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Review: Essence of Judaism

Author(s): Robert Warshow

Review by: Robert Warshow
Source: The Kenyon Review, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Spring, 1947), pp. 298-299
Published by: Kenyon College
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4332850
Accessed: 01-03-2016 14:54 UTC

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It reminds me uncomfortably of the kind of vulgar popularization we

get in pseudo-folk culture (i.e. Ballad for Americans) and many of the

poems suffer from this defect. Kemp needs sharpening, formal ground-

ing, and, in general, a grammar for his invective which moves too easily

from the definition of the enemy to declarations of love for everyone.


Essence of Judaism

BURNING LIGHTS. By Bella Chagall. With 36 drawings by Marc

Chagall. Schocken Books. $3.00

F R most Jews of the West, it is not Palestine but the Pale of eastern

Europe that stands at the center of the idea of being Jewish. That

is where they came from - they or their parents - emerging into the

modern world from a background of experience that has no real parallel

anywhere. They left the ghetto for very good reasons indeed, and there

is probably no one who would want to go back even if it were possible.

But the world outside the ghetto turned out to be uncomfortable, too -

uncomfortable for everybody, perhaps, but for Jews especially and in a

special way, mostly because the world was reluctant to receive them, but

also because the Jews themselves had lived too long on the fringes of

western society to accept its pretensions completely and allow themselves

to be submerged; the ghetto was still a good point of reference. And by

1933, when the ominous possibilities of the "Jewish problem" began to

crystallize, it was natural that some Jews should begin to think of the

virtues of the ghetto. For the ghetto did have virtues, and whatever might

be said against it, it was almost enough for a Jew in the years after 1933

to say that the life of the ghetto was at least not the life of modern


Certainly it is unreasonable (though not easily avoidable) to feel one-

self a Jew merely because of the Nazis, but it is true that the Nazis made

the matter of being a Jew a little simpler. The case of the dead Jews of

Europe is quite clear: people are never massacred for their vices. In the

mind of the victim, at least, a certain moral advantage is established; it

is no longer even conceivable that the anti-Semites might be right. And

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thus the experience of being a Jew takes on a new value.

This book of Bella Chagall's childhood memories, begun in 1939 and

written in Yiddish, a language she had not spoken since she left her

parents' home, is interesting less as a picture of life in the Pale than as a

document in the Jewish experience of the past fifteen years. In 1939,

when death was in the minds of Jews everywhere, this is how it seemed

to her that her childhood had been: secure and happy, orderly, full of

love - a life punctuated by the observances of unchanging piety, one

Sabbath after another, one Holy Day leading into the next, each with its

special excitement and preparation, its special foods (there is enough

food in the book to make one faint with desire), its prescribed quality of

emotion and religious exaltation. But there is none of the enormous

complication of Jewish life, the pervasive sense of alienation from the

larger world, the ironic disparity between the largeness of Jewish concep-

tions and the realities of Jewish life. For this one must go to other

writers, for whom the ghetto was real life and not merely an emotional

center. Bella Chagall's ghetto is the ghetto she needed in 1939.

But for all its quality of unreality, this book - like many sentimental

books - does give some softened image of what a lover of Judaism

might choose to call the "essence" of its subject - the "idea" of Jewish

life, what it was supposed to be and what for brief periods it may actually

have been: a life in which every detail was an element in the master-

pattern, a life with some of the intensity and formal clarity of a work of



Negro Music

JAZZ: HOT AND HYBRID. By Winthrop Sargeant. Dutton. $5.00

W ERE the musicological and aesthetic interests more nearly equal

in Mr. Sargeant, this book might well be the last word on all those

kinds of music which are not formally written down by a professional

and then formally performed by professionals. Even so, Mr. Sargeant

is something of a sober pioneer in a field which has not yet received too

much scholarly attention. He is primarily a musicologist, the kind in-

terested in exploring new fields rather than simply populating the old;

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