Thursday, July 17, 2008

Parochial Jews

Scholars of French-Jewish history often begin their studies with apologies for treating only the small, relatively insignificant, not-always-representative Jewish population, and by assuring the reader that the book in question in fact tells a larger, more universal truth, that is, something about France in general. Both of these are valid points. Most people in the world are neither French nor Jewish; exceedingly few come from the Venn-diagram intersection of the two. A book that tells you only about French Jews tells you very little about human existence. Yet books about French history do not apologize for being 'just' about France. Books about German Jewish history do not (always) apologize for being 'just' about Jews. Qu'est-ce qui se passe?

What concerns me about this tendency is easily enough explained. It's not that Jews can't be looked at as a microcosm of other sets of human beings, or of our species generally. It's just that this need not be mentioned for it to be understood. Every historical study is restricted, and thus 'parochial,' even once you extend the work's boundaries to every adjacent or broader topic the author claims his book addresses. That this comes up so much in French-Jewish history may have something to do with historians unintentionally mimicking the notion that all that is French is universal. Perhaps it's an preemptive rejection of the notion that Jews are not in fact human beings, something one comes across quite a bit when reading French-Jewish history (in old texts, of course, and not contemporary historical writing), and might feel the need to refute. But really, who knows. I haven't read enough yet on non-French Jews to make the comparison. I could go on (I wrote a term paper on this last year, and keep meaning to go back to it) but the point is that I was reminded of the phenomenon by one of the comments to the NYT Frugal Traveler's column about visiting Lithuania to seek out his Lithuanian-Jewish family roots. (Jews, frugality, not really the point here, but someone was bound to say it.) After a not-at-all Jewish-specific tour of Europe, Matt Gross has this one somewhat Jewish-specific entry, and here's one person's response:

I share your need to find Lithuanian roots, therefore I’m a little disappointed that your reportage of Vilnius and Lithuania is almost exclusively about Jewish culture, education, history and experience. Of course your interest lay in the Jewish community, but you write for a wider readership anxious for a story with wider scope. Up until the 14th century Lithuania, University of Vilnius, was at the heart of European culture, not just European Jewish culture. I would have liked to have heard more of the whole, not just the part, even though it was the part closest to you.

Argh. A response, chiding the above commenter, only repeats the charge, albeit here implicit, of parochialism:

I am disappointed to read the comment that suggests writing about your focus on the Jewish history of your family’s ancestral home was not inclusive of some amorphous ‘whole’. One of the reasons this series is so wonderful is that the stories you write ARE holograms of large wholes.

Argh once again. It is, or it should be, permissible to write about Jewish history, as a Jew, without being accused of having neglected the rest of humanity, and without having to go out of your way to draw everyone's attention to the fact that you speak not only of Jews, but of people generally. This doesn't mean eschewing topics with broader significance, or only mentioning the Jewish angle of a given topic. It just means not apologizing for writing that is about Jews, when one would not apologize about a similar focus on any other group. It's clear, or should be clear, to your readers that Jews are a subset of humanity. To those readers who need that spelled out for them, all I can say is, that's probably not the audience you should be writing for.


Withywindle said...

Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto.

Anonymous said...

I'm very disappointed that you've decided to focus on the broad universe of French Jews when the far more interesting topic is that of secular Jews in Marseilles.

Ted Frank said...


Anonymous said...

It is perfectly acceptable for a Jew to spend their lives researching the history of Jews (french or otherwise).

And it is also acceptable for the others to note this leans towards ethnocentric narcissism.

Of course, a true schMaltzLover would never, ever, note this. Because we love.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

So a Jew studying Jews is an ethnocentric narcissist? How about an American studying Americans? That comment was kind of silly, schmaltzlover.