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Upper West Side: Red Diaper Babies and Orthodox Jews

Susan Reimer-Torn
March 19, 2013

Upper-West-Side2-300x225by Susan Reimer-Torn

A pioneering performance artist, Eleanor Antin grew up in New York City in a chaotic Stalinist household in the late 1930s and '40s. Now in her late seventies, Antin is recognized for her work in a variety of media — photography, video, film, performance and installation.

On this quiet Monday morning at the Jewish Museum, Ms. Antin is reading aloud from a tell-all memoir called Conversations with Stalin. To avoid having her reading be confused with a mere promotional stunt, Antin is treating the assembled to a pre-publication oral rendition of the opening chapters and offering her audience nothing to buy into other than her charms.

The pages describe a volatile childhood peopled with a staunchly Stalinist mother who dismissed Eleanor’s father as “a short, cowardly, unrealized man,” and a depressive younger sister with enough unrealized musical talent to become “a perfectly plausible Mozart.” Divorce, poverty, and despair that gives way to mad schemes combine to make this a harrowing coming-of-age tale.

Soon enough I find myself smiling in ironic recognition. The upbringing of so called “red diaper babies” is presumably the polar opposite of my own in a devoutly religious home, yet when Eleanor tells us how she still feels anxious whenever she “blasphemes” against her mother’s enduring faith in Stalin, she is describing my own experience when expressing doubts regarding my parents’ set of religious beliefs.

My smile grows broader as Antin recounts her childhood conversations with Stalin, her Father in the Sky, a confidante visible only to her in the Central Park sky. She would bring him her troubles and he would often caution her against “too many doubts and bourgeois fantasies.” These exchanges resemble my own equally frustrating dialogues as a child with an invisible God. Then, as Eleanor comes of age, her reluctance to see fallibility in the doctrines that she ultimately abandons evokes a process as fully wrenching as my own disaffection with traditional Jewish Orthodoxy.

It’s surprising, but then again, it is not new: I have often found that my keenest insights come from that highly-charged place where supposed opposites meet and each recognizes itself in the other.

The following week I attend a conference co-presented by YIVO and the Posen Foundation. The occasion is the long-awaited publication of the inaugural volume of the Posen Library of Jewish Culture. This is a ten volume series that has collected more than 3000 years of cultural — as opposed to religious — texts, artifacts and visuals, including children’s literature and commercial art, all of which, applying liberal criteria, the editors have identified as Jewish.

Deborah Dash Moore, a panelist and one of the editors, asserts that Jewish culture is “a process involving those who listen, retell, rethink, read, create in any form.”

It all comes back to “leaving nothing undebated,” in the words of Amos Oz, whose slim volume Jews and Words is a companion to the Posen behemoth. Oz considers Judaism “a long love affair with words.” These words form questions ranging from meta-ethics to minutia. From the iconic, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” to the Talmudic, “Why does a camel have a short tail?” through Woody Allen’s, “Is there an afterlife and if so, will I find parking?” words are our currency. If it is Jewish culture, these panelists agree, it reflects an attitude that is pluralistic, democratic and suspicious of any notion of revealed truth.

But moderator and YIVO executive director Jonathan Brent wonders if by over-emphasizing questions and avoiding answers, secularists are “living off the accumulated capital of the past” without making a real contribution of their own. “Might we not be getting too far away from a certain set of prescribed values that has always defined us?” He worries that this emphasis on process and pluralism will leave the younger generation clamoring for certainty in the form of “a golden calf.”

The panelists do their best, each in their own way, to reply. As for me, I’m thinking about my affinity with Eleanor Antin.

It is common to assume that the classic schism in the Jewish world is between the secularist and the religious. But maybe the real divide is between those who are committed to a certain agenda — regardless of what it is — and those who are open to process. While Antin’s Stalinist and my own Orthodox experience seem to occupy opposite ends of the spectrum, both are “essentialist” in their allegiance to ideology. What Dash Moore and the other panelists are suggesting is that the frontiers of an ever expanding, perennially self-regenerating Judaism lie beyond the parameters of any ideology.

In this 21st century post-modern Jewish world, gravity is loosened, opposites lose their grip, and allegiances merrily collide in the mix: Oz is an avowed atheist but he does not hesitate to offer us the secularists’ blessing: May our arguments keep sizzling. May we all be locking horns to the end of time.

Susan Reimer-Torn holds a Master’s degree in dance history from Columbia University and has written widely on dance, culture, lifestyle, and women’s issues for French and American publications. While living in Paris she had a regular cultural column in International Herald Tribune. She also published Kids Extra!, a quarterly serving the expatriate community. Susan has lived in New York for the past twelve years and works as a writer and a life coach. To read Susan's article, "Miss Liberty: Escaping from Orthodoxy," from the Autumn, 2012 issue of Jewish Currents, click here.

Susan Reimer-Torn is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents and the author of Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return.