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Thursday, 26 November 2015

Yoga, Shlepping, and Cultural Appropriation



My first reaction to the “yoga as cultural appropriation” story out of the University of Ottawa was to say this is ridiculous. Political correctness gone mad. Not that I'm a big fan of political correctness even when it's sane. Let everyone appropriate, I thought. Let's all borrow from each other, cross-fertilize, be creative.

 But then I listened to a M├ętis woman on a CBC podcast denounce this sort of thing as oppressive, colonial, insensitive, etc. That didn't convince me. Her political framework is so different from mine that we speak two different languages that don't even connect. However, something else she said did give me pause, making me think, ironically, that she was appropriating my culture.

Early on in the podcast the CBC interviewer was asking some introductory questions just to set the background and introduce us to the speaker, who casually remarked that she'd spent the day “shlepping” around town.

Shlepping?” I thought. How dare she use the word shlepping? That's a Jewish word, my people's word.

Of course, this brought me up short, caught in an internal bind of cognitive dissonance. Here I was in theory celebrating cultural sharing and opposing the notion of cultural appropriation, thinking let's all share each other's cultures, but then when someone not of my culture suddenly used something I thought of as mine, watch out.

Isn't that hypocritical, my non-Jewish girl-friend asked me? Well, yes, I said, I suppose it is, except of course I don't like to think of myself as hypocritical, which would suggest I was violating my own principles. But maybe the principle here is simply don't take my stuff. If other people are borrowing each other's stuff, I shrug and say, Whatever. But if you take my stuff, or my people's stuff, well, that's different.

Not that I even speak Yiddish. Not that I even use “shlep” myself, or “oy vey,” or any of the expressions I heard older generations use. I grew up in a much more assimilated generation, speaking English, not Yinglish. Still, it bothers me for some reason when non-Jews say “oy vey” or “shlep.”

Some words bother me less, I think, like “shtik” or “kibitz”; maybe because they've become English. But then for the woman on that podcast, maybe “shlep” just seemed like an English word too. “Oy vey” seems a bit different. If a non-Jew uses it, I sense mockery, which may be quite unfair, but there you go.

Of course, if someone is indulging in mockery, if their intent is to ridicule in an anti-Semitic way, then that's obviously bad. But the woman on the podcast had no such intent, and yet her use of “shlep” still bothered me, even though in theory it shouldn't bother me at all if I'm being true to what I thought I believed: that we should all just share our cultures.

So where does that leave us? I don't know. I am left pondering. I checked online. People do talk about this sort of thing, I mean whether using Jewish words or wearing the Star of David is “appropriative” or appreciative. (And I guess the third possibility is offhand, without even thinking about it.) People debate it; some say non-Jews shouldn't do or say these things.

I don't like telling people not to do or say things. I'm against censorship, I'm not with the recent campaign against so-called micro-aggressions. As a writer, I find that a very dangerous path, leading to the shutdown of creativity.


And yet as the member of a group, however assimilated, I feel unsettled when someone outside the group uses the group's terminology or symbols. Perhaps it's even because I am so far from my Yiddish-speaking ancestors that I hold onto this last little distinction or marker. Perhaps. Who knows? It troubles me.

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