Archive for December, 2009

Stereotyping Jews, Female and Otherwise

December 30, 2009

Over the OWU holiday break, I’ve had a number of occasions to think about being and appearing Jewish in the midwest.  As I’ve written in recent posts, the Chanukah/Christmas season routinely prompts me towards identity reflection.  Events on campus during finals week had me playing the role of BIG Jew on campus more fiercely than I have before.  And, most recently, I’ve been examining our cultural condition in relation to two Internet videos that have kept Jewish bloggers’ fingers flying through the Christmas holiday.

The first, “Coasties” was conceived by two male students at The University of Wisconsin.  The title makes reference to a term used by college students in the midwest to denote students from one of the coasts (or suburban Chicago).  The term originated as a geographic marker, but through its use a subtext emerged which suggests coasties come from economically privileged families, sometimes, as the song suggests, Jewish families.

A line from the song declares: “She a coastie, always blowin‘ daddy’s money, you a coastie, my east coast Jewish honey.”  Any Jewish coastie will quickly recognize this as code for JAP, or Jewish American Princess.  When I was growing up, being called a JAP was an insult, a sign that people thought you were spoiled and obnoxious.  Today, the term has been appropriated by some Jewish girls, like nigger in African-American circles, as a badge of honor.  (See: Zazzle)  Are there any risks of such behavior?

Heeb Magazine suggests “…the majority of the [University of Wisconsin] student body, hailing from the rural Midwest, have little or no direct exposure to Jews in their upbringing and sadly, their bite-sized understanding of our culture gets boiled down to a pair of fuzzy boots and a Lawng Aylind accent.”  In other words, when people’s first and most frequent exposure to Jews comes in the form of cultural stereotypes and jokes, often voiced by Jews themselves, that is all people think of when they think of our people.

LandlineTV’s video “The Making of Rachel and the Dragon,” which also came out last week, pokes fun at Jewish American Princesses directly.  The video depicts Jewish women as bored and judgmental.  It refers to actors and actresses whose careers have been built on comical and self-mocking brands of Jewishness, including Sarah Silverman, Larry David, and Fran Drescher.

The song and video seem innocuous jokes to some, anti-semitic slurs to others.  I wonder, where is the line and who draws it?  Have you ever made a joke about Jews with your Jewish or non-Jewish friends?  How did it play?  How did you feel after?  What damage do we, as Jews, do to ourselves by recylcing stereotypical jokes about Jewish cultural and behaviors?  If our audience isn’t familiar enough with the culture to get the joke from the inside out, are we contributing to our own condemnation?

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Festivals of Lights

December 18, 2009

Growing up in Great Neck, NY, the “quintessisal Jewish suburb” (Goldstein, 2006), December was a time for Chanukah candles, not Christmas trees.  Sure, we went to Rockefeller Center to visit the green giant holding court there.  But since most of my friends were Jewish too, so I didn’t develop the tree envy I’ve heard about from Jews who grew up in predominantly Christian communities, decorating Chanukah bushes.

Today, I live in Columbus, OH where nearly all of my family, friends, and neighbors celebrate some derivation of Christmas or Winter Solstice rather than Chanukah.  As a result, I’ve been exposed to new ways of marking this time of year – when the skeletons of trees are exposed, when cold weather keeps me indoors most of the day, and when dark evenings send me to bed early with thick, hard-covered novels.

At times I have felt uneasy participating in non-Jewish seasonal traditions, particularly those associated with Christmas.  Afterall, the Macabees fought the Syrians for the right to be different, not to blend in, right?  But, I now feel comfortable sharing the joy my friends and family feel at this time of year.  In turn, I’ve shared my Chanukah traditions and together, we’ve found light in the darkness.

Some friends helping us light our Chanukiah.

*I look forward to Mike and Sally’s late night campfire around which we howl at the moon each December 21st.

*I enjoy days off spent in the kitchen with my family – and the warm oven – baking cookies.

*I love watching my step-children show their friends how to twist the light bulbs to illuminate our electric Chanukiah.

There is one truly awesome tradition in my neighborhood, which I don’t completely understand, but I appreciate and take full advantage of.   On Christmas Eve each year, every house on the block one away from our sets out a row of milk jugs with lit candles inside along the curb.  These homemade luminaria mark nearly a half mile stretch.

I still remember the first time I happened upon them.  Elsa (our dog) and I walked down our dark street, around the corner, and there they were.  I find hope in these lights; hope that neighbors can come together to make something beautiful happen.  I think that hope has something to do with Chanukah, with our belief that miracles can happen in our time, as they did in times of old.  This season as I admire them I might say to myself, as they say in Israel, Ness Gadol Hayah Po.  A great miracle happened here.

*** Happy Chanukah ***  Happy Solstice *** Merry Christmas ***

Blessing the Chanukah Candles (w/o God)

December 15, 2009

My family is “blended.” My husband was raised Catholic but is non-practicing, and my step-kids are growing up without any formal religious structure or education. This can make sharing the Jewish holidays a challenge. The first year we lit the Chanukiah together, I struggled with how to address the blessings.

The fact that my own relationship to the concepts of God and prayer are tenuous, was a factor. Their mother’s concern that I might confuse them or try to convert them also played a role. While part of me longed to recite and share the traditional blessings, I was hesitant.

As a result, we came up with our own blessing. It is something both my husband and I feel comfortable saying and something the kids can remember. It is a blessing that we can share with our friends and family who are not Jewish so that they can participate in the ceremony of lighting Chanukah candles, without feeling obligated to say a prayer that they don’t understand or feel forced to adopt. Feel free to borrow it for your own interfaith holiday gatherings.

“Thank you for being here with me tonight,
to celebrate the miracle of the Chanukah lights.”

Thanks, But No Thanks, Mr. Hatch

December 11, 2009

Senator Orrin Hatch has graced the Jews with a Chanukah gift this year.  Hatch’s Eight Days of Chanukah is making the rounds and earning praise in The Atlantic and on NPR.  I for one have to say “Thanks but no thanks, Mr. Hatch.”  While his attempt to write an appealing Chanukah song is admirable, or just another political PR stunt, I for one find it no more entertaining than a lot of the other boring Chanukah music I’ve been listening to all my life.  And while I can understand Jeffrey Goldberg’s desire for more inspired tunes for Jews this time of year, songs that are engaging both musically and intellectually, I don’t think this is it.

The best I’ve heard in The States recently is from The Leevees Hanukkah Rocks (even if I’d argue with their spelling of the holiday).  I’d love to know if anything interesting is being done in Israel for the occasion…  If you can, please post recommendations.

The Message of Chanukah: Energy Conservation

December 4, 2009

Image: Michael Yosef Robinson

As someone who considers myself an environmentally concerned citizen, I can’t believe I’ve never made this connection before!

Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Reconstructionist Shalom Center (Philadelphia, PA) offers a new moral of the Chanukah story, an environmental interpretation of the miracle of the Chanukah lights.   He suggests we consider the idea of one day’s oil serving eight days’ need, as a call for energy conservation. The ancient Jews rebuilt the temple by the light of a single wick.  I consume more energy than that in an hour – driving my car while talking on my cell phone, for example.

This Chanukah, how can we do a better job of stretching our resources?  How might we encourage others to do the same?

Gettin’ in the Spirit

December 2, 2009

From Erran Baron Cohen, brother of Sasha.
Oh Dreidel like you’ve heard it before.