Highlights from Secular Culture & Ideas

Jews and Native Americans

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Jews and Native Americans

By Rachel Rubinstein

“I’m home on the range, but not at home on the range,” a melancholy cowboy says into his cellphone in a New Yorker cartoon. The cowboy in the American imagination, romantically roaming the mythical West alongside vanishing Indians and buffalo, is here amusingly re-imagined as a quintessentially Jewish figure, simultaneously home and not-at-home in the United States. 

The ways that Jewish immigrants willed themselves to feel at home in their adopted country is a familiar story. So it should be no surprise that Native Americans played a role in this Jewish immigrant drama (or, sometimes, comedy). Usually, upon hearing that the subject of my book-in-progress is American Indians in the Jewish imagination, people respond: “Oh! Like Mel Brooks in Blazing Saddles!” However, Jewish imaginative engagement with the indigenous peoples of the Americas has a much more complicated history—one which draws directly upon the secular Jewish identities that had been invented in Europe. Jewish nationalism and communism, the twin legacies of European Jews, would become among the most powerful mediating ideas between immigrant Jews and “their” Indians.

Let me begin in the middle. This whole project started when I came across translations of Native American chants into Yiddish from the early 20th century. They were in a Yiddish journal called Shriftn, published by a group of secular modernist Yiddish poets in New York. While reading, I noticed an intensely political Jewish fascination with Native American culture.

The story begins as early as the 17th century, when a Portuguese crypto-Jew named Antonio de Montezinos claimed to have encountered descendents of the ten lost tribes of Israel in the mountains of Brazil. They spoke to him in Hebrew and called him “brother.” Montezinos’ narrative, publicized all over Europe and its colonies, would become the most significant piece of evidence for the enormously popular theory that the native peoples of the New World were in fact the lost Israelites. Later, in the early 19th century, Mordechai Manuel Noah attempted to establish a sovereign Jewish nation in upstate New York into which he would invite Indians, to be “reunited with their brethren.” Noah’s unsuccessful Jewish-Indian nation has served as literary inspiration for contemporary writers like Ben Katchor (The Jew of New York), Michael Chabon (The Yiddish Policeman’s Union), and others, who have written about havens of Jewish refugees and their encounters with Indians. 

Jewish immigrants, making their way westward in the 19th century, usually encountered “real Indians” through trade, but it was the vaudeville circuit that would become the site of encounters between Jews and Indians. There’s an old joke that the roles of “Indians” on the vaudeville stage (and later, in Hollywood films) were usually performed by Jews, and, moreover, that the early-20th-century vaudeville theatre served as a staging ground upon which Jews and Indians met and mingled. However, it was more often the case that Jewish performers donned “redface.” 

Beginning with the Yiddish playlet “Tsvishn Indianer” (“Among Indians”), performed in 1895 as part of a larger bill, and continuing through burlesque songs such as “Yonkl the Cowboy Jew,” “I’m a Yiddish Cowboy” (about an intermarriage between a Jewish cowboy and an Indian maiden), and “Moshe from Nova Scotia” (about a Jewish Eskimo), there is a long, fascinating, and sometimes troubling tradition of urbane immigrant Jews either offensively or comically performing an encounter with the mythical American West and its mythologized inhabitants: the Indians. (The tradition continued with “Big Chief Dynamite,” about a “tough Jew Indian boy,” and continued further with Fanny Brice’s Ziegfield Follies song “I’m an Indian.” It culminated with Mel Brooks’ late-20th-century turn as a Yiddish-speaking Indian chief in Blazing Saddles, Gene Wilder’s Polish immigrant rabbi crossing the continent in The Frisco Kid, and Rob Morrow’s New York Jewish doctor trapped in a tiny Alaskan village in the 1990s television series Northern Exposure.)

But Jewish engagement with Native Americans was also fueled by more serious literary and political motivations. For instance, in the first half of the 20th century, three Hebrew poets published epics on Native American themes. Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha” was translated into Yiddish and Hebrew in the early 20th century. Shriftn wasn’t the only Yiddish journal to translate (and imitate, in fact) Native American chants: Der Hammer, the Yiddish communist monthly, devoted its July 1928 issue to Native American themes, featuring translations of poetry, renditions of traditional tales, and original fiction. The Yiddish press both in Eastern Europe and the U.S. regularly featured articles on Native American cultures. Several Yiddish writers developed a reputation for writing about Jews, the West, and American Indians. In nearly all cases, these articles were saturated with the radical left-wing politics characteristic of secular Yiddish literature. 

In English, radical secular left-wing Jewish writers such as Tillie Olsen, Michael Gold, Nathanael West, and Howard Fast critiqued fascism, colonialism, and racism by referencing Native American history. Howard Fast, for one, linked Jewish suffering and genocide under Nazism with the suffering and national struggle of the Cheyenne, in his novel The Last Frontier. And beginning in the late 1960s and 70s, Bernard Malamud and Henry Roth produced complex meditations on Jewish and Native national identities, genocide, suffering, and power. 

American Jews, I would argue, have never been able to reconcile their colonial and counter-colonial impulses, so Jewish interest in Native Americans also served as yet another way to work out anxieties about how to negotiate the collision between “tribalisms” and modern, Enlightenment liberalism. Constantly interrogating and examining their own indigenousness and their own sense of being “at home,” Jews have imagined in Native America a mirror for their anxieties and desires.

Rachel Rubinstein is Associate Professor of American Literature and Jewish Studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. She is most recently the author of Members of the Tribe: Native America in the Jewish Imagination (Wayne State University Press, 2010) and co-editor of Arguing the Modern Jewish Canon: Essays on Literature and Culture in Honor of Ruth R. Wisse (Harvard Center for Jewish Studies and Harvard University Press, 2009).

The Touch of Leah’s Hands

By Naomi Seidman

In its main currents, modern Yiddish literature was as proudly and aggressively secular as it was proudly and assertively Jewish. But it was not secularity as such that shaped this literature and lent it its distinctive energy. It was rather secularization, that is, the break with tradition. With rare exceptions, Yiddish writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries were raised in traditional homes and received religious educations; in adolescent or early adulthood, they broke away from their homes in pursuit of the capitalized ideals of their time: Enlightenment, Freedom, Literature, Socialism, Palestine. In the heyday of the Yiddish haskole, the 18th-century Eastern European Enlightenment, this break with tradition was as recognizable a feature of the literature as riding off into the sunset is a staple of the American Western.
Some of the movement’s avatars were rebellious yeshiva boys for whom heresy became something of a new religion. But they were not alone, for girls and young women, too, abandoned traditional homes and transposed their own experiences into secular midrash. Kadya Molodowsky published a long song-cycle in 1924 called “Froyen-Lider” [Women-Songs] that touched on both aspects of this experience: the painful break and the creative reclamation. The first poem of the cycle makes it perfectly clear that the abandonment of tradition carried a particular flavor for Jewish women, or at least for Molodowsky:
Es veln di froyen fun unzer mishpokhe

Beinhakht in khaloymes mire kumen un zogn:

The women of our family will come to me at night

In dreams and say:

We have modestly borne our pure blood through generations

to bring it to you like a wine preserved

in the kosher cellars of our hearts.

And one will say:

I was left a grass widow, when my cheeks—two red apples—

still stood on the tree.

And I ground my white teeth in the lonely nights of waiting.

And I will speak back to the grandmothers:

Your sighs whistled like whips

driving my young life from the house

to flee your kosher beds.

But you continue to follow me, wherever the street is dark

and a shadow falls.

And your stifled sobs chase me like the autumn winds,

and your words are silken cords bound around my brain.

My life is like a page plucked from a book,

the first line torn off.

In a haunting image, Molodowsky presents her female ancestors as appearing to her with the reminder that she comes from a long line of “kosher” blood, that is, of women who have kept themselves free of sexual taint. But the poet hears not only the pride of having fulfilled the Jewish woman’s exalted sexual modesty and the implicit demand that she keep up the good record, but also half-spoken murmured complaints, rumbles of dissatisfaction, even from the most pious of these women. One ancestor was an agune, an abandoned woman, held sexual prisoner by her husband’s very absence. And in a phrase that seems to me to exemplify what our psychological age would call “passive-aggression,” Molodowsky speaks of being driven from her home by sighs that whistle like whips. In the final lines, the poet acknowledges that leaving home has not severed her connection with these women, or with the books in which this connection is enshrined. Intermixed with a rage young rebellious women shared with their male peers, Molodowsky’s poem-cycle suggests, is a loyalty to the women, the grandmothers, they have left behind but whose words are the silken cords, a feminine form of tefillin, bound around the poet’s temples.
Like many modernist Jewish writers, Molodowsky turned to traditional forms in a form of secular midrash, in particular to the genre of the tkhine, the personal prayers that women had traditionally directed not only to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob but also to the four biblical matriarchs—Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah; in the classics of this premodern genre, Jewish women beseeched the matriarchs to intercede with God on their behalf. In his autobiographical novel, S.Y. Abramovitsh (Mendele Moykher Sforim) describes his mother reciting such a prayer during a candle-making ritual:
She would read with great emotion, her melody melting the soul and pulling at the heart strings... “May these candles which we are about to make... arouse the holy patriarchs and matriarchs from their graves so that no evil, trouble and suffering befall us... This thread I am laying down in the name of our mother Sarah. May God remember in our favor what she suffered when her dear son Isaac was taken from her and bound to the altar. May she intercede for us before You that our children not be stolen from us, that they not be led away from us like sheep.”
Molodowsky rewrites the tkhine literature in her Froyen-Lider to forge a new kind of literary link, between the secular poetry of the granddaughter and the petitionary prayer of her grandmothers, and between the godless Jewish women of the modern street and the matriarchs they nevertheless continue to address.
For poor brides who were servant girls

Mother Sarah taps sparkling wine

from dark barrels and pitchers.

She who is destined to have a full pitcher,

for her, Mother Sarah carries it with both hands;

and she who is given only a small goblet

has Mother Sarah’s tears that fall into it.

And to the street girls dreaming of white wedding shoes,

Mother Sarah brings clear honey

on tiny trays

to their tired mouths.

To poor brides of noble birth,

ashamed to lay their trousseau of patches

under their mother-in-law’s eye,

Mother Rebecca brings camels

heaped with white linen.

And when darkness spreads out around them

and all the camels kneel down to rest,

Mother Rebecca measures out ell after ell of linen

from the rings of her hand

to her golden bracelet.

For those whose eyes are weary

from gazing after every neighborhood child

and whose hands are thin from longing

for a small soft body,

and a cradle’s rocking,

Mother Rachel brings healing leaves

from faraway mountains,

and comforts them with a kind word,

at any hour God may open the closed womb.

To those who weep at night on lonely beds

and have no one to bring their grief to,

murmuring to themselves with burnt lips,

to them Mother Leah comes softly

and covers their eyes with her pale hands.
In Molodowsky’s modernist version of the tkhine God plays no role, and the matriarchs are not intercessors; when Rachel speaks of God, it is only as mysterious agent of fate, not as one who may be addressed; the matriarchs are not called upon to intercede in the divine plan but only to share their human experience—they deal in healing leaves, not prayer. And the women they come to are not the pious grandmothers of Molodowsky’s dreams but the lost souls of the urban street. Molodowsky insists, though, that the living link expressed in the tkhine literature, whose outlines are discernible even within its strictest pieties, remains available for the street women, poor brides, and servant girls of her day. Behind the grandmothers’ prayers that the matriarchs intercede for them with God was the recognition that, over the long reach of generations and history, there were a series of experiences shared by these women. That God is absent or can no longer be counted on to respond to those needs makes the connection more rather than less valuable. The cure may never be found, but the touch of Leah’s hands brings some solace to her descendant.
Molodowsky was far from the only writer who drew from Yiddish women’s literature; Itsik Manger, for instance, also used it as a source for his own work. I came to this literature late—long after I’d left my own Yiddish-speaking home in Boro Park, Brooklyn. It wasn't until I was a graduate student at Berkeley, in fact, that I discovered Manger and Molodowsky.
Yet like them I’ve returned to the language if not the prayers of my life, and I hope also like them on my own terms.
Naomi Seidman is the Koret Professor of Jewish Culture and the Director of the Richard S. Dinner Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. Her books include Faithful Renderings: Jewish-Christian Difference and the Politics of Translation, A Marriage Made in Heaven: The Sexual Politics of Hebrew and Yiddish, and her translation of The First Day and Other Stories by Dvora Baron.

Dario Moreno and Sephardic Cosmopolitanism

By Pamela Dorn Sezgin

Dario Moreno (1921-1968), a Jewish singer who took the world stage as a popular artist and film star in the late 1950s and 1960s, perhaps best encapsulates the new role of Sephardic Jewry in the mid-20th century. Moreno symbolized a kind of pan-Mediterranean cosmopolitanism, not unknown in the earlier Ottoman centuries, but generalized in a secular way beyond parochial concerns and local interests. Like the famous elevator, the asansör, in his native Izmir, built by Nesim Levi in 1907, Moreno to his Turkish countrymen became a symbol of modernity, Europeanization, and progress. Yet, he always acknowledged both his Turkish and Jewish identities, never renouncing or hiding his nationality and ethnicity despite reinventing himself in France, the epicenter of his career.

Born David Arugete, Moreno was a cabaret singer and film actor who played Sancho Panza to Jacques Brel’s Don Quixote. He danced with Brigitte Bardot and rode the wave of new entertainment technologies in the mid-20th century. These were impressive achievements for a man who spent his early years in an orphanage. Later, reunited with his mother, he attended Jewish communal schools and clerked in a lawyer’s office, while studying French at night at the public library. Acquiring a guitar, he played at bar mitzvah parties, and further honed his musical skills while doing military service in the Turkish army, where officers noticed his abilities and encouraged his musical talent. The Turkish Army served as a springboard to Moreno’s career. He became adept as a polyglot singer in Turkish, Greek, French, Italian, and Spanish. He served as a soloist in military clubs in Turkey’s major cities, and soon was singing jazz for American forces stationed during the Cold War in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Traveling to Athens, Alexandria, and Istanbul, he performed popular songs like the theme from the film, Never on Sunday, and the French-Arabic, Mustafa. It wasn’t long until an impresario telegraphed from France, and Moreno’s career moved to Cannes and Paris. 

In France, Moreno continued to work in resort hotels, nightclubs, cabarets, and to experiment with new forms of entertainment. He was featured on the Scopitone, a machine that showed film clips, perhaps the earliest type of music videos. He became a supporting actor in 32 films, even winning the French César Award in the film, Oeil pour Oeil (Eye for an Eye). Other awards included France’s Grand prix du disque (1958) for one of his many albums, and special recognition from the Turkish Cultural and Tourism Board (1962).  

Dario Moreno’s repertoire was indeed cosmopolitan. It mixed song genres from Greece, Turkey, Italy, Spain, and Brazil. None of the songs for which Moreno was famous were “Jewish.” They were secular, cosmopolitan, and commercially produced. Most of the songs were love songs, film themes, nightclub anthems, and nostalgic glimpses into the Mediterranean lifestyle. He would often sing the same song in several translations. Moreno became a specialist in Latin American and French songs. His “Istanbul/Constantinople,” a song later made famous by the rock band They Might Be Giants, was sung in French with jazzy breaks and stereotypical Turkish riffs. The nightclub anthems, “Vodka, Raki, Sharap,” and “Ni Na Nai Nai” were Greek-Turkish mixed language songs that shared musical elements.

Dario Moreno’s life and work was a kind of reversal of Jules Dassin’s character in the 1960s hit film, Never On Sunday. Unlike Dassin’s American writer who traveled to Greece, befriended the kindly prostitute played by Melina Mercouri, and attempted to understand the mysterious “Oriental” or Eastern qualities of Greek life, Moreno traveled West to France. Moreno not only understood the mysteries of European life, but he successfully emulated them, perfected his French so that there was no accent, learned the latest and most fashionable dance steps, and became fluent in so many, divergent popular song genres.  His records and films were popular throughout the world.   

Moreno embodied success and acceptance. He was popular in France. He had achieved what Sephardic Jews in Turkey had dreamed about in the late 19th century. French was seen as a vehicle for modernity and success. Families who aspired to the middle class fell so in love with French language and culture that they spoke French as their first language at home in the early 20th century, leaving behind their native Judeo-Spanish. Moreno’s name embodied this kind of pan-Mediterranean identity: “Dario” could be French or Italian; “Moreno” was definitely Spanish. In Turkey, both Jews and non-Jews, those of Muslim and Christian origin, saw themselves as citizens of a secular, Turkish state. Members of the middle class also looked West in the 1950s and 1960s.  

Dario Moreno’s life was cut short by a stroke in Istanbul when he was only 47, but his legacy lives on today on the Internet, on many websites: YouTube, MySpace, and tribute pages posted by Turkish musicians. Turks point to him with great pride as a famous son of Izmir. Sephardic Jews see him as an emblem of their integration, acculturation, and success: the heritage of polyglot, non-Muslim minority cultural traditions in Eastern Mediterranean port cities; the benefits of mastering French language; the ultimate in sophistication in mid-20th century popular culture; their pride in the State of Israel where Dario Moreno is at rest in Holon’s municipal cemetery.

Pamela Dorn Sezgin is an anthropologist-historian and professor at Gainesville State College in Georgia. As a graduate student at Indiana University, where she completed her Ph.D., she was one of the last students of the late Dr. Alan Merriam, a noted ethnomusicologist. She works in the area of Turkish and Sephardic Jewish Studies. Her articles have appeared in The Jews of the Ottoman Empire (Avigdor Levy, ed., Darwin Press) and in From the Golden Age of Spain to Modern Times: Essential Studies on Sephardic Jewry (Zion Zohar, ed., New York University Press).

Gefilte Fish or White Piano?

By Anna Shternshis

Non-Kosher Jewish restaurants in Eastern Europe have become a widespread phenomenon over the past two decades. These restaurants are notorious for defying the rules of kashrut, for being open on the Sabbath (when they draw their biggest crowds), and even remaining open on Yom Kippur.[i] Sem Sorok, a famous St. Petersburg restaurant, lacks a kosher menu—its signature dish, “chicken a-la Jewish grandmother,” is prepared with butter. However, Sem Sorok has a “Jewish” atmosphere with Israeli wines and pictures of Jewish artifacts.

Among Eastern European Jewish restaurants, Moscow’s Shagal is an atypical example: it’s kosher, the kashrut certificate displayed next to an oversized mezuzah. The owner is Russian-born businessman, who moved to Israel in the early 1990s and returned to Moscow a decade later to open this business. The menu and prices are geared toward foreigners, as no other restaurant would expect a local to pay $40-$60 for a healthy green salad, low-fat fish and asparagus. However, more than half of the restaurant’s clients are Russian Jews—not necessarily religiously observant ones. They come to this restaurant not for the kashrut (rather, despite the kashrut) or the food, but to experience the atmosphere of a Jewish shtetl. Reviews of these two restaurants show differences in North American and post-Soviet Jewish perceptions of the shtetl, and its importance to a secular Jewish cultural identity.

One review, geared toward a foreign readership, describes Shagal as a place with a cozy feel, with chicken that is “a little rubbery, just like your mother would have made it, and it is surely worth paying for the taste of home thousands miles away.”[ii] On the contrary, Shagal’s Russian language website paints a completely different portrait: it claims to recreate the traditional Jewish atmosphere of a shtetl! The website boasts: “Our ‘Living Room’ room features a white concert piano… [and] classical melodies performed by a violinist.”[iii]

While a white piano and a Jewish violinist playing Tchaikovsky were not common images in 19th-century Russian shtetls, these are the images that appeal to Jewish professionals in Moscow today. Like their North American counterparts, Jewish Muscovites are interested in recreating a meaningful connection with their “roots.” 

The shtetl of Fiddler on the Roof, with its alleged simplicity, beauty of food and people, and its klezmer-inspired music, appeals to the North American viewers (but it is irrelevant to Russians because of its inaccurate portrayal shtetl life, and more importantly, because of how post-Soviet Jews like to imagine it). Yuri Slezkine, in his discussion of the 1930s Russian Jewish intelligentsia, suggests that the roots of these phenomena lie with the obsession with 19th-century classical Russian literature, which replaced attachments to the traditional Jewish values.[iv] 

The origins of the Russian Jewish intelligentsia, the origins of East European Jews, such as their life in small towns of Eastern Europe were not seen as a worthy part of a Jewish legacy. Since the 1920s, the very word for shtetl, “mestechko,” became a derogatory word in Russian; it refers to petty, uneducated, chatty, vulgar, heavy-accented people, who share no common ground with educated, smart, ironic, theater- and conservatory-going, Nietzsche-quoting urban Jews, who have not spoken Yiddish for three generations. Despite the fact that they enjoyed herring, gefilte fish, and some other Jewish dishes during the Soviet period, these Jews were embarrassed by their grandparents’ Yiddish accents. Yet, they took pride in the thousands of Russian Jewish composers, musicians, actors, writers, and scientists, whose achievements are commonly associated with the words “Jewish culture.”[v]

The shtetl in the post-Soviet imagination is a dacha, a country house, filled with classical musicians eating gefilte fish and talking about Boris Pasternak and Leo Tolstoy.  The Shagal restaurant caters specifically to this secular idea of Jewishness, and its kosher food merely supplements, rather than defines the restaurant’s Jewish character. 

Producers of Russian Jewish culture essentially try to whitewash the image of the “lowly” and “uncultured” shtetl. One can contrast this phenomenon with what took place in American popular culture in the early 20th century[vi] when Yiddish elements of shtetl culture were romanticized in order to render a beautiful and simple world, a world of mutual help and respect.

Why is it so? Why do North American Jews, who are as highly educated cling to traditional simple images of the shtetl? One possibility is that American Jewish nostalgia represents a variation of the American Dream—one comes to the United States with nothing, and makes a fortune by acculturating and embracing American values. Once this is accomplished, one looks back to the “old country” and savors its simplicity and slow pace of life. 

Why do post-Soviet Jews prefer the image of a glorified shtetl, filled with European educated Jews? Why can’t the post-Soviet, Jewish urban imagination incorporate the image of a simple, uneducated yet wise shtetl grandfather?

The answer lies in the Soviet past. The post-war period of widespread popular and state antisemitism, accompanied by the loss of any meaningful content of Jewish identity, created a situation in which Jews strove to find the roots of their culture in “universalism,” rather than the national specificity of their past. Thus, they intellectualize the shtetl in order to prove to themselves, directly and subconsciously, that Jewish culture equals intellect. 

Is such a legacy legitimate? Can Jewish culture survive for generations on the premise of Jews as “universalists?” Historically, it does not seem likely. Yet, this is the legacy of over a million and a half of contemporary Russian Jews, who now live across the globe, and who continue to influence the formation of the Jewish identity of the future.

[i] Ruth Ellen Gruber, Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe. Berkeley: University of California Press, c2002, pp. 21-90.

[ii] Ira Iosebashvili, Moscow Times Review of Shagal, http://www.go-magazine.ru/articles/detail.php?ID=11357&phrase_id=42522, retrieved on January 2, 2008.

[iii] Restaurant Shagal website: http://ru.restoran.ru/msk/detailed/restaurants/shagal/#, retrieved on January 2, 2008.

[iv] Yuri Slezkine, The Jewish Century, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2004, p. 256.

[v] Incidentally, a Russian-based project on creating a Jewish encyclopedia uses this ideology as its foundation. All notable individuals who are identified as Jews, or whose parent or grandparent was a Jew, are included. Currently, five volumes of this encyclopedia were published. Rossiiskaya Evreiskaia Entsyklopediya. 3 volumes, Moscow: Rossiiskaia Akademiia Estesvennykh Nauk, Nauchnyi Fond “Evreiskaia entsiklopediia” "Epos,"1994-1997.

[vi] Jeffrey Shandler, Adventures in the Yiddishland: Postvernacular Language and Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005, pp. 31–59.
Anna Shternshis is Assistant Professor of Yiddish Language and Literatures at the German Department of the University of Toronto. Shternshis is the author of Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923–1939 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006). She is currently working on two book projects. One is devoted to the Jewish daily life in the Soviet Union during 1930s—1980s, and the other one to the evacuation of soviet Jews during World War II.

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