Tuesday, November 25, 2008

We Are Second Generation

Last night, I watched an Israeli film called Jellyfish that was quite good. It's a film by Etgar Keret, a noteworthy voice in Israeli fiction and cinema, and his wife Shira Geffen. One might expect an Israeli film to be heavy with explicit or implicit references to Israeli politics, Jewish culture, or Judaism. But these elements were completely absent in a film about three women who only happen to live in Israel, and who only happen to speak Hebrew. That's about it--there's certainly a universal kind of flair to it.

I'm interested in this idea of universality as it pertains to literature and film, and the reason for this stems from a discussion I had with my Jewish American Fiction class last week about Nathan Englander's short story "The Twenty-Seventh Man," which concerns 27 Jewish writers rounded up and executed by Stalin. Englander claims that:

"The most important thing for me in this collection is universality and people being able to connect with the characters. I don't think a work of fiction, just because it's about a very specific group, shouldn't have universal themes. I have no interest in a fiction that isn't universal; if it's not universal, then it's not functioning. I'm not making any claims of success, but I can promise you if they're functioning, the stories are more about the setting facilitating the subtext than vice versa."

I was shocked at how invested the students seemed to be in whether a work of fiction should be universal, first of all, and, second, whether a story that contains predominately Jewish characters and uses a smattering of Yiddish and Hebrew terms can even be called universal. The film Jellyfish, however, takes this to another level, by sidestepping any particularist kinds of approaches and successfully stripping the plot and characters of any tell-tale signs of Jewishness.

Except in one very brief but fraught instance. Near the end of the film, one woman tells another woman that her parents were Holocaust survivors. The second woman responds: "You're second-generation?" The first woman shrugs, and says, "We're all second generation of something."

And for some reason, this did not rub me the wrong way. Usually I bristle at the suggestion that the Holocaust is just one of many tragedies, and that it is not in any way unique. But this realization--We're all second generation of something--seems to speak more to the sense of entitlement that we often give ourselves based on our own particular experiences, or more accurately, the experiences of those close to us. The statement has less to do with the Holocaust, and more to do with the ways in which people often appropriate the histories of their parents as a way of formulating their own identity.
This not to say that people whose parents are Holocaust survivors, Vietnam Veterans, or anything else do not have a unique sense of what it means to grow up with parents who have sustained traumas and injuries. But there is something to be said about moving past the narcissism of one's own experiences--imagined or otherwise--and becoming accountable for the place one occupies in the here and now.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Conflict and the Bearing of Bodies

A couple of weeks ago I was able to hear author Ehud Havazelet talk about his newest novel, Bearing the Body. Much like his novel, the author had an air of sadness and loss that hung about him. The combination of sorrow, creativity, and critical thinking is one I'm typically drawn to, even if I don't always know what to do with it. But regardless, there was something very honest about Havazelet, and something that felt emotionally raw in everything he said.

I was impressed with both of his talks for many reasons, but what I found most compelling is the sense I got of his own conflict with religion (Judaism) and the religious traditions he grew up with. Havazelet left the ways of Jewish Orthodoxy, but they have left their imprint on him and they color his writing in a way that makes one wonder whether he does not love them after all. Perhaps he is only disappointed with the false promises they imply. It's true: the rules and rituals meant to bind us together as a community can quickly become instruments of exclusion. They create shame where only encouragement should be. They teach us to look outside of our community and see people who are enemies; they teach us to look inside of our community to determine who is best at following the rules, rather than who is best at loving.

"Autobiography must be in part fiction," Havazelet said in his noon seminar. And, "Art must have some opposition in it." I am full of opposition; I wonder if that makes me a work of art. For a story to be good, I've heard it said, there must be conflict and resolution. But in reality, we know little of resolutions; all we know is conflict, unless we are blind enough to close our eyes to it.
Even the body itself is constantly in conflict, both dying and alive in any and every moment. And when we are overcome with sadness or fear or anxiety, the body betrays us with fatigue, headache, upset stomach, or a number of other physical afflictions. I wonder, then, how do we bear the body? And what is it that bears the body?

Monday, November 10, 2008

New Jewish Comics

I've added a new link to my blogroll: EV Comics, which showcases the comics work of Eli Valley, and often deals with Jewish themes. Check it...

Sunday, November 09, 2008

For the Love of God

My Shofar review of Alicia Suskin Ostriker's new book, For the Love of God: The Bible as an Open Book, is now online. Ostriker continues to be one of my favorite writers/thinkers of all time...

Friday, November 07, 2008

Perverse Egalitarianism on The First Professorial-American President

My peeps over at Perverse Egalitarianism have now made me laugh twice with their witty little explanation of what they call the "first professorial-American president."

At the end of it, they write:

Now Professorial-Americans look to the future with hope again - if you could only see them yesterday some waving energetically from the balconies of their ivory towers, some excitedly drafting a paper on the significance of the commas in Presidential speeches, some plotting attempts at funny blogging the day after. Indeed, a great day for “the prof” - as they like to be called - a great day for the country that finally comes to terms with its dark anti-professorial past and is eager to move on…

Read it all (and don't forget the comments...equally funny).

Monday, November 03, 2008

The Predatory Dream

I'm reading Ehud Havazelet's Bearing the Body right now, both for pleasure and in preparation to teach it to my Jewish American Fiction class this week. I had originally intended to teach his second collection of short stories, Like Never Before, but found it was out of print. I don't understand why this is so--I liked it so much that I cannot imagine it not going into reprint after reprint. But this is the way it is. Bearing the Body, however, Havazelet's first novel, is even better, and I'm excited because Havazelet will actually be speaking at my university this week as well.

The plot and characters are extremely well-developed, but I think it's the undertones of loss, sorrow, and memory that are the most compelling. And it feels very, very honest. There's something emotionally raw about it that is appealing not on the basis of pathos, but because it gives one the sense that, yes, that's exactly how things are. About a third of the way through I read the following:

The dream had the placidity of memory--not to say memory wasn't painful, Sol would be the last, ever, to claim that. But it was contained, bounded by event, and, most of the time, recollection was a matter of choice. Not like dreams, which knew where to find you, how to get in. (70).

I'm struck by two things in particular. First, is the idea that memory is the product of a decision one makes--in other words, that I can choose either to entertain a memory or to suppress it. I tend not to be very good at silencing memories when they surface; I have a tendency to let them run their course and finish in whatever way they will, whether that is joy or tears. So the idea that choice is connected to memories is an interesting one.

Second, and more fascinating for me, is the idea of the dream as a kind of night-time predator--something that comes looking for you when you are most vulnerable. No doubt some dreams are merely the product of the memories we willfully suppress in waking moments. But often we don't know what they are and where they come from; they are the ultimate predator.

I can relate to this, of course, given the fact that the initial impetus for this blog was my fascination with dreams and visions that begin to take shape in the darkness but continue to bloom in daylight. I have mentioned before that I often experience night terrors--moments when I awake during the night and see a figure who has come to kill me. My predatory dreams are often themselves full of predators, whether it is a dark figure with murder on his mind, or (like last night) a giant raccoon perched on my dresser, staring at me with his teeth and claws bared.

I once knew someone who said that he didn't dream, that he had never in his life dreamed a dream in the darkness of night-time sleep. I wonder why dreams prey on some and not others.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Real Jews Vote for McCain: On Liberal Trash and Trendy Jews

I've been virtually paralyzed for the past few days because of a text message exchange I had with someone I have known my entire life (let's call him G). It's disturbing on multiple levels, including but not limited to: the use of religious terms to sanction a hateful viewpoint; the suggestion that one is not a real Jew if he/she defends Obama; the regurgitation of anti-Obama rhetoric that has already been debunked; and the use of personal insults.

I've pasted the exchange below, just because it's so incredible. I was careful to preserve all of the grammatical and spelling errors for greater authenticity.

G: Hi. Are u keeping up with all the news about barrack obama having a lot of pro Palestine friends.

Me: It’s mostly bullsh-t coming from hate groups from what I understand.

G: It seems like he has to many friends that hate Israel.

Me: Who?

G: Rashid khalidi. Who has known obama for 12 years. And also obama and ayers donated money to khalidis organization. Also obama had to give money bk to 39 doners from palistine.

G: Rashid is a PLO advisor, which is a extreme group that spreads anti Semitism. He is now a college professor , Lol. How cme these wierdos like William ayers are allowed to teach in a college and spread their hate agenda. These people take advantage of young , naïve college students who look up to them,

Me: My understanding is that in some cases they have a past that is not their present. They wouldn’t be allowed to teach that stuff. Like when UCLA fired angela davis. And DePaul letting Finkelstein go.

G: Obama was at a going away party for khalidi in 2004. At that same party a young Palestine girl read a poem that rejoiced in the death of jews. That isn’t the past. That is the present and obama went to a muslim school frm the ages of 6 to 10 in Indonesia. He is what he is. Only liberal trash will try to debate and defend obama.

G: I also have a past but I have repented and said what I have done was wrong. Obama has never once said that he was wrong, and ayers to this day believes w (missing)

Me: A lot of these politicians are in bed with the same people—they all want their money.

G: Obama and Ayers shared an office. Lol. That’s like [personal name removed] trying to say that he is not friends with [name removed]. I guess it would be okay to let a child molester babysit a 8 year old girl, as long as he hadn’t done any molesting since 2002.

Me: People are just getting angry and hateful on both sides. That’s even scarier than Obama’s alleged terrorist ties.

G: Unfortunately, for some people being a jew is just a trend.

I love the last line. He tried to appeal to me on the basis of my "Jewishness", and when that didn't work, accused me of being a Jew only because it's trendy. A real Jew, he seems to be saying, would not vote for Obama. I wonder if G knows that 75% of Jews are voting for Obama? I also derive great pleasure from the insinuation that anybody who does not hold the same opinion as G is "liberal trash."
I thought my minimal responses would diffuse what threatened to be a barrage of nasty missives sent my way, but I should have known better than to play with fire. After all, this is the same person who once said to me, in anger, that Hitler should have finished the Jews. This is also the person who has never set foot in a college classroom and consequently despises those who do. But saddest of all, this is also a person who speaks very freely about his Christianity and even uses his faith as the basis for his political hate talk. Somehow, I don't think Jesus would be cool with this.

Then again, I've also known this person to be kind, sensitive, and compassionate. I wonder if it is politics--or the fear that often motivates the hateful rhetoric we call politics--that turn good people into monsters, or whether it simply reveals what was there all along.

The kicker (or the irony, depending on how you look at it): I had been leaning more toward McCain (sans Palin) until this exchange. Hey, G, you're doing damage to the cause, man.