Golems and alligators in New York
Looking to Yiddishkayt in a time of crisis
In the safety and loneliness of New York City during WWII, a young Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote for a Yiddish daily socialist newspaper. Reviewing a new translation of these essays, Helen Schulman finds an author intent on preserving the spirituality and practicality of Yiddishkayt—from the Mishnaic sages on what happens if an alligator eats a dead man’s nose to Singer’s own strange hopes for Gog and Magog.
What about that other figure from Ashkenazi Jewish folklore, the golem? In Adam Mansbach’s irreverent new novel, a stoned Brooklyn art teacher builds a golem—then has to rush out to find a translator when the animate clay giant starts yelling at him in Yiddish. Fortunately, Larry David is on TV: “The Golem took a cautious step forward. He seemed frightened, but entranced. He took another step, and the light from the television bathed his steak of a face.” In an accompanying conversation with Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, Mansbach talks about tackling Jewish themes and the devil’s bargain of whiteness.
This week at Public Seminar, we look to literature—for the responsibility Helen Schulman finds in Singer and the empathy Adam Mansbach seeks in fiction.
And we remember the advice of Ilan Zvi Baron: war is not a zero-sum game.
In “Answer to a Tough Question on Jewish Rights in Palestine”(1945) Singer asks a still relevant question: “How can we Jews ask that a minority prevail over a majority (the Arabs in Palestine)?” Part of his prescient answer is this: “There will never be real peace on earth as long as a small group of passengers sits comfortably while the others spend the night in a cold train station … In the end, the progressives will be the ones who demand that doors remain open. The reactionaries will be the ones who make every effort to keep the doors shut.”
Adam Mansbach in conversation with Natalia Mehlman Petrzela
I think I'd always identified with Judaism primarily through the artistic production of Jewish artists. Particularly the artistic production of a kind of Jewish artist who is occupying some part of the margins of Jewish life, which allows you to write critically on the pain of being marginal, of feeling ambiguous, of feeling ambivalent about this culture that you're born into and cannot escape from. Because Judaism is the Hotel California of religions. You can check out but you cannot leave. It doesn't matter what you do or what you want to do, you're still a part of it. Give it a shot. You got Jewish people saying shit like, “I'm Jewish, but I'm Buddhist.” Find an Episcopalian who says that.
The golem’s body was chunked with slabs of muscle up and down its four-hundred-pound, nine-and-a-half-foot length. Len was immensely proud of the golem’s shoulders, which were filigreed with remarkably realistic-looking striations along the deltoids. The hands were artless, and the feet looked like a pair of cinderblocks the golem had decided to wear as bedroom slippers. The face was brutal and amateurish, but expressive—the broad lips eager to peel back in a snarl or a laugh, the deep-set eyes oddly cagey and alert. The ears looked like actual clumps of sun-bleached dog shit that someone had decided to glue to a human head, but they were Len’s eighth attempt at ears and enough was enough.
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Ilan Zvi Baron
What is lacking from the ideological rhetoric, the polarizing protests, and most of the political statements is an ability to acknowledge the shared experience of human suffering. I’m referring here to the innocent Palestinian victims of the Israeli army, and to the innocent Israeli victims of Hamas.