Thursday, March 21, 2024

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents


Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson is a fascinating book that takes on the issue of race or ethnicity in America and molds it into the paradigm of caste.  According to Wilkerson, most American ills can be traced to our devotion to caste, and the constantly changing nature of caste: the ruling white male elite in the United States has proven that they maintain and mold caste, and their superiority within it, since the European colonization of North America.

I am usually skeptical of meta-theories and one-answer-to-all problem scenarios, but it is hard to find fault with Wilkerson’s historical reasoning.  It makes more sense than racial theories of subjugation, in most cases.

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story


Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt is a fascinating exploration of a question that does not occupy many people – and seems remote: why is there something, rather than nothing?  This is a remote concern: answering this question will not save the earth from the damage we have done or feed hungry people, but there is a place for such questions in human life.  Why are we here?  Why does the world exist?  Is there a purpose to our existence – and if so, how can we find it, and how do we even frame that question to get a meaningful answer?

Just take one idea from this book.  The Big Bang happened around 14 billion years ago.  That makes the universe not very old at all.  What was before it?  How does that make us related to time, the creation of the universe, and the “stuff” of the universe?

In this book, Holt takes on questions like these, and dozens of others.  All of this he does in an approachable manner.

Monday, March 4, 2024

Surviving Genocide: Native Nations and the United States from the American Revolution to Bleeding Kansas


Surviving Genocide: Native Nations and the United States from the American Revolution to Bleeding Kansas by Jeffrey Ostler is a detailed and well-documented history of the attempted (and sometimes effective) eradication of Native American tribes east of the Mississippi River before the Civil War.  

While the book focuses on the attempts of the US government and its citizens to force Native communities from their land, and often eradicate them as a people, this book highlights the successful attempts by many native groups to maintain their identity, power, and agency in the face of brutal dislocation. They survived genocide through a combination of strategic alliances, guerilla warfare, and sometimes the sheer luck of patterns of American settlement.  Ultimately, this is not so much the story of victims as survivors.

Friday, March 1, 2024

Shalom Eric, email from Jake D., 3-01-24

Shalom, Eric

Well, I asked you not to answer my email, but you did (I knew you would, but I had to ask)  – mercifully, your email was very short.  But still disturbing!  Do I have to drive to T-burg and take your shoelaces, belt, and the knives in your kitchen and hide them?  Seriously man, give me a call – immediately, if what you wrote is the true state of things. 

Barring that, let's get right back to 3, and call it, for the sake of clarity, 3b

3b. You do and have hated the concept of the Third Way, but if you look at this closely, there is no other option for Jews like you and me.  We are Americans – neither radically pro-Zionist nor anti-Zionist.  We hardly think of the Jewish state at all! We look on with horror as events unfold there, as the moral beings we are – but we are people caught in the middle.  But do we look on with any special horror?  Right now ethnic cleansing, murder, and sexual crimes (mass rapes) are happening in Sudan.  But no one pays attention.  Where is their special horror? Why is this catastrophe a lower moral priority for American Jews than Israel Palestine?  Ask yourself that.  But on to the main topic:  Why are we in the middle?  We belong to the first, or second-largest Jewish community in the world (depending on who is counting and how). And despite our numbers and influence, look at what the American Jew has become.  Either you are a cheerleader for Israel – and that is your primary Jewish Identity.  Or you find the Jewish state, and its actions, and even the fact that one exists, morally wrong, or repugnant.  But why must we be in either of those camps?  I know this dichotomy causes you much pain.  Let’s examine it a bit.

3c.  If you are in either camp, you are bound to Zionism – either for or against.  You tell me stories of the minyan you belong to, and a great deal of energy is spent on justice for the Palestinians.  OK.  That is noble.  But on the other side of town are the Jews you talk about (not at your shul) who hang their primary identity as Jews as Zionists.  Some, not all, do not consider anti-Zionist Jews, Jews, or more graciously, but still a nasty, mean-spirit, self-hating Jews.  As you know, I reject the entire structure.  From A-Z.  That is why we need the Third Way.  We need to create an authentic progressive Judaism (really Judaisms) right here in America.  We need our way.  A Third Way.  Why should we be tethered to a place we have never been?  Why must be Jews in the very place where our shoes touch the ground.

4.  Let’s tackle four tomorrow.  It is getting late.  Well, Sunday or Monday, after Shabbos.  What will I say: what does the Third Way look like? Well, preview [!] we are already doing it, but not calling it such.  So, I will leave you with that.  But I do want you to rest on the day of rest.  And I don’t just mean just your body – I mean your heart and soul.  The way you are heading now, well, it is not good my friend.  I say this out of the deep love I have for you.  You are so kind and generous… please treat yourself the same way!  Love & Shalom: JD 

Thursday, February 29, 2024

Shalom Eric, email from Jake D., 2-29-24

Shalom Eric,

Today is a perfect day to start this, Eric, as today is a day that only exists once every four years.  What better way to throw useless words into the empty air than on a day that hardly ever exists!  So let’s get into it.

We’ve been talking, texting, and even calling each other, but I still worry about your state of mind.  I keep going over your words in my head, thinking, no, no, he should not think that, it is harming him.  Why does he not think this.  Or this. If he did, he would be in less pain. He wouldn’t sound so close to the edge. So I need to be painfully honest here.  We’ve know each other for twenty-five years… if I can’t tell you these things, than who can?  So I am going to write you a series of emails.  Yes, they are old-fashioned.  But here I think necessary. I want my thoughts to flow, but also be structured, like an old fashioned letter.   I want both, and email can do that.  I’m going to number things for a while, and see how that goes.

1. First, let’s get into the Jewish Thing Again, as we call it, for what else do we always get around to eventually no matter where we start?  I ask you again, abou the Jewish Thing Again, and please think about it: what kind of Jew are you?  Remember what you said, an American Jews.  Consider that phrase.  America.  Jew.  American Jew.  Your mother’s family came from Poland/Russian in 1890.  They were not Zionists, and whatever religion they had petered out in less than a generation, and long with that, Yiddish was flushed down the toilet. What Jewish immigrant on the Lower East Side and then Brooklyn supported a family speaking Yiddish? By going to shul?  You are the progeny of these people: who shed their Jewishness as if they were clothes on their backs which were on fire!  You great-grandparents were no pioneers.

2.  Now here you are, standing, sitting, sulking, on your windswept hill outside of Ithaca, and you worry about the Jewish Situation.  I ask again, why is such a vast abstraction yours to worry about?  You’ve got bigger problems friend, than to solve the problem of the Eternal Jew.  You should worry about the Eternal Eric (and we both know you are not eternal, that you will die, and lately, it sounds like you wish it would come sooner rather than later.  But more on that soon).  I say this not to ridicule you, (HaShem forgive I should do that to you, my friend, my brother) but I am trying to do is to steer you to the course where I know you can make a difference: inhabiting that thin line where the events you can control and those you can’t stand side by side, and it is up to you to decide which is which, and which one to grasp and act, or grasp and sink.  We’ve spoken of this so many times.  There is no formula.  You take it all case by case.  I have known you for a quarter of a century, and the times you have been most grounded, most balanced, most SANE, is when you live in the zone.  You change what you can… you make peace with what you can’t.  When you don’t, you act crazy… really fucked in the head… and that is the point you are at right now.  Fucked in the had

3.  The Third Way:  Yes, I am here already.  Why so fast, you may ask?  Because it ties to one and two above so closely, they are really one topic.  One problem.  And maybe one solution.  You fought me viciously on the topic when we last spoke.  And then the texts!  Shit!  But fair enough.  We are all upset after October.  It comes out in different ways.  I forgive your cruel words.  Even if you don’t ask for forgiveness (and you should, I am you BEST FRIEND); regardless, I forgive you nonetheless.  So last time we spoke it was Am Israel this, Am Israel that, and when I could get a word in, and I hardly could, I asked where is this people you call Israel?  This Am Israel.  Is it the Chasid on the bus who looked at your jeans, bright knit kippah, and long tallit, and thought perhaps you were gay?  Or that woman you study with, who constantly reminds you that Judaism has never had a feminist tradition until fifty years ago (and she is right, even when the Chasid is wrong about your sexual orientation) and makes you feel like that holder of a tradition you find abhorrent.  Is this your Am Israel, you People of Israel, or really, is it something more, far more complex… yes, the Third Way I was trying to talk about. Crazy stuff.  Look at the time.  Let me continue tomorrow.  I have to get to bed. Don’t email me back. I have more to say! I have to get to campus by 8AM for a meeting.  Can you believe that crap?  What kind of masochist does that, Eric? Get some rest, you look like shit. Shalom – Jake.

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine by Ilan Pappé


The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine by Ilan PappĂ© is a difficult book to quickly review.  Part of this is because of the complexity of the topic – and how fraught any historical investigation of the war that gave birth to Israel and expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians inevitably becomes.  

Palestinians were ethnically cleansed from the Holy Land from 1947 to 1949.  This fact seems beyond dispute.  Palestinians lived in large swatches of the Holy Land, and then were forced to leave.  There is complexity here: some left from fear, others were forced; their homes and villages were destroyed. In the end, the country of Israel was, except for a population of Palestinians in the Galilee, largely "cleansed" of Palestinians. 

Pappe presumes that the ethnical cleansing was the reason for the war and not the result of Israeli armies conquering territory.  Does it matter that much?  Probably not.  Plan Dalet, the largest effort by the Israeli forces to capture territory, can either be seen as a military endeavor – an effort to create a contiguous Israeli territory, or primarily a mission to remove Palestinians from the Holy Land.  Again, does it matter?  Not very much.  The result was the same.  One can view Plan Dalet in two ways: the military mission as paramount, to create a continuous country, and the other as a mission to get rid of Arabs.  This is Pappe’s position.  He downplays Arab and Palestinian armed resistance to Israel – as if they were not much of a threat at all, except for Jordan’s Arab Legion.  

It is difficult not to see this as a purely ideology view.  And the numbers tell the story.  The pre-state Yishuv and wartime Israel had a population of 600,000, and 6,000 died in the War of Independence.  The loss of one percent of a small population is tremendous.  Pappe is not interested in this.  He never mentions this number.

This is an important book, that highlights the horrors of war.  The twentieth century was largely the story of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and population transfers.  We need a book like Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning by Timothy Snyder (and his other works) that ties together the Holocaust with other genocide/transfer events in Europe.  I think to truly understand the Nakba, it needs to be tied together with other such events in the twentieth century, like the Partition of India.  As far as I know, that book has yet to be written.

Friday, February 2, 2024

Unlocking the Secret of the Erev Rav: The Mixed Multitude in Jewish Kabbalah


Unlocking the Secret of the Erev Rav: The Mixed Multitude in Jewish Kabbalah by Rivka Levy is about a religious notion that seems to have some adherents in the “orthodox” Jewish world.  Mixed multitude, erev rav in Hebrew, refers to people who came out of Egypt with the Israelites (who were not Israelites).  Scholars do not know exactly who these people were and in the Torah, they are never mentioned again.

But in later Jewish tradition they became a shadowy group within the Jewish tradition hell bent on destroying it.  Today calling someone an erev rav seems like a way for one Jewish person to cast a shadow on another person’s Jewish credentials because of a political or religious difference.

Needless to say, the concept of an erav rav is dangerous and specious.  Levy’s book does not overly go into conspiratorial territory.  She sees the erev rav as a distinctly Jewish problem (and not an othering issue) with a Breslov solution.  But I don’t like the concept of the mixed multitude.  We don’t need it; we Jews are good enough at creating differences among ourselves without the idea of a shadowy cabal, but at least Levy’s treatment is humane and broad.