News & Society
Tikkun, Nov-Dec, 1997 by Rebecca Goldstein
Once upon a time, I resolved to live a rational life. This was a long time ago and I was very young, having quite recently emerged from the allegedly enchanted age of early childhood. I exited a skeptic.
Among other things, my plan for rationality called for hyper-vigilance in the matter of my beliefs. I would examine each one for blemishes, much as, say, my mother examined her chickens, which in those days she used to have to kosher herself-gutting, then salting and soaking them. Whenever my mother opened a chicken and found something questionable - a perforated lung, a spotted liver - she would proceed with caution, seeking rabbinical guidance as to whether the chicken was acceptable. As it was with my mother and her chickens, so it would be with me and my beliefs. I would examine each one for the taints of wishful thinking and faulty logic. Never would I allow the accidental features of my particular situation - the fact that I happened to have been born, for instance, into an Orthodox Jewish family - influence me in the solemn business of my beliefs.
And so it was that I became an analytic philosopher. If my story ended there, it would make sense. But against logic, I also became a writer of fiction. My hopeless passion for fiction had seemed to me, in the days when I hung exclusively with philosophers, a rather shameful little aberration. Plato had planned to rid his utopia of the epic poets, who were the novelists of his day. Fiction writers are enchanters, those who spread their dreams abroad; and Plato - whom I still revere - thoroughly disapproved of enchantment.
Even more implausibly, my stories often are often enough, at least, for me to be asked to contribute to this forum - Jewish. This, to me, is odd. For though I have reconciled myself, even philosophically, to my love for fiction, I still chafe at allowing "the accidents of precedents" (as one of my own characters once put it) to determine the borders of my points of view. And so, unlike others whom I sometimes find myself grouped with as representatives of the re-awakening in Jewish American letters, I don't write exclusively on Jewish themes or about Jewish characters. My collection of short stories, Strange Attractors, contained nine pieces, five of which were, to some degree, Jewish, and this ratio has provided me with a precise mathematical answer (for me, still the best kind of answer) to the question of whether I am a Jewish writer. I am five-ninths a Jewish writer.
But even this fraction of Jewish is far more than I would ever have anticipated being back in the days when I was determined to let my mind be free from origins. Cynthia Ozick once said that her goal is to dream Jewish dreams. My own early goal could not have been more different. I wanted (like Descartes) to know and not dream, to know that I did not dream. And I wanted, too, (like Spinoza) to leave my Jewishness firmly behind.
My desire to emulate, specifically, Spinoza was not unrelated to my experiences as, specifically, a girl. The long arm of patriarchy, well-muscled in Orthodoxy, had joined forces with the complicated dynamics of family life, to wreak its damage on my wee little psyche. I had hit on reason as my salvation, and yet my mind, as a girl's mind, was not to be taken as seriously as a boy's. The very course of its instruction was different, insidiously non-Talmudic in a culture in which the gemorah-kopfs rule.
Yet here I am, five-ninths a Jewish writer, and that is five-ninths more than I can rationally explain. I am dreaming, and at least five-ninths of the time, I am dreaming Jewish dreams. Deep down in the regions of psyche where fiction is born, regions supremely indifferent to criteria of rationality, being Jewish seems to matter to me quite a lot; and in this way my own small and personal story might be offered up as a metaphor for the very re-awakening in Jewish American letters which is the topic of this forum. For here we all of us are, after several generations that have tried their damnedest to shrug off the accidents of our shared precedents; here we all are, having sufficiently assimilated the culture at large to be able to inhabit, should we so choose, the inner worlds of characters to whom Jewishness is nothingness; here we all are, against logic, dreaming Jewish dreams.
Sanford Pinsker recently found cause, like me, to comment on the goal of Jewish dreaming that Cynthia Ozick once appropriated to herself, calling it "an honorable effort" but asserting that it was one that "a writer like I.B. Singer never had to undertake. Every dream he had was, by definition, a Jewish dream...." None of us writing today can be a Jewish writer in the same sense that I.B. Singer was. We are all of us perfectly capable of dreaming non-Jewish dreams, so perfectly capable that what calls out for explanation is that we can - still can - dream Jewish dreams, that we want to. At this particular, perhaps transient, stage in Jewish history, it takes a distinctly anomalous desire to become a Jewish dreamer, as it takes, as well, a sustained effort. For it is a very real problem to be able to discover how to do it, this Jewish-dreaming thing, in terms that make contemporary sense. We obviously cannot express the Jewish difference by testifying, as other generations of Jewish writers have so eloquently testified, to the yearning to be let in to the other's dream: to go to the good schools, live in the fine neighborhoods, mix with and marry the goldenly Christian girls and boys. Yearning flows in some other direction.
I have found, like several others linked in this suggested revival of Jewish American letters, that my Jewish dreams, at least sometimes, take me backward in time, into a past in which the texture of Jewishness was more richly felt. Perhaps it can be argued that some gathered strands from that textured past must always find their way into the Jewish dreams we weave, that to experience the world Jewishly is to experience it historically. The effort to imaginatively inhabit the past does not mean writing the sorts of stories that writers in the past would have written. To me, for example, it is of much interest to try to imagine what it must have been like to have been a gifted woman living back in some hidden-away little place in, say, Eastern Europe. This doesn't mean, of course, that the writers of that time - having lived, as they did, without the benefits of contemporary feminism - would have found such a woman fascinating material. Obviously (extropolating from us), there must have been a great number of such wildly brilliant women, and (again extropolating) I imagine that many of them must have been just as wildly neurotic. Since writing about such a girl in my last book, Mazel, I have heard from various people who have confirmed my imagination. One professor of Jewish Studies, who originally came from Poland, startled me by coming up to me after a talk and saying, "I knew your Fraydel. She lived in my village. She died as you said." So here is an aspect of the real past that has found its way into my dreams only because of my contemporary sensibility, which finds the plight of women of genius worthy of imagination.
But which ever way we choose to dream Jewishly these days, for us, it is a choice among many. And knowing, as we do, so many ways of being, other than being Jewish, it is only by desire, by anomalous and not very practical desire, that we delimit our imaginations so that they occupy this particular region in the spread of possibilities that are open to them. And what explains this desire? I can only say that for me this pull back into particularity has the unmistakable feel of love. It is a love far too complicated to yield me joy (only pages), but it is love. And love, luckily or not, makes a habit of silencing logic.
Rebecca Goldstein is the author of four novels, including The Mind-Body Problem and, most recently, Mazel, which won the National Jewish Book Award and the Edward Lewis Wallant Award. In 1996, she became a MacArthur Fellow.
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