Every Thanksgiving I think of the Thanksgiving scene in the 1990 film Avalon, one of Barry Levinson’s semi-autobiographical Baltimore films. Avalon tells a multi-generational tale of a Jewish family, ranging from the immigrant generation who arrived at the start of the twentieth century to the Americanized generation of mid-century.
At the large family Thanksgiving gathering a feud develops between the two brothers of the central, transitional generation because they start the meal before the arrival of the older brother. The family tries unsuccessfully to soothe him by explaining that they waited but couldn’t delay the meal any further because the young kids were getting hungry. The two brothers end up not speaking because the older brother remains so deeply offended that they carved the turkey without him.
As I watched the movie I realized that the scene makes no sense. In this Jewish immigrant family, how on earth did Thanksgiving, and the question of who carves the turkey, attain such monumental significance that it splits apart a family who have managed to stay together through so many difficulties? And why is the kids’ hunger such a problem? Thanksgiving dinner is usually earlier than standard dinner time, so why are they so hungry? And if they are hungry, just feed them. What’s the big problem?
Then it hit me. My family didn’t look like that at Thanksgiving. My family looked like that at Passover, right down to the kids table added at the foot of the long dinner table at which the adults sat.
Now I understood the scene. It wasn’t about a turkey. The offending insult was that they had started the seder without waiting for the head of the family. And the seder ritual was why you had to start on time so the kids wouldn’t be too hungry. They’d have to sit there, bored and with food right in front of them, but not being allowed to eat until interminably long prayers were over. They’d be miserable, and if the kids are miserable, then so too are the adults taking care of them. So they had to start the seder on time.
By de-Jewifying the scene, transplanting it from Passover to Thanksgiving to make it more “universal,” they’d rendered the story incoherent. It annoys me no less now than it did then.
He was telling me about his experience teaching a new course at our university. Faculty from very different fields had come together to develop a common core of readings and topics for a course designed to introduce first year students to college life. Each professor would teach their own section but the students would receive a common experience. The format meant that every instructor would be out of their area of expertise and comfort zone for at least part of the course, most likely for most of it.
“So there I was,” he told me, “standing in front of these new students as an experienced teacher, not just nervous but terrified.”
“Yeah,” I said, “Jews don’t have a middle range. We go right from a little bit scared to absolutely terrified.”
It’s a legacy of the Holocaust, with roots further back in our history. The flames of the Holocaust have singed all of our imaginations, leaving behind their psychological scars. And scar tissue isn’t flexible. So we end up not having a whole lot of flexibility when we feel threatened. We tend to operate in all-or-nothing mode. When we get scared, even just a bit, we start to see Nazis.
We’re not the only ones who suffer from a scarred imagination in dealing with anti-Semitism. It’s a principal reason why anti-Semitism remains set apart, so often unintegrated with the other “isms” people are trying to address: racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, etc. At least for some of us, when someone raises a question about whether we have acted in some way that is sexist, racist, etc., we understand that there may be subtle issues of unintended prejudice involved, and we might be willing to examine our actions and beliefs to at least some extent. We don’t react as if we’re being called serial rapists or members of the KKK. But raise a question about anti-Semitism possibly being at work, and people react like they’re being called Nazis. The Nazi terror continues to impact people in a way that make it practically impossible to discuss more subtle forms of anti-Semitism short of genocide. Jews aren’t the only ones with no middle range when it comes to anti-Semitism.
The problem is the order in which I put words in a sentence. Having grown up in a Yiddish and German speaking household, I seem to think in the structure of those languages even when I’m speaking English. Maybe if I looked like Yoda they’d get into it, but as a New York Jew in Iowa, I’m just strange.
I think of Cynthia Ozick, who has said that she writes Yiddish sentences in English. Some years ago I was invited to deliver a lecture on Ozick’s wonderful paired short story and novella The Shawl and Rosa. I made this point by reading a few words from one of the first sentences in Rosa: “Her meals she had elsewhere.” That, I pointed out, is not standard English prose. In English one would normally say “She had her meals elsewhere.” Standard Yiddish sentence construction is what it is.
I’ve learned that my students don’t have the patience to try to understand different accents or speech patterns. When I’ve sent them to hear guest speakers on campus, if the speaker has a noticeable accent many of them come back reporting that the speaker was very difficult or impossible to understand. But it’s not true. With pretty minimal effort the ear adjusts. It’s that they were unwilling to make the effort.
A few years ago some students organized a panel discussion where they invited several faculty members to speak about our various identities and how they interacted with each other (the academic term for this is “intersectionality,” a topic they wished to explore further than they had done in their classes). One of the identities I claimed is that English is not my first language. I was born in Berlin and came to the US with my parents at age two. I told the students that I was always impressed by how well those among them who were monolingual were doing with that handicap. I expressed my admiration for how with only one set of idioms and word choices in which to express themselves they seemed to be managing quite well, and apparently had come up with creative ways to keep themselves from being bored. As I spoke I was enjoying watching the two Asian students sitting up front having a great time with it.
After a couple of years in Iowa I noticed that I was thinking in Yiddish and German more than I used to. I was tempted to attribute it to my regressing back to a sort of second childhood as I age, but I think there’s more to it than that. Having grown up in New York City and then having lived for many years in Southern California, I’m used to being surrounded by the varying sounds of different tongues. Here in the plain Plains, I miss it, relatively surrounded as I am by linguistic monolithic monotony. So I think I’ve internally recreated that diversity for myself. It’s one way to handle a diasporic existence.
“It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” I first realized I didn’t agree with this saying when I spoke at a commemoration of Kristallnacht at Kenyon College where I was teaching in 1988. “The Night of Broken Glass,” as it’s known in English, is often cited as the beginning of the Holocaust, so by that reckoning November 9, 1988 was the 50th anniversary of the start of the Holocaust. I was asked to speak as both a philosopher and a child of Holocaust survivors. The evening’s ceremony included a brief march in which people carried lit candles.
The symbolism of the candles was on my mind because I’ve also got my own, more personal associations with candles on that date. November 9, but in 1965, was the date of the East Coast blackout, where much of the northeast US went dark, including New York City where we lived. We had a lot of candles at home because November 9 was also my father’s birthday. Living in Poland then, he had turned 16 the day of Kristallnacht. Maybe one of these days I’ll write something more about my connections to November 9, because that date in 1989 was when the wall came down in Berlin, the city of my birth, the city where my parents met and married.
As we all looked at the lit candles in the dark during that college ceremony, I said that this saying presented a false choice. The Holocaust is a case where we need to do both, light the candles as well as curse the darkness. Illuminating the events by understanding them, as we were trying to do in our educational environment, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t nonetheless curse that darkness. Intellectual understanding doesn’t replace moral condemnation or emotional release.
Which brings me to the second saying with which I disagree. It’s best known in the French form in which Tolstoy used it in War and Peace: “Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner.” “To understand everything is to forgive everything.” Sorry, not as far as I’m concerned. The saying inhabits too mechanistic a universe. We can understand what drives a person to do something, but there’s always at least one moment of choice. Call it my existentialist side trumping my determinist side. I want to uphold the principal that what one person can do, another can understand. Otherwise, what are we doing in the university anyway; if we can’t in principle come to understand each other we may as well all just go home. “Nihil humani a me alienum puto,” wrote the young Karl Marx in answer to a question about his favorite maxim, quoting Terence. “Nothing human is alien to me.” But we still may – indeed, sometimes we must – deem actions unpardonable even if we understand them. Again, it’s the Holocaust that comes to my mind here.
Am I too quick to condemn and too slow to forgive, too unwilling to temper justice with mercy? Perhaps. But I think we rarely get the balance between the two exactly right, and I find I’d rather err on this side than the other.
I always have a valid passport. I keep it within easy access and I know just where it is, and I’ve made sure my kids have one too. You never know. It’s not that I’m paranoid – well, maybe it is, but that’s not how I think of it – it’s that I’m a child of Holocaust survivors. I used to think of my need to be exit ready as a fear of being trapped, but I’ve realized it’s got very little to do with what I think about the present or future. It’s about the past. It’s a link to my parents, a way of keeping their worldview alive in me. As bizarre as it may sound – at least to those who aren’t children of survivors, but I expect those who share my background will understand – not to have a valid passport feels to me like a betrayal of my parents, a failure to heed hard won lessons.
Actually, I should clarify that, when I speak of myself as a child of Holocaust survivors, the identity I really claim is that I’m a child of temporary Holocaust survivors. What I mean is that while my parents survived the war years, they both died younger than I think they would have had they not had to endure the hardships and traumas of those years. They survived, but only temporarily, my mother having died by age 49 and my father by 59.
My mother was German and my father was Polish, and I know that after the war they contemplated moving to Switzerland, but our citizenship status wouldn’t have been as firmly secure as that of native-born Swiss, and they weren’t about to accept any sort of second-class citizenship.
Here’s a story my father told me about how he got his US citizenship:
The procedure was that he appeared before a magistrate or judge of some sort and was asked basic civics questions, presumably by an immigration official. (I’ve got only my father’s version of this.) One question put to him was as follows: “You say you’re going to be a law-abiding citizen in the US, but in Europe the law required Jews to turn themselves in. You didn’t. So why should we believe you?”
You can imagine the time I’ve spent trying to puzzle out what could possibly bring someone to ask such a question. Perhaps my father’s English wasn’t good enough and he misheard the question. Maybe the interrogator thought he was lobbing my father an easy pitch, expecting some pat answer like “Oh, I know that would never happen here.” Or maybe the guy really was that much of a fool.
In any case, whatever was actually said or meant, that’s how my father heard the question. To his eternal credit, as I always say when I tell the story, my father turned to the judge and said: “Bring in someone else to ask me questions. I’m through talking to him.”
The judge reassured my father not to worry, he would get his citizenship.