Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Shtetl in Brooklyn

I am originally from the "New World" and have spent time on the West Coast of the United States which has always felt familiar. In fact many artists and graduate students choose schools out there because, regardless of the smog, the air feels the same in Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco - as Sydney and Auckland. And I am sure that if I lived further south in Europe I would have maintained a sense of myself as a new worlder. As it is I am happily bereft of company in Lithuania so have become a 'Northerner' instead.

To me, and this is the legend of the American frontier and "going-west-young man", the new world has always been about possibilities and the potentiality of new modes of living: imbued with the revolutionary spirit - of liberty, equality, and fraternity. as the new world societies advance the space for democratic and egalitarian will is diminishing but one can still encounter its ghosts in the new world's colonies. (Even Hollywood is producer of an art-for-the-people).

My encounters with New York, however, pitch it back in time. She is Old beyond her years. Traversing Brooklyn last night, traveling from Williamsburg to Crown Heights I found myself cruising through a shtetl. On its fringes there was a multicultural mix of pedestrians and residents sitting on their stoops. But at its heart only people wearing Jewish costume moved. And the streets and houses became more decrepit as the signs changed from the Roman to Hebrew alphabet. This arrangement of signifiers was oppressive, to me, as it replicated the order and appearance of the European 'ghettos' I have seen, experienced, and researched in photographs and writing.

The shtetl like shabbiness felt like a deliberate denial of the possibilities that America offered her people in the late-19th and early-20th centuries; the Brave New World. This living in the past [a clinical nostalgia] evokes a poverty of imagination an unwillingness to embrace the positive empowerment of the erasure of emigration (that energized Sholem Aleichem's peripatetic Tevye): while summoning the horror of the material erasures of last century.

America - in the new world - is the land of self-invention. And to 'dwell' here is to rest inside the dream of possibility - of which New York is the capital. To deny the dream is to deny the kernel of American life (that even reactionary regime cannot harm) and to deny its historical destiny - and embody its death.

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