Highlights from Secular Culture & Ideas

The Colombian Inquisition

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The Colombian Inquisition

By Ilan Stavans

During a recent reading I gave in Bogotá, Colombia, a person in the audience asked why I didn’t believe in God. She said that she had never met any Jews before, and thus didn’t know how they looked, what they ate, how they dressed, and why they refused to believe in Christ. I wasn’t surprised by the question—coming from Mexico, I’m somewhat used to this type of exchange—although the directness with which it came gave me pause.
She had read a story of mine, “Xerox Man,” included in my collection, The Disappearance, in which an Orthodox Jew in New York City is caught stealing old books from famous libraries, photocopying them, and then destroying the originals. He justifies the endeavor by suggesting that the world in which we live is a replica of a lost original, and that the best way to feel close to God is to stress that which is inauthentic around us.
My interlocutor asked me if, as my story suggested, Jews were thieves and if they even stole from their own people.
After taking a breath, I answered that Jews were just like everyone else. I told her that I was raised secular among descendants of Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Poland and Belarus for whom language and culture were a form of religious affiliation. The Bible was an anthology of the best stories ever told. We read it not to confirm our faith in the Almighty but to be entertained, to wonder and rejoice with an extraordinary set of characters. The fact that those same characters had inspired our ancestors was reason enough to embrace them. But we didn’t take these stories for granted. Our duty was to find new meaning in them, to make them our own.
Unhappy with my response, she further inquired how is it possible to be compassionate, to feel another person’s pain, to do good deeds, if one doesn’t believe in God. I replied that morality no longer precludes faith. In certain religions, when performing ethical acts, it’s essential to substantiate them by embracing a view of the afterlife: good behavior leads to heaven, bad behavior to hell. But in the 18th century, the Enlightenment cleansed us of these superstitions. Today it's possible to behave in accordance with a moral code embraced by civil society without necessarily affirming one’s loyalty to God. In fact, I told her that quite often believers in God engaged in sacred wars that left an aftermath of insurmountable suffering, and that faith is regularly used to validate hatred.
I frequently reject the concept of God as a palliative to explain the unexplainable: who we are, where we come from, and where we're going. Science offers solutions to those questions, but they are intellectual in nature. Belief isn’t about ideas but about the passions of the heart.
Later on, after the reading was over, the event organizer approached me apologetically. He said the woman who asked me about Jews believing in a higher being was an ignoramus, but that she should be excused because she was going through a difficult moment in her life: her only sibling was ill with an inoperable cancer, and his days were numbered. She was with him constantly, trying to minimize the suffering. “Her state of mind is contemplative,” the organizer said.
I liked the idea of her contemplative mood; I would like to be that way in times of sorrow.
I told the organizer that I wasn’t at all offended by the questions. On the contrary, I had found them extraordinarily honest. Knowledge about Jews is minimal in Latin America. In the region we’re often seen—if at all—as imaginary creatures.
Yet the organizer was himself puzzled. “Can you be Jewish and not believe in God?” he asked. He said that if my answer was yes, his definition of an atheist would need to be thoroughly revised.
I responded that in his Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce states that religion is “a daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.” But I quickly added: “Don’t get me wrong… a world without ethics is inconceivable. People need to find meaning, and the easiest way is to attach that meaning to a mighty force that is accountable for everything. But the ethical code is divorced from the concept of God.”
I concluded by saying that I’m not an atheist but a skeptic.
Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. He is author, with Verónica Albin, of Love and Language (Yale University Press), as well as I Explain a Few Things: Selected Poems of Pablo Neruda (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), and Cesar Chavez: An Organizer's Tale (Penguin).

An Interview with Tony Kushner

By Jesse Tisch

The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright discusses Angels in America, whether age has tempered his radicalism, and why the label “Jewish writer” suits him fine.
There’s a way in which one becomes Jew-by-osmosis living in New York City. But you’re a New York Jew by way of Louisiana, where you were raised in a progressive, non-religious Jewish family. Where did you absorb so much Jewishness?
I obviously absorbed a certain amount as a child. I think that my sense of the importance of being Jewish was sharpened by the fact that I grew up as part of a very small minority within an entirely Christian community. It would have been possibly a different thing had I grown up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
In your work, you’ve shown an omnivorous interest in Jewish issues, from the Holocaust to the Yiddish theatre to Israel/Palestine. Those seem to be several ways you’ve articulated your Jewishness.
I, personally, am not an observant Jew. I’m not frum; I’m not observant; I don’t keep kosher. In terms of theology… I’m probably kidding myself. But it’s interesting—there’s a level of comfort, a sense of belonging, that is only touched on in the company of other Jews. I’m speaking personally now, but I think this is something that a lot of Jews share. For secular Jews especially, there may be a need, a hunger, that you’re not even particularly aware exists until you find yourself in the company of a lot of other Jews.
That sounds almost Jungian. Do you believe in a Jewish consciousness—or unconscious?
People carry history within themselves, so if you want to call that a collective unconscious, you can do that; it’s a little mystical to me, I think it’s got more material sources. You’re the receiver of a history. And you carry that within you, and transform it within yourself.
I know that you’re the type of Jew who cherishes certain Jewish traditions that comport with your values, and jettisons other traditions. Which traditions do you keep? Which haven’t you kept?
There are traditions, like homophobia and misogyny, that I categorically reject. There are traditional attitudes about, for instance, intermarriage, that I reject. But I don’t jettison any tradition, in the sense that I’m intrigued by all of them. By most standards of Orthodox Jewish practice I’d be considered a pretty bad Jew. Every once in a while I think there would be something sort of nice about observing the Sabbath, but it just has never worked out, and I guess I never felt a strong enough pull. And I have a difficulty in shul, because I sort of believe, and sort of don’t believe.
You’ve embraced the label “Jewish writer,” when as far as I can tell, what Jewish writers most have in common is a disdain for the label “Jewish writer.”
I don’t think all Jewish writers. Would Malamud have bristled? Did Bellow? I don’t know.
Bellow, I think, did. Likewise Philip Roth and Cynthia Ozick.
Oh, really? I don’t know; it doesn’t make sense to me. I see it as so essential to your own survival as a human being and to your own internal coherence. Maybe to somebody like Cynthia, or Roth, to be thought of as a Jewish writer, there was a fear that you would be ghettoized as a kind of novelty act, and real writers, real American writers, were not Jews. But I am a Jewish writer, and I am a gay writer, and I am an American writer, and I don’t see any point in trying to argue about that. Maybe if I was a better writer than I am then I would think I’ve transcended all of these things, but if Tolstoy didn’t transcend being Russian, fair bet that neither I nor any of the people we’ve mentioned have transcended our American-ness, or our Jewishness.
But in calling yourself a Jewish writer, aren’t you also implying that Jewishness informs your art? You’ve even referred to Angels in America—your masterwork—as a Jewish play.
With “Angels,” there’s a very powerful spine of the play that is this sort of tracking the Jewish characters. But I also think that a play like Homebody/Kabul, or the play that I’m working on right now—which has no Jews in it—are Jewish plays. Homebody/Kabul also has no gay people in it, but I consider it to be a “gay” play, in the sense that it’s written by a gay Jew and an American gay Jew.
You’ve seldom compartmentalized your art and your identity-based politics.
I’ve really come to feel that any categorization like political, spiritual—that these things are all so murky. The Bible, for instance, is political. The Prophets are full of it: Don’t [expletive] over the poor. Don’t be a greedy pig. Make sure that you behave in the world in a decent fashion. In fact, it’s perfectly legitimate to say that Judaism doesn’t ask you to do anything other than that. Do those things, and the rest of it—whatever.
Jesse Tisch is the Assistant Editor of Contemplate: The International Journal of Cultural Jewish Thought.
Adapted from a longer interview that appeared in the 2008/2009 issue of Contemplate: The International Journal of Cultural Jewish Thought.
Secular Literary Representations in Judeo-Persian

By Dalia Yasharapour

As a natural consequence of nearly 3,000 years of living on Iranian soil, Jewish identity became inextricably connected to Iran and was thereby shaped by Iranian history, culture, and language. Judeo-Persian (hereafter, JP), written in modern Persian with Hebrew characters, is the vehicle with which Iranian Jewry recorded intellectual and creative literary syncretism. Jews most likely abandoned Hebrew and Aramaic for Persian well before the Islamic conquest of the mid-seventh century. In fact, the earliest existing modern Persian records are Judeo-Persian documents dated to the eighth and ninth century CE. 

Manuscripts copied by scribes up to the end of the 19th century reveal a body of literature containing a wide range of topics—both religious and secular—in prose and verse, with varying styles and levels of sophistication. While not in the scope of this survey, it is important to note that JP intellectuals read Hebrew and Arabic as well as Persian, and also authored Hebrew works. Just as (in the last millennium of its development) classical Persian poetry occupied a central position in Persian literature, JP poetry is equally central to JP literature. 

JP works in manuscripts appear in no systematic order. In any given manuscript one may come upon compositions on disparate subjects such as astrology, poetry, medicine, folklore, biblical commentary, and lexicons. It is not uncommon to find transliterations of the classical Persian poetry in manuscripts that also contain Hebrew and JP liturgical hymns. Jews were as enamored of Persian lyric and narrative poetry as their Iranian compatriots; the original versified works produced by Iranian Jewish poets attest to the fact that their sense of literary aesthetic was completely shaped by it. Among other factors, linguistic and socio-economic elements impacted the quality of JP poetry. Needless to say, its value does not lie in how it compares to the classical Persian corpus but in the distinct body that reflect a people’s world view and sense of self.

From the beginning of the 14th century, JP poets composed original versified epics paraphrasing and elaborating on the narrative portions of the Hebrew Bible. The standard did not value innovation, but rather the embellishment and refinement of set literary conventions. Though no JP transliterations of Ferdowsi’s (d. 1010) “Book of Kings” have survived, there can be no doubt that JP poets read and faithfully emulated what Persian speakers viewed, and still regard today, as Iran’s national epic. Shahin (13-14th century) was the first to do so by versifying the books of the Torah as well as content from the books of Esther and Ezra. Subsequent JP poets such as Emrani (d. 1536) and Khajeh Bokharai (16-17th century) regarded him as their great predecessor and perceived themselves to be following in his footsteps. Emrani versified accounts found in the canonical books of Joshua, Ruth, and I and II Samuel. Khajeh Bokharai produced a versified account of the Book of Daniel. Subject aside, the poetic form, overall structure, prosody, poetic devices, motifs and themes, depiction of characters, and scenes found in these compositions, closely mirror Ferdowsi’s Persian epic.

The third and final category is that of original JP verse containing little or no Hebrew vocabulary or Jewish content. Emrani, mentioned above for his epic treatment of biblical accounts, also wrote a lyric mystical composition entitled “The Book of the Cup-bearer,” which draws extensively from Hafiz’s work of the same title, as well as from themes found in the poetry of Saadi and Khayaam. Emrani also composed a relatively short pietistic poem entitled “In Praise of Forbearance.” Elisha ben Shemuel (17th century) took the use of non-religious subject matter further by composing an adaptation of the Buddha biographies he entitled, “The Prince and the Sufi.” As with most JP didactic poetry predating it, this work drew from Jewish, Iranian, and Islamic traditions of wisdom literature; however it is mostly devoid of specifically Jewish content. Of the lyric poems composed by Benjamin ben Mishael (17th-18th century), “I Wish to Walk in the Rose Garden” is particularly noteworthy for its eroticism and intimate tenderness. Two other lyric poems penned by him indicate his bitter resentment of women born of an unhappy marriage.

While the use of Hebrew characters excluded Jewish poets from actively participating in Persian literary circles, it did not preclude them from reading and responding to the literature itself. JP poetry of a secular nature is just one creative manifestation of Iranian Jewry’s complete acculturation into Iran.

Dalia Yasharpour emigrated from Tehran, Iran, to the United States in 1978. A scholar of Judeo-Persian literature, she is Preceptor of Persian at Harvard University.

Introducing the Posen Library

By James E. Young

Sometime in 2011, the first of ten 1,000-page volumes of The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization is due to be published by Yale University Press. Thence will follow nine more volumes of roughly 1,000 pages each—until 2015, when the project will be complete.
The anthology represents an unprecedented attempt to gather, in a single, usable collection, what the current generation of scholars agrees best represents Jewish culture and civilization in its historical and global entirety. Nearly eight years ago, I was invited by Felix Posen to serve as Editor-in-Chief of this massive anthology. He had approached me on behalf of a sterling editorial board, including some of our generation’s leading scholars and thinkers in Jewish culture (Robert Alter, Yehuda Bauer, Menachem Brinker, Rachel Elior, Paula Hyman, Jonathan Sarna, Anita Shapira, A.B. Yehoshua, Yosef Kaplan, and Steven Zipperstein, among others). After consulting several of these board members, I accepted, somewhat humbled and embarrassed by the audacity of the project.
I proceeded to write the project’s précis and appoint a list of Volume Editors. From the outset, however, we recognized that our foundational question here, “What is Jewish culture?” needed to be followed (in good Jewish fashion) with several other questions: Toward what ends are we defining Jewish culture? Do we want to know what is essential to Jewish culture? Or what distinguishes it from other cultures? Do we want to know in order to celebrate all the cultural creations of the Jews as essentially “Jewish”? Or to be able to weed out the supposed non-Jewish elements from it?
Moreover, are there essentially Jewish qualities to Jewish culture or is Jewish culture itself essentially a dialectic between “adaptation and resistance to surrounding non-Jewish cultures,” as David Biale has suggested in his Cultures of the Jews? Or should Jewish culture be regarded as something that is produced mostly in relationship to itself, its own traditions and texts, as David Roskies argued in his review of Biale’s volume of essays?
Rather than pretending to answer these questions definitively, we allowed them to remain embedded in the multitude of entries selected by individual Volume Editors and their expert Advisory Boards. That is, we encouraged the editors to recognize the heterogeneity of Jewish culture and civilization. This fulfilled a crucial aspect of our central mission: to establish an inclusive and pluralistic definition of Jewish culture and civilization, in all of its rich diversity.
Historically, there have been any number of distinctive and parallel Jewish civilizations, some sharing common cultural traits and traditions, some with little in common beyond core religious laws and beliefs.
We all agreed that a major part of Jewish culture and civilization—visual culture—needed to be included throughout these volumes, in all of its forms. Still, questions of what constitutes pre-20th century Jewish literature, philosophy, liturgy, music, folk art and other forms of material culture remained. Often, these questions were easier to navigate than the questions that arise later, such as: What is Jewish art, or photography, or architecture? What makes Barnett Newman, or Philip Guston, or Mark Rothko Jewish artists? Do Newman’s meditations on martyrdom constitute “Jewishness” in his work? Do Guston’s reflections on identity and catastrophe make him a “Jewish artist”?
Is Rothko’s iconoclastic insistence on the abstract color field after the Holocaust a gesture toward the second commandment prohibition of images, and if so, does that give him a Jewish sensibility? And what about other art forms? Is William Klein a Jewish photographer? Or Weegee (nee Arthur Feelig), or Robert Capa (nee Andreas Friedmann), or Brassai (nee Gyula Halasz)? Aside from its cheekiness, what are we to make of William Klein’s mischievous remark that “. . . there are two kinds of photography—Jewish photography and goyish photography”?
And architecture. Is there such a thing as “Jewish” architecture? The current generation of Jewish architects is certainly legend (think of Frank Gehry, nee Frank Owen Goldberg, Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman, Daniel Libeskind, Santiago Calatrava, James Ingo Freed, Moshe Safdie, and A.M. Stern, to name but a few of the most prominent). But what are we to make of Gehry’s suggestion that the undulating steel forms for which he is so famous are inspired by the live carp his grandmother kept in a bathtub before turning it into gefilte fish?
Rather than prescriptively suggesting some kind of hard and impermeable canon to be excavated by our volume editors, we decided, again, to leave these questions up to them: their jobs would simply (or not so simply) be to research all that has been regarded as representative of Jewish culture over time, and to bring it all together in generically, thematically, chronologically, and geographically organized volumes.
What, one could easily ask, is the purpose of attempting to collect in a ten-volume anthology all that this generation deems to constitute Jewish culture and civilization? I believe there are several large purposes, each with several parts.
First, we hope that The Posen Library will open the world’s eyes to the extraordinary contributions Jewish thinkers, writers, and artists have made as Jews to dozens of other national cultures around the globe. As a corollary, we also hope that as a process, the Posen Library demonstrates that like Jewish culture, all national cultures are comprised of multiple, often competing constituent cultures. Like Jewish culture, national cultures everywhere are formed in the constant give and take, the frisson between and within themselves.
Second, we hope to show that Jewish culture necessarily includes the living, breathing, ever-evolving expressions of Jewish experience in all of its shapes and forms, inside and outside Halacha, and that it is animated in its constant interrogation, debate, and disputation. As such, The Posen Library might serve not only as an outreach to the non-Jewish world, but also as a kind of Shaliach to otherwise disaffected and disengaged Jews whose religious identities have lapsed, but whose cultural identification as Jews might now be renewed.
Finally, we wanted to suggest The Posen Library as a model for defining a “national culture”—a culture shaped by its differences and reciprocal exchanges with other cultures—rather than a “nationalist culture.” For we know all too well what happens when nations and cultures attempt to purge themselves of all supposedly foreign elements: They become small and hollow shells, devoid of inspiration and imagination.
By attempting these, and by drawing attention to works that have traditionally been neglected and marginalized from prevailing canons, we wanted to provide a working anthological legacy by which new generations will come to recover, know and organize past, present and future Jewish cultures and civilizations.
James E. Young is Editor-in-Chief of The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization (Yale University Press, forthcoming). He is Professor and Chair of the Department of Judaic & Near Eastern Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and the author of At Memory's Edge (Yale University Press, 2000); The Texture of Memory (Yale U. Press, 1993); and Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust (Indiana University Press, 1988), among other books and collected volumes.
Introducing the Posen Library” is adapted from a paper of the same name, originally presented by the author at the World Congress of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem in August 2009. It was adapted with permission of the author.

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