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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