While I am not of the mind we have nothing to learn from the model of essentialism, where we learn about the nature of the world from the perspective of the classics (mostly dead white men), there is a richness to culture and human experience that cannot be tackled exclusively by Plato and William Shakespeare. Further, people don’t read as much.
This is precisely why multiculturalism has become so essential as of late. The way to make students understand and learn to love literature is to relate reading to their own lives (though I wish it didn’t have to) and to offer a glimpse into other worlds. Multiculturalism is a method for both.
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An African American student may have an innate interest in African American culture, but he or she may also want to know what it’s like to grow up in China. While the environment a Chinese boy living on a farm inhabits may be entirely foreign to an African American student living in Brooklyn, a unit exploring these differences will ultimately highlight our similarities more than our difference. Literature is a means of understanding what it is to be human and teaches us to sympathize with each other above our differences.
One culture that is often left out of curriculums on multiculturalism is Jewish culture. While most curriculums do something that recognizes the Holocaust, a particularly relevant culture to students, especially New Yorkers, is Jewish American life. Jewish assimilation was a very slow and painful process in America. Though American Jews were eventually welcomed into the forefront of American culture, the path was met with a lot of resistance and Jewish authors reveal both a desire for Jews to be part of the culture at large and an uneasy connection to their past.
Interestingly, there were very few notable Jewish American authors at the beginning of the 20th century. Anti-Semitism was more or less a rule of thumb in American life and there was a lot of distrust of Jews, just as there was distrust of all the immigrants. “Remember that when Bellow was growing up, Lionel Trilling could be sacked from a teaching post at Columbia on the grounds that a Jew could not really appreciate English literature.” (Hitchens, “The Great Assimilator”)
This is precisely why, arguably the first great Jewish American author Nathaniel West, an atheist and son of Russian Jewish immigrants, changed his name from Nathan Weinstein and wrote exclusively about characters who weren’t Jewish. Like the Hollywood directors and actors of Jewish descent, he hid his Judaism to be accepted by American culture. He masked who he was, before his tragic death, making one wonder what direction his work would have gone if he hadn’t been killed in automobile accident at the age of thirty-seven. Would he have confronted his uneasy relationship with his faith more directly? While his contemporaries, like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, were interested in Jewish characters, they were often portrayed with a lot of contempt.
The stereotypes about Jews were on full display (note Sun Also Rises, Great Gatsby). The widespread prevalence of anti-Semitism in American culture was particularly prevalent in the snobbery of literary world, until so many Jewish authors achieved inarguable greatness. If you look at the Jewish integration to American life, they were essentially unwanted and because of a desire to succeed, they forced their way into to the top of every sphere of American life.
In the next generation of authors, most notably in the 50s and 60s, Jewish authors began to write specifically from the perspective of Jewish characters, often boldly confronting these stereotypes head on and like a bullet. You cannot really begin to look at this period without mentioning Jewish authors. There was Arthur Miller, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Isaac Asimov, Alan Ginsberg, Bernard Malamud to name a few, and the trashy Exodus, telling the story of Israeli independence was the bestselling book since Gone With the Wind.
Jewish exceptionalism in the field of letters is maybe why Jewish literature isn’t often contained in the study and curriculums of multicultural literature. However, it would be unwise not to tackle Jewish American writing, especially in New York City, where twenty percent of the population is Jewish, because anti-Semitism is steeply on the rise as of late and there is still a constant feud between Jewish traditionalism and secular society. Not only do these works have considerable merit, but also they ask questions that are still relevant today.
While Jews are no longer viewed as separate from the mainstream American life and Jews are present in all spheres of American society, it is worth examining what it means to be Jewish, the controversial subject of Israel and the persistence of anti-Semitism in the world today.
Philip Roth’s story “Eli the Fanatic, ” is a prime example of a work specifically concerning Jewish assimilation. Unlike most Jewish American literature and most of Roth’s work, it is a story mainly about religious Jews. The main conflict in the story is the emergence of religious Jews in a residential area. Leo Tzuref, a German Rabbi, starts a yeshiva in his home, in a New York City suburb.
A yeshiva is a Jewish tradition where kids, usually teenagers live together in a home and study Torah. Due to a technicality, the townspeople try and get Tzuref to leave, by offering the legal reason that it is illegal to start a boarding school in a residential area. Very quickly we see that the problem is not one of zoning, but the feeling that the presence of 18 Orthodox Jewish students will adversely affect the community.
Ted, the leader of the purge of the Jews makes no qualms about expressing his disdain for the town’s new inhabitants. “Goddam fanatics, ” Ted said. “This is the 20th century, Eli. Now it’s the guy with the hat. Pretty soon all the little Yeshivah boys’ll be spilling down into town.” “Next thing they’ll be after our daughters.” The town sees Tzuref as a threat to the community of Woodenton, because he is instilling old world Jewish values into the modern American suburb.
It is a prime example of xenophobia that can be related to every race and nationality in American suburbs. Some cultures chose to be ghettoized, while others did their best to be American in thought. Jews chose both paths to an extreme degree, which is why there are still big Orthodox communities that do their best to remain separate from the societies they inhabit and “60 percent of American Jews believe that Judaism is mainly a matter of ancestry, culture, and values, rather than of religious observance.” (Silberstein, “Can You Be an Atheist and a Jew at the Same Time? David Silverman Says No.”)
As the story progresses we see that this xenophobia quickly develops into clear anti-Semitism. What starts as a discomfort with the funny hats, the Orthodox Jews wear, becomes a discomfort with fanatical religion. “We’re not just dealing with people—these are religious fanatics is what they are. Dressing like that…This Abraham in the Bible was going to kill his own kid for a sacrifice. She gets nightmares from it, for God’s sake! You call that religion? Today a guy like that they’d lock him up. This is an age of science, Eli.
I size people’s feet with an X-ray machine, for God’s sake. They’ve disproved all that stuff, Eli, and I refuse to sit by and watch it happening on my own front lawn.” The non-Jew who expresses this view is essentially the prevalent view of the Jewish American author, who has an uneasy relationship to the dogma of Judaism, but feels some connection with common Jewish inherited personality traits.
The existence of these traits are still present to this day, as we learn from Gary Schteyngart’s “Lenny Hearts Eunice, ” an excerpt from a five year old, dystopian novel about the near future, where a recent Russian Jewish Immigrant, Lenny Abramov, suffers from interminable Jewishness.
Like Schteyngart, Lenny is a recent immigrant of Russia and kind of a foil for his insecurities about assimilating into American life. In this satire, Lenny’s self consciousness and intelligence (Jewish stereotypes that he uses for comic effect) are enemies to him in the future, where coolness and attractiveness are public information quantified on tablets.
Rather than searching for immortality from religion, Lenny is of the belief he can live forever and works towards this goal. In spite of his desire for eternal life, his sad reality is mired by his own insecurity and narcissism. He comically remembers Jewish assimilation by describing his neighborhood. “I live in the last middle-class stronghold in the city, high atop a red-brick ziggurat that a Jewish garment workers’ union erected on the banks of the East River back in the days when Jews sewed clothes for a living.”
Lenny’s world is entirely secular, but haunted by his Jewishness. The office he works was purchased by his boss, “Joshie (Weinberg), ” and he “got it at auction for a mere eighty thousand dollars when the congregation folded after being bamboozled by some kind of Jewish pyramid scheme years ago.” His office is a temple, a metaphor for the Jewish American ascension in business. Further he sees his insecurity about his Russian Jewishness everywhere he looks.
It’s an obstacle to his desire for eternal life (“All that Russian-Jewish testosterone is being turned right into dihydrotestosterone. That’s killer stuff. Prostate cancer down the road.”), and when his girlfriend kisses his Jewish nose, which of course he is insecure about, he sees himself as the elephant at the zoo. “Mother, aloneness, entrapment, extinction. The elephant is essentially an Ashkenazi animal.” Though Lenny no longer has to deal with the systematic racism his ancestors felt, he is still burdened by his Jewishness.
Saul Bellow, from the previous generation, had to confront his anti-Semitism more directly than Schytengart, which may explain why he better masked his Jewish and Russian qualities. In the words of Christopher Hitchens, Saul Bellow, “In his own person he united the Jew, the cosmopolitan, the man of ideas, and the man of action.”
The son of Lithuanian Jewish parents, who had left a privileged life in St. Petersburg for Canada, he grew up in full observance of Jewish customs. In Bellow’s own words, “At the age of four we began to read the Old Testament in Hebrew, we observed Jewish customs, some of them superstitions, and we recited prayers and blessings all day long. Because I had to memorize most of Genesis, my first consciousness was that of a cosmos, and in that cosmos I was a Jew.”
However, Bellow had a great desire, in spite of his heritage, disprove the myth that Jews were, “totally incapable of comprehending the Faustian spirit that had created the great civilization of the West.” Bellow, who studied anthropology, mainly because he felt the English department at The University of Chicago was hugely anti-Semitic, was deeply concerned with spirituality and religion in his writing. However, he did not confine himself to Jewish thought. (Bellow, “A Jewish Writer in America by Saul Bellow.”)
“A Silver Dish” is a rich story that is about a son confronting his narcissistic con man of a father’s death and the whole story of his hugely dysfunctional Jewish family that aside from his father had become fanatical Christians.
More than that it is a story about how the world has changed since, Woody’s childhood in the depression and the uncertain reality of the 1970s. Directly after describing the actual physical repellence of Woody’s father, Pop, the narrator creates a disturbed image of the world, “Think what times these are.
The papers daily give it to you—the Lufthansa pilot in Aden is described by the hostages as being on his knees, begging the Palestinian terrorists not to execute him, but they shoot him through the head. Later they themselves are killed. And still others shoot others, or shoot themselves. That’s what you read in the press, see on the tube, mention at dinner. We know now what goes daily through the whole of the human community, like a global death-peristalsis.”
Interestingly, before telling a story that spans many decades about a Jewish family that was mostly converted into being born again Christians, he speaks of a famous Palestinian plane hijacking, before comparing his father in his coffin to Ben Gurion, the first Israeli Prime Minister. Though his father was essentially an atheist, his Judaism is a part of him and his wish to buried amongst the Jews was granted. Even though he is clearly an amoral person, he holds onto the moral high ground, because he unlike his ex wife doesn’t make his children proselytize Evangelical Christianity. And though Woody had once been training to become a minister, was an agnostic, deeply concerned with spiritual matters, much like Bellow himself.
Much like the perspectives offered in the story, the message is largely formless. What this family does clearly express is the hypocrisy of religious dogma. However dark and misguided the world seems to be is clearly reflected in the relationship between Woody and Pop, but in spite of it all, Bellow’s story maintains hopefulness for a better world, even though it clearly notes that selfishness in this world is usually rewarded. “Pop was so selfish. It’s usually the selfish people who are loved the most. They do what you deny yourself, and you love them for it. You give them your heart.”
Woody however does not love his father until he dies. Pop dies at the close of the story, but it is a cathartic death. Pop’s willfulness is finally accepted by Woody and he is able to empathize with him, after years of discord that reached its peak when Pop stole a silver dish from a Scandinavian evangelical, leading to a violent fistfight. Maybe in that moment Woody realizes his true feeling about the universe that he noticed at the World’s Fair as a child, “that the goal, the project, God’s purpose was (and he couldn’t explain why he thought so; all evidence was against it)—that this world should be a love world, that it should eventually recover and be entirely a world of love.”
And really this is the ultimate goal of multiculturalism. Not to preach the dogma of one culture or another, but to show us how to have compassion for one another, by looking deeply at how unfair the world is for everyone and see what is preventing the world from becoming this “world of love.” Jewish American authors were able to use their feeling of separation from American culture to express many deep truths about humanity. Authors like Bellow, Roth and Schteyngart attempt to look at the world nakedly to try and understand what it is to be human. The more specifically they dig into their own lives and personalities, the more universal their work becomes.
Jesse Bogner is a twenty-seven year old author, screenwriter and journalist. His memoir and social critique, The Egotist, has been translated into four languages.
In 2013, he moved from New York City, where he was born and raised, abandoning a decadent lifestyle chock full of substance abuse, to study Kabbalah in Israel under Michael Laitman.
Since then, his work on the subject has been featured in The Huffington Post, Shatterproof Addiction Blog, The Jerusalem Post and The Times of Israel. He is the subject of a forthcoming documentary for Larry King’s The Spirituality Network and is currently working on a post-apocalyptic Kabbalistic novel.
Hitchens, Christopher. “The Great Assimilator.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media
Company, 01 Nov. 2007. Web. 05 May 2015.
Roth, Philip. “Article Eli The Fanatic.” Commentary Magazine. N.p., 1 Apr. 1959. Web. 05 May 2015.
Silberstein, Rachel. “Can You Be an Atheist and a Jew at the Same Time? David Silverman Says No.” Tablet Magazine. N.p., 9 Dec. 2013. Web. 05 May 2015.
Bellow, Saul. “A Jewish Writer in America by Saul Bellow.” A Jewish Writer in America by Saul Bellow. N.p., 27 Oct. 2011. Web. 05 May 2015.
Schteyngart, Gary. “Lenny Hearts Eunice – The New Yorker.” The New Yorker. Conde Nast, 14 June 2010. Web. 05 May 2015.
Bellow, Saul. “A Silver Dish – The New Yorker.” The New Yorker. Conde Nast, 25 Sept. 1978. Web. 05 May 2015.