Tag Archives: jewish

Quoted: Lucette Lagnado On Being An Egyptian Jew In 1960s America

Lucette Lagnado

I was a child of the ’60s. No, not those ’60s of peace, drugs, and rock and roll, but rather the period several years prior, when a secret agent named Emma Peel reigned supreme on TV’s The Avengers. [...]

When I caught my first episode in 1965, I assumed it was the black leather that gave Mrs. Peel her courage. At nine years old, I longed for a catsuit of my own. [...] Every week, I watched with a combination of fascination, intrigue, and utter longing, dreaming of growing up to be exactly like her.

It was madness, of course. No child on earth was a more unlikely Mrs. Peel.

At the time, my family was new to America. Even our black and white TV was a recent acquisition – the only vaguely valuable possession in that cramped apartment on 66th street in Bensonhurst, a working-class section of Brooklyn where our neighbors were either Italian Catholics or Jewish like us. But we were Egyptian Jews – Arab and Jewish both. When I was seven, my parents moved me and my three older siblings from Cairo, where we were born. In Egypt, we’d lived in a lovely apartment overlooking a main boulevard and I attended a private French lycée. Several times a week, my father would take me to a Swiss patisserie where we’d sit outdoors enjoying cakes and cold drinks.

But this comfortable way of life was rapidly deteriorating. For decades, Egyptian Jews had been embraced by both Muslims and Christians, managing to flourish in a society that was exceptionally tolerant. But the creation of Israel in 1948 marked the beginning of a Jewish exodus, which intensified after the Egyptian monarchy was overthrown in 1952 by an oppressive military dictatorship. Its leader, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, had decided that Jews were no longer true Egyptians. The security that Jews, foreigners, and other minorities had enjoyed vanished; a Jewish community numbering 80,000 was chased out or pressured to leave.

By 1963, businesses had been confiscated, the once-renowned Jewish hospital had been taken over by the army, and a g general fear — of arrest, of some terrible repercussion for refusing to leave-was pervasive. Most of our friends and relatives had already fled, and my father finally agreed that we too should go.

We were a family of six with only $200 ~ and 26 suitcases. Our papers branded us co as “stateless”-people without a country. Our painful journey led us from Cairo to Paris and ultimately to New York, where we fetched up in a corner of Brooklyn.

Yet Americans had trouble processing us. How could I be both an Arab and a Jew? Had I lived in the Pyramids, they asked, or perhaps in a tent? I learned early on not to tell people I was Egyptian at all.

—”The Avenger” by Lucette Lagnado, part of her memoir The Arrogant Years, originally published in Elle Magazine

Off and Running Toward My Own Identity [Racialigious]

by Guest Contributor Collier Meyerson, originally published at Be’Chol Lashon

Collier, thinking

When I first saw Off and Running I was immediately taken, but then again, my own personal investment in the film’s subject matter was considerable. Like Avery, I’m an adopted Jew of color from New York City. I see only dualities in my maturation, which has been a series of racially charged incidents quelled by moments of encouragement by people and institutions that worked together in a bizarre alchemy to create me.

As a young child my parents sat me down and explained it was important for me to find a faith of which to be a part. I grew up in the predominantly liberal and Jewish bastion of New York City called the Upper West side and at the ripe age of 9, it was Judaism that I felt most connected to; it was what I knew best. I began to attend a Schul after school where we were taught stories from the Bible, Yiddish and about our history and culture. I liked the friends I made and the stories I heard at Schul. The formation of my Jewish identity at that age was informed by Schul where there were transnationally adopted Jews to my right and left and by my neighborhood where I felt my family the apotheosis of what the 21st century family looked like. At 9 years old, I thought being bi-racial and Jewish was a magical marriage of identities.

At 13 years old, in the planning stages of my Bat Mitzvah, my Hebrew School teacher called a meeting at his home to discuss details. He opened his door to see me, my father who is an Ashkenazi Jew and my black mother. Upon seeing my family, without asking, he regrettably informed us that the synagogue, would not allow me to perform the right of passage in their temple because my mother wasn’t a Jew. My wily mother, coyly and smarmily responded “oh, but her mother is Jewish.”

Yes, it turns out my biological mother is a white Ashkenazi Jew.

And with these words, my Hebrew school teacher, as though I was caught in the Woody Allen version of my own life as a film, threw his hands into the air and exclaimed “it’s Bashert [it’s destiny] then! You’ll have your Bat Mitzvah in the Temple!” In that moment I felt a definitive rage. I wanted desperately to be a part of the Upper West Side’s most exclusive and popular clique, Judaism, but felt what would prove to be an indelible stake in this idea of blackness, something pitted against Jewishness. And so there it was, in the home of my Hebrew School teacher that the two were separated, like oil and water.

I was Black and Jewish but I couldn’t be both, I couldn’t be a Black Jew. Continue reading

Defiance: How Jews Depict Jews Within a Larger Context

by Guest Contributor Matt Egan

Starring Liev Schrieber and Daniel Craig, directed by Edward Zwick, Defiance tells the story of the Bielskis, Jews who fought the Nazis in the woods of what is now Belarus. Zwick is Jewish. Schreiber is Jewish and has done a number of Jewish-themed projects lately, including the relatively unsuccessful adaptation of the novel Everything is Illuminated and starring on Broadway as Alan Berg in a revival of Talk Radio. I found Defiance moving, but also entertaining. It swells with action in the best tradition of Hollywood. For some people, this is a problem. The most commonly expressed fear of directors making films about the Holocaust is that they will trivialize and exploit the tragedy. Ralph Seliger complains about historical inaccuracies and that the Bielskis are cheapened as “the image of Hollywood heroes.” My concern is different. There were six Holocaust films out at one time, but given the history of how Hollywood has depicted Jews and the Holocaust – and the way in which I understand antisemitism as shaping that depiction – Defiance was the only one I had any interest in seeing.

Perhaps embarrassed by the number of Holocaust movies out at once, Humorist Joel Stein wrote a satirical column in December for the LA Times a short while back that parodies the common myth that The Jews run Hollywood:

As a proud Jew, I want America to know about our accomplishment. Yes, we control Hollywood. Without us, you’d be flipping between “The 700 Club” and “Davey and Goliath” on TV all day.

So I’ve taken it upon myself to re-convince America that Jews run Hollywood by launching a public relations campaign, because that’s what we do best. I’m weighing several slogans, including: “Hollywood: More Jewish than ever!”; “Hollywood: From the people who brought you the Bible”; and “Hollywood: If you enjoy TV and movies, then you probably like Jews after all.”

I thought that the piece was funny and subversively camp. However, I’m also concerned he’s playing with fire. It was no surprise to me when the top Google hit for Stein’s piece was a white supremacist website. Continue reading

Schlepping toward the Ballot Box?

by Guest Contributor Matthew Egan

*Warning: Explicit Language*


(Sarah Silverman’s video for the Great Schlep)

There’s a thing you might have heard about, The Great Schlep.

Behind it is an organization called Jews Vote. Looking at their bios at Jewsvote.org, they look like pretty great guys. One’s the son of a partisan. There’s a video with Sarah Silverman (see above). If you’ve heard of the project, it was probably from a link to the video.

I like Sarah Silverman.

Sometimes, she fails at what she’s trying to do, and sometimes I think that she needs to put a little more thought into it, but mostly I think a lot of the criticism she gets in undeserved. She does obnoxious, self-absorbed characters you’re not supposed to like. I can understand that it can be hard to get into, but the joke is consistently about herself. On her most infamous joke, I agree with Kate Rigg. The character Silverman portrays doesn’t understand that the word ‘chink’ is still racist even in the context is ‘I love chinks,’ but I don’t think it would be a joke unless both Silverman and the audience both understood otherwise. She wouldn’t have written it if it weren’t about that juxtaposition. I say that mostly to point out that I’ll give Silverman more room than most Racialicious readers would.

However, I have a bit of a problem with her video for The Great Schlep. Not with the goals of getting people to vote for Obama or visit their grandparents. Please, do vote for Obama. And visit your grandparents. I can tell you most Jews are soundly behind those goals. Looking at my own family, my grandfather certainly would have voted for Obama. My grandmother, who said a few racist things in her day, I think would have voted for Obama. My mother and uncle (both in their 60s) will be voting for Obama. I asked my aunt about the campaing, and she started ranting about Palin. And the elderly Jews I know here in New York will all be voting for Obama.

But, when the Silverman video is offered for a general (not exclusively Jewish) audience, which I’ve certainly seen a lot, I feel a need to interrogate it further. As Jackie Mason (who’s rarely the voice of sanity) pointed out, you shouldn’t really threaten to withhold your love from your grandparents to force them to vote the way you want, but to me that’s Sarah being Silverman. She also puts up an image of a large nose to illustrate the word “Jew.” But when she says the Jewish grandparents won’t vote for Barack Obama because he has a scary name that sounds Muslim, that strikes me as more genuine. Isn’t that the point of the entire Great Schlep project? If that’s not the motivation, then why the video at all? And though I don’t think the Jewish nose is meant to racialize Jews, is it perhaps meant to remind us of antisemitism? Well, according to Jewsvote.org:

Everyone knows that Jews vote. By some estimates, 80% of Jews are registered to vote. Among registered voters, Jews tend to vote at twice the rate of the typical voter. In certain swing states, Jewish votes can make a significant difference between victory and defeat.

In presidential elections, when choosing between a more progressive candidate and a more conservative candidate, Jews overwhelmingly choose the more progressive candidate. Between 1924 and 2004, Jews have given their vote to the more progressive candidates at an average rate of 76 percent. In fact, none of the more conservative candidates has ever mustered more than 40 percent of the Jewish vote, while more than half received less than 20 percent. But do Jews really make a significant difference between victory and defeat?

Given this history, why is Barack Obama hovering at 60 percent of the Jewish vote, according to three separate polls? Is this all the product of a highly effective rumor campaign, spread through Jewish networks often by well-meaning individuals concerned that they information they received was true? Or is there something more?

I think that confirms me suspicions that this well-meaning project is based on some distorted ideas. Continue reading

The Pintele Yid (Yiddish for “Jewish spark” )

by Guest Contributor Matthew Egan

My fiancée, Soo, put The Savages on our Netflix queue. Despite plenty of slice-of-life humor, I found it to be an unyieldingly bleak story about two children putting their father in a nursing home. In one scene, the son (Philip Seymour Hoffman), shows an old movie to help his father with the transition. The movie? The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson. Not a good choice, considering that they invited the entire nursing home including the predominantly black staff. Blink and you might miss the father react hysterically to a scene of the young protagonist getting beaten by his Orthodox Jewish father. But Jenkins doesn’t linger there, moving to Jolson applying blackface and highlighting the gap between the white, theater professor son and the black, working class staff.

This moment, so quickly covered over, is the only reference in the film to the family’s Jewishness. I think the director, Tamara Jenkins, was intentionally pointing to the assimilation of the two children as something that estranged them from their own father. Since the children won’t acknowledge their connection to Jewishness, the film can’t explore it. If you happen to notice it, that moment is poignant precisely because it can’t be explored. It tints the rest of the film, but uncertainly. No other moment of the film is decidedly Jewish, but details like the children’s interest in theater can be understood as such. This universally recognizable story of a dysfunctional family is also a particular story of the assimilated, Jewish experience in America. The relationship between these two stories, however, remains unclear.

Up to that moment, I was enjoying the film. It’s good, if you like to sit with painful social dysfunction. But once I noticed it was a “Jewish” film, I was hooked. After the film, I went online to find out if Jenkins is Jewish and to try to fill in the Jewish side of this story. She says of herself, “I’m half-Italian and half-Jewish, so I eat lots of food on both sides. I’m very attracted to both sides culturally.” Looking for Jews like that can be a bad habit, promoting stereotypes and the myth of Jewish power. But it’s a hobby enjoyed by both Jews and antisemites, omnipresent in the Jewish press. For me, I’m trying to get a better handle on what it means to be Jewish. Like in Jenkins’ story, I’ve found Jewishness to be underexplored, so that I’m not sure what it means and how it’s affected my life. To my mother’s surprise when I asked her while writing this, at age 34, I knew almost nothing of our family history. Continue reading

A Secular Jewish Point of View on Israel

by Guest Contributor Sarah Jaffe

As an American Jew, the Israel question has been a part of my life. “Birthright” tours of the holy land are encouraged in the Jewish community, and Israel policy dominates the questions I am asked by other Jews on the campaign trail.

I embraced the Irish liberation struggle in college when I was reading Yeats and Synge, and through that lens I recognized that Israel was wrong in so many ways, yet I struggle to reconcile what I feel about it.

I find myself recoiling at pro-Palestinian articles, and I understand that even in me, progressive anti-racist anti-colonialist that I am, the identification of Israel with all Jews and thus with me is internalized. Continue reading

Jerusalem Cries for Peace

by Guest Contributor Jehanzeb Dar, originally published at Broken Mystic

I was worried that I was not going to have time to blog about this, but as I waited in rush hour traffic and enjoyed the gentle breeze and pleasant weather, I was reminded of how grateful I should be. Grateful that I am not living under the extremely violent, horrific, and turbulent conditions that others endure on a daily basis. With this realization comes purpose and meaning. In Islam, we are taught that everything has meaning, even the smallest details that we tend to overlook. No leaf falls without God’s knowledge, as the Qur’an says (6:59). For those of us in the west, we typically do not think reflect on the hardships and struggles that people on the other side of the globe are battling (look at what’s happening in China today). Many times, I believe that one of my purposes in this life is to help people in all possible manners. Not just through words, but more through action.

For most of the west, May 15th of 2008 is the 60th birthday for the state of Israel, but for the Muslim world, it is Youm al-Nakba — “The Day of Catastrophe”. I have seen other people decorate their blogs and Facebook profile pages with Palestinian flags and “Free Palestine” slogans. I’ve seen people change their profile pictures to images of themselves wearing a Palestinian scarf, or keffiyah. I have no intention to generalize about people, but from the certain individuals that I know, they display such patriotism for Palestine and yet they hardly know anything about the current events, the history, or even about the politicians. I remember when I was directing my short film, “A Flower from the East,” my main characters were Palestinian, and my film professor asked, “what is the significance of the Palestinian scarf? Does it serve any religious significance?” This question made me reflect on what the Palestinian cause means to me personally, and I believe this is a question we all should ask ourselves. What do the flags, scarves, and slogans mean and symbolize? We have to avoid chanting slogans emptily. It’s like the young and proud Pakistanis who shout “Pakistan Zinadabaad!” (Long Live Pakistan) just for the sake of showing off their Pakistani pride, but not really understanding what they’re saying.

The Palestinian people have suffered a great deal and their story is still neglected by the mainstream media, which is what frustrates Muslims around the world, myself included. A common mistake that many anti-Islamic and even well-intentioned conservatives make is that they think anti-Zionism equates anti-Jewish (yes, I’m one of those people who refuse to say anti-Semitism, since Arabs are Semites too, not just Jews). This is absolutely false. Another mistake is that they think Islam teaches Muslims to hate and kill Jews. Again, this is false. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has nothing to do with Judaism and Islam; this conflict needs to be understood in light of historical context. More than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs were brutally and systematically evicted from their homes by the terrorist organizations known as Irgun, Stern Gang, and the Haganah, “the precursor of the Israel Defense Forces.” Examples of where these groups evicted Arabs can be found in the villages of Deir Yassin and Duwayma. According to Dan Freeman-Maloy of ZMag, the Zionist forces controlled 78% of mandatory Palestine by 1949. They declared the State of Israel after razing “some 400 Palestinian villages to the ground.” As mentioned earlier, to this day, the creation of Israel is infamously known around the Muslim world as a great historic injustice and/or the Nakba (Catastrophe). In the years that followed, the Israeli military occupation (or the Israel Defense Force) patrolled the Palestinian settlements for “security” purposes. This is not to insult or stereotype the Israreli Defense Force, but just to point out that so many horrific crimes against innocent Palestinians have been committed by countless Israeli soldiers, who are not branded “terrorists” or charged with war crimes. In 1982, the prime minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon, ordered the massacre of Palestinians in Lebanese refugee camps. He formed an alliance with a Lebanese Christian militia-men, who were permitted to enter two Palestinian refugee camps (Sabra and Shatila) in an area controlled by the Israeli military. They massacred thousands of Palestinian civilians — something that the Palestinians and the Muslim world will never forget.

And the west ponders why the Muslim world is so antagonistic towards them and Israel. Extremist televangelists like John Hagee claim that this is a “religious war,” which sounds very medieval if you ask me. It reminds me of the Crusades, when the Pope Urban II called for a holy war against the Muslims. The truth of the matter is that Christians, Muslims, and Jews have coexisted for centuries. Contrary to the “Islam-spread-by-the-sword” myth, Christians and Jews were allowed to practice their religion, pray in churches and synagogues, and hold honorable positions in the government (for example, the Christians would translate the Greek philosophical texts into Arabic). When the Muslim leader, Salah Al-Din, captured Jerusalem in 1187, he did not slaughter a single Christian civilian. He established peace and coexistence among the Christians, Muslims, and Jews. To read more about Salah Al-Din, read my entry on the Crusades here.

Why do I mention history? Because if we really care about the Palestinians and peace among human beings, we must learn from our history. Salah Al-Din and the Christian King Baldin IV were not afraid of negotiating with one another. Right now, President Bush is heavily criticizing Barack Obama for wanting to negotiate with “terrorists.” Notice the terminology: “terrorists.” In the mind of right-wing extremists, the Palestinian leaders, along with the Iraqi and Iranian leaders, are nothing less than “evil.” According to tonight’s CNN report, there are many Jewish-Americans are concerned about Obama’s wanting to negotiate with the aforementioned leaders, particularly with Hamas. My question is: what’s the alternative? Violence? War? Salah Al-Din and Baldwin IV negotiated to prevent bloodshed and slaughter. Salah Al-Din and Balian of Ibelin negotiated for the same reasons. What happens when there’s no communication and understanding? People start to fear one another, and fear leads to anger, anger leads to hatred, and hatred leads to suffering (I learned that from “Star Wars”). Continue reading

We Contain Multitudes: Ashkenazi Spaces and Multiethnic Identity

by Guest Contributor Anna, originally published at Jewesses with Attitude

I recently attended a Yiddish culture conference where participants were required to wear nametags printed with their full names. Thus displayed, my conspicuously Puerto Rican name provoked endless fascination and scrutiny. One day I was asked to identify my ethnicity five times — before the end of breakfast.

For those who are not regularly asked by strangers to explain “How are you possible?”, here’s a sample of questions I fielded over the course of a day by well-meaning, completely unself-conscious folks — during class, in the restroom, in the hallway, in the buffet line, on the dance floor…

    1. “You must have a lot of drummers in your family,” said the woman sitting next to me in drum class. (This happens to be true — though what would she say to [violinist] Yehuda Menuhin?)
    2. “What a crazy coincidence! I was just humming ‘Feliz Navidad!’” said a woman I walked past by in the restroom. (Impressive that she could get the ringing of clarinets out of her ears.)
    3. “Viva la Boricua!” a woman shouted enthusiastically. (I replied with a polite, “Yo, a sheynem dank.”)
    4. “I don’t understand why you’re studying Yiddish instead of Ladino.” (My biggest FAQ, and a twist on the also-loaded question “why are you studying Yiddish?” most students of this language receive.)
    5. “My, the intermarriage rate has really gone up in the last 25 years,” one woman pointedly commented. (My parents are Jewish.)
    6. “Wait a minute. That’s possible? You’re gonna have to explain,” demanded a boisterous girl — who then quickly professed her great love of salsa.

Continue reading