Academic journal article Shofar

Nostalgia and Recognition; Ilan Stavans and Morris Dickstein in Conversation

Academic journal article Shofar

Nostalgia and Recognition; Ilan Stavans and Morris Dickstein in Conversation

Article excerpt

The following encounter took place at the Eldridge Street Synagogue in New York on Sunday, September 30, 2001. The transcript also includes parts of a conversation on intellectuals that took place in New York a year earlier.

The setting for the following conversation was the Eldridge Street Synagogue in Lower Manhattan, the first great house of worship built by Eastern European Jews in the United States. This National Historic Landmark has become a cornerstone of Jewish renewal. As Jews moved out to the suburbs and beyond, Asians and Latinos settled into the Lower East Side neighborhood. The synagogue was forgotten for years. But now this beautiful but decrepit structure is under renovation as the site is turned into a meeting place where the descendants of Jewish immigrants gather to encounter the ghosts of the past and to confront the challenges of the present and future. These reflections -- intellectual, artistic, religious, and educational -- often take a global twist. The fate of American Jews is today linked to international events, not only in the Middle East but in places as far away as Johannesburg and Buenos Aires.

This dialogue took place on Sunday, September 30th, 2001, more than two weeks after the tragic events in the World Trade Center. Although they were still in deep shock, New Yorkers seemed eager to show that no terrorist act would stand in the way of affirming the continuity of their lives. The event was advertised as the launching of Ilan Stavans' memoir On Borrowed Words, about his coming of age as a Jew in Mexico and his immigration to the United States. It took place in the neighborhood where the other speaker, Morris Dickstein, had spent some of his formative years. Yet the two discovered a great deal of common ground. As the exchange progressed its themes expanded, covering the role of language and culture in the shaping of identity, the place of intellectuals and books in the modern world, as well as American Jewish literature and the quest for a past that is veiled in nostalgia.

Morris Dickstein: As I read your book On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language, I had no idea that some of your experience of growing up as a Jew in Mexico would be so similar to mine in New York. At times I found that I was reading another version of my own story. I too grew up in a Jewish subculture within a larger culture that was very different, and I too was trying to find my way in both. Your story of trying to learn English by reading Melville's Moby Dick -- which has of course one of the most baroque styles of any book ever written in English -- reminds me a little of memorizing words for the college boards when I was a senior in high school, trying to expand my vocabulary through a forced march. It is peculiar because you, Ilan, could have come out sounding like a 19(th) or 16(th) century writer; instead, though you are modest about describing the difficulty you had in acquiring English, those of us who have read your other works, or who read On Borrowed Words, know what a wonderful writer that boy became, and how the experience turned you into a public intellectual. This isn't easy; quite the contrary. We can only count, perhaps on the fingers of two hands, the number of writers who grew up in one language and not only learned to speak another language well, to live in that language, but became fine writers in their new language. It is rare...In the second half of the 20(th) century, a large proportion of those writers spent their early years in a Yiddish-speaking home. Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud come to mind. That transition from living in a domestic world of Yiddish to a literary and professional English was something only a few people achieved, and you, Ilan, are only the most recent. This experience really fertilized and enriched the way these people wrote English. It also added an element to the English language that really had not been there before.

In working on an essay of mine on Jewish writers in America for The Nation, I came upon a eulogy that Saul Bellow wrote for Bernard Malamud when he died in 1986. …

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