Thursday, January 10, 2008

Readings: Some Essentialist Humor

One of the books I’m currently reading is Betraying Spinoza: the Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity by my old friend, Rebecca Goldstein. It’s a good read, and I recommend it. But I’m not going to write a review of it here, but rather share something that I got a kick out of, from the chapter entitled “Identity Crisis”.

Goldstein does an excellent and very engrossing job of putting both Spinoza the man and Spinoza the philosopher in the larger context of the Spinoza the Jew. Although we know him as a native of Amsterdam, Goldstein shows how and why it is not incidental that Spinoza was a Sephardic Jew—a descendent of those Jews who were expelled from the Iberian peninsula during the Spanish Inquisition, and who settled in Amsterdam, even then a liberal city.

There were also, however, “secret Jews,” called Marranos, who had remained in Portugal or Spain, ostensibly having been converted to Christianity, but practicing an increasingly heterodox form of Judaism behind closed doors and shutters. It was, in part, this double life that gave rise to the “identity crisis” of the chapter’s title.

Goldstein writes:

The continued inquisitorial persecution of conversos had added yet a new dimension to the mystery of personal identity, merging it with the mystery of Jewish identity. What is it to be Jewish? Is it a matter of creed, of culture, of family or blood—or, as we would now put it, of genes? Having once been Jewish, can one then cease to be Jewish? Or is a Jew essentially a Jew, no matter what religion he might practice or even think himself to be a member of? (Betraying Spinoza, p.126)

I think that is enough to set up my purpose in writing this piece, which is to share the following--perhaps the truest answer to the questions posed above:

A Sephardic friend tells me his grandfather used to tell him a joke that perhaps goes back to Marrano times. A Jew has undergone a conversion process, in the course of which the priest has put his hands on the Jew’s head and repeated several times, “You were a Jew, now you’re Christian, you were a Jew, now you’re Christian.” A few weeks pass and the priest comes on a Friday to see how his converso is getting on. The priest finds, to his shock and dismay, that the New Christian is not eating fish for his Friday night dinner, as he ought to be as a good Catholic, but rather a roasted chicken. The Jew, ordered to account for himself, explains that he had simply put his hand on the chicken’s head and repeated several times, “You were a chicken, now you’re fish, you were a chicken, now you’re fish. (Ibid. P.127)

I love it!

Hmm. I wonder if Woody Allen knows that one?