Yiddish Borderlands Literature.

Anna Elena Torres writes for In geveb about her seminar “Yiddish Poetics of the Border”:

This past spring, I taught a new course at the University of Chicago exploring Yiddish literature of the borderlands. Titled “Language is Migrant: Yiddish Poetics of the Border,” the course featured Yiddish writing in contact with Spanish, Russian, Hebrew, German, and other languages. As I wrote in the syllabus:

“What and where are the borders of Yiddish? How do the ‘borders’ of the Yiddish language shape its poetics? And how has Yiddish literature informed the development of other world literatures through contact and translation? This course aims to think with contemporary theories of the border/borderlands during our literary exploration of Yiddishland, as we listen more deeply to the hum of Yiddish etymology. As a diasporic language unattached to a single nation, Yiddish has long been constructed as subversively internationalist or cosmopolitan, raising questions about the relationship between language and the state, vernacularity and statelessness.”

As a field, Yiddish Studies often emphasizes the internationalism of its subject, focusing on the volatile trajectories of language and culture across borders. Rather than these narratives of travel and cultural mobility, I became interested in examining the particularities of life and language within Yiddish borderlands, the peripheral spaces where the idea of the state inscribes itself most viscerally.

For our opening session, I introduced some ways that geographical and linguistic borders are discussed in Yiddish. The first-day materials included a vocabulary list of border terms, shading gradations of meaning between grenetz, geyder, rand, and the phrase ganvenen di grenetsn (to steal the border). We then read Yankev Glatshteyn’s puckish poem “Zing Ladino” (Sing Ladino), a macaronic text that makes merry with linguistic components and presses the sounds of Esperanto, Arabic, and others upon Yiddish.

Zing Ladino” is a rich text for introducing the concepts of diasporic language, Jewish utopianism, reciprocal word borrowings, and komponentn-visikeyt (component consciousness, the Yiddish speaker’s awareness of the provenance of the language’s varied elements). We returned to “Zing Ladino” later in the semester when we read Monique R. Balbuena’s article “Dibaxu: A Comparative Analysis of Clarisse Nicoïdski’s and Juan Gelman’s Bilingual Poetry.” Gelman, an Ashkenazi Argentinian poet, wrote the bilingual book Dibaxu in both Spanish and Ladino, the Sephardic exilic language derived from Old Spanish. Balbuena describes the poet’s self-Sephardization as a political process: “Gelman proceeds backwards in an exploration of the Spanish language and arrives at Ladino as a way of rejecting a limited and oppressive national identity—that of an Argentina controlled by a military dictatorship. To write his exile and express his deterritorialized, decentered identity, Gelman instead writes in a minor and diasporic language, one of a culture created without a State.” Gelman’s poetry thus thematizes Max Weinreich’s insight on the presence and retention of Jewish words into non-Jewish languages: “Surely, we may draw conclusions from the facts that Jewish words penetrated into the language of the non-Jewish population on the Iberian Peninsula. […] Most interesting is desmazalado (unlucky), which has found its way even into Cervantes. To be sure, Cervantes was born fifty-odd years after the Expulsion, but Jews must have left the word; only people could be expelled, not their impact.” Their words persist after the desmazalados’ exile. Weinreich notes that “similar formations are found among so many nations that have Jews in their midst: kakomazalos (ill-starred) in Greek, Schlamassel (mess) in German, ślamazarny (negligent, slovenly) in Polish.” Reading Glatshteyn, Gelman, and Weinreich together illuminates the kinship between their language politics and linguistic melancholy.

There’s lots of good stuff there; it ends with a discussion of “Clarice Lispector, the iconic Brazilian novelist whose first language was Yiddish, and Bruno Schulz, the Polish prose writer and painter whose work was profoundly informed by his friend, Yiddish poet Dvoyre Fogel.” Thanks, Jonathan!


  1. David Marjanović says

    Schlamassel (mess) in German

    That one is thought to be compounded with schlimm, which means “bad” of disasters and “naughty” of children.

  2. John Cowan says

    Slight complaint (not your fault, of course, Hat) at “a language unattached to a single nation”. Yiddish has a nation, what’s salient is that it’s stateless. For that matter, English is unattached (fortunately) to a single nation.

    As for shlimazel, it is transparently < schlimm mazel, the same word as in mazel tov!

  3. @john:

    the question of whether it makes sense or is useful to think of yiddish-speakers as a “nation” (leaving aside the overlapping but rather distinct versions of the questions applied to all jews as a group) is a pretty intensely contested one, and has been ever since nationalism as a political project was invented in europe.

    a lot of torres’ work focuses on writers and thinkers who argued against using the category of nation for ourselves. she focuses on anarchists (for many decades the most widespread political movement among secular yiddish-speakers) and the large group we can think of as anarchist-adjacent.

    but the same position is widespread among traditionally observant folks past and present (here’s torres on yankev-meir zalkind, who was both an anarchist and a traditionally observant rabbi: https://ingeveb.org/articles/the-anarchist-sage-der-goen-anarkhist).

    and in the veltlekhe sphere, the difference in approaches to rejecting the idea of a yiddish nation is part of what defines the line between anti-nationalist radicals (especially small-c and large-C communists like roza luxemburg, lev bronstein/trotsky) and liberals (and socialists, especially after 1914). the former reject nations as a valid category for anyone (with large-C communists reinstating it in the stalin era); the latter see yiddish jews as members of territorially-defined national groups based more or less on state borders (i.e. as yiddish-speaking hungarians, romanians, russians, argentinians, australians, etc).

    within the yiddish world, up to 1939 these non-nationhood-oriented groups combined solidly outnumbered the nationhood-oriented yiddish jews of the Bund, shimen dubnow’s Folks-partey, the yiddishist-territorialists, etc (and that constellation of yiddish-nation folks likely outnumbered zionists among yiddish speakers).

    but regardless of the demographics, to talk about borders, migration, and refugees in a yiddish context – as torres does so well! – it’s very much the live question of nationhood that’s at issue, just as much as the context of statelessness.

  4. Thanks for that very useful comment.

  5. thank *you*!
    as i glanced at it again, i noticed some missing words:
    in the first paragraph, “…and has BEEN ever since…”
    in the second “…argued AGAINST…”

    ah, well…

  6. Just for you, I added them in.

  7. John Cowan says

    I didn’t mean to say that Yiddish-speakers are a nation; the thought of such a thing never entered my head. I was saying that Yiddish is associated with the unquestionably-existent Jewish nation. And I think this is true even though (a) many Jews don’t speak Yiddish, (b) some non-Jews do speak Yiddish, and (c) “who is a Jew?”, that is, the boundaries of the nation, is a vexed question (the same is true for every nation).

    My mother and father were Trotskyists and American citizens (one by birth, one by naturalization), but they never denied that they were Irish and German respectively. Of course, some people don’t have nations: my Californian friend whose known ancestry reaches back only to Kansas City (his surname is not readily assignable anywhere), or the foreigner in Russia, where he was asked by many “What is your nationality?” The only replies he could meaningfully give were “Moravian” (“No, that is religion!”) and “Canadian” (“No, that is citizenship!”).

  8. Russian ethnography would say that said Canadian with confused ethnic identity belongs to the following nationality:

    ANGLO-CANADIANS, one of the two main peoples of Canada. The population is about 10.73 million people, of which 10 million are in Canada. They also live in Great Britain, the USA, etc. They speak Canadian English. There are dialects. Most of the believers belong to the Protestant United Church of Canada and the Anglican Church of Canada, there are Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists, adherents of other Protestant churches and sects, about a third are Catholics.

    Anglo-Canadians were formed by the integration of immigrant groups who entered Canada from Europe and then from the United States during the 16th and 20th centuries. (originally English, Scots, Irish, Welsh, with a small number of Germans and Dutch, and later numerous other groups). The first settlers appeared on the island of Newfoundland, then (after the capture of the French colony of Acadia by Great Britain in 1713) in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and other Atlantic regions. After the British conquered the New France colony (1763), a new stream of immigrants from the British Isles poured in there. During the 1775-1783 War of Independence in North America, about 40,000 loyalists (supporters of the mother country) moved to Canada from the United States; some of them occupied the area of ​​the upper reaches of the St. Lawrence River, which had not been previously settled by European colonists, laying the foundation for the colony of Upper Canada (the future province of Ontario). The merger of British, Scottish, Irish and other immigrants into a new single ethnic community was ensured by the mixed nature of the settlement, as well as by the fact that most of them had a common language, but was slowed down by cultural diversity, the continuous renewal of the population due to new immigrants, and close economic and cultural ties with the mother country and opportunities for widespread settlement throughout the country. In the course of capitalist development, the Anglo-Canadian ethnic community has consolidated into a nation, but retains a significant ethnic diversity and continues to replenish due to the assimilation of transitional and immigrant groups of British, German, Italian, Ukrainian, Czechoslovak, Scandinavian and other origin.

    The traditional culture of the Anglo-Canadians is close to the English. In the old cities of the Maritime provinces, the architectural landscape of the English type has been preserved. English-type kinship system. American influence is strong in modern culture.

    Certain groups of Anglo-Canadians retain the features of the layout of a rural dwelling, elements of traditional food, some folk customs and festivals of European origin (for example, the celebration of the day of St. Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland); distinct Canadian folklore also developed (legends of lumberjacks, ballads). However, elements of folk culture are rapidly disappearing under the influence of urbanized culture.

  9. John Cowan says

    Very big oops: for “Moravian” read “Mennonite”, which changes everything.

    Mennonites decidedly have not merged into the Canadian mainstream: indeed, some of them, like the Amish (who are also Mennonites) in the U.S., keep out of “the West” altogether. They arrived in several waves: from Switzerland in the 1770s, from Russia in the 1870s (most of these “Dutch”), in 1917 from the U.S., from the USSR in the 1920s, and from Europe as a whole in the late 1940s. Many individuals have come since from the U.S., Mexico, and Paraguay. But each wave merged into the previous wave and did not become Anglo-Canadians. They have also fractionated religiously in the way of Mennonites everywhere: “you attend your church, I’ll attend mine, and we’ll both boycott that son of a bitch up on the hill”. But they are all Mennonites and not “the English”.

    More details here, though still no link to the first-person account.

  10. @languagehat: many thanks! much appreciated!


    my point, partly, was that all these positions (a yiddish nation; a jewish nation; neither) were – and in many ways remain – strongly held by different groups, and highly contested, with the early 20thC (christian reckoning) a period when the debates were very public and explicit.

    i think we may be talking past each other a little here, though.

    i, like the participants in those debates, am making a very strong distinction between a basically social (or maybe anthropological?) notion of peoplehood, which is flexible enough to be applied over a wide historical and geographical expanse, and the political idea of nationhood that emerges in early modern christian europe and takes hold more broadly over the course of the 19thC.

    jewish communities have had rather complicated relationships to both categories.

    they(we)’ve generally understood themselves (ourselves) to be at once one people [all jews, with some varying and fuzzy borders in the direction of karaim, samaritans, sabbateans, etc], and a cluster of different peoples defined by linguistic, ritual/liturgical, and historical-geographic differences [sefardim; persian jews (i don’t remember an endonym); bene israel; juhuri; krymchaks; etc. – i’m not listing ashenazim here because it’s meant totally different things at different times and i think at this point the category’s well beyond incoherent].

    but nationhood has been much less generally accepted as relevant among jews (in very much the way that daniel boyarin has described with the category of religion) until zionism achieved its now (finally!) crumbling hegemony after the nazi attempted genocide.

    but within the spheres that did, there was deep disagreement over what nation they were talking about. zionists and non-yiddishist territorialists proposed a jewish nation; bundists and the followers of dubnow, zhitlovsky, &c (i don’t know a good overarching term for this cluster) advocated the idea of a yiddish nation; the yiddishist territorialists more or less thought the two ideas weren’t contradictory and liked both fine. i don’t know of other jewish nationalisms parallel to the yiddish one in sefardi, persian, or other communities, though there was a thin scattering of zionists across much of the jewish world by the 1930s (and a stronger presence in northern/western european sefardi communities).

    and, as you implied, there was some slippiness between the ideas of a yiddish and a jewish nation, especially before before the attempted genocide, when the vast majority of jews were yiddish-speakers. the famous debate at the Czernowitz Conference on yiddish in 1908 is the locus classicus. the main subject was whether yiddish should be considered “the” or “a” “national language of the /yidish folk/” – a framing laid out by a nationalist (zhitlovsky) and a non-nationalist (birnboym), that didn’t either commit to or reject nationhood as opposed to peoplehood. in yiddish, of course, “yidish folk” is itself ambiguous, and can mean either “the jewish people” or “the yiddish people”. this article has more…

    the “who is a jew” question in its contemporary forms, however, is a result of zionism and the boundary-drawing needs of its nation-oriented political project. in earlier periods, the only meaningful definition of jewishness was membership in a local (town- or congregation-scale) jewish community, which would almost never in practice be challenged by members of other communities (perhaps only if a difference became relevant for a marriage). the boundaries varied verrrry widely, to some extent along the lines of large-scale ritual/liturgical divisions (minhogim), depending on which ritual authorities a community accepted as relevant. and this more or less translated into veltlekhe jewish communities as well, in ways that make sense of things like rudolf rocker (a yiddish-speaking anarchist of non-jewish origins) being referred to as the “rabbi” of the london east end anarchists – he was accepted as a member of that jewish community, and had the teacher/theoretical-authority role for many within it…

  11. PlasticPaddy says

    Is bundualgas polaitiúil ar gach saoránach bheith dílis don náisiún agus tairiseach don Stát.
    This is from the irish constitution (1937) and specifies a basic duty for each citizen of fidelity to the nation and loyalty to the State. The nation is specified first, but i do not know what if any significance this has. It is true in general that the Irish wording takes precedence over the English. So the question is then whether the duties can conflict, given the precise meaning in Irish. I am not aware that anyone has tried to test this, as the interested defendants generally refuse to recognise the “Free State” courts’ legitimacy.

  12. John Cowan says

    peoplehood … nationhood

    I am using nation in the sense that you use people. Nation in your sense appears to me to be a term looking for a referent, although of course matters are different in different languages: what is it that we shall call by the sacred name of nation, having rejected ‘people’ and ‘state’ as meanings for it?

    I note that in and around Chicago the Folk Nation are an alliance of street gangs who use neo-Nazi and satanist symbolism — but also the Star of David and other six-ish things like dice and the numeral 6. Their adversaries, the People Nation, use the pentacle/pentagram, other five-ish things, and the leftward direction, as well as inverting the symbols of the Folk Nation.

    attempted genocide

    Use what term you will, but the international community uses genocide thus: “[…] characterised by the specific intent to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnic, racial or religious group by killing its members or by other means: causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; or forcibly transferring children of the group to another group” (emphasis mine).

    the only meaningful definition of jewishness was membership in a local (town- or congregation-scale) jewish community

    I think that this is the definition of nationality altogether, neglecting the question of size: you are a Foovian if you say you are a Foovian and other Foovians say the same. What happens when the two disagree? That’s a question.

    “who is a jew” […] is a result of zionism

    I don’t think that’s entirely fair. The Nazis wanted and made a definition first, and the Israeli position became “Jewish enough to be persecuted, Jewish enough to be a citizen of Israel.” Consequently, my wife and I have Law of Return rights even though I am no Jew and she is not a halakhic Jew, for the Nazis would not have left either of us alive. (We’re staying in the goldeneh medina, thanks.)

    In addition, a great deal of “who is a Jew” today is a result of Haredi stringency inflation, which would still exist even without Zionism.

    the “rabbi” of the london east end anarchists

    In the NYPD, every aspiring officer needs a rabbi even if the rabbi’s name is O’Shaughnessy and the aspirant’s name is Nasser.

  13. I always wondered what would happen if one drop rule was reversed.

    Specifically, what if ethnic Russians were defined the same way as Jews are defined by Israeli state?

    There would be suddenly an awful lot of Russians for sure.

  14. John Cowan says

    50% in my wife’s case (but on the wrong side), 0% in my own case.

  15. January First-of-May says

    you are a Foovian if you say you are a Foovian and other Foovians say the same

    One problem with this definition is what happens if you say you are a Foovian and there are no other Foovians around to contradict you (usually because the ethnicity is otherwise long extinct). This had happened, for example, with Hittites.

    (I suspect that most of the people claiming they’re hobbits would agree that most of the other people claiming they’re hobbits qualify as hobbits, and ditto for most classes of furries, so that is less of a problem.)

    50% in my wife’s case (but on the wrong side), 0% in my own case.

    Being 50% Russian and 50% Jewish, I would be both; as it is, I’m neither, because the ancestry is on the wrong sides, and I’m not actually sure if I have any ethnicity.

    (I’ve considered Polish, because my last name looks kind of Polish; I’ve also considered Jewish, because I’ve seen photos of my maternal great-grandmother and she looked Jewish on them, though her name is entirely Russian. Realistically the answer is “I don’t know the genealogy well enough to tell”.)

  16. I’m not actually sure if I have any ethnicity.

    I look forward to the day when all of humanity can say this.

  17. John Cowan says

    I’m neither, because the ancestry is on the wrong sides

    What, Russianness is passed only through the father? I had no idea of that.

    I look forward to the day when all of humanity can say this.

    How can the loss of ethnicity be a Good Thing when the loss of languages is a Bad Thing? They are so clearly coupled, although of course not tightly coupled, as D.E. has shown us.

  18. I didn’t say I looked forward to the loss of ethnicity but “the day when all of humanity can say [I’m not actually sure if I have any ethnicity].” That’s perfectly compatible with speaking a particular language and enjoying particular foods; it just precludes the kind of iron-clad ethnonational self-identification that causes wars and pogroms.

  19. What, Russianness is passed only through the father? I had no idea of that.

    That used to be the Russian tradition. But it was broken in the Soviet Union where one could choose between father’s and mother’s ethnicity (if different).

    Information about ethnicity is no longer collected officially in Russia, censuses do ask for ethnicity, but it’s entirely self-declared.

    And even then, Russia’s census of 2010 recorded 5.6 million people who “did not indicate their ethnicity”.

    Perhaps they simply don’t know.

  20. J.W. Brewer says

    Why wouldn’t a Mennonite in a Soviet context give his ethnicity/”nation” as “German”? That’s an answer that makes perfect sense in the Russian/Soviet context and it’s not clear to me that it doesn’t make sense in the Canadian (or American) context. What is being contrasted with the “English” if not a specific insular subtype of Germanitude? (According to the internet as of the last Soviet census before dissolution, there were still around 2 million ethnic-Germans, only half of whom could actually speak some sort of German.)

  21. What, Russianness is passed only through the father? I had no idea of that.

    That used to be the Russian tradition.

    Are you sure? The Empire was interested only in somebody’s religion, not ethnicity or am I missing something? As far as I can tell, being Russian is not considered some sort of a privilege and anyone can be a Russian if they want to (but, of course, not a citizen of Russia). Now, if someone doesn’t live in Russia, doesn’t speak Russian, doesn’t socialize with Russians, have no Russian ancestry, is not interested in contemporary Russian anything then it would be preposterous to call them Russian. But if Hat, for example, decided to be a Russian, everyone would just congratulate him on that decision and move on. In other words, “other Foovians” are generally tend to agree. (Yes, I remember, in the bad old days Jews were singled out for special treatment)

  22. Why wouldn’t a Mennonite in a Soviet context give his ethnicity/”nation” as “German”?

    Seriously? I think you’ve taken “don’t mention the war” too much to heart.

  23. John Cowan says

    Why wouldn’t a Mennonite in a Soviet context give his ethnicity/”nation” as “German”?

    As you’ll see if you follow the link, the person in question is descended from Dutch Mennonites: indeed, Menne Simens, known to the Dutch and to history as Menno Simons, was Frisian. What is more, their family might have been in Danzig as early as 1530 and in Russia as early as 1791, but that didn’t make them either German or Russian. In any case, Danzig has always been a multicultural place: for one thing, it is the capital of Kashubia.

    It’s true that traditional Mennonites speak Plautdietsch, Eastern Low German with Dutch borrowings (sometimes in a diglossia with Standard German, like the Amish), but I doubt if our anonymous subject was traditional. Here’s WP.en’s attempt to do justice to all opinions:

    In contemporary 21st-century society, Mennonites are described either only as a religious denomination with members of different ethnic origins or as both an ethnic group and a religious denomination. There is controversy among Mennonites about this issue, with some insisting that they are simply a religious group while others argue that they form a distinct ethnic group. Historians and sociologists have increasingly started to treat Mennonites as an ethno-religious group, while others have begun to challenge that perception.

    There is also a discussion about the term “ethnic Mennonite”. Conservative Mennonite groups, who speak Pennsylvania German, Plautdietsch (Low German), or Bernese German [note: from widely separated places in the German-speaking lands] fit well into the definition of an ethnic group, while more liberal groups and converts in developing countries do not.

    In short, much the same story as the Jews, mutatis mutandis and over a shorter time period. So: Mennonite by religion, Canadian by citizenship, ??? by ethnicity/nationality.

    See also Rachel Dolezal, self-proclaimed transracial American.

  24. @John Cowan: Regardless of what she may have said after being found out, Rachel Dolezal had previously said plenty of things that can only be interpreted as intentionally misleading about her racial background.

  25. Yes, she’s a very poor example of anything beyond her own pathetic case.

  26. John Cowan says

    Oh yes: she lied, and she knew that she lied. She is interesting not as an individual but as a case of a clash between “I say I am an AA” and “AAs say I am not an AA.” Another case is “I say I am a woman; TERFs (who are women by anyone’s standard) say I am not a woman.” A counter-case is my daughter, whom nobody dares to call non-Hispanic even though she speaks no Spanish (in fact, she gets addressed in Spanish a lot).

    And yet another case is that of Sammy, who buys a yacht and tells his mother that now he’s a captain, she says, “By you you’re a captain, and by me you’re a captain, but Sammy, by captains are you a captain?”

  27. About Rachel Dolezal:

    Sometimes there’s an apparently simple motive for “passing,” as in the cases of George Herriman and Anatole Broyard, African Americans who parlayed their light skin into fortune. The sad case of Otto Weininger gave one subset of the phenomenon a name: the title of Theodor Lessing’s study of Weininger, Jüdischer Selbsthaß.

    But of course there are usually complexities within the simplicities. In 1930s Hollywood, for instance, the funny Marx Brothers could get away with being obviously Jewish but glamorous Leslie Howard couldn’t. For a near-recent case of interest to this thread, look up the career of Ingrid Rimland, Ukrainian Mennonite pacifist and latter-day (postwar!) convert to Nazism.

  28. John Cowan says

    When the Marx Brothers played the Palace, the absolute peak of NYC vaudeville, they were a flop — they weren’t Jewish enough.

  29. There are majority-imitators, who wish to blend in, and minority-imitators, who wish to stand out.

  30. In addition, a great deal of “who is a Jew” today is a result of Haredi stringency inflation

    I’d say, all of it.

  31. Y and John Cowan and others, don’t blame the Haredim — or rather, don’t blame only the Haredim. Marra B. Gad’s not-Jewish-enough experience has been with American Reform.


  32. Her experiences are intolerably awful. However, unless I missed something, she was not officially rejected as a Jew. On the other hand, in Israel the Rabbinical Haredi authorities are the first and last authorities on accepting or rejecting someone’s Jewishness, which is used to determine whether you can have Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, and whether you can marry another Jewish person in Israel. Among others, converts to Judaism through Reform or Conservative authorities are not accepted.

  33. @Jonathan Morse: While what she described sounds terrible, the racism she encountered is almost orthogonal to the problems surrounding “Who is a Jew?” Those problems are indeed almost entirely stirred up by the ultra-Orthodox. Living in America, the Haredi obnoxiousness is merely a minor annoyance, but for liminal Jews living in Israel, it can have major ramifications.

  34. John Cowan says

    In Israel the Rabbinical Haredi authorities are the first and last authorities on accepting or rejecting someone’s Jewishness, which is used to determine whether you can have Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return

    Fortunately that’s not the case. WP.en:

    On March 31, 2005, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled 7–4 that all conversions performed outside of Israel would be recognized by the authorities under the Law of Return, notwithstanding the Ne’eman Commission’s view that a single body should determine eligibility for immigration. The court had already ruled in 1989 that conversions performed outside of Israel were valid for the Law of Return (regardless of whether they were Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform). The 2005 ruling extended this, finding that overseas conversions were still valid even if the individuals did the preparatory work for the conversions while residing in Israel.

    Exceptions are Messianic Jews and voluntary converts to other religions, but Karaites are included.

    and whether you can marry another Jewish person in Israel

    That part is indeed true. My marriage, however, being valid in the U.S., would be valid in Israel as well, despite having been performed by a Unitarian.

  35. Yes, my bad.

  36. John Cowan says

    The part I find troubling is the title, although I realize it may not be authorial. “Our True Colors” implies that when people do or say bad things, that is what they really are, whereas when they do good things, that is a mere facade, if only an unconscious one. This is, as far as I am concerned, a sort of hyper-Puritanism not only inconsistent with Judaism but with many kinds of Christianity. Another aspect of it, which the author explicitly denies, is the very common notion that there can, or at least should, be no forgiveness: that the only repentance is perpetual repentance.

    I’m certainly familiar with “Is she/he yours?” about both my daughter (brown) and my grandson (black). Once, when my wife was pushing a friend’s kid (very very black) in his stroller, that question came up, and she answered “Absolutely!”

  37. David Marjanović says

    “Is she/he yours?”

    That’s the only part that shocked me; people walking up to random strangers to thank them for their military service, or even inquiring whether they served, seems like one thing, and people walking up to random strangers they’ll never see again to ask that question seems like another…

  38. David Eddyshaw says

    a sort of hyper-Puritanism not only inconsistent with Judaism but with many kinds of Christianity

    Inconsistent with simple observation. Bad people (shockingly) deliberately do good things. (From a Calvinist point of view, this is just as well, as we’re all bad people.)

    One of my favourite moments in Proust is a scene where the truly perfectly odious Verdurins are discussing the recent serious misfortunes of Saniette, who attends their salon and whom they mock mercilessly. The agree that they must do all they can to help him, but “nobody must ever know.”

  39. Yes, that’s excellent (and you’re making me want to reread Proust).

  40. About John Cowan’s

    The part I find troubling is the title, although I realize it may not be authorial. “Our True Colors” implies that when people do or say bad things, that is what they really are, whereas when they do good things, that is a mere facade, if only an unconscious one,

    this commercial for the “This is not who I am” gaslighted non-apology.


    This is who I am: I wish to brag about my Photoshop job.

  41. David Eddyshaw says

    Not, of course, a counterexample to JC’s point: breathtakingly hypocritical self-exculpating “apologies” do not count as bad people doing good things … (which nevertheless is a thing. Fortunately.)

    I agree that “that is not who I am” simply shows a refusal even to begin on the path of self-knowledge. Or repentance, come to that. Of course, the mirror-image “it’s who I am” is even worse: lacking even the hypocrisy paid as tribute to virtue by vice. (There is no hope for the smug.)

  42. John Cowan says

    Bad people (shockingly) deliberately do good things.

    But that’s not inconsistent. The view I’m objecting to is that only those who do nothing but good things can be treated as good people, and that a single bad action makes you perfectly odious: good deeds are hypocritical, an evil deed is self-revelatory. This is quite independent of the question of original sin.

    people walking up to random strangers they’ll never see again to ask that question

    When my grandson and I were sitting together on the subway a few years ago, a young woman, more or less of the same skin color as he, walked up to us and said to him “Who is that man?” Dorian was rather bewildered by this question, so I replied for him: “I’m his grandfather.” She said, “I don’t believe you!”, and then grabbed him by the hands and pushed his sleeves up, perhaps to see if his arms were bruised. I told her “Don’t touch him!”, and she left the train (but apparently got back on into another car.)

    A few stops later the train was stopped by the police, everyone had to get off, and we and she were questioned separately. I was asked if I had identification for him: no, because the only identification paper an 8-year-old would be likely to have was his birth certificate, and nobody carries that about. Next, where his parents were; I said I didn’t know exactly. Next, his mother’s or father’s phone number; I said my phone was dead, the truth being that I had forgotten both my phone and the number.

    Fortunately, Dorian told the police who I was and had his mother’s phone number memorized, so all was well. As we were waiting for the next train, a different cop told the young woman, “You just can’t make assumptions like that!” That was most likely white privilege, but I doubt if the young woman would have questioned us in the first place if I were black or female.

  43. David Eddyshaw says

    This is quite independent of the question of original sin.

    I agree, both with that and with your general point. (“Inconsistent” was echoing your words, not disagreeing with you.)

    In fact (and entirely tangential to your point) the doctrine of original sin, properly interpreted (i.e. by me) frees you from the fatuous spiral of wondering whether your (and others’) good actions were ultimately just self-serving attempts to look good or feel good about yourself, by rendering the entire question moot. So what?! It was a good action! Glory be to God! (Or, if you prefer, Have a nice day!)

  44. Assuming that (other) people who display a mixture of moral and immoral behavior are more basically immoral than moral is essentially just the second-order version of the fundamental attribution error* (FAE). The standard FAE is that people tend to evaluate other people’s actions as indicative of their underlying character, while they evaluate their own actions as exceptions dictated by circumstances. However, if you look more closely, you find that people also are also somewhat more likely to see immorality than morality they witness in others as demonstrating underlying character (and again, the reverse for themselves).

    * I types “fundament” into my search bar, and the first suggestion was “fundamental attribution error,” which is not something that I have, so far as I recall, searched for or read anything about online recently. Yet somehow, once again, Google knew exactly where I was goin.

  45. JC: A nightmarish story. Poor you & Dorian.

  46. David Marjanović says

    JC: A nightmarish story. Poor you & Dorian.


    the fatuous spiral of wondering whether your (and others’) good actions were ultimately just self-serving attempts to look good or feel good about yourself

    …but… …feeling good about myself, or just not bad about myself, is a perfectly fine motivation for doing good…?

  47. Sure, but not if you have a grim “Puritan” mentality in which feeling good is probably bad.

  48. PlasticPaddy says

    @dm, hat
    Hat, you may be being a tiny bit unfair to DE????. I understand his censure to be for the people whose goodness is of the whited sepulchre kind, say industrialists who become greatly enriched by exploitative practices and then are photographed receiving adulation for their very public charitable actions. DM, I agree that feeling good is a valid motivation, and, it could be argued, the only one, for performing disinterested acts.

  49. Good heavens, I didn’t have DE in mind at all! But you probably knew that, hence the smiley.

  50. David Eddyshaw says

    Proud to have a Grim Puritan Mentality©!

    feeling good about myself, or just not bad about myself, is a perfectly fine motivation for doing good…

    Absolutely. Please carry on …

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