Mark Ari: Curator

Note from Ari:

My consideration of radical Jewish culture has been inspired by John Zorn’s work. He coined the term. And while I approach it another way, I’ve been informed and inspired by his contributions. Zorn’s Tzadik label delivers the musical goods that ask some of the questions I pursue.

“As the jewish people continue to grow into the 21st century, they carry their culture along with them. Tradition, history and the past have always played a strong role in the life of the jews but it is also important to think about the future. As we grow as a people, it seems natural that our culture should grow along with us. Just as jazz music has progressed from dixieland to free jazz and beyond in a few short decades, and classical music went from tonality to chromaticism, noise and back again, it has occurred to me that the same kind of growth should be possible—and is perhaps essential—for jewish music. Questions arose, as did the need to address them. The cds on the Radical Jewish Culture series is a first attempt at addressing some of these issues.” John Zorn, in his statement explaining Radical Jewish Culture (http://tzadik.com/rjc_info.html).

I’m interested in these questions as they apply to music, certainly, but to fiction and essay as well, to sculpture and painting, to philosophy and science. As Zorn points out, “tradition, history and the past have always played a strong role in the life of the Jews.” And I think I agree it is “important to think about the future.” But this also means looking back at the past in new ways, reconsidering tradition in light of new and/or radical perspectives. I’m not at all sure what we talk about when we talk about Jews. That interests me.

Recently, my friend Keith Cartwright spoke of the need for English departments to more fully embrace and engage world literatures: Not just African-American writers, but African writers; not just Jewish American Writers (and I think he went this away because of my involvement in Jewish literature) but… . He got stuck there, and we both smiled.  How to finish that sentence? You can’t finish it with “Israeli” writers. That just feels absurd. It is insufficient to do so.

When we speak of “Jewish” writers, we don’t mean the same sort of thing as is meant by, for instance “Christian Writers or “Moslem Writers.” Jews are not simply a religious group.  And though Judaism, it’s evolutions and revolutions, is a common heritage of Jews, one can be an atheist and remain a Jew.   You can’t be an atheist Christian or an atheist Moslem.  For the Jew, there are other dimensions that come into play:  culture and civilization, family and history.

What makes a French person French?  There are French citizens and the French people.  The former is a condition of belonging to the nation state that has grown out of the historical experiences of the French people and their reponses to those experiences. Others may join them.  And in time, with or without citizenship, they may become part of the French people. But if you take a French woman out of France, she does not cease to be French.  She is just “off the land.”

Jews have been off the land for two millennia.  A good number have returned to that land after centuries, but even more have not.  Both groups share the same diasporic heritage.  We are not all Israelis, though we are the people, Israel. Rather than an end to diaspora, Israel is part of it.

Kafka may be called a Jewish writer. Saul Bellow, Bruno Schulz, Clarice Lispector, the same. Yet each of these either claims or is claimed by their respective homeland. Saul Bellow was an American writer. Bruno Schulz was Polish (that doesn’t feel right, does it?). Clarice Lispector, Brazilian. And Kafka? What was he?

Jewish literature and, by extension, Jewish culture is diasporic. It has been distilled through the alembic of radically recurring displacements, convulsions, and devastations. Aryeh Cohen writes “Diaspora is necessarily a fragmented and fluid identity claiming a tradition that is homeless but sustaining “(Seek the Welfare of the City to Which I Have Exiled You.”: Toward Another Diaspora Manifesto). R. B. Kitaj, in his First Diasporist Manifesto, points out that that “the Diasporist lives and paints in two or more societies at once.” This is as true of the diaspora writer as it is of the visual artist. I think it is the very antithesis of the parochialism that to some seems to be implied by hyphenated identifiers. It is, borrowing again the words of Kitaj, “of course, a universal art, something which speaks to the world, to the common reader.” (The First Diaporist Manifesto). Of course it is–as much as the Egyptian writer, Mahfouz, speaks to the world; as much as the Portuguese writer, Saramago, speaks to the world; as much as the Italian writer, Italo Calvino, speaks to the world. But the Jew’s homeland has been a portable one.

What then is this Jewish society that exists in a realm undefined by national borders? What are the elements that allow diverse and dispersed individuals, representatives of diverse and dispersed communities, to cohere? What, if any, are the peculiar themes, perspectives, and methodologies? And if, as I believe, these elements are vibrant, what new forms will they take?

This website is an expression of curiosity. I’m interested in the unique contribution of Jews to all sorts of endeavors, and how that contribution is at once peculiar and vitalizing to any particular form. I’m also interested in the strange and profoundly significant light it often shines on what it is to be human.

Most importantly, it’s a site for radical, anarcho-diasporic, rootless cosmopolitan culture, Hillelismo, and whimsy.  Because I say so.


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