This is an independent blog and is not affiliated with any particular church, group or conference. The term Bruderthaler refers to a specific ethnic or cultural Mennonite heritage, not to any particular organized group. All statements and opinions are solely those of the contributor(s). Blog comprises notebook fragments from various research projects and discussions. Dialogue, comment and notice of corrections are welcomed. Much of this content is related to papers and presentations that might be compiled at a future date, as such, this blog serves as a research archive rather than as a publication. 'tag

Friday, June 29, 2012

Rural Jews, Urban Mennonites and Diaspora Identities

Actor Rob Morrow as Dr. Joel Fleischman
Northern Exposure, ep 3.13 
Things Become Extinct 
(20 Jan 1992, No. 77513)

Dr. Joel Fleischman: I'm not a vanishing breed.
Ed Chigliak: Well, you're Jewish. That's pretty rare.

"This is not homesickness.  This is more than homesickness.  I'm facing serious personality meltdown.  Joel Fleischman, the Jewish doctor from New York.  You take that away and who am I?  What am I?"
"Well, Fleischman, just forgetting a few subway stops..."
"This is just the tip of the iceberg.  Don't you understand?  It's like 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers.'  I'm being replaced by some insidious replicant, a Joel Fleischman look-alike that talks about crop rotation and carburators.  I've got to stop it before it's too late." (sic)

        - Joel to Maggie

"You had me do a two hour turn around to Anchorage to pick up *bagels*? They were supposed to be medical supplies!"  - Maggie, to Joel

“You know, I tried.  I really did.  I gave it my best shot.  It just didn’t work.  Scratch the plum pudding, there’s a matzo ball underneath.  I’m a Jew.  That’s all there is to it.”  Joel to Maggie after dismantling his first, and unsuccessful, Christmas Tree and re-establishing it in Maggie’s front yard.

   As a Postmodern prairie dweller, I was raised on episodes of the Beachcombers, Ann of Avonlea and Little House on the Prairie with a few reruns of Grizzly Adams.  In college, it was reruns of Northern Exposure that fired my imagination and appreciation for the world I left behind – and when I had to return to that country for to bury the dead, it was Northern Exposure that enabled me to laugh painfully at the rapid, if semi-consensual change from downtown Chicago to the mountains of Montana’s Yellowstone.  Where Fleischman missed his bagels, I longed for my bitter Starbucks coffee.  Fleischman longed for his lost Bordeaux, I missed my Art Institute – Fleischman’s golf course was my softball fields.  All in all, a little bit different, yet very much the same.
   Apart from humor, Northern Exposure exemplified numerous socio-ethnic situations and struggles for identity as individuals, as communities and as historic ethnic groups assimilating into something new – both an inclusive new and an often exclusive new.  Ed Chigliak’s statement Fleischman about being a vanishing breed was both a statement as to Fleischman’s personal Jewish identity and Fleischman’s need to adapt to new realities and to establish himself as something new – not exclusive of his Jewish New Yorker past, but rather inclusive of the new person Fleischman was becoming outside of the social and cultural reinforcements of the ethnic Jewish diaspora.  Tellingly, much of Fleishman’s humor stemmed from his travails to adapt to the Postmodern reality as an individual while longing for the communal support of the Modern New York Jewish community.

   While the now classic Christmas episode, Seoul Mates (Season 3, 1991) clearly illustrates the difficulties in traversing the boundaries between ethnic cultures – difference made even more apparent by the strong cultural differences in the common celebration of Solstice (Christmas), the episode clearly indicates that while the strong cultural differences, traditions, memories and mythologies are necessary for the development and maintenance of healthy self-identities, the basic elements  which bind humanity and all human cultures together are strong enough to generate a strong sense of inter-dependent, inter-caring Postmodern cultural community.  In reaching out to Maggie, his erstwhile love interest, Fleischman has no hesitation to explore the concept of Christmas trees – something he had been curious about as a child.  In the end, while he finds that Christmas trees are just not essentially Jewish and that his ability to share his cast off tree with Maggie brings joy to her heart while exemplifying the essential character of his own Jewish holiday tradition.  Truthfully, this is one of the most amazing Christmas television specials (together with the classic M*A*S*H special Death Takes a Holiday (1980)) that I still look forward to viewing on DVD during the holidays.
   However, it is perhaps in Things Become Extinct that Dr. Fleischman’s identity struggle is allowed to most clearly surface and assert itself after Fleischman admits annoyance to Chigliak’s filming of him making a tunafish sandwich and Chigliak responds that he is seeking a contract to film something that is rare disappearing – and he has chosen to film Arrowhead District’s only confirmable Jew – a rare thing indeed for Cicely, Alaska:

Ed is filming Fleischman constructing a tuna sandwich in Fleischman’s kitchen – significantly intruding on Fleishman’s space:

Joel:   Ed, I hate to be obstructionist.  The last thing I want to do to stand between a person and his calling.  Do I really need to be captured in the act of making a tuna sandwich?   Now?
   Ed:     I’m sorry, Dr. Fleischman.
Joel:    Thank you.  Now, what are you doing?
              You puttin’ together another Cicely slice-of-life?
   Ed:     This is professional.  I’m getting paid for this.
Joel:     Who’s paying you?
   Ed:     I answered this ad on the back of Filmmaker’s Market Quarterly.
              Right here.  “Footage on the vanishing breed.  For more details, write Box 42039.”
Joel:     What’s that?  Like when they advertise ecological roach killers, and you get back a block of wood?
   Ed:     Oh, no, this is strictly legitimate.  I get 50 bucks, and I get my name in the credits.  Ed Chigliak.
Joel:     Wait.  Vanishing breed.  You did say vanishing breed.
   Ed:     Yep.
Joel:     I’m not a vanishing breed.
   Ed:     Well, you’re Jewish.  That’s pretty rare.
Joel:     No, it isn’t.
   Ed:   In Cicely it is.
Joel:     Lots of things are rare in Cicely.  Box lunches, public transportation, victimless crimes.  That doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
              Ed, being the only Jew in Cicely doesn’t make me the last condor in captivity.  There’s Jews everywhere.  There’s probably thousands of ‘em in Alaska.  Tens of thousands.
   Ed:     Really?
Joel:     Sure.  Let’s take a bigger town.  North Tongass, for instance.  We’ll look for Cohen.  It’s the Jewish equivalent of Smith.
   Ed:     Yankee Doodle Dandy.
Joel:     No, that’s Cohan, with a “han.”  This is Cohen, with a “hen.”
              Okay, let’s see.
              I mean, in Queens alone, there’s probably some 300,000 listed Cohens.
              Okay, we have “Coghill,” “Coldwell Banker.”  Huh.  They have a Coldwell Banker.  They don’t have a Cohen?  Fine.  How many people could there be in Tongass?
   Ed:     2,044.
Joel:     All right.  Fairbanks.
              Major metropolitan area.  They have deli, right?
   Ed:     Yep.  Fairbanks, population 77,721.
Joel:     (to Klezmer music…) “Cohan, Cohan, Co--”  There’s one Cohen in the entire greater Fairbanks area?
              All right, wait a minute.  How about Greenberg?
              There’s always a Greenberg.  Greenberg, Greenberg, Greenberg, Greenberg, Greenberg.  Aha.  See?  Three Greenbergs.  Also “Grenberg’s Floriests.”
              Okay?  I mean, there’s plenty of Jews in Alaska, Ed.  There’s plenty.
   Ed:     Oh.

Scene shifts to Dr. Fleischman’s medical office in downtown Cicely.

Joel:     I don’t believe this.  I’m looking at the entire list of the borough of Arrowhead County residents.  1,613 people.  Not one Jew on here.  There’s a “Brommel.”  There’s a “Finnegan.”  There’s a “Tidewater.”  Oh, a “Signorelli.”  I guess I should be grateful for that – an Italian.  Not one single Jew.  Not one.
Marilyn:  How do you know?
Joel:     What?
Marilyn:  How do you know?
Joel:     Well, you can tell from the names.
Marilyn:  How?
Joel:     There are certain givens.  Schwartz, Levine, Bloom, Meyer, Markovitz, Silverman, Cliffner, Kirchner, Millner.  You know, anything with “ner.”
Marilyn:  “ner”?
Joel:     Yeah.  Or “berg” or “blatt.”
              Steinberg, Goldblatt.
Marilyn:  “Blatt”?
Joel:     Here’s a good one.  [Chuckles]  “Almquist.”  Almquist.  No Yiddish spoken in that household.
              Now, Almquistein, there you have a nice Jewish name.
              Now, look at this [pulls out a map of Alaska as Marilyn looks over]…  [Joel points over the map]  I’m marooned in a county the size of Wyoming.  I’m the single only person of the Hebr—Hebraic persuasion.
              Wait a minute.  I know this name – “Velachiske.” 
              Velaschiske.  Is that Indian?
Marilyn:  Uh-uh.  Russian.
Joel:     Russian.  Of course.  Velachiske – the same name of the town my grandmother came from in Russia, I think.
              Velachiske.  Velachiske.  Yeah, I’m certain.  I remember her talking about it.  They all had sheep, and the Cossacks came and hit people on the head.  This is very possible.  There’s a big Russian population in Alaska.  [Joel pounds map before folding it up with a happy expression]  Velachiske.  Boy, oh, boy.
Marilyn:  What about Costner?
Joel:     Costner?  What about it?
Marilyn:  Is that Jewish?
Joel:     Costner as in Kevin?  No, I don’t think so.
Marilyn:  It has a “ner.”
Joel:     Well, yeah, it does, but it –   [Marilyn folds up her knitting and walks off like Joel doesn’t know what he’s talking about].

… after many other scenes, Klezmer music begins to play as Fleischman and Maurice are driving along an Alaska Highway in a very rural and forested landscape…

Maurice:   You know, Fleischman, you Hebraic people may not be drawn to our rugged existence up here in Alaska, but what ones of you there are sure leave your mark.
Joel:     Meaning?
Maurice:  Mountains.
Joel:     Mountains?
Maurice:  Yeah.  There’s a lot of mountains up here named for Jews.  Check your map – Mount Ripinski over in the Brooks Range, Mount Goldberg over by Kaiakak…
Joel:     Mount Goldberg?  You’re kidding.
Maurice:  No, no.  God’s honest truth.  There’s a Mount Applebaum too.
Joel:     More Jewish mountains in Alaska than Jews.
Maurice:  [Laughs]
They drive by a simple dilapidated sign “Velachiske.”
Joel:     Hey, Maurice, that was it.  We’re entering Velaschiske.
They almost squeal by an even more dilapidated ruin of a building and squeal their tires to stop… They back up and stop in front of the building… Joel steps out of the vehicle in disbelief…
Joel:     This is it?  This is Velachiske?  [The place has been abandoned for at least fifty years]
Maurice:  They call this a town?
Joel:     There’s nobody here.
Maurice:  Hasn’t been anybody here for some time, by the looks of things.  What’s in here?  [Maurice goes over to look in a dirty broken window]  [Sniffs]
              Well, lot of dust.  Somebody left a pair of shoes.  [Chuckles]
Joel:     [Turning around in circles to take in the building and the sheer remote wilderness surrounding it]
              Must’ve been a real hotbed of civilization.  A regular cultural mecca.
Maurice:  Kind of makes you stop and think, doesn’t it?

Joel:     No, it doesn’t, Maurice.  It makes me feel alone.  Alone like a stone.
Maurice:  [Walking over to peer quizzically at Joel]
              Like a what?
Joel:     Something my grandfather said when my grandma died.  That he was alone like a stone in the New World.
Maurice:  [Looking thoughtful but not comprehending] 
              [Maurice walks off].

  next scene with Fleischman… you hear him speaking with Ed while the scene moves from showing the outside of his cabin to the inside where Ed is seated at a table playing with his movie camera and Fleischman is busily at work with a legal pad, a pencil and an open phone book…

Joel:     2,000 Jews in the entire state of Alaska.  Half a million people, 2,000 Jews.
   Ed:     551,000 people, according to the ’85 Census.
Joel:     Yeah, well, of those 2,000, 1,500 are in Anchorage.  There’s only 50 in Juneau.  One single Jewish cemetery in the whole state.  One.  In Fairbanks, and it’s full.
   Ed:     You’ve been reading the phone book.
Joel:     No, I haven’t been reading the phone books, Ed.  I’ve been looking through them, which is an entirely different exercise.
   Ed:     Oh, I read ‘em once.  They’re pretty good.
Joel:     I found a Fleischman in Chugiak.    A family of Fleischenhauers in Anchorage, but, I mean, they could be German…
   Ed:     Ira used to live in Anchorage.  He sold plumbing fixtures.
Joel:     Ira?  Who’s Ira?
   Ed:     Ira Wingfeather.  He’s my vanishing breed.  He makes these great little duck flutes out of alder tree branches.  I shot 1,500 feet of him yesterday.
Joel:     Well, that’s uh, a fitting subject.
   Ed:     Uh, it is.  He’s perfect.  He’s the last of his line.  Well, he has children in Fort Lauderdale.  That’s in Florida.
Joel:     Yeah, I know where Fort Lauderdale is, Ed.
   Ed:     Yeah.  Well, they don’t talk to him much now, on account of he had a faithfulness problem with his wives – their mothers.
Joel:     Your friend, Mr., uh –
   Ed:     No, Uh, Wingfeather.
Joel:     So he’s all alone up here?
   Ed:     With his flutes.  And when he dies, his craft will die with him.  But I will have preserved it for all posterity.  And I’ll be a professional.
Joel:     What’s his name?
   Ed:     Mr. Wingfeather.
Joel:     No, the other part.  You said Ira?
              There has to be a Jew involved in there somewhere.  Ira isn’t an Indian name, at least now where I come from.
   Ed:     His mother named him after Ira Gershwin.
Joel:     Ira Gershwin.  Right.  Of course.

a later scene takes place in Holling’s Bar… Fleischman stumbles in suffering a hangover from drinking with Holling who is going through a mid-life crisis and after turning down Shelley’s menu offerings, is nursing a glass of ice water.  Chris comes in, sits beside him at the counter and they begin discussing Holling’s brew before Fleischman begins to confide in him…

Joel:     … I gotta tell you, Chris.  I’ve been feeling such a sense of isolation lately.
Chris:   Oh Yeah?
Joel:     As a Jew.
              I mean, I’ve always known intellectually that Jews are a small minority.  There’s 250 million people in this country?  There’s five million Jews.
              I mean, everyone in New York was Jewish, or it seemed that way.  I have a cousin in Rhode Island, Providence, says it’s different up there.  He feels like a minority.  Jews move into neighborhoods, WASPs move out.
              I mean, forget Providence, forget Atlanta even, or Des Moines.  I’m the only Jew in Cicely.  The only Jew in the borough of Arrowhead County.
              Different.  Alone.
Extended Version cut scene… (cont)
Chris:   Yeah.  Princely.
Joel:     Princely?
Chris:   Yeah, you know, to be so… singular, unique.
Joel:     What?
Chris:   You know, to be singular – the one and only –
              An emissary of your people.
Joel:     Huh.  Me, Fleischman – a Jewish prince.
Chris:   Right. … (scene continues…)

    There is a lot of information and material from which to draw from in this episode.  I strongly recommend that you view it.
    Focusing merely on the struggle for connectiveness and a sense of belonging in the foreign beyond or a new area is not unique to Fleischman.  Nor is his methodology for seeking reassurance.
    At Georgetown, as an undergraduate, I had very few Mennonite connections beyond a couple of classmates with some ethnic Mennonite ancestry, a Quaker girl and a bio-ethics professor of Mennonite faith, from which to draw.  I was very fortunate for the hospitality and support of Mennonites with connection to my home community while attending school in DC for making sure that I felt like a belonged and that I had people to turn to and churches where I would be welcomed – but while in college, that world also often seemed far away.
   I seldom felt a true sense of belonging or of identity certitude (a sense of relaxed familiarity).  In fact, I remember an undergraduate dance banquet at the Austrian embassy, not for the company or the fabulous desserts but rather for seeing boxes and photos with familiar names – Thiessen, Rauch, Schmidt…  Understanding that they did not refer to Mennonites as they could be assumed to do back home in the community, they were nevertheless a reminder of that community and the diaspora – and conveyed a sort of sense of belonging that was seldom encountered elsewhere – even amongst the Eastern Mennonites of the local Washington Community Fellowship.  (Recall that my third college choice was Grace College of the Bible, now Grace University, where I not only knew many other ethnic Mennonites, but even the non-Mennonites were culturally connected to us through the various missions programs and often rural Evangelical backgrounds).
    As for Fleischman’s methodology – we also are known to play the Mennonite game when we come across someone with a potentially Mennonite-sounding name.  Fleischman’s explanation to Marilyn of how to tell if a name is Jewish or not could be read as a Jewish version of the Mennonite Game.
    Like Fleischman, I also used to often go through phone books at hotels and airports just to see if there were any Toews, Quirings, Rheimers, Dicks,Thiessens, Fasts, Kliewers or Teichroews… Some names, such as Dyck and Wall are too common and most often refers to persons of Dutch ethnicity, Irish or English, but seldom Mennonite.
   Nor are Jews or Mennonites alone in such strange practices.   A more worldly 4-H acquaintance in college – from Montana but very wealthy and able to travel, confided that he had so few relatives – at least to which he felt close, that he would often look up his surname in the local telephone book when traveling and if he found someone who shared it, would often invite them out to coffee just to meet them and see who they were.  It is indeed a compelling practice – I hope he has kept it up.  It is also a practice that more Mennonites should avail themselves of.  While it is always of the utmost importance to be safe and to be smart, making a special effort to meet other ethnic Mennonites while traveling or in school is a great way to pass on both the Mennonite Game and the concept of der Unza – not to be exclusionary or xenophobic of others, but rather to continue and maintain the relationships of our ancestors that formed the early ethnic identity that has so shaped us – even to this this day in this generation.
   Like Flieschman in Alaska, we can and should easily make friends with those who surround us from all cultures, but sometimes it is nice to fellowship with those with whom we also share a faith, background and history – to whom we do not have to explain verenika or tweibach or why Mennonite pfefferneuse are different from the German and Austrian cookies of the same name.  We still maintain, even if tenuously, a shared culture – even if our present identities are more complex and contain many different cultural traditions (such as Swedish and Mennonite or Metis and Mennonite).  There is still a part of us that fellowships culturally and ethnically binds us together – a part of us that only other ethnic Mennonites understand.  If nothing else, such fellowship helps to remind us of the stories and traditions of our own grandparents and the unique stories and recipes of the rich Martyrs’ Trek  experience, the history that again, has shaped even us, into the persons we are today.

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