Monday, March 30, 2009

And the Song Plays On...

The vast majority of Jews living in the US were born here. Those who emigrated in past centuries are all long gone. The members of the Holocaust Generation that emigrated here post WWII are painfully few in number now. Their children were, for the most part, born here in the US. A few, like myself, were born in Europe, but America is where we were raised and is really the only home we have ever known. Yes, there were a few later waves of migration, notably from Russia and Iran, but those were not mass migrations from across the European continent. Certainly our children, our grandchildren and our great grandchildren are all Yankee Doodle Dandies.

Some Jews have gone back to Europe to visit family grave sites and to visit grave sites of the gedolim buried in Europe. Some have gone on heritage tours. But they have gone using American passports, backed by good old American dollars. None of them went to Europe with the idea of moving back there.

But many American Jews are still singing European "melodies," passed on from generation to generation. And these "songs" are discordant and full of sinas chinam. And for the life of me I can't figure out why.

The Jewish history books are full of the fact that the community of European Jews was not one big happy family. Even calling it a community of Jews is laughable. The divide was first geographical on a large scale: Western European Jews distrusted and plain outright hated Eastern European Jews; they thought of them as backwards, uneducated and uncultured. But that's okay, because Eastern European Jews returned the favor. They thought that Western European Jews were snobs, too acclimatized to the outside culture and not religious enough. But hey, why stop there? The Jews of any given country looked at the Jews of the other countries as being less of "everything" than they were. And no, it didn't stop there either. The enmity and distrust also extended to areas within one country. City folks looked down on country folks. Large cities were in competition to be named "the" Jewish city and threw barbs at other cities in their same country.

And this distrust and mistrust of others from different geographic areas came with the Jews who emigrated here to the States. Now maybe I could understand how this was the case for those who were immigrants, born and raised in Europe but now living here. They were adults who brought their prejudices with them. But their children? And grand children? And great grandchildren? And great great grandchildren? What possible experiential connection could these generations born in America have to the Europe of their ancestors?

Those who came here brought the European enmity with them, and consciously or unconsciously passed it on to the following generations. Many--most--spoke Yiddish, and their Yiddish was embedded with idioms and epithets that were less than complimentary to whole slews of Jews who were not from their specific geographic region. I don't except my family from having done this. I grew up "knowing" that Polish women weren't great housekeepers and cooks. That Russian men were not to be trusted as husbands because they were very free with their hands in hitting their wives. That the worst insult you could hurl at a man who wasn't acting sensibly was to call that man a "Yeki putz." Hungarians were looked at as being too much with their noses in the air and very involved in gashmius of the silver, crystal, china type. There was no country that escaped the naming.

So here it is, 2009 in the United States. And the enmity still raises its head. And for the life of me I can't understand why. At this point in time our connections to Europe are tenuous at best. Yet, so many of us still identify ourselves by saying "I'm Yeki," "I'm Hungarian," "I'm Polish" etc. News flash--we're not. Once upon a time some members of our families lived in these places, lived being the operative word. In many of these places our family members were not considered as citizenry of the country; Jews could not be official citizens with all the rights of other people living there. We are talking about Europe with its institutionalized anti-semitism. We are talking about European countries that had no problem in turning our families over to the Nazis, when they weren't "solving" their Jewish problems themselves. This was not a Europe that loved or wanted its Jews. Only in some places and at some times did they merely tolerate our presence. And no, we Jews were so many times not better to each other than the secular world was.

So why is it then that we are still singing the European enmity songs in this year and in this place? You don't think we are? You're wrong. Get actively involved in making shidduchim and you hear that song over and over. Listen to people talking when they gather together. Listen to them online. Recently LionofZion had a post entitled "Kashrut Scandals and Birkat ha-Hamah in New York (1897)." One of the people discussed in the posting was a Rabbi Wechsler, who, according to the article referenced, was born and educated in Hungary. A line in the posted article said: "“Wechsler’s activities were the first glaring examples of clear-cut fraud concerning kashrut supervision in New York” (Gastwirt, p. 83)." And what was the first comment that was made on this posting? "What can you expect from a Hungarian." I'd wager a whole lot of money on the fact being that the commenter is a born in the US Jew who has quite probably never set foot in Hungary and whose family way back when came from some other geographic area. What could possibly account for a comment like this from an American, except for the type of institutionalized sinah I've been talking about? Was it kashrut fraud that grabbed this reader's attention first? Not hardly.

The second comment was: "hmm. maybe a little follow up about klein, who was also Hungarian, and another Hungarian rav in America to connect the dots back to wechsler." And just what possible difference could it and does it make where this Rabbi Wechsler was born or where these other rabbaim were from in Europe? No difference at all, unless you are saying, consciously or unconsciously, that this was a Hungarian Jewish fraud, that something about being born in Hungary contributed to the fraud. I'll acquit Lion of intentionally trying to insult a particular group of Jews of Hungarian origin, but the end result still leaves a reader questioning the honesty, not of just one Jew in particular, but of a Hungarian Jew. This way of geographically categorizing Jews has become so ingrained that I don't think most people even realize they are doing it, which may explain but does not excuse that it is being done.

You want to know why American Jewry can't seem to unite to solve some of the problems that face us? Hashkafic differences are not the only reason, and maybe not even the main reason. We can't unite and work together because we are still caught up in a European ethno-centrism that divided us in Europe and is still doing so here. 2009 and ethnic slurs are still alive and well, and we're throwing them at each other.

There are myriad forms that ask one what ethnicity they are. I was born in Europe and I suppose I could claim a foreign ethnicity. But I never have and never will. There are only two things I use to identify myself: I am American and I am Jewish. I owe absolutely nothing to a European country, certainly not any ethnic "allegiance." Having been born in a place places me under absolutely no obligation to claim that place as anything other than the physical place I was born.

It's bad enough that we have carried the idea of geography as status-endowing to these shores--just look at the New York vs. OOT shtuss that goes on, or the Brooklyn versus the rest of the known world ridiculousness. But to still be using European places as delineators of who you are is beyond ridiculous.

It is long past time that we erase from our vocabularies and from our consciousness that where some long ago ancestors lived in Europe has any real bearing on who we are or on our lives here in the US. It is long past time that we put aside the sinah that has become institutionalized. It hurts when the goyim do it; how much more so is the hurt when we do it to ourselves.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post as usual. I've never seen any other blogger address this issue. I think the trends you discuss are due to (1) a misplaced emphasis on tradition; and (2) a fear that considering oneself American first and foremost is a slippery slope to assimilation.

Rae said...

Wow! A powerful way to start off a Monday. My family is sixth generation American but if asked where we are from by someone Jewish we answer "we're Yekis." Stranger yet is that no one in the family has ever set a foot in Germany since the first ancestor came here. After what the Germans allowed the Nazis to do to remaining family in Germany and all the rest of the European Jews we hate them. Yet, we still call ourselves Yekis. I won't buy a German automobile or other products made in Germany but I'm still a Yeki.

You're right in what you posted.
There is no logic in still claiming some sort of relationship with a place that was never good for us Jews and where we haven't lived for a long time.

Tuvi said...

Anonymous raises an interesting point when he mentions that some people are afraid that calling themselves Americans could lead to assimilation. So maybe those people should remember to call themselves Jews? I don't see the point in calling yourself from some place in Europe that hated us. But it happens all the time, and yeah, I've done it too. And you're right, I don't even think about it but just say it. This morning reading your words I had no choice but to think about it. Now the question is can I change what has become a habit that I don't even think about but do?

Anonymous said...

Interesting and thought-provoking post. In general, I agree with you (about the sinah part that comes along with pointing out the differences), but there are a few things I disagree with. There is a certain family pride in being Litvish, and though I've never been, nor did I have the opportunity to know the one grandparent who immigrated (my other 3 grandparents were born in the U.S., although their parents were not all born here), that pride is still there. Why? Because in most communities, Yiddish is dying, and the only version people speak is not the Litvish way of speaking Yiddish. And both of my parents have ancestry in the same shtetl that was destroyed during the Holocaust. AND both of my parents grew up in the same town where there were a lot of Litvish people, enough that over 100 years ago, they settled in that town and built a shul that still exists (well, the congregation does, but it now meets in a "new" building that is at least 25 years old now).

When I've witnessed "sinah," it's been in a joking manner with good friends, e.g., "you pronounce xyz all wrong! No YOU do!" followed by laughter. It's not real sinah, it's actually love and comfort between long-time friends.

The other issue is that because of the concepts behind minhag, going back to our roots does matter - how long must one wait after eating meat before one may eat dairy? What foods does one avoid on Pesach? Etc., etc. Some of those things were regionally based.

In any case, your post was certainly food for thought. Thank you for making me think!

Duvi said...

To the second anonymous: something in your comment sort of illustrates a point in the posting. You say "Because in most communities, Yiddish is dying, and the only version people speak is not the Litvish way of speaking Yiddish." Does it matter that it is not the Litvish way? It seems that you are saying that the Litvish way of speaking Yiddish is better then the other ways in some way. What comes across is that other ways of speaking Yiddish are therefore inferior in some way. And that was an old war in Europe, where even the way you spoke Yiddish was something to argue about. Litvakim somehow believed that their form of Yiddish was a higher class form, purer. Last I looked Yiddish is derived from German, not Lithuanian. All forms of Yiddish are legitimate.

And yes I know it's ironic that I'm sitting here arguing about Litvak Yiddish versus all the other forms just as I'm sure all my ancestors in Europe did.

Anonymous said...

Great post, and I'll relate a brief related story at the end of this comment. But I am surprised that you didn't mention the hugest distinction of origin in Judaism - that of Ashkenazi and Sefardi. That is a distinction that has lasted for even longer than the few generations you are mentioning of American Jews. Not only has it lasted, but it has spawned substantial differences in halachic observance and certainly huge differences in minhagim. So, if a difference such as this can be ingrained into halacha and halachic responsa, and apparently meets with approval by all (okay, the vast majority) of gedolim, then why should we decide that differences based on country or city of origin in Europe should not be valid?

So, the big question is - What is the halacha? Is it permissible (or even encouraged) to divide Jews based on country of origin, or is it not permissible (or at least not encouraged) to have such division? And if so, what are the Rabbanim doing to allow Ashkenazi and Sefardi traditions and differences to slowly dissolve and eventually disappear?

And now for the related story. My fathers parents are from Germany (real Yekkes with pedigree back many hundreds of years), and my mothers parents are from Austria, with her fathers family from Hungary. One time about 30 or 40 years ago, my Yekke grandfather A"H (who was a character, some say a nasty character) used a comment with something like "auslander" or "ostyuden" in a disparaging manner towards my mothers father. As a result my mothers father didn't talk to my fathers father for 2 entire years. They were never on very good terms to begin with, but after that they were hardly on any terms whatsoever.


ProfK said...

Thanks to all who have commented so far--you've made some thoughtful points.

I specifically decided not to cover the Ashkenazic/Sfardic divide precisely because of halachic issues that are involved. I'm not a Rav and don't feel qualified to comment. I will say this, however; the divide that Ashkenazim use is mirrored in Sfardic society. Calling all sfardim "sfardim" will bring you some interesting reactions. The Syrians are quick to tell you that they are Syrian. The Persians are quick to tell you that they are Persian, and so it goes for the other countries that had a large Sfardic presence. There are different minhagim among the various sfardic groups and different attitudes about the other groups.

I once had a wonderful student in high school and after she graduated she was looking for a shidduch. The girl was a recent Iranian immigrant. It happened that one of my children was quite friendly with a girl whose family is Syrian. I called the mother to see if she could help me in finding a shidduch for this girl among some of the families that she knew. Bottom line? Not done.

My son went to school and was friendly with a boy whose family was from Morocco. They happened to daven in our shul, ashkenazic/chassidish at the time, so people assumed that they could redt the daughter of the family a shidduch with a son from one of the shul's families. Again, not done. She married a boy from another Moroccan family.

Dave said...

What's interesting is that I don't generally see this(*) among Reform or Secular Jews at all.

(*) Minor exception. My grandmother was not pleased with the YIVO Standard pronunciation (even though it is closest to Litvish in sound).

alpidarkomama said...

When my Russian grandfather-in-law married my Hungarian grandmother-in-law it was considered a mixed marriage (and she had married beneath her) and they had to hire two different bands to play at the wedding (at the same time!).

If we had to id ourselves, we'd have to say that our children are Russian-English-Hungarian-German-Swedish-Polish-Irish-Norwegian-Ethiopian-Danish Jews!

Anonymous said...

What's interesting is that I don't generally see this(*) among Reform or Secular Jews at all.

They worry and argue about other things. For example, they worry that their kids might marry an Orthodox person, and God forbid an ultra-orthodox person.


Lion of Zion said...


i didn't mean anything critical when i wrote about connecting the dots. to the contrary, i thought of writing about klein to highlight a proment and well-respected hugarian rav in america (and in the process overlooking a negative facet). then i thought about weinberger, another hugarian, and connecting the dots to wechsler because he used him as a printer. (while weinberger's career wasn't as illustrious klein's, his bio mention his concern for social justice.

anyway, i think it's interesting to connect the dots to show the intertactions between these 3 long-forgotten hugarian rabbis (which is of interest to me because this occurred in an environment dominated by a litvish rabbinic establishment).

despite being hungarian, klein himself was a part of that litvish elite in new york. yet he joined with wechsler, a very minor figure at best, for birkat ha-hamah rather than with his usual litvish associates. merely a coincidence that 2 lone hungarian rabbis came together for this?

and weinberger could have printed his book in a number of larger and better printing houses, yet he chose wechshler's. merely a coincidence that one hungarian rabbi patronized the business of another?

(also note that gastwirt wasn't writing polemics and the quote is from his phd diss.)

Dave said...

For example, they worry that their kids might marry an Orthodox person, and God forbid an ultra-orthodox person.

I didn't see that either. Although if the parents read the comments on Vos Iz Neias, they might get a bit worried.

Jack said...

Well said.

G6 said...

While I agree with much of your post and find it quite important, I would like to take issue with two small details.
A) What anonymous #1 refers to as a "misplaced" emphasis on tradition. Who says that this is misplaced? Traditions are a very important part of Judaism and always will be.
B) I think we need to make a distinction between saying that one who identifies himself from coming from a particular area is doing so out of pride in the country that persecuted them. Not so! It comes from pride in the JEWISH community from which they hail. There is nothing wrong with this (some would counter that there is much RIGHT in this) as long as it is not sullied by the degradation of others. There is nothing wrong with pride in your Jewish Heritage, so long as we allow others to have their own!

Anonymous said...

Anonymous #2 here. Duvi, all I meant was that the connection to family that I never got to know is harder to grasp because the way they pronounce Yiddish is dying out even faster than Yiddish as a language. That there are different ways of speaking a language is wonderful (think of all the interesting regional dialects of English in the U.S., and then compare to different dialects and accents in the U.K. and Australia, for example). Variety is the spice of life, to be cliched. But to be less cliched, variety is extremely educational and offers different viewpoints, approaches, cultures, and histories.

Sometimes tone is hard to convey in text. All I meant was that because this one dialect of Yiddish is less commonly spoken these days, I am losing a connection to my heritage. Sure, it's not the only connection. But that generation is dying out. And I never got to know that grandfather (he died at least 12 years before I was born); my children (im yirtze Hashem may I be blessed to have some) will be even more removed from that cultural heritage.

I by no means intended to say one form of Yiddish was superior to another. Rather, I mourn a cultural aspect of my family that is dying out because so few people speak Yiddish in that particular way. It's like saying that the distinctiveness of the New York accent and colloquialisms, and those of the South, or New England, or Southwest gives way to a common Midwestern dialect. I mourn the loss of diversity and culture present with the multiple dialects in Yiddish, and the Litvish one specifically because of my own family connections to it. Does this mean I don't gain anything from Hungarian Yiddish pronunciation (for example)? Of course not, I gain a ton. But that does not tie me back to my specific history or provide me with a very specific and almost tangible link to people I never had the privilege of knowing.

I am sorry if you were offended by what I wrote; that was not my intent at all.

ProfK said...

Lion--the problem with historical documents is that they are historical. All the context is missing and there is no one to ask what the real story is or was. Maybe R. Wechsler used the Hungarian printer because he was cheaper than the others. Maybe he had rachmonus on someone who needed parnoseh. Maybe he joined him for birkas Hachamah because the other rabbi asked him to be there. Maybe they were relatives with ties we don't know about. Maybe R. Wechsler was not being treated as an equal by the litvish rabbis whose group he was in. Maybe, maybe, maybe. But the context that has remained for us is that he was Hungarian, as if this explained everything or anything at all. These rabbis were not in the US all that long and would not have shed the mistrust that different groups had of each other in Europe. Just because this was a different place didn't automatically change the attitudes they grew up with.

Decades later we are not asking if there was some bad blood between different ethnic groups of European background--we are accepting that there must have been a good reason to identify R. Wechsler as Hungarian, as if Hungarianism automatically came with certain negative traits.

My point was that this many decades removed from Europe that geographic enmity should have long disappeared and hasn't. We still carry on as if we know precisely what Hungarian tagged on to someone's name implies.

G6--you are correct that pride in our personal Jewish heritage or our family heritage is fine. We certainly need some biographic context for where our family came from. But it is the sense of oneupmanship that this information is used for that I object to. The Jewish enmity in Europe was real and it is still real here today encapsulated in the way we use European markers to identify people.

Eric said...

As a BT I've had some of this Europe experience. My family never made a big deal out of where they came from. We weren't raised with all the details. But when I can't give those details to people who ask it's like they don't know what box to put me in.Honestly, I don't know what where my great greats lived should have to do with who I am today. It doesn't explain why my family isn't religious and it doesn't explain why I am. It doesn't tell you anything about my midos. It doesn't explain much of anything. Thanks for explaining where some of this comes from.

noch a Yid said...

Another provocative post, maybe it can make your ten most provocative list?

Anyway, you make some good points, but I think you are going too far. Part of the issue is stereotyping in general. You are just addressing the Jewish sub-category of it. Now stereotypes usually come about for a reason, there is usually a basis for them, the problem is when people take it too far and extrapolate that all members of x group are a certain way, if a sizable amount/noticeable portion/majority of them are. Some people, in reaction, bend over backwards and want to deny that there is any basis at all to the stereotypes. Maybe they mean well, they want to be fair, open-minded, friendly, etc. However, they are fooling themselves by thinking that stereotypes are totally without foundation in all cases.

Another issue is intermarriage. No, not out of the faith, but between different Jewish groups. Let's talk about inter-Ashkenazic intermarriage. People that have mixed parentage, I would think are less likely to engage in broad stereotyping. If your mother and father were from a certain group, presumably you would be less likely to disparage them. Now, not having statistics I can't invoke them, but I think that there has been a great deal of intermarriage between certain groups, such as Litvaks, Galitzianers, Poylishe Yidden and Yekkes since those groups came to the USA. The products of such unions are less likely to stereotype broadly I would think. On the other hand, there are some who have been in the USA a shorter time and have married within their group, perhaps daven with their group, live with their group, etc. Those people might be more similar to their ancestors in certain ways then and possibly could legitimately be viewed as such.

Another thing, Prof., don't you engage in stereotyping against Brooklynites yourself? Why is that okay? As a Brooklynite, I know that some, perhaps most, or all, of your words are true to an extent, therefore I don't overly protest, but still, sometimes people assume that I am the stereotypical ugly, frum, rude Brooklynite, and it hurts.

Re Hungarians - one should distinguish between those who came to the USA pre WWII, some of them a long time before, and those that came afterward. Interestingly I have witnessed looking down at the latter from those from the former group while disparaging them as 'Hungarians'. Cf Bridging three worlds : Hungarian-Jewish Americans, 1848-1914, by Robert Perlman.

Anyway, halevai we could move beyond certain things, but the way to do so is to eradicate the actions and traits that brought about the stereotypes, not by pretending that they don't and have never existed. By taking the latter course, it will just go underground, but will be still be lurking somewhere.

P.S. To the one who wrote about the Litvishe Yiddish - it is still spoken in certain Litvishe Yeshivos - in some, like Lakewood and Brisk, shiurim is given in it. It is also used by Lubavitchers, other Litvishe Chassidim or Misnagdim, Yerushalmis, as well as certain YIVO types. So keep the faith and don't give it up.

Another thing - Professor - what do you think of the usage by certain Hungarian/Hassidic types of the absurd codeword 'heimish' (pronounced by them like 'high-mish'), which they use as they claim to be the only 'heimishe' Yidden? What an offensive stupidity. Each group thinks they are 'heimish'!

ProfK said...

noch a Yid,
I both agree and disagree with some of your comments. Re the stereotyping, while there can be "a sizable amount/noticeable portion/majority of them" as regards a trait or shared characteristic of a group it is not a requirement for a stereotype to come into existence. A stereotype can come about based on only one viewed instance of something or on no viewed instances.

Example: I hear that someone from place Q or of Q nationality is moving in next door. I've never met anyone from place Q. But when I tell my friend about it that friend has met someone from place Q and that friend tells me all about the people from Q. Now it happens that this friend's experience and knowledge is based all on one person with whom he/she worked many years ago, and they found that person to have certain characteristics. On the basis of one experience my friend tells me to watch out for people from Q--they borrow things without returning them, they aren't very clean, they tell lies just to get what they want. Does it end here? Nope. I am talking to another neighbor and I share with him/her my new-found knowledge of what people from Q are like. By the time this person from Q actually moves into the neighborhood everyone knows what to expect, and they treat this person accordingly.
Even hearing of a number of examples of this kind of behavior on the part of Q people still remains anecdotal rather than "real."

If I've caused hurt through some of my characterizations of those who I have come in contact with in Brooklyn then I apologize. I include myself when I say we all have to work on name calling.

We also might want to ask about intent. If my purpose in saying that group O exhibits a particular behavior that I find unacceptable is to point this out to O and to give them information about why that behavior causes negative reactions in some other people, or in me, then I suppose my intentions were good ones. But if my purpose is to "diss" group O, to vent, to want others to share in my dislike of group O, then my intentions are not honorable or for any higher purpose. If someone says "just like a Hungarian" just what is it they hope to achieve by saying so? And if they had no intent, then why say it?

Re the use of "heimish"--when I was growing up my mother used that word to refer to "in der heim"--the place where she grew up. "Heimishe mentschen" were people who shared her growing up experiences. If a food dish was "heimish" then it was like the food she ate in her parents home. After coming to New York "heimish" slightly morphed to be used as a description for "a person who is also an immigrant who came from Europe after the chorban." When the person who introduced me to my husband mentioned his family as "heimish" she meant that they, too, were an immigrant family, and nothing more. That the word has taken on some crazy religious meaning I find absurd.

Re "'heimish' (pronounced by them like 'high-mish')"--you mean there is some other way to pronounce that word? In the Yiddish I speak that's precisely how it is supposed to be pronounced. Next thing you're going to be telling me is that it is only correct to say "nit" instead of "nisht."

Some day when I have free time, whatever that is, I'm going to give more thought to why people seem to be so "fascinated" with Hungarians. Other groups come in for their share of dissing but it seems that "when in doubt dump on a Hungarian" has become the norm.

Anonymous said...

Anon #2 here...

Re: "heimish" - that is one of those things that has to do with how Yiddish is spoken in country of origin. From some countries, it would be pronounce "hey-mish" or "hay-mish" - the point is that the first syllable has a long "a" sound.

Anonymous said...

ProfK - I specifically decided not to cover the Ashkenazic/Sfardic divide precisely because of halachic issues that are involved.

But that wasn't my point. Halachically, a Jew is a Jew is a Jew. So, if halacha permits an Ashkenazi/Sefardi division of sorts, why should we think that halacha doesn't permit other types of divisions?

My own personal opinion is that halacha shouldn't permit any such division. Further, I think that the Gedolim ought to set themselves a goal of achdut (including unification of major minhagim) over the next few generations.