jew on this

critical, progressive ideas from pondering jews

Tag: memories

gentrification, the flavour of the month

by tobybee

when i was in new york in 2006 and 2009, doing research for my phd thesis, i lived for a few months on ludlow st, in the lower east side. on one of the corners – the corner of ludlow and rivington, to be precise – there was (and still is) spitzer’s. when i was there in 2006 it was spitzer’s dress store: a delightfully run-down coat and dress store, outside of which would sit old mr spitzer and various other men. i don’t know that i ever really saw anyone go in there.

when i returned in 2009 it had become spitzer’s corner – a self-described ‘american gastropub serving the highest quality pub fare’.

this afternoon i was walking past and ran into a friend who was going in for a beer, so i joined her, entering the space for the first time. so they might not have dresses and coats anymore, but they do have $5 bowls of pickles, $10 artisan grilled cheese sandwiches, and $16 burgers… hmmm…

for pesach in 2008 jfrej (the organisation that was co-hosting the book launch i was headed to tonight at bluestockings) produced the ‘ten plagues of the lower east side’:

In the tradition of Passover, and the ten plagues God is said to have brought down on the Egyptians forcing Pharaoh to liberate the Jews, we offer these ten plagues that have been visited upon the Lower East Side causing the mass displacement of longtime residents. Now is the time for the City of New York to fulfill its commitments to this community.

We spill 10 drops of wine for:

1. DISPLACEMENT – Federal and municipal urban renewal programs in the 1960s razed many tenements and the promised replacement housing often was never built.
2. USURPATION – The City took many properties through eminent domain to build highways and other “public goods,” without consideration for the low-income people living in the buildings.
3. RACISM – Many co-ops and other housing developments offered leases only to white families through the 1970s and beyond.
4. ABUSE OF POWER – Politicians, business interests and other power brokers blocked community demands for affordable housing construction to replace lost homes.
5. BROKEN PROMISES – City officials promised to replace housing that was destroyed and to build more housing to address the perpetual shortages and the crisis of homelessness, yet seldom was the construction of mixed-income housing a political priority over the past four decades.
6. DUPLICITY – Many politicians have spoken platitudes in favor of low & moderate-income housing, but cut deals with developers behind closed doors.
7. GREED – The construction of luxury condos and market rate apartment buildings has accelerated, further limiting the potential space for mixed-income housing in Manhattan.
8. APATHY – Seduced by the high times of the housing bubble, few politicians have done anything to close loopholes that allow landlords to deregulate more easily and push out longtime residents.
9. GENTRIFICATION – Condo conversions and housing deregulation continue the pattern of displacement in the Lower East Side and throughout NYC.
10. INTOLERANCE – Some long-term residents have opposed construction of mixed-income housing because of its assumed negative impact on their housing values and quality of life.

At this year’s Seder, we gather to bear witness to the history of displacement and struggle in this vital New York City neighborhood. We come together to acknowledge that mixed-income housing cannot become a reality without support from Jewish residents, organizations and politicians.


Sosnowitz memories

by tobybee

I’ve just finished marking some essays for a university history subject called “Genocide and Holocaust Studies”. Reading these essays – particularly this year, when I didn’t tutor the subject, but just got work doing the marking, so I have no idea who any of the students/writers are – is an amazing experience in reading the abstraction of genocide. Students say things like ‘the ways in which the Nazis stereotyped the Jews was disappointing’; or, ‘the Rwandan genocide was the fastest genocide in history.’

It reinforces for me that the university essay is no place for the representation of genocide. Actually, that’s overstating it, because some of the students write beautifully poignant and meaningful essays. But in general, and particularly when I’m sitting there trying to get through them in the time that is allotted, with music playing in the background to help me along, it feels somehow disrespectful.

In one of the last essays I read, the student said something like, ‘On 9 March 1941, 1000 Jews from Sosnowitz were transported to Auschwitz, and gassed on arrival.’ For that student, the name Sosnowitz is probably meaningless; transported just symbolises a really bad train trip; and gassing is incomprehensible. For me, Sosnowitz is the name of the town that my grandmother came from, and that ‘transport’ is the train that probably took some of my family to their death. Still for me, it’s an abstraction. But an overwhelming one.

I had to take a deep breath before I could continue reading.

counter-hegemonic memories

by tobybee

And so another September 11 rolls around. If you’re a lefty in Melbourne, or you were in 2000, then one memory that comes is of the S11 protests: the protests outside the Casino in the city that went for a couple of days, that interrupted the meeting of the World Economic Forum. And if you’re the same age as me, and were also doing year 12 and had a SAC that day, then you (maybe) also remember that protest with a certain jealousy, a certain wishfulness that you too could have been there, rather than stuck inside the classroom, doing the test and trying to earn the marks to get into uni.

And then the September 11 of 2001. The night when my brother and I were watching the West Wing, and laughed in the ad-break when they showed footage of two planes flying into the WTC, wondering how it was possible for two pilots to be so stupid (one, maybe; but two??). Then the watching of tv into the night and early morning, watching what was happening. And being too young to properly understand the ramifications of what was going on, of what would follow.

But in the years following, in the shadows of the memories of these dates, like so many other people, being radicalised.

And so in 2010, on this September 11, what can we remember? Well, we could remember and watch the protests against the Muslim community centre that is being built in Lower Manhattan, and get angry at the ways in which this has been named ‘the Ground Zero mosque’. We could analyse the discourses that proliferate, the abundance of speech that has been created around this ‘event’. We could get angry that it is even a problem for some to have a mosque near Ground Zero (if that was what it actually was, which of course it’s not, but even if it was…). We could also remember the vast numbers of people who have protested against the protestors; who are working to ensure that the community centre is built (and for an entertaining deconstruction of the conservative anti-Muslim discourses proliferating, you should watch this clip of Jon Stewart. Both he and Colbert have done lots on the centre, but this is a good one from the other day).

We could turn our eyes to Beirut. And learn that in early 2009 work was begun to restore Magen Avraham synagogue (built in 1925), which was destroyed during fighting in the Lebanese Civil War. That work is nearly completed on this synagogue, and that this work was done with the endorsement and support from the Lebanese government, from Jewish people in Lebanon and the diaspora, and from Hezbollah…

*hat-tip to LeDaro.
**to read more about the intertwining of memories of S11 and 9/11, you should read this piece in Overland.

Yerushalmi’s memories

by tobybee

Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, the great modern Jewish historian, died yesterday. Yerushalmi (1932-2009) was, as Jonathan D. Sarna described in a post to the H-Judaic listserv, “the Salo Wittmayer Baron Professor of Jewish History, Culture and Society at Columbia from 1980-2008. Before then, he taught for fourteen years at Harvard, where he rose to become the Jacob E. Safra Professor of Jewish History, Culture, and Society. Yerushalmi was one of the most creative and influential Jewish historians of his day. His wide-ranging books — From Spanish Court to Italian Ghetto, Haggadah and History, Zakhor, and Freud’s Moses — generated significant discussion and paved new areas of scholarly investigation,” and he trained a generation of Jewish historians.

It took me a few years to appreciate Yerushalmi’s work Zakhor. On my first reading, he just didn’t speak to me. It wasn’t that I particularly disagreed with his ideas, but they weren’t exciting. It was a couple of years later, when I was really engaging with ideas of movements of Jewish modernity, and the question of what it means to write Jewish history whilst fully embroiled in Western methods of historiography, that I found great utility in his ideas. And while I might still not be certain of how I feel about the ways he engages with divisions between history and memory I really like the work that he does with the Wissenschaft des Judentums – the project of writing Jewish history that was a part of the Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment. My own work has been to try to figure out how we, in the Melbourne Jewish community, are narrating the Holocaust: what historiographical practices are we engaging in, and formulating, in order to tell our histories. And what does it mean to take on the patterns of historical narration which the society in which we live, more broadly, utilises? This is a question which Yerushalmi dealt with. I thought about rephrasing what I have previously written about Yerushalmi’s work, but decided it’s probably best to just quote myself here…

The purpose of the Wissenschaft movement was to mould Jewish history within the same parameters of historiography practised in the Christian and secular societies which surrounded these European Jews. While non-Jews had written histories of Jews, the Wissenschaft movement involved the reclaiming of Jewish history. Yerushalmi argues that with the beginning of the Wissenschaft movement in the 1820s
“suddenly, there are no apologies [for writing histories of Jews]. History is no longer a handmaiden of dubious repute to be tolerated occasionally and with embarrassment. She confidently pushes her way to the very center and brazenly demands her due. For the first time it is not history that must prove its utility to Judaism, but Judaism that must prove its validity to history, by revealing and justifying itself historically.” (Yerushalmi, Zakhor, 84)
Yerushalmi here is pointing to the idea that these European Jewish communities were struggling to find their place in the larger societies. In order to find a place, they adopted the historiographical methods of those dominant societies. This was confirmed when he wrote that the new approach to historiography—that of the Enlightenment idea of history as scientific, known and verifiable—did not come “prior to Jewish historical writing or historical thought.” Rather, Yerushalmi wrote, “[m]odern Jewish historiography began precipitously out of that assimilation from without and collapse from within which characterized the sudden emergence of Jews out of the ghetto. It originated, not as scholarly curiosity, but as ideology, one of a gamut of responses to the crisis of Jewish emancipation and the struggle to attain it.” This “assimilation”, it was explained, was not negative, but rather was a response with a considerable history within the lifespan of the Jewish people.

Moreover, Yerushalmi commented that Jewish historians of the late twentieth century shared the same features, problems and attributes as historians more generally—they contributed something unique (a Jewish history) but were closely bound up in the dominant disciplinary practices. We can therefore understand that it has perhaps become a commonplace that Jews in modern Western societies adopt the historiographical practices of the dominant societies in which they live. As in the nineteenth century this was undertaken to attempt to resolve the problem of how to manage emancipation, so too today it is a product of the anxiety about where Jews can fit into the Western world, in the context of contemporary forms of antisemitism and pressures of assimilation.

And so we mourn Yerushalmi, for his memory is blessing. If you want to read a piece by David Myers, which was originally published in an edited collection Jewish History and Jewish Memory, about the important role of Yerushalmi’s work, then you can read it online here