Tag: Judaism

“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.

Not everyone will be feasting this Thanksgiving

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, many of us turn our thoughts towards the dinner table. This Thanksgiving, let’s all take a moment to turn our hearts and minds towards those Americans who aren’t fortunate enough to have a turkey on the table and who suffer from hunger.

Today, I’m going to talk about why the United States should take action to end our hunger crisis.

Moral Responsibility

It is our moral responsibility to help the hungry. Many people are not religious and that is their right. But it’s true that many of our moral teachings come from religion. Feeding the hungry is like loving your neighbor. All religions demand we do it.

According to scholar Susan Holman of Harvard University, “[c]are for the poor and hungry was part of Christian worship and service from the beginning. Sunday services in second-century Rome included a collection for the poor, orphans, widows, the sick, prisoners, strangers, and all in need.” Chapters 13.4-13.5 of the Didache declare that regular food collections for both the clergy and the poor must be part of worship. In Catholicism, feeding the hungry is the first of the Corporal Works of Mercy, which every Catholic is expected to perform.

Judaism also speaks to the moral obligation to feed the hungry. In Leviticus, God says that when you harvest the land, you must leave the edges of your field untouched for the poor and the stranger. The Jewish Talmud, or rabbinic commentary, says each Jewish community must establish a public fund to feed the hungry.

Buddhists believe it is moral to feed the hungry. They have established a charitable organization called Buddhist Global Relief, which feeds the hungry around the world. American Buddhists in California, for example, also sponsor walks to raise funds for the hungry every October.

Islamic texts also state that we must feed the hungry. The Prophet Muhammad, the holiest man in all of Islam, said: “He is not a Muslim who goes to bed satiated while his neighbor goes hungry.”

Health and well-being

Hunger damages the health and social well-being of the poor.

According to a study by the Food Research Action Center, food insecurity is linked to obesity in poor women. Researcher Christine Olson of Cornell University also found that because healthier foods are more expensive, America’s hungry have to resort to cheap fast food, which leads to higher rates of obesity and even heart disease.

Dr. Mark Nord of the Department of Agriculture has said that hunger is linked to an increase in type-2 diabetes. The Journal of the American Medical Association has said that due to lack of nourishment, the hungry are more likely to need emergency healthcare, placing a burden on both their pocketbook and the public healthcare system.

Hunger can lead to violence in poor neighborhoods. In Mexico, for instance, when the price of food got too high in 2007, there were massive “tortilla riots” that destroyed and devastated poor communities.

According to a report by the Center for American Progress, “hunger costs our nation at least $167.5 billion due to lost economic productivity, poor education outcomes, avoidable health care costs, and the cost of charity to keep families fed.”

Our Children

Our children suffer terrible consequences from America’s hunger problem. 16.7 million children lived in food insecure households in 2011. That’s 22.4% of all American children. Both New Mexico and the District of Columbia had over 30% of their children living without consistent access to food. That’s more than double the amount of kids who have cancer, ADHD, and diabetes- combined.

In 2011, 47% of all households on food stamps contained children. According to the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, half of all American children will be on food stamps at some point in their lives. During the year 2011, more than 31 million low-income children received free or reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch Program.

Children in food-insecure households are less able to resist illness and are more likely to be hospitalized. Hunger also increases their risk for brain damage, stunting, iodine deficiency, and anemia. According to the organization Share Our Strength’s study, teachers report that hungry kids have higher rates of headaches, stomachaches, and colds, leading to a lack of focus in the classroom and bad grades. 53% of teachers even have had to buy food for hungry kids in their classrooms.

The Center for American Progress calculated that the impact of being held back in school due to hunger resulted in $6.9 billion in lost income for 2009 dropouts.

Time to act

In conclusion, we must do what we can to help us end the hunger crisis. We should donate to organizations like Manna. We should volunteer at a food bank. And we must tell our congressmen to fight for a just economy so people don’t have to worry about having enough to eat on Thanksgiving or any day of the year.

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