Are Books All We Have Left?
A masterful encyclopedia sums up our history and culture but raises the question of where Jewishness lies today
But it also includes many items whose Jewishness could not necessarily be discerned without knowing that their creators were Jewish. This is especially true in the “Visual Culture” section, where images that “read” immediately as Jewish—a blue star of David, by Michael David, labeled “A Jew in Germany,” or Joel Otterson’s “Unorthodox Menorah”—consort with others that have nothing evidently Jewish about them—such as Laurie Simmons’ uncanny doll-diorama “Café of the Inner Mind,” or Barbara Kruger’s famous poster, “your body is a battleground.”
The very first item in Volume 10 already begins to pose the problem of what counts as a Jewish text—a page-long excerpt from Saul Bellow’s novel Humboldt’s Gift. Bellow is the greatest American Jewish novelist, and it would not be hard to find passages from his work that deal explicitly with Jewishness; perhaps Volume 9 will feature excerpts from The Victim or Herzog. But the selection the editors make, from near the beginning of Humboldt’s Gift, does not contain any Jewish references. What it does feature is the narrator Charlie Citrine’s strong sense of attachment to the dead: “Out in Chicago Humboldt became one of my significant dead. I spent far too much time mooning about and communing with the dead.”
Is that, perhaps, what makes this a Jewish text—the sense that Jews, especially after the Holocaust, are defined by their tender obsession with the dead, with the past? But then, isn’t piety toward the dead part of every human culture? In this way, the Posen Library compels the reader to start asking what parts of his experience are informed or inflected by Jewishness. If it is not Jewish to mourn, is it at least possible to mourn Jewishly? If it is not Jewish to make images, is it Jewish to make images of dolls, as Simmons does—dolls that both violate and paradoxically obey the biblical injunction against making graven images?
Once again, as in Jews and Words, the Posen Library’s answers to these questions seem to divide along the imaginary border that separates, and joins, Israel and America. There are really two narratives being told in Volume 10, starting with the decision to begin the volume with 1973. That year, as the editors note in their introduction, marks a crucial moment in the history of the State of Israel—the Yom Kippur War, which heralded a number of social and political transformations. It also marks a crucial moment in American history, with the Watergate scandal and the end of the Vietnam War. But does it have any particular significance in American Jewish history? Is it even possible to write an American Jewish history on its own terms, with its own periodization and pivotal dates? Or do all Jews necessarily live by a historical calendar determined in Israel—just as, in Jews and Words, the continuity of Jewish life is assured by the language spoken in Israel?
Certainly, it is the American Jewish texts and works in the Posen Library that ignite the most anxiety about their Jewishness. When an Israeli poet like Erez Biton writes a love poem, there does not need to be anything thematically Jewish about it for it to count as part of Jewish literature, simply because it is written in Israel and in Hebrew:
How about what you’re doing right now, Yael?
To know something about her bed, about your bed, Yael,
To know her soft thoughts in the morning instant …
Whereas when an American Jewish poet writes a similarly universal poem, the question immediately arises: Is this a Jewish poem, or an American one, or simply the expression of a basic human experience, like Ira Sadoff’s “My Father Leaving”;
When I came back, he was gone.
My mother was in the bathroom
crying, my sister in her crib
restless but asleep. The sun
was shining in the bay window,
the grass had just been cut.
No one mentioned the other woman,
nights he spent in that stranger’s house.
It is not until the end of the poem, when Sadoff writes, “But I was thirteen/ and wishing I were a man,” that we find even an echo of a Jewish reference, in this case to the bar mitzvah ceremony. It is as though Sadoff himself wanted to mark the poem, however lightly, as a Jewish poem, to ensure its double citizenship in the canons of American and Jewish literature.
What the Posen Library represents, then—at least when it deals with the near-present—is a canon defined by anxiety about whether it constitutes a canon. A certain anxiety is, perhaps, implicit in the very idea of a “Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization.” The sheer completism of the project, the desire to get everything from recipes to choreography to novels to prayers between two covers, makes the reader think of the Posen Library in apocalyptic terms, as a kind of Noah’s Ark of Jewishness. Indeed, the making of anthologies is often the sign of a civilization in crisis: Think of a figure like the seventh-century Christian bishop Isidore of Seville, whose major work (aside from his bitter polemics against Judaism) was the Etymologiae, a 20-volume compendium of everything the Roman world knew about history, which served as a time capsule against encroaching barbarism.
Or, to use a more appropriate example, think of the Mishnah—a traditionally oral body of law that was written down around 200 CE in order to preserve it through an era of Jewish dispersion and decline. It is possible to see the Posen Library as a kind of secular Mishnah, an attempt to capture the core of Jewishness in a huge but finite number of pages. The difference is that while the rabbis knew what constituted that core—it was the Oral Law, the accumulated practice of centuries—the editors of the Posen Library cannot be so sure.
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