Two recent books have set me off again on that elusive issue of identity. The recent Booker prize winner, The Finkler Question, addresses the issue of what it means to be Jewish. Ian McEwans's 1997 novel, Enduring Love, takes on the illusion of a rational, safe and insular middle-class life.
Harold Jacobson is at once wittier than Woody Allen and more penetrating than Bellow or Roth. We are presented with three characters; an aged Jewish widower, a self-loathing and rather loathsome Jew and a non-Jew who yearns to be Jewish.
My dis-indentification, even flight from, Jewishness was halted by the author's hilarious turns of language. I discovered or re-discovered a resonance and affinity for the culture in the cadence of his sentences. In the exaggerations, ironies and constant self-examination I recognized something in myself.
Is it possible to reject the religion and view the Israeli-Palestinian morass from a humanist perspective free from any tribal allegiance? .... and still accept a certain home within the (Talmudic) questioning and unmistakable Jewish humor? My answer is Yes.
I am more than uneasy at Bar Mitzvahs and squirm at the observance of holidays, high or low, feast or fast. I regard them as vestiges of pre-history; hypocritical, irrelevant and divisive. Furthermore they are faux-spiritual having usurped the trappings and vocabulary of transcendent experience and delivering nothing but arcane mumbles.
But am I self-loathing? The last time I felt so was when I spilled Ragu sauce on my shirt or when I’m stuck with overdue library books. The issue of Jewish identity has probably been on my mind since I was in the crib wondering whether my circumcision would lead to a circumscribed life. To the extent that free-will is available to me I have tried to claim a more universal tag.
The protagonist in McEwan's novel leads a life familiar to me, governed by reasoned choices and a certainty in life's expectations. He is a science writer whose day is ordered and humane. All this is shattered by the ripple effects of a single incident when an irrational character insinuates himself into his life; the menace lurking at the edge.
The book could be read as a cautionary tale for people like me. Let in the outrageous, the inexplicable, and the folly that is all around us. It may be art; it may be the Dionysian, the otherness that envelops us. I could inhabit the writer and experience his existential crisis. No matter how well we wrap ourselves in a well-ordered life there is always a piece of us uncontained which follows no logic.
It seems the issue of identity is never quite resolved. It's a work-in-progress always under revision and creation. Perhaps the very quest is all the identity I need.