Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

A Tale of Two Cities: Virginia Woolf's Imagined Jewish Spaces and London's East End Jewish Culture

Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

A Tale of Two Cities: Virginia Woolf's Imagined Jewish Spaces and London's East End Jewish Culture

Article excerpt

"'But I don't need a country!' ... 'The whole world is my country!'"

Simon Blumenfeld, Jew Boy (1935)

In "Street Haunting" Virginia Woolf's flaneuse narrator wanders the streets of Holborn and Soho on a winter's eve on the pretext of hunting down a lead pencil. "This is London," the speaker thinks to herself as she passes shops, houses, the "army of human beings," and the "oddities, sufferings and sordidities" of the city at dusk (156). Woolf captures the world of the Other--the twisted and deformed, the disabled and the poor who live in the abject conditions of urban misery. Similar to an ethnographer encountering the "hobbling grotesque dance" (156) of the foreign street, the speaker characterizes this mysterious, haunted encounter in ethnographic and racialized terms. (1) This is evident in the language and tone when both speaker and reader "come upon a bearded Jew, wild, hunger-bitten, glaring out of his misery." It is the sight of the Jew, more than any other character, which makes "the nerves of the spine seem to stand erect; [...] a question is asked which is never answered" (159). As the language and tone of the quote suggest, through this self-reflexive moment the narrator uncovers what for her is the most eerie, dangerous aspect of writing: the peril of becoming immersed in the retrograde foreign spaces of the self, the city, and the degenerate aspects of modern English civilization as a whole. It is an engagement with urban squalor that encapsulates Woolf's critique of modern English society evident in many of her portrayals of London. It is also an engagement that is often linked with Jews and imagined Jewish spaces in the city.

This essay uncovers how intersections among Woolf's spatial politics, her critique of modern English society, and her role as a social and political writer are complicated by the problematic terms in which she portrays "Jewish space" in her work. We define Woolf's "Jewish space" as her construction of imagined environments that Jews occupy as opposed to mappable places that identify the places where Jews lived, worked, and produced Jewish culture in London. (2) By highlighting Jewish social and cultural contributions that Woolf's depiction of Jewish spaces obfuscates, this distinction will add important cultural and historical contexts to current discussions of Woolf's narrative constructions of the city. After all, if Woolf uses Jewish spaces in London thematically, as a tool to negotiate the borders of Englishness and political and economic oppression, how do scholars undo the erasure of Jewish historical reality and experience in London in the 1930s? For this reality is not only missing from Woolf's works, but also from various critical interpretations that underscore negative Jewish portraiture and that emphasize Jewish alterity and difference. Such emphasis omits the experiences of a multifarious community that identified as Jewish and individuals who affiliated themselves with Jewish groups in London.3 The extant discourse circulating around Woolf's imagined "Jews" and the urban space they occupy positions the social "place" of interwar Anglo-Jewry in a void that virtually obliterates Jewish self-determination and individual histories and experiences.

In effect, the marginalization of British Jewish cultural history within modernist literary discourses obscures the variations and vibrancy of Jewish traditions, as well as the social, political, and cultural activities that characterized London's Jewish neighborhoods. While important work on Jewish writers and artists proliferates, there is little integration of Jewish cultural traditions and production into modernist literary history and theory despite the expansion and inclusiveness of the field. To explore what implications such inclusion might have, one might ask, what difference does Kafka's, Benjamin's, or Modigliani's experience as Jews make to the parameters and issues with which Modernist Studies is concerned? …

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