Modern Art, Modern Jews

This may be proof of the perversity of summer daydreams, but we visited the “Picasso Looks At Degas” exhibition at the Clark Institute in Williamstown a few days ago, and I found myself thinking about, of all things, how I've been meaning to revisit an argument I made in response to Peter Beinart’s influential article on American Jews.

Beinart had made the point, which polls and elections support, that the majority of Jews tend to be progressive and liberal in most things, and that the reactionary cast of leaders of American Jewish institutions could not possibly appeal to them—that AIPAC, ADL, and so forth were positively turning off young people on their campuses. Specifically, he argued that the leadership’s brand of “Zionism,” insofar as it had turned on tribalism, Manichaeism, and religious orthodoxy, could not possibly engender a sense of identification with Israel among the very people it most wished to attract.

Beinart seemed to conclude from this that a progressive Jewish leadership was therefore a kind of answer; that if such a leadership adopted a Zionism more in step with, and allied to, the Israeli peace movement, it would have more success in bringing young American Jews around. It would help cultivate appreciation for what was special about Israel, support secular Jewish culture, defend Israeli self-defense, and so forth.

NOW I STRONGLY supported his notion that there is a misfit between the American Jewish majority and their leadership. And I welcomed the advent of J Street, for all the obvious reasons, and also for quasi-theological reasons that may not be obvious. But is it really true that, if a reactionary leadership is turning young Jews off Israel, a progressive leadership is likely to turn them on? Indeed, if Israel were a social democratic paradise like Denmark, would this bring young Jewish liberals back to Zionism?

I argued that anyone who was once serious about cultural Zionist ideas would know that Israel and America are not really parallel universes for Jews, where the only important political question is, Are you progressive or are you reactionary? There is also the question of cultural affinity. For most American Jews, to be liberal means to wade in, as a sovereign individual, to the cultural currents of Anglo-American life. Think of the jagged line, in my generation, from Philip Roth to Bob Dylan to Grace Paley.

The obvious alternative to being caught up in the web of Jewish congregational life, Halachic orthodoxy, and a kind of tribalist loyalty to Israel—you know, Cote St. Luc or Teaneck—is not becoming a fellow traveler of Peace Now or an acolyte of secular Jewish life. It is becoming largely indifferent to Israel, and to lose, almost utterly, the cultural threads—Hebrew, liturgy, Torah—out of which secular Jewish life comes into the world, kicking and screaming against orthodox rabbinic smugness.

Which brings me back—perversely, I admit—to Picasso, say. You look at his early work, at the staged progress of his genius, and you see growing idiosyncrasy and abstraction, of course. But you almost never lose that feeling in your solar plexus that this was an artist who knew how to draw. No matter how abstract the work, you feel that the artist never lost touch with the world from which he was abstracting. What made him a modern artist was his obvious belief that he could take what license he wanted with objects, lines and planes. But what had made him an artist, as it were, before he was a modern, was his mastery of the objects, lines and planes of artists who came before—in the case of this show, Degas.

Picasso painted his way out of the classical Salon by about 15 years old, Degas by the time he was in his early 20s. But Picasso knew what the Salon was and had spoken its visual language before presuming to riff on it. To think out of the box you first need a box.

I SUPPOSE YOU can see where I'm going with this. What makes Israel unique—the cultural adventure that it was and is—is not simply Jewish military power, but the evolution of a modern national home, the development of a secular Jewish life, the fusing of Jewish civilization with liberal values—the “Jewish and democratic” thing. You didn't need a national home to create a big minyan. Go to Williamsburg. (Beinart would seem to agree with this.)

And yet the people who made this modern Israeli culture had first learned to draw. They knew the liturgy, they knew Torah—that is, a whole world evoked by the Hebrew language. The poet Yehuda Amichai had to know the prayer for the dead, God full of mercy, El Maleh Rahamim, before he could give us the ironic poem, “God full of mercy / Were God not so full of mercy / Then there would be mercy in the world / And not just in Him.” For emancipation to be poignant, there has to be an ancien regime. Otherwise, there is nothing but abstraction. What comes out feels false.

ALL OF WHICH leaves American Jews with a curious problem. They are instinctively, well, moderns, but those who are really learning to draw these days are caught up in the closed circles of synagogue orthodoxy. Most of them are not leaving the Salon, at least not yet. They seem relatively easy prey for rightist ideas; they may be the last people to identify with the progressive spirit and peacenik politics of most secular Israeli writers, artists and scholars.

And yet they are the first people—or at least the only young Americans—who have a real shot at appreciating what those writers, artists and scholars are up to; no matter what the politics, they are going to care about what becomes of Israel because that is where their cultural action will be. They will love Israel, not because of what it does, but because of what it is.

Given its Hebrew culture, Israel is the only place on earth where the struggle to be an emancipated individual can still be Jewish in this best sense. Jon Stewart might read Amichai and like the poem. But he won’t get the joke.

I am not awarding grades. There is no moral advantage to being a modern Jew in Israel or modern American with a vaguely Jewish pedigree. Life is merely life; its rewards do not have nationalities. My point is that if Beinart really hopes to understand what makes progressive Israelis tick, he will need more than admiration for their progressive “values.” And if he wants to look for progressive leaders of an American Jewish community, as opposed to an American Jewish "demographic," he might consider the searchers, however reduced their numbers, who marinated in halachic life and punched their way out—people like Beinart himself, perhaps. Odd birds with a love of Hebrew and an eye for beauty.