Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

Book Matters

The Blessing and the Curse: The Jewish People and Their Books in the Twentieth Century

By Adam Kirsch

This is an unusual book. Its author, Adam Kirsch, has combined skills rarely found together: poet, successful literary critic, academic administrator of the M.A. program in Jewish Studies at Columbia University, and thinker who shines a discerning light on the Jewish people’s pathway through time.

Here I’ll just mention the one other of Kirsch’s eleven books with which I’m freshly familiar, having read it this year: The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature. So far as I know, Jews are the only people who relate to their God primarily in and through human history. If you ask, What has that people been doing since the fall of the Second Temple in 70 CE?, in that book, Kirsch offers a well-tempered tour through the literary evidence.

The Blessing and the Curse raises the same question for the twentieth century. To get to answers, Kirsch again turns to the thing he knows best: writing.

The first section looks at assimilated European Jews of the period before the Second World War: figures like Franz Kafka and Arthur Schnitzler. If Jews tend to keep the link between past and future in view, these writers were living with some degree of awareness that their future was about to disappear! What they disclose is the cruel unnaturalness – the sheer wrongness – of such a prospect.

Had Kafka lived another thirty years after writing The Trial, he would have been deported to Auschwitz. Kirsch is not too fastidious to mention this – nor too “universal” a literary critic to note that Joseph K, the protagonist of whom Kafka writes that “one morning, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested,” lives in the condition of Kafka’s people. Their nameless “crime” could not be specified because it was only — that they were Jews!

When Kirsch assesses writers whose canvass is the Holocaust, because they lived through it — writers like Victor Klemperer, Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi – he makes a point I’ve not seen made before: these survivors were assimilated, Western European Jews. That’s why they survived! They came late to the ashes. The ones who lived and died inside a purely religious frame were from Eastern Europe. They died first.

Perhaps (and this is my suggestion, not Kirsch’s) if we want to know how it may have been for the ones who mostly didn’t survive, we might consult the Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust gathered by Yaffa Eliach or else Rabbinic Responsa of the Holocaust Era, tr. Robert Kirschner, where the questions asked by the pious of their rabbis, about how exactly to behave while being martyred, have been collected.

Next Kirsch turns to a group of twentieth-century American Jewish writers and zeroes in on their problematic. Most of them thought they needed to kick away the past – their parents, the old country and its fears — in order to become fully-free Americans. Of course, if the covenantal assignment includes the linking of past to future, there must be some vulgarity attached to that kind of disavowal. Cynthia Ozick, for whom “assimilation is not only ignoble but impossible,” appears to be the outstanding exception.

I know little about Israeli writers, which may be why Kirsch’s reflections on them in the next section were new to me. I suppose I’ve thought of them as bronzed, athletic and living in an integrated way, since in Israel one is “home” at last. There the surrounding dangers must be obvious and physical. But Kirsch detects a theme of homesickness that connects Israeli writers with their co-religionists abroad: in the course of the two thousand years previous to 1948, exile itself had become “home.” A nostalgia –coexisting oddly with a vivid awareness that one is home — imparts its own kind of suffering. Come to think of it, I too felt that when I was last in Israel. It’s quite head-spinning.

Also, when you have your own country to fight for, you forfeit the moral high ground of the perennial exile. In America, we have waited two hundred years to allow ourselves the luxury of remorse for having taken this continent. In Israel, the remorse coexists with the fight. Israeli writers underscore that double awareness.

The final section has the theologians, or anyway — since Judaism is fairly nondogmatic on theology — writers like Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel with their view from high. Since they are pretty different one from another, it would be daunting to try to offer generalizations about them as a group.

At no point has Adam Kirsch given us happy endings. He’s done better than that:

he gives us grounds to accept

an unfinished story.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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