Antisemitism after Pittsburgh
Wayne Koestenbaum’s Poetic Ethics
About a month after the murder of eleven at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh — the worst attack on Jews in the history of this country — we might pause to reflect on the nature of the continuing threat. The attack itself has only elevated anxiety that Jews have been feeling since Trump’s election — which had already seen Nazis vocally supported by the President and a 37% increase in antisemitic attacks in 2017, . But the attack also mirrored mass shootings seen in other houses of worship, such as the 2015 murder of nine black parishioners in Charleston and six at a Wisconsin Sikh temple in 2012. White nationalism is indeed on the rise, but the people now being stripped of passports along a border and subject to police raids are Latino. The same week as the Pittsburgh shooting, an African-American church in Kentucky was targeted by a gunman who, deterred from entering, murdered a black man and woman at the local Kroger’s.
These forms of hate are obviously connected, and assessing any specific threat to Jews is further complicated by the rhetorical abuse of claims of antisemitism. In the past decade, some of the most feverish assertions of antisemitism and self-hatred have been levied not against white nationalists but . Taken to an extreme, a reflexive evocation of historical trauma — ghettos, Crusades, pogroms, the Holocaust — obscures the privilege and power Jews have achieved recently both in the United States and in the State of Israel. And it ignores the fact that the work of Miller, Mnuchin and Cohn within the White House, and support of right-wing Jewish and right-wing Zionist organizations outside it, help enable the President’s alliance with white nationalists through silence or encouragement.
These facts raise complicated questions about how to assess threats and how to experience Jewish identity at this moment — whether from a place of power or vulnerability. To help think about these issues with ethical clarity we should turn to Wayne Koestenbaum, a truly fearless navigator of these pole-stars of privilege and suffering, ethnic pride and stigma.
The author of 20 books of poetry, fiction, criticism, and operatic libretto, Koestenbaum’s most recent work is Camp Marmalade, a fragmented diary filled with crystalline observations spun from an exceptional consciousness. The 400-page work, which covers the period leading up to Trump’s election, is difficult to summarize because it touches on so many themes, but it might be compared to Kafka’s diaries in their brilliance. As Trumpism rose across the country, Koestenbaum tracks the rising tides of a more-explicit rightist hate from the perspective of a speaker who is both gay and Jewish. The book’s first lines address the nature of this daily-changing threat:
guy said “fag”
under his breath as I walked by
In reaction to such hate, Camp Marmalade’s aperçus are an encyclopedia of Jewish culture’s inextricability with modern culture. We see evocations of Theda Bara, Jewish sex symbol of early cinema, avant-garde composer Morton Feldman, Fromental Halvéy’s French opera La Juive, and the painter Lee Krasner, who teaches us to “stay / awake to the redemptive glyph.” The nostalgic song “Yiddishe Mama” is juxtaposed with mention of the composer Giacomo Meyerbeer: “Liszt’s birth / out the head of / Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer, / a Socratic (buttfucked) / relation to Meyerbeer.” Throughout there are nods to Jewish stereotypes, particularly neurosis and anxiety:
book I thought
free turned out to be
constricted Ashkenazi tsunami.
This anxiety is heightened by intersectional stigma, where religion and sexuality both put the speaker in the line of hatred. Throughout emblems of Jewish suffering appear in different degrees of horror and specificity, often in relationship to issues at the nexus of sexuality and religion. Referring (perhaps) to a partner, the speaker imagines “if his Wagnerian / dick were long and complicated / I could endure it,” Wagner’s antisemitism being as famous as his long and complicated operas. There is mention of Hans Bellmer, who mocked the model of Aryan physical perfection by creating grotesque baby dolls. And there are satiric takes on post-war German affection for Jews: “Though his / mother belonged to Hitler Youth / he believes he was Jewish / in a past life.”
Other passages show how antisemitic stigma threatens to turn cultural pride into self-hatred. In one sequence, the speaker notes “I finish 130 pages / of antisemitic Celine” (the French avant-garde writer) only to assert that during a massage “I wasn’t trayf, merely / pallor lying on pallet” and then move to the guilty confession: “dream: molested a / baby by massaging him / twice — the first time / he liked it but then I / overstimulated him and / he shook and wept.” Sometimes the insights are diamond-like in their compression:
as an Ungezeifer, or
whatever Kafka calls his
Gregor-bug — always saying
Ungezeifer or Anselm Kiefer at dinner parties as solution
to repartee quandaries.
The rhyme of Anselm Kiefer and Ungezeifer is brilliant. Kiefer is the Christian German artist known for photographing himself in front of prototypically German monuments and Romantic scenery, in his father’s Nazi uniform. Kiefer’s method is to inscribe the weight of complicity onto landscape, although one might argue that there is also some appropriation of others’ trauma which deadens the work. Ungezeifer, in Kafka’sMetamorphosis, is the cockroach-like creature that Gregor Samsa becomes. The Metamorphosis may be read retrospectively, as through Nazi eyes, as a self-hating Jewish fantasy (Germans called Jews vermin), thereby anticipating the murder of so many in Prague. Eliding the two names raises questions about the ownership and source of trauma, and the ways that art may metamorphose and scramble identities. Without Hitler, would we see Kafka the same way — as a doomed prophet of modernism’s futility? In a diary, is it possible to read forward and backward in history to raise the possibility that oppressors and victims may play each other? Or is it merely a party trick — a repartee — to pretend this is possible?
Koestenbaum’s work is not merely Jewish in reference to questions of power and vulnerability but also in its adaptation of Judaism’s traditional poetic modes: the psalmic and the prophetic voice. In particular, Camp Marmalade evokes the moral vision of Jewish religious poetry — even if for much of the book Koestenbaum illustrates how its categories of redemption may become empty if we cannot actually experience their good on earth.
The book’s first chapter is titled: “I despise pretending to be an intellectual rather than an assembler.” There is a critical echo here — to Psalm 118. In it, David, once exiled but now exultant, recalls that the stone that the builders rejected has become its chief cornerstone. It is a verse often used by synagogues during Pride celebrations, who use it to show how an identity once stigmatized may be lifted up. 118 is also part of the series of psalms sung at Hallel, recited to mark the new month and also to mark the liberation of Passover. Like the diaristic and frequently ecstatic voice of Camp Marmalade, the psalmic voice marks time and hopes to orient it toward redemption, as it jubilantly reconstructs moments from broken parts and painful materials: from the rejected a foundation.
It is worth thinking more about this image. “Assembling” takes different things and layers them upon each other. There is differentiation between the Psalms, which voice either ecstasy or misery. Sometimes these states are embodied within a single psalm, but more often there is alternation between uplift or dejection. Psalm 22 cries out in abandonment — “God, why have you forsaken me,” as the speaker declares himself to be a worm, less than human. But 23 proclaims profound peace, that God is a shepherd, where love fulfills and envelops the speaker. In these ways the psalmic voice is a lyrical mode that relies on petition and desire to shed light on different states of being.
The prophetic voice also distinguishes among states of being, because it lays out the terms of redemption and perdition. Moses in Deuteronomy describes the blessing and the curse that will befall the Jewish people in terrible alternation, saying that Israel will experience both over time. The prophets view historical progress as reversible and know that temples may be ruined, especially when rote, mechanistic ritual overcomes ethical practice — as Isaiah says, God asks “What need have I of all your sacrifices?” and instead demands “Learn to do good. Devote yourself to justice.” Poetic speech, another kind of ritual enactment, must also sometimes break old formulas so as to elevate the consequences of moral choice.
But the tragedy expressed in much of Camp Marmalade is that Koestenbaum’s poetic voice — both psalmically ecstatic and prophetically original — takes the Jewish categories of ecstasy and misery, redemption and perdition, and collapses them together. In so many of its images, Camp Marmalade shows ecstasy to be tinged with suffering, and our freedom to be our perdition. This happens in part because stigma ruins things which should be joyous with signs of shame. “Enduring” Wagnerian dicks evokes gay sex that is less joyful because others’ hatred may taint it. Throughout, there are private tokens of shame wedded to Jewish identity: “I owe him — debt / is a chuppah / I stand under to marry / my own self-disgust.”
Undergirding the distinct categories of Jewish religious poetry — agony/ecstasy, perdition/redemption — is the ability to choose. That is, in most strands of the Jewish tradition, redemption occurs through action and not faith. But with this assertion comes a deep self-critique when power is abused or when choice is not realized. The other reason that Koestenbaum presents these states as confused is that the book documents a moment where it has been difficult to realize the good. The categories embodied in the psalms and the prophets are made real only to the extent that an ethical life — relying on agency — may be enacted in a way that informs a daily, full and moral experience.
It is this absence of agency and choice which Camp Marmalade documents most, not just in guilty passages like the dream of baby-massage, but in general despair as to the direction of the world and an inability to influence it: the speaker notes he “gave two dollars to / woman with AIDS to buy Subway / sandwich — she said she liked my hair.” There is a cry of shame in this observation, in voicing a dynamic where someone else’s suffering too-quickly reflects back on the speaker. Personal charity is limited and seems only to serve selfish ends. In this environment, Koestenbaum’s work leads us to question whether we have the tools to understand whether marching Nazis and the Pittsburgh shooting pose an existential threat to US Jews, or whether focusing exclusively on them may distract us from attending to others’ need while we remain relatively privileged.
A traditional rabbinic mode is analysis — the creation of distinct categories. To separate that which is holy from all else, or, less positively, to split hairs and create blinding strictures of social control. Employed more expansively, as does Koestenbaum, analysis allows one to understand different modes of experience and how they relate to each other within a single life.
He ends his book in an extraordinary, and in this way rabbinic, image of analysis and distinction: a parable of the “halo” and an image of the poet as the “sifter.” I quote it at length because of its beauty and its articulation of a traditionally Jewish form of moral experience:
withdraw its presence
after it has taught
us how to sift?
what good is our knowledge
of how to sift, if
we can no longer
find the halo
whose luminous enigma
drove us to divide
useful from useless droplets?
we learn to incarnate halo
our obligation is to elevate
into a halo through
or recklessness of
— as if by sifting
we could impose
a rift in raw
separate its troubled
from its untroubled face —
no captor, no
to measure the ardor
of listlessness of my
— did the halo
ask to be disturbed
by the nervous
actions of a sifter?
reconceive the nature
of the sieve i am —
and through its neutral net
behold the fine
and coarse particles
The sequence is remarkable not just for its beauty. It is also striking for its rejection of the idea of a supernatural, ruling God (“no captor, no creator exists”) while simultaneously using traditionally Jewish metaphors (the halo evokes revelation or the Shekinah, sifting for Jews’ tradition of disputation). The result is a hope asserted that we may engage in a flawed and human process of redemption. Koestenbaum inverts notions of divine intervention and focuses on personal agency — “the sieve I am” — sorting between useful and useless droplets, the troubled and untroubled.
Given the intentionally disjointed observations in much of the book, its conclusion maintains a firm thread despite its fragmented style. Koestenbaum’s final charge is to call us to greater presence, to “elevate the atmosphere,” but to do so in a way that emphasizes clarity. This sifting is not necessarily optimistic — there is an understanding of “bewilderment” and with this incomprehension comes no faith in any positive resolution to rising hate or even a confidence that understanding is inevitable. Course particles falling evokes not just droplets of water, as earlier in the passage, but the aftermath of an explosion. The potential for ruin is real.
But this image of sifting hints at a resolution to the crisis of an unknowable threat — unknowable because the swirl of stigma makes it difficult to assess harm, perhaps especially when privilege, pride and visibility contend with vulnerability and shame on a daily basis. The passage does so by putting the ability to discern in our hands (the sieve I am) as a component of our very selves. Discernment means understanding with clarity the varied components of identity within ourselves, and how they interact with each other. More importantly in this context, discernment allows us to see the experiences of other selves who are under threat. The image of sifting particles is an outwardly-focused vision, of differentiation of things beyond the self. This outward focus poses an alternative to a world where any kind of ethical action (such as charity to a woman with HIV) reflects back on the speaker in a hall of mirrors. There is the assertion that we may acknowledge our own traumas and also others’ traumas without obsessive or despairing self-reference.
The night of the day that Jews were murdered in Pittsburgh, one of the more moving events in New York City was a public demonstration in Union Square. It centered on the Jewish ritual of Havdalah, which marks the separation of Shabbat from the rest of the week. At the event, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Asian and African-American speakers (where many Jewish speakers and attendees were people of color) acknowledged differences among peoples who are now under threat. But all described the interwoven forces of racism, Islamophobia, and antisemitism, and committed to grieve together and to protect each other. There was differentiation, and also solidarity — sifting and a glimpse of a unifying halo.
It is on these terms that one might assess this uncertain moment. What is fragmented may, with hard work, be assembled. Things that remain irreconcilable may be analyzed and understood.
The author of Planned Solstice (Iowa), David Micah Greenberg’s poems have appeared in The New Republic, Ploughshares, Colorado Review, and other publications. A former organizer with homeless men and women and the advocacy and policy director of a coalition of 90 neighborhood housing organizations in New York City, he now designs and evaluates community initiatives for a social policy research firm and is a frequent contributor to Boston Review on poetry and the public sphere.