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Friday, 22 February 2013

Memory and Forgetting

‘After almost a lifetime as a painter, my thoughts begin to dwell on whether or not the Jews are a nation or a state of mind...’

The America-born artist R.B.Kitaj (born in 1932) spent almost 40 years of his life in England. That’s a Biblical stretch of time. And it wasn’t all wilderness. On his first day at the Royal College of Art – this is 1959, after some years in Vienna, Germany and France – this young man, brought up in a left-wing, intellectual, atheist home (I think those two words ‘intellectual’ and ‘atheist’ were probably synonyms in that generation – and possibly still are in many Jewish circles), on that first day at Art College, he met a callow Yorkshire lad, five years younger than him, a ‘little provincial from Bradford, never been abroad’ as this youngster said later in life, and they formed a deep and unbreakable bond that lasted the rest of their lives.

You can normally see Kitaj’s portrait of David Hockney at the National Portrait Gallery. But at the moment it is on loan to the Jewish Museum in Camden. Because the Museum are hosting a wonderful exhibition of Kitaj’s work, ‘intellectually fascinating and stunningly beautiful’ – to quote the words of the renowned architect M.J.Long at the show’s opening this week. (She was a friend of Kitaj’s and designed, co-incidentally, both the Museum and Kitaj’s London work studio, as well as the new British Library in Paddington). It is a relatively small exhibition – 21 works are there, a combination of canvases and sketches – but in them you see someone exploring - autobiographically, painfully, joyfully, profoundly - Jewish identity in the 20th century and into the 21st. He died in 2007.

The exhibition is called ‘Obsessions: The Art of Identity’ and the artist seemed to have discovered only when he was in his 40s that Jewishness was fundamental to who he was as a person. And this ‘Jewish obsession’ – his phrase – defined his work for the next 40 years, for the rest of his life.

That quote I started with - ‘After almost a lifetime as a painter, my thoughts begin to dwell on whether or not the Jews are a nation or a state of mind...’ – is taken from an extraordinary book he published in 1989: ‘First Diasporist Manifesto’.  

Let me quote from its opening, to give you a flavor of the book, of the man, of his preoccupations, ‘obsessions’ – and then we will see how this links with Shabbat Zachor, and Purim, that festival about Diaspora, about Jews who live amongst non-Jews, who are assimilated into a host culture, but still might be seen as outsiders, as 'other', and who can raise strong feelings - aggressive feelings - in those who don’t share this curious, complex, troubling identity we call ‘Jewish identity’.

He starts: ‘Painting is not my life. My life is my life. Painting is a great idea I carry from place to place. It is an idea full of ideas, like a refugee’s suitcase, a portable Ark of the Covenant...I am a dislocated pretender, I play at being a refugee, at studying, at painting. All this is pretence in the sense Picasso meant when he said: ‘The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.’           

‘I offer this manifesto to Jews and non-Jews alike, in the (fairly) sure knowledge that there be a Diasporist painting...I’ve been studying my Jews, and so you must forgive the emphasis on them, but painting beyond Jewish concern may just prosper thereby, because, as a wise man said, you delve into your own soul and wander through all the dimensions of the world. I believe there is a spirit or ‘ego’ in a people, as in a man, which compels the creativity of that people, which propels it and inspires it – openly, secretly, embarrassingly, even modestly...

The Jews have been called a lot of things in their four thousand off and on Diasporic years (mostly off). I keep a funny list to which  I add from time to time, a list of ‘traits’ attributed to Jews. Aggrieved, hated and admired are on my list...’ (pages11/13)

In our Torah portion for this week we read how Aaron, the High Priest, carried the names of the 12 tribes, literally on his shoulders. And as the text describes this, it emphasizes the word zikkaron/remembrance. It comes twice : there were stones set into his shoulder pads – avnai zikkaron: ‘stones for remembering; memory stones’ ;  and the names of the tribes are carried l’zikkaron, so that they will be remembered (Exodus 28:12). 
It is as if we as a people are haunted by the fear of being forgotten.  Or is it the Holy One of Israel, whom the Torah describes as commanding/instructing the people to do this, is it God who secretly fears not being remembered? Is it God who secretly fears being forgotten, who  projects this onto His people?  "Be a people of memory", the divine One keeps insisting, "Look, I’ll give you a whole day for remembering, Yom HaZikkaron, Rosh Hashanah: you will begin each New Year by remembering – remembering what you have done and what you have failed to do; oh, and by the way, remembering Me. Remember Me? You are the people of memory, the people who have to remember Me. And I will give you – in the course of time – a Shabbat specially named ‘Remember/Memory’ – Shabbat Zachor. I remember you, I carry you on My shoulders, but it’s only fair, you must remember Me, you must carry Me, inscribed in your hearts and on the doorposts of your house...Be a people of memory, have memories thousands of years old, keep your history alive, remember where you came from, remember what your purpose is, remember who you are, remember who I am..." – This is Jewish identity too, Jews as a nation and Jews as a state of mind.

There is one exemplary painting in the exhibition, from 1975/6, entitled, enigmatically, ‘If Not, Not’ – the title doubling back on itself, cancelling itself out, a painting dominated by the gatehouse of Auschwitz in the top left, and a landscape, ominous in mood, in colour, in motifs - there is a small, blossoming tree, and a lamb, a crow, broken pillars, a severed head, a pair of lovers (or are they? the man is turned towards and turned away from her), this is an inner landscape but also a portrait of creation, heavens and earth, sea and space, a glimpse of far-off pastoral - but over it all, hovering, a cloud, or smoke, and the solid red bricks and grey roof and black mouth, open and aghast, of gate of the place that has come to symbolize one aspect of Jewish identity, human identity, that can never be forgotten – and can never be remembered, not really, not fully.

And on Purim we read the Book of Esther and tell the story of genocide, attempted genocide, and we stamp and cheer and jeer, we drink and jest, and drink and weep, and drink to blot it out:  ‘you shall blot out the memory of Amalek’ – your enemy, your eternal enemy – ‘from under the heavens: Do not forget!’ (Deuteronomy 25:19). Do not forget to remember to forget... Blot out remembering to forget to remember...Drink until you can’t tell the difference between remembering and forgetting. Or drink until you realize that you are always remembering what you need to forget. And always forgetting what you need to remember. (There is no such thing as memory without forgetting; and no such thing as forgetting - because something in you will always remember).

Is this why the Jews cause such mixed feelings in others? That the non-Jewish world  keeps on remembering who the Jews are – God’s people, with a mission to bring a blessing, be a blessing to others? Who wants to know that? Who wants to know the Jewish story, the Jewish purpose, the Jewish belief that they are to be a light, a 'light to the nations'? No wonder we are hated. We keep reminding people of this, just by our being here, our sheer bloody survival, we haven’t gone away.
Even if we have forgotten who we are and what our purpose is - others remember it. And won’t let us forget it, one way or another – philo-semitism or anti-Semitism. They can’t forget about us. If Not, Not. If we aren’t going to carry the memory of who we are on our shoulders, you can be sure the non-Jewish world will. It’s engraved – it’s there for all to see. It’s the world’s obsession: the Jews. It’s our obsession: the Jews. We are linked together for all time, a passionate embrace, like lovers, like wrestlers, a fatal embrace, a story about a nation and a state of mind. 'Aggrieved, hated, admired.' This is our story. I hope you have a good Purim.   

[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, Shabbat Zachor, February 23rd 2013]