Marc Estrin : What’s a Jew to Do?

Photo from the USHMM / National Archives /

What’s a Jew to do (with you)…

By Marc Estrin / The Rag Blog / September 4, 2010

…you, in this case, being the arch-conservative Catholic composer, Anton Bruckner, next to Wagner, Hitler’s favorite, whose birthday it is as I write?

I knew I wasn’t supposed to like Bruckner when, in my Jewish-guilt ridden, self-assigned curriculum, I decided to spend a summer listening to and learning all the Bruckner symphonies during my back and forths to Bread & Puppet. But it turns out that the orchestration is such that I often could hear only the upper half of the sound over the interstate tire noise. So I gave up that project, to fill in my Bruckner gap more slowly, as it comes.

For The Education of Arnold Hitler, my novel about a really sweet guy with a really shitty name, I knew I’d have to write a section on Bruckner, so I listened up on the Seventh, and wrote the following. Evelyn Brown, Arnold’s new girlfriend, a performance artist investigating evil by playing at neo-Nazism, and Arnold, have built him a bunker under an on-ramp onto the Bruckner Expressway in the Bronx out of stolen cement blocks and plastic sheeting. They have a bunker-warming for their little love nest as follows:

  “Whatcha got for music?” he asked.
  “Bruckner, what else?”
  She switched out the light. There was only the ghostly glow of distant streetlamps through the mirror film. Arnold crawled in under the quilt.
  “I brought you the slow movement from the Seventh Symphony.” She was somewhat slow herself. “Here.”
  She pushed PLAY, and the small room was filled with the rich sounds of low strings and horns in C# minor, a long, sinuous phrase culminating in surprisingly masculine chords, and lapsing back into a gentle feminine ending, serene, consolatory, moving.
  “Nice,” he said. “I’ve never heard Bruckner.”
  “You told me that. I thought this would be a good place to start.”
  “Beautiful, but so sad,” he said, as the melodies spun out of the original germ.
  They lay there silent, sipping their glasses as the harmonies and textures grew ever richer, and the keys slipped by until one amazing moment when the music, with a thrilling shock, slips and falls a half-step to climax streaming out on C major, filling the dark room with light.
  “Jeezuz!” Arnold muttered,.
  The music quieted, and the movement ended with a transfigured major version of the opening funeral music, a majestic threnody framed by the sound of Wagner tubas. They were silent for a long time after it finished.
  “The Nazis dug him too,” Evelyn finally said, “his monumental scale, grandiose, lavish, spiritual… They’d play him in Dunkelkonzerte — lights all out, sacred space. Listening to Bruckner was like going to church.”
  She snuggled in under the quilt.
  “His most famous piece, that,” she murmured. “They played it on German radio after Hitler died, after he was burned to a crisp. Hey, you wake?”
  She nudged him. No answer. She pulled off her clothes and lay her body against his as the kitties and bunnies watched the night.

OK, so Hitler and the Pope notwithstanding, Bruckner writes some fabulous music, even for a Jewish ear. So did Wagner, the fulminating-enough antisemite.

Which brings up the larger, long-standing, subtle, difficult question: can one detach an artist’s life from his or her works? Celine is a great writer, but a murderous maniac (as was Gesualdo). Heidegger was IMO the most important philosopher of the 20th century, and ended his inaugural address as rector of Freiburg Universtiy with three “Heil Hitler”s.

What are people, Jews especially, supposed to do with this gorge-rising stuff?

One approach has been “if you can’t beat ’em, recruit them” — as in this scene from my novel, Golem Song. Alan Krieger gives his shiksa German psychiatrist girlfriend a present of Arthur Naiman’s wonderful little book, Every Goy’s Guide To Common Jewish Expressions, Also Recommended for Jews Who Don’t Know Their Punim From Their Pupik. I’ll save you some space: Open the link if you like. It’s pretty funny.

(Nice little side story: when I wrote Arthur, asking for permission to quote his book in mine, he wrote back, “Permission is for goys. Fair use is for Jews,” and gave me… what?… who knows? Anyway a “Sure, go ahead.”)

OK, so Beethoven was Jewish, black jazz heroes are Jewish, all the (Good!) antisemites were Jewish, but what about Netanyahu? Lieberman? the politics of the current state of Israel? Are THEY Jewish?

Here’s what Alan Krieger’s brother writes him — interspersed in a scene from Golem Song in which the Ursula of the link above, takes Alan out to a French restaurant (Alan is very bad at French restaurants).

So, yes, what’s a Jew to do? What are any of us to do? It’s worth writing novels about.

[Marc Estrin is a writer and activist, living in Burlington, Vermont. His novels, Insect Dreams, The Half Life of Gregor Samsa, The Education of Arnold Hitler, Golem Song, and The Lamentations of Julius Marantz have won critical acclaim. His memoir, Rehearsing With Gods: Photographs and Essays on the Bread & Puppet Theater (with Ron Simon, photographer) won a 2004 theater book of the year award. He is currently working on a novel about the dead Tchaikovsky.]

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2 Responses to Marc Estrin : What’s a Jew to Do?

  1. Brother Jonah says:

    Eh. What’s a goy to do? On the Christian side of things, we have George Bush, you have Bibi. We have Sarah Palin.

    You know, 2000 years or so after one Jewish Lawyer tried really hard to make Christian Goyim part of a church that was filled with Christian Yehudim, and we still have our share of preachers who want to decide who is Christian and who is consigned to the everlasting fires.
    If it sounds like an echo of your story, it’s probably what it is. You know, I’m named for the most Hateful prophet in the bible? It’s true. The original Jonah hated Assyrians so badly that he wanted everybody in Nineveh (and the rest of the land, but that’s just bonus) along with and including every Israelite captive of the Assyrians.killed. Not just killed but maimed and then burned beyond redemption, or, resurrection. Truly lovely fellow. He also wasn’t a Jew in the strictest sense of the word, he was Samaritan, from Israel instead of Judah and not recognizing any authority of the Temple. I think, just by reading all the parts, that just about anybody in the whole bible is to remind us of How Not To Act. Maybe there’s a book length theme in that. I only write in bits and pieces myself. If you can put a hundred thousand words to that theme, I’ll read it.

    Not merely plagiarizing the entire bible, I do a nice job of that but maybe Mr Estrin or Mr Dreyer would care to have a go at prettying up the theme?

    I know there’s a lot of individual perspective involved, seems a whole lot of people can’t separate Islam from individual Muslim, can’t distinguish Judaism from individual Jew and the same with Christianity and Christians.

    It seems like it should be a Captain Obvious moment but duhhhhh….
    The people still aren’t biting.
    Witness if you will the debate over the sixth commandment. We now have Christian preachers parroting this remarkable discovery that, (and because they speak neither Hebrew nor Aramaic) the word Kill should be “murder” and thus any killing sanctioned by God would not be Murder and therefore not break the commandment. I could hit them over the head with a hardbound copy of Roget’s Thesaurus and it would do every bit as much good as having them read it. Or vice versa.
    Kill and Murder being synonymous. And if God ordains killing, doesn’t it make sense that He would clarify it to more than just a few people? I mean, He has the power, He could just as easily tell everybody as one person. But we’re supposed to just take their word for it that He told them to go ahead and commit War and other massive hate-crimes.

    Now THEY have me doing it, talking about a disembodied THEY and THEM. “They proved that Thou Shalt Not Kill is a mistranslation, scholars agree” Well DUH! you get two people who want to believe the same thing, and they happen to be scholars, well there you have it (two) scholars agree. And all the scholars who disagree are thus rendered useless. THEY said so.

    So the dilemma doesn’t start or end with Jewish. But it does make a stark contrast when put in terms of Jewish theology. Christian and Muslim too.

    Thanks for your thoughts on it, it’s another handle on how to explain any similar thoughts I have.

  2. T.G. Fisher says:

    Can we detach an artist’s work from his/her life? What a dumb question. Philip Wylie pointed out that to reject a brilliant idea that is beneficial to society just because we don’t like the person it came from is so stupid it is beneath comment. I equate it to judging a person by his looks. Example: If Adolph Hitler had developed the polio vaccine and THEN gone on to do what he did, how many Jewish mothers would refuse to have their children vaccinated against polio just on principle? And would they then go down to the iron lung ward and explain it to their children? Can we separate an artist’s work from his life and enjoy the art? Those of us who do not suck our thumbs can.

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