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The Istanbul skyline, with the 15th c. Galata Tower in the center.

I decided to do just a little traveling before returning to the US from Japan. This was my first time in Turkey, and wrote a first draft of the following:

For these whole five or six days in Istanbul, I’ve been mulling over what my impressions of the city are. Is Istanbul a European city? Or an Asian/Middle Eastern city? A secular city, or a fairly orthodox/religious theocratic city where I need to be concerned about accidentally offending? A relatively free and safe city, or should I be worried about the recent coup, protests, and creeping authoritarianism? Further, thinking historically, should I be looking around and thinking about the medieval/early modern Ottoman city? the Byzantine Eastern Roman one? late 19th or early 20th century Ottoman modernity? There are certainly plenty of buildings and monuments from across history to remind us of each of these periods, each of these aesthetics.

Sadly, there was some sort of conservation work going on in the Hagia Sophia when we visited, and half of it was off-limits.

The Roman and Eastern Roman is seen everywhere, well, at least in the historical/tourist center of the city, the Sultanahmet area. The Hagia Sophia was of course originally built by the Romans, and is full of Eastern Roman mosaics and so forth. The area immediately outside the Hagia Sophia was, in fact, a Roman hippodrome, an area for racing horses, and it contains several Egyptian obelisks erected there by the Romans.

Then there is the Ottoman side of things, with tons of mosques, and all sorts of other elements and aspects. All over the city, we saw shops that date back to Ottoman times, and bits and pieces here and there of historical sites or markers or other things suggesting the history of the Ottomans as one of the world’s great empires, engaged in diplomatic interactions with the Great Powers of the rest of the world. A fountain associated with Kaiser Wilhelm, located in that former hippodrome, is just one of many such sites. I’m told there’s some Japanese building somewhere in the city as well, though I haven’t come across it.

The Kılıç Ali Pasha mosque, designed/built in the 1580s by Mimar Sinan, who also designed the Suleiman Mosque and hundreds of other famous structures across Turkey and beyond.

The Ottoman aspect of the city also connects in to the maritime, Mediterranean, aspect. A major mosque we keep passing (as it’s right by one of the main tram stations) is named after Kilic Ali Pasha, a 16th century admiral of the Ottoman navy who was originally from Italy and converted to Islam. The Galata Tower, one of the most iconic sights in the city, was built by the Genoese and while I’m not truly expert at architectural history, it did indeed strike me as Italian from the very beginning. I don’t know all that much, actually, about the history of the Ottoman navy, and its involvement in Renaissance/Early Modern history, but I do know that it’s a very defining feature of the Ottoman faction in the board game Here I Stand, which takes place in the Reformation era.

We see, too, numerous restaurants and other elements and aspects here and there throughout the city relating to the immediate post-revolution period, in the 1920s. Again, I’m no expert at Turkish history, and I wish I knew better, but just on the surface, this very “modern,” European (yet distinctly Turkish) aesthetic, with the fezes, mustaches, fancy formal dress, and salon-like decor, has a real appeal. One night, we went to a “tavern,” or meyhane, where live music was playing, and while this place wasn’t explicitly marked or marketed as being 1920s style, there were some old photographs on the walls, and there was a certain something to the decor. Other restaurants we went to, or simply passed by, were explicitly labeled as Istanbul 1923, or Istanbul 1924, and one restaurant in Istiklal Street (one of the main shopping/tourist areas of the city) is explicitly marketed as being designed to recreate that 1924 atmosphere.

Baylan, a nearly 100-year-old café/bakery on the Asian side (near Kadıköy), long owned by Greeks, and located in a neighborhood where there had once been a strong Armenian community.

Finally, there is the contemporary situation. We didn’t see or sense any major political problems or tensions while we were here, thankfully. No protests, no riots, no crackdowns. Despite what you might hear about Turkey in the news – and believe me, I am sorely sad and worried about that country, and Ergodan’s ever-increasingly dictatorial and theocratic regime – we did have a fantastic time, and I never felt especially unsafe, nor even all that worried about the authorities. That said, we stayed fairly close to Taksim Square – where major protests took place just a few years ago – and both there and elsewhere we saw some fairly intimidating police or military presences.

I also enjoyed learning a little about – and meeting some members of – the lively Jewish community there. Jews have lived happily and peacefully in Turkey (for the most part, or, to some extent) since the 1490s or so, when Ferdinand & Isabella expelled the Jews of Spain, and the Ottoman Sultan reportedly was happy to take them in. While many Turkish Jews have moved to Israel, the US, or elsewhere in recent years, those we spoke to say they are quite happy, and feel safe; they tried to disavow us of the notion that Turkey was a particularly dangerous or anti-Semitic place to be at all.

The Neve Shalom synagogue in Istanbul.

I was glad to hear this. Still, there were notable protests outside of one of the city’s main synagogues just a couple months ago, which included the throwing of rocks, and violent threats against Jews trying to get into the building. This synagogue, Neve Shalom (“Oasis of Peace”), was attacked in 1986 by the founder of Fatah, who murdered 22 people who had gone there to pray. The synagogue was attacked again in 1992, by Hezbollah, and again in 2003, when simultaneous car bombs went off outside Neve Shalom and another synagogue in the city, killing some 23 people. I’ve seen pretty serious security precautions taken at synagogues in London and Tokyo as well. But, still, there is enough of a Jewish community that there remain quite a few active synagogues in the city, which in photos online look gorgeous (we didn’t get a chance to visit any, since they require prior reservation, and some sort of screening process – I’ve been told that even Ashkenazi Jews like myself are not so trusted, not let in as easily as Sephardim). The city is also home to several Jewish music groups, two Jewish newspapers, and so on and so forth. And, they’re not entirely unknown – regular people here seem to have some sense about Turkish Jewry: one, in terms of people saying we look Jewish, and either based solely on our looks or on that we said we speak a little Spanish, they then assume we’re Jewish. One small music group at a small “live house” café even burst into a Turkish fasil-style rendition of Hava Nagila for us! Plus, when we went to the Grand Bazaar, we found lots of tchotchkes, necklaces, etc. being sold with Stars of David, Hebrew writing, or other Jewish elements.


One of the fasil live music bars we went to: Abbas, on Nevizade Sk.

The Armenian history is of course another thing, too. Everywhere around there are Armenian churches, or other churches formerly used by the Armenians – and some of these have some serious security precautions like the synagogues. There are of course no historical plaques or anything put up by the city or the state talking about the Armenian Genocide (though we did see a plaque talking about it at an Armenian church in Jaffa), but if you know even the tiniest bit about it, you can imagine, fill in the gaps. My girlfriend also told me about certain events, massacres, in certain neighborhoods in the 1890s, as we walked through those neighborhoods. I don’t know anything about the current contemporary situation in terms of attitudes towards Armenians, or how well they get by in society, but, it’s definitely a history that’s hidden, yet very much present, if you have it in mind.

Some lovely fresh produce for sale in Nevizade Sk.

For all it’s problems – and we all know the US and Japan have their problems too – Istanbul is a very modern, cosmopolitan, urban, in some ways very European city – really feels cosmopolitan, feels like a “world city” (like New York, London, or Tokyo) with just so much going on – but then of course it’s also non-Western in many ways, first and foremost I suppose because of its Muslim and not Catholic or Protestant religious character – to a certain extent, Istanbul was the very city (or, the Ottoman Empire the very country) against which “the West” or “Westernness” was constructed and defined, even going all the way back to the Eastern Roman Empire, and the Eastern Orthodox Church, which were considered “byzantine” and “Oriental”, and were not considered part of the “true” or “main” or “catholic” Roman or Christian heritage.

The music was wonderful, and the food as well. I never understood my girlfriend’s obsession with borek until I came here. I could eat borek every day. And I so wish that we had this more regularly in the States.

In the food and music, as well as in the architecture and history, we see too the many cultural influences that come together in Istanbul. Turkish, Arab, Jewish, Balkan, Circassian (Black Sea/Russian) cultures… all these different cultures, different cultural influences, that for all our talk about “diversity,” we just don’t see/hear/learn that much about in the US.

Omg, borek. So yum. Above: Su böregi (water börek) with cheese and spinach. Below: Chopping up börek in a shop. (Photos from Instanbul Free Walking Tour.com and Panning the Globe blogs.)

All photos (except the börek) my own.

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Right: A Jewish wedding in Aleppo, Syria, 1914. Public domain image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Our racial politics, like so much else, is often framed as a dichotomy. Activists seek intersectional solidarity and allyship with all people of color (PoC), a giant category that seems to include everyone under the sun except whites. Or, alternatively, activists address African-American and Hispanic/Latino issues and overlook everyone else. This manifests in the diversity rhetoric of university rhetoric and countless other places, and of course it does so in different ways in different cases – life is complicated, and I wouldn’t want to suggest otherwise. After all, the idea that this is complicated, that diversity and identity are not a dichotomy, not even a spectrum arranged unidirectionally from white to non-white, but rather a complex mess of factors, is key to the topic of this post: do Mizrahi Jews count as “People of Color”?

The Forward – one of the oldest and most major Yiddish newspapers in America, now published in English too – had a great opinion piece this past August, written by Sigal Samuel. I really love the nuance and complexity Samuel brings to this issue; the author’s journey, wondering whether she counts as a “person of color,” and getting very different answers from people she speaks to, points to the problematic nature of our dichotomous conceptions of race.

Okay, terminology time. Mizrahi Jews are those who themselves, or their relatively recent ancestors, come from the Middle East. The Jews currently fleeing persecution in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq are Mizrahi Jews. They are as Middle Eastern, as non-European, as any (other) Arab. If Ashkenazi Jews – those of Eastern European descent – are arguably to be considered something other than just plain “white,” then surely Mizrahi Jews, and Sephardic Jews – those of Mediterranean heritage, largely descended from those who moved to Italy, Greece, or elsewhere after being kicked out of Spain in 1492 – should count as “people of color” as well, right? But, of course, it’s not that simple.

..

Left: Sigal Samuel. Image from the Forward.

Samuel’s piece isn’t very long, so I don’t want to risk writing a blog post about it that repeats the entire thing, or that takes longer than her piece itself, though there are many excellent choice bits. I invite you to go read the whole thing, but, in a nutshell, Samuel writes that she, her family, and many members of her community, based both on their own feelings about their heritage (their self-sense of identity) and on the way they are treated in society, generally feel themselves to be something other than white. And yet, when she asks around, various people – including an African-American Jewish acquaintance and a (presumably Ashkenazi) Jewish professor of Middle Eastern Studies – tell her in no uncertain terms that she is not a person of color, because her people have never experienced such discrimination in the US as Asians and blacks. Further, with Ashkenazi being the dominant type of Jews (at least in a great many communities in the US), and with Ashkenazis having come to be considered white, “Jewish” as a category, as a whole, has likewise come to be considered white, separating Samuel from others of Arab or Indian descent, in many people’s eyes.

What I really like about this piece is that it not only illustrates these contradictions, and the failures of our black-white concept of race to accommodate the diversity of real human experience, but that it also highlights the ways in which identity is political. This is not simply about empirical categorizing – coming up with definitive determining factors and categorizing everyone “correctly” according to who they really are, or where they really belong. It is about the personal and political motivations, purposes, and (dis)advantages, in claiming a particular identity. This is why, for example, many Okinawans assert an “indigenous” identity, while Koreans and Tibetans, from rather similar historical circumstances, do not – for political purposes, and because of some sense of cultural affinity with Hawaiians and certain other groups.

Identity in our society is highly political, or politicized. As Samuel writes,

“Was I, a woman who sometimes gets read as white and therefore benefits from white privilege, wrongly co-opting the “of color” label in everything from internal monologues to health insurance forms?”

And in the end, she identifies her choice to identify as a person of color as a choice, and as a political one, not one for which there is a definitive correct answer. She writes:

Claiming the Jew of color identity, then, was not only a way to express my authentic feeling of moving through the world as a perpetual Other — it was also an attempt to destabilize [the idea that Jewish = white, and that Jewishness is opposed to Arab identity]. But was that, you know, kosher? Or did that performative aspect give my story some uncomfortable Rachel Dolezal-ish undertones?

She asks herself “Is there any sense in claiming an “of color” identity?” She decides that within the context of the history of race & discrimination in the United States, claiming a POC identity does not make sense for her, “But if you’re asking, “Does claiming a POC identity have a point, a practical purpose?” then, I thought, the answer might be yes.”

I love the way this piece highlights the complexities of race and identity. Many people seem to feel quite self-assured and self-righteous in policing who does and does not count, even as their own liberal-progressive discourses emphasize self-determination (see: gender identity, gender pronouns, who counts as indigenous?, who counts as black?). And yet, the world is more complicated than that. People – their experiences, their heritage – are more complicated than that.

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An image from the 1901-1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, depicting “French Jews.” Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Hila Hershkoviz posted an interesting op-ed/blog post in the Times of Israel recently, arguing that Ashkenazi Jews (i.e. of Eastern European, rather than Mediterranean or Middle Eastern descent) are not white, and should stop self-identifying as such.

(This, in response to a Haaretz article on the somewhat separate but also powerfully important subject of “Jews, white privilege and the fight against racism in America” – in short, why Jews as white elites aren’t as active as we should be in continuing to fight racism, oppression, and discrimination against others, esp. as it pertains to Ferguson protests & systematic racism against blacks in our law enforcement & justice systems.)

I’m not sure I agree with everything Hershkoviz says here – in the end, I think the answer is more complicated than a simple white/non-white binary – but it’s certainly interesting to think about.

*First, let me begin with two critiques, or critical thoughts. One, while who we self-identify as is important, who others identify us as is equally powerful, if not more so, operating upon our conception of ourselves, and upon our interactions and position in society in different ways, on different planes. Regardless of how I identify, with whatever nuance I might use to describe my own identity to others, so long as others perceive me as “white” in a myriad of everyday interactions and systematic ways, I will benefit from, and be accused of, white privilege. White privilege is real, and I have genuinely benefited from it, both in my socio-economic status, and in how people regard me in everyday interactions.

It doesn’t matter if I carry around a copy of Hershkoviz’s article to show people. It doesn’t matter – and I say this genuinely, and not sarcastically or by way of complaint – that my grandparents were survivors of one of the worst attempted genocides in world history explicitly because they were not “white.” It doesn’t matter that no one in my family was in the US before 1900, and that I have no direct familial/ancestral ties to any of the whites who were responsible for the worst parts of our country’s history (e.g. seizing of Native American lands, black slavery, etc.). What matters is the fact that I’m here now, and that for three generations, my family has benefited from others perceiving us as white, in everything from bank loans to how we’re treated in the classroom. It doesn’t matter if “white” is an artificial category, which changes over time, and which cannot necessarily be too easily defined. This has real impacts in our society. Even if I’m not “really” white, as articulated by Hershkoviz, for all intents and purposes in our racialized society, I might as well be; or, to put it another way, since race is socially constructed, so long as society sees me as white, I /am/ white – that is the identity category that society places me in.

Two, Hershkoviz’s assertions about who we really are as Jews, compelling though these narratives may be, are ultimately problematic. Identity is constructed and constantly being renegotiated. It’s tempting to want to look back across centuries or even millenia of history and think, this is who we are, this is who we have always been. To think that we are a “tribe,” as Hershkoviz asserts, following certain ideas of identity and membership millenia old. But is Hershkoviz’s idea of tribal identity, what it means and how it works, only a 21st century idea? Would the Zionists of pre-1948 Palestine have agreed? Would Herzl? How would Maimonides describe his identity, in terms of religion, ethnicity, nation, or tribe? Seven, eight hundred years ago, the dominant idea in Western Europe as to identity was not race, ethnicity, or nationality, but religion. Europe was “Christendom,” more so than it was anything else, and while the Europeans certainly also saw themselves as Franks, and the Muslims as “Turks,” “Saracens,” or by a variety of other names which might be said to be ethnic identifiers, the dominant worldview was still one of religious spheres, not one of nations or ethnicities. A few hundred years later, even as national identities (e.g. French, Dutch, English, Spanish) began to emerge more solidly, identity as part of the Catholic world or of the Prostestant world, remained extremely powerful. Today, there are countless groups around the world reimagining, reasserting, their identities in various ways – indigenous groups, new nation-states… In short, how we identify – and what the relevant categories are – changes over time. In all times, we assert that our identities are true, stretching back centuries. But in all times, these identities are constructed more by the needs, and the terminologies, of a given time, than by the past. Just as Japanese look to defeat in World War II and the subsequent turn to pacifism of their nation, among many other things, as key to how they define their identity today; just as the Hawaiians look to the overthrow of their kingdom and the current illegal US occupation of their land as fundamental to their identity; so too do we as 21st century Jews look to the Holocaust, the state of Israel, worldwide anti-Semitism, and our personal or familial experiences of immigration and diaspora, for our constructions of identity, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise – we shouldn’t pretend that our identity as Jews is just as it has always been, stretching back unaltered, as if none of these more recent events/experiences, nor the needs & desires of our contemporary political situation, have any impact.

That said, I think there are a lot of intriguing and thought-provoking aspects of this article.

*I find Hershkoviz’ idea that we need to “decolonize our minds” intriguing. Like Okinawans raised in the Japanese education system (I know it’s an odd example to choose, but it’s one I know better than most), we Ashkenazi Jews are similarly raised in the US (and I would imagine the same goes in Western Europe and many other places, with variation) to think of England, and to only a slightly lesser degree France, Spain, Italy, Holland, and Germany, as the source of our heritage. Now, granted, there is an argument to be made that the United States /is/ founded upon Western European ideas and culture, that that is the majority culture into which we have assimilated, and that it is a major part of who we are as Americans regardless of where we come from – and that while you get your American education in public school (and from peers, media, and so on), you can still get your Jewish identity, heritage, and education from your parents, and from synagogue, Hebrew school, etc. I imagine much the same could be said for Vietnamese-, Indian-, and African-Americans, not to mention just about everyone else – even the Irish- and Italian-Americans get some different identity from their parents, church, etc. in addition to and separate from the public education “American” identity.

But, at the same time, I think there’s something valuable and interesting in the idea that we need to remind ourselves that we do indeed come from a different heritage, that we are immigrants to this land, and that in a sense, really, we Eastern European Jews, descendants of Kiev, Lvov, and Krakow, have no more connection to the heritage of London, Paris, and Rome than do the Asian-Americans. I have no doubt that the latter have no trouble understanding this.

Roger Shimomura’s “Shimomura Crossing the Delaware.”

*Identity and history is complex, and this issue of us being not a religion, not a race, but a Tribe, and having particular ideas of identity and membership as a result, brings up a much broader issue – broader beyond the topic of the Jewish people – which is that in our ever-increasingly globalized world, how much else has been homogenized into global/modern conceptions and categories? How much cultural diversity has been erased by those categories, even as we use those categories to celebrate diversity? We take it for granted today that the hundreds of national flags represent a great diversity of nations in our world. But where does the idea that a nation must have a flag, and that it must be rectangular, come from? What about all the many traditions and histories in which national identity was expressed otherwise? Here too we have homogeneity masquerading as diversity. There are thousands of languages on this planet, hundreds of countries. Does everyone, from the French to the Saudis to the Hawaiians, from the Catholics to the Sikhs to the Quechua, have the same ideas of what it means to be(long to) a religion, a nation, an ethnicity? Surely we Jews are not the only people who assert an identity that does not neatly fall into the global/modern categories of religion, race, ethnicity, nationality.

Of course, there is a need for globally agreed-upon notions, to a certain extent, for the sake of passports and treaties and national representation in the UN, census statistics, and all sorts of things. But, imagine if we more consciously and explicitly acknowledged a wider diversity of ways of thinking about identity, and didn’t insist to other people that their own identity categories don’t make sense, or aren’t real. Imagine if we didn’t force all people all around the world to conform to /our/ conceptions of how identity works. What a world that would be.

Flags at the United Nations, New York. Photo my own.

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Following my week in Kagoshima, I spent a week or so in Okinawa. So much to say about my trip, and yet… Well, where to start? I was in Okinawa chiefly for an International Conference held by the East-West Center & East-West Center [Alumni] Association. But every time I try to write about East-West Center, I find it really difficult, and I end up rambling and second guessing myself, and just sort of going all over the place. My thoughts about, and relationship with, the East-West Center are quite complicated. I might end up putting up a post about that in the near future, if I ever manage to write one. We shall see.

But, in the meantime, maybe we should just start by focusing on everything but the conference. The conference ran three days, Weds through Friday, Sept 17-19. On the middle day, we had a half-day tour to the Peace Memorial Museum at Mabuni, and to Shuri Castle, the former royal palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom, located in Naha (historically a separate city from Shuri, but which has now grown to gobble Shuri up), just a few short monorail stops away from the conference hotel.

Our half-day tour was a pretty lengthy one – 2pm to 7pm, if I remember correctly. And yet, somehow, within that space of time we only had one hour at the Peace Memorial Museum, and one hour at Shuri castle. Granted, it takes considerable time to drive from one place to the next, but, geez.. surely there was a better way to schedule this out, no?

The Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum at Mabuni. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Regardless, I’m glad to have gone. I’d never been to the Peace Memorial Museum at Mabuni, and now that I have a somewhat better idea of what it entails, at least I know what I’m getting into if and when I make my way back there. It’s a very well done museum, actually, telling the story of the Battle of Okinawa. Very sleek, professional, up-to-date looking, in terms of the style of presentation. Another museum I visited on my own, earlier in the week, the Battle of Okinawa Holocaust Photo Gallery (沖縄戦・ホロコースト写真展示館), operated out of a small corner building in Naha, has a very different aesthetic, being comprised of little more than photos hung on the walls. If one were to really take the time to really analyze both museums more closely, I’m sure a lot could be said for differences in their approach, and in their message. Are either more extreme in their politics than the other? I’m not sure. The chief message of both seems summed up well by a quote from the OPRI’s English website:

There are many problems in the world. But, war is not the answer to the problems. Look at these pictures. War creates another problem.

There is a great deal to be said about the Battle of Okinawa. Entire books, upon books, have been written about it. I, personally, am not sure that I would go so far as to associate it with the Holocaust (as this smaller OPRI museum does, and as some other groups are known to do), given that the Japanese government, for all its wrongs, for all its horrific atrocities, never made the explicit, intentional, directed, and highly coordinated effort to truly extinguish another people that the Nazi German government did. The Okinawans, by contrast, were less targets of genocide, than ignored, uncared for, collateral damage, as two great armies met one another in battle, trapping the Okinawan people between them, trampling their culture, their history, their land, and their lives, with neither side – not the Japanese government which claimed them as Imperial subjects and rightful citizens, nor the American government with its eternal rhetoric of bringing freedom and combatting oppression – doing nearly enough to watch out for, take care of, the Okinawan people and their interests.

Right: Naha destroyed, and a famous photo of a girl with a white flag. Public domain photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

I really struggled to find images to put here, looking for the one or two that would, by themselves, without any other images, convey what happened here, and convey the tragedy and the emotion of it. But in the end, I think it is difficult, if not impossible, to find individual images that can do that. It takes looking at tens or even hundreds of photos, a whole room full of photos, and reading about what happened, immersing oneself in the subject even if only for 10-15 minutes, but really surrounding oneself, immersing oneself, to really “get” it, to feel it for ourselves, to be emotional as if it were our own families, or our own people, to truly appreciate just how horrific this was, both for those killed, and those who survived, and all the impacts and implications that come as a result.

Or maybe it simply takes a conscious effort of thinking about it based on the stories and experiences of our own families, our own peoples. While I am not Japanese or Okinawan, and certainly cannot claim to understand or appreciate their own sense of their own identity in quite the same way as a person of Okinawan descent would, as the grandson of Holocaust survivors, I think there is something to be said for connections, similarities, in how that period of history impacted our families and our identities. It is not only by studying Okinawa’s history, and talking to Okinawan people, but also by reflecting upon my own exposure to stories, documentaries, and museum exhibits about the Holocaust, that I think, or I should like to think, I can appreciate something of the emotion, the experience, the impact upon Okinawan identity, that comes out of this. As I sat in Yom Kippur services a few days ago, in Yizkor services in particular, thinking about all those we have lost, about my own grandparents who went through so much, about all their friends, relatives, neighbors – my relatives, my people – six million of them, who died in the Shoah, I thought too about the Okinawans, their experiences, their suffering, their tens of thousands of deaths. And I felt a connection, rightfully or not, feeling a deep sadness, not only for those individuals who suffered through this, for their suffering, their terrible loss of potential, loss of happiness, and in far too many cases loss of life, but also a terrible sadness at the loss of potential at what Okinawa and its people might be today, might have been, if not for these terrible events. We are all each of us irrevocably changed by even the death of a single loved one; how much more so by terrible grand scale sweeping events such as these.

This is why museums such as the one at Mabuni are so important, especially for outsiders – in this case, for non-Japanese. We have to learn one another’s stories, see the similarities, and sympathize. We have to learn to not see others – Jews, Okinawans – as Others, but rather as people just like ourselves. We have to imagine ourselves in their situation. Imagine losing your home, your mother, or your brother in such circumstances. Imagine losing your friends, your neighborhood, your school. Losing your livelihood, your entire world turned upside down, and losing perhaps even your life, where only years earlier, things were so much happier and safer. It is a story which repeats itself far too often, in far too many places around the world.

I plan someday to read more deeply, more thoroughly, about the Battle, what led up to it, and the aftermath. My specialty in the earlier period doesn’t allow for much opportunity to really take out time to study more in depth about these subjects. I hope, too, to someday post something more well-organized, more thoroughly thought through and planned out on the subject. But, for now, from my brief scattered notes from the exhibitions (there was no time to read, let alone copy down, everything), just a few scattered points and thoughts:

By 1944, the entire island was “mobilized” for development of airstrips and other military construction and preparations. On October 10, 1944, the Allies launched their first air raids against the island, resulting in 668 deaths, and leading to mass evacuations, with as many as 70,000 Okinawan civilians fleeing to Taiwan and Kyushu, where they thought they would be safer. In the meantime, the Japanese strengthened their positions, building a massive command center beneath Shuri Castle. As troops deployments to Taiwan increased, the Japanese stepped up their recruitment of Okinawan schoolchildren into the military. The Okinawan people were caught between conflicting expectations and demands, as the Japanese simultaneously treated them as full Japanese citizens, demanding them to sacrifice their livelihoods, their land, their very lives for their country and for their Emperor, while at the same time treating them as decidedly lesser, and Other. Okinawans were trusted enough to be impressed into military service, but were distrusted enough that those speaking the Okinawan language – not generally intelligible to Japanese – were often executed as spies. In the end, in some of the toughest fighting of the entire Pacific War, the Allies invaded Okinawa, and took the island, over the course of April through June 1945. Many Okinawans fled south, fled /towards/ the Japanese positions, believing their own country’s military would protect them from the Americans. Many, ultimately, found themselves pushed, between the two armies, with nowhere left to go but over the cliffs, to their deaths upon the rocks in the sea below. The cliffs right behind the Peace Museum are one of a number of locations where this took place. Only in retrospect, in hindsight, is it clear that had they stayed in the north, so many more might have survived. Just over 12,500 Americans lost their lives, along with 188,136 Japanese nationals, including roughly equal numbers of Japanese soldiers and Okinawan civilians. Roughly 1/4 of the civilian population of the island was killed, and nearly all, at least in the southern half, were rendered homeless. Shuri Castle and all the historical sites surrounding it were pounded into dust, and countless irreplaceable documents and artifacts of Ryukyuan history and culture went up in flames. Around 10,000 Koreans, most of them laborers, were also killed. Today, nearly 70 years later, around 3,000 tons of unexploded ordinance remain on the island, and it is expected it will take another 35 years at least to finish clearing it all away.

A few of the many, many memorial stones at Mabuni Peace Memorial Park. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The museum itself reminds me, as one might expect, of the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. Most of the rooms are quite dimly lit, and combined with the 1940s photographs themselves, it gives a black and white and grey feeling. A few rooms are built up to look/feel like the inside of caves, where so many Okinawans hid from the fighting, and where so many died, convinced by the Japanese that they should commit suicide, gloriously sacrificing themselves for their Emperor, like so many shattered jewels, rather than allow themselves to be captured by the Americans. A few spaces had latticed bars which reminded me of the Japanese-American National Museum in LA. One of the later rooms of the exhibition feels like a chapel, or a schoolroom, with rows of desks, each of which bears a book filled with firsthand accounts. Towards the end of the exhibits, the narrative switches to the post-war story. The United States continued to occupy Okinawa, the entire string of islands under US control, until 1972, twenty years after the Occupation had ended in the remainder of Japan. A photo of Roger Baldwin, one of the founders of the ACLU, is from his 1959 trip to Okinawa, during which he heavily criticized the US Occupation. It was only after much protest, and indeed some rather violent riots, that the US finally released its grip upon Okinawa, returning it to Japanese sovereignty (as demanded by the Okinawan people; relatively few pushed or voted for independence) in 1972, but continuing even today to hold roughly 20% of the land area of this tiny island as military bases.

We did not get a chance that day, during our far too short visit, to see anything of the park itself which surrounds the museum. I understand it is filled with numerous memorials to all those killed in the battle, regardless of their nationality. Now that I have been there once, and have some better sense of what the site is, I look forward to going back some day to see it again more fully.

In my next post, Shuri castle.

EDIT: In 2017, I finally did return to the Okinawa Peace Memorial Museum, and write a little something about it.

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The handwritten siddur (prayer book) of the Baal Shem Tov (founder of Hasidism, 1698-1760) with his students’ names in the margins to help him remember them in his prayers. The siddur is in the collection of Agudas Chabad Library, in Brooklyn. The book is open to the Amidah or Shemone Esreh prayer. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

So, apparently, Russia is not lending any artworks to American museums right now. Why? Because they are afraid that anything they send over here might be held for ransom until Russia turns over the 15,000 or so books & other documents they hold formerly belonging to Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, aka the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the late leader of Chabad, a very prominent Brooklyn-based ultra-Orthodox Jewish movement. A recent article in the magazine Tablet explains out the situation in some nice detail – I myself knew extremely little about it, and am glad for the information. But I would wager that the vast majority of curators & other museum professionals in the US know next to nothing about this collection, or about the controversy. It may be a huge big deal within Chabad circles, and who knows just how prominent it is within the Russian government, or the Russian museum world, but, for museums all across the United States to be denied loans of Matisses and Monets, across the board, because of a dispute between the Russian government and a Jewish sect over a collection of books (and these 15,000 volumes are not even the entirety of the Rebbe’s collection; Chabad has another 250,000 volumes in Brooklyn), seems, well, silly.

But, then, that’s just how the museum world works sometimes. Reality can be stranger than fiction, and as in any set of politics, in the museum world or in any other field, all sorts of things can get twisted up together that really shouldn’t be connected…

The collection was obtained by the Russians when they took it from the Nazis who had taken it from where the Rebbe stored it in Warsaw after successfully escaping from Soviet Russia (in order to protect both himself and the collection). After that, nothing was heard or known about the collection for many years, until around the time of Gorbachev, and then the fall of the Soviet Union, information began to come out. But still the Russian government would not let go of the objects. They allowed Chabad rabbis to come to Moscow, believing they were going to be allowed to at least see the collection, but in the end denied the rabbis even that, allowing them to see only a catalog of the collection. Then there was some kind of legal decision, in which Chabad won the decision and the Russians were obliged to, or agreed to, return the collection. But, that too didn’t end up happening.

Now, Russian officials are asserting that The Schneersohn collection is a “national treasure of the Russian people.” As representatives of Chabad have appropriately responded, “There is no justification for Russia’s retention of Jewish texts that were stolen by the Nazis in Poland and then looted by the Red Army during the Holocaust.” And that’s the least of the justifications, it would seem, for why Russia’s claims are, well, on less than solid ground. This is coming from a country that for nearly the entire 20th century suppressed all religion; a country where anti-Jewish pogroms were so bad in the pre-Soviet era that these pogroms are among the most famous, most prominently known & cited causes of Russian Jewish emigration to the United States. A country where anti-Jewish policies were so severe, the State of Israel worked to “rescue” over 160,000 Jews from Soviet Russia in the 1960s-70s alone. So how could such a thing be a “National Treasure” of such a state?

The new Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow. Opened 2012, according to Wikipedia it may be the largest Jewish museum in the world.

Of course, towards the middle of the article, we see a somewhat more sympathetic and nuanced side. Rabbi Gorin, a spokesperson for Chabad in Russia (Chabad is active in Russia? I’m surprised.) claims that the Russian government, which is now moving the collection to a new Museum of Jewish Tolerance, has Hebraists on staff who are working to more properly & accurately catalog the collection, and who intend to digitize the entire thing and make it all accessible to the public. Wow. Sounds nice. So I guess the books aren’t locked away in some basement, hated and forgotten about. And, he explains, all the talk about the books being a “national treasure” is just posturing, and what it’s really about is that, as part of a sort of umbrella stance/attitude, the removal or return of anything from any of the national libraries is essentially out of the question. The British Museum has spoken similarly as to the inability of the Elgin Marbles, or objects of potential Nazi provenance, being removed from their collection and given over to previous or allegedly “rightful” owners. Further, Gorin says “that the Schneersohn library is typical of great eastern European rabbis’ personal collections,” and that furthermore, since so many such libraries were destroyed, that makes this one all the more valuable as a source for research, and as something to proudly hold – and keep – in one’s collection. This is an argument I’ve seen before in numerous other cases, and with which, I must say, I can sympathize. There are countless cases of museums in the US, UK, and elsewhere that don’t want to give up a given object or collection because it is such a valuable example of X, Y, or Z, and indeed I sympathize with that and in many cases would side with the museum. This makes it a lot harder to feel definitively one way or the other on this issue.

And, in the end, as the article concludes, in truth, contrary to what was represented earlier in the article, it would seem that many/most Russian officials are not in fact concerned about anything relating to the objects themselves, e.g. bitterness against Chabad for the virulence of the conflict, but, rather, are afraid of setting a precedent. They’re afraid that by letting anything go, it sets a dangerous precedent for other groups to start making claims of their own. I wish we could file this one away under the Russians being crazy, obnoxious, stubborn, or anti-Semitic, or refusing (or failing) to change from their Soviet ways of doing things, but, unfortunately, these arguments sound all too familiar. I can imagine American institutions making very similar arguments, and I can imagine siding with them in such circumstances. So… while I sympathize with the Chabadniks to a great extent, in the end I’m really not sure which side to believe, or to side with. Hopefully this plan to digitize the collection and make it publicly available actually manifests. It’s not as much as the Lubavitchers may want, but it’s certainly something.

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The Memorial to Japanese American Patriotism in World War II in DC, which I visited a few years ago. Not precisely related to this exhibit in NYC, but…

*Up through October 11, an exhibit of works relating to the Japanese-American internment, entitled “The Japanese American Internment Project, If They Came for Me Today: East Coast Stories, is showing at The Interchurch Center, 475 Riverside Dr, in New York City. The show was supposed to open on Sept 9, and I went on Sept 10, but it wasn’t yet open, unfortunately. So, I have not seen the show myself, and can’t really say much at all about what it contains. Still, it sounds like an important and powerful event – growing up white & Jewish on the East Coast, the Japanese-American internment was something I barely learned or heard anything about. Since moving to Hawaii, and then to the West Coast, I’ve seen how it has so much more of a presence here, and rightfully so.

*While in Okinawa last month, to my surprise, I came across the Battle of Okinawa / Holocaust Photo Exhibition Hall, in Naha’s Nishi neighborhood. Sadly, they were closed by the time I got there (around 6pm, though still plenty of hours of daylight left), so I didn’t get to visit inside. I wish I might have made sure to go back later in the week. But their website is quite extensive (though, mostly in Japanese), so one of these days I might read through some more of it.

I won’t pretend like I really know, deeply, about the full depth of Okinawan(-American) identity; I’m not an anthropologist or sociologist, or expert in contemporary Asian-American diaspora studies or anything like that. But, as the grandson of Holocaust survivors, based on my own upbringing and identity, and having heard and seen what I have of Okinawan & Okinawan-American identity, I feel that there are some powerful similarities, in terms of the role of past tragedies, past atrocities, in our cultural memory, that are quite central to our contemporary identity. The incredible losses of the 1940s for both our peoples, not only in terms of the number of human lives so tragically, so horrifically, terminated, but also in terms of the great losses of culture, and land, at that time, I think we share a lot in terms of our struggles, today, as a Jewish community, and as Okinawan and Okinawan-American communities, to retain or revive cultural traditions and identity. Since I began studying Okinawan history, I’ve begun to see parallels, and to feel a connection; to see this idea, this connection, validated by the existence of this institution is quite encouraging.

*Moving on to the world of contemporary art, I’ve come across a site recently called ART PAPERS. It features, as you might expect, various essays on contemporary art. To be honest, I can’t quite make heads or tails of what they’re talking about, haha. But, I eagerly look forward to other posts in the future, to see what insights or ideas they might present.

*One of two contemporary Japanese artists I’ve learned about recently, Morita Rieko produces stunning, brightly boldly colorful images of birds & flowers, and of beautiful women (bijinga), in a neo-traditional, Nihonga style. Sadly, I don’t see anything on her website explicitly describing what media she uses – whether it’s ink & mineral colors in the truly traditional manner, or whether it’s oils or acrylics or digital or something – but, in any case, the works are truly beautiful.

*Gajin Fujita is a rather different kind of neo-traditional artist, not recreating or maintaining the tradition, but remixing it into graffiti / hip-hop / street art styles. I don’t normally go for the graffiti/hip-hop aesthetics, but the way he incorporates ukiyo-e figures, kabuki characters, in the style of ukiyo-e imagery, into these contexts, is really wonderful. You can see more about Fujita at LA Louver gallery’s website.

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*As you may know, the Ainu are an indigenous people of northern Japan, mostly associated with Hokkaidô. For about five weeks this past January to February, a small group of Ainu youths (along with an interpreter and a few supporters) journeyed to Aotearoa (New Zealand) to meet with members of the Maori community, engaging in cultural exchange and building connections. The indigenous rights / indigenous cultural movement among the Ainu is relatively young, gaining strength only since the 1990s, and the group was only formally recognized by the Japanese government as an indigenous people in 2008. These exchanges with peoples such as the Maori help the Ainu connect into a larger, global indigenous peoples movement, and help them consider and develop ways to maintain or revive their traditional culture, as well as ways to move forward, into a “modern indigeneity” or an “indigenous modernity.”

I contributed a small amount, Kickstarter-style, to help the project, and received this neat mukkuri mouth organ. Can’t seem to manage to play it properly though.

Having now returned, participants in the Aotearoa Ainumosir Exchange Program will be sharing their experiences at an event in Yokohama on June 1st.

*Colleen Laird, a good friend of mine, has had an article published in Frames Cinema Journal! It is entitled “Imaging a Female Filmmaker: The Director Personas of Nishikawa Miwa and Ogigami Naoko.” Admittedly, I have yet to find time to read it, but it certainly looks fascinating. Congratulations, Colleen!

*Gavan McCormack has published yet another article on the Senkaku/Diaoyutai debate, over at The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus. Interesting and important to understand the details of the history, but, of course, none of that really matters – the debate isn’t really about history so much as it is contemporary national pride and related issues.

*Meanwhile, the ruins of a Buddhist monastery at Nalanda in India, are to become the site of a new university. The monastery is claimed to have been a thriving “university” in the 5th to 12th centuries, hundreds of years before the advent of the university in Bologna, Paris, Cambridge and Oxford. I appreciate the sentiment, the desire to de-Eurocentrize world history. But, still, I’m a bit skeptical. That said, congrats to Nalanda on a bit more public exposure for this marvelously impressive site, and best of luck with the new university.

*Finally, I have finally buckled and given in and started a Tumblr, which I’ve titled “byakko zatsuga,” or “white tiger miscellaneous pictures.” I’m really kind of surprised to discover that zatsuga doesn’t seem to be a standard term in Japanese art history at all. Look through woodblock printed books of the Edo period, and you’ll find tons that are, essentially, just collections of assorted random pictures. And the books have such a wide variety of titles, including terms such as manga 漫画, gafu 画譜, gashi 画志, gaden 画伝, ehon 絵本, zasshi 雑誌, zakkô 雑考, gakyô 画境, and gashi 画史… yet I have never seen any called zatsuga.

In any case, my blog posts here tend to be pretty long, as you might have noticed; the Tumblr provides me an opportunity to share pictures with a minimum of commentary, as well as quotes, videos, or the like, and most especially, while I will be sharing images of historical artworks, or items related to serious topics such as gender theory/feminism, it also provides me a space to share things a bit too silly or frivolous for this blog.

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