Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Monday, September 2, 2019


Entanglements: Reflections on late summer reading

Jaffa- the “Bride of the sea”, that ancient, scrappy, hot, ocean-swept port. It seems to be part of the connective tissue of some of my recent summer reading. It's where a young, iconoclast, dreamer/rabbi comes to take his first position of leadership in the Holy Land. Rav Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook was offered the position of chief rabbi of that “den of sin” in 1904. His rabbinic colleagues of the “Old Yishuv” saw that small strip of land along the Mediterranean as a haven for atheism and licentiousness. Indeed there was little of the sort of piety and conformity characteristic of Jerusalem. Jaffa was a crossroads where the train lines linking the Levant met at the port open to the sea. It was a place of merchants and fisherman of cafes and markets, Muslims, Christians and Jews of varied origins and who spoke many languages. Rav Kook took advantage of being so close to the beating heart of his revolutionary age- he saw the vitality, the courage and the creativity of these free thinkers and he appreciated the hard work of the laborers and merchants that lived in and around the port city.

That Jaffa was an Arab city –Christian and Muslim- as well as a Jewish one- with a strong Levantine community of Ladino and Arabic speakers- does not come up often in Yehuda Mirsky’s magnificent intellectual biography of the religious visionary and deep-souled rabbi. But Jaffa –its heterogeneity, its sensual power and the sort of comings and goings that mark it as a port- are central to the form and some of the content of Rav Kook’s thought and activism –at least in the early stage of his time in the Holy Land.

I think I am keyed into the Jaffa angle by the riveting and often dreamlike novel by Moshe Sakal, The Diamond Setter. He tells a multi-generational and cross-border tale of love and memory and the power of unspoken legacies. It centers around a small jewelry shop in Tel Aviv, a short distance from its other focal point of Jaffa. The novel shuttles back in time to Damascus and a seaside Lebanese town weaving a story that works like a time machine. The novel is made for those of us who are in love with the stories of our parents and grandparents and want to continue to crawl back and see and feel and smell these other places and have them still live with us- at least the good stuff! The scent of tea and pomegranates in the garden, the crisp linen suits and verandas- even some of the traumas- the heroism, the lived pain.
I am drawn to stories of layers, and people with layers; layers that blend and harmonize and serve as counterpoint. In other words, identities that we have so many parts of ourselves, we don't need to make sense of all of it- it is just who we are, but what happens when we do engage these layers and vectors individually,
and celebrate them, one by one, see how they inform and torment and enliven us, how they live in conflict- hopefully productive?
We are so many things.
We contain multitudes- we need not be either/or.

“Where are you from”? For some people that's easy- they are from right here- they have never left the place their family has been from for generations. However, if you scratch a bit you can find that there is more to the story. Despite that truth, the fact that some people can answer that question of origin with ease and others squirm in response says more about the individual than their origin story.

Kwame Anthony Appiah’s engaging new book, The Lies that Bind is a useful tool for navigating the layers and complexities of our multiple identities. Appiah identifies certain fundamental elements that weave together to form our sense of who we are and how we fit into a wider society:
            Classification/Gender
            Creed
            Country
            Color
            Class
            Culture
By giving these aspects of Identity a name and exploring how they function- with real world examples, both historical and contemporary- Appiah helps the reader to think about how these elements play out in their own lives and why there are so many conflicts surrounding these elements in contemporary society. His major message is that very few aspects of our identities are unchanging or essential. We are malleable and ever evolving. We are shaped by our encounters with other people and cultures and in turn that encounter creates new ways of being. His discussion of cultural appropriation is a good example of the sort of analysis he practices throughout the book. Towards the end of the book he writes:

That’s why we should resist the term “cultural appropriation” as an indictment. All cultural practices and objects are mobile; they like to spread, and almost all are themselves creations of intermixture. Kente in Asante [Appiah’s father’s tribal region in Ghana] was first made with dyed silk thread, imported from the East. We took something made by others and made it ours. Or rather, they did that in the village of Bonwire. So did the Asante of Kumasi appropriate the cultural property of Bonwire, where it was first made? Putative owners may be previous appropriators. (p. 208)

He starts with a concrete example and works outwards. What can kente cloth, or Goethe’s West-östlicher Diwan teach us about the idea of cultural purity and ownership? a whole lot it turns out!
And this takes me back to Moshe Sakal’s The Diamond Setter. Identity here is fluid, it is constructed, it runs deep and it is a mystery. The book evokes and plays with the constant and multi-faceted cultural dialectic of fin de siècle Levantine life. There is a flow of people and languages and codes- religious, ethnic, sexual.  These elements move between neighborhoods- beautifully evoked in the visit of the Muslim Jabali family to the pre-wedding party at the home of Mousa Kadosh in the Jewish quarter of Damascus- and cities- Yaffo, Alexandria, the resort town of Aley in Lebanon and the jewel that was Damascus—and between lovers and families and across tribal divides. He does not romanticize this past world. There is suspicion, fear and violence around every corner. But Sakal does not spend too much time on a blame game, his is a human story, people in love, hungry for home and trying to make their way in the world with grace and beauty. The artistry of the jeweler and the craftsmanship of the storyteller go together. The author actually apprenticed as a jeweler just like the author/narrator of the novel, Tom. And in the novel we learn that many of the older generation put pen to paper, weaving stories in their native Arabic or in their adopted French. These literary outlets ended when they crossed into the land of Hebrew, it took two generations for it to resurface.
Poetry and music also weave their way into the story. We hear Fareed, the Syrian border crosser who finds his way to his Palestinian grandparents old home in Jaffa, mumbling lines from the 1001 nights in his sleep, and Rami, his Isrseli Arab friend, finishing them in response. We meet aunt Gracia and her cursed golden voice; the young beauty whose beautiful voice brought her wealth and adventure but also pain. We see her in her native Damascus, feted by the rich and powerful but also sharing her gift within the intimate settings of a family celebration. We discover her deep bond with her brilliant and sensitive blind sister Mona. And we see her as the older diva, secluded in her Southern Tel Aviv apartment, refusing to sing again, even for the delight of her beloved and doting nephew. Music and its silencing, memory and its invocation

It is striking to see the grandchildren of those who moved to Israel from Arab lands reassert their Judeo-Arabic patrimony. They embrace the music and language that their parents often hid or downplayed and that their grandparents mourned as they tried to make their way in a new country. Dudu Tassa, Etti Ankri, Ravid Khalani and the sister trio A-WA just to name a few. I thought of A-WA’s performance at the Yom Ha’atzmaut concert this year. (You can see them here at the 1:36 minute mark https://youtu.be/LEMV4Gp0TE0) They performed their breakout hit- Habib Ghalabi – a song loosely based on one of the many Yemenite songs their grandmother would sing in Judeo-Arabic. And the three sisters sang the song with their usual flare first in Arabic and then switched to Hebrew- this was after all a Yom-Atzmaut concert. Bibi and his wife and many of the other top ministers were there, clapping and enjoying this piece of musical dynamite that is rooted in the singer’s pride in their family story and longing for a culture that was ripped away from them as part of the logic of Zionism. Did any of those politicians sense the irony or appreciate the critique implicit in this exuberant embrace of Arabic?  What did they do with this complex sense of Israeliness?
What if they would have performed a song from their new album  Bayti Fi Rasi.  The song, "Hana Mash Hu Al Yaman" (Here is not Yemen), is a protest song that sounds like a dance number (and the video solidifies that image). The song alternates between their grandparents’ dreams of Eretz Yisrael as:

A land of wheat, barley, grape and olive,
Fig, pomegranate, date and home.

And the harsh reality they encountered upon their arrival:
Here I will find a good job
(in cleaning or working the earth)
And I will learn the language
(Lose the accent!)
With time I will belong
(here aint Yemen!)
I came to you fleeing
You saw me as primitive

This pain has been simmering and transforming Israeli society and politics for the last 40 years if not more. From the “ma’apachat hana’na” and the “black panthers” to the rise of Likud and Shas and so much more. The common narrative that links the treatment of Arab Jews upon their arrival to Israel to their rejection of Labor and the left in general is well established. However in the area of culture I think we see a more complex phenomena: the children and grandchildren of those immigrants reclaiming their Arabness as part of being an Israeli- of being a Jew in the Middle East and of actively creating something new out of the old.


Thursday, January 3, 2019

An Al-Andalus of the Mind in the Heart of NYC

Back in the Moroccan Court

I recently received two reminders about how much I love the small white square of art and fantasy that is the Moroccan Court. After entering the small gallery dedicated to the arts produced in Islamic Spain, just past the small but precious glass cabinet on your right showcasing a Hebrew Bible, some synagogue tiles from Toledo and a small philosophical anthology translated into Hebrew after its earlier life in Arabic and Greek, and another glass case with engraved ivory ink wells and small chests meant for storing pens and other everyday items, yes beyond all this you will see some light and an elegant frame of creme colored arches and columns. Streaming down through an opaque white screen in the ceiling, light flows down upon the round fountain in the center of a carefully crafted square, rich in the subtlety and electrifying infinitude of Andalusian plaster work. You can enter and take a seat on one of the stone benches and simply sit, contemplate the way the water streams from the fountain and how that light and air find their place between the columns and arches and the tiles inlaid in the wall. This court was meant to evoke the innumerous gardens at the center of homes built in the Arabic style in southern Spain, Andalucía or Al-Andalus in its Arabized form, and throughout Morocco. The Met actually brought in artisans from Morocco to recreate this space in line with their centuries old tradition of plaster work, carpentry and masonry. The video of the making of the court is a candid look at their artistic process: https://youtu.be/Og6cTlwBTrk

The Catholic kings of Reconquista Spain would engage in a similar cultural practice. When they would want to expand their palaces they would invite muslim artisans from the still sovereign Muslim kingdom of Granada to craft their gardens and salons. Other times they would rely on the workmanship of those Muslims who stayed behind after the conquest of their territory by Christian rulers, the Mudéjar. They relished their victory over the infidel but still appreciated the beauty of their architecture and textiles and pottery.

I was reminded of this splendid little spot first by that fuzzy form of digital extortion  known as a facebook "memory". A beautiful picture of me (with more hair and less grey in my beard) and my two oldest kids, at that point rather young, taken by my cousin Abbie on a visit to the MET 7 years ago.

I loved the space then and I love it still because it takes me back to my memories of being in the Alhambra or sitting in the garden of a small pensión in Córdoba that claimed to have been the house of the great Spanish-Incan humanist, El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, or of so many spaces like it through the wider Iberian world, in the Spanish revival style houses of wealthy friends in Miami Beach, the inner courtyards of homes and hospitals and schools in Havana or Mexico City- this simple floor plan- an arched door, revealing and concealing a cool, shaded garden with a fountain and mezmerizing tiles. 
Shortly after this image from my recent past I received a short note from a student. I assigned my class to visit the MET and to especially explore the rooms dedicated to Medieval Spain as a way for them to get a closer look at the materiality of the culture we have been studying. This student told me that she had a particularly good time on that trip, she used it as the place to go on her first date with a young man (another former student) she really liked. In this same email she shared that that same young man proposed to her in that same room the day before. I was so thrilled that at least one other student found this space as lovely as I do. 
My kids are more ambivalent! 

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

kippur 5778: a modern piyut for kedusha


My community has the custom of breaking up the prayers of the days of awe with short, meditative reflections offered by members on parts of the prayers. Here is a transcription from my offering, inspired by -who else- Leonard Cohen who is still singing his broken psalms to soothe, to bother and provoke, and to open doors for the mind and heart.

There is a long running debate throughout the writings of  חז׳ל as to the who is greater- the angels or humankind?

In the end, in their usual counterintuitive way, the Rabbis show how people, with their limitations and passions and messiness, are superior to Angels in their static purity and spiritual rigidity.

Yom Kippur is a day which has it both ways, we are like Angels- not eating or drinking or making love like humans do-- seemingly nodding to the superiority of the heavenly creatures. We shout out the line spoken by the Angels-
Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuto Leolam Vaed—
Instead of our usual, mortally inflected whisper

We spend our day like the angels, praising and basking in the divine presence.

And yet, we know that we are not angels, we are only playing like angels. Our white shawls and kittels are a thin costume barely hiding the hard truth that yom kippur only gives us a taste of the angelic, the pure, of what living life unencumbered by passions and limitations feels like. In the incessant rounds of confession, declarations of being purified in the divine waters of the God’s mikveh, of calling out the secret identity of God’s true self, that which was revealed to Moshe Rabeinu from behind the cleft of the rock on Mt. Sinai after the depth of the Children of Israel’s depravity-

Hashem, Hashem, Compassionate Lord, a God who is long in patience, of great Kindness and Truth, who stores up kindness for millennia, who lifts up sins and evil and errors and purifies

With each passing declaration its like we rise up for air, gasping the sweet oxygen only to remember that it’s a moment of truth, of wisdom, of insight that allows us to see our lives anew, as people committed to growth, to change, to pushing ourselves and becoming who we know we can be.

And yet we also know that after the final triumphant shofar blast tonight when we begin Ma’ariv we will all declare that we are happy to be praying to a God who is compassionate and atones for sins
The cycle will begin again and we will fall again into our negative patterns, slip into our small mindedness and worse
And yet and yet: today we were higher than the angels.
I thought about this when reading Leonard Cohen’s עה׳ש poem #43 from his Songs of Mercy. (this is a precious collection of 50 modern psalms/prose poems that Leonard wrote, I believe around the time he was deep into his practice of Zen Buddhism. I read through it most years during Ellul)

I believe this can function as a modern reshut, or introduction to the kedusha like the ones composed by the great Paytanim of old to open up the prayers for their listeners.


43
HOLY IS YOUR NAME, HOLY is your work, holy are the days that return to you. Holy are the years that you uncover. Holy are the hands that are raised to you, and the weeping that is wept to you. Holy is the fire between your will and ours, in which we are refined. Holy is that which is unredeemed, covered with your patience. Holy are the souls lost in your unnaming. Holy, and shining with a great light, is every living thing, established in this world and covered with time, until your name is praised forever.


The one line I wish to consider is:
Holy is that which is unredeemed, covered with your patience.

We are not angels- we carry with us much which is unredeemed and thanks to God’s patience- erech apayim- those parts are still with us, they are part of us. Even with all that unredeemed “stuff”  we continue to grow and unfold under His wisdom, with the life energy of the world pulsing through us, giving us breath every moment- Gods patience.

We need God’s patience and we need to share it with each other, we need to share it next time anyone- but especially those close to us- bother us, hurt us, confuse us- to have patience with them, to tap into God’s patience and see them as unredeemed but part of the divine universe, just like us





Friday, July 20, 2018




I love this book and here are a few reasons: First of all the pleasure of holding a well crafted book in my hand; the ridges of the book jacket and the small size invites me to take it along, slip it in a coat pocket and read it in short sweet bursts. And then the actual content had me from its opening lines.


Djudio

Djudio is what the speakers of Ladino or Judeo-Spanish called their mother tongue, their intimate language.  This is similar to Ashkenazim referring to their “mamaloshen” as Yiddish, its what Jews speak.

Cohen lays out his central animating point right at the outset. He writes his Spanish friend in the language that was taken out of Spain by his ancestors, almost returning it to life, to the cycle of dialogue of the back and forth of conversation between native speakers even as there are words that his friend, the artist Antonio Saura can never understand, words that point to Djudio’s twisted path through history:

Karo Antonio,
Kyero eskrivirte en djudyo antes ke no keda nada del avlar de mis padres. No saves, Antonio, lo ke es morirse en su lingua. Es Komo kedarse soliko en el silensyo kada dya ke Dyo da, komo ser sikeleoso sin saver porke.

Dear Antonio,
I’d like to write to you in Djudyo before the language of my ancestors is completely extinguished. You can’t imagine, Antonio, what the death agony of language is like. You seem to discover yourself alone, in silence. Your sikileoso without knowing why. (Translation by Raphael Rubinstein of Marcel Cohen’s own translation into French.)

Cohen includes a glossary at the back of the book to help his reader figure out the "foreign" words embedded in ladino. The glossary is more like an atlas of Sephardic wandering and a collection of the little things which give color and scent to everyday lives. there are words for grilled meat and flowers and steam boats and for wise men and good luck and for foolish looking foreigners.
These words Cohen leaves as they are and does not translate them when he rendered his original into French and Rubenstein the translator of the text into English follows the wisdom of this pattern. They remind the Spanish reader of their distance from a language which they can nonetheless still enjoy.

I would like to hear Saura’s response to Cohen, at least his response beyond the abstract drawings that separate the chapters of the book. Not that Cohen directs any particular questions to him or is looking for a particular response from his addressee. These are thoughts and memories that require an addressee for them to be conjured up. They take shape int he act of dialogue, by sharing them with a particular reader, especially one he respects and with whom he shares a bond, a bond to the soil and streets of Spain and to the imaginings and re-imaginings of those places and the people that lived there.


Cohen does a masterful job evoking the gradations and textures of pain, of loss and of the cloud that fills the mourner and the dreamer as they look back. He does this particularly well with his descriptions of his uncle. He was a survivor of Auschwitz who would walk around the family apartment on the outskirts of Paris in his underwear singing romanceros recounting the loves and losses of kings and queens and sailors and knights and ardent maidens. Figures that once lived in the imaginations of the woman folk of Castile, the women who would chant these ballads while kneading dough or rocking a baby to sleep. These songs were constantly re-worked by their singers and the Jews took them with them to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean where they evolved into the ballads that this dislocated man kept with him in his double or triple exile.

Again I need to thank Peter Cole for gifting me this book which he and his wife Adina Hoffman lovingly shepherded to print.  

We read this book as our final text in my summer class, “The Phoenix and the Fire: Sephardic reactions to persecution and expulsion”. The students appreciated the way that so many of the big themes of the course resonated and were reworked in this modern or post-modern essay.  I decided to end the class with Yehoram Gaon singing one of the most poignant of the popular Ladino ballads- Arboles Loran por Luvias- the trees cry for rain, and the mountains for air, but I , but I what will come of me, I will die in a foreign land. It is said that the Sephardim sang this song in Auschwitz, longing for lost homes and lost loves.






Monday, June 4, 2018


Using a Samovar to Think about Edna

At last week’s LAJSA NYC 2018 (a bienniel regional conference of the Latin American Jewish Studies Association http://www.lajsa.org/fifth-regional-research-conference-2018/ ) we concluded two exciting days exploring Jews and Race in Latin America with an intimate memorial to our colleague, our friend, our teacher and mentor Edna Aizenbeg who passed away recently. Her husband and spiritual partner Yehoshua came and talked about Edna, her path towards a life of scholarship, her courage to push through intellectual boundaries and overcome obstacles. He shared great stories of a day they spent with Borges in Manhattan, taking him out to lunch and watching him gleefully eat Borscht. 
Many of her close colleagues and friends sent personal reflections and several of the participants in the conference spoke movingly of her kindness toward them, of how she would push them to write better and to think better, of her toughness and sharp eye.

I would often run into Edna and Yehoshua in New York, often I was with my kids at some cultural event. The last time was on Christmas; we met like good Jews meet on Christmass, at the the Jewish museum. She recommended the Modigliani exhibit and said she wanted to talk about an idea for a panel on Race and Colonialism for the upcoming conference. And a few months later she was no longer with us. 
We decided to read a few excerpts from Edna’s writings- we chose a short but innovative and provocative piece from 1999, “How a Samovar helped me Theorize Latin American Jewish Literature”
Prooftexts May 1999

I shared the following short reflection before reading some of the most salient parts of that very tightly conceived essay.

.  .  .
This essay is one of the first things I read by Edna, I stumbled upon it as a young grad student.  – I was studying at NYU’s dept. of Spanish and Portuguese, and although I felt welcome by my colleagues and professors, my personal religious orientation, my time spent in Israel and my lack of formal training in a classical program in Spanish lit. set me apart – at least in my own mind.

Stumbling on this essay was anchoring and energizing:
the center needs the periphery,
 the canonical can be read best, sometimes, by reading otherwise
And where is the center anyways?

These were all questions and sensibilities expressed in many of my graduate seminars, especially the most exciting ones – but Edna helped me think about these ways of reading in light of Jewish culture.

Do the jarchas belong to Spanish literature or Hebrew- are they the provenance of a Jewish studies department or a Spanish dept. – Thankfully they belong to no one; they invite multiple, polyvocal readings

Latin American Jewish Studies can speak across disciplines, it is both inside and out, and it can be a place that embraces the multi-lingual and the rich, fractured legacies that are the inheritance of a Jewish author.

Edna was a great translator of text and ideas into English. She made the particulars of a story, the nuances of a community in its historical moment come across clearly and evocatively.

I have the great honor at Yeshiva to teach a course on Jews in Latin America – almost all of my students are curious gringuitos- with nary a word of Spanish or Portuguese. I look at the syllabus and realize that I assign a lot of Edna.  I use so much of Edna’s work because it is such an eloquent interrogator of the classics—Gerchunoff and Borges- but also lesser known figures like the debauched poet of the seaside Venezuelan town of Coro- David Elias Curiel- linking (but not conflating) different eras and voices.

She also never forgot that literature is written in real time, for real people, the political and the social are never elided by literature, they pulse through the veins of even the most fantastical literary works.
“Books” AND “Bombs in Buenos Aires”! Both are real, both inform each other.