Ideal for classroom use, Judaisms
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
A Twenty-First-Century Introduction to Jews and Jewish Identities
By Aaron J. Hahn Tapper
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
PESAH IN CAIRO
THE CONSTRUCTION OF A NARRATIVE
Individual and Communal Narratives
"Truth" and "Fact"
The "Truth" of the Mercator Map
"TRUTH" AND DOMINANT AMERICAN NARRATIVES
"Truth," 9/11, and Iraq
"Truth," Obama, and Racial Identities
Other American "Truths": Ross, Parks, and Robinson
American Dominants and Subordinates
"TRUTH" AND DOMINANT JEWISH NARRATIVES
A Common Jewish Narrative
Ashkenazi Jewish Ascendancy
SPECIAL TOPIC 1.1: Ashkenazi-ness and Being White
ASHKENAZI/NON-ASHKENAZI: THE DICHOTOMIZATION OF JEWS
What Is Dichotomization?
Case Example: Moroccan Jews
Sephardi, Mizrahi, or Non-Ashkenazi?
PESAH IN CAIRO
NARRATIVES AND RITUALS
Dominant Narratives and Dominant Rituals
Lesser-Known Narratives and Lesser-Known Rituals
An Orange on the Seder Plate
The Tribe vs. Diaspora
PESAH IN CAIRO
Communities have dominant and subordinated narratives, stories that are "true" but not necessarily "factual." These narratives are never fixed but shift over time. "Truth," an operating system of ostensibly historical facts that serves to explain a people's worldview, gives a group both legitimacy and credibility, and often describes the reasons behind a group's practices and beliefs.
Communal "truths," or narratives, are reaffirmed through rituals.
Dominant communal narratives — communal "truths" — often overlook subordinated ones. Just as the dominant American narrative can be said to be based in the "white" experience, the dominant Jewish narratives tend to be expressed through dominant Ashkenazi experiences. In point of fact, however, Jewish communal narratives are incredibly heterogeneous — culturally, ethnically, and racially.
Pesah in Cairo
I was wearing one slightly torn, sunflower-patterned oven mitt when Cairo's March evening began to descend. In a pitiful attempt to counter the urban desert heat, a fan held together with a bent metal fork was channeling occasional waves of unbelievably hot air on me, a complement to the snail-paced breeze coming in through my windows. Before I'd moved to Egypt, the phrase "120°F in the shade" didn't mean much to me.
Now rounding out my tenth month in what locals lovingly call 'um al-dunya (mother of the world), I had adjusted to many of the city's unique flavors. One-time oddities had become normal, such as daily walks through Cairo's now world-famous Midan al-Tahrir (Liberation Square), a metropolitan epicenter bustling with echoes of the city's twenty million-plus occupants; bumper car–esque taxi rides on highways close enough to skyscrapers that one could literally step from a car into someone's living room; a 24/7 energy and intensity that put New York City to shame.
This was a special night. Friends were on their way over to celebrate Pesah (Passover), a Jewish holiday commemorating the biblical Hebrews' miraculous journey from slavery to freedom. Spending the year in Egypt, or Mitzrayim as it's known in the Hebrew Bible, I was excited to observe this holiday in the same ancient land from which, ironically, my ancestors had purportedly fled with such little time for preparation that they had no food for the road, an image seared into my brain by family and teachers alike since my earliest days of childhood. More specifically, the biblical Hebrews couldn't wait for their bread to rise, hence the flat, crunchy cracker central to the holiday called matzah.
From as far back as I could remember, celebrating Passover with a Seder meal was one of my favorite Jewish rituals. But to have the opportunity to sing songs about Pharaoh a few miles away from the pyramids; to chant poems about swarms of frogs a few feet away from the Nile River; to be living less than one hundred miles from the Red Sea, the waterway that Moses wondrously parted to allow the biblical Hebrews to escape from their slave-owners and Pharoah's soldiers: this was something the child within considered unimaginable. Even though Jews have been living in Egypt for centuries, spending Passover in the "wilderness" (one rabbinic interpretation of "Egypt") was exciting, even bizarre — all the more so for an American Jew who traces his Jewish bona fides back to Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Russia rather than the Middle East.
Over the next few minutes, my friends — Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and unaffiliated — arrived at my humble apartment. And after figuring out how to jam fifteen people into a room that could comfortably seat eight at most, we began the Seder's first formal ritual. Using a makeshift Haggadah (Pesah prayer book; pl. Haggadot) that three of us had cobbled together, we recited a version of "Kadesh, Orhatz ...," an introductory song that lays out the table of contents for the night's festivities. The epic story of slaves voyaging to freedom had begun.
The Construction of a Narrative
I begin this book with an experience involving Passover because this Jewish holiday is the quintessential embodiment of the Jewish story: it is central to the Jewish collective identity. This is one reason why the Pesah Seder, the ritualized meal held the first night(s) of the holiday, is among the most widely observed traditions for Jews around the world. Every spring Jews of all stripes and colors come together to recount the "Exodus from Egypt," the account of Moses and the biblical Hebrews journeying to the Promised Land. Haggadot commonly include the phrase, "In every generation one is obligated to see oneself as if s/he went out from Egypt," reminding participants that they are not only supposed to retell the Exodus story but must also make this ancient account personal, embracing it as if it is their own journey as well.
Individual and Communal Narratives
One of the ways a community's collective memory survives — especially over the course of tens of generations — is through the telling and retelling of a master narrative (or narratives), what scholar Ilana Pardes calls a "national biography." In the case of Jews, in recounting their story this group has reinforced its self- understanding while also shaping how the 99.8 percent of the world that is not Jewish sees them.
Storytelling in and of itself is not unique. Virtually all communities engage in this practice. In fact, all of us are storytellers — narrators — in our own right. As individuals we engage in this activity through daily routines, whether at work, school, or someplace else. We do it when meeting someone for the first time, such as on a date or when applying for a job. In all of these moments we recycle stories — scripts — about who we are. Sometimes we even make things up. Through media such as Facebook and Twitter, we craft a version of our lives and our thoughts.
We do this as individuals through basic statements we make about ourselves: I go to primary school. I am a college student. I bag groceries. I am a mechanic. I live on the street. I am an exciting person and you should spend more time with me. I am a skilled laborer and you should hire me. We also do this as societies: Our country fights for freedom. Our country protects us. Our country only protects some of us. Our country is built on a commitment to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Our country favors certain people over others. Along the way, we edit these personal and communal narratives, adding pieces here, subtracting pieces there. The script is never fixed. Through this process, individual and group identities are created and re-created.
"Truth" and "Fact"
To better understand the phenomena of social identities and communal narratives, let's bring in two terms to assist us: truth and fact. Through the process of storytelling we invent "truth," which shapes a worldview or a dominant narrative. As opposed to "facts" — actual on-the-ground reality — "truth" is the construction of perceptions. "Truth" can be related to facts, but more often than not it is shaped according to interpretations rather than precise historical evidence. "Truth" involves belief and trust, sometimes more than it involves concrete, scientific data.
Identities are constructs based on truth and fact. All communal identities have sets of "truth," and all communal "truths" are ever-changing. In this sense, communal "truth" is an operating system of ostensibly historical facts that serves to explain a people's worldview, thereby giving it both legitimacy and credibility. A community's "truth" often describes the reasons behind that group's practices and beliefs. It does not need to be factual, though it certainly can be. "Truths" are central to identities, whether individual or collective, because we orient toward the truth as if it is factual.
This explanation may seem counterintuitive, especially in relation to more common ways in which the term truth is used. Our definition of "fact," too, implies that data exist irrespective of interpretation. So let's go further.
People shape "truth"; more often than not it cannot be proven. "Truth" is constantly created and re-created based on new information, changing perceptions, and shifts in interpretation. At any given time, a community has one or more dominant narratives, fluid stories based on the group's "truth," through which it explains and understands itself and those outside it. Communal stories can remain the same for decades, or they can change overnight. As opposed to "truth," which cannot necessarily be argued away, facts can be grappled with, debated, and fought over. Most people are unrelenting in their loyalty to their "truth," unwilling to accept other dominant ways of understanding particular events or the world at large. Many approach facts only through their understanding of "truth."
The "Truth" of the Mercator Map
Take the following example: One standard map used to teach world geography in American and many European schools is directly based on a 1569 design made by a geographer and cartographer from an area now called Belgium, Gerardus Mercator (fig. 1.1).
Though scientifically advanced for its time, and arguably not used today as it was originally intended, like all maps the Mercator projection communicates a particular perception of the world in the form of a two-dimensional image. As we now know, Mercator's portrayal of the world distorts the size of the earth's landmasses; the actual dimensions are much closer to those depicted in an equal-area map such as the Galls-Peter projection (fig. 1.2).
More importantly perhaps, according to the Mercator map Europe is the center of the world. This was Mercator's "truth," as well as Europe's. It was key to their identities. (Maps made in other parts of the world similarly place themselves in the center.) Whether or not one argues that inflating Europe's size while reducing Africa's is Eurocentric or merely nonobjective, or even that Mercator isn't to blame for the map's depiction of the earth because he intended it to be used for navigation and not geography, maps reflect value systems. They teach not just spatial relations, but political ideas as well.
Using cartography to illustrate underlying problems with narrative construction is not a trivial exercise. As scholar Marshall G. S. Hodgson argues in his renowned treatise Rethinking World History, maps directly reflect groups' biases. Hodgson calls the Mercator map — with its expansion of Europe and diminishment of Africa — a "Jim Crow projection," an unsympathetic comparison that links it to the legalized racism present in the United States during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
"Truth" and Dominant American Narratives
"Truth," 9/11, and Iraq
Let's look at a different set of examples, more overtly connected to twenty-first-century Americans. Compare, for instance, the dominant American narratives of September 10 and September 12, 2001, or the dominant Iraqi narratives of March 20 and March 23, 2003. In each case, actual events changed, suddenly and radically, the collective worldviews — and "truths" — of millions of people. In each case, too, new subnarratives simultaneously emerged that immediately reshaped the way the "other" was perceived.
Of course, there are facts on the ground regarding the individuals who died as a result of the events of September 2001 and March 2003. But these facts are often debated from the vantage point of one's "truth" and one's identity. Whereas Americans know not only the number (2,977) but also the specific names of those killed in the 9/11 attacks, in the case of the invasion of Iraq no precise number exists that accounts for the Iraqi civilians or militants who died; there are only estimates.
Further, the narratives regarding these events are different. Some think that the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks were affiliates of Al-Qaeda, while others do not. Some think that the primary reason the United States military invaded Iraq was to indirectly weaken Al-Qaeda; others think it was to protect the American government's oil interests. There are definite facts regarding who did what in these situations. Similarly, there are definite facts regarding individuals' stated and actual intentions. But sometimes such data cannot be gathered (or are not accessible to the public). Sometimes, even when data are gathered, people are unable to accept them as fact, writing them off using the logic of conspiracies.
As these examples demonstrate, communal narratives are seemingly cohesive stories, combining interwoven strands from a number of different sources. Sometimes they are manifested orally, through scripts passed down from one generation to the next, other times visually, in the form of symbols or photos of actual people. They are based largely on perception. Such "truths" cannot be reduced to simple correctness or incorrectness. In their complexity, they are core to identities and the stories we tell ourselves, both sacred and profane. Communal "truths" regarding events as momentous as 9/11 or the invasion of Iraq have played important roles in shaping individual and group identities.
"Truth," Obama, and Racial Identities
Dominant narratives are always selective. Take President Barack Obama. Beginning in at least November 2008, subsequent to his winning the presidential election and continuing long after he was sworn in as the forty-fourth president of the United States in January 2009, the dominant American "truth" has been that in Obama the United States elected the country's first African American president. Yet as many know — as the president himself shared in speech after speech during the 2008 campaign, and as laid out in his autobiography, Dreams from My Father (2004) — although Obama's father was black, his mother was white. Given this fact, some have argued that he is a member as much of the white community as of the black community.
Others think that "white America" has a vested interest in seeing Obama as black because, as writer Peggy Orenstein puts it, it is "more exciting, more romantic, and more concrete [a] prospect than the 'first biracial president.'" She also probes further, asking: "Would Obama still be seen as 'black enough' if the wife by his side were white? And don't get my husband started on why Tiger Woods — whose mother is three-quarters Asian and whose father was one-quarter Chinese and half African-American — is rarely hailed as the first Asian-American golf superstar."
This isn't to say that Obama is not black. Obama, like all of us, can identify any way he chooses. Indeed, on question nine of the 2010 American census, "What is Person 1's race?," he selected a single box, "Black, African Am., Negro." He could have chosen "White," both "Black etc." and "White," or the last category listed on the form, "Some other race." (Whether a community with whom one identifies accepts an individual as one of its own is another issue.)
The point is, social identities are a reflection of individual and collective "truth" more than of fact, more connected to perception than to reality. If Obama had been born in the United States when the infamous "one-drop rule" was in place — which legally defined a black as an individual with "any known African black ancestry" — he would not have had a legal choice as to identifying with a particular race; the government would have made the choice for him.
It is also clear that America's history in dealing with race in centuries past continues to play a major role in identity formation today. If Obama had been born in another country, regardless of when, his racial identities would be understood differently. For instance, if he had been born in contemporary Brazil, he wouldn't simplistically be called either black or white (i.e., in terms of whiteness and blackness, there are many more racial categories in Brazil than the United States). The manner in which America has de jure and de facto understood race is subjective, as are all constructions of identity, whether racially based or not.
We can make the same points about the legal definitions of other minorities in the United States, such as Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans. Though the civil classifications for what constitutes an American as a member of one of these two categories has changed over time, as have the legal rights one has or doesn't have as a result, the fact that there have been, and continue to be, legal definitions for specific groups, defined by race or otherwise, points to the juridical qualification and quantification of identities in America.
Excerpted from Judaisms by Aaron J. Hahn Tapper. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of ContentsPREFACE: METHODS AND ASSUMPTIONS; EDITORIAL PRACTICES
Supplementary Resources (see Downloads tab)
Timeline of Major Texts