Sunday, December 27, 2009

Towards a Coherent Jewish Culture

As a child I had a preoccupation with holocaust literature. In particular, I read virtually every first-person childhood perspective from the holocaust. Books such as A Child of the Holocaust (Jack Kuper), The Cigarette Sellers of Three Crosses Square (Joseph Ziemian), and The Upstairs Room (Johanna Reiss) were works that totally absorbed me. 

At my Jewish summer camp, while other children slept, I snuck into the bathroom at the back of my cabin and read these harrowing accounts by the dim light of a single lightbulb hanging over the toilet. Pausing at various interludes to read the epitaph inscribed on the door of the stall "I aim to please, you aim too please."

I struggled with the singular question of why I should have been born in a relative lap of luxury, as opposed to being born into a far more horrific time and place. 

This question of my own privilege was something that I could clearly extrapolate to the present world-at-large. I have a distinct memory of walking up a dirt hill towards my cabin when I encountered a cluster of boys watching their sewage flow from a broken exposed pipe to form its own canal into the brush beside the path. Distinctly, I remember feeling that their fascination and excitement around the phenomenon of exposed sewage was an expression of rootedness in their world of privilege. Effectively, the river of cess was a small window into the world of the majority and the experience to them was absurd and laughable. 

Myself, I could fathom no reasonable justification to understand the conditions of my life as separate from other historical and geographic realities.

That summer would have been the summer that, to the astonishment of my peers at this conservative Zionist Jewish summer camp, I spoke in support of the Palestinian struggle, believing that certainly some response is reasonable under a military occupation. Perhaps in response to this view, the administration of my unit organized a special topic day on "anti-semitism". The conclusion, of course, was that the most dangerous kind of Anti-Semite to the Jewish people was the "Self-hating Jew" who "undermined the right of the State of Israel" to defend itself.

And there I was, so very much absorbed in the world of those survivors' accounts, perhaps by then even migrating to The Oath (Elie Wiesel) which is, in effect, a contemplation of the burden of the survivor, feeling as though the inherent core experience of 20th century Judaism had been lost by an over-privileged diaspora.

I so badly wanted to fight on the side of the Jewish people, but these were not my allies. Indeed, I had a reoccurring dream in which I was detained in a concentration camp. There, my captor bore the face of a smug over-fed jewish peer. That dream crystallized my sense that I was playing on a different team. The identification of Jew did not afford me an inherent affinity within a broad social realm.

In time, I began to understand that I was not a part of North American Jewish culture. My entrance into traditional places of worship and gathering had become increasingly compromising and uncomfortable. Moreover, the very experiences core to my Jewish identity (having 4 holocaust surviving grandparents for example) had been co-opted by that culture and had become a rallying call in support of the Israeli war-machine.

This mainstream North American Jewish culture is well financed, dominant, and regressive. Virtually every synagogue across the continent makes it a point of their reason d'etre to raise money and support for the ongoing Israeli occupation. On the holiest of Jewish holidays rabbis and lay leaders move to the pulpit reverently performing their Imperialist duties.

Overwhelmingly, the small percentage of North American Jewish dissidents congregate in secular political organizations. Within this fringe infrastructure, our identity as Jews is apparent, but, we are engaged in activities that are inherently reactionary to the establishment and have little resource and agenda to build a living Jewish culture that is a reflection of our value systems. 

This distinction between practicing Jew and non-practicing activist Jew has created a dynamic where the heretic Jew (either by choice or by exclusion) is deemed, for dialectic purposes, as less Jewish. Thus, the mainstream Jewish synagogue establishment has effectively lay claim to the entire religion. The public discourse of Judaism, along with the religious practices, educational organs and the establishing and rewarding of identity are all owned by a politically conservative imperialist movement. 

In Vancouver, for all of my complaints about the nature of this city, there happens to be an organized congregation of progressive Jews. This congregation is rooted in a determination to be practitioners of a Judaism that is political, spiritual, and authentic. For me, it is a wonderful experience to practice being a Jew, not exclusively as a dissident, but as a community member aspiring to raise my family, with a joy and appreciation of the festivals and practices marked by the Jewish calander.

Here, as a member of Ahavat Olam, I can adopt a progressive world-view living out my perceived legacy as a survivor without denouncing the religion for which my fore-bearers were murdered. Moreover, I take great satisfaction in helping to build a home for a meaningful and sustaining engagement with Jewish practices. 

In building a congregation to root our practices, we are far stronger and better nourished in the world. From this foundation, we can better bring about a change in the standards and norms prescribed within the greater Jewish community. In building this house, we create a space to be both Jewish and progressive without compromise or confusion.

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