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


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.


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

Post-mortem Schlemielkeit – American Style (A Personal Aside)


I missed my friend’s funeral.  But I did have time to meet up with my friends after the funeral at two different bars in my hometown in Upstate New York.  After teaching my summer course in Existentialism, Art, and Culture, I traveled in from Toronto.  As I drove down, I reflected on how my friend Aaron was a larger than life person; he was a cross between Chewbacca and an upstate New Yorker who liked to hunt, fish, drink, and play football.  His laugh was unique and unmistakable.  And his warm, large, and humble presence was unmistakably delightful to be around.  He was, as we say in Yiddish, a mensch who would always lend a helping hand.

His death was untimely; it took us all by surprise.  Being taken by surprise, we were all left absent minded.  In fact, one of things I couldn’t help but noticing is how we had, as Adam Kotsko says in his book Awkwardness, no norm that could help us to deal with his passing.

So, in the absence of any publicly known practice of mourning, what did we do?  What happens when religion is not a common bond?

Before leaving Toronto, I noticed that one of my friends, who was in attendance of the funeral I missed, declared on facebook that he was avowedly an atheist.  When I arrived at the after-party, I was surprised to hear that the father of my friend who died talked at great length to this person and at least fifty others (who didn’t have a strong religious orientation) about God.  He declared, openly, that we was “born again” and that they should be too.  He chastised them for being sinners.  Apparently, from what I was told, he said nothing about his son and everything about sin, Jesus, and his rebirth.  He did this for at least forty minutes.  And, following him, there were two Evangelicals who did much the same.  Shouting Jesus and salvation at everyone.

My friend who posted his atheism on facebook apparently had enough and, at the point of bursting, he confronted the father.  But before anything could break out, another friend intervened, took the microphone from the father, and spoke about our common friend.

When I arrived at the party, I heard all of this.  I spoke with many friends and, strangely enough, while I was talking at length with one of my friends, I wasn’t aware that the others had gone on to another bar to continue the after-party.  Once I noticed that everyone was gone, I looked up and saw that me, the friend I was talking with, and my friend’s father were the only people left at the bar (besides the bartender and a few locals).

When we got up to go, the father asked us to help him put the food from the funeral after-party into his car.  Although he claimed he hadn’t been drinking, he seemed to be very drunk.  I asked my friend if he was ok, and he told me that “that’s just the way the father is.”  I was astonished by his sheer absent-mindedness.  I felt as if he was performing a comedy routine or some kind of performance for all of us.  He would shuffle back and forth to the refrigerator, scream at it, ask us to get things, and then go back to his car which was blaring with Christian music.  He repeated this routine although we insisted everything was in his car.  Its as if he had to prolong some kind of performance for us.

I felt very awkward carrying food which he cooked but no one ate.  To be sure, he had cooked large pots of macaroni that were untouched.  Another friend of mine made sauce, but he missed the funeral and the after-party.  It was ‘as if’ the missed encounters found their emblem in a large amount of wasted food.

Everybody seemed to be missing their cues.  Since he was acting so much, I decided to play around with this situation. I wanted to test it out.  So I would say, in a loud voice, that this item was his and this wasn’t; the haggling over items lasted a while.  But I didn’t want to continue this game which seemed would go on ad infinitum.  I managed to slip out with my friend to the other bar.

At the bar, I was pulled to the side and asked by a friend if I have anything comparable in the Jewish tradition to being born again.  Then he told me that my friend’s father was more “crazy” than my own.  In truth, my father was known to have done some odd things in my small town.  News travels fast; and as a child I remember how these things caused me great pain and embarrassment.  Mentioning them reminded me of how I would feel estranged about my father’s “ridiculous” behavior.  It all came back now with these comments, but my other friend told me that this guy, basically, was a bigger schlemiel.  All of this took me by surprise.  Was I supposed to feel better about my father and my life and to think that I must be fine now that I know someone else is a bigger fool than my father was?

I didn’t know what to say.  Although he tried to make me feel better by thinking that this guy is worse, I felt great sympathy for my friend’s father when I saw, all of a sudden, the father show up at the bar.   He literally showed up in the midst of our conversation.

I watched the father go in the bar, I talked to him about Aaron, and he produced a few gestures that his son would make about a calendar, which he took out of us car to show us.  He told me that he wanted to give his son this calendar with scantily clad women in front of sports cars.  I couldn’t understand why or even how this would be on the mind of a father who has lost a son.  It didn’t make sense.  But, at the very least, it made him happy to think of what his son’s reaction to the calendar would be.

In the midst of my astonishment at these absent-minded comments, I was asked by a friend to go on stage and perform a tune with him.  My friend was familiar with a few tunes I have written and thought it would be a proper tribute to our friend.

After tuning up and readying myself to play, I announced that every song I was singing was dedicated to my friend.  While saying this, I thought to myself how transitory and arbitrary this tribute is.  But I cast aside this thought.  It had to be done.   I had no ritual to participate in save…doing what I enjoy doing in the name of a friend who has passed away in such an untimely manner.

The father sat and watched as I played, but I’m not sure if it reached him.  And I’m not sure what difference I made.

I felt as if I was in a bar with a bunch of people who had some connection to our friend who had died, but the eulogy, the party, and all else seemed to be ad hoc.  We had no norms to guide us.  We had no religion.  And though the father did, it was disconnected from us.  Something was profoundly wrong.

Regardless of this, my friend told me that our dead friend would be happy knowing that I played a tune for him at a bar.  That is what he would want.  A party not  a Eulogy about being born-again.

After hearing this, I looked around and it struck me that my whole town was taken surprise by a world that was stripped away from us by a bad economy.  The city I played in, Gloversville, New York, has the highest unemployment rate in New York State (25 %).  It used to be a great hub for the production and distribution of gloves and leather.  When I was growing up, I could smell leather in the streets.   Money was abundant; people were at work.  And as they say, the bars were packed after work.  There was happy hour every day.

But, before we knew it, that disappeared.  We were hit, taken by surprise.  We had no norm to guide is post-mortem and could not mourn our loss.

All of this was awkward.  And this after-party, the father, my song, all of it happened in the midst of a time and space that was awry.  It was a distinctly American awkwardness that followed in the wake of a lost American dream.  It infected everything in the town with questions upon questions such as:  What happened? What can we do now? How do we act?  How can we live in this world?  But these questions were all beneath the surface and, from to time, came up in conversation.

The problem, last night, was that any decisions made out of this awkwardness seemed, to my mind, to make no difference for things in general.  But, ultimately, my schlemielkeit (my public performance) meant something to a small group of friends while the schlemielkiet of others spun off into nothingness.  And that’s what I saw with the father.

As he drove off, alone, from the bar, I felt so sad knowing that his awkwardness was translated into something that made people ridicule him.  He drove off alone into the American night.  But he was not born-again.  It seems, from what I had seen and heard, that he was doing the same thing he always did.

In the end, after this death, we became living schlemiels and we all went home alone in an awkward absent-minded manner.  Even though we tried, there seemed to be no way to dispel this and become conscious.  In the face of his untimely passing, we had no norm.

However, after leaving the bar, I went to a friends house were me and a few friends played music, sang, and debriefed.  And, fortunately, I entered into a conversation where someone was asking the same questions I was.  And together we acknowledged that we were all schlemiels and we talked until the dawn about what this means for the future.  How would this effect our children?  What can we give them if we have no common norms?

And then it struck me.  Where did our parents go?  Where did my friend’s father go?  Off into the American night… And now, when I look around at myself and my friends, it strikes me that we all seem to be post-mortem schlemiels.  But, as Beckett might say, “I can’t go on, I must go on.”