Friday, December 11, 2009

Midrash and Homeostasis

Tonight I am thinking about Midrash in a different, more terrifying way. Dynamic, constantly evolving, metonymic, defiant in the face of everything that says you must stay as you are--it is in flux. It looks ahead to the future, pulling with it all of the remnants of the past that make it what it is. The product appears silly when seen in the context of the gyrations of the process. Movement makes life.

I met a woman who does nothing but dream. She responds to all of the ambiguities of her personal history by dreaming back into them and watching them take on new shapes before moving forward again, into the future. She looks into the future, builds her life and love and identity around a future plan.

A dream. It moves inside of her like a child.

It moves her right out of the present. She lives in her dreams, never allowing the reality of the present to situate her in its quicksand. She thinks it has kept her alive, and has only just now realized: maybe the product was indeed more important than the process after all. And there was this word that she kept saying: homeostasis.

I always think of this word--homeostasis--as being in direct opposition to what I envision as midrashic thinking. Homeostasis has to do with balance and stability, with maintaining a constant condition--and this keeps the body alive. Midrash, on the other hand, is never constant, except in its consistent mobility.

And so I cannot help but ask: What happens to the dreamers, with no homeostasis to keep them alive, their hearts pumping?

Monday, November 30, 2009

Myth of Silence

The podcasts for a conference entitled "'The Myth of Silence?': Who Spoke About the Holocaust and When" that was recently held at UCLA can now be found online. Speakers included Alvin Rosenfeld, Hasia Diner, and Alan Rosen among others.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

White Noise: The Disaster Un-Mediated

I just finished teaching Don DeLillo's White Noise for a senior seminar called "The American Literary Response to Trauma." This is one of those books that reveals more and more with each new reading. I'm working on the DeLillo chapter of my book manuscript right now, and so I was especially invested in working through some of my ideas in the classroom.

I'm mostly interested in the novel as a non-representational response to the collective tragedy of the Holocaust. The novel's main character, for example, Jack Gladney, is the Chair of Hitler Studies at his university. He is obsessed with Hitler, and even attempts to look and speak like Hitler (even though he, embarrassingly, cannot speak German). And throughout the novel we get all sorts of tidbits of information about Hitler and Nazi Germany. But there is something conspicuously missing from the novel: there is no mention of the Holocaust or anything that even suggests that Hitler was attached to murder or genocide or anything of the sort. No Final Solution, no smoke-filled chimneys, not even any mention of Jews. Jack Gladney has a blindspot. He lacks an awareness of the ethical dimension of his studies. But we bear witness to his blindspots, his inabilities--and we become secondary witnesses to the disaster of the Holocaust, the event that, in the words of Maurice Blanchot, robs us of all authenticity.

It is this omission of the most obvious aspects of the disaster that draw our attention to it in a way that is unmediated, unfiltered by media or artistic impulses (well, for the most part). Jack's experience of the disaster may in fact be mediated by "white noise," but ours is not--or, at least not to the degree Jack's is. In an era that has become somewhat dominated by media representations of the Holocaust and other collective atrocities, White Noise may be one of the more innovative approaches to dealing with the subject matter.

We've seen enough footage from the events of WWII. We've watched enough films and read enough novels that attempt to sho
w how things really were. And it simply hasn't been enough to appease or satisfy our curiosity. But in DeLillo's novel, the ethical category is broached in the sense that we bear witness to the shattering of mediated realities, even when the characters themselves are unable to bear witness (i.e. Jack's inability to address the atrocities perpetrated by Hitler and his regime). Limit experiences such as the Holocaust pose especially pronounced difficulties because their very breadth and intensity compel us to return to them again and again as topics, using whatever artistic or media outlets we can; and yet truly witnessing a traumatic event like this means that our experience of it is colored by gaps and silences and blindspots.

The question is how do we make these darknesses visible?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Forgiveness and the Scent of a Violet

I'm thinking about forgiveness tonight. I wonder what it means and whether it's possible. I've thought about it before, talked about it with my students in the context of collective tragedies. It's an idea that distresses me, one over which I have been known to agonize as I consider, at times, asking someone for forgiveness, and at others being asked for forgiveness.

What if we cannot forget?

Forgiveness--at least, what we understand to be forgiveness--can occur only in the
case of two people. One person who is wronged has the option, or the opportunity, to forgive the person who violated the friendship (or acquaintance or relationship) in some way. I cannot, in other words, forgive the woman who spoke unkindly to my sister; only my sister can forgive that woman.

It is in this sense that, in Judaism, the only unforgiveable sin is that of murder. Why? Because the person who has the grievance is no longer here to offer forgiveness. This is, of course, why all of the talk that surfaced in the post-1945 years about Jews needing to "forgive" the Nazis for atrocities they committed during the Holocaust is ridiculous. The witnesses to these atrocities--the drowned, as both Primo Levi and Giorgio Agamben would say--are absent.

I have
found that it is so easy to talk about forgiveness in this context--in the great big context that trumps all others. There is a formula: perpetrator + no victim = no forgiveness. It is not so simple when it comes to, well, the simpler things--the daily betrayals that we enact and receive, sometimes without thinking twice.

When I was very young, I remember reading out of some book of sweet little sayings that I had discovered in one of my mother's
bookcases. I remember coming across one little saying that seemed to speak to my unsophisticated little self: "Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that crushes it." I loved that saying for some reason. I took a pair of scissors and, when my mother wasn't looking, snipped that little passage right out of her book, pressing my neat little paper square of wisdom between the pages of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, which I was also reading at the time.

I named my favorite doll Violet. The one who has been crushed. One day I looked at Violet, the homemade rag doll, and I took those same scissors and cut off all of her mahogany yarn hair. I cut it down to the scalp. And then I laid down next to her and took a nap, yearning for her sweetness.

As I grew older, I remember time and time again finding that little square of paper in various books. Each time I discovered it, I would move it to a new book, never understanding why I kept it. The last time I disovered it, I was in my senior year of college. Suddenly my eyes took in its silliness, and I felt embarrassed about having loved those words for so many years. I had saved it because of the sweetness I had perceived in it--I could virtually smell that crushed flower's scent in my nostrils.

Did it give me some unconscious license to metaphorically smash others, expecting that they would reward me with sweetness?

But there is no sweetness in betrayal, nor in the forgiveness of betrayal. And yet we are compelled to make everything sweet. We don't want to consider that the heel that crushes the violet will keep walking,
smashing everything it comes into contact with, until the sweet scent of forgiveness is no longer discernable.

If this thought becomes debilitating, I revert to thinking about forgiveness in the context of responsibility
, something that we see emerge throughout the Talmud. Is it my responsibility to forgive someone who betrays me? And what if I betray someone else--is it their responsibility to forgive me if I am penitent? And if they don't? Must I forgive their incapacities? One wonders how many layers make up the bittersweet bread of forgiveness.
And, of course, one also wonders what happens to love in all of this.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Holiness and the Temporary

The festival of Sukkot (or, the Feast of Tabernacles) begins tonight at sundown. The holiday marks the 40-yr period during which Moses and the Israelites wandered in the desert before entering the Promised Land. For this reason, the idea of temporary dwellings becomes literal, and a family will build a Sukkah in which to reside--or at least eat meals--during the holiday.

The prayer that is said over meals eaten in the Sukkah--Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha'olam asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu leisheiv basukkah--is translated as "Blessed are You, our God, Creator of time and space, who enriches our lives with holiness, commanding us to dwell in the sukkah."

There is holiness in the temporary.

But there is also something magical about the temporary. At least, there was when we were children. How many times have we observed young children building tents in their bedrooms out of blankets and comforters, laughing with delight as they then crawl into their own magical spaces? I remember how my younger brothers used to build "forts" in their bedrooms or outside in the backyard. These spaces were small and temporary, but they were special.

And I also remember how, many years ago, I taught a Sunday school class of 30 6-year-old children, and during the holiday I helped them build a Sukkah in our already crowded classroom. The children, who moments before had been out of control--and who, the week before, had turned their Torah scroll crafts into swords with which they would demolish each other--seemed to somehow sense the special-ness, the holiness, of the temporary space, and immediately became quiet, looks of awe on their little faces. (Then again, I was probably the only Sunday school teacher in the history of that church to sneakily teach the little Christian children to build a Sukkah!)

As adults, we get to a point where we stop creating these magical, temporary kinds of spaces. We search for something more stable, something that will be around forever, that can't easily be knocked down. We forget that there is holiness even in the temporary.

I wonder if this also translates to emotional and relationship spaces, not just physical spaces. Is there something holy about the friendships and relationships we maintain with people for only brief periods of time? Do we destroy their magic by asking more from them than they can give?
Addendum to the original post: More paintings like the one featured above can be seen at the artist's website.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

When Vanity Becomes Terror

When you see this image posted at the top of this post, you might imagine that I've lost it, given the fact that I don't usually snap photos of my clothing and use them as fodder for my blog. But here is what happened.

I received
this Cynthia Vincent dress in the mail a few days ago. I had ordered it, but had forgotten about it. On the day the package arrived, I recall hearing my doorbell and hiding in my bedroom because I don't like to answer phones or doorbells. I am overly suspicious of anyone at my door. Later, of course, I discovered the package waiting for me, and felt quite silly. Since that day, the dress has been hanging on the outside of my closet for two reasons: first, I am taking time to decide how I feel about it; second, I am too lazy to find space for it in my already overly crowded closet.

And, I
must admit, I like the dress. My mood is instantly better when I see it hanging there. It has become a bizarre source of pleasure and distraction.

problem--and, my problem in general--is that things often change shape in the dark, which is exactly what happened around 4:30 this morning, when I awoke to a night terror of an altogether different sort.

I opened my eyes and saw a man's long pale face, the space between the hanger and the bodice of the dress
. I saw his long arms dangling at his side. I saw his long dark coat, tattered and shredded at the bottom--the place where my dress became scrolls of embroidery. And I stared at him while he stared back at me, the hand my imagination had blessed him with slowly stretching toward me. I sat there, immovable, stationary with the knowledge that this was finally it.

And I began to scream
. And scream. And scream. This time, the terror was real, I said to myself as I screamed. This time, it is no hallucination. My screams did not cease until I heard a woman's voice, outside of my window, frantically asking me--or whoever she imagined was screaming--if I was okay. I was stunned into silence for a split second. I looked toward the window, and then back toward my closet door, watching as the ghoulish man's image began to dissipate into the form of a silk dress hanging on my closet door.

"Yes," I said
, weakly, to whomever had addressed me through my open window. I couldn't help but sob after that. And this morning, my throat still feels the screams.

I love to say--and do quite often--that darkness illuminates more brilliantly than light. Darkness reveals to
us the things that we cannot see when our vision is obscured by light. And so I can't help but wonder what, if anything, was revealed to me, as I witnessed my vanity become my terror. Perhpas there is a metaphor somewhere in here--something about how often we create our own terrors. We organize and arrange them, believing we can control them but never realizing that they control us.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

I Don't Know

I recently helped a friend put together an online dating profile on With the exception of a brief exploration of JDate a number of years ago, I have had very little experience with such things, but I had this feeling that I would be the best one for the job--that I would know exactly how to craft such a profile.

It turns out that knowing, however, is a big problem when it comes to the online dating world. And I'm not
talking about knowing what one wants in a mate (or soulmate, as online daters like to say). What I found while scanning hundreds of profiles (both men and women) was that an insane number of people from their late twenties to early forties claim to be agnostic when asked about their religion. Although some would disagree, and argue for a more nuanced understanding of agnosticism, the term essentially means "I don't know." It suggests that the existence of deities is unknown, and that perhaps even ultimate knowledge and realities are unknown--unable to be known.

I found this interesting because
I don't really think I've met many people in person who have claimed to be agnostic. Most people I know either believe or they don't. They are either religious or they are not. They believe in God or they don't. In other words, coming from the world of academia, I have plenty of friends who say they are atheists. But because I am close to people in both the Jewish and Christian worlds, I also know many people who say they believe in God. I, myself, believe in God, though I don't always know exactly what that makes me. But rather than look for a term that encapsulates all of the textures of my spiritual impulses, I choose to say rather concretely that I believe in God, perhaps even that I love God. I would never call myself an agnostic.

So what
I want to know, is where are all the agnostics hiding? Are they only online? Is it somehow culturally hip to present oneself as the ultimate repository of "I don't know" when creating an online personna? Is it seen as somehow pretentious to presume to know one way or another?

I don't
mean to criticize people who call themselves agnostics. I mean, looking back on the twentieth century it's easy to find plenty of historical moments that call into question the existence of God. It's just that I find it curious--the fact that I never meet agnostics in person.

Are we
becoming more and more afraid to admit that we know anything (or that we think we know anything)? But I think the more important question is this: At what point is "I don't know" translated as "I don't care"? My sense is that many people who label themselves as agnostic simply don't care to know the answer, and for reasons I can't quite articulate, I find this most troubling.

I suppose I just want to know that someone cares about the answer to such a big question.

I used
to know a man who said he hated God. His eyes would tear up as he told me how angry he was at God. For some reason I found this compelling. I loved God, and he hated God, but somehow we were on the same page. I know another man who refuses to use the labels of atheist or agnostic, and when asked what religion he is, suggests that he is nothing in an effort to resist the labels. I can almost understand that impulse as well. It used to bother me that he didn't care enough to ask whether God exists, but now I appreciate the way he has shifted the question to something that has to do with how and why we use the labels we do in order to categorize our spirituality.

Here's what bothers me (I've just figured it out): I wonder if applying the label of "agnostic" to oneself is
really just a sneaky way out of being responsible for at least making a shot at figuring it out, for asking the right questions. If certain things are unknowable, then we are off the hook when it comes to trying to figure them out, right? If we will "never know," then we never have to think about it. So there's my conclusion, for now anyway: agnosticism is perhaps the antithesis to responsibility.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Zizek on Israel: A Lesson in Idiotic Pop Psychology

I love when Zizek talks about Kieslowski. However, I'm not so impressed with his new comments about the situation in Israel (okay, I'm repulsed). Shahar Ozeri, over at Perverse Egalitarianism, says of Zizek's newest comment on the situation: "Bluntly, it’s a a pathetic projection and at best idiotic pop psychology." Ozeri is right--unfortunately Zizek has succumbed to the trendy strategy of "Nazifying" Israel. Come on, give us something new, Zizek.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Tarantino's Way vs the Jewish Way

I haven't yet seen Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, so I'm not going to say much about it. But Liel Leibovitz, in a piece in Tablet Magazine, calls the movie (and its maker) a failure. Leibovitz suggests that Tarantino's comment in the production notes--“I like that it’s the power of the cinema that fights the Nazis. But not just as a metaphor, as a literal reality.”--is indicative of this overall failure.

In contrast to Tarantino's failure of both "morality" and "imagination," Leibovitz predictably points to films like Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, Marcel Ophüls’s The Sorrow and the Pity, and Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows. Of these films he writes:

"It’s no coincidence that all three of those filmmakers are Jewish. Theirs is the Jewish way. Rather than burn film, they develop it into art. They are talmudic, offering endless interpretations to the fundamental question of our species, the question of our seemingly endless capacity for evil. Tarantino, however, is not interested in such trifles. He doesn’t see cinema as a way to look at reality, but—ever the child abandoned in front of the television set, ever the video-store geek—as an alternative to reality, a magical and Manichean world where we needn’t worry about the complexities of morality, where violence solves everything, and where the Third Reich is always just a film reel and a lit match away from cartoonish defeat."

I like the idea that Lanzmann, Ophuls, and Melville's approaches are talmudic, but I'm not convinced that it's Tarantino's tendency to create alternative realities that make his approach anti-thetical to the Jewish or so-called talmudic one. Isn't it possible that the staging of such an over-the-top alternative reality might actually force us to "worry about the complexities of morality"? Again, I haven't seen the film so I won't say much more. I'm just not convinced that there isn't something useful about what Tarantino is doing. And, is there no way, as Leibovitz suggests, to see Tarantino's film as art? I don't know. We'll see.

I'm not going to compare Tarantino to Polish film-maker Krzysztof Kieslowski, but this discussion makes me think of the latter's A Short Film About Killing, which contains the longest murder scene in cinematic history. But Kieslowski is famous for grappling with moral and ethical quandries, and so his inclusion of this scene seems to ask the question: As members of a so-called civilized society, how much can we bear to see, and for how much of our own past and present transgressions can we bear to take responsibility? It will be interesting to see if this kind of thinking makes its way into Inglourious Basterds.

PS I'm so annoyed by Tarantino's insistance on mis-spelling words in his title.

UPDATE: Charlie Bertsch has written an extensive piece on Basterds over at Jewcy--it's worth reading. After seeing the film, I can say that, moral scrutiny aside, it is certainly not a film about the Holocaust, though I'm not sure I really expected it to be. In many ways, it's another film about film, epitomized in the final scene of the movie, where everything is set ablaze in the cinema.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Where My Feet Will Not Walk

I'm back to Anne Michaels' The Winter Vault after a not-so-brief hiatus of reading other things, including Jabes, which I think I will be consistently reading for the rest of my life: Torah and Jabes--I wonder if that's all I need. Perhaps it will have to be enough--along with my solitude, that is. Anyway, Michaels writes:

"A nation is a sense of space you will never walk with your own feet yet know in your legs as belonging to you."

This is not, of course
, the way we typically conceive of nations. In this era--and perhaps as far back as we can go--one's nation is precisely the place where he or she walks with his or her own feet. Where we can and cannot tread defines the place we call our nation. Borders and boundaries keep us in and others out.

here in this passage the nation is something altogether different. It's very nature suggests its resistance to being tread upon. The implication is that once you walk on it, it is no longer yours. The nation is characterized by longing and anticipation rather than firsthand knowledge. We hope for something because it is not yet ours. And yet it is ours because we feel it in our legs, even though our feet cannot find the evidence of its existence. It is another of life's great paradoxes. I want only the paradoxes, if truth be told. I want the burden of responsibility that comes with such paradoxes.

The nation is
symbolic and evocative of yearning and aspiration as opposed to the banality of experience that characterizes our life in the space upon which our feet walk. And I can't help but think--there are places my feet do not walk, but which I know in my legs and up through my heart to be mine. And who are you to tell me that I do not belong? I am looking for a good fight.

is Jabes, for good measure (from The Little Book of Unsuspected Subversion): "For place, all you will have had is the hope of a mild place beyond the sands: a mirage of repose."

Friday, July 31, 2009

Questioning a Scream to the Infinite

Rather than wasting precious nocturnal silence by sleeping, I'm reading Edmond Jabes' The Book of Questions tonight. The title itself is enough to blog about. Shouldn't there be only books of questions, rather than books of answers? Shouldn't the arrogance and presumptuousness of claiming to know enough answers to build a book out of them be traded for the honesty and insight of one question?

"The light of Israel is a scream to the infinite" (164).

A brief sentence, but it already contains three words to which I always gravitate: Israel, scream, infinite. I could speculate endlessly on the meaning of this sentence, but I suspect that the only thing to remain would be the question(s). Is the scream a silent scream that howls indefinitely? Or is it one primal, gut-wrenching scream that bleeds itself raw?

In a story that follows the above quotation, a character remarks: "Even when she does not scream, I hear her." Another character says: "I do not hear the scream. I am the scream."

And, the infinite. When I think "infinite," I think of infinite responsibility. Is the light of Israel forever connected to the "Here I am" that resounds in the narratives of the Torah? Years ago I took a nineteenth-century American literature class (I know, abrupt segue). I remember the professor always spoke of "the more within the less"--and that's the infinite. What is a scream to the infinite?

It's just one line in the middle of a large book, and yet I keep asking questions.

Monday, July 06, 2009

"How Much of the Earth is Flesh?"

I'm about 50 pages into a new novel, and so far two passages continue to run circles in my mind.

is the perfect disguise. The replica, which is meant to commemorate, achieves the opposite effect: it allows the original to be forgotten," writes Anne Michaels, in her new novel The Winter Vault.

This is Michaels' second novel. Her first was Fugitive Pieces, which may be one of the most perfect novels ever written--let alone one of the most insightful novels regarding trauma and the Holocaust. Considering the work I do, Fugitive Pieces was compelling because of the way it brings trauma to the forefront through focusing on absence and the immense roars of silence, as opposed to diving deep into the traumatic event and attempting to depict it as it really was.

And clearly this theme of allowing emptiness to speak is continued in her newest novel, which has nothing to do with the Holocaust
. This one is about a couple living on a houseboat on the Nile River, moored below the towering figures of Abu Simbel. The main character, Avery, is one of the engineers charged with the task of dismantling and reconstructing the temple in order to rescue it from the rising waters of the Aswan Dam. Avery loves technology, but he is torn between it and his awareness of the destruction it perpetrates.

Michaels remarks on simulation are interesting because they raise critical questions about originals vs replicas, especially in the context
of memorials and commemorations. What, really, do we achieve by constructing a representation of something (an event, an historical period, a feat of nature, etc)? By creating one thing to stand for another, all we really do is distance ourselves from the original that we seek to capture.

But even if Michaels' narrative
is concerned with the creations and upheavals of our physical world, she is also deeply aware of the enterprises of the heart--the intimacy and immensity of the way that emotion functions in our world.

And here is the second passage that I cannot yet forget:

"And she knew
for the first time that someone can wire your skin in a single evening, and that love arrives not by accumulating to a moment, like a drop of water focused on the tip of a branch---it is not the moment of bringing your whole life to another--but rather, it is everything you leave behind. At that moment."

It seems that even in the enormity
of being in love, it is still about what one chooses not to have; it is still about the presence of absence. It makes me think also of Lot's wife, who (according to some of the Midrashim), while fleeing the city of Sodom with her husband, gazed behind her so that she could look back on the two daughters she was leaving behind. And at that moment, she became a monument of her love for them: a pillar of salt.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Multiplicity and the Secret of the Text

I often find treasures in the middle of night, when everything is opened up and illuminated by darkness. Here, silence is not golden, but it is razor sharp.

I'm in Toronto for the North American Levinas Society conference. I have a presentation tomorrow on Levinas's essay "Reality and its Shadows," in which he questions the nature of art and criticism. I'm going to use this essay to offer a reading of Anne Michaels' Fugitive Pieces, which is so perfect that my heart hurts every time I read it.

Of course it's 2am and I have not finished my presentation, so I'm working--alone, where it's silent and I can see the darkness outside.

Accidentally, a few minutes ago I started re-reading Levinas's essay "Revelation in the Jewish Tradition." I read the following:

"...the totality of truth is made out of the contributions of a multiplicity of people: the uniquness of each act of listening carries the secret of the text; the voice of Revelation in precisely the inflection lent by each person's ear, is necessary for the truth of the Whole. The fact that God's living word can be heard in a variety of ways does not only mean that the Revelation adopts the measure of the people listening to it; rather, that measure becomes, itself, the measure of the Revelation. The multiplicity of people, each one of them indispensable, is necessary to produce all the dimensions of meaning; the multiplicity of meanings is due to the multiplicity of people."

Even when I am unabashedly appalled by someone else's viewpoint, I must--according to my reading of this passage--listen to his or her contribution in order to discover the "secret of the text." Perhaps one only finds meaning in a room where a number of people are engaging in disagreement.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Yo, judío: Borges Looks for the Jew in the Mirror

A few months ago I saw Ilan Stavans give a talk at UCLA. Today there's a piece over at Jewcy that he's written about Jorge Luis Borges' connection to the Jewish world. Stavans writes:

"'Yo, judío,' [Borges'] brave and unapologetic response to Crisol, pointed out, in the measured prose that was to become his trademark, a deep desire to find the missing link in his ancestry--the Jew in the mirror."

Lately I've been really interested in this phenomenon (okay, so it's not really a phenomenon) of non-Jewish philosophers and writers exploring their invisible/imagined Jewish side. There's Maurice Blanchot, of course, whom I convinced Jeffrey Goldberg to add to his Philo-Semite 50 list. And of course there's Bernard Malamud's "All men are Jews" statement. And now Borges.

I always say that Judaism is a mode of being (please bear with my implied conflation of Judaism and Jewishness here). But I wonder if these writers are getting at something else when they seek out their own personal connections to Judaism and/or Jewishness. I wonder if they are tapping into something that is beyond any philosophical, literary, or cultural articulation of Jewishness.

Then again, I suppose they say that there was a certain number of non-Jewish people present at the giving of Torah at Sinai...I love seeing these people emerge in contemporary society.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Love Affair Continues

"In the night one can die; we reach oblivion. But this other night is the death no one dies, the forgetfulness which gets forgotten. In the heart of oblivion it is memory without rest," writes Maurice Blanchot in the context of his discussion on the various forms of night: night, the first night, and the other night.

For Blanchot, when everything disappears in the night, it is in reality the appearance of
the disappearance. At least, this is what happens in the other night. It's when absence shows up, when the wound is revealed. You can see where I'm going with this: back to trauma (the absence) and midrash (the night that reveals the disappearance): "Here the invisible is what one cannot cease to see; it is the incessant making itself seen."

And now my own ego brings it back to me.

Blanchot writes, "Those who think they see ghosts are those who do not want to see the night. They crowd it with the terror of little images, they occupy and distract it by immobilizing it--stopping the oscillation of eternal starting over."

I go through periods of time where I experience night terrors consistently--where I wake up and experience a hallucination. These nights are crowded with the terror of little images. And then there are periods of time where I experience only the memory of the terror. On these nights I fall peacefully into the revelation of absence, quite content to see "the incessant."

Perhaps I have only myself to blame for the terrors with which I have crowded
my night. I want the invisible made accessible, the absence illuminated, but sometimes the night contains the unbearable textures of sadness. I've written about this before in some way-- about Levinas's notion of the Il y a, the nothingness/somethingness that represents the rumbling I hear when I put the old seashell up next to my ear. I'll defer to someone else here.

I have a feeling none of this really makes sense. But Blanchot just does this to me: the chaos that brings everything into order.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Dynamic Duo: Hitler and Obama

I can't sleep. And it's probably because I keep thinking of the creepy sign that these even creepier young people are holding. Last weekend we walked down to the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica to have lunch. There are always any number of street performers and soap box preachers to be found at the Promenade, but this was the craziest experience I've ever had there.

I had neve
r heard of Lyndon LaRouche, but apparently this guy has quite a record for stirring up crazy conspiracies--he's an extremest crackpot with a political cult following, it seems. At any rate, a large group of college-age kids spouting off countless LaRouche inspired philosophies had gathered to speak out against Obama's healthcare plan. Okay, that's fine. I have my issues with "universal" or government-run healthcare too. But that wasn't the problem.

The problem was
that they were using the Holocaust to create a spectacle that they imagined in their LaRouche-induced stupor would somehow advance their worthy cause. There were 8 different signs (most of which I snapped photos of) depicting Obama as Hitler and explicitly stating that Obama is continuing the work that Hitler began with his new health plan.

I usually don't indulge crazies. Arguing
with them gets you nowhere. They simply stare right through you and continue to regurgitate whatever propaganda they've been fed no matter what you say. But when I saw a young black man (part of the group) dressed in a suit, wearing a name tag that said "Prez" and sporting a sharpy-drawn Hitler mustache on his lip, I couldn't restrain myself.

I walked up to the table to collect some of the literature, and said to the young man handing it out, "Yes, you guys are absolutely right. What Obama is doing is EXACTLY the same thing as stuffing millions of innocent people into gas chambers and crematoria." And he told me that it is the same thing, that Obama has explicitly stated that he intends

Do you laugh? Or do you spit in his face? I mean, really? The issue is not whether or not I like Obama or his ideas regarding healthcare reform. I think it's clear what the issue is here. He then went on to tell me that I knew nothing about the Holocaust. Good those are fighting words.

I have so much more to say about this, but it will have to wait until tomorrow's post. In the meantime, here are a couple more pics from the spectacle.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Spinoza Transfusion

I've been reading a bit of Spinoza as I finish an article on Levinas and Dara Horn's novel In the Image. In the novel, there is a character who develops an obsession with Spinoza in the context of some much larger questions about the nature of God and commandment in a post-Holocaust world.

In a review of Rebecca Goldstein's Betraying Spinoza, Harold Bloom writes:

"As in Epicurus and Lucretius, Spinoza's God is scarcely distinguishable from Nature, and is altogether indifferent to us, even to our intellectual love for him as urged upon us by Spinoza. Many Americans are persuaded that God loves each of them, personally and individually. Is that our blessing, in this era of George W. Bush, or is it not the American malaise, partly productive of the daily slaughters on the streets of Baghdad? A transfusion of Spinoza into our religion-mad nation could only be a good thing."

Our nation--"religion-mad"? No...

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Diversity of Night Terrors

My night terrors are becoming so much more ethnically diverse. Usually--at least two nights each week--I awake from a deep nighttime sleep to see a creepy white man standing either in the corner of my room or directly above me. He's always about to kill me, of course, because nobody hallucinates about people who are there to hang out and have an intellectual discussion unless there are quaaludes involved.

But last night there was a diversity breakthrough. I awoke about three hours after I had fallen asleep to see a very tall light-skinned black man crouching down in the corner of my room opposite to the one where the creepy white guy is always hovering--I think he was a cross between Obama and Dwight Howard from the Orlando Magic. I sat up on my bed, stared at him, and started screaming my head off while edging myself off of the bed and calling for my boyfriend, who had moved to the couch because apparently I had already screamed twice earlier in the night.

No, I wasn't more frightened because he was black. I was more frightened than usual because I've grown accustomed to the creepy white guy. I just wasn't used to this new would-be killer. But I suppose it's a good thing that my hallucinations are growing more diverse. I think it's probably something like what they say about learning a new language: you know you are fluent when you begin dreaming in the foreign language. I'm hallucinating about people of all races killing me now: I am truly tolerant.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

God Looks for a Wrestling Match

In an essay from her newest book For the Love of God (which I reviewed for Shofar a while back), Alicia Suskin Ostriker writes:

Open disclosure: I write as a Jew, a woman, a wife and mother, a third-generation lefty, a feminist, a poet. And I write as a reader, for whom words are primary—even sacred—realities. The Hebrew Bible marks, for me, the point in Western culture where human life, human language, and the human experience of the divine, most fully converge. I can learn from it. I can wrestle with it. It fights back, and we both grow stronger. It is both a primary source of my most strongly held values and a source of much that I deplore and struggle against. I believe that the Bible, and God in the Bible, want to be wrestled with. This is how they stay alive. This is why the sages say, "There is always another interpretation."

For me, apart from my lifelong fascination with Torah, Ostriker's work is where it all began. She is one of the most magnificent and compelling writers out there when it comes to dealing with the Hebrew bible in the context of poetry, story, and philosophy. I think I have always loved most the idea of wrestling with God--of a God who truly wants to be wrestled with, rather than blindly and uncritically obeyed.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Levinas in France!

I'm excited about this one--our next North American Levinas Society conference will be in France, and we'll be teaming up with another organization (SIREL). Below is the Call for Papers.

Société internationale de recherches Emmanuel Levinas (SIREL, Paris)
North American Levinas Society (NALS, USA)
International Conference: "Readings of Difficult Freedom"
July 5-9, 2010: Toulouse, France


First published in 1963, with a second edition in 1976, Difficile Liberté, Essais sur le judaïsme is considered Levinas' mostaccessible book and constitutes an e xcellent introduction to his work. This collection of essays which appeared in a variety of journals (L'arche, Information juive, L'esprit, Evidences, etc.) reflects the society, culture and philosophy of France from the 1950s to the 1970s. These essays are closely bound to traumatic events of the time, but Levinas – and this is one of the strengths of the book –tackles these issues directly. He sets forth the reconditions for the reconstruction of a world governed by aspirations for justice and a renewal of Judaism, as signified by the living symbol of Israel.

Difficile Liberté should not be seen purely as a collection of circumstantial writings. Levinas attempts to define post-Holocaust Judaism, and charts the conditions and the need for Jewish thought and education in an authentic but distanced dialogue with modern, i.e. Christian, society. These considerations are often interspersed with references to writers and thinkers who influenced Levinas such as Claudel, Heidegger, Hegel, Spinoza, S. Weil, Gordin and Rozensweig, but more frequently to sacred texts, the Bible and the writings of the Sages of Israel which Levinas felt were so critical to study. Can it be said that Levinas' modernity may be found in his appeal to Jews to return to those old "worm-eaten tractates" (the Jew of the Talmud should take precedence over the Jew of the Psalms)? These articles are still innovative, sharp, concise and overarching; the style is sometimes lyrical – Levinas rarely wrote in such a strident, argumentative way, blending conviction and stupefaction.

Beyond the obligatory step of analyzing the title (taken from the last few words of the article "Education and Prayer") this conference aims not only to place the essays in Difficult Freedom in their historical context and within Levinas' evolving thought, but more importantly to examine them afresh – with the wonderment and probing they still elicit today. Diachronic and synchronic analyses of the articles in Difficult Freedom will help situate them with respect to Levinas' other works, themes could be explored such as the Holocaust, Israel, phenomenology, ethics, links to Heidegger, Rozensweig, French philosophers and writers, Talmudic readings, Levinas' relationship to Christianity, etc.

This international conference is organized by the Société internationale de Recherches Emmanuel Levinas (SIREL), and by the North American Levinas Society (Purdue, USA), in conjunction with the Levinas Ethical Legacy Foundation (New York), the Centre Raissa et Emmanuel Levinas (Jerusalem), and other partners to be announced. The conference will host participants from all over the world, with more than a hundred presentations. Priority will be given to students and young researchers. The proceedings will be published (articles selected by the editorial committee). If funding permits, some financial aid may be made available, in particular to young researchers.

1. On or before July 14, 2009: submission of title and a short author bio-bibliography.
2. On or before September 30, 2009: submission of a 500-word abstract presenting the paper (talks will be 20 minutes, in French or in English).
3. On or before November 15, 2009: author notification, based on the decision of the scientific committee.
4. February 2010: publication of conference program.

Questions concerning this conference and all submissions should be sent
(preferably as Microsoft Word files) electronically to:
Society Newsletter, 4.1 May

Sunday, May 17, 2009

My UCLA Talk

My UCLA talk ("Literature, the Holocaust, and the Midrashic Impulse") can now be heard online. You can even hear my post-illness smoker's voice. There were lots of lovers and haters in the audience, which is evident in the question/answer session. I never really thought of my work as being so provocative until this talk, but I realize now that typically, people either love or hate what I'm doing.

One female scholar of Rabbinic Midrash (who I actually respect and admire quite a bit) told me I should abandon the idea of midrash altogether. If there's one thing I've learned, it's that it will be very difficult to persuade some people to accept the use of a sacred term ("midrash") outside of its sacred context. I don't aree with this woman, but it's certainly something to think about.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Discovering Agnon and his Doubters and Skeptics

I was recently introduced to the writer S.Y. Agnon by Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, who also gave a talk last night, which I attended. Agnon has been on my "need to read" list for a few years now, but I kept pushing him back onto the shelves. I've only read a couple of his stories so far, but I'm hooked--he's compelling on so many different levels.

As Rabbi Bouskila suggested, while Agnon's work utilizes the language of the Talmud and Midrash, he explores something that is radically missing from these sacred texts: emotional states of being, and the ambivalence of emotion that often characterizes the authentic human experience. To be anchored in one world, but long for another is a theme dutifully explored by Agnon.

A number of Agnon's stories--including "Fable of the Goat," which we read at the talk last night--play with Talmudic stories, flipping them upside-down and intricately re-telling them in the context of modern/postmodern questions and quandries. And I suppose this is the primary reason I find Agnon so compelling. His grappling with the sacred texts shows (in my reading) his love for them, even if he feels the need to respond to them with literary re-inventions of his own. Rabbi Bouskila called one story a midrash on a prior Talmudic tale--I think he's right.

And here's something I love. In Afar Eretz Yisrael, Agnon writes: "The doubters and skeptics, and all who are suspicious of things--they are the only people of truth, because they see the world as it is." The "truth" is not typically black and white, as I was taught to believe. Truth is always already subject to scrutiny and interrogation, or it is not truth. And it must be so, if only that we might never fall into the trap of thinking that truth does not evolve along with us.

It reminds me of something E. L. Doctorow once said, and to which I return again and again, even on this blog: "True faith cannot answer the intellect with a patronizing smile."

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Jews and the Jesus Problem

In an essay in The Forward, Jay Michaelson writes about the Jesus issue in the Jewish community:

"One wonders when, if ever, we Jews will be able to heal from the trauma of Christian oppression and actually learn from, while still differentiating ourselves from, Christian teaching and tradition. Along my own spiritual path, I’ve been amazed at how much I learn from the teachings of other traditions — Buddhism, Hinduism, Paganism, Sufism — yet how jittery I get when it comes to Christianity. Yes, like many Jews, I have an appreciation for the teachings of Jesus, and I even wrote my master’s thesis on Paul and the Talmud. But this isn’t enough. I want to understand Christ the way Christians do — not to become one of them, but in order to enrich my own religious life. I want to learn from them how to have a personal relationship with a personal, humanized, embodied God who cares, and who saves. I want to experience Jesus as a human being enlightened enough to see everyone as holy, even the impure, the leprous and the marginalized. And I want to follow his example, seeing all my fellow human beings and myself as sons and daughters of God."

I like this paragraph because it resonates with something I often say as I try to reconcile my Christian background with my Jewish impulses. Perhaps it doesn't matter whether or not one believes that Jesus is the son of God. Perhaps it is more important that we live a life like his, that we learn to see the value of loving our neighbor.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Thou Shalt Argue With G-d

This week I've been reading a recent collection of Jewish fiction called Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction From the Edge. I've read most of the authors in the book, but some were new to me. Aimee Bender, Ellen Umansky, and Rachel Kadish are three writers who I'll likely return to--good stuff.

In Kadish's "The Argument,"a man named Kreutzer is sent to a nursing home to see if he can get the old dementia-stricken rabbi to reveal the whereabouts of the deed to the synagogue. Kreutzer, who had previously made it a weekly ritual of his to compose notes to the rabbi expressing his dissatisfaction with the sermons, finds the encounters to be awkward. Kreutzer can't get the rabbi to recall ever being in a synagogue, let alone the words of the sh'ma or any other prayers.

In one instance, Kreutzer recalls his own younger days, when he attended a cheder:

"Paired with another boy--for a Jew must study with a partner, a co-counsel in the court of the One True Judge--[he] was instructed in the skills of debate. When God's people debate His tradition, He knows they love Him. True faith, the rabbis taught, was an unresolved argument. Jews argued; in His heavens God laughed and was satisfied."

As someone who loves to argue with religion and tradition (and G-d), this resonates with me because I know that I do it out of love. And when I feel that I hate it, it is only because it feels, for a moment at least, that the argument that surrounds it--the dialogue--has come to a close. And there is nothing in that space. Nothing for me.

I'm also reminded of something that E. L. Doctorow has said
in a couple of different places: "True faith cannot answer the intellect with a patronizing smile." The unresolved questions and arguments that surround faith, religion, sacred texts, and G-d are the necessary realization of "true" faith.

I've decided that, yes, G-d is pleased when we argue His traditions. But somehow we are always left wanting more, never satisfied in the way that He must be. But perhaps that is as close to happiness or satisfaction that we can come in this world.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Kosher Adventures

Today was a long day, and not just because I have been sick for the past two weeks. The other day, I was invited to a seder (for tonight, the first night of Pesach) at the home of an Orthodox Jewish friend of mine. I was asked to bring the charoset, kosher wine, and some kind of kosher for Passover entree. No big deal, I thought to myself. This is Los Angeles, and I can wait until the last minute to collect these goods. Kosher food is everywhere in LA, right?

Not really.

Normally I would jump at the chance to make my own charoset and cook up some food for the seder. But I don't keep kosher, which means nothing I might cook could possibly be kosher for Passover. So I took a drive up Wilshire, but Whole Foods was sold out of the kosher for Passover potato latkes, and nobody knew what charoset was. They kept pointing me toward the matzo. I did, however, find a bottle of kosher for Passover wine.

I finally found one kosher glatt market on Santa Monica Boulevard, but the place was madness and mayhem, with lots of pushing and shoving and very little left on the shelves. They had neither charoset nor prepared kosher for Passover entrees.

So I traveled over to the Pico-Robertson area, where all the kosher restaurants and markets of LA can be found. But it was 4pm and they were all closed. "Why would you look for charoset now?" asked one very large and sweaty Iranian Jewish man who kept pushing back his yarmulke.

Great question. I never did find what I was looking for.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Holocaust Films and Second Generation Voices

I just watched The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. It's set during WWII and is about an 8-year-old boy, the son of an SS soldier in charge of one of the camps, who befriends a boy his age on the other side of the fence. Near the end of the film, the German boy actually dons a prisoner's attire and sneaks into the camp, with dire consequences. I suppose it puts a new spin on the idea of artists going into the camps in order to represent the Holocaust.

At first I was opposed to the idea of this film--respecting the unknowability of the tragedy and all that--but I think I liked it in the end. The moments depicted within the gates of the camp are minimal, and the entire narrative is told primarily through the eyes of the 8-year-old. What remains is the child's untainted perspective of how senseless and illogical and barbaric everything really is.

I gave a little talk at LMU today, and I learned that last week the students listened to a public lecture by a second generation Holocaust survivor who basically denounced every single Holocaust film out there, not to mention the numerous works of fiction that don't quite live up to his expectations when it comes to representing the Holocaust. Apparently, this film was one that he mentioned negatively.

But this leads me to another question that I explored with my students over this past winter quarter: What right does even the second generation survivor have to usurp the narrative of the Holocaust? What right does s/he have to claim authority over the ethics of talking about the event? Are they not, perhaps, still a bit too close to the trauma? Certainly their voices are critical to understanding the ongoing legacy of the Holocaust, but does that also mean that they are authorities on the ethics of Holocaust representation?

Saturday, March 07, 2009

The Midrashic Impulse

I don't usually write directly about my main project, but I'll be blogging every now and then over at a friend's blog, and I've just written a post on what I call the "midrashic impulse." The challenge was to write a brief summary of what I'm working on for an audience of educated people who are not in my field. Little do they know, it's often hard enough to explain my project to people who are in my field...

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Redeeming the Perpetrator's Voice

Yesterday I heard a talk given by Eyal Sivan at UCLA as part of a conference on Leo Hurwitz's filming of the Eichmann trial. Sivan is the filmmaker responsible for The Specialist, a film inspired by Hannah Arendt's book Eichmann in Jerusalem (and by her argument regarding the banality of evil). The film, however, is not without its fair share of controversy, and after listening to Sivan today, I can understand why.

He used two phrases, a number of times, that I found especially provocative. Regarding the editing choices he used in putting together the clips of the actual footage of the trial for his film, Sivan asked, "Why are we not redeeming the perpetrators' voices?" He also talked about what he calls the "silencing of the perpetrator." He then went on to reduce Holocaust scholars' (and Israel's) tendency to "redeem" the voice of the victim to little more than a continuation of the Christian tradition of relying on a Jewish victim narrative.

Yes, of course, he's right--it's exactly the same thing.

Now, I actually like The Specialist, so I have no reason to think ill of Sivan or his work. And I do believe that it's important to hear what the perpetrators are/were saying--not because there are two sides (in the case of the Holocaust), but because Nazi voices are witnesses to the atrocity as well.

My problem here is that an ethical awareness was conspicuously missing from Sivan's claim (at least in this brief talk). He did reference Agamben at one point when he spoke of witness (albeit in a somewhat dismissive manner), so I'm sure he's aware of the importance of such ethical considerations. But there was no discussion of why he feels it is necessary to "redeem" the perpetrators' voices. My answer would be that perhaps in some testimonies--for example in the case of many Nazis who were tried at the Nuremberg trials (i.e. Goering), who neither demonstrated remorse nor offered apology--we need to hear what is not there, namely responsibility.

The absence of ethical awareness that can be seen in many of the testimonies is as important to the memory of the Holocaust as the voice of the survivor, or of the testimony of those who did not survive, whose dead and mutilated bodies speak for them. And in the case of those perpetrators' voices that do admit responsibility to a certain degree--well, we need to hear those too, even if they challenge(d) the dominant narrative of evil, non-human monsters creating heinous crimes by showing us that the perpetrators often seem quite average. And surely this was part of Sivan's goal--to underscore the complexity of the situation rather than buy into the paradigm of good vs evil.

But is it asking too much to suggest that Sivan should address the ethical nuances of this situation rather than to simply demand both sides of the story?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

CFP: Humor in Jewish American Literature at the MLA

I'm on the executive committee for the Modern Language Association's Jewish American Lit group. For some reason our CFP for this year's panel at the MLA conference in Philadelphia did not get circulated, so I thought I'd post it here.

Modern Language Association Conference: Philadelphia, PA December 27-29 2009

Panel: "Jewish Wry"--Humor in Jewish American Literature

This panel is a tribute to the late Sarah Blacher Cohen, whose work dealt with humor in Jewish American literature. We are looking for papers that deal with any aspect of humor in Jewish American literature. Please send abstracts to Ann Shapiro at before March 1, 2009

Friday, February 06, 2009

Women Victimizing Women

So it looks like Samira Ahmed Jassim, a 51-year-old Iraqi woman who confessed to recruiting and sending more than 80 female suicide bombers off to their pointless deaths, has been arrested in Iraq.

Sure, we all have causes we believe in. And I think we can agree that suicide bombing is bad for all involved, and is needless to say the epitome of what it means to take something too far. But this woman takes it to yet another level, and makes all the other suicide bombers and recruiters look good, if such a thing were possible:

In a prison interview with the Associated Press — with interrogators nearby — she said that she helped to organise the rapes of young women and then stepped in to persuade the victims to become suicide bombers as their only escape from the shame.

I understand that people who blow themselves and others up think they are fighting for a cause--that they are fighting for the freedom of their people. But who, or what, is Jassim fighting for when she violates, dehumanizes, and sends women off to their deaths all under the guise of obliterating the shame that she herself has given them?

And here I was thinking that Sarah Palin was the big bad witch of the northern hemisphere, with her insistence that rape victims must pay for their own rape kits. Suddenly I feel silly for over-criticizing Palin when there are far worse indecencies being committed against women in other parts of the world.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Agamben and the Camps

On Thursday I had my class read Giorgio Agamben's Remnants of Auschwitz. Instead of stumbling through my own lecture on the material, I asked someone who knows Agamben's work well to come and teach it for me. The lecture and discussion were great, even if my guest lecturer and I disagreed on some minor points. In fact, I'm more excited about Agamben now, particularly because what he's doing is so central to my own work on the ethics of Holocaust representation--especially his ideas about testimony and the Muselmann.

But there was one point of contention that I have not been able to fully work through. Then again, if the truth be told, I'm still working through pretty much of all of Agamben, so it's highly possible that I'm getting some things wrong in my analysis here.

The guest lecturer introduced into the class discussion Agamben's argument that the camps have become the norm (a comment that he apparently makes in Homo Sacer). Agamben uses the paradigm of the concentration camps to suggest that the "bare life" to which the camp inmates were reduced (they were called Muselmanner when they reached this point) is the extreme example of the point to which, today, we are reducing the lives of others. It is an example of the state of exception becoming, well, not an exception. In Agamben's view (or what I think is his view), it is not that we are making Muselmanner out of people, but rather that the Muselmann is the potential outcome of some of our current power structures--to the degree that the political arena begins to dictate the way in which people can live their life. And Agamben is concerned with how these states of exception become the bases for rules and regulations in the real world.

As the guest lecturer suggested, the case of Terri Schiavo provides one example for what is seen as the biopoliticization of human beings. Schiavo, in a vegetative state, was the epitome of "bare life"; she was still breathing, but was unable to speak or make any choices about her life. In this state, she became the object for heated political debates regarding who gets to decide when life should end. The Schiavo case is not an example of what our power structures have necessarily reduced a person to, but of the politicization of bare life, and the laws that are created based on such exceptional circumstances.

Okay, so let me connect all this back to the idea of the camp, and what makes me uncomfortable. In class, the suggestion was made that the idea of the (concentration) camps becoming the norm can be seen in the case of Guantanamo Bay and the treatment of the inmates there, who are treated like prisoners but have no access to legal representation. The "exception" is made here because we are (or, were, given the change in the rhetoric of the new administration in regard to "the war on terror") in exceptional circumstances in a post-911 era. So it's another instance in which laws are made based on exceptional circumstances.

Okay, fine. On one hand, I get what Agamben is saying--the power structures that allow people to be placed into camps and ultimately (at their extreme end) reduced to Muselmanner are also at work in places like Guantanamo Bay. I guess the point is that we need to examine these power structures and understand how they function so that we do not experience the manifestation of their extreme end again.

But I am still not comfortable with saying that the camps have become the norm. The implicit comparison bothers me. Perhaps we might find figures in our world who have become like Muselmann for various reasons, but I fear that in allowing such a comparison to be made we forget that the Muselmann of the camps did not become that way because of any of the choices they made; their mental and physical breaking down was intentional, and it was based on nothing other than the fact that they were Jewish.

Monday, January 19, 2009

De(i)fying the Holocaust

Tonight I was planning to see The Reader, just one of the many Holocaust films that are out right now. But after reading Jeffrey Goldberg's interview with Ed Zwick, the director of Defiance, I think I will see this one instead (yes, I plan to see them all, but one film at a time). Interestingly, A.O. Scott suggests that Defiance only re-affirms historical stereotypes, while Goldberg sees it as an attempt to comment on stories of Jewish resistance during WWII that are "insufficiently told."

More to come on Defiance...

Friday, January 02, 2009

Jews, Non-Jews, and Holocaust Memory

I have three days to organize the class I'm teaching this winter--"The Limits of Representation: Ethics and the Holocaust." I'm going to be teaching things like Giorgio Agamben (Remnants of Auschwitz), Primo Levi (The Drowned and the Saved), and Emmanuel Levinas ("Useless Suffering"); as well as fiction like David Grossman's See Under: Love, Aryeh Lev Stollman's The Far Euphrates, Anne Michaels' Fugitive Pieces, and Michael Chabon's Final Solution. I'll also look at some poetry by Paul Celan and a couple of films including Claude Lanzmann's Shoah. The texts are all there--I just need to decide how to arrange them.

I was discussing the course with someone, and after listing the texts I planned to include, I heard him ask, "And what non-Jewish writers are you using?" I had to think about it for a second, and I realized that other than Agamben and an essay by Dominick LaCapra, all of the texts are by Jewish writers. But is this really a problem?

Typically when I plan a literature course, I try to include works by writers from different backgrounds. In a contemporary American literature course, for example, I make sure to include works by women and people of different ethnicities. But it didn't occur to me in this context--I simply thought about the works I considered to be the best when it comes to approaching the topic of Ethics and the Holocaust.

So I'm teaching a bunch of Jewish men. And I'm not really that concerned about diversity this time around. But maybe this is wrong.

The question is whether or not I have an obligation to seek out books and essays about the Holocaust that are written by non-Jews. And, the second question is whether or not Jews, the primary group targeted by Hitler's genocidal impulses, have some kind of monopoly on the theoretization of Holocaust representation. Does being Jewish give someone a more authentic perspective of the Holocaust, or does it imply some kind of blindspot?