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The Genizah of the Self

I bid goodbye to my boxes

Marco Roth
September 22, 2022
A Wandering Jew
Marco Roth on literature and culture in exile.
See all in A Wandering Jew →︎
Courtesy of the artist and Braverman gallery
Ilit Azoulay, ‘Vitrine No. 20: All sorts of sights went wrong like a great catastrophe in a glass storage,’ from ‘No Thing Dies, 2017,’ inkjet print, gold leaves, 104x65 cmCourtesy of the artist and Braverman gallery
Courtesy of the artist and Braverman gallery
Ilit Azoulay, ‘Vitrine No. 20: All sorts of sights went wrong like a great catastrophe in a glass storage,’ from ‘No Thing Dies, 2017,’ inkjet print, gold leaves, 104x65 cmCourtesy of the artist and Braverman gallery
Editor’s note: Find all Tablet Top 10 from 2022 here. 

For AF, in memoriam,

We shall carry it set
Down inside a pitcher
Out into the field, late
Wonderers errant in
Among the rich flowers.
Like a star reflected
In a cup of water
It will light up no path ...
—John Hollander

Over a year ago—it was last Tisha B’Av—I found myself moving house for the third time since 2019. This move was the big one, resulting from the sale of the apartment in Philadelphia that my wife and I had bought together, renovated together, and had lived in for six mostly happy years and three mostly difficult ones. From the spring of 2020, we’d rented it out, furnished, once we began the final unraveling of our common life. Moves bring inevitable reckonings, moves like these exceptionally so.

Amid the furniture, the books, the rugs, and various objects—both those I’d acquired independently and those passed down from ancestors—I kept five boxes, two of them equal parts tape and cardboard, containing an archive of my mental life, or at least my professional mental life. There was a box full of contracts for various articles and my book contract, drafts of that first and so far only book with copy-editor marks. Here were all the college and grad school syllabi and papers; notebooks from 10 years of higher education; xeroxed articles from course packets and research; graded tests; graded papers with comments; drafts of early, never-completed stories on legal notepads; drafts of my never-completed Ph.D. dissertation; there was my undergraduate thesis on Proust; my first semester graduate school paper on Benjamin’s Arcades Project; all the worksheets and tests for the “Italian for Reading Knowledge” summer intensive course I’d needed to pass my last language requirement; there was that undergrad paper with a professor’s telling remark, “brilliant but self-defeating,” a memento from a riskier and more insightful era of student-teacher relations.

How could I possibly hold on to all this stuff? What purpose did I think it served? It’s not as if I intended to return to my Ph.D. research at this point in my life, although all of it was in there, somewhere. The stories were juvenilia, or else written in my late 20s—which amounts to the same thing. Someone more dedicated to the art of memory or their own cult of achievement would have already digitized all this material, or at least alphabetized it. They would have arranged it lovingly, according to some clear principle, with accurate labels. Instead, I’d thrown everything into boxes as if in a traumatic flight from some invading army. Except that the trauma here was nothing more (or less) than the reality of my own existence. For almost 15 years, possibly 20, I hadn’t acknowledged that I’d failed to live up to my own ambitions, or someone’s ambitions for me. Instead of facing up, I’d run away, with the boxes trundling along behind.

I’d been—I still felt, even in my late 40s—“too young to hold on, too old to just break free and run.” The lyrics of Jeff Buckley’s immature love-gone-bad ballad seemed no less true for my relationship to my historical self. The boxes were supposed to have contained the records of my ascent through American society (and, oh yeah, there it was, tucked inside a course packet, my college diploma!). I’d kept hold of all these documents not to provide myself with an index of failures and false starts, but because I believed myself redeemable in the way someone of my generation had been mostly trained to understand “redemption”—that is in terms of official recognition in the form of salaries, diplomas, prizes and certificates, gold stars. Perhaps I’d hoped my child might one day, after my death, become interested in the father she at present has absolutely no interest in knowing. Or with even more grandiosity, I’d imagined the interest of some future biographer. But what had this faith given me except a backache, some extra moving costs, and cramped closets?

I no longer felt the pleasant melancholia and hint of promise that had greeted me the first two or three times I’d moved these same boxes. I no longer had the necessary belief that my own future work would redeem their contents. I looked at my leavings, unpacked and stacked in piles on the floor of what I hoped would be my new writing room. Could I just throw it all out, Marie Kondo style, and give myself to the eternal sunshine of the spotless home office? I was too old to break free and run. But was it only vanity and shame—vanity’s silent partner—that held me back?

Both vanity and shame were there, for sure. But neither felt like the main obstacle. If it was only vanity and shame, I’d be just as capable of burning it all in an act of defiant rage, of announcing a clean break with a past that I believed I’d absorbed and transcended. I could tell myself that it was the contents of the boxes that had failed me, not I who had failed. What vanity had made me keep, vanity would also make me obliterate: what shame had me keep, shame would make me disown.

There was something else in those boxes that I couldn’t quite figure out. I would describe it as a scruple. It felt bigger and older than me. It wasn’t on my own account that I was blocked from throwing out these papers.

For a while, I’ve cultivated a detached, semirepressed interest in what might be called “crypto-Judaism”: The survival of certain traditions and habits of Jewish religious practice among Jews—myself included—who have become uprooted and disconnected from any meaningful observance of either Jewish custom or law. The lines quoted above, from John Hollander’s poem “Violet,” allude to one such instance of “crypto-Judaism” among certain communities in northern Mexico and New Mexico who—perhaps even to this day—go out into the fields on Friday nights with candles “set down inside a pitcher.” The tradition outlasted the memory of its origin, and it took genetics and anthropology to connect these villagers back to their Marrano past. These were descendants of forcibly converted Jews, driven to the margins of the Spanish empire, who continued to observe an occulted Kabbalat Shabbat for generations, until the meaning of the practice became a secret even to themselves.

The enduring legacy of this hidden Sabbath is one melancholy instance of the phenomenon. But others can just be funny. In a moment that came to seem like an allegory of my interfaith marriage, my wife and I were once laying out a new summer blanket on the bed (she was already by this point well on her way to the new age spiritual transformation that would bring about the marriage’s end a few years later). I noticed we’d put the factory label face up, at the head of the bed, right at nose-tickling height. “We’ll have to start again,” I said. Without a word, my wife left the bedroom, returned with a pair of scissors, cut out the label, and removed the stitches.

I’m not usually what contemporary psychobabble calls “OCD”; I don’t have particularly ordered habits; I don’t make the bed when I get up in the morning unless someone asks me to. But that moment, when my wife appeared with the scissors, was fraught with a kind of spiritual struggle for meaning and existence, like everything else we did together in those days. I—who have never been part of a kosher household, never had separate dishes, never performed the weekly Havdalah—I couldn’t stop myself. I said, “But now we’ll never know which is supposed to be the top and which the bottom.”

My wife looked at me like I was being an idiot. In the word’s root sense of someone gripped by a private language and experience that can never be properly communicated, I was indeed being an idiot. It didn’t matter which end was up, so long as nothing tickled your nose when you tried to sleep. But somewhere inside me, at that particular moment, I understood the label to have the force of a divine seal. Without a way of marking and observing distinctions, like the distinction between the top and bottom of the blanket, a part of me felt an urgent sense of loss that can be read as a kind of displaced halachic yearning.

This same displaced yearning was the other thing inside my boxes; the same sense that I would be doing something “wrong” if I just dumped all these papers into garbage bags and abandoned them on the curb. But where was the wrong? What was I yearning for? I continued to make half-hearted efforts to clear up and sort through the piles. Some things I even succeeded in throwing out, though I can’t tell you what they were. I was just a blind fury equipped with a paper shredder. Then, from an unlabeled file folder slipped a xeroxed essay, “The Name of God According to a Few Talmudic Texts.” That was when I understood what I was dealing with. I’d made a genizah of the self.

A genizah, for those unfamiliar with the word, is an ossuary for any text that contains any version of the literally ineffable names of God. The most famous of these sites, a storeroom in the old Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo, where these once-holy documents were kept awaiting a sanctified burial that—for reasons unknown—never quite happened, became the indispensable archive for Jewish historians of late antiquity, medieval Jewry in the Arab world, and centuries of Ottoman dominance. From the sixth to the 19th centuries of the common era, everything from Torah commentaries, philosophical texts of Maimonides and other sages, poems of Yehuda HaLevy, a simple “Baruch Hashem” in a letter from a traveler, payment records for laborers, or a merchant’s log found its resting place there. The Cairo genizah was also unusual for broadening the interpretation of what was to be preserved and thus sanctified. At some point, not only texts containing the holy name, but also anything at all written in Hebrew script was deemed eligible for the genizah: so one also finds a child’s Hebrew lessons, complete with doodles, not so different from my Italian and German exercise books, texts in Ladino from before the expulsion of the Jews, and in Yiddish from the 17th century. In Cairo, an entire archive of collective Jewish selfhood was created and preserved, literally under- and over-written by God, or a sacred language through which the universe speaks.

The thought that my boxes were my own genizah, that I’d created a genizah of the self, is no doubt absurd to any Orthodox Jewish reader. Did I think I was God, possibly? Sort of, maybe ... But if I had delusions, I came by them honestly, and I probably share them with many fellow Jews living in various forms of estrangement from organized religious observance. Secularism is not the same thing as atheism: It is the transmutation of the old idea of a separate divinity into an ineffable something within ourselves—our bodies, our lives as citizens, or consciousness itself. Between the tradition observed even in forgetting—as with the Mexican Marranos—and my idiotic desire to know which end is up on a blanket, falls an entire range of observances and sacred practices inherited in mutated, transposed, or retranscribed forms over the multigenerational journey from strict observance to liberated American selfhood.

The cult of the self that I’d erected belonged to this shadowland of habits severed from beliefs, yet not reattached to anything rational. It was a kind of zombified form of worship, or superstition. My respect for the written word, or name—mostly in the form of my words and my name—had only really congealed into a vague sense of taboo: “Thou shalt not obliviate.” But there was no project there that I could connect with the meaning of my own life.

My sense of myself, in other words, did not exactly rise to the level of godhead. It fell, in fact, quite a ways short of it. My imagination had never reached the conceit of a writer like Salman Rushdie, who wrote an entire semi-autobiographical novel (Midnight’s Children) in which Saleem Sinai, Rushdie’s alter-ego narrator, is also a literal embodiment of the modern state of India. (In the same manner, Rushdie once began a talk with the sentence “Rock and Roll and I share a birthday.”) I belonged to the generation of Jewish men about whom it made little sense to boast “My son, the doctor; my son the lawyer; my son the writer; my son the publisher.” We were already the doctors’ sons.

I’m part of the more problematically self-absorbed generation born after Philip Roth’s “The Conversion of the Jews,” the story that—in intellectual historical terms—succinctly articulates the paradigm shift in the American Jewish imagination that replaced devotion to HaShem with the cult of “My Son!!” But the story does more than that. When Ozzie Freedman, who believes in opening his mouth, climbs up to the roof of the synagogue to protest being slapped by the rabbi for asking a question, making everyone say they believe in Jesus’ immaculate conception before he agrees to come down, he thereby enacts a double secularization: not just of Judaism but also of Christianity. Belief in Jesus is incidental to the more important promise Ozzie extracts from the kneeling congregation: “you should never hit anybody about God.” The story affirms the sanctity of individual self-expression and the uniquely American optimism of that triumphant generation.

My genizah of the self, on the other hand, was the result of what happens when God is no longer seen as worth hitting anyone about, but the self too is also taken for granted, no longer a triumph to be earned. It was evidence of the congealed half-life of two vestigial inherited traditions, neither of them truly flourishing in me: the sanctity of the ineffable name within Orthodox Judaism, and the sanctity of progressive Jewish American immigrant success within liberal Judaism.

My former wife, in the decade since she’d left her home in the Balkans, had become far more American than me, at least in spiritual terms. She had come to reorder her life around an entity she called sometimes “the sovereign self,” other times “the higher self,” and at other moments “the true self.” At least as far as I was able to understand the cosmology she received in the form of spiritual revelations during long meditation retreats with other like-minded people, this higher self was—as a Christian might put it—consubstantial with God, the creator. It was God in the self. The true, higher, sovereign self might be said to be the spark of the divine in all of us, unburdened from the weighty trappings of modern selfhood, beginning with the ego.

Although she said she’d also transcended such things as “judgment” or negative emotions of any kind, I could see the pity and impatience in her face when she saw me stacking the file boxes in the hallway of our old apartment for one more move. “You are keeping that?” she asked. The question and the look both told me that she believed that only when I could let go of my genizah with a genuine cheerfulness and peace of heart—as she had let go of all accumulations from her earlier life as an architect, an immigrant from the former Yugoslavia, a dutiful daughter and sister, and also my spouse—would I be on the road to replacing the false self of centuries past with the true self she liked to tell me was mine to claim.

This implied suggestion felt to me like a different and more complete kind of blasphemy than my own meek idolatry: not only the assertion that the self was God, but that the true self did not include the particular sum of experiences, stories, failures, successes, hopes, dreams, fears, and other emotions that made up a unique but limited “I am.” She was saying that having failed at who I imagined myself to be, so I must become someone else and call that other thing by the same name. So I took my boxes with me again.

I was still left with the problem of what to do with my papers. I did not feel any closer to a peaceful liquidation of my old self and its leavings; I felt burdened by them. A clue to the resolution of my genizah problem appeared in the same xeroxed text that had helped me name the problem to begin with: “The Name of God According to a Few Talmudic Texts” is part of a collection by the philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas, one of those deeply complicated thinkers who emerged out of the ashes of the Second World War. Born in Lithuania in 1905, raised in Paris, educated in Germany, Lévinas became first a disciple of Martin Heidegger’s thought. Having survived the war in a POW camp for French officers, he dedicated his life work to overturning Heidegger in Heideggerian terms.

Against Heidegger, who put Being or Ontology at the origin of philosophy, Lévinas argued that Ethics was primary, that Being or Essence in a philosophical sense only arises from a primary ethical relationship to another: be that mother, God, or just the face of the stranger. Philosophy is thus the project of trying to understand our relationship to otherness, not to ourselves, not to some grand abstraction called “Being” or “God” or “Nothingness.” To give the most famous example from his work: The commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill” is not merely a proscription offered by a third party—called God—about the relationship of one human being to another. It is literally what the face of God says whenever it appears, especially in the form of other human faces. Killing isn’t just violence against the other, it’s violence against the self, against the whole of creation, which can only really ever exist in relationship to others. Selfhood, for Lévinas, is almost a meaningless concept in the abstract.

After the war, Lévinas also returned to the religious Judaism of his Vilna upbringing, but within a spirit of modernist contradiction: Judaism occupied the same role for Lévinas as ancient Greece did for Heidegger—a kind of etymological and mystical grounding for his philosophical intuitions and arguments. Accordingly, Lévinas’ readings of the Talmud and of Jewish law focus more on the exceptional than the customary, those moments when the habits of traditional observance are troubled or shaken. So it’s not surprising that in his remarks on the “Name of God,” Lévinas is mostly interested in when it’s permitted to erase it.

He focuses on two related instances mentioned in the Talmud: The first is an ancient trial by ordeal of a woman suspected of adultery without proof. The woman is supposed to appear before a priest who simply says to her, “If you have slept with some man other than your husband, then God [written as the tetragrammaton] make you an execration!” The woman then says, “amen.” The priest writes this all down and then “erases them in the waters of bitterness.” This act of erasure, which also erases the holy name, performs the reconciliation between husband and wife. It’s worth noting that it doesn’t really matter if the woman is truthful, so long as the ritual itself is performed.

The second instance is related to the first and involves that adulterous King David, who, according to a legend, attempts to locate the spring that will serve as the source of running water for the Temple that Solomon will build—the Temple that David cannot build on account of his desire for the wife of Uriah the Hittite. According to the legend, the water rises up and “threatens to submerge the universe.” God then tells David to write the holy name and let it be washed away by the waters, “If, for the purpose of establishing harmony between man and wife, the Torah said, ‘Let my name that was written in sanctity be blotted out,’ how much more so may it be done in order to restore wholeness to the world!”

The insistence on the ineffable sanctity of Being, of the name, of identity is in this way transcended by the demand for peace, wholeness, healing, and recognition. Neither God nor the self is in any way “absolute,” only that which permits us to offer, to grant and be granted absolution.

In my own version of this story, I am the secretly adulterous woman and also the adulterous king. And what I thought I was sitting on all this time, guiltily—a record of my infidelity or my double infidelity—both to myself as a secular, emancipated Jewish American of the late 20th century and to the God of my ancestors—can indeed be “effaced” but not by being thrown out, abandoned and destroyed, but by being “submerged” into something else.

It was not for my own sake that I’d kept these boxes, but rather for Lévinas’, for Marina van Zuylen’s syllabus on “Boredom, Aestheticism, and Artistic Autonomy,” for Andreas Huyssen’s syllabus on the Frankfurt School and debates in the German avant-garde, for David Bromwich’s artfully arranged course packet on “Practical Criticism,” for David Pike’s notes on modernism and urbanism. What was in the box was less my past than the records of other minds that had come into my possession and been passed on to me. To the extent that I had mixed these records up with my own, had confused them for myself, I had complicated their preservation and also unnecessarily complicated myself. I was not keeping records any more than the Jews of Cairo’s Ben Ezra synagogue were keeping records when they put a fragment into the storeroom. My boxes were part of my relationship to others: my teachers, my friends, a life-world of an education at a particular moment in history that was increasingly understood, by the culture at large, to be an inaccessible, dead past that should properly be erased. By keeping these papers, I was keeping a little spark of that world going.

This wasn’t to say that it felt like my task to redeem that world, wholly, in this one life. Only that I was being asked to keep the flame in the pitcher. Everything else, the stuff that was just me, the stories, the contracts, the diploma, the notebooks, was no longer mine to preserve. I was allowed to erase them.

Marco Roth is Tablet’s Critic at Large.