Daniel Deronda, Conservative Hero

March 21 2017

Reviewing Ruth Wisse’s online course on George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, Liel Leibovitz pronounces the lectures “as gripping as anything currently on Netflix” and suggests they “ought to be binged upon as ravenously as one would, say, on a season of House of Cards.” Eliot’s 19th-century novel, he argues, is particularly well suited for our times, and nowhere more so than in its two intertwined plots: the story of Daniel Deronda’s embrace of his Jewish heritage and the story of Gwendolen Harleth—a young, beautiful, and genteel woman faced with her family’s sudden impoverishment:

Some enlightened souls [in Victorian Britain], and there are quite a few of them in the novel, have difficulty understanding why, if England is so keen on embracing its Jews as equals, the Jews should insist on maintaining their differences. Why not marry their Christian neighbors and friends? Why insist on blood and kin and tribe?

The question—and herein lies Eliot’s genius—can be asked of women as easily as it can of the Jews. Although several of her critics had trouble wedding Gwendolen’s story to that of Deronda’s religious awakening, . . . Eliot realized that Jews and women faced the same essential dilemma: will they try to unshackle themselves from their essential nature in a way that is bound to doom them to misery? Or can they achieve a more meaningful emancipation, enjoying equal rights while being permitted to remain true to who they are and wish to continue to be? Gwendolen chooses the former path, Deronda the latter, and their respective fates are a useful lesson in the dangers of deracination.

It’s a lesson, thankfully, that’s likely to shake many modern Jewish readers, who see no other source of light save for the universalist splendor of tikkun olam and who view nationalism, tribalism, and other forms of primordial attachment as a gateway to barbarism and brutality. But a shaking is much needed. With anti-Jewish malice roaring from left and right, we’ve no other prescription but to reject the simpering spinelessness that seeks meaning in other peoples’ values and instead embrace our own. We must now realize, as Eliot and her hero both did, that happiness and survival both depend on loving that which reinforces the best in us, be it the spouse that shares our destiny or the community of which, for better or worse, we will forever be a part.

It’s not a lesson that the cosmopolitans in our midst would readily applaud, but cosmopolitanism, as Eliot bitingly reminds us in the very first page of her novel, is not much more than a rowdy casino, and the only freedom it offers is the thrill of throwing away all that’s truly valuable for an illusory shot at momentary ecstasy. Now more than ever, it’s a thrill we must learn to resist, and in Daniel Deronda, Ruth Wisse gives us what we most desperately need: an upright Jew, a moral man, and a real conservative hero.

Read more at Tablet

More about: Arts & Culture, Daniel Deronda, Feminism, George Eliot, Jewish conservatism, Judaism, Literature, Universalism

Famous Novelists “Confront the Occupation” in the West Bank—and Celebrate Themselves

June 27 2017

To produce the collection Kingdom of Olives and Ash, the writers Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman gathered a group of novelists, arranged for them to be shown around Israel for a few days by anti-Israel activists, and had each of them write an essay about the experience. Matti Friedman surveys the results:

Chabon and Waldman tell us on the very first page of a visit to Israel in 1992, which they remember vividly as a time of optimism, when the “Oslo Accords were fresh and untested.” But their memory must be playing tricks, because the Oslo Accords happened in the fall of 1993. Chabon and Waldman, who live in Berkeley, CA, are accomplished writers, but the reader needs a few words about what they’re up to here. Do they have special expertise to offer? Israel is probably the biggest international news story over the past 50 years, so is there a reason they decided the world needs to know more about it and not, say, Kandahar, Guantanamo, Congo, or Baltimore?

The essays vary in tone and quality, but experienced journalists covering the Israel/Palestine story will recognize the usual impressions of reporters fresh from the airport. Cute Palestinian kids touched my hair! Beautiful tea glasses! I saw a gun! I lost my luggage, and that seems symbolic! Arabs do hip-hop! The soldiers are so young and rude!

The writers interview the same people who are always interviewed in the West Bank, thinking it’s all new, and believe what they’re told. . . . Everything is described with a gravitas suggesting that the writers haven’t spent much time outside the world’s safer corners. [Dave] Eggers devotes two whole pages to an incident on the Gaza border, where one Israeli guard said he couldn’t pass and then a different one came and let him through. Dave, if you’re reading this, I hope you’re okay. . . .

What [this book is] really about is the writers. Most of the essays aren’t journalism but a kind of selfie in which the author poses in front of the symbolic moral issue of the time: here I am at an Israeli checkpoint! Here I am with a shepherd! That’s why the very first page of the book finds Chabon and Waldman talking not about the occupation, but about Chabon and Waldman. After a while I felt trapped in a wordy kind of Kardashian Instagram feed, without the self-awareness.

Read more at Washington Post

More about: Anti-Zionism, Idiocy, Israel & Zionism, Journalism, West Bank