Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing.
first person / culture

In the Dark All Katz Are Grey: Notes on Jewish Nostalgia

Searching for where I belong, I find myself cobbling together a mongrel Judaism—half-remembered and contradictory and all mine.
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And now the twist: the history I’m nostalgic for isn’t even my history. My people came from Germany, starting well before the Civil War. We didn’t even come through New York—we came through Charleston and wound up in Kansas City. We were the Germans who formed new synagogues so we didn’t have to sit in the same shul as the Eastern Europeans, who dismissed Yiddish as the demotic of bumpkins, who fell all over ourselves to assimilate. We never summered in the Catskills. I was the first person in my family to become bar mitzvah in generations. No one in my family ever spoke Yiddish—at least not fluently.

I could be nostalgic for my specific historical patrimony (or matrimony), of which there is plenty. The German Jews gave America blue jeans, half of the publishing houses in New York, MGM, the Guggenheim—heck, we gave this country condoms. But no. Instead, in searching for where I belong, I find myself cobbling together a Judaism out of half-remembered stories and vanished foods and demolished resorts and songs I can’t understand. A mongrel Judaism, syncretic and porous and contradictory and all mine.

And to my mind, that’s the most Jewish thing of all.

For the Yiddish word for “nostalgia” is benkshaft, which essentially means “longing.” This is fitting. The specifically (if not uniquely) Jewish mode of nostalgia does take the form of longing, but it is a longing for something we were very likely not alive for. This is what happens when you are scattered across the world for millennia.

Nostalgia is a slippery thing. If anything it is a symptom of mission creep. Jews in particular are such creatures of our own past—by the stories we are ordered to tell and retell—that as a people we are Benjamin’s angel of history, blown backwards into the future, the past a “pile of debris rising skyward” before us. And we, surely, have amassed a higher pile than any other people on earth. It is not that we have suffered more, only that we have kept better records. This isn’t to say that Jews are nostalgic for the Bad Times—rather, that our absorption with them sets the tone for how we interact with all artifacts of the past, whether they are 2,000 years gone or twenty. We mourn with equal grief the deaths of Yiddish (or Ladino) and the destruction of the second temple.
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