JANUARY 15, 2021
FOR THE JEWISH GENERATION before mine, the generation born to Holocaust survivors, Jewish history was synonymous with tragedy, playing an outsize and unhealthy role in defining religious identity. Even today this remains true for many, with what writer Elaine Scarry calls the “body of pain” crowding out all else. Indeed, as Anne Goldman writes in the opening pages of Stargazing in the Atomic Age, the Holocaust is still for many “the nadir of modern Jewish experience.”
Goldman, a professor of English at Sonoma State University, challenges the Holocaust’s centrality throughout her essay collection, highlighting instead what Jews achieved in the wake of such suffering. From Saul Bellow to Marc Chagall (née Moishe Shagal), Goldman offers a tour de force of Jewish accomplishment, an unapologetic correction to the narrative of agony, and a lesson on how to press on with light in the face of darkness.
From musing on the parallels between Albert Einstein and Wolfgang Mozart to chronicling Primo Levi’s literary brilliance, Goldman’s 10 essays center the Jewish achievements of the World War II and post–World War II era. Each essay may have a different focus, but through all of them runs a clear point: that Jewish history, for all its known tragedy in the 1900s and before, is full of great triumphs in just about every field.
Stargazing in the Atomic Age is also in many ways an ode to the author’s late father, in whom she sees the Jewish traits of emotionality and effusiveness that she extends so reverentially to these greats. While moving, however, this paternal focus, along with Goldman’s profoundly modern conception of what it means to be Jewish, leaves readers yearning for more — for a more complete accounting of Jewish achievement that includes women and what, in fact, Judaism means and is today.
An old joke holds that whenever there are two Jews, there will be at least three opinions, if not more. One pictures a stereotypical (and, to my mind, frequently accurate) picture of older Jewish Woody Allen lookalikes quarreling about everything from the Mets score, to the weekly Torah reading, to the price of groceries. For Goldman, this calls to mind her father — with Bellow, Chagall, and other luminaries following soon after.
“A fish out of water, he was perpetually convinced the absence of other swimmers advertised their lack of staying power rather than his own confusion,” she writes of her late father, Michael Goldman (née Menachim Myron), an American with Russian-Jewish grandparents. She adds, “A similar dauntlessness prompted Chagall to travel to Paris to learn an art forbidden by family and faith and provoked Einstein to stretch space in pursuit of new physical laws.”
For Goldman, what unites these Jewish men is that a sense of dislocation unconsciously birthed in them a “glamorously insolent” unwillingness to quit, which in turn, led them to produce brilliance: her father’s scientific research at Harvard and beyond; George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”; Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity; Mark Rothko (née Markus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz)’s shimmering dark canvases.
In the art of Chagall and Rothko, for instance, she sees some almost indescribable yet clearly Jewish mélange of righteous pessimism, hope, and endurance that American and European critics are prone to miss. It was this Jewish sentiment that led both Chagall and Rothko to reject the modernism of Paris and Berlin as “passionless and superficial,” and led Gershwin, for his part, to include in his music “[a] certain quizzicality” that while “not quite sorrow […] resonated underneath the brightness of the melodies.”
Tragedy and bitterness did not actively define these men, but it was the former — the Holocaust — that pushed their families from the Old World to the New, fostering in them the sense of disruption that led to their shared striving for greatness. Yet all the while they yearned for the beauty of a lost home to which they would, like Lot to Sodom and Gomorrah, never return. Even those who could choose not to, as Goldman notes, for the Jewish world these places once housed had been killed off by Nazism and Soviet communism.
Homesickness for the cities and towns that bore them was inescapable, even when that place had outright rejected them. But obstinate Jews, they turned that sickness into achievement.
In “Antecedent: The Energy of Exodus,” which is perhaps the collection’s best essay, Goldman smartly and delicately lays out the biblical case for Jewish obstinance, literarily tracing over Exodus as a Saturday-morning Torah reader might do with a Yad, the traditional pointer.
The Jewish Bible’s foundational narrative of exile, she writes, is “replete with everything but mourning” (emphasis hers). The language is absent of wailing or bereavement, instead resonating “with energy, verve, and direction” to “provide blueprints not for razing, but for building.”
Goldman recognizes Exodus’s Jewish urgency and purpose in the artists, scientists, and others she profiles throughout the book. But, like many other American Jews, her focus remains largely only on the secular, on the Bellows and Einsteins of the world who while supposedly “Jewish” in their day-to-day behavior, avoid or even exhibit “contempt for pieties,” as she writes of her father.
“I satirize homilies at weddings and funerals with whispered aspersions, as if to consent to ritual were to surrender independence of mind,” she writes of herself. “I am, after all, my father’s daughter. I have absorbed his Jewish habits of mind.”
This modern conception of Judaism, as detached from not only beliefs but even basic practice, makes me a bit uncomfortable, despite my relaxed Reform upbringing. Everyone is, of course, free to define their Jewishness for themselves, but there is, in my opinion, more to being Jewish than disregarding convention, behaving brashly, and sometimes cracking a joke. What, exactly, is “Jewish” about Woody Allen’s or Saul Bellow’s “habits of mind”?
I imagine that Ethiopian Jews, for starters, would object to these culturally distinct white male mannerisms as defining of Judaism, rather than the Jewish people’s more universal traditions, practices, and beliefs.
And while Goldman’s Judaism is the Judaism with which I grew up — un-kosher and largely non-textual — it is unrecognizable to Orthodox and even some denominationally Conservative Jews.
Western secular Jewish behaviors of Goldman’s description are real and have indeed left a staggering imprint on society writ large, from Seinfeld to Portnoy’s Complaint, but they are not specifically Jewish in a global way. Rather, they are the result of a particular type of Judaism: secular, operating almost always in the American or Canadian context (with the French Chagall the exception here). They are not universal but are a unique by-product of both.
Meanwhile, it is almost always men who come to mind when one thinks of the “Jewish” habits Goldman describes. Indeed, it is Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld who are most often thought of as classically Jewish in this tradition, with women like Barbra Streisand and Joan Rivers trailing behind.
This is why Goldman’s choice to focus on Jewish men, rather than Jews generally, is a bit curious. I understand that the book reverentially searches for her father’s “Jewish” traits in Jews like Einstein and Chagall, but readers are left wondering if she found her mother’s or father’s “Jewish” traits in female luminaries like Hannah Arendt, Emma Goldman, or Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Surely, we ask, aren’t Jewish women just as persistent as their brothers, husbands, and sons?
It is thus puzzling that Goldman writes movingly but only briefly about her mother only in the collection’s final essay, “Coda.” She locates her staunch, stoic, and loving mother — “a woman who frequently played second fiddle to my father’s louder and seemingly more dynamic music” — in Grace Paley’s “The Value of Not Understanding Everything.” Paley’s piece, Goldman writes, “could speak easily for the unknowns” of the Old World that “Einstein, Rothko, Bellow, and Feynman” — and her mother — “look toward.”
Yet it is Goldman who here unnecessarily relegates her mother again to second fiddle. The parallels between Goldman’s mother, Arendt, Ginsburg, and others are clearly there to be made, as Goldman herself suggests; the reader is thus left confused as to why Goldman does not fully flesh them out.
Still, the book succeeds in weaving together a history of male Jewish success, offering a timely lesson in persistence and a counternarrative to the dominant one of tragedy. If there was ever a time to press on in Goldman’s “Jewish” style rather than wallow in the darkness, right now is that moment. Indeed, as she writes of Exodus: “[T]he travelers have too much work to do to spare time for sobbing.”
Charles Dunst is a Visiting Scholar at the East-West Center in Washington, an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics, and a contributing editor of American Purpose, Frank Fukuyama’s new magazine.