Last November, Sarah Palin spoke to Barbara Walters about the expansion of settlements in Jerusalem: “That population of Israel is going to grow…I don’t think the Obama administration has any right to tell Israel that the Jewish settlements cannot expand.” Israel makes such strange bedfellows. We Jews in America find ourselves building alliances with politicians whose wish is to corral us into the Holy Land, so the Messiah can return, and we sinners may repent or die.
We are stuck between supporters waiting for the rapture and the more temporally pressing threats of nuclear weapons in Iran and that country’s support for organizations that want Israel out of the picture, not that they acknowledge its existence anyway. Our chances don’t look good; we can’t catch a break. And then along comes an epic about the last Jew on earth and the future looks even bleaker. Only, it’s not the future. This is a pre-9/11 vision of a post-apocalypse.
Joshua Cohen’s massive novel (824 pages), Witz: The Story of the Last Jew on Earth (Dalkey Archive) has been released to the jaw-dropped awe of some critics. They marvel at its size, its density, and its intentional inaccessibility. They talk of the gory absurdity of its plot and its Borscht-Beltian sense of humor. That humor is there; lawyers at a wedding ask the bride and groom who will be handling the divorce. And the novel is absurd and gory with bodies piling up at every turn. But to focus on this is to ignore the novel’s pleasant reflection of an unpleasant reality. Indeed, the book would be unreadable if it weren’t so funny, and it would be even funnier if it weren’t so serious.
The novel begins in a “Joysey” housing development in what Israel, the ill-fated lawyer patriarch of the Israelien family, calls “Siburbia.” Israel’s pregnant wife, Hanna, and 12 daughters are preparing for a Shabbat dinner that turns out to be a semi-last supper. Ben Israelien is born, full-grown and bris-less. His mother and sisters die. It turns out that a plague has come to the chosen people, but Ben stays alive and well.
The government, referred to ominously as the “Shade administration,” sets up camp on Ellis Island to study the diminishing population of “the affiliated,” and things only get worse from there. Garden, Inc. runs the island as a cruise ship cum concentration camp, if that isn’t redundant. Judaism becomes a fad for the gentiles witnessing the inexplicable holocaust and Ben becomes a celebrity. He can’t take the pressure and goes on the run. After all, the kid never truly entered the covenant anyway. He didn’t know his mother well enough. He’s not cut out for this.
Witz is structured simultaneously as sermon, biblical allegory, and, more importantly, as its title (in Yiddish) winkingly suggests, a joke. Its final chapter, “Punchlines,” is a free-associative summing up, which includes a meta moment of anti-about-the-author in its last lines: “My father was a Cohen and his father was a Cohen and his father before that was a Cohen it’s steady work [sic].” With this, the author offers a comment on the inevitability of the Jewish novelist becoming a “Jewish Novelist,” above all else.
Of course, becoming a Jewish novelist has its share of disadvantages. A person with the handle “Yitzy” commented on a blog post [http://www.jewcy.com/post/joshua_cohen_might_kick_your_ass] about Witz, asking, “Is this ‘writer’ aware of a little thing called the holocaust?” Another poster defended the memory of his holocaust-surviving father against what he saw as Cohen’s offensive title. Yitzy later declared, “Not even Philip Roth would have written something so vile!”
Yitzy’s not wrong. Witz is vile; it is hilariously, outrageously, thoughtfully, and unapologetically vile in a way that Philip Roth in his best masturbation fantasy could never be. What is viler than dentists in Witz fantasizing about sodomizing a shiksa patient’s nasal cavity? Perhaps nothing. However, hypocrisy and ugliness have nowhere to hide in Witz. Jews have been persecuted and marginalized everywhere and by everyone since the beginning of time. In Witz, the imminent destruction of the chosen people is what it takes for Jews to get some respect around here, and isn’t it so true?
This adventurous, erudite novel emphasizes the absurdity of the alignment of “Judeo-Christian” values espoused by Palin and her Fox News compatriots. And while this alignment may not pose as grave a threat to Israel and to Jews as Iran and Hamas, the bellicose posturing doesn’t make us any safer either.