The Shock of Enlightenment
Bride of the Sabbath.
by Samuel Ornitz.
Rinehart. 410 pp. $3.75.
For certain Jewish intellectuals, the crucial aspect of their relation to the East Side ghetto of their childhood was the shock of emancipation from it. And it is not fair to read their later writing without some sense of participation in the world that opened up when the doors of the cheder were shut and the restrictions of “Baba” (Ornitz’s transliteration) eluded. It must have been a stirring experience to grow up in the warm orbit of the fervent and uncomplicated Marxism of the early part of this century; and it must have been a fillip to self-esteem to feel oneself an active part of the Enlightenment.
But just this quite natural self-esteem causes trouble for a writer like Samuel Ornitz. He apparently cannot recover from his surprise that the commendable cheder boy, who once satisfied Rebbe and grandmother, has become an American novelist with a philosophy that encompasses Freud, Shakespeare, and class struggle.
Is it wrong to exercise this constant incredulity about one’s own accomplishments by a little forthright exhibitionism? Mr. Ornitz’s Saal Kramer not only “doted on his people’s customs and folklore and delighted in the wit and poetry of Yiddish, adorned with Hebrew’s most brilliant gems,” but eventually took in “five Bernard Shaw plays in one season”!
Bride of the Sabbath is a bargain, two books in one: the story of Saal’s rise from the confinement of Hester Street orthodoxy to the breadth of Tolstoyan Christianity, and, parenthetically, an education as well in anti-Semitism, assimilationism, pimpism, and a great many other social phenomena. Mr. Ornitz also translates innumerable Yiddish phrases and sometimes does a neat job with an American colloquialism: e.g., “dead pan (expressionless face).”
He sees knowledge as a fruitless but treacherous wilderness that he has had to conquer without the aid of a map. That is why he so welcomes anything in the form of an interpretation, a pattern, that might organize the unruly fragments for others. When he mentions the intergroup name-calling that took place on the East Side, he finds it helpful to remember that the Mexicans in the Southwest were also called “greasers” as they were deprived of their land. A description of Saal as a child with peyes and token prayer shawl immediately conjures up the vision of another little fellow identically dressed, “in Whose Name the pogroms would be called.” And a Jewish boy’s reluctance to initiate a Jewish girl sexually bears involved cultural connotations: “For this would be acting like a Christian who for so long had the right to ravish her, just as a Southerner once could take any Negro girl without fear of the law, because a black’s word would not be taken against a white’s any more than a Jew’s against a Christian’s which makes a farce out of The Merchant of Venice. . . .” Do you get the whole picture? Mr. Ornitz is clearing the path so that we may reach his point of enlightenment without so much kopweh (woe of the head).
But to describe Ornitz cutting a comic figure as popular educator is not the last word. Both his book and his personality bear the stamp of the American ghetto’s vigor and resourcefulness, and one can read Bride of the Sabbath simply to enjoy the East Side’s physical presence. Ornitz remembers precisely the foods on the stands, the odors of hallways, the inventive chatter of the women. The book may even be worth looking at just for Ornitz’s English, which is a rare phenomenon, blending the new scientific jargon and the old ghetto rhythms, full of egregious mistakes, but mellifluent and irrepressible. This language must have been the despair of the Rinehart editors, who have left disingenuous” for “ingenious,” “perpetuate” for “perpetrate,” “sociology” for “social work.” It is a use of English which has by now almost disappeared from our speech, though it crops up occasionally (and hauntingly) at businessmen’s conventions, in political oratory, in the formulations of toastmasters and after-dinner speakers like Harry Hershfield and George Jessel.
The sentimentality of Bride of the Sabbath stems from Ornitz’s failure to realize that his memory of the East Side exists almost entirely on the sensual level. The intellectual and spiritual content of Jewish orthodoxy was determinedly rejected by his generation, but Ornitz seems to have embraced the atmosphere of piety with all the greater insistence. Thus Baba is invoked either as a saint or as a bore, but is never discovered as herself; and Saal eventually marries an Irish girl who, by virtue of her small clean physique and unwavering devotion to the Catholic Church, turns out to be nothing more nor less than a Baba-image. Possibly it was so difficult for Saal to see his family, especially its women, with any detachment because he sees only the vainglorious image of himself in their eyes, as they tried to hold on to him and he moved beyond their reach.
It is obvious that Mr. Ornitz’s imagination is fixated on that proud moment of liberation. But we may guess from his need to limit himself in his freedom, to circumscribe his learning, to return to the known, what a rude transition he must have been making to the new secular culture. Thus, whenever the question of anti-Semitism is raised, he is quick to remind us that Christ was also a Jew, ex nostris—as if any affinity between Jew and Gentile could only issue from membership in the same family. And this insularity, much harder to shed than any orthodox dogma, colors his whole concept of Jewish-Gentile relations, vitiating by bad taste what might otherwise have been an admirably unrestrained belligerence. In this as in so much else, he retains the East Side’s dread of alien terrain, its demand that the world be seen always in familiar terms.