I have always been fascinated by epigraphs — those borrowed words that authors choose to introduce and encapsulate the message of their books. And so, almost as soon as I started writing my own book, Crossing the Borders of Time, I found my thoughts exploring several possibilities, words whose power had won them space in my catalogue of memory.
The book involves a search to find my mother’s long-lost love, the young and handsome Frenchman she’d left behind in 1942, when — fleeing the Nazis — she was forced to board the last refugee ship to escape France before the Germans sealed its ports. She was Jewish and 18; he was Catholic and 21. “Whatever the length of our separation, our love will survive it, because it depends on us alone,” Roland had written to Janine in a farewell note before she sailed. “I give you my vow that whatever the time we must wait, you will be my wife.” But war and disapproving family had intervened, and even as she tried to build a different life than the one she had imagined, Mom shared with me her longing for the love that had been stolen from her.
The story of their star-crossed romance, culminating in my efforts to reunite the pair, first called to mind Bob Dylan’s paean to a young love that endures:
The future for me is already a thing of the past.
You were my first love and you will be my last.
Yet even in my silent reading, the gnarly twang of Dylan’s unique delivery resounded as unreservedly American. It set the wrong mood as the opener for a love story that unfolded in Europe of the war years, and its tone seemed too lighthearted for the period and the harrowing experiences I was depicting. Besides, Dylan belonged to my youth. His rebellious ballads could be interpreted as a rejection of my parents’ generation. Indeed, the disdain that he expressed was not lost on my father, who actually forbade me to play Dylan’s albums on his phonograph, as if their scathing lyrics might damage the machinery.
Next in top contention for my epigraph were favorite verses from T. S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton,” the first of his Four Quartets:
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
The Nobel Prize-winning poet had completely captured the spirit of my story, as he spoke to how a past, imagined yet never lived, nonetheless persists in memory. The words that echoed in my mind, entrancing and enthralling me since childhood, were all my mother’s words—her stories from a rose-garden, a lovers’ garden, an Eden from which she had been exiled. Perfect. Except for one disturbing thing. Eliot, whose philosophical poetry I adored, was a reputed anti-Semite, as exemplified most clearly in his early work.
Could I comfortably enshrine the verses of an anti-Semite on the opening pages of a volume that I had devoted in large measure to describing the plight of European Jewry in the Holocaust? I struggled with the question. To make Eliot’s voice my book’s first voice felt like treason. A betrayal of the millions who had suffered and died for no other reason than their Jewishness. And yet it grated, in banishing the artist, to have to sacrifice the art – a dilemma far from new to us. We are used to squirming as we read literary classics from times and places in which loathing for the Jewish people was a cultural prejudice quite shamelessly expressed. Surely, I argued with myself, we cannot be expected to reject all the works where Jews appear unfavorably or whose authors are anti-Semites. And what about music? Must we always close our ears to Richard Wagner?
Even now, after months of debate with myself and with others whose opinions I respect, my answers to these questions feel muddled. Before my book went to print, however, and not without regret, I relinquished T. S. Eliot and wondered whether, had I written something different—a physics text on the nature of time, for example—I might have felt more free to honor his creative voice by quoting him in my epigraph.
As it was, in place of Eliot’s verses, I finally chose a cherished line from Thomas Wolfe:
O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.
It had the virtue of calling to mind for me the loss not only of Roland, but also of my father, who had died before the lovers reunited, and of Hitler’s countless victims. Beyond that, when my son asked me whether Wolfe, as well, might have been a secret anti-Semite, I was happy to assure him that while the great novelist had visited Germany repeatedly in the 1930s, he had publicly denounced the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews. Retaliating, the Nazis had banned his books in Germany. Wolfe’s longtime lover, I suddenly remembered then, had been a Jewess named Aline Bernstein. To her, “A.B.,” he dedicated his masterpiece, Look Homeward, Angel, from which I drew my epigraph with the sense I had arrived at the right place.
To whoever is reading–
I’ve had some complaints regarding my recent appearance on Conan, promoting my new book, Kasher In The Rye: The True Tale Of A White Boy From Oakland Who Became A Drug Addict, Criminal, Mental Patient…And Then Turned Sixteen. Some Jews (I’m assuming here) were a little offended by my poking fun at my experiences with childhood Haredi life. I said they looked like fat Amish penguins and that they were weird. But seriously, I mean is any of that in dispute?
Now, normally, I try and pay anonymous complaints no heed as I have long since come to terms with the fact that when you make jokes, especially sharp prickly ones, you will invariably bruise the tender sensibilities of someone and that the anonymous and instantly accessible nature of the internet gives those bruised peaches an instant platform to lodge their grievances. But I’ve been thinking about it and I thought, since I’m being asked to blog for MyJewishLearning and Jewish Book Council, that I might try and clarify myself and my jokes and my Jewishness.
I grew up in a bifurcated existence, floating between the supernatural realms of Chassidus and the concrete pragmatism of secularization. I’m an anomaly. A rare breed that is both “frum from birth” and “off the derech” in sharp strong veins that ran, right next to one another, interweaving themselves into a confusing rope almost long enough to hang myself with.
My father moved to Seagate, and married into a Satmar family when it became clear that my mother — who took us on a “vacation” to Oakland early in my life — was not going to return. He was a unique man, a brilliant dynamo who painted and performed in the Lower East Side and according to family legend was asked by Marcel Marceau, seeing his pantomime genius, to join him as a “mime in training.” All the messy blurs of the art world were turned into sharp edges when he found Chassidus and returned to the shtark world of frumkeit.
My mother, who stole us away in the night, kept that mess and turned it into kindling for a bright jumbled fire that illuminated our home and kept us warm. Her relationship with Judaism was casual and ambivalent, no doubt poisoned a bit by her rocky marriage to my father.
I was born in the middle ground. To my left was modernism, to my right was minhag. The runoff of both experiences was churning white water that I had to learn how to paddle down, desperate to keep my head above water. Eventually, I learned how to make jokes about all of it and those jokes became flotation devices. They buoyed me and kept me breathing.
And though, if you read the book you will see how deeply and severely I sank later on, I used those jokes to keep me as afloat as I could be, even as I got smacked around on the rocks. Kasher In The Rye is a book where I expose my soft underbelly to the world and tell the tale of my teenage descent into drug addiction, violence, insanity and crime. But it’s a comedy. How can such dark fodder be funny?
My God, how can it not?
If I hadn’t learned to laugh at it, all of it, it would have swallowed me whole and I’d probably not be your blogger this week. I’d likely be dead. So you’ll forgive me if I laugh at you. I’m really just laughing at myself. It never occurred to me that my childhood wasn’t my own to joke about. But I see now that, when bringing that childhood into the public for everyone to enjoy, and hopefully to relate to, that I’m joking about your childhood too. If I offend anyone with my gallows humor, please know that I was born on a gallows and and I’m telling jokes to stave off execution. If you’d like to take my place up here you are welcome.
This isn’t an apology. God forbid. I’m not sorry at all for turning my experiences into jokes, it’s what I do. This is a clarification. I love Jews and Jewishness. I love Chassidus and tradition. I love it sincerely and I love to make fun of it too. Honestly if you don’t think there is anything hilarious about living in 21st-century America but pretending fashion wise that its 1820’s Hungary, then you take yourself too damn seriously. I think the Baal Shem Tov would probably agree with me but who the f*ck am I to speak for him? I’m just a clown. But I think we need clowns as much as we need rebbes.
This was a post that previously appeared on the MyJewishLearning/Jewish Book Council blog.
Last week, the American Jewish Committee renounced a statement made by one of its staffers. The AJC’s Director on Anti-Semitism suggested that some Israel supporters are distorting the 1964 Civil Rights Act when they argue that colleges – that hire anti-Israel professors and support anti-Israel rallies – are in violation of the law. The director said that the Israel supporters went too far.
I am a college professor and a Jew – and a supporter of the State of Israel – but the issue is too complicated for me to address directly, with anything like authority. But it did remind me — as it probably does you — of dealings I’ve had with relatives. The issue is too divisive to leave many Jewish families untouched.
In my case, I have relatives who will brook no criticism of any Israeli government. (And I’m sure they’d complain that I criticize Israel too quickly.)
I feel passionately about it. I have argued that current Likud policies are unjust and what’s more – though I don’t think there shouldn’t need to be a “what’s more” – strategically bad for Israel. For this criticism I’ve been asked: “Why do you hate Israel?” “Why are you a self-hating Jew.” Neither of these things is true about me: I don’t hate Israel and I’m not a self-hating Jew. (Well, there are things about myself I dislike, but Judaism isn’t among them.) The point isn’t just that any disapproval of Israel over any issue is taken for anti-Semitism; it’s that both sides are so emotional, and disagree so heartily about this when they agree on most other things.
As for me, I understand why my arguments drive my relatives crazy. The reasons are clear. 1) The other side is worse; Arab nations and the more radical Islamists among them are unreasonable, and frightening, and undoubtedly behave worse than Israel does. 2) There is a disproportionate response in world opinion; Israel is condemned for every misdemeanor it commits, while much more serious violator nations face no public opprobrium, at all. The reason seems to be anti-Semitism. 3) Israel has been attacked by belligerent neighbors and so needs the support of its supporters at all times.
These are all true. But it’s equally true that Israeli supporters in the U.S. often have a hard time admitting that hardships were suffered by Arabs during the 1948 War of Independence: that the Palestinian grievance is real. (Ironically, Israelis have come to terms with this – and are more honest about it – than we Americans are. Read any of the Israeli “New Historians.”) And it’s also true that, on the settlements issue, there is a lot of room for disagreement. Being critical of a particular government’s particular policy does not equal abandonment.
Again, I know the other side would disagree and call me naive. What strikes me is that, if we can’t agree among ourselves about it — if American, pro-Israel Jews are so divided — is it any wonder that the problem has persisted for over 50 years?