Young Jew Telling Jokes
By Joshua Cohen
Dalkey Archive Press, 2010
The most famous Jewish character in 20th-century literature was created by a goy. That is an uneasy fact, however much one may admire James Joyce’s Ulysses. Joyce made his hero a Jew principally for the Symbolist values of the label – Leopold Bloom as wanderer, as exile. And because Bloom was to be an everyman, it was necessary to deracinate him. Bloom is an assimilationist. He changed his surname from Virag out of shame. He married a Catholic girl and named his son Rudy. When confronted by the anti-Semitic Citizen in Kiernan’s pub he defends himself by invoking noteworthy Jews: “Mendelssohn was a jew and Karl Marx and Mercadante and Spinoza”; in fact, these four men were, respectively, a Lutheran, an atheist, a Catholic, and an excommunicate (the lower-case “jew” further de-emphasizes it as a distinct race). Bloom’s final comparison, which enrages the Citizen to violence, is with the great prophet of multiculturalism and consanguinity, the man who made the jealously guarded Holy of Holies an open house for any gentile looking to change his deity: “Your God was a jew. Christ was a jew like me.”
Contemporary reconciliation between the church and Western Jewry has been forged on the same premise of shared patrimony and shared values – of essential similarity. Pope John Paul II spoke of a “mysterious spiritual link which brings us together in Abraham, and through Abraham, in God who chose Israel and brought forth the Church from Israel.” It is a gracious offering of peace and understanding, but on Christian terms. Joshua Cohen, in his bravely reactionary and proudly intolerant novel Witz, refers to it as the “Pax Americanus” and his book is a wild and angry allegory of the wages of that alliance, asking what may happen when Judaism becomes “not only acceptable … but also maybe admirable, in fashion, trendy….” These lines come at the end of the novel, by which point Cohen has already supplied his answer. Witz is about a Jewish apocalypse.
It’s defining of Witz that this subject is both modernist – an artistic response to World Wars, nuclear stockpiles, and environmental cataclysm – and anachronistic – a ghetto sensibility born from the prospect of expulsion or extermination. Cohen is perhaps the most overt disciple of James Joyce in contemporary letters. His is a prose of profusion. The sentences in Witz flow on for pages, unhindered by punctuation and often taking the fractured form of mental shorthand (Cohen’s 2007 novel A Heaven of Others struck me as being nothing but an exercise in Joycean stream-of-consciousness). Action is minimal, often elided completely, but each scene is elongated to dramatic proportions by interior monologues and authorial intrusions. Most of all, Witz is stuffed with puns and wordplay. Its very title, Cohen explains in an epigraph, is Yiddish for both “joke” and “son of” (as in Abramowitz). The novel passes down its meanings in the guise of an outlandishly ornate shaggy dog joke.
Witz begins in the Israelien household in the suburbs of New Jersey on Christmas Eve, 1999. Having returned with her family from shul, a pregnant Hanna Israelien is preparing Shabbat dinner for her twelve daughters and her husband Israel, who is late coming home from his law practice in the city. The Israeliens are moderately well-off and live in a pre-fab development called One Thousand Cedars. Yet there is an old world atmosphere in their hectically overcrowded house; the gated community is the new world shtetl, a strange and affectionately comic intersection of American wealth and immigrant tradition, set in what Cohen dubs “Siburbia.”
Here, the most mundane domestic routines still contain the spirit of archaic Levitical codes, as in this scene, where the Israeliens are trying to gather chairs to put around the dinner table:
As it is written: Chairs from the kitchen may be mixed with chairs from the diningroom, if the number of kitchen chairs does not exceed the number of diningroom chairs. As it is said: Verily it is permissible to place a chair within one to three cubits from a chair to its left and, it follows, one to three cubits from a chair to its right, no less than one, nor greater than three cubits, which violations are impure. That is, if anyone knows what a cubit is anymore.
The first hundred pages of Witz are devoted to the Shabbat night and they are, oddly enough, a tour de force of realism and character study. The bickering, loving, anxiety-ridden Israeliens are sensitively drawn into life, and this is critical to Witz, because they are then promptly killed.
At midnight – Christmas, naturally – Hanna gives birth to a son, Benjamin ben Israel Israelien. Ben is born fully grown (“with full intelligence, too, whatever there is”), chubby, with glasses and a beard. He is the lastborn firstborn Jew on the planet. Hours later, a plague strikes, killing all Jews except firstborn sons.
The long antic parable that follows borrows from virtually every story in the Torah, especially that of Adam and Eve, Joseph and his brothers, and the Exodus from Egypt – but each narrative is subjected to a mordant inversion. Ben himself is the “antiAdam,” and in the morning he’s found by the Israelien’s housekeeper and smuggled to his grandfather in Florida.
Meanwhile, the American government has interpreted the plague as a sign of the Second Coming, and in the hopes of staying ahead of the apocalypse, all remaining Jews are rounded up and detained in barracks on Ellis Island. Ben soon joins them. His grandfather dies, and though he briefly eludes authorities with the help of an anti-government Klansman (or “Klansmensch,” in one of Cohen’s thousand winking Yiddish neologisms), he’s taken into protective custody. Then, in the spring (“the season of Exodus”), the other Jews die and only Ben is left.
This last spate of death is presented like the Passover story in reverse. Ben is the sweet, shy, ill-spoken Moses, “a babe borne to His first spring atop this ancient rush, in a basket woven of His eyelashes floated atop a river of His tears.” But it falls on him to deliver his people to death. Now the plagues are turned against the children of Israel, and as Ben watches his new friends die he mourns them with an inversion of the Passover liturgy of praise and celebration:
O, if only His parents would have died! It would have been enough.
If only His parents and His sisters would have died, it would have been enough.
If only His parents and His sisters and His PopPop would have died, it would have been enough.
If only His parents and His sisters and His PopPop and then all of Them, except the firstborn, would have died, it would have been enough.
If only His parents and His sisters and His PopPop and then all of Them, save the firstborns, and then even Them, and then even the saved firstborns they die, dayeinu, Gottenyu, it would have been enough.
But even before the deadly Passover, the prospect of salvation has driven American goyim to fanatically convert to Judaism. Everyone becomes kosher and changes their names (in a touch worthy of Joseph Heller, New York is now run by Mayor Meir Meyer). Circumcisions are the rage. All of Shakespeare’s plays are redacted with scenes from The Merchant of Venice (The Tempest is retitled Such a Big Storm as You Wouldn’t Believe). Congress is converted to a Sanhedrin, led by the President, who intends to marry his daughter to Ben. Soon, in childish impatience for Redemption, conversion becomes mandatory, and the yarmulke must be worn and Shabbos observed upon penalty of law. “Those who have chosen not to be chosen” are hunted down and interrogated – the Inquisition is turned on its head.
Ben is proclaimed the Messiah and made a celebrity. He’s snatched up by a group of hucksters and forced to perform in a traveling revue of blessing and pardoning from Radio City Music Hall to Las Vegas casinos. He manages to escape from one of these – it’s in the shape of a pyramid and he slides down the side – and does the requisite wandering in the southwest desert before returning, in a bad disguise, to his place of birth. But in his absence, public admiration has turned to resentment, and Ben is a wanted man, a savior turned a scapegoat.
“The world’s lost its mind,” Ben thinks. “Everyone wants to be me, except me.” He is a pariah amidst a nation of Jews because his only conception of eternity is in reliving his inborn memories of his parents and the traditions by which they guided their lives. The new converts have disowned memory and live entirely for the promise of immortality: “To remember now would be to lose the present’s meaning and, too, its hope for tomorrow.” Theirs is the “negative tradition,” the triumph of faddish ritual over the burdens of inheritance.
Ben wants only to go home. To do that he must go to Polandland, a theme park and museum featuring the relics of pre-plague Judaism. Here Witz folds back on itself. The shul and Shabbat dinner that began the novel reappear in the perverted forms of totemic antiquities. “Understand, what we’re confronting here is a reversal, Peripeteia,” Cohen writes. “Call it the evil of banality, the protocol by which we enkitsch the lives of the no longer living.”
On that sentiment, the nightmare of Ben’s tale disperses. There remains a final chapter in a parallel world that is modeled on Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. It’s told in the addled memories of a 108-year-old man named Joseph who is the last remaining Holocaust survivor. Joseph is, like Ben, another “Last One”; when he dies there will be no check on the license to enkitsch the Holocaust, to turn it into “Shoahshowbusiness.” When Witz ends we learn that Joseph’s last name is Cohen, meaning that he descends from the priestly caste whose duty it was to preside over Temple services and preserve the sanctity of the Law; the last name, of course, is shared by the author.
Detailing the florid plot of Witz does not give a sense of the rewards and frustrations of reading it, as that experience is dictated by the trancelike and recursive prose. Often the long drifts of scene description are quite beautiful. Here Ben’s dead friend Adam Steinstein is being lowered into the Hudson River:
Against this restless ebb, this wake endless, endlessly hazarded with icicled sharps, a slough of badeggy, brownblack pickleweed and sick saltgrass, decomposed phragmite, starvelimbed spartina, and trash above the enabling sink of the previous dead, two Kush attired in the deceased’s ripped, tattered black judges’ robes arise from their chairs, which are the seats that’ve been hewed from ice by workers wielding picks at the dawn, and proceed to the bier of coffins stacked low before the coffined pulpit, stoop together toward the white, bend at the knees to bow, to lift the topmost casket: Steinstein small in a cold cocoon.
But the difficulty with Witz is its lack of variation. Sentences like that one go on for virtually all 817 pages of the book, imperceptibly changing settings and points of view, and mingling with Cohen’s cracked Talmudic interpolations. Even when you can grapple with the language, large amounts of this novel are so cryptic that they defy pilpul and exegesis. The book soon comes to resemble a Friday night service in an Orthodox shul conducted entirely in Hebrew – passionate and hypnotic, but largely mystifying. Sometimes Cohen will halt the stream of his sentences to isolate a single line, giving it an impressive hold upon the memory. Mostly it’s the constant punning and wisecracking that commands and rewards the effort. But even here Witz is defiantly alienating. How many readers will know that ben Zona, the name of the third-to-last Jew, means “son of a bitch”; how many will see the gag in the law firm called Gimme, Loot & Hasidim, LLC (gemilut chasadim is Hebrew for “acts of loving kindness”); how many will appreciate why the new converts are derided for reciting the start of the Kaddish, “Yisgadal Yitkadash” (the difference between ‘yis’ and ‘yit’ is due only to the difference between Ashkenazi and Sephardic pronunciations of Hebrew, and it’s ridiculous to combine them)? These are a mere fraction of the riffs in Witz, and as I have very little Yiddish or Hebrew, I suspect that I read straight through most of them, registering nothing.
But Cohen’s refusal to make any concessions to the reader is deliberate and important; and to gentiles, he is particularly inhospitable, to the point of Pynchonesque paranoia. Ben is a sweet schlub and Hanna an angel, but the trendy converts are either stupid and ingratiating or villainous and conspiratorial; they have the attention-spans of children and they’re quick to mob violence when they don’t get their way. Cohen may be ungenerous in his caricatures, but he’s writing in an age when the Holocaust has become a non-denominational commodity, when some of Israel’s most zealous supporters are Mormons and Southern Baptists, and when Passover is observed by nearly as many evangelical Christians as by Jews. His book is an immense, goading reminder of the ways that Judaism cannot be assimilated, of the ways it must remain strange and apart.
The most intractable qualities of Judaism are expressed as maxims at different points of Witz. “To think’s to remember” and “To live is to transgress.” Memory and guilt are the faith’s abiding tenets, to Jews as much reflexes as duties. In a curious episode, Ben is waylaid by extraterrestrials. They are immortal and have therefore become intergalactic collectors of last things: the last black-and-white photograph, the last phonograph (Mahler’s Ninth, conducted by Bernstein); and after Ben dies they will return to collect him. When asked about their fascination with lastness, their leader answers, “it’s that we have nothing to lose; nothing of ours ever ages, nothing becomes old and so, nothing dies. And if there’s no death, nothing at the end, indeed, no end at all, then, and follow me here, there’s no possibility of our being exceptional.”
The plague in Witz is never accounted for, and Cohen is right to make it seem sad yet somehow routine, and even merciful. In this strange and unforgettable book, the promise of death is the centerpiece of God’s covenant with his chosen people, the thing that makes them exceptional: Judaism’s consolations are identical to its tragedies. So, the lot of the Jew is to live with fear, guilt, obedience, and endless patience. It’s best to keep a sense of humor about it.
Sam Sacks is an editor for Open Letters Monthly. His reviews have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, The Barnes and Noble Review, and The Quarterly Conversation.