A Note on Smallness, Memory & Comedy in Walter Benjamin’s “Berlin Childhood” and Stuart Ross’s “Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew”


At the outset of Berlin Childhood around 1900, Walter Benjamin suggests that something out of his past was calling to him and that he had decided to surrender himself to it.  His memory has a narcotic affect.  But it is teaching him something.  Peter Szondi argues that, for Benjamin, the “search for time past is the disappearance of time as such.”  If that is so, the narcotic and educational affect of the past on Benjamin was a kind of exposure to what he, elsewhere, calls “now-time.”   Benjamin’s words suggest that this endeavor of venturing into the past, however, might be fraught with danger and even sickness:

Several times in my inner life, I had already experienced the process of inoculation as something salutary.  In this situation, too, I resolved to follow suit, and I deliberately called to mind those images which, in exile, are most apt to waken homesickness: images of childhood.    My assumption was that the feeling of longing would no more gain mastery over my spirt than a vaccine does over a healthy body.  I sought to limit its effect through insight into the irretrievability…of the past.  (37)

But as we read through his book of memory, we see that Benjamin, in remembering, is overtaken.  He becomes small.  He enters into what I have, elsewhere, called the “comedy of scale.”  In this becoming, the world becomes animated and all little things speak to the little person.  And in this advent, everything seems new and unique.  Each thing he sees – in his smallness – has a new story to tell.  The world around the little one is an open book with no beginning, middle, or end.  This is what draws Benjamin into his past.  A kind of yearning for smallness is evident in these lines:

The book lay on the table that was much too high. While reading, I could cover my ears.  Hadn’t I already listened to stories in silence like this? Not told by my father, of course.  But sometimes in winter, when I stood by the window in the warm little room, the snowstorm outside told me stories no less mutely.  What it told, to be sure, I could never quite grasp, for always something new and unremittingly dense was breaking through the familiar.  Hardly had a I allied myself, as intimately as possible, to one band of snowflakes, than I realized they had been obliged to yield me up to another which had suddenly entered their midst.  But now the moment had come to follow, in the flurry of letters, the stories that had eluded me at the window.  (59)

I have recently come across a writer who shares this sensibility.  His name is Stuart Ross.  The first book I came across is Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew.  Nearly every page is captivated with smallness.  But this smallness touches on – from the outset – a trauma.

The book starts with a chapter entitled “The Dream.”  In the opening scene, the narrator recalls a moment when his mother – who has lost many family members to the Holocaust and is, herself, a refuge of that world – fired a bullet at a Nazi who lives in Canada.  There is a plot of vengeance in this novel – to be sure – but the child’s world doesn’t dwell in it so much as around it.  The child dwells in small things.  Even the memory of the shooting is small, comical, as it were.  It is caught up in slow moments and in the poetry of detail:

To its surprise, the bullet sailed out of the gun my mother clutched unsteadily in both hands, and a moment later the big man’s yellow hard hat leapt from his thick head, into the air….We gazed up at the hard hat, then down at the man, then back up at the hard hat. From behind the plate-glass window of the hardware store, a stubby guy with a withered left arm and bushy black eyebrows gazed with us.  A pencil poked out from behind his ear. I wondered if he was the same guy with a pencil behind his ear from when I was a kid.

My mother slowly lowered her hands, chewing her bottom lip, as if she were thinking really hard.  Then she carefully placed the gun in the paper Dominion grocery bag by her feet, among the cartons of milk, the bananas, the celery, the cornflakes, the little boxes of powdered Jello-O, the packet of farfel, the length of Chicago 59 salami, and the kosher steaks wrapped in a leaking brown paper.  We had Worcestershire sauce in the fridge at home.  (2)

The dead man – like the narrator – seems to be dreaming:  “His eyes were gently shut, a trickle of black blood leaking neatly from his blue temple.  He lay motionless there, in front of the hardware store in Bathurst Manor Plaza, dreaming of a white, white world”(3).  These lines remind me of Paul Celan’s invocation of snow throughout his book Schneepart (Snowpart) in terms of a world of little things that speak a muted kind of language.  The child’s vision, his memory, is comical because the death is displaced by little things that he sees around him.  Smallness predominates and displaces all moral affect.  It slows everything down.  And as Ross’s narrator points out, it is the child’s proximity to the mother that offers a kind of shelter from the world even if she shoots someone.  Nothing seems real, even the death.  But it does seem new.     There is something at once comic and tragic about all this.  The narrator’s schlemiel character is based on this displacement into smallness.


…to be continued



Three Possibilities: On Fackenheim’s Reading of Spinoza, Emasculation & Zionism


Fackenheim’s revision of Franz Rosenzweig suggests that, after the Holocaust, the reading of Judaism in terms of the “dynamic of contraction” – what Rosenzweig associates with the “Jewish people as (eternal) remnant” – is and must be displaced by the “dynamic of expansion.”  Fackenheim suggests that the establishment of a Jewish State situates this displacement.  However, it must also be completed by us.    Since the “Jewish State requires a dynamic of ingathering, and this in turn requires a dynamic of expansion”(To Mend the World, 92).    This, he argues, is a necessity since, if the Jews are to return to history, then the Jewish people must actively negate the “dynamic of contraction” and the Jewish turn to humility and smallness.

Fackenheim argues that Baruch Spinoza would agree with him on this note.  The rhetoric he uses in his argument suggests that Spinoza had a masculinist view of power and statehood and that the only possibility worthy of self-respect – in the Spinozistic sense – is the support of Israel and Zionism:

In his own time, Spinoza expected all enlightened men to become men-in-general.  Today this is expected of no one but Jews.  In the Soviet Union, Russians, Ukranians, and even Germans are allowed their own language and culture; to Jews they are denied.  In the West enlightened men can be Englishmen, Frenchmen, or Americans; to Israelis this is not readily granted.  And whereas it is considered natural that black Americans identify with Black Africa, Jews are zealots if they identify (or identify too much) with Israel.  During the Holocaust, Jews were murdered by their enemies as Jews.  When their friends came to liberate the survivors they recognized their Jewish identity reluctantly or not at all…For if the first Spinozistic virtue is self-preservation, the highest self-respect, and this for a Jewish man-in-general is unattainable in our time.  When at Auschwitz Jews had no choice but death, Jews elsewhere had no honorable choice but to use every means of coming to their aid.  When Israelis today have no choice but to fight for their life, Jews elsewhere have no honorable choice but to support their struggle…Anti- or non-Zionism remains a possibility for Jews today.  But it is not a possibility without self-respect. (97)

Fackenheim drives this home by using a rhetoric that suggests that any other possibility is self-emasculating.  He argues that Spinoza would concur and would be surprised by those who turned away from this possibility:

Doubtless Spinoza today would be surprised by these turns of events, less so, however, then by yet another: the Jewish religion, in its most authentic forms, no longer emasculates.  If in his own time Spinoza hated Judaism, the essential reason was that, as he saw it, religion had come to seek refuge from life in impotent prayer and self-abasing humility; that it considered passive waiting as a duty and resolute action as a sin. This was so in his time.  Hence, when considering religious Zionism of our time, Spinoza today – for him true piety and religion are bound up with “courage and high-mindedness” – could hate Judaism no more.  He might not love it, but by his own principles, he would be bound to respect it. (97)

After the Holocaust and the establishment of the Jewish State, Fackenheim suggests that what was Judaism – which he also associates with “self-abasing humility” and inaction – is no more.  But it still hinges on a choice.   Which possibility will one embrace?  In his view, if a Jew is to choose anti-Zionism he or she would be considered backward by Spinoza.  His move forward also suggests that all forms of self-abasement and humility – which is something we often find in the schlemiel character – belong to another Judaism.  However, as he notes, both are possibilities.

On the other hand, one can argue that the humility and self-deprecation we find in the schlemiel mark another possibility; namely, the possibility of both dynamics (of expansion and contraction).  Jonathan Safran Foer, in his book Here I Am, tried to bridge both by having Jacob, a schlemiel, go off to Israel to fight as the country goes to war.  Foer maintains the bridge by virtue of Jacob’s dynamics.  He acts and fails to act.  Jacob identifies with his Israeli cousin and relatives, but he knows he is different.  And in the end of the novel, he returns to America.  He contracts.  The American Jew, Foer seems to be telling us, embraces both possibilities.    I call this the possibility of Tzimtzum.

Would Fackenheim, with his either/or logic, accept this as a possibility (a third possibility)? Or would he see Foer’s Jacob character as, ultimately, a non-Zionist failure or a fictional possibility?

On Emil Fackenheim’s Re-vision of Rosenzweig, Jewishness &the Dynamic of Contraction


The schlemiel character is constantly expanding and contracting.  But in the end she always becomes small.  She always seems to be caught up in a comedy of scale.   In their dreams schlemiels are, as Hannah Arendt said of Heinrich Heine’s schlemiel, “lords.”  But they are, in reality, quite small.  They are – as Arendt would say – worldless.  Whether it is Woody Allen, Seth Rogen, or Gretta Gerwig playing the schlemiel, the self-deprecation we see with the schlemiel has become something of a norm.  One expects smallness from this character.   The schlemiel shrinks before some things, but expands before others.    However, in the end, there is always a kind of shoulder shrug or smallness that predominates.

The comedy of scale we find in much schlemiel comedy articulates a Jewishness in terms of contraction.   This notion has its source in the Kabbalah.  In other entries – on Franz Kafka, Gershom Scholem, Michael Wyschogrod, Jonathan Safran Foer, and others – I associate smallness with the Kabbalistic notion of Tzimtum, which, as both Scholem and Wyschogrod point out, is dynamic.  Tzimtzum is a movement of withdrawal (contraction, distance) and beckoning (of nearness, expansion).   Jonathan Safran Foer beautifully illustrates this in his latest novel.  He shows how Tzimtzum relates to the relationship between his two main characters: Jacob and Julia Bloch.  Foer’s use of Tzimtum as a figure in this novel demonstrates that revelation has personal and narrational aspects.  And Jacob, the main character who discovers the meaning of Tzimtzum, is a schlemiel.

Emil Fackenheim dedicates one third of To Mend the World: Foundations of Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought to the tension between Baruch Spinoza and Franz Rosenzweig.  Of the two modern Jewish thinkers, Fackenheim leans more toward Rosenzweig.   He finds that Rosenzweig’s notion of the “new thinking” must be taken to heart by post-Holocaust Jewish thought.  Considering this, he insists that the tradition of Medieval Jewish thought must be reassessed in terms of the new thinking.  What is “old” and in need of revision?  Fackenheim tells us that it is the notion of revelation.

Instead of taking to Saadia Gaon’s claim – which is repeated by Judah HaLevi and Maimoindes – that millions of Jews witnessed the revelation of the giving of the Torah, Fackenheim argues that Rosenzweig called for a different kind of experience of revelation; namely, what he calls “radical empiricism.”  This latter notion suggests the importance of the present moment as a moment of “verification” rather than in terms of a past moment that was witnessed by millions of people.  Revelation is encounter with God which happens now.  It can be verified, now.

This is what Fackenheim, echoing Rosenzweig, calls a “non-fanatical” relation to revelation:

Note well: the concept of revelation.   The “new thinking” cannot wait until it turns into Sinai or Golgatha…Rosenzweig states that whereas the old thinking had “set up for itself the problem of whether God is transcendent or immanent,” the new thinking “narrates how and when the far God becomes near, and the near God far.” (73)

What is the meaning of this narrating which is “not fanatical”?

In part 2 of the Star philosophy becomes “narrating.: the narrating, however, is yet, as it were, an abstract narrating. It is confined to the “far” and “near” God as such and in general.  Only in such abstract generality can the philosophico-theological narration of revelation point backward to Creation as its own presupposition (thus doing justice to paganism); point forward to redemption as its own goal.  (73)

Fackenheim takes note of the “bold invasion of narration into metaphysics” and argues that while “Creation” narrates what “has been” and “Redemption” narrates what will be, Revelation “narrates what always is: in contrast to recovery or anticipation, it is present experience” (75).  This “narration” of revelation is the “heart” of the whole because it “does nothing less than reaffirm in one grand sweep the age-old Jewish commitment to God’s presence in history” (75).

Rosenzweig’s move is to “affirm the love between God and man as reflected in The Song of Songs.  The Rabbi’s reading of the book – like Rosenzweig’s – is not Biblical but is “a deep and bold act of rabbinic Judaism” (76).  This love is particular and universal.  It belongs to someone and to everyone.

But when Rosenzweig relates Judaism to Christianity and Redemption, he de-emphasizes the bold act of love and notes how, in relation to Christianity, the movement of revelation in Judaism is contraction while in Christianity it is expansion:

All secular history deals with expansion.  Power is the basic concept of history because in Christianity revelation began to spread around the world, and thus every expansionist urge, even that which consciously was purely secular, became the unconscious servant of the expansionist movement.   But Judaism, and it alone in all the world, maintains itself by subtraction, by contraction, by the formation of ever new remnants. (Star, 327)

In the end, contraction is the central feature, not love.     However, without narration (which has, at the outset, to do with near and far and then with time), contraction would not be possible.   In relation to revelation, Judaism’s modality is smallness, is the remnant.   The love between the Jewish people and God is more private.  And the Jewish people are a testimony – notes Fackenheim – of the survival of the remnant.  It is a modest kind of survival, however.  The issue of survival, however, is not an issue for Christianity since it is merged with history.  Only the beings outside of history and expansion contract and become small.

In response to this “dynamic” of contraction, Fackenheim argues that Rosenzweig’s identification of Jewishness with a kind of contracting revelation is “overrun by events” (92).  And by events he is alluding to the Holocaust.  It “destroyed” the idea of “the holy remnant” (92) that Rosenzweig extols at the end of The Star of Redemption:

As for the “contracting” dynamic of the Star of Redemption, this is overrun by events; indeed, it is imperative that it be reversed. 

The idea of reversing the “contracting” dynamic of Jewish existence is barely glimpsed yet in the sphere of thought.  It is already actual, however, in the sphere of Jewish life.  In response to the great catastrophe, the Jewish people took one collective step that was able to avert wholesale despair: it restored a Jewish state.  (92)

Instead of “contraction,” the new dynamic is “ingathering”: “The Jewish state requires a dynamic of ingathering, and this in turn requires a dynamic of expansion” (92). Now the dynamic of contraction appears to be a dynamic that must be left behind.   Without expansion, suggests Fackenheim, the Jewish people will disappear.  In other words, smallness doesn’t have a place in the present.  This is “an obvious socio-political necessity” that has been caused by the Holocaust.

After what has occurred, it (expansion) is also a moral imperative and an act of faith. In his own time, Franz Rosenzweig gave the most profound modern account of the Jewish people as a remnant, of this remnant as an “eternal people,” and of this people as eternal because it was in history but not of it.  In our time, we would have to recognize that – for better or for worse but in any case, inevitably and irrevocably – this people has returned to history.  (92)

All of these dynamics fit under the umbrella of what Rosenzweig calls narration.   The dynamic of Tzimtzum is, as Scholem argues, a movement between contraction and expansion.  In Fackenheim, however, one dynamic displaces the other.   The movement of Revelation, for Fackenheim, during our time is one of ingathering and expansion.  The other movement is not something that must be negated; it was negated by virtue of the Holocaust and the establishment of a Jewish state.  In this scenario, one wonders what kind of statement is made through the schlemiel.  In Fackenheim’s paradigm, this character – like Kafka’s “Josephine the mouse singer” – is of the past.  Smallness – in this scenario – is equated with death and a retreat from history.   It is a reaction.

But if the schlemiel is read in terms of the Tzimtzum – which is what JS Foer does in his latest novel – we have a different kind of narration.  What survives with the schlemiel is love.   It may be outside of history and worldless – as Hannah Arendt suggests, elsewhere – but the tzimtzum narrative, which, for Foer, is synonymous with the schlemiel narrative, brings contraction and expansion together into a dynamic that touches all Jews.     The only problem, as many a schlemiel knows, is that sometimes, when revelation is contracted, she forgets her beloved and can’t hear her – as The Song of Songs says – knocking.  As one can see in Foer’s novel (and as in Saul Bellow’s Herzog), the schlemiel can get distracted and – literally and metaphorically – end up separated, alone.

But with the dynamic of Tzimtzum, the schlemiel is not bound by fate. She has a chance for change.  This dynamic – as the Kabbalists knew – is never finished.    However, Fackenheim rejects the dynamic of contraction – which is a part of this dynamic – because he sees a new kind of Jewishness, a new Jewish dynamic – a new thinking – as displacing the old.  The new thinking – consistent with history rather than against history – affirms the dynamic of expansion.  And this leaves us with a few questions.  Which choice is the right one? Does one displace the other?  Has the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel already made the choice for us and is it a matter of listening and adhering to this new historical narrative? If expansion is historically necessary while contraction is unnecessary (because it is ahistorical), does this mean that the schlemiel character has no place in Judaism?  This is only the case if the case for smallness and the schlemiel is no longer being made.   But, echoing Fackenheim, one can say that the fact the schlemiel lives on (and has, in fact, become an American icon) shows us that the Jewish people have not let go of contraction and smallness and that the Holocaust has not destroyed it.  To be sure, it lives on in America and perhaps even in Israel today.


Magical Jews, Great Actresses, and Paranoid Anti-Semitism: On Greta Garbo and Her “Hypnotic” Jewish Agent






Martin Luther – in one of his least friendly moments toward Jews – said that a “Jew is full of idolatry and sorcery as nine cows have hair on their backs, that is: without number and without end.”   Joshua Trachtenberg, in his book The Devil and the Jews: The Medieval Conception of the Jews and its Relation to Modern Anti-Semitism, argues that this belief still existed – during the 1940s, when he wrote this book – in the “backwards regions of Europe” where the Jew “continues to figure as a sorcerer in fables and nursery rhymes”(57).  According to one source that Trachtenberg cites, Jews are said to have  “some secret power which enabled them to suspend, or at least to interfere in, the normal processes of nature”(57).   Trachtenberg argues that Luther was not the first to come up with this notion of Jewish magic.  It is evidenced in “Hellenistic magical papyri” and in the Roman poet, Juvenal who wrote “The Jews sell at cut prices as many dreams as you wish.”   Origen, the early Christian theologian, argued that “magic was a specifically Jewish pursuit”(58).   And this trend took the hold of countless Christians in the Middle Ages who went so far as to claim that Jewish sorcerers “operated through the agency of Satan.  ‘The Master of diabolical art’”(66).   To be sure, the accusation that Jews were magicians was not based on “observed acts of Jews.” On the contrary, argues Trachtenberg, it was an integral part of the medieval conception of the Jews…the magic which Christendom laid at the door of the Jew…was a reflection of beliefs and practices current about Christians”(59).

When I recently came over a reflection on the 1932 MGM film, The Grand Hotel, by Douglas Messerli, I became very interested in the place of Greta Garbo in this film.  She plays an “aging ballerina who wants to be alone.”    In the signature Hollywood scene of her alone in her hotel room, we see a woman who hates herself and can’t play for people anymore.

As the viewer can see, she is stalked.  When he comes out of the shadows and tries to show his love for her, she has no interest.  She wants to be alone and, as the subtext suggests, die alone. And of all places to die, why not in the Grand Hotel in Berlin?

To be sure, Garbo had a mystical kind of presence.  Where did she get this from?

Garbo was Scandanavian.  Sven Hugo Borg, who was her translator, speculated on what the source of her magnetism was.  Drawing on this long history of paranoid projection on Jews, Borg claims that the man who “discovered” Garbo, Mauritz Stiller – a Finnish-Swedish film director of the early 20th century – was a Jewish magician of sorts who hypnotized people.   In his biography of Garbo, he makes this explicit in his description of Stiller:

Stiller was a strange man, an intelligent, cultured gentleman of exotic tastes and artistic passions. In his veins flowed a mixture of Nordic-Slav-Jewish-Magvar blood — a chemical mixture sufficient to create almost any sort of explosion. Von Sternberg is also a strange racial mixture. The two men were very much alike. 

Stiller was ugly, almost hideous in physical appearances. His body was ungainly, his features heavy, lined, gnome-like. His feet were so enormous as to be almost deformed, and his hands, huge, prehensile paws, fitted for the plough. Yet beneath this repellent exterior was hidden a soul both beautiful and artistic. 

The Swedish director searched for a beautiful puppet through whom to express his own artistic self, as did von Sternberg. It was common knowledge in Stockholm for years before he found Garbo. Even the story of that discovery, told in so very many versions, was in itself dramatic.

Garbo was, in other words, the puppet of the Jewish-magician-artist.  He had a “hypnotic influence” over Garbo and the implication is clear: her fame satisfied his desires and he accomplished through a kind of magic.   His description, above, makes it clear that Borg fantasizes Stiller through an anti-Semitic lens.  However, he does note that beneath his grotesque, “gnome-like” features was “hidden a soul both beautiful and artistic.”  This is a mixed reception.  It shares much with James Joyce’s reading of Leopold Bloom who – like Stiller – is depicted as very immersed in the body and materiality while at the same time possessing an artistic soul.  His consciousness – as Joyce’s novel, Ulysses illustrates – is beautiful.

Borg can’t understand Stiller.  He is a “strange man.”  Borg notes this at the end of a reflection he has with Garbo about how people thought she and Stiller were lovers:

”Borg, people say that I am in love with Mauritz, don’t they? That is not true. Borg, I have never been anything to any man, not even Mauritz. I do not love him that way, nor he me. I am afraid of him and I think we are finished as it has been before, although I shall always think he is the greatest man in the world. 

“You have seen me, Borg, sit on his lap and smoke with bins the same cigarette. You have seen him hold me like a child. It is so good when his arms are around me, for sometimes I am afraid. But it is not love, Borg.” And, in spite of all that has been said of Garbo’s love for Stiller, I believe her, for I have seen them often together. ,later, when Garbo and John Gilbert were “going places “ together, Stiller would cail me. 

“Borg,” his low, deep voice would rumble, have you seen Greta?” ”I have not, Mr. Stiller,” I would reply. Is there any message?” ”No,” he would rumble, “ except to tell her to remember what I have taught her never to let life hurt her.”  He knew that she was going about with Gilbert, and his attitude was not that of a jealous man, but of a father who would shield his daughter from hurt Stiller was a strange man. His artistic soul loved the finer, more subtle forms of passion, and it is doubtful if he ever loved a woman—any woman.

Borg can concede that Mauritz loves Garbo like a father and that he was not a jealous man, but he cannot imagine that he loves any women because “his artistic soul loved the finer, more subtle forms of passion.”

What was this strange passion?  Is it metaphyscial?  How could it be greater than any woman, especially Garbo?  This, reflects the anti-Semitic Garbo translator, gives Stiller an other-worldly status.  Jews, it suggests, can’t love.  They can only enjoy the experience of “finer, more subtle forms of passion.”  Here, the modern artist who creates Hollywood is conflated with the Medieval Jewish magician.   His magic, for Borg, has dark roots.  Borg insists it must have something to do with his Jewishness.

This stereotype has had a long life.  It is the anti-thesis of the schlemiel stereotype because it gives the agent power.  However, this power is diabolical. Here what is most diabolical and powerful is art itself.   The 19th century symbolist poet, Charles Baudeliare thought the same thing of the modern artist who, in his essay on laughter, is a magician.   Contrast this to Freud’s reading of the artist – which speaks to the schlemiel character –  as the “day dreamer.”  One is dangerous, the other, is comical.   Borg saw Stiller – and his Jewishness – in a more tragic sense.    While the anti-Semite can fantasize Stiller as a magician who is in control of everything, a schlemiel cannot, as Sander Gilman notes, control the world or himself.    These anti-Semetic fantasies of Jewish power have deep roots and they didn’t die with Borg’s commentary.   Perhaps the schlemiel can remind us how  ridiculous this fantasy is?