Shabbat Goy: Tunnel Vision

To state, as did one Hebrew-language news website, that "Haiti’s disaster was good for the Jews" is, to put it simply, obscene.

February 5, 2010 17:30
4 minute read.
Copies of J.D. Salinger's classic novel "The Catch

catcher in the rye 311. (photo credit: AP)

J.D. Salinger died last week, but it’s not terribly important because he wasn’t really one of the Tribe. OK, so I’m being a little unfair. But it is hard not to be left with this impression after reading about the writer’s demise (Headline: “J.D. Salinger, renowned author, dies at 91 – was he Jewish?”) on the website of Los Angeles-based Jewish Journal (“The largest Jewish weekly outside New York”) last week.

Salinger was the author of one of the great books of the 20th century, 1951’s The Catcher in the Rye. Despite his accomplishments as a writer, he went to great pains to avoid being caught up in the contemporary maelstrom that is public life. There is only one verifiable picture of him taken in the last forty years – a period during which, incidentally, he steadfastly refused to publish any new work, fueling rumors that he has stacks of manuscripts locked up in his attic. He rarely broke this cover, last making a public appearance – metaphorically speaking, since it was through his lawyers – a year ago, to block a writer from publishing a “homage” based around the life of his great anti-hero, Holden Caulfield.

I mention all this because his literary reputation makes the high level of interest – or curiosity, or prurience even, given what is known of his private life – following his death somewhat inevitable. To publish a two-paragraph obituary, as the Journal did, can be excused for all sorts of reasons: Editorial space, time, even the absence of a writer knowledgeable enough to recount the bare facts of Salinger’s life. But to devote more than half of the scanty obituary to unpicking the knotty issue of Salinger’s Jewishness, while at the same time managing to avoid mentioning any of his life’s achievements seems, well, a little perverse.

But maybe it’s not.

I’ve always been tickled by the particular strain of tunnel vision that one comes about in this part of the world, a narrowness that I suppose could be characterized by following the age-old question, “but is it good for the Jews?” down to its logical – or dare I say, illogical? – conclusion.

To be clear, this level of introspection does not come from nowhere. The somber activities in Europe last week to commemorate International Holocaust Memorial Day remind us all – those that need reminding, that is – that not so long ago, a concerted effort was made to extinguish the Jewish race in its entirety. Under the circumstances, not to express a vested interest in the well-being of the 12 Tribes would be, at the very least, grossly neglectful. But still...

Reducing poor Salinger’s significance to the binary question of whether he was a Jew or not might seem to be little more than hopeless – if harmless – provincialism. But one does suspect that this inclination to filter the entirety of human activity through a Jewish prism is far more entrenched, and serves only to distort far more than to clarify.

Take Haiti for example. Amid the carnage, suffering and loss of life following the devastating earthquake last month, the contributions of the IDF were universally acknowledged and appreciated. I don’t have any particular interest in parsing the overall motives of sending an Israeli delegation to the tragedy-stricken island: Far better to accept without question that in the hour of need, representatives of the Jewish state were happy to contribute their own quota to the massive task of rescue and – I hope, in the months and years to come – recovery and reconstruction.

But to declare that the Haiti earthquake presented an opportunity to demonstrate true Jewish qualities is at once both self-serving and vainglorious; and to state emphatically, as did one Hebrew-language news website, that “Haiti’s disaster was good for the Jews” is, to put it simply, obscene. One would want to believe that this declaration was an aberration, the consequence of clumsy editing, a moment of thoughtlessness. But it may just as well be a narcissistic incapacity to interpret the world through anything other than through the Jewish imperative. And having struggled through the article – my Hebrew isn’t great, what can I say? – I’m inclined to think the latter.

But to return to Salinger. There is a very good argument that the question of his conflicted Jewish identity – and, in case you are wondering, it seems that he wasn’t a Jew; his mother, an Irish Catholic woman, changed her name to Miriam and subsequently “passed” as a Jew – might have contributed to the pathos of his writing, to the lonely existentialism of his most well-known character, Holden Caulfield. It is also correct to say that great art has been created, and will continue to be created, from a uniquely Jewish perspective; great art, after all, is the summation of human experience, and Jewish history, culture and traditions will continue to serve as a rich fount for the well of human knowledge.

But this isn’t the same as to evaluate a concept purely on the basis of its presumed or actual Jewishness. Or to presume that the world should be engaged with purely on the basis of connection with the Jewish people.

On my part, I look forward to re-reading The Catcher in the Rye sometime soon. The awareness of his personal history will possibly add another layer of interpretation to his work. Or perhaps not. But I don’t think that I will be tempted to evaluate his work purely on the narrow basis of his ethnic identity. The world is too big and too interesting to be limited thus.

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