A.O. and Me

January 2, 2009

Anyone who knows me personally is aware of my fawning appreciation of A.O. Scott’s film criticism. His reviews, to my mind, have it all. They are informative, informed, and his recommendations are dead on. As a Manhattanite shelling out $10.50 I need something akin to a guarantee when I go out for an evening at the movies and Scott’s aesthetic and sense of humor and mine have, almost without exception, matched up beautifully. Anyone who knows me has heard the story of when I met him personally and how interesting, bizarre, and ultimately awkward/disappointing the encounter was.

I can separate the man from the work (an interesting issue in criticism and intellectual biography more generally) so I need not swear myself off of his reviews because our real life meeting. Nevertheless, once you learn something about a person it is downright impossible to forget or disregard it. I met Scott because his wife was in a class of mine at the Jewish Theological Seminary – a woman who was flirting with the idea of attending the Rabbinical School there – and our entire class ate dinner at the professor’s home. I wouldn’t have guessed it, but Scott is or at least is married to a Jew (I’m still unclear on this).

Taken on its own this is not the least bit surprising or interesting. Another Jew(ish mind) in the business of interpreting and transmitting culture? Duh, welcome to modernity. But of late Scott has weighed in, albeit subtly, on one of the most crucial and contentious issues of the 20th (and now it seems 21st) century – Holocaust memory as it relates to issues of Jewish power, particularly the state of Israel. I am well aware that in insisting on its importance I am open to any number of criticisms. As a student of the modern Jewish experience, one could say, I am simply falling victim to the necessary blinders of potential and realized human experience – we all see what we want to see and understand the world to actually be what it is we understand it to be (huh?). Nevertheless, and with all due humility, I think it’s hard to argue that this issue, however defined, has not been at the heart of so much of our politics, culture, and identity formation in this country for the last 40 or so years.

There are numerous reasons why this is so, including the shift of power from Europe to the United States and the role Jews played/play in those civilizations, but the concomitant glut of Holocaust related film premiering in the United States during the “Holiday season” and the ongoing armed conflict between Israel and Palestine-Gaza is a convergence too ripe to be ignored.

So where does Scott stand on all of this? I would direct you to his recent review of Defiance and a longer, more sustained meditation on the topic found here. But at the end of the day, it’s just another chapter in a somewhat subterranean story. It is the story of the ambivalences and dueling tensions and allegiances at play in the heart and mind of the American Jewish intellectual who is to her mind, these tensions notwithstanding, living a non-exilic existence in the diaspora. It is the story of the pull of the particular as against the desire for universality that animates all of our lives, regardless of background, but is a tension that Jews have felt quite acutely, and I think A.O. Scott’s cultural work is explained by it.

Gershom Scholem, one of the founding intellects of the state of Israel, was once asked in an interview what he thought about the argument that it was this very condition of ambivalence that explained the preponderance of Jews in American intellectual life and that this was indeed a good thing. Although his politics were left wing, Scholem was to the day he died an orthodox Zionist, and all of the Nobel Prizes in the world for everything Saul and Isaac ever wrote amounted to very little in his mind. Scholem argued that as interesting as their work is, American Jewish intellectuals are failing to live as Jews in history. Only by reentering the place of their birth could Jews reenter the plane of history and live responsibly as subjects of its vagaries and therefore as coequals among the worlds’ peoples. What is interesting to me is the extent to which Scholem’s own views of history and Zionism were due in equal part to his study of mysticism and Jewish religious sources no less than his relatioship with Walter Benjamin and the general zeitgeist of Weimar Germany. Counter-history was the leitmotif of Scholem’s life, but this had as much to do with Berlin as it did with the pull of Jerusalem. So perhaps even he was just another Diaspora Jew when he moved to mandate Palestine and lived out his days in the State of Israel. Perhaps I’m needlessly opening up a new set of questions and will simply stop so that I can sum up.

The matrix of issues at the heart of American intellectual life after World War two is profoundly Jewish and there is little reason to believe this will not be the case for some time. The events of the 20th century have much to do with the death of one Jewish civilization and the rebirth of another. Perhaps more importantly, so much of our culture and the understanding of what that history has meant has been mediated by Jewish voices. The dilemma of the American Jewish (usually liberal) intellectual is an animating tension that feuls much of our creative life in this country. This fact has its merits, it has its dark underbelly, and it has a tendency to be overblown and overemphasized as is probably the case in this post. I won’t weigh in with my judgment. I’ll simply say that I will continue to read A.O. Scott’s reviews with interest, gamble my spending money on his recommendations, and by and large agree with what he says.

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6 Responses to “A.O. and Me”

  1. dailysalad Says:

    Nice post, Haverstam. I was actually planning on writing about Scott’s recent magazine feature on Holocaust films and the forverts bizarre interpretation of the article. Your considered response merits another considered response.

    Probably one of our new(!) features should be an English summary of the Yiddish forverts. This way, we can drum up some interest in our soon-to-be-launched Yiddish supplement, nekhtiker salat. Interested would be, contributors–weigh in!

  2. Isaac Says:

    I couldn’t contribute, but I would read it!

  3. ilovechickpeas Says:

    Coptic ys!

  4. Lev Says:

    A.O. Scott’s mother is Jewish, and I think he identifies as Jewish (but I’m not sure).

  5. Rabbi Dr. Prof. Jurgen Haverstam, DHL Says:

    Thanks for the update, Lev. I assume you read his recent piece in the Times where he muses on Jewish identity in modern times (through the eyes of film of course) and he “outs” himself as a Jew. Sort of. It seems to have been prompted by the release of “A Serious Man”. Between the Coens coming home to roost and “Inglorious Basterds”, it seems as though Jewish themes in American film will neither decrease in quantity nor fail to mature apace. B”H.


  6. […] 25, 2010 As you’ve no doubt heard, At the Movies has been canceled. That means that Yesterday’s Salad favorite A. O. Scott is out of a (second) job. Good Tony Scott: there’s always room for you at the […]


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