The ProsenPeople

Interview: Anya Ulinich

Tuesday, July 29, 2014 | Permalink

by Tahneer Oksman

Tahneer Oksman recently sat down with Anya Ulinich to discuss her first graphic novel, Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, published today by Penguin Books. Ulinich was the recipient of a 2009 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature Choice Award for her debut novel Petropolis.

Tahneer Oksman: Is there a relationship between this book, Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel, and your first, Petropolis?

Anya Ulinich: Only as much as the central characters are immigrants. Also, my characters are idiots—they're not very insightful, so the stuff that happens to them ambushes them. They don't arrive at an understanding of things naturally; it has to slap them in the face.

TO: Both of your books tie love stories, and particularly broken ones, to the immigrant experience. What do you think is the connection?

AU: As an immigrant, you have this sense of duty. It takes a long time for young people in general, but I think for immigrant people in particular, to figure out what it is that they really want and what it is that others have told them that they should want or that would make them happy. You have this path laid out for you. There are so many expectations. You don't have the luxury to sit around and discover yourself.

Divorce is a little like immigration. It's a huge change. There's a physical move, but it's also a question of how you define yourself now. It's about identity as well.

TO: Is your graphic novel autobiographical?

AU: I would call Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel a semi-autobiography, but it is fiction. I used my experiences to inform it, but it's not the story exactly as it happened. Whatever I would tell in a memoir about heartbreak is here but it's better because I wasn't so hung up on specific people or events. My life is more boring than this. It would also be too painful for everyone to read my autobiography.

I argue against the whole distinction between fiction and non-fiction. I would rather those labels just go away and that we just call it a story.

TO: Your first book was all prose. What drove you to create a graphic novel this time around?

AU: I had a personal crisis—a major heartbreak—and I couldn't write at all. So I started with doodles and drawings, and I found it was an easier way to tell stories. When I write, the writing sprawls and it never stops. If you draw a scene, and there are two people talking, you have to get everything into these bubbles and into the space of the page, or else you have to redraw the scene. Sometimes, I'm just too lazy. Drawing comics forces you, like poetry or a Facebook status or Twitter—to be focused on what you're saying. This limitation really helped me tell the story.

TO: What was the process of drawing the book?

AU: When I started, everything was more cartoonish. And then I went back to drawing in a more realistic way. Once I was on a roll, it was really fun, almost like a break. Writing involves constant thinking, and drawing is fairly automatic for me. I love drawing faces and hands and landscapes, but not so much interiors. I can't be bothered with details.

Sometimes a page would start as text and sometimes it would start as an image. People always ask me, did you illustrate the book yourself? People assume that you do the writing and you hire someone else to illustrate it. But illustrate isn't the right word for it because illustration follows text. Here the relationship is more complex. Sometimes there would be an image that would call for certain text.

TO: How did you decide on the style for your book?

AU: I used a more realistic style for the present and the past was drawn more in caricatures. I think memory is cartoonish. When we remember things, it's usually major events or some detail really stands out, and we forget everything else. Memories are exaggerated, like cartoons. I thought that would distinguish the flashback from what happens in the present, just for narrative purposes.

TO: Who are your major influences?

AU: I don't have influences—I have inspirations. Reading Philip Roth always inspires and motivates me and makes me think, "I can do that." He's a motor mouth, like me. And I love Alison Bechdel's Fun Home—she's a cartoonist, with a perfect way of drawing. Every image is exquisite.

TO: Now that you've written a novel and a graphic novel, do you find that you prefer one medium over another?

AU: I'm a storyteller. I could just sit here and tell stories all day. The form is a vehicle more than anything. Sometimes one form just works better than another. As long as the story gets told, I'm happy.

Tahneer Oksman is assistant professor and director of academic writing at Marymount Manhattan College. Her book on Jewish identity in contemporary women's graphic memoirs is forthcoming from Columbia University Press.

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Jews and Slavery: Raphael Moses and London Moses

Monday, July 28, 2014 | Permalink

Sabra Waldfogel grew up in Minneapolis and received her Ph.D. in American History from the University of Minnesota. Her short fiction has appeared in Sixfold Literary Magazine. She has recently published Slave and Sister, a novel about Jews and slavery in antebellum Georgia. She will be blogging here for the Jewish Book Council all week.

We know a great deal about Raphael Jacob Moses, one of the most eminent Jews in Georgia in the nineteenth century. He was born in Charleston in 1812 into a Sephardic family connected with Jews all over the settled United States. He was educated and trained as a lawyer, a profession he practiced throughout his life. After a few peripatetic early years, he married his cousin, Eliza Moses, and settled in Tallahassee, where he practiced law.

In 1850, he moved to Columbus, Georgia, where he bought a plantation in Muscogee County, which he named “Esquiline” after the hills of Rome. When the census was taken that year he owned sixteen slaves. In addition to his law practice, he cultivated peaches. He developed a method of shipping peaches that helped to commercialize the cultivation of peaches in Georgia. He prospered, and on the eve of the Civil War the number of his slaves had increased to forty-seven.

He was a passionate supporter of secession, and when the Civil War broke out, he volunteered, despite his advanced age. He became Chief Supply Officer to General Longstreet, and he was present at several of the war’s biggest battles, including the battle of Gettysburg. By a quirk of fate, he was issued the last order of the Confederacy. He was ordered to pay $10,000 in gold bullion for unused rations. He accompanied the bullion himself from Washington, Georgia, where the Confederate government sat for the month after Lee’s surrender, to Augusta.

After the war, Raphael Moses represented Georgia in the state legislature, as a Democrat and an opponent of Reconstruction. He remained “unreconstructed” for the rest of his life. He was buried in the cemetery near Esquiline, and his gravestone read, “Raphael J. Moses, C.S.A.”

We know very little about London Moses, Raphael Moses’ former slave. London was the only slave mentioned by name in his former master’s memoirs. He was also the only servant who remained with the family after Emancipation. Raphael Moses wrote that he “stayed with me until he died.”

London Moses was born in 1815, a native Georgian. His parents, born in the eighteenth century, were also native Georgians. We don’t know when he was married, but in 1870, when the census granted him the dignity of a name, he lived with his wife Margaret, born in 1816, also a native to Georgia. They had at least one child, Susan, who had been born into slavery in 1850; she and her family—her husband Harry Williams, and her daughters Peggy, 8, and Sarah, 2, and son, London, three months old, named after his grandfather—lived with him. There may have been other children, lost to death, sold away, gone to test their freedom after Emancipation, or moved away as they grew up.

Raphael Moses may have felt gratitude for London’s loyalty, but he did not give him money or property to start a life as a free man. In 1870, London Moses was working as a farm hand, meaning that he did not own a farm, but worked for wages on someone else’s. At fifty-four, he needed the help of his son-in-law, who was also a farm hand. London Moses was still a farm hand ten years later.

On July 12, 1867, London Moses, the faithful servant, went to the Muscogee County Courthouse in Columbus. As a free man, he was eligible to vote. Before he registered he pledged his allegiance in a way that his former master, the unrepentant Confederate, would have despised. As every Southerner who wanted to vote must do, London Moses signed the Reconstruction oath, and swore his loyalty to the United States of America.

Sources:

The best source for Raphael Moses’ life is his memoir, The Last Order of the Lost Cause: the Civil War Memoirs of a Jewish Family of the “Old South,” edited by Mel Young. The only sources for London Moses’ life are the Federal censuses of 1870 and 1880, and the 1867 Georgia List of Registered Voters.

Read more about Sabra Waldfogel and her work here.

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Book Cover of the Week: The Language of Paradise

Friday, July 25, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

The microcosm encased within a glass terrarium on the book cover for Barbara Klein Moss's forthcoming novel The Language of Paradise evokes the poignant contradictions of the story it contains: nurtured wilderness, love and estrangement, caged Arcadia, Art, Science, and Theology...

Caught in her husband's quest for the prelapsarian language in which Adam named all the creatures of the Earth, Sophy Hedge stands at the threshold of the Garden of Eden he has constructed inside a greenhouse, pregnant with their first child. Sophy must choose whether to remain in replicated paradise with her husband or escape to save her child and herself. The Language of Paradise is scheduled for release in April 2015 from W.W. Norton & Co.


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  • New Jewish Book Council Reviews

    Friday, July 25, 2014 | Permalink

    This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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    7 Things You (Probably) Didn't Know about Sigmund Freud

    Thursday, July 24, 2014 | Permalink

    Posted by Mark Steiner

    Freud is the father of modern psychology. His pioneering work in psychoanalysis and the study of unconscious desires shaped the field for decades to come. A character as complex as his work, Freud has been studied and analyzed by dozens of writers. In this list, inspired by some of the best books on the subject, we take a look at the lesser-known parts of Freud's history and persona.

    1. He was born as the first of eight children.

    Sigmund Freud was born in a rented room above a locksmith’s home. His father was a wool merchant, and the family had fallen on tough times. Things would eventually turn around for Freud when he left to study medicine.


    Freud's birthplace and childhood home

    2.He spoke eight languages

    Sig was no dummy. He spoke well in German, Italian, French, Hebrew, Latin, Spanish, English, and Greek. This allowed him to read all sorts of great works, from Darwin’s Origin of Species to the writings of Friederich Nietzsche

    3. He was a big fan of Shakespeare

    Freud loved literature. He spent much of his free time reading Shakespeare’s works, and it has been suggested that Freud’s exposure to Shakespeare’s characters may have shaped his study of psychoanalysis.

    4.He loved tobacco.

    This iconic picture of Freud features him holding a cigar, but he actually started his habit with cigarettes. Freud was a big fan of tobacco: he insisted that it helped him work better and took the place of other fixations and habits. His love for cigs ended poorly: he developed fatal mouth cancer and would ask to be euthanized in 1939.

    5. ...and Cocaine

    Freud was a doctor, and that meant chiming in on new medical developments. As cocaine began to appear in Europe, Freud became an occasional user and strong proponent. He advocated its use as an anesthetic and painkiller, and would write Über Coca, a paper highlighting its virtues.

    6. He was serious about joking

    One of Freud’s lesser known ideas was that jokes represent unconscious desires. He developed a theory on why people make jokes, and would publish Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious in 1905.

    7. He might have been a philanderer…

    Freud married Martha Bernays in 1886. In 1896, Martha’s sister Minna would move into the Freud home after her fiancé’s death. Many began to talk of an affair between Freud and his sister-in-law. A travel log signed by Freud while traveling with Minna serves as tenuous evidence of an affair.


    Freud's wife Martha Bernays

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    A Book and Its Translators

    Wednesday, July 23, 2014 | Permalink

    Arthur Allen is a journalist and non-fiction writer based in Washington DC. A former foreign correspondent, he writes about medicine, science and other topics for publications including The Washington Post, Slate, Science, and Landscape Architecture. His most recent book is The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl: How Two Brave Scientists Battled Typhus and Sabotaged the Nazis. He is blogging here today for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

    It was a freezing afternoon outside Warsaw in March 2012, and I was sitting in a cramped hut listening to the tinny sounds of an interview, conducted in Polish 33 years earlier and replayed on an ancient reel-to-reel recorder. It was an interview with a louse dissector.

    My friend Izabela Wagner translated while Ryszard Wojcik, who had conducted the interview as a young man in the prime of life, occasionally smiled at me and spoke a few heartfelt, unintelligible phrases in French. We were wearing sweaters and our breath was freezing on the windows. We were drinking vodka and feeling fine, if a bit tense.

    It can be challenging to research a book that is set in a country whose language you don’t understand among people who spoke another language you are just learning. Most of my book The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl is set in the city that is now Ukrainian Lviv, although it was called Lwow, or Lemberg, and was a largely Polish and Jewish city, in the period the book covers.

    For this book I needed to scour literature in French, German, and Polish for sources. Hebrew and Ukrainian would have been nice as well, but were less essential. An Israeli friend helped me with a couple of Hebrew translations, while a Ukrainian librarian directed me through some Ukrainian sources.

    The main problem was, while I can read French and German comfortably, my Polish is still pretty tentative. It would have taken me forever to go through the reams of relevant materials. I needed someone to help me find and translate those sources.

    Until recently I was a freelance journalist, and not a wealthy one. At the start of my research, I hired a very good translator in Washington DC to put a 1200-word article into English for me. She charged $600. At that rate, I figured I would need about $50,000 to locate and translate everything for the book. That wasn’t going to happen. So I made a deal.

    Actually I didn’t make a deal. I fell into a relationship, one that has turned out to be so much more interesting and enriching than simply hiring someone to do the translation.

    At the start of my research I found a 1980 article about the scientist Rudolf Weigl by a Polish journalist named Ryszard Wojcik in a rather obscure journal called Odra. It took me forever to track down Mr. Wojcik; I finally got an email address, but no one responded to a message I sent in English, German and pidgin Polish.

    In 2011 I attended a Ukrainian-Polish scientific conference outside Wroclaw at the invitation of Wraclaw Szybalski, a famous genetic researcher who is an old friend of people like James Watson and Francis Crick—the double helix guys. More importantly to my purposes, Szybalski is a native of Lviv—it will always be Lwow for him—and when World War II began, he and the rest of his family all went to work for Weigl, in a laboratory where typhus vaccine was produced for the German Army from the guts of lice that fed on the blood of thousands of Polish intellectuals and educators. (For more details, buy my book!)

    Szybalski, who is 93 today, had perhaps done more than anyone to keep alive the memory of Weigl, who was one of his earliest teachers, his hero, a Righteous Among Nations (Yad Vashem, 2003) and a beloved hero of Polish Lwow.

    We were on a bus touring Wroclaw one day when Szybalski introduced me to Izabela Wagner, a Polish sociologist. She was at the conference interviewing expatriate Polish scientists about the differences between “international” and “Polish” ways of doing science.

    Izabela and I spoke a little in French and a lot in English, and it turned out that she was very interested in Rudolf Weigl and Ludwik Fleck, the two subjects of my book. I told her that there was a man named Ryszard Wojcik somewhere in Poland who seemed to know a lot about Weigl, and perhaps she could help me find him.

    It turned out that Izabela and Ryszard lived about half a mile from each other, on the southern outskirts of Warsaw. Izabela found him easily, they became good friends, and Ryszard revealed that he had many, many reels of old audiotaped interviews of men and women who had worked for Weigl.

    He'd done the interviews in the 1970s, mostly, and he still wanted to write a book about Weigl, but didn’t have the money. A familiar story.


    Rudolf Weigl in His Laboratory [source]

    Informally, a three-way bargain was struck. For my part, I worked to persuade Szybalski, who ran a small foundation that gave grants for research on Polish culture, to provide Ryszard a small stipend to help him finish his book. He’d already written about 20 other monographs, everything from Holocaust stories to how-to guides for memorabilia fanatics who like to take their metal detectors out and collect WWII-era materiel in Polish fields and forests.

    In exchange for this, Ryszard would give the tapes to Izabela, who would translate them into English for me and use them for her own research as well. And I would help Izabela get one of her books published by an academic press in the United States by tightening up the English a bit.

    Immediately, Izabela and I began to help each other whenever we could. She found documents on Fleck, Weigl, and related characters in the archives of the Polish secret police. She helped me translate articles. And with a little effort, I managed to get her manuscript into shape well enough that Rutgers University Press accepted it for publication next year.

    That left Ryszard and the tapes. Some negotiations would be involved.

    In March of 2012 I made a madcap race through European archives. I stopped in Brussels (where the personal papers of SS Hauptsturmfuehrer Erwin Ding-Schuler of the Buchenwald typhus station had been discovered lying under a thick cover of dust behind some book shelves a year earlier ), in Munich (Peter Eyer, whose father Hermann was the German Wehrmacht’s typhus chief, generously shared many documents with me), in Paris (Pasteur archives), Freiburg, Ludwigsburg and Berlin (Bundesarchives), and in Marburg (IG Farben….).

    Midway through the trip I spent a week in Warsaw, where Izabela and her French husband Philippe hosted me at their house on the city’s outskirts, which they shared with their wonderful daughter Ania, some guinea pigs, a couple of friendly dogs and two horses (actually, the horses were next door in a barn).


    Arthur Allen

    On a cold snowy morning we drove over to see Ryszard. He came outside as we pulled into his driveway—a stout, beaming, white-bearded man of 74 who walked with a limp from recent hip replacement surgery. Then he led us into the crowded, tumbledown hobbit hole of a house that he shared with his wife Alicja.

    Every inch of space was filled with stuff—old WWII tank shells and sabers and pieces of fighter wings, piles of videocassettes and audiocassettes and cds and papers, the walls covered with home-made shelves stacked with folders and papers and more cassettes and cds. And it was cold, too, warmed only by a couple of space heaters here and there.

    We sat down, opened a bottle of vodka, and Ryszard started to tell me the story of his life. He told it mostly in Polish, with Izabela translating, but occasionally in French, a little of which he had picked up somewhere long ago and none too authoritatively. It didn’t really matter. The stories took vivid shape anyway, and I will never forget them.

    He’d been born to a peasant family near outside Lublin, in central Poland, and one of his earliest memories was the black ash of the cremated Jews of Majdanek, which fell on the thatch roof of their house like mealy snow for seasons at a time.

    He remembered that when the war ended, his mother had taken him to see what was left of the camp, and there were thousands of butterflies flitting about the trenches filled with ashes and bones. Ryszard was 7 then, and asked his mother why there were so many butterflies, and she said they were the souls of murdered Jews.

    A short time later, the new Communist government of Poland chose Ryszard to study in Moscow—he was bright, optimistic, and the right demographic, since his background was humble.

    In Moscow he learned Russian, studied journalism, and married a Jewish woman from a big family of musical gypsies. When he brought her home the neighbors shunned him. He moved to Warsaw, became a bigtime television journalist and made a series of documentaries.

    Sometimes he got along with the censors, sometimes he didn’t. He tried to produce a big story that asked why the country had never given proper recognition to Rudolf Weigl, a towering scientist whose laboratory in wartime Lwow had protected thousands of Poles from Nazi oppression.

    That was in 1980, a thaw time, but the story was too morally complex for the authorities. Weigl’s lab had made a vaccine for the Nazis. Sure, some of it was sabotaged, and some of it was smuggled into the Ghettos. But technically speaking, Weigl was a collaborator, his editors said. The program never aired.

    He made other films about Jewish survivors. Before he went to Moscow, Ryszard had never met a living Jew in his life. But he wanted to know: What happened to all the butterflies?

    The Communist regime fell, and Ryszard lost his job. He’s in poor health now, and the health system of Poland is a shambles. He had to bribe a doctor thousands of dollars to get his hip replaced, and tens of thousands to get his sister-in-law a surgery she needed.

    He and Alicja fed me big plates of creamed herring and we drank and drank, which made us merry and even a little warmer, which was good because the space heater couldn’t really fill the room.

    Finally, we got up, and embraced. I could have the tapes, Ryszard said. He was overjoyed to meet someone else who cared about the life of Rudolf Weigl. And he was happy to have a little money to finish his own book.

    He’d decided to call it, “Pact with the Devil: the Capricious Star of Rudolf Weigl.”

    It hasn’t been published yet, but I hope that it sells many copies.

    Read more about Arthur Allen here.

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    Friday, July 18, 2014 | Permalink

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    Internal Dialogue: Let's Talk Soccer

    Friday, July 18, 2014 | Permalink

    Posted by Nat Bernstein

    Liel Leibovitz is participating in the 2014-2015 JBC Network with A Broken Hallelujah: The Life of Leonard Cohen. It is a tremendous biography—of particular interest to Jewish communities in its exploration of Cohen’s Scripture-influenced lyrics, personal spirituality, and residencies in Israel—and is certainly well worth bringing to book fairs and literary events this year, as is the author himself. But over the past week an imagined conversation on a completely different topic has been playing out in my head, between Liel and fellow 2014-2015 JBC Network author Jonathan Wilson.

    Liel rocked the Jewish world last week with a provocative piece for Tablet Magazine on the Jewish Israelis responsible for the murder of Muhammed Abu-Khudair. “If you want to understand the gruesome murder of 16-year-old Muhammaed Abu-Khudair in the hands of six young Israelis last week," the essay claims, "don’t turn to Bibi or the Bible or Hamas or Abbas: turn to Beitar Jerusalem, the favorite soccer team of Israel’s ‘undivided capital.’”

    An early leak from a Mishteret Yisrael officer revealed that the six suspects arrested in pursuit of the case were active in a zealous, violent, and notoriously racist group of Beitar fans known as La Familia, and allegedly descended unto their murderous maraud from a soccer fan gathering. It was the unchecked sports fanaticism—more so than any nationalist or religious ideologies—of La Familia, FIFA, and soccer culture in general, claims Liel, that escalated into unthinkable brutality.

    “To American readers, across the ideological spectrum,” Liel writes, “very little about the soccer thug scenario is likely to make sense. Yet if you understand soccer, and if you know Beitar, you realize that an act of extreme Clockwork Orange-style violence is an entirely possible, even predictable, outcome of the team’s fringe culture.” He cites various instances of hooliganism he has witnessed firsthand at Beitar games and in the aftermath of the team’s losses, as well as reports of La Familia activity that demonstrate the group’s shift “from low-level barbarism to rabid mass attacks” and unveil its members as “devoutly egalitarian devotees of violence for the hell of it.”

    Though it has yet to take root in the United States, the aggressive culture surrounding soccer is, sadly, a worldwide phenomenon—to which writer, professor, and most recently The Paris Review’s World Cup 2014 correspondent Jonathan Wilson attests in his childhood and adult experiences detailed in Kick and Run: Memoir with Soccer Ball. On a northern California bus ride to a World Cup 1994 match, Wilson recounts:

    I realized that for days I had felt something was missing, and now I knew what it was: fear and violence. If you grow up attending soccer games in England, you are so used to spine-chilling episodes that the adrenaline flow they bring becomes an essential part of your chemical makeup. If I didn’t have to cross the road five times to avoid bands of skinhead thugs, or listen in terror as twenty thousand fans chanted “Kill the Yids” or “You’re gonna get your fucking heads kicked in,” I didn’t know I was at a game. Once I realized that my entire soccer consciousness was perverted.

    The history of the very stadiums, Jonathan notes, is also torridly troubling. He discusses visiting Nuremberg and the Städtisches Stadion, erected just before Jonathan’s father passed through on a summer vacation, which as of 1933 was co-opted as Stadion der Hitler-Jugend, “the preferred marching ground for the Hitler Youth.” Dictators’ use of soccer facilities in later half of the twentieth century proved far worse: Pinochet gathered Chilean dissidents into the National Stadium in Santiago, where they were brutally murdered by the Junta; Mobutu Sese Seko used the basement of the 20th of May Stadium in Kinhasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) as a torture prison for his detractors; Uday Saddam Hussein directed the torture of Shiite footballers on Iraq’s national soccer team based on their athletic performance, keeping “scorecards with written instructions on how many times each player should be beaten after a poor showing.”

    But as history and current events show, the perpetration of violence and in and surrounding soccer stadiums is not limited to powerful tyrants and sadists; soccer fans worldwide have distended into skirmishing forces of senseless brutality, and Israelis are no exception. “One reason why the police in Jerusalem may have apprehended their suspects so quickly,” Liel writes of the arrests for Muhammed Abu-Khudair’s murder, “is that they have devoted considerable resources over the past decade to keeping tabs on the city’s violent soccer hooligans, just like police do in Munich, and Warsaw, and Brussels, and London, and Madrid.” Jonathan compares the Hapoel-Beitar rivalry at games he attended while living in Israel to other ideological divides: socialist-aligned Barcelona against fascist Real Madrid; Catholic support for Celtic, Liverpool, and Manchester United against Protestant Rangers, Everton, and Manchester City fans in Glasgow, Liverpool, and Manchester. Liel, on the other hand, opines that the thuggish soccer culture stems from “simply the pure, visceral, sickening thrill of violence:”

    Sometimes, it appropriates the language of politics, attaching itself to a party or an ideology or an ethnic group. But it’s always first and foremost about soccer, about the ritualized violence that give young and hopeless men meaning and comfort[…] Anyone who watches soccer more frequently than a few matches every four years understands that intuitively.

    Last week, the JBC Network offered a conversation about women’s mourning as a proposed way forward from the tragic murders of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrah, and Muhammad Abu Khdeir. As our communities struggle to address these events and the weeks of destruction since, let us continue to find ways to talk about what happened, what is happening now, and what we hope will follow.

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  • Helena Rubinstein and the Women’s Liberation Movement

    Thursday, July 17, 2014 | Permalink

    Earlier this week Michèle Fitoussi wrote about her fascination, her research materials, and her favorite episodes from Helena Rubinstein's life. Her biography on Helena, Helena Rubinstein: The Woman Who Invented Beauty, is now available. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

    Helena Rubinstein's career took off at a time when, at least in terms of beauty and hygiene, emancipation was there for the taking, and women were choosing to emancipate themselves. Helena’s intuition, as well as lucky timing, and of course her extraordinary talent, certainly helped her succeed. She understood that beauty was seen as a ‘new power’, she managed to bring make-up out of the theatres and brothels for ‘honest’ women to appropriate. She taught women how to look after themselves, she democratized access to beauty products and anticipated the importance of science and hygiene in the industry.

    For the emancipation of women was not merely the right to vote, work, and achieve financial independence - fashion and beauty also played a great role. Thanks to Poiret and Chanel, women were free of restraining corsets, allowing them the freedom to move, take part in sports, walk, drive, and ride horses just like men. Thanks to Helena Rubinstein, they learnt to apply makeup or improve their skin – she had no intention of creating mere dolls, but rather women capable of looking after themselves. In 1912 in New York, the suffragettes protesting for the right to vote all wore bright red lipstick; challenging the societal norms of the time by wearing ‘taboo’ make-up. When Helena Rubinstein arrived in the United States three years later, women were ready to follow her advice. Ironically, she rarely used any skin creams herself – but she had a beautiful complexion around which she built her brand.

    So in a way, Helena played an important role in the women’s liberation movement, but perhaps unconsciously so, or in her own – non-political – way. I don’t believe this ruthless businesswoman and ingenious entrepreneur was much of a feminist.

    Michèle Fitoussi was born in Tunisia to French parents, and has lived in Paris since the age of five. She worked as a journalist at Elle magazine for years, interviewing world leaders in areas as varied as politics, human sciences, sports, literature and the media. She is the author of screenplays, fiction and non-fiction, including the international bestsellers Superwoman’s had Enough and The Prisoner. She also co-wrote Stolen Lives with Malika Oufkir, which sold more than a million copies throughout the world and remained on the New York Times best-seller list for 25 weeks after being stamped as an “Oprah Book” by Oprah Winfrey. Her newest book, Helena Rubinstein: The Woman Who Invented Beauty, is now available. Her forthcoming book about the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai will be published in France this September.

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    Jewish History and Jewish Memory

    Thursday, July 17, 2014 | Permalink

    Earlier this week, Stephanie Feldman wrote about her favorite Wandering Jews. Her debut novel, The Angel of Losses, will be published by Ecco on July 29th. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

    On the first day of "The History of the Jews in Eastern Europe," my college professor explained the tension between our family stories—our oral history—and the recorded facts. His example: almost all families from the Pale of Settlement (the Jewish region of Imperial Russia) claim an ancestor who fled Europe to escape conscription in the Czar’s army. History, however, tells us that Jews were rarely, if ever, drafted.

    I know very little about my own Eastern European forebears—a big reason why I was taking this class—but one of our only family legends describes my great-grandfather leaving Ukraine to avoid service in the Russian army. I immediately told my grandmother, his daughter, that his story is a common myth. I expected she would share my academic interest: Why would he pass off this story as truth? Why did so many men like him do the same?

    Just as my professor warned, my grandmother only became angry. Her father didn’t lie. The historians must be wrong.

    I was sorry to have upset her. I agreed it was possible my great-grandfather was one of the few threatened with conscription, or at least believed he was under threat. Nevertheless, I couldn't help but believe my professor, and I was disappointed. I felt like I had lost one of my few family stories from Europe.

    But I had to stop thinking like a twenty-first-century American college student, and start thinking like the Jewish ancestors for whom I was searching. I began this journey when that same professor assigned the works of eminent historian Yosef Yerushalmi.

    Yerushalmi argued that traditional Jewish history has little to do with facts and dates (or what the Czar's army said to my great-grandfather). Instead, it's an exercise in memory and performance that captures our experience. It's inextricably linked to the calendar; think of how Jews relive their entire history each year, one holiday and weekly Torah portion at a time. From the Middle Ages through the nineteenth century, European Jews interpreted current events using the framework of traditional stories. Regional Jewish perils and clashes with authority were understood as Purims, with chroniclers even renaming their enemies Haman; the Napoleonic Wars were interpreted using the Old-Testament terms Gog and Magog.

    Storytelling-as-history is a powerful idea—one that I returned to while writing my novel, The Angel of Losses—but it's not an easy answer. As a Jewish person living after the Holocaust, I'm not persuaded that legend can entirely compensate for lost history. Sometimes, though, the legends are all that's left, and Jews are particularly ready to find meaning in them. I don’t know if my great-grandfather was nearly drafted into the Russian army, but his tale was, at the least, a kind of truth; a part of his history, and mine.

    Stephanie Feldman lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and daughter. Read more about her and her work here.

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