Sunday, August 21, 2011

Jews with Force. Jews with Appetite. Jews without Shame.

When we first moved to New York City at the end of 1999, one of my first acts in the New Old Country was to start reading the New York Times regularly -- on the subway, at the table with the morning coffee, and, of course, on weekends as part of ritual immersion in the Sunday edition.

This little fantasy of cozy city living died quickly. The smell and smudging of the newsprint on my fingers and the thick piles of paper in a corner of a small apartment turned me off. The Internet, even in dail-up days, opened up a new reading vista. But most important, I didn't like being a witness to so much even-keeled, clever, intelligent, settled opinion all at once. The headlines looked like wrong, bad medicine at first glance. Who needed to be fed that poison in tidy spoonfuls? Why read it at all?

Now I can peck away at the web and scavenge opinion and tone however my discretion and taste require. If I make it through an entire 750 word op-ed or news item without interrupting myself with something easier or elsewhere you could call me riveted. I still scan the NYT headlines each day -- along with Haaretz and Slate. I read whatever Paul Krugman shares because I assume he is always right and never followed and this offers an edge of exasperated underdoggedness to fuel other battles over the course of the day.

I pluck and pull from Arts and Culture or Business or Obituaries, and though I know many people do -- religiously -- read Roger Cohen, I don't recall ever having read one of his pieces until today.

Weary from too much espresso, I scanned the Times on-line and hit upon
"Jews in a Whisper."

I am in Israel right now for work and family reasons. It's good to be here. I have many, many friends and associates in Israel -- people of incredible talent and generosity who are some of my closest, most trusted peers. I am fluent in Hebrew. I have served in the Israeli Army. Many of my most cherished memories -- not to mention my own family -- took root here.

I arrived just as the tent cities protesting the exorbitant cost of living for average Israelis began sprouting up. I had read of their emergence with excitement and pride and was moved to have seen them in some form in all of the cities I have visited or worked in thus far on my trip -- from Or Akiva and Zichron Yaakov to Jerusalem, Herziliya, and Tel Aviv.

So today, immersed as I am in the messy day-to-day of a Jewish state deeply misguided by its mostly mediocre and dangerous leaders, watching missiles over head in the south and listening to terrorist warnings in Jerusalem and paying $7 for a half gallon of milk, I found Mr. Cohen citing Philip Roth.

Having called upon Mr. Roth many times in my own work, I am sympathetic to the idea of appealing to his voice to amplify a longing or a critique of Jewish purpose and practice.

“Jews with force, I’m talking about. Jews with appetite. Jews without shame,” quotes Mr. Cohen of Mr. Roth, citing a scene concerning what Roth himself longs for as a Jew when living in the UK.

"I miss them, too," says Mr. Cohen, concluding his piece about the State of the Jews today.

I am not an apologist, I protest, even as I protest too much. But I will say it anyway: While I share Mr. Cohen's distress with the State of the Jews (a primary part of my day job, and also my academic, creative, and family life), my concern is concentrated mostly on those who hold formal power in the Jewish realm, particularly in Israel. A severe lack of strength lies in the realm of leadership and the corrupted, comprised, corroded, and convoluted systems upon which it depends.

In the places where real people live and strive, I see strong Jews every day. They are in those tents in Israel, many of them loudly and correctly explaining that their causes and the causes of peace with all of their neighbors are tangled together as thickly as the bands of an ancient olive tree. They volunteer, they break ranks with the status quo, they teach, they disappear into religion, they try to make the best out of the status quo, they walk away, they get spit out, they cut me off in traffic, they wait.

It's hard for people engaged in the science of opinion to express what an artist can share over the many pages of a book or the acts of a play or the verses of a song. There's nothing new in that fact, especially when it comes to expressing generative thought on religion.

Beginning in 1923, Sigmund Freud corresponded with Romain Rolland, a French novelist challenging that Freud's writings on religion had missed the point entirely. Rolland claimed that a proper theory of religiosity must describe the essential "oceanic feeling" of emotional and spiritual connectedness within which a person of religious temperament experiences life. Writing with admiration if not full recognition for Rolland's challenge in Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud says: "I cannot discover this oceanic feeling in myself. It is not easy to deal scientifically with feelings."

Philip Roth has helped me construct huge swaths of my own religious landscape, but even in his brilliance as a Jewish commentator, as a Jewish communal leader, he has essentially opted out. Asked about Jewish identity once by a reporter for The Guardian on December 14, 2005, he said: "It's not a question that interests me. I know exactly what it means to be Jewish, and it's really not interesting."

But it can be very interesting. The work still to be done -- and that is being done - is as deep and as wide as the ocean.

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