Thursday, October 21, 2010

Thin Line between Visionary and Delusional in Jewish Literature and History

I saw the new Woody Allen film, You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger, last week and noticed the reoccurrence of a theme I've been noticing: what one might view as delusional behavior, another could view as visionary or genius. The characters in the film that end up being the happiest are the two that to conventional eyes, seem the most delusional: the widow and widower who believe wholeheartedly in fortune-telling and reincarnation.

I just read the fabulous new novel by Joseph Skibell, A Curable Romantic, and throughout its 600 pages one sees this same trope--there is a very thin line between delusion and genius. A Curable Romantic has three sections, or Books, and in each, there is a visionary real-life, historical character, first Freud, then Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto, and then the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto. Great, creative movements are spearheaded by these men who are powered by visions of a new way of doing things, of living life contrary to how it has been lived before. One might have called these luftmensches mad, but perhaps the only thing that separates genius from madness or being a fool/shlemiel is whether the man behind them finds some measure of success.

Here is an excerpt from the end of my review of A Curable Romantic: "Yet though Sammelsohn [the hero, a shlemiel, of the novel) has experienced the worst of all tragedies that have befallen Jews, by the end, he does not remain trapped by others’ restrictions. Throughout the novel there has been a tension between the dreamers, the shlemiels and luftmensches whose visions of utopias and belief in Jewish mysticism conflicts with the dry realism of science (the successful Freud) and business (Herr Bernfeld), of wealthy men of commerce. At one point, Herr Bernfeld, a wealthy businessman who thinks Sammelsohn is not worthy of his daughter, tells him, “Every person is idealistic in his youth. . .just as everyone in his infancy cannot control his bowels.” When Sammelsohn earlier has a moment of doubt about Esperanto conquering the world, he wonders, “was my father right to turn his back on the world, seeing it for what it was: irredeemably violent, venal, base?” There is a counterpoint set up between men who see the world as it is and men who dare to dream of another world.

In the end, the approach of the dreamer, who does not turn his back on the world, wins out. Sammelsohn escapes Warsaw, telling the reader: “I’d had my fill of myths and dreams. I was walking into a realer world. . .I was heading towards Palestine, towards the Promised Land, and it was only there, I knew, that a man could live as a Jew, and a Jew could live in peace.” We know that what awaits Sammelsohn (despite his certitude) is not certain peace. (Hopefully, Israel will not be the impossible dream that was Candide’s Eldorado). And yet we are not meant to scoff at him and what’s left of his tempered idealism: It’s optimism, hope, call it delusion or vision, that is intrinsic to shlemiels and to survivors, and it’s what made the establishment of Israel, our history and our future, possible."

We can see this trope in our Jewish past: witness the illustrious Rashi, who set out boldly in the 11th century to write the first commentary on every single word of the Babylonian Talmud, the commentary that we still use today. Surely many thought this massive undertaking was crazy, mad, but only one who can ignore the naysayers around him can succeed on such a large scale (and this ability to ignore those around you, to only listen to one's own dreams and visions, can be seen by the outside world as some kind of madness). And witness Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz''s monumental new translation of and commentary on the entire Talmud.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Search for the "Authentic"

I've been noticing a theme lately, in society at large and in my own life, a thirst for finding the the "authentic" (as I've written about recently in terms of a contemporary re-evaluating of shtetl imagery).

I just read the following quote in JTS' new strategic plan, which resonated with me: "In a culture of faddish, throwaway “truths” as disposable as yesterday’s newspaper or today’s flood of emails, the key is guidance and experience that are not only relevant and compelling but unquestionably authentic. We must speak to contemporary dilemmas in a learned and compassionate voice that is firmly anchored in Jewish history and tradition, a voice as alive to what Jews and Judaism have been in the past as it is excited by the possibility of what Jews and Judaism might become."

My review of the new novel "Peep Show," by Joshua Braff, is in the online edition of the Forward today, and will be in the July 16th issue. I mention in the review how the main character, David, has only disdain for Judaism, but I don't explore this observation in detail. The overall tenor of the novel is that Judaism holds no appeal for David, which, I get the sense, is probably how the author feels about his religion. (This spirit is exactly antithetical to the love of Judaism that permeates the novels of Dara Horn, roughly of the same generation as Braff.) But David is clearly searching for authenticity in the novel, as is his mother, through her latching onto Hasidism, and his father, by trying to keep his burlesque business pure, in some sense, rather than adapting to new business models like film which would turn burlesque into a simulacra, at a remove from reality. Judaism holds no appeal for David; he finds the "authentic" in photography.

Braff plays in a postmodern way with the notion of what is "authentic" through his insertion of black and white photographs in the novel in order to play with our sense of what is real--does a photograph really capture the authentic, or the truth of what we see? This was actually the most interesting part of the novel for me. I'm intrigued by how contemporary authors are using photography in novels, particularly in works with Jewish themes.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Symbolism Behind Jewish Symbols

Recently I attended a short talk led by Rabbi Sarnoff (formerly of Camp Ramah Wisconsin) on Jewish symbols. He started out by mentioning Chagall's Crucifixion painting (1938) one of a series of paintings in which Chagall shows a Jesus figure on the cross, wearing a tallit. In the White Crucifixion, which hangs at the Art Institute in Chicago, the Christ figure is central, and around the sides Jewish figures mourn for the fate of the Jews, and Nazis march in the upper left. There is also a six-candle menorah at the bottom of the painting.

Chagall was using the symbol of Jesus to try to create empathy in Christian audiences towards the fate of the Jews, by connecting the fate of Jesus, once a Jew, with the plight of the Jews.

Rabbi Sarnoff handed out an excerpt explaining the conflicted background of various Jewish symbols, which one would think have simple provenances. The Magen David is now seen as the universal symbol of Judaism; it's on the Israeli flag, it marks a Jewish grave, a synagogue. But it only became a Jewish national symbol on the 19th century "when Jews of Western Europe were struggling to fend off assimilation into Christianity, that the Magen David was adopted as an answer to the Christian symbol of the cross."

We see that there was much thought put into selecting what would be the symbol of the new State of Israel, a symbol which at the time, was used by nonJews and Jews, and was empty of religious meaning for Jews. In fact, in 14th century Spain the Magen David was expressed as a seven-branched menorah not as a star. In fact, Gershom Scholem wrote an essay attributing the success of the Magen David as a Jewish symbol (rather than the seven-branched menorah) to the Nazis: "Far more than the Zionists have done to provide the Shield of David with the sanctity of a genuine symbol has been done by those who made it for millions into a mark of shame and degradation. The yellow Jewish star, as a sign of exclusion and ultimately of annihilation, has accompanied the Jews on their path of humiliation and horror, of battle and heroic resistance. Under this sign they were murdered; under this sign they came to Israel. . .Some have been of the opinion that the sign, which marked the way to annihilation and to the gas chambers, should be replaced by a sign of life. But it is possible to think quite the opposite: the sign which in our own days has been sanctified by suffering and dread has become worthy of illuminating the path to life and reconstruction." So it is the Nazis who invested the Magen David with power as a symbol of Zionism and Judaism.

Maybe it's the summer weather, and time spent hanging out at the swimming pool, but I've been noticing more religious symbols on people's necks, crosses big and small, lots of hamsas rather than Magen Davids, and I'm wondering why we wear these symbols at all? Are we trying to signal fellowship or solidarity with our fellows of the same faith? Or are we trying to signal something central to our identity to the public at large, ie I am a Jew or a Christian and proud of it? Is it a combination of both? If religion is something we do internally, when we pray to God, or in our homes, when we celebrate holidays and Shabbats with our families, or in our temples or churches, why do we feel the need to externally profess our religion to others at all?

And why does it seem that the hamsa is now a more popular symbol to wear around the Jewish neck than a Magen David?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

What Kind of Holocaust Novel Would Kakutani like?

I read with interest yesterday Michuko Kakutani's review of Yann Martel's new novel (which I haven't read yet) which she says "has the effect of trivializing the Holocaust, using it as a metaphor to evoke 'the extermination of animal life' and the suffering of “doomed creatures” who 'could not speak for themselves.' The reader is encouraged to see the stuffed animals Beatrice and Virgil — who have endured torture, starvation and humiliation — as stand-ins for the Jews, and to equate the terrible things they’ve witnessed — referred to as “the Horrors” — to the atrocities committed by the Nazis.

Last year I reviewed for "The Forward" Jonathan Littell's "The Kindly Ones," a book about the Holocaust told from the perspective of an SS officer, which depicted the horrors and atrocities of the Shoah with documentary detail. It sounds as if "The Kindly Ones" is the polar opposite of Martel's new novel which sounds like it has the treacly sickingly sweet tone of the fable-like The Boy in Striped Pajamas or "The Book Thief", also novels with the Holocaust as their theme.

And yet Kakutani wrote in her February 24, 2009 review of "The Kindly Ones":

"Willfully sensationalistic and deliberately repellent, 'The Kindly Ones' — the title is a reference to the Furies, otherwise known in Greek mythology as the Eumenides — is an overstuffed suitcase of a book, consisting of an endless succession of scenes in which Jews are tortured, mutilated, shot, gassed or stuffed in ovens, intercut with an equally endless succession of scenes chronicling the narrator’s incestuous and sadomasochistic fantasies."

Kakutani seemed disgusted with the "endless succession" of depictions of horrors done to the Jews, but Littell was trying to portray in fiction the endless horrors committed by ordinary men to their fellow men, and did so by writing with realistic detail, and juxtaposing those documentary-style passages with the SS-officer's (Maximillian Aue's) descent into fantasy and madness.

Kakutani wrote in her revew, "When Aue isn’t talking dispassionately about the mechanics of rounding up Jews (spreading rumors that they were going to Palestine so they would not panic) or the difficulty of disposing of bodies ('it wasn’t so much the gassing that posed a problem, but the ovens were overloaded'), he’s describing grotesque scenes of degradation and slaughter: Jews being lashed with a horsewhip; a baby being cut out of its dying mother by Caesarean section, then smashed to death against the corner of a stove; hanged men with 'their tongues sticking out,' streams of saliva running 'from their mouths to the sidewalk'; emaciated prisoners covered in excrement, forced to defecate 'as they walked, like horses.'"

It sounded as if Kakutani attributes this grotesqueness to Littell's writing, when actually, what's grotesque and horrifying is the acts committed in the Holocaust against Jews, which Littell writes about from the perspective of Aue. All these things did happen--the smashing of babies against the wall, the emaciated prisoners covered in excrement, etc. I suppose Kakutani never had to watch "The Holocaust" mini-series on video in Hebrew School as I did, or sit through Claude Lanzmann's Shoah documentary with her parents (again, as I did).

One wonders what kind of novel about the Holocaust Kakutani would find to her liking. Indeed, Kakutani is aware of the oft-quoted problem as originally posed by Adorno. As she ends her 2009 review of Littell's book, she writes, "Whereas the philosopher Theodor Adorno warned, not long after the war, of the dangers of making art out of the Holocaust ('through aesthetic principles or stylization,' he contended, 'the unimaginable ordeal' is “transfigured and stripped of some of its horror and with this, injustice is already done to the victims'), whereas George Steiner once wrote of Auschwitz that 'in the presence of certain realities art is trivial or impertinent,; we have now reached the point where a 900-plus page portrait of a psychopathic Nazi, dwelling in histrionic detail on the barbarities of the camps, should be acclaimed by Le Monde as 'a staggering triumph.'”

(When one understands how the French have dismissed their role in the Holocaust, one can see that the Le Monde's calling a novel like "The Kindly Ones" a "triumph," is a triumph in its own right.)

Littell was trying to capture the horror of the Holocaust within the pages of the novel. Thanks to Kakutani's review, and others like it, few American readers will actually read Littell's book. The librarian at my temple chose not to purchase it for the temple collection based upon its largely bad reviews in the States. Martel's novel is surely more palatable to readers. Perhaps Kakutani regrets her panning of Littell's book after reading Martel's new novel, which sounds as if it is disturbing in an altogether different way, disturbing in the way it trivializes the horrors committed against Jews in the Holocaust.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Trend of "Re-imagining the Shtetl" and Finding the Authentic

Two weeks ago I wrote on my blog about a theme I've noticed of "returning to the shtetl" that seems a trend in recent films and novels.

I was referring to the Coen Brother's film "A Serious Man" and to Steve Stern's new novel, Frozen Rabbi (to be published in May) which feature portrayals of life in the shtetl.

I was sensing something in the zeitgeist, a striving amongst Jewish writers and filmmakers (okay, just the Coen Brothers) to find the authentic in imagery of the shtetl. Then on Friday I saw the cover of The Chicago Jewish News, an article titled "The Real 'Fiddler', A Northwestern University Professor says the truth about shtetls is not what we think.'" The piece features an interview with Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, an associate professor of Jewish history, who is working on a book to be called "Shtetl as it Was, 1790-1830" which, according to him, will debunk common wisdom about shtetls. Petrovsky-Shtern says in the article, "Most of us think a shtetl is a small Jewish village in the middle of nowhere that nothing ever happens in but pogroms, a ghettoized habitat of Eastern Europena Jews who speak Yiddish and have no rapport with the surrounding culture--a place that is myopic, depressed, moribund." Instead, he paints a picture of shtetls which "were the most economically advanced urban centers in what was then Eastern Poland," which "brought together Catholics, Russian Orthodox, Armenians, Tartars and Jews in a vibrant market town with a very rapid system of exchange and high revenues, which feeds the local population and capitalizes on the contraband and smuggling."

Then a couple of days ago Tablet Magazine featured on its virtual cover a story by Editor Alana Newhouse on how curator Maya Benton discovered that photographer Roman Vishniac's famous photos of Jews in shtetls were a distortion of reality, expanding upon her piece in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine.

Newhouse argues that Vishniac and others were part of a post-war "nostalgia industry" and that "the victims of the lost world of Eastern European Jewry deserve to be remembered in the fullness of the life they led." She doesn't go into detail about what this fullness looks like, perhaps because there isn't a lot of information out there about the reality of shtetls, research that Professor Petrovsky-Shtern (and others, surely) is working on, and a fuller exhibit of previously unpublished Vishniac photographs will be exhibited in 2012. In a brief description of some images that have not been shown to the public, Benton suggests that these photographs show how some shtetl inhabitants were well-off and fashionable, not poor and backwards. This corresponds with Professor Petrovsky-Shtern's argument as well. Though surely there was a multitude of types of Jews in the shtetls, just as there is variety of Jews in contemporary America.

Newhouse writes that "[b]y misrepresenting our ancestors as backward and unsophisticated, American Jews have managed to create communities that are less Jewishly diverse—and consequently, in some real ways, less sophisticated—than the fabled shtots and dorfs and shtetls of Eastern Europe." This is a interesting, yet charged statement. Vishniac does portray these shtetl subjects as very poor, but not necessarily as unsophisticated.

Indeed, in an interview with Tablet, novelist Steve Stern talks about his own imagining of the shtetl: "a marriage between the exquisite mysticism Jews from Eastern Europe managed to incorporate into their experience, a world that is timeless, defined by Torah, by the text, almost to the extent of being able to live in that text, a Jewish dream time, while simultaneously suffering incursions of a very cruel history-and you can't separate the history and violence from the transcendence."

It seems that what is captivating to writers/filmmakers today is how we do we, assimilated Jews, reach this transcendence, enter into this magical "Jewish dream time," those of us not well-educated in Torah or Kabbalah. Come to think of it, Noah Baumbach's very much-assimilated Greenberg in the film of that name is also grappling with this: how does Greenberg reach transcendence? Is a pseudo-transcendence (not a Jewish one) only possible through drugs, as in the last frames of the film?

The main character, young Bernie, in Stern's new novel Frozen Rabbi does find a meaningful transcendence, a literal and figurative one, as he buries himself in Jewish texts, self-educating himself, and studying Kabbalah, and experiences another literal transcendence at the end of the novel (as the pub. date is a month away I do not want to ruin the ending).

As I wrote two weeks ago, "It's this quintessential theme in Jewish-American literature and drama of the struggle between remembering and forgetting our past. In 'Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination,' Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi writes that the appeal of Isaac Bashevis Singer's writing "came not from his refugee stories but from his reinvention of the shtetl....and what is transpiring in this shtetl of the mind, at its most fundamental level, is a creative resolution of the struggle between remembering and forgetting."

This is a struggle that these new works reflect, as do Vishniac's photographs, as well.

As I wrote, perhaps the pendelum has swung and that now as Jews we have reached a certain point of comfort (arguably, too much comfort) on the continuum of assimilation into American society, now we feel the desire to reach back and find a sense of authenticity, to reach back and connect with our shtetl past, and as curator Maya Benton is doing, trying to figure out what is authentic about our shtetl imagery. It's the same reason that the Coen Brothers start "A Serious Man" with a reanimation of the shtetl, to try to forge a creative resolution to this struggle between remembering and forgetting that Jews in America, the Jews of the midcentury on the midwestern prairie as represented by Larry Gopnik in the Coen's film, and Jews today, are grappling with. It's an attempt, as Ezrahi put it in describing Yiddish writers in America in the 1950s, to "'reclaim a lost Jewish place and an interrupted Jewish story.'"

The Coen Brothers, and Steve Stern in A Frozen Rabbi, are also attempting to reclaim a lost Jewish place, the shtetl, but with the darker tones of irony and satire, looking from the disconnected perspective of the postmodern early twentieth century, grappling with the question of what it means today to be an authentic Jew.

How we re-imagine the shtetl, what we deem important, what we deem authentic, in turn acts like a mirror held up to ourselves, and says a lot about us, and how we see ourselves as American Jews.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

More on Connections Between Herzog and Greenberg

Near the end of Bellow's novel Herzog, Herzog has to be rescued from jail by his older brother, Will.

Bellow describes Will from Herzog's perspective, sounding much like Roger Greenberg describing his brother: "Standing with folded arms he favored one heel, somewhat like Father Herzog, and had a bit of the old man's elegance but not his eccentrities. He had no time for such stuff, thought Herzog, running a big business. . . [T]here's a strange division of functions that I sense, in which I am the specialist in . . .in spiritual self-awareness; or emotionalism; or ideas; or nonsense.. .He mixes grout to pump into these new high-rises all over town. He has to be political, and deal, and wangle and pay off and figure tax angles. All that Papa was inept in but dreamed he was born to do. Will is a quiet man of duty and routine, has his money, position, influence, and is just as glad to be rid of his private or 'personal' side. Sees me spluttering fire in the wilderness of this world, and pities me no doubt for my temperament. Under the old dispensation, as the stumbling, ingenuous, burlap Moses, a heart without guile, in need of protection, a morbid phenomenon, a modern remant of otherworldliness--under that former dispensation I would need protection. And it would be gladly offered by him--by the person who 'knows-the-world-for-what-it-is.' Whereas a man like me has shown the arbitrary withdrawal of proud subjectivity from the collective and historical progress of mankind. And that is true of lower-class emotional boys and girls who adopt the aesthetic mode, the mode of rich sensibility."

This passage in Herzog echoes the same themes in the film Greenberg, the same disjunction between the more successful brother who acquires a beautiful house full of rooms and possessions (the camera often pans from room to room to show the furniture and "stuff," the brother has acquired) and the other brother, guile-less, too steeped in sensibility, in feeling, "in need of protection," though this very vulnerability is what Florence (Greta Gerwig) finds appealing.

This foil/counterfoil that is set up between Herzog and his brother Will is the same as that between Roger Greenberg and his more successful brother, a real-estate developer of some kind, just like Will Herzog (a builder with hands steeped in the permanence of grout rather than a restless nomad, a Jew in perpetual exile, steeped in the intangibility and impermanence of words and ideas). A lack of putting down roots suggests a failure to grow up; it is only when Greenberg stops his restless wanderings, and halts his last-minute running off to Australia with two pretty young blondes that he starts becoming an adult.

Is "Greenberg" a Shlemiel?

After seeing A Serious Man, a few months back, I had the idea to start tracking whether shlemiels were returning to film and fiction. Two weeks ago, Tablet Magazine ran a short piece by Marissa Brostoff arguing that Baumbach's Greenberg and Sam Lipsyte's new novel, The Ask, "breathe new life into the figure of the shlemiel".

Is Ben Stiller's character in Greenberg a shlemiel? What does a shlemiel look like in contemporary film (as opposed to the shlemiels of Yiddish literature and in the writings of Bellow, Roth, Malamud)? Why would be seeing a return to the shlemiel now? (A question that Brostoff doesn't answer.)

It's arguable whether Larry Gopnik in the Coen Brother's film "A Serious Man" is a shlemiel.

In mid-February, I asked Ruth Wisse, Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University, and author (among other books) of The Shlemiel as Modern Hero (1976), about whether Gopnik is a shlemiel. Wisse wrote in an email, "The schlemiel character that interested me was the "loser-as-winner:" he is a figure of comedy, who nonetheless persuades us of his staying powers, and of his moral authority. There is profound irony involved. The very sorrowful protagonist of the Coen Brothers' movie is too beaten to fit my model. The Judd Apatow character does seem the type, though he is merely a little shlobby, not really a loser, not like Gimpel, or Herzog, or the other characters I describe. No doubt the Jewish type has influenced American humor, but the schlemiel was born of real failure--failure as a man."

Baumbach's film Greenberg, like his earlier film Squid and the Whale, is about male anxiety about becoming a man. Oddly, I noticed that the father-son relationship, so central to a boy forming an identity as a man, and at the heart of the story of Squid and the Whale, is absent from Greenberg. Greenberg's father is not shown or mentioned in the film. The two Greenberg brothers do mention their mother, that she has recently died, and Greenberg, in his honest, emotional voice mail that he leaves for Florence, says that he misses her.

For Greenberg to be a shlemiel, he must be a "loser-as-winner", as Wisse put it, not simply a fool. And in the end, we see that he is a loser-as-winner: he gets the beautiful girl.

Baumbach seems to be obviously referencing Bellow's Herzog, in calling his movie by the character's last name, and having Greenberg, like Herzog, constantly writing letters of complaint. Greenberg is a shlemiel in the same way that Herzog is. Both have over-excited, over-active minds; they are brimming over with verbosity and shrewd observations. They see too much; they feel too much, so they seem crazy, and yet in their strangeness, they reach insights. There is a great scene in Greenberg at a children's birthday party where Ben Stiller comments that the fathers are dressed like children and the children are dressed like super heroes. He is constantly analyzing those around him and finding them unworthy. In one scene after dissecting the behavior of those at a nearby table with witty darts, he says, "I'm strangely on tonight." And yet he is too "on," all the time. Similarly, the novel Herzog starts out, ". . .though he still behaved oddly, he felt confident, cheerful, clairvoyant, and strong. He had fallen under a spell and was writing letters to everyone under the sun."

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Moishe Oysher Brought Back to Life

On Saturday night I attended a wonderful performance at Beth Emet, the Free Synagogue in Evanston, IL, where Cantor Arik Luck and a troupe of performers paid a musical tribute to Moishe Oysher. Cantor Arik Luck played the starring role beautifully and convincingly, singing favorite Oysher songs, and appealingly giving background to some of the songs, such as explaining the narrative of Oysher's film "Overture to Glory," before signing a song from the film. I loved how he made the packed audience clap in tune with his reanimated Oysher, in a celebration of the joy of the Yiddish tunes. (In a sense, his bringing back to life Oysher reminds me of Steve Stern's new novel, Frozen Rabbi, to be published in May, though excerpted now in Tablet, Nextbook's online magazine, whose titular character comes back to life a century later after defrosting in a Memphis 1950s freezer.)

What I noticed in Cantor Luck's captivating brief run-downs of Oysher's roles in his films was the theme of "returning to the shtetl" that seems a trend in recent films and novels. According to Luck, Oysher starred in only four films in the U.S., and in the two that he talked about, there was the theme of Oysher's character dramatically returning to the shtetl, and a conflict between pursuing a life of religious study or a secular life on Broadway. In kind of a meta-narrative, Luck's reanimation of Oysher in turn reanimates the 19th century shtetl for us, the audience, and reanimates the Yiddishkeit of Oysher and his world, and helps us reconnect to our Jewish past, the life of the shtetl that was annihilated, the same life that Oysher's characters were, ironically, trying to break free from in their efforts to assimilate in America.

It's this quintessential theme in Jewish-American literature and drama of the struggle between remembering and forgetting our past. In "Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination," Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi writes that the appeal of Isaac Bashevis Singer's writing "came not from his refugee stories but from his reinvention of the shtetl....and what is transpiring in this shtetl of the mind, at its most fundamental level, is a creative resolution of the struggle between remembering and forgetting."

It's interesting to see how contemporary writers, and performers like Cantor Arik Luck, are now reinventing the shtetl, how we have this fundamental compulsion to return to and to reinvent the shtetl, as Jonathan Safran Foer did in Everything is Illuminated. Perhaps the pendelum has swung and that now as Jews we have reached a certain point of comfort (arguably, too much comfort) on the continuum of assimilation into American society, now we feel the desire to reach back and find a sense of authenticity, to reach back and connect with our shtetl past. It's the same reason that the Coen Brothers start "A Serious Man" with a reanimation of the shtetl, to try to forge a creative resolution to this struggle between remembering and forgetting that Jews in America, the Jews of the midcentury on the midwestern prairie as represented by Larry Gopnik in the Coen's film, and Jews today, are grappling with. It's an attempt, as Ezrahi put it in describing Yiddish writers in America in the 1950s, to "reclaim a lost Jewish place and an interrupted Jewish story."

Cantor Luck's musical revue was joyous and celebratory, a pure and simple celebration of the music of our shtetl past and the Yiddish tunes Jews brought to the New Country.

The Coen Brothers, and Steve Stern in A Frozen Rabbi, are also attempting to reclaim a lost Jewish place, the shtetl, but with the darker tones of irony and satire, looking from the disconnected perspective of the postmodern early twentieth century, grappling with the question of what it means today to be an authentic Jew (authenticity, "realness", being hard to come by in the postmodern world).

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Coen Brothers did get a second of the camera though. . .

A friend of mine, Tamar, wrote this on Facebook in response to my last blog post:

"What did you think of Steve Martin's joke about the "Jew hunter" at the Oscars, followed by a camera zoom in on the Coen brothers?"

It seems most people, to judge by blog postings on the Internet, found Martin's joke very funny. I didn't find Martin's to be laugh-out-loud funny, nor was it offensive. At the risk of being overly analytical (alas, I can't help myself) I did find it a little odd. Here was a movie, "Inglorious Basterds", that isn't at all meant to be taken seriously. Tarantino's film doesn't take the Holocaust seriously at all. It's a fairy tale, like much of recent cinematic Holocaust fare (Boy in Striped Pajamas, etc.) In Tarantino's live-action cartoon we don't see any emaciated Holocaust victims, or concentration camps. Jews are portrayed as all-powerful and Nazis are portrayed as sympathetic buffoons or appealing, magnetic villians like Christoph Walz's Hans Landa. He uses the Holocaust as a mere setting in order to riff on his favorite subjects like the power of film, the power of violence, and other metanarratives.

The Landa character in the film, the Nazi figure with a larger-than-life, magnetic, charismatic personality, is as much a figment of Hollywood as the hooker-with-a-heart-of gold (which is also Oscar material-i.e., Julia Roberts). In reality, Nazis weren't men like Landa so appealing in their larger-than-life villainy, but, sadly, mere "Ordinary Men," as in the book by Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. But it's more comforting to think Nazis were really like Landa and not like the ordinary men-next-door.

Oddly, Martin's joke presupposes that we should take Tarantino's film, or Walz' Nazi, seriously, that somehow we need to be reassured that within the Academy Award Theatre there is a "motherlode" of Jews.

But maybe we do. While there may indeed be many Jews in the 'industry,' there aren't necessarily many "Jewish" films made, as has been the case in the history of Hollywood, even when studios are led by Jews. The Coen Brother's film (see my previous post) "A Serious Man" did not receive any Academy awards though it is a brilliant, thought-provoking work.

The camera pan to Joel Coen's face, right after Steve Martin's "Jewish joke", as if he somehow was the "token" Jew in the audience, was ironically apt in that the Coen Brother's film was really the only "Jewish" film made this year. The camera should have panned to Tarantino after that joke. Instead, it panned to the one filmmaker who actually made a Jewish film this year, to see how this filmmaker, who is "out" with his Jewishness, would react.

This brings to mind a quote from an essay in You Should See Yourself: Jewish Identity in Postmodern American Culture, edited by Vincent Brook, describing "a central confusion and an ongoing concern in American Jewish life: not simply the fear that Jews will so easily be absorbed, but the simultaneous and far more subtle anxiety that Jews can never truly be absorbed."

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A Serious Man not taken Seriously by Academy

Well, "A Serious Man" didn't receive any Oscars. Ironically, there wasn't much of a "Jewish" feel to the winning movies this year. I'm reading You Should See Yourself: Jewish Identity in Postmodern Culture (2006), a collection of essays, and in one on film, there is this quote by Malma Sarah Saval, from 2004: "'Over the past several decades there has been a shocking dearth of Jewish films in the mainstream Hollywood market. Perhaps the most noticeable absence in recent years occurred during the 1990s, in which period not one American movie featured a rabbi. On the flip side, an everlasting stream of movies keeps us in constant supply of Christian clergyman.'"

Rabbis, and what they represent, play a prominent role in "A Serious Man". Could "A Serious Man", consequently, be "too Jewish" for mainstream American culture, "too Jewish," for the Oscars? (I remember a 1996 exhibit entitled "too Jewish?" at the Jewish Museum in NY).

I suggest that "A Serious Man" makes audiences, Jewish and non-Jewish, uncomfortable, which is the Coen Brother's trademark (to disturb, to provoke), too uncomfortable for the Academy. Rather than "flattening the difference" between Jews and non-Jews, as Hollywood films featuring Jewish characters do, making Jews palatble for mass audiences by making them seem not so Jewish, not so different, "A Serious Man" calls attention to the differences between Jew and non-Jew, i.e., between a Jew and his Gentile next-door neighbor, who has his son miss a day of school to hunt deer (something a Jew would never do).