Michael Chabon Fights Judaism, and Loses
Invited to speak at Hebrew Union College’s commencement ceremony, the novelist Michael Chabon took the opportunity not only to attack Zionism—and especially the Jewish residents of Hebron—but also to advocate for intermarriage and to express his dissatisfaction with Judaism itself, which strikes him as a “giant interlocking system of distinctions and divisions.” Nothing, Chabon began and ended his speech by saying, is worse than distinctions and divisions, except perhaps “the erection of border walls and separation barriers.” In a thorough dissection of the oration, Elli Fischer writes:
Chabon expresses discomfort with “monocultural places” with “one language, one religion,” but the application of these words to Judaism is simply astonishing. Virtually every Jewish community in history has developed its own dialect. There are five Judeo-Arabic dialects alone. There is a dizzying variety of Jewish culture and multiform expressions of Jewish religiosity. Chabon, however, has no access to this amazing, diversity because he speaks no Jewish language. . . .
Chabon writes “I ply my craft in English, that most magnificent of creoles,” as if speaking English, with all its layers and loan words, makes one multilingual all by itself. Perhaps sensing this, he adds: “my personal house of language is haunted by the dybbuk of Yiddish.” Alas, it is a small dybbuk . . . and not very frightening. . . . Consequently, even as Chabon celebrates even the most superficial cross-cultural fusion, the Judaism he describes is suburban, third-generation American Judaism, a monolingual, monocultural, monochromatic (but not necessarily monotheistic) sliver of the totality of Jewish experience.
Chabon singles out the Shabbat eruv for ridicule three times in his speech. For him, an eruv is just another boundary, another way for Jews to mark who is in and who is out. But the word eruv literally means “mixture” or “combination.” The legal theory behind it is that many private and semiprivate domains can be combined into a single household so that one may carry things from one to another on Shabbat. Creating an eruv involves negotiation with all those, including non-Jews and nonobservant Jews, who share that space. The “walls” of the eruv are, in fact, generally not walls at all. They [consist] only of posts and wires, on the premise that two posts with a lintel form a doorway. The eruv circumscribes a community with walls that are entirely doors. . . .
The very idea of a wall made of doors undermines Chabon’s dichotomies. . . . Instead, all Chabon sees, all he wants to see, is that the eruv divides the inside from the outside and is therefore abhorrent; living in an eruv and living in Hebron—it’s all the same. No need to make distinctions.