I have known many who have grown up in assimilated Jewish families where a convoluted kind of subterranean self-hate flows uninterruptedly, the internalization of anti-Semitism denied. The sense of illusion pervades the psychological world of these families. When I read Norman Simms’ newest book Jews in an Illusion of Paradise, I sensed how thoroughly he had captured the notion and slippery functioning of delusional anti-Semitic thinking through excavating the unconscious’ seemingly marginalia, which is not marginal nor trivial at all. The articulating gestures, images, comments, slips of the tongue point to the heart of the problem, which persists as denied terror and dread of death yet left untreated and intervened leads to death.
Simms frames the entire volume through the famous Talmudic legend of the four scholars who enter Paradise – all encounter a different outcome for Judaism. The four fates are death, madness, heresy and the longstanding tradition of teaching. The question is really how does one embrace one’s identity as a Jew under the lurking constant pressure of anti-Semitism – which is a perpetual chronic targeting of the Jew through brutal scapegoating ranging from daily micro-aggressions to outright violent persecution like the recent cutting off of a finger of a French Jewish young man to violent tortured death as in the case of Ilan Halima z”l? The Jew is at risk of death by ten thousand cuts if left unattended and not fighting back. All of this unconscious hatred percolates behind the scene that then erupts into lethal violence. Simms’ particular expertise and one which is unique and much less explored, is his ability to disclose who, what, where, when and how such dangerous distortions and manipulations occur lurking behind the nefarious screen of 19th century European anti-Semitic “Wizard of Oz”, its alleged secular culture.
The heart of the book traces out and explicates what it was like for Jews in Europe with references to France and a bit to Germany who believed that they could assimilate into Western society leaving their Jewishness behind. Simms characterizes these various attempts as “foolish, futile and fanciful” even though these individuals were extremely creative and success, this actually promoted the illusion of assimilation and put them at further risk – also furthering their own self-delusion of not being perceived as Other. The core of the book deals with “persons, events, ideas, images and processes of perception” – here I place emphasis on his use of the cultural mirror and how, in fact, it does not reflect so much as distort. Since 94% of what we communicate, we do so nonverbally, the author’s use of imagery such as the mirror is particularly striking. Simms shows how Jews were culturally manipulated, wanting to ardently believe in assimilation. Here are some of the figures introduced in the book which enhance his use of imagery and perception: a mid-nineteenth century acrobatic theatre, midrash of the four sages, contrasting Acher (aka Elisha ben Abuyah the heretic) and Akiva (the teacher), the four who entered paradise, the four gates to paradise, the entwined names of God, analysis of Psalm 92:4 etc. This Psalm, in particular, focuses on the perception of sound generated by various instruments in particular the harp. The idea being that sound opens an aesthetic experience but at the same time the Psalm itself introduces the limitations and constraints of language. This is the key that discloses Simms’ musings on how and why so many Jews deluded themselves into thinking that they would be treated as equals and how that delusion led even in some cases to death.
It goes without saying or even writing that Simms’ work is uncannily timely as Jews are now targeted alternatingly by both Islamic and Neo-Nazi anti-Semitism which in turn embolden other forms of anti-Semitic hatred of the Jew. Such hatred continues to be openly expressed on a daily basis ranging from BDS to the necrophiliac destruction of cemeteries to the outright murder of Jews. For those of us who have been not only studying the phenomena for a long time but have experienced anti-Semitism first hand, will also find Jews in an Illusion of Paradise an insightful enhancing experience which functions as an antidote in part for the pain and suffering already known that no Jew is immune from anti-Semitism. Should he or she think so, Simms shows how this is not only merely wishful thinking but thinking that may be deadly in the long run.
In his preceding recent work on Alfred Dreyfus Simms and anti-Semitism which I have critiqued here, http://www.familysecuritymatters.org/publications/detail/if-alfred-dreyfus-were-alive-today, has helped to pave the way for his current work. This volume may be read as an important sequel by which he deals with those such as the art historian Bernard Berenson and the famous actress Sarah Bernhardt. As Simms notes the book is a kind of midrashic meditation on ideation, the mental life of individuals and the psychohistorical undercurrents that unbeknownst to the thinker may act like a dangerous undertow pulling one into the violence and chaos of delusion. It thus provides a unique and unusual “road map” of how to follow the crisscross through all the seemingly unimportant comments, writings, tracings, images, nonverbal gestures etc. that create a web of what exists and pulsates behind the “mirror” of cultural presentation. The denial continues to run deep. The mirror is always distorted. The subtitle of this volume is sobering — Dust and Ashes which I read as not only the images of Auschwitz but the accumulative persecutions of the Jewish people. Simms is prolific and he will continue this tour de force with volume two tentatively titled – “Jews Falling out of the Mirror and into History” which undoubtedly will prove to be just as helpful and insightful. Thus the midrash of the four who entered Paradise, Norman Simms embraces the fourth – the teacher who affirms life by teaching. Indeed, you would be wise to read this opus as he is our consummate teacher. And finally this book begs to be translated into French and German.
Nancy Hartevelt Kobrin, Ph.D.
Nancy Hartevelt Kobrin is Fellow, American Center for Democracy; Psychoanalyst, Arabist & Counter Terrorist Expert; and author of Specializing in Early Childhood Development: Mind & Body Language of the Terrorist. She is also the author of The Banality of Suicide Terrorism; Penetrating the Terrorist Psyche; The Maternal Drama of the Chechen Jihadi, soon available in Urdu; The Jihadi Dictionary: THE Essential INTEL Tool; and yet-to-be published Children Killing Children and Mailing Mogadishu.