Week 51: The Audio Recording


The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 340 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 207 hours
I have reviewed 3,971 individual flashcards

This is the last official blog post from my first year of studying Yiddish, and I am glad to say it coincides with my finally completing a specific project. I had two goals in mind for the end of this year -- the first, to have studied 4,000 individual Yiddish flashcards, will be done in the next two or three days, before the clock ticks midnight and Baby New Year chases the wretched 2016 out the door for good.

The second was to complete an audio program in Yiddish. I have been calling this a Berlitz Program, but I don't know it's that; I just know Charles Berlitz introduces it and it seems to follow the contours and use many of the same words as Charles Berlitz's program, which I owned many years ago.

But this audio program is credited to a group called LANGUAGE/30, and I don't have the interest to chase down their actual relationship to Berlitz. The audio recording sounds relatively new, but, who knows, it might be the very same audio I listened to in my early 20s.

At the start of this project, I had thought I would plow my way through a bunch of Yiddish programs and report back on all of them. This was, of course, the ravings of an ignoramus, as I had no idea how long t actually would take to learn anything.

This program, for instance, is about an hour of audio and a vocabulary of, I don't know, 600 words? That seemed like something I could get through in a few months, maybe.

But I wanted to listen to the audio often enough that I would just remember everything on it, and that took between two and three weeks per lesson. Each lesson is just a few minutes long. So it didn't take a few months. It took a year.

But I am done with it now, mostly. The last few lessons are dialogues and proverbs, and I have not mastered those, so I will probably continue to listen for a few more weeks. But everything in it has been converted to a flashcard, and memorizing dialogue from audio is very different than memorizing individual words, so I am not going to be too insistent that I have it entirely memorized. I can understand what is being said and have a good idea how to respond, and that is enough for now.

The course is extremely rudimentary, and sort of your typical language course. It's mostly a series of word lists based around themes: Things you find in the kitchen, rooms in a house, etc. I can't honestly say how useful it would be for someone trying to learn spoken Yiddish, as I don't think it is important to start out learning a lot of word lists, but instead to learn the type of language required to ask what something is called and to learn circumlocutions and descriptive words. It is less important to learn the individual Yiddish words for coffee, juice, tea, and beer than it is to learn to say something like "What do you call the cold drink made from the orange fruit?" This does not teach that -- at least not overtly.

But, then, I'm not doing that either. Much of my years has been spent memorizing words that I want to know, regardless of how useful they are in the real world. I learned the word for diabetes this week -- Tzukerkrank, or "sugar sick." I'll probably never need it, but I like to know it. What an interesting word!

The audio was extremely useful in one way, though -- it is helpful to hear people actually speak Yiddish. There are two speakers on this audio cassette, a male and a female, and the male speaker often uses the singsong of the Yeshiva, which is fun to hear, but also important. It's impossible to get the music of a spoken language, its prosody, from written material. You have to hear it spoken, and for that in particular the audio program was valuable.

Since this is to be the last entry for my first year of the program (the actual end of the first year is next week, but I will simply mark that with a party), let me do a little list of what I have accomplished this year, or will have by January 1:

1. Studied 4,000 individual flashcards
2. Studied flashcards for 207 hours; additional studies double or triple that
3. Wrote 139 blog entires
4. Saw and write about five Yiddish movies
5. Read and wrote about five books on the subject of Yiddish
6. Did five or six interviews with people involved with the world of Yiddish
7. Wrote about my Yiddish studies for Tablet and In geveb
8. Wrote about the Yiddish history of Omaha for Omaha Magazine
9. Found work editing a Jewish newspaper in Minneapolis
10. Wrote a play set on the margins of Yiddish performance

I think there were other specific accomplishments, but that's enough. There were, for example, a number of mini-projects I completed, learning Yiddish curse words and words for alcohol and the like, but I need not get so granular. All told, a pretty decent year for a guy who is faking his way through a self-invented program in studying a language he can't use.

At the risk of being a little long-winded, let me also summarize what I have learned this year as a result of this program:

1. Yiddish language programs tend to treat Yiddish as a vernacular language, with a focus on teaching students how to be more or less fluent in the language. This ignores the degree to which Yiddish is a post-vernacular language -- that is to say, how many uses the Jewish community has for Yiddish besides using it as a vernacular.

2. Popular Yiddish books tend to focus on one post-vernacular use of Yiddish: The use of individual words and phrases as a signifier of Jewishness, as an in-group language.

3. There are a lot of other post-vernacular uses of Yiddish that neither have the support of institutional educational programs or popular language books. 

4. One of these post-vernacular uses, which I have had to invent for myself, is simply studying the language as a hobby, and learning whatever interests you and entertains you. It is entirely possible to study Yiddish for a year, have found tremendous pleasure and value in doing so, written about the subject for respected publications, developed relationships in the Yiddish world, and never had a conversation in Yiddish. I did.

5. The Jewish community, in general and in an official way, does not have a lot of interest in Yiddish. But there are pockets of fanatical interest, and certain projects (like the web series "YidLife Crisis") can find a lot of support.

6. There is widespread general ignorance about Yiddish, with a lot of people having some very basic misconceptions about the language. An example: Yiddish is almost inevitably referred to as a "dying language," but there are about three million people who speak the language, including quickly growing communities of Haredi Jews who use Yiddish as their primary language. By comparison, there a little more than 1 million speakers of Irish in the world, and that's despite it being one of the official languages of Ireland and taught in their schools. Three million speakers puts Yiddish on the UNESCO list of "endangered" languages, but hardly dying. Irish is on that list as "definitely endangered," but we're nothing like the Nebraska Winnebago language, which has only 250 speakers, or the Bung language, which has only three speakers.

7. I had originally called this project "cell phone Yiddish" and wanted to create the program entirely out of online resources, but that proved to be impossible. And that's a shame. If Google Translate was better at genders and understood Yiddish grammar, I believe it would be possible for the language to survive the loss of all living members, because between the number of books available digitally through the Yiddish Book Center and the various audio recordings available, a dedicated learner should be able to piece it together, at least as well as modern Hebrew speakers were able to reinvent Hebrew.

That's all for 2016! See you in 2017, and may the next year be as marvelous as this year was miserable.

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Weird Jewish Twitter



There is an especially irritating phenomenon, and I hate to confess that it is irritating, because it is practiced by bullies and they would be delighted to discover that it genuinely hurts. But this phenomenon is from the world of antisemites, and this is a group that seeks to weaponize anything in their efforts to be cruel to Jews, and among their weapons is stuff they have lifted from Jewish culture itself. In particular, there is a habit these miserable creatures make of using the word "goy."

They refer to themselves as goys all the time, especially in online conversations with Jews. It's a strange affectation, because they behave as though they are stealing an insult from us. But "goy" is not an insult. It just means "non-Jew," and so is about as insulting as the word "gentile" in English, which is to say not at all. We have an insulting word for non-Jew. Shaygetz. I don't know how common it is. I've never heard it in the wild, and so it's a word that doesn't have a lot of currency, even in the Jewish community. If an antisemite referred to themselves as a shaygetz, I think I'd be more impressed than anything else.

But "goy" irritates, for two reasons. The first is that I simply don't like seeing people who hate Jews make off with Jewish things like little thieves. But the second reason it irritates is because it's used with an insider tone, as though the antisemite has selected the term to demonstrate that they get it, they're with it, they know how Jews think and the language that Jews use.

Every time I see one of these folks show up on Twitter, I want to send them a link and say, explain this to me. If you can explain it, I'll believe you understand Jews.

Were I to do so, the link would be to Weird Jewish Twitter.

Quickly, let me introduce Weird Twitter to you, in case the phrase is new to you, and then I will introduce you to the Jewish version of it. Weird Twitter isn't a deliberate phenomenon, but instead a phrase used to describe a large number of Twitter users who use the medium as a space for comic exploration. There are a lot of funny people on Twitter, but Weird Twitter has an oddness to it that you might have been able to guess at from its name. Probably the most famous example of this is a Twitter user named @fart who is somewhat legendary for accidentally having been invited to discuss whistle-blower Edward Snowden on television and instead discussed Edward Scissorhands.

There is a Jewish version of this. I don't know that they are self-consciously aping Weird Twitter, but they share its mad sense of comedy. The movement is largely male (there are plenty of greatly funny Jewish women on Twitter, such as @OhNoSheTwitnt, but they don't seem to be a part of this phenomenon.) Twitter is fairly anonymous, so I can't say precisely the backgrounds of these Tweeters. But they often write in a slangy mix of English, Yiddish, and ritual Jewish language that is commonly known as Frumspeak or Yeshivish, which leads me to  believe they are largely current or former Yeshiva students with an especially wild sense of humor. Here are a few of my favorites:

Awkward Bachur (@endimem_music): It's a little much to say Awkward Bachur is an heir to great Yiddish humorists like Sholem Aleichem, as his humor is a bit too anarchic and juvenile for that sort of comparison. But this Twitter user has created an entire collection of recurring characters that pop up in his tweets, interacting with each other like modern Wise Men of Chelm.

Maybe these are actual rabbis at Bachur's Yeshiva who have no idea hey are the subject of scabrous mocking on social media, or maybe they are products of the Bachur's imagination, but there they are, day after day, popping up again and again in his Twitter feed, fumbling through life like an entire colony of Hasidic Jerry Lewises.

I wouldn't say I'm conversant in Yeshivish -- although I attended a Yeshiva, it was run by Modern Orthodox and I was raised Reform. But I have enough grounding in the elements of the Yeshiva experience to generally get the gist of Weird Jewish Twitter. Not with Awkward Bachur. To enjoy his Tweets, I often must run to various dictionaries, Talmudic passages, and investigate the cloistered world of Hasidic Jewry. Usually comedy isn't this much work, but it's worth it.

Sample tweet:

[Meeting]
Rosh: Starting this Tues-
 *Reb Zelig gags loudly*
Rosh: Alls biseder?
*R'Z runs to trash, regurgitates 4 fully intact kibbehs*

Shabbos Goy (@AmirTheAkum): This Twitter user started tweeting in 2014, produced 33 tweets, and then stopped at the start of 2015. But, boy, he produced some gems. There are a handful of Tweets in there directly inspired by Biblical folklore, and how often do you see that on Twitter? As an example, there is following sample Tweet:

Sample Tweet:

KING OF SDOM: I gotta give you something
AVRAM: nah I don't even want your shoelace
KING: Lol your loss
*kisses diamond-studded shoelace*

Guy With RSS (@themikvahocker): This Twitter user claims to offer up "the best of jewish humor (and sometimes not so jewish)," and his not so Jewish jokes are about on the level you might find in a joke book meant for sixth graders, which is to say: simple but sometimes unexpectedly hilarious.  (Sample: If you are a 5 star chef you are good at your job. But if you are a 5 star Astronomer that means you are really bad at yours.)

But his Jewish stuff is pretty wild, coupling that same childlike sensibility with an entrenched knowledge of Jewish law and custom. So, for example, to enjoy the following Tweet, it helps to know that chopping pshat refers to a quickly paced argument about some Jewish writing, and, in this case, the writing in question is Mesillat Yesharim, an ethical text widely studied in Yeshivas. But you don't have to know that -- it's enough to know that, asked a question, the Tweeter has responded with a stream of incomprehensible Yeshivish:

Sample Tweet:

PULLED OVER:
Cop: Why were you speeding
Menahel: I just chopped Pshat in the Mesillas Yesharim
Cop: Did you drink anything tonight

Zvi Hershcovich (@cholentface): One of the rare Weird Jewish Twitter users who is not anonymous, Hershcovich identifies himself as a screenwriter and actually has his own IMDB page with two credits, both for humorous films meant for the Haredi community.

His jokes are often academic, which is not a phrase that sounds amusing, but Hershcovich is quite clever. He delights in mixing popular culture with Jewish law and seeing what results, which is often wackier than you might anticipate, such as in the following tweet involving traditional slow-cooked stew: "*carries the Cholent pot to the dining room table* *gently sets it down on a whoopsie cushion*"

I can't tell you how much I like that he calls a Whoopie Cushion a whoospie cushion. The sample tweet to follow requires one second of explanation, but it's worth it: a sheretz is a crawling creature that can make a ritual object impure, such as a spider. A mikvah is a Jewish ritual bath, which is one of the steps in converting to Judaism:

Sample Tweet:

Spider-Man once tried converting to Judaism but it didn't work out due to a Sheretz in the Mikvah.

There are dozens more Weird Jewish Twitter users like these, and they're pretty easy to find -- they all follow and retweet each other. I keep following more and more of them, and I think the reason is simple: It's a reproach to the antisemites who want us to think they get us Jews.

Weird Jewish twitter reminds me that they don't. They can't. I barely get us Jews.

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Jewish Christmas Movies: Elf (2003)


There's a trick you can play with almost any Christmas movies, where you dig into it and you find Jews. Take "It's a Wonderful Life," which was mostly written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who weren't Jewish (but did author the stage and screen version of "The Diary of Anne Frank.") But the film underwent extensive rewrites, and those uncredited writers included Jo Swerling and Dorothy Parker, who were Jewish. Additionally, the film's score was by Jewish composer Dimitri Tiomkin.

Now, "It's a Wonderful Life" is not an especially Jewish film, and points to the problem with simply identifying Jews who participated in the filmmaking. I'd like to believe anything a Jew worked on becomes somehow Jewish as a result, that the rich vein of pathos that runs through "It's a Wonderful Life" is the product of a Jewish sensibility, but I can't.

So when I list Jewish involvement in the 2003 comedy "Elf," I do so knowing it proves nothing. But I want to start with a list, just to make it clear that "Elf" wasn't a film that merely had Jews involved in its making. It was a film made by Jews.

Firstly, the script, about a boy raised in the North Pole who returns to New York to find his biological family, is by David Berenbaum, a Jewish writer from Philadelphia. The film was directed by Jon Favreau, who is the product of a mixed marriage and was raised Jewish. The film features Jewish actors James Caan and Daniel Tay as father and brother of the film's title character. (I presume Tay is Jewish -- some web sleuthing suggests he grew up to attend Yale, was vice president of the Alpha Epsilon Pi Jewish fraternity, and studied Jewish/Judaic Studies at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, which seems pretty Jewish.) Beyond that, the film is populated with Jewish actors, including Ed Asner as Santa Claus, Michael Lerner as a book publisher, and Favreau himself as a pediatrician.

On the surface, this is a film that lovingly borrows from previous Christmas movies, with explicit references to Rankin-Bass cartoons, "Miracle on 34th Street," and "A Christmas Story." (It includes a cameo from Peter Billingsley, who played Ralphie in "Christmas Story.") It's a reach to find explicit Jewish content, but for a lone menorah tucked into the back of the pediatrician's office.

Still, it's hard not to get the sense that some autobiographical material slipped in. Favreau often discusses being the product of intermarriage in interviews, and he did extensive rewrites on the script for "Elf."

There are a bunch of intangible elements, but collectively they contribute to a feeling, at least for me, that the family at the center of this movie is intermarried. Obviously, there is Caan and Tay as father and son. Cann is playing against his usual gruffness in the film, replacing the hotheadeness of the characters he played in his youth with a furrowed, bewildered discomfort. He's never seemed more Jewish in a film.

Caan never seems especially invested in Christmas, and almost literally crawls with mortification when Will Ferrell's Buddy shows up. It's a recurring joke in the film that Buddy's love for Christmas is a little too much for anyone to take, but Caan has the weariness of someone who compromised on a little Christmas, but wasn't prepared to go all in on the holiday. He barely complains when his boss forces him to work on Christmas Eve, and the film never bothers to include a scene in which he much explain the fact to his family. It's just a family where the father might be absent on Christmas and nobody makes much of a fuss about it.

Compare this to a similar scene in the Will Ferrell comedy "Step Brothers," in which Will Ferrell's stepfather, played by Richard Jenkins, gets up and leaves a Christmas party. His absence is treated as the climactic moment of a familial breakdown, and his marriage almost immediately unravels. For most people, Christmas is important, and missing Christmas in meaningful.

Tay goes to confront his Caan on Christmas Eve, but it isn't because he is at work on Christmas, rather because Buddy the Elf has run off, and he doesn't grow upset with Caan until it seems like the older actor might not even leave his business meeting for that.

This feels strange. It's a scene created by people who don't invest the sort of weight into Christmas that most Americans, and most American Christmas movies, do. This is likely because it was made by Jews, and the lack of weight they give to Caan skipping Christmas might be an unconscious product of that. But it accidentally ends up making it feel like Caan and his son are Jews, and Christmas is mostly of an enjoyable curiosity for them.

Even when they meet Santa, they seem happily bemused rather than thrilled. Tasked with helping him, Caan seems unimpressed, and must be cajoled into singing Christmas carols despite the fact that this is the very thing that will help Father Christmas.

I know I am reading into the film, finding meaning as much in stuff that was left out as in stuff that was put in. But coming from a Jewish family, growing up with friends who were the product of intermarriage, knowing old Jewish men like Caan (including Caan, who I have met on a number of occasions), and being a Jew who participates in Christmas each year due to my long relationship with a non-Jewish woman, I can't help but recognize something in Caan's performance.

I can't help but see a Jewish man who gamely is going along with a holiday that is not his, but doesn't have the depth of familial and cultural experiences to make it as meaningful for him as it is for the people he loves. I don't know how much of this performance was the result of Caan or was influenced by the writing or direction, but it sharpens the story a little.

Because if Buddy's fanaticism about Christmas is a little hard for everybody to take, how much harder for a Jewish biological father? It's tough. You can see it in Caan's eyes. A little Christmas, okay. But this?

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Week 50: The Dictionary


The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 333 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 203 hours
I have reviewed 3,900 individual flashcards

Perhaps it is time I started to summarize my first year. As you can see from the stats above, I have studied Yiddish for 333 days, which is 32 days less than a full year -- which is about right, when you consider that my first year doesn't actually end for a couple of weeks and there were a handful of days when I wasn't able to study.

I have studied for a total of 203 hours, which is more than eight days straight, and that;s just work I have done reviewing my flashcards. If you also count the time spent creating the flashcards and time spent on a Yiddish audio tape I listen to, the total is probably closer to 300 hours, or 12 days straight.

This feels like a lot. It's probably the most concerted effort I have ever put into any one project in my entire life. And yet it is the amount of language a child passively receives hearing native speakers speak in less than two weeks. That's just how it is, and it will always be the greatest barrier for me to true fluency.

So it is. I realized early on in this project that there were going to be limitations to what I could learn and how effective I could be at applying it. One of the things I have been thinking about in the coming year is ways I can make real, practical use of the Yiddish I am learning, and I will discuss that later.

For now, I want to talk about the dictionary. When I started this project, I simply used Google Translate and a word list I culled from a couple of sources. I cannot recommend that. Google Translate does not always provide the correct translation, almost never provides the correct gender of a word, and never provides a decent translation of a full sentence.

I quickly moved on to a dictionary. It's titled "The Yiddish Dictionary Sourcebook: A Transliterated Guide to the Yiddish Language" by Herman Galvin and Stan Tamarkin. I got it at random -- it was the only dictionary in a used book store in Omaha. But I like it.

I don't know that it's especially good. Galvin was a Yiddish speaker, as was Tamarkin, his son-in-law, but neither were linguists, as far as I can tell. The primary intention of the project was to create a transliterated dictionary, but they argued constantly over which pronunciation should be preferred and sometimes picked them at random, according to an interview with the New York Times.

The book gives the gender of a word, which I needed, but does not give the plural, which I also needed. And although it claims 8,500 entries, you can see a sample page I have marked up at the top of this page. I have learned almost every word on the page, and this is true for every page in the book. But I have only studied about 4,000 flashcards, and only about 3,000 of those are vocabulary words (the remainder are complete phrases.) So how can this be?

The answer is that, as with English, one Yiddish word can often have multiple meanings. And so a single Yiddish word, say, onkhapn, will appear under entries for seize, grasp, grap, and get hold. So while the book does have 8,500 entries, it only has about 4,000 distinct words.

That turned out to be perfect for me. It turned out to be just a little more than what I can learn in a year, and I think the selection of words in the book are good, if not always the most scintillating. I will locate about another 100 words from the dictionary, just to round my total number of flashcards off to 4,000 exactly, but then I will move on to a new dictionary.

This new book will be the massive "Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary," and I think if I had started with that, I would have been overwhelmed. There are 50,000 entries in the book. Were I to just go through it, a page a day, as I did with Galvin and Tamarkin's book, it would take me three years to get through the whole thing.

Thanks to "The Yiddish Dictionary Sourcebook," I have a good sense of my own page, and how much I can reasonably expect to learn in a year, and so I can approach this new dictionary with a plan.

The truth is that I am not sure that continued vocabulary acquisition like this is necessarily the most useful thing for me. But, then, this is a hobby for me, and it's my hobby, and I like learning vocabulary words. If I am to continue into the new year, I must make sure to include the stuff that I enjoy, because that's literally the only reason I am doing this project: for the pleasure of it.

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Week 49: The Year Ahead


The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 325 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 193 hours
I have reviewed 3,794 individual flashcards

 I should have started my Yiddish project on January 1 rather than January 7, as it would have made things a lot easier. As it is, I have to think about what the next year will look like in life, as well as in my hobby of Yiddish. In life, years are neat thing, where you plan for the New Year and beyond, and then spend the next year failing to accomplish your plans. I have done this my whole life, and enjoy it, as it makes New Year's Eve special and momentous.

So I'd like to just hitch my Yiddish plans onto that, but cannot, because the anniversary of the project isn't for another week. I'd just shove it back for a week to simply things, but am not sure I will have wrapped up everything I wanted to accomplish, or fail to accomplish, by then. Well, hell with it. I am going to start my new projects on January 1, and if there is some old projects that bleed through, so be it. I'll reserve January 7 for an anniversary party, but everything else resets on January 1.

I'm still working out what I want to accomplish in the next year. I'm a little nervous to be too ambitious, as I struggle to find the time to do the meager projects I am now working on, but I think this is a product of being newly back in Minneapolis and having a new job. It has been a bit of an adjustment, as I worked 30 hours a week at my previous job and work about 38 hours a week at this one.

Eight hours might not seem like that many, but it means I wake an hour earlier every day to go to work and leave from work an hour later, and it all just seems to chew up time. Additionally, at my last job there was occasional downtime when I could sneak a personal task in here or there. I don't seem to have that sort of time at this job, but that may be because I am still so new to it. I have a long history of being able to streamline jobs.

I am the editor of a Jewish newspaper now, and it doesn't seem like this should get in the way of my Yiddish studies, but instead support it. So part of what I hope to do this year is figure out ways where my job and my Yiddish studies can dovetail.

On the other hand, nerves be damned. There is nothing wrong with being ambitious. I only ever complete a fraction of what I hope to in a year's time, and yet somehow I still managed to write a Yiddish-themed play, writer articles on Yiddish for Tablet and in geveb, learn 4,000 Yiddish words, write 135 blog posts, and get a job at a newspaper in less than a year of Yiddish study. That seems like a pretty good year. I'll do a more thorough wrap-up at the end of the year, which I'm sure will be thrilling for my readers, utterly thrilling.

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Why 'Are Jews White' is a Worrying Question


It's irritating that the question of Jews and whiteness is coming up right now. More than irritating, it is worrying. The social status of Jews is one of those canary in a coal mine things -- when it becomes the subject of dispute, it means that there is a massive restructuring occurring, and it is one rooted in race, in nationalism, and in exclusion.

Jews are useful that way, because we are a group who has a long history of gaining and then losing privilege. Social status for Jews is always provisional. It is granted when it is useful for the majority, and taken away when it is more useful for Jews to be stripped of status.

We are subject to constant reminders that whatever privilege we have has been given grudgingly, but we haven't really earned it. The classic antisemitic canards paint Jews as interlopers, and paint Jewish privilege as overreach. Look at the Jewish American Princess caricature: She is presented as being greedy, spoiled, and sexually regressive. These same characteristics can be applied to non-Jews and reframed: ambitious, well-bred, chaste. These are qualities that are socially desirable in a non-Jewish woman, but represent an intolerable intrusion when a Jewish woman attempts them, and so she is mocked and punished for attempting to be like a non-Jew.

The subject is privilege

And, make no mistake, when we discuss Jews and whiteness, we're discussing status and privilege. Jews cannot be said to be white or to not be white, because there are Jews who are white, like me (I am ethnically Irish and English and was adopted by Jews) and Jews who are not white, like, say, Canadian rapper Drake, who is biracial. Drake doesn't represent a small outlier population among North American Jews either -- somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of Jews in the Americas are people of color.

But I suppose we're talking about Ashkenazim, aren't we? There is a general presumption that all American Jews are Ashkenazim, and, though this isn't fair to Jews who are not Ashkenzim, or Jews who have Ashkenazi ancestors but are people of color, let's address it for a second.

Before we do, it must be said that race is mostly bunkum. It's an awesomely complicated story and I don't have the space to do it justice, so suffice it to say that race theory is directly a product of European imperialism and colonialism. It is garbage science, and mostly existed to establish a hierarchy of power that justified European colonial oppression. Who is and isn't white has had a lot to do with who was in power and who wasn't, and so you find a lot of light-skinned groups in history who were nonetheless not considered white. As an example, for a long time Anglo Saxons considered themselves a different race than the Celts.

American has its own history of exclusion, which likewise didn't consider the Irish to be white for a while, but also managed to exclude light-skinned Hispanics, Italians, Slavs, and, for a while and rather insanely, Germans. Ben Franklin certainly didn't consider them white and had a horror of America being overrun by "swarthy" Europeans, saying the following, highlights mine:

[T]he number of purely white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth.

Immigration is always a sore point, and so supposedly undesirable immigrants historically found themselves on the wrong side of whiteness, regardless of their skin color. But one's status as an immigrant is generally relatively temporary, and, so, within a generation or two, America absorbed its undesirable immigrants and made them white, with a few notable exceptions.

Black people are one of the notable exceptions, of course. America was founded on a racist institution, slavery, and justified the institution by by baking status into skin color. Asians have historically been excluded from whiteness as well, which has its own terrible and complicated history. Native Americans have also been excluded from whiteness, which is hardly surprising, as they were the targets of a campaign of genocide.

A complicated question

The question of Jews and whiteness is a complicated one. It is complicated in part by the fact that whiteness itself is complicated. We might be talking about white privilege, which many light-skinned Jews do have, to a large extent. (Although it is worth noting that some of these privileges are contingent on assimilation, and so if you are visibly Jewish, you may lose some of these privileges. Less assimilated Jews are often assumed to be clannish, selfish, criminal, and may suffer from lack of access to jobs, housing, etc.)

There is a popular meme I frequently see on Twitter and Facebook about how surprised racists would be if they met Jesus, who, in this case, is presumed to be a dark-skinned Middle Easterner, which presumes that Jews with this background are not white, or, at least, are dark enough to create problems for racists. But there was a sort of nasty joke making the rounds in leftist communities a few years ago that described the Holocaust as "white on white crime," which presumes that Jews are, in general, white people. Former KKK Imperial Wizard David Duke recently tweeted that Jews unambiguously are not white, and I suspect what he meant by white is Aryan. (Make no mistake -- while the Nazis did not think about race the way Americans generally do, they certainly did not consider Jews to be the same race as them, and neither do American racists.)

So the answer to the question of "Are Jews white?" is that it depends on what Jews you are talking about what what you mean by white.

The answer, in general, will be something like this: Light-skinned American Jews typically, although not universally, have access to a lot of privileges. If you're a light-skinned Jew, you should be aware of this, because it means you benefit from a racist system, and we should do what we can to combat racism.

But the reason this question is worrying is because of the history of antisemtism, in which Jews have not simply been privileged, but instead they have been visibly privileged. They have been made to be the stand-in for privilege, the representation of privilege, and you'll see examples of that in America. There is a presumption of Jewish wealth in this country, and a presumption of Jewish institutional control of the media. There is a presumption that Jews have enormous political influence. There is a history of highlighting Jewish involvement in past oppression, to the point of making Jews responsible, as with the libel that Jews were behind the slave trade.

The genius of antisemtism is that it highlights Jewish privilege in order to funnel legitimate outrage at an illegitimate target: the Jews. Privilege, whether real or perceived, can be extraordinarily dangerous for Jews, because there is a long history of us being targeted for it and punished for it, because it is seen as unearned and oppressive.

This is why it can be nerve-wracking when the question of Jewish whiteness gets bandied around. The question itself is too complicated to be useful, but the fact of it represents a social shift in which the status of Jews is being called into question. Historically, that's a dangerous time for Jews.

Privilege makes Jews a target

I have had a lot of contact with non-Jews who think that antisemtism is, for the most part, beneath concern. They see the status that some Jews enjoy and presume that, for the most part, Jews have been integrated into whiteness well enough that they enjoy one of the major privileges of whiteness, which is not to be targeted. They don't understand that any privilege Jews are seen as having actually makes Jews a target.

If you're not a part of the Jewish community, it is possible for antisemtism to be invisible to you. An especially spectacular example of it might make it into your local paper now and then, and it will shock you, but there will be no reason to assume this is something that happens with any frequency.

In the meanwhile, if you're Jewish, you follow Jewish media, and so you get a lot more stories about antisemitic events, most small enough not to attract mainstream media attention. You're probably aware that Jews are, in fact, the largest target for religious hate crime, representing about 59 percent of this sort of crime, even though Jews are only two percent of the population of America. You probably have experienced some of this crime yourself, or know people who experienced it. And so it doesn't seem small or incidental, but significant and ongoing.

You probably also know about the rise of a xenophobic hard right in Europe, and that this has been accompanied by an explosion of antisemitism. And so the rise of a similar right wing movement in America, especially when they successfully ran a candidate whose campaign was entirely based on xenophobia and racism, is worrying. Especially when this candidate's victory has generated a surge in antisemitic and racist incidents.

So the unfortunate answer to the question "Are Jews white?" is: White enough to be visibly privileged, and to be a target for it.

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Week 48: The Race


The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 318 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 193 hours
I have reviewed 3,708 individual flashcards

Today is December 6, and the anniversary of me starting the project, according to my calendar, is January 6. As a result, I feel like a I have started a bit of a race against the clock, as there are two projects I want to have finished by the end of my first year, as I mentioned in a previous entry. To reiterate, they are the following:

1. I wish to complete an audio class in Yiddish that I have been working on for most of the year
2. I wish to complete a dictionary project

I don't know that I have been explicit about the dictionary project. It's not terribly complex: I have a sort-of beginners dictionary of Yiddish, and I go through it, page by page, usually at about the rate of a page a day. I cross off any word I already have in my flashcards, and generally check to see that the gender is correct on the flashcard (it often isn't; Google translate proved to be entirely undependable regarding genders.)

I then add new words to my flashcards. If a word is a cognate or near-cognate with English, it automatically goes in, no matter how rare or strange a word. If the word builds upon a word I already know, it goes in. And if a word seems especially interesting or unusual, it goes in.

This generally represents between 75 and 95 percent of the words on each page, and I also go back and add a few words from earlier in the dictionary every day. My goal is to have done this with every page in the dictionary, and I suspect this won't be too hard to achieve, as I only have about six pages left in the book. I should be done by next week, and will spend the remaining three weeks just going back and adding words.

I already know what I will replace this project with when I am done, and it is a much larger dictionary, and an even more complicated iteration of this project. The dictionary is the enormous Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary, released just this past year -- in fact, it is so new that the official release party for the book was three weeks ago.

The dictionary is intentionally enormous, comprising 856 pages and including Yiddish words for email and transgender. So this will give me a massive collection of words to learn -- my current dictionary has a paltry 8.500 words, while the Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary has 50,000. But, more than that, it will provide something currently lacking on my flashcards -- plurals. 

Yiddish has a superabundance of ways to make a word plural, which I presume is a legacy of the language's obsessive borrowing from other languages. So there are, of course, Hebrew plurals, which involve sticking os and im at the end of a word. Yiddish will often enough make something plural in the same way English often does, by sticking the letter s at the end, but will sometimes stick an n at the end of the word instead, and with surprising frequency will not stick anything at the end of the word. The Yiddish word for window, fentster, has no plural form. I suppose you just need to know if it is singular or plural from context. And sometimes Yiddish makes something plural by changing the vowels inside the word, the way we change mouse into mice.

Perhaps a linguist might be able to make an educated guess as to which one of these approaches is most likely with a specific word, but I am not a linguist, and so need a reference source to tell me. I have just ordered the book -- just now, while I was writing about it -- and it is due by the end of the month. 

So this will be the first new project in my second year of Yiddish. I have been thinking a lot about what year two will look like, and will detail that more in later posts.

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Jewish Fantasy Films: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

Edna

I am tempted to re-title this film "Fantastic Jews and Where to Find Them," as three of the film's four main characters are Jewish. Well, ostensibly Jewish -- they don't explicitly reference Judaism, neither do they participate in Jewish religious life in any way. But there are sisters Tina and Queenie Goldstein and aspiring baker Jacob Kowalski and they inhabit New York's Lower East Side in the 1920s, so if they are not Jewish, they are confusing everyone they meet.

(Most tellingly, there is some indication the film is set at Christmas, including Christmas decorations, which none of the main characters seem to have any interest in. The characters even visit Macy's and do no Christmas shopping whatsoever, which seems like a violation of a very basic rule of seasonal filmmaking.)

There are Jews in the cast as well: Kowalski is played by Dan Fogler, and the cast is rounded out by Ezra Miller as a religious boy in a haircut that seems lifted from "The Golem," Ron Perlman as a speakeasy owner who also happens to be a goblin, and Zoë Kravitz as a girl in a photograph -- presumably she will be more important in later chapters.

Screenwriter J.K. Rowling has been vague about her characters' ethnicity -- she generally is, and when she isn't, as when she wrote about Native Americans in her "History of Magic in North America," she can be more than a little tone deaf. So perhaps it is best that she did little more than give characters Jewish names and plop them in a Jewish setting. We can write our own fan fiction about Jacob Kowalski's nights at the Yiddish theater or Queenie Goldstein encountering Illinois' Flapper Ghost in the Jewish Waldheim Cemetery.

But it does not feel unmeaningful that these characters are Jewish. Rowling has said that she was partially inspired by the rise of European populism, and so here we are, watching a film set in the years just following Hitler's release from prison and re-founding of the Nazi Party, in the era of the rebirth of the KKK in the United States.

It's tempting to try to make all of this film's witches and wizards into surrogate Jews. After all, it seems like every single wizard and witch in New York works for a Judenrat-style ministry, designed to enforce rules that push for invisibility and assimilation -- without this, the film's wizards fear genocide at the hands of humans.  There is a character in this film who has been suppressing their magical ability, adopted by a fundamentalist who seeks to exterminate witches. This character has been driven mad by doing so, becoming literally homicidal, which is about as forceful an argument against assimilation as I have ever seen onscreen.

But Rowling's story offers an inexact parallel. This story is a prequel, of sorts, to the Harry Potter films, and follows the rise of a character named Gellert Grindelwald, who appeared briefly in the world of Harry Potter but had a rather complicated backstory. Here played by Johnny Depp, Gellert Grindelwald is to lead a revolution in which wizards reject their secrecy in favor of creating a dictatorship in which magic users have power over non-magic users.

It's been broadly hinted that this storyline will be the one to parallel the rise of European populism, and so Rowling has set her movie's fascism, not among the fearful and murderous masses of humanity, but rather among a despised and hunted minority. This complicates the story considerably, as were this an exact parallel to historic Nazism, it would be like telling a story where the Nazis rose out of the Jewish community, or where it an exact parallel to modern populism, it would be wound in which an anti-immigrant ultra-nationalist movement rose out of Europe's Muslim population.

So the metaphor breaks down fairly quickly. But Rowling's stories have always been about a parallel world of magic that rarely touches the one we inhabit, and so it makes sense that her parallel fascism should play out in that world, rather than ours. Especially as it is abundantly obvious that if there were to be a war between humans and wizards, it is likely that it is humans who would experience genocide at the hands of wizards, and not vice versa. These characters are just too powerful to be credible victims to humans -- in this film, one angry child very nearly levels a city.

Setting this story in the world of magic also allows Rowling to do something she does very well, which is create a sort of fantastical diorama, free of complicated historical phenomenon, in which she can create essentially a shadow puppet show for the world's ills. In the Harry Potter books, she set most of a titanic struggle for world control at a remote boarding school, which gave a sprawling story unusual clarity and focus.

Here she is playing with a larger canvas -- instead of setting her tale at Hogwarts, here it is set in the entirety of 1920s New York. But she still focuses the story on a small group of heroes, led here by Eddie Redmayne as a sort of magical naturalist. (Redmayne provides a performance that is both unforced and extraordinarily eccentric, and carries a briefcase improbably stuffed with the film's titular fantastic beasts.) And by setting it in the world of magic, she can avoid the messy historical details that lead to totalitarianism, including nationalism, state controlled corporations, and despised migrant populations, and instead focus on a less messy magical version: Wizards are powerful and unfairly despised, therefore wizards should be in charge.

It remains to be seen what it means to simplify fascism like this for the sake of storytelling, or what it will be like including Jewish characters in such a story. I just don't know. Rowling has a canny way of slipping little details into her stories that re-complicate them, and sometimes complicated stories benefit from this sort of abstraction. Fascism is not a simple subject, and it is easy to get overwhelmed by the complications.

I will take one moment to explore one small detail of the film, and how it deepens the storytelling. I don't think it is accidental that Rowling named her flapper character Queenie, but I can think of only two possible previous examples. Both are interesting.

The first is an obvious one, for anyone familiar with the history of American musicals: Queenie, the cook on the Cotton Blossom show boar in the musical "Show Boat." She is a black character, but the original book was authored by a Jew, Edna Ferber, and adapted into a musical by a Jew, Jerome Kern, as well as by Oscar Hammerstein II, who had a Jewish father. The musical explicitly deals with the problems of enforced segregation.

The second example is a stranger one: Queenie is the flapper protagonist of Joseph Moncure March's jazz age poem "The Wild Party," which is mostly a profile of artistic decadence. Although Queenie herself is not Jewish in the poem, a variety of the characters who surround her is -- some caricatured to the extent that March rewrote sections for a later release, finding them to be antisemitic. One of the stage adaptations of this poem expands on one of these characters, Gold, a theatrical producer, desperate to change the name of his partner, Goldberg, to something less obviously Jewish: Golden.

So just by exploring a character's name, we find rich associations, including segregation, antisemitism, and assimilation, all themes in "Fantastic Beasts." Like Redmayne's briefcase, the film proves to be overstuffed; it may take a long time to unpack.

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Week 47: The super pile up


The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 313 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 189 hours
I have reviewed 3,666 individual flashcards

This past week I discovered an entirely new world of frustration when it comes to studying Yiddish. A few months ago I found my forward progress stalled by a pile up of words and especially phrases that I had a hard time learning. All of them managed to show up in my flashcards at once and I just had to stop everything and spend hours just trying to memorize these flashcards long enough to be done with them for the present.

Well, it turns out this phenomenon is recurring. And it grows. The more words and phrases you learn, the more are going to be troublesome, and since the troublesome stuff is going to keep getting shoved to the front of your flashcards, there is just going to be this growing pile of stuff you have a hard time learning.

This time it took an entire week before I managed to get all these words and phrases behind me. I was trying to avoid what happened last time, which was that I was spending an hour or more on flashcards and just feeling frustrated and exhausted, so I try to limit my studies to 45 minutes at most, and if there are some words I don't learn in that time, well, they just get shoved to the next day.

This actually works just fine, in the sense that I didn't feel exhausted or overwhelmed by my studies. But, since I don't add new words when I am struggling with old ones like this, it means that there was a week of no new words.

This is probably okay. I probably should occasionally stop adding new stuff into my flashcard program and focus on the stuff that is already in there. I don't like to admit this to myself, because I hate to give up the idea that I can just effortlessly memorizing thousands of words and phrases and just like that be fluent in Yiddish.

Actual learning always involves abandoning a fantasy of learning, I guess.

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A refugee Thanksgiving payer


"What is the holiday most celebrated by American Jews?" Micah Halpern asked in a recent story in The Jerusalem Post. The answer is Thanksgiving, which the author essentially declared to be the definitive secular Jewish-American holiday.

His reasoning is that, as a relatively recent immigrant group, Jews were eager to seize on Thanksgiving, perhaps the most American of holidays. It is, as Halpern points out, an especially appealing holiday for Jews because it is based around family and food, although this is hardly unique to Jewish celebration.

There was a story making the rounds a last year that Obama was considering changing Thanksgiving to "Celebrate Immigrants Day." The story was nonsense, but I think it accidentally puts a finger on why new Jewish immigrants to America appreciated the holiday. Because Thanksgiving is already Celebrate Immigrants Day, in that it revisits the immigration of European Pilgrim settlers to the American continent.

The foods we eat on the holiday borrow from something called the Columbian Exchange, which was the mutual transfer of culture and technology between Europeans and Native Americans after Columbus. There is, as an example, the turkey, a bird native to the Americas, which is cooked with the old world herb sage. There is an English festival food, cranberry sauce, alongside indigenous American potatoes and squashes.

And what is the story we tell but of refugee migrants coming to America only to be fed by the locals at their moment of need? Jews know the experience of the refugee migrant, and it may have been comforting to discover this story is so essential to the American experience. What were we, if not a recent iteration of a story taking place on American shores since the days of the Pilgrims?

One of the great qualities of holidays is that they tend to be so plastic, so malleable. What is Christmas? It can be an orgy of consumerism, a collection of delightful folk rituals, a religious event, or all of these at once.

Thanksgiving can be any number of holidays. It can be based around football, or "Mystery Science Theater" marathons (or, when I was younger, "Twilight Zone" marathons). It can be an intimate dinner between friends, a sprawling family affair, or, in one instance I have been to, a gathering of regional expatriates with nowhere else to go.

Ward heelers used to pass out turkeys on Thanksgiving to gin up support for their party, and civic-minded citizens still give turkeys dinners to to the homeless on the holiday. And even the exact details of these dinners, and other Thanksgiving dinners, are flexible, largely influenced by regional and ethnic tastes. In cities with large Bavarian populations, you'll find sauerkraut as a staple. Some Mexican-Americans serve their turkey with mole, and some Ashkenazi Jews (including myself) have noodle kugel with their dinners.

Given this flexibility, I'd like to suggest that we take the implicit subject of the Thanksgiving, that of native-born Americans welcoming refugee migrants, and make it a little more explicit. Jews do have a history of making this link -- going through past newspapers, I find repeated stories of Jews using Thanksgiving as a time to solicit donations for the assistance of Jewish refugees overseas.

In 1921, as an example, the American Jewish Relief Committee, as reported by New York's Jewish Daily News, made a Thanksgiving appeal for the "thousands of destitute Jews in Eastern Europe." The article beseeches: "It is not one child, not one refugee, not one widow but tens of thousands whose wants are still unsupplied."

I also found a 1938 Thanksgiving prayer, written by 16-year-old Martin Marden of the Bronx, a Jewish refugee from Germany. His prayer was published in newspapers throughout the United States, and his words specifically address the refugee experience. Here is an abbreviated version of his prayer:

One day of the year should be reserved for prayers of thanksgiving in which we give thanks for something that has been granted us; for having been saved from some great destruction caused by nature or man.

I am thankful I love in a land where, regardless of race, everyone may take part in national ceremonies.

I am thankful I live in a land where a person may sing the national anthem without having someone tell him he may not because of his race.

I am thankful I live in a country governed by democracy rather than force.

I am thankful I live in a land where one is not persecuted.

I am thankful I live in a land where there are people who have real sympathy for refugees from European countries who have gone through horrible experiences.

I am thankful I shall be able to realize my ambitions which would have been impossible had I remained in my native land.

I am thankful I live in a land where the youth of all races have a tomorrow, rather than in my native land, where the youth of the race is without a tomorrow.

I am thankful I am happy and free.

What happened to Martin Marden? He enlisted in the Army in 1940 at age 18 and served as an interrogator and interpreter in Europe during the second World War, and continued his military service in Korea and Vietnam, achieving the rank of Colonel. This is not uncommon -- nowadays, about 8,000 non-citizens enlist in the Armed Forces, and 65,000 immigrants (including non-citizens) are on active duty, representing about 5 percent of all active duty personnel.

I am going to try to keep the refugee experience in mind this year for Thanksgiving. I have donated to the International Institute of Minnesota, which assists in refugee resettlement locally, among many other services, with Martin Marden listed as the honoree. Along with kugel, I may also make a carrot and sweet potato tzimmes, to add a little more of the flavor of the Ashkenazi refugee to my dinner table. And I think I will read Marden's prayer out loud.

Actually, I think I will read it out loud at Thanksgiving from here on out.

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Week 46: Think Yiddish Dress Lumberjack


The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 305 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 184 hours
I have reviewed 3,652 individual flashcards

I've reached on of those moments again, when all the words I don't know and then about 50 long phrases that are hard to remember all show up in my flashcards at once. It becomes a logjam of just brute memorization, hours of it, and in order to get through it I must suspend learning new words and phrases or it is just too much.

I am approaching the end of my first year of study, and I have somehow become unstuck in time.  At 46 weeks I am now 11.5 months into my studies, so should finish my first year in two weeks, but, of course, that's not true, because a month is never exactly four weeks. There are 52 weeks in a year, so I have six weeks until I complete my first year. That would put me in the first week of January of this coming year, and, yes, checking my calendar, the anniversary of the start of this project is January 6, so that's about right.

And yet my flashcards claim I am only 305 days into my studies, so I would have 60 days left -- two whole months! I suspect the discrepancy is because there were days in the past year when I was not able to study, and the flashcard program must not count them. I don't know whether I feel bad about having missed two whole weeks of study in the past year or am impressed that I only missed about a dozen days. After all, that's only, like, 3 percent of the whole year I missed. Still, I'm the sort of person who never has a sick day, so phooey.

I also don't know how to feel about the fact that I will end the year having learned about 4,000 words. I was hoping for 5,000, unreasonably, and expected to manage about 3,000, which I have exceeded. I supposed I have some time to cogitate on how I feel about this past year before I reach the end of it.

In the meanwhile, I find myself dressing a lot less British nowadays. I have always had an excess of civic pride for my home state of Minnesota, and the further away from it I have been, and the longer I have been away, the more irritatingly Minnesotan I have become. Although my adoptive family are native New Yorkers, it seems likely my biological father's family since the 1880s, making me a fourth-generation Minnesotan.

My girlfriend comes from a lumber family from the North Woods, and Minneapolis was originally a lumber town, and we've decided just to embrace that whole thing. I sort of feel like a character who appeared briefly in the television series "Northern Exposure." There is an episode in which the doctor in an Alaskan town, a Jewish transplant named Joel, learns of a death in his family. He attempts to assemble a minyan, and his friends scour the outlying territories for Jews. One of the people who answer the call is a burly, bearded trucker, and Joel cannot believe he is Jewish until he says the Shema on request.

So if you come to Minnesota looking for Jews, you're likely to find me, dressed in a plaid shirt, eating wild rice soup, living in an apartment of rustic wooden furniture, and studying Yiddish beneath photographs of a Northern lumber mill.

But I can say the Shema if you ask. Oh yah. You betcha.

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A brief history of Yiddish Omaha


 Omaha has been a city of many languages, part of a country of many languages, and those languages each tell their own stories. There was Yiddish, as an example. The language comes from the same linguistic source as modern German, called High German. But Yiddish developed into its own language in the 9th century, and, following Jewish migrations eastward, picked up a number of Slavic words and grammatical forms, as well as borrowing a number of words from Hebrew. Yiddish became the common language of the Jews of Eastern Europe, and, as the migrated to America, they brought the language with them.

It’s hard to know precisely when Yiddish first came to Omaha. There have been Jews in the city since at least 1856, but it is likely many of them were of German extraction, and probably spoke German, rather than Yiddish. We know that a large number of Jews from Ukraine came to Omaha after they were expelled from the city of Kiev in 1886, but their language goes unmentioned in local newspapers until October of 1879, when the Bee ran an article about a performance of “In Gay New York” that would appear at the Boyd theater downtown and featured a “novel Yiddish specialty.”

Notices like this would continue to appear, such as one from June of 1899, when the World-Herald ran an ad for the Trocadero vaudeville theater of 14th Street downtown, which featured a performance by Julius Rose, who offered Yiddish ragtime songs and dances.

It is likely these performers were doing something called “dialect comedy,” in mostly English but with thick accents, but it does indicate that the character and language of the East European Jews was starting to get some stage time. Indeed, one such performer was local: Carl Reiter, manager of the Orpheum, would occasionally appear onstage performing “Yiddish” stories.

Local use of Yiddish as a daily language first found its way into the papers in 1903, in a World Herald story titled “Looking to Nebraska as a Haven of Refuge.” The story detailed the plight of Russian Jews, who were then experiencing anti-Semitic violence, and their need to find American cities that could accept them as refugees. According to the US Census, and by 1930, Omaha would home to more than 2,000 Jews from the former Russian Empire.

Soon, we find our first performance entirely in Yiddish. In June of 1904, a performance of  “Alexander, Crown Prince of Jerusalem” took place at the Krug theater, formerly the Trocadero; the theater would be home to similar events for years to come. Also in 1904, the World-Herald reported a new police officer in the downtown Market District would be expected to understand a variety of languages, including Yiddish. By 1906, local Zionist meetings in English and Yiddish were reported at 17th and Farnam.

1909 brought a Yiddish giant to Omaha: Boris Thomashefsky, one of the biggest stars in Yiddish theater, who was responsible for the first professional Yiddish theater production in America. Thomashefsky appeared at the Burwood Theater downtown, where film star Harold Lloyd made his debut. It must have gone well, as he was followed by another legend of Yiddish theater: Jacob Adler in 1910, whose daughter Stella taught Method Acting to Omaha’s Marlon Brando, who also picked up some Yiddish and used to read Yiddish newspapers in New York.

In 1911, the World-Herald listed three Omaha synagogues where the primary language was Yiddish, all downtown, two of them new. In the story, a local rabbi estimated there were 1,000 Yiddish speakers in the city. In a follow story, the paper opined within a generation or two, Yiddish would be a dead language.

It isn’t, as there is still a vibrant Yiddish-speaking community in the United States, but the language usage has dwindled in Omaha. There was a film in Yiddish, 1975’s “Hester Street,” that was largely in Yiddish and was written and directed by Omaha Joan Micklin Silver, and the town still sees Yiddish performance, including Mandy Patinkin, who sings traditional Yiddish songs.

It’s too early to count out Yiddish as a language. Studies have shown a growing interest in the language, especially among a younger generation of Jews. There may yet be a time when Omaha’s Market district, now it’s Old Market, is home to multiple languages, and Yiddish will be among them.

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I Married a Jew


I am going to tackle an essay now that made the rounds a few years ago and originally dates back to 1939, so I'm not exactly treading new ground here. The article is titled "I Married a Jew" and was published in the Atlantic, which put its archives online in 2008, leading to the rediscovery.

I think it enjoyed  attention a few years back because the author, a liberal-minded young woman, manages nonetheless to be spectacularly wrong about just about everything. She's even wrong about Hitler, lecturing her Jewish husband that there is nothing especially notable or unique about the man, and that Jews are just being oversensitive about the subject.

Indeed, the whole essay is essentially one long harangue about the failings of Jews, so much so that New York magazine columnist Jonathan Chait called her "the world’s first recorded Shiksplainer."

The story became popular enough that The Atlantic itself felt a need to respond, in the form of a column by staff writer Olga Khazan that essentially treats the whole article as a bizarre artifact of an ancient time. "It’s now basically an after-midnight SNL sketch in magazine-article form," she wrote, later adding that the story is a "a powerful remembrance of how much more hateful our world was just a few generations ago."

Faraway and alien

And the original story does seem faraway and alien, despite having been written not-so-very-long ago -- it was authored a year after my father was born. And yest, especially in the past few weeks, it does not seem so very, very faraway or alien. It's an essay that just reeks with privilege, and I don't think privilege has gone away.  If anything, I think the past election, in which a candidate pushing a white nationalist worldview was elected president, shows that not only is this sort of privilege still around, but it can decide the fate of nations.

What strikes me now upon reading the essay are not the things that seem different, although they are worth noting. She is adamant that Jews are a different race, which her Jewish husband agrees with. In general, this is not a widely held worldview anymore, except among rabid antisemites. She quotes her mother's concerns that her marriage to a Jew will bar her from certain circles, but that isn't so much the case anymore. The mother also declares Jews to be Oriental, and not only has the meaning of the word changed quite a bit (at the time it included the near Middle East), but the word has fallen out of popular uses except to refer to rugs.

She also declares Picasso a Jew, for some reason, and doesn't think much of him. She calls a synagogue a Jewish church, which is crazy. She seems to think it is literally impossible for someone from China to assimilate into American society, which was then a popular stereotype that doesn't get applied to the Chinese as much nowadays; no, instead we hear it is Muslims who are incapable of assimilating.

And, finally, as mentioned, she minimizes the threat of Hitler, who on January 30th of 1939 had announced his intention to annihilate the Jewish race in Europe. Writing the same year, the author of "I Married a Jew" tells her husband that "a hundred years hence the world will no more call Hitler a swine for expelling the Jews than it does Edward I of England, who did the same thing in the thirteenth century." In the entire history of predicting things, this may the worst prediction anyone has yet managed, and the fact that she had the temerity to lecture a Jew about antisemitism, its risks, and how real its threat is -- well, I just can't. I can't.

But what stands out for me is how little room she makes in her life for Judaism. She boasts that her husband does not look Jewish, does not have a Jewish name, and is not religious. It's the only thing that convinces her nakedly antisemitic mother to approve the marriage. The author learns almost nothing about Judaism, although she boasts that she has read the Old Testament, as though reading a document that is considered sacred to Christians is in some way a favor to the Jews.

There is a moment when she tries to describe the Yiddish used by her husband's family, and she manages two actual Yiddish words -- meshuge, meaning crazy, and tzimmes, a sweet stew. But then she also says chasseh, and I have no clue what she's trying to say, and I grew up with exactly the sort of Yiddish she describes and have studied it as a language for almost a year. In fact, if you do a Google search, the second result for "chasseh" is this article, and the first is for a Jewish history project from Maine that describes a man speaking Yiddish with a thick Mainer accent, so that the word for pig, chazzer, is rendered chasseh. Maybe that's what she's hearing.

Anyway, she doesn't like the Yiddish. Well, not the Yiddish, per se, but instead the fact that the husband's family "make no concession to me as a Gentile." She continues: " They go about their Jewish ways, tales of their Jewish problems, and consider me aloof if I do not enter whole-heartedly into all this and become as one of them."

Let me remind you of the thing that made the husband appealing to her: The fact that he didn't seem especially Jewish. There is no indication that she has made any room for his Jewishness in her life. But, then, it is pretty clear she thinks she shouldn't have to. Here is her harangue on the Jewish character:

Had the Jews seized these opportunities for amalgamation, eventually all the barriers would have been broken down. But the Jews did not seize the opportunity. They chose to retain their identity and remained in intact as before. Today it is America that is offering the children of Israel the greatest opportunity in history for absorption.

This paragraph is not unique. It's a subject she returns to again and again, almost obsessively -- indeed, she refers to her husband as "lapsing" back into Jewishness when he is around his family, which  feels alien to her. "Separately I am fond of them; individually I welcome them to my home; but in a large group of them I feel like a fish out of water," she complains.

And this is the crux of it. This is the privilege. She has grown up in a world where she has never been made to feel the outsider, and when she very briefly experiences it, when she very occasionally enters an environment where her concerns, experiences, and worldview are not dominant, she recoils. Never mind that this is how her husband's family feels all the time -- that is their own fault, as they are clannish, foreign interlopers.

She gestures at sympathy at one point, saying that we must meet halfway, that Jews must not be so entirely Jewish and Gentiles must not be so entirely Gentile, but she offers no concessions of her own. Well, one. When her husband irritably reminds her that many Jews have assimilated but been subjected to antisemitism anyway, she allows that this as true. But, when it comes down to it, whose fault was it?

The Jews. The Jews did not seize the opportunity. They chose to retain their identity and remained in intact as before.

Echoes of fascism

It is almost impossible not to hear echoes of fascism in these words. Here are two quotes, and I will not tell you whether they are from the article or from Adolf Hitler. See if you can determine who said what:

"The best characterization is provided by the product of this religious education, the Jew himself. His life is only of this world, and his spirit is inwardly as alien to true Christianity as his nature two thousand years previous was to the great founder of the new doctrine."

"The Hebrew religion must be divorced from the promulgation of that race consciousness which every synagogue and temple considers as important a part of Judaism as prayer; it should be mortified at least to the point where it does not belittle the great ideal of western culture and civilization: Christ."

It's the latter. I know that this is a little unfair, as typically Hitler was a little more blunt about his antisemitism, referring to Jews as vermin and enemies of the state. But both started from the presumption that Jews are interlopers, and that their refusal to assimilate was the crux of the Jewish question -- the difference between Hitler and our more tolerant Gentile wife is that the former did not think Jews could assimilate, by virtue of being a degenerate race, while the author of "I Married a Jew" thinks Jews can assimilate, but choose not to, and therefore encourage institutional antisemtism.

But both share a core belief: That the problem is the Jew. That antisemtism isn't a pernicious evil perpetrated by Gentiles upon Jews, but instead a predictable response to the fact of Jews. Particularly, that there is something about the Jewish experience that, by its clannish nature, makes it hard to trust the national identity of the Jew. "A few cultural, intellectual Jews announce they are first Americans and then Jews, but they are voices crying in the wilderness," she complains.

What is the source of her sense that there is something suspicious about the Jewish experience in America, something that might be contradictory to the national interests of the country? She is never especially clear on this, but, based on her essay, I would guess it is this:

She thinks her experience, as a Gentile woman in America, is the American experience. When she is among unassimilated Jews, not only does she encounter an experience that is unlike her own, but one that does not defer to her experience.

It never occurs to her that this is what it is like to live in a multicultural America, because she was not witness to a previous generation's conflict, in which the loyalties of German Americans were seen as suspect, and were suppressed. No, she grew up in an America where German-Americans were comfortably mainstream. As a result, when she finds herself in a situation in which she feels her own experiences being marginalized, she makes an amazing leap: She is not sure she can trust these people as Americans.

But it's not that amazing a leap. The idea that the refusal of Jews to assimilate makes them a suspect people, an invading nation with Jewish loyalties, is a classic antisemitic trope -- it was the very one that Hitler used to justify the Final Solution. Our author grew up with a mother who was nakedly antisemitic ("Jews are sensual, aggressive, ostentatious, cunning—that is a heritage they can never overcome. They accomplish things in business because they are shrewder than Christians and never hesitate to seize an unfair advantage."). More than that, she grew up in an American that was more nakedly antisemitic than now. She absorbed that antisemitism as fact and, amazingly, decided to write an entire column in which she lectures her husband about the problems with Judaism, using these antisemitic arguments.

Not so dominant

With the rise of the belligerently antisemitic so-called alt right, it is tempting to look at how they use these classic antisemitic tropes. But I think most Americans are closer to "I Married a Jew's" author, and I think we're seeing a lot of this same sort of reaction right now. The dominant majority is not so dominant anymore, and soon won't be a majority -- by 2060, it is projected that non-whites will be the majority in this country.

That's still a ways off, but we're certainly seeing the effects of white people no longer feeling like they are being pushed out of the center. It shows itself whenever a minority asserts themselves in any way. "Black Lives Matter" is immediately responded to with "All Lives Matter," which must be understood as saying "How Dare You Craft a Slogan That Doesn't Include White People." Abigail Fisher insists, without evidence, that she was passed over for acceptance into the University of Texas in favor of less qualified black people, and takes the case to the Supreme Court. Pharmacists refuse to provide birth control to patients, and county clerk Kim Davis refuses to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples, and both insist that they are not discriminating, but instead are being discriminated against, because their religion gives them the right to treat other American citizens unequally.

Never mind that it doesn't. But you'll note that, despite the fact that these people are violating the law, nobody ever questions whether or not Christianity is compatible with being American, or demands that Christians assimilate.

When I say Trump ran on a platform of White Nationalism, I mean that his speeches were meant to assuage white Americans that this is a white nation, and inflame their anger than it is becoming increasingly less white. Consistently, he targeted non-whites, particularly (but not exclusively) Mexicans and Muslims.

I won't spend any time on arguments that he reached his audience because he addressed economic insecurities, as he had no actual policies to address this. Instead, he ran on a platform that looked for scapegoats, and found them, and they were almost entirely people of color. He appealed to national humiliation, but his voters weren't economically humiliated -- Trump's supporter had a median income of $72,000, which is $20,000 higher than the national median income and $48,000 higher than the poverty rate for a family of four.

No, they were responding to racial humiliation. Trump painted undocumented Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists, despite the fact that these immigrants commit, on average, less crime than American citizens. Trump painted Muslims as either being violent extremists or participating in a support network for violent extremists, despite the fact that your average American is almost totally unlikely to experience political terrorism, and if they do so it will likely be at the hands of a white extremist. 

Trump opposed globalism, but he almost exclusively pointed to Mexico and China as places where US manufacturing jobs have gone. But the truth is, while the US did lose about 5 million factory jobs since 2000, most of them didn't go overseas, but instead were lost to increased automization. Brown people didn't take the jobs; robots did. 

But white people aren't afraid of robots. Not the way they are afraid of brown people, afraid of being pushed out of the center. And it was a winning strategy -- although Trump did not manage to win the popular vote, the Electoral College, which was designed to protect the interests of slave owners, aligned with white nationalist concerns in this election, a stunning demonstration of both the tenacity of racism and the longterm effectiveness of institutions designed to support racism.

Fragility

I suppose the thing that I find most illuminating about the essay it is fragility. That's a word that's enjoyed a lot of currency lately, and I think it is the right one. She presumes her privileged is somehow natural and earned, and that the experience of white Christians is the American experience. She spends almost all her time luxuriating in this while witnessing the real-world oppression of her husband. He is, as an example, denied the opportunity to join a fraternity due to his religion, and that's just one of the many opportunities that were denied to Jews in the 1930s. And this happens despite the fact that he does not look Jewish, does not have a Jewish name, and is not religious -- for all practical purposes, he has assimilated away his Judaism, to such an extent that the author admits the subject almost never comes up.

And yet, for the very brief moments when she is with his family, and her experiences are no longer assumed to be dominant, she becomes tremendously unhappy. So unhappy that she had to write an entire essay for The Atlantic discussing how Jews desperately need to be less Jewish or antisemtism will continue. 

And it is worth reading this essay knowing that the author is still with us, or at least her worldview is. There are a lot of people in America like her, who presume the experience of being white and Christian is the American experience. She couldn't stand hearing a little Yiddish -- imagine how hard it would be for someone like her to be in America that constantly challenges her dominance, her centrality, her status.

And we Jews must be mindful of this, both because we are still not so close to the mainstream, as the brutal antisemtism of the alt right reminds us, but also because we are close enough to the mainstream to likewise be threatened, likewise be fragile. 

When we hear our neighbors described as incapable of assimilation, or as having divided loyalties due to their religion, or as being unwelcome interlopers undeserving of the same rights or opportunities, we should remember that the same was said of us.

It was not so long ago. Some say it still.

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