Tag: Jewishness

Irving Howe’s Recollections of Hannah Arendt

DownloadedFile-2

Irving Howe and Hannah Arendt both published important essays in The Partisan Review.   Howe published and edited the important 1953 issue of The Partisan Review where he included Saul Bellow’s monumental translation of I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” and an important introduction on Jewishness. Arendt published essays at The Partisan Review on philosophy, literature, and politics such as “Franz Kafka, a Reevaluation,” (1944), “What is Existenz philosophy?” (1946), “The Concentration Camps”(1948), and “The Cold War and the West”(1962).

Howe first met Arendt when she was the editor of Schocken Books.   Howe’s recollection of their meeting and his description of Arendt in his wonderful book, A Margin of Hope: An Intellectual Autobiography, are worth recounting as they give us something of an intellectual portrait and show us that Howe was impressed by her presence. Howe situates her in a chapter entitled “Jewish Quandries.” What’s most interesting about this placement is the fact that he discusses his literary project in Yiddish literature side-by-side with his meetings and encounters with Arendt. In her, he saw something of a secular Jewishness that he felt had died in Europe. He calls it an “idea” that he loved but, in reality, couldn’t make real because such Jewish secularism (attempted, he believed, by the movement of Yiddish theater and literature in the lower east side) was “decaying.”

Howe tells us that when he first met her, Arendt was looking for someone to do “literary chores (copy for book jackets, cleaning up translations, and so forth), and for the handy sum of $150 a month”(270).   Howe was her man. And he notes that though the pay was low, it “came with the privilege of visiting Hannah at her office every week”(270). At the time, she was not well-known because she hadn’t published On Totalitarianism, but “everyone in the intellectual world respected her and some feared her”(270).

With a little dismay, Howe notes that even though Arendt “loved to ‘adopt’ people,” he was not one of the chosen”(270). He muses that he wasn’t “perhaps because I was deaf to philosophy, or had been contaminated by Marxism, or was visibly intent upon resisting her intellectual lures”(270).

But Howe notes that there was one thing she would love to discuss with him “Kafka and Brecht,” on the one hand, and “Yiddish folk tales and American politics” on the other. The confluence of the two is telling because they touch on things that meant a lot to Howe in his work on the schlemiel, Yiddish literature, modernist literature, and politics.

Howe’s description of Arendt is, in many ways, literary.  Arendt had, for him, a kind of theatrical quality.

He notes that, although she was “far from ‘good looking’ in any commonplace way,” she was a “remarkably attractive person, with her razored gestures, imperial eye, dangling cigarette. ‘Szee here,’ she would declare with a smile meant both to subdue and to solace, and then she’d race off into one of her improvisations”(270).

“Mere Americans,” says Howe, were “dazzled by the immensities of German philosophy” she knew. But Howe notes that what really dazzled them was not her “thought” so much as the “style of her thinking”(270). His description of her style is worth noting, at length, because he’s trying to translate it into literature. She fills the rooms she dwells in with the “largeness of her will” and is “larger than her setting.”

She brissled with intellectual charm, as if to reduce everyone to an alert discipleship. Her voice would shift register abruptly, now stern and admonitory, now slyly tender with gossip. Whatever room she was in Hannah filled through the largeness of her will; indeed, she always seemed larger than her setting. Rarely have I met a writer with so acute an awareness of the power to overwhelm. (270)

But something was missing in this performance. He couldn’t quite grasp its “substance”:

Even while appreciating her performance, I often failed to grasp its substance.

Howe, nonetheless, tells his reader that he did learn something from his discussion with her about politics: “that politics has to be scrutinized in its own right and not just as an index of social conflict”(271).

But while she had command over thought and politics and a style that he emulated, Howe noticed that when it came to Jewishness Arendt’s attitudes were “hopelessly mixed.” And this had to do with her “hostility toward established Jewish institutions, especially Zionist ones.”

Hannah’s attitudes toward modern Jewish life, her feelings toward the Jews as they actually lived in all their frailty and imperfection, were hopelessly mixed. (271)

Howe notes how the book on Eichmann and all the attendant criticism deeply affected her. And in his reflections on her book, Howe takes the side of Norman Podhoretz who “saw Arendt’s book – rightly, I think – as an instance of that deep impulse among some Jews, especially intellectual ones, to make ‘inordinate demands…that the Jews be better than other people…braver, wiser, nobler, more dignified….But the truth is – must be – that Jews under Hitler acted as men will act when they are set upon by murderers”(275).

He notes that “such controversies will never be settled” and describes, in a sad manner, his last encounter with Arendt. At a party they shook hands, and she sharply took it away as she “turned on her heel and walked off.” The gesture was like a “wound” that remained with him:

It was the most skillful cut I have ever seen or received, and I was wounded quite as keenly as she wanted me to be. (275)

Arendt left him with a wound. And perhaps this marked his wounded sense of Jewishness as the chapter goes on to articulate.

…to be continued….

 

 

Harold Ramis: Comedy and Jewishness, American Style

DownloadedFile

After I learned of Harold Ramis’s death, I spent some time on youtube going through clips of his work.   One of the most interesting things I stumbled upon was a talk he gave on Groundhog Day.   Ramis begins and ends his reflection on the film with a Jewish joke.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BkEUpymTanA

At the outset, he recalls a telephone call from one of the producers on the day of the film’s premier in California. He told Ramis that there are picketers at the film’s opening in Santa Monica.  In shock, Ramis asks what they are protesting and the producer tells him: “They aren’t protesting.  They are Hasidic Jews walking around with signs saying are you living the same day over and over again!”  While he cracks the joke, he has a big smirk on his face.

Following this, Ramis points out how a number of groups identified with the film: Buddhists, people in the Yoga community, Christians, and psychologists.   He notes that everyone obviously “projected” something on to the film.  However, he adds that “as a Jew, I kept thinking that people finding so much in this movie” and finding something new in it – every time – has much in common with the reading of the Torah:

The Torah is read every year, start at the same place, in the same day…every Jew reads the same form the same day, in the same cycle.  The Torah doesn’t change, but every year we read it we change.   And every time we read it we read something different.  So, the movie doesn’t change.

The punch line is that he denies the comparison after making it and then plays with it: “I’m not comparing Groundhog Day to the Torah; it’s more entertaining. And the Bible was not a good movie…John Huston’s movie.”  But the take away is that “there is something in it that can help people to reconsider where they are in life and to question their habitual behaviors.”

This analogy – and the joke that conveys it – is telling.  It suggests that Ramis sees the film and the Torah as something that can help us to recognize our mortality and prompt us to change who we are.  And we do this by way of reflecting on the story that we see which he suggests has a timeless element to it.  What lives on and changes – besides ourselves – is the interpretation of the story.  But the point is to make the interpretation.

Reflecting on this, I thought about how, in many ways, Ramis’s films were, for me, like the Torah.  I used to watch them over and over again.  I was especially fascinated with the juxtaposition of Bill Murray (John) to Harold Ramis (Russell Zisky) in Stripes.

Zisky plays the humble and intelligent American Jew while John plays the ironic and bold American rebel.  Zisky and John are both schlemiels.  And this is brought to bear on us by way of the fact that they come from a different America than the soldiers they join.  They are urban and intellectual; they are ironic and this gives them a vantage point.  However, as the film goes on they learn to overcome whatever distance separated them from the others in the platoon.  But this distance, though seemingly large, isn’t big.

The first scene of the film shows us this fact. Zisky is an educated man who is teaching “Basic English” to Immigrants.  We can see that the job is meaningful to him, but it is not allowing him to tap into his full potential.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iINyyfDf_xE]

John is also stumped.  Both of them are friends who want, as the Jewish-American writer Bernard Malamud put it, a “new life.”  To be sure, Malamud joined Sholem Aleichem, Mendel Mocher Sforim, and other Yiddish writers whose schlemiels all yearned for a “new life.”  The question, in all of their novels and stories, was whether such a life was possible or what that new life meant.   Moreover, would any of these schlemiels change, fundamentally? Or would they remain schlemiels, still, after the transformation?

When Zisky introduces himself to the platoon in Stripes, he comes across as a pacifist and his words fall flat.  None of the other Americans in the room, even John Candy in front of him, can understand or identify with what he is saying or his pledge that he will put himself on the line when they are in danger.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iTwIwfvNJLk]

In contrast to Zisky, the American-Jew, is John.  His talk is that of a ironic, self-important-cool-populist.  The majority of the platoon laughs and smiles when he talks.  Everyone can identify with him.  He ends with an homage to the leader of the platoon.  But the leader sees this all as a lot of talk and, as the film goes out to show, he does all he can do to break John down and make him into a soldier rather than a populist comedian.

As the opening clip shows, the American-Jew and the cool, ironic American are completely different.  They are regarded differently by the platoon.  That changes over time.  But the initial moment gave me a lot to reflect on as a Jew growing up in small town America.  My father and mother were both natives of New York City.  They were oddballs in my small town.  My parents had more in common with Zisky than I did.

For this reason, looking back I can understand why I liked this film so much.  I tried to be more like John than Zisky.  But in the end, I saw that Zisky was also accepted.  But to be accepted, he had to prove that he could put himself on the line for other people in the platoon.  And John also had to change.  But that change was something that came from the leader of the platoon.  The basis for this had to do with making John more humble and respectful.

As a recent Village Voice article points out, this feat of making the American more humble was not realized in films like stripes, however.  It was realized in Groundhog Day.    According to the author of the article, Ramis established himself by making Slob vs. Snob comedies.  While the theme had its power and reflected life in the 80s, it still gave the “white American” slob too much power.  The author suggests that this is displaced in Groundhog Day because Bill Murray plays a character who is radically different from characters like John in Stripes.  Ramis and Murray, according to the author, figured out that Murray – of Stripes and Ghostbusters – is the “asshole of the age”:

At some point, Ramis and Murray and whoever else seem to have figured out that the Bill Murray of Stripes and Ghostbusters (both co-written by and co-starring Ramis) is the asshole of his age, a self-entitled boomer horndog interested in no perspective other than his own, engaged with no aspect of culture he hasn’t decided he already favors.

For this reason, they created a new Murray character in Stripes who, the author points out, now plays a “snob” rather than a “slob.”  The effect of this transformation, is that “he is rightly seen as a privileged dickhead instead of some hypocrisy-exposing hero of the people.”  The new lesson, he claims, is that Murray learns that there is more to the world than himself; the world is something you share with others.

I found this article to be interesting since it reads Groundhog Day, as Ramis suggests, by way of a different time.   It points out that the film has not changed, but we have.  Nonetheless, I wonder how Ramis rather than Murray fits into this reading.  Did his character change?  And what does this all have to do with Jewishness?  And, in all of this, what happened to the schlemiel?

The other day, I blogged on Ramis and pointed out how, in Knocked Up, he played the Jewish father to Seth Rogen.   As I noted, the scene I refer to is the scene of tradition and the idea that the son and father encounter is very Jewish.  The father is happy to have grandchildren.  He is happy to see the future embodied in a grandson.  The encounter, so to speak, shows us Zisky years later.  Unlike Bill Murray, he hasn’t gone through a fundamental transformation.  Ramis, in doing this, shows us that though the Jew may age, his or her humility and priorities remain the same.  Zisky isn’t the “asshole of the age.”  He just wants to help.

I’d like to end this blog post with a clip from the film Walk Hard where Ramis plays a Hasidic Rabbi who, in this scene, visits, Dewey, the main character, in prison.  Dewey is a parody of the American rock star who rises to fame, but ends up in hard times.  In an ironic twist, he speaks to him in Yiddish and Dewey replies in kind.

Here’s the rough translation:

Rabbi: Lean closer, I want to talk to you in mother tongue for the guards should not understand what I’m saying.

Dewey: You must be able to do something. I am not yet 21 years old. My whole life is waiting for me.

Rabbi: I think we need to do a retreat.

Dewey: How can we do that?

Rabbi:  You must go to a rehab

I recently noted that Woody Allen, in Take the Money and Run, briefly plays a Hasidic Rabbi. But that scene emerges out of a joke: it is a “side effect” of a drug he is asked to take in prison.  Here, however, we find something different.  This Rabbi is a wise man who looks to help Dewey to live “a new life” the kind of life that he can live if he goes through rehab, that is, a transformation.

The twist, I think, is that the Rabbi initiates the change; he helps Dewey to change his old habits.  He helps him to look at himself differently and gives him hope.  For me, this is the keynote that Ramis hit at in his talk on Groundhog Day.  It articulates what he thinks of the Torah and what he thought of his greatest film.  The idea is not simply (or only) that the white American guy realizes that he is an asshole and he can share the world with others, as the author of the Village Voice article suggests; it’s also that the this realization or rather transformative thought is scripted by a Jewish filmmaker and screenwriter named Harold Ramis.  He brought his Jewish wisdom to his films and, hopefully, this blog post steps in the direction of better understanding how this was so.  To be sure, Ramis’s own words – which I brought out above – suggest that we do so.

After all, the movie may not change, but we do. But the other side of this is that the movie, if read closely, can also prompt us to see who we are and to change our lives.  Herein lies the wisdom of a good script and a close reading, something Jews have, for centuries, been familiar.  What Ramis has done is to make this structure popular; he has created an offshoot of Jewishness.  And he has done it in an American style.

Final Notes on Jewishness in Gary Shtyengart’s Absurdistan – Take 1

images-4

The image of Judaism and Jewishness that comes across to the readers of
Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan is disturbing in many ways. Over the last month, I have written several blog entries on Gary Shteyngart’s representation of circumcision (by way of Misha, the main character of Absurdistan).   As I point out in many of these blog entries, the description of circumcision and his “mutilated” penis (descriptions that have much resonance with Paul and even Augustine’s most anti-Jewish words) are not, as they say, “good for the Jews.”  Although the author may not have intended this, the fact of the matter is that each of these descriptions makes Judaism into a barbaric and primitive kind of religion.  But, to be sure, this is what Misha thinks about when he thinks of Judaism.

At the outset of my readings of Absurdistan, I wrote a blog on the Prologue which notes Misha’s description of the “Mountain Jews” he meets in Absurdistan as “pre-historic.”

They are “prehistoric, premammalian even, like some clever miniature dinosaur that once schlepped across the earth, the Haimossaurus.”

As we learn in the Prologue, he doesn’t want to stay with this group of “pre-historic” Jews.  He appreciates their hospitality, but he finds it “overwhelming.”  He needs air and feels he must leave the Jews for his Latino-African-American girlfriend, in his second home, New York City:

The mountain Jews coddle and cosset me; their hospitality is overwhelming…and yet I yearn to take to the air. To soar across the globe.  To land on the corner of 173rd Street and Vyse, where she is waiting for me.  (viii)

Ultimately, Jews and his circumcision make him fill ill-at-ease.  And while at the outset of the novel he refers himself as a “secular Jew,” later on, toward the end of the novel, Misha refers to himself as a “multicultualist.”  In front of other people, he doesn’t seem to like Jews and shows no preference for his “pre-historic” roots; rather, he likes “others”:

“I am not much taken with Judaism,” I announced.  “I am a multiculturalist.”  Except there was no Russian word for “multiculturalist,” so I had to say, “I am a man who likes others.”(218)

This declaration comes at an odd time in the novel since he is, at this point, asked to get money for the Svani “cause” by way of making an appeal to the Jews for money (224).  To this end, he is appointed the “Minster of Multicultural affairs.”  The appeal to multiculturalism, he thinks will bring money.  However, Misha learns that he must appeal to Israel for money; but to do this, Misha has to act “as if” he wants to do something for the Jews when, in fact, Misha’s not interested in doing anything for them.  After all, he’s a “multiculturalist.”

This new task confuses him.  When he thinks about what to do, he is thrown into an imaginary conversation with this dead father (who, as I mentioned in other blogs, had prompted him to get his circumcision).  His father loved Jewishness and Israel and, as we can see, Misha does not.

In his imaginary conversation, Misha wants his father to see him as an independent man: “Papa! Look at me!  Look how fine I’ve grown.”  But in his memory, Misha notes that his father was too busy with work and didn’t pay attention to him.  Misha remembers how his father had, in a sense, ruined his life.  Amongst the things he recalls, we find the circumcision.

How little use he had for me.  But then why did you send for me, Papa?  Why did you interrupt my life?  Why did you have to put me through all this?  Why did you have my khui (penis) snipped?  I have a religion, too, Papa, only it celebrates the real. (235)

Misha is a man-child looking for his father’s approval.  Yet, at the same time, he tries to be independent.  For this reason, he tells his father that, like him, he wants to help a people; but not the Jewish people; rather, the Sevo people:

“I want to believe in something, too, Papa,” I said. “Just like you believed in Israel. I want to help the Sevo people.  I’m not stupid.  I know they’re no good.  But they’re better than their neighbors.” (237)

His imaginary conversation inspires him to help the Sevo people.  To this end, he drafts up a proposal so as to get money from the Israelis (which he will give to the Sevo people).  The irony is that the project is dedicated to the preservation of Jewish identity by way of an appeal to the Holocaust and Holocaust memory.

The project name is: “The Institute for Caspian Holocaust Studies, aka the Museum of Sevo-Jewish Friendship.”

I’ll cite his justification for this project since it will give the reader a sense of how Misha is playing the “identity card”:

The greatest danger facing American Jewry is our people’s eventual assimilation into the welcoming American fold and our subsequent extinction as an organized community.  Due to the overabundance of presentable non-Jewish partners in the country as tantalizing diverse and half naked as America, it is becoming difficult if not impossible to convince young Jews to engage in reproductive sex with each other….It is time to turn to the most effective, time-tested, and target-specific arrow in our quiver – the Holocaust. (268)

The irony of all this is that he is not convinced by this argument for Jewish identity but, nonetheless, he makes it so as to solicit money.  He isn’t interested in perpetuating Jewish identity, but he acts “as if” he is:

Identity politics are a great boon in our quest for Continuity. Identity is born almost exclusively out of a nation’s travails.  For us…this means Holocaust, Holocaust, Holocaust.  The twin halves of the broken matzoh will be infused with the spirit of the New Tribalism that is captivating young people across the Western world in angry response to global homogenization.

To be sure, Misha has no interest in this “New Tribalism”; in fact, he’s running away from it.  And he would rather assimilate than hang out with the Mountain Jews.  For this reason, we can rest assured that Misha  must be chuckling when he describes the New Tribalism as a combination of Holocaust Memory and “towering videos of Jewish college boys at fraternity mixers hitting up demure Korean girls, while pretty suburban Jewish maideleh fetishize their urbanized African American counterparts at a Smith Barney softball game. Subtext: six million died and you’re twirling around a bar stool with some hazzar?”(270).

The point of all this is to show how Misha, a “multiculturalist,” sees Jewishness as pre-historic and out of tune with the tide of globalization.  However, as I will point out in the next blog entry, he is, in the end, duped by the “Sevo people.”  And on his way out, he is saved by the “Mountain Jews.”  Nonetheless, he doesn’t want to stay with them.  For, as I noted in the outset, they make him uncomfortable.

To be sure, it is Jewishness that makes Misha, the multiculturalist, uneasy.  He associates it with his father, with his circumcision, and with a people that wants to preserve itself through the Holocaust industry and guilt.  Perhaps we can argue that this is a satire and that Misha needs to get in touch with a Jewishness that he has trashed; however, I haven’t as yet seen any of these readings or heard anything from the author to this tune.

For this reason, it seems as if there is an element of truth for Shtyengart in this reaction to things Jewish.   And for those of us who think differently about Jewishness, these types of quips against it may make the character less charming and more troubling.

And the irony of it all is the fact that he is more interested in “other” people preserving their identity and less in his own people’s doing so.  And for the strange reason that one kind of preservation is better than the other because one is modern (and not Jewish) while the other is a “pre-historic” and ancient practice.  This, it seems, is his major blindspot and may, in fact, be the thing that makes him into a multicultural-schlemiel-of-sorts.

…to be continued

“A Crushed Purple Bug” – Jewish-American Identity Before and After Misha’s (Fictional) Circumcision (Part 1)

DownloadedFile-4

In “The Metaphysics” Aristotle distinguishes “perceptions” from “experiences.”  Men and animals share the fact that they both have perceptions (sensation plus memory).   The first thing that differentiates them from each other is “experience.”  Animals can’t have experiences because, Aristotle tells us, they cannot make inferences based on the totality of their perceptions.    We do.  We infer who we are and what we are by way of our “experiences.”  But, for Aristotle, there is a higher mode than experience and that is thinking.  When we look for the causes of things, we move beyond inferences.  Aristotle acknowledges that scientists may be thinkers but that the greatest thinker is the philosopher since the philosopher looks not for this or that cause so much as the “causes of causes” (that is, the foundation of all things: from which things emerge and return).

But Aristotle makes a concession to experience when he argues that philosophy (always) begins with wonder.  However, it ends with wisdom and knowledge.  To remain in wonder, for Aristotle, would be to remain in the painful state of ignorance.  For him, happiness coincides with leaving wonder behind for knowledge.

To be sure, Aristotle gave birth to a whole line of thinkers who privileged thought over experience (from Descartes and Spinoza to Leibnitz, Kant, and Hegel).   Given this tendency toward thought and away from experience, Immanuel Kant – in the 18th century – thought of the novel as a distraction from the “true things.”  Since the novel was focused on experience it exposed us to things we could only make inferences about.  Dwelling in experience is tantamount with dwelling in confusion, ignorance, and doubt.  It would evince – as Aristotle would say – a lower, imperfect form of existence.

In contrast to Kant, Freud argued that we can learn a lot about “who” we are from our past experience.  Unlike Kant who thought of literature as a distraction, Freud oftentimes turned to literature and novels to understand what it means to be human.  All of our deepest problems and complexes are alluded to in such experiences as we find in dreams and novels.  Nonetheless, Freud believed, liked Kant and Aristotle, that we should work our way through such dreams or literary experiences so as to arrive at knowledge.   And this knowledge would, so to speak, set one free from this or that condition that hindered our being a reality-adjusted ego.   Although the analysis of self was “interminable,” for Freud, it had a goal.

To be sure, Freud would agree that first “experiences,” usually, count for a lot: especially when it comes to one’s identity.  A person’s first experiences of a country, a religion, or a culture, especially if they are a “part of it,” can certainly color his or her a) perception of him or herself and b) one’s identifications in this or that geographical, religious, or cultural context.

Oftentimes our experiences are arbitrary; however, sometimes they are primal or “originary.”  They can become “first experiences” and may, as the philosopher Martin Heidegger might say, alter how things – and oneself – “appear-in-the-world.”   For Heidegger, anxiety was a central mood through which the world was disclosed “as a world” and through which one is disclosed to oneself “as a being-in-the-world” (or as Heidegger would say a “being-thrown,” which suggests a “first experience” of things that was is not familiar with, things one did not know or intend).

In a Freudian sense (vis-à-vis the emergence of repressed materials in dreams), the world can become “uncanny” when buried experiences come to the surface.  Freud called this “primary” or “primal” experiences or scenes.  In this sense, there can be something shocking or even traumatic about first experiences.   And it can certainly be argued that literature is a way of coming to terms with – and perhaps even knowing the “source” of – this shock.

The more schlemiel literature I read, the more I see that sometimes the schlemiel is involved with the literary elaboration of this coming-to-terms with this or that primal experience.  What interests me most –as a schlemiel theorist – is to ask what the schlemiel learns or fails to learn – on the one hand – and what we, as readers, learn – on the other.  What blindspots do we see vis-à-vis the recollection and assessment made by this or that schlemiel regarding their experiences?

To be sure, working through a character’s “first experiences” may involve bearing witness to something shocking that will make a character appear awkward and comical.   The reader may find this schlemiel to be a tragic-comic kind of character since the schlemiel may not know what causes him to err.

In a Heideggarian sense, we may see the schlemiel as a character who is thrown into a situation that he cannot overcome.  And, on this note, the schlemiel may come across as a character that is wounded by a traumatic situation that they may or may not know – a situation that he or she may not be able to overcome.

In Gary Shteyngart’s novel Absurdistan, that situation is Jewishness and it is brought out through the main character, Misha’s first “American experience.”   Strangely enough, his “first American experience” was shocking and traumatic; it was, according to the narrator, circumcision.  Apparently, his first American experience becomes his first Jewish(American) experience.  In other words, it alters his Russian-Jewish experience and his perception of Jewishness.   And although he is aware of this, he is also blind to how it drives his desire to leave “the Mountain Jews” behind for another, more “multicultural” experience that can only be found in the context and arms of his former Latino-Black lover.    This is what I will call the “other” New York; the New York not inhabited by Hasidic Jews – who circumcise him – or “mountain Jews,” who remain in Eastern Europe (in Abusrdistan).

The problem of circumcision is spurred by Misha’s “foolish” love from his father (apparently, a schlemiel/idiotic trait).  In one of my previous blog entries on the novel, I pointed out how Misha committed himself to this painful experience out of love for his father (“too much love”). According to the narrator, this love makes Misha into “the idiot” of Dostoevsky’s novel by the same name: Prince Myshkin.   We follow Misha as he “foolishly” travels to the circumcision.  What happens before, during, and after the circumcision should be duly noted as they trace his trajectory from naivite to an experience that discloses his greatest obstacle, which is branded on his body: his Jewishness.  Circumcision affects how he sees himself, America, and Jewishness.

To begin with, his trajectory is spatial and tells us about what he identifies with.  Although his first American experience is circumcision, he starts off his American journey in an African-American neighborhood.   His observations speak for themselves:

I fell in love with these people at first blush.  There was something blighted, equivocal, and downright soviet about the sight of underemployed men and women arranged along endless stretches of broken porch-front and unmowed lawn….The Oblomov inside me has always been fascinated by people who are just about ready to give up on life, and in 1990, Brooklyn was Oblomovian paradise.  (19)

The descriptions change, however, when he enters into the Jewish parts of Brooklyn and toward his circumcision.   He feels more repulsed by this neighborhood.  He doesn’t identify with it though these are his “co-religionists”:

And that (the “Spanish speaking section”) gave way to a promised land of my Jewish co-religionists – men bustling around with entire squirels’ nests on their heads…velvety coats that harbored a precious summer stink…What the hell kind of Jewish woman has six children?  (19)

This shift in location is a central motif in this novel which many critics have overlooked. This shift is marked by his circumcision, which leaves him with “his crushed purple bug.”  This physical wound is also the limit that separates him from what Hannah Arendt – in her book The Human Condition – would call his “primary birth” and his “secondary birth.”  It seems that, for Shteyngart’s Misha’s movement from his primary birth (his “first American experience”) to his secondary birth (which will, later in the novel, be his “first experience” with Rouenna, an African-Latino-American girl he meets, falls in love with, and lives with).    But this movement, I will argue, seems to be always plagued not only by his Jewishness but by his wounded penis; his “crushed purple bug.”  The proof is in the pudding: if he still thinks about his circumcision and his Jewishness as a burden or wound at the end of the novel, he has not worked through it; if he doesn’t, apparently, he has.  Also, we need to ask whether this defines Misha, at the end of the novel, as a schlemiel or a “reality adjusted ego.”  Can he leave the wound being for knowledge?  Or do we end the novel with a lack of knowledge and a blindspot?  Is he, in the end, distracted by his experiences?  Or has he found his true, post-Jewish/post-schlemiel self in the “other”?

(In the next blog entry I will give address these questions.)

Another Note on Sarah Silverman’s Jewishness

images-3

For the longest time, the claim that someone is a “Self-Hating Jew” has given vent to a lot of attacks on comedians, filmmakers, writers, etc.  It often comes up when something is said by this or that Jew which isn’t, as the saying goes, “good for the Jews.”  And it is often used against people who are radical critics of Israel.  Instead of calling people who claim that this or that person is a self-hating Jew a name, I just want to point out that, although many people may deplore it, it comes from a place of concern.  And that concern 1) emerges out of centuries of oppression and anti-Semitism against Jews (which culminates in the Holocaust) and 2) with the sense that Jews have of themselves as a people which, in spite of all the negativity against them, are proud of their Jewishness.

It would be amiss to think that Jews alone have such a concept and make such accusations.  For instance, the African-American community also has a notion of selling out one’s relation to “blackness.”   A person who leaves it behind is described and defined, most recently, by the MSNBC host, Toure and Eric Dyson, an sociology professor at Georgetown University Michael Eric Dyson in Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness: What It Means to be Black Now.  (To be sure there are countless books on this topic.)    By mentioning this, I don’t wish to excuse the act of accusing this or that person of being a Self-Hating Jew so much as to show its relation to suffering, history, and ethnicity.

In Sander Gilman’s book, the Jews who he includes under the title of (possible) Self-Hating Jews include figures such as Karl Marx, Ludwig Borne, and Heinrich Heine who had a (or some) negative attitude toward their Jewishness (or Jewishness in General) and saw it as a barrier to their assimilation or to progress.  However, most recently Paul Reitter has written a book entitled On the Origins of Jewish Self-Hatred which traces the origin and genesis of the concept of Jewish Self-Hatred.  He argues that it didn’t begin after the Enlightenment so much as after WWI.  Reitter argues that Anton Kuh and Theodor Lessing popularized the term but did so as to actually work through Jewish self-loathing.  However, though this book changes the perspective we may have on the meaning of Jewish Self-Hatred, it also creates a whole new problem for understanding the meaning of the term as used by Sander Gilman and others.  I suggest looking Amos Bitzan’s exceptional review of the book, which explains this problem in more detail.

Reitter and Gilman’s take on Jewish Self-Hatred can help us to better understand what is at stake in understanding Sarah Silverman’s edginess with respect to the claim that she might be a self-hating Jew.  I began and ended my last note on Sarah Silverman’s Jewishness with a discussion of the Jewish “trait” as it relates to what Sander Gilman and others have called “Jewish Self-Hatred.”  The point I was trying to make is that Silverman is playing with the notion.  And this makes her work, as it pertains to Jews, edgy.  I am certainly not accusing her of being a self-hating Jew.  Rather, I’m pointing out how she evokes herself as a possible target of such an accusation while, at the same time, allaying such suspicions.   Let’s call this moving back and forth from target to non-target her comic strategy.   And her act of employing it may work to diffuse or expose this complex phenomenon.

We see this in the chapter entitled “Jew,” from her quasi-autobiography, The Bedwetter.  As I noted in the last entry on this topic,  Silverman begins the chapter by acting ‘as if’ (hence the irony) the editor’s call to have her write on her Jewishness was an embarrassment.  She then goes on to note how she doesn’t even “look” Jewish.  Here, she plays on the trait.  However, later in the chapter, she confesses that she cannot not think of herself as Jew; her traits betray her Jewishness:

Growing up, the only way I really sensed I was a Jew was by dint of the fact that everyone around me was not.  My dark features and name both scream “Jew” like an air-raid siren.   Most people in New Hampshire have names like Lisa Bedard (pronounced Beh-daahhd) or Cheryl Dubois (Boo-boyz).  I was the only one with hairy arms and “gorilla legs.” (220).

She then goes on to note that when she was in Third Grade, one boy, Matt Italia, threw “pennies and nickels at her feet” as she “stepped on to the bus.”  In jest Silverman notes that it “wasn’t as bad as it sounds” since she made “52 cents!”  But she doesn’t see Matt’s affront as anti-Semitic; rather, she thinks that Matt and others “were just trying to wrap their heads around the differences between people.  Matt didn’t hate me when he threw change at my feet any more than he loved me when we were boyfriend and girlfriend”(220).

Some people may read this and argue that, in this serious reflection (minus any irony), Silverman doesn’t want to call anti-Semitism by its real name. Regardless, Silverman does admit that she cannot escape her Jewishness.  But it is not the object of hatred so much as a childish confusion over what it means to be different.

In the next section, entitled “Seriously, Though, New Hampshire was not Especially Jewish,” Silverman goes on to talk about yet another way she had a sense that she was Jewish; namely, her difference from Christians.  She notes that she went to Church with her friends on Sundays after “Saturday-night sleepovers” and that sometimes her friends would come to temple.  But, regarding the temple and the church, she notes:

Both places of worship seemed to be these bizarre forums where authority figures told fucked-up ghost stories between spurts of loving encouragement. (221)

Her assessment of religion indicates that, for her, Jewishness (her traits, differences, etc) means more to her than Judaism.  To this end, she notes that, when she was sent to a “local convent” – while her mother went to school to get a degree – she was treated differently than she was in her Jewish home.  There, Silverman learned that she would be punished if she didn’t finish her PBJ sandwich; at home, there was no such pressure. That difference, for her, constitutes some sense of her Jewishness.

The following section, entitled “Unlike Jesus Christ, I am Embraced, Rather Than Murdered, by Jews, for Flapping my Yapper,” employs her strategy of flipping back and forth between making herself a target of Jewish Self-Hatred and effacing it.  The very title bespeaks the claim; namely, that Jews killed Jesus.  This is a claim she plays with in her Jesus is Magic (2005) film.

Silverman turns from Jews and Jesus to speaking explicitly about her Jewishness. She validates it by noting that her sister Susan – who visited Israel, went to seminary, and became a Rabbi – loves Judaism.  And Silverman jokingly notes that the proof of her sister’s love can be found in the fact that her sister added an extra Jewish name (her husband’s) to her own. She became Susan Silverman Abramowitz.

After noting her sister’s turn to Judaism, Silverman notes that she hasn’t pursued Judaism but “the faith has sort of pursued me”(224). But I wouldn’t say Judaism has pursued her so much as Jewisness. She notes that she has now “been deemed ‘good for the Jews’ and from that there seems to be no going back; the Jews have spoken”(224).  By stating this, Silverman is making it clear that she doesn’t think there is any reason why she should be called “self-hating” – after all, she has been “deemed ‘good for the Jews.’”

But here’s the punch line.  Immediately after saying this, she states (ironically):

I could do anything now and I’ll still be considered good for them.  I could, for example, accept Jesus as my lord and savior.  I could deny the Holocaust.  I mean, when you think about it, the proof isn’t exactly overwhelming – what, a couple of trendy arm tattoos and some survivor testimonials filmed by Steven Spielberg?  Um, Steven Speilberg? The guy who made E.T.?

Here, she works out her strategy which is to play around with the Jewish Self-Hatred card.  The punch line, in this statement, is that Silverman uses her charm (she knows about E.T. after all) to get the joke past the gates of Jewish Self-Hatred.

All of these seemingly self-hating jokes, Silverman tells us, are similar to those told by fat people to put people around them at ease about their “differentness”:

The smart fat kid will be the first to make a fat joke as a protection from whatever insults the other kids might hurl at him, and, as a smart Jew, I did likewise.  Joking about my differentness seemed to put the people around me at ease.  Even though I actually knew almost nothing about being a Jew other than that I was one.  (226)

This claim casts another light on her strategy.  Silverman jokes about Jews appeal to allaying fears of others (regarding her “differentness”) and to playing with the claims of Jewish Self-Hatred.

I’ll close with the last section of her “Jew” chapter since this section ends on the note of the trait, which reminds us that Silverman’s Jewishness is still caught up in allying the possible negativity her name, physical traits, etc may evoke. The essence of that negativity would be her Jewishness.

In this section, Silverman turns to the Jewish name change and notes that Winona Ryder changed her name from Winona Horowitz.   She says that the name change was a “sneaky Jewish move” and adds, perhaps pridefully, that she didn’t change her name (231).   Silverman admits that her name may create some “limitations” on the work she would get in Hollywood, New York, etc.  And she can see that there is some bias.

However, Silverman then turns it all around and shows us that the thought she had about not changing her name had nothing to do with pride; rather, she kept her name because the name Silverman sounds less “ethnic and more graceful than Horowitz.”   Following this, she says that she can’t imagine Jon Stewart as Jon Leibowitz. Why?  Because it sounds “too Jewish.”

These statements, of course, may evoke the claim of Jewish Self-Hatred. And she knows it. For this reason, she employs her comic strategy in the last paragraph of the section to allay it all. But the punch line returns us to the Jewish trait and the problem of Jewish Self-Hatred:

Whether I like it or not, I am, at least from the world’s point of view, Jewish.  And yes, I admit I draw on my Jewishness when comically advantageous, though nothing I have even done, or plan to do, will be about advancing any kind of Jewish agenda….Because I have accepted being identified as Jewish, I’ll also have to accept the responsibilities, limitations, and consequences.  If I ever want to get away from that, it’ll be an uphill battle that will require, among other things, a larynx transplant and some major hair removal.  (232)

In the end, it is the physical ethnic trait that identifies Silverman as “Jewish.”  That seems to be the punch line.  Her Jewishness, perhaps to the chagrin of those who make accusations of her being a self-hating Jew, doesn’t seem to be based on pride so much as difference.  And her comic strategy, it seems, plays on these accusations as well as her sense of Jewish difference.  Silverman knows she is targeted, and like many comedians she evokes and plays with this comic targeting in several of her (Jewishly oriented) routines.

A Note on Sarah Silverman’s Jewishness

DownloadedFile-1

Sander Gilman’s book, The Jew’s Body, points out how, since Jews became modern, they were often identified with negative stereotypes based on different body parts such as the nose, the ears, lips, and even the feet.  Jews were also identified with negative psychological traits.  What interests me most about Gilman’s work is not how non-Jews looked at Jews in these ways so much as how Jews have looked at themselves by way of these bodily and psychological stereotypes.   The discomfort some Jews have had with others Jews has to do with the fact that, for them, these Jews would look or act “too Jewish.”  When it is extreme and expresses itself as a form of repulsion, it may be called Jewish Self-Hatred.

Over the last two decades there has been a move by some “New Jew” comedians, artists, and writers to play around with the fine line between humor and “Jewish Self-Hatred.”

An interesting case for seeing how this works itself out today can be found in the comedy of Sarah Silverman.  Oftentimes, she plays on the discomfort she feels about her own Jewishness and the Jewishness of others.

What does Jewishness mean to Sarah Silverman?  There are many different places where Silverman puts her Jewishness at the forefront of her routines.  And if anyone wants to get a sense of this he or she should look at each of these routines and ask a number of important questions.  I can’t touch on all of them in one blog entry, nor do I want to, but I’d like to take a look at least two instances.  And, in future blog entries I will return to this topic and look into more. These reflections are preliminary at best.

Let’s start with Silverman’s cover for Heeb Magazine in which she appears naked beneath a sheet with a hole in it.  The image blandishes an insider joke which involves the urban myth that some Hasidim have sex with their wives through a hole in a sheet.

Playing on this urban myth, and making herself the pornographic target of the Hasid, Silverman is shown naked behind a white sheet with a deviant “bad girl” look on her face.  This suggests much for those who like Louis CK, think of Hasidim, comically, in terms of sexual transgression.  The point of these jokes or images is obviously to go against the grain of what one would think a religious person would do.  Silverman, like Louis CK, is playing up this stereotype for comic affect. This type of image puts Silverman in an adversarial-comic-relation to the Hasidic other and gives us some sense of her Jewishness (which is “modern,” which can poke fun at a “pre-modern” Jewishness).  But, to be sure, the adversarial aspect of this image is effaced by her charm and innocence.   And that’s the trick. The clash between rudeness and innocence is what gives her comedy its “New Jew edginess.”

But it would be amiss to leave out the fact that, historically, Jews in Germany of the 19th and 20th century (before the Holocaust) found Ostjuden (Eastern European Jews) of the Hasidic variety to be repulsive, dirty, and smelly.  Gilman and others have written extensively on this topic and one wonders how this historical relation between modern German-Jews and their neighbors in Eastern Europe passes on to American Jews.  Silverman, obviously, doesn’t go as far as they did; but she does find an otherness in them that she, like Woody Allen and others, plays on.  Nonetheless, she does so for a reason: she plays on the otherness of their practice to demarcate a boundary between her Jewishness and sexuality and theirs.

Silverman also tests her “edge” on Jewish Bubbies (grandfather (in Yiddish)  = Zadie; grandmother – Bubbie ) in Florida – as she did in her viral video which promoted President Obama: “The Great Schlep.”

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AgHHX9R4Qtk]

She begins the video by saying, in a way that plays on anti-Semitism, that (at :35) “if Barack Obama doesn’t get elected President, I’m going to blame the Jews.”  After saying this, we se see an image of a Jewish nose in the right corner of the screen.  The nose is the punch line.

But to make her reading acceptable, she notes the Jewish grandmothers have a lot in common with African-Americans.  Silverman sits between the two on a couch (a very “homely” gesture of American everydayness) and makes the comparisons.  Each of them plays on stereotypes to get a comic affect: some comparisons are harmless; others are not.  They both wear track suits, like Cadillacs, etc.  But, after saying that both the African-American gentleman and the Jewish Bubbie have many friends who are dead, the African-American gentleman leaves the couch.   This joke, she realizes, was shameful.  And this is the point: at one and the same time, the joke-comparison brings up a social-racial issue and then admits to a feeling of guilt.  It’s as if Silverman is defining her Jewishness not just in terms of her being kind-yet-rude but also in terms of her being ashamed and being a supporter of Barack Obama.

More important, however, is the subtext: namely, that Jewish grandmothers and grandfathers in Florida don’t get along with African-Americans and need to be convinced if they are to vote for Barack Obama.   But, as the video ends, it is the grand-children who must convince their bubbies in Florida.  And they must, ultimately, do so by way of threats, not reasoning.  (And this implies that the Jewish grandparents are likely to be very stubborn and settled in their ways.)  The threat: If the grandparents don’t vote, they will not be visited this year.

The joke is on them, really.  Silverman’s video is not about the bubbies so much as about the grandchildren who are watching the video; it is their Jewishness, a comic-edgy Jewishness, that she wishes to cultivate and turn toward a political end. But this Jewishness is based on cultivating an awareness of traits and in fostering an attitude which is progressive and political.

I’d like to end this blog-post with a brief reflection on the chapter entitled “Jew” in Silverman’s quasi-autobiography, The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee.  It brings Silverman’s acute awareness of Jewish traits and her own Jewishness to the forefront.

In a chapter entitled “Jew,” Silverman addresses her Jewishness in her characteristic charming-yet-rude quasi-naïve style.  To begin with, her chapter title takes on the negative practice of calling someone a “Jew.”  The one word, with its anti-Semitic history, tells all.   But she plays on this edge by saying she doesn’t know what it means to be Jewish:

I don’t remember if I mentioned this to you before, but I am Jewish.  If my publisher had a sense of decency, they would have printed that disclaimer prominently on the book cover.  Otherwise, how would you necessarily know?  I mean I can’t think of anything about me that really says “Jew!!” (217)

After noting this, she goes immediately to her physical traits and notes that she doesn’t even “look” Jewish.  She points out how, in a visit to Iceland, she “blended in with the Gentile population seamlessly.”  And then, in an allusion to anti-Semitism, she writes “although there was an incident…”   But, as we learn, the incident had nothing to do with her being a Jew so much as her black hair which an “intoxicated Icelandic shepherd mistook” for a scouring pad.

To be sure, Silverman says it flatly (and, of course, ironically): she doesn’t like to be faced with her Jewishness and worries that it will bother the reader:

It’s just not fun to be reading and thoroughly enjoying a book and then you get close to the end and discover that the thing was written by a member of an ethnicity that disgusts you.  I write this chapter somewhat begrudgingly. (217)

But, in the end, she does write and admits not so much to her mission so much as to a Jewish trait she can’t stand:

To be honest, I would like to go about my life exploiting the subject of Jewishness for comedy, and not be saddled with the responsibility to actually represent, defend, or advance the cause of the Jewish people.  Nevertheless, my Jew editor convinced me to write a chapter on Jewishness by using one of our culture’s greatest tools of persuasion: relentless nagging. (218)

Although this is obviously a joke, one cannot walk away from it without asking why it works.  It works because Silverman is banking much of her Jewish comedy on identifying this or that physical trait or habit with Jewishness and mocking it.  Silverman’s discomfort with her own Jewishness makes it “edgy.”  But it also breaches questions as to what Jewishness is. Do we share the same understandings of Jewishness with Silverman and is that why some of us may find her Jewish dis-comfort laughable?  Or do some of us, when reading this, sigh?   Is she making fun of people who feel uncomfortable when Jews talk about Jewishness, is she laughing at herself, or is she half-serious?  Most importantly, why does Jewishness have to reside in this or that Jewish “trait”?  Is Jewish comedy attached to the trait whether it wants to be or not?

Irving Howe, Jewishness, and the Schlemiel – Take 2

DownloadedFile-2

From my own experiences and those of many of my friends, I have learned that many American Jews are perplexed about what it means to be Jewish while others, unfortunately, have become indifferent.  Those who are perplexed can turn to many different things for a resolution: some people try to understand their Judaism by turning to religion, some turn toward nationalism (Israel, Zionism, etc), some turn against Zionism, some turn to politics and justice, some turn to philosophers like Emmanuel Levinas or Martin Buber, some turn to Buddhism (Ju-Bus),  some turn to battles over sexuality and gender, some turn to music, and others turn to environmentalism,

Irving Howe’s search for the meaning of Jewishness differs from these.  His search was inseparable from his interest in the relationship of Jewish history to modernity and to Yiddish and Jewish American Literature.  It is also inseparable from his understanding of Jewish humor.  As I pointed out in the last blog entry on Howe, he went through many different readings of Jewishness and concluded that Jewishness is a “vague thing.”  Nonetheless, this doesn’t keep him from closely researching it and finding resonance in Jewish American literature.  What concerned him most was the future of Jewish American literature and Jewishness.   Relating to this, he thought that with the loss of the Jewish immigrant experience, which he believed were inseparable from places like New York and Chicago, Jewishness would also be lost.  As I pointed out in the blog entry, Howe believed that Jewish-American literature had no future because people no longer had a “felt” relationship to Jewish tradition or Yiddish.

Howe’s sense of Jewishness is, to be sure, found in his relationship with this loss of tradition and the transition from having a tradition to draw on to having no tradition.  But there is more to the story.  Of all the thinkers and writers that Howe mentions in relation to Jewishness (which include Osip Mandelstam, Saul Bellow, Harold Rosenberg, Isaac Rosenfeld, and Phillip Rahv), he finds his greatest affinity with the Nobel Prize winning author, Saul Bellow’s tragic-comic reading of Jewishness.  His own sense of Jewishness, which amounts to a big, sad, question mark, draws on what he says about Bellow in his introduction to Jewish American Stories and on what he says in a shared introduction to The Best of Sholom Aleichem (an introduction he shares, by way of letters (!), with Ruth Wisse).   Moreover, what he says about Jewishness vis-à-vis Bellow is nothing more nor less than his reading of the schlemiel.

Regarding Bellow’s understanding of Jewishness, Howe cites Bellow, in his introduction to Jewish American Stories, as saying:

In Jewish stories laughter and trembling are so curiously intermingled that it is not easy to determine the relation of the two.  At times laughter seems to restore the equilibrium of sanity; at times the figures of the story or parable, appear to invite or encourage trembling with the secret aim of overcoming it by means of laughter.

Immediately following this, Howe does something unusual.  He cites himself and gives his reading of Jewishness in terms of the perplexity of post-assimilation:

They (Jews) had achieved ‘a normal life’ in America, and for those with any taste for self-scrutiny, it was a life permanently beset by the question: who am I and why do I so declare myself? To live with this problem in a state of useful discontent was perhaps what it now meant to be a Jew.

Howe identifies himself with “those (Jews) who have any taste for self-scrutiny.”  And he also identifies with Bellow.  To be sure, later in the introduction, he confirms his identification with Bellow when he writes: “For what I want to assert is that the dominant American Jewish style is the one brought to a pitch by Saul Bellow and imitated and modified by a good many others.”  And, I would add, by himself.

Taken together, Howe is telling us that his “self-scrutiny” about what it means to be a Jew can be found in Bellow’s reflection on Jewish humor and its relationship to suffering and “trembling.”  Indeed, the exchange between the comic and the horrific is of great interest to Howe.   And this has a lot to do with what he thinks is Jewish, today.

His reading of Sholom Aleichem – as espoused in his introduction to The Best Sholom Aleichem Stories – is permeated by such a comic-horrific “feeling.”   With respect to the schlemiel, this reading is brought to its breaking point by way of his dialogue (in the shared introduction to that book) with the noted scholar of the Schlemiel, Ruth Wisse.

In the next blog entry, I will turn to this dialogue so as to tease out what is at stake when one reads the schlemiel in terms of an exchange between laughter and horror.  The stakes involve the relationship of literature and reflection to history.  As I have pointed out above, for Howe, this is his way of relating to Jewishness and it differs from those who seek to understand what it means to be Jewish by way of religion, Zionism, post-Zionism, etc.  And, unlike these other ways of seeking Jewishness, it underscores the importance of the schlemiel for understanding what it means to be Jewish.

Irving Howe, Jewishness, and the Schlemiel – Take 1

DownloadedFile

Irving Howe is most well known for being one of the “New York Intellectuals.”  He was born in the Bronx in 1920 to immigrant parents.  His name at birth was Irving Horenstein.  Like many children of immigrants, he went to City College in New York and there he met other “New York intellectuals” such as Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell.  Howe was interested in radical politics and literature.  He had written in both fields and had gained acclaim in each.

But as Leon Wieseltier claimed in his 1993 New York Times piece entitled “Remembering Irving Howe,” “What kept his eyes and his heart open, however, was not poltics.  It was literature.  He loved nothing more.”  Wieseltier points out that Howe’s approach to literature was eclectic.  He turned to literature to “learn about life, but the life about which he most wished to learn was the hard and lumpy common one.”  Nonetheless, Howe “despises proletarian art, and the ways in which populism and mass politics tortured the writer.”  On the other hand, he also couldn’t stand “art’s high priests.”  Given this kind of taste, Wieseltier tells us that “Irving’s greatest thrill was high art that felt democratic.”

After noting this, Wieseltier moves to Howe’s taste for Yiddish and his efforts to save a dying language by way of criticism, edited editions, and writing.  What is so interesting about this move is that Wieseltier leaves a gap between Howe’s love for “high art that felt democratic” and Howe’s love for a dying language.  Wieseltier, nonetheless, does give us a clue since he briefly focuses on Howe’s sense of what constitutes Jewishness.   I see this as a clue because Howe’s interest in Yiddish literature and Jewish American literature was primarily driven by his own personal sense of what Jewishness is or better yet was.  Jewishness, to be sure, pained Howe because he saw it as dying with post-WWII America.

As Wieseltier notes:

for decades Irving threw himself into the task of rescue, editing and introducing and writing about what he made famous as the “world of our fathers.”  He was without nostalgia, but he was not without grief.  I cannot count the the number of breakfasts at Leo’s on East 86th Street that were take up with the disappearance of that world, with the decline of secular Jewishness.

In his introduction to Jewish American Stories, which he edited and published in 1977, Howe delves into the meaning of Jewishness by way of Jewish-American literature.  Given Wieseltier’s words, we can truly see that this compilation looks to rescue that ‘world of our fathers” by showing that Howe is not alone in his efforts.  To be sure, Howe draws out a host of authors which includes Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, I.B. Singer, Stanley Elkin, etc.  For him, these writers write in the wake of immigrant Jewishness.   They are writers who live in the period of assimilation and post assimilation.  What, he wonders, will be the “foundation” for Jewishness after Jewish life has migrated from the city to the suburbs and beyond.  How long will this “foundation” show in the work of later Jewish-American writers?

Taking the perspective of a historical materialist, Howe initially situates Jewishness in different places.  Writing of “some writers in this book, like Gilbert Rogin, Paul Goodman, and Daniel Fuchs,” Howe notes that “what comes through, as pathos, comedy, or both, is the continued power of origins, the ineradicable stamp of New York or Chicago slums, even upon grandsons and granddaughters who  may never have lived in or seen them” (6).

Out of this general reflection, Howe tries to derive some particulars about Judaism:

But is that not an essential aspect of Jewish experience? – the way that past grips and forms us, and will not allow us to escape even when we desperately want to.  Or the way we come to feel the anxiety of loss, a depression of abandonment, even when we do escape. (6)

The last point is autobiographical.  Howe does see a link between his Jewishness and his geographical roots.  Citing Eudora Welty essay entitled “Place in Fiction,” Howe drives the relation of place to Jewish identity to its limit by saying that all literature is related to place:

“The truth is, fiction depends for its life on place.  Location is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of ‘What happened?  Who’s here?  Who’s coming?’ and that is the heart’s field.”

For “many Jewish writers,” notes Howe, “‘the heart’s field’ will forever be those gray packed streets, turbulent and smelly, which they have kept from childhood, holding them in memory long after the actuality has been transformed or erased”(7).

But Howe knew that although this emphasis on locale was important, it was not sufficient for explaining the uniqueness of Jewish-American literature – and Jewishness – in a post-assimilation American context.  Another element he looks to is the family.  He argues that while we see the individual stressed by Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Melville, Hemmingway, and Fitzgerald, we see the family (or struggles with the family) emphasized in Jewish-American literature.

After passionately arguing for the relevance of location and family, Howe testifies to the fact that, ultimately, Jewishness “suggests a certain vagueness.”  To be sure, he puts the word “Jewishness” in scare quotes and notes that “when one speaks of “Jewishness,” it is to invoke a spectrum of styles and symbols, a range of cultural memories, no longer as ordered or weighty as once they were yet still able to affect experience”(10).

And this fact is what astonishes Howe.  It also troubles him as he doesn’t know how long the awareness of Jewishness will last and have an impact on American Jews.  He notes that American Jews, in the 70s, did think of themselves as distinct and argues that there is a “persuasion remains that ‘we’ (whoever we may be, however defined or bound) must live with a sense of our differentness and perhaps draw some sustenance from it.”  Without this sense of “differentness,” without the “assumption that there is something distinctive in ‘Jewishness’, the standard for many to affirm or others to violate, the (Jewish) story would verge on incoherence”(10).

But this is a vague standard.  And Howe struggles to clarify it.  To this end, he cites himself, Osip Mandelstam, Harold Rosenberg, Saul Bellow, Issac Rosenfeld, and Phillip Rahv.  Each of these citations points out a unique aspect of Judaism.  Mandelstam says that the slightest hint of Judaism fills up an entire house and one’s life; Bellow points out that Jewishness is found in the intimate relation of laughter to trembling; Rosenberg notes that Jewishness is found in the possibility of linking a Jew with the “collective and individual experience of earlier Jews’; Rosenfeld notes that Jewishness is rooted in cultural and historical marginality; and Rahv notes that for a Jewish-American writer like Bernard Malamud, as opposed to Dostoevsky, suffering is not idealized; rather, “suffering is not what you are looking for but what you are likely to get.”

Howe, in contrast to them, notes that, for many post-assimilation Jewish writers, Jewishness has to do with endless self-questioning (even when things are ‘normal’): “They had achieved a ‘normal life’ in America, and for those with any taste for self-scrutiny, it was a life permanently beset by the question: who am I and why do I so declare myself?  To live with this problem in a state of useful discontent was perhaps what it now meant to be a Jew.”

Although Howe considers all of these views to be important and although he does think that Jewishness has to do with questioning who one is and why one would “declare” oneself a Jew, today, he laments the loss of a sense of tradition in today’s Jewish-American writers (that is, for him, in the 1970s). A “lapsed sense of tradition” won’t help or doesn’t help.  What he sees today are remnants of Jewishness which are not anchored in any historical memory or “felt” experience.  And this makes him worry since that historical sense and experience are related to a historical origin which, as we saw above, is linked to certain locales and experiences that are fading.

Howe ends his introduction in a pessimistic manner.  While he feels that “there remains, to be sure the problem of ‘Jewishness’, and the rewards and difficulties this definiton may bring us,” he notes that it “does not yield a thick enough sediment of felt life to enable a new outburst of writing about American Jews.”  Today, since the “felt life” is missing, much Jewish writing is a “matter of will or nerves, and not enough of shared experience.”

This claim, made in the late 1970s, finds interesting resonance in the schlemiel of today.  Did this character’s popularity emerge out of “will or nerves” and not “shared experience” or does the schlemiel and its popularity come from another source of experience?  I want to end this blog entry with this question and return to it.  It gives a lot of food for thought since there are Jewish American writers today like Shalom Auslander, Nathan Englander, and Gary Shteyngart (to name just a few) who draw on the schlemiel in their work and find this character to be vital.  In addition, we see this Jewish character is and has been prevalent in films, TV shows, and stand-up comedy as well.  But does its “Jewishness” remain?

Questions for Reflection: Is the fact of its popularity and its appeal to Jewishness a remnant of a dead past?  What experience does it draw on? And has the schlemiel become, as Daniel Itzkovitz has argued in an essay entitled “They are all Jews” the “everyman”?  If Itzkovitz is correct, was Howe right?  Has Jewishness passed into Americana?  Or is this only the case for Hollywood but not for the world of Jewish-American literature?  If there is a tradition of the schlemiel, what makes it Jewish?  And where does it live on?