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Archive for the ‘Judaism’ Category

After our fifteen minute tour of Independence Hall and a quick peek at the Liberty Bell, we made our way to the National Museum of Jewish History. Beautiful building, very new shiny clean exhibits. The first three floors house a permanent exhibition on the history of Jews in America, and on the top floor, until Sept 2, they’re showing a special exhibit on the life of Leonard Bernstein. Now, I really must admit, I had only the vaguest idea who Bernstein was. I knew he’s a famous musician, and I’ve been to his grave actually, but that’s about it. Even so, I learned, and I found the exhibit just fascinating and wonderful. For someone so deeply involved in Jewish spirituality, music, liturgy, and philosophy, who composed so many pieces directly based upon or inspired by liturgy, to become so popular and successful in such a mainstream way is really incredible. I know some composers or musicians today who, I don’t know their career aspirations or anything, but who are definitely deeply involved in Jewish music. But if Bernstein can be accepted and loved and therefore successful in a mainstream and widespread way, and not only within the niche world of Jewish music, maybe they can too.

The exhibit was, of course, not terribly musicological. We didn’t learn much at all about precisely how or why his music was groundbreaking. How he used the devil’s interval in “Maria” in West Side Story, or how his half-speed rendition of the fourth movement of Mahler’s 5th Symphony, featuring the harp, was so revered. Or that Mahler was Jewish, for that matter. At least, I don’t think I remember seeing any of that in the exhibit; just learned it from my gf.

One thing I really enjoyed about the exhibit was how well they included multimedia interactives. There were several listening stations and also small screening rooms, where you could listen to his music, watch segments from a performance of his “MASS,” or watch segments from all over popular culture reenacting or referencing bits from West Side Story. There were also several video screens with clips from documentaries about Bernstein, including one I found particularly interesting, on his trip to Israel in 1967.

There was also a station where a whole bunch of wooden blocks were scattered on a table; by choosing a block and putting it in a designated spot, you could activate a screen with video and audio relating to one of Bernstein’s works. By turning the block to different sides, you could get the screen to focus on the lyrics or the composition or the recording or other different aspects. They could have just done this with a series of buttons, or any number of other arrangements, but doing it with blocks was very neat, I thought. The whole thing, the whole exhibit, was just really interesting. Learning about this man’s relationship with his Judaism, but then also with African-American music and civil rights, with allegations of association with Communists – even suspicions that Bernstein was explicitly a Soviet spy. He was never actually brought up on any charges of any kind, nor subpoenaed, so far as I know, in connection with any of that, but a copy of his 800-page FBI file was on display in the exhibit. Pretty incredible.

Bernstein with the Ex-Concentration Camp Orchestra, in a Displaced Persons (DP) camp in Germany, 1948. People who had suffered and survived the concentration camps only to be left in refugee camps for years… and yet still had enough strength, and talent, and memory of their training & skills, to perform as an orchestra. Just reading about this was terribly moving.

And, he went to Germany in 1948 and conducted an orchestra composed of DPs (displaced persons, i.e. refugees), and went to Israel just after Independence Day, going back again in 1967, when he then conducted the Israel Philharmonic, previously the Palestine Philharmonic, composed originally of some of the absolutely best musicians in Europe, members of the Vienna and Munich and Prague Philharmonics, who were given visas and documents and help to leave Europe in the late 1930s or very early 1940s if I remember correctly, escaping from the Nazis before it was too late.

Two of the three floors of permanent exhibits.

And then we turn to the permanent exhibits, which were pretty great. More than just being a “Jewish Museum,” this is a Jewish history museum, and actually really endeavors to tell the history chronologically. We learned of the first Jews in the New World – all Sephardic Jews living in South America. Some of them then relocated to North America fleeing Catholic persecution, and became the first Jews in the British colonies. The first synagogue in New York, as I already had known, was a Sephardic synagogue. After these early stages, the vast majority of the exhibits after that made little mention of the Sephardim, however, which is a real shame because I was curious and would have loved to learn more about their history.

Today, I am told, there are more Jews in New York City (or maybe it’s the broader greater NY metro area?) than in any other single city in the world. But, still, that doesn’t mean that NY Jewish history is all there is to Jewish history in the US! I found it really interesting to learn about the first Jewish communities in Charleston, SC; Newport RI; New Orleans; Detroit; all these different places. I was sad to not see any focus on LA at all, only since I’ve been spending more time there lately and would be interested to learn more about that history as well.

But, while I suppose one could write a whole blog post solely on the issue of how this compares to other “ethnic” history museums, my head’s not really in that game right now. It would certainly be interesting. The key thing which struck me and got me thinking about that was the one section on the role of Jews in the Civil War. I suppose you might not be surprised to learn that there were Jews on every side of that political / ideological conflict, as there were also in the Revolutionary War. I don’t know what to say about people of any other ethnic or national background, but Jewish residents of the 13 British colonies, just like Protestant and Catholic residents, included both some loyal to the revolution and some loyal to the Crown. And I’m not at all surprised. Though we might in retrospect consider one side “patriots” and the other side “traitors” or whatever, at the time, in the moment, how the hell was anyone to know? Not just in terms of thinking strategically in terms of siding with whichever side you think is going to win, but just simply the fact that there was no simple right answer. Do you remain loyal to your country, which yes has imposed some unfair laws and whatever, but generally speaking is the only government you’ve ever known, and one which has provided some notable degree of security and stability and all of that, or do you join up with this rebellion that’s led by who exactly? fighting for what exactly? to separate from one of the great powers of Western Civilization in order to instead build a new nation (or thirteen separate ones?) in this rugged frontier? …. I think about Jews living in Europe in the 1930s, and especially those of some wealth and privilege, those who perhaps had the most freedom to actually get out (e.g. disposable income to pay for train tickets, political or civic connections to get the papers, connections elsewhere in the world to have somewhere to arrive to), but who also in a certain sense had the most to lose. I think about people invited to join the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra, who had such comfortable, upscale, well-to-do lives in Vienna or Berlin or wherever, who really didn’t know what the right decision was. How could they know in 1936 just how bad it would get, and that it really was going to get like that? … And in light of that, in light of the genuine reality of people not knowing what to do amidst what turned out to be one of the most extreme situations in recent history, it’s really quite reasonable to realize that of course there would be Jews on both sides of the Civil War. Many Jews just like Protestants and Catholics were slaveowners, and many Jews were abolitionists. Many Jews were farmers and many were industrialists. Many were small-town people and many were big city people. Many braved the frontier and settled the West (and probably were pretty horrible to Native Americans and others in the process). Many did not. Is this because we were “white”? Maybe. I don’t know. But we were still an ethnic/national and religious minority. So while there are pretty stark reasons that the vast majority of Blacks, Chinese(-Americans), Native Americans, and members of certain other groups went one way politically, and very few another way, at various times in history, on various contentious issues, there are surely numerous other groups which were more divided, more diverse, in their positions and actions at such times. I’d be curious to see other ethnic history museums address this issue. I don’t recall seeing JANM or NMAI address such matters… And I can certainly understand why. But, even so, our country has been more diverse than most people realize for a much longer time than most people realize, and I’d be genuinely curious to learn more about more individuals of different backgrounds involved in the Revolution or the Civil War on both sides, people of different ethnic/cultural backgrounds involved in (or in trying to stop) actions against the Native Americans, hell for that matter, people of all different backgrounds involved in overseas wars as well. After all, history is rarely so simple, as to assume that all our ancestors, in whichever ethnic or religious community, were on the “right” side of history so to speak.

Of course, such matters are by no means the central theme of the National Museum of Jewish History either. After the Civil War, the exhibits go on to talk about the origins of the Reform Movement, early 20th century immigration restriction policies, and numerous other topics and themes, before eventually getting to the Holocaust. This section was very well-done, with concurrent videos of Hitler’s and Roosevelt’s speeches run next to each other, giving a sense of the history going on at the same time, as it indeed was.

One thing I found particularly interesting and somewhat unexpected in this section was examples of just how anti-semitic American society was at that time. We like to believe in a story of how the US was this bastion of freedom, this great hero that came and eventually rescued the Jews, and the world, from Hitler and Nazism. And of course there’s truth to that. I one thousand percent am happy to live in a world where the Nazis lost that war. But even so, to have the displays be not about conditions in Nazi Europe and about US heroism, but rather about anti-semitism here at home, was kind of eye-opening, actually. And very sad. And a lot of it echoes very strongly with what continues to go on today with other groups in the case of fears of immigrant groups overwhelming the American population and taking over the country. But a lot of it echoes with anti-semitism that continues to go on today as well. A booklet published in 1939 entitled “Am I an Anti-Semite?”, which on first glance you might think would be a good thing, a book educating people about Jews and about anti-semitism. But, no. This is a book justifying the author’s anti-Jewish sentiment through discussion of the horrors of (Jewish-associated) Communism. I’m not sure whether the author’s answer to “Am I an Anti-Semite?” is “no,” or if it’s “yes, and for good reason,” but either way, the same might as well be published today, just denying or justifying the author’s anti-semitism by talking about the horrors of Zionism instead of Communism. Or just flat-out continuing to repeat the same-old “Jewish conspiracy” lies. These days, in the era of Trump, we’re seeing some of those old canards come roaring right back, to a truly frightening extent sometimes. Some things never change.

There was so much to see, we ran out of time twice, coming back to see the museum a second day, and then even on the second day not getting to see all of it. I ended up rushing through much of it, getting very few photos of the 19th century section at all. Afterwards, we made it to the UPenn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, which was fantastic, but only for a brief time there too before turning around to head home entirely. Much still left to see in Philadelphia, another time.

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On our second day in Essaouira, the ICTM Mediterranean Music working group’s conference began, and I attended for maybe about half the day. This was the real impetus for us coming to Morocco to begin with. It seems a good group, a very cool conference, to bring together some 70 people or whatever the number is who are all specialists in Mediterranean music (Andalusian, North African, Sephardic, Greek, Arab, or Ottoman), to such a special location, to discuss such topics. Makes me eager to try to attend their East Asia working group’s conference sometime. Though it’s recently been in Seoul, Taipei, Nara, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, I wonder if they might ever hold it in Naha, Nagasaki, Tsushima, Fuzhou, Hoi An, or somewhere else that might provide me an opportunity to go somewhere really special I haven’t gotten to go to otherwise.

The harbor at Essaouira. Many of the fishing boats are painted blue, in keeping with the color scheme of the city.

In any case, while the conference was going on, I ducked out a few times, once to retrieve my camera from the Supratours bus company office as I had accidentally left it on the bus the day before, and once to just make sure I explored the key historical sites of the city. It’s a small city, and though it has many gates and city walls, and who knows maybe spots of historical note otherwise that I’m not quite aware of (apparently Jimi Hendrix spent quite some time in a hippie colony / Berber village just down the road, called Diabat), it seems the only thing of really major note is the Scala – a set of fortifications right at the port. Built by the Portuguese, the Scala played a key role in defending the tiny Portuguese settlement here from Moroccan raiders and the like, and with Essaouira (then called Mogador) as a base of operations for Portuguese exploration, raiding and so forth, and trade. As we’ll remember from our survey of world history classes, the Portuguese Empire, at least in its early centuries, was never one of conquering large swaths of land, but rather was all about establishing small trading posts: Mogador and the nearby Madeira Islands in Morocco (the latter still controlled by Portugal today), Goa in India, Macao in China, and various other spots along the African coasts. From their base in Mogador, the Portuguese traded with Madeira and elsewhere, and raided nearby (and not so nearby) African villages and towns.

The ruins of a fortress on a tiny island just offshore from Essaouira.

The city of Essaouira, we are told, really came about only after the Moroccans took back the area from the Portuguese, and a sultan named Sidi Mohammed ben Abhallah oversaw the establishment and expansion of the city. But the fortifications survive. In terms of how long it takes to walk around and see them as a historical/tourist site, they’re small – it took me literally 15 minutes to see them, including the time it took to walk from and then back to the conference venue – but they’re pretty cool. From the Scala, you can get some just gorgeous views of the city and the sea, of the ruins of a small fortress on a tiny island just barely offshore, and of the fishing boats, many of them painted a brilliant blue. The squarish towers seem iconic of a particular style and period – perhaps they’re typical for 15th-16th century Portuguese architecture? – and the cannon still lined up all along the walkway evoke that for us. I wonder, if we went to sites in Ghana and elsewhere in West Africa, perhaps we’d see very much the same sort of thing – evoking a particular aesthetic, a particular imagined idea, of Portuguese empire in Africa. A space that is decidedly European, but also distinctive of that particular period, those particular developments, that particular set of phenomena, of 15th-16th (or 17th, 18th…) coastal fortifications and (slave) trading posts in West Africa.



Above: a section of the Portuguese fortifications at Mogador (Essaouira). Photo my own. // Below: a scene from HBO’s “Game of Thrones” TV show, in which the site is used as the scene for “Slaver’s Bay” or Astapor.



Of course, I was also excited about the Scala as it was a shooting location for Game of Thrones. Seems a bit weird that I should get to see this tiny piece of Astapor of all places – and not King’s Landing or some other more central or major site from the show – but it is what it is. And once you see the screenshots, it’s so recognizable.

Above: the “Walk of Punishment” in Game of Thrones. // Right: a section of the city walls of Essaouira. Photo my own.

I do wish they had more (or any) plaques explaining the history of the site. Thankfully, Wikipedia and various travel blogs and the like filled me in, and one of the last conference presentations of the first day gave a very nice overview of the history of the city for us as well.

The next day, I made my way to the other end of the fortress complex – while the Scala is prominently visible at one end of the beach, and on tourist guides, and charges 10 dirhams entrance fee, this other site has none of that. But it’s otherwise fairly similar – and it was this site, I believe, that was actually the one where they filmed the Walk of Punishment. So that was a very nice find. Great views of the city once again.

Looking down into Essaouira’s chief synagogue.

In the afternoon, everyone from the conference got taken on a tour of Essaouira’s small Mellah by André Azoulay. He first pointed out that a gate we’ve passed by numerous times in fact features a circle of a Koran verse at the keystone (center, just above the arch), flanked by two Stars of David. Though the six-pointed star is a natural design to emerge out of pure geometric experimentation, and does in fact feature frequently in Islamic tiling designs, here he says it is definitely a symbol of Essaouira’s Jewish history.

He then took us to the community’s very small synagogue, which was a pleasure to see. Sadly, the explanation was given largely in French, so I didn’t catch very much of it at all. But, attached to the synagogue, they are just now completing construction of a “House of Memory” – essentially a museum of the Jewish community in the city, though they don’t call it a museum because apparently Azoulay, and I suppose others, feel that museums represent a culture that’s in the past, whereas they wish to focus on the future. In addition to exhibits, the Memory House will provide some sort of spaces and resources for research. Dar Souiri, home of the Essaouira-Mogador Association, where the conference was held, also has a nice library of books on local history, and on Judeo-Muslim-Christian relations. I imagine that for someone doing research on just the right topic, these two institutions could be just perfect homes for them during research trips.

The House of Memory being constructed as a museum of the Jewish history and ongoing community of Essaouira.

Azoulay also told us that one of the writers of the very first US Constitution was a Jew from Essaouira, though I didn’t catch his name. He was the first Jew elected to office in the US. He donated his land to what is now the University of Florida. His father wrote a very early anti-slavery treatise. If anyone can tell me the name of this figure, I’d appreciate it. We learned that a notable UK Minister of Defense & of Transport of the earlier 20th century was also an Essaouira Jew named Belisha.

After a simple dinner, we finished out the night with a conversation with this incredible eccentric woman who it seems practically lives here quite frequently, though only for a few weeks or months at a time. She wouldn’t let me take a photo of her, which is a shame because she just seems such an incredible woman and I wanted to document in that way having met her and who she was. But, words shall have to suffice. A thin woman with wild white hair, an elegant blue and white scarf, and long black jacket or robe which made her seem larger than she was. Thin, a bit up in years, but so full of life and energy, and someone who just truly radiated presence. She said others have often described her as the woman of the house (madame d’ l’ mansion? I forget the French), and it certainly sounds like she has a special relationship with the proprietors or staff everywhere she goes.

But, it’s funny. My first impression was simply of a cosmopolitan world-traveler who truly enjoys her retirement, in relaxing fashion. Then we learned of her multiple PhDs, her various forms of volunteer work in Kenya and elsewhere, even leaving her home in a major US city, for a time at one point, unlocked and open at any hour for the police to direct abused women to go there and have somewhere to be. Degrees in agriculture, storage technologies, etc., and experience advising governments and similar institutions around the world in agriculture, storage, education, medicine, all sorts of things. I forget if she said she was ever officially affiliated with the UN or only with other organizations, but definitely with organizations of that sort, at least at times. Makes her seem like someone truly of note, like she should appear in Google searches. It’s truly amazing the kind of people you meet sometimes when you travel.

With the exception of screenshots from Game of Thrones, all photos are my own.

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Fes, Day 3

La Gare.

On our third day in Fez, we first left the medina and went out to the train station, to make sure we booked our tickets to Marrakesh sufficiently early. The train station, like the airport, looks really new and clean and shiny. Actually, here and there all throughout the city we saw various buildings which looked super new and clean and shiny, in stark contrast to everything else around them. Some were labeled “International Agency for Human Development” or something like that; others, such as an old caravanserai, we were told were renovated at the expense of the King. But, in any case, after the train station, we went to a district called the Mellah, about a 20 minute walk just southwest of the Medina, which was once upon a time the Jewish quarter. There, a kind man in his late 20s named Abdul Assif, offered to show us around. And he really did a very kind job of it. Didn’t lead us too far astray, or pressure us to buy anything. Just genuinely showed us various markings and sights, including the rabbis’ houses, and some markings of horseshoes, stars, and hamsa over doors or windows which he claimed marked the former homes of Jewish artisans. I’m not sure I buy it.



But, still, he then also showed us the gates to the Jewish cemetery, labeled “Beit Ha Chaim,” or “House of Life” in Hebrew, a very typical name for a Jewish cemetery. And finally he led us to what we were really looking for – Ibn Danan, a 17th century synagogue that’s no longer in operation but is maintained as a historical site. Nothing too exceptionally special on the inside, looking quite similar to ones I’ve seen in Tsfat (Safed) and elsewhere, but still very very cool to see – a synagogue, in Morocco!, in that particular traditional style where the pews face no particular direction, and the bimah (pulpit) is its own tiny little box with a pointed roof over it, looking quite a bit more like counterparts in Catholic and Muslim traditions, rather than the larger simpler stage and lectern that we see so often in the West (or, at least, almost ubiquitously in the US). As we expected to hear, the men would pray in the main room downstairs, and the women in a little balcony upstairs. There was also a tiny ritual bath (mikva) in the basement. And from the roof, we could see the cemetery. I don’t know anything about Moroccan Jewry – the synagogue itself looked very similar to things I’ve seen elsewhere, Sephardic or Mizrahi traditions, with some elements, such as the hanging lamps, clearly quite similar to Muslim aesthetic styles. But as for the rows and rows of perfectly white tombs, that’s new to me. I wonder where I might be able to learn a little more about that.

After the synagogue, Abdul Assif led us to his friend’s shop, who sells just about everything from shoes and leather bags to argan oil and other health products to rugs and ceramics. The argan oil was quite cheap, and the guy kept going on about how his prices were so much cheaper than in the Medina, because he sells wholesale to Moroccans – not usually to tourists – but then in the end he still charged us something like 280 dirhams ($28) for a cup or bowl! So, we kind of got taken in. Oh well. But, Abdul Assif then led us back to the gates of the medina, and was really quite kind and good as he let us go. No further pressure or anything.

We then made our way back into the medina, and had dinner that night at a place called Cinema Café, where they offered a special break-fast buffet. It was mostly tourists, so I felt a little weird about that – people have been fasting all day, and are eager for their traditional (or, in this case, at a café, maybe not quite so traditional) break-fast dinner with friends or family, and yet here we are, as tourists, pretending at joining in the same sort of religious or cultural custom. I think if we were Muslims visiting into town, who didn’t have any friends’ or family’s home to break fast at, that might feel more to the point to me. Like when I myself am overseas and am happy to find somewhere to celebrate Thanksgiving or Hannukah or whatever with others. Still, anyway, we did this thing, and both the food and the atmosphere were quite good. Cinema Café and another place we went to numerous times, Café Clock, are hip little oases of the kind of “hip” “modern” “cosmopolitan” sort of places one might expect to find anywhere else in the world. Feels a bit more like London, New York, or Tokyo than one might think or expect of Fes – which isn’t to say, of course, that Fes isn’t allowed to be modern, worldly, cosmopolitan, but hopefully you follow my meaning.

Café Clock is a funny place. On the one hand, it sort of feels like the hip sort of place that cosmopolitan young Moroccans might hang out in, a place that works really well as a “third place,” to go to regularly, to have a coffee or smoothie and (use the wifi and outlets and) work, or just hang out. Certainly the staff, many of whom seem like they’ve probably gone to school in Europe or elsewhere, seem to have that air of having the space serve that for them. But, then, on the other hand, it also feels really touristy in certain ways, like you’re doing a bad tourist, bad expat thing by “escaping” to this more comfortable place, which is cleaner and nicer, a bit more upscale… They have cooking classes, film screenings, music performances and music lessons, and other cultural events all the time, which is really great, but then also, makes it again feel more touristy. So I’m not sure what to think, except that we enjoyed it, and I’m glad it was there, and I’m not going to feel sorry or embarrassed about enjoying it. They had excellent smoothies and other things on the menu, a beautiful rooftop terrace with a view out over the neighborhood, a slightly quieter/cozier downstairs area with tables where I just worked on my computer while my gf had a private one-on-one oud lesson.. and the best wifi we’ve yet found in Morocco – much faster than in the guesthouse, allowing me to upload and email photos to my father, etc. We went back to Café Clock I don’t know how many times, for oud performances – my gf got to join in and play for one of them – for break-fast buffets twice, for getting a little work done, and for just having tea and sweets late at night. I also tried their camel burger. I’m glad I did, just as something I can say that I’ve tried, but frankly it was pretty gross. But then again, this is the first meat I’ve had in many many months, and I’ve never really been into burgers or steaks to begin with. So who knows if it was actually prepared badly, or actually all that bad-tasting, but it just wasn’t for me.

As I think I mentioned, in Fes, not only do people constantly call out to you to come look at their wares, and then haggle with you over the price, and make it hard for you to leave, but people will also constantly come up to you asking where you’re going, and offering to help guide you there – then take you around and around, intentionally getting you lost to make you feel like you really did need their help (and will need their help getting back, so you can’t leave!)… they take you to their friends’ places and try to push you into buying things, and then at the end demand some kind of fee for their help. … Simone is quite good at haggling, but even so we both were taken in a few times.

Thankfully, we were lucky, nothing too horrible ever happened to us at all. We got tricked or pressured a few times into buying things that were much more expensive than we’d expected – for example, a 28 Euro bowl that we’d expected would be closer to something like 70 dirhams (7 euros), given the expectation that everything ought to be much cheaper in Morocco, and that it almost undoubtedly *is* much cheaper, for Moroccans, just not for tourists; and for example taxi rides where they refused to use the meter, and then at the very end tacked on an arbitrary additional amount, say 30 or 50 dirhams, for the bother of loading and unloading our luggage. … That’s about all. Really the worst was just that a couple of kids (mid-to-late 20s) offered us tea and hash, and got us sitting and talking for a long time, and then led us around and around and around the winding roads of the medina for at least an hour, maybe two, I don’t know, at like midnight, offering to show us all sorts of key sights but really showing us pretty much nothing, and then we made the mistake of arranging to meet them the following morning so they could show us around again, and made the mistake of telling them where we were staying. Such that the following morning, even after we decided we were sketched out, and would just ditch them by staying in our room and just not answering the door, they waited for us for *two hours* and then cornered us when we finally did leave our guesthouse. Fortunately, again, though we were a bit scared and turned off by the whole thing, scared they might follow us, or just keep showing up demanding more money, or bring more friends to – I don’t know what, actually turn to physical violence? – fortunately, once we were firm and just told them we were done, and to go away, nothing more came of it.

Bab Semmarine, one of the main city gates out by the Mellah (Jewish quarter), about a 20 minute walk from the medina.

But, with that experience under our belts, by the time we got to Marrakesh, we were really on our guard. As we left the train station, none of the taxi drivers were willing to use the meter; all cited numbers we thought were probably too expensive. And then they started actually yelling and arguing with one another over who was going to get to take us… We eventually just got into one, just to get it over with and get away from there.

Then, when our cab finally stopped somewhere, and people just started taking our bags out of his cab, our first reaction was, where are we, who are these guys, what’s going on? For all we know, this cab driver could have been a scammer, who had brought us to his friends who were going to steal our stuff. Or something. Or, if not quite so bad, even still, maybe these guys were just random touts who were going to insist on “helping” us to our guesthouse, maybe even guiding us some excessively roundabout way, and then demand a tip. So we both said, hey, I don’t know who you are, we don’t need your help, we’ll be fine. I was actually a little bit scared. Having to defend yourself like that, and protect all your possessions when you’re outnumbered and don’t know where you are and have so many bags to manage… But then the lead guy – who is a young man, maybe late 20s, dressed in cut-up jeans and otherwise just looking like one of these street touts – pulled out a card showing he was with the guesthouse, so we decided, okay, I guess we should go with him. … This of course made the rest of our stay awkward, since we’d so distrusted him, and now he’s our host for however many nights. But, so it goes sometimes, I guess. If it happened all over again, I’m not sure I’d react any differently.

Bab Boujloud, the “Blue Gate.” The main gate into the medina of Fes.

Between this Morocco trip, and our time in Israel, Turkey, and Greece last year, I really have to say this whole street market culture of harassment, haggling, and scams is really one of my least favorite aspects of travelling in the Middle East. Maybe it’s just a cultural thing, as an American, I have different expectations and values and desires, but, I just really hate being forced by the situation to constantly, constantly, have to be impolite to people just to get them to leave you alone, or to treat you fairly. I hate having to assume that all the shopkeepers are constantly lying about the quality of their product, and about the price, constantly having to second-guess whether they’re being nice out of genuine kindness or as part of a method to get your money. Even in a “tough” city like New York, when you tell people to leave you alone, they generally do. But here, people will follow you for a block or more, still trying to haggle to try to sell you something even after you’ve said no. They’ll show you a dozen different versions of something even after you’ve firmly established that they don’t have the right color, style, size, or price for what you’re looking for. You can’t even look at something in the market streets, even glance in the direction of a shop or mouth the words “hey, that’s kind of nice,” without someone showing up to try to encourage you into their shop, sometimes even physically grabbing you or physically shoving the product into your hands. I hate that when you say No, they keep pressing. There’s really no way to get people to go away except to say No over and over and over again, and to just keep walking. There’s no way to deal with the constant calls of “Hello,” “Where are you from?,” “why don’t you just take a look?,” “very good prices, very good products, for you,” except to finally just ignore them entirely. And it’s not ignoring in a neutral sort of way, like how you ignore shop calls in Japan and they don’t care because it’s perfectly normal – here, people treat it like you’re being rude to them, even though that’s exactly what’s necessary in order to get them to leave you alone.

On the plus side, though, I guess I’m getting more used to it. I’m still taken in a lot, but it’s certainly less shocking, less aggravating, than it was last year. One travel tips website actually said that market touts in Fes and Marrakech are less pushy and so forth than in Istanbul or elsewhere in the region; I’m not sure this is true, but … whatever. You learn and you deal and you move on.

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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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