This past weekend at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly in New Orleans, the range of Jews was so vast that I was unsure where I fit. Despite hanging on the fringe regularly via anthropologist and artist roles, questions about identifying with certain aspects of various pockets of the Jewish world came naturally. The added benefit of the surreal pseudo-homogeneity taking place in New Orleans put peripheral Judaism in direct contact with my unexplainable attraction to the NOLA spirit.
YOUR RABBI IS A WHORE
Down South to represent Nextbook Press, New Orleans author Rodger Kamenetz had been on my radar. His Burnt Books, out this month, hits on a kind of Jew I could identify with:
Kafka never fully differentiated his psychological and spiritual struggles. But he never fully participated in them either. He approached Zionism and avoided it; approached marriage and avoided it. He speaks of “coming closer” to a “spiritual battle,” but it is as though it “were taking place in a clearing somewhere in the woods.”
Where did I belong among the GA contingents? Like Kamenetz sees in Kafka, I’m not one to really separate out the psychological and spiritual. Was God even an issue in my Rusky household? Maybe it was telling that there was no talk about religion or even the family’s past, but plenty about the right ways to act. Perhaps that’s why I felt some sort of default camaraderie with the Russian-Jewish kids from RAJE–all of us babies of the Old Country and having immigrated at such a flux time when any form of our ancestors’ senses of religious spirituality as Jews or otherwise had been stifled by the Man on such an imposing scale.
Speaking of assholes, the Westboro Baptists set a nice tone for the New Orleans gathering early on in the weekend, particularly with their clutch YOUR RABBI IS A WHORE sign. The rest of the protesters, including the now famous Netanyahu interrupter, were a peach to hang with after the Westboro haters got the soapbox.
DO IT, IT’S A MITZVAH
New Orleans writer and limo driver Hank Richelieu asked me, “What are the Jews doing in town? Can I say that word?” Another Southern belle residing back in New York, Kentucky bass trombonist Colby X. Norton told me, “Jews are the most sexual and realistic people on the planet.” Their funny takes on Jewishness spark the question, what does it mean to be a Jew in the large scope of things? Does it necessarily have to derive from a collective identity shared exceptionally by Jews?
Sitting on the dock of the bay, aka the steps on the Mississippi in the French Quarter, a New Orleans landscape hit the river that could be painted: wooden steps, anarchist punks, tourists, sleeping folks. The view of the blip blip tugboats was peppered with tourists on the boardwalk. Sitting down, we could see gutterpunks mingling on one side, and sleeping on the other. A passed out, dreaded and bearded guy in a military jacket, sneaker to asscheek of blondie with cheetah shorts so low they expose ass and thong. On the step below wallowed someone else. On the awake side, we played music and with puppies. Some of the group made comments about how maybe we should help a sister out, as she was way passed out and unaware that her asshole was hanging out. Homeboy took his girlfriend’s coat, and about to drape it over Sleeping Beauty was stopped by the shout from his girl, “Hey, I’ll need that!” I hollered over to them, “Whatever, do it. It’s a mitzvah.” So he dropped it on her strategically.
URBAN POP ARTISTS
While membership in RAJE would require adjustment to an ethos outside of my current scope, iZionists took it to another dimension off my radar altogether (“We’re recording why people love being a Zionist. Would you like us to record your segment?” “I’m not a Zionist,” I broke it to them.). In all, at the convention, the young Jewish artists gave me the strongest sense of connection to a Jewish community, especially fellow Chicago artist Maya Escobar’s sexy, sharply on-the-pulse, and incredibly accessible art. For me, it took the least amount of effort to gel with spirituality that engaged in community by way of artistic philosophy more than anything.
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