American Manifesto (Mondoweiss)

If you havn’t read it, check out “My Spirit Is American (A Religious Manifesto)” by Philip Weiss. The writing is as sharp and clear as one could want. It’s a truly remarkable document. Jewish prophetic pathos roots deep into Americana. The brio reminds me of something Alfred Kazin would have written. But with venom. I like too the Baltimore connection.

A brief excerpt: I find as much power in Jim’s beating his deaf daughter in Huck Finn as I do in the binding of Isaac, and I want an identity politics that respects my spirit and the American winds that move it, from Mark Twain to Melville to Carson McCullers to Isaac Singer to Schocken’s translations of Kafka to my lapsed Protestant wife’s yoga and ayurvedhic medicine and Tarot. I don’t want chosenness. Not when I’ve learned so much from lapsed Catholics with values of humility and egalitarianism. And J Street has credibility in part because its leader’s father was in the Irgun? What does the Irgun have to teach me?

I’ve been thinking a lot about what a new American Judaism might look like, one with deep roots in America. This would be a powerful and persuasive version. It’s airtight. I don’t there’s nothing one could do to put a hole in it. This is what makes Mondoweiss a great polemicist, and a little frightening.

Like Alfred Kazin in Walker in the City, Weiss roots himself and his Judaism “on native grounds.” In almost every line of Weiss’ manifesto, I hear the thrill of America that has only come to interest me in middle age, this America myth, and the storied names and places that evoke that myth.

As a young person, none of this would have spoken to me. I don’t say this against Weiss. My American, my Jewish story is just a little different.

America never interested me when I was young, and neither did it’s literature. I went to Washington D.C., to New York, to Harper’s Ferry as a kid. None of it really took. I don’t know why. I’m sure it was my grandfather’s fault. Still a teenager he ran off to join the Jewish Legion under Allenby. Every year, after my grandmother died, he spent six months of the year with his daughter in Hadera, Israel, and six months with us in Baltimore. I was too young to know anything about the 6 Day War. I was vaguely aware of the Vietnam War on television. I was very much aware of the Yom Kippur War. I was 10 years old. I found appalling the anti-Semitism of my WASP classmates at a boy’s prep school, which I left after 8th grade. My mother did not understand as my father could understand my first ever act of real independence.

The literatures that thrilled me in high school were Russian and Yiddish, not American. I never wanted to read Melville and I almost got out of high school not reading The Great Gatsby, which I hated. My first philosophical loves were Spinoza and Nietzsche, not Emerson and Dewey. My brother adored John Waters, whereas for me it was Werner Herzog. (I’m not necessarily proud of this.) In the 1970s, the Holocaust and its memory overshadowed everything. Including America, whose stories would have seemed to me to pale in moral urgency, and which did not weigh me down with the same metaphysical burdens.

You can complain about the Holocaust industry all you want. But in the early 1970s, the obsession with the Holocaust was still fresh, and much less manufactured and less synthetic than it is today. The same was true of Zionism.

My first ideological commitments were to Labor Zionism. My first deep social bonds outside the home were to my friends in Habonim. I came to the religious stuff later on my own. None of this had anything to do with chosenness or messianism in any overt way that I can recall. Not in my family.

The interest in and attraction to religion and to Judaism took longer to develop. They had more to do with Dostoyevsky, Spinoza, Nietzsche, and I.B. Singer. Romantic religion appealed to me because I found it aesthetic. But if religion made sense to me at all, it would have been thanks to the radical negations of Richard Rubenstein in After Auschwitz. None of this had anything to do with America. For awhile, it was all brought to bear on the Israel in my family DNA. It later took off on its own.

When I went to graduate school, I threw myself into the Germans. I also read Kaplan, Heschel, and Soloveitchik. But  the Ameircans interested me less. Compared to the Germans, they wrote with less verve, with less art and artfulness. I prepared my dissertation and first book on post-Holocaust theology, and my second book on Buber, Rosenzweig, and German Expressionism.

I don’t think my synagogue is as bad a place as Weiss seems to think all mainstream synagogues are. I definitely don’t think Israel is as bad a place as he thinks it is. About Israel, he obsesses like a Zionist, which I think is kind of funny. With all due respect, what I think his take tends to miss is the ordinary character of quotidian places, even severely stressed ones like Israel. I think he’s like a person who thinks in bright red flags.

I might find the America pathos of his American Manifesto too breathy. It’s not the story he would tell if he lived on Onondoga Territory. But that’s okay. This is his story and he has his right to it. I like breathy, and this is great breathy pathos.

If I now come to that place, to America, where Weiss first began as a kid in Baltimore, it’s because I too now want to find something in America that I can’t find in the Germans, that I can’t find in the Holocaust, and that I can’t find in Israel, that “production of a new and fairer whole” cited in Perestroika by Tony Kushner from Emerson “On Art.” 

I just don’t want to be angry about it.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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