Too good to be true? Taking the kitsch out of Yiddishkeit

Kitsch is the most pernicious of all prisons. The bars are covered with the gold of simplistic, unreal feelings, so that you take them for the pillars of a palace.” ― Pascal Mercier, Night Train to Lisbon

Monday marked my 13th anniversary as editor in chief of the New Jersey Jewish News. That means I’ve written something like 675 columns. That sounds like a lot, until you realize it is the same number of times that one Bergen County woman has seen, as of last November, the Broadway musical Jersey Boys.

That is a lot of opinionizing (and harmonizing, for that matter). I’ve often wondered if anything I’ve written has ever made a difference – a question that forces me to ask what difference I hoped to make. Did I want to win arguments? Press a political agenda? “Repair the world,” as the saying goes?

I think if I had one goal it has been to take the kitsch out of Yiddishkeit. Kitsch, of course, is the impulse toward self-indulgent sentimentality over complex and disappointing reality. Kitsch relies on formula, familiarity, and making its consumer feel comfortable. An art critic might call it the difference between a Baruch Spinoza finger puppet (I have one on my desk) and Baruch Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise. Grumpy literary critics have long considered the sentimental, accessible Fiddler on the Roof to be kitsch, especially compared to the knotty, ambivalent Sholom Aleichem stories on which it is based.

More generally, Jewish kitsch barely distinguishes between propaganda and reality, whether we are talking about a pediatric approach to synagogue life or a dogmatic approach to Israel. When synagogues don’t treat congregants as adults – when they reduce the complex, challenging Jewish canon to bubbemeyses (roughly, bedtime stories) — they are indulging in kitsch.  When politicians try to stir us with Pavlovian clichés (“If elected, I will move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem!”), that’s kitsch. (Donald Trump, who offers ”easy” and comforting solutions to complex national and global issues, is pure kitsch. Dangerous kitsch, but kitsch all the same.)

In political terms, kitsch refers to the unexamined clichés we tell each other about Israel and the Middle East conflict. It is not kitsch to say that Israel is a modern-day miracle, a stunning reversal of Jewish history based on an unfathomable leap of communal imagination and the ingenuity of its founders and fighters. But it is kitsch to erase the Palestinians from the Middle East narrative. Phrases like “there is no Palestinian people” and “a land without a people for a people without a land” are pure kitsch.

It is not kitsch to say that Jews must never let down their guard, and that history has taught us that vigilance is the key to survival. But it is kitsch to say that it is always 1938, and every critic or opponent is a Nazi in waiting.

Sometimes kitsch is essential. Exodus, the novel by Leon Uris, is sentimental, one-sided, and hackneyed in its portrayal of Israel’s fight for independence. And yet the novel, as one recent critic put it, “is credited with setting the tone for international press coverage of the Six-Day War and helping to inspire a Jewish revival among Soviet Jews, prompting them to oppose the communist regime and demand the right to immigrate to Israel.”

Exodus proves that kitsch can be necessary – either to counter the propaganda from the other side or reach people who may not be moved by an ambivalent or complex message. I find a lot of the pro-Israel messaging aimed at high school and college kids to be kitsch. The Israeli military is portrayed as flawless, the Israeli people as paragons of virtue, and critics of Israel as uniformly dishonest or delusional. And yet I realize that in order to inspire young people, a little idealism is in order – and nuance and realism can come later. Certainly the other side isn’t big on “nuance.”

I only worry that, challenged by some hard truths, the kids’ romanticism will give way to disillusionment, and then cynicism.

Sometimes you find out that what sounds like kitsch is hardly that at all. I used to feel that American Jews were way too self-congratulatory when it came to the Soviet Jewry movement. We boast about the epic march on Washington, about the doors we opened in Washington and Moscow, about the “sacrifices” we made in smuggling Judaica past Soviet customs agents. “Too good to be true” is another definition of kitsch.

And then you read a book like A Backpack, A Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka, by NJ writer Lev Golinkin. His memoir about leaving Ukraine as a child in the early 1990s is in part a love letter to the American Jewish organizations – especially the Joint Distribution Committee and HIAS – that helped his family escape a cruel Soviet Union and resettle in the United States.

“The fact that American Jews, individuals dwelling is safety, grappled with the Soviet colossus in the name of complete strangers and persisted in that fight for 40 damn years is a testament both to human rights and the Jewish people,” writes Golinkin.

Take that, kitsch.

I am not immune to kitsch. Fiddler makes me bawl. Hatikvah makes my scalp tingle. But we owe it to ourselves and each other to separate the sentimental from the real.

At least that’s my (676th) opinion.

About the Author
Andrew Silow-Carroll (@SilowCarroll) is the editor in chief of The New York Jewish Week and senior editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.