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  • On Being a Jewish Critic
  • Bryan Cheyette (bio)

Three images have haunted me during the writing of this article. The first is taken from Isaac Rosenberg's "Break of Day in the Trenches," which he wrote in 1916 as a private soldier in the British Army during World War I. In this poem, Rosenberg gives the reader an ironic self-image of someone who is between cultures and who is unable to assimilate, even in wartime, into any one nation:

Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew Your cosmopolitan sympathies. Now you have touched this English hand You will do the same to the German— Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure To cross the sleeping green between.

Rosenberg's poetry is full of such subversive mergings across seemingly incongruous domains. His self-fashioning as a droll, cosmopolitan rat is an act of extraordinary imaginative poise in the most extreme circumstances.1

The second image is taken from Kafka's Metamorphosis, when the metamorphosed Gregor—a giant insect—inadvertently begins to cross the boundary from his bedroom into the living room as he becomes transfixed by his sister playing the violin. "Was he an animal, that music had such an effect on him?" Gregor wonders. In a letter to Max Brod, Kafka famously described his generation of Germanized Jews as four-legged animals: "[T]heir hind legs were still mired in their [End Page 32] father's Jewishness and their thrashing forelegs found no new ground. The ensuing despair became their inspiration."2 Kafka understood only too well the empty spaces in which his characters were suspended.

The final image is taken from Primo Levi's The Periodic Table, a book about impurity with a knowing impure form. In the Zinc chapter, at the beginning of the book, Levi is a young student performing his first experiments and is drawn into broader areas of speculation by the resistance of Zinc to chemical breakdown:

One could draw from [this experiment] two philosophical conclusions: the praise of purity, which protects from evil like a coat of mail; the praise of impurity, which gives rise to changes, in other words, to life. I discarded the first, disgustingly moralistic, and I lingered to consider the second, which I found more congenial. In order for the wheel to turn, for life to be lived, impurities are needed....Dissension, diversity, the grain of salt and mustard are needed: Fascism does not want them, forbids them, and that's why you're not a Fascist; it wants everybody to be the same.3

Culture as purity, culture as impurity. It is these two clashing versions of culture that I will examine throughout my article. The title, "On Being a Jewish Critic," is meant to provoke rather than assert identity. The one thing that we can say with any certainty about Jewish identity is that it is always in dispute and open to redefinition and reinterpretation (whether religiously, ethnically, culturally, nationally). Being a Jewish critic does not mean that I claim a spurious personal authenticity, nor do I assert the primacy of an individual identity. It is in these terms that "On Being a Jewish Critic" is provocative. If I am regarded as a Jewish critic, then it is what I do with that regard which is the subject of this article.

David Hollinger, in a valuable book called Postethnic America, quotes Ishmael Reed on Alex Haley's best-selling genealogy Roots. Reed argues that "if Alex Haley had traced his father's bloodline, he would have travelled 12 generations back to, not Gambia, but Ireland."4 This Hollinger refers to as "Haley's Choice." Haley chose not to trace his father's ancestry back to Ireland but took the matrilineal route to Gambia. I was struck by Reed's comments because I, too, could trace the Irish ancestry on my mother's side, for at least three generations, and then, I suppose, I could travel to Spain for a few more branches on one of the family trees (to spice up the East European shtetlah on my father's side), but this would have been patently ridiculous. The point is that all public identities...


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