[Written and sent on 9/20/2011.]
By Hannah Lee
Yesterday, Tablet published an essay by Alice Gregory, “Counterlife,” that infuriated me and galvanized me to write a response. Gregory grew up non-Jewish in moneyed Marin County, California where they spurned family tradition and she found herself yearning for the insular world of the literary Jewish authors she adored. I grew up on the Lower East Side as a Chinese immigrant, reading books borrowed from my tiny public library set in the dated, alien universe of cheerleaders and football stars. My reality was the raucous, crowded, and smelly ethnic neighborhoods of Chinatown, Little Italy, and the Jewish Lower East Side, when it still existed on the streets. What did I choose for myself? My regular Readers already know that I’ve been living my life as an Orthodox Jew for more years than not.
What astounded me was that the author was entranced by the cultural mores of Jews, not the innate values of Judaism. What infuriated me was that the author, when she finally found herself living amongst the Jews of her literary dreams in New York City, she writes: “It’s possible, easy even— especially at mealtimes—to be too solicitous a shiksa, too curious a colonizer.” Even more so, when she writes: “”I’ve attended enough Seders at this point to not treat them like study-abroad programs, but, still, it’s good to express genuine interest in your competition.” Gregory means a possible future mother-in-law.
Gregory writes: “my feelings on this score are widespread enough to have become something of a literary trope.” What, of a syncophant? She describes the story arc of Jeffrey Eugenides’ new novel, The Marriage Plot, in which Mitchell, like Eugenides himself, is the son of Greek immigrants from Detroit. “He’s a religious-studies major at Brown in the early 1980’s, and his roommate, Larry Pleshette, is from Riverdale, NY. Larry’s parents serve on the board of artistic non-profits; they house ballerinas defecting from Kiev; Leonard Bernstein is known to have come over for drinks. Their house is like a shrine for Mitchell, full of totemic objects. He describes the contents of their freezer (rum raisin ice cream) with more ecstasy than he does any of his spiritual epiphanies.” Makes me wonder how rigorous is a religious-studies major, and I’m a graduate of Brown!
“[I]t’s not like Judaism is some magical charm that makes for bookish, indoor superheroes. All the things I once took to be synecdoche [a figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole] for Semitism are really just certain sorts of class signifier— ones made accessible by a mere college degree. It’s not that they’re superficial so much as they’re shared, and therefore no longer special-seeming.” Didn’t Gregory attend a serious college, where there were other well-read people, other than Jews?
Gregory writes: “Whatever jokes were once made about “the Johns” (Cheever, Updike, Knowles) are now made about the Jonathans (Lethem, Safran Foer, Ames). The Johns have infidelity, swimming pools, and study hall proctors; the Jonathans have Tourette, shtetls, and HBO shows filmed in Cobble Hill. We are a better-read (and –fed) elite. We still have status symbols. And though it may sound specious to some, a ruling class that reads is better than one that doesn’t.” Who are the “we” in her statement? Is she including herself? Cultural leaders of the intellectual set are not chosen by the palatability of their ideas, but the force and validity of their arguments. I never did appreciate the raunchy novels of Philip Roth and I did not enjoy the literary antics of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated (but I am enthusiastic about his 2010 non-fiction book, Eating Animals). Does that make me culturally ignorant? I think not, because I have other sources of reading to enjoy and value.
She also writes: “Venerating Jewishness as a teenager was not an act of rebellion, but it was a way of questioning and ultimately rejecting a culture whose sense of purpose— to say nothing of prestige—seemed extemporaneously contrived. I spent my youth wanting to belong to a club that I thought wouldn’t have someone like me for a member. What I didn’t know then was how easily, and how soon, I would be approved.” I don’t know which social circles Gregory travels in, but knowing the works of contemporary Jewish literary lions and having a taste for bagels and lox does not cut it for me and my Orthodox community. What matters to us are the middot (character traits) and mitzvot (Biblical commandments) one engages in. All else are mere “cultural folkways.”