“Abandon Yiddish.” The masters of the Enlightenment might as well have said abandon hope, for all the impact this particular prescription for a better life would have on its intended beneficiaries. Never mind that Yiddish had been their language for over 1,000 years—spoken by over half the Jews on the planet, grammatically German, with a Hebrew alphabet. The masters of the Enlightenment always knew best, and when they got around to calling for a reevaluation of the age-old problem of the segregation of the Jewish people, it was this solution they proposed. For the Jews it would be just another step, perhaps the most important step, towards a final solution.
European intellectuals had become critical of the ways the Jews were treated, but they also believed that only by “opening their minds to non-Jewish knowledge” could Jews leave the isolation of their ghettos. In 1754, a German play, The Jews (Die Juden), written by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, offered a protagonist, Nathan the Wise (Nathan der Weise) which “conceived the impossible:” A Jew who was an enlightened individual! The author indicated (to an incredulous public) that the hero was based on a real person: Moses Mendelson, son of a Torah scribe. In fact, in 1743, Mendelson had gone to Berlin, the center of the Enlightenment, and later won a prize to which Immanuel Kant had been the runner-up.
Lessing’s play helped convince leaders to improve the legal status of the Jews: “A man in the street, and a Jew at home,” was their elegant turn of phrase. Centuries of separation were coming to an end. “And their education system would be reformed!”—even though, ghettos notwithstanding, it had produced a literacy rate of 100 percent—“reformed,” to include “modern knowledge.” Modern knowledge—the transmission of which consists today of professors transforming their pupils, under examination, into whole fields of study—would become, for the Jews, carnal knowledge in the ovens and gas chambers of concentration camps, among them Buchenwald, adjacent the train stop that, once disgorging the camp-bound by the thousands, now lets off those on pilgrimages to Goethe’s shrine, the greatest of all Enlightenment thinkers and poets.
“It can’t happen here,” they said. But it would. The very habitation and name of the term, Jewish question, comes not from the obvious suspects, but from the time and the place of the Enlightenment, and however the question has been posed since—the role of Jews in an emerging world of nationalisms and nation states then, or its latest iteration, the depiction of Israel as a homicidal, genocidal state on college campuses today—its formulation was in and of itself the problem, and was a tip-off to what was probably its inevitable “answer,” a “final solution,” aimed at their extermination.
The Enlightenment was in part a response to people killing each other in the streets over religion, but the Jews weren’t the ones doing the killing. In 1516, during the Renaissance, the Jews were forced into confined areas. By 1555, they were forced to wear their distinctive yellow badges or hats, taxed, and prevented from owning land. While we might call a walled community, with the gates closed and locked, a prison—the Jews, however, grew used to their prisons—it might have seemed a paradise to those Jews who lived and died four centuries later when more than one third of their worldwide population was eliminated in five years, and the rich cultural life of the Yeshiva shtetls was completely killed off, and with it, its sense of mishpokhedikayt, or family, where life focused around community and communal obligation.
The yields of the most virulent forms of antisemitism were no match for what could be “accomplished” by the Enlightenment’s belief in its own forward thinking. Voltaire and other thinkers insisted Jews “were relics of an ancient past.” Throughout the centuries, people had merely saddled Jews with the death of Jesus, the Bubonic Plague, and poisoned wells, but by the 19th century, with the emergence of a middle class, it was possible for individuals to express resentment by describing big business as Jewish. In Europe, politicians pounced. Karl Lueger and Adolph Stoecker founded parties in Austria and Germany respectively that incorporated antisemitic theories, and when Lueger became mayor of Vienna in the 1890s they were—thanks to their racial fixations—off to the races. Scientists joined in the fun with their own theories that included the supposed real-life effects of Jewish brain size. Richard Wagner, the greatest opera composer of them all, was himself a “theorist” on this “issue.” And here in the United States, Henry Ford paid for the distribution of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the purported minutes of a meeting (“now no longer just a theory!”) held by a cabal of international Jewish businessmen who sought control of the world economy.
In our most “forward-thinking” academic institutions today, there is little call for protests against possible genocides of Christians in Syria, Yazidis in Iraq, or Rohingya in Myanmar, but a Jewish speaker who does not renounce Israel, or, if still in support of Israel, does not pledge allegiance to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, can ignite fury, and draw comparison to the South African apologists on college campuses during the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s. The very people who define human experience with expulsion, pogroms, and genocide, whose literature has bestowed the teaching voice of life under horrific circumstances, a voice that, at the moment of its greatest suffering, is ever and always giving thanks, modeling moral clarity and moral compassion, are judged and condemned, a condemnation which of itself testifies to the continuation of the antisemitic narrative into our own time.
Rejection and persecution of the Jews has always started at the top. Lower-rung tormentors often suffered themselves under the double yokes of ignorance and autocracy. When Jews began returning to Palestine in 1917 and were entrusted with their League of Nations mandate several years later, they brought increased economic activity, but the Arab aristocracy was concerned, lest the indigenous population have a taste of democracy. In 1929, a series of riots and pogroms against Jews was stirred by leaders of the local Arab population and the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, who spread rumors of a Jewish assault on Muslim shrines. The Mufti, who met with Hitler and collaborated with the Nazis, rejected the Peel Commission’s report, which recognized Arab benefits to a two-state solution, as well as the rewritten one (the White Paper), three years later, in 1939, which contained a capitulation to Arab demands, including curtailing the rights of Jews to immigrate to or buy land in Palestine. When the United Nations decided it would recognize the establishment of a Jewish homeland in 1947—under a very unfavorable partition that Ben-Gurion nevertheless accepted—and the British withdrew in 1948, the Arab states attacked Israel on the day of its independence.
Israel repelled the attacks, thus establishing a pattern in which Arab attacks would always result, ironically, in more defensible borders for the Jewish nation-state. In 1967, with Egypt on a war footing, Israel begged King Hussein of Jordan not to join Egypt in the war and gave him assurances that Israel would not threaten Jordanian control of the West Bank or Jerusalem, but he could not accept the overture. In 1973, Anwar Sadat launched the surprise Yom Kippur War. There were tremendous casualties but later, when Sadat courageously made clear that the time had come to accept the existence of Israel, Israel agreed to give up the entire Sinai Desert and peninsula and enter discussions for Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank. For the promise of peace, Israel gave up strategically significant land—the only time in history that a victorious nation gave land back to a nation it had defeated in war. Today Israel and Egypt work together to impose a blockade on Gaza, since Hamas wrested it from the Palestinian Authority in 2007. Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., a college-educated councilman publicly espouses a latter-day version of The Protocols by decrying the Rothschilds’ control of the weather.
According to an FBI report, in 2016, Jews were the most targeted religious group for hate crimes on American college campuses. And by February 2018, such incidents had increased 60 percent. An “Anti-Semitism Awareness Act” was sponsored in May 2018, but was opposed by the ACLU, which claimed that it would chill free speech by equating criticism of Israel with antisemitism. The view of Jerusalem, Disraeli said, is the history of the world. “Ten measures of beauty were given to the world,” says the Talmud, “Jerusalem received nine while the rest of the world received one.” “The sanctuary of Palestine is Jerusalem,” the eighth century Islamic Scholar Thaur Ibn Yazid wrote; “and the sanctuary of Jerusalem is the Mount.”
In 1923, Adolph Hitler wrote Mein Kamph in prison, blaming international Jewry for Germany’s defeat in World War I, even as 100,000 Jews served in the German army, 12,000 were killed in the line of duty, and 18,000 were awarded the Iron Cross. And while Germany was supposed to be different because of its education and culture, education and culture would turn out to be precisely the problem. Hegel, who would inaugurate historicism—and thus be able to claim that he understood Plato better than Plato himself—had a problem locating the Jews in his schema, because the civilizations that contributed to the progressive realization of Geist had all done their part and passed away, but the Jews, inconveniently, were still around. They didn’t have a country, but they were in many places and had a way of life, a way of worshiping, a way of contributing, and a way of being persecuted that were remarkably consistent.
Woodrow Wilson, educated in Germany, where he learned that “America was a mistake,” because with its system of limited government, it “practically didn’t have a government at all” (the only way “Geist” could incarnate was in the state, the state being the divine idea as it exists on earth) would make a speech to the Jefferson Club of Los Angeles in 1911 saying the Declaration of Independence was obsolete, and that he was the real Jefferson in the room. “If you want to understand the real Declaration of Independence,” Wilson said, “do not repeat the preface.” An historicist can’t take the past all that seriously because he is always at the end of history, and if he fancies himself great, he (and his opinions) are the end of history. For the Jews, the die was cast.
The tribalism pervasive in our politics today has been noted by academics, but rather than seeing the same tribalism among ourselves, or setting about to investigate our own responsibility for its pervasiveness—humanity should not cease at the border of political party—we instead open a new chapter in Holocaust studies citing today’s tribalism as proof that genocide is just another tribal matter, if just a little further along the continuum. Having thus normalized genocide, diminished the distinction between its perpetration and the perpetrations of “other sorts of evil,” we have—by extending the word’s domain—only increased our impotency in the fight against it. By attaching it to the sightlines of every phenomenon–a recent book on concentration camps includes Guantanamo within its ambit—“evil” can become attached to the names of those people whose opinions we don’t agree with, and so with no word left to describe the phenomenon, quarantine it outside the realm of normal human weakness, even the world’s greatest and most powerful company can comfortably choose a slogan like “Don’t be evil,” and have it taken seriously, and because taken seriously, become a company so sure of its righteousness, so widely embraced by everyone, that it need not show up at Congressional hearings on the precarious state of our democracy.
Conversation, much less the political discussion necessary to a self-governing democracy, is pursued today only among friends, but there is, too, a kind of—if our new arguments about the ambit of evil are to be taken at all seriously—genocidal eagerness about learning the nature of the next-door neighbor’s political leanings. In the name of cultural progress, politics and violence have become linked, justified by tests of doctrinal faithfulness as bad as the worst forms of religious persecution claimed left behind. Say the wrong thing and you are examined, judged, and, when accused, obligated to explain yourself under rules of evidence that guarantee the throwing of stones. On the surface, language is purified, but its bastardization migrates into our discourse, and when terms like evil, like genocide, are deformed, so are terms like citizenship, in which fanaticism and bigotry can disguise itself. This migrates into academic and political discourse as well, where right becomes absolutely right, confident, completely confident, doubt, “there can be no doubt,” all uttered with the authority of the expert and the enlightened, except it is faith in one’s righteousness, not one’s reason, that accounts for the excessive modifiers. Worst of all, cynicism passes itself off as spirituality—“God talk”—uttered always, however, in the “spirit” of communications and PR, and made to suit nothing but the self-interest of its speaker. There is a relationship between law and the pursuit of virtue in a democracy: By the time of National Socialism’s ascendance, the German Constitution had not changed.
That the Holocaust—an attempt to rid the world of Jews, more than one third of the population killed in five years—is lately seen as merely an extension of our own tribalism, bespeaks an intellectual culture in which, since no objective standard remains, antisemitism might be, objectively speaking, the one reality that even the historicist might be forced to admit transcends historical processes. Since not much progress has been made, unless progress is measured by rubrics of extermination, it’s very hard to see how antisemitism exists only under the horizon of a particular time. Rousseau experimented with the idea of the human being outside of society in his Second Discourse—but as a thought experiment. Hannah Arendt asked, in her own thought experiment: You want to kill the Jews? Just shoot them. The camps were a thought experiment, too. How much can you strip away from the human, they asked. Rousseau said there was a core you couldn’t strip away and would speculate that a police state could never work because of this. But if today we associate virtue by sub-human, sub-rational characteristics, like race and gender and sexuality—even though the human is not the humane—since being born a Jew, too, is not a matter of choice, do Jews not have reason to fear that the practice of genocide might be moving from “never again,” to the very sine qua non of political engagement? And since we now speak of the “mythical middle,” eschewing “old-fashioned” notions of commons and consensus, and attribute our current political leadership to the resurgence of an atavistic tribalism over and against our more enlightened views, it seems true that when people are judged by subhuman characteristics, the attribution of evil is much easier. Primo Levi said only Fascists and Nazis hate a man or a woman for sub-rational characteristics. The obverse is also true: Sub-rational characteristics are an absurd reason to attribute virtue to anyone. Defined by subhuman categories, it is just as easy to put people in a place beyond compassion, as it is to exalt them. Nevertheless, today we stay within our own groups, write off everyone else.
The literature of genocide must discover a way to give a meaningless death—one that is without ceremony, and anonymous—dignified occasion. The Armenian Church, on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, designated its victims—all of them, known and unknown—saints, and therefore, in prayer, intercessors with God, giving their deaths occasion, while at the same time, with each whispered prayer, building a kind of counter-monument. Though many Yiddishisms survive the death of the language—klutz, kibbitz, chutzpah, schmaltz, nosh, mensch, zaftig, ver clempt, to name just a few—post-Holocaust Yiddish writers are very few and far between. Eighty-five percent of those killed in the Holocaust, about five million people, were speakers of Yiddish. Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories, by Blume Lempel, and translated from the Yiddish by Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub, co-winners of the Yiddish Book Center’s Translation Prize in 2012, contains post-Holocaust Yiddish writing, and thanks to a collaboration between Dryad Press and Mandel Vilar Press—few stories by Lempel were available in English before these translations—her writing is now available in English. Dryad Press’ publisher, Merrill Leffler, has had some of his poems translated into Yiddish by Herman Taube, and admits that Yiddish, had he been a native speaker, would have been the language of some of his work.
Lempel’s Oedipus in Brooklyn builds its counter monument in words, creates a written record, and in its eponymous story (which begins, “Sylvia was no Jocasta”) encodes the competing philosophies of Hellenism and Hebraism—the first devoted to visions of beauty and harmony, the second to conscience and strict obedience to law—which in academic, artistic, and political circles is now playing out in new and bizarre ways, because with the Ancient Greek dismissed as offensive, the Hebraic shunned, because genocidal, we are free to deem all moral judgments not our own, evil.
In nineteenth century Eastern Europe, the lower classes—because directed to—could agree only on their hatred of the Jews. In their shtetls, the Yiddish-speaking Jews—with their great respect for learning—managed, despite their grinding poverty, to educate every boy between five and thirteen. Wealth, when achieved, was tied to social purpose, an Aristotelian vision of the common good, if you will, minus the slaves.
The Hebraic vision brought conscience, purpose, and high seriousness. Monotheism, the great gift of the Jews, once radical, was eventually welcomed by the world. Ethical monotheism, on the other hand—the invocation of a God who cared about the way in which people lived—was (and still is) intolerable to the world. The Yiddish-speaking Jews had no army, but they had the power of this idea, which they lived out in their ghettos. Eliminating this idea was (and is) conflated with eliminating the Jewish people, but massacres have not, and perhaps cannot, crush it. You can get a protest against Israel on a college campus today because for us, conscience is the problem, the labyrinth that we cannot escape, for we cannot escape that aesthetics is antecedent to ethics. The categories of good and bad, as Joseph Brodsky said, are aesthetic ones. Once all is permitted aesthetically, the categories of good and evil also collapse. The form of perceptual mediocrity that pooh-poohs the good critic’s power to excite him or herself over a work of art is the same that looks the other way in the presence of evil.
During the Holocaust, when word was out, an international conference was held in Bermuda. What to do? No nation came forward. Hitler took the neglect seriously, and correctly interpreted the apathy as a green light. There was (and still is) a level of antisemitism that transcends history, and makes a mockery, therefore, of the historicism on which so much of our progressivism is based. No, we do not know better: The ethical gadfly is hated in every age, but the hatred intensifies when relativity is introduced as the standard. “Let me be!” we cry out at our own consciences. And where the relativity of “truth” is an accepted axiom—except of course for our political leanings where no relativity is to be brooked—it is particularly virulent in the Academy, where we become ourselves studies of the divided self we teach in our literature and psychology classes, every thing that bothers us about the other side, not disturbing, but deeply disturbing, everything good about our side, not true, but absolutely true.
Even in the camps, there were discussion groups and theater, but the Holocaust brought about an end to a world of Jewish life. The rich cultural life of the Yeshiva shtetl completely disappeared. Blume Lempel, born in 1907, in Galicia—the center of Hasidism—came to New York in 1939, about the time Father Coughlin was proclaiming, on his widely listened to radio program, that FDR was surrounded by Jews. (Coughlin also declared, while giving a Nazi salute, “When we get through with the Jews in America, they’ll think the treatment they received in Germany was nothing.”) The Yiddish press was a safe place for Jews to speak to Jews: Lempel’s early stories were published in Der tog, under the pseudonym Rokhl Halperin. Later, a novel—still yet to be published—was serialized in the Morgn frayhayt newspaper.
Between 1880 and 1924, over two million Jews arrived in America. In 1900, when the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union was founded, one of its official languages was Yiddish. In 1909, the ILGWU called a strike, and 20,000 workers responded. Though many reforms in working conditions would have to wait until after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911, a young labor lawyer (and future Supreme Court justice) named Louis Brandeis, would help achieve those reforms. Brandeis was himself part of a labor movement that included Jewish newspapers, like the socialist-leaning Jewish Daily Forward, with the largest circulation in New York, and which included Yiddish explanations of baseball and the editor’s own column, The Bintel Brief, a forerunner to Dear Abby.
In Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari said that psychoanalysis combined with capitalism, not to set free, but to restrain and imprison. Lempel, in Oedipus in Brooklyn, writing in an almost extinguished (and therefore, increasingly esoteric) language, seems to be questioning the categories of literature, philosophy, and aesthetics, and in some form of fealty to Adorno’s dictum, seeing them as collaborative when her characters are, to paraphrase Shakespeare, consumed by that which they had once been nourished by. If the postmodern artist eschews notions of hierarchy, embraces a great leveling of significance, it is at least her choice to do so. The inheritor of genocide, where leveling notions of hierarchy include (in Lempel’s case, as in most) the leveling of her family tree—there is no literature of genocide because its victims are too busy being killed to write one—it is not a matter of appropriating the past in whatever manner one chooses, but of having to escape it, and escape it repeatedly, again and again, re-enacting that escape in sentence after sentence. “What have I to do with you,” Czelaw Milosz asks in his poem, To Robinson Jeffers, “Better to carve suns and moons on the joints of crosses / as was done in my district…than to proclaim, as you did, an inhuman thing.”
As the story of Joseph and his Brothers shows, there is no final solution to the problem of human envy. The book of Genesis, in which the story appears is, to the Jews, Torah, that is, instruction. But what makes the modern Yiddish writers unique in the Hebrew tradition is their rejection of any didactic quality in their readings of life and preference for subjects often ignored by their classical Hebrew counterparts, subjects like sexuality and the demonic, that don’t easily lend themselves to lesson-making. Lempel wrote well into the second half of the twentieth century, by then unusual not only for her language, her gender, and her taboo-defying lyricism, but for the fact that among serious writers she had received no formal education. In “Even the Heavens Tell Lies,” the story of a Holocaust survivor in New York who speaks to shadows in her garden, the survivor remembers she dreamed of writing as a girl, “[e]nclosed within my father’s words and my mother’s tears,” but did not, because, as Lempel said about her own life at the time, all a girl needed to know was how to cook food and sew.
Lempel was 12 when her mother died, and after her brother escaped to Paris, she followed him and got a job in a factory. In her story, “A Yiddish Poet in Paris,” she writes:
His new surroundings were more Warsaw than Paris. Here where Eastern European immigrants had found refuge, young men and women shared their problems, their successes, and their failures. Fellow countrymen helped one another to obtain a small loan or find the address of a hustler who could turn the illegal into the legitimate. A variety of accents resounded in the stairwells, all the way up to the sixth floor.
Lempel was one of these people, and lucky enough to get out of Paris in time.
The attempt to delete meant the attempt to blame. One can only imagine how many people on their way to the gas chambers, or before that, hoping against hope, resolved, promised themselves—or God—that they would write down, if only they could survive to do it, what they had witnessed. Whether or not they would be able to draw a lesson from it—theological, moral, or ethical—as many of the next generation of writers would try (and fail) to accomplish, must have been, to them, often beside the point. They were—moment to moment—living in terror of signs and signals, reading tea leaves. In some parts of Europe, the most horrifying word in the language became “transport.” Perhaps years from now descendants and relatives of the Yazidis, Rohingya, or Syrian Christians will try to create fiction about their forebears shot, buried alive, or sold into the slavery of compulsory religious conversion and sexual assault that have constituted the intent to destroy their national, ethnic, racial, and religious identities—abuses for which the Polish Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin created the neologism “genocide.”
Like the Jews of the twelfth century who, encountering the blood accusations of the Crusades, could have saved themselves by a gesture of conversion, but refused, Armenians were often offered the same deal, but they too—pregnant women and grandparents—refused to give up their faith. In my own acquaintance with the literature of the Armenian Genocide, I often confront my own failing of its victims, my own attempts feeling beside the point. At the moment of the current trade warfare with Turkey, for example—the doubling of tariffs on Turkish aluminum and steel—I couldn’t help but be touched by the irony of Turkish President Erdogan’s take on it: “Shame on you,” he said. “You are exchanging your strategic partner in NATO for a priest.” But I also know that this kind of attention is a failure of my attention, that the pain and trauma of my ancestors is not addressed by such observations, and that the only grading of pain that is permissible, if barely so, is the extent to which that pain has been transcended. Sylvia Plath, in intolerable pain, achieves (or dies trying desperately to achieve) an independent self by making her father, in Daddy (published posthumously in 1965), a Nazi, and herself a Jew.
American Jewish history is very different in just this respect: Opportunities to fail or rise above generational trauma are presented. As a land of immigrants, the United States didn’t have the same nationalistic and exclusivist foundations that were always a part of European countries. American principles seemed compatible with the practice of Judaism: Religious freedom and toleration, open society, individualism. And so the history of Jewish people in this country was not one of a series of expulsions and edicts. In 1492, the year of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, Columbus thought he was going to find the ten lost tribes here, so he brought Hebrew speakers with him. The leaders of the American Revolution saw themselves as acting out an Exodus story: King George was cast as the Pharaoh, while George Washington crossed the Delaware, as Moses crossed the Red Sea. Hebrew, for a period of time, was even under consideration as our official language and was a required area of study at Harvard and Yale, though not allowed to be taught by Jews.
The Hellenic and the Hebraic
If Yiddish writers often explored themes rarely broached by their Hebrew writing forebears or counterparts, and among Yiddish writers, if Isaac Bashevis Singer and Chaim Grade, for example, wrote about sex, they did not go as far as Lempel—a woman and a modernist—who wrote of incest, and even if doing so only to present her vision of the odd coupling of her Eastern European past and American post-war present, she was extending their reach. The translators’ introduction speaks of her “unsettling blend of splendor and menace,” an apt synoptic of her watermark of a God—a culture, and a world—that is both sheltering and menacing. Safe in the United States, Lempel would find out that her father, who had happily re-married, had burned down his house and hung himself when he learned that his wife and child had been killed by the Nazis, and that her brother had been shot and killed as a partisan in the resistance. This news brought on years of paralysis—a version of Adorno’s dictum’s paralysis, perhaps, until she rejected his despairing vision of the relationship between poetry and the bearing of historical witness, and resolved to “speak for those who could no longer speak, feel for those who could no longer feel, immerse [herself] in their unlived lives, their sorrows, their joys, their struggle and their death.” Moreover she would decide to continue to do so only in Yiddish. Lyric writing—of whatever kind, and whatever language—stops the clock.
In the short story “Oedipus in Brooklyn,” Lempel’s version of Freud’s famous family triangle, the sexuality, rather than repressed, is expressed:
Sylvia was no Jocasta. She’d never even heard of the Greek tragedies… For a while she struggled; then she surrendered to the inevitable. Eyes closed, lips sealed, she yielded to the whims of fortune and said “yes” to the burning “no” inscribed by the ancients in the holy books.
Widowed at 29 by the car accident that kills her husband and blinds her nine-year old son, Sylvia becomes suicidal, but “[w]ith the help of psychoanalysis,” begins “to see that suicide would not solve her problem.” Even so, she still feels “[l]ike a wild animal caught in a trap with no hope of escape.” Suicide was often the preferred solution to the problem of living for many Eastern European Holocaust survivors:
Even in a dungeon, she told herself, life went on. Even a prisoner on death row found reasons for optimism.
In the camps, many Jews went to their death with the words of Maimonides on their lips: I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and, though he tarry, I will wait daily for his coming.
In the story, Lempel demonstrates tolerance in her balancing of moral clarity with moral compassion, and thus is able to conjure, at least on the page, what might seem an impossibility outside of it, transmit, that is, a sense that incest will be the least of Sylvia’s sins, may in fact be the only way she will be able to free—not herself—but her son. It is in Lempel’s willingness to blur moral lines where she shows how prophetic rage can be amplified and deepened, not undercut, by moral failing. Adorno implied that literary paralysis before the great fact of the Holocaust was itself a moral act, but Lempel, in her most mature stories, seems to meet his great dictum with her own, namely, that she can fashion a form of irrationality equal to the irrationality of the casual and arbitrary judgments of the Holocaust’s perpetrators—instant and arbitrary judgments that could mean life or death—with her own version of arbitrary authority by creating her own absurd language of absurd situations. In a literary sense, she seems to take from the Holocaust only Bettelheim’s notion that people reveal best their essential natures when in extremis. If so, then moral authority asserts itself best as lament, not finger-pointing, and in trying to decode what was left unspoken by the dead, while at the same what is speaking among the living, she must do so in the context of the experience of improbable, seemingly impossible events. She shows that self-righteousness, because it is arbitrary, is the basis of genocidal evil, and perhaps all other forms of so-called “evil,” “Wir haben ein Gesetz, Und nach dem Gesetz soll er sterben.”
Like improvisational comedy—after the Holocaust, Yiddish comedians’ success at improv in the Borsht Belt is well documented—incest, in this story, can be seen as a form of improv, a survival strategy, a radical coping mechanism. Improvisation was a necessary skill for Jews in Europe, and this “solution” to Sylvia and Danny’s problem, mirrors and enacts the kind of horrific acts of improvisation required of Jews in the face of the arbitrary acts of discrimination in the periods leading up to the Holocaust. In the story, their first improvisation, however, is a move away from Brooklyn, to Florida:
He was truly afraid of strangers. He didn’t trust the sighted world… Nor did sleep bring peace to his jangled nerves. He cried out and woke himself with his screams.
One night in Florida, Danny crawls into bed with her:
Sylvia did not muster the power or will to repel this desperate assault. She persuaded herself that she was lying not with her son but with the specter of her husband. A power stronger than death had broken through the barrier between this world and that, and in the form of her son had come to demand the debt she owed to his unlived life.
If we are not on their side, perhaps God is. In the end, any story about the Holocaust at least touches on theodicy. But Lempel also implies that our cleverness about such questions must bore Him: “Only the sea in its stoic indifference did not cease its endless song.”
Sylvia becomes pregnant and Danny begins to find a voice, even if it seems, at first, a slightly sinister one:
“You must have heard of Adam and Eve,” he said. “Why do you think Cain murdered his brother Abel? I’ll tell you: it was jealousy, pure and simple. The two brothers both wanted their mother, and they both gave her presents. Cain, the farmer, brought her the sweetest fruit of the earth, and Abel, the shepherd, gave his youngest and fattest sheep. And when Cain found out that Eve liked Abel’s gift better than his, he picked up a scythe and murdered his brother.”
“How do you know all this?” Sylvia says.
If coherence is not a condition of life, why should it be of religion? If the verbs of Jewish life include ghettoized and discarded, perhaps Danny’s blindness helps him see evidence of a Deus Absconditus in the God who did not so much as lift a hand to help the Holocaust’s victims. Or perhaps Danny, in Job-like protest on behalf of all whom God has abandoned, misses that his blindness gives him the self-defeating power to deny the miracle hidden in the so-called blindness of the everyday.
“I know a lot of things,” Danny said, “more than you think. You think I’m just a blind cripple. But actually my blindness helps me see better, much better. Sometimes I feel like my own creator, even my own god. I can feel a cosmic power running through, pushing me to create my own world, to go looking for the secret of all secrets. You can’t possibly understand—you don’t want to. Maybe I don’t even understand myself, but I have a feeling I’m on the right path, and that’s all that matters.”
If faith cannot be reduced to morality, perhaps it has a strange kinship with immorality?
In a post-Holocaust world, many Jews have suggested demolishing a traditional belief in a God of history. God acting in history was always the way Jews viewed the destruction of the two Jewish temples, and the role of the literary prophets in the Bible was, among other things, to point out that the Lord would not hesitate to teach the people a lesson. There is no way, however, this new way of thinking goes, you can bring yourself to say that the Jews in Europe were punished for not being faithful. There is theological peril in giving evil a local habitation and a name, but to satisfy the human wish for an object to give completeness to the thought is irresistible in some circumstances. If not a belief in God, at least to have a Credo in Diabolus gives one an object beyond human understanding even if, as Karl Barth has written, nowhere in scripture can you find “Let there be darkness…”
The story ends with Sylvia, now almost ready to deliver Danny’s baby, walking on the beach and watching the sea crabs scurrying about. Once she had put one in Danny’s hand. He said:
“Look at this crab; it’s as blind as I am, but blindness tells it where to go. It never gets lost. It never has doubts. It knows what’s a dream and what’s reality.”
“What is reality?” Sylvia asked.
Danny didn’t answer right away. He took off his dark glasses and polished them with care. Only when they were perched on his nose once again did he reply with a flourish.
“You want to know what is real? Why do you need to? Do you think if you know you’ll be worth more than a crab? Well, you’re wrong.”
“A crab doesn’t have to pay for its sins,” Sylvia interrupted him. “A person does.”
Sylvia rejects Danny’s hermeneutics, but also rejects the Freudian client-centered therapy of her age that might excuse her behavior. She has a self-conception of having sinned, of her own moral vagrancy, and therefore awaits punishment.
Danny’s face reddened with anger. “What’s the matter with you? How do you think you’ve sinned? Anyway, there’s no such thing as sin. Only Man suffers from such a disease. When it comes time to pay, I’ll get in line ahead of you. And I’ll have some questions, too—if there’s anyone to ask.”
Danny’s behavior is in keeping with Midrashic commentaries on the anxiety imposed by the extremis of God’s tests. Like Sarah, in a poem by Merrill Leffler, Dryad Press’ publisher, Danny implicitly questions religious authority:
He in his single-mindedness could no longer hear
But rose before dawn and took the son
Of my aged body, who himself obeyed
In ignorant trust, and journeyed for days
With a solemnity I would spit on (21-25)
from Mark the Music by Merrill Leffler
For Sylvia, however, a final judgment is about to be rendered that does recall Israel’s biblical story:
Therefore I have begun to smite you,
making you desolate because of your sins.
You shall eat, but not be satisfied,
and there shall be hunger in your inward parts.
Micah 6: 13-14.
As the prophet presents YHWH’s case before Israel, Sylvia presents the case against herself. Sylvia’s psychology and Israel’s psychology seem inextricable. Only Sylvia’s incest will be the bringer of her death, no one else’s. Danny thinks he has discerned the great spiritual vacuum at the heart of life—the moral life, at least—but Sylvia, in the end, will always believe in, if not choose, the path of self-denying responsibility.
There is a strain of Holocaust revisionism—weirdly resonant with college campus protests today—that misinterprets the literary prophets for its own purposes. The reason the Jews were massacred was not because their God was weak, it says, but because their God was strong. If the whole world behaved with humanity towards the Jews, who then is to be blamed for their fate during the war? Why the Jews themselves! And who best to administer the historical punishment? Why, the Jews themselves! And who best to be trotted out to administer the punishment? Again, the Jews themselves. This is the Hebrew Bible’s view, the revisionists say.
It is, partly, but the revisionists miss that this self-criticism is part of their national epic, an epic told, moreover, by a relentless critic who eschews excuses, a self-criticism that is part of God’s plan for Israel to bring blessing to all peoples of the earth. Antisemitism is perennial because it is hatred of the nagging conscience planted like a moral ankle bracelet in every human being.
Like David, Danny wants to be able to sin with a clear conscience. Israel’s habit of self-criticism, its willingness to endure the invectives of its prophets, is as anathema to him as it is to the rest of the world. Nevertheless it creates a tradition that will inform literature and the humanities, as well as the governmental revolution of separation of powers, and is perhaps most resonant now, paradoxically, in today’s credo of triumphal laziness with respect to aesthetics and standards of civil discourse of any kind.
Danny will not accept what he perceives as the death of the self that moral conformity entails. But Danny also represents transgenerational pain. He is not a self-pleasuring hedonist. His inward spirit is so real to him that the reader cannot fail to pick up its religious spirit. For some Jews, the waiting for the Messiah is even more important than the coming of the Messiah. The Messiah will come when the world is on the brink of destruction, they say. Or when the world is ready.
Now Sylvia ran to the seawall where they often sat. The pains resumed, sharper and more frequent than before. She ran along the white foam at the water’s edge and tried to scramble up onto the rock where she had once scratched her name. But her bare feet slipped and she stumbled and fell headfirst into the water. For a while she struggled against the morning tide. She tried to cry out, but the incoming water filled her mouth…
For her Hebraic vision, Sylvia receives a Hellenic death. If, broadly speaking, Sylvia represents the Hebraic, and the death of the Hebraic, Danny represents the Hellenic, believing that blindness gives him power. No two cities have counted more with mankind, said Winston Churchill, than Athens and Jerusalem. Lempel writes in the fluid borderland between personal nightmare and a people’s biography. A stifling tradition—like all literary inheritances—can also be nourishing:
The morning sun found Sylvia lying face up beside the stone wall. A flock of pelicans with baggy throats pecked avidly at her open belly. Exotic seaweed transported from distant lands tangled in her apple-cider hair. Nimble sea creatures explored her silky body. Up above, gray–white vultures searching for carrion circled with raucous cries. Not quite ready to claim their prey, they settled onto the sun-splashed stone bridge and patiently waited their turn.
The Hellenic end, therefore, is also a literary response to the catastrophe of an entire people. If the verbs of the Holocaust included ghettoized and discarded, they could have also included pecked, and pecking at an open belly by birds, because while previous versions of arbitrary death–say, burning at the stake—at least included a send-off with prayers for the soul of the accused, in genocide there is a multiplication of agony to include anonymity and, finally, the degradation even of the desire to survive, forced incidents that require the victims deny their own humanity, their own desire to look at themselves as, if not heroic, at least humane, before the end.
Because the Jews never accepted evil as an outside arbitrariness, they therefore always thought aesthetics, too, an ethical issue, so perhaps moral experience gained by religious groups from genocides need not be confined to the historicist’s dustbin of the past. Nothing ages a literary-moral-theological utterance so quickly as today’s silly demand for relevance, and because these writers have a triple burden of speaking for themselves and their time, but also for the erased of both times and places, and, as in Lempel’s case, erased languages, they have the moral command to conjure stories that meet their complexity, as well as our own.
It can be difficult enough to classify one’s place in the masquerade of life after one’s family has been erased, but to add to that one’s language, and then to choose to write in that language as a material counterpoint, and out of that language create, as Lempel does, counter-monuments, in the form of improbable fictive paradigms that, despite whatever their nightmares, reflect the nightmarish trials of a people for whom the story, the lesson, the prophet’s imprecation could also serve as the vehicle for re-establishing severed lines of communication between God and his people, is to provide an example for resolutions of our own agonistic encounters—caused by our own visions of so-called cultural progress—in our own times and our own places.