Wednesday, January 08, 2014

A Jewish Avalon

Sultan Knish

It is only toward the very end of Avalon, the film capturing the disintegration of Jewish family life in America, that the movie gives the closest thing to a clear identification of a thing that it had withheld all along, their Jewish identity, by focusing momentarily on a Star of David on a tombstone.

Only in death are the Krichinsky family, who have Americanized their last name to Kirk and Kay, identified fleetingly as Jewish. It is also the only time that they participate in a religious ritual.

The Krichinsky family ritual is family. It is a clan that exists for its own sake, its elders revisiting and passing along their fragile memories and transforming them into family traditions. But the family is too fragile to live on memory alone, leaving Sam Krichinsky, its patriarch, in a nursing home, cut off from his family and wishing that he had known everything was going to change so that he would have done a better job of remembering.

The Thanksgiving ritual includes Joan Plowright's Eva Krichinsky asking each year whom they are thanking if she is the one who killed the turkey. There is no answer because there is no religion. The family is its own religion, its rituals assembled by the five brothers as they adapted to life in America and are expected to endure forever because of the magic of kinship memory.

It sees no reason to thank anyone but itself. But its own existence is dependent on older traditions and verities that it has discarded. Its own traditions are based on fragile personal memories that do not endure.

Krichinskyism is no substitute for Judaism. The community of a single family is no match for the overarching pressures tearing apart the rest of society. Rituals without religion and industry without G-d leads to the end of community and family. Family alone is not enough to sustain a culture. Not when it is cut off from the larger family of its own culture and the beliefs of that culture fragmenting into the nuclear family and then the individual.

The Krichinsky family thinks of itself as Jewish, but it is a private Jewishness expressed in immigrant culture, in a handful of customs in a family that otherwise observes nothing else, in scraps of Yiddish, and in the confidence that their inner difference is as culturally permanent as their DNA and will be passed on from generation to generation like the family circle meetings and the unreliable recollections of the four elder brothers who are its American patriarchs.

Instead the religion of the family is torn apart by petty quarrels, by migration from the cities to the suburbs and by the shift of generations.

Avalon begins with a large multi-generational family sharing a boisterous post-war Thanksgiving meal and toward its end that vast sea of kinship has been reduced to Sam's son, the successful but apathetic Jules Kaye spending Thanksgiving eating a frozen TV dinner with his aspirational wife Ann in front of the television sat as they watch a fictional family going through its comic routines.

Ann, who had alienated her husband and son from their extended family in order to become her idea of the perfect family, has finally found her ideal family on the flickering television screen. And she isn't alone. Real flawed families are exchanged for perfect fictional families. Life becomes television and television becomes life.

Jules Kaye goes from selling televisions to selling commercial airtime on television to watching television instead of communicating with his family. His last conversation with his mother that we see is about a television commercial and as his son visits his senile grandfather is a nursing home, a television plays, unwatched, in the background, as it does in many scenes of imploding family life.

The rowhouses of Avalon exist as the ideal America that Sam discovers on leaving the boat and arriving on the Fourth of July amid fireworks and waving flags. As his son prepares to move to the suburbs, he worries that he is getting too far away from Avalon. And indeed the distance helps tear apart the family's rituals of closeness. But the end was inevitable regardless of the move.

Avalon was a temporary state of being based on a kinship between brothers, as brothers gave way to a second generation of cousins and second cousins for a bewildering menagerie of family ties that a tired Ann struggles to explain to a brood of children on the stairs who are all related to each other in some way, the mere existence of blood ties growing ever more distant is no longer enough.

And the neighborhoods that once hosted new immigrants are doomed. Violence will make white flight inevitable. And that will destroy the oases of family life making it impossible to reconstruct that physical closeness even if its members, like Ann, were not already desperate to trade the stifling familiarity of family for an individual empowerment that is nothing  more than hollow aspirational consumerism.

Jules' cousin Kirk is thinking in terms of bigger and bigger discount department stores, Washington's Birthday and Fourth of July sales, aggressive advertising and discounting and even more aggressive debt. The two men are making the good life more affordable for a broader group of Americans, but they also ushering in a consuming materialism that is coming to exist for its own sake.

The only way to fund the constant expansion built on constant debt is to convince your customers to do the same thing. The definition of the good life shifts from family-centric to possession-centric. Happiness becomes a credit card with a large credit limit and pay no attention to the interest rate. The aggressive sales push is being discovered in a thousand places at the same time as K&K makes its ultimately doomed bid to run a discount department store. Its modern counterpart is Amazon.

The toxic combination of entertainment and consumerism makes shopping and ownership into its own culture. It is a culture that traded flawed real things for perfect unreal things. It trades Krichinsky for Kay and Kirk and spends Thanksgiving watching perfect families on television with everyone together and alone at the same time. It isolates itself in an unreal bubble of its own making and wonders at its own unhappiness.

While their parents worked for their children, the children work for themselves with little point except the accumulation of the trophies of modern life; cars, country club memberships and the rest of the good life. Their empty materialism primes the next generation to find an ethical dimension for that prosperity in the politics of the left. And so Krichinskyism gives way to liberalism.

Avalon's tagline is "They shared a dream called America." but it is likely that the dream will take Michael, Sam's grandson and Jules' son, last seen in a seventies getup with his own son, in a post-American direction.

Michael has the sentimental connection to his grandfather, but not an understanding of the choices he made. He fondly retells the story of his grandfather's arrival to Baltimore on the Fourth of July without actually understanding its meaning. To his father, it was second-hand nostalgia, to him it's even less, but it will inevitably play a role in constructing his identity and his politics.

Disregarding the Ashkenazi Jewish custom that Sam mentions in the nursing home, not to name children after living relatives, Michael treats Sam as if he were already dead. A memory to be recycled into an even feebler identity based not on collective family memories, but on personal nostalgia. And personal nostalgia for someone else's culture is all too easily politicized.

Sam and Jules have left their descendants with little other than a sense of loss, a missing space whose nature they do not entirely understand and which they will seek to fill with anything from cults to consumerism to leftist politics.

A thousand Jewish Avalons have come and gone in American life, going from thriving centers of Jewish life to taking on the role of "the old neighborhood" and finally vanishing into the ghetto or a yuppie development to which their own unknowing grandchildren return without even realizing it. 

Sam Krichinsky was in love with America. It was his ideal place. His Camelot. His Avalon. His descendants are Americans in a time when they are no longer certain what that means anymore. Their Jewishness is incidental to them. Their family is a disintegrating memory. Its place has been filled by mass entertainment and a search for ideals, perfect worlds like those seen on television, self-help myths and political utopias to replace the lost imperfect world of Avalon.

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