Something very strange happened in my American Judaism class this past week. At the start of the semester in relation to I forget what I got into an argument with my students (a good natured one I’d like to think) about kitschy Hollywood Holocaust movies. Ella was not the only student who defended The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and movies of that type whereas my point of reference was determined by Night and Fog and Shoah.
This week we finally got to the class unit on the Holocaust and American Jewish life. I began class with Neusner’s famous thesis about vicarious American Judaism (that hybrid from the 1970s in which the experience of Jewish life was dominated by the Holocaust memorialization, support for the State of Israel, and the struggle for Soviety Jewry). The Neusner was meant to supplement the class assignment which combined Laura Levitt’s American Jewish Loss after the Holocaust and a viewing of Resnais’ Night and Fog.
Class discussion was dominated by Bernie. Discussing the graphic nature of the footage, we talked a lot about questions regarding the staggering impact, even the horrible “absurdity” of the Holocaust, which I put into context of Resnais, the French New Wave in cinema, surrealism, realism, and existentialism that are the aesethetic and concdptual glue holding the film together. We also talked a lot about the passage of what seems not to be vast stretches of time. This part of the conversation touched upon place of the film in the 1950s, the way it was viewed in the 1970s and the way young viewers take in the film today in 2017. The discusssion circled around the tension between the incommensurability of the event itself with more quotidian forms of American Jewish life tagged by Levitt in her book. Like in Levitt’s book, our own discussion toggled back between a catastrophe the scope of which is hard and even impossible to comprehend and more ordinary experience of popular culture (kitschy Holocaust movies, Harry Potter, things like that)
Here’s the odd thing. The class attendance was already low because more than half the class had already skipped out to go home or elsewhere for spring break. There were fewer than ten students there, and I realized that Bernie was the only one who actually took the time to watch the movie. Other students made lame excuses about midterms, the cost of renting a movie on Amazon, and so on. But really, I don’t think they wanted to see the movie. And even Bernie, bless his soul, did not even finish the movie. I think he made it through most of the half-hour movie, but missed the closing sections. When I asked why he didn’t finish the movie, he said flatly with perhaps a bit of sheepishness, that “I didn’t have the time.”
I was perhaps more stunned by the candor of this admission than the fact that the students refused to see the movie. The Holocaust is supposed to be a pillar of contemporary American Jewish identity. That was the finding of the recent Pew study. And while the students were very animated in their discussion of the film and questions and problems relating to the Holocaust, they “didn’t have the time for it.”
About this I am of two minds and I am going to hold both thoughts in place at the same time, or rather, I will, in the spirit of Levitt’s book, toggle back and forth.
On the one hand, what was it? Was it shock, horror, disappointment, the inability to comprehend the mental life of my students, whom I really rather like? Part of it was certainly anger and I joked with no little aggression that for future classes I will start disciplining my students with weekly in-class quizzes to make sure they do the work. Because students intent on turning their university experience into technical schooling and job training simply won’t commit to work in the humanities without a goad. In the back of my mind, this encounter reminded me of the Schindler’s List episode of Seinfeld. While my students were not quite as blithe as Jerrry, like Helen and Morty, I’m kind of horrified by the lack of serious attention on the part of young people. About this I want to hold my students to account, to push them to consider things more seriously than they do. This is the moral reflex of an older person in relation to younger people. (The same issue came up in a class discussion of Heschel, The Sabbath, and technology) (Even as they proved capable of picking up on and discussing the ideas, I’m now wondering, did they even read the text?)
On the other hand, what is one to expect? There is something almost organic or natural about the student response, this inability and a refusal to watch a film like Night and Fog. The response comes down to three questions. Who indeed has the time? Who has the stomach? Who has a good reason? As university teachers, it is our job to cultivate critical thinking about harsh realities, especially the harsh reality of human cruelty and suffering. But while I could provide definite answers to at least the third question, these would be the answers of someone who grew up with Night and Fog in the mid 1970s when the first generation of Holocaust memory was still fresh and new. But what about my students? If could boil down the reasons into one reason, this would only be my answer, not their answer, not the reason of a young person growing up in 2017.
“I don’t have the time for it.” This is no doubt a new thing in the generation of Holocaust memory pressured by the market professionalization that now consumes so much of university life. Once upon a long time ago there was the first generation of Holocaust memory circa 1967 and after in which the memory of the event seared older people such as I am myself now; and they spared little as they conveyed that memory to us younger people. Those responsible for creating memorial artifacts like Night and Fog or the exhibition design at Yad Va’Shem did so with the sense of a urgent immediacy that spoke to their direct or relatively close temporal relation to the event.
So there were two things back then in the 1970s: the event and the memorial-artifact. Skip another generation and instead of two components there are three. Today there is the event, no longer remembered by most, the memorial-artifact, and discourse about the memorial-artifact. This makes sense of the temporal effect. Always mediated by the distance of memory, Holocaust-memory today can be said to be super-mediated.
I’ll admit that none of what I am about to conclude below is necessarily true. I do often get the sense that students have read the assigned reading, or at least significant parts thereof about which they are able to hold forth with genuine brightness and insight. So what I am about to say is more like a pedagogical thought experiment. What I think we can see as an emergent form of human intelligence is a disembodied and mediated form of literacy. Intelligent, our students are able to pick up on ideas and discuss them. They can articulate positions and counter-positions. But are they reading? Are they reading anything? Do they read in whole or in fragments? Do they have the skill or the time? Is it rather the case that our instruction in the form of in-class communication with students is now almost entirely “oral” and no longer “textual.” To cite the famous title by Stanley Fish, there is a text in the class. Yet is it now the case that, insofar as the text is read by our students, it is read with them and to them out-loud by the professor who brings the text to them in the form of an oral performance?
This is going to remind me of the parable that is the preface to Elie Wiesel’s Gates of the Forest. While I am less given to the idea of miracle and redemption that undergirds the parable, the interest for me here relates to the distancing effect of temporal passage:
When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted.
Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Magid of Mezritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer,” and again the miracle would be accomplished.
Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say: “I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.” It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished.
Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient.” And it was sufficient.
God made man because he loves stories.
As told by Wiesel, the Hasidic parable is a little too cute. Even in the little it trusts does it trust too much? What if what’s left is not much at all? Distant from the event itself (fire), we no longer remember the artifact (prayer); the sense of place has become confused. We know that all that’s left are stories. But what if the stories that we are left with, the stories that appeal to people today, are no good? Does God love crappy Holocaust stories? Does God love sentimental trash that soften the impact of human suffering to the point of obliteration, all this in order to meet the market demands of the Hollywood system and the consumer taste to which it caters?
And then there’s this little hope. Good writing and good story telling will always find its mark. At some point in the class discussion, Bernie asked what is Survival in Auschwitz. I carefully spelled out Primo Levi’s name as he recorded the information in his notebook. And then there was definite interest among an even larger number of the few students present in attending for extra credit Son of Saul when it screens on campus at the end of March as a highlight of the Place of Religion in Film conference at Syracuse University. In all things, including this, it’s always best to pin together cynicism and confidence.