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Wandering Jew  

Lisa Lampert-Weissig

The legend of the Wandering Jew tells of a man who refused Jesus rest as Jesus struggled to Calvary. In response, Jesus bestowed a curse: the man would henceforth be unable to die, doomed to wait until Judgment Day. According to the Christian tradition of the legend, this experience converted the man to Christianity. Immortal, the cursed man now roams the earth, telling all he encounters of the events of the Passion and other historical events that he has experienced firsthand since that time. The legend circulated orally for centuries and artists, writers, and thinkers from around the world have also engaged with the legend through works of literary, visual, musical, and plastic art, as well as polemic, journalism, and philosophy. The Wandering Jew’s curse has often been understood as a metaphor for the Jewish diaspora, interpreted as punishment for alleged Jewish crimes against Christ. This Christian version of the legend has dominated these adaptations, but there is also an important strand of Jewish responses to the legend that center Jewish experience and provide a Jewish perspective on Jewish–Christian relations in the diaspora. From the textual origins of the medieval period through to 21st-century examples, both Jewish and Christian interpretive strands of the legend reveal the contours of “contact zones” between Jews and Christians. They also reflect on the history of these contacts and anticipate this history’s end, frequently by imagining the apocalyptic end of history itself.

Article

Arab Jews: History, Memory, and Literary Identities in the Nahḍah  

Orit Bashkin

Middle Eastern Jews showed great interests in the Nahḍah (Arabic for Renaissance), a term signifying numerous intellectual movements, which championed Arabic literary and cultural renewal during the 19th century and the interwar period. Middle Eastern Jewish thought and literature thus responded to, and were shaped by, a context where ideas about the need to reform social and religious practices and laws, and discourses about Arab history and civilization, circulated widely in urban public spheres in the Arab World. Jewish thinkers and scholars were attentive to these discourses and they incorporated them into their conversations about the status of Jews as Arabic speakers, imperial and national citizens, and modern subjects. Middle Eastern Jewish writers were likewise keen to experiment in new genres that the Nahḍah’s Arab writers explored, such as the short story, the novella and the novel, the newspaper’s article and editorial, and the historical essay. Some Jews identified as Arab Jews, while others thought of themselves more as members of the national communities that emerged in the Middle East after World War I. The influence of Arab culture on Jews is apparent not only in their Arabic publications, but also in their writings in Judeo-Arabic and Hebrew. Jewish adaptions and perceptions of Arab culture, history, and language, moreover, generated different ideological commitments. Some Jews, who occasionally called themselves Arab Jews, felt that their adaption of Arab culture obliged them to support Arab nationalism and object to Zionism. Others, however, especially the Palestinian Sephardim, felt that they could combine between their Arab culture and Zionism to change Zionism from within, and underscored their indigenous identity as part of Zionist claims for Palestine.

Article

Yiddish in Interwar Berlin  

Marc Caplan

Berlin in the interwar era of the Weimar Republic (1918–1933) was not a center for Yiddish culture so much as a periphery dependent upon more dominant locations of Jewish life such as the United States, Poland, and the Soviet Union. In this respect, the status of Yiddish reflects a greater sense of marginality and dislocation then characterizing German culture, which, at the time, felt unmoored from its imperial coordinates of the 19th century and under the sway of more innovative international cities such as Leningrad, Paris, New York, and especially Hollywood. The draw of Berlin for Yiddish-language writers or community activists was therefore not the allure of Weimar culture or the hopes of attracting large audiences among German Jews. Instead, the economic disorder of the Weimar Republic, paradoxically, offered financial windfalls and business opportunities for migrants with foreign currency—particularly for writers with contacts to the American Yiddish press. Moreover, Germany, unlike Poland, maintained diplomatic and economic relations with the Soviet Union, which allowed writers and activists sympathetic to the Bolshevik Revolution a safe haven while the home front remained riven by military conflicts, scarcity of basic necessities, and an uncertain political future. The heyday of Yiddish activism in Berlin was relatively short-lived, only dating from about 1921 until about 1926. After that date, the Soviet Union had achieved political stability and began to invest, at least for the next decade, in a wide series of Yiddish-language cultural institutions including publishing houses, newspapers, centers of higher education, and popular entertainment. Although it would be an exaggeration to claim that Yiddish culture made a deep or lasting impact on the German culture of the Weimar Republic, for Yiddish readers, the literature produced in Germany ranks among the most important and innovative achievements in Yiddish culture of the 1920s. The most significant writers to have resided in Berlin during this era include Dovid Bergelson, Der Nister (Pinkhes Kahanovitsh), and Moyshe Kulbak.

Article

Kunitz, Stanley  

Brett C. Millier

The career of American poet Stanley Kunitz (1905–2006) spanned nearly eighty years of continuous productivity and achievement. At the age of 95, he was named Poet Laureate of the United States, and was also a Guggenheim (1945), Pulitzer Prize (1959), and National Book Award (1995, at the age of 90) winner. Born on the older edge of a generation of American poets whose lives were saddened and cut short by mental illness and alcoholism (his friends Theodore Roethke and Robert Lowell among them, as well as Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, and Delmore Schwartz), Kunitz overcame early sorrow and personal disappointment and lived, writing poems up to the time of his death at the age of 100. His early work showed the influence of the Metaphysicals and was generally highly formal and intellectually abstract. He resisted the move toward looser, “confessional” poetry for a long time after his contemporaries had embraced it, but critics agree that most of his best work followed his first “confessional” volume, The Testing Tree (1971). From 1946, Kunitz taught literature and creative writing at universities including Bennington College, SUNY Pottsdam, the New School, the University of Washington, and Columbia University. After his retirement, he devoted himself to gardening, and to writing “visionary” poems of maturity and old age, some of the finest in the language.

Article

Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902–1991): Biography and Overview of Works  

James A. Lewin

Why does evil exist? That is the question Isaac Bashevis Singer could not stop asking. The first Yiddish author to win a Nobel Prize and the only established American writer who wrote in Yiddish, I. B. Singer created historical sagas about the Jews in Poland, from premodern times through the Holocaust. He also published memoirs and children’s books. He concentrated his special genius, however, in a plenitude of short stories. With an ironic voice of protest, his earthy, poetic style portrays characters seeking love and truth—in spite of the grand and petty injustices of the world. Haunted by his own sense of survivor’s guilt, the author wrote out of a personal argument with God. As a Protean and prolific writer, with shifting identities, he effectively named himself. Early on, he was Itche Zinger. He published his first novel, Satan in Goray, in 1935, in Yiddish, under the pen name of “Yitzchok Bashevis,” a nom de plume derived from his mother’s first name. Meanwhile, under the by-line Warshawsky, or son of Warsaw, he provided journalism and humorous articles in Yiddish newspapers, thus distancing the pseudonymous scribe from higher literary aspirations. Occasionally, he became D. Segal. In large measure, his wider success depended on having his work translated from Yiddish, a marginalized language of traumatic memory, into English, a living language with hegemonic influence. He supervised his translators closely and reached a wider audience with stories published in The New Yorker, Playboy, Commentary, and other magazines. As his work reached a global readership, he became Isaac Bashevis Singer, a composite name that allowed the author to maintain his roots while differentiating himself from his older brother, Israel Joshua (aka I. J.) Singer, also a best-selling Yiddish writer. Yet, in marked contrast to his welcome reception from the English-reading public, I. B. Singer has faced rebukes and even denunciation from Yiddish critics who felt uncomfortable with his provocative representations of Jewish life. For devoted fans and relentless critics alike, however, he remains known simply as “Bashevis.” His litigation with heaven followed the model of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and Job. He refused to suffer without questioning his mortal condition. He would not disavow an invisible higher power, and even referred to himself as religious, yet he rejected conventional faith or belief in cosmic compassion. Throughout his career, I. B. Singer wrestled with that twist in the psyche that allows perpetrators of atrocities to lack remorse, while victims of inhumanity may be plagued with self-reproach. He exorcised his demons by arguing with the Almighty through his writing, transforming survivor’s guilt into a protest against the injustice of life. Protest against the cosmic silence extended the artistic bridge between his psychological realism and his fascination with the occult. The author glances back at a lost innocence of traditional values and gazes forward into a world of expanding moral chaos. He satirizes society as a grotesque underworld. He condemns the cruelties of history and refuses to accept easy answers to haunting questions. Although he affirms the existence of an Absolute and portrays atheism as the greatest human failing, by the act of writing, he challenges the ethical standards of the inscrutable universe. While affirming the life of the soul, through his storytelling, he inscribes a compelling protest against the seeming indifference of heaven and earth.

Article

The Influence of Arthur Miller on American Theater and Culture and the Global Implications of His Plays  

Susan C.W. Abbotson

Arthur Miller (1915–2005) was the author of essays, journals, short stories, a novel, and a children’s book, but is best known for his more than two dozen plays, which include the seminal American dramas Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. A staunch patriot and humanist, Miller’s work conveys a deeply moral outlook whereby all individuals have a responsibility both to themselves and to the society in which they must live. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Miller maintained his optimism that despite humanity’s unfortunate predisposition toward betrayal, people could transcend this and be better. In the creation of Death of a Salesman, along with its director Elia Kazan and designer Jo Mielziner, Miller brought a new style of play to the American stage which mixes the techniques of realism and expressionism; this has since been dubbed “subjective realism” and provoked a redefinition of what tragedy might mean to a modern audience. Influenced by the social-problem plays of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, the experimental poetics of Clifford Odets and Tennessee Williams, and the inventive staging of Thornton Wilder, Miller created his own brand of drama that often explored macrocosmic social problems within the microcosm of a troubled family. Though he is viewed as a realist by some critics, his work rarely conforms to such limitations, and his entire oeuvre is notable for its experimentation in both form and subject matter, with only his inherent philosophical beliefs to provide connection. For Miller, people need to understand that they are products of their pasts, and that it is inevitable that “the birds come home to roost,” but through acknowledging this and actively owning any guilt attached, individuals and society can improve. Miller was raised in a largely secular Jewish environment, and his morality has a Judaic inflection and he wrote several plays featuring Jewish characters; however, his themes address universal issues and explore the impact of the past, the role of the family, and a variety of belief systems from capitalism to socialism, along with providing lessons in responsibility and connection, and exploring the abuses and misuses of power. His works provide insight into the heart of human nature in all its horror and glory, including its capacity for love and sacrifice as well as denial and betrayal. Miller was able to see both the comedy and tragedy within the human condition. His driving concern was to make a difference, and it was through his writing that he found his means.

Article

Biblical Criticism  

Richard Briggs

The Bible as a text can be read with or without reference to its compilation as a theologically constructed collection of sacred Jewish and Christian books. When read without such framing concerns, it may be approached with the full range of literary and theoretical interpretive tools and read for whatever purpose readers value or wish to explore. Less straightforwardly, in the former case where framing concerns come into play, the Bible is both like and unlike any other book in the way that its very nature as a “canon” of scripture is related to particular theological and religious convictions. Such convictions are then in turn interested in configuring the kinds of readings pursued in certain ways. Biblical criticism has undergone many transformations over the centuries, sometimes allowing such theological convictions or practices to shape the nature of its criticism, and at other times—especially in the modern period—tending to relegate their significance in favor of concerns with interpretive method, and in particular questions about authorial intention, original context, and interest in matters of history (either in the world behind the text, or in the stages of development of the text itself). From the middle of the 20th century onwards the interpretive interests of biblical critics have focused more on certain literary characteristics of biblical narratives and poetry, and also a greater theological willingness to engage the imaginative vision of biblical texts. This has resulted in a move toward a theological form of criticism that might better be characterized as imaginative and invites explicit negotiation of readers’ identities and commitments. A sense of the longer, premodern history of biblical interpretation suggests that some of these late 20th- and early 21st-century emphases do themselves have roots in the interpretive practices of earlier times, but that the Reformation (and subsequent developments in modern thinking) effectively closed down certain interpretive options in the name of better ordering readers’ interpretive commitments. Though not without real gains, this narrowing of interpretive interests has resulted in much of the practice of academic biblical criticism being beholden to modernist impulses. Shifts toward postmodern emphases have been less common on the whole, but the overall picture of biblical criticism has indeed changed in the 21st century. This may be more owing to the impact of a renewed appetite for theologically imaginative readings among Christian readers, and also of the refreshed recognition of Jewish traditions of interpretation that pose challenging framing questions to other understandings.