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December 19, 2014 9:03 am

The Judaism of Paul Celan

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avatar by Jeremy Rosen

Paul Celan. Photo: Wiki Commons.

There are Jews who think, write, paint, and compose. But are they Jewish artists? To be an example of a bicultural person I believe one needs to have a degree of knowledge and respect for both cultures. Is it possible to draw any line that is not arbitrary?

A random selection will illustrate what a fool’s errand it is. Spinoza was born Jewish, but he rejected Judaism and thought Christianity was the only true religion. Felix Mendelssohn’s parents converted to Christianity; so did Karl Marx’s.

In contrast I would argue that Kafka and Freud would be examples of cultural icons who contributed enormously to Western literature and thought and who were born Jewish but did not live a Jewish life or express any overtly Jewish ideas in their writings. But they tried in different ways to articulate both an interest in and a commitment to Judaism in its widest sense – something that the others mentioned above did not.

Husserl was a philosopher who had a profound influence on me, but he says nothing of significance about Judaism or Jewish thought. Emil Fackenheim and Emmanuel Levinas, in particular, come to mind as Jewish philosophers. I should confess that Levinas’ philosophy does not resonate with me. However he certainly combined the rational with the use of Talmudic themes and narratives. On the other hand, I can find nothing Jewish in Derrida at all.

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If I were to look for an example of a Jew who said something innovative about Judaism and contributed to mainstream Western culture, Martin Buber comes to mind. Indeed, aside from him I cannot think of a modern Jewish philosopher who, regardless of other talents and contributions, has come up with any really innovative ideas. Those I have read might be good apologists or commentators, but they are either derivative or still use Maimonides as their starting point (which is like trying to fly with an Aristotelian cannonball attached to one’s foot). But that’s a pet peeve to develop some other time. Harold Pinter would be an example of a Jew who repudiated anything Jewish, and the great American triumvirate of Bellow, Malamud, and Roth were Jewish only in reaction.

These thoughts on biculturalism have been occasioned by reading “Western Art and Jewish presence in the work of Paul Celan” by Esther Cameron. He and she deserve to be more widely known and read. Her book is an exciting discourse on the interaction of western culture with Jewish experience. Where does Paul Celan fit into my matrix? He was born in a deeply Jewish German-speaking Czernowitz. His parents and the rest of his family were murdered by the Nazis. He survived. After the war he moved to France and turned his back on Jewish life.

He chose to write in the language used by the most evil and debased of peoples as they murdered while professing commitment to Western culture. It was his way of engaging directly with them, confronting them in their own language. His repeated refrain is “Damen und Herren”- “Ladies and Gentlemen” – addressed to those who are not. Just as the Orthodox world has defied Hitler by refusing to disappear and reproduces in greater numbers, so Celan faces his audiences in German and defies them with his very voice and existence.

His Jewishness is unavoidable throughout his work. In one of his poems he mentions Vitebsk, the Star of David, the letters Aleph and Yud, the Ghetto, and Eden. His range is incredible. But the real power of his poetry is his anger and pain. His howl of agony against the Almighty reflects the ancient Jewish struggle with God and the cruelty and incomprehensibility of life. He rejects the concept of resurrection for humans or humanity, as well anything that offers false comfort or hope. He struggles with everything around him and tries, like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, to engage his audience in his odyssey of agony.

Incidentally, I do not understand why he chose to meet Heidegger. Esther Cameron suggests a comparison with Jacob’s struggle with the Angel who stands in for Esau as the emblem of the eternal hatred that Jews have and always will have to contend with. That is our fate.

This is not an easy book to read. But it is worth the struggle. It pays tribute to a tragic but brilliant multi-cultured Jew whose life was intertwined with his love of ideas and culture despite the failure of so many to rise to the moral standards that they were called to. Their failure might have been too much for him to bear, but his legacy remains.

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