Saturday, April 28, 2007

Knowing how the story ends

Lately I've been in a kind of bad mood. I attributed this to finals, to the tough transition from quarters to semesters and the increase in endurance this demands, to either too much or not enough coffee, or perhaps to a general, classically grad-school feeling of malaise. Assuming I see enough dachshunds and eat enough pastries, I'm generally a happy person, so I was starting to wonder what was up.

Then it hit me: my job, at the moment and indefinitely, is reading about France and Jews, and wherever the two overlap. Specifically, I'm now reading about North African Jews during decolonization and French Jews during Vichy. This is extremely depressing stuff. While I find these subjects fascinating, if you spend a full work-day and then some reading about persecution, oppression, torture, genocide, and low-level but pervasive social exclusion, you're bound to feel a bit, well, off when the day is done. I've been interested in these subjects for a while, but it's only now, with two term papers on them coming due, that I'm spending quite this much time on these subjects, without so many sanity-retrieving breaks for things like astrophysics lab or trips to H&M.

I don't take these readings personally, in the sense that I am most definitely not French or Algerian, do not live in the mid-20th century, and these are history books and novels, not soap operas. I'm not reading all this because I identify with it in some direct and obvious way. Sometimes it seems to me that being a New York Jew might have as much in common with being an urban European Jew as with being an American Jew more generally, but I couldn't say for sure, and I don't believe this is my main reason for finding these subjects so intriguing. In any case, the latest out of Bobst, Albert Memmi's 1962 "Portrait of a Jew," is a prose, humorless "Portnoy's Complaint," brilliant but not exactly uplifting.

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