The ProsenPeople

Street-Corner Sociology in South Williamsburg

Friday, July 24, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, John Benditt pondered whether or not Proust was Jewish and wrote about identity and writing. The Boatmaker is his debut novel. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Some people have said that my novel, The Boatmaker, is a fable, that it has a fairy-tale quality, that it is a fantasy. I suppose that’s alright, but I’m not sure I agree. I think it can equally well be read as reportage, street-corner sociology, direct from my little corner of the world, which is called South Williamsburg. In my neighborhood there are three social groups, each on its own trajectory. One is growing. One is digging in. One is being displaced, slowly but surely. The high-end gentrifiers are growing in numbers. Their incursion was slowed by the financial collapse that began in 2007, but it’s resumed with renewed intensity as the economy has rebounded. The Hispanic community here is on the opposite trajectory: on their way to other neighborhoods, a little at a time. The ones who are digging in are the Chasidim. Property values on Kent Avenue along the river have gone up so much that it is difficult for them to buy up property and build more of the housing they prefer. But they aren’t going anywhere. Each of these groups speaks its own language. They can speak to each other if they want, but mostly they don’t. In fact, for the most part they don’t even see each other. Of course I don’t mean physically. They see each other’s corporeal existence well enough; they’re not blind. But socially, as human beings, they don’t exist for each other. The groups pass by and through each other without really touching. Usually. One Friday evening as I went out, a man approached me on the street near my building. He was one of my very Orthodox neighbors. “Could you come up to my apartment?” he said. “Why?” I said. I’ve lived in New York too long. I don’t do anything just because someone asks. “According to our laws,” he said, “I cannot operate any machines. Even the light, which is a machine. I need someone to turn off the lights inside.” “Alright,” I said. I went in. It was the first time I had ever been in one of the houses with the barred cages around the windows, where in the fall the little huts appear suddenly in the rain, like the last fruits of the season. On the way out, he thanked me. “So you needed me to be the Shabbos goy,” I said. He looked surprised. “You are Jewish?” “Yes.” “Your mother and your father both?” “Yes,” I said, “both of them. And also I had a bar mitzvah. I would be happy to tell you my Torah portion if you like.” Again, he seemed surprised. A little concerned. We looked at each other for a moment, each man in his own thoughts, one question hovering over both of us like a recording angel: “Who is Jewish?”

John Benditt had a distinguished career as a science journalist. He was an editor at Scientific American and at Science before serving as editor in chief of Technology Review. Read more about him and his work here.

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Was Proust Jewish?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015 | Permalink

Marcel Proust Jewish

Earlier this week, John Benditt wrote about identity and writing. The Boatmaker is his debut novel. He will blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Was Marcel Proust JewishMarcel Proust (photo by Otto Wegener)[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Was Paul Newman Jewish? It seemed hard to believe. That jawline! The infinitely blue eyes! But my mother said he was. And I believed everything my mother said. There was a kind of complicity between us—as long as I believed in her. She pointed them out. “He’s Jewish.” Arthur Miller. (But not Marilyn Monroe.) “She’s Jewish.” Lauren Bacall. (But not Humphrey Bogart.) There was a way of reading the world that made sense of what was hidden behind the great screen that separates us from the infinite. My mother taught me how to read. Then I took a step away from my family and from what might have been a safe distance I began to look at things a different way. Was Proust Jewish? The answer seemed to depend on who was giving it. There was no question about some of the facts. His mother was born a Jew, which makes him, by law and custom, a Jew. She married a Christian. Their son, Marcel, was drawn to boys rather than girls at a time when homosexuality was illegal in most European countries, punishable by long prison sentences. Yet in his great book of memory he seems more comfortable being what was then called an “invert” than being a Jew. Being an invert seems to confer a depth of feeling, membership in an aristocracy of the senses, an elite of feeling; being Jewish does not. It may even do the opposite. But the Dreyfus Affair hovers over everything. It forces people to take sides. It shows them in a new light. Some of the aristocrats Marcel loves so much now seem different. What he has loved is their tradition, the depth of it, how every gesture, no matter how small, is underlain by centuries of confidence in their taste, in their ownership of the right thing—the right house, the right painting, the right horse. He is a man in love with a tradition that is not entirely his own and will never be entirely his own. So as I left my home, the one where I had partially grown up, I carried with me the way of reading my mother had passed on to me in secret. Behind the movie-star punim, Paul Newman was a Jew. (Though Joanne Woodward was not.) But this way of reading had changed as I carried it with me in its invisible ark. Now I was interested in those I thought of as “Unlikely Jews,” the ones who couldn’t be categorized, who seemed to slip away like eels from any net that was put out for them. The ones for whom Jewishness was no longer something clear and simple, if hidden from the eyes of those who could not read, but had become ghostly, hanging over everything without being embodied, like one of Marcel’s memories: present only when evoked by some sudden movement of the senses.

John Benditt had a distinguished career as a science journalist. He was an editor at Scientific American and at Science before serving as editor in chief of Technology Review. Read more about him and his work here.

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Who Is Jewish?

Monday, July 20, 2015 | Permalink

John Benditt had a distinguished career as a science journalist. He was an editor at Scientific American and at Science before serving as editor in chief of Technology Review. The Boatmaker is his debut novel. He will blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

“Who is Jewish?” he would ask, hunching his shoulders, palms up. “Who is Jewish?” The way he said it, it sounded like: “Whooo is Joooooish?” The distance between what he was saying and the way he was saying it was enormous. Large enough to get lost in. And maybe never come back out. Especially for him. He was tiny. And ancient. Already when I first met him he was ancient. By that time he had already lived several lives. As a medical student in Vienna. A young psychoanalyst, trained by someone who had perhaps been trained by Freud himself. A refugee in Amsterdam. A psychiatrist at a hospital in New York. A therapist in Yorkville. Which he sometimes referred to semi-humorously as the “Fourth Reich.” Which is where I met him. As a patient: a man who could not make up his mind to marry the woman he was with. She was Jewish, definitely. I left her and moved on to a much younger woman, who was definitely not Jewish, but I stayed with the therapist. “They think I’m a goy,” he would say of the Orthodox. “Already for a long time they were thinking that.” It was because he didn’t believe in God. He believed in science. But apparently Hitler did think he was a Jew. While I took the crosstown bus to East End Avenue and 82nd Street on Tuesday after work and again on Thursday, the movie Shoah was playing in New York. I asked him if he was going to see it. “I can’t,” he said. “If I did, afterwards I would be running around in the street with a machine gun.” Who is Jewish? I thought I went to therapy to overcome my “commitment issues” in my relationships with women. But now, looking back, when Israel Kesselbrenner has long since closed up shop on East End Avenue and is seeing patients in a different dimension, I think maybe what I was really wrestling with in those sessions was that same question: Who is Jewish? And perhaps all these years later (since they say therapy never really ends), I am still wrestling with that question, like Jacob wrestling with the angel. I don’t know. I really don’t. And since I don’t, I don’t feel comfortable giving myself the last word here. So instead, I’ll give the last word to a wonderful writer who has just left us, dematerializing in his unmatchable elegance, ascending into the summer light over the Hamptons: James Salter. Salter, author of Light Years and A Sport and a Pastime, was born James Horowitz in New Jersey, not so far from East Hampton in one sense, a long way in another. When he was asked by a reporter “Are you a Jewish writer?” Salter answered “I have been trying not to be.” And what could be more Jewish than that?

Read more about John Benditt and his work here.

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