Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Downward Mobility

In Culture and Anarchy Matthew Arnold described the dichotomy between Hellenism and Hebraicism thusly: “The governing idea of Hellenism is spontaneity of consciousness ; that of Hebraism, strictness of conscience.” Extending this idea you might say Dionysiac or Bacchic impulses are at the center of Greek culture (a la Zorba) while that the law, as manifested in the Torah, the Talmud and the Old Testament is what makes Sammy Run. Naturally the scandal of Portnoy’s Complaint was that Jews were not supposed to masturbate into pieces of liver or anywhere else. Now comes Shalom Auslander who further turns the idea that lurking in every Jew is a future Felix Frankfurter on its head. Yes, there are plenty of Jewish dads who still push their sons to be lawyers, but in his review of Eddy Portnoy’s Bad Rabbi, (“Downwardly mobile Jews,” TLS, 9/7/18), the author of Foreskin’s Lament: A Memoir paints a different picture. Auslander quotes Portnoy to the effect that “Family lore conveniently forgets that Zeyde the antiques dealer was actually Zeyde the beggar, or that Bubbe the saintly seamstress was also Bubbe the hooker, who turned tricks during the slack season to make ends meet.” The emergence of the Yiddish press helped to present a more realistic picture of the humanity of the Jew. “Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases…” says Shylock. Amongst the humorous anecdotes that Auslander exhumes from Bad Rabbi is the advent of the “nosh fest” or gluttonous banquet attended by leftist Jews on Yom Kippur. “I’ve always envied the ancient Greeks,” Auslander writes. “What a joy it must have been to know your Gods were imperfect, that they married their sons, were drunks, paedophiles, thieves and kidnappers. Not so for Jews like me, with their perfect God and exalted minions. We live in the shadow of flawlessness, our ancestors have been photoshopped.” Amen!

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