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On Living and Dead Jews

Jewish authors have often tended away from providing fully-realized endings or redemptive storylines, opting instead to paint the world as it truly is: nuanced and complex.

Before last summer, I could have readily given you the names of three death camps. I could not, however, have given you the names of three Yiddish authors, masters of the Yiddish language, speakers of which constituted more than 80 percent of those who perished in said death camps. Dara Horn ponders this discrepancy of knowledge in her latest book “People Love Dead Jews,” asking “What was the point of caring so much about how people died, if one cared so little about how they lived?”

Horn’s point is an uncomfortable one, as it’s an indictment of the Jewish institutions and organizations that seek to serve as the glue of our community. In the reform Jewish world in which I grew up, many young Jews are secularizing, and by recognizing how many of them know the words “Auschwitz,” “Treblinka” and “Sobibor,” instead of, rather than in addition to, Aleichem, I.L. Peretz, and Mokher Seforim, clearly the ways in which our Jewish education has been constructed to emphasize victimhood over peoplehood have not been productive. 

To illustrate this problem, this summer I picked up a copy of “Call It Sleep” by Henry Roth, a 1934 novel that tells the story of David, an eight-year-old Jewish boy living in the immigrant slums of the Lower East Side at the turn of the twentieth century. Throughout the novel, David is forced to contend with a variety of challenges: an abusive father, a secretive mother, a strict rabbi at his local cheder, and the general rough and tumble of early Jewish life in New York tenements. And yet still, I put down Roth’s book unsatisfied, a tad disappointed that this particular work of fiction did not bring the bravado and profound meaning that the Jewish books I’m comfortable with are notorious for providing. The book has anything but a Hollywood style beginning, middle, and end—David’s life is told more in the form of episodes or snapshots, without any clear universalist message to offer readers. Little did I know, this was far from abnormal in Jewish literature. 

One of the sections of Horn’s book that struck me as most interesting is her analysis of the separation of norms between Jewish authors and Christian authors. Whereas writers in the Christian world are more focused on crafting their tales with coherence and meaning, Jewish authors have often tended away from providing fully-realized endings or redemptive storylines, opting instead to paint the world as it truly is: nuanced and complex. Much of Jewish literature, including works such as Sholom Aleichem’s “Tevye and the Dairy Man” stories, have to be dramatized into separate scripts such as “Fiddler on the Roof” simply because, for those of used to a more contemporary mode of storytelling, the characters do not offer us satisfying moments of grace and instead live their lives as any normal Jew would: trying to stay out of trouble. 

As I read “Call it Sleep,” I expected David to encounter antisemitism and prejudice in New York, to find a grand connection between Talmud and his family, or for his life to be revealed as a fantastic metaphor. But Roth offers none of this. The novel is less about being a Jewish immigrant than it is about simply being an immigrant: a stranger in a strange land. A New York Times review of “Call It Sleep” from 1964 notes that the book’s critics “must have felt that the severe detachment with which Roth presented the inner life of a Jewish immigrant boy between the ages of 6 and 8 was an evasion of the social needs of the moment,” later adding that the novel “ends without any explicit moral statement … one has lived through a completeness of rendered life, and all one need do is silently to acknowledge its truth.”

Our greatest literary writers, instead of polishing their tales with life lessons and conclusive endings, have historically preserved Jewish life in its truest sense.

Our greatest literary writers, instead of polishing their tales with life lessons and conclusive endings, have historically preserved Jewish life in its truest sense. They offer us a yiddishkeit that portrays Jews, rather than what happened to Jews. A great deal of our understanding of Jewish culture comes from what happened to the Jews, abandoning the most important aspect of our faith—the ritual, day-to-day life of our ancestors who sustained our traditions for millennia. 

Many of us have been conditioned to perceive this as boring and meaningless, as I did reading Roth, and many of our teachers have decided that reading Dershowitz and watching “Schindler’s List” is more constructive to forming a Jewish identity than discussing the Mishnah or the meaning of Chagall’s paintings. This is a mistake, for a sense of identity solely built upon conflict, tragedy and politics cannot withstand. 

Perhaps this is the genesis of the rising anti-Zionist and even anti-Jewish attitudes among young Jews today, a backlash against the lack of cultural literacy that come with the American Diaspora experience. If we perceive ourselves as victims first, Israel as only a resolution to the Holocaust, Shabbat prayers as only an exercise in muscle memory without any historical knowledge of the weight of the words, the once thought to be everlasting light of Jewish life in America will dim.


Blake Flayton is New Media Director and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

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