Jews Gone Wild: The Adirondacks in the Imagination of Ben Katchor and Saul Bellow

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As a Jew who was born and raised in the Adirondack foothills, I have always been curious as to how my Jewishness was different from my relatives and friends from New York City.  Both of my parents were born and raised in New York City, so this difference, so to speak, hit home.  My father was very cultured and highly educated but, in some ways, I saw him – over the years living in Gloversville New York – become more country-like (and wild).  He became a hybrid of sorts.   I went through a similar process, but in reverse.   I grew up, from his urban perspective, wild.  I ran with the locals and did things that he wouldn’t deem “Jewish.”

Upon leaving Gloversville for university, I spent a lot of time with New Yorkers.  I passionately dove into learning philosophy, literature, and Jewish Studies.  And, in truth, I divorced myself from my rural origins.  (After the death of two of my friends by way of drugs, drinking, and driving wildly – which all happened while I was away in university – I grew to resent these wild origins.)  But years after graduating, I have learned that you can take the boy out of Gloversville but you can’t take Gloversville out of the boy.  Echoing the tension between the urban and the rural, my father has dubbed me a “cosmopolitan hick.”

To be sure, the relationship of the Jew to Upstate New York is always on my mind.  So when I come across fiction that takes Jews in Upstate New York as a topic, I am deeply interested.   But what I have found, thus far, has been very troubling.  The associations many writers and artists have of the Jew in Upstate New York are, to be sure, very negative.  These images are associated with literally going wild.  In the Catskills and New York City one can be a schlemiel (in the most Jewish sense); but in the Adirondacks, the Jew experiences evil, depredation, and loses all vestiges of Jewishness.   The journey of the Jew to Upstate New York is – for some Jewish-American writers and artists – the journey of the American Jew: from Jewishness to something…wild.

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When I first read The Jew of New York – a graphic novel by Ben Katchor – I was astonished by how he represented the Jew who went off into the wilds of Upstate New York.   First of all, we must keep in mind that Ben Katchor was raised in New York and, in many of his comic strips, it is more than obvious that he sees the world through the complex lenses of a New York Jew.  In his graphic novel, he presents his readers/viewers with a narrative and a host of comic strip images of a Jew who went to Upstate New York in the 19th century.  In his narrative, the movement of the Jew – who is named Moishe Ketzelbourd – from New York City to Upstate New York is allegorical; it is the movement of assimilation and it, literally, is about a Jew gone wild.  In fact, in his comic strip, we see the Jew literally become-a-wild animal by virtue of his experiences in Upstate New York.  The main character, like my father, deals in animal skins and furs.  And this dealing brings him, so to speak, closer to the wild of America; so close that he eventually merges with the animal.  At the end of the story, he is brought back to New York City to be shown in a Yiddish theater as an American-Indian-Jew (one of the “lost tribes”); he is the the Jew who-went-Upstate-and-Became-an-Animal.  In the most intense scene in the book, he leaps off the stage and is killed.

Perhaps this allegorical comic strip alerts us to the dangers of capitalism and assimilation in America; but, ultimately, it is a representation of a specific place in New York State which has a mythological location in the urban-imagination.  And in this place the Jew is transformed into something of an animal.

Another interesting story I recently came across – written by Saul Bellow – is entitled “The Old System.”  It tells the story of Dr. Braun, an old veterinarian.  In the beginning of the story we meet a Dr. Braun who is very cynical and broods over the possibility that he might be no different from an animal. However, to counter this frightening thought, he comes to the realization that he can say: “I am.”

The feeling of necessary existence might be the aggressive, instinctive vitality we share with a dog or an ape.  The difference being the power of the mind or spirit to declare I am.

But as he broods more on this, he realizes that he is not pleased with this Cartesian conclusion or even with its existential of Buddhist alternative: that “he is not.”  Something else needs to be addressed, something that can help him to address his fascination with the question of man’s animality.

Drawing the reader into this reality, the narrator shows Dr. Braun not so much as a thinker as a person who is fully immersed in his body.  Cleaning his body is no consolation for the character; the narrator tells us that cleaning his body does not bring “order” to the world or answer Dr. Braun’s questions. This suggests that his joy lies elsewhere; in a body that is not “clean.” What could this be?

As he makes his breakfast, Dr. Braun thinks more and more about the meaning of civility, progress, and science (as James Joyces’s “anti-hero” Leopold Bloom does when we first meet him in Ulysses).  He wonders: has science and progress – in making us more abstract – detached us from something more organic, something wild.

As he thinks about this, he stumbles across memories of youth that he had buried away.  As we learn, he had another life.  He grew up as a Jew in Upstate New York. Dr. Braun is raised in Albany New York by his Godmother – Aunt Rose.  She, like Upstate New York, is described as “hard.” Her hardness is the “hardness of reckoning, hardness of tactics, hardness of dealing and speech.”   The narrator relates this hardness to what he dubs the “comic ugliness” of Upstate New York which grows by the “will of a demon spirit.”

She was building the kingdom with the labor of Uncle Braun and the strength of her obedient songs.  They had their shop, their real estate. They had a hideous synagogue of such red brick as seemed to grow in upstate New York by the will of a demon spirit charged with the ugliness of America in that epoch, which saw to it that a particular comic ugliness should influence the soul of man.  In Schenectady, in Troy, in Gloversville, Mechanicville, as far west as Buffalo. There was a sour paper mustiness in this synagogue.  (305, Jewish Stories ed. Irving Howe)

As the story goes on, we see this ugliness show its darker (less comical) side.  But it doesn’t do so in Albany; rather, it is in the wilds of the Adirondacks that we bear witness to Braun’s primal scene (wherein he goes from being a Jew to an animal of sorts).   Dr. Braun’s first sexual experience (at the age of seven) happens in a cabin in the Adirondacks.   At the cabin, we meet his cousins from the Adirondacks.  His cousin “Mutt” is a Jew-gone-wild:

Braun slept in the attic with his Cousin Mutt.  Mutt danced in his undershirt in the mourning, naked beneath, and sang an obscene song:

‘I stuck my nose up a nanny goat’s ass and the smell was enough to blind me’

He was leaping on bare feet, and his thing bounded from thigh to thigh.  Going into saloons to collect empty bottles, he had learned this.

Mutt’s sister – and Braun’s other cousin – is “fat Tina.”  Braun is essentially drawn into a sexual encounter with her.  Like Mutt, Tina is a Jew who has been made wild by Upstate New York.  She has thrown all civility to the winds.  And the narrator describes all the details of their sexual encounter putting a large emphasis on a physical animality:

She lifted her dress and petticoat to cool him and with her body. The belly and thighs swelled before him.  Braun felt too small and frail for this ecstasy…she rested her legs upon him, spread them wider, wider.  He saw the barborous and coaly hear.  He saw the red within.  She parted the folds with her fingers..  Parting, her dark nostrils opened, the eyes looked white in her head. (306)

Following this, we see Braun become wild with “her sexual odor” and later, “when he was playing in the yard,” he sees his cousin Isaac with his fiancée in the trees “embracing sweetly.”  The narrator tells us that Braun “tried to go with them,” which may imply that he tried to join in the sexual gestures.  But he is “sent away.”   When, like an animal, Braun goes back toward Isaac, he is turned “roughly” away.  In response,

little Braun then tried to kill his cousin.  He wanted with all his heart to club Isaac with a piece of wood. He was still struck by the incomparable happiness, the luxury of pure murderousness.  Rushing toward Isaac, who took him by the back of the neck, twisted his head, held him under the pump. (307)

What I find most startling about this and Katchor’s descriptions about what happens to Jews in Upstate New York is the fact that this area is associated with the end of Jewishness and the beginning of an American-life which is outlined by wildness, hardness, and barbarism.  These visions of Upstate New York both include a character who becomes murderous in his animality.  And as Bellow’s narrator tells us, he really enjoys his sexuality and violence.  To be sure, this is what troubles Dr. Braun most about his existence.  Deep down inside, he feels, as an American-Jew, that he feels closer to animality than to Jewishness.  And this feeling was fostered by his experiences in the Adirondacks.

I can’t say the same for myself, however.  To be sure, I’m astonished at how much the life of a Jew growing up in the Adirondacks has become such a charged figure (even a mythical figure) of Bellow and Katchor’s imaginations.  But, at the same time, I can understand what drives these representations as I did experience something of a wild, post-Jewish life growing up – a life in which I was surrounded by people who would take pride in being called a dog.    I was (almost) one of them…the meaning of this almost, however, has much more to do with the schlemiel…

….to be continued

7 thoughts on “Jews Gone Wild: The Adirondacks in the Imagination of Ben Katchor and Saul Bellow

    • For these authors, New York City doesn’t pose the greatest threat to Jewishness. It’s out there….in the American wilderness that they find the greatest threats. In America, Jews have, historically, congregated in cities. My own family, for instance, fins it’s first American roots in the city.

  1. Robert Caro writes that Robert Moses’s ascent to great power begins as he walks alone for great stretches of time in the wilderness of the Robber Baron’s Long Island. The passages don’t explicitly read as Moses losing the last vestiges of his Jewishness, but its certainly there.

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