Believe it or not, my course, “Introduction to Jewish Cultural History,” enrolls around 70 students per quarter. I often wonder: Why do 70 souls — including all of maybe 10 Jews — who could be doing just about anything else at a vibrant, exciting university, wander into a large, anonymous, lecture course on “Jewish Cultural History?”
Maybe it has something to do with the fact that fully two weeks at the end of the course are devoted to the topic “Jews & the Blues.” Of course, in my professorial way, I think of this as the exploration of a fascinating cultural puzzle: how has an African-American musical tradition figured in both the Americanization of the Jews and the Judaization of American pop culture? Was there something in the Ashkenazic cultural tradition that made such Jews particularly hospitable to the music of America’s former slaves?
Turns out, though, that most of my students are actually attracted by the chance to goof off for a couple of weeks, forming opinions about the Americanized Jewishness of Irving Berlin, Al Jolson, the Gershwins, Jerry Felder, Carole King, Phil Spector, Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Alan Sherman, Shlock Rock, Shlomo, Debbie Friedman, and Matisyahu.
What they don’t realize, though, is that in order to get to expound, in their final papers, on the Kabbalistic reggae of Matisyahu, they first have to endure extended exposure to Prof. Jaffee’s idiosyncratic agenda of other Jewish cultural conundrums.
For instance: “What is the only country in the world where a Jew can be classified ethnically as an Anglo-Saxon?”
Any English-speaking Jewish visitor to the Jewish State (ergo, few of my students) knows the answer. Israel is the one place where a Yid from the Bronx can become a Viking over night (not that it did Alex Portnoy much good!). The Ministry of the Interior, in its infinite wisdom, long ago declared the English-speaking community of Jewish Israelis to constitute a quasi-ethnic community defined by the linguistic term, “Anglo-Saxon.” Who among us, upon having this Celtic genealogical crown bestowed upon his or her swarthy head, has not been simultaneously amused and slightly discomfited?
After all, this is the very thought process that transformed ancient speakers of Sanskrit and related languages, such as Greek and Latin, into “racial Aryans.” And we all know where that hiddush led! But there you have it in black and white, as it were, the canonical Jewish-Israeli ethnicities: Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Mizrachim, Temaniim, Yekkes, Russim, and… Anglosaksonim! Can you imagine if the fabled Jewish Legion had deployed a division of “Anglo-Saxons of the Israelite Persuasion?” Their rendition of the Horst Wessel Lied might have brought the War to an end by 1943!
Here’s another conundrum that repays contemplation. Consider the “Hebrews of the Portuguese Nation.” Maybe this elaborate synonym for “persons of Iberian Jewish extraction” is still part of the living tradition of some of Seattle’s older Sephardic families. But in its day — from about 1550-1700 — it embraced a world-wide Jewish community, centered in Amsterdam, united solely by the memory of Iberian origin and the magical faith in “common blood.”
It brought under the same ethnic-communal roof such apparent cultural irreconcilables as: practicing Sephardic Jews and closeted Conversos, who piously knelt at Communion every Sunday; Castilian penitents in Venice seeking “Salvation in the Torah” and Portuguese disciples of “Our Lord and Redeemer” Shabtai Zvi in London; and brilliant minds as disparate in their gifts as Benedict Spinoza, Azariah De Rossi and Isaac Cardoso.
It excluded, on the grounds of ethnicity alone¸ those Jews, professing or not, who stemmed from the Ashkenazic lands. Get this: any Converso could apply to the Amsterdam Mahamad (that era’s United Jewish Appeal) for help in arranging a dowry for his daughter to marry the son of another gente da nacao (“Man of the Nation”) in a Church wedding. But the Ashkenazic immigrant to Amsterdam, Rabbi Uri Halevi of Emden, had to take an oath of loyalty (and, I imagine, had also to mind his tofs and sofs) to preside over the first official synagogue services sponsored by the “Portuguese” community!
Sounds exotic? If you take another look, it’s also oddly familiar. These “Hebrews of the Portuguese Nation” are, in fact, the first modern Jews — if by “modern” we mean possessing a Jewish identity that treats religious belief and practice as a variable measure of Jewishness, while celebrating the power of common ethnicity as an absolute point of cultural orientation.
This is, of course, somewhat grating to the ears of my fellow Ashkenazim, who assume that the wheel of modern Jewish history turns on an axis that runs through Berlin and Odessa straight on to New York. What? “Modern” Jewish culture did not begin with the Enlightenment of Western Europe that inspired the scribblings of Moses Mendelssohn? What?! The maskilim of the Russian Empire are not the pioneers of modernity their Anglo-Saxon descendants at the Jerusalem Post or the Forward often take themselves to be?!
No, modern Jewish culture has much earlier roots. It began among those whose family history had taught them to appreciate “religion” as a useful convention that should not exceed its proper role — to sanctify, when necessary, the absoluteness of “blood,” family and ethnicity. From Amsterdam’s “Hebrews of the Portuguese Nation” of 1650 we can draw a thick red line that ends directly in what sociologist Marshall Sklare described in the 1950s as “American Judaism on the suburban frontier.” Masterminded, of course, in the Reform and Conservative rabbinical seminaries of the former New Amsterdam!
Okay, class! Back to Jews & the Blues. For extra credit: What was the first pop song targeted by critics as an “unholy union of Shem and Ham in the Tent of Japhet?”