Hold It All

Only Connect (and Hold It All)

Edward W. Said, Power, Politics, and Culture: Interviews
Edited by Gauri Viswanathan
Pantheon Books (2001)

With four friends (from St. Charles, Troy, and Los Angeles), I am reading and discussing  the recently published collection of Edward Said’s essays over the course of forty years.  Among the most powerful  so far are “Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Victims” and an excerpt from his 1986 work  with photographer Jean Mohr, After the Last Sky.  I’ve also been rereading a volume interviews from the 1970s on, and I have been struck by Said’s strong views on the matter of identity.  Following are some of his reflections over the years…

Musically, I am very interested in contrapuntal writing, and contrapuntal forms. The kind of complexity that is available, aesthetically, to the whole range from consonant to dissonant, the tying together of multiple voices in a kind of disciplined whole, is something that I find tremendously appealing.  99

I think the one thing that I find, I guess, the most—I wouldn’t say repellent, but I would say antagonistic—for me is identity. The whole notion of a single identity. And so multiple identity, the polyphony of many voices playing off against each other, without, as I say, the need to reconcile them, just to hold them together, is what my work is all about. More than one culture, more than one awareness, both in its negative and its positive modes. It’s a basic instinct.  99

There’s  the whole  question of the fractious quality of identity politics.  204 Read the rest of this entry »

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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 »

“If Not You, Who?”

Having recently read Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism and Deep Work, I thought of Marcel Proust’s Time Regained, volume 7 in his In Search of Lost Time.

1.

As for the inner book of unknown symbols… if I tried to read them no one could help me with any rules, for to read them was an act of creation in which no one can do our work for us or even collaborate with us.  How many for this reason turn aside from writing!  What tasks do men not take upon themselves in order to evade this task!  Every public event, be it the Dreyfus case, be it the war, furnishes the writer with a fresh excuse for not attempting to decipher this book:  he wants to insure the triumph of justice, he wants to restore the moral unity of the nation, he has no time to think of literature.  But these are mere excuses, the truth being that he has not or no longer has genius, that is to say instinct.  For instinct dictates our duty and the intellect supplies us with  pretexts for evading it. But excuses have no place in art and intentions count for nothing:  at every moment the artist has to listen to his instinct, and it is this that makes art the most real of all things, the most austere school of life, the true last judgment.

2.

So that the essential, the only true book, though in the ordinary sense of the word it does not have to be ‘“invented” by a great writer — for it exists already in each one of us — has to be translated by him.  The function and the task of a writer are those of a translator.

3.

The artist who gives up an hour of work for an hour of conversation with a friend knows that he is sacrificing a reality for something which does not exist (our friends being friends only  in the light of an agreeable folly which travels with us through life and to which we readily accommodate ourselves, but which at the bottom of our hearts we know to be no more reasonable than the delusion of the man who talks to the furniture because he believes that it is alive)…   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 »

The Real United States by Hedy Epstein

Not long after I came to the United States [later 1948], I began to work for the New York Association for New Americans (NYANA) near New York’s City Hall and later in the agency’s shelter on West 103rd Street. The agency brought to the U. S. displaced persons who had been living in displaced persons camps in Germany since the end of World War II. I had daily contact with these persons. With every new boatload of people arriving, I scanned their faces, hoping to find my parents among them. I inquired of them where, in what camp, they had been during the war, hoping someone would be able to provide some information about my parents. None could.

Ethel instructed me in my duties. Her response to my repeated suggestion that we go to lunch together was always, “No.”  Summoning up a lot of courage, I asked her why she did not want to go out to lunch with me. “Don’t you know we cannot go to lunch together,” she said. “Why not?” I asked. She replied: “I cannot eat in the places where you can and I am sure you would not want to eat where I eat.” I failed to understand until she explained: “Negroes are not allowed to eat in restaurants frequented by whites.” I was shocked, incredulous. After all, President Lincoln had freed the slaves. That is what I read in history books. I thought therefore there was no more discrimination. This incident served as the catalyst for my involvement in the civil rights movement, always as a protestor and later, also, professionally.

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 »

Internationalista (Daydream/2)

It’s Nablus spring 1989
The intifada is in full bloom
And there’s always something happening in and with and from the resistance
International delegations come and go
10,000 photos are taken of David
(A Palestinian teen-ager with stones)
Squaring off against Goliath
(An Israeli tank)
The leaflets and communiqués everywhere
The women come into public space and assert their voices
And the mighty State of Israel has a major PR problem
Unnoticed is the older man with wavy grey hair
Like so many non-Palestinians, he, too, adopts the kaffiyeh
He studied some Arabic in Beirut and Sāo Paolo
He’d always been thinking of how to make “it” happen
To birth the revolution
Here, there, and everywhere
He wasn’t as talkative as he was in his thirties
He listened far more intently
Suffering can do that to a person
He’d seen so much misery
No, he wasn’t religious at all, but he found himself saying “crucifixion”
A fate he had several times narrowly escaped himself
He arrived with a Brazilian passport: “Joāo Azevedo”
He came on fire for the people living under a dehumanizing system
He came, thinking, once again: If I’m going to go out
(translated: to die)
Better to die in the struggle
Than being interviewed for the 200th time by a cynical, smug journalist whose specialty is retro features
Better to be with the rock throwers than those who blithely and brainlessly pay their taxes to support the occupiers
Better to go and blend in and enjoy every bite of falafel and hummus and
Say “gracias, uh, shukran”
To every Palestinian grandmother, wife, or teenager who offers sustenance
Better to connect the blood red dots once again
From the Guatemalan Highlands to Ramallah
From Santiago to Gaza City
From San Salvador to al-Quds
Better to recognize the Palestinians as sisters and brothers
Compañeros and compañeras
And offer them one’s silence
One’s experience
One’s impatience
One’s indignation
One’s stories from crisscrossing a planet crucified by capitalism
Better to join the demonstration
Tear gas won’t faze him
Beatings—even at his age (61)—don’t evoke fear
In the afternoon near the sooq
He meets a new resister
(They are everywhere)
The older man extends his hand to the youth,
Smiles and says,
“Ismii Che…”

OK, Henry
I’ve got some down time over here
I wrote this for your pleasure

Hasta la Intifada Siempre

Perry

–from Dear Layla Welcome to Palestine

Surplus You Can Count on in the Soviet Union

“We’ll run out of potatoes before spring. Same with bread. Same with firewood. The only thing we won’t be short of is grief.” — Marya, in Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad