Sunday, July 27, 2008

Jewish Community

First and foremost it is necessary to understand that to a lot of people, Jews that is, who know my ancestry I would not be considered Jewish. Jewish “blood” is passed down through the mother and my mother was not born a Jew. She converted when I was 8, so when I was born I was not born a Jew. However, within the more liberal Jewish communities I am considered a Jew (reconstructionist, reform). And within more conservative sects I have a lot of legitimacy as a Jew (conservative is also a sect of Judaism). I attended Jewish day school for 5 years (4th-8th) where I received an extensive education in culture, language, tradition and history, although all from a conservative perspective. I had a Bat Mitzvah when I was 12 (traditional age for a female). And prior to my Bat Mitzvah I had a half conversion ceremony. I attended a Jewish camp. I also went to Israel in spring 2007 on an advocacy trip. So while my bloodline does not dictate so my experiences growing up give me a lot of legitimacy as a Jew and the ability to “pass” as such within Jewish a Jewish context.
Passing as a conservative Jew is a strange thing because while I can do it with ease I disagree with so many of the values that are represented within conservative Jewish contexts. I remember when I was doing a project and I interviewed an aging Jewish man. Hearing my name (Hannah, a “nice Jewish name”), put him at ease with me and he started to reveal things that when confronted with someone else he likely would have kept to himself. Jewish culture while it says that you must be nice to the stranger (other, outsider) it also makes it very clear that they are not part of our community. It is that type of inclusivity that while I think has contributed to the sustainability of the Jewish religion is also troubling to say the least. Last week I was reminded of that incident when one of the people at the Shabbat dinner I attended started talking about interfaith marriages and the “silent holocaust”. Because she was comfortable at the table of people she saw as the same as her she revealed this detail. However, sitting at that table was my mother, a non-blood jew, and me, the product of an interfaith marriage. And this is not the first time that I have encountered something like this.
On my trip to Israel in the spring of 2007 we sat down at one point to discuss some of the issues we encountered as “jews in a non jewish world”. One of the issues we discussed was interfaith marriage. So here I was in a group of youth, people who should not be limiting their romantic attachments, and/or thinking about marriage yet and all of them were vehemently opposed to interfaith marriage. As the daughter of a mixed marriage and someone who was dating a gentile at that point hearing these feeling were hard for me to deal with. What is difficult for me now is how do I negotiate my tie to Judaism? For me the religion has always been a base even though my religious affiliations have changed a lot over the years. In addition, it has a community that provides my brother (who has autism) with the support that he needs; in the form of community, open arms and even programming. So as I sit at a table with jews who are saying things that go against my values, but who are people that we need the connection to for the sake of my brother, I have to decide how to react, and in the end I usually decide to keep my mouth shut, after all it is important that my parents and brother find the community they need. However the elitist mindset of most of these people is hard to digest.

“As jews we believe that everyone in our community is just like us, as jews we believe that we are the chosen people and that we are better than everyone else. As jews we think that issues of ethnicity, sexuality, gender, race, class, spirituality, etc are problems for the gentiles, we believe that we are beyond that…”

For someone who accepts this mindset or lives in a very classic jewish community it is easy to live this lifestyle, however as someone who lives on the edge of many of the issues the jewish community ignores, it is hard to digest.

Now this is not to say that all jews/communities are like this. My synogogue (reconstructionist, the hippies of the jews) has always been a welcoming community that seems not to ignore the issues so many others ignore. However, I often feel like the more conservative influences of my childhood overpowered the welcoming atmosphere of my synagogue. And has left me with a distaste for the conservative jewish community.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Language and the Betrayal of Culture

“The Black man who arrives in France changes because to him the country represents the tabernacle; he changes not only because it is from France that he received his knowledge of Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Voltaire, but also because France gave him his physicians, his department heads, his innumerable little functionaries – from the sergent-major “fifteen years in the service” to the police-man who was born in Panissieres. There is a kind of magic vault of distance, and the man who is leaving next week for France creates round himself a magic circle in which the words Paris, Marseille, Sorbonne, Pigalle become the keys to the vault. He leaves for the pier, and the amputation of his being diminishes, as the silhouette of his ship grows clearer. In the eyes of those who have come to see him off he can read the evidence of his own mutation, his power. “Good-by bandanna, good-by straw hat…”

So I started reading the book Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon. Im only on the third chapter so I’m sure more writing on this book is yet to come however I wanted to start discussing/processing what I am reading.
The first chapter of the book is about language and the cultural significance of language. Everyone has some degree of experience with this, most of us can tell a southern accent, a British accent, an Australian accent. And people have often encountered the difficulties of that language barriers present, and often discrimination that results.
In the book Fanon discusses the dialects and languages of people in France and the French colonies during the 20th century. Most specifically Fanon discusses the differences in language from the primarily black inhabited colonies to the mainland and the cities, such as Paris. Fanon speaks about an un-ending quest to be white. This quest is shown, among other ways, in those who reform the way they speak so they can avoid the stigma they would otherwise face in French society.
The short movie I have posted below is a satire on the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. For those of you who don’t know the plot of Pygmalion it is as such. A rich doctor in 19th century England finds a girl on the street that speaks a very “poor” version of English and he makes a bet with his friend that he can train her to pass in high society over the course of a number of months. The play is often thought of as a commentary on nature vs. nurture. However I want to look on this, and the movie versions that followed (My Fair Lady, Trading Places) as commentary on society. These movies put forth the idea that to succeed you must assimilate into the culture of those in power. This is apparent in Fanons writing as well as in the play. This is not a fact I am not going to attempt to ignore because I see it everywhere. The voices of those on the margins are often squashed not simply because of minority status or alternative lifestyle but also because there exists a great cultural and language divide. It is simple kids from the poor parts of the inner city do not speak the same way that kids from the rich suburbs do. I can see this divide in myself when I reflect on the way that my language changed as I moved out of private middle school in a very upscale, Philadelphia mainline suburb to public high school in the inner ring suburb right outside of west Philadelphia, Upper Darby. Upper Darby High School serves as a midpoint for a lot of things. It is within that school district that the landscape changes from the city to the suburbs and naturally the language of the students reflects that in between status.
So what Fanon seems to talk about is the constant desire on the part of black citizens to “become white” to assimilate to the culture of the ruling class in order to rid themselves of their blackness and therefore be successful. He speaks about a black physician he once knew who joined the army, as a medical officer, in order to be the boss. This man joined the army and refused to go to the colonies or serve in a colonial unit, rather he wanted to be the boss of the white men, to gain their subservience in whatever way he could. This was his way of gaining whiteness. Despite his exemplary behavior ability as a physician he felt that he could never be legitimized within the community.
One of the elements of any culture is the language. Denial of natural language is like a denial of culture and identity. Forcing someone to give up their native toungue is a form of oppression and yet so many cultures also force it on themselves. Fanon talks about more middle and upper class families and nice schools where the language of creol was banned because it was considered uncivilized and improper. Is language the tool of the oppressor? Is language just a way to keep disenfranchised youth from the ghetto? Whether it is mid 20th century France or present day America I think there is something wrong with a society in which people on the margin must conform to the methods of the power in order to succeed, however, I also feel as though this is inevitable in any society and so I struggle with that. I do not like the concept of forcing others to give up their culture in order to be accepted by mine, and yet without allyship and cross cultural understanding (on both parts) how can anything get done?

PS- I think you have to have and be signed into a vimeo account to watch the video, I am working on a solution to embeding so everyone can watch but in the mean time it would totally be worth it to get a vimeo account and watch this (plus a ton of other really sweet vids on vimeo)

Untitled from Hannah Horwitz on Vimeo.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Impacting Girls, Influencing Life: The Portrayal of Women in the Media

So for my next project I am working on a documentary/potential installation about the portrayal of women in the media, this is the continuation and expansion of a topic that I have been working on all year but over the course of the next few months I am going to be going more into depth, with this topic. I have begun to shape an independent study that will reflect a desire to get into more theory based around race and gender. At this point in the process I am looking for advice, reading recommendations, interviews or any kind of discussion around this topic.

Below is my final project for Video 1:
There are still a number of rough edges that need to be smoothed out, but while I work on those, check this out!

Quick Blurbs from Old Blog

when attempting to counteract the main stream do you/ should you work from within the mainstream? Or is that just feeding into a culture that will eventually hijack your message and destroy it's meaning? Example: submitting your videos to youtube, is this a good thing or is it just feeding the culture your attempting to destroy?

So I am working on a continuation documentary about women in the media and I wonder who am I, as someone who does not identify as female to work on a documentary about women in the media. On one hand growing up being molded as a female these images effected me and it hits me hard to see my younger cousins being so impacted by them, but on the other hand do I have a right to talk about these issues?

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

I Never Thought I Would Grow up to be a Woman

I grew up with the privilege of parents who didn’t care. Not didn’t care as in neglect, but didn’t care as in they never told me how to be, or how to dress or how to think about myself. At age 4 I wanted to be the Beast for Halloween, and so my mom made me the costume, and sewed up a beauty costume for my doll and I marched in my preschools Halloween parade as the beast with beauty on my arm. And in the subsequent years I refused to wear dresses, flowers, the color pink, and my mom never cared, we avoided sections of the store, she removed the flowers from hand-me down t-shirts and sewed jumpers and outfits for me to wear to family events so that I did no have to wear a dress. And when I came home crying one day because someone asked me if I was a boy or a girl she simply said boys don’t wear flowers, and she bought me a pair of flowery pants, and I tried it, but then I gave up, or I didn’t care, I forget which.
In the search for an education my parents moved me out of 3rd grade at public school and into 4th grade at a Jewish day school. At first I loved it, but as I grew I could see the atmosphere smothering the independence that had been fostered in me as a child. I wanted to fit in, and so I started wearing dresses, and skirts and I even stole make-up from the local drug store. And I tried, but the skills and desires that are inherent in other girls to put effort in, to be comfortable in a skirt and to want to look pretty never formed in my brain, and so I was awkward, and clumsy and messed up a lot and still I never fit in. And I remember the first time they told me that I was supposed to be a woman, I think that’s when everything changed, in 5th grade when gender mattered and boys and girls started dating, and the girls asked me to be on their basketball team because I was the best girl at basketball.
Every year in elementary school each grade did something appropriate within the scheme of Jewish Education and every year they would have a ceremony to show off a new skill or ability and then each member of the grade received a book. In the younger grades they were significant Jewish texts: prayer books, the 5 books of Moses, etc. But in 5th grade we received, “Women of Valor”, I still have that book, its nametag written out in Hebrew, with pictures of the other books I had received and would receive. It was then that it hit me, I don’t know if it was just 5th grade, or if it was my best friend who started hanging out more and more with the cool girls and less and less with me, or if it was the couples in our class, constantly rotating but never including me, but it was then that I realized that I was supposed to be a woman. I guess it changed my mindset in a way because I started to try; I pored over fashion magazines, bought books on makeup and beauty and how to be perfect. And I tried, I tried SO hard, I would stay up late at night trying to make my hair perfect and practice the art of being a woman. But it never worked.
As I grew I started to acknowledge to myself that I did not fit in as a woman and I chalked it up to immaturity and inability to accept responsibility. But then I continued to grow and I started out high school on a new foot, I would be a woman! I bought the skirts and had the hair and the makeup and I tried to make the friends. And I tried and I tried and the more I tried the more it built up until I bought my first pair of man pants. They are ripped now to the point where I cannot wear them, but I remember them. They were 10$ on sale at Kohl’s, they were dark denim with a hint of green, and I wore them with my men’s “Kiss Me I’m Irish” (I’m not really Irish) sweatshirt and something clicked. It would be a while until most of my wardrobe transformed, in fact it would be until I got out of high school that I would stop feeling the need to wear skirts or dresses when I needed to dress up. It would be until midway through my first year of college that I became comfortable enough to put my breasts away, to stop using them to get the attention that I always craved and until I was comfortable enough to try to shape them around who I wanted to be, and how I wanted to be seen.
Now I don’t bind that often, but I cannot remember the last time I did not wear a sports bra. Women complain that sports bras flatten their chest, and eliminate their cleavage. Now I don’t know what their talking about because even in a sports bra they do not disappear, and if I dare to wear a tank top you’ll see just how much cleavage I still have. But when I’m in a sports bra I can feel my self start to be in that in-between place I want to be. I never thought I would grow up to be a woman, the thought didn’t even cross my mind until 5th grade. But I also never thought I would grow up to be a man. I think of myself now as a 14-year-old boy, because 14-year-old boys are so often caught in that place between adulthood and childhood. And I haven’t met a 14-year-old boy yet who didn’t have some complex built around masculinity. I never deny growing up as a girl, a confused girl but a girl nonetheless. The question is where am I now, who am I now. I know that I am growing up, but I don’t know where it will take me. I know however, where it will not take me, I am not growing up to be a woman, and I am not growing up to be a man. Perhaps I will never know where I am going or when I get there, but hopefully I will be able to find some footing in the in between space that has evaded me so long.