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The Jews of Mound Bayou

Monday, July 06, 2015 | Permalink

Sabra Waldfogel writes historical fiction about Southern Jews and African Americans in slavery and freedom. Her most recent book, Freedom’s Island, about an all-black Mississippi town menaced in the 1880s by a greedy cotton planter and a former Klansman, and aided by a Jewish merchant, has just been published. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Isaiah MontgomeryIsaiah Montgomery,
founder of Mound Bayou

When James Marr, resident and alderman of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, undertook his duties as census enumerator on June 1, 1900, he counted the Fink brothers, Frank and Joe, who were working as grocers. He listed them as black, but they were not. They were Jewish immigrants from Russia.

Jews ran groceries, dry goods stores, and general stores in small towns all over the South, and anywhere else, the presence of two Jewish merchants would be unremarkable. But Mound Bayou was an extraordinary place, an all-black town where no white person lived without invitation.

Who asked the Finks to live and work in Mound Bayou, and why did they accept? The answer lies with the man who founded and built Mound Bayou—visionary and entrepreneur Isaiah Thornton Montgomery. Montgomery was slave to one unusual man and son to another, and he brought his lifelong experience with racial accommodation and racial uplift to his dealings with the Finks.

Joseph Davis: The Utopian Slaveowner

Isaiah Montgomery was born in 1847 on the Mississippi plantation of Joseph Emory Davis, older brother to future Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Joseph Davis, a lawyer before he became a planter, was troubled by slavery, and when he met the utopian thinker Robert Owen, he decided to apply utopian ideals to the peculiar institution. He became a man of substance. On the eve of the Civil War, he owned 345 slaves.

More than his wealth set him apart. He treated his “servants” with a decency and a dignity highly unusual among Southern slaveowners. For Davis, assuring his slaves comfortable housing, food, and clothing was only the beginning. He encouraged their enterprise, allowing them to sell produce and to keep the profits, and he gave them the opportunity for self-governance. Davis’ slaves had their own court, where they resolved disputes and reviewed complaints from overseers. Isaiah Montgomery recalled of his childhood that “we just barely had an idea of what slave life was.”

Benjamin Montgomery: The Entrepreneurial Father

Isaiah Montgomery grew up observing an equally unusual relationship between his master and his father. Davis believed in encouraging the talents of his slaves, and the best example—and the greatest beneficiary—was Benjamin Montgomery, who first came to Davis’ attention when he ran away. It was common to punish or to sell a runaway slave, but instead, Davis “inquired closely into the cause of [Ben’s] dissatisfaction.” He discovered an educated, talented man, whom Davis came to respect and depend upon.

Benjamin Montgomery was skilled as a machinist and an inventor, but his greatest talent was for business. Davis set him up as the proprietor of a small general store on the plantation in 1842. Montgomery was soon was able to establish his own line of credit, and in addition to running the ever-expanding store, he also began to act as Davis’ agent in selling the plantation’s crops. On the eve of the Civil War, his store was patronized by the Davis family as well as by the Davis slaves, and Davis trusted him to manage the plantation’s business affairs. He continued to manage the Davis holdings throughout the Civil War.

In 1866, a war-weary Joseph Davis struck a bargain with the Montgomery family. He agreed to sell them the Davis holdings, and Benjamin Montgomery applied his considerable entrepreneurial talent to running a large plantation. Isaiah Montgomery, who managed the plantation’s store and oversaw one of his father’s three holdings, became his father’s right-hand man.

By the end of Reconstruction, the Montgomery family ran one of the largest and most successful cotton plantations in Mississippi. The family combined their belief in hard work with a dedication to education and cultivation. Isaiah Montgomery clearly saw that success in business and moral uplift went hand in hand.

The decline in the cotton market during the 1870s, combined with Benjamin Montgomery’s death in 1877, put the Montgomery plantation in jeopardy. Unable to repay their loan to the Davises, the Montgomerys relinquished the plantation to the Davis family in 1881.

Isaiah Montgomery Builds a Refuge

Inspired by the spirit of his father, Isaiah Montgomery wanted to create a “refuge” where black autonomy, financial success, and moral uplift could intertwine and encourage each other. In 1887, he bought a tract of undeveloped land from the Louisville, New Orleans and Texas Railroad, with the intention of establishing “a Negro colony,” in the later words of his friend Booker T. Washington. After a year of back-breaking effort, the town began to take shape, populated by farmers raising cotton and small merchants in town serving them.

The post-Reconstruction years in Mississippi saw the growth of sharecropping and debt peonage, a new form of enslavement for black farmers without capital. As the Republican Party—the party of President Lincoln and emancipation—declined in strength in Mississippi, so did the franchise for black voters. Throughout the South, Democratic politicians became convinced that the black franchise was the cause of political disruption in Southern elections. Mississippi became the first Southern state to disenfranchise its black voters in 1890.

Isaiah Montgomery’s feelings about black autonomy did not extend to participation in politics. He was the only black delegate at the 1890 convention. He sat on the franchise committee and argued for the poll taxes and literacy tests that effectively disenfranchised blacks, firm in the belief that the best course for black Mississippians was economic autonomy rather than involvement in political life.

Isaiah Montgomery Promotes Mound Bayou

Mound Bayou became an incorporated town in 1898, and held its first municipal election the same year. To no one’s surprise, Isaiah Montgomery was elected mayor, along with three aldermen and a constable. Montgomery had always been Mound Bayou’s greatest advocate, but his new responsibility as mayor spurred his efforts to encourage the town’s development. In 1900, Mound Bayou became a depot on the railroad that had always run through the town, which promised future growth.

Montgomery also became involved in an organization with a mission close to his heart: Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business League, which supported the efforts of black business owners all over the country, but particularly in the South. Montgomery helped Washington organize the League’s first meeting in Boston in September of 1900, where he spoke about Mound Bayou.

Montgomery was more than the town’s mayor. He was its foremost merchant, but also it and its leader and biggest booster. By 1900 he was clearly overextended, with three businesses to run: his own, the town’s, and the League’s. He needed someone to mind the store in Mound Bayou. Sometime around 1900, he met the Finks, who were working as grocers in nearly Beulah.

Enter the Finks

The experience of the Fink brothers was typical of Jews of their generation. They were born in the Russian Empire. Their father, a grain and coal merchant, left for America in the wake of the rise in anti-Semitism after the czar’s assassination in 1881. Once established in New York, Abe Fink sent for his wife and seven children, who settled there and became citizens. After their father’s death in 1892, the children made their way in the world, the daughters marrying and the sons going into business. Frank and Joe’s sister Celia married a man named Barnett Wolf, who moved to Mississippi to run a grocery in Beulah, and Frank and Joe followed shortly after.

The Finks must have struck a chord with Montgomery: refugees from persecution, hopeful to advance themselves through the business of storekeeping, with ties to grocery suppliers and a line of credit. Their manner must have struck him, too. Like many Jewish merchants in small Southern towns, they had become used to serving black customers and treating them with courtesy. They must have been unusually open-minded to contemplate the prospect of living among black people as social equals.

“No white man has ever lived here”

Everything in Mound Bayou occurred under the paternalistic scrutiny of Montgomery, and the transformation of the Finks into black people in the census was no exception. It was a way to protect the Finks, who were breaking the rules of proper racial behavior in Mississippi. But it was also a way to protect the image of Mound Bayou, which would become highly visible after Booker T. Washington began to help Montgomery publicize and raise money for “a town owned by Negroes.”

By 1901, the Finks had left Mound Bayou—Frank married, and he and Joe bought land in Duncan, north of Mound Bayou, where they ran a store and grew cotton. Three years later, when Booker T. Washington visited Mound Bayou, he wrote, “no white man has ever lived in this community since it was established, except the man who introduced the telephone system, and he remained only long enough to teach some of the townspeople to manage the exchange.” The Fink brothers, white and Jewish, who briefly threw in their lot with Mound Bayou’s, slipped from view and from the town’s history.


The best source on the intertwined history of the Montgomery family and the Davis family remains Janet Sharp Hermann’s book, The Pursuit of a Dream (Oxford University Press, 1981). It is fascinating to read Booker T. Washington’s 1904 piece on Mound Bayou, “Mound Bayou, Mississippi: a Town Owned by Negroes.” Information on the Finks comes from the census and from Fink family descendants—I’m especially indebted to Joe Fink’s grandson, Mark Hein. Also see Margery Kerstine and Judy Tucker, “Jake Fink: A Delta Entrepreneur,” Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies; December 2000, Vol. 31, Issue 3, p. 214.

For more information about Sabra Waldfogel and her work, visit her website.

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Friday, July 03, 2015 | Permalink

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Capturing a Vanished World: Last Folio by Yuri Dojc & Katya Krausova

Thursday, July 02, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Becca Kantor

Last Folio: A Photographic Memory offers a haunting glimpse into the traces of vanished Jewish life in Slovakia, the first country to instate Nazi Germany’s anti-Jewish regulations. These photographs by Yuri Dojc—whose own grandfather was one of the many Slovakian Jews deported to concentration camps—capture abandoned Jewish books, schoolrooms , synagogues, and cemeteries in poignant detail, attesting to both the richness of this heritage and its disintegration during the Holocaust.

The images in Last Folio are on display at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin (the Berlin State Library) until August 1, and will be shown at Tufts University in Medford, MA from September 10-December 6. You can also get a taste of Dojc’s beautiful photographs below:

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We're Living in a Golden Age of Jewish American Art & Don’t Really Know It

Wednesday, July 01, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Matthew Baigell wrote about anti-Semitic images of Jews in American humor magazines and social concern and left politics in Jewish American art. He is the author of the recently published book Social Concern and Left Politics in Jewish America Art, 1880-1940 and has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribeseries.

These are great times for those of us who support, encourage, and enjoy looking at art with Jewish themes. Perhaps never before are so many artists all over America finding inspiration in the basic texts of the religion—the Torah, the Talmud, kabbalah, and the daily and high holiday prayer books. The artists do not just illustrate these texts in traditional ways but challenge them, especially feminist artists opposed to male patriarchy, and find personal themes and subject matter that allow for personal flights of fancy.

Based on several factors including Israeli military victories in 1967 and 1973, the liberation movements of the 1960s (civil and gay rights, the women’s movement), and the spiritualism within the Jewish Renewal movement, Jewish artists began to explore openly and aggressively their religious and cultural heritage. The results have been astonishing. These artists, who have matured in an environment largely free from overt anti-Semitism, belong to the generations born in the 1930s and after, the first generations of artists to feel comfortable as Jews and as assimilated Americans.

No longer worrying about coming out of the closet, as it were, as Jewish artists, they have revolutionized Jewish American art. Their styles range from realistic to abstract. Some employ commix imagery. Many would like their art to contribute to a sense of “tikkun olam,” or repair of the world, not a bad idea wanting to contribute to world betterment in the market-driven art world.

Some artists have created narrative series, a new development in Jewish American art. Examples abound. California-based Ruth Weisberg created a fourteen-panel series titled “Sisters and Brothers” in 1994 in which she explored disruptive family relationships between Leah and Rachel and Isaac and Esau in order to stress the relevance of the Bible as a contemporary source of moral values. In one scene, we see Jacob asking for is father Isaac’s blessing by taking the place of Esau, his older brother.

For the last ten-plus years, David Wander has created his versions of the Five Scrolls—Esther, Ruth, Song of Songs, Lamentations, and Ecclesiastes. Esther, in the most commix version of all, is a combination of biblical text and midrashic legend ending in the return of the Israelites to Jerusalem. 

Siona Benjamin, born into the Bene Israel community in India and now a New Jersey resident, portrayed the story of Queen Esther in the ancient Persian-Indian style of miniatures. Shown here is one of her portraits of Lilith, in legend a woman of independent mind who was Adam’s first wife.

Michigan-based Lynn Avadenka added short poems to her presentation of the matriarchs. New York-based Tobi Kahn created individual abstract images of the matriarchs on the backs of four chairs used for baby-naming rituals. Jill Nathanson created four abstract paintings expressionist in mood in which she tried to suggest what Moses might have felt when he went up Sinai a second time to receive the Tablets and what Nathanson herself might have felt had she also gone up Sinai to talk directly to God.

Whatever their degrees of religiosity, the artists want to share their very personal feelings with their viewers and the different ways in which they relate to the ancient texts. In effect, they are exploring Judaism in non-traditional, sometimes even idiosyncratic, but very committed, individualized ways. Each is a party of one engaged in his or her own personal quest. The ancient texts, therefore, are basically launching pads for their own unique visions located firmly within a Jewish context.

Matthew Baigell is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Art History at Rutgers University. He is the author of numerous books, including American Artists, Jewish Images, and Jewish Art in America: An Introduction. His most recent book is Social Concern and Left Politics in Jewish America Art, 1880-1940.

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Prejudice Porn: Images of Jews in American Art, 1880-1940

Tuesday, June 30, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Matthew Baigell wrote about social concern and left politics in Jewish American art. He is the author of a recently published book on the topic and will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

American Jews or Jewish Americans have had great success in this country. So it is extremely difficult to believe that in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries, they were the subjects of hundreds of truly vicious cartoons in American humor magazines. These were the decades of the Great Migration from Eastern Europe that began around 1800. Historians have suggested that of all immigrant groups, Jews were the most intensely caricatured and vilified and the cartoons bear out this judgement. Some images are as anti-Semitic as those in old Nazi as well as in contemporary Arab publications.

The cartoonists, rather than portraying immigrants in a welcoming manner or at least show them integrating into American society instead invariably showed them as Shylocks, Fagins, social climbers, criminals, scheming parvenus who would take advantage of any situation in which they found themselves. Tailors gulled clients by selling damaged and ill-fitting clothing, Parents taught children that making money by whatever means was the primary goal in life. Adults sought bargains wherever these could be found. Arson was encouraged in order to collect insurance. The list goes on. Captions, written in broken English as a way to distance the immigrants from native speakers, imitated the speech patterns of those who had not yet mastered the English language.

Judged not as individuals but as an undifferentiated group, Jewish people were considered as the quintessential Other in American culture, the community that might be impossible to fully assimilate, its Zionist impulses and loyalties to a mysterious community of international Jewry being not fully compatible with patriotism or 100 percent Americanism. On the other hand, there was also great jealousy, fear, and hatred all at once because of how quickly Jews had accumulated wealth, had advanced socially, and had developed a professional class of lawyers and doctors.

Instead of positive recognition for their accomplishments, Jews were depicted instead as having huge noses, big bellies, and bowed legs engaged in non-stop heinous activities. Protests over such demeaning caricatures were ineffectual as well as few and far between. Still not certain of their place in America and exhibiting an eastern European reticence to stand up to public abuse, authors apologized and made excuses for Jewish social and commercial misbehaviors, and hoped that in the near future, after learning American ways, they might be accepted somewhat more graciously by the public. The attitude was more hat-in-hand than one of pride in a religion that had given so much to the world.

Even the great novelist Henry James, whose book The American Scene (1906) was a record of his visit to America after living for years abroad, found Jews to be a virtually unstoppable force. In response, on a visit to the Lower East Side of New York, he likened Jews on their fire escapes and in open city squares to squirrels, monkeys, and ants constantly on the move. In establishing a distance between himself and the new Americans, Jews were not only the Other, they were not even considered fully human.

A few cartoons can suggest the attitudes of the cartoonists. “The ‘New Trans-Atlantic Hebrew Line’ ” published in the January 19, 1881 issue of the magazine, Puck, is a comment on the great number of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe. Even illiterates who could not read the sarcastic caption, “For the Exclusive Use of ‘The Persecuted’,” would know who the persecuted were—the people on the ship, the sailors, the ship itself, the fish in the water, and the bird in the sky by their very hooked noses.

And in a cartoon for the May 11, 1881, of Puck, the cartoonist captured a Coney Island-like scene including hotels, boardwalk promenaders, a sandy beach, bathers, those lying in the sun, and banners on the hotel. The hotel is clearly overloaded with big-nosed Jewish guests. All of those on the boardwalk also have huge noses and some have pot bellies. The women are ostentatiously overdressed for a promenade, a hostile observation that regularly appeared in news stories about Jews at resorts. Those in the water and on the beach are Christians fleeing from the Jews. A couple in the foreground, thumbing their noses, wag their fingers at the departing Christians. The banners on the Hotel de Jerusalem contain two advertisements that in the mind of the cartoonist were placed there by vacationers: “Buy your clothing of Cohen,” and “On his return from Florida, this floor will be occupied by the ISAACS HATTER.” Other banners state: “Look out for the JEW,” “Hebrews not WANTED,” and “No Jews TAKEN.”

Happily, such cartoons largely disappeared by 1930. What had been red meat for cartoonists back then, is no longer acceptable today. That is progress of a sort.

Matthew Baigell is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Art History at Rutgers University. He is the author of numerous books, including American Artists, Jewish Images, and Jewish Art in America: An Introduction. His most recent book is Social Concern and Left Politics in Jewish America Art, 1880-1940.

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Social Concern and Left Politics in Jewish American Art

Monday, June 29, 2015 | Permalink

Matthew Baigell is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Art History at Rutgers University. He is the author of numerous books, including American Artists, Jewish Images, and Jewish Art in America: An Introduction. His most recent book is Social Concern and Left Politics in Jewish America Art, 1880-1940. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Before anything else, I want to say that I never use the phrase “Jewish artist” but rather artists who are Jewish, because placing the word “Jewish” before “artist” implies that an artist’s entire identity is tied up with being Jewish. It is the same thing as saying “an obese person” rather than “a person who is obese.” And I also believe that there is no such thing as Jewish art, but rather art with Jewish content. Unless somebody can find the biological and cultural roots connecting centuries’ of divergent Jewish cultures (Ashkenazic, Sephardic, North African, Middle Eastern, Indian) as well as between male and female, rich and poor, religious and non-religious, and rural and urban artists who were/are Jews. Most people think of “Jewish art” as something by artists like Marc Chagall, but he and others like him came from a particular area (Eastern Europe) at a particular time in history (late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries).

Having said that, I was always interested in Jewish-themed art based on ancient and modern texts (Torah, Talmud, kabbalah, daily and high holiday prayer books). My interest took a very serious turn when invited in the early 1990s to write an essay for an exhibition, “Painting a Place in America: Jewish Artists in New York, 1900-1945,” for New York’s Jewish Museum. I realized that although many were known as mainstream American artists, the importance of their Jewish backgrounds had been neglected. Most came from Eastern Europe where their religious and cultural heritage as well as their sense of community responsibility played a significant role in their Jewish identity. What was the impact of that identity on their art? Here was an area sorely in need of further research. And since the 1990s, exploring the relevance of that background has been the driving force of my work.

Most recently, I wrote Social Concern and Left Politics in Jewish American Art, 1880-1940, to make two key points. First, many, if not all, artists who were Jewish turned to political themes not because they were innocents seduced by figures such as Marx or Lenin, but because their Jewish heritage, prompted by notions of taking care of the poor, the needy, the hungry, and so on, blended well with left-wing ideals of providing those in need with better living and working conditions. For these artists, as had been articulated by many historians and sociologists, socialism was a secular form of Judaism. At the grassroots level today, there must be hundreds of American synagogues supporting programs that provide food, clothing, and financial support for those in need. The idea is the same even if the politics have changed.

The second point of the book was to show that the political concerns of the artists did not emerge during the Depression or the growing Communist presence in America during the 1930s, but had appeared as early as the 1880s at the start of the Great Migration of Jews from Eastern Europe. Concern and agitation for raising standards of living existed decades before the 1930s.

Two examples, the first from 1912 and the other from 1935 will illustrate these points. The earlier one, a cartoon, published in the December 12, 1912 issue of The Groyser Kundes (The Big Stick), shows how a political statement was presented within a Jewish cultural framework of social responsibility and human betterment. A tailor lights a menorah, each candle stem labeled with a political activity. The caption at the top is the beginning of the prayer said on Hanukkah on each of the eight days when candles are lit. “These are the candles that we light.” The tailor, his tape measure around his neck and the words for “tailor” written on his shoulder, holds the candle that lights all of the others. On it, the cartoonist, wrote “Enlightened.” Reading from right to left, the following words appear on each candle holder: “agitation,” “organization,” “strong union,” “ general strike,” “higher wages,” “shorter works hours,” and “better life.” The caption at the bottom states: “When the tailor lights the menorah, then all will be illuminated. Then there will be more joy and happiness in New York.”

The second work, a painting by Selma Freeman, titled “Strike Talk,” painted twenty-odd years later, shows women garment workers taking control of their future by calling for a strike as a means to improve degrading sweatshop conditions. The piece of paper in the foreground states: “All out by noon,” indicates the nature of the conversation among the women. The men in the background seem clueless.

It is works such as these that are an important part of American and Jewish-American cultural history as well as American and Jewish-American art history and need to be remembered for what they tell us of the Jewish concern for social betterment.

Check back later this week for more posts for Matthew Baigell.

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In Search of Lost Time

Friday, June 26, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Miranda Richmond Mouillot offered her advice and insight to readers about extracting even the most painful family history from those who carry it. She is the author of the recently published book A Fifty-Year Silence: Love War and a Ruined House in France and will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

The mulberries are ripe in the southern French village where I live, and today after I dropped my daughter off at preschool, I stopped on the walk back to my office and picked a handful of them. In an instant, I was transported back to my grandmother’s backyard in Pearl River, New York, to a time when I was too short to pick the mulberries that grew on the little tree in her side yard, but occasionally was lucky enough to be standing in the right place when a ripe one fell, and could savor it before it got squished. Picking mulberries this morning was what I call a madeleine moment—a smell or taste or texture that opens up a piece of the past and sends us spinning into it. What does that for you?

Words can do it: “Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure. Parfois, à peine ma bougie éteinte, mes yeux se fermaient si vite que je n’avais pas le temps de me dire : “Je m’endors.” Those are the first lines of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the gigantic novel in which the madeleine moment was born. I never did read the whole thing, in part because I got to know it at my grandfather’s dining table, where he fed me madeleines and linden flower tea and read to me from Proust’s masterpiece in order to perfect my French. He always started with those opening sentences, which enchanted him, which meant we didn’t ever get very far into the story. Years after he became senile, he could still recite them to me.

Recitation, to him, was the ultimate madeleine—the thing you couldn’t take away, and the thing that brought everything back. Proust wrote about madeleines in an epoch when the Industrial Revolution and the dynamics of modern capitalism had made time fully linear. In pre-industrial Europe time had moved in cycles, and, for some, toward some far-off end-date. The dividing line between now and then was blurred by the circle of seasons, holidays, and recurring life events. But as Proust’s title indicates, in the century in which he was writing, time had become a thing that could be lost forever. The whole world was marching toward the future, leaving the past irretrievably behind. Time capsules like the madeleine, and, more broadly, Proust’s meticulous and vast re-creation of a lost world, were both products of accelerating modern life—and both attempts to break its linearity.

Many philosophers and historians have observed that the Shoah, with its industrialized and mechanical methods of murder, was the monstrous consequence of this massive shift in how society perceived and lived time. And certainly, it succeeded with terrible finality in carving a near-unbridgeable gulf between its survivors and their pasts.

Madeleine moments, to survivors and refugees like my grandparents, are a double-edged sword. They are a magical pathway to lands long-gone—but they are also all that remains. The linden tea my grandfather served me while reading Proust recalled to him the lindens that lined the Boulevard Tauler in Strasbourg, France. That was the street where he grew up—in a building that was razed during the war. And if the scent of that tea was uncannily effective at recalling the past to him, it was also ephemeral, elusive, and all too easily lost. Taste a madeleine one too many times and its buttery sweetness becomes banal, unable to evoke anything but an afternoon goûter.

I discovered madeleine moments with my grandfather, and it was also with him that I observed for the first time the far more potent force of another form of non-linear time: that of religious observance. The first time I celebrated Shabbat with him I had no idea of what I was getting us into—no idea, more precisely, of what I was inflicting on him. I was fourteen, and attending boarding school in Geneva, Switzerland, not far from my grandfather’s apartment. I spent each weekend with him, and on my first Friday there I missed my parents. Hungry for a little continuity with home, I asked if I could light Shabbat candles, and my grandfather reluctantly agreed. When I uncovered my eyes, I looked at him through the dim glow of the candles and saw he was weeping, his shoulders shuddering, just barely suppressing sobs. He gazed at me with wide eyes I could hardly bear to meet.

“My mother,” he whispered.

In the months that followed I discovered something that has affected every subsequent Friday of my life: a ritual repeated draws a thread through your existence. Every time you do it connects you to every other time you do it. And unlike the madeleine moment, whose evanescence and volatility underlined, however sweetly, the total disappearance of my grandfather’s past, lighting candles every week rebuilt the bridge between then and now. It was a fragile one, to be sure, but each flame we lit the candles we fastened his annihilated parents back into his life, back into life. Rooted in repetition, his memory fastened onto mine, and the moments we spent together calling up the past became moments we both remembered, too. Moments we knew reached back beyond the tragic time when all was lost, and forward into my own life, to a time when he would be gone, too, and I would remember. Neither then nor now, the brief silence that follows the kindling of the Sabbath lights is all times at once—far sweeter than a mulberry or a madeleine.

Miranda Richmond Mouillot was born in Asheville, North Carolina. She is the author of the recently published book A Fifty-Year Silence: Love War and a Ruined House in France and currently lives in the South of France.

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Interview: Etgar Keret

Wednesday, June 24, 2015 | Permalink

by Becca Kantor

Israeli author Etgar Keret is internationally known for his short stories, graphic novels, and screenplays. His latest book, The Seven Good Years, is his first work of nonfiction. The memoir spans the period of Keret’s life between the birth of his son and the death of his father.

Becca Kantor: The Seven Good Years is your first autobiographical work. In the past you’ve published several short story collections, and this memoir is also written as a series of vignettes. What in particular attracts you to the short form? What inspired you to turn the experiences you describe in The Seven Good Years into an autobiographical work and not into fiction?

Etgar Keret: I don’t experience my fiction and nonfiction as short, but as concise. There is something very intensive and full of energy in my writing experience. I once said that, for me, writing feels very much like an explosion—and I haven't yet learned how to explode slowly.

As for my personal nonfiction writing: I think that the urge to directly document some of my personal experiences began, literally, the day my son was born. It is as if my entire conception of time had changed and I no longer lived in a never-ending present. Becoming a father made the terms “past” and “future” become more tangible, and overnight I became my family’s historian. The idea to make a book out of these pieces documenting the life of my family between the birth of my son and the death of my father became clear only very close to my father's death.

BK: Tell me about the title. Did you always have “the seven good years” as a unifying theme for the memoir, or did the idea for the title come later on in your process? The biblical allusion is also very intriguing.

EK: The working title was “Insincerely Yours,” but as soon as my father died I found myself returning to The Seven Good Years both because those years in which I had the gift of being both a child and had a father were probably the best I've ever had, and also because I couldn’t ignore the parallel between my father's terminal illness and the unstable future of the country in which I live. This is because of the existential dangers it faces both from the changes in the region we live in, and from the changes in the Israeli society itself.

BK: In “Imaginary Homeland,” you describe your complicated feelings about Poland: “Although most of my family had perished under horrendous circumstances there, Poland was also the place where they had lived an thrived for generations, and my attraction to that land and its people was almost mythic.” Has your relationship with Poland changed as a result of the time you’ve spent there? Has living in Warsaw demythologized the city for you? If so, how do you feel about this as a writer?

EK: I have quite a few close and dear friends in Warsaw. I’m sure the intimacy I’ve reached with them had to do with the difficulty my family has had with the country. Next month I'll visit Warsaw with my family. My brother, my wife, my son, and I will join my mother for her first trip there since the war, and I have to admit that I'm both anticipating and dreading this upcoming trip. Poland might become demythologized for me at some point, but that time seems—at least for now—as though it will be in the distant future.

BK: You write about your heightened awareness of being Jewish when you’re outside Israel—especially when you’re in Eastern Europe and Germany. Do you feel that your books have helped to normalize Jewish people for those who haven’t had much previous contact with them? Has this ever been a conscious goal for you when you write?

EK: I don't have any conscious goals or articulated plans when I sit down and write, but writing, when it finds a curious reader, has the tendency to humanize. That's why I've always loved reading and that is also, I guess, why I began to write. The Seven Good Years has already been published in quite a few countries. From readers’ responses I've felt that, more than it has humanized Jews in the eyes of non-Jewish readers, it has humanized Israelis in the eyes of many Europeans whose information about Israel comes mostly from news shows and news magazines. Reading about the parental problems a person experiences when he is caught in the middle of the street with his seven-year-old child in the middle of a missile attack seems to transcend—at least with some of the book's readers—political views, and reminds them for a moment that the human experience is more complex and ambiguous than a Star Wars movie.

BK: When your first book came out in Poland, your mother told you that you weren’t an Israeli writer, but rather a “Polish writer in exile.” Your father certainly seems to have shared your love of storytelling and your ability to address tragedy through sympathetic humor. How much do you feel your parents influenced style of writing?

EK: I think that my parents had a huge effect on my writing. The bedtime stories they invented formed the most powerful storytelling experience I've ever had. My father's infinite empathy and compassion for people together with my mother's amazing imagination were the best advertisements a kid could have had for humanity and mankind. I think that the fairy-tale quality of many of my stories comes from my continuous, unconscious attempt to echo something from those amazing bedtime stories that had a crucial role in forming my identity and yearnings as a child.

BK: Can we look forward to more autobiographical works from you in the future—or to works inspired by family history?

EK: The prime catalyst to publish this book was the death of my father. I think that this book is my way of saying goodbye to him. But my default when it comes to writing has been, and probably will always be, fiction. So I don't really see myself returning to writing nonfiction in the near future.

Becca Kantor received her B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and her M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. She has lived in Estonia, England, and Germany; currently she lives and writes in her native Philadelphia.

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How To Ask?

Tuesday, June 23, 2015 | Permalink

Miranda Richmond Mouillot was born in Asheville, North Carolina. She is the author of the recently published book A Fifty-Year Silence: Love War and a Ruined House in France and will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Ask questions. Make sure to ask them while you still can. How I always hated those sentences, proffered by well-meaning outsiders whenever the subject of my grandparents came up. I always wondered about those people and their families. Had they ever tried it? Because in my family, asking questions could feel about as natural – and about as considerate – as reaching over and pushing your hand into someone’s face.

In A Fifty-Year Silence, which recounts my efforts to uncover the history of my grandparents, both Holocaust survivors, and the reasons behind their half-century estrangement, I wrote:

I’d find myself at a loss for what to ask: the subjects about which I felt most curious sparked so much anger and chagrin […] that I didn’t usually have the heart to broach them.

In the near decade it took me to tease my grandparents’ story out of them, I would go days, weeks, even months without venturing a query, for fear of stirring that pot of bad memories. Asking questions was too dangerous, too painful, too sad. Asking questions just wasn’t how it worked.

In the months since the publication of my book, many readers have shared little shards of the family secrets they carry with them, and asked me where to begin, how to find out more. In most families, particularly families of trauma survivors – and particularly families of Holocaust survivors, questions are the dangerous objects you’re not allowed to carry onto the plane. When your relatives have lived through a war, fled for their lives, seen the world they grew up in reduced to dust, and suffer with the knowledge that they came through and their loved ones did not, they earn the right to bar all inquiries from the boarding line. Like a security agent impassively tossing out a nail file, my grandparents would, more often than I can count, shut down my questioning with a shrug and a shake of their heads.

In my experience, you don’t learn the most from asking questions. Or at least, not from direct questions, not from the questions you’d think were the ones to ask. The need to know and the impossibility of asking are at the heart of every family mystery, and when readers come to me for advice about how to begin, I generally say that the best you can do is pull a chair up to the table and wait. And I tell them about my great aunt in Jerusalem, who used to bake the most wonderful cakes. She’d use her hands to weigh out the ingredients, plunging them into the canister and letting the soft white flour sift through her fingers. When you asked where her recipes came from, the answer was always the same: “Auschwitz.” And sometimes, if you stayed at the table, she’d tell you more. Of how the women in her prison block memorized each other’s recipes as they worked, or at night as they lay talking to one another from their splintery beds. Of starving mothers and sisters and daughters recalling teaspoons and cupfuls of ingredients they’d never taste again, parceling out pieces of their lost lives just in case one of them got away, to remember for the others. Where did you get that recipe? You never know which question will open the door. And in the wake of each one answered, a thousand more inevitably linger, unasked – faces, names, whole lifetimes, reduced to a few sweet morsels, crumbs on a cake plate.

Miranda Richmond Mouillot currently lives in the South of France.

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