The ProsenPeople

New Book Reviews February 5, 2016

Friday, February 05, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

Featured Content:

Book Cover of the Week: Poems That Make Grown Women Cry

Friday, February 05, 2016 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

It's already February, and with a certain day dedicated to romance on the greeting card calendar falling over a weekend this year, the pressure is on, for many, to curate a truly stellar activity or expression of love for those dear to them. Fortunately, there's still time to prepare.

It's hard to go wrong with poetry—I take that back: it's hard to go wrong with good poetry. And if you're not sure how to identify it yourself (or brave enough to try composing your own), might I suggest:

If you think poetry is cliché, you haven't encountered the verses selected by the writers, actors, translators, and song writers included in Anthony Holden and Ben Holden's dual anthologies. Poems That Make Grown Men Cry came out last spring; the companion, Poems That Make Grown Women Cry, follows this April from Simon & Schuster. Discover the poems that reliably reduce 100 women—including Ellena Ferrante, Francine Prose, Nikki Giovanni, Judi Dench, Yoko Ono, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Janet Suzman, Ruth Ozeki, and Ursula K. Le Guin—to tears: everything from the Romantic poets to Rumi to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to Gwendolyn Brooks to Jang Jin-Sun.

There's much to admire in the simplicity of both book covers, but I'm especially enamored by the typography gracing the forthcoming sequel. There's something reminiscent of a worn paperback novel inherited from one's mother in the filigreed Art Deco typeface, nearly-gold lettering simultaneously bold and wispy against a solid white background.

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When a Picture Speaks a Thousand Words

Thursday, February 04, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Helen Maryles Shankman questioned whether her fictional stories trivialize the Holocaust. She is guest blogging all week as a Visiting Scribe here on The ProsenPeople.

Early in 2012, some guy named Ben emailed me an invitation to join the beta version of his new site, Pinterest. He called it “a social catalogue.” In his email, he effused that he “couldn’t wait for me to join the community.”

What did that even mean? I sat on the invitation for a week. After poking around on various author sites, I discovered that Pinterest was a sort of online bulletin board, where you could “pin” pictures that you found while scouting the internet. I responded “yes” to Ben’s invitation, because I can always use one more way to waste time on the internet.

For another week, I did nothing. Sure, the “board” was nicely designed, and it was fun seeing my name in big letters up on the top. But the blank board sat there for weeks, staring at me in an accusatory way, before I pinned my first photo.

A character in my novel was wearing an evening gown. It was 1939, she was absolutely fabulous, and she happened to be a vampire. Of course, I’d been using Google for research, and though it was doubtlessly a miraculous tool, in order to refer to my inspiration photos I had to bookmark webpages or drag photos into document files—a time-consuming process taking up time storage on my desktop.

What the heck, I thought, let’s try this, and opened up Pinterest. In the search box, I typed the words Womens Fashion, 1930s. I typed Fashion Designers. I typed Ballgowns. I added Black.

And, oh, reader! The riches that unfurled before my eyes!

Dresses by Balenciaga, by Chanel, by Lanvin, by Schiaparelli, by Vionnet! Luscious confectionary creations in silk and velvet and jet beads, in lace and organza and satin and netting! To save it, all I had to do was click the red “Pin It” button on each photo, and presto, it appeared on my own personal online bulletin board. Overnight, Pinterest became my go-to program, as essential as Microsoft Word.

This was a pivotal moment in my writing. The ability to call up a trove of curated research photos, available on my phone, computer, or laptop, bestowed on me the power to bring realistic detail to my writing whether I was sitting at my desk in New Jersey, staying at a rustic campsite in Maryland, or visiting my parents in Chicago.

In the title story of In the Land of Armadillos, inspired by events in the life of Bruno Schulz, Sturmbannfuhrer Max Haas, formerly of the Einsatzgruppen, takes it upon himself to protect the Jewish creator of his son’s favorite picture book. But Toby, the artist, doesn’t want to be protected: Toby wishes he was dead. To his own infinite astonishment, Max finds himself trying to restore the artist’s will to live.

I knew exactly what Max would look like: average, ordinary, everyman. But when I began to describe his SS uniform, I was stumped. Shiny black boots, I thought. A red swastika armband. After that, I was lost.

I opened up Pinterest and typed Nazi uniforms.

Still photos from Schindler’s List came up; the terror-inspiring, Hugo Boss-designed tunics of the Third Reich.But so did something else, infinitely stranger: jaunty, sporty fashion illustrations from a 1937 Nazi Party handbook. Here were the infamous SS officer uniforms I sought, with belts and braid and silver lightning pips and skull badges on the caps; but also gym uniforms, security guard uniforms, the League for German Girls uniforms, uniforms for sailors and hikers and children and waiters, all briskly sketched on attractive German citizens, striding smartly through imaginary fields, or standing about looking valiant and visionary. These weren’t the brutal, baby-killing Nazis of our collective postwar memory. These drawings were the way the Nazis saw themselves: healthy, wholesome, resolute, capable.

Upon seeing these drawings, something clicked inside my head. Max is a monster, a cold-hearted mass murderer, but the key to his character is that he doesn’t know it. He sees himself as a soldier and a family man--one who is assigned some unpleasant duties in the course of defending the world against the Communist threat.

The fashion illustrations breathed the same delusional air. And with that, the story caught fire.

Helen Maryles Shankman’s stories have been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and four children.

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Wednesday, February 03, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Stolen Words author Rabbi Mark Glickman wrote about the Jewish community’s midcentury dispute over restituted libraries. He is guest blogging all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Try this. Take some ink, and apply it to paper. A vertical line here; a horizontal line there; some slants, curves, loops, and dots—all very small. Be meticulous. If you do it right, your ink will become letters, your letters will become words, your words sentences, and your sentences pages. Stack up some of those pages, bind them together on one side, and you’ll have a book—a portable compilation of ink and paper for you to read whenever you’d like.

But books, as we readers and writers know, are much more than ink and paper. Books convey meaning, and their meanings can transform the world, or at least take us away from the here and now and bring us to times and places vastly different than our own. Moreover, books as physical objects often take on stories of their own, and thus create new types of connections, as well. That’s why so many of us hold onto our books. That’s why so many of us treasure them. That’s why so many of us collect them with a love and passion that we rarely bestow on other physical objects.

I just wrote a book of my own—a book about books. Lots of books. The books I wrote about were the tens-of-millions of Jewish books looted by the Nazis during their twelve-year reign in Europe, and if this collection could rightly be called a library, these books composed the largest Jewish library in the history of the Jewish people.

Just as my book was about to be released, my wife and I sold our house, and, for a time, I had to put my own library into storage.

It was sad. My library had been a magnificent little room, featuring floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, a comfortable reading chair, and a globe because I’m snooty. It was a rabbi-cave par-excellence, and I loved it. But over the course of two days, shelf-by-shelf, I emptied the library, until all that was left were empty shelves and a thin veneer of dust—the faint remnant of the literary treasures it once contained.

For Jews, books are treasures. Researching the story of the looted books of the Holocaust, I was repeatedly moved by the ways in which Jews cherish their books—the thrill that an old man experienced upon receiving a small children’s activity book he had to leave behind when he left his home in Germany as a child; the tears shed by German Jews as they watched their books go up in flames during the brief spate of book burnings in May, 1933; the courageous determination that a group of scholars and authors in the Vilna Ghetto showed as they tried to save looted Jewish books from the grubbing hands of their Nazi overlords.

The story of my library wasn’t tragic like those of World War II era Europe, but the booklessness I felt when it was empty gave me a tiny hint of what the Jews back then must have felt when they looked at the empty shelves in their own homes and community libraries.

Booklessness. For those of us who love the printed word, it is in some ways the spiritual equivalent of homelessness. It leaves us without roots, without anywhere to turn for comfort, without the shelter and strength that books and sometimes books alone can provide.

Unlike most Jews of Europe, I’ll survive this time of booklessness. I’ll also get my books back someday, and I live in a time when I can easily get my hands on pretty much whatever book I need.

Still, the sense of booklessness reminds me of how truly sacred—how truly precious—those piles of inked pages can actually be.

Rabbi Mark Glickman has served at congregations in Ohio, Washington State, and Colorado. He is the author of Stolen Treasure: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books and Sacred Treasure—The Cairo Genizah: The Amazing Discoveries of Forgotten Jewish History in an Egyptian Synagogue Attic.

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Interview: Ian Buruma

Tuesday, February 02, 2016 | Permalink

with Bob Goldfarb

InTheir Promised Land, Ian Buruma tells the extraordinary story of his own grandparents: British Jews who were apart during the World Wars and stayed in touch by writing letters across the distances that separated them. His book is part history, part memoir, part love story.

Bob Goldfarb: When did your grandparents’ letters first come into your hands?

Ian Buruma: The first time I read some of them was in 1999, when I was working on Anglomania,a book about European Anglophilia in the United States. I knew where the letters were—in a family archive, in a barn, in a country house that belonged to one of my uncles. I thought for a long time that it would make a book of some kind. But it was only a year or two ago that I brought them to America.

BG: What prompted you to make this a book?

IB: I thought the material was very rich and told a story, not just about them but also about the history of the twentieth century. A novel came to mind, but I felt that would be a waste of the material, because the letters themselves are so interesting. Simply editing my grandparents’ correspondence was also not quite the way, either. So I had to feel my way towards a form, and the idea came to me around the early 2000s.

BG: You seem to have a particular interest in the world as it was just before you came into it.

IB: When you think of families of people my age, there are families where the parents had experiences of World War II. In some families it was never spoken about, partly because it was too painful for the parents, or because they children weren’t interested. For me that was never the case; I was always interested. Adults in my family would talk, from when I was a boy. So, yes, I was always interested in that. I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s because it was so frightening that a world that seemed so settled, like Europe after World War I, could suddenly erupt in a kind of nightmarish hell.

BG: Your grandparents seem to have been aggressively assimilated into the larger culture in which they lived. Can we draw conclusions today from the lives they lived then?

IB: They came from a tradition that had been assimilationist since at least the eighteenth century. So their grandparents would no longer have lived in the Judengasse in Frankfurt where the family lived originally. They had been very German already, one of those families that had a history of living in Germany longer than most so-called “native” Germans. My grandparents were following in that tradition even though they were British rather than German.

As you know, a lot of this has to do with class. The more people move up and become prosperous, the more they let go of the culture of the old country. They are very much a manifestation of that—not just them, but also their parents. To me one of the most interesting passages from Their Promised Land is the exchange between my great-uncle and Franz Rosenzweig. Rosenzweig was so impressed by the Polish Jews he met during World War I—he felt they were more at ease in their skin because they had a clearer sense of who they were.

BG: Your grandparents defined themselves largely in terms of culture, especially classical music. What was there about classical music in particular?

IB: So many German Jews loved Wagner. To worship at the shrine of Bayreuth was to take part in a kind of mystical sense of being German without having to be Christian.

The other thing is, it’s easy to see why German culture dovetailed with a certain Jewish experience. The Germans didn’t have a state of their own until very late, and they had to distinguish themselves from the rationalism of France and French philosophy. The reason that music can play such a powerful role is that it’s abstract, so you can feel you’re taking part in a high culture almost in a religious way, without converting to a faith. My grandparents were part of that tradition, where classical music defined you as a person of high culture.

BG: Did you ever feel you were intruding when you were reading their letters?

IB: Yes, of course. I would never have dreamed of doing this if they’d still been alive. But I do feel that once people are gone, and their experience—even their intimate lives—are of historical interest, then it’s legitimate to let it be known. I made very sure that my aunt, the last surviving member of my mother’s generation, read it, so that I wouldn’t do it behind their backs. My main concern was not so much what they would have thought, because they are no longer there, but rather to make sure I didn’t hurt those who are still alive.

It’s very interesting when you are writing about family, people who are close to you. It’s always very difficult, because others who felt equally close to them will have a slightly different picture. It’s very rare that you can do something like this and please one’s siblings, or people who were also close, because it’s not necessarily the image they have. The greatest skepticism has come from people who knew them—from my sister, and my father, and so on.

BG: You’re not afraid at some points to talk about events that were personal, even personally embarrassing episodes about yourself.

IB: I don’t think they were embarrassing because it was a long time ago. Once something becomes a story, it’s not like a confession—and I’m not by nature a confessional person. I’ve just finished reading a memoir written by Stephen Spender’s son about his parents, and he goes into the sex lives of his parents, and his own. I could never do that. I could never imagine wanting to do that.

BG: Do you find writing a story like this very different from writing fiction?

IB: Yes, because you don’t have to make anything up! The structure here is still slightly novelistic; it is a way of telling a story. But I do find it easier applying a certain novelistic technique to something that is factually true than to making up a story.

Bob Goldfarb is Director of Institutional Affairs at the Forward. He lives in New York.

Related Content:

The Battle for the Books

Monday, February 01, 2016 | Permalink

With the release of Stolen Words: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books, author Rabbi Mark Glickman is guest blogging all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

The battle had been rumbling for years, but on December 1, 1946, at New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel, a Jewish historian met with an American military leader and the fighting finally came to a close.

This wasn’t a bloody battle between armies; it was a conflict between Jews. And here, the battle wasn’t over land or national boundaries. Here the battle was for books.

The Nazis had looted lots of Jewish books during their twelve-year reign—millions of them. Early on, they burnt some of those volumes in spectacular bonfires, but the bonfires didn’t last very long. After they fizzled, various Nazi agencies simply held onto the books instead, storing them in castles, monasteries, and warehouses until they could be processed after the war.

The Allied Forces that discovered these looted libraries sent much of the material to an archival depot in Offenbach, Germany run by the American army. Whenever possible, the army returned the material to its original owners. But many of those owners had perished during the war—and many of the books’ owners couldn’t even be identified to begin with: often, entire communities had fled for their lives, leaving their rich collections of books behind. In the chaos of postwar Europe, where were all of the remaining books supposed to go?

Of course, different groups of Jews disagreed with one another on this question. Jews in the soon-to-be State of Israel argued that Israel was to be the international capital of the Jewish people, so the books should go there. American Jews countered that the United States now had the largest Jewish community in the world, so the books should come here. Survivors groups in Europe argued that the books should stay at home, and various other countries each weighed in with arguments as to why they should get the books instead.

At the center of the battle were three men—intellectual powerhouses who became generals in the battle for the books even before the war drew to a close.

One was an Oxford University historian named Cecil Roth (1899-1970).Roth, who was head of the Jewish Historical Society of England, and, later, the editor of the first edition of Encyclopedia Judaica, spoke about the looted books as early as 1943. There was certainly going to be a lot of unclaimed literature after the war, he predicted, and that unidentified material should be sent to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He set up a committee to begin inventorying the books and preparing them for shipment to Palestine. The committee soon dissolved, but Roth prided himself that his group was the first to deal with the issue, and he later argued that his group should therefore be in charge of determining what to do with the heirless volumes.

Another lead combatant was Rabbi Judah Leon Magnes (1877-1948),the American-born founding president of Hebrew University. When Magnes heard early proposals that the books should go to America or stay in Europe, he was beside himself. Just as Israel was taking in the lion’s share of the human survivors of the war, he argued, so too should it receive Europe’s surviving Jewish cultural treasures. How could anyone think otherwise?

Finally, there was Salo Baron (1895-1989).Galician-born and Vienna-educated, Baron had been on the faculty of Columbia University since 1929, and had played a key role in bringing Jewish studies to the secular American academy. Baron was also a rising leader in the Conference of Jewish Relations, an American group of scholars looking into anti-Semitism in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. He sent a team to Europe to catalogue the continent’s pre-war Jewish treasures, and tried to chart a course to deal with the cultural devastation that would remain at war’s end.

In time, Cecil Roth stepped into the background, leaving Baron and Magnes to duke it out between themselves. Magnes fought like a bulldog to get the books into his university’s library, but as he did, Baron built a worldwide team of Jewish historians, librarians and other scholars, and founded “Jewish Cultural Reconstruction” (JCR)—an international commission whose main purpose was to figure out what to do with the heirless Jewish books and cultural treasures after the war.

In the end, Baron’s cooperative approach won the day, and on December 1, 1946, he and a group of his lieutenants met at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel with General Lucius Clay, head of the United States Army’s occupational forces in Germany, to finalize the arrangements. As America prepared to end its occupation of Germany, the army would turn the heirless treasures over to JCR. JCR, in turn, would put the treasures into trusteeship and determine what their ultimate fate should be.

In the years that followed, JCR distributed millions of books and other looted cultural items to Jewish libraries and organizations around the world. About forty percent went to the United States, forty percent went to Israel, and the remaining twenty percent went out in smaller batches to other countries.

Salo Baron prevailed in his struggle for leadership of postwar book restitution efforts, but let’s not call him the victor. In the post-Holocaust Jewish world, loose ends could be tied up, but the possibility of victory had long since disappeared as smoke through the chimneys of Nazi destruction.

Rabbi Mark Glickman has served at congregations in Ohio, Washington State, and Colorado. He is the author of Stolen Treasure: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books and Sacred Treasure—The Cairo Genizah: The Amazing Discoveries of Forgotten Jewish History in an Egyptian Synagogue Attic.

Related Content:

Trivializing the Holocaust?

Monday, February 01, 2016 | Permalink

Helen Maryles Shankman is the author of In the Land of Armadillos, a collection of eight stories set in Wlodawa, Poland during World War II. She is guest blogging all week as a Visiting Scribe here on The ProsenPeople.

The story materialized in my head a few days before Halloween. A gang of creatures, half-human, half-animal, attack a party of SS men executing a group of Jews. I imagined a young Jewish girl stumbling over tree roots as German soldiers herded her toward a clearing in the Polish woods. I visualized a wolf standing upright, a lean, doglike head, tip-tilted gray eyes, muscular legs encased in the trousers of a Polish military uniform.

The story thumped home with a sense of rightness. Yes, this is good. Yes, this works. All the usual signs were there; the hair raising on the back of my neck, the butterflies flitting in my stomach.

But on its heels, this: Am I trivializing the Holocaust?

My parents are Polish Holocaust survivors. Growing up, I heard the stories of their survival again and again. How my mother hid as a shepherd girl with a Polish farmer. How a Polish neighbor boy who used to play at my father’s house discovered his bunker and betrayed it to the Nazis. How my grandfather made saddles, and how the German he worked for sent a wagon to bring Zaydie and his children to his castle the day before a terrible Aktzia consumed the town.

There are so many books dedicated to Holocaust literature that readers experience a kind of overload. Yes, it was tragic, they say. Yes, millions were murdered. They’ve read Anne Frank. They’ve read Night. They’ve read Maus. They know. They know.

That’s where the challenge lay. What was different about my stories? How was I going to make World War II new again?

The facts of the catastrophe—the obsessive focus on enslavement and extermination of a peaceful civilian population, nightmarish death factories, unthinkable atrocities committed by a cultured European nation—are so impossible, so bizarre, so far-fetched, that they might as well be science fiction. I’ve been to Auschwitz and Majdanek; I’ve walked through those warehouses full of shoes and eyeglasses and hair; I’ve descended into the gas chamber and out again, and even I can’t grasp that it really happened.

My mother’s stories of the Poles and Germans who risked their lives to save her family were just as unbelievable, the men and women bigger than life, transcending reality like characters in a fairy tale. An SS man who hid Jews in his castle, with the power to enchant his superiors; a woman who cooked such lovely breakfasts that they lured away the soldiers searching her barn; timid Torah scholars and Jewish school boys, transformed by the deep and ancient Polish forests into mighty resistance fighters. Throughout my childhood, these people loomed as large as giants. If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.

What made me turn to myth and magic to recount my parents’ stories? Was it the desire to control the uncontrollable? The need to believe, in a time when God’s face was hidden, that there was some guiding force behind the horror?

Art removes us to a safe distance from actual horrors, allowing us to see what we already know in a new way. Fairy tales entertain children, but they also warn them of danger. In a fable that my fictional author, Toby Rey, composes for his German protector in “In the Land of Armadillos,” he ends his allegory of a village complicit in a secret crime with this line:

“From that day forward, wherever the townspeople went, they were accompanied by the songs of birds. It filled their lives with beautiful music, but it also reminded them of what they were capable of. Remember, the songs warned them, and do not forget.”

Helen Maryles Shankman’s stories have been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and four children.

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New Book Reviews January 31, 2016

Saturday, January 30, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

Featured Content:

There Are Never No Jewish Books

Friday, January 29, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Gavriel Savit mused on the mysticism of uncertainty, the corporeality of God, and the incongruous narrative of the Hebrew Bible. With the recent release of his debut novel, Anna and the Swallow Man, Gavriel has been guest blogging all week as a Visiting Scribe here on The ProsenPeople.

“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage.” (Peter Brook, The Empty Space)

I think conclusion is un-Jewish.

I mentioned earlier this week that I think the open space is the best place to smash together conflicting ideas and the best place to recognize the face of God. I also mentioned that these two activities are probably the same thing.

Corollary to this argument was the notion that flame helps an awful lot in the pursuit—a source of light that shifts and bounces and is anything but constant and certain. I’m sure there are those among you who thought to yourselves, “Alright—that’s all well and good, but it’s 2016, and when I flip my lightswitch, I get a lovely, flooding, reliable torrent of light that does not flicker and does not ebb. I can see every corner of the open space. There’s nothing there. Doesn’t this replace your inconstant flame-light?”

My answer to that is, resoundingly, no; no more than the period replaces the sentence.

A lot of people confuse uncertainty with ignorance. A lot of people confuse inquiry with interrogation. A lot of people confuse struggle with discontent. A lot of people confuse truth with fact. A lot of people confuse openness with emptiness. A lot of people confuse light with illumination.

I think conclusion is very much un-Jewish. There’s a reason we continually read the same book every year, cycle after cycle after cycle until it’s practically impossible to look at it anew for familiarity. Many people argue that this is because the Bible holds untold depths and nuances of meaning, and that no individual human could possibly ever derive it all.

Well, that may well be. I would argue, though, that it’s just as much a reflection of the fact that the human being is not a stagnant animal: we reread in order to reinterpret, and we must reinterpret because we do not remain the same.

The tradition holds that when God gave the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai, it was in the company of the Oral Law, a key to the interpretation of the written Torah. Throughout the generations, this oral key was passed along from generation to generation, shifting and changing, inflected by its interpreters and transmitters until it was finally codified and written down in the form of Talmud.

This transcription of the malleable oral tradition, this petrification of the fluid—this strikes me as one of the greatest feats of self-harm in the history of human culture. And profoundly un-Jewish. Of course one must reach towards knowledge in order to gain learning, but to continue on until one achieves the point of dogma is very much like eating oneself to death: you’ve exceeded the necessary, productive, even pleasurable pursuit and reached into self-destruction.

No, one must remain uncertain in order to achieve any measure of knowledge. This is true even, perhaps especially, in scientific endeavors, where the overconfident hypothesis is a leading cause of misreported data.

And so I won’t finish this week up with a dictum, with a handy take-away, with a directive. Instead, I’m going to return to the problem that provoked a lot of this thought to begin with. I’ll offer a question, a suggestion, and a bit of imaginative narration.

To recap: I encountered a used bookstore—aesthetic home, of course, to the basic spirit of Judaism—entirely devoid of Jewish books. This, of course, is a problem, a cognitive dissonance.

How is it best, then, to address it?

Of course, far and away the best option would be to decree that every single bookstore must be overflowing with Jewish books—and what's more, that they should all be books of new and compelling thought, unlike anything you’ve read before, that they be satisfyingly weighty in the hand but in no way bulky in the bag, that they should cost no more than fifty cents a piece, and that they should all give off the vague aroma of chocolate ice cream.

Barring the best option, though, this is how I think it would be good to deal with the situation:

If there are going to be no Jewish books in your bookstore (which again, I’m not condoning), then leave an open shelf. And if it’s too abstruse for you to label it Peniel, why then, “Judaism” will do just fine.

Because imagine this: you’re eight years old. You’re traveling with your family in Texas. You’re Jewish, and like many of us, you’re a reader. Your family stops into a used bookstore. You make your way back to the area in which you’ve become accustomed to finding Jewish books. There are none, but way up high, there, there’s a shelf labeled “Judaism.”

Already this is better. Already, you’ll be hoisting yourself up on a chair to get a better look—to investigate, to see for yourself if there’s not anything to be found inside. Perhaps there’s not. Perhaps there are no books in stock. But even so, you, at eight years old, know that there’s a place for them, at least.

And better yet, perhaps you’ll be moved to go and ask the clerk behind the counter if there are any Jewish books. And perhaps the clerk will say no, we have none in stock.

Or perhaps the clerk will take you around the store: Here, in Music, we have plenty on Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. You’re probably a bit young for him, but here’s a first edition of a Saul Bellow novel. How ‘bout Isaac Asimov? Or here’s a joke-book by Mel Brooks. There’s Marcel Proust, but I’m too young for him too, frankly. Or too old. Can’t really decide. There’s Chaim Potok, of course. And Ayn Rand, nebekh.

The list goes on.

An open space is never empty, really.

There are never no Jewish books.

You just have to keep peeking.

You just have to keep struggling to see.

Gavriel Savit is an actor and author from Ann Arbor, MI, and a graduate of the University of Michigan’s prestigious Musical Theatre program. He is the author of Anna and the Swallow Man (Knopf, 2016) and an emerging voice in Jewish literature.

Reconciling the Inconsistent Word of God

Thursday, January 28, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, author Gavriel Savit introduced the spiritual mysticism contained in uncertainty and pondered the corporeal existence of God. With the publication of his debut novel, Anna and the Swallow Man, Gavriel is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

Quite a while ago, my fiancée and I decided to undertake the systematic reading and study of what Western tradition refers to, absurdly (if in Greek), as THE BOOK. I had never before come to the Bible in a systematic and sustained way, reading from cover to cover, and as someone with the humble ambition of contributing to the wild, out-of-hand fracas of Western narrative art, I felt it would be in my best interest to have a bit of a cultivated familiarity with the great patriarch of that art. My fiancée, a critic and scholar of Victorian era British literature, thought it would be in her best interest to have a similar familiarity with the cornerstone of its great patriarchy.

And so we were well matched. The only problem was methodological. I, coming from a Judaic background, wanted to work on the khevruta model, reading together out loud and entering into discussion whenever something interested or troubled one of us; she, well used to the silent if disorderly decorum of the library carrel, would have preferred to read silently in parallel and then to come together for discussion after the fact. In general, I can see the appeal of this approach—it must be nice to thoroughly formulate one’s opinions before beginning the process of discussion—but the fact of the matter is that the Hebrew Bible seems explicitly designed to frustrate certainty. For a book that has so commonly been appealed to for definitive answers, it hardly seems to contain any, from a narrative perspective. No, no—no certainties to be found here, only competing, incommensurate, equivalid alternatives. It has to be discussed as it’s read.

The Book begins with two successive, irreconcilable accounts of the creation of the universe: in the first, God creates life in general, both flora and fauna, and then, only after this does God create the human being, presenting to it in all its bounty the comestible world of fruit and vegetable. Less than ten verses later, in the second account, the creation of man is related again, this time expressly predating the emergence of vegetal life. Shortly thereafter, the creation of animals will also be found, in this second account, to come after the creation of human life.

There’s nothing for it. There’s no way to reconcile the two expressly and exclusively different stories.

If you are a contemporary rationalist, this might well prove your disdain for the archaic, superstitious tome of falsehoods known as the Bible. How can it equally assert the veracity of two contradictory accounts?

If you are a philologist, you will likely interpret this conflict between texts as indicative of the presence of more than one pre-existing source. Neither, of course, could be altered in the combination because of the sacred status of each, and neither, by the same token could be excluded. As a philologist, one might easily say “Forget the cognitive dissonance, forget the conflict, forget the juxtaposition. Read each on its own merits.”

If you are an adherent of rabbinic exegesis, perhaps you will choose to interpret these two pieces of narrative as predominantly allegorical or symbolic writing. After all, when we adjourn to the hazy arena of symbolism, we need no longer consider contradiction threatening—it’s, y’know, art.

I would like to offer an alternative reading, one that I hope can extend far beyond this first section of the Hebrew Bible to encompass it entirely:

There are two stories. They are both correct and valid—equally articulated in the authoritative voice of the text. They both take place within a literal realm, and they contradict one another.

There. It’s uncomfortable. It’s difficult. It’s provocative. And I think that’s precisely the point.

It is in this state of uncertainty that one looks closely, and one sees. You begin to see the face of God in the flickering, dimly lit open space only when you stand between twin certainties—that God has absolutely no visible form, and that God absolutely does.

There’s a reason this gigantic compilation of stories opens on contradiction and uncertainty, and as a writer, I would posit that it’s a lesson in reading the rest of the book: there are two, oppositional positions. Do you smash them together, trying to make them into one? Do you look for ways to discount certain portions of each?

Or do you take one in each hand, and feel them counterbalance one another in the weight of your step?

This mode of reading might be most strongly resisted by those people who point to its essential duality—after all, we are a people of One God, and Singularity, Unity, Oneness presents itself as temptingly contradistinctive. People can so easily say, God is One, and God is mine. If you disagree with me, then God is not yours. My minhag, my family or communal custom in the observance of tradition, one might say, is exclusively correct, and all others are at best to be tolerated, and at worst, heretical. (Looking at you, here, Israeli Rabbinate…)

But this is clearly not reflective of historical Jewish tradition. The Talmud was, in some deeply critical ways, formed in the crucible of the disagreement between the twin philosophical approaches of Hillel and Shammai. Moving backwards, one could easily read an interest in dueling perspectives in the simple notion of the Oral Law, given alongside the Torah on Mount Sinai, for the purposes of elucidation and interpretation—why a separate corpus if not expressly to create distance and discrepancy between the two?

And there are all sorts of incommensurate alternatives in the Bible. David, paragon of majesty, progenitor of Messianic salvation, is, in some very real ways, a usurper of Saul’s kingship. The theme of rival claims is threaded throughout the Bible, particularly in the foundational stories of our patriarchs.

After all, who deserves primacy? Ishmael, the firstborn, or Isaac, the legitimate? The supremacy of the elder son, so axiomatic in the Ancient world, will continue to inform and enlarge the successive stories of each great patriarch—mainly in its violation. Jacob, the wily (younger), or Esau, the mighty (elder)? Joseph, the brilliant (far, far younger) or Reuben the dutiful (eldest) and his corporate brotherhood? Aaron, the priest (elder) or Moses, the leader (younger)?

In none of these cases—looking carefully, honestly—is one party clearly the preferable. It is, particularly from an antiquated perspective, always unclear.

And perhaps this is obvious. After all, we as Jews are known in the collective as the Children of Israel, Israel (“Struggles-with-God”) being the alternative name given to Jacob after he strove and fought all night against an agent of God—crucially, to an indecisive conclusion.

Neither God nor Israel prevailed. This was not the point. The struggle was the point.

The renaming of Jacob in the wake of this conflict is well-known and oft-quoted. What is less frequently repeated is that something else was renamed in the wake of the conflict: the open space in which Jacob and the Agent of God struggled.

The place was named Peniel, or “My-face-is-God.”

It is, of course, indispensable to have two well-matched and equally viable candidates in order to enter into the sort of furious, infinite, ongoing, and indecisive conflict that our narrative tradition so favors. Just as indispensable as the conflicting parties, though, is the arena in which the contest is to take place.

And this, finally, is the utility, the virtue of uncertainty.

A certainty is an insuperable obstacle. It’s solid and heavy and doesn’t move much of its own accord. Certainties, of course, have great utility of their own—they can block off dangers, you can climb up atop them, reaching for new intellectual altitudes—but if you’re looking to stage a fight, it’s hard to do so inside a block of marble.

I, like many young Jews, once visited Israel on a Birthright trip, and the entire thrust of Jewish thought and history was never so legible to me as the time we were encouraged to go off into the midnight desert for a little, quiet, solo reflection—not so far that we couldn’t still see the lights of the tent, but far enough that we could imagine we couldn’t.

The sky is so big, out there, and so full of stars. Unified and simultaneously multifarious—monotheism doesn’t seem like an innovation in the desert, it feels like an observation.

Because these are the uncertain spaces, the open (empty?) arenas in which we Jews are used to seeking for (and finding, hopefully) our God: the desert, monolith of sandgrains; the synagogue, light flickering, prayer shawls flapping, eyes covered to ward off blindness; the genealogy of our Fathers, so knotted and ambiguous that even a family tree is nothing so much as an argument.

These are our plains of Peniel, mottled and dappled by striving footprints, by wingtips dragging through the sand. This is the Face of God: the constant contest of uncertainties in an arena uncrowded by decision, unmarred by conclusion. The endlessly repeated gesture of young men peeking out from behind their father’s prayer shawls, of elders squinting through their glasses across the dimly lit space, generation after generation, of looking so closely that you start to see something in the struggle and bump, in the flicker and flash, in the dim and shade—a Single, emergent Entity.

Just don’t you dare become certain what it looks like.

Gavriel Savit is an actor and author from Ann Arbor, MI, and a graduate of the University of Michigan’s prestigious Musical Theatre program. He is the author of Anna and the Swallow Man (Knopf, 2016) and an emerging voice in Jewish literature.

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