Tag Archives: Brooklyn

A Scanner Messianically

R. Justin Stewart may not be the first artist you’d expect to be behind a work called “Distorting (a messiah project, 13c).” The self-described atheist became interested in the idea of the Messiah after his Jewish wife suggested that he might investigate Judaism for topics to explore in his art. “Distorting,” on display at Brooklyn’s Invisible Dog Art Center through May 5, is an installation made of fleece, rope and plastic, and is dotted with QR codes that visitors can scan for more information. We spoke with Stewart about the installation, the Messiah and its surprising connection to the modern courtship dance. (The following is an edited transcript.)

Can you explain the concept behind the piece?

It’s a 3D bubble diagram of one segment of the history of the idea of the Messiah within Judaism. I’ve done a survey map of the history of the idea of the Messiah as I was able to figure it out over 18 months of research. I took the 13th-century segment and used that data to blow it up to fill the space, so each pod represents a person, a category that person wrote about, or an individual bit of information they said or wrote or was said about them. You can access those bits of information by scanning the QR code that’s on each pod.

What inspired the project?

I really like to read, so this project was an excuse to make reading my work. As an artist you can do that kind of thing. Before I started the project, my father-in-law recommended that I read What Do Jews Believe [by David Ariel]. When I was looking for a topic, my wife suggested Judaism because it has this long history of evolving dialogue, and ideas changing over time, and people riffing off of the writing that came before. That was part of the essence of the topic I was looking for. So I was flipping through the book and one of the chapters is the Messiah. When I flipped through that chapter, I’m like, “Jews don’t believe in the Messiah.” At least that was the Judaism I’d learned up to that point. So I started reading and that was kind of the beginning of my Jewish Messiah education.

So is this religious art?

I’d find it difficult to not put it in the religious category. As an artist I come about it more as an interesting idea that happens to be on a religious topic. I would consider this a piece that has very religious content and could be considered religious art, but I wouldn’t consider myself a religious art maker.

What are you hoping for people to get out of the project?

What really fascinates me is the idea that each one of these pods is just an individual bit of information and the pods themselves are suspended and created by relationships between architecture and each other, in the same way that ideas were created by the relationship between the person writing them and the culture they’re in, the place and time they’re in, and other ideas they’re connected to. No idea manifests in isolation. I’m fascinated by the interconnectivity of them. I think the viewer might be able to get to the idea that each one of these pods needs each other to exist, in the same way that if you removed any bit of information from the messiah topic, the Messiah would change. If you cut any of those ropes it would change the art in its totality.

What do you think the idea of the Messiah means today? Do you believe in the Messiah?

I would consider myself more of an atheist, but I see the Messiah in its broadest definition as just a beacon of hope, the idea of a rupture with reality or a change in reality to something better. That’s an idea I can get behind. I think everybody hopes for something better. So many of the ideas that came up were ideas that seemed to resonate beyond a time frame. Issues that people are dealing with in the 2nd century, they’re still dealing with today, and I think the Messiah can represent a resolution to some of those things. Some of the things the Messianic age would bring for people I find fascinating. One of my favorites was a writing that said when the Messiah came, women would pursue men in the courtship dance. When I read that I was like, “That is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever read,” only because that whole anxiety that goes with men pursuing women or vice versa has existed forever. It’s those kinds of things that I just found amazing in the research.

Israel Boycotts, Now Organic

By Aarian Marshall

Something’s afoot in the Park Slope Food Co-op.

If you are not a local of bourgeois Brooklyn, if the New York Times Metro Section isn’t quite your thing, you may have never heard of the co-op. It began in 1973 in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, founded by a “group of committed neighbors who wanted to make healthy, affordable food available to everyone who wanted it” (according to its website). Today, the co-op is famous for its organic emphasis, low prices, huge membership (roughly 15,000 New Yorkers belong), and rules so strict that one blogger likened the establishment to “a Soviet-style re-education camp.”  Co-op members must work for their groceries—one 2 ¾ hour shift every two weeks.

This kind of participatory grocery shopping creates a community that cares deeply about food—and that has the weekly newsletter and town-hall-meeting packed schedule to prove it. The latest issue to hit the Park Slope Food Co-op? Not that members have been discovered sending their nannies to fulfill their work requirements (that was last month). No: last week, BDS became the hot topic at the Park Slope Food Co-op.

The BDS movement, which urges participants to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel, began in 2005. It was launched by the BDS National Committee (BNC) and was initially endorsed by 170 Palestinian groups. Since 2005, the movement has gained steam: Elvis Costello pulled out of a concert set to take place in Israel; DePaul University discontinued its sale of Sabra Hummus; the University of Johannesburg cut ties with Ben-Gurion University on that grounds that the school was too closely linked to the Israeli military.

Park Slope Food Co-op, then, is just another frontier, another battleground upon which to wage intellectual, socio-political battle. And a primarily intellectual fight it is—the co-op imports few products from Israel, and divestment would mean very little financial skin off that nation’s back. So what does it mean for a food co-op, of all places, to take a political stand?  This question is not unique to the Park Slope Food Co-op—other American co-ops have raised similar ones—but the store is unique in that much of its membership, and much of Park Slope, is Jewish.

Things have changed since the period immediately following the Six-Day War, when being Jewish was synonymous with a pro-Israel stance. For Jewish liberals, especially, supporting Israel is fraught. As of March 2010, a Gallup poll showed that while 80 percent of Republicans viewed Israel favorably, only 53 percent of Democrats felt similarly. A 2007 study showed that only 54% of non-Orthodox Jews under the age of 35 are “comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state.”

For the American Jewish establishment—groups like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations—these statistics are disturbing. Why aren’t Jews coming out for Israel in the way they have in the past, especially when danger, the prospect of a nuclear Iran, looms so large? Barbara Mazor, a leader in the anti-BDS Co-op faction, told the New York Observer that she suspects some kind of “coolness” factor is at play: “From reading [the pro-BDS Co-op member’s] letters from the past two years, they don’t seem to have a terribly sophisticated understanding of the situation [in Israel],” she said. “I think they’re latching onto it like slogans. Like true believers, it’s the cool thing to do. You know, ‘I’m a progressive, and it’s a progressive cause,’ so I think that’s how it’s coming through, very thoughtlessly.” As a native Brooklynite (lo, I have been to the trenches), I feel as if I can confirm this impulse. For many liberal Jews, Israel is staid, embracing it akin to “drinking the Kool-Aid.” If Mom and Dad love it, if Grandma prays for it, it can’t be hip. And for Jewish youngsters on the cutting edge, who like their arugula organic and their kalamata olives fresh and imported, finding the next big counterculture thing—like BDS—is a social imperative.

But perhaps there’s something larger at work here than the fact that Israel has been endorsed by one too many bubbes. In 2010, writer Peter Beinart made waves when his essay, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” ran in the New York Review of Books. “Particularly in the younger generations,” he wrote,

fewer and fewer American Jewish liberals are Zionists; fewer and fewer American Jewish Zionists are liberal. One reason is that the leading institutions of American Jewry have refused to foster—indeed, have actively opposed—a Zionism that challenges Israel’s behavior in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and toward its own Arab citizens. For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, that are finding that young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.

American Jewish organizations, Beinart alleged, have handed Israel a blank check—“we will support you to whatever end.” But Israel has made decisions that have simply flown in the face of liberal values, he continued, and though these may be justified in the name of security, a frank dialogue concerning the clash between democratic principles and national safety has just not emerged. Instead, “groups like AIPAC and the Presidents’ Conference patrol public discourse, scolding people who contradict their vision of Israel as a state in which all leaders cherish democracy and yearn for peace.”

Fair enough. But let’s get back to the original question, the one that started it all: should a food co-op take a political stand? Sure, we need a dialogue—but is a trumped-up grocery store the place to start? Way across the country, in Sacramento, co-op members have dealt with similar issues. A BDS campaign that began this summer has generated a spate of local op-ed articles, the majority of which come down against BDS. In a piece published by the Sacramento Press, Steven Maviglio (who happens to be the President of the co-op’s Board of Directors) concludes his tale of organic famers with the following statement: “[Talking to organic farmers] made me realize—despite the recent negative attacks and lawsuits by BDS on our store—what the co-op is all about: supporting local growers and providing organic food to the Sacramento community.”

I’m not sure I buy it.  Both co-ops state that they ascribe to the internationally recognized principles of the cooperative movement, which include, democratic member control.  Despite arguments that it’s not germane, a strict co-operativist would say that if co-op members want BDS Dialogue, that should be what they get.

And maybe that isn’t a bad thing. If we follow Peter Beinart’s line of thinking, then the co-operative conversation happening in Jewish Park Slope does not spell doom for the relationship between liberal Jews and Israel after all. “All points of view really need to be heard,” said one Jewish co-op member. “If we start proposing things like boycotts, it’ll prompt more discussion, and that’ll help educate people.” So perhaps the discussion spilling out onto pages of the Food Co-op’s newsletter (The Linewaiters’ Gazette), the discourse taking place in the cereal aisle (right between the steel cut oats and the organic bran) is a necessary one, one that is long overdue.

Not Your Bubbe’s Punk Rock: An Interview with the Shondes

by Amanda Walgrove

The Shondes is a Brooklyn-based indie band that has garnered attention for their gritty Riot Grrrl rock sound, Jewish influences and political messages. Comprised of Louisa Solomon, Temim Fruchter, Elijah Olberman, and Fureigh, the band has released two albums since their formation in 2006: self-released debut The Red Sea (2008) and My Dear One (2010) with Fanatic Records. The band recently made a celebrated appearance at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, and has a new record in the works. I asked them a few questions about the religious roots of their music, their partnership with progressive Jewish organizations, and a general affinity for bubbe accents.

Using a Yiddish word meaning “disgrace” or “shame” for a band name ties you to Jewish roots and yet separates you from religious orthodoxy. Can you speak about the name of your band, its conception, how much of it is sarcastic?

Temim: When we were making lists upon lists of band names to choose from, we just kept coming back to this one!  We really wanted a Yiddish name because there were such powerful and diverse connections to Yiddish language and culture in the band, and we also all related to the experience of being called a ‘shonde’ because of identity or because of speaking out about justice. We’re reclaiming it here in a way that so many people can relate to.  There’s also such warmth and humor in the Yiddish language for me, and having a Yiddish band name actually really keeps me in touch with some of the laughter and the tenderness in the music we make.

On a personal note, while the band name is certainly unorthodox (no pun intended!) my roots are in the Orthodox community and I still have some strong connections there.  It’s very cool to me that, through this band – and actually, specifically with regard to the band’s name – I’ve been able to have some awesome conversations with other Orthodox or formerly Orthodox Jews who have struggled with being outsiders in their communities in different ways.

Have your Jewish roots affected your discovery of music? Have they influenced the ways in which you express yourselves artistically?

T: Speaking for myself, they certainly have!  I grew up pounding my fists on the Shabbos table and harmonizing to Jewish prayers; dancing to my dad’s Jewish wedding band and loving the beautiful mournful sound of ancient liturgy.  So all of that really helped to shape my deep love of music – something that, for me, is definitely quite spiritual.

And of course, while we’re not a band who makes Jewish music, our backgrounds are a part of who we are and what we bring to our art.  We talk a lot about the musical and cultural Jewish traditions (be they religious or secular) in our families and those conversations inform what we do in the band, for sure.  And of course, we always follow a good old play-‘til-2-in-the-morning rock ‘n roll show with a bagels and cream cheese brunch for the out-of-towners, which always feels like some proud Jewish culture shining through.

Can you briefly describe the inspiration behind the lyrics of “I Watched the Temple Fall”?

L: We wrote “I Watched the Temple Fall” because we were thinking a lot about what Jews put our faith in, and where that faith really lives. We’d been talking about Abraham Joshua Heschel’s notion of Judaism as a religion of time, not space, and thinking about how that related to Zionism. Confining ideas into spaces (temples, states, what have you) can falsely polarize us and take us away from the big, important stuff. We wanted to write a song that clearly said, “Look, it might be devastating to face, but the state of Israel commits actions daily that violate the basic tenets of Judaism.” As a Jew, I feel I have to support Palestinian self-determination, and encourage other Jews to support their struggle for recognition as a people, deserving of human rights, statehood, citizenship, self-governance, lives free from terror. I have spent time in Palestine working in solidarity with the non-violent resistance movement there. Anyone who does that work sees the unjustifiable horror the IDF and settlers inflict, and Judaism encourages us to oppose injustice everywhere.

Temim, you’ve spoken about applying the term “shonde” to the Israeli occupation. Can you elaborate upon this? How have you combined activism with music?

T: When I first really started to explore my feelings about the Israeli occupation, I realized that among other things – things like being angry, being motivated to take action – I actually felt really ashamed.  I couldn’t believe that such violence and oppression was being committed by Israel, supposedly in my name as a Jew.  It felt – and feels – disgraceful.  So that word felt appropriate to me to use.

That’s also the reason that it’s really important to me to let our shows also be able to be political spaces where people can connect and have conversations about stuff like this.  We’ve played shows where we’ve partnered with progressive Jewish organizations like Jews Against the Occupation and where people could learn more about the issues, or just even played “I Watched the Temple Fall” and had some really good and complicated conversations with fans afterward.  Either way, I think art – and music in particular – can be both a really powerful and a really accessible way to start conversations about hard political issues.

The concept of Jewish-American identity among younger generations is rapidly changing. How do you feel that you contribute to and are a part of this shifting landscape?

T: I only hope we’re a part of making this landscape more expansive!  I know so many Jewish people who are making their voices heard in ways that push the envelope a little bit in all the best ways, and I think that that’s incredibly important in painting an always-broader picture of what it can mean to be Jewish.  It’s really exciting that we travel the country on tour and encounter so many different kinds of radical Jewish communities and identities.

What’s on the horizon for The Shondes?

T: First and foremost, our forthcoming new record!  We cannot wait to release this one.  It’s gonna be the one that makes you dance.  Or at least roll down the car windows!  It has been so, so much fun to make and we hope it’s just as fun to listen to.  We’ll also be doing some touring, and definitely have a few other fun surprises up our sleeves for this year.

I’ve seen in your YouTube videos that you all have an affinity for employing mock Jewish mother/grandmother voices. Is this something that occurs often?

T: If this weren’t a print interview, I would answer this question in my best Bea Arthur voice!  It DOES occur often!  It’s like this Jewish bubbe lives in our collective subconscious as a band.  It’s OK, though – we really like her and she makes a killer matzoh ball soup.

Hasidim, Hipsters, and the New Crown Heights

by Symi Rom-Rymer

Hasidim and Hipsters can’t be friends, so says conventional wisdom.  But maybe they can eat together.  At least that’s what Danny Branover, principal owner of Basil Pizza and Wine bar in Crown Heights is hoping.

Crown Heights, the Brooklyn neighborhood perhaps most infamously known for the 1991 riots that irrupted between the neighborhood’s Hasidic and black communities, is home to a mix of ethnic and religious groups including immigrants from the Caribbean, Lubavitcher Jews, and African-Americans.  In recent years, an influx of young, liberal professionals have moved in adding yet another cultural and social imprint on the neighborhood.

According to a New York Times piece about Basil by Frank Bruni, former food critic for the Times, the idea for the restaurant started when Branover, himself a member of the Lubavitch movement, moved from Jerusalem to Crown Heights in 2001 and was dismayed by the lack of interaction between the neighborhood groups.  In Crown Heights he said, “Jewish and black residents were more estranged than the Jews and Arabs in Israel, who, have more profound political differences and much more reason to distrust one another.”  By establishing a restaurant where everyone, despite their religious and cultural differences, can feel comfortable, he hopes to change that dynamic. And it seems that he is succeeding.  According to Bruni, on any given night, the dining room is filled with Hasidic men cheek by jowl with bare-armed women and African-American politicos.

From its trendy certified Kosher menu (individual pizza, pasta, raw fish) to the diversity of the wait staff (gay, straight, male, female, Catholic) to the welcoming environment (it has been home to baptism parties and Hasidic jazz bands), it’s clear that the restaurant is trying its hardest to appeal to everyone.  But their efforts to be inclusive for some have also stepped on the toes of others.  Because Hasidic men aren’t allowed to hear female voices singing, for instance, recordings of female singers are never played in the dining room and waitresses are not allowed to sing Happy Birthday, even to non-Hasidic clientele.  One young woman who was kissing her boyfriend during dinner was admonished by the restaurant manager and told that she was in the Lubavitcher’s backyard and needed to “respect their ways.”  But Basil is now in the hipsters’ backyard as well and that, too, ought to be acknowledged.

Minor quibbles aside, the success of Basil proves that a multi-cultural, multi-religious restaurant in the heart of a historically troubled neighborhood is possible.   And that’s exciting.  As Joanna White-Oldham, one of Basil’s frequent customers, said  in the article, “the place makes such a great statement, especially at such a volatile time right now in our world, with all this lack of religious tolerance. And it has motivated me.”

Symi Rom-Rymer writes and blogs about Jewish and Muslim communities in the US and Europe.

McCain’s Supporters In Brooklyn

RED new york

RED new york

A group of journalism graduate students at Columbia University put together this interesting study of how Brooklyn is politically divided (“Bleeding Red for McCain”) on their original online news publication, Brooklyn Ink. Using public records of campaign donations, they put together a map that visually reflects which areas of Brooklyn are red and which are blue. Following the map is a series of vignettes about the particular areas in support of McCain. The introduction follows:

Venture to the southeastern point of Brooklyn, below Avenue H, and you will find a Brooklyn where Syrian Jews dine on kibbeh in Gravesend, and where Muslims heed the call to prayer in Bensonhurst. This is a Brooklyn where the manicured lawns and Mercedeses on Ocean Parkway or in Dyker Heights shout one kind of American dream, and where the Cyrillic lettering on the Russian supper clubs in Little Odessa speak another.

Here is the Brooklyn where the real life drama of Vito Fossella – whose career as the city’s only Republican congressman was undone when he admitted to having not one family but two – exceeds even that of Bensonhurst’s own fictional anti-hero, Tony Manero, whom John Travolta famously captured devouring two slices of pizza from Lenny’s as he strutted down 86th street in “Saturday Night Fever.” In this Brooklyn you can shop at the Avi Glatt Kosher Market in the morning, down blinis for lunch and sample sushi for dinner – all without ever leaving the corner of Avenue U and 8th Street.

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