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  • Andrew Field

Why is Purim a Good Metaphor for Jews in America Interested in Literature, Art, and Spirituality?



60 Folk Songs with Notes, by Menakhem Kipnis, 1918, Warsaw


I was thinking about religion this morning, because of an earlier radio show about William James. I am fascinated by the subject of religion, because it seems very close to the subject of literature, though at the end of the day I value art and criticism more than religion, and believe that art has mostly replaced religion at this point in our cultural landscape, our "cultural politics," to use Richard Rorty's term.


As I began thinking about religion, I started to think about Judaism, the religion I was raised in. Growing up, I went to a Conservative (religiously, not politically) Jewish school. We learned how to read and speak Hebrew, celebrated the Jewish holidays, and learned to be proud of who were are and where we come from. It was a form of normative Judaism, but it spoke to me in its own way, a kind of flavor of heymishness that gave me an appreciation for language and creativity, as well as valuing one's origins as a means of valuing other origins, other traditions.


That said, I never felt very inspired by synagogue. I did like the music on the High Holy Days, especially on Yom Kippur. There was a haunting and very powerful quality to "Hineni" and "Avinu Malkeinu," especially when sang at night, which felt like something almost gnomically operatic. It was a very intense experience which I loved and strangely looked forward to deeply. I did not care much for the rituals, and do not today, although I enjoy reading about them in various guises in works by Gershom Scholem. I found the Jewishness I am really inspired by in literature - writers like Malamud, Roth, Bellow, Ozick, Mailer, Aharon Appelfeld; Jewish poets like Allen Grossman, Irving Feldman, Alvin Feinman, Richard Howard, John Hollander; the essays of Primo Levi; the stories of Kafka, or Babel. Later I read Yiddish poets translated into English and fell in love with the work of Jacob Glatstein. And today I still look for Jewish writers, and am deeply interested in the works of Joshua Cohen, for example. These are works that are not prescriptive. Yet they are powerful, and funny, and moving, and wise. And, for me, they speak to my heart more.


My favorite artists are Harold Bloom and Bob Dylan. They were both raised Jewish - Dylan in a Conservative setting, Bloom in an orthodox setting - but grew up to be very idiosyncratic Jews. Dylan is a Jew and born-again Christian; Bloom was a self-professed Gnostic Jew. To saw one is a Jew and born-again Christian, or to say one is a Gnostic Jew, is to be syncretic - it is to draw on different traditions in order to express one's own sense of life and, therefore, one's own sense of tradition and religion. Of course, Dylan's tradition came more from American music, and Bloom's more from the literary tradition. But there is something deeply Jewish about both of them, a heymishness, a kind of endearing stubborness, a Yiddish quixoticism. They are great resisters, great questers, great questioners. Both men needed to describe their own religious feelings because they hated normative religion, including normative Judaism, and needed something more meaningful and variegated that would speak to their own experiences, anxieties, and lives. And yet their work is still like challah and honey, or briscuit, or smoked herring. Somehow Jewish and Russian, like rabbis from Odessa hidden behind the public images.


Nietzsche famously said that we have art to not perish from the truth. Marx in turn famously said that religion, a form of truth, is the opiate of the masses. This would suggest that art intensifies and religion numbs. But this is not necessarily true, and there is a deeper relationship between religion and literature than we realize, since the first literature we have in the Western world is the Hebrew Bible, a book about parents and children. At the end of the day, in other words, the approach matters more than the content. Religion, like literature, can only make one's life more meaningful based on one's kavanah, the Hebrew word for "intention." If one says one wants something, but inwardly does not, it can't happen. If one says one wants something, but inwardly does, it can. That's how it's always worked.


Gnosticism is the idea that human beings are capable of knowing, which means human being have a spark inside them that has a role in their own individual destinies, like an acorn that grows, or a seed that needs to sprout. A Gnostic Jew is one who learns to listen to that seed, in order to become someone who can pass down that way of knowing. But Bloom argued that every American, and therefore every Jewish-American, is secretly a Gnostic, and so was quite cunning in his description of Gnosticism as a religion for the elect. To have been a Gnostic Jew in the 20th century was to try and find a way of making sense of the Shoah, like one searching in a field at winter for even the barest hint of grass. But I wonder at this point, in the 21 century, if the Kabbalah is a better metaphor for a Jew's religious identity interested in both aesthetic and spirituality. Gnosticism is not Jewish enough. I say this because, when Bloom, for example, wrote, not enough time had passed after the Shoah to begin to even think about the Shoah, or to mourn. To say, like Adorno, that writing poetry after the Shoah is barbaric, is to say that not enough time has passed to write poetry. Bloom, who was raised Orthodox, recognized in some degree that his Gnosticism was not robust enough for the 21s century for Jews interested in literature and criticism, which is also why I think his best book about religion, as well as Judaism, is Kabbalah and Criticism, then The American Religion and his wonderful anthology of American Religious Poems, and lastly Omens of the Millennium.


Fine - but what would it mean to be a Kabbalistic Jew? For me, it means not needing to honor a false distinction between the sacred and the secular. It means questioning the pragmatism of any religious practice that feeds the mind more than the heart. It means not needing to make compromises if one's daughter wants to read Torah from the bimah, or wear a kippa. It means learning how to honor tradition enough to break it, since to posit an acorn inside a human being that grows, is to acknowledge that there is a kind of halakhah of life, a kind of law. But if a world exists where this law is written about best by Kafka, rather than a religious teacher like Soloveichik, one wonders if we are misunderstanding the meaning of law. To read the Zohar is to experience a kind of warmth, a heymish quality, the same I find in Malamud or Ozick. It is to feel welcomed inside. Like a child might feel during Kabbalat Shabbat, to be a Kabbalastic Jew is to honor one's feelings more than one's obligations, especially if the latter get in the way of the former. Oftentimes we use anything we can at our disposal to excuse or rationalize or falsely validate our repressions and evasions. I think being a Kabbalistic Jew means beginning to be more honest about the ramifications of the Shoah, not beause we weren't trying to do this earlier, but because more time has passed now, so there is a greater distance in our memory and therefore a chance to mourn with clearer and more empathizing eyes.


One wonderful aspect of this ability to mourn after more time has passed, is the florabundance of studies being done now in academia and popular culture in Yiddish, Yiddish studies and Jewish studies. On Twitter, you might see a comment exploring the relationship between Yiddish and Shakespeare, or an archivist uncovering fascinating and moving book covers written and drawn in Yiddish, or someone tweeting about Flannery O'Connor in Hebrew. There is a heymish, landsmen flavor to these posts, an ease that I don't remember experiencing in the past in my sense of Jewishness as a child, which suggests that while we are mourning, there is something less angst-ridden because more time has passed. We are not throttled by the Shoah, but we are not exempt from it either. For this reason, I think Purim is a good metaphor for where Jews are at in American seeking to find a path that is both aesthetic and spiritual. Purim is a celebration that comes after much suffering. It is about the Jewish people, but it also, even more so, about individuals and the community they represent. Psychological, sociological, and literary, Purim is looser, like the Megillah, and without the stark need for atonement, as on Yom Kippur, or the epic aspects of the exodus story on Passover, or even the more customary rituals on Rosh Hashanah. It is both idiosyncratic and welcoming, flushed like the cheeks of a lovable pisher after a glass of wine. It's Chaggalian, happy because it's sad; it's like a production of Yiddish theater, a soliloquy from a Jewish Rosalind. For a Kabbalistic Jew, rather than a Gnostic Jew, Purim seems to provide a kind of slant into Jewishness and Judaism, as well as literature and art, that honors the sacred and the secular, while doing so in a manner that does not sacrifice a robustness, a fragrance, a color, unique to the Jewish tradition.



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