Josh Glancy

The Jewish diaspora is going through an age of mediocrity

A new biography of Joseph Roth shows the contrast with our more affluent, comfortable lifestyles — and the victims of our modern quality of life are great art, music and literature

October 13, 2022 12:38

Are we running out of steam? Has the wave of Jewish genius and creativity that emerged from the Enlightenment and Emancipation begun to crest? These thoughts have been on my mind recently, since reviewing Keiron Pim’s fascinating new biography of the author and journalist Joseph Roth.

Roth was in many ways the quintessential Jewish writer: itinerant, alienated, possessed of a relentless, almost manic energy that produced millions of searing words. Like many famous Jews, in a tradition going back to Jesus and beyond, Roth felt deeply conflicted about his religion and his tribe. He insulted them at length but defended them passionately from outside criticism.

But where did that energy come from? And do we still have it? Pim diagnoses the torrid Roth with “assimilitis”, an affliction born from trying too hard to fit in, hammering his square Jewish peg into a round Christian hole. Roth was born in frum, backwards Galicia and became celebrated in Vienna, Berlin and Paris during the 1920s and 30s. But he never found a home and never resolved the tensions of his own identity: wanting to be accepted by the gentiles but hating himself for it. Resenting their demands but yearning for their approval. Loathing the muttering superstitions of his heimishe forebears but hating the supercilious sneers of the posh Viennese assimilants. Leaving the ghetto but never washing off the smell of its onions.

These tensions were in many ways irreconcilable. They made for an atrocious life, as Pim points out, particularly amid the increasingly violent antisemitism of interwar Europe. But in the right hands, and the author of The Radetzky March undeniably had the right hands, they also generated extraordinary writing.

Roth’s identity crisis was a combustion engine, transforming his internal discord into a seemingly endless flow of kinetic prose. It was a primal creative force. To some extent, the same might be said of so many great Jewish writers and artists: Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Philip Roth, Hannah Arendt, Leonard Cohen, Bernice Rubens, Howard Jacobson. I could go on and on. The friction caused by leaving the ghetto and becoming a Jew in the world generated enormous heat. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, it set the world alight.

But it feels today as though we are perhaps warming ourselves by the embers of this fire. I know many Jews who still suffer assimilitis. I’ve had the odd bout of it myself, distancing myself from my roots and then suddenly experiencing a wave of alienation and self-loathing. There is plenty of antisemitism left in the world too, which keeps the flames of anxiety stoked.

But fundamentally, most Jews I know in this country are more likely to suffer from affluenza.

They come from families that have been here for several generations. They are settled and prosperous. At times, they even seem strangely comfortable with their Jewishness. These are the conditions for a good life, which is something to be enormously thankful for, but they are not usually the foundations of spectacular art.

The same is true in America, where I have spent much of the past few years. In a seminal Tablet magazine review of Jonathan Safran Foer’s very Jewish novel Here I Am (2016), the literary critic Adam Kirsch identified Foer’s “insistence on likability” and “discomfort with literary aggression”. Foer’s register, he pointed out, was not furious or frantic or tortured, nor did it pit itself in opposition to the Jewish family or the pieties of the old world.

“That kind of elemental conflict is absent from Here I Am, which insists on loving everyone,” wrote Kirsch. “It even — especially — loves rebellion against Judaism and Jewishness. Indeed, the novel can be read as an extremely damning indictment of American Jewishness today.”

One can imagine what the carnivorous Joseph Roth would have made of Foer’s vegan prose. In fact one doesn’t have to, because he was so mean about his “shmuck” friend Stefan Zweig, the scion of a wealthy Jewish banking dynasty, who saw writing as a gentlemanly hobby rather than an elemental battle for survival.

There are of course plenty of enormously talented Jewish writers, journalists and artists operating in Britain today. One doesn’t need oppression or mania to create. But rarely does one encounter the kind of frenzied genius that leaps from the pages of Pim’s book about Roth and his Mitteleuropean circle. Victims of our own success perhaps.

It is primarily in Israel that this fraught creative brilliance most clearly endures today; a large hadron collider of Jewish identities and neuroses, where the existential angst of the old country feeds into the frantic task of building the new. For most of the rest of us, for now at least, more comfortable mediocrity beckons.

October 13, 2022 12:38

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