Friday, October 27, 2017

Modern Jewish Literature: Class 2 - Yiddish Literature - Opening

Welcome to a class on Yiddish Literature. I was blocked on how to approach this class until I realized that this was due to the fact that this class is probably near the source of every neurosis I've ever had in my life. So I'm going to exploit this class take you with me on a journey as I work through my guilt and shame and anger and fury about being yelled at by my family about how I'M THE REASON THE YIDDISH LANGUAGE IS DYING WHEN I WAS FOUR YEARS OLD!

I had some inkling that my parents were speaking some strange language to each other of which I knew a bit when I was a very small child, and there were certainly resemblances between many words. But I'm pretty sure it was not until my first day of school that I realized, OH MY GOD THE REST OF THE WORLD SPEAKS ENGLISH!

So at some point after school started, I learned English well enough to come home one day and refuse to talk to them in Yiddish, for which I got the first of many, many, many lectures about how I'm not doing my part to rescue Jewish culture from dying permanently. Which of course, in a four-year-old's brain, means YOU KILLED JUDAISM!!! YOU KILLED IT AND IT'S DEAD AND IT WILL NEVER COME BACK BECAUSE YOU DESTROYED IT AND WE DON'T LOVE YOU!

Well, I'm teaching a goddamn Jewish literature class now, and I'm still iffy on whether they love me, but at least now there's some evidence that I'm doing the things on which their love was clearly conditional. So, Uncle Nochem, who's the great champion of Yiddishkeit now????

And this brings us to the unfortunate, forgotten, and deeply uncomfortable truth of life in the ghetto, and perhaps generally of Jewish life. For the vast majority of our history, Jews have been utterly powerless against our life-circumstances. We lived in authoritarian countries where you had to defer and grovel merely to survive, or at very least avoid imprisonment, or conscription, or assault. We knew that whenever we showed how much we resented our circumstances to the outside world, the consequences might have been disastrous and permanent. And therefore, whatever frustrations we had, the only outlet we had to take them out on was each other.

I refuse to believe that anybody who grew up with Yiddish-speaking grandparents doesn't have memories of scenes that resemble something like the Costanza household in Seinfeld, in which every conversation is a potential shouting match. These are people whom, in the words of my mother about her in-laws, the Holocaust and changing a lightbulb is roughly the same level of crisis (she won't be happy about my telling you that). In traditional Yiddish-speaking family it is almost expected that you will make scenes at other people's expense. Now a non-Jewish person, perhaps even a non-ethnic person, would listen to this description, and something in them would recoil in horror. A repressed conservative might say how can you possibly talk this way about your family??? An overly empathic progressive might say, how could you have possibly endured in circumstances like that???

But both of them are seeing the world in a very linear, non-Jewish, perhaps even goyisher, rubric. They are seeing the world from a place where everything is either one thing or the other. Everything, in such a view, is either tragic, or comic, or romantic, or satirical. But the origin of those worldviews is Greek, not Jewish, and it's shaped the Western worldview for two-and-a-half thousand years, but it's a very new plant in Judaism.

Judaism is ironic. The Tanakh is literally the origin of irony. So this obviously gets into an important question. We group so many distinct world views and emotional states now under tragedy and comedy that the two words almost mean everything now. But there are very fine distinctions. A "tragic" person is someone falls from a great state in life to a pathetic one. There are a million celebrity stories in America which might, in some ways be considered tragic. But here in America, something in us is deeply uncomfortable with the idea that any state, no matter how low, might be considered pathetic, and therefore we do our best to divide society up between winners and losers, which is practically asking for society's winners to eventually fall into tragic circumstances. But, "pathetic" didn't used to not be the insult it is today - technically, pathetic means quite the opposite. It meant someone who is deserving of your compassion. A pathetic story is, technically speaking, a story about a person who is deserving of your pity and always was. So in the sense can anyone define the difference between irony and comedy?

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