Thursday, September 25, 2008

Happily Ever After?

Speculation abounds regarding whether the media’s influence is positive or negative for our collective psychology—the day has long passed since anyone of repute has argued that television, cinema, radio, advertising, et al. are epistemologically impotent. Indeed, the New Millennium meteoric mass packs a convoluted, dense punch, and unpacking the hazy penumbrae around the impact zone would take a very long time.

This much, however, is sure: we recognize patterns in popular culture and begin to anticipate what will happen next. We extrapolate from movie to movie, from song to song, and Western media being as homogeneous and formulaic as it is, we develop expectations. We know Jason Bourne isn’t going to die. We know the lost dog will find its way home.

We parse out heroes and villains, comedies and tragedies, and figure the good guys from the bad guys.

Most of all, we’ve come to expect the happy ending. And therein lies the problem.

We’re so bombarded with positive outcomes — inconceivable, unrealistic, and insultingly fabricated conclusions — that we’ve come to accept them as not just realistic, but as a given. Think about the Jason Bourne example: so many thousands of movies have reinforced our confidence in the hero’s right to a happy ending that we know what the end holds for Matt Damon. And we assume, extrapolators that we are, that we in the real world have the same right, are virtually assured a sublime epilogue.

We all expect a glorious resolution to our personal conflicts, believing each moment to be the penultimate frame in an inevitably feel-good reel. We believe in change being just around the corner. We believe in big breaks. We believe in magic. We believe in miracles. We believe in the majestic climax that awaits each of us. We have a brand of one-way consciousness that deludes us into categorical hopefulness.

Just one manifestation of our misguidedness is the way we characterize drug rehabilitation. Many call rehab a gateway to a better, warmhearted future. Others, including many who have gone through it, label rehab a stultifying entrée into bleak, temperate incompleteness. Likewise, we tie our relationships and jobs to the happy ending paradigm. We orient our expectations towards a consumer relationship with swooning songstresses, script-trapped actors, and cloistered authors fathoming redemption from the misanthropic generators of literary minds.

Are we delusional? Have we all lost our minds, intent on piquant delusions and reverie? Our echolalia is frightening: the Tourettic insistence on mimicking the media can only portend disaster. Whether we curate a calamity or merely end up severely upset is a matter of degrees, or perhaps courage. How willing are we to turn off the television of our lives, to set down the remote and go outside?

Stay Safe, Bourne
DJ Damon

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Lost Tribe Finds Itself

[Editor's Note: This article originally appears in the 09/04 issue of The Forward.]

In the Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur, far in the northeast near the Burmese border, some 7,000 people observe the Jewish Sabbath, kosher dietary laws and rules of family purity. Already, 1,400 of these people, known as Bnei Menashe, have immigrated to Israel. The remaining 7,000 wish to join their brethren as soon as possible in relocating to the Holy Land, the act known in Hebrew as aliyah.

Their ambitions are proving more complicated than they thought, however, and so they have released a CD of their music. Titled “Aliya, Aliya…” it is intended to help make the case for their quest and, not incidentally, to help fund the move.

The Bnei Menashe claim descent from the ancient Israelite tribe of Menashe (Manasseh), one of the storied 10 Lost Tribes exiled from the land of Israel by Assyrian conquerors 27 centuries ago. The Israeli Chief Rabbinate affirmed in 2005 that these people are, indeed, of Jewish ancestry, but required that they undergo formal conversion before they can be deemed Jewish under rabbinic law — and thus qualify for immigration rights, in such areas as subsidies and citizenship, under Israel’s Law of Return. In the meantime, they must manage their resettlement on their own.

“Aliya, Aliya” features a collection of 15 songs, performed in Hebrew and in the Bnei Menashe’s local dialect, Thadou-Kuki, and is mostly devoted to Zionist and religious themes. The CD was produced and published by Shavei Israel, an organization that helps descendants of Jews from all over the world to reconnect with their Jewish roots.

According to Shavei Israel founder and chairman, Michael Freund, the Bnei Menashe are “a lost tribe of Israel. They live and practice Judaism, they keep Shabbat, they keep kosher, they keep the laws of family purity, they wear yarmulkes and tzitzit. They have built over 50 synagogues across Mizoram and Manipur.”

“Aliya, Aliya” combines Israeli and Indian styles, and, as its name implies, is a spirited plea for emigration. Some songs, like “Shokhen Ad,” are from the traditional Jewish prayer service, while others, such as the title track, echo the group’s attachment to Israel.

Although the disc showcases some exotic instrumentation, most of the songs are accessible and Western in musical style, with strong hints of modern Israeli music. In fact, though the expectation for a geographically far-flung disc may be a similarly unfamiliar style, the truth is just the opposite: The Bnei Menashe have produced a work that not only pines for the Holy Land, but also emulates Her sounds.

The result is pleasingly familiar, a percussion-heavy interpretation of Western fare. Not nearly as experimental as George Harrison’s famed Indian-style compositions, nor as traditional as the country’s classical raga style, “Aliya, Aliya” is surprisingly mainstream. With much of its material borrowed from Scripture and prayer, the album hits surprisingly close to home.

Shavei Israel is selling the CD through its Web site,, and has been instrumental in assisting the Bnei Menashe. In addition to facilitating the aliyah of the 1,400 who have already moved to Israel, the organization has assisted with the building of synagogues and mikvehs in India. Shavei also operates two educational centers, one in Mizoram and one in Manipur, that instruct the Bnei Menashe in Hebrew and Jewish culture.

“I first learned of the Bnei Menashe over a decade ago,” said Freund, who served from 1996 to 1999 on the staff of Israel’s then-prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. “I made contact with members of the community who’d managed to make it to Israel. I was very taken by them on a human level, with their sincerity and commitment to living as Jews.”

In 2004, at Freund’s urging, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate sent a delegation to India to try and determine if, indeed, the Bnei Menashe hail from a lost tribe.

“The rabbis spent time interviewing members of the community and meeting with some of the locals, learning more about their history and traditions and customs,” Freund said. The delegation submitted reports to Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar, who in 2005, Freund said, “formally recognized the Bnei Menashe as being descendants of Jews — ‘zera yisrael’ [the seed of Israel] — and [said he] would do what he can to facilitate bringing them to Israel.”

Since the Jewishness of Bnei Menashe is not recognized by Israeli government officialdom, Shavei Yisrael has often had to navigate through layers of bureaucracy to get them to Israel. A typical strategy has involved obtaining permission from Israel’s Interior Ministry to bring groups of Bnei Menashe to Israel for the purpose of conversion and resettlement.

“I think the Bnei Menashe are a blessing for the State of Israel and the people of Israel,” said Freund, who made aliyah himself from New York 13 years ago. “They are honest, decent, hardworking people; they serve in the army; volunteer for combat units, and raise beautiful Jewish children. As much as we try to strengthen them, ultimately they strengthen us.”

Stay Sonorous, Bnei Menashe
MC Manipur

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Age Rage

Aging is a process, and aged is a state, but real “age,” at least as it’s depicted on a driver’s license, is a vast artifice. You see, chronological age is only as relevant as its implications: having a physical body that has withstood thirteen corporeal years is one thing, but the assumptions, generalities, and social constructs that go along with that amount of time are what are truly meant by, “Oh, he’s just thirteen.”

So calling one of those Harvard-bound preteens a “twelve-year-old” is just as misleading as calling him dumb, or unmotivated. Sure, it’s accurate so far as the calendar is concerned, but attaching all the trappings and beliefs normally assigned to people of that birth year is preposterous.

So twenty could be thirty, thirty could be eighty, and ninety could be fifteen. Each moment of the present is a shared commodity anyhow, a common “now” of which we all equally own a part. Our interconnectivity makes our ages something of a wash, or at least interchangeable. If one can share a moment with someone else—or, really, share every moment with someone else—then surely the amount of days one has been here is inherently less valent than one's humanness, and one's ability to transcend age and into something more captivating—perhaps one's science, or credulity.

We are transported on jagged floes of time, afloat on embalmed menaces irreversibly destined for later destinations. Thusly oriented, we presume these swaths our rightful carriers, and align our self-concepts by the blurry way-stations of days past. We pivot our stories on crowded platforms pockmarked by strewn birthdays and heeded demarcations. There are none more tortured than us, time travelers resigned to ride, freezing away our virility on age's piked glaciers.

But is chronology not simply a candle, a votive resonance with a wick, a body, and—most vitally—an extinguishable quality? Like an hourglass than can turned on its side and halted, age is a conflagration that can be smothered, muted, and mutated into inertness. Whereas some might believe the floes too mighty, these sheets can be stopped and stowed, made stationary against the rhetorical cross-examination of “But I don't feel very old.”

Belief is time’s lone arbiter—perceptions of youth and elderliness the vales in which age resides. It is from these hamlets that classifications arise, glutinous and damning like the summer haze. Twenty, thirty, and all the rest are viscous crags, plucking victims from time’s beneficent streets.

Stay Specious, Age
DJ Derider