On the Bookshelf
Shifting foundations: of five-legged tables and other theories of Jewish identity
The short stories in Erika Dreifus’ debut collection, Quiet Americans (Last Light, January), focus on families and individuals working through traumas of the Holocaust, decades afterward. Unlike many writers, Dreifus recognizes the bitter irony that, if successful, she will profit by making art out of the experiences of the victims, survivors, and perpetrators of Nazi genocide: She will donate some proceeds from the book to a charity that supports indigent Holocaust survivors. Dreifus also admirably engages in deeper exploration of Jewish identity than some chroniclers of Jewish victimization, for whom persecution is all that makes Jews interesting. As she notes in one of the recent posts from her “blog tour”—Dreifus, who holds a Harvard doctorate in modern history, is also an indefatigable social networker and e-newsletterer—her fiction fits the model of Jewish identity proposed by the veteran educator Avraham Infeld, in that the stories invoke, at least briefly, all five of the components of Infeld’s “five-legged table” concept of Jewish identity: memory, family, covenant, Hebrew, and Israel.
Core to Infeld’s pedagogic shtick is that a table doesn’t need five legs to stand, just three; and “if we all choose at least three, we won’t be uniform, but we’ll always have something that we share.” It’s a sweet idea, but finding values and principles that all Jews share is, cute metaphors aside, a challenge. The 2011 issue of Studies in Contemporary Jewry, edited by Eli Lederhendler and titled Ethnicity and Beyond: Theories and Dilemmas of Jewish Group Demarcation (Oxford, February), tackles this problem, especially as it relates to the slippery concept of “ethnicity.” The volume’s contributors—leading analysts of American Jewry like Jonathan Sarna, Riv-Ellen Prell, Sarah Bunin Benor, and Steven M. Cohen, as well as a few scholars with international perspectives—debate the usefulness of thinking about Jews as ethnics.
Alan Montefiore approaches the vexed questions of Jewish identity with the explanatory tools of his academic discipline, analytic philosophy, in A Philosophical Retrospective: Facts, Values, and Jewish Identity (Columbia, February). Do the “facts” of our backgrounds determine our “values”? Should they? Montefiore—whose descent from one of England’s great Jewish dynasties one would expect to wield some sort of influence upon the course of his life—argues that those who differ on these questions do so because of their fundamentally dissimilar ideas about the relationship of the individual to the social collective.
British intellectuals like Montefiore have been fretting and fussing about the complexities of modern Jewish identity, especially as they play out among the poor Jews on the continent, since at least the mid-19th century. That’s where Sam Johnson’s study, Pogroms, Peasants, Jews: Britain and Eastern Europe’s ‘Jewish Question’, 1867-1925 (Palgrave, January) begins. Johnson chronicles the responses of Brits to all sorts of Jewish tsuris, from the Romanian anti-Semitism of the 1860s and 1870s to the infamous Kishinev pogrom of 1903, also offering a wide-ranging survey of “Ostjuden in the British mindset.”
For the Piaseczna Rebbe, Kalonymus Lamish Shapira, Jewish identity per se wasn’t all that complex; his concern was the growing unwillingness of young Jews to fulfill their responsibilities to their people and to their God. In The Students’ Obligation and Three Discourses (Feldheim, January), newly published in a handsome facing-page translation, the Rebbe—who maintained his faith even while confined to the Warsaw Ghetto, and who was murdered in a Nazi work camp in November 1943—outlines his educational philosophy (“The most important thing is to teach them that they themselves are their own educators”) and calls out directly to lazy, egotistic, and falsely humble teenagers: “Jewish youth! … Do you really want to cause Klal Yisrael to continue to waste away in galus … without leaders?”
More and more, scholars of Christian history and culture are acknowledging that they cannot make much sense of their subject matter without close attention to Jews and Jewishness. For example, the 13 essays gathered in Judaism and Christian Art: Aesthetic Anxieties From the Catacombs to Colonialism (Penn, February), edited by David Nirenberg and Herbert Kessler, all concur that in various “Christian cultures” throughout the centuries “art defined and legitimated itself by rearticulating and representing its relationship to ‘Judaism’ ”; examples range from 4th-century reliefs to Delacroix’s A Jewish Wedding in Morocco (1839). And even a Catholic theologian like Brant Pitre admits the utility of consulting Jewish sources. Though he notes in his Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets to the Last Supper (Doubleday, February) that he treats “the four Gospels as reliable historical witnesses to the words and deeds of Jesus … following the traditional Christian view of their historical reliability, as well as the official Catholic teaching promulgated in 1965 at the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council,” he also insists that if they hope “to understand what Jesus was doing and saying in his original context,” Christians must carefully study the Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus’ writings, and particularly the Talmud and Midrash.
Henry Miller couldn’t have been thinking of chess prodigy Bobby Fischer when he asked, in Tropic of Cancer, “Who hates the Jews more than the Jew?” But Miller nailed Fischer, nonetheless: After his dazzling victory over Boris Spassky in 1972, Fischer, whose mother was Jewish (and who, as Gary Kasparov points out, recent rumors suggest might have had a Jewish father, too), retreated from the spotlight and became fascinated by anti-Semitic tracts including The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Ben Klassen’s Nature’s Eternal Religion. His animus bloomed as the years passed: He wrote in 1999, “Unfortunately we’re not strong enough just to wipe out all the Jews at this time. So what I believe we should do is engage in vigilante random killing of Jews. … They deserve to have their heads cracked open.” In telling the twisted prodigy’s whole story in Endgame: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Bobby Fischer (Crown, February), Frank Brady sketches various attempts to explain Fischer’s turn to bigotry, even quoting David Mamet’s Nextbook Press volume on self-hatred. If nothing else, Fischer is one more reminder for us of the wide gap between brilliance and goodness.
In Compulsion, now at New York’s Public Theater, Mandy Patinkin portrays a writer whose obsession with Anne Frank drives him to the brink of madness
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