Academic journal article Shofar

The Opposite of Jewish: On Remembering and Keeping in Contemporary Jewish American Fiction

Academic journal article Shofar

The Opposite of Jewish: On Remembering and Keeping in Contemporary Jewish American Fiction

Article excerpt

Throughout the Bible, God repeatedly commands memory, the Israelites are to remember and keep the commandments. This essay considers the role of remembering and keeping a record of past generations as against remembering and keeping religious tradition. It investigates the way that recitation rather than ritual becomes the locus of memory in three contemporary Jewish novels: Dara Horn's In the Image (2002); Katie Singer's The Wholeness of a Broken Heart (1999); and Eileen Pollack's Paradise, New York (1998). All three novels are fraught with biblical imagery, with their female protagonists all functioning as modern incarnations of Serah bat Asher, the biblical woman who remembered and kept the memory of Israel in Egypt. Like Serah, these contemporary women stand apart from the tradition and yet gain their identity by recording its genealogies and recounting its stories.

In "The Argument," a recent short story by Rachel Kadish, an older Jewish man is haunted by memories he would sooner forget. Reading the paper one morning, he learns of "a thing called False Memoty Syndrome. This is a new syndrome, just discovered. It happens when something terrible a person thinks they remember turns out not to have happened aftet all." "Imagine," the man thinks, "such relief."1 Unable to forget his own personal losses and those of his people, this character romanticizes the possibility of shedding the past, of divesting himself of the butden of history. As a Jew, however, he understands forgetting to be an impossibility. The inextricable link between Judaism and memory becomes clear in a riddle he poses: "What is the opposite of Jewish?" he asks himself. "Alzheimer's."2

In considering "the worth and worthlessness of history,"' Nietzsche asserted that "it is possible to live almost without remembering, indeed, to live happily, as the beast demonstrates; however, it is generally completely impossible to live without forgetting." In clarifying his point, he cautioned, "there is a degree of insomnia, of rumination, of the historical sense, through which living comes to harm and finally is destroyed, whether it is a person or a people or a culture."4 While Nietzsche's view resonates with the anecdote above, the broader point he makes is largely antithetical to the Jewish understanding of history, in which history is not merely used, as Nietzsche would want it "for life and action, [and] only insofar as it serves living."5 Rather, one could argue that in Judaism, history - or the remembrance of history - serves God. It is divine command. Thus Geoffrey Hartmans contention that the Jewish imagination equates forgetfulness and sinfulness.6

The perceived mutual exclusivity of Jewishness and Alzheimers-or, more clearly, the inextricability of Judaism (the religion of the Jews) and memory (divine dictate to the Jews)-can be approached in two ways. On the one hand, we could assess Jewish texts by external criteria, reading, for example, through the lens of Nietzsche, considering what he would call the uses and abuses of remembering and forgetting in Jewish narrative (or, in his terms, the virtues of embracing the "historical" and the "unhistorical"7). Following this tack, we would likely find that the Jewish texts we consider have a rather different sense of "the borderline at which the past must be forgotten if it is not to become the gravedigger of the present"8 than does Nietzsche. On the other hand, however, we could turn to sources internal to the tradition, and consider the past not as needing to be forgotten but as continuous with the present. Thus we would read contemporary Jewish literatut e in light - not in spite - of the past which it reflects. In this vein, we would consider remembrance (and to some extent, its obverse, forgetting), in specifically Jewish terms. To do so demands valuing history differently than does a non-Jewish thinker like Nietzsche. While Nietzsche concedes that "living requires the services of history," he goes on to assert that "an excess of history harms the living person. …

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