Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Why is anti-Zionism racist?

A great article here about the debate on boycotting Israeli academics, by Robert Fine, Professor Emeritus, Sociology, Warwick University. He read this during a debate on the boycott at Leeds University this month.

A very interesting paragraph from the article:
"I am not against all boycotts, but I am against an academic boycott linked to a political doctrine that treats Zionism as a dirty word. Zionism is a kind of nationalism. Like other nationalisms it has many faces – at times socialist, emancipatory, in search of refuge from horror; at other times narrow, chauvinistic, exclusive and terroristic. It depends which face we touch. For most Jews, Zionism simply means commitment to the existence of a Jewish state and is compatible with a plurality of political views. Zionism is not fundamentally different in this respect from other national movements born out of opposition to colonial and racial forms of domination. Most show the same Janus-face. Consider, for example, the ANC’s African nationalism: on the one hand, it has overthrown apartheid and achieved constitutional revolution; on the other, it reveals its own proclivity to authoritarianism, corruption, violence and class politics. The murder of 34 mineworkers at Marikana was only the most visible sign of a new order in which profits are still put before people. What I object to is heaping onto ‘Zionism’ all the wrongs of nationalism in general, as if this nationalism were all bad while other nationalisms are off our critical hook. It is deeply regressive to turn ‘Zionism’ into an abstraction — abstracted from history (the Holocaust in Europe), abstracted from politics (conflict over land with Arab countries and Palestinians), abstracted from society (including the exclusion of most Jews from Middle East and Maghreb societies). It seems to me that there is some line of continuity between the abstraction of ‘Zionism’ today and the abstraction of ‘the Jews’ in the past."

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Defending Free Speech

I recently read the banned-in-India book on Hinduism. I can see why some Hindus are offended, but each time I mentioned this book, I also mentioned that I don't believe in banning speech no matter what the content, even if it offends me. I haven't recently re-thought my commitment to free speech, which I feel is part of my American identity. Since many other countries do criminalize some speech, the concept receives plenty of attention, however, and I just read a very good article explicating why arresting people for the content of their speech is objectionable and also why it's less effective than answering them.

"If You Want To Combat Hate, Don’t Outlaw Hate Speech—Counter It With Better Ideas" by James Kirchick was recently published in Tablet magazine. Quote: "by marking certain speech as politically taboo, the European political establishment has strengthened marginal voices. 'Outlawing the NPD will spare German society having to confront right-wing extremism,' Anetta Kahane, an anti-fascist activist, told the German magazine Der Spiegel last year. 'You won’t get racism out of people’s heads by banning the NPD. You’ve got to confront their attitudes.' In other words, the best weapon to combat offensive and stupid speech is intelligent, nuanced speech."

In the context of the jailing of Holocaust denier David Irving in Austria, Kirchick says: "banning Holocaust denial and throwing those who espouse it into jail hasn’t diminished the political inheritors of Austrian fascism. In fact, prohibiting public expression of neo-Nazism comfortably coexists with widespread nostalgia for Nazism."

I'm very convinced that besides the reasons above, free speech also means that no one gets to determine which ideas are acceptable, and which ones are taboo. In Arizona now, there's an effort to allow the owners of public establishments like bakeries, bars, and motels to discriminate against groups like gays if they claim that their religious ideas dictate this bigotry. Of course this is one step beyond speech, but I think banning speech would only encourage such violations of other people's rights.

Update February 25:
From Facebook

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Anniversary of Gustav Meyrink's "The Golem"

One hundred years ago, Gustav Meyrink began serialized publication of his fantasy novel The Golem. I haven't read it, but I've seen a very bizarre film based on it.

Both the novel and, briefly, the film are discussed in today's Guardian,in an article titled "Meyrink's The Golem: where fact and fiction collide." The author, David Barnett, calls Meyrink's book "one of the most absorbing, atmospheric and mind-boggling slices of fantasy ever committed to print." Some of the interesting material in Barnett's article:
"Although Meyrink's Golem is part of a long line of Prague golem stories which begins with Rabbi Loew in the 16th century, the legend of the golem goes back to Biblical times, the word appearing in Psalms to mean an "unshaped form" in God's eyes. According to the Talmud, Adam was the original golem, created from mud and 'kneaded into a shapeless husk'. The myth of the golem was prevalent in the Middle Ages, and Jakob Grimm of the fairytale brothers fame also wrote on them. 
"In Meyrink's hands, the Golem becomes a strange recurring presence, a being which manifests in Prague every 33 years. It appears with the face of Pernath, a doppelganger who adds to the increasingly unreal quality of the story. There is the sensation of secret machinations in the darkness; of being watched by persons unknown and for reasons unknowable. Events are being directed and shaped by powers beyond our perception."

Monday, November 18, 2013

Doris Lessing (October 22, 1919 - November 17, 2013)

Among the many obituaries for Doris Lessing, who died yesterday, I found the one in the Forward very interesting, "Doris Lessing and the Jews: Charting the Influences of the Beloved Nobel Prize Winner" by Benjamin Ivry. I was always interested in the many and varied Jewish characters in her novels, especially the earlier ones before she began writing tales of distopian futures and other themes from fantasy or genre literature. The Jewish presence was not surprising in novels about communist and other left-wing organizations in the mid-20th century. After all, there truly were many Jews involved in these movements. Her treatment of them was always interesting. I wrote a little about that yesterday on my other blog here: Doris Lessing.

According to Ivry's article, Lessing's fictional characters were based, she said, on real individuals she had known. He identifies many of them specifically in his article; for example: "In 'Martha Quest,' Lessing writes of Joss and Solly Cohen, a shopkeeper’s sons of a shop-owner who send the heroine books, which help her attain a 'dispassionate eye' on her country’s misfortunes: 'This detached observer, felt perhaps as a clear-lit space situated just behind the forehead, was the gift of the Cohen boys at the station.'"

Even in some of her later fiction, after she broke with the communists and Stalinists, she retained interest in Jews. According to Ivry:
From Communism’s failure, Lessing drew the conclusion: “We need to learn to watch our minds, our behavior. We need to do some rethinking. It is a time, I think, for definitions.” 
This prudent, watchful stance was further expressed in a series of futuristic dystopias, five novels grouped as “Canopus in Argos: Archives (1979–1983).” The critic Robert Alter has praised them as a “combination of fantasy and morality.” The first volume, Shikasta, is presented as a documentary account of a planet in danger. In a preface, Lessing describes her inspiration from the Old Testament, adding with understatement: “It is possible we make a mistake when we dismiss the sacred literatures of all races and nations as quaint fossils from a dead past… It is our habit to dismiss the Old Testament altogether because Jehovah, or Jahve, does not think or behave like a social worker.” Such narratives as the Tower of Babel and Sodom and Gomorrah are paralleled, albeit with the addition of spaceships and other sci fi-style paraphernalia.
 Ivry writes: "Throughout her long life, Lessing maintained a genial bonhomie towards Jews, telling the Associated Press in 2006 that when the American Jewish feminist Betty Friedan visited her in London, Lessing found her to be a 'good Jewish mother, we got on like anything.' She had a more mixed view of Allen Ginsberg and his Beat Poet pals, whom she found 'extremely likable, but this isn’t how they wanted to be seen… they weren’t as frightening and as shocking as they wanted to be. They were mostly middle-class people trying to be annoying.'”

Friday, November 8, 2013

DIaspora Museum

I've been to the Diaspora Museum on the campus of Tel Aviv University, though I haven't thought about it much recently. This article in "More Intelligent Life" about a visit to the museum is very thought-provoking:

CHILDREN OF ISRAEL



Authors on Museums: at the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, the novelist Adam Foulds could be one of the exhibits. Going back there for the first time since his gap year, he finds it forces him to think again about who he is.
The author describes the museum in great detail, along with his thoughts as a not-very-religious British Jew. He writes of his visit:
"I am a party of one. I have arrived at opening time when the museum is pretty much empty apart from a group of schoolchildren, seven-year-olds in bright yellow polo shirts being arranged cross-legged on the floor by their teacher, ready for their early induction into Diaspora history. I feel a twinge of affectionate sympathy for them: I know the weight that will shortly be settling on their small shoulders. The Jewish world has for some time been committed to teaching children about the Holocaust both as a proper memorial and to inculcate vigilance. What you have drummed into you as a Jewish child is that it has happened once and can happen again. You are introduced at an early age to some of the most horrifying crimes of violence and degradation ever perpetrated. Inevitably, they haunt you. More than that, they come to structure your imagination and moral understanding. You grow up asking questions about how you might have acted in the ghettos or camps, or who among your friends could be trusted to hide you in their attic if push came to shove. Moreover, you are left with the conviction that, in extremis, this is how humans are: a little hyperinflation, some food shortages, and man will be a wolf to man. This is what these seven-year-olds are about to learn—and who is to say, as the bodies pile up in Syria and the Congo and elsewhere, that it is wrong?"
And he draws these conclusions from one of the final exhibits --
It's a relief to move on to the endearingly outmoded displays on family and religious life with their plaster-cast models of studious children, festive meals and rites of passage. The coherence of Diaspora life that kept it robust enough to survive for 2,000 years is located here, in piety, recitation and repetition, the daily prayers, the dietary restrictions, the bar mitzvahs and marriages under ceremonial canopies, the funeral rites. For many who define themselves as cultural Jews, this raises a question. How can this identity be preserved in the absence of religious observance? The museum doesn't have an answer. I walk through the dimly lit displays among new arrivals at the museum, drifting between wall displays and glass cases. In a later gallery, I see celebrated Jewish contributors to science, music and literature. I watch the faces of Saul Bellow, Nelly Sachs, Nadine Gordimer and other Nobel literature laureates flash up on a screen. Leonard Bernstein waves his baton, Freud looks grave, Kafka haunted, and Einstein turns his dopey face to yet another camera. Figures from the great flourishing of assimilated, post-Enlightenment Jewish life, they are almost all of them non-religious. Consequently they disrupt, even terminate, the story that the museum tells."
A big conversation is going on in the Jewish press and sometimes more in public these days, between the rabbis and representatives of various traditional Jewish lifestyles and Jews who are forging new identities, particularly about the choices made by mixed-background families. Example, Being 'Partly Jewish' in the New York Times. What strikes me about them is that the traditionalists seem so focused on convincing the others to change, to dictate the choices of those who have taken a different path. This author is interesting in how he doesn't pay any attention to what they say.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Paul de Man, Antihero for our Times

Paul de Man was essentially a con man, one of the mid-20th century "inventors" of deconstruction. It's been known for a while that in the 1940s he wrote antisemitic propaganda for the Nazis -- but that's ok says his version of deconstruction, words are only words -- or whatever the deconstructionists exactly say that gets a person out of being responsible for what he publishes.

A new biography, The Double Life of Paul de Man by Evelyn Barish, has documented that he not only was a hypocrite, but also a convicted criminal (some sort of financial cheat), a bigamist, and a liar about his academic credentials. Who knows if this discredits his notorious philosophy -- as far as I know the initial revelation of his early propaganda articles had no particular effect on those who still adhere to his "principles."

To quote a review of this book in the Chronicle of Higher Education (with my red emphasis):
"'I would suggest that de Man was the antihero for our times,' Barish writes in the epilogue, 'and his pattern of secrets, crimes, flights, and self-reinventions is the stuff not just of drama, but of the madness that convulsed his own life and that of Europe in the era of Nazism.'
De Man's stance, the stance that made him famous, was that facts were unreliable, language was slippery. For a fugitive running from unpleasant facts, and one for whom lying was second nature, such a worldview was both natural and useful. 'The people that love de Man and continue to support him fundamentally say that there is no necessary connection between what a person does or says in his or her private life and what his or her ideas are,' said Barish. 'I'm not of that position.'"

Friday, October 18, 2013

Jewish Food in Poland


Reposted from my food blog post Polish Dinner, I thought this would be relevant to the theme of this blog.

Sunday we had dinner at  the Senator Restaurant in the Old City of Warsaw. We were invited by our friends Renata, Marek, and Michal, after a day at the new Jewish Museum and a splendid castle. (I'll be writing about them on Maetravels.)

First we walked through the Old City at sunset.
The inviting restaurant doorway was a bit past the main square ... 
And inside the entrance: collections of decorative items
(you can see Renata and Michael just barely reflected in the mirror).
The traditional style of the restaurant's decor and furnishings is in keeping with the very traditional Polish menu.
Renata behind the Belle-Epoch-style lamp
Pickles and a meat spread preceded our first course 
We chose two appetizers to share: potato pancakes with smoked salmon
and pirogis garnished with onions, both served on large platters. Above: my plate.
Most of us had roast duck with apples, cranberries, and roasted potatoes.
You can see that Renata's beer has a deeper color than mine: she chose the option of having
a small glass of raspberry juice to pour into it.
I was interested in the choice of cranberries, which are one of the few widely-used foods native to North America.
There were several similarities between the Senator Restaurant, where we ate on Sunday, and the Jewish-style restaurant where we ate in Krakow Saturday. For example, both served duck in a similar style, but their pirogis and several other dishes were subtly different.

The historic food styles of Jewish and non-Jewish Poles had many similarities and mutual influences, as well as influence on the evolution of American Jewish food in the early 20th century. The excellent, crisply-fried potato pancakes at this old-style restaurant, for example, were totally familiar to me -- similar to those I make but I think they were better than mine. In America today, chicken is far more common than duck or goose, but both were frequently raised and eaten in former times in Eastern Europe, so they still appear on traditional menus, both Jewish and not. I don't know if they are also common in modern Polish home cooking.

Naturally, one wonders about how faithfully these flavors and recipes reflect the cuisine of a by-gone era when most of the Jewish population lived in poverty. Most importantly, cooks in the Jewish restaurants of Krakow obviously are reconstructing the world of a people that was annihilated. They are cooking for tourists from a variety of places, not for locals who experienced an unbroken tradition. Some of the restaurants are even frankly Israeli, advertising such specialities as hummus. Certain dishes, one suspects, are more in a Polish than in a Jewish tradition. The nature of the restoration of "Jewish culture" in Krakow leads to lots of questions.

Royal Castle Warsaw, 1945 (Wiki Media)
The entire city was reduced to rubble.
The issue isn't limited to Jewish cultural restoration, however. In the past century the entire Polish population, including the vanishingly small number of Jewish survivors, have experienced several ruptures with their past. World War I, the reverberations of the Russian Revolution, and the independent Fascist years until 1939 when the Nazis invaded repeatedly shook up the country. World War II was incredibly destructive to Warsaw -- the entire old city where the Senator Restaurant stands was nothing but rubble in 1945, and had to be rebuilt based on photos, memories, and a few paintings by the Italian artist Canaletto.

Under communism, the Poles experienced severe shortages of all basic foods and commodities. These conditions obviously affected the types of recipes that people could make at home as well as what could appear on the menus of restaurants during those years up to 1989. Perhaps some traditions survived in the cuisine of the privileged communist authorities. But to a large extent, the cuisine and the restaurant interiors of today are restorations, based on memories and records -- perhaps with input from some of the Polish cooks who lived outside of Poland, especially in the US, during the 20th century.

All that said, I'm reluctant to make any judgements about authenticity of the food. It tasted very good to me -- in Krakow, the cooking met my expectations for Jewish food as I know it. (I've written a lot about it, but especially see this blog post about a pre-war book on Polish-Jewish cuisine.) Polish people including our hosts find this old-style cuisine, both Jewish and non-Jewish, appealing and perhaps nostalgic of some time that they remember or have heard about. And that's what counts, I think.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

"Spiritual but not Religious"

In the New York Times today: an article about mainstream Christianity vs. Evangelical Christianity, "A Religious Legacy, With Its Leftward Tilt, Is Reconsidered" by Jennifer Schuessler. The article explains that "a growing cadre of historians of religion are reconsidering the legacy of those faded establishment Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians, tracing their enduring influence on the movements for human rights and racial justice, the growing 'spiritual but not religious' demographic and even the shaded moral realism of Barack Obama — a liberal Protestant par excellence, some of these academics say."

I recognize that many of the trends that I've perhaps naively reflected in collecting my "hero or anti-hero" choices are the same as those described in the article. Judaism has undergone a parallel change, though I suspect that some of the social justice trends in Jewish life may have been a little ahead of the Protestant curve.

Interesting passage about the numerous books being reviewed in the article:
“At the end of the second Bush term, there was widespread interest in thinking about a religious left,” said Leigh E. Schmidt, a historian at Washington University in St. Louis, and the editor, with Sally M. Promey, of the recent book “American Religious Liberalism.” “The idea was, surely there is something besides simply a secular left.” 
That something often does not look very churchlike. The Smith and Promey volume, which collects papers delivered at the Princeton and Yale conferences, includes essays on Bahaism among early-20th-century artists and the “metaphysical liberalism” of the U.F.O. obsessive and cult writer Charles Fort, among other far-flung subjects. 
Conservative believers “may think this isn’t religion,” said Jon Butler, a Yale University scholar who is working on a history of religion in modern Manhattan. “But religion comes in an incredible number of forms.”

Monday, July 15, 2013

Abraham Sutzkever (July 15, 1913)

Haaretz has an article today -- "This day in Jewish history / A preeminent Yiddish poet is born" --commemorating the 100th birthday of AbrahamSutzkever, the Yiddish poet. I know very little about him, and found the article very fascinating. A few quotes:
"Abraham Sutzkever was born in Smorgon (today Smarhon, Belarus), a small industry city in what was then White Russia. During World War I, when their town was on the front line between German and Russian forces, the family took refuge in Omsk, Siberia. When his father died, his widow took the family back to Vilna, some 100 kms to the northwest, in 1921. It’s there that Abraham attended the Herzliya Jewish high school and audited classes at the local university: In both places he studied Polish poetry and literature.... "
"In June 1941, the Germans invaded Vilna, and Sutzkever and his wife, Freydke (whom he married in 1939), were herded into the newly created ghetto. He was assigned by the occupying force to catalog Jewish books and other works that were intended for shipment to Frankfurt for a planned Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question. He used the opportunity to hide away and thereby save drawings by Marc Chagall and a diary of Theodor Herzl’s, as well as other literary treasures from the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research (which after the war reconstituted itself in New York). Sutzkever was also active in the Jewish underground, and smuggled guns into the ghetto.... " 
"In 1946 Sutzkever testified at the Nuremberg Trials, and after moving around, from Moscow to Warsaw to Paris, he and Freydke came to Palestine. He was to remain there until he died, in Tel Aviv, on January 20, 2010."
Sutzkever won the Israel Prize in 1985. According to the article, his greatest work is titled “Lider fun Togbukh” (Poems from a Diary, 1974-1981), and he is recognized as a preeminent poet of the Holocaust. As usual, I intend to read some of his work or maybe more about his life; we'll see if I get around to it.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Yoram Kaniuk (May 2, 1930 - June 7, 2013)

From Ha'aretz:
"Kaniuk was born in Tel Aviv on May 2, 1930. The list of people associated with his early childhood reads like a who’s who of the early days of Tel Aviv’s cultural life and society. His father, Moshe Kaniuk, was the personal secretary of Tel Aviv’s first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, and became the first curator of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. His godfather was the poet Haim Nahman Bialik; his kindergarten teacher was the wife of pioneer and poet Joseph Haim Brenner; his school doctor was the poet Shaul Tchernichovsky."
Kaniuk wrote 17 novels and participated in many events as notable as the people he knew in his childhood. Also see this from the New Yorker which calls him "one of Israel’s greatest and least celebrated writers, and with each of his seventeen novels and seven short-story collections he died of being neither loved nor read, died the slow and painful death of rejection, poverty, and obscurity."

An editorial in Ha'aretz gives a number of interesting facts about Kaniuk including this:
"Around two years before his death, Kaniuk petitioned a district court demanding that he be 'released from the Jewish religion' and be registered with the Interior Ministry as having no religion, which is exactly how his grandson is registered since the boy's mother is not considered Jewish. In his petition, Kaniuk explained that he didn't want to be part of a 'Jewish Iran.' His struggle was successful and he was registered as having no religion."
The article concludes: "More attention should have been paid to him during his lifetime, and his struggles dare not be forgotten after his death."

I tried to read one of his novels -- must try again!

Monday, June 3, 2013

Frank Lautenberg (January 23, 1924 - June 3, 2013)

Senator Frank Lautenberg has died at the age of 89. I have admired his stands on many issues, but the obituary in the New York Times reminded me of his wide-ranging liberal achievements. Years ago, I worked for the company he ran -- ADP. At the time, I had no idea that its owner was such an exceptional example of a very successful businessman who stuck to his early ideals, perhaps because of his Jewish, working-class background (though I'm only guessing at the reasons).

From the Times  article:
"A freshman senator in the minority party [1984], he pushed through a provision to establish a national drinking age of 21, a measure that threatened to cut 10 percent of a state’s federal highway money if it did not comply." ...  
"In 1989, he led a successful fight to ban smoking on all commercial airline flights." ...  
"Mr. Lautenberg’s other legislative achievements include a 1996 law denying gun ownership to people who have committed domestic violence. He was also the author of legislation requiring that by 2012 all cargo destined for United States ports be screened for nuclear material, a requirement that both the Bush and the Obama administrations said could not be met." ...  
"Another Lautenberg measure gave refugee status to people from historically persecuted groups without requiring them to show that they had been singled out. The senator estimated that 350,000 to 400,000 Jews entered the United States under that 1990 law. Evangelical Christians from the former Soviet Union also benefited from the law."

From the Forward obituary: Frank Lautenberg, Dead at 89, Recalled as Jewish Senator Who Never Ran as One:
"The last World War II veteran in the Senate, Lautenberg was born into poverty in Paterson, N.J., before amassing enormous wealth as the CEO of Automated Data Processing, which he joined when the payroll-processing firm was a three-man storefront operation. 
"Though identifiably Jewish, and active throughout his life in Jewish causes, Lautenberg’s political achievements were largely not in areas of particular Jewish interest. At times, particularly early in his Senate career, he seemed to take pains not to be reduced to being simply a Jewish senator. 
"'He is a representative of the greatest generation and their values, which for many of us in the Jewish community are the values we subscribe to,' said Joel Rubin, a former aide to Lautenberg, speaking days before the Senator’s death.'"

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Amos Oz and the Posen Library

Amos Oz in collaboration with his daughter has written a new book titled Jews and Words, which discusses the topic of Jewish identity through questions of language and reading traditions. The book is concerned about some of the traditional Zionist ideas and about whether Jewishness resides in belief or belonging, according to a review in Tablet published a couple of days ago. After describing this book, the article proceeds to discuss the new Yale-Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization.

From the article in  Tablet:
"What the Posen Library represents, then—at least when it deals with the near-present—is a canon defined by anxiety about whether it constitutes a canon. A certain anxiety is, perhaps, implicit in the very idea of a “Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization.” The sheer completism of the project, the desire to get everything from recipes to choreography to novels to prayers between two covers, makes the reader think of the Posen Library in apocalyptic terms, as a kind of Noah’s Ark of Jewishness. Indeed, the making of anthologies is often the sign of a civilization in crisis: Think of a figure like the seventh-century Christian bishop Isidore of Seville, whose major work (aside from his bitter polemics against Judaism) was the Etymologiae, a 20-volume compendium of everything the Roman world knew about history, which served as a time capsule against encroaching barbarism.  
"Or, to use a more appropriate example, think of the Mishnah—a traditionally oral body of law that was written down around 200 CE in order to preserve it through an era of Jewish dispersion and decline. It is possible to see the Posen Library as a kind of secular Mishnah, an attempt to capture the core of Jewishness in a huge but finite number of pages. The difference is that while the rabbis knew what constituted that core—it was the Oral Law, the accumulated practice of centuries—the editors of the Posen Library cannot be so sure."
If I obtain either of these new books I will report further!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

"The Blessings of Atheism"

Susan Jacoby writing in the New York Times:
"It is primarily in the face of suffering, whether the tragedy is individual or collective, that I am forcefully reminded of what atheism has to offer. When I try to help a loved one losing his mind to Alzheimer’s, when I see homeless people shivering in the wake of a deadly storm, when the news media bring me almost obscenely close to the raw grief of bereft parents, I do not have to ask, as all people of faith must, why an all-powerful, all-good God allows such things to happen.  
"It is a positive blessing, not a negation of belief, to be free of what is known as the theodicy problem. Human “free will” is Western monotheism’s answer to the question of why God does not use his power to prevent the slaughter of innocents, and many people throughout history (some murdered as heretics) have not been able to let God off the hook in that fashion. 
"The atheist is free to concentrate on the fate of this world — whether that means visiting a friend in a hospital or advocating for tougher gun control laws — without trying to square things with an unseen overlord in the next. Atheists do not want to deny religious believers the comfort of their faith. We do want our fellow citizens to respect our deeply held conviction that the absence of an afterlife lends a greater, not a lesser, moral importance to our actions on earth."
I found the entire article enlightening.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Scientific Exploration of Religious Belief


In the current online New York Times (Dec. 13, 2012) I read an op-ed by T.M.Luhrmann about evangelical Christians, including Catholics, and their sensory imagining of Biblical events. It starts with citation of the Pope’s recent book, where he talks about the importance of understanding exactly what the Biblical text says and does not say; for example, the account of Jesus in the manger doesn’t mention singing angels or lowing animals. The pope finds nothing wrong with imagining their presence, but warns about keeping perspective on reality.

Luhrmann describes how important these imagined extensions are, especially where evangelicals imagine a personal relationship with God: “…evangelicals talk about the Bible as if it is literally true, but they also use their imagination to experience the Bible as personally as possible.”

In a fascinating article about out-of-body and near-death experiences and their neurology, published in the Atlantic this week, Oliver Sacks commented about Luhrmann’s book on the same subject as her article. Sacks, who has been writing about his experiences treating people with odd brain problems for many years, explores the whole topic of such religious revelations in the context of exactly what’s going on in the brain.

As a determined secularist, believing only in the material world, I find the examination of religious beliefs and their origins very interesting. I am really interested in learning about the origin of sprituality, and both articles addressed exactly the kind of understanding I would like to have.

Here’s a longer passage from Luhrmann’s article that explores the topic:
I am no theologian and I do not think that social science can weigh in on the question of who God is or whether God is real. But I think that anthropology offers some insight into why imaginatively enriching a text taken as literally true helps some Christians to hang on to God when they are surrounded by a secular world.

First, this way of knowing God involves what social scientists would call “active learning.” These evangelical churches invite worshipers to enter Scripture with all their senses. …  To Christian critics of these practices, they are a distortion of the Scripture, because they add to the text more than is actually there — your own memories of a summer by the seaside, the feel of heavy robes. To a social scientist, these practices ask that the learner engage in the most effective kind of learning: hands on and engaged.

Second, these practices make the experience of God personally specific. Vivid, concrete details help people to get caught up in a world that is not the one they see before them — and the more particular the details, the more powerful the involvement. Richly described settings — Narnia, Middle-earth, Hogwarts — become places that people can imagine on their own. Of course someone like J. K. Rowling might be horrified that readers have written tens of thousands of stories that carry on the lives of her characters, just as some evangelicals are horrified by other evangelicals who cozy up to God over a beer and chat with him in their minds. But social science suggests that details like these do make what must be imagined feel more real. -- “Hark! The Herald Angels Didn’t Sing” by T.M.Luhrmann, in the New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/14/opinion/what-didnt-happen-in-bethlehem.html?hp

As a longtime fan of Sacks, I was especially happy to learn his explanation of the biological basis for religious experiences. He explains that religious people of the sort Luhrmann described are sometimes able to reproduce the pathological experiences of brain crises by vividly imagining religious experiences. Here is a passage from his article:

Some religious people come to experience their proof of heaven by another route -- the route of prayer, as the anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann has explored in her book When God Talks Back. The very essence of divinity, of God, is immaterial. God cannot be seen, felt, or heard in the ordinary way. Luhrmann wondered how, in the face of this lack of evidence, God becomes a real, intimate presence in the lives of so many evangelicals and other people of faith.

She joined an evangelical community as a participant-observer, immersing herself in particular in their disciplines of prayer and visualization -- imagining in ever-richer, more concrete detail the figures and events depicted in the Bible. Congregants, she writes:

Practice seeing, hearing, smelling, and touching in the mind's eye. They give these imagined experiences the sensory vividness associated with the memories of real events. What they are able to imagine becomes more real to them.

Sooner or later, with this intensive practice, for some of the congregants, the mind may leap from imagination to hallucination, and the congregant hears God, sees God, feels God walking beside them. These yearned-for voices and visions have the reality of perception, and this is because they activate the perceptual systems of the brain, as all hallucinations do. These visions, voices, and feelings of "presence" are accompanied by intense emotion -- emotions of joy, peace, awe, revelation. Some evangelicals may have many such experiences; others only a single one -- but even a single experience of God, imbued with the overwhelming force of actual perception, can be enough to sustain a lifetime of faith. (For those who are not religiously inclined, such experiences may occur with meditation or intense concentration on an artistic or intellectual or emotional plane, whether this is falling in love or listening to Bach, observing the intricacies of a fern, or cracking a scientific problem.) -- “Seeing God in the Third Millennium” by Oliver Sacks, in the Atlantic. http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/12/seeing-god-in-the-third-millennium/266134/

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Franz Werfel: The Forty Days of Musa Dagh


“The most horrible thing that had been done was not that a whole people had been exterminated, but that a whole people, God’s children, had been dehumanized.” – The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, 2012 edition, p. 727)

I found The Forty Days of Musa Dagh – which I had never before read in any form -- amazing in a number of ways. I devoured the dense, nearly 900 page novel in just a few days, unable to put it down. I read the newly-published translation of Franz Werfel’s 1933 masterpiece, which includes about 25% more narrative than the previous English version.

I wrote this review initially for my other blog, but it fits the secular Jewish identity theme of this blog very well. I should research more about Werfel, who was born September 10, 1890, in Prague, grew up a friend of Kafka and Max Brod, and despite rumors to the contrary and the subject of his most famous book (The Song of Bernadette), never converted from Judaism.

I have written here a brief summary of what I find most admirable in The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.

First, I admired Werfel’s research into the 1915 massacre of Armenians by the Turks. I think the history of these events was already being suppressed by the late 1920s when Werfel began writing. His description of the ragged, starving, perishing Armenian masses of men, women, and children from the village of Zeitun was vivid. His descriptions of the Turkish authorities and their rationale for the genocide (not yet given a name) were overwhelming.

The day-by-day description of the people of seven Armenian villages near the Syrian coast who hid in the woods on the mountain Musa Dagh and resisted the deportation to nowhere being inflicted by the Turks is powerfully drawn. Each episode is based on true stories, particularly the survival of a few thousand villagers on Musa Dagh and their rescue by French troop ships.

Werfel maintained a remarkable balance between descriptions of collective suffering and of individual agony, so that the reader’s consciousness is drawn in both directions. He occasionally mentions acts of mercy by non-Armenians, but clearly shows that the moral bankruptcy of the Turkish leaders (quite a few directly taken from history) corrupted the common people, who are mostly depicted as looting and then resettling the villages whose inhabitants have been forced out. Also corrupted: the military, civil, and police authorities who directly deprived the Armenians of life and property.

On the political side, I kept thinking: how could Werfel write a Holocaust analogy before the Holocaust began? But I know the tragic answer: he was trying to warn of the terrible future that somehow he saw so clearly. Although he clearly admires the German Pastor Johannes Lepsius, another of the historical characters depicted in the book, he had no illusions about the meaning of the events to the mainstream German observers. While Lepsius begs everyone who will listen to act to save the Armenians, almost no one will listen to him; what aid he musters is too little too late. My very sad reaction to Werfel’s attempted warning was that the main learners who took a lesson from the massacre of the Armenians were the Nazis, not the humanitarians and not any future victims.

On the novelistic side, I was also impressed by the author’s choice of central characters, the French-educated Gabriel Bagradian. While the history is powerful, I thin Werfel keeps the reader’s attention through the depiction of Bagradian, his family, his determination to save his fellow Armenians, and his close relationships. Bagradian’s conflicts between his self-interest and his loyalty to his people, his developing identity from identification with France and Europe to embracing of an Armenian identity, his developing leadership in military and political affairs, and his tragic ending create a perfect story against which Werfel presents the historical themes.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Yosef Haim Brenner (September 11, 1881)

In anticipation of the birthdate of Yosef Haim Brenner, I read his novel Breakdown and Bereavement. Brenner was an early pioneer to Israel, where he first settled in 1909. He attempted to work in agriculture, but most of his life there was in Jerusalem where he was a typesetter, a translator, and a novelist. My knowledge of Brenner prior to this project was one fact: he died in an anti-Jewish riot in Jaffa in 1921.

According to a biography: "In addition to his original works in Hebrew and Yiddish, Brenner translated Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky, as well as works by Tolstoy and works in German, Brenner was the most prominent literary figure in Eretz Israel in his day, and was responsible for moving the center of Hebrew literary activities away from Europe." ("Joseph Haim Brenner: 1881-1921")

The novel especially appeals to me because of its first-hand descriptions of the life of Jews in Ottoman Palestine. Their lives are difficult and disappointing. They face poverty and discouragement, humiliation at having to accept charity from abroad, and an erosion of their self-respect for many reasons.

The first character described in the book, Yehezkel Hefetz, tries to work in a Jewish agricultural colony (prior to the invention of the kibbutz according to p. 7 -- the word kibbutz doesn't appear in the book). Hefetz is immediately injured while working, also contracts malaria, and is sent to Jerusalem for medical help. He then has a nervous breakdown -- a "psychic disturbance."

During his breakdown Hefetz is hounded by fear, especially fear of the Arabs: "He spoke of their national awakening and of their hatred for the Jew he was obsessed ... by the possibility of a pogrom, over which he wracked his brain, soliciting advice and making endless plans for rescue and relief." (p. 14) I assume this means that underlying fears of the Arabs were in everyone's mind, and that Brenner was both in touch with the fear and terribly unlucky.

After a stay in a hospital, Hefetz returns to life in Jerusalem; the major part of the book treats his relationship with a family who are eking out a living, barely, relying on charity. I found the plot less interesting than the details about the characters' daily lives -- their fear of being evicted for not paying their rent; their reaction to the few Jews who were somehow becoming rich; their relationships with the dispensers of charity from abroad ("the dole"); the attempts by older men among them to continue with the exact sort of scholarly Jewish lives they had led in Russia; their reactions to the development of Hebrew as a spoken language (they believed in the new choice of Sephardic pronunciation but couldn't do it well; in fact were not polished at speaking it at all). The characters in this book had a relatively conventional religious life like the one they had left behind in Russia, though they are aware of the secular and idealistic pioneers with a completely different attitude.

Each character in Hefetz's life offers the reader of 100 years later a variety of hard facts about life in Jerusalem before World War I. One for example, Reb Yosef, spent much of his time in studying, but most of his valuable books had been lost during his immigration because he couldn't find the money for the customs duties.

As we first encounter Reb Yosef, "He munched on a piece of bread, chewing his cud and looking at his book, whispering the words out loud and chewing on them too." (p. 37) Later, "Reb Yosef popped a pickled green olive and about half an oliveweight of soft bread into his mouth. As he talked he cut away the crust, which was too hard for his worn teeth to bite into, and left it on the table. For a moment his face lit up ... " and he discusses a wide-ranging set of philosophical topics, beginning with Spinoza's Ethics. (p. 43)

Reb Yosef's daughter Miriam longs for learning, but we see her cooking soup while speaking to the young man who tutors her and worrying about her responsibilities to provide a meal to various people as well as for cleaning the house. (p. 52-54) She was disillusioned because men thought "that a woman was good only for cooking ... and cook was all she did: the life wasn't fit for a dog! Forty mouths to feed, and each with its own pretensions and demands: one wanted sour cream, another four eggs in his omelet, another stewed fruit, another pudding every day." Her thoughts run on and on about the wrongs she feels and the way the men treat her. Cooking becomes a metaphor for what's wrong with both Miriam and with Hefetz, I think. (p. 65)

Her father ignores her; she doesn't get along with her sister; eventually both of them become involved in some way with Hefetz or at least in his slightly mad thoughts or anticipations. She takes on his care as he goes through another bout of illness (malaria?). He has dreams, seemingly in response to Miriam's hard-to-digest spinach cakes and refuses to drink water -- "Toadstools and spinach cakes!" he cries out, hoping in his feverish state for "a miracle." (p. 81-82) He also has weird dreams later including thoughts of tomato stew and a horse that is fed halvah. (p. 116)

As Dara Horn says in a review of the book (published by the Yiddish Book Center): "Hefetz finds that his Diaspora-fed neuroses are not so easily left behind." The characters become more and more depressed as the book continues. Horn points out how the readers at the time reacted: "Brenner’s novel astonished its Jewish readers in the Diaspora – even those whom one would least expect to take offense at its despairing tone. Franz Kafka, one of its eager readers, expressed his consternation with the novel in a letter to a friend with a single phrase: 'Sadness in Palestine?' But the sadness in Brenner’s Palestine goes beyond shattering myths."

The continuing plot of the book involves several instances of the characters attempting to run away from life in Jerusalem by moving to Jaffa and Tiberias. As I said, I found the character development less interesting than the details of daily life and of the exhausting and inadequate means of travel by horse-drawn carriage on terrible roads, with stops at Arab inns. But as Horn puts it: "The ending is stylistically awkward, and its disjointed nature is part of a larger artistic flaw in the novel – one best described as an authorial sense of urgency, in which what Brenner needs to say often overwhelms his eloquence in saying it."

Brenner wrote the book in 1914. It was first published in 1920. The translation I read dates from 1971. According to the introduction, "World War I radically changed the landscape of Palestine and opened up to Zionist settlement possibilities, previously only dreamt of, that were not long in being exploited." Thus the portrayal of pre-war life was already historically interesting by the time the novel was published, and all the more now!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Trieste Reading



My last two blog posts, Trieste and How Trieste Became Secular, have been about the Jews of Trieste, Italy. I was especially seeking information about the secular nature of this community and how it got that way. For this project, I have read several books and articles, such as the beautiful large-format book illustrated at right.

To obtain background material on Trieste at the beginning of the twentieth century, I read the pre-war-written article in my incredible old Brittanica:
Encyclopedia Brittanica, “Trieste” (1921 edition, Volume 17, pp 267-268)

Because Trieste’s Jewish community had such a strong influence on James Joyce, I tried to see what Joyce would have found during his stay there. This question is of interest to Joyce scholars because Joyce transferred much of what he learned about and from the Trieste Jews to his portrayal of the character Leopold Bloom (who of course in the novel Ulysses spends the entire time in Dublin).


Besides Joyce’s most famous friends novelist Italo Svevo and newspaper owner Teodoro Mayer, he encountered a variety of other Jews who were there. I learned for example, that during the early years of his time there, Joyce even rented rooms for a time from a Jewish landlady, who helped out when Nora Barnacle was having her first child (Years of Bloom p. 39). I learned that among many concerts he attended, Joyce once heard a performance of a Mahler symphony conducted by the composer (Years of Bloom p. 124).

Works on this subject:
Maura Hametz, "Zionism, Emigration, and Antisemitism in Trieste: Central Europe's 'Gateway to Zion,' 1896-1943," Jewish  Social Studies, New Series, Society, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Spring/Summer 2007), pp.103-134
Gur Alroey, "Journey to Early-Twentieth-Century Palestine as a Jewish Immigrant Experience" Jewish Social Studies, New Series, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Winter, 2003), pp. 28-64
John McCourt, The Years of Bloom: James Joyce in Trieste 1904-1920. University of Wisconsin Press, 2000.
John McCourt, James Joyce: A Passionate Exile. Orion Media, 2000.
Peter Hartshorn, James Joyce and Trieste. Greenwood Press, 1997.

For my second post, How Trieste Became Secular, as noted there, I read:
Lois C. Dubin, The Port Jews of Habsburg Trieste: Absolutist Politics and Enlightenment Culture. Stanford University Press, 1999.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

How Trieste Became Secular


The book The Port Jews of Habsburg Trieste by Lois C. Dubin (Stanford University Press, 1999) presents the history of the small Jewish community of 18th century Trieste. This history seems to offer a lesson in how Enlightenment ideas formed a new idea of a Jewish community -- a much more secular one than previous communities. 

Dubin documents how some Jews resisted the development of a more flexible way of life. They saw positive factors in the confinement of a self-governing Jewish body, and were not enthusiastic about introduction of more individual freedoms. Other members of the Jewish community welcomed the changes and the promise of more independent decisions regarding religious practice. Ultimately the result of the changes was a more assimilated group with more individual self-determination.

In around 1719  the Austrians invited capable Jews from their own lands, from Italy, from the Ottoman Empire, and elsewhere to participate in developing an economic miracle in the Habsburg’s principal Mediterranean port, joining a small community that had been there for centuries. In this newly free port, Jewish communal privileges were greater than those in cities of the Austrian Empire such as Vienna and Prague. Further, the Jews were not to be the only religious minority: Protestants, Greek Catholics, and members of other Eastern Christian groups were also welcomed if they brought economic contributions to the growing city.

Jewish bankers and entrepreneurs were attracted by a number of favorable conditions in the new free port. As elsewhere, all the Jews in the city had to belong to a self-governing community (sometimes called a Nation). Jewish authorities, designated or approved by the Habsburg rulers, controlled all aspects of life inside the community, religious and otherwise. Rabbis and other communal leaders enforced Jewish laws for marriage, divorce (legal for Jews not the Catholic majority), religious observance, education, personal relationships, economic contracts between Jews, and crime of Jew against Jew (theft, bodily harm, etc). Jewish courts tended to Jewish affairs. Jews became subject to civil law only when it concerned their external economic affairs, their relationships with Christians, or crimes committed outside the Jewish community.

The Jewish community of Trieste received a number of special privileges, mainly economic, distinguishing them from other Habsburg Jewish communities and most communities elsewhere in Europe. Trieste’s Jews were exempt from certain extra taxes paid by Jews elsewhere in the empire, from payment for civil cases in court, and from restrictions on travel.

The number of Jews in Trieste was small but growing. In 1735, there were 103 Jews in a total population of 3865. By 1802 it was 1247 out of more than 20,000; by 1820 it reached around 2400 out of 33,000. (Dubin, p. 21) For this community, the enforcement of a Ghetto where Jews were required to live was very casual, and over time, Jews began to live in other quarters, sometimes even sharing residences with non-Jews. Living outside of the enforced Jewish neighborhood occurred mainly for material reasons; the religious practice of the in- and out-dwellers appears not to have been particularly different. Until the end of the 18th century, the Jews in Italy, where most of those in Trieste came from, were strictly confined to Ghettos, most famously that of nearby Venice; strict residence requirements and prohibitions existed in most other countries as well.

The Jewish residents of Trieste soon challenged Jewish authorities by ignoring certain religious traditions, as Dubin documents in interesting detail. Authorities or neighbors accused their peers of openly eating non-kosher food in non-Jewish establishments, or of violating the prohibitions of work, reading or travel on sabbath and holidays. The Jewish communal authorities in some cases declared long-patronized bakeries and taverns off-limits. Ordinary people didn’t necessarily comply with the tighter rules – or any rules. One couldn’t call it freedom, but people seem to have been making choices that weren’t available in more restricted environments.

Meanwhile, in the course of the 18th century, Austria was modernizing under the influence of the Enlightenment. The Haskalah, Jewish version of the Enlightenment led by Moses Mendelssohn in Berlin, influenced the Jewish response to these laws. As the century progressed, the Habsburgs made new laws covering civil regulation of all residents with wide reprecussions for the Jews of Trieste.

One change arose from a new decree that all communities in the empire should educate their children in secular subjects and languages. Elsewhere in the empire and in Germany, Jewish communities saw secular education as a threat to their way of life, and resisted or insisted that the children’s education be in two separate schools. Jewish scholars for and against the Haskalah debated about such a change. Italian Jews had been allowed to attend the University of Padua and other Christian schools to become physicians and obtain other education, and thus were likely to value secular education.

After discussing all these influences, the Jews of Trieste were among the first to have a Jewish school that also taught state-mandated subjects like history, Italian and German languages, and literature outside the traditional Jewish curriculum.

A bigger conflict of interests emerged when the Habsburgs created a body of civil law regarding marriage, specifying that the religious authorities comply with the civil law while still performing the marriages. The government’s laws set the age of consent to marriage: parental consent for the new civil marriage was 24 but in was and always had been 13 for Jewish law. Civil law required advance public announcement (bans) for legal marriage; Jewish law respected private ceremonies with a small number of witnesses. Jewish laws about which relatives could marry and restrictions on a Kohen marrying a divorced women conflicted with civil law. Several high-profile cases testing these issues – which Dubin presents with much evidence from the archives --  ultimately undermined the strength of the religious authorities.

Similar conflicts engulfed the Jewish communities of France under the revolution. However, in Trieste, there was no sudden change, meaning that a variety of individuals participated in the process of resolving the conflicts. Debate as well as court cases engaged those supporting traditional religious practice, those fearing conflict with the authorities (and thus threat to their  extraordiary well-being and prosperity), and those who had embraced the ideas of the Enlightenment and the Haskala.

Trieste was never all that important in the general scheme of things. Much more important historically were the French Revolution – applying the “rights of Man” to Jews -- and the dramatic acts of Napoleon in destroying the gates of the ghettos in Mantua and Venice. But the debates and changes that Dubin describes seem to illuminate many ideas that still affect the relationship of established religion and secular government, and the continuing conflicts in modern times that emerge from the dictates of religion and long Jewish traditions.


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Trieste


Trieste as I saw it a few years ago was a quiet European city far from the standard tourist itinerary. A main attraction of Trieste is called Miramar: the castle of Maximillian of Austria, built in the mid-19th century. Compared to Tuscan hill towns, Sicily’s Greek ruins, and Roman splendor it’s not much. I found it very stuffy in its Victorian way!

During the first years of the twentieth century, Trieste was a very different type of place – the major port of the Austrian Empire, bustling with ship-building and related industries, international trans-shipping and trade, insurance companies, and more: it was a commercial and cultural hub.

Miramar Castle, Trieste

The Trieste of 100 years ago is one of the cities of Eastern Europe that I find intriguing, and I’ve begun reading about it in my ongoing study of Jewish secular culture of the past. Its history resonates with similarities to Odessa (a free port, with many ethnic and language groups attracted by the freedom) and influences from Vienna, both of which I read about earlier this year.

Politically a lot was going on in Trieste as well: the 75% of the population who were Italian, especially, had nationalist Italian sentiments, and socialism attracted others. Italian opera and plays were popular, and a variety of newspapers reflected political and intellectual trends in Italy. Numerous civil servants of the Empire used German as their main language, but in the street and culturally, Italian predominated.

James Joyce offers the most famous Jewish connection with Trieste – in fact, he’s surely the most famous person who lived there during those glorious years. He arrived there almost at random in 1904 with his life partner Nora Barnacle (eventually his wife, but not then). After a false start in a nearby town, Joyce settled into a job teaching English at the Berlitz school and sometimes freelance; he stayed until Trieste became a battleground in World War I. He became fluent in standard Italian and the local Italian of Trieste, and wrote reviews and other types of essays for one of the papers, as well as giving public lectures about Ireland and other subjects. The nationalists identified with the Irish independence struggle as Joyce described it.

Joyce’s students were typical of the white-collar middle class of Trieste. They wanted to learn English mainly for advancement in their jobs in international business. Trieste was growing as new rail lines were being built to connect new cities in Austria, and as the port was being expanded; languages beyond the native German, Italian, Greek, and Slavic were needed.

Among Joyce’s contacts and students were many Jews, including a newspaper owner and other prominent intellectuals. Interested in the ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity of this port city, Joyce often attended various religious services (although remaining a strictly lapsed and anti-cult Catholic). He seems to have been partial to one of the Eastern Catholic services.

Attending a synagogue service once, he recognized many of his students – though quite a few of his Jewish associates and students were themselves lapsed from religious practice. Something like 1200 of the 5500 Jews in Trieste at the time were “without confession,” which could mean they weren’t practicing or that they had intermarried with non-Jews. The Jewish community counted them and found them a matter for concern (as Jewish communities have been doing ever since).

Joyce’s closest friend among the local community in Trieste was his student Italo Svevo. At the time they met, Svevo needed to learn English because of his work as a manager for a supplier to the ship-building industry. Privately, Svevo was also an author – unrecognized and unappreciated. Joyce was not much more successful yet either. They read each other’s work, discussed their efforts, and mutually supported one another. Eventually, Joyce became a highly successful author, and was able to arrange for much wider distribution, reviews, and translations of Svevo’s work, but at the beginning they were much closer to equals.

Svevo was one of the lapsed Jews that the community worried about. He had been raised as a Jew in a complicated, partially Jewish family, but married a Catholic in a civil ceremony, and eventually converted to Catholicism. Joyce, being fascinated by all things Jewish, used Svevo as one of many sources and inspirations while writing Ulysses. In an interchange between Stanislaus Joyce (brother of James who lived with the family in Trieste), and Svevo, it is said that Svevo asked Stanislaus for some secrets or unknown facts about Irishmen – claiming he wanted to be even with James Joyce who constantly asked him about the Jews.

I try to imagine Trieste as Joyce and Nora saw it before the Great War: coffee shops, restaurants, well-dressed, ambitious affluent people in the street, much building and development of infrastructure and industry. They lived downtown where there was lots of activity, as well as the school where Joyce worked. They loved to take walks, including to Miriamar whose gardens were open to the public.

Despite being surrounded by prosperity, the Joyces struggled to make ends meet; after her second child was born in a charity ward, Nora received a cash gift because they were so poor. They struggled to support their two children, and often begged or demanded money from friends and relatives. Svevo once referred to Joyce as “a leech” but he seemed good natured and in fact was very generous towards him with loans and gifts of money.

Among the many appealing features of the city, Trieste was full of activity and trade with the Levant and the West and with people traveling. Joyce’s strong sense of himself as an exile and themes of exile in his work are often (I mean really often) discussed – I wonder how his sense of exile was influenced by the many travelers and emigrants, especially by the opening in 1904, about the time he arrived, of direct emigrant service from the port of Trieste to New York for the masses of people leaving the Austrian Empire and Eastern Europe.

A few other emigrants leaving Trieste from Central and Eastern Europe were Zionists departing for Jaffa via Alexandria – though many more would have traveled through Odessa, because the fare was half as much and the voyage was direct. Some of the Jews of Trieste were committed to helping these emigrants in transit, though most of them were quite content with their Triestine lives, not interested themselves in making Aliah.

All this ended with World War I; the city, important as it was, was directly affected. Joyce’s brother Stanislaus was interned in a camp for four years for possibly unjust political reasons. Joyce and Nora left with their children.

After the War, the Joyce family briefly returned to Trieste. The Italian nationalists had what they always wanted: they were now part of Italy. But it didn’t turn out the way they had hoped, because the importance of being the sole port of the Austrian Empire was lost, and the city quickly became a backwater. Further, the post war era was a time of shortages and desperation – Joyce couldn’t afford any decent clothing, and did not find even the low level of employment he had before the war. They left for Paris and Zurich, and Trieste continued to decline.

Things went even worse for the Jews, who lost their opportunities and often their livlihood, were persecuted mildly by the Fascists, and then exterminated by Hitler.

I will discuss my sources for this in a future blog post, as well as going into more detail about the Jews of Trieste.