Michael Chabon’s Sacred and Profane Cliché Machine
In the institution’s most controversial graduation ceremony since the infamous “Trefa Banquet” in 1883, Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Michael Chabon took the podium at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles and exhorted his audience to “knock down the walls.” This meant, first and foremost, Israeli security checkpoints and barriers, but by the end of the talk, Chabon had extended his demolition to-do list for these future rabbis and Jewish communal professionals to seemingly all rituals and expressions of Jewish difference, and perhaps—he wasn’t quite sure—Judaism itself.
No doubt, HUC expected an edgy talk from Chabon. After all, he and his wife, fellow novelist Ayelet Waldman, recently teamed up with the far-left Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence to lead a group of writers to the West Bank, then published a book of their essays, many of which can be fairly described as gullible anti-Israel agitprop. In the inevitable damage-control statement afterward, Interim President David Ellenson and Dean Joshua Holo described the institution as an “energetic, fearless marketplace of ideas,” but they clearly weren’t quite expecting this. Nor is a commencement ceremony really the time for energetic debate. Indeed, an Israeli woman named Morin Zaray, who was celebrating her completion of an MBA in nonprofit management, appears to have been the only one who demonstratively objected to Chabon’s speech:
As I heard Chabon’s simplified takedown of my country, the room began to spin. I turned back to look at my brother, who served in a combat unit in the Israel Defense Forces. He looked sick to his stomach. I got up from my seat and approached my family. . . . I felt ashamed for being part of this gathering, ashamed that many in the audience were just nodding at this reductionist view of a multilayered and complicated country. . . . Standing outside, I was nearly brought to tears as I heard the crowd of Jews give Chabon a thunderous applause.
Watching or reading the address as published in Tablet Magazine makes it clear that his argument was not only political. Chabon took special aim at Jewish divisions and distinctions—between the sacred and the profane, the clean and unclean, and especially between Jew and Gentile. “An endogamous marriage,” he said, “is a ghetto of two,” so he no longer hopes that his children will marry Jews. Nor does he any longer find value in the many Jewish practices he mentioned from the Passover Seder to community eruvin.
As Sylvia Barack Fishman, Steven M. Cohen, and Jack Wertheimer wrote, it is tempting to ignore this all as “performance art of a personal psychodrama in a public setting,” but “Chabon’s ideas have cachet, especially in culturally and political progressive bubbles,” and these ideas undermine the viability of American Jewish life. Fishman, Cohen, and Wertheimer focused on Chabon’s indifference to, if not promotion of, intermarriage, particularly to this audience. As they noted, “only one-fifth of recently marrying Jews raised in Reform families married other Jews,” and “only 8% of the grandchildren of the intermarried are being raised in the Jewish religion.
The problem with Chabon’s ideas is more than demographic. His discomfort with Israel’s security barriers and Jewish marriage are really specific applications of a desire to erase anything that distinguishes one group from another:
I abhor homogeneity and insularity, exclusion and segregation, the redlining of neighborhoods, the erection of border walls and separation barriers. I am for mongrels and hybrids and creoles, for syncretism and confluence, for jazz and Afrobeat and Thai surf music, for integrated neighborhoods and open borders and the preposterous history of Barack Obama. I am for the hodgepodge cuisines of seaports and crossroads, for sampling and mashups, pastiche and collage. I am for ambiguity, ambivalence, fluidity, muddle, complexity, diversity, creative balagan.
This is the theme that binds Chabon’s entire address, and he riffs on it in virtually every paragraph. Interweaving his own Jewish journey with historical musings, he reaches the conclusion that Judaism has survived because of its willingness to erase “old lines and boundaries” and reinvent itself, its “opening our minds to the ideas, and our ears to the music, and our mouths to the languages, and our bellies to the kitchen-wisdom of the people living on the other side of whatever boundary line we chose, in our collective wisdom, to ignore.” Or, as Chabon’s character Archy Stallings says in Telegraph Avenue, “Creole . . . means you stop drawing those lines. It means Africa and Europe cooked up in the same skillet.”
In his commencement speech this exilic hybridity is where it’s at, though Chabon doesn’t worry much about what being “cooked up in the same skillet” meant historically for Jews (or Creoles). When he describes sitting at the Seder table thinking about how Judaism has changed and how it must change again, he thinks of “when the great Temple rose in Jerusalem, when it was destroyed and our history became a history of exile,” but our return to the land goes unmentioned. In The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Chabon’s character Meyer Landsman says:
I don’t care what supposedly got promised to some sandal-wearing idiot whose claim to fame is that he was ready to cut his own son’s throat for the sake of a hare-brained idea. . . . My homeland is in my hat. It’s in my ex-wife’s tote bag.
As the late literary critic D. G. Myers wrote, “in this view Zionism represents a betrayal of Jewish history and exile is the proper Jewish condition.” Chabon’s problem with the State of Israel goes well beyond his critique of certain state policies and settler communities. Any particular nation (but especially the Jews), any particular religion (but especially Judaism), anything that makes us uniquely us is an enduring source of shame. Chabon would rather be part of, and rather his children marry into, “the tribe that sees nations and borders as antiquated canards.”
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A mishnah in Bava Batra describes two neighbors, a beekeeper and mustard farmer, who must keep the bees and plants away from one another. Honey mustard is a great flavor, but if you turn the bees loose on the mustard plant you ruin both, because they have to develop independently with their own integrity. Chabon forgets that “mashups, pastiche and collage” require difference. Hybridity is not merely about the amount of common genetic material of sexual partners. Homogeneity and heterogeneity are not literally about genetic haplotypes but are metaphors for considering sameness and difference.
Consequently, Chabon’s paean to mongrels and hybrids does not make note of something to which the Jewish tradition, with all its attention to differences, devotes a veritable library: There are different kinds of mixtures. The core of the rabbinic curriculum is all about ascertaining which ingredients retain their identities in mixtures—by imparting flavor, by stabilizing the whole, or because of their intrinsic significance—and which are batel, null, deemed to no longer exist.
This body of learning pertains first and foremost to milk and meat and pots and pans, but it is predicated on underlying ideas about individual and group identity: How does a small minority retain its identity when mixed with an overwhelming majority? How do different ingredients absorb and impart flavor to the whole? When does a mixture cease to be the sum of its ingredients and become a new entity?
Chabon expresses discomfort with “monocultural places” with “one language, one religion,” but the application of these words to Judaism is simply astonishing. Virtually every Jewish community in history has developed its own dialect. There are five Judeo-Arabic dialects alone. There is a dizzying variety of Jewish culture and multiform expressions of Jewish religiosity. Chabon, however, has no access to this amazing, diversity because he speaks no Jewish language. One is reminded of Edelshtein’s complaint about American Jewish writers in Cynthia Ozick’s classic story “Envy; or Yiddish in America”:
You have to KNOW SOMETHING! At least the difference between a rav and a rebbeh! . . . Their Yiddish! One word here, one word there. Shikseh on one page, putz on the other, and that’s the whole vocabulary!
Chabon writes “I ply my craft in English, that most magnificent of creoles,” as if speaking English, with all its layers and loan words, makes one multilingual all by itself. Perhaps sensing this, he adds: “my personal house of language is haunted by the dybbuk of Yiddish.” Alas, it is a small dybbuk (the one Edelshtein noticed) and not very frightening—or knowledgeable.
Consequently, even as Chabon celebrates even the most superficial cross-cultural fusion, the Judaism he describes is suburban, third-generation American Judaism, a monolingual, monocultural, monochromatic (but not necessarily monotheistic) sliver of the totality of Jewish experience.
Chabon singles out the Shabbat eruv for ridicule three times in his speech. For him, an eruv is just another boundary, another way for Jews to mark who is in and who is out. But the word literally means “mixture” or “combination.” The legal theory behind it is that many different private and semiprivate domains can be combined into a single household so that one can carry things from one to another on Shabbat. Creating an eruv involves negotiation with all those, including non-Jews and nonobservant Jews, who share that space. The “walls” of the eruv are, in fact, generally not walls at all. They are comprised only of posts and wires, on the premise that two posts with a lintel form a doorway. The eruv circumscribes a community with walls that are entirely doors.
Shouldn’t this be exactly what Chabon wants? Doesn’t an eruv demonstrate that a Jewish enclave can be open and permeable in either direction? The very idea of a wall made of doors undermines Chabon’s dichotomies. It reflects a different sort of boundary-making, one that is inclusive and open to mixing and merging and combining. Alas, “You have to KNOW SOMETHING!” Instead, all Chabon sees, all he wants to see, is that the eruv divides the inside from the outside and is therefore abhorrent; living in an eruv and living in Hebron—it’s all the same. No need to make distinctions.
Hebron, a small and heavily fortified Jewish community with a violent history, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, exemplifies for Chabon, all that is wrong with particularist Judaism. This, for him, is the reductio ad absurdum of Judaism’s “giant interlocking system of distinctions and divisions,”—between Jew and non-Jew, man and woman, kosher and treif, pure and impure. In fact, though he doesn’t mention it, it was in Hebron that the “sandal-wearing idiot” Abraham was commanded to mark his particularism—his particular mission, his particular covenant with God—on his body.
In one very important respect, though, Chabon makes an important point that some of his critics fail to acknowledge. He writes: “Any religion that relies on compulsory endogamy to survive has, in my view, ceased to make the case for its continued validity in the everyday lives of human beings.” He is absolutely right. Ideally, Jewish marriages should arise out of the love between two people who speak a common Jewish language, celebrate and mourn according to the same calendrical rhythm, and participate in a shared culture. Judaism survives thanks to the depth, beauty, and complexity of its traditions, not because of hysterical demands for in-marriage between indifferent Jews. Once Judaism has been watered down and thinned out, policing the boundaries of the community can only go so far.
The challenge facing American Judaism is not Chabon’s challenge, to choose openness and hybridity over closed religious borders, but it isn’t really choosing distinctiveness over assimilation either. The challenge is closer to Edelshtein’s: We must choose knowledge over ignorance. The result will be a creative, confident Judaism that is not afraid of encountering and absorbing from other cultures and is willing to influence them in turn—a robust Jewish community surrounded by walls that are doors.