Monsters in a Strange House

Presented at: Envisioning Home. CUNY Graduate Conference 2006. New York, NY.

Abstract: In Jewish mysticism, beth, the Hebrew word for home and second letter of the alphabet, represents the manifests of duality and beginning of plurality, ie. the first ‘other’. The first letter of the Torah, beth, further represents the dualistic nature of creation. The lack of differentiation, however, between ‘home’ and ‘house’ in Hebrew precludes the usual binary connotations of private/public, self/community, now/then, us/them; extending the sense of place beyond the constraints of space. Expanding upon Heidegger’s theories, Christian Norberg-Schulz proposes that man’s ability to identify with place, as it is poetically experienced, is his ability to identify with himself and to feel at home. With place understood to be more than physical space, the tragic homelessness experienced by the ‘Wandering Jew’ is therefore conceived of as a hegemonic construct of nationalist ideology rather than the intrinsic existential condition of the Diaspora. The abstractions of alterity and the ‘other’, as defined by Levinas, Heidegger, Burber and Said, are seen as responsible for shaping perceptions of (a) “the Jew” where the Hebrew (stranger) is established as the fundamental negative polarization of the Gentile (one having a nation) (b) the home as the divide between private/public, interior/exterior, mine and yours. After two thousands years of exile, the ‘Wandering Jew’, is perceived as an “anti-nation” having shaped both personal and collective memory and identification not around a territorially defined space but rather a symbolic connection to their ancestral homeland, Eretz Yisrael. The legend of the “Wandering Jew” in perpetual exile haunts and contradicts the nationalist agenda and its understanding of the role of place in defining one’s identity. Depictions of the Jew’s home, such as that of Shylock’s house in Shakespeare’s the Merchant of Venice, are a superficial exterior division whose threshold is never crossed. Like Medieval representations of the Jew, the house of the Jew becomes a monstrous invention attributed with otherworldliness and the unknown. The Venetian laws prohibiting decoration of the exterior of Jewish buildings, denied them of identity; segregated by the ghetto boundaries, their existence within the city only further concealed. The mystery of their interiors, if they exist at all, is left to the imagination. The archetype of residences in the Venetian ghetto are compared to their representation in the Merchant of Venice. While binary classifications of the ‘other’ exists in representations of the Jew and his home, this paper demonstrates that the Jewish tradition identifies with a multiplicity of places simultaneously, carrying a sense of the familiar, albeit fragmented, into the foreign, bridging the dualities of existence. The architecture of ‘house’ is therefore understood as a mediator of transitions between the dualities of existence and not as their primary dividers.

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