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.