“In the Tragic-Comedy of Life, O How We Need the Holy fool!” – A Guest Post by Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

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I never heard laughter as loud as I did (on the other side of intimacy) that Kol Nidrai on the bima in front of 1500 congregants, as when I launched into the final words of the infamous Buddy Hackett yarn about the retired rabbi caught at a Catskills Hotel by his congregants as his order of a baked pig arrives, allowing him fulfill his life-long dream of eating trayf— “This place is amazing,” retorts the rabbi. “You order a baked apple and look whatchya get!”

I have wondered (not too often) after a decade serving as rabbi in an affluent traditional-egalitarian, Conservative Jewish community in Westchester, New York, that after all the Talmud torah opportunities I afforded my congregants, why it is that time and time again, the Torah they recalled most vividly were jokes like this. It always struck me how congregants were drawn to teachings and lectures I would give on the great assimilated American Jewish writers, like Phillip Roth, or a panel discussion of a Coen brothers’ film, and yet how challenging, if not downright unappealing for this flock to delve into mystical treasures of the tradition seen through a contemporary lens.

I have learned an immense amount from the Shlemiel par excellence of this very blog as he envisioned and then solicited my essay as a contribution to his forthcoming collection on Levinas and humor—a real game changer! Perhaps, in the catharsis of laughter, every one of those thousands in the pews was able to reconcile their heartfelt dissonance in confronting their ideality of kashruth and their reality of a trayf lifestyle, or their ideality of fostering a “community of commitment” and the reality of enabling a “lifestyle enclave”. When I invited the Chancellor elect of JTSA to come and share this vision of shedding the “lifestyle enclave” and embracing a “community of commitment” what sounds from the hundreds filling the sanctuary then could be heard? Laughter, as Levinas alludes, is a moment of catharsis that opens to a deeper othering of self, allowing for a vulnerability to the other normally not present. There is something profoundly humanizing about this experience.

Shakespeare not only invented the human, according to Bloom, but he also makes us appreciate how the comic is inextricably linked to the tragic. I find myself relearning this lesson as I peruse much of the recent spate of OTD literature— at once comic and tragic. Comic— insofar as readers become voyeurs into a world most of us laugh at as outsiders and would likely never chose to enter as insiders. Tragic— because of its portrayal of heartfelt pain in “leaving the path” from which there is no return. In the ultra-orthodox world, this ultimatum works. After all, if there is only one line along which everyone’s convictions must fall into alignment with, then there are those on and those off that line.

But growing up in a nominally Conservative household, I experienced the best of heterodoxy first hand. My parents kept a kosher home with three sets of dishes as they migrated from shul to shul about every five years—continually in search of their emesdichkeyt, their authentic path of Limmud, Torah and Tefillah. From the world of heterodoxy to orthodoxy, what I find so tragic about much of OTD literature is the lack of holy fools inside of those communities who can model what it means to straddle worlds and cross boundaries. The holy fool is more than the pleasantry of a badkhan at a wedding, but a necessary carnivalesque elixir to nomian reification! What the holy fool teaches us is that there really is only one path—as Elliot Wolfson calls it—the path of no-path. Upon taking leave of our local community Jewish day school, my wife was understandably distraught, but I lamented the state of heterodoxy is alarmingly similar to what the Kotzker rebbe decried in his day: “I’d rather have shtarker mitnaggedim than pareve Hasidim!”

The other tragedy intertwined within the holy fool is now being rediscovered in the teachings of Reb Nahman of Bratzlav—outside the Bratzlav communities. After Zvi Mark’s magisterial study of the holy fool in his Mysticism and madness: The religious thought of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (2009) as a necessary component to Reb Nahman’s mystical quest, it is no longer feasible to merely see his journey as one of a tormented master. Madness is the signature of the holy fool and that shtut d’qedushah is what allows for a more expansive elevation of consciousness after falling into yeridat ha’mohkin. Sure the NA-NAH-NAHMAN Breslovers have that holy foolishness about them in their ecstatic dancing, but it is in Marks’ critical edition of Bratzlav Sippurai Ma’asiyot Kol sipure Rabi Naḥman mi-Braslav : ha-maʻaśiyot, ha-sipurim ha-sodiyim, ha-ḥalomot ṿeha-ḥezyonot : liḳuṭ ha-nusaḥim mi-kitve yad nedirim umi-mikhlol ha-sifrut ha-Braslavit be-tosefet pirḳe mavo ṿe-heḳshere ha-sipurim (2014) as well as numerous anthologies on the stories published by secular presses like Yediʻot aḥaronot who are interested in publishing eclectic anthologies like Roee Horen’s Ha-ḥayim Ke-Gaʻaguʻa: Ḳeriʼot Ḥadashot Be-Sipure Ha-Maʻaśiyot Shel R. Naḥman Mi-Breslev : Asupat Maʼamarim (2010) where the transgressive line between artist and academic, between the tragic and the comic is blurred. The perennial need for the holy fool remains as urgent as ever—especially in Israel, after the latest election performances! It is that seventh beggar who never appears that is the beggar with no feet. Yet it is precisely this beggar, the holiest of fools, who can show us the way to dance the path of no-path.

In a world gone mad, only a fool could think there is a future, never mind a Torah of the future!?! But that is precisely what Reb Nahman bequeathed as a holy fool to this generation. Ours is the time described in Reb Nahman’s tiny tale of the king and his viceroy who must mark their foreheads while eating the tainted grain; for in a world gone mad only the holy fool is sane. Such a Torah of the future, as I have been learning from my planetary gnostic rebbe, Miles Krassen, is one of the many fruits of the supernal overflow, one of many that makes this planet flourish. In his tall tale, “Losing the Princess”, Reb Nahman recounts the only way to free the lost princess is for the viceroy to veer off the derekh, to find a path from the side, an um-wege. Tragic-comic poets like Paul Celan see that all poetry after Auschwitz is about finding the um-wege—it is precisely from that different vantage point where I encounter the other and see myself differently.

Now in all seriousness, one of the first proposals I made to my new community in San Francisco was an urgent need to revisit the minor mystical ritual of Yom Kippur(im) Katan and transform it into Yom K’Purim Katan. Transforming that solemn fast day before each new month into a time to reconnect with the holy fool within, dressing up and distributing food and good cheer is the comedy of the hour—just because! Perhaps it is because my new synagogue, Congregation Beth Sholom, in San Francisco is only blocks away from the holy beggars who once lived in the House of Love and Prayer and the Dharma Bums who frequented City Lights Bookstore that this community is really willing to grab onto the Torah concealed in all the laughter and holy foolishness that I continue to share freely.

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Aubrey L. Glazer, Ph.D. (University of Toronto) currently serves as rabbi at Congregation Beth Sholom, San Francisco. Aubrey is in demand in many educational forums, from lay learning to federations, seminaries and colleges across North America, Europe and Israel where he is a passionate and challenging teacher of Jewish Mysticism, Philosophy & Hebrew poetry. Aubrey’s work is published widely in popular and academic forums, including his latest book dedicated to the spiritual renaissance of Hebrew culture in Israel called, Mystical Vertigo: Kabbalistic Hebrew Poetry Dancing Cross the Divide (Academic Studies Press, 2013). Aubrey serves as a consultant and contributor of kavvanot and Israeli prayerful poetry to the Conservative Mahzor and Siddur Lev Shalem. Ordained by JTSA, Aubrey has also completed training courses in kashrut supervision (Rav haMakhshir), Jewish Spirituality (IJS), and Jewish Entrepreneurial Leadership (Kellogg School of Business). In his rabbinic work in diverse communal settings, Aubrey has created award winning programming like Blessing for the Animals and Phat Phriday that draw on the depths of traditional forms in creative ways to promote vibrancy and continuity in-reach and out-reach.

Self-Mockery, Rage, and Writing: On Gary Shteyngart’s “Little Failure”

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When it comes to Jewish humor, self-mockery is not new. Sanford Pinsker argues that Ibn Ezra, the 12th century Rabbi and Torah commentator, used self-mockery to epitomize the comedic state of exile (in general) and the schlemiel (in particular).   Self-mockery is found in the classic joke about the schlemiel, the schlimazel, and the nudnik. One spills the soup (the schlemiel), the other is spilled on (the schlimazel), and the third person asks the schlimazel what kind of soup it is (nudnik).   Self-mockery has been a way for Jews over the centuries to laugh at bad luck and live on with a sense of…self.   Although it might be diminished, it survives. Wit is the power of Jewish humor against powerlessness.

But there is a fine line between self-mockery and self-hatred. And when it moves into the other realm it becomes more sad than funny.

Woody Allen is able to traverse the fine line in many of his movies and in his prose.

For instance, in “The Selections from the Allen Notebooks,” Allen plays on the existential version of the notebook or journal as a space of despair, sickness, and self-hatred:

I believe my consumption has grown worse. Also my asthma. The wheezing comes and goes, and I get dizzy more and more frequently. I have taken to violent choking and fainting. My room is damp and I have perpetual chills and palpitations of the heart. I noticed, too, that I am out of napkins. Will it never stop?

The punch line releases us from the possibility of self-hatred and becomes self-mockery. Gary Shteyngart, in his memoir Little Failure, also tries to tread the same territory as Woody Allen.   However, he comes closer to the first lines of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man (“I am a sick, angry man…”) than Allen.

To be sure, Shteyngart associates the essence of writing – and his project – with a tension between joy and self-hatred. But of the two, he admits that without self-hatred and hatred he could not write. It makes writing not only “possible” but “necessary.”

I write because there is nothing as joyful as writing, even when the writing is twisted and full of hate, the self-hate that makes writing not only possible but necessary. I hate myself, I hate people around me, but what I crave is the fulfillment of some ideal. (149)

Following this, he lists several ideals that fail: “my family – Papa hits me; my religion – children hit me”(148). And this leads him to feel rage and informs his main inspiration in America:

But America/Atlanta is full of power and force and rage, a power of force and rage I can fuel myself with until I find myself zooming for the starts with Flyboy and Saturn and Iadara and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. (148)

The punchline of this joke is that anger and rage are everywhere in “America/Atlanta” (whether it is the rage of the dispossessed or conservative defense ministers).   But the implication is that Shteyngart is parting from Woody Allen’s use of self-mockery. He is not – like many a schlemiel (from Motl to Gimpel or Moses Herzog) a humble and dreamy “little failure” – he is an angry one.   Shteyngart’s rage makes him verge on not just self-hatred but also on hatred of others. And, as he notes, it makes his writing “possible” and “necessary.”

When read against the failures of this or that ideal, I can see that there is more going on here than shoulder shrugging. His failures make him feel rage against all of the ideals he was raised with. Although he mocks them (and nearly all of them deal with Jewishness), what we have here is a deep questioning of Jewishness that is based on his negative experiences with it.

At the end of his book, Shteyngart recounts a trip back to Russia with his parents to visit the grave of his grandfather. He recalls a picture of his father (who is enamored with Jewishness and Israel) and mother. He recalls saying Kaddish and even includes the Hebrew. But he has a much different relationship to the Hebrew and his grandfather than does his father.

I can read the prayer, but I cannot understand it. The words coming out of my mouth are gibberesh to me. And they can only be gibberish to my father’s ear as well. (349)

None of this is funny. In fact, its very sad, angry, and solemn.

Shteyngart’s words suggest that Hebrew and Jewishness are, like many other things, failed ideals that he is leaving behind for other ideals. Like a schlemiel, he trips over the words; but, in the end, the fall is fatal not funny:

I chant the gibberish backwards and forwards, tripping over the words, mangling them, making them sound more Russian, more American, more holy. We haven’t found my grandfather’s name, Isaac, amidst the acres of marble covered with Ivans and Nikolais and Alexanders. (349)

The last words of the memoir are in Russian. His Kaddish ends in a foreign language. Unlike his father, he is a realist and sees that there is no point in returning to or trying to find Jewishness for the sake of one’s identity. He mourns it as he mourns his failure of the ideals his father and mother set forth for him. He becomes, for lack of a better word, post-Jewish. His holy tongue is “more Russian, more American.” It’s not Hebrew.

Given what Shteyngart says about writing, one can surmise that what “fuels” the last words of his memoir are hatred and anger.   But this seems to pass the fine line between self-mockery and self-hatred. What we are left with is nothing funny. And with this gesture he seems to go from being a little failure who, like many a schlemiel, remains bound to Jewishness (for better or for worse) to an adult who has left it behind for the language of exile.

The other possibility is that this is another kind of Jewishness, but it’s not funny. It seems that, for Shteyngart, the post-modern Jew must be a realist who mourns Jewishness rather than recover it. And the fuel for this gesture is…as he says…rage.   And despite all of the comical recountings of his “little failures,” we can say that they are really a façade for his mournful and angry realism.  What surprises me most is that I have not found one book review which noticed this. If they did, perhaps his book wouldn’t sell copies.

With this in mind, I’ll leave you with the promotional video for the film which, given this reading, seems to be…besides the point.

Over Wine and Lostness, or Jewish…in America: After the Loss of Language, Intimacy, Chosenness, and History

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Near the end of his book, The Chosen People in America, Arnold Eisen muses on the relationship of language and history to chosenness. Like Ruth Wisse, Cynthia Ozick, and Sidrah Ezrahi, he takes note of the language that was lost when the Jewish people left Europe for America. But much more than language was lost. As Ozick argues, the intimate relationship with God and chosenness was lost in translation. According to Eisen, Ozick “has dealt with this general question” of language and chosenness “more explicitly than any other writer of her generation, both in stories that bemoan the loss of tradition and substance to American vacuity”(167).

Writing in English, Ozick, as a Jew, “feels cramped by it.”   It is not her language. And for her language and history go hand in hand:

A language, like a people, has a history of ideas, but not all ideas: only those known to its experience.

This suggests that with the loss of language there is a loss of a uniquely Jewish experience. And writing stories in English can become, since it constitutes a loss of history, what she calls the “surrendering to the imagination.”   What Eisen wonders about, however, is whether the “light of Jewish experience,” which he calls “chosenness,” has “emerged undistorted from the prism of English language.”

What worries Eisen is that too much abstraction or discussion of chosenness may have “affected the substance of what was thought and said.” And, what’s worse, “one can argue that the manner in which Jews of various sorts conceived and related to their God is not easily rendered into English, which is modeled by the very different perceptions of Christianity”(168).   Eisen brings in Irving Howe’s characterization of the Jewish relationship to God – in his introduction to A Treasury of Yiddish Literature – that used to exist in Eastern Europe to illustrate how, without a language and the experiences built into it, American Jews have lost something unique:

Toward Him the Jews could feel a peculiar sense of intimacy: had they not suffered enough on His behalf? In prayer His name could not be spoken, yet in and out of prayer He could always be spoken to…The relation between God and man was social, intimate, critical, seeming at times to follow like a series of rationalistic deductions from the premise of the Chosen People.

Eisen doesn’t disagree with Howe. In fact, he argues, by way of citing several verses from the Torah and Midrash, that the “intimacy of the relationship” was tangible for Jews.   This includes moments when one argues with God, is cranky with God, or close to God. This kind of relationship informs what Cynthia Ozick would call “Jewish literacy.” But how can one have such literacy – which is based on the experience of intimacy and familiarity with God – in America?

Eisen, in response to this question, tells us that the English language and the culture that goes along with it are too polite and distant in their relationship to God:

In English such familiarity tends to be sacrificed to decorum, and irritation with God to be sublimated into reverent praise. (168)

How can one recover such intimacy in English? What do the efforts of people like A.J. Heschel and Zalman Shechter-Shalomi (and the neo-Hasidim) amount to if the language they speak in is devoid of such experiences?

One suspects, writes Eisen, that “the fund of experience available to speakers of English is foreign to the history which elicited and reinforced Jewish notions of chosenness”(169). But the culprit is not just the entry into another language. It is also, and for Eisen more importantly, “American Jews’ own distance from this history…that determined their understandings of their election”(169).

This suggests that if American Jews had more of an intimate relationship with their past then it could be possible that the Eastern European sense of intimacy and chosenness would have lived on. But it has not.

Because Jews were so embraced by the American pubic, avers Eisen, they could abandon their unique and private relationship with God.   If they were at odds with American culture as Eastern Europeans had been at odds with their surrounding cultures, this would not be the case. This suggests that the yearning for intimacy with God can not be had without the cultural and historical experience of otherness in which man must depend on God for help and….not man.   Without being othered by the host culture and without memory of Jewish history and experience, what is left for an American Jew who dwells in English and…after the Holocaust?

I’d like to end with a poem by Paul Celan who felt that, with the Holocaust, he had lost his language. But, in the experience of that loss, the poem seems to suggest that he finds another language that is unique and perhaps…even Jewish. He suggests a kind of intimacy with God even as he “rides” God “into farness – nearness, he sang.” But he wrote the poem in German. What can this mean for an American Jew, such as myself, who reads Celan’s poem in English and in translation? Are we living in a be-imagined language, too? Can I recover a language of intimacy? Or is this simply a fantasy? Perhaps I too have run out of that which intoxicates…perhaps I, too, have even lost…lostness?

OVER WINE AND LOSTNESS, over

the running out of both:

I rode through the snow, do you hear,

I rode God into farness – nearness, he sang,

it was

our last ride over

the human hurdles.

They ducked when

they heard us about their heads, they

wrote, they

lied our whinnying

into one

of their be-imagined languages.

Lena Dunham and the Three J’s: Jokes, Jewishness, and Jewish Literacy

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After writing my blog essay on Lena Dunham, which was posted on Facebook, Tweeted, Retweeted, Favorited, and published, again, by Queen Mob’s Tea House, I received some interesting comments that have prompted me to return to what I wrote.   One of the most compelling responses to what I wrote suggested that Lena Dunham doesn’t – as David Remnick suggests – fit within the context of Jewish comedy. And the reason provided by at least one commenter is that, although she is Jewish, Dunham doesn’t have an understanding of what it means to be Jewish.

In response to this, I noted that the reason I quoted Irving Howe’s review of Portnoy’s Complaint (“Portnoy Reconsidered”) was because Howe slighted Roth for writing a novel that reduced and caricatured the complexity of Jewish-American life. I’ll re-quote it here:

It is very hard, I will admit, to be explicit about the concept of vulgarity: people either know what one is referring to, as part of the tacit knowledge that goes to make up a coherent culture, or the effort to explain is probably doomed in advance. Nevertheless, let me try. By vulgarity in a work of literature I am not here talking about the presence of certain kinds of words or the rendering of certain kinds of actions. I have in mind, rather, the impulse to submit the rich substance of human experience, sentiment, value, and aspiration to a radically reductive leveling or simplification; the urge to assault the validity of sustained gradings and discriminations of value, so that in some extreme instances the concept of vulgarity is dismissed as up-tight or a mere mask for repressiveness; the wish to pull down the reader in common with the characters of the work, so that he will not be tempted to suppose that any inclinations he has toward the good, the beautiful, or the ideal merit anything more than a Bronx cheer; and finally, a refusal of that disinterestedness of spirit in the depiction and judgment of other people which seems to me the writer’s ultimate resource.

What Howe is suggesting here, by way of his concept of “vulgarity,” is not that Roth was talking dirty – Howe has no problem with that – but that he submitted the “rich substance of human experience, sentiment, value, and aspiration to a radically reductive leveling or simplification.” And this, to be sure, is the risk one takes when one writes, like Lena Dunham, comedy.

But there is a fundamental difference between Roth and Dunham which speaks to the issue raised by some readers; namely, Roth should have known better since he, unlike Dunham, has a rich understanding of Jewishness and has Jewish literacy. To be sure, this is what Irving Howe makes clear in his first major review essay on Philip Roth (on his book Goodbye, Columbus).

In effect, Howe’s two readings of Roth provide – indirectly – a set of standards that he draws on in reading Jewish American literature and humor. For brevity’s sake, I’m going to call them the three J’s. For the Jewish joke to work, and to avoid becoming what Howe would call “vulgar,” the joke or the writing needs to evince a sense of Jewishness and Jewish literacy that doesn’t absent-mindedly caricature things Jewish.

If one is to tell a Jewish joke that engages in self-mockery, simply being a Jew is not enough these days. Dunham is clearly not an anti-Semite, as several online sites and magazines have claimed; rather, she simply lacks a sense of Jewishness and Jewish literacy. But, then again, many Jewish comedians or Jews who drops a comic line about Jews here and there also don’t seem to be aware. Stereotypes and caricatures of Jews are all over Hollywood but, for some reason, only Lena Dunham is being put up on the stand.

If critics are going to be critical of her Jewish jokes, are they going to apply the same severity with other Jewish popular icons? And is this fair given the fact that many writers and filmmakers also don’t seem to have a sense of Jewish literacy – much like the majority of Jews in America?

This, it seems, is the main issue.

Irving Howe was troubled by the gradual assimilation of Jews into American culture and the attendant loss of Jewish literacy. For Howe, the farther we move away from immigrant Jewishness, the worse the condition becomes. Nonetheless, given what many critics have been saying, both joke writers and the public need to know how to tell a Jewish joke. We may not need to know about Jewish history or Judaism in general; but, still, there is another type of literacy that seems to be called for: the knowledge of Jewish stereotypes and caricatures.

The problem with this kind of reading is that comedians are hard pressed to abandon stereotypes about Jewish mothers, nebbishes, and whiny Jews.   And this kind of scrutiny may go out of control. What, for instance, will critics say of Larry David. Is his New York kind of Jewishness problematic and stereotypical or is it real? Are the caricatures we see in a film like Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg problematic, too? He claims to have read Bellow’s Herzog and Roth’s Porntoy many times before making the movie.   But are his readings just lazy repetitions of old stereotypes that we find in these novels?

What may be called for is also a way of looking for what’s positive in schlemiel humor – or Jewish humor – instead of only what is negative. (Both are necessary, together.) For instance, is there anything special about the absent-mindedness of the schlemiel or schlemiel humor? Does it appeal to hope, optimism, or its failure? How does it relate to being Jewish?

Without doing something like this, instead of laughing at comedians we may shout at them. We will all become comedy-cops on the lookout for bad or suspicious behavior. But, to be sure, isn’t it one of the main tasks of comedy to push the envelope and to play around with lazy stereotypes so as to expose them? Self-mockery is essential to comedy, but where do we draw the line?

Apparently, the line between comedy and what Howe calls “vulgarity” can be drawn by a comedian or writer making it evident, in some way, that they know the stereotype and are playing with it. If they don’t, then, it seems, they are guilty as charged. Jews can’t appeal to self-mockery anymore unless they know what it means to be Jewish and, from that position, are able to tell when Jews are being mocked. But to do that, don’t they need to know what’s Jewish (in a positive sense) and what’s not (in a negative sense)? Or do they just need to know what’s not Jewish?

Ultimately, with Lena Dunham, we have a case of the three J’s: jokes, Jewishness, and Jewish literacy.   But, unfortunately, many cultural critics have not, thus far, been able to articulate it. They are better at calling her out than in explaining what the basis of their criticism is. What standards should a Jewish comedian subscribe to and why? The more people descries the transgressions of Jewish comedy, the more these questions will have to be addressed.

Looking Awry: On Frans Hals’ Representations of Rene Descartes, Fools, and Child Musicians

Menachem Feuer:

Happy birthday to Rene Descartes!

Originally posted on The Home of Schlemiel Theory:

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Frans Hals was a Dutch painter from the 17th century.  Many art historians group him together with the school of Mannerism, which developed in the Italian Renaissance of the 16th century.  Hals was a part of what is called the “Northern Renaissance.”  Some mannerist works of art are not simply realistic; many of them are symbolic and allegorical.    And, as many art historians note, Mannerism was transformed into Baroque art.  One of the elements that remains in this transformation is the allegorical.

Hals’s work is often Realistic, but it often errs on the side of the allegorical.  This allegorical dimension, however, is subtle.  It’s not obvious.  In fact, Hals work demands the viewer to pay close attention to subtle gestures, gazes, and movements within the frame (which oftentimes gesture to something hidden and obscure outside of the frame).  The allusions they make suggest multiple meanings.

Hals is well…

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