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Conference probes features of American Jewish culture
STANFORD -- At work, English Professor John Felstiner arranges the volumes of American literature on his office bookshelves alphabetically by author. In his home, however, Felstiner uses a different system: two sets of floor-to-ceiling shelves one for Jewish literature and the other for "otherwise American."
Through such telltale habits of daily living, as well as through works of art and literature, cultural observers explored Jewish American "dividedness" at a two-day conference May 14 and 15 on Jewish culture in America.
Hosted by the Program in Jewish Studies as a celebration of its 10th anniversary at Stanford, the discussion followed a festival of films by Jewish American filmmakers and drew scholars, students, program donors and the general public.
The question of Jewish identity in art is often not a clear-cut one. Felstiner shelves O Taste and See, a book of poems by Denise Levertov, in the Jewish bookcase, he confided, even though he doubts his former colleague would approve. It is his "secret" way of answering the question, Is there really such a thing as American Jewish content in American poetry?
"American Jews, not hyphenated Jewish-Americans, but Jews living as such in America, dearly need poetry to imagine their survival," said the author of a 1995 biography of poet Paul Celan. But many of the highly regarded Jewish American writers, he conceded, balk at such particularity, preferring to think of themselves, in American terms, as writers who "happen to be" Jewish.
Levertov, who taught English and writing at Stanford for a decade, doesn't even claim she happens to be. The daughter of a Welsh poet and Russian Jew who converted to Anglicanism before her birth, Levertov's 20 books of poetry and prose mix Jewish and Christian themes, Felstiner said, even though she identifies as Christian.
The identity of Jewish Americans was explored in light of momentous events in Jewish history, such as the Crusades, the first of which began precisely 900 years ago, and the 20th-century Holocaust and establishment of a Jewish state. It was explored in terms of American historical events as well, such as the massive movement in the '50s and '60s from ethnic city to homogenized suburb, and from poverty to wealth.
"The study of America has been and remains, in many respects something of a poor cousin in the field of Jewish studies," said history Professor Steven Zipperstein, the program's director and organizer of the conference. "This may appear odd given the security, the current influence and affluence of American Jews," he said, but it is the "byproduct of a Jewish studies that understands well misery and marginalization but doesn't quite know what to do with the discordant wages of happiness."
American Jews have "agreed to the [American] proposal we actually have a right to be happy," said religious studies Professor Arnold Eisen. But they need to have an ongoing conversation, he said, centered on two questions: "What place for Jews? and What continuous relationship to tradition can we develop?"
Like other scholars, Eisner described the American Jewish political situation as one of "two viable options" for Jews in the modern world creating a Jewish nation-state like Israel or becoming "a hyphenated religious, cultural group."
The problems with the latter were outlined eloquently by Alfred Kazin, the 81-year-old American literary critic who is perhaps equally well known for his autobiographical writing on the Jewish shtetl of Brooklyn where he grew up.
Kazin read excerpts from his book to be published next month, A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment. The book is an edited version of the journals he has kept since 1938. Kazin spoke personally of "the problem of being divided emotionally a Jew, intellectually so many other things which have been made possible for me by this country in a way that my grandparents never dreamed." Even as an "old man" being offered an academic chair at Stanford, he said, he had still felt something of an outsider.
Kazin also said that he is "not a good Jew I'm not observant, I'm not a Jewish scholar, I have many complaints about what goes on in the Jewish world. Only the other day I read in the Times that bar mitzvahs in Westchester now cost $100,000 and must include black entertainers," he said, prompting one of many outbursts of chuckles from his audience. He thinks of Jews around the world as his mother did as his "extended family," he said, and is reminded by others, Jewish and Gentile, that he is Jewish, wherever he goes on the planet.
Now working on his 13th book, called God and the American Writer, Kazin said he was "disturbed" to find few Jewish writers as candidates to fit in among Hawthorne, Twain and Stowe.
"My experience with very brilliant and talented Jewish writers, like my friend Philip Roth, is that if you mention the word God or religion, you get thrown out of the house," Kazin said. Saul Bellow, he contended, is "the only Jewish writer of any real standing in American literature who is devoured by the idea of God, as I have been all my life, without being able to say quite what it is." Asked if he might include Cynthia Ozick in this category, Kazin said, "I think she is more interested in the Holocaust than the divinity."
Kazin was critical of the "neoconservative" American Jew, a category he described as "an ex-communist who has decided, in one way or another, to get on with what's going on." Some, he said, have "teamed up" politically with the Christian identity movement because "they think that because Pat Robertson makes certain gestures toward Israel, everything is OK. They don't know history that there were Christian Zionists in Palestine before there were Jewish Zionists. . . . They wanted to bring all Jews back to Palestine so they could all be converted at once," he said.
In another session, Ruth Wisse, a professor of Yiddish literature at Harvard, offered an argument for a strain in American Judaism that makes a virtue out of historical powerlessness or victimhood. Analyzing New York Yiddish newspapers from 1929 and 1930 in the detail that Jewish studies has traditionally reserved for ancient Hebrew texts, Wisse said that the leftist writers of that era were willing to put communism ahead of survival of their own people. The international nature of the movement appealed to them because Jews did not have a homeland. Jewish writers rarely wrote about America, not even its stock market crash, Wisse said, but faced a sudden intellectual crisis in late 1929, when Arabs attacked and killed 400 Jews in Palestine and Moscow blamed the riots on Jewish "fascism." While many of the writers quit the Yiddish newspaper that printed Moscow's version of events, the writers took pains over the next year to reconcile the events in Palestine and in Russia with their commitment to communism.
"My own interpretation is that [Jewish] political dependency in history became and has remained for many modern Jews a moral end in itself," she said. One illustration of the Jewish attraction to victimhood, she said, is that "no one is rushing to give a chair to study Zionism, but every donor wants a chair to study the Holocaust." Just as the Germans face "the problem of relearning the limits of power," Jews have "the problem of relearning the limits of powerlessness," she said.
Wisse and Eisen debated how inclusive a Jewish American culture can afford to be. Both agreed that a culture must have, in the words of Eisen, "shoulds and should nots," but she said, to be true to its roots, a Jewish culture needs to be "fearless about saying no" to some of the many conceptions that American Jews might bring to it.
"It's a free country," Eisen said. "If I start ruling people out of the conversation, I'll end up with very few people to talk to."
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