Ph.D. Octopus

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Archive for the ‘immigration’ Category

Israel Through Its Cab Drivers

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David recently went on a trip to Israel with his father. Here is a brief reflection of his time there. More will follow.

My father and I had arranged for a cab to take us from Rehovot to Tel Aviv. The morning he was scheduled to pick us up, the cab driver called and asked: “Is it ok if I bring my cousin?” Only in Israel.

The cab driver, it turned out, was a Jew of Yemenite origin. His “cousin” was in fact a cousin through marriage, an Ashkenazi Jewish woman and Holocaust survivor from Romania. Yet another example of the blended families that make up the Jewish melting pot that represents the majority of Israeli society.

I’m nor sure what, if anything, cab drivers as a category can tell you about Israeli society. They used to have quite a bit of political clout, and in the 1990s they even had a political party. The drivers themselves, almost universally male, have a weird, somewhat sleazy reputation: years ago I recall a cab driver trying charge me extra for turning on the air conditioning. Whereas in New York it seems the vast majority of cab drivers are foreign born, that doesn’t seem to be the case in Israel, though of course drivers are both Jewish and Arab.

Our first important cab driver, a man we’ll call Shmuel, took us around East Jerusalem and the old city. Though he asked if we wanted to go to the Kotel (Wailing Wall), my father and I had already been on the first eve of our trip, and on every trip before that. Why was this visit to Israel different than every other visit to Israel? This one, we’d be seeing some non-Jewish sites. Still, Shmuel insisted that we at least see something sheh-lanu (of ours). You see, Shmuel was an observant Jew, modern, with a knitted yarmulke on his head. In fact, he pointed out that he was the only Jewish cab driver for his company. The rest were all Arabs. Except the owner of the company. He was Jewish too.

In addition to being a good cab driver, Shmuel was a knowledgeable tour guide, of both Jewish and Arab sites. He spoke Hebrew, English, and some Arabic. He was of Iraqi origin, though his family had come to what was then Palestine over 115 years ago. In another post, I’ll discuss all the places he took us.

A few days later, in Tel Aviv, we took a ride with the most colourful cab driver yet. Let’s call him Yossi. He too was of Iraqi origin, but he was more secular. Some of the first words out of his mouth were criticizing the haredim, the ultra-Orthodox Jews who have such a big influence in Israeli politics and life. “God doesn’t care about their peyes? God cares what’s in your heart!” He exclaimed. I don’t believe in God but I couldn’t really argue.

Then the topic of conversation became even more political, and Yossi provided evidence that secularism was no indication of sanity in Israeli politics. Perhaps foolishly, we asked him about the potential for the Israeli/Palestinian peace talks being organized by John Kerry. Yossi had no hope for the peace talks. He expected the Palestinians to all be expelled to Jordan, and he seemed to have no problem with that outcome.

He also had some not-so-nice things to say about the non-Jewish African foreign workers in Israel. He called them cushim, a derogatory term in Hebrew for Black, and seemed at least implicitly to distinguish them from the Ethiopian Jewish citizens of Israel, who he presumably liked better. He thought the African foreign workers would soon all be deported as well.

But the most interesting part of the conversation emerged when we asked him what languages he spoke besides Hebrew. English, he said, some Arabic, and Thai. Wait, Thai? “Why do you speak Thai?” We asked. “My wife is Thai,” he replied. Not a Thai foreign worker, mind you. Yossi had gone to Thailand, fallen in love, married a Thai woman, and brought her back to Israel. They had three children together. Those half Iraqi-Jewish half-Thai Hebrew-speaking children are Jewish in the eyes of Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis, but probably not most Conservative ones and certainly not the Orthodox. They will one day be Jewish enough to serve in the Israeli army, but not Jewish enough to be buried at the Jewish military cemetery on Mount Herzl were they to be killed in action.

We asked Yossi if his wife, who spoke perfect Hebrew, had converted. They’d been trying, he said, but it was very difficult. Conversion to Judaism in Israel is held under Orthodox supervision, and the rules are very strictly enforced. Meanwhile, the local government in Tel Aviv called on her whenever they needed an interpreter for the community of Thai workers there.

After all that information, my father and I were bewildered. By then, the ride was over. As we left the cab, Yossi offered us a parting gift. He had enjoyed the conversation, and so he gave us something we could enjoy: his self-produced CD of Mizrachi (eastern/oriental) Jewish music. Only in Israel.


Written by David Weinfeld

August 16, 2013 at 17:57

Restaurant Review: Kutsher’s Tribeca

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by David

Kutsher's Pastrami

I walked in to Kutsher’s Tribeca with my dad at about 12:45 PM. A smattering of other customers were there, but the place was large, so it felt more sparsely populated than it actually was. The decor is fancy, upscale, but the atmosphere was just to my liking: brightly lit, with barely audible music in the background (I like to see my food and converse with the people I’m eating with). Later, the owner, Zach Kutsher, told me that it’s a completely different restaurant at night. “We turn the music up, turn the lights down, have a whole different menu.” Now I’m barely 30, but I have the soul of an 85-year-old Jewish man in Boca. So I’d like to try the night-time food, but might find the place a little noisy.

Before I continue, let me emphasize that I highly recommend Kutsher’s Tribeca. The food I ate was absolutely delicious, and the service was excellent. My dining experience this afternoon was, on the whole, lovely.

It didn’t start off that way. When the waiter told me they made their own sodas (or soft drinks, in Canada), I decided to order their vanilla black cherry. Anyone with any sense of tradition (or any sense at all, really) knows you order Black Cherry at a deli. In Canada, that means Cott’s, which tastes like a super-sweet delicious brand of cough medicine, in a good way (I’m not kidding). Virgil’s, Stewart’s or Doctor Brown’s in the good ‘ol US of A work too. But this drink didn’t taste like any of those products. It tasted like drinking vanilla. Pure vanilla, with barely a hint of cherry. Now normally I don’t like vanilla because I consider it too plain, too, you know, vanilla. But this was too potent. The beverage wasn’t even the right colour, a clearish reddish liquid rather than a syrupy eggplant reminiscent of unrefined oil.

I told the waiter (politely) how I felt, and he immediately offered me another drink, on the house. He recommended the ginger ale. I acquiesced. Unfortunately, that came to a similar result. It tasted like drinking ginger. It was moderately more tolerable than the black cherry, but if I was wandering for 40 years in the desert, thirsty, and I was offered either of these two drinks, I think I’d hold off for the next oasis.

The third drink I was offered, again on the house, was an apple soda. This was actually quite enjoyable; tasted like drinking apple sauce, but in a good way.

But enough about the drinks. I still cling to the Jackie Mason stereotype that Jews don’t care about drinks, alcoholic or otherwise. I came to eat, and I ate well. My father and I shared a pastrami sandwich, though I easily could have had my own. They weren’t as massive as Katz’s, but they were much more affordable, and at least as good. The meat wasn’t as moist as Katz’s, but it was more flavorful, more reminiscent of Montreal smoked meat, at Schwartz’s or Brooklyn’s Mile End Deli, than your typical New York pastrami. The french fries were also good, and the matzoh ball soup was spectacular. Though it did not possess that comforting yellow glow I’m used to from deli soups, it tasted great, and came in a very hearty portion. And for dessert the chocolate babka bread pudding was divine.

Most interesting, however, was the conversation with the waiter; manager; and owner, Zach Kutsher, grandson of the owner of the famous Kutsher’s hotel in the Catskills, a Borscht-belt landmark which had a well-known and beloved kosher dining room. They were very proud of the place’s heritage, and the waiter insisted that there were “lots of Jews” there, not just the customers, but the wait staff, cooks, managers, and proprietors. Yet nobody we talked to would commit to calling Kutsher’s Tribeca a deli. The various terms they used included “deli-chic” and “upscale nouveau Jewish cuisine” and, like it says on the website, a “modern Jewish American bistro.”

Kutsher's resort in the Catskills, back in the day, before it expanded

This got me thinking about my advisor Hasia Diner’s book, Hungering for Americaabout how Jewish, Italian, and Irish immigrants used food traditions (or in the Irish’ case, the lack of said traditions) to consolidate their cultures in the United States. Jewish immigrants from all over Europe (and to a lesser extent Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East), brought different foods and recipes that blended together to create an American Jewish cuisine (similarly, Italian food was created in America, not Italy, where food is much more regional). Kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws, though not always strictly obeyed, provided an over-arching, unifying framework.

At the same time, developing these new, Americanized food traditions helped the immigrants integrate and acculturate. Today, Jews are thoroughly comfortable in America, integrated and acculturated. Restaurants like Kutsher’s, which shun the word deli but attempt to preserve something of the Jewish tradition, are all about asserting Jewish particularism within a modern, American framework. Kutsher’s is explicitly non-kosher, like the restaurant Traif in Williamsburg or Top Chef‘s Ilan Hall dressing up a matzoh ball with bacon. But in rejecting kashrut, they are also explicitly Jewish, building a new American Jewish culinary tradition, in line with all the modern techniques of nouveau cousine, but with a nod to the old country. Like my friend Noah Bernamoff of Mile End Deli, these Jewish culinary adventurers get to explore strange new worlds of food while still holding on to their Jewish roots. They get to build something new, a hybrid cuisine, Jewish, American, and whatever else entices them.

Kutsher’s does this all very well. For those who’d like a quiet deli feel and a delicious pastrami sandwich, go at lunch. For a swankier soiree with a health dose of Hebraic goodness, go for dinner. And come hungry.

Written by David Weinfeld

March 30, 2012 at 09:03

Posted in food, immigration, Jews

Why Studying African History is Good For You

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by Bronwen

I’m teaching about the post-war African colonial empires at the moment, and came across NYU Professor Fred Cooper’s lecture for the Stanford Humanities Centre while putting together the ‘further reading’ materials for my students.  I highly recommend this podcast.  (Number 29 here).

Listening to it, I was reminded why African history should not be a niche subject, but should be integral to all history curricula: the shape of how we think about the world owes a lot to how the world has engaged with Africa over the past 400 years. From humanitarianism to ‘development’, from ‘modern’ warfare to understandings of agricultural technology, from acceptable capitalism to unacceptable exploitation, concepts that we take for granted have emerged from our engagement with Africa.  What is the state for?  Are political parties inevitable in a democracy?  If ethnicity is defined by a shared cultural heritage and language, where does that break down territorially? What are the smallest and largest effective political structures?  All of these questions are raised by studying African history.

But even more fundamentally, studying African history is important for challenging the narrative of progress, as Cooper does so effectively in this lecture.  Yes, in some ways learning history is about learning how we got here.  But in other, equally important ways, it is about the roads not taken.  Learning African history can help demonstrate that the nation state has never been an inevitability, for instance, and that citizenship is a pretty arbitrary category.  The shifting categories of citizen, subject, and national in French Africa (the subject of the podcast) were not different ways of getting to the objectively ‘true’ form of citizenship as now practiced.  Citizenship, national identity, and supranational identities have always been negotiated and what we have now is just as arbitrary and negotiated a category as the forms that existed in the nineteenth century empires or in the mid-twentieth century Unions or Federations or Communities or Commonwealths.

This is particularly relevant teaching in the EU, where despite the contested nature of that body within English opinion, national and supranational citizenship are part of daily life.  But I imagine it would be equally relevant in both the EU and the US, where countries increasingly cling to an ‘origins’ notion of citizenship and nationality in an attempt to define the limits of social citizenship and its entitlements.

There are so many reasons to study history more generally.  But African history can provide a unique insight into the assumptions we all make about the ‘modern’ world, how we got here, and how completely different fundamental conceptions about how the world operates could be if one small thing were different.

Written by apini

February 24, 2012 at 04:52

Thoughts on Amy Chua

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by Weiner

Everybody and their mother has been commenting on Amy Chua and her recent Wall Street Journal article “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.” David Brooks tried his hand at it, but came off sounding silly. Columnists and bloggers have been putting in their two cents. Chua has tried to clarify the point of her article, which is excerpted from her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

I just finished the book, and have a few quick thoughts about this:

1) The book is different than the article in the sense that you do see a narrative, and something resembling character development in Chua and especially her younger daughter Lulu. Still, Chua comes off as pretty nutty, but at least moderately self-aware.

2) As Matt Yglesias notes, “many less extreme parents subscribe to some version of this ‘video games bad, classical music good’ view of the world.” Chua takes this to an absurd and possibly cruel extreme, but her basic values are not abnormal among the well educated middle class in the United States.

3) I think that Tenured Radical is right that the real question we should pose here is whether this academically-oriented classical-music emphasizing middle-class parenting is a good thing, or should be applied universally to all children. She laments the fate of “kids who are academically unremarkable but are pushed to excel in conventional ways when they might be happier devoting themselves to sports, art, dance, cooking or hedge fund management.” She goes on to note:

the part that really fascinates me is that Chua’s desire for rote forms of perfection are being derided in a society that is, in fact, devoted to increasingly unimaginative ideas about what counts as intellectual life.  My generation and the several that have followed have mostly gutted anything that counts for progressive education.  As if that was not enough, we have even taken what used to be fairly standard and unremarkable forms of critical pedagogy and gutted those in favor of a national standardized testing agenda.  Languages, classics, art and music have been stripped from secondary curricula.  Students no longer read for fun; they read to satisfy the AP requirement.  We talk, talk, talk about excellence — but we can’t say what it means, beyond winning admission to a “selective” school.  Although Chua isn’t a person I would choose to be my mother (is there a world where you get to choose your mother?) what she describes actually reflects our current winner-take-all philosophy of what education should look like at its best.

Chua has a particularly narrow vision of success, insisting that her daughters can only play the violin or piano, cannot be in the school play, and should not really care about their social life. Obviously, other instruments are worthwhile; so are activities like drama, art, sports, and creative writing. Making friends is valuable too. So is having fun.

4) Insofar as that academically-oriented form of parenting is accepted, there is no question that Asians, broadly speaking, have mastered it. As Chua appropriately admits, there are plenty of Asians and Chinese people who employ “Western” parenting techniques, and plenty of non-Chinese who use the same methods she does (though probably not to that insane extreme), but statistics show that Asian-Americans, especially those of Chinese, Korean, and east Indian origin, do better scholastically. Politically correct people who disagree are living in denial. The secret is not genetic, it’s work ethic. These kids work harder in school. Culture and history matter. When Jewish, Italian, Polish and other immigrants came to the United States 100+ years ago, they left under conditions that had some differences and similarities, but they also came with different cultures, and thus had different academic and economic outcomes in America. The same is true of the post-1960s immigrants from Asia and elsewhere, and of the second and third generations from a variety of lands. Rather than deny this, we should try to explain it.

Of all the commentary on this piece, perhaps the best comes from my the publication I used to write for, The Harvard Crimson. Sophomore Nataliya Nedzhvetskaya argues for a middle road, for “authoritative” rather than “authoritarian” parenting. She notes:

Sorry, Amy Chua, but “Chinese mothers” are not superior. Instead, parents who promote the value of education without sacrificing their children’s autonomy are. It would be ideal to combine the best of both worlds and stress academics while giving them room for growth. It would be best to make them understand that there are more important things in life than impersonating Kim Kardashian, but let them watch enough TV to know who Kim Kardashian is. Not only will they turn out to be smart, competent human beings, but they’ll be independent, socially adept, and self-motivated.

Maybe I’m a sucker for a Kim Kardashian reference, but that balance captures my ideal perfectly. Soon, I’ll have another post about Amy Chua, looking at “The Jewish Angle” (but of course). But since I don’t have an Amy Chua breathing down my neck, it’s not ready yet.

Written by David Weinfeld

January 21, 2011 at 08:48