The Walter Benjamin Brigade

How an original but maddeningly opaque German Jewish intellectual became a thriving academic industry.
The Walter Benjamin Brigade
 
Observation
Walter Laqueur
April 3 2014 12:05AM

The German Jewish intellectual Walter Benjamin, born in Berlin in 1892, dead by his own hand on the French-Spanish border in 1940, remains a man of mystery. Anything but prominent in his lifetime, he has emerged in recent decades to unvarnished acclaim as the greatest thinker of the 20th century in fields ranging from philosophy to sociology, aesthetics, literary theory and criticism, and a half-dozen more. This in itself is mysterious. Among the ranks of mid-century Central European intellectuals, the reputation of Benjamin’s contemporaries and colleagues (with the possible exception of the Frankfurt School philosopher Theodor Adorno) continues to shrink; his continues to rise and rise. The number of books and articles devoted to him is staggering; a huge new biography, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Lifeco-written by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings and published by Harvard, is only the latest addition to a seemingly unending stream.

How to explain the Benjamin vogue? Eiland and Jennings cite such cultural signposts as the radical student movement of the 1960s and the attendant revival of Marxist thought. But 60s radicals were hardly great readers, and Benjamin’s writings are, to say the least, maddeningly opaque and often altogether inaccessible. As for his Marxism, such as it was: if that is the main point of attraction, by rights the real culture hero should be his contemporary Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979)—once famed as the “father of the New Left” but, these days, decidedly not a name to conjure with.

More likely, Benjamin owes his fame to the rise of cultural studies and its various academic subdisciplines: post-modernism, post-structuralism, women’s and gender studies, and the rest of the lot. In these precincts, Benjamin’s gnomic style may well count as a plus, an outward sign of inward profundity that, simultaneously, invites the most fanciful flights of interpretive ingenuity. Likewise contributing powerfully to his allure is the sorry story of his life. Quite apart from his tragic end—he swallowed poison while fleeing from Nazi-occupied France—he was always the frustrated outsider par excellence, the very type of the marginal man. Indeed, had he lived, one can hardly picture him as a happy soldier among the academic janissaries of contemporary cultural studies.

My own interest in Benjamin arose from my work in the early 1950s on the pre-World War I German youth movement, in which he had been a passionate but by no means leading member. In connection with this project I met some friends of his youth, including, in Germany, the pioneering educator Gustav Wyneken, who had served as one of his early gurus. In Italy, I encountered a number of his former associates in the radical youth journal Der Anfang. In Jerusalem there lived the librarian and poet Werner Kraft, an early friend but later a critic, and above all Gershom Scholem, who had been Benjamin’s closest friend both in Berlin and later on and who would become, with Adorno, the figure most responsible for launching his posthumous reputation.

The Scholems’ living room in Jerusalem was dominated by a drawing—Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920)—which had been owned by Benjamin and played a central role in his thinking, and which Scholem had inherited after the war. (It is now in the collection of the Israel Museum.) At tea in the Scholem household, sooner or later, the conversation would turn to the Benjamin Question. Yes, he was highly educated, widely read, and engaged in diverse areas of inquiry. Yes, his ideas (as in his best-known essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”) were often original, and there were flashes of genius. But in what precisely did his genius consist? Had he produced a new philosophy of history, proposed a fundamentally new approach to our understanding of 19th-century European culture, his main area of concern, or revolutionized our thinking about modernity? The answers I received weren’t persuasive then, and the answers provided in the vast secondary literature of the last decades have done no better.

To some, the problem is simply that most of Benjamin’s major work remained unfinished. I refer above all to his monumental Arcades Project, inspired in part by an abiding obsession with the urban poetry of Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867). The arcades in question were the glass-enclosed passages in central Paris when that city was, in Benjamin’s terms, the capital of the 19th century. A central emblematic figure for Benjamin was that of the flâneur, the stroller or urban explorer who habituated these environs. Having gathered a mountain of materials, Baudelaire’s poetic masterwork Les Fleurs du Mal being prominent among them, Benjamin wanted to show how urbanization had revolutionized not only culture, as evidenced in art and architecture, urban planning, and new ideas of beauty, but life in general. Traditional critical approaches, whether historiographical or philosophical, were, he pronounced, inadequate to grasp this new epoch of high capitalism and what it had wrought. A new, Marxist-tinged “materialist” theory was needed; he, Benjamin, would provide it.

Did he? Apologists point to the impediments that beset him at every stage of his career. Even his “habilitation”—the major piece of scholarship, in addition to the doctoral dissertation, that had to be submitted by anyone hoping for an academic career—had been rejected. Later, his plans to establish a new journal with the playwright Bertolt Brecht came to nothing. He never held a permanent job, regarding it as the duty of his family and his estranged wife to support him. After 1933, there were handouts from Adorno’s Frankfurt School, which had wisely transferred its funds to Switzerland and later to America, but this was no substitute for a steady source of income.

But let us assume that he’d succeeded in finishing his great project. Wherein lay its originality? The figure of the flâneur had been “discovered” earlier in the novels of Honoré de Balzac and others, and the main themes of Baudelaire’s poems had been studied even by German academics, some of whom had offered analyses not dissimilar to Benjamin’s. Were the Parisian arcades, with or without Baudelaire, the right starting point for a new understanding of modernity? Even the most detailed Benjamin biography, by the distinguished French professor Jean Michel Palmier, reaches no satisfying conclusion on this point. (Palmier’s mammoth book, almost 1,400 pages long, remains, like Benjamin’s work, unfinished—which is a comment in itself.)

 

It is much easier to write the life of a man of action than to write about a thinker, and Benjamin was nothing if not a man of inaction; in view of the difficulties this poses to a biographer, Eiland and Jennings deserve much praise. By necessity, their book is based mainly on Benjamin’s essays and correspondence. Admirably comprehensive as it is, however, there are also some strange omissions. Notably underrepresented is Asja Lācis, Benjamin’s great love; it was she who broke up his marriage, was instrumental in his conversion to a peculiar brand of Marxism, and engineered his personal introduction to Brecht. Latvian-born, a militant Communist, she lived in Moscow until suddenly disappearing in 1938. Although Benjamin must have known that she had been sent to a gulag (where she spent the next ten years), and although losing her must have had a major impact on his life and work, there’s barely* a word about this aspect of things in the Eiland-Jennings book—probably because it does not figure in his correspondence.

Since Benjamin’s death in 1940, two issues in particular have been endlessly debated: the nature of his Marxism and his attitude to Judaism. From the 30s onward, he thought of himself as a Marxist, and so he is regarded by others among his many admirers. But Scholem, who from the beginning considered Benjamin’s “materialist” orientation not only wrong but deluded—hard as he might try, Benjamin would never be able to transform himself into a materialist—dismissed this description of him as a misunderstanding. Similarly skeptical was Max Horkheimer, the leading figure in the Frankfurt School, who called Benjamin a mystic; as for Brecht, his denunciations of Benjamin’s mystical aberrations were especially harsh. More recently, the literary theorist Terry Eagleton has dubbed him a rabbi.

The confusion over Benjamin’s politics is easily explained. Of all the Weimar intellectuals and eventual emigrants, he was perhaps the least politically minded. Reading his essays and correspondence from the 30s, one cannot fail to be struck by the breadth of his interests and the depth of his knowledge—and the almost complete dearth of anything on politics. As the world was going up in flames, Benjamin was writing about the motifs of Baudelaire’s poetry. Of course he hated the Nazis and all they stood for, but I doubt he read much or anything by Marx except for the newspaper dispatches collected in The Class Struggles in France, for the light they shed on the Paris scene in the mid-19th century. As for his enduring devotion to Baudelaire, an arch-reactionary whose guru was Joseph de Maistre, a sworn enemy of the French Revolution, one has to look elsewhere than to politics for an explanation. The same goes for his admiration of Proust—hardly an idol of the Left—and his interest in Kafka.

Similar inconsistencies plague any attempt to understand Benjamin’s attitudes toward things Jewish; although this subject has given birth to a small industry, seldom has so much been written about so little. His family background lay in the highly assimilated Berlin Jewish upper-middle class. His deep friendship with the young Scholem did greatly help to stimulate an interest in Judaism—but how deep did it go, and how long did it last? He read Franz Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption (1921) not as a theological but as a philosophical text, and in later years it played no role in his thinking; it certainly did not bring him closer to God or to the synagogue.

Scholem, who had moved to Jerusalem in 1923, tried for years to persuade Benjamin to join him at the Hebrew University. He toyed for a while with the idea of a visit or even emigration, but eventually gave it up even though it held out the prospect of an academic career, friendships, and a salary. Esther Leslie, a professor of political aesthetics who admires Benjamin and frowns on Scholem’s attempts to lure him away from Paris, observes that he had no reason to find Zionism, or the desert, appealing. This is quite correct. European culture was infinitely more interesting to him; besides, there were no arcades in Jerusalem, and no keys to modernity in Mea She’arim.

 

Benjamin’s place was in Europe; unfortunately, Europe had no room for him. The strictures of the professor of political aesthetics aside, had he followed Scholem’s pleas to join him in the “desert”—that is, the verdant and congenial Jerusalem neighborhood of Rehavia—he would have lived another decade or two or perhaps even three. Instead of dying a miserable, self-administered death on the French-Spanish border, he could, had he so wished, have returned to his beloved Paris after the war. I can well imagine him in 1944, sitting in a Rehavia café, discussing philosophy with Natan Rotenstreich or photography with Tim Gidal or physics with Shmuel Sambursky, playing chess with the folklorist Emanuel Olsvanger, and debating with the three Hanses (Jonas on Gnostic religion; Polotsky on linguistics; Lewy on Greek philosophy). Most of these figures belonged to the Pilegesh (“Concubine”) circle of German Jewish intellectuals and scholars presided over by Scholem.

One way or another, Rehavia would have taken care of Benjamin: not the most padded existence, perhaps, and perhaps a little boring after Paris—but a fate worse than panicked suicide in a shabby hotel? The impressive memorial by the sculptor Dani Karavan in the Spanish border town of Port Bou is no compensation.

* Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that there is “not a word” in Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life about Lacis’ internment. It is mentioned on page 321.

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

More about: German, Gershom Scholem, Intellectual, Marxism, Walter Benjamin

 

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

 

In Light of Recent Events

Looking back at disturbing years for Europe’s Jews.

In Light of Recent Events
An injured person is transported to an ambulance after the January 7 attack on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris. AP Photo/Thibault Camus.
 
Observation
Jan. 9 2015 3:11PM

Over the last two years, Mosaic has asked the question several times: Is there a future for European Jewry?

In light of recent events in Paris—the January 7 attack on the satirical paper Charlie Hebdo, and the January 9 taking of Jewish hostages at a kosher grocery store—we look back at our answers.

 

More about: Anti-Semitism, European Jewry, France