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Chris Nagler, Yours Truly, and Charles Bernstein Respond

In response to my blog post on Charles Bernstein and Norman Fischer's talk at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center, Chris Nagler, who was also present that night, made the following important comment:

This is a great summary of that interesting evening, Robin. I just want to mention one moment that stayed with me from the conversation. I'm talking about the moment when Bernstein quoted the Israeli writer Amos Oz (this quote also appears in Loss Pequeño Glazier's interview with Bernstein, collected in the book of essays and interviews, My Way):

"Now suppose a new Kafka is growing up right now, here in San Francisco, California. Suppose he is fourteen years old right now. Let's call him Chuck Bernstein. Let's assume that he is every bit of a genius as Kafka was in his time. His future must, as I see it, depend on an uncle in Jerusalem or an experience by the Dead Sea, or a cousin in a kibbutz or something inspired by the Israeli live drama. Otherwise, with the exception of the possibility that he is growing up among the ultra-Orthodox, he will be an American writer of Jewish origin--not a Jewish American writer. He may become a new Faulkner, but not a new Kafka."

Bernstein's comment on this idea was that it was "repugnant," though he didn't explain precisely why. In the Q & A, the young woman employed by the JCC to host the event asked Bernstein why he had such strong feelings about Oz's statement. I don't remember exactly what he said, but it had something to do with how "reductive" an idea of Jewishness it is. What I remembered so vividly was the questioner's clear uncomprehendingness juxtaposed with Bernstein's strong condemnatory language. It felt to me like a moment that stood in for some issues that could not quite be addressed in that setting.

Note: The Oz quote is from his essay "Imagining the Other: 1."

I responded:


Thanks for this comment and the reference, and yes that was a memorable moment. And while Morris's reference in the intro to Radical Poetics clearly outlines the problematic and reductive vision of Jewish American Writing articulated in the Telling and Remembering anthology for example, that background was not offered in so clear a format in the JCC discussion though I think Norman Fischer's comment about his own experience in NY with his book Opening to You and the stories and anecdotes that both offered were suggestive, including Bernstein's comment about his own experience of and interest in Jewish writing and its lineage not so much deriving from Israel but rather Europe. He said something to that effect. At the talk, I was not sure how to interpret Bernstein's performance with the Oz piece because I didn't know who Oz is. It wasn't until Jocelyn [Saidenberg]outlined Oz and then I had a chance to read the remark (rather than just hear it at the talk) that I could get a handle on it. That is probably NOT the case with the questioner....or maybe there was something about the performativity of that piece that made it challenging to the questioner? What is the politics or the poetics? Where the line between?

I then wrote to Charles who kindly responded even though he is in Coimbra, Portugal. Charles gave me permission to post this from his email:


I very much appreciated your post about the JCCSF event and the book. On the Amos Oz quote, my reply to Joanna Steinhahardt is on the unedited version of the talk, now up at PennSound – think it’s the first comment in the discussion period. Eric Sellinger originally sent me that quote and I used it earlier in an autobiographical interview in My Way. What do you think about it?

If would be as if I wrote:

Now suppose a new Kafka is growing up right now, in Tel Aviv. Suppose he is fourteen years old right now. Let’s call him Amachi Oz. Let’s assume that he is every bit of a genius as Kafka was in his time. His future must, as I see it, depend on an uncle in Miami or an experience learning Yiddish in the Catskills or the complete DVD set of Curb Your Enthusiasm and all Mel Brooks’ movies, or something inspired by Bob Dylan or Jerry Lewis. Otherwise, with the exception of the possibility that he is growing up among transplanted upper West siders who have memorized Gershwin, Berlin, and Sondheim, he will be an Middle Eastern writer of Jewish origin—not a Jewish writer. He may become a new Darwish, but not a new Kafka.

No one would accept this except as a spoof; but is the Oz quote any less problematic? In the absence of the European secular Jewish culture in the wake of the Extermination Process, the U.S. has developed its own Jewish secular culture that doesn’t play second fiddle to Israel, which has over this time, cultivated its own distinct brands of Jewishness, no more or less authentic than ours. Israeli writers don’t get to dictate who’s Jewish or what’s Jewish (and neither do Israeli rabbis). The Jews who thought they were excommunicating Spinoza really just cut themselves off

I responded:


Thanks for your note. And, thanks again for the talk at the JCC.

I think the confusion for me lay in the fact that at the talk I had no idea who Oz is, wasn't sure if that was his quote or whether you had revised it. I did just read the portion of Oz's "Imagining the Other: 1" (and I'll post some quotes from it--see below) that is accessible via Google Books and it is completely clear to me where he is coming from and the problems with what he says. Israel is the only site of "live drama" and all depends, in Oz's vision, on Israel. It was hard to interpret the Oz quote in the context of the talk at the JCC because I had no context for it. I am assuming that the questioner knows of Oz's work, but can't say for sure. It would be interesting to ask her more about this.

Here are the quotes from the Oz essay. They clearly locate his position:

Now, my point is that in all exiles, including America, Jewish culture is essentially in danger of becoming a museum where the only proposition that parents can make to their children is, Please do not assimilate. Please go on running the show--the museum. Please be impressed by the richness of our inheritance.
The other option, as I said is live drama. And live drama is no rose garden, nor is it ever pure. It is a perpetual struggle; sound and fury. Sometimes even bloodshed. But Israel is the only place in the Jewish world now, where there is live drama on a large scale at work(119).

[note: section below immediately follows the quote about chuck bernstein that Charles read and is included in Chris's comment above.]

In other words, I am suggesting that even individual creation in the future, to the extent that it is going to be Jewish, will depend on Israel to some extent. This is not the end of the world, by the way. As I maintain that in the long run individual creation springs from the fertile ground of collective creation, and as I maintain that perhaps there is no collective creation in the present Diaspora, the only choice for Jews is either to turn to Israel or maybe despair(122).

from Amos Oz's contribution "Imagining the Other:1" in
The Writer in the Jewish Community: an Israeli-North American Dialogue Edited by Richard Siegel, Tamar Sofer. Cranbury NJ and London: Associated University Press, 1993.

You can read the piece online here:

Here is the question about Oz from the SF JCC talk and the first part of Charles' response. This is from PennSound. Click here to hear the whole thing yourself:

Steinhardt: Why did the Amos Oz quote offend you?

Bernstein: Because he's defining, He's choosing to speak for defining what Jews are. One reaction I have as someone who grew up here in the US....is that he doesn't get to define or tell me what I am. To me, the crisis for Jewish life, for all Jews is the extermination of the European Jews by Nazis which is predicated on the idea of defining who is Jewish or not.....I certainly think he is entitled to his views but his views exclude in a way that does not allow for an understanding of what American Jewishness is so it is important for other people to speak up to make that point.....

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1 comment:

gary barwin said...

Thanks very much for this follow-up to the discussion.

The Oz quote reminded me of the famous anecdote in *Silence* where a Dutch musician said to John Cage, "it must be very difficult for you in America to write music, for you are so far away from the centers of tradition." Cage responded that, on the contrary, it must be hard for the European to compose so close to tradition. To continue along Charles’s Ozian road from the JCC talk, ‘there’s no place like home,’ and each person gets to decide where home is, where the centre of their cultural universe, to determine where their own ‘live drama’ unfolds, and what it looks like.

I remember my wife’s 95-year old Yiddish-speaking Polish bubie (to me, almost a stereotype of Old World Judaism) talking about ‘the Jews’ across her Toronto street. They were Lubavitch and she knew that they viewed her as if she wasn’t properly Jewish.

To paraphrase, Groucho, 'I'm already of member of that club that doesn't accept me as a member.'