Friday, December 2, 2011

Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question (2010)

While I am not uninformed or without experience on the subject of this book --- Jewish identity --- I am probably not qualified to address it, at least competently. This small vignette from the novel explains my sentiment. One of the novel's characters, Hephzibah, who is the curator of a museum-in-the-making on Anglo-Jewish Culture, asks her non-Jewish lover, Julian Treslove, to take a break from his role as "assistant curator" because he would not have much to contribute until the museum was open. Almost immediately after making the request, she regrets it, because she realizes she has effectively said that a non-Jew is not competent to organize a museum about Jewish culture. "It wasn't fair to him. Jews might have been possessed of a crowded almanac of Jewish events, a Jewish Who's Who extending back to the first man and woman, but Treslove couldn't be expected to know in every instance Who Was and Who Was Not, Who Had Changed His Name, Who Had Married In or Out. What is more he would have no instinct for it. Somethings you cannot acquire. You have to be born and brought up a Jew to see the hand of Jews in everything. That or be born and brought up a Nazi." I don't have the instinct to address Jewish identity. Except for the last sentence of this quote, Hephzibah is probably correct, but I ask, does it have to be that way?

At a certain level, it is possible to generalize the subject of identity so that what is true for the Jewish identity is true of the Russian identity, the German identity, the Muslim identity, the atheist identity, the WASP identity, the African America identity. But reducing human cultural identity to its lowest common denominators deprives us the richness of the stories that define the culture and ethnicity of different humans.

The subject of identity, in this case Jewish identity, has to be approached in two ways: personal identity, what does it mean to be Jewish?; and cultural or group identity, what does Jewish mean? Howard Jacobson zigs and zags between both, as he should, because it is impossible to separate the two. Personal identity owes its existence to group identity: we humans are social animals. The title of Jacobson's novel, The Finkler Question, reveals the inseparability of the two. Finkler is Sam Finkler, Julian Treslove's lifelong friend, and a man with his own personal identity issues. For Treslove, his friend Sam Finkler is emblematic of all Jews. Privately, Treslove refers to Jews as "Finklers." "It took away the stigma, [Treslove] thought. The minute you talked about the Finkler Question, say or the Finkler conspiracy, you sucked out the toxins. But he was never quite able to get around to explaining this to Finkler himself." Substitute Finkler for Jewish and one of the themes in this book is immediately revealed by it title: the Jewish Question.

The phrase the "Jewish Question" first appears in 18th century England as part of a debate over the rights of Jews in England --- voting rights, property rights. I did not dwell on it in my discussion of David Liss' The Paper Conspiracy (see November 16, 2011 post), but Liss fairly describes and frequently mentions the legal status of Jews in early 18th century England and their lack of property rights and voting rights. But while it began as a neutral phrase, the "Jewish question" evolved and took on an anti-semitic tone by the 19th century. A discussion of the "Jewish question" ultimately could not avoid a discussion of a "solution" --- whether it be assimilation, deportation and resettlement --- and by 20th century Nazi Germany, the solution became wedded with malice in the so-called "final solution," extermination. The phrase the "Jewish question" is a little bit like Treslove substituting Finkler for Jewish in his lexicon. Here the word "question," particularly in its anti-semitic context, really means "problem." Problems are in need of solutions.

The origins of the "Jewish question" begin long before 18th century England. They begin with the demonization of the Jews by Christians as early as the founding of the Catholic church, as former Catholic priest, James Carroll, has so thoroughly documented in Constantine's Sword. Regrettably, oppressors --- in this case, both Christians and Christian institutions --- almost never confess to their own problems and look at themselves in the same way that they look at others, and so we do not hear simultaneously from them about the "christian question." But there is in this history of demonization a "christian question," just like in other times and places there is a "muslim question," a "hindu question," a "communist question," or a "Hutu question." Jacobson at least implicitly, if not expressly, recognizes this through Finkler, who turns the tables on the "jewish question" by drawing attention to the plight of Palestinians in Israel and Gaza at the hands of their Zionist/Israeli oppressors through his involvement with a group of Anglo Jewish intellectuals known as "ASHamed Jews." Samuel Finkler, a man who is so thoroughly cloaked with a Jewish identity, has the capacity to assess critically his own cultural identity in the same way he assesses the identity of others. The "Finkler question" is as much about a Jewish assessment of the Jewish identity as it is about a non-Jew's assessment of the Jewish identity or a Jew's assessment of the non-Jewish identity.

Turning to the question of cultural identity, what does "Jewish" mean? Is the term's meaning found in the story told by Thomas Cahill in The Gifts of the Jews: the first people to provide humanity with a narrative history of near linear progress and hope that tomorrow will be better than today, which is better than the day before, in contrast to the "circle of life and death" narrative common to other cultures, such as the Mesopotamians or Hindus before the common era? Is the term's meaning found in the first people to embrace monotheism? After all, the first four of the Ten Commandments, purportedly given by god to Moses and the Jews, are about the unity and singularity of one God who is the source of all life. Is the term's meaning found in the covenant story of chapter 17 of Genesis, a story of a real estate bargain for a narrow swath of land east of the Mediterranean, south of Assyria, and north of Egypt, cleaved and sealed with a promise that all of Abraham's male descendants would thereafter be circumcised? A significant part of The Finkler Question's conversation, as well as Treslove's ruminations, are about circumcision and land. The ASHamed Jews' diatribe about Zionists and Israel is as much a diatribe about the illegal occupation of land as it is about the contradictions of Jews who "throw their weight around and then tell you they believe in a compassionate God." Is it found in the larger story read and re-read every year, along with the laws, rules, customs of the Torah, beginning with Abraham, continuing through to the story of Moses and those who wandered out of Egypt with Moses, found in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, and perhaps the oral tradition as well? Or is the meaning of Jewish found in the diaspora story, a wandering tribe in exile, yet seemingly able to assimilate in the communities of others until someone comes along and says we need to purify our community?

I did not ask whether the meaning of Jewish is found in connections among people to some mitochondrial DNA that links a genealogical family of people across generations. The phrase l'dor v'dor suggests that what Jewish means is connected through the traditions that are passed along between generations. The Nazis certainly thought in terms of a blood connection. But the Jewish treatment of the Marranos who converted to Christianity in order to avoid persecution in the times of Inquisition indicates that those who failed to continue to practice Judaism, even privately, were no longer full Jews. Likewise conversion to Judaism by a non-Jew brings about full membership in the Jewish community. Blood lineage is not an essential element of what Jewish means. Jacobson does not seem to think so either. Finkler is married to a woman, Tyler Gallagher, who converts to Judaism after they marry, and the story contains enough information that could lead one to conclude that Tyler is "more Jewish" than Finkler.

As for the novel's main character, Julian Treslove, unsure of his own identity, explores creating a Jewish identity. Treslove cannot maintain a relationship with any woman more than an evening, a day or a week. As the novel opens he seems to adore every woman who walks by him. He is the father of two children conceived during what appears to be little more than a one-night stand. In the novel's central act, Treslove is walking home after a dinner with Finkler and their mutual friend, an older Jewish man, Libor. He is assaulted by a woman, injured, and robbed, and she curses at him. At first he thinks he hears his assailant say, "Your jewels." He thinks again, maybe she said, "You're Jules." And the more he thinks about, he thinks she said "You Jules, you." No, it was more succinct: "You Ju." Treslove concludes that his assailant has mistaken him for Finkler. She thinks Treslove is a Jew. He rejects the idea that mistaken identity is one of mistaken appearance: he is the wrong size, the wrong temperature, the wrong speed to be perceived as Jew. It must be something else, he tells Finkler: it is a matter of spirit and essence. Spiritually I am like the Jews. He is reminded that Finkler once told him, "Ours is not a club you can join." And then he meets Hephzibah --- at a seder-in-November meal hosted by Libor. He begins a year long relationship based on mutual love and appears to be on the cusp of trying to establish a Jewish identity. Once again, however, he cannot consummate a relationship after a year of trying. Treslove cannot establish his personal identity.

As far as individual identity is concerned, there is no monolithic Jewish personal identity in Jacobson's novel. There are Jews who regularly go to synagogue and read the Torah every year; there are Jews who do not go to synagogue or rarely go to synagogue and do not read the Torah every year. There are Jews who are ardent Zionists and defenders of the modern Jewish state of Israel, and there are Jews who believe that the Zionists and the State of Israel have lost their way. There are Jews who will only marry another Jew. There are Jews who marry non-Jews, and sometimes they raise their children as Jews and sometimes they do not. There are Jews who are converted Jews. There are Jews who will only have marital affairs with non-Jews. There are Jews who consider themselves Orthodox, there are Jews who consider themselves "conservative," and there are Jews who consider themselves "reform." There are European Jews and there are Sephardic Jews.

Personal identity is a matter of autobiographical memory. This is our autobiographical self (see April 8, 2011 post). But our autobiographical memories are shared, and this facilitates social bonding and the building of relationships. It also influences our story-telling and the stories we tell each other, whether represented as fact or fiction. Cultures are built on the sharing of autobiographical memory, yet at the same time personal identity is strongly influenced by the culture that one personally experiences. While at the outset I said that personal identity owes its existence to cultural or group identity, the reverse is true as well as cultural identity ultimately owes its existence to the sharing of many personal identities. Autobiographical memories are merged and revised into a collective memory. But as we have seen in prior posts, memory is fluid, constantly changing and redeveloping in marginal ways. (See November 6, 2011 post). What is meant by "Jewish" for one era, is, and is likely to have a slightly different meaning in another era. What it means to "be Jewish" in one era, is likely to have a slightly different meaning in another era.

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