Nothing Is Illuminated

I’m tired of the Holocaust—the great tragedy Jews devour like a falafel plate after the Yom Kippur fast. I recently declared a personal moratorium on Holocaust movies, museums, and memoirs. The Pianist: didn’t see it. The new version of Elie … Read More

By / December 19, 2006

I’m tired of the Holocaust—the great tragedy Jews devour like a falafel plate after the Yom Kippur fast. I recently declared a personal moratorium on Holocaust movies, museums, and memoirs. The Pianist: didn’t see it. The new version of Elie Weisel’s Night: didn’t read it. The controversial Holocaust memorial in Berlin? I’ll pass.

In school I read Anne Frank, watched filmstrips full of emaciated men and women in dirty striped pajamas, and stumbled upon a Polish book with a grey cover filled with pictures of heaps of dead bodies. It was enough. I know what happened.

But I can’t seem to avoid the Holocaust. It plagues the books I read, the New Jew hipster salon conversations I’ve been lured into—it even seeps into my own writing. Its presence lingers in every word written by Jews in the last 50 years. Younger Jewish writers inevitably put their own morbid twist on, say, the classic coming-of-age story of a weird girl or boy shipped off to summer camp. In the New Jew version, awkward adolescence and its cruelties have a potent backdrop: a camp-wide game in which the kids must find a way to escape deportation from the Jewish ghetto to the death camps. (Ellen Umansky’s story “How to Make it to the Promised Land,” in the anthology Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge, depicts such a scenario. I read the story with fascination; in my own novel, I include a scenario, based on my summer camp experiences, in which campers must sneak into British-controlled Palestine or be deported back to Europe and certain death.)

After 1945, the German critic Theodor Adorno wondered: Can there be poetry after the Holocaust? In the context of a new wave of youngish Jewish writers, the question is this: Can there be Jewish writing after the Holocaust that isn’t about the Holocaust?

“He was called to the Torah, and before reciting the blessing he reached into his tallis bag, removed the silencer, aimed it at his temple, and pulled the trigger. A Jewish brain shot out from his head and splattered all over the unscrolled sheepskin as though the synagogue had just hosted its first animal sacrifice.” So begins Thane Rosenbaum’s Golems of Gotham, a book that epitomizes the awkward sub-genre of Jewish literature we might call “Holocaust Style.” Here is New Jewish writing that evokes the time of the Holocaust but does not attempt to realistically portray what life was like during that era. With this approach, Rosenbaum and others attempt to avoid glamorizing the Holocaust via nostalgia, by showing us how such events continue to temper and infect the present day. Holocaust Style tends to mix, as Rosenbaum’s book does, modern, gritty, urban activities with nostalgic magical Yiddishisms. It’s a perfect recipe for self-reflexive postmodern new-Jew “edge.”

It’s not that the works in the genre of Holocaust Style are failures. Many of them are surprisingly beautiful. Joseph Skibell, for instance, in his book A Blessing on the Moon, tells the story of Chaim Skibelski, who enters this book with a bullet to the head, having played his part in a vicious pogrom. Skibelski lives on. After his rabbi turns into a crow, he ends up wandering through a fractured landscape that’s part Talmud, part Burroughs, part Chagall, looking for a way to help his fellow Jews assume their rightful place in the World to Come.

Skibell’s capacity for creating wonderment and humor amidst the tragedy of a bloodstained Eastern Europe remains a hallmark of the New Jewish writer’s approach to the Holocaust. Foremost among those books is Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated. Again, we have a first novel about the events of the Holocaust steeped in self-referential longing and improbable magic. Skibell has his forebear-narrator Skibelski; Foer has himself as storyteller. Neither author shies away from being irreverent and salacious, even within the context of the Holocaust. While Skibelski is aroused by a sickly Polish girl whose family has occupied what used to be his house, Foer’s great-grandfather pleasures the shtetl’s virgins and old women. Life goes on before, during, and after, as our New Jewish writers lustily describe.

These Holocaust Style books and others like them (such as, I freely admit, sections of my own novel) emerge from a Jewish society that is groping for a new identity in the middle. We now have the luxury of stopping to contemplate what has happened and how our starved, ugly past can be reconciled with our bloated, privileged present. This is the hallmark of Holocaust Style writing: middle-class characters who evoke the familiar theme of “finding yourself,” with all the guilt and befuddlement that accompany the endless search through the tragic history of the Jews’ victimization. These reflections on the Holocaust and its meaning are less about remembering what happened, and more about our collective desire to give purpose to individuals living in the feckless present day. We assume, audaciously, that we can make up for our survival by somehow making peace with the past. Optimistic and opportunistic, the shtetl ghost and the latter-day peasant link arms and shimmy across the ashes in a dance of reconciliation choreographed by the smart-ass young writer with an MFA and a keenly developed nose for saleable nostalgia.

Why is a new generation of Jewish writers so obsessed with the Holocaust? Because the Holocaust is the only unique unifying symbol we have. In an era of fractious sects, cults, values, and politics, at a time when articulating what it is to be Jewish is as complicated as figuring out how to daven in space, the Holocaust provides writers with a particular voice and an identity. But in the process, we hide from our own reality as unthreatened middle-class Jews. By obsessing on the tragic past, from Passover to the Holocaust, we infuse our uninspired present day with a tragic vitality that it doesn’t deserve.

In the anthology Who We Are: On Being (and Not Being) a Jewish American Writer, Thane Rosenbaum contributes an essay in which he both defends his approach to writing about contemporary Jewish life and nicely defines Holocaust Style: “I am a post-Holocaust novelist, which means that I rely on my imagination—my capacity to reinvent worlds and reveal emotional truths—in order to speak to the Holocaust and its aftermath, one generation removed from Auschwitz. I don’t write about the years 1939 to 1945… Instead I focus on the looming dark shadow of the Holocaust as a continuing, implacable event; how it, inexorably, is still with us.”

My interpretation of Rosenbaum’s statement goes like this: We shall not give up the Holocaust. We shall insist that it is still with us, because that will give our writing depth and resonance. But in clinging to the Holocaust, what are we missing? What would, say, the great Philip Roth be writing about if he had not returned to the mid-part of the 20th century to imagine an antisemitic U.S. President with Hitler sympathies?

Looking at my own inadvertent Holocaust Style writings, I can see that they emerge from a source of deep yearning and a place too carefully considered for comfort. In the new Jewish writing, the Holocaust is both our natural birthright and that which we have to make us more “other” in an age when “otherness” earns book deals and talk-show appearances. We use the Holocaust to imbue ourselves with identity, to beat off the specter of assimilated averageness. In the process, we rely on familiar tropes, often failing to fully grapple with the state of the world and the reality of contemporary Jewish life.

Sometimes, we use the Holocaust because we have to—because the Skibelskis and Niedzvieckis are calling us from the grave. But sometimes we use the Holocaust because it’s all we have left to give our Judaism nobility. It’s the grisly birthright that makes us better than the rest of the aspirants in creative writing class. They have their racism, sexism, environmentalism, Catholicism, veganism, alcoholism, and we—triumphant survivor Jews who didn’t actually have to survive anything—we have that dark horror which can never be trumped.

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