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.