The Triangular Conversation: Identity, Self-Sacrifice, and Jerusalem in Yehoshua’s “Mr. Mani”

In his intricately woven novel Mr. Mani, A.B. Yehoshua tangles together the complexities of Jewish history and political Zionism with a symbolic and confounding exploration of identity, storytelling, and sacrifice. Divided into five, one-sided conversations in reverse chronological order, the work complicates the reading experience in a way that deepens its metaphorical salience. A close analysis of the third conversation demonstrates the effect of the book’s triangular structure, as the plot is constantly poised in a three-part focus between the speaker, the interlocutor, and the member(s) of the Mani family. Lieutenant Ivor Stephen Horowitz’s fixations and anxieties mediate the reader’s reception of the mysteriously political Yosef Mani, but this dynamic character illustration relies just as deeply upon the silent but ever present Colonel Michael Woodhouse, whose half of the conversation is “missing” (149). Upon examining the representative roles played by both the speaker and the interlocutor in molding Mr. Mani, the chapter’s resonance with greater themes of the novel becomes especially clear. In particular, the third conversation is closely intertwined with the novel’s meditation on the complicated place of Jerusalem in the Jewish consciousness.

Lieutenant Ivor Horowitz is a British Jew who struggles to balance his identities, as illustrated through his over-insistence on his British loyalty. Speaking to the Colonel, his superior, Horowitz defends his impartiality in his judgment of the Mani case, despite his being a fellow Jew. He makes a point to dismiss the anti-Semitism he faces from the British army as natural; “[It] means nothing to me and is something I can shrug off quite coolly,” he asserts (159). Horowitz distances himself from the Jewish population of Palestine and adopts reverberations of anti-Semitic rhetoric: “As usual, sir, the Jews have little to offer except themselves” (151). These renunciations, or perhaps discrediting, of his Jewish loyalty are magnified by Horowitz’s over-insistence of his undying devotion to the British cause, expressing deep respect for even the officers who make anti-Semitic remarks. As the orator of the story, Horowitz’s anxiety about his own identity and others’ perception of it filters his portrayal of Yosef Mani. One instance of this is Ivor’s description of Yosef’s father, Moses, who received the British passport that ultimately became the precedent for his son’s assumed death penalty.

“It was not a common practice of British consuls to grant British nationality to children for being adorable… Be that as a it may, however, the boy was pleased as punch to be a British subject and took his gift-wrapped passport with him everywhere, reciting Byron and Shelley and retelling The Canterbury Tales amid the pestilent poverty of this city… The consul had the idea of finding him a British wife to make him more English than ever. They had a baby girl who died directly after childbirth, and then a second girl who died, and then a boy, all because of incompatible blood… [Our defendant] seemed of a mind to die too; but this time the Manis put their foot down; they fought day and night to save him until he had no choice but to live” (166).

This British passport continues to frequent Horowitz’s tale. It is hidden under Yosef Mani’s mattress – even sown into it at one point – and later resides in the pocket of his father’s overcoat when Yosef first offers himself as an interpreter for the British army. In his descriptions of Moses and Yosef, Horowitz projects his own anxieties about the tensions between his British and Jewish identity. The above passage stresses how artificial, unnatural, arbitrary, and forced Moses Mani’s British nationality is. This union of Jewish and British identity, as symbolized in Moses’s marriage to a British woman, produces an incompatibility, a destiny of death and sacrifice. Readers can identify the parallels between Moses’s artificial British-ness and Horowitz’s over-insistence on his British loyalty.

This parallel is not simply a crafty design of the author. Because the story is designed and performed by Horowitz, the identity of Mr. Mani is produced by the relationship between the speaker and the interlocutor. By depicting Moses Mani’s British subjectivity as a damning incompatibility, Horowitz frames the story of Yosef Mani as a man who, ever since birth, has been sentenced to death. In Horowitz’s narrative, this inevitability of death is the “precedent” for planting Mani’s political “seed,” which leads to his “treachery” and stubborn resolve to incite Arab resistance against the Zionist project in the face of his own death sentence. “He’s as good as dead already, sir,” Ivor says. Only through this lens can we understand Horowitz’s fixation on decoding Yosef Mani’s obsession with politics, or what Horowitz defines as an “autosuggestion” (195). In crafting and reciting Mani’s story to the Colonel, Ivor works to circumvent Yosef’s doomed fate as an internal response to his own identity struggle and anxious obsession with thwarting Mani’s self-sacrifice—a reoccurring motif throughout the other four narratives within the novel.

Despite his lack of contribution to the dialogue provided, Colonel Michael Woodhouse plays a significant role in shaping the depiction of Yosef Mani’s life and identity. By forcing the reader to fill in the conversational gaps, A.B. Yehoshua in a way positions the reader as the interlocutor with Ivor Horowitz. Without the Colonel’s explicit articulation of his impressions of the situation, we become exceedingly conscious of our overwhelming reliance on Horowitz as storyteller. In this way, Woodhouse acts on behalf of the reader. Just when the reader becomes most engrossed in the beautifully written story of Yosef Mani, Horowitz apologizes for taking his “literary” “poetic license” “too far” (182). This startling reminder of the novel’s framing context, implicitly due to the Colonel’s objections or challenges, makes obvious the creatively constructed and performative quality of Horowitz’s narration. While it is true that the Colonel, or perhaps the absence of his part of the conversation, forces a greater consciousness and a more critical perspective of the reader, he also embodies his own dynamic character. The Colonel is a representative of the British aristocracy, who fights for the British colonial project. In his analysis of Mr. Mani, Adam Katz describes the triangular conversation between speaker, interlocutor, and Mani:

“I have been suggesting that each Mani operates as a kind of sacred center, from which violence and freedom, sacrifice and revelation, both emanate. Furthermore, the effects, and even the reality, of the sacred center depend upon the reception and response of the fascinated spectator, and, in turn, upon that spectator’s relationship to an individual who is implicitly representative of a larger, ‘mainstream’ audience.”

As a representative of the “mainstream,” the Colonel is changed by Horowitz’s story. As Ivor’s superior, he is implicated in the final judgment, the decision to intervene in Mr. Mani’s fated death. He began as “the wounded lion” and was eventually so transformed by Horowitz’s literary masterpiece that he succumbed to providing the exact loophole that Ivor had implanted from the very start of his “hearing–” revoking Mani’s British citizenship, the same artificial, forced, and “incompatible” British citizenship that was bestowed to his father (198). Through the mediating structure of the conversation and in the actual plot of the chapter, Ivor and the Colonel possess manipulative control over Mr. Mani’s identity.

For Horowitz and Woodhouse, banishing Mani from Jerusalem offered a method to thwart Yosef’s self-sacrificing impulse for the sake of political justice. But, ironically, the reader is first introduced to Yosef in the preceding chapter, which takes place after his expulsion from the Holy Land. Exiled in Crete, Yosef dies almost immediately after readers first meet him. So, while the resolution of the third conversation could be seen as optimistic, readers understand that Yosef is, in fact, still given a death sentence with his seemingly generous banishment. The fact that Mani’s death occurs outside of Jerusalem, though, must not be dismissed. The third chapter begins and ends with visions of Greece. Horowitz likens Jerusalem to southern Peloponnese, only to soon admit, “I’m sorry to say, sir, that I’ve never been to Greece, but those who have speak of a resemblance, and I’m merely passing on their judgment” (152). In this way, even the conception of space is endowed with agency. Similarly, Jerusalem is presented as an agent both as an “idea” and a concrete place. Ivor expresses the disjointedness between these two manifestations of Jerusalem, as he explains, “Even if I have a warm place for this town in my heart, it’s for the idea of it, not the reality. It’s really quite extraordinary, sir, how, although I’ve been here for several months, the idea and the reality remain entirely separate” (165). Different relationships to and effects of the “idea” of Jerusalem weave throughout all of the stories in the novel. Impulses of return, rejection, guilt, sexual desire, violence, salvation, and self-sacrifice all appear as manifestations of Jerusalem’s force on the Jewish people throughout history. In Mr. Mani, Jerusalem is the locus of flourishing multicultural exchange, an “eternal battlefield,” and a city that all Jews take “wherever they go” (194, 165).

The triangular conversation between the speaker, interlocutor, and Mr. Mani produces a complicated, nuanced reading experience that forces one to be conscious of the mediation of identity and the transformative effect of creative storytelling. In the third conversation of Mr. Mani, the identity of Yosef Mani is molded by the relationship between Horowitz and the Colonel, who create, attempt to thwart, and ultimately satisfy Mani’s political impulse for self-sacrifice. Situated in the context of the other chapters, Yosef Mani’s story ties together the complexities of identity and sacrifice with Yehoshua’s meditation on the agency of Jerusalem over Jewish consciousness and history.

By Lucille Marshall

Written for New Wave in Israeli Literature with Professor Alan Mintz at the Jewish Theological Seminary

Works Cited

Katz, Adam. “The Originary Scene, Sacrifice, and the Politics of Normalization in A.B. Yehoshua’s Mr. Mani.” Katz. Quinnipiac University, 2001. Web.

Yehoshua, Abraham B. Mr. Mani. Trans. Hillel Halkin. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1993.         Print.

 

Dislocation in Assimilation and Trauma: Jewish Corruption and Self-Delusion in Badenheim 1939

In his New York Times interview with Aharon Appelfeld, Phillip Roth connects the writer’s biography to his work, pronouncing, “Appelfeld is a displaced writer of displaced fiction, who has made of displacement and disorientation a subject uniquely his own.” In Appelfeld’s novel Badenheim 1939, this notion of dislocation acquires a leading role in all aspects of the story, from the plotline and the setting to the dialogue and the character development. By exploring the ahistorical surrealism, allegorical characters, and tragic satire that pervade the novel, we may better grasp Appelfeld’s construction of the condition of displacement that so characterizes his writing. Appelfeld employs this potent sense of dislocation as a marker of the Jewish experience in the face of trauma and assimilation. Articulating different manifestations of assimilation through the wide cast of otherwise hallow characters, Appelfeld illustrates how the disorientation of the Jewish identity compounds into corruption and self-delusion, the ultimate defense mechanism against fear and trauma.

Badenheim 1939 takes place in an Austrian resort town, where middle-class Jewish residents and vacationers indulge in sweets, sun, banquets, alcohol, and an annual cultural festival. Other than the name of the town and the year (the exact title of the English translation, in fact), Appelfeld does not provide any direct references to the historical reality of Austria before WWII. With the knowledge of the Holocaust constantly at the forefront of our minds, readers are charged with the task of filling in the historical setting on our own. More and more hints of Holocaust activity appear throughout the novel, but the author avoids any direct mention of political figures or historical events. When “the public was informed that the jurisdiction of the Sanitation Department had been extended, and that it had been authorized to conduct independent investigations,” readers, unable to escape the retrospective knowledge of the Holocaust, understand the pending danger foreshadowed by this inexplicit reference to pre-Holocaust societal transformations (11). By omitting any straightforward acknowledgement of the Holocaust, Appelfeld usurps the readers’ instinct to root the story in historical fact, while still maintaining a consistent allegorical connection between fiction and reality. In doing so, the novel resides in an amorphous space between creative parable and history. The author refuses to include specific historical details, instead relying on the readers’ previous knowledge of events, in order for this allegory to function. The reader’s uneasy ambiguity augments the sense of disorientation that characterizes Badenheim 1939.

Dislocation plagues all of Badenheim—the characters, the physical town itself, the music, the plot, even the temporality. The structure of the novel lends itself to this depiction of placelessness. The novel does not follow a linear storyline with a clear beginning, middle, and end. There are not a few main characters whom we follow through drama or internal transformation. Instead, Appelfeld offers short glimpses into the activities and dialogues of a wide array of personalities. These characters are often seen doing a repeated action or saying a repeated phrase with only slight variation. Mysteriously, these minor variations eventually lead to a completely transformed place and community, but one has trouble recollecting how the characters arrived there. Time is blurred and confusing, marked only by the mention of seasons. The timeline often feels cyclical, or folded upon itself, rather than linear. The physical space of Badenheim possesses a certain disorienting power of its own, the forest spreading feelings of tranquility, fear, delusion, and pain. The sun in Badenheim, too, has a similar surreal agency. Appelfeld writes, “A cold light broke out of the north and spread through the long corridor. It seemed not like light but needles cutting the carpet into squares. The people hugged the walls like shadows” (55). The sense of dislocation characterizes the town as it gradually becomes a location of transition for the Jews awaiting deportation to Poland. Dialogue consistently teeters between the need to “return to where you came from” and an optimism about a better future in Poland. As the post office shuts down and the gates to the city are closed, Badenheim becomes isolated from the spatial reality of the outside world. This placeless isolation is evident in the conversations between Martin and Trude:

“Martin asked his wife about Poland as if she were an oracle. Ever since the pharmacy had been looted his world had collapsed. He sat in the room and never went out. Trude sometimes said, ‘Why don’t you go out? Aren’t you interested in the outside world anymore?’” (95).

By the end of the novel, the entire town is plagued with feelings of impatient, transitory waiting. Their lives seem pointless and flat as they await the day they leave for Poland. When Dr. Pappenheim announces that “’The emigration arrangements are evidently not yet complete,’” Mandelbaum replies, “’In that case we’ll have to waste our time here doing nothing’” (129-130). The entirety of this placelessness is summed up in the conductor’s words: “This is only a transition” (143). By injecting such a sense of disorientation into all aspects of the novel, Appelfeld depicts an overwhelming condition of dislocation in Badenheim 1939.

Within this space of displacement and disorientation, Judaism, too, becomes disoriented. The old rabbi, a symbol of the traditional observant Judaism of the “old world” that has been lost and rejected, returns to the resort town, handicapped and misunderstood. The yanuka, a child prodigy who brings the music and culture of traditional. Eastern European Judaism, loses his identity completely, as the novel reads,

“The time he had spent in Badenheim had changed him. The flickering fear had disappeared from his eyes. He had grown fat, his cheeks had grown pink, and he had learned to understand German. His voice had apparently been lost altogether, and the few things he remembered about his home, his parents, and the orphanage in Vienna were quite gone” (134-135).

The child not only sheds the markers of his traditional Jewish background, but he becomes morally corrupted, obsessed with chocolate indulgences and expecting to be doted upon at all times. The shunning of Jewish culture is linked to such moral indecency repeatedly throughout the novel. Mendelbaum, a respected musician who falls from the Academy—the bearers of true culture—due to his Jewishness, obsesses over his need to perfect his art and prove his worth as a member of the high cultural class. Dr. Pappenheim and the other Badenheim residents worship him, despite the incredible violence he commits against his trio. “Upstairs a sadist [Mandelbaum] was torturing innocent people, and here everybody just went on sitting as if nothing was happening” (84). The worship of non-Jewish culture leads to complacency in such immoral acts. Similarly, Princess Salpina, the pinnacle of high cultured Jewish aristocracy who “is very fond of Slavic art,” angrily looks down upon the other residents of Badenheim, calling them riffraff (74). These extreme cases are supplemented by the overarching tone of self-indulgence and self-centeredness that arrests the entire town. Badenheim, in its state of disorientation, produces the corruption and disintegration of Judaism and morality.

Dislocation is a condition of Jewishness in its interaction with assimilation and trauma. Instead of developing deep, well-rounded characters, Appelfeld creates shallow characters to serve as different manifestations of Jewishness and assimilation. For some, their Eastern European Jewish identity is embraced and treasured as a nostalgic memory, an idyllic feeling of home. Samitzky is often struck by his homesickness for Poland, and he is “overjoyed to hear his native tongue,” Polish (111). On the opposite end of the spectrum is Dr. Langmann, who assertively denies his Jewishness in any way. He tells Dr. Schultz, “’I am an Austrian born and bred, and the laws of Austria apply to me as long as I live…A Jew. What does that mean?’” (58-59). Frau Zauberblit responds, “’You can renounce the connection any time you like’” (59).

The narrator characterizes this denial of Jewish identity as a symptom of anger – “It was, of course, a delayed anger that was oppressing [Dr. Langmann], seeking an outlet” (58). The pastry shop owner is also possessed by such anger, directed especially at Dr. Pappenheim, who he despises for being an Ostjuden. Dr. Pappenheim always frames the precarious Jewish situation in Badenheim in a positive light and tries to maintain order, readily accepting the Sanitation Department’s Jewish label. This anger infects the entire town. Appelfeld writes,

“The sun was still shining, but the angry people clung stubbornly to the old words, hoarding them like antiquated gadgets that had gone out of use. Since they were unable to liberate themselves from the old words and the fear, they prowled the streets and cast their angry shadows” (92).

Like Langmann and the pastry shop owner, these Jews held onto their assimilated lives, continuing to deny their Judaism. But, in the face of registration and deportation, their efforts become “antiquated.” With this, Appelfeld illustrates the failure of assimilation to save Jews. Instead, the denial and hatred of one’s own Judaism breeds anger, violence, and a quickness to turn against other members of the community.

Unlike the angry Langmann and pastry shop owner, Dr. Pappenheim’s embrace of his Jewish identity is driven by anything but anger. He tells a fearful Sally, “’There’s room in our kingdom for all the Jews and for everyone who wants to be a Jew too. Ours is a vast kingdom… There’s nothing to be afraid of, my dear, we’ll all be leaving soon’” (46). Appelfeld demonstrates that both of these manifestations of assimilation create such potent disorientation that ultimately leads to self-delusion. Dr. Pappenheim’s readiness to accept his Ostjuden identity in an optimistic and orderly way causes him to be completely blind to, and even complicit in, his disastrous fate, of which the readers are all too aware. The satiric irony of the book’s last line, Dr. Pappenheim’s remark, “’If the coaches are so dirty it must mean that we have no far to go,’” drives home Appelfeld’s illustration of the total self-delusion possessing this placeless Jewish community (148). All of the characters remain totally imperceptive to the danger that awaits them in Poland. The rare moments of insightful prediction occur not in rational thinking but during hallucinations—when Trude sees paleness, ghosts, wolves, and her daughter returning to Badenheim, and when Frau Zauberblit sees Death approaching her. When these characters are thinking “rationally” again, they fall back in step with the other ingenuous residents of Badenheim. This ironic inversion of the average conception of rationality communicates Appelfeld’s point that the Jews’ self-delusion and blindness to their fate is, in fact, rational amid the irrational circumstances of the Holocaust. When Trude sees the disastrous fate of the Jews, she wails, cannot sleep, terrorizes her neighbors. When Frau meets Death, she coughs up blood. Is the acknowledgement of their fateful end truly preferable to the self-delusion of Dr. Pappenheim, Dr. Langmann, and the others?

Through ahistorical surrealism, satirical irony, nonlinear plot, and allegorical characters, Appelfeld depicts the condition of Jewish assimilation as one destabilized by disorientation. Rejecting Jewish identity in favor of high “culture,” the placeless, transitory Jews become complicit in self-indulgence, anger, violence, and blindness. In the face of trauma, the dislocated residents of Badenheim turn to their only defense against the irrational acts of the Holocaust—self-delusion.

By Lucille Marshall

Written for New Wave in Israeli Literature with Professor Alan Mintz at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Works Cited

Appelfeld, Aharon. Badenheim 1939. Trans. Dayla Bilu. Boston: D.R. Godine, 1980. Print.

Roth, Phillip, and Aharon Appelfeld. “WALKING THE WAY OF THE SURVIVOR; A Talk With Aharon Appelfeld.” New York Times 28 Feb. 1988, Late City Final Edition ed., sec. 7: n. pag. Print.

 

Jacob Glatstein’s “Sheeny Mike” and its Reflection of American Jewish Culture

Writer Jacob Glatstein was born in Lublin in 1896 and immigrated in 1914 to New York, where he began his career as one of the most notable Yiddish poets and novelists in America during the 20th century. Despite his Western education at New York University and literacy in the English language, Glatstein chose to compose literature in his mother tongue, Yiddish. Glatstein was a trailblazer in propelling Yiddish writing into modernist literary thought and forms. In this way, Glatstein was successful in utilizing the Yiddish language, an instrument from the Jewish “old world” of Eastern Europe, to participate in and contribute to a new, wider world of modern American literature. By examining this creative duality in Glatstein’s work, we may uncover the condition and character of American Jewry that the poet brings to life in his 1929 poem “Sheeny Mike.”

The creative environment that Glatstein inhabited in New York at the end of World War I was “in ferment as a new generation of poets … announced themselves as In Zikhistn (Introspectivists)” (Fein, xiv). As one of the founders of this new movement, Glatstein rejected traditional poetic conventions and instead embraced free verse and experimental language. He composed the first collection of Yiddish poems written entirely in free verse, which illustrates his revolutionary contributions to the canon of Yiddish literature. As an immigrant, Glatstein’s writing portrays bi-continental influence, continually alluding to Jewish, European, and American literatures in his works. This mishmash of influence takes form in the use of language within this poem. Rachel Rubin writes,

“Glatshteyn’s Yiddish plays out semantically the choices that face American Jews. ‘Sheeny Mike’ contains within it an unusual number of Hebrew works (even when there is a Yiddish alternative)—and a large number of English words. Similarly, Sheeny Mike’s Yiddish-speaking father struggles to translate from Hebrew into English” (Race and the Modern Artist).

Dedicated to expressing the fragments of selfhood and employing multiple perspectives, Glatstein “advocated a modernist engagement with free verse and highly individualistic experimentation with word, sound, and form,” often mimicking Yiddish speech patterns and creating new words (Kerbel, 346). While Glatstein asserted the place of Yiddish in modern American literature, his position as a Yiddish American writer became more and more precarious. Richard Fein explains the fragile state of In Zikhistn writers in his book With Everything We Have Got,

“Their move toward modernism came at a time when their readership was shrinking: some Yiddish readers were alienated by their experiments in language and perspective, while other readers were lost to English-language literature. The poets felt their growing isolation and were discomforted” (xiv).

Glatstein’s modernist Yiddish poetry embodies the complicated situation of American Jewry of his time. As an immigrant Jew, he seeks to join the American cultural world of experimental modernism while simultaneously maintaining the connection to his Jewish roots. His struggle to capture the Yiddish-speaking audience demonstrates the American Jewish struggle to balance these two components of identity. Glatstein’s compositions mark a specific moment in American Jewish literary history, and, as Fein writes, “his death marked a passing of Yiddish poetry in America” (xv).

As we turn to the poem “Sheeny Mike,” we must first explore the phenomenon of Jewish gangsters in America. Sheeny Mike was the nickname of a real Jewish gangster, who was jailed for many accounts of robbery. In order to understand why Glatstein engages with this character, readers may investigate the role of the gangster in the Jewish and American literary experiences. Quoting critic Robert Warshow in 1948, Rachel Rubin writes, “The experience of the gangster as an experience of art is universal to Americans” (Race and the Modern Artist). Rubin expounds upon this, illustrating that the figure of the gangster provides an immediate markers of certain qualities – “Gangsters are inherently ethnic, inherently urban, inherently male, and inherently modern,” she explains. In wider American culture, the gangster character is simultaneously a dangerous outsider and a symbol of patriotic American strength. In Glatstein’s poem, Sheeny Mike embodies these contradictory qualities. He is both “the terror and protector,” a person to be feared and a person to revere (43). By writing about a Jewish gangster, Glatstein is also alluding to and participating in a trend in Jewish literature, specifically Isaac Babel’s collection of Odessa Tales. Babel’s most famous anti-hero gangster Benya Krik is nicknamed “The King,” and Glatstein dubs Sheeny Mike “king and commander—“ a clear reference to Babel’s stories (45). By composing a poem about a Jewish gangster, Glatstein participates in both a modern American literary tradition and a potent element of the Jewish, Eastern European literary canon. Through his poetry, Glatstein embraces the overlap between these two worlds that define him and his community as an immigrant American Jew.

“Sheeny Mike” expresses a reverence and mystique about the capability to embrace the duality of the American Jewish experience. The Jewish gangster is a symbol of Jewish strength, masculinity, and power. He is loyal to his family and his Jewish community, but he makes America his own, has earned a certain authority even in the gentile, secular space of America. He starts off in the confines of the Jewish “tenement roofs,” but “he stretched his little world” beyond his Jewish home and into the truly American world (43, 45). Glatstein’s poem illustrates the gangster’s achievement of the American dream, even using this word exactly: “Here, from the rooftop, he dreamed the dream of his kingdom” (43). Sheeny Mike’s kingship spans the two realms of the old and new worlds. He conquers his territory in America, “this small corner of the world,” but he still remains rooted in the traditional Jewish world (43). In this poem, the Jewish tradition is represented by the older generation—Mike’s parents and “the forefathers, the pious water-carriers and coarse God-fearing butchers” (45). Sheeny Mike is loyal to his parents, who are defined by their stereotypical markers of traditional Jewish appearance, “his mother’s wig, his father’s old beard” (43). The author illustrates the indivisible connection between the strong gangster and his Jewish parents, as he writes, “The mother’s wig pleads to Heaven in the name of his good deeds; / he didn’t let his mother and father / become a burden to society” (43).

Stanza three embodies the sense of awe for the way that Sheeny Mike navigates the overwhelmingly new and confusing Jewish American experience. The first five lines of this stanza illustrate the wonder, the desire, and the need to achieve some balance between American-ness and Jewishness that the gangster is able to find. The poem reads, “How did he dream his realm? / How did he reign? / How rule? / How subdue? / How enthrall?” (45) Glatstein poses the question to himself and his fellow American Jews – how does the American Jew immerse himself in America while still retaining his roots in the Jewish world that produced him?

The poem’s implications for notions of gender are also deeply entwined with Glatstein’s portrayal of the American Jewish experience. Sheeny Mike’s poignant masculinity is illustrated through a direct contrast between himself and his father. Mike is described as “the duke, / the mounted rider, / the blunt youth,” a tough, strong, and youthful man (47). But his father, on the other hand, is “shamed” “in his old age” (43). Sheeny Mike achieved the American dream, “while downstairs his half-blind father / hunched over a grease-stained holy book / and taught children to translate Hebrew: / shulkhan—‘a teybl’ and kise—‘a tsher’” (43). The illustration of Mike’s father as emasculated, old, and physically weak is connected with his struggle to pronounce the English words. In this depiction, Glatstein creates a correlation between unmanliness and the inability to become “American.” Sheeny Mike’s over-pronounced masculinity, then, is a symbol of his overcoming the stereotypically Jewish weakness and embracing American identity.

If Sheeny Mike is an exemplar of the Jewish American dream, Glatstein’s poem expresses a certain anxiety and pessimism about the attainability of this dream. The poem does not chronicle Sheeny Mike’s rise to power, but rather his fall. Readers meet the Jewish gangster at his funeral – “Sheeny Mike sleeps in a bronze casket” (43). The author suggests that Mike was defeated by opposing forces, as he writes, “There dwelled a king / who reigned and reigned, commanded and demanded, / until he fell at the hands of the enemy / Who cut short the dynasty?” (45). These lines illustrate that Sheeny Mike ultimately collapsed under the pressure of “the enemy” – his status as an outsider eventually caught up to him. The notion that Sheeny Mike’s “dynasty” has been cut off implies that even future generations of Jewish Americans will continue to struggle with the competing loyalties of Jewishness and American-ness. While depictions of masculinity set Mike apart from his father, his death signals a return to the older generation’s state of exclusion and failure to acculturate. “The forefathers, the pious water-carriers and coarse God-fearing butchers, / remained in the cemeteries of the old home,” Glatstein writes (45). Like these ancestors, who represent the old world of Jewish tradition in Eastern Europe, Sheeny Mike now also remains in the cemetery. After the fall of king Mike, there is no other youth to take over his throne. Only his stereotypically traditional Jewish parents, “his mother’s wig, his father’s old beard,” are left behind (43). By setting his poem in the graveyard, Glatstein asserts his anxieties about the potential for success in harmonizing Jewish and American identities.

As a modernist Yiddish writer in America, Jacob Glatstein embodies the radical newness of the Jewish American experience as it spanned the worlds of old and new. “Sheeny Mike” illustrates the hope, anxiety, and hybridity that characterized the Jewish American immigrant in the 1920’s. Tackling issues of power, masculinity, tradition, and generational divide, this poem sheds light on the essential struggles of the American Jew that linger to this day.

By Lucille Marshall.

Written for Men and Women in American Jewish Culture with Dean Shuly Schwartz at the Jewish Theological Seminary

Works Cited

Fein, Richard J., ed. With Everything We’ve Got: A Personal Anthology of Yiddish Poetry. New York, NY: Host Publications, 2009. Print.

Glatstein, Jacob. American Yiddish Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology. Ed. Benjamin Harshav and Barbara Harshav. Berkeley: U of California, 1986. Print.

Kerbel, Sorrel. The Routledge Encyclopedia of Jewish Writers of the Twentieth Century. London: Routledge, 2010. Print.

Rubin, Rachel. “A Jewish New World in Glatshteyn’s ‘Sheeny Mike’” Race and the Modern Artist. Ed. Heather Hathaway, Josef Jařab, and Jeffrey Paul. Melnick. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003. Print.

 

Anxiety, Bereavement, and Sacrifice: The Akedah in “Early in the Summer of 1970”

 

The relationship between father and son is a common trope in Hebrew literature, serving as a vehicle of analysis, commentary, and critique of Israeli society. Through this lens, an author may examine the condition of ideological continuity, communal loss, and national morality. The father-son relationship also becomes a symbol of Jewish-Zionist loyalty through its connection to the Bible. The akedah story transforms into a myth of national sacrifice; the young Israeli soldiers are posited as an offering for the older generation’s ideological vision. Examining the mythical connection between the Zionist ideal and the Hebrew Bible, A.B. Yehoshua employs the father-son relationship trope to expose the anxieties, hypocrisies, and dangers that reside in such national mythology. In his novella “Early in the Summer of 1970,” A.B. Yehoshua reclaims the akedah narrative in order to dismantle its elevated role in the Zionist imagination. Through internal narration, ironic satire, biblical allusion, and cyclical structure, A.B. Yehoshua’s piece embodies the generational anxieties of preservation, the societal obsession with bereavement, and the destructive obligation of sacrifice that plague the Israeli condition of his time.

With the narrative voice so intimately tied to the father character, offering no external perspective, readers are subject to the character’s tense, weighty, and often-compulsive inner dialogue and imaginations. This internal scope captures the father’s deep anxieties about his relationship with his son, his students, and the younger generation as a whole. Throughout the novella, the protagonist continually reveals his insecurities concerning his distance and irrelevance from youth. He seeks to bond with his son, to understand “what had he been working on, what planned, and how can [he] link up” with it (31). He speaks to his son “softly, desperately, in a burning voice,” trying to communicate his deepest ideological convictions and fears, but his “son’s attention wanders, the absent look in his eyes familiar, unhearing, already elsewhere, alien, adrift…” (24). This same sense of disconnect persists in the character’s relationship to his students, who serve as representatives of the entire younger generation. He laments, “I am not important to them any more, have lost my power over them, they have done with me, I already belong to the past” (69). The protagonist’s thoughts are riddled with insecurities about the youth’s impression of him. Yehoshua writes of his students, “One of them is at the blackboard rubbing out wild words—a distorted image of myself… For the present my gray hairs still subdue them” (10). The generational divide prevents the father from successfully communicating his ideals, which become distorted. This break threatens the authority of the teacher and his ideology.

The author illustrates the ideological divide between generations by associating the protagonist so directly with the Hebrew Bible. As a teacher of Bible, the protagonist represents the older generation’s Zionist ideologies of national sacrifice, especially as tied to the akedah, which will be further discussed below. His devotion to and preoccupation with the Bible is articulated through the frequent biblical language and geographical descriptions of Israel as the ancient Promised Land. In contrast, his students are constantly “dropping Bibles,” uninterested and unengaged in “the laws, the proverbs, the prophecies” that the teacher wishes to pass on (10, 70). The novella returns to the same scene of students taking a Bible exam multiple times. This cyclical repetition communicates a certain anxious fixation on this moment, a moment that determines the very continuation or extinction of the older generation’s Zionist ideology. Referring to his son as “an ancient prophet,” the protagonist longs for the younger generation to herald a renewal of the biblical myth of Zionism, the myth of national sacrifice, with “a new gospel” (23). But the continuation of the biblical myth, the akedah myth, is threatened by the generational divide. With such anxiety about the preservation of this ideology (and therefore of the older Zionist authority), violence becomes the necessary instrument for the maintenance of the younger generation. Readers find rhetoric of militaristic violence in the author’s depiction of one of the many test-taking scenes:

“I by the door, and they tense and upright by their chairs, the white sheets of paper spread on their desks like flags of surrender, Bibles shelved deep inside. The tyranny I enforce by means of the Bible—Each examination takes on a fearful importance… I know: it is a hard test. Never before have I composed such a cruel test” (46).

Through the militaristic allusions in this scene, A.B. Yehoshua illustrates the implicit coercion and violence that results from the older generation’s anxieties of ideological preservation. In the compulsive desire to assert the national myth of sacrifice symbolized by the biblical akedah story, the teacher coerces his students into “surrender” through force and cruelty.

Along with the anxiety of ideological continuity amid generational break, an obsession with bereavement also characterizes this novella. The protagonist revisits the moment he learns of his son’s death multiple times. This is the incident when he gains his venerable status of the mourning father, through which he acquires the attention, respect, fame, care, and admiration of others throughout the narrative. He becomes “a sacred figure,” and the entire society is attracted to him, enthralled in the excitement and pleasure of mourning rituals and dramatics (56). “The story of his death and resurrection thrills them,” Yehoshua writes of the soldiers, “They press jokes upon the two of us, want to hear all the particulars” (63). It is only through his status of bereavement that the teacher can correct his “distorted image” in the eyes of his students, can gain acceptance in the army base despite his foreignness, can imagine himself addressing an audience of graduates as the honored speaker. So when this status is challenged, when the protagonist is about to reunite with his living son once again, his myth of national sacrifice shatters; “I suddenly give up, convinced it is all for nothing, tremble in every limb” (63). Readers expect joy, relief, and gratefulness at this time, but instead, the protagonist insists upon returning time and again to grief and the communal rituals of loss. The repetitive, endless processes of bereavement, on both individual and communal levels, satirize Israeli society’s infatuation with mourning and its fetishization of sacrifice.

In many ways, “Early in the Summer of 1970” is an akedah story. Frequent biblical allusions and symbolic language strengthen this connection. The father often resembles Abraham, as is the case when he searches through his son’s office. Yehoshua writes, “And I straighten up, drop the knife, a burst of hot light hits me, begin to move, past her. Mumble the morning’s tidings in an ancient, biblical Hebrew” (33). Just as Abraham drops his knife before sacrificing Isaac, the protagonist drops a knife as well. Yehoshua emphasizes this moment’s biblical quality by stating the language of the akedah story—ancient, biblical Hebrew. As the father wanders throughout Jerusalem on his way to the university, the description of the landscape aligns with the biblical landscape of the akedah: “And here rocks, and a very steep slope, and bushes growing out of an invisible earth tangling underfoot” (33). Readers must remember that, due to the internal perspective of the narration, this impression of the geography is the father’s subjective perception. Through his perspective, we understand that he sees himself as completely immersed in the biblical narrative. Further echoing the akedah story, he walks around the university with a “gnarled branch in [his] hand,” eventually striking young Diaspora students with the branch (34). All of these allusions corroborate the national myth of sacrifice that the akedah symbolizes in the older generation’s Zionism. When faced with sympathy for the loss of his son, the father demonstrates his national loyalty and his son’s duty for sacrifice, saying, “How no breathing space, three months they gave him, everybody goes these days, and in the Six Day War he didn’t take part, not before it either, and he’s no better than everybody else, is he?” (20)

But A.B. Yehoshua complicates this national myth by foreshadowing the imminent demise that such ideology heralds. He communicates this critique by rewriting the Zionist akedah story. He positions the father as the sheep in the narrative, the sacrifice that actually occurs in the Bible in the place of Isaac. After the father sees the dead soldier in the hospital is not his son, that the sacrifice of Isaac is incomplete, Yehoshua places the father on the altar instead. For the sake of preserving his status as a bereaved father, the rabbi, God’s messenger, asserts the need to rent his clothing. The author describes this biblical-like scene, “And he takes a small penknife out of his pocket, removes my blanket, and as I lie there, everyone watching, he makes a long tear in my dress” (49). The parallels between the father and the akedah sheep continue. At the army base, the protagonist hides in a bush, just like the sheep — “We wait. Crouched low upon stones beside the track, in the thicket. And once again I find myself delivered into new hands.” (59) As he sits in the bush, the young soldiers, including his son, fire a shot in his direction; “They would have killed us,” he thinks (61). This scene culminates with the confrontation between father and son. The author inverses the akedah relationship, writing, “And we are suddenly alone, both of us in helmets but myself unarmed, with only the torn flap on my heart” (64). The torn flap symbolizes the father’s obsession with bereavement, the necessity for his status as a mourner in order to maintain his authority and enforce his ideology upon the younger generation. The son is no longer the sacrifice, but the father is.

By complicating the myth of the akedah story, A.B. Yehoshua demonstrates the impending danger that will arise from the ideal of national sacrifice. Driven by the societal fetishization of bereavement, the older generation’s anxiety to preserve their ideology necessitates violence upon youth in an effort to maintain their authoritative status. In this dangerous cycle, the older generation will eminently reach its peril. The father becomes the sheep, and his ideology of national sacrifice will work to destroy itself. The code of national sacrifice collapses onto itself, and the biblical akedah story no longer upholds the Zionist project. The father realizes his failure to preserve his ideology: “I noticed for the first time that I had lost the text. Entire chapters” (65). The son’s knife is inscribed with the word “PEACE,” and it is this youthful ideology that must prevail after the ideological death of his father (32). Tied to the Bible, yearning for bereavement, and obsessed with Zionist sacrifice, the father’s eventual replacement of his son as an offering exposes the hypocrisy underlying this national myth. But still, the protagonist remains ignorant of his futile compulsions, continuing to assert the fruitfulness of sacrifice: “My suffering is great, but who knows, perhaps out of it a new rising may come” (48). A.B. Yehoshua brings ironic critique to this imagination by illustrating the irreparable damage and impending downfall of the violent, hypocritical, and self-destructing Zionist mythology of national sacrifice.

By Lucille Marshall.

Written for New Wave in Israeli Literature with Professor Alan Mintz at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Generational Break, Irreparable Loss, And the Connection Between Self and Nation: An Analysis of A Tale of Love and Darkness

The genre of autobiography is characterized by the complex relationship between the individual and the collective. In his autobiographic novel, Amos Oz articulates the concurrent tension and fusion between these two poles. By placing A Tale of Love and Darkness in dialogue with earlier Jewish autobiographies by Mary Antin, Ephraim Lisitzky, Rosa Speiser, and Alfred Kazin, one may uncover how Amos Oz navigates the autobiographical tradition of grappling with the personal and communal. Oz constructs an intimate connection between his individual experience and the historical experience of the Jewish people through his journey to investigate and repair the generational breaks that plague his family and his nation. Connecting the loss of his parents to the struggles within the Jewish Zionist narrative, A Tale of Love and Darkness embodies the prolific confluence of the individual and the collective. As our analysis will reveal, the formation of this connection between personal and communal experience is a potent instrument for self-discovery and widespread liberation. In this way, Oz’s work illustrates the pain and the power of generational disconnect, personal loss, and national struggle to kindle a strong identity for the individual and the collective.

A major trope woven throughout A Tale of Love and Darkness is the grave emotional and psychological distance between Amos and his parents. By illustrating his disconnection from his mother and father, Oz represents a generational break that characterizes and shapes his most intimate and interior experiences. Oz’s choice of language in his writing – Hebrew – underlines this break. Both of his parents speak many languages, but they only speak to Amos in Hebrew. His childhood is riddled with his parents’ whispers and secrets in unintelligible, impenetrable languages. Such a communicative detachment from his family embodies Amos’s emotional isolation from his parents. Structurally, Oz locates his mother and father within an oppositional binary. For example, his father Yehuda is enveloped in scholarship, constantly referencing linguistic facts and scholarly connections. In contrast, Amos’s mother Fania tells him dreamy stories of fantasy and fiction. The author demonstrates this generational break in the family by excluding himself from this opposition between his parents, placing himself outside of the binary.

This structure is evident in the parents’ disagreement about Amos’s education. Setting up the two sides of the debate, Oz writes, “There were two primary schools within a half an hour’s walk from a child from our home. One was too socialist, and the other was too religious” (271). Despite the objections to both options, Amos’s mother prefers the socialist school over “the rigorous religious separation of boys or girls” (272). The author muses that perhaps the socialist school, with its “youthful joy,” reminded his mother “in some way of the Tarbuth gymnasium in Rovno” (272). His father, on the other hand, falls at the opposite side of the debate. Although its curriculum is “alien to [his] secular outlook,” the religious school presents the more disciplinarian option, which is better than the “leftist indoctrination and proletarian brainwashing” of the socialist school (273). His parents caught in binary opposition, there is no room for Amos. His father ends up winning the fight, and Amos attends the religious school. But he pursues a true education outside of this binary, external to his parents’ opposition. Instead of acceding to one belief over the other, Amos follows his own distinct pathway of learning from Teacher Zelda, whose “enchanting” and “unexpected” stories and ideas spark Amos’s curiosity and profound understanding of the world (274). In his autobiographic novel, Oz constructs the memories of his parents within a binary opposition, from which he, ever since childhood, is excluded. This structural representation depicts the brokenness of Amos’s family and the generational gap that afflicts the author’s personal life.

Oz achieves a synthesis between the personal and collective by connecting the break between himself and his parents with the break between generations of the Jewish nation. The author dedicates a significant portion of his book to reconstructing the lost worlds of his parents’ pasts in Europe. Readers learn about Fania’s personal history through long monologues by her sister. This lengthy chain of transmission – from Fania’s true experience to her sister’s recollections to Amos’s transcription – illustrates a tangible distance between Amos and his mother’s former world. The stories of the earlier generations of Amos’s family are plagued with fear, violence, and oppression, creating Oz’s impression of Europe as a “wonderful, murderous continent” that weighs heavily on his parents’ consciousness at all times (2). But this fearful presentation of Europe is nuanced by his parents’ notion of high culture and their admiration for European authors and artists. “Europe for them was a forbidden promised land,” Amos writes (2). For so much of his book dedicated to reconstructing his mother and father’s histories in Europe, Amos’s individual interactions with Europe are restricted. Writing about the language gap between himself and his parents, Amos muses, “Maybe they feared that a knowledge of languages would expose me to the blandishments of Europe” (2). The elusive, ever-present Europe belongs to Amos’s parents and the generations before him, and his access to this world is muddled with fantasies and nightmares. In this way, the restoration of his parents’ lost worlds in Europe further underlines the generational break within Amos’s family.

His parents weighed down by their foreign pasts in Europe, Amos’s childhood progresses parallel to the birth of the Jewish state. In this way, the author transcribes his family’s generational break onto the Jewish collective, divided between the generation of European immigrants who fled the “forbidden promised land” to their only option, Palestine, and the generation of children like Amos, who grow together with the new state of Israel. The canon of Jewish autobiography features many moments of transcendence from the personal break between generations to the collective break between generations. Mary Antin and Alfred Kazin’s autobiographies are two prime examples. Like the reconstruction of Oz’s parents’ histories in A Tale of Love and Darkness, the first section of Antin’s autobiography details the recollections of her parents and community in Russia, which lay outside of her own personal memories. In doing so, Antin represents her personal experience of immigration from Russia to America as a collective experience—from the backwards Pale of Settlement to the Land of the Free. She corroborates her personal journey as the representation of all Jewish immigrants and, ultimately, as the prototype of the American dream. Antin spells this out in the beginning of her book: “Although I have written a genuine personal memoir, I believe that its chief interest lies in the fact that it is illustrative of scores of unwritten lives” (2). Antin’s parents were never able to fully assimilate, to wholly shed their Jewishness and their selfhood from the Pale. Only through Mary, the symbol of true Americanized success, did her parents achieve some semblance of the American dream. She writes of her father’s interaction with her public school teacher, “By the simple act of delivering our school certificates to her he took possession of America” (162). Her parents remain a symbol of the Jewish Pale of Settlement, an emblem of the Russian history, while Mary, a symbol of the younger generation, differentiates from her parents as a true American. Antin constructs a separate world of earlier generations, filled with religious persecution and backwardness, and positions herself in a widespread generational break from the old to the new. In this way, she presents her personal narrative as a collective narrative. Oz follows a similar formula – he recreates the former lives of his mother and father as the paradigms of the old world for the Jewish people, in opposition to the younger generation that is of the new state of Israel.

Alfred Kazin’s work A Walker in the City offers another instance of generational break as both personal and collective in the Jewish autobiography. Kazin, too, erects a separate world to which only his parents, the older generation, have complete access:

“Often, those Friday evenings, they spoke of der heym, ‘Home,’ and then it was hard for me. Heym was a terrible word. I saw millions of Jews lying dead under the Polish eagle with knives in their throats. I was afraid I associated with that old European life only pain, mud, and hopelessness, but I was of it still, through her… In many ways der heym was entirely dim and abstract, nothing to do with me at all” (59).

Like Antin and Oz, Kazin depicts a lost, violent, oppressive world of his parents’ earlier histories, which creates a distinct generational gap within his family. While his parents fully belong to der heym, Kazin fully belongs to Brunzville–his kitchen, his street, and “the block: my block” (83). The author elevates his personal narrative of generational gap to characterize a collective Jewish experience. By emphasizing the violence and oppression of der heym (and even fabricating reports of certain pogroms), Kazin situates his family’s generational disconnect within the larger Jewish nation. Kazin constructs a direct link between the personal and collective through his reflection on the Holocaust:

“The last time I saw our kitchen this clearly was one afternoon in London at the end of the war…A radio was playing in the street, and standing there I heard a broadcast of the first Sabbath service from Belson Concentration Camp. When the liberated Jewish prisoners recited the Hear O Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord is One, I felt myself carried back to the Friday evenings at home, when with the Sabbath at sundown a healing quietness would come over Brownsville” (51-52).

Fusing the collective Holocaust memory with his own memories of Brunzville, Kazin’s autobiography transcends the personal. When representing the trauma that spills over from his parent’s former lives, he speaks as a representative of his generation in Jewish America. Kazin attains this transcendence by depicting the gap between himself and his parents as a symbol of Jewish generational break with the immigration to America. Echoing Mary Antin’s portrait of her parents, Kazin writes,

“My father and mother worked in a rage to put us above their level; they had married to make us possible. We were the only conceivable end to all their striving; we were their America… They did not consider themselves free. They were awed by us, as they were awed by their own imagined unworthiness, and looked on themselves only as instruments toward the ideal ‘America’ future that would be lived by their children” (56).

Like Antin, Kazin could grasp the American dream, but his parents could not. The parents of Antin, Kazin, and Oz are characterized by their distance, their belonging to a foreign, lost, old world. The children, though, are of the place, whether that be America or Israel. This disconnect on the familial level rises above the personal to the collective experience, as Oz and the other authors buttress their individual experiences as emblems for all immigrant children, for all the younger generation of Jews who are both haunted by and isolated from the older generations’ past.

The only moment in A Tale of Love and Darkness when Amos and his parents are wholly united is at the birth of the Jewish state. At this time, the opposition between his mother and father fades away, and the child finally feels in sync with his parents. Once again, this moment of unity transcends the personal and reaches the heights of the Jewish collective throughout Palestine. The author describes this union,

“And I was surprised to see my mother’s hand stroking [my father’s] wet head and the back of his neck, and then I felt her hand on my head and my back too, because I might unawares have been helping my father shout, and my mother’s hand stroked the two of us over and over again, perhaps to soothe us or perhaps not, perhaps out of the depths she was also trying to share with him and me in our shout and with the whole street, the whole neighborhood, the whole city, and the whole country, my sad mother was trying to participate this time—no, definitely not the whole city, but only the Jewish areas” (343).

With the announcement of the Jewish state, the generational break between Amos and his parents, between the older Jewish immigrants and the younger Jewish natives, dissipates. Oz’s familial intimacy symbolizes the spark of unity that spreads throughout the Jewish nation at the moment of Israel’s birth. But the author warns us that this unity is not sustainable; it comes with a high price of violence, displacement, conflict, and moral dilemma. Immediately following this poetic description of familial and national euphoria and inclusion, Oz describes the fear, anger, and pending displacement of the Arabs in the land. Personal disappointment and collective conflict persist from the generational break, disrupting the unity of this exalted moment.

First, the personal—both of Amos’s parents, at either end of their oppositional binary, bring him suffering and disappointment. The pain from his mother’s suicide drives the whole narrative. Her depression and illness were so powerful and damaging that her mother-child relationship with Amos is reversed. He becomes her parent: “[My mother] was soaked and frozen like a drenched bird that would never fly again. I got her to the bathroom and fetched her some dry clothes from her closet and I told her like a grown-up and I gave her instructions…she did everything I told her to do” (392). Amos’s father also brings suffering and pain to the author, who catches his father cheating on Fania, holding hands with a young woman at a café. In addition to his pain from the loss of his mother, Oz’s disappointment in his father continues to burn within him. We read of Amos’s reaction to the sight of his father and the strange woman in Sichel’s Café, “And I ran away from there, I ran away from Lolik, and I haven’t quite stopped running since” (391). The personal pain and disappointment from his parents transfers onto the collective narrative, as Amos renders his mother and father as symbols of the older generation, maintaining the same binary opposition structure. The author writes,

“Both my parents had come to Jerusalem straight from the nineteenth century. My father had grown up on a concentrated diet of operatic, nationalistic, battle-thirsty romanticism… My mother, on the other hand, lived by the other Romantic canon, the introspective, melancholy menu of loneliness in a minor key” (240).

Once again, Amos portrays his parents in an oppositional binary, from which he is excluded. In this case, the author elevates this binary to one of nationalistic proportions; his parents act as representatives of two oppositional modes of nineteenth century Diasporic Judaism, both of which lead to political conflict and moral suffering for the young generation of the new state of Israel. Echoing the binary opposition between Amos’s parents, these two strains of Jewish nineteenth century Romanticism exclude the young generation in Israel and fail to solve the deep political and emotional struggles of the Zionist project. Just as Amos pursued a new and different pathway for education, outside of his parents’ binary, the younger generation of Israel must pursue something new.

Oz kindles the close relationship between generational break and the need to create a new identity, a new individual and national selfhood. Readers find this connection in the author’s symbolic discussion of the book Over the Ruins by Tsvi Liebermann-Livne:

“So in Over the Ruins the whole generation of the wilderness has evaporated, leaving behind happy, light-footed orphans, as free as a flock of birds in the clear blue sky. There is no one left to nag them in a Diaspora accent, to speechify, to enforce musty manners, to spoil life with all kinds of depressions, traumas, imperatives, and ambitions. Not one of them has survived to moralize all day long—this is permitted, that is forbidden, that is disgusting. Just us. Alone in the world. The death of all the grown-ups concealed a mysterious, powerful spell. And so at the age of fourteen and a half, a couple of years after my mother’s death, I killed my father and the whole of Jerusalem, changed my name, and went on my own to Kibbutz Hulda to live there over the ruins” (445).

Here, the author draws a direct correlation between the “light-footed orphans” of Israel’s younger generation and his individual isolation from his parents. Just as the youth in Israel must be freed from the older “generation of the wilderness,” so too must Oz break from his parents to pursue his own unique path. Symbolically reinventing himself, Amos bestows himself with a new name, leaving his parents so that he is “alone in the world.” In this way, the struggle and loss of generational break is a necessary step toward self-creation, both for the individual and the nation.

In his autobiography, Ephraim Lisitzky also grounds his understanding of personal and collective self-making in generational break. After immigrating from Slutzk to Boston, Lisitzky is torn between the observant, scholarly, and traditional Judaism of Eastern Europe and the acculturated, modernist, Hebrew culture in America. Like Oz and the other Jewish authors discussed, Lisitzky imagines himself as a representative of the larger Jewish collective of his generation, claiming that his story transcends beyond the individual and “is applicable to the Jewish personality in general” (287). With the loss of his mother and his isolation from his father, Lisitzky’s disconnection from his parents echoes our discussion of Oz’s personal break from the older generation. Like Amos’s continued struggles of identity as he grapples with his place in scholarship, Judaism, Zionism, and romance, Lisitzky’s conception of himself is one rife with complex contradictions. He writes,

“My mind was broken up into too many separate sovereignties, mutually contradictory and at odd with one another, each claiming exclusive obedience. This multiplicity of sovereignty prevailed also in my conception of Judaism. As a result, my Jewish outlook, too, became subject to conflicts and contradictions” (296).

Generational break, for Lisitzky and for Oz, lays the foundation of a personal struggle for selfhood. Both authors elevate this struggle to the collective domain—a young generation, broken from its elders, must blaze a new trail of Jewishness. Lisitzky applies this idea to the position of American Jews, who embody “the nature of pioneering” in their struggle “to preserve something of its own character in the midst of this new existence” (300). These conflicts and contradictions not only separate one generation from the other but also fuel the creation of a new collective identity. Lisitzky claims,

“American soil is one vast battleground. A new life is being forged on it, out of a clash of elements violently torn from their context and matrix and wretched from their ordered categories and equations, so that they might be recreated in a new organic form” (299).

Portraying his story as the story of the collective, Lisitzky illustrates the productive quality of generational break and its difficult ramifications. From Lisitzky, readers learn that the process for self-creation is one filled with struggle and conflict and may only be achieved through generational break and the pioneering of something new. In connection to A Tale of Love and Darkness, these claims demonstrate the high stakes of Oz’s depiction of generational break on personal and collective levels. By constructing the separation between generations within the family and the nation, Oz shows the need for the formation of a new individual and collective selfhood.

A Tale of Love and Darkness follows in the tradition of Jewish autobiography, as the act of writing the autobiography becomes a method to create a new personal and communal identity. By crafting this autobiographic novel, Oz fashions his selfhood by reconciling with the irreparable loss of his mother and his broken relationship with his father. Investigating his memories, interrogating his aunt about Europe, and revisiting his childhood neighborhood, Oz seeks to understand his parents, find answers for his mother’s suicide, and sympathize with his father. Shaped and defined by the generational break in his family, Oz’s autobiography brings solace and reconciliation to his sustained sense of loss and struggle. The act of writing autobiography as a mode of reconciliation with loss and generational break is also employed by Rosa Speiser. Rosa, who wants to pursue modern Polish education, is distanced from her father, who insists upon traditional Jewish learning. In response to this generational break, Rosa pursues her own distinct path, attending two schools at once. Soon, she set out “alone in the world” like Amos (445). “At seventeen years of age, I set out on my journey all alone,” she writes, leaving behind her father and the traditional Jewish life he represented in order to shape a new form of modern Jewishness (335). In this way, generational break in her family works as a necessary catalyst to her identity creation. Speiser, similarly to Lisitzky, feels a contradictory range of allegiances—to socialism, to Jewish tradition, to modern Yiddish literature, to Polish intellectual culture. When Rosa’s father dies, she must reconcile these different sovereignties with her loss. She achieves this reconciliation through the actual act of autobiography, which provides her with an outlet to understand and forgive her father, effectively repairing the generational break that plagued her childhood. In writing her autobiography, she successfully synthesizes her socialism, her Judaism, her modernity, and her mourning for her father, forming and producing a new sense of self. Speiser explains the power of autobiography:

“At last! I would write candidly. It would be an interesting experiment, solely for myself… Now I’d be able to speak freely, without any obligation to comply with specific requirements. It would be an account of my own life, in the light of my own feelings and thoughts” (342).

This quote is perfectly suited for Oz’s book—it fits his description of Over the Ruins so appropriately. Just as Rosa writes her autobiography to reconcile with her loss and build a new distinct identity, so too does Oz repair the generational break in his family through the creation of his personal selfhood in his writing.

The most remarkable achievement of A Tale of Love and Darkness, and likely the reason for its tremendous popularity throughout Israel, is its capacity to harness the power of communal loss and collective generational break. Oz creates a vehicle of national reconciliation and self-creation through autobiography. At a time of extreme suffering and loss during the intifada, Oz’s autobiography novel gave voice to the trauma, pain, and contradictory sovereignties that plagued his generation in the new Jewish state. By connecting his personal narrative of generational break to a larger generational fracture in Jewish society, Oz demonstrates the need for creating a new Jewish Israeli selfhood, a process which, as the book illustrates, requires suffering and loss. In producing an autobiographic novel, Oz permits his generation to “speak freely,” as Rosa puts it, reconciling their families’ painful histories, their moral conflicts, and their deep losses. Connecting himself to his nation, Oz’s autobiography lays generational break and irreparable loss as the foundation for national liberation, empowering the young Israeli nation to fly “as free as a flock of birds in the clear blue sky” over the ruins (445).

By Lucille Marshall. Written for Jewish Life Writing from the Renaissance until Today with Professor David Roskies

Works Cited

Antin, Mary. The Promised Land: By Mary Antin. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1912. Print.

Kazin, Alfred. A Walker in the City. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1951. Print.

Lisitzky, Ephraim E. In the Grip of Cross-Currents. Trans. Moshe Kahn and Jacob Sloan. New York City: Bloch Pub., 2001. Print.

Oz, Amos. A Tale of Love and Darkness. Trans. Nicholas De Lange. Orlando: Harcourt, 2004. Print.

Speiser, Rosa. “Esther.” Awakening Lives: Autobiographies of Jewish Youth in Poland before the Holocaust. Ed. Jeffrey Shandler. New Haven: Yale UP, 2002. 321-43. Print.

 

Sacred Intertextuality in Comics: Claims of Medium through Visual Retellings of Scripture

Scriptural narratives are widespread literary tropes. From rabbinic aggadah to Steinbeck’s East of Eden, stories of scripture appear in diverse, creative forms throughout literary history. The graphic novel genre complicates this long tradition of sacred intertextuality, challenging literary conventions of scriptural narrative interpretation. By comparing and contrasting the methods of scriptural adaptation in Neil Gaiman’s Outrageous Tales from the Old Testament and JT Waldman’s Megillat Esther, we will uncover the unique role of imagery in rendering scriptural stories. Both authors approach scripture by manipulating the relationships between text, image, and source narrative. Gaiman and Waldman harness the potency of scripture to make strong claims about the notion of sacredness and its connection to, or divergence from, comics as a medium.

Outrageous Tales and Megillat Esther contribute something new to the literary legacy of rewriting narratives from scripture, and the authors achieve this innovation by harnessing the power of the visual in relation to the adapted text. Through iconic imagery and caricature, Gaiman empties the scriptural source narrative of any literary depth and frankly confronts the reader with the insistence of unapologetic violence. Such emphatic violence and gore are found on pages 27-28 in Outrageous Tales from the Old Testament. On these two pages alone, the image of the tent pin sticking into Sisera’s bloody head appears eight separate times, which exemplifies the author’s persistence of exaggerated brutality. The drawings are not intricate or detailed, and the panels lack a descriptive visual setting. Instead, the iconic style draws attention only to blood, violence, and gore. Blood gushes from Sisera’s head, his curly shoulder hairs fill almost a full quarter of page 27, and Jael’s tongue drips saliva as she swings the decapitated head in the air on page 28. By caricaturizing violence through such iconic imagery, Gaiman highlights the baseness of the scriptural story he retells. The shock of seeing such straightforward, overdramatized bloodshed is immediate and direct, without literary nuance, subtlety, or insinuation. In an interview with Martin Rowson, Gaiman speaks to the ability of comics to best evoke disgust due to the “capacity for offence that an image can give” (4). For Gaiman, the image is a tool of provoking an unadulterated, unmediated response from the reader, of cutting through “high brow” literary conventions like symbolism and communicating the p’shat version, the most surface-level story, which can only be achieved through this “offense that an image can give” (4).

By exaggerating images of violence, Outrageous Tales iterates the status of comics as a “gutter” medium. According to Gaiman, the power of the visual to offend is the unique capacity of comics that creates a distinct role of the reader in comparison to conventional literature. He explains in the interview,

“Comics are a target in a way that literature cannot be a target because the truth is you can grumble about Hilary Mantel’s short story, but in order to have an opinion on it you have to read the story. But the act of reading the story is going to change you… And it is an act that is considered, it has to take days, it takes time. The act of shocking people or upsetting people or rabblerousing people about an image is as simple as showing them an image or a portion of the image” (4-5).

The caricature of violence in Outrageous Tales is exemplary of comics’ special capability for fast, direct, unadulterated response from the reader through shock and offense. On the bottom of page 24, Shmagar stands upon a mountain of corpses, a knife protruding from his side. Limbs stick out from the pile, and silhouettes of severed arms and legs litter the skyline. Removed from its context, independent of the text or the source narrative, this image would still maintain its ability to shock and offend. The reader does not need to take time or effort to interpret the nuances or symbolism, like one would do for a poem or short story depicting the same scene. By choosing to retell narratives from scripture, which possesses a full tradition of literary interpretation and exegesis, Gaiman even further exaggerates the comics’ ability, as a lowbrow medium, to penetrate and empty layers of literary depth with the immediate provocation of the image. The distance between cryptic, symbolic scriptural literature and sensational cartoons is dissolved through this visual emphasis on violence. Employing iconic style and gory caricature to shock and offend, Gaiman demotes scripture and pulls it into the home of the comic, the gutter. In this way, the author adapts scriptural narrative with a visual insistence on violence to assert the base position of comics as a gutter medium.

JT Waldman offers a very different graphic novel, one that employs imagery to elevate the comic medium to the stature of highbrow literature. An examination into the design style and the complex visual narratives of Megillat Esther will uncover the author’s construction of layered symbolic meaning and artistic prestige through rich and intricate imagery. Page 63 provides an important example of the detailed and profound imagery found throughout Waldman’s book. On this page, we see Haman walking past Jews who bow down to him in the top horizontal panel. This rectangular panel is literally interrupted by a sharp diagonal panel, in which a bowing Jew interrupts Haman’s walk to point out Mordacai, who refuses to bow. Already, one notices the symbolic intention behind Waldman’s composition. The horizontal panel that evokes Haman’s horizontal trajectory is cut short by a severe vertical panel, echoing the interruption that takes place in the story. In each of the three vertical panels that comprise the bottom section of the page, the images take on a different perspective—next to, behind, and directly in front of Haman. The dark, thick, straight, black lines depicting Haman on the left contrast greatly with the light, thin, crooked lines depicting Haman on the right, indicating Haman’s emotional transformation with his reaction to Mordecai’s protest. Waldman’s unique and deliberate composition of the page, complex visual perspective, symbolic variation of style, and intricate detail serve to deepen the layers of meaning in the graphic novel’s imagery. In contrast to the shocking images of caricaturized violence in Gaiman’s Outrageous Tales, which communicate with the reader in an immediate and surface way, Waldman’s rich imagery implores the reader to indulge in more weighty interpretation of authorial intent, character psyche, and religious symbolism.

This constructed literary depth is also evident in the visual “subplots” that occur throughout the book. As one example on page 84, Waldman inserts small, cryptic images of a parallel narrative on the two bottom corners of many pages. On this page, we see Bezalel and Joshua, whose figures take on great abstraction and whose story remains completely visual, aside from their names and a short footnote at the end of the work. In an interview with Yoav Fisher, Waldman comments on these visual subplots,

“The Midrashic subplots are intended to add layers of depth and context to the Book of Esther… I wanted there to be some mystery to my interpretation and not have everything be on the nose. The subplots manifest the mystique of the work.”

In these subplots, Waldman inserts allusions to other texts from scripture and makes literary claims about the central characters and plot by drawing these external connections. The fact that the subplots are almost entirely visual, without textual explanation, only augments the “mystique” of the story’s meaning by inhibiting any definite conclusion on authorial interpretation. By adding this supplementary stratum of visual narrative, Waldman challenges Gaiman’s assertion that comic images do not require effortful interpretation.

While Outrageous Tales minimizes the role of the reader by relying on the immediacy of comics through unfiltered images of violence, Megillat Esther expands the investigative, interpretive work of the reader through enigmatic, detailed, and symbolic imagery. Much of Waldman’s style echoes the techniques of art nouveau, with decorative intricacies, linear patterns, and flowing curves. Page 112 illustrates how the author fills up almost all white space with full, complicated images. The top left panel shows the king’s head twice. His beard is comprised of tiny repeated swirls, his mustache of small lines, and his hair of dark patterned curls. The background of the panel is filled with thick, sharp zigzags that signal the king’s emotion. In his reference to the cannon of art nouveau, Waldman asserts his artistic credibility and prestige. In other words, his comics do not belong in the gutter. In this way, the details and intricacies of Waldman’s artistic style require the time and consideration that Gaiman attributes to highbrow literature.

Page 9 is another moment that necessitates effortful reading. The page is filled with more than one hundred panels, each with complex details that fill up almost all of the white space within them. The page turns into a panel itself, bursting with so many images that it is basically impossible to process, which embodies the “richness of his kingdom” introduced on the former page (8). While it is an instinct to look closely at each small picture, one must actually look more generally at the entire page to find the hidden Hebrew and English words (“eighty hundred days”) constructed by the negative space between the many panels. This page exemplifies Waldman’s achievement in elevating the notion of “iconic solidarity” to its full potential. In his essay “The Impossible Definition,” Thierry Groensteen defines iconic solidarity as “interdependent images that, participating in a series, present the double characteristic of being separated … and which are plastically and semantically overdetermined by the fact of their coexistence in praesentia (128). As page 9 in Megillat Esther demonstrates, Waldman employs iconic solidarity as yet another layer of complexity in his imagery. Not only do readers need to investigate and analyze the small details of his drawings, but they also must synthesize the page composition as whole. Even the book, as a bigger whole, must be grappled with – Waldman forces the readers to physically flip the entire book at page 92. This flip is simply implied; the reader is surprisingly confronted by words and images that appear to be upside down and backwards. In addition to the physical involvement of the reader in the book’s materiality, the flip also asks the reader to conceptualize the flip (a whole new level of iconic solidarity!) and to ponder its meaning. By pushing his use of iconic solidarity to such an extreme, Waldman challenges the reader to synthesize all of the intricate visual elements of his work. As this analysis reveals, the visual components of Megillat Esther operate to elevate the comic medium far above the gutter and into the realm of symbolic, cryptic, and challenging literature, implicating the reader both physically and intellectually.

An analysis of these two works in dialogue would be unfinished without considering the role of text, its relationship with image, and its connection to scripture. Both authors represent text with important differences that contribute to their diverging claims about the status of comics and the sacredness of textual scriptural tradition. The relationship between Outrageous Tales and its source text, the Old Testament, is expressed through the comic’s narrative techniques, representation of text with image, and reliance on the integration of visual and verbal satire. A core component of Gaiman’s retelling of scripture is the “Old Bible Keeper” character, who narrates the Book of the Judges (23). Wearing an eerie cloak, he smiles hauntingly through sharp teeth while holding a huge, menacing book labeled “BIBLE” in his boney hands. Cyril Camus details that the Bible Keeper is “an obvious allusion to the Crypt Keeper, who was the host of EC’s Tales from the Crypt, and probably the most famous comic-book-horror-host ever” (86). This allusion likens the ostensibly sacred Book of Judges to gory horror comics. In fact, as the possessor of the textual scripture tradition in Outrageous Tales, the Bible Keeper is a salient figure of the lowliest comic world, which relies heavily on stories and images of sensationalist violence. This reference to comic horror stories stands in stark contrast with Waldman’s reference to the highbrow art nouveau style.

In addition to the Book Keeper, Outrageous Tales is rife with irony, satire, and trivialization that are manifested in the relationships between text, image, and scripture itself. In many moments throughout the anthology, text takes on a visual quality that mimics the surface-level immediacy of comic image that Gaiman’s style embraces and embodies. Page 21 provides a poignant example of this method of presenting text. Here, readers are confronted with thick, large, animated words of violence, including, “Hack,” “Chop,” “Cut,” “Stab,” and “Slice”(21). These shocking words are incorporated into the image itself, appearing as the foundation below dead bodies, a screaming dog and boy, and unattached limbs. The reader needs to look twice to even notice the small character in the top left of these panels, who reads the words of scripture describing who must be killed—“Women who lie with animals… Men who lie with their sisters…” (21). The font from the scriptural source text is much smaller than the loud, animated words of violence. By emphasizing the gruesome, shocking words with a conventional comic font over the quotations from the source text, Gaiman compresses the scriptural narrative in order to, as Camus suggests, “make it as clear as possible the tyrannous absurdity, from the point of view of a modern outsider, of Yahweh’s behavior” in scripture (85). Gaiman is willing to overrun the quotations from scripture with his p’shat interpretation of the story’s bottom line – violence. As this page illustrates, Gaiman utilizes the depiction of text to assert the magnitude of violence in scripture.

The connections between word, image, and retelling in Outrageous Tales work to bring scripture and sacredness down into the gutter with the comic medium. On page 31, all of the narrated text is presented on the image of a scroll, a symbol of the religious textual tradition. This scriptural text on the scroll, loyal to its source, contrasts greatly with the more casual, humorous dialogue in the speech bubbles. But more striking is the positioning of these scrolls of scriptural text next to the gruesome, iconic image of a human sacrifice. Blood gushes from the daughter’s neck, and the priest aligns her chopped body parts on the altar. All of these actions are not literally spelled out in the source text, but Gaiman highlights the implicit violence of scripture’s story by imposing the text onto the graphic, shocking images that, according to Gaiman, are comics’ greatest power. In this unique relationship between text and image, Outrageous Tales asserts a profound link between scripture, a sacred literary tradition, and comics, the gutter medium. The connecting tissue between these seemingly opposite worlds, Gaiman illustrates, is violence. In this anthology of scripture’s gruesome “horror stories,” Gaiman highlights and caricaturizes violence in the narratives and ultimately drags scripture down into the gutter as well.

A final analysis of the duality of text and image in Outrageous Tales must turn to the story “The Prophet Who Came to Dinner.” This comic stands out in its uniquely highbrow drawing style, with sketches, contour, and perspective. But the text in this comic preserves the lowbrow quality of comics, with satirical colloquialisms, casual dialogue, and funny trivialities. Camus identifies the strong result of this contrast:

“The effect of this incongruousness is quite funny, in a way that clearly pertains to desacralization (especially as the condition of a prophet is referred to very casually, as if it were no more than a common trade” (90).

Through this contrast between text and image, Gaiman achieves satirical irony that undermines the seriousness of the source narrative. In doing so, Outrageous Tales “domesticates the myth” of scriptural tradition and “trivializes the sacredness” of these sanctified narratives (Camus, 90). In effect, Gaiman dismantles the infrastructure of theological and literary sentiment that elevates scripture. He asserts and proves the comic’s capacity to pull scripture into the gutter by highlighting violence and trivializing sacredness through caricature, satire, and the relationship between text and image.

Waldman’s manipulation of the source text in Megillat Esther offers an entirely different presentation of the interactions between text, image, and sacredness. Waldman’s method employs the Hebrew source text as a symbolic and functional component of the graphic novel’s visual composition. Relatedly, W.J.T. Mitchell describes the tendency for comics to challenge the distinction between text and image by reframing the notion of “pure” media. “Writing, in its physical, graphic form,” he writes, “is an inseparable suturing of the visual and the verbal, the ‘imagetext’ incarnate” (118). A manifestation of this phenomenon occurs on page 88 of Megillat Esther, where Gaiman prints the Hebrew word “Haman” in thick, dramatic, stylized letters in the very center of the page. The lettering morphs together with the intense close up of Haman’s eyes. The rest of the Hebrew text follows the angular composition of his face, connected by his angry wrinkles that turn into firey decoration above the words. The pictorial quality of the text embodies the same powerful symbolism as the images on the page, and the boundary demarcating these two elements softens. The combined effect of this intimate relationship between text and image is the clear illustration of Haman’s intimidating evilness. In this fashion, Waldman employs “imagetext” to expound the literary and artistic depth of his retelling.

Waldman also crafts the composition of the text into shapes and patterns that contribute to the overall visual impression of the page. Unlike Gaiman’s reliance on the traditional comic panel, grid, and speech bubble, Waldman fills his pages with diverse designs of pictorial text and image. For example, the Hebrew text on page 90 is shaped like a swirling tornado. At the bottom of this tornado stands Haman. The visual depiction of the text reflects the emotional narrative – at this moment, Haman’s world swirls before him. On the top left of the page, he laughs happily with the king and queen. But on the right, he cries in anguish about his anger over Mordecai. This is also the moment right before the book flips, right before the Haman’s power is overturned. By endowing the source text with this visual quality, Waldman imbues deep narrative foreshadowing and emotional symbolism into the textual imagery.

Another significant difference between Outrageous Tales and Megillat Esther is their method of adapting the text from the scriptural narrative. Outrageous Tales rarely cites directly from scripture. When it does, only certain quotes are included, and they are often overshadowed by caricaturized words and images of violence. The narratives in Gaiman’s work are recited through crass colloquialisms, humorous satire, and ironic puns. In great contrast, Waldman preserves the original source text in its original language. The Hebrew text from the Book of Esther is only manipulated in its visual representation. By conserving the original text so exactly, Waldman nods to the credible sacredness of scripture. This acknowledgment of the text’s sacredness is at odds with Gaiman’s trivialization of the unquestioned holiness of scripture. In fact, Waldman imitates rabbinic midrash by quoting the scripture and then presenting his own interpretation, which takes both visual and textual form. The English translation in Megillat Esther, which usually appears in much smaller font, takes on a more comic-like, causal style, often enclosed in speech bubbles. By embedding the comic-style English text into the artistic, dramatic, and preserved Hebrew text, Waldman elevates the comic genre to the highbrow status of the scriptural literary tradition.

Waldman bolsters this elevation by creating an entire library of sacred text within his graphic novel. The pages are spotted with the image of the lotus, which works as a footnote to an expansive description of intertextual allusions. This insertion of extratextual tradition adds yet another layer to expound in one’s investigative reading. Waldman labels all of his references to external sacred texts, even if these references are only visual. Waldman himself spells out his intention for these citations at the end of the book:

“The tradition of citing sources has remained a continuous and integral aspect of rabbinic study for centuries. The inclusion of the rabbinic sources within Megillat Esther locates this book within the framework of rabbinic literature” (157).

The last 15 pages of Waldman’s graphic novel include these citations and explain their relevance to the story of Esther. By adopting this rabbinic tradition, Waldman fortifies the claim that Megillat Esther is, in fact, a credible midrash that follows the conventions of this respectable and holy tradition. Clearly, Gaiman’s adaptation of scripture lands at the opposite end of the spectrum. In contrast to Waldman’s efforts to “locate this book within the framework of rabbinic literature,” Gaiman works to locate scriptural narratives in the lowly framework of bloody, offensive comics.

A comparison of Neil Gaiman’s Outrageous Tales from the Old Testament and Waldman’s Megillat Esther reveals the deep divisions between the two adaptions of scripture. Through shocking, caricature images of violence paired with satirical text, Gaiman drags down the sacredness of scripture into the gutter with the comic medium. In doing so, Gaiman utilizes scripture as an instrument to illustrate the power of the comic’s lowly status. Waldman, however, employs complex images, pictorial text, and rabbinic conventions to elevate the comic medium, ultimately asserting his own participation in the sacredness of scriptural tradition. In essence, then, Waldman utilizes comics as an instrument to illustrate the power of scripture’s lofty status. Such a vast distance between the conclusions of Outrageous Tales and Megillat Esther demonstrates the potent productivity residing in the integration of text, image, and scripture within the comic medium.

By Lucille Marshall. Written for Jewish Graphic Novel with Professor Barbara Mann at the Jewish Theological Seminary

Works Cited

Camus, Cyril. “The “Outsider”: Neil Gaiman and the Old Testament.” Shofar Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 29.2 (2011): 77-99. Web.

Gaiman, Neil. “Comics: Unrepentantly in the Gutter?” Interview by Martin Rowson. Pod Academy. Index on Censorship, 12 Dec. 2014. Web. <http://podacademy.org/podcasts/gaiman/&gt;

Gaiman, Neil. Outrageous Tales from the Old Testament. London: Knockabout, 1987. Print.

Groensteen, Thierry. “The Impossible Definition.” A Comics Studies Reader. Ed. Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester. Jackson: U of Mississippi, 2009. 124-31. Print.

Mitchell, W.J.T. “Beyond Comparison.” A Comics Studies Reader. Ed. Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester. Jackson: U of Mississippi, 2009. 116-23. Print.

Waldman, J. T. Megillat Esther. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 2005. Print.

Waldman, J.T. “Not Your Average Spiel.” Interview by Yoav Fisher. JBooks.com. New Zionist, Web.

 

Binary, Transformation, and Myth: Mary Antin’s Redefinition of Jewish Autobiography

In her autobiography The Promised Land, Mary Antin characterizes the Jewish self as one in constant relation to a binary between two worlds—the authority and the alien, the home and the foreign, the sovereign and the strange. It is through this conceptual framework that Antin iterates her personal story of immigration and consequent spiritual renewal as a mythic representation of civilizational, and ultimately cosmic, transformation. In comparison to other classic Jewish autobiographies, The Promised Land repositions the genre to transcend the story of the Jewish individual and the Jewish nation. Employing this two-world binary as an analytical framework, readers must explore her work alongside the crafted life stories of Gluckel of Hameln, Solomon Maimon, and Ephraim Lisitzky. In doing so, we will reveal the diverse manifestations of these two worlds within the Jewish experience and investigate how various relationships between the authority and the alien color a spectrum of individual and mythic transformations.

In order to fully realize Antin’s revolutionary redefinition of the Jewish autobiographical master narrative, one must examine the variant expressions of two-worldliness that pervade Jewish life writing. Tension between two worlds plays a central role in all of the autobiographies under examination, but the protagonists’ conceptions of and relationships to this binary differ considerably. To begin, Gluckel of Hameln’s memoirs weave together opposing strands of authority and alien. She organizes the world around her into these two categories. She continually draws from both sources to achieve the constitution of her selfhood, while simultaneously maintaining the hierarchal distinction between the two. Emblematic of the type of stories that comprise her work, Gluckel pens a didactic narrative about Alexander of Macedon. She concludes,

“This story I do not write as truth. It may be a heathenish fable. I have written it here to pass my time and to show that there are people in this world who care not for riches, relying always on their Creator. We have, thank God, our books of moral from which we learn much good” (11).

With this admission, readers learn that Gluckel understands herself within a binary framework between Jewish texts, traditions, and community and non-Jewish histories, customs, and culture. While the world of Jewish tradition commands Gluckel’s intimate understanding of faith, fate, and family, the presence of the external, non-Jewish world is not all together shunned. In this way, Gluckel of Hameln’s autobiography nuances the binary between authority and alien. She resolves the tension between these two worlds by extracting shards of moral knowledge and personal meaning from non-Jewish tales. Gluckel maintains the binary hierarchy, deeply rooted within the Jewish world, but the alien world does influence Gluckel’s self-meaning through its fables.

Solomon Maimon’s autobiography illustrates a vastly different relationship between the authority and the alien, the Jewish and the non-Jewish. Maimon tells his story of immigration from the Jewish world of Poland to the non-Jewish world of Berlin. Like Antin’s story of immigration to America, Maimon structures his life story within this binary. His old, “past” life in a traditional Jewish community is portrayed in constant juxtaposition to his new, “present” life in an expansive, enlightened world. At the beginning of his life, the world of Jewish tradition and culture commands Maimon’s understanding of himself and the world around him, like Gluckel of Hameln. In Poland, the authority is the Jewish world of tradition and the alien is the non-Jewish world of secular knowledge and culture. But the influence of the alien on Maimon’s life extends far beyond the synthesis of “heathen” narratives—it eventually encompasses his consciousness so strongly that he actually reverses the binary. Berlin, the capital of enlightenment scholarship, becomes the authority, and Poland, the land of narrow mindedness and backwards irrationality, becomes the alien. The way that Maimon describes Poland’s Jewish language, Yiddish, as “defective,” Jewish religion as superstitious, and Jewish learning as ineffective illustrates his self-constructed position as an outsider, one who has removed himself from the authoritative world of Poland Jewry (34). Maimon writes,

“The language of the Talmud is composed of various Oriental languages and dialects; there is even many a word in it from Greek and Latin…and what is worse, as the Talmud is not pointed, you cannot even tell how such words, that are not pure Hebrew, are to be read… This sort of study … is a kind of Talmudic skepticism, and utterly incompatible with any systematic study directed to some end” (48).

Maimon extracts himself from this Jewish world, reversing the binary that continues to characterize his torn existence as a Jew. But his story does not end there. Maimon’s relation to this binary continues to evolve after his immigration to Berlin. He seeks to enter a new realm of superior scholarship, but soon, once again, he renders the world of authority into the alien. After finally succeeding to gain access to the inner circle of Mendelssohn and his colleagues, Maimon repeats his pattern of rebellion against the authority, pushing his limits until he becomes estranged once again. He describes this process in Berlin,

“At last Mendelssohn asked me to see him, when he informed me of this alienation, and pointed out to me its causes. They complained that I had not made up my mind to any plan of life, and had thereby rendered fruitless all their exertion on my behalf; (2) that I was trying to spread dangerous opinions and systems; and (3) that, according to general rumor, I was leading a rather loose life” (240).

Following this rejection, Maimon remains an outcast, an alien from both of the worlds he once considered as his authority. Illustrated through his marginalization from these two contrasting worlds, Maimon represents himself as a destined misfit, a fated outsider, independent from any canon, tradition, or culture of authority.

A final personality to leverage in an analysis of Antin’s autobiography is Ephraim Lisitzky, who centers this two-world binary on the same focal point as Antin’s, the immigration to America. When Lisitzky arrives in America, his perception of the authoritative and alien worlds initially remains static. The cultural world of Jewish Slutzk, where “the learned and the pious had been the vast majority,” beckon him from a foreign, confusing, and unwelcoming America, so much so that Lisitzky says he feels “like an alien” in this new world (67). Despite the fact that Lisitzky maintains the binary between the home and the foreign, Slutzk and Boston, he revokes his decision to return to the old world of Talmud and tradition. Instead, he remains in America, where choice elements of this different, foreign Jewry begin to seep into Lisitzky’s consciousness. While Gluckel of Hameln finds commonalities between the worlds of authority and alien through storytelling and personal meaning, Lisitzky embraces the contradictory tension between the two worlds in his self-constitution. His self-conception mimics the binary juxtaposition that characterizes the entire book:

“My mind was broken up into too many separate sovereignties, mutually contradictory and at odd with one another, each claiming exclusive obedience. This multiplicity of sovereignty prevailed also in my conception of Judaism. As a result, my Jewish outlook, too, became subject to conflicts and contradictions” (296).

In effect, Lisitzky remains torn between the forces of two worlds, and this tension becomes the essence of his unique individuality. He creates “a new life… out of a clash of elements violently torn from their context and matrix and wretched from their ordered categories and equations” (299). Lisitzky transforms a previously paralyzing binary into a productive and creative dissonance that develops a “new organic form,” his selfhood (296).

Antin’s autobiography revolves around a rupture in her identity, from her past self in Russia’s Pale of Settlement to her new life in America. Similar to Maimon’s memoirs, Antin as the author creates a total separation between her narrating self in the present and her narrated self in the past, prior to her immigration. She begins her book, “I am absolutely other than the person whose story I have to tell” (1). Her self-reinvention finds roots in the complete reversal of her relationship to the two worlds she moves between. Unlike Gluckel and Lisitzky, Antin attempts to shed herself of any affiliation with the Jewish world, which was previously all she ever knew. “I think I have thoroughly assimilated my past—I have done its bidding—I was now to be of to-day,” Antin writes, “It is painful to be conscious of two worlds” (3). Changing her name, learning English, and committing herself to thorough “Americanization,” Mary attempts to conceal and banish any remnant of tension between her old and new worlds. She employs the act of autobiography to reverse the binary of the authority of the alien and, in effect, materialize the reinvention of herself as wholly American.

Like many of the Jewish autobiographers discussed, Antin presents her past through the perspective of her present selfhood. She reads aspects of her current consciousness onto events from her childhood; she establishes her inclinations toward rational thought and secularism as inherent. In one such story, her younger self asks Reb’ Lebe, “Who made God?” and is met with flabbergasted rebuke (93). This scene echoes a moment in Maimon’s recollections, which tells of his ability to challenge his father’s superstitious theological assumptions from a very young age, as if Maimon were a heretic and misfit in the Jewish community for all time. Both authors ascribe certain qualities of their “new” selves onto their “old” selves, foreshadowing their eventual rupture and transformation, but Antin takes this process a step further. She signals that the person she was before her immigration was not her true, authentic self, who is now liberated in America. “Perhaps I have established that I was more Jew than Gentile,” she writes, “though I can still prove that I was none the less a fraud” (102). The Promised Land sets out to prove that once she reached American soil, Antin could strip off her inauthentic self of the old Jewish world and “overcome [her] foreign idiosyncrasies” as a genuine American (281). Upon her departure from the Pale, Antin narrates, “It was delightful just to be myself. I rejoiced … in the relaxation of discipline and the general demoralization of our daily life” (132). By constructing the image of her past as a separate selfhood that masked her true (proto-American) being, Antin rejects her condition of being pulled between two worlds, essentially denying that the old world was, in fact, ever truly her “authority.” By writing the memories of her youth, Mary ascribes her Americanized qualities onto her younger self. In effect, she subverts the Jewish authoritative world of her past in a retroactive way, inscribing her rebellion against and rejection of Russian Jewry into her former consciousness. In this way, the act of autobiographical composition is a method for Antin to defeat and conceal the painful tension of existing between two contrasting worlds by permanently engraving her current selfhood onto her past.

Maimon and Lisitzky construct their personal relationships to two contrasting worlds in an allegorical, mythic scale of Jewish civilization. Echoed by the biblical allusions in Antin’s chapter titles, Maimon infuses biblical imagery in his story to characterize the quintessential Jewish experience in the modern world. He travels to Berlin, expecting to enter paradise, a land of universal truth and modernity. Instead, Maimon is initially refused entry at the city gates because he is seen as an impoverished Jewish beggar from the old world. Such a dramatic incident echoes the biblical narrative of Adam’s banishment from Eden. As this example demonstrates, Maimon’s autobiography elevates the personal to the mythical, representing the condition of the modern Jew as a chronic outcast, suspended between two worlds but never fully belonging to either. Lisitzky also builds his self-narrative as an emblem of all American Jewry. He, too, presents a story with mythic proportions and “universal Jewish implication” (287). Lisitzky explains, “The story of that period of my life seemed to me worth telling for the reason that its significance is not confined to myself as an isolated individual but is applicable to the Jewish personality in general” (287). Lisitzky represents his struggle between the old and new worlds as an experience of spearheading a new form of Jewishness that preserves ancient culture while embracing the exciting novelty of American life. Likening this epic to the plight of Native Americans, Lisitzky’s autobiography intentionally constitutes a civilizational Jewish narrative. He writes, “[Jewish culture struggles] to preserve something of its own character in the midst of this new existence. This drama, with its aspect of the sublime and the tragic, holds great promise for American Hebrew poetry, [which] partakes of the nature of pioneering” (300). Both Maimon and Lisitzky mobilize their personal struggles within a two-world binary to erect a mythic representation of the Jewish people.

Mary Antin transforms this Jewish autobiographical model by extending her personal narrative beyond a mythic tale of the Jewish civilization. Antin melds her autobiography to an American myth and ultimately innovates a transcendentalist narrative of cosmic implication. By exploring these significant breaks from the Jewish autobiographical tradition, readers understand the extent to which Antin rewrites the master narrative of the Jewish autobiography. The first section of her book does not expound upon Antin’s own memories but instead details the recollections of her parents and community in Russia. Throughout this portion of her story, Antin engineers the portrayal of the Pale of Settlement to fit the mythical American binary of life before immigration in opposition to the Land of the Free. Antin succeeds in this endeavor by insisting upon the religious persecution of the Jews, the backwardness of their community, and the narrowness of their cultural and intellectual achievements in Russia. The author must reach beyond her authentic personal experiences to accomplish this depiction of the world before America. She writes, “Russia was another Egypt…. It was not so bad in Polotzk, within the Pale; but in Russian cities, and even more in the country districts… the Gentiles made the Passover a time of horror for the Jews” (9-10). Antin crafts her personal story as a grand representation of the American dream, echoing the proud narrative of American pioneers fleeing religious persecution and seeking freedom, education, and economic opportunity. Her construction of two juxtaposing worlds, from the “prison of the Pale” to the “land of freedom,” corroborates her claim to speak for all immigrants and all Americans, not only the Jews (267). Drawing a mythic narrative out of her immigration story, Antin employs the binary between two worlds as a method to position herself in the legitimate American consciousness.

Ultimately, The Promised Land transforms the genre of Jewish autobiography by producing a story of spiritual rupture and renewal with cosmic significance. Surpassing the mythic claims of former Jewish autobiographers, Antin posits her story as “the image of the universe” and “the heir of all ages” (197). Portraying immigration to America as a transcendentalist spiritual conversion, Antin considers her affairs to be “divided… from other men’s” (232). Within the binary framework between old and new worlds, Antin articulates her “tale of immortal life” as moments of continual “self-birth,” of connecting with nature, universal truth, and spiritual wholeness through a rupture from one selfhood to another (71). Such cosmic evolution is expressed through her personal story that embodies the American dream. She writes, “So at last I was going to America! Really, really going, at last! The boundaries burst. The arch of heaven soared. A million suns shone out for every star. The winds rushed in from outer space, roaring in my ears. ‘America! America!’” (129).

As our analysis reveals, Mary Antin builds upon the tradition of Jewish autobiography, understanding selfhood through the lens of a two-world binary. But she does this in a new, transformative way. Unlike the life writings of Gluckel of Hameln, Solomon Maimon, and Ephraim Lisitzky, Antin crafts her story to extend beyond the civilizational narrative of the Jewish people. She claims possession over the myth of American immigration, portraying this caesura as a cosmic, spiritual renewal with universal consequence. Antin redefines autobiography as a vehicle to reinvent her past, fashion her American selfhood, and explain universal truth as dependent upon personal spiritual rupture and rebirth.

By Lucille Marshall. Written for Jewish Life Writing: The Struggle for Selfhood with Professor Roskies at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Works Cited

Antin, Mary. The Promised Land: By Mary Antin. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1912. Print.

Glueckel. The Life of Glückel of Hameln: A Memoir. Trans. Beth-Zion Abrahams. Lincoln: U of Nebraska, 2012. Print.

Lisitzky, Ephraim E. In the Grip of Cross-currents. New York: Bloch Pub., 1959. Print.

Maimon, Salomon. Solomon Maimon: An Autobiography. Trans. John Clark Murray. Paisley: A. Gardner, 1888. Print.