Monday, May 15, 2006

A long attempt at an explanation

Agreed. Take a look. A.B. Yehoshua puts things better than I ever could, and while I'm with him perhaps 98%, I'm going to give an explanation to something more personal--why do I care? Or, as I'm asked by those who've known me for a long time, what's with all the Jewish stuff all of a sudden (i.e. the last few years)? I'll try to explain:

Transformed by the Dreyfus Affair into Jewish nationalists and Zionists, assimilated fin-de-siecle Western and Central European Jewish intellectuals turned to the shtetl or the ghetto, to the "backwards," traditional, pious Jews of Eastern Europe, the very Jews with whom these men most wanted to disassociate themselves with in their previous, pre-Zionist political incarnations. (Oversimplification, I realize.) Yesterday, in Midwood, Brooklyn, among long-skirted, wig-wearing women, very large families, and men with covered heads, I, a non-religious Jew originally from Manhattan, thought of that hundred-year-old experience, the decision to look for a more authentic Judaism in the pre-assimilation (or acculturation or integration or what have you), pre-emancipation-style community.

I'm a fan of wearing pants and various other things not compatible with an Orthodox lifestyle, but do not see how this is incompatible with a more nationalistic Jewish identity. (Living in America as opposed to Israel might be, but that's another matter entirely.) But I understand the impulse to idealize the more religious types, within the context of America, because "cultural" Judaism--though it produces some great art--is about the least appealing identity I could think of.

Much of a-religious, or cultural, American Judaism consists of reassuring non-Jews that one is not "one of them," not kosher, not expected in synagogue Saturday morning, not looking only to date co-religionists, and so on. It's a sense of being different, but it's a difference based on negativity. The only positive things embraced by cultural Judaism--Judaism without religion or nationality--are works such as "Portnoy's Complaint" or "Annie Hall," which most amusingly portray the tension between sensing one's self to be a part of something larger yet wanting nothing more than to be identified with anything but.

Gary Shteyngart is a hilarious, ridiculously talented writer. "Absurdistan" made me think immediately of "Portnoy's Complaint." And this was before reading the interview with Shteyngart in the Forward, in which Shteyngart expresses--and explains--a preference for "shiksas." Such a notion strikes me as outdated--while plenty of American Jewish men and women date primarily non-Jews (it is, after all, a mainly non-Jewish country), few seem to intellectualize it in quite that way. Shteyngart's Jewish identity owes something--as he acknowledges--to his being Russian, or more recently Russian than many other American Jews. This puts him a couple generations behind other American Jews in terms of knowing the power of anti-Semitism. In other words, the identity of Russian-Jewish Americans today in some ways like that of the Roth-Allen generation. Yet in many ways Shteyngart's experience is no different from that of multi-generational American Jews--an unpleasant Hebrew School experience, a typically liberal if outdated-liberal preference for diversity over group-identification (multiculturalism has, for others, replaced much of this notion). Shteyngart's explanation for his preferences in women explains why, as a Jewish woman, I'm perhaps more put off by American cultural Judaism than a Jewish man might be, although I don't think it requires being female to find this off-putting:

Q: Has there ever been a Jewess [among your girlfriends]?

A: Never a Jewess. I kissed one once — she tasted like me. I couldn't take it.

Q: You found it narcissistic.

A: Incredibly! I said, "You know what? I'm just going to go home, make out by myself. I don't need to pay for this dinner." I've never conjugated with a Hebraio American. Anything could happen, but it would be very unlikely.

Q: Why?

A: I grew up in a very particular kind of environment, much different from most American Jews, who, I think, grew up in a kind of freedom.... The Hebrew school experience was so awful that it left no doubt in my mind that although I would have many Jewish friends — I live in New York, I'm a writer, I mean what the hell — I wanted to branch out in terms of relationships. And also, I do think it's very interesting to have, if I was ever to breed, a child that has more than one culture....There are probably 30 different reasons. I don't specifically go out there and say I won't date one, but it never clicks the way it does with other groups.

I have never met Shteyngart, have no romantic feelings towards him, and so do not take it personally that he would not, in theory, go for me. Nor do I ask individuals not to have specific romantic preferences, even if these preferences would be fairly considered offensive in all other arenas. But the idea of Jews tasting one way when you kiss them and non-Jews another is rather frightening, and--as if I had to point this out--entirely false. (Shteyngart and his Jewish date must have just shared an especially pungent dinner.) It's one thing to be attracted to certain traits or even races more than others, but to have a theory behind the whole thing strikes me as a bit odd and, given his preferences, a bit unoriginal. An American Jewish man with a preference for non-Jewish, especially Asian-American, women... it does fit a certain mold. Would a Shteyngart who was happily married to a Jewish woman be able to write as brilliantly as he does? Perhaps, but in the vein of Roth and Allen? Hard to imagine.

What I look for in novelists is not what I look for in politics or identity (or, thankfully, in men). I find the situations presented by an Allen, a Roth, or a Shteyngart amusing--especially amusing, because I come from that same, liminarily Jewish background and thus get the references--but I find it politically and in a certain sense aesthetically revolting. Judaism does not have to be a choice between self-hatred and Hasidism. This is the appeal of Jewish nationalism, which I understand to mean a sense that there is a Jewish people, not a uni-racial Jewish people, but a Jewish people all the same, and that this people has its national center in the state of Israel. While those with a strong sense of Jewish nationalism have good reason to live in Israel, a sense of being of Jewish nationality can also exist in those who do not. Dual loyalties--no more or less so than someone Belgian-American who identifies as most truly a Belgian but is, for all political and civic purposes, part of the United States. While Jewish citizens of nations other than Israel should not be considered political representatives of the country, they may be identified with it the same way that Spanish-Americans, Spanish-identified citizens of France, and so on, may be identified with Spain. While some of Jewish nationality will end up blending into their respective countries, the continued existence of the state of Israel as the Jewish national center ensures that Jewish continuity is not up to Gary Shteyngart's sudden discovery that, gosh, Jewish women are great. Ideally, with Judaism as a nationality, Jews living in the Diaspora would not feel the need to express their identity primarily by marrying other Jews, but would, like members of all other nations, be free to go off with whoever strikes their fancy where they are living, or to move to Israel if their identity was something they cared enough about.

While few American or other Diaspora Jews have actual, ancestral roots in the modern state of Israel, all have such roots in a Jewish nation as perceived by those of earlier generations. I've written about this before, but to reiterate: even if your grandparents lived in Eastern Europe and wouldn't have known what to make of zatar or tehina, the nation they were a part of is now based in a specific geographic locale, and that is Israel.

Which brings me to what I was initially addressing, which is why do I care? Certainly, I am reacting to post-9/11 anti-Semitism the world over, glamorization of the Palestinian cause, nose jobs all over Manhattan, but perhaps most of all, the repulsiveness of self-hatred. I would remain neutral--and in a sense, I am neutral, and do not believe in being proud or ashamed of facts of one's birth--but apathy doesn't strike me as an option.


ester said...

Well, for what it's worth, there's a black-Asian couple on Gray's Anatomy.

More importantly, I think the idea of a positive or active secular Jewish identity is fascinating and, to me, just out of reach. I was recently in a group discussing the publication Jewish Currents, which just merged w/ the Workman's Circle, and which thinks of itself that way. It's certainly not about self-hatred, and the people at the paper didn't seem bitter or angry towards religious Jews, but all the same I'm not entirely sure what an actively, positive secular publication can be about.

They say Jewishness, not Judaism. I guess it's history, and identity, and a certain shaping of viewpoint and shared experience. It's not something I have an easy time understanding.

Seth said...

I know people who get offended when I tell them they are idiotic for referring to "Seinfeld" as their Jewish cultural base.

Katherine said...

Phoebe, what a great post! I think you explain really well that basing a sense of identity on situation comedy or facial similarity leaves one a little undernourished in the modern world - as opposed to, say, in a traveling family of goat herders somewhere in the 1300s.

I would only add that treating the state of Israel as a center of Jewish identity has to be recognized as a contemporary concept in a historical string of such concepts. In Eastern Europe and the US, Socialism was a strong unifying theme for large numbers of Jews for a while. And I think that in a lot of E. European countries, the achievements of fellow Jews, against all odds and such, was also often a source of identity. Half the Russian jokes begin with, "A little Jewish boy and his violin..."

I guess I think that at bottom, having a historical identity of any kind is what counts. And if, like Shteyngart, you choose to treat your identity with distaste, even as you make a living off writing about it for uneducated American heathen (or whoever he thinks his audience is) then you leave your self-conception largely up to others to define. Which is distasteful.

Nonetheless, treating specifically Israel as really an anchor of your identity requires knowing it, I think, as a center of a nation's life and not as solely a political notion. Because believing in a formative power of something that you don't understand, don't have access to its psyche - that also makes me think of goat herders afraid of the thunder god or something. And I think that you accomplish that sort of understanding because you study the history of Jews in the formation of Israel, but for me, for example, at this point in my life, to look to Israel as an element of myself is as confusing as to look to the Pilgrims.

But to look to, say, Mexico (to which my only connection is having learned the language for many years) as a country struggling with creating a fair system of government - that somehow connects with my historical understanding of where I come from, and gratifies my interest in life and how people live. And provides exactly the sort of preventative medicine, I guess, against self-dislike based on a group identity you haven't chosen. Anyway, hope this makes a margin of sense.

Anonymous said...

I found that article a little condescending - any culture X could have someone saying "Well those of us back in the old country are the only real X-ites, and you X-Americans are missing part of what it means to be truly X." And the X-American response is, "So what?" I understand why Jewish people are more hesitant to embrace pluralism and assimilation, but if you believe in multiethnic democracy then you have to believe there is nothing better or worse being 100% some culture or 50-50 two cultures or a giant mix of everything.

Anonymous said...

For your enlightenment: The example of Belgian-American is a very bad choice as Belgium consists of two (actually three, but the German minority is miniscule) communites. Somebody identifying himself as a Belgian-American must be either an oddity or in expectation of American cluelessness.

French speaking Waloons and Dutch speaking Flemish do not exactly love each other. Nationalism only exists for the soccer team, the red devils, and Belgian beer.