Monthly Archives: December 2010

Renewing Galicia

by Gabriel Weinstein

My grandfather always chuckled when we spoke about the Galicia region of northwestern Ukraine and southeastern Poland. He’d cackle, “Galicia! We used to make fun of people from there in Rovno [his Ukrainian hometown].”  His depiction was a bit skewed. He failed to mention Galicia was a cultural incubator that produced Hasidic dynasties, the writer Shai Agnon and modern Yiddish music.

My grandfather is not the only person to neglect Galicia’s rich Jewish heritage. According to Yaroslav Hrystak, director of graduate studies at the Ukrainian Catholic University, Ukraine’s Jewish history is “ …like a whole subject that [has] disappeared ”.  Galicia’s once-majestic synagogues and sprawling Jewish cemeteries are now decaying shacks and unkempt meadows.

Although Galicia was home to a diverse Jewish culture, the region’s traditional religious leaning was one of its most distinguishing characteristics. Galician Jews were seen as more religiously observant than their other Eastern European peers. Hayim ben Shelomoh Tyrer, author of the major Hasidic work Sh’ar ha-tefilah and Galician native, helped spread Hasidism throughout Ukraine and Romania. The cities of Belz, Ruzhin and Sandz were all strongholds of major Hasidic factions during the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

The Galician cities of Brody, Lviv and Ternopil were also hubs of the nineteenth century Jewish enlightenment movement known as the Haskalah. The Haskalah was similar to the eighteenth century European Enlightenment in its embrace of literature, philosophy, mathematics, nature and astronomy. The movement, comprised mostly of writers, doctors and civil servants known as maskilim, promoted integration of the Jewish population into mainstream secular society while simultaneously maintaining firm Jewish identities.

As Galicia established itself as a center of religious life, it also nurtured a nascent Jewish artistic community. Beginning in the 1850s the Broder Singers of Brody, regarded as the originators of Yiddish music, began crooning tunes to traveling Jewish merchants. They would soon be playing to international audiences. The Broders dressed in Hasidic garb during performances and were known for their songs mimicking Hasidic practices.

Galicia’s vibrant Jewish atmosphere quickly vanished during the Holocaust. Around one million Jews lived in Ukraine and 700,000 in Galicia at the beginning of the Holocaust. At the Holocaust’s conclusion, the figures plummeted as the Nazis doused the region in Jewish blood.

Galicia’s Jewish past and bloody Holocaust horrors quickly evaporated from the minds of the current citizens in the region after the Holocaust. When the region fell under Soviet rule following the Holocaust, Soviet leaders shut down many Ukrainian synagogues and Jewish institutions. But over the last few years a cadre of American, Israeli and Ukrainian scholars has led a resurgence of interest in Galicia.

Brown University professor Omer Bartov, author of Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present-Day Ukraine, is at the forefront of the charge of renewed interest in Galicia. Bartov explained in a 2007 interview with The Forward that the main reason Galicia has lost its once-distinct Jewish flavor is because of Galician Ukrainian’s virulent anti-Semitism and staunch nationalism. Ukrainian and Jewish authorities’ contrasting versions of Holocaust history have also contributed to the disappearance of Galicia’s Jewish past. Ukrainian texts rarely mentioned Jews as victims of Nazi oppression, and when they did, often underestimated the number of Jews murdered.  Ukrainian collaboration with Nazi authorities is hardly mentioned.

Bartov is not the only scholar with an interest in Galicia’s Jewish past. Over the past two years, Hebrew University’s Jewish History in Galicia and Bukovina project has sent teams of professors to Galicia to visit the region’s dilapidated synagogues and cemeteries with colleagues from Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU). In October, Hebrew University announced it is establishing with UCU the first Judaic studies graduate program in Ukraine.

For years, Galicia’s sprawling Jewish structures rotted into oblivion and Hitler’s goal of eradicating Jewish culture and life appeared to have been accomplished in the region. But the Jewish world’s belief in Am Yisrael Chai and pride in Jewish culture has prevented a celebrated and integral former Jewish community from becoming a forgotten reality.

Gentrification and the Jews

by Lily Hoffman Simon

Jewish immigrant communities coming to North America around the turn of the 20th century faced many problems, including poverty, anti-Semitism, and poor living conditions. Most immigrants congregated in densely populated urban neighbourhoods. Today, many immigrant areas are undergoing processes of gentrification, with contemporary shopping centres and cafes barely reflecting the impoverished history.

From the 1870s-1930s, Jewish immigrants to the US and Canada filtered through several hubs particularly prone to immigration, such as Montreal and New York, at least partly because of the large immigrant populations that already existed in these cities. As the number of Jewish immigrants grew, originating mainly from Eastern Europe, strong Jewish communities began to establish themselves in the New World. As with most immigrants arriving in North America with little or no material wealth, the new Jewish presence was concentrated at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. They were enticed by the American dream, which promised those who started with nothing the opportunity to grow a business and succeed through hard work. As Jews began fulfilling that dream, they entrenched themselves culturally, establishing numerous synagogues, producing literature and developing artisan and trade skills as well as a cuisine. By extension, these immigrant communities began to flourish, posing contradicting images of extravagant synagogues alongside deteriorating tenements.

As individual citizens became successful, they quickly moved out of impoverished immigrant neighbourhoods such as the Lower East Side of Manhattan or Mile End-Plateau in Montreal. Jews began to move to more suburban, more upper-class areas, reflecting the upward mobility of the new American Jewish communities. Rich Jewish heritage and infrastructure were left behind in these upward migrations. The Jews were quick to shed themselves of the impoverished history, and conform to the image of a successful North American; in many ways, this meant shedding Jewish associations with these immigrant neighbourhoods. As Jews moved out, other poor people tended to move in.

If you were to walk down the crowded streets of the Lower East Side today, you would see the remnants of storefront synagogues among the Chinese restaurants and nail shops now dominating the area. In Montreal’s Plateau district, old mikvehs remain in the neighbourhood now dominated by Portuguese residents. Throughout the 20th century, as increasingly successful Jews left these neighbourhoods, new immigrants filtered through, filling the Jewish position as the bottom rung of socio-economic hierarchies.

These two neighbourhoods represent a greater trend in former Jewish immigrant neighbourhoods. Today, they are not only distinguished by a new lower-class immigrant group, struggling against racism and xenophobia, but are also becoming increasingly stylish and chic. Stores, hip restaurants, and nightclubs are springing up throughout the streets, attracting tourists and young people.

Despite these recent developments, it is impossible to ignore the historic importance of these neighbourhoods to Jewish life in North America. Museums and street signs are scattered throughout, expressing the timeless experiences of the early Jewish communities. Yet these areas today lack an apparent Jewish identity, as they are populated by new immigrant, lower-income communities. It is important to remember the Jewish history of these neighbourhoods, which pressured upward social mobility, alienating lower-income and unskilled citizens. Forgetting this aspect of the history is easier when we forget the Jewish roots in these neighbourhoods. The Jews’ history in these neighbourhoods, and in the impoverished, underprivileged conditions facing new immigrant communities poses a unique challenge for North American Jews: that of taking responsibility for these neighbourhoods and immigrants both socially and physically. We must prioritize preventing the repetition of history above thinking solely about contemporary Jewish privilege.

My First Christmas, Again

by Steven Philp

This past Saturday my family sat around the Christmas tree to unwrap presents. We have a particular system when it comes to opening gifts; it takes careful timing and distribution to make sure that each person has something to open, that no one runs out of presents before anyone else. However, this year my pile was conspicuously small. The thing is, I had already opened most of my gifts earlier that month when my mother sent me a few things for Hanukkah. We had saved a few so that I wouldn’t be left out of the festivities. Yet, this was my first Christmas as a rabbi-certified Jew-by-choice; I was bound to be a little out of place.

While most Jews spend December 25th eating Chinese food with their friends and families, there are a handful of us who schlep across the country to visit relatives who observe the Christmas holiday with religious fervor. And unlike other converts who have started their own Jewish families, we make these trips alone: the only Jew among a crowd of Christians. This trip can be daunting; my own family was not excited about the prospect of my conversion. In fact, my mother had let the cat out of the bag the year before, during our traditional Christmas brunch. After arguing for a couple of hours, we agreed to disagree; the conversation was tabled for a later date, and I was sent home with a pile of books arguing for the saving power of Jesus.

That this particular Christmas coincided with Shabbat made it particularly appropriate for the negotiation between my new identity as a Jew and my desire to spend time with my family. If I went to services on Friday night, I was going to be late for Christmas Eve dinner. And if I wanted to daven the next morning, I was going to miss opening presents. My mom and I developed a compromise: I would attend ma’ariv but not shacharit.  Even then, I wasn’t looking forward to explaining to my evangelical Christian relatives why I was showing up late for dinner.

I’m always a little nervous going to a new synagogue alone; nobody likes to be the stranger in a strange congregation.  Thankfully, Temple B’nai Israel in Tustin, CA welcomed me with warm curiosity. I fended the usual questions: where I was from, what I do to keep myself busy, who I was visiting in the area. And then: why wasn’t my family here with me? Well, I explained, they are back home celebrating Christmas. I was met by blank stares, so I continued, because my family is Christian. A few of the older congregants looked confused, if not a bit uncomfortable. So I decided to come clean: I’m a Jew-by-choice. The confusion gave way to a bevy of comments, good-natured and congratulatory, which had to be interrupted by the cantor because we were already ten minutes behind schedule.

The next morning my mom, stepfather and I arrived at my uncle’s house for Christmas brunch. Looking at their front yard, you would think that they had taken it upon themselves to unilaterally keep the “Christ” in “Christmas”: between the lights and the plastic reindeers were reminders of the holiday’s spiritual significance, captured best by a large sign staked in their front yard reading: “Happy Birthday Jesus.” In fact, this particular message was echoed throughout their house, even framed in the guest bathroom next to the red-and-green hand towels. I made myself useful by helping my aunt in the kitchen. The year prior, she had been particularly resistant to the idea of my conversion. So you can imagine my surprise when she asked if I was keeping kosher, in addition to being a vegetarian. I explained that I was the former insofar as I was the latter.

After clearing piles of wrapping paper and ribbons from the living room floor, we sat around the table to enjoy another December tradition: my great-grandmother’s chipped beef. That is, all of my relatives ate it; you don’t need a rabbi to tell you that chipped beef – a viscous puddle of aged beef, cream and butter – is not kosher.  Couple that with the fact that I haven’t eaten meat in five years, and I was relegated to eating the side dishes. But then, from the kitchen, my aunt emerged with a bowl of fruit and yogurt. She apologized for not having something better for me to eat. But the food mattered less than her effort to accommodate my needs. I realized that this experience – my first Christmas as a Jew – was not only my own, but shared among my family. As I was negotiating the space between my faith community of choice and that of my birth, so too were my relatives. And just as I was nervous about coming to the table that year, I suspect that each of them felt a bit of trepidation as well. Yet this is what Christmas is all about: to celebrate the birth of Jesus, a Jew – divine or human – who taught us to love the stranger as ourselves, even when that stranger is in your own family.

Our New Cover!

Get excited!  Here’s a sneak peek at the über-modern cover of our new issue, going to press today:

The Death of Yiddish?

By Merav Levkowitz

For 25 years, the American klezmer band The Klezmatics has been unable to sustain itself solely from their Yiddish klezmer music. The reason is not for lack of talent: In 2006, they won a Grammy award for Best Contemporary World Music Album for their album Wonder Wheel: Lyrics by Woody Guthrie. In an age when music gains fame through social media and viral marketing, a Grammy award may not mean instant fame and success for anyone.  Yet the Klezmatics, the subject of a  documentary called On Holy Ground, have faced difficulties with deeper roots: the decline of Yiddish.

For centuries, Yiddish was more than just an “Oy gevalt” and a “What chutzpah!” thrown into other languages for comic effect. Rather, Yiddish was the beacon of a rich East European Jewish culture of language, literature, poetry, and music, like klezmer. For most of its history, Yiddish was the primary language spoken by Ashkenazi Jews. A variety of factors led to the decline of Yiddish language and culture, most significant of which was the Holocaust; the majority of its Jewish victims were Yiddish speakers. For many of the remaining speakers in Europe, Israel, and the United States, Yiddish stood as a nostalgic emblem of the past and sometimes even an impediment to assimilation and modernization. Only the Hasidic communities of the diaspora have sustained Yiddish as their spoken language. Nevertheless, as the number of Yiddish speakers has dwindled with the passing of the older generations, Yiddish’s rich secular culture has died with them.

A 2006 Modern Language Association survey found that there are just under 1,000 college students studying Yiddish at the 28 institutions offering language courses in the United States. At the beginning of 2010, for example, the University of Maryland, home to one of the nation’s oldest and strongest Yiddish programs, announced that, due to tighter budgets and low enrollment, it would cut funding to the program after this academic year. At the same time, other nails have been driven into “the coffin of Yiddish.” At the end of the summer, The New York Times reported that the only secular Yiddish bookstore in New York was closing. Archives remain full of Yiddish texts, but as Maryland professor Miriam Isaacs laments, today, few people can read or translate them. The body of Yiddish writers, once boasting numbers in the hundreds, now hovers around fifty.

Yiddish appears to be cornered in a Catch-22. Historical circumstances depleted the group of speakers, writers, and thinkers, as did American assimilation. More recently, low demand has resulted in the cutting of Yiddish programs, but such cuts also remove these programs from the “menu” of options available to students. Still, not all is lost for Yiddish language and culture. Organizations, like the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York and the Yiddish Book Center in Western Massachusetts, maintain meticulous archives and proof of Yiddish life and support scholars in the field, in spite of dwindling resources. Though not MTV stars, bands like The Klezmatics continue to create modernized Yiddish klezmer tunes, sacrificing higher-paying jobs for this passion. There remain small pockets of Yiddish revivalism throughout the country, like a Washington DC group of about ten people who meet weekly to speak Yiddish and a Yiddish conversation and music group in Brooklyn. Earlier this month the Jewish Studies Department at San Francisco State University made Jewish headlines by announcing a new “Yiddish History, Literature and Society,” which, though taught in English, will explore Yiddish culture. Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer summed it up best: “Yiddish has been dying for a thousand years, and I’m sure it will go on dying for another thousand.”

Always a “Moment” Ahead of the Curve

One of the great things about Moment is that through its 36-year history, it has documented breaking trends in Jewish life with insight and forward-looking prowess.  Our last cover story, “A Woman Orthodox Rabbi?” made a splash in the Jewish community.  But a peek through our archives unveiled that Moment was ahead of the curve on the evolution of women in Orthodox Judaism.  Exactly 17 years ago, our cover story delved into the same issue, anticipating some of the breakthroughs that took nearly two decades to to come to fruition:

For your reading pleasure, InTheMoment is giving you exclusive access to this fascinating story from our archives, which is all the more enlightening in light of our last issue.  Enjoy!




AIPAC vs. Seinfeld

by Daniel Kieval

I recently heard a lecture by J. J. Goldberg, senior columnist for The Forward, about the current state of American Judaism and its relationship to Israel. Goldberg spoke about intermarriage and what he termed the “Seinfeld effect,” in which the national popularity of Jewish figures such as Jerry Seinfeld (or, these days, Jon Stewart) leads children of interfaith (or secular Jewish) parents to embrace the Jewish side of their identity. He also argued, like Peter Beinart in a much-discussed article earlier this year, that the right-wing position of major American Jewish organizations toward Israel has the opposite impact on these mostly liberal young people, turning them off of Judaism completely—we could call this the “AIPAC effect.” AIPAC, popularly referred to as the “Israel lobby,” has drawn criticism from liberals, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, for its policy of supporting the decisions of the Israeli government no matter what and condemning anyone who publicly criticizes those decisions.

According to Goldberg, about half of all American Jews marry non-Jews; if you work out the math, that means that for every three marriages that involve a Jewish person, only one is between two Jews. Therefore, about two-thirds of American children who have at least one Jewish parent grow up with some other tradition in addition to Judaism, whether that means another religion, a different ethnic background, or simply a strong secularism. Even many children with two Jewish parents inherit some disconnectedness from Jewish culture and tradition. These children will not be “Jewish by default,” but will need to actively choose to explore their Jewish identity as they get older if they are to keep it at all.

For this reason, says Goldberg, the way Jews and Judaism are perceived in the United States will largely determine the fate of the American Jewish community. Create a positive image, attract many of these independent-minded youth, and the community will grow and flourish. Create a negative one, and the community will diminish until only the much smaller group of religiously committed Jews remains. The Jewish community’s concern, then, should be to ensure that liberal, uncommitted young people see Judaism as appealing and in line with their own values. While Jews continue to be well-liked by Americans as a whole, some worry that the association of Judaism with AIPAC’s right-wing stance on Israel is gradually eroding the ability of the Jewish community to connect to this generation.

Goldberg is partially right. As much as the American Jewish establishment might not appreciate the realization that it does not speak to or for the majority of American Jews, in the long run this truth could be beneficial. It will force Jewish organizations to pay attention to the ways in which people do and do not feel connected to Judaism, and to find new ways of reaching out to those who are more distant. Perhaps it will also lead to the creation of a new relationship with Israel, one that strongly supports the Jewish state without alienating the liberal majority of American Jews.

However, merely making Judaism more attractive and relatable is not enough. Jewish religion and culture are overflowing with substance, from spirituality to social and environmental justice to history, literature, and music. Synagogues and other Jewish organizations must tap into this vast reservoir of tradition and teach that Judaism is more than just a glitzy bar-mitzvah party or an Israel fair serving microwaved falafel on paper plates. Seinfeld and AIPAC may represent opposing front lines in the struggle for young Jews’ hearts, but they are only the beginning; they cannot be the whole struggle. In short, if American Jewish leaders are going to bring more people to the doorway of Judaism, as they should, they must also ensure that there is something worthwhile on the other side.