Sunday, January 22, 2006

Shtetl mentality

Matthew Yglesias asks, "what's [Israel] got to do with me?" Matt points out that his family's background is in Eastern Europe, not in the Middle East. He agrees with me that "Israel and religion, not neurosis and cured meat, will be what hold the Jewish people together," but disagrees that this is something to be happy about. A fair point, but one which misses various other, more compelling ones:

Matt may feel himself to have Eastern European heritage, and the existence of such things as Yiddish; my grandfather's old, very old, passport; hearty, bland Jewish cooking; and the fact that I am very, very pale confirm that many Jews do, in fact, have such heritage. However, it's likely that Matt's Ashkenazi ancestors, aside from the more recent ones, both considered themselves, and were considered by their non-Jewish neighbors, a foreign, "Oriental" people quite distinct from Slavs and so forth.

When you ask an American Jew what his family "is," you will get the following sort of answer: "I'm part German, part Russian, and part Polish." As per Matt. But ask a German, a Russian, or a Pole (now, perhaps, but certainly in past decades) what claim this individual has on such an identity, and unless the individual happens to be a Freud or an Einstein, the answer would be, think again. The point is, even though many Jews' most recent heritage is geographically in Eastern Europe, we as Ashkenazi Jews are fooling ourselves if we believe our forebearers had anything other than an extreme outsider--foreign, even--status while in that part of the world. This is not to say there was no mixing, that cultures never blended, but if your ancestors were (as were mine) in the Pale of Settlement, chances are they were in something that more resembles parts of Israel (or, um, Brooklyn) than anything you'd find in non-Jewish Eastern Europe. While I support the right of Jews today, as well as others, to live equally and peacefully in whichever country they'd prefer, it makes no sense to project back into history and claim that this was the way it was way back when.

Which brings me to the obvious: There's a reason that Matt and I and (insert your favorite American Jew here) are not currently in Eastern Europe. It didn't work out so well there. Pogroms and the Holocaust, for a start. It is unfair and upsetting and "letting the Nazis win" and so on to allow the anti-Semitic view that certain residents of Eastern Europe "count" as Eastern European while others do not. And it wouldn't be enough to say that anti-Semites didn't consider one's ancestors to be Russian or Polish or whatever, if that had been how they thought of themselves, but it cut both ways. Matt claims to feel ties to non-Jewish (i.e. current, post-Holocaust) Eastern Europe, yet these ties are a bit harder for me to understand than just a general sense that, yes, my ancestors did live in a climate such as whatever with trees such as whatever. Because, when it comes down to it, that's what it means that my ancestors (none of whom were, far as I know, "court Jews" or even close) were "Eastern European."

The question comes down to this: which matters more, geographic or national heritage? While the modern state of Israel is, well, modern, it is, due to some pretty basic and well-known historical reasons, where the European Jewish community--at least the part of it most interested in Jewish continuity--now resides. Yes, Israel is in many ways a "made-up" thing--it's creating a falafel-eating, Hebrew-speaking group out of people whose immediate heritage involved neither chickpeas nor reading from right to left. But there are some good reasons for a contemporary Jew's sentimental pangs to be nostalgia for this recent extension of their own people's history, rather than to a geographic area where their most recent ancestors happened to live.

So while it is in a sense understandable to identify with Ashkenazi culture and heritage, identifying as "Eastern European" requires more uplifting revisionism than I care to try out. It makes American Jews feel better about ourselves to believe that we are Russian-American or Polish-American, because it gives us a pre-American nationality, gives us a proper sense of having come from somewhere. While the modern state of Israel is not many Americans' pre-American nationality, the Jewish nation, albeit the pre-state Jewish nation, is.

I've got more where this came from, but this post is way too long as it is.


joe said...

If you go back for more where that came from, I think it would be interesting to tease out just what you mean by the distinction between geographical and national heritage. This was a far cleaner disctinction before modern Israel came into being, but it seems somewhat complicated now.

What I mean is, on the one hand I think you're arguing that the geographic roots of (Eastern) Europeans was betrayed, and the national Jewish identity is and has been an abiding national root which for that reason ought to be the more important, the really identifying identity. But of course there's a strong geographic element in the national Jewish identity to begin with and especially now.

Phoebe said...

Is there a way you could say, in one sentence, what you'd like answered? I understand that this is hypocritical, given the length of my post, but it would be helpful all the same.

Anonymous said...

Being a Roth fan I'm surprised you didn't mention operation shylock. Operation Shylock had some rather pertinent things to say on this subject.

Phoebe said...

Yglesias already mentioned it. I'm not actually sure that that's the most relevant Roth novel, though.

joe said...

Ok, an attempt to be concise:
How can you fault Yglesias for being drawn to a specific geographic area when the founding of the modern Israeli state is based on a geographic connection of far greater temporal separation?

And now some long-winded explanation of what I mean (and bring some salt; I don't really know what I'm talking about): If religion is less important culturally to Yglesias than other cultural activities his attitude seems explicable. Yglesias seems to be doing something similar to what his ancestors did by nostalgizing for his ancestral home. His ancestors nostalgized Israel because it was the geographic origin of their culture. As time passed the Jews of the diaspora adapt things from the surrounding cultures (Yiddish) and create novel cultural artifacts (delis maybe?). Yet the Jews of the diaspora maintain their connection to physical Israel because it is so strongly connected with the religious core of Jewish identity. So, take out the religious core (and to some extent ignore the fact that it didn't, as you say, work out very well in that part of the world) and what you have is a mixture of culture in large part adapted and created in Eastern Europe. If Yglesias has removed or marginalized this religious core of identity in relation to other items of cultural identity then it follows that insofar as the bulk of cultural items is associated with Eastern Europe that becomes the ancestral home.

This is just conjecture and I'm not accusing Yglesias of being an apostate. I don't think I'm disagreeing with anything you've said, which is too bad because my thinking is usually clearer when I actually have a beef with someone. I'm just saying that maybe Yglesias's thinking it's a bad thing and your thinking it's a good thing can have a similar explanation. I also understand that it's kind of childish to say, "Hey, but you're drawn to a geographic area, too." since the connection is very different, but you wanted it in one sentence.

On re-reading there may not be much for you to address in what I've said, but I'll let you decide.