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Learning Log Jewish-American Literature
Undergraduate Paper (August 1995 - July 1996)

Introduction: The Discourse of Jewish-Americans
Anzia Yezierska: Double Hunger
Henry Roth: Negative Initiation in Call it Sleep
Isaac Bashives Singer: The Passage of Time in The Family Moskat
Andrea Dworkin: Becoming Anti-Oedipus
Epilogue: Towards a Cartography of Learning

Introduction: The Discourse of Jewish-Americans [back to top]

In the past two decades the attention paid to so called 'minority art' - art that is produced by people who are not white, heterosexual, protestant, or male - has been growing slowly but steadily. Hesitantly university courses have started to focus on female and ethnic writers, a group which had up until then almost entirely been excluded from the WASP- and male-orientated literary canon.[1]

  This also goes for the English department of the University of Utrecht. In recent years several courses have shoot up which explicitly deal with 'minority' literature. The course for which this log is written could be seen as one of these courses. The Jewish-American minority, however, lacks the features which are usually ascribed to minority groups.
[2] Furthermore they have not, while other minority groups have, been systematically excluded from the literary canon.[3] Still, the Jewish-American writers on the reading-list do possess a trait which differentiates them from mainstream authors; they exhibit a "Jewishness" - sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit, but never absent.

Before expanding on this differentiating trait, I want to focus on the fact that the augmentation of the academic literary focus, which the course apparently aspires, has until this year been rather one-dimensional - not to say half-baked. This is emphasized by the introductory article of this year's reading-list, 'Claiming an Education' by Adrienne Rich.
[4] 'For many reasons, it has been more difficult for women to comprehend our exclusion [than for 'black and other minority peoples']', wrote Rich in 1977, and: 'Many teachers, both men and women, trained in the male-centered tradition, are still handing the ideas and texts of that tradition on to students'.

Fellow-students who also did the 'Damned Mob of Scribbling Women' course, complained about Rich's article, calling it overstated and outdated. Fact is that until this year, the Jewish-American literature course only regarded male authors, and at most a handful of students - male or female - would have perceived this as a confirmation of the existence of a male-centred tradition. The idealistic rhetoric of the article is indeed a little out-of-date, but the subject matter - as this course exemplifies - is everything but obsolete. The vestiges of male dominance persist; accordingly active resistance remains necessary.  

This year the course's focus has been extended. No longer do we only read the 'major texts' that, as Rich writes, came to be labelled as such because men, in their male subjectivity, have decided that they are important. Alongside novels written by male authors, we now read short stories by female writers.

It is hard to pinpoint what exactly the insertion of female writers reinforces - for one thing because short stories are significantly different from novels - but I feel it entails the enhancement of a great number of things. The female writers, for instance, introduce the female protagonist - mother, (house)wife, or sister - and by doing so demarginalise her daily worries and thoughts, and demonstrate a feeling of strong female solidarity which reminds me of the sisterhood. Bear in mind that both Yezierska and Goldman wrote their stories long before the start of the second feminist wave which raised terms like marginalisation and sisterhood. The fact that their texts, written in a period which lacks the coherence and determination that the women's lib manifests since its rebirth in the sixties, already offer us some blurred outlines of what is now sometimes called the discourse of woman, could be said to underscore theories of people like Hélène Cixous and Rachel Blau DuPlessis which claim the existence of a female way of writing which is crucially different from the male way of writing.
[5] 'This female writing-practice,' asserts Cixous, 'can never be defined, because it will not let itself be conjectured, closed in, and coded.'[6] What difference the reorganisation of the reading list makes will therefore remain indefinite, but according to Cixous, its effect will be more comprehensive than one is inclined to think. 'A woman incorporates the history of all women, her personal history, national history and international history. (...) She will bring about a transformation in human relations, in thinking, in every action.'[7]

I agree with Cixous to a great extent. Blau DuPlessis, however, I my view goes too far in claiming a separate aesthetic:  

The context in which are formed and reinforced gendered human beings, produced in the family, in institutions of gender development, in the forms of sexual preference, in the division of labor by gender, especially the structure of infant care, in the class and the conditions of the families in which we are psychologically born, and in the social maintenance of the sexes through life's stages and in any historical era. (...) these differing experiences do surely produce (some) different consciousnesses, different cultural expressions, different relations to realms of symbols and symbol users. Different "language,"  metaphorical; different uses of grammatical and expressive resources of language (...) And therefore there is female aesthetic.

I do not feel that this enumeration offers sufficient foundation for her claim, because a separate aesthetic - in my view - requires a much more essential departure from Western values than the deviation that can be seen in, for instance, one of the short stories on this course's reading-list - or in her own article for that matter. I do however agree with her that differing experiences will produce different discourses, meaning bodies of texts, events and institutions which belong to specific groups of people that share a few more or less identical experiences which will lead to a certain extent of similarity of consciousness, cultural expressions, etc. Hence the discourse of woman, but also the discourse of Afro-Americans or homosexuals or Jewish-Americans.

So here I am, after a discursive diversion, back to the main subject: the Jewish-American discourse, and more precisely, the body of literary texts within that discourse. A blurry realm because, as Derek Ruben points out, Jewish-American literature is not a clear-cut category.
[9] Is it any work that is concerned with the Jewish-American 'experience'? One could object that there are books by 'goys' about that experience, just as there are books by Jews that do not explicitly deal with it. And to complicate things even further: the question who is a Jew and who is not cannot be answered straightforwardly, because the different currents within American-Judaism (reformed, conservative, and orthodox) do not agree on this point.

Let me demarcate the Jewish-American literary discourse like I have defined 'discourse' before: the literature that comes from the group of people which has experienced more or less identical circumstances - whether they have written about these conditions or not.
[10] In many of the works on the reading-list we read about these circumstances; Derek Ruben has given us some additional information in his lecture on the historical background of the Jewish-American community.

The Jewish-American 'experience' really started with the emigration from Europe to America. Behind this emigration, however, lie centuries of hardship:

Anti-Semitism had a long and bloodstained history in Europe, stemming both from an irrational fear and hatred of outsiders with noticeably different ways and from the commonly accepted myth that the Jews (...) were (...) the murderers of Christ - an image that promoted terrible anger and hatred. Periodically, mobs humiliated, tortured, and massacred Jews, and rulers expelled them from their kingdoms. Often barred from owning land and excluded from the craft guilds, medieval Jews concentrated on trade and moneylending - occupations that frequently earned them greater hostility. By the sixteenth century, Jews in a number of lands were forced by law to live in separate quarters of the town, called ghettos. (...)
Most European Jews - peasants, peddlers, and laborers - were quite poor. Perhaps five thousand to six thousand Jews of Galicia in Austria-Hungary died of starvation annually.

The emigration took place in three waves. A small group of Sephardic Jews, expelled from Spain and Portugal for religious reasons, arrived between 1654 and 1825 constituted the first wave. The second wave was larger and consisted mainly of Ashekenazic Jews from Germany, venturing the voyage between 1825 and 1880 because their conditions of living remained lamentable compared to the conditions for Jews in other Western European countries which, as a result of the French revolution and the Enlightenment, conferred Jews with equal civil rights. The third and by far largest wave was caused by an upsurge of anti-Semitic sentiments which pervaded Europe in the late-nineteenth century. This last wave, starting around 1880 and ending in 1924 - the year in which the U.S. government introduced immigrant-quotas - consisted mainly of Yiddish-speaking Jews from Central- and Eastern Europe. While even German Jews gained legal equality in 1871
[12], most Central- and Eastern European Jews were still secondary citizens who, as a result of various economic restrictions, could hardly make a living, and who, lacking every form of legal protection, had to endure repeated pogroms, eruptions of mob violence. Obviously these Jews suffered most from the new outburst of anti-Semitism, and many fled their homes in search of a better future in the land of golden opportunities.  

In America, however, life was hard too. Most Jewish immigrants, being very poor, lived in reduced circumstances in New York's Lower East Side, struggling to survive.

I feel it is the shared history of fear, as well as the poverty and the Jewish religion, which knit them together both geographically and socially in those first decades in America in which the foundations of the Jewish-American consciousness were established firmly. I think that, had the Jewish immigrants spread over the U.S. immediately, the influence of the host country's culture would have been more considerable than is now the case. In their self-imposed ghetto they could determine the pace and extent of their assimilation to mainstream culture themselves.

In many texts which are on the reading list the theme of this 'double culture' is addressed. What interests me is how the writers experience their culture. Do they feel that the Jewish-American culture incorporates the best of two cultures, or do they perceive a cultural vacuum; and what are the consequences of those views for their literature, their political commitment etc. I would like to focus on these questions while probing into the texts.

Anzia Yezierska: Double Hunger [back to top]
I must say that I jotted down this issue of the 'double culture-experience' immediately after reading Anzia Yezierska's story 'The Fat of the Land', and I thought I had found a fairly simple issue that would easily lead to a clear and unequivocal conclusion. I saw Hanneh Breineh's life in the Lower East Side as her Jewish roots and her life in the Eighty-Fourth Street and the Riverside apartment as her life in America. Living in two cultures, I planned to say, left her with nothing but emptiness: 'All the fur coats in the world can't warm up the loneliness inside my heart.' (p. 1440).

But shortly afterwards I read 'My Own People' and 'Mostly About Myself'. These two stories clearly tended towards an opposite answer to the stated question. Maybe clear and unequivocal within this single story, I thought at the time, but certainly not in Yezierska's complete oeuvre.

However, between jotting down the original question and carefully shaping the conception into a Learning-Log that meets the requirements lies half a year, and in this period I have come to the understanding - already displayed in the introduction - that it is quite an oversimplification to equate the Lower East Side-experience with the Jewish constituent of the Jewish-American experience (just as it could be seen as an oversimplification anyhow to break this experience into two constituents). I also took the time to relate the stories, which caused me to reinterpret 'The Fat of the Land'.

In 'Mostly About Myself' Yezierska wrote: 'Like many immigrants who expected to find America a realized Utopian dream, I had my disillusions.' (p. 252). This very much equals Hanneh Breineh's experience in 'The Fat of the Land'; first she is appallingly poor, but when she finally gets to riches, she has her disillusions:  

"Oi weh! What grand times we had in that old house when we were neighbours!" sighed Hanneh Breineh, looking at her old friend with misty eyes.
"You still think on Delancy Street? Haven't you more high-class neighbors uptown here?"
   "A good neighbor is not to be found every day," deplored Hanneh Breineh. "Uptown here, where each lives in his own house, nobody cares if the person next door is dying or going crazy from loneliness. It ain't anything like we used to have it in Delancy Street, when we could walk into one another's rooms without knocking, and borrow a pinch of salt or a pot to cook in." (p. 1432)

When Hanneh Breineh is poor, she already complains about coming to America - another clue that this story metaphorically symbolises the disillusionment of many immigrants. The Lower East Side and 'uptown' do not merely represent respectively the Jewish and the American constituents of the Jewish-American experience but much more the Jewish experience in Europe and the Jewish experience in America.

America is not 'flowing with milk and honey' for everyone; Jewish immigrants like Hanneh Breineh and Mrs. Pelz feel they have gained nothing by emigrating to America - on the contrary, large parts of the rich Jewish-European heritage have vanished from the Jewish consciousness. 'Who cares who my father or grandfather was in Poland?' (p. 1425) laments Hanneh Breineh, and in 'Mostly About Myself' Yezierska's mother says: 'You got a father a scholar. He holds himself all day with God; he might as well hang the beggar's bag on his neck and be done with.' (p. 249). 'In America money is everything', complains Hanneh Breineh, 'Without money I'm a living dead one. My head dries out worrying how to get for the children the eating a penny cheaper.' (p. 1425)

Later, when she lives in more comfortable circumstances, she keeps on complaining. She longs for the good old days in the Lower East Side. In a fit of rebellion she actually goes back 'relaxing and swimming in the warm waves of her old familiar past.' (p. 1437) But she realises that she can no longer 'endure the sordid ugliness of her past.' (p. 1441) She had forgotten the foul odours of the kitchen sink, the mattresses full of lumps and hollows, and the creeping things on the wall. As so often, melancholy filtered out the ugly things and enlarged the good things.

I read this story as a story of melancholy; a story about the past and about how things used to be - both in Delancy Street and in Poland. How there used to be strong family bonds, cohesion within the Jewish community, and respect for parents. Yezierska, however, is not blinded by this melancholy. She very well knows that the Jews left Europe for more reasons than poverty alone.

Hanneh Breineh's complaints in the latter part of the story are made from an obviously luxurious position. Her complaints in the ghetto, however, should - in my view - not be taken more seriously, because poverty existed in Europe too, but here, at least, one can speak out, one has a future, one can make his or her dream come true. So, in a way, the Lower East Side is a luxurious place too; not a place of material luxury, but a place of freedom, a luxury that was not allowed to Jews in Poland.

This, I think, is what Yezierska wants to say in 'The Fat of the Land'. Despite her disillusions about America she writes in 'Mostly About Myself':  

For ages and ages, my people in Russia had no more voice than the broomstick in the corner. The poor had no more chance to say what they thought or felt than the dirt under their feet.
  And here, in America, a miracle has happened to them. They can lift up their heads like real people. After centuries of suppression they are allowed to speak (p. 241).

And they do speak out. Take Sophie, in 'My Own People', who reproves Mr. Bernstein and the 'friendly visitor' for their behaviour towards Shmendrik:

'You call yourselves Americans? You dare call yourselves Jews? You bosses of the poor! This man Shmendrik, whose house you broke into, whom you made to shame like a beggar - he is the one Jew from whom Jews can be proud! He gives all he is - all he has - as God gives. He is charity.
'But you - you are the greed - the shame of the Jews! (...) What do you give from yourselves? (...) Nothing you give till you've stuffed yourselves so full that your hearts are dead!' (p. 15)  

The night after she delivered this speech she can finally write. It is as if getting in touch with her own history, the 'deep-buried memories', the 'age-old music of the Hebrew race' helps her to 'release the dumbness that choked her.' (p. 5)

Hanneh Breineh claims something similar in 'The Fat of the Land':

Why don't children of born American mothers write my Benny's plays? It is I who never had a chance to be a person, who gave him the fire in his head. (...) It is I and my mother and my mother's mother and my father and my father's father who had such a black life in Poland; it is our choked thoughts and feelings that are flaming up my children and making them great in America (p. 1440).

Ultimately these are Yezierska's own grounds for writing, as she explains in 'Mostly About Myself':

My mother (...) my father (...) and the lost and wasted lives of my brothers and sisters and my grandfather and all those dumb generations back of me, are crying in every breath of every word that itself is struggling out of me (pp. 241, 242).

It is not only writing that gains from the emigration from Europe to America because 'fiction is a mirror of life as it is being lived at the moment.' (p. 255) In America the Jewish race finally gets the chances that it deserved. Yezierska is very positive about the coalescence of Jewish and American culture.

This conclusion is completely opposite to my initial conclusion. By writing out her disillusions, which led me to believe that Yezierska lived in a vacuum in between Jewish and American culture, she 'aired and clarified them'. Just as it took me some time to get her message, she slowly 'began to understand (...) that America was a new world in the making [and] that any one who has something real in him can find a way to contribute himself in this new world.' (p. 254)

Henry Roth: Negative Initiation in Call it Sleep [back to top]
While Yezierska is very positive about the possibilities which the United States offered to the Jewish immigrants, Henry Roth writes a novel in which a Jewish-American child 'experiences (...) [the] acquiescence of life'.
[13] I feel that Call It Sleep, with its violence, fear and ultimately the gloomy initiation of David into adulthood - or rather, the knowledge about the human condition within the capitalist system -, contains a very negative view of American society. This is, however, hardly surprising when we consider the circumstances in which the novel was written.

Published in 1934, Call It Sleep is written at the zenith of the Great Depression. This depression had started in October 1929 when the New York Stock Exchange was hit by a wave of panic selling. An enormous chain reaction followed over the next few years. By the time President Roosevelt took office in 1933, more than 13 million Americans - one-quarter of the labour force - were out of work.
[14] This social reality, of course, had an effect on the literature of the period:

In the history of American literature the 1930s stand out as the decade of the Left, a time when cultural debate was automatically also political debate, and a time which saw the rise of the socialist realist novel.

As well as being influenced by the Leftist literary paradigm of the time, Call It Sleep is also very much influenced by the prevailing literary mode of the era between World Wars I and II: modernism. This movement was the consequence of a radical modification of the early-modern mentality:

The presuppositions of the Enlightenment, already eroding in the decades before World War I, seemed near collapse after 1918 (...). Westerners no longer possessed a frame of reference, a common outlook for understanding themselves, their times, or the past. The core values of Western civilization - the self-sufficiency of reason, the inviolability of the individual, and the existence of objective norms - no longer seemed inspiring or binding.

Important intellectual precursors of this destabilised conception of human nature and society are thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). The first, a German philosopher, has been said to be the principal figure in the 'dethronement of reason'.
[18] He claimed that Christianity and the philosophical tradition that had evolved out of the writings of Plato have been turned away from 'real' life; they have focused merely on the concepts heaven and objective truth respectively. Nietzsche perceives Christianity as an attempt of the ancient world's lower classes to become morally superior to their oppressors by condemning the way of life of the ruling classes and celebrating the sober and humble lives they led. He proclaims the 'death of God'. Similarly he attacks Plato's theory of ideas[19], commenting that 'perhaps he was insincere, and only preached virtue as a means of keeping the lower classes in order'.[20]

  With the dismissal of Plato's supremacy and the 'death of God', 'truth' had become subjective, and traditional moral values had lost their authority and binding power. Consequently, Nietzsche said, man could regain the spark of life, the zest for living, that had been suppressed for more than 2000 years by a restrictive morality. Inexorably, the next step would be the recognition of the dark, mysterious world of human's instinctional desires, not governed by reason.  

That this outlook came true within three decades subsequent to Nietzsche's death, can mainly be attributed to the Austrian-Jewish physician Sigmund Freud who spent most of his life studying neurotic disorders which, according to his doctrine, were caused by the restraints society has put on the powerful nonrational drives that, rather than rational faculties, constitute the greater part of the mind. Unlike Nietzsche, Freud did not repudiate reason; he recognized the potential danger of the irrational, sought to comprehend it scientifically, and wanted to regulate it in the interest of civilisation.

Freud's basic conception holds that man is divided against himself. Breaking away from the optimism of the Enlightenment, he regarded the basic human instincts as a 'seething cauldron' of pleasure-seeking that blindly seeks gratification, regardless of the consequences. This savage, selfish human nature, that is renewed in the childhood of every generation, has to be tamed during the first few years of a child's life in order to prevent the annihilation of civilisation.
[22] According to Freud the internalisation of the restraints of society takes place in a fixed process which he calls 'psychosexual development':

[The] aspect of the theory of psychosexual development that Freud himself regarded as the most important [is] the family triangle of love and jealousy and fear that is at the root of internalized morality and out of which grows the child's identification with the parent of the same sex. This is the Oedipus complex, named after the mythical king of Thebes who unknowingly committed the two most awful crimes - killing his father and marrying his mother. According to Freud an analogous family drama is re-enacted in the childhood of all men and women.

In short the Oedipus complex entails a little boy's projection of his erotic desires onto his mother, to whom he has become attached through the various gratifications she provided during an earlier stage of his psychosexual development. The little boy would like to have his mother all to himself, but this is made impossible by the father. This, Freud said, causes the little boy's hostility towards the father. In a subsequent stage this enmity is turned into fear; fear that the father will notice the hostility which is directed towards him and will return this malevolence; and fear that the father will find out about the little boy's love for the mother and will take appropriate measures - i.e. castration. The boy's anxiety eventually becomes unbearable:

At this point, he throws in the towel, renounces his mother as an erotic object (...). Instead he identifies with his father. He concludes that by becoming like him, he will eventually enjoy an erotic partnership of the kind his father enjoys now, if not with his mother, then at least with someone much like her.
According to Freud, the renunciation of the Oedipal problem is accomplished by the repression of all urges, feelings, and memories of the family drama. One lasting residue is the superego, the internalized voice of the father admonishing his son from within.

It is difficult not to recognise the Oedipal setting of Call it Sleep. David is the uninhibited child whose thoughts come to us through a stream of consciousness, a major narrative method in modernist fiction. The reader is offered a detailed portrait of David's world; a world very much like the one I described previously - without a frame of reference, reason, or objective norms. Both his inner pursuits and his perception of the world outside are fractional and biased.

David's anxiety for his father, his unconditional love for his mother, his vehement reaction to the story about his mother in the bathtub, his irrational fear for the cellar and his disgust at the discovery of sex, all aim towards a psychoanalytic interpretation of the novel. This would explain the final section of the book as the incorporation of the restraints of society, as the establishment of the superego:  

It was only towards sleep that ears had power to cull again and reassemble the shrill cry, the hoarse voice, the scream of fear, the bells, the thick-breathing, the roar of crowds and all sounds that lay fermenting in the vats of silence and the past (p. 440).

Just like all other childhood emotions and experiences, David's accident is banished from conscious memory to the realm of the unconscious. Only towards sleep - in a state of hypnosis or in (day)dreams - these experiences can be reassembled.

In psychoanalytic theory the repression of human instincts is an efficacious and positive device. I do not, however, believe that Roth shares this conviction. With the initiation into the adult order, David forfeits his 'spark of life', the inner yearning which is, according to Nietzsche, man's true essence.
[25] This negative interpretation of David's acquiescence coincides with the thought of twentieth-century adherents of Marxism like Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno - both of Jewish descent -, whose rendering of the Greek mythological story of Odysseus sailing past the island of the sirens has been seen as an attack on psychoanalysis:

Odysseus, well aware that the charm of the sirens' song was irresistible but wanting to hear it nonetheless, had had himself bound to the mast of his ship; his oarsmen - his "pliable proletarians" - with "stopped ears" and all unknowing had doggedly rowed past the danger. And so it had been the subsequent experience of humanity: the majority of mankind had been denied the knowledge of beauty and love; the minority who had won the right to  leadership had gained it "at the price of the abasement and mortification of the instinct for complete, universal, and undivided happiness". The history of civilization was the history of "man's domination over himself," a "history of renunciation". (...) [W]hat Freud in his Civilization and Its Discontents had reckoned as the inevitable cost of curbing men's destructive drives, Horkheimer and Adorno were determined to protest with all the dialectical skill they could muster.

Horkheimer and Adorno belonged to a branch of Marxist criticism which - contrary to the prevalent orthodox Leninist branch of Marxist literary criticism - did not condemn modernism. This branch - sometimes called para-Marxism - originated from the writings of Friedrich Engels who valued art not primarily for the artist's political implications, but rather for inherent social implications in a work of art.
[27] They believed that modernist experiments, 'by the very fact that they fragment and disrupt the life they "reflect," establish a distance and effect a detachment which serve as an implicit critique (...) of the dehumanizing operations of society under capitalism.'[28]

Central to the thought of para-Marxists like Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse - all associates of the Frankfurt school - was the belief that humans had become alienated in the 'business' or 'machine' civilisation that large-scale industry had produced:  

However close capitalism might come to the century-old socialist aim of eliminating poverty and drudgery (...) humanity's plight would remain unchanged. As long as men's perceptions of their work (and play) were "alienated" or "reified" - as long as a world whose quintessence was Entfremdung and Verdinglichung people acquiesced in their own transmutation into "things" - it was pointless to vest one's hopes in a merely technical shift of ownership in the means of production.

People had been disconnected from their roots and were forced to function alongside machines by the wielders of political and economic power. Menaced by technology, manipulated by impersonal bureaucracies and overwhelmed by feelings of anxiety, no spark of life was left, no sense of community. Individuality, conformism, ideological apathy, and materialism became the key-words of mass-society.

Conforming to this kind of civilisation is, according to its critics, of course, the last thing a person should do. Existentialists like para-marxist Jean-Paul Sartre even asserted that one 'becomes less than human when one permits one's life to be determined by a mental outlook - a set of rules and values - imposed by others.'

This negative interpretation of David's initiation into the alienated human condition within capitalist society could be paralleled to the admission of a Jewish child into the adult religious experience - in the case of boys, called bar mitzvah - for which David is prepared at the cheder. Both occurrences are essential milestones in the process of maturation. The bar mitzvah also entails some sort of conformity, some sort of acquiescence. Religion was denounced by most contemporary intellectuals, certainly by leftist thinkers who - following the ideas of Marx - regarded it as a consolation for the oppressed. Roth himself has turned away from the Jewish religion for a long time, so he is not only negative about American society, but also about Jewish culture. This could be exemplified by the hypocrisy of David's mother's family, who force her to marry a Jewish man and emigrate to America, in order to prevent the family for the shame of illegitimate offspring.

I think Roth is not specifically negative about Jewish-American culture, but about every culture which is not based on leftist doctrines. David, being the incarnation of the 'double culture' - being half Jewish, half 'goy' - acquiesces to both American capitalism and to pious illusions, so in a way, Jewish-Americans - and all other people living in a double culture - are perverted by two repressive systems. Roth himself, nevertheless, surmounted these two restraints, so I don't see why his statement should be so negative. Isaac Bashives Singer: The Passage of Time in The Family Moskat

Isaac Bashives Singer: The Passage of Time in The Family Moskat [back to top]
The passage from Europe to America is just a minor theme in Singer's novel. The journey of Koppel and Leah can, however, be linked to what is in my view the main theme of the novel; the changes in the culture of the Eastern European Jews from the turn of the century to the time of Hitler's invasion. We have seen that the crossing of the ocean has brought about huge changes for Jewish immigrants. In this novel we see that also Jews that stayed in Europe went through considerable changes.

In the beginning of the novel, a young man, Asa Heshel Bannet arrives at the Warsaw train station. Wearing a gaberdine and a velvet cap he is immediately recognised as a 'provincial' and 'a newcomer'. His arrival is very similar to the arrival of David Levinsky in America (where the latter is called 'Greenhorn'). Asa Heshel is as surprised by the multitude of Warsaw as David is by the hustle and bustle of life in New York's Jewish East Side. When Asa Heshel arrives he wants to study, he wants to learn the divine truths. Just like David's ideals, however, Asa Heshel's goals get lost somewhere along the line. He ends up very bitter and lonely, having lost his faith and his wife, having lost any sense of history and any hope for a future:

Hadassah, where are you now? Do you know? Do you exist?" (...) Was there nothing but the momentary present? If he could at least weep! But not a single tear came to his eyes. Why was he still alive. (...) There was a great emptiness about him (p. 632).

Emptiness. This seems to be the answer to the main question I'm asking in this log. The clash between the modern city life and his Jewish roots seems to have left him with nothing at all.

'Death is the Messiah. That's the real truth.' This is the last sentence of the novel. It is unclear who says this. It could be Hertz Yanovar, answering Asa Heshel who asks 'What do you mean?', but the answer would then be completely opposite of what he said just before: 'The Messiah will come soon.'

I have the impression that Singer has intentionally left the speaker of this quote vague, but whoever said these words, Asa Heshel had lost faith in God long before:

"I'm killing myself," [Asa Heshel] thought, "there's no doubt about it. But why, why? Because I have no faith. That minimum of faith without which one cannot exist. That humility which is friendship, the desire to bring up children, the readiness to sacrifice oneself for others. One cannot even make a career without it. But how can I rescue myself? In what can I believe? I hate God, I hate Him and His creation. How can one love a dead God, a paper God? I am kaput, kaput." (p. 559)

Asa Heshel's emptiness, however, is in my opinion not exemplary for the feelings of his generation. I have the idea that these feelings are more accurately expressed by Abram Shapiro's son-in-law Avigador, who speaks of a generation gap: 'The old generation knows only one thing: Messiah will come. God knows, he's taking his time.' (p. 552) He mocks the old generation's convictions and values, but he doesn't turn his back on the jewish religion. He keeps going to the Bialodrevna prayerhouse every day, and he adheres to the traditional family loyalty, by taking care of his father-in-law ('Someone's got to be with him all the time. Tonight is my watch.' (p. 551)). Asa Heshel says it himself: people like Avigador 'are the backbone of the Jews'. He refutes Barbara who calls Avigador a nobody: 'It's these little nobodies who for two thousand years have carried all of Jewry on their backs - as well as all of Christendom.' (p. 553).

But what about Asa Heshel? Is his story - and therefore the novel's story - nothing more than a tale about an individual striving for enjoyment? The extensive collection of characters and repeated references to the mounting political tension of the era in which the novel is set, makes it hard to believe that. It would be more appropriate to call The Family Moskat an historical novel. This neatly ties in with what I have identified before as the main theme of this novel, namely the changes in the culture of Eastern European Jews in the first half of the 20th century. The novel re-creates this vanished world with an almost unparalleled eye for details by means of a 'typical' Jewish family whose financial decline and social disintegration could be both exemplary of, and metaphorical for the ruin of the colourful and hermetic society of the Eastern European Jews whose downfall had started long before World War II as a result of discriminating laws and practices - which in its turn led to urbanisation, getthoisation and emigration - and modern city life. It is however more than an uncommitted historical reconstruction; it is also a story about a group of people trying to survive in an era of turmoil and fear, of secularisation and individualisation. This is where Asa Heshel comes in.

Asa Heshel is yet a step further than the average Jew in secularisation and individualisation. 'He (...) avoided mankind. He did not drink, did not dance, did not belong to any group or organization in which he might make friends.' (p. 491). By turning away from the Jewish faith he had destroyed the core of his Jewishness. When Barbara says that he is not a Jew (p. 552), he doesn't protest. He became socially disintegrated. He is the embodiment of what could have happened to all European Jews if not the second World War had radically interrupted the cause of history.

It is this social disintegration that causes an emptiness. This is what I feel Singer is saying. It's the same with Mascha, Leah's daughter, who turned Catholic. She is all alone: 'No one loved her, that was the truth. Neither her father nor her mother. Nor her husband.' (p. 531) She tries to commit suicide.

On page 540 Hertz Yanovar says: 'without a home of our own we are a lost people.' He is talking about Palestine, but I feel that one can also read another meaning into the word 'home': a prayerhouse, so the Jewish religion. As I wrote before, I think that that is a sort of warning Singer is trying to give throughout the book. Near the end, on page 606, Adele, leaving for Palestine, realises the following: '[Asa Heshel] had forsaken God, and because of that he was dead - a living body with a dead soul. She was astonished that this simple truth had eluded her until now.'

Written after Singer's emigration to the United States in 1935, I feel this book is very much about what he experiences there. Partly the book might be written out of melancholy, but equally important is the message - or should I say warning - that is implicit: a warning against the threats which the American life pose. Like the members of the Frankfurt Schule who, after their emigration to America saw about them a state of social 'nakedness' in which 'the notion of community seemed to be slipping away and the individual lacked a cushion of intermediate groups to protect him against direct and overwhelming pressure' of the American cultural values,
[31] Singer must have perceived individualisation as a first step towards apathy, emptiness, and unhappiness. This ties in with his recurrent references to Spinoza, for instance on page 491: 'According to Spinoza, joy could be achieved only in community with others.'

So a historical novel, but - as I said before - not an uncommitted one. With his tale, Singer wants to warn American Jews for the possible effects of unrestricted assimilation to American values.

The first, say, 250 pages of the novel were a drag. I was very annoyed by the extensive descriptions of characters, clothing, streets, family relations, and habits. Somewhere along the line, however, I was absorbed by the detailed world in which the characters' actions were carefully depicted. The feelings of emptiness, disappointment, love and fear, the inner doubts - they are all described in a way that you almost feel them yourself. It is especially Hadassah, whose feelings I can imagine as if they were my own, with whom I sympathise, but it is almost impossible to not feel any pity for Asa Heshel - especially towards the end. His life - it seems to me - has evolved to become an infinite road to sadness. The sad thing is that he, of all people, had concluded that the only goal of humanity was enjoyment (p. 491).

  Asa Heshel is a true anti-hero. It is Abram Shapiro who could in some ways be seen as the hero of the novel. He has managed to find a balance between modern life and Jewishness. He has done everything his own way but on his deathbed he murmurs: 'I believe in God. I die a Jew.' (p. 558) His positive attitude is contagious. His death, casually announced in a enumeration of the buried, is a great loss. With Abram, all hope for a future passed away. Nothing more than the momentary present has been left. When we later hear that Hadassah is dead too, we know that it won't be long before Asa Heshel's bodily existence will fade away.

Andrea Dworkin: Becoming Anti-Oedipus [back to top]
Between the works of the writers on which I have been writing up till now and Andrea Dworkin's First Love, lies an interval of several decades. This historical era has been a period of vast changes - both socially and intellectually. 'In the West, the shift away from manufacturing toward a service and information-based structure entails (...) the decline of traditional sociosymbolic systems based on the state, the family, and masculine authority,' writes Rosi Braidotti about the epoch she labels postmodern.

First Love clearly reflects these changes. The protagonist of Dworkin's story - whom I will henceforth call Andrea - is an iconoclast confronting all three authorities Braidotti designates. She is a polyglot
[33], speaking 'pidgin bits of French, English and Greek' (p. 129), she is neither migrant nor exile:[34]  

As opposed to the images of both the migrant and the exile, I want to emphasize that of the nomad. The nomad does not stand for homelessness, or compulsive displacement; it is rather a figuration for the kind of subject who has relinquished all idea, desire, or nostalgia for fixity. This figuration expresses the desire for an identity made of transitions, successive shifts, and coordinated changes, without and against an essential unity.

The nomad is the deteritorialised subject that emanates from the theories of French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Their collaboration, which finds its onset after the student-worker revolt of May 1968, challenges more or less the same authorities as Andrea does. '[Their] major (...) adversary,' writes Michel Foucault in the preface to their first important book Anti-Oedipus, 'is fascism. (...) And not only historical fascism, (...) but also the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behaviour, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.'
[36] A major agency of this fascism, Deleuze and Guattari claim, is Oedipus.[37] 'Oedipus is belief injected into the unconsciousness, it is what gives us faith and what robs us of power, it is what teaches us to desire our own repression.'[38] Confronting (late capitalist) state repression and its inherent fascism thus automatically entails confronting the 'daddy-mommy-me triangle' which Oedipus constructs. This hierarchical family-triangle, in its turn, has generally been seen as an important agency of the reproduction of male dominance.  

The nomad is a figuration
[39] which opposes the prevailing Western conception of the individual as a 'bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe, a dynamic center of awareness, emotion, judgement, and action organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively both against such wholes and against its social and natural background'[40] - a conception which is highly influenced by psychoanalysis. The nomad is not a fixed centre; s/he is always 'in between', constantly creating lines of escape, perpetually becoming. The nomad has no habits and no territories; s/he is always on the run for a  reteritorialisation into the traditional sociosymbolic systems of established authorities.[41] This links the figuration of the nomad to Hélène Cixous' conception of the female writing-practice, which - as I wrote in the introduction - will also not let itself be conjectured, closed in, and coded. Cixous asserts that the female writer 'will always transgress the discourse that is dominated by phallocentrism; she takes place and will take place in other domains than the ones governed by theoretical-philosophical dominance. The female writing-practice will only be thought by subjects who break with convention, marginal subjects who will not be encased by authorities.'[42]

Vietnamese-American film maker and feminist academic Trinh T. Minh-ha also notes a connection between writing and the nomad, saying 'To write is to become. Not to become a writer (or a poet), but to become, intransitively.'
[43] This relationship between writing and becoming can likewise be observed in First Love:

The decision to leave was not rational. It was made, in fact, long before the worst happened. It was a feeling, an impulse, that inhabited my body like a fever. Once I felt it I knew that I would leave no matter what. I describe it to you now as the drive to become that lives in the part of me that did not breathe in you, that is a writer, and that even my identity as a woman could not entirely silence. It is that part of me that enraged you even as it enthraled you, the part that could not be subsumed by seduction or anal assault or any sort of domination. (p. 132).

Andrea recognises the writer as a nomad, wandering through the desert:

I love books too (...). They are the human ocean, life before and through and beyond this self, footsteps on the sand in the largest desert, the wind blows, the tracks are sometimes obscured, covered over, hidden, waves of human experience in which one drowns, which carry one, against which one struggles with every life force, forced sometimes under, struggling for any breath, the weight of that water bearing down mercilessly on one, or floating, effortless, calm, at the precise point between earth and sky (p. 118).

Braidotti also describes the work of a nomadic writer as a track in the sand. She asserts that many things she writes are cartographies: 'that is to say a sort of intellectual landscape gardening that gives me a horizon, a frame of reference within which I can take my bearing, move about, and set up my own theoretical tent.'

This is what Andrea also does; she writes a cartography, she draws a map. It is what gives her a horizon. 'Cultural identity,' Braidotti writes, 'is retrospective.'
[45] Reflecting upon her personal topography Andrea discovers she is a woman, a Jew, and an Amerikan (sic):

Living on Crete brought me to a new sensitivity, acute and intolerable. I felt the resonances of those dead, all of them, and the lives of those living, all of them, in my own body., and I came know who I was - that self tied to the past which was ever present in a way that was not melancholy or romantic. In America, each person is new, like hemp before the rope is made. (...) You loved the land, the mountains and what they held, the sea and what it brought and took away. Amerikans for the most part dont (sic) know what that means. The land moved you, you knew its story,  and you were bound to it. I was Amerikan, Jew, female, who knew nothing at first of the land and what it held (...). But yr (sic) land and its people entered into me and in me I began to discover the memory, passion, and experience of all the peoples of whom I was a part (p. 124).

It is in retrospect that Andrea discovers her identity. It is a result of her drive to become: 'The world takes form when one writes.' (p. 119). She is a woman, a Jew, and an Amerikan and those three things together seem to feed her. She is stronger because she is tied to the cartographies of multiple discourses; the female discourse, resonating 9 million witches burned alive, rape, and the absence of the power of naming and so of speaking and so of knowing; the Jewish discourse, echoing the Nazi slaughter; the American discourse, reverberating cement, boxlike houses, and plotted lawns; and all the discourses 'in between'. Like Yezierska, Andrea seems to speak for all those dumb generations 'back of her', and for all those people who are still speechless. She went back to America to 'confront the hatred of women, male power over women, from which I believe, all other illegitimate power is derived.' (p. 134). She is working on the realisation her dream that love without tyranny is possible. Oedipus in the dustbin, and with it all forms of power and authority.

Epilogue: Towards a Cartography of Learning [back to top]
I would rather call this an epilogue than a conclusion, because it is hardly possible to derive a all-inclusive conclusion from these four works which - in spite of their conception within a more or less similar discourse - are so distinct in their final articulation. The main question I planned to deal with - what does it mean to be influenced by two cultures - can therefore not be answered conclusively, although the prevalent stance seems to be that it enriches you.  

A much more interesting finding is, in my opinion, the political commitment of the writers I have dealt with. They are all more or less committed to some form of freedom: freedom of speech in Yezierska's stories, a manifesto against capitalist repression by Roth, a defence for the freedom to pursue your own culture in Singer's novel, and an attack of male dominance by Dworkin. I do not, however, think that this yearning for freedom is an effect from a 'double culture', but that it follows from the history of repression that they share.

These shallow observations are not in any way sensational, but that is not to say that I have not learned anything worthwhile during the course and the subsequent writing of this log. On the contrary, I feel that both my writing skill and theoretical knowledge have increased during the conception of this log.

A learning log is, in my opinion, a very suitable vehicle for an expansion of one's theoretical horizon. My first log, for last year's independent study group 'Feminism and Literature', has brought me to Jung and to Deleuze and Guattari. This learning log brought me to the theories of the Frankfurter Schule, Freud and, Nietzsche, and through these, again to Deleuze, who has - I feel - bulldozed these modernist sandcastles to create a giant postmodern sandbox. And then, strolling through this sandpit, I met Braidotti, a nomad whose writings affirmed my hypothesis that Deleuze's theories are useful for feminist purposes. This, in its turn, will be one of the preliminaries of my final thesis.

A learning log is a nomadic paper: it is the 'enlargement of life's limits through the pragmatic proliferation of concepts'.
[47] It is, as Braidotti puts it, writing a cartography, drawing a map of your personal learning process. I hope I have succeeded in sketching that process. I feel that I still sometimes resort to a very formal style of writing and excessive numbers of quotes, but I also feel that I have at some points reached a self-confidence to spawn my own ideas without references to acknowledged theoreticians. This is, I think, my own becoming; not becoming, intransitively, but becoming a student who is (slowly) approaching his graduation.

Endnotes [back to top]

[1] According to Mary McCay, this practice is in the United States currently beset by a conservative counter-revolution, which rejects the liberal canon and tries to filter out all works that do not fit their creed. She claimed, in a lecture given at the English department of the University of Utrecht (June 13th 1995), that WASP opinion leaders first perverted the meaning of the phrase 'politically correct', and later ridiculed everything that was labelled as such. [back]

[2] For instance lack of political, cultural, and financial power and influence. [back]

[3] Isaac Bashevis Singer and Saul Bellow have both been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in the seventies - long before the liberal canon had come into being. [back]

[4] in: On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978 (New York: Norton, 1979), pp. 231-235. [back]

[5] The term 'discourse of woman' is taken from Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak, 'Displacement and the Discourse of Woman', in: Mark Krupnick, ed., Displacement, Derrida and After (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983), pp. 169-195. The theories I refer to are taken from two articles, viz. Hélène Cixous, 'De lach van de Medusa', in: Sarafaan 3, (1986), pp. 74-91, translation of: 'Le rire de la Méduse', in: L'arc 61, (1975), and Rachel Blau DuPlessis, 'For the Etruscans', in: Elaine Showalter, ed., The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature and Theory (London: Virago, 1986), pp. 271-290. These articles pose respectively a 'female writing-practice' (term and ensuing citations translated by myself) and  a 'female aesthetic' (for reasons of clarity I will use articles before 'female aesthetic'. The term is, however, not meant to be singular because, as Blau DuPlessis writes, 'it is not a single constellation of strategies.' ['For the Etruscans', p. 275.]) [back]

[6] Cixous, 'De lach van de Medusa', p. 81. [back]

[7] Ibid., p. 80. [back]

[8] Blau DuPlessis, 'For the Etruscans', p. 273. [back]

[9] I have incorporated Derek Ruben's lecture in this introduction. [back]

[10] I feel that complementary to this group, non-Jewish writers who have succeeded in giving an honest picture of American Jewishness as a result of thorough examination of its background, should be incorporated in the Discourse. This, however, will be a negligibly small group. [back]

[11] Marvin Perry, Western Civilization: A Brief History, 2nd ed., vol. 2 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993), pp. 428-429. [back]

[12] Sesam Atlas bij de Wereldgeschiedenis, vol. 2 (Apeldoorn: Van Walraven, 1983), p. 62. [back]

[13] Cover-text from the Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics-edition. [back]

[14] Perry, Western Civilization, p. 542. [back]

[15] Maria Lauret, Liberating Literature: Feminist Fiction in America (London: Routledge, 1994), pp. 12-15. [back]

[16] 'The modern mentality may be said to have passed through two broad phases: early modernity and late modernity. Formulated during the era of Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, early modernity stressed confidence in reason, science, human goodness, and humanity's capacity to improve society. Then, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a new outlook took shape. Late modern thinkers and scientists achieved revolutionary insights into human nature, the social world, and the physical universe; and writers and artists opened up hitherto unimagined possibilities for artistic expression. These developments produced a shift in European consciousness. The (...) Enlightenment view of human rationality and goodness was questioned; the belief in natural rights and objective standards governing morality was attacked; and rules of aesthetics that had governed the arts since the Renaissance were discarded. Shattering old beliefs, late modernity left Europeans without landmarks - without generally accepted cultural standards or agreed upon conceptions about human beings and the meaning of life.' [Perry, Western Civilization, p. 448.] [back]

[17] Perry, Western Civilization, p. 544. [back]

[18] Ibid., p. 449. [back]

[19] Plato makes a distinction between the objects that we see and its original 'idea' or 'form'. The former are only copies from the latter. The idea of divine truths, enhances the plausibility of a fixed demarcation between right and wrong; a blueprint for morality. [see for instance: Bertrand Russel, History of Western Philosophy (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1961), pp. 135-146.] [back]

[20] Ibid., p. 729. [back]

[21] Perry, Western Civilization, p. 545. [back]

[22] Henry Gleitman, Psychology, 3rd ed. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991), pp. 425-426. [back]

[23] Ibid., p. 436. I will only elaborate on the part of the theory that describes the emergence of genital sexuality in males, because only that part is functional for my interpretation. [back]

[24] Ibid, p. 437. [back]

[25] Perry, Western Civilization, p. 450. [back]

[26] H. Stuart Hughes, The Sea Change: The Migration of Social Thought, 1930-1965 (New York, 1975), p. 158. [back]

[27] Martin Jay, De dialectische verbeelding: Geschiedenis van de Frankfurter Schule 1923-1950 (Baarn, 1977), pp. 207-257. [back]

[28] M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 5th ed. (Fort Worth: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1988), p. 220. [back]

[29] Stuart Hughes, The Sea Change, p. 136. [back]

[30] Perry, Western Civilization, p. 554. [back]

[31] Stuart Hughes, The Sea Change, p. 134. [back]

[32] Rosi Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), p.4.. [back]

[33] This is a term Braidotti uses repeatedly. She defines it as a linguistic nomad. See: Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects, pp. 8-15. [back]

[34] 'Exile literature,' Braidotti writes, 'is marked by a sense of loss or separation from the home country (...); there is a diasporic side to it.' This is hardly the case in First Love. Andrea is also not a migrant, which is defined by Braidotti as a person who has a clear destination: 'S/he goes from one point in space to another for a very clear purpose.' See: Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects, pp. 22-24.  [back]

[35] Ibid., p. 22. [back]

[36] Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (New York: The Viking Press, 1977), p. XIII, translation of L'Anti-Oedipe: Capitalisme et Schizophrénie (Paris: Minuit, 1972). [back]

[37] The use of the term Oedipus follows Deleuze and Guattari, who use it not only to refer to the Greek myth of Oedipus and to the Oedipus complex as defined by classical psychanalysis, but also to Oedipal mechanisms, processes, and structures. [back]

[38] Mark Seem, Introduction to Anti-Oedipus, p. xx. [back]

[39] 'The term figuration refers to a style of thought that evokes or expresses ways out of the phallocentric vision of the subject.' [Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects, p. 1.] [back]

[40] Clifford Geertz quoted in: Louis A. Sass, 'Introspection, Schizophrenia, and the Fragmentation of the Self', in Representations, v 19 (summer 1987), p. 1. [back]

[41] See for instance: Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, Dialogen (Kampen: Kok Agora, 1991), translation of: Dialogues (Paris: Flammarion, 1977). [back]

[42] 'De lach van de Medusa', p. 81. [back]

[43] quoted in: Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects, p. 16. [back]

[44] Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects, p. 16. [back]

[45] Ibid., p. 9. [back]

[46] An allusion to Emma Goldman, as an important Jewish-American female anti-authoritarian, is made at page 123 when E. says 'if these are people who are making the revolution and if this is the way they act, then I dont (sic) want to live in the kind of world they would make.' Goldman wrote (I don't know when or where but it's on a postcard my brother sent me years ago): 'If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution.' [back]

[47] Brian Massumi, A User's Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1992), p. 1. [back]

(c)1996 Raymond van de Wiel | www.raymondvandewiel.nl