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:


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.