The New York Review of Books published the second and last installment of Saul Bellow's lectures on being a Jewish writer–and, boy, is it a complicated. At root, he's gives his take on what it means to be a secular Jew in the modern world, particularly if your Jewish identity is central to you. Certainly many American Jews, and probably Jewish Bellow readers, will identity with that problem. But I'm not sure how many will come to his answer on how to live with it.
His answer comes down to this: know your history, and find meaning in it. It isn’t quite as banal as that, and Bellow clearly shows he’s been grappling with his history for quite some time. He begins the essay with his first knowledge of the Holocaust, and the acute shame in brought upon many Jews in America, like him, lucky enough to avoid it. Seeing newsreels in the 1940s–of the emaciated camp survivors, the dead and rotting victims–his reaction was "a deeply troubling sense of disgrace or human demotion, as if by such afflictions the Jews had lost the respect of the rest of humankind, as if they might now be regarded as hopeless victims, incapable of honorable self- defense."
But redemption, or at least an answer to that shame, came with Israel’s foundation. The country's birth, he writes, was if not the end of Jewish history, then at least a powerful corrective to the shame brought upon by the Holocaust–and indeed the whole Jewish experience in all of Europe. "The founders of Israel restored the lost respect of the Jews by their manliness," he writes. "They removed the curse of the Holocaust, of the abasement of victimization from them, and for this the Jews of the Diaspora were grateful and repaid Israel with their loyal support."
And yet Jewish history continues. In countries like America, most notably, Jewish life been kept alive. Even if seriously challenged by assimilation, it has hardly been wiped out. Just as Israeli Jews are creating a new epic in Jewish history, so too, he suggests, are American Jews like him. Of course, Bellow is acutely aware that the relative ease of life in America, where the Jewish experience of exile, often viewed as regrettable by Jews, is indeed the story of every American group. In other words, to be an immigrant is to be an American. That makes the Jewish experience not at a tangent to American culture, but a perfect expression of it.
But how to avoid the easy slide into a meaningless Jewish identity? How to prevent Jewish identity from being no more or less meaningful than an excuse to "be with family," or, like Thanksgiving, to eat particular foods on a particular day? For that, Bellow argues, Jews need to study their history. That is the only thing that, for secular Jews, can give their identity meaning.
But I'm not sure I buy it. I'd be the first one to agree that studying one's history is fascinating, and intellectually necessary. But I've grown less and less confident that it somehow affirms or gives meaning to one’s core identity. The problem, I think, is not that history is unimportant, but that the very study of history requires an unsentimental temperament that runs exactly counter to one's search for an identity. If we are looking to history–real history, not myth or moral lessons drawn loosely from the past–we will come up with cold comfort. It is not that Jewish history is too tragic, or at times even triumphant. It's that narratives of "tragedy" and "triumph" are not what drives history writing anymore. History about explaining how and why things happened, while leaving the qualitative judgment to others.
Reading history, quite literally, requires a suspension of belief. Particularly when looking at Jewish history, so tightly wound to Jewish religion, it may well turn is into un-believers, to downright pagans. Go look at the history of how the Bible to see what I mean.
So how then to solve Bellow's question—how can we find a meaningful secular Jewish identity? I don't know if the answer I've been entertaining recently is best, but it’s certainly been helpful for me. It basically amounts to this: returning to the core religious rituals and texts–Torah, Talmud, and all the wonderful holidays–even if you don't believe in God. And finding in them a rich and beautiful culture worth engaging.
After all, we can turn to the Western canon of literature and art and music and feel it's something worth keeping, and certainly critiquing. We should treat the Jewish religious canon–from texts to holidays–in much the same way. They can be worthy of study and even a kind of secular devotion. Jewish history, to be sure, is part of the grand sweep of Jewish culture. But it cannot alone sustain Jewish identity.