The ProsenPeople

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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Interview: Yelena Akhtiorskaya

Wednesday, October 01, 2014 | Permalink

by Nat Bernstein

Yelena Akhtiorskaya was recently named one of the National Book Foundation's 2014 5 Under 35 Honorees. Her debut novel Panic in a Suitcase was published in July by Riverhead.

Nat Bernstein: What was the impetus behind Panic in a Suitcase? What inspired the novel, and what pushed you to write it?

Yelena Akhtiorskaya: The impetus for Panic in a Suitcase was really just the vague but potent need to write that is always present, always nag­ging, like a feral beast-child that will bite off your arm if you don’t keep throwing things at it. The only thing I happened to have on hand was “my experience.” I wish I could’ve given it something tastier and more satisfying, but it was an emergency situation and the most important thing is that I saved myself—for now.

The inspiration was my family and the hilarious and devastating ab­surdity that is Brighton Beach. What pushed me to write it, other than compulsion, was a desire to chronicle, understand, and conquer.

NLB: Your bio indicates that you share roots in Odessa and Brighton Beach in common with your characters. To what extent is the novel autobiographical?

YA: With the novel it’s hard to say, but my bio is almost entirely autobio­graphical.

NLB: As a writer, where or how do you see your fiction and nonfiction writing interact?

YA: I don’t write very much nonfiction, and, to be honest, when I do I have the sense that I’m tricking somebody because I don’t entirely understand the distinction. A piece of writing is either good or not. The good is true, the not good is false. Everything a person writes should be infused with her opinions, thoughts, feelings, moods, dreams. Basically, the goal is to have a really good infusion mechanism worked out.

NLB: We tend to focus on the isolation and perpetual homelessness of the immigrant experience (I’m thinking of Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories, in particular, or Junot Diaz, Julie Otsuka) but the cast of Panic in a Suitcase convey the opposite phenomenon: the transplants—Marina, Esther, Robert—share a groundedness in where they are and con­nectivity with the members of their family and acquaintances, while Frida and Pasha seem individually alienated and alienating both at home and abroad. Do you find something unifying in the immigrant experience of which perhaps their rooted relatives feel an absence or distance?

YA: For better or worse, you take yourself wherever you go, so people who are grounded, practical, sane, and social in the old country, will be the same in their new land, whereas people who are miserable, unbearable, and isolated are going to stay that way wherever they go (which is why it’s probably best they stay put). Pasha and Frida are of the latter variety. It doesn’t matter where they are. The outside world, made of crowds and noise, is there to be bristled against and pushed out. But I absolutely think immigration can be invigorating, and serve to strengthen bonds.

NLB: Pasha is set (or sets himself) apart from his family in every conceivable way: a poet in a family of medicine, he languishes in Odessa rather than joining his eager parents and sister in the United States—and renounces his religious heritage for Christianity. What do you feel is the starkest line of division between him and his immediate relatives?

YA: The Atlantic Ocean is a pretty good partition, even considering Skype. There’s just something to be said for sheer distance. Essentially, the starkest line of division is an invisible one—it’s something inside of Pasha that allows him to have an independent way of thinking and to make the decisions that then seem to be the things that set him apart. The specific decisions matter less. Pasha could’ve substituted Christian­ity with a lot of things. But I don’t know if he could’ve been as apart if he lived on the same block in Brighton Beach.

NLB: Is Pasha—as the persona of Pavel Robertovich Nasmertov, “the great Russian poet”—based or inspired by a real-life or literary figure?

YA: I should probably be coy about this, but my uncle is a Russian poet, and he is pretty great.

NLB: Do you share Frida’s sublimated belief that “old Odessa’s great­ness lay solely in its Jews”—many of whom relocated to the commu­nity in which you grew up?

YA: I think that’s being simplistic about it! Like you said, a large contin­gent of Odessan Jewry relocated to Brighton Beach and yet it’s very dif­ficult to imagine that the Brighton Beach community ever contributed to a city’s greatness, let alone been solely responsible for it. And I don’t think getting a quarter million Jews to settle in Odessa today would bring back the magic—though some would say that the magic isn’t even gone, and on certain days I might agree; it’s really a lovely city. But I attribute the city’s current loveliness to a mixture of nice architecture, a quaint feeling, the eternal sea breeze, nostalgia, and the glowing em­bers of true historical specialness. That specialness was a result of many factors, but the Jews were, I think, the most integral.

NLB: The current literary scene is boasting a wealth of novels exploring the simultaneous collective and individual narratives of Soviet immi­grant families, pervaded by something of a chronic melancholy, or dis­satisfaction, or detachment. Do you think Soviet-heritage writers have been in a sense doomed to write about “unhappy families” since Tolstoy penned the opening to Anna Karenina—does the common exploration of family micro-turmoil stem from a literary legacy, or from something intrinsic to the culture and identity of a Russian-speaking household?

YA: Tolstoy had a catchy line but I think all writers regardless of culture or era are doomed to write about unhappy families because they’re doomed to live in them, and often be the singlehanded cause of the un­happiness. Probably immigrant writers in general are going to be crank­ing out more family-heavy stuff because often it’s the family unit that gets unmoored and transplanted into a new place where everything is strange and foreign. The walls around the family fortify and inside those walls temperatures rise, resulting in a thick, garlicky, incestuous stew that is irresistible to write about. (What else are you going to do with it?) If there’s anything particularly Russian, though, it’s the chronic melancholy and dissatisfaction. That is the Russian tradition. Russians are fantastic, maybe the best, at suffering.

NLB: What other works inform your writing? Which authors—classic or contemporary—were most influential while you worked on Panic in a Suitcase?

YA: As far as I’m aware, it’s still a mystery how the brain decides which input will inform the output and which will be filed away in some unknown location, never to be accessed again except in polite dinner conversation. Since I don’t have control over this process, it’s necessary to be extremely careful. Even one crappy book is dangerous. While writ­ing this book, I was reading Bellow, Nabokov, Tolstoy, Platonov, Leonard Michaels, Clarice Lispecter, Harold Brodkey. It wasn’t on purpose, but it seems that if I was reading you, you’re Jewish, Russian, or Russian-Jewish, and dead.

NLB: What are you reading now, and what can your readers expect from you next?

YA: I’m reading Musil’s The Man Without Qualities and a statistics textbook. I just read Elaine Kraf’s The Princess of 72nd Street and it is unbelievable. I urge you to read it! As for what’s next, I’ve learned this is a giant letdown, and I apologize in advance, but I’m afraid it’s going to be a story collection.

Nat Bernstein is the JBC Network Coordinator at the Jewish Book Council and a graduate of Hampshire College.

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Interview: David Bezmozgis

Monday, September 29, 2014 | Permalink

by Donald Weber

Donald Weber recently spoke with David Bezmozgis about his new book, The Betrayers, which was published last week by Little, Brown and Company. Bezmozgis is also the author of the short story collection Natasha and the novel The Free World.

Donald Weber: I’m curious why you were drawn to the refusenik story based around Natan Sharansky: in light of your core themes of exile, displacement, and history (I'm thinking of the powerful vision of Jewish memory and history in a story like "Minyan"), how does The Betrayers continue or, perhaps, depart from what has engaged your work in the past?

David Bezmozgis: It's true that the original inspiration for the novel had to do with Natan Sharansky. In 2004, I'd been researching an obituary about Alexander Lerner, another prominent refusenik, when I came upon a curious and compelling detail. Lerner and Sharansky were both in the same circle of refuseniks in Moscow and they were both falsely accused of being CIA spies by another Jew, Sanya Lipavsky. As often happens, it is the curious exception that sparks the idea for a story. Put plainly, I was intrigued by the case of Lipavsky. I wondered what happened to him. I wondered what led him to commit this betrayal. I wondered too what might be the fate of a man who betrayed his own people for a country that subsequently ceased to exist. But deeper still—and this is where the idea accrued for me the necessary substance to sustain a novel—I wondered about the moral and constitutional difference between a man like Lipavsky and one like Sharansky. 

The question at the heart of the book is a moral one: Why is one person able to sacrifice everything for the sake of his or her principles while another is not? In other words, the central idea behind the book is one of virtue or goodness. The question is as old as philosophy. What does it mean to lead a virtuous life? I am conscious—I assume like most people—of my own moral behavior. And—perhaps again like many people—I wonder how I would fare if I was ever put to a truly difficult moral test. Would I be able to retain the clarity and the strength of my principles and convictions? Is there a principle for which I would be prepared to sacrifice my liberty and my life? As a writer approaching forty, and a father of children, I felt myself somehow obliged to tackle this question. In the case of Kotler and Tankilevich—I found the framework to engage with it. And, in further answer to your question, in the case of these two men, I also found the framework to continue the project I'd begun with the first two books: namely, telling the story of the Soviet Jews. 

Natasha and The Free World covered, in their own ways, the twentieth century; The Betrayers is deliberately as contemporary as I could make it. And whereas the first two books were concerned with the Soviet Jews' experiences in the lands of the Soviet Union, Europe, and North America, The Betrayers—though set largely in Crimea—concerns itself very much with Israel. Particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Jews of the FSU have transformed Israel, and it is there that their greatest impact has and continues to be felt. And since the question of Israel's future concerns me a great deal, I saw the opportunity to combine three of my main preoccupations: morality, Soviet Jews, and Zionism.

DW: Thanks for that helpful, contextualizing response. About the figures of Boruch Kotler and Chaim Tankilevitch (modeled on Sharansky and Lipavsky), I wonder if you could comment on their respective “moral and constitutional difference[s]”? Each suffers the indignities of Jewish history; each betrays and is betrayed; and each is blackmailed—ironically—by fellow Jews. Kotler possesses at the core of his refusenik self an “unyielding calm,” yet he is also accused of being a “self- seeker.” Tankilevitch carries an emotional burden, yet he has survived his ordeal, in part by feeling a relation to his fellow aged Jews of Simferopol. I wonder if Tankilevitch’s story is even more compelling than Kotler’s?

DB: The moral and constitutional differences between Kotler and Tankilevich have dictated the courses of their lives. Because Kotler did not compromise his principles, he suffered many years in the gulag and ultimately became a famous man and a Zionist hero. Because Tankilevich struck a bargain with the KGB and implicated his friend, he became a pariah. The novel asks—and posits an answer—as to why Kotler behaved one way and Tankilevich the other. That is what I mean by their moral and constitutional differences. Tankilevich defends his position. And perhaps many people would sympathize with him in the end. Kotler also defends his position, though, I suppose, one would hardly expect him to need to do so since he is precisely the sort of person society celebrates—someone like Gandhi or Mandela or Joan of Arc. But this is the crux of the novel: what explains a man like Kotler? And if we all are encouraged and aspire to be like him, are we actually capable of it? Or are we, in fact, more like Tankilevich? I think this moral question is relevant to everyone but I think Jews, particularly after the Holocaust, deliberate exceedingly upon it. Knowing what we know about those terrible years, we ask how we might have behaved in the most extreme circumstances. Would we have betrayed another to save our own lives? Or alternately, would we have had the courage and the strength of our convictions to risk our own and our family's safety to shelter another? I tried to answer this question as objectively and honestly as I could. And if the novel is provocative, it seems to me it is because of how it answers this question more than anything it says about Ukraine or Russia or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As for whether Tankilevich's story is more compelling than Kotler's, I couldn't say. However, I did want to create a situation where both men find themselves in dire straits when fate or coincidence conspires to bring them together. In that sense, Kotler stumbles upon Tankilevich at a very decisive moment in his life. I don't know how compelling Tankilevich's story would be at most other times, but it's certainly compelling when Kotler meets him. And I suppose it's compelling because it distills the problems facing many Jewish communities in the FSU—where communities that have endured for centuries are in the final stages of withering away. This situation is made somehow more melancholy and ironic since Crimea had—in the 1930s and again after World War II—been proposed as a possible Jewish state, an alternative to Israel.

DW: For me, Tankilevitch emerges as a figure out of a Malamud story, or a Frédéric Brenner photograph—one of those aged Jews dangling on the edge, a survivor managing, somehow, to hang on. I wonder if you could say a few words about the array of fascinating women characters in The Betrayers. As you draw them, the women deepen, complicate, our understanding of Kotler and Tankilevitch.

DB: Though I understand what you mean about Tankilevich being reminiscent of a Malamud character—I think, for instance, of the importunate DP, Shimon Susskind, from "The Last Mohican"— the Malamud character who influenced the book most was actually Yakov Bok from The Fixer. To no small extent, the principled and unyielding Bok was in my head when I was writing Kotler.

As for the women, I suppose they must inflect and complicate our understanding of Kotler and Tankilevich, but to me they aren't there to serve that purpose. To me they are their equals—interesting in their own right. They are variations on a sort of tough-minded woman who is commonly found among Russians and Russian Jews—though I believe she exists in all nations where women are saddled with innumerable burdens. I admire these women and enjoy trying to see the world through their eyes. I am never as clear-headed and practical as when I am trying to channel their voices. Compared to them, I seem immature to myself.

DW: I wonder how you imagine, or would like to imagine, your attentive Jewish American and Canadian readers to respond to your new novel?

DB: I would like Jewish American and Canadian readers to read the novel the same as any readers anywhere—with an open heart and an open mind. It is how I wrote the book—constantly challenging my own beliefs and feelings in the hopes of arriving at the truth. I don't expect everyone to agree with all of the novel's formulations and conclusions. I wouldn't say I agree with all of them myself. There are ideas the book puts forward as seemingly irrefutable that I am still turning over in my head—ideas, for instance, about an identifiable national character. With respect to Israel, the Middle East, and Ukraine, I tried, to the best of my abilities, to describe the current moment. If I have done my job well, the novel should enable readers to have a conversation about those places—if only within themselves. As for Kotler's being suspended in time and space at the end of the book—that reflected, for me, a painful admission or realization. In life, we would all like to find some respite, some relief—even, in our weaker moments, to entertain the illusion that there is such a thing as arrival, that we can stay or indefinitely forestall the worst. After some 2,000 years, Israel was supposed to serve this function for the Jews, to be the place where they could settle and find safety and wellbeing. I suppose, by the end of the novel, Kotler, by no means a naive man, confronts the unpleasant idea that for him and for his people, the uncertain journey continues.

Donald Weber is a professor of English at Mount Holyoke College, and the author of Haunted in the New World: Jewish American Culture from Cahan to The Goldbergs (Indiana University Press, 2005). Read his review of David Bezmozgis's Natasha here and read his review of The Free World here.

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Romeo and Jewliet, or a Jewish Novelist Walks into a Shakespeare Play

Monday, September 29, 2014 | Permalink

Lois Leveen is the author of Juliet's Nurse and The Secrets of Mary Bowser. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

To be, or not to be, a Jewish author . . .

Okay, maybe Hamlet never pondered that question (what would you expect from a guy who has treyf right in his name?).

But many writers, and literary critics, can't help but wonder what it means to be a Jewish author. In "Funny, You Don't Book Jewish," I explored the question by comparing a novel by Chinese-American author Gish Jen about growing up in Jewish suburbia with my own first novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, which is based on the true story of an African American woman who becomes a Union spy during the Civil War by posing as a slave in the Confederate White House. I made a nice argument for the "Jewishness" of my book, despite its definitely-not-a-member-of-the-tribe protagonist.

And yet, the question of what it means to be a Jewish author loomed even larger as I wrote my second novel, Juliet's Nurse, which imagines the fourteen years leading up to the events in Romeo and Juliet, as told by one of Shakespeare's most memorable "minor" characters (the nurse actually has the largest number of lines in Shakespeare's play, after the eponymous teens — which makes her a pretty major minor character. She's such a yenta I knew she deserved her own book).

So what's a nice Jewish writer doing re-imagining Shakespeare's best known and most beloved play?

The part of me that earned a Ph.D. in literary studies might argue that the question of identity is already at the heart of Romeo and Juliet. In the most famous scene, when Juliet wonders, "wherefore art thou Romeo?" and then insists "a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet," she's plumbing how much of who Romeo is depends on who his people are – in his case, the Montagues, or as we might say, the whole mishpucha. I could draw some analogy from the question of family identity to the question of Jewish identity, particularly the dynamic combination of culture and ritual that defines what it means to be a Jew in contemporary America.

But in truth, that's not how I think I enter into Juliet's Nurse as a Jewish author. I come to it by way of Passover, and the Talmudic tradition.

Why Passover? It's not like I do some Shakespearean seder, reciting the ten plagues in iambic pentameter (although maybe next year in rhyming couplets . . .). But both as an author and as a reader, I'm drawn to first-person fiction. I like the immediacy of imagining myself in a particular time and place. A reader asked me about this, about how I can take on a character so different from myself and tell her story, and in trying to explain the process, I thought of the Haggadah's instruction that we recount the story of Exodus every year as though each of us ourselves had come out from Egypt.

When you think about it, that's a little weird. Why celebrate a holiday by imagining ourselves living in a different, and difficult, historical moment? I suppose from a ritual perspective, it connects us with a distant Jewish history in a way that's meant to make it truly ours.

From an author's perspective, this kind of telling-as-if-it-happened-to-you is the only way to create a convincing world for your character. To write Juliet's Nurse, I had to imagine what it would be like to experience fourteenth-century Italian life as a woman who, well let's just say the amount she is so-not-Jewish might be measured by her tendency to over-identify with the Virgin Mary. But for me to write in that character, to tell her story as if it happened to me, feels totally Jewish.

Then there's what I'm calling the Talmudic tradition part of writing Juliet's Nurse, which is my Jewish shorthand for encountering a text that is at once authoritative yet often either oblique or opaque about important questions. The Bard may not be the Bible, but in reading and re-reading Romeo and Juliet, I took the Talmudic approach to revering yet questioning the text.

My novel began with questions I thought Romeo and Juliet raised but didn't answer:

  • In Shakespeare's play we learn that the nurse, whose name is Angelica, had her own daughter, born at the same time as Juliet, who didn't live. What would it be like to lose your own infant and immediately be given another baby to nurture in such a physically and emotionally intimate way, yet always be a servant in her household?
  • At one point in the play, Angelica describes Juliet's cousin Tybalt as the best friend she ever had. But Tybalt and Angelica never appear in a scene together in the play, and they are separated by huge differences in age, class, and gender. How would their friendship have started, and what would it have been like?
  • Angelica serves as the go-between in Juliet's secret romance with Romeo, even helping Romeo sneak into the house to consummate their illicit marriage. But when she comes back onstage later in the same scene, Anglica suddenly tells Juliet to forget Romeo and marry another suitor instead. What happens while she's offstage? What does she learn, and why doesn't she tell it to Juliet?
  • And of course, the biggest question of all: Angelica comes to the household as Juliet's wet-nurse. But Juliet is nearly fourteen years old when the play begins, and has been weaned since she was three. Why is Angelica still hanging around the house?

I may not be a rabbinic scholar, but this process gave me the seeds from which my novel grew.

One of the strange things about creative writing is that ideas and themes and characters and scenes emerge in your work from sources you don't consciously realize your drawing on. It's sort of magical and sort of terrifying, because you can't force it, you just need to trust that it will happen. And for me, it's fascinating and reassuring to realize that my Jewishness will always be one of those sources, regardless of what I'm writing about.

So if I were to take on the guise of Hamlet — or maybe Kasha Knishlet — to ponder "To be or not to be a Jewish author," my answer would be, "yes, inevitably!"

Read more about Lois Leveen and her work here.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, September 26, 2014 | Permalink

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Book Cover of the Week: When Books Went to War

Wednesday, September 24, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

It's Banned Books Week, the literary world's defiant celebration of books that have lamentably been censored in schools, bookstores, and libraries. Censorship and the destruction of books both sacred and profane have made no small stain on Jewish history throughout the world, even today.

At the Jewish Book Council, we thought we'd focus this week on efforts to encourage reading and freedom of expression. Did you know that while Nazi Germany decimated over 100 million volumes during World War II, the United States Army and Navy distributed over 140 million books to its servicemen fighting abroad?

Almost every American publisher joined the Council on Books in Wartime, which printed and distributed 1,200 titles in travel-sized paperbacks designed to fit in the pockets of standard issue military uniforms. The Victory Book Campaign collected over 18 million donated books from American civilians. Novels considered classics today were propelled out of obscurity by their popularity among the soldiers who carried them through battles and marches.

Now get out and celebrate the First Amendment!

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10 Books for the 10 Days of Awe

Tuesday, September 23, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

1. Many Seconds Into the Future by John J. Clayton

Ten stories of ten men grappling with life, love, and loss from acclaimed short story author John J. Clayton contemplate Jewish identity, prayer, and mourning.

And then one day, on this very day of my first sentence, late fall, God comes to him, speaks in the form of a shiver that ripples through him and —he’s almost sure—means something. I could say he feels a surge of energy reaching from the box on his arm through the box above his forehead and down through him to his toes, but he himself can’t say exactly what happens in his body. He finds himself in tears.

This is probably a purely neurological event, even the start of a nervous breakdown, not an encounter with the holy. At least that’s what I’d think if it happened to me. No burning bush, no heavenly chariot. But for Harry it’s a nudge from God—the Shekinah, the Divine Presence, brushing her soft Self against his skin. Holy goose bumps. Does he hear himselfcalled—Harry, Harry…? He isn’t sure. He answers anyway, Hineni, Here I am.

2. But Where Is the Lamb? Imagining the Story of Abraham and Isaac by James Goodman

On the second day of the Jewish new year, communities traditionally read the story of the Binding of Isaac—nineteen lines from Genesis, composing one of the most perplexing stories across the three monotheisms. James Goodman struggles with this passage through commentaries and exegeses of Second Temple sages, rabbis and priests of late antiquity, the Hadith, Syriac hymns, allegories from the First Crusade, medieval English mystery plays; through the art of Europe’s Golden Age, the great Western philosophers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the works of Boby Dylan, Elie Wiesel, and A.B. Yehoshua.

I didn’t think he’d do it. I really didn’t think he would. I thought he’d say, whoa, hold on, wait a minute. We made a deal, remember, the land, the blessing, the nation, the descendants as numerous as the sands on the shore and the stars in the sky. You said: through Isaac you’d make my name great. I have kept my word. Don’t go back on yours.

Right up to the last moment, I thought, I hoped, I may have prayed, that Abraham would protest: I can’t do it, I can’t. I obey you as I obeyed my own father, Terah, but Isaac: he is my son.

But he didn’t.

3. The Liars’ Gospel by Naomi Alderman

The Liars’ Gospel is essentially a Jewish Master and Margarita, without the time warp. Rewriting Jesus’ rise to fame and fervor during his living days from the isolated perspectives of Miryam (Mary), Iehuda from Qeriot (Judas Iscariot), Caiaphas, and Bar-Avo (Barabbas), Naomi Alderman’s intense third novel is grounded in sources from Josephus, the New Testament, and the Talmud. The festering political tensions mounting in Jerusalem are mirrored in the High Priests preparations for Yom Kippur, when he will enter the Holy of Holies to atone on behalf of the Jewish people alone—and he may not survive.

They tie a rope around his ankle so that, if he dies, they will be able to haul him out[...] Today is ordinary, and tomorrow will be ordinary and the next day in all likelihood. But once a year he will stand in the full presence of the Almighty and see if he is worthy to survive.

4. The Anatomy Lesson by Nina Siegal

Like The Liar’s Gospel, Nina Siegal’s stirring novel is voiced through multiple imagined perspectives of real and fictional characters. Inspired by Rembrandt’s painting of the same name, The Anatomy Lesson weaves the story of a criminal who remains unrepentant until glimpsing the face of the woman who loves him at the moment of his execution and the figures of Amsterdam who attempt, in their own ways, to redeem him.

I wish I could tell you that a kind of fire burned through my hand just then, feeling my mother’s benediction on my skin, but I can’t. All I can say is that I know it was the right thing. That, right there, would be the center of the painting. The artist’s invisible hand presents the surgeon’s living hand, to reanimate the hand of the dead convicted thief. And in that way, to resurrect all humanity.

I heard the singing grow louder outside my windows as the parade took shape along my street. I knew that I had finally found my way into this painting, and that it would be no mere portrait but one of my greatest works. I would illuminate Adriaen’s body. I would cast the damned man into the light.

5. Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood by Leah Vincent

The concept and practice of vidui, or confession, in Judaism, is extraordinarily complex. As part of the traditional Yom Kippur service, individuals ask forgiveness for the sins of the world—but both then and year-round, there is a personal component as well. Perhaps the rawest Jewish American confession penned for the current generation—and certainly this year—is Leah Vincent’s gut-wrenching memoir of survival after being abandoned and ostracized by her yeshivish family and community.

I slammed the phone down and struggled to take in a breath as frustration and despair and fury rose higher and higher in my body, like a typhoon in a glass bottle.

It was the tradition to ask for forgiveness in the High Holiday season, in hope that others relinquishing their grudges would swar a stern God to pardon our sins. Would there, I fumed, be such easy forgiveness for me? If I did anything that also hurt your feelings in some way? Is she fucking kidding or is she just completely oblivious? Exasperated, I shook my head.

6. My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

Though no intermediary between the penitent and God was originally prescribed, Hasidic masters encouraged their scholars to bring their vidui to a sage, a mentor. Up until his death four years ago, countless readers all over the world chose J.D. Salinger as their sage, though he had no wish to hear them. In My Salinger Year, Joanna Rakoff recounts her experience answering letters addressed to him while working for his agent as her first foray into the literary world:

It goes without saying, I suppose, that I now understood why the fans wrote to him, not just wrote to him but confided in him with such urgency, with such empathy and compassion, with such confession. Because the experience of reading a Salinger story is less like reading a short story and more like having Salinger himself whisper his accounts into your ear. The world he creates is at once palpably real and terrifically heightened, as if he walked the earth with his nerve endings exposed[…] And so, of course, his readers felt an urge to write back. To say this is where it hurts or here’s how you made it better.

7. A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York by Liana Finck

A generation earlier, Jewish immigrants to New York had Abraham Cahan.

When I get angry I go into a trance and attack the weakest parts of the people I love. I am eating out my husband’s poor heart. So far, I have only used words, but it is just a matter of time before I become physically violent.

When I wake up in the morning I am remorseful. I vow to be good to him. But some little thing always sets me off and I become my old self in a minute. What should I do? A known murderer is at least punished, but I am an unknown murderer.

8. The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish New Year by Marcia Falk

Modern liturgist Marcia Falk has composed an entire book of original prayers and blessings for the Ten Days between Erev Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, infusing traditional elements into contemporary values and sense of self. Her version of vidui replaces the “catalog” of sins throughout mankind with “a call to self accounting”:

In the mirror of our eyes, the other is reflected;
in the eyes of the other— ourselves.
We look outward, inward,
see how we have hurt and harmed,
how hurt embeds even in the smallest wounds.
We give ourselves over, begin to make amends,
Begin to make ourselves whole.

9. Pilgrim: Risking the Life I Have to Find the Faith I Seek by Lee Kravitz

Rather than test driving a few sports cars or researching hair regrowth gimmicks, when midlife crisis struck Lee Kravitz he began a “spiritual shopping expedition” through Buddhist meditation groups, Quaker meetings, Hindu chanting sessions, and Christmas mass. Eventually he returned to Judaism, finding a community that suits his specific religious needs. His memoir culminates at the Kol Nidre service on the eve of Yom Kippur:

Actually, I no longer think of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as High Holidays or even as High Holy Days. I think of them as being part of the “Days of Awe” (Yamim Noraim” in Hebrew). That phrase reflects the high-stakes nature of the soul-searching Jews are supposed to do for ten days, starting with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur. It also conveys the anxiety we’re supposed to feel in that time. According to Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah is when God determines “who shall live and who shall die” during the coming year. The righteous get inscribed in the Book of Life, the wicked in the Book of Death. But since most of us are neither fully righteous nor fully wicked, we have until Yom Kippur to repent. Then our fate is sealed.

The stakes can’t get much higher than that.

10. The Book of Jonah by Joshua Max Feldman

Joshua Max Feldman’s debut novel is by no means a retelling of the Biblical Book of Jonah; it is, rather, an impressive experimenta­tion with allegory and the antihero, leaning ever so lightly on the traditional Yom Kippur reading and exposing facets of the story heretofore unconsidered. Reimagining a modern-day Jonah as the Harry Potter of city street preachers—the unlikely savior of mixed parentage, straddled between the real world and suddenly-encoun­tered mysticism—in a society of devotees of the iPhone and capital assets, Feldman transforms the archaic dichotomy of good-versus-evil into a profoundly contemporary rumination on the binary of evil and truth.

For me, the image of the whale—or, you know, being swallowed by the giant fish—presents an image of being completely ensnared in circumstance, completely trapped in what’s happening around you, and for me that comes when Jonah’s in Amsterdam, toward the very end of that section. What is interesting to me about moments like that—and one of the reasons the image of being swallowed by the fish is so reso­nant with people—is that it’s something people can identify with: we’ve all had that moment of feeling completely overcome and completely overwhelmed by circumstance.Those are the moments when we’re really capable of changing our path, when we’re really capable of changing as people, and that’s what I tried to show happening with Jonah.

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Internal Dialogue: The Days of Awe 5775

Monday, September 22, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Prayer doesn’t come easily to everyone. Whether one considers oneself religious, spiritual, observant, or curious, finding that optimum of space, intention, liturgy, and nirvana is for many a constant challenge, heightened by the stretch of High Holidays on which we embark this week. Jews of all affiliations and identities often feel a sense of urgency around this time, searching for a service, practice, or community that will house their spiritual needs during this holy week and a half.

“The High Holiday liturgy, with its emphasis on sin and judgment, can strike a discordant note even for those who pray regularly during the year,” observes 2014-2015 JBC Network author Marcia Falk in her introduction to The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season. A worthy companion to her previous book of original liturgy, The Book of Blessings, Marcia has composed “inclusive, nonhierarchical” prayer specific to the Ten Days of Awe “for all those seeking to participate in Jewish civilization and culture without compromising intellectual or spiritual integrity… to speak to the widest possible spectrum of Jews seeing a new experience of the High Holidays.”

Offering original benedictions in both Hebrew and English, Marcia Falk guides her reader from the Rosh Hashanah feast through the sanctification of the new year, the Tashlikh ritual, meditations for each of the Ten Days, the pre-fast meal before Yom Kippur, and Yizkor remembrance to N’ilah, the closing of the Heavenly gates. An accessible explanation of the rituals attending each custom introduce each section, and the verses themselves do indeed “bring fresh language and meaning to the seasonal liturgy.”

Marcia is joined in the 2014-2015 JBC Network by fellow blessing brewer Alden Solovy and his Jewish Prayers of Hope and Healing, a collection of selections from over 400 original prayers and meditations written since the sudden death of Alden’s wife, Ami. He offers sacred poetry for Hopes; Praises; Family; Love and Friendship; Meditations Near the End of Life; Yizkor and Memorial Prayers; 9/11 Remembrance; Facing the Holocaust and Antisemitism; Physical Healing; Surgery; Pregnancy and Fertility; Cancer; Critical Illness; Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Dementia; Addiction and Mental Illness; Hospice Care and Letting Go; Medical Science and Medical Professionals; Sorrows; Bereavements; and Surrender. Following his writing over the past several months—with all of the personal and global difficulties they contained—Alden’s gift for bringing comfort to others through words proved its mettle.

“A modern-day liturgist,” he writes,” is a witness to the essential longing that occurs in all of us during the most uplifting and the most devastating moments in our lives. A modern-day liturgist is a witness to the yearning to express our joys—and our fears—to a God, to a higher power, to the soul of the universe."

Modern-day liturgists are not limited to paper and pen, either: with the release of Popular Problems on his 80th birthday, Leonard Cohen reminded his faithful listeners and a whole new generation what a religious experience music can be. It seems no accident that this Cohen’s latest album came out this week, just in time to inspire reflection and spiritual serenity as we approach the Ten Days of Awe. In his posts on The ProsenPeople, 2014-2015 JBC Network author Liel Leibovitz wrote about accepting Leonard Cohen as his personal savior—in lieu, almost, of a bar mitzvah—and on the relative experiences of rock ‘n’ roll and religion. These essays expound on Liel’s current book, A Broken Hallelujah: Rock ‘n’ Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen, an exquisite biography that elucidates the Jewish religious influences on Leonard Cohen’s oeuvre and articulates the redemptive, restorative quality of his poetry, lyrics, and music:

You feel the same hum at a Cohen convert that you do in a church or a synagogue, a feeling that emanates from the realization that the words and the tunes you’re about to hear represent the best efforts we humans can make to capture the mysteries that surround us, and that by listening and closing your eyes and singing along, you, too, can somehow transcend[...] He is attuned to the divine, whatever the divine might be, not with the thinker’s complications or the zealot’s obstructions, but with the unburdened heart of a believer—it’s not for nothing that he referred to himself in song as “the little Jew who wrote the Bible.” Millennia ago, as we began asking ourselves the same fundamental questions we still ponder, we called men like him prophets, meaning not that they could foresee the future but that they could better understand the present by seeing one more layer of meaning to life. The title still applies.

If you’re struggling to find the spiritual serenity you seek as we approach and enter into the new year, throw on a Leonard Cohen record, read A Broken Hallelujah, and sift through The Days Between and Jewish Prayers of Hope and Healing. You might just find something that works.

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Friday, September 19, 2014 | Permalink

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