bagel wrap (pt 1?)

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(N.B. The following has been slightly updated.)

Who knew bagels could be so provocative?

The Vilnius bagel party and attendant article has spawned a surprising and impressive response of breadth, profundity, and emotional vigor. I am humbled and delighted and grateful; the conversation has been fun and enlightening, highly animated and engaged, and I’m honored to host and moderate it thus far. But, as is obvious, it’s not really about bagels anymore (if it ever was): the dialogue has scurried away from appropriateness of bagels/levity in Lithuania to the exceedingly messy and entangled issues of Jewish representation, activism, existence, and the gaps and overlaps therein. This is a heartening conversation, if for no other reason than that it exists and is being propelled by young heebs. But it’s also a conversation far more complex and complicating and fraught, and one that I enter with a great deal more trepidation. This has immediate, real-life consequences for me. Bagel party dispatches are easy; explicating my feelings/thoughts on very personal and constantly-forming Jewish-selfhood and -mission is not.

I respond to no one and everyone. Much was raised, all good-intentioned, nearly all well-informed, and most with an eye to productive and meaningful dialogue. No lines were clearly drawn (Efraim vs. Everyone is a facile and silly designation), and if teams seemed to emerge, then I disavow affiliation with any, aside from what I believe to be a homologous pack of thoughtful and caring j-participants. The personal attacks on Efraim+his motivation, were, I feel, unsubstantiated and added little. Much of it, if intuition serves, was a reflexive defense of myself and Jake, and for that I am appreciative. But Efraim’s points should not be summarily dismissed simply because they were couched in an aggressive tone. (That perceived aggressiveness was, and this should have been clarified long ago, in great part due to his outsized persona in the realm of Jewish activity and activism: all comments and sentiments of his will be scrutinized, magnified, and in the process likely distorted; he’s the furthest thing possible from, say, an anonymous blogger. Like, the fact that he posted his criticism is more noteworthy than the criticism’s actual content, which upon reflection I felt to be at the very least misguided.)

But this horse is long dead, and flogging it further would be masochistic and egotistical. I feel the bagel party has been defended — if not in purpose and effectiveness, then at least in non-inappropriateness — on multiple fronts and from multiple perspectives and by multiple voices. I have little to add to this exhaustive and exhausted conversation.

But, again, it’s not about bagels; it’s about issues far more universal and, at the same time, sharply personal. Questions and topics of abstract practice and policy are daily decisions of import here. For me, it’s converging upon the following, seemingly simple proposition: I am a Jew living in Lithuania. But: Where belongs the stress? What’s the operative word? And what does it mean?

There are implied responsibilities to such an existence, of course. I am Jewish, and I am engaged in that Jewishness. My love, care, and concern for Jewish ideas/peoples/continuity/history is deeper than is usually apparent. And I am aware that, whether I like it or not, I function as Jewish representation to whatever degree wherever, let alone in the Jewish ghost town that is Vilnius. This status/responsibility is compounded by the fact that I’ve been granted the time, resources, and autonomy — plus whatever personal and professional abilities — to just maybe make something meaningful and impactful and lasting. Efraim’s frustration, regardless of its poor execution and conveyance, was thus stinging.

Okay, so I’m a Jewish activist; I am a Jew living in Lithuania. But the implication — the execution of those implied responsibilities — isn’t at all straightforward. The western periscope through which we view ongoing “injustices” from afar is luxuriously narrow. It’s easy and gratifying and rousing to talk about division of activist labor and vanquishing the evil and educating the ignorant. The cushy conferences and speeches are worthwhile and inspirational, and are often the agents of meaningful change, I’m sure. But the surety and bellicosity that define some activists — and they hoist that attitude as honorable and necessary — aren’t feasible here, while living in and among the ‘issues.’ Please notice that I’m pointedly avoiding any declamations of who or what is right. Nonetheless, the hi-def moral image, the clear demarcations of right/wrong, of heros/villains, the injustices and evil and the political and social and artistic solutions, are a lot more pixellated and fuzzy from up close. The narratives here (and everywhere) are twisted and nonlinear and resist any neat western assessment.

I am a Jew living in Lithuania.

Ethnic and cultural minorities will and maybe even should view history through their x-centric lenses, but this is never justification for myopia. Raising awareness and effecting change are not automatically on the same trajectory of effort. It takes foresight, and, more importantly, sensitivity to engage meaningfully on foreign lands. Strategy, really. Rallying cries of injustice and evil often reach the ears of the accused as rhetorical bludgeoning. It alienates.

Emphatically: Non-alienation isn’t obeisance or appeasement, let alone forgiveness. Any advocation for unearned forgiveness or unfounded and hollow reconciliation is confused, potentially dangerous, and serves to undermine a great deal. This is not my beef. Efraim, I’m honored to even be participating in such a dialogue. Jewish advocates the world over, I salute you.

The argument can and has been made — even if implicitly — that consideration of alienation doesn’t/shouldn’t enter the activist equation. An injustice is present, an evil is flourishing, and we shall mobilize and vanquish/uproot. Is this is the good and proper way to effecting change? Perhaps: people do notice, and sometimes care. But systems, structures, and populations are defined by, respectively, inertia, establishment, and pride, all of which are informed by history. It’s easy to forget — and easier to never realize — just how unintelligible and strange our historical emhpases, our focused narratives, are to others. It’s not alienation, then, that’s the main concern — it’s irrelevance.

I am a Jew living in Lithuania. I teach students. I regularly interact with people of influence in various social circles. I’m here on a prestigious and very American grant. If my Jewish activism isn’t ‘soft’ — and I use the word stripped of all pejorative and inferior connotations —  then I’m not only pretty much guaranteeing ineffectiveness w/r/t to anything Jewish, I’m rendering myself fairly worthless. A bagel party, against this backdrop, is kind of perfect.

A ‘versus’ paradigm (I think I may be echoing Jake here) has defined the players in the ongoing Lithuanian Jewish issues: Friends or Enemies (sometimes also cowards, usually as a subset of enemies). I’ve already been called prejudiced and a coward (two separate instances/accusers). I predict that I’ll be labeled an enemy by somebody or other within the next little while, though the most radical and polarizing thing I’ve done is boil, bake, and serve some bagels. I don’t understand the origins or intricacies of this yelling match yet, or at least not well enough to muster the confidence to pass judgment. But Jewish activism concerning these issues, both here and abroad, is unwieldy and undiplomatic and has largely been ineffective beyond earning notoriety.

Jewish activism isn’t a binary proposition; and the question to engage can’t be framed by a ‘whether.’ Even the recognition of issues, or at least their scope, isn’t straightforward or unanimous. And the ‘battles’ can’t operate under any assumed definition — nothing here is nearly that simple.

This much is simple. I will continue to exist and learn and teach and represent in Vilnius. I will have fun. Some of my activities and writing will have to do with my Jewishness and the Jewishness in and behind and under Vilnius. Some won’t. I will be lonely sometimes. I will be proud of my Jewishness. I will share that pride, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. I will make friends. I will have an effect. I am not an island. I will reflect before acting and acknowledge that this is a country that knows not how I fit in. I am a Jewish activist in the cleanest sense of the word. I seek not to aggravate but understand when it might be necessary. I may make bagels again. Above all, I hope.

Maybe: I am a Jew living in Lithuania.

Written by menachemkaiser

10 November at 17:47

Posted in bagel, rants

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