That Pesky “Jewish Question”

Two annual rites that round out my year in late December are a visit to the American Colony in Jerusalem and my visit with my Great Aunt Vera, also in Jerusalem. Vera is not a real Aunt, but a very close family friend in her 80’s who has known my family since my grandparents knew her in fabled, mythical, larger than life and history, pre-war Vilna (Vilnius, Lithuania).  Both experiences are also, always, an exercise in dealing with the current status of that pesky “Jewish Question” – the American Colony, nearly as mythic and larger than life to me as Vilna, is not especially welcoming to Israelis or Jews, and neither is Aunt Vera.  The American Colony and Vera represent two different strains of that Jewish Question – the former very much about the history and politics of Israel, the latter about longing for a rich, glorious Jewish past that will never return.

This December, during my dinner with Vera at the American Colony, my great Aunt – completely fluent in Russian, Polish, Yiddish, Italian, French, German and Hebrew; better-read and traveled than anyone I have ever met; and possessed of “strong” opinions of the sort that would make a dictator stammer – started on a complaint that I unfortunately did not immediately recognize as ultimately ending in a general complaint about Jews.

Always difficult to remember the origin of these arguments with Vera, I cannot recall how she began her critique of the musical adaptation of Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye the Milkman. With her trademark “great disgust” for the corruption of the original story and the “true history” of that time and place, she noted the hideous discrepancies between the musical and the original; for example, Tevye would never, in a shtetl in Ukraine in the late 19th or early 20th, have ever openly proclaimed his love for his wife – he never would have used the word “love.” A few more critiques along those lines followed. I reminded her that Broadway and Hollywood often take great liberties with reality, or the original fictional story, and that she shouldn’t let this particular instance upset her so, it is the nature of musicals and adaptations.  Alas, I did not see the bigger picture. She explained there is no other culture or people on earth that would take one of its most hallowed brilliant writers and wring such an operetta from one of his best stories. I’m pretty sure I laughed when she said this and I assured her that many, if not all, cultures have done something similar. She asked me to name one. I told her that surely Shakespeare has turned over in his grave many times in the last few centuries after some productions of his work. She dared me to name one production.  Then I realized how doomed this conversation was.  How ridiculous.   I could not shake Vera from her conviction that Jews are the only people in history who would sell out like this, who would permit one of their most sacred stories to be bought and transformed like Tevye and Fiddler on the Roof.

Vera’s Fiddler on the Roof argument preceded a full two days of general and specific bitter complaints about how Jews have totally and completely lost their way in this world – how they are especially ignorant, unread, untraveled, uncouth…(for Hebrew speakers, Jews are simply “lo al ha-rama“) I asked her why she held them to such a high standard – are they not, after all, like everyone else?  But in her Golden Vilna they really were not like everyone else and an elderly woman’s storied lost world becomes the unfortunate point of reference for the modern world. What can compete with that?

Though I always bring Vera books when I visit, I hesitated to bring The Finkler Question this year. I honestly don’t think she cares to read anything by and about Jews anymore, and Harold Jacobson’s book might actually give her pause about her toxic feelings about Jews (she cannot even say the word “Jew” without spitting it out).  The Finkler Question pretty much covers it though, even if English Jews do have a very particular, English-specific, conflict with their identities – being fully English often seems to preclude much else culturally, unlike being American, especially New York-Jewish American where one can hold both concepts in one’s head without creating even a mild paradox —  perhaps unlike England, even today (one need only remember some articles about team allegiance around the time of Israel and England’s campaigns for the last Euro Cup, when they happened to be in the same group) – though interestingly, the UK’s current ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould,  is Jewish, the first time this is the case.  An interesting experiment! But the Finkler Question very convincingly explores the simultaneous fascination and disdain that many non-Jews hold for Judaism, especially in England, and generally in places where there are not many Jews but where Jews have distinguished themselves in some way;  that quixotic sex appeal of Jewish women, and often men, the admiration for intellect and industriousness; and the often simultaneous resentment of perceived Jewish pride and any positive notions of Israel – two sides of the same coin, more often than not.

These mixed feelings of admiration and resentment characterize many Jews themselves, either in their perception of fellow Jews or their own identities – distancing themselves from it at times, reveling in it at others. It seems like too much energy to me, and awfully confusing.  Perhaps I am lucky, as an atheist and Israeli living in New York (with no religious upbringing to reckon with), and maybe I flatter myself but I tend not to spend too much time thinking about the subject – it is what it is.  However, I do feel forced to think about it when others don’t let it alone – when friends make inappropriate comments about Israel or Jews (either praising them too highly as a friend’s father recently did, when he proclaimed that the Germans, in their quest to become the master race, nearly wiped out history’s only real master race; or when various men have a very obvious Jewish fetish and yet at the same time go out of their way to pronounce their views on Israel – usually they proceed with their political views based on nothing I have said, my name and dual citizenship usually suffice as an opening; lucky me! Sometimes they feel that as a “friend of the Jews” they have liberty to critique at will all and sundry.) It does crowd one’s head at times.

Vera, can, in one breath, represent almost every character in The Finkler Question – the distancing and disdain but ultimate identification with Judaism of Sam Finkler; the strong minded earthiness of Hephzibah; the refined Old World European class of Libor. It is interesting that she has chosen Tevye the Milkman as the apotheosis and nadir of Judaism.  As Irving Howe wrote, in 1963, about Sholom Aleichem’s critics: “50 or 60 years ago, the Jewish intelligentsia, its head buzzing with Zionist, Socialist and Yiddishist ideas, tended to look down upon Sholom Aleichem.” He was a bit too “folksy” for them. Howe also noted that , “(Sholom Aleichem) needs to be rescued from his reputation, from the quavering sentimentality which keeps him at a safe distance.” Howe’s essay from ’63 also reminds us that Sholom Aleichem was, from the beginning, claimed by many to represent “all Jews.” That is quite a burden. And sets up anyone who discusses or appropriates him for failure – someone, somewhere, will condemn and outlandishly criticize the appropriator for even deigning to touch such a work, in such a way.

The Jewish Question does seem to provide an inexhaustible mine of literary ore  — though it seemed nearly tapped until Jacobson’s book – maybe this was the final bit left? Maybe we can move on now? Unless of course you happen to write well and have something to say, then of course, it’s quite alright. So please, only good, genuinely imaginative writers are asked to ever take up this question again (or filmmakers — the Coen brothers made their Jewish movie, it seems, because they thought they ought to make one. A Serious Man was far from imaginative or poignantly astute).

And the Veras of the world are asked to no longer narrow their focus on Jews alone in their general bemoaning of the current state of the world.  It’s not just us at fault!

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3 Responses to “That Pesky “Jewish Question””

  1. Lydia Says:

    Well done! and yes Vilna is a magical, unique place. After all Tevye was from Katrilovke in the Ukraine!

  2. Lili Ibara Says:

    Fantastic post Yael. Give us more Vera and Vilna! And I’ll order the Finkler Question right quick (even if it means I have to put a bookmark in my current nightstand topper – Bookkeeping Basics: What every nonprofit bookkeeper needs to know).

  3. ida Says:

    Thanks Lil! Make sure to let me know what you think of Finkler question (I am glad my post and Finkler Q could compete with Bookkeeping Basics!)

    Where to begin with Vera, she is truly the gift that keeps on giving. If you can persevere. A few years ago she vacationed at a spa in the Czech Rep. She befriended two German women there — two women whose husbands happened to have been SS officers during the war. She is still in touch with them. My grandfather said that these women must think this is their punishment for the war!

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