by Marty Roth
Discussed in this essay: Feeling Jewish (a Book for Just About Anyone) by Deborah Baum. Yale University Press, 2017, 296 pages.
“Modernization . . . is about everyone becoming Jewish [and no one] is better at being Jewish than the Jews themselves.” —Yuri Slezkine, The Jewish Century
DEVORAH BAUM’S Feeling Jewish is a subtle and canny postmodern spin on Jewish exceptionalism. How could it be otherwise, when the author claims that self-hatred, envy, guilt, hysteria, paranoia and mother-love are all traditional Jewish feelings that have become the feelings of everyone else in this unsettled, ever-changing, globalized world of late capitalism, a world in which just about every identity or community has begun to think of itself as misunderstood, persecuted, and alienated? The historical situation of Jews is now the typical situation of people everywhere, says Baum. Properly viewed, however, these feelings can be transformed, she believes, from the demeaning into the productive. Reading the book, I envied her khutspe and the deftness with which she brings off this slightly cuckoo and, in a literal sense, scatterbrained project. I was also reminded of certain therapists saying, in response to my statements of how I felt, “But anger isn’t an emotion . . . worry isn’t an emotion . . .”
The book is about the two words in its title, “feeling” and” “Jewish.” Baum begins by moving through the many twists and knots attending the notions of having feelings, then moves on to Jewish feelings, then to feeling Jewish. To this end, she opens and closes her first chapter with two “jokes,” the first to illustrate “gentile feelings” (Tom: How are you? Dick: Fine, thanks), the second, “Jewish feelings” (Shmuley: Heschel, we’ve been chatting for ten minutes and you still haven’t asked me how I am. Heschel: Sorry, Shmuley. How are you? Shmuley: Don’t ask). Gentiles are assumed (by Jews) to have a sense of self “so authentic, so instinctive, that she need never behave untowardly,” while the Jew, on the other hand, is an emotional person, “unpredictable, consistently intruded upon by an anxiety about how the other regards him.”
Even our feelings are not our own, Baum says, not only because they are shared with others but, more crucially, because they divide us from ourselves and end up negating the “our” of “our feelings.” “Not only, that is, do our emotions fail to guarantee our existence as unified selves,” she writes, “but they create a disturbance in us, a sense of instability.” Baum is very concerned about the classical idea of the unified self as opposed to the split self of modernism and after:
For isn’t it the self that has become assured of its own position, comfortable, at home with itself, certain that it knows who it is, who it wants to be, and to which club it belongs, precisely the one we should really be asking questions of? For what you have there is not the ‘authentic’ self — no, that is the imposter.
EVERY FEELING Baum discusses is sent scurrying in all directions, careening into sibling or cousin feelings, split into antagonistic parts. She is alert to any irony or potential paradox in her neighborhood. Virtually every move away is a move toward, every move to reject is the counter-movement of complicity. Regarding David Mamet, for example: In pointing a finger against bad Jews (in The Wicked Child), “Mamet is succumbing to the very pathology he denounces . . . accepting one’s Jewishness is ultimately a way to reject one’s Jewishness, since the principle by which one strives to overcome one’s self-hatred becomes an expression of it.”
So we are taken on a giddy ride through many texts and topics. In Baum’s discussion of hysteria, for example, we move from the singing woman, the soprano, to Bertha, the madwoman in the attic, to Jane Eyre, Lacanian jouissance, the novels of Philip Roth, The Diary of Anne Frank (of all things, but another woman in the attic), Shalom Auslander’s Hope, and Nathan Englander’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.” The moves are both smooth and startling.
Baum takes the reader into the reaches and recesses of Critical Theory, but she does so in such a kindly way and she is such a good writer that one hardly feels any pain. Feeling jewish is an excellent example of contemporary theory turned to the ends of literary criticism, which is, I feel, when theory is at its best. Her literary criticism is just splendid, but her philosophy-speak sometimes seems to be drowning in its own excess. I was reminded of the same division in Judith Butler, rolling abstractions that defeat my best efforts to hold on, but writing the best critical study of Kafka I’ve read (London Review of Books, “Who Owns Kafka?” March 3, 2011).
There is a second, memoiristic Devorah Baum in the book who keeps an eye on these theoretical proceedings and sighs and groans and makes abject confessions:
I feel guilty about everything. Already today I’ve felt guilty about having said the wrong things to a friend. Then I felt guilty about avoiding that friend because of the wrong thing I’d said. Plus, I haven’t called my mother yet today: guilty. And I really should have organized something special for my husband’s birthday . . .
Is this the unified self we have been missing?
It’s not always clear why each emotion is Jewish or what exactly their redemptive turn consists of. Envy produces psychoanalysis; guilt belongs to the Holocaust; hysteria is an old antisemitic trope likening Jews to women; and “Few would deny that paranoia has a distinctly Jewish feel to it.” Psychoanalysis is a “discourse whose envious aggression has been turned into something constructive, critical, creative, dynamic.” “Good guilt gets us moving again.” The chapter on mother-love seems to be dancing to a different tune. But, enough carping: Feeling jewish is an exciting book. I was taken again to many familiar places and saw many of them in a new light. I’m not sure I learned that much, but it was fun.
Marty Roth is a contributing writers to Jewish Currents who appeared here most recently with an article, coauthored with his partner Martha, about living as an expatriate in Canada.