American Jewish Thought Looney Tunes Modern(ist) Landscape (1950)

sid caesar heschelbugssol

I finally decided to include something on postwar American synagogue architecture, using Susan G. Solomon’s Louis I. Kahn’s Jewish Architecture as a platform with which to juxtapose the philosophical-theological thought of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Joseph Soloveitchik. With the recent death of Sid Caesar, I decided to throw youtube clips of him and Bugs Bunny in order to represent the comedic impulse of popular Jewish culture.

My American Jewish Studies interest in Sid Casesar and Bugs Bunny has nothing to do with historical sociology, with the assimilation of this trickster figure, “the Jew” as canny outsider, the schlemiel and the troublemaker in tension with the indigenous WASP mores represented by, let’s say Elmer Fudd.  What interests me is not the social position of Sid or Bugs, but rather the rough and ribald humor and low popular culture.

While “theologians” like Heschel and Soloveitchik speak in more elevated patois, supernatural and even snobbish, Bugs and Sid speak the language of the people, ordinary people at midcentury. I think I know whose style I prefer, the one that is earthy and pungent, that resists all kinds of finery, including philosophical and theological concepts like “the ineffable,” or “covenant” or “destiny,” or such contemporary ones like “the face of the other” and the like.

Bringing Bugs and Sid into conversation alongside midcentury-modern suburban synagogue design, alongside Heschel and Soloveitchik is to map out a more complex mental and cultural landscape. Our philosophical-theologians mark out the high ground, our comedians mark out the low ground, and the synagogues, they represent that middle-ground where the sublime touches down and takes on architectural form.

It’s hard for me to imagine that our theologians occupy the same cultural landscape or environment in postwar America. In my estimation, it’s pretty clear that the higher function must always rest on the lower function, and that any attempt of the one, the high, to shape and guide the other, the low, can only lead to ridiculousness. In these things, in matters of religion and culture, I think perhaps it’s better for the high to conform and to bend to the low.

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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