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,
our last ride over
the human hurdles.
They ducked when
they heard us about their heads, they
lied our whinnying
of their be-imagined languages.