If you want to read an example of a really good essay, go here, to Jay Michaelson’s piece on the ongoing death of Israeli democracy. Let me tell you why it’s a terrific essay.

First of all, it’s very short, but within that concision Michaelson brilliantly, elegantly, and with dramatic – even poetic – flair, conveys his argument. An essay is “a short piece of writing on a particular subject,” says the first dictionary definition I get when I Google “meaning of the word ‘essay.'” The best essayists know how to pack their meaning into very few words, and this brevity often packs quite a punch… It is, if you like, a punch – a quick feint to the brain which suddenly distracts the mind from its customary thoughts and makes it pay attention. Think Joan Didion – that weird evocative minimalism which somehow by picking out only a few powerful words (and these are often repeated words) hooks onto you and holds you.

Second, Michaelson’s tone is neutral, controlled, calm, observant… And at the same time it manages to convey intense underlying emotions. Didion’s great at this too: On the surface, in her essays about her husband and her daughter, for instance, she’s so much about dry perceptive intellect directed to the world, careful precise language brought to the description of her experience, that you only gradually realize the almost unbearable melancholy that she’s really feeling, the bafflement and despair that’s in fact motivating the writing as a way of understanding and assimilating the tragic nature of life.

Third, Michaelson gives his essay a narrative frame. The obnoxious Hasid on Michaelson’s flight from Israel begins and ends the essay, giving the author’s abstractions about “a minority group … that pays those who are destroying it” (he has in mind Israeli and American Jewish subsidies of the most reactionary sects within the faith) a grounding in the immediacy of the real world… Or perhaps SOS should say a floating in the immediacy of the in-flight world, where women are angered by the Hasid’s refusal to sit next to them, and where women and men are made anxious by the man’s bizarre rule-flouting behavior throughout the flight.

Finally, Michaelson’s not got much space so he’s not going to fart around. He’s not going to mince words. He’s going to tell you – calmly, precisely – what’s in the mind of the Hasid, what has been put in the Hasid’s mind by the education that the larger Jewish community continues to subsidize.

Most likely, he has learned in religious schools – paid for mainly by government largesse, thanks to “faith-based initiatives” and the erosion of the garden wall between church and state – that goyim have no souls, or are like animals, or worse… . Taught that the customs of the goyim – that includes non-Orthodox Jews, of course – are filthy, stupid and nonbinding, Haredim are unruly passengers on airplanes. “Fasten seatbelts?” – goyishe toireh. “Don’t gather in the aisles?” – narishkeit.

But no – he can’t really know exactly what the Hasid is thinking.

Really, I have no idea what the Hasid is thinking, what the flight attendants are thinking or what my fellow passengers are thinking.

I can report only what I am thinking. And that is that this moment of obstinacy and disrespect is one that we Jews have created. Our cousins in Israel have given the Haredim everything they’ve asked for in exchange for their political support – just watch as the new government undoes all the progress of the previous one – at tremendous cost to society as a whole. And our institutions here in America continue to dole out benefits to fundamentalists opposed to the very institutions that are feeding them.

The last two sentences of Michaelson’s essay wonderfully meld the particular, the immediate narrative of the obnoxious Hasid, with the general:

An obstreperous man on an airplane is not so bad; after a few hours, we made it to JFK, safe and sound. Reversing course on Jewish fundamentalism will be a lot harder.

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