Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Draft Syllabus




Sunday, July 16, 2:00 pm- 6:00 pm; Monday, July 17-Friday, July 21, 9:00 am-1:00 pm.


Dr. Eric Selinger, Ezra Sensibar Visiting Professor, Summer 2006

Course Description

Many of the best contemporary Jewish American writers are fascinated by religion—and not simply by Judaism. Whether "secular," "religious," or somewhere in between, these writers explore the power of spirituality, the dangers of fanaticism, the boundaries of community, and the complexities of modern Jewish identity, often by revisiting deeply traditional questions and texts. In this course, we will read a set of primary texts slowly and deeply, and consider not only what they say about religion and Jewish identity, but also how those ideas are embodied in the formal and literary qualities of the books themselves.

Course Objectives

This course will allow seminar participants to explore some the ways that important contemporary Jewish American authors have represented the relationship between “Jewishness” and Judaism, and how ideas about religion and identity are enacted by an author’s choices of genre, style, and form. We will learn about the religious, historical, and literary references in the primary texts for the class, but our primary focus will be on the development of those interpretive, analytical, and close reading skills which enable us to engage with literature in an increasingly nuanced and sophisticated manner. Poems, novels, and plays treat questions of religion and identity quite differently from argumentative genres like the essay, the sermon, and the op-ed piece. We will pay particular attention to character analysis, literary form, and the appreciation of artistry.

Course Requirements

The reading for this course is primarily focused on a set of primary texts: one novel, one two-part play, and several poems, both short and long. Please read all of the primary texts and as much of the secondary literature as possible before the seminar.

I expect all students to participate actively in seminar discussion. In addition to this in-class engagement with the readings, students will write an analytical essay (approximately 15 pages) on one of the works we have studied. I will give a list of suggested topics, and will be glad to work with students to develop their own topics and approaches to the texts.

Course Materials

· A Reader of photocopied materials, including primary and secondary sources

· Allegra Goodman, Kaaterskill Falls

· Tony Kushner, Angels in America, parts 1 (Millennium Approaches) and 2 (Perestroika)

· Alicia Suskin Ostriker, The Volcano Sequence

[I may want to add one more book here. Maybe one volume of Norman's Track; or, for one more genre, a memoir or a book of essays. Mike's Living Root? That new memoir by Jack Marshall, From Baghdad to Brooklyn: Growing Up in a Jewish-Arabic Family in Midcentury America? Maybe some of Albert Goldbarth's essays, now back in print? Hmmm...]

Course Sessions and Topics

Sunday, July 16: “We Jews Are That Way”: Versions and Aversions of Jewish Identity


“Secular” and “Religious” versions of Jewish identity

Ribboni and Rabbani versions of Jewish identity

Approaches to reading lyric poetry and other poetic forms


Charles Bernstein, “Solidarity is the Name We Give to What We Cannot Hold” (Reader)

Ari Elon, selections from From Jerusalem to the Edge of Heaven

Norman Finkelstein, “Acher” and commentary; “The Master of Turning” (Reader)

Arielle Greenberg, “Synopsis” (Reader)

Kenneth Koch, “To Jewishness” (Reader)

Howard Nemerov, “Debate with the Rabbi” (Reader)

Jacqueline Osherow, “At the Art Nouveau Synagogue, Rue Pavee” (Reader)

Alicia Ostriker, “Entering the Tents” (from The Nakedness of the Fathers, Reader)

Monday, July 17: A Gay (and Jewish) Fantasia on National (and Jewish) Themes


America as a “chosen nation,” a “melting pot,” and other Jewish things

Transformations of religious material in secular Jewish culture

Recalling and restaging the (Jewish) history of leftist politics in America

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) and / as “Jews”

Gay men as “Jews,” Jews as Homosexuals, and other intersections of Gay and Jewish identity


Tony Kushner, Angels in America, parts 1 and 2

“Angels, Monsters, and Jews: Intersections of Queer and Jewish Identity in Kushner's Angels in America,” by Jonathan Freedman (PMLA; in Reader)

Chapters on Mormons in Bloom’s The American Religion

Tuesday, July 18: Religion and Jewish Identity in the Novel


The “Jewishness” of the Realist Novel

The “return to religion” in contemporary Jewish American Fiction

Identity and difference within Jewish community


Cynthia Ozick, TKTK

Allegra Goodman, Kaaterskill Falls

Wednesday, July 19: Kaaterskill Falls, continued (or maybe that additional fourth book)

Thursday, July 20: The Shekhinah Dialogues


Feminist revisions of Jewish tradition

Poetic appropriations of Kabbalah (and pop-Kabbalah)

Apophatic rhetoric and religious poetics

Approaches to reading a long “serial poem”

“Spirituality” and non-Halakhic Judaism


Eric Murphy Selinger, “Shekhinah in America” (Reader)

Alicia Suskin Ostriker, the volcano sequence, sections 1-5

Friday, July 21: the volcano sequence, continued


Alicia Suskin Ostriker, the volcano sequence, sections 6-9 and coda

The Shekhinah Dialogues

Sorry, I couldn't resist. Steal that, someone, please.

Back to drafting.


Something to Chew On

I'll be teaching a Masters level course on "Religion and Identity in Contemporary Jewish American Literature" at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies here in Chicago this summer, along with my Summer Romance course at DePaul. Any suggestions for the reading list?

Here's something for everyone to chew on while I grade and write my summer syllabi. It breaks off abruptly after the Bernstein poem. I'd love, but love, any thoughts on that poem as well!


Among religious Jewish American poets—or, to be more precise, among those Jewish American poets who draw on religious topics and texts, whatever their practice may be—the notion that God Himself likes a lively opponent has proven deeply inviting. Consider the use that Alicia Ostriker makes of this idea in the volcano sequence, a serial poem that gives italicized voice to the Divine in order to let Him / Her / It—the gender and degree of anthropomorphism shift throughout the text—respond to the poet’s questions, quotations from scripture, and other forms of address. (“Only in the space of this dialogue does that which is addressed take form,” she quotes from Celan in an epigraph, “and gather around the I who is addressing it.” Through this imagined colloquy, the secular “nothing” that marks the absence of a God becomes a mystical “nothing,” an apophatic no-thing of a Deity, and thus an addressable, if still unembraceable, You.) In the “addendum to Jonah” that closes section VII of the book, Ostriker casts herself as the pouting prophet and puts words of response in the Mouth of Mouths:

a dead gourd

one of your jokes

are you very angry

be serious

your heartbreak is not interesting

it is your rhetoric that beguiles me

I liked your performance at Nineveh

just as I liked your song by the waters of Babylon

your legal brief at Uz

I want you to praise me hotly but more than that

I want you to save the world

by any means necessary

your word against


The sudden twist at the end of this passage from end-paused free verse to a jarring enjambment—“your word against / mine”—draws our attention to the complexity of the thought. This God loves human rhetoric, indeed longs for our human “word” to contest, as well as report, divine decrees, as though thereby to hone our moral sense or resist His own worst instincts. (He even quotes Malcolm X, “by any means necessary,” as though to suggest that divine rule is no more natural or inevitable than white supremacy.) As the linebreak hints, however, our human word may also belong to God—“your word against / [is] mine”—, which makes our resistance part of an argument, so to speak, within the Godhead: a new twist on the Talmudic precept that “these and these [two opposing rulings] are the words of the living God” (BT Eruvin 13b).

Among secular Jews—again, 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 and reverently than they tell Jewish jokes, the Judaism of disputation has been put to a variety of uses. Some are political. When Sarah Ironson tells her grandson Louis, in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, “As er darf ringen mit zain Libm Nomen,” (“You should struggle with the Almighty”) since "Azoy toot a Yid (“It's the Jewish way"), her injunction has little to do with theology, and everything to do with fighting the powers-that-be and the way-life-is, on Earth much more than in Heaven. That she gives the admonition in Yiddish, the language of twentieth-century Jewish sotsyalizm, lets Kushner stake two claims, one religious and one secular, to resistance as the “Jewish way.” Kushner credits Harold Bloom as an influence on his play, and in Bloom’s Ruin the Sacred Truths, the critic describes “Jewish dualism” in terms that echo and expand Kushner’s “Jewish way,” stripping it of its lingering theistic rhetoric. A “ceaseless agon within the self,” Bloom 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, my emphasis). Like Marlon Brando’s biker in The Wild One, the secular Jew is ready to rebel against whatever you’ve got. (Is this such a leap? The film’s director, Laszlo Benedek, was a Hungarian Jew smuggled to safety by Louis B. Mayer in 1939.)

Religious, ambivalent, and thoroughly secular Jewish poets have all made good use of this figure of the Jew-as-mental-rebel. Jacqueline Osherow draws on it in her long poem “Views of La Leggenda della Vera Croce,” where its bravado launches her into a quickly shifting series of confessions, theological musings, and arguments with herself. “Don’t be too shocked, I’m often blasphemous,” she shrugs at first.

It’s a deal I have with God; at least I pray.

Though he may have a plan—I’m not impervious—

In which I’m expected to wake up one day,

Go to synagogue, recite the psalms,

And convince myself with every word I say.

Beggers can’t be choosers; these are godless times;

Let Him hold on to His illusions.

A moment later, since “the way things are” now includes her skepticism, Osherow pivots to turn against it—and, which is more, to find a Jewish precedent for her imaginative claims and retractions:

Besides, maybe I do have a few qualms

About my persistent heretical allusions

To Someone who is—after all—a Deity….

You’ll find I’m a jumble of confusions.

Besides, I’m not sure God much cares for piety;

My guess is—since David was His favorite—

That He’s partial to passion, spontaneity,

And likes a little genuine regret.

True, David lost his ill-begotten child—

But what did the pious ever get? (10-11)

Osherow’s regal eyebrow cocked at “the pious” finds an ostensibly unschooled, am-ha’aretz counterpart in Howard Nemerov’s “Debate with the Rabbi,” where the Jew against Judaism turns out to be the truest Jew of all:

You’ve lost your religion, the Rabbi said,

It wasn’t much to keep, said I.

You should affirm the spirit, said he,

And the communal solidarity.

I don’t feel so solid, I said.


Stubborn and stiff-necked man! the Rabbi cried.

The pain you give me, said I.

Instead of bowing down, said he,

You go on in your obstinacy.

We Jews are that way, I replied.

The Rabbi here speaks not simply for normative faith (“your religion” at best, or at least “the spirit” of it), but also for the normative identity imposed by “communal solidarity.” The speaker demurs, at first because he feels himself too fluid or shifting or multiple—not “so solid”—to affirm his membership in the community. (Like Kafka, perhaps, he feels like he has little in common with himself, let alone with “the Jews.”) By the poem’s final stanza, however, he proudly steps into that very communal role, speaking in the first person plural (“We Jews”) to embrace an identity based on multiple Biblical precedents. If to be a Jew means to be “stiff-necked,” as God, Moses, Jeremiah, Nehemiah, and others lament, this speaker will be one. If it means to bow down, he’d prefer not to, and if that means that Jew is to Rabbi as Mordechai is to Haman, so be it.

With Osherow and Nemerov in mind, we can find something quite familiar, even traditional, in Charles Bernstein’s formally disjunctive (and thus more “radical”) poem “anafirmation.” It is short enough to quote as a whole:

I am not I

when called to account—

plaster over, dumbly benched

the corrosive ardency

of blinkered identification.

To affirm nothing, a veil

of asymptotic bent,

prattling over-

tunes in the striated

ecstacy of a turned-

around spade. Sprain parkway

gulls its titular

horizon, & my growling

Zebra knows me just

enough to tip

her hat.