Tuesday, August 16, 2005

My sister Vanessa is visiting is for a few days, all the way from California. Ithaca is looking its best, if a little dry: not too hot, spectacular tumbling clouds. Yesterday the three of us just sat around and talked about our lives: it's nice.

Taking note of remarks made by Eric Selinger on my "credo" as a secular Jew, and Joshua Clover's dark logic about the strategizing behind the Gaza pullout (summary: Gaza is a knight or bishop sacrificed in the chess game of Israeli nationalism, a game they still intend to "win"), I am forced to wonder if what I think of as my Jewishness isn't merely another name for naivety. Or: I'm beginning to understand that for me the category "Jew" partakes inevitably of both a particular secular culture (yes, I've been watching the "Secular Jewish Culture" video over at PennSound: I've seen the Bernstein, Rothenberg, and Perloff segments) and of the religious, in spite of my shoddy religious education (no Hebrew school, no bar mitzvah, even). When I think about what attracts me to Jewishness (here I'd like to point your toward Kennneth Koch's poem, To Jewishness), it's a complex melange of wry, deprecatory humor; an instinct for siding with the underdog; an appetite for knowledge and the keen analysis of texts and laws; a healthy skepticism; and a sense of moral responsibility that can skew into the parodic "Jewish guilt" of a Woody Allen but manifests most profoundly as a concern for justice. And so I've been especially proud of the history of Jewish educators, radicals, socialists, thinkers, etc., but I'm coming to see that however secular their commitments, there is a continuity between working for justice as they have and the belief in the Jews as a chosen people and in the possibility of messianic transformation. I feel these things on a gut level: my own sense of outsiderness, my hope, have a Jewish flavor. But most of my Jewish heroes predate the State of Israel; I am disaporic to my bones and have never really known what to do with the fact of a Jewish state, Jewish "insiders," and most disturbingly, Jews whose sense of justice doesn't seem to go beyond self-entitlement. To any Jew or Israeli who argues that we're simply acting in our best interests like any other nation or government would, I want to respond: we're supposed to be better than that. (Not so different from my response to those who invoke "America" as justification for any number of acts that have nothing to do with freedom and equality.) So my relationship to Israel is a very uneasy one. It's time, probably, for me to start learning more about the peace movement there; I know there are millions of Jews who want peace and justice but who also want their own state, their own subjectivity, their own power. That's a viewpoint I don't yet grasp entirely; I don't know where to look for examples of power married to an authentic passion for justice outside of the comic books. Power is never pure—and the thirst for purity is nothing if not religious.

Yeah, I could learn Hebrew. Maybe I will someday. But for me to become a religious Jew would seem require a paradoxical embrace of impurity, for no living congregation can equal my roster of intellectual heroes. And I'm wary of yielding to the frighteningly primitive pull of the ethnic, a community based largely on the brute fact that my Jewish body shares something with other Jewish bodies. There's something real/Real there and it fascinates and appalls. For now I hold myself aloof, and ask questions, and worry. Pretty damn Jewish, no?

1 comment:

Jack Steiner said...

Hi Josh,

I think that it is smart to ask questions and a worthwhile endeavor. You are not the first unaffiliated Jew nor the last to do so.

One of the things that I really appreciate about the blogosphere is that it allows you to take a peak into the lives of others.

You can get a glimpse of the Chassids, the Modern Orthodox, the Conservative and the Reform.

You can look at the Jews who shine as the best examples of what Judaism has to offer and sadly some of the worst.

But what is nice about it is that you can do so at your pace, with your comfort level of involvement.

That may mean doing nothing more than lurking and it may mean getting more involved, but it is your choice.

The only thing that I would suggest is that you take the time to engage in it. Do a little exploring and see what you find.


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