Assimilation means cultural transformation. But forms do not change at once; transformation is a decidedly gradual process. Ergo, assimilating to a new culture is not instantaneous. One of the exogenous ingredients involved in the transformation of assimilation is socialization; that is learning how to act within a given society. This unique phenomenon, essential to smooth assimilation, presents a conundrum to the author, writing about the experience.
To realize this fragile dynamic, certain literary devices, such as those suggesting symbolism, must be applied. In the essay, Balancing Acts, from the story collection, Kagan’s Superfecta (1981), Allen Hoffman, retired professor of Creative Writing and English Literature at Bar-Ilan University, finds in the act of replacement, a remedy for the awkwardness of change. Changed cultural make-up being synonymous with assimilation, the narrator, a Jewish-American painter, is transplanted in Jerusalem where he replaces sports with religion and pigeons with doves. While easily associated with classic American assimilation literature, Balancing Acts is separate from the proper canon; its geographical and spiritual nuances are the salient facets which provide the watermark. Because the protagonist has already been assimilated to American culture, it is anachronistic to the genre. For this, Balancing Acts is as much a work of American dissimilation literature as it is a work of Israeli assimilation literature.
I plan to demonstrate how Hoffman bridges the gap between Balancing Acts and the annals of American assimilation literature, both stylistically and philosophically. Up-tempo and colorful, the narration of Balancing Acts is a diverse collage, documenting the inter-level journey from cultural freedom to individual freedom, of one character who humbly excuses submission to extreme anti-establishment-ism, born from unique American perceptions of society; and the compromising of religious and ethnic purity in a cultural melting-pot. By looking to the universals of the process of cultural integration, facilitating an understanding of Balancing Acts in the context of American assimilation literature, I will address the latter part of my thesis (philosophical influence); and by looking at the style of storytelling, often evoking the American tradition, namely the poetry of Walt Whitman, I will address the former (stylistic influence).
Hoffman narrates the story of assimilation into Israeli culture by using a symbolic equilibrium, bridging old land and new land. The practice of reconciling seemingly irreconcilable polarities for the sake of cultural symbolism is reminiscent of the style Walt Whitman (1819-1892) uses in Leaves of Grass. For instance, in Balancing Acts, Hoffman injects sense into the disparity between the ephemeral and the eternal: “The nearness of generations makes the transient feel permanent and the permanent resident feel transient…” (Hoffman 273); the pivotal and the peripheral: “You are in the middle – small, miniscule, and a creation of Jerusalem itself…you are also, potentially, an essential part of Jerusalem…” (Hoffman 273); and the material with the ontological: “…ancient olive trees with their hidden roots, gnarled, flinty trunks (surrender!), delicate, curved crowns of small, stiff oval green leaves (victory!)” (Hoffman 274). As a result, the fine tight-rope between the American experience and the experience of being a Jerusalemite is crossed. To put it in other terms, with certain stylistic tinges, Hoffman’s tale of Israeli assimilation cleverly honors American culture while the protagonist bids America farewell.
In Leaves of Grass, “Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son,” (Whitman 1803) uses a first-person speaker who is connected to everything, and gives readers the sense that everything in the cosmos is connected. To accomplish this, Whitman uses such language as, “I celebrate myself and sing myself,/and what I assume you shall assume,/For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you./” (Whitman 1875), and stanzas of free verse to organize the formless “Nature without check with original energy” (Whitman 1876). This romantic work sees existence through a transcendental scope, trumpeting both the autonomy and interconnectedness of the body-politic of democracy, the spirit of the individual and the natural world.
Balancing Acts is also latent with the listing of binaries in order to represent cultural assimilation and spirituality. Here too, the narration transcends geography, time, culture and religion; and there is a sense that everything is similar. While Walt Whitman honors democracy and celebrates equality with such writing as, “I speak the pass-word primeval, I give the sign of democracy, By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same term…” (Whitman 1893), the speaker of Balancing Acts finds a cosmic balance and expresses his religious love. For example, Hoffman describes his purpose and his new home as:
The permanent and the temporary, the hard and the soft, the loud and the quiet, the speakers and the speechless, the large and the small, the heavy and the light; the earth, the earthbound and flight-blessed, all chanting in unison to the Indescribable, Eternal Creator…
Stylistically, this echoes Whitman’s great American epic, in which the entity being worshipped is, perhaps, the individual. In Leaves of Grass he writes:
I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,/ The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,/ The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into a new tongue./ I am the poet of the woman the same as the man,/ And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man,/ And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men.
Aside from the stylistic parallels between Hoffman’s meditation on Israeli assimilation, and Walt Whitman’s transcendental poetry, is the philosophical influence of American literature on Hoffman. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) lends ideas that may be tools for assimilation, plausibly utilized by the narrator of Balancing Acts. Individualism is the crux on which all Emerson’s works are hinged. Yet, if we read, Self-Reliance and Uses of Great Men, back to back, we find two separate paths to individualism. The former views the world and society from the inside out, whereas the latter from the outside in. If we see assimilation (either a credit or a risk to individualism) as a process, it is two-step: first, the immigrant sheds his strangeness and becomes similar to a certain communal type; then, as a member of the community, he again seeks, or his free to seek his ethnic individualism. In order to be self-reliant, Emerson is wary of the merging forces of society and gravity. Coming from the Anglo-Saxon genes of the original American settlers, he sees society as a threat to his individualism. A single author who would not take America for granted, Hoffman is offended somewhat by the militantly-nonconformist Emerson of Self-Reliance and, somewhat, in harmony with the naturally-nonconformist Emerson of Uses of Great Men. Emerson celebrates the ideal that every moment in life should be fresh and spontaneous, and should honor the present. “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist…” (Emerson 725) writes Emerson in Self-Reliance. However, the narrator in Balancing Acts is romantic about his ancient religion and heritage, and reticent to insult any institution with a refusal to conform. Loyalty is always his drive. “…to live in Jerusalem is to surrender part of yourself…” writes Hoffman, however, “Surrender is victory!” (Hoffman 273) The sense of victory is felt because his idea of individualism and self-reliance is attained through leaving pluralized America for Jewish Jerusalem. To be a Zionist is his inherent calling, on a “deeper, gut level,” and more liberating to his individualism than the rebellious prose of Emerson’s Self-Reliance. “The artist and sports fan share this gut response that does not permit them to surrender to obvious facts and events,” writes Hoffman, “So it was I believed in the Messiah’s imminent appearance; a people who refuse to surrender Messianic expectations after thousands of disappointing years can only survive on this deeper, gut level.” And he poses the question, “Is it any wonder we make such loyal sports fans?” (Hoffman 284) By betting on the unexpected, the speaker in Balancing Acts refuses to conform to reason, and by doing so, conforms to his own societal niche, as a Zionist Jew, a sports fan, and an artist, leaving the safety of America. When Emerson writes, “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members…” the speaker in Hoffman’s story, who seeks a society where he may conform to a culture based on his heritage rather than be part of an ethnically diverse whole, is in disagreement. Emerson writes, “Society is a joint-stock company in which members agree for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater.” (Emerson 725) This cannot, however, be true for society in Jerusalem, because the narrator of Balancing Acts, who “surrendered” part of himself to live there, feels also that “not to be in Jerusalem is to surrender part of yourself…” (Hoffman 273) To Hoffman, the experience of being a Jewish-American, finding liberty, finding individualism, is honoring to the full, his ancient heritage, instead of Americanism.
The sensibility of preserving one’s cultural identity is offered in the theory of assimilation put forth by German philosopher, Horace M. Kallen (1882-1974), in Democracy versus the Melting-Pot. Kallen writes, “Respect for ancestors, pride of race! Time was when these would have been repudiated as the enemies of democracy, as the antithesis of the fundamentals of our republic, with its belief that ‘a man’s a man for that.'” Indeed, an Emersonian sentiment (Self-Reliance) is expressed here, that ancestral and racial loyalty goes against the democratic ideal, which is here coined as the metaphor, “melting-pot.” “And now they are being invoked in defense of democracy, against the ‘melting-pot,’ by a sociological protagonist of the ‘democratic idea!'” (Kallen 1) The “sociological protagonist” with an ethnically-loyal bent whom Kallen is referring to is exemplified by Hoffman’s protagonist. Hoffman’s protagonist is wary of the American melting-pot. He writes, “Time [in Jerusalem] may move as quickly as it does in other places, but it doesn’t relinquish its past as it advances.” (Hoffman 273)
A melting-pot is a hybrid mixture; it is the sum total of all its parts. An American ideal perhaps, it is not an ideal for Allen Hoffman. Not that American democracy threatens the narrator of Balancing Acts, an American Jew, originally from Eastern Europe. Horace M. Kallen explains that:
…the Jews come [to America] far more with the attitude of the earliest settlers [Puritans seeking religious freedom] than any other peoples; for they more than any other present-day immigrant group are in flight from persecution and disaster; in search of economic opportunity, liberty of conscience, civic rights.
But because Balancing Acts was written later, we know the Jewish protagonist already championed American democracy. Assimilation in America was just the halfway point to his cultural destination. Hoffman writes, “If American Jews were looking for cars, the Zionists were looking for a garage in which they could park their wandering nationalism.” (Hoffman 283)
In Letters From an American Farmer: III, St. Jean de Crèvecoeur (1735-1813) writes, “The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas, and form new opinions.” (Crèvecoeur 443) Perhaps this best represents what Kallen refers to as the “melting-pot.” However, Hoffman’s surrender to help park the Jewish “wandering nationalism” is at odds with this ideal. The narrator of Balancing Acts is better understood by Emerson in Uses of Great Men. Emerson writes, “If now we proceed to inquire into the kinds of service we derive from others,” consider the safety provided by America to Jewish immigrants, “let us be warned of the danger of modern studies, and begin low enough.” To Hoffman, ancient Jerusalem is a worthy replacement for new America, on the grounds that his loyalty lies with his religion, which he will not risk diluting in a melting-pot.
While the narrator of Balancing Acts is reluctant to conform to the American melting-pot, a point observable only through the protagonist’s actions, he has a difficult time conforming to society in Jerusalem; in other words, socialization presents the main hurdle. Even as a Jew in Israel, he remains, in his heart, an American. On these grounds, Hoffman, despite his submission to Zionism, remains a nonconformist. The protagonist in Balancing Acts is a Jewish example of what W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) refers to in The Souls of Black Folk, as “double-consciousness.” While Allen Hoffman’s version of the Jewish-American experience is quite unique, his ability to honor new American culture without losing his ethnic and cultural identity is reminiscent of African-American assimilation, out of the shackles of slavery. The narrator of Balancing Acts, although an ex-patriot, is never able to completely shake American culture. While he replaces life in America with life in Jerusalem, he does so nostalgically and we get a sense of the complicated process of assimilation; however, his decision to leave America was based on the gut instinct to return to his ancestral homeland and honor his heritage and religion. Of the African-American in The Souls of Black Folks, whom I will now compare to the Jewish-American of Balancing Acts, Du Bois writes:
One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder…The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,—this longing to attain self-conscience manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost.
(Du Bois 9)
In Balancing Acts, now residing in Jerusalem, the narrator slowly and painfully dissimilates from America. For example, he is preoccupied with American sports, and refers to them time and again. Hoffman writes:
I walked into town [Jerusalem] and bought a Herald Tribune to find out the results of the Superbowl, a game I understood. I read it avidly, like a letter from a very close friend. The Raiders finally had won. The Vikings had lost again. That was reassuring; I wasn’t missing much, but I had a sense of loss. I wished that I had seen it. I put down the sports page and looked across at the timeless cemetery.
The Jewish cemetery is symbolic of this immigrant’s “two-ness”: the Jewish soul and the American soul. Firstly, it represents his love and sense of duty towards his ancestral heritage. But it also represents America, the old land he is leaving behind, along with its culture; burying the American ideal, and giving new life to the new land, the Jewish soul, freed from both years of persecution, as well as the ‘melting-pot’ ideology of American democracy. No matter where Hoffman is living, it is inevitable that he will feel nostalgic. In America, he is nostalgic for Jerusalem, and in Jerusalem, for America. This nostalgia is as inevitable as his winding up, eventually, in a cemetery. Such comparisons as waiting for the Messiah and being a loyal fan of one’s favorite American sports team, (while in Israel), is an example of Du Bois’ “two warring ideals in one…body.” Whereas Du Bois, who believed in the merging of cultural identity, prefaced the chapters of his book, The Souls of Black Folk, with African-American sorrow songs that have a deep European influence; Hoffman is a Zionist, whose cultural philosophy and writing style has been peppered by Americana: “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings.”
In Balancing Acts, Allen Hoffman tells the story of leaving a comfortable life in America for his ancient and eternal home in Jerusalem. Ironically, to do so he evokes the philosophy and writing style of his American forefathers. This is because assimilation is not an instantaneous event; it is not a spiritual conversion by ceremony. Becoming similar to a certain cultural make-up transcends geography, religion and philosophy; and so, to chronicle this delicate experience, certain literary devices are used. In Balancing Acts, Allen Hoffman demonstrates that assimilation is not akin to removing an article of clothing and putting on a new one. Instead, like all transformation, it is gradual. One might go to a new place, drawn by the ideologies of the people who live there, or, as in the case of the Native-American or African-American, be freed from the shackles of slavery, or, in their own homeland, forced to conform to the ways of foreigners; but assimilation does not happen overnight. And so Hoffman is a Jew in Jerusalem, but he is also an American-Jew in Jerusalem. To quell this awkwardness, he engages in a cultural juggle, weaning himself from his comfort in America; represented by an impressive literary juggle. By way of the act of replacement: Jerusalem doves for New York pigeons and Messianism for baseball and football, Hoffman’s narrator manages to pull his American nationality off, like a table cloth, without knocking over the fine china.
Crèvecoeur, Jean de. “Letters from an American Farmer”. The Norton Anthology of American Literature Volume 1. New York and London. Ed. Francis Murphy. New York and London: W.W. Norton. 1979. 439-457.
Du Bois, W.E.B. “Of Our Spiritual Strivings”. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics. 2003. 8.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance”. The Norton Anthology of American Literature Volume 1. New York and London. Ed. Hershel Parker. New York: W.W. Norton. 1979. 723-744.
Ibid. “Uses of Great Men.” Representative Men. RWE.org – The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. February, 22, 2011. http://www.rwe.org/ 1-9.
Hoffman, Allen. “Balancing Acts”. Kagan’s Superfecta. New York: Abbeville Press. 2000. 273-304.
Kallen, Horace M.. “Democracy versus the Melting-Pot”. February 25, 1915. February, 22, 2011. http://www.expo98.msu.edu/people/Kallen.htm. 1-14
Whitman, Walt. “Leaves of Grass.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature Volume 1. Ed. Hershel Parker. New York and London: W.W. Norton. 1979. 1825-1988.
Written March 8, 2011, Bar-Ilan University Department of English Literature and Linguistics