Unmistakably Jewish Colors

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April 1, 2003
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By Reuben Namdar

Writers are not inspired, not really, nor in that sense are they influenced; they are stung, stung by a strange word or an unusual rhythm, by the way a few syllables sound when uttered sequentially, by what the designer Isaac Mizrahi calls, in the wonderful documentary Unzipped, “a gesture” – a gesture of linguistic style. I too was stung, at a very early age, by the wild, ancient, often more than a little dark style of the Hebrew Bible, the siddur, and the High Holiday mahzor.

I was raised speaking Hebrew. I read the Bible in its original language and fell madly in love with it; I still find random verses lingering in my mind 25 years after learning them in class. Paradoxically, being raised with the Bible also caused my linguistic immune system to create an antidote to its charm – the richness and intensity of the text had the potential to numb my literary palate. Luckily for me, my family was what was then called “traditional,” living a basically secular life but aspiring to maintain a certain nostalgic continuity with the religious past, which eventually meant going to synagogue once a year, on Yom Kippur of course. Why lucky? Because once a year was frequent and regular enough to leave a strong mark, but infrequent enough to leave the point of friction raw; I did not develop that thin veil of textual immunity created by routine.

The friction between “normal” language, the language of the everyday, and the language of the holiday mahzor, is a stylistic gesture that haunts me to this day. I’ve dedicated a substantial part of my artistic life to its pursuit – it paints my work with unmistakable Jewish colors. It wasn’t only the vocabulary, which is archaic and magical, and holds the same fascination rare antiques hold. Nor was it only the grammar – untamed, pre-modern, not yet standardized into the “decent,” rational, uniform formula that was used to recreate Hebrew as a modern (Western) language.

It was the layout of the text that was the most fascinating: complex, compelling, and unusual, it looked like some ancient cipher. Different fonts in different sizes ran parallel to each other, intermingling and separating – bringing together the text, reflections about it, and the directions for its performance. Large, thick, square letters towered over tiny, thin, cobweb-like ones. Hebrew and Aramaic conducted their love-hate relationship, competing with each other but also stopping to secretly admire each other’s beauty. Sometimes a stray Ladino word would appear (we used a Sephardic mahzor), a foreign, exotic relic of the lost Spanish paradise. What appealed to me most was the inherent sense of drama with which the text and its performance were saturated: the theatrical repetitions, the inner rhyme, the hidden symmetries and alliterations. (I keep hearing the coarse voices of the men, thickened by thirst, repeating again and again, after each verse read by the shaliach hatzibur, “Forgive and atone! Atone and forgive!”) All of this created an irreversibly influential textual experience.

What makes Jewish art Jewish? It is my belief that – for various sociological reasons – content is overrated in contemporary Jewish art and culture, and comes on account of form and style. Style, and not content, is what I believe to be the core of art. I also believe that it is a mistake to limit our concept of “Jewish aesthetics” to the sweetly nostalgic ornamental kitsch of Judaica, candlesticks, and ketubahs in floral design. Some cultures specialized in crafting weapons, other cultures mastered cuisine, music, rational thinking, or dance; we have mastered the art and craft of words. Our ancestors forged words and crafted texts in the same selfless, egomaniacal, obsessive perfectionism worthy of great artists and high art. There is a very distinct “look” and “feel” to Jewish text, a distinct style, and for some reason it became a forgotten art. Jewish writers write Jewish content but use a non-Jewish artistic language. My meeting with the mahzor as a child taught me to see Jewish text as the best-orchestrated manifesto of textual-democracy, not to say textual-anarchism, one could imagine. It tells many stories by many voices, all at the same time. It ignores the boundaries of time, thus rebelling against its tyranny. It plays all the keys of an immense organ at once, creating a thick, rich artistic experience, brimming with meaning like an overflowing kiddush cup. It frees the mind from the hegemony of the linear, over-rational storytelling mode of Western modernity and I, as a Jewish artist, am enamored with the endless possibilities of this Jewish style.

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Reuben Namdar was born in Jerusalem in 1964 and has a master's degree in Anthropology from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His first book, Haviv (a collection of short stories), was published in 2000 and won the Israeli Ministry of Education's Award for First Publication. He currently lives in New York, where he teaches Hebrew language and literature at Hofstra University. He is working on a novel.

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