Overweening Generalist

Friday, October 19, 2012

My Weird Jewish Pangs: A Divulgence

I don't know when it started, but it definitely recurs. Something will trigger it. I'll read something particularly brilliant, and quite often: yep. There it is: a Jewish name attached. I think it all first started for me when I was around 13. My last name? Johnson.

I was one of those introverted, bookish kids. Deep in WASPy Los Angeles suburbia. I don't recall ever knowing a Jewish person; that is, I somehow didn't know what "jewish" meant. I'd heard the word, but it was a cipher. I always had one best friend as a kid, and we spent all our time together. When I was 13, my best friend was a kid that got the best grades in math, and he also broke the school record for the  mile run. I think his background was British, by way of North Carolina. We were both bookish in our own ways. We had other friends, too.

                                                           Woody Allen 

My mom thought we'd like a new movie - new to us, because at the time our little burgh filled with white flighters didn't have its own movie theater - and my mom had to drive my pal and I to an adjacent town to see the second run of a film called Take The Money and Run. I remember we laughed through the whole thing, then stayed and watched it again. As I remember it, we were the only people under 30 in the theater. It felt that way. Back then, if you paid once and you wanted to see the film again, you just remained in your seat and waited for another showing. They didn't chase you out. Anyway, at 13, all I knew was this Woody Allen guy was a genius.

Later, I developed quite a taste for Allen's books and films. As I slowly pieced together for myself ideas of "Jews" - reading the OT on my own, trying to figure out Israel and Palestine, tracing that history, I kept running into writings and ideas that I found endlessly interesting, and almost always some Jew was at the center of it all.

Now: my people are from Norway, Scotland, England, Sweden. But on the West Coast of Unistat, in the last third of the 20th century, in the suburbs of LA, I had no religion. I grew up with no tradition. My mother had been active in the League of Women Voters and was a JFK Democrat. I don't remember my father talking about intellectual ideas at all. He wasn't religious but he was good at sales and had very many friends because he was a master joke-teller and genuinely loved people. He was the life of the party.

How did I become so bookish? Around age 20 or so, I remember I sort of thought I was sort of...jewish. But how incredibly not Jewish I was! My ancestors were not hounded all over he globe and  subject to pogroms.

                                          Franz Kafka, prophet of absurd State power

Well, growing up an introverted asthmatic kid, in suburbia, with long hair and guitar, not Protestant, not wealthy, with an anxious mother who passed that on to me...I escaped into books and other worlds, other ideas. This was a world inordinately influenced by Jews, an influence far above their numbers relative to the larger population.

So: being alienated and persecuted for looking like a dirtbag pothead rock and roller in a small, smoggy white town overwhelmingly clean-cut, Republican and WASPy was one aspect. My bookishness ("Why do you...read books?," I distinctly remember a fellow band-member ask me) was another. The asthma and anxiety was probably another ingredient. Anyway, I most definitely felt (and still to this day feel) as The Other...without any of the Holocaust-y stuff bagged in there.

And by my late teens I had become steeped in Jewish humorists and had become interested in ideas by people like Spinoza, Marx, Freud, Einstein, and later, Chomsky. I had practically memorized Groucho's lines from Duck Soup. 

[It occurs to me my blog entries on "Favored Hungarians" can double as "More Jews That I've Found Fascinating."]

I recently became acquainted with a writer friend's friend, a San Francisco writer named Chaim Bertman, roughly my age. He was housesitting for my friend and I went over to check on him and we talked rapid-fire about odd ideas for a solid hour as I stood in the doorway. I asked him if he'd published and he told me of his 10 year old first novel. Later that night I found a library that had it in its catalog so I obtained it a couple days later and read it. He'd previously said he'd like to read my (this) blog. As I read his first chapter, it was so fine, so writerly, that I felt like calling him up to request that he not read my blog. His book - which he seemed quasi-embarrased about, or maybe it was such ancient history to him? - is called The Stand-Up Tragedian and it came out in 2001. If you want to write a novel about not being able to write a novel while having picaresque adventures through Israel, Florence, and all over Unistat, you will have a tough time topping this guy. He writes beautifully. I loved one little moment, when the protagonist (who seemed very like Chaim; it was difficult to not read the book as poetic autobiography) is talking on the phone to his university professor-father, who wants him to finally settle down and "do" something with his life."Eric" dodges the question and tells his father a Hasidic story:

"I asked him if he knew the story of Rabbi Isaac, son of Yekel, in Cracow. I'd found it in an English translation of a book of Hasidic tales. It explained better than I could what had set me into motion - why I wanted to be a writer.

"After many years of poverty, which had never shaken his faith in God, Rabbi Isaac dreamed that someone had bade him look for a treasure in Prague, under the bridge that leads to the King's palace. Rabbi Isaac didn't have a curvy bone in his body: He always told the truth. When he arrived at Prague, Rabbi Isaac ingeniously told a native his dream. 'Treasure, king, bridge, palace,' the man laughed. 'I have dreams too - who doesn't? Me, for instance, I keep having this dream that I find a big treasure under the stove of some poor Jew by the name of Isaac, son of Yekel, in Cracow. But you think I'm going to wear out my shoes, walking to Cracow, where one half of the Jews are named Isaac, and the other Yekel?' And he laughed again. Rabbi Isaac bowed, traveled home, and found his shovel." (p.16)

This tale acts as a fractal for the entire book. His next book will be science fiction, Bertman told me.

                                                             Robert Scheer

Robert Scheer
One of my favorite political writers. My beloved English professor - the best teacher I'd ever had and who was incidentally not a Jew -  told me about Scheer, who I'd never heard of. Scheer had written a book on how dangerous and crazy Reagan and the people he was surrounded with were; Reagan was into his second term and my Professor pointed me toward Scheer's With Enough Shovels. Some Reaganite had told Scheer that nuclear war was winnable, it's not that bad: we can dig holes in the ground and dirt is a wonderful thing. And he was serious.

I followed Scheer closely after that, then realized he had been writing in "my" newspaper, the Los Angeles Times. Later I found out he'd been involved in SDS, had written for Ramparts and maybe even, if memory serves, The Berkeley Barb, all sorts of romantic things.

Anyway, he'd published, in the Times, a very long, three-part piece that ran January 29-31, 1978: "The Jews of Los Angeles." It was filled with history, influential figures, and all sorts of arcane (to me) minutiae about various schisms and causes and immigration routes to LA, and statistics. (You can find it collected in Scheer's Thinking Tuna Fish, Talking Death.) It clarified some things for me about Jewish identity that I've never ceased to think about since: the idea of Jews as a race (and how this must be preserved, and various other dissenting takes by Jews); the idea that Israel is the most important thing to a Jew: to keep Israel safe and thriving. And third: the culture of improvement of the human race, which was based in a universalist idea. It is this face of Judaism - the universal brother and sisterhood of the human race - that appealed to me greatly. (And, in my current state of ignorance, I trace the historical epicenter over this idea, its coalescence, to Holland and Spinoza, but I will leave that for some future blauge/blah-g/blog.)

Scheer wrote of a retired female Jewish garment worker in LA. She didn't care about the ideas in the synagogue; she'd left oppressive Russia 50 years before. She did miss Yiddish speakers, socialist rousers coming to give furtive talks despite right-wing LA's WASP-rulers and their thriving Red Squads. "She missed the young Jewish girls in leather jackets, organizers in the fledgling garment district, transplants from the East Side of New York, trying to have their fiery idealistic commitment, and sunshine and oranges, too. [...] They passed this secular religion of the Jews - this special moral concern that would not quit - on to their young, who then flooded the ranks of the civil rights and antiwar movements."

Now, below is a passage that gave me an envious Jewish pang way back when, when I first read it. Recall that not for one moment was any "idea" ever discussed around my family's dinner table, while my mom and dad were still together, nor even after they split:

(Despite the sunshine and beaches of Santa Monica and the crime rate, rudeness on the buses, etc:) "But their minds were still occupied with social ideas, with what, for generations of Jews, had been the substance of life itself - with issues, with ideas, with what the contemporary Jewish writer Vivian Gornick captures best in her recent book [presumably The Romance of American Communism? published in 1978? - the OG]:

"It was characteristic of that world that during those hours at the kitchen table with my father and his socialist friends I didn't know we were poor. I didn't know that in those places beyond the streets of my neighborhood we were without power, position, material or social existence. I only knew that the tea and black bread were the most delicious food and drink in the world, that political talk filled the room with a terrible excitement and richness of expectation, that here in the kitchen I felt the same electric thrill I felt when Rouben, my Yiddish teacher, pressed my upper arm between two bony fingers, and his eyes shining behind thick glasses, said to me, 'Ideas, dolly, ideas. Without them, life is nothing. With them, life is everything.'" (Thinking Tuna Fish, pp.47-48)

                                              Meghan Daum, hilarious shiksa

Meghan Daum
Not long ago I finally got around to reading Daum's 2001 book of essays, My Misspent Youth. I first encountered Daum in the LA Times. I still read her online. She's wickedly funny, often self-deprecating, sometimes bitchy, always very intelligent. I had never given any conscious thought about whether Daum was Jewish or not. I just knew I had a crush on her because she was such a tremendous essayist.

So I'm reading through, admiring each piece, when I get to "American Shiksa" near the end. That tears it: Meghan is not Jewish. She's a WASP from the East-ish part of Unistat, now living on the Left Coast.

And she's got a variation of my Jewish pang.

When adolescence hit her, she skipped becoming a woman and instead became a shiksa:

"I just didn't have much taste for those praying quarterbacks, those hunks in blue satin choir robes, the hulking social drinkers, the swaggering lifeguards and stockbrokers, the good old boys from the verdant athletic fields of my youth. I discovered Jewish men like I discovered books in the library, tucked away in the dark corners of suburbia, reticent and wise and spouting out words I had to look up in the dictionary. Unlike Christian men with their innate sense of entitlement, with their height and freckles and stamp collections and summer Dairy Queen jobs, all those homages to the genetics and accoutrements of Western Civilization, Jewish men were rife with ambiguity, buzzing with edge. Their sports were cognitive, their affection seemingly cerebral. They were so smart that they managed to convince girls like me that they liked me for my brain, that even though I was a shiksa, even though I had been deprived of Hebrew school and intense dinner debates about the Palestinian Question, I was a smart girl."(pp.129-130)

She goes on in hilarious detail. Daum eventually married a Jew. You could see it coming. Oh my gawd Daum is funny. And she's not even Jewish! (Well, maybe she got some of it via osmosis?) Anyway, I ain't the only one, although I myself have never had a Jewish girlfriend...until my wife found her birth parents and it turns out her biological father is Jewish. I'd rather not get into the particulars as to whether that actually "counts," because it's not my point. My point is: I missed out on Vivian Gornick's tea and black bread and ideas being "everything."

                                            Steve Almond. I identified a lot with the 
                                            main character in his short story, "My Life
                                            In Heavy Metal," which, 'nuff said.

Steve Almond
I recently read, with mounting envy, his collection of essays, (Not That You Asked): Rants, Exploits, and Obsessions, from 2007. His obsession with Kurt Vonnegut, his run-in with Fox News after he quit his Adjunct Professor job at Boston University after they invited Condoleeza Rice to talk. An essay on the Boston Red Sox that is probably the finest piece of sports fandom-sickness I've ever read, and I've read a lot. I'm a connoisseur. Almond writes about sex in the most frank and funny manner. Read his books if only for the sex. He's not an erotic writer, although at times he writes about sex in such a starkly truthful and poignant and poetic way, he seems erotic nevertheless. And then, near the end of the book, an essay on his Jewish identity, "Ham For Chanukah":

"It will be difficult to explain why, as full-blooded Jews, the spawn of actual rabbis, we took part in this deeply fucked-up ritual. But I am going to try to explain. Because that is what Jews do: we try to explain." (p.273)

Almond tells why his upbringing near Stanford was so non-religious: his parents were professionals. They were busy. His grandparents had a lot to do with it, too, and Almond is hilarious about it: "My paternal grandfather Gabriel endured a thorough Jewish education, then went off and became a famous political scientist. His basic attitude was that God had done some interesting work early on, but hadn't published much lately."

Well into his adulthood, Almond didn't seem to consciously identify with any of those three aspects of Jewish identity: Race. Israel. Universalism. Gabriel's wife was Jewish but seemed to so desire assimilation in the US that she seemed almost "tacitly anti-semitic," identifying with German culture and becoming involved with the Unitarian Church.

Eventually, as Almond grows and begins thinking for himself about his background, he gravitates to the universalist aspect of identity:

"My appreciation of Judaism has more to do with pride. I viewed my people as pound-for-pound champions of consciousness - Christ, Marx, Freud, Einstein - stars of the longest-running ethnic drama on earth..." (p.285)

Here's a passage that activated my pang big-time. Almond's mother spoke Yiddish, and passed a large Yiddish vocabulary on to Steve. Almond writes:

"I cannot begin to express my adoration for Yiddish, the official language of the shtetl Jews and the most emotionally precise vernacular ever devised. More than any holiday ritual, Yiddish is the legacy my mother passed on to me. I once actually wrote an entire cycle of poems (awful, all of them) devoted to the Yiddish word schmaltz." (p.285)

He writes that his "recovering Catholic" wife wanted to convert to Judaism, which moved him greatly, and they will bring their daughter up in Judaism. "She will know where and who she came from. She will be loved unreasonably. The rest is hers to determine."

Almond impressed the hell out of me a few months back when he dared to publish a critical essay on Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert - and their slavish fans, of which I guess I'm one - for congratulating themselves for being so cool and hip and smart, when, Almond thought, Stewart and Colbert were more enabling and giving air time to fascists. I admired the essay even though I thought Almond misunderstood the function of satire and comedy - and Almond does both very very well himself - but he really made me think. (I'm always grateful for this.) When the piece was picked up by Huffington Post, I was embarrassed for the 3000 (it seemed like it) liberals in the comments section who lashed out at this "Steve Almond" for offending their immaculate tastes, making fun of his name, no one evincing the slightest hint they knew who he was, accusing him of being a sour grapester who probably got turned down for a writing gig with Stewart or Colbert. Thereby sorta proving - or at least strongly bolstering - Almond's points.

It's this kinda schtuff that get me all lathered up in admiration. A brilliant Jew taking on another brilliant Jew (and Colbert is a Catholic): all ideas are worth fighting over. Words. Ideas. Creativity. Intelligent Talk. Books. Science. Human Universalism.

Hoo-kay! Now: it's out there. My weirdo Jewish pangs of some sort of envy. But in my heart, I'm sort of Jew myself. Indulge me? Do a mitzvah and grant a goy some delusion?


Eric Wagner said...

Great piece. I can relate. Having the same last name as a famous anti-Semite, I've often wondered about the influence anti-Semites have had on me, from Wagner to Crowley to Pound. Also, I spent a lot of time with Crowley's notions of Kabbalah, so the Hebrew alphabet has shaped my thinking, as have Jewish thinkers and anti-Semitic thinkers.

I wonder what you would make of that great Jewish memoir, I, Wabenzi?

Eric Wagner said...

Also, I just started reading the new David Thomson book, The Big Screen. He emphasizes the huge role Jews played in creating the American movie industry.

michael said...

I will make something of Zabor's book at some point.

Re: movie industry: from the Scheer essay "The Jews of Hollywood":

"Back in the old days, Jewish moguls dominated the movie business. To be sure, there were the Wasp enclaves like the Disney operation. But the most influential figures - the Warners, Goldwyn, Selznick - were European Jewish immigrants with accents who had been peddlers and became moguls. But they did not impose any Jewish sensibility on the industry's product. On the contrary, their fear of anti-Semitic attacks led them to exclude Jewish actors - with rare exceptions - from heroic parts, to shun serious Jewish themes, and to be consistently hostile to Zionist aspirations." (p.38)

Psuke said...

I confess to some of the same envy of the Jewish intellectual and artistic accomplishments, or sometimes the background of being so very steeped in a *discussion* of ideas rather than sermons.