Lenny Bruce is Called to the Torah

Suddenly, secular young Jews are watching documentaries about Satmars and gay Hassids, grooving to the rhythm of rapper-reggae star Matisyahu, and reading about the sealed ultra-Orthodox communities depicted in the novels of Pearl Abraham and the short stories of Nathan … Read More

By / February 5, 2007

Suddenly, secular young Jews are watching documentaries about Satmars and gay Hassids, grooving to the rhythm of rapper-reggae star Matisyahu, and reading about the sealed ultra-Orthodox communities depicted in the novels of Pearl Abraham and the short stories of Nathan Englander. We’re signing up for, though not always attending, Torah classes at the local JCC.

It’s hardly a surprise that many New Jewish writers of the under-40 set share in the growing communal attraction to orthodoxy. And yet most such writers, including myself, are ardently secular bacon-eating Chosen People. So why our fascination with a religion that’s so alien to us, so incompatible with the values by which we live?

Our shift toward Judaism is an effort to solve the dilemma now facing all of American Jewry: How does one live Jewishly in an age of boundless cultural miscegenation? By signing up for Torah class, we admit that Jewishness must be more than an accident of birth, more than a mere ethnic identity to be assumed or discarded at our pleasure. In an age of infinite choice, we have chosen Judaism, and this sets us apart from other people.

To explore adherence to religion is to explore a community of shared value and purpose we have irretrievably lost. It is also to suggest that amidst the ancient and arcane, secular Jews might find what we are searching for: meaningful identity as a communal people, and the conceptual tools to make sense of an endlessly disorienting world.

Jews who attempt to reclaim the certainties of scripture and the community of the shtetl are the subject of Nathan Englander’s short story collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. In “Gilgul of Park Avenue,” Christian Charles suddenly comprehends that he is Jewish. What follows is a series of slapstick moments: informing the wife, arguing with the shrink, convincing the rabbi. The story ends with Charles staring pleadingly into his wife’s eyes, wishing she could truly see “the profound clarity he had only so recently come to know.” What is this clarity that Englander’s new Jew has found? It is the clarity of belonging, a clarity that secular Jews imagine would be theirs if only they lived in the world of Fiddler in the Roof.

Yet even as we crave Tevye’s certainties, we New Jews know that we are too deeply modern to accept Judaism’s strange and non-negotiable truths. Even though we yearn for the spiritual certainties of our ancestors, we are unable to accept the beliefs upon which those certainties stood. For us, returning wholesale to antedeluvian religious faith means giving in to nostalgia and passivity.

Toronto writer David Bezmozgis touches on the conflict between ancient yearnings and modern sensibilities in the final story of his collection Natasha, in which the narrator begins attending regular services at the one-room synagogue of an old people’s home. Bezmozgis writes: “Most of the old Jews came because they were drawn to the nostalgia for ancient cadences, I came because I was drawn by the nostalgia for old Jews.” This is not religion. It is nostalgia in its purest distillation: pathetic, self-serving, deluded.

But we cannot abandon our traditions or get past our yearning for external direction, and so we struggle to suck the marrow from Judaism without surrendering to laws that feel outmoded and pointless. The best of the New Jewish writing reflects that struggle. Consider, for instance, Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision. Kunkel’s character (never identified as Jewish or otherwise) hilariously lurches from one a
dventure to another searching for a commitment he can make. I’m critical of the middle-class coming-of-age genre (see "The Death of Edge") but as the New York Times Book Review put it, Kunkel “manages to make the whole flailing, post-adolescent, prelife crisis feel fresh and funny again.” He does so because he focuses not necessarily on the answer, but on the futile hilarity of the search. Though it’s arguably not a Jewish novel because the word Jew doesn’t appear in it (whether Jewish writers who don’t write overtly Jewish stories qualify for Hebraic lit status is a debate we can have another day), this book feels like it could or should be about the many feckless 20-, 30-, and even 40-something Jews who spend the bulk of their days searching for something they can legitimately call their own.

A similarly themed, indisputably Jewish book is Jonathan Goldstein’s Lenny Bruce Is Dead. Recently released in the United States, this fractured novel crafts its own unique, millennial sensibility, taking no prisoners in its attempt to articulate a new generation’s Diaspora experience of Pez dispensers, matzo balls, Archie comics, Bat Mitzvahs, and soft-porn-inspired masturbation frenzies. Essentially plotless, this book is a reprieve from the methodically storied texts that dominate the New Jewish literature. Basically, a guy named Josh moves back in with his dad after his mom dies of cancer. Josh spends most of his time jerking off and remembering past loves, past pop culture moments, and other general instances of adolescent weirdness. Oh, and toward the end the Moschiach arrives and everybody’s happy about it except Josh, who kinda ruins the whole thing.

Josh’s Judaism is dark, sardonic, regretful, nostalgic, and funny all at once. It doesn’t feel affectedly edgy: “Josh decided to say kaddish. He tried to get Kaliotzakis to come with him. ‘You could use a little religion,’ said Josh. ‘I could use a piece of ass,’ said Kaliotzakis.”

Similar elements are at play in Nelly Reifler’s short story “Julian,” part of her collection See Through. Preteen Julian’s father is dying of cancer; before dinner, Julian watches him fall down in the back yard. These are the afflictions of the middle: domestic, universal, divorced from any ethnic or religious specificity. At the table, Julian’s religious uncle wonders aloud how God can regularly allow the horrible to occur. “If anyone knows, please tell me.” No one, of course, has an answer; no one less devout would even ask the question. Meanwhile, as if to remind us of the irresistible carnality of the modern world, Julian and his male cousin, the Jews of the future, fondle each other while looking at a dirty magazine. Give me more of this kind of writing: the kind that walks the line between edgy and potty-mouth, that longs for the past and admits how much that past disgusts us; writing that acknowledges the impermanence of the present without agreeing to it; writing that never stops asking what is it, now, to be not just a Jew but a human being.

If the New Jewish writing’s treatment of religious observance teaches us anything, it’s that the problem of our identity in the age of Jewish middlism is no more likely to be solved by sudden pronouncements on one’s sexual inclinations than it is in the sudden discovery of one’s passion for Sukkahs and Sufganiot. We emerging Jewish writers need to find ways—as Goldstein does—to connect pop culture individuality to our yearning for deeper substance. We need to keep trying to understand how the secular and the holy can merge, crafting new traditions for an authentically present Judaism.

And so the ongoing project of New Jewish writing must lay the groundwork for the next generation. I’m thinking here about my own baby daughter, and about my brother’s three children, growing up in an Orthodox Jewish enclave, eating kosher, attending private religious school, but also watching every Disney release and playing endless battles on Gamecube. They have cable TV, the Internet, and daily doses of God. Will their generation shake off the malaise of the 20th century and find a way to really and truly live as Jews without giving up the right to decide what and how and who to believe? Is such a thing even possible?

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