Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, July 18, 2011

Second note on _Witz_

2. So far, so picaresque. From even this bare summary, we glimpse many ways in which Cohen’s narrative has Judaic resonances. Hanna and Israel’s family is an inversion of Jacob’s, with twelve daughters instead of twelve sons; the disaster in which all Jews but first-born sons die is an inversion of the tenth plague visited upon the Egyptians in Exodus, with Santa Claus re-cast as the Angel of Death; Las Vegas’s new name honors the Jewish gangster, Bugsy Siegel, whose vision the city embodies; “Polandland” is an inversion of the Holocaust, in which Gentiles die for being Gentiles.

But we’re just getting started. Ben has oral sex with his ersatz mother on Tisha B’av (“The Ninth of Av”), the day on which both the First and Second Temples were destroyed, ever since a day of mourning, and according to some traditions the day on which the Messiah will be born. Ben performs cunnilingus on “Hanna” so energetically that he winds up in her uterus, which is described as a Jerusalem, then tumbles back out – so is he “born”? The novel keeps the idea of Ben-as-Messiah constantly in play. He emerges in “Palestein” not only horned (as, in one mistranslation, Moses was, hence Michelangelo’s statue) but in the company of a red heifer, red heifers being a crucial criterion for the future construction of the Third Temple, to be accomplished when the Messiah comes.

It would take days to list the allusions to Jewish traditions, learning, and folkways that occur in the novel. One striking example: Cohen’s description of the facility for Jewish first-borns, in which their submission to bureaucracy and authority is shot through with memories of both Ellis Island and of the Nazi concentration camps.

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