Tag: Jewish

“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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Why I don’t make fun of Hasidic English

Why I don’t make fun of Hasidic English

Recently, I saw a fellow young progressive Jew write a pretty nasty Facebook post.  With all the rancor going on about the election, you might assume it was about politics.  But actually, it was about language.

The person had taken a picture of Kosher food packaging that had misspelled the word “cookies” as “kookies”.  All sorts of giggling ensued.

While perhaps a small chuckle is warranted – after all, we all make mistakes – I was concerned when I saw some pretty nasty comments making fun of how ignorant Hasidim were.

This, frankly, is where I draw the line.  Let’s start at the very beginning (to quote one of my favorite musicals).  With the exception perhaps of the Chabad community, Hasidic Jews largely speak Yiddish as a first language.  It’s a phenomenon almost unknown in the language preservation world.  Most minority languages that have survived to this day are doing so thanks to government support (see: French in Quebec or Catalan in Catalonia).  The fact that Yiddish is starting to rebound is due in large part to the resilience of the Hasidic Jews who speak it.  So let’s give credit where credit is due.

People who make errors in Standard English often do so because they are native speakers of another language.  For example, a Spanish-speaker from Bolivia might accidentally write “Jonathan” as “Yonathan” because the Spanish “y” more closely approximates an English “j”.  An Arabic-speaker from Syria might write “Bebsi” instead of “Pepsi” because there are no “p” sounds in their dialect and the “b” is the next closest thing.  I promise you English-speakers do the same thing when they speak other languages.  It’s natural and a part of the learning process.

In the case of Hasidic Jews, there is also evidence that actually a new dialect is forming.  That, notwithstanding this one spelling mistake, Hasidic Jews (somewhat like other American Jews) have developed a Yiddish-infused English.  Some scholars call this “Jewish English“.  If I think about myself, a Reform Jew, I could see how sometimes I speak this English.  I could say, for instance, “I’m going to put on my yarmulke and go to Shabbat services.  I’m going to stay for the oneg to shmooze and do some tikkun olam with my friends from NFTY.”  Most Reform Jews would understand this thought.  But the average non-Jewish American would probably be lost.

Hasidic Jews do much the same thing.  Take this sentence, for example: “We do all that shtik to be mesameach the chosson v’kaloh.”  In Standard English, this means: “We do all those routines to entertain the groom and bride.”  If that’s not a dialect, I’m not sure what is.

A lot of cultures do this.  Growing up, I learned Standard Spanish.  I was exposed to different accents, but all of them were varieties of Spanish.  When I started working at a Mexican-American non-profit, I was exposed to Spanglish.  I had to reconfigure the way I spoke both English and Spanish to learn this new way of using the language.  “Órale pues, let’s go to the cine but afterwards, quiero bailar.”  You might translate this as “Ok, let’s go to the movies but afterwards, I want to dance.”  It’s a new thing, and once you get used to it, it can be kind of fun.

If you’re not inclined to make fun of a Latino for either misspelling something in English or speaking Spanglish, then I hope you’d reconsider whether it makes sense to ridicule a Hasidic Jew for doing the exact same thing.

This isn’t to say you can’t disagree ideologically with Hasidic Jews- I certainly do (and a lot of them disagree amongst each other!).  As the Yiddish saying goes: “tsvey yidn dray shuln” or “two Jews, three synagogues”.  I also don’t mean to suggest there isn’t a role for more secular education in the Hasidic world, as some advocates like Lipa Schmeltzer have pushed for.

All I’m saying is this: treat others with kindness and respect.  Hasidic Jews are keeping the Yiddish language alive and inventing a new dialect of English.  They’re busy!  If they misspell something in English once in a while, give them a break and I’m sure they wouldn’t mind a correction.  Show a little rakhmones!

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Jewish Prayer for Diversity

Jewish Prayer for Diversity

At a time in which politicians in the U.S., U.K., and other countries are pouring forth hatred against minorities, it’s important for us to remember the beauty of diversity as we stand beside out brothers and sisters in solidarity. I wrote this Jewish prayer out of love for diversity:

Blessed are you Adonai our G-d
Ruler of the universe
who created all types of wondrous people.

Linguisticism

Linguisticism

Linguisticism is my philosophy that the more languages you speak and the better you speak them, the better you understand the world around you and life itself.

Although not a religion in the sense of worshipping a particular deity, linguisticism is similar in the sense that it is a holistic worldview. Languages are not merely things you learn, they change the way you see the world around you and your relationship to it.

When you learn another language, you open yourself up to new ways of thinking, new cultures, and new relationships. Every language I’ve learned, regardless of how many people speak it, has enriched my life. I have made friends who speak the languages I speak and due in no small part to our linguistic connection. Because when you speak to someone in their language, a spark, a spiritual energy is created. When you speak to someone in their language, their heart opens in a way that it may not have otherwise. It is pure joy, it is connection. While you may have become friends with that person in your native language, it is doubtful that your relationship would be as strong or as meaningful.

So it is with translation. While reading translated news, literature, and poetry is better than not reading anything at all about the rest of the world, it is an incomplete view at best. So much nuance is lost in translation. There are even untranslatable words that other languages can only approximate. And in doing so, some of the meaning, the cadence, the subtleties can be lost. It could even be said that a translated text is in fact a new cultural creation because the translator’s talent should be respected as a form of art and because you can never fully capture the original text.

And so while linguisticism is not a religion, this worldview has an impact on how we understand religion itself. Because if we understand that language is a gateway to knowledge, so is it a tool by which people can better understand religion. For instance, I am a Jew. While as recently as last century, the majority of the world’s Jews spoke Jewish languages (primarily Yiddish but also Ladino, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Arabic, and others), the majority no longer do. And if they do speak a Jewish language, it is Modern Hebrew, a relative of Biblical and Rabbinic Hebrew but somewhat of a linguistic anomaly having been revived from near death.

Today’s rabbis, particularly in the United States, may speak Modern Hebrew with varying degrees of fluency (often no better than an Israeli third grader) and have some comprehension of older forms of Hebrew and Aramaic, but almost none speak Yiddish, Ladino, or other Jewish languages. Naturally this limits their Jewish knowledge. Can one really be a rabbi, a Jewish leader, but not be able to read the original Me’am Loez, a Ladino Biblical commentary from 1730 or the Yiddish blessing in the Worms machzor from 1272? And these are just the explicitly religious texts. What about hundreds of years of Jewish literature, poetry, music, political writing, and more? Is a rabbi really a good rabbi if he or she is only versed in Jewish civilization through translation (or ignorant of much of its existence)?

Because Jews have abandoned their ancestral languages, Judaism has in some cases turned towards an obsession with ritual practice rather than a holistic understanding of peoplehood and spirituality. This is not just the case with ultra-Orthodox communities. Even Reform and Conservative Jews have become so focused on the ritual aspects of Judaism that they have forgotten about culture and language. It’s nothing short of a shanda that when I emailed two rabbis about connecting me with congregants who spoke Yiddish, that neither of them could come up with a single name- out of several thousand members!

Meanwhile, there are political consequences for Jews’ forgetfulness of their languages. Just as American Jews, for instance, were losing touch with their most widely spoken language, Yiddish, they suddenly adopted Israeli Hebrew pronunciation in synagogue in the 1960s. Suddenly shabbos became Shabbat and adonoy became Adonai. Out of affinity for Zionism or a deep-seated self-hatred and insecurity, most American Ashkenazim “shed” their traditional Hebrew accent in favor of an Americanized version of Israeli Hebrew pronunciation because it was perceived as more “modern”. American Jewish institutions obsession with propping up the oppressive Israeli government (sometimes even to the consternation of left-wing Israelis) is directly correlated with the fact that American Jews abandoned Yiddish and their Ashkenazi accents in shul. They quite literally lost their tongues and so they decided to parrot someone else’s speech and politics instead of their own.

All of this is to say that when one loses his or her language, it is as if a whole world is destroyed. American Jews, in this example, lost touch with the Yiddish socialist teachings and activism that dominated American Jewish life in the early 20th century. They forgot that Judaism is also about culture, not just ritual and Zionism and waving flags. When today’s rabbis can’t even read the progressive social teachings of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, why does it surprise us that their linguistic failure results in political obtuseness?

And so this example may be about the Jews, but it could be applied to other religious communities too. How easily do right-wing evangelicals twist and contort the Bible and yet so few of them could utter but one Hebrew word aloud? When we divorce our worldviews from linguistic knowledge, we lose a part of ourselves. We become unanchored, ignorant, and susceptible to deceit. That I can read the Bible in its original language empowers me to interpret it better than any backwards fire-and-brimstone preacher.

Language provides insight into the world around us. Religion, culture, music, poetry, politics, history. We can become more well-rounded, tolerant people if we open ourselves up to learning more languages and learning them better. Linguisticism, although it has implications for religious knowledge, is not a religion. You do not need to worship linguisticism nor believe in G-d, but you should embrace this philosophy and promote it. The world is devolving into misunderstandings and learning languages is our best hope for building bridges of communication and peace.

Take a class, find a tutor, speak your languages with pride. Don’t shy away from practicing- make mistakes, learn, grow, build relationships with people from different cultures. This is the way we’ll repair the world. Or sit at home and watch the same old English-language TV shows and listening to the music on the top 40 radio station, never venturing out and exploring, shocked and surprised when the world around you erupts in violence and chaos, wondering why people just can’t get along.

Les juifs québécois: An interview with Professor Pierre Anctil

Les juifs québécois: An interview with Professor Pierre Anctil

My partner Peter and I are headed to Québec this summer to visit a close friend of his and also to just explore the region. I’m also excited to practice the French I’ve been learning in my lessons here in D.C.! I had the privilege recently to connect with Prof. Pierre Anctil of the University of Ottowa who specializes in the history of the Jews of Quebec. A lot of my questions were based off my reading of his article “A Community in Transition: the Jews of Montréal“. I am grateful for his time and thoughts, which you can find below:

1) A high percentage of Quebecois Jews go to Jewish Day Schools. What is the language policy of these schools and has this changed over the years?

In Québec access to school is regulated by the language in which the parents were educated – in Canada. So the following rule does not apply to Jews educated outside of Canada.

If educated in English in Canada – which is the case of most Ashkenazi Jews in Montréal, parents may send their children to English language schools in Québec. Jews who arrived in Montréal in 1978 – rarely Anglophones – must send their kids to French language schools. So each Jewish private school in Montréal has a French sector independent from its English sector.

All immigrants since 1978 must send their kids to French language schools.

2) This is a creative question, so feel free to speculate. How might history have been different if Jews had been placed in Francophone schools instead of Anglophone ones when they immigrated to Quebec?

History would have been indeed quite different. In such a situation I do not think that the like of a Mordecai Richler would have existed. Richler felt threatened by the rise of Francophone nationalism because he had been educated entirely in English in the Protestant school system of Montréal and could not communicate in French to his own Francophone compatriots. Today, the gap between French Canadians and Anglophone Jews has been bridged. But this would have taken place much earlier otherwise, say before WWII as opposed to during the eighties.

3) How has Sephardic immigration to Quebec changed the Jewish community (internally) and its relationship with the rest of Quebec (externally)?

A great deal. Sephardim were not perceived as Jews initially by French Canadians because they spoke their language. Sephardim also pushed the otherwise Ashkenazi Montréal Jewish community to open itself to the French presence, if only for their own sake. They also served as médiators between Anglo Jews and Francophones, and often found integration into Francophone Québec quite simple and easy.

4) Now that the Quebecois Jews are more likely to be bilingual (or even Francophone), do you see relationships building between the community and other Francophone Jews around the world (e.g. France, Belgium, Switzerland, Morocco, etc.)? If they haven’t done this yet, is this an opportunity they should take advantage of?

Yes, there is this tendency, definetly. There is also to be expected, because of the recent events, the likelyhood of a French Jewish immigration to Québec, a place where it is possible to be Jewish in French and have a career in that language.

5) I imagine there must be some smaller Jewish communities outside of Montreal in Quebec City or small towns. How are these communities different from the one in Montreal?

97% of Québec Jews live in the Montréal region. I will soon publish a book on Québec City Jews, celebrating 400 years of Québec City Jewish history, but their numbers was always very small – never more than 500 individuals.

6) Over the past 10 years there has been an increase in antisemitism in France leading to Jewish emigration. How has this impacted the Quebecois Jewish community?

See my answer on point 4. I am convinced that this will lead to an increased immigration in the long term, not to mention more interest for Québec on the part of French Jews.

7) What do you see in the future of the Quebecois Jewish community? Are you optimistic?

I am quite optimistic. There will always be a Jewish community here in the foreseeable future, but it will be quite different from the one that existed say 25 or 50 years ago.

Jews will be more integrated into the fabric of Québec francophone society. As I said in my article, Montréal is the only city in North America where organized Jews negotiated with the outside world in a language other than English. Perhaps in contradiction with other parts of North America, it is also my impression that Jews will be more religious here – although not visibly so to the outside – than elsewhere.

8) I’m visiting Quebec this summer with my partner for the first time- what are some “must-see” Jewish sites, experiences, or people?

Yes, you should visit the Jewish “campus” on Côte-Sainte-Catherine, where many Jewish cultural institutions are housed. I will be glad to be your guide. A tour of historic Jewish Montréal on Plateau Mont-Royal would also be worthwhile.

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Pierre Anctil is a full professor at the department of history of the University of Ottawa, where he teaches contemporary Canadian history and Canadian Jewish history. He was the director of the Institute of Canadian Studies at the University of Ottawa from July 2004 until July 2008. Before that date, he was president of the Conseil des relations interculturelles of the Government of Québec, 2002-2003, and has held different positions in the Québec civil service in the domain of immigration (1991-2004). He was a guest researcher in 1999-2000 at Musée Pointe-à-Callière, for the conception of an exhibit on boulevard Saint-Laurent (2002) and for an international exhibition on the Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls (2003). He was also director of the French Canadian Studies Program at McGill University (1988-1991) and researcher at the Institut québécois de recherche sur la culture (1980-1988).

He has written at length on the history of the Jewish community of Montréal and on the current debates on cultural pluralism in Montreal. Among his contributions are translations from Yiddish to French of memoirs written by Jewish immigrants to Montréal in the first half of the twentieth century. For the period of 2008-2010, he was awarded a Killam fellowship by the Canada Council of Arts for a research entitled: “Parcours migrant, parcours littéraire canadien, le poète yiddish Jacob-Isaac Segal”. He has published Trajectoires juives au Québec (Presses de l’Université Laval, 2010) and, in collaboration with Ira Robinson, Les communautés juives de Montréal, histoire et enjeux contemporains (Septentrion, 2010). In 2011 he co-directed with Howard Adelman a book entitled : Religion, Culture and the State, Reflections on the Bouchard-Taylor Report (University of Toronto Press). He has also authored a book entitled: Fais ce que dois. 60 éditoriaux pour comprendre Le Devoir sous Henri Bourassa, 1910-1932 (Septentrion, 2010), plus two others on the same topic. In the Fall of 2013: Soyons nos maîtres. 60 éditoriaux pour comprendre Le Devoir sous Georges Pelletier, 1932-1947 and in the fall of 2014 : À chacun ses Juifs. 60 éditoriaux pour comprendre la position du Devoir à l’égard des Juifs 1910-1947. He is also the author of a literary biography, that of Montreal Yiddish poet Jacob-Isaac Segal, entitled Jacob-Isaac Segal (1896-1954), un poète yiddish de Montréal et son milieu (Presses de l’Université Laval, 2012).