Archive for the ‘bagel’ Category

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

the infinite bagel

with one comment

Again, I’ve been Baltic-hopping the last week, so this site got a little stale. Sorry. Two new comments on bagelgate: Mitch commented on Lindsey’s response (I’m not posting this one just yet); and K.S. Keys, an American living in Vilnius for some time, wrote what’s below. Again, I stress that I do not endorse nor necessarily agree with any posted material not written by me.

Efraim, I’m sorry I missed the bagel party, and I believe you were reacting more to the article than the bagel gathering. Even then, your tone was snide and condescending, but “descending” from where — your slant on your mission, which survives on polarization and the industry of guilt more than reconciliation and justice. The genocide museum has an unfortuntate name and it should be changed — this was a reaction soon after independence. Devoid of reference to the Holocaust — ignorant, but it is really a KGB Museum. Though I haven’t recently visited the Holocaust Museum here in Vilnius (about a year ago and I was not taking notes on references), I doubt there is much if any reference to the genocide of the Lithuanians, their gulag. Yes, this quarrel goes both ways. And genocide is not owned by any one tribe, though Efraim you might propose an auction, and probably you would be the highest bidder, raising the most funds. Everyone likes to use the word “obfuscation” these days. I once edited and co-translated a tome of a book on Jews and the Lithuanians who helped save them, albeit a small minority of Lithuanians. Often, all sides were quite simple people but they did feel some pride in what they had done…..the book is full of commentary. And I have heard this book referred to as an obfuscation.I don’t think so, but given that logic, one could say that some of the Holocaust Industry is a convenient obfuscation of Israel’s policies in occupied Palestine, Gaza, Jerusalem, etc. It keeps the guilt active and thus mollifies the outrage at current policies.

The discussion could go on, but I believe you showed your true colors, Efraim, even more so in your second response to the bagel incident. Did you send spies to watch over Jake and Menachem? Come on, have a bagel with some Lithuanian cream cheese from the market. There is little room for humor in this engagement and discourse but you should brighten up and have a dozen whiskeys with Jake, Dovid Katz, and the rest of us. I was introduced to you once at a social gathering, and you glowed hatred. Your mission is honorable but you are going about it in the wrong way. Stupidly or stubbornly, I don’t know.

Written by menachemkaiser

5 November at 13:05

Posted in bagel, rants

lindsey responds

with 3 comments

(N.B. The following was written by Lindsey B., in response to the ongoing bagel debate. Lindsey, as she describes herself, is a lawyer at some jewish organization, a freelance human rights activist, and a chronic time-waster, inter alia. For the record, as there’s been some confusion, I do not necessarily endorse the comments that I post. And though I agree with a great deal of what has been said and what is below, my opinion is far from perfectly aligned with the commenters’. I’ll throw my one and one cents in when I get a chance. )

I too prefer to avoid the language of conflict when possible, and I agree with much of what’s been said, by all, actually. I am going to tease out a few additional points and, where there is no way around it, I will state my incongruent opinions.

Let’s start here: I do not think the disagreement about whether and how to engage in battles about atrocities committed in the past (and perpetuated today) is inherently generational. It is not an act of vindictive revenge to seek out a murderer and bring him to justice. Rather it is an evenhanded pursuit (though no actor is without personal motivations, prejudices, etc), an attempt to begin to right a wrong, restore balance, and honor a victim. So much more so when the victim is a nation of people, decimated. There is no statute of limitations legally, and more importantly, morally, for murder.

But would it, at some point, be more prudent to forgive, or “focus on reconciliation,” and begin anew, recognizing a New Country, moving beyond 20th century atrocities? There are those who say yes, but I don’t think it is a generational position, just one that comes with lack of identification with said atrocities or, probably and hopefully, any atrocities. That is to say, we aren’t smarter or more evolved, we are just the products of our limited experiences. Of course, limited personal experience doesn’t invalidate an opinion. However.

The “let’s move on already” POV is simplistic and more significantly, unproductive, as it fails to foster peace and reconciliation. There is no peace without justice. There is no justice if there is no acknowledgment. Or worse. It is my understanding that M and J did not put on the bagel event as a way of moving on or glossing over the past. That would be deplorable, but a bagel event was not, as clarified repeatedly by the event planners, meant to be (or perceived by participants to be) some larger statement (of forgiveness).

Moving on and forgiving are not really options anyway, because forgiveness is not theirs or ours to give. As Simon Wiesenthal posits, only the victim can forgive. This impotence is frustrating, but that doesn’t change the reality.

Forgiveness has its limitations anyway.

But even if we could and should reconcile (and I think we can’t really and shouldn’t probably), there remains the problem of who may receive forgiveness; 65 plus years removed, most people in Lithuania are no longer the direct perpetrators of the crimes of the Holocaust. However, because of history, government policies, and to some limited extent, individual choice, there is a lack of recognition of the commission, scale, and nature of the murder of the Lithuanian Jewish population by the Nazis and Lithuanian citizenry. There are still battles to be fought, evil (not to be dramatic, sorry) to be uprooted.

The choices are whether to fight these battles and how to do so. The whether—that is a matter of personal affiliation and choice—and I’ll venture out on a limb and say that it strikes me as wrong, morally corrupt and intellectually lazy, to actively decide not to engage in any way. The how—for those that choose to think and weigh in—is about division of labor. People fight injustice by learning and disseminating information, volunteering, Nazi hunting, creating art, involving themselves politically, or supporting efforts of others financially and otherwise, etc etc. The how list is endless. To argue that discourse of this sort is only effective or most effective through art versus politics is silly. Change and revolution can be from the top down or bottom up but most often they happen in steps, little by little from everywhere.

So do what can, choose, and do best.

Tirelessly pursing the worst of criminals is certainly an admirable and necessary way to fight this battle. Thank you Efraim and others for dedicating your lives to this daunting task. But, and this has been said, throwing an event quietly showcasing some portion of modern American Jewish culture spawned from lost Lithuanian Jewish culture does not thwart those efforts; rather, it acts to buttress them.

Whose fault is it that the Lithuanian public doesn’t know or understand its own history? The government’s? Yes. Each individual? Maybe to some degree. But it probably doesn’t do much good to point accusatory fingers; I agree with Jake on this point. Since you are not trying to make change on a macro-policy-government level, but rather by interacting with, learning from and about, and making art for/about/with the Lithuanian, native or otherwise, and expat populations, blame probably should not be a centerpiece of the discussion. It sort of misses the point.

I think there is more to be said here about how to relate to, perhaps understandably and blamelessly, an ignorant population. Absolution of fault aside, the prevailing way of thinking and/or lack of orientation of the population on these issues, is still dangerous and should be challenged, otherwise discourse will be stunted at best. And no one wants that.

There is a limit to which one can engage with someone who remains a product of his or her surroundings to the extent that he or she buys into (knowingly or not), or fails to opt out of what are ultimately bigoted and ignorant beliefs. It may be valuable to have friends who see the world through different lenses, but when they disagree about fundamental issues of human dignity, rights, etc, WHY they do is less important (in a close relationship anyway) than the simple fact THAT they do. (From an advocacy standpoint, the why becomes strategically important; we cannot work to change viewpoints if we don’t understand them nor can we stem any tides unless we trace the ripples of ignorance to their source.)

That said, friendship, work, and even casual encounters, especially as the only American Jews some Lithuanians will spend time with, can be potent antidotes to ignorance, powerful vehicles for education and change. Hopefully we (you) wear those identities well rather than leaving the unacquainted with something unsavory, or a neutral encounter, which in my opinion is a wasted opportunity.

I understand that you do not choose to be activists in a traditional sense, so you wear those labels a bit uncomfortably. You may want to just be, rather than always be The Jew, connected to and representing something both grand and marginalized, spanning history and the globe. However, by going someplace like Lithuania, with its past, current climate, and supersmall Jewish population, that’s the burden you carry irrespective of whether that’s fair. We are looking to you as representatives, as are Lithuanians, I’m pretty sure. You can’t disrobe. Or you can, but as you note, that too is a statement, not the absence of one. As you say Jake, you are who you are and who you’re perceived to be, fair or not. And much more so when you throw a bagel party.

My understanding of the bagel event was that it was putting a positive, lighthearted spin on probably un- or ill-formed opinions about American Jewry and Jews generally. This certainly isn’t harmful. I think it is great—and changing or augmenting people’s impressions of Jews through food and togetherness is fun and fantastic.

Finally, flowing from fun and fantastic: The discussion about whether all kinds of levity are appropriate in all places, I think, is a valid one, though I am not going to concede quickly that life can or should be lived joylessly. When, where, how, and with whom factor in. Does that mean one cannot smile in Lithuania? I think not. And in this case, a bagel party is a fine time to do so. (M and J did not host Hug-a-Jew day, the appropriateness of which would have been…objectionable.) Also on happiness, let’s note that productivity—immaterial almost, how you measure or define it—is not necessarily diminished by having fun. This event doesn’t prevent anyone, the Fulbrighters in question included, from other “substantive” work, though for the reasons stated by others and now in my comments, I don’t see why anyone would discount this event and interaction with the Lithuanian community as devoid of substance.

The end.

Written by menachemkaiser

28 October at 09:17

Posted in bagel, rants

bagelgate recap

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Okay, some people aren’t totally following, so here’s a handy recap. I wrote about our little bagel brouhaha in VilniusEfraim Zuroff commented, Jake counter-commented, and I penned an open letter. Efraim Zuroff responded to that letter. I responded to Efraim’s response. Jake wrote a much better response. And Mitchell chimed in.

I’m going to have a faq tomorrow to wrap this up.

Written by menachemkaiser

26 October at 23:05

Posted in bagel, rants

mitchell’s response

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(N.B. Mitchell L commented the following comment on this post. I’m going to repost any comments that I feel valuable. Many have sent me insightful/touching/funny/outrageous emails that definitely deserve to be read; however, those were personal messages, and not of my business to publicly post. If you’d like to weigh in — and please do — either post a comment, or shoot me an email with permission.)

Mitchell responds

I can’t help but revel when the younger man is the more adult, but actually I think this is due to something Efraim alluded to. There really is a generational gap and it goes much deeper than an appreciation for levity, electronic noises in our music, or some kind of misconstrued “alibi”.

There aren’t many progressive minded young people, Efraim, who would wear the title of “hunter” so comfortably or brazenly as you do. Most people who study genocides today are keen on the notion of reconciliation and are not eager to go hunting even criminal human beings. I don’t mean to discount your truly noble efforts of bringing some of the worst criminals in history to justice, or for feeling angry when those efforts are being stymied, or even opposed, today. I wish you the best on your mission and as a Jew whose family died, like yours, in Lithuania, I cannot tell you how important I feel it is. But what I do mean to question is your feelings toward people, culture and practicality against the rather intangible and sometimes starkly unjust notion of justice. I believe even you would agree that the Nuremberg trials had a limit, and that sometimes, although incredibly painful, it is necessary to let someone “get away” with murder or at least complicity and allow for healing.

That said, is the discourse of double-genocide a dangerous and very real problem? Of course it is and Lithuania has been especially disturbing in their lack of confrontation (bordering on outright denial) of their own heavy involvement in the mass murder of Jews (just see the rhetoric of a commenter on your most recent response). Have the the people of Lithuania in any way dealt with their responsibility as they should have? Does a genocide museum devoid of reference to the Holocaust in the country with the highest kill rate in Europe disgust any self-respecting Jew? The answers to these questions are obvious for anyone who cares to look into them. And there is a long difficult fight for recognition of the uniqueness of the Holocaust, just as there is for the suffering of countless others across history and today (including, notably in this case, that of Lithuanians under Soviet/Russian rule). But sometimes fighting as passionately (and, if I may say, angrily) as you do, is not the only, or even the best way to climb this mountain. And I dare say it is not the way of my brother or Menachem.

Given your extensive involvement in these kinds of issues, is it really so wrong to have ANY kind of healing event, even if it seems trivial from afar and is run by two rather goofy gentlemen? Are you really so opposed to reopening the dialog by any means available? I call again for you to answer Menachem, what is the harm in breaking Jewish bread where our ancestors did for centuries? Rather than use informants to question their activities (re: “kids these days don’t care about anything!”), why not use your obvious plethora of local contacts to assist these two in their research (or even help shape it)?

Lives are full of inconsistencies and hypocrisies and dare I say it, yours is no exception Efraim. You are the last Nazi hunter, perhaps out of duty to our families or perhaps because you are angry and want some kind of revenge. But given your involvement in Rwanda’s post-genocide efforts, and as far as I know, no new title of genocidaire (certainly not French special forces) hunter, can you really say what you do is out of unflinching principle?

I stress again that what you do is quite admirable in a lot of ways and I feel obliged to thank you for your work in human rights in whatever way you found fit. It is no easy task and you’ve done more than most. But I hope, perhaps naively, that it is not the way of my generation; that we might strive for a more universal, reconciling, and frankly preventative way of mourning the death of innocents. I hope you can appreciate that as much as we respectfully appreciate your work.

Written by menachemkaiser

26 October at 22:50

Posted in bagel, rants

being a jew in vilnius

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(N.B. The following was written by Jake Levine, the other bageler and fellow fulbrighter. Also available at picklebus.comClick here for the impetus.)

You can’t just be a Jew in Vilnius. You are a political thread in a tangled ball of the collective memory— the remembrance of what is and what was Lithuania. You just want to make bagels and write some poems, but writing poems in Vilnius is asking the bricks in the Jewish ghetto if you have ever had a reason to take a stand against anything, realizing you were never trained to do this— inhabit the disaster, where trial and error is a practice where the inevitable outcome has always been error. Making bagels has implications you never imagined as you are on the radar, as a scholar, and apparently are due harsh criticism from the leaders of your people and your own community. That’s what it is to live inside Eastern Europe, inside the eternal return, as a Jew, you are always on trial, always returning, and you hope to be the first non-error. This condition is the entire country, more, the whole of Eastern Europe— Lithuania, my current country, which, for the first time, is a democratic European country with a Lithuanian majority that speaks Lithuania. It is a liminal space where my identity inhabits this borderless and timeless space, a place where you can’t help feeling, not being of here, like a fragmented version of yourself.

As for the country— was Lithuania, the idea of Lithuania, swallowed up by Poles, Byelorussians, Jews, Gypsies? I think this is the primary question for nationalists and historical revisionists who pointedly portray Lithuania in a homogenized fashion. This ideologically shaped scope of history is not unbeknownst to myself or any other individual of intelligent merit. But what is left of an earlier,  Lithuania, the Lithuania of my Litvak family, when a city like Vilnius is only more or less inhabited only by Lithuanians? It is a new Lithuania. Vilnius, a capital without a Lithuanian majority in the scope of history, that history belonging to the various national and ethnic groups that inhabited it— my family, and their deaths, the death of their history ground into the dirt of Ponary, pummeled into pavement in the ghetto, and compressed into an abstract version of what life was like on the sorry and various plaques that line the old city’s winding streets. It is a deadened history, being resuscitated slowly by some here, of a fallen time. Making bagels was, although a minor aspect of that culture, also a part of that legacy. Not an attempt to preserve, but a minor step to re-inherit a lost culture, a lost people.

There are few of us here who are left to keep Jewish Vilnius, but Jewish Vilnius is everywhere. A half eroded star of David like a scar in the bricks of a nearby building, a scar in the consciousness of “new” Lithuania. The “new” Lithuania, or at least what I perceive to be the government’s idea of it, is fueled on nationalism and the ideological blotting of history before 1991. The country is very much still proud of its independence, visible in most major Lithuanian spots of interest. Talking to most educated young people here, they are frustrated with the government’s propulsion of politics still stuck in moorings of the fight and victory of independence. Russia is still very much the enemy and Jews, I believe, are still very much associated with Russia in the social conscience. American Jews who seek nothing more than cultural understanding, to integrate our way of life in this society, to mediate a safe place for us to engage in discourse, find a sustainable relationship on an individual basis, is not a wrong or stab at what Efraim Zuroff or Dovid Katz are trying to accomplish.

When you walk with your Lithuanian friends past the building with the star, few of them know it is here, this ghetto. You can’t blame them. You can only blame their education, their government, which does not consider Jewish Lithuania, the Jewish history of Lithuania, or the Jews who lived in Lithuania. It is something governmental then, but I am no politician. Or is it a focal point, that the “new” Lithuania builds its citizenry in the vein of denying its Jews— a history with purified blood.  I am a poet. In my mind, in my work, it is more ethical to write of and about, not directly at those responsible for the further smearing of past blood, the obfuscation and inconsideration of the loss of an entire people and their culture. Whether it is still my culture or my place to be of is an everyday struggle. I certainly am more American than I am representative of the culture and traditions of my Litvak ancestry. Highly secularized— agnostic even, I am after all, what I am. I do not consider myself an innocent, completely unaware, as Efraim Zuroff has taken me (although I can’t understand how he came to these conclusions). I do think.

The idea and debate about “double genocide” or genocide relativism is the most frightening and horrific display of moral ignorance in regard to the remembrance of the suffering of human beings that I’ve ever personally come across. The intellectual squabbling that goes on concerning the politics of the history of atrocity in Lithuania in the 20th century drives at the heart of the cultural and political insensitivity that paved the way for the disasters committed in this region in the first place. The whole episode is being conducted in an Us versus Them paradigm that is hinged on the power of division. A unified and peaceful future requires sensitivity and a lack of prejudice in regards to singular atrocities conducted by different and very separate oppressive regimes and their cohorts.  The argument concerning history in this country has devolved into a game of who is the bigger victim; Jews or the victims of Stalinism (never mind gypsies, Polish, Byelorussian, homosexual, etc..). Jewish advocates have now begun participating in the same act of genocide equivocation (obfuscation) which they are trying to oppose, that is, they are engaging in discourse that uses the rhetoric of genocide equivocation, the rhetoric of our “loss” is bigger or “equal” to “your” loss. This is anathema to progressive and educated discourse, one which can imagine and invent solutions to the biggest problems concerning historical and present insensitivities concerning Jewish issues in Lithuania. This has nothing, if little to do with the conversation regarding remembering Lithuanian suffering during the U.S.S.R or during WWII. They should be discussed as complete and separate issues. I see no place for myself to engage in an argument whose language I don’t comprehend or agree with.

The old dogma concerning, and I quote Efraim Zuroff, of “which side of the fence you are on” requires a fence. I’m from Arizona. We have a big fence there. I can tell you, it doesn’t work.

The new ideology of a progressive world, as I see it, requires the deterritorialization of national and ethnic boundaries in regards to how we interpret individual and collective human suffering. The deconstruction of fencing, artificial boundaries that limit movement between peoples requires positive cultural projects made to bridge the gap of what are, in my mind, invisible borders that divide us as human beings. The largest difference, and why I think Efraim has a problem with me (although I see no reason for him personally attacking me, particularly as I have not written anything) is because of my posture. It is my greatest interest and inherent in my work, that I am interested in the future of remembering the history of the polyglossic and diverse city of Vilnius, the city which made life for my family possible for centuries. The bagel project, to me, in no way obscures, deters, or prohibits the political initiatives set out by Jewish leaders in regard to the government’s disreputable history in concordance with Jewish issues. Lithuania is my home, at least for a year. To Efraim, Dovid, and others, at least in the media, Lithuania is a battleground. Although I consider myself to be in their corner, ideologically, I can’t inhabit that same consciousness, can’t undermine my prejudice for hope; the possibility that there are those here that are unaware of the situation who have the capacity to sympathize and understand the plight of Litvaks. I have faith that reform takes place first in a culture, secondly in politics. I took an oath to my vocation that the power of culture and art can save people. This precludes me from engaging in this battle or any war. For this, I do not apologize.

The biggest challenge is that I don’t get the impression, politically or socially, that Lithuania wants me to be Lithuanian on account that I am a Jewish American of Litvak heritage. But I can only have hope that this will change.

Written by Jake Levine

25 October at 21:49

Posted in bagel, rants

re re open letter to efraim zuroff

with 3 comments

In case you’re just joining us now: Last week, I wrote an article about a bagel party we threw in Vilnius; Efraim Zuroff commented, Jake counter-commented, and I penned an open letter; and, last night, Efraim responded.

(N.B. I goofily misspoke when I first posted Efraim’s response — I did not mean to say it was ‘presumptuous.’ I meant, and this is an embarrassing SATish error, ‘presumptive.’ That is to say: his response was not inappropriate or outside the boundaries of good taste and class, but was, rather, riddled with presumptions and suppositions.)

Dear Efraim,

Firstly, thank you for responding. Again, I would like to emphasize how much I respect and admire your lifetime of achievement, and that I appreciate the input and criticism, even if I disagree with a large chunk of it, and even if I was initially very taken aback by the tone, etc. And there is no need to apologize, even if you were so inclined  — I am not at all offended, and view this all as valid and valuable discourse.

To the meat (lox?) of the issue: the bagel party. I’m willing to concede that I may have oversold it, over-stressed its importance and significance; the article did have a whiff of breathless self-congratulation. Yeah, in the scheme of things, it probably doesn’t matter. It almost certainly won’t change anything. There was no dialogue that you would consider legitimate (or not “phony”). But was it, as you maintain, “inane”? I still don’t think so. You upgraded your criticism of the event in question from ‘not meaningful’ (in your comment) to something a bit more vicious (in your last response). But again, because I really am mystified, what’s the harm? Is there something — and I ask sincerely — wrong or dangerous inherent in a Lithuanian bagel party? The interactions between ourselves and the Lithuanians, before, during and after the party — much of it concerning Holocaust-101 stuff, like the extent of Lithuanian involvement  — is, to me at least, of some value. And it came about through the preparation and staging of the bagel party. That alone, I feel, redeems it. My article was only meant as a cute and entertaining dispatch on what was widely agreed to be a cute and entertaining event. Perhaps the article itself, as opposed to the event, is what’s upsetting you? If so, I apologize; it was, I assure you, a tricky piece to write, and I had to dance around several touchy issues. Your comment was therefore valuable in that it listed the “terrible problems facing Lithuania Jewry” that I, for editorial reasons, could not. What we found strange — and perhaps this was unintentional on your part — was that you couched it in fairly personal language.

Prof. Dovid Katz, btw, the tireless crusader you refer to, attended the bagel party, and by the looks of it, thoroughly enjoyed himself. The LSI, Katz’s organization and arguably the primary home and disseminator of criticism of Lithuanian Jewish issues, sponsored (nominally) the event. We have received nothing but support and encouragement from everyone else; this includes some who are very dedicated to those “terrible problems.”

True, you didn’t say it was dangerous or wrong; you said it was “inappropriate.” This is, I feel, probably the crux of any constructive disagreement between us. I would very much like to hear why you think this is so — I’m not ready to dismiss your opinion out of hand, but I’ll admit I don’t understand it. You know a great deal more than I about the politics and workings and history of Lithuania. To me, a bagel party is, at the very least, innocent and fun. I’m open to be convinced otherwise. We were, obviously, not out to make light of any issues. Please, if you feel that we nonetheless inadvertently diminished or undermined anyone’s efforts or campaigns, tell me.

I wish I could end here, but you seem to hinge a lot of your judgment on the bagel party on your judgment of me and my activities here. I admit I find this a little uncomfortable, and am unsure why issues cannot be evaluated on their own merits. Nevertheless, you do make some pointed accusations that deserve a response; allow me to correct some mis- and pre-conceptions.

My pride of my name and its origins notwithstanding, it’s best not to presuppose any affiliations, affinities, associations, or alliances on any nominative basis; they will more often than not be incorrect.

I came to Lithuania with a detailed and painstakingly-prepared proposal that was, upon arrival, clearly worthless. It also had nothing to do with the ongoing Jewish/Holocaust issues; I was completely ignorant of those until a few weeks ago. I’ve had to continually reassess where, exactly, to put my effort and time and figure out what my project will look like. I’m still learning about the issues. My point is, I’m not yet fully on your ‘team’ — I don’t know enough yet. I need time. Some of the tactics and rhetoric, admittedly, make me uncomfortable. All I’m saying is that I’m approaching this cautiously.

Here’s my bigger point: I’m here first and foremost as a writer/journalist, and I have no commitment to engage in this highly political discussion, or raise awareness, or to be an activist of any sort. “Contemporary Jewish issues,” how I too-hastily described my studies in my one-line bio, does not  mean Holocaust obfuscation and the like. Whatever I choose to do in this sphere is of my own personal decision, and is outside of my original undertaking. I’m not saying it’s not important. It is, obviously; but I am saying that your suggestion that I’m ignoring my Fulbright mission and wasting my time is unfounded, wrong, and mildly insulting. Further, you claim your wrongheaded assessment comes from “local sources,” your “research” into what we are “up to.” This is kind of ludicrous. Aside from being false (I can’t believe I’m about to list this: I’ve visited Ponary, the network of Jewish museums, multiple tours of the ghetto, local professors, local politicians, Dovid Katz, the troubling Vilnius museums, engaged in prolonged discussion with LSI regarding its mission and implementation, etc; plus fairly intensive reading and studying), it also very much beside the point. (It’s also peculiar that someone can presume, even with the best-informed local contacts, to extensively know a month’s worth of activities and research.) Because, as mentioned, this isn’t my project. (This goes doubly for Jake.) I’m involved with several universities on programs and classes unrelated to these issues; I’m writing multiple essays and articles that have nothing to do with this. I’m traveling. I’m teaching creative writing and Old Testament. Etcetera etcetera. The point isn’t to defend my productivity here — I don’t have to do that — but to reiterate that your dismissal of my time and effort is curt indeed. As is your implication that I’m “part of the problem.” Again, if you strongly believe that I should devote the entirety of my resources to these problems, then that is a worthwhile discussion. I’d be very appreciative to hear how you feel I should use this very special opportunity I’ve been given.

Lastly, the bagel party was indeed a blast. I do not have to apologize for having fun.

Written by menachemkaiser

24 October at 21:56

Posted in bagel, rants

efraim zuroff reads my blog!

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Efraim Z responded to my open letter.

Dear Menachem,

Sha’vua tov. I’m assuming you know what that phrase means, which goes to the heart of the matter. Perhaps if your name had been Oliver Phillips or some other WASPy variation thereof, I never would have responded to your article in Tablet. It was your name that implied some sort of commitment, affiliation, support, and/or empathy for what people like Prof. Dovid Katz, Rachel Constanian and myself have been trying to do in Lithuania since independence. (Is that you cursing out your parents’choice of Menachem in the background?) Your name means “comforter” and carries with it, some sort of promise. Instead, what we read about is some inane exercise in engagement of locals in fressing traditional Jewish fare under the guise of some sort of phony dialogue.

Whom do you think you are kidding? Not yourselves, since as Fulbright scholars you certainly are too savvy to fall for such drivel. After reading your piece, I decided to do some research with local sources to try and figure out what you guys are up to and whether you were part of the problem or part of the solution?

Lo and behold, there hadn’t been any sightings at the local Jewish sites of interest and/or importance. In other words, it appeared that rather than seriously delving into the issues you guys were apparently primarily out to have a good time and enjoy the local social scene.

In that case, the question is whether today’s Lithuania is the place for such fun and games? My sense is that the country is hardly an appropriate setting, given not only its Holocaust past, but it’s current policies, hence my sour comment on your bagel project.

I could apologize for “offending” you or give you the alibi that it’s a generational misunderstanding, but I don’t feel honest doing so. I can only hope that by the end of your sojourn in Vilna, you will have produced something more meaningful than bagels and learned enough to understand the source of my angst.

I mean, wow. That was a little bit mean, and more than a little presumptuous presumptive. Bagels can inspire a lot of passion, clearly.

Response TK.

Written by menachemkaiser

24 October at 12:48

Posted in bagel, rants

an open letter to efraim zuroff

with 9 comments

So. Nestled among the innocent, carefree, goodwishing comments to the bagel piece is this:

In the light of all the terrible things happening to the small local Jewish community and the ongoing efforts of the Lithuanians to hide or minimize their extensive complicity in Holocaust crimes and their government-funded campaign to relativize the Holocaust by falsely equating it with the crimes of Communism, one would imagine that two obviously-intelligent Jewish Fulbright scholars in Lithuania to study contemporary Jewish issues would be able to come up with something more meaningful than reintroducing Lithuanians to bagels.

This was written by one Efraim Zuroff (unless there’s some very weird and motivation-less impersonation going on, in which case, the following is addressed solely to the content of the comment). EZ is a renowned Nazi-hunter and a tireless advocate for Jews and Jewish interests worldwide; I have only the deepest admiration of him — his comment is sort of like a punch from your favorite celebrity.

Jake replied.

Efraim, obviously I am aware of contemporary Lithuanian political rhetoric and its obfuscation of the Holocaust, double-genocide theory, and the historical bleaching of Jewish history in this country, and am keenly interested in raising public awareness to this issue. Considering local Lithuanians have very little interaction with Jews from any part of the world, I would think that a popular Jewish cultural resurgence would be a positivist approach to making Jewish presence felt again in this city, and by proxy, would raise public interest in contemporary Jewish topics / politics. I am sorry that you don’t agree.

I’m quoting this in full because I can’t hope to say it better; but, at the risk of mild redundancy, I will expand.

There are very serious ongoing Jewish- and Holocaust-related issues in Lithuania — Efraim is painfully correct on that point. We are increasingly aware and troubled by these, and like everyone else involved/concerned, are dedicated to publicizing the problem, and finding some sort of resolution.

But none of this detracts from the purpose, effectiveness, and all-around kickassness of the  bagel party. Let’s, for just a second, grant Efraim’s implication (which is stone dead wrong) that this is nothing more than serving a bunch of Lithuanians some decent lox n’ cream cheese bagels. My question, then, which I’ll put in words easily and quickly understood, is: SO WHAT. We are not undermining anyone’s efforts of “significant” Jewish activism. We have not dedicated every waking hour to making bagels. We have not ignored our Fulbright mandates (indeed, this is, dare I say, a fantastically successful implementation and example of the Fulbright’s misison of meaningful cross-cultural communication). We have been in Lithuania for just over a month; the issues Efraim refers to are complicated, nuanced, and extraordinarily political — allow me, please, to gain some fluency in the matters before I chain myself to any gate.  Really, it’s not clear to me what criticism can be levied at something as innocent and fun as a bagel party.

But — and here I return to what Jake stated so eloquently above — a bagel party in Lithuania is obviously not just a bagel party. I’m not sure this came across in the article, but: for most people there, this was the only real engagement with Jewish issues they’ve ever had. The kids here don’t know or don’t care, and this is an unacceptable tragedy. But those English op-eds and essays — which are very very important, if slightly agitated — aren’t read by this crowd; and the heavyhanded activism is completely ignored or, worse, detested. How do you convince somebody in an argument he doesn’t know he’s having? If there has been in recent years a more successful Lithuanian Jewish event that attracted and interested non-Jews, I’m unaware of it. I’m fairly confident that had we thrown a Holocaust-obfuscation roundtable, the turnout wouldn’t be quite so robust. We haven’t kidded ourselves that we’ve solved the country’s problems by baking and serving some bagels; we just believe that it’s a meaningful and fun and quietly powerful entry.

Come on — aren’t bagels a pretty darn good way to open a dialogue? To give people a forum to ask, to wonder, maybe even to reflect? To meet normal, young, American Jews who are proud of their Jewishness, and who want to share that pride? To encounter something Jewish that’s readily digestible and agreeable and apolitical, unlike the anti-Semitism, the anti-anti-Semitism, the anti-anti-anti-Semitism, etc.?

Mr. Zuroff, these Vilnius bagels are, at the very least, harmless — and they just might be actually revolutionary.

Written by menachemkaiser

19 October at 23:09

Posted in bagel, rants

bagels bagels bagels

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We had an enormous bagel party this weekend, and Tablet was kind enough to let me talk about it. There are lots of wonderful photos that couldn’t fit over there, so I’ll post those later today.

Written by menachemkaiser

19 October at 14:42

Posted in bagel, rants