Cultural sensitivity: ur doin it rong - Livre d'Or








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livredor
Cultural sensitivity: ur doin it rong
Wednesday, 12 November 2008 at 12:17 am
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I may be turning into one of those American style liberals...

One of the most interesting conversations I had was with a guy from the relatively new Progressive community in Warsaw. (Incidentally, he doesn't look like a stereotypical Progressive Jew, he has a beard and discreet but present sidelocks and a black velvet skullcap.) An English klezmer musician was enthusing about the klezmer revival that is happening in Poland at the moment, and our Polish friend was very dismissive, saying it was run by non-Jews for non-Jews and had nothing to do with the exciting Jewish cultural stuff that is happening over there. Musician and I both argued the view that you don't have to be Jewish to play or enjoy klezmer, culture belongs to everybody. The musician is more of a fluffy spiritual type than I am, and had more time for the counterargument that klezmer comes out of a particular religious and cultural tradition, and simply playing klezmer style music in a band at a concert isn't as meaningful as playing it as part of living a Yiddish life and using klezmer for religious celebrations. But even so, neither of us was completely convinced that the non-Jewish character of the Polish festival scene was such a big problem.

Then we heard about some of the context: apparently after the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto, there was one street left standing, which became known as "Emptiness street" in the period after the war where there were too few Jews left alive to move back into their former homes, so the street was simply abandoned to the depradations of time and weather. The klezmer festival involves putting actors and stage sets in this street, to make fake stalls that mimic the kind of shops that would likely have featured in the pre WW2 Jewish quarter. The actors dress in the seventeenth century style black clothes associated with ultra-Orthodox or stereotyped Jews, giving the musicians a cute, olde worlde backdrop, while ignoring the historical reality of a pre-war Jewish community that was highly assimilated and secularized, and most certainly ignoring even the existence of the modern day real Jewish community.

I know a lot of people reading this don't believe in cultural appropriation. But while I agree that art, culture and music belong to the whole world, I don't think this is at all a morally acceptable way to celebrate world culture. Even though the people running the festival are not remotely the same people responsible for the atrocities of the past, there is something rather queasy about turning the place where thousands of Jews were forced to live in overcrowded and degrading conditions, and where they were eventually rounded up to be murdered, to stage a kitschy, romanticized version of Jewish culture, and make money which absolutely doesn't trickle down to the contemporary Jewish community who are really struggling. I think appropriation is the only word for that.

I also had a series of much less interesting conversations with a particular attendee at the conference, a Catholic guy who has fallen in love with Judaism and is thinking of converting. Fine. Not so fine is the way he insisted on interrupting every single discussion to "give the Christian perspective", ask totally irrelevant questions, or just enthuse about how wonderful and beautiful Judaism is. And he kept cornering people outside the sessions in order to pour his heart out about he's just so in love with Judaism, and how difficult it is going to be for him to leave his Catholic background. When he did this to me, I actually told him in so many words, look, Christian perspectives are very interesting, but we're trying to accomplish something specific here, as Progressive Jews learning and networking together, so this isn't the right situation for you to talk about this stuff. It didn't help. I think he was hoping that we'd be so delighted (and flattered) that he was considering joining us, that we'd bend over backwards to encourage him, whereas in fact most people expressed polite interest and wished him luck on his spiritual journey; Jews aren't generally interested in interfering with other people's religious choices.

A large part of the problem here is that this guy is self-obsessed and has poor social skills, which is nothing to do with the fact that he's Christian. But I think the best way to describe this may well be the frame of saying he has an excess of privilege. He simply takes it for granted that he will be listened to, even when he has less than nothing to contribute, and this expectation is probably not unconnected to the fact that he's a white, middle-class, Christian male. He took advantage of the fact that we're the kind of group who are very careful not to exclude anybody, because we all know what it's like to be a Jewish minority in a Christian world, and even a Progressive minority within a largely Orthodox leaning Jewish world. The amount of irritation he caused by trying to make every single possible conversation, both public and private, about his bloody spiritual search and his feeling of being welcome or unwelcome in the Jewish community, made me suddenly see the possible benefits of minority-only spaces, even though I'm reflexly against that kind of segregation. In truth there's no real way we could have banned him from showing up, because he's been attending a synagogue for a while and we generally don't want to keep people out just because they haven't finished converting yet. But perhaps it would have helped to be able to say, sorry, this is a Jewish event, it's not about your relationship with Christianity or your enormous sense of entitlement.

(I stole the subject line from Joanna, by the way...)


Whereaboooots: Berlin, Germany
Moooood: irritatedirritated
Tuuuuune: Suzanne Vega: Tom's diner
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From:rav_hadassah
Date:November 11th, 2008 11:32 pm (UTC)
10 minutes after journal entry
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Re: annoying Christian guy--whew, that's quite a bit of anger you have there! :-) I can understand though, and I do see the need for minority-only spaces. You can still do it sensitively though, like in concentric circles, essentially saying: "this part of the conference is for the public", "this part is for non-community members with tickets" and "this part is for community members".

He's not a community member yet, it's that simple.
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cartesiandaemon: default
From:cartesiandaemon
Date:November 12th, 2008 12:18 am (UTC)
56 minutes after journal entry
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whew, that's quite a bit of anger you have there! :-)

L commented on several rants I had recently, that now sound just like this, especially cutting because they start with "to be fair", and then catalogue faults; but they're a pleasure to read, and I wonder if we bring them out in each other :) Describing why he may be like that actually makes me sympathise with him more, from understanding, even as imagining trying not to get taken over by him sounds increasingly frustrating.
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livredor: teeeeeeeeea
From:livredor
Date:November 12th, 2008 10:43 am (UTC)
11 hours after journal entry, 11:43 am (livredor's time)
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I like the idea that we bring out articulate rants in eachother, yeah. But this wasn't really a rant about this particular guy, I'm just frustrated at the situation. I did very much intend to convey sympathy for him as well as frustration!
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livredor: teapot
From:livredor
Date:November 12th, 2008 10:31 am (UTC)
11 hours after journal entry, 11:31 am (livredor's time)
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Heh, I'm not actually that angry with the Christian guy, honestly. I am much more angry about the klezmer festival which I thought was so cute when I first heard of it. The boorish Christian obviously meant well and was oblivious to how disruptive he was being. I think what got to me is the way that the tolerance of the group, which is a value that's extremely central to me, was being used against us.

I like your idea of concentric circles, yeah. I am not sure that would have helped in this particular situation though. You're right, he's not a community member yet, but there were plenty of other attendees in the process of conversion who are extremely valuable members of the community and I would not want to take any steps to make them feel less welcome. Nobody ever explicitly said, this is a conference only for Progressive Jews, it was just advertised through Progressive circles and assumed not to be interesting to anyone who wasn't part of that culture. But he's sufficiently involved in Progressive life that he thought he was among the target audience.

Apparently at some similar events they get a bunch of Orthodox people, and although the organizers don't have a problem with Orthodox people joining their Progressive activities, they don't really want to have to keep justifying the way we keep shabbat, or the fact that we have women rabbis. So they were deliberately selective in how they advertised this conference.
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cartesiandaemon: default
From:cartesiandaemon
Date:November 12th, 2008 12:22 am (UTC)
1 hours after journal entry
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there is something rather queasy ...stage a kitschy, romanticized version of Jewish culture,

Even leaving aside the horrible specifics, I think it's perfectly plain that this sucks. If you plug in any other culture, minor or major, it sounds equally offensive -- imagine an "england theme-park" or "norfolk theme park". It's probably plain without saying "cultural appropriation", if there's doubt about what exactly that means.
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lethargic_man: reflect
From:lethargic_man
Date:November 12th, 2008 06:53 am (UTC)
7 hours after journal entry, 07:53 am (lethargic_man's time)
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If you plug in any other culture, minor or major, it sounds equally offensive -- imagine an "england theme-park"

Didn't stop Disney...
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lisekit: default
From:lisekit
Date:November 12th, 2008 09:16 am (UTC)
9 hours after journal entry
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Yeah, well, that's queasy for ya right there....
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livredor: likeness
From:livredor
Date:November 12th, 2008 10:57 am (UTC)
11 hours after journal entry, 11:57 am (livredor's time)
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I'm not sure I agree with you; I don't think the kitschiness is the whole problem here. I mean, making tacky theme parks is aesthetically offensive. But killing a large number of people and destroying their real culture, and then making tacky theme parks about that culture while ignoring or obstructing an impoverished group of survivors who are actually trying to rebuild their culture, that's morally offensive as well. I think that's what people really mean by cultural appropriation, not that white people are never allowed to make any art that contains elements from a minority culture.
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cartesiandaemon: default
From:cartesiandaemon
Date:November 12th, 2008 02:41 pm (UTC)
15 hours after journal entry
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Yeah, I realised I perhaps hadn't said quite what I needed to. Perhaps, "You don't need to excuse your outrage -- it's not as if people were abusing Jewish culture in the cause of genuine art, creating a true dilemma, they're abusing it in the cause of a tacky and pointless tourist trap."

I would have thought "cultural appropriation" would be when people pretended to participate in the culture, rather than just looking at it. The example I saw was if people who drank a glass of wine with dinner thought it was trendy to call it "communion", and have a little wafer with it, and pretend it had some spiritual significance. That they have a right to do that if they want, but it would be staggeringly insensitive to Christians.
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livredor: likeness
From:livredor
Date:November 12th, 2008 03:49 pm (UTC)
16 hours after journal entry, 04:49 pm (livredor's time)
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Hm, I see what you mean, though from everything I've heard they're attracting reputable klezmer musicians, at least, so there is some good art going on among the tack.

I do think that by creating fake shops they are asking people to participate in the culture, not just watch it, though; the tourists will go into the former ghetto, and buy things from the storekeepers in their cute ethnic costumes, and have the kind of fun that one has at historical reenactment events.

I'm sort of leaving the religion angle out of this, really, though of course it's not a complete dichotomy between "culture" and "religion". Klezmer is largely a secular thing, even if it came out of a religious context. I don't think that the problem is that the festival is encouraging people to take part in pretend religious rituals.
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cartesiandaemon: default
From:cartesiandaemon
Date:November 12th, 2008 02:34 pm (UTC)
15 hours after journal entry
(Link)
Joanna_sarcasm++
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From:delux_vivens
Date:November 20th, 2008 02:22 am (UTC)
8 days after journal entry
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"The amount of irritation he caused by trying to make every single possible conversation, both public and private, about his bloody spiritual search and his feeling of being welcome or unwelcome in the Jewish community, made me suddenly see the possible benefits of minority-only spaces"

Thats one of the reasons I participate in POC only spaces, yep.
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livredor: likeness
From:livredor
Date:November 21st, 2008 07:33 am (UTC)
9 days after journal entry, 08:33 am (livredor's time)
(Link)
Wow, I'm a little awed that such an LJ celebrity as you found my journal and commented on it! Yay internet.

I was a little nervous about making a post that implicitly draws an analogy between my Jewish experience and that of POC, because of the huge, glaring, obvious differences. (For example, the fact that it is possible, legitimately, to become Jewish, so to some extent the annoying guy had a right to be there.) So I'm glad that what I thought I was recognizing actually seems to you like a reasonable connection.
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