Archive for the ‘culture’ Category
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.
Barack Obama’s recent endorsement of same-sex marriage has brought talk of American “culture wars” back to center stage. As my friend and fellow US intellectual historian Andrew Hartman has written, the culture wars never really went away. Indeed, the Occupy Wall Street movement merely opened up another front on that battlefield, uniting economic and cultural forces in new and profound ways. Issues of gay rights, abortion access, and immigration restriction mingled with questions over government size and spending, healthcare reform, and military policy, even as numerous members of both “sides” seemed to be acting against their economic interests.
In addition to these thoroughly American culture wars, however, another set of culture wars looms, one that may be even more bitterly contested, and more complex, than the American version. I’m talking about the Jewish culture wars which are currently taking place in both the United States and Israel.
The Washington Post has already called attention to Israeli version, which has made headlines with Israel’s new national unity government coalition which includes the ruling right-wing Likud Party and its chief rival, the “centrist” Kadima. Though the pretext for this alliance is to deal with the Iranian threat, the first order of business for the new government is domestic, namely the question of whether Israel’s haredi (ultra-Orthodox) citizens should be drafted into military service. About 10% of Israel’s population, most haredi men do not serve in the military, and instead are exempted from the draft to study Jewish texts at religious schools known as yeshivas. Both Likud and Kadima, though in many ways right-leaning, are secular oriented parties. Even Israel’s conservative Prime Minister Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu seems intent on at the very least conscripting the haredim into some form of national service, if not directly to the military.
This issue extends beyond the religious Jewish community. Aside from the Druze and some Bedouins, Arab/Palestinian citizens of Israel do not serve in the military. A change to the law of military conscription may very well also affect them. As Yossi Klein Halevi writes, “some form of national service is essential in strengthening the Arab case for equality in a society whose Jewish men devote three years to the nation’s defense and then continue in reserve duty into their forties.” Ironically, the bringing together of Israel’s right-wing and centrist parties might achieve some progressive reform at the level of Israeli citizenship and move the country in a more inclusive, secular direction.
This clash of religious versus secular Jews in some ways mirrors the domestic American Jewish struggle over US policy towards Israel and the Middle East. Here in the US, there is a conservative Jewish establishment, represented by AIPAC and much of the institutional, organized Jewish community, that advocates unfaltering support of the Israeli government, and an aggressive policy towards Iran and anyone else deemed a threat to Israel, including numerous Palestinian factions. On the other side, liberal Jews have formed organizations like J-Street in an effort to advance a more dovish policy towards Iran, along with encouraging the resumption of peace talks among Israelis and Palestinians.
In the United States, it’s not clear where these two sides of this divide would fall on the Israeli domestic debate over military service. It’s possible that both American sides of this dispute would likely endorse any Israeli government attempts to draft haredim and Palestinian Israelis into national service, the AIPAC supporters because of their hawkishness, the J-Street crowd because of its negotiation-oriented strategy. Yet I could also see some religious Zionists in America – Jewish and Christian, arguing that the haredim play an important role in Israeli/Jewish life by studying and praying. The battle lines, if there are to be any, have not yet been drawn.
Africa’s having a bit of a renaissance moment in the news lately. Between the Economist‘s retraction of it’s claim that Africa is doomed, the Guardian’s report on Africa’s middle class, and a new EU-funded project that highlights Africa’s other class, it seems that people are waking up to the fact that there’s more to Africa than the grim war-torn, famine-stricken, refugee-filled images of the 1990s and early 2000s. But most of the attention so far has been on the growing material wealth of Africans (or at least, Eur-Americans’ growing recognition of the material wealth of Africans). The Africa Report and the FT’s This is Africa are both focused on convincing the business world that Africa is a sound investment.
In a different vein, this past weekend’s FT Magazine, Simon Kuper’s column featured a promising new angle that looks beyond ‘hey, Africans can buy things’ to ‘hey, Africa has a thriving intellectual culture too.’ (Again, in the mainstream media. Africa is a Country has been doing this for a long time.) As my own research is on middle class West African diaspora contributions to Atlantic intellectual and social developments in the nineteenth century, and I spend a lot of time convincing my students that much of Africa has a long history of a thriving business class and a thriving scholarly tradition, this shift can only be good for furthering my case.
The focus of Simon Kuper’s article is Chimurenga, a magazine published in Cape Town and founded by Ntone Edjabe (pictured) in 2002. Chimurenga bills itself as ‘a pan African publication of writing, art and politics’. It’s also published in Nairobi with Kenya’s literary magazine Kwani and Lagos with Nigeria’s independent publisher Cassava Republic Press. In fact it’s a little McSweeney’s-esque, with different formats and conceits for each issue. The writing, however, tends to be more non-fiction: hard-hitting journalism; book and art criticism; interviews; and a variety of other forms. Beyond the magazine itself, Chimurenganyana is the book publishing arm of the project. They are ‘ a pavement literature project consisting of low cost serialized monographs culled from the print journal’ and have published 6 books to date. They also collaborate with academia, putting out a biennual publication on Africa’s cities with University of Cape Town’s African Centre for Cities. All of this is very cool, and certainly does its part to show Eur-America that the Africa we think we know is just an Africa of our imagination.
But what I find the most exciting about this is that it’s not for Eur-Americans. Sure, I can subscribe and can see articles on their Read the rest of this entry »
In exploring Vilnius yesterday, the whole “city of ghosts” thing seemed to ring true. We walked along the beautiful streets, but the people seemed detached from the beauty around them. We claimed up to a castle at one of the flat city’s highest points, and took in the view. It was truly majestic. But through that castle was a museum, which hardly recognized the non-Lithuanian character of the city for much of it’s history. It’s as if they went from paganism to the Soviet era with nothing in between. And what they truly celebrated was liberation from the Soviets. On the top floor of the museum, a television played clips about Lithuania’s “2009 Millenium Odyssey: One Name – Lithuania.” This country celebrated 1000 years of Lithuanian history by sending a yacht sailing to visit every Lithuanian community in the world. Impressive, but strange. Hearkening back to a pagan past with a worldwide sailing trip for a nation with no real connection to seafaring? Imagined Community anyone? Still, I shouldn’t be too harsh here. Lithuania is a young country, building its own culture and nation. But I think an honest assessment of their history would do them some good.
The Lithuanian “Genocide” Museum, formerly the KGB museum, was even more troubling. The museum’s name begs the question: genocide committed upon Lithuanians, or by Lithuanians? The museum was in fact dedicated to the two Soviet occupations, from 1940-1941 and then 1944-1990. Those occupations were indeed oppressive. But if genocide ever occurred on these lands, it was between 1941-1944. One exhibit, outlining the casualties of the three occupations, noting 240,000 “Lithuanians” died between 1941-1944, and in brackets, that 200,000 of those were “Jews.” Apart from that, there was no mention of the Holocaust, except for a couple of lines at the bottom of one early exhibit, which said something like: “For those interested in the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews, you should check out the Holocaust museum.”
I have no trouble with a museum dedicated to horrors of and resistance to the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. As I wrote earlier, I was very impressed with the Warsaw Uprising Museum, which told a Polish story while not neglecting the Jewish element. The Lithuanian Genocide museum had none of that subtlety. Indeed, it had a large outdoor exhibit about the role of basketball is unifying the Lithuanian nation and resisting the Soviets. This exhibit, which consisted of a basketball net and about ten displays, was orders of magnitude larger than any mention of Jews in the museum.
So today, after a lovely guided tour of the sites of the former Jewish neighbourhood/ghetto, I went to check out the Holocaust museum, or rather, two parts of the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum: The Museum of Tolerance, and another museum specifically dedicated to the Holocaust in Lithuania. I did not have high hopes. When I walked through the first section of the Museum of Tolerance, I feared that this museum was not for me: it had artifacts from Jewish Lithuania, but nothing I hadn’t seen elsewhere. It seemed that the museum existed to educate native Lithuanians about Judaism, which is great, but I I already knew the basics and didn’t need a refresher course. What was worse, there weren’t any Lithuanians in the museum actually learning this stuff.
Today was a day of contrasts in a city with many names. Today, it is Lviv, a Ukrainian city. Before World War II, it was Lwow, a Polish city. Before WWI, though still Polish, it was officially Lemberg, a city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And all the while, until the Second World War, it had a large Jewish minority, many of whom called it Lemberik in Yiddish. These name changes, though, only scratch the surface of the city’s fascinating and tragic history.
The city long had a Ukrainian presence, and the oldest church building, St. Nicholas, is Orthodox, dating to the 1200s. But for most of the past few centuries, Poles dominated numerically and culturally. In the late 18th century, when Poland was partitioned 3 ways, the city fell into the hands of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Through World War I, it remained mostly Polish, with a small Ukrainian minority, and a much larger Jewish minority. After the war, Poland became a nation, and though the Ukrainian population increased, they still remained the city’s third ethnic group, and the least important culturally. Then the Nazis came and murdered all the Jews, and then Stalin came and expelled all the Poles. Today, the city is almost entirely Ukrainian (with a small Russian minority), its ties to its past severed.
We hired a guide for the day, a superbly knowledgeable and friendly Ukrainian named Alex. The goal was to see mostly Jewish Lwow, but not to neglect the rest of the city. I thought of my recent discovery that my grandfather, Arnold Weinfeld, had attended Kazimierz University in Lwow from 1922 to 1926. My grandmother, Irene Weinfeld (nee Altstock) had been born and raised in the city. He was 12 years older than her, and they only met in 1944, after Poland had been liberated by the Soviets. But I imagine that they might have talked about beautiful Lwow in their courtship period. My wife, Julie, reminded me that our courtship was similar: we both graduated Harvard in 2005, but only met in New York a couple of years later. But we already had much to talk about, friends and places and memories in common, and that made the romancing all the smoother.
Thus, despite my unease at being in Ukraine, I felt excited to see the city that may have helped bring my grandparents together. Hiring a guide was the right decision, as seeing Jewish Lwow is more difficult that it sounds. We walked through the cobblestone streets, and stopped at parks and outdoor markets and decaying remnants of buildings where synagogues once stood. We saw a Jewish hospital, now simply a hospital with Stars of David adorning it. We saw doors that had once been entrances to Jewish shops, with the mezuzahs long stripped away. We saw the apartment where the famous Yiddish poet Sholem Aleichem lived, for a year in the early 20th century, en route to New York. Some of the places were marked with plaques. Others were not. Some of the plaques’ English text contained numerous spelling mistakes. Occasionally, the words “synagogue” or “Jewish community” in the Ukrainian text were scratched out.
Historian Omer Bartov wrote a book called Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present Day Ukraine. I haven’t read it, but the title says it all. Unlike in Poland, Ukraine has not made any effort to come to terms with, or even really acknowledge its Jewish past. According to Alex, the typical Ukrainian resident of Lviv probably has no idea that his or her city had once been a third Jewish.
Poland has not entirely exorcised its antisemitism, past or present. But they are trying. The rejuvenation of the Jewish neighbourhood in Cracow, the construction of the Jewish museum in Warsaw, the clear, beautiful monuments to the Jewish past throughout the country, the inclusion of Jews in Polish museums such as that commemorating Polish events such as the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, all point to this change in the right direction, a change towards objectivity in looking at the past, a change toward healing. In the essay that concluded his magisterial Postwar, the late Tony Judt observed that acknowledging and coming to terms with your antisemitic past, or at least beginning to do so, was the entry ticket into the European Union. Poland has done it. I believe Lithuania has done it. Ukraine has not.
Nonetheless, the city charmed me. We went from site to site, of the vanished Jewish past, but I imagined that my grandparents may have attended those synagogues, shopped at those shops, walked on those streets. We visited the university, now called the Ivan Franko National University of Lviv, teeming with young Ukrainian students, and I imagined my grandfather in those same buildings. We went to several spectacular churches, pointing to the remaining religious diversity still present in Ukraine: from ornate Catholic churches to the dark, mysterious and beautiful houses of worship of the Ukrainian Orthodox, to the Greek Catholic cathedrals, somewhere in between. I came to enjoy the city that had made me uneasy just a day before.
Am I the only one out there who prefers Treme to The Wire? While reviews for Treme have been mixed, many critics have dubbed The Wire the best television series of all time. Everyone seems to love The Wire’s epic portrayal of the drug trade in West Baltimore. Pundits from across the political spectrum blogged about it. Top legal scholars and sociologists have used it as a teaching tool. President Obama called it his favorite television series. Attorney General, Eric Holder, requested a sixth season (probably to his embarrassment). In 2010, the show’s creator, David Simon, even won a coveted MacArthur “Genius” Grant. By contrast, the critical response to Treme, Simon’s recent series on post-Katrinia New Orleans, has been much more reserved, with viewers complaining about its supposedly slow pace and irritating characters.
Read the rest of this entry »
There is a statue on the south side of Volkspark Friedrichshain that I run past nearly every day. It seems to be that of a lunging man with a sword wielded wobbily over his head; his limbs are lanky, rubbery, his face hidden beneath a dishpan helmet. I say “seems” because I’ve yet to stop. Every time I run by, I turn my head and squint my eyes and try to determine what this Acme-German soldier is supposed to memorialize. I don’t stop partly because I don’t want to interrupt my run, and partly because I like not quite knowing. So far I think I’ve made out “1938 – 1939.” But there are so many memorials in Berlin dedicated to events around that date that I don’t know whether my mind is playing tricks on my eyes.
This is the summer of not knowing. In part this is because it’s the summer post-generals and pre-prospectus—an ambiguous time. The last big project is done and the new one not yet really begun. Archives unexpectedly close for holidays and other events, and suddenly long, quiet days stretch out in front of you, and you read a little at a café, but mostly you enjoy how wide the Berlin sidewalks are, and walk them side to side. Other days are spent in archives that moonlight as saunas, rushed with heat. Furious typing down of documents that may or may not have anything, in the end, to do with your dissertation. The other day it began to storm outside the FFBIZ and a piece of hail flew in and hit my computer screen. Because I am prepped to think the worst, I assumed at first that the window had begun to shatter in on us.
Last summer I spent most of my time in the Bundesarchiv in Koblenz, which houses most of West Germany’s federal documents. It’s hard to miss. It looks like this:
This summer I’m touring a more eclectic range of archives. My Hamburg archive is located in the Rote Flora, a building that’s been squatted in since 1989. Rote Flora has many sides to it, all covered in graffiti. One of them is the outside, where in the summer homeless men and women camp out on old mattresses and sleeping bags. There are lectures and parties, but also, come to find out an archive, located beyond a metal door, up two flights of stairs, and into a chain-smoking chamber where boxes are thrown at you by the most lovely bearded man who invites you to take as many photos as quickly as you can. Its opening hours are Monday, four to eight. It looks like this:
There is an archive in Berlin I’ve just started to go to that is located in a bookshop. It is small and you work at a table in the front room, and every fifteen minutes or so someone will come in and ask the price of a book and you will direct them to the man at the computer in the backroom. The first day the proprietor toured me through the holdings. Once I knew where things were I was free to take them off the shelves at will. They have nearly every journal I could want in full serial, and binders of random flyers and brochures organized helpfully by themes. But many of the brochures have no dates and it will take some creativity to place them. Some of Papiertiger’s holdings are stored in the bathroom against the wall near the washbasin.
Through a series of random happenings, I had dinner with Francis Ford Coppola the other night, who was about to start on Jonathan Steinberg’s new biography of Bismarck. He told us about the death of generations and how he came to acquire a vineyard and found a literary magazine, and I lectured him about Alsace-Lorraine’s changing borders and explained Prussian militarism and German unification, which wasn’t a fair exchange. My friend and I took him to a bar in Kreuzberg, which he called “Little Brooklyn.” He is past seventy now and has wisdom to hand down; for example he advised us to “always say yes” and be good to our future kids.
On a balcony in Friedrichshain the other night, my friend told me to tap the building facade, which I did only to hear a hollow sound. Old buildings in the former East Berlin, never reconstructed postwar, are now outfitted with colorful add-on facades that cover up the old grays and browns and suggest the existence of stainless steel dishwashers inside. You might not recognize the same street you walked down in 2004. With their upscale fronts and backs these buildings bloat out an extra six inches or more, but I hear the added padding helps keep their insides warm during the bitter Berlin winters.
Here’s some other advice I’ve received since arriving in Berlin:
- From an archivist: a description of every Berlin lake I could possibly want to bathe in, particularly one very nice lake frequented by gays and lesbians, if I am “comfortable with that,” and a suggestion that I could go nude if I wanted to.
- From a fellow grad student: you have to earn their trust at Papiertiger before they’ll let you photograph for a fee.
- A summary of Robert Koch Institute bulletins: Don’t eat the Spanish cucumbers, or for that matter any cucumbers. Or raw tomatoes and lettuce. Whatever you do, avoid the sprouts.
There is a way one settles into traveling; particularly if traveling alone and in a new city. Small details become important. The patterns of traffic are an object of scrutiny, the manner of greeting a muttered remembrance (“Grüss Gott,” the guy at Müller says and of course he does. It’s Bavaria. Munich). The Sonnenblumenbrötchen bought at a bakery by the Hauptbahnhof, which one realizes is essentially a French baguette disguised by sunflower seeds, turns into an object of first night annoyance. Hearty, excessively—deliciously—grained bread is one of the distinct pleasures of being a German historian. A woman on a bike clings her bell and yells at me as I walk back from the archive, backpack slung across my back, apparently causing the skirt of my dress to ride up. And so manner of dress and habit of walking begin a slow shift toward ones more suitable for summer archiving.
I’ve never been to Munich before, though I spent a month nearby in schönes Bamberg last summer — “Summit of Bavaria/ Excessively Gemütlich,” an 11th century poem in the Cambridge Songs, as liberally translated by a favorite medievalist, proclaims. Having experienced such a Bavarian wonder, I decided to save Munich for another day. And here I am now, with a few feminists to look through at the Institut für Zeitgeschichte, and a brother, who has joined me for part of my trip, to entertain and try to show Germany. How does one show Germany to someone? I’ve never been a tour guide here, probably because I’ve only ever come here to work. So Germany is more a lifestyle than a sight for me. Look at that balcony, I tell him, imagining how nice it would be to have a Käsefrühstuck out there one morning. Berlin will be easier; I was once toured around there. I was a sophomore in college and I remember spending a long time staring across Berlin from the top of the Berliner Dom as my German professor rambled on. And a Love Weekend spent jumping up and down in an old factory building while Paul van Dyk spun techno.
The first two days I spent in Munich alone, jetlagged and located by the central train station, never my first choice for a home base. I stayed in a hostel by the Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof for a night on my way back home last summer and worried I might carry bedbugs across the Atlantic to New York. Repatriation. I don’t know if there is a New York equivalent to the area around a European urban train station. Perhaps 1970s Times Square — its unromanticized version. Casinos and sex shops (the site of Beate Uhse’s shop was oddly comforting—the woman has history) clustered next to hostels whose young British and American revelers run over. Small lessons remembered: don’t buy your Brötchen or sleep near the train station, Grüss Gotts all around, keep your skirt down.
European casinos and sex shops always seem to have black mirrored entrances with strobe lights and Halloween streamers. Last year I went into a casino in Bamberg to print a train ticket. Two middle-aged women pulled levers at 2pm and a manager grumbled at me “Bathroom? No, printer? There, there,” she jabbed her finger. I bought a card that would either print me a train ticket to Berlin or give me four tries at the slots.
Arriving at the archive this past Friday, radically jetlagged and underslept, I managed to make my needs known through a slurge of mumbled German. Research is a series of roads left untraveled and bets with oneself. If I don’t take this down, will I find something better later? Perhaps I’ll just note its existence. A conference on new contraceptive methods in the early 1970s? A half hour painstakingly going through my feminist’s handwritten notes—not necessarily for their worth, but for fear I won’t be able to get my hands on any other report of the events. Two folders later, the proceedings appear in typewritten full. In Reading Berlin Peter Fritzsche describes the illegible city as central to 20th century modernism: the uncertainty of being able to see or represent clearly, “the larger, ongoing process of just rereading and rewriting.” Unfolding a modern city is not unlike unfolding a new archive—terrifying, illegible, incapable of being represented yet forced to be nonetheless. One synchronizes oneself into both eventually.
I have mixed feelings about the Jewish holiday of Passover. I absolutely love the seders, but I hate the other six days without bread. You can insert the standard jokes about matzoh causing constipation here, as the goyim don’t seem to be aware of this. I’m also bothered by the capitalist cooptation of the holiday, and of kashrut in general. Jewish dietary laws have become a means to jack up prices. Even more egregious, on Passover, products emerge like kosher for Passover cakes and cereal, which kind of defeat the purpose of the whole holiday and exemplify the notion of obeying the letter of the law, but not the spirit.
Still, every year, despite my reservations, and despite being a secular-minded atheist, I endure eight days of the bread of affliction. Why?
The reasons I tell people are the same reasons I practice any Jewish rituals in my own modified and modernized Reconstructionist Jewish way, from fasting on Yom Kippur to lighting Shabbos candles on Friday nights. It all boils down to three things:
1) Observing these rituals connects me with a sense of my own personal past. That is to say, it is something I grew up doing, and so I feel some obligation to continue practicing the rituals, and derive some joy from fulfilling that obligation and keeping up the tradition. And I’m a historian, so my personal history is important to me.
2) Observing these rituals connects me to the long arch and narrative of Jewish history. In some way, shape, or form, Jews all over the world have been performing these same or similar rituals for thousands of years. I derive pleasure from feeling connected to this historical chain. Again, I’m a historian, so this makes sense.
3) Jews all over the world still today perform these rituals. So by performing them myself, I feel connected to a global Jewish community, which fills me with warmth and pride.
In my mind, these reasons all operate within the framework of Mordecai Kaplan’s Reconstructionist Judaism, which posits that Judaism is an evolving religious civilization. Reconstructionism endorses full equality for women, gays and lesbians, converts, and Jews of patrilineal descent. Kaplan argued that Jewish law should get a vote but not a veto. His movement makes room for atheism, progressive Zionism and a great deal of diversity within its inclusive tent.
These reasons also have a lot to do with the dreaded “I” word, “identity,” the bete noir of many academics. But they also have a lot to do with the “C” word. No, not that one. I’m talking about “community,” which is held in a much more favourable light.
I guess I care a lot about my identity and my community, and more broadly about identity and community in general. And that of course seeps into my historical work, which is specifically about Horace Kallen and Alain Locke, but more generally about changing intellectual understandings of Jewish and African American identity and community.
And that’s why I post so much about intermarriage, and Zionism, Jewishness, and identity. Because I feel heavily invested in the struggle for Jewish continuity, even if I try to not let that distort my analyses as an academic historian. And so I tend to devalue ideologies like Marxism or extreme libertarianism, which deny significance and merit to cultural differences.
I try to be objective in my work, as I believe objectivity is often undervalued or downright ignored in today’s academic climate. Still, I admit that my biases do seep in. And if I do have one bias, I guess I should proclaim it loudly here, on this openly biased blog: I think ethnic particularlism is good. By ethnic I mean ethnic, religious, and cultural particularism.
Not always good though. When it becomes violent, chauvinistic nationalism that leads to murder and genocide, it is bad. I try to separate between the benign particularism that comes from lighting Shabbos candles and the pernicious particularism that emerges when right-wing Zionists tell Arabs they can’t live in certain neighbourhoods. And I think the two are probably and unfortunately connected in ways that should and do make me uncomfortable, even if I can’t quite explain those connections.
In his book, The End of Faith, militant atheist Sam Harris argues that religious “moderates” are almost as much to blame for the ills of faith as religious extremists, because they provide moral legitimacy to religion itself, the source of violent fundamentalism. I actually have some sympathy for this argument, and yet here I am, a passionate if moderate ethnic particularist, giving legitimacy to my more violent and extreme brethren.
But maybe it has to be this way.
Let me illustrate with a little anecdote from my college days. Back then, I moderated an Arab-Jewish student dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In some ways it was your typical Arab-Jewish student dialogue, featuring a smattering of left-wing Jews and wealthy, often Christian Arabs getting together to bash Israel. There were of course numerous important exceptions to that, which made it a rewarding if frustrating experience. One of those exceptions was, on the surface, one of those left-wing Jews, and I mean really left-wing: lived in the Dudley Co-op, active in radical student movements, strongly opposed to American hawkish foreign policy, very concerned with social justice and very critical of the Israeli government. And yet, during one dialogue session, she followed the more vociferous anti-Israel sentiment to its logical conclusion, and proclaimed she didn’t like it.
If peace in the Middle East means there would be no Jews, then I would rather there be war, forever.
I can’t say that I disagree. Because my sense of Jewish identity and Jewish community is one of the many things that provide meaning in my life. And I think these forms of communal identification and affiliation make the world interesting.
I just re-watched Empire Records for the first time since…1998? It used to be my favorite movie. It didn’t really hold up as well as I had hoped, but something did stick with me after watching it again. Remember when we used to pay for stuff in order to stick it to the man? Like at the end of the movie, where everyone comes along and buys loads of CDs and records and beer in order to keep the store alive in the face of a corporate take-over?
That movie came out in 1995, before anyone really knew what the internet was for and before everything became free. To my generation, music, movies, news, software all came free from the not-yet-illegal-but-will-be-as-soon-as-the-corporations-figure-it-out services. For us, getting stuff for free was a right that corporations were trying to deny us. Couldn’t they see that their models were out of date? Couldn’t they see that content should be freely available to everyone? Take that, Corporate America – we’re getting our stuff for free!
It didn’t help that the corporate bad guys were about as square and whiny as David Spade in PCU. They whined about how being able to get things for free was
cutting into their profits. As though teenagers care about corporate profitability. They called what we were doing piracy of all things. Like piracy’s a bad thing. And the ‘You wouldn’t steal a car’ ad campaign presumed too much. They made it so easy to hate them and all the things they stood for, just like Music Town in Empire Records (banning visible tattoos, revealing clothing, loud music, etc). Newspapers seemed trickier, but Rupert Murdoch was buying them all anyway, right?
So what changed for me? Why am I sitting here, about to click ‘confirm’ on my New York Times app subscription? I think it’s for the same reason I just donated to NPR/APM. And the same reason that I Read the rest of this entry »