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Ten Commandments, 613 Laws, Six Million: What is it with Jews and Lists?

Ten Commandments, 613 Laws, Six Million: What is it with Jews and Lists?

Earlier today I came across a listing for an upcoming reading in Bryant Park with the poet Wayne Koestenbaum. (July 6, 7 p.m. Free.) He’s a local New York treasure–a CUNY Graduate Center English professor–and not in the least peevish about his Jewishness. "Best-Selling Jewish Porn Films" is the title of one of his better known collections.

Koestenbaum’s poems tend toward the ribald and profane, both wickedly funny and equally smart. You can find some of the poems in "Jewish Porn" online, and one in particular, "John Wayne’s Perfume," got me thinking about our timeless fascination with lists. Among poets, it’s something of an in-house game to make list-poems, and "John Wayne’s Pefume" certainly plays it well. Koestenbaum structures this particular list poem around seven stanzas, each three lines deep. The length of the lines within each stanza diminish as the list unfolds, giving the poem a comfortable rhythm.

Here’s an example, so you see what I mean:

In The Undefeated, John Wayne wore Unzipped;
in Overland Stage Raiders, Opium;
Stagecoach, Snuff.

In The Alamo, John Wayne wore Anaïs Anaïs;
in Jet Pilot, Joop Nuit d’Eté;
Chisum, Charlie.

The poem is echt list-making, and having just read an essay in The New Republic on the phenomenon of lists–the critic, Peter Miller, reviews Atul Gawande’s "Checklist Manifesto" and Umberto Eco’s "The Infinity of Lists"–it’s worth asking what purpose lists actually serve. The immediate answer, at least for me, is that they help us focus. We make lists for the grocery store or errands because they help us cut back the clutter in our heads; they give us structure, priorities, a purpose even.

Of course a list of errands shouldn’t be so easily associated with the loftier idea of "purpose," but the word is more apt when we think of the lists so common in Judaism. We can start with the seven days of creation, which lists God’s ordering of the world, and can track them all the way through the Bible, epitomized perhaps by the Ten Commandments. Lists drags throughout the whole of Jewish history, too, from the 613 rabbinic laws and Maimonides’ Thirteen Attributes of Faith, right up through to the Holocaust, with its ominous six million.

Importantly, Miller’s essay elucidates the differences among these types of list. The kind I already discussed–the one whose reason seemed so obvious to me–is perhaps the least interesting. I’ll call it the "priorities" list, though Miller calls it "practical." As noted, these lists are meant to give structure to our infinitely complex world. But their downside is steep: their point is to prevent us from thinking, perhaps even turning us into moral simpletons. Take the Ten Commandments (which are, let’s not kid ourselves, not so easy to remember anway). They may help us cut the moral universe down to a tidy Jewish size, but they would barely pass muster in a basic ethics class–"Thou shall not murder"? What about self-defense? For that we need the sharp reason of our great sages, our rabbis; without them, they’re useless.

The second type of list, which Miller gets from Eco, is counter-intuitive. It’s the lists of infinites, or lists whose principle function is to remind us of the immensity of the thing being described. Eco uses the example of Homer, in The Iliad, who writes 350 lines of verse just to describe the Greek armada attacking Troy. The sheer length, the detail, are meant to give the reader a sense of how immense the Greek military was. Instead of simplifying things, like the practical list, the list of infinites points us towards complexity–or its kin, enormity.

Jews have a list of that sort too: the Holocaust’s six million. Just stacking up those zeroes in our mind–one after another, after another, after another, after another, and so on–hollows the stomach. It becomes empty, infinite.

The last type, which is Miller’s addition, is what he calls "inventory" lists. These are lists that simply list things, without implying any hierarchical order, and making no grand claims. These lists record the world as seen by a singular person, one human being. They are the lists that we make, for instance, when cleaning out the home of a close relative, or friend, we’ve just lost–the four pair of shoes, two nightgowns, the T.V. set, the radio, their chair. When we come across these lists, strangely, we feel our minds open up, bringing back the life they stand in for. These are the lists of our imagination, our memories and our desires. These are the lists of poets.

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