Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 18, 2019

Making kosher half-sour dill pickles

Filed under: food,Jewish question,Turkey — louisproyect @ 10:25 pm

In the 50s and 60s, my father had a fruit store in Woodridge, NY that was famous for the kosher half-sour dill pickles made in the back of the store. By the time I was 14 years old, I began making them using his time-honored recipe. It consisted of the standard spices that he bought wholesale, garlic, dill and vinegar. You put about 25 pounds of Kirby cucumbers into a huge barrel, mixed in the other ingredients, put the lid of a peach basket on top of all this, and topped it off with a heavy stone to keep everything compacted together with the pickling ingredients. People used to come from miles around to buy his pickles.

The kind of barrel I used, about four feet tall.

In recent years, I have gotten into the habit of buying what my Turkish relatives call turşu, which is pronounced turshu. There was a great store that sold turşu on 85th and First but like so many small businesses became a casualty of extortionist rental leases.

We then started buying kosher dill pickles from Fairway, even though they didn’t sell the entire range of turşu products, which in addition to pickles can include mixed vegetables. Since Fairway is owned by Blackstone, a company I really hate for personal reasons, I decided to look into making them myself. It turned out to be a roaring success.

If you have access to a Whole Food store, you can buy Kirby cucumbers there. Then, you order the Ball spicing mix  from Amazon (or buy it from Whole Food or your local supermarket, even though I think you’ll have to end up ordering it online since it is not an everyday product.)

Kirby cucumbers

If you are making two quarts of pickles, as the Ball instructions indicate, make sure to use 2 ½ pounds of pickles rather than the 3 ½ it calls for since that would require a third quart jar. But still use the same amount of pickling ingredients. Don’t bother buying fancy gourmet vinegar. Heinz works just fine. This is what you’ll end up with after a week in the fridge. Trust me, they taste great. I say that as a bona fide expert on kosher pickles learned as an apprentice to my master pickle-maker Jack Proyect.

The next step is to make turşu with the other ingredients, a mixture of cauliflower, long green peppers, carrots and cabbage. Goes great with barbunya pilaki and kuru fasulye.

January 1, 2019

Lev Tahor: the Jewish Taliban

Filed under: cults,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 6:15 pm

Several days ago my tiny village in the Catskills got mentioned in a NY Times article titled “Jewish ‘Cult’ Tied to Brooklyn and Mexico Is Accused of Kidnapping 2 Children”. It seems that the children and their mother were part of a bizarre Taliban-like Hasidic cult based in Guatemala called Lev Tahor, which means “pure heart”. In October, she fled from the cult and relocated to Woodridge, New York, a village that was always predominantly Jewish but for the past decade or so at least has morphed into a Satmar Hasidic shtetl.

After my mom went into a nursing home over a decade ago, I went upstate to work on getting her house into shape for the real estate market. While working on the house, I used to go next door to chat with my Satmar neighbor, who had bought his house from my neighbor Frank Draganchuk, a Ukrainian-American who loved hunting as well as the animals he would shoot. He left salt licks behind his house just to admire the deer that he would hunt during season but far from his house.

After my house went on the market, it was snapped up almost immediately by another Satmar family. Within days of the sale, another neighbor who lived across the street, a garage mechanic and good old boy like Frank, phoned me to complain about the house being sold to a Satmar. A half-Jew himself, he might be perceived as an anti-Semite nonetheless. But another neighbor who lived down the street was not only a full-blooded Jew but the former president of the village synagogue where I was bar mitzvahed. He hated the Satmars with a passion. A WWII veteran like my father, his idea of Judaism was eating kosher and going to synagogue on Saturdays, not having your entire life revolve around rituals.

The Times describes Lev Tahor as anti-Zionist. As a split from the Satmar sect, this is one belief that they retained. The Satmars are staunchly opposed to Zionism, so much so that the Grand Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum was denounced by Jewish officialdom for blaming the West Bank settlers as being responsible for the murders of three of their teens by colonizing Palestinian land. Refusing to accept the legitimacy of Israel based on their interpretation of Jewish teachings (a Jewish state can only come into existence upon the return of a Messiah), he stated that while “every heart bleeds for the teens, it is incumbent upon us to say that these parents are guilty”. The settlers “place the lives of the Jewish people at risk for the sake of Zionism”. The most extreme sub-sect of the Satmars is Neturei Karta that denounces Israel at pro-Palestinian rallies organized by the PSL.

Just two months after the mom and her children settled down into normal Satmar life in Woodridge, a Lev Tahor member named Aron Rosner, who is the brother of the group’s leader, came into the village, kidnapped the two kids, Yante Teller, 14, and her brother, Chaim Teller, 12. They were brought to Mexico where they would then be transported on the next plane back to Guatemala. The Interpol arrested the kidnappers in Mexico and are in the process of sending the children back to Woodridge.

The children’s mom was the daughter of Shlomo Helbrans, the cult’s founder. After his death, his son Nachman took over. He is regarded as more extreme than his father and was arrested with the other kidnappers in Mexico. As part of the astonishing history of this tiny sect of no more than 200 members, Shlomo drowned on July 7, 2017 while performing a ritual immersion in a Mexican river. If the idea of Hasidic Jews in Mexico or Guatemala seems strange to those of you reading this post, imagine how Guatemalan Indians regarded them.

After settling in San Juan la Laguna, about 90 miles from Guatemala City, a local indigenous council told them to leave or else they would be forcefully removed. The Indians had problems with them refusing to greet or have physical contact with the community. Actually, that’s the way most of Woodridge’s more secular-minded Jews felt about the Satmars.

Ironically, Shlomo Helbrans was born into an Israeli family that was as secular-minded as my own. It was only after he turned 13 that he became a zealot. As for me, when I turned 13, I cut all my ties to organized Judaism. Getting bar mitzvahed was like graduating high school. Once you were certified, why would you ever want to go back to places as alienating as a high school or a synagogue?

I first heard about Helbrans in 1994 when he was involved in a case similar to this one. He had been charged with helping a 13-year old boy run away from his mother while taking bar mitzvah lessons with him. Sentenced to two years in prison, he left for Israel two years after his release where he established his cult that Israelis call the “Jewish Taliban”. According to Wikipedia, its practices include lengthy prayer sessions, arranged marriages between teenagers, and black, head-to-toe coverings for females beginning at age three.

Despite its minuscule size, the group has been widely covered in the media. Perhaps there is more than the customary interest in a Jewish group that forces its female members to wear burqas.

Foreign Policy ran a story in the January/February 2016 issue titled “A Tale of the Pure at Heart” that is worth reading. But for the most revealing look inside this controversial cult, I recommend this Global News documentary:

Finally, I can say that the readiness of such people to live within a cult is no great mystery. Judaism, like all “sky religions”, tends to create a rich subsoil for formations based on a strict obedience to doctrine and blind worship of the leading group. While Trotskyism was not a “sky religion”, it certainly knew how to keep people in line, including me over an 11 year period. Like the mother of the two kidnapped children, I bailed. Fortunately for me, nobody tried to kidnap me and force me to go door to door selling books written by Jack Barnes. They probably understood that I had gone over to Satan, thank god.

November 3, 2018

Uzbek Jews and the Pittsburgh massacre

Filed under: Jewish question — louisproyect @ 7:21 pm

Uzbekistan has been on mind for a while for a couple of reasons. To start with, I send nearly a thousand dollars each month to my mother-in-law to pay for the Uzbek housekeeper/caregiver we hired a couple of years ago to look after her husband who was suffering from dementia. After he died a few months ago, we decided to keep her on since it would make the mom-in-law’s life easier as well.

It is not unusual for Turks to employ emigres from the margins of the former Soviet Union. My wife’s brother-in-law had a maid from Moldova before he moved to the USA. Those women fleeing post-Soviet poverty frequently become prostitutes, operating in small brothels that are legal in Turkey, a legacy of Mustafa Kemal’s defiance of Muslim norms.

Some emigres end up in dead-end jobs despite the professional qualifications they accumulated in their home country. For example, the woman—a Muslim—who looked after my father-in-law was an accountant in a bank. When she arrived in Turkey, those qualifications made little difference.

A few days ago I had a chat with an Uzbek Jew who was cutting my hair. If you are looking for a great barber on the upper east side that charges only $16, I recommend Albert, the owner of L’Mosh Aliz. I have no idea what “mosh aliz” means but he is established enough as a barber to have been quoted in The Awl for his views on Donald Trump’s hairdo:

“If he’s a man, and wants to show he is a true leader, he would make it shorter. Take out the piece and walk like a businessman. Trim it close and keep it natural. Don’t try to cover it up.”

— Albert, L’Mosh Aliz Unisex Salon, Upper East Side

Those are my views exactly. I wouldn’t be caught dead in a comb-over. I told Albert that I wanted him to use a number one razor that gives the closest cut and added that I liked the military look.

A minute into the haircut, I asked him a question that has been on my mind for years now. All of the barber shops in the neighborhood, as opposed to the hair-styling salons I used to go to, seem to be operated by Jews from the primarily Muslim, southern mountainous regions of the former Soviet Union, especially from Uzbekistan. It appears that some Uzbek Jews also end up running combination shoe and watch repair shops like the one my wife and I patronize a block away. How did that happen, I asked Albert?

He explained that barbering is a craft ideally suited to immigrants who have not mastered English. He said that for many, putting 3 or 4 pictures of different hair styles on the wall of a shop was sufficient. You’d ask someone sitting in the chair to point to a picture of the kind of haircut he needed and that was that. My guess is that the shoe repair business amounts to the same thing. My maternal grandfather had a shoe repair shop in Kansas City and never learned a word of English, as was the case with my grandmother who peddled clothing in the Mexican-American neighborhoods. In fact, her command of Spanish was much greater than that of her English as was the case with my mother when she was young.

Albert provided some details on how his family ended up in the USA. Working with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), the same group that provoked Robert Bowers to murder 11 Jews in Pittsburgh, his father was given the choice of immigrating to the USA or Israel. He chose the USA—a wise choice in my view. Like my mother-in-law’s housekeeper, his prior professional experience meant little. He taught music in a high school in Uzbekistan but ended up being trained as a barber, just like his son.

The other question on my mind was how Jews related to the national culture in Uzbekistan. I was under the impression that unlike Ashkenazy Jews they tended to adopt the cuisine, dress and broader cultural affinities of the Muslim majority. Albert confirmed that. His father played in a band that consisted mostly of Muslim men and could count on Muslims for friendship and support. The sizable donations that Muslim organizations provided to the synagogue in Pittsburgh reflects the affinity that has been lost in decades of Israeli depredation. Some analysts argue that as long as there is Islamophobia, Judeophobia will follow in its trail. I find this argument convincing.

After I returned home fresh as a daisy with my buzzcut, I decided to do a little research on Uzbek Jews. The findings were eye-opening. Although the July 24, 2004 Washington Post article referenced below does not mention Uzbekistan, the mention of Bukhara should indicate that it is talking about Albert and his countrymen. Bukhara is in Uzbekistan, as is Tashkent, the capital and largest city that was a cauldron of support for the Bolsheviks in 1917.

Rafael Fuzailov’s place is a traditional barbershop. The smells, both astringent and fragrant, are familiar. The steel chairs look as if they’ve been used for years. Once in a while, one of the men grabs a broom and cleans up. A sign out front advertises haircuts for $12.

But around a corner in the back of the shop, a Russian-language newspaper lies under a ceramic teapot. There is a silver-plated samovar against one wall, and the barbers’ accents are foreign — the shop is a long way from the cities of the Great Silk Road of central Asia where the men were born.

Rakhmin Izgelov, who is administering a trim, is from Tashkent. Working the chair next to him is Rafael’s son, Daniel Fuzailov, from Samarkand. They are Bukharian Jews, barbers transplanted to this shop far from the mountainous land that was home to their people for centuries.

“I never thought I would be here,” said Izgelov, a stocky man with a thick, neat mustache and a serious expression, who has been cutting hair since 1968. “The customers are different. But hair is hair.”

The Bukharians trace their origins, through Iran and Iraq, to the Persian Empire, in the centuries after the kingdom of Israel was conquered and its inhabitants first forced into exile. Today, Bukharians live in Queens, part of a community of about 50,000 immigrants from Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgystan and Kazhakstan. For generations, the barbers of central Asia were Jews.

The barbers at Rafael Barber Shop — nestled in its strip mall near a Starbucks and a hair salon — are following a hallowed immigrant path. They are working their way into American society with the skills they brought from their home countries, much as how Jewish tailors, Greek cooks and, years ago, Italian barbers have done.

“There are not too many Italians in the business anymore,” said Mike Zholendz of the American Barber Institute in Manhattan. “Now we have a new breed of people: The Bukharians are coming.”

It helps that it doesn’t take much capital to get into the business — as little as $10,000, said Gloria Blumenthal of the New York Association for New Americans, which aids immigrants. She said barbering is the Bukharians’ top profession.

Bukharians are barbering throughout Long Island, though it’s difficult to know exactly how many there are.

“I see a Jewish community. I like to work in a Jewish community,” Rafael said, explaining how he chose Plainview.

He does not work at the shop — he’s got his fingers in other enterprises, including buying and selling cars — but his son and his wife, Rachel, do. The Plainview store also does a little shoe repair, a little jewelry work — crafts that Bukharians dominated in the cities of central Asia.

“During Soviet times, most of the professions like barber, photographer, watch fixers, shoemakers, most of the jobs were controlled by Bukharian Jews,” said Peter Perkhasov, 26, a political science major at Queens College who is director of http://www.bukharianjews.com, one of a number of Bukharian Web sites. “There were barbershops where only Bukharian Jews worked, 20 or 30 people.”

Documentary photographer Frederic Brenner made a portrait of one such establishment in 1989 in Leninabad, Tajikistan, showing 10 Jewish barbers and their Muslim customers. Eight years later, Brenner found and photographed seven of the same barbers together in Israel. Along with the 50,000 or so in the New York area, there are an estimated 100,000 Bukharians in Israel, with a few thousand more in Austria, France, England, Australia and Argentina. Only about 2,000 are left in Central Asia.

Frederic Brenner: Barbershop Barbers, Left to Right, with Their Tajik Muslim Customers: Ibrahim, Roshel Ya’akobov, Arkadi Dadabayev, Sa’id Hudja, Joric, Shlomo Ya’akobov, Adina, Asher Dadabayev, Shmaya Mushayev, Abraham Ya’akobov, Leninabad, Tajikistan, USSR, 1989

The Bukharians lived in the cities along the Silk Road for hundreds of years, practicing their own, isolated form of Judaism and speaking a Tajik or Farsi dialect. As a result of continuous repression and persecution mixed with occasional periods of free movement, they lost touch with many of their religious roots.

According to lore, a rabbi from Morocco went to Bukhara, in what is now Uzbekistan, in the 18th century and instigated a Sephardic religious revival. “He changed it from the Persian religious tradition to the Sephardic tradition, but we are not Sephardic Jews,” Perkhasov said.

The Bukharians are proud of their Jewish heritage, if not Orthodox in their observance — Saturday, the Sabbath, is one of the shop’s busiest days. Dmitri Izkhakov, who also works at Rafael Barber Shop, indicated clearly that he immigrated because he is Jewish. He arrived in New York in April 2002, because “there are now 15 [Jewish] families left in Samarkand. There were 10,000 families, and now the synagogue is closing because there is no minyan,” he said, referring to the 10 adult males needed to conduct prayer services.

Barbering is a bit different, both for the newcomers and customers who recall the old-time practitioners. The Bukharian barbers don’t strop their razors the way the old Italians did; they don’t use fragrant oils as much or keep their scissors and tools in alcohol-filled glasses. “The Italian guys are very slow and precise,” Izgelov said. “We have a little less attention to detail.”

And American customers are not the same as the Uzbeks. “In Tashkent, there is more a standard haircut — three types of haircuts,” he said. “Here, everybody is different, different kinds.”

Ultimately, though, a barber is a barber. Daniel Fuzailov carefully shaved Alan Sternberg’s head while Sternberg’s son Jake, 3, perched on his dad’s lap. Then Billy Hunter of Jericho, who had been the store’s very first customer, came by for his regular shave.

“There are very few barbershops that do shaves anymore,” Hunter said, settling back under Izgelov’s ministrations. “There’s a family atmosphere here. They make you feel right at home.”

Frederic Brenner’s photo above reminds me of what was lost when Jews became part of the nationalist project known as Zionism. For the better part of a thousand years, they were part of a culture that they were happy to assimilate into while retaining their particular religious customs. Under the various more enlightened Muslim rulers, especially in the Ottoman Empire, they flourished. In Europe, they benefited from the Enlightenment, so much so that the Reform movement in Germany was seen as a threat to the hegemonic Orthodox sect.

Not much has changed apparently. Israel, which has become an Orthodox bastion closely affiliated with the Christian right, has tended to line up with the Republican Party over the killings in Pittsburgh. In September 2017, Haaretz reported on how Netanyahu’s son had developed a mindset associated with both Robert Bowers and Cesar Sayoc:

When he shared a cartoon full of anti-Semitic imagery on his Facebook page over the weekend, the son of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may not have understood he would be playing straight into the hands of notorious Jew haters. After all, he discovered the image on a Hebrew-language social media site whose fans and followers appear to be Israeli.

The cartoon, which Yair Netanyahu – known by the pseudonym “Yair Hun” on Facebook – has since removed, featured a photo of George Soros dangling the world in front of a reptilian creature, which, in turn dangles an alchemy symbol in front of a caricature of a figure evoking the anti-Semitic “happy merchant” image.

Leaders of the anti-Semitic far right in the United States couldn’t have been more delighted. David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, rushed to share the cartoon on Twitter, while The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi news website, called the prime minister’s 26-year-old son “a total bro” in an article headlined “Netanyahu’s son posts awesome meme blaming the Jews for bringing down his Jew father.”

Isn’t it obvious that class divisions in the Jewish population are sharpening today? Young Jews will have to make a choice between Zionism and socialism. I made that choice in 1967 and remain convinced that the only way to prevent murderous attacks like the one that took place in Pittsburgh will be the abolition of capitalism, a system that continues to exist because the ruling class learned hundreds of years ago how to divide and conquer. The answer to that is class unity and militancy in a period of capitalism rotting to its very foundations.

August 16, 2018

The Ritchie Boys

Filed under: Film,Jewish question,WWII — louisproyect @ 6:00 pm

Not too long ago I discovered that Werner Angress, the historian from whose “Stillborn Revolution: The Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921–23” I have been posting excerpts, was a Ritchie boy. After he died in 2010, The American Historical Association commemorated his life, including information on Ritchie:

Drafted into the army in 1941, he was trained as an interrogator at Camp Ritchie (he is featured in the film, The Ritchie Boys, about this remarkable institution), and parachuted (his first jump) into France with the 82nd Airborne on D-Day. Despite his extraordinarily youthful appearance and rather small stature, Angress was a tough and resourceful soldier who was eventually promoted to Master Sergeant and awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.

In going through a backlog of DVDs received from publicists about a decade ago, I discovered that I had one for “The Ritchie Boys”. In extracting it from the package, it accidentally was damaged. Not willing to be deterred from seeing the film, I got a copy through the Columbia Library and was richly rewarded by a documentary that might be regarded as the ultimate alternative to Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds”.

Although Werner Angress and all the other German and German-speaking Jewish immigrants had every reason to want to kill every Nazi they got their hands on, the allied cause was better served by them functioning as “soft cops” to get information that could save the lives of fellow soldiers as well as civilians. Additionally, the Ritchie boys discover that many if not most of the German soldiers were ordinary workers forced to kill or be killed as deserters. The same thing was true of the German civilians they came in contact with.

Every Ritchie boy interviewed in the film was as ethically and politically informed as Angress, with some demonstrating the leftist politics they probably absorbed growing up in Weimar Germany. Among the most interesting is Si Lewin, a Polish Jew who was born in 1918 and died two years ago at the age of 97. Like all the other Ritchie boys, including Angress whose parachute got caught in a tree in Germany not long after D-Day, he has an amazing story to tell.

He was assigned to convince German soldiers to surrender by speaking to them through high-powered speakers wired to a batteries in a jeep. Routinely, German artillery honed in on Lewin and his comrades by geolocating the sound of the speakers until they figured out how to position them far from the jeep.

Si Lewin’s website is still up and running. In the about page, we learn that he was a close friend of Art Spiegelman who wrote “Maus”. In a Harpers Magazine article, Spiegelman describes “Parade”, one of Lewin’s most celebrated works:

By 1950, Si was pursuing an idea that had begun to gestate while he was still a soldier. Inspired by a lifelong love of movies — and in conscious resistance to the pure nonrepresentational abstraction that was coming to dominate contemporary art — he made the Parade.

The work begins with an excited crowd of flag-waving parents and children who gather to cheer a military procession of soldiers that turns into an abstract engine of war. Little boys playing with toy guns are beckoned from the arms of their mothers into the arms of a shrouded Grim Reaper, who transforms the children into helmeted, goose-stepping cannon fodder — interchangeable cogs in a relentless war machine. A series of vignettes focuses on scenes of escalating havoc and suffering — the disasters of war — replete with bayoneted mothers and babies, terrorized families fleeing bombed-out cities, and devastated farms. The images accumulate into a panoramic harvest of blood and death. The parade turns into a hanging row of severed heads, a procession of the wounded and maimed, a march of ravaged survivors staggering under the weight of the coffins they carry.

I had to make a tough decision in writing an article about “The Ritchie Boys” since it was neither available as VOD or even as a DVD with the standard pricing. The director Christian Bauer, a German, died in 2009 and the distribution company he founded died along with him. The only way to see the film is to buy a DVD on Amazon that is now going for $70 when it was available.

I saw no alternative except to put it up on Youtube, which took a bit of time and money to accomplish. Since the DVD is copy-protected, I had to pay $100 to have someone bypass the copy protection and make it uploadable. I doubt that Youtube will be hearing from anybody about copyright protection but just in case I wouldn’t waste any time watching this film since it is absolutely terrific.

July 31, 2018

Munsees, Monsey and Muncie

Filed under: indigenous,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 12:36 am

Monsey, NY is a town just north of New York City that is mostly Hasidic. Here you see the Neturei Karta sect celebrating Lag Bo’omer. You’ve probably heard of them. They often participate in protests against Israel, mostly because they consider the state of Israel to be contrary to Jewish religious precepts. Until the Messiah comes, there can be no Jewish state in their eyes. In addition to that, they also decry the treatment of the Palestinians who they see as victims of ethnic cleansing.

The town of Monsey derives its name from the Munsee Indians, who were part of the Lenape nation. They had a village there as well as settlements all through New York State from approximately just south of Albany all the way down to New York City. In fact, the Munsees were the ones who supposedly sold Manhattan to the Dutch for $24.

In the early 1800s, the Munsees were systematically robbed of their land in New York and eventually relocated to  Wisconsin. in much more meager circumstances.

They also resettled in Indiana, where they called their village Munsee Town. It was once  again absorbed by whites who at least gave them the courtesy of retaining the name but Anglicized it as Muncie. Muncie became immortalized as the subject of Robert and Helen Lynd’s “Middletown” that examined attitudes of people living in Muncie, the first sociological study of its kind.

The Lynds were the parents of long-time radical Staughton Lynd. Their study, according to Wikipedia, found that at least 70 percent of the population belonged to the working class. “However, labor unions had been driven out of town because the city’s elite saw them as anti-capitalist. Because of this, unemployment was seen among residents as an individual, not a social, problem.” With a study reaching such conclusions, no wonder they were investigated as Communist Party members in the 1950s.

Because of the wrongs done to them in the 1800s, the Munsees were compensated by being allowed to build a gambling casino in Sullivan County, where I grew up. They were as dominant in Sullivan County as the Sioux were in the Dakotas. Unlike the Sioux, they were farmers and mostly dispossessed of their land rather than dispossessed of their game as was the case with the Sioux.

Four years ago they decided to abandon plans to build the casino since Cuomo had authorized the building of casinos closer to New York City, thus shrinking their market.

As for the Neturei Karta, Lag Bo’omer is a holiday that nobody in my Jewish village celebrated. It is much more of a Chasidic thing with Kabbalistic implications. The Talmud states that it originated in the 12th century when a divinely-ordained plague led to the death of 24,000 rabbinical students in the month of Omer. The “lag” refers to the day when the plague was lifted. As far as I know, there is no explanation why God visited such a calamity except maybe as a Job-like test of their faith.

The holiday is marked by dancing around bonfires and the children taking rubber bows and arrows into the fields sort of like in a John Ford western. In today’s Israel, the holiday is celebrated as a symbol of Israel’s fighting spirit. Needless to say, the Neturei Karta has different ideas.

July 21, 2018

Yitzy the Pupa photographer

Filed under: Catskills,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 7:12 pm

On Wednesday and Thursday, I was up in Sullivan County—once the home of the now mostly defunct resort hotel industry—to work with a drone pilot I had hired to capture the sights of the Catskills from above.

Of all the major hotels that were well-known in the area, there is only one that is still in business and that has the same appearance it had when it was built in 1937, namely the Raleigh Hotel. When I had been told in advance that it was now owned by Hasidim and catering to the frum (devout), I was a bit worried about being prevented from filming since these people are notoriously wary of outsiders. About a mile from the hotel, we stopped on the road to ask directions from a likely hotel guest wearing a long frock coat and a wide-brimmed hat. He told us it was right up the road and asked if he could get a lift. When he opened the door to hop into the back seat, he spotted the drone pilot’s female assistant and then said, while grinning sheepishly, “No thank you”. This came as no big surprise since there were lots of reports about Hasidic men refusing to be seated next to women on Israeli airplanes. Even when I offered to change seats with the assistant, he still said no.

Given that introduction, I suggested to the pilot to stay fairly clear of the hotel in order to avoid confrontations with hotel security. After about five minutes of filming, a car pulled up with a Hasidic driver who we figured to be part of the hotel management ready to tell us to get lost. After we explained what we were doing, he said “Great” with a big smile on his face and then asked when and where the drone shots of the hotel will be available. What a pleasant surprise!

Back in 2004, the hotel was being run by Laurie Landon, a secular Jew who took over the hotel after her father Mannie Halbert died that year at the age of 91. The NY Times described a transition that was atypical:

When she turned 18, she left the Raleigh and the so-called borscht belt behind to study fine arts at the University of Wisconsin. She then ventured farther, to California, where she studied and worked in design before returning east to live in Manhattan. Her father was left to run the 320-room hotel by himself after her mother, Nettie, died of ovarian cancer in 1971.

“The hotel replaced my mother,” she said. “It was his world. I knew he wanted to pass away here. He wore a suit and tie every day until he went into the hospital.”

Having hassle-free filming at the Raleigh was just the prelude to the next encounter with a Hasid that was even more unexpected.


Old Falls, on the Neversink River

The crew and I were at Old Falls, a popular spot for tourists and locals alike, when all of a sudden a panel truck pulled up and a young man wearing jeans, a t-shirt and a yarmulke on his head stepped out to see what we were up to.

While the pilot and his assistant prepared to fly the drone over the falls, I drew their attention to a monarch butterfly a few feet away. To our delight, we had seen a number of them when we were upstate—perhaps recovering from the massive die-off from pesticides in the 1990s. When the young man overheard us chatting about the butterfly, he dashed to his truck and brought out a digital SLR camera with a massive telephoto lens to see if he could photograph the butterfly. In fact, it was this camera:

That is one of the photos on Yitzy’s website that is devoted both to photographing the beauty of the area as well as the religious leaders of the Pupa branch of Hasidic Judaism.

Not only is he a passionate photographer, he is also into drone photography and owns a Mavic Pro just like mine. I should add that the only reason I hired a drone pilot (and a great one at that) is the impossibility of learning how to fly my own in New York City where there is a virtual ban. (Contact me if you want to buy a Mavic Pro in excellent condition.)

Right off the bat, Yitzy identified himself as a Pupa person. The Pupas are a Hasidic sect named after the town of Pápa in Hungary who were deported to Auschwitz during WWII with only a tiny number of people surviving the death camp. There are several thousand Pupas in Brooklyn where Yitzy grew up in a cloistered world that had incorporated the same customs and Yiddish language used in the 19th century in Hungary. He told me that he learned English on the street and even picked up Spanish along the way.

Yitzy and I discussed his online passions that are strictly verboten in his world. Computers, like the female assistant in the drone pilot’s back seat, are doors that open up into the world of temptation and sin. But he was not ready to forsake them since this was as much a part of his identity as the sidelocks (peyot) that he had tucked neatly behind his ears. On Friday night and Saturday, the sidelocks are unraveled and he trades his jeans and t-shirt for the same kind of clothes that the Raleigh hotel guest was wearing. Obviously, it is this sort of ceremony that retains a grip on him:

Yitzy is aware of the films on Hasidim that have cast them in a negative light such as “One of Us” (https://louisproyect.org/2017/10/19/one-of-us-jane/) even if he has not watched them. He wasn’t aware of “Menashe”, the outstanding film about a single father being told by a Hasidic court that unless he remarries, he will have to turn over his son to another family. When I described the plot to him, he had no hesitation saying that the rabbis were wrong.

I was deeply impressed with Yitzy and could understand why he would want to remain in the Hasidic world. Karl Marx once wrote that religion was the opiate of the masses but the words that surround this statement are often neglected:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

My interest in the Hasidim goes back a number of decades mostly because they are so defiantly unconcerned about how they are perceived by others. In American society, it is difficult to withstand the social pressures that turn people into commodity fetishists unless you exist within a religious cocoon like the Amish or the Hasidim.

Ilan Halevi’s “A History of the Jews: Ancient and Modern” is the definitive treatment of Jewish history that I highly recommend. His discussion of the Hasidic movement places it in the context of economic and social dislocations of 19th century Europe:

There is one area where Hasidism not only did not challenge orthodoxy, but outbid the rabbinical discourse: the crucial area of the cleavage Jews and non-Jews. The eschatological justification of difference as essential. Difference was one of the constantly recurring themes of rabbinical Judaism: Separation (havdalah) was a key concept. God separated Israel from among the Nations and this extraction was of an ontological nature:

“Like day from night, like the sacred from the profane.” Talmudic law pushed the horror of the mixing of species to the prohibiting any grafting of vegetable species. Kabbalistic literature was full of such expressions of national pride and messianic particularism. But the intellectual practice of the Mediterranean Kabbala could, through exegesis, lead to heretical questionings of this basic distinction, which cannot simply be reduced to the divine guarantee of the ethnic superiority chosen group. The rabbinical caste, indeed, was dependent on it for relations with the princely rulers and the stratum of intermediaries. The weight of this dual relationship tempered the cosmological tribalism of the Law. It had even, under the tolerant Islam of the Abbassids, allowed this tribalism to harmonize its language with the surrounding civilization, which was itself fascinated by Greek Reason.

Nothing like this, no modification of rabbinical ethnicism was at work in universe of the Hasidim: the fact was that the persecution of the community was occurring in conditions that were unique in the history of this Law. The de facto separation of the Shtetl from the surrounding society, a separation that was not only religious and social, but linguistic and spatial, found in this the theological weapons it needed to assert itself. While postponing to an indefinite future the hopes for a political messiah, Hasidism also expressed, by its outright denial of time and place, the historical subjectivism of the Shtetl which could later fuel the growth of Jewish nationalism.

The internal crisis of the Shtetl, whose roots are to be found in the crisis of Polish feudalism, was exacerbated and radically aggravated. The domain of Polish sovereignty was shrinking rapidly. A kingdom that had stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea grew smaller and smaller as around it tsarist Russia, the Hapsburg empire and the German states grew larger and larger. The Polish question became the European question and centuries-old Polish Jewry saw its territory carved up among several states Austria, which took Galicia, lightened the conditions of Jews there: but Russia, having seized the Ukraine and Byelorussia, oppressed them there, said Lenin, “more harshly than the Negroes”. The Napoleonic conquest, short as it may have been, precipitated the disintegration, inducing a general upheaval in the empires of the centre and east. Following the French occupation, the whole map of the region was transformed. The new frontier of Austria and Russia, which shared the whole of what remained of Poland in 1815, cut the Ashkenazi world in two, divided the dynasties of Hasidic rabbis, and determined new sub-problematics. The sociological unity of Ashkenazi Judaism was beginning to fracture.

This year Philip Roth died at the age of 85. Well over fifty years ago, I read his “Goodbye Columbus” that included a short story titled “Eli the Fanatic” about a secular Jew living among gentiles who is chagrined to discover that a Hasidic Jew has moved into his neighborhood. Samuel Freedman, a Columbia professor who has written about conflicts in the Jewish community in a book titled “Jew Vs Jew: The Struggle For The Soul Of American Jewry”, summarized the plot:

In 1959, very early in his literary career, Philip Roth wrote a short story entitled “Eli, the Fanatic.” At the outset of the tale, nothing is fanatical about Eli, except his desire to fit in. He has ridden a law degree and the wave of postwar prosperity from working-class Newark into a leafy suburb up the slope of the Watchung Hills—the sort of suburb, the reader understands, that had barred Jews with restrictive covenants on home sales until the revelation of the Holocaust discredited the formal structures of American anti-Semitism. Even so, Eli feels that his station there is vulnerable. So when two survivors, one of them Hasidic, open a yeshiva out of a ramshackle home in what is supposed to be a residential neighborhood, Eli fears that their oddity will undermine his fragile new niche. He instructs the men in the importance of obeying zoning laws, and, when that doesn’t work, gives the Hasid one of his own business suits so that, at the very least, the stranger won’t attract quite so many stares as he walks down Main Street. In a final plot twist, the Hasid leaves a set of his own black garb on Eli’s porch. Eli, inexplicably drawn to it, puts on the clothes, whereupon he is committed to a lunatic asylum.

Sometimes I wonder if my 50-year commitment to Marxism is as “fanatical” as Roth’s character. In a world headed to disasters of Biblical proportions, it takes a certain kind of stiff-necked resolve to adhere to beliefs that reject our affluent society that is symbolized by Donald Trump’s garish penthouse. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I admire Yitzy even though his world is so remote from mine.

March 2, 2018

The Arab-Jew: Caught Between Warring Identities

Filed under: Counterpunch,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 5:00 pm


Nearly five years ago I wrote an article for CounterPunch titled “Voices of the Mizrahim” that discussed “Forget Baghdad: Jews and Arabs – The Iraqi Connection”, a documentary that featured four Jewish members of the Communist Party in Iraq who became part of the “population exchange” associated with the creation of the state of Israel.

All four never stopped feeling like Iraqis after becoming Israeli citizens. In addition to the four, the film includes commentary on the phenomenon of the “Arab Jew” by NYU professor Ella Shohat who was born to Jewish parents in Baghdad and has written eloquently about the problems of divided identity for over thirty years. (The film can now be seen on Vimeo for only $5 and is well worth it: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/forget).

A generous collection of her articles are now available from Pluto Press in On the Arab-Jew, Palestine and Other Displacements that is of enormous importance in understanding not only the tragedy of the post-1947 “population exchange” but the ethnic conflicts tearing apart the Middle East and North Africa today.

Continue reading

July 25, 2017


Filed under: Film,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 4:01 pm

Opening in New York and Los Angeles on Friday (locations are here), “Menashe” is an extraordinary film on a number of levels. To start with, it is the first Yiddish-language film in nearly 70 years. The earlier films catered to Eastern European immigrants who were interested in being entertained just like English-speaking audiences but in their native language. As such, the plots were often fairly conventional with at least one Western that might remind you of “Johnny Guitar”.

Since the audience for “Menashe” will likely be people who do not speak Yiddish, there are subtitles. Indeed, the only people who speak and read Yiddish nowadays, except for scholars, are the Hasidic Jews who live in Brooklyn and who do not go to movies, watch television or even go on the Internet. As the Jewish version of the Salafist sect in the Muslim world, the Hasidim are authoritarian-minded religious zealots who live in an insular, male-dominated society.

As it happens, that is exactly the world that is portrayed in “Menashe”, which has a nonprofessional cast of Hasidim that took considerable risks in taking part in a film that while being respectful toward their traditions challenges some of their key practices. That indeed constitutes the central drama of the film. Menashe is a man in his late 30s who is attempting to raise his 10-year old son Rieven by himself after his wife has died. However, the sect he belongs to will not permit single parenting. A full year after her death, he is under intense pressure from his brother-in-law Eizek and religious authorities to turn Rieven over to Eizek.

While Rieven prefers his loving father to the cold and remote uncle, he is savvy enough to understand that Menashe can barely take care of himself, let alone keep their family going after the death of his mom. Since there are strictly segregated sex roles in Hasidic families, Menashe has little idea of how to do what his wife once did. So breakfast now for Rieven might consist of a piece of cake and a cola drink. When he is preparing a dinner for the day of his wife’s memorial, he has to call on a neighbor to find out how to make a kugel, an egg noodle dish that is a Hasidic staple and that he burns.

When Rieven tags along with his father for a male-only drinking and singing party, he is appalled to see his father down three shots of vodka in rapid succession and obviously become tipsy. When his father isn’t looking, Rieven grabs his cell phone and calls Eizek to be rescued from Menashe who lashes out as his son as a snitch the next day.

Like John Travolta’s Tony Manero in “Saturday Night Fever”, Menashe has a low-paying job as a clerk in a retail store—in his case a small supermarket owned by a fellow Hasid. He owes his landlord back payments on rent and is constantly hitting up his boss for loans. In the first hint that the film is not romanticizing Hasidic life, Menashe argues with his boss about selling unwashed lettuce to a Hasidic housewife, a violation of strict Jewish dietary laws. He is told that the store’s profits are more important than following scripture.

Throughout the film, there are other signs of fissure inside the tightly circumscribed Hasidic world. In a visit to Eizek to pick up his son, Eizek’s daughter is heard complaining about why she can’t go to college. There are also arguments about why Hasidic women cannot drive a car. These are disputes that are going on right now in Hasidic neighborhoods and as the case in Saudi Arabia, there are voices for reform pitted against the hardliners. Despite the film’s bold attempt to address these conflicts, its main purpose is to reveal the daily rhythms of Hasidic life from the recitations of prayers during mealtime to dates arranged by a matchmaker.

The film was directed by Joshua Weinstein, a secular Jew who has only made documentaries in the past. The script was co-written by Alex Lipschultz, a secular Jew like the director, and Musa Syeed, the son of Kashmiri immigrants.

The story of how the film originated is told in a January 18, 2017 Los Angeles Times article titled How did a Sundance filmmaker shoot a scripted movie in the insulated world of New York’s Hasidim? I urge you to read the entire article but this excerpt should give you an idea of the challenges that faced Weinstein:

Weinstein, who attended a Conservative Jewish day school in suburban New Jersey, knew little of these groups growing up. He makes his living as a cinematographer, often on far-flung documentaries. But as he walked through the Hasid-rich Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park earlier this week, he spoke of his inspiration for the movie. In 2014 he had just completed a series of difficult shoots involving subjects such as poor villages in India and end-of-life care in the U.S. A more humanist story, in his own backyard, seemed appealing.

Without even knowing what story he wanted to tell, he began hanging out in Borough Park, bringing his notepad to the streets, stores and synagogues of this bustling neighborhood, often wearing a large black yarmulke to blend in. (Thank God for hipster filmmaker beards.) He also connected with several members of different Hasidic communities who’d left but retained roots in it, and linked up with a Chabad-affiliated casting agent who could bridge two worlds.

Matters would soon go awry. Would-be performers would sign on and drop out, realizing that it wasn’t worth the fallout at their synagogue or children’s school. Even now, Weinstein has declined to reveal the names of nearly all the actors apart from Lustig, knowing they could face blowback from the tight-knit community.

Financing was tricky too — money came from sources in the larger Jewish community, but in dribs and drabs. Weinstein would shoot for a few days or weeks at a time, put down his camera, go back to his day job, raise money, and then return to production. (The film was shot over a period of nearly two years.)

Locations would also fall through, as some store owners would get cold feet, fearing negative communal publicity.

“That’s the supermarket we shot in,” Weinstein said, as he gestured to a large store on a major thoroughfare. “Well, one of them. We got kicked out of four supermarkets, I think. They all form one supermarket in the movie.”

Meanwhile, only a small percentage of the people who came in to read for parts had even seen movies — and even then they tend to be locally sourced “kosher” recordings, low-budget productions with spiritual messages. Some had honed their chops at so-called “Purim Spiels,” a kind of Hasidic Chitlin Circuit of seasonal skits centered on the springtime masquerade holiday. Still, those were big, broad comedies — not exactly useful for a lo-fi drama. Weinstein asked performers to enact stories or behaviors from their own lives, wrote scenes around them, then fit them into the script.

Key to the film was Lustig. A member of the Skver sect, the 38-year-old had stirred up minor celebrity — and controversy — in his community after posting a series of slapsticky home videos on YouTube. Weinstein met Lustig and was struck by his talent and back story. Lustig had moved to London when he married his wife, a Hasidic Brit, around 2000. His wife would die several years later, and Lustig returned to New York with his then-4-year-old son. Like the widower character he plays, a family member had sought to keep custody of his son. Weinstein heard the tale and built his movie around it. Then he convinced the Hasid to take a starring role.

“I don’t feel I’m being rebellious,” said Lustig, as he waited in the lobby at a pre-festival reception in Manhattan that evening, in his trademark beard and conservative garb. “I just think if someone has talent — if God gives you talent — because you’re a Jew you’re not allowed to use it? It doesn’t make sense.”

Ilan Halevi wrote an authoritative Marxist study titled “A History of the Jews: Ancient and Modern, history of the Jews” that places the Hasidic movement in the context of economic and social dislocations of 19th century Europe:

There is one area where Hasidism not only did not challenge orthodoxy, but outbid the rabbinical discourse: the crucial area of the cleavage Jews and non-Jews. The eschatological justification of difference as essential. Difference was one of the constantly recurring themes of rabbinical Judaism: Separation (havdalah) was a key concept. God separated Israel from among the Nations and this extraction was of an ontological nature:

‘Like day from night, like the sacred from the profane.’ Talmudic law pushed the horror of the mixing of species to the prohibiting any grafting of vegetable species. Kabbalistic literature was full of such expressions of national pride and messianic particularism. But the intellectual practice of the Mediterranean Kabbala could, through exegesis, lead to heretical questionings of this basic distinction, which cannot simply be reduced to the divine guarantee of the ethnic superiority chosen group. The rabbinical caste, indeed, was dependent on it for relations with the princely rulers and the stratum of intermediaries. The weight of this dual relationship tempered the cosmological tribalism of the Law. It had even, under the tolerant Islam of the Abbassids, allowed this tribalism to harmonize its language with the surrounding civilization, which was itself fascinated by Greek Reason.”

Nothing like this, no modification of rabbinical ethnicism was at work in universe of the Hasidim: the fact was that the persecution of the community was occurring in conditions that were unique in the history of this Law. The de facto separation of the Shtetl from the surrounding society, a separation that was not only religious and social, but linguistic and spatial, found in this the theological weapons it needed to assert itself. While postponing to an indefinite future the hopes for a political messiah, Hasidism also expressed, by its outright denial of time and place, the historical subjectivism of the Shtetl which could later fuel the growth of Jewish nationalism.

The internal crisis of the Shtetl, whose roots are to be found in the crisis of Polish feudalism, was exacerbated and radically aggravated. The domain of Polish sovereignty was shrinking rapidly. A kingdom that had stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea grew smaller and smaller as around it tsarist Russia, the Hapsburg empire and the German states grew larger and larger. The Polish question became the European question and centuries-old Polish Jewry saw its territory carved up among several states Austria, which took Galicia, lightened the conditions of Jews there: but Russia, having seized the Ukraine and Byelorussia, oppressed them there, said Lenin, ‘more harshly than the Negroes’. The Napoleonic conquest, short as it may have been, precipitated the disintegration, inducing a general upheaval in the empires of the centre and east. Following the French occupation, the whole map of the region was transformed. The new frontier of Austria and Russia, which shared the whole of what remained of Poland in 1815, cut the Ashkenazi world in two, divided the dynasties of Hasidic rabbis, and determined new sub-problematics. The sociological unity of Ashkenazi Judaism was beginning to fracture.

These upheavals deepened in the 20th century and at their nadir plunged the Hasidic population into Hitler’s concentration camps, where they died alongside their secular relatives. After WWII came to an end, they relocated to America, led by their Rabbis. When they came here, not only were they in a state of shock but were not sure how they would relate to American society.

At first they did not adopt the familiar Hasidic garb. The men were clean shaven and both men and women wore normal clothing. The only thing that made them stand out were their tattoos, which they received in concentration camps. I recall seeing them up in the Catskill Mountains in the early ’50s. The assimilated Jews referred to them as “the refugees.” I remember how shocking the tattoos seemed to me at the time. No Jew was supposed to get a tattoo because it meant that you couldn’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Jewish religious codes dictated that you had to leave the world in the same way that you came into it. The only tattooed Jews I knew were merchant marines who got them when they were on a drunken binge in some port.

Eventually the Hasidic leaders made an interesting decision which goes against the grain of the American melting pot. They decided to recreate the Hasidic world in urban New York. During the 1950s, when there was enormous pressure to assimilate, when xenophobia was at an all-time high under the auspices of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and when anti-Semitism was expressed openly around the Rosenbergs trial, the Hasidim made the decision to reject American culture and society. They would create an enclave of everything that was “non-American” within the American heartland.

Not only did they decide to look non-American, they decided to reject the temptations of American success. Hasidic youth were directed not to go to college, since worldly temptations existed there. Also, during a time of enormous popularity for television and movies, they rejected both as impious. Most Hasidic families are tightly constrained by economic duress. When you have 10 to 12 children–a typical family size–and the breadwinner is a truck-driver or clerk like Menashe in a Hasidic-owned business, food and lodging expenses alone are onerous.

I have only gotten to know one Hasidic person in my life, and then only on a casual basis. This was Joe, a free-lance computer programmer I used to work with at Metropolitan Life. He had 9 kids and lived in a housing project. He said that it was extremely rare to see a Hasidic computer programmer like him because you generally needed a college education. He got into the field when this wasn’t necessary. He was a very likable guy with a sense of humor. He made no attempt to proselytize me. If anything, I was more of a nuisance to fellow employees because of my Trotskyist politics.

The Hasidim are a complex subject. On one hand they evoke admiration for their steadfast refusal to blend in. It was this stubborn “un-Americanism” that appealed to Philip Roth. One of the most memorable stories in “Goodbye Columbus” is about the resistance of assimilated Jews in a suburban town to the presence of a Hasidic yeshiva. The main character goes through an identity crisis/nervous breakdown in the course of the fight and decides to don a Hasidic black robe and parade through the town’s main street to everybody’s shock.

On the other hand, their exclusionism when mixed with power politics can lead to some highly toxic chauvinism. The clashes with blacks in Brooklyn and with Palestinians in the Mideast indicate how the historical pariah and underdog can become the oppressor given sufficient military and economic clout.

March 20, 2017

Where did I come from? The Khazar hypothesis

Filed under: Jewish question — louisproyect @ 10:45 pm

When I was in high school, I always assumed that I was a Sephardic Jew since my last name was the same as the Spanish word for project (el proyecto). It was only years later that I discovered in a book of Jewish surnames put together by Czarist scribes that is available at the YIVO library in NYC (Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut, or Yiddish Scientific Institute) that the name was Yiddish for the counting house of a tax farmer, prevalent in the Slutsk district of Byelorussia in the 1860s.

A tax farmer was a court Jew historically, someone authorized to collect taxes for a monarch or other landed gentry for a percentage of the take. When I read Abram Leon’s “The Jewish Question” shortly after joining the SWP, I was persuaded that my ancestors were like those described in the book—people who carried out financial transactions that were banned by the church. When a Christian banking class began to emerge in the late middle ages, the old-line Jewish bankers and tax collectors et al were banished from Spain, England and elsewhere. They headed east to Poland and Russia, where feudalism persisted. From various accounts, I have learned that the most vicious pogroms of the 19th century were carried out against tax collectors on estates owned by the Russian and Polish aristocracy who had little contact with the serfs they exploited.

The only alternative history of the origins of the Ashkenazi Jews is based on Khazaria, a Jewish kingdom that existed from 800 to 1000 AD. The most famous account of the kingdom is found in Arthur Koestler’s “The Thirteenth Tribe” that I read when it came out in 1976. Based on scholarship that the Jewish establishment, particularly those identifying with the Zionist project, dismissed as nonsense, the book argues that a Turkic-speaking nomadic people decided to adopt Judaism as a way of establishing an ethnic/religious identity that would serve as a firewall against Christianity to the West and Islam to the East.

Up until recently, I assumed that Khazaria was in the eastern regions of Turkey that they call Anatolia. But I was quite surprised that the kingdom was north of the Black Sea (Turkey lies to the south of the sea) in a geographical region largely occupied by Ukraine.

This I learned from reading in Paul Magocsi’s fascinating 894-page “A History of Ukraine”. In the chapter titled “The Slavs and the Khazars”, Magocsi describes the Jewish state as a place where the pagan Slavic peoples began to flourish under a regime that provided a stable, peaceful and tolerant environment for different faiths in the same manner that North African Muslim states around the same time provided a haven for Jews. Magocsi writes:

Living within the protective shadow of the Pax Khazaria, the Slavic tribes on Ukrainian lands were spared for a while the worst nomadic invasions from the east, and, as a result, between the seventh and ninth centuries they were able to expand their agricultural and trading activities. But despite such protection, some Slavic princes began to resent their vassal-like relationship to the Khazar rulers. For the longest time, however, the Slavs were not united, and no individual tribe had the strength to confront the Khazar Kaganate. Building up the necessary strength became a possibility only in the mid-ninth century, with a new development in the region of Kiev. This development combined local forces with a group of leaders from Scandinavia — the Varangians — and the result was the eventual consolidation of a new power known as Rus’. How did this new phenomenon arise? Or, to cite the opening passage of the Primary Chronicle, the most famous discussion of the subject, what was “the origin of the land of Rus’, [and of] the first princes of Kiev, and from what source did the land of Rus’ have its beginning?”

It was up to Vladimir the Great, the Grand Prince of Kiev, to assemble an army to break the power of the Khazars and begin the process of creating a Christian empire over the territory once ruled by the Jews. Vladimir was a scion of the Viking royalty who had expanded their influence eastward over the nomadic Slavic tribes and the rest is history.

After reading Magocsi’s account, I decided to have a look at Shlomo Sand’s “The Invention of the Jewish People” that was published by Verso in 2009. As you might glean from the title, Sand rejects the notion that the Jews who came to live in Israel as part of the Zionist colonizing project had little biological ties to those who lived in Palestine in the time of Jesus. In a nutshell, he believes that the Khazar Jews continued to live in the same way as they always had but under Christian rule. You might ask yourself how they ended up speaking Yiddish, a language with obviously close relations to German. He says that this is a result of some German Jewish inflow into the area. Since the educated elites from Germany were socially superior to the native Jewish population, their language and liturgy eventually became hegemonic. I doubt if any of this will ever be resolved short of an exhaustive archaeological project that few Jewish scholars—mostly in sympathy with Zionist ideology—would bother to undertake. It is better to continue with the old time legends and myths about the Red Sea being parted, etc.

While most Ashkenazy Jews like Golda Meier or David Ben-Gurion would likely not make such a claim, it was doubtful that any of them would acknowledge being descendants of the Khazars who were Turkic converts to a faith that had one foot in traditional Jewish liturgy and the other in an alien culture that persists to this day, if you look carefully for it. Rejecting implicitly Abram Leon’s thesis that the Jews of Eastern Europe had fled from France, Germany and England, Sand writes:

At the center of the Jewish townlet stood the synagogue, with a double dome reminiscent of the Eastern pagoda. Jewish dress in Eastern Europe did not resemble that of the Jews of France or Germany. The yarmulke—also derived from a Turkic word—and the fur hat worn over it were more reminiscent of the people of the Caucasus and the horsemen of the steppes than of Talmudic scholars from Mainz or merchants from Worms. These garments, like the long silk caftan worn chiefly on the Sabbath, differed from clothing worn by the Belorussian or Ukrainian peasants. But any mention these features and others—from food to humor, from clothing to chants, connected to the specific cultural morphology of their daily life and their tory—scarcely interested the scholars who were occupied in inventing the eternal history of the “people of Israel.” They could not come to terms with the troublesome fact that there had never been a Jewish people’s culture, but only popular Yiddish culture that resembled the cultures of their neighbors much more than it did those of the Jewish communities of Western Europe or North Africa.

I was intrigued by the reference to yarmulke being derived from the Turkish. Wikipedia states that the word probably from the Turkish yağmurluk (“rainwear”), though it could also be from Medieval Latin almutia (“hood, cowl”).

In terms of the fur hat, that is probably a reference to the shtreimel worn by Satmar Hasidim. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, it is of Crimean Tatar origin, which is consistent with Sand’s account of how many Khazaris ended up in Crimea.

A Jew in a shtreimel

One of the more interesting discussions of the Khazarites can be found in “A History of the Jews”, written by Ilan Halevi who was a high-ranking Jewish member of the Palestine Liberation Organization. His discussion of the linguistic affinities between the long-gone Jewish state and other ethnicities is intriguing:

Some of these groups, however, took control, for considerable lengths of time, major communication centres, establishing around them short-quasi-states which entered into contact with the neighbouring empires in complex relationships of clientage and suzerainty, essentially on the imperial need for human barriers against the main body of the wave. For both Byzantium and Persia, the Ghassanid and Lakhmid Arab tribes had played this role of frontier guards against the tribes of the desert. It was against this background that there appeared, in the 6th century, on the west bank of the Caspian Sea, the kingdom of the Khazars. Originally the term “Khazar” did not describe a particular ethnic group: it was a sort generic name for all the Turco-Mongol peoples on the move in this region. It seems that the word itself derives from a Turkish root meaning “nomad” in which case it would be a Turkish equivalent of the Arabic bedu (Bedouin) describing, within a multi-tribal language, not an ethno-linguistic group, but a sociological category, the occupation and way of life of whole populations and even, at the extreme, a value system based on the specifity of this mode of organization. Thus, the Khazars were called Kaissak in the Urals, and Kazakh on the borders of China and Afghanistan where the Russian revolution would establish Kazakhstan; from their name would come the name of the Cossacks and the English word “Hussar”. But the Turcoman peoples of the Volga and the Caspian or the Crimea, whose own ethnic names were the Kalmyks and the Khirghiz, the Uzbeks and the Bashkirs, the Tatars called Tartars and many others, were, at the time of which we are speaking, Khazars on every criterion.

The only other linguistic item worth mentioning is that the king of the Khazars was called the Kagan. That’s the same name of the Supreme Court justice as well as many other Jews living in Brooklyn and elsewhere. If there was any justice in the world, the Zionists should have stayed out of the Middle East and come to Brooklyn instead—the real homeland of the Jews.


February 28, 2017

The Settlers; PS Jerusalem; The Last Laugh

Filed under: Film,Jewish question,zionism — louisproyect @ 11:30 pm

At first blush, the connection between two films about the loss of faith in Zionism and one about whether jokes can ever be made about the Holocaust might seem tenuous at best. However, without the Holocaust there would be no Israel. Furthermore, the director of that film, who is Jewish like the other two, might have something else in common. Once you begin joking about concentration camps, doesn’t that remove the sanctity that the state of Israel rests on? When British Labourite Naz Shah posted an image on FB of Israel superimposed on the USA, it was soon revealed that it was lifted from Norman Finkelstein’s website. Commenting on the controversy whether this image suggested that Jews be “transported” from Israel as they were to concentration camps, Finkelstein laughed at the comparison. The image was nothing but a light-hearted joke:

These sorts of jokes are a commonplace in the U.S. So, we have this joke: Why doesn’t Israel become the 51st state? Answer: Because then, it would only have two senators. As crazy as the discourse on Israel is in America, at least we still have a sense of humour.

“The Settlers”, which opens at the Film Forum on Friday, March 3rd, is as the title implies a close look at the settlements in the West Bank that cropped up after the Israeli victory in the six-day war of 1967. The settlements continued to grow under both Labour and Likud governments, no matter world opinion—least of all, the USA’s demand that they cease. For an understanding of American foreign policy, it is important to understand that actions count a lot more than words. When Obama said that Bashar al-Assad must step down, the blood-stained dictator must have figured out that this carried about as much weight as calling for a return to the 1967 borders.

The film is a mixture of archival footage of Israeli expansion into the West Bank and interviews with mostly elderly leaders of the land grab, who show about as much reflection on the injury done to Palestinians as a wolf does after consuming a rabbit. Maybe the wolf experiences great pangs of conscience.

The documentary shows Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook making a fiery speech to his ultra-religious followers a few days after Israel has defeated the Arab armies. He likens it to a biblical miracle and a mandate for creating a Greater Israel based on the ancient Judea and Samaria kingdoms. Today’s followers of Kook are even more ambitious. They envision a state that is bordered by two rivers: the Nile to the West and the Euphrates to the East. With Donald Trump in the White House and with the Democratic Party equally deferential to Zionist expansionism, who can say what Israel will look like a decade from now?

Kook was the founder of Gush Emunim, the fanatical ultraright vanguard of the settlement movement. His father was Rabbi Abraham Kook, who was the first Hasidic rabbi to connect the ancient theological belief in the Messiah with the modern Zionist project. He was the head of a sub-sect within the Lubavitcher sect that unlike their rivals in the quietist Satmars has been a virtual wing of the Likud Party and an abettor to its worst crimes.

As it happens, the shadow of the Kook family looms large over 20th century Jewish history. Hillel Kook, aka Peter Bergson, was the nephew of Abraham Kook and a leader of the Revisionist movement founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky and which bred Menachem Begin, who was Israel’s prime minister from 1977 to 1983 and a fanatical supporter of the settlements. To his credit, Bergson opposed the Zionist establishment during WWII, demanding that Jews be allowed into the USA without regard to the consequences of Zionist colonization. Even if Lenni Brenner remains one of Zionism’s sharpest critics, he respected Bergson’s efforts.

If Zvi Yehooda Kook provided the philosophical and political inspiration for the settlements, it was Rabbi Moshe Levinger who provided the muscle and the organizational skills. Shown strutting around with an Uzi or haranguing his followers to assault Arabs, Levenger led the Zionist incursion into Hebron, the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank, that is described in shocking detail in “The Settlers”. When Begin was prime minister, Levinger effectively became a pit bull unleashed by his master.

Director Shimon Dotan had unusual access to the elderly settlers who felt free to reveal their brazen disregard for Palestinian rights and their own self-justification based on biblical legends. A former Navy Seal in the IDF, Dotan moved to Canada in 1991 ostensibly for political reasons. When word got out that he was going to make a film about the settlements, the Internet became abuzz with stories about the plans of a “deep leftist” to make a film that might discredit them. While most of the film is devoted to allowing the settlers to hoist themselves on their own petards, there are several Israeli leftist academics who offer the sort of criticisms you might read in Haaretz. I was particularly impressed with Moshe Habertal, who is now a guest professor in the NYU Law School.

One wonders if Dotan and Habertal have ever been willing to grapple with the reality that is hinted at in this very powerful film but never articulated—namely the inexorable dynamic that leads Israel to create settlements beyond the 1967 borders in a lebensraum type permanent aggression against Arab peoples. That dynamic existed from the birth of the state despite its socialist pretensions. Someday an Israeli might make a film based on that premise but in the meantime, “The Settlers” will accelerate that process.

(“The Settlers” is on a double feature with “Ben Gurion: Epilogue” that I had a brief look at. It will be of less interest but might help to give you some insights into labor Zionism, a tendency that has about as much traction in Israel as Democratic Party liberalism has in the USA.)

“P.S. Jerusalem” is a virtual companion piece to “The Settlers” that opens at the Lincoln Plaza Theaters in New York on March 17. Directed by Danae Elon, the daughter of the late Amos Elon, it resembles a home movie that is distinguished by the honesty of the director and the willingness of her family to take part in what amounts to a much realer version of the sort of reality TV you can see on the Bravo Network, famous (or infamous) for shows like “Housewives of New Jersey” that has family members airing their feuds in front of millions of viewers.

Elon’s film is much less “dramatic” than the staged reality of Bravo’s shows but much rawer because the feelings expressed by Danae Elon and her husband Philippe—an Algerian Jew—could never be written in advance.

In 2010, Elon was living in Brooklyn with her husband and two young sons when she decided to move back to Jerusalem, where she grew up. Pregnant at the time with her third son, who would be born in Israel and named after his grandfather, she felt irresistibly drawn to the “Jewish homeland” even though her father—a long time journalist at the liberal Haaretz and author of many books—had emigrated in disgust. In a 2002 article for the New York Review of Books titled “Israel and the Palestinians” that hews closely to the narrative of Dotan’s documentary, Elon ends on a note of despair:

The vast settlement project after 1967, aside from being grossly unjust, has been self-defeating and politically ruinous. “We’ve fed the heart on fantasies,/the heart’s grown brutal on the fare,” as William B. Yeats put it almost a century ago in a similar dead-end situation in Ireland. The settlement project has not provided more security but less. It may yet, I tremble at the thought, lead to results far more terrible than those we are now witnessing.

His daughter came to Israel with the same trepidations with her film is focused on exposing Jerusalem’s inequalities. She trains her cameras on Palestinians being expelled from their homes, rallies against the expulsions and the profanity-laced and often physical attacks by the sorts of people profiled in Dotan’s film.

It is a bit difficult to understand why anybody with her convictions would want to return to Israel knowing full well that it was no longer the labor Zionist fantasy her own father had abandoned. I even wonder if she went there with the prospects of making a film that would likely have dystopian undercurrents.

For the three years she was there, her husband did the best he could to fit in but not knowing Hebrew and being unable to find work as a photographer made that difficult. Towards the end, he became fed up. In a profoundly dramatic scene, he tells Danae that she has to decide between having a husband or living in Israel. Her yearnings for Jewish identity clash with his desire to live in a society that is not so cruel and racist. It took quite a bit of courage for the two to reveal the conflict that was tearing them apart.

Finally, there is “The Last Laugh” that opens on Friday, also at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. This is a documentary that examines the question of whether you can joke about the holocaust but more generally taboos in comedy.

With a survivor named Renee Firestone at the heart of the film passing judgement on the efforts of various comics to extract such humor (largely unsuccessfully), the consensus is if you are going to make such jokes they’d better be very good. One commentator makes a shrewd observation: if you are going to use the holocaust as the basis for a serious film or play, that is just as true. As someone who has seen one too many treacly holocaust films, I can attest to that.

The film has lined up a virtual who’s who of comics who have either tried to make comedy out of the holocaust or Nazis. At one point, Mel Brooks, one of the interviewees, admits that is one thing to make jokes about the Nazis in a film like “The Producers” but he could never find humor in Auschwitz. In recent years, that taboo has been broken as well. The film shows a segment from the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode when Larry David inadvertently invites a “survivor” to meet a friend of his father who was also a survivor. The man turns out to be a contestant in the reality TV show called “Survivor” where people compete on a desert island or some other rugged outpost in stunts such as foot races in an obstacle course. He tells the old man that he had it rougher than him on the show since he had to wear flip-flops while competing.

Although the film is focused on the holocaust, it is much more about the art of comedy. Listening to people like Sarah Silverman, Mel Brooks, Rob Reiner and his father Mel discussing jokes analytically and soberly would be worth the price of admission since god knows that there is hardly anything to laugh at in films nowadays.

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