Jews Without Borders
Happiness here is the ability to make others feel humiliated and afraid. One searches Ali and Nino in vain for a note of disapproval, some indication of critical distance, a hint that the author does not like all that he surveys, but it is soon evident that Nussimbaum operates in an irony-free environment. He is not so much a novelist as a fantasist, and Ali is not so much a fictional character as an exercise in wish fulfillment. Forced to flee Baku under ignominious circumstances while still in his early teens, Nussimbaum clearly wishes that he could have been a handsome desert prince, galloping his noble steed along narrow mountain trails, making love to the beautiful Nino (in real life, Nussimbaum often found women to be sexually repellent), machine-gunning Bolsheviks and dying heroically at his post. Banned by the Nazis, hemmed in by growing anti-Semitism, he transferred his animus to the Soviets, who in his view--and apparently Reiss's--were the cause of it all. Sick and impoverished, Nussimbaum died in Italy in 1942. The Anchor Books edition of Ali and Nino, noting only that the author left Berlin after Hitler took power, makes it appear that he was an anti-Nazi refugee. In truth, he was fervently rooting for the Axis right to the end. "Oh," he wrote a few months before his death, "the victory will be such a thrilling experience!"
Rather than presenting a progressive alternative to Western stereotypes of the Arab and Muslim world, as Reiss implies, Jewish Orientalism was a complex, ambiguous affair, hence disturbing to both East and West. As Ivan Davidson Kalmar and Derek J. Penslar indicate in their new compendium, Orientalism and the Jews, all sides in the great debate over "the Jewish question" have used such labels for their own purposes. Anti-Semites have argued that Jews are displaced Orientals because they wanted them out of the Christian West, while some Zionists have agreed because they wanted them out as well. Other Zionists rejected any such Oriental tag because they believed that the purpose of a Jewish state was not to adapt to prevailing circumstances in the Middle East but to Europeanize them. John Efron, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, describes how both Christian anti-Semitism and the stifling Jewish Orthodoxy of his day led the nineteenth-century German-Jewish scholar Abraham Geiger to celebrate the Islamic tolerance that had allowed Jews to flourish in Muslim Spain. The historian Heinrich Graetz, Efron goes on, similarly observed that under the Arabs, "the sons of Judah were free to raise their heads and did not need to look out with fear and humiliation. Unhindered, they were allowed to develop their powers in the midst of a free, simple, and talented people."
Ignaz Goldziher, who lived a generation or two later than Geiger or Graetz (he died in 1921), was even more extreme in his identification with the Orient, which he hoped to use as a cudgel against both Christians and Jews. After a visit to Damascus in 1890, he wrote, "I truly entered in those weeks into the spirit of Islam to such an extent that ultimately I became inwardly convinced that I myself was Muslim and judiciously discovered that this was the only religion which, even in its doctrinal and official formulation, can satisfy philosophical minds." Pace Edward Said, Goldziher did not believe that "the Orient and everything in it was, if not patently inferior to, then in need of corrective study by the West." On the contrary, he believed the Muslim East was superior to anything the West had to offer, which is why he hoped to make use of it "to elevate Judaism to a similar rational level."
If Goldziher did not choose the Nussimbaumian solution of outright conversion, he stopped just short. Like Geiger, he regarded Islam as the continuation of the healthy mainstream of Abrahamic monotheism, from which Eastern European Talmudism had deviated. Jacob Israel De Haan, who was born in the Netherlands in 1881, took a different route, although in some respects to the same end. As Michael Berkowitz tells it in another contribution to Orientalism and the Jews, the multitalented De Haan was many things to many people. To Dutch readers, he was famous as a poet and pioneering advocate of gay rights, but also notorious as an outspoken advocate of man-boy love, a stance that got him kicked off the Dutch Social Democratic newspaper Het Volk, where he was responsible for the children's column. Among certain Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews, he was a saintly figure, revered for both his piety and his efforts to defend the Haredi community in Palestine against the impending Zionist state.
Nowadays we don't think of the ultra-Orthodox as particularly friendly to homosexuality, much less man-boy love. Yet Berkowitz, who teaches modern Jewish history at University College, London, astutely argues that while De Haan devoted quatrain after quatrain to the beautiful Arab boys he encountered in Palestine following his move there in 1919, his poems were imbued not just with erotic yearning but with "ambivalence and restraint" that the rabbinate might have found reminiscent of biblical love poetry. "What do I see when I see you?" De Haan asks in one poem:
Everything but you.
I hear the faraway melody.
Of the heartbreaking song.