Language, Identity, and the Scandal of American Jewry

American Jews have forgotten their letters and words.

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rose to defend Shammas from some of the charges that the proud and indignant American Jew had leveled at him. But Be'er spoke English poorly, and so he made his intervention in Hebrew. At which point the proud and indignant American Jew reached for her headset, so that she could receive the Hebrew in translation, and understand what the Hebrew-speaker was saying.

And here is another tale. In 1993, Philip Roth published a novel called Operation Shylock. The novel has an epigraph, which appears, written in cursive Hebrew script, on its own page at the beginning of the book: va'yivater Yaakov levado v'ye'avek ish imo ad alot hashahar. "And was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the break of day."

The epigraph plays a role late in Roth's farce; and when he, the character Philip Roth, or the writer Philip Roth, or whoever he is, regards the Hebrew words on the blackboard of a classroom in which he is being held, he has this to say:

No foreign language could have been more foreign. The only feature of Hebrew that I could remember was that the lower dots and dashes were vowels and the upper markings generally consonants. Otherwise all memory of it had been extinguished?Perhaps they weren't even words. I would have felt no less stupid copying Chinese. All those hundreds of hours spent drawing those letters had disappeared without a trace, those hours might just as well have been a dream, and yet a dream in which I discovered everything that was forever thereafter to obsess my consciousness however much I might wish it otherwise.

Roth's confession, if that is what it is, perfectly illustrates the complacence of American Jews, their bad faith toward their own identity. For the vast majority of American Jews, the sight of Hebrew will suffice. Its opacity does not interfere with the sensation of authenticity that it provides. Roth's talk about this particular obsession of his consciousness is empty, because this particular obsession does not seem to impose any obligation upon him.

This writer whose novels sometimes suffer from a surfeit of smartness is, in this matter, quite content with an admission of stupidity. As usual with American Jewry, ignorance is no impediment to pride. Quite the contrary. Pride will make up for ignorance, and hide it behind the ferocity of tribal expression. The ignorance of his tradition leaves the writer not ashamed, it leaves him sentimental.

When I first read Roth's passage, it put me in mind of a remark by Bahya ibn Pakuda, a Spanish-Jewish philosopher of the early 12th century: "The Law is composed of words and sentences, and men are divided into ten classes according to their understanding of them. The first of these classes [and the lowest] consists of those people who are able to read the texts and stories of Scripture and are satisfied with their literal meaning, ignoring their deeper meaning and the precise explanation of words and the usages of language. These people are like asses bearing books."

The ignorance that Bahya describes as the lowest level of Jewish ignorance in his time is a level of knowledge much higher than the American Jewish norm.

American Jews are truly asses bearing books. In their noisy professions of their identity, American Jews (in Modena's words) may be heard only mixing now and then a broken Hebrew word or two in their discourse with one another, and no more. All this is not justifiable. It represents a breathtaking community-wide irresponsibility.

Between every generation, not only in circumstances of war but also in circumstances of peace, much is always lost. Only a small fraction of the works of the human spirit ever survives the war against time; but the quantity of the Jewish tradition that is slipping through our fingers in America is unprecedented in our history. And it is the illiteracy of American Jewry that makes it complicit in this oblivion.

I say complicit, because we are, after all, people of energy, of almost diabolical energy. We accept almost no limits on our ambitions or on our will. We do not agree to live passively in almost any other precinct of our lives. Instead we build, and build, and build; and so we have become the model in America of what a people can accomplish by the free and unfettered use of its powers.

We have a genius for commitment; but there is one commitment that we stubbornly refuse to make. Our right hand is losing its cunning, because we have forgotten something even greater than Jerusalem. We have forgotten our letters and our words. We are full of speech, and yet we are mute. Pride cannot do the work of knowledge. Enthusiasm cannot do the work of knowledge. Sentimentality cannot do the work of knowledge.

If the Jews of America do not make the commitment to replete ourselves by recovering our language; to bring to an end, if not in ourselves than in our children, this absurd helplessness before our own tradition, then we may dream of only a limited greatness, not only in our literature but also in our lives.

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Leon Wieseltier

Leon Wieseltier is literary editor of The New Republic.