Hereness

Avram Mlotek
June 1, 2012
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God’s first question, as recorded in the Torah, is “Where are you?” (Genesis: 3:9). The Jewish people have strived to answer this question throughout the generations. From Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s Hassidic assertion, “You are wherever your thoughts are. Make sure your thoughts are where you want to be,” (Lekutei Mohoran 1:21) to the rallying anthem of the Partisan Hymn written by Hirsh Glik, “Mir Zaynen Do – We are still here,” a defiant declaration of life after the horrors of the Holocaust, the Jewish people aim to fulfill our place in life, physically and spiritually.

In reflecting on the notion of place and its impact on cultural production, I think of my grandparents and their relationship to Bundism, Jewish socialism. Doikayt, or here-ness in Yiddish, was an ideology of Jewish Socialists in Eastern Europe who believed that Jews had the right to live wherever they found themselves. Bundists thought that Jews should focus on bettering their own lives in the countries where they lived, rather than actualizing dreams of Zion.

My grandmother, Chana Mlotek, the music archivist at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, directed me to a mocking poem she attributes to Sholem Aleychem, the legendary Yiddish storyteller:

“Akh, ir burzhuazne tsienistn
Mit ayer ketsn meykhl,
Kumt tsu dem arbeter
Un lernt zikh baym im seykhl!”

Oh, you bourgeois-like Zionists
With your cat brains!
Come to the worker
And learn real wisdom from him!”

(Mlotek: Muzik un Lid in Sholem Aleykhem’s Lebn un Shafn, Di Goldene Kayt Journal, 1985)

While Sholem Aleychem poked fun at the Bundist pursuit of doikayt in the face of Zionism, Aryeh Cohen, professor of rabbinic literature at American Jewish University, advocates that doikayt had its roots in Jewish tradition, even Tanakh. Cohen points out that it was the prophet Jeremiah who said, “And seek the well-being of the city in which you dwell, and pray to God in its behalf, for in its peace you shall find peace.” (Jeremiah 29:7) Was this not a Biblical manifestation of a doikayt endeavor? (Cohen: Migrating Thoughts, Tikkun Magazine, July/August 2006)

It was in that spirit that secular Yiddish communities responded to the campaign to free Soviet Jewry in the 1960s and 1970s. As Stalin eradicated Jewish culture in the 1950s and the Soviet tyranny forbade immigration and suppressed Jewish life with closing of schools, libraries, Yiddish theaters and publishing houses, international Jewish communities felt a call to act, especially in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

As several communities pushed for the right of Soviet Jews to immigrate to Israel, others felt strongly that Jews should have the liberty to live freely as Russian Jews. And for many, it was simply advocating people’s freedom to choose their own destiny.

The Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, overlooking the Statue of Liberty, an historic symbol of hope that place might provide, is now presenting an exhibition entitled “Let My People Go; The Soviet Jewry Movement, 1967-1989.” The exhibition explores the struggle Russian Jews experienced in trying to live as Jews under oppression, as well as the global campaign to help this community.

The Museum in association with Dor Chadash, The National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene, and Beit Hatfusot of America sponsored a special concert event on May 14 called, “Notes from the Underground.” The concert showcased an array of performers sharing music from that period as well as new interpretations of old struggles. Golem, a Yiddish punk rock band, performed Citizen Boris, a raw modern immigrant tale: http://www.myspace.com/music/player?sid=40070910&ac=now

The question of what it means to live fully and productively in the spaces we inhabit is a timeless task, and not solely a Jewish one. A look into our past, and how previous generations lived under their challenges, might inspire and educate, giving us insight as how to live meaningfully in our places today.

For more information on the exhibition at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, which is open through August 5th, visit: http://www.mjhnyc.org/lmpg

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Avram Mlotek is a student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and performs regularly with the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene Center for Performing Arts. His writings have appeared in The Huffington Post, The Forward and The Jewish Week. Avram was recently named in The Jewish Week's "36 Under 36" as a leading innovator in Jewish life today. He lives on the Upper West Side with his wife and daughter.

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