The Birth of a Rootless Cosmopolitan

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December 1, 2011
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Marci Shore

I was a 10-year-old girl sitting in Hebrew school in the basement of a Conservative synagogue in Pennsylvania. It was 1982, the era of Ronald Reagan and the Evil Empire, of demonstrations by American Jews in support of refuseniks. The teacher was showing us a film about an Israeli kibbutz. The sunniness of communal life. Everyone equal, everything shared. A wonderful world.

And suddenly the question came into my mind. I raised my hand.

“Isn’t that just like in Russia?” I asked.

I knew that under communism there was no personal property, that everything was shared. And I remember the teacher’s anger, and my humiliation.

“They have nothing at all to do with each other!”

Fifteen years later, now as a graduate student, I sat in the library of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, on the site of the destroyed prewar Great Synagogue on Tłomackie Street, reading the postwar Zionist newspapers. And now I saw that, on the contrary, the kibbutzim and the collective farms had everything in the world to do with each other.

It was in Eastern Europe — in East European archives — that I began to absorb what would later seem obvious: that communism, socialism(s), and Zionism had grown up side-by-side in the Russian empire. The Zionist propaganda posters from the 1930s were nearly indistinguishable from the Stalinist collectivization posters. They shared the same aesthetic — socialist realism.

In some ways it was only in Warsaw, as a graduate student reading those postwar Zionist newspapers and moving backward in time, following in the archives the impassioned debates among the Orthodox and the assimilationists, the Hebraists and the Yiddishists, the communists and the Bundists, the Zionists and the diaspora nationalists, that I began to feel closer to a certain Jewish — and “non-Jewish” Jewish — intellectual tradition. As I read myself into the 1920s, into the 1930s, into the war, I was captivated by the temptation to commit one’s entire being to a desperate cause. I was moved by the anxiety of liminality, the fear of never feeling at home anywhere, the unbearable yet exhilarating feeling of life’s heaviness. I identified with something ineffable: Perhaps it was the realization that there were no innocent choices, that all possible actions involved a betrayal of someone or something, that tragedy was inevitable — that at every moment, everything was at stake.

Growing up, I’d always felt an aversion toward the suburban Jewish community my parents belonged to; the community felt bourgeois less in Marx’s sense than in Rousseau’s: the bourgeoisie as superficiality, snobbery, pretentiousness. What I found in the Polish archives was everything that bourgeois suburbia — and the emptiness of my Hebrew school education — were not. What I found in the archives was an indomitable spirit of contestation, a passionate conviction that the world had to be radically remade. I felt an empathy that was also a deep respect for these Jews of times past, who lived their Jewishness — as often they lived their Polishness, or their Russianness, or their belief in God, or their lack of belief in God, or their bourgeois background, or their devotion to Marxist revolution or all of these in any and all combinations — as an existential dilemma, who struggled with their whole being to find a place for themselves in the world. In no way did the stories I wandered upon lead me to an unproblematic affirmation of Jewishness — in any case, it was not affirmation that appealed to me. On the contrary, what appealed was the messiness. What was compelling was not complacence, but angst.

As a person prone by nature to feel alienated, I felt drawn — with hopefulness — to Isaac Deutscher’s claim that a life of hovering on the margins of various cultures might generate privileged insight. I studied Czech and Polish and Yiddish and Russian and German and French (in that order). Yiddish is the language that helped me, belatedly, to understand both of my grandfathers; Russian is the language I felt at once I’d always needed in order to truly express myself; Polish is the language in which today I feel most at ease. In some ways, strangely, I can no longer think about Jewishness without Polish — a language I learned artificially, in a classroom.

In April 2010, I gave birth to a son, Kalev Tristan Snyder, in Freud’s erstwhile city of Vienna. Kalev was born a true “rootless cosmopolitan,” without the right to citizenship in the land where he was born. I do not feel at home enough in the world to root him in any tradition other than a (non-Jewish-Jewish) cosmopolitan one. His birth, accompanied by the sounds of German, which my husband and I spoke to the Austrian doctors, and Polish, which we spoke to the Polish midwife at the Viennese hospital, and English, which we spoke to each other, in some way heralded a very Jewish entry into the world. And this felt just right to me.

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Marci Shore is an associate professor of history at Yale University. She is the author of Caviar and Ashes: A Warsaw Generation’s Life and Death in Marxism, 1918-1968 (Yale University Press, 2006) and the translator of Michał Głowinski’s The Black Seasons. Her second book, The Taste of Ashes, an account of Eastern Europe’s grappling with its memories of totalitarianism at the 20th century’s end, will be forthcoming in 2012. She is currently at work on a project tentatively titled “The Self Laid Bare,” an examination of the central European encounters occasioned by phenomenology and structuralism.

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