Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Great House

Nicole Krauss, Great House (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010). 289 pp. $24.95.

Last December, when I surveyed the year’s best Jewish books for Jewish Ideas Daily, I left Nicole Krauss’s Great House off the list. Although eight other women were listed, I was accused of being a “serious male chauvinist.” Wow, the last time I heard that expression I was still driving a Mazda GLC. But I get what I am being accused of. I really do—even if it is better to be a serious male chauvinist than a frivolous one. What I don’t understand, though, is how you trust a critic if you suspect that his recommendations are made, in part or whole, to avoid the unpleasantness of being called a bad name. The current rule of literary criticism that every book list must include a sufficient (but unspecified) proportion of women resembles nothing so much as the National Football League’s requirement that African American candidates must be interviewed for every coaching vacancy (no exceptions allowed). How does anyone, including the candidates themselves, know whether the African Americans are being taken seriously? How does the indignity compensate for the bias?

I left Great House off my list of the year’s best Jewish books because I didn’t think it was among the year’s best. I realize that Nicole Krauss is a woman, that she is married to Jonathan Safran Foer, that her novel was praised in the New York Times Book Review by Rebecca Goldstein (although I’m pretty sure I am not to suppose that Goldstein praised it because it was written by a woman), that it was nominated for the National Book Award, that Krauss’s last novel, The History of Love, is highly regarded by many readers. None of these is a particularly good reason, however, for believing that the novel is particularly good.

Great House is about the adventures of a desk that passes from writer to writer as it makes its way from Budapest through Hitler’s Reich to London and then to New York and from there to Jerusalem, then back to New York, coming to rest finally in a storage unit. “It was made of dark wood,” says one of the book’s four narrators, “and above the writing surface was a wall of drawers, drawers of totally impractical sizes, like the desk of a medieval sorcerer.”

One of the desk’s nineteen drawers is mysteriously locked, but when it comes to solving the mystery, as Ron Charles snapped in his Washington Post review, “[D]on’t bother.” The solution to the mystery is disappointing. Much the same could be said for the symbolism of the desk. It turns out to have been Nazi plunder, stolen from a Hungarian Jew who perished later in a death march, and like the Golem of Prague in Michael Chabon’s Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, it symbolizes the fate of the Jews in the Holocaust. As Karen Long observed in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “The Holocaust is offstage, and ever-present.” It “overshadows every breath taken in Great House,” Frances Guerin wrote reverently at the blog FX Reflects.

Which distinguishes Nicole Krauss very little from other young Jewish writers, three generations removed from the Jewish struggle to inform the world about the Holocaust, and in whose fiction it is “ever-present,” even when it is “offstage.” It “overshadows” any other fact or value of being Jewish. Ruth Wisse once told me that the world learned from the Holocaust how easy it is to kill Jews. Young Jews apparently learned how easy it is to be sad, and proud of one’s sadness.

That sadness dominates Great House like clutter in a house where no one picks up after himself. All of the characters in the novel are sad—the four narrators, the men and women they love and have lost, their parents and children, the people they know or meet in passing (there are no friends in the book)—while none even tries to find any occasion for joy. Two lines in Mark Harris’s Bang the Drum Slowly, about a major league catcher dying of cancer, could have served as Krauss’s epigraph. “It is sad,“ says one teammate; “it makes you want to cry.” “It is sad,” counters another; “it makes you want to laugh.”

But the general dismalness suits Krauss’s purpose. Readers are more likely to pay attention to the intricate carving of a prose style if they are not encouraged to hurry on to the next part. And sure enough, at the Huffington Post, Jane Byrne claimed that Krauss “cannot write a bad sentence: pound for pound, the sentences alone deliver epiphany upon epiphany. . . .” It would be more truthful, though, to say that Krauss cannot write a simple sentence. To borrow a phrase from the late Wilfrid Sheed, as recalled by his friend John Simon in a tribute published in the Weekly Standard, her prose is “fine sentence-by-sentence writing at the expense of form.”

In her review, Rebecca Goldstein tried to put the best possible face on this defect in the novel. Its narrative structure, she said, “mirror[s] the characters’ own shattering and require[s] readers to reassemble the full story for themselves.” Or, in other words, her readers are required to piece together a coherent story, because Krauss chooses epiphany—giving the appearance of divinity to her prose—over storytelling. The result is a hard slog:

Now his face crumbled, but just for a fraction of a second, really, resuming its former appearance so quickly that someone else might have missed it altogether. But I caught it, and as it crumbled I saw through to another face, the face one wears alone, or not even alone, the face one wears asleep or unconscious on the gurney, and in it I recognized something. This is going to sound foolish, but though I lived with Lotte and, as far as I knew, this Daniel had never met her at all, in that instant I felt that he and I were aligned in some way, aligned in our position toward her, and that it was only a matter of degrees that separated us. It was absurd, of course. After all, I was the one keeping him from whatever it was he wanted from her. It was a mere projection of myself onto this young man clutching his briefcase in front of the skeleton of my hydrangeas. But how else are we to make decisions about others?Although Krauss uses such tangible words as face and briefcase and hydrangeas, the epiphany in this passage does not belong to any world in which faces and briefcases and hydrangeas are real and tangible. Her perceptions belong to a dream world, glistering and poignant, in which people do not meet, but encounter each other in word-choked solitude. In the end, the book is a flimsy poplin of these splendid perceptions, symbols, and quivers of feeling in which even the allusion to such hard and unforgiving events as death marches and Nazi plunder are out of place, because they belong to a different world.

But I don’t mean to give the impression that Great House is merely a technical flop, a dreary overlong book of less than three hundred pages. The worst thing about the novel is its image of man. Fairly early on, one of the narrators—the only one whose story is not connected to the haunted wandering desk from the Holocaust—explains what he is doing in the novel: namely, setting forth Krauss’s theme. An Israeli, he tries to guide his son:Sitting in the garden wrapped in a shawl, recovering from your forays into the world, you read books on the alienation of modern man. What does modern man have on the Jews? I demanded. . . . The Jews have been living in alienation for thousands of years. For modern man it’s a hobby. What can you learn from those books that you weren’t born knowing already?The Jew, in short, is the symbol of man’s unhappiness, his estrangement from a world that (only recently) he has discovered is monstrous and bitter. This is not a particularly Jewish sentiment to be heard from a Jewish writer. As the late Irving Kristol pointed out in a 1947 essay recently reprinted in The Neoconservative Persuasion, this is much closer to the Christian conception of the Jew. Kristol called it “The Myth of the Supra-Human Jew.”

On this conception, the Jew is both cursed and divine: “He is high up to the heavens, and he is low to the very depths of hell, but never does the Jew stand with two feet upon earth.” He is, in short, a symbol and not a man. Historically the Jews have suffered badly from being treated as supra-human, but there is nevertheless a tendency among some Jewish intellectuals and writers “to accept the stigma and glorify in it.” For many other Jews, though, living after the “efficient massacre of European Jewry,” the myth is intolerable. Many post-Holocaust Jews would prefer a “debasement to the human.” And if nothing else, Kristol concludes, the abandonment of the myth would require that adistinction is drawn between that concept of the “chosen people” which plays a unique role in Jewish theology—as an affirmation of the loving contract between God and man—and the more modern interpretations that are based, in one form or another, directly or by reaction, upon the stigma of the supra-natural Jew. Judaism is neither a divinely intoxicated form of liberalism nor an intellectual’s masochistic apologia for the historical sufferings and present alienation of the Jews. It is a religion—and a religion of quite ordinary men.An ordinary religion in an ordinary world of quite tangible objects and sometimes unbearable events does not appeal to Nicole Krauss, however. What she prefers is a world that is not real, in which nothing really happens.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Borders on the edge

I am not happy that my prediction about Borders seems to be coming true. No one who lives by books is happy to see any bookstore close its doors.

At the same time, I do not subscribe to the theory that ebooks are putting Borders out of business. Robert McCrum believes that Borders is falling victim to “internal mismanagement.” Bob Warfield suggests that the store “got greedy and quit serving the customer.”

I wonder if the reasons don’t lie elsewhere. In Houston, I lived two minutes from a Borders store. And though I held a Borders card loaded with plenty of Borders Bucks, I rarely went there—even after a long day of writing when I needed to flex my tired Sitzfleisch. (I preferred to wander the aisles of Lowes.) I found that I had less and less patience for the pretentiousness of the store with its hip and up-to-the-minute Staff Recommendations, its placards inviting me to another reading by a local mediocrity, its tables piled with the latest variety of multiculturalism to take literary form, its easy chairs strategically located where a slumping shopper could hold aloft his copy of David Mitchell or William T. Vollman so that I could be sure to admire his taste and judgment, its library desks occupied by high-school kids whispering and texting when they were supposed to be cramming for the SAT.

Inevitably, someone would be sitting in front of the shelves where I wanted to look for a book. Now, I am physically unable to ask someone to move aside when he can see for himself that he is blocking another person’s way. Besides, when I would finally circle back to the shelf after half an hour of lurking elsewhere, the book for which I was searching was never to be found. Borders carried plenty of books that were getting the buzz, but of those that had stood the test of time, not so many. If you needed a specific title by George Eliot or Joseph Conrad, and if you wanted something better than a Signet or Bantam, you were wasting your time.

Borders tried hard to look like a salon, not a bookstore. Whenever I would climb upstairs where Literature was located, I would be struck by the open space with its loosely arranged furniture. I could not help imagining the shelves that were lost to reading nooks and gathering spots (to say nothing of the vast expanses handed over to the coffee shop and musical recording sections). After a while, I felt strange and out of place, even unwelcome, in the store. The accidental discovery was unlikely to occur there, unless I stopped reading the book pages or listening to literary gossip, and the comprehensive plunge into an unfamiliar sub-world of books was impossible, because (except for popular and “literary” fiction) the sections of the store got smaller and smaller every year. My private test for a bookstore is the size of its philosophy section. At Borders, philosophy was lucky to get two short shelves. Even then, most of the titles would be by Derrida and Foucault.

I will not be happy to see Borders go, even though I have not been a regular Borders customer for several years now. But its demise will say nothing whatever about the book trade, except perhaps that a bookstore ought to sell books and not a book-furnished pastime.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

“Most essential”? “Jewish fiction”?

Yesterday Jewcy unveiled the “50 Most Essential Works Of Jewish Fiction Of The Last 100 Years.” Jason Diamond, who compiled the miscellany, is remarkably open about the incoherence of the list. “Our criteria for this list,” he shrugged, “was any work that could be considered ‘Jewish fiction’: written by a Jewish author or dealing heavily with Jewish topics and themes, all written in the last 100 years.”

By “Jewish author,” Diamond appeared to mean anyone with any Jewish connection at all. Thus Marcel Proust, the seed of a mixed marriage, who was baptized into the Church of Rome and never considered himself Jewish, is nevertheless Jewish by Jewcy’s standards. Any name that will permit the Jews to shep a little nakhes, and self-respect be damned.

By “Jewish fiction,” Diamond appeared to mean almost anything that was not non-fiction. Thus plays (The Death of a Salesman, Angels in America), comic books (A Contract with God), children’s books (Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Where the Wild Things Are), and bestselling potboilers (The Carpetbaggers) make the list. But if this is the definition of Jewish fiction, where is the Jewish poetry?

And Yiddish fiction? Two titles—by the Singer brothers. Nothing at all, however, by the most important Yiddish writer ever. Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman was begun in 1895 and finished in 1914, just coming in under Jewcy’s hundred-year wire. His Railroad Stories first appeared in book form exactly a century ago.

And if plays by Arthur Miller and Tony Kushner are to be numbered among the fifty “most essential” Jewish books then surely one of Jason Diamond’s friends might have taken the time to remind him of The Dybbuk, which was written by S. An-sky in 1914. If Diamond had bothered to reread the books on his list—or even to read them for the first time—he might have been provoked by Cynthia Ozick’s story “Envy, or Yiddish in America” (published in his eighth-ranked “Pagan Rabbi” and Other Stories) to recall Jacob Glatstein or Chaim Grade, even if he had never heard of David Bergelson or the Singers’ sister Esther Kreitman or Der Nister or Joseph Opatoshu or Sholem Asch or Moshe Kulbak or Peretz Markish or Israel Rabon or Chava Rosenfarb.

Yiddish was the language in which the Jews burst into modern fiction. To reduce Yiddish fiction of the past one hundred years to the Singer brothers, as great as they are, is to make a violent abridgment of a major achievement, or display one’s ignorance.

Even worse, the only Hebrew-language writer for whom Jewcy found room was forty-three-year-old Etgar Keret. Meanwhile, S. Y. Agnon, the father of modern Hebrew fiction and the only Israeli writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, is nowhere to be found. Perhaps Jewcy believes that he belongs on a list of the “less essential” Jewish fiction? Along with Amos Oz, A. B. Yehoshua, and David Grossman, I suppose.

Let’s be honest. The Jewcy list of “50 Most Essential Works Of Jewish Fiction Of The Last 100 Years” is what results from a parlor game among Jews for whom Jewishness means anything and nothing.

By contrast, here are Ruth R. Wisse’s prose fiction selections from the last one hundred years of The Modern Jewish Canon (2000):

(  1.) Sholem Aleichem, Tevye the Dairyman (Yiddish, 1895–1914)
(  2.) Franz Kafka, The Trial (German, 1914, 1925)
(  3.) Abraham Cahan, The Rise of David Levinsky (English/American, 1917)
(  4.) David Bergelson, Descent (Yiddish, 1920)
(  5.) Yosef Haim Brenner, Breakdown and Bereavement (Hebrew, 1920)
(  6.) Micah Yosef Berdichevsky, Miriam (Hebrew, 1921)
(  7.) Isaac Babel, Red Cavalry (Russian, 1926)
(  8.) Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Samson (Russian, 1928)
(  9.) Moshe Kulbak, Zelmenyaner (Yiddish, 1928)
(10.) Israel Rabon, The Street (Yiddish, 1928)
(11.) Avigdor Hameiri, The Great Madness (Hebrew, 1929)
(12.) Joseph Roth, Job (German, 1930)
(13.) Sholem Asch, Three Cities (Yiddish, 1929–1931)
(14.) Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles (Polish, 1934) [also on Jewcy list]
(15.) Henry Roth, Call It Sleep (Enlgish/American, 1934) [also on Jewcy list]
(16.) Isaac Bashevis Singer, Satan in Goray (Yiddish, 1935)
(17.) Israel Joshua Singer, The Brothers Ashkenazi (Yiddish, 1936) [also on Jewcy list]
(18.) Esther Kreitman, Deborah (Yiddish, 1936) [republished in 2009 as The Dance of the Demons]
(19.) Jacob Glatstein, Homecoming at Twilight (Yiddish, 1938) [republished last year as The Glatstein Chronicles]
(20.) Der Nister (Pinhas Kahanovitch), The Family Mashber (Yiddish, 1939, 1943)
(21.) S. Y. Agnon, A Guest for the Night (Hebrew, 1939)
(22.) Arthur Koestler, Thieves in the Night (English/British, 1945)
(23.) A. M. Klein, The Second Scroll (English/Canadian, 1951)
(24.) Albert Memmi, Pillar of Salt (French, 1953)
(25.) Haim Hazaz, The Gates of Bronze (Hebrew, 2 vols., 1956)
(26.) Bernard Malamud, The Magic Barrel (English/American, 1958)
(27.) Vasili Grossman, Life and Fate (Russian, 1960, 1980)
(28.) Amos Oz, The Hill of Evil Counsel (Hebrew, 1960)
(29.) Piotr Rawicz, Blood from the Sky (French, 1961)
(30.) Yehuda Amichai, Not of This Time, Not of This Place (Hebrew, 1963)
(31.) Chaim Grade, The Yeshiva (Yiddish, 1967–1968)
(32.) Albert Cohen, Belle Du Seigneur (French, 1968)
(33.) Henryk Grynberg, The Victory (Polish, 1969)
(34.) Saul Bellow, Mr Sammler’s Planet (English/American, 1969)
(35.) Yaakov Shabtai, Past Continuous (Hebrew, 1970)
(36.) Cynthia Ozick, “The Pagan Rabbi” and Other Stories (English/American, 1971) [also on Jewcy list]
(37.) Chava Rosenfarb, The Tree of Life (Yiddish, 1972)
(38.) Shulamith Hareven, City of Many Days (Hebrew, 1972)
(39.) Aharon Appelfeld, Badenheim 1939 (Hebrew, 1974)
(40.) Adele Wiseman, Crackpot (English/Canadian, 1974)
(41.) A. B. Yehoshua, Mr Mani (Hebrew, 1990)
(42.) Philip Roth, American Pastoral (English/American, 1997) [also on Jewcy list]

To Professor Wisse’s canon I would add eight additional titles, to bring the list to fifty:

(43.) Anzia Yezierska, Bread Givers (English/American, 1925)
(44.) Jiri Weil, Life with a Star (Czech, 1964)
(45.) David Grossman, See Under: Love (Hebrew, 1986)
(46.) Leon de Winter, Hoffman’s Hunger (Dutch, 1990)
(47.) Angel Wagenstein, Isaac’s Torah (Bulgarian, 2000)
(48.) Zoë Heller, The Believers (English/Anglo-American, 2009)
(49.) Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question (English/British, 2010) [also on Jewcy list]
(50.) Steve Stern, The Frozen Rabbi (English/American, 2010)

Monday, February 07, 2011

Five Books of Reagan

Now that even Obama Ronald Reagan, according to today’s Time magazine cover, it may be safe to celebrate the centennial of the fortieth president’s birth. Reagan was born one hundred years ago in Tampico, Illinois. It was as a Westerner, however, that he appeared on the national scene. “He came ‘out of the West,’ ” Irving Kristol wrote, “riding a horse, not a golf cart, speaking in the kind of nationalist-populist tonalities not heard since Teddy Roosevelt, appealing to large sections of the working class, to the increasingly numerous religious fundamentalists, and even to the growing if still small number of conservative and neoconservative intellectuals.”

Much of the writing about President Reagan has stumbled over the difficulty of understanding the man. To those who knew him he was full of paradoxes. He could be gracious, outgoing, and friendly, but also distant and impersonal. He could seem passive and disconnected, but he could frame an issue unforgettably and find the exact words to do so. To his political opponents he was an “amiable dunce,” but he spanked them politically again and again. George P. Schulz, his secretary of state from 1982 to 1989, explains the mystery better than anyone. “How could a man of supposedly limited knowledge and limited intelligence accomplish so much? How did he get elected and reelected the governor of our largest state? How did he get elected and reelected president of the United States? How did he preside over a time of unprecedented prosperity, the winning of the cold war, and the demise of communism worldwise?” Schulz asked. “Well, maybe he was a lot smarter than most people thought.”

The best writers don’t set out to understand Reagan in himself—the frustration of the undertaking is what twisted Edmund Morris’s authorized biography into a fictionalized memoir—but to study him in his relations, as befits a politician. Here are the five books anyone interested in learning more about Reagan should start from.

(1.) Donald T. Regan, For the Record: From Wall Street to Washington (1988). In his history of the ’seventies, David Frum said that former members of the Reagan administration created a “new American style”—the political memoir that has “some cruel or hurtful story to tell about the president they had served.” The best of these was published by Donald Regan, treasury secretary and chief of staff under Reagan. It is notorious for breaking the story that Nancy Reagan consulted an astrologer while in the White House, although it is far more noteworthy for its firsthand detail about the President at work. The book is surprisingly compelling, probably because it was ghost-written by the novelist Charles McCarry.

(2.) Lou Cannon, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime (1991). Cannon started writing about Reagan while covering Sacramento for the San Jose Mercury News. Since his first book on the political standoff and cooperation between then Governor Reagan and Jesse Unruh, speaker of the California state assembly, Cannon has written four more. His biography of Reagan during the White House years is the best single volume about the tumultuous and transformational presidency. A friendly critic, Cannon is rarely unfair to Reagan. Liberal readers, hoping for a harsher portrait, will have more to complain about than conservative readers.

(3.) Reagan, In His Own Hand, ed. Kiron K. Skinner, Annelise Anderson, and Martin Anderson (2001). The most unexpected and astonishing discovery about Reagan since his death is that he was a writer—not just a good writer, but pretty nearly a non-stop writer. “He was constantly writing,” recalled Dennis LeBlanc, a member of Reagan’s security detail from 1971. “He would always fly first class. He’d sit by the window, and I’d sit in the aisle seat next to him. It didn’t matter whether or not there was a movie being shown and all the lights were out—he’d turn on his reading lamp and would be constantly writing.” A young historian found the scripts to over a thousand radio broadcasts that Reagan delivered between 1975 and 1979. Along with a few speeches, some early writing, and a few other things—including the public announcement of his Alzheimer’s, which Reagan wrote and delivered for himself—these provocative and revealing scripts are reprinted, without editorial correction, in this unique book. The one indispensable title in any Reagan collection.

(4.) Paul Kengor, God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life (2004). Reagan was a Christian, but he neither attended church with any regularity nor did he publicly “witness” to his faith. Yet he appealed to believing Christians, because they recognized the religious tones in his voice. Kengor, a University of Pittsburgh-trained political scientist, shows that Reagan’s religious faith was central to his political thinking and policy decisions. He also tackles the problems raised by Nancy Reagan’s dabbling in astrology, as revealed by Donald Regan (above). The coherence of Reagan’s political career comes into focus after reading Kengor’s book.

(5.) Thomas W. Evans, The Education of Ronald Reagan: The General Electric Years and the Untold Story of His Conversion to Conservatism (2006). Missing from the archives are the transcripts of the hundreds of talks that Reagan gave to General Electric employees from 1954 to 1962, while he was a public spokesman for the company. Evans supplies the missing link in Reagan’s career. From his time as the anti-communist president of the Screen Actors Guild to the famous speech at the Republican national convention in 1964, which shot him into national political prominence, Reagan quietly metamorphosed from a Roosevelt Democrat into a Goldwater Republican. Evans tells the story thoroughly and well.

When he was a boy, Reagan’s favorite book was apparently Harold Bell Wright’s Printer of Udell’s, a 1903 novel about an orphan who becomes a Christian. As an adult, he preferred the Western novels of Louis L’Amour, upon whom he bestowed the presidential medal of freedom in 1984. The “serious” poets and novelists, who reviled him while he was president, were ignored by him in return.

Friday, February 04, 2011

A letter from Nachman

NOTE: Jonathan Rosen, the novelist and editor of Nextbook, passes along the following letter, which he received the other day. “I had it typed and am sending it more as a curiosity,” he says. His private opinion is that the letter was written by Kafka pretending to be Nachman, and he could kick himself now for not saving the original handwritten copy. “I could have made a fortune at Sotheby’s,” he says.

Dear Professor Myers,

I have sent this letter to Jonathan Rosen in the hope that he will forward it to you.

I am writing about your review of Rodger Kamenetz’s Burnt Books, a review which depressed me very much, and believe me I was depressed to begin with, even before I died 200 years ago—though since dying I am no longer so manic as I used to be. Also I’ve learned English.

Before you stop reading let me say quickly that this is not the letter of a crazy person. You will be happy to know that death has rendered me completely sane. I am no longer Chasidic—which is a form of madness all its own; I now go to a Conservadox shul, which is very easy in olam habah since nobody drives anyway. Also you cannot die of boredom because, thank God, you are already dead.

Briefly, I want to congratulate you on your review in Commentary. For Burnt Books is a dangerous book that deserves destruction! And you did an admirable job.

Quoting from Kamenetz’s seventeen-year-old book The Jew in the Lotus a passage voicing disappointment in American traditional Judaism was a masterstroke. I admire the way you make it seem as though Kamenetz’s disaffection is a sign of bad faith and evil intention. Nobody considering major Jewish institutions twenty years ago could ever have believed they did not address the spiritual concerns of young American Jews. One might as well say that about religious institutions today! They are on a solid spiritual footing, even if they are no longer getting twelve percent annually because they fell, out of a desire to nourish the wellsprings of Torah, for the seductions of that monster Madoff and who could ever have seen through that?

Ridiculous to allow Kamenetz his fanciful approach just because his orthodox grandparents came to America and stripped faster than Gypsy Rose Lee (who funny enough is here too) and is now groping his way back, having the Chutzpah even to create a Jewish studies department in Louisiana. A man who does not know his right hand from his left, not to mention the town of Kamenetz-Litevsk from Kamenetz-Podolsk? True his reference to his name and the town of Kamenetz is intentionally fanciful, like the talking Kafka mug in the first chapter, but I am glad that Professor Nadler (Shlita) set the record straight—he must be a wonderful teacher, one of those men who lead lives of piety, faith and learning, using what they know as a lever to lift up the world and never, as the evil urge prompts, as a crowbar to beat down the ignorant.

Anyway, it is important to make Kamenetz’s seventeen-year-old criticism of Jewish institutions, which doesn’t appear in Burnt Books, seem like a modern American phenomenon born of ill will and ignorance and not part of the self-examination that is as old as the Prophets and really even older. But even if people saw it as prophetic, what kind of idiot would want all the people to be prophets? Only the very very learned can be critical of the very very unlearned. Dr. Johnson—who I’ve become quite friendly with here in the afterlife (what a head for Talmud!)—was wrong when he said you don’t have to be a carpenter to criticize a table. You do have to be a carpenter to criticize a table.

Also, I’m of the opinion that the prophets could really be quite anti-Semitic.

It is important to fault Kamenetz—may his name be blotted out!—for situating Kafka inside of a Jewish context. Who would want to put a writer so assimilated, dark and Germanic inside a Jewish framework? His pathetic gropings after Chasidic tales, his stabs at learning Hebrew, his messianic doubts and yearnings? His confusion of the personal and psychological with the currents of Jewish history? That would make Judaism a game any Jew could play. And Judaism is not a game!

Kamenetz—but let me just call him Rodger K. so I don’t have to write his full name—Rodger K., by suggesting that a modern Jewish writer like Kafka felt incomplete without a figure of traditional Judaism emblematized by me, is giving Kafka far too much Jewish credit. Readers who love Kafka must not now suddenly find that they have a reason for studying Judaism too for that is the wrong way to come to Judaism. And there are wrong ways as well as right ways to come to Judaism! Martin Buber, that numbskull, mistranslated all my tales and my tales were themselves mistranslations of Torah Judaism. I’m lucky they let me into paradise.

In any event, the religious stumblings of modern Jewish writers are the wrong way!

How embarrassing that Rodger K. should laud me for my stories and not for my Torah commentary, which is the true essence of my being and will light real fires of return in Jewish souls instead of the bad techno music of a few drug addicts I mostly inspire. I have in fact stopped telling stories altogether.

I agree that it is dangerous and misleading to suggest that I, a Chassidic rebbe, was fascinated with the wayward children of the enlightenment, and that Kafka, assimilated ignoramous that he was, was meanwhile looking back past the Enlightenment for inspiration from a Chasidic writer. As if these two figures needed each other to feel whole and might suggest a larger pairing of tradition and new creation. Empty metaphors! You did well to ignore this.

I’m also glad you didn’t mention in your excellent review the part of the book where Rodger K. feels shame at his own inability to read aloud from the psalms in Hebrew. Shrewd not to reveal his own dissatisfaction with his Jewish education, his own desire to know more, just as Kafka desired to know more and to learn more in a literal straightforward way alongside all his deeper spiritual struggles. It would only have stirred up misplaced sympathy for the author, who is describing his book as if it were the beginning of the journey and not the end of the journey—and what kind of guide admits he doesn’t really know the way? Sure Dante got lost in a dark wood, but he was Catholic.

I’m also glad that you did not bother with the larger framework of the book, based on my belief that a burnt book still has meaning and value. Rodger K’s mushy implication that lost lives are still present, and by extension that the traditional Jewish world—that can seem to ignorant American Jews so fully removed by physical distance, by time, and by tragedy—is nevertheless worth recovering and maybe even in some form has left invisible traces—is really quite pernicious because it makes of the lost world a metaphor and fosters cheap identification. It is rigor that will speak to the young, not vague promises of recovery and spiritual connectedness!

In short what I most admire is your recognition of the utterly destructive nature of metaphors themselves when it comes to Judaism. Christianity made Judaism a metaphor and where did that get us? If metaphors raised out of Jewish context were allowed to dominate, then Theodore Hezl, that secular ignoramus, would be considered a hero, even though he became a dramaturge of Jewish history because he was such a lousy playwright and really didn’t know squat about the Torah.

It doesn’t surprise me that the book was edited by Jonathan Rosen, whom I don’t actually know – —I only sent my letter to him because his address was in God’s rolodex, I hope this won’t make him hesitate to forward my letter—but he is, let’s face it, a heretic whose book The Talmud and the Internet argued, I believe, that Mark Zuckerberg is just as good as Rabbi Akiva. Or so I imagine—I have not actually read it; I was going to read it but it was trashed by Commentary and since they were right about the Cold War and the Middle East I figured they must be right about literature too.

I have to stop now. Even the dead have high blood pressure (go figure) and besides, I have other work to do, and coffee with Eliezer Berkowitz [sic].

So let me just end by expressing once again my gratitude and admiration.


Nachman of Bratslav (peace be upon me).

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Burnt Books

My review of Burnt Books, a dual biography of Kafka and the Breslover rebbe by the Jubu hipster Rodger Kamenetz, is out in the February Commentary. While the book is “practically worthless,” as I conclude, it is an interesting example of what passes for religiously engaged writing by someone who is satisfied neither with the Jewish tradition nor with Jewish scholarship.

To be a fully committed Jew, a person might devote himself to the Jewish religion or he might devote himself to Jewish learning; he might even do both. A great many Americans with one or two Jewish parents dabble in this or that fraction of the whole and call it Judaism. Kamenetz is their master.