4.31. Paul Goodman, novel chapter ‘A Memorial Synagogue’ (1949)

A Memorial Synagogue is the sixth and final story of the novel-in-stories The Break-Up of Our Camp. Paul Goodman completed the first version of this novel in 1935, rewrote it in 1942 and again in 1949, adding A Memorial Synagogue. The connection between this story and the rest of the novel is rather loose. The first five stories of The Break-Up of Our Camp are set in a Jewish summer camp on Lake Champlain in the US state of Vermont and the last one is set in New York, after the bankruptcy and eviction of the summer camp. Matthew, the first-person narrator, was a drama counselor in this camp, and the two other leading characters are Ostoric, the arts and crafts counselor, and the non-Jewish Canadian Armand, who ended up in the camp by chance.

Just as the whole novel, A Memorial Synagogue has a very fragmentary character; it consists of ten concise episodes with surprising changes between bizarre monologues, lively dialogues and philosophical meditations. Matthew, Ostoric and Armand arrive in New York with mixed feelings, captivated by the vitality of the city, and at the same time depressed by the brute end of the summer camp as well as the aftermath of the Shoah. They overcome the impasse in their lives with an ambitious plan for the building of a synagogue, and to this end, they distribute handbills to passers-by with the following message:

A PROJECTION,
IN HEAVY MATERIALS,
OF OUR GRIEF

The Jews ought to make, of heavy materials, of medium size, embellished by great artists, a synagogue dedicated to Grief for their own recent disasters and the disasters of all peoples. *Goodman, “A Memorial Synagogue.” Jewish American Literature 524. Reproduced by permission of the Estate of Paul Goodman. 

The reactions of the public greatly differ; a friend of Matthew, an anarchist like him, asks whether a war memorial puts an end to war and why this monument should be a synagogue—did he suddenly become a believer? “We need more anger,” argues a man and a woman says, “You Jews ought to grieve for yourselves. You had enough trouble without grieving for other people’s trouble too.” Matthew reacts with a quote from the Pirkei Avot: “If I’m not for myself, who is for me? But if I’m only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” *Ibid. 526. This saying of Hillel in Pirkei Avot 1:14 is quoted in The Koren Siddur 644.

The story abruptly changes into a series of discussions with the architect and the artists who are to design the synagogue. The sculptor proposes an Ark carried by two cherubs, respresenting “Nature” and “Violence” in a scene which can be interpreted as a struggle or a fight. The painter, a Polish Jew who has made his name as the creator of whimsical animals, wants to create a wall painting inspired by a fable of which he dreamed. In this fable, God commands Noah to build an ark for all animals in order to be saved from the flood. When the animals hear about this plan, they convene a world congress and the result is that one group will obey, whereas the other group is suspicious of the plan. The monologue by the painter ends in a discussion with the non-Jewish Armand, followed by an emotional outburst of the painter:

“So the day came and Noah blew on his shofar a loud blast—”
“Excuse me,” said Armand, “what’s a shofar?”
“A shofar—is a shofar.”
“Yes, but what is it? Noah blew a blast on his shofar; what’s a shofar?”
“A shofar is a shofar, dummy,” said the painter angrily.
“What is it, a kind of bugle?”
“Yes, it’s a bugle. Noah blew a blast on his bugle!”
“What’s to get angry about? How should I know? Why didn’t you say it was a bugle in the first place?”
“Please—” the painter screwed up his face in pain and turned to us appealingly, “is a shofar a bugle?”
“—He blew a blast and some of the animals came, and then came the rain and the flood. But the others didn’t come, and they drowned. Ach!—So perished from the earth the wonderful snodorgus and the kafooziopus, and klippy, and Petya, and the marmape, and Sadie—”
It was impossible to believe one’s eyes and ears, for suddenly the little man began to bawl in strange little sobs at the top of his chest, for his fantastic animals whose names he was making up as he went along.
“So died,” he screamed, “the loveliest and the shrewdest. Petya! And my sister’s little girls, and my brothers, and long ago my friend Apollinaire, who had the alivest voice.”
“But I shall paint these beauties into existence again, on every wall in the world!” *Ibid. 528. 

After this discussion between Armand and the painter and the emotional outburst of the latter, the story takes another abrupt turn, when the architect reveals his ideas about the future synagogue: “In a building of this kind the chief thing to communicate is the sense of the Congregation. The sense of itself by the Congregation.” *Ibid. 529. Therefore, he defends the importance of sightlines, but retracts his statement, concluding that the only thing to be seen in the synagogue will be the congregation itself. However, “Each one is hiding behind a shiny wall of tears; they can’t see each other anyway.” And so, the story and the novel end, and for the time being the synagogue remains a castle in the air.

Below in this chapter, the question of historicity of the three artists will be discussed; then, the use of the biblical story of Noah in the quoted passage, and finally, the differences and similarities between a shofar and a bugle, mentioned in the same excerpt.

According to the literary critic Taylor Stoehr *Stoehr, “Paul Goodman and the New York Jews” 80 and Naomi Goodman, *Elman, et al., Percival Goodman, Architect, Planner, Teacher, Painter 169 wife and collaborator of Paul Goodman’s brother, the architect Percy (Percival) Goodman, the characters of the sculptor, painter and architect in A Memorial Synagogue are loosely based on the historical figures of Jacques Lipchitz (1891-1973), Marc Chagall (1887-1985) and Percy (Percival) Goodman (1904-1989), who worked with Paul Goodman in 1947. *Stoehr, “Paul Goodman and the New York Jews” 80. Though the sculptor Lipchitz did not create an Ark with Cherubs, he did make sculptures after biblical themes; instead of the snodorgus, kafooziopus, klippy and marmape, Chagall painted many other whimsical animals *Cf. Mariani-Ducray, Chagall: Monstres, chimères et figures hybrides and in many of his works, Noah, the ark or a shofar appear. Who Petya and Sadie were is not known, but Chagall was a friend of the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who was heavily wounded in World War I and died in 1918. The heartfelt cry of the painter in A Memorial Synagogue: “But I shall paint these beauties into existence again, on every wall in the world!” has a parallel in Apollinaire’s poem Ombre (“Shadow”), written in the trenches: “Here you are near me once more / Memoirs of my comrades dead in battle . . . You will no longer know the divine poems I sing / But I hear you I see you still.” *Apollinaire, Calligrammes 135. Both in Apollinaire’s poem and the fictional painter’s mural, art is used as a means to sublimate the otherwise unbearable sorrow of a loss.

Again according to Taylor Stoehr and Naomi Goodman, the architect is Paul Goodman’s brother Percy, who designed more than fifty American synagogues in the period 1948-1983. A Memorial Synagogue could indeed be based on two plans from 1947. The first was a synagogue with art works by Marc Chagall and Jacques Lipchitz. The second was a memorial to the victims of the Shoah, which would be built in Riverside Park in New York and consisted of a menorah, even higher than the shofarot of Herman Wald’s memorial. *Chapter 4.36. None of these plans were realized, because the authorities thought them too unconventional *Percival Goodman, Architect, Planner, Teacher, Painter 41, 169 and did not acknowledge the wish of the Jews to build a synagogue and a monument “dedicated to Grief for their own recent disasters and the disasters of all peoples,” as the handbill in Goodman’s story expresses it.

In the quoted passage about the projected synagogue in Goodman’s novel chapter, the story of Noah and his ark is mentioned; however, the biblical Past of this story is distorted by the strong emotions of the post-Shoah Present, because in the Bible, the chronotope of the ark is not connected with a shofar, nor does Noah blow a blast at his embarking in Gen. 7:5; the ram appears only in Gen. 22 at Abraham’s sacrifice and the shofar in Exod. 19 at the theophany on Mount Sinai. However, Noah appears in the Zikhronot section in the Rosh Ha-Shanah prayer book, shortly before the sounding of the ten shofar blasts: “And Noah also, You remembered with love, / and You came to him with words of salvation, compassion, / when You brought on the waters of the great flood, / to destroy all creatures of flesh / because the practices they followed were corrupt.” After which Gen. 8:1 is quoted: “God remembered Noah and all the animals . . . and God made a wind to blow across the earth, / and the waters grew calm.” *The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 610. The shofar blasts follow on p. 616. Cf. also Chapter 3.2. The animals’ refusal of the ark is a myth, strangely similar to the reality of Perahia’s poem A Little Light, *Chapter 4.24 in which after the liberation of Greece, the persona remembers the refusal of his fellow Jews to flee by boat from Greece to Palestine: “With love I had advised them to go to Eretz Israel, . . . Assuring themselves of their salvation and that of all their people. . . . Few listened. The rest remained indifferent. / And the disaster came; it touched us and hit us deeply.”

A new element in the quoted dialogue is the question of the difference between the shofar and the bugle/trumpet, which has more than just technical and musical implications. *Even “ram’s horn” and “shofar” have different connotations: “Now ‘ram’s horn,’ the literal translation of shoyfer, has no sentimental charge whatsoever, while shoyfer explodes with it.” Samuel, In Praise of Yiddish xiii. Goodman’s novel chapter is the only work in A Tool of Remembrance in which a definition of the shofar is requested. Armand’s comparison of the shofar with a bugle holds to a certain degree: a bugle is a wind instrument with the same military functions as the biblical shofar, but without its religious connotations—apart from its use in military funeral services. *Cf., for example, Chapter 96 “Taps” in Manual for Buglers U.S. Navy. The irritated painter’s answer originates from an old anecdote, which has been recorded, with a slight but meaningful difference, by the writer Israel Zangwill and the philosopher Franz Rosenzweig. Their two versions read as follows:

[Zangwill, 1921] There is a story of a Jewish witness unable to explain to a magistrate what a Shofar was. At last, to the suggestion that it was a trumpet, he cried in glad relief, “Yes, it is a trumpet.” “Then why didn’t you say so?” “Because it is not a trumpet.” These shades of significance which it is impossible to render in another tongue are the truest proof of specific existence. The Shofar is a ram’s horn, but who thinks of it as anything but the solemn instrument pealing repentance to the white-shrouded figures of Atonement Day? A Shofar is—a Shofar. If a Shofar were indeed a trumpet, no call to national life could ever be blown upon it. *Zangwill, “Language and Jewish Life.” The Voice of Jerusalem 259.

[Rosenzweig, 1928] In regard to the concept of the Jewish Volk, we therefore find ourselves in the confounded but very Jewish situation of the chazan who, having been asked before the court what a shofar is, finally, after much beating around the bush [Drumherumgerede], explains that it is a trumpet, and, being reprimanded by the indignant judge for not having said to begin with, replies: So is it a trumpet? *Rosenzweig, open letter to the editor of the Jüdische Rundschau, quoted and translated in Batnitzky, Idolatry and Representation: The Philosophy of Franz Rosenzweig Reconsidered 170. Italics added by Batnitzky.

Despite the untranslatable “shades of significance,” Zangwill’s witness seems to succeed in explaining to the non-Jewish magistrate what a shofar is. “Shofar” is written with an uppercase letter, whereas “trumpet” is written with a lowercase letter, thus indicating the difference between a ritual instrument of a higher order and an ordinary secular instrument. Considered superficially, Zangwill’s witness comes to the same conclusion as Goodman’s painter: “A Shofar is—a Shofar.” To Rosenzweig’s ḥazzan, the case is more complicated. The philosopher Leora Batnitzky states that Rosenzweig considered Judaism as self-contained and complete, and therefore “untranslatable.” “The chazan’s attempt to translate the shofar . . . serves to emphasize Rosenzweig’s understanding of Judaism’s irreducible uniqueness and strangeness to the outside world.” *Idolatry and Representation 170. According to Rosenzweig, a second complication consists in the fact that the meaning of Judaism is not only defined through Judaism itself, but also through external responses to Judaism. Whereas Zangwill’s witness states: “It is not a trumpet,” Rosenzweig’s ḥazzan asks the court: “So is it a trumpet?” As Batnitzky puts it: “Meaning is constituted not by the chazan’s answer to the court but by the court’s confirmation or negation of the chazan’s self-questioning. Just as we do not receive the answer from the court in this anecdote, Judaism continuously awaits a response from the world.” *Ibid. 170. In the beginning, the dialogue about the shofar in Goodman’s story resembles Zangwill’s version of the anecdote, with the answer of the Jewish painter to the non-Jewish Armand: “A shofar is a shofar, dummy.” Armand’s next question: “What is it, a kind of bugle?” is answered with the statement “Yes, it’s a bugle.” At the end, however, the dialogue makes a Rosenzweigian turn: when Armand wonders why the painter did not say that earlier, the latter asks the rhetorical question: “Please—is a shofar a bugle?”

 

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