an album, called Sister Holler, where all the tracks were in some sense folk songs that borrowed (or stole, as they admitted) from works that had come before. To introduce one such song, “Abbington Sea Fair,”they told a story. First, the admitted that “Abbington Sea Fair” bore a clear (though not overwhelming) resemblance to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” in music and lyrics. Of course, when Simon and Garfunkel had released “Scarborough Fair,” Bob Dylan got upset because it resembled his song “Girl From the North Country.” Nerissa Nields explained that all this was kind of silly, because all three songs are based on a late medieval melody and lyrics. Nothing comes from nothing, and tradition trumps originality.
And so “The Minstrel Boy” fits in to this tradition. It appears in different but similar iterations across the generations and even centuries, forever retaining its communal and ethnic power, uniting people not because of the creativity of who wrote it or performed it, but by the feelings it invokes. You don’t want to be listening to these kinds of songs alone, but rather singing and dancing with other people. “The Minstrel Boy” is a sad song, but it is still communal, to be sung solemnly together. Songs like “The Minstrel Boy” allow you to appreciate that which exists outside of yourself, that which existed before, and that which will exist after. It’s not divine, it’s the power of people, community, and art merging together. You don’t need to be Irish to feel Irish when you listen, to feel intertwined with that proud history and tradition. From Thomas More in the 18th century to Paul Robeson in the 20th, Great Big Sea in the 21st and Miles O’Brien in the 24th, the minstrel boy, forever slain, continues to sing.
There’s a new Pew survey that seems to be prophesying doom for the American Jewish community. The most alarming figure, for those who care about these sorts of things, is the 58% intermarriage rate among Jews in the United States. The number is of course even higher for the non-Orthodox Jews who struggle to keep members. In the past, the Jewish community has employed harsh rhetoric to try to prevent intermarriage, comparing it to “finishing Hitler’s work.” Today, Reform and Reconstructionist Jews, as well as some Conservative, have come to see the error in this approach, and are maximally welcoming to the non-Jewish spouses in intermarried couples. Still, the numbers on Jewish retention, across non-Orthodox denominations, among children of couples in-married and intermarried, are not promising. For those communities to survive, new rhetoric is needed. An unorthodox approach, if you will. Let me present to you: The Kevin Mitchell Theory of Jewish Continuity.
Kevin Mitchell was a professional baseball player in the 1980s and 1980s. He played infield and outfield for several teams, was rather injury prone, but quite good in the his prime. In 1989, he hit 47 homeruns, won the NL MVP and along with Will “The Thrill Clark” led the San Francisco Giants to the World Series, where they lost to the earthquake and the Oakland Athletics. He was also, according to this 1997 Sports Illustrated profile, quite a goofball.
For our purposes, however, Kevin Mitchell’s most important contribution came in October of 1986, in Game 6 of the World Series. He played for the Mets then who were facing the favoured Boston Red Sox. The Bosox led 3 games to 2, and went into the bottom of the 10th inning of Game Six in New York with a 5-3 lead. What happened next was one of the most famous/infamous moments in baseball history, a Met rally culminating in Red Sox firstbaseman Bill Buckner’s error leading to a Met victory, followed by a series clinching victory in Game 7.
With two out, Gary Carter got the Mets’ first hit. But who got the second? None other than Kevin Mitchell up to pinch hit. A base hit to centerfield. He would go on to score the tying run that inning. Asked about his at-bat years later, he said:
Damned if I was going to go down in history as the man who made the last out.
That, precisely, is the attitude the Jewish community needs to inculcate in terms of advocating Jewish continuity. Not harsh rhetoric about Hitler and the Holocaust. Indeed, nothing about intermarriage at all. Keep it simple, stick with baseball. We don’t need a homerun. We don’t need everyone marrying rabbis and sending their kids to the yeshiva. Just keep the rally going. Keep it alive. You’re intermarried? Ok. All we need is a base hit, even a hit by pitch. Just get on base. How? Maybe give your kid a copy of a Philip Roth book. Take your sons and daughters to a Jewish museum. Play them an old recording of Jackie Mason. You don’t have to win the game outright. But don’t let that game end. Think of Jewish history as a late-inning rally, a brilliant, hilarious, exciting, yet potentially tragic rally, where you don’t want to make the last out. Make Moses and Kevin Mitchell proud. Now let’s stop counting numbers and put those rally yarmulkes on.
In light of the recent article by Peter Beinart on “The American Jewish Cocoon,” I composed this post, which may seem a bit dated, on the various “cocoons” in Israel.
I was in Israel, but I thought of Quebec. Specifically, I thought of Montreal, my hometown. In 1945, Hugh MacLennan wrote a novel called Two Solitudes. I never read it, but I know what it’s about. It’s about the deep, historic, and persistent divide between Francophones and Anglophones in Canada and especially in Quebec.
I lived in Montreal for the first nineteen years of my life, and I felt that divide. Growing up, I had no French Canadian friends. I still don’t. This is not that surprising. I went to Jewish elementary and high school for all but grades five and six, where I went to an overwhelmingly Jewish public school with a Jewish heritage supplementary program. I lived in a bubble. I had no non-Jewish friends either, except briefly an Irish kid from hockey who had a French Canadian mom but identified as Anglophone. I had a handful of somewhat Francophone Jewish friends, mostly Sephardic Jews of Moroccan origin, some of whom spoke French at home. But most Moroccan Jews attended French Jewish schools, or French public or private schools, rather than my overwhelmingly Anglophone institution.
After high school, I attended CEGEP, a sort of non-remedial junior college designed to prepare students for university (what we in Canada call college). I went to Dawson College in the Liberal Arts program, and had two of the best years of my life. I learned the whole scope of European history, extensive philosophy and literature as well. I also made non-Jewish friends. Most were wealthy WASPs or other Anglophones. I became friendly with two Francophone women. I remember this because we called them Francophone Jen and Francophone Emilie to distinguish them from their Anglophone counterparts with the same names (we did not call the others Anglophone Jen and Anglophone Emily).
Ironically, I had my first serious conversation with a French Canadian sitting next to one on the bus from Boston to Montreal. A fellow Harvard student, he came from a working class Quebecois background, was extremely bright, hard-working, and ambitious. He spoke perfect English, and we conversed the whole ride. I asked him if he felt any affinity with the Harvard Canadian Club, whose members periodically pestered fellow Canadians to attend parties and drink Canadian beer. He was quite clear in his response. No, he did not feel any affinity with them, or any other Canadian from Vancouver or Toronto. He felt like he belonged to a different group of people, and in some ways was from a different country.
I thought about these things when I rode the bus in Israel, or took the new light rail in Jerusalem. I saw all sorts of Jewish passengers, soldiers and civilians, religious and secular, Sephardi and Mizrachi and Ashkenazi and Ethiopian and Russian and everything in between. And they’d be sitting or standing next to Arabs: Muslims and Christians, secular and religious. And neither group noticed the other. It’s as if they weren’t there. Not only did they never ever talk, they barely acknowledged each other’s existence. They were taking the same mode of transportation, sometimes getting off at the same stop, but clearly going to very different places.
I felt this separation when we visited a small mosque in East Jerusalem. Our (Jewish) cab driver told us to speak only English, not Hebrew, so that the people in the mosque would think we were non-Jewish tourists. We did so, and had a very hard time communicating with the three Palestinian Arab Muslims who were in the mosque at the time. They were very friendly, doing their best to explain so of the rituals and the layout of the main rooms. We only stayed about 10 minutes, and it was very interesting. I wondered how often Jewish Israelis or Jewish tourists to Israel ever set foot in a mosque.
I felt this separation again when we visited the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem. Behind the hotel lay a small museum, the Palestinian Heritage Museum. Much of it consisted of artifacts, or perhaps replicas of artifacts, from the Palestinian past, clothing and other essential items. But one room was labeled the room of “destroyed villages.” And that room had lists, and photos, and some artifacts from the villages destroyed by the nascent Israeli Defence Forces in 1948. There was a model of Deir Yassin, the Arab village that was site of the most infamous Zionist massacre of Palestinians, but which was one example among many. Both sides committed atrocities, of course, but for so long Jewish Israelis pretended that they were blameless, that Palestinians had willingly fled and abandoned their homes. It was not true, and eventually the Israeli academy, and to a lesser extent the public, began to accept that fact. But here, the Palestinians had preserved a record, a monument, to those tragedies.
What struck me, however, was the language of the museum display. It was in Arabic and it was in English. There was no Hebrew. This suggested to me that Jewish Hebrew-speaking Israelis seldom made their way to this museum. But it also suggested that the Palestinian citizens of Israel who ran the museum had very low expectations of their Jewish neighbours. Perhaps those expectations were and are justified. But I wonder (and I really wonder, as I don’t know), does Yad Vashem have signs in Arabic? How many Arabs visit Yad Vashem? And is that different because Yad Vashem chronicles German and not Palestinian crimes?
Another time I felt this separation between Jews and Arabs was when I explored the old city. Walking through the Muslim, Christian, and Armenian quarters, we saw barely any other Jews. We came to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where hundreds of tourists poured in and out. They came from all over the world. I saw women in hijabs and the Muslim men who accompanied them. But I did not see a single yarmulke. Not one person who appeared to be an Orthodox Jew. And few appeared to be secular Israelis either . Indeed, very few of the tourists appeared to be Jewish, if any. This made me sad. How could someone live their whole life in Jerusalem without the intellectual or cultural curiosity to visit this church, one of the world’s most significant historic sites? It made no sense to me.
And yet Israel was racked with even more divisions.
You can tell a lot about a (Zionist) Jew by what city is his or her favourite in Israel. If it’s Tel Aviv, he or she is probably secular, if Jerusalem, probably religious. Jews who keep kosher rave about the food in Jerusalem, those who don’t recognize it as thoroughly average (like my father says, “nobody goes to Jerusalem for the food” by which he means nobody secular). The two worlds are so different, it’s like religious and secular Jews are visiting different Israels. To visit Israel means something very different for religious and secular Jews.
I felt this immediately on the plane I took to Israel. It was a United flight, and it left on a Friday morning, flying through shabbat into Israel. It was the first flight to Israel I had ever taken without any religious Jews on it. There were secular Israelis, some Arabs, and lots of Christian tourists. But no frum Jews.
After my stay in Jerusalem, I spent to time in Rehovot with my step-family. The story of how we’re “related” is an amazing one. My dad’s parents survived the Holocaust, and married after the war, and had my dad in Montreal. My dad’s mom died when he was in his 20s. Sometime after that, my grandfather reconnected with his childhood sweetheart from Poland. She had immigrated to Israel, married, and had a daughter. Her husband died, and so, in the 1970s, in his 70s, my grandfather moved to Israel and married his childhood sweetheart from Poland. He became like a father to her daughter, and like a grandfather to her daughter’s children, particularly her older daughter. I always felt a special connection to her daughter, because she knew my biological grandfather as her “real” grandfather, whereas I saw him only 4 times in my life, as he lived in Israel and died in 1990. We shared him in a very powerful way.
I love my step-family. But what struck me was how secular their lives were, like those of so many other Israelis. They seemed to have no religious friends, nobody who was shomer shabbat, nobody who was seriously observant in any way. In fact, my cousin’s husband liked to “celebrate” Yom Kippur every year with a giant barbecue and loud music and dancing. While that might be extreme, the secular isolation from the religious (and vice versa) seems all too common.
This divide has entered popular culture. Watch the Israeli TV show Srugim (which is totally awesome), about single Modern Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, and see how the Orthodox struggle in their limited relationships with non-Orthodox (and at least thus far in my watching, Arabs are completely invisible).
I have no answers, no conclusion. Only hope for rapprochement. In Quebec today there is tension between the secular and the religious, between French and English. But in Israel and Palestine it remains much worse, much more explosive.
David recently went on a trip to Israel with his father. Here is a brief reflection of his time there. More will follow.
My father and I had arranged for a cab to take us from Rehovot to Tel Aviv. The morning he was scheduled to pick us up, the cab driver called and asked: “Is it ok if I bring my cousin?” Only in Israel.
The cab driver, it turned out, was a Jew of Yemenite origin. His “cousin” was in fact a cousin through marriage, an Ashkenazi Jewish woman and Holocaust survivor from Romania. Yet another example of the blended families that make up the Jewish melting pot that represents the majority of Israeli society.
I’m nor sure what, if anything, cab drivers as a category can tell you about Israeli society. They used to have quite a bit of political clout, and in the 1990s they even had a political party. The drivers themselves, almost universally male, have a weird, somewhat sleazy reputation: years ago I recall a cab driver trying charge me extra for turning on the air conditioning. Whereas in New York it seems the vast majority of cab drivers are foreign born, that doesn’t seem to be the case in Israel, though of course drivers are both Jewish and Arab.
Our first important cab driver, a man we’ll call Shmuel, took us around East Jerusalem and the old city. Though he asked if we wanted to go to the Kotel (Wailing Wall), my father and I had already been on the first eve of our trip, and on every trip before that. Why was this visit to Israel different than every other visit to Israel? This one, we’d be seeing some non-Jewish sites. Still, Shmuel insisted that we at least see something sheh-lanu (of ours). You see, Shmuel was an observant Jew, modern, with a knitted yarmulke on his head. In fact, he pointed out that he was the only Jewish cab driver for his company. The rest were all Arabs. Except the owner of the company. He was Jewish too.
In addition to being a good cab driver, Shmuel was a knowledgeable tour guide, of both Jewish and Arab sites. He spoke Hebrew, English, and some Arabic. He was of Iraqi origin, though his family had come to what was then Palestine over 115 years ago. In another post, I’ll discuss all the places he took us.
A few days later, in Tel Aviv, we took a ride with the most colourful cab driver yet. Let’s call him Yossi. He too was of Iraqi origin, but he was more secular. Some of the first words out of his mouth were criticizing the haredim, the ultra-Orthodox Jews who have such a big influence in Israeli politics and life. “God doesn’t care about their peyes? God cares what’s in your heart!” He exclaimed. I don’t believe in God but I couldn’t really argue.
Then the topic of conversation became even more political, and Yossi provided evidence that secularism was no indication of sanity in Israeli politics. Perhaps foolishly, we asked him about the potential for the Israeli/Palestinian peace talks being organized by John Kerry. Yossi had no hope for the peace talks. He expected the Palestinians to all be expelled to Jordan, and he seemed to have no problem with that outcome.
He also had some not-so-nice things to say about the non-Jewish African foreign workers in Israel. He called them cushim, a derogatory term in Hebrew for Black, and seemed at least implicitly to distinguish them from the Ethiopian Jewish citizens of Israel, who he presumably liked better. He thought the African foreign workers would soon all be deported as well.
But the most interesting part of the conversation emerged when we asked him what languages he spoke besides Hebrew. English, he said, some Arabic, and Thai. Wait, Thai? “Why do you speak Thai?” We asked. “My wife is Thai,” he replied. Not a Thai foreign worker, mind you. Yossi had gone to Thailand, fallen in love, married a Thai woman, and brought her back to Israel. They had three children together. Those half Iraqi-Jewish half-Thai Hebrew-speaking children are Jewish in the eyes of Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis, but probably not most Conservative ones and certainly not the Orthodox. They will one day be Jewish enough to serve in the Israeli army, but not Jewish enough to be buried at the Jewish military cemetery on Mount Herzl were they to be killed in action.
We asked Yossi if his wife, who spoke perfect Hebrew, had converted. They’d been trying, he said, but it was very difficult. Conversion to Judaism in Israel is held under Orthodox supervision, and the rules are very strictly enforced. Meanwhile, the local government in Tel Aviv called on her whenever they needed an interpreter for the community of Thai workers there.
After all that information, my father and I were bewildered. By then, the ride was over. As we left the cab, Yossi offered us a parting gift. He had enjoyed the conversation, and so he gave us something we could enjoy: his self-produced CD of Mizrachi (eastern/oriental) Jewish music. Only in Israel.
Though teen pop sensation Justin Bieber is a fellow Canadian, I’m not usually in the business of defending him. I do not have “Bieber fever.” I can’t say I know any of his work, except for “Baby” featuring Ludacris, a song so catchy you’d have to be without a soul not to hum along. I know Bieber hails from western Ontario, I know that he was discovered on youtube, and I know that there is a website dedicated to lesbians who look just like him.
So I was pretty surprised when Bieber came up today in the context of every Jewish studies student and scholar’s favourite inescapable topic: the Holocaust.
You see, apparently Bieber and buddies were over in Amsterdam, and they decided to pay an after hours visit to the Anne Frank House (presumably they weren’t baked at the time). Anne Frank House is museum set up in the house where Anne Frank, the most famous victim of the Holocaust, stayed hidden for two years in the early 1940s. The teenage girl chronicled her life in her famous diary before the Nazis finally captured her and sent her to a concentration camp. I visited Anne Frank House in 2001. It’s a pretty moving place. And apparently Bieber was moved too, so moved that he left this note in the museum’s guest book:
Truly Inspring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber.
At first glance, this story seemed more like an incident from a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode, a show with a distinguished record of hilarious Holocaust humour. It mixed the solemn with the silly so effectively it had to be some kind of joke, right? But no, it was the real life Justin Bieber expressing his genuine feelings after visiting Anne Frank House. He hoped she would have been one of his screaming, adoring fans. A belieber. So what are we to make of this?
Many have remarked that Bieber displayed an amazing degree of narcissism. He went to a museum that highlighted the horros of the Holocaust, and yet he made his reaction all about him, indeed, all about his celebrity. Unbeliebable!
And yet, and yet… here’s the other thing. Justin Bieber may have been right.
If you look at Anne Frank’s journal, later titled The Diary of a Young Girl, you’ll notice how incredibly normal she was. Frank was, in many ways, your typical teenager. She cared about her appearance. She had a crush on a boy hidden with her. She complained of boredom. She gave gifts to her family. She was aware of the latest fashion and literature and music. And so, in another setting, in another lifetime, Anne Frank might very well have been a belieber.
Inadvertently, through his arrogant and asinine message, Justin Bieber reasserted and clarified the central message of the diary. Frank should be remembered for her resilience, for her nobility in the face of mortal danger. She was indeed “a great girl.” But she was great precisely because she made her life so relatable, even under a Nazi occupation to which few can relate. Her diary is an account of her struggle for normalcy under hideously abnormal circumstances. But under other circumstances, she’d probably be singing along to “Baby’ just like the rest of us.
The Philadelphia restaurant Zahav is a bizarre place. The name means gold in Hebrew and the intent is to provide “modern Israeli” cuisine, whatever that means of country not yet 70 years old.
Let’s get this out of the way: the food at Zahav is delicious. I had a lovely time there and would go back in a heart beat, particularly if somebody else was willing to cover the bill (it’s not cheap). The service was good, the decor and ambience delightful. In short, I liked it; maybe even loved it. But that doesn’t mean my experience didn’t raise some questions worth pondering here at the ol’ Octopus.
To begin, they served octopus. I kid. They don’t serve octopus, or any shellfish, or any pork, or any food specifically forbidden by the Jewish laws of kashrut (those that determine what is or isn’t kosher). And yet, they might as well have. Because Zahav is NOT a certified kosher restaurant. The meat they do serve: beef, lamb, chicken, and duck, has not been properly ritually slaughtered, and is considered traif (unkosher). And while they do not mix meat and dairy together, they do serve as separate dishes alongside each other, which also qualifies as a no-no.
I went with my parents, who are not particularly adventurous eaters. We had some hummus-tehina, which was delicious. That was an appetizer of sorts. Then we ordered small plates. We got some fried cauliflower, and an assortment of chicken, lamb, and duck dishes. We also got some crispy haloumi, a kind of cheese, ensuring that our meal was not kosher. We got some ice cream for dessert for good measure.
In principle, I see nothing wrong with ostensibly Jewish restaurants serving non-kosher food. There is no more Jewish act than eating a pastrami sandwich at Katz’s Delicatessen in New York’s lower east side (it’s much holier than putting on tefiilin at the Kotel) and Katz’s pastrami is strictly traif. Speaking of Traif, the Brooklyn restaurant of the same name is, in my mind, a thoroughly Jewish establishment. By explicitly defying the laws of kashrut, it’s implicitly asserting their cultural significance. It’s not unlike the Yiddish-speaking Jewish anarchists of New York of a hundred years ago who threw lavish balls on Yom Kippur, thereby honouring the sacred day with their sacrilege.
So no, it’s not Zahav’s lack of kashrut that offends me. Nothing about the restaurant offends me. It’s great. But I would assert that the restaurant is hardly Israeli, and barely Jewish.
Let’s start with the food. The two tasting menus (neither of which we ordered) were given Hebrew names, one called “Ta’im” (meaning tasty) and the other “Mesibah” (meaning party). The meats were called “Al Ha-Esh” (on the fire, or on the grill). All very cute. And yet apart from the hummus, nothing jumped out as me as especially Israeli. I recognize that “Israeli” cuisine is really a hodge-podge of culinary traditions from all over the Jewish world: Ashkenazic, Sephardic, Mizrachi, and Ethiopian. But this felt more “nouveau” than “Israeli.”
According to my advisor Hasia Diner, there’s no such thing as Jewish food at all, except for matzo (the bread of affliction I’m suffering with now). All other ostensibly “Jewish” food is actually Polish, or Moroccan, or Rumanian, or from wherever Jews lived, but kosherized for Jewish consumption. But I really didn’t recognize Zahav’s food as very Jewish or Israeli. If you had told me it was a Spanish restaurant, I might have believed you, though I’d have wondered what happened to all the pork.
Then there’s the fact that the food at Zahav is served tapas style, in small plates. Small plates?! No Jew ever wanted a small plate of anything. I heard Jackie Mason‘s voice kvetching in my ear: “You call this a portion?” If I’m going to order something, I want mountains of it so I can stuff myself silly, not have one bite and be left hungry for more. Have you seen the sandwiches at Katz’s or Second Avenue Deli? That’s what a portion looks like.
And then there’s Zahav’s decor. It’s perfectly pleasant. There are a few Jewy markers, like the stained glass panels above the kitchen, the mezuzah on the front door, and the Hebrew writing on pictures on the bathroom door. There’s also a large photograph of an Israeli shuk, or marketplace, though you’d only recognize it as such if you knew what you were looking for. But for the most part, it just felt like your typical chic restaurant: lighting a little too dim, music a little too loud. And that music? Modern pop and hip hop, without an Israeli tune to be heard. Which is weird because Israeli music is actually quite good. I did catch one Matisyahu song, but that doesn’t really count.
And the lack of Jewish content in the food and decor was matched by the lack of Jewishness in the clientele. There were people of all different races and ethnicities and religions eating at Zahav. And that’s a good thing, and equally true of a place like Katz’s. But the difference, I think, is that everyone knows Katz’s is a Jewish deli. But I wonder if the non-Jewish clientele of Zahav realized that it was an Israeli restaurant, or was supposed to be an Israeli restaurant, or whether they just thought it was fancy, creative, exotic food in a swanky setting.
So to conclude, everyone should by all means go to Zahav. The food is delicious and makes for a wonderful dining experience. Just don’t expect it to be too Israeli, or too Jewish.