Frequencies: Shma Yisrael
By Josh Kun
I am an American Jew and I have never been to Israel. When I was growing up in Los Angeles, it seemed like just about every other Jewish kid in braces I knew had taken one of those teen tours to the motherland and learned how to say “aliyah” like it was a new store at the Beverly Center. They came home with gum-snapping stories of wailing walls and kibbutzes and with new guttural pronunciations of Hebrew words that sounded nothing like what we mumbled and regurgitated in secularized transliteration at Hebrew school (where we sang Simon and Garfunkel and called it tradition). The closest I ever came to going to Israel was planting a tree there, and I didn’t even do that. I signed my name to a certificate that supposedly meant that somewhere in the Holy Desert, where the real Jews lived, some real Jews were planting a tree in my name.
Over the years, as I grew less interested in organized Judaism, I grew less invested in Israel. It may have been an explicitly Jewish state, one that, like all other members of the Diaspora tribe, I was supposed to feel connected to, but it was still a state I didn’t live in, full of people I didn’t have much in common with. Maybe it’s because the Holocaust survivors in my family didn’t take Israel up on its 1948 offer to be a safe haven for genocide’s dispossessed and instead came to L.A., where they lived and died without ever looking back. As a result, my Jewishness has always been locally Californian first and nationally American second, with Israel offstage as the imaginary center, the invisible Jewish wizard of the Diaspora’s Oz.
Because the war against Iraq has been so often spun as a war for Israel by some of the right-wing Jewish members of the Bush imperium, and because too many American Jews cry anti-Semitism when these armchair warrior Jews are critiqued, and because too many American Jews equate opposing Israeli occupation of Palestine with advocating Israel’s destruction, it has been hard (as well as politically irresponsible) not to think about Israel as something other than imaginary these days. On the one hand, there is the transcendental Israel of Jewish tradition that is, as Simon Rawidowicz wrote in 1948, “constantly on the verge of ceasing to be.” On the other, there is the current brute political state of Israel that has turned this fight against disappearance into a fight for the disappearance of its Arab neighbors.
For an American Jew living far from these occupied front lines of bulldozing tanks and bulldozed human rights activists, what lies between these two Israels is a question of memory. Just how far should the memory of past suffering dictate present policy? How much should American Jews be driven by what they (are asked to) remember? The Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit asks similar questions in his new book, The Ethics of Memory (Harvard). “Are we obligated to remember people and events from the past?” he asks. “Who are the we who may be obligated to remember: the collective ‘we,’ or some distributive sense of ‘we’ that puts the obligation to remember on each and every member of the collective?”
These questions are implicit in the new albums by The Klezmatics and Les Yeux Noirs, groups who belong to a vaguely sketched Jewish “we,” groups who make contemporary music that carries Jewish memory with it. The Klezmatics are radical New York Yiddishists who refuse to split the sacred from the profane (they riff on Holly Near and the Song of Songs), and Paris’s Les Yeux Noirs are French sons of Polish immigrants, slick violin revivalists with a penchant for Jew and Gypsy sound summits (if Epcot ever had a “Jewish Diaspora” exhibit, Les Yeux are Strunz and Farah enough to be the house band). For Jewish listeners, there is no way of hearing the former’s Rise Up! Shteyt Oyf! (Rounder) and the latter’s Live (World Village) and not feel the challenge to face history straight on.
Israel haunts both recordings like it haunts the very notion of the Diaspora, the very thing that is there and not there at once. Listening to the music of both bands is, like it or not, an engagement with what you know or don’t know about who you are. For me, at this historical moment, listening to the records is like facing an incessant, nagging question: Do you remember? Have you forgotten? I don’t understand the Klezmatics’ Yiddish or Hebrew. I’m not fluent in the Jewish and Gypsy melodies of Les Yeux. But I know this music deeply and feel somehow at its mercy. Because as a reform West L.A. Jew, none of this is my music, yet all of it is supposed to be, and sometimes when I listen to it, the conflict is all I can hear.
The Klezmatics call the album’s most lulling, plaintive song “Di Gayster” (“Ghosts”). There are no words that specify which ghosts, but what I hear are the spirits we share, all of us, in the vast, contrary expanse of our collective memory. I hear the homelands we’ve never seen, the holy places that spawn unholy acts, and, in my case, I feel the embrace of people, of place, of the past, of a center that reaches toward me but cannot hold.