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July 27, 1984 - Image 33

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1984-07-27

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Friday, July 27, 1984 33


Answering the Jewish question

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Special to The Jewish News

Born Jewish, whatever
one does or becomes, one
lives with the Jewish Ques-
tion. Some Jews live with it
more intimately than
others. What is the Jewish
Question? How many an-
swers are there to it? What
are its implications in a cen-
tury of consumate violence?
And with what does our col-
lective memory provide us
in terms of an adequate re-

The Jewish Question,
simply put, is this: what
should the world do with its
Jews whose shame it has
been to bear witness
throughout the ages to the
world's crimes? In each age,
the . world's Gentiles have
provided their own answers
and these boil down to two:
that the Jews should live or
that the Jews should die.
The latter answer has been
the one most frequently
heard from ancient times up
to our own century which
decreed the destruction of
Eastern and Central Euro-
pean Jewry, a catastrophe
so immense that previous
history, except for the First
World War, wherein the
seeds of the Holocaust were
sown, contains no parallel.

David Roskies

a sublime sensitivity that
turns his vast erudition into
an unexpected and reward-
ing lyrical elegy for the lost
millions of our people.

As devastating as Jewish
losses were, neither czarist
intransigence nor Hitler's
Final Solution worked. The
answer to the Jewish Ques-
tion is not really up to the
Gentiles. Survival, even in
the face of the greatest odds,
must be the decision of Jews
themselves. Through 2,000
years of persecution they
have confirmed their will to
live by taking their losses
and turning them into
commemorative events
which confirmed Jewish
values at the same time
they honored the dead. It is
in these literary and artistic
responses to nihilism and
annihilation that the past
has generated its consola-
tions for the present and
provided such guarantees
for the future as we are will-
ing to believe.
The awareness of this pos-
itivism comes through re-
peatedly in David G. Ros-
Against the
Apocalypse: Responses to
Catastrophe in Modern
Jewish Culture, a book that
is among the most accom-
plished and distinguished I
have encountered in recent
years. Roskies is associate
professor of Jewish litera-
ture at the Jewish Theologi-
cal Seminary of America.
His work is special not only
because of the breadth and
thoroughness of his schol-
arship — his knowledge
ranges across the bound-
aries of antiquity and mod-
ernity in theology, history,
politics, art and literature —
but in its beign permeated by


Brilliantly informed, his
talents in surveying the
universal and particular
sweeps of Jewish history, in
appraising the modes and
nuances of response moving
from ancient lament to con-
temporary irony, satire,
rage and blasphemy, in
explicating stylistic formu-
lations, and in combining
biographical detail with ar-
tistic thrusts, are
everywhere enhanced by a
grace, charm and felicity of
phrase that is truly re-
Eight years in the mak-
ing, and influenced by such
major contemporary Jewish
scholars as Dan Miron and
Ruth Wisse (the author's
sister), this book is not only
for academics but for every
thinking person who recog-
nizes the value of a detailed,
cohesive overview of Jewish
literary and artistic re-
sponse to the ever-
broadening catastrophe of
Eastern and Central Euro-
pean Jewry from the Odessa
pogrom in 1871, through
the Kishinev and other
massacres of 1905-1906
(726 pogroms recorded) to
the 60,000 Jews murdered
in the Ukraine in 1918-
1919, on to the six m illion
dead in the Holocaust.
To say so much is hardly
to say enough for Against
the apocalypse makes it
compellingly clear that every
poem and ever narrative that
memorializes a Jew fallen in
Odessa, Kishinev, Vilna,
and Warsaw, or recalls a
shtetl levelled in the Pale, or
counts the cattle cars on the
way to Belsen-Belsen is not
just a literary exercise but a
political act of defiance and
an insistence on Jewish con-
Time and again this fact
is brought home a Roskies
sifts through the writing of
a myriad of Jewish authors,


many of whom without
knowing it were trans-
formed by dire circum-
stance into giants bestrid-
ding a smoking planet. We
learn of their lives, of their
days and the words of their
hands and minds, their
achievements and failures,
political biases, literary as-
pirations, the chances they
Among those who come to
live in these pages are S.Y.
Abramovitsh, Simon Dub-
now, Chaim Nachman
Bialik, Moyshe-Leyb Hal-
pern, Peretz Markish,
Sholem Asch, I. M. Weis-
senberg Oyzer Warshawski,
Isaac B. Singer, S. Y. Ag-
nen, Isaac Babel, S. Ansky,
Lamed Shapiro, Israel Ra-
bon, Sholem Aleichem, Yit-
zhak Katznelson, Abraham
Sutzkever and Uri Zvi
Greenberg. The details of
their lives, their dedication,
the suffering some of them
underwent and the martyr-
dom of others, their complex
and sometimes tortuous
journeys to Jewish recon-
ciliation, their capacity to
turn rage and despair into
art makes fascinating read-

Some of these names are
familiar to us, all of them,
with the exception of Isaac
babel, have earned our re-
verence. About Babel, Ros-
kies' position is convincing:
His Red Cavalry is a modern
classic, but in his joining the
Cossacks and endorsing
their violence, bloodying his
own hands, his rejection of
Jewish ethics is implicitly
clear, and he has forfeited,
despite his tragic murder at
Stalin's hands, any claim to
Jewish respect.
As diverse as the catas-
trophes have been, so also
are the responses to them,
leading Roskies to
categorize these responses
as either apocalyptic or
neo-classical (in the context
of tradition). The tradition
has been to accept disaster
as a result of wickedness or
to rail against God for indif-
ference, using; nonetheless,
a recognizable Jewish for-
mat for the protest. As the
persecution became more
extensive, there was an in-
creasing temptation to suc-
cumb to apocalyptic. de-
However, Roskies' pur-
pose is to show us and the
world that in every genera-
tion there arose poets and
artists who, by taking a
stand against the
apocalypse — oftentimes in
the face of personally tragic
odds — gave their answer to
the Jewish Question. It was
that we should remember
the martyred dead and in-
sist not only on living but on
livng as Jews.
Copyright 1984 Joseph Cohen

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