Pinchas and “Connected Criticism”

Over at Jewschool, I have some thoughts on how, amidst rockets and airstrikes, Jewish lefties have a strange double task, to both console and further trouble their people:

This week we read Parshat Pinchas, which opens with God’s approval of Pinchas’s vigilante killing of Zimri, an Israelite prince, who is sleeping with Cosbi, a Midianite princess (Numbers, 21:1-15). Liberal Jews are used to being alienated from Pinchas or condemning him, but this week, some of us uncomfortably find ourselves in Pinchas’s position.

Read on to see why, and how to strike the balance

A Wu Tang Yom Kippur

In the Forward, I write about “non-Jewish” tunes for Jewish liturgy:

I doubt many of the attendees at Kehilat Hadar’s Upper West Side Yom Kippur services, at which the “Lamedvavnik Niggun” made its debut liturgical appearance last fall, knew the story behind the tune.

I do, because I cooked it up with Aryeh Bernstein, who leads high holiday services at Hadar. We borrowed the melody from the Wu-Tang Clan’s hip-hop classic, “C.R.E.A.M.” (“Cash Rules Everything Around Me”). Our choice of the name “Lamedvavnik,” a Yiddish term for the 36 hidden saints on whom the world depends, alludes to the 1993 studio album on which “C.R.E.A.M.” appeared, “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).”

Bernstein does not mind the worshippers’ ignorance. Though he sometimes matches liturgy to thematically appropriate soul tunes (pairing, for instance, a dark, moody poem in Yom Kippur’s final service with Prince’s “There is Lonely”), he would prefer the “Lamedvavnik Niggun” remain innocuous. I agree. It is probably better that no one, on hearing Bernstein sing words that mean “The Lord shall reign forever, Your God, O Zion, from generation to generation, Hallelujah,” be reminded of Wu Tang’s Raekwon rhyming, “No question I would speed/ for crack and weed/ The combination made my eyes bleed.”

For every hidden flourish of aesthetic genius, countless borrowed nonliturgical tunes — a musical technique called “contrafactum” — can be easily recognized. In my circles, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is a ubiquitous setting for Psalm 146 on Shabbat morning, and the chord that Cohen played is anything but secret. But while “Hallelujah” declares, “There’s a blaze of light in every word/ It doesn’t matter which you heard/ The holy or the broken Hallelujah,” doesn’t Jewish prayer depend on making just those distinctions? We bless God for separating holy from profane, not for conflating them. To a traditionalist, foreign music can carry with it alien theology, and pop tunes can puncture or trivialize sacred space.

More examples and an argument about how to balance tradition with change follow here.

 

“Love & Treasure”

For the Forward, I review Ayelet Waldman’s latest novel, asking some deeper questions about how holocaust fiction will change as the number of living survivors dwindles.

A historical novel, the Hungarian literary critic Georg Lukács argued, should reach only as far backwards as the era of the author’s grandparents. That is because novelists build not balanced panoramas, but rather individual portraits. Real human beings are unrealistic, because they are improbably idiosyncratic. Only contact with witnesses gives writers the thick detail they need to make the zany plausible. As Holocaust survivors die, this problem becomes acute for its would-be literary chroniclers. In 2004, a little over a million survivors were living, and that number has steadily dwindled. Witnesses are particularly crucial in the case of the Holocaust, artistic representations of which have often seemed suspect; the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas once denounced Holocaust art as turning “the Passion of Passions… into the vanity of an author.” Survivors not only feed the writer’s imagination but also morally authorize it.

Here is the rest.

Reznikoff’s “Holocaust”

For Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, I want to share a brief snippet from Charles Reznikoff’s “Holocaust,” a long poem adapted from testimonies from the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials. I learned quite a bit about the poem (and about memorializing the holocaust) from Todd Carmody’s challenging article on it. Carmody argues Reznikoff’s poetry rejects theories of holocaust commemoration/pedagogy that try to afford the audience access to the victims’ subjective experiences and that rely on identification and experiental recreation. Rather, “Holocaust” prizes objectivity and distance, insisting on the reader’s distance from the events described and refusing to imbue them with ideological weight. This contrasts sharply with, for instance, prosecutor Gideon Hausner’s Zionist rhetoric and framing of testimonies at the Eichmann trial. The article is fascinating and highly recommended, though by no means endorsed in toto.

The snippet, which you can hear Reznikoff reading here (starting at 5:50), comes from the section on the gas chambers and is, as you might expect, quite brutal:

Continue reading

Always Historicize

I want to share (belatedly) one of R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev’s comments on the torah portion that just passed; I study the Berditchever’s book, the Kedushas Levi, with my father every week.

The portion, Trumah, describes in great detail the plan for the desert sanctuary. For many readers, I think, this extended ekphrasis raises (at least) two problems: (1) Who cares about all these details? Why are they important? (2) This is not at all how we serve God. It’s alienating to feel that we are far removed religiously from our forebears. I think Levi Yitzchak has good answers to both questions. Below are the text, a loose translation, and a few comments. Continue reading

Edith Wharton on Blood Diamonds

A story from A Backward Glance, Wharton’s autobiography:

A young physician who was also a student of chemistry, and a dabbler in strange experiments, employed a little orphan boy as assistant. One day he ordered the boy to watch over, and stir without stopping, a certain chemical mixture which was to serve for a very delicate experiment. At the appointed time the chemist came back, and found the mixture successfully blent — but beside it lay the little boy, dead of the poisonous fumes.

The young man, who was very fond of his assistant, was horrified at his death, and in despair at having involuntarily caused it. He could understand why the fumes should have proved fatal, and wishing to find out, in the interest of science, he performed an autopsy, and discovered that the boy’s heart had been transformed into a mysterious jewel, the like of which he had never seen before. The young man had a mistress whom he adored, and full of grief, yet excited by this strange discovery, he brought her the tragic jewel, which was very beautiful, and told her how it had been produced. The lady examined it, and agreed that it was beautiful. “But,” she added carelessly, “you must have noticed that I wear no ornaments but earrings. If you want me to wear this jewel, you must get me another one just like it.”

What’s great about the story is that this is actually how luxury goods work in our world. Rendered invisible by the shiny, commodified final product is the bloody labor history of its production.

Review of Josh Safran’s Memoir

Ever wonder why so many cars blow up in American novels and movies? I did:

Among the American contributions to world literature, perhaps least appreciated is the genre of automotive horror. To be sure, we are acknowledged to have invented the road trip, which was prophesied by Huck Finn and Lewis and Clark (whose rivers yearn to be highways) and shifted into full gear in the work of Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan. Miles of paper have been spent analyzing our carefree, gas-guzzling quests and their values: freedom, wilderness, the ecstatic individual who sings America. We tend to pass over the ghosts that haunt this national romance, even though our nightmares are littered with murderous cars (Stephen King novels alone account for several), crazed motel managers, and buses which explode if they go below 50 miles per hour. Exactly what do these vehicular demons say about American freedom?

Go read the answer.