(American) Judaism (In the World) (New York Times)

In this post, the tags come together: American Judaism, cosmopolitanism, literature, tourism. Is this unique to the United States, at least to New York, where Jews and Judaism have a very public profile, a profile represented with some frequency in the pages of the New York Times? There’s almost always one story or another that makes it into the paper. Sometimes, like over this weekend, several stories combine together to form into a group. Over this past weekend I pulled out five items: a film review, a book review, a human interest-religion story, and an advertisement for international tours run by the newspaper, and an interview with a famous writer. Together the Jewish interest they speak to is a public interest, a broader human, universal, or cosmopolitan, a specific approach vis-à-vis the world.

I present them in the order I found each item:

Ozick Malmud


Cynthia Ozick wrote a brilliant essay, reviewing new editions of stories by Bernard Malmud in the Sunday Review of Books. The draw for me is the tension she identifies between parochialism and universalism, something  generally held out against Jewish writers more than, for example, Russian writers, writers from the American South, or from England. Most interesting is the moral force of Ozick’s review, “[t]he idea of a writer who is intent on judging the world — hotly but quietly, and aslant, and through the subversions of tragic paradox — is nowadays generally absent: who is daring enough not to be cold-eyed? For Malamud, trivia has no standing as trivial, everything counts, everything is at stake…Apparitions, stalkings, houndings, claims and demands: unbidden, duties and obligations fall on Malamud’s characters with the power of commandments

Crimes and Misdemeanors


J. Hoberman writes about Woody Allen’s 1989 Crimes and Misdemeanors. There’s blue-ray edition out now, so it merited a little nod buried deep in the Friday (?) performing arts section. Crimes and Misdemeanors was the last Woody Allen movie I’ll ever see. I loved it when it first came out. I was in graduate school. I saw it with MK and with JB and I forgot whom else. They all hated the gender politics, but the Judaism in it interested me, in particular its moral take on the world. J. Hoberman writes, “Crimes and Misdemeanors” is also hyperverbal, with an abundance of zingers delivered mainly by Cliff. (Mr. Allen is as funny as he has ever been, and Mr. Alda makes an excellent straight man.) At the same time, this may be the only Woody Allen movie in which Jewishness functions less as a shtick than as a moral code…the movie ends with a wedding that brings everyone together to consecrate the notion of an unjust world.” Soon after, I  lost my taste in Allen as an artist. It was in Bullets Over Broadway (1994), where Allen killed off another female character, for laughs.

Synagogue Reboot


There was a nice story in the Metropolitan section about Amichai Lau-Lavie  trying to reboot the synagogue. It’s all supposed to be very experimental, but at the end of the day, I wonder what will distinguish the synagogue reboot. Long live the king, the king is dead? Actually, I’m not that cynical. Yes, a synagogue is a synagogue. As I see it, there’s something to be said for more traditional synagogues. Maybe it’s the sense of space conveyed by the architecture. Clearly, the synagogue reboots are not for me, not for people who are basically satisfied in synagogue. What I appreciate is the worldliness reflected here in Rabbi Lau-Lavie’s gig downtown or at places like Mechon Hadar, a kind of hucksterism. What’s selling is a new aesthetic, the reinvention of religion as an open and spontaneous format, a synagogue at home in the world outside the synagogue.

Israel-Palestine Conflict Tourism


Apparently the NYT organizes international tours. There’s a South Africa safari, a trip to Manchu Pichu, and this one, to explore the Israel-Palestine conflict. No doubt, this a worthy goal. It’s interesting to see how this internecine blood-fight is transformed into a consumer good, into an object of consumption. That too is worldly and cosmopolitan, a parochial thing this conflict over Israel-Palestine, gets charged up with moral purpose in the world, and then pitched to the public.

Philip Roth Interview


Last but not least was the interview with Philip Roth in the Sunday Book Review. Without a word about Jews and Jewishness, Roth points our attention to human turbulence and fallibility. Without a word about religion, the discussion takes a metaphysical swerve at the end of the interview. “The thought of the writer lies in his choice of an aspect of reality previously unexamined in the way that he conducts an examination. The thought of the writer is embedded everywhere in the course of the novel’s action. The thought of the writer is figured invisibly in the elaborate pattern — in the newly emerging constellation of imagined things — that is the architecture of the book: what Aristotle called simply “the arrangement of the parts,” the “matter of size and order.” The thought of the novel is embodied in the moral focus of the novel. The tool with which the novelist thinks is the scrupulosity of his style. Here, in all this, lies whatever magnitude his thought may have.


As they come together in this weekend’s New York Times, Jews and Judaism are seen to be part of this world, and vice-versa. While this may reflect a larger, descriptive historical truth about the Jews and Judaism and their place in the world, it’s a truth that becomes apparent “only in America,” or “especially in America” at some point towards the end of the twentieth century, when Jewishness and Judaism enjoy a more secure and recognized place in the larger social world. In fact, the Jewish writers like Malmud and Roth mentioned in Ozick’s review were very careful to insist that they were not “Jewish writers” to make precisely the notion articulated  by Lau-Lavie that what’s important is not cultural reproduction for the sake of cultural reproduction or Jewishness and Judaism for the sake of Jewishness and Judaism. Steeped in the vis-a-vis of moral judgment, what’s stands out is a way of being in the world –fallible, broken, human.

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. http://religion.syr.edu
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