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The Jew as Pariah

Romanian writer Mihail Sebastian’s 1934 autobiographical novel ‘For Two Thousand Years’ remains a classic document of 20th-century Jewish history

Adam Kirsch
September 14, 2017
Original photo: Getty Images
Bucharest, 1944.Original photo: Getty Images
Original photo: Getty Images
Bucharest, 1944.Original photo: Getty Images

It might seem self-evident that a pariah is something no one would choose to be. But in some parts of the Jewish world today, the label has become a source of pride. This development can be traced to the work of Hannah Arendt, whose influential essay “The Jew as Pariah: A Hidden Tradition” (1944) argued that the pariah status of the Jews in modern European society could be considered a strange kind of blessing. While the majority of Jews were “parvenus,” Arendt wrote—eager to join gentile society, which was reluctant to admit them—a few rare Jewish souls embraced their pariahdom. For figures such as Franz Kafka and Heinrich Heine, being alienated from their surroundings was a source of superior insight into the modern condition, and it compelled them to embrace universal human values. These “conscious pariahs,” as Arendt called them, represented the best of Jewishness: “All vaunted Jewish qualities—the ‘Jewish heart,’ humanity, humor, disinterested intelligence—are pariah qualities,” she insisted.

This vision of Jews as lofty outsiders continues to hold a potent appeal for some on the Jewish left, who see it as a righteous alternative to Zionism, on the one hand, and assimilation, on the other. If being a light unto the nations requires being hated, the reasoning goes, then Jews should embrace that hatred and take pride in it. Better to be a pariah than a parvenu, or still worse a rabid nationalist. The moral attraction of such a stance is obvious: conscious pariahs are what Hegel called “beautiful souls,” certain of their own purity in the face of the world’s corruption, in which they disclaim any share.

Yet for a 21st-century American Jew to claim pariahdom is an all too easy rhetorical move, since we know that we will not have to experience the hatred and isolation that Arendt knew first-hand. Anti-Semitism, for most of us, is merely a memory or a headline (which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t still thrive in some dank regions of the American soul, or that it will never return to power). It’s easy to identify with pariahdom when we think of it as a source of nobility and genius, as with Kafka and Heine and Freud. But for several generations of European Jews—those who lived between the dawn of emancipation, in the late 18th century, and the destruction of European Jewry, in the 20th—being a pariah was a source of great bitterness, neurosis, and despair. Indeed, it is only by appreciating the depths of this Jewish suffering that we can understand the enormous attraction of Zionism, which promised to cure it.

Any Jew who is tempted to blithely claim the status of pariah should first be compelled to read For Two Thousand Years, an autobiographical novel by the Romanian Jewish writer Mihail Sebastian. Sebastian’s diary, which covers the period 1935-1944, was first published in the 1990s, and it was immediately hailed as a classic document of 20th-century Jewish history. But during his own lifetime, Sebastian—born Iosif Hechter—was best known for this novel, now translated into English for the first time by Philip Ó Ceallaigh.

This was partly because For Two Thousand Years caused a major literary scandal when it first appeared, in 1934. Sebastian had asked his friend, a philosopher named Nae Ionescu, to contribute an introduction to the book. Ionescu was an influential right-wing thinker, whose praise of irrationalism and the organic society made him a natural fascist and anti-Semite. (He was associated with the Iron Guard, the fascist militia that would instigate a Romanian Holocaust during World War II.) Yet Sebastian cherished his friendship with Ionescu, who was a mentor to a remarkable group of young writers, including future luminaries like Mircea Eliade and Emil Cioran. Indeed, one of the major characters in For Two Thousand Years, a charismatic professor called Ghita Blidaru, is a thinly veiled portrait of Ionescu.

Sebastian was horrified, then, when his friend wrote an introduction full of naked anti-Semitism, in which he denied that Jews could ever belong to the Romanian people, and blamed their suffering on their stubborn rejection of Jesus. Surprisingly, however, Sebastian decided to accept the insulting preface and have it published along with his book. On the face of it, this sounds like a self-abasing move, the act of a Jew so used to abuse that he willingly asks for more. Reading For Two Thousand Years, however, puts the episode in a new light. For Ionescu’s preface is the perfect document of the very phenomenon the book strives to explain: the persistence of anti-Semitism even among Romanians who can treat individual Jews as friends and colleagues.

The title of For Two Thousand Years brings to mind what the Jewish historian Salo Baron denounced as “the lachrymose conception of Jewish history”: the tendency to see that history as a millennial chain of persecutions and massacres. Indeed, the phrase is used in just that sense by a minor character in the novel, who is trying to commiserate with the narrator over his sufferings at the hands of anti-Semites at the University of Bucharest, where he is a student. The story opens in 1923, a year when anti-Jewish feeling at the university erupted in fights and beatings; anti-Semitic students stood guard at the doors of classrooms and physically ejected their Jewish peers. American Jews who feel threatened when someone mentions BDS on campus ought to read this opening section of Sebastian’s novel, to see what actual academic anti-Semitism looked like: “I received two punches during today’s lectures and I took eight pages of notes. Good value, for two punches,” the narrator wryly observes.

The first sections of For Two Thousand Years offer a wonderfully vivid account of what it was like to be a young Jew in Eastern Europe at this moment. There is little narrative momentum; rather, the drama is psychological and sociological, as the narrator records his own thoughts about Jewishness, and converses with representatives of various political movements. One of his friends is a Communist, certain that class conflict trumps religious conflict, and that Romania after the revolution will be free from ancient hatreds. Another is a Zionist, who takes the narrator to a meeting addressed by Vladimir Jabotinsky.

Yet the narrator himself—it feels irresistible simply to call him Mihail Sebastian—cannot enter into any of these groups, simply because they are groups. When he goes to a Zionist club, he is reluctant to join their Hebrew sing-along: “I for one can’t sing,” he reflects later. “I am discreet, have a critical disposition, a sense of the ridiculous, self-control, and other tragic nonsense of that kind, and possess the supreme folly of self-regard.“ The figure of the fastidious, prideful, self-loathing young intellectual is a familiar one, the staple of a thousand coming of age novels. But when such a figure is thrust into an atmosphere of anti-Semitic hatred, his already complicated feelings become even more convoluted. What is the best way to achieve composure and mastery in a situation designed to produce humiliation? How can a Jew cope with anti-Semitism without succumbing to victimhood and self-pity?

These are the questions Sebastian’s narrator keeps asking himself, though he never finds a satisfactory answer. The problem, Sebastian makes clear, is that immersion in hatred naturally produces self-hatred. Thus the narrator shares the view, propounded by Ghita Blidaru and other characters, that Romanians are earthy, simple, and pure, while Jews are alienated and over-clever. “If I could overcome two thousand years of Talmudism and melancholy, and recover—supposing my race has ever had it—the clear joy of life…” he muses.

Of course, it is plain to the reader—though it may not have been to the author—that it is not “Talmudism,” or some immutable Jewish essence, that condemns Jews to unhappiness and self-consciousness; it is simply the fact of being hated. Trying to find some kind of metaphysical meaning in that misery is a natural response because human beings prefer to believe they are suffering for a reason—it gives the illusion of control, which is infinitely preferable to the reality of helplessness. But the metaphysical meaning of suffering does not exist, and the control is a fragile fiction. That is why Sebastian’s narrator finds it so humiliating to be among fellow Jews: “Jewish fellow-feeling—I hate it. I’m always on the brink of shouting out a coarse word, just to show that even though I’m in the midst of ten people who believe me their ‘brother in suffering,’ I am in fact absolutely, definitely alone.” Alone, one can maintain the belief that one is individually responsible, even for one’s sufferings; in a minyan, it becomes clear that this is not true.

After its claustrophobic and unhappy first sections, For Two Thousand Years seems to take a redemptive turn. We leave behind the narrator’s student days and meet him again five years later when he has followed the advice of Ghita Blidaru and become an architect. Even this professional decision is bound up with ideas about Jewishness: by handling wood and stone and building useful structures, the narrator hopes to escape the abstraction and intellectuality he associates with being Jewish. And for a while, it seems that the escape has worked. Jewish issues recede into the background, while Romanian social and political questions take center stage. The narrator is working on a massive construction project that involves displacing a village orchard, so that an American oil company can drill a well. This brings Blidaru, the champion of tradition, into conflict with the narrator’s new “master,” Mircea Vieru, an avant-garde architect who thinks in terms of industry and progress. Meanwhile, romantic complications play out around the margin of the action.

The narrator, looking back on his own journal—that is, on the first sections of the novel—feels that he has left Jewish problems behind: “I reduced everything to the drama of being a Jew, which is perhaps a constant reality, but not such an overwhelming one that it should cancel or even supersede strictly personal dramas and comedies. I was, I believe, two steps away from fanaticism.” Yet as the novel progresses to its inconclusive ending, it turns out that this reprieve from Jewishness was only temporary. As the Depression arrives and the village rebels against the oil company, anti-Semitism returns to the center of Romanian politics, and of the narrator’s personal life. “Now I need to accustom my eyes to the falling darkness,” he writes.

The end of the book finds him completing a new project, the construction of a house for Blidaru to live in. The irony is palpable: a Jew can build a Romanian a home, but he can never make a home in Romania. When you remember that Blidaru was based on Nae Ionescu, it makes perfect sense that Sebastian would insist on printing Ionescu’s cruel introduction to the book. It was a real-life dramatization and confirmation of the whole message of For Two Thousand Years: that the Jews would remain pariahs, their love for Romania unrequited. In the last chapter of the book, the narrator is walking down the street when he hears some newsboys calling “Death to the Yids,” and he reflects on the strange casualness of the words: “I wonder why it is so easy to call for ‘death’ in a Romanian street, without anyone batting an eyelid. … If somebody set themselves up in the middle of the street to demand, let’s say, ‘Death to badgers,’ I think that would suffice to arouse some surprise among those passing by.”

For the reader, who knows what is coming—a native Romanian Holocaust, in which a fascist, Nazi-allied regime would murder half the country’s Jewish population—this observation is all too prophetic. (Sebastian himself survived WWII, but in an absurd tragedy, he was struck by a car and killed just days after the war ended.) Perhaps the most important conclusion one can draw from Sebastian’s book is that pariahdom—in which Sebastian’s narrator sometimes glories, sometimes suffers—is not a moral achievement, but a condition of profound vulnerability. The psychological price it exacts is beautifully documented in For Two Thousand Years, but the physical price is even higher—too high for anyone to agree to pay.


Read more of Adam Kirsch’s book reviews for Tablet magazine here.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.