Sunday, August 19, 2007

Maeera's Book (at Last!)

I can't (won't) tell you how long I've been waiting to make this announcement:

Singing in a Strange Land: A Jewish American Poetics, by our own Maeera Shreiber, is now available from Stanford University Press.

Here's the official description:
This book begins with a silence. While Jewish American fiction has long been recognized as a fit subject for critical inquiry, Jewish American poetry has largely been overlooked. Recently, a few books have started to redress this silence, focusing on some specific Jewish American poets. However, even as these studies begin to identify specific individuals as “Jewish American poets,” the field must be theorized so that we might understand this fascinating occlusion. Poetic forms need to be identified; and the material difference of Jewish cultural practice must be taken into account.

Taking a broad view of the subject, Singing in a Strange Land asks: How does being Jewish-in-America affect poetic production? And how does poetry help shape Jewish American identity? Beginning with a historical inquiry into the status of Jewish poetry as a marginalized kind of writing, and moving on to detailed analyses of poets including Allen Ginsberg, Adrienne Rich, Louis Zukofsky, Louise Gl├╝ck, George Oppen, and Allen Grossman, Singing in a Strange Land helps us think about the ways in which displacement, exile, mourning, gender, and prayer contribute to the shaping of the Jewish American imagination and its poetic production.
We have only a handful of books on Jewish American poetry, and Maeera's bids fair to be essential reading. Let's all get copies and get talking about it here, shall we?

Friday, August 17, 2007

But Seriously, Folks...

--about what Alecia calls "living in the blur," the space between "secular" and "religious":

1) It seems to me that these terms, both Latinate, both based on Christian norms, fail to get at something essential in Jewish, or at least Jewish American, identity. I don't have a copy handy of Daniel Boyarin's brilliant Border Lines: the Partition of Judeo-Christianity, but his argument that our very notion of "religion" as a category was invented as part of the invention of Christianity in late antiquity struck me as well-founded and convincing. So did his even more intriguing case that this idea ("religion" as a category) was entertained but finally rejected by the men who created and eventually imposed rabbinic Judaism as a norm.

2) As a result, the identity documents we Jews have in our pockets ("your papers, please!") are a palimpsest of conflicting and competing terminology. This means, at least to say for us as 21st century American Jews, that they contain a palimpsest of options. Some are "religious," some national, some ethnic, some cultural; some are imposed from outside ("are you a member of The Jewish Faith?"; "how does it feel to be a Question?"; "must you mow your lawn on Shabbos?"), others from within, and others not imposed at all. "Secular observant Jew" is an entirely possible category. Arguments within the self are, therefore, commonplace.

3) Without speaking for anyone else, I'll testify that my own place on a "religious / secular" continuum has shifted many times. On reflection, I'd have to say that this motion has never, never been the result of reason, argument, or anything a Christian would call "faith" or "belief" or the loss thereof. It's all about mood, social context, family dynamics, the vagaries of my literary, professional, or sexual life. (Among the varieties of religious experience, James forgot to mention summer camp kisses--but at 14, they were Sinai, Horeb, a still, small voice all in one. I got your column of fire, baby, right here! "Arise my love, my fair one, and come away": all the rest is commentary. Go and study it.)

4) I live, now, in a neighborhood filled with "religious"--which is to say, shomer shabbos, Jews. I live on the fringes of that world, and must always do so: intermarriage will do that to you, as I've learned. Were I to learn enough Hebrew to chat with my thoroughly secular Israeli neighbors in the schoolyard, or enough Yiddish to chat with the ghosts of their grandparents, or enough Russian to chat with the architect-turned-custodian at my synagogue, I could see their religion and raise them a language. Maybe some day I'll do that, if the mood strikes--or maybe I'll start going to shul with my kids every week. None of that will make me be more or less Jewish, more or less a Jew; it would be about action, rather than ontology.

5) A proposition: The real divide today isn't between "religious" and "secular" Jews, but between ardent, ambivalent, and anti-Zionist Jews. That's where the rubber bullet hits the road. Case in point: the "conservative / reconstructionist" synagogue a couple of blocks from me, the one I could walk to, if I chose, has as the final topic in its conversion-class syllabus a history of the State of Israel. "Palestinians: No 'Right' of Return," one bullet point reads. My own politics are ill-informed and amateurish, but I'm struck here that this is one of the few "articles of faith" in the whole course. No shrimp, no Jesus, no Right of Return, and we don't really care about the shrimp.

6. In no particular order (from Siddur Kol Hevel):

“When he, too, who abhors the name, and believes himself to be godless, gives his whole being to addressing the Thou of his life, as a Thou that cannot be limited by another, he addresses God.”
--Martin Buber, I and Thou

"The human mind has all sorts of tricks of consciousness beside rationality, one of which is to address a projected part of the self or the universe as you, and both the 'simple' and the sophisticated take it as seriously as they need to on any given occasion." --Catherine Madsen, The Bones Reassemble

"All deities reside in the human breast."

--William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

For liturgy, God is always a moving target: we pray to him and get equivocal answers, or none; we ask to see his glory and are shown only his back. Any assertion we make of God's grace and mercy is at once undercut by the contingency of our daily experience. Any assumption we make of God's indifference or hostility is eclipsed by the appearance of mercy and grace in our lives. The declaration from the burning bush, ehyeh asher ehyeh ("I will be what I will be"), is a promise and a threat in equal measure, and hints at the simultaneous presence and absence of God at the other end of our prayers. Yet whether God is present or absent is not a final or even an answerable question, only a sort of spiritual brain-teaser by which our minds stay alert. With or without God, what is unequivocally present is the human other in need. --Catherine Madsen, The Bones Reassemble.

O einer, o keiner, o niemand, o du:

O one, o none, o no one, o you:

--Paul Celan, from “There Was Earth Inside Them” (Es war Erde in ihnen)

7) My own creed? Ani ma'amin b'emunah sh'leyma b'viat hamashgiach. I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Kashrut inspector. Someone always shows up to check your work, stamp your papers, keep a watchful eye. But until then, as my son says: "Get your treif on!"

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Der Judenfrage

Who is a Jew?

--No, Who's on first.

What is a Jew?


How is a Jew?

--Fine, thanks! How are you?

Where is a Jew?

--Skokie, evidently.

Why is a Jew? Why, oh why, oh why?

--Because, because, because, because. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.

(Or, as we used to say in the '70s, "Jew is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.")

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

La question juive (What is a Jew?)

Rabbi Eliza would always say, Which comes first, the egg or the idea? as a way to stop a conversation she felt was coming too soon to a conclusion. One very hot afternoon, Rabbi Omar asked Rabbi Eliza to trace the origins of her favorite maxim. “In a roundabout way,” Rabbi Eliza began, looking up from the passage she was studying, “it’s related, to Rabbi Yukel’s so-called Rule of the Index Finger: Don’t put all your chickens in one egg, which itself is a variant of the saying, attributed to Rabbi Raj, and which we chant on the first half moon of Winter, One egg is not the world. On hearing this, Rabbi Omar loudly protested, noting that several centuries before Rabbi Raj, Rabbi Not-Enough-Sand-in-Dessert-not-Enough-Water-in-the-Sea had insisted that the central question to ponder on nights-without-visible-rainbows is Which comes first the basket or the idea of the basket?. “Exactly,” Rabbi Eliza said with a triumphant laugh, “without baskets or eggs we would only have words and without words only mouths.”

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Ostriker, Terman and Halevi

Many thanks to Alicia Ostriker for her nice framing of a perpetual question, one which is particularly important in regard to Jewish poetry. Chances are that most of us are out there on the same limb, and maybe being out there is part of the answer, if indeed there really is an answer, or even needs to be.

Alicia's post has been on my mind while I've been reading Rabbis of the Air, a new book of poems by Philip Terman. In a recent e-mail, after we had exchanged books (yes friends, Passing Over is now available!), Phil spoke about his style in contrast to mine, given his commitment to "narrative structures, use of personal experience, memory," etc. Mine, especially in recent years, has been much more disjunctive in various ways. But be that as it may, there's poem in Rabbis of the Air which illustrates the problem that Alicia raises with admirable tact, poise, feeling and economy. It's called "A Response to Jehuda Halevi":

"Is it well that the dead shall be remembered,
And the Ark and the Tablets forgotten?"

Yes, Jehuda, I would rather recall
the business cards of my father's
used car lot than the five books

and all their commentaries, the recipe
for my grandmother's kuchin than
the Kabbalah and its interpretations,

her delicate matzo balls than all
of the much-sought-after mystical
masterpieces. I would rather discover

the dandruff of my dead friend's dark
hair than the inscribed stones Moses
bloodied his flesh--twice--to attain.

Because I am nothing without them,
whose words accent my speech,
whose motions choreograph my gestures--

dreamstuff are my dead, demanding
my devotion--yes, Jehuda,
it is well they shall be remembered,

their names the undertone whenever
my own name is called, their ghost-souls
more present than this corporeal furniture

of the world which, like the ark and tablets,
hold their form in bodies of beauty
then dissolve, indistinguisable from the dust.

Ordinarily I would have a lot of trouble with a poem in which the speaker invokes his grandmother's "delicate matzo balls," but in this case, the gamble with sentimentality pays off, given the strength of the ensuing stanzas. It's a poem that raises one of those big questions, as Alicia does, and it makes a lot of sense in the context of Halevi, whose devotional poetry carries such an erotic--i.e. profane--charge. Terman makes a powerful claim for cultural Jewishness over religious devotion here, in the name of the "ghost-souls" of his dead. For more along these lines, check out Rabbis of the Air.

Friday, August 03, 2007

What is a Jew Redux

Just recently chatting with Ken Gordon at JBooks on the question of Judaism and Modernism, or as he puts it, “Making Jews Modern,” it seems to me this is yet another variant of the perennial question, What Is a Jew. Is this a weird question? Christians don’t seem to ask “What is a Christian,” or at least they don’t ask it where I can hear it. On the other hand, many Afro-Americans do seem to hold the self-scrutinizing mirror up in a similar way, asking themselves Am I black enough? Am I too black? Is it a question of blood? Is it a question of culture, and if so, what culture?

For Jews, one crude dividing line has long been Religious (or Observant) versus Secular. Personally, I think these are leaky categories. I was a Red Diaper baby, or as I like to put it, a Third Generation Atheist Socialist Jew. My grandfather on one side stopped studying Talmud and started studying medicine; the grandfather on the other side was a disciple of Kropotkin; my father was a Union man and for a few years a Party member; my parents voted for Wallace when everybody else was voting for Truman. My Jewish education consisted of being told that religion was the opiate of the people and that Jews were in favor of education, tolerance, justice and kindness, and against poverty, war, ignorance and prejudice. Because Jews suffered, we were supposed to help anybody who was suffering.

Did my parents know that their passion for social justice was rooted in the Hebrew prophets Isaiah and Amos, or even further back, when we were commanded to love the stranger because we know the heart of the stranger, because we were strangers in Egypt? No. My parents never saw the inside of a shul, and they never read the Bible. When I became obsessed with writing midrash, in my late 40’s, my mother (in her ‘70’s) thought I was crazy. But in retrospect, the lineage is obvious. So the split between religious and secular Judaism is, as we say in academe, problematic.

Two books I’ve recently read touch on this, Esther Schor’s biography of the poet-essayist-journalist Emma Lazarus, and Rebecca Goldstein’s Betraying Spinoza.

I’ll condense a bit here from my review of Schor’s book, in Sh’ma:

Lazarus, born into an extremely wealthy and visible New York Sephardic family, was never “religious.” Throughout her life she pretended not to notice the genteel anti-Semitism of her elite literary and artistic colleagues and friends, while her own Jewishness grew increasingly intense as she matured. She translated medieval Sephardic poets, then Heine, and wrote a sharp essay about Heine’s conversion to Christianity, claiming that “no sooner was the irrevocable step taken than it was bitterly an unworthy concession to tyrannic injustice.” When anti-Semitism of a less genteel kind began to swell in Europe, she responded instantly. In her melodrama The Dance to Death, about massacre and martyrdom in fourteenth century Germany. viciousness is not underplayed.... Like other assimilated Jews of her class, Lazarus felt condescension for the “ghetto Jew” of Eastern Europe. But in the 1880’s, when floods of Russian Jews fleeing pogroms became a “problem” both for Christian America and for assimilated Jewry, Lazarus not only became a major player in the debate, unflinchingly attacking both Christian hypocrisy and Jewish complacency; she visited the refugees on Ward’s Island and elsewhere, advocated for sanitation, education and job training, published Songs of a Semite, and in a weekly column in the American Hebrew announced her vision of a secular Jewish state in Palestine—years before the word “Zionism” was invented. She also insisted on a new idea of America. “Every American,” she wrote in an unsigned essay, “must feel a thrill of pride and gratitude in the thought that his country is the refuge of the oppressed.”

Lazarus died at the age of 38, of Hodgkin’s disease. Her writing came to respect and quote prophets and rabbis. She is known today for her words on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. But Schor’s excellent biography makes clear that by the end of her life she “was inventing the role of an American Jewish writer” whose prophetic burden “was to glimpse, in the trials of her people, the pain of the world’s exiles, and in her own passionate vocation, a mission for her country.” This sense of mission is still felt by many Jews in the worlds of literature, art and journalism, not to mention the Jewish activists who still crowd every progressive organization and gathering, and for whom being Jewish means you side with the oppressed and against the oppressors.

One common type of Jewish activist, of course, doesn’t come out as “Jewish,” just as lefty. But what Isaac Deutscher called “the non-Jewish Jew” has a long lineage. Allen Ginsberg is perhaps the most significant recent avatar—somebody who hated being labelled as a Jew, and was conspicuously extremely Jewish. Goldstein calls her philosophical-cultural biography of Baruch Spinoza Betraying Spinoza because her project is to “out” him as the Jew he chose not to be. For Goldstein, the spiny Spinoza (his name means “thorn” in the Portuguese of the Amsterdam Jewish community in which he grew up) was among the inventors of modern philosophy, standing between Descartes and Leibniz as a proponent of Rationalism—one might say Extreme Rationalism, since for him the universe is itself composed of pure Reason. Her description of his writings is lucid, and to a philosophical novice like myself, fascinating. But her larger project is to show how his philosophy was shaped, despite his disavowal of contingency, precisely by the contingencies of history.

In 1656 at the age of 23 Spinoza was excommunicated by the Amsterdam Jewish elders, in a writ that accuses him of “abominable heresies” and “monstrous deeds,” curses him, and forbids other Jews to have any kind of contact with him. One can see why. He must have been a thorn in the side of a community of refugees from the Inquisition. His later monistic metaphysics emphatically rejects the concepts of a providential God, a chosen people, the Mosaic authorship of Torah, a personal afterlife, and much else that was essential to this community’s often turbulent efforts to define what a Jew was supposed to be and believe—including “belief” itself. Like Shakespeare’s Coriolanus who, when banished from Rome, retorts “I banish you!” and seeks “a world elsewhere,” Spinoza became the West’s first advocate of a purely secular state. More than that, he dismisses the significance of whatever interferes with Reason: family, race, religion, gender, nationality, are all irrelevant to Truth, all obstacles to the knowledge which is the proper goal of all human life.

Goldstein’s portrait of Amsterdam Jewry and its theological controversies in Spinoza’s time is rich and convincing. I confess that I enjoy learning that Jews were at least as contentious in the 17th century as they are now. She tracks the rationalism Spinoza inherits from Maimonides, as well as the “ecstatic impulse that irradiates kabbala;” both impulses were alive and well in Amsterdam, and both clearly charged his batteries. Somewhat less convincing is her attempt to portray Spinoza as enacting on a small scale the story of the persecuted and secretive Marronites in their attempt to forge a new identity for themselves What’s most fascinating, it seems to me, is that in Spinoza’s thought an absolutely rational secularism is identical with an absolutely impassioned amor dei intellectualis, the intellectual love of God. “The mind’s highest good is the knowledge of God, and the mind’s virtue is to know God,” he writes. He calls this knowledge “blessedness.” God is the infinite center of his thinking, and though his idea of God as immanent in all that exists isn’t what his fellow-Jews had in mind at all, it wouldn’t surprise me if many Jews today—both “religious” and “secular”—think something similar.

I’m recommending both these books. But I’m also curious what others think about the “religious” versus “secular” divide. Obviously the distinction is a useful first-order one. Some Jews are purely and faithfully observant, some are purely and faithfully atheist. But what about the areas of overlap? What about those of us who live in the blur? If I look at the table of contents of Rubin’s Telling and Remembering, or Barron and Selinger’s Jewish American Poetry, I’m wiling to bet that more than half the poets in these volumes live in the blur. What does that tell us? I think I m out on a limb here, and I hope others are there with me.

Alicia Ostriker