AM I JEWISH? : NOTES TOWARD A HERMENEUTICS OF THE FAKE FAMILY HISTORY
"Genealogy is gray, meticulous, and patiently documentary. It operates on a field of entangled and confused parchments, on documents that have been scratched over and recopied many times...[Genealogy] must record the singularity of events outside of any monotonous finality; it must seek them in the most unpromising places, in what we tend to feel is without history—in sentiments, love, conscience, instincts..."
—Michel Foucault, 'Nietzsche, Genealogy, History'
1. A Reminder
The subject of this essay is exactly like you. The subject of this essay, for example, knows he could be happy if he were only allowed to eat ham and cheese sandwiches for the rest of his life. Like you, the subject has cultivated a deep hatred for Alex Trebek and often fantasizes about the game show host's violent death. The subject is extremely tall and (according to one Jr. High School gym teacher) unhealthily skinny. Like you, he believes he once contracted a temporary eating disorder from an ex-girlfriend who he's pretty sure placed a demonic hex on him. Like you, the subject has a Dad who is an Evangelical fundamentalist Christian missionary. And just like you, in the very same summer the subject was suffering from his temporary eating disorder, his Evangelical fundamentalist Christian Dad entered the back door of his house and, without provocation, said that in spite of any evidence that might be to the contrary, he was sure his family was descended from Jewish ancestors.
2. A Paraphrased Version of My Dad's Theory of His Suddenly Assumed Jewishness
"The Hebrew language," my Dad said, "as we all know, does not use written vowels. And once, a long time ago, it's likely a Jewish family lived in Israel who wrote their name, 'JCHN.' These were our ancestors. And this family—perhaps due to economic hardship, persecution, or the belief that opportunity was blooming in a foreign land—decided one day to pick up and move to the Rhine Valley in Germany. Destitute and in desperate need of work, the new émigrés found little success once they arrived. Life was difficult. Instead of financial opportunities, the Jewish clan of JCHN's probably found only racism occasionally offset by the infrequent odd job. They ended up doing work reserved for the poorest German peasants. And even worse, through a cross-cultural linguistic fluke, the consonants of the family's Hebrew name just happened to offer the indigenous, wealthy, naturally Anti-Semitic Germans with a perfect opportunity to engage in a little derogatory word play. And that's how we got from the Hebrew JCHN to the present day, 'Jauchen,' a name which means literally, in German, 'one who spreads horse shit.'"
3. A First Attempt to Talk through My Dad's Motivation to Be Jewish
My Evangelical Dad's out of the blue declaration of his family's Jewish roots started partly because he didn't think the declaration would have any real consequences. It was a sentence of pure whim to him. A joke. I can remember joking with him about it, nicknaming his theory "One-Man's-Desperate-Attempt-to-Cover-All-His-Religious-Bases." Being an Evangelical Jew, my Dad could be both a member of God's chosen race and a person wise enough to realize Jesus Christ was the messiah. I saw him entering the Heavenly Gates at his death, the Almighty's voice booming, "Wait a minute everybody! Hold the hymns for just a second! Jauchen's here! Here's one of my all time favorite Jews for Jesus, a man who should be an example to you all, a man who lived life in the most theologically comprehensive way possible!"
I joked with my Dad about all of this. We laughed about it together.
But later, it became clearer and clearer that if my Dad's claims of Jewishness had sprouted initially from whimsical roots, the humor of the situation was soon lost on him. And in a weird turn of events (1), my Dad became authentically convinced that these claims about his hypothetical family history were true. This led to a fairly extensive investigation (and one that ended up costing my Dad a good bit of money) into the possibility that the family name, Jauchen, was, in fact, Jewish.
The weeks-long peek into our family records only yielded evidence that made my Dad's claims appear more and more off-base. But the more overwhelming the evidence was that the Jauchens were full-blooded Goyim, the more stubborn my Dad became in his belief that he was of Jewish stock. This often made for strange, disconcerting scenarios. More than once, my Dad appealed to the size and shape of my grandfather's nose as a surefire sign of his Jewish background. He phoned the twenty synagogues in the Dallas area on the off chance the rabbis might know something about the process of name changing among Jewish families who had immigrated to Western Europe (they didn't). And when my mother found documentation stating that the Jauchens could pretty definitively be traced back to a long line of German-Lutheran ministers from the town of Jauche in German-speaking Belgium, my father argued the records supported his Jewish hypothesis. Everybody knows, he said, that German Jews faced constant persecution and that they often had to lie as a way of downplaying their background to better fit into German society. It's completely logical that the Jewish Jauchens (excuse me, JCHN's), as a way to avoid a good bit of racist heartache, would claim Lutheran roots. In other words, their claims of Lutheranism worked as undeniable claims of Jewishness. And my Dad was not laughing about this.
So what began as a declaration my Dad made because it didn't really mean anything, soon became something with heavily burdensome meaning. Through dogged persistence, one silly comment, originally divorced from any real past, was transformed into something different. My Dad had opened up his past into a system of plural times. Instead of a family history, he now possessed two separate family histories.
4. Rudimentary Schematic of My Dad's Body and an Explanation
Ah, my Dad's Christian past. This is the one he invoked again and again around our dinner table ('Kids, you're blessed to be in a family with such a strong Christian heritage...'), behind the closed door of his office one afternoon as he lectured me after I had been caught smoking ('Michael, you come from a long line of Christian people who love and support you...'), and during sessions of fatherly pride when strange people out of my parents' past would show up to eat dinner at our house ('When I think of my parents and their parents and their parents all making a conscious decision to follow Christ...'). This Christian family line is the line that would no doubt be proud to come from a long line of Lutheran ministers.
But now, next to that history, behind it, crouching in the shadows, taking place at the very same time, hiding away in the attic, lies my father's Jewish past. The hypothetical past that ties him intimately to the land of Israel and connects him to the historical plight of the persecuted Jew. The past initiating him personally into the Abrahamic covenant. The past that my Dad desired so desperately that, for him, the desire itself was enough to make it so.
And I suppose this duality works the other way too. In the same way he came to deal with two separate pasts, my Dad's self-proclaimed conviction of his own Jewishness creates a new future for him. Instead of one projected future (that of my Dad living out his days as the Evangelical he is), he now has futures (that of my Dad living out his days as the Evangelical he is while also experiencing the nagging Jewishness he knows to be there at every moment). Of course, each of my Dad's histories has its own trajectory into the past. But each of these memories, each of these histories, also creates its own individual trajectory into the future.
And these pasts, these futures, these claims of name shifting, all these things happen, change, and come to settle in my Dad's ever-fleeting present moment. In the now, one's memories are also one's destinies.
5. Joke Interlude 1
A Jewish man and a Chinese man were riding the subway in New York City. After striking up a conversation, they realized they were both named Shawn Ferguson.
"Ferguson doesn't sound too Jewish to me," said the Chinese man.
"Well, when I came to America," the Jewish man said, "I got off the boat and waited in line at the Customs desk. When I got to the front, the man behind the desk asked for my name, but I was so nervous about the whole thing that my mind just went blank. And the first thing that came out of my mouth was, 'shoyn fargessen,' which is Yiddish for 'I forgot.' But of course, the putz behind the desk didn't speak Yiddish, and so he wrote my name down as Shawn Ferguson, and I've been named that ever since."
"That makes sense," said the Chinese man.
"But wait a minute," said the Jewish man, "If Ferguson doesn't sound Jewish, it sure as hell doesn't sound Chinese."
"Oh that," said the Chinese man, "Well, when I came to America, I was standing right behind you in the Customs line and after you left, when the man asked me for my name, I told him, 'Sam Ting,' and the guy shrugged his shoulders and wrote down 'Shawn Ferguson.'"
6. Two Quotes from Maurice Merleau-Ponty
From The Phenomenology of Perception: 'Time is, therefore, not a real process, not an actual succession that I am content to record. It arises from my relation to things. [...] What is past or future for me is present in the world.'
And: '...for time does not come from the past. It is not the past that pushes the present, nor the present that pushes the future, into being; the future is not prepared behind the observer, it is a brooding presence moving to meet him, like a storm on the horizon.'
The always-presentness of both past and future. Time is not a series of events. Instead, it's an accumulation we witness and order accordingly. One's history, one's future, they're nothing beyond the present moment in which one interacts with them. Time and memory are purely hermeneutical matters. The future, one's past, they have to be read.
7. Initial Sighting of the Alternate Jauchen
My last name is uncommon. It's not Smith or Johnson or Hernandez. Jauchen's not even a mid-range uncommon name you see every once in a while, like Cribbs or Spiller or Cassavetes. Jauchen is UN-common. As of today, the total number of Jauchens I know of (some Jauchen women have been lost to the surname thief of marriage) amounts to a whopping seventeen. And it's not that people in my family haven't been looking for them. But even with the rise of the Internet and the so-called shrinking of the world, the number of people sharing my last name remains, to my knowledge, relatively few.
But there have been instances where the random Jauchen pops up suddenly on the peripheries of my vision—like a tiny green blip barely registering on a radar screen—and these instances have always sparked a feeling of fascination with me, a feeling that these weird and distant people might somehow be my relatives.
I remember, as a child, a strange married couple visiting our house. And my Dad was talking to them about our family, mentioning the paucity of Jauchens in the world, talking about it as a source of pride, a quality that set him apart. But in the middle of all this, I remember him saying that the only other Jauchens he had ever heard of lived somewhere in Argentina.
Argentina?!, I thought, Argentina!!?
Maybe my Dad never made this comment at all (it was late at night, I was bored, I wanted to get out of that room and go to my bed and get back to Tom Sawyer). Maybe I've invented this memory because I've always loved the sound of the word 'Argentina' (the way it gently guides you from vowel sound to vowel sound, the way the word suggests money mixed with a woman's slutty sounding first name). But I think I remember this happening, and in the twenty years that have passed since then, it's never left my mind entirely. (2) I also know that today, if you Google "Jauchen and Argentina" you'll come up with 1,230 hits.
God bless the Internet.
In terms of my own Jewish past (3), the mysterious presence of another Jauchen (and another possible family member) living in Argentina is a bit troublesome, for while there's no doubt that a good number of Jews emigrated to South America during and soon after World War II, I also can't help but remind myself that a good number of Nazi war criminals moved there as well.
It's these thoughts that hit me when I Google my last name and the name of this exotic country, this country I have never visited and probably never will. In one moment, I see my Jewish relatives boarding a tiny boat, huddling close together, fleeing certain extermination by gas, and spared only through the most fortuitous of whispered connections ("Herr Jauchen, I happen to know a man who knows a man who knows a man..."). But in the next moment, I remember hazy images from Franklin Schaffner's The Boys from Brazil: Dr. Mengele (played by Gregory Peck) on the lam in a South American jungle, Dr. Mengele in a decrepit lab attempting to clone an entire army of little Hitlers. And situated at the back of one particular shot, perhaps standing dumbly outside the lab's dingy window, is Dr. Mengele's gardener. A young man. A silent, skinny, Aryan. And if you look close enough, I want to say that young man might be standing out there in the garden, goofy and oblivious, spreading horseshit around.
8. A Second Reminder
The subject of this essay is nothing like you. The subject, for instance, often sees himself as a character in a novel or a character in a film. He is predominately self-absorbed. Unlike you, he sometimes gets carried away with his drinking. He, unlike you, constantly comes up with schedules he does not keep. Unlike you, he is easily bored and distracted. He often lies and says he's read books that he hasn't. The subject, unlike you, often wonders if there is a shred of creativity in his body. The subject worries constantly. He is an avid narcissist unlike you. And unlike you, while trying to fall asleep, the subject can't help but think sometimes, in the most melodramatic of terms, about his own death.
9. Two Major Modes of Interpretation, or The Big Book
Roland Barthes's Criticism and Truth is one of the most coherent apologies out there for poststructural reading. Responding to the attacks of Raymond Picard and the French 'Old Criticism,' Barthes systematically inverts the major (and mostly unwritten) rules governing any reader's 'correct' experience of a text. The Old Critics based their readings on denotation, custom, and notions of good taste. In contrast, Barthes suggests a reading that is highly symbolic, allusive, and connotative. Readers today, he says, have earned the right to leave behind dry critical discourse in favor of a deliriousness that revels in all of the problems and uncertainties that come with any system of language.
For someone who considers himself a fairly avid reader forty years after the publication of Criticism and Truth, Barthes's ideas seem so naturally obvious that it's a bit surprising to think that such an apology would ever have been necessary in the first place. Of course language is slippery. Of course the search for a word's meaning will only lead us to more words that, in turn, need defining. Of course language works among an endless play of differences. Of course there's nothing outside of the context. Of course. Of course. Of course.
But thinking Barthes is the final word in a dead conversation underestimates the power and resilience of the arguments voiced by the Old Criticism. The thing is, there will always be Picards out there. They never go away.
In one way, I think it's a bit faulty to look at the claims in Criticism and Truth (or any of the major claims of poststructuralism) as radically new. I'm not saying that Barthes isn't important (he is) or even that I disagree with him (I don't), but I do think poststructuralism, postmodernism and a lot of the postetc. are, at a very base level, reformulations of arguments that have been with us for a very long time. And the competition standing at the center of Criticism and Truth (Barthes's deliriousness v. Picard's denotative objectivity) is a rehashing of two major, opposing positions in an argument about one of the most fundamental questions a person can ever face: How, in fact, am I supposed to read the world? Barthes and Picard embody an important split, a schism in this debate. And because the debate is so ancient and fundamental, the two men have both their precursors and their faithful disciples. And the debate at the center of Criticism and Truth also, I think, has strong resonances with my Dad's own balancing act between his inherited Evangelicalism and his self-assumed Jewishness. Even more conveniently, I think my Dad's situation and the Barthes/Picard schism can be traced back to what may be one of the most schismatic books in history, The Bible.
10. Joke Interlude 2
On a visit home from college, I was having dinner with my family. When the meal was over, my Dad brought out the Bible to lead us in a short family devotional. At a certain point, he mentioned to all of us how God was gracious and merciful and full of love.
"That doesn't sound like the God I know," my older brother said, "The God I know is murderous and vengeful and intolerant and more than willing to eradicate whole races of people."
There was a short, stunned silence around the table. And then my older brother, as if he were talking to himself, said, "But then again, I'm only halfway through the book, so I can't really say how it turns out."
11. In Which I Egregiously Simplify the Holy Scriptures with a Chart, or Let's Hope It Ain't Blasphemous!
Applicability of the Evangelical Sermon
Ends in silence (the dwindling into the minor prophets, the inter-testament period, unfinalizability, into the great wait)
Ends in Apocalypse (the trumpet of Christ, teleology, eschatology, building of New Jerusalem)
The Old Testament, as much as it's a text about God's establishment of the covenant and the subsequent making of the Law, is extremely open ended. It's the half of the Bible concerned with myth (the ark), aphorism (Proverbs), poetry (Psalms), the erotic (Song of Solomon)(4), exile (Jeremiah), minor prophets cuckolded by their prostitute wives (Hosea), and humor (Job and Jonah). When it's over, God's chosen people are anything but fulfilled. They're imprisoned by the Babylonian empire, fully doubting the power of God to save them, and left only with the solace of four hundred years of silence to console them. The Old Testament is about as close as you can get to a text that just peters out.
The history of scholars reading the Old Testament is similarly unfinalized, especially if you look at the rabbinical tradition of Midrash, where the layers of interpretation and inquiry are literally heaped onto the Biblical text until they spatially overwhelm it. And when a critic like Geoffrey Hartmann suggests that Midrash deals with "'open' modes of interpretation, a life in literature or in scripture that is experienced in the shuttle space between the interpreter and the text," he begins to sound very similar to Roland Barthes. Midrash requires extreme curiosity and imagination on the reader's part. More importantly, the reader has to keep these things in a perpetual suspension despite repeated readings and his growing familiarity with a text. It really is a type of readerly idiocy, a case of always being in over your head a bit and pressing on despite that. Midrashic scholars, when describing the practice, regularly invoke the story from Genesis of Jacob wrestling the man in the field. It's morning, and Jacob's going to have his hip dislocated soon, and the man he's wrestling says he has to leave. But Jacob just won't give up. He stands there grappling, holding the man, telling him again and again, "I will not let you go until you bless me."
Now, something happened in those four hundred years of intertestamental silence. The stories gave way to instruction, poetry gave way to pure and narrow allegory (a reading of the Psalms that views them solely as a prophecy of Jesus' arrival on Earth), and humor gave way to the instruction of Paul's letters ("...but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother's way" being the Pauline admonition against the pratfall). The unfinalizability of the Old Testament gave way to the book of Revelation, the construction of the New Heaven and the New Earth, the death of Satan, the final consummation of every promise, and the enunciation of the final, resounding, 'Amen.'
Where are the moments of exile? Where are the moments of natural and expected human doubt? Where are the jokes? Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus is quick and final. One moment he's standing by at the public stoning of Christians and then—through a quick sprinkling of the Paraclete's fairy dust—he becomes the authority of the early church. And even in a moment when he is miraculously freed from prison, Paul uses the mysterious earthquake that liberated him as an opportunity for self-righteousness. (5)
And it is this sort of sentiment—this sense of an end, this feeling of self-righteousness, the overwhelming sense that the text has been closed and interpreted with finality—that finds its parallel in so much Evangelical thinking today. The typical Evangelical sermon involves a reading, a delivery of the reading's meaning, and the suggestion of practical applications of the text. It often involves the suppression of contradictory passages or simultaneous readings of the same passage. It often bends the Biblical text to the will of a preconceived interpretation. (6) It forces the text to say what the reader wants it to say. It involves a finalized view of the world, a negation of change, and a false command of the uncertain. It's the polar opposite of thinking. And its examples in history and the contemporary American culture are not hard to find: think of the Puritan view of America as the New Jerusalem (7), consider the idea in post 9/11 America that democracy is something we've achieved with finality in the US and can therefore import to other countries at will, think about reactionary Creationism and the new advent of Intelligent Design in middle school classrooms. All of these, at least in part, are the product of an Evangelical way of reading the Bible and the world. Might my Dad's approach to his Judaism work as another example of this?
12. Jesus H. Christ
One of the great ironies about this entire thing is the fact that Jesus, though he would seem to stand at the head of the New Testament hermeneutic, is actually a poststructuralist at heart. When faced with questions concerning how one should interpret the Law, his responses invariably take the form of the inscrutable parable. The only words he ever wrote remain unrecorded. (8) And, in a moment of genuine humor, Jesus takes Peter (perhaps the most rash and unreliable sidekick in the history of literature) aside and notifies the young man that he, in fact, is destined to be the foundation of the Christian church. (9)
13. Second Sighting of the Alternate Jauchen
When my little sister was fifteen, she went to Chicago on a missions trip with the youth group from my church. For two weeks, she worked on the city's south side, attending training sessions, leading church services, and walking around the city during the day, talking to homeless people about Jesus.
On the way back to Dallas, my sister's bus stopped in St. Louis. Inside the station, she saw a man—dirty, wearing ragged clothes—asking people for money. Because my little sister is a very outgoing, compassionate person, when the man approached her, she took it as an opportunity to share the Gospel.
So she did. And the man listened to her. He wasn't menacing. On the contrary, he was pleasant and, according to my sister, surprisingly articulate. He seemed genuinely interested in what my sister was telling him. He said, with real sincerity, that he would think seriously about a personal conversion. My sister gave him ten dollars and made him promise to spend the money on food. He promised he would.
At a certain point, the man asked my sister what her name was.
"Hannah Jauchen," she replied.
The man stood quiet for a moment, looking at her.
"What did you say your last name was," he asked.
My sister repeated it, spelling it out for him.
"You're not going to believe this, but my name is Nathan Jauchen," he said.
Naturally, my sister was skeptical. But in response to this, the man took out an expired driver's license and proved to my sister that he was telling the truth. There was an extended moment of disbelief between them followed by an awkward and botched attempt to figure out if they were somehow related. Then a voice came over the intercom and announced that my sister's bus was boarding. She shook hands with Nathan Jauchen and said goodbye. Nathan Jauchen followed her out to the boarding dock and waved again. When the bus finally pulled away, my sister looked out the window one last time and saw Nathan Jauchen still standing in the same spot, a ripped duffle bag lying crumpled at his feet.
Think of it. Two Jauchens randomly meeting in a dingy, Midwestern bus station. One of them, after participating in a Christian missions trip, on her way home to a family that was anxiously waiting for her. And the other, though sharing the exact same name, is a derelict, a beggar, appearing and then vanishing like an apparition out of nowhere, traveling from one bus station to the next, a homeless wanderer.
14. Something from Derrida
From "Structure, Sign, and Play and the Discourse of the Human Sciences": "Thus there are two interpretations of interpretation, of structure, of sign, of play. The one seeks to decipher, dreams of deciphering a truth or an origin which escapes play and the order of the sign, and which lives the necessity of interpretation as an exile. The other, which is no longer turned toward the origin, affirms play and tries to pass beyond man and humanism, the name of man being the name of that being who, throughout the history of metaphysics or of ontotheology—in other words, throughout his entire history—has dreamed of full presence, the reassuring foundation, the origin and the end of play."
These two sides seem irremediably opposed and impossibly reconciled. And the opposing camps line up on their respective sides. Roland Barthes lines up opposite Raymond Picard. The Jewish Midrashists line up across from the Evangelical preachers. And somewhere in that morass, there's me. And I think I can see, when I look across the vast stretch of that hermeneutical chasm, my Dad standing over there.
15. Joke Interlude 3
A man was traveling through Israel and he came to a town situated in the mountains. As he approached the city gate, the young man noticed an older gentleman sitting on a stool, looking off into the distance. The old man wasn't armed, but the traveler, who was very tired and hoped to stay in the town that night, decided to approach him respectfully so as not to seem threatening.
"Good evening, sir," the traveler said. "I'm on my way through the mountains and I am very tired. I would very much like to stay in your town this evening."
"Why is that my business," said the old man, "I'm not the innkeeper."
"But you are most certainly the keeper of the gate who decides which travelers will be allowed into the city and those that will be turned away."
The old man, said, "No, I'm not the gatekeeper. Anyone is welcome to come and stay inside our city, including you."
"Then, if you don't mind my asking, what are you doing out here?"
"Well, the city council hired me to sit outside the city gate and wait for the arrival of the messiah. So every night I come out here and take my spot on this stool and do just that. And after every shift I go back to the city council and collect my day's pay of one penny."
"A penny per day," cried the young traveler, "That hardly sounds like enough to live on."
"Oh, I know, the pay is terrible," agreed the old man, "but you just can't beat the job security."
16. The Subject's Quote Collection
In moments of confusion, fatigue, anxiety, or boredom, the subject has always taken solace in the quote. He has many reasons for doing this. He envies the concision of others. He thinks there is something about the quote that other people will either understand or not—he seems to limit his acquaintances to those who do—which is another reason he likes them. He enjoys, while sitting in the silence of his own house, saying the quotes out loud, trying to give himself chills. Some of the subject's favorite quotes deal with enormous things like memory and evil. He likes thinking about these. But the subject also loves quotes whose appeal is harder to pin down. He collects quotes that seem to mean nothing, that have no evident reason why they should be important. This has never really bothered the subject all that much. There's a certain solace there, he thinks, even if I don't know what it is. And so he goes on underlining passages of books that don't seem to be of any great importance.
A sampling from the subject's quote collection:
Barthelme: The death of God left the angels in a strange position.
Dostoevsky: You must know that there is nothing higher, or stronger, or sounder, or more useful afterwards in life, than some good memory, especially a memory from childhood, from the parental home. You hear a lot said about your education, yet some such beautiful, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education. If a man stores up many such memories to take into life, then he is saved for his whole life.
Dylan: All I really want to do...is baby be friends with you.
Beckett: tennis...the stones...so calm...Cunard...unfinished...
Proust: I did not know whether this painful and for the moment incomprehensible impression would ever yield up any truth. But I knew that if I ever did succeed in extracting some truth from the world, it would be from such an impression and from none other, an impression at once particular and spontaneous, which had neither been formed by my intelligence nor attenuated by my pusillanimity, but whose double and mysterious furrow had been carved, as by a thunderbolt, within me, by the inhuman and supernatural blade of Death, or the revelation of Death.
Duchamp: I'm a respirateur—a breather. I enjoy it tremendously.
Kafka: 'As for the reports of Klamm's appearance,' Olga went on...
Fitzgerald: It eluded us then, but that's no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther....And one fine morning—
17. A Final Reminder
Remember: The subject is you. The subject is always you.
1 No, this is wrong. There were no events turning in this situation. So why say there were? Maybe I'd like to think something drastic (a series of wholly explainable watershed events) happened to make my Dad think this way. Don't we always like to see changes, personal transformations, etc., as the result of something palpable, something exterior and classifiable, something we can easily categorize? But one of the weirdest things about my Dad's claims of Jewishness is that there were no palpable, exterior events (at least nothing that I could see) that could have caused him to grow as serious as he eventually did about his Jewish ancestry. It just happened. And in a strange way, I guess that makes it hyper-natural and hyper-realistic.
2 From Paul Auster's Invention of Solitude: 'Some things have been lost forever, other things will perhaps be remembered again, and still other things have been lost and found and lost again. There is no way to be sure of any of this.'
3 'My own Jewish past?!' Can I be serious? And where does this Jewish memory of mine reside anyway? Should I even consider the possibility that I may have a separate Jewish past, a separate Jewish memory? Are there Jewish memories, tableaus, events, etc. hiding in the great storehouse of my involuntary memory, just waiting to explode in a fury of wonder and sadness if I ever happen to dip a piece of matza bread into a cooling bowl of yellow broth?
4 Song of Solomon is an amazing book! On the one hand, there's a contemporary feel to the poetry that's undeniable: "By night on my bed I sought the one I love; I sought him, but I did not find him. 'I will rise now,' I said, 'And go about the city; In the streets and in the squares I will seek the one I love.' I sought him, but I did not find him." But then there are other sections that read as if a hippie with a ninth grade education decided to go back and rewrite some of the worst sex scenes in D. H. Lawrence: "This stature of yours is like a palm tree, and your breasts like its clusters. I said, 'I will go up to the palm tree, I will take hold of its branches.' Let now your breasts be like clusters of the vine."
5 "But Paul said to them, 'They have beaten us openly, uncondemned Romans, and have thrown us into prison. And now do they put us out secretly? No indeed! Let them come themselves and get us out'" (Acts 16:37).
6 In recent memory, the best example of this would be what happened with this passage from the Old Testament: "And Jabez called on the God of Israel saying, 'Oh that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain!' So God granted him what he requested" (1 Chronicles 4:10). Evangelicals turned the prayer of Jabez into proof that it was perfectly all right to pray for a Cadillac—a horrendous, but by no means unique, example of Evangelicalism's relationship to economic gain and dominionism. And, on a funnier note, it shows the horrible, pick-and-choose reading style so common to Evangelicalism. Did they completely forget the much more famous declaration of Jesus: "And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:24)?
7 From John Winthrop's A Model of Christian Charity (1630): "We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, 'the Lord make it like that of NEW ENGLAND.' For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill."
8 "This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him. But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though he did not hear" (John 8:6). What did he write? A prophecy, a shopping list, an Aramaic form of 'Jesus wuz here'?
9 "And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock (Petra) I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18).
I was in San Francisco this Christmas and I chanced across a bronze statue of a lion that had been forged by a Hanse Jauchen. I put my hand on its metal mane and tried to imagine him. Then I remembered I was late to be somewhere important and had to keep on walking.