Tag: communism

“Jewish Radicals” – an interview with Tony Michels

“Jewish Radicals” – an interview with Tony Michels

I had the pleasure of reading the book Jewish Radicals by Professor Tony Michels.  I was on a quest to learn more about the history of American Jews and in particular, find out more about the roots of social justice and radical politics in our community.  Tony’s book was well-organized, readable, and deeply informative about important topics that don’t tend to be front-and-center in our typical Hebrew school curriculum.  One thing I took away was that even among the left-wing of the Jewish community, there have always been a wide variety of ideologies.  That can certainly be a challenge and it can also be a source of richness and progress.  In addition, we often think of our ancestors as more conservative than ourselves, and this book shows that’s not necessarily true.  I’m grateful to Professor Michels for the opportunity to interview him via email and below are his insightful thoughts.  As befits a Jewish interview, I asked four questions 🙂


1) What was your goal in writing the book “Jewish Radicals”?

My goal was to assemble a variety of documents that could bring readers into the history of Jews and their diverse experiences with the socialist movement, broadly defined.   In order to be historically accurate, I wanted to cover as many left-wing perspectives as possible: anarchism, Bundism, socialism, communism, socialist-Zionism, Trotskyism, and other ideologies.  At the same time, I didn’t want to tell a history reduced to heroic struggles and victories, which I think is a temptation for many historians of the American left.   I wanted to capture the ups and downs, mistakes, ironies, sometimes humorous ironies, and so forth.

2) There seems to be a renewed interest in left-wing politics among young Jews – learning Yiddish, advocating for refugees, even confronting major Jewish organizations in recent months.  Do you see a revival of some of the spirit of the activists in your book?

I’m not sure I know enough to answer intelligently.   Like you, I have noticed a revival of interest in socialism since, especially since the recession of 2008 and the Bernie Sanders campaign.  And I have noticed an interest in the history of the old Jewish labor movement among some Jewish activists today.  In the 1960s, Jewish activists expressed a similar interest in the involvement of immigrant Jews in the labor movement and socialism, and that urge to recover the past has been evident in every decade since.  The difficult thing is that the history of the left in the U.S. is one characterized by discontinuities.  There are connecting threads between generations, organizations, ideas and so forth, but not a great many continuities.

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3) What is the greatest misconception American Jews have about their own community’s political past?

Good question.   I’d say many Jews don’t understand how widespread sympathy for socialism was between the 1880s and 1930s.  I’d also add that many people—I have my own students in mind—seem to believe that all immigrants from Eastern Europe were very traditional and religiously devout, and that secularization came later with Americanized generations.  That immigrants were often daring and open to experimentation seems surprising.  And finally I’d say American Jews don’t seem to be familiar with the extensive body of writings on Jewish identity and culture, many of them produced by Jewish intellectuals writing in English and Yiddish who thought seriously about what it means to be a modern Jew in America.

4) As a historian, what do you find most rewarding and most challenging about your job?

I enjoy the detective work of uncovering the people, events, and ideas of the past.  Studying the past helps me gain an understanding of myself in relation to the world around me, and that’s satisfying.   And writing about the past, shaping a story out of whatever information I can find, satisfies a creative urge.  One thing I didn’t understand when I started graduate school was that, in a sense, history is a form of creative writing, in as much as it requires imagination to interpret documents—which do not often yield all the information I’m looking for or do so in an obvious way—and get into the minds of the people who produced them.  Writing history requires inferences, sometimes speculation, in addition to facts and evidence.

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Manele: the (amazing) Romanian Gypsy pop you’ve probably never heard of!

I love exploring different types of music and a few years back, a friend from Romania got me hooked on manele, a type of Romanian pop music with Gypsy and Turkish roots. In this post, I’d like to give you a little background about the style of music and its social influence. To get started, here’s one of my favorite manele songs, “Boom Shaka Laka”:

Now tell me that doesn’t make you want to clap your hands and dance? Maybe like these people who made a silly video about the same song…in drag:

But manele has more meaning to it than means the eye. The music originated with Romani (we use the term Gypsy, but it is not considered as polite as Roma/Romani) musicians who used to wander the countryside performing at weddings and other events. The music had a heavy Turkish influence as well, as Romania was once part of the Ottoman Empire.

Once Romanians came under Communist rule, there was an effort to repress the Oriental part of Romanian culture, in particular the Roma musicians. However, with the arrival of democracy and EU integration, Romanians increasingly looked westward economically and politically as they rid themselves of communism. Yet even as they looked westward politically, many also looked eastward culturally, towards their oriental heritage (e.g. Ottoman Empire), their Roma citizens, and their Balkan neighbors for musical inspiration- today’s manele music. Having rediscovered this Romani tradition after years of repression, Romanians rekindled ties with the West while simultaneously grounding themselves in their history and their broader region. As Professor Margaret Beissinger puts it: “Throughout Romania, and all of Eastern Europe, musical culture changed conspicuously after 1989: borders dissolved and previous restrictions were eliminated or loosened. As I have suggested, these openings were exploited; traditional and popular music, now freely entering from both East and West, were keenly embraced and assimilated by Romani musicians.”

Indeed, manele shares many similarities with other music in the Balkans and Middle East – Chalga (Bulgaria), Turbofolk (Serbia), Skyládiko (Greece), Arabesque (Turkey), and Mizrachi (Israel) music. For instance, all of these styles of music have artists who cover each other’s songs. It is not uncommon to hear a Turkish or Greek song get covered by a manele artist. Or a Mizrachi artist to cover a Greek song. Or a Greek artist to cover an Arabic song. And so on.

But it is also the context of the music, not just the interchange of music described above, that brings these styles together. Take a look at this excerpt about manele music:

“The ‘manele’ are clearly not limited to music, they are part of an entire phenomenon that could be dubbed a subculture. We asked Speranta Radulescu about that:

‘The ‘manele’ are not simply music, but a complex phenomenon made up of dance, gestures, behavior, a specific iconography which we are generally tempted to qualify as kitsch, bad taste. Spearheading the attacks against this music genre are intellectuals, especially in terms of the music. The ‘manele’ are the result of the transformation in urban music in Romania, especially southern music, turning into a popular type of music, much loved by the general public…The ‘manele’ are strongly contested by intellectuals, some of them very visible in society, and this has determined many social strata and media to react in a hostile manner, to the point where there is an almost psychotic reaction from the public. The problem is that, generally speaking, intellectuals ignore the phenomenon, and don’t make an effort to understand its roots, its target, and what they want to express. The ‘manele’ are a reflection of Romanian society in general, they are an expression of the huge gap that exists between intellectuals and people of very modest means.'”

In this respect, manele is highly similar to Mizrachi music in Israel- a style created by the working class and marginalized ethnic group (in the case of manele, Roma, and in the case of Mizrachi music, Jews of Middle Eastern descent). The style then has to fight for social recognition, as the dominant classes dismiss the music as crude and unworthy of exposure. Some may even find similarities between manele music and hip hop or Reggaeton.

When it comes to manele, it’s clear that it’s a fun and edgy (and sometimes inappropriate) style of music, similar to many of the styles we’ve come to love around the world. Every song might not be your cup of tea, but let’s remember that this music isn’t just about fun and dancing (although that is encouraged!). It’s also about Romania’s new place in the world, embracing a diverse history, and giving a voice to the marginalized people of society. In that respect, there is much more to manele than meets the eye. And that is why I love it so much.

For more manele music, try searching on Youtube for videos, purchasing songs on iTunes, or these manele radio stations. Enjoy!

**UPDATE 2017: I’m Jewish and I’ve been doing some genealogical research and have just discovered that I’m part Romanian!  All the more reason to proudly listen to some manele music! 🙂