Hold It All

Category: Jewish Tradition

Oath of Disloyalty by Irwin Keller

Today I received the following in an email from Rabbi Lerner.

I am a disloyal Jew.
I am not loyal to a political party.
Nor will I be loyal to dictators and mad kings.
I am not loyal to walls or cages.
I am not loyal to taunts or tweets.
I am not loyal to hatred, to Jew-baiting, to the gloating connivings of white supremacy.

I am a disloyal Jew.
I am not loyal to any foreign power.
Nor to abuse of power at home.
I am not loyal to a legacy of conquest, erasure and exploitation.
I am not loyal to stories that tell me who I should hate.

I am a loyal Jew.
I am loyal to the inconveniences of kindness.
I am loyal to the dream of justice.
I am loyal to this suffering Earth
And to all life.
I am not loyal to any founding fathers.
But I am loyal to the children who will come
And to the quality of world we leave them.
I am not loyal to what America has become.
But I am loyal to what America could be.
I am loyal to Emma Lazarus. To huddled masses.
To freedom and welcome,
Holiness, hope and love.

Irwin Keller — teacher, writer, reb, hope-monger

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Reading Roth on Writing and Reading

George Searles, editor, Conversations with Philip Roth
Literary Conversation Series
University Press of Mississippi
1992

I settled in this morning with a collection of interviews with Philip Roth, from the bright beginning of his career in  1960 t0 1991, just before he produced a steady stream of powerful books (e.g., Operation Shylock, for one), many of which I read with appreciation throughout the 90s. What follows are passages that reveal his reflections on the art of fiction and the practice of readers.

 

My work does not offer answers. I am trying to represent the experience, the confusion and toughness of certain moral problems. People always ask what’s the message. I think the worst books are the ones with messages. My fiction is about people in trouble.  2

For me, one of the strongest motives for continuing to write fiction is an increasing distrust of “positions,” my own included.  60

For everything in my fiction that connects to something I’ve known personally, there are a hundred things that have no connection, or connections of only the roughest and vaguest sort.  103

You should read my books as fiction, demanding the pleasures that fiction can yield. I have nothing to confess and no one I want to confess to. 121

My job in a work of fiction is not to offer consolation to Jewish sufferers or to mount an attack upon their persecutors or to make the Jewish case to the undecided. 129 

The difficulties  of telling a Jewish story—How should it be told? In what tone? To whom should it be told? To what end? Should it be told at all?  183 

Novels provide readers with something to read. At their best writers change the way readers read.  That seems to me the only realistic expectation. It also seems to me quite enough. Reading novels is a deep and singular pleasure, a gripping and mysterious human activity that does not require any more moral or political justification than sex.  186 Read the rest of this entry »

“Born Only Yesterday, and Already She Speaks Like a Perfect Mensch”

12.14.17

Dear Dianne,

I think this is the 4th time I’m reading Meshugah. It was originally serialized in the Yiddish Daily Forward. Because I’m reading it with you, and because Hedy is on our minds, in our hearts, I am paying more attention to the voices, the dialogue this time around. I marked the following passages, see what you think. Imagine twenty-five-year-old Hedy amidst such characters in NYC in 1949!

MA= Max Aberdam
AG = Aaron Greidinger
IS – Irka Shmelkes
M = Miriam
P = Priva

“Don’t be frightened, I haven’t come back from the Great Beyond to strangle you!” MA

“I’m alive, I’m alive.” AG
“You call this living?” MA

“My friend, I may have lost everything, but a bit of sense I still have. Though I’m in debt over my head, I owe nothing to the Almighty: as long as He keeps sending us Hitlers and Stalins, He is their God, not mine.” MA

“Where have you been all during the war?” AG
“Where have I not been? In Bialystok, in Vilna, Kovno, Shanghai, later in San Francisco. I experienced the full range of Jewish woes.” MA

“In all America you cannot get a decent cup of coffee. Hey, waiter! I ordered coffee, not dishwater!” MA

“In New York I found I was home again—they are all here, our people from Lodz and Warsaw.” MA

“I live on pills and faith—but not in God but in my own crazy luck.” MA

“Most of my clients are women, refugees from Poland who haven’t learned to count in dollars. They were driven half-mad in the ghettos and concentration camps.” MA

“The world is turning meshugah. It had to happen.” MA Read the rest of this entry »

“If the Messiah Comes, He’ll Come to This Cafeteria in Miami”

Isaac Bashevis Singer, Shadows on the Hudson
Translated by Joseph Sherman

Like Meshugah, this is another novel translated from the Yiddish and published after Singer’s death. In Shadows I was gripped by the various characters with all their quarrels and struggles over what constitutes Jewish identity in the decades after the European catastrophe and the founding of the State of Israel…

“Well, now I can hate him with a whole heart.”

“What do those holy souls think when they look down from heaven and see Jews consumed by their businesses, as though there were nothing else, as if the greatest devastation in Jewish history had never taken place?”

“He was someone who could blacken the sun.”

“A Jew without God is a gentile, even if he speaks Hebrew.”

“Scum floats to the top.”

“You won’t believe it, but the only shred of Jewishness left here resolves around the cemetery.”
“May he be the last of his line.”

“What binds them together? Not a God, not a country, not even a language. Among ourselves we speak a little ungrammatical Yiddish, but our children can’t even do that. Many of them are Communists. My own son won’t hear a word against Stalin—for him, Stalin’s murderers are sacrosanct.”

“May you never know what I’ve suffered.”

“I’m certain that if Tolstoy had lived longer, he would have turned to Judaism—that is to the prayer shawl and phylacteries and fringed ritual undergarments and the dietary laws. There is not, and cannot be, any other kind of Jewishness.” Read the rest of this entry »

Melting a Heart of Ice

Late in life, I got around to reading Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman
(translated by Hillel Halkin, who suggested it was “possibly the greatest of all Jewish novels”). It sounded funnily familiar….

Flogging a dead horse won’t make it run any faster 3

As long as a Jew lives and breathes in this world and hasn’t more than one leg in the grave, he mustn’t lose faith. 3

Not counting suppers, my wife and kids went hungry three times a day. 4

We’re God’s chosen people; it’s no wonder the whole world envies us. 5

The shadows of the trees were as long as the exile of the Jews. 5

With my troubles I was six feet underground already! 6

They’ll pay with back interest for everything they’ve done, except God has a long memory. 6

If you’re looking to buy something, I’m afraid I’m all out of stock, unless I can interest you in some fine hunger pains, a week’s supply of heartache, or a head full of scrambled brains. 7

“To Boiberik,” I say, “it’s not a long way at all. Only a few miles. About two or three. Maybe four. Unless it’s five.” 8

I know my way around Boiberik the way you do around your own home! 11 Read the rest of this entry »

Summer Reading List

Sholem Asch
Yankev Glatshteyn
Vasily Grossman
Malka Heifetz-Tussman
Dovid Katz
Irina Klepfisz
Koheleth
Kadia Molodovsky
Leib Rochman
Chava Rosenfarb

Envisioning Eutopia

I understand why Yiddish writers still draw on the theme of the old homeland, of the shtetl, where the people forged the treasure of their language and their lifestyle. But I believe that, no matter how strong and reassuring the news may be about the rebirth of Yiddish, especially about young people who are studying it around the world, Yiddish as a living, developing language can only exist where Jews live together in large numbers. Because only then do people use language creatively, and that gives  the artist the material from which to draw her linguistic nourishment. Then, fed by the people, the artist gives back the artworks that enrich and stimulate the people, and thus, once again, the people give inspiration to the artist. This, it seems to me, is the natural cycle in the cultural life of a people. That is why I often wish that Yiddish-speaking cities and settlements would be created all over the world, including Yiddish-speaking kibbutzim in Israel. Is this really Utopian? Perhaps; but if it does not happen, what will become of Yiddish?

Chava Rosenfarb, “Australian Notes” (1974) Read the rest of this entry »

A Monument Made of Words

Isaac Bashevis Singer, In My Father’s Court
June 1998

After we had left Warsaw (during the First World War), we continued to hear news of him from time to time.  One son died, a daughter fell in love with a young man of low origins and Asher was deeply grieved.  I do not know whether he lived to see the Nazi occupation of Warsaw.  He probably died before that.  But such Jews as these were dragged off to Treblinka.  May these memoirs serve as a monument to him and his like, who lived in sanctity and died as martyrs.

This is a memoir consisting of 50 or so short (6-8 page) vignettes on the author’s boyhood in Warsaw at No. 10 Krochmalna Street and in Bilgoray, a (patriarchal) world that has vanished. He includes accounts of  his family and occasional adventures, but mostly he attends to the characters in his father’s court.  The locals with their disputes would come to his Enneagram 5-ish rabbi who would adjudicate the antagonists.  Our hero-narrator often is dismissed from the room, since the matter concerns grown-ups, but young Yitshok has a penchant for overhearing,  spying, and keeping near a halfway open door.  The irresistible  Beth Din “was a kind of blend of a court of law, synagogue, house of study, and, if you will, a psychoanalyst’s office where people of troubled spirit could come to unburden themselves. 

Of course, one of the things that occurred to me in reading it is how Singer could remember with such specificity from a remove of sixty years. Of course, he couldn’t, he had to create it  and make it up, i.e., voila, a fiction!  Also, he wrote this pre-67, which occasioned the outbreak of loquacity about the Holocaust; this subject is handled  here with restraint by several references to a character who ended up being “murdered by the Germans.”

Some themes I encountered previously chez Wiesel are here:  the yearning for Palestine, the hoping in the Messiah, the Kabbalah, the 36 righteous, the never-forget-your-ancestors imperative.  But unlike Wiesel’s world, this one teems with all kinds of characters and curses, not just sweet, pious Jews longing for the Messiah.   Read the rest of this entry »

Hasidism

You can take everything from me—the pillow from under my head, my house—but you cannot take God away from my heart.
— Nahman of Bratslav

Everything the true Hasid does or does not do mirrors his belief that, in spite of the intolerable suffering man must endure, the heartbeat of life is holy joy, and that always and everywhere, one can force a way through to that joy — provided one devotes one’s self entirely to his deed.
—Martin Buber

I confess that I am unable to discriminate among them — I love them all and, at various times, one more than the others. Much depends on my mood. Sometimes I need a Bratzlaver tale, sometimes I need a Rizhiner saying. I particularly love the modest Masters, the humble ones, those who didn’t ‘make it,’ not really; those who simply wished to be companions or disciples of great Masters and remained reserved and withdrawn…
—Elie Wiesel

A Hasid was taught to be forbearing with all the world, to be patient, mild, and gentle in judging others, to love man as well as animals, to be shy, bashful, and to avoid honors and social distinction, to serve God for the sake of God rather than for reward. Constant self-scrutiny and repentance assumed a place of prominence in Hasidic piety unknown before, with ascetic exercises as indispensable means of repentance.
—Abraham Joshua Heschel Read the rest of this entry »

Glatshteyn

Janet R. Hadda, Yankev Glatshteyn
Twayne Publishers, 1980

Having read translations of Yankev Glatshteyn from Howe and company’s Modern Yiddish Poetry,  Whitman’s Selected Poems, Zumoff’s I Keep Recalling, and  also Fein’s Selected Poems, I treated myself to this study by Janet Hadda, also biographer of I.B. Singer.  Part of the Yiddish modernist In Zikh movement in the 1920 and 30s,  Glatshteyn later had to face the enormity of responding to the catastrophes that were inflicted on Jews in the 1930s and 40s.   Over the decades I have read  religious thinkers, philosophers, and novelists trying to grapple with the Nazi and Soviet “totalitarian barbarism” (G. Steiner).  Regardless of Adorno’s pronouncement on the impossibility of poetry after Auschwitz, Glatshteyn has produced powerful works of mourning for his community and of assailing  the fraud of “western civilization.”   To name five: Good Night, World; Our Neat and Tidy Language; Lamentation for the  Souls of Jewish Cities; Reb Levi Yitzhok’s Voice; and I Keep Recalling.

At mid-century Glatshteyn was preeminent in the U.S. Yiddish community; his literary production included  three novels, eight volumes of essays, and ten volumes of poetry.   Yet, writing of him in 1943, Hadda acknowledges: “Everything was doomed: his people, his tradition, its language, his artistic freedom, his chances of contributing to a continuing literature. Even his awesome responsibility as the chronicler of the last days of Eastern European Jewry was infused with an ironic futility: [he would write about it] but who would read it?”  The Yiddish Book Center has made available a Youtube  of Glatshteyn addressing the mission of Yiddish poetry and responsibility a decade after the end of World War II (English subtitles available).

Near the end of her study, Hadda asserts that the poet’s “commitment to Yiddishkeyt as a national, historical, philosophical, geneaological, and even psychological entity—all of which have common borders with theological Jewishness—was total.”  May new generations of readers and seekers find sparks in Glatshteyn’s works,  both in the original Yiddish and their translations.