The ProsenPeople

A Bracelet, a Necklace, and a Book Tour

Tuesday, October 21, 2014 | Permalink

Carla Naumburg, Ph.D., is a clinical social worker, writer, and mother. She is the mindful parenting blogger for PsychCentral.com and a contributing editor at Kveller.com. Her first book, Parenting in the Present Moment: How to Stay Focused on What Really Matters, is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I’m getting ready to head out on my book tour, and I’m trying to decide what to wear. In addition to the clothes my sister will pick out for me, I’ll be wearing a thick cream-colored bangle bracelet with large black letters that read, “Because I said so.”

The bracelet might seem like an odd choice for someone who just wrote a parenting book, so I’ll start by explaining the necklace I’ll be wearing, a small silver pendant with just one word engraved on it: STAY.

I first heard that word—really heard it—during an eight week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) course I took a couple of years ago. I was learning the basics of mindfulness, meditation, and yoga, and a few weeks in, our instructor read us the following quote by the Buddhist Nun Pema Chödrön:

The pith instruction is, Stay. . . stay. . . just stay. Learning to stay with ourselves in meditation is like training a dog. If we train a dog by beating it, we’ll end up with an obedient but very inflexible and rather terrified dog. The dog may obey when we say "Stay!" "Come!" "Roll over!" and "Sit up!" but he will also be neurotic and confused. By contrast, training with kindness results in someone who is flexible and confident, who doesn’t become upset when situations are unpredictable and insecure .

Although Chödrön was talking about meditation, I immediately thought of parenting, and the ways in which I was “training” my daughters by yelling at them. My desire to stop yelling so often was the reason I had signed up for the mindfulness course in the first place; nothing else had worked. In that moment, when I heard those words, I got a little clarity on why I had developed such a temper (I was never much of a yeller before my daughters were born), and what I might do about it.

I realized that I had no ability to stay present in the difficult, irritating, boring, exhausting, situations that inevitably come up in the work of child rearing. When those hard moments happened, again and again, I just wanted to run away. When I couldn’t do that, I sought refuge in my smartphone or I lost my temper. I needed to learn to stay, and I needed to train myself to do so with kindness, which I had been sorely lacking. I started practicing mindfulness and meditation. It helped. A lot.

And so I wear the necklace, a small and subtle reminder to myself that the work of parenting calls on me to stay connected, stay grounded, and stay as present as possible and as calm as possible when I’m feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, confused, and off-track with my kids.

And I will also wear my bracelet, the bangle that says “Because I said so.” Just to be clear, these four words (which, yes, I have said to my children on more than one occasion, and which I am sure I will say again) are the verbal equivalent of shutting the door on them; pretty much the opposite of staying present.

A traditional Hasidic teaching tells us that we should keep a piece of paper in each of our pockets. One should read something along the lines of, “For my sake the world was created,” and the other should read, “I am but dust and ashes.” We are told to read the first note when we’re feeling hopeless or depressed, and the second when we’re feeling overly brazen or proud. The purpose behind these notes is to remind us not to take ourselves so damn seriously. That doesn’t mean that our ideas and attitudes aren’t important, it just means we don’t benefit from getting overly wrapped up in our own thoughts and feelings and wishes and disappointments. And I feel the exact same way about parenting.

Yes, I wrote a parenting book, and it’s all about learning to stay focused on what really matters. And when I head out to talk about it over the next few months, I’ll be wearing a necklace that reminds me of what’s most important in my relationship with my daughters, and I’ll also be wearing a bracelet that reminds me that sometimes the best I can offer them is “Because I said so.” And that’s OK too.

Carla's writing has been featured in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and Parents.com, among other places. She currently lives outside of Boston with her husband and two young daughters.

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Ask Big Questions: Who Represents You?

Monday, October 20, 2014 | Permalink

The Jewish Book Council is delighted to launch a new blog series in partnership with Ask Big Questions, an initiative out of Hillel International aimed at getting people to talk about issues of heart, soul and community. Each month, Ask Big Questions will feature a JBC author on their blog, shared here on the JBC ProsenPeople blog page, and in campus programming reaching over 10,000 college and graduate students.

Miriam Karmel is an award-winning short story writer. She is currently touring through the 2014-2015 JBC Network with her first novel, Being Esther.

Recently, my town’s Selectmen gave a small-time developer the go-ahead to build a very large gas station on a pristine piece of land.

The land abuts a rocky river at the southern gateway to the Berkshires. Tourists flock to the Berkshires for the woods, the hills, the clean air, the small town charm. The place is a haven for city folk, a balm for the spirit when the city becomes too much. Now, the Selectmen, all three of them, have let the city in. Coming soon: a round-the-clock gas station with eight pumps, a separate fueling area for diesel trucks, plus a Subway on the side. Or perhaps a Dunkin Donuts. Welcome to the Berkshires!

The Selectmen are elected to represent our town’s citizens. To represent means to speak or act for another. Yet when they voted to allow a developer to set up shop in our wilderness, they did not speak or act for me. “Tax dollars,” they said, to those who protested. “We need a gas station.” Both may be true. The town is strapped for money. Yet why does this feel like selling one’s soul to the Devil? And we haven’t had a gas station since a runaway truck took out the single pump that had been here forever. The truck destroyed the adjacent country store, too.

There must be a name for this phenomenon, for the feeling that your elected representatives do not represent you. Let’s call it helplessness. It’s the feeling you get when you see the train wreck coming and there isn’t a thing you can do to stop it. I did what I could. I wrote opinion pieces for our local paper condemning the plan. I spoke up at town meetings. It was like howling in the wind.

Our town will survive. Yes, the landscape will be altered, though perhaps not forever. Detroit, I have read, is becoming a haven for foxes. The critters are moving into downtown Detroit, into places where people once lived. Woodland and prairie are blooming where houses once stood. “Nature heals the cuts that we’ve made,” a fox researcher said. I should take heart in that.

Still, I feel helpless. I dread the coming of the mega-station. The fast food joint.

Lately, at times like this, I find myself turning to Esther Lustig and wondering: What would Esther do? Esther is an 85-year-old widow who lives alone in an apartment in Chicago. She is the protagonist of my novel Being Esther.

Esther has good reason to feel helpless. She is active and bright. Her life is full. Yet her daughter Ceely wants her to move to Cedar Shores, an assisted living residence.

After Marty died, Ceely started placing glossy brochures on Esther’s coffee table, her nightstand, and even tucked between the pages of her latest book. The other day, she held one open and pointed to the pictures. “Look, Ma. You’ll have your own room.”

Disparagingly, Esther calls the place Bingoville. Esther intends to stay put.

“Thank you very much,” she told Ceely, as she handed back the brochure. “I’m happy just where I am.

Ceely is relentless. She is her mother’s self-appointed representative. She buys groceries for her mother, though Esther has explained how much she enjoys her outings to the supermarket. Ceely buys the wrong things. At one point, deaf to Esther’s preference for Lucky Charms, Ceely pulls a box of All-Bran from a grocery bag, as delighted as a magician plucking a rabbit from a hat.

Ceely pours the All-Bran into Esther’s favorite blue bowl, and as she slices banana on top she lectures her mother on the benefits of potassium.

Then she sets the bowl in front of her mother. After Ceely leaves, Esther dumps the cereal into the garbage and rinses out the bowl.

This is a small act of defiance. Yet in it Esther has asserted control over her life. Though she does not say so in the book, I can hear her telling Ceely: Thank you very much, but I can represent myself.

Some things, though, are beyond our control. I can’t stop the gas station. And Esther can’t stop the aging process. At some point she may end up at Cedar Shores.

So what would Esther say? She might say that as long as we are alive, we can represent ourselves by waging small acts of defiance. For Esther, that means staying in her own apartment. It means chucking the All-Bran and eating Lucky Charms.

Me? I’ll continue to speak out. And I’ll be on the lookout for moments of grace. For now, that includes finding comfort in the image of foxes taking up residence in a hollowed-out city. I’m holding on to the notion that nature heals the cuts we make.

Miriam Karmel's writing has appeared in numerous publications including Bellevue Literary Review, The Talking Stick, Pearl, Dust & Fire, Passager, Jewish Women's Literary Annual, and Water~Stone Review. She is the recipient of Minnesota Monthly's 2002 Tamarack Award, the Kate Braverman Short Story Prize, and the Arthur Edelstein Prize for Short Fiction. Her story "The King of Marvin Gardens" was anthologized in Milkweed Edition's Fiction on a Stick. Being Esther is her first novel.

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Friday, October 17, 2014 | Permalink

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7 Snazzy Sukkah Suggestions, 5775

Wednesday, October 08, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Sukkot is one of my mother’s favorite holidays. She considers it more or less the Jewish version of Christmas: we decorate our sukkah like a yuletide tree—our skhkakh is usually pine boughs, too!—and much like our neighbors string up twinkle lights the day after Thanksgiving, we have an unofficial fixed sukkah-building date the day after Yom Kippur. I guess the parallel mostly ends there, but it’s reason enough to create a list of decorations to make your snazziest sukkah yet!

Item 1: Paper Garlands

If your childhood was anything like mine, you, too, spent hours with the stapler and strips of construction paper, creating a multi-colored chain that your family’s sukkah simply could not do without. I am happy to share with you all that I have since moved on to recycled paper strips, courtesy of The Scrapbox, and continue to staple that ghastly garland for my parents’ sukkah—naturally, I realize this a task most children eschew after the third or fourth grade. Oh well.

Those of you without a faithful legion of paper chain makers—or with very sophisticated ones—might enjoy a very bookish twist on the traditional Jewish American sukkah decorating standard:

  

  

Item 2: Lighting

Personally, I love taking advantage of the allowance for transferring flames on this holiday above all others—candlelight dinner under the stars is the best romantic redundancy there is. Hang glass lanterns in your sukkah like it’s a Moroccan bazaar and fire up the tea lights just before your guests arrive for the evening:

  

How about some lovely wind chimes to fill the night air?

Item 3: Honey

The tradition of drizzling honey over (everything, but namely) round challahs continues through Sukkot, so go on and indulge that sweet tooth! Our family hosts an apples and honey tasting event in the sukkah every year, and the reigning favorites are fujis and Green Toe Gardens’ wild honey from natural hives in backyards, schools, and community gardens of Detroit. Yes, Detroit. Check them out!

Did you know you can also get multi-colored honey sticks! And definitely take a gander at these thoughtful suggestions for vegan honey alternatives—there are some great surprises on the list!

Item 4: The Four Species

Traditionally, every Jew is obliged to obtain their own set of the Four Species: a palm heart, myrtle and willow leaves, and citron. It’s best to contact your local rabbi for these items, but if you’re more interested in the spirit—or essence, if you will—of these plants, I love the idea of this Four Species essential oils set:

And here a couple small representatives of arbaat haminim with which to adorn yourself:

    

Item 5: Kohelet

Since we’re on jewelry already, some charming Ecclesiastical pieces:

  
    

Item 6: Stay Warm!

It can get brisk outside in mid-October. If you’re planning to spend lengthier periods in the sukkah, make sure to dress appropriately for the weather—especially in the evenings!

Bare legs can be brutal in the cold. Keep them wrapped in poetry!

  

 

Need something a little more heavy-duty? I’m really into this cape.

But if you’re looking for a more traditional piece of outerwear, this jacket is a pretty chic variation:

Item 7: Feast

One time I made pumpkin soup for Sukkot and served it in hand-hollowed sugar pumpkins baked soft enough to scoop the meat out of. Everyone thought it was delicious—including my dog, who all but swallowed an unsupervised setting and was subsequently sick for two days. Poor dog.

So you understand why I think these ceramic “bakers” are pretty nifty:

Pomegranates, coasters, and a puzzle? This is the kind of tableware I dream about:

  

Of course, you’ll need to serve food to make it a meal. Looking for some culinary inspiration? Here are some JBC staff favorite cookbooks for autumn recipes:

    

Also, apparently fried maple leaves is a thing now? Perfect for the season.

Above all, always make your guests—ushpizin and mortal—feel welcome:

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How a Former Catholic Priest Gained a New Understanding of the Holocaust

Monday, October 06, 2014 | Permalink

Salvatore Tagliareni is a storyteller, writer, business consultant, art dealer, and former Catholic priest. He is the author of the novels Hitler's Priest and The Cross or the Swastika. He is blogging here today for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

“Now that you know what happened you must be a witness." With these words Dr. Viktor Frankl, a Nazi concentration camp survivor and author of Man's Search for Meaning, radically changed my life. The Holocaust, which I had always regarded as a tragic historical period, transformed into a personal reality through our many conversations. Never preaching or ranting with a righteous vengeance of one who had lost so much, he often told me stories as though they happened yesterday. The stories were never merely abstract examples, they were filled with names, places, and hordes of vivid details. The familiar columns of numbers and sterile statistics that we had all witnessed became people with names and faces and personal life histories. These were sisters, mothers, fathers, friends, old, and young. No longer were they numbers in a history class, or newsreel moments that flashed on the screen and then faded away. Once they became flesh and blood with names and places they were not easily forgotten

The horror of the Holocaust became more intense with reference points to my life. Although no one could fully understand the Holocaust, I began to see it in light of my own human experience. My life growing up in a community where diversity was not punished, but rather seen as positive was so different from what the Jews experienced. I had never lived in a climate where any second I could be arrested and thrown into the back of a truck like a sack of potatoes. These moments with Viktor at dinner, during class, while walking through the city with him, or speaking with other Holocaust victims, opened the wellspring of insight that was powerful and compelling. There were no smooth edges and simple answers. Initially it was almost impossible to believe that an innocent group of people could suffer merely because of their race.

Through Viktor's eyes and the experiences of other survivors, I witnessed the stories of the atrocities. I understood that it could have happened to me and my loved ones. I imagined holding the hands of my infant children, waiting to be slaughtered, or watching my parents be herded into a cattle car bound for the crematoria. These realities had a lasting impact on my consciousness and spirit. They made the event's tangible and were bridges to those horrendous times. There were moments when the temptation to retreat from the facts was almost overwhelming. One vivid experience was when a survivor recounted how his entire village was slaughtered in one day. He only survived because he was in the forest collecting firewood.

I was a Catholic priest at this time and never a big fan of rigid dogma. I hated the seminary and could never figure out why they thought I was a star. Viktor told me things in praise about myself that embarrassed me at the time but now I realize he wanted me to dedicate my life to others.

It is amazing how real his presence is to this day. Outside of my family no one has touched me in such profound ways.

As time went on I began to see the role that the Roman Church had in creating a climate of the “other” for the Jews through the centuries. I was stunned by this, but my relationship with Viktor only helped to enhance my spiritual growth. My love for Judaism as well as authentic Christianity flourished under the guidance and friendship of this great man.

No one could ever understand or explain the evil that they experienced, but I knew that there was an obligation to listen and absorb the pain. Time does not diminish the acts of cruelty that were the hallmarks of the Holocaust. It is not the passage of time that heals the wounds of these horrors. To continuously honor the victims and recount the stories is not the maudlin search for vengeance. It is the obligation to keep alive the memory of those who suffered by personalizing their lives. They were not merely numbers that can be aggregated into a collective tragedy. These were singular persons with the human needs and drives that we all possess. They were neighbors, friends members of their communities parents, children, and elders. Life was stripped away from them without cause.

We must keep alive the memory of the Holocaust and in my novels and presentations I remember all those who died, and those who also at great risk stood up for the Jews. I also look toward building bridges of love and respect between both faiths. It is time for the Roman Church to openly admit the part that anti-Judaism played in the Holocaust. I believe this will enable Christians and Jews to reach out to each other and realize that their covenants do not negate each other but rather bind them as children of a loving God .As we move forward we must also remember those who relished and fully participated in the horrors, and those who around the world, the majority of people, who stood in silence and washed their hands of culpability. This shame must never occur again and we must stand for the rights of any and all who are oppressed everywhere.

Those who survived and those that liberated the camps are almost all gone and the torch must be past to the next generations. For this horror never to occur again it must be remembered more than one day a year.

We must never forget.

For over 25 years Salvatore Tagliareni has successfully engaged private and public companies in their search for outstanding performance. A gifted speaker, he is blessed with a great sense of humor and can invigorate an audience with insights on life and leadership. Salvatore was profoundly influenced by his relationship with Dr.Viktor Frankl, the celebrated psychiatrist and author of Man’s Search for Meaning. The desire to humanize the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust was the driving force behind the novels Hitler’s Priest and The Cross or the Swastika. Read more about him here.

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Kol Nidre at the Movies

Thursday, October 02, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Since the advent of talkies, Yom Kippur has become a crux of the Jewish American narrative in film. So, though we usually focus on books—don’t worry, we have reading suggestions for the 5775 High Holidays, too—we’d be remiss to neglect the approaching Day of Atonement in the movies. Comedy to Drama to Musical to Romance, here are five films you might be surprised to find featuring a traditional Yom Kippur service:

1. The Jazz Singer (1927)
Ok, this one shouldn’t come as a surprised. Al Jolson stars in the first talkie as Jakie Rabinowitz, the son of a strict Jewish cantor, who flees his parents’ home and community to sing jazz as “Jack Robin.” Over the years, Rabinowitz’s assumed persona achieves great success as a jazz singer but cannot garner his father’s acceptance, and when the aging cantor falls ill on the Eve of Yom Kippur our hero is faced with the decision of whether to return home and deliver Kol Nidre in his father’s stead or perform in the opening of his own Broadway show that same night.


2. Hollywood somehow felt compelled to remake The Jazz Singer with Neil Diamond in the starring role. Here's hoping they left the blackface out the second time around.


3. Keeping the Faith (2000)
Ben Stiller and Edward Norton costar as two clergymen of different faiths who are best friends and in love with the same woman. The young rabbi’s moment of truth comes, of course, on the Eve of Yom Kippur, when he addresses his congregants immediately following the Kol Nidre recitation. (Tough act to follow, amirite?)


4. Kissing Jessica Stein (2001)
There was one thought running through my head the first time I finally saw Jennifer Westfield’s breakout film: HOW HAVE I NEVER WATCHED THIS BEFORE? It is SO Jewish, in all the best ways. But more to the point: The movie opens with the protagonist’s mother and grandmother analyzing Jessica’s dating life over our heroine’s head in the middle of Yom Kippur services. “Would you shut up? I’m atoning!” the harassed young woman finally bellows, drawing the startled attention of the entire congregation. Great scene.


5. The Believer (2001)
(Pre-hearthrob Ryan Gosling researched for this role at my friend’s bar mitzvah.) Based on the true story of an American Nazi Party and the KKK member who was secretly Jewish, The Believer sends its violent protagonist to the bima on Yom Kippur, but not to repent. (Spoiler alert on the clip!)


Honorable mention goes to that cute interfaith French couple arguing over eating on Yom Kippur in God is Great and I Am Not (2001). Man, the early aughts were great for fictional Jews on the Silver Screen.

Interview: Stuart Rojstaczer

Wednesday, October 01, 2014 | Permalink

by Juli Berwald

Stuart Rojstaczer spoke with Juli Berwald about his rollicking new novel, The Mathematician’s Shiva. (Yes, rollicking and mathematician really do belong together in that sentence.)

Juli Berwald: What was it about mathematicians that fascinated you enough to create this world of mathematicians?

Stuart Rojstaczer: The idea for this novel came to me when we had a mathematician over for dinner, an Eastern European mathematician. He kept staring at my 3-year-old daughter. I had no idea what that was all about.

After dinner he asked, "So, vat mathematics are you teaching your girl?"

I answered, "She knows how to count."

"Count?" he spit. "That girl is a prodigy! You should be teaching her algebra! Right now! She should know calculus by the time she is 6!"

From that dinner, which lingered in my head for many years, I started thinking about what would it be like to be a female mathematical genius. And in particular, what would it be like to be an Eastern European female mathematical genius. From those questions, I developed my character, Rachela, a female mathematical genius, born about 1930 in a region of Poland that is now part of Ukraine, who survives World War II. She comes to the United States and does incredibly well. But she finds that, even for her—the best mind of her generation—there is a glass ceiling.

JMB: And then, you killed off Rachela in the first chapter. How could you?

SR: She needed to go. The plot revolves around a rumor that she has solved the famous Navier-Stokes problem and she's going to take the solution to her grave. If I kept her alive longer, that major plot element would get diluted. Also, she's such a colorful character that if I had kept her alive, she would not have given the other characters room to breath. She's a scene-stealer, and you can't have a scene-stealer present throughout the whole book.

But I still wanted Rachela to live in people's minds because she is the sun around which all the other characters orbit. I needed her presence, and that's why her memoirs are interspersed throughout the rest of the book. So, she's dead but not dead.

JMB: You seem to have intimate knowledge of mathematicians and mathematicians’ lives. Have you ever lived with mathematicians?

SR: Not at all. A common comment I get from friends who have read the book is, "Oh, I didn't know your parents were both mathematicians." They weren’t. My parents lived through World War II, which changed their lives dramatically. My father maybe had a fourth grade education; my mother maybe seventh grade. There were no math books in my house. There weren't books of any kind in my house.

However, I was a geophysicist and hydrologist for decades. I worked for the Department of the Interior, the U.S. Geological Survey, and at Duke University. I have taken a fair number of math classes and advanced math classes. I have sat in on mathematical physics lectures and taken classes with math graduate students.

Through that exposure, I got to know the world of math.

JMB: Rachela’s story is intertwined with her Judaism. Do you see math and Judaism as interconnected?

SR: No. Certainly there are many mathematicians who are Jewish, a disproportionate number. But that’s not why Rachela is religious.

I grew up with an Orthodox background. The only way I could write fiction was by writing about people who are tied to Jewish experience in a strong way. It’s what brings out emotional range and depth that I need to write well. So when I started this book, I knew that the central character had to be devout. Rachela and her family are deeply religious people because I needed them to be.

I also needed seven days to tell my story. Most people don't sit shiva for seven days anymore. I needed someone religious enough that people would actually sit shiva for seven days.

JMB: The Russian characters in the book often criticize the U.S. for its anti-intellectualism. How come?

SR: In most immigrant literature that's published in the United States, the immigrant feels somehow inferior to the vastness of this country, to the sophistication of its people. I've always found this to be curious because the immigrants that I've known—not just Eastern European or Russian but also Chinese and Indian—feel superior to Americans. They feel like this is a wonderful country, partly because of the freedom, but also because the competition is so inept. They feel American-born people are lazy, not very smart, not very ambitious. This is a constant thread that I've heard in immigrant discussions—not just Eastern European—and I wanted to make sure it was present for accuracy, emotional and otherwise.

JMB: I love the use of multiple languages in the book. Do you flip around among languages in your daily life the way your characters do?

SR: I was raised in a neighborhood of war survivors. People either spoke completely in Yiddish or they would speak English throwing in foreign language phrases when they did not know an English equivalent. If in Russian, or in Hebrew, or in Polish something resonated more, they would just throw it in. I was trying to mimic what Diaspora variants of English sound like.

Nowadays, I speak some Yiddish phrases with my wife, or sometimes Polish. I've been with her so long, that she understands. But, I really only speak Yiddish with my cat.

JMB: What’s next?

SR: The Mathematician’s Shiva is the first in a trilogy of books that I want to write about war survivors. The second, which I'm working on now, doesn’t have any math at all. It is for lack of a better description, water-related. The third is actually soccer-related. All the characters in the three books are different.

JMB: So, no one gets a cameo?

SR: No, Rachela won’t rise from the dead. But maybe there’s a small part for her brother Shlomo. He's worth a scene in probably every novel I write.

Juli Berwald, Ph.D., is a science writer based in Austin, TX. Her writing has appeared in National Geographic Magazine, Wired.com, Redbook, as well as well as The Austin Jewish Outlook and Drashpit. She is currently writing a book about jellyfish and what it means to grow a spine.

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Shakespeare, Shmakespeare: Jews and the Bard

Wednesday, October 01, 2014 | Permalink
Lois Leveen is the author of Juliet's Nurse and The Secrets of Mary Bowser. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Earlier this week, I reflected on being a twenty-first-century Jewish author engaging with Shakespeare. It's a topic that shapes my relationship to my new Shakespeare-themed novel, Juliet's Nurse. But there's another question that I only began to consider after the novel was finished, and I began to speak about it at gatherings of Shakespeare scholars: how did Shakespeare himself engage with ideas of Jewishness?

It might seem like Shylock in The Merchant of Venice is the place from which to answer that question, as many critics have done. But the image of the Jew appears in other Shakespeare plays as well, although they include no Jewish characters per se. Instead, Jews are invoked to represent a particular idea of difference.

Launce, a clownish character in Two Gentlemen of Verona, complains his companion Crab, "has no more pity in him than a dog. A Jew / would have wept" when Crab did not. Although it might seem that Launce's hypothetical Jew compares favorably to Crab, the allusion is meant to show that even a Jew would weep, implying that Jews are generally less able to display the full range of human emotions. And if the imagined Jew does better in the human empathy department than Crab, it is only because Crab is literally a dog, and not a person. The belief that Jews possess a less-than-admirable nature is reinforced later in the play, when Launce seeks a human drinking buddy. He implores Speed, a fellow servant, "If thou wilt, go with me to the alehouse; if / not, thou art an Hebrew, a Jew, and not worth the name / of a Christian." That's peer pressure late-sixteenth-century style: bottoms up and drink it down, or you're as unworthy as a Jew!

Although Launce is meant to be a laughable character, his characterization of "a Jew" is reiterated by a range of Shakespeare's other characters. In Macbeth, one of the witches describes the contents of their bubbling cauldron in a way that mixes the animal, the supernatural, and the ethnic other:

Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witch's mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravined salt sea shark,
Root of hemlock digged i'the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Slivered in the moon's eclipse,
Nose of Turk, and Tartar's lips . . .

Taken line by line, the description is significant. Turks and Tartars are also cast as dangerously magical outsiders because they don't fit within normative Christian identity. But it's only the Jew whose errant status is underscored by the description of "blaspheming."

Perhaps because Jews were perceived in terms of blasphemy, to call someone (even yourself) a Jew became a stand-in for an accusation of false oath-taking. Much Ado About Nothing is a sort of Renaissance rom-com in which the two main characters insist they hate each other, until they are tricked by their friends into revealing that all their bickering is actually a cover for mutual adoration. When Benedick finally declares his true feelings for Beatrice, he says, "if I do not love her, I am a Jew."

This use of "Jew" as an indication that someone is swearing falsely is repeated in Henry IV, Part I, when the buffoonish Falstaff exaggerates his bravery and prowess during a recent violent encounter. He claims to have subdued a large number of opponents, contending, "they were bound, every man of / them, or I am a Jew else: an Ebrew Jew." The fact that Falstaff is lying only complicates the strange equation of prevarication with Jewishness. The audience, and even the other characters Falstaff is addressing, know that he didn't perform the amazing feat he insists he did, yet it's also clear that Falstaff is not actually a Jew.

So what are we to make of the way Shakespeare invokes the figure of the Jew across his plays? What does it tell us about how Jewishness was perceived in Renaissance England?

The answer may seem counterintuitive: these references, and ones like them found in the writing of Shakespeare's contemporaries, may tell us less about the author's and the audience's perceptions of Jewishness than about their perceptions of Englishness. (This may be easier to understand if you consider some more recent analogies. Through much of the twentieth century, concerns about "Communists" were voiced in ways that were meant to encourage, or even coerce, certain types of behavior on the part of "red-blooded Americans." Similarly, from the nineteenth century on, representations of "blackness" by white writers and performers in the U.S. often reflected much more about the anxieties of whites than about the reality of blacks.)

James Shapiro, a professor at Columbia University and the author of Shakespeare and the Jews, asserts that if we examine what Shakespeare and his English contemporaries wrote about Jews, we can discover the cultural anxieties they felt about their own Englishness during a period of "extraordinary social, religious, and political turbulence."

That turbulence was rooted in events occurring decades before Shakespeare was even born, most notably King Henry VIII's break with the Catholic Church and the subsequent creation of the Church of England, which demanded a shift in religious affiliation across the nation. The enormity of this change is difficult for us to comprehend. So much of life in the era was defined by religious practice, and that practice was unquestionably Catholic—until suddenly it wasn't. And then, during the reign of Queen Mary, the Catholic daughter of Henry VIII's first wife, the practice of Catholicism became acceptable again, and Protestants were subject to persecution. But only until Mary died and was succeeded by her Protestant half-sister Queen Elizabeth I (during whose reign a certain young playwright first made a name for himself) were Protestants politically dominant again.

If you're having trouble tracking all those religious switcheroos, imagine how it must have felt to live through them. Particularly when other European countries pursued everything from royal marriages to outright war as they vied for political and religious alliances with England.

But what was happening to Jews themselves, as England swung back and forth between Catholicism and Protestantism? That's a more hidden part of the history. Jews were banned from England in 1290, and not officially readmitted until 1656 (and even then, they could reside in England but weren't granted full citizenship). But despite the ban, there was a prevailing uncertainty about whether Jews remained in England. And, as the centuries passed, there was concern about Jews from other parts Europe entering the country, as began to happen in the wake of Jewish expulsion from Spain and Portugal.

Unlike groups defined by nationality, Jews might shift their geographic presence; but "Jewishness" also implied a different kind of potential instability. In countries under the Inquisition, suspicions persisted regarding whether conversos, Jews forced to convert, were secretly maintaining their Jewish identity and practices. In England, there was a strangely inverse fear that Catholics might be infiltrating the country by disguising themselves as Jews. And throughout Europe, as part of the immense rift begun by the Protestant Reformation, some Catholics accused Protestants of being too like Jews in their practices and beliefs—and some Protestants alleged the same about Catholics.

All of this meant that to be a Jew was to be not English—and vice versa. But at the same time, notes Shapiro, there was no easy way to distinguish Jews from either Protestants or Catholics. Consider all the Shakespeare passages alluding to Jews: they seem to insist that "a Jew" is inherently different from, well, everybody else. But the playwright doth protest too much, methinks—the compulsion to cordon off Jews and insist that they were different might in fact suggest just the opposite. Falstaff, after all, does swear falsely, without being a Jew. If anyone might be a Jew (or become one), what did that mean for Englishness, given that Jews were categorically not English?

Of course, the construction of an imaginary "Jew" in writings by Shakespeare and his contemporaries must have affected attitudes toward real Jews. But exploring the cultural, political, and religious contexts in which Renaissance English representations of Jewishness were formed is important for understanding what was at stake in Shakespeare's writing about Jews.

Read more about Lois Leveen and her work here.

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