Thursday, November 22, 2012

A Bit More Between The Rabbi And Me As We Dance Away From The Theme Of Sustaining Faith In Light Of The Holocaust

Dear Mr. Basman,

In some ways it is good to hear that your agnosticism stems from convictions outside the Holocaust.

But you still leave me wondering at the extent of your Jewish education; have you studied Jewish religious or legal texts? Talmud? Midrash? Maimonides? With a teacher?

To me, these are G-d’s abode –where He lets Himself be found.

Thank you for the care that goes into your letters and thinking.


Dear Rabbi Polak:

Since you asked, as they say: I grew up and came of age in a markedly secular household in Winnipeg and Vancouver in the forties, fifties and early sixties; my father was a fairly well known Yiddishist in Bund circles, particularly in Canada, and was until the then U.S.S.R. invaded Czechoslovakia a committed Communist but remained a Marxist in his beliefs his whole life; I went to Yiddish Schools evenings, after public school, run by my father as principal and teacher and studied among other things Peretz, Sholem Aleichem and Mendele Mokher Sefarim; I wasn’t bar mitzvahed; As a kid I was a member of the Young Communist League but got well and “severely,” to quote a certain presidential candidate, educated out of that nasty truck through my university years.

I studied English Literature and completed a graduate degree in it and then went to law school, doing a Ph.D. the road not taken.

I haven’t studied Jewish religious or legal texts, the Talmud or Midrash, but have read some of Maimonides without a teacher. My English studies had me studying and reading the New Testament and certain amounts of Christian based literature rather than Jewish texts. And Jewish legal texts formed no part of my legal education.

So I haven’t really been in the abode you refer to in quite a lovely way.

I will reciprocally thank you for your interest and for being intent on putting things in their best light, no ad idem notwithstanding.

I’ll simply conclude saying that while it has been a clear pleasure to have this most brief exchange with you, I’m pretty well where I was in my first letter and in my just last one. In a nutshell, for me the Holocaust ought beggar faith and belief.

Best Wishes, Sincerely, and Most Respectfully,
Itzik Basman

zayendik fun vinipeg farendersht zich dem gantzen farshtanden, dem oisblik fun nisht-gloiben. Vifil mo;l, in mayneh yungeh yoren, bin ich gegangen heren di lektzies fun Arthur Meyer Lermer, dem hoibt fun Bund in Canada, ven er hot gepravet zayneh gesheften in economics, in mayn shule (Sir George Williams University) in Montreal. Oich bin ich gegangen, vifil mol, heren dem yidishen chor zingen in Morris Winchevsky shule dorten. Ich hob zeyer lieb gehat vi yeneh yidden hoben einer in tzveiten ge-ert hoben, oich lieb gehat. Ober oich hob ich gefielt vi avekgeshnitten zei zeinen gevn fun'm vortzel, fun'm Toi reh, vos hot oif zei geveint...

You have now piqued my curiosity: may I ask what your Eng. Lit. interests are?


Dear Rabbi Polak:

It was unanticipated but I’m delighted to have piqued your interest, and you may ask. I can only hope you won’t be sorry you did.

Since you asked, in my graduate studies, I concentrated on Shakespeare and, in odd conjunction, the Canadian novel, the latter having vast expanses of Canadian Winter-like dreariness. In my program we had to write a Masters thesis of 100 plus pages. My first choice was to write something on Hamlet, the mysteries of which I felt had unlocked a little but ran into the brick wall of an inordinate amount of academic criticism, which I didn’t have the will to wade through and confront. So, again oddly, I jumped a few centuries ahead and landed on the novels of Mordecai Richler. They were blessed by a paucity of criticism at the time, and I interpreted them, concluding with St. Urbain’s Horseman, which was published just as I was winding up my writing. 

One of the driving reasons I chose Richler was that I had read most of his then novels in my teens and could inchoately identify with the deracinated Jews populating Duddy Kravitz. Those vague feelings of identity stayed with me and I felt that if I really got into Richler’s novels I might be able to elucidate for myself, and bring some precision to, that vagueness. I wrote a good thesis but that search for greater clarity in relation to my Jewishness didn’t suceed.

Had I chosen to follow my original path, a doctorate, my idea was to concentrate on the then Jewish Canadian and American novelists of the mid twentieth century such as Richler, Roth, Bellow, Malamud, Ludwig, Mailer, Salinger and before them Henry Roth.

By the bye, I took some extended time off from work about 8-9 years ago and as part of that, simply for my own interest, sat down with a pocketbook edition of Hamlet, virtually no criticism, perhaps 2-3 articles, and wrote what’s now called an EBook, 135 pages, Futility As Tragedy: An Interpretation of Hamlet. It was nicely received in a few tiny circles and is one of the most satisfying things I’ve done. (I’ll unsubtly note my contention in my extended essay that Shakespeare was secular, much too mordantly pessimistic to be called a secular humanist, but with no eye to any salvation, hope or solace from religious faith.)

I’ve kept up a layman’s interest in changes in literary criticism since I’ve left school, trying to get a handle on post modernism, noting its waning, and noting two divergent academic roads: one, an unapologetic return to the sturdy textualism of the New Criticism; and two, a post modern legacy of moving through texts to all kinds of historical, cultural and socio-economic subjects revealed by them with the emphasis on the latter as opposed to the texts. An example would be an essay by Mark Edmunson on Blake’s London:

Generally now my reading is eclectic and necessarily time constrained by my work and my other interests. With the time I have I’m trying to fill in gaps in my reading of the great novels, having of late read Don Quixote, Daniel Deronda, Madame Bovary, The Brothers Karamazov—a real struggle—and am now reading The Red and the Black and Henry James’s The Princess Casamissa. This project was inspired by my not -so long-ago close rereading of Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination.

On a different note, I might wish I longed for the soul’s fulfillment that might come from the abode of the great Jewish texts, but I seem not to. Wonderful it would be though to enter that dwelling. albeit lacking in metaphysical longing, and discover how things are in it.

Best wishes,
Itzik Basman

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