Harry Turtledove, “Shtetl Days” – WoD 1
Lately, I’ve been losing sleep, dreaming about the things that we could be… – One Republic, Counting Stars
Counting stars. Lucky ones, that we’re not living in The Reich as imagined by Harry Turtledove in “Shtetl Days.” But also gold ones, on the coats of men like Turtledove’s Veit Harlan, or worn by Billy Joel in memory of pogroms past and a white supremacy rally in Charlottesville that never should have been.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the Judenstern (Jew’s star), and how a symbol of religious and cultural identity got turned into a badge of shame. I’ve been thinking a lot, too, about who did that and why, and the way the Trump administration makes scarlet letters and gold stars and pink triangles things of the present instead of things that never should’ve been — at least not the way they are. Identity and identification aren’t the same thing, but suddenly they seem to be, at least in the sense that without documentation — of citizenship, for example — an immigrant doesn’t exist, or becomes illegal. Or in the sense that dark skin is used identify a young man as Other, a monster, and in the eyes some with authority, that is his whole identity as well.
I’m not asking a question here, or trying to answer one, about the violence of forced identification. Just thinking about the ways that identity is identified, imposed, granted, constructed, excavated…performed. Turtledove’s “Shtetl Days” adds another layer to that thinking, especially about performativity, the luxury of choice, hiding one’s light or Self under the performance of some other identity, and where the line between doing a thing and becoming that thing sits. The story raises profound issues of privilege, identity creation, performance of identity, doing what one has to do, and what it means to be a Jew.
The actual question I’ve been asking is how do I write Jewish stories? Are my words, like Andrew Strucker’s soda is mutant, Jewish because I’m a Jew? On some level, yes, I imagine so. But Turtledove writes of people living as Jews who are not Jews, because they eat treyf on purpose and call themselves Aryans. At least, not Jewish in the eyes of the SS. On one hand, the story hits home like a sledgehammer to the ribs (or a rock in Veit’s case), nothing subtle about it. But on the other, it’s about a lot of things like performativity, identity versus identification, creating ones’ gods and enemies, doing versus being in a way that somehow feels sly, subtle, not even a glancing blow. It’s a Tetris piece in my puzzle of how to talk about important things in fiction, and how to talk about being Jewish without a Judenstern, a Holocaust, and pogroms.
No answers, only questions, like the debatable and ambiguous Jew that I am.