"[L]iterature…has the power to create empathy."
After a 20-year absence from formal education, Bracha Schefres returned to college. She plans to transfer to a Cal State to pursue a degree in Liberal Arts and earn a teacher’s credential. She has been an educator teaching Hebrew language and Jewish Studies in the elementary grades for more than 20 years. At her workplace, Bracha was recently moved to the position of School Librarian, requiring her to earn a secular teaching degree. Bracha is married with three children: Sarah, who recently graduated from UC Davis with a B.A. in Sociology and African Studies; Rivkah, who completed her first year at UC Berkeley in the school of Environmental Science and is pursuing a degree in Architecture; and Yaakov, who will be returning to Hamilton High School Humanities Magnet as a junior. She makes her home in west Los Angeles.
An Old Shoe, a Bent Nail, and a Fragrant Flower...
Much of our understanding and attitude toward our world comes from our socialization.
Perceptions and attitudes directly influence our interpretation of literature and are formed as a product of our socialization. We all carry a unique package of knowledge, memories, hopes and dreams. This knapsack, or pekeleh in Yiddish, acts as more than a depository of experiences; it also serves as a foundation for our perspectives. Motivational speaker and author Stephen Covey said: “We are not human beings on a spiritual journey. We are spiritual beings on a human journey.” Literature has the power to direct this journey, to open roads that might not be traveled, and perhaps to change one’s path. Recently, I had the opportunity to realize the impact my socialization had on my interpretation of literature as I began a journey through several influential works.
To appreciate how my experiences influenced my understanding of literature, it is necessary to detail some of the stops along my journey.
I have found that literature has the power to ignite the imagination, express beliefs in a way that may not be heard otherwise, and form impressions. William Blake’s poem “Auguries of Innocence” seems to express the belief that one must take note of life’s many beauties while simultaneously cautioning the reader about an impending judgment. Blake offers salvation to those who are clothed in light, alluding to what Christians refer to as “Armageddon,” the end-of-time scenario when Jesus will return to earth to battle and vanquish the anti-Christ and judge mankind,
God appears, and God is light
To those poor souls who dwell in night,
But does a human form display
To those who dwell in realms of day. (129-132)
These ideas are so well accepted that Blake’s words have been quoted, adapted, or found as allusions in popular culture. In fact, Jim Morrison of The Door’s quotes these lines from Blake’s poem in his debut album “End of Night”: “Some are born to sweet delight,/Some are born to endless night.” In the film Tomb Raider, the fictional character Lara Croft recites the first four lines of the same Blake poem:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour. (1-4)
However, for those who do not share Blake’s Christian beliefs, his poetry may remain lovely and lyrical, but it carries many foreign messages.
Other examples of these foreign messages can be found by examining Blake’s poem. Although Orthodox Jewish beliefs share many of the same Christian values (after all, Christianity is modeled, to a great extent, on Judaism), its perspective is quite different. As an Orthodox Jew, I find Blake’s poem, “Auguries of Innocence” resonates with moralizing undertones. It is a perspective that I am uniquely aware of based upon my socialization. A fundamental principle in Judaism is to educate and not to indoctrinate. In keeping with this principle, a Jewish child is armed with a deep sense of identity as a tool against those who might wish to proselytize, in person or via some other medium, as in Blake’s poem. Blake promotes his moral beliefs that seemingly small things can have deep and widespread ramifications, a doctrine central to Christian beliefs, as expressed in the Gospels through the lines of his poetry: “The beggar’s rags. Fluttering in air/ Does to rags to heavens tear” (76-77). Other verses in his poem also preach Christian doctrine. Verses such as “The poor man’s farthing is worth more/ Than all the gold on Afric’s shore” (80-81) can be translated as “the meek will inherit the Earth” from Matthew 5:5. Of course, Blake foretells the Apocalyptic end (Armageddon) as identified in the Book of Revelations: “Kill not the moth nor butterfly,/ For the Last Judgment draweth nigh” (40-41). One may think that these concepts are in concert with Orthodox Jewish thought; however, beside the obvious origins from the New Testament (texts Orthodox Jews do not subscribe to), there are subtle and important distinctions that are deep within the culture of the faith. When I read “Auguries of Innocence,” immediately an instinctive trigger went off; my missionary radar was on high alert. Clearly my socialization had a strong influence on how I perceived Blake’s words: I was sensitive to what I perceived as “an agenda.” Although it may seem irrational, I felt that Blake was attempting to proselytize me one hundred and eighty years after his death.
Of course, Blake’s poem is philosophicallyprofound and artistic. I am able to appreciate the imagery, style, use of form, and wording. While I can recognize the value of the artistry, I do not like the poem. It imposes Blake’s philosophical ideas upon me. I believe that art should not be political or try to oblige a moral code upon its reader. The theme should be uncovered by the reader’s interpretation, thereby making it the reader’s own. If the writer does his or her job well, then the writer’s message will be heard. A poet such as Langston Hughes is able to express his point powerfully in the poem “A Dream Deferred” without browbeating. Mark Twain could be considered one of America’s most politically influential writers, and yet he accomplishes this without a word of moral or political coercion. Maya Angelou is hailed as one the great voices of contemporary literature, while her soft-spoken whisper of truth and wisdom yells her message loud and clear. A great writer can permeate through religious and cultural socializations and biases. He must talk to the reader and not at him. Our socialization can clearly affect our interpretation of art and literature, but it does not have to interfere with appreciating its diverse expression. The reader has the responsibility to be an approachable, honest and truthful consumer of literature. He or she must be open to the author’s ideas. This method will allow the reader to form new impressions based upon the readings or strengthen the reader’s established convictions. The reader also has the responsibility of distinguishing between the writer’s persona and his art. While the two are not mutually exclusive, one should not censor art or literature based on the artist’s political, spiritual or social beliefs. Richard Wagner, a nineteenth century German composer, was both anti-Semitic and brilliantly talented. The extract “Ride of the Valkyries” from the opera Die Walküre exists separately from Wagner’s political thought. Although many Jews boycott performances of his music, I believe that to silence one voice is to silence all voices. Art takes on a power independent of the artist and should be evaluated on its own merits, unfettered by the author’s character. I choose not to like Blake’s poem, “Auguries of Innocence,” because I feel that the poem’s intrusive ideas interfere with its beauty, not because of Blake’s religious convictions. This complex and symbiotic relationship between the author and reader is part of a reader’s interpretation of literature.
As a Jew, I have also been taught to scrutinize, to question with sincerity. Perhaps this is why I see agendas and motivations where others may not. It is all part of my socialization, part of who I am. Choice is also part of a Jewish life. Each year we celebrate the holiday of Shavuot and accept the Torah once again. A Jewish custom that dates back to time of Moses is to immerse oneself all night in the study of Torah. Through study and investigation one is ready to choose the next day to accept the Torah at dawn. Additionally, a child accepts upon him- or herself the Torah at his or her Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and is counted as a fully fledged member of the “tribe,” an affectionate term used to identify the Jewish people that originates from the twelve tribes of Israel. Bar/Bat Mitzvah, literally translated as “son/daughter of a commandment,” is a ceremony that occurs when a girl turns twelve and a boy thirteen. It is an amazing psychological boost to know one’s importance to the community at an age when self-doubt is common. During the time preceding one’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah, the individual studies, questions and investigates the Jewish heritage and faith. An Orthodox service is quite different than the party that is often portrayed in the media through the 2006 movie Keeping Up with the Steins, and television shows such as the “Star Mitzvah” episode on the NBC series Frasier. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony has very little to do with the party that follows. It is a spiritual rite of passage that is celebrated with the individual’s family, mentors, and friends by showing support and acknowledgment for the dedication to learning the Torah and accepting the mitzvoth (commandments). In other words, it is less “Bar” and more “Mitzvah” and serves to strengthen a pre-teen’s commitment to Judaism.
Much of our understanding and attitude towards our world comes from our socialization. The Orthodox Jewish faith does not promote or solicit conversion. This is deep-rooted in Jewish thought and guides many of its principles. Many Jews may be very involved in their society and government, but for most, it is not because they have a political agenda or mission. It is because of various Biblical commandments that promote social justice and the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, “repairing the universe.” True, the Biblical Abraham and Sarah could be construed as missionaries. Even the noted French Medieval commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitchaki, known by the acronym Rashi, explains through the interpretation of the verse that describes Abraham’s migration to Israel, “Abram took his wife Sarai and Lot, his brother’s son, and all their wealth that they had amassed, and the souls they made in Haran” (Genesis 12:5), meaning that Abraham and Sarah converted men and women to faith in God through their interaction with those around them. However, it is important to note that they promoted monotheism by acknowledging God for providing them with the ability to show hospitality to their guests, not the “Jewish” way of living. It is a subtle yet important distinction, one that may be understood by appreciating the complexities of Jewish culture and one that I cannot do justice to within the scope of this short essay.
According to the Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah, there are 70 faces (facets) to the Torah (13:15). There are many valid ways of understanding each part of the Biblical Texts. Some are more literal and some more profound, but all are valid according to the legitimate methods of Torah study. Jewish thought acknowledges that perception plays a valuable role in our understanding. So it is not a foreign idea that socialization, which has a profound impact on our perceptions, can influence how we interpret literary works. It is important to distinguish between the Jewish tradition of interpretation and comprehension of Holy Texts and interpretation of literary works. Jews are socialized to ask and inquire. However, it is the Orthodox Jewish belief that Holy Texts are not considered literature, art, or poetry, as man did not inspire them. It is a firm belief that man may have physically written these texts, but they are Divinely inspired. Therefore, texts such as Chapter 1 of Song of Songs have a profoundly different meaning to Orthodox Jews than to African Americans.
I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as
the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon.
Look not upon me, that I am swarthy, that the sun hath
tanned me; my mother's sons were incensed against me,
they made me keeper of the vineyards; but mine own
vineyard have I not kept. (5-6)
Our socialization allows us to recognize the varied and wonderful seventy facets to the Torah. Jews view Song of Songs as an allegory for the relationship the Jewish people has with God in terms of the love between a man and a woman. The same passages prove spiritual acceptance and equality for people of color, which explains why American slave owners in the South censored this chapter. The Midrash acknowledges that perspective has a great deal to do with the interpretation of Biblical texts with the statement that there are 70 faces (facets) to the Torah. Although I was surprised to learn of the African American interpretation of Song of Songs, my socialization taught me to embrace their understanding as one of the 70 facets of the Torah.
Literature can unlock a door to new cultures and ideas, expose peoples of all different backgrounds to imaginary or actual situations, and make the impossible become real. Herman Hesse in his novel Siddhartha opened the world of Brahmin theology to me on my next stop on my journey. I saw through Siddhartha’s eyes his path of self-discovery and his insatiable desire to reach spiritual enlightenment – to reach nirvana. I was able to compare Buddhist socialization and philosophy with the Jewish life that I know. My life could not be more different than that of Siddhartha. The jury may still be out as to the determination of whether Buddhism is considered idolatry. However, Buddhist practices and world-concepts are in direct opposition to the Orthodox Jewish belief in a singular Divine providence. As I read Siddhartha, my idolatry radar failed to go off. What was wrong? I know enough about Buddhism to be uncomfortable around incense burning in front of a statue or the proclamation “In Buddha I find refuge.” Yet somehow I looked beyond the differences to find that there were many similarities. After all, it is the Jewish belief that we are all infused with a soul, pure and perfect. We all have a place in the World to Come. We are all “spiritual beings on a human journey,” as Stephen Covey contends. There are other similarities as well. The need to know more, the importance of having a chaver (friend), and the mental and spiritual benefit found within meditation and prayer are organic to both cultures. Pirkei Avot (Chapters of the Fathers) 1:6 reads: “Make for you a teacher.” This implies that one must take an active role in creating a mentor. Our perspectives are not enough. Jewish thought encourages collaborative learning and guidance. Siddhartha’s journey in search for nirvana took him to the far reaches of the world, to the Buddha himself. Ultimately, Siddhartha found guidance in the lessons of the river he made his teacher. My socialization allowed me to identify aspects of Siddhartha’s life, make sense of it, and make it my own.
My last destination on this literary journey takes me to Zora Neal Hurston, a celebrated African American writer, who eloquently expressed in her essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” what she carries in her pekeleh, and in the process, provides a unique glimpse of her attitude toward life. She seems untouched by her color; her identity is purposefully created by choice, and she is able to withstand anything. But if you look carefully at the contents of her brown bag that she gently removes at the end of her essay, we get a glimpse of her sensitivity: “old shoes saved for a road that never was and never will be, a nail bent under the weight of things too heavy for any nail, a dried flower or two still a little fragrant.” We all have a pekeleh that we take with us—our baggage. Zora is careful to keep her shoe—one never knows—and we must remain hopeful, her nail is bent—not broken—keeping its identity, and the wilted flower is still fragrant. So as a tribute to Zora and to prepare for the next leg of my journey, I will add an old shoe, a bent nail and a fragrant flower to my pekeleh, because in spite of our different socializations, literature also has the power to create empathy.