The Gods Are Broken!: The Hidden Legacy of Abraham, by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin. Jewish Publication Society / University of Nebraska Press. 176 pages. Trade paperback $19.95.
Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family, & Survival, by Christopher Benfey. Penguin Press. 304 pages. Hardcover $25.95. Trade paperback $16.00.
The rebellious streak as a Jewish cultural trait is given far less attention than the conformist one. Here are two very different books that envision the rebel side of Jewish character.
Rabbi Salkin sees the breaking by Abraham of his father’s idols as a paradigmatic story that opens a main current of Jewish experience and thought. Salkin notes that the father, Terah, began a journey but then (theologically speaking) settled prematurely in a new place. Abraham’s action begins the continuation of the journey into the kind exilic existence that has characterized most of Jewish history. Breaking the statues of the pagan deities identifies Abraham to God as his worthy vessel for the people who will become Israel.
In a breezy, excited style, the author explores all aspects of the meaning of brokenness as a Jewish identifier. Likewise, he explores the tension of stasis and change. To break is to break away, to break convention, and ultimately to create anew. Salkin reminds us that idolatry does not require idols. Too strong a focus on ritual for its own sake can become idolatrous. An obsession with halakha or institution building (especially the material building) can shut us off from our spiritual nature and journey.
Smoothly weaving together contemporary scholarship, midrashic elaborations of scripture, and meditation on the key symbols that evoke his central issue, Rabbi Salkin provides a map of Judaic meaning. By comparing and contrasting Abraham’s breaking of his father’s idols with the breaking of the first set of tablets by Moses, he opens up a investigative mode that has far-reaching consequences for the world Jewish community, both present and future.
Salkin writes, “Healthy iconoclasm – shattering the false gods of class, privilege, power, radical individualism, and even the unfettered worship of science – would bring together believers of all faiths, allowing them to see beyond their crucial theological differences and retrieve, once again, the mantle of their father, Abraham.”
Part memoir, part family history, and part meditation, this lyrical journey invents its own shape and genre while probing undervalued sources of American art and artisanship. Benfey celebrates the processes that turn nature into art and utilitarian commodity – sometimes both at once, as in ceramic vases and pitchers. He exhumes and celebrates the soils from which a nation builds its roads and homes, its jugs and jars.
Indiana and North Carolina are key territories in Benfey’s journey to locate himself and his ancestors in the American story. It’s the story of the special white clay that can rival Chinese porcelain; of potters who place folk craft, high art, and domestic manufacture in dynamic equilibrium; and of two peoples of great particularity: Jews and Quakers.
The Benfey name is a modification of a Hebrew or, more likely, Yiddish name. There were Jewish Benfeys who migrated to the U. S. before and after the Holocaust. Many of these people, several of significant accomplishment, had already converted to Christianity. Of course, they would be defined as Jews during the horrendous upwelling of anti-Semitism that swept Europe.
The later pages of the book’s first section trace the Jewish thread of family history; the meditative aspect of Benfey’s journey sends off “if only” reverberations, suggestions of identity compromised and spiritual treasure lost. Jewish artists show up elsewhere in the book, oddly connected with the avant-garde community of Black Mountain. These include the unparalleled Jewish potter Karen Karnes and her one-time husband David Weinrib, also an important artistic figure.
Bauhaus artist (and Benfey relative) Anni Albers, who called herself “Jewish in the Hitler sense,” left Germany in 1933 with her more famous husband Josef to mastermind experimental Black Mountain College. The couple transplanted revolutionary Bauhaus theory and style to a new setting. And yet they blended into an American cultural mosaic whose foundational Quaker contribution was thriving.
The story radiates outward from fabled Black Mountain College, where a miraculous synergy of exiled (or self-exiled) Europeans and American seekers struggled with and against one another to remap American community life and revitalize its art.
One theme of this unique and splendid history/reverie is: “There is something deep in the American grain in the idea of cultivating individuality through community.” Briefly but emphatically, Christopher Benfey sounds the Jewish note within this paradox.
Derived from two separate reviews that appear in the Summer 2013 issue of Jewish Book World. Reprinted by permission.
This double review appears in the August 2013 issues of The Jewish Times (Jewish Federation of Sarasota / Manatee) and L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties).