A word of warning for next winter: When it’s cold outside, and you’re getting up when it’s still dark, and, Stephen Harper is your country’s prime minister, do not re-watch Manufacturing Consent, the NFB film about Noam Chomsky.
Oh, I know it’s tempting — intellectual stimulation and cultural insight proffered like candy. But it’s just too depressing to think, even in really interesting ways, about how there are so few ways to poke through the power structures and change anything, and how even the punctures we do make can function as steam vents, helping to keep the whole soul-killing system functioning.
All great social justice movements, Chomsky points out, begin with thousands of acts of change and resistance among everyday people. That’s the machine I want to be a cog in. And it can be inspiring to hear about fellow cogs, particularly those who are excelling at their task.
It was my good fortune right around the time of deep-winter-Manufacturing Consent depression, to go out for breakfast at Toronto’s Free Times CafÃ©. The regular weekend event features a traditional Jewish brunch and, often, a not-so-traditional all-female klezmer band called Pomegranate. People come and stuff themselves with latkes and blintzes and pickled herring and listen to five feisty fiddling women remake cultural connections and challenge conventional thought.
Reena Katz, newly 30 on the day I saw her perform, is the one who does the shtick. She banters with the audience, asks them if they are in a carb coma from the food, introduces the songs (some traditional arrangements of classic klezmer, and some seriously campy ones — Hava Nagila meets John Waters) and casually calls for a just peace for Palestine while kibitzing about queerness.
The more conservative in the crowd seem to experience an emotional rollercoaster, one minute dancing in their seats, the next stiff-spined and irritated, then throwing their arms in the air again. Pomegranate’s infectious repertoire includes an ode to the love of a girl and her goy (dedicated to partners Rachel Melas, the bass and tuba player, and Conny NowÃ©, the percussionist). The band, which also includes Bee Sack on flute and Rachel Sheinin on fiddle and vocals, asks for a toast to Palestine before playing Baym Rebn In Palestina (At the Rabbi’s in Palestine).
“Our generation of Jews was encouraged to Israelify — to identify with the Zionist project,” says Katz. “But there are many ways of being Jewish.” She notes that the relationship to nations has always been troubled for Ashkenazi people. “We were never allowed full citizenship in Poland, or Russia, or anywhere; we understand the absurdities produced by nationalism.”
To invoke this under-remembered lineage, Katz dedicates a song “to the socialists, the Bundists, the anarchists, avant-garde artists, kabbalists and the non-Zionists who loved diaspora.”
And despite the group’s serious political aims, only the most irate could resist laughing when they play, for example, a Yiddish insult song in honour of some current villain — like Stephen Harper: Er zol zein vi a chandelier, hangn by tog un brennen by nacht! (He should be like a chandelier: hang by day and burn by night!) Khaseneh hobn zol er mit di malakh hamoives tochter! (He should marry the daughter of the angel of death!)
It’s easy to debate among people who share a common world view, but a lot harder and rarer to play to a mixed crowd. Over lots of good food and fun, Katz accomplishes the impressive feat of speaking to the unconverted.
Of course, she does get heckled. “Often,” says Katz. Someone will yell: “What about the suicide bombers?” or some sexist comment. “But that’s really what I enjoy,” she says convincingly. “Shtick is about that — the goal isn’t to convince them of your view; it’s to intervene in their normal thought pattern.” Chomsky would approve. “When they yell something, I know the veil of propriety has dropped for a moment and I’ve gotten through.”