Irving Howe, Jewishness, and the Schlemiel – Take 2


From my own experiences and those of many of my friends, I have learned that many American Jews are perplexed about what it means to be Jewish while others, unfortunately, have become indifferent.  Those who are perplexed can turn to many different things for a resolution: some people try to understand their Judaism by turning to religion, some turn toward nationalism (Israel, Zionism, etc), some turn against Zionism, some turn to politics and justice, some turn to philosophers like Emmanuel Levinas or Martin Buber, some turn to Buddhism (Ju-Bus),  some turn to battles over sexuality and gender, some turn to music, and others turn to environmentalism,

Irving Howe’s search for the meaning of Jewishness differs from these.  His search was inseparable from his interest in the relationship of Jewish history to modernity and to Yiddish and Jewish American Literature.  It is also inseparable from his understanding of Jewish humor.  As I pointed out in the last blog entry on Howe, he went through many different readings of Jewishness and concluded that Jewishness is a “vague thing.”  Nonetheless, this doesn’t keep him from closely researching it and finding resonance in Jewish American literature.  What concerned him most was the future of Jewish American literature and Jewishness.   Relating to this, he thought that with the loss of the Jewish immigrant experience, which he believed were inseparable from places like New York and Chicago, Jewishness would also be lost.  As I pointed out in the blog entry, Howe believed that Jewish-American literature had no future because people no longer had a “felt” relationship to Jewish tradition or Yiddish.

Howe’s sense of Jewishness is, to be sure, found in his relationship with this loss of tradition and the transition from having a tradition to draw on to having no tradition.  But there is more to the story.  Of all the thinkers and writers that Howe mentions in relation to Jewishness (which include Osip Mandelstam, Saul Bellow, Harold Rosenberg, Isaac Rosenfeld, and Phillip Rahv), he finds his greatest affinity with the Nobel Prize winning author, Saul Bellow’s tragic-comic reading of Jewishness.  His own sense of Jewishness, which amounts to a big, sad, question mark, draws on what he says about Bellow in his introduction to Jewish American Stories and on what he says in a shared introduction to The Best of Sholom Aleichem (an introduction he shares, by way of letters (!), with Ruth Wisse).   Moreover, what he says about Jewishness vis-à-vis Bellow is nothing more nor less than his reading of the schlemiel.

Regarding Bellow’s understanding of Jewishness, Howe cites Bellow, in his introduction to Jewish American Stories, as saying:

In Jewish stories laughter and trembling are so curiously intermingled that it is not easy to determine the relation of the two.  At times laughter seems to restore the equilibrium of sanity; at times the figures of the story or parable, appear to invite or encourage trembling with the secret aim of overcoming it by means of laughter.

Immediately following this, Howe does something unusual.  He cites himself and gives his reading of Jewishness in terms of the perplexity of post-assimilation:

They (Jews) had achieved ‘a normal life’ in America, and for those with any taste for self-scrutiny, it was a life permanently beset by the question: who am I and why do I so declare myself? To live with this problem in a state of useful discontent was perhaps what it now meant to be a Jew.

Howe identifies himself with “those (Jews) who have any taste for self-scrutiny.”  And he also identifies with Bellow.  To be sure, later in the introduction, he confirms his identification with Bellow when he writes: “For what I want to assert is that the dominant American Jewish style is the one brought to a pitch by Saul Bellow and imitated and modified by a good many others.”  And, I would add, by himself.

Taken together, Howe is telling us that his “self-scrutiny” about what it means to be a Jew can be found in Bellow’s reflection on Jewish humor and its relationship to suffering and “trembling.”  Indeed, the exchange between the comic and the horrific is of great interest to Howe.   And this has a lot to do with what he thinks is Jewish, today.

His reading of Sholom Aleichem – as espoused in his introduction to The Best Sholom Aleichem Stories – is permeated by such a comic-horrific “feeling.”   With respect to the schlemiel, this reading is brought to its breaking point by way of his dialogue (in the shared introduction to that book) with the noted scholar of the Schlemiel, Ruth Wisse.

In the next blog entry, I will turn to this dialogue so as to tease out what is at stake when one reads the schlemiel in terms of an exchange between laughter and horror.  The stakes involve the relationship of literature and reflection to history.  As I have pointed out above, for Howe, this is his way of relating to Jewishness and it differs from those who seek to understand what it means to be Jewish by way of religion, Zionism, post-Zionism, etc.  And, unlike these other ways of seeking Jewishness, it underscores the importance of the schlemiel for understanding what it means to be Jewish.

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