Ephraim Oakes is an oysterlisher* yid, proud golesnik, and aspiring writer of Yiddish punk songs. He’s still recovering from the culture shock of moving from a commune in rural Virginia to the small New England city where he currently resides. He used to make cheese and hammocks for a living, though at the moment, his mild-mannered alter-ego is a graduate student, ethnographer, and music scholar. [*oysterlish – literally, “queer” in the sense of odd or unusual, but with a little bit of the positive connotation of “exceptional”; from “oyster”, like the mollusk]

IB of JVoices: What does it mean to you to be Jewish?

Ephraim: On the one hand, being Jewish is one of the few identities I claim which I allow myself to take almost completely for granted. I suppose this is at least in part because, unlike various other facets of my identity (gender, sexuality, work, and even race to some degree), that I am Jewish is rarely contested by others. On the other hand, within the bounds of just being Jewish by both accident of birth and the circumstances of my childhood, I certainly spend alot of time thinking about ‘how’ to be Jewish, and what kind of Jewish I both want to and am able to do. I think the difference between ‘being’ Jewish and ‘doing’ Jewish is a particularly useful distinction.

To the end of how I ‘do’ Jewish, this is something that has changed throughout my life and I can only expect will continue to change. For the last year or two, I’ve been fashioning myself into a comitted Yiddishist. I have a lifetime of work ahead of me to get as full a grip on the language and culture part of that as I’d like, but it’s work I find rewarding and thankfully possible. This sort of young, lefty Yiddishism is comfortable and invigorating and feels full of great potential in terms of what I can contribute to a Jewish community that I see as failing another generation of youth in the lack of options other than frumkeit/religiousity on the one hand and zionism on the other. For someone with leanings towards grassroots, liberation-oriented politics, it’s easy and pleasant to claim affinity with a kind of Yiddishism that nurtured the Bund, and that created a once-flourishing in-group culture full of art, literature, music, science, scholarship, etc. While I myself am mostly a Secularist, at least for the moment, I find it exciting to see the old Secular/Religous binary slip away as unnecessary in Yiddishist oriented communities. Yiddishism has given me new and productive tools with which to understand the Israel-Palestine conflict and to develop a critique of zionism primarily on the basis of it having been founded on ideologies of internalized anti-semitism and in long-term effect having been bad for Jews and for Jewish culture rather than a critique on the basis of the particular actions of the state of Israel at any given point in time. It has allowed me to see the ridiculousness and anti-semitism inherent in the zionist conception and portrayal of the goles-yid and look to a reclaiming of goles status as an important site of resistance.

Yiddishism has its sticky points though, especially after the state of Israel’s creation. “Jew” has come to mean something global, not local, and as such Yiddishism or Ashkenazo-centrism comes to read like white-supremacy. I don’t have a good answer to that yet. The best I can do is to say that at least signifiers of Ashkenaz, like the Yiddish language, serve to limit their context and mark it as culturally specific, rather than leave things unmarked thereby claiming a pan-Jewish context, but then actually be governed by and geared towards Ashkenazim, as mainline Jewish intstitutions tend to be. That is, when a Yiddish word slips from my lips, I’m implicity not claiming to represent any Jewish culture other than my own, which I see as a step better than pretending to represent or talk for Sephardim or Mizrahim when I’m just clearly unable to do so. It also seems that the vigorous interest in one’s own specific, localized culture (especially one that has been so fully repressed from both inside and outside, like Yiddish culture has) implies an encouragement in that kind of vital cultural specificity for everyone, and that’s what has gotten lost in the construction of the big corporate level, or national level, pan-Jewishness. Overall, becasue of the symbolic weight, both positive and negative, that the Yiddish language carries, and because of the history of it’s repression by non-Jews and more horrifically by Jews, in the mainstream Jewish world, Yiddish is this floating empty signafier just waiting to be appropriated by someone, and I’m happy to continue the trend of leftists and queers appropriating it.

Despite the ease with which Yiddishism fits my life, and despite my usual claim of being a proud apikoyres, i do scandelously feel the pull towards religion, so much so that I suspect if I had a more normative kind of gendered life, I might be frum by now (I also might have joined the military or some kind of charismatic cult, but that’s another story). Part of the draw towards religion is the deep need to understand the ideas and history of religion in order to have a fuller understanding of the culture. Part of it is simply about aesthetics and communitas. I think the enormous degree to which aesthetics and religion or “the spiritual experience” are intertwined is not acknowledged nearly enough. That is, for some people (such as myself), aesthetics and politics are just about all that’s to be found in religion, all that accounts for the subjective experience of “spirituality”, and that’s ok. To say that is not a denegration of religion, but perhaps an uplifting of the idea of aesthetics and an acknowledgement of some of the complex ways that human sensory perception works and how easy it is to impose sets of meanings on certain kinds of aesthetic experiences. The main reason it was so easy for me to leave Jewishness as a religious expression is that the mainstream conservative shul i was raised in was utterly aesthetically uninteresting. Though the Jewish aesthetic that is interesting and apealing to me – old world shtibl, table-pounding zmires singing, etc. – is not one that’s acessible to me for an array of reasons. Thankfully, there are folks (and I hope to count myself among them) mining those cultural resources and making something new and more broadly acessible out of them, in both religious and secular contexts.

IB: What makes you feel connected to other Jews?

Ephraim: I wish I knew. I just do feel connected, even when I ought not to, even to other Jews with whom I violently disagree or whom I believe to be committing
morally reprehensible acts. It makes me hold them to a higher standard. I think connection is really a matter of shared symbols and reference points; shared language; shared acknowledgement of each others identities. In the cultural literacy that learning Yiddish has brought me, I actually feel much more connected to frum folks than I ever have before or would have expected, because I can understand a lot more of what they’re talking about
and to some degree weigh in on their discourse. We speak something closer to the same language, not in terms of actual language, but in terms of the array of religious and cultural concepts at play that my suburban conservative Hebrew school did not prepare me for nor intended to.

IB: What makes you feel disconnected from other Jews?

Ephraim: An insistance on fundamentalism. That doesn’t just mean Orthodox fundamentalism; there are Secularists who are equally insistant that Secularism is the only right way to things as the Orthodox are that their specific interpretation of halokhe is the only right way to do things. This whole ‘swing to the right’ thing that’s been going on for the past few decades feels more and more alienating and fragmentary. I talk to alot of old Jews (and not the hip, over-educated New York kind of old Jews either) who were raised what we would now call Orthodox and whenever specifics of religious practices come up, “yeah, but no one ever used to care about that” could be some kind of slogan. The ease with which a lot of people or communities are able and willing to slough off their local specified (even family) culture and trade it in for an invented culture being handed to them by some big institution (Chabad, Hillel, Birthright, etc.).

IB: What kind of Jewish community do you have, and what kind of Jewish community do you desire?

Ephraim: The Jewish community that is dearest to me at the moment definately falls
under the category of ‘imagined community’ – a community of young Yiddish-culture or language oriented people that converge in various permutations once in awhile in places like KlezKamp or Yugntruf.

I desire a community of that same sort but in a small geographically localized manifestation. I wouldn’t turn down a local community that was bottom-up and could get itself really comfortable with plurality either.