A Jewish New Yorker Becomes a Tibetan Pop Star. Plus… She Sings in Yiddish on Mongolian TV.
“I was raised in a Reform Jewish home of Ashkenazi Polish Russian Jews, in an English speaking family in upstate New York. We weren’t that observant; we probably lit Shabbat candles once a year—but Jewish identity was very important. Being proud of being Jewish and Yiddish both played a huge role in our family,” she said.
In a sense, her family did have their own language—music. “My dad is a performer, and when I was a kid and we’d go on trips, down to the grandparents or whatever, instead of listening to the radio, often Dad would start singing, and Mom would join in, and then me and my brother. Dad was always playing guitar or autoharp or another instrument in the living room. So many of my family memories involve music.”
This love of music became an important part of Rubin’s travels. “Every time I go to a new country I try to learn a new song from that country. To me it’s just a great way to enjoy a culture and learn something new, and everyone’s really happy when you sing a song in their language.”
She continued to rely on her father for musical advice, too. Soon after arriving in Mongolia to work on an extension to her master’s thesis, she was encouraged to try out for a show called “Universe by Songs,” which she describes as a “Mongolian American Idol.”
After passing the auditions, she began preparing her performance. Her first song was in Mongolian, the second was in Tibetan, and the third was in Yiddish.
“I actually don’t speak Yiddish—this is a popular misconception,” she said. “I sing in Yiddish. But,” she added, “I want to learn Yiddish because Yiddish is such an integral part of Ashkenazi Jewish culture, and I think that if Jews as a people lose our regional languages, we lose all the beautiful parts of those cultures. Plus how much fun would it be to have a secret language with your family?”
The idea for the Yiddish performance came to her in a dream. “I emailed my dad like 2AM, and I wrote, how do you think ‘De Rebbe Elimelech’ would sound with a Mongolian band? And he responded: YES.”
So she started making calls, amassed a Mongolian band, and performed on television. Unfortunately, Rubin was disqualified because the judges believed was singing in her native language, which is not allowed on the show. Though she did not make it to the finals, her performance became immensely popular with the audience, and she was asked to perform another piece during the finale.
This isn’t the first time her music has garnered international acclaim. Several years earlier, Rubin’s renditions of Tibetan music went viral in Tibet, making her a bona fide “Jewish Tibetan pop star.” She has released three albums, “Mountains and Deserts”, “Leaving Home,” and “Memories of the Vast Plateau” which feature both traditional and modern Tibetan songs as well as Jewish songs. She plays Tibetan lute and mandolin, and has performed extensively in Tibet as well as with Tibetan artists in exile.
Her love for Tibetan poetry inspired her to start writing songs in Tibetan. She also befriended many members of the local Tibetan community, borrowing Tibetan instruments and watching karaoke videos of Tibetan songs. “I mean, that’s totally normal for a Jewish chick from upstate New York,” she said.
Development is More than Just Saving the World
After graduating from the University of Buffalo with a degree in International Studies, Rubin spent three years in India and Taiwan teaching and doing educational work with NGO’s. She went on to receive her master’s degree in International Studies and Development from the University of Washington.
If there’s one thing she could tell the Western world about what she learned about third-world development during that time, it’s that “it’s not efficient if the people won’t use it,” she said, citing the way that Westerners often bring to a country some form of development that is either incongruous with its faith or unusable for cultural reasons, and are offended when their great ‘world-saving’ contribution is not met with gratitude.
“There have been so many attempts from Western organizations to provide better stoves for camps in Mongolia, because the stoves they have there are inefficient,” she said. “What they are forgetting is that in the Mongolian context, the stove has a sacred position within the center of the house, and there’s a deity that is represented by the fire. If you provide a stove that doesn’t open the top and side for rituals, you’ve removed religion from the house.
“We have this idea that our superstitions are valid while everyone else’s are superstitious and inefficient and that’s where the Eurocentric position comes in. It’s the ‘if it’s not a problem for me, it can’t be a problem for you’ issue—like when women complain about problems in the office and men say that they can’t be real problems because they themselves haven’t experienced them.”
She cited several other examples of well-meaning attempts that ended up doing more harm than good, including a library and children’s school recently constructed in Tibet. “This was a Tibetan school and at the time there was no corpus of Tibetan children’s literature, so they had this empty room,” she said. “This is what people forget when they’re doing development: it’s so important to let people from that culture lead. Let them lead you. Find a solution that already exists within that culture instead of trying to replace it with something from the outside.”
Rubin also remembers a particularly difficult day when she attended a class and heard a woman explaining a charity she was working on that helps families retrieve children sold into trafficking, by providing them with monetary incentives and a goat. Unfortunately, Rubin realized, often times families that already sold their children will sell them again. Service trips, such as orphanage tourism, can also be more harmful than helpful.
Larger solutions usually reside in structural changes that address the deep-rooted causes of these issues rather than surface-level contributions to individuals. For those interested in actually making a difference, Rubin advises, “Try to find an organization that has a really good reputation and do your research. Try to find the flaws, and try to work with them and be very open to criticism; especially be open to criticism from the community you want to work with. So often when the community you want to be helping says this isn’t helping, we get defensive. It is a slap to the ego and yes it is hard to deal with, but that is absolutely key. You have to think: they don’t owe me any gratefulness. Everyone deserves basic human dignities; that’s all I’m providing. If no one says thank you to me I can’t be angry.”
While studying international relations at the University of Washington, Rubin attended a conference on Tibetan studies in Mongolia. On her first night there, she met two shamans who happened to be in attendance at a dinner with her Mongolian host. She was able to befriend the shamans, and only later began to seriously research Mongolian shamanism, first for her thesis and then for a book she is currently writing.
“Shamanism has exploded in the years after 1992,” she said. “There’s a lot of places in the world where after intense oppression, there tends to be a pushback to tradition. Even in Jewish communities we can see this, even right now with what’s going on in America—a lot of young Jews are being more Jewish, turning towards being more visibly Jewish and observant because it’s a reaction to what’s going on today.”
Mongolian shamanism is a monotheistic religion. “A lot of the concepts are similar to Jewish concepts,” said Rubin. One of the primary differences, though, is that “in shamanism, it’s believed that with the use of a shaman you can communicate with beings beyond the physical realm; maybe not God, but maybe God’s secretary,” she said.
“Because shamanism is so dehumanized, there’s still a lot of prejudice against it. If people were trusting me enough to be willing to let me tell their stories to the outside world, I felt it was my duty to do my best on that. So I decided to move to Mongolia to write a book.”
A Homemade Shofar
Throughout all of her travels, Rubin has retained a strong sense of devotion to her own faith.
In some ways, she said, her traveling has been good for her Judaism. “I can’t take it for granted anymore,” she said. “I have the choice to either completely forget about it or…DIY Judaism.”
She committed full-force to the second approach, making her own shofar in her kitchen using boiled sheep’s horn and a toothbrush and creating her own slightly obscene-looking havdalah candle out of wax.
“It’s given passion and life to my observance as a Jew,” she said of the challenges she’s faced while abroad. “When Sukkot came around, purely out of curiosity I contacted the Chabad and asked if the Mongolian ger (a traditional tent, often called a “yurt”) might be a kosher sukkah,” she said.When the answer was affirmative, “at that point it only made sense to call up one of my nomad friends to ask, can I borrow your ger for a week?” she said. “I ended up having a whole Sukkot campout shindig in the countryside.”
Mongolian shamanism has other surprising intersections with Judaism. For example, it has an idea that is very similar to the mitzvot, a series of commandments the world operates by. In the words of one of Rubin’s friends, Mongolian shamanism and Judaism have the “same God, but with a different contract, because you guys are from a different tribe.”
“When I want to observe in some way or another, I call my Mongolian shaman friends and say: so I have this weird need for like a sheep’s horn, or can I borrow your ger for a week, or something else,” she said. And they’re always willing to help. “I accidentally pulled off a kosher Shabbat completely by accident in Mongolia,” she said. “We were in the countryside so electricity wasn’t a question. I didn’t expect Mongolia to be a place where it’s easier to worship than in New York.”
She also values how we define ourselves as Jews. Some people consider Jew to be a slur, but not Rubin. “A Christian can call themselves a Christian, a Muslim can call themselves a Muslim. I don’t want to be Jewish. No. Jew. If you have a problem with that, say it to my face, but I’m a Jew. But then again you’re talking to the woman who’s planning on making a ‘Proud Jewess’ T-shirt to wear to rallies back in the US,” she added.
“I think it’s important to have diverse Jewish voices, because a lot of people view Judaism as Reform or Orthodox, Hasidim and non-Hasidim, and the fact is there are so many areas in between. For Judaism to be strong as people we need [to be] together, and especially speaking as women and feminists, we have to understand that there are so many forms of Jewish feminism itself. Feminism for a Hasidic Jew is not going to be the same as feminism for a relatively secular Jew. And we need to look at that and be able to define what that means for ourselves, and what it means for other women, and work together, especially during a time when we’re experiencing a lot of pushback. It’s important to sit together and say, we don’t agree completely, but I support you. At this point in history, the ability to be unified is so important.”
Whether you’re talking about Judaism or shamanism, America or Mongolia, it seems that there are some perpetually applicable golden rules. “It all comes down to respect and choice and understanding culture, whether it’s within our culture or outside of it,” Rubin said. “If we look and understand that within cultures everyone has different rules and taboos, they are a lot easier to respect.”
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.