Films and texts reveal the true religion

How Jewish women dress, poetry and Protestantism, the erotics of Jewish genius. These are the kinds of things Associate Professor of English Elisa New, a scholar of American religion in literature, thinks about and writes about.

Long puzzled by the disparity between the written, biblical rules and the unwritten, cultural expectations of her own religion, Judaism, she now searches for nonexplicit religious expectations expressed in texts and films.

She's got a book coming out this fall - "The Line's Eye: Poetic Experience, American Sight" (Harvard) - in simultaneous hardcover and paperback.That's the one on poetry and Protestantism. And a book of essays on how literature and film express the values of Jewish life is in the works for the Princeton University Press.

In "The Line's Eye," New connects the work of quintessentially American poets - Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams - on a foundation of the writings of Jonathan Edwards, Thomas Jefferson, J.J. Audubon and Henry David Thoreau.

"Edwards was a codifier of a different way of seeing nature," she said. The sin of Adam involves a willful human not understanding his place in nature. After the fall, "we feel our separateness," New said. "Our self-consciousness of our nakedness is our first feeling of separateness from nature."

Poetry, New argues, shows us how to behave now that we are separate from nature. Poetry teaches how to see nature without meddling with it.

"Poems are ethical things that help us see," said New, the undergraduate chair of the English Department.

Her book on American Jewish life revealed in texts and films is more personal.

"The most memorable parts [of my Hebrew school experience] were transgressive," she said, musing on how her own experience fits into American Jews' resistance, in life, literature and film, to Jewish institutions. New examined several texts, looking for ways to make sense of her own experience.

Besides the classic anti-Hebrew school example in "The Conversion of the Jews," by Philip Roth, for example, New examined Delmore Schwartz's writing about Jewish men who refused to succeed in business, and Cynthia Ozick's withering description of a Hebrew day school in "The Cannibal Galaxy."

In an essay on the sex appeal of genius, New cites Woody Allen's persona and an old-world genius - turned on by the New York Public Library - portrayed in Abraham Kahane's "The Imported Bridegroom." She explored the Jewish "hunger not just for books but for lots of books."

Of her own relationship to books and libraries, she said, "I cruise the suburbs in my car, looking for a good library."

She also examined her family's relationship - "casual and professional" - to textiles and clothes that reflect a deeper family tie to luxury objects that goes back to the turn of the century. That same love of luxurious clothes she found depicted in Holocaust films, like "Schindler's List" and "Angry Harvest."

Her book, she says, "shows all all these literary and sometime filmic texts connnect to me, to a kind of Jewish life. These texts have great explanatory power to me."

Front page for this issue | Pennsylvania Current home page

Originally published on October 15, 1998