This article was originally published by The Weekly Standard.
The Pulitzer-winning novelist leaves newly ordained rabbis feeling isolated with his ranting about inclusion.
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon stepped up to a podium on behalf of Hebrew Union College and told the 2018 class of newly ordained rabbis that they are, like “every Jew,” a bunch of “boundary mavens.”
Instead of patrolling the world like a “Yiddish policeman,” he said, their mission should be to “knock down the walls.” Which walls? Apparently, every wall—marriage, tradition, custom, shared history, ritual, the “distinctions between the sacred and profane, heaven and earth, gods and humans, clean and unclean, us and them,” even the boundary between “child and adult.” Just about any literal or metaphorical wall you can think of, he said he had an “instinctive mistrust.”
Standing before a captive audience who’d come to celebrate a graduation, he sounded his barbaric yawp: “I abhor homogeneity and insularity, exclusion and segregation, the redlining of neighborhoods, the erection of border walls and separation barriers. I am for mongrels and hybrids and creoles, for syncretism and confluence, for jazz and Afrobeat and Thai surf music, for integrated neighborhoods and open borders and the preposterous history of Barack Obama. I am for the hodgepodge cuisines of seaports and crossroads, for sampling and mashups, pastiche and collage. I am for ambiguity, ambivalence, fluidity, muddle, complexity, diversity, creative balagan. Even when it comes to my own psyche, the only emotions I really trust are mixed emotions. I ply my craft in English… I… I… I….”
One graduate, Israeli Morin Zaray, stayed seated long enough to hear Chabon’s self-proclamations turn into a diatribe “in which Jews are evil oppressors and the Palestinians are powerless victims.”
“I turned to look at my brother,” Zaray said. “He looked sick to his stomach.”
Soon after, she walked out in protest, wanting to “scream” and feeling “ashamed for being part of this gathering.”
Outside, freed from the walls of the suffocating ceremony, she held back tears.
“I asked my mother if not seeing me graduate would disappoint her,” Zaray said. “She responded that she would feel ashamed to see me walk on that stage after what had been said.”
Like many Jews stuck outside the gates of Chabon’s creed, this Jewish family felt curiously excluded from his inclusiveness. The same man who opposes all walls managed somehow to erect a nearly impenetrable emotional rampart around those who don’t see things as he does.
But that’s the paradox of Chabon’s philosophy of muddle and mashups, isn’t it? He thinks he’s tearing down all boundaries and traditions, unaware he’s creating new ones—ones spun round his own self-image.
And along the way, he seems unable to see that the reason he can enjoy his hobbies of jazz and Afrobeat is precisely because others cherish those arts not as passing hobbies but as traditions, with private languages, honored members, guiding ideals, painstaking hours of apprenticeship under masters. Taken to its logical conclusion, Chabon’s insistence on a borderless world would wipe out the very cultures he claims to be for.
When it comes to the disappearance of the 4,000-year old Jewish tradition, well, that’s just how things go sometimes. As he put it, “If Judaism should ever pass from the world, it won’t be the first time in history—far from it—that a great and ancient religion lost its hold on the moral imaginations of its adherents and its relevance to their lives… and anyway the history of the Jews, like the history of humanity and every individual human who has ever lived, is just one long story of grief, loss and fading away.”
The incongruence between this dour message and the setting—a temple full of young Jewish educators hoping to carry on their tradition—was the stuff of dark comedy. But Zaray and her family weren’t smiling. Having witnessed the carnage of suicide bombing, they were appalled by Chabon’s utopian belief that there is no “distinction between walls that protect and walls that imprison.”
Nor were they impressed by his reasons for opposing Israel’s security efforts—reasons that are rooted, it turns out, in his wider paradoxical beliefs that “security is an invention of humanity’s jailors” and that “security for some means imprisonment for all.”
Unlike Chabon, who lives in a trendy fenced-in home in Berkeley, California, the Zaray family haven’t been as walled-off from life’s rougher realities. In 2002, the year before Israel’s anti-terrorist barrier went up, nearly 500 Israelis were murdered. And all the other murdering and maiming of the second intifada came, no less, after Palestinian leaders turned down a substantial Israeli peace offer for statehood.
“I know that the same wall he said he despises enabled me to live a normal life and to use the bus as a young girl,” Zaray said. But it’s worse than that.
Added all up, Chabon’s speech showed he despises not only the wall but her too—and the ancient tradition that she and her classmates went to school to preserve.
Contributed by CAMERA’s director of communications Jonah Cohen.