Author Archives: Jordie Gerson

Jordie Gerson

About Jordie Gerson

Jordie Gerson is a newly ordained rabbi and a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.

Israelis in America

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Professor Steven J. Gold’s book The Israeli Diaspora (2002) has a controversial title, one that, for many, reads like a misnomer–a paradox that upsets centuries of longing and the very foundations of Zionism. After all, Israelis are supposed to be the opposite of diaspora; their country was intended as a homeland for the Jewish people, a place where, for the first time in centuries, Jews would be relieved of exile. But these days, record numbers of Israelis are choosing diaspora, leaving Israel for that other Promised Land: America. Professor Gold calls them “the one group of American Jewish immigrants who aren’t refugees.” He describes two groups of Israeli immigrants. One is an elite, highly educated group that tends to be very successful in business and technical fields, and at the forefront of the infotech revolution and the arts. The second is a less educated group, one that comes to the US for primarily financial reasons.

For Richer or Poorer

Liel Leibovitz, the author of Aliya, is an expatriate Israeli who moved to America. He agrees with Gold about the two groups of Israeli immigrants. The first, he says, come to the US to study, then either by design or accident, end up staying to work at financial firms, law firms, or research institutions–all the while “guided by a sense of global opportunity twinned with a waning stigma of what life outside of Israel might mean.”

The other group comes from a different sector of Israeli society. They are real estate agents, movers, shopkeepers, etc. and, says Liebovitz, their immigration is more closely tied to socioeconomic and geopolitical tremors in Israel.

The significant number of Israelis arriving in America, many of whom are secular, is a phenomenon at odds with the stigma noted by Leibovitz–a long-held belief that Israelis who left Israel were betraying country and community by emigrating. For decades, Israelis who “made yeridah” by moving to America were shunned by an American Jewish community troubled by what their departure from Israel might mean for Zionism.

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Zydki: Polish Figurines of Jews

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They stand in small clusters, praying. They hold carving boards with pig’s heads on them, or haul large canvas bags with money signs on the front. Often, they have long beards and huge noses. Occasionally, they take the form of piggy banks, their insides carved out to make room for coins and dollar bills.

“They” are carved figurines of Jews, hewn out of wood, sculpted from the insides of the branches that shade Polish forests, and are nearly ubiquitous in tourist traps in Poland. Understanding who makes these small wooden zydki (the diminutive, and often pejorative term used for “Jews”), and who buys them, can reveal at least a little bit about contemporary Poland–and its relationship to the 3,000,000 Polish Jews killed in the Holocaust.

A Tourist Reports

On a bitingly cold October afternoon in 2007, I was wandering through a gift shop in Eastern Poland when I stumbled on a shelf full of Jewish figurines. The first one I noticed was a “rabbi” with an oversized nose, a miniature kippah and tallit, and huge, sad, dark eyes. In his hands, he held a carved pig’s head and next to him were more figurines, holding other objects: prayerbooks, Torahs, money bags.
zydki polish jewish figurine
My Jewish friends were appalled. When one asked the cashier who bought these figurines, and why, the cashier shrugged and said, “Poles. They keep them in their homes. For luck. They’re like lucky charms. People think, for example, if you keep a rabbi with a moneybag in your living room, it will help you get rich.”

Are these figurines, I wondered then, Polish rabbit’s feet? And if so, were the woodworkers who carve them–and the folks who buy them–guilty of turning Jews into good-luck charms, of fetishizing Judaism?

The History of Jewish Images in Polish Folk Art

Jewish figurines in Poland pre-date the Holocaust and the Holocaust travel industry that emerged in the wake of Communism. For centuries, representations of Jews were commonplace in Poland, used originally as talismans and amulets–folk symbols that occasionally cast Jews in typically anti-Semitic roles, and tended to have some ritual or supernatural function.

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Bruno Schulz

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In the mid-1930s, Bruno Schulz was asked by a student at the primary school where he taught, “why [do you] paint things differently from the way they really are?” Schulz, not yet a famous author renowned for his surreal prose answered: “We can turn day into night and night into day. We may cover snow-capped mountains with luxuriant foliage. That is our, the artist’s, freedom, and such is artistic truth, which we can demonstrate through our works.” 

 

Bruno Schulz's Santorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass

Schulz’s 1937 book,

Sanitorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass

This artistic freedom is what, ultimately, would grant Schulz’s writing a modest degree of fame during his lifetime and, after his death, would influence a number of famous Jewish (and non-Jewish) authors, among them David Grossman, Cynthia Ozick, Philip Roth, and Nicole Krauss

Early Life

Born on July 12th, 1892 to Jewish shopkeepers in Drohobycz, Poland (now Drohobycz, Ukraine), Schulz was the youngest child in his family, and the frailest. Though he spent much of his childhood sick and isolated, Schulz was recognized as a brilliant student. He wrote and drew throughout his adolescence, but it was his academic performance that set him apart.

As a result, when Schulz studied architecture at college in Lvov he was expected to thrive, but because of financial problems, he was forced to drop out in 1914.  He spent the next decade shuffling from job to job. He finally found steady work in 1924 as a drawing teacher in Drohobycz, at the school where he himself had been educated. There he became known for calming unruly classes with elaborate fairy tales. In his spare time, he drew, and wrote stories. Those who knew him well knew about his writing, but it was not until the 1934 publication of Schulz’s first book, Cinnamon Shops, that he achieved some measure of literary success.

Cinnamon Shops was a collection of short stories that Schulz originally wrote in the postscripts of letters to his friend, Deborah Vogel. The book was published to great acclaim, and soon after was nominated for Poland’s Literary News Prize. Decades later, in 1963, Cinnamon Shops was published in English under the name The Street of Crocodiles.

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Self-Hating Jews

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There are some people it’s hard to argue with and win: your mother, Cubs fans, and people who accuse you of self-hatred. The last, of course, is an intractably loaded allegation–especially for Jews, for whom debates about allegiance to the Jewish people or the State of Israel hold profound political and personal implications. These days, when debaters pull the self-hatred card in debates over Middle East politics or Jewish continuity, the term takes over the argument, virtually rendering all retorts empty. Invariably, the more you protest, the more you indict yourself.

The Roots of Self-Hatred

Today, accusations of Jewish self-hatred are most commonly levied in discussions of Israel and Zionism. Interestingly, the modern concept of Jewish self-hatred actually has its roots in early debates about political Zionism, where the groundwork for its use was laid by Theodor Herzl, founder of modern Zionism.
Theodor Herzl
In his seminal 1896 book The Jewish State, Herzl criticized enemies of his plan to create a Jewish state in Palestine, calling them “disguised anti-Semites of Jewish origin.” A mere two years later, in 1898, Karl Straus–an opponent of Zionism–turned the term back on its creator, suggesting that, like traditional anti-Semites, Herzl was preoccupied with Jewish difference, and wanted only to remove Jews from Europe.

However, it wasn’t until 1930, with the publication of Theodore Lessing’s book Juedischer Selbsthass, translated as “Jewish Self-Hatred,” that the precise term came into vogue. In it, Lessing, a German Jewish philosopher and newly minted Zionist, slung the term “self-hating Jew” at academics opposed to Zionism.

For Lessing, who had years before converted to Christianity and then returned to Judaism, discovering anti-assimilationist Zionist literature was a turning point, which ultimately led him to write this book urging Jews to repudiate assimilation and embrace their Jewish roots. He took aim at German Jews who had chosen to distance themselves from Judaism, but he also believed that self-hatred was unfortunately equal opportunity, and could be found in any minority group discriminated against by the majority.

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Jews with Guns

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It’s been a banner year for Jews with guns. From Gaza to the Golden Globes, it’s suddenly de rigeur to talk about Jews and militarism in the same breath, as if the equation is a natural one. Reminder to the world: It’s not. A few months ago, at dinner with a centrist American-Jewish friend, at the beginning of a discussion about Gaza, he said: “Without Israel, in 40 years, we’ll all be back in death camps.”

I smiled wryly, and rolled my eyes, thinking he was kidding. He was kidding, right? Right? He glared, deadly serious. “I mean it,” he said. “Without Israel, we’d all be in the sea.”jews_with_guns_hp.jpg

Two months later, accounts of civilian abuse in Gaza began emerging, throwing my friend’s concern into sharp relief. How, I wondered, would he respond to these accusations? Would he (and the American Jewish community at large) be able to see them as anything more than blood libel?

The screening of Quentin Tarantino’s
Inglourious Basterds
this week at Cannes, arriving on the heels of the simultaneous release of
Waltz With Bashir
and
Defiance
in American theaters a few months ago may be able to offer the best answer. There’s something profoundly poignant about all three films and their underlying question: what happens when the world’s perpetual scapegoats are offered a chance to be on the other side of power, the other side of history? And can American Jews conceive of themselves as something more than victims?

These are valid and timely questions, and notable ones given that Waltz with Bashir was uneasily greeted by many American Jews. Why? Because they were uncomfortable seeing their Israeli brethren portrayed in such morally ambiguous light. This was in stark contrast to Israel, where, when Waltz with Bashir was screened over the summer–a good six months before recent events in Gaza–the film was wildly acclaimed.



Israelis, it seemed, were fully open to a film that portrayed an unromanticized version of war, and willing–if not relieved–to see themselves as both victims and aggressors. As my friend Udi, an IDF veteran said, “I think Israelis walk around with blinders on, that we can only live here by the sword and that justifies everything. And Waltz with Bashir showed the crack in those blinders–that there’s a price to be paid for us using force, and we’re compromising ourselves and our integrity and world.” He shook his head, and averted his eyes. That same day, Israeli troops were moving deeper into Gaza.

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