Ambience is all
That is sometimes how I feel about living in New York City, the biggest Jewish city in the world. As an intellectual, naturally I feel indebted to such creative figures as Popper, Koestler, Panofsky, Einstein, Schoenberg and so many others. All the teachers who influenced me in grad school were Jewish. I used to think that if I could figure out their secret, I could really go places. Alas, the secret was not being Jewish but having the advantage of superb education in Weimar Germany, an option that ceased to be available after 1933.
On occasion in scanning an array of nonfiction books in which one volume on a particular subject is written by a Jew and the other by a gentile, I will almost automatically gravitate to the former. It is more likely to be thorough and incisive.
Virtually all the works that I admire are the products of secular Jews. They are not in any way the product of “Jewish science” and “Jewish music,” they are simply science and music at their best. In all honesty, though, I do not feel the same about the manifestations of observant Jewry. Jewish Orthodoxy, with its vast register of dos and don’ts, strikes me as something approaching a collective neurosis. Privately, I suspect, many secular Jews feel the same.
As long as my mental powers continue, I expect to keep learning, massively, from the works of secular Jews. It is a great boon to live in their midst. Still, there are times when, like the mythical heterosexual citizen of San Francisco, I long for some lowering of the volume.
Here in New York City we are bombarded with celebrations of Jewish films and books. Countless articles and book reviews appear in the New York Times and other quality media. It is all interesting--up to a point. But I simply cannot take any interest in the minutiae of life in the stetlach (little towns) of Eastern Europe. As with my ancestors in the Emerald Isle, life there was for the most part nasty, poor, brutish, and short. No wonder the immigrants breathed a sigh of relief when they arrived at Ellis Island. They knew that great challenges awaited them. But there would also be opportunity of a kind not available in the old country. Today, the new sentimentalization of ghetto life. Fiddler-in-the-Roofism, obscures these realities.
Jewish history offers much that is instructive, as the Dalai Lama, in the company of so many others, has acknowledged. During January our two PBS stations here in New York broadcast the six-hour documentary “The Jewish Americans.” Containing some unusual footage, this program was informative and well done. On March 18, the comedian Jackie Mason will begin ten weeks of NYC appearances as “Jackie Mason: The Ultimate Jew.” This sounds like fun, and (usually a reluctant theater goer) I might even attend.
Today the fashion for identity politics has plunged us into a kind of salmagundii of ethnic exhibitionism, encompassing the variants of Afrocentric, Hispanic/Latino, Greek-American, Irish-American ethic chauvinism. And so on, seemingly ad infinitum. This is a kind of super-meme that keeps on reproducing. In this context it is not surprising that there should be such a thing as Jewish ethnic particularism.
Yet in key ways the collective narcissism of American Jews is unique among ethnic groups. Individually, Greek Americans may surpass them, as they are always talking about ancient Greek art, philosophy, and literature--even though these things have very little to do with modern Greece. Greek Americans, however, have little power to project their ethnocentric concerns among the broader public.
The Nazis notoriously intoned “the Jews are our misfortune.” The reality is just the opposite. The Jews are our good fortune. The more of them we have the better. Such is the value of their contribution. But sometimes I wish that they could spend a little less time congratulating themselves. It is not really necessary.
POSTSCRIPT. I am taking advantage (and I trust not abusing my privilege) as blogger to comment in advance (but really afterwards) on the incisive comment posted by Jack. This is the second truly thoughtful response I have had to my recent postings on religion. I confess that I am in some turmoil about these postings, because I had hoped to find more wheat than chaff--or at least a lot of wheat--in the Abrahamic heritage.
At all events, Jack makes an excellent point. There have been very determined, and truly vicious efforts, in recent times to obliterate both Jewish and gay culture. If one errs sometimes in the opposite direction (and this is not really an error, given the tremendous losses), the effects are understandable.
It is also unreasonable to expect that these efforts at recovery be limited to "high culture," that is that we celebrate Moses Mendelsohn and Gustav Mahler instead of Fiddler on the Roof, or Whitman and Stein instead of the latest comedian on the Logo channel. Cultural recovery means INTEGRAL CULTURAL recovery, and not just a few high culture items. To require concentration only on the latter is, in effect, to acquiesce in the restrictions of the anti-Semites and homophobes.
As a personal reminiscence, I well remember how, in the 1960s (long before the current vogue) I became acquainted with the Kabbala, thanks to the remarkable interpretations of Gershon Scholem. I would not have wanted the "volume to be lowered" then. Nor should I do so now. In my piece, though, I was seeking to articulate an element of uneasiness that even the most well-intended people sometimes feel. Probably we should not--but we do. As a gay person, I do tire occasionally of celebration of homosexual people and events. I remember some years ago, when I attended a showing of "Maurice" (a generally excellent film) I thought, oh no, not this stuff again! But showcasing is better than silencing.
In the meantime, enjoy Jack's instructive comment.