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Jewish voice

People are interested in reading and exploring in their own culture. In deed, when I stood in line for the Jewish Film Festival last year in San Diego and began to chat with the woman in front of me about her latest read, she offered Pumpkin Flowers by Matti Friedman, the book of the month for her Hadassah Group. And it is true , in searching for a deeper connection with my own Jewishness, I am interested in books written by fellow Jews or Jewish topics. Why else do Jews comb through libraries for information on the holocaust, settlements in the diaspora or focusing attention on the standouts in society that we claim as our own? Kevin Pillar of the Blue Jays?Jew. Mayim Bialik ? Jew. Einstein. Jew.Anne Frank.Jewish, of course.

With the volcanic eruption on cultural appropriation, particularly in Canada right now, I get the feeling, we are screaming that only people of their own ethnicity and religion should be allowed to respectfully engage in a debate regarding the propriety rights, ceremonies of said group, otherwise invoking strong reactions. Similarly, censure erupted in my own backyard recently over a display of paintings by artist Amanda PL, whose work suggests the colours and traditions of a culture not her own.

She openly acknowledged her art work is inspired by the Woodland school and Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau. . Some say her paintings , now removed from viewing ,” smack of cultural appropriation “Outrage over Amanda PL’s work has renewed debate over who has the right to use and profit from specific customs.” ( The National Post, May 7, 2017). Along with the cancelling of Amanda PL’s show was the resignation of Hal Niedzviecki, editor of the Writers’ Union of Canada magazine, after triggering anger by an opinion piece entitled “Winning the Appropriation Prize” in an issue devoted to indigenous writing. Not just in Canada, this issue of cultural ownership is under fire and vehemently debated in realms where ideas and images are reused, traded and reinvented,
Yet I ponder this concept, seeming to me to have arisen from the first Post- modernists who understood culture in terms of local divisive factions instead of broad strokes. Understandably a push back to colonial suppression, victimization and only mandating the story of the victor transformed thinking to the telling of indigenous and local stories, adding a necessary perspective to world narratives. In this renewed way of thinking about history, in particular, we are now privileged to authentic and deeper understandings, light focused on places that had been darkened for too long.

In Why the debate misses the mark, Martin Reg Cohn writes, [t]o“appropriate” typically means to take exclusive possession of something that should be held in common, to annex it without authority or right. [However], a recent debate in the Atlantic reminds us that cultural appropriation means different things to different people.(The Toronto Star, Tuesday May, 2017)

I’m wondering about the discomfort we feel when a non-Jewish writer takes on a topic that has Jewish elements that are not favourably presented. Certainly there has been an uproar throughout the centuries against the depiction of Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venus as anti- Semitic.

Recently I read Lauren Belfer’s novel And After the Fire. And although Belfer was born Jewish, her themes might provoke argument. It is a story that binds two Jewish women in time by their relationship with a manuscript retrieved from Weimar outside of Berlin in 1945. The story moves into the past to highlight anti-Jewish sentiment in Prussia in the 18th and 19th centuries. We encounter the original owner of the book , Sara Itzig Levy, a historical figure and music student of J.S. Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm , who has bequeathed a cantata, the subject of the book, to Sara after his death.Sara is the aunt of composer and musician Felix Mendelssohn, Belfer,  explaining Fanny’s contribution and actual writing of some of his music attributed to Felix was diminished because of her role, gender and religion in Prussian society.  Sara struggles to understand why her teacher has burdened her with her teacher’s gift so obviously anti- Semitic –a work of hatred, prejudice, and violence towards Jewish people.
A Washington Independent reviewer of books, Marina Hewer writes, “ In using music as a unifying thread, Belfer shows that we are not immune to the prejudices of the past; we continue to grapple with similar moral dilemmas today…”
We learn that Bach and other composers of the day did in deed compose cantatas to be sung from Lutheran pulpits in the 1840’s. Propagandistic , the musical oratorios encouraged parishioners to drive Jews from their homes, ridding them from their communities. “Set fire to their synagogues or schools,” Martin Luther recommended in On the Jews and Their Lies. Jewish houses should “be razed and destroyed,” and Jewish “prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, [should] be taken from them.” In addition, “their rabbis [should] be forbidden to teach on pain of loss of life and limb.”(See Was Luther Anti- semitic. By Eric Gritsch,In Martin Luther: The Later Years. Christian History, Issue 39,  originally published in 1993)
I found myself fascinated by Belfer’s story of mystery that drew on repressive attitudes towards Jews, recalling for me the depictions by Niall Ferguson in The House of Rothschild that substantiated the restrictive laws prohibiting Jews from holding property in Prussia, their impoverished ghetto existence along with newspaper cartoons that hideously lampooned them across Europe. Although Ferguson himself is not Jewish, he documents a historical piece of time, place and race, the contextual elements background for the rise of the famous family. But his role is an observer, a chronicler, commandeering the facts as backdrop ,now fictionalized in Belfer’s tale of real people who endured the actual laws and bias of the those days.

Yet Belfer had  likewise amplified my learning, taking me deeper into my roots as she had introduced the historical contexts as lived by Jews, Sara Itzig and her niece , representing a particular slice of life from centuries back.

Belfer uses Susanna, one of her female protagonists), and her relationship to the cantata to drive the plot. A person with weak ties to Judaism, Susanna’s involvement in pursuing the origins of the cantata serves to remind us that the future may not ever be completely disengaged from the past. As Susanna delves deeper into the history of the manuscript, she feels compelled to research her own Jewish ancestors, who lived in Germany before World War II and were likely murdered. Attempting to open up a dialogue concerning her mother’s life during the holocaust, Susanna prods, but her mother retorts. “You think the war is over, Susanna?…“It isn’t over. Don’t you understand why so many of the survivors don’t want to talk about it? Oh, yes, the fighting stopped and everybody declared peace, but the war, what it did to people, goes on and on and still hasn’t stopped and probably won’t ever stop. Look at you, seventy years later and you’re still asking questions.”( May 26, 2016).These enduring questions of ownership, of relationship, of loss underpin the search.

But because Belfer is a Jew, is she therefore permitted discourse in appropriating historical voice and culture for the sake of her novel?

 

James Oestreich in The New York Times( May 25, 2016) provides provenance for Belfer and her husband,Michael Marissen a conservative Dutch Calvinist brought up in Ontario. “Though he now declares himself an agnostic, he has put his profound knowledge of the Bible …to use in examining the sources and deeper meanings of Bach’s sacred texts, especially as regards their attitudes toward Judaism. Ms. Belfer had a liberal, minimally observant Jewish upbringing in Buffalo. No surprise, she shares many of the qualities of Susanna Kessler, whom she describes as atheist-Jewish.” Belfer and her husband belong to the widening circle of the intermarriages today, joining Jews and Christians, Jews and Muslims, intermingling races, cultures, genders among diverse parties.

Which brings us back to cultural appropriation. Because Susanna is not shown as pious, and in the end falls for the non Jewish love interest as opposed to the well heeled attractive and wealthy Jewish fellow, should we dismiss her book? Or do we give Belfer license to spin her tale half- truth, half- invention, because she is Jewish, although self described as not particularly religious. Does a writer need write only from their own lived experiences and background? Certainly the magic of the creative is to imagine stories beyond one’s own lived experience, even venturing outside their own backyards.

Do whom then does cultural information belong? Many families now meld, share, ignore or postpone examining the role of religion or cultural religious practices in their lives, separating, or even purposely reinterpreting and omitting elements,crafting to meet the needs of their audiences or themselves.

And what of Belfer’s own purpose in writing her book: information regarding the past, a personal desire to come to terms with her own roots and religion, a slant towards forgotten women musicians, a reminder of the contextual anti- Semitic days lining up with the well described and documented in Niall Ferguson’s tomes, that foreshadowed the inevitable Shoah through attitudes and restrictions -even in church services.

I certainly agree that supporting diversity must go beyond lip service and indigenous writers must speak for themselves , especially on matters that pertain directly to their experience.

But what of the rest of the writers and thinkers? How can “ culture” belong to only one group? Unlike an artefact closeted in a dusty museum drawer, culture, even of the past, must be exhumed, reviewed, comprehended: for its place as representing a piece of what it was, examining the contextual ties that helped or hindered the attitudes it appeared to convey.

But to see the past with fresh eyes awakens it freshly, reviewing the issues within for deeper contemplation, and hopefully understanding.

I think of Kent Monkman’s paintings but I suppose the critics might say because his paintings depict the subjugation of his own indigenous people, he has the right to paint them. Writers or artists writing or painting for the sole purpose of propaganda: subjugating, ridiculing, distorting a group for political and religious purposes is one thing, but silencing the entire group for artistic expression is truly another.

And as always, it is from the eye of the beholder.

The viewer or reader accepts or rejects what they see, observe or read, actually thinking, reflecting, and responding , hopefully clarifying through examination what stands before them. Mutiplevoices heard loud and clear adding to an intelligent discussion. Not silenced, but adding to the conversation, as Bahtkin dialectic would have encouraged. It is not hate or censure we approve, but the power of a to openly provoke thoughtful discussion that will ultimately, one prays, will send the slanders away and invite diverse commentary into the discussion.

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Mrs. Nebraska and Brave New World

I’m standing in the JCC parking lot with a woman from Nebraska. She looks quite nice, and relates that she is 74. As soon as she says Nebraska, I know what’s coming. I have rolled my eyes to reinforce that Trump is and will be a disaster. But she quickly retaliates that having lived in Central America for 2 years, that the Clinton Foundation is nothing but corruption. I actually believe this is true, but I respond, ‘When you have two terrible choices, you take the lesser of the two”. She vehemently disagrees, again trumpeting the corruption. I retaliate with the stories from the African- America cabbies from Chicago, the Meryl Streep twitter…but all is lightly dismissed, and as far as the Russians go, according to Mrs. Nebraska, they have always been involved, and they did not pull the levers in the polling booths. She throws her best shot( Martin Luther King Day was just yesterday), exhorting that the country is divided and everyone must come together.

I nicely retort that we are never going to agree and that really, I must leave. But she will not stop her harangue and because I am polite, I stand for a few more minutes, but when she turns her furor on Barack Obama, I walk away, leaving her to discourse with the empty parking lot.

Later I think of what I might have added- no doubt to deaf ears- regarding Trump’s choices for his cabinet posts that go against all of his promises to support the the poor stiffs and pains- in- the- butts : as in just encountered here. There’s the wall, attacks on women and disabled, thin skin, Trump University, no prior governmental experience, bad business deals, petulant retaliations….still I am boiling over at the stupidity of this woman.

***

Last week, we watched Lester Holt interview Barrack Obama. And then 60 Minutes also asked Obama some demanding questions.What a pleasure to observe such a thoughtful, positive voice which might have come from a historian, an artist or any thinking person. Truly, it gives one hope in spite of what is coming.

In many ways although with less laughter, the interview resembled the one with WTF’s Marc Maron in which Obama discoursed on democracy and the way all things take time, with no road being smooth, and for every set back, a small piece of the step forward has been – if not achieved, at least put in place. Referring to Obamacare, he spoke to its inception as a marker from which to grow- even if Trump will see to its being repealed and the insurance companies will barter for more covetous rates.

As I listened to Obama’s. exchanges with Lester Holt, and then Steve Kraft, in a truly tough conversations, I considered Obama’s optimism and his youth and at the end, was surprised that he is mid- 50’s and that he still maintains beliefs we usually associate with ingenues whose lights are still bright because they have not been tested by the world. That he has held strong to that attitude is admirable, one we DO want our children to embrace.

Still I couldn’t help but ruminate that he has revealed in his presidency, rather than just optimism a naïve stance: for his belief is very strong in the promise of an America as ideal. But perhaps even as a symbol, he must gasp that an African American having achieved the presidentship is close to miraculous. So perhaps that realization has prompted him to dream the impossible dream.

From my point of view, it was his desire to maintain his values of compromise and collaboration, that lofty goal to be inclusive with the Republicans that underlined issues in succeeding to establish his ventures .In deed, he had paused, tried to connect, offer opportunities for input, fought the dragons, but ultimately his plans for a stronger, safer, more inclusive country had fallen far from the goal. Particularly in his first term when like a knowing, autocratic parent, he should have prevailed in stead of tending to voices.

Yet, we are not privy to the workings within government, the wheels within wheels, the deals done and undone. But, even Obama in his interviews lamented the impossibility of changing votes that hinged on a representative’s constituency, his/ her state’s goals, self- interest and the desire for re- election. And it is true, decisions, even the most moral ones can be sidetracked for so many unknown reasons. For people like me who do not generally think in greys , the path towards what is right is straight ahead, but few are brave or strong enough to forge ahead and allow themselves to accept the fallout of choosing the path less travelled by. Perhaps too, I have lived long enough to observe that self- profit or a strong self- interested ego motivates too many. And yes of course, I am cynical.And at this point, I am rarely surprised by the tactics taken- even by those we would trust.

But Obama, with strong spirit and no corruption in his years as president did represent the Camelot we sought and believed was possible. But once again , we were proven wrong by those who lied, provided false research or did not truly care : that guns kill children; that everyone deserves health care; that clean air is a necessity; that we build through compromise and collaboration. The aims no aspirations we hope to plant and embrace, and ironically are even the last one of collaboration written here are penned in the statements that underpin companies’ philosophies and statements.

Congruently I reflected on articles last week, one in particular by Rick Salutin in The Toronto Star that listed OBama’s losses and failures in his eight years: Guantanamo, Iraq, Israel… The question put to Obama by his interviewers about the Middle East was a difficult one for the president. Yet without attacking those who dare to enquire and pose the hard questions, and without insulting or dismissing the uncomfortable probes and withholding resentment,Obama spoke of his work, commenting humbly on the successes along with the setbacks and frustrations.

Again for me, it was the handling of the intensity of the moment, “the how” as opposed to the what or why that impressed me the most about President Obama. How often in a tight squeeze , do we lose our cool, lash out, scream unfair, sulk or react defensively .

Along with a respective, reflective demeanour, Obama acknowledged that he had been so busy, there had not been time to connect with many people who felt disenfranchised by job loss, etc– in spite of having put so many Americans back to work.

Incredulous and backed by the parents of the Sandy Hill dead, he could not comprehend how gun laws and simple registration had been defeated. He acknowledged that the Republicans made up their minds and refused to even listen. With tears on his face and empathy for those parents, he stood as the challenging angel amid the satans of deafness.

There is so much to admire in this man. Besides being the harbinger of justice and symbol of the American Dream, he is a feeling individual, able to express his emotions of love, despair, anger. Yet his behaviour is tempered by rational thought. He thinks, he considers, he reflects and then he acts- in the good for all. He, like Nelson Mandela ,will remain, I believe, as the emblem of what is best in America. And like the cab drivers I spoke to in Chicago, he still dreams the dream- as quixotic as it may be by oldsters like myself. But he gives you reason to hope. That after the Trump years, and pray we and our children are not demolished, that another Phoenix will rise from the ashes to make a better world, with pure heart and intentions that we hope our children will choose to emulate.

The protesters, the Women’s March today, John Lewis’s remarks last week and even the debate on Chuck Todd’s Meet the Press give us reason to hope that the best will endure to challenge a presidency that in its earliest beginnings has all ready reiterated its jingoistic slogans and, for reasons I cannot fathom, resonate with the Mrs. Nebraskas of America.

Yesterday at the end of my yoga class, an older man turned to the rest of us and  sadly muttered,” Brave new world”.

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