Funny, But I Do Look Jewish
The photos of Frédéric Brenner's "Diaspora."
Dec 15, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 14 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
THE TEXT--contained in the slenderer of the two volumes of "Diaspora"--includes what Brenner calls "Voices," or commentaries on smaller versions of many of the full-page, sometimes two-page-wide photographs found in the photographic volume. The "voices" are in fact brief passages written by novelists, poets, historians, scholars, and critics stirred by particular photographs; sometimes these passages entail a reading or interpretation of the photograph, sometimes they occasion autobiographical sorties suggested to them by the photographs. The passages written by André Aciman (a Jew born in Alexandria, Egypt), Julius Lester (an African-American who many years ago converted to a Judaism he takes seriously), and Tsvi Blanchard (an American orthodox rabbi) are easily the most penetrating. Jacques Derrida, a Jew born in Algeria, is interesting only when he is autobiographical and is otherwise his old charmless, obscurantist self. The Harvard philosopher Stanley Cavell, another frequent "Voices" contributor, is reliably disappointing. Thousands of words are in this text volume that aren't worth a single one of Brenner's pictures.
As for that quintessential Jew, Brenner allows that he has never found him and suggests, as does the impressive variety of his photographs, that he may not exist. Who might he be? Surveying the immensity of Jewish types, might he be the philosopher Martin Buber, the gangster Meyer Lansky, the comedian Woody Allen, the sports announcer Howard Cosell, the operatic singer Beverly Sills?
Is the authentic Jew an earlock-wearing, tsitsit-on-the-undergarments-bearing Hasid in the Mea Shearim neighborhood in Jerusalem, a merchant originally from Iraq living in Calcutta, a Marrano praying in an attic in Portugal, a golfer in plaid pants and peach-colored shirt teeing off at the Lakeshore Country Club in Glencoe? The answer is of course all and none of the above.
And yet Jews remain, at least to most other Jews, identifiably, unmistakably Jewish. "Gaydar" is a word, formed from "radar," that describes the ability to discern a gay man, especially one attempting to pass as heterosexual. If there is an equivalent power of discernment that allows one to spot Jews, even where they do not conform in any obvious or even subtle way to stereotypical notions of the Jew--let us call this "Jewdar"--I like to think I possess it in reasonably good working order.
I feel that I can see through the occasional name change, cosmetic surgery, or sad attempts to pass oneself off as something other than Jewish that come within my purview. "Ah, a landsman," lights up on the screen in my mind when I encounter a person I take to be Jewish. A name can sometimes be more suggestive of Jewishness than physical appearance. Names, too, can give to Jews an odd sense of worldwide connectedness. Brenner, in this collection, provides Cohens from Venezuela, Kushners from Birobidzhan, Aarons from Calcutta, Bermans from Paris, and Hershs and Freys from Antwerp.
ON THE OTHER HAND, I have always wondered what it might be like not to be Jewish but to have a Jewish-sounding name--Sarah Jacobson, Norman Davis, Mark Steyn--and often be taken for Jewish. First, there would be the worry that someone might hold your being Jewish (when you're not) against you; and, second, there is the discomfort entailed in getting special treatment from another Jew or philo-Semite because that he or she thinks you are someone you are not. I once saw a man who was a dead ringer for the old actor Cesar Romero wearing a bright red T-shirt with bold white lettering that read "I Am Not Cesar Romero." Perhaps people with Jewish-sounding names ought to wear T-shirts, or at least carry business cards, that read, "I'm Sidney Ross, But Not Really Jewish." Glenn Gould, whose name and face and manner all falsely suggest Jewishness, could have used such a T-shirt.
The first time he saw troops from the Israeli Army, so in shape and formidable did they seem, Jackie Mason claims that he thought they were actually Puerto Ricans. One of the points Brenner attempts to make in "Diaspora" is that it's no longer so easy to tell Jews from non-Jews. In the photographs that he took of Jews in Italy, for example, especially those of men, none looks especially Jewish: They seem purely Roman or Venetian or Florentine. Yet my Jewdar rings even when I gaze upon most of the Chinese Jews in his photographs from Beijing. Brenner seems to play off this point with a photograph of a group of black and Hispanic moving men seated by a truck in Palm Beach, Florida, on which is written the company's name: Nice Jewish Boys. Only one actual Jewish boy, Jerry Burnstein, the driver of the truck and perhaps one of the owners, is in the picture. "Gee," remarks Julius Lester of this photograph, "but they don't look Jewish." What--or on whom--is the joke here?
BRENNER SUPPLIES a variety of Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, and his selection of photographs emphasizes more the distinction between them than between German and Eastern European Jews (both of whom are Ashkenazic). The rivalries and little snobberies among these three divisions of Jewry are themselves of humorous interest to those who consider themselves connoisseurs of Jewishness. Traditionally, the German Jews held themselves to be above--more assimilated, more cultured--Eastern European Jews, while the Sephardi Jews, who were exiled from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492, held themselves to be more aristocratic and hence above both. Some of them even claim the cachet of having been exiled in 1492 in the same way that some old-line American WASPs used to claim coming over on the Mayflower.
Eastern Jews referred to German Jews as yekkes, probably from the German word for "jacket" and a metonym for the notion that the stiffer, more formal German Jews never took off their suit jackets. What is the difference between a virgin and a yekke? an old joke asked. The answer was that a yekke remained a yekke. In a novel called "Café Berlin" by Harold Nebenzal, I came across the amusing generalization that the real division between Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews is that no true Sephardi, at least one raised in the Middle East, can abide gefilte fish, an Ashkenazi dish. An often-disputatious people, the Jews, and never more so than among themselves.
Brenner frequently attempts to score subtle jokes with his photographs. His better ones usually come by way of the settings he arranges for many of his subjects. Consider his photograph of fourteen Jewish shrinks, in a tight grouping off to the left, shot in the library at the New York Psychoanalytic Society. Books and busts and photographs of Sigmund Freud are scattered throughout the room.
But dominating all--even the fourteen shrinks--is a large psychoanalytic couch at the picture's center, which, in the context of the photograph, resembles a mastless Egyptian boat. Might this couch stand for the boat that all these shrinks, still working away at their now quite dead ideas, seem to have missed? I don't know the state of Brenner's belief in psychoanalysis--though anyone who has read my previous sentence now knows the state of mine--and so I could be wrong about my interpretation of this photograph. But the brilliance of his arrangement makes it certainly possible, amusing, and, to me at least, persuasive.
Another of Brenner's photographs has sixteen actors all in Groucho Marx makeup and poses. Tsvi Blanchard remarks that "this photograph nearly convinced me that Groucho Marx was the official logo of Jews in exile." Underlying this is the notion of the Jew as someone who is skeptical, quick in response, verbally menacing. The Jew as witty radical is also suggested, for almost all the Marx Brothers' movies are attacks on what were once established American WASP institutions: Ivy League higher education, the opera, first-class ocean travel, thoroughbred racing.
The New York Jew may be a spin-off from the Groucho, wise-guy-son-of-recent-immigrants Jew. When you're in love the whole world's Jewish, was an old joke line. Closer to the truth is that when you're in New York, everyone seems Jewish, sometimes including Irish cops and Italian priests. By their combination of knowingness and aggressiveness--a combination that is not everybody's cup of caviar--is how New York Jews are generally characterized. Among the earliest anti-Semitism I encountered as a boy came from Chicago Jews returning, in the early 1950s, from Miami Beach, saying that the chief thing wrong with the place was that, as far as they were concerned, it had too many New York Jews. I have myself been taken for a New York Jew, and once read, in a biographical note accompanying an essay of mine reprinted in a college reader, that I had attended CCNY and then Columbia, when I've never set foot in either. Funny, I don't seem to myself New Yorkish.
BUT THERE IS ALSO the cerebral Jew (J. Robert Oppenheimer), the sensitive artistic Jew (Yehudi Menuhin, Vladimir Horowitz--this one comes in handsome and homely versions), the genius Jew (Albert Einstein), the infuriating Jewish woman (Barbra Streisand, she should only mind her own business), the Rebecca-by-the-wells beautiful Jewess (Marisa Berenson), and a full typology of other Jews, enough and more than enough, really, to go round.
Frédéric Brenner's point is precisely that there may be no quintessential, authentic, absolute Jew. He makes this point, over and over, by showing Jews in unexpected connections. A photograph of the members of a Jewish motorcycle club in their leather and on their bikes before a synagogue is a notable example. Another is a Chaplinesque little Jewish man, with yarmulke and cane and cavalry mustache and bemused smile, standing against a blank wall in Calcutta. More in his smash-face mode, he provides a picture of a Passover ceremony at a maximum security women's correctional facility in Bedford Hills, New York; in case you missed the message, this photograph says, there are dangerous Jewish criminals and they aren't all Jewish men, either.
Brenner does not emphasize the Holocaust in this collection, though it was Hitler who sent more Jews off into a second diaspora than did the Romans when they destroyed the Second Temple. One extraordinary photograph, shot from above, shows a circle of twelve women, six Holocaust survivors, back to back, arms entwined with their lesbian daughters'.
What, one has to ask, is the moral of this picture: You survive the Holocaust, and you still get a lesbian for a daughter? Or might Brenner have intended that women who have gone through the Holocaust and lesbians, mother and daughters in this instance, share equal status as victims? I fear that our photographer intends the politically correct, drearier, and much more boring second interpretation.
MOST OF BRENNER'S PHOTOGRAPHS in Israel are not of the appealing Israeli young that characterize the place for many of us but of Hasidic Jews. Tsvi Blanchard remarks of a photograph of two, dark, bespectacled, spindly-legged Hasids: "How curious this is! We can only imagine the Jew as people we do not wish to be." Whether in the Catskill Mountains, Mea Shearim, on 47th Street in New York, at a study or dining table, or out in an open field, the Hasidim bring their complete world with them, which perhaps accounts, at least in part, for why they are as photogenic as any subject going.
Brenner provides a rigged up photograph of Jewish American celebrities, each appearing in a nineteenth-century gold gilt frame, out of which some place a hand or even their full head. The people in the photograph range from Henry Kissinger to the swimmer Mark Spitz, from Isaac Stern to Betty Friedan, from Philip Roth (the frame in which he appears is set horizontally on the ground) to Lauren Bacall. Different as they all are in the quality of their minds and outlook, all look distinctly Jewish. Saul Bellow, who also appears in this photograph, here resembles nothing so much as an ancient parrot, but, it must be added, a distinctly Jewish one.
"Over time," Tsvi Blanchard remarks, "Brenner's work will increasingly undermine our conscious belief that there is only one way to be Jewish." Perhaps so. Hasidic Judaism harks back to the eighteenth century. Much modern Judaism, in its liberal strain, makes a conscious attempt to be as inclusive as possible; a visit to many Reform Jewish synagogues today can sometimes make one feel as if one has just attended a platform session of the McGovern wing of the Democratic party. Above all there reigns the paradox that, as some branches of Judaism make more and more concessions to modernity--female rabbis being the most notable step in this direction--more and more young Jews seem to be returning to Jewish orthodoxy. Go, as the Jews say, figure.
AND YET . . . and yet . . . and yet . . . despite and perhaps because of all this, why is it that I continue to feel that I can recognize a Jewish face at twenty paces, no matter what its possessor's politics, nationality, personal history? "Numbers of Jews are found," the "Jewish Encyclopedia" notes, "who possess none of the characteristics here noted, and yet are recognizable as Jews."
Jews come in all shapes and sizes, tastes and temperaments. They can be garish and vulgar, pushy and wild, sensitive and cerebral, artistic and conservative, but they are rarely dull, except of course when trying to pass themselves off as something other than Jewish. Sometimes I think I can have had no better luck than to have been born Jewish, even though I am in my religious belief a pious agnostic and far from a sedulous practitioner of the Jewish religion. At other, rarer times, the complication of being Jewish seems heavy, or "fraught," as is nowadays said, and what it is fraught with, I believe, is the feeling of never quite feeling altogether at home anywhere.
"What are you doing here?" is a question that plays somewhere in the back of every Jewish person in whatever country he or she takes up residence. ("A Jew," André Aciman remarks "is always someone about whom one asked: Why on earth isn't he where he belongs?") The pressure of history makes it a tough question to block out. It was supposed to have been put to rest with the founding of the State of Israel, but, just now, a good part of the world seems to be asking the Israelis and their nation precisely this question: What are you doing here?
Aggressiveness can sometimes mask this feeling of outsiderishness on the part of Jews, sometimes irony can attempt to do the same thing. And on occasion, so can a measured distancing of oneself from full participation in the life around one. But anyone dedicated to being a person on whom little is lost will notice it playing somewhere in the expression of almost all Jews. Careful scrutiny will inevitably reveal that, funny, but they really do look Jewish.
Joseph Epstein is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.