Wandering Jew


Unlike most Marxists, Joel Schalit listens to Christian talk radio and surfs the evangelical Net. From this insidious cultural noise, Schalit fashions both punk rock (with his former band, Christal Methodists) and prose; Jerusalem Calling, his first book, comprises four extended essays on themes of religion, politics, music, and memory.

Schalit adopts the analytical perspective of a self-conscious outsider—the proverbial non-Jewish Jew—and calls upon the left to get smarter about the grip of fundamentalist Protestantism on American political life. He argues that the religious right’s appropriation of new media technologies in service to reactionary agendas exposes liberals’ cheery but catastrophic underestimation of the epistemological clout of the “all-encompassing cultural narrative” motivating their millenarian opponents, unfolding from Revelation right through to the Ashcroft ascendancy.

I would anoint Schalit a wandering Jew if he didn’t do so himself, but while he refers to his own biographical globe-trotting, the term adheres to the meandering quality of his prose. This formal anarchism is at odds with his penchant for the doctrinaire. For someone with an abiding interest in fundamentalism, he demonstrates a notable indifference to the imperatives of faith.

Schalit’s writerliness gets the better of his ideological orthodoxy in the collection’s final essay, “My Own Private Israel.” His nostalgia for the “youthful innocence” he attributes to Israel in the 1970s puzzles: It is a questionable historical moment on which to project prelapsarian fantasies. However, if Schalit rejects simple postures of penitence—for colonialism, for occupation, for racism, all of which he denounces unambiguously—he does so in order to plunge the reader into the surreal psychic landscape of a prodigal son of Zion. Weapons and fighter jets saturate the idiom, rattled off in the euphemistic chill of their technical capabilities; Schalit’s yen for the Arab foods of his childhood occasions an image of roadside fast-food joints, “the soldiers . . . standing outside of them eating falafel out of small paper bags, tahina dripping onto the ends of their rifle butts.”

Perhaps because ongoing events defy the sort of end-stopped analysis that elsewhere stunts his prose, Schalit’s confrontation with the stubbornly unreformed Promised Land of his youth heralds a more somber, complicated, and ultimately richer approach to the concerns that animate his thinking.

Also in This Week’s Books Section:

Joy Press on The Disappearing Body by David Grand and Number9dream by David Mitchell

Jesse Berrett on The Cold War And The Color Line: American Race Relations In The Global Arena by Thomas Borstelmann