Tag Archives: hassidic

Pay No Attention to the Jew Behind the Curtain

By Steven Philp

Over the past year, more than half of all state legislatures have considered proposals that would prevent judges from consulting faith-based or foreign legal codes. Tennessee and Louisiana have successfully adopted such measures, while Oklahoma recently became the battleground for a bill that identifies what many believe is the true target of this growing movement: a prohibition against the application of Sharia, an Islamic legal code derived from scripture, tradition, and centuries of interpretation. According to a recent article from Crown Heights News, the anti-Sharia movement has gained remarkable appeal as near-identical proposals are replicated in state legislatures across the country. Republican State Representative Sally Kern, a sponsor of the Oklahoma bill, explained, “It’s always helpful when you can say to your colleagues: this piece of legislation is practically identical to about 20 other states.” An article in the New York Times points out that the anti-Sharia movement finds its potency in the meeting of several factors, including the controversy surrounding the proposed Islamic center near the rising World Trade Center in New York, paranoia concerning domestic terrorism fueled by events such as the tragedy in Norway, and the advent of the Tea Party. Yet the similarity of over two-dozen proposals cannot be attributed to coincidence alone. Rather, the anti-Sharia movement reflects the efforts of a relatively unknown lawyer from Crown Heights, Brooklyn. It is time to pay attention to the man behind the curtain.

David Yerushalmi—a 56-year-old Hasidic Jew, and the father of the American anti-Sharia movement—is not adverse to controversy; in an essay published in 2006, Yerushalmi offered an interpretation of race that came uncomfortably close to the tenets of eugenics, stating: “most of the fundamental differences between the races are genetic.” He continued, asking why “people find it so difficult to confront the facts that some races perform better in sports, some better in mathematical problem-solving, some better in language, some better in Western societies and some better in tribal ones?” Accordingly, Yerushalmi has endeavored to prove that Islam lies in opposition to the political and economic freedom of the West—and that Sharia may be one of the greatest threats to American society since the Red Scare gripped our country. According to the New York Times, over the past five years he has worked with conservative public policy groups and former intelligence officials to draft reports, file lawsuits, and craft the legislation that has taken the country by storm. And his audience is not limited to ultra-conservative fringe groups, but has been taken up by prominent politicians such as Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, and Michelle Bachmann. The latter two recently signed a pledge authored by the Family Leader that included an injunction against “Sharia Islam.”

Born in South Florida, Yerushalmi became interested in Sharia after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. At the time he was living in Ma’ale Adumim—a settlement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank—working on commercial litigation, while offering his services to a conservative research institute dedicated to the promotion of free market reform in Israel. After returning to the United States, he began his study of Islam under two Islamic scholars, both of whom he refused to name. He told the New York Times that his research led him to the conclusion that militant groups—such as those that perpetrated 9/11—had not “perverted” Islam, but were reflective of a tradition that seeks global hegemony. In January 2006, Yerushalmi started the Society of Americans for National Existence, an organization to promote legislation that demanded punishment for individuals caught observing Sharia, while raising funds for a project called Mapping Sharia, which seeks to establish a link between American mosques and jihadist groups. This led Yerushalmi to a partnership with conservative policy analyst Frank Gaffney – as president of the Center for Security Policy in Washington, Gaffney has been able to secure meetings with prominent neoconservative and Tea Party leaders. The results have been mixed. On one hand, there has been the successful integration of an anti-Sharia polemic into conservative rhetoric. Yet bills proposing a ban on Islamic law have failed to pass constitutional muster; the controversial measure in Oklahoma was blocked by a federal judge, after the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an American Muslim advocacy group, claimed the law was an infringement on religious freedom.

To what end is a movement against Sharia necessary? Speaking to the New York Times, Salam Al-Marayati, the president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, explained that these efforts are embedded in gross misperceptions of Islam: “The fact is there is no Shariah takeover in America.” He continued, “It’s purely a political wedge to create fear and hysteria.” Andrew F. March, an associate professor studying Islamic law at Yale University, lends credence to this line of thinking, explaining that the perception of Sharia as a unified, authoritative source is misleading. “Even in Muslim-majority countries, there is a huge debate about what it means to apply Islamic law in the modern world,” he said in an interview with the New York Times. Yet however incongruent Yerushalmi’s arguments may be with reality, his stance on Islam has finally pushed this small-time lawyer in to the national spotlight—with some, not so favorably. Both the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League have condemned him for his bigoted polemics. However, this is good enough for him; Yerushalmi explains that his cause hinges less on personal success, and more on public awareness. “The purpose was heuristic,” he said. “To get people asking this question: What is Shariah?”

The Black Bus

By Symi Rom-Rymer

Anat Zuria has made her career exploring the stories of religious women on the margins of their world.  Her latest work, The Black Bus, a selection at the recent New York Jewish Film Festival, is no exception.  In this probing documentary, Zuria focuses her attention on the wrenching displacement of Sara Enfield and Shulamit Weinfeld, two young women who have left the Jerusalemite haredi world of their upbringing.  They may have physically left their ancestral community but they struggle to fully escape its influence.  Einfeld, divorced with two young children, is a writer whose blog, A Hole in the Sheet, lays bare her experiences as an ultra-Orthodox woman.   Weinfeld is a photographer and law student who left her family only weeks before the shooting of the documentary.

What the film does best is allow these two charismatic and bold women inhabit center stage. Einfeld, like her blog, is a strong presence.  Feeling keenly responsible to use her virtual celebrity for good, she opens her home and her life to help other Haredi Jews who are deeply unhappy but unable to leave.  Although she has been able to free herself from her past life, she demonstrates that her inner strength comes at a price.  At one point, she matter-of-factly exposes her scarred arms to the camera while explaining that cutting herself helps her cope with the darker consequences of her upbringing and self-imposed exile.

Weinfeld, whose sense of abandonment and anger is more fresh, turns her rage outwards and aggressively plants herself in streets or bus shelters in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, forcing those she comes across to engage with her.  It is through her eyes that we see the mehadrin, Orthodox buses segregated by gender, that give the film its name.  In her dangling earrings and fashionable clothes it is hard to believe that just a few weeks prior she was part of the very community she is now documenting.  The passion she brings to capturing her subjects on film suggests that from “the other side,” she is trying to bore into the souls of those she is photographing, to understand why she is no longer one of them.

In interviews, Zuria has said that she made this movie to give Haredi women a voice.  To tell the stories that are overshadowed by the men who traditionally speak for them.  The film runs into trouble, however, when Zuria becomes more enamored with the idea of film-making than with telling that story.  The camera often lingers on a tear-stained face or at eyes staring into the mirror; a gesture meant to be fraught with meaning that ends up feeling exploitative.   Moreover, there is one important question that is not addressed:  How do these two women survive on their own?  It is clear that neither is married nor are in touch with their families.  How do they, especially Einfeld, support themselves?  And how has Weinfeld, with only her religious upbringing, been able to get into law school?  Without these questions answered, it feels as though these two women live their private lives in a world of their own making, somehow untouched by day-to-day realities.

Like Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish, The Black Bus paints a poignant picture of those who choose leave the Hasidic community.  It is a sobering, yet hopeful reminder of what can be both lost and gained in the search for one’s self. But although these women have forever left the world they knew, they have succeeded in keeping the most important thing, themselves.

Sects, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll

By Symi Rom-Rymer

A group of young Hasidic men hang out at the foot of the subway stairs at a station in Brooklyn, New York.   Soon, another one joins them and the conversation quickly turns heated.  “Do you bite your thumb at us sir?/I do bite my thumb, sir./Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?/No sir, I do not bite my thumb at you sir, but I bite my thumb sir.”  These lines may seem familiar, as they open one of the most famous plays ever written: William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  But would they seem as familiar in Yiddish?

That is a question tackled in “Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish,” a film by Eve Annenberg now playing as part of the 2011 New York Jewish Film Festival.  The movie does not simply transport the star-crossed lovers to the streets of Williamsburg.  Rather, it is a film within a film: The plot alternates between the contemporary lives of its protagonists, Lazer, Mendy, and Ava, and the lives of the fictional characters they play, Romeo, Benvolio, and the Nurse.   In an additional twist, the non-Shakespearean parts of the story are modeled on the real lives of the film’s central and first-time actors.

Much like in the movie, Annenberg, a part-time ER nurse and film director, conceived of the idea of making a film of Romeo and Juliet and recruited Hasidic young men and women who had recently left their communities to play the leads.  As the filming got underway, Annenberg realized that the Yiddish script she was using was outdated and turned to her young cast to help her reshape the material.  Over the course of this work, she learned their stories and wove them into the film, creating two parallel plots.

Of course this is not the first time that Romeo and Juliet has been performed in Yiddish.  In the heyday of Yiddish theater, Romeo and Juliet, like many of Shakespeare’s best known plays were translated and performed for audiences from Vilna to New York.  But this adaptation is particularly poignant given that, unlike earlier generations, all of the actors save Annenberg had no familiarity with the story—or even with Shakespeare himself—before speaking his words themselves.

Although their life experiences might have been better suited to some of Shakespeare’s less earnest characters—Lazer and Mendy both smuggled pot and committed credit card fraud after they left their Satmar community as teenagers—they are nonetheless convincing in their roles as the love-sick Romeo and Benvolio, his sympathetic cousin.   But despite these young actors’ abilities, it is their contemporary lives that steal center stage.

The exoticism of their situation and their youthful charisma makes for compelling viewing.   They are at turns brash and arrogant, conning airport police at the U.S. border with fake stories of lost luggage and then paying their defense lawyer with bad checks, and vulnerable children imploring their estranged parents to speak to them, if only over the phone.  Indeed, instead of performing a Shakespeare play, they are living one, complete with wrenching choices about family, power, and morality.

Unfortunately, the film falls short in its failure to delve into the deeper questions it raises: who are these boys?  What drove them away from their previous lives?  What do they see for themselves in their future?  The characters themselves leave the audience intrigued, but the lack of development or analysis is unsatisfying.  Similarly, the Romeo and Juliet narrative is also highly edited, offering little opportunity to become emotionally invested in the characters and  their ultimate fate.

The concept of bringing a work as famous as Shakespeare’s to a group of people previously untouched by his power is also not new, but nonetheless creates a fascinating opportunity to explore how his themes of passionate love and internecine hatred resonate for these young men.  Despite its flaws, Annenberg has created a movie that not only offers its audience a glimpse of an unexplored world, but also a fresh opportunity to celebrate Yiddish and its improbable second incarnation as the language of theater.  She is reportedly in talks for other film projects for her young protégés.  Perhaps in a year or so, we’ll all be hearing “To be or not to be” in Yiddish on the big screen.

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.”