Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al (livredor) wrote,
Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al
livredor

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Cultural sensitivity: ur doin it rong

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...)
Tags: rant
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  • Full

    So this weekend I went to two synagogue services (in two different cities) and one church service, and I had a quiet going out for lunch and talking…

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    So my OSOs' middle kid is about to turn 8 and she very emphatically wanted to continue the nascent tradition from last year that I'd take her out…

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