Hold It All

Category: Jewish Tradition

What Is Vaster

In the early 1980s Harold Bloom noted about his experience of decades at Yale University that “[t]here is a profound falling away from what I would call ‘text-centeredness” among the current generation of American undergraduates, Gentile and Jewish alike. I can detect still some difference between Gentile and Jewish students in this regard, but it is not a substantial difference, and it seems to be diminishing.”

Bloom was on my mind  after having read the stirring memoir by Aaron Lansky, Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books. The subtitle is negated by Lansky’s own accounts of the many people—his own generation and those much older—who contributed to this undaunted retrieval of books. About text-centeredness, Isaac Bashevis Singer, the only Yiddish writer to win the Nobel Prize in literature,  once  imagined, “I’m sure that millions of Yiddish-speaking ghosts will rise from their graves one day and their first question will be, ‘Is there any new book in Yiddish to read?’” Read the rest of this entry »

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Minutes & Plans & Moons

I first came to the work of Charles Reznikoff in 2008 when I read his terse “poems” in Holocaust. He had read thousands of pages of war crimes trials transcripts to produce condensed, jarring, essential “scenes of disaster,” like something out of Goya. I returned to him in 2010, and read several volumes by and about him. Reading this Objectivist poet that summer prepared me for a breakthrough in writing the following spring.

I recommend By the Well of Living & Seeing: New & Selected Poems 1918-1973 for anyone who might be interested in exploring the vision and sensibility of this Jewish American poet. To whet your reading appetite, I offer for your consideration the following poems…

If you ask me about the plans that I made last night
Of steel and granite—
I think the sun must have melted them,
Or this gentle wind blown them away.

The Old Man
The fish has too many bones
And the watermelon too many seeds.

Beggar Woman
When I was four years old my mother led me to the park.
The spring sunshine was not too warm. The street was almost empty.
The witch in my fairy-book came walking along.
She stopped to fish some mouldy grapes out of the gutter. Read the rest of this entry »

Raising the Alarm, Or Not

I just finished the book Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom  by Ariel Burger and found this interview segment on Wiesel and Palestinian Rights.

Burger quotes Wiesel as follows, which reminds  me of Israeli journalists Gideon Levy and Amira Hass– “The ones who recognize the coming of evil, of oppression, are often seen as madmen. They are attuned to a reality that most people do not see, to a vision of the world without hatred, a messianic vision. They live for this vision, and they are so sensitive to whatever threatens it that, unlike others, they react immediately. They are usually the first to raise the alarm.”

 

The Ideal Text

“My idea of the ideal text is still the Talmud. I love the idea of parallel texts, with long, discursive footnotes and marginal commentary, texts commenting on texts.”

–Noam Chomsky, Mother Jones, 1987

Scholem on Buber

Today I was rereading Gershom Scholem’s From Berlin to Jerusalem: Memoirs of My Youth, and came across this criticism of Martin Buber: The laconic brevity of those rabbis, their absolute precision of expression, attracted me even more than the same quality in the Latin writers. Added to this was the dialogue of the generations, uninterrupted for so many centuries, whose protocol is the Talmud. Here truly prevailed that “dialogic” life which the later Buber so emphatically placed at the center of his philosophy, although, paradoxically enough, he remained incomprehensibly blind to this, the most genuine evidence that Jewish tradition offered to him. The continuum of the Torah onto which all remarks of the “sages” and their disciples were projected was, in the final analysis, not a truly historical medium—the religious and metaphysical assumptions on which it was based, and with which I was later to concern myself extensively, were too evident for that—but it did have a dignity and, as I was soon to find out, problems of its own.

Letter from Israel Shahak

    —Israel Shahak performed a vital service for many years with his translations “From the Hebrew Press,” which gave an accurate picture of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. A survivor of Bergen-Belsen, he was a professor of chemistry at Hebrew University and a prophetic dissident for decades.

Jew-in-the-Library, Jew-in-the-Streets

Jill Krementz, The Jewish Writer, Henry Holt and Company, 1998

Portraits, bios, occasionally quotations form this coffee table book collection of Jewish writers, poets, novelists, scholars. Wiesel is here, as is his nemesis Hannah Arendt, as is Norman Finkelstein’s nemesis, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen.

Chava Rosenfarb touched me most.

The book’s a testimony to Jewish empowerment, making it (Podhoretz is included), with some occasional sentimentality. The Holocaust survivors are here, a few Yiddish writers, a few Israelis (no women), the young and the ancient, many New Yorkers.

I don’t think the word “Palestinians” is in the whole book, and why should it be? This is a feel-good tribute to the tribe’s success stories. Why muck it up with notice of Israel’s ethnic cleansing program? (But then, if Krementz had done a similar book on “American Writers” in 1982, you wouldn’t be surprised if no one mentioned the recent Indochina cataclysms, compliments of the United States.) Thus, I.B. Singer’s line doesn’t appear to apply to many of these writers: “Life itself is a permanent crisis.” In the Promised Land of American Success, Academy of Arts and Letters, Holocaust and Lower East Side Memorials, how could it be?

What follows is a list of those writers I’d be happy to read (or in some cases, get reacquainted with): Read the rest of this entry »

Present Moment, Only Moment

The soothsayers who found out from time what it had in store certainly did not experience time as either homogeneous or empty. Anyone who keeps this in mind will perhaps get an idea of how past times were experienced in remembrance–namely, in just the same way. We know that the Jews were prohibited from investigating the future. The Torah and the prayers instruct them in remembrance, however. This stripped the future of its magic, to which all those succumb who turn to the soothsayers for enlightenment. This does not imply, however, that for the Jews the future turned into homogeneous, empty time. For every second of time was the strait gate through which Messiah might enter.

–Walter Benjamin, Illuminations

A Feat of Reading and Writing

1.

[T]he sheer enormity of what took place between 1933 and 1945 beggars our powers of description and understanding. The more one studies this period and its excesses, the more one must conclude that for any decent human being the slaughter of so many millions of innocents must, and indeed should, weigh heavily on subsequent generations, Jewish and non-Jewish…. there is no reason at all, in my opinion, not to submit oneself in horror and awe to the special tragedy besetting the Jewish people. As an Arab in particular I find it important to comprehend this collective experience in as much of its terrible concrete detail as one is capable: this act of comprehension guarantees one’s humanity and resolve that such a catastrophe should never be forgotten and never recur.
—Edward W. Said, Al-Ahram Weekly, 1997

2.

Charles Reznikoff immersed himself in more than 20 volumes of transcripts from World War II war crimes trials and the Eichmann trial. Out of that intense reading of thousands of pages came Holocaust, a book of poetry in 12 sections comprising 88 pages published in 1975. Read the rest of this entry »

A Poem, a History, a Novel

This fall Dianne, Lynette and I are reading the following books:


Read the rest of this entry »