With the rise of anti-semitism in America – which I have experienced, personally; and see on social media, perpetually – I have been starting to think more about what it is and what we can do to – if possible – counter-act it. One era that I have studied in depth and written on in many essays and book chapters, is the period before, during, and after the Holocaust. German Jewish thinkers like Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, Gershom Scholem, and Theodor Adorno have been on my radar for some time.
Today, I look to what Adorno’s thoughts were after anti-semitism had its run through Germany, destroyed the country, and annihilated millions of Jews. How did it germinate, so to speak, in Germany? One thought that came to me is that what we are seeing right now with paranoia on social media about this or that group and its power is a symptom of anti-semitism. Adorno, in an essay entitled, “The Meaning of Working Through the Past,” sees the forces around nationalism as “intentionally self-deluded.” For him, nationalism is the “heritage of barbarically primitive tribal attitudes” that was against anything different. As the nation decayed, so to speak, it became, according to Adorno, “sadistic and destructive.”
Nationalism does not completely believe in itself anymore, and yet it is a political necessity because it is the most effective means of motivating people to insist on conditions that are, viewed objectively, obsolete. This is why, as something ill at ease with itself, intentionally self-deluded, it has taken on grotesque features nowadays. Admittedly nationalism, the heritage of barbarically primitive tribal attitudes, never lacked such traits altogether, but they were reined in as long as liberalism guaranteed the right of the individual—also concretely as the condition of collective prosperity. Only in an age in which it was already toppling has nationalism become completely sadistic and destructive.
For Adorno, the energy behind nationalism (“nationalism as a paranoid delusion system”) was “paranoia,” which, for the Nazis, was a “persecution mania.” It was “contagious.”
We see something like this today, on social media with anti-semitism in which anti-semites – like Kanye or his white supremecist muse, Nick Fuentes -have the paranoid belief that Jews control everything and are destroying not just the nation but they, themselves, personally.
The rage of Hitler’s world against everything that was different—nationalism as a paranoid delusional system—was already of this caliber. The appeal of precisely these features is hardly any less today. Paranoia, the persecution mania that persecutes those upon whom it projects what it itself desires, is contagious. Collective delusions, like anti-Semitism, confirm the pathology of the individual, who shows that psychologically he is no longer a match for the world and is thrown back upon an illusory inner realm.
This fascinating part is that the anti-semite is “no longer a match for the world” and, in his retreat to his or her keyboard, is “thrown back upon an illusory inner realm.” In other words, the anti-semite, in taking the world as the enemy of the average American, etc cannot live in this world where it used to dwell so it he/she is thrown back into their private illusory worlds that are supported by other people tweeting, instagraming, etc from their lonely keyboards.
Anti-Semitism is so difficult to refute because the psychic economy of innumerable people needed it and, in an attenuated form, presumably still needs it today. Whatever happens by way of propaganda remains ambiguous.
Anti-semitism, in other words, is a “collective” desire. It is a desire based on paranoia that, because it is needed – due to alienation, loneliness, and confusion – is urgent and pressing. After arriving at this thought, Adorno turns to someone who enjoyed the dramatization of The Diary of Anne Frank. What, one may ask, is the connection of this dramatic experience to anti-semitism or persecution mania?
I was told the story of a woman who, upset after seeing a dramatization of The Diary of Anne Frank, said: “Yes, but that girl at least should have been allowed to live.” To be sure even that was good as a first step toward understanding. But the individual case, which should stand for, and raise awareness about, the terrifying totality, by its very individuation became an alibi for the totality the woman forgot. The perplexing thing about such observations remains that even on their account one cannot advise against productions of the Anne Frank play and the like, because their effect nonetheless feeds into the potential for improvement, however repugnant they also are and however much they seem to be a profanation of the dignity of the dead.
This person, for Adorno, only sees the individual, Anne Frank, she doesn’t see the “terrifying totality,” that made Anne Frank into an animal to be hunted and killed by Nazis. But, notes Adorno, the effect of this play can still “feed the potential for improvement.” While a play like the Diary of Anne Frank, seems to be a “profanation of the dignity of the dead” (something Eli Weisel or Paul Celan might say), it still can bring someone to a potentiality for “improvement.”
But Adorno has his doubts because he does not think the “genuine” anti-semite’s experience of real Jews – not fictional or dramatized ones – can efface his or her anti-semitism. Why? Because this presupposes that an anti-semite has the capacity for experience. On the contrary, writes Adorno, “the genuine anti-Semite is defined far more by his incapacity for any experience whatsoever, by his unresponsiveness.”
All too often the presupposition is that anti-Semitism in some essential way involves the Jews and could be countered through concrete experiences with Jews, whereas the genuine anti-Semite is defined far more by his incapacity for any experience whatsoever, by his unresponsiveness. If anti-Semitism primarily has its foundation in objective society, and only derivatively in anti-Semites, then—as the National Socialist joke has it—if the Jews had not already existed, the anti-Semites would have had to invent them.
For Adorno, the anti-Semite can’t experience the other; s/he cannot be changed. In a Levinasian sense, he cannot be vulnerable to the other and is incapable of experience because he has negated the world and put a paranoid one in its place. Even if s/he meets a real Jew – Kanye met many – this doesn’t change a thing. The anti-Semite is not in the world; he or she is in his or her own world; in that paranoid reality, the Jew is controlling everything. Only by destroying the Jew, taking away Jewish power, will the anti-Semite feel and know that the world he or she has projected on his or her – see below – (paranoid) world.
One of the most notable losses to the film world of recent note was the death of Chaim Topol (four days ago). To be sure, Topol received two Golden Globe Awards and was a nominee for both a Tony Award and an Academy Award. He won the most prestigious award in Israel, the Israel Prize, for his performance in Fiddler on the Roof. The play has run 3500 times on the Broadway Stage. Fiddler held the record for the longest-running Broadway musical for almost 10 years until Grease surpassed its run…and yet, there was no mention whatsoever of his death.
The broadcast included a promotional video for the Academy Museum, which opened last year to celebrate the history of Hollywood. In the video, a curator named Dara Jaffe explains that one of the museum’s roles is to “bring important film histories to light, from the Jewish immigrants who founded the Hollywood studios to the early innovators of African-American cinema.” The inclusion is notable because the museum drew steep criticism when it first opened for giving short shrift to the industry’s robust Jewish history; Jaffe was appointed to put together a permanent exhibition about that history in response. The exhibition has not yet opened.
For now on, Jewish history and Jews in Hollywood will only get “nods,” especially the best of them. Just like at the museum in Los Angeles honoring the film industry, where the Jews who founded Hollywood are barely mentioned. David Chappelle and Louis Farakahn think Jews have too much power in Hollywood, so, it’s time to start “nodding” rather than celebrating. That is about all Jews in Hollywood and their history will get. That seems to be the new trajectory.
From recent movies like You People by Jonah Hill, we learn that Jews have too much power and privilege and are no different from spoiled white people with inhereted wealth (more than one generation of wealth, today, is considered a sin by the contemporary race theory ideologues, like Ibram X Kendi).
In this new context, Jews are “white” and don’t deserve anything close to celebration, especially one of America’s top Jewish filmmakers, Steven Spielberg. As the English comedian David Baddiel puts it, today, Jews don’t count. The celebration of Jewish success has been sidelined by the new regime of diversity, equity, and inclusion. The culture industry has moved on to the next “thing.”
An article by Tablet that brought out what this means – in terms of fresh data – is eye opening. It is entitled, “The Vanishing.”
I’ll end with a brief quote from the article which sums up the situation and may help us to understand why Topol wasn’t a focus – since, after all, such a choice may have put too much focus on the Jews and their contributions to American film and theater.
As true believers in the postwar liberal project, American Jews spent decades advocating for tolerance and equality of opportunity, not least because we were the prime beneficiaries. The ADL didn’t fight the quotas in the 1950s so Jews could matriculate in proportion to their percentage of the population. But there’s a tension between meritocracy and representation. The new DEI regime treats any disparity between groups as evidence of unfair advantage—and yet we’re supposed to think it’s a coincidence that Jewish representation plummets at the exact moment America frantically pushes to racially rebalance all high-status industries.
Because what is framed as a backlash against America’s “white” centers of power is in many cases a clever sleight of hand. Jews are being disproportionately purged from liberal institutions because Jews disproportionately exist within those institutions.
When activists and journalists and executives talk about how Broadway or NPR or publishing is “too white,” what they really mean is “too Jewish.” When The New York Times says it wants to make its internal demographics look more like New York City’s (excepting the Hasidim, of course), what this means is “fewer Jews.” Twenty years ago, if Pat Robertson spoke along these lines—making the same complaints about the same people and industries and institutions—there would have been a rush to condemn it as antisemitic. Today it passes for social justice.
In the 1960s and ’70s, facing hard barriers to their professional advancement, Soviet Jews lost the faith. The children and the grandchildren of the revolution tried to emigrate. When the authorities wouldn’t let them, American Jews rallied to their cause, created brand-new communal organizations, petitioned Congress, rallied thousands-strong outside the United Nations. Ours was a community confident in its power and confident in its future.
Asian Americans have the dignity of looking at admissions practices and demanding fair representation. The Jews, as ever, are a people apart. From civil rights to Vietnam to the spectacular bounty of their cultural and political achievements, liberal Jewish boomers always managed to be on the right side of history. It is a supreme irony that they’ve helped empower a movement that now places their children and grandchildren on the wrong side.
If Putin or Orban reduced their universities’ Jewish populations by 50%, the ADL would be howling. But Harvard and Yale can magically lose nearly half their Jewish students in less than a decade and we’ll take it on the chin. That this is occurring with the full acquiescence of a terrified liberal Jewish establishment should tell you just how much power Jews in America still have.
I was born and raised in a small town in the Adirondacks called Mayfield. In elementary school, I was the only Jew in my class. When we sang in the school assembly in December, we sang several Christmas carols; but to make sure I didn’t feel like the odd one out, the teachers included two songs about Hannukah. All the students would look at me and smile as we sang. After an anti-semitic incident in junior high, I transferred to a nearby school, in Gloversville, New York where I went to Hebrew school and was bar-mitzvahed (in that school, I was one of three Jews in my grade).
Why do I mention any of this in a reflection on Chaim Topol?
Both of my parents and most of my family are Jews from New York City. But besides Annie Hall (1977), Mad Magazine, and Hebrew School classes after school that I barely focused on (save for the units on the Holocaust), I had little exposure to Jewishness as a child. The movie, Fiddler on the Roof (1971), however, was one of the most Jewish things I ever saw. It was even staged at one of my schools. The songs, the dancing, the story all intrigued me and made me feel ok about being an American Jew. My non-Jewish videographer included parts of the soundtrack in my Bar Mitzvah Video (at the beginning and end). It seemed to have brought me into an appreciation of “tradition” and life.
Later in life, after I was an undergrad, I found out for myself what Judaism was all about by going to Yeshiva and taking on a more observant lifestyle. Be that as it may, it was this film that gave me my first vague sense of what Jewishness I came from…in old Europe. I always wondered what life was like there, before the Holocaust.
I was intrigued with the Tevye character played so wonderfully by Chaim Topol. He was so full of life, so reflective, honest, and self-deprecating. Since Woody Allen’s and Mel Brooks’ films, as well as Mad Magazine, were my pop cultural guides to Jewishness, I always wondered how Tevye measured up. Was he a schlemiel like most characters in these films or caricatures in Mad?
We need to look at the original inspiration for the Broadway / Hollywood character by turning to Shalom Aleichem, who wrote these stories in the wake of pogroms and before the Holocaust.
Ruth Wisse, in The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, doesn’t think so. She contrasts Tevye to the character Menahem Mendel and sees Tevye as the embodiment of a schlemiel (who lacks insight into his condition) and his opposite (who does). Tevye, unlike the schlemiel character, experiences “ironic resignation” while also having an “elemental life instinct”:
I.L. Trunk distinguishes between these two heroes: Menahem Mendl, he says, is pure instinct. Unlike Tevye the Dairyman, he does not experience ironic resignation, or ironic faith: he ‘expresses the elemental life instinct which does not see its tragic perspectives.” But taken together, Menahem Mendl and his wife Sheyne Sheyndl, do create the ironic juxtapositions that Tevye expresses in his own person, allowing the reader to weigh the fierce optimism against a tragic perspective. Together they represent two extremes of faith and failure. (56)
For Sander Pinsker, in his book The Schlemiel as Metaphor, Tevye is a character who “best captures the tragic-comic sprit of the Diaspora”(32) when he says, “With God’s help I starved to death – I and my wife and children – three times a day, not counting supper”(32). Pinsker says – playing on Nietzsche in the Birth of Tragedy – that Tevye gives “tragic affirmation a new twist.”
For Pinsker, like Wisse, Tevye is a figure of faith:
With the world of the shtetl all but disintegrated and ‘modern children’ threatening to abandon its traditions entirely, Tevye not only continues to pattern his life on the Old Ways, but he also has a perfect faith that the Old Ways will somehow prevail. (36)
But he is a schlimazel because history ruins his life and his family. He loves them all, but he is the last person to preserve faith in the midst of rapid change. Aleichem wrote these tales before the Holocaust. That Europe is gone. But the spirit of Tevye, so beautifully embodied and preserved for the ages by Chaim Topol is with us.
What I loved about Chaim Topol’s performance of faith was how he embodied it through his acting. His joy and his tribulations, embodied through his “tragic affirmation,” gave me hope. One can be bold and Jewish in America, I thought, but how? Through theater? Literature? Film? A religious life?
To be sure, the film and the play are a part of what Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi, in her book, Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Jewish Imagination, of a general post-WWII construction of a “virtual shtetl” – as we see with the popularity of I.B. Singer’s fiction, Irving Howe’s World of our Fathers, his Yiddish Anthology, new translations of Yiddish writers, etc – which emerged after the European shtetl and its Jewish culture were obliterated by the Nazis. For her, it is a form of nostalgia since that world is gone for good.
Be that as it may, the film and play touched the hearts of millions of people, Jews and non-Jews. Topol gave it new meaning and purpose. It is a past that means a lot to us insofar as we imagine it to be on the threshold of a rich Yiddish culture and an ancient faith that was challenged by history, pogroms, anti-semitism, etc. The point is to remain strong in the face of it all and to make a “tragic affirmation” of faith when it seems to have run its course.
While I was watching the Superbowl half-time show, featuring Rhianna’s performance, I couldn’t help but think that she (or her choreographer) was comically inspired by the penultimate schlemiel-as-sperm moment in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (1973)….when all of the sperm are about to depart….
It is a topic that deeply concerns me and should concern all of you. I enjoyed writing it and articulating what worries me about where America is going based on the proliferation of “trashing” and barbarism going down (24/7) in American culture.
Here is an excerpt:
Today, we are faced with—in ways Adorno could never imagine—accepting or rejecting the ideology of trash culture. When our culture is obsessed with trash and trashing, barbarism is not far away. By saying no to it, we look to stop barbarism and the destruction of all that is good in America.
Saying no is an expression of what Susan Sontag would call the moral sensibility, and as Freud noted, saying no is the beginning of freedom. However, saying no doesn’t mean we are trashing someone or something. It is more a way of preserving that which is dignified in humanity. It is an ethical act of moral sensibility, which is now called for because culture is moving in the direction of sensibility and has short-circuited Adorno’s double band. To preserve human dignity, we need to say no to trash culture and no to the spectacle.
Trashing + the Spectacle
Culture—to use a verb—trashes things constantly, and the trash it produces takes on meaning and instantly becomes beautiful, exciting, and entertaining.
People love rants these days because of what they do. The bigger the rant and the scene of disruption, the more attractive it is; especially if the rant is obscene and trashy. On the other hand, one doesn’t even need to rant in order to trash culture. One can just appear in a photo on Instagram and trash it.
Trashing is a gesture, an ideological signal (if you will) to the society of the spectacle. But the unseen effect (as with any ingestion of garbage) on the users, keeps them from reflecting on what has been trashed and why. For it to be effective, trashing calls for one’s full attention on the spectacle.
From streaming services to social media, we can see the various ways popular entertainment and this or that influencer trashes ethics, history, and memory. But here is the blind spot: the more they trash these things, the more barbaric we all become.
Since culture misses this tragic blind spot, culture feigns reflection and acts as if it is moral.
To be sure, for culture, reflection is more aesthetic and theatrical than actual.
So when influencers go on social media feigning reflection and deep insight, they make people feel as if they are in on some kind of “truth” or “secret.” As if they are partaking in something that will make them better; people take in trash ideas as if they are participating in something larger than life.
But the bad news is that this is all an illusion. It’s an empty spectacle that got you to look and pay attention. Trash culture, as an ideology, seems to be working.
Sadly, this leads to barbarism.
If the “secret” we are partaking in is based on the act of dissolving the moral fabric of our society and our sense of trust in each other, we will become more and more polarized and barbaric.
American culture, in many ways, is moving closer to barbarism because culture makes us think that we are thinking or doing something good or meaningful, when all we are doing is destroying something for the sake of destroying it, or for the sake of thinking that in doing so we are truly “woke.”
That delusion—based on an act of violence—can only lead to hyper-partisanship and, ultimately, to increased violence. This ideology divides the world between the people who trash and the people who are trashed.
When these are your only two options, what becomes of America?
American culture, in many ways, is moving closer to barbarism because culture makes us think that we are thinking or doing something good or meaningful, when all we are doing is destroying something for the sake of destroying it, or for the sake of thinking that in doing so we are truly “woke.”
Sadly, trashing, an act of violence—as we might see on a reality tv show or on the streets—is entertaining and even enjoyable to most people who love consuming it. Just go to TikTok or Instagram Reels to see what is most popular or trending. As the data will show, millions of people enjoy trash and the violent act and spectacle of trashing things.
As the master of Pop Culture, Andy Warhol notes in the Philosophy of Andy Warhol, “some people, even intelligent people, say violence is beautiful.”
If violence is beautiful, people will want more of it. Trashing is a violent art form of sorts that sews the seeds of division and divisiveness and calls for more of the same.
Kanye’s cultural barbarism
Kanye West has great expertise in creating American culture through “creative destruction.” He has made billions of dollars on the spectacle. His most streamed songs—49 million streams a month on average—demonstrate the aesthetic of trashing.
Kanye is popular with my children’s age group. While we have taught them about anti-Semitism and talk about it often enough in our house, our children didn’t seem to take it as seriously as we did. But what Kanye did changed all that.
It was the first time that my children have talked to me and my wife about how they feel about anti-Semitism and how Kanye used it to cast hate and suspicion on us. How could Kanye say anti-Semitic things about me, my family, friends, and people, they wondered?
We were all astonished. How can this happen again, and in North America?
Why was Kanye trashing the Jews?
It is wild to think that even if 5 percent of his 50 million fans would stand with him until the end, that would be over one million people who harbor anti-Semitism. They would hear the “truth” he was spitting (even before he said he “liked” Hitler on the Alex Jones Show).
Kanye told the world in several different media appearances that “the Jews” had some kind of nefarious drive—built into them at birth, in their genes—to swindle people and control the “black voice.” Kanye—in effect—trashed the Jewish people.
Who wants to hear this garbage? Who wants to be trashed? Trashing a Jew is anti-Semitism. It is exactly what Hilter and the Nazis did in Germany.
Trashing Jews has demonstrable historical consequences.
Toxic garbage can get telegraphed to alienated and dangerous people who travel to places like the synagogue in Pittsburgh, leaving 11 dead, or the “targeted attack” in Jersey City of a Jewish grocery and children’s school, killing five. Toxic garbage like Kanye’s rant leads to the beating up of Jews in the streets of Brooklyn and Los Angeles.
To be sure, the highest hate crimes in NYC are against Jews, not gays, Muslims, etc. There are consequences to publicly trashing Jews. If Kanye cared about history—as Adorno wishes we all did, after Auschwitz—he would be more reflective and ethical; he wouldn’t trash Jews.
But Kanye, as a major arbiter of culture, wants to trash Jews in order to get attention to his empty spectacle, his claim to have the “truth” and to have revealed the “secret” of the Jews.
However, there is no secret. It is actually barbarism since it doesn’t see Jews as equals, so much as overlords; it contradicts democracy and calls for vengeance.
Anti-Semitism is the detritus of old Europe, which trashed democracy and notions of equality under the law, made Judaism into its foil, and led, eventually (after countless exiles from countries and cities all over Europe), to the Holocaust.
But it didn’t die with the Holocaust. When major influencers like Kanye trash Jews and give this hateful garbage an after-life, it lives on…in America.
As we saw with Kyrie Irving and Dave Chappelle, post-Kanye, anti-Semitic trash is becoming normalized. Trashing Jews has value.
Kanye created this double bind in order to gain power.
Any resistance to his anti-Semitism was seen—according to his anti-Semitic framing—as a testimony to the “fact” of Jewish power and its will to suppress “the truth,” the secret that Jews, apparently, want hidden: that Jews have all the power, and want to have revenge on the “goyim.” Jews want to enslave and have power over them.
This paranoid description of what Jews are and what they think about suggests that me, my wife, and children, are dedicated to doing everything we can to control “them.”
Each morning that’s what I apparently pray for. To be sure, this is the most ridiculous and trashy read on Jewish life imaginable. It seems lifted from a cheap novel. But that’s the point. It’s a paranoid fantasy.
All eyes were on Kanye before, during, and after he was deplatformed and became more extreme with his anti-Semitic pronouncements, ultimately saying, on the Alex Jones Show that “I really like Hitler.”
This stupidity, based on trashing Jews, is exactly where Hitler went after he instituted the Nuremberg Laws, stripping rights from anyone who has Jewish blood. Trashing Jews, today, may lead us down the same kind of path, the path of barbarism.
Dave Chappelle’s racism
In the wake of the anti-Semitism coming from Kanye, the Kyrie Irving tweet about From Hebrews to Negroes, a movie that is demonstrably anti-Semitic, and after a march in NYC to the Barclays Center of more than a thousand “Black Hebrew Israelites” (calling themselves “Kyrie’s Army”) saying, as they marched through the streets of Brooklyn, that they are the “real Jews,” we shockingly heard Dave Chappelle tell an SNL audience that Jews have to stop picking on blacks.
Chappelle also said that the Holocaust is behind us. I paused and thought to myself (because I thought he was a reflective and intelligent comedian) that he simply doesn’t understand the epochal implications of the Holocaust, not just for Jews but for the world.
Moreover, Chappelle intentionally turned Kanye’s anti-Semitism and Kyrie’s tweet into something arbitrary and went so far as to equate anti-Semitism with free speech, that “the Jews” (the two words one can’t say or will be punished) won’t allow.
Strangely enough, this is like saying racism is free speech and that Dave Chappelle and all black people should approve of it. But that is something he would never say. These double standards are troubling. They are the result of trashing Jews. It leads to more of the same action.
Chappelle also turned a vulnerable moment for the American Jew—in which they had to defend themselves against rising anti-Semitism prompted by major influencers—into a racist attack. False and libelous, but it also denotes a dangerous misunderstanding and should give us pause to understand how art and entertainment, through indifference to anti-Semitism and its implications (something that can be learned from the Holocaust Chappelle downplays in this act) can become vehicles for hate.
Sadly, this kind of trash talk—by a major influencer in American culture—demonstrates what worried Theodor Adorno about culture after Auschwitz.
Adorno feared that “post-Auschwitz culture” would not allow itself to be challenged by the enormity of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. That since culture was “garbage,” it cannot refine itself and become reflective. Rather, as Adorno says, this trash—what I call the act of trashing—became “ideology.”
To be sure, the cultural trash he worried about has to do with culture’s indifference to morality (or its fake espousal of it) in its celebration of entertainment and culture. This is an indifference to not just anti-Semitism but to all forms of excess and immorality. As I noted above, trash culture is concerned with aesthetics not ethics.
Trashing the Jews, saying “I like Hitler,” or suggesting that Jews suppress free speech for fear of having their nefarious secret revealed, is theatrics. What anti-Semitism hates most—which happens, in America, to be the legacy of the Jewish people to modernity—is what Susan Sontag calls the “moral sensibility.”
On Sontag’s distinction between moral sensibility + camp sensibility
But beauty and riches couldn’t have anything to do with how good you are, because think of all the beauties who get cancer. And a lot of murderers are good looking, so that settles it.
Some people, even intelligent people, say that violence can be beautiful. I can’t understand that, because beautiful is some moments, and for me those moments are never violent.
A new idea.
A new look.
A new sex.
A new pair of underwear.
Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol
In her famous essay, “Notes on Camp,” Susan Sontag equated modernity with a tension between the Jewish “moral sensibility” and the “camp sensibility.” As she notes, the camp sensibility is indifferent to morality and is dedicated to play, irony, and aesthetics. It has no moral limit. It defies them in the name of artistic and cultural freedom.
“The experiences of Camp are based on the great discovery that the sensibility of high culture has no monopoly upon refinement. Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists, in deed, a good taste in bad taste…. Camp taste supervenes upon good taste as a daring and witty hedonism.” (Susan Sontag Reader)
In terms of the tension, Sontag writes: “The two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony…. Jewish liberalism is a gesture of self-legitimization. So is Camp taste, which definitely has something propagandistic about it. Needless to say, the propaganda operates in the opposite direction. The Jews pinned their hopes on integrating into modern society on promoting the moral sense. Homosexuals have pinned their integration into society on promoting the aesthetic sense. Camp is a solvent of morality. It neutralizes moral indignation, sponsors playfulness.”
While Sontag wrote this in the late 1960s, one can see that it has much relevance now, in 2023. To be sure, the camp sensibility is ascendent over the moral sensibility and dominates much of Hollywood, TV, social media, and the Internet.
Nearly every major event in Hollywood will include camp to promote woke ideology (as Sontag notes, it is propagandistic and self-legitimating).
Strangely enough, today, it seems as if the camp sensibility and the moral sensibility have joined forces. Hollywood wears the veneer of the “moral sensibility” in its obsession with diversity, equity, and inclusion, featuring the transgender darlings of the camp sensibility as its shock troops.
But that morality play is all theatrics. It is the theater of grievances.
Much of the garbage we see today has a lot to do with this tension, which has been imported into most of our culture. For instance, as we saw with Chapelle, he has no qualms with accusing Jews of trying to silence the black artist (a complaint made by Kanye, in his anti-Semitic tirade) on the one hand; or, on the other hand, coming from the anti-Semitic alt-right, seeing Jews as behind the sexual degradations of Hollywood and American culture.
In Larry David’s commercial promoting FTX Cryptocurrency that aired during the Superbowl, Larry David played the schlemiel character and script, which, to be sure, is his hallmark (whether in Curb Your Enthusiasm or in his writing for Seinfeld). In this commercial, David plays schlemiel characters throughout history who – in the span of one minute – all comically reject the introduction of inventions that changed civilization, such as the wheel, the fork, the toilet, the Declaration of Independence, the light bulb, the flight to the moon, etc. The punch line is at the end of the commercial where he rejects FTX’s crypto-app as a “safe way to get into crypto.” To which he says, “Naaaaah, I’m never wrong about this stuff, never.” The commercial ends with the words, “Don’t be like Larry.”
The irony here is that we should have listened to the schlemiel’s advice on this one. For once, the schlemiel was right and we were wrong. We were duped. FTX was a scam that was bigger than anything Bernie Madoff had done and, as we speak, it is piling up.
Larry David, along with many other celebrities (such as Tom Brady, the star quarterback of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, basketball players Shaquille O’Neal and Stephen Curry) has been sued in a class action suit for promoting FTX.
To be sure, the irony of this commercial reminds me of one of the greatest schlemiel stories of all time, I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool.” In the story, everyone comes to dupe Gimpel, even the woman he marries who claims that the children born out of wedlock is really his. He trusts her because he loves her. In the end of the story, when she gets sick and on her death bed she confesses to him that she duped him:
“Before she died she called me to her bed and said, ‘Forgive me, Gimpel.’
I said, ‘What is there to forgive? You have been a good and faithful wife.’
“Woe, Gimpel!” she said. “It was ugly how I deceived you all these years. I want to go clean to my Maker, and so I have to tell you that the children are not yours.”
If I had been clouted on the head with a piece of wood it couldn’t have bewildered me more.
“Whose are they? I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “There was a lot…but they are not your.” And as she spoke she tossed her head to side, her eyes turned glassy, and it was all up with Elka. On her whitened lips there remained a smile.
I imagined that, dead as she was, she was saying, “I deceived Gimpel. That was the meaning of my brief life.”
It is not Gimpel who is at fault, it is Elka, it is all of the people in the city of Frampol who, like her, deceived him. The irony of this ad that Larry David did is that the schlemiel character is used to sell us on the idea that FTX crytpocurrency is like all of the inventions the schlemiel rejected, inventions that have, as we all know, made life better. It’s better that we don’t listen to the schlemiel and invest in FTX.
Now Larry David is being sued for duping us. Maybe we should have listened to the schlemiel. I.B. Singer’s point is that we can learn more about being good and moral from Gimpel than we can from the rest of the town and his wife who deceives him. We need to give the schlemiel back its good name and not use him (or her) to dupe others. In a way, it’s a an object lesson on the schlemiel and about how our society has gone off the rails.
Abish is, for me – and several others like John Updike, Harold Bloom, et al, – one of the greatest fiction writers in America in the 20th century…that (not) many people knew about. He is a writer for writers, for those of us who love language. In a truly Derridian sense, Abish was a master of the “play of language.” His words are a delightful “double session.”
In his book, Alphabetical Africa, he writes each chapter dedicated, primarily, to words with the same alphabetical letter. Each chapter he adds and another letter. Chapter two is “A” and “B.” This goes on too, and returns back too, all words with “A” in the last chapter.
But it’s more than this. Abish’s ingenuity is to take this language into a place that is deeply mystical, comical – in his wildly imaginative and surreal prose – and even violent.
It is, to be sure, theatrical. All of this while the narrator “explores” …. Africa.
Let’s listen in to this passage, in his book Alphabetical Africa:
By complete accident come across a courier ant carrying ant code. Crush ant, and alone attempt cracking cipher. Am a bit astonished because apparently code also contains a coupon. Calmly concentrate cracking cipher. Code cleverly conceals a choice between cream cheese and chocolate-coated biscuits. Am confounded by clever camouflage. (147)
In this novel, his scientist/mystical/comical explorer is, without a doubt, a schlemiel of sorts. A Quixote. The “S” chapter is a great example of a schlemiel writer at work.
Same shit same scenery same suffering saints same soup same spiel same safaris same safeguards same saffron sauce same sailboats same salads same salamis same saliva same salesman same salutations same samples same sanctimonious shit same sanctuaries same sandals.
This goes on for two pages. What is fascinating about this moment of language is that it has a rhythm and cadence to it that is much like Hebrew prayer. It signifies as a comical rant but also a kind of confessional plea. It also make me think of a Derridian or Bataillian gesture, which loathes homogeneity or sameness. It is a rant that is made to redeem sameness through creative repetition. What Bataille called “excess.” It is, at once, childish and violent.
The last chapter is hopeful, however. It focuses directly, rather than obliquely on the infinity of language and the experience of it in this world. It is a world of n + 1. But this language world – the “Alphabetical Africa” – is not pure, it is not without violence. It is a world where we must move on and leave behind one for “another.” As in IB Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” or his Magician of Lublin, or Paul Celan’s Gross, in his “Conversation in the Mountains,” the schlemiel, the little-man comical prophet, must move on:
Another abbreviation another abdomen another another abduction another aberration another abhorrent ass another act another aboriginal another approach another absence another abstraction another abuse another acceptance another accent another accessory another accident another accolade another accomplishment another accord another account another accretion another accusation….another africa another alphabet (151-152).
He is most well known for his book, How German is It, a book he wrote after Alphabetical Africa, in 1974, five years later (his second novel for New Directions Press). The book imagines Germany. Abish has never been there, but he, an Austrian Jew by birth, imagines German life and culture in the context of a subplot, narrative – in the spirit of radical politics in the late sixties and early seventies – about a terrorist group that wants to take down the government.
Abish’s mastery of language and tone are so brilliantly creative that he is able to convince the reader that the narrator’s feelings and observations about Germans he meets are an accurate and real representation of Germans.
As an Austrian Jew, whose family had to flee Vienna to Singapore after the Nazi Anschluss into Austria. His book sees a kind of violence under the image of perfection. He takes in a kind of Heideggarian way of looking at things and shows some kind of hidden violence behind a Heideggarian kind of obsessions with earth, sky, and the “fourfold,” the “origin of the work of art,” the Greek temple.
Abish’s short story, the “English Garden,” gave birth to How German is It.
In this short story, in his In the Future Perfect, Abish’s narrator takes a chidren’s colorbook of Germany as a guide to the country, which hides the Holocaust.
It occurs to me that several pages of this coloring book could easily have been intended to depict parts of Brumholdstein where I am staying. With a few minor alterations it could very well become Brumholdstein. And why not. Perhaps the designers of the coloring book had Brumholdstein in mind when they designed the book. Brumholdstein named after the greatest living German philosopher, Brumhold. Somehwhere in the coloring book his replica can be seen lecturing to a class. Written behind him are the words: What are we doing today? The philosophical implications of this sentence may be lost on the students, who are only eight or nine years old at most. This in turn would make it unlikely that the man behind the lecturn is Brumhold. Nevertheless, by focusing on the professor and excluding the rest of the class, one can almost hear Brumhold spaking in this quiet controlled low voice, a voice that is also capable of expressing deeply felt emotion, for instance when Brumhold speaks of the many Germans who, following the First World War, seem to have in the confusing process of what we call history lost their homeland, or at least a section of it. A process, it might be added, that was repeated in the Second World War….He spends his days thinking and writing …writing about why humans think, or try to think, or flee from thought, thereby compelling everyone who reads or tries to read his rather difficult books to think about whether or not they are really thinking or pretending to think. (4)
All of this is situated in a dramatic story about the narrator’s experience of Germany and Germans. His descriptions are intimate but something is missing from them. The reader doesn’t know what to think about the Germans around this narrator. One who, is estranged as he is from everything, as Heidegger might say, “unheimlich” (uncanny – un-home). He doesn’t feel at-home in Germany. The secret to his agitation, which we need to seek out (in some fashion) is his Jewishness. It sees the facade by way of his descriptions and leaks out memories of the Holocaust:
After a careful search that afternoon I found the old railroad tracks. They run parallel to the highway. There was very little traffic that hour. I parked my car on the side of the highway and followed the tracks on foot for a mile or so. No one saw me. I encountered no one. In the distance I could make out the taller buildings of Brumholdstein. On a siding I passed an old railroad freight car. It’s sliding doors wide open. It was a German freight car. For no reason at all I scratched a long row of numbers on its side. (19)
The coloring book, the philosopher, the hidden railroad tracks. And the discovery of a photo hidden in a desk, at the very end of the story, establish the Holocaust as the secret that all of his imaginary Germans seem to be hiding, especially the philosopher who, ironically, is asking us what thinking is and why we – as Heidegger says in What is Called Thinking? – are “still not thinking.”
Going through her desk drawers I came across a photo of a group of skeleton-like men standing in a row, posing for the photographer. Wilhelm studied the photograph, the building in the rear was of one the buildings of the Durst concentration camp. The men were smiling incongruously. They were learning against each other for support. Under the magnifying glass I could clearly the numbers tattooed on their forearms.
This photo must have been taken a day or two after the camp was liberated by the Americans, said Wilhelm. I made absolutely no move to stop him as he carefully and deliberately torn the photo into tiny shreds. I did not lift a figure to stop him from effacing the past. (21)
At the end of the story, he throws the coloring book and crayons into the garbage of the airport before takeoff. The story ends with a kind of dark irony that one sees in some of Paul Celan’s poetry, as Celan calls death a “master from Germany.” There is no correlation between the childlike image of Germany and what it hides. The torn up photo says it all.
In 2004 Abish published a memoir called, Double Vision: A Self Portrait. This a book that is based – schematically – on the places he traveled in his diaspora from Austria and back and way from Austria: Vienna, New York to Germany, Nice, Cologne, Frankfurt, Wurzburg, Shanghai, Vienna, Israel, Munich, Berlin, Italy , Mexico. Each of these places is a subset of becoming a writer: The Writer-to-be, the Writers, The Writer-to-Be, the Writer, the Writer-to-be, The Writer, etc. Back and forth, his life, another place, another repetition of the same crisis. Each a place of memory.
Inside the book, we learn about his parents, his history, his life, in surgical prose. Each word, well weighed. Haunted by history and origins.
I will recall one of his traumatic memories recorded in this memoir, of when the Nazis came to Austria. He was a young boy who was astonished by how much was kept from him about the Nazis and how bad things were. His parents hid it. When he finds out, Abish depicts his astonishment in the wake of Kristalnacht. He depicts the haunting moment when his child’s world is “defamiliarized” by sheer anti-semitism that made him and his family the targets of its monstrous evil:
How could I fail to comprehend what was going on? Didn’t my parents unease rub off of me? The one day I vividly recall at the Jewish school, the only school I was permitted to attend, was the final day. At first the clamour from the street was barely audible. As the noise increased, our apprehensive teachers kept consulting each other, no knowing what to do. Despite the escalating commotion on the street below, we left the school at the customary hour without receiving any warning. Not that it would have made a difference. As we exited the school, I recall a sprinkling of SA wearing their power-affirming swastika armbands standing by impassively as a swarm of jeering screeching women and truculent neighborhood kids, catching sight of us, surged forward…our invincible maid stepped forward…with an expression of someone not to be trifled with….Her fury more than matched that of my antagonist….While playing with several boys, I recall, one of them asked: “Bist du narrish?” When I inquired at home, my parents were amused at my having confused arish, which means Aryan, with narrish, meaning daft or nuts. The incident hardly registered until a few weeks later, when several grim-faced SA enforcers, driven by self-righteous anger, invaded the tiny enclave screaming, “Juden Raus!” (Jews Out!)….Overnight my familiar world was defamiliarized. Could this be the origin of my fascination with the quotidian – the familiar everyday world? (25)
Sacha Baron Cohen has, to be sure, played the schlemiel character in nearly every one of his productions. From Ali G to Borat, we see that Cohen prefers to cast and create comical characters with a schlemiel sensibility. To be sure, Cohen has in many ways taken on the legacy of Charlie Chaplin (who Hannah Arendt saw as a quintessential schlemiel who changed American and Western Culture). She saw the schlemiel as a charming “lord of dreams,” who challenged culture by siding with nature (over culture and nationalism) or with the immigrant (Chaplin) against the world. The schlemiel is the “odd one out,” the charming pariah, a “man of the people.” She saw the greatest challenge to Chaplin’s schlemiel, which she thinks he lost, in his film, The Great Dictator (1940).
In the film, Chaplin plays a barber (schlemiel simpleton, everyman) and a dictator (who happen to look alike). The Barber gets to play the dictator in a key moment, making him look like a schlemiel and contrasting him to the schlemiel barber (the everyman, the simpleton, the real schlemiel) who, looking like Hynkel, was given an opportunity to “trade places” and defeat him thorough humor. But, argues Arendt, in her “Jew as Pariah” essay, that Chaplin fails to end Hitler’s career through mockery and is replaced with a character who goes from a schlemiel (Clark Kent) to a Hero (Superman). She was wrong.
The schlemiel lives on in Jewish American and American comedy. From “Gimpel the Fool” and Jerry Lewis’s Nutty Professor (1963)to Spaceballs (1987) and Forest Gump (1994) and Seinfeld, the schlemiel has become an American icon. Woody Allen, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Bruce Jay Friedman, Larry David, and many others wrote schlemiel comedies for film and TV that received Academy Awards and Emmys. Hollywood writers and comic actors like Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Jack Black, and a host of others have made the schlemiel central to their comedy.
What makes Sacha Baron Cohen so unique is that he – fully aware of this comic tradition – wanted to make a schlemiel character that addressed things that he didn’t want to hide in his comic character, like anti-Semitism, Jewishness, and serious misconceptions about reality made from limited knowledge and experience – from Ali G, to Borat (2006) and TheDictator (2012). He uses the character to – as Ruth Wisse says about the schlemiel – to “challenge the philosophical and political status quo.”
To be sure, Cohen turns back to where Chaplin left off in The Great Dictator and created a film that brought it into a contemporary context, taken Iranian dictators to task through humor. Cohen wants to make the schlemiel relevant in ways that Apatow, Rogen, and others have failed to do.
With his upcoming animated special for HBO on Chelm – a village of schlemiel characters that writers like IB Singer and cultural critics and writers like Irving Howe and Saul Bellow made popular in the post-WWII-Era by creating kids books dedicated to these stories, illustrating them – Sasha Baron Cohen has returned to schlemiel roots. The Chelm stories are, according to schlemiel scholars, Ruth Wisse and Sanford Pinsker, folkloric sources for the schlemiel character (although this lineage may go back farther). Jewish people from Generation X as well as Baby Boomers, are familiar with the Chelm stories, growing up with them. Cohen is refreshing these comical stories for this generation. Children will now be able to access this.
According to JTA, “Cohen will develop the animated special “Chelm: The Smartest Place on Earth” for HBO Max alongside Mike Judge and Greg Daniels, known for “King of the Hill,” and Michael Koman, a former writer on “Nathan For You” and “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.” Cohen will also narrate the special.
The HBO Max press release indicates that the show will be geared towards younger audiences, marking a departure from most of Cohen’s adult-oriented humor.
“This unique project will breathe new, hysterical life into the nonsensical Chelmic wisdom that originated from this imaginary city of folks who aren’t quite the sharpest tools in the shed,” Amy Friedman, head of kids and family programming at HBO parent company Warner Bros., said in the release.
The magic of the schlemiel is that it has the potential of bringing people together – through laughter – rather than breaking us apart. The schlemiel character – whether we see him in Woody Allen, Adam Sandler, or Cohen – is endearing because, at his or her base, is a deep kind of simplicity, humility, and humanity that touches our hearts. We need to laugh at ourselves, and the schlemiel reminds us that our high and mighty ideas and passions are, ultimately, ridiculous.
There is something very spiritual about all this, as IB Singer, Malamud, Bellow, and many others knew. Cohen knows it as as well. That’s why he wants to bring these stories to children. They embody the spirit of the schlemiel (as we see in Sholom Aleichem’s Motl, the Cantors Son).
This will set a new benchmark for the schlemiel character and bring it to a new audience and future, bringing a sense ofJewishness and its contributions to our world via wit and comedy!
In 1946, in the wake of the Holocaust, Jean-Paul Sartre published Reflexions sur la Quesion Juive. The collection of essays was renamed, translated as Anti-Semite and Jew (my edition is from 1965, Schocken Books). Sartre’s book was reprinted over twelve times, and in many languages. The book presents a reading of anti-Semitism and the anti-Semitic character as well as the figure of Jewish self-hatred and assimilation (what he calls Jewish in-authenticity).
It’s fascinating to read this book today, seventy-six years later, to see how a non-Jewish philosopher frames and explains not just anti-Semitism but also what it means to be a Jew in a French or modern society. What interests me, most, is how his reading of the Jewish body and gestures sets apart the schlemiel character (and not just the Jew) from others. It’s hyper-self consciousness and a performative kind of relationship to one’s body that, Sartre argues, upsets the anti-Semite who sees a relationship between vitalism and a relationship with the body that the Jew lacks.
Sartre sees anti-Semitism not as an “opinion” or “idea.” He sees it as a passion:
He is a Jew, the son of Jews, recognizable by his physique, by the color of his hair, by this clothing perhaps, and, so they say, by his character. Anti-Semitism does not fall with the category of ideas protected by the right of free opinion.
Indeed, it is something other than an idea. It is first of all a passion. (10)
Sartre goes on to list several examples of this passion which, as he shows, ignore reason altogether. It is a hatred based on a passion. The main distinction used by the anti-semite is between a kind of mystical (land-based, nationalistic) particularity and an abstract modern universalism (which is “Jewish”).
The anti-Semite can conceive only of a particular type of primitive ownership of land based on a veritable mystical rapport, in which the thing possessed and the possessor are united by a bond of mystical participation; he is the poet of real property. It transfigures the proprietor and endows him with a special and concrete sensibility. To be sure, this sensibility ignores eternal truths of universal values: the universal is Jewish, since it is an object of intelligence. What this subtle sense seizes upon is precisely that which the intelligence cannot perceive. (24)
Sartre calls anti-semitism a “poor man’s snobbery”(26) because it appeals to a mystical sense of national propriety. In contrast to Jews who don’t understand this mystical attachment to the land and nation, “true Frenchmen, good Frenchmen, are all equal, for each of them possesses for himself alone France whole and indivisible”(26).
Drawing on his notions of existentialism, Sartre sees the anti-Semite as in-authentic and fleeing responsibility and true freedom:
If it is agreed that man may be defined as a being having freedom within the limits of his situation, then it is easy to see that the exercise of this freedom may be considered authentic or inauthentic according to the choices made in the situation. Authenticity, is almost needless to say, consists in having a true and lucid consciousness of the situation, in assuming the responsibilities and risks that it involves, in accepting it in pride or humiliation, sometimes in horror and hate. (90)
Sartre uses this framework, as well, to make a distinction between an authentic and an inauthentic Jew:
And the Jew does not escape this rule: authenticity for him is to live to the full his condition as a Jew; inauthenticity is to deny it or to attempt to escape from it. Inauthenticity is no doubt more tempting for him than for other men, because the situation which he has to lay claim to and to live is quite simply that of a martyr.
What does this mean?
Can the authentic Jew only be a victim?
Sartre suggests this, strangely enough – two years before the Jewish people started an independent Jewish State – because “Jews neither have a community of interests nor a community of beliefs. They do not have the same fatherland; they have no history. The sole tie that binds them is the hostility and disdain of the societies that surround them. Thus the authentic Jew is the one who asserts this claim in the face of the disdain shown toward him”(91).
In other words, Jews, to be authentic, must be openly hostile and disdain the societies that make them into anti-Semitics caricatures. They cannot be Frenchmen or Germans. Those cultures refuse to accept them and they must show anger and disdain at this to be authentic.
The post-Holocaust thinker, Jean Amery, took Sartre seriously and, in the wake of the Holocaust and the birth of the Jewish State in 1948 embraced Zionism. In his important book, At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities, Amery illustrates his authenticity in Sartre’s sense by describing his major realization that he was a Jew when he read, for the first time, the Nazi’s Nuremberg Laws in the paper. He realized that he was the other and could not be an Austrian or German. That would be inauthentic. He embraced the situation, as Sartre might say, by realizing and expressing his disdain for German anti-Semities. The Jewish State was his opportunity to freely embrace a collective situation and solidarity with other Jews.
To mark a point of contrast, I’d like to point how thinkers like Irving Howe have interpreted Sartre’s reading of Jewishness. As I noted in an another blog post, Howe sees the flaw of Sartre’s reading in terms of this ahistorical frame. There, I note the following:
Howe points out, immediately before he even starts commenting on Sartre’s book, that even flawed books can prompt insight. And this foreshadows his commentary on Sartre which, if anything, prompted him to think on a much deeper level not just about the meaning of the Holocaust but about the meaning of Jewishness:
There are times when a flawed piece of writing is more valuable than a “correct” one – honest confusions, incomplete strivings can stimulate others to think better. So it was with Sartre’s little book. Decades later it is easy enough to spot its errors, but at the tie time the book came out, it was tremendously stimulating. (254)
Howe begins his commentary by going straight to Sartre’s definition of a Jew, a definition that Howe will take as the main point of his criticism:
“The Jew” – an abstraction he could not avoid – is defined by Sartre by his “situation.” This “situation” is an ensemble of conditions and environments signifying both the relentless pressures of the anti-Semite and the tepid defenses of the democrat who is prepared to defend the Jew but not as a Jew, only as abstract “man.” A Jew, writes Sartre, “is anyone who for any reason calls himself such or is called such in any community whose practices take note of the distinction.” Yet, despite the persistence of this “distinction” Sartre comes to the odd conclusion that the Jews “have no history. What creates the Jew so to speak, and enables his twisted precarious survival, is the all-but-universal enmity he incurs. (254)
What bother’s Howe most in Sartre’s claim that Jews don’t have a history. By saying that a Jew is a Jew by virtue of this or that “situation” is, for Howe, a bad reading that must be exposed. Sartre’s book suffers from “an extreme ahistoricity. It reduced both the Jew and the anti-Semite to bloodless, timeless essences, and failed to ask what might be the origin of anti-Semitism or, still more important, the reasons for its persistence”(255).
And this failure to grasp the Jew and to reduce the Jew to something ahistorical is something that Howe associates with a Marxist framework: “Sartre’s conclusion, so lame after his analytic fireworks, came to little more than a version of the Marxist notion that anti-Semitism is the consequence, or index, of the social wrongs of capitalist society, and that with socialism this blight would wither away”(255).
Howe takes Sartre’s logic to its Marxist conclusion by suggesting that, in Sartre’s view, since Jews had no “history” or “community of interest,” and once they were “n longer plagued by pathological enemies,” they would then “freely dissolve themselves into the encasing classless society”(255). Howe sarcastically notes that Sartre can’t imagine the possibility of “Frenchmen becoming Jews”(255). This would turn Sartre’s scenario “upside down.”
What Sartre failed to see, according to Howe, is the fact that one “could locate” the “situation” of the Jews in a “traditional essence.” Sartre saw the Jews as merely an effect of a situation and a people without history or freedom: “He did not see it sufficiently as a persistent choosing of identity, a heroic self-assertion”(255).
Returning to Sartre’s ahistorical reading of authenticity and inauthenticity, I want to follow through his logic and how it reflects on the Jewish body and its relation to flight and Jewish self-hatred. Sartre notes that the inauthentic Jew is one who is in “flight” from the situation Jean Amery confronted, attempting to deny his Jewisheness:
In a word, the inauthentic Jews are men whom other men take for Jews and who have decided to run away from this insupportable situation. The result is that they display various types of behavior not all of which are present at the same time in the same person but each of which may be characterized as an avenue of flight. The anti-Semite by collecting and assembling these distinct and often incompatible avenues of flight has traced out a monstrous portrait of the Jew in general; at the same time he explains these free efforts to escape from a painful situation as hereditary traits, engraved on the very body of Israel and, consequently, incapable of modification. (93)
Sartre’s claim that the anti-Semitic caricature (“monstrous portrait of the Jew in general”) originates in the “avenues of flight” of the inauthentic Jew and its being “engraved on the very body of Israel” – is telling. (It’s interesting to note in passing that Gilles Deleuze uses this idea of “lines of flight” in his reading of comedy and “nomadic creativity”.)
Lines of flight are to be understood, Sartre tells us, by paying close attention to situations Jews are put in. They inform a turn to being a “complicated being who passes his time in self-analysis”(94).
For my part, I recognize that the effort to escape produces in some Jews – for the most part intellectuals – an almost continuously reflective attitude….This reflective behavior is not inherited. It is an avenue of flight, and it is we who force the Jew to flee. (94)
Sartre goes so far as to argue that Jews who are overly complex, self-conscious, and intellectual are inauthentic but sees this in terms of a kind of anxious denial of Jewishness: “He has allowed himself to be persuaded by the anti-Semites; he is the first victim of their propaganda. He admits with them that, if there is a Jew, he must have the characteristics with which this particular malevolence endows him, and his effort is to constitute himself a martyr, in the proper sense of the term, to prove in his person that there are no Jews”(95).
The complexity is found in what Sander Gilman calls “living schlemiels” in his book Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Secret Language of the Jews. These are Jews, like Heinrich Heine and Ludwig Borne who try to deny their Jewishness but end up realizing that this denial doesn’t make them acceptable to Germans. Judaism was Heine’s “misfortune.” But that has a dark comical sense if one looks at his life and his poetry. Heine called himself a schlemiel poet, as Hannah Arendt points out. Perhaps, Sartre would have seen this as an “avenue of flight” but, then again, the irony and complexity of the schlemiel, for Arendt, is a form of cultural critique. The schlemiel is a variety of the pariah. But, for Arendt, it could also be seen as a kind of worldlessness and self-hatred, as we see in Rachel Varnhagen.
Sartre sees the universalism that Heine and Varnhagen envisioned as their way into German culture as a key point of flight. Anti-Semitism is obsessed with particularism and despises universalism, but this universalism itself is at conflict with nationalism.
This universalism, this critical rationalism, is what one normally finds in the democrat. In his abstract liberalism, he affirms that Jews, Chinese, Negroes ought to have the same rights as other members of society, but he demands these rights for them as men, not as concrete and individual products of history. Thus certain Jews look at their own personalities with the eyes of the democrat. Haunted by the specter of violence, by the unassimilated residues of particularist and warrior societies, they dream of a contractual community in which thought itself would be established under the form of contract….and the in which the “social contract” would be the sole collective bond. The Jews are the mildest of men, passionately hostile to violence. That obstinate sweetness which they conserve in the midst of the most atrocious persecution, that sense of justice and reason which they put up as their sole defence against a hostile, brutal, unjust society, is perhaps the best part of the message they bring to us and the true mark of its greatness. (117-118)
Because this belief is something beyond the national, in the “social contract,” the anti-Semite sees this as a “permanent threat to national ties and French values”(118). The anti-Semite doesn’t see the “obstinate sweetness” and the hostility against violence as a “true mark of greatness” ; they see it as a threat.
In terms of the body and life, the body of the Jew is seen as different from the body of the Aryan or Frenchman who has a mystical connection to his or her land: “it possesses” that “same profound and mystical participation which assures them the enjoyment of their land and culture”(119). The national body is seen as graceful, vital, and noble (119); in contrast, the Jewish body is a means to an end, it is mechanical, unconnected to the land or a national culture (122-125).
The anti-Semite sees awkwardness and a kind of performative relationship to oneself and one’s body as a sign of Jewishness. The comical body of the Jew shows that they are to self-conscious and complex to have a relationship to the body that is deemed organic and meaningful.
To be sure, the Jew was seen by many anti-Semites, like Wagner, as someone who has no culture or land of his own and mimics and appropriates the culture of others. Without essence, the Jew is, like Woody Allen’s Zelig, a chameleon. His relationship to national identity is performative and doesn’t draw on the mystical relationship with the land. It is, for this reason, not to be trusted by the anti-Semite.
Sartre sees the desire to assimilate (and the anxiety that goes along with it) as an “avenue of flight.” In other words, the very things that we see in Allen’s schlemiel characters (like Zelig) is a comical inability to assimilate. The way Sartre seems to see it, the only way one can authentically be a Jew is to mock and deride the society that wants him to assimilate. Arendt suggests that this is what Heine does in his comical repudiation of the parvenu.
One can argue that the schlemiel takes its “avenue of flight” and exposes it, comically. But unlike Sartre and echoing Irving Howe, we can say that the “obstinate sweetness” of the schlemiel character is something that is not simply situational; it is historical. Schlemiel humor has, as Ruth Wisse says, given the Jews an “ironic victory” over the anti-Semites and persecutors. It is the best scenario for a people who were exiled from their land and were powerless.
But with Israel, we have a new kind of Jew. One that Jean Amery (and Sartre, on the very last pages of his book) identified with, a Jew who no longer wins ironic victories or falls prey to hope of assimilation and the tension with different national identities. Although the book ends before the beginning of the Jewish State, Sartre recognized this as an important trajectory rather than an “avenue of flight.”