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The Mystic and the Modern

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The Mystic and the Modern

By Sephora Markson Hartz

I recently read that a new book about Kafka is published every ten days. At some point, every one of these books must mention a startling and intriguing detail from Kafka’s biography: On his deathbed, the writer requests the incineration of his unpublished works.
The author of Burnt Books, Rodger Kamenetz, is perhaps best known for penning The Jew in the Lotus, where spiritual curiosity moves the author to rediscover of his Jewish identity. Burnt Books tells a similar story—a story anchored by personal narrative and sustained by questions about what it means to live Jewishly in the modern world.
Asking, What does it mean to be myself? and What does it mean to be a Jew? inspires each pen-stroke, each sentence, in Kamenetz’s book. Kamenetz asks these questions of himself as much as of his subjects: Franz Kafka and Rabbi Nachman of Bratlsav. Like Kafka, a dying Rabbi Nachman—referred to simply as “The Rebbe” by his followers—requests the posthumous burning of his works; and so it is burnt books that offer Kamenetz his window into the inner worlds and Jewish lives of these two figures.
The connection Kamenetz posits is both persuasive and puzzling, primarily because Kafka and Nachman do indeed appear to share a great deal, but also because they bore no material relation to one another. They were separated by a chasm of years and nearly as many miles (Kafka lived in Prague; Nachman was an itinerant mystic in Eastern Europe). Kafka was the quintessential fin-de-siecle modern, lamenting the apparent meaninglessness of existence, laughing at the impossibility of happiness, wallowing in the irony and ineluctability of human suffering. Rabbi Nachman, on the other hand, boldly pursues and disseminates esoteric knowledge with rigid surety of a better world to come.
Nonetheless, Kamenetz does bring these two “souls” together and proceeds—over the course of 300 pages—to make plain their connection. Though Nachman stands on the cusp of the haskalah and Kafka is immersed in the secular Jewish milieu that followed, Kamenetz contends they shared a mission: cobbling together a Jewish identity that blended the modern with the ancestral. In some respects, Kamenetz argues, both Nachman and Kafka sought to embody the two. Writing a bridge through time and space, Kamenetz draws their individual projects into a single narrative:
Each man explored, in his own way, three elemental configurations of modern Jewish identity: religion, secularism, and Zionism. Rabbi Nachman was a religious Jew responsive to the challenge of Jewish secularism; Kafka, a thoroughly secular Jew who loved the paradoxical parables of Hasidism...Their stories and their lives reflect deeply on one another.”
Burnt Books’ greatest virtue is Kamenetz’s reverence for his subjects. Both Nachman and Kafka are enigmas for Kamenetz to unravel, as is the Kamenetz family history, which he traces through a long-vanished chapter in the annals of Jewish Europe. Kafka and Nachman are clearly his teachers—straddling the line between ancient and modern, spirituality and secularity. Kamenetz is convinced of spirituality’s entanglement with secularity, and the ever-present sway of the past over the present. These domains, like Kafka and Nachman, are not discrete; they “reflect deeply on one another.”
But here a tension emerges between Burnt Books, on one hand, and the alternative perspectives offered by other interpreters of Kafka. What Kamenetz construes as Kafka’s spiritual passion has also been ascribed a manic-depressive temperament. Kafka’s famous appraisal of his Jewishness, “What have I in common with the Jews? I hardly have anything in common with myself!” betrays incredible alienation and anguish. It may be true that Kafka pursued interests in Zionist philosophy and Jewish spiritualism (as Kamenetz points out), but Kafka’s quote makes clear the complexity of his relationship to Jewishness. Evidently, Kafka’s Jewish soul was not so simple as Kamenetz seems to think.
Kamenetz fails to fully grapple with Nachman’s complexity as well. Kamenetz is hungry for an understanding of the Rebbe’s inner thoughts and worldly deeds. But he takes Nachman’s acolytes at their word when, in ancient script, they write, “his ‘lessons are like entering a palace’ of ‘halls and chambers, anterooms and entrances.’” In fact, their language even rubs off a bit on Kamenetz’s own voice. This is his appraisal of the Rabbi:
...His Torah is more like jazz piano improvisation than classical composition. He jumps from note to note, theme to theme...
At what point does the teaching begin to lose its original meaning, and start to resemble the voice of the disciple, rather than the teacher? Burnt Books is written with eloquence, insight, and love. One wonders whether love overwhelms the text. Is this the story of Kafka and Nachman? Or the story of Kamenetz’s love for the two of them?
Regardless of whose story is actually told, however, in the end Burnt Books remains a fascinating and deftly rendered literary journey. One need not believe Kamenetz’s every claim in order to enjoy following him on his literary journey. In a book about books, about writing, and about the meanings hidden therein, Kamenetz succeeds in making us think about who we are, where we come from, and how that knowledge (or lack thereof) is expressed in the way we choose to live—and choose to die.
Sephora Markson Hartz is the Editorial Assistant and Research Assistant for Secular Culture & Ideas (www.secularJewishculture.org). She received her Master’s of Theological Studies in Jewish Studies from Harvard Divinity School, and a Bachelor of Arts from University of California, Berkeley in Religious Studies, with an area of emphasis in Jewish Studies.

Queen Esther

By Vanessa Hidary

My Jewish Grandmother spoke Arabic.
Let me explain.
I am half “J-Dub” and half “S/Y.” For those of you out of the Sephardic loop, “J-Dub” is short for “JW” or “Jew,” the slang term used in the Syrian Jewish Community to describe Ashkenazi Jews, and “S/Y” is the term Syrian Jews use to refer to themselves. My mother’s family is from Aleppo, Syria, and my father’s family is from Russia.
I grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, which is comprised predominantly of “J-Dubs.” A few Sundays a year my mother would take my sister and me out to Brooklyn, to be with the “S/Y” side of my family. A land that seemed so far away, with exotic food and dark curly-haired girls. Then I'd return to my Manhattan life, with Zabar’s and roller-disco. This life reflected grandmothers who used Yiddish phrases such as “Oy Vey” and ate herring and lox. It became confusing to me that my Grandmother used Arabic phrases such as Anabahebek (I love you) and prepared sambussak and m’jederah.
My mother’s sister, Aunt Essie, who also lived on the Upper West Side, inherited the Syrian features of brown skin and thick, unruly hair. When my friends saw pictures of her in my house, they’d ask, “Who’s that?” “My aunt,” I’d tell them. “She looks Dominican!” they’d retort. It was true. Maybe she would not have stood out in Brooklyn’s “Little Syria,” but on the Upper West Side, her brown skin pegged her Latina. She did not, to them, look “Jewish.”
But Aunt Essie did not love her thick hair. My mother told me she spent years battling and straightening those locks that I thought were so beautiful and exotic. “She wanted fine straight American hair like yours,” she’d say. All I wanted was to look more Syrian.
Aunt Essie died of ovarian cancer at the young age of 43. Though I never got to know her in my adult years, I remember her clearly. This poem is a tribute to her, and to my Sephardic roots that continually feel so present and distant all at the same time.
Queen Esther
Esther. Named after the queen. Known to her family as Essie, Esuseh.

Esuseh, Esuseh, who swallowed Syria whole

and the day she left us

the sky rained desert sand

the earth smelled of cumin and rosewater

and our tears tasted of olive oil.

Esuseh, Esuseh, pointing to your picture strangers deny my relation to you

For I stand so pale in comparison to your olive stained hue

Because you Esuseh

you swallowed Syria whole

while I, I—was granted mere licks of

her tamarind belly.

Oh, Esuseh, Esuseh, so cheated I was

to know you the least of everyone

I youngest niece, clasped your hand on bodega stuffed streets

where people spoke to us in languages we do not speak.

Because they do not know us

The Sephardim, Arab Jews, Mizrahi Jews, Spanish Jews

The Unknown Jews—

who baked on the lands of Morocco, Turkey, Greece, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, and Syria

Curling ancient tongues on hot Damascus sands

Grapeleaves melting in our pockets, clutching hamsas in our superstitious hands.

I hear stories of you Esuseh

of your narrow feet, wide humor, dancer dreams, sullen moods

Of your thick hair you compulsively straightened and hated.

Wishing for "American hair" that blew in the wind

Wishing For a smooth ponytail that swung from side to side

Wishing for hair that was fine

Hair that was fine.

Hair that looked… like mine.

Oh Esuseh, if you could only be here to see how all textures of hair are now reveling in their natural style!

You were so close, one day you set the iron on low and let tresses run wild!

But the real irony was that just when you began to love it,

you began to lose it

To chemotherapy, cruel and brash,

clumps lay at your bedside,

exotic scarves hid your losses,

as we collected your locks to show unborn grandchildren.

Oh, Esuseh, Esuseh, you left too soon for me to tell you my secret,

That I stand in front of mirrors with sharp scissors close to my skull,

Ready to massacre American hair that is parched for my olive oil.

Ready to massacre blowing locks that may have caused any woman turmoil, Ready to massacre swinging ponytails in honor of your name.

For this fine hair has done nothing, but remind me of precious, wasted days

you could of smiled, Esuseh.

Beautiful Esuseh,

who swallowed Syria whole

and left me starving

I—Displaced parched, desert girl, blindly tracing home on Atlases that Lie

Wildly spinning globes to feel only the billowing wind of your too fast exit from my


And too bad if they can't see the relation cause I think I look just like you

Cause I'm riding camels bareback on Bedouin trails beside you

Cause my heart beats fast when I hear Habibi tunes and dance with you

And sometimes I awake choking from all the sand castles in my bed

Then giggle to know you are throwing magical grains from that crown upon your head

I'm Sweating Zatar and allspice, that only my lovers taste on barefoot,

sultry nights

I'm shredding birth certificates; one taste of my hot blood will suffice

And look closely people; see my fine hair is gnarled in stubborn


and my eyes are tearing with sharp memories of evil cancers afflictions

So hear me Esuseh!

with each passing year, I sunbathe in our rich history

to internally bronze myself, a rock statue for my ancestry

See my hamsa forever on my chest for the utmost protection

See, my blood and my memories not defined by complexion

I—displaced, parched, desert girl

paying homage to the

Daughter, Sister, Mother, Aunt, and never met Grandmother: Esuseh.

Esuseh, Esuseh,

who swallowed Syria whole

And the day she left us

The sky rained desert sand

the earth smelled of cumin and rosewater

and our tears still taste of olive oil.

Enabahebek Esuseh.

Actress/Poet/Playwright Vanessa Hidary grew up on Manhattan's culturally diverse Upper West Side, graduating from LaGuardia High School of the Arts and Hunter College. Her experiences as a Sephardic Jew with close friends from different ethnic and religious backgrounds inspired her to write "Culture Bandit," a solo show that chronicles her coming of age during the golden age of Hip-Hop and her dedication to fostering understanding and friendship between all people. She has aired three times on the "Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam" on HBO, and is featured in the award-winning short film "The Tribe." She lives in Manhattan and is currently working on her first novel. Please visit her at www.HebrewMamita.com and www.myspace.com/vanessahidary

The Jewish Shakespeare

By Beth Kaplan

In the early hours of Friday, June 11, 1909, the famous playwright Jacob Gordin (née Yakov) died in New York City. There were no prayers, no Jewish burial rites. Early on Sunday, after a brief secular ceremony, Gordin’s coffin was carried from his narrow Brooklyn row house.
As soon as word got out, the writer’s home was besieged with condolences. Telegraphs poured in; letters piled up; a scrawled note arrived from the Catskills requesting a photo of Gordin, for “all the jews in Monticello are Morning…[him].” News had spread since Friday, when the front page of the Jewish Daily Forward was banded in black. “Our friend is gone!” it exclaimed. “Gordin is gone!”
That Sunday morning, the 3,000-seat Thalia Theater was packed to its ornate ceiling with mourners, its stage overflowing with red and white roses. Jewish New York had never seen a funeral quite like this, with 250,000 mourners paying their respects. But then again, the emotional display was understandable: The entire community was consumed with grief, the agony made worse by guilt. For years, they had turned their backs on Gordin; even his theater colleagues had abandoned him. Gordin died a humiliated man, bitter and broken-hearted at the age of fifty-six. Late in life, he became convinced that his life’s work—to propel Jews, and then every other citizen of the world, into social and political enlightenment with his dramatic words—had been in vain.


Gordin’s story begins in Russia on an auspicious day—May Day, 1853—in an ancient and prosperous shtetl on the expansive black steppes of the Ukraine. During Gordin’s youth a movement called the Haskala, the Enlightenment or emancipation, was pushing its way east from Germany. The Haskala philosophers, known as Maskilim or “enlighteners,” encouraged secular education and acculturation to the society outside the ghetto walls. Yakov’s father, Mikhail Yekiel Levi, or Ha-Levi, was a Maskil. Yakov Gordin was home-schooled in the open ways of the Haskala by his father, who brought Hebrew, Russian, and German books and magazines into the house for his son.
By the time of his bar mitzvah in 1866, the precocious young man was spouting socialist slogans. All around him, society was in ferment: Revolutionary groups, social movements, idealistic cult-like societies were springing up throughout the western world, as secularity challenged the dominance of religious thought and discontented citizens sought alternatives to the stagnant status quo. Young Russian-Jewish radicals like Gordin absorbed into their very pores the Haskala literature urging Jews to turn to humanism, to break free from the narrowness of Jewish life and join the world.
It was not until 1891 that Gordin was forced to leave Russia. Though he abandoned his Russian rubles, he kept his illusions about his birth country for many years, long after most Jewish dissidents had come to realize that Russian Jews would always be outcasts. Arriving in lower Manhattan via steamship, Gordin stepped into his new life—as Jacob.
Gordin immediately began to write articles for the Yiddish Worker’s Newspaper. Just as quickly, he became immersed in the world of Yiddish theater. Although he had no knowledge of the historionic world he was about to enter or of the technical requirements of playwriting, Gordin was determined that his plays be of far higher caliber and more attuned to realism than any Yiddish play yet seen in New York.
Success came rapidly. The Mail and Express compared Gordin to Shakespeare, as both worked “for a humble and absolutely unconventionalized public...” (Jewish writers, it seems, achieved their greatest status when they were compared to other writers, as Gordin so often was). That “humble public” was New York’s ghetto of immigrants, a people without a country, speaking an ancient language with a brand-new dictionary; many, in fact, still fought for food and a decent place to sleep. Before them stood one broad-shouldered man, a writer who spoke in their own tongue and had brought their old lives onto the stage. With his clear, stern views on the issues confronting them now, Jacob Gordin tried to touch them all.
Indeed, his plays were flinging out a number of subversive ideas for a nineteenth-century immigrant audience to digest all at once: Unashamed pregnancy out of wedlock; love without marriage; and, most difficult of all, female self-determination. His plays’ portrayal of love, motherhood, and unwedded independence not only challenged Jewish law but many centuries of Jewish tradition. Responding to his critics, Gordin wrote that the task of every poet, every writer, is to struggle against old dogmas, and to enlighten the people. One of the lessons of his plays is that moral laws should apply to everyone equally.
It was a message that didn’t please everyone. Gordin’s radical ideas, large following, and tumultuous relationships with other playwrights led one paper to write that Gordin’s pen was “enlisted in the service of anarchist propaganda...replete with denunciation of Judaism and Jewish morality...With Jacob Gordin in their ranks, the anarchists conspire to capture the Yiddish stage.” Gordin was relentlessly attacked by Abraham Cahan, the founding editor of the Forward, who hounded Gordin until the very end of his life; the two men were mortal enemies. Gordin was even accused of antisemitism by a rival who claimed that in writing about the Jewish family, Gordin looked only for ugliness—theft, adultery, murder.
In fact, Gordin did not define himself as a Jew but as a citizen of the wide world; comedies with Jewish folk themes held no interest for him. Yet his influence in the Jewish theater world was profound. As Yiddish theater began to fail, as mama-loshen diminished in importance, the Yiddish American companies which still existed continued to produce Gordin’s work. In 1911, a brooding civil servant named Franz Kafka wrote in his diary about “the obviously great powers of the playwright” after seeing Gordin’s play The Wild Man performed in Prague. As recently as 1979, the Third New York Yiddish Film Festival, held in New York, was “dedicated to Jacob Gordin, playwright.”
In the days following Gordin’s death, the English-language press, including the Forward, contributed lamentations and eulogies. “All his life he fought like a bear,” the journalist Louis Lipsky wrote. “Peace to your spirit, great teacher of the long-suffering people,” wrote a Russian paper. Even before he died, Gordin had his defenders in the press. “He has the gift of energy, humor, and a ‘hustling’ ability that is truly modern,” one English-language paper asserted, describing Gordin as stalwart and majestic.
Over and over since his death, producers have chosen from the Gordin repertoire. But of all of his ongoing appearances, I am proudest by far of this: for three decades after his death, Gordin—“The first Jewish playwright,” “the people’s writer,” and my great grandfather—continued to be the most produced playwright of the Eastern European Yiddish theater troupes.
Beth Kaplan's articles and essays have appeared in newspapers and magazines and on CBC radio. She is a professor of memoir and creative non-fiction writing at the University of Toronto and Ryerson University.
This piece was adapted from Finding the Jewish Shakespeare: The Life and Legacy of Jacob Gordin (Syracuse University Press, 2007), with the permission of the author and the publisher.
An Intellectual History of Secularism

By Gregory Kaplan

Until recently, a generic “theory of secularization” held sway. It was inspired by Max Weber, who believed that in the wake of scientific and technical achievement, religious values diminish. That was one prong of Weber’s three-pronged theory; Weber also believed that once a society became stratified, religion becomes cut off from other cultural activities, and that in an individualistic society, religion becomes a private matter.

Weber’s theory has been questioned by scholars. But in at least one way, it’s still useful. In theorizing secularization, Weber raises a deceptively complex question: What do we mean when we talk about secularism? What do we mean, in fact, by secular?

Most simply, the secular denotes an orientation toward this world, this life.  The secular is a status (of life), just as secularization is a process (in life) and secularism is an ideology/attitude (towards life). Secular describes the space in which religious values are negligible or neutralized; in this space, religious differences in belief, practice, or feeling are unimportant. In metaphysical terms, the secular naturalizes the supernatural; in social terms, it humanizes the divine.

But that definition, broad as it may seem, is really just a starting point. It remains debated, for instance, whether secularization is a process ensuing from religion or the opposite: a reaction to, a rebellion against, religion. Put slightly differently, does secularization enact a new era, or transfer old wine into new bottles?[i]

On the one hand, secularization could be seen to grow from the inaccessibility of God in the Hebrew Bible or, more directly, Christian sources (Matthew 22:21, Manicheans, Augustine’s civitas, etc).[ii] In this conception, secularization is the religious engagement of worldly interests.  

On the other hand, secularization could be said to incite (indeed, Francis Bacon dubbed it the “Great Instauration”) a “rupture,” or a “break,” between human interest and divine will, natural evidence and supernatural magic. In this conception, secularization confirms or justifies the “self assertion” of human being.[iii] Of course, self-assertion risks taking on a new religious import, such as the deification of the Romantic genius, or the Führerprinzip; but that would not diminish the legitimacy of its struggle for expression, what Jürgen Habermas names “the unfinished project of modernity.”[iv]

Can a “pure” secularism also be “Jewish”? That is, does the universal (secular) clash with the particular (Jewish)? Or can the two be compatible?

In fact, there is ample precedent for combining the two—in streams of Jewish literature and history. Secular ideology could even draw on sources of the tradition for its own image of the future. Has not the Exodus story come to incite multiple acts of revolution?  Did not late biblical social prophets bring sacrifice outside the Temple, rendering justice effectively pro-fane (before the Temple)? Did not the Davidic Empire loosen Israel’s contingent dependence on God’s will, leaving the Hebrews to make their own way, in part at least?[v]  But, nevertheless, revolution, justice, and empire also suggest a kind of rupture or disruption—a break in the continuum of orders, mores, and territories.

Other parts of the Jewish religious tradition seem to contain, or subsume, the secular. For instance, rabbinic culture in late antiquity itself commonly situated the secular between the sacred and the profane—or beyond that very distinction. The period of chol ha-moed is the duration of time that stands between the first and last days of a multi-day holiday such as Passover, during which business proceeds as usual for the weekday. That seems to contain the secular within the limits of the sacred. By comparison, a lively argument in the ancient and contemporary literature animates the discussion of whether the rabbinic category of lifnim mi-shurat ha-din means to extend the spirit of the law beyond a “religious” application of the letter. In Judaism, it would seem, "secular means that which is there to be sanctified”—whether in time or out of time, locally or globally.[vi]  Indeed, many scholars have underscored the worldly preoccupations of rabbinic law and lore.  

By the 18th century, "secular" meant any epoch breaking off the past from the future in the present, redistributing authority, property, and purpose in new configurations throughout the sciences, nation-states, and segmented, industrialized societies (with burgeoning bourgeoisie and bureaucracy). Later on, Jewish secularism advanced the social and symbolic over legal and theological qualities. And so we have Heinrich Heine's 1823 plaint: "the baptismal is the ticket of admission to European culture." Theology concerns also became sublimated into economic concerns, according to Karl Marx, who criticized both secular and religious Jews for trading (as he more or less put it) God for money. 

If much is debatable about secularism, one thing is clear: Jewish secularism has many forms, many dimensions.  Some of its ideological proponents advised a public-private split personality, as in J. Leib Gordon's 1862 verse: "Be a man in the streets and a Jew at home." Middle Eastern Jewry varied geographically, but by mid-20th century, Jews in Iran and Iraq were overwhelmingly secular. Before their decimation, Central and Eastern European Jewry had concentrated political and literary secularisms in urban Vienna, Prague, Odessa, and Warsaw. And  Hanukah, celebrating a story of hope amidst devastation, has become a popular Jewish holiday replete with secularized ceremonial trappings of Christmas.  

If we’ve failed to settle upon a single definition of secularism, it may be because “secular” is less a word than a concept. Concepts are slippery; they depend heavily on context; and contexts not only vary (as we’ve seen)—they also evolve.
[i] See Jean-Claude Monod, La querelle de la secularization de Hegel à Blemenberg (J. Vrin, 2002), 23.

[ii] See Karl Löwith, Meaning in History, and Marcel Gauchet, The Disenchantment of the World. Peter Berger writes, “the ‘disenchantment of the world’ begins in the Old Testament” and its iconoclastic destruction of idols (Sacred Canopy, 107, 113).

[iii] Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age.

[iv] Blumenberg, Legitimacy 65.  The study of Jewish historiography has witnessed a parallel debate between those who claim that Jewish history is a modern rupture from Jewish memory (e.g. Yosef Yerushalmi, Zakhor) and those who argue that history-writing itself derives from apocalyptic writers’ calculating calendars (e.g. Amos Funkenstein, Perceptions of Jewish History).

[v] See Michael Walzer, Exodus and Revolution; Israel Knohl, The Sanctuary of Silence; Jon Levenson, Sinai and Zion.

[vi] Thus given the ample and abiding “resources with which Judaism confronts the olam ha-zeh” or the “saeculum,” Werblowsky adds, “after centuries of seclusion … [the Jews] needed a re-entry into the larger ‘world’ but no discovery of it, let alone conversion to it.” R. J. Z. Werblowsky, Beyond Tradition and Modernity (The Athlone Press, 1976), 40-60.


Gregory Kaplan is Anna Smith Fine Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University. He directs the program on Jewish secularization, and teaches “Secularizing Jewry/Judaizing Secularity” and other courses.

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