Friday, April 06, 2012

Fisking part of "The New American Haggadah" (guest post)

I was sent this, and it looks right on target:

Devoted readers of the Forward and other progressive Jews are abuzz with the NEW AMERICAN HAGGADAH, edited by Jonathan Safran Foer and newly (and literally) translated by Nathan Englander. In his ferocious review of Leon Wieseltier takes a swipe at Lemony Snicket’s contribution entitled “Playground,” apparently addressed to the children (or the child in us).
But not even this degree of intellectual lightness can justify the lame improv called “Playground” by the American Jewish writer who calls himself Lemony Snicket. If there is anything innovative about the New American Haggadah, it is the introduction into the Passover literature of this voice—puerile, trivializing, supercilious, calculatingly quirky, painfully unhilarious—a punk in a yarmulke. Here, for example, is his tiresome gloss on the Four Sons:
In addition to all the throw-away dismissals Wieseltier offers, there are still greater insights to be gleaned from this passage about the mind-set of the folks who put this Haggadah together.
 Some scholars believe there are four kinds of parents as well.
Scholars is presumably the modern replacement of rabbinic authorities. Fair enough. People learned in the tradition, who take a more secularized approach to the literature, at once knowledgeable and freed from dogmas about “Torah from Sinai”… certainly worth consideration, if not credence. And the notion that one might do an inversion of the 4 children is actually very promising… if done with some depth and wisdom.
Don’t hold your breath.
The Wise Parent is an utter bore. “Listen closely, because you are younger than I am,” says the Wise Parent, “and I will go on and on about Jewish history, based on some foggy memories of my own religious upbringing, as well as an article in a Jewish journal I have recently skimmed.” The Wise Parent must be faced with a small smile of dim interest.
Wow! Given what we know is coming (wicked, simple and doesn’t know to ask), this is the best we’re going to get. What we have here described is not a wise parent, but a superficial fool who mistakes age for wisdom, who has nothing of substance to say but bullshits his way through the situation on the basis of stuff he’s skimmed. In other words, he’s the epitome of the narcissistic secular Jew who had a minimal Jewish education which he maintains by reading “scholars” in journals, and expects to have the respect of his children. Not to get personal here, but could this me Lemony’s dad? And this is the best Lemony can imagine from parents? He’s like Peter Pan, eternally adolescent.
The Wicked Parent tries to cram the story of our liberation into a set of narrow opinions about the world. “The Lord led us out of Egypt,” the Wicked Parent says, “which is why I support a bloodthirsty foreign policy and am tired of certain types of people causing problems.” The Wicked Parent should be told in a firm voice, “With a strong hand God rescued the Jews from bondage, but it was my own clumsy hand that spilled hot soup in your lap.”
Wow again. So the bad parent is the “conservative,” the “hawk” who, having learned the lesson of the Holocaust, does not think that “war is not the answer.” And Lemony, who knows better than the older generation because… because, well he’s sure that if all Jews were liberals and progressives like himself, then there would be no anti-Semitism, has nothing but contempt for the bloodthirsty fool. As for the reference to “tired of certain types causing trouble,” is that a reference to freethinkers (like Lemony?), or to the Alice Rothschilds and Norman Finkelsteins of the world who compare Israel to the Nazis?
The Simple Parent does not grasp the concept of freedom. “There will be no macaroons until you eat all your brisket,” says the Simple Parent, at a dinner honoring the liberation of oppressed peoples. “Also, stop slouching at the table.” In answer to such statements, the Wise Child will roll his eyes in the direction of the ceiling and declare, “Let my people go!”
Now here’s an interesting fumble: mistaking license for freedom. As everyone from the rabbis to Erich Fromm have pointed out, there is no real freedom without discipline, and anyone who thinks that instilling discipline is restricting freedom has no real understanding. Here Lemony plays the role of the single uncle who encourages the kids to be wild, to show contempt for parents, to “let it all hang out.” Why not just say “caca doodoo.” Training the “rebels” of the next generation? Or the self-indulgent narcissists?
The Parent Who Is Unable to Inquire has had too much wine, and should be excused from the table.
Four of a kind – all the parents are contemptible. What a pathetic effort to mirror the Haggadah. And why did Safran Foer include this in his collection? Why didn’t he send it back to Lemony for a major rewrite? Notes Wieseltier:
Is this the cry of a generation? A pitch for Zach Galifianakis? There is something sad about such a fear of adulthood. It is an Egypt of its own.
It’s called never-never land. And if there were any self-condemning statement of a generation raised by largely secular parents who, met with a “generation gap” of their own, produced a host of self-satisfied pygmies, this is it.
If the Haggadah is a monument to memory in all its forms and the chain of transmission from generation to generation, this commentary is a monument to trivialization and breaking that chain.
Hopefully serious and playful liberals/progressives can do a lot better than this.