Degenerate Art and the Jewish Grandmother

The story of the family behind the Nazi-era art trove
Degenerate Art and the Jewish Grandmother
Horse in a Landscape, 1910, by the German Expressionist Franz Marc, denounced by the Nazis as a "degenerate" artist. Courtesy Wikipaintings.
 
Observation
Walter Laqueur
Dec. 4 2013 12:39AM

Early in November, a major sensation erupted when it was reported that some 1,400 highly valuable works of art, most of them unseen for decades, had been discovered hidden in an apartment in Munich, Germany.

The apartment’s owner, Cornelius Gurlitt, is an eighty-year-old art dealer and recluse whose father, Hildebrand, was one of four dealers commissioned by the Nazis to sell their looted art abroad in exchange for much-needed foreign currency. Many of the works in the Gurlitt apartment appear to belong to this category of art works stolen from their owners by the Nazi regime, while others may have been consigned to the elder Gurlitt by Jews and others fleeing Hitler’s Germany while they could. A significant number are by artists, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, officially condemned by the Nazis as “degenerate.”

Many thousands of such works remain unrecovered to this day. Nor have directors of the museums where some of them ended up in the postwar years been noticeably eager to cooperate with efforts to restore them to their original owners or their heirs.

And little wonder: over time, the value of most of the works has appreciated enormously. After the German Expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (not Jewish) committed suicide in 1938, a year after being included in the Nazis’ notorious exhibit of “Degenerate Art,” his widow was lucky to obtain several hundred dollars for one of his paintings; a few years ago, Kirchner’s Berlin Street Scene was auctioned by Sotheby’s and acquired by Ronald Lauder for $38 million. Another painting, Two Horsemen on the Beach, a particular favorite of mine by the “degenerate” Max Liebermann (Jewish, and the leading German Impressionist of his time), was virtually unsellable after the Nazis came to power. It was found among the works hidden in the Munich apartment; although Liebermann’s work has not yet come back into vogue, the painting would likely sell for at least $1 million today.

Liebermann Self Portrait

Self-portrait by Max Liebermann, the “degenerate” German-Jewish Impressionist whose Two Horsemen on the Beach was found in Cornelius Gurlitt’s apartment. Courtesy Wikipaintings.

 

But who are the Gurlitts? Although press stories on the Munich finds have tended to focus on the Jewish admixture in their history, the family, whose origin is German-Danish, is well known for other reasons to students of German art, music, and literature. Hildebrand’s grandfather, Louis Gurlitt, was a well-known landscape painter, and his son Cornelius—Hildebrand’s father and grandfather of the present-day Cornelius—was an architectural historian of note. Nor were these the only culturally prominent members of the clan. As for the Jewish link, which consists of Louis Gurlitt’s wife Elisabeth, that is rather attenuated by now.

Thus, to use the metric applied by the Nazi-era Nuremberg laws, the reclusive Cornelius (Elisabeth’s great-grandson) is just one-eighth Jewish, while his art-dealer father Hildebrand, who died after World War II in a car accident, was a quarter-Jew. In Nazi Germany, this was considered a blemish but did not automatically mean Auschwitz. With a little effort and good will on the part of the authorities, one could always claim a fleeting episode of marital infidelity somewhere along the line, nugatory enough to turn a quarter-Jew like the Hildebrand Gurlitt into an almost-full Aryan. Of course, in order to remain unharmed, anyone so tainted was also well advised to exercise caution and above all not to make enemies.

As it just so happens, however, Elisabeth Lewald, Hildebrand Gurlitt’s embarrassing Jewish grandmother, came from a very interesting family herself, and their story is well worth telling—less because it somehow explains or excuses Cornelius’s behavior, as is typically insinuated by the press, than because of the window it offers onto the fraught and endlessly fascinating saga of Jewish assimilation in continental Europe.

In the case at hand, the story begins in Koenigsberg, East Prussia (now Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave), where Elisabeth, one of nine children, was born in 1822 to David Markus and Tzipora Asur. Markus was a well-to-do businessman and banker who, in 1831, would change the family name to Lewald. Although the exact thinking behind his choice of name remains a mystery, in general Jews looking to embellish their backgrounds in those days had to be inventive. (A branch of my family that found itself in Russia around 1810, and made influential friends there, claimed the name de Laquière and a background among the French aristocracy. Some of their descendants have persuaded themselves that the story is gospel truth.)

If changing names was easy, changing religion was more complicated. When the Lewald parents gave two of their sons permission to convert and undergo baptism so as to marry out of the faith, the sons refused unless the parents agreed to convert as well. Gradually the whole family became Christian, if without much enthusiasm.

In this, they formed a contrast to an earlier wave of German Jewish converts to Christianity around the turn of the 19th century. Some of the young Jewish-turned-Christian ladies of that former time became the leading salonnières of Berlin, and were genuinely convinced of the spiritual superiority of the Christian dispensation; their number included the daughter of the great Enlightenment figure Moses Mendelssohn. Only for later converts—like Elisabeth’s elder sister Fanny—had conversion become, as it was for Heinrich Heine, merely an “entrance ticket to European civilization.” In her six-volume autobiography, Fanny confessed that she did not really believe in any of the dogmas of Christianity.

Kirchner_Berlin_Street_Scene_1913-SMALL

From Berlin Street Scene 1913 by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. A previously unknown painting by the “degenerate” Kirchner was discovered in the Munich apartment. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

 

Fanny, a novelist, was by far the most famous of the Lewald children; her collected works were published in the 1860s, and some have recently been reissued in Germany. More important than the novels is her autobiography, part of which is available in English translation (The Education of Fanny Lewald, 1992). In these recollections she cites some curious (to her) Jewish customs and traditions, like shiva, that in her youth, she writes, both attracted and repelled her. She also states that she and her siblings were never told they were Jewish; instead, they learned it in the street when, clothed in their beautiful little fur coats on their way to school, they were greeted with obscenities on the part of the neighborhood riffraff.

Fanny eventually moved to Berlin, where she established a literary salon attended by some of the leading German writers of the day as well as visiting foreign luminaries like Giuseppe Garibaldi. She fell in love with a German writer—married, with five children—who eventually left his family to join her.

There were instructive differences between Fanny’s salon and its predecessors of 50 years earlier. Where Mendelssohn’s daughter Dorothea Schlegel and her friend Henriette Herz conducted mainly literary gatherings, Fanny was at least as interested, if not more so, in social and political issues. True, the salons of 1800 had also become gradually politicized, willy-nilly, as many of their non-Jewish frequenters developed strongly nationalistic and even anti-Semitic attitudes. In general, history has not been kind to the Jewish salonnières of 1800 and their high-strung followers with their darkly negative attitude toward their origins. For Rahel Varnhagen, the central figure of that wave, Jewishness was a horrible injury that would never heal; “I shall never accept,” she wrote to a male friend, “that I am a schlemiel and a Jewess.”

For her part, Fanny Lewald writes in her autobiography that even as a child, before she went to school, she was aware that her Jewishness was a disaster. But she reacted differently, becoming in later years not only an important (if not, indeed, the most important) fighter for women’s rights of her era but also a staunch champion of emancipation for the Jews.

 

By the time Fanny died in 1889—her sister Elisabeth would outlive her by twenty years—the Jewish origins of the Gurlitt-Lewald clan were all but forgotten. Germany had changed: women, although they hadn’t yet secured the vote, had won most other rights, and a Jew who had been properly baptized could be a minister of the crown.

Take the case of Theodor Lewald, Fanny and Elisabeth’s nephew, born in 1860. A senior civil servant, he was highly educated, of impeccable manners, and sufficiently diffident in his behavior as not to raise suspicion. He made friends everywhere, faithfully serving not only the last German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and then the Weimar Republic, but eventually even Hitler’s Third Reich. Photographs show a man of imposing stature, far more Nordic-Aryan in appearance than the “typical” Jew of Nazi race theory.

It was, in fact, owing to Theodor Lewald that Nazi Germany achieved one of its major early triumphs: the Berlin Olympic Games of 1936. This is a story with a back story. Uninterested in sports as a youngster, Lewald, who spoke English well, had become involved in the St. Louis World Fair of 1904 and counted many influential Americans among his friends. It was thus that he found himself on a German committee dealing with the international Olympics organization.

The 1916 games, which had been planned for Berlin, never materialized because of the outbreak of World War I; in the war’s aftermath, Germany was barred from participating in the 1920 and 1924 games. Only in 1928, thanks to Lewald and his networking, was Germany fully reinstated; two years later, Berlin was chosen as the site of the 1936 games. For Hitler and Goebbels, the risk in hosting an international event of this kind, with so many non-Aryans competing and possibly even winning the gold, was outweighed by the potential propaganda value of the event and the unique opportunity to enhance the Third Reich’s standing in the world.

Lewald’s prior successes had, however, created enemies. One of them was a high Nazi-party official named Hans von Tschammer und Osten who also bore the title of “Reich Sports Leader.” In April 1933, an article appeared in the Nazi paper, the Voelkische Beobachter, declaring it intolerable that someone of part-Jewish extraction should be playing a key role in the forthcoming games. But Lewald’s rivals had greatly underestimated his ability to pull strings while keeping discreetly in the background. He alerted his American connections, who in turn mobilized much of the Olympics world in a wave of protests that turned out to be effective.

This was a little surprising. Avery Brundage, the head of the American Olympics committee, was rather sympathetic toward the Nazis and not known as a friend of the Jews. But the appeal to Olympic ideals—peace, fair play, friendship among nations, and the rest—was irresistible. The Voelkische Beobachter was put on notice, and Lewald retained his position. Only after the games, when the Nazis no longer had much use for him, did the going become rougher for Theodor. Still, even during the war years he was able to obtain extra food rations and help a girlfriend escape deportation to Theresienstadt. He died in Berlin in 1947 at the ripe age of eighty-seven.

Marc,_Franz_-_Pferde_in_Landschaft

Horses in Landscape by Franz Marc. This painting was discovered in Cornelius Gurlitt’s apartment. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

 

By this winding path we can now return to the 1,400 artworks recovered in Munich and claimed by Cornelius Gurlitt as his family property. Although a full inventory does not yet exist, some number of them, as I mentioned early on, seem to have come from the Nazis’ notorious “Degenerate Art” exhibit of 1937. The whole concept of degenerate art was confused and controversial. Included in the 1937 exhibit were works by two of the most prominent figures of German Expressionism, August Macke and Franz Marc; neither was Jewish, and both happened to be war heroes, having been killed in battle in World War I.

Another early Expressionist included in the exhibit was Emil Nolde, a German nationalist and an early Nazi whose work had been supported by Goebbels and others. But Hitler, who abominated all forms of modernism in art, overruled them. After the war, Nolde received the Grand Order of Merit from the West German government. Two years ago, Sotheby’s sold his Flower Garden for $3.2 million. As for specifically Jewish painters, the most prominent at the time was Liebermann; but he, too, should never have been included in the exhibit since he never produced abstract paintings.

In addition to products of German art, Jewish and otherwise, the Gurlitt collection also boasts works by such eminent non-German modernists as Picasso and Chagall, probably bought by German collectors before 1933 or seized in occupied France, as well as perfectly respectable items of older vintage by the likes of Canaletto and Rodin. It is said that eventually some 600 paintings in the Gurlitt collection will be made available for viewing on the Internet.

What will eventually happen to these pictures? Even if the original owners or their heirs or representatives can be located, it is quite possible that few will be able to prove a legally valid claim. So Cornelius Gurlitt might keep at least some of his treasure after all. What will it be worth? The highest price ever registered at auction for a single work, $268 million, was paid by the government of Qatar in 2011 for Cézanne’s Card Players. It is unlikely that any picture in the Gurlitt collection would command a similar price—but there may be no end of surprises in this saga.

Indeed, the final such surprise may belong posthumously to Fanny Lewald, who spent the last years of her life in a hotel in Dresden. Since 1993, a street in that city, Fanny Lewaldstrasse, has been named for her. Its original name was nothing less than Friedrich Auguststrasse, honoring the last emperor of Saxony. Under the Communists, it became Wilhelm Pieckstrasse, after the president of the former East Germany.

But if things were different in 1889, when Fanny died, they are more different now. Even in her wildest dreams she could not have imagined that one day not only would women in her homeland have equal rights but a woman would be serving as prime minister. Perhaps most surprising to her of all, a day would come when a Jewish grandmother in the family closet would no longer be regarded as a shameful embarrassment but as a mitigating circumstance, an excuse, even an asset.

__________

Walter Laqueur is the author of, among other books, Weimar, A History of Terrorism, Fascism: Past, Present, Future, and The Dream that Failed: Reflections on the Soviet Union. His newest book, Optimism in Politics and Other Essays, is due out from Transaction in January.

More about: Art, Berlin, Gurlitt, Nazism, olympics

 

Does the Word “Hacker” Come from Yiddish?

Is the tech term, as in computer hacker, connected with the verb hakn, meaning to chop?

Does the Word “Hacker” Come from Yiddish?
Members of Anonymous, the internet hacking collective. Wikipedia.
 
Observation
Jan. 28 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be addressed to philologos AT mosaicmagazine.com.


Mosaic reader Max J. Katz writes:

I am interested in the etymology of “hacker” as it is used in computer technology to mean variously an expert, gamester, or someone who maliciously intrudes upon someone else’s computer to change or manipulate it. In particular, I wonder whether there is a connection with the Yiddish verb hakn, meaning to chop.

There is an extensive literature on the history of “hacker”—and also extensive disagreement. One thing there is no argument about is that the term was first used for computer buffs in the early 1960s at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Originally, it seems, a hacker at MIT was not specifically a lover of computers and their programs; rather, he was anyone who was more passionate about an extra-curricular hobby than about his academic studies. The earliest documentation of the word denoting such students dates to the late 1950s, when members of an MIT model-railroad club used it for themselves.

From this point on, the questions take over. Were the first program hackers out from the start to gain control of other people’s computers for nefarious purposes, or were they simply digital fun-lovers whose pranks meant no harm? If the latter, should the meaning of “hacker” be revised to rid it of the negative connotations that have colored it strongly since the 1980s, so that it once again refers to all programming enthusiasts and not just the criminally minded? And if so, what should criminal hackers be called? (Among the terms suggested have been “computer vandals,” “crackers,” and “white-hat hackers” as opposed to “black-hat hackers.”)

And finally: what is the etymology of “hacker”?

The dominant theory is that the word came from “to hack” in its sense of to cut or to chop. According to University of California computer scientist Brian Harvey, a member of the first hacker generation:

Popular opinion at MIT posited that there are two kinds of students, tools and hackers. A “tool” is someone who attends class regularly, is always to be found in the library when no class is meeting, and gets straight A’s. A “hacker” is the opposite: someone who never goes to class, who sleeps all day, and who spends the night pursing recreational activities rather than studying. There was thought to be no middle ground.

The hacker, in other words, has no patience for the traditional ways of doing things, such as using tools in an accepted manner. He takes what comes to hand and chops away with it. The only connection with Yiddish would be that “to hack” and hakn are close cognates, belonging to a group of words that also includes German hacken, to cut, chop, or cleave, and Dutch hakke, a hoe. Some of us know the Yiddish verb hakn from the Yinglish idiom “to hock a cheinik,” that is, “to bang a teakettle” or rattle away verbally at someone.

The problem with this is that both “hack” and “hacker” have numerous other meanings in American slang that could equally have influenced students at MIT. Many of these also stem from hack in its meaning of chop, while others go back to hackney, a 14th-century English word that originally designated an old nag or worn-out horse, and subsequently, shortened to hack, came to refer to a dilapidated old car or carriage, a cab, a driver earning his livelihood from such a vehicle, or anyone making a living from dull or unworthy work.

Moreover, it is sometimes difficult to tell whether a given meaning of “to hack,” “hack,” or “hacker” derives from the hack=chop or hackney line of words or has been produced by an interaction between them. Here are a few of these meanings:

Hack: Someone working at a job for which he is insufficiently skilled, trained, or motivated.

Hack it: To cope successfully with a difficult situation, often by improvised means.

Hacker: An amateur tennis or golf player with a clumsy swing, and by extension, any inept beginner or practitioner.

 Hack:  An athlete who routinely fouls other athletes. Also, an unfair play in football or other sports.

Hack:   Someone who spoils someone else’s art work by drawing on it.

 Hack:   An ugly or nasty solution to a problem.

Hack:    To cut off another driver and speed away.

Hack: To steal a joke from a comedian.

To complicate matters further, while any of these usages might have contributed to MIT’s “hacker,” it is also possible, the date of first appearance being uncertain, that some were the results of it. It’s one of those etymological questions that will probably never have a clear answer. And just to add, for Mr. Katz’s benefit, one more unlikely possibility with a Yiddish angle, consider this:

In the debate over whether computer hackers are or are not intrinsically objectionable figures, those who claim they are not have had recourse to the analogy of a locksmith. Just as picking locks, they contend, can be used for both bad ends like burglary and good ones like letting someone into a house he is locked out of, so computer hacking has its positive sides, too.

A lock in Yiddish is a shlisl. And what’s a lock pick? I won’t ask you to hold your breaths. It’s a hakshlisl. 

More about: Arts & Culture, Language, Philologos, Yiddish

 

Isaac Bashevis Singer and His Women

What drove the great writer to employ a “harem” of translators? A new film tells much, but not all.

Isaac Bashevis Singer and His Women
Courtesy The Muses of Isaac Bashevis Singer.
 
Observation
Jan. 21 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Ruth Wisse is a research professor in Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund. Her books include Jews and Power, The Modern Jewish Canon, and, most recently, No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (2013).


Writers have their way with the world until they depart from it, and then they are at the mercy of those who interpret them. This mischievous turnabout would have appealed to Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902-1991), possibly the most prolific and certainly the most famous Yiddish writer of the 20th century, whose reputation is now in the hands of types he once turned into fiction. But if The Muses of Isaac Bashevis Singer, a new documentary movie by the Israeli directors Asaf Galay and Shaul Betser, is any portent, the afterlife of this particular writer may be graced by the same improbable good fortune he enjoyed on earth.

In explaining the genesis of his project, Galay tells us that, as a devoted reader of Singer in Hebrew and English, he was struck by the sheer number of the master’s translators. He counted 48 names before stopping—a figure high enough to tweak his imagination, especially since almost all were women. Among these women are the several “muses” featured in Galay’s movie as talking heads and/or in vintage footage. As it happens, notoriety had long since attached itself to those whom Singer called “his harem,” implying that his lady translators were also at his sexual behest. Interviewing some of these women, Galay found them perfectly ready to embroider the legend, if not to clarify which of the harem’s two parties was at the mercy of the other.

Isaac Singer came to New York from Warsaw in 1936, armed with a freshly published copy of his debut novel, Satan in Goray, but clueless in English and still in the literary shadow of his older brother Israel Joshua, who had sponsored his passage. It was to distinguish himself from the already famous I.J. that Isaac adopted the pen-name Bashevis, after his mother. But sibling rivalry wasn’t the only obstacle in his path. He also suffered from the loss of his natural readership, most of which had been left behind in Europe—an artistic challenge that would become still greater after World War II erased Polish Jewry almost in its entirety. Although he had steady work at the Yiddish daily Forverts (“Forward”), it could not make up for the loss of his formative world and consumer base. For a time, he considered himself “lost in America”—the English title of his fictionalized accounts of this period in his life.

Indeed, language was more important to Bashevis than to any Yiddish prose writer since Sholem Aleichem, whom he resembled in his command of the monologue and first-person narrative forms. Whereas others sought to prove that they could write in Yiddish about anything under the sun—and did—Bashevis felt that true literature was organically bound to its sources. On the rare occasion when he theorized about the literary process, he would make fun of the notion that Yiddish writers could evoke a milieu from which Yiddish itself was absent. How could they describe work in an American engineering firm, or the experience of shopping in an American department store, if the language was not actually spoken in those places?

This take on the relation of language to literature meant that he would have to confine his own writing either to the European past or to those immigrant Jewish enclaves of New York or Miami where Yiddish was still in use. In fact, his fiction never strayed from the world with which he was most intimately familiar.

All the more strange, then, that he came to be known mostly in translation—and that he himself would recruit translators wholesale, the way Microsoft recruits programmers. If his art lay in the specificities of Yiddish, he would regularly and incongruously instruct later translators to work off of earlier English translations—and told at least one of them not to bother learning Yiddish in the first place. In the movie, Janet Hadda, one of his biographers, explains this nonchalance as stemming from his raw desire for fame, his wish to be read globally, just the way he himself was able to devour fiction originating in many languages other than his own.

Indeed, Muses is most valuable in exploring this connection between Singer’s seduction of translators and his seduction of a worldwide readership.

 

On the former seduction, thankfully, the movie resists the temptation to reduce Singer to a lecherous predator, or to play his unsuccessful flirtations strictly for laughs, or, even more obviously, to transform itself into a feminist tract. At its New York premiere two weeks ago, an invited panelist suggested that the “muses” may have lent themselves to exploitation. To this, Galay responded that none had voiced any such complaint; to the contrary, all spoke of Singer with affection.

Interviewed for the film, some of the now-mature women who once worked with him express puzzlement at the suggestion that their younger selves would have agreed to sexual relations with this elderly man. Others insist on discretion, or are frankly amused, as if to say, “Me, exploited? By this pixie?” The film owes much of its buoyancy and humor to these interviewees, who are as idiosyncratic as many a character in Singer’s fiction; some of them inspired it.

Still, although for the most part Muses skirts the darker themes with which modern Yiddish literature is often associated—breakup and cultural dislocation, persecution, destruction—its fairly lighthearted treatment does not extend to the author’s relations with his family, including his son Israel, who became one of his Hebrew translators, and his granddaughter Meirav, who has taken partial charge of his legacy. But no one at all familiar with Singer’s fiction, much of it drawn from biographical and autobiographical material, could be surprised by the devastation that he left in his wake.

In the novel Enemies, the protagonist’s dilemmas with his several wives bear a striking resemblance to the dilemmas of his creator. When Isaac married Alma Haimann in 1940, both were already married: in leaving Poland for America, he had abandoned his common-law wife Runya and their young son. Though the couple had separated earlier, the wife clearly expected him to sponsor their immigration to the States; after mother and son moved to Palestine, she expected him to join her there. He did neither.

As for Alma, in marrying Isaac she abandoned not only her husband but their two children; in the film, her niece’s account of this episode is told without rancor, but a haunting photograph of the young children may be the documentary’s most disturbing moment. In transferring her loyalty to Isaac, Alma also bore his infidelities, which included a regular mistress and a number of casual ones. The documentary treats this couple and their situation with greater sympathy than the author extends to analogous characters in his work.

 

Intentionally or not, Muses seems to draw a distinction between those who depended on Isaac materially or emotionally and others who simply enjoyed the frisson of closeness with a great writer. The former suffered and felt betrayed; the latter were mainly unscarred. But the focus on his translators lets us in on more than how this writer affected the people around him. It invites us to consider whether, and how, his attitude toward the women he shuffled about, exchanging one for the next in succession, corresponded to his indifference to precise translation, and perhaps to something deeper as well.

With colleagues and students, and with my brother David Roskies, who also teaches Yiddish literature, I’ve often joined in the exercise of comparing the Yiddish original of a Bashevis story or novel with its English translation, just to see how the alteration affects the outcome. Occasionally we speculate about the reasons for a specific change: simplification for a non-Jewish readership?; the felt need to replace an optimistic ending with a tragic one? But the testimony of his translators in Muses hints at something else—that he was almost spiteful in his resistance to the idea of a perfectly finished work. Just as the conflicted male protagonist of a typical Bashevis work is left dangling at the end of his story, arbitrariness seems a principle of the art itself. The spirit of the author stands behind those endings as though he were saying, “Really, what difference does it make?”

And there is still more to be said. One of Bashevis’s tales of childhood (from the series In My Father’s Court) describes him, as a still-traditional Jewish boy in long caftan and earlocks, on a visit to his older brother I.J. in an artists’ atelier. There he comes upon nude models and other young women who smile condescendingly at his covered head and sidecurls—for they, too, have recently crossed over to impiety from the observant Jewish homes of their parents.

In real life, many of Bashevis’s fellow Jews who traversed this same divide would try in various ways and by various means to reconcile the two sides. But the young man who emerged from that boy in the Warsaw atelier never believed in the negotiation. For him, leaving the world of Jewish religious containment, known today as haredi, meant consignment to a world of moral indifference in which a man might just as well give in to his lusts: for women, for fame, and for stories that take their own direction or none. Even as his distrust of a binding love between man and woman finds a correlative in his suspicion of perfectly realized works of art, his unfaithfulness to both his women and his works seems like a surrender to the moral arbitrariness of life itself. If one no longer believed in the Perfect God and His Torah, what reason to seek perfection elsewhere?

Not that Muses makes any of this explicit. But its cheerful, generous tone does finally give way to a certain anxiety about its subject. The primary cause of anxiety is Isaac’s treatment of the people who relied on him, especially his family; next comes his treatment of the translators, none of whom he ever wanted to hold on to; ultimately, though, there is his distrust of, or disdain for, the artistic endeavor itself, and what that might signify. If he clowned a little for his American interviewers and for Swedish royalty when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, it was as if to let them know, and to remind himself, that in becoming a Yiddish writer in a world without Yiddish, he had lost faith in the ultimate value of the word, or the Word. For all his thirst for acclaim and veneration, his negligent indifference to translation affirmed that the modern writer was to be trusted no more than, and perhaps less than, modern man.

More about: Arts & Culture, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Yiddish literature

 

What Do the Attacks in France Mean for the Survival of Liberal Democracy?

The liberal way of life is remarkably fragile. Is the West willing to fight for it?

What Do the Attacks in France Mean for the Survival of Liberal Democracy?
Mourners carry the coffin of Franck Brinsolaro, one of two French police officers killed in the attack on Charlie Hebdo. AP Photo/Francois Mori.
 
Observation
Jan. 15 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Simon Gordon, a former Tikvah Fellow, is a policy adviser at the embassy of Israel in London. The views expressed here are his own.


Last week, the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo were not the only journalists targeted for affronting Muslim doctrine. Raif Badawi, founder of the Free Saudi Liberals website, who was convicted of blasphemy by a Saudi court in 2012 and later resentenced, more harshly, to ten years’ imprisonment, a fine of 1 million riyals, and 1,000 lashes, received his first flogging two days after the massacre in Paris. Although the Saudi regime joined the worldwide condemnation of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, the French cartoonists wouldn’t have fared much better had they made the Gulf state their publishing base. The only difference was the lack of official imprimatur on their execution: they were murdered by Islamist vigilantes, not an Islamist judiciary.

Neither the criminalization of blasphemy in Muslim countries nor the murder of blasphemers in Europe by Islamists is a new phenomenon. On the contrary: from Pakistan to Algeria via Iran and Egypt, blasphemy laws are rigorously enforced. Even in free countries, ever since Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie, dissenters have had to fear for their lives. But the coincidence of last week’s events is noteworthy for what it reveals not only about the state of Islamism in the world today but about the state of liberal democracy. Briefly: rather than the West exporting liberal democracy to the Middle East, as many had fantasized during the late lamented “Arab Spring,” it is the Middle East that is exporting Islamism to the free world.

The brutal reach of Islamism is now global. In the last four weeks alone, we have seen a lone jihadist take ten hostages in Sydney, Australia, leaving three dead; Taliban gunmen slaughter 132 children in a Pakistani school; and, at the same time as the attacks in France, Boko Haram massacre perhaps as many as 2,000 in the Nigerian city of Baga. This is to say nothing of the ongoing ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Islamic State; or the continued persecution of Christians in not only Syria and Iraq but Somalia, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, and Libya—all at the hands of Islamist terror groups or acquiescent governments.

With depressing predictability, the rise in Islamism has also intensified terror against Jews. The attack on the HyperCacher supermarket in Vincennes, in which four Jews were murdered, was merely the latest in a long series of such assaults, amidst a climate of anti-Semitism that is contributing to the slow exodus of Europe’s largest Jewish community.

A month ago, three assailants broke into the home of a Jewish couple in the Paris suburb of Créteil and raped the nineteen-year old wife, telling them, “It’s because you’re Jewish.” During Israel’s war with Hamas over the summer, Jewish shops were smashed and firebombed in Sarcelles, Jewish worshippers were besieged in a synagogue in Paris’s 11th district, and pro-Palestinian rallies were punctuated by cries of “Mort aux juifs,” death to the Jews. Three years ago, Mohamed Merah murdered four, including three children, in a killing spree at the Ozar Hatorah School in Toulouse. According to France’s Ministry of the Interior, French Jews, who make up 1 percent of the population, were the victims of 40 percent of the terror attacks in 2013.

French Jews have not been the sole victims. Across the border in Belgium, the situation is little better, with Mehdi Nemmouche shooting four dead in an attack six months ago on Brussels’ Jewish Museum. Nor is the problem unique to Jews in the Diaspora—as November’s vicious knife murders of Jews at prayer in Jerusalem testify. As even the British Guardian, no friend of Israel, noted at the time, the prospect of synagogues in the Jewish state needing to be protected by armed guards in the manner of so many synagogues in the Diaspora is “a bleak thought for a country established to be a safe haven.”

 

The ascendancy of Islamism, affecting different continents and countries of profoundly different cultures, and taking place in spite of—or as a result of—the withdrawal of Western troops from the Middle East, gives the lie to axioms that have undergirded much of the discourse on terrorism over the past decade. Above all, the prevalent idea that Islamist attacks are a response to Western interference or military adventurism is now revealed as supremely narcissistic—a hubristic exaggeration of the influence of the West and underestimation of its attackers. As both the rise of IS and the attacks in Paris attest, the free world is not dictating events but reacting to them: the agenda is being set by the Islamists.

No less highlighted by the terror attacks is the extent to which Islamism is a unified ideology, seeking to impose its principles no matter the cultural or religious surroundings in which it finds itself. It is not merely the terror networks themselves, or their funding networks, that are global—although the Kouachi brothers responsible for the Charlie Hebdo murders were graduates of a study-abroad program on murder in Yemen, and al-Qaeda, the al-Nusra Front, Hamas, and others continue to find willing sponsors in oil-rich Gulf states and clandestine donors in Europe. Rather, it is the ideology represented by groups like IS—the commitment to exclusionary, imperialist theocracy—that is attracting adherents from Sydney to East London and providing the base of doctrine and belief on which the attacks are predicated.

In embedding itself as a cultural phenomenon within liberal democracies, Islamism has already succeeded in limiting the liberties that citizens of free countries take for granted and subtly changing their way of life. For all of the Je Suis Charlie hashtags and rallies, writers, politicians, and contributors to social media will remain much more reluctant openly to criticize or satirize Islam or Muslim figures than they are to lampoon those of other faiths.

Indeed, after the Paris attacks and the firebombing of  the Hamburger Morgenpost four days later for daring to reprint Charlie Hebdo cartoons, the likely prospect is for an even greater degree of caution about causing offense to Muslims. For their part, Jews in France and elsewhere in Europe will continue to fear to wear kippot and other religious symbols openly, and may well feel more compelled to conceal their identities. In this respect, the Islamists have already attained a victory.

 

The spread of Islamism into the heartland of liberal democracy, and its influence on liberal culture, thus demand a thorough recalibration of attitudes. The notion that changing foreign policy, or redoubling domestic efforts to integrate the marginalized, or frankly appeasing Islamist demands will end the reign of terror is misguided not only because it underestimates the appeal of the Islamist worldview and the determination of its adherents. It is misguided because it overestimates the strength of liberal democracy.

The encroachment on civil liberties through anti-terror legislation is often said—not without reason—to threaten the very liberal ideals that it seeks to protect. But at the same time, the consequences of abandoning intrusive intelligence-gathering could well be worse—in terms of the potential loss not just of human life but of the liberal way of life. If politicians, journalists, and ordinary citizens have already modified their behavior in response to terror attacks and the threat of violence on the street, how would they react if the scale of terrorism were increased ten or twentyfold? Would they still be tweeting #JeSuisCharlie?

Indeed, the low-level surveillance state already implemented by governments around the world signals an implicit repudiation of the complacent idea that Islamism is a fringe issue, that the West is so dominant as to be essentially impregnable, or that the progressivist vision of liberal democracy must endure because any regress is unthinkable. The truth, as millions have discovered to their cost in recent years, is that progress toward liberal democracy is far from assured, and that states can quite easily fail.

The fragility of liberal democracy, and the price of losing it, are perhaps most appreciated in France. As a people who have been through two monarchies, two empires, two foreign occupations (including one home-grown fascist government), in addition to five republics in the centuries following a much-celebrated but immensely bloody revolution, the French are more conscious than most Western nations of how easy it is for systems of government to change or fall, and more convinced that liberty is something that must be maintained and fought for rather than taken for granted or bargained slowly away.

Does this mean that, in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, France will seize the opportunity to lead a reawakening of the liberal democratic West? Will a country long depressed by persistent economic malaise, deeply disillusioned with its leadership, and troubled by the disconnection between its self-perceived geopolitical importance and its actual, peripheral profile take the lead in shaping the Western world’s response to terror and confidence in its ideals?

Unfortunately, there are reasons for doubt. But time will tell, and there’s precious little of it.

More about: Charlie Hebdo, European Jewry, France, Islamism, liberal democracy

 

On the Interpretation of Kebabchik

After a friend comes to him with a strange dream, Philologos wonders if the unconscious mind can do Hebrew numerology.

On the Interpretation of Kebabchik
A painting of Hebrew letters by the Israeli painter David Rakia. Wikipedia
 
Observation
Jan. 14 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be addressed to philologos AT mosaicmagazine.com.


Ever since Freud’s pioneering investigation of dreams, we have known how capable the unconscious mind is of puns, complex verbal allusions, and intricate word play. But can dreams also put this ability to use in performing arithmetical calculations that most of us would have difficulty doing in our heads when awake? As one says in Yiddish, hert a mayse: Listen to a story.

I was chatting not long ago with an American-born friend living in Israel. “You know,” he said, “I had a dream last night that I can’t make any sense of. In it, I’m reading a memoir by an American author who describes a course he took in college with a famous professor. Now and then, he writes, this professor would interrupt the class he was teaching and say, ‘Let’s kebabchik.’ That meant something like, ‘Let’s just enjoy ourselves now.’ That was my whole dream—or at least as much of it as I remember.”

“Kebabchik?” I asked.

“Yes. I have no idea where that came from.”

“Did you have any association with kebab, either as a word or a food, when you awoke?” I asked. “Do you have any now?”

“No,” said my friend. “None at all.  I’ve eaten kebab like everyone, but it has no special meaning for me. The only thing to come to mind when I awoke was the word ‘jitterbug,’ but don’t ask me what that has to do with it.”

I didn’t, and my friend soon turned to another subject that was preoccupying him more than his dream. He owned, he told me, a piece of land that a building contractor had approached him about buying. Although they hadn’t discussed price yet, he thought he might ask 1,200,000 shekels, from which the contractor would try to bargain him down. But though he and his family could certainly use the money, the capital-gains tax, which in this case a real-estate lawyer had estimated at about 39 percent, would gradually drop the longer he held on to the property, so that he wasn’t sure whether to sell now or to wait. It was a dilemma.

I had no particular advice to give him, and after we parted, my mind reverted to his dream. “Kebabchik?” “Jitterbug?” The two words had nothing in common. No, wait: they both had three syllables. Not only that, but if you took the last syllable of “kebabchik” and made it the first one, you got “chikkebab.” That had some of the sounds and the rhythm of “jitterbug” (and jitterbugging was all about rhythm!) and was close to “shish kebab.” And “shish” suggested shesh, Hebrew for “six.”Was I getting somewhere?

But where?

It was then that I thought of a dream that an uncle of mine, a Hebrew poet, had told me about many years ago. He had dreamed, at a time in his life when he was feeling weary and depressed, of receiving an envelope from his bank in which was a bounced check for $28.00. “Twenty-eight?” he said to me. “Don’t you get it?” I confessed that I didn’t. “That’s koah in gematria. The dream was telling me I have no strength.”

Gematria is the age-old technique of computing the numerical value of the letters in a Hebrew word and deriving meaning from it, and koah means “strength” and is spelled with the letters, kaf, whose numerical value is twenty, and het, whose value is eight. La voilà!

Fine: my uncle was a Hebrew poet and dreamed in gematriot. But what reason was there to think my friend did, too?

Still, I decided to give it a try. Suppose “kababchik” was “shish kebab” and “shish kebab” was “sixkebab.” What did that come to?

Kebab in Hebrew is spelled kuf-bet-bet. The numerical value of kuf is 100 and that of bet is two. 100+2+2 is 104, and six times 104 is 624. Could that be connected, I wondered, to the sale of my friend’s land?

A nice idea—but no help. Thirty-nine percent of 1.2 million was 468,000, not 624,000. And if you took, not the 39-percent tax, but the 61 percent that would remain after it, you got 732,000. It quite literally didn’t add up.

I wasn’t ready to surrender, though, There was another way of doing it. Although it wasn’t the traditional way of figuring gematriot, it was possible to think of the 100 and two 2′s of Hebrew kebab as 122 rather than 104. And six times 122 was 732.

732? I had just calculated that 732,000 shekels would be my friend’s share of the sale after taxes! Could I be making a mistake? I did the arithmetic again: no, it was correct.

A coincidence? But how could it possibly be a coincidence that of all the numbers in the world, my friend’s projected income would be exactly equal to six times the gematria of Hebrew kebab?

I phoned him. “For what it’s worth,” I said, “your dream was telling you to sell your land. Not only that, it was saying, ‘Take the money and enjoy it with your family now, because who knows what will happen later?’ That’s the meaning of ‘Let’s kebabchik.’”

Since then I haven’t spoken to him and don’t know what he’s decided. But if you think it’s impossible that a sleeping mind could do all that, you’re welcome to suggest a better interpretation of his dream.

More about: Gematria, Philologos, Psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud