The ProsenPeople

Making My Own MFA

Thursday, March 05, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Shulem Deen wrote about "New Happy And Worldly Hasidim." He is the author of All Who Go Do Not Return, a memoir about growing up in and then leaving the Hasidic Jewish world. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I don’t remember precisely when it began, but at some point, about a decade ago, as a 30-year-old living among one of the U.S.’s most insular Hasidic sects, I had this fantasy: I wanted to go away to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and earn an MFA in creative writing.

How exactly did I learn about Iowa, or MFAs, or writing workshops? I can no longer recall. Just a few years earlier, at age 25, I barely knew the difference between a bachelor’s degree and a master’s, or even what a “major” was. The idea of getting a college degree seemed as remote as meeting the Pope on the Monsey Trails bus. But at some point I learned that the Iowa Writer’s Workshop was where people went to become writers. And I wanted to be a writer.

At age 33, I left the Hasidic world. I had learned a lot by then—I knew what a major was, and the difference between a bachelor’s and a master’s. But I never did get to Iowa, or any other creative writing program. Or even any old bachelor’s degree. Life got in the way, and I lost my romantic notions of American higher education. But when an opportunity came to write a book, I knew that it meant committing not only to writing but also to teaching myself how to write.

The Iowa Writer’s Workshop had been a dream because the program was legendary—one of the first such programs in the country—but when I began to lay out the first draft of my book, I realized why I really needed it, or something like it; I needed a basic understanding of literary craft, an immersive environment in which I could experiment with form and technique, and an opportunity to spend time with other students as well as with seasoned writers who had already produced bodies of work from whom to learn. But such an environment was not an option at that point—I’d committed to the book and had looming deadlines. I had no choice, I realized, but to create my own MFA writing program.

Read, read, read—this is every seasoned writer’s advice to novice writers.

I was poorly read. Secular books are scarce within most Hasidic communities, and formal education—aside from religious studies—is meager. I’d had only spotty exposure to English language books, and I’d never given myself to the task of reading anything of quality. As much reading as I had done over the years, I’d done none of the required reading of a high school or college student. And so I knew that I’d have to start my writing education by reading more widely.

Not knowing any better, I took to the classics, American authors in particular: Melville, Twain, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Salinger. Reading these was important, but they were not particularly instructive about writing. The reading often felt tedious, at least on the first read; I would never have picked these books out of a pile—and so it was hard for me to see what made them great. I had neither my own developed aesthetic nor anyone else’s measure for greatness. I had only one measure: Am I enjoying this? And the answer for much of it was: not really.

I broadened my selections, tried tackling some of the other greats—the Russians, the French—but my reading was haphazard, disorganized, with no natural progression that might’ve helped me learn anything. I slogged through Dostoyevsky with little appreciation for either the prose style or its themes, then took up Joyce and Faulkner and understood next to nothing at all.

As I was to learn, not all reading leads directly to better writing. Reading intelligently takes skill, and before such skill is cultivated, reading indiscriminately and without guidance can be frustrating and counter-productive and it can leave you trying to imitate writers you have no business imitating. It took a while for me to learn the difference between good books and books to learn writing from. The classics, I realized, as important as they are, are particularly clunky as elementary writing instruction—especially when you’re your own instructor.

I did eventually find my footing, both as a reader and a writer. I realized that a book has to resonate in a certain way before it can be instructive. You don’t necessarily have to like the book, but you have to get a feel for what it is attempting to do, both as a whole and in its parts.

It’s hard to say at what point and with which books I began to feel that necessary resonance, but at some point I began to notice things—a page that held me captive, a turn of phrase particularly elegant, a metaphor that did exactly what it was supposed to—and I would go back and see how it was done. I began to see more clearly when a work had something for me to learn from and when it was something only to marvel at, be inspired by, but to know that it was a different sort of writing from my own, and that some voices stand only to be admired—a do-not-try-this-at-home kind of writing, best left to seasoned literary stuntmen. (Henry Miller is for me the best example of this.)

In the end, it wasn’t the classics that taught me most, but contemporaries. Frank Conroy and Tobias Wolff taught me about setting up scenes, and making good use of dialogue. Mary Carr and Rick Bragg were inspiring for their exhilarating language, even if I could never hope to mimic such fluidly exquisite prose. James Baldwin's beautifully winding narrative essays, with its vivid descriptions of grit and racial despair rendered in language so effortlessly mesmerizing, put me on the lookout for artifice in my own writing, forced me to more strenuously weed out clunk, and to let my paragraphs flow with a more natural rhythm.

I also read books on writing, and some of them would prove indispensable. John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction remains an invaluable manual on essential narrative techniques. Stephen King’s On Writing, with its unique blend of guide and memoir, is both instructive and inspiring. Sometimes, all I needed to get me going was the image of a writer at work, or a master’s thoughts on writing, and for those, the many long form interviews in The Paris Review were both a treat and an impetus for getting to work.

Most importantly, after reading many dozens of works—novels, memoirs, short story collections, and essays—I learned that to write compelling prose I'd have to empty my mind and find my own voice, which would be markedly different from any author I’ve read—and that this is what makes writing good, not the other way around.

I had many crises of confidence while writing. There were times when I thought the whole undertaking to have been folly. I’d berate myself for thinking that an ex-Hasid with little formal education could teach himself, while nearing middle age, what others pay exorbitant sums of money to learn. If only I’d gotten that MFA, I would think, I’d know how to set this scene, perfect that awkward transition, replace a clunky metaphor with a stream of effortlessly breathtaking prose.

A crisis of confidence does nothing to make a deadline go away, though, and I had no choice but to go on. My book took four years to write, and the dual task of teaching myself as I went made much of the process tormenting. By the time I submitted that final draft to my publisher in February 2014 I had very nearly exhausted myself. But it also remains the most exhilarating work I’ve done in my 40 years of life. I would gladly do it all over again.

Shulem Deen is the founding editor of Unpious, an online journal for voices on the Hasidic fringe. His work has appeared in Salon, The Brooklyn Rail, Tablet MagazineThe Jewish Daily Forward, and elsewhere. He serves as a board member at Footsteps, a New York City-based organization that offers assistance and support to those who have left the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Anivut

Tuesday, March 03, 2015 | Permalink

Mort Zachter is the author of the recently published book Gil Hodges: A Hall of Fame Life. Today he writes for the Jewish Book Council about why he, a Jewish man, chose to write about a devout Catholic.

I’m often asked why I wrote a biography of Gil Hodges. Why not someone Jewish?

“I grew up in Brooklyn, just a couple of blocks from where Hodges lived on Bedford Avenue. He was my childhood hero.”

But that’s just a sound bite. The real answer, the one that sustained me through the many years it took me to see the project through from inception to publication, this I can tell you in one word: anivut.

In the Torah it is written, Ve’ha-ish Mosheh anav me’od mi-kol ha-adam asher al p’nei ha-adamah, “And the man Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth.”

The Hebrew word anav refers to anivut or humility. For Moses, the word did not necessarily mean self-deprecation, but rather self-restraint. Rabbi Chaim Volozhin the founder of one of the most influential yeshivas in Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century, wrote that to be anivut, “does not mean an untruthful lack of appreciation of one’s self and one’s attainments, but rather a lack of arrogance. To be anav means to recognize your true worth, but not to impose the consequences upon your friends and neighbors. It means to appreciate your own talents, neither over-emphasizing nor underselling them, but at the same time refraining from making others aware of your virtues at all times.”

In 1964, Gil Hodges was the manager of Washington Senators. They lost 100 games that year. Their roster was largely composed of mediocre players who rarely, if ever, had a moment of glory in which their accomplishments brought them accolades. But on June 8, 1964, a journeyman outfielder named Jim King had the game of his life. Although the Senators lost that day, King hit three home runs in that one game, an unusual feat accomplished by only a few hundred players in baseball history.

After the game, the press flocked to King. Photos showed him smiling broadly, enjoying his moment in the sun. After a Senators’ game, the press normally converged upon Hodges. As a former star player, he was the face of the team. But that day, Hodges was an afterthought. After the game, someone asked Hodges if he ever hit three home runs in one game? He simply said he was “not in the record books” for that one. And he didn’t say anything more.

Washington Post writer Bob Addie overheard Hodges and decided to do some research. In his column the next day, Addie wrote that he learned that fewer than ten major league players had ever hit four home runs in a single nine-inning game. The list included some of games’ all-time greats, Lou Gehrig, Willie Mays, and the man that brought Addie to the list in the first place, a man who was not Jewish, but who was anivut, Gil Hodges.

Mort Zachter was a struggling tax attorney /CPA and adjunct tax professor until he discovered the fodder for his first book, Dough: A Memoir. Based on a shocking family secret—that he was a second generation millionaire—the story won him the 2006 AWP Prize for Creative Nonfiction and was published in 2007. Zachter’s new book is focused not on his childhood experiences, but on a childhood hero of his and so many other Brooklyn natives: Gil Hodges: A Hall of Fame Life (University of Nebraska Press). Zachter lives in Princeton, NJ. Learn more at www.mortzachter.com.

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Hasidim

Monday, March 02, 2015 | Permalink

Shulem Deen is the author of All Who Go Do Not Return, a memoir about growing up in and then leaving the Hasidic Jewish world. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I was raised within New York’s Hasidic community, where I spent the first 33 years of my life before rejecting the Hasidic worldview and leaving it for a mainstream secular life. Over recent years, however, I have been discovering that the world contains other types of Hasidim, completely different from the Hasid I had been. I call them the New Happy And Worldly Hasidim. (Or “NHAW Hasidim,” for short.)

Hasidic, for most of my life, meant something very specific and defined.

Hasidic meant speaking Yiddish. And shunning secular education. And men wearing shtreimels and sidecurls and speaking really bad English. And women keeping their heads shorn under their wigs and kerchiefs, and speaking slightly better English.

Hasidic meant arranged marriages, and meeting your future spouse for only half an hour before getting engaged, and knowing nothing about sex, or birth control.

Hasidic meant not only that you don't watch TV or movies, but you barely know those things exist.

Hasidic also meant not only a certain kind of practice but a certain mindset, a determined detachment from the broader world, shunning all secular influences, and studiously avoiding engagement with outsiders.

Of course, Hasidim, the people, are different from Hasidism, the movement and the teachings that gave this society its name. The former are a group of people who form a particular culture. The latter is a set of ideas, which are accessible to anyone who can read the books. But it’s the people and how they live, rather than the ideas in the abstract, that, to me, give meaning to the term: Hasidic.

I remember first hearing about Matisyahu, the “Hasidic reggae superstar.” I was intrigued, but also baffled: why does he call himself “Hasidic” if he’s a “reggae superstar”? How was that even possible?


Matisyahu and Roots Tonic, 2007

Several years ago, a woman named Chaya wrote a widely-shared article on the website xoJane in which she claimed to be a Hasidic woman, and also, in her words, "a media professional with a degree in Women's Studies from a large, very liberal university."

In recent years, we’ve been hearing about an "all-female Hasidic rock band,” which has been playing to sold-out crowds at New York City clubs.

Not long ago, a friend recommended that I read the books of a self-described “Hasid” who writes about his love for the band R.E.M. This writer’s blog, I happened to notice, features a nifty drawing of a naked human butt drawn by one Pablo Picasso—something that could easily get you kicked out of every Hasidic shul I’ve attended.

In the Hasidic community that I have known, secular-influenced music is expressly forbidden. I’d never heard of Elvis Presley or the Beatles until well into my 20s. In my book—All Who Go Do Not Return—I describe how I had to sneak behind my then-wife's back to listen to the radio in secret. And here was a “Hasidic reggae superstar.” And a “Hasid” writing about his love for R.E.M. And an all-female “Hasidic rock band” playing music that is clearly secular in its aesthetic, if not in its message.

In the Hasidic community I am from, attending college is anathema, let alone studying concepts like feminism. And here was a “Hasidic” woman with a degree in Women's Studies.

And so, my first reaction to hearing about all these people was a kind of unease. Calling themselves “Hasidic” seemed dishonest. It also suggested a kind of smugness, as if denying the experiences of so many Hasidim—the vast majority, perhaps—who are raised with a rejectionist ideology: rejection of modernity, rejection of freedom, rejection of science and art and any passion that isn’t for God or the Torah; a rejection of our physical bodies, of any spiritual focus not rooted in our own traditions; a rejection of the rest of the world’s intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and creative contributions.

But the New Happy And Worldly Hasidim rejected none of those things.

So what made them Hasidim?

“We follow Hasidic teachings,” they say. I know they say this because I’ve had conversations with some of them. “We follow the Baal Shem Tov!” they tell me. “And there’s nothing in the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings about rejecting modernity.”

They have a point. Hasidism is a philosophy without strict markers, a movement that split into different streams and sects and was further subject to ideological waves engulfing some segments due to various historical processes, but not others.

It might be helpful to get straight this point of socio-historical arcana: there is little about the majority of Hasidic communities today that reflects the teachings of the early Hasidic movement. This cannot be said more plainly: the people we generally refer to as Hasidic, its insular core—the Satmars, the Belzers, the Svkerers, the Vizhnitzers, and others—are shaped as much by the nineteenth century anti-Maskilic opposition to religious innovation than by the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement.

Hasidism, in its earliest incarnation, was not only spiritually and philosophically innovative but encouraged a rejection of conformism. There are tales of early Hasidim who danced naked in the streets and performed somersaults in the public square as a form of self-abnegation and a rejection of the ego. Some of these tales are probably apocryphal, but it’s fair to say they reflect a world in which “Hasidic” meant something entirely different from what it means today. No one’s doing naked somersaults on the streets of Borough Park.

There are historical explanations for the movement’s shift, but ignoring this fact seems like an attempt to sugarcoat some of the uglier realities of the present-day Hasidic world. And there’s something glib about those who choose an identifier while behaving in ways that are anathema to the mainstream known by it—or, at best, only permitted on the fringes.

The truth is, though, I like these New Happy And Worldly Hasidim, and I wish there were more like them. I love that there are people who can envision a “Hasidic” society that is open to the world, embraces creativity and a more expansive form of spirituality and a more progressive worldview. I wish that they—the New Happy And Worldly Hasidim—were the Hasidim who mattered in most Hasidic communities today. But they don’t; as things are now, the Hasidic world—its insular core—is deeply problematic. Right now, in Borough Park and Williamsburg and Monsey and New Square and Kiryas Joel—the largest Hasidic communities in the United States—there are few of these New Happy And Wordly Hasidim; and those who choose to be like them are bound to suffer real consequences.

I am not an identity purist, and I am happy to call anyone a “Hasid” if he or she self-identifies as such. But I also think that language matters, and we need to be specific about terms we use. I love the NHAW Hasidim who seem to be doing wonderful things in their own way. But they’ll have to forgive me if I choose to qualify the term “Hasid” before applying it to them. And New, Happy, and Worldly are good qualifiers to have, I think.

Shulem Deen is the founding editor of Unpious, an online journal for voices on the Hasidic fringe. His work has appeared in Salon, The Brooklyn Rail, Tablet MagazineThe Jewish Daily Forward, and elsewhere. He serves as a board member at Footsteps, a New York City-based organization that offers assistance and support to those who have left the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Book Cover of the Week: Shekhina

Friday, February 27, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

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

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


Live long and prosper, Leonard.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, February 27, 2015 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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

Thursday, February 26, 2015 | Permalink

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

4. Weiss 139.

5. Nemirovsky quoted in Weiss 153

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

7. Weiss 143.

8. Nemirovsky, Suite Francaise 374.

9. Nemirovsky quoted in Weiss 173.


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The Story Behind The Empire of the Senses

Monday, February 23, 2015 | Permalink

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

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

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

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

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

1. Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

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

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

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

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

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

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, February 20, 2015 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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Five Simple Ways To Be Good To A New Mom

Thursday, February 19, 2015 | Permalink

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

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

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

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

2. Bring Food

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

3. Don’t Write Her Off

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

4. Be Okay About Her Body

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

5. Listen

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

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

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Book Cover of the Week: Nightbird

Wednesday, February 18, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

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

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

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