Thursday, April 27, 2006

Quick Response to Ben

Ben writes:
I don't quite get the equation of the Bloom/Kushner stance with Bernstein's: To struggle with God over matters of right and wrong is, if not a religious stance, then a stance that keeps faith with what makes religion matter. Bernstein's non-Jewish Jew is something different, no?

Anyway, here's what I've been struggling with, trying to work out my own response to this "secular Jewish culture" project: if we set aside religious observance as our sole definition, what possible path could a Jewish-born writer take that would not be Jewish? Since even antisemitism has its Jewish aspect, as Sander Gilman once reminded us...
To answer the first of these, I'm going to have to go back to the original essay by Isaac Deutscher, "The Non-Jewish Jew." No time for that at the moment; the short answer would be that Deutscher's NJJs are all boundary-crossers or borderland-inhabitants who are free, by virtue of that ambiguous position, to disbelieve in the doxa that surrounded them and to believe instead in the "ultimate solidarity of man," which is why they have to leave "Jewry" behind. Bernstein's NJJs may not pledge allegiance to the second half of this (does Stein?), but I think they preserve the first half, and in that sense remain very much like Bloom's and Kushner's Godwrestling Jews. They struggle against the normative as such, or against "the way things are," and thereby metaphorically against whatever sponsors, preserves, or imposes "the way things are" on them. Since "Jewish identity" is one of those "ways things are," it gets abandoned or struggled against, too.

As for the second, it's a vexing, wonderful question! "What possible path could a Jewish-born writer take that would not be Jewish?" Hmmm... the rabbinic answer might be "none," in keeping with the dictum that "an Israelite, even though he sin, remains an Israelite" (Sanhedrin 44a). A Jewish-born writer, no matter what path he or she takes, remains a Jew, and thus his or her writing remains "Jewish" in the broadest sense of the word. Call this the Slow Train Coming paradox: Dylan's Christian songs are the songs of a Christian Jew, and we can listen to them as such. On the other hand, we might also--should also--be willing to say that some paths a Jewish-born writer could take are not interestingly Jewish; they don't hold our attention for long as Jewish cultural production or potential Jewish identity formations. Stein, for me, falls into that category: a Jewish-born writer whose work I find it hard to care about as Jewish literature, despite Bernstein's arguments.

See, for more on this, Boyarin's Border Lines: a book that grows more essential to me as I reread it. "There is now virtually no way that a Jew can stop being a Jew," he writes of the Stammaic period (when the Babylonian Talmud is redacted, roughly 450-650 C.E.) "since the very notion of heresy was finally rejected and Judaism (even the word is anachronistic) refused to be, in the end, a religion. For the Church, Judaism is a religion, but for the Jews...only occasionally, ambivalently, and strategically is it so. [...] Not a religion, not quite, Judaism (including the bizrrely named Jewish orthodoxy of modernity) remained something else, neither quite here nor quite there. Among the various emblems of this different difference remains the fact that there are Christians who are Jews, or perhaps better put, Jews who are Christians, even up to this very day" (224-5).

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Fragment on Bernstein

This is a false start, a fragment, but might be of interest to someone:

Among secular Jews—a fuzzy category, given the atheism, pantheism, Buddhism, and je-m’en-foutism so prevalent even in synagogues, at least in my own experience—so let’s say, among those Jews who recite the Shema less frequently than they tell Jewish jokes, the notion that God Himself likes a worthy opponent has proven deeply inviting. As er darf ringen mit zain Libm Nomen,” declares Sarah Ironson, the deceased Yiddishe-grandma of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: “You should struggle with the Almighty.” "Azoy toot a Yid,” she adds: “It's the Jewish way." In Ruin the Sacred Truths, Harold Bloom translates this struggle into non-theistic terms: a “ceaseless agon within the self,” he calls it, “not only against all outward injustice but also against what I have called the injustice of outwardness, or, more simply, the way things are” (Ruin, 162). Again, we cannot claim such a stance to be exclusively Jewish—unless, I suppose, we are prepared to attribute a crypto-Jewish consciousness to Marlon Brando’s biker in The Wild One, ready to rebel against whatever you’ve got. (Is this inconceivable? The film’s director, Laszlo Benedek, was a Hungarian Jew smuggled out to safety by Louis B. Mayer in 1939.) But its Jewish roots run deep enough, in both sacred and secular texts, that when we see an identifiably Jewish poet wrestling anything normative—syntax, history, Jewish identity, God-language, a vision of him or herself—we may be tempted to read this as a step along that “Jewish way.”

How useful is this as a reading strategy? Two instances will show its limitations and its possibilities. Consider, first, this passage from Charles Bernstein’s essay “Stein’s Identity”:
Stein did not identify as a Jew she didn’t have to; perhaps there was enough of that being done for her (“May I see your Identity Card, please?”). She takes her place in that line of what Isaac Deeutscher calls “non-Jewish Jews”, going back at least to Spinoza, and, in this, her most immediate company in American poetry includes Louis Zukofsky (who incorporates Spinoza and Stein into “A”) and Laura Riding (her onetime protégé). (This heterodox tradition of Jewish writings is charted in Jerome Rothenberg’s A Big Jewish Book.) Those Jewish-American modernists, like Stein, who turned away from Yiddish or other overt markers of ethnicity did not necessarily adopt an assimilationist cultural program, since the language of assimilation is never neutral, not an arena of ‘human mind’ but of the name/nature-inf(l)ected language of the ascendant culture. Stein never bought into this assimilation, moving entirely in the other direction. In this sense her triple marginalization provided an ontological grounding for her radical forms of nonidentification, just as her affluence and education provided a space to perform them. Stein is one of the least assimilationist of American modernist writers and in this one of the most American if, following Stanley Cavell’s reading of Emerson, we take America to be a movement away from given identities and toward something new, unapproachable, unrepresentable, and unattainable” (My Way, 143).
Bernstein starts with a negative: “Stein did not identify as a Jew.” A moment later, he has turned the tables on anyone who wants her to identify as such, since to do so is apparently to pull on the boots of the anti-Semite. As a gesture of resistance, we then learn, Stein’s refusal marks her as at least as Jewish as someone who deploys “overt markers of ethnicity”: in fact, it places her in a twice-charted territory—mapped first by Deutscher, then by Rothenberg—of heterodox or “non-Jewish” Jews.

What, though, does Bernstein do with this Jewishness of “nonidentification”? In this essay, not much—except, in a delicious paradox, to claim it as not only thoroughly Jewish, but thoroughly American. Note, though, where his vision of America comes from: not Emerson directly, but Emerson as read by a Jewish American philosopher (Stanley Cavell). Just as Emma Lazarus reads Bertholdi’s statue of Liberty Enlightening the World as though it said “Mother of Exiles,” thus declaring the nation not merely to be safe, but home, for millions of Jewish immigrants, Cavell has read Emersonian romanticism as a home for precisely the forms of self-production, self-transformation, and play with identity that a heterodox Jew might most desire.

At which, it breaks off. But as I said, it may be useful someday--here's posting & hoping.

Say, which day of the Omer are we on again? I hate it when I lose count!

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Excuse Me?

Working hard on the Radical Jewish Poetry piece again--or, I should say, poised to work on it, waiting for instructions from The Editors. (An email from D suggests that maybe I should write something a little broader than just the Norman vs. Norman piece, since they have an essay by Norman and another that talks about him with Oppen and others. Now they tell me? Oy.)

So here I am at the office, re-reading Charles Bernstein's lovely piece on Reznikoff for the first time in years, and I come across this:
"In orthodox Judaism, as in other orthodox religions, the holy is external; graspable, if at all, only through law and ritual; it is an 'object of dogmatic knowledge' as Gershom Scholem puts it (10). In Jewish mysticism, holiness is present in everyday--'low'--activities and not separated out to particular sites, such as the synagogue, or to particular times, such as the High Holy Days" (My Way, 212).
The essay goes on to claim that in "Kabbalism" we see that "holiness is found in the most common deeds and language, the most base and vulgar acts" (212), and from here to musings on Rez and Ginsberg and the "Footnote to Howl."

Now, folks, I'm not actually wearing my "Frummer than Thou" T-Shirt, although I do know where you can buy one. (Only for women? Ha!) But the more time I spend on this Radical Jewish Poetry project, the less patient I'm a-getting with the scraps of half-digested Scholem that pass for Jewish chops, no matter who's dishing them out. Where in Gehenna did Bernstein get the idea that Orthodox Judaism allocates holiness to synagogues and the Hi-Hos, and not in everyday activities and "the most common deeds"? (There's a brocha after going to the bathroom, dude.) Where, at that, does he get this distinction between "Orthodox" and "mystical" Judaism? Grrr.... As the Pope himself says, a bissel lernin is a dangerous thing.


As long as we're talking Orthodoxy, a useful, even inspiring interview over at Orthodox Anarchist today. Someday I'll be in touch with this guy directly, inshallah. Part of my minyan, my tribe.