Speaking of Exile


Want to understand the notion of Jewish exile? Then you must read Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi's Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination (2000). It is, as far as I'm concerned, the final word on the subject. Well, it was until the interview below. DeKoven Ezrahi is a professor of comparative literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the author of By Words Alone: The Holocaust in Literature  (1980), and the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship (2007-8) for her project on “Jerusalem and the Poetics of Return.” In the following conversation, conducted by email, DeKoven Ezrahi takes the positions she carefully deployed in Booking Passage and updates them for our edification—and (yes) entertainment.

You spend an entire chapter, in Booking Passage, focused on Philip Roth's Operation Shylock. What do you make of the recent direction of Roth's fiction? Can you note any places where he's followed up on Shylock's obsession with diasporism?

Philip Roth’s fiction is a barometer of developments in the writer’s soul and in the soul of America: indeed, at times he has helped to shape the soul of America as its youngest and, eventually, its oldest Jewish son. For 30 years Roth’s characters seemed nearly obsessed with an American Jewish yearning for and fear of Israel. From Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) to The Counterlife (1986) and Operation Shylock (1993), we can trace the Diaspora-Zion dialectic through characters who embody its most dramatic phases and polemics. The murder of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 succeeded in killing the robust protest culture in Israel; it may also have put an end to the preoccupation with Israel as alternative site of Jewish creativity (and Jewish masculinity). At that point, many American Jewish writers found the subject too much trouble; for Roth, I think, it was, in the first place, a broken heart and in the second a leap of the imagination that he couldn’t or wouldn’t take to try to parse Israel after 1995. But it turns out that something much bigger—and much smaller—was at stake. American Pastoral  (1997) and The Human Stain  (2000), which came out as the millennium turned and shortly before the terrorist attack on America, marked a generic turn from satire to tragedy. In ringing down the curtain on the Jewish comedy in America, Roth may also be signaling a new sober, and at times sinister, impulse in the American soul (though one is infinitely grateful that he has lived to witness Obama’s delicious complication of this entropic process).

The Plot Against America (2004) was, I think, a reprise of former concerns, a fleshing out of the paranoid fantasies of Jews and other Others written during Bush’s Manichaean regime. But what has taken center stage in the first decade of the 21st century, which coincides with Roth’s eighth decade, is the aging body and a series of farewells. The idiom in which these elegiac narratives are cast is purely English, with only a tinge of the Jewish inflections that filled the middle decades.

Can you think of any fictions, since the publication of Shylock, that have been as profound, or entertaining, on the themes of exile and homecoming?

No. But then I think Roth stood more or less alone even before Shylock. He tended in his Jewish fiction to take on big ‘themes’ to which his characters were subordinate. That’s why the rabbis and the yentes loved to hate him.

You call I. B. Singer an "enabler" of the recent movement—if we can call it that—to "reimagine Europe without the Holocaust." Can you draw the lines between, say, Singer and Michael Chabon?

I’m not sure there is a direct line of ‘influence,’ but I don’t think that either The  Amazing Adventures of  Kavalier and Clay or The Yiddish Policeman’s Union would have been possible without Singer—and the same is true of Chabon’s peers—Melvin Bukiet, Nathan Englander, Jonathan Safran Foer. What I argued in Booking Passage is that Bashevis Singer “enabled” these younger writers to “return” to Europe at the end of the century because of the peculiar ways he represented the prewar shtetl and the Polish-Jewish street in his postwar fiction. His energetic, erotic, and comic prose lasted for some 20 years after its referent had been wiped off the face of the earth. In 1966, Bashevis Singer himself explained this act as “an illusion which is consciously sustained.” That is, the small towns and Jewish streets in which his ‘European’ stories take place are not tainted by what Michael André Bernstein calls “backshadowing.” While this was a direct affront to Singer’s contemporaries and their elegiac postwar project, it did give the next generation of  writers in America—and the generation after that—license to reimagine Jewish Europe as a topos of the Jewish comedy, often without a hint of the cataclysm to come. This feels a bit forced at times, although it is as much an affirmation of the regenerating power of Jewish culture and of “laughter after” as it is an exercise in preserving the vitality of a dead culture in a verbal wax museum. And it provides an opportunity to return to Europe without the deterministic narrative that prevailed for years in nervous Jewish minds. Singer’s legacy was ratified, in a way, by Amos Elon’s insistence, in his history of the Jews of Germany, that things might have turned out differently (The Pity of it All). And, after all, if writers like Roth can indulge in counter-history in such novels as The Plot Against America, what’s wrong with history-without-backshadowing?

But while on the subject of counter-history, I must register my dismay at the way in which Michael Chabon, whose work I generally admire, simply wipes Israel off the map with a stroke of his pen—recounting in the beginning of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union that the nascent Hebrew state was destroyed in the 1948 war. So little time is given to this turn of imagination that if you blink you might miss it among the intrigues of Yiddish-speaking detectives trying to survive and solve mysteries in their reconstituted shtetl in Alaska. Jerusalem after the defeat is described as a magnet of messianic plots and a “city of blood and slogans painted on the wall, severed heads on telephone poles.” Although I am sad to report that the first three observations are not entirely counter-historical, our telephone poles still mainly serve the aviary population.

Obviously no one in this conversation—least of all Chabon—would wish destruction on Israel; still, many Jews in America and elsewhere wish that the problems this country poses would just ‘go away’ so they could reclaim their innocent Jewish lives without being tainted by association with a militaristic, occupying power that seems to have lost its sense of humor along with its humility. I have my own dreams of a counterlife as a Protestant raising bees in rural New Hampshire. But even in a fantasyland such as Yiddish Alaska, rather than engage with the disturbing facts of Israel, one just erases it…?  If the counterpart to reimagining Jewish Europe without the Holocaust is reimagining the Jewish world without Israel, I wonder if we shouldn’t rethink the whole project of ‘counterhistory.’

How do Israeli writers view the English-language market? I can imagine that a good translation, a readership in the United States, could mean not just a good living, but a way to speak to the largest possible Jewish audience. What does the fact that the majority of people who read Jewish novels read them exclusively in English do to the contemporary Jewish imagination?

This is a wonderful question to which there is of course no simple answer. It is not only English that has welcomed Hebrew writers into its realm, but German, Italian, French and a host of other European and non-European languages. The real question, however, is whether such dissemination creates a ‘dialogue’ and of that I’m not sure. Even when such dialogues are conducted in the flesh, so to speak, as in the recent Jerusalem Book Fair which included a number of conversations between writers from Israel and abroad (Jewish and non-Jewish), the participants often seem to speak past each other and the Israeli writers especially tend to become defensive, ‘epic,’ dewy-eyed mystical—or Holocaustal. A writer like Aharon Appelfeld seems more comfortable talking about enduring signs of anti-Semitism and something rather abstract called “the Jewish Genius” than about what I think is his real patrimony in the acculturated world of German culture into which he was born.  He remains an admirer of Kafka and (imagine!) Philip Roth; he is enormously popular in Europe, but demonstrates in his late writing and speaking an abiding suspicion of the World Outside.

There are Hebrew writers like Yoram Kaniuk, for example, or Benjamin Tammuz in a former generation, who spent many years abroad and not only position their characters in different venues within and outside of Israel, but seem to be addressing more than one audience.

Perhaps the most popular writer outside of Israel today is also the most grounded in the Israeli landscape and modern Hebrew cadences. David Grossman’s novels, like his nonfiction journalism, sometimes tackle macro issues like The Holocaust or The Conflict, though they are never themes embodied in characters but rather delicate explorations of the way grand narratives invade and colonize the individual soul. Grossman’s language is rich and even innovative and yet remains translatable—as Agnon, for example, is not. When Isha borahat mi-besora comes out in English it will knock everyone’s socks off. But you have to put aside about two weeks of your life in order to fully experience this tragic yet strangely uplifting novel about the ‘death’ of a soldier and the ‘pilgrimage’ of his mother—a narrative whose first draft was completed days before Grossman’s own son Uri was killed at the end of the Second Lebanese War.

Is Etgar Keret's international popularity a sign that perhaps life in Israel is becoming, I don't know, more exportable? His new film $9.99—which is based on his stories—is set in Australia with an all-Australian cast. Does this suggest something of a meeting of Diasporist and Zionist imaginations?

Etgar Keret represents, along with Orly Castel-Bloom and a few others, a generation of restless Israelis whose prose—this is less salient in poetry—is what used to be called (the day before yesterday) “postmodern.” It is often absurd or surrealistic, it tends not so much to ignore as to deconstruct collective notions of The Jewish Thing or The Palestinian-Israeli Thing into its most primary (and therefore ridiculous) parts. As a reader and aging activist, I am somewhat saddened by the fact that a generation of writers who grew up in an Israel without borders is not engaged as their predecessors were in the vigorous attempt to reconstitute geopolitical boundaries that would finally allow Israel to recognize itself and abandon its bloated fantasies. But their writing hardly respects boundaries of any kind, geographical, biological, syntactic, generic. Although he is in many ways very local, in his international range of subjects, venues and audiences Keret represents one of the most cosmopolitan of contemporary Hebrew voices. He is certainly engaged on the left of the political spectrum, but is also hungry to live in a world that encompasses more than Israel-Diaspora….. there are even some Goyim in his imaginary universe!

Would you speak about the ways in which current events influence the way Jews imagine themselves? Obama's Cairo speech, for instance...

Bless you for asking. Some of what I will say is wishful thinking, but heck, when if not now is the time to indulge our dreams? There are facts on the ground—J-Street for instance—that indicate the way recent developments in American politics are mirrored in the Jewish Street, which is hardly a street anymore, after all, but a global village. You may not find evidence of this in Teaneck (not yet, anyway) and hardly in Jerusalem, but in the virtual street where much of Jewish culture is negotiated, it is already rampant. I want to believe that the self-isolating, self-justifying forces that have reflected a particular kind of Jewish power and parochialism over the past few decades will, under the benign influence of Obama and the forces he has liberated, now give way to self-reflection, a bit of humble self-mocking, and at least one Jewish hand stretched out to make peace with ‘implacable’ others. And what is the other hand doing? Obviously, it is making shabbes. In my not-so-counterhistorical vision, we will again be able to see “God’s hand… in the world/ like my mother’s hand in the guts of the slaughtered chicken/on Sabbath eve” (Yehuda Amichai).

P.S. Confession: I end everything I write these days with a quote from either Yehuda Amichai or Grace Paley. In the next interview I’ll find a way to bring in Grace.