The ProsenPeople

Moses and Hubris

Monday, February 20, 2012 | Permalink

Adam Wilson's debut novel, Flatscreen, is now available. He will be blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week.

There’s a great Seinfeld episode–and one I relate to–in which George Costanza worries that he must have cancer because his life is going well for the first time ever. “I knew God would never let me be happy,” George tells his therapist.

Like many secular Jews, I don’t believe in God, but I do fear His wrath. Whenever something good happens to me I can’t enjoy it because I’m waiting for retribution. Some of the best moments in my life have been ruined this way; achievements – both professional and personal – have been mired either by illness, or fear of illness. I’ve had the flu at every one of my birthday parties since the age of five. Whenever I’m taken to a nice restaurant, my overactive stomach won’t let me enjoy the meal. The year I was supposed to be the opening day starting pitcher for my little league team I injured my finger during pre-season and never pitched again. Like George, I don’t think God will ever let me be happy.

All my life, I have wanted to publish a novel. That dream will become a reality on Tuesday, so of course I’ve been sick in bed for the past two weeks with an unbeatable cold and a really uncomfortable throat infection. All I want is to enjoy my book party, and now it doesn’t seem like that will be possible. None of this surprises me. I don’t believe in God, but I do think he’s pre-emptively punishing me for the hubristic attitude I would have if I was healthy.

I often think of God not letting Moses into the Promised Land. Sure, maybe Moses was being a bit cocky from time to time, but didn’t he deserve to celebrate? I mean, they were in the desert for forty years! The punishment didn’t fit the crime. And then there was Job, whom God punished just to make a philosophical point.

Is this why even the secular among us fear God so much–because the Old Testament God could be cruel and vindictive?

I’d like to think it has nothing to do with God, that it’s not God punishing us for our hubris and moral shortcomings, but ourselves. I’d like to think it’s because we hold ourselves to high moral standards, and feel we must humble ourselves. We’re not being punished, so much as remembering our own humanity, our own mortality.

Adam Wilson is the author of the novel Flatscreen. He is the editor of the international online newspaper The Faster Times, and a professor of writing at NYU. His journalism, criticism, and fiction have appeared in many publications including Bookforum, The New York Times, The Paris Review Daily, The New York Observer, Meridian, Washington Square Review, The New York Tyrant, Gigantic, Time Out New York, The Forward, and Paste.

JLit Links

Friday, February 17, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

The Comedienne

Friday, February 17, 2012 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Leigh Stein wrote about the Jewish ghost of Santa Fe and revealed one of her early aspirations: to "Be Anne Frank." She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

One of the strange things about having your first book come out is that you think you’ve written one thing, and then everyone decides you’ve written something else. I guess I don’t mean en masse, but I did think I had written kind of a sad, quiet novel, and now I’m getting pegged as the funny girl.

You know who was really the funny girl?

If you said Fanny Brice you’d be right.

I grew up on musical theater the way other people grow up on sports (some of my greatest triumphs were in competitive opera singing), and watched Barbra Streisand movies like an acolyte. Forget Julie Andrews (who I’m sure is very nice)—I loved Barbra: her voice, the twinkle in her eye, her nose. I’m not exaggerating when I say that watching her sing “I’m the Greatest Star” in Funny Girl changed my life.

Funny Girl is based on the life of Fanny Brice, who sang for the Ziegfeld Follies, acted on Broadway and in film, and played Baby Snooks on the radio for years. She made a life and career out of contradictions—a Yiddish “dialectician” who never knew more than a hundred words of the language, a skinny girl who couldn't dance and yet sang for the glamorous Follies, an independent woman who married three times.

In his biography of the performer, Herbert G. Goldman quotes Fanny on her dual nature: “Self-aware and self-perceptive, Fanny once said she had always been aware of 'two people within me. Almost like a mother and child. I have felt like I was my own mother, and when I would think about Fanny, I would always think about myself as a child.'”

What makes Fanny such a great talent is exactly this duality, between mother and child, serious and playful. Barbra has it too, on film. Maybe it’s a Jewish thing. Although critics wrote mainly about Fanny as a comedienne, one of her greatest hits was “My Man,” which she always sang with her eyes closed, no doubt imagining her first husband, Nick Arnstein. It sounds soulful to me when I listen to it again now, and I think I know why Fanny sang torch songs—because those were the moments when she got to stop playing the funny girl.


Leigh Stein's debut novel, The Fallback Plan, is now available. Leigh is a former New Yorker staffer and frequent contributor to its “Book Bench” blog. She lives in Brooklyn, where she works in children’s publishing and teaches musical theater to elementary school students.

The Galosphere

Thursday, February 16, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

In honor of Gal Beckerman (When They Come for Us We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry) winning the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, we've compiled a few links about Gal and Soviet Jewry:


The Ghost

Wednesday, February 15, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Leigh Stein revealed one of her early aspirations: to "Be Anne Frank." She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning

My fascination with New Mexico began in 2007, when I moved to Albuquerque sight unseen to write my first novel, The Fallback Plan. The state is nicknamed “The Land of Enchantment,” and that’s one of the reasons I moved there, from the less exotic “Land of Lincoln.” In general, I found the people there to be very open to talking about unsolved mysteries—ghosts and disappearances, aliens and conspiracies. A neighbor told me that the Sandia Mountains were partly “fake,” built by the government to hide missiles near the air force base. Another said he’d seen la llorona in the shallow waters of the Rio Grande.

So I don’t generally associate the American Southwest with the Jewish Diaspora, but I do associate it with ghosts. And last spring, I went back to the Southwest on a kind of working vacation, to soak in some sunshine and work on a new book project, which is partly set there. I took a tour in Santa Fe and learned about one of the city’s most famous ghosts, a German Jew named Julia Staab, who died in 1896 and now haunts La Posada Hotel.


This painting hangs in her room at the hotel. It is assumed to be Julia, but 
could be one of her descendants, as it wasn’t painted until 1939.

Julia was the wife of Abraham Staab, who emigrated at age 15 to escape military conscription and life in the ghettos, later becoming a wealthy merchant who made his fortune as a contractor for the U.S. army. Because of the lack of eligible (Jewish) wives in the area, he returned to Germany and convinced Julia Schuster, age 16, to marry him. As the story goes, Julia was reluctant to agree to a life in the Wild West, but eventually consented.


At first, the couple lived on Burro Alley in Santa Fe. I took this picture there in 2008.


By most accounts, Julia was sickly, and suffered from depression. She was also famously beautiful. Abraham built her a mansion north of the Plaza, in the French Second Empire-style, which stood in stark contrast to the adobe homes surrounding it. The third floor was devoted to a ballroom, where they hosted the best parties in Santa Fe.


Staab mansion in the 1880s

Julia had seven children, some miscarriages and at least one stillborn, who is buried in the family plot. They say that after the death of her youngest, she was so grief-stricken she couldn’t eat, she couldn’t sleep, and after two days of this she looked in the mirror and her hair had turned from black to white.

There were no more parties. Julia would not leave the house. In town, Abraham made excuses for his wife’s notable absence. Rumors circulated that she had gone mad.

No official mention is made of Julia until years later, when a brief notice of her death at age fifty-two appears in the local paper. No cause is stated.

The mansion is now a resort hotel: La Posada. Guests who have stayed in Julia’s suite have reported that the bathtub will fill with water on its own. (One rumor of her death is that she drowned there.) In the restrooms on the first floor, her face has appeared in the mirror. A hotel bartender has reported glasses flying off the shelves.

I am drawn to Julia’s story for a number of reasons. First, her history is in some ways a composite of my own ancestors’, half of whom are German Jews

who became merchants in the U.S. in the nineteenth century, and half of whom are Scotch-Irish pioneers who became homesteaders on the Kansas plains. I sympathize with her displacement, imagining what it must have been like to arrive in arid New Mexico for the first time, an experience I also had as a young adult. If anything, Jewish history is one of exile, and the Staabs’ story is a fascinating tale of Jews carving a new life in the American Southwest. Finally, Julia’s story is so poignant to me because even now she is in exile, unable to return “home.”

But only if you believe in ghosts.

For more information on the Staab family, there is an interesting (and brief) memoir in the archives of the Center for Jewish history, accessible here.

Leigh Stein's debut novel, The Fallback Plan, is now available. Leigh is a formerNew Yorkerstaffer and frequent contributor to its “Book Bench” blog. She lives in Brooklyn, where she works in children’s publishing and teaches musical theater to elementary school students.

Book Cover of the Week: The Year of the Gadfly

Tuesday, February 14, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Jennifer Miller, author of Inheriting the Holy Land: An American's Search for Hope in the Middle East, will be publishing her debut novel, The Year of the Gadfly, in May (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).


Iris Dupont is a teenage reporter who communes with the ghost of Edward R. Murrow. Jonah Kaplan is a failed microbiologist-turned biology teacher who is haunted by the ghosts of his past. Each embarks on a private investigation to uncover a secret society in their remote New England town. As Iris and Jonah's paths start to intersect, they are drawn into the darker corners of their town, their school, and their own minds.

The Diarist

Monday, February 13, 2012 | Permalink

Leigh Stein's debut novel, The Fallback Plan, is now available. She will be blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Before I’d settled on acting or writing, my greatest aspiration was simply to “Be Anne Frank,” and when I was twelve, I auditioned for the title role in a community theater production of the Goodrich and Hackett play. I’m pretty sure I was one of the few, if not the only, Jew(s) to audition (in a town known for its Evangelical Christian college), and I thought I had it in the bag. All they had to do, I thought, was look at my last name and cast me immediately, to lend credibility to their production.

At callbacks, it was between me and one other Anne. I wore a plaid skirt and a pale sage cardigan with tiny rosebuds around the collar. I parted my dark hair on the side. While the other Anne smiled and laughed and generally behaved like she was at a food court in the mall, I delivered my lines with gravitas. I looked at the imaginary sky with longing. I was sarcastic, but never silly. I never let myself forget that Anne was a victim of the Holocaust, and it was my job on stage to honor that fact. More than anything, I felt I deserved to be Anne because I knew her so intimately after reading her diaries.

Shocker: the other Anne got cast. “But you look so much like her,” the director told me on the phone, as a consolation prize. “It was really tough.

The only thing I could console myself with was the fantasy that after I died, God would rectify this injustice by allowing me to play the role in Heaven. (It’s funny that I imagined this and not, you know, actually meeting Anne there in the afterlife.)

One of the reasons I loved Francine Prose’s recent book, Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, is because it tells the fascinating and fraught history of the theatrical adaptation. Reading it fourteen years after that fateful audition was a revelation: it wasn’t my fault that I was wrong for the part of Anne. It was the play’s fault. The play reinvents Anne as some kind of Jewish Polyanna. Prose really hits the nail on the head when she compares the insightful diarist with her characterization:

On the page, she is brilliant; on the stage she’s a nitwit. In the book, she is the most gifted and sharp-sighted person in the annex; in the play, she’s the naïve baby whom the others indulge and protect. For all her talk about being treated like a child and not knowing who she was, Anne saw herself as an adult and the others as children. In the drama, those relations have been reversed.

Years after I first read her diary, Anne is still an inspiration to me. Prose’s book is an excellent account of her aspirations as a writer (Anne hoped her diaries would be published, and revised scrupulously), and I recommend it highly. I also can thank Prose for leading me to this twenty-one second video, the only video footage known to exist of Anne, in which we see the young diarist briefly from a window, flickering, alive.


Leigh Stein's debut novel, The Fallback Plan, is now available. Leigh is a former New Yorker staffer and frequent contributor to its “Book Bench” blog. She lives in Brooklyn, where she works in children’s publishing and teaches musical theater to elementary school students.

President's Day Reading

Monday, February 13, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

I know there's still a whole week before President's Day, but in order to give you time to prepare, I've compiled a few highlights from our review collection that focus on American Presidents and the Jewish community. Feel free to comment with additional suggestions!


 

JLit Links

Friday, February 10, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Keeping Doubt Alive

Friday, February 10, 2012 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Eric Weiner wrote about carrots, fish, and Jewish souls and the pleasures of spiritual travel. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Like most people, I used to view doubt and faith as occupying two opposite ends of the spiritual spectrum. In my mind, there were people of faith, True Believers, and then there were the Doubters, like myself. A vast and impassable ocean separated these two groups. Or so I thought.

I don’t think that way anymore. After traveling the world and diving into several of the world’s major religions (and a few minor ones), I’ve concluded that doubt represents not an absence of faith, but rather, is an integral part of it. I wouldn’t say I celebrate doubt, not anymore than I celebrate that pain in my left knee telling me I need to see the doctor. But I do accept it, value it, and recognize its role in the spiritual life.

True some religious people desire certainty— and only certainty. For them, doubt represents weakness, an absence of faith, or at least an incomplete faith. In short, doubt is the enemy. But that is only one way of being religious. There are others. Psychologists have identified the “quest personality.” That is one category that I – and many others I expect– fit into perfectly. A Quester is someone who seeks knowing full well she will never find definitive answers.

Doubt can paralyze, yes, but it can also motivate. The opposite of doubt is not certainty but action, forward momentum. As E.F. Schumacher, the renegade economist put it, “Matters that are beyond doubt are, in a sense, dead; they do not constitute a challenge to the living.” In other words, matters that are beyond doubt have nothing to teach us.

In my travels, I’ve met many deeply religious people who, nonetheless, live comfortably with doubt. My friend James, for instance, is a Buddhist who still has many doubts — about reincarnation, for instance—but this does not prevent him from practicing his faith, and benefitting from it.

Nearly all religions, in varying degrees, acknowledge the role of doubt, but perhaps none more so than the Jains, the ancient faith based in India. The Jains have a term, syadvada, which literally translates as a “multiplicity of viewpoints,” but is also referred to as “maybe-ism”.

Essentially, syadvada says that for every “truth” that we hold dear there are other, equally valid, truths. For the Jains, syadvada is a way of life, and it permeates every aspect of their faith, including their doctrine of nonviolence.

The Jains know instinctively that where certainty reigns, nothing else can survive. Where there is doubt, there is also possibility. And life.

A version of this article appeared on Washingtonpost.com.

Eric Weiner is a former foreign correspondent for NPR, a philosophical traveler—and recovering malcontent. His new book, Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine, is now available.