A birthday is an event, a happening that unfolds in time. And today is my birthday. But instead of dwelling on the day or on time, one of the things I always like to do for my birthday is to get in my car and travel to places in the United States where I went through some kind of transformation or rebirth. (And one of these places is where I was born and raised, for real: Gloversville, New York. Some authors, like Saul Bellow and Ben Katchor, envision it as a “wild” place.) But there are so many and these places are scattered all over this country. So I can’t possibly go to all of them; for this reason, I usually stick to driving to different places in New York State (a state where I grew up and where I received my “higher” education). I foolishly return to these places hoping that some memory or experience of the transformations that went down in this or that area will – once again – come to life. By simply walking through the streets, breathing the air, hearing sounds, or smelling this or that thing, I imagine that I will be transported, so to speak, back in time.
But, more often than not, nothing happens. And I end up spending a day in this or that “place of (re)birth” aimlessly drifting around. Instead of a new beginning, I seem to be caught up in a series of movements out into American spaces that are changing at a rapid pace. But I’m not disappointed. Like a schlemiel, I just shrug my shoulders and move on. My expectations don’t meet with reality, and that’s familiar enough. But that won’t keep me from imagining things that may or may not happen at this or that place. Even though I may check myself and say myself that “wherever you go, nothing will happen; don’t imagine too much, you will be disappointed,” I still foolishly like to dream that I am going somewhere that something might happen. After all, something is bound to happen and perhaps I will learn or experience something transformational in this or that place.
Dreaming about places is something I’m good at. But, in truth, it’s something a lot of Jews are good at, too. There is something about dreaming about places that is very Jewish; after all, Jews have (and still do) dream of the end of Exile and the Return to Jerusalem (“next year in Jerusalem”) or Israel. But, on the other hand, Jews in America are good at dreaming about their past, present, and future experiences. This dreaminess may come out when Jews speak about their experiences. And this is where the fictional enterprise becomes larger than life and even place.
In truth, when I really think about it, what I care about more than this or that place is this or that story. In places where I went to, what was most transformational for me was not the place; rather, it was the fact that I bore witness to this or that great story or I myself crafted a great story (or performance) in this or that place. This or that story – told with the most unexpected nuances – are what kept the dream alive. The place, oftentimes, was arbitrary.
I grew up with a storyteller. On a daily basis, my father would tell stories either to me or to his best friend (David Kaplan z’l) about this or that person, place, thing, or event in time. But, as I realized at an early age, my father didn’t simply animate the thing or experience and make me want to eat, visit, see, hear, or feel this or that thing he talked about; he also made me acutely aware of the language, gesture, and tone he used to animate these things. His dreams resided in his performances; and I was often his sole audience. A smile or a look of astonishment from me or those around him was the key to making his dreams come to life. These were the places he visited. And though we traveled around the USA, what I remember most is not the place so much as what my father said in this or that place.
And in this, I aver, he was a schlemiel. The schlemiel animates the place not vice versa. And he does this by virtue of his dream-like performances of language and gestures.
In Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination, Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi begins her reflections on the schlemiel by way of a reading of Mendel Mocher Sforim’s Benjamin the III. Although the plot is based on a journey that the two protagonists are going to make outside of their small village, we learn that they don’t make it to any fantastic places outside the Pale of Settlement. They stay within its boundaries. And what they take in, more than anything, are their experiences. They shine in the telling and retelling. Indeed, the novel is more about speech and storytelling than in actually going on. Ruth Wisse and Sidrah Ezrahi agree on this point: language is, during the Exile, a Jews surrogate for power and sovereignty. Paraphrasing George Steiner, they would say that speech (the text) is the schlemiel’s homeland.
Ezrahi sees this text as the birth of a schlemiel who would, in his travels, end up in America where s/he would do the same thing: live on experiences, things, and stories about them. In the retelling, everything would be perpetually rediscovered and renewed. In contrast to this, Ezrahi puts the “desire for place” (homecoming) which is based on a desire to return to Israel. As I noted above, this desire is very “Jewish” and has lasted for centuries. It can be argued that it existed prior to the Exile from Jerusalem; in fact, the Torah/Bible tells that story which beings with the promise God makes to Abraham regarding “the land” (ha’aretz).
Ezrahi argues that, with the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, this all changes. Now, the dream is a reality. (Theodor Herzl once said, in this regard, “will it and it’s not a dream.”) Israel, says Ezrahi, Is-Real. She insists that the dream of Israel continue but in terms of re-imagining the relation of the Jewish people to the Land which, with all the things going on right now, is in flux. The sensibility that does this, by and large, is physically rooted in the land of Israel.
In contrast to this, we have the sensibility of Exile; and the dreamers of Exile are in America. She calls this country – in the spirit of Hollywood – the “land of dreams.” And, as I noted above with my father, these dreams are all about finding new experiences and talking about them. These are the speech (or gestural) “events” that concern American Jews.
On my birthday, I can’t help but reflect on this powerful thesis. I lived through this allure of experience. When I think about one of my greatest American experiences, I remember my travels across country: the experiences, the conversations, and the happenings. And the stories that followed in their wake were the very thing that gave me a sense of life and vitality. Ezrahi would say that these experiences (and my recounting of them) are an illustration of “Diasporic privilege.”
Until I read her book, I never thought of the enthrallment for experience and its retelling that my father bequeathed to me (as an inheritance of sorts) as a “diasporic privilege.” Nonetheless, I feel no shame over the fact that I draw life from experience and its retelling. I don’t derive it from this or that physical place, so much as this or that place in this or that conversation or performance. This is my world and perhaps this is a world of exile. Regardless, I think that these are my birthplaces (in the plural). There is truly something to idea that one can reinvent or rediscover oneself in the telling of this or that experience; and this can only happen when we tell this to someone. It has a personal dimension.
But the important thing to keep in mind is that there is no guarantee that something may happen; its contingent on many factors. Nonetheless, one of the important things about the schlemiel can be found in the fact the schlemiel dreams big about the happening. He hopes that something may happen in time; but when nothing happens, he just moves on to another place.
That’s what Gimpel does at the end of I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool.” He constantly puts himself in a situation where people are given the opportunity to be honest to him, but they all lie. And after he exhausts all of the possibilities for trust, he leaves. He dreams of another place where this will happen. He goes toward it. So do I.
And when I find it, that will be my birthplace. But, ultimately, its not my final birthplace. As an exiled American-Jew, my birthplace, like my dreams will constantly be in flux. And, perhaps, as Ezrahi suggests, that would all change if I were to return to my historical roots in Israel and dream of that “real” place. Perhaps. But, for now, I’m just a visitor. (And I have been on a few visits.) Her thesis can only be demonstrated by living there. But, right now, I’m living here…in the “land of dreams.”
This is where I had my first birthday and this is the place where I have had all my birthdays….This is the place where I dreamed (and dream) of all the places I was born… But in the end, these birth-places that I dream about can only happen between me and you. Only between you and I can there be an event…that unfolds in time…a birth-day…But, perhaps, nothing will happen…This is the risk I take when I speak or perform before any of you….
As the comedians say, it’s ALL in the timing….
…my last words, regardless of what I say on my birthday, will always risk not being on time…I hope they will arrive, but these are the hopes of a schlemiel who hungers for relationships and birthdays…
(Applause, Astonishment, or Silence?)