Veil of Shadows: On Jewish Trauma, Place, and American Anti-Semitism

November 27, 2018 | 9 books mentioned 13 min read

A little less than 50 miles from Krakow, at the confluence of the Vistula and Sola rivers, there is a town of slightly under 50,000 inhabitants named Oświęcim. The official tourist site for Oświęcim describes the city as being “attractive and friendly.” Image searches bring up Victorian buildings the color of yellow-frosted wedding cakes, and of modest public fountains; red-tiled homes and blue-steepled churches. There is a castle and a newly built hockey arena. Oświęcim would be simply another Polish town on a map, all diacriticals and consonants, were it not for its more famous German name—Auschwitz.

Everyday people wake up under goose feather duvets, go to work in fluorescent-lit offices, buy pierogis and kielbasa, prepare halupki, and go to bed in Auschwitz. Women and men are born in Auschwitz, live in Auschwitz, marry, make love, and raise children in Auschwitz. People walk schnauzers and retrievers in Auschwitz—every day. Here, at the null point of humanity, in the shadow of that factory of death, people live normal lives. Amidst an empire of fire, ash, and Zyklon B. A mechanized, industrial hell on earth derived its name from this town. Theodor Adorno opined in his 1951 “Cultural Criticism and Society” that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Here, in the dark presence of gas chamber and crematorium, there are no doubt women and men who pass their time reading Czeslaw Milosz or Wislawa Szymborska, oblivious to the philosopher’s injunction.

If you are to read that observation as optimism—that even in the midst of such trauma, such horror and evil, the music still plays—then you misunderstand me. Nor am I condemning those who live in Oświęcim, who’ve had no choice in being born there. Their lives are not an affront; I do not impugn to them an assumed lack of respect concerning this absence-haunted place. Such as it is to exist amidst the enormity of sacred stillness, a quiet that can only ever result from tremendous horror. The lives of Oświęcim’s citizens are simply lives like any other. Whatever the ethics of poetry after Auschwitz, the fact remains that there can’t help but still be verse—and waking, and working, and sleeping, and living. This has nothing to do with the perseverance of life in the face of unspeakable trauma; rather, it’s to understand that quotidian existence simply continues after Auschwitz—that very rupture in the space-time continuum of what it means to be a human—because there is no other choice.

In Auschwitz we understand a bit about how the gravitational pull of trauma warps and alters space and place, and a true consideration of that singularity must also admit how demon-haunted other corners of our fallen world are, how blood-splattered and ghost inflected the very Earth itself is. What makes Auschwitz such an incomparable evil is not that it’s so very different from the rest of the world, but that it is even more like the world than all of the rest of the world already is. In that perverse way, Auschwitz is the most truthful of places.

Judaism’s genius is that it understands how trauma permeates place. Auschwitz may be the exemplar for this praxis of suffering, but Jewish history is arguably a recounting of cyclical hatreds, all the way back to Pharaoh. Such an elemental, irrational hatred as anti-Semitism is very deep within the metaphysic of the West, seemingly in the marrow of its bones and drawn with mother’s milk, so much so that anyone truly surprised by its resurgence is either disingenuous or not paying attention. The Tanakh is a litany of those who’ve tried to destroy the Jews—the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Romans. Such is this basic narrative reoccurrence that it almost makes one concur that there is something to the concept of chosenness, but as the old Jewish joke goes, “Couldn’t G-d choose someone else sometime?”

But if Judaism is a recounting of trauma (and perseverance in spite of said trauma), it’s also a religion of place, and what it means to live separate from particular places. The Tanakh itself recounts exile as the human condition. Before the MS St. Louis was turned back from Havana, from Miami, from Halifax and returned to the dark heart of Nazi Germany; before millions of Jews boarded Hamburg ships that were New York-bound; before the survivors of Czarist pogroms found succor in Hapsburg lands; before the expelled Sephardim of the Reconquista; before the Romans burned Jerusalem during Simon bar-Kokhba’s failed rebellion, and before the destruction of the second Temple; before the attempted genocide of Haman in Persia, and before the Babylonian Exile of the Judeans; before even the Assyrians scattered the 10 tribes of the Israelites; exile was at the core of the Jewish experience. The earliest reference to Israel is the Merneptah Stele, chiseled in Egypt some 12 centuries before Jesus Christ, predating the oldest extant scripture. There, at the bottom of an account of Pharaonic victories against adversaries, some nameless Egyptian scribe wrote, “Israel is laid waste and his seed is not.” The first reference to the Hebrews is how there are no longer any Hebrews.

Exile and diaspora are the twin curses and gifts of the Jews; exile an individual condition and diaspora a collective one. This is the story of Abraham going into Egypt, of Moses being a “stranger in a strange land,” of being by the “rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept when we remembered Zion.” Even the earliest story of Genesis is one of exile, of being kept from the Promised Land by the flaming swords of Seraphim with their eyeball-covered wings and their fiery tongue of perverse ecstasy. Even now that a state which claims to speak on behalf of and in defense of Jewry governs from an undivided Holy City (with all the attendant geopolitical ramifications) the traditional Pesach injunction remains “Next year in Jerusalem!” for, there is a wisdom in understanding that the spoken Jerusalem is not the real Jerusalem.

Such is the itinerary of Ahasuerus, the so-called “Wandering Jew,” who was a feature of Christian folklore; an immortal from the lifetime of Christ condemned to wander the world until the Second Coming. Yet a sense of dislocation, of fallenness, should be central to all understandings of what it means to be human. Judaism merely keeps that awareness front and center. One should always have bags packed since you never know when you might suddenly have to leave. Exile is, of course, intimately tied to the idea of place; for in being an exilic one is acknowledging that there is a place in which you feel you should be, but that which you are not.

coverSuch a condition only exists if there is an acknowledged home to which you are no longer privy. A useful distinction between what humanistic geographers call “place” in contrast to “space.” Far from obvious synonyms, the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan in his classic Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience explains that “‘Space’ is more abstract than ‘place.’ What begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we begin to know it better and endow it with value.” Hard to ever build a place when you’re always on the road, though—when your bag always needs to be packed for that moment’s notice.

Part of what Jewish history teaches us is the incommensurate difficulty of actually being able to turn space into place. The horrors that have been experienced over millennia are a genealogy of how trauma can transform place and space back and forth into each other. A dusty alleyway in the shadow of Herod’s Temple can be a place where one cooks lentils in olive oil and drinks wine from earthen clay pots, but that same place can very quickly be transformed into an abstract space once it’s been violated by the violence which sees family members’ blood spilled on those same dusty streets.

If trauma is the crucible that can transform place into space, then the exile which results from that trauma counterintuitively transforms space back into place. When one is a wandering Jew with no country, then one is forced to make the whole world into one’s country. Such is the true origin of humanism, of the Persian poet Kahlil Gibran’s contention that “The universe is my country and the human family is my tribe,” or the American radical Thomas Paine’s mantra that “The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, to do good is my religion,” with neither of these men themselves being Jewish. Such perspective is the true gift of chosenness.

Zion becomes that which you carry within you. Again, the spoken Jerusalem cannot be the true Jerusalem. This embrace of diaspora is an embrace of a humanism, which engendered a suspicion in stupid little anti-Semites like Joseph Stalin, who slurred the Jews as “rootless cosmopolitans,” not understanding that there is the most solemn strength in that very rootlessness. Today, the inheritors of that brutal myopia use the word “globalist” instead, but the same rank provincialism is still displayed. Judaism’s cosmopolitanism was born from trauma, for in the biblical age the faith was supremely concrete, the locus of worship projected onto a few square miles occupied on the Temple Mount. Yet the destruction of that sanctuary necessitated that a new Temple be found, one built in text and inscribed in memory and taken from place to new place. What results is a type of abstraction, if not the very invention of abstraction. God no longer dwells in the Holy of Holies, but rather in the scroll of the Torah, in the very imagination itself.

covercovercoverLiterary critic George Steiner has identified a hatred of abstraction as the ultimate origin of anti-Semitism. In his contribution to Berel Lang’s anthology Writing and the Holocaust, Steiner argues that people “fear most those who demand of us a self-transcendence, a surpassing of our natural and common limits of being. Our hate and fear are the more intense precisely because we know the absolute rightness, the ultimate desirability of the demand.” Across his career, in novels like The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H., and in books such as In Bluebeard’s Castle, Steiner has claimed that it’s precisely Judaism’s humanistic abstraction that engenders such perennial, if irrational, anti-Semitism.

In that later book, he claims that there are three dispensations, “Monotheism at Sinai, primitive Christianity, [and] messianic socialism” where Western culture was presented with “’the claims of the ideal.” Steiner argues that these are “three stages, profoundly interrelated, through which Western consciousness is forced to experience the blackmail of transcendence.” Western culture has been presented with three totalizing abstractions that have a Judaic origin; abstractions that are born from the traumas of dislocation and that reject the idolatrous specificity of place in favor of the universalism of space. These tripartite covenants are represented by Moses, Christ, and Karl Marx, and Steiner sees in the rejection of the idealized utopian promise which each figure represents the origin of this pernicious and enduring hatred.

For Steiner, anti-Semitism is at the very core of the Western metaphysic, irreducible to other varieties of white supremacy. Telling that the fascism which so often directs its rage against Jews is of the “Blut und Boden” variety, the “Blood and Soil” mythos which elevates a few miles of land and the superficial phenotypical commonalties between arbitrarily linked groups of people into an idol. Naive faiths that turn ooze and mud into the locus of belief, rejecting the rootlessness which praises the Temple that is all of creation. When such rhetoric as that of these fascists rears up again, it’s no surprise to see a resurgence of that primordial bigotry, for those that speak of blood and soil have no compunctions about staining the latter with the former.

For American Jews, this has historically been more difficult to see. Historian Lila Corwin Berman asks in The Washington Post if we should have ever “believed in American exceptionalism, even just for Jews, when all around us was evidence of the limitations and ravages of that exceptionalism?” Berman asks an important question, one which gets to the heart of a paradoxical and complicated issue. America has long been imagined as a New Israel, even a New Eden, where our national civic religion is a strangely Hebraic branch of heretical Protestantism. Rhetoric from the 17th-century Puritan divine John Winthrop as delivered aboard the ship Arbela has long been enshrined in American consciousness, that we shall be as a “city on a hill.” Though Winthrop was alluding to the Book of Matthew, American faith is often written in that Hebraic idiom, where the “New World” is dreamt of as a “land of milk and honey,” a place where the New Jerusalem may dwell and where history is brushed aside in the regenerative millennialism of the continent itself.

coverIn Exile and Kingdom: History and Apocalypse in the Puritan Migration to America, the Israeli historian Avihu Zakai explains that there were two biblical templates for early American understandings of colonization: “the Genesis type, which is a peaceful religious migration based … upon God’s promise to his chosen nation that he will appoint a place for them,” and the “Exodus type, which is a judgmental crisis and apocalyptic migration, marking the ultimate necessity of God’s chosen people to depart.” Zakai has argued that those models have organized American self-understanding, where that initial migration of Puritans to America is as the Jews in the wilderness, imagining the push to the western frontier as a version of the Hebrews coming into Canaan. This subconscious philo-Semitism, which appropriates scriptural narrative and idiom, is arguably that which sets this nation’s experience regarding the Jews as being so different from that of Europe, and it goes somewhat toward an explanation of the national “exceptionality” that Berman rightly interrogates.

Christendom has historically defined itself as being that which is not Jewish, yet that particular metaphysic is not foregrounded in American self-definition. If anything, the Jewish narrative as transposed onto American experience was an inoculation against the same sort of anti-Semitism that defined Jewish life in Europe. Despite the anti-Semitism that marks the nation’s history, alongside every other form of race hatred and bigotry, this was still the country where President George Washington could with right celebration write to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, in 1790 that the “children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land [will] continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.” Washington’s language consciously echoed that of the prophet Micah, where the spoken Jerusalem would be uttered in an American tongue.

coverAmerica as New Zion, however, has encoded within its own calamities, for divorced from the moorings of the faith which inaugurated it, the model remains dangerously embraced: this myth of America as empty, promised land awaiting settlement. In his classic study Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth, Henry Nash Smith wrote that one of the “most persistent generalizations … is the notion that our society has been shaped by the pull of a vacant continent drawing population westward through the passes of the Alleghenies, across the Mississippi Valley, over the high plains and mountains of the Far West to the Pacific Coast.” The tragedy was that the land was far from vacant, and how place would be defined in the Alleghenies, the Mississippi Valley, the Far West, and the Pacific Coast would be through a similar type of amnesia as that which allows the citizens of Oświęcim to buy their groceries and go to work every day.

coverAnti-Semitism may not have been the central organizing metaphysic of America, but the loathsome and genocidal ethos of what the historian Richard Drinnon termed “the metaphysics of Indian-hating” was. Colonization was not a simple process of transforming abstracted space into place as settlers burnt a line across North America all the way to the Pacific; rather it was an exercise in trauma—in genocide and ethnic cleansing. We may ask ourselves how it is that the people of Oświęcim can live their lives in the shadow of a death factory, and yet in America we do a near equivalent. My own charming little corner of Massachusetts was witness to the almost gothic horror of the 17th-century Pequot War, and of King Philip’s War, which per capita remain among some of the most violent in American history—we live our lives on top of those mass graves. Historian Timothy Snyder in Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning explains how Adolf Hitler’s expansionist and eliminationist nightmare of Lebensraum was directly inspired by American Manifest Destiny, writing that for the dictator, “the exemplary land empire was the United States of America,” for this country’s example “led Hitler to the American dream.” The current president may similarly speak of himself as a descendant of those who “tamed a continent,” but never forget that those settlers wrote their scriptures in blood.

Any uncomplicated celebration of how America has been good for the Jews must keep that aforementioned metaphysic in mind. So much of the mythopoesis of America is that this was always a land of refugee, the resting place for the Mother of Exiles. As true as some particulars of that myth may be, Lady Liberty’s torch can obscure as much as it can illuminate, for it would be very dangerous to pretend that America’s shores are a place where history had somehow stopped. Philo-Semitism can easily curdle into its near twin, and the American metaphysic is not so distant from the Christendom that birthed it. Anti-Semitism has re-emerged as poisonous fascist ideologies thrive from Budapest to Brasilia. Only the profoundly near-sighted could pretend that America—especially at this current moment—is immune from hatred of the “rootless cosmopolitans.” From the first arrival of Sephardic conversos to New Amsterdam in the 17th century until today, and the worst pogrom in American history happened last month in Pittsburgh, a half mile from where I grew up. As my fellow Pittsburgher Jacob Bacharach wrote in Truthdig following the Tree of Life massacre, “they are coming for Jews, for my people, coming for us again.”

coverThe corner of Wilkins and Shady is a few blocks from where I went to elementary school; it’s where I waited for the 74A when I was too lazy to continue my walk home from the stores in Squirrel Hill; it’s across the street from Chatham’s campus where I went to summer camp. This is a place that I love, and continue to love, and now it is the site of the worst pogrom in American Jewry’s four-century history. We ground ourselves in place, but there is always the threat of it being converted back into space, so better to carry those Jerusalems in our hearts. I draw an inspiration from the sacred condition of exile, from the undefined ideology of Diapsorism. Just as it’s impossible and still necessary to write over the trauma of place with a liturgy of mundane life, so, too, do I often see my own identity as being an exilic within exile, distant Jewish roots defining me as such in the eyes of the anti-Semite. I’m supremely cognizant of Jean Paul Sartre’s observation in Anti-Semite and Jew that “Jew is the man whom other men consider a Jew.” If we go by that definition, then I can show you a litany of emails in response to my political writings where the increasingly not anonymous anti-Semites of the world very much consider me to be a Jew.

coverJohn Proctor declares in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, “it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life!” Just as I would never overwrite my own surname, so, too, would I never overwrite the trauma of place. Shira Telushkin, in a remarkable piece for Tablet, explains how in Jewish burial the bodies of those who are martyred in the practice of the faith are buried in the same state as when they were murdered, for “their blood cannot be forgotten, simply scrubbed away and disposed of. It must be honored, collected, and buried.” For this ultimately is what we must do: We must honor the blood of the dead, honor the trauma of these places, because rupture is preserved to remind us of God’s broken covenant, of America’s broken covenant. There must not be an exorcism of these ghosts of place; rather, there is no choice but to live with them. Moving from place to place, we carry that imagined Jerusalem within us, we carry that imagined America within us, warmed by the utopian lamp of the Mother of Exiles more than we ever could be by the disappointing reality of the actual one.

Image: Tree of Life memorial; official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks

is the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. A regular contributor at several different sites, his collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion will be released by Zero Books this year. He can be followed on Facebook, his website, or on Twitter at  @WithEdSimon.

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