Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Ok, a little self-promotion

I'm a little late in posting this, but I am thrilled that I was chosen as one of the 'The Jewish Week's' 36 under 36 this year.  The award is given to New York Jews under 36 who are creating new ways to be engaged in Jewish life.  Click here to read the article. 

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Multiculturalism Debate Drags on in Germany

I know I've been away for a while, but I've been blogging here. So come check me out!

As you may know, there is a debate raging in Germany over multiculturalism and assimilation of the Muslim minority in Germany. At the core of the debate over these amorphous terms is the question of the role and presence of Muslims within German society. In an effort to dig deeper into the nature of the debate, Der Spiegel recently published an interview with two journalists, one German and one Turkish-German (and Muslim) who have both been vocal in their views on these issues. Interestingly, like the Somali-born Dutch politician Ayaan Hirisi Ali before her, it is the Turkish-German journalist, Necla Kelek who takes the far-right position in this discussion. She argues that Islam is inherently political and that Muslims, whether in Germany or in Egypt, are therefore incapable of placing the importance of a strong civil society and Western-style democracy above their religious beliefs. Patrick Bahners, the features editor for the center-right German paper, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, on the other hand, takes the more reasoned approach, arguing that not all Muslims view the world through this narrow religious-political lens and that those who do are still in the minority, even if their pernicious ideas have captured the imagination of the West through violent means.

In many ways, the debate between Bahners and Kelek is disappointing. Primarily because Kelek is quick to attack Bahners, to accuse him of not personally knowing any Muslims and therefore call into question his ability to speak with any authority on the issue. Kelek argues that she is more qualified to speak on the issue, and that her perspective is the true one, in large part because she grew up in the community and she knows the people she is speaking about—and condemning—personally. While that background certainly does have its importance, those are not the only ingredients needed to make a reasoned argument, as Bahners points out. But the sniping back and forth is only part of the reason this kind of debate is frustrating. The larger reason is because while it may help to delineate the views involved, it does not move the discussion forward. There is no attempt on the part of the interviewer, or by either of the participants, to try and find some common ground.

The national discussion over the death of multiculturalism has implications not only in Germany, but throughout Europe. The supposed clash between East and West, Islam and Christianity are not simply abstract notions. The consequences of this line of thinking have real impact from London to Berlin. Not all Muslims see Islam and politics as inherently linked, but the majority, if not all, do feel the sting of the vitriol directed at them by the leaders of the countries they now see as their home. They do feel the weight of discrimination in their daily lives as they seek housing or better employment or good education for their children. Similarly, not all Germans view Muslims with suspicion, but the longer the debate drags out with no resolution and little visible determination to work on a solution for all involved parties, the more each side becomes reduced to stereotypes and nothing changes. The next debate I would like to see in Der Spiegel is one that talks to people who are working on a solution, not just giving voice to the problem.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Boxing Gym

Trailer for Frederick Wiseman's BOXING GYM

Lord’s Gym, Austin, Texas:



Clang, clang, clang.


In a small, white shingled building hidden behind a Goodwill store, posters of famous fights and fighters frozen in position overlap on the walls. Worn boxing rings and masking tape-encased punching bags reign supreme.

In this atmosphere of muscles and sweat, Frederick Wiseman’s new film, Boxing Gym unfolds. Wiseman–the Jewish octogenarian filmmaker whose most recent film La Danse took us into the rarified world of professional ballet, now turns his eye to the equally athletic, if more violent, world of boxing.

Boxing Gym (now playing as part of the New York Film Festival), like many of Wiseman’s films, focuses on the minutiae of every day life. Rarely leaving the confines of Lord’s, everyone and no one is at the center of the story. Like the gym itself, the film is universal. Men and women, young and old, wealthy and poor, Americans and immigrants, white, black, and Hispanic–all are welcome and all are captured on camera. With no hero or even narrative arc to follow, the audience is nonetheless quickly drawn into Lord’s hypnotic world. Nothing matters beyond the rhythmic pounding of leather against leather, the grunts of the athletes, and the ever-present beeping of the Everlast timer.

But this movie is not just about boxing. It also is about the deeper communal ties that form within the walls of the boxing gym. Under the watchful eye of the owner Richard Lord, the gym is at once a therapists’ couch, a daycare center, and a refuge as well as a place to train. Mothers leave their babies ringside while they spar, older men philosophize by the free weights, and economic woes are discussed and dismissed.

Although titled Boxing Gym, don’t let that fool you. This film isn’t just about boxing. It is also about desire, focus a hunger to push oneself to the limit. And it is also about championing community. In a country torn apart by social and political strife, it’s almost ironic that all it takes is a boxing gym to bring people together peacefully. But as Wiseman vividly demonstrates, Lord’s is no ordinary gym.

Thursday, September 16, 2010


Yesterday, the French Senate approved the ban on burqas and niqabs (Islamic face coverings) anywhere in public. Today, an Open Society blog post neatly summed up the situation:

"As if the French government hadn't done enough to damage its reputation with respect to its protection of religious and ethnic minorities in recent weeks, the French senate yesterday approved a ban on wearing Islamic face veils (niqabs or burqas) anywhere in public. Once ratified, the law will come into effect after a period of six months during which time the French Constitutional Council will study the new law to make sure that it does not violate any aspects of the state's constitution."

As a friend said to me recently, the French sure know how to get the best publicity...

Monday, September 13, 2010

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A Film Unfinished

In an East German archive, three reels of silent film lay untouched and forgotten amid the chaos of World War II and its Communist aftermath. 40 years later, on an American airbase, a British film historian came across these reels simply titled, "Das Ghetto." The deceptively simple name, however, belied the power of its contents.

As we quickly learn in A Film Unfinished, the recently released documentary about the making of “The Ghetto” by Israeli filmmaker Yael Hersonsky, “The Ghetto” refers to the Warsaw ghetto and the three reels of film are the missing companions to a fourth reel--discovered in the early 1960s. Until recently, that single reel was used by historians and Holocaust museums as an accurate account of the Jewish ghetto experience. (One might wonder why this was accepted as truth when it is doubtful that Jews would have access to camera, never mind the freedom to openly film their lives, but that is the subject for another post). Together, these four short films were the raw footage—shot in May of 1942--for a planned Nazi propaganda movie. The film was never completed and it is unlikely we will ever learn how the Nazis intended to use the material.

Hersonsky’s documentary is the first to examine the film in its entirety and to present a more accurate picture of its filming of the movie as well as of life in the Warsaw ghetto. The 63 minute work serves as the backbone of her film into which she intersperses three key organizing elements: poignant commentary from survivors of the ghetto watching the film for the first time, a reenactment of an interview between Willi Weis, one of the cameramen of the Nazi film, and an unnamed interrogator, and excerpts from diaries by Adam Cherniakov--head of the Warsaw ghetto Jewish Council--and Emanuel Ringleblum--the ghetto's unofficial historian--about the making of the movie.

Hersonsky’s self-defined objective was to recontextualize the Nazi film before the last of the survivors die and leave future scholars unable to separate fact from fiction. Her painstaking process of peeling back the layers of misconceptions that surround the film and its subjects is thorough and crucial. But what makes this film more than just an educational aide, is how it challenges its audience to examine its own preconceptions of ghetto survival. Now that we know the circumstances of the making “Das Ghetto,” it would be easy to paint all of the scenes as clearly staged. But the film, perhaps unconsciously, also forces its audience to accept some hard truths about life in the ghetto--namely that for many imprisoned there, they lived as best they could. One scene depicts, for example, a group of young, attractive men and women smiling as they sunbathe in a patch of dirt. Without context, it would be easy to assume that this was staged, but in fact scenes like this did occur, even outside of the range of Nazi cameras. As one of the survivors commented as she watched, people were still concerned about how they looked even in the midst of all of the chaos and brutality around them. It was a way to maintain their humanity, their sense of self. Another scene showed a well-dressed woman ignoring beggar children on the street. Although we might chalk this, too, up to Nazi propaganda, another survivor simply offered the explanation that without this act of self-preservation, one could not survive. Later, as this same survivor cried as she watched two corpses lie untended on the sidewalk while saying that she was so happy that she could cry as she watched the frame. Her crying made her human, she said, something that she could not succumb to while living in the ghetto.

When we view the Holocaust today, it is easy to see its victims in broad strokes of black and white. The primary goal of A Film Unfinished was to properly contextualize the subjects of the Nazi footage and to further demonstrate the chilling reach of the Nazi propaganda machine. But this film also succeeds in the far more difficult task. It offers its audience a glimpse of the shades of gray that hover, often ignored, just beneath the surface.

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Polish Education

Across Poland, a new form of Jewish remembrance is taking place. Inmates from 10 different prisons are contributing their manpower to a country-wide effort to clean and maintain abandoned Jewish cemeteries. Participation in the project—which is sponsored by the prison service and the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland—is, however, about more than coming up with creative ways to keep prisoners occupied. Beyond the actual labor, the men are also introduced to Jewish culture and religious traditions.

For many of prisoners who came of age under communism, talking about anything Jewish was taboo. But through this program, and with the aid of Poland’s chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, that is beginning to change. Before the prisoners set foot in the cemeteries Rabbi Schudrich visits each of the prisons and talks to inmates about everything from Jewish marriage laws to how to put on tefillin. By educating the men, the project leaders hope to break through the anti-Semitic outlook that remains present in Polish society and change the way the inmates were taught to view Jews.

So far, the response has been positive. One of the men involved in the project, Artur Blinski, says “the scheme has broadened his outlook towards his country’s past. ‘Until now I wasn’t that interested. This program has changed my attitude towards Jewish culture and I’ve started to get interested in it. I had no idea about this culture and the more I learn the more interesting it becomes.

That it has taken so many decades for Poles to be able to confront not only their own attitudes towards Jews as well as the importance and influence of pre-war Jewish life in Poland is distressing. However, this effort–as well as others aimed at opening up the discussion and breaking societal taboos–is heartening. It takes strength and courage to challenge the status quo. In a recent blog post, I pointed out important steps taken within Poland to confront its past. I hope this latest project represents not the end of such forward movement, but rather just the beginning.