Published in Jason Francisco, Far from Zion: Jews, Diaspora, Memory, Stanford University Press, 2006
1. Two propositions:
Diaspora: a name for Jewish culture in its contingency and its conditionality.
Diaspora: a name for decertified Jewish meaningness as it abides within Jewish culture.
2. A diasporic investigation cannot be geographic, historical, literary, philosophic or autobiographical alone, but must be—like diaspora itself—heterogeneous and hybrid.
3. How much does “now” encompass? How far back do we measure “now”?
4. The passing century: a distillation of 2000 years and more of Jewish diaspora.
A century: in which the leading themes of Jewish diasporic life—migration, assimilation, destruction—have assumed particularly concentrated and ruthless forms.
5. The incunabulum of diaspora—dispersion, dispersedness—is, at one level, very remote: dating from the first development of permanent Jewish communities outside of Palestine in ancient Mesopotamia after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E., and later the growth of Jewish communities across the Hellenistic-Roman world during the period of the Second Temple, and still later the large Jewish migrations from Roman-controlled Palestine following the suppression of Jewish revolts in 70 C.E. and 135 C.E.
By the 5th century C.E. Jews had become almost entirely a diaspora people.
6. If Jewish history speaks in the present tense—the tense in which texts speak—the Jewish present speaks in the future tense, the tense of possibility.
7. The biblical narrative tells us: Jacob, the thiever and the maker of blessings, grips “beings divine and human” for a long night and brings them to the brink of dawn, of light—and so “prevails” and wins the new name, Israel, godwrestler.
I wonder: not whether every Jew has an eponymous ancestor situated on the brink of an enigmatic strength, but how diasporic lifeways likewise steal and wrestle and win new names without discrediting the old.
8. The Torah further tells us that the Jews become a people in a process of journeying: released from tyranny and servitude in Egypt, the people enter the wilderness, where isolation, precarious physical subsistence and the contradiction of a seemingly destinationless pilgrimage rupture them from their origins.
Within the structure of the text itself, the exodus into the wilderness is tethered to a narrative trope of displacement redeemed, which is in effect the collective elaboration of Abraham’s example—Abraham who leaves his native place on god’s insistence, accepting severance from home as a form of divine guidance.
But as I read it, the trope of displacement redeemed is bound up with another trope: the inscrutability of this redemption as it is happening. The text does not blithely reclaim Abraham’s wandering—make destiny from destination—but is at pains to do so. Likewise it labors to mitigate the decades of wandering in the Sinai wilderness, a place the biblical translator, Everett Fox calls “the site of liminality par excellance.”
In the revelation at Sinai, the text attempts to reclaim both the rupture of the liberation and the peril of the attendant journeying by recasting the place of the liminal as the place of god’s presence, from which certainty, covenant and perpetuity arise.
And how convincingly?
If the reclamation might be put in the form of a homiletic question—how do tribulations teach trust in god?—an answer depends on the continued presence of the aporia itself, the capacity of the text not to discredit the condition of sustained loss. In effect, an enduring collective salvation must harbor a dangerous possibility—the perpetual inability to distinguish liberation from catastrophe, freedom from ruin.
9. My friend, Jeff Fort points me to an insight of Maurice Blanchot: it is an exodus (literally a “journey-out”) that brings the Jewish people into existence (literally a “standing apart”).
10. In the Jewish imagination, mythopoetic origins go by the name of the historical.
11. From my notebooks, December 1998, Paris:
the work that “diaspora” might be made to do: organizing the dimensions of loss that persist within jewish affirmations, opening pathways into the non-intact Jewishness around and within us, and so approaching the place within which Jewish life mostly dwells: the middle condition between rootedness and uprootedness, placement and displacement, origin and destiny.
12. From my notebooks, June 1998, San Francisco, California:
what would it be to make a work that responds sedulously to the discontinuities and fractures that yield “the jewish” in the passing jewish century?
what would it be to make pictures directed toward the disarticulated realities of jewish life—that approach the contemporary jewish diaspora not as an ethnography of fixed, recordable places, but an archaeology of places, objects and persons that might signal the crisis of origin inscribed within various local originations of the jewish?
what would it be to make a work that searches out the apartness of jewish experience from presumed legibility, and from notions of stable lifeways in intact homelands?
13. H. Leivick:
—Who told you to rebuild the ruins?
Once ruined, it should remain ruined.
14. The better part of remembering is blotting—in both the sense of soaking and covering—supposition.
15. There are two questions that sometimes change places: “what are you?” and “who are you?”
“What are you?” asks for a name or a predicate, such as, in my case, “a Jew,” or “a photographer.” “Who are you?” asks for a deflection of such statements, a resistance to their authority, an easing away from their gravity.
16. Edmond Jabès: Do not ever forget that you are the kernel of a severance.
17. A family story:
As a young man during the First World War, my great grandfather, Aaron Chazzankin—a gentle and arthritic patriarch called Henry Haskin by the time I knew him as a child—fled his town of Romny, Ukraine to evade conscription in the Czar’s army. At great risk, he traveled east through Siberia to Shanghai, then to Kobi, Japan, finally arriving in San Francisco. Penniless, he asked a policeman, “Where do the Jews live?” The policeman replied: “The Jews?…anywhere.”
This was a reason—enough of a reason—to stay.
18. In fact most Jews did not go “anywhere” after their arrival. San Francisco maintained a Jewish district up to the Second World War in the area known as the Western Addition, whose commercial center was Fillmore Street. This was the place that my great grandparents, Henry and Miriam Haskin first settled, as did other members of the family—who, in fact, continued to live there long after it ceased to be predominately Jewish. For Henry, however, the invitation to the American “anywhere” opened a decades-long migration through the geography of wanted anonymity. With remarkable skill and determination, Henry prospered as a commercial printer—to such an extent that in the early 1930s, at the height of the Depression, he built a decorous house in the far western reaches of the city, in what were then mostly sand dunes. The splendor of the house was not enough to keep them. By the early 1940s he and Miriam moved south to a bungalow in Redwood City, California, at the time still largely open land. By the 1950s—and for the rest of their lives—they spent the better part of the year in a frame home in Palm Springs, then still a small town in the southern California desert.
19. To live anywhere: if the uncertain figuration of Jewish continuity in my family wanted a creation-story—this would be it.
20. Rashi: The leaving of a…person from a place makes an imprint.
21. It was in my great aunt Gert—who was without children and with whom I became close in my early twenties, just as my great uncle Ben was dying—that I encountered the world of the immigrant generation in its lifeways.
It was in Gert’s stories of her life in San Francisco, particularly her childhood and youth in San Francisco’s Jewish quarter between the 1920s and the 1940s, that I found a foil in which I first discerned my own Jewishness—by turns the inverse of her unselfconscious Jewishness and an unnamed meaning within me.
22. Philip Roth: These were Jews who needed no large terms of reference, no profession of faith or doctrinal creed, in order to be Jews… What they were was what they couldn’t get rid of—what they couldn’t even begin to want to get rid of.
23. An entry from my notebooks, November, 1992, San Francisco:
this afternoon i arrived late at gert’s house on my bike after photographing for hours in chinatown. “i want to give you a bowl of tomato soup,” she says, “you haven’t eaten lunch, i can see on your face”—she shows me the unopened soup can and makes a coy proposition of a cheese sandwich, and i’m seated, she’s bringing out the silverspoons with the scratches, stamped 1897, and joking about how “there’s no free lunch—except at gert’s house”—and over soup we talk, bantering—and from time to time she lets fall the weightier comments—if i pick them up, half the time she looks at me disapprovingly—what she likes best of all is if i raise the nasty subjects unprovoked, tactfully violating tact—she’ll never reproach me for allowing her chances to gossip, but raising gossip herself makes her feel like a gossip—slowly we move through the familiar layers of what bothers her, in longer and longer motions of attention—friends and family not calling, not coming to see her in weeks—she touches it, touches—opening and shutting off and again opening complaints in streams—“ah, peoples’ luck goes up and down—me, i sat here for two years and watched poor benny deteriorate, i carried him myself back and forth from the bed to the bathroom, i watched him go down and there wasn’t a thing i could do about it”—and she stops—“all his life he was a strong man”—and bites her lips, clasps her hands, pushes her elbows into the table, and her eyes wander, and she gets up, balances herself with a jerk, and steps as if to go into the kitchen, and stops, and stands still—she looks at me—tells me i should run along if i’m to keep my “appointments,” and reaches out and squeezes my nose, and then says, “i used to pull on benny’s nose like that”—and then quickly she’s in her chair and the tears come heavily. in a moment her face is flushed, swollen, and she tries to swallow the feeling, and it waxes—she looks at me through bloodshot eyes—her eyes deep blue, saturated with the depth of her tears—her gaze almost an ocean—she herself not buoyed in it—
24. A way to conceive of Jewish inheritance: mute lessons that announce themselves—garrulously.
25. From my notebooks, February 1993, a conversation with Gert:
“gert—what is it that makes me jewish?”
“what do you mean? what kind of question is that?”
“i don’t feel jewish.”
“don’t worry about that, forget about it—you’re jewish.”
“but what makes me jewish?”
“it doesn’t matter—you’re jewish because your parents are jewish, and you’re jewish.”
“you mean i’d have to do something to stop being jewish?”
“listen, you’re my nephew—and you’re jewish.”
26. What my friend, Haskel Simonowitz told me years before I understood what it meant: “A Jew isn’t someone with Jewish parents—it’s someone with Jewish grandchildren.”
27. Gert: “You?—Ach, I knew you before you were born.”
28. No photographs survive of my other immigrant great-grandparents, Harry and Louisa Francisco, who for years ran a grocerystore on the corner of MacAllister and Fillmore Streets in San Francisco. Stories about them are few. “Ordinary people” Gert called them.
But their ordinariness was effectively a transparency—as if a message to the future: “About us, let them find nothing.”
Some years ago, my great uncle, Ernie Haskin mentioned that as a teenager in the 1930s he had been an amateur filmmaker—with color film, no less—and still had his camera, projector, bulbs, and his old films. He offered to project them for me. One of these films showed my grandparents’ wedding in 1937 in San Francisco. With the intuitive sense of a documentarian, Ernie set up his movie camera in front of every guest—as if a studio photographer—and filmed them looking directly into the camera for long seconds. It was here, in the flicker of the projection, that I saw, for the only time, the faces of these great-grandparents, and others now without names.
29. And where there are names: who ever heard of a Jew named Francisco?
My grandfather, who was the youngest of his siblings and the only one born in this country, never claimed to know the origin of the name. Growing up, I thought that my grandparents secretly knew the name, but somehow refused to divulge it. If they did know, they never did tell, leaving the lacuna to become its own truth. As a teenager, reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, I remember tellingmy mother that I should change my name to Jason X—or maybe Jason ℵ.
It was my cousin, Dale Freeman who recently and purely accidentally found the ship’s manifest for Hersch and Leyka Francuski , our great-grandparents, who passed through Ellis Island on route from their Russian birthplaces of “Teszynow” and “Orgejew” to—as they might have pronounced it—“(San) Francuski”.
Or to frame the discovery diasporically: how does a destination become a name?
30. The form of assimilation my grandparents’ generation wanted: to be “a Jew at home, a man in the street”—free to pass as not Jewish in the public sphere, and free to retain a Yiddish internality.
Ironically, it seems that their successes rendered them the last to have a Yiddish internality to return home to. In my own family, neither the Yiddish language nor Yiddishkeit (Jewish folk culture) nor religious observance survived in anything like intact forms into my father’s generation. More than this, the Jewish home of the immigrant generation seems to have been less a refuge from the stresses and vicissitudes of assimilation and more a place where Jewish desires and frustrations were played out interpersonally.
31. From my notebooks, January 1997, four months before my grandfather died:
i told [my grandfather] about having my parents over last night, and he asked whether they mentioned the menorah that he gave sheila and i—the one that he said his mother brought out of russia.
i didn’t tell him that my father did see it and claimed dismissively that his mother “bought it for two dollars at a garage sale in san francisco.”
i told him only that my father was uncomfortable seeing it. this sent my grandfather into a small rage: “your father’s grandparents were very religious people! and do you know how important passover and the holidays and chanukah were to them? every year on chanukah we had a big party, with all the food, and we lit the candles—it was all there for your father!”
32. A quotation for my father:
Aharon Appelfeld: I have always loved assimilated Jews, because that was where the Jewish character, and also, perhaps, Jewish fate was concentrated with greatest force.
33. For my father, born in San Francisco during the Second World War, the lure and the imperative of assimilation—of exceptional material achievement and levels of ethnic invisibility previously unknown—rendered Jewishness subject to intense pressures.
Overt Jewishness as my father construed it: Jewish tribalism, Jewish parochialism, Jewish exceptionalism—things rarely useful.
The Jewishness I saw in my father did not arise in his claiming a share in Jewish belonging—even a share to which he was entitled. Its terms were only residually the familiar ones of an implacable Jewishness as against the non-Jewish world, or self-invention as against ancestral Jewishness.
In some contrast to many Jews of his generation for whom more or less committed goodwill toward the community together with more or less reformed Jewish religion formed an adaptive Jewish path, my father regarded both community and religion essentially as desiccants, and instead embraced the twinned ideologies of American individualism and free market capitalism—which for him amounted almost to a secular liberation theology against obligatory Jewishness.
In his Americanism, he never became the proverbial self-hating Jew, but something closer to a self-annulling Jew whose choices—and their unintended consequences—figured incompletely in his self-understanding.
34. It was a long time until I saw that the Jewishness my father handed me was not a Jewish “something” that filled a social or a psychic space, but more like the space itself, having been filled and emptied in various ways across generations.
35. Edmond Jabès: You build walls, I the space between.
36. From my notebooks, June 2000, Oakland, California:
my mother’s origin is a cliff never far from her. her origins are not unknown to her, though she is mostly an orphan. her father stowed away on a boat from amsterdam to new york when he was sixteen, informing no one of his departure—this she knows. and she knows that he came back from the dead, contacted his family decades later, long after the mystery of his disappearance had led to a kind of burial. she knows that her mother’s people were wanderers who lived vulgar lives for two or three generations in idaho, and that her mother was for a time a hollywood starlet married to a silent movie mogul twice her age. she knows that it was a shotgun wedding and a short-lived marriage that yielded herself and her twin sister—“yielded” them, as her childhood would play out, to a succession of homes and to families whose treatment was mostly pitched between neglect and abuse. these things and much more about abandonment my mother knows.
my own origin is a few steps removed from that cliff: the steps that came as my mother pushed me hard in the other direction—the steps i took to keep from falling on my face.
37. I have no doubt that my mother’s marriage into my father’s family drew a meaningful Jewish boundary around her interiority—creating an outer world of familial stability and moral coherence that encircled and nourished her.
But this coherence: was plaited with the contradictory messages extended to my mother as a convert—not to mention a convert whose background her new family deemed shameful—in what was the first generation to see high levels of intermarriage.
38. The convert: a legitimate but always an inauthentic Jew.
The convert: an arrival from the non-Jewish world into which Jews were assimilating—a transitional figure within the Jewish world on whom the anxieties of full Jewish participation in American life could be projected, and so a figure who played a crucial (but generally unacknowledged) role in the assimilation process.
My father’s family forced my mother, in effect, to contend with the larger figure of “the convert” as this figure came to exist in the American Jewish world—a contest my mother neither anticipated nor wanted.
39. If my mother’s Jewishness became, in time, abstract and non-affiliating, it was also tenacious and non-renunciant. Her predicament seems in some ways typical of many Jews I have known—whether or not converts or the children of converts—who cannot equate, or worse reduce Jewishness to Jewish biology or a mamaloshen, a mother tongue of folkways genially passed down from elders.
40. A memory from early childhood:
We are sitting in the kitchen of one of my mother’s foster families in Van Nuys—Depression-hardened people who are openly racist and anti-Jewish, and who also never accepted my mother’s conversion. I am listening to my mother argue.
Mildred: “Your children are not Jewish. They’re half Jewish.”
My mother: “Is that so? Which half, the top or the bottom? The right or the left?”
41. Jewishness by blood and Jewishness by choice: both forms of diasporic fugacity.
42. It is not so easy to move the contest of diasporic loss and resilience into a habitat of desire we might want as an inheritance.
43. For my sister, as for me, both of us born in the late 1960s, Jewishness arrived as something at once ungreeting and surprisingly volatile.
As a teenager, my sister became a zealous evangelical Christian—in a sense replaying my mother’s conversion, but for the sake of a religious consciousness whose prepossessing concerns were fidelity and infidelity, absolute truth and untruth. Her commitment has become more viscid with every passing year.
What is curious is not just that my sister converted, but that her adopted religion overtly pivots on the retention of an illegitimate Jewishness within her. There is no small amount of Jewish self-loathing in the importance she attaches to Christian theological supercessionism: the need to retain a perceived Jewish origin in order to vanquish it continuously—to validate the Jewish mythic universe while invalidating the Jewish path.
It seems: that she carries her Christian triumphalism not so much as a revealed truth as a darkly motivating anxiety. It is as if she has taken upon herself the entire ugly weight of Christian Europe’s historical claims about Jews—a theologically backward people forever unwilling to accept the new “salvation”—and made it her cross to bear.
44. Franz Rosenzweig: Nothing Jewish is foreign to me.
45. Edmond Jabès: It is not that one wants to be free. But one dreams of it.
46. Those Jews who drove themselves from Eastern Europe in the decades on either side of the turn of the twentieth century moved westward onto trails of transplantations that before long became forsaken transplantations, and then forsaken transplantations once-removed. The extent and intensity of these movements is remarkable—and not just in terms of distances covered.
In the United States during the 20th century, consistently in city after American city—New York, Boston, Newark, Camden, Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Columbus, St. Louis—the Jewish community has migrated collectively through a succession of neighborhoods and eventually its suburbs, relocating itself within each city virtually with every generation. In effect American Jewish communities in the last 100 years have re-enacted centuries’ old Jewish patterns within contemporary urban spaces.
47. In Detroit, where I began this book of pictures with some tentative exposures on Linwood Avenue in 1996, Jews formed distinct German and Eastern European communities between 1850 and the early 20th century, as in many cities. Wealthier German Jews lived just north of downtown Detroit, while immigrant Polish, Russian and Bessarabian Jews settled east of downtown, in a dense Jewish quarter whose center was Hastings Street (later razed to build Interstate 75, the freeway that now connects northern suburbs, some largely Jewish, with the downtown area). By the early decades of the 20th century the two communities had begun to join together, and the single but not singular community began the leapfrogging up the Woodward Avenue corridor that would take it to Holbrook-Oakland (1910s-1930s), Dexter-Davison (1930s-1950s), Livernois and 6 Mile (1950s-late 1960s—one flashpoint of the city’s 1967 race riots), the suburb of Oak Park just beyond the city line (which remains a Jewish area, though predominately now Orthodox), and after the mid 1970s into the far northern suburbs of Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills.
48. In Philadelphia, where I have photographed extensively, Jewish migrations have been particularly complex, as Jews built two and sometimes three distinctly Jewish neighborhoods in each generation. From a common late 19th century base in South Philadelphia, Jewish communities arose in North Philadelphia and then Strawberry Mansion, others in West Philadelphia, Overbrook and Logan and then into the Main Line, others in Oxford Circle and then Mount Airy and West Oak Lane and eventually the suburbs of Elkins Park, still others along Roosevelt Boulevard and into Northeast Philadelphia. In Philadelphia, as in other Eastern cities, Jewish migrations occurred within the larger pattern of the community collectively divesting itself of its assets in a given area and relocating itself, each time in reduced numbers and with a less demonstratively Jewish exterior.
49. The migratory pattern was somewhat different in the American West, inasmuch as peregrinations were less collective. When San Francisco’s Jewish community in the Western Addition dispersed after the Second World War, Jews did not attempt to reconstitute it elsewhere, but as individuals moved to sundry neighborhoods and suburbs, perhaps taking the lead of the regular trickle of Jews that had always left the old neighborhood for destinations of their own choosing.
Los Angeles likewise saw its established Jewish neighborhoods in East Los Angeles disperse more in a spray than a stream by midcentury, albeit a spray aimed at the western sections of the city more than others, and notwithstanding that the Fairfax district for decades remained something of a cultural center in the local Jewish imagination.
50. And here Los Angeles makes the larger point: as actual Jewish migrations proceeded across the decades in American cities, intact communal locations came to mask both the impermanence of Jewish life, and the complex imperative to keep moving that atrophied the community even as it held it together.
51. It appears that the self-retracting trail of Jewish migrations confirms what Jonathan Boyarin and Daniel Boyarin consider a distinctive feature of the Jewish diaspora, as against other diasporas: rediasporization, the centuries old phenomenon of (imaginary) Jewish homelands having been transferred and palimpsested upon one another, “such that Cairo becomes a remembered Cordoba and the new Jerusalem a remembered Vilna.”
But if certain locations in the trail of the passing century’s Jewish migrations have acquired a venerable place in the Jewish imagination—Berlin’s Scheunenviertel, London’s East End, New York’s Lower East Side, Chicago’s Maxwell Street—the majority have not. There is much about diasporic movement that is simply entropic, much that simply does not register in an effort to align place, memory and cultural identity. Indeed, the abundance of forsaken and largely forgotten Jewish places points to a larger desquamation: the palimpsest of desire and commemoration itself situated within a dissociated, not-commemorated Jewish geography.
52. Robert Pinsky:
Totems, gilt fringes, varnished books. A horse chestnut
Throwing its massive summer shade
Over the pavement.
53. Roland Barthes: Meaning, broken, is not destroyed, it is—that rare, difficult thing—exempted.
54. The nagging claims of religion, ethnicity and place in the construction of the Jewish—each a barb whose luck is to be a node of Jewish craving.
55. One of the more intractable compromises of silence in American Jewish memory: the connections between race and mobility in postwar Jewish migrations.
For decades prior to the 1950s, Jewish communities that had been marginalized and excluded from white society developed close connections with African American communities in many cities. Perhaps the most telling index of these connections was the disproportionate Jewish representation among non-blacks in the civil rights struggle of the 1940s-1960s—which also brought to that struggle the vibrant history of Jewish social and political activism transplanted from Eastern Europe, and the imperative of social justice enshrined in Jewish religion and (not least) acutely delineated as a lesson of the Shoah.
After the Second World War—in one of many examples of how race in America is historically a fluid social construct that uses biology to articulate social hierarchy—white society opened its doors to Jews, and Jews gradually became white Americans. Jewish urban migrations and eventual suburbanization testify rather plainly that with this change, Jews acquired the (typically white) prerogative to opt out of the American discussion on race—the discussion still at the heart of historical victimization and continuing social and economic injustice within the United States.
For some Jews, this option is an earned right. For others it threatens to betray diasporic lessons.
56. Walter Benjamin: [A]n irretrievable image of the past…threatens to disappear with every present that does not recognize itself as intended in it.
57. Boris Mikhailov: Culture is the selection of any set of limitations.
58. I am a bricloeur, someone given to accepting things in pieces and as I find them.
But a bricoleur wont to ask: what is the controlling hand that collects the pieces?
59. From my notebooks, October 2002, Philadelphia:
and if diaspora points to—?
—a decentralizing, non-hierarchical conception of the jewish—
—a chain of substitutions for an irreducible lack—
then the question—
—is diaspora to be a name with or without a motivation for jewish culture—?
60. From my notebooks, May 2003, New York:
what are the terms of the jewish imagination capable of supporting absence and fragmentedness for what they are—without relying on forms of translation that would recast them in the mode of presence and determination?
61. From my notebooks, November 2003, San Francisco:
the jewish in its diasporic mode is what resists the finality—while retaining the necessity—of its own formation. diasporic jewishness is a techne of self-resistance, an interrogatory relation to jewishness itself.
62. If there is no essential Jewish experience—as I believe there is not—what does it mean to return to the sources?
63. Osip Mandelstam:
Who knows, when the word “departure” is spoken
what kind of separation is at hand
64. I am thinking about the Pletzl, Paris’ historic Jewish neighborhood in the Marais district, where I lived in the late 1990s.
What does it mean to call it “historic”?
The Pletzl: a hard-knocks immigrant enclave for poor Eastern Jews that arose in the remains of medieval Paris at the end of the 19th century—and lasted until the deportations of more than 100,000 Jewish men, women and children to the Nazi death camps, principally Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Pletzl: a brief episode in which a relatively large Jewish population inhabited the city. And an exceptional episode: although Jews had been extended hands of revolutionary fraternity at the end of the 18th century, in fact there were few Jews to reach out to, as France had been virtually without Jews for six hundred years, following Philip the Fair’s 1306 edict of expulsion—which itself culminated some two hundred years of vulnerability following the slaughter of Jews by the marauders of the first crusade.
Now more than half a century after the war the neighborhood is again a Jewish historical experiment—today a place where outwardly observant Jews, tourists and fashionable Parisians co-mingle, and where Jewish “heritage” appears as renascent orthodoxy and synthetic cultural desire in equal measures.
The rue des Rosiers, the neighborhood’s central street, jerks its way through an incompletely renovated quarter of high-end boutiques situated beside graffiti splashed walls, of renovated aristocratic hôtels particuliers beside windows laden with Jewish pastry, and bookstores and barbershops both shelved with volumes of Talmud and Tanya commentary. Curiously, the presence of the ultra orthodox community does not so much announce a cultural boundary (as in ultra orthodox communities elsewhere) as open a peculiar dimension of Jewish energy—a combination of insularity and self-commodification, of parochialism and costumeliness appropriately atavistic for a “historic” Jewish locale.
65. In a city obsessed with historical markers, particularly at the sites where French citizens were killed or resisted the Germans during the city’s occupation and liberation during the Second World War, there are remarkably few public reminders of atrocities committed against Jews, nor mention of the extensive French material support that enabled the mass murder of millions in central and eastern Europe. Yet there are hundreds of documented locations across Paris, specific addresses where known crimes were committed—roundups, shootings, torture, deportations. Jewish experience during the war effectively remains publicly invisible, a labor of the (informed) imagination against the postwar political discourse that falsely casts every Frenchman as a resistor, and French republicanism as fundamentally incompatible with fascism.
A thought experiment:
I create posters that look like historical markers, one for each of the families I found in Paris’ Holocaust memorial archive, and in a feverish night of work I paste them on doors across the city where murdered and deported Jews once lived. In the morning the city awakens to a guerilla act of remembrance, a fugitive proclamation against the nationalist myth that the city’s dead testify to the glory of France.
66. If the Marais sits at one pole of the Jewish tourist circuit, at the other end is Kazimierz, Poland, just across the Vistula River from Kraków and for 500 years an important Jewish town before it was liquidated during the war. For 50 years during the Communist period it endured in a half-petrified state, neither dismantled nor kept from gradual disintegration, but inhabited (like most Jewish places not altogether destroyed) by non-Jews concerned more with the present than the past, if not unconcerned with the Jewish past altogether.
Since the collapse of the Iron Curtain, there is again a small community of Jews in Kazimierz, many of them immigrants who are transforming it from a historic Jewish place shattered by fascism into “Kraków’s Old Jewish Town”—a destination on the Yiddishland tourist circuit through Jewish Poland, a place where storied Jewishness and comfortable accommodations can kiss and greet—and so an inviting counterweight to the camps, which are now also tourist destinations.
Kazimierz’s Jewishness, at once genuine, artificial and overtly transitory, is at points also postmodern. One particularly popular destination in the neighborhood is a tranquil courtyard whose notoriety is linked to its appearance in Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, where it is the scene of a roundup. For a certain type of visitor, this courtyard becomes an object of fascination precisely because it links Hollywood panache to historical bereftness—which is to say that its existence as an image precedes its existence as an actual place.
Curiously, as the Kraków-based historian, Henryk Halkowski pointed out to me, Spielberg’s film is not the first time this courtyard has figured in the construction of the Jewish imagination. Roman Vishniac—the venerable photographer of Eastern Jewry on the brink of its destruction—photographed the same courtyard in 1937, erroneously titling it, “Entrance to the Ghetto.”
67. At this point, all photography of Ashkenazic Jewry remains a footnote to Roman Vishniac.
68. From my notebooks, October 1996, Palo Alto, California:
looking again longly at roman vishniac—i see—chederboys, closestepped, longshadowed, and teachers of generations not grown, and a woman carrying a cabinet, and i see—that feeding the family means walking on cobblestones, and going to synagogue means winter is in the air, and i see—that the copper coin is like leather, and the mezuza is written in square characters, and only one eye peeks out from behind a friend’s shoulder, and i see—that the wheels on the carts shake badly—i see and i notice—all the dead again have shoes—
69. Not to overlook about Roman Vishniac: the diasporic circumstance of his motivation as a young photographer.
It was Vishniac’s comfortable, assimilated childhood in Moscow that launched him in the 1930s toward the Jewish life of Eastern Europe—toward the Jewish “other” of the gentile, and also the assimilated Jewish imagination. To my eye, there is much in Vishniac’s work to suggest that he was drawn, with an unselfconscious romanticism, to those elements of Jewish life that were to him insular, exotic and (stereo)typical—caftans and beards, wizened eyes and long coats, book-laden and coal-laden arms, darkly enveloping interiors and ancient streets, rustic houses and the “entrances” to (cloistered) ghettoes.
Vishniac’s perennial popularity is not just a function of his luck (and ours) that he took the initiative to photograph when he did, or his considerable skills as a picture maker. His role as the keeper of a vanished world owes much to memory’s weakness for the play of the miraculous—the illusion in photographs of change and destruction held peremptorily in abeyance. As an older man redacting his work for the sake of memorializing, Vishniac knew well that the vanishedness of his subjects augmented their aliveness in pictures. But this is to say: we are left to wonder to what extent their destruction is, in his hands, an aspect of their fascinatingness, their victimhood an emblem of their exoticism.
70. To Roman Vishniac: diaspora does not call for a reaping of nostalgia—in the recuperative stance of sorrow, anger, pride—but an ingathering of the difficulty of nostalgia.
71. Adrienne Rich: Nostalgia is only amnesia turned around.
72. Steven Zipperstein: The Eastern Europe that for centuries was a vibrant center of Jewish life is today a place Jewishly resonant and also Jewishly empty.
I wonder whether the reverse is also the case—whether resonance and emptiness are not the very predicates of diasporic experience, from which vibrancy (circumstantially) comes.
73. To the extent that Jewish Eastern Europe is today a remnant of the thousand-year old Ashkenzic culture that met genocide, it does not so much proclaim ruin—as shelter it as a truth within itself.
74. As a remnant, its caesurae bind us to an enigmatic imagination of Jewish life—an imagination that by turns discloses and deflects the names for halted culture, halted tradition, halted time.
75. Diasporic experience is encoded in collective memory—as the presence of a loss that gives.
76. Siegfried Kracauer: Perhaps the most important function of history…is to gather fragments of the past in an uncertain light and for uncertain ends.
This is to say: for the sake of listening to lorn Jewish places that withhold confession.
77. It would be easy to position a Jewish journey to Eastern Europe, where my own family and a majority of the world’s Jews lived just a century ago, as a “return.”
I resist this idea.
Even if Jewish Europe abided in a state of pendant waiting, intact and available, ready to be returned to, and even if Jews collectively could “return” to a place constituted principally in the imagination, and even if “return” were not predicated on a compulsion to rewrite Jewish suffering —constantly to anticipate its reversal—still “return” would be a misplaced response to the exigency of Jewish Eastern Europe.
This is why: “return” as a regime of Jewish desire inadequately registers Jewish Europe’s palpable voidedness, its collapsedness that is not extinction, its way of unsettling Jewish memory even as it appears to ground it, its way of transmitting Jewishness apart from the effects of propellant continuity.
And what diaspora Jew is a self-reconciled presence “behind” such a journey, a stable diasporic subject who bears Jewish history as habitable memory—having survived, as it were, to tell of it?
78. Under the sign of “return,” reality begins where memory fades.
79. Jacob Szacki: As is well known, no one reads a gravestone.
80. Paul Celan:
In the air, there your root lives on, there,
in the air,
Where the earthly emballs itself, earthy,
81. From an email to my wife, Sheila, August 2001, Kiev:
i went to the village of mena, ukraine, where my great-grandmother, miriam was born and raised—the place she and my grandmother returned to in 1936 from san francisco to put stones on the graves of her parents. the trip was hard to make and i can only imagine what it must have been decades ago. it’s not just that i wanted to see the graves, to touch them—i wanted to touch the graves that they touched. i think i wanted to touch the place of origins.
i reached mena late morning on sunday and located the jewish cemetery from a cab driver who could not be bothered to drive. i walked into the town, after awhile joined by an old man who showed me the way into the cemetery through a hole in a fence—an apt threshold for a long journey of mine filled with such thresholds.
what i found was an open field, a meadow with grass to knee’s height. there were no tombstones—save at the far end, a few, as it turns out placed since the war, plus three mass graves that the jews of mena dug for themselves in september 1941. i stood beside the mass graves for some time, each a mound maybe forty by twenty feet and three or four feet high, each blooming with wildflowers and surrounded by a rusty fence. a goat approached me and caught its head in one of the fences and brayed until the man who lived next to the cemetery came to free it. this man told me that the tombs of the cemetery had been dismantled soon after the war when there was a shortage of bricks and no more jews.
somehow i was not prepared for all of this. i walked back into the middle of the cemetery field and sat down for a long time. i found the place of origins, sheila, and at the place of origins—murder, erasure, tracelessness.
82. Charles Reznikoff:
Israel is not planted, Israel is in the wind.
83. From my notebooks, February 2000, Oakland, California:
georg lukacs writes that the duality of inwardness and the outside world can be overcome “only” when one sees the unity of an entire life out of the past life-stream which is compressed in memory. for lukacs, the insight that grasps this unity grasps the “unattained meaning of life.”
i think it would be better to say that such an insight grasps life as meaning in its unattainedness.
84. From my notebooks, November 2004, Brooklyn:
it would be a mistake to regard as an imaginative capacity what blanchot calls “an anonymous, distracted, deferred and dispersed way of being in relation by which everything is brought into question”—when this is only half capacious, and probably the easy half.
85. From my notebooks, August 2001, Kiev
history arises, for walter benjamin, with the danger of forgetting. for benjamin, history is not “what happened” or “what existed” in a simple sense, but what “threatens to disappear,” save for the questions that cause it to come to recognition. the possibilities of such questions in turn depend on an imperative, as benjamin would have it, “to act in accordance with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history.”
what does this mean for the passing jewish century?
on the one hand, it seems that such an imperative is overtly paradoxical with regard to diaspora, insofar as what stands to be recognized carries disappearance immanently within itself. on the other hand, considering benjamin as a jewish thinker, it would seem that diaspora is the key to the messianic ambition lurking within his imperative: a “redeemed mankind” that results when the past becomes “unfulfilled in every instant.”
86. Jewish religious tradition casts diaspora as exile, in Hebrew galut—removal from a sanctified place in the world, being-apart from the presence of god—for which the traditional corrective is spiritual return, t’shuva. By contrast, the Yiddish term golus, derived from galut, reflects Jewishness differently—as in the Yiddish aphorism, a yid iz in golus: a Jew is a Jew precisely in the condition of apartness, of difference.
This is to say: there is one diasporic sensibility that treats attachment to some Jewish homeland as the imperative of centuries of collective mourning—whether the “homeland” of the texts in which the Jewish imagination has for centuries dwelled, or various locations in the geography of Jewish life, including today the putative Jewish national home in Israel, or the “homeland” of the community of the Jewish people itself. And there is another diasporic sensibility that tests attachments to autochthonous homelands, whatever their form.
87. A note to utopian, nostalgic or irridentist Jewish nationalists (as they might dwell within): it is a mistake to reduce diaspora to a “periphery” around an ordained “center,” or a “Jew” to one in possession or in thrall of a reified identity.
88. A note to utopian or nostalgic Jewish diasporists: it is a mistake to render all diasporic change as collective expertise in the navigation of uncertainty, as survival through an embrace of transformation.
89. A note to myself: it is perhaps better to live in a way not regnantly Jewish— precisely so that the Jewishness within might be allowed to practice the (dissident) arts of witnessing, monitoring and holding to account what reigns.
90. A diasporic proposition:
To find the meridian that reaches from “already-gone” to “not-yet-given” is to find the meridian that connects “stays-with” and “trapped-within.”
91. Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav: The whole world is just a narrow bridge.
92. I am thinking about the great Yiddish writers of a century ago, and less—Sholom Aleichem, Mendele Mocher Seforim, I.L. Peretz, Abraham Reisen, Moshe Leib Halpern, H. Leivick, Joseph Opatashu, Jacob Glatstein, Peretz Markish, Der Nister, Malka Heifetz-Tussman, Chaim Grade, Barysh Vaynshteyn, I.J. Singer, I.B. Singer and others—now mostly without an audience and a share in collective memory.
What I notice most about their work—and what appeals to me—is the peculiarity of what seem to be their literary premises: a dilation of the shock experience that modulates through the world they know, an audacious self-awareness, a willingness to put a word in the eye of doubt for the sake of an immanent Jewish meaningness.
I venture: their books never quite complete the testimony of lament and subversive freedom that they start, as if to hand these things to the future—for example to us—to reconstitute their signification.
93. I am thinking about H. Leivick’s famous poem, “On the Roads of Siberia,” here translated by Cynthia Ozick:
on the roads of Siberia
you can find
a shred of one of my shoelaces,
a bit of broken cup,
a leaf of scripture.
on the rivers of Siberia
you can find
a scrap of the raft
the river swallowed,
in the woods
a bloodied swatch dried stiff;
some frozen footprints
over the snow.
The poem offers a list of personal effects from the period of Leivick’s political imprisonment by the Czarist government—a list of items not to be found and not quite a trail to be followed, but a collection of memory-traces that signify simply (or exactly) what is shredded, broken, made into scrap, swallowed, dried, stiffened, frozen.
It strikes me that the poem’s mix of hope and futility is achieved in the animated state of these traces’ obscurity and their unwitnessed transformations—which are charged with a burden of proof.
In this way the poem is much like a photograph.
94. To the extent that Jewish memory is melancholic, neither mourning nor recovery from mourning can be disavowed.
And so I am asking: is there a name for a form of memory likewise interstitial—in which the past is remote but not irrelevant, denatured but not yet neutralized, irretrievable but not strictly prior-to-now—but not bound up in melancholy’s conceits?
95. J.L. Teller: Over roofs a boy is running. Shadows are running with both of them.
96. Not to forget what the passing century itself sits atop—from a letter to my sister, spring 2002, never sent—:
jewish life across europe during the last 1000 years—including our own family’s experience further back than we can trace it—largely meant negotiating the vicissitudes of political patronage and economic change, and the exclusionary, often hostile and sometimes murderous tendencies in christian host countries. “normal” jewish life in country after country over centuries evinced the low-grade tensions of political and economic dependency: strategies to ensure the physical protection of jews through techniques of persuasion or bribery, and ways of living with and within the marked restrictions in occupation and mobility—notably the frequent confinement of jews to petty trade, moneylending and property management—leading to jewish lifeways built on resilient adaptiveness.
while long periods of co-existence and measured tolerance between jews and non-jews occurred (and without minimizing the influences of the local on diasporic jewish cultures—from language and letters to food and music, and even in religion—influences that constituted “the jewish” as a matter of relative, not absolute difference), there is no question that anti-jewish violence was persistent and defining. in the medieval and early modern periods in western and central europe, jewish communities were repeatedly subjected to blood libels, ritual murder charges, burnings of jewish books, various types of special persecutorial laws and taxes, and confinement in ghettos. in many instances jewish communities were expelled en masse—famously in england in 1290, france in 1306, austria in 1421, spain in 1492 and portugal in 1497 as part of the inquisition, in many cities and districts of germany in the 12th century, again in the mid-14th century and yet again in the second half of the 15th century. large massacres of jews also periodically occurred—notably during the first crusade across france in 1096, in central europe and france in response to the black death in 1348-1349, and in the polish ukraine in 1648-1649 by marauding cossacks under bogdan chmielnicki.
by the end of the 18th century, the large numbers of jews living in poland—where the weakness of the central government had over time resulted in the anomaly of semi-autonomy (parliamentary-like jewish federations to administer jewish affairs)—found their status imperiled by the partitions of poland at the hands of the prussian, russian and austro-hungarian empires. by 1795 the greatest number of jews in the world lived in the russian empire, which created a territorial enclosure known as the pale of settlement in which jews were forced to reside between 1815-1918. political and economic pressures and repeated instances of anti-jewish violence in the pale precipitated the emigration of millions of jews to western europe, the americas and palestine at the end of the 19th century and up to the first world war—including our family.
how will you remember these things?
97. What persists in Jewish memory is not the manifest content of Jewish suffering but that suffering’s unrecoveredness—positioned under the sign of existence.
98. Ulrich Keller: [W]hile history usually means continuity in change, the history of European Jewry is different.
99. To move toward the Shoah, the annihilation of European Jews during the Second World War—the central event of recent Jewish history and one of the defining moments of the 20th century—is to approach the past not just in its anteriority, but as it crosses epistemic borders.
100. Hannah Arendt: after Auschwitz there is no “thinking after Auschwitz” but only “thinking Auschwitz.”
101. From my notebooks, March 1999, Oswieçim, Poland:
a place as completely on the side of death as birkenau nullifies language. we cannot ask in any familiar sense how prisoners “lived” in the camp, what they “experienced” or what victims murdered in the gas chambers “went through.” these formulations are predicated in the terms of life.
i am at a loss for terms sufficiently exhausted to inquire after what it is to exist in death, as a form of death, during rapid or slowly materializing death.
and not to forget: at auschwitz-birkenau, where some one and a half million people were murdered, there were some 100,000 survivors.
what to say about, for example, belzec, the death camp near lublin where there was a single survivor among 650,000 jews murdered?
102. Primo Levi: He told me his story, and today I have forgotten it, but it was [like]… all our stories, hundreds of thousands of stories, all different and all full of a tragic, disturbing necessity. We tell them to each other in the evening, and they take place in Norway, Italy, Algeria, the Ukraine, and are simple and incomprehensible like the stories in the Bible. But are they not themselves stories of a new Bible?
103. Paul Celan: The trace of blood darkens and ceases to sign.
104. From my notebooks, March 1999, Oswieçim, Poland:
everything in birkenau stands for death and attests to it. everything in birkenau stands for some abyss announcing only further abysses: the solidness of the ground itself, once swampland—dredged and flattened by prisoners pushing massive stone rollers—the crude barracks, the chimney flues standing everywhere like skeletons, rarely used during the camp’s operation for lack of fuel to put in them, the slats of the wooden bunks, the hole-ridden bricklaying in the walls of the barracks, the vast “selection” platform beside the tracks, the gas chambers and crematoria in rubble—dynamited by the nazis on evacuating the camp—the ponds in the camp and the streams and the river beyond where human ashes were dumped in astonishing abundance, and even the surrounding local farmland, on which human ashes were once used as fertilizer.
105. The present languages of doubt do not translate well the civilization of the past, even the not-so-distant past.
106. Jacob Glatstein:
The Torah we received at Sinai,
And in Lublin we gave it back.
Corpses do not praise God.
107. And not to forget the hundreds of mass graves across the Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, the leavings of roving German death squads working with local collaborators in 1941. These graves: in contrast to the death camps, which functioned precisely through the apparatus of deportation, are found mostly within the very towns and village where Jews lived—saturating the commonplace around them.
Among those (comparatively few) that I myself have seen: one killing site now a large flower nursery, the untended mounds of the mass graves situated just beside greenhouses; another tucked between houses in a residential area; another in the midst of a factory compound, surrounded by productivity; another in the compound of a Carmelite monastery—and several, as the graves of Mena—within existing Jewish cemeteries.
As against the well known destinations in the geography of the Shoah—epitomized in Auschwitz, whose notoriety itself provides constancy for the memory of the annihilation, and reinscribes it under the sign of something accessible—by contrast, these graves belong to the unmarked, forsaken geography of mass murder.
These graves seem the pith of diasporic loss.
108. Robert Frank: A foot is resting on a pile of rocks. A hand plays an old game with stones.
109. From my notebooks, August 2001, Kiev:
i am walking through babi yar—where some 100,000 jews were murdered over three days in September, 1941. it has taken me weeks to work up the resolve to come here, though my flat is not far away.
again i am struggling with the desire for a true grave, a certain grave, not this gorge but a clear wound, and there is no such object. what can i do but walk through it photographing the earth of it, the earth itself that once ate so much flesh—?
if i could see myself i would probably say that i am walking like one who is looking for a secret, as if this were what it meant to remember.
110. Walking, a descent to origins.
111. I ask myself: how to photograph what remains of the annihilation without trading on the trope of restaging it in the imagination?—what it was to be rounded up, pushed into walled-off cities, into death camps, into cement cells wet with poison, what it was to be forced to dig one’s own grave at gunpoint, to be driven into hiding, to die in forests, alongside roads, behind many types of wire.
112. What photograph can simultaneously communicate and refuse to absorb the catastrophe, make it present but refuse to render it in the mode of presence?
What form of representation is sufficiently self-disqualifying, capable of simultaneously retracting and enunciating the extinctness of meaning that the Shoah stands for?
How to photograph mindful of the dangerous proximity of certain forms of remembrance to the renewal of innocence?
113. I caution myself: beware of lament that behaves as an abstraction whose force soothes memory, recuperating incoherent loss as elegy.
114. Talmud Pirke Avot: Do not say of a thing which cannot be understood that in the end it will be understood.
115. From my notebooks, March 1999, Oswieçim, Poland:
just before i left san francisco for europe last summer, my father made a surprising request—“i understand you’re going to auschwitz… take this with you,” he said, handing me a small velvet bag, royal blue with a large jewish star embroidered in yellow, and inside—a new, deeply creased prayer shawl and a shiny silk yarmulke, both untouched since his bar mitzvah in 1956. he said, “i want you to take this with you when you go to auschwitz, where they murdered jews.”
it was the first time i had seen this bag. i think it was the only time i ever heard my father speak of the holocaust.
i didn’t follow his request, exactly. i left his tallis in paris when i came here, but i brought the bag. in it i put the new tallis that we bought for miriam’s bris bat last year—the tallis our family suspended her in. this was the tallis i put in my father’s bright and musty tallis bag and carried with me through the camp.
116. Ludwig Wittgenstein: If I want to turn the door, the hinges must stay put.
117. It was through photography—through photography’s seductive fallacy that the passage of time is to be entrusted to the visual—that I first glimpsed the ancestral self as it might belong to me. It was through photography that I first met the stranger who appears momentarily behind the camera, bracketed by the conceit of invisibility.
118. It was through photographing—learning through seeing—that I found out that the recovery of Jewishness is not the recovery of an “it,” an object to be possessed in trust or nostalgia, but an encounter with irreconcilables.
It was in photographing that I found out that the obligation to remember does not necessarily mean hitching the past to an affirmation of continuity—“a guarantee that everything that has eluded us may be restored,” in Michel Foucault’s phrase.
119. The pictures I want to make are not the equivalent of sentences, or endowed grammatical forms: their nearest approximation in language would be a recombinant wordstring, a phrasal concatenation illumined by an indwelling associative logic.
120. Emmanuel Levinas: The said does not count as much as the saying.
121. Aristotle: the impulse toward the universal looks to poetry and the impulse toward the particular looks to history.
Photographs seem to offer a share in both.
122. Sometimes even now it is enough with a camera to create a likeness of life.
It is enough to intervene in the play of mutable forms for the sake of a claim—a picture—that might carry a message to the future.
Sometimes this is still a photographer: one who creates by finding what (once it is found) announces itself as a small destiny, a foregone if not entirely foreseen necessity.
123. But at this point there is no denying the things that lapse—the plaint that yields pictures.
124. Wallace Stevens:
And not to have is the beginning of desire.
To have what is not is its ancient cycle.
125. Gus Blaisdell: A photograph begins when we look away from where we are.
126. To photograph is to gather the elements—prodding, elusive, animate, unverifiable—of a deracinated form of seeing.
127. The ways that photographs seem to fuse time and place into determinate relations must be situated against the ways that photographs profoundly fragment time, space, events and objects.
A photograph is something other than the erethic hope that the world might announce itself in the form of a picture.
128. On the one hand, a photograph presents us with a wound in the world, a sundering of the ongoingness of what it shows. On the other hand, in standing in for the world, it covers the wounds that are themselves all too evident in that ongoingness.
129. In photographs, we move among observations that hold back observations— observations that ask us precisely to look.
130. Two propositions:
If photographs do not just show the world, but authenticate it, this is a function of what photographs are asked to do—not what they fundamentally are.
Neither their mechanical or lawful character, nor the physical connection between marks on a page and their referents in the world, nor the combination of these with the rationalized pictorial tradition of perspective is enough to establish photographs’ reflexive identity with what they show. Rather, photographs perform such an identity.
131. In photographs, both presence and absence assume the guise of the actual.
132. As a working photographer, it is plain that the natural condition of photographic meaning is a decertified relation between what a picture shows and what it signifies—and the reason why photographs frequently seem both specific and ambiguous, concrete and elusive.
What photography’s plasticity itself teaches: photographs do not record the traces of the world—they recruit them into their service.
133. It is a curious thing that what is made in photography goes by the name of what is found.
My teacher says that there is no real distinction between making and finding in photography. To find outside, he says, is already to have found within.
134. To make a photograph is not to think out a total position on the world, but to find a habitable position within the totality of an inquiry.
135. A photograph: an assertoric question.
136. If a photograph sutures time twice—first, stitching the now of looking to the then that the image refers to, and second, the pictured past to the unpictured past in which it is embedded—it also cleaves remembrance twice: first, into the unrequited loss of the past and the making of new loss, and second, into the past as a solitude onto itself and the past as imbricated in the present.
137. The reality that a photograph constructs is only the abundance of meanings it circulates.
138. Jurek Becker: Now the floor of my room is strewn with these photos. If I had memories, they would be at home there, in those streets, behind those walls, among those people.
139. The photograph that counts breaks the spell of theory and of personal testimony.
140. I have reached the conclusion, contra John Szarkowski, that photographs do not rationalize time and map space. It would be better to say that photographs present something like a double helix of a moment and a place, the two spiraling around one another, held apart by the particular energies of our nearness and farness from what we find.
This is a formulation that frustrates my teacher.
141. Metaphors for diaspora useful for photographers:
—the negative space of memory
—the ground against which the figures of memory are delineated
—a “missing middle distance between artifacts and relics” (David Lowenthal).
142. It is one thing to think in categories of stillness—to find the points of interdependence between them. This, for example, is Paul Strand’s problem.
It is another thing to think in categories of motion—and to work out the stillnesses within them.
143. To elaborate distances in the ways that lyricism requires—and leave out the lyricism—this is a way to make pictures of diaspora.
144. To find the unnamable quantity that remains when one observation is subtracted from another—this is the way to diaspora’s image.
145. A proposition:
If I say that the photograph and the world are fundamentally decertified in their relations, and that photographs complicate rather than confirm the philosophic realism with which they have historically been charged—according to which the photograph corresponds ontologically with what it shows—this is just to say that new forms of documentary work will be directed toward intrinsically unstable varieties of social meaning, those that are constitutively made of a dialogue of absence and presence.
I venture: the indeterminacies of the realist idiom in photography form a visual epistemology of contingency particularly appropriate to diaspora as a subject—inasmuch as such indeterminacies can be made to intervene on the cultural predilection to “fix” the memory of experiences that are intrinsically unfixed, and to point to the gap between manifestness and irretrievability in which diasporic experience lies.
146. It is not enough to make photographs that “capture” the world, hold it captive. In fact, the opposite is necessary: to release time and experience into photographs.
147. Boris Mikhailov: “How it should be” is already a dream.
148. A photographic book equal to the cultural consequences of diasporic loss—this will be a book that resists both surfaces and unfathomable depths.
149. From my notebooks, July 2003, Berkeley, California:
i want to speak against faith in photography—and perhaps faith generally, something i am prone to see as unequal to the task of truth telling.
i want to speak against photographs that induce us to dream their imperturbability.
i want to speak against photographs that attempt to stand for, or stand in for, the imperative to remember.
i want to speak for photographs that make hinges between seeing and knowing.
150. Again I ask: why do I photograph?
It seems: something has found a strickenness within me.
151. Saul Friedländer: I was destined… to wander among several worlds… incapable of feeling an identification without any reticence, incapable of seeing, understanding, and belonging in a single, immediate, total movement.
152. Peretz Markish:
clot the black dirt
153. I. L. Peretz: The poet alone can lie on his belly and make worlds for himself. But it is a mistake to think that the poet’s lot is enviable. It turns out that his soul is nothing more than a camera and that the great world, with its great muck…merely produces a photographic image of itself within him.
154. W.G. Sebald: We take almost all the decisive steps in our lives as a result of slight inner adjustments of which we are barely conscious.
155. A conversation with my daughter, Miriam, when she was four years old:
“Papa, I’m trying to figure out if god is a something, or a nothing.”
“And did you figure it out?”
“I think that god is a something which is nothing—and a nothing which is something.”
156. What the rabbi said on Simchas Torah: a Torah scroll is not kosher if even a single letter is indistinct—and just so, if even a single person is not fully actualized in her and his distinct life-wisdom, the cumulative torah of the Jewish people is not clear.
157. And a Jew for whom the torah of seeing is full of uncertain avowals?
And a Jew for whom the teaching-from-Zion—“ki mi’tzion tetzey torah” as Isaiah and the siddur promise—is tied in a blood knot with the torah that subsists in diaspora, non-emergent, non-triumphant, non-promissory?
And a Jew who would reconstruct Jewishness to resist tragedy itself—the trap in which being oneself means dying?
158. Emmanuel Levinas: Even the most surprising discoveries end by being absorbed, being comprehended, with all that there is of “prehending” in “comprehending.”
159. Boris Mikhailov: …the book, for example, ends with pictures of a cemetery, although I am still alive and have already started to take new pictures.
160. From my notebooks, August, 2002, San Francisco:
some diapora jews are exilic in their outlook, suffering under the burden of cyclic time, wrestling with promises. some are antinomian jews, free from obligations. me, i am a jew far from zion—far from jewishness reconciled to itself.
perhaps i am a jew awaiting a change in circumstances.
161. What I wrote on a scrap of paper in one of my notebooks:
the dream of the jews—according to which i survive, am transformed, disappear—has ended
162. Edmond Jabès: The Jew expects each day to live.