Copyright 1995 VV Publishing Company The Village Voice

April 18, 1995

SECTION: Features; Pg. 29

LENGTH: 2867 words


BYLINE: J. Hoberman

Is it possible? Is there a Jewish identity apart from religion, anti-Semitism, or the state of Israel? So, what is Jewishness? Or, as Franz Kafka wrote in his diaries: ''What have I in common with the Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself.''

Even in the absence of formal observance, there are recognizable Jewish types--Kafka being exemplary--and particular Jewish concerns. There is the Jewishness of intellectuals and stand-up comedians; the Jewishness of certain universalist faiths--psychoanalysis, socialism, show business, to name three--and the Jewishness of mixing and matching them. There is the Jewish wise guy (Howard Stern) and the so-called self-hating Jew (I'm not mentioning any names). There is the Jewish heretic, termed by Isaac Deutscher the ''non-Jewish Jew,'' and the left oppositionist, which would include Deutscher as well as his subject, Leon Trotsky.

There are Jews, defined by a character in Philip Roth's Operation Shylock as those ''for whom the Diaspora is the normal condition and Zionism is the abnormality.'' There is a Jewishness that rolled out of the ghetto and shtetl into Europe and America. Its prophets include Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Wilhelm Reich, and Allen Ginsberg; its rebbes are Emma Goldman, Rosa Luxemburg, and Theda Bara; its sacred book was Partisan Review. There are words for such people--secular humanists, cultural elitists, rootless cosmopolitans.

Jewish geography is highly unstable. The shtetl may no longer exist but, as postmodern Jewish ethnographer Jonathan Boyarin notes, nostalgia for a vanished world is in itself a Jewish trait. Modern Jewish history is full of lost, sacred sites: the Lower East Side, Vilna, Warsaw... even Auschwitz.

The Diaspora is over and yet the 6 million American Jews (more if we count, as I would, people of ''Jewish descent'') make up the largest kehilla in the history of the world--descendants, by and large, of the uneducated, impoverished, and lumpen Jews whose exodus from Eastern Europe was perhaps the most successful immigration in American history.

Conventional wisdom has it that American Jews should make aliya or else assimilate. But why should we remember the Temple for 2000 years and forget Hester Street after 50? In Operation Shylock, Philip Roth invents a counterfeit ''Philip Roth'' who, fearing a Holocaust in Israel, promotes resettling Israelis of Ashkenazi background in the European countries that had sizable Jewish populations before World War II. This stance suggests that Israel is not an escape from the ghetto but rather a retreat into an armed one.

In his brash ambition to ''(do) Cezanne and Degas again, after Auschwitz,'' the self-identified Diasporist painter R.B. Kitaj, a Cleveland-born Jew who has made his home in London since 1956, is a self-conscious rootless cosmopolitan. Kitaj's desire to create a new Jewish iconography--and force it onto Christendom's art historical agenda--is explicated by his First Diasporist Manifesto, published in 1989 complete with a portrait of his ''buddy'' Philip Roth.

Kitaj is not a pseudo-primitive like Marc Chagall, but neither does he avoid content. Kitaj paints historical scenes like The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg and draws the place where French Jews were deported. His oeuvre is filled with allegories like The Rise of Fascism. He does a sarcastically flattering portrait of Unity Mitford as a romantic Nazi, while a brownish-gray oil and charcoal rendering of a middle-aged man sitting forward on a train is called The Jew Etc.'' and pointedly left unfinished.

''I've seen people wince at this title: sophisticated art people, who think it's better not to use the word Jew,'' Kitaj boasts in his accompanying wall text. ''Kafka, my greatest Jewish artist, never utters the word once in his fiction, so I thought I would.'' Kitaj is chutzpadik, imagining a cheder (or Jewish primary school) wherein one student draws a golem on the blackboard. He considers the hostile reviews his retrospective received in his adopted homeland to be ''anti-Semitic, anti-foreign, anti-American, anti-outsider, anti-intellectual.''

Roth might be describing Kitaj when he has another character in Operation Shylock explain that Jews ''never know what voice to speak in. Refined? Rabbinical? Hysterical? Ironical? Part of the Jewish problem is that the voice is too loud. Too insistent. Too aggressive. No matter what he says or how he says it, it's inappropriate. Inappropriateness is the Jewish style.'' (Just ask Claude Lanzmann.)

Where Kitaj boldly appropriates bits and pieces of Western culture, other artists redeploy more humble detritus to greater effect. I'm thinking of Christian Boltanski's shmatte art, bundles of personal effects and arrangements of anonymous photographs; Art Spiegelman's rendering the Holocaust as a funny-animal comic book; Ken Jacobs fashioning a Yiddish talkie out of unedited home movies and a Berlitz Learn Yiddish record.

Closer to these artists than to Kitaj, American-Jewish postmodernists like playwright Tony Kushner, performance-artist Eleanor Antin, and composer John Zorn reinvent a Jewish tradition out of Jewish remnants that come to hand.

Zorn's 1992 narrative suite ''Krystallnacht'' incorporates shards of sampled cantorial chants amid Nazi rants and wailing sirens; his projects include re-creation of old Yiddish '78s (complete with surface hisses), and the rehabilitation of the Jewish mambo king Irving Fields (orchestrator of Bagels and Bongos). Antin's 1991 feature, The Man Without a World, is a faux silent movie, complete with Yiddish intertitles, purporting to have been made by an expatriate Russian director in Poland in 1928. Kushner reworks The Dybbuk, the paradigmatic example of Yiddish modernism; ponders the crypto-Jewish eschatology of Soviet Communism; pits the dreadful Roy Cohn against a sainted Ethel Rosenberg.

As Antin presents herself as the daughter of a left-wing Yiddish actress who wound up running a geriatric resort in the Catskills, Kushner's pieced-together Jewish identity is heavily infused with secular messianic tendencies. (An agnostic and a political activist, he considers himself a descendent of ''New Dealliberal, WPA Judaism.'') In Slavs!, Kushner meditates on the end of Communism--precisely the title of a recent Kitaj painting. Adept at satirizing the dominant culture, facile enough to do shtick, appropriating the bons mots of revolutionary jargon, Kushner makes Slavs! a cri di coeur. ''How are we to proceed without theory?'' the World's Oldest Living Bolshevik demands. ''What have you to offer in its place? Market incentives? Watered-down Bukharinite stopgap makeshift capitalism. NEPmen...Show me the book of the next beautiful theory.''

As cruel as Soviet Communism was (for Jews no less than others), its demise marks the end of a particularly Jewish theme. For those the Stalinists termed ''rootless cosmopolitans,'' the crackup of the Soviet Union has the fascination of a Jewish Faust. Jewish Communists, as Boyarin puts it, had ''gambled the grand narrative of the Jewish contract with God for secular dreams of redemption, and they had lost.'' Not for nothing does the Knitting Factory CD Klezmer 1993 end with two anthems, Frank London's ''Emma Goldman's Wedding'' and ''Poem for Karl Marx.''

The latter, which references everything from Allen Ginsberg and Groucho Marx to the score from the movie Yidl Mitn Fidl, has poet Alollo Trehorn declaiming beatnik verse as the Klezmatics vamp, and ends with the cry: ''Karl, you proud lone...Ashkenazi.''

Once upon a time there existed a secular Jewish culture in the West: This was Yiddish. (For a long time Yiddish was considered less than a language. Actually, it was a good deal more.) Postmodern Jewish expression has two poles: Diasporism and Neo-shtetlism.

Boyarin acknowledges a ''profoundly nostalgic aching to know how life had been experienced in preWorld War II East European shtetl communities.'' That ache is answered, after a fashion, by the success of the English-language weekly Forward (an offshoot of New York's most popular and long-lived Yiddish daily), by the remarkable klezmer revival, by the creation of new Yiddish movies--not all of them documentaries.

The Yiddish revival is an alternative Zionism--a kind of conjuring act suggesting Boyarin's ''impossible fantasy of doing participant observation fieldwork in the shtetl'' or Operation Shylock's central trope. Shot in 1993 on the former Pale of Settlement, French director Yolande Zauberman's polylingual Ivan and Abraham places traditional East European Jews in situ, amid the clamor of a muddy marketplace or teeming wooden shul. The film's protagonists are a raw and unkempt Jewish revolutionary, the shtetl gamine who loves him, and her no-less-exquisite brother, a 10-year-old child of nature who spends so much time with the household's Russian apprentice that his autocratic grandfather pronounces him ''worse than a goy.''

Hungarian director Judit Elek's 1989 Memoirs of a River and Antin's 1991 The Man Without a World are kindred examples of neo-shtetlist cinema in which a dreamy East European past replaces the lost ideals of socialism and Israel, not to mention the Talmud, as the source of tribal values and positive otherness. Memoirs of a River, locating Jewish shepherds and woodsmen in a rustic Carpathian landscape of natural piety, is more pastoral than Ivan and Abraham, but it exudes a similar sense of Jews as Europe's Third World. Much of the action in The Man Without a World is set in a tavern where artists mix with artistes and an assortment of Zionists, anarchists, and socialists argue politics.

Where the quintessentially rootless cosmopolitan, Edgar G. Ulmer, and other American Yiddish filmmakers of the 1930s built their plywood shtetls in rural New Jersey, Antin constructed hers in Southern California. Similarly, Steve Stern, author of Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven and A Plague of Dreamers, sets his phantasmogorical fictions in a ''reinvented shtetl'' in Memphis--a vanished community where the Ku Klux Klan appear as cossacks. Stern has been compared not only to Kafka and Singer, but to the Yiddish triumverate of Sholom Aleichem, Mendele Mokhir Sforim, and I.L. Peretz. Nevertheless, as he confided in the Forward, ''it's all book learned.''

Not all neo-shtetlism is derived from texts. The most abstract and popular instance is surely Seinfeld--a sitcom set on an imaginary Upper West Side whose four major characters are recognizably Jewish although, as in Kafka, the J-word is never mentioned.

But neo-shtetlism risks becoming academic--hence the significance of the klezmer revival that, in recent years, has spawned such progressive mutations as the avant-klez Klezmatics and the klez-inflected new-thing jazz of Zorn's Masada, not to mention the multiple ironies in clarinetist Don Byron's re-presentation of Borshtcapades maestro Mickey Katz, the Jewish Spike Jones.

Byron, a black jazz musician who expands the definition of rootless cosmopolitan, also organized the first Klezfest at the Knitting Factory, paving the way for Zorn's various ''Radical Jewish Music'' festivals. Among other things, these showcased the no wave klezmer, dubbed shtetl metal by the Forward, of G-d Is My Co-Pilot and Marc Ribot's Shrek. Where Byron's Mickey Katz CD includes the cha-cha ''Peysakh in Portugal,'' G-d is My Co-Pilot's new Mir Shlufn Nisht has the makings of a seder on Mars. (''I'm Jewish, I'm a musician, this is my music. You figure it out,'' singer-arranger Sharon Topper told Jewish Week.) Ribot, who once led a band called Rootless Cosmopolitans, startled even Texas Jewboy Kinky Friedman, at one such ''Loud and Pushy Festival,'' with his hardcore ''Yo! I Killed Your God.''

Is the new Jewish music a reaction against assimilation? A form of multiculturalism? An exercise in Jewish rage? A haggadah distributed by G-d Is My Co-Pilot quotes Operation Shylock's paean to Irving Berlin: ''God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and then He gave to Irving Berlin 'Easter Parade' and 'White Christmas.' The two holidays that celebrate the divinity of Christ--the divinity that is the very heart of the Jewish rejection of Christianity--and what does Irving Berlin brilliantly do? He de-Christs them both! Easter he turns into a fashion show and Christmas into a holiday about snow....'' Yo!

Jews have traditionally been mediators between cultures. As Jews become American, America becomes Jewish--the burning bush ignites Blazing Saddles.

Deutscher's ''Non-Jewish Jew'' is the Jewish Non-Jew. When Zorn asks, ''What can be more Jewish than the cry of the impassioned outsider?'' he is questioning the relation of Jews not only to themselves but to the Western canon. Jews are, after all, a Third World people, and Jewish history has taught the recognition that marginals, as Polish sociologist Alexander Hertz wrote, ''are a fermenting agent, the 'yeast' without which culture would not be able to develop.''

Jews, pace Kafka, can be marginal to themselves. Remember To Dream, a wistful history of Jewish radicalism published last year by Robert Wolfe, points out that many of the '60s' key Jewish cultural radicals (Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan, Betty Friedan, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin) ''came from relatively small towns or cities where Jews had to be thoroughly assimilated to American culture in order to survive. They were influenced by traditional Jewish culture, but that culture was for the most part already alien to them.''

Similarly, Kushner grew up in small-town Louisiana; Stern is from Memphis. The neo-shtetlist filmmakers are women. (Despite Antin's ascribing The Man Without a World to a male alter ego, there's a pronounced female--and sometimes feminist--point of view. Scenes of a prospective bride clowning as she's fitted for her wedding dress, or being annointed in the mikva, a rapt child gazing at her nakedness while two nubile girls play out a lesbian flirtation, have an insolence that seems beyond the range of most male directors.) Homosexuality is not only an issue for Kushner, who told the Forward that ''the model I used in the process of coming out was everything I knew about the Jewish experience in the 20th century''; it informs radical Jewish culture in general. Rooted in rootlessness, a Czech Jew writing in German, Kafka had a sense of standing at the end of something and feeling his way back into Jewish history by virtue of his conscious alienation. ''In us all it still lives,'' he once said of Prague's vanished ghetto. ''Our heart knows nothing of the slum clearance which has been achieved. The unhealthy old Jewish town within us is far more real than the new hygienic town around us. With our eyes open we walk through a dream: ourselves only a ghost of a vanished age.''

This is the quintessential urban experience--the sensation of living amid phantoms and the ruins of fallen monuments. Kafka is describing the capacity to imaginatively relocate oneself in history, which is the essence of Diasporarama, and the stuff of Jewish art.