Academic journal article German Quarterly

Asking the questions/telling a story

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Asking the questions/telling a story

Article excerpt

This essay is about the relationship between intellectual and personal identity, about the patterns of scholarship and those that inflect our lives.1 In its details, it is very much an essay about my experience. As a meditation on more general themes, however, its range is intended to be more extensive: one very personal answer to the historical question of German/Jewish identity as it is posed today.

Sometimes people ask me, "Why Arendt?" Why this particular intellectual preoccupation, when so many others are available? There are several answers to this question, more or less complete and depending on the circumstance. The simplest, and maybe the most accurate, is that she makes sense to me. By now, it is hard to determine to what degree she makes sense because she has shaped the way I think: I first picked up The Origins of Totalitarianism when I was sixteen. I have been reading Hannah Arendt's writing on and off ever since, a circulation of interest and surprise that has been going on for more than half my life. Given this relationship, the more intriguing question may be, why did Arendt make sense to me in the first place? Why did this particular individual's writing strike me as the best possible way to think about the world in which we live?

It's a world we have both lost and gained. For Arendt, a German-Jewish intellectual who wrote and published most of her important works of political theory in English in the United States, the lost world was obviously the cultural landscape of Europe, the New World the place she landed as a refugee, after having fled Nazi Germany for France in 1933 and France for the United States in 1941.2 But for me, a postwar child born to first- and second-generation immigrants who believed the Old Worlds were well behind us, history's shadow cast a different shape. Firmly foreshortened, minimized by the cheerful lighting of a consumer paradise, the shadow of history seemed barely to tangle around one's feet. Mostly a matter of recipes and childhood mythology, history was not something that was supposed to get in your way. In our house, my mother never called herself a refugee, although that is certainly what she was when she arrived in New York in 1938. At sixteen, she and her younger sister had been shipped out of Germany to live with American relatives they had never met. Together, they set out to become Americans; when my grandparents did arrive a year later, their daughters would only speak English with them. German was part of the history they felt lucky to have been able to leave behind, a shadow my mother felt she could mostly do without. She got on with her life. When she married my father, mixing ethnicities and religions, they were happy that this was so. They felt free.

For me, ironically, the shadow grew longer. Maybe it was just the passage of time, the shifting of perspective that accompanies the slow turning of the world. Raised as Americans, free to make of ourselves what we wanted, my brother and I pursued different paths, he working to build the present, I fascinated with questions of the past. The absence of certain parts of our history shaped my own life. At sixteen, finished with high school, I left home to spend a year on a kibbutz in Israel where my mother's sister lived. As a doctor, she had moved there somewhat skeptically years before, after she had married a fellow German-Jewish refugee who was also a Zionist pioneer and a distant relative. On the kibbutz, I worked in the cow shed and read everything I could get my hands on. Mostly, I depended on my aunt and uncle's library. After I had pulled out Salinger, Rousseau, de Sade, and Kazantzakis, my aunt handed me The Origins of Totalitarianism. I think she thought it might keep me busy for a while.

While I was living on the kibbutz, people used to ask me if I was Jewish, and my answer kept changing. In the beginning, I said no. I was as Jewish as I was Catholic, having been raised in neither religion, but instead with the American credo of self-- creation. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.