Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Gilad Atzmon and secular Judaism (Jogo guest post)

Jogo writes:

There is probably not a single person of pro-Palestinian persuasion in the world -- certainly not any relatively young, hip, culturally informed person-- who does not know the name Gilad Atzmon.

Gilad Atzmon must be one of the finest and most interesting jazz musicians alive. As a performer he is completely thrilling. I could watch and listen to him for hours. He is very, very great. But I think that, intellectually and morally, he is insane.

It would be possible to work actively for the "liberation of Palestine," yet come far short of the madness and extremism of Atzmon's positions. Unless your idea of the liberation of Palestine was the same as Hamas'.

"But he is a musician; an artist." No. Atzmon is every bit as much political activist as musician. You cannot see him only as a musician because he himself does not; he has at least two identities that are both of equal importance to him. By his own self-definition he is not "a musician." He is a musician and a political activist.

It is specious to call him "a Jew," because in a way he isn't one. He is an Israeli-born person. And that fact is used to give him authority, and to refute accusations that he is a Jew-hater. The idea being: How could he be a Jew-hater?, he was born in Israel and served in the IDF.

He was raised, so says all the biographical material, as a "secular Jew." Which is to say, NOT as a Jew.

He was raised as an Israeli, with a nationalist identity and a National Story, like any other person from any other nation. He disagrees with the National Story, which in this case is connected to a tribal story that he believes is a fake and malignant story. And in any case, the Israeli National Story, he believes, is an impediment to human progress, an affront to human dignity and a thorn in the side of the world. So he has no choice but to reject his national identity (except insofar as it is useful to his self-presentation and his cause; a piece of armor, as it were). As for cultural or spiritual identity, he never had either.

An idea that I shall never give up -- because it has taken me a long time and a lot of serious thinking to come up with -- is: "Secular Judaism" is meaningless. It has meaning only in the abstract. In terms of an individual person, it has meaning only in its short life of a one- or two-generation journey from authentic Judaism, during which certain basic qualities of Judaism may still be vital and vibrant in the soul, intellect, moral intelligence and emotions of a person. And that is its lifespan.

Anyone who disagrees with me on this point can try to transmit his "secular Judaism" to the third generation from its authentic root. And then he will see the rubber meeting the road, and he can come back to me and we'll resume the discussion.


Back to Atzmon: Oliver Kamm nails him pretty good. The Contentious Centrist does as well, a bit more literarily, as is her wont and style. And Bob From Brockley, an attentive Atzmon observer, has no illusions.

Bob from Brockley editorialises:

Is secular Judaism possible for more than a generation or two? I believe it is, but only if there is a community to sustain and transmit it. Such a community was emerging in Yiddishland in the first half of the last century, with a web of institutions (YIVO, the Bund, the Yiddish theatre and film industries...), and with a rich secular culture. Perhaps this infrastructure and culture was dependent on a certain exclusion from majority cultural life in Central and Eastern Europe (where there was formal equality, such as Germany, there was no such infrastructure; non-religous Jews assimilated after a generation or two). And, of course, that infrastructure was destroyed in the Shoah.

So, the question is, are there enough secular people with enough motivation to devote enough of their lives to the specifically Jewish to sustain secular Jewish culture? Probably not.


Daniel of "Daniels Counter" said...

Hey would you like to post this on London Jewish Humanists Write? I have sent you an invite to edit on that blog... but am happy to resend it. I think this would look nice there!

The Contentious Centrist said...

Very very interesting article by Jogo and Bob's footnote is also challenging, but I will leave my response to Bob's challenge until later.

As I always say, the phenomenon of the "self-hating Jew" belongs in the realm of compassion, not contempt. It is as rational a product of virulent antisemitism as the death camps were. It is a kind of mutilation of the soul, for which there is not prosthetic.

Atzmon just joins a certain trend in the history of the Jews, the most recent example I encountered was this heartbreaking story of Irène Némirovsky, a Jewish author who wrote successful novels which depicted ugly, monstrous Jews before she was deported to die in Auschwicz.

"And after her arrest her husband, Michel Epstein, pleaded with the German ambassador for her release, arguing that "it seems ... unjust and illogical to me that the Germans would imprison a woman who, though originally Jewish, has no sympathy, and all her books show this ... for Judaism."

It's beyond ironic. Another irony I found in the fact that Nemirovsky, as bent as she was to get away from her roots, married a Jewish man.

The whole thing reminds me of Louis Malle's film "Lacombe Lucien" in which an illiterate, anti-social French Nazi collaborator who likes to kill, forces himself on a young beautiful, talented, Jewish woman who lives in semi-seclusion with her father. He takes her to a party where she is treated like a whore. She says (I'm paraphrasing from memory): I'm so tired of being Jewish... I want to stop being Jewish...

Can we condemn her?

Hannah Arednt understood the Nemirovskys and Atzmons of this world, as she observed in "Rahel Varnhagen":

"In a society on the whole hostile to Jews, it is possible to assimilate only by assimilating to antisemitism also".

Cited here;

bob said...

Thanks Noga for the fascinating points. I completely agree with you. Jogo sent me the TNR article on Irene Némirovsky, and I was planning to write a response to it, which was along very similar lines to what you say.

Daniel, I will post this to the Humanist blog too.

The W said...

secular judaism is a tricky thing. The Yiddish nation of the last century was in fact a good example, but it also points out the complexities of a sustainable secular Jewish identity. people like Dubnow and Zhitlovsky had traditional Jewish educations and knew their Talmud and Toyre. This was similar of a lot of the other "secular" big wigs. I think you can have a sustainable secular Jewish identity, but only if you have a background in "relgious" studies. I agree with Bundist Ester Frumkin on this point.

"When we speak of education in a proletartian spirit, we do not mean that children should recite part of the Erfurt Program instead of the "Shema", or a chapter of the Communist Manifesto instead of the "Modeh Ani." (Transl. by Nora Levin, 1977). She "wrote about religion as a necessary element in the raising of a "folk-child" and was eloquent about the positive educational value of religious customs such as the blessing of the candles" (N. Levin, 1977) (

The establishment of a Israeli nationality is completely bizarre, seems like a step back by Dubnowist terms (see "Letters").

NRG said...

Thanks for sending the article about Nemerovsky. I read Suite Francaise several months ago. It had quite a bit of publicity here and I was anxious to read it. Although there was a huge amount of hype – mainly, as your article suggests, prompted by the circumstances of the discovery and publication of the manuscript – I was somewhat disappointed by it. The basic story, depicting a number of families and chronicling the effects on their lives of the early years of the war as the German occupation spreads, was certainly compelling from an historical point of view. But I didn’t really think much of the writing or the characterisation, despite what’s been said about her portrayal of people. And the book seemed to divide into two separate halves along class lines, and the two didn’t really work together. I realize that the work was not complete – apparently these first two parts were to be joined by another two or three, so perhaps they would have come together eventually, but I must admit to being disappointed.

Prior to reading your article I didn’t know a huge amount about her history or earlier reputation, though I did know that she was quite well known. My take on the supposed anti-Semitic bias of her writings is that I think this view of her is not really appropriate to her time. There were lots of bourgeois Jews in Germany and France in the first half of the 20th century who had very little if any religious affiliation; they identified themselves as French or Germans or bourgeoisie rather than as Jewish; and so it is more relevant to see her characters as representing a class attitude, which sees the lower classes as filthy and undeserving, without this being a comment on their religion. It is almost as if she was saying that the bourgeoisie had found something else to replace religion.

Two further volumes have since then been published and I would like to read them to see how she develops, but, frankly, there are other books that interest me more.


Have you ever read The Berliners by Heinrich Mann (brother of Thomas)? This is quite a magnificent portrait of the same sort of bourgeois people in the early years of the 20th century in Germany, a kind of latter-day Buddenbrooks. I am planning to re-read it.

Another victim of the Holocaust whose fascinating story inspires the same kind of hear-tugging emotion as Nemerovsky’s is a young German girl called Charlotte Salomon.

This young girl, a talented artist whose mother and grandmother had both committed suicide, was convinced that she, too, would die in this same way. Her family had moved to the south of France for safety as the Nazis advanced across Europe and she spent much of her time in solitude. During the last year of her life she created what is, in effect, a graphic novel of her life in seven hundred scenes, to which she added a title: ‘Life or Theatre?’

The collection of paintings is quite extraordinary, but what happened later is even more extraordinary, because she was eventually discovered and imprisoned by the Nazis and died in a concentration camp. These paintings were found after the war and are now in the archives of the Jewish Museum in Amsterdam. There is a fascinating book about her ‘To Paint her Life: Charlotte Salomon in the Nazi Era’, which tells her story and offers an interpretation of her work. Try to get hold of it if you can. This, truly, is a story worth telling.

Erick said...

Being a secular jew myself i strongly disagree, you mantain that secular jews are more propense to asimilation except if they are in a comunity. I doubt the rule aplies to secular jews only, entire families of rabbis converted and asimilated just to fit in the pattern and that is being inside a comunity and all, secular jews on the other hand, must put more enfasis on the cultural side, which is what being a people really about, sharing culture and a common identity, not religion.
Thats another thing that bothers me about your post, that it looks very much like the "jews aren't a people, just a religion" narrative. Although you aren't saying the same thing, it is an analogy.
As i said i am a secular jew, and i think that identity i gain by knowing the traditions of my people, hte holidays, the values, and(to some extent) the language.
Furthermore, i would like to argue that Atzmon does not agree with secular judaism, he completaly rejects any kind of jewish identity or jewish nationalism.

I just don't get your explanation of why one can't be a secular jew just because if one waits a generation or 2 it just doesn't seem to work.
In my town's jewish community there are many 2nd and even 3rd generation jews.