Thursday, August 4, 2011

That's funny, they don't look Jewish.

You are browsing with some interest among the journal entries of Alfred Kazin (1915-1998), recently published by Yale, alternately liking and identifying with many of his observations, becoming more interested yet as he ventures his opinions on writers you've read.  His self-awareness is attractive, his judgements keen. In voice and aggressive approach, you are reminded of the late, lamented John Sanford (1904-2003).

They are of the same generation, each born into a Jewish culture, each in fact writing autobiographical accounts using the word Jew in the title, a coincidence beginning to have an effect on you as you pursue the notion that each man was highly political, Sanford at one point even more to the left than Kazin, but neither a self-styled religious Jew.

The notion you are curious to pursue began forming as you read of Kazin thinking of himself as an Emersonian Jew, pushing beyond the synagogue and into the landscape of the individual who was born into a particular culture that stresses moral responsibility of the individual.  You are thinking to spend more time with these journal entries of Kazin, because they begin to suggest a theme for you to follow that, as you think about it, takes on at first a cautionary hand.  You soon recognize that cautionary hand is the hand of defensiveness, warning you away from the pursuit of thoughts, reading, and writing that can lead you beyond where you are now and into the very thing you admire about him--self-awareness.

John Sanford and Alfred Kazin say the same thing--to an extent, so does Philip Roth:  A Jew must be an outsider, even to Judaism.

"Every original Jew turns against the Jews,"  Kazin writes.  "They are the earth from which the spirit tries to free itself.  The vice of Jewish solidarity--it is an unexpressed compassion without love.  The glory of being in the truth, Jewish or not Jewish, is to find a love higher than solidarity."

The writer reaches for, seeks the love that comes from the revelation he or she encounters through the discovery of what it is to be an outsider.

If Kazin thought himself an Emersonian Jew, it comes to you that your particular role model, Samuel Langhorn Clemens, AKA Mark Twain, is a conflicted Jew who found his particular Ark of the Covenant in the works that most troubled him to write, works in which he could not disguise his status as outsider, and with it, he did for the language and storytelling what that quintessential Jewish writer, Geoffrey Chaucer, did for the English language first some six hundred years ago.

To be a writer seeking the rituals and rewards of revelation is to be an outsider, is to be  Jew.  Your own experiences with your cultural and writerly Jewishness are excellent cases in point; you are proudly the outsider in both.

Appropriately, those are other stories.

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