The Holocaust & Jewish Identity

It seems like a long time since mainstream culture has produced any “Jewish” content. It happens occasionally, but the majority of Jewish art is a weak voice in comparison with the flood of what parades as Jewish content today: Holocaust movies and Holocaust literature.

By Jewish content I don’t mean stories placed within the context of a Jewish family or taking place in Tel Aviv. I mean the Jewish soul, the angst and deep heart of the people, their tortured history and profound religion.

That’s why I was so happy to read Nathan Englander’s ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.’ The name is a little misleading, since most of the stories aren’t about the Holocaust.

These stories relate, among other things, the building of a Jewish settlement in the 1960’s; a formerly religious man who speaks to apparitions of rabbis (at a stippers’ peep show, no less), and the bullying of small Jewish boys in a Five Towns community. Passion and self-sacrifice for one’s homeland, the incapacity to root out your background, victimization because of one’s identity — all these cut to the crux of deeply intrinsic Jewish topics.

Hollywood is fond of churning out a long series of Holocaust movies. Rare and in between are the exceptions — Disney’s ‘Prince of Egypt’, which came out when I was still a child, or ‘Disobediance,’ about a lesbian couple in the Haredi community.

There are exceptions in literature as well — Michael Chabon’s ‘The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,’ for one. But I have to wonder, reading over the stories in prize collections, why every Jewish story is also a Holocaust story. The latest award-winning story of non-Holocaust Jewish content is from 1997. It’s by the great Chaim Potok, who portrayed the unique responsibility and burden, and sometimes the agony, inherent in Jewish identity.

Why is it that there’s so little Jewish literature? Literary magazines abound with stories of life in India and Africa, of one’s identity as an African American or life in the West. Is it possible that Jews as a people, with their ancient history and culture, their mystical literature, their shuttling for millennia from country to country, have nothing to say as a people?

Maybe the preponderance of Holocaust art is an inevitable consequence of the event’s handprint on the modern world. But I suspect that at least part of the reason is because the Holocaust offers easy emotion, ripe for the picking. Easily accessible horror, empathy and poignancy abound, without having to work overhard.

Currently, I’m reading Kafka’s diaries. Reading Kafka arouses strange emotions: on one hand you have no idea what he’s talking about, on the other there’s a weird deep chill of recognition. In any case, the existence of a patent existential struggle is clear.

I was surprised and intrigued by the pervasiveness of Jewish themes in Kafka’s diaries. They resounded more often than any other topic, including the recounting of dreams or references to relationships. He often refers to the Talmud, to Yiddish theater, and to rituals such as brit mila and Shabbat prayers. Apparently, the two clownish figures of the assistants in ‘The Castle’ are based on Chassidic characters in a play Kafka saw at the Yiddish theater.

Some parts of Kafka’s diaries are almost prescient: for example, he spoke of his dream to move to Palestine before the Jews were wiped out completely. It’s chilling to think that had Kafka not died of tuberculosis ten years before, he probably would have been murdered in the Holocaust with the rest of his family.

Kafka comments that it’s clear Jewish tradition “will end.” It’s a belief which reemerges throughout history: Judaism is breathing dying breaths. The ancient traditions are antiquated and irrelevant. Yet these same traditions have survived for millenia.

In one sense Kafka was wrong, and in another he was right. The only people who seem significantly aware of their Jewish identity today are religious Jews and Israelis. For the others, Judaism is almost dead. It exists mostly in the trivial, almost meaningless epithet of “cultural Judaism.”

And it exists in remembering the Holocaust.

Maybe this is the real reason for the Holocaust’s appeal in art. Great suffering has a powerful and lasting effect. Enough to tie a population to its roots, however weakly, and to embed itself within the common consciousness. It’s just a shame that the two things — Jewish identity and the Holocaust — seem sometimes grouped as one and the same.

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Originally published at on July 26, 2017.