Thursday, March 25, 2010

I Love A Parade

Living in a large, multi-cultural city like New York, you get used to the ethnic parades that come through town. In early fall, there’s the German-American parade with grown men wearing too-tight leder-hosen and sidewalk venders selling copious amounts of bratwurst and pretzels. In the heat of the summer, there is the Puerto Rican day parade. Subway cars fill with enthusiastic teenagers dressed in as many variations of the PR flag as possible—tank tops, bandanas, shorts—until they spill into the streets to demonstrate their pride. In the early spring, it’s the turn of the Irish with their bagpipes, shamrock-colored wigs, and Kiss-me-I’m-Irish pins (do those ever work?).

This year, stuck once again in the midst of tipsy, ebullient parade crowds on my way to work, I started to think about the Jews. As in, where is our parade? There is, of course, the Israel parade, an annual event launched in 1964 described by its official website as “a major vehicle for Zionist expression [that] enables our communities to come together in a non-partisan, apolitical show of unity and solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Israel.” Festive as that is, however, it’s not really about celebrating the American Jewish community, which has its own unique identity and history.

So, I started to wonder: if we did launch a Jewish-American parade, what would it look like? Would teenagers stick matzo stickers on their cheeks? Would the shtetl nostalgia come out in force with marching bands playing songs from Fiddler on the Roof and women dancing horas dressed in schmattas and headscarves? Or we maybe would go the more intellectual route with a reading of Emma Lazarus’ poem, “The New Colossus.” Perhaps the Jewish contribution to the New York garment industry could be represented by Tim Gunn and Christian Siriano (they could be made honorary Jews for the occasion…right)?

Even if the parade did devolve into little more than stereotypes of the American-Jewish immigrant experience—and really, what parade doesn’t involve some type of over-generalization—there is no reason that we, too, can’t celebrate our place in American society in style with loud music and tacky clothes. Then again, maybe since bagels are now sold in Dunkin’ Donuts and Oprah gives out ‘Chutzpah awards,’ we don’t need a parade to make our presence felt. Maybe next year I should just crash the Chinese New Year parade. I do love Chinese food. And really, what’s more Jewish-American than that?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Links of Interest

Here are some links I've been meaning to post, but have been to lazy to get to!

A feminist Muslim group in France, Ni Putes ni Soumises (Neither Promiscuous nor Submissive) protests against the burka in Paris:

A discussion of why reform Judaism hasn't caught on in France:

Anti-Islam sentiment is gaining political ground in Europe:

Fatih Akin, German-Turkish director of Edge of Heaven and In July, comments on the national identity debate in France:

Monday, March 8, 2010

How Do You Teach Human Rights?

On International Holocaust Memorial Day (January 27) this year, a report from the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) was released outlining the current Holocaust education curriculum in EU secondary schools. The report advocates linking the study of that era with more contemporary instances of human rights crimes As the authors of the report ask, “Is education about the history of the Holocaust an end in itself? How can knowledge about the past be used for mastering the present? Is there a natural link between Holocaust education and human rights education? How can young people be encouraged to reflect self-critically on their role in society?”

The FRA report brings to light deficiencies in the classroom that may have led to the recent embrace of right-wing ideology. (Exhibit A: Switzerland and the Netherlands). It is not enough, the authors’ believe, to teach about the Holocaust and to assume that broader lessons of acceptance and tolerance will be learned. Maybe I’m cynical, but I don’t think greater concentration on making the lessons of the Holocaust relevant for today’s students, through a hazily-defined “human rights education,” is the best way forward either.

First of all, I am uneasy with using the Holocaust as a pedagogical morality tool. While it is important for every generation to understand its country’s role during that period, it is equally important for them to understand the historical framework which allowed it to occur. Racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism come in all forms and from various sources. To paraphrase a French-Jewish journalist, anti-Semitism is not only about hearing the jackboots marching down the street or Nazi flags flying.

Secondly, yes. Human rights is an important issue. It is the cornerstone of many European countries’ constitutions. And yet, those rights are diminished time and again. When politicians liken the Koran to Mein Kampf (as Geert Wilders, the leader of the Dutch ‘Party for Freedom’ did) with no political repercussions and when the construction of religious buildings is made illegal, citizens’ rights are being violated. Recommending greater human rights education as a way to combat these trends is a sound abstract idea. But this report offers few suggestions on how to translate that lofty goal into a concrete reality.

Insisting that all graduating students should know about Universal Declaration of Human Rights–as one member of an FRA focus group suggested—is not enough. Human rights education should include weaving information into the school day about the various religious and ethnic groups that live in Europe. Accompanying lessons on the Holocaust should be discussions of contemporary Jewish life in the Netherlands. Discussions about the headscarf or the minaret controversy (if this is even broached in the classroom) should involve a larger discussion about Muslim traditions. The report acknowledges that the past needs to be linked to the present to have a real effect. But instead of relying primarily on pedagogically successful visits to concentration camp or museums of tolerance to make a difference, it should also be linked to issues in their students’, and their own, backyards.

Otherwise, it will be one more thing to forget after graduation and will result in little change at the polls.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Innocence Lost

A Woman in Berlin is a harrowing, sparse account of a woman's experience surviving in Soviet-occupied Berlin at the end of World War II. Its themes of rape, despair and abandonment were taboo once the war was over and the women in the book silenced. The author of A Woman in Berlin published her account anonymously in the 1950s to widespread condemnation in Germany and in 2003, it was republished--still anonymously.

Today, the subject is more easily broached, but because of the passage of time, many of those who could have spoken out have died. One woman, Gabriella Koepp, however, has come forward and recently published a book under her own name entitled, Why Did I Have to Be a Girl? In it, she details her escape, as a 15 year-old, from her German hometown in Pomerania (now Poland). Due to a railroad miscalculation, she ended up heading south into Soviet-held territory rather than north towards safety. Once there, Koepp was raped repeatedly by Soviet soldiers over a 14-day period and now, at 80, she still has not gotten over the trauma.

Because of the brutality of the Nazi era, it can be difficult to accept Germans both as perpetrators and victims during the Nazi era. Stories like Koepp's are essential because by inverting traditional narratives, they remind us how complex and messy historical truths truly are. For the full story, click here.