“In Jewish thought there are no latecomers,” said novelist and essayist Cynthia Ozick. This phrase should be on the dust jacket of Edward Alexander’s collection of essays, “State of the Jews: A Critical Appraisal” (Transaction Publishers) as an invitation to follow this scholarly Cicerone on a tour of the Jewish condition.
Alexander is the author of “Irving Howe: Socialist, Critic, Jew” and many articles over the years on Jewish history, politics and literature. To open the lid of this much-traveled steamer trunk is to experience Alexander’s perceptive mind, dry humor, and exquisite sense of irony. Alexander is an entertaining dinner guest at your mental dining room table.
Most readers will have some familiarity with the literary lights that populate the work, including Yehuda Halevi (whom he calls the first Zionist), Matthew Arnold, Lionel Trilling, Saul Bellow and many more. But writers less well known to me (but, I discovered, well known to my more literate friends) offered the most delightful surprises. My favorites were Ruth Wisse and Cynthia Ozick.
Alexander introduces us to Ozick through her brilliant 1985 Phi Beta Kappa oration at Harvard on metaphor and memory. Briefly summarized, she notes that Mathew Arnold made a distinction between Hebraism and Hellenism by crediting the Greeks with inspiration and the Hebrews with memory and metaphor. Memory is the opposite of inspiration, she says, because it carries the judgment of history. Thus the Jews, a “slave rabble,” brought something new into the world by turning their memory of enslavement in Egypt into “a metaphor…a way to convert imagination into a serious moral instrument.”
Ozick then warns about the dangers of universalizing metaphors. She cites the polemical distortion of what happened at Auschwitz (beloved by universalists all over the world), which says that the victims were “human beings” or “humanity” at large, or which applies the term “Auschwitz” to every instance, real or imagined, of “man’s inhumanity to man.” Jews, she insists, “are no metaphors — not for poets, not for novelists, not for theologians, not for murderers, and never for anti-Semites. Auschwitz is not a metaphor, and there are no metaphors for Auschwitz.”
Another author with similarly powerful moral clarity is Ruth Wisse, a teacher and scholar of Yiddish literature and language at Harvard. Alexander opens his essay on Wisse with this: “Clear your mind of cant.” Has anyone who writes about the political dimension of the Jewish experience ever taken this motto of Samuel Johnson’s to heart more than Ruth Wisse? Has any voice ever laid siege more effectively to the barricades of stale cliché and bad logic that obscure “the Jewish problem?” Have you heard that Jews are an intransigent minority responsible for communism in capitalist countries, capitalism in communist countries, cosmopolitanism in nationalistic countries, and, in the minds of “realist” foreign-policy experts, every evil on the globe except avian flu?
Alexander captures Wisse’s signal idea in this passage: “Do you think that moral superiority over their enemies is the chief desideratum for the Jews, as when Golda Meir told Sadat she could forgive him for killing ‘our sons’ but not for ‘making us kill yours.’ Think again, urges Wisse, remember that survival precedes definition, and that your enemies’ designs upon you are a more compelling concern than your children’s decency. To be decent, you need to be alive.”
“State of the Jews” contains 24 essays grouped as “The Victorian Background,” “History,” “Politics,” and “Literature.” Alexander rescues the art of “criticism” from its current meaning, tearing it down to its classical meaning, seeing the thing for what it is and finding truth.
His commentary has clarity and the power to “clear your mind of cant” if you are disconcerted by the self-defeating extremes of Jewish thought and opinion. Those whose progressive ideologies and Jewish identity have merged (so that the former has replaced the latter) will not like this book. Alexander does not suffer fools or hardened ideologues gladly. He makes this evident in his penultimate essay and laudatory review of “The Finkler Question” by Howard Jacobson, a satire on self-hating Jews and their shame over Israel.
To get a quizzical look from gentiles, tell them Jews are unique. It’s something Jews know but non-Jews can’t seem to grasp. In the current controversy between liberal-minded American Catholic nuns and the dogmatic imperatives of the Holy See, my money is on the Pope. But the brouhaha is a ripple on a pond compared to the raging sea of contention among Jews, especially with regard to Israel.
Alexander goes headlong into that storm. As a former professor of English literature, he insists that the terms be properly defined. He traces the European history of that awful misnomer, “anti-Semitism” (better to have stayed with “Jew hatred”) from its origins to the “new anti-Semitism,” in which we have gone from a pariah people to a pariah state, Israel.
While Catholics have a Pax Romana, Jews are uniquely free to reach their own conclusions. Alexander’s scholarship will guide our steps and light the way.