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Borges on Jews

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Borges'_Aleph.jpg
I didn't know what to make of what Borges makes of Jews.  My first impressions did not accord with the assessment of academic Evelyn Fishburn, who wrote,

Borges' philosemitism is not at issue here: his credentials in this respect must satisfy all but the most paranoid.

Well call me paranoid.

Philosemitism didn't occur to me when I read the following description of "Aaron Loewenthal" in Borges' short story, "Emma Zunz" (from his 1949 collection, The Aleph):

Aaron Loewenthal was in the eyes of all an upright man; in those of his few closest acquaintances, a miser. . . . The year before, he had decorously grieved the unexpected death of his wife - a Gauss! who'd brought him an excellent dowry! - but money was his true passion.  With secret shame, he knew he was not as good at earning it as at holding on to it.  He was quite religious; he believed he had a secret pact with the Lord - in return for prayers and devotions, he was exempted from doing good works.
Fishburn doesn't quote this rigidly stereotypical character description in her discussion of "Emma Zunz," but she does say:

The story is placed almost entirely within the confines of the Jewish world of Buenos Aires around the year 1922 and includes scenes of embezzlement, prostitution, lies, betrayal and cold-blooded, premeditated murder, thus opening up the social and moral range of Borges' Jewish imaginary.
"Thus opening up the social and moral range of Borges' Jewish imaginary"?  Is Fishburn somehow suggesting that Borges is immune to common anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jews that cast them as embezzlers, liars, betrayers, cold-blooded premeditated murderers (blood of Christian children in the Passover matzoh), etc.?  Without in any way suggesting that depictions of Jews should be immune from the full range of human behavior in which they (and all groups of humans) engage, I can't see anything laudatory about Borges descending to depict Jews consistently with anti-Semitic stereotypes.

That said, I do not think Borges is anti-Semitic.  As J.M. Coetzee writes of Borges in The New York Review of Books,

Englishness was one part of Borges's self-fashioning, Jewishness another. He invoked a rather hypothetical Sephardic strain on his mother's side to explain his interest in the Kabbalah, and, more interestingly, to present himself as an outsider to Western culture, with an outsider's freedom to criticize and innovate. 
Much as Borges might have been an example of the much-loved Jewish stereotype of the "self-hating Jew," much more likely (in my opinion) is that he extended to Judaism the same openness, curiosity and delight that he obviously shows in Islam and other traditions of long lineage in which he found interesting engagement with large questions of theology, time, existence and reality.

Rather than being an expression of anti-Semitism, I think Aaron Loewenthal is simply a function of Borges' generally weak skills at characterization.  In Borges' quick sketches, readers find many characters capable of grand action and exhilarating thinking, but very little in the way of deep psychological and emotional portrayals.  (Indeed, Fishburn votes for Emma Zunz herself as being Borges' most fully fleshed-out character: "his only moderately developed character is female; also Jewish, manipulative and murderous; and uniquely pitiable").  This being the case, I think that when Borges reached for a character description of Aaron Loewenthal, he defaulted to the "Jewish miser" stereotype.  So ingrained was this stereotype into the world in which Borges lived that his invocation of its broad form may have seemed "right" to him as a description of a Jew.  I doubt seriously that Borges even recognized in Aaron Loewenthal an anti-Semitic stereotype.

All the same, whether Borges was philosemitic or merely interested in Kabbalah (and even if he was prey to the anti-Semitic stereotypes of his day), I don't recognize myself, as a Jew, or as a Jewish woman, in Borges.  What Borges makes of Jews, however thought-worthy, doesn't strike me as Jewish.

(Image of Borges' El Aleph from Antiqbook.com)

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