Two American giants exited the literary world in May: Tom Wolfe and Philip Roth. Apart from their brilliance in mapping America’s social and cultural landscape, they could not have been more different in temperament and style. Roth’s writing was intensely personal, mordant and Jewishly obsessed; Wolfe’s was detached, exuberant and cosmopolitan. It is not by coincidence that Wolfe was a gentile and Roth was Jewish.
Decades ago, in his book The Gentleman and the Jew, scholar Maurice Samuel articulated his theory on the defining cultural difference between Jews and gentiles. What it boiled down to was that Christians, building on Hellenic traditions, valued and sought to incorporate “play” into every aspect of their lives: a kind of sprezzatura, or bonhomie, characterizing the behaviour, so brilliantly parodied by P.G. Wodehouse with the character Bertie Wooster in the Jeeves series, which privileges the idea of “fair play” and “the gentleman” over morality.
Jews, Samuel contended, were incapable of true playfulness of spirit, because of their history and Torah-based perspectives. Significantly, for example, our ancestors disdained the Greeks’ obsession with the body and outward beauty, resulting in their rejection of athletics – along with sport shibboleths (“the playing fields of Eton”) – as meaningful for Jews. Exclusion from the social elite exacerbated Jewish distrust of perceived gentlemanly frivolity.
This idea rings true to me. Sholom Aleichem’s writing evokes laughter that bleeds. The novels of Saul Bellow and Michael Chabon are steeped in angst. The humour of comedians like Woody Allen and Larry David is anchored in neurosis and judgmentalism, unlike the pure playfulness of, say, comedian Stephen Wright.
Above all, Jews are rarely playful in debate. As I wrote in my cultural memoir, Acknowledgements, “Ideas are not something (Jews) juggle with for the entertainment or mere admiration of others. We don’t boast the crystalline sparkle of an Oscar Wilde or a William F. Buckley. We take pride in the gleaming tungsten of Spinoza and Norman Podhoretz.” That is because ideas are not intellectual playthings to us. Ideas have governed our fate. Ideas have made us hateful in the eyes of others. Ideas have caused our decimation. (We still await the idea that will make us lovable.)
Friedrich Nietzsche once observed that Christians feel no need to sharpen their polemical skills because they are accustomed to being believed and trusted, while Jews must always make a case for being believed. Thus, the Jews “lay great stress on logic, that is to say, on compelling assent by means of reasons.” Logic is democratic and cuts across class and economic lines. And so, Nietzsche concludes, “Europe is deeply indebted to the Jews.… Wherever the Jews have won influence, they have taught men how to analyze more subtly, to argue more acutely and to write more clearly and purely.”
In his 2012 book, America-lite: How Imperial Academia Dismantled Our Culture, Prof. David Gelernter of Yale University applies this theme to the evolution of our institutes of higher learning. Before Jews entered academia in numbers, higher education was more about social networking and preparing for leadership, than intellectual exploration. Princeton was once described as “the pleasantest country club in America.” But by 1970, Jews were a major presence, both as students and faculty, at all elite universities.
One result, Gelernter says, was to bring “a more thrusting, belligerent tone” to academic discourse: “The
classic Jewish argument drills and blasts as deep as necessary (the essence of Jewish genius is not knowing where to stop); it summons ideas from the ends of the earth to make a point.” Jewish polemicists are particularly savage to other Jews. Norman Podhoretz once remarked: “In the world of the ‘Jewish establishment,’ it was almost considered bad form, or a mark of low intelligence, to say anything kind (to Jewish peers).”
Thank goodness we Jewish pundits have a sense of humour and (usually) eschew violence. Sarcasm is the Jewish sword. En garde!