Jew-talk beyond and through criticism
By Annie Atura
I can’t help but embark on this monstrously broad piece with a disclaimer. The generalizations and arrogance and (surely) error contained herein demand an apology. I also sympathize with those who find the signing away of responsibility for what is to follow violently annoying. Who am I to speak for Jews, or to Jews, regarding speech – and who am I to excuse myself for doing so? I’m hardly a Jew at all, which perhaps makes me more of a Jew. Certainly, I have no formal training in the subject of either Jewry or speech, and have conducted no true research. I didn’t even grow up in a Jewish community. And yet, in this paper, I aim to share general ideas about the tics and assumptions that enrich – and maybe constitute – the substance of Jewish language. Even in the few preceding lines I’ve demonstrated three traditional aspects of Jewish communication: meta-commentary, paradox, and, finally, presumption. Maybe no one else would find the endeavor I undertake herein presumptuous, and, if so, I’m presumptuous for assuming that they do. No matter. We have to start somewhere, and this is the way I know how. I’ll do what I can to assume what I should and apologize for what I shouldn’t.
I’m sure there are many books to be written about the connection between Jewish theology and Jewish patterns of speech, but I’m inclined to believe that the connection drawn between the two would only be retroactive – correlative, not causal. Of course one can find meaning in any preoccupation, and any meaning can be culled from the Bible. I’m not under the impression that Jewish culture has sprung forth fully formed from our holy texts, like Athena from Zeus. And if there is, in fact, a hard and fast connection between Jewish theology and thought patterns, it’s unclear which preceded which. If, indeed, our speech and thought patterns came before our theology, the project I undertake here is to access the root of our concept of G-d. I’m not ready to do that. Maybe theology is rooted firmly in text, and maybe it’s cultural. By extension, maybe these cultural patterns are cosmically relevant, and maybe they’re not. My point is just that I intuitively find them to be cohesive, and for better or worse they’re identified with my notion of Judaism.
In fact, I’ll limit the scope
of the argument further. Let’s say that this paper describes an orbit of thought attributed, at least, to the writers at Shibboleth: hyper-intellectualized, hyper-self-conscious, hyper Jews. Extend the observations, reader, as you see fit.
I assert that there are four threads uniting Jewish conversational conventions: self-deprecation, concern for craftsmanship, anxiety of influence, and one-upmanship. If these four items strike the reader as repugnant, or at least unflattering, never fear. In fact, they’re negative in a way that actually enhances their value (see thread one: self-deprecation). And if self-deprecation seems at odds with one-upmanship, let us not forget the power of self-sacrificial glory; hypocrisy, when preemptively recognized by the speaker, is neatly engaged by self-deprecation. As this self-deprecation becomes impenetrable and pervasive it feeds back into the one-upmanship; even failings are used as victories. As you see, it’s an inescapable loop. No, not a vicious cycle – for the subjects delight in its insularity. An inescapable loop.
Let’s begin with the first of these four strategems. As we have seen, self-deprecation armors the speaker against any possible attack that could be leveled against either him or his arguments. If he practices the art of self-deprecation well enough, an acculturated listener will tacitly acknowledge the speaker’s peculiar supremacy, and will be confined to other topics of discussion; he cannot successfully out-reproach the speaker. In reality, this happens extraordinarily rarely, only when the opposing party hasn’t the self-confidence to find a chink in the armor of the other’s self-deprecation. Even inexperienced players will try to challenge the slippery fish; they will try to cut their teeth on a brilliant self-defender, to find that unique method of revealing the obvious overabundance of sardonic self-regard lurking behind a meticulous barrage of whispered self-dismissals.
(What a delight! In another context, the previous line would have to be curtailed, pruned like an English garden or cut into a fork-sized chunk. But self-mockery gives some license for profligate color. You can just whack your audience in the face with a steak, if they’ll accept the terms. Well, maybe you haven’t accepted them. This might be easier if the author could react to her audience. Gauging reactions is a virtue of verbal discourse that I am simply unable to demonstrate.)
Jews can’t come out and say anything overtly indicative of actual insecurity, of course – not in polite company. That’s not playing by the rules of the game. Conversational self-deprecation is not meant to function as a cry for help; it is utilized to promote an image of self-awareness that is at the heart of Jewish humor and Jewish (enlightenment-flavored) values, which prize internality beside godliness. Naturally, knowledge of one’s limitations constitutes a necessary component of that self-awareness, and a Jew looking to advertise himself will plead some level of self-ignorance. An actual cry for help, however, is not a proclamation of inscrutability but – well, something else. It’s a hard call, sometimes, to determine which is which. Sometimes, complaining about one’s implacable family is salutary catharsis; sometimes it provokes intervention. The former situation involves humor, the latter pity. The former is a calculated move, the latter a vulnerability.
I have already mentioned presumption as a fundamentally Jewish tactic. Presumption is tied to self-deprecation, too. In order to convey both the adversity the speaker experiences and pathetic nature of his failure to overcome it, he relies on a great deal of common ground between himself and his audience. He presumes that the opposing interlocutor will already suspect a martyr complex when he, the self-deprecator, subverts that suspicion by making it explicit. (I presume that you’re disgusted by grandiloquence, presume that you see it in my writing; thus I comment on it, to elicit empathy and patience rather than judgment.) Self-deprecation doesn’t work in a system that doesn’t tend toward accusation; there, rather than ring with intelligence, it thuds with desperation. Self-deprecation is the verbal manifestation of a culture of constant incisive psychoanalysis, which both parties bear full responsibility for perpetuating. This preoccupation, of course, is part of a Jew-as-shrink stereotype, and as such it naturally does not apply to Jews at large, or necessarily come to bear on Jewish theology. But, retroactively effective or no, this stereotype pervades a cultural understanding of what it means to be Jewish.
Self-deprecation, in theory, would erase the speaker from the scene entirely, catching him up so thoroughly in the game of anticipated judgment that its actual referent is lost. In reality, though, it merely functions as a medium for self-expression, much like describing the weather. Eventually, banalities will build a genuine relationship. The particular ways in which the speaker goes about this gnarly, endless business of auto-exoneration is genuinely unique, and the pride behind it is real, if complicated.
Pride is also at the heart of the Jewish preoccupation with craftsmanship. The most culturally successful Jewish speakers are singularly devoted to the tools of their trade. Most everyone has a favored word; if you bring up that word to its acolyte, she will almost inevitably blush, as though needled about a budding crush. (I love the word needle.) It is because so many Jews see the unfurling of words to be an infinitely beautiful and complex craft that they can’t seem to (if you’ll excuse the language) shut themselves up. To some extent, content is necessary for speech; but even the simple act of describing an activity necessarily reveals a meaning in and opinion about it. “Objective” observations, when contained in language, become transparently subjective. A truly apt description will ultimately function as a statement in and of itself, resting – once more – on a presumed common opinion regarding the object at hand. Describing passers-by in diction suggestive of the animal kingdom, for instance, is infinitely entertaining because we imagine people really do have the air of fluttering or loping, and there’s something tremendously satisfying in sharing that realization of analogy with someone else who appreciates not only the attention one has given to one’s subject but the delightful capacity of words to enhance our ability to see in pattern. Metaphor affirms life.
This delight in the craft of speech drives the perennial Jewish impulse to pun. Puns are valuable only insofar as the language is realized to be extricable from any particular situation. When the referent and sign diverge and then miraculously converge again – that is, when the punned meaning suddenly comes to bear on an actual situation – so much the better. But even the ability to see both the black goblet and the white faces, to see the language as a textured surface and as a representative system, is a valued talent metaphorically representative of the idealized Jewish capacity to see both pathos and comedy in life. Puns contribute to the myth of absolute self-consciousness: the speaker proves that he is aware not only of his own limitations but also of the limitations of his duplicitous tongue, which can never deal in things-in-themselves. Puns, while evocative and representative, epitomize one of the most benign forms of misrepresentation; by their very nature, puns are only worthwhile if they’re understood to be false. They’re a very serious game.
Jews are habitually delighted by the simple reminder that, in speaking, they’re trafficking in the currency of language. The speaker has at his disposal an endless heap of unique, complex, and free goods; he is effectively trading in depth and originality of cultural knowledge. The trade is, perhaps, undertaken with the primary intent to acquire some external good, like knowledge or empathy. But Jews, as we know, tend to take recreation quite seriously, and repartee is no exception. After all, the way one plays the game is always, inevitably and perhaps oppressively, meaningful.
Similarly, there’s a Jewish tendency to audibly relish the physicality of speech. A speaker will wallow in the artifice of colored wind. She will tend to draw out vowels of beautiful words, modifying them ever so slightly as she goes, as though the word itself were a captured animal yearning to breathe free. She will hyper-articulate, to the point of undue emphasis, not just to ham it up but to renew her audience’s interest in performance as such. She wants her audience to value the phonetic bounce of her words as it ought to be valued. A clicking noise works as a placeholder as the speaker grasps (often histrionically) for her words – not merely to fill the vacuum left by a sudden blank, but to draw attention to the listener’s drawn attention. A mere wimpy “um” or “like” would serve perfectly well to effectively apologize for an intellectual deficiency, but “um” and “like” fail to evoke the heart-rending sympathy for a person who finds herself at a loss for words. Indeed, failing language comprises about the greatest frustration that could possibly be experienced by a people for whom speech was (and is) the only guarantor of law and culture.
Language can work itself into such a fever pitch of artifice that Jews have developed methods of coming down from it, too. Phrases like, “Like this,” which is spoken with an inflection suggesting that it ends in a colon, bring the listener to understand that he is to pay faithful attention to the actual substance of the speech. Long dramatic pauses effect the same slowed read. Usually, these pauses are stylized. Nevertheless, the intent is clear: not the style, but the substance is to be considered. It is as though the pause, or the unnatural slowness of speech, or a preceding annunciation of gravity, is meant to counteract the Jewish affinity for style at the expense of content. If performance must be admired, here it deflects attention from itself.
Ultimately, the love of wordsmithery also works to turn every distasteful experience into an opportunity for joy. Hence the love of kvetching, which alchemically turns reason for self-hatred to cause for celebration, and even self-celebration. The more one has to kvetch about, the more one is given license to indulge in the real purpose of speech: performance, the opportunity to excel in wit and, by extension, appreciation for the unending and miraculous analogies to be found in our earthly experience. This joy in the medium may comprise an escape mechanism for a culture in danger of paralysis: consciousness of victimization threatens to stagnate speech, to allow it to stew until it develops into a ruminative, toxic cesspool. In any case, the focus on the method of communication in addition to (or rather than) the substance of communication is redolent of the general brand of Jewish joi de vivre, which focuses not on happiness but on the exquisite mystery of adversity. The idea is not to filter speech, or to filter life, but to relish its texture, and thereby to reach toward the paradox of encapsulating human life in thought.
Anxiety of influence comprises the third trend I notice in Jewish speech. Jews are belated even in their idea of belatedness, which makes them, you see, more genuinely belated. Jews are culturally familiar with the obsession of great thinkers with the impossibility of thinking oneself out of one’ s education. The greats generally have the hubris to suggest that they have succeeded, after all; they have the courage with which to put forth a work that unabashedly avows its own worth, invoking the muses (and their canon) only to usurp them. Traditional Jewish speech never goes quite so far. Jews are too nervous about the physicality of their own existence, of their own limitations, to throw caution to the winds and forego the footnote. At least, they’re too conscious of their peers’ skepticism to claim that the speaker’s points are somehow transcendent – we might recall the first point, self-deprecation, which puts self-knowledge in league with self-doubt. Thus the inexorable return to allusion, like a homing device flashing red unnecessarily while sending a transmission back to the mother base.
Sure, allusion has the simple purpose of proving a shared cultural background. To some extent, Jews make Woody Allen references just to make sure that the other party gets it, like any cult-classic fan. If the audience was misjudged, the speaker will have to modify his strategy. Yet allusions don’t merely test the waters. Jews tend to establish benchmarks so that the self-deprecating and presumptuous exploration – riddled with emphatic head nods and delighted shrugs – can move forward with the knowledge of all parties’ devotion to an intellectual body of work that will perennially prove them unoriginal. This, then, enters both parties onto a new plain of discourse, in which the conversation is less about discovering new territory than about discovering said territory on the speakers’ terms. Jews aren’t inventing the forms; they’re just watching their shadows dance. When the shadow puppet reveals itself, the parties will name the already-discovered idea not in order to discount the discovery but in order to share in the “aha!” moment. This common recognition affirms the lasting worth of their cultural education and promotes the calming awareness of their limitations.
“Kafkaesque,” “Homeric,” “Borgesian,” and even “Bloomian” have surfaced during my brief time working with the contributors to this journal. This is hardly coincidental. Thinkers do have the power to take associative control of systems of ideas. But in becoming the root of words, these emblematic figures are assumed into the Jewish cultural identity as a representative rather than a hero; they describe a phenomenon that far transcends their works. Kafka doesn’t own a damn thing, and his transmutation into an idea proves so: if a person becomes identified with an object, then it’s only convenient to acknowledge that association and thereby defang it. Thus we both nod to the past in determining the present and acknowledge the continuity of ideas; the substratum has remained unchanged. There’s a clear difference between saying, “Your writing reminded me of this thing I read once, The Metamorphosis . . . “ as opposed to smugly tossing off, “Very Kafkaesque.” The former devalues the novelty of the work; the latter allows the similarity to function as a mere descriptor, a tool to further creativity.
Coinage proves a tricky subject in this environment that intensely values words. On the one hand, malapropisms are simply not considered funny; they’re awkward, funny like the straggler in class, which is to say not funny. Malapropisms fail (generally) to illuminate truth. Indeed, an illuminating misuse of a word is a pun, not a malapropism. But invention must have a place in a world that prizes novelty. This is dealt with in two ways: through onomatopoeia and the conversion of a concept into a word, as in the case of author-adjectives. The first case, onomatopoeia, is self-explanatory, and clearly harks back to the oft-noted proclivity of Jews to use conversations as a proscenium for dramatic performance. As for the second case: Jews are anxious to nominalize and verb-ize, to convert one form to another (I’ve steaked you in the face). There is a fluidity and playfulness to the language that conveys an undying loyalty to some given word, which the speaker can’t bear to confine to one form of speech. Novelty in authorship is not to be found in ex nihilo invention; we define new terms in extant terms anyway. Rather, novelty has to do with novel arrangement. Analogously, a conversation littered with references can take on a wholly personal character despite its tired building blocks.
This brings me to the fourth and final trend: one-upmanship. This aspect potentially applies to each of the other three. Self-deprecation, craftsmanship, and manic referencing can all be done more or less elegantly, and the particular deftness with which they’re deployed bespeaks a skill or lack of skill on the part of the speaker. Yet what I care to discuss is the kind of competition that transforms dialogue into a contest in which much more is at issue than either the speakers’ dignity or the chosen concept’s tenability. This competition changes not merely the intensity of the conversation but also the stakes. The idea of the competitive discussion manifests in Jewish culture as a way of honing in on one’s idea of representation itself. One-upmanship has the purpose of pushing the capacity of language as far as it can be pushed without breaking the spell of meaning. The conversation becomes an art whose object is a perfect union of subject matter with descriptor.
The best way I can find to illustrate this phenomenon is a certain racist joke documented by folklorist Alan Dundes:
When a Frenchman hears a story he always laughs three times, first when he hears it, second when you explain it to him, and third when he understands. That is because a Frenchman likes to laugh. When you tell a joke to an Englishman, he laughs twice, once when you tell it and a second time when you explain it to him. He will never understand it, he is too stuffy. When you tell a joke to a German, he laughs only once, when you tell it to him. He won’t let you explain it to him because he is too arrogant. Also Germans have no sense of humor. When you tell a joke to a Jew – before you finish it, he interrogates you. First he has heard it before; second, you are not telling it right; and third, he ends up telling you the story the way it should be told.
The moral of this story is not that the Jew is incapable of appreciating a joke. On the contrary, he enjoys the telling of it a great deal. But he doesn’t take the same kind of rollicking glee of surprise in the joke as the other characters, simply because it isn’t surprising to him. He is aware of the craft of telling jokes, and aware of the culture that surrounds them; he can smell a punch line a mile away. Humor in surprise is not to be found in trite formulae, but in genuine wonder incurred by a bewildering wit. There, genuinely unexpected connections encourage us to look and see afresh. One-upmanship takes place in order to whittle away at the tiresome conventions that pose as true revelation. If speaking is a craft, as is telling a joke, then it’s only to be expected that the culturally hyper-self-conscious Jew will take to dissecting that craft and using it as a mode of social combat. But as much as speaking is a craft, so must we recognize that it’s also an enigma. It’s when the Jew hasn’t heard the joke before, and couldn’t have told it better, that the laugh actually happens, and for that reason the three moments the Frenchman laughs at collapse into one: there is no reason to laugh without getting it, and no way explaining it would ever incur understanding.
True, the urge to competition in speech tends to weigh conversations down with meta-commentary, describing the forms at play in the conversation itself. But at the rare points at which the meta-commentary actually gets off the ground, it’s all the more rewarding for acknowledging both the message and the medium; there is no half-victory. Moreover, in those simple moments when over-analysis is simply inappropriate, that over-analysis is consciously rejected. Verbal expression becomes a more honestly dramatic performance, more plainly physical and curtly cultural. Then, the drama can heighten the conversation’s gravity and fit neatly into a cultural pattern.
Somehow, knowing all this (or thinking I do) – learning the system, recognizing the patterns – I’m all the more pleased to participate in the game, in which I’m but a novice but which I imagine will prove no less revelatory if I ever become a master. I find myself drawn inexorably to bombast when I’m around my Jewish friends, and yet don’t feel as though I’m any less genuinely communicative. It’s freeing, after all, to indulge in a system of patterns that are so true to my actual self-conception. Yes, these systematized ideas of self-knowledge and meta-obsession are perhaps as artificial as the trite and macabre wiles of a Barbie or a Tide bottle (yes, I love those too – might you have guessed?). But the conventions communicate an expectation of a genuine concern for what is being said, and how it’s being communicated. There is nothing self-deprecating or meta in the joy afforded by that.