Thursday, February 28, 2008

Responding to the charge of Jewish cultural narcissim

The Jewish Rider (1985), oil on canvas by R.B. Kitaj – Marlborough Gallery, New YorkRoaming the blogosphere this morning, I ran into an interesting post on the blog "Dyneslines" about the author's perception (as a non-Jewish New Yorker) of the Jewish communities cultural narcissism. The post is too long to quote verbatim but here are a couple of short posts, so you can get the flavor of the argument (if you're interested, please read the whole post)...

"As an intellectual, naturally I feel indebted to such creative figures as Popper, Koestler, Panofsky, Einstein, Schoenberg and so many others. All the teachers who influenced me in grad school were Jewish. I used to think that if I could figure out their secret, I could really go places. Alas, the secret was not being Jewish but having the advantage of superb education in Weimar Germany, an option that ceased to be available after 1933."

"Here in New York City we are bombarded with celebrations of Jewish films and books. Countless articles and book reviews appear in the New York Times and other quality media. It is all interesting--up to a point....Today, the new sentimentalization of ghetto life. Fiddler-in-the-Roofism, obscures these realities."

"Yet in key ways the collective narcissism of American Jews is unique among ethnic groups."

Anyway, I should make it clear, I don't take this post to be anti-semitic and hope that no one else does either. While I disagree with it, I think it is a legitimate response by a thoughtful person. I just think the author is wrong.

Here is my response. Sorry it's long too...

Hi. Interesting post, though I strongly disagree with your premise and conclusion I resonate with some of the connections between them. For the record, I'm both a Jew (not secular, though not Orthodox either) and one who lived as "an enlightened heterosexual in San Francisco."

To be specific.
1. I do generally "support gay rights, and enjoy cabaret, theater, and films featuring camp and gay wit."

2. I don't "long for a moratorium on the perpetual festival of gaydom"

3. I acknowledge that in "New York City [you] are bombarded with celebrations of Jewish films and books. Countless articles and book reviews appear in the New York Times and other quality media"

4. I don't accept that it's due to "a kind of salmagundii of ethnic exhibitionism" or "the collective narcissism of American Jews" (or African-american's, Hispanic/Latino's, Greek-Americans, Irish-Americans...)

Let me suggest a couple of another interpretations.

One thing that is similar in your two strawmen (gay culture in SF and Jewish culture in NY) is that both groups have significant and recent histories of victimhood they are trying to overcome and/or recover from. Significant portions of the world hold unreasoning, unrelenting, and often murderous hatred for both groups. For the Jews, not only was genocide attempted in the last century, but, in the sense of destroying centuries old Jewish communities and cultural histories, it was largely successful. For the gays, there are few places or groups in the world that do not condemn and persecute them for merely existing.

It is no wonder then, that each group takes moments of opportunity (SF and NY at the end of the last century) to attempt to preserve and establish their history and culture. If not for these moments, there is a very real chance of them not being able to perpetuate these cultures.

So, where you see this as outwardly directed self-congratulatory narcissism (and truthfully, there may be some of that too), I see it as inwardly directed reinforcement.

Let me offer you an analogy..

I once went to a funeral of a Christian with a friend who was an atheist. The friend was annoyed and offended by her perception of the Christian's priest's proslytizing. The thing is, the priest wasn't talking to her. He was preaching to a Christian family and other members of their Christian congregation. He was answering their needs, using his Christian-centered, language for grief and recovery.

At the time I took my friend to task for her solopsitic view that the priests words were directed at her. Now, I'll take this post to task in the same way...while you're invited and welcome to the gay culture and Jewish culture events, no one's really talking to you.

Please join the conversation and post a comment either here or at Dyneslines.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. If there is 'collective narcissism' going on (and to some degree I think there is), as you point out, we are hardly the only ones doing it.

2 points.

1) Many Orthodox Jews support gay rights to varying degrees, but that's a big can of worms beyond the scope of this blog.

2)Not sure about the other folks mentioned, but I think Schoenberg's ideas in particular was certainly very much shaped by his Jewish-ness. See Alexander L. Ringer's Arnold Schoenberg : The Composer as Jew for a great analysis of the subject. Also, in my own opinion, if you read Joseph Straus's Remaking the past: musical modernism and the influence of the tonal tradition, he talks about Schoenberg's interpretation of the great German classical and romantic composers and how that shaped his own music. Even though Schoenberg never studied traditional Jewish biblical exegesis, I think there is the same kind of approach going on.

Or whatever.