Monday, August 29, 2005

That "Secular Jewish Culture / Radical Poetics" Conference

Spent the morning watching, at last, that video of the Secular Jewish Culture / Radical Poetics conference from last fall. An interesting, but pretty unsatisfying discussion, finally, not least because of the awfully narrow historical windows onto Jewish culture (secular and otherwise) through which the particpants peered. "Jewish" meant Central and Eastern European Jewish and its Yiddish-American offshoots--nothing about Sephardi or Mizrahi Jewish culture, and precious little about Israeli Jewish culture, at least at first, except as an antagonist (Amos Oz negating the diaspora, boo, hiss) and as a political whipping boy ("we all hate Sharon--is that what you want to hear?" Marjorie Perloff quipped at one point).

Katherine Hellerstein spoke up rather plaintively on behalf of secular poetry in Israel, and eventually one or two others chimed in, but no one named names until the closing minutes of the Q & A period, at which point Hellerstein riffed through the names of a half-dozen women poets writing in English in Jerusalem and environs: Shirley Kaufman and Linda Zisquit were the most familiar to me. I don't think I heard the name of a single Israeli poet writing in Hebrew in the full two hours of the conference, although I'm sure that Hellerstein and probably Rothenberg have a few on the tips of their tongues.

I was also a little disappointed by how narrowly most of them took the “secular” part of the phrase "secular Jewish culture." Mostly they seemed to mean by it “non-religious,” and by this either atheistic and / or non-practicing: two concepts which overlap, but do not by any means coincide. (That is, one can believe in God and not engage in many or any Jewish religious practices, and one may perform Jewish practices without belief in God, or with an active disbelief in God, as many at my own synagogue will freely admit they do.)

“Secular Jewish Culture,” then, was that subset of Jewish culture, broadly construed, which resists, rejects, or subverts Judaism as a religion—or, historically speaking, most of that politics, philosophy, aesthetics, or “tone” which has developed among those whom Hitler would have identified as Jews since the first breakings-away from Judaism as a religion by European and European-American Jews during the Haskalah. (Most, but not all: Bundist politics and In Zikhist poetics count, Mahler and Wittgenstein count, "Borsht Riders in the Sky" and "Religion, Inc." count, Zionism and the revival of Hebrew do not.)

The only person whose notion of secular Jewish culture radically differed from this, although he did not stress that difference, was Jerry Rothenberg, whose notion of secular Jewish culture as Jewish poesis stands the "non-religious" definition on its head. To Rothenberg, secular Jewish culture precedes religious Jewish culture, ontologically and historically, just as poesis always procedes religion. It's a romantic (Blakean, Emersonian, which is to say post-Protestant) argument, and one that has profound and exciting consequences, if you think it through.

Secular Jewish culture, from Rothenberg's perspective, is Jewish culture in the broadest sense: certainly it's Jewish culture at its most active, expansive, and vital. Indeed, SJC is the broad category of which "religious Jewish culture" is the subset, albeit a subset which has, for some twenty centuries, seized most of the institutional power within the Jewish world, using that power to reify, ossify, limit, and police its precursor.

The implications of this argument seem to me pretty clear. Not only does religious Jewish culture still control the mass production of Jews, outside of a few isolated sectors--Israel, New York City, a few other population centers, although the battle rages in each of them--it has used that power, consciously and otherwise, to keep that half of the Jewish population who identifythemselves as "secular" in a state of profound ignorance of just how centrally Jewish they really are.

Jewish "radical poetics" might therefore serve as an alternative site and mode of Jewish knowledge, Jewish acculturation, Jewish identification; they are ways of "doing Jewish" and "being Jewish" which have, potentially, as deep a history, as broad a palette of practices, and as gratifying an emotional payoff as anything that religious Jewish culture has to offer. No: deeper, broader, more gratifying, because radical Jewish poetics encompasses, includes, incorporates, and goes beyond, the religious.

What it lacks, alas, as that conference showed, are a clear and capacious sense of its own history, the institutions to promote and disseminate itself effectively, the confidence to articulate its position as more than simply "disbelieving" (it is both disbelieving and make-believing, after all), and the common sense that would let it get over its moral fastidiousness about Israeland build a common agenda with like-minded poets writing Over There, in whatever language.

Some sort of Writers' Workshop might be a place to start, at the production end; how, though, to infiltrate the education system? Hmmm... To be continued, I think.


No comments: