Tag Archives: Naomi Schor

My generation and Paris

We were born in the safe interval between catastrophes. Which is worse? To have been born in a catastrophic moment and live life at all times informed by danger, fear, and the necessities of bare survival, or to have been born in a moment and place of relative safety and bounty. My generation, many of us the children of war refugees, Holocaust survivors, war survivors in Europe, or of survivors of the Great Depression, was steeped in the history of the previous catastrophic era, but we grew up in a golden moment of post-war middle class relative security and cultural possibility. Now darkness descends: fascism, austerity, poverty, war, extremism, the eradication of symbols of civilization by men and the eradication, by men, of the planet as a site for human existence. Is it worse for us born in an illusory moment of security or for those beginning their lives, born into a transitional moment of lingering entitlement but growing desperation?

Among responses to what happened yesterday evening in Paris, are shock, horror, grief, but also a condemnation of the West for its causative historical policies of colonialism and exploitation, its recent history of senseless war, and its lack of interest in anything that happens any place but at its core. Behind that lurks something else, a critique of the Enlightenment as the philosophical source of Eurocentric domination, something that one encounters more particularly in the one place that has any concern for the Enlightenment, that is to say academia. It is a contradictory discussion, whose terms are largely determined by Western thought, much of it emerging from Paris since the Seventeenth Century and particularly since the French Revolution. Last night the familiar meme, “Today we are all French, Today we are all Parisian…” began to appear, just as monuments around the world were illuminated in the tricolor of the French flag. And certainly anyone who critiques the Enlightenment, just as anyone who is interested in democracy, is going to use French thought to do so, which is to say, largely, Parisian thought.

I am not qualified to engage with the critique of the Enlightenment. But I did receive a French education. That was my “formation” (pronounced as the French word meaning education and training). I later turned away from it yet my mind was formed and marked by that education.

This morning I reached for some of the books from my education at the Lyçée Français de New York and then some of the other books that have been so central to so many of us.


First I got on a little step ladder  to get down from an upper shelf my trusty Lagarde & Michard readers from high school at the Lyçée. I loved these books. Do I remember anything from them enough to discuss or teach? No, and yet when I open them I see the work that we did every week, reading these texts, doing “explication de texte,” being formed by thought and a detailed approach to language about thought itself. They do place human thought at the center of the world. The text most frequently quoted by my students the past few years is Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, where human agency and participation in events is decentered. This is an interesting and importantly egalitarian view, and yet the earlier human centered philosophy is still instructive and even necessary.

Yet here is Blaise Pascal‘s “Le Roseau Pensant,” which posits man as a frail thing, dignified only by his capacity to be self-aware of his mortality and to think. Below that, from the Lagarde & Michard reader, a holographic reproduction of a piece of paper found in the lining of Pascal’s jacket upon his death, the Memorial.




Below that I found two copies of René Descartes’ Discours de la méthode.




From my readings of the past three decades, in another part of my library:


My generation grew up into the spirit of 1968. It was our time. We lived Paris and its philosophy through the films of Jean Luc Godard and also in a different way those of  François Truffaut and Éric Rohmer. The CalArts I attended in 1971, as I realized much later, represented the flowering, in America, of the spirit of ’68, in its approach to freedom within learning and teaching. Most graduate students today still read Debord‘s The Society of the Spectacle and thoughts on détournement are metaphorically traced over the street plan of Paris.

…and in this thread I am not even addressing the importance of French and French based visual art, but…






All graduate students in visual arts or media studies are assigned Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility.” Few immerse themselves in Benjamin’s Arcades Project, a massive, unfinished, mythical,  collection of research about the early years of commodity culture studied through the cultural history of Paris in the Nineteenth Century.




I find that some things are hard wired to an extent that is surprising. I’ve never lived in Paris, have only spent a few weeks there my whole life, and for various reasons and tropisms I became as much of an Anglophile as my sister Naomi Schor became a Francophile, but its role in my parents life and in that of my sister–her red-covered arrondissement map of Paris was one of her most treasured possessions–and the particular role that it plays in the history of the civilization that was the focus of my education from first grade through the final year of the Lyçée, “Philo,” is evidently so deep that I feel a particular spike of hysteria and rage when I hear news of terrorist attacks in Paris. I feel rage at many of the violations of civilization that we experience, from the deep sin the USA committed in waging the Iraq War, for which we will pay for decades, to the destruction of Palmyra, to the near daily mass shootings in the USA. As it is, post 9/11, fear of terrorism inflects my movements in the city, and if that fear is realized in a manner like what has occurred in Paris and elsewhere around the world, I would be under the bed with fear. But apparently Paris occupies a special space in my imaginary.

My father Ilya Schor came to Paris on a grant from the Polish government in 1937. My mother Resia Schor joined him in 1938. Here they are that winter, Place de la République, near where one of the attacks in Paris took place last night.


It is my belief that most likely they would have lived their life based in Paris, returning to Poland to visit family, if it were not for the war. They fled Paris in either late May or early June, 1940, a few days ahead of the German Army. One of the many things I forgot to ask my mother was which day, exactly. Her memory was excellent, particularly for those few weeks of their life, from their departure from Paris, by the Porte d’Orléans, on one of the last trains or the last Métro, then on foot through Orléans, down to Bordeaux, towards the Spanish border, to their arrival in Marseilles in August 1940, where they stayed until October or November 1941, then on through Spain to Lisbon, arriving in New York December 3, 1941.


There are some books I have, but perhaps this is the moment to confess I have not read them.


I will open to a page of Jacques Derrida‘s Archive Fever.


Through chance operations I find this paragraph, in which “the process of archivization” matches and is matched by “anarchiving destruction.”

The news from Paris is one of the many blows to our sense of the loss of reason and hope of our time, yet the day is followed by the day, and one has to figure out how to make the days count even if the idea of accumulating material for the human archive is increasingly revealed as a fantasy.



Letter from a schoolgirl c.1960

In a documentary about 2014 Nobel Prize for literature author Patrick Modiano, historian Henry Rousso says, “Il a..interiorisé quelque chose qu’il na pas vécu”–“he interiorized something he did not live through.” This is the story of the way in which trauma, here the historical trauma of the German Occupation of France during the Second World War, filters through generations and shapes creativity and thought.

The texture of the world at every given moment is riven with traumas, personal, political, historical and at times they compete in ways that compound the psychic damage.

For my sister Naomi and me, my father’s Hasidic background, our parents’ experience of the Second World War, their massive personal losses in the Shoah and their miraculous survival were the past we had not lived but that we lived with, that we interiorized.

Today October 10, 2014 would have been my sister’s seventy-first birthday. She died in 2001 at the age of 58, which seems very young, particularly since I was the younger sister but am now older than that age, so I like to mark her birthday each year in some way.

Ilya Schor, The Tzadik, 1950s, wood engraving

Ilya Schor, The Tzadik, 1950s, wood engraving

A few weeks ago I found a torn scrap of paper among a box of her things: it is the draft of a letter she wrote to André Schwartz-Bart, the author of the 1959 novel Le Dernier des Justes (The Last of the Just). I have not read the novel but perhaps because of Schwartz-Bart’s book and the discussions that took place around it in my childhood, and in particular because the theme of the novel and its title was the theme of a major work from 1956 by my father Ilya Schor, I am haunted by the Talmudic notion of the Lamed Vav Tzadikim, the thirty-six “”hidden righteous ones,” whose existence redeems and preserves the world, their identities hidden to others and even, perhaps most especially, to themselves.

Year-Naomi-Schor-Letter-to-SchwartzBart-60-61-p1 Year_Naomi-Schor-Letter-to-SchwartzBart-60-61-p2

My sister’s handwriting was distinctive and sometimes hard to decipher, this letter for some reason more so than usual: here it is in French and then in English, with cross outs left intact to show the process of writing and certain passages marked […] as undecipherable by me.

Cher Mr. Schwartz-Bart,

Je voudrais, tout simplement, vous remercier d’avoir écrit “Le Dernier des Justes,” Je voudrais vous remercier d’avoir raconté avec tant de poésie et de simplicité cette triste histoire de la famille Lévy, et par extension de tout notre peuple. Je voudrais vous remercie d’avoir exprimé ce que nous sentons tous.

Je me demande […]  si d’autres que nous peuvent sentir ce que nous sentons. Le succès de votre livre en France et ici en Amérique semble indiquer que oui. J’espère que grace à vous et d’autres comme vous qui auront pu lutter contre notre sort – non les […], les cris, la résignation, mais l’art des moyens artistiques, les générations futures de notre peuples pourront vivre, inutile de le dire, en paix.

Je suis une jeune étudiante (17 ans) au Lycée Français de New York. Mes parents, des artistes d’origine Polonaise, ont fui Paris la veille de l’arrivée de Hitler, ont traversé la France, passe deux ans à Marseille et sont enfin venu en Amérique.  Eux, ils ont échappé mais toute leur famille, leur amis ont péri. Mon père peint son petit village polonaise avec sa synagogue, ses hommes, ses femmes: je connais bien le visage de mes ancêtres et confrères disparus et je ne peus dire le vide que je ressens à ne pouvoir jamais jamais connaitre les modèles dont s’inspire mon père.

Mon père travaille aussi fait aussi des objets religieux et décoratifs en argent,  parmi eux il a fait une porte pour une synagogue dont le thème était les Lahmed Vov, les 36…

J’essaye seulement de vous dire que je suis sure que partout où un cœur juif bat votre livre sera chéri et pleure là-dessus.


Naomi Schor



Ilya Schor, 1950s, Steps to Women's Gallery of Synagogue at Zloczow. Gouache.

Ilya Schor, 1950s, Steps to Women’s Gallery of Synagogue at Zloczow. Gouache.

Catalogue for Ilya Schor, 1956, The Doors of the 36, Temple Beth-El of Great Neck, NY

Catalogue for Ilya Schor, 1956, The Doors of the 36, Temple Beth-El of Great Neck, NY

Dear Mr. Schwartz-Bart,

I would very simply like to thank you for having written “The Last of the Just”, I would like to thank you for having told with so much poetry and simplicity this sad story of the family Levy and, by extension, that of our whole people. I would like to thank you for expressing what we all feel.

I wonder if others can feel what we feel. The success of your book in France and in America seems to indicate yes. I hope that thanks to you and others like you who have been able to fight against our fate, not the …, not the cries, the resignation, but [through] artistic means future generations of our people will be able to live, needless to say, in peace.

I am a young schoolgirl (17 years old) at the Lycée Français de New York. My parents, artists of Polish origin, fled Paris just before the arrival of Hitler, they crossed France, spent two years in Marseille and finally arrived in America. They survived but their whole families, their friends perished. My father paints his small Polish village with its synagogue, its men, its women: I know well the face of my lost ancestors and brethren and I cannot express the emptiness I feel to never never be able to know the models that inspire my father.

My father also makes religious and decorative objects out of silver, among these he made a door for a synagogue, whose theme was the Lahmed Vov, the 36…

I just want to tell you that I am sure that everywhere a Jewish heart beats your book will be cherished and wept over.


Naomi Schor

I don’t know if my sister sent the letter. Based on its contents it was written between her seventeenth birthday October 10, 1960 and my father’s death in June 1961, because in the letter she refers to my father as living.

Ilya Schor and Naomi Schor, Provincetown, Summer 1960, Photo: Ryszard Horowitz

Ilya Schor and Naomi Schor, Provincetown, Summer 1960, Photo: Ryszard Horowitz




Naomi Schor at 70

She was born October 10, 1943

in New York City, during World War II, to two refugees in their thirties who had arrived in America barely two years before and who would not become naturalized citizens for another four years.



At first they spoke to her in Polish so that their child would speak their language. But she was the first child born to a circle of friends, all recent refugees, from all over Europe. There was, as my mother put it, a “revolution” among these friends, who protested that they wanted to be able to communicate to this first child. So they spoke to her in French, which they spoke well though with a marked Eastern European accent . I assume that at that time in 1943, 1944, their English was not very good. Her first words were in French: she asked our friend Nadia Temerson, who, while feeding her, was taking little bites of food to encourage her to eat, “c’est bon, Nadia?”


Naomi Schor boarding the SS.United States to begin her first Fulbright Scholarship year in Paris, October 8, 1965.

Naomi Schor, (center, with her foot tipped up) boarding the SS.United States, July 5, 1967, I think returning from her second Fulbright year in France.


Here are some of her many books and articles that are of continued interest, both for her original theoretical insights, her perceptive and nuanced writing style, and also, as traces of the theoretical and linguistics styles that mark developments not just in her work but in the fields within which she worked, from French Literature to Feminist Theory to Gender Politics to Aesthetics. Continue reading


Day by Day in the Studio 12: August 11

Three Tables

August 11, 2011

A drawing from August 11, 2011 finds me at a table, at night. Instead of picturing myself at the table where I did the drawing, I have placed myself where I live much of my life, in front of  my computer, at another table. The table is the one I am writing this blog post on now, a small Parsons-style table my sister Naomi bought for herself to use to write sitting at the same spot: for many years it had a small but treasured view of the Provincetown bay, but over the years two trees have come to block that view…I used to wonder what I could pour onto the roots of the first tree in order to stunt its growth or even kill it, by the time the second one was planted smack in front of the window, the view was mostly gone. She loved that view but she would still love looking out at the sky through the leaves. She always loved the way one could see Norman Mailer sitting in his little study in both his houses here, looking out at the bay, and liked to think of herself in a company of people who have been writers in this place. We shared that love of tradition and of belonging to a place, an American place we felt that through time we could claim to belong to, I think because we also shared the trauma of displacement, one we had not experienced ourselves, but that marked our lives, that of our parents’ forced displacement from Europe.

The drawing was done at another table, a jeweler’s worktable that has been in my family for about 70 years. It was my father Ilya Schor’s worktable in New York, I think perhaps as far back as the 1940s, certainly as far back as 1955. When my mother bought this house, she commissioned a young artist to build a worktable identical to it. The new table stayed in New York, and she brought the old one up here to Provincetown where she worked several months a year for the next 35 years. She always cleared and cleaned the table before her return to New York, covering it with a layer of the New York Times. The first summer after she died I felt the table should not be left alone. I put a fresh layer of newspaper down, unpacked inks, gouaches, brushes, and sketchbook. Sitting at that worktable at night in a pool of light from an ancient fluorescent desk lamp, I worked my way back into life. The worktable was an engine of creativity, a hearth. I thought of it so much as sitting down to her table and continuing that only later did I remember that it was not just her desk, but also his, the one she had sat down to, to continue the work.

Resia Schor, working in Provincetown at age 91, 2002.

Ilya, Resia, and Mira Schor’s worktable, August 11, 2013

I paint on another table where I have worked since before graduate school, next to windows with starched gauze white curtains. I would be happiest having ten such tables, I could use an infinite amount of tables, I am pea-green with envy at artists who have huge studios and giant tables (the kind you see in documentaries, where the artist’s assistant religiously brings out some work for the great man to work on) but this one, always more than half occupied with supplies, has been a place I can work.

Painting table, Provincetown, August 11, 2013

You cannot go home again, in some basic sense: today I walked past the house where I lived when my family was intact, the summers we first came to Provincetown when my father was still alive. Sometime in the 1980s I had the eerie experience of walking past the door and as a young girl came out I heard her mother call her, “Mira.” I had never met or heard of anyone with my name until Marilyn French wrote The Women’s Room, with a heroine of that name, now here was a child named perhaps for that heroine, coming out of the house I had spent perhaps the happiest times of my life. But long since the door, which opened directly to an staircase to the second floor apartment we rented, was boarded up and the entrance moved to the side. But I can sit at my father and mother’s worktable. Tables must be stable and this link to the past creates a kind of stability of tradition and time.


The news that was fit to print, then and now, on a birthday

Today October 10, 2012 would be my sister Naomi Schor‘s sixty-ninth birthday.

I always like to mark her birthday in some way. This year, my birthday remembrance is about politics and newspapers. We shared a passionate, anxious, and affective relationship to politics, something we had both inherited, I believe, from our parents, whose lives had been affected by major political catastrophes and who had an interest in history and politics. One of the interests we shared was in the American electoral process. We enjoyed the theater of it, shared what we felt were the high points and agonized over the darker moments in the years we experienced them together. I know she would be completely wrapped up in the current election, as I am, and perhaps prey to the same moments of deep anxiety about the future.

Last week I went through a box of newspapers and magazines she had saved over the years and had taken the trouble to pack up and take with her for each of the several moves of her distinguished professional life. I too save copies of the paper and in some cases I suspect I have exactly the same material packed away in some box of my own.  I photographed each publication in the box so that I would have some record of even those I was able to force myself to throw out, saving a few as possible research material for an approach to writing about her, part of my larger and still very germinal project of writing a cultural autobiography that, at this point, is more focused on keeping the life and work of my parents and my sister alive as long I can, not just for myself, but for what I think they can mean for anyone else.

The contents of the box I went through included several example of coverage of Watergate.

The date on this newspaper is August 8, 1974, though the Wikipedia timeline states that Nixon resigned on August 9th. The resignation was announced on the 8th, and was official on the 9th when President Ford was sworn in.

Here are two other editions of the New York Times, from Wednesday, July 31, 1974 and Tuesday, August 6, 1974, as the final stages of the Watergate scandal played out across the print press and television coverage that had gripped much of the country. For myself, I had been at graduate school at CalArts in the early stages of the scandal, and I think this may have been the one point in my life I was not reading the Times regularly or particularly focused on anything except my own life: I was absorbed in new friendships, in the first class I ever taught, and was preparing my MFA show. The Senate Watergate hearings had begun May 17. When I got back to New York around the 3rd of June, 1973, Watergate was all anyone could talk about, I found that my mother and sister were obsessed with every development so I got up to speed and I watched every minute of the Senate hearings from that point on.

The first of the two copies of the Times that I had set aside, in a kind of hoarder’s purgatory, not safely back in the box for further research, not in the bunch I actually did throw out, is from two days before Nixon resigned:

The other edition I selected is from a few days before that, July 31: I was about to throw both of these copies out and just hold on to “Nixon Resigns” but when I put a current paper on top, also to be discarded, I was struck by the physical difference in size between the paper then and now:

The first thing that one notes in handling the historical copies and the paper today is that it has shrunk considerably, I believe the size has been diminished twice in the past twenty years. The 1974 paper was 23″x14½,” the current one is 22″x12″–not a huge difference but a less imposing artifact to be sure and it appears much narrower when placed next to or on top of the old version. When the newspaper last shrunk, I recall that readers were assured that the percentage of news coverage would not diminish: I remember counting the news stories in pre- and post- shrinkage editions–can’t be sure but I think that I found that, contrary to that claim, there were in fact slightly fewer news stories.

Most people would agree that this more modest scale is ecologically sound, and at this point I am just grateful I can still begin my day reading the New York Times in hard copy though diminished not just in dimensions but in amount of pages, and perhaps also in amount of news covered of a non-entertainment nature. It’s not perfect, but it is still the newspaper. One of my sister’s friends says that the one reason she doesn’t mind getting older is that she may possibly not outlive the hard copy publication of the New York Times! Nevertheless, to hold the 1974 issue is an experience with some gravitas that is perhaps lacking today. OK, already you can see the disjunction here: gravitas and news!!! I just watched The Daily Show tonight. Like a lot of people I count on Jon Stewart, a comedian, to do the job mainstream media reporters as well as sitting presidents should be doing in mano a mano combat with Republican bullshit, so that portentous experience of holding open in your hands that 46 inch full spread of 8 columns a page of news is a long long time ago.

Looking at the paper from last week’s coverage of the first Presidential debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney, the situation seems more depressing and more dire than the situation in 1974, because the peculiar thing about the Watergate scandal is that at the same time as it uncovered a plot by the President of the United States to subvert major branches of government and that it made us acquainted with some horrible people, including a close-up view of the dark soul of Richard Nixon, it also introduced us to some politicians one felt one could respect and admire, and revealed courage, integrity, and what could still seem like authentic authenticity at many levels of American culture from the press to the government. There were as many heroes as villains in the story and as I recall there was some level of continued trust in America despite everything that was revealed during the process. “The system worked,” or so people said at the time.

But things were happening in that very moment of the seeming triumph of justice and democracy that have a bearing on our own time. The stories are more linked that one might think. The 30+ year reign of increasingly right wing social politics and corporation friendly laws and Supreme Court decisions we have endured since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 actually began during the same period as the most vivid moments of political fervor and transformation of the 1960s, and a return to order was already being formulated during the Nixon administration. For example, the so-called “Powell Memo” or Powell Manifesto was first published in August 1971, as “Confidential Memorandum: Attack of American Free Enterprise System.” In it, then corporate lawyer Lewis F. Powell laid out most of the political goals and tactics for the right wing, calling for the creation of many of the institutions that have brought us to decisions like Citizens United and organizations like ALEC. Powell was named to the Supreme Court by Nixon two months after the publication of this document. In another example of the links between then and now, one of the few figures who did not show backbone and political heroism in the events known at the “Saturday Night Massacre,” when Nixon called for the dismissal of Watergate independent prosecutor Archibald Cox by executive order was then Solicitor General Robert Bork. Later rejected by the Senate when he was nominated to the Supreme Court by Ronald Reagan, Bork set the model for Justices like Antonin Scalia and is said to be advising the Romney campaign on Supreme Court nominations should Romney be elected.

Yesterday I spit into the wind and wrote to President Obama at “Letters to Obama:”

Dear President Obama: I hope you will fight back and fight for this election, against lies and to prevent what I think would be an incredibly dangerous President and Vice President, with Republican majority. Is this the country and the world that you want for your daughters to live in? This election is not about you indeed, it is about us, we can vote, yes, your loyal though often frustrated base will vote for you, but you are the only person on the stage who can fight back against Romney’s shape shifting lies, we can’t. So, at long last, do it..you don’t have to overact at the next debates, you just have to defend your record, your beliefs, your policies, and the truth. The country’s fate is at stake, not just your career.


Mira Schor

Utterly futile and a lot more polite than what I really want to say but perhaps just a little birthday card to my sister, who would have despaired of a Romney Presidency, as do I.


My sister and a friend, reading the newspaper on the beach, late 60s or early 70s.