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Israel’s Three Solitudes

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by David

In light of the recent article by Peter Beinart on “The American Jewish Cocoon,” I composed this post, which may seem a bit dated, on the various “cocoons” in Israel.

Diverse Passengers on Jerusalem Light Rail

I was in Israel, but I thought of Quebec. Specifically, I thought of Montreal, my hometown. In 1945, Hugh MacLennan wrote a novel called Two SolitudesI never read it, but I know what it’s about. It’s about the deep, historic, and persistent divide between Francophones and Anglophones in Canada and especially in Quebec.

I lived in Montreal for the first nineteen years of my life, and I felt that divide. Growing up, I had no French Canadian friends. I still don’t. This  is not that surprising. I went to Jewish elementary and high school for all but grades five and six, where I went to an overwhelmingly Jewish public school with a Jewish heritage supplementary program. I lived in a bubble. I had no non-Jewish friends either, except briefly an Irish kid from hockey who had a French Canadian mom but identified as Anglophone. I had a handful of somewhat Francophone Jewish friends, mostly Sephardic Jews of Moroccan origin, some of whom spoke French at home. But most Moroccan Jews attended French Jewish schools, or French public or private schools, rather than my overwhelmingly Anglophone institution.

After high school, I attended CEGEP, a sort of non-remedial junior college designed to prepare students for university (what we in Canada call college). I went to Dawson College in the Liberal Arts program, and had two of the best years of my life. I learned the whole scope of European history, extensive philosophy and literature as well. I also made non-Jewish friends. Most were wealthy WASPs or other Anglophones. I became friendly with two Francophone women. I remember this because we called them Francophone Jen and Francophone Emilie to distinguish them from their Anglophone counterparts with the same names (we did not call the others Anglophone Jen and Anglophone Emily).

Ironically, I had my first serious conversation with a French Canadian sitting next to one on the bus from Boston to Montreal. A fellow Harvard student, he came from a working class Quebecois background, was extremely bright, hard-working, and ambitious. He spoke perfect English, and we conversed the whole ride. I asked him if he felt any affinity with the Harvard Canadian Club, whose members periodically pestered fellow Canadians to attend parties and drink Canadian beer. He was quite clear in his response. No, he did not feel any affinity with them, or any other Canadian from Vancouver or Toronto. He felt like he belonged to a different group of people, and in some ways was from a different country.

I thought about these things when I rode the bus in Israel, or took the new light rail in Jerusalem. I saw all sorts of Jewish passengers, soldiers and civilians, religious and secular, Sephardi and Mizrachi and Ashkenazi and Ethiopian and Russian and everything in between. And they’d be sitting or standing next to Arabs: Muslims and Christians, secular and religious. And neither group noticed the other. It’s as if they weren’t there. Not only did they never ever talk, they barely acknowledged each other’s existence. They were taking the same mode of transportation, sometimes getting off at the same stop, but clearly going to very different places.

I felt this separation when we visited a small mosque in East Jerusalem. Our (Jewish) cab driver told us to speak only English, not Hebrew, so that the people in the mosque would think we were non-Jewish tourists. We did so, and had a very hard time communicating with the three Palestinian Arab Muslims who were in the mosque at the time. They were very friendly, doing their best to explain so of the rituals and the layout of the main rooms. We only stayed about 10 minutes, and it was very interesting. I wondered how often Jewish Israelis or Jewish tourists to Israel ever set foot in a mosque.

I felt this separation again when we visited the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem. Behind the hotel lay a small museum, the Palestinian Heritage Museum. Much of it consisted of artifacts, or perhaps replicas of artifacts, from the Palestinian past, clothing and other essential items. But one room was labeled the room of “destroyed villages.” And that room had lists, and photos, and some artifacts from the villages destroyed by the nascent Israeli Defence Forces in 1948. There was a model of Deir Yassin, the Arab village that was site of the most infamous Zionist massacre of Palestinians, but which was one example among many. Both sides committed atrocities, of course, but for so long Jewish Israelis pretended that they were blameless, that Palestinians had willingly fled and abandoned their homes. It was not true, and eventually the Israeli academy, and to a lesser extent the public, began to accept that fact. But here, the Palestinians had preserved a record, a monument, to those tragedies.

What struck me, however, was the language of the museum display. It was in Arabic and it was in English. There was no Hebrew. This suggested to me that Jewish Hebrew-speaking Israelis seldom made their way to this museum. But it also suggested that the Palestinian citizens of Israel who ran the museum had very low expectations of their Jewish neighbours. Perhaps those expectations were and are justified. But I wonder (and I really wonder, as I don’t know), does Yad Vashem have signs in Arabic? How many Arabs visit Yad Vashem? And is that different because Yad Vashem chronicles German and not Palestinian crimes?

Another time I felt this separation between Jews and Arabs was when I explored the old city. Walking through the Muslim, Christian, and Armenian quarters, we saw barely any other Jews. We came to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where hundreds of tourists poured in and out. They came from all over the world. I saw women in hijabs and the Muslim men who accompanied them. But I did not see a single yarmulke. Not one person who appeared to be an Orthodox Jew. And  few appeared to be secular Israelis either . Indeed, very few of the tourists appeared to be Jewish, if any. This made me sad. How could someone live their whole life in Jerusalem without the intellectual or cultural curiosity to visit this church, one of the world’s most significant historic sites? It made no sense to me.

And yet Israel was racked with even more divisions.

You can tell a lot about a (Zionist) Jew by what city is his or her favourite in Israel. If it’s Tel Aviv, he or she is probably secular, if Jerusalem, probably religious. Jews who keep kosher rave about the food in Jerusalem, those who don’t recognize it as thoroughly average (like my father says, “nobody goes to Jerusalem for the food” by which he means nobody secular).  The two worlds are so different, it’s like religious and secular Jews are visiting different Israels. To visit Israel means something very different for religious and secular Jews.

I felt this immediately on the plane I took to Israel. It was a United flight, and it left on a Friday morning, flying through shabbat into Israel. It was the first flight to Israel I had ever taken without any religious Jews on it. There were secular Israelis, some Arabs, and lots of Christian tourists. But no frum Jews.

After my stay in Jerusalem, I spent to time in Rehovot with my step-family. The story of how we’re “related” is an amazing one. My dad’s parents survived the Holocaust, and married after the war, and had my dad in Montreal. My dad’s mom died when he was in his 20s. Sometime after that, my grandfather reconnected with his childhood sweetheart from Poland. She had immigrated to Israel, married, and had a daughter. Her husband died, and so, in the 1970s, in his 70s, my grandfather moved to Israel and married his childhood sweetheart from Poland. He became like a father to her daughter, and like a grandfather to her daughter’s children, particularly her older daughter. I always felt a special connection to her daughter, because she knew my biological grandfather as her “real” grandfather, whereas I saw him only 4 times in my life, as he lived in Israel and died in 1990. We shared him in a very powerful way.

I love my step-family. But what struck me was how secular their lives were, like those of so many other Israelis. They seemed to have no religious friends, nobody who was shomer shabbat, nobody who was seriously observant in any way. In fact, my cousin’s husband liked to “celebrate” Yom Kippur every year with a giant barbecue and loud music and dancing. While that might be extreme, the secular isolation from the religious (and vice versa) seems all too common.

This divide has entered popular culture. Watch the Israeli TV show Srugim (which is totally awesome), about single Modern Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, and see how the Orthodox struggle in their limited relationships with non-Orthodox (and at least thus far in my watching, Arabs are completely invisible).

I have no answers, no conclusion. Only hope for rapprochement. In Quebec today there is tension between the secular and the religious, between French and English. But in Israel and Palestine it remains much worse, much more explosive.

Written by David Weinfeld

October 2, 2013 at 17:38

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

Jewish “Culture Wars” in Israel and America

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by David

Barack Obama’s recent endorsement of same-sex marriage has brought talk of American “culture wars” back to center stage. As my friend and fellow US intellectual historian Andrew Hartman has written, the culture wars never really went away. Indeed, the Occupy Wall Street movement merely opened up another front on that battlefield, uniting economic and cultural forces in new and profound ways. Issues of gay rights, abortion access, and immigration restriction mingled with questions over government size and spending, healthcare reform, and military policy, even as numerous members of both “sides” seemed to be acting against their economic interests.

In addition to these thoroughly American culture wars, however, another set of culture wars looms, one that may be even more bitterly contested, and more complex, than the American version. I’m talking about the Jewish culture wars which are currently taking place in both the United States and Israel.

The Washington Post has already called attention to Israeli version, which has made headlines with Israel’s new national unity government coalition which includes the ruling right-wing Likud Party and its chief rival, the “centrist” Kadima. Though the pretext for this alliance is to deal with the Iranian threat, the first order of business for the new government is domestic, namely the question of whether Israel’s haredi (ultra-Orthodox) citizens should be drafted into military service. About 10% of Israel’s population, most haredi men do not serve in the military, and instead are exempted from the draft to study Jewish texts at religious schools known as yeshivas. Both Likud and Kadima, though in many ways right-leaning, are secular oriented parties. Even Israel’s conservative Prime Minister Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu seems intent on at the very least conscripting the haredim into some form of national service, if not directly to the military.

This issue extends beyond the religious Jewish community. Aside from the Druze and some Bedouins, Arab/Palestinian citizens of Israel do not serve in the military. A change to the law of military conscription may very well also affect them.  As Yossi Klein Halevi writes, “some form of national service is essential in strengthening the Arab case for equality in a society whose Jewish men devote three years to the nation’s defense and then continue in reserve duty into their forties.” Ironically, the bringing together of Israel’s right-wing and centrist parties might achieve some progressive reform at the level of Israeli citizenship and move the country in a more inclusive, secular direction.

This clash of religious versus secular Jews in some ways mirrors the domestic American Jewish struggle over US policy towards Israel and the Middle East. Here in the US, there is a conservative Jewish establishment, represented by AIPAC and much of the institutional, organized Jewish community, that advocates unfaltering support of the Israeli government, and an aggressive policy towards Iran and anyone else deemed a threat to Israel, including numerous Palestinian factions. On the other side, liberal Jews have formed organizations like J-Street in an effort to advance a more dovish policy towards Iran, along with encouraging the resumption of peace talks among Israelis and Palestinians.

In the United States, it’s not clear where these two sides of this divide would fall on the Israeli domestic debate over military service. It’s possible that both American sides of this dispute would likely endorse any Israeli government attempts to draft haredim and Palestinian Israelis into national service, the AIPAC supporters because of their hawkishness, the J-Street crowd because of its negotiation-oriented strategy. Yet I could also see some religious Zionists in America – Jewish and Christian, arguing that the haredim play an important role in Israeli/Jewish life by studying and praying. The battle lines, if there are to be any, have not yet been drawn.

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Written by David Weinfeld

May 14, 2012 at 10:39

Posted in culture, Israel, Jews, religion

Some Passover Reflections: Judaism as Good Itch

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by David

I went to Bnei Jeshrun for Purim this year. Bnei Jeshurun, or BJ, is a non-denominational progressive oriented shul on the Upper West Side. In the Fall, for Simchat Torah, they have an amazing, massive horah that is not to be missed.

Their Purim performance, however, was disappointing. They told the Purim spiel spliced with musical scenes from movies that were tenuously connected to the story (“Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” for Evita, or “Be Prepared” from Lion King, for example). Not for me. It was a long-winded version of the Jewish classic: “they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat” (only on Purim you’re also supposed to drink like the Goyim, that is, until you can’t tell the difference between right and wrong). In any case, the whole Megillah is long enough as it is, we didn’t need the audiovisual additions, even if they were for the kids. I suppose some people liked the whole shindig, and that’s nice. To me, it was interesting, but it wasn’t Judaism. Just get the megillah reading over with, shout when they say Haman, and start partying.

So this week it’s Passover. Or as I like to call it, Pesach. (That’s with a hard “ch” goyim. Say it!).  I‘ve written about this before. I like this holiday, even though parts of it are unpleasant. I like rituals, rather than faith. And Passover has rituals up the wazoo.

When thinking about Passover this year, I suppose not much has changed for me. There are new Haggadot I haven’t read yet, some which I’m excited about–like my Rabbi Ron Aigen’s new Reconstructionist Haggadah, and others I’m less excited about — I sure as hell hope Jonathan Safran Foer doesn’t tell me to stop eating animals because my ancestors were once slaves in Egypt and God shoved frogs up pharaoh’s ass. Don’t get me wrong, I like egalitarian, progressive seders: orange on the seder plate and Miriam’s cup to represent women and all that jazz. But mostly I like the tradition.

So I’m going to keep Passover, again. My sister has some tips for staying regular. I’ll do my best. It’s not fun. I’ve said why I do it before, but rather than express that again, I’ll just link to this poem by Kenneth Koch, expressing in poetry what so often comes out flatly in prose. Please read it.

As for me, I’ll just say that Judaism, or Jewishness is an itch. But in a good way. Unlike the Bnei Jeshurun Purim spiel, but like their Simchat Torah horah, it’s a familiar itch. It’s one of those itches that when you scratch it, even if it’s annoying, like keeping Passover, it still makes you feel good in the end. On the other hand, on occasion it makes you feel worse, turning into a scab and bleeding over. Sometimes it just nags at you, feels weird, like when you agonize over tough questions on Israel or intermarriage. But always it makes you want to scratch more and more. It reminds you that you’re alive.

So happy Pesach to all my Jewish friends and family scratching the passover itch out there, in whatever way they chose. And happy Easter to the Christians. Someone should come out with some kosher for Passover Easter eggs. That would make a fortune.

Written by David Weinfeld

April 6, 2012 at 07:10

Posted in Jews, religion

Why I Like Ash Wednesday

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by David

As most readers of this blog probably know, I’m a secular-minded Reconstructionist Jewish atheist. And yet, I like Ash Wednesday. Why? Not because of the particular significance of the holiday. But because it’s an actual holiday. With rituals. You’ve got the shmutz you have to shmear on your forehead. And then give something up for Lent. This is, in general, why I like Catholicism. It’s a real religion. Occasionally, you actually have to do shit.

You know those people who say: “I don’t like organized religion, but I’m a very spiritual person.” Well, I’m the exact opposite. I’m not a spiritual person, but I like organized religion. It builds community. And say what you will about Catholicism, for all its faults, it’s an organized religion. Like Judaism, with kosher laws and all the holidays and shabbos and everything. And Islam. Now there’s a religion. Fast for 40 days on Ramadan. Don’t eat pork. Pray five times a day. Five freaking times a day! Those are some rules and rituals for you.

That’s why I never much cared for Protestantism. Too boring. “By faith alone,” said Martin Luther, notorious antisemite. Faith alone my ass. I’m not doing anything on faith alone. I’m doing stuff because it’s tradition. Because people did it before me, and people are doing it with me all over the world. That’s why my heart sinks every time I see those little Iglesia Pentacostales or other Latino Evangelical Protestant churches. Because those people were Catholics once. Good, interesting, Catholics. And at that point, if you’re gonna believe anything, just stick with the culture of your parents. Or be a lapsed Catholic, don’t believe in anything, but go to church to make mom and dad happy. Us Jews know something about that.

Written by David Weinfeld

February 22, 2012 at 22:51

On Christopher Hitchens

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by David

I suppose it’s fitting that Christopher Hitchens has passed away just as the American involvement in the recent Iraq War is coming to a close. To his critics, waiting less than 24 hours from his death to heap their scorn, the eloquent English-American essayists’ career should be defined largely, perhaps entirely by his last, and greatest monumental error, his support for the George W. Bush’s war on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

This conclusion is unfortunate. After all, Hitchens was not alone among liberal hawks who misguidedly supported Operation Iraqi Freedom: David Remnick, Salman Rushdie, Peter Beinart, Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein, the list goes on. If we were to include people outside the public eye, well then I’d have count myself among the guilty. And I sure as hell hope that my error there won’t define whatever career I may have.

True, Hitchens was less repentant than some of the above liberals, never really admitting his mistake. But to call Hitchens a warmonger, as Corey Robin effectively does here, is to badly misinterpret the man’s words and legacy, and distort the complicated record of one of our generation’s greatest prose stylists.

Glenn Greenwald, like Robin, has joined in the Hitchens excoriation. Greenwald is certainly right that public figures should not get the benefit of societal etiquette that asks us not to speak ill of the dead. Their lives had a substantial impact on the world around them, and they should be be judged honestly and objectively, whether living or dead.

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Written by David Weinfeld

December 18, 2011 at 09:12

Louis and Larry

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by David

The two funniest people in the world right now are Larry David and Louis CK, and nobody else is even close. I’m not the first to make this observation. Bill Simmons, ESPN’s the sports and pop  culture writer who now has his own site, Grantland, proclaimed as much in this mailbag column. True, he recanted a couple mailbags later, choosing Trey Parker and Matt Stone ahead of Louis and Larry, but I’m going to have to disagree with The Sportsguy there. I like Parker and Stone a lot, but for one thing, they’re two people; for another, I haven’t seen Book of Mormon, and even so, I don’t think what they’ve done is as gloriously hilarious as Curb Your Enthusiasm or Louie.

As anyone who knows me can attest, I love Larry David. He’s probably my favourite humourist of all time, and is certainly the most important comic figure of our generation. But more on that later. First, let’s break down exactly why Louie and Curb are so funny, what distinguishes them, and which is better.

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Written by David Weinfeld

December 11, 2011 at 12:50