Friday, September 30, 2011
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
I mentioned recently that I have been reading historical and theoretical treatments of secular Judaism. One recent book -- published this year -- is David Biale, Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought.
Biale’s book is a historical and social study of Jews who rejected Judaism, who engaged with Jewish ideas “if for no other reason than to reject them.” He chose such individuals throughout history who made a contribution to a more universal culture. His view is that these secular Jews were “able to create their original theories because they stood at a conscious distance from the conventions of society.” The distance came both from their Jewish background and from their chosen ideas. (p. xii - xiii)
For Biale, secular universalism becomes a Jewish identity. Historically, Jews made a distinction between that which is holy and that which is for every-day use, while Christians contrasted a holy world beyond their lives to a secular world in which they lived. This colored the development of secular Jewish thought, leaving a different space for secularism than their Christian counterparts experienced. Biale explicitly contrasts his view with that of Isaac Deutscher in “The Non-Jewish Jew.”
Modern secular Judaism has roots in thinkers who were reacting to medievalism, especially Maimonides and Spinoza. Biale explores each of their contributions, and continues by explaining how Enlightenment and 19th century thinkers reacted to them and incorporated their ideas. Two main examples: Moses Mendelssohn and Heinrich Heine. In particular, Heine’s writings on the Jews “constitute the first coherent statement of Jewish secularism in a language that clearly resonated with his contemporaries.” (p. 36)
Biale discusses many of the important secular Jewish intellectuals of the early 20th century. He describes various secular Jewish accomplishments and trends: the beginnings of secular Zionism, writers like Kafka, and other thinkers. Freud, he says recognized Spinoza as a “founder of the congregation of unbelievers.” Einstein specifically studied Spinoza. Not brought up in a religious home, he constructed his own secular Jewish identity, and said he believed in “Spinoza’s God, who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world.” (p. 42)
Secular views and interpretations of the Torah and the Bible are the subject of one chapter of Biale’s book. Abraham Ibn Ezra and other medieval interpreters were at times secular in their approach. In the recent past, the Zionists, including Ben Gurion, created their own interpretations.
Nineteenth-century theories about race influenced both Zionists and other secular Jews. These made an important contribution to their views of Jewish identity. Zangwill and Ze'ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky are two examples. Jabotinsky, “founder of right-wing Revisionist Zionism,” also borrowed from other popular European theories such as positivism and social Darwinism, creating the idea of Jews as a race and a nation, not so much a religious group. (p. 92)
Languages also played a role in secular Jewish thought of that era. Not only the well-known question -- Hebrew or Yiddish? – but more nuanced ideas also emerged. Zamenhof, inventor of Esperanto, wrote a work on Yiddish linguistics – and created the ultimate in a universalist language. (p. 137)
One interesting figure that Biale often invokes is Ahad Ha’am (Asher Ginsberg, 1856-1927) – sometimes called the ‘secular rabbi’ of Zionism. He was “the idealogical leader of ‘cultural Zionism,’ the strand of Jewish nationalism that saw in Zionism primarily a movement of cultural renewal rooted in a spiritual center in Palestine. …, Ahad Ha’am sought a nonreligious foundation for the Jewish national spirit.” Perhaps “the most important theoretician of secular Jewish culture,” he was also the first Zionist of importance to emphasize the darker side of the relationship between Jews and Arabs in Turkish Palestine.” (pp. 40 & 82)
Wrapping up the threads of his many and fascinating chapters, Biale provides an interesting observation about creative American Jewish secularists: the way that they often use the Kaddish as a theme in their works, in particular poets Charles Reznikoff and Allen Ginsberg and composer Leonard Bernstein. He says “since a secular culture may not provide the tools with which to confront death … even the most secular Jews turn to this quintessential expression or religious tradition to mine its historical associations for nonreligious ends.” (p. 189)
Finally, Biale mentions the “explosion of interest in academic Jewish studies” in recent years, with offerings at most major universities. The postmodern definition is that everyone is a “Jew by choice” and also most American Jews are secular, with a fluid identity not limited to their Jewishness. The categories of religious and secular are no longer fixed as they may have been in the past. (p. 190-191)
Tuesday, September 27, 2011
"The first Jewish Congresswoman ever elected from Florida, Rep. Wasserman Schultz, introduced a resolution, which passed the House of Representatives and called on the President to declare an annual Jewish American Heritage Month. The President subsequently did so, with the inaugural month in May, 2006. Since then, Presidents have proclaimed Jewish American Heritage Month annually." -- Debbie Wasserman Schultz: Biography
Monday, September 26, 2011
Friday, September 23, 2011
"Assemblage transforms non-art objects and materials into sculptures of all sizes and persuasions. Its limitless range and evocative use of materials distinguish it from traditional fine-art sculpture. The very fragility of its materials, which in some instances only precariously endure, defies the notion of art's timelessness. Its rejection of craftsmanship completely redefines the status of the artist. In their desire to abandon permanence and dispense with chisels and awls, artists such as Joseph Beuys, Louise Nevelson, Bruce Conner, Arman, and Louise Bourgeois composed pieces that address change and chance and that appeal to the senses. ... The nonrepresentational work of Louise Nevelson stockpiles mostly wooden objects into abstract, monochromatic pieces that are unexpectedly sensuous."
"Nevelson was typically willing to weave any intriguing material into her personal myth, but she was notably reticent on the subject of her Jewish heritage. When questioned in interviews on this topic she replied that it was too personal to discuss. The spirituality of Louise Nevelson’s work might best be understood by considering her repeated emphasis on a search for harmony.
"Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church in Manhattan commissioned Nevelson to design entirely the interior for their Chapel of the Good Shepherd. ... When asked about designing a Christian chapel as a Jew, Nevelson replied, 'To me there is no distinction between a church and a synagogue. If you go deep enough into any religion you arrive at the same point of harmony.'”
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
The Coen Brothers: Joel Coen (born November 29, 1954) and Ethan Coen (born September 21, 1957) have made some pretty spectacular movies. Ethan at Princeton University wrote a senior thesis entitled: "Two Views of Wittgenstein's Later Philosophy" as I wrote last November for his brother's birthday.
Here's some material about their film “A Serious Man” about Larry Gopnik a Jewish physics professor (enough to make them heroic right there) --
Larry consults with three rabbis ... One offers him a bizarrely hilarious story about a gentile with mysterious engravings on the inside of his teeth. This is about as helpful as the ersatz folk tale (in subtitled Yiddish) that the Coens have devised as a prologue, wherein an old woman in a shtetl stabs a rabbi she has decided is possessed by a dybbuk (the soul of a dead person).
Though the Coens flirt with caricature, there are some serious questions about faith and Judaism underlying their sadistic fun. The film conveys a vivid sense of time and place, and much of the excellently chosen cast are semi-professional locals recruited from the filming locations in Minnesota. -- From a New York Post reviewI am going to have to see this film!
Monday, September 19, 2011
The other is a much more personal set of essays by Isaac Deutscher: The Non-Jewish Jew and other essays (published 1968). Deutscher was a committed Marxist, best known for his 3 volume biography of Leon Trotsky. Understanding his exact stand on Soviet history and the details of the rivalries and philosophies of Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky is outside my area of interest, though knowing his bias is very important for understanding his point of view. A review of a reissue of the biography put it this way "In Deutscher’s time, it seemed incontrovertible that the most significant event in the 20th century was the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917. Now it is highly controvertible." *
In The Non-Jewish Jew Deutscher tackles the question of Jewish identity after the Holocaust. The tragic reversion to antisemitism in its rawest form had made universalism -- the pre-war position of many intellectuals, especially Marxists -- irrelevant or worse. In these essays (originally published in various journals, and collected posthumously) Deutscher tries to come to terms with his universalist ideals in the light of reality, and in the later ones, to understand postwar events in Russia and the development of the state of Israel.
Deutscher felt that for him, the Jewish community was “only negative.” To consider himself racially Jewish, he thought, would be a victory for Hitler. He summarized his identity thus:
“If it is not race, what then makes a Jew? Religion? I am an atheist. Jewish nationalism? I am an internationalist. In neither sense, am I, therefore, a Jew. I am, however, a Jew by force of unconditional solidarity with the persecuted and exterminated. I am a Jew because I feel the Jewish tragedy as my tragedy; because I feel the pulse of Jewish history; because I should like to do all I can to assure the real, not supurious, security and self-respect of the Jews.” (p. 51)I have never been a Marxist or a socialist, but I feel the conflict between universalist hopes and the realities of the modern world -- which hasn't become any more promising that way in the years since Deutscher wrote. I find his formulation very interesting, and in many ways I think he could sense the future when he was writing half a century ago. The world that was imagined then by thinkers from many philosophic and political perspectives never happened.
Maybe it seems silly, but here's a summary of what I can't imagine:
"Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace" -- John Lennon
Sunday, September 18, 2011
Friday, September 16, 2011
Lauren Bacall's studio biography glossed over her roots as the child of New York Jewish immigrants. She raised her children as Episcopalians. Nothing about her long acting career is Jewish. It's a stretch to see her as a secular Jew or any other kind. But what a wonderful actress!
Monday, September 12, 2011
Of this work, titled “Boy” and dated 1944 (owned by the University of Michigan Museum of Art) the label says Shahn “created images such as Boy that conveyed the brutality of the war and the Holocaust, often depicting children and other innocent victims. … Shahn, who often combined historical images with his personal childhood memories, sought to universalize Jewish suffering. He said that his work did not attempt to create an image of a specific event, but rather conveyed ‘the emotional tone that surrounds disaster; what you might call the inner disaster.’”
Update: another painting by Ben Shahn, "Bookshop: Hebrew Books, Holy Day Books" from the Detroit Institute of Arts:
Saturday, September 10, 2011
I did learn that in Diamond's Natural History article titled "Who Are the Jews" he acknowledges his Jewish identity. The article begins with a mention of his first trip to Israel, and of his immigrant Eastern European Jewish grandparents, who left Europe for America during the great migration that took place around 100 years ago. He then explores genetic and other scientific evidence about whether Jews are a coherent group.
"Who Are the Jews?" Natural History 102:11 (November 1993): 12-19
A collection of obituaries for Gould indicate that he was a purely secular Jew. And a hero!
Friday, September 9, 2011
Would you be surprised if I thought it was biased against women? That it missed the presence of Yiddish-speaking Jews and Yiddish culture outside of New York and Hollywood? That it skipped over the existence of scholars of Yiddish language and culture prior to the current academic version of Yiddish studies? In other words, it has a very limited view of the subject.
Here are some of the topics that might make a more complete story of Yiddishkeit that are dismissed, glossed over, or not there at all:
- Food. I’m sure there’s a mention of a New York deli somewhere, but here’s one example of how this doesn’t exactly deal with the food of the Yiddish speakers in America – no mention of the adoption of the bagel by the American mainstream. I wish it had a graphic bio of Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman’s Deli!
- Social Work. The political activist Yiddishists are reasonably well-covered but the way that Jews trying to help the poor immigrants to assimilate and in the process inventing the modern field of social work doesn’t appear. A graphic treatment of the Settlement Cookbook would be welcome here. But in this world, women don’t count, I fear, unless they are minor writers or actors.
- Organizations of immigrants from specific communities (Landsmanshaften). These receive a passing mention, but don’t do justice to them. How about a graphic treatment showing how they were critical in the process of transmitting Yiddish culture from immigrants to their families.
- The Forward and Abraham Cahan. Sure the Forward is mentioned, but its importance is dismissed. For example, Hershl Hartman is listed as “the first native-born Yiddish journalist” (p. p.229) and his work is more than half a century after that of native-speaker Cahan and others writing in either or both languages. If the real issue is what Yiddishkeit gave to American culture, a description of the influence of the “Bintel Brief” – the Forward’s advice column – would be in order.
- English-language novels about Yiddishkeit. Cahan also wrote very important novels about Yiddish-speaking immigrants – in English. Several other writers also did, but there’s little or nothing about them. Much more about the European Yiddish novelists, and lots of attacks on I.B.Singer.
- YIVO. Scholarly Yiddish study and attempt to document the language began in Vilna and moved to New York when hounded out of Europe. A bit more detail on this important institution -- mentioned only in passing in the book -- would fill out the story.
Thursday, September 8, 2011
His website says of him:
The Almanac of American Politics has called Sanders a "practical" and "successful legislator." He has focused on the shrinking middle class and widening income gap in America that is greater than at any time since the Great Depression. Other priorities include reversing global warming, universal health care, fair trade policies, supporting veterans and preserving family farms. He serves on five Senate committees: Budget; Veterans; Energy; Environment; and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.Sanders would be a secular Jewish hero even if he were not a secular Jew, but that in fact seems to identify his religious position.
Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Tuesday, September 6, 2011
Mendelssohn's writings encouraged Jews to take a much broader look at themselves and their religious beliefs. Somehow, therefore, Mendelssohn is held responsible for a philosophy that led other Jews to adopt a much more secular life. I think he gets a lot of blame for things he wasn't responsible for. Prejudice and outright discrimination against Jews continued in Germany after his death, so Jews who listened to him often converted to Christianity to escape bigotry and to be allowed to pursue intellectual jobs. Two famous converts of the following generation: his own son, who became the father of composer Felix Mendelssohn, and the poet and writer Heinrich Heine. There were many others. It seems to me that the way that German Jews coped with a difficult situation in the 19th century is no fault of Mendelssohn, but historians vary in the way they handle this.
Another development that took place after Mendelssohn's death was Reform Judaism. I am unsure about the exact progression of influence from his thought to the thought of the reformers. I'm also not convinced at all that Jewish efforts to assimilate into German life, where they were demonstrably unwelcome despite many success stories, was a plausible cause of the Holocaust. When I say it that way, it seems preposterous that anyone accuses Mendelssohn and other Jews of causing violent antisemitic behavior in subsequent centuries, but some people have indeed made that argument.
Monday, September 5, 2011
Sunday, September 4, 2011
Among Millaud’s hundreds of compositions, many have Jewish material or Jewish music, including music from Eastern Europe, and from his own French background. His opera titled "Esther of Carpentras" (which I’ve never heard) has as its subject the celebration of Purim by the very old Jewish community of Carpentras, a small town near his birthplace. One theme of this opera is tolerance, which is significant as it was first performed in 1938, two years before Milhaud fled to the United States to escape the Nazis.
For a fuller biography see this
Friday, September 2, 2011
The arrival of this group is celebrated as the beginning of actual Jewish communal life in the future USA, as well as the beginning of Jewish enjoyment of the new tolerance that came to characterize the New World. Despite the efforts of Governor Peter Stuyvesant to expel them, they overcame prejudice and formed a lasting community.
Tablet Magazine recently wrote about the surviving cemeteries from the congregation founded shortly after their arrival. " From 1654 until 1825, Shearith Israel was the only Jewish congregation in New York City. In its long history, membership of the congregation has included Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo, three founders of the New York Stock Exchange, and the poet Emma Lazarus, whose famous words from 'The New Colossus' are affixed to the Statue of Liberty."
The freedom to be a secular Jew is very important to me, and I see its roots in these early Jewish migrations.
References here and here.
Thursday, September 1, 2011
I agree with Dershowitz about a number of very important issues such as the ACLU defense of Muslim students at UC Irvine who tried to shut down a speech by the Israeli ambassador, the way Yale discontinued Holocaust studies, and the growth of antisemitic rhetoric on campuses. For example, he points out why the ACLU leaders are defending individuals who openly said they opposed free speech for supporters of Israel: "These leaders don't like Israel and they support the censorship of pro-Israel views. They would never take the same position if the shoe had been on the other foot: If the speaker were from Hamas and the students trying to shut him down were pro-Israel."
He recently discussed Glen Beck's visit to Israel; he says:
Dershowitz has led an interesting life, beginning as an orthodox Jew whose choice of covering his head and refusing non-kosher food were shocking when he first became a law professor at Harvard. More recently he's transitioned to being closer to a secular Jew, though I don't know his exact religious practices now. As I say, he used to seem paranoid but now I think he's right."At a time when old friends and allies who should be supporting the Jewish state are abandoning it in droves, Beck's willingness to stand up for Israel must be accepted with gratitude. I, for one, do not question his motives. I believe they are genuine. One need not accept all of Beck's positions on Israel -- and I certainly do not -- in order to agree with him that support of Israel is one of the great moral issues of the 21st Century.
"Those who thoughtlessly attack Israel no matter what it does and thoughtlessly defend Israel's enemies regardless of what they do, are making peace far more difficult. They incentivize terrorism by Israel's enemies and disincentivize compromise on all sides."