Good Book Review About Reading Assignment 1:
(Title of Paper)
Barbara Myerhoff was known, from an early age, to be a lover of stories. Her fascination with the art of weaving narratives together to form meaningful wholes is arguably what introduced her to anthropology. As an anthropologist, she studied the Jewish communities of various parts of the United States and always, the book Number Our Days studies the immigrant Eastern European Jewish community in Venice, California. Calling the work a study seems, perhaps, a little too straightjacketed – her work, as Victor Turner noted, is a work of intense and sensitive ethnography.
M.N. Srinivas characterized the work of an anthropologist as one where he/she is ‘thrice born’. Firstly, one must be born into one’s own culture, while the ‘other’ is exoticized, followed by familiarizing of the exotic, which is the second birth. The third is where one returns to one’s own culture and eroticizes the familiar in order to study it in a new light. Myerhoff does this brilliantly – she was born into a Jewish family but goes on to understand the Jewish people in a new light – as a vibrant, vocal, and historically rich and sacred people. She lived with and studied the aged population of the ‘Jewish ghetto’ of Venice noting how it grew, shrank, and evolved with the moving out of its young people and the death of many of its older folk. This cultural ‘Center’, surrounded by other people and cultures is what she studied.
Reading Assignment 2:
The first chapter of Myerhoff’s book deals with the life of Basha. Basha was an eighty nine year old woman who lived by herself in Venice. She is described as strong willed, and a person of habit – every morning, after she ‘checks to see if she is still alive’ she walks down to the beach to see the ocean before she begins her day. Her daughter, a successful lawyer moved away to pursue her career and constantly worried about her and invited her to stay with her in the city, though Basha constantly refused because she believed that the city was no place for an old woman. She was a remarkable storehouse of experience, recounting her childhood in Czarist Russia and her frequent brushes against anti-Semitism. A curious feature of the Jewish community’s resilience lies in their conception of victory over their adversaries. Basha believed that she had won over all her opponents ranging from the Nazis to the anti-Semitic regimes in Russia by outliving them. This shows a stubborn, powerful clinging to life and liberty which leads to their unique culture and life-style.
The men and women in the Jewish quarters of Venice brought their history with them in many ways. Although material artifacts are hard to come by, the organization of their lives, from Basha’s sense of modest, yet up-to-date dress sense, to the way they discussed politics, with the division of benches, shows a culture and history which was very mush alive. It was only natural, then, that the people of the Center (which refers to the socio-cultural center of the ‘Jewish ghetto’ surrounded by other cultures) were quite happy with the Living History classes which Myerhoff introduced them to, especially the Story Telling Sessions.
Reading Assignment 3:
The second chapter deals with one of the most fascinating characters in the book – Shmuel. Shmuel was the philosopher-critic of the Center. He was the one no other member of the community could live with but neither could they live without. His extensive knowledge of the sacred texts and his open mind made him a perfect foil for Myerhoff herself. While she spent her time attempting to reconcile the community to him, he spent his time analyzing and constructively criticizing her approach. It was through him and life that Myerhoff found out much of the life and culture which went into creating the Center.
Shmuel was a tailor by profession. His work ethic, tempered by the edicts of the Torah, made him a sharp man even in old age. He and his wife did not have any of the hallmarks of old age – they did not wear thick spectacles, or dentures, they were energetic and, though not rich, they had enough and depended on no one else. Myerhoff taped many of her formal conversations with him and even had him give her a running commentary on the happenings in and around the Center. Shmuel was, as mentioned, something of a necessary evil to the people of Center. Weidman in particular disdained him and even went so far as to call him a ‘dirty communist’. Shmuel, though did not take these offenses to heart and always walked away from such confrontations.
Reading Assignment 4:
The next chapter deals with the evolution of Judaism in America. Unlike Judaism elsewhere, the old traditions – practicing and participating in a religious community, had been continually eroded in America. Being an orthodox Jew in the USA was seen as old fashioned and unprogressive. It was replaced by a ‘Temple-Religion’ which saw Judaism as little more than a synagogue based religion which could function much like the catholic church, i.e., as an institution where one could ‘graduate’ into. This, as many people of the Center expressed, took away the essence of Judaism – it was not a religion of rituals and bells and pomp, it was ‘responsibility towards other Jews’. Having lost this initial foundation, the new ‘Temple-Judaism’ of the rest of America was seen as alien and somehow not right by the people of the Center.
A curious juxtaposition here is that of Kominsky and Shmuel. Shmuel was very progressive in his outlook, but equally orthodox and reserved in his character. Kominsky, on the other hand, seemed to be the exact opposite. He behaved in the orthodox manner, not even wanting to speak out against his rabbi, but was always the first to enter into any situation in the Center. Kominsky, as Myerhoff noted, relished his role as a ‘savior’. The ways in which Kominsky and Shmuel ‘humiliated’ the Center were also very different – Shmuel was an intellectual whose ideas tended to distress some members of the Center, whereas Kominsky, as Basha noted, outright humiliated the Center by trying to give them charity.
Reading Assignment 5:
In the next chapter, Kominsky is seen as an increasingly abrasive and authoritarian figure. His popularity in the center, which defined much of his personality, began to wan and with it, he only became more and more authoritarian. At one point he called Myerhoff a shiksa or an unorthodox or even un-Jewish woman. This betrays a very patronizing, though well meaning personality. Kominsky, though an educated and intelligent man, could, as the title of the next chapter suggests, learn a few things.
With Kominsky, prayer took on a much more orthodox-religious tone. It was seen as a solution to problems. As the book progresses in describing Kominsky, he becomes a rather sorry figure. If Number Our Days was a novel, he might be considered an anti-hero who is undone by his own personality, or even the antagonist. Kominsky was also the teacher of the Yiddish History class. In this way he had at one point ‘had the people in his pocket.’ If one also considers that he was deaf, one might wonder how much actual power he had over other people and how much of it was derived from their sympathy. Curiously, it was he and his acts that led to the divisions in the Center and a break in the traditional notion of Jewish community as a community of people looking out for eachother.
Reading Assignment 6:
Another important person in this book is Jacob – the metalworker. Jacob’s life before he came to Venice was something out of an adventure novel. Born in a Middleclass family, he lost his father when he was twelve and as a result fell into penury. He survived many hardships before he became a metalworker and eventually was imprisoned where, in a remarkably Joseph-esque story, he found favor in the eyes of his prison keeper’s wife because of his talents as a craftsman.
Apart from being remarkably resourceful, Jacob was also a socialist and very active in his political meetings. He brought both these characteristics to America where he not only rebuilt his life from scratch but also became active in the political sphere. Jacob lived to the age of ninety five in Venice and was well respected by the people of the Center. His death was, if not befitting, at least one which was of merit in the Center – he died a Jew and was buried a Jew. In this way Jacob did have a good death – a death which was in complete congruence with the Center. There really cannot be much more for a person, who is a member of a community which places so much stock by care for others in the community, could ask for.
Reading Assignment 7:
Heschel, the archetypal ‘survivor by the skins of his teeth’. His only living relative was his daughter who subsequently declared him her ward and took over his finances. This, for a traditional patriarchal community, would be utterly humiliating. It is worth noting that it was Heschel himself who had hidden his daughter during the holocaust and made sure that he was reunited with her in Belgium. He brought her over to America and gave her everything she had. Even without the patriarchal dimension, it is painful for any parent to be treated in so ‘callous’ a way by their children.
Heschel, much like Shmuel, provided a very philosophic tone to the community. He was a broken man when Myerhoff saw him – one who had been through more than his fair share of suffering. In his pronouncement that it is only in old age that one finds out what it means to be a human being and if one qualifies as a human, one hears a faint echo of Kominsky’s idea that one is born for a reason and sometimes that reason cannot be found until one is too old to do anything about it. On close inspection, both these statements say almost the same thing, except are inverted – Heschel sees it as something neutral – it is neither good nor bad to find out the essence of humanity, however Kominsky sees it as a tragedy and something that must be avoided if one can.
Reading Assignment 8:
Finally, Myerhoff rounds off the book by evoking the Jewish spirit of passing on stories, if not through artifacts and writing, at least through word of mouth. She quotes Elie Wiesel, another survivor of the holocaust who is renowned for his understanding what it means to tell a story and have it transmitted through generations. Wiesel never wished to take revenge on those who had wronged him, much like Basha, his revenge came in the form of outliving his oppressors and telling stories which he hoped would eventually make sure that such terrible things, like the holocaust, would never happen.
She shows that, at least in this sense, humans are not merely Homo Sapiens, but Homo Narrans – the storytellers. Wisdom and knowledge are most effectively transmitted through stories and songs. People may be determined, optimistic, or discouraged and all of these states results in them forgetting their past which, as the Chinese Proverb says, causes one to be condemned to repeat it. The narrative forms – stories and songs of communities, are then not merely didactic, or pieces for entertainment, they are a treasury of a community’s collected wisdom and knowledge.
Myerhoff, Barbara G. (1980). Number Our Days. New York: Simon & Shuster, Inc.
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