Pesach PSA
Another mother poem (for Read Write Prompt #119)

On Jewishness, media, and intertextuality

The latest issue of Transformative Works and Cultures is a special issue focused on Supernatural. I don't watch SPN, but I read Line Nybro Peterson's essay Renegotiating religious imaginations through transformations of "banal religion" in "Supernatural" because -- as you might imagine -- media representation of religion is a subject which is of some interest to me. (I keep meaning to write an essay about clergy and chaplains as seen through the lens of television -- Shepherd Book and Father Mulcahy and Brother Cavil, from Firefly, M*A*S*H and Battlestar Galactica, respectively -- but I haven't had the time. Maybe in a few months when Drew's in part-time daycare...)

Peterson talks a fair bit in the essay about representations of religion in pop culture -- for instance, our common notion of what angels look like. "We know that angels have white wings and are surrounded by light, perhaps even a halo," she writes. "We know this because of the constant circulation of the concept in society, from Christmas tree decorations to popular culture."

I know what she means, but I also think there's something slightly problematic about her presumption that "religion" necessarily means Christianity. Angels in Judaism are an entirely different thing than what Peterson describes. (Arguably it's more apt to speak separately of angels in Torah, angels in the later books of the Hebrew scriptures, angels in midrash, angels in medieval Judaism, and angels in kabbalah, since Judaism's concept of angels has undergone many metamorphoses over the centuries! But my point is, the Christian concept of angels isn't the only one out there.)

I'm not the only person thinking along these lines. coffeeandink's response to Peterson's essay, Religion !=Christianity, which I recommend reading alongside the Peterson piece, argues that Peterson's article "has a lot of interesting points, but its basic framework is the kind of privileged assimilating universalization that underlies so many discussions of religion in the Christian-dominant West."

I get the sense from Peterson's piece, and from conversations with friends, that SPN draws a lot on Christian imagery. (Though I also hear that the show makes use of material from early kabbalah, especially Lilith and Samael material as you'd find in R' Isaac ben Jacob ha-Kohen's treatise on evil. And one of my friends has argued that the show's tropes are more Miltonic than Christian per se.) Anyway, given the show's use of Christian material, Peterson's implicit assumption that "religious" means "Christian" may be understandable. But I appreciate coffeeandink's point about the ways in which Christianity's cultural dominance often results in Judaism's invisibility. I also appreciate her points about the general perception that Jews are white ("or white-ish") and the ways in which that perception damages both Jews of color and the mainstream culture which is impoverished by the invisibility of Jews and people of color.

Reading coffeeandink's essay gave me the impetus to go back and reread one of my own old essays: "Nu, What Makes Jewish Literature So Jewish, Anyway?" (Find that essay in pdf format here -- I posted it to this blog back in 2005.) I wrote that essay midway through my MFA at Bennington, after spending a semester delving into Jewish fiction and poetry in an attempt to discern what makes Jewish literature identifiably Jewish.

I still like my essay, though realizing that it's been twelve years since I wrote it makes me feel old! And if I were engaging in that project now, there are some things I'd do differently. For one thing, the essay never touches on speculative fiction or SF -- which is largely because of when and where I wrote it; I wasn't immersing in those genres at that moment in time, but if I were writing it now, I'd want to speak to Jewish tropes and themes in SF/F too, especially given Michael Weingrad's recent essay Why there is no Jewish Narnia (which I've also been wanting to respond to, and haven't had time, so instead I'll direct you to Abigail Nussbaum's excellent Fantasy and the Jewish Question.)

For another thing, although I made an effort to overcome my North American bias by reading works from Ilan Stavans' Jewish Latin America series, I realize now that most of the works I read were still Ashkenazi. They still came out of Eastern European culture, just framed through a South American lens.

So if I were trying to zero in on a definition of Jewish literature now, I'd want datapoints which actually come from Jewish cultures other than Eastern Europe. Joann Sfar's fabulous The Rabbi's Cat series comes to mind (I reviewed The Rabbi's Cat 2 in 2008.) I'd probably also want to read The Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature, at minimum (reviewed here in Zeek), and I'd want to do some digging to come up with an appropriate Sephardic reading list for myself.

I still think the exercise of exploring the rich palette of Jewish literature and trying to discern what makes it recognizable is a worthwhile one. Maybe someday I'll have the time and energy to do it again.

In section 5 of her essay, Peterson talks about the playful intertextuality of SPN. The phrase rang a bell for me because "playful intertextuality" is exactly how I would describe the world of Jewish texts, the dense and rich web of allusions and references which make Jewish texts at once so fun and so challenging to read. I've written about this before -- Hasidic texts in particular are so chock-full of references and quotations and puns that they can be challenging for the casual reader to wade through, but that's also exactly what can make them so rewarding to unpack.

As I think on it, intertextuality is one of the things that makes a Jewish text feel Jewish to me. If a text contains references to Jewish texts -- whether Bible or midrash, Hasidic teaching or a snippet of liturgy -- then it's going to ping my Jewish radar. And the fact of intertextuality often feels Jewish to me even when the texts being referenced aren't Jewish ones. If something is dense and self-referential, rewarding a close reading or re-reading (JJ Abrams' LOST comes to mind), then there's something about the experience of diving into it which feels to me like diving into a page of Talmud. And that's an experience I love, whether it comes in the form of studying an actual daf or poring over a recent episode transcript at Lostpedia in order to be able to talk about what I've seen.

I'm glad I read Peterson's essay, because it's gotten me thinking again about representations of religion in the television shows I know and love. And I'm glad I read coffeeandink's response, because it's gotten me thinking again about what makes Jewish literature feel Jewish to me. This is part of what I love about the internet: the ways in which we spark ideas off of one another, and the places those ideas take me -- often places I never would otherwise have gone.