The ProsenPeople

Three Takeaways from Interviewing 110 "JewAsian" Couples and Kids

Monday, July 18, 2016 | Permalink

Helen Kiyong Kim and Noah Samuel Leavitt are the coauthors of JewAsian: Race, Religion, and Identity for America’s Newest Jews. With the release of their book earlier this month, the couple is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

We have always acknowledged that what drew us to the research that would become the foundation of our book, JewAsian: Race, Religion, and Identity for America's Newest Jews, started from personal questions based on our own experiences and relationship. When we began our project in 2008, Helen was pregnant with our first child. We were in the throes of trying to figure out not only diapering, sleeping, and feeding a newborn but also how we would raise our child to navigate and contribute to a very complex world. We were curious how other couples— JewAsian because of racial, ethnic, and sometimes religious difference—were figuring out, in light of these types of differences, how to sustain and nurture a marriage and family.

Fast forward to the present: our son Ari (almost 8) and daughter Talia (almost 5) challenge us every day with their endless curiosity and argumentative demeanor. We often find ourselves at a loss for words in their midst, particularly when it comes to in-the-moment questions and statements about identity, whether racial, ethnic, religious, or all three. But then we remember that we talked to roughly one hundred and ten individuals whose own experiences have taught us a great deal about how to think about the challenges we experience every day in our own family.

What have we learned about our own family by writing a book about families like ours? Here are a few takeaways:

1. We talk, a lot, and the talking will probably pay off in the long run. Conversation topics run the gamut, but they often focus on issues of racial, ethnic, and religious identity. Sometimes these discussions are difficult and fraught with emotion, but they are a necessary starting point. Our interviewees told us of the importance of having these issues out on the table as part of regular family life that stresses intentionality and opportunity rather than limitation.

2. We don’t have all the answers, but we try to find them. Adult JewAsian children acknowledged that at multiple times in their lives when they were trying to figure out who they are and where they belonged, what mattered the most was having information and doors open to them that allowed for exploration. In turn they stressed the importance of encouraging children to seek out information on their own rather than resigning oneself to feeling constrained.

3. We are a full-fledged and proud Jewish, Asian American, Korean American, multiracial, multiethnic and multilingual family – but it’s complicated! The individuals we talked to emphasized shifts and evolutions in all aspects of their identity. Strong connections at some points in time, weaker bonds at other times. Yet they never shied away or denied these aspects of who they were, and carried this complex and changing way of thinking with them every day.

Perhaps, it is this last point that resonates the most with us and reminds us of what we have learned about our own family by studying families like ours. In “Transgressions of a Model Minority” (Shofar, Summer 2005), scholar Jonathan Freedman wrote of a new way of seeing the connections between Jewish Americans and Asian Americans, “…as peoples struggling at different times with different means to surmount processes larger than themselves; as fellow wanderers, fellow exiles, fellow swimmers barely braving the waves of history.” His suggestions remind us, as individuals and a family, of the importance of embracing possibilities unknown.

Helen Kiyong Kim is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at Whitman College. Noah Samuel Leavitt is an associate dean of students at Whitman College and has served as the advocacy director for the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs. Both authors are currently touring for the 2016 – 2017 season through the JBC Network on their book JewAsian: Race, Religion, and Identity for America’s Newest Jews.

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New Reviews July 17, 2016

Sunday, July 17, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:


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What Does Tisha B’ Av Hold for the Future of the Jewish People?

Wednesday, July 13, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, David G. Daniel shared how an encounter with a moose, her calf, and a bear reminded him of the difficult questions following a tragic loss. He is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

This year, Tisha B’Av arrives in mid-August. Tisha B’Av commemorates a number of tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people on this date, including the destruction of the First Temple in 423 BCE, the Second Temple in 69 CE, the crushing of the bar Kochba Rebellion at the final battle of Betar, and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. Tisha B’ Av is sometimes used to commemorate the six million Jews lost in the Holocaust as well.

In my family, Tisha B’Av has a very personal meaning, beyond the broader mourning for disasters that have befallen the Jewish people. My son, David, who plays a major role in the novel, was killed in a freak accident very close to that time.

But when I taught my children the meaning of Tisha B’Av, I was caught off guard when they asked me what disasters our people should bring to mind from their own experiences.

I recalled that during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, my parents had made plans to escape any attack on our home town of Jackson, Mississippi by sailing down the Pearl River in a houseboat. They stocked the craft with food, medical supplies and extra gasoline. Even to me, a five-year-old child at the time, this seemed like excessive concern from my ordinarily very level-headed parents.

Fifty years later, I walked my own children through a new National Archives exhibit in Washington, DC. It displayed secretly recorded White House discussions warning that tens of millions of American citizens in large- to medium-sized cities in the southeast United States might be killed by the medium-range Soviet nuclear missiles installed in Cuba.

In my own children’s lifetime, they had heard on the evening news of Al Quaeda attempts to obtain nuclear and biological weapons, and advisories to Washingtonians recommending that they create emergency kits including duct tape to seal windows against pathogens and toxins.

I advise my children that there is very little danger of weapons of mass destruction being deployed, but they continue to express concern for their aunts, uncles, cousins, and family friends in Israel. They are quite avid readers of the news. Recently The Jerusalem Post reported that among the shouts of “Death to Israel” and “Death to America,” Hussein Salami, Deputy Commander of the Iranian IRGC, boasted that their “ability to destroy Israel is now better than ever,” citing 100,000 missiles in Lebanon at the ready to hit Israel.

This is the real-life background for the drama that unfolds in the latter section of my speculative fiction novel A Life Twice Given, as the Ninth of Av approaches in the year 2032. Nuclear weapons, nobody is sure how powerful, have been smuggled into DC and Tel Aviv. They will be detonated on Tisha B’Av unless Israel withdraws from Jerusalem and all occupied territories and the United States removes all troops from the Middle East and South Asia.

David G. Daniel is a psychiatrist and the author of numerous scientific papers, book chapters, and abstracts in psychiatry. He is currently touring through the JBC Network for the 2016 – 2017 season on his recent novel A Life Twice Given.

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Book Cover of the Week: Revolutionary Yiddishland

Tuesday, July 12, 2016 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Following up on last week's simple artworkon a biography of Karl Marx, let's expand the design and discourse to all of "Yiddishland":

Revolutionary Yiddishland: A History of Jewish Radicalism by Alain Brossat and Sylvia Klingberg is a journey across the Jewish socio-political movements arising out of a population of roughly 11 million in the dense archipelago of communities stretching from the Baltic Sea to Russia's western borders. Tempered by an unusual muted pink, the stylized book cover captures the energy of the history it examines: socialists, Communists, Bundists, Zionists, Trotskyists, proletariats, and intellectuals steeped in the religious traditions of their families and swept up in "the great current of revolutionary utopian thinking" of their time. An attempt to recover the rich radical history of a lost realm and working class, Revolutionary Yiddishland will be on the shelves September 2016 from Verso Books.

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How Far Would You Go to Give a Loved One Back Their Life?

Monday, July 11, 2016 | Permalink

David G. Daniel is the author of the novel A Life Twice Given. He is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Rafting on the Nenana River last week, my sixteen-year-old twins and I saw a grizzly bear chase a moose and her calf out of the woods. The mother and calf took refuge midstream near us (not cool to be that close to a moose) before clamoring up the other bank and escaping, while the bear paced on the other side.

If cornered, a moose cow will defend its calf against a bear. It sounds like poor odds, but a moose weighing a thousand pounds plus can bring its hooves down on a bear with tremendous force.

Seeing the grizzly bear pace on the opposite bank, I thought about what I would do if necessary to defend my sons from the moose or bear. Certainly I would have tried to hold off with the paddles while the twins swam to the other shore. That was a no-brainer.

But it reminded me of a more difficult question: How far would you go to give a loved or dear one back their life?

We know what our Jewish tradition tells us about grieving and honoring their memory. All losses are egregious, but faced with a particularly difficult loss, if you had the chance to bring him or her back, would you?

These were the questions my wife and I were forced to contend with when we unexpectedly lost our seven-year-old son, David, in 2004. At that time I spoke with a scientist who claimed he had taken human cloning to a multi-cell stage.

I wracked my brain over the question at the time: Should we take the risk to try to bring back our son? We assessed the odds. How credible was the scientist. Would he do it? If he did what were the chances it would work?

Tissue would have to have been preserved under very strict conditions. There were no published or credible anecdotal precedents for successfully—or unsuccessfully—cloning a human. Mammalian cloning had been done successfully but was fraught with complications. What unexpected consequences might occur? Would there be time bombs—remember Dolly the sheep? The cells would have to be washed of all the natural substances that tell it how old it is. What if the reprogramming process was imperfect? Might the cloned David age prematurely? If the fetus grew too big it could endanger Lisa. Were there other unknown dangers to the mother?

Even if the cloning process were successful David would no longer be our first born, the leader of his brothers and sister. He would be the youngest sibling of four. Lisa and I were at a very different place in our lives when David was born. Would that change him? Would he emanate the same infectious joie de vivre? Would he have memories of his past life? In some respects a memory is an electronic circuit among brain cells. Could memory be coded by genes in some respect and passed on by cloning? There are basic experiments to support this. If a flatworm is subjected to shock each time a light comes on, it will recoil to light. If you cut that worm in half, the part that grows a new head will remember to curl up to light even without ever having been shocked. This is consistent with the notion that memory can be stored outside the brain.

There was also the ethical dilemma, especially from a Jewish perspective. A few decades ago the process of in vitro fertilization was considered sketchy and the products of it referred to as “test tube” babies. Now the process is mainstream, socially acceptable and has made a difference in countless couples’ lives under the rubric of “assisted fertilization.” Maybe human cloning to bring back a loved one follow the same path to social acceptance: when twins are made, the fertilized egg, the zygote, divides, producing a genetically identical duplicate—one could argue that the process by which clones were is not so different from the process of making an identical twin.

We can rationalize the ethics of it. The real risk is medical—and perhaps moral, too: we just don’t know whether we would be doing David a favor or not. But it’s the only shot to give him his life back.

I thought of David’s laughter, the sound of his voice, I remembered him holding his sister’s hand, pointing at the moon. I recalled he had once said we should have our offices together when he grew up so we would never have to be apart.

“Lisa, what was that scientist’s name again?”

David G. Daniel is a psychiatrist and the author of numerous scientific papers, book chapters, and abstracts in psychiatry. He is currently touring through the JBC Network for the 2016 – 2017 season on his recent novel A Life Twice Given.

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New Reviews July 8, 2016

Friday, July 08, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

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The 7 Best Jewish Moments in American Sitcom History

Thursday, July 07, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Jennifer Keishin Armstrong shared 6 things she learned about Jewish culture from watching Seinfeld. With the release of her book Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything earlier this week, Jennifer is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Jewish writers, producers, and actors have been among Hollywood’s most prominent since the television industry began in the 1940s. So it’s no surprise that they eventually began to tell their own stories: the struggle to bridge traditions in marriage to non-Jews, the feeling of being outsiders, the pride in their own unique culture—and, of course, the grand Jewish tradition of turning to witty humor in dealing with it all.

Here, some of the best shows in which Jewishness took center stage:

The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77)
From 1949 to 1956, in the early days of television, The Goldbergs had been a hit—one of many that crossed over from radio. But since then, Jewish leading characters had virtually disappeared from TV as the medium grew more powerful. That changed in 1970 with The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s Rhoda—a sidekick to the main character, certainly, but a central and scene-stealing one. Played to perfection by (non-Jewish) Valerie Harper, Rhoda was a bold, funny New Yorker who’d moved to Minneapolis. She became so popular that she got her own spinoff in 1974. Only one episode during her time on Mary Tyler Moore blatantly dealt with antisemitism: In “Some of My Best Friends Are Rhoda,” Rhoda is excluded from a country club Mary’s new friend invites her to. Despite the excellent episode title, the effort comes across a little too preachy. Better are the subtle, everyday ways Rhoda’s differences come across, as when Rhoda’s parents renew their vows in front of a rabbi.

Rhoda (1974-78)
Harper’s Rhoda got her own sitcom in 1974—a big deal for single, funny, Jewish girls who’d figured the best they could do is be a sidekick. The series focused on Rhoda’s move back to her hometown of New York City, where she soon met a tall, handsome, not-at-all-Jewish divorcée named Joe. They’re soon engaged, and eight weeks into the series, they get married in an hour-long special that broke ratings records. More than 52 million people tuned in, making it the most-watched TV episode of the 1970s at the time, and the second-most-watched of all time behind I Love Lucy’s birth episode in 1953. Monday Night Football announcer Howard Cosell acknowledged the nationwide interest, welcoming viewers to the in-progress game when the episode ended on a different channel. Rhoda’s Jewishness seemed to be fading from view with her mainstream stardom—a judge, not a rabbi, presided over the small ceremony in her parents’ apartment. On the other hand, she’d achieved the heights of mainstream stardom.

Seinfeld (1989-98)
Network executives at NBC famously expressed their doubts about Seinfeld before putting it on the air: “Too New York, too Jewish.” A few years later, when the show was dominating TV ratings and watercooler conversations, many Jewish leaders debated whether it was Jewish enough. It was, for sure, far more about being a comedian in New York than about being religiously Jewish; but Jewish culture crept in at times, via foods like babka and marble rye. And once in a while, even religion came into play. Jerry and Elaine serve as godparents at a bris. A kid kisses Elaine at his bar mitzvah to celebrate “becoming a man,” prompting George to explain that she has “shiksappeal.”

Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000- )
Seinfeld co-creator Larry David explored his Jewishness much more openly on his HBO show in which he plays a version of himself. In one episode, he acts Orthodox to kiss up to the head of the kidney consortium in hopes of getting his friend bumped up on the waiting list. The Israel-Palestine dispute plays out in a Palestinian restaurant where the chicken is so good it causes some serious soul-searching for Larry. (Fun fact: Alec Berg told me that this was a storyline he had left over from his days at Seinfeld.) Larry scalps tickets for High Holy Days, goes full goy when he (mistakenly) thinks he was adopted, and invites a sex offender to a Passover seder, testing the limits of “let all who are hungry come and eat.”

Sex and the City (1998-2004)
Charlotte York, the very definition of a WASP, falls in love with her Jewish divorce lawyer, Harry Goldenblatt. When he tells her he can’t marry a non-Jew, she is, at first, incensed. Never one to back down from a challenge—particularly a romantic one—she determines to convert. But she doesn’t take the decision lightly. Soon she’s much more serious about Judaism than her future husband. She works all day to prepare a Shabbat feast, only to catch him watching a game on a nearby TV on mute during the meal.

Transparent (2014- )
It’s easy to get distracted by the showy premise—a middle-aged father, Mort, comes out as a transgender woman renamed Maura to her adult children. It’s merely a sidenote that the family at the show’s center, the Pfeffermans, are undoubtedly Jewish. Perhaps that’s why they can show their Jewishness like no TV family before them: one of Maura’s children, Sarah, plans a Jewish wedding to her girlfriend, Tammy. Another of Maura’s children, Josh, dates a female rabbi. Key scenes take place in her synagogue, including an extraordinarily extensive depiction of tashlich. And throughout family flashbacks in the second season, a connection between transgenderism and Judaism emerges: A relative, a transgender woman, stayed behind during the Holocaust because she refused to travel under her given male name.

Orange Is the New Black (2013- )
Netflix’s hit about life in a women’s prison is at least as much comedy as drama, and that was apparent in the third season’s increasingly serious story arc about prisoners pretending to be Jewish to get the (slightly) better kosher meals. In the end, one dedicated prisoner, “Black Cindy,” sincerely pursues conversion, to touching effect. “As far as God is concerned, it’s your job to keep asking questions and to keep learning and to keep arguing,” she explains of her attraction to the faith. “It’s like a verb. It’s like, you do God.” Lucky for us, Jewish writers and producers also do comedy—and they’ve made some of the best TV of all time.

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong has written about pop culture for Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times Book Review, Fast Company, New York, BBC Culture, and others. She is the author of Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, a history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and is currently touring through the JBC Network for the 2016 – 2017 season on her new book, Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything.

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Book Cover of the Week: Karl Marx, Greatness and Illusion

Tuesday, July 05, 2016 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

While the contents of a philosophy-packed biography of Karl Marx is almost certain to send my head spinning, the clean lines of its book cover are enough to set it back on straight:

Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion comes out this September from Belknap Press, condensing the life and oeuvre of one of the world's most influential intellectuals into 720 pages of history and thought. The simplicity of the book jacket's design is a great pairing for the whirlwind of information within, balanced and bold. Just don't stare at it too long—it'll make you dizzy.

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6 Things I Learned About Jewish Culture from Seinfeld

Monday, July 04, 2016 | Permalink

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong is the author of Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything, out this week from Simon & Schuster. Jennifer will be guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

I’m a Midwestern shiksa who knew exactly one Jewish person in the first 18 years of my life. I grew up in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, an overwhelmingly Irish Catholic area. Jessica Terman was a grade-school friend of mine who had to get up in front of the class every December to explain Hanukkah to the rest of us before we could get on with our Christmas-inspired projects and celebrations. Then she moved away, I think around fourth grade, so I was back to square one with my Jewish studies.

That is, until Seinfeld came along in 1989, when I was a freshman in high school. I was a huge TV geek, and within a few years, Seinfeld had grown into the kind of show so popular that essentially everyone watched—it was assumed in many circles that any person, regardless of age or religion or hometown, would get any Seinfeld reference. This was particularly funny given that NBC executives at first expressed their skepticism about Seinfeld’s potential by saying it was “too New York, too Jewish.”

Maybe it was, but I personally loved that about it. I related to the characters and thought they were funny even though they lived lives so different from my own. And throughout their nine seasons on the air, they slowly, hilariously expanded my tiny worldview to include signs of Jewish culture that went far beyond the dreidel:

1. I am a shiksa!
Yes, I know this isn’t exactly a compliment, but I so wanted to be one once I realized Elaine had shiksappeal—she spent an episode attracting Jewish men left and right, despite her non-Jewishness. Interestingly enough, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who played Elaine to such shiksaperfection, has Jewish (Alsatian) ancestry, at least on her father’s side.

2. Only Jews get to make Jewish jokes—and it is not okay to convert just for the jokes.
Jerry was very clear about this when his dentist, Tim Whatley, started making jokes after his conversion. Then suddenly Jerry was counter-accused: of being an anti-dentite.

3. Babkas sounded delicious.
Wait, these come in chocolate and cinnamon?

4. And there is also something called a marble rye?
I might mug an old lady, too, if it came to that. Seriously, I’m pretty sure I ended up with a Jewish guy because of Seinfeld’s delicious-sounding Jewish food references. And holiday feasts have yet to let me down.

5. Ah, so that’s what a mohel is.

6. Being Jewish is no sin.
A priest told Jerry so when he went to confession to tell on Tim Whatley. So at least we can all agree on that.

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong has written about pop culture for Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times Book Review, Fast Company, New York, BBC Culture, and others. She is the author of Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, a history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything.

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New Reviews July 1, 2016

Friday, July 01, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

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