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.


Casey said...

Interesting topic. I remember you bristling (that's some image) at the idea that the Holocaust could be understood (in part) as "only" a Holocaust... bristling at my probably unnecessarily provocative suggestion that although the suffering of the Holocaust was particular, its lessons should be universal. For now, I don't have more to add (I've added Jellyfish to my queueueue on Netflix).

On another topic, though: this is almost precisely the same way I used to bristle at the lack of universality that I believed to be central to Judaism -- I had a Texan-Christian friend once who seemed to know more about religion and religious history who convinced me that the most important part of Judaism was its exclusionary-ness: "We're G-d's people, and that's that."

Obviously, Reform Judaism is something else altogether... I'm suspicious of it theologically (that is, rationally), but I'm utterly sympathetic to it emotionally.

Question: which came first?: Reform Judaism or the Federalist Papers? (I'll explain later, but I may be using this in a post of my own)

Casey said...

They had a thing on NPR today about how difficult it has been for some of the sons and daughters of notorious Nazis... they say things like, "I'm not my father, you know?"

Seems like maybe everybody, really everybody, is second generation these days.