Sunday, April 25, 2010

Musings on Direct Encounters

How many hours have I been here? I've written nothing! Nothing! I'm finding it impossible to pick a Jewish American writer. I'm surrounded by Allen Ginsberg Journals, Howl, Kaddish, and some dude who wrote a narrative beat poem about Allen Ginsberg. Of course this dude was a Guggenheim Fellow and received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Whatever. It makes my stomach take a nose dive. I keep reading bits and pieces---unable to synthesize the information in a meaningful manner. In the Introduction to Howl, William Carlos Williams compares Ginsberg to Christ. Damn. This is thesis material—maybe? One line does not make thesis material. One line. One line. Ginsberg's use of words like copulate and snatch, and granite cocks make me squirm and cringe like a prude. Words I might use under other circumstances to make other people cringe. And then, and then I turn the pages to a Supermarket in California. " I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing grocery boys." I love it. I wrap my fingers round the tiny poetry book and sigh. Maybe it's not Ginsberg that makes me so uncomfortable. Maybe it's the words of others. Maybe, just maybe, I need to, as the Cultural Historian said me, have a direct encounter. Ginsberg--can I write about you without writing about your life? Can I write about you by simply reading your poetry? I'm fearful if I write my thoughts alone, I'll miss some vital component by some legendary beat writer or philosopher or literary critic. I'm fearful, I'll miss the point.

I seemed to have more courage a year ago when I wrote of Y.L. Peretz's encounter with God. Anyone who read his work or knew him personally said he was Godless poet: a man who wrote simply for the people. When I read his work, I saw God in every crevice and corner. I saw God in his politics. I saw God in his short stories. I argued that he felt God deeply. It worked. And now, a year later, hundreds of pages of writing later, I cannot seem to gather such arguments. I can't find what to write. Is it Ginsberg? Is it Adrienne Rich (a non-Jew, whose father was Jewish, yet she wrote about Jews.)? Is it Dani Shapiro who fits neatly into the path of the confused assimilated Jew who desperately wants to find her Jewish place in the world? She seems like the perfect place to start. I've read her memoir Devotion and two of her novels in one week. I devoured them and looked at them with skepticism. Then, I looked at her website. Every time I clicked on a link a new picture of her beautiful face popped up. It seemed so self-indulgent. Her memoir seemed so self-indulgent. And yet, is she any more self-indulgent than my own writing? Can I blame her desire to travel on a spiritual journey in search of God and a sense of peoplehood? Her novels are intense fast reads; however, her novels are simply extensions of her life with different scenarios: one Jewish parent, a crazy selfish mother, a worshipful husband, an only child, a frightening medical condition, glimpses of New York City, and crumbling houses in New England. I can't remember which scenarios are fact and which scenarios are fiction.

Why can't W.H. Auden be a Jewish American Poet? Instead, he's the whitest guy ever. At least, he was gay. "He was my North, my South, my East and West/My working week, and my Sunday rest." That's poetry I can cleave to. Ginsberg talks about Auden in his journals, "Description of Auden's apt. Clutter and dirt…Liked Auden's Nones…." Quite frankly, if you read Ginsberg's journal you can't even tell if he's writing about a conversation with William Carlos Williams or Auden or both. Back to Ginsberg. Back to something.

I could write more on Shalom Auslander. I tried to find out why so many NPR hosts and reporters are Jews. I wish there was some Jewish American writer who wrote about his/her encounters with orthodox boys. If I've gleaned any bit of information this semester on the Jewish-American- American-Jewish cultural experience it is through those boys and their youth and their new found love of God and rules. If I've learned anything about the Jewish American experience, it's that sometimes Jewish schools just need warm Jewish bodies so they can continue being Jewish schools. And sometimes those same Jewish schools are filled with brilliance. I've watched an Orthodox boy give a presentation on the Marx Brothers and neglect to mention their Jewishness. I've watched a 612er give a presentation on Hassids who don't even live in America and then bring Hassidic Hip-Hop in at the end. Why didn't he just stick to Hassidic hip-hop? Why not just stick to all 613 commandments or at least all the ones that don't involve Temple ritual. These boys are my direct encounter with Jewish Culture. I'm not sure you could have written a better script…

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Crying for Allen Ginsberg’s Mom

I cried in class last night: tears streaming down, ugly face crying. At least I didn't make any noise. It was awful. My only consolation is that I didn't cry because of some self-righteous orthodox argument. I didn't cry because of their stupidity or meanness. In fact, the boys were on their best behavior. Black Hat spoke to me for the first time and Crazy Chaim followed me around like an overly excited puppy. I was half-surprised he didn't try to follow me into the bathroom. And Curious George—who knows. All I remember of him last night was his confused comment to the Cultural Historian that he'd read for the wrong week. His lack of sachel is almost starting to concern me.

Frustration 1- Work: I walked into class already filled with frustration. Earlier in the day, I had conferences with my writing students. For the first time in many semesters, almost all of my students are great. They come to class, they ask questions, and best of all, they write well. Of course, one student is the exception. He's missed many classes, he's always late, and he's changed his topic three times! Any piece of work he hands in completely wrong. It's not that he can't write; He simply refuses to follow directions. The beauty of the class is the straightforward directions and endless examples. He has every excuse in the book—I'm hindering his creativity (it's technical writing—there's no creativity in Tech Writing), the writing center was mean to him, he was taught in the French and British school system (what that has to do with following an example, I'll never know), on and on and on. After missing his conference because "he had to take a test or study for a test or whatever," he brought me his "paper" (and yes, I mean to put quotations there). It was professional, a bit out of order, and well-written. However, it wasn't the assignment. I gave very strict instructions (instructions, by the way, created by the college), and I gave example after example. I read through it rather quietly, trying to decide if he plagiarized. I say nothing about my suspicions. I need proof before I can have that conversation. Beyond completely ignoring the assignment, the order is all wrong: Introduction—Results—Research—Conclusion. "Why is research after results? I don't get it." I ask him.

"What do you mean? How do you not get it? You hate me. You're always singling me out. I try and I try and I try for you, and you're so mean to me. I've been educated in so many places. My dad works for the UN…" (oh, then by all means, if you're dad works for the UN, then do whatever you want)

Frustrated, I stare at him. I feel like I'm talking to a brick wall. Nothing I say will make any difference. He will end up failing. He will make a huge stink. I will have to speak to my boss, and then the Dean…

I want it to stop. He spends more time complaining then he does listening. If he just followed directions. GRRRR. Semester after semester frustration follows me. It follows all of us. They use up all their energy complaining. They expect to be passed along. They expect that looking busy automatically gives you an A. It doesn't! The final product gives you an A.

I carry this frustration on the long drive (in the pouring rain) up I95 and through the city streets of northeast Philadelphia. I carry it with me as I get out of the car and walk onto campus. I carry it with me as I set my books down and get out my computer and listen to Crazy Chaim bark happily in my ear.


 

Frustration 2- Hypocrisy: Surprisingly (to me at least), women want to talk about this blog: Jewish women. Women with their own frustration. My ortho boys have hit a nerve. Suddenly, women are telling me stories. Most of their stories revolve around sex, not just any kind of sex, but sex (or at least heavy petting) with confused orthodox boys. Sex with a man they met in Israel. Sex with a man they met at study group. Sex with a boy they met at Chabad on their University Campus. It is sex filled with guilt, and tzittzit, and black hats. Sex in emails, text messaging and phone conversations. It is secretive. The women are Jewish, but not religious. Thankfully, the men are (at least in these stories) single. In every other way, they follow Halakah (Jewish law). They pray when they are supposed to pray. They eat kosher food. They wear the right clothing. They follow the rituals. They won't pray with a woman. They won't shake a woman's hand. They won't speak gossip. However, they simply cannot help themselves when it comes to sex. They fall down the endless ladder of redemption over and over again. Do they think their God does not care? If you can't be virginal for God, who can you be virginal for? Usually, they place their guilt on the laps of the women. They beg them not to tell. They harp about ruining their reputation in the Jewish community. They hang up phones, they walk out on secret dates, and they keep coming back for more. I'm all for people having sex with whoever makes them happy. However, the hypocrisy is ridiculous. These orthodox men scream from their soapboxes about the impurity of women, but what about their own impurities? What would they do if they knew their future wives were having secret trysts with men? What would they do if they found out their wives weren't virginal? Would that be forgivable? Now, I admit, I have no idea what would happen to these boys if the community were to find out about their sexual misdeeds. Nonetheless, I'm guessing the old Jewish men with their long white beards and big fury hats, might just pat them on the shoulder, wink, and say, "Good job."


 

Frustration 3- Allen Ginsberg (or what sent me over the edge): When we finally started class, we analyzed Allen Ginsberg. We listened to him read from his poem America. I've never been a fan of beat poetry. My mind wandered as his drunken high as a kite voice filled the room. I think I may have laughed once or twice…Then we listened to:

A Supermarket In California by Allen Ginsberg

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whit-
man, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees
with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.
In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images,
I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of
your enumerations!
What peaches and what penumbras! Whole fam-
ilies shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives
in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!--and you,
Garcнa Lorca, what were you doing down by the
watermelons?

I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old
grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator
and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed
the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my
Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of
cans following you, and followed in my imagination
by the store detective.
We strode down the open corridors together in
our solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every
frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.
Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors
close in an hour. Which way does your beard point
tonight? p
(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the
supermarket and feel absurd.)
Will we walk all night through solitary streets?
The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses,
we'll both be lonely.
Will we stroll dreaming ofthe lost America of love
past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent
cottage?
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-
teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit
poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank
and stood watching the boat disappear on the black
waters of Lethe?

Berkeley 1955 (reblogged from poets)


I dug it a bit more. I loved the thought of wandering the aisles of the supermarket with my favorite literary figure. Of course, when I imagine great intellectuals that appeal to me, they start fighting. Usually, it's just one figure: Hannah Arendt in her later years- dark hair pulled back, cigarette in hand, judging everyone in the room. "That Peretz thinks his stories are so smart; He knows nothing of Politics my dear. He's too confused."

We moved onto a selection from Kaddish. I'd read it over the weekend. It deals with Ginsberg's mother Naomi.

She suffers from schizophrenia. She has hallucinations of the government out to get her. She bounces from one place to another. He must watch his mother fall deeper and deeper into madness. "The enemies approach—what poisons? Tape recorders? FBI? Zhadanov hiding behind the counter? Trotsky mixing rat bacteria in the back of the store? Uncle Sam in Newark, plotting deathly perfumes in the Negro district? Uncle Ephraim, drunk with murder in the politician's bar, scheming of Hague?"

When I read it at home, I wondered, "How did he survive such horror?" However, in class, I was struck by his physical description of his mother. It was…grotesque. I want to find an example that doesn't make me feel sick and uncomfortable. (even I have my limits) " dress up round her hips, big slash of hair, scars of operations, pancreas, belly wounds, abortions, appendix, stitching of incisions pulling down in the fat like hideous thick zippers…"

To remember your mother like that and I don't just mean emotionally, but physically. To describe one's mother in such a sexual way was too much for me. I said, "I'd rather not be remembered than to be remembered like that." The older gentleman in my class (a psychologist in the prison system for over 30 years), turns to me and says, "But he can't forget."

Maybe it was my frustration from earlier. Maybe it was the fact I have a young son of my own, and I can't bear the thought of him ever speaking about me like that. It overwhelmed me. As the boys sat their staring into their books, tears started streaming down my face. There I was, crying over Allen Ginsberg's dead mother.

The boys kept stared at their books. The Cultural Historian looked over at me then looked down again. Stop crying stop crying stop crying. The tears kept coming. I had to get up and leave the room.

I'm a crier. I've always been. However, this was different. As the only female in the room, I hated exposing myself. I hated feeling like the GIRL—the silly emotional weak girl.

When I came back into the room they were still talking about Ginsberg. I jumped right back in like nothing happened. And no one said anything to me…

I'm sure their talking about me right now.

Now, I'm the punch line.

 

Friday, April 16, 2010

Running towards Stupidity

As I walked my giant oaf of a dog in a neighborhood much fancier than my own, I heard a giant swarm of bees. I looked all around me--buzzing around filling the air. The buzz buzz got closer and closer, until finally I saw them: a swarm of fifteen or so women running and talking  and talking and talking. Skinny legs and all flew past my ass and falling apart black boots. The oaf stood in one place gnawing on the long wet grass oblivious. "How do they do that?" I wondered aloud in both awe and utter annoyance. How does one run and talk and run and talk with such ease? After a few minutes, I pulled the oaf back to the car, dropped him off at home, and went back to my normal morning of writing and researching. I forgot about them...

However, at some point I decided to check facebook and my page was filled with running updates: 5ks, 3.5 mile markers, running music enthusiasm-- all from people who never used to run. College friends, law school friends, work friends, my husband's high school friends. In fact, all from women I placed at the top of my list of women who looked good without being skinny. I liked my list. It made me feel good. Not that they are wasting away to practically nothing, but they are doing the one thing I can't handle: running. I'm not anti-exercise, in fact, last semester, (stress on last semester) I was super in shape. I worked out at least four days a week. I could walk forever- up hills and down. I lifted weights, punched bags, did suicides, but whenever I actually started running I'd have a full blown anxiety attack. Hiccuping, crying, yelling--I couldn't get past it. Somehow, everybody else, people I never imagined in the whole world get past it!

Why? Now, I'm not looking for encouragement. The last thing I want to hear is- you can do anything you put your mind to. Comments like that make me want to punch you in the face. Comments like that make me want to be fat just to spite you. Or worse, you'll become a character on this blog. I just want to know if everyone else got some magic pill in the mail that I missed. Some would argue that this all stems from the fact I'm married to an avid runner (now you all feel you figured it out), but The Giant Gentile's running doesn't get to me. It's his thing. He's a super athletic crazy man who has never found a physical activity he isn't good at. He's not someone to compare myself to. I know how he gets past it--you could cut off his arm and he'd keep going. It's in his Giant Gentile genes mixed with Marine Corp training. It's the women who seem more like me that I don't get.


 


The Cultural Historian returned papers last night. Crazy Chaim spent the first five minutes I walked in the room bragging about writing the paper without reading the book. "I saw the movie; it's the same thing." Then he practically leaped for joy when he looked at his grade. "Look!" He screeched, tsit tsits flying with misplaced pride. For a moment, I thought I might be blown away by his brilliance. For a moment, I thought he pulled his tallis over the eyes of The Cultural Historian and managed to wow him with his astounding prose and bullshit insights. The moment passed quickly when he shoved the paper in my face (but not close enough to actually touch me). "C! Isn't that Great? I got a C." Atlanta turned to him and said, "I would have pegged you for an achiever."

"Achiever!" He squealed back with glee. "A C is an achievement. Every time I've gotten a C or better I've been overjoyed."

Now, I'm worried about the credentials of the graduate school. If he's proud of a grad school C, then what does that say about his grades in college? Do they just let any Chaim Yonkel into the graduate program? How did he explain away his crappy GPA?

Just when I thought the IQ level in the room couldn't get any lower, when we finally looking at literature, Curious George says "I'm confused." We were reading Philip Roth's Eli the Fanatic about a community of Jews in 1948 30 minutes outside of New York City who cherish living comfortably next to their gentile neighbors. They don't want to be seen as Jews. They've worked too hard to blend in and are incensed when a Yeshiva of DPs (two men and eighteen children) opens its doors in their backyard. The traditional Jews fill them with fear. "There he was, wearing the hat, that hat which was the very cause of Eli's mission, the source of Woodenton's upset….Get the one with the hat. What a nerve, what a nerve." (Roth, p.920)*

The Jews in the community send Eli, a lawyer and member of the Jewish community, to speak to the head of the Yeshiva. Of course, as Eli said, "The trouble was that sometimes the law didn't seem to have the answer, the law didn't seem to have anything to do with what was aggravating everyone." (921) The Jews in the Yeshiva are greenhorns; they are obvious Jews. Thus, the community feels they reflect poorly on the modern Jews. "This is the twentieth century, Eli. Now it's the guy with the hat. Pretty soon all the little Yeshivah boys'll be spilling down into town…next thing they'll be after our daughters." (923)

In the midst of analyzing the story, Curious George raises his hand. "The story is about Jews? I thought it was just the town complaining." No dear, the whole point of the story is the tension between the assimilated American Jews and the traditional immigrant Jews. Fine, whatever, I should cut him some slack. Sometimes we skim stories and miss the whole point. My own students do it all the time. However, my own students are community college students. They take my class in order to improve their critical reading skills. They do not have the benefit of a four-year college education. Again, everyone makes mistakes. I used to think that if someone got five fouls in a basketball game they we're thrown out of playing basketball…but I digress

We moved on to Art Speigelman's graphic novel about the Holocaust—Maus II. Curious George pipes up again. "Dude, I'm so lost. I have no idea what went on in the story. The pictures are confusing." So let me get this straight: words confuse you and pictures confuse you. As I write this, I worry that I sound like a condescending Jerk. I admit, when the Cultural Historian asked me to add my own thoughts on Maus II, I had a hard time. My foot had fallen asleep and I was trying to talk and shake it awake under the table. Maybe Curious George's foot falls asleep a lot. Maybe he's got a really hot girlfriend who makes it hard to concentrate on reading. (doubtful) Maybe his cat died. Maybe he needs new glasses. At least he didn't scream, "This isn't literature—it's a comic book!"

Then, during break, Curious George tells me this strange tale of his friend in college who organized an Easter Egg hunt for the Jewish Student Union. They hid eggs around campus, and when the Jewish students found them, they were found with Jewish sayings. "What?" Chaim interjected with disgust. "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard." Curious George looks at me for encouragement and understanding—convinced, I'm sure, that my Gentile husband and low-cut shirts make me very comfortable with going on a Jewish Easter Egg hunt. "Um, I have to say I'm with Team Chaim on this one." I said with my best talking-to-a-young-child voice. "Easter and Jews don't mix well." He gave me a look of confusion and then a bit of shame. "Yeah, yeah, I know. I told him it was dumb. I can't believe he did it."

Sure Curious George. Sure.

I should let it go. I should remember that my other grad school classes were filled with intelligent individuals. My other classes had rabbinical students, educators, lawyers, and even a nun. More than anything, my other classes were filled with adults not 22 year-old boys.

Maybe I should go for a run…

*Roth, P. (2001). Eli, The Fanatic. In J. Chametzky, J. Felstiner, H. Flanzbaum, & K. Hellerstein (Eds.), Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology (pp. 918-945). New York: WW Norton & Company.