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Pastrami or Falafel

Security Council resolutions aside, I'm increasingly embittered about Israel, since I think it's killing Jewish culture. As Phoebe Maltz writes:

As someone who's preferred Jewish cuisine is more along the lines of a falafel stand than a foot-high pastrami sandwich (sometimes politics and taste do coincide), the Closing of the American Delicatessen (in America and abroad) does not strike me as a tragedy. If Andrew Sullivan can find support for his politics in "South Park," then allow me to find the same in this: The end of "Diaspora Judaism," of cultural-but-nothing-else Jewry, is upon us. Outside Israel, the only people who care about being Jewish care because they are religious. Those who feel vague pangs of nostalgia whenever they pass a place that sells matzo ball soup will disappear as any sort of tangible group in the next generation, if not the next five minutes. Israel and religion, not neurosis and cured meat, will be what hold the Jewish people together. And this is a good thing.
I agree 100 percent except for the "this is a good thing" business.

In my opinion, the Ashkenazi Jewish cultural tradition that I and most other North American Jews hail from is a great and noble one, one well-worth celebrating and identifying with, entirely apart from whether or not you want to buy some set of goofy myths about God and so forth. But as Phoebe says, it's increasingly dying out; increasingly replaced by the idea that insofar as Jewishness is anything other than a religion (which it certainly is) it's loyalty to a foreign country that one's family doesn't come from one. Alongside the increasing Israelification of secular Jewish identity, Israel has become more-and-more a Middle Eastern country -- located in the Middle East, largely populated by Sephardim, Israeli Arabs, and Druze -- rather than an Eastern European settlement that just happens to be next to Lebanon. For Israel, that's as it should be. It is a Middle Eastern country, after all. That's its destiny. But insofar as Israel fulfills that destinty, what's it got to do with me? I like falafel just fine, but I also like sushi. There's no traditional falafel recipe in my family any more than we have a tandoori chicken recipe. Pastrami has something to do with me, like knish and kosher hot dogs and the former 2nd Avenue Deli in general. Falafel is ethnic food, a delicatessen serves my ethnic food.

Anyways, I find all this regrettable. When I was in Eastern Europe, that felt a bit like my "homeland" -- it's where, after all, my family is from. Israel, where I've never been, always sounds to me like an alien place. This all gets discussed (lampooned, really, I guess) in Operation Shylock under the name "Diasporism" but it makes sense to me. That said, I'm going to try and take my Birthright Israel trip before I lose eligibility and give the Zionists a chance to make their case. But my sense is that Phoebe's probably right and diasporism is dead. I'd like to identify as "Jewish" but if I have to pick between "Eastern European" and "Israeli" I'm going to wind up throwing in with the Slavs and the Lithuanians.

January 22, 2006 | Permalink

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Comments

I agree 100%. It bothers me that American Judaism has become all-Israel all the time, with the attendant politicization and increasing siege mentality. I was pretty involved in Jewish stuff in high school; these days, not so much.

Posted by: teofilo | Jan 22, 2006 1:58:50 PM

As someone who is something like 6th generation Irish and 14th generation German with a little Native American somewhere in there I have trouble relating to this kind of psuedo-ethnicity.

There was a second when I was wondering if MY had Spanish Inquisition roots until I remembered his grandfather. Matt, you're American.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jan 22, 2006 2:00:08 PM

Matt, Deli culture may be dying in certain parts of Manhattan, but every time I go home to "health conscious" L.A., it feels it's alive and well.

If you visit, go to one of these:
http://www.editorsguild.com/Newsletter/MayJun03/mayjun03lunch.html

Or Factor's (http://travel.yahoo.com/p-travelguide-2810842-factor_s_famous_deli_los_angeles-i) where my grandfather used to take us all the time when I was growing up.

And while we have relatives in Israel (and I go there quite a bit, and i'm not religious) - if you were to ask everyone in my immediate family what they identify with most in the panoply of Jewish culture, I'm pretty sure they'd say bagels and lox. I realize - it's just anectodal, but my family is ashkenazikally-cuisine oriented around holidays and any occasion, real or invented.

I love Middle Eastern food too. Would love it if a good Israeli Arab/Palestinian Shwarma/Felafel restaurant would open in D.C.

Does anyone know of one?

There's some fairly decent Lebanese restaurants around.

(Off to watch the Steelers/Broncos game - go Black and Gold!)


Posted by: SoCalJustice | Jan 22, 2006 2:11:08 PM

Oh, and the Famous Deli in Philadelphia is still alive and well. I ate there the other day -- those were some enormous sandwiches.

Posted by: teofilo | Jan 22, 2006 2:22:13 PM

It's too bad that some popular Ashkenazi delis and restaurants are closing in NY and Paris, but if that's the sole measure by which the survival of the culture is measured, there are still plenty of similar places in other locales, as others have mentioned. There's also a big one in Ann Arbor, Zingerman's, which as far as I know is still very successful.

On the larger issue of whether The Death of Ashkenazi Culture is upon us or not, a far greater factor than the closing of a few delis is one that's been around for at least 50 years: the death of Yiddish as a common language. Now THAT'S a big deal, but that was because of assimilation in other countries and the Holocaust, and Israel is only a part of that story, not the whole thing. Comparing things today to the halcyon days of the youth of those of us who are under 30, well, I don't think Ahskenazi culture (per se) has undergone any staggering death blows in that time period.

Posted by: Haggai | Jan 22, 2006 2:49:25 PM

Was it here or somewhere else where I read the article about the death (or dearth) of Jewish excellence (in math, music, physics, whatever) among Jews who live in Israel? From Einstein, Freud, to Irving Berlin -- Israel has produced few as distinguished. Apparently, there's a benefit for Jews to live among us dopes. And, apparently, there's a threat to Jewishness to live too long among us. Longer than a couple thousand years anyway.

Posted by: Jeffrey Davis | Jan 22, 2006 3:00:00 PM

Do go to Israel. You will feel better for it. You will see that there are Jews from everywhere there, and food from everywhere too, though a stronger influence of Sephardi and Mizrahi food. The beauty of Jewish food culture is that is picks up bits and bobs from everyhhere the Jews have been in Diaspora. Sonow it is rturned hime, it has warmly greeted the Middle Eastern food. Enjoy it.

Posted by: Quartz | Jan 22, 2006 3:27:00 PM

Those who feel vague pangs of nostalgia whenever they pass a place that sells matzo ball soup will disappear as any sort of tangible group in the next generation, if not the next five minutes

Oy vey. Do I have some rambling stuff to throw at you on this. You sure know how to pick the stuff that hits at the heart of things that interest me the most.

Some of these this will happen anyways, and it's not Israel that will do it.

Didn't you ever see any of those gazillion "I remember when?" "in the old days" shows on Channel 13? The olden days growing up in Brooklyn, the olden days growing up in the shtel, the olden days in....the old photos and films with oral history testament (and always Pete Hamill thrown in.) They're enornmously popular, they play reruns during pledge drives to hook em. Old people like them because it brings memories, but young people like them to hear what it used to be like. When you get a couple of decades under your belt, though, you start to see what's special about it for older people--it's not just the memories, it's a most amazing thing to step back and realize how many different cultures you have lived through, how different things have become; it starts to seem like it wasn't you, it was someone else, an entirely different life.

Certain things only stay as indentifiers of cultural tradition if they are so endearing that if you teach them to your kids that they decide they are important enough to teach to their kids and them to their kids. I'm talking about stuff like holiday traditions. If they intermarry, they give an take and drop some and keep some of the best.

In my hometown of Milwaukee, pride in ethnic heritage/culture has always been a big thing, they have all these festivals (Italian Fest, Irish Fest, Polish Fest) to show off foods and culture to each other and to maintain the traditions. That attitude is also what makes it rather insular and cliquish there, and much less cosmpolitan than bigger cities.

And you ARE getting into the problem Ashkenazi being a culture and Jewish being a religion here. Religions strive to keep their rituals the same, cultures change with integration and intermarriage.

When the Borsch Belt guys all die, and the "I remember the lower East Side" oral history testifiers are gone, you're going to be left with the Hasidim, I guess. I look at it different than you: I am amazed that a place like Katz's has managed to stay that authentic and open this long in a city that where the single constant is change.

But you have to face the facts: if you really wanted to save Ashkenazi culture, you'd be out there with those people complaining about too much intermarriage.

There are several ways of truly maintaining, but they are bizarre. Examples: the Amish are the only thing left of a culture that used to be all around, and you know what they have to do to keep it that way. The Shakers are gone but they leave an indelible pure unsullied culture prized by collectors and historians--they did this by not marrying! Their culture is not alive, it lives in others's minds. The Roma culture is maintained because of the combo of centuries of persecution and retreat into safety of tribe, but even they are having a hard time keeping em down on the farm.

BTW, come to think of it, one probably can't even count on the Hasidim...I've been seeing too many assimilationm stories about young Hasids trying to "escape from the life" lately.

Oh I can take this all much further and get into the globalization and internet thing and how some scholars are whispering scifi futuristics about the tribes on the internet taking over from real life, no it's not going to be one big McDonald's Disney Pepsi world. But you can't exactly smell that matzo ball soup or share Polish Easter wafers on the internet.

Which brings to mind, where did the idea of those Easter wafers come from anyways? Doesn't it have something to do with Passover, eh? And how about those Christmas trees? Not your father's yule log? So sorry, pagan Celts, your time is over for a while, wait for "rediscovery" by "wiccans" in the 21st century. (There was a recent interesting letter to the editor in the NYT in that vein, a wiccan father complaining about how hard it was to keep traditions with the kids the way schools are these days with the Christian things.) You want to keep your culture, it's up to you; you, your friends and family have the power; Israel has nothing to do with it.

Religions do it all the time; they have also decided when to change the rituals and have been relatively successful at this.

I will throw in one last even more confusing bit for pondering purposes, on purpose. Remember that post you had on TPMCafe about aesthetics and politics and how "good aesthetics" could be associated with goodness? Well those seen as the greatest "high art" artists are some of the greatest assimilators of all times, like Picasso. They take from all cultures, mix it up, intermarry it all, and end up speaking only of the individual, and praising and elevating the individual. "Low art," is "folk art," art of the "folk," created in tribes, to perpetuate the tribal culture. High artists steal it and assimilate it, cosmpolitan-ize it. Which is it you want? You can be a sophisticado or you can be a member of the tribe and protect the tribe and its traditions from the "outside world" so it will not die.

Things change.

Posted by: artappraiser | Jan 22, 2006 4:00:59 PM

Was it here or somewhere else where I read the article about the death (or dearth) of Jewish excellence (in math, music, physics, whatever) among Jews who live in Israel? From Einstein, Freud, to Irving Berlin -- Israel has produced few as distinguished

It's a tautology to say that an Einstein comes along extremely rarely. No country, big or small, is going to produce someone of that intellect very often. Anyway, 2005 Nobels were handed out a few months back and an Israeli was among the winners:

http://nobelprize.org/economics/laureates/2005/press.html

Posted by: QuietStorm | Jan 22, 2006 4:41:19 PM

I guess what I really am agreeing with in Matt's post is not so much the accuracy of the feeling that Ashkenazi culture is dying but the idea that this is a bad thing (in contrast to Phoebe's take). I definitely agree that the main cause of this was the loss of Yiddish, which more or less made total assimilation inevitable.

Posted by: teofilo | Jan 22, 2006 4:54:17 PM

Doug Rushkoff's book Nothing Sacred might make some sense to you - "open-source Judaism".

Posted by: Doug | Jan 22, 2006 5:54:03 PM

Sephardi rule, Ashkenazi drool!

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Jan 22, 2006 7:38:18 PM

anyway....felafel is palestinian arab peasant food; it's not 'israeli' in the least.

Posted by: diana | Jan 22, 2006 8:23:41 PM

This is very interesting to me. I grew up Jewish, in a predominantly Jewish community, to not particularly observant parents, but nevertheless, I went to Hebrew school, was bat mitzvahed, etc. Today, I identify very strongly as Jewish, even though my actual observance is limited to lighting Chanukah candles, fasting on Yom Kippur, and not working on the High Holidays. Maybe it's rooted in millenia of persecution, holocaust, etc., but, I feel like I need to defend my Jewish identity. For example, I'd think twice before marrying a non-Jew, becuase while I would have no issue, say, celebrating Christmas or decorating a tree at my in-law's house, there's no chance that I'd have a Christmas tree in my home. It's one thing to acknowledge and honor my spouse's traditions, but I would not be accepting them as my own -- and if I did, I think there's almost no chance that my children would identify as Jewish.

In many ways, my Jewishness feels more like an ethnicity than a religion; my feelings about it are very similar to those of first generation friends whose parents were born in Eastern Europe and Ireland. It is what I am, rather than what I believe.

If Phoebe's sense of this trend is correct, I think that it is a very sad thing. I'm not likely to become more observant, but I do want to pass my sense of being Jewish as a large part of my identity on to my children.

Posted by: Sharon | Jan 22, 2006 9:22:14 PM

Seems to me you are mixing up too many issues for this post to make a lot of sense.
You seem to confuse knishes with the value to you of a national state named Israel i.e. Jews with guns. It souynds a bit like the recent inanity from Tony Kushner:

" ' Janice asked a third question: Why do I, her cousin-in-law, apparently have a secret plan to destroy Israel? "

" I have indeed been critical of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza — well, Janice knew that already. I'm an American and a proudly Diasporan Jew. I believe that the best hope for any oppressed minority is found in the Constitution's promise of equal protection under the law, in secular pluralist democracy. I believe that governments — and our souls — are nourished by honesty, open-mindedness and public debate, even of scary ideas and uncomfortable truths. But my criticism of Israel has always been accompanied by declarations of unconditional support of Israel's right to exist, and I believe that the global community has a responsibility to defend that right. I have written and spoken of my love for Israel."

"I believe that the best hope for any oppressed minority is found in the Constitution's promise of equal protection under the law, in secular pluralist democracy."
http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-op-kushner22jan22,1,7307026.story

That well may be so but it doesn't hurt to have the law backed up with a gun.

Posted by: Raw Data Complex | Jan 22, 2006 10:49:30 PM

Why do atheists and agnostics of Ashkenazi persuation continue to cling to the ethnic side of an identity that used to be not only a matter of ethnicity, but also of faith? What use if "Jewishness", if it doesn't actually include Judaism? That strikes me as considering oneself gay, without ever engaging in queer sex...

All Americans love borscht-belt comedy and Hollywood movies and bagels and pastrami; what else is worth preserving once religion is removed from the ethnicity? Why not intermarry happily with goyim blondes and redheads and prevent your offspring from ever having to face anti-Semitism? If you object that "something valuable would be lost", let me remind you that by rejecting the faith and already having intermarried lots with goyim, you've already given the National Socialists what they couldn't achieve themselves through war and genocide - the end of the Jewish people, as true Jews.

Posted by: anon | Jan 23, 2006 12:20:14 AM

If you object that "something valuable would be lost", let me remind you that by rejecting the faith and already having intermarried lots with goyim, you've already given the National Socialists what they couldn't achieve themselves through war and genocide - the end of the Jewish people, as true Jews.

Yes, secular Jews are just like Nazis. What gives you the idea that you have the right to tell other people how to live their lives?

Posted by: Matt Weiner | Jan 23, 2006 1:06:51 AM

Also, if one were to be religious, wouldn't it be a matter of faith that the Jewish people always guaranteed to exist? It seems like religious Jews wouldn't need to be fretting themselves over if present trends continue, etc.

But then, by the same token, I don't understand why Christians bitch about persecution (or, more accurately in America, "persecution") when their own Scripture guarantees it to happen and assures them that it's a good thing.

Posted by: Delicious Pundit | Jan 23, 2006 1:29:37 AM

"Anyways, I find all this regrettable. When I was in Eastern Europe, that felt a bit like my "homeland" -- it's where, after all, my family is from. Israel, where I've never been, always sounds to me like an alien place."

I'm also of Eastern European Jewish stock, but I identify with the Eastern Mediterranean far more than I do with the Ukraine.

Why? The food's better and the weather's nicer. And the beach and desert are a hell of lot more appealing than the steppes. Plus while I'm pretty damn white, my skin is downright olive when I stand next to the pastier people of the planet.

The cultures of the Northern Black Sea have always seemed the most bizarre to me on the planet. I understand the domestication of the horse, but the next six thousand years of that culture make absolutely no sense to me.

Posted by: Petey | Jan 23, 2006 7:29:12 AM

Alongside the increasing Israelification of secular Jewish identity, Israel has become more-and-more a Middle Eastern country

I think that's stretching it a little: if you do go to Israel, you'll get a definite New Jersey feel from some of the modern building work.

Although there's an interesting bit of framing: one standard line is that suicide bombers 'target coffee shops and pizza parlours' in Israel. Which they have indeed done. But by focusing on those two places -- things that Americans find in America, but aren't really associated with either Ashkenazi or Middle Eastern culture -- they sustain a them/us distinction. Even if Israelis target Palestinian markets, that doesn't have the same resonance.

Posted by: ahem | Jan 23, 2006 8:43:48 AM

Well, my ancestors were horse thieves sent to Georgia--the state--when it was still a penal colony, which means the closest thing I have to an ethnicity is "redneck," and so the above discussion leaves me somewhat envious of people who do have real ethnic roots....

I'm interested, after readign Phoebe's analysis, what she thinks of the efforts by evangelical Christians to reappropriate Israel as their holy land?

And, for crying out loud Matt, why didn't you take your free trip to Israel in college like all my Jewish friends did?

I'm also of Eastern European Jewish stock, but I identify with the Eastern Mediterranean far more than I do with the Ukraine.

But the comments with which you follow that, essentially arguing that the Eastern Mediterranean is more appealing to you than the Ukraine, don't actually have much to do with identity.

I mean, I find urban areas in the Northeast and MicAtlantic far more appealing than the rural Midwest where I grew up--they have better food, art, culture, more smart, single young people, and better looking, healthier people. And more sun.

But that doesn't change the fact that when I went home at Christmas the ridiculously gray, heavy Michigan sky that seems about to suffocate me is the way skies should look this time of year. It doesn't change the fact that, much as I'd like to be a savvy musical hipster like the rest of you, old school country and church hymns resonate with my soul in a way nothing else ever will. And the bizarre, disgusting church potluck food--five bean salad, fruited jello molds, little hotdogs in grape jelly--that I will NEVER publicly admit to eating, still has a bizarre comfort value for me.

We don't get to choose our roots based on what we like or want to be. If we're lucky, we're born into a patrimony that fits us. If we're really lucky, we're born into one that gives us something of value but is sufficiently discordant to force us to figure out for ourselves who we are and what to take from it and leave behind.

and, btw, with roots like that, how'd you arrive at "Petey"?

Posted by: flippantangel | Jan 23, 2006 12:42:51 PM

"But the comments with which you follow that, essentially arguing that the Eastern Mediterranean is more appealing to you than the Ukraine, don't actually have much to do with identity."

Hmmm....

"Identity" is, in a very real sense, something you choose. I can choose to identify with Eastern Europe. I can choose to identify with the Eastern Mediterranean. I can choose to forsake my pre-New World roots and identify with my family's region of America.

Ethnic groups form entire academic areas of study when they feel an identity is being imposed on them, rather than freely chosen. So the fact that I find the Ukraine icky and the Mediterranean cool is bound to impact my chosen identity.

"We don't get to choose our roots"

True. But we do get to interpret them.

"and, btw, with roots like that, how'd you arrive at "Petey"?

It originated in offline life as my answer to an eternal social quandary:

Someone unknown and undesirable approaches you in a bar or at a large party. They ask you for your name. How do you respond?

I didn't like using my real name, as that seemed to give the undesirable some unwarranted power over me. I didn't like refusing to answer, as that's lousy social behavior. And I just fell in love with the music of "My name is Petey."

---

"much as I'd like to be a savvy musical hipster like the rest of you, old school country and church hymns resonate with my soul"

Get out of town. You're not allowed to decry your lack of hipsterness while simultaneously proclaiming your hipsterdom.

Posted by: Petey | Jan 23, 2006 1:46:04 PM

So Petey isn't even your real name? You're a pretty mysterious dude...well, not exactly mysterious by blog commenter standards.

Posted by: Haggai | Jan 23, 2006 2:24:33 PM

So, if ever I happen to be talking to a seemingly interesting fellow at a bar, and he tells me his name is Petey, I should take that as a sign that I'm having a bad hair/figure/face/intelligence/interestingness day and get myself homeward as rapidly as possible, eh?

I think we're actually pretty much in agreement, Petey: Identity is something that you make out of the combination of things your born with (like DNA), things that happen to you (like your upbrining), and things you choose (or at least think you choose, but that's a whole other kettle of fish)--would you agree with that?

My point was that you can't ever entirely cast off the first two components--what you're born with and your experiences--just because you don't like them. And, in the same way, you can't really choose to appropriate certain things you weren't born with or exposed to (although you can strive to acquire certain experiences)--you can pretend to make up your own past, but then you're like James Frey or those ridiculous white rasta teenagers.

But, by the same token, your experience is your experience and someone oughtn't presume to prejudge that experience based on what little they can know of you as an outsider. So, while Matt's experience and background may make cultural stuff associated with Eastern Europe feel authentic to him, yours may not have the same impact on you, even if, on some levels, they bear resemblances to Matt's.

Get out of town. You're not allowed to decry your lack of hipsterness while simultaneously proclaiming your hipsterdom.

Oh, dear, I seem to have inadvertently done something hipsterish. Clearly, I'll now have to give up torn fishnets for at least a week to make up for that and maintain my non-hipster cred. I only meant I have no idea who the vast majority of the bands mentioned on this or any other blog are and am constantly afflicted with shame at my lack of musical coolness.

Posted by: flippantangel | Jan 23, 2006 4:10:13 PM

f you object that "something valuable would be lost", let me remind you that by rejecting the faith and already having intermarried lots with goyim, you've already given the National Socialists what they couldn't achieve themselves through war and genocide

Err...do you have any familiarity with the German Jewish community before World War II? They were mostly irreligious, and there was a huge amount of intermarriage. And yet, Hitler still went through all the war and genocide. It was the assimilated German Jews, not the eastern European Jews, who inspired Nazi anti-semitism, and Nazi anti-semitism was a specifically racial anti-semitism, one that didn't care if you were practicing or not, and only dealt with you easier if you were intermarried because it was politically impossible to do otherwise. Claiming that assimilating would be completing Hitler's work, when it was precisely the very assimilated Jewish community of Germany that Hitler hated, is absurd.

BTW, as, on my mother's side, I'm of German Jewish descent (Irish Catholic in the other half, although I thankfully missed out completely on the Catholic business thanks to my dad's loss of faith), my ancestors having come over in the mid-19th century, and then moved to Nashville, where my grandparents came from, I feel as though my connection to the traditional stereotypes of Ashkenazic Jewry is almost as dubious as my connection to Israel. I do like bagels, but I came on that through my very gentile dad. I certainly feel some connection to the idea of being Jewish, but neither Israel, a place I've never been and of the existence of which I faintly disapprove, nor the kind of idealized Ashkenazic Brooklyn of 75 years ago that seems to be the touchstone for most American Jews, has any real resonance with me, nor do I feel any real connection to the Polish shtetl. I suppose, if anything, that the Cosmpolitan Jewry of pre-Nazi Germany feels closest to me. On the other hand, I barely feel Irish at all, so the whole thing is probably a mess.

Posted by: John | Jan 23, 2006 5:15:08 PM

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