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Are Books All We Have Left?

A masterful encyclopedia sums up our history and culture but raises the question of where Jewishness lies today

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Michael David, A Jew in Germany, 1993. Photograph by John Parnell, courtesy of Bill Lowe Gallery, Atlanta. (Image courtesy of The Jewish Museum, NY/Art Resource, NY.)

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.”

Laurie Simmons, Cafe of the Inner Mind: Men's Room
Laurie Simmons, Café of the Inner Mind: Men’s Room, 1994. (Courtesy of the artist and Sperone Westwater, New York)

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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If Volume 10, 1975-2005, does not contain any major Jewish works from the Orthodox or even Conservative religious writings, of which there is an enormous amount and which population represents a quarter to a third of world Jewry, then Volume 10 (and maybe the whole series) does not truly cover Jews but only the secular world and perspective of liberal Jews – which is the narrow portion of Jews that Oz, father and daughter, represent and seek to privilege because of their ideological biases.

In Jews and Words, the Ozes do cite Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld as paragons of Jewish humor.

Digital books and comments like this one on the web are, in my opinion, the vital edge of Jewish and all other communication. I love books and I will always love books. But I know that Orthodox teenagers are texting each other on Shabbos, and that’s a picture of the future forming before our very eyes.

SiegelAcevedo says:

It will be interesting to see if and how a work like this addresses Jews-by-choice. While the immediate context of conversion is of course religious, adopting/adapting-to a peoplehood does go far beyond rule and letter of law. The tension between text and experience, the coming to grips with the ethical applications and existential implications of the traditional literature outside of a literal reading– the centrality of books and words, and the sense of it all as a contemporaneous ongoing dialog, is part and parcel of this convert’s life— as this article maintains it’s been for all Jews, religious and secular, through the millennia. Which of course means in any case that I look forward to adding all this new/old material to my already sagging bookshelf!

Volume 10 certainly does contain a range of works from all denominations of Judaism. In addition to the section on liturgy, there are selections from Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Adin Steinsaltz, Esther Jungreis, J. David Bleich, Nisson Wolpin, Shlomo Carlebach, David Feldman, David Golinkin, Norman Lamm, Immanuel Jakobovits, and Ovadia Yosef . . . and this just brings us to 1989 (I can add more info, as executive editor of the series).

Thank you Joyce Rappaport for your response. The article implied that it was primarily focused on “fiction” and literature – and not having the book itself, that was the only information about it that I had.

9Athena says:

There are Jews, other Jews and Jews in the mists of time. Persian Jews, Armenian Jews, Yemenite Jews (Himyarite Jews), Siberian Jews in the Oblasts, Ethiopian Jews, Greek Jews-Jews of every time and clime. Hebrew was forbidden to write or speak in ordinary living. The language was recreated (or reinvented) with the advent of modern Israel. In enforcing the strictures of ordinary communication Hebrew meanings and comprehension were blurred and lost. Yet the Jews knew they were Jews , even when they voluntarily converted or chose other beliefs. Each disparate segment came up with unique customs and traditions. But they were Jews. The unifying principle? They knew they were Jews.
American Jews? Another blip on the scope of Jewish history. Israel? We had it before and lost it. The tribes themselves decided to break away from Judea. Why? Another opportunity and again another loss. And again. But here we are; fragmented in Israel and without- as we pursue or are pushed to our ongoing history. Still we are Jews forged in a greater bond than man attempts to devise or explain or rationalize. Write your books, read your books, and the truth is greater than the dicta and petty pronouncements of self- appointed agents of the Almighty. Let’s discuss this again in the year 3500 CE.

Being a lefty looney like A. Oz means being loved by the world of the elites and the feminists the abortionists, the journos and the rest of the Obama-worshipping destroyers.

Kevin_in_Chicago says:

IY”H

The recognition of Judaism being a civilization and a culture needs differentiation between culture and civilization. A culture is the fruit of a civilization, but a civilization is not the same as a culture. Included in Jewish civilization should begin with the first scholar to bring civilization into the definition of Judaism, Dr. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan who defined Judaism as the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people. Most American Jews view Yiddish as a defining aspect of their Jewish culture, but cetainly Ladino was conveyed by the Sephardic culture. And both are part of the Jewish civilization.

When Jews had to leave Judea, they were not Hebrew-speaking. Most spoke Aramaic, many spoke Greek, and some spoke Latin and other languages. Many Jews became Arabophones and took Arab names. Some adopted Islam so their intellectual acceptance could become complete. Each Jewish culture assimilated to some degree into another civilization but succeeded more often to create their own cultures. This phenomenon has continued through Jewish history as the Jewish people contended with a history that was more the exception than the rule of peoples.

The question remains as to what will happen in places like the U.S. where, as a nation of immigrants, groups tend to be absorbed. In the 1950s, Jewish professionals including rabbis decided to define and identify Jews as a religion because the U.S. did privilege religion but ethnicity was a concept in contention with American identification. Since then, ethnicity has gained more “respectability” as a conceptual identity, and there are many Jews who do not involve themselves in religion, but are Jewish. There is a statement prevalent that there are more Jewish atheists than there are atheists in other groups. First, the statement has not been tested for veracity, but all of us know Jews who are “very Jewish” and very unreligious. So can atheism be a Jewish culture? I cannot answer that question. However, we certainly know that these Jews are a part of the Jewish civilization.

Nevertheless, Hebrew is not just another language. When the Zionist movement wanted to “pick up” where the Jews left off when they were forced to leave their homeland, shouldn’t they have picked Aramaic? After all, so much of the religious discussions and decisions was in Aramaic.

The Zionists knew that Aramaic was not their “Ur-language.” Hebrew was the language that we spoke before we were Jews, before we were influenced by Persians, Greeks and Romans. It is a Jewish “jahiliyyah” — a term I take from Arabic to describe the pre-Islamic period, and means, a period of ignorance or innocence. In a sense, Hebrew being spoken today in Israel is a language unincumbered by the paradoxically non-Jewish influences that made Israelites into Jews.

A great article about an important topic. However, the anthology
described above – a project I strongly support – seems to privilege a
specifically American (and perhaps also partly Israeli) perspective on
secular Jewish culture. That’s understandable given the editors’
background, the presumed audience and the relative importance of
Jewish-American culture vis-à-vis other diasporas. But I would appreciate to see more European and Soviet/Russian – Jewish voices being included in the “canon”.

Interesting article. I just have one point to make and wish the editors had caught this. If I didn’t know otherwise, after reading “Today, most Jewish children are still circumcised” I would wonder if there are any girls among Jewish children.

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Are Books All We Have Left?

A masterful encyclopedia sums up our history and culture but raises the question of where Jewishness lies today