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Taking Stock: Cultures of Enumeration in Contemporary Jewish Life

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Taking Stock is a collection of lively, original essays that explore the cultures of enumeration that permeate contemporary and modern Jewish life. Speaking to the profound cultural investment in quantified forms of knowledge and representation—whether discussing the Holocaust or counting the numbers of Israeli and American Jews—these essays reveal a social life of Jewish numbers. As they trace the uses of numerical frameworks, they portray how Jews define, negotiate, and enact matters of Jewish collectivity. The contributors offer productive perspectives into ubiquitous yet often overlooked aspects of the modern Jewish experience.

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Introduction: Counting in Jewish

ePub

Michal Kravel-Tovi

DELIVERED THROUGH rapid, hip-hop beats and intense lyrics, Hadag Nachash’s “The Numbers Song” provides a critical, numerical account of what matters to young Israeli Jews. It begins by counting states (“one or two”) in the land that stretches between the sea and the Jordan River and ends with the sacred icon of six million. In between, it offers a more intimate account of the numerical texture of personal experience (“three years and four months is the time I gave to the IDF”;1 “nine times I have been too close to a terror attack”), while detailing the harsh arithmetic that underwrites everyday life in Israel (“a quarter of a million are unemployed”; “the government cut off 12 percent of child benefits”). Fast-paced and abrasive in content, the song echoes in form the pervasive flow of statistical data in Jewish public spheres, while simultaneously mocking, through its poetics, the overwhelming presence of numbers in Jewish life. However, as critical a reflection on numbers as this song provides, its lyrics also disclose their inescapable grip: “Me too,” the chorus admits, “like all Jews, is obsessed with numbers 24/7, twelve months a year.”

 

1 Six Million: The Numerical Icon of the Holocaust

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Oren Baruch Stier

In every computation there are question marks. . . . However elaborate or cumbersome these computations may be, their purposes are simple. The primary goal is a single number that in a quintessential manner expresses the Holocaust as a whole.

Raul Hilberg, “The Statistic”

THATSIX MILLION” is a definitive number for Jews is no secret. As one of several key cultural icons of the Holocaust, representing, in encapsulated, economic language the entirety of the Shoah, the number six million signifies powerfully in post-Holocaust culture. Originating in an attempt to count the dead, the presumably authoritative number also conjures an accounting for mass murder, in all possible senses of the word—explaining, justifying, avenging. Beginning with its historic contextualization, I ask therefore not only how we count the victims of the Holocaust but who counts, why, and to what end. Ranging across some key moments in the social life of this powerful number, in Europe, Israel, and the United States, I discuss some of the number’s symbolic meanings and applications; I make no attempt, however, at a comprehensive historicization of the figure, which would be impossible. Rather I outline here some of the number’s iconic meanings and uses.

 

2 Breathing Life into Iconic Numbers: Yad Vashem’s Shoah Victims’ Names Recovery Project and the Constitution of a Posthumous Census of Six Million Holocaust Dead

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Carol A. Kidron

THE PRESENT ETHNOGRAPHIC STUDY examines the memory work constituted by the Yad Vashem’s Shoah Victims’ Names Recovery Project.1 Since 1955, Yad Vashem has disseminated testimony pages amassing demographic data on the time and place of birth, profession, place, and form of death of Holocaust victims. Testimony pages have been stored in an archive and more recently in an online database that might potentially document all Jewish Holocaust victims. Recently, Yad Vashem has intensified efforts to recover “every person’s name,” calling upon the public not only to submit new testimony pages but to “fill up the database so that we may reach the six million mark.” Aimed not only to compile a more complete commemorative list of names, the project hoped to salvage and represent the absenced and forgotten personal identities of victims.2 Novel information technology facilitates sophisticated cross-referencing, corroboration, and validation of the names and identities in the database. Now at the four million mark and “counting,” it could numerically approach, populate, and “corroborate” (and perhaps “vindicate”) the iconic number of six million.

 

3 Putting Numbers into Space: Place Names, Collective Remembrance, and Forgetting in Israeli Culture

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Yael Zerubavel

NATION-STATES CULTIVATE collective remembrances around a wide range of temporal and spatial commemorative sites.1 Temporal commemorative sites are primarily anchored in the calendar, which serves as a mnemonic framework for collective remembrances of specific events and figures that together contribute to the creation of an overall narrative about the nation’s origins and historical development. Anniversaries, memorial days, and holidays are among temporal commemorative sites that underscore key points in the nation’s collective memory.2 Their anchoring within the calendar ensures that the performance of memory will recur annually, thus serving as a major venue for mnemonic socialization.3 Spatial commemorative sites provide another venue among a range of locations such as cemeteries, memorial sites, monuments, and historical places around which various memorial practices may develop to underscore the significance of that past. The country’s map, encoded with names that evoke the past, thus emerges as an alternative site for cultivating a national memory.

 

4 Jewish “Crime” by the Numbers, or Putting the “Social” in Jewish Social Science

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Mitchell B. Hart

In 1911, Rudolf Wassermann, who headed up the Munich branch of the Bureau for Jewish Statistics, published an article in the bureau’s official journal titled “Is the Criminality of the Jews a Racial Criminality?”1 Wassermann practiced law professionally and had received a doctorate from the University of Erlangen for a dissertation on the history of criminal statistics. He was certainly not the only Jewish statistician or social scientist who took an avid interest in the subject of Jews and crime, but he was, as far as I am aware, the only one who could lay claim to being a genuine criminologist.2 Thus, he brought a particularly deep knowledge of criminology and statistics to the subject of Jews and crime, or Jewish criminality.

Wassermann began his article by noting that the subject of the criminality of the Jews had stirred up a great deal of debate over the past few decades, and that “Not one year passes that does not bring forth another new work!” on the topic. “Most of the opinions,” he continued, “revolve around the question whether the criminality of the Jews is predominantly due to occupation or race.”3 In other words, should we explain the criminal behavior of Jews as a product of social forces or heredity?

 

5 Counting People: The Co-production of Ethnicity and Jewish Majority in Israel-Palestine

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Anat Leibler

We beg them [the king, his family, and his chief minister] to join with us in checking the abuses being perpetrated by tyrants against that class of citizens . . . and we call on the king to mete out justice, and we express our most sincere desire for but one king, one law, one weight, and one measure.

Quoted in Witold Kula, Measures and Men

TWO POLITICAL PECULIARITIES distinguish Israel from many democratic states. First, it rests on a duality of being both a liberal democratic state under the rule of law and the homeland of one exclusive ethnic group that rules militarily over another ethnic group. Other states with separate ethnic groups have managed to reconcile this contradiction by creating separate polities and territories for the group segregated from the political system, but Israel has never systematically implemented such a system. Leaving the ethnic conflict unresolved fosters a coexistence of several civic incorporation regimes in one society or an ethnocracy, a regime motivated to maintain Jewish supremacy.1 Second, Israel is a state whose geographic borders with Arab neighboring countries are unsettled and continuously contested. In fact, some scholars see in Israel’s ongoing tendency to expand its borders a “spatial nationalism” and a constitutive element of the country’s identity.2 These two peculiarities are rooted in the early years of the Jewish-Palestinian conflict.

 

6 Wet Numbers: The Language of Continuity Crisis and the Work of Care among the Organized American Jewish Community

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Michal Kravel-Tovi

We know more than ever about ourselves. Coupled with continuing efforts to extend and enrich such knowledge, this augurs well for the future of American Jewry.

Sidney Goldstein, “Beyond the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey”

“WE KNOW,” Sidney Goldstein, a professor of sociology at Brown University, assures his audience: we know ourselves. In his Marshall Sklare honorary address—an annual celebratory ritual of Jewish social scientific knowledge—Professor Goldstein publicly performs the sense of security that the American Jewish community places in social science. He uses the unmarked first-person plural “we” to refer to a wide range of leaders in the organized American Jewish world who care deeply about their community’s future. The confidence Goldstein possesses in the potential of social science stems especially from the value of quantitative knowledge—the value of numbers. Indeed, much depends on the reality of numbers for Goldstein and his colleagues: the social scientists, public intellectuals, professionals, and lay leaders of the organized American Jewish community who have come to inhabit—and ultimately quantify—the Jewish communal sphere in the United States over the last three decades. They have filled it with rates, weights, and figures and adorned it with charts, tables, and graphs. In and through their discourse about numbers, the leaders of the American Jewish community have fashioned American Jewry as a numerically imagined community. When these communal leaders “speak of Jews”—to paraphrase Lila Corwin Berman’s work—they speak of numbers.1

 

7 “Let’s Start with the Big Ones”: Numbers, Thin Description, and the Magic of Yiddish at the Yiddish Book Center

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Joshua B. Friedman

TO ENTER the gorgeous, multimillion-dollar facility of the Yiddish Book Center, located on the bucolic campus of Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, visitors open a heavy set of wood doors and walk through an entryway upon which can be read a slightly altered version of the famous quote by Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich: “Yiddish is magic—it will outwit history.”1 Passing through another set of doors, they are welcomed by a docent, usually an older retiree, or a work-study student from one of the area’s colleges within the region’s five-college consortium.2 After perhaps a bit of small talk, they are shown to a small room with a flat-screen television embedded into one wall. The room’s other walls, each painted in deep, matted shades of blues and reds, display museum panels that briefly summarize the center’s work of language and culture rescue—its now famous efforts to salvage the world’s Yiddish books, and its more recent attempts to record oral histories, promote the translation of Yiddish literature, and organize Yiddish language and Jewish cultural education programs, especially for younger generations of students. Surrounded by these panels are three rows of comfortable, upholstered wood benches, the kind that a religious institution in a different context might have used as pews.

 

8 “130 Kilograms of Matza, 3,000 Hard-Boiled Eggs, 100 Kilograms of Haroset and 2,000 Balls of Gefilte Fish”: Hyperbolic Reckoning on Passover

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Vanessa L. Ochs

EXTRAVAGANTLY LARGE NUMBERS, such as the very ones referenced in the gargantuan larder of my title, are frequently marshaled around the time of the Passover holiday in print and online. They call to mind the large numbers within the Haggadah (Passover’s liturgical text), the many available versions of the Haggadah and the high attendance at the seder (Passover’s festival meal). They are consciously and creatively invoked in articles, reviews, advertisements, and public relations materials with the apparent expectation that they will elicit in readers optimistic visions of the flourishing of Jewish tradition, visions persuasive enough to counter or at least balance the persistently offered anxious or bleak appraisals of the present and future. I call this discursive practice hyperbolic reckoning and will examine three specific examples of how such cognitive schemes appear in American contexts and how they strive to cultivate optimistic readings on aspects of contemporary Jewish life. Acknowledged claims would elicit a positive affect or, at the very least, reduce anxiety. The first example concerns hyperbolic claims about the quantity of Haggadot in print. The second considers hyperbolic claims about the huge worldwide seders of Chabad, which include overwhelming obstacles to be surmounted and also require enormous quantities of food to be amassed and distributed. The third reflects upon hyperbolic claims about the number of American Jews attending seders.1

 

Postscript: Balancing Accounts: Commemoration and Commensuration

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Theodore M. Porter

IS THERE SOMETHING special about the relationship of numbers to Jews and Jewish scholarship? Anyone out there who still reads books from front to back will realize that this one does not make the results of addition depend on culture or religion. It does, however, call attention to limits of comparability that may turn arithmetic results to nonsense. A birth neutralizes a death in the population registers, but morally it is quite another matter. Enumeration in the context of group life may transgress the factual to evoke solidarity or futility, dispassion or melodrama. The focus in these chapters is on the meanings, often symbolic, attributed to numbers, and in this regard Jewish experience in the modern period presents an abundance of distinctive issues and problems, subjects of impassioned discussion and debate. Included among them are the vast and terrifying organized murders and mass emigration of the 1930s and 1940s; the quandaries of assimilation in the postwar world, and a growing uncertainty about what it means to be Jewish; the establishment of a Jewish state of settlers in a diversely peopled region on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea; and an inescapable sense that demographic numbers have implications for political legitimacy as well as power.

 

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