The ProsenPeople

Book Cover of the Week: Shekhina

Friday, February 27, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

We're deeply saddened to learn of Leonard Nimoy's passing this morning. Beyond his iconic, beloved, and influential role as Star Trek's Mr. Spock, Nimoy was a conscious artist, poet, and writer.

He was also keenly invested in his Jewish identity, which his brought into all of his works.


Live long and prosper, Leonard.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, February 27, 2015 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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The Absence of the “Jewish Question” in Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise

Thursday, February 26, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Alexis Landau shared the story behind her debut novel, The Empire of the Senses, as well as books that inspired her while she wrote. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Many questions surround the writing and eventual publication of Irène Némirovsky’s masterful last unfinished novel, Suite Francaise. For instance, why was any scholarly consideration of Némirovsky’s work nearly nonexistent before the publication of Jonathan Weiss’s biography in 2005? Her writing has also been denied canonical status, creating a yawning absence of over sixty years in which Némirovsky was erased from the literary discourse in both Europe and the U.S., despite the fact that in the 1930s she was one of the most prolific and widely read French authors of her generation.1 Then there is the mystery of the suitcase, hidden for sixty years containing Némirovsky’s unfinished manuscript, Suite Francaise (published in France in 2004), which she was writing up until the point of her deportation to Auschwitz in July of 1942. Her daughters—who miraculously survived the war—discovered the manuscript (but there are differing dates as to when they knew the manuscript existed) and had it translated. Soon after, the book became a New York Times bestseller in 2006. And in terms of Némirovsky’s identity in relationship to her position in the literary field of 1930s France, this raises even more questions, resulting in a heated, ongoing debate over whether or not Némirovsky should be classified as a Jewish writer, a French writer, an anti-Semite, a self-hating Jew, or a Russian émigré desperate to fit into French society, plagued by her conflicting and multiple identities, a debate that began with the initial reception of her novels by the French press, and continues now, most pointedly between critics Ruth Franklin and Susan Suleiman.

Given how much of Nemirovsky’s work as a novelist and short story writer dealt with themes of Jewish identity and assimilation, another central question critics have been puzzling over is the absence of Jews in Suite Francaise.

It may seem strange to complain about the absence of a certain theme or subject matter in a work of literary fiction, as opposed to talking about what is present in the text. But in Nemirovsky’s case, a writer highly conscious of her endangered position as a Russian Jewish emigrant living in France during the German occupation, it seems odd that in this last novel, which details the German occupation of a small French village—one very similar to the town where she and her family were living under increasingly stringent anti-Jewish laws, any mention of Jews and their trials and tribulations of assimilation and acceptance into French society is strikingly absent.

Some critics claim that the absence of Jews in Suite Francaise evidences Némirovsky’s lack of sympathy and identification with Jews but as Susan Suleiman explains, nothing points to this reason given how in the spring of 1942, while she was deep in the writing of the novel, Némirovsky walked around the village of Issy-L’Eveque wearing the designated yellow star—“Whether she liked it or not, she was identified as a Jew, and she made no effort to escape it.”2 Suleiman then offers what seems to be a more plausible explanation for why Némirovsky doesn’t include Jews in her novel. Given how, by the early 1940s, she had arrived at the conclusion that Jews would never fully feel, or be, fully accepted by the French, this perhaps translates into the impossibility of her representing Jews ‘together with’ the French, “as if she could not see them in the same viewfinder—or in the same story and same history.”2 Jonathan Weiss offers another conclusion—that from 1940 onward no Jews appear in any of Némirovsky work because she had now decided to fashion herself into an entirely French writer writing on French themes, which no longer included the Jewish Question. He writes: “It is doubtful that the projected volumes of Suite Francaise would have taken Jews into account; the notes Irène left behind do not reveal any Jewish characters or any reference to deportation. After the publication of The Dogs and the Wolves in 1940, Irène kept Jewishness out of her writing. As an author, she continued to create for herself a purely French identity and left no trace of her origins in her later fiction.”4

Another reason, perhaps, was that while writing Suite Francaise, Némirovsky felt the most rejected and cast out by her beloved France, and therefore used the novel as a vehicle of criticism and, in part, revenge on the French, the same land and its peoples she so idealized in her novel All Our Worldly Goods only a few years earlier. In the early summer of 1942, before her deportation, a journal entry reads, without a date: “My God! What is this country doing to me? Since it rejects me, let us think about it coldly, let us watch it lose its honor and its life. And others, what are they to me? Empires die. Nothing is important. Whether one looks from a mystical point of view or a personal one, it’s all the same. Let us keep a cold head. Harden our hearts. And wait.”5 Increasingly, from 1940 onward, life for Némirovsky and her family grew more difficult. In June of 1940, after the German occupation of Paris, the Némirovskys moved to Hotel des Voyaguers in Issy-l’Eveque. In October of 1940, a law was passed giving Jews inferior legal and social rights and most importantly, it defined Jewishness based on racial criteria. The Némirovskys were classified as both Jewish and foreign, becoming “stateless” people in the eyes of the French state, rendering their baptism certificates useless. Michel, Irène's husband, could no longer work at the bank and the publishing houses were “Arayanizing” their staff and authors, prohibiting Irène from being published there. More race laws were passed in October 1940 and June 1941 stipulating that Jews could be placed under house arrest, or deported and interned in concentration camps. Issy-l’Eveque was now in the occupied zone and the hotel where Irène and her family were living was full of German soldiers. Irène, her husband and her eldest daughter all openly wore the Jewish star.6 Even though in Issy-I’Eveque life was still relatively calm for Jews in the summer of 1941, Irène was aware that in Paris, round-ups continued—on July 16, 4,000 Jews were deported, both children and adults; between August 20 and 23, 4,000 more were arrested and the detention camp at Drancy was opened. In occupied France, Jews were no longer allowed to own radios. And on September 5, an exhibit entitled “The Jew and France,” went up in Paris. The catalogue reads: “Jews are at the root of all the troubles, all the perturbations, all the conflicts, all the revolts of the modern world.”7

In 1941, in the thick of this persecution, Irène feverishly began working on Suite Francaise. She envisioned the project as a five part novel of a thousand pages in length, and she started to write notes while simultaneously writing the book, notes that indicate how she no longer had any illusions about the French, loathsome in their defeat and collaboration, and about her own doomed fate.

But characteristic of Némirovsky, even when she decides to portray the French living under German occupation in an uncompromising light, she still conveys a sense of empathy in Suite Francaise when describing the torment of a young French woman, Lucile, who falls in love with an attractive and cultivated German soldier billeted in her home. Némirovsky is always able to see the other side and this sensitivity and acuity of vision is what elevates her writing. Némirovsky laments in her journal, in June of 1941, when the German soldiers, whom she and her husband have grown to know and like, leave their village to fight the Russians: “I swear here and now never again to take out my bitterness, no matter how justifiable, on a group of people, whatever their race, religion, convictions, prejudices, errors. I feel sorry for these poor children. But I cannot forgive certain individuals, those who reject me, those who coldly abandon us, those who are prepared to stab you in the back. Those people…if I could just get my hands on them…”8 It makes sense how “coldly abandoned” she felt at the end of her life, how rejected and cast out she was made to feel by her desired native land given her intense attachment to the idea she maintained of herself as being fully and solely French. This is why, when, in March of 1940, for an interview with the literary magazine Les Nouvelles litteraires, when asked who she was: a French author or a Russian author writing in French, her response is so poignant given what we know of her fate:

I hope and I believe I am more a French than a Russian author. I spoke French
before speaking Russian. I have spent half of my childhood and all of my young
adulthood and married years in this country. I have never written anything in
Russian except for my schoolwork. I think and I even dream in French. All is so
totally amalgamated into what remains within me of my race and my native land,
that even with the best will in the world, I would be incapable of knowing where
one ends and the other begins.
9

Alexis Landau recently completed her PhD in Literature and Creative Writing at USC, where she currently teaches writing. The Empire of the Senses is her first novel. Originally from Los Angeles, she lives there with her husband and two children.


1. Angela Kershaw, “Finding Irene Nemirovsky,” French Cultural Studies 18 (2007): 61.

2. Suleiman, “Jewish Question in Interwar France” 29.

3. Suleiman, “Jewish Question in Interwar France” 30.

4. Weiss 139.

5. Nemirovsky quoted in Weiss 153

6. Myriam Anissimov, preface to French edition, Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, trans. Sandra Smith (New York: Vintage International, 2006) 426.

7. Weiss 143.

8. Nemirovsky, Suite Francaise 374.

9. Nemirovsky quoted in Weiss 173.


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The Story Behind The Empire of the Senses

Monday, February 23, 2015 | Permalink

Alexis Landau recently completed her PhD in Literature and Creative Writing at USC, where she currently teaches writing. The Empire of the Senses is her first novel. Originally from Los Angeles, she lives there with her husband and two children. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

One of the first questions many people ask me about the book is if it reflects my own family history—if it is, to a certain extent, my family story. And the answer is resoundingly no. I was actually drawn to write this detailed generational story because there is such a lack of story in my own family. I am an only child, and my parents are estranged from all of their relatives. My grandparents have died, and even when they were living there wasn’t much contact. The concept of having an extended family, of aunts, uncles, and cousins was and still is a foreign one. I often wonder about my family—where they came from, what my great grandparents were like, but I received vague blurry answers that never felt satisfactory. The facts changed to the point at which it didn’t seem to matter anymore—sometimes my father’s family was said to have emigrated from Russia, sometimes Lithuania or Poland, sometimes even Germany. The lack of information was often coupled with a shrug, because no one seemed all that interested in talking about it. The few stories that do exist are more recent memories that my mother and father recounted about growing up in the '40s and '50s and even these stories are not told often. Anything before the postwar period is pretty much a blank. So in my desire for some kind of family story, I decided to create one, and this desire for a better understanding of my past, even if it wasn’t my past, but a past, is in part what shaped the writing of this book.

Why I decided to focus on this particular period in history is another question I’m frequently asked. In 2007 the Met had an exhibit Glitter and Doom about the artists who were working in Berlin in the '20s and '30s, such as Otto Dix and Max Beckmann. This was always my favorite period in art history and during the exhibit, while viewing all the paintings collected in one place, and information about the people who influenced the painters as well as the painters themselves, I became so swept up in it and thought, “I have to write a novel about this time and place—such an intense, foreboding but also incredibly creative period in European history.” Then the second starting point occurred during my time as a graduate student in English literature and Creative Writing at USC—I had to choose a critical field of interest which is separate from one’s creative work, and I became increasingly interested in the idea of Jewish identity and assimilation during the interwar period. It seemed crucial to understand what it meant to be Jewish before the Holocaust, given how after the Holocaust, and after the birth of Israel, Jewish identity underwent so much change and redefinition. I remember very clearly meeting with my advisor. I didn’t even know if it I would be allowed to focus on the interwar period, because it didn’t feel as though it were a real category or genre. But my advisor was really supportive and said: “Yes! You can do that. That sounds amazing.” So I started delving into the work of writers such as Kafka and Joseph Roth, and I ended up focusing on Irène Némirovsky, the author of Suite Française. No one had heard of her, not even in my department, which was another reason why I wanted to write about her. Her circumstances in terms of being Jewish and in terms of being highly assimilated and well off—a lot of the cultural trappings were similar to Lev’s circumstances (the protagonist of The Empire of the Senses), which increased my interest in her life as a Russian Jewish writer living in Paris between the wars.

Also, in terms of beginning the book at the start of World War I and ending the book in 1928, I wanted to focus on this time period not only because it was such an explosion of art and creativity, but also because during this time in Berlin, there were so many forces undermining the status quo, in terms of sexuality and gender, as well as the political climate, and I was excited to convey all of these intersecting and sometimes conflicting cultural currents through the characters and the choices they make.

The “Top Five” books that inspired me while I was writing The Empire of the Senses:

1. Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

2. My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante (a trilogy following the evolution of a friendship between two women in Naples Italy, from the 50s to the near present day)

3. Enemies, A Love Story by Isaac Singer (a wonderfully funny and insightful novel about Jewish refugees living in New York after the war)

4. The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth (an epic generational novel about the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire)

5. Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s by Sabine Rewald and Ian Buruma (a fantastic collection of paintings by artists working during this period, who were still reeling from World War I and trying to understand and define a new era of unprecedented sexuality and artistic freedom)

In the New York area? See Alexis Landau live at JBC's Unpacking the Book event on February 24th at The Jewish Museum. Find out more information here.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, February 20, 2015 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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Five Simple Ways To Be Good To A New Mom

Thursday, February 19, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Elisa Albert shared what she's been reading (and watching) lately. Her new book, After Birth, is now available. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Judaism has very clear, widely practiced proscriptions for how to support the bereaved, but strangely we don’t talk much about how we support women who are about to or have recently given birth. Which seems remiss, given that birth and death are so clearly on the same continuum, sacred portals at opposite ends of life. If how we process and honor death matters, then how we deal with birth must matter in direct proportion. Probably the Rabbis weren’t so concerned with how women get through the childbearing year because hey, the women had it under control. But given the dire state of childbirth and early motherhood in the here and now, perhaps it’s time we brought these issues into the light, so as to better address them. Here are a few simple ways to be decent to people who are working very hard to bring forth and nurture new life.

1. Don’t spread negative thoughts and feelings about birth.

It’s a nightmare just get the drugs do whatever they say don’t even try you’re so tiny that baby looks huge are you having twins I almost died it’s the worst pain ever you can’t even imagine I would have died if not for ETC. If we or our sister or mother or friend had a terrible experience giving birth, that’s a real shame, and we should have plenty of space to process that experience. But please understand that terrible birth experiences are not inevitable. Birth is normal and healthy and when properly supported tends to go beautifully, so scaring or threatening pregnant women into submission to all-too-typical terrors and interventions is nothing but a cruel and careless way of avoiding our own regret, confusion, ignorance, pain and/or guilt. KNOCK IT OFF. She’s about to do something heroic and amazing and must summon every iota of her courage and stamina and focus. Unless there is something abnormal about her pregnancy, there is no reason she won’t be absolutely fine with good care. Would we hold up a “You Can’t Do This And You’re Crazy for Trying” sign at a marathon? We would not. So let’s be absolutely sure we keep our perverted birth mythologies to ourselves (and maybe even strive to educate ourselves about where those mythologies come from).

2. Bring Food

When in doubt, bring food. This might be obvious when we’re very, very close to the people in question, but is sometimes less so when we’re more general friends or acquaintances. Too often we fall into the easy trap of thinking “oh, I should leave them alone, I’m sure they don’t want to hear from little old me.” Wrong. Try organizing or participating in a Meal Train (check out the handy-dandy website, which allows you to coordinate with any number of friends, relatives, neighbors, co-workers). Buoy a new mother with all the lasagna she could ever consume. While we’re at her place, why not do the dishes and tidy up and make some tea? Offer to hold the baby while she goes to the bathroom, takes a shower, takes a nap. Take a good look around. What needs doing? Do it. Fun fact: in many parts of the world, women traditionally do not get out of bed for the first thirty days postpartum. They nestle in with their babies and are attended to, fed, and kept company by grandmothers, sisters, friends and relatives. Interestingly, there is very low incidence of postpartum depression where this custom is widely practiced. Perhaps we should rename it “abandoned at her most vulnerable ” depression.

3. Don’t Write Her Off

It’s easy, especially if we’re not in the exact same phase of life, to let friendships fall through the cracks at times like these. Maybe we have older kids and have mercifully forgotten much of what it’s like to have a new baby. Maybe we don’t have kids and the whole idea of new babies makes us a little uncomfortable, or a lot. Maybe we’re defensive because she doesn’t want to go to brunch and hear about our recent J-Dates just now. (Is J-Date still a thing?) Maybe we’re hoping to have a baby of our own and the thought of hers fills us with ugly thoughts. Maybe we philosophically disagree about the particulars of pregnancy or birth. Newsflash: none of that matters. If we truly love her and are decent friends, our ego is beside the point. Let’s go back to #2, while firmly reminding ourselves that this is not about us. “Like” every single social media post about the baby. Let her know she’s in our thoughts. When she feels up to it, accompany her on walks and short outings of her design. Love the baby. Coo at the baby. Exclaim over the baby. The beloved friend we used to know will return, if slowly, over some months or years. Give her time, and celebrate the new world order with her. Real friends don’t expect each other to stay exactly the same forever.

4. Be Okay About Her Body

If breastfeeding makes us uncomfortable, in theory or in practice, we should seek therapy. More immediately, we are called upon to pretend that it does not. Making a vulnerable woman who is struggling to master the art of feeding her child in a biologically appropriate manner feel weird or unwelcome or gross or like a political or sexual spectacle is the opposite of a mitzvah. Is there a way we can help her get more comfortable? It’s a safe bet to bring her a glass of water. Be kind. Read her signals. Intuit what she needs. She is nursing a baby: this is important work. We shouldn’t make our hang-ups or projections or ignorance about breasts her problem. We should not make ourselves her problem. She has enough to deal with. If we suggest she go nurse her baby in the bathroom we are officially not decent human beings, the end.

5. Listen

This is usually concurrent with #2 (all roads lead back to BRING FOOD). But here is where we are called upon to be even more open, more gentle, and even more grounded than perhaps we are used to being in everyday life. And here is where our customs around death are perhaps most apt. What do we do at a shiva? We give the bereaved space to talk, laugh, cry, joke, reminisce, or be silent. We hold them in a safe space, a transitional space, in which we ask nothing of them. We create and hold that space, and we do not budge for a set period of time. We cover the mirrors, because it does not matter what we look like right now. We don’t tell them how to grieve. We don’t try to set the tone or impose our thoughts or feelings. We simply make space for whatever feelings, whatever process, whatever idiosyncratic mess of emotion characterizes this particular situation. A new baby is a great simcha, to be sure. A new baby is also a great upheaval. Everything is raw and different and new, and it’s hardly an exaggeration to suggest that these first few days and weeks after birth will likely inform a lot of what’s to come. Let’s be sure to honor this time with the greatest reverence and utmost sensitivity. A revolution of happy, healthy, well loved and well cared for mothers can change the world.

Elisa Albert is the author of the novels After Birth and The Book of Dahlia, the short story collection How This Night is Different, and editor of the anthology Freud's Blind Spot. She is a 2009 Sami Rohr Prize Fellow and will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

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Book Cover of the Week: Nightbird

Wednesday, February 18, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Jewish novelist Alice Hoffman turns her deft mastery of magical realism to Middle Grade fantasy with Nightbird, a tale of enchantments, mysterious family curses, and (of course) young love:

Lois Lowry (two-time Newbery Medal recipient and author of The Giver in case you live under a rock) likens this book to "reentering a wonderful dream that you vaguely remember," celebrating how "Alice Hoffman creates the most ordinary people and then turns their lives magical." Looking for a book to share with a preteen? I think you just found it.

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Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Molly Antopol

Tuesday, February 17, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Today we hear from one final 2015 Sami Rohr Prize finalist: Molly Antopol. Molly's debut collection of stories, The UnAmericans, received praise from around literary (and Jewish) universe, and even made it to the longlist for a 2014 National Book Award, so we were thrilled to welcome her to the Sami Rohr literary community. We have lots about Molly in JBCland, including her Visiting Scribe posts and her video chat for JBC Book Clubs (I even wrote about Molly for another site, recommending a wine for book clubs to enjoy while reading the book!), but we couldn't resist the opportunity to share a little more about this highly talented author below. 

And, of course, a hearty congratulations again to our other four finalists, who have been profiled over the past several weeks: Ayelet Tsabari, Kenneth Bonert, Yelena Akhtiorskaya, and Boris Fishman. Be sure to check back soon to see which of these authors will be taking home $100,000.

What are some of the most challenging things about writing fiction?

Honestly? Everything! I’ve heard some writers talk about stories arriving fully formed in their minds, and all they have to do is transcribe. That’s never happened for me. But I’m grateful for it—all of the stories in my book took at least a year, sometimes two, to write. Every one of them changed drastically draft by draft, and I often don’t discover what a story is truly about until the tenth or twelfth or fifteenth version.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

Many of my relatives are incredible storytellers and I started thinking about how best to tell a story when I was a kid. When it was my turn to talk at the dinner table, I knew I’d better have something interesting to say. A lot of my family’s stories revolved around their involvement in the communist party. I heard so many tales of tapped lines and dinnertime visits from the FBI, and many of the stories in my book grew out of my desire to understand what it might have been like for my mother and her siblings to have grown up under such intense surveillance, knowing that their most intimate moments were being recorded and catalogued.

Who is your intended audience?

I like to picture a better version of myself reading whatever I write—a version that can’t be dismissive or judgmental, a version that understands that in order to write the kind of fiction I strive to write, it’s necessary to feel empathy for even the least “likeable” or sympathetic people.

Are you working on anything new right now?

I’m at work on a novel, called The After Party. It’s set in Israel and the U.S.—but I’m too superstitious to say anything else!

What are you reading now?

Louise Gluck’s gorgeous new poetry collection, Faithful and Virtuous Night, and a collection of linked stories, Uncle Peretz Takes Off, by another of my favorite writers, Ya’akov Shabtai.

Top 5 favorite books

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

It wasn’t a conscious decision, exactly. I’ve always read a lot. As a kid, I had all sorts of imaginary friends and my mom says I used to spend full days writing myself into whatever book I was reading. But writing as a career? It felt to me like a pie-in-the-sky profession, like being an astronaut or a magician. I figured I’d sneak in time to write when I wasn’t working—when I was a kid I wanted to be a marine biologist or a zoologist.

What is the mountaintop for you — how do you define success?

Seeing someone on the subway reading my book!

How do you write — what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

I don’t have a special writing hat or a lucky bathrobe or anything like that. If I can sit down and get something done, it doesn’t matter if I’m dressed or still in my pajamas, or at my desk or on the couch. My only rule is to get started in the morning. I like to roll out of bed and just get to work, before my day gets too cluttered and the emails begin to pile up. I treat writing like a job, putting in full days on the days I don’t teach and half days on the days that I do. I shut the phone off, and lately I’ve been using a program that prevents me from accessing the Internet. I’m horribly addicted and researching one small (yet essential!) detail for a story can often lead to a three-hour black hole from which I only emerge once I’ve learned everything I can about something wholly unrelated to my book and have won a bidding war on eBay over a vintage lamp I never wanted in the first place.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

I hope readers get swept up in the stories the way I’ve gotten swept up in so many books. I’ve missed my bus stop any number of times because I was so wrapped up in what I was reading, and felt disoriented when I had to put the book away and was no longer in the world of my characters.

Molly Antopol's debut story collection, The UnAmericans, was published here by W.W. Norton in 2014, and in six other countries. She teaches creative writing at Stanford University, where she was a recent Wallace Stegner Fellow. A recipient of the National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35 award and longlisted for the National Book Award, she holds an MFA from Columbia University and lives in San Francisco.

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Trying Not to Drown in a Glass of Water On My Way to Cuba

Tuesday, February 17, 2015 | Permalink
This week, Ruth Behar, the author of An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba and Traveling Heavy: A Memoir In Between Journeys, blogs for The Postscript on her Jubana grandmother and traveling to Cuba.  

The Postscript series is a special peek "behind the scenes" of a book. It's a juicy little extra something to add to a book club's discussion and a reader's understanding of how the book came together. 

To "host" Ruth at your next book club meeting, request her through JBC Live Chat

Throughout the 1990s, when my grandmother Esther, my Baba, was still alive, I’d stop in Miami Beach to visit her on my way to Cuba. I was lucky to know all four grandparents. But Baba, my mother’s mother, lived the longest, to the age of 92. In her, I saw my closest mirror, for she was a thinker and an independent woman.

If I flew in early in the day, I’d drop my things in the guest room, where Baba liked to watch “Divorce Court,” and go running to Publix to buy groceries for her. She always claimed she didn’t need anything, but the refrigerator was empty and she was out of toilet paper. When I returned carrying several bags, she complained, “Who is all this for? I don’t need anything.” Saying "thank you" didn’t come easily to Baba. She only had respect for women who weren’t needy. Nothing was more pathetic to her than a woman so weak she could “drown in a glass of water.” Baba tried hard to be tough. But I knew her secret: she suffered from terrible nightmares, chased into dark alleys from which there was no escape.

Baba was part of a generation of Jewish immigrants who settled in Cuba in the 1920s and 1930s. Sephardic Jews from Turkey and Ashkenazi Jews from Poland came on the eve of the Holocaust and found Cuba to be a hospitable place. Within a few decades, they built a vibrant Jewish world and had no wish to go north to the United States. Their children and grandchildren were born happy and healthy in Cuba, and they expected to remain on the island for generations.

Then Fidel Castro came along in 1959. First he snatched up the businesses of the wealthiest people, mostly Americans and some Cubans, including a few Cuban Jews. Soon after, he took away little mom-and-pop shops. The majority of the Jews had poured their hopes into these shops, thinking they offered a secure livelihood. That was true for Baba and Zayde; they had a lace store in Havana, below their walk-up apartment, where they spent every waking moment, and losing it was devastating. Along with most of the Jews of Cuba, my family fled to the United States. But the memory of the island scratched at our hearts.

Baba was from Goworowo, a shtetl near Warsaw. She had the yizkor book from her hometown and periodically she’d bring it down from the shelf and reread the stories of those who’d perished in the Holocaust. She got together with Yiddish-speaking friends from Cuba every Saturday afternoon to play kalukah, after attending Shabbat services at the Cuban-Hebrew Congregation. American Jews had given Cuban Jews the cold shoulder when they arrived in Miami, so the “Jubans” had built their own synagogue a few blocks from Lincoln Road. On a wall inside the sanctuary hung a picture of their beloved synagogue in Havana, the Patronato.

I never learned Yiddish, but fortunately Baba loved speaking Spanish as much as I did, so that was the language we spoke to each other. We should have spoken of profound things—of life and death, of loss and grief, of laughter and longing—but I was in a rush. Miami was a stopover for me on my way to Cuba.
 

Baba didn’t like that I was going to Cuba so much. She could understand going to Cuba for one or two visits. More than that seemed unnecessary, even suspicious. But I was obsessed with the small Jewish community on the island. Where once there had been 15,000 Jews, a thousand were left, almost all of mixed heritage or married into the faith. I wanted to learn all I could about these Jews who lived under tropical communism. They were more intriguing than “Jubans” like Baba, who lived in Miami Beach weighed down by their memories of all the hopes and dreams they’d had to leave behind.

Now I think back to all those times I said goodbye to Baba at the door of her modest apartment, sixteen blocks from the seashore, and I realize I lost my chance to learn her story and the story of her generation. There were so many questions I never got to ask. What had it been like to arrive in Cuba in a woolen coat and feel the lush heat of a Caribbean island caress your skin? What tropical fruit had been most amazing to encounter—a mango, a guava, a papaya, a banana? How did it feel to bathe in the ocean for the first time? To hear the trance-inducing beat of the drums calling the African saints, which can be heard in every corner of Cuba?

I try not to have too many regrets. I know I absorbed a great deal from Baba through the years. She didn’t live long enough to see my book, An Island Called Home, but she would have read it with as much devotion as she read the novels of Danielle Steele. She adored books and passed that passion on to me.
 

Baba would shake her head watching me schlepping the huge suitcases I took to Cuba filled with gifts. As I went out the door, she warned, “You’re going to get a kileh!” That was Yiddish for hernia. Now I know we each carried a different sort of heaviness that made us vulnerable. She was weighed down by memories, and I was going to Cuba in search of memories.

So many years later, I still travel back and forth to Cuba. Wanting to be strong for Baba’s sake, I never did tell her how there’s a part of me that’s always a bit scared about going to Cuba. What if a catastrophe befalls me there, will I be able to flee, as we did when I was a child? But I kept silent. I didn’t want to seem like one of those women that can “drown in a glass of water.” Now I imagine Baba looks out for me. She’s my guardian angel, making sure I come back in one piece.

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Into The Stew

Tuesday, February 17, 2015 | Permalink

Elisa Albert is the author of the novels After Birth and The Book of Dahlia, the short story collection How This Night is Different, and editor of the anthology Freud's Blind Spot. She is a 2009 Sami Rohr Prize Fellow and will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

People frequently ask us where a given novel came from, as though novels have clear origin stories (well, the daddy novel and mommy novel love each other very much, and they do a very special hug…). There is, alas, no simple way to answer this kind of question. I’m not trying to be coy or evasive when I shrug and change the subject, I promise. It’s just, well, how much time do you have?

Novels are noble and doomed attempts to answer very long, impossibly broad, and childish-in-the-best-sense questions. Why do we have to die? What’s up with this man versus nature thing? Why don’t I feel what I’ve been instructed to feel? Why do I love someone who doesn’t love me back? Why do we lie? Why can’t I stop thinking about X, Y, Z? Novels hopefully beget new, unpredictable questions, which echo long after you’re done reading. Novels are smarter than their authors. Novels are woven from almost untraceable sources. Novels sometimes reveal more than we wish they would. I think novels are magic that way. Good novels, that is, but “good” is subjective, so feel free to get angry and wag your finger in my face at a reading! Happens all the time.

I’m a voracious consumer of culture, but only what I absolutely want to consume. I feel no compunction to keep up with what anyone else thinks is important unless it speaks– no, shouts—directly to me, wherever I happen to be. The alchemy of how we find our way to connection with particular works of art at different times in our lives is not subject to will, untold eyeballs on social media notwithstanding. Timing is everything.

I went to a party at a writer’s apartment once, and the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves were filled with every pristine hardcover novel the New York Times had reviewed over the prior decade. Most of the spines hadn’t been cracked. Mere set dressing, alas. It made me sad.

In a perfect world, our bookshelves would be idiosyncratic, singular as fingerprints. Each inner life fed a steady diet best suited to its unique metabolism. That way, finding commonalities on a friend’s bookshelf would mean a lot, wouldn’t it?

Anyway, sometimes I like things I’m “supposed to” like, more often I don’t; I’m not averse to trash, and it’s been a very long time since I forced myself to finish a book that does nothing for me. As a novelist, every single thing I read, hear, and watch goes into the stew. I can’t trace or diagram precisely how, but trust me. So, while what went into After Birth is by now long gone, blessed and ephemeral as eye contact on the subway, there’s a new novel in the offing, and it demands to be fed.

Herewith, a brief and somewhat random consumption survey of late. The next novel should be ready in, oh, shall we say three years? (I’ll aim for that, unless fate intervenes. The uterus is a mysterious joker.) Regardless, it all goes into the pot, and hopefully the stew will be tasty.

  • Amy Poehler’s memoir Yes Please. Adorable, if a bit of a bummer in making light of interventionist birth trauma and fear. Mostly adorable. Of her many accomplishments, the Upright Citizens Brigade is especially admirable. I love how she describes being asked by chirpy pseudo-friends, as her career begins to take off, “Can you believe it?” Yes, she deadpans. I can believe it. I’ve been working my butt off for years.

  • HuffPo article about addiction and connection, specifically a fascinating new rat study that seems to trace the roots of addiction not to the chemical grip of substances themselves but to lack of connection and community, which makes so much sense. I like to refer to these kinds of revelatory studies, confirming our most primal instincts, as Bears Still Shitting In The Woods.

  • Ani DiFranco show at the Egg in Albany. I’ve been to maybe thirty Ani DiFranco shows since my fellow Rohr Prize nominee and former camp counselor Ari Y Kelman introduced me to her music at Camp Ramah circa 1992. (Thank you forever, Ari.) It’s been thrilling to witness her evolution over the years, and more than a little uncanny to be aware of my own in relation. I brought my husband along to this one. He was a great sport, especially given the, ahem, intensity of crowd, the sing-along aspect, and my tears of joy throughout.

  • "Broad City." Adore this show. Makes me nostalgic for being young and careless in NYC. (But not too nostalgic.) What insouciant hilarity. “There’s no need to stress,” in the wise words of Ilana Glazer.

  • "Wild," the movie. Woman versus nature: what an idea. Beautifully done. Great story.

  • Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! This was one of my brother David’s favorite books. It’s been more than sixteen years since he died, and when a friend happened to recommend it, I realized: hey, it’s about time I read that. Delightful. I can feel David absolutely all over it. Reading very slowly so it lasts as long as possible.

  • Our Andromeda by Brenda Shaughnessy. A collection of poetry from a scarily brilliant poet. This conversation about the book between poets Joy Katz and Erika Meitner is an excellent examination of what Shaughnessy is up to. Devastating and celebratory and a welcome reminder of what poetry can do.

  • Us Weekly magazine. Just read on the train because I’m tired and truth be told tabloids relax me like a hot fragrant bath. Should I buy The New York Times instead? A cursory glance at the front page reminds me that I will be crying and/or buzzing with rage/fear/hopelessness if I involve myself too deeply with its contents, so… Us Weekly it is. I no longer recognize half the celebrities featured therein, which weirdly does little to lessen my total enjoyment of this dumb rag.

  • Ruth Fowler’s piece on Al Jazeera America, which offers an important overview of exactly what’s going ever so wrong with our society’s treatment of childbearing women. I’m grateful for Fowler’s ongoing confrontation of misogynistic taboos regarding women’s bodies in birth.

  • Rebbe, by Joseph Telushkin. I grew up with Telushkin’s books, and was curious to know more about Schneerson. What a delight to find, in this engrossing portrait, a riveting human being whose insight, intellect, and infallible ability to connect changed the face of world Jewry forever, one yechidus at a time. I happened by the Chabad Sukkah in Washington Square last fall, and felt compelled to duck in and say the blessings. The three young orthodox men inside were friendly but slightly robotic until I asked them if they’d read Rebbe. Then they stopped what they were doing, looked at me with surprise, and agreed: what a phenomenal book, what a phenomenal biographer, what a phenomenal subject. We probably didn’t have much else in common, me and those boys in the sukkah, but we connected for a minute, and exchanged genuine good wishes, as I went on my way I felt uplifted by our shared appreciation of Telushkin’s achievement, and renewed in the certainty that art and literature have the potential to unite us all, sooner or later, one way or another, if only we let it.

Read more about Elisa Albert here.

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