This week's reviews:
Steve Stern's most recent collection, The Book of Mischief, was published in September 2012 by Graywolf Press.
Steve Stern is, in my opinion, the best under-recognized American Jewish writer currently writing. Many, many reviewers hoped that his most recent novel, the wonderful, lyrically written, and hysterically funny The Frozen Rabbi, would do much to bring him the larger readership his writing deserves. And now, with the publication of his tenth book, new and selected stories with the spot-on title, The Book of Mischief, his literary admirers can keep hoping those who have not yet read him will run to their bookstore or electronic reader and do so. I first came across his work in 1999 when The Wedding Jester was published. Something in the review I read of it made me want to run out to buy the book; when I did I spent the next week neglecting my academic work and reading to devour the collection. At the start of a summer supposed to be dedicated to academic articles, I realized that this was what I wanted to do, write stories not articles—I lay the blame for my current writing life squarely with Stern. Since then I have read everything by Stern that I can to access his world of acrobats and jesters, Catskills hangers on, and rabbis resuscitated from the Old World come to remake the New.
Stern’s oeuvre is uniquely connected to place, from the Pinch neighborhood of Memphis of his birth to stories set in both the Lower East Side and the Catskills as well as the Europe of a past imagined by the author. I had the pleasure of meeting him to discuss the writing life and his new book at a café near where he makes his home in Brooklyn, when he is not teaching at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY. On the day we were to meet, I took the subway but was unsure if I had the right stop and had to take another bus to a stop closer to where we were meeting, and then continually ask a number of people directions to the Qathra coffee bar. The day seemed grim and I was late so I was sure the author would have given up and abandoned his post at the front of the coffee bar, hardcover in hand. However, some kind of magic worked and he was there, the sun came out and our conversation was a wonderful literary experience, transporting beyond the surroundings, as is fitting for a writer fascinated by flight and trapeze artists.Continue Reading
The three of us waited expectantly and somewhat nervously in the seminar room, wondering why we had been summoned by our professor. Nu, what was going on – why the special meeting?
I glanced over at my classmates. Shiri Goren had grown up in Hod Hasharon, Israel, studied at Tel Aviv University, and went on to a successful career as an editor for IDF Radio and television news. Like me, she was now pursuing doctoral work in Hebrew literature. Lara Rabinovitch grew up in Toronto and attended McGill University. She was enrolled jointly in Jewish Studies and history, and had an active side career as a food writer. I hailed from Richmond, Virginia, and had studied English and Religious Studies at UVA.
Three students from very different places, meeting weekly to debate history’s impact on Yiddish cultural expression. During our exploration of “Yiddishism in the 20th Century” in the spring of 2005, we learned about the rise of Yiddish literature, the Yiddish press, spelling reform (quite a contentious subject!), and the language’s role in Israel, America, and Cold War politics.
Finally, Professor Gennady Estraikh came into the room and revealed his reason for convening us: he wanted us to plan a graduate student conference about Yiddish, featuring the new generation of scholars in the field. The eventual conference, “Yiddish / Jewish Cultures: Literature, History, Thought in Eastern European Diasporas,” was held at NYU in late February of 2006. Attendees came from as far as Finland, Italy, Poland, Jerusalem, and Cape Town to speak on panels with names like “Performing Yiddish Identities” and “Diasporic Expressions.”
With a klezmer band serenading us at the conference’s concluding reception, we toasted our hard work. However, the end of the conference was only the beginning of a six-year process to grapple with the phenomenon of new scholarship on Yiddish.
In the ensuing years, Lara, Shiri, and I continued the debates we had begun in Professor Estraikh’s seminar, arguing about the evolution of Yiddish Studies and its contemporary meaning both in academia and in popular culture. Gradually, the NYU seminar table was replaced by Skype and conference calls; we each left New York one by one, heading to New Haven, Los Angeles, and Seattle. Marriages were made and babies were born, sometimes appearing wide-eyed on computer screens as we teleconferenced across the country. We each wrapped up our respective degrees and continued to talk (and talk, and talk) about Yiddish.
It is a conversation that I hope to continue for a very long time.
Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter
Pubbing next week from FSG is Alexander Stille's literary memoir The Force of Things: A Marriage in War and Peace, which tells the story of his parents— journalist Mikhail Kamenetzki (aka Ugo Stille) and Elizabeth Bogert, a beauty from the American Midwest—who meet in New York in 1948.
View past "Book Cover of the Week" posts here.
Dr. Hannah S. Pressman is the co-editor, with Lara Rabinovitch and Shiri Goren, of Choosing Yiddish: New Frontiers of Language and Culture. She is the editor of stroumjewishstudies.org and affiliate faculty for the University of Washington’s Stroum Jewish Studies Program. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.
When I first began studying Yiddish, I felt like I was remembering something I already knew.
It was a lovely sensation, this feeling at home in a language I was still acquiring. There I was, barely a few weeks into my first summer at YIVO Institute’s Uriel Weinreich Program, and I was able to read, write, and speak Yiddish—not perfectly, but happily. Relishing my newfound abilities, I absorbed vocabulary lists, salutations, and songs, delighted to be able to talk about the weather or kvetch (complain) about an injury in Yiddish.
Granted, I’ve always had somewhat of a knack for learning languages. Grammar and syntax just fall into place for me. I also undertook my Yiddish studies armed with fluency in Hebrew, a definite advantage when it came to the alphabet and loshn-koydesh (holy tongue) components of Yiddish.
However, I had never heard anything close to a fluent conversation in Yiddish prior to that first YIVO summer. I had heard a smattering of Yiddish words and phrases growing up, the typical exclamations about so-and-so’s marvelous punim (face) and polkes (thighs), protections against the evil eye, and of course, food-related words. These were the linguistic traces left by the heritage of my father’s family, Litvak shtetl-dwellers who migrated to southern Africa at the turn of the twentieth century.
So how did I, Hannaleh (as my Yiddish diminutive nickname went), end up choosing to study Yiddish? Part of it was simple academic necessity. I had just embarked upon doctoral work in modern Hebrew literature at NYU. Early Hebrew writers, dedicated cultural activists scattered among cities like Berlin, Odessa, Warsaw, and eventually Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, were dazzlingly multi-lingual and, in some cases, translated their own work from one language to the other. Learning Yiddish was one way I could start to understand the variegated world they inhabited.
Beyond the disciplinary usefulness of Yiddish, however, I remember having the distinct feeling that something big was happening with Yiddish in the early twenty-first century. Among my cohort in Jewish Studies at NYU, which included budding historians, anthropologists, philosophers, and literary scholars, everyone was taking Yiddish. Newspapers started reporting on the increased interest in Yiddish on college campuses. Michael Wex’s Born to Kvetch, detailing the language “in all of its moods,” was a New York Times best-seller.
More broadly, in the early 00’s, the culture of Eastern Europe was having a moment. The klezmer revival evidenced a growing fan base for the musical heritage of Eastern Europe. And the success of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated showed us, on the page (in 2002) and the silver screen (in 2005), that readers were thirsting for a back-to-the-shtetl fantasy. Foer’s book articulated our collective compulsion to return, retrace, and recreate the folkways of shtetl life—and, as this Forward article explains, actually resulted in the reconnection of people who had lived in Trochenbrod, his grandfather’s shtetl in Ukraine.
By studying Yiddish, singing songs about potatoes, immersing myself in the worldview of Yiddish speakers from bygone days, I too was part of this whatever-it-was—a trend? A movement? A renaissance?
Or maybe a homecoming, as it often felt when I opened up my notebook to write a Yiddish composition for my teacher. Little did I know, as I conjugated my first Yiddish verbs on a warm summer day in 2003, that this incredibly heimish (homey) language, which seemed to fit me like a second skin, would eventually become the focus of a major academic project—but that is a subject for another blog post.
Check back here all week for more posts from Dr. Hannah Pressman.
During the JFNAGA this past November, JBC shared a list of 25 famous literary classics in the areas of Judaism and Zionism with the Israel Forever Foundation. Select titles from the list can be found below and the complete list can be found here.
A few weeks ago, the Los Angeles Times ran an article about the death of Eddie Goldstein, "the last Jewish man of Boyle Heights." Goldstein, who died on January 5 at 79, was born in Boyle Heights and stayed there all his life, becoming a sort of final link with Boyle Heights of the 1920s and 30s, when it was the Jewish neighborhood in L.A.
During those years, Boyle Heights was home to some 50,000 Jews. The neighborhood, directly east of downtown, had kosher butchers and delis, including the original Canter's, an L.A. institution. There were synagogues for the religious, workers and Yiddish societies for the secular, movie theaters, bookie joints, a pool hall, and the Ebony Room bar, a haunt of the community's most infamous son, Mickey Cohen.
By the time I lived in L.A. in the mid-1970s, Boyle Heights was already heavily Latino. I'd never heard of it until I set out to write a novel about a Jewish woman growing up in L.A. in the 20s and 30s. I started doing research, and it was clear that my character could live in only one place: Boyle Heights.
Boyle Heights wasn't just a Jewish neighborhood, however. While Jews were the largest group, there were also large Japanese- and Mexican-American populations. In fact, some 50 ethnicities lived there. Not that people in those days looked at the diverse community and saw an only-in-America success story. On the contrary, in the late 1930s the federal Home Owners' Loan Corp. redlined Boyle Heights, stating that it was filled with "subversive racial elements." (That, too, was just right for my character, since she becomes a progressive attorney.)
But, according to oral history interviews with Jews who grew up in Boyle Heights in the 20s and 30s, there was remarkable harmony among the ethnic groups. People spoke about their accidental utopian experiment with love and pride.
And although, with Eddie Goldstein's death, there are no longer any Jews living in Boyle Heights, the diverse legacy hasn't been forgotten. The Boyle Heights Historical Society is a multi-ethnic group. The Breed Street Shul Project, created by Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, is restoring a grand Boyle Heights synagogue; one of two buildings is now open and hosts classes and gatherings for the Latino community as well as Jewish events.
Then there's David Kipen, a book critic and former director of reading initiatives for the NEA, some of whose family once lived in Boyle Heights. Kipen runs Libros Schmibros, a lending library-used bookstore on Mariachi Plaza. A bookstore of any kind these days—but especially one that offers books for $1—is clearly a utopian venture ... and one that would appeal to the "subversive elements" who once lived in Boyle Heights.
Visit the official website for The Tin Horse here.
Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter
What happens when a Jewish barber leaves Albania for a better life in Stalinist Russia and becomes Stalin's personal barber? Pick up a copy of Paul M. Levitt's new novel Stalin's Barber to find out. For more great cover designs by Devin Watson, click here.
View past "Book Cover of the Week" posts here.
Sometime back in my childhood, I got the idea that it was "nicer" to say "I'm Jewish" than "I'm a Jew." And preferably, in the mainly Christian suburb of Milwaukee where I grew up, one said it in a sort of mumble.
And no one ever used "Jewess," which seemed archaic enough to ignore when encountered in 19th century novels like Ivanhoe or Daniel Deronda. (Nor was it considered pejorative then, as I learned from Daniel Krieger's excellent article "The Rise and Fall—and Rise—of 'Jewess.'") But the word was disturbing in modern contexts, for instance, when Raymond Chandler in The Big Sleep describes a woman as having "the fine-drawn face of an intelligent Jewess." What, we all have the same cheekbones? In that case, I'll take Lauren Bacall's. "Intelligent Jewess" so stuck in my craw that it inspired my novel, The Tin Horse, in which I imagine that "Jewess's" story.
In recent years, various "out" groups have reclaimed language, taking words once flung at them as slurs and boldly using them to self-identify. "Say it loud, I'm Black and I'm proud." The gay community has asserted ownership of "queen" and "queer," and my favorite Gay Pride Parade participants are the motorcycle-riding "dykes on bikes."
What linguists call "semantic reclamation" has also been happening for "Jew." The cheeky Klezmatics put out albums titled "Rhythm and Jews" and "Jews with Horns"—and they made klezmer cool. These days we've got the irreverent online mags Jewniverse and Jewcy, not to mention Jewcy tee shirts.
And some young, hip Jews are trying to embrace "Jewess." Look at the smart blogs Jewesses with Attitude and Jewess. Enter "Jewess" in Jewcy's search box, and you get ten pages of links. But those are niche websites, and they're not trying to appeal to a wide audience. When I floated the working title for my book, An Intelligent Jewess, some people loved its in-your-faceness—the wonderful woman who would become my agent wrote in response to my query, "From one intelligent Jewess to another, I'd love to read your book." Even more people, though, felt pushed away by it; non-Jews felt excluded, and it made many Jews squirm. And "Jewess" isn't just anti-Semitic, it's one of those sexist "ess" words like "stewardess," a double whammy that suggests Hebraic odalisques. Nevertheless, maybe the Jewesses with Attitude are on to something, and "Jewess" will flip from pejorative to cool. I'd love to see it happen. On the other hand, are some words beyond redemption?