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Monday, July 21, 2014

Things to see and do

Sometimes you just have to update, even if you have nothing to say.

A highly selective encyclopedia of political thinkers.

- Here is Market Basket, the incredibly cheap grocery chain in MA to which I never lived close enough to be able to shop regularly, looking like the Soviet Safeway* on a bad day. I hope it stays in business, even though I'm living no closer to it this year than previously. But everything in Boston is so expensive that there has to be some reprieve somewhere, even if only in discount tomatoes.

- I've been reading Sholem Aleichem and I.B. Singer, some for a summer seminar and some more out of curiosity, and this is my most blog-able discovery: it's apparently not unusual for Ashkenazi Jews to be blond. All my life, I've been told that blond Jews were an anomaly and possibly evidence of some long-forgotten intermarriage to a wandering Swede who one day circa 1860 found himself in Galicia, but there are plenty of blond Jews in these stories.

*The Soviet Safeway is the Safeway in the Watergate building in D.C. Or it was that Safeway; I don't know if it's still around. But in the two summers that I spent nearby, it would regularly run out of food mid-week.

20 comments:

Raghav said...

It's weird. Blond hair does seem to be fairly common in Ashkenazi Jewish literature: I think Monish in Der Nister's The Family Mashber is blond, and Itzik Manger seems to give all the women in his poems blond hair. But you also hear plenty of stories like this one (in Yiddish), where people successfully used their blond hair to pass as non-Jewish. (The two women in that story were from Budapest, though; things may have been different in the Baltics, where blondism is apparently more common than even in Scandinavia.)

Miss Self-Important said...

Yes, I also have come to wonder if being dark (-haired and -eyed) is about as common among Gentile Eastern Europeans as among Jews, and that it's odd to think of Jews as particularly dark. Fair hair obviously exists in Russia and Poland, but I think more Eastern Europeans have brown hair than blond. Was there some noticeable difference in blondness proportional to the population that made Jews distinct?

On the other hand, it's also possible that literature isn't a reliable source of demographic information, but skews towards what is rare in appearances and therefore either highly prized or highly maligned. I vaguely recall ancient Greek poetry describing a lot more golden hair and pale skin than seems plausible for a Mediterranean civilization.

Andrew Stevens said...

My read of the data is that the Finnic peoples (Finland and Estonia) are blonder than the Scandinavians (Norway, Sweden, and Denmark) who are blonder than the Baltic peoples (Latvia and Lithuania). I think the only way to conclude the Baltics are blonder than Scandinavians requires making Finland (the blondest country on earth) a Baltic country, but it usually isn't classified that way.

(By the by, I can only make these distinctions because I once analyzed the international popularity of something I had written and language group turned out to be a hugely useful classification tool.)

The intermarrying and conversions have been going on a lot longer than just the last 150 years. This article might be worth a read.

Andrew Stevens said...

The important distinction for blondness isn't eastern/western Europe but northern/southern Europe. Blond hair is relatively common everywhere in Europe north of Romania and Hungary.

Miss Self-Important said...

If blondness was introduced into the communal gene pool 2000 years ago by some sort of Jewish conquest of European Sabines, then my own lineal ancestors bear no special blame and that's fine.

How internationally popular did your writing turn out to be?

Withywindle said...

What seems to be the case is 1) Ashkenazic Jews were significantly less blond than Swedes, and even less blond than Germans, Poles, Russians, etc.; and 2) some significant minority of Ashkenazic Jews were pretty blond and looked much like their Gentile neighbors. I don't have a strong sense of how blond Ashkenazic Jews are compared to, say, Italians, Spaniards, Berbers, and Iranians, all of whom I gather also have blond minorities. This is the sort of situation that leads to Folk Explanations--"I am blond because my ancestors were Lombards, signorina"--and some largish amount of modern Science has a tendency to echo one or the other of the traditional Folk Explanations. There's all sorts of plausible explanations for Blond Jews, but I don't think we have an Answer yet, if we ever will.

Andrew Stevens said...

Well, it wouldn't be remotely correct to say it was "popular" at all - I'm only talking about thousands here. What surprised me was how international the audience was (the wonders of the internet even at the time). A priori, I expected the audience to be 70-80% American with the rest being predominantly made up of Canadians, British, and Australians, but in fact, it was less than 50% American. And, when adjusted per capita, the U.S. didn't even finish in the top 10.

It turned out though that in the list of per capita popularity, the list of countries broke up pretty easily into language family groups, from most popular to least popular per capita (IIRC):

1) Finnic languages (i.e. Finland and Estonia)
2) Northern Germanic languages (i.e. Scandinavia, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands)
3) English speaking countries (i.e. Canada, Australia, U.S., New Zealand, U.K., Ireland, Singapore, various English-speaking islands such as Jersey and, to make the grouping work, I had to throw Israel in here because otherwise it was quite anomalous)
4) The remaining Western Germanic languages (i.e. German and Dutch speaking countries)
5) Balto-Slavic languages
6) Italic and Hellenic languages

It had an almost insignificant following in non-Indo-European speaking countries - though it was more popular in the Middle East than in the Far East and attracted virtually no interest at all from sub-Saharan Africa (except Réunion and South Africa which were grouped in with the Middle Eastern countries).

Most of this is unsurprising except the popularity among the Finnic and Northern Germanic language speakers above native English speakers. Yes, people from those countries virtually all speak English fluently, but it still took me by surprise.

Flavia said...

My spouse (who's from the north shore) is obsessed with the Market Basket story. I've been totally unable to follow it until seeing this blog post and its follow-up, which really lay out the full crazy.

Miss Self-Important said...

Withywindle: In this case, "explanations" are all bad, since there is no marrying up on this front. The single Jewish male invasion of northern Europe circa 200 AD is the best I've heard so far.

Andrew Stevens: But your article was in English, right? So what is the relevance of the language group of your readers?

Flavia: Thank you! The Globe stories really failed to explain such basic things as why the store employees cared so much about reinstating the old CEO. It's too bad everyone in this story is named Arthur, and no one is any longer named Telemachus.

Andrew Stevens said...

But your article was in English, right? So what is the relevance of the language group of your readers?

Sorry, probably way too long-winded since such an analysis almost can't be as interesting to anyone else as to me. Key point was that it was in English and never translated (by anyone, even to this day, as far as I know). I expected it therefore to be most popular in the English speaking countries where everybody would be reading it in his own native language with little interest anywhere else. But when I checked its per capita popularity, I was astonished to discover A) it was not most popular in the English-speaking countries and B) the popularity ranking by country "naturally" broke up into language family groups (with a little help from me when I nudged, for example, Israel and Singapore into the English-speaking nations). The countries it was most popular in were Iceland, Denmark, Finland, and Estonia, so both Finnic countries were in the top four and the two above were both North Germanic countries. The Faroe Islands were somewhere between fifth and seventh and Norway and Sweden were eighth and ninth. So all of the Finnic language countries and Northern Germanic speaking countries were ranked in the top ten, all before ever getting to the United States. (Though Canada was somewhere in the top ten, IIRC.) Anyway, when I saw this, I was very surprised.

It was just one article, of course, and there are plenty of confounding factors - I know of no reason why the particular subject matter would be more popular in northern Europe than in the U.S. despite its being in a foreign language in those countries, but I'm hardly an expert on northern Europe so perhaps there is a reason which I'm not familiar with. Obviously distribution network could have played a huge role although it too was English-only.

What I found interesting is that its being published in English almost certainly couldn't have hurt its popularity in the northern European countries, whereas it seems to me it clearly did significant damage in, for example, the Romance language nations. It had never occurred to me a priori that it would be vastly more popular in the Netherlands than in France (with Belgium in between). I think this can only be explained by the number and fluency of readers of English in those countries.

Anyway, my only point was simply that, in trying to solve the conundrum of why the article was so popular (relatively speaking) in some countries, but not at all in others, I had to teach myself distinctions like Finnic, North Germanic, Scandinavian (technically only Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, and does not include Iceland, the Faroe Islands, or Finland, all of which sometimes get lumped in), West Germanic, etc., which I otherwise would have had no clue about. So I apologize for the lengthy and pointless digression of the last couple of comments.

(Also, if you ask me another question about this, I'm going to assume you're trolling me.)

Andrew Stevens said...

Short version: if somebody had walked up to me and said, "People who speak German, Dutch, and Scandinavian languages are much more likely to do leisure reading in English than people who speak Italian, French, Spanish, or Portuguese," I would have said, "Sure, that makes sense." I had just never really thought about it before until I was trying to understand those baffling international numbers.

Miss Self-Important said...

I'm only trolling you a little, b/c this sounded like such an incongruently involved undertaking. What would happen if I now asked what the article was about?

Andrew Stevens said...

You cannot give me data and not expect me to analyze it; that's just how I roll. There was no purpose other than to satisfy my own curiosity and I did spend a few days on the problem - learning about language groups, categorizing countries, and so forth - so "incongruently involved" is an appropriate phrase.

And it actually was fiction, but that's the last you're getting out of me. :)

Phoebe said...

OK, Jews-and-blondness...

I have no opinion on whether 'many' Jews are blond - this is bound to depend on, which Jews, and compared to which other people. There are more blond Ashkenazi Jews, I'd assume, than blond natives of Kenya or China, but that's clearly never the point.

The relevant fact for me is that non-blondness has come to be understood as announcing Jewishness or lack thereof. This is something I can remember from as far back as elementary school - blond kids did Christmas, Jewish ones Chanukah... not that this actually matched up with who celebrated which holidays. This understanding surely has something to do with what we learned in Hebrew school, etc. - that the Nazis hated Jews because Jews weren't blond.

And, among the slightly older, it ends up making blond Jews feel as if they stand accused of inauthenticity, while non-blondness has sort of political significance (like some tepid version of black hair politics) in Jews that it doesn't have in the many other white people who also happen to be brunettes.

Miss Self-Important said...

Andrew Stevens: This may be added to the list of ways to scare the children away.

Phoebe: I guess most of my Jewish friends do have brown hair, but so do most of my non-Jewish and still-European friends. Brown hair is the dominant allele. The Jews-aren't-supposed-to-be-blond assumption may well be a harmless residual Nazi trope, but if Jewish blondness was not noticeably less prevalent than German blondness (also a minority hair color there), then the Nazis were poor data analysts, because they didn;t have Andrew Stevens in their employ.

Goodreads also informed me that you rated the same I.B. Singer book that I read very highly.

Raghav said...

Whoops, Andrew, you're right—blondism isn't more common in the Baltics than in Scandinavia. I was just misreading the Wikipedia article as usual.

Anyway, Bashevis's books also have some countervailing evidence on Jewish blondness. In The Slave, when Jacob goes to Lublin, he explicitly notes the contrast between himself—blond and blue-eyed—and the local Jewish population, who "for the most part, were short, dark-eyed, black-bearded."

Incidentally, which books have you been reading?

Andrew Stevens said...

MSI: Kids love me; it's their parents who are often scared of me.

I imagine the German Jewish population was much less likely to be blond than the rest of the German population. Blonds are more than 20% of the German population. There is probably enough northern European descent in German Ashkenazi heritage that there must be occasional blonds, but enough Near Eastern descent that they must be less likely by a statistically significant margin.

Julia said...

Actually, Gremlin, the Soviet Safeway is the one on 17th and Corcoran. And when I lived nearby and shopped there, it was indeed lacking many grocery items on most days. The Safeway in the Watergate is the Senior Safeway. I can't really dispute your knowledge of what an actual soviet grocery store looks like, though, so...whatever.

Miss Self-Important said...

I never walked that far from GW for groceries, so how could I know? Maybe the problem is that the whole Safeway chain is Soviet if it can't sufficiently stock any of its stores.

Miss Self-Important said...

Raghav: I read Tevye the Dairyman and the stories in Gimpel the Fool, plus the various bits of things assigned for this seminar: Sutzkever, I.L. Peretz, Lamed Shapiro. Blondness everywhere. Also death, despair, and demons.