Category Archives: Culture

United by Yiddish

A new group of students is cropping up as the latest champions of the Yiddish language: Israeli Arabs at Middle Eastern universities. A quarter of Bar Ilan University’s 400 students studying Yiddish are Arab, Israeli paper Yedioth Ahronoth reports. Yusuf Alakili of Kfar Kasseem, who is studying for a Master’s degree in literature at Bar Ilan and studies Yiddish on his own, says, “I don’t know who is to blame, but I don’t understand why this magnificent language is neglected, when such an extensive body of literature exists in Yiddish.”

Without Sight, Hearing an Operatic Calling

by Natalie Buchbinder

Laurie Rubin and Popeye (photo credit Jennifer Taira)

If there were one word mezzo-soprano opera singer Laurie Rubin would use to describe her career, it would be “rollercoaster.”

“You get a lot of people telling you you’re great, and a lot of people telling you that’s not what we’re looking for,” Rubin said. “It’s definitely a lot of fun. It keeps you on your toes, this career.”

But Rubin, 33, who was born blind, has not let obstacles block her path to success. The Oberlin- and Yale-educated solo singer, who has appeared in solo recitals and performed alongside opera star Frederica von Stade, continues to travel to performances across the United States.

In addition to a booming singing career, Rubin is also balancing a jewelry line and the release of her new memoir, Do You Dream In Color? Insights From a Girl Without Sight, which will hit bookshelves October 23.

“Music has helped me see in a different sort of way,” Rubin said. A lack of sight enriches Rubin’s sense of the music; she describes instruments as having colors, and different character.

“There is something about the music and the movement,” Rubin said, adding that the different keys and physical motion of the instruments give her a sense of landscape. “When someone says ‘Oh, that is the most beautiful sunset,’ I picture in my head what that sounds like musically.”

Drawn to music at an early age, Rubin always had the idea that classical was her calling.

“I told my teacher that I didn’t want to sing pop music, but I wanted to sing like Christine in Phantom,” Rubin said.

But with musical success came the struggle of finding venues to perform. Wary producers often shied away from the idea of having a blind performer onstage .

“Their vision of blindness is somebody who is fumbling in the dark without their glasses on,” Rubin said.

Rubin’s drive to redefine the perception of blindness is not new. As the first blind bat mitzvah at Valley Beth Shalom in California, Rubin started to accept the role of being a pioneer for people like herself. Rubin’s Jewish identity has played a large role in her musical career. When her friend, Israeli composer Noam Sivan, was tasked with writing a piece for her in 2008, Rubin recalls begging Sivan to write a Hebrew piece of music.

“I really enjoyed singing those Yiddish pieces, those heart-wrenching ones, because I realized that hitting it would also reach out to Jews around the world,” Rubin said of the melodies she sung as a young singer. “It didn’t matter what language, it would be an emotional sort of bonder to a bunch of Jews all over the world.”

According to Rubin, her Jewish identity and connection to Judaism are central to the first few chapters of her book. The book also explores the answers to questions Rubin believes others would ask but are afraid to. The book’s title–“Do You Dream in Color?”–is the question Rubin says she is asked most.

With her book in stores soon and several performances on the horizon, including two concerts in Washington, DC on October 22 at the Kennedy Center and October 23 at the National Endowment for the Arts, Rubin hopes to continue sharing her story with a wider audience.

“There is something about sharing your ideas through music that seems to reach people’s hearts,” Rubin said.

Reclaiming a Symbol of Destruction, Lawful or Not

by Natalie Buchbinder

It’s tough to make a horrific event that happened over 70 years ago relevant to young people.

It’s the struggle that Holocaust museums and March of the Living tours to concentration camps have attempted to address. A recent New York Times article profiled young Israelis who have found a way to keep the Holocaust alive, tattooing the numbers of their survivor grandparents on their young forearms.

Eli Sagir, 21, was inspired to get a tattoo of her grandfather’s number, 157622, after a high school trip to Poland. Her brother, mother, and most recently her uncle have followed Sagir’s lead and had the same done to their own arms.

“All my generation knows nothing about the Holocaust,” Sagir told The New York Times. “They think it’s like the Exodus from Egypt, ancient history.”

To some, the act of tattooing is a reclamation of an act of victimization. During the Holocaust, millions of Jews were crudely branded and tattooed as a symbol of Nazi ownership, a filing system of lives. Hopes, dreams, achievements, family were all erased in favor of a new identity. According to The New York Times, some survivors consider the tattoo a medal of valor, signifying their survival through harsh camp conditions. Only those selected for work at Auschwitz and Birkenau were branded with the numbers. Tattooing the number of a loved one in takes takes the sense of ownership and spins it in a positive way.

But the reclamation of the practice is not entirely kosher. “You shall not etch a tattoo on yourselves,” commands the Bible in Leviticus 19:28, as translated by Chabad. The Torah and Jewish law forbid any activity that alters the body, a supposed recreation of God’s image. According to the laws of Rambam, tattooing falls under the category of idolatry, one of the highest sins in Jewish culture.

“Torah clearly forbids tattooing and self-cutting as ways of mourning or memorializing,” Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan of Or Shalom Synagogue in Vancouver, Canada told Moment in 2009, in the “Ask the Rabbis” section.  “However, Torah also implies that piercing can be opportunities for good or bad. The Israelite men donated their earrings to build the golden calf, but the Israelite women donated theirs to build the mishkan (Sanctuary).”

While it is unlikely that rabbis will be hosting tattoo parlor minyans anytime soon, the practice is slowly shedding its taboo in younger generations. The Conservative branch of Judaism discourages, but does not ban the practice. Tattoo restrictions are still covered under Jewish law, but do not eliminate a person’s burial in a Jewish cemetery; bubbes or Jewish mothers often preach and perpetuate this misconception in an attempt to squelch their daughter’s hopes of forever etching the name of a fleeting boyfriend, or better yet, a Jewish symbol, on her body.

The topic was re-opened briefly last year in London, when heavily tattooed (and taboo for unrelated reasons) singer Amy Winehouse was buried without incident in the city’s Jewish cemetery.

Tattoos are becoming an increasingly widespread phenomenon among American youth. According to data maintained by the Pew Research Center, 36% of 18-25 year olds and 40% of 26-40 year olds had at least one tattoo as of 2007. Tattoos are more prevalent than having a piercing on a place other than the earlobes, with 30% and 22% in those respective populations.

The number of Holocaust survivors declines each day. When the last person who experienced the terror firsthand no longer is among us, we will lose our connection to a historical event that is so unfathomable that future generations may have a hard time understanding how such a thing could happen. Sagir and others’ action against Jewish tradition will bridge the gap between history and reality for a few moments longer, so that the Holocaust is not just another page in a history textbook. It is real, and it is relevant.

David Brooks and Robert Siegel Talk “National Shtetl Radio”

National Shtetl Radio? That’s the lineage that David Brooks imagined for himself and Robert Siegel–newly discovered by Moment to have genetic ties that might make them fourth cousins–last week on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” What kind of shows would NSR air? “All Pogroms Considered,” Brooks speculated. Yes. Listen to the whole thing here.

Reborn in Hebrew

by Ori Nir

I have never thought of my father as a revolutionary. But since his death last month, several of his colleagues depicted him as such and helped me better appreciate some of his professional accomplishments, which I had not fully appreciated before.

Shortly before he died, my father started writing a childhood memoir. “I was born twice,” he wrote: once in Hamburg, Germany, in 1930, and then again in 1936, when he arrived with his mother and three-year-old brother at the port of Haifa on a boat of halutzim, pioneers. The two children watched with admiration as the pioneers danced the hora on board and sang patriotic songs. He probably aspired to one day be just like them.

In Hamburg, my father was born into affluence. His father, a successful physician who was decorated several times for running an outstanding field hospital in the German army during World War I, was one of Hamburg’s leading Zionist activists. In 1935, he left for Palestine to prepare for his wife and children’s arrival several months later.

In Petah Tikva, where the family settled, my father’s rebirth was rough. An influx of gifted German Jewish doctors to the small town made it hard for my grandfather to find work. For years, he rode his bicycle through neighboring Arab villages in search of patients. The family struggled to make ends meet.

Life also was not easy for my father and his brother. They were viewed as foreigners from a despised land. Trying to fit in, Ralph became Raphael and his younger brother, Leo, became Arieh. But their white shirts, buttoned all the way up, were ridiculed by the sabras, as were their broken Hebrew and heavy German accents.  Childhood friends, who came to Jerusalem to sit shiva with us last month, told us how they helped my father navigate through the eclectic spoken Hebrew of the 1930s.

The geeky yekke went on to serve in the pre-state Haganna, then in the IDF. He served for decades in the reserves, through a series of wars, as did others in the generation that built Israel. But my father was no soldier. His unique contribution to the Zionist enterprise was in the field that was so challenging for him when he came to the land of Israel.

He not only mastered Hebrew–biblical, medieval and modern–he developed a passion for it. My father became one of Israel’s leading scholars of Hebrew, rising to the rank of full professor at Hebrew University, where he taught for more than four decades. “Rafi loved Hebrew so much, it was impossible to listen to his lectures and read his works without falling in love with it again and again,” wrote his colleague, Prof. Elda Weitzman, after my father’s death.

He may have not become the sort of pioneer that he saw dancing on the deck of the Tel Aviv, the small ship that brought him from Trieste to Haifa, but he became an academic pioneer, a trail-blazer in his field, the study of the Hebrew language.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the academic establishment in Israel, particularly at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, focused on classical studies. The study of Hebrew was the study of classical texts–biblical and medieval–not the study of contemporary Hebrew. For the purists, the ancient language whose revival became one of the Zionist movement’s most outstanding achievements was too mundane and too messy to be worthy of research. Their study of Hebrew strongly adhered to the discipline of theoretical linguistics.

My father and a handful of colleagues thought differently.  They fought to make Applied Linguistics, a relatively new field in the global academic arena, into a legitimate, recognized discipline. They researched the formation of neologisms in modern Hebrew, how the language is used by the media, how the IDF serves as a workshop for the creation of Hebrew slang, how Hebrew is taught and learned as a first language and as a second language, and much more.

One of my father’s colleagues, Dr. Ruth Burstein, recently described his 1974 book, The Teaching of Hebrew as a Mother Tongue, as “revolutionary.” All the suggestions in the book for revising the rigid methods of teaching Hebrew at the time were gradually adopted, including the recommendation to switch from teaching students to memorize nouns and verb conjugation to a more intelligent teaching of the fascinating way in which Hebrew words are formed.

My father never saw himself as a revolutionary. He was not much of an ideologue either. He was a pragmatist. A modest, measured man, who prized order, discipline, and restraint. I loved him for thse traits, and many others.

But I also admired him for playing an important role in the study and reinforcement of modern Hebrew and its amazing vibrancy. He celebrated the language’s raw energy and encouraged Hebrew purists to let the language spread its wings and remake itself–even when its organic growth did not follow the prescriptions of classic Hebrew grammar.

Professor Raphael Nir, born twice, was buried in Jerusalem last month after a bitter struggle with cancer. I eulogized him in Hebrew at the funeral home, then recited the Kaddish, in Aramaic, four times, as is the custom in Jerusalem. The Kaddish ends with the beautiful Hebrew phrase: “He Who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace upon us and upon all Israel, and say Amen.”

I raised my voice as I uttered these Hebrew words at the Jerusalem cemetery, thanking my father and saluting his life achievements.

Ori Nir, formerly a journalist with Haaretz and The Forward, is the spokesperson of the Washington-based Americans for Peace Now

Arabian Nights, Jewish Dreams

By Martin Berman-Gorvine

Janice Weizman’s The Wayward Moonmarks a refreshing departure in the Jewish historical novel, which is all too prone to focus on a limited range of well-known subjects and the theme of Jewish victimization. The setting in the 9th century Middle East is one that even avid readers of Jewish-themed history and historical fiction are unlikely to be familiar with, if they have thought about

The Wayward Moon
By Janice Weizman
Yotzeret Publishing, $14.95

it at all. Weizman, a Canadian immigrant to Israel and managing editor of The Ilanot Review, a literary journal affiliated with the creative writing program at Bar-Ilan University, brings this time and place vividly to life with lively descriptions of the sights, sounds, odors and tastes of the region.

Our heroine, a 17-year-old girl named Rahel, lives in Sura in what is now Iraq, a famous center of Talmudic learning. When her physician father is murdered by a Muslim rival jealous of his appointment as advisor to the local ruler, which he has reluctantly accepted for the sake of the Jewish community, Rahel kills the murderer in self-defense and immediately flees the city to escape the vengeance of the killer’s family. The novel consists of her adventures traveling alone through Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Galilee. It is an exciting story, as the pampered Rahel draws on inner resources she didn’t know she had to survive in a hostile world.

One of the many virtues of The Wayward Moon is that it avoids both of the fashionable extremes with regard to Jewish-Muslim relations—the gauzy sentimentality centering around the “Golden Age” in Muslim-ruled Spain, according to which Muslims were supremely tolerant of their Jewish neighbors until, it is implied, the Zionists came along and ruined everything, and an equally one-sided and historically unfounded view of the entire sweep of Muslim-Jewish relations over a dizzying range of cultures through more than a millennium as an unrelieved hell. Instead, Weizman shows the nuances and conflicts that existed within Islam, and quite reasonably suggests that individual Muslims held different views of how they should relate to their Christian and Jewish neighbors.

A generous humanism pervades the novel, as Weizman suggests that Jews, Muslims and Christians of good faith can find common ground. Without criticizing this spirit, however, I found it unconvincing that 9th century Muslim and Christian intellectuals would have expressed themselves in post-Enlightenment terminology, accepting all of the “monotheistic” religions as at least potentially equally worthy. The hardest task of the historical novelist is to get into the different mentality of his or her chosen historical setting, and while Weizman has clearly done her research, she has not made this leap with complete success.

Moreover, one gets the sense that Rahel’s adventures are driven at times by a perceived need to offer the reader a travelogue. Sold into slavery? Check. Visited a monastery? Check. Traveled with a caravan? Check. Stayed in a colorful inn? Check. Similarly, some of the characters seem to be there for their pedagogical value, and the Jewish characters except for Rahel tend to be two-dimensional kindly and pious cutouts. It’s a little odd in a Jewish historical novel to find that the non-Jewish characters are frequently more fully realized than the Jewish ones. I also found myself getting impatient with Weizman’s overuse of the timeworn plot device of the woman disguised as a man, the fantastic ease with which a girl who has never ridden a horse becomes a skilled horseman literally overnight, and the deus ex machina conclusion that suggests the author really didn’t know how to end the novel.

These flaws should not deter readers from buying this entertaining and thought-provoking novel. I hope Ms. Weizman will bring us more spunky, smart, strong Jewish heroines like Rahel.

But Can You Do Israeli Folk Dance To It?

by Daniela Enriquez

As the men entered in capsule-shaped cubicles, images started to appear across the entirety of the stage-wide screen—all present felt transplanted to a wild forest, surrounded by brownish mushrooms as tall as trees.

No, it’s not the beginning of a 3D movie on environmental issues, but the start of an Infected Mushroom concert. The psychedelic trance band, currently on worldwide summer tour, landed in Washington, DC’s famous 9:30 Club on Thursday night.

(http://infected-mushroom.com)

(http://www.930.com)

The club was packed with fans wearing all kinds of expected clothing: animal-shaped hats, feeders, phosphorescent colored bracelets and rings to shake to the persistent rhythm of the music. Infected Mushroom arrived at a punctual 11:30—after the crowd had been warmed up by house beats from DJ Randy Seidman—and set the club on fire, with people of all ages dancing, jumping and frenetically shaking their bodies.

As I am guessing is also true of many of our readers, I am not a habitué of trance party music. But this time I had a reason to go: the musicians, Amit Duvdevani and Erez Eisenare, are Israeli.

Duvdev and Eisen, as they prefer to be called, both had classical training at an early age, during which they learned to play, respectively, piano and organ and piano. While Eisen wasn’t an unfamiliar with trance music, having collaborated with several DJs, Duvdev had a background in punk-rock and metal. At the age of 17,he went to his first trance party and describes the event as “a life-changing experience.” The two boys, one bald, the other with long black hair, met in Haifa in 1997 and, within a year, began their musical work together.

Infected Mushroom became revolutionaries of psychedelic trance music, well known all over the world for their innovative and experimental use of synths, computer and electronics sounds.

Don’t be scared by their CD covers—which depict angry sharp-toothed mushrooms, babies holding open hearts, and hook-pierced brains—or by the aggressive titles of their songs: “Converting Vegetarians,” “Smashing the Opponent,” “Vicious Delicious,” to name just a few. It’s not quite Idan Reichel. You won’t find a lot of Middle Eastern sounds in Infected Mushroom’s music; in fact, the only clues to their Israeli background are some of their song titles, like “Legend of the Black Shawarma” or “Dancing with Kadafi.”

They did include a tribute to their native land in their last CD, “Army of Mushrooms”: a cover of “מלאך לי שלך” (“Send Me an Angel”), a famous song from the 1980s by the Israeli band Meshina.

I was skeptical at the beginning, and even if the concert won’t change my musical tastes, it was worth seeing. Their music is deeply engaging, and if you go to one of their concerts you can’t help but dance.