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On Breslaw–and Me

The first Tablet response with the promise of another

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As you may have seen, we recently published a story that has generated a great deal of controversy. In it, Anna Breslaw, a young Jewish writer, grapples with her understanding of the Holocaust as the granddaughter of survivors. The piece explores how the personal character of survivors has remained incomprehensible to her considering experiences that defy both imagination and description.

I’ve never met Anna Breslaw, and I don’t find her essay particularly elucidating as a work of cultural allegory or a meditation on the flintier side of the human spirit. However, I do understand its nature. As a means of honestly processing the complicated, damning, and even self-indicting impulses for Jews who are now generations removed from the Shoah, I see how she arrives where she does, though I strongly disagree with what she concludes. More importantly, though, I don’t deny her the right to go there. It takes a lot to do that.

For those following closely, this is my first week at The Scroll. I am writing this entry far from the Tablet HQ in New York; I’m actually in a neighborhood in northeast Berlin, a city that in my thirty years, I’d never been able to visit before I arrived on Sunday. If you’ll allow me to explain, what prompted this trip was a similar need for confrontation to that of Ms. Breslaw.

Despite an impact on my family that defies articulation, talk of World War II was absent, if not verboten in a subterranean kind of way throughout my childhood. My grandfather, whom I never met, escaped Berlin only to be crushed by the futility of trying to recreate the inimitable and buoyant life he had here. From what I’ve gathered, this failure reduced his post-Berlin life into something of a formality and any faith he had in the idea of home was discredited and ultimately passed down. Almost 80 years later, in the absence of understanding, I am here to try and make sense of things so that I may restore something that was lost.

I say this not to endorse what Ms. Breslaw has written, but to endorse these self-investigations, even if they turn up feelings — in us, in family, in the broader Jewish community — that at first (or may always) seem ugly or coarse. What’s underneath is the try, which for many is difficult enough.

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mouskatel says:

What’s underneath is the try? For realz? Dear God, can Tablet not find what decent staff writer? Thinker? Something?

Since you, like your friend Anna, seem to want to dabble in “language arts” as they called it when you were in third grade, here’s a tip: In order to write clearly, you need to think clearly. Both you and she are greatly lacking in the thinking department. No, you don’t get points for trying to think about really hard topics and then spewing out whatever comes to the top of your silly head. That’s called a first draft or a diary entry. That’s not something you publish for public consumption. You want to tackle a difficult topic? We’re all ears. But first edit, polish, edit some more, sleep on it and then hit publish.

ra1991 says:

Well said, I think.

Every Jew alive has some connection to the Holocaust, and a differing perspective does not (always) a self-hating Jew make. I understand Breslaw’s frustration with the unbridled “canonization” of Holocaust survivors as these almost non-human martyrs.

Having said that, I thought Breslaw’s article was pretty insufferable. While I do agree that there is a tendency to over-sentimentalize, passing judgment on the alleged actions of the men, women, and children who lived through the camps, then having the audacity to claim some sort of moral high ground is moronic and, frankly, disgusting.

Adam_Chandler says:

Always wow them in the end, mouskatel.

mouskatel says:

Your wit is about as dry as my 1 year old’s wet diaper.

Adam_Chandler says:

At least everyone will know where the temper tantrums come from.

Excellent treatment of an always sore issue. Ethnic cleansing happened to us- who expected that? Why did it produce so much shame?

mouskatel says:

Yes, my one year old is so brilliant she already has her own Disqus account. Thinking, Adam- it does a body (and a career) good.

Adam_Chandler says:

I said will know. Nuance, anonymous.

dansblog says:

“I say this not to endorse what Ms. Breslaw has written, but to endorse these self-investigations, even if they turn up feelings — in us, in family, in the broader Jewish community — that at first (or may always) seem ugly or coarse.”
I strongly disagree. “Self-investigations” you can share with your therapist. If you’re going to write professionally for thousands of interested readers, better to investigate something that might be of interest to *them*, not just to you. There’s a great, big, fascinating world out there, full of ideas and events and objects and people that are worth writing about. If the most pertinent subject you can come up with is your own psyche, then maybe you need to look for a different line of work.

hepzeeba smith says:

@Adam Chandler

>>I don’t deny her the right to go there.

Clearly you don’t.

You took another step, however. You [or some other "editor" at the online "magazine" Tablet] legitimized Ms. Breslaw’s right to examine her narcissistic, solipsistic, grotesque, insulting, and extraordinarily ignorant spew by publishing it on the internet, where it will now live in the hearts and minds of countless “sincere” questioners like yourselves.

The only consolation for those of us who are disgusted by Ms. Breslaw’s “writing” and Tablet’s decision to publish it is that one day, when you choose to examine your actions according to moral discernment rather than by the number of page views you generate for your “magazine,” you will have to face yourselves in the mirror for the tawdry “thoughts” you chose to overshare.

>> … experiences that defy both imagination and description.

Really? The experiences of Holocaust survivors defy description?

I wonder: what was the point of the tens [hundreds?] of thousands of books, memoirs, films, TV shows, diaries, personal testaments, newsreels, documentaries, and oral histories of Holocaust that have been generated since that world-shattering event?

Chandler’s up front declaration of his strategy is laudable and refreshing. But it sure brought the self-haters out of the woodwork!

Mr. Chandler your explanation though not convincing is a lot clearer than the confused mess Anna Breslaw penned here.

Many of us come from similar backgrounds or lived among pele who did. most people do more than “struggle” with their background. They investigate it thoroughly. There was no evidence that Ms. Breslaw did that. She merely presented her bigoted feelings as If they were fact. She presented no evidence that any survivor she knew or even read about had survived by immoral means.

She quoted only one author Jean Amery who survived the camps but didn’t cite any books or articles by him. Worse she went on to talk about a fictional TV character ASIC that were sufficient proof for what she alleged.

As an editor it is your responsibility to make sure that writers do not merely write about their point of view or feelings when their articles make historical claims.

Anne Breslaw’s screed should never have been published on your website.

I agree mouskatel, this isn’t a free speech issue, it’s a quality issue.

If Tablet expects literate readers to become a part of the Tablet community (and support it) they will have to make sure they publish first rate articles. The Breslaw screed failed the test.

“More importantly, though, I don’t deny her the right to go there. It takes a lot to do that.” Not every thought, impulse or “self-investigation” need be shared with the public. I am sure there are plenty of people who honestly believe or “suspect” that blondes are dumb and blacks are genetically inferior, but at some point we decided as a society that grotesque and denigrating generalizations about any group based on nothing but subjective feelings were beneath public discussion. Ms. Breslaw wasn’t exploring her conflicted feelings about survivors; she made a specific and unequivocal assertion (under the wiggly guise of a “suspicion” ) that survivors are “conniving, indestructible, taking and taking.” This is bad thinking not because survivors are a priori saints, but precisely because they represent the widest possible range of humanity. Categorizing hundreds of thousands of people from perhaps dozens of countries –each with his own story to tell, each with her own losses to endure and triumphs to celebrate — under a single category that erases all individuality and dignity (“villains masquerading as victims who, solely by virtue of surviving [very likely by any means necessary] felt that they had earned the right to be heroes”) is the very definition of bigotry. It’s not that survivors didn’t deserve this treatment — it’s that nobody deserves such treatment. And Ms. Breslaw didn’t deserve the prestigious forum of Tablet.

inky says:

After all that, this is the best response you could come up with? I’m sorely disappointed in Tablet – first for publishing this, and then for coming up with a response from a newbie editor who wasn’t involved in the story, and who then further “contributes” by trading petty insults with a commenter. I expected better.

As for the article, if Breslaw really wanted to explore her conflicted feelings, then she should have done that. She should have talked about it, questioned it (she doesn’t seem to at all recognize that there’s anything amiss in her assertion that Elie Wiesel is more or less the devil himself), and then – one would hope – undergone some kind of shift in her thinking. Questioned what it is about growing up around survivors that makes you think that way about other survivors. Hell, she could probably have spoken to some experts who work with survivors and their families, to talk about the psychological impact and how it continues through the generations. Etc., etc.
That’s actually where I thought she was going when I first started reading the article. That would have made sense, b/c yes, we all have twisted thoughts and I’m sure being a grandchild of survivors twists you. It’s something worth talking about within the Jewish community.
Instead, she just made her claims and then moved on to Breaking Bad.

it’s a bit dishonest to ignore that part of the process just to keep the politically-correct peace. if most people experience “ugly” and “coarse” thoughts, then why not acknowledge these thoughts for what they are candidly? and then maybe have a productive discussion about the origins of these thoughts, instead of just calling ms. breslaw evil and disgusting etc. etc. and shaming her into silence??

dansblog says:

Most people do experience “ugly” and “coarse” thoughts, as well as stupid thoughts, boring thoughts, nonsensical thoughts and outrageously offensive thoughts. But most people don’t ever experience *somebody else’s*–say, Anna Breslaw’s, or Adam Chandler’s–ugly, coarse, stupid, boring, nonsensical and outrageously offensive thoughts, and really aren’t the least bit interested in reading all about them. That’s why both Breslaw and Chandler are far better off, as writers, keeping those particular types of thought to themselves.

d.hochhauser says:

Your response shows you understand nothing of why the article has justifiably generated such disgust. Breslaw’s article illustrated nothing with its crude and dismissive offensiveness. The fact that you are capable of understanding why she writes the rubbish she does is not relevant. There is no law that you have to publish every piece that is written for you. The author, who has previously boasted of dressing as Anne Frank for Halloween, is clearly an exhibitionist who has latched on to the Holocaust as a way of dramatising her banal thoughts. The problem is why you feel such obligation to help her in this. Why can’t you realise you have made a major error?

I posted very personal comments about Ms. Breslaw’s article. I was raised by survivors, my family bore the scars of being survivors, their offspring also suffered psychological issues; two sons of my Mengele cousins killed themselves only to followed by one of the twins killing himself at the grief of losing a child. The woman he married, free of any camp experience, killed herself last year because of her losses.
It does not stop. It will not stop. I’d like to think we are not becoming a blind mass growing tired of aged and declining Yids yelling “never forget!”
I care for the dead. I cleanse them, dress them, bury them and pray for them. Many are people who survived a defining moment in this nation’s, this peoples’ collective psyche.
You can speak of freedom of the press, you can speak of thoughtful and creative self-reflection, you can speak of a writer asking timely and critical questions about policy, dogma, propaganda, or any other kind of wrinkle in the otherwise flat fitting top sheet of the collective bed we sleep in.
This is not a visceral reaction because I can’t stand deniers of the Holocaust or consider it the untouchable subject some have suggested. But when the author’s premise is historically wrong and the piece becomes a conduit of personal musings, it does not belong nor is it worthy of being here.
Maybe in the Westboro Baptist Church Quarterly, but not here.

neurodoc001 says:

First Tablet publishes Breslaw’s utterly execrable crap (those Jews who managed to survive the Holocaust, including her own grandparents, are Judenscheiss), then this Tablet editor jumps up to defend her and her loathsomeness and the decision to publish her.

mouskatel says:

Actually, Breslaw and this tepid backpeddling defense (I CERTAINLY don’t agree with her, but…) is just so indicative of Millenial Gen gibberish that’s supposed to pass for “grappling with the issues” and “contrarian thinking ” here at Tablet. It seems that facts, logic even decent writing on the most basic level of correct usage is of no import- as long as they’re grappling! Because what’s underneath is the try. Right Adam? Everyone’s a winner, as long as they try really hard to expend some brain cells on some “important” issue.

The only decent article in the last few days is from Deborah Lipstadt and she’s a grownup.

neurodoc001, my sentiments exactly.

the better way to approach Jewish “self-investigation” is to start learning Torah. wandering around Berlin will not be very fruitful. good luck.

mouskatel says:

This little exchange really didn’t accomplish anything. I hope you’ll think twice about sniping at commenters next time. It’s really unprofessional.

Adam_Chandler says:

Commenters comment. You insult with the leisure of anonymity. I’ll think twice indeed and just ignore.

mouskatel says:

2 points: Insulting anonymous commenters are an integral part of online media. If you have a hard time with that, you’ll have to either grow a thicker skin or find another line of work.

You might have found my tone insulting,but you chose ignore the substantive points I made in my comment. This is what I think is so disturbing about all of the editorial responses to this brouhaha. While Alana congratulates you all for how you’re opening the debate and pushing the envelope, none of you think it’s necessary to actually address the substantive critique raised by so many commenters. Instead, you’ve chosen either wishy washy obfuscation or back-handed insults. All of you have lost wads of credibility this week with both your readers and representatives of the serious online media to which you aspire. (When you’ve lost Jeffrey Goldberg, you’ve lost Moderate Jewish America).

In case you were too busy being insulted: http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/07/tablet-magazines-ghastly-attack-on-holocaust-survivors/259974/

Doctor Bucephalus says:

Well, I’m glad I got you to discuss substance somewhere, mouskatel. Apparently you think the message of trying to tackle hard issues is a cliche that people should avoid saying. Also you defend your antisocial behavior while claiming the author himself shouldn’t be allowed to defend himself. The most charming part is when you insult someone and then criticize him for resorting to insults in response. And just because someone defends an honest attempt to come to terms with difficult topics doesn’t make it a full defense of AB’s article. All you seem to want is for everyone to respond the exact way you would. Anything different from that makes them a legitimate target.

Let me ask you this: most people who chalilah v’chas have to go through shiva are assured that everyone mourns in their own way, and that all feelings are normal. With respect the the issue of the shoah, aren’t you going around telling everyone their way of dealing with things is shallow and abnormal, giving yourself every liberty and unfair advantage you can get to press the point?

mouskatel says:

All I can say is, once again you make little to no sense. No, all I want is for the staff at this publication to do their job and adhere to basic editorial norms because they seem to aspire to an intellectual level higher than that of TMZ and Gawker, but have fallen woefully behind even those sites.

My initial response here was not insulting. I was simply speaking honestly and directly “truth to stupid” in the words of the pilot episode of Newsroom, (a show I really don’t care for actually, but that’s a handy phrase). If you find that antisocial, than that’s really too bad for you.

A publication is not a shiva house. How people deal with their own private issues is their own personal business. This has been stated many many times on all of these threads but you and Newhouse, Chandler and Breslaw just don’t get it: Unedited feelings and thoughts that massively defame large swaths of the Jewish people (including a famous one in particular) do not belong on a site that purports to want to discuss larger issues in Jewish thinking. It’s that simple. If she wants to publish it on her own personal blog, she’s more than welcome. But to use philanthropic money (yes, I’d love to hear Mem Bernstein’s opinion on this piece) to publish trash like this in the name of “widening the conversation” is simply unconscionable. I agree with Goldberg, it’s quite a feat that they have managed to bring left, right and center in agreement about just how awful the article and the response was.

Doctor Bucephalus says:

Okay, you make the same sounds as someone who claims to value discourse and the free exchange of ideas, but you want to talk substance? Where specifically is that bar below TMZ’s standards and when did they hit it? Are you saying it was clearly an attention-grabber and that the effort was insincere? Does the point that the forum isn’t a shiva house accede that you do in fact think her thoughts are sincere? Are you saying the “facts” are wrong in a personal essay where the author’s talking about her own experience entirely (how’s that possible)? Are you arguing her view was so morally problematic it does more damage than any good done in its expression? Who says a person isn’t allowed to explore personal issues in print? That notion precludes the bulk of English literature right there, doesn’t it? What do you mean by unedited? Doesn’t that mean all her feelings would have to be “edited” according to you? Are you arguing her viewpoint is so bizarrely on the fringe that it has no place in a broader communal discussion?

Now that we’ve gotten this far, aren’t you basically using the language and tropes of free intellectual discourse to really argue for censorship? I shouldn’t have this many fundamental questions on your position of you were really intent on speaking truth to stupid. That requires honest discourse where you make your position as well as your opponent’s position as clear as possible. The duplicity of resorting to one-liner insults and crying that you weren’t being antisocial AND complaining your substance was being ignored is astounding. If you cared about your point and not just about shutting up someone who offended you, you’d come back to that point instead of sniping. I admire people who take a moral position, but if they’re dishonest when they do it I’ve got a real problem.

Natan79 says:

Yeah right, who are you gonna defend next? Norman Finkelstein? Oh, wait you’ve just had that guy at Tablet.

What kind of Jewish magazine is that in which anti-Semites are brought so often? Let them go where they belong: Hezbollah TV (where Finkelstein has been already) and Stormfront. Do you people really need to aid Nazi supporters like Breslaw?

Natan79 says:

You’re no Jeffrey Goldberg. You’re Marc Tracy’s successor. The successor of a shmuck who wrote about movie stars and assorted pop culture crap, to show Jews can be as shallow and stupid as anyone else.

Not often that you read such bullshit. I’d expect this over at mondoweiss. Home of Phil ( hitler should have finished the job ) Weiss. Not Tablet, even with its left wing pretensions. I was wrong.

herbcaen says:

Mr Chandler, I would distance myself from the Tablet as soon as possible before you get stained with Breslaw slime. Alana Neuhaus is like Assad, and the Tablet is like Syria-she has nothing to lose and thus has to continue fighting, because her reputation is beyond salvation, but you can still defect

Where was she going? It seems to me that Julius Streicher would have been proud.

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