[image: Geoffrey Cohen. Not me.]
by J J Cohen
Some time back, as I toiled upon my Leeds paper, I provided here at ITM an example of what might be called a yid punk, a young man who critiqued through histrionic excess the beliefs of those to whom he was a minority. My paper for the York 1190 conference picks up on some of those themes. Since I'm examining 'The Future of the Jews of York,' I will likely start with some contemporary re-imaginings of Jewish identity, especially within a youth culture for whom a Yiddish-inflected, immigrant-experience focused Judaism doesn't hold sufficient allure... and I begin with an example of Jews punking Jews.
In January of 2009 a press release bearing the letterhead of the Board of Deputies of British Jews (motto: “The voice of British Jewry since 1760”) circulated via email. The document declared:
The Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council, in consultation with a coalition of prominent organisations in the Anglo-Jewish community, have decided to cancel the planned Israel Solidarity Rally, due to occur on Sunday 11th of January … The demonstration might be perceived as the community taking one side in the tragic war in Gaza and Israel … The Board calls for an immediate cease fire … in order to allow the Gazan and Israeli people to live together in peace. There is no military solution, only a political one … The Board stands in solidarity with the besieged and injured people of Gaza, as well as the victims of terrorism in Israel, and we oppose all violence as contrary to the tenets of the Jewish religion.
Needless to say, this Sabbath-timed press release caught the Board of Deputies of British Jews quite by surprise. The Board’s official position is that it supports ultimate peace, but not through a ceasefire; its placards for the January event, for example, read “End Hamas Terror.” The Solidarity rally continued as planned, attracting about 15,000 supporters to Trafalgar Square. Small counterdemonstrations were held across the street and included some Jews protesting Israel’s military deployments and tactics.
On January 14, a second email was disseminated to those who received the first announcing that the BOD press release had been a hoax. This time the email appeared under the name Jewdas, a self-described “rootless cosmopolitan yeshiva” of radical British Jews. Jewdas’ mission is supposed to be derived from the Book of Jewdas, discovered “by the back of a kebab shop in Dalston.” Thousands of years old, written in Jerusalem by “a cabal of radical scribes” in anachronistic Yiddish (“a far older, more authentic language than Hebrew”), the book commands its readers to “mercilessly satirize Anglo Jewry, suggest new and more radical ways of being Jewish, and also throw excellent parties.” As indicated by its embrace of a Stalinist euphemism for Jews (“rootless cosmopolitans,” those who do not and cannot share the national culture), Jewdas turns antisemitic denigration into cheeky possibility, angering many traditionalists. The group often speaks under the nom de plume “Geoffrey Cohen” (no relation). The second email declared:
Well yes, it was us. We sent the Board of Deputies Hoax email. Not some ‘Islamist cell’ or ‘Hamas supporters’ as many of you imagined. Just a group of nice yiddisher boys and girls … We weren’t trying to be malicious … we weren’t even trying to stop people going to the rally … we wanted, in this action, to show another possible reality, to suggest that ‘another Jewish community is possible.’
Those who believed it, even for a moment, were being given a gift, a vision of the Jewish leadership who stood up for peace and justice, rather than standing for mindless ethnic solidarity. These people should not be considered gullible, rather they showed the imagination to see an inspiring, alternative vision. We offered a Midrash on Anglo-Jewish life, a dvar aher (another path), an aggadah for the Talmud of the present.
The hoax’s objective, the email states, was to open a “temporary imaginary zone” in which voices typically silenced might find audition, a zone in which the letter’s receiver might enjoy a “shabbat in accord with the best of Judaism.” The letter then restates the call for an immediate ceasefire and lifting of the economic blockade that appeared in the faked BOD release, “this time under our own name.” These impious, unorthodox pranksters who call themselves Jewdas were in other words foregrounding a non-monolithic Jewish identity in the present, as well as the possibility of a differently imagined Jewish future.
Jewdas is not the only subculture coalition of Jews to have formed in the past few years: in the United States, for example, loose counterparts can be found in Jewcy, Jewschool, PunkTorah, and (to highly corporatized degree) Heeb. These loose communities of mostly young Jews incorporate left-leaning politics into their identities. All deploy irreverent humor and provocative satire, often in the hope of social change. Jewdas, however, has a considerably sharper political focus and a keener activist edge (its logo is Che Guevera as an orthodox Jew). All these groups also emphasize Jewish coalition with non-Jews. Jewdas, for example, speaks on its webpage of “the need to widen Judaism beyond the boundaries of those born Jewish, towards an ethic of wider concern, a Judaism that might at times stand in critique of the Jews.” It declares to its readers and potential supporters – many of whom, it acknowledges, will be neither British nor Jewish: “whatever your background if you: prefer stirring things up to keeping the peace, prefer dreaming of the utopian rather than settling for the prosaic, and think that culture and ethnicity should be springboards for overthrowing the state, then you’re a Jewdaser at heart."
A Christian medieval writer would have said Judaizer, but the idea is the same: come too close to the Jew, neighbor the Jewish world without erecting sufficient partition, and both of you may change as a result. Both of you may enter an imaginary space – albeit, perhaps, a temporary one – where what has always been need no longer hold true. This is a long way of saying that we are used to the massacre of 1190 standing as the inevitable future of the Jews of York. We are used to the Expulsion of 1290 as an inexorable rendezvous. The power of such defining moments is that, when hitched to a progress narrative that culminates in catastrophe, they do not allow for those medieval Jews who may have been irreverent punks, who may have considered themselves citizens of York and England as well as rootless cosmopolitans, who may have carried with themselves identities that only at a first and cursory glance seem timeless, set in stone.
i don't quite know how to frame my own talk for 1190. On the one hand I know an awful lot of stuff and detail about topography - on the other have strong feelings about the remaking of public emotional communities.
What sticks most is the kind of diachronic inevitablism of much topographical and social local history. The insistence on evolution - on ever becoming closer to us. By contrast I think a lot of what happened in the 12th century was soon undone. That there were lots of dead-ends (quite literally), accidents, travesties, and reversals of fortune and many new things some of which survived and grew old some of which died almost as soon as they were born - and all this was only later on tidied up into a seamless history.
Ok - maybe I have just written the beginning of my talk - or at least the beginning of the beginning ...
have a feeling now that I wrote something like this somewhere here before
thanks for being my dictaphone
I think we will be exploring many of the same themes, Sarah! And here's an ancient comment from Karl I often come back to, certainly an important part of the conversation we've had at ITM.
Hey Jeffrey Cohen, thanks for the comment about PunkTorah.com. I will say, however, that I disagree with your assessment of our organization.
PunkTorah is independent Jewish spirituality.
A non-profit organization (501c3 pending), we are the only organization in the world that is interested in helping people develop spiritually through Judaism without any biases or hidden agenda.
I wouldn't say that we use left-wing politics because we are a spirituality, not political organization.
But thanks for the nod!
Thanks, PunkTorah, for your comment. By left-leaning (which in my vocabulary is a compliment) I really meant socially active, interested in tikkun olam through the betterment of lives -- Jewish and non-Jewish -- in the here and now.
But I take your point!
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