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.” Butt 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.
Boxers are often thought to be thugs. Not so for Sergio Martinez, the Argentine middleweight (160 lbs) superstar who cemented his legacy last night with an exciting unanimous decision victory over the younger, bigger, and stronger Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., the son of the legendary Mexican fighter. Martinez, 37 with movie-star good looks, took the 26-year-old Chavez to school for 11 rounds, but then nearly got knocked out in the 12th. Amazingly, Martinez ended the bout on his feet to get the points win.
I was rooting for Martinez. Though he was the favourite, he was also the naturally smaller man, as Chavez has famously put on upwards of 20 pounds after the weigh in, and appeared clearly larger last night. But the main reason I rooted for Martinez is because he’s a rags-to-riches story, he’s a really nice guy. Earlier this year, before a fight at Madison Square Garden, he spoke the Dominican Women’s Development Center and a safe house for victims of domestic abuse in the Washington Heights neighbourhood of New York. And he even appeared in an anti-bullying “it gets better” video.
Boxing can be brutal. But some of the fighters are actually pretty good people. Sergio Martinez is among the better ones. And that’s why he’ll likely remain one of my favourites for a long time.
The teachers’ strike in Chicago in in its fifth day at the time of this posting. The coverage has divided into roughly two parallel narratives. One decries the overreach of the teacher’s union, led by Karen Lewis. According to this viewpoint, it is a public relations disaster at best. In these economic hard times, the unions are pushing back against the elimination of automatic pay raises and other job protections. The teachers look like they are not willing to their part in sharing the sacrifices like other workers. The other story about the strike worries aloud about the state of the roughly 350,000 students in the public school system whose largely working class parents have to scramble to find accommodations for them during the strike. Both storylines are incomplete because they overlook important complexities. There are extraordinarily high stakes embedded in this strike because educational inequality is the civil rights struggle of our time. The Chicago teachers have drawn an important line in the sand in a fight for the future of public education.
First, the teachers’ strike demonstrates that union power is alive and robust in the twenty first century. They have always been–and continue to be–a necessary counterweight to management’s interest. The idea that teachers are the enemy is a fallacy. My first and most enduring professional identity is that of a teacher. I began my career as a history teacher in 1999 at Benjamin Banneker Academy for Community Development, a public high school in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn. With over ten years experience in the New York school system as a teacher and administrator, I can attest to the necessity of unions to exercise its power to improve the bread and butter issues of working conditions, salaries, and tenure. I found it incredibly useful that I had the freedom to teach U.S. History courses to my students that principally included the voices of people of color, women, poor people, and folks of all sexual orientation in a critically engaging manner. Due to union protection, I taught a curriculum that challenged the great (white) man’s version of American history without fear of reprisal from my supervisors. Read the rest of this entry »
The reviews are in. Both liberal and conservative commentators agree: Michelle Obama gave a barnburner of a speech last night at the Democratic National Convention. She was pitch perfect: sincere and persuasive. And she looked great in her custom made Tracy Reese dress and J.Crew pumps. She earned high marks for performance and presentation. As I digest the speech content today and bask in the warm glow of the Obama’s increasingly solid reelection prospects, there is a thought that rests uncomfortably in my mind as I consider in the figure of Michelle Obama. As a good feminist, can I truly applaud a woman who subverts her own personal prowess in favor of a more palatable “aww shucks, I am a mom” public personality?
A partial explanation of Michelle Obama’s careful construction of her role as first lady rests with the public image that emerged during the 2008 presidential election. According to her most strident critics, she was the fist bumping, angry, and radical black woman who did not love America. Remember The New Yorker cover on July 21, 2008? It was unfunny because it did not critique and merely replicated the extreme right wing caricature of Barack Obama as a secret Muslim and Michelle Obama as gun toting black revolutionary. Read the rest of this entry »
For the most recent issue of The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates has penned a superb essay on Barack Obama as Black president. Coates argues that Obama, by not talking about race while sitting as president, has taken an accommodationist stance against white racism. You should read the whole thing, because it really is a spectacular piece of writing. Indeed, it’s an essay that is much better than this blog post in response to it, an essay that so impressed me that I will likely assign it to my “Race and Identity in Judaism” class.
And yet, it’s an essay that I have some problems with, on historical grounds.
As Coates correctly notes, “Obama is not simply America’s first black president–he is the first president who could credibly teach a black-studies class.” In short Barack Obama is an intellectual. America has long been uncomfortable with intellectuals, as can be evidenced by the cult of anti-intellectualism surrounding Sarah Palin and other figures on the far right. I think Black intellectuals make this sector of white America even angrier than than the poor black underclass does, because they want to feel superior to Barack Obama, but they can’t.
Obama’s status as intellectual makes me wary of lumping him in the same accommodationist category as Booker T. Washington, as Coates does. For Washington displayed an anti-intellectualism of his own, as he preached industrial education, economic self-development, and acceptance of segregation for the black community of the South. Washington’s antagonist, W.E.B. Du Bois, argued in favor of integration, in favor of civil rights for African Americans, to be led by a “talented tenth.”
So is Obama an accomodationist in the vein of Booker T. Washington? As president, when he has dealt with race, it has been to engage in the “time-honored tradition of black self-hectoring, railing against the perceived failings of black culture.” Coates is most angry about Obama’s treatment of Shirley Sherrod, who was forced to resign from the US Department of Agriculture after the late Andrew Breitbart aired selective moments of an interview with her to make it appear as if she harbored anti-white sentiments. By failing to stand up for Sherrod, Obama followed in Washington’s footsteps by backing down in the face of white racism.
And yet I think there might be another way to understand Obama here.
First, there are important differences between Obama and Booker T. Washington beyond the purely intellectual. The latter preached a doctrine of group uplift through industry and agriculture. His was a separatist, if not segregationist schema. It’s no wonder that Marcus Garvey, who led an even more radically separatist group in his “Back to Africa” movement, looked to Washington for inspiration. Washington, Garvey, Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, these leaders and movements rejected integration. Obama, whether he discusses race or not, is an apostle of integration.
Obama’s story, then, is not one of accommodation and separation, but of accommodation and integration. In order for this integration to occur, Obama has had to avoid the perception of succumbing to “black rage,” of being an “angry black man.” And in that way, the black leader he most resembles is baseball player Jackie Robinson.
When Jackie Robinson entered the major leagues in 1947, he made a promise to Brooklyn Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey, the man most responsable for signing him in the first place. Robinson promised Rickey that no matter how many taunts he received from players and fans and teammates, no matter how many baserunners slid into him spikes high or pitchers who threw at his head, he could not fight back. He had to take it, grit his teeth, and remain silent. Robinson promised to do this for three years. Rickey knew that if Robinson retaliated, he would be labeled an angry black man, other owners would refuse to sign African Americans, and the great experiment at integrating America’s national pastime would be rendered a failure.
Barack Obama is the Jackie Robinson of the white house. He has effectively integrated the presidency. But in his first term in office he has behaved like Jackie Robinson did in his first three years in the majors. After those first three years, Robinson was free to retaliate, to yell and fight back, and he did so vociferously. The metaphorical gloves came off. He succeeded in integrating baseball, and could then assert himself, as a black man, and as an individual.
Obama has not faced the degree of racism that Robinson did, but he has faced racism, both overt and subtle, in large part coming white resentment in the face of a changing national makeup. He is living in the post-Civil Rights era, indeed, HE IS PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES. One would think he would have the ability, the power, to speak his mind more forcefully on racial questions.
Or maybe it’s precisely because he is president, because he is blazing a trail, that he needs to keep a low profile on race issues. The question remains: will Obama, if elected for a second term, take the gloves off? Will he be the tough-as-nails player that Jackie Robinson was his whole career, while still putting up Hall of Fame numbers?
This question may be related to the left’s criticism of Obama, that he promised change but then governed from the center. If a re-elected Obama changes course on race, will he change course and veer left on other policy arenas?
As we enter the latter half of August, many Jewish campers all across the Diaspora are asking themselves an important question: “Have I gotten enough play this summer?” In this week’s issue of The Forward, the progressive Jewish paper published out of New York, Emily Shire has written a wonderful article titled: “Hooking Up at Summer Camp? Is a Little Nookie the Key to Jewish Continuity?” Shire, telling us what we already know, notes:
In addition to the kosher canteens and morning prayers, there’s another activity unlisted in any brochure but no less synonymous with Jewish sleepaway camps: hooking up. Ask any alumnus of the dozens of non-Orthodox Jewish overnight camps in North America, and you’ll get stories straight from an episode of “Glee,” with softball fields and squash courts as the backdrops to teenage hookups — everything up to but mostly excluding sexual intercourse….
Administrators at Jewish sleepaway camps say they discourage campers from getting frisky with each other. But former campers tell a different story, of counselors who turned a blind eye or even gently egged their campers on. The unspoken subtext, they say, is Jewish continuity. Like a PG-13 version of Taglit-Birthright Israel — during which Jewish 20-somethings are known to fall for each other while they fall in love with Israel — Jewish summer camps acquaint adolescents with their religious tradition, but also with each other. Many former campers say they had their earliest romantic episodes at camp, paving the way for adult relationships with other Jews. Today, hooking up at camp is a hallmark of the American Jewish youth experience.
I suggest you read the whole piece. It certainly resonated with me.
Though the message is more subtle than Birthright’s almost explicit efforts at matchmaking and procreation, Jewish summer camps without question seek to facilitate romantic relationships among Jewish campers and staff (but not between campers and staff). Particularly in the non-Orthodox camps, the Jewish content is fairly minimal. And teaching Judaism is not the real purpose of these camps. The real purposes is to encourage hookups and ultimately marriage between Jews, to keep things within the Tribe.
Think about it. Summer camp is the great equalizer. Everyone’s a little dirty, so hygiene becomes less important. Since the camp consists mostly or entirely of Jews, it’s easier to impress potential suitors with athletic prowess. Nobody has more money than anybody else, and there is no possibility of winning someone with a fancy date. Because hookups are officially frowned upon, there’s the thrill of doing something bad. And though there are lots of activities, from sports to arts and crafts to Judaica, there is still a lot of downtime. What else are young horny teenagers going to do?
As Shire notes, there have been no systematic studies of sexual relationships as Jewish summer camps. But there is evidence to suggest that Jewish summer camps offer something of a bulwark against intermarriage. Whatever the data reveals, there is no question that, as Shire writes: “for many, camp hookup culture was a formative part of their Jewish adolescence.”
There really is a fascinating historical/sociological book project that needs to be done about the role of summer camps in the North American, or perhaps even global Diaspora Jewish community. Hookup culture would be an integral aspect of that project. Maybe I’ll write it one day. On that note, Shabbat Shalom!