30 July 2017

What to do with doyikayt?

Jewish Labour Bund election poster

In terms of ancestry, I have English, Scottish, German, Danish and South Slavic roots. The English, Scottish and German bits of my heritage I’ve long been familiar and comfortable with. I was raised in a Mennonite church. My parents encouraged me to learn the German language (and eat Bratwurst – though ironically my quarter-German mother does not care for Sauerkraut). As a child I loved – loved – reading history, folklore and other literature from England and Scotland, collecting coins and trinkets from there. My sixth-grade science and English teacher instilled in me a sincere love for the plays of Shakespeare, and for his keen understanding of history and human nature. Possessed of a damnable contrariety throughout middle and high school, I stuck to British spelling even at the expense of my grades. Insatiably, and not satisfied with just Harry Potter, I imbibed Tolkien, then Lewis, then Sayers. You could easily say that I was raised an Anglophile.

During high school, however, I discovered that my biological paternal grandmother, who died when my father was four years old, was the child of Moravian-Jewish immigrants to Racine, Wisconsin. My father ultimately didn’t want much to do with that side of the family, so his Jewish background had never really come up in family conversations prior to then. Ever since then, I haven’t really figured out or known what exactly to do with that knowledge, or even if it’s really important. I can say certainly, and even ‘proudly’, that I have Danish roots. That I have Jewish roots, though? That’s not altogether clear.

There are several factors militating against its importance. By most if not all standards of ‘Jewishness’, I’m not a Jew. First and most importantly: I’m not a member of any Jewish community and never have been. Secondly: my grandmother would have been considered a religious apostate for marrying a Methodist and then adopting his faith. Thirdly: in terms of Rabbinic law, as the child of a Gentile mother, my Jewish heritage is on the ‘wrong’ side. At most, I’d be considered a ‘beta Gershom’.

At the same time, having a European Jewish grandmother is not nothing, not a mere neutral fact, not to be cast aside lightly. In my subsequent genealogical research, I discovered that several members of my extended family on that side perished in the Shoah. One of my cousins, Milan Schulz, ended up becoming a Cold War broadcast commentator in Germany for RFE/RL – his father Bedřich Šulc had been sent to Kaufering and was murdered by the Nazis there, just months before the collapse of Hitler’s régime. The knowledge of this, and the knowledge even of my own distance from it, has haunted me. Despite – ideologically speaking – not having a Zionist bone in my body, I did begin to read Jewish history in a very different light after the realisation that men and women who were my blood-kin had been the direct targets of the Germans’ fanatical hatred. I began to read the commonplaces, the casual references to the Jew as an insidious outsider in European literature, with a much dimmer eye.

I think I can also say that this knowledge shaped my spirituality. Elements of the life of Saint Ilya (Fondaminsky) of Paris, also by heritage a sæcular Jew and also by faith a convert to Orthodox Christianity, drew me closer in sympathy to him and to his work, both inside and outside the Church, both historical and activist, both sæcular and spiritual. His consistent advocacy for the Jews did not stop him from embracing Christ, and embracing Christ did not prevent him from continuing to advocate for the Jews as a class and race of despised people – even to the point of dying alongside them. The martyr lived his whole life in dialectic, the sort I can only reach for as I might the light of Polaris.

At the same time, to be connected to Jewishness in even as attenuated and tangential a way as I am, means to embrace dialectic at some point. Reading about the General Jewish Labour Bund recently, I came across a Yiddish word for what this group of sæcular Eastern European Jews believed about themselves and about their relationship to the world: doyikayt (דאָיקייט), meaning ‘localism’ or, more literally, ‘here-hood’. For the members of the Bund, doyikayt was a positive, assertively-communitarian commitment to living Jewish lives in their own countries and communities, instead of either assimilating to the dominant culture or tearing up their local roots and fleeing to a distant Zion. I can’t help but read doyikayt more tragically, more apophatically, particularly in light of what happened to the Bund: they were killed by Nazis and collaborators, or fled into the waiting arms of the Bolsheviks. One can’t help being doyik; all one’s choices are already conditioned by ‘here-hood’. In the case of Americans with Jewish descent, the doyikayt which was so dense with meaning for the Eastern European Bund takes on a much thinner, but still distinctive taste. Those of us who are descended from Jewish immigrants, who are not Jews ourselves, simply are here, and the blown-apart and fragmented political meaning of that ‘here-hood’ is still being negotiated.

On a more practical level, doyikayt means making common cause. Even though I am Christian and not Jewish, already I embrace much of the same political substance my kinsfolk in the Labour Bund did a hundred years ago: œconomic fairness, localism and personalism. I’m not a sæcularist, but given the differences in context between Tsarist Russia and modern America and my philosophical reasons for mistrusting sæcularism, I hope I can be excused for that! But given the blown-apart nature of the doyik even in modern times (to borrow a phrase from Axel Honneth and Shlomo Avineri), that may not be nearly enough. Particularly in light of the perennial Jewish experience in Europe, it should be clear that to be doyik means not to chase after some seeming-whole that may prove illusory; but instead to pick up the pieces where you are and to build something beautiful with them.

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