Monthly Archives: November 2006

Calls to the UJC’s GA: Create a Fountain of Youth Voices

The calls for the United Jewish Communities to integrate more young voices into their General Assembly have begun, with my article in the Forward and Esther Kustanowitz’s article in the Jewish Week. As both of us note in our articles, the GA should be the place for Jewish communal officials to pick the brains of young Jewish activists who are living and breathing the Jewish future today, in the, ahm, present tense.
As I write for the Forward,

Without understanding the needs and views of young Jews, how can the organized Jewish community plan for the future? If UJC truly seeks to make the G.A. an opportunity for communal conversation and reflection, it should make sure that our voices are front and center. If the organized Jewish community seeks to ensure its continuity, it needs to develop avenues for new leaders to help navigate the Jewish people through the next stage in our history. As Yeshiva University’s president, Richard Joel, said in a panel discussion titled “The Jewish Future” — a dialogue that, for all its brilliance, sorely begged for a young voice — in order to develop young leaders, you need to first let them in.

That young leaders were not let in is yet another missed opportunity for the Jewish community–and the excuse that the GA’s schedule was remade due to the war is, well, BS: the majority of the people who did the fighting, dying and volunteering were youth just like ourselves. If the GA was to reflect the war, each and every panel would have young soldiers, reservists and volunteers speaking about their experiences–as they do in Issue One of PresenTense Magazine, which was also remade in August in light of the war. That outgoing president and CEO of the UJC Howard Rieger did not follow up his promise last year is unfortunate. I hope the new president and CEO, Joe Kanfer, will do the right thing and provide members of the organized Jewish community with the opportunity to hear young voices next year.

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History Begs it: The Return of the Youth Movements

History works in mysterious ways. As I’ve written before, historical events themselves don’t repeat themselves, but historical relationships do: human beings often find themselves responding to the same type of stimuli the same way as other human beings from different cultures, different backgrounds and with different personalities.  The most striking findings of social psychology confirm this to a shocking degree–showing that, in many ways, we know ourselves even less than we think we do.

Likewise, societies, which are essentially collective actors responding to environmental stimuli and utilizing cultural cues to direct collective action, respond very similarly to changing circumstances. As such, when the industrial generation hit Europe in the mid- to late-1800s, it took a whole generation of youth socialized within the industrial framework (with all its implications on new forms of social interaction) before new structures were developed. This “generation of the desert,” or Dor Midbar as designated by the Hebrew narrative, searched out new ways of meaning and relating by drawing away from their elders, who were tainted by the old world and its old systems. And the best way this new, industrial-age generation found to develop a whole new world was by banding together and forming youth movements.

Youth movements were not an exclusive Jewish phenomenon at all. In fact, many claim the Jewish youth movements were formed only because the German ones wouldn’t take us in. It’s certainly a possibility. Either way, the fact of the matter is that youth movements were born of historic necessity to enable the generation of the desert to fully assimilate and adapt the new forms of social interaction enabled and structured by industrial-age technology.

Today, we live in a moment parallel to that of the turn of the twentieth century. Again there arises a generation of the desert–a generation that does not know the old world, that cannot imagine a world without the Internet, without cell-phones, without skype. And accordingly, this new generation has retreated to its own neck of the woods away from the guardians of the old–to Facebook, MySpace, and, it seems, back to youth-movements. As the Jerusalem Post reports, “Participation in youth movements from the fourth to the ninth grades rose by 20 percent over the past year, according to a study released this week by the Education Ministry.”

It could be that the movements are over reporting a bit, and it could be that the rise is so sharp in Israel because Israeli kids seem less likely to utilize social networking technology such as Facebook. But I doubt that’s the reason. I think the kids are really on to something: we, as the new generation, cannot rely upon the generation that knew the narrowness of life in Egypt. Our generation has been blessed with two paradigm-shattering revolutions: the information revolution and the post-1967 shift in the perception of the Jew and the Jew’s relationship with the rest of humanity. While the information revolution created a world-wide network of data-points, thereby leveling the playing field more than ever before, the post-1967 shift in Jewish identity proved to the world–and more importantly to ourselves as the Jewish People–that the Jews will no-longer be history’s whipping boy; we will, for now on, be the subjects of our own narrative, and not solely the objects of another’s accusation. Thus, we as Jews have become even more distinct.

What better way to fully come to grips with this paradigm shift than youth movements and their attendant industries: magazines, blogs, forums, celebrations on the beach–youth-empowerment zones where information-and-sovereignty age Jews can determine together new forms of action and interaction to move the Children of Israel into the next stage of our national story.  The revolution is here: and it is once again up to the youth movements to show us the way.

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Borat and the Jews — A post-film post

Last night, as I waited in a line that stretched around the block for a 10pm screening of Borat in the East Village of Manhattan, a group of guitar-playing, post-college (and non-Jewish) kids danced along the line, strumming and singing, “Throw the Jews Down the Well.” Those waiting in line–a mostly non-Jewish audience–replied with glee, “So my country can be free!”

Huh.

Although one of my two film-mates, the notorious EV, told me to chill out, I couldn’t help think: would these white-bread hipsters sing with such gusto had David Chapell written a song called, “Lynch the niggers on the tree, so my country can be free?” I don’t know. What is it about the Jews and the idea of antisemitism that makes us act differently when the racist slurs are hurled at us? Is it the mystical Jewish property of Jewcentricity that keeps popping up throughout the last three millennia of our existence of a people? Yes, I understand that we Jews are no longer perceived of as a minority–and that many of us seem to think of Jews as privileged Whites. But we Jews are only as privileged in the Diaspora as the powers that be let us be.

As David Mamet wrote in his excellent and troubling new book, The Wicked Son, the idea that Jews can “pass” for white–and therefore not minorities and take on responsibility for the crimes of the majorities in whose midst we live is just as offensive as saying that homosexuals can “pass” for heterosexuals, and therefore should not be considered differently from the majority of the populace; that hate-crimes against homosexuals should be seen, in a way, as Gays’ own fault because, hey, they just didn’t know their place.

Thus, to disappoint EV, I do say that I must come out with it: I am a bit frightened by the power of Borat. But I do recognize that power–so I proposal a compromise: if Borat is interested in making a real political statement, he should be talking about Israel and the Zionists, and not the Jews.

Why? Because it just makes more sense that way. For example, Borat’s recent toying with the idea of barring Jews from press-conferences doesn’t really make sense in today’s world, where Jews as individuals have freedom of movement in the West. But it would if he said, “No Zionists Allowed,” since Jews in England who are connected to the State of Israel are barred from academic conferences and the like. Would that make me less uncomfortable? Not sure. “Throw Israel down the Well” is too reminiscent of what I heard for years on Columbia’s campus. But I could understand and appreciate the lack of comfort Borat’s singing of “Throw Israel down the Well” would engender.

So Sacha, if you by some slim nick of chance are reading this–think about talking less about the Jews, and more about Israel.

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Conversation about Jewish Identity Today Continues

As the Jerusalem Post article I wrote on the aestheticization of Jewish culture makes the rounds (boosted in large part thanks to a front-page link by the Forward), a number of interesting voices are being heard.
Unfortunately, other voices are too intent on personalizing the issue instead of discussing the claims I made which, I believe, have been well born out by the evidence. I am especially disappointed by BZ, of Mah Rabu, who’s very activities bear out my claims (that there is a richer, content-robust way to engage in Jewish life today), but decides instead to waive away arguments with cultish-devotion to personalities and personal attacks. Too bad.
If it were up to me, I would have focused the UJA/NFJC research effort into cultural developments such as Kol Zimrah, Hadar, Brooklyn Jews, Zeek and others–that is, those content-generating forums that bring together committed Jews who later, as the Cohen/Kelman study points out, feeds Jews to non-content-oriented bar nights.
Unfortunately, nary a press release from the organizations addresses the phenomenon that Cohen and Kelman so rightly point out in their report: non-content oriented cultural activities do not attract the unengaged nor the unaffiliated (and in this I am using affiliated in the larger term of “those affiliated with some form or another of Jewish communal interaction”). What does? Ask these guys. They seem to be successful, even as they remain un-hip.
And that, basically, is the topic of my next article. Suggestions? email arielbeery -at- gmail -dot- com.

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