Monday, April 9, 2012

Europe? Who Cares

A couple of postings on Orthonomics, dealing with someone's strange idea of how women should prepare themselves to become better shidduch "material," brought out a comment that the writer must be Hungarian, because this is a very Hungarian suggestion that was made. Yes, I admit I saw red. When, when, when are we once and for all going to rid ourselves of our horrible habit of using European ethnicity as a character indicator?! Surely at this point in time in the US, those ethnic labels should be seen as non-relevant--so why are they still used?
If a woman is well-dressed or even flashily dressed, then she must be Hungarian. If she cares about fashionable clothing then she must be Hungarian. If that woman flaunts herself in public, she must be Hungarian. If she is not dressed sedately or in a "truly" tsniusdik fashion, she must be Hungarian. If she has bone china in her home or sterling silver, she must be Hungarian. If she has real lead crystal in her home, she must be Hungarian. If there are any mirrors on the wall of her home, she must be Hungarian. If there is a "fancy" crystal chandelier in her home, she must be Hungarian. Excuse me, but have we all lost our collective minds? Given that Jews lived in every country of Europe pre-WWII, and pretty much do so now, are we seriously putting forth as fact that "only" Hungarians valued and value "the finer things in life"? That only Hungarians are style conscious? That only Hungarians owned and own the aforementioned items?

I'm not planning on writing a whole encyclopedia here, but a bit of basic history about that pre-war Europe clearly needs to be stated. The eastern and the western parts of European Jewry didn't much like each other, for a variety of reasons. The easterners thought the west was traveling too far from what Yiddishkeit should be. The easterners thought the westerners were far too interested in the culture of the countries they resided in. The westerners thought the easterners were uncultured, backwards and uneducated.

Now let's place Hungary and also Romania into the midst of this east-west "war." Most people today would place Romania for sure and also Hungary into the eastern European division of the continent. But that would not be totally accurate, particularly as regards pre-WWII Jewish antagonism. First, today Hungary is considered the mid point between Western and Eastern Europe. Historically, Hungary spent centuries entangled with the Austrian Empire; indeed, a lot of history of the region is about the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This would put Hungary in the western camp as regards culture and habits. Romania, or at least certain of its provinces, as well spent a lot of time annexed to Hungary and to Austria, and those provinces fell into the western camp as far as culture and habits. Indeed, for many people in these provinces there is a real confusion as to whether or not they are Hungarian or Romanian. Those who resided in these areas during the 1900s might as well be called Romangarians or Hungromanians.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire and the other countries of Western Europe were fashion conscious, enjoyed the use of color, appreciated fine furnishings and household accoutrements. They appreciated the fine arts and literature and "cultural" offerings in general. Far before eastern Europe would do so, mandatory public education was instituted. The inventions and discoveries coming out of western Europe would wend their way eastward and hit Hungary and parts of Romania before they ever got near to the rest of eastern Europe. In short, Hungary had more western habits than it had eastern habits. So what? Amazingly, we don't go around calling anyone who is fashionable in Klal French or English or Italian or Swiss. Why not? Because the closest physical country to many of those eastern European countries was Hungary/Romania. Those countries' inhabitants may not have known many or any French people, but they likely did know some Hungarians. And so the libel was born.

If someone is sincerely interested in their past history and wants to do an ancestral chart, then fine, knowing the countries that those ancestors came from is relevant. . . but it's not relevant for anything else, and it's more than past time that we stopped pretending that it is.

And no, it is not only the Jews of Hungarian/Romanian descent that come in for some of this ethnic character blasting.  In many cases calling someone a "real Yeki" is not meant as a compliment.  In Yiddish there is a phrase used to indicate something of an iffy nature kashruth-wise--"Poilishe Pareve"--and no, it too is not meant as a compliment.  I asked my mom, whose Yiddish was born and bred in Europe, if there are such phrases for other countries in Europe, and indeed there are.

I checked the calendar and it is 2012.  And yet, the old European "trash talk" is still alive and well.  Time, more than time, to ditch it.  Amazing how contrite we are on Yom Kippur, how sincerely we confess to our sins "ve'dibbur peh," and yet how quickly we revert back to badmouthing members of Klal based on ethnic connections.

We just read in the Haggadah about Klal's being freed from slavery.  It is time for that Klal to free itself from its enslavement to ethnic slurs as well.


Miami Al said...

Ethnic slurs are poor form, whether they are based on something or simple bigotry.

That said, when one is holding up some pre-WWII form of Judaism as ideal, I think that it's fair game. Calling someone Polish as a slur is about as appropriate as a Dumb Pollack joke is in the US, bigoted and gross. However, when some glorifies something as "true Litvak" I think that it is fair game to criticize what they are idolizing.

The collective decision to elevate the more "backwards" areas of pre-War Judiasm and denigrate the more "cosmopolitan" areas of pre-War Judaism opens one up to such a criticism.

It is stupid to rope it in with countries of origin, but there is definitely a difference in terms of culture and approach towards education between Modern Orthodoxy (whose initial culture cues do come from Frankfurt, though the people are not), and the "Yeshiva World" that takes their cues from a mythical view of Lithuanian, despite few "Litvaks" having Lithunanian ancestors.

Allan said...

Agree that the European based name calling should be over, but we have our own version alive and well in the US. A whole bunch of New Yorkers who use OOT in much the same way as their grandparents used Hungarian or Polish or any other country. And my sister in NY says that you also sometimes hear Brooklyn or Queens or New Jersey used as an epithet. And I know prof that Staten Island has also been used that way.

What do you expect when you have people in Brooklyn who seriously look at it as a heilige medinah? If it's truly heilig then everything else is fair game for the name calling.

JS said...

The 2 comments above are very astute.

I find that the assault on one's ancestor's geographic origins to be more based on "My version of Orthodoxy is better than your version of Orthodoxy" than anything else. This bigotry, not surprisingly, is most prevalent in the yeshiva world and the like. Those more on the left have mostly left those types of stereotypes behind as they are no longer relevant to their observance and style of Judaism.

The stereotypes nowadays are more of a caricature of a stereotype than actually based on national origins. Someone is punctual or OCD, he's a Yekke. Someone is ostentatious in home furnishings, he's Hungarian. Someone is overly analytical and focuses on minutae, he's a Litvak. It's ridiculous and absurd and it's not even based on where a person's family is actually from. It's especially absurd since most people's families post-WW2 are mixes of many different countries.

It reminds me, unfortunately, of racial or national origin stereotypes that are applied to the wrong group of people (as if there's a right group!) - for example, Sikhs being called Arab, an assumption that anyone Black is African American, an assumption that anyone Asian is Chinese or Japanese, etc.

But, as pointed out, we still have this nonsense today. It's even worse today arguably since we're down to defining people on neighborhoods, towns and states, not countries!

Miami Al said...

But some of it is built into American Orthodoxy.

Halacha says that when you move to a place, you adopt the Minhagim of that place, but then, if you moved to a new town, you were likely there until you died... now we bounce around...

As a result, we switched to "keep your father's customs," whether your father's customs were maintained for centuries or what he picked up post-Ellis Island... so all of a sudden, this stuff matters... when it shouldn't...

Hence the absurd situation of the "very Orthodox" in Jerusalem NOT dressing like Middle Easterners but 18th Century Eastern Europeans as "authentic Jewish attire." Nothing could be sillier, but how often to you see a Sephard in a turban vs. a western business suit?