Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Water and Desert: Perspectives in Education


For two years I taught literature, reading and writing at a public university in one of New York City’s outer Boroughs. Of course having come out of a liberal arts “thinking” institution what I really thought (maybe hoped) I was teaching was new perspectives. Ironically, the challenge that most struck me was not administrative, nor class size or terrible grammar and endless hours of grading, the most pressing obstacle lay in creating a case for the value of “thinking.”


I state “case” because I regularly felt like my passions and beliefs, as well as my liberal arts education went on daily trial. I had originally come from a hard-scrabble immigrant reality, but my perception of reality had been altered by my education experience, and as an educator I felt the need to authenticate my progressive (core text) education with my students.

I was regularly reminded that the  immediate world of the “average” student (citizen) with all its pressing, “real” concerns does not immediately open itself to “thought” in the liberal arts sense. We are a specialization, automation, struggling and hyper competitive society. The “learning time” of a student citizen is spent in the acquisition of “marketable,” and differentiating skills, while their “free time” is the opportunity to decompress from, or completely escape the pressures of competitive skill acquisition. The whole cycle is guided by an air of anxiety fostered in our national eduction philosophy, as well as the troubled economy and scattered society at large. I don’t think one can teach the humanities without listening to their students, and listening to the students calls for a deep inventory on the value of “thought” in the humanities sense, and then ultimately in how to most truthfully communicate this value to the students.

I need to add here that my students were quite smart and insightful. This made it even greater of a challenge. Their intelligence was one of realism. I needed to both acknowledge and sway their perspective, as well as my own.

Each semester I began with a close-reading of David Foster Wallace's commencement speech at Kenyon College, “What is Water.” He begins his speech with the parable of two fish swimming by an older fish which as it swims by asks, How is the Water?” The little ones swim on and only later ask each other, “What is water?”  Didactic parable, cliche -- yes -- but Wallace goes on to deconstruct the artifice of commencement speeches, parables, and cliches, and then rebuilds them. Having so skillfully deconstructed them he has invited his listers into the form making, and as he communicates the truth beneath what had earlier seemed lofty or cliche, the listers follow him towards meaning making. Ultimately Wallace states that education is “less about teaching you how to think, and more about teaching you of the choice in what to think about.” To have agency is to be a meaning maker. And as more and more cultural institutions artfully vie for the citizens devotion and loyalty -- politics, religion, but even more so, corporate houses and pop culture designs, in the ever growing noise of institutional marketing the call to choose seems ever more muted.

The choice, for so many students today, is simply in how to most skillfully compartmentalize themselves and their lives in the face of the anxieties of their immediate world. The choice for many young teachers, facing their own set of related anxieties, is in how far are they willing step away from the ideal of learning-living-teaching integration model -- so easy is it today as an educator to simply become disenchanted, frustrated and aloof. Sometimes, “thinking” is the process of choosing what to keep and what to give away.


Wallace's insightful, no b.s, humorous and sincere tone resonated with my students, that is of course until they found out that Wallace killed himself. Then, that’s what everyone wanted to focus on. I can not blame them. There is a ‘text’ to ‘personal’ mystery, a ‘content’ to ‘context’ disjunction that opens itself at such a revelation, a mystery that the “thinking” mind wants to explore. The modern “thinking” mind draws little separation between the lofty and the sublime, the public and the personal. Such is a byproduct of a generation raised on reality television and celebrity stories. I, in all sincerity cannot judge this. My generation, the X’s who came of age on the cusp of the Millennials, were culturally educated by MTV, The Real World and Road Rules, and thus we crave hip, colorful, appropriately gentrified spaces to occupy -- think of artist collectives, or Facebook and Google working environments (bean bags, chill and chic prescription sunglasses, lounge happy hour with juice bars, untraditional working hours, colorful earth tones). I digress, I meant to make some observation of “thinking.”

I was excited to teach what excited me: I began with Wallace, then Kafka, O’Connor (Flannery or Frank), Platonov, Carver, Babel, Achebe Kundera, Elliot, etc... It is, essentially, the seven sisters freshmen reading list, a popular catalogue of classic stories peppered with some international obscurity. It is the “cool” thing in liberal arts. But, over and over my students came to me complaining that they could not find this relevant to their lives. After such reports I would tweak my lesson plans to give a greater introduction to the works, going deeper into the philosophical tenets of the stories, and into the universal reward of being able to utilize the tools of the thinking, writing mind. Induct, deduct, compare, contrast, relate, “give it greater shape,” I would say. “Breath life into it.”

To have the skills to decipher plot, to record the echo of a narrative, to infer characterization from setting, to understand the complex structure of a character, to be invited to participate in the co-creation of a narrative which gently guides you through action but leaves the moral implications up to the reader. These are “indispensable,” I would advise my students. “Indispensable for human agency.” Some would slowly gravitate to my vision, as I prodded further and further into their motivations for being in school, career, and other ‘relevant’ choice. Yet, they often felt only like visitors in my library, preparing to check out and return to the “default” education thinking mode as soon as the quarter, mid, or end semester exam periods began. The pressures of what they call “the real world” are much stronger then the ghosts of books and introspective thought -- vague, powerless, intangible.

“The real world:” Here I am reminded of the scene from the Matrix when Morpheus unveils to Neo “the desert of the real.” A barren waste land of human energy as only a power source nourished for consumption. The Matrix, I will add here, is based on a work by Jean Baudrillard, a french philosopher who warns of a modern society as a place existing in consumption and entertainment, devoid of meaning making -- the urge towards agency, in hibernation; the map towards meaning, defunct. In describing this new world he coined the phrase “the desert of the real.” Again, I fall into tangental thought.

I needed to find a way to invite, seduce, capture my students. I tried using myself as a conduit.

I pride myself on the fact that I am an immigrant, a former “at risk” student, that my tattoos all have mythological meaning and thought behind them, that I am a high-school drop out with credentials to my name, a top tier education, a masters degree, etc... I felt like these could help me bridge for my students the platforms of reality-setting discourse and humanistic thought. I had, and still do, believed that real “thinking” is indispensable in being human, in being free, and in the ability to have fun and play with the world.

Again, my students would, at times, meet me in the middle space I wanted to create, though rarely did this space become living for them, instead they lay their heads to the sound of another’s palpitation and breath, and then moved on. Maybe I planted a seed, I like to think. But then, maybe, they were bringing me somewhere as well.

They could not recklessly follow me, or I them. It was an issue of pragmatic bonds. For a moment, my class, or an individual student I was reading with would delve into the power of words with me and the ending of Andrei Platonov’s “Potudon River”  would finally break through the events of the page: “Not every grief can be comforted; there is a grief that ends only after the heart has been worn away in long oblivion, or in distraction amidst life’s everyday concerns.” And my students would draw new understanding of the passage, enter it through a word or phrase that could unlock that middle space between their worlds and the world of literature, philosophy, metaphor. “Grief,” “long oblivion,” life’s everyday concerns,” all the sudden my students would give these new meaning, now only slightly guided by the story and letting their lives find a grip to the reigns. They would find new connections, and again they would return to the “real” world.

More and more I struggled to make thinking relevant. “Will this help me get a better job?” I was asked.


Thinking about it I had to encounter my own struggles with this question. I know the answers. I know the programed liberal arts answer, and the “real” answer. I know that the liberal arts answer exposes the “real” as something at best lacking, at its worst empty. I also know that the real, is real; it happens in real time, removed from the concerns of literature, poetry, and philosophy which concern themselves with the work of mans eternity.

“Unlikely,” I would answer. For gods sake, though I was teaching all these things I cared so deeply about, I also worked nights as a bartender to satisfy the demands of the real. I had to produce something consumable and all of my learning and thoughts on thinking are not that.

Here I acknowledge that this answer is not entirely true. We can find jobs which call for liberal arts skills, but these are few and far between and rarely afford a comfortable standard of living. We may also posit the argument that liberal arts skills will contribute to ones ability to perform better and have a greater understanding of ones job, but this argument does not lend itself to substantial evidence, no matter how much I may actually believe it. This was the litmus test of my “thinking,” and it only survives in embracing the privacies of my world, that I chose my private world despite and above the “real.”

“Unlikely.” And where does that leave us?

Ultimately, all I have as a conscious being is the ability to tell stories, to choose and create my narrative from the scattered world I am provided. Ultimately, after deconstructing both the “real” and the “lofty” I could only encourage my students to choose their own themes. To the question of “what is water?” I could only answer, “the desert.”

Oddly enough, and as “unlikely” as it may seem, when I answered with honesty, to them as well as myself, they followed. -- we could talk.

-Nikita Nelin


Hannah Arendt and Yiddish

“German Jewry, like Western European Jewry in general, never understood that the simple person is the true center of politics in all democratically governed countries.

And this is also the reason why German Jews often do not understand the just national aspirations of the Jewish people [folk]. Most do not know at all what a people [folk] really is and what it wants. The most beautiful Hebrew in the world will not teach them that. Let the German Jews learn to respect simple person [poshete mentshn], in general, and the simple Jew [yiddishe folks-mentsh], in particular – and then you will be able to speak to them about Jewish politics in all the languages of the world.”

These are the closing words of an op-ed written by Hannah Arendt in November 1942 for the New York Yiddish daily Morgen Zshurnal. The short piece is a response to an account of recent conflicts between German and Hebrew speakers in the Jewish settlement in Palestine (the Yishuv) written by Aaron Zeitlin, a Yiddish author and regular contributor to the newspaper.

Children in the Yishuv, 1941

It is, by all evidence, Arendt’s only Yiddish-language publication. (A year earlier, in December 1941, the News Bulletin of the “Emergency Committee for Zionist Affairs” published a Yiddish translation of Arendt’s first Aufbau op-ed, “The Jewish Army – The Beginning of Jewish Politics?” But the Morgen Zshurnal piece seems to be the only one that Arendt published exclusively in Yiddish.) Arendt’s Yiddish voice is both familiar and surprising, and, as I shall sketch very briefly here, her exchange with Zeitlin fascinatingly prefigures significant moments in Arendt’s thinking and her dialogue with others later in life, for example her exchange with Gershom Scholem about Eichmann in Jerusalem.

In the fall of 1942, tensions between immigrants from Nazi Germany and the veteran Zionist community of the Yishuv had reached a violent peak with the bombing of a press in Jerusalem, which had been printing a German-language newspaper. Zeitlin bases his account of the event, and of the political atmosphere that led up to it, on a report by Menachem Ben Eliezer, which appeared in October in the Hebrew newspaper Hadoar, published in New York by the Hebrew Federation of America. The Hebrew reporter and the Yiddish commentator both blame the German Jews, known as “Yekkes,” for failing to assimilate into the society of the Yishuv and, especially, for obstinately refusing to learn Hebrew. In Zeitlin’s words, the German Jews are not patriotic because they lack a love of Israel (“ahavat Israel” or, in Yiddish, “ahaves Yisroel”).

Arendt, described in the byline as “a well-known German-Jewish writer and Zionist activist” who, “in 1935, visited the Land of Israel, where she spent three months and had the opportunity to get to know the Yishuv and the new immigration (Aliyah),” responds to the accusations ambivalently. Outraged by the violent act of the Hebrew purists of the Yishuv, she nevertheless concedes that the failure of German Jews to understand the simple Jews of Eastern Europe and their justified national aspirations is a problem.

The brief op-ed piece thus reveals a fascinating moment in the development of Arendt’s identity and her political affinities. Having recently arrived as a refugee from Europe, Arendt was writing for the German-language Aufbau and would soon start publishing in English-language publications such as Partisan Review and Nation. But her attention was evidently also devoted to publications such as Morgen Zshurnal and their Yiddish-speaking readership. As Thomas Wild has recently argued on this website, Arendt’s career would continue to move productively between German and English, for example when she substantially revised the English The Human Condition to produce the German Vita Activa.

And even after this brief stint, the Yiddish language did not disappear from her writing entirely, as I briefly mention below. She would also find opportunities to reflect publicly on issues of language choice, for example in her 1948 dedication of the German book Sechs Essays to her friend and mentor Karl Jaspers, where she explains the difficulty and the necessity of writing and publishing in her native language. But this Yiddish op-ed – written in a language that she had studied as an adult and that was rapidly moving aside to make space for English, not only in her mind but also in the American-Jewish public sphere – is probably the only statement that Arendt made about Jewish language politics.

Interestingly, at this juncture in her own linguistic affiliations, Arendt insists that the battle over languages is a political red herring. “Unlike Herr Zeitlin,” she writes, “I am of the opinion that the entire education and psychology of the world could not successfully separate people from their mother tongue […]. It is a process of a generation or two, and in America we have the best proof of that.” Instead of focusing on the struggle between the languages, Arendt points her readers in two different directions. The piece opens, in a familiarly sarcastic tone, with an expression of Arendt’s interest in Jewish militancy as a form of political response to the current crisis (an interest that was expressed in her contemporary writing for Aufbau): “I am of the opinion that it would be better for the Yishuv to boycott German merchandise rather than the German language, and that the hotheads would do better to save the bombs for Rommel’s soldiers rather than to use them against the Jews for their German language.” But it ends on a different note, with a vision of a post-Babelian politics that grows out of solidarity with the simple people. If the German Jews only understood what a true Jewish “folks-mentsh” is, the conversation could transcend linguistic divisions and one would be “able to speak to them about Jewish politics in all the languages of the world.”

As Elizabeth Young-Bruehl describes in her biography and as evidenced also in the early correspondence with Heinrich Blücher, Arendt had studied Yiddish with her friend Chanan Klenbort in Paris. But in the absence of further information about the composition process – was the piece written in German and translated into Yiddish? Or did a native speaker aid Arendt, in the way that friends such as Randall Jarrell and Alfred Kazin later helped her with her English? – one can only speculate about the significance of the highly Germanic style of the Yiddish in which the piece is written or of word choices such as “folks-mentsh” and “posheter mentsh.” Reading Arendt in Yiddish can feel like a glimpse through a door to an alternative history. What would have been the circumstances – in Arendt’s own intellectual development, in the history of the Jews – that would have compelled her to keep writing in Yiddish? Would the Yiddish version of The Human Condition have placed the “posheter mentsh” at the center of politics? In other words, the Yiddish op-ed focuses our view on Arendt’s preoccupations and her transformation during her early years in the United States. It also sharpens questions that have already been raised in relation to her writing for Aufbau: Does the writing of this period prepare the ground for her later philosophical and political work? And if it does, how should we describe this ground? Or does the shift of her positions on Zionism rather constitute a break in her thinking?

It is easy to see the continuity between the criticism Arendt expresses here and her sharp critique of German Jewry in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem. But there are other, far more uncanny, linguistic continuities, not only in Arendt’s own writing but also in her dialogues and polemics with others. In his famous response to the Eichmann book, Gershom Scholem echoes Zeitlin – most probably unwittingly – when he laments Arendt’s lack of “Ahabath Israel” (as Scholem rather Germanically transcribes the Hebrew expression). Arendt seems to hear that echo when she inserts in her reply to Scholem’s letter a parenthetical inquiry about the history of the term: “I would, by the way, be very thankful if you could tell me since when this concept plays a role in the Hebrew language and scripture, when it first appears, etc.” Indeed, the echo seems to conjure up in Arendt elements of her original response to Zeitlin, and so she returns to the same simple person she had once hoped that German Jewry could listen to, in Yiddish or in “all the languages of the world.” Thus, when she attempts to defend her (to many readers indefensible) position on Jewish collaboration with the Nazis, she explains to Scholem: “There was no possibility of resistance, but there was a possibility of doing nothing. And in order to do nothing, one need not have been a saint, but rather one needed simply to say: I am a simple Jew (ein poscheter Jude) and I do not want to be more than that.”

The Yiddish was excised from the German version that was published by the Neue Zürcher Zeitung in October 1963 (where it was replaced by “einfacher Jude”) and from the English translation published in Encounter in December 1964 (which refers to “a Simple Jew”). The act of self-censorship is probably as revealing as Arendt’s use of the term itself.

Arendt’s brief foray into Yiddish journalism also has a fascinating postscript on the pages of the Morgen Zshurnal (or rather its continuation Der Tog Morgen Zshurnal). As Richard I. Cohen has described, in 1965 the newspaper carried Aaron Zeitlin’s raging response to Arendt’s Eichmann book, a response in which he described her as the agent of the devil. Zeitlin does not explicitly mention his previous disagreement with Arendt, indeed, he conspicuously avoids mentioning her by name. But, in its emphasis on Arendt’s misnaming of Eichmann when she describes him as a “grey, simple (posheter) average person,” his vitriolic attack can be read as a response to Arendt’s polemic twenty-three years earlier

-Na’ama Rokem

Based on research and translation conducted in collaboration with Sunny Yudkoff. Many thanks to Barbara Hahn and Thomas Wild, who uncovered the Yiddish piece in the Hannah Arendt archive. 

NOTE: This Saturday, February 23, 2013 marks the launch of the Hananh Arendt Center three part series, "Music in the Holocaust: Jewish Identity and Cosmopolitanism". The series is made possible through the generosity of grant from the Bertha Effron Fund of the Community Foundation of the Hudson Valley. Learn more here.

February 23

COERCION, COLLUSION & CREATIVITY - Music of the Terezin Ghetto & the Central European Experience

April 20

NATIONALISM, CONTINUITY & SYNTHESIS - Music of Warsaw, Lodz, & other Eastern ghettos

April 27

KURT WEILL & THE MODERNIST MIGRATION - Music of Weill & Other Émigrés