Some Fractured Thoughts on Our Irritable Culture

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February 1, 2002
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By Ilan Stavans

Not long ago, I was invited to be a judge with a commission to shape a list of the most influential 100 Jewish books in modern times. The group of seven judges was composed of reputable scholars, translators, and intellectuals with an international presence, each of them a polyglot with knowledge not only of Jewish culture from the Enlightenment onwards, but also familiar with biblical and talmudic texts. We were, in Paula Hyman’s terminology, a bunch of “educated Jews.” Our mandate raised unsettling questions: What should be defined as a Jewish book? Is the book’s Jewish author reason enough to include it on the list? This, obviously, led to another contentious set of questions: Who is a Jew? Or, is it the reader rather than the author that makes a book Jewish? Soon a troublesome feeling overwhelmed me personally: What authority did we have to form this list?

The composition of the group distressed me. Only a couple of the judges were savvy in the terrain of popular culture, especially movies, TV, and comics; the rest were disdainful of anything the public identified with, a disdain that bordered on suspicion. This reaction became all the more pronounced when it came to authors mixing various media. The final list includes recognizable highlights, but it is objectionably highbrow, filled with recondite books few will dare read. Perhaps that is fine, for, no matter what people say, in the end the practice of literature is utterly elitist, done by the few for the few.

I write this preamble to express my sympathy toward Paula Hyman. The assumptions she exposes are no doubt noble ones. As a people, Jews are a diverse, heterogeneous, multicultural lot, and the core curriculum that defines that lot ought to be at once elastic and centrifugal, moving in various directions at once, a sponge capable of absorbing fluids from distinct periods and geographies. But I also must acknowledge that Hyman’s position and mine are quixotic to the bone and, as such, utterly impractical.

Among the judges charged with composing the list, familiarity with the Hebrew and Yiddish traditions, and with Eastern Europe up until the 1950s, was substantial; after all, these were their fields of expertise. But not much of their interest, let alone reverence, pointed in the direction of Africa, France, Britain, Australia, Canada, the Arab world, Argentina, Brazil, or the Caribbean, where Jews have lived for generations. Sephardic culture? It actually seemed not to exist at all, even in Israel. In the end, the list produced was so nearsightedly Eurocentric, so hyper-Ashkenazic, that it became the ghetto where Jewish educators live today, infatuated with the shtetl and obsessed with the Holocaust, yet oblivious to anything around and beyond them.

Hyman calls for a core curriculum that would enable Jews to be fluent in the Hebrew language, familiar with foundational texts, and knowledgeable of historical developments. I endorse the vision but I fail to understand how it will be implemented. How do we go from dream to reality? I assume Hyman envisions implementing this curriculum in day schools, supplementary school programs, high schools, and colleges. But how? The proportion of students enrolled in such programs, though growing, remains comparatively small vis-a-vis the large numbers of Jews unaffiliated with any synagogue, social, or pedagogical institution. In addition, teachers are untrained for such a task. Moreover, pop culture – especially the Internet – is what captivates the next generation.

Ours is an irritable culture, one increasingly allergic to the written word. There is much more to know today than ever before, but distractions have also multiplied rapidly and our attention span has shrunk in dramatic proportions. Perhaps even worse, the gap between the educated elite and the masses within the Jewish community is substantial. While there has always been an abyss between the ruling rabbinical establishment and the intelligentsia, on one side, and the populace, on the other, the community’s current need for leaders is marred by a widespread sense of disengagement.

More than half a century after World War II, the Jewish people in Western civilization finds itself in a climate of openness. Oppression has receded and anti-Semitism is in a quiet mood. We are finally full members of the civil society. But full membership has encouraged renunciation. The rate of material and spiritual growth among Jews, particularly in the United States, is astonishing: business opportunities have multiplied and are unrestricted; religious practices are undisturbed; and scholarship is seen as a respectable endeavor. More books by and about Jews are published today than in any previous period. But for the so-called People of the Book, the Book itself has become less consequential than ever. An alliance to Jewish culture channeled through a most rigorous learning of Jewish sources is minimal. Among Jews today, the erudite know more and more and the masses less and less. Scholars are isolated in a self-imposed ivory tower while the rest of the people indulge in instant pop satisfaction. Should this change? By all means, but my instinct tells me that it will get worse before it gets better.

After shaping a list of 100 books, an organizer asked what would be done with the final list. Insightful ideas were offered – one judge called them marketing strategies – but half or more of the judges took this to be a mundane question. This, I believe, proves Paula Hyman’s final point: pluralism has brought along the debunking of authority and the rise of the “hermeneutics of suspicion.” The “educated Jews” might be backed by a mountain of money, but, absent-minded as they are and utterly unconcerned with the mundane, they are inefficient in building a bridge – establishing a dialogue – with the rest of the people.

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Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor of Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. His latest book is On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language (Viking).

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