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Kafka and the Parable

Wednesday, January 18, 2012 | Permalink
John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly are the editors of Kafkaesque: Stories Inspired by Franz Kafka. They will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearningOn Monday, James Patrick Kelly writes about a man as puzzling as his stories and today, John Kessel looks at Kafka and the parable.

Since my first encounter with Kafka's writing, I've been interested in a quality that, while he was alive, stood in the way of his achieving a large reputation: his allegory. Kafka’s inevitable tropism for the allegorical puts him in marked opposition to the realism that dominated the literary world of the first half of the twentieth century.

Though a realist writer might acknowledge that his story set in the mundane world might have allegorical readings, the trend in the first half of the twentieth century was to flee allegory for either the documentation of the external world, or of individual psychology. Even experimentalists like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, despite streams of consciousness or wild flights of imagery, assume that fiction is about what is, the surface of events and things and people. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, de Maupassant and Flaubert, Hardy and Dickens before him, Anton Chekhov and Joseph Conrad while he was alive and writing, Thomas Mann, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner after him, no matter how elaborate their rhetoric or symbolisms, insist upon the reality of their worlds.

Kafka is not interested in documenting the manners and mores of any particular place; he is not interested in probing the psyche of individual characters. Joyce spent his life after leaving Ireland creating Dublin and its inhabitants in their specificity and individuality, their language, places, habits, strengths, and weaknesses. A person may precisely follow the path that Leopold Bloom walked in the course of a day in Ulysses, and every June 16th, numerous people do.

In contrast, Kafka’s people and settings are generic. For the most part Kafka’s characters don’t even have names, and the worlds they inhabit are iconic rather than documentary. Though he spent most of his life in Prague, there is for instance little sense of Prague, or any other specific place, in his work.

We are not interested in the hunger artist’s biography. To ask this question is to reveal its absurdity. Neither do we ask the biography of Melville’s Bartleby or Jesus’s Good Samaritan or the characters in the numerous parables of the Talmud and Midrash. We don’t wonder about the hunger artist’s childhood, his ethnic background, the place where he lives, the names of the towns and cities where he performs, the political climate, his interpersonal relationships, his sex life, what year it is, and what language is being spoken. Kafka spends little time evoking persons or places, does not give us individual gestures or idiosyncrasies, does not appeal to our senses, does not make us feel and live in the worlds he creates. Though he may give us objects and actions that appear in the real world, he is not documenting reality. A cage, an impresario, some straw, a circus. Or an apartment, a traveling salesman, a sister Grete, an unnamed mother and father, a narrow bed, the picture of a woman wearing a muff, an apple. Or a penal colony, an explorer, a prisoner, an officer, a bizarre execution machine.

This is not a criticism. The stories are not divorced from the world—in fact they are cogently relevant, even political, as radically political in their universality as Jesus’s parables. A powerful intellect works behind every sentence. One is challenged to interpret every image, every action, to read through the surface of a Kafka story to the meanings behind. There are layers upon layers, prismatic reflections of abstract meanings.

However, it would be a mistake to say that the meanings of Kafka’s parables are clear.  As the critic Walter Benjamin wrote: “Kafka had a rare ability for creating parables for himself.  Yet his parables are never exhausted by what is explainable; on the contrary, he took all conceivable precautions against the interpretation of his writings. One has to find one’s way in them circumspectly, cautiously and warily.”

Check back all week for more posts from John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly.

Book Cover of the Week: Four New Messages

Tuesday, January 17, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Ok ok, I know you have a bit of a wait for Joshua Cohen's new book, Four New Messages (August 7, 2012), but I couldn't resist sharing now (don't worry--we'll remind you).  To hold you over until then, check out reviews of Witz and A Heaven of Others and check out Cohen's posts on the Visiting Scribe.

January Jewish Book Carnival

Monday, January 16, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

It's time for the Jewish Book Carnival! This month's edition is hosted over at My Machberet and includes:

  • Judy Bolton-Fasman's thoughts on Nancy K. Miller’s memoir, What They Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past 
  • AJL Blog's thoughts on their recent publication  The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories by Bennett Muraskin
  • Ann D. Koffsky review of Picnic at Camp Shalom 

Find these links and more here.

Kafka: A Man As Puzzling As His Stories

Monday, January 16, 2012 | Permalink

John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly are the editors of Kafkaesque: Stories Inspired by Franz Kafka. They will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning. Today, James Patrick Kelly writes about a man as puzzling as his stories.

Franz Kafka was a man who struggled with his many contradictions. Although his writing has come to be intensively studied, as a man he is hard to know, even given all the scrutiny of recent years. He was born in 1883 into an assimilated middle-class Jewish family in Prague, the third largest city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He had five siblings, two younger brothers who died in infancy and three sisters who survived him, only to perish in Hitler’s camps during the Second World War. He was a member of the dominant German-speaking minority, just three percent of the population of Prague at the time, but he was also fluent in Czech. As a young man, he was athletic, taller than average, fond of swimming, rowing, and bicycling. Yet for much of his life he was also a hypochondriac: it was not until 1917 that he was diagnosed with the tuberculosis that would kill him seven years later at the age of forty.

Of all the contradictions in Kafka’s life, two stand out for the modern readers. Kafka was a student of Yiddish literature, and in his youth championed Yiddish theatre, much to the puzzlement of some of his literary friends. He was sympathetic to Zionism and yet there are no overt allusions to Jews or Jewishness in his fiction. “What have I in common with the Jews?” he wrote. “I have hardly anything in common with myself, and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe.”

But there are many things “missing” in Kafka’s fiction—often a sense of place, or of time or of historicity—because these did nothing to advance his artistic goals. Kafka was not a realist and we ought not look to the work to understand his problematic relationship to Judaism. Of course, contemporary questions about Kafka’s Jewishness are informed by tragedies that occurred after his death. Not only did his sisters perish in concentration camps, but his translator and mistress Milena Jesenská did as well. The approach of the Nazis forced his friend and literary executor Max Brod to flee Prague for Jerusalem with a huge collection of Kafka’s papers. Do the terrible realities of the Holocaust affect how we read the work?

Undoubtedly, but this is a problem for us, and not for Kafka. Similarly, there are those who interpret The Trial and The Castle as predictions of the rise of totalitarian states like Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, and Stalin’s Russia. Kafka, however, was not trying to prophesy some future world order but rather was attempting to engage imaginatively with a society he knew all too well.
 

Then there is the puzzle of Kafka’s instructions to Max Brod, which was to destroy his unpublished work. Brod claims that he told his friend plainly that he would do no such thing. After Kafka’s death, Brod found two notes which explicitly stated that all his papers were to be burned unread. How was Brod then to have executed these requests if he was to burn them unread? And why didn’t Kafka burn the papers himself, especially since he knew Brod was unlikely to do the deed? While we have no way to know his thinking in this matter, we do know that this was the request of a sick man whose financial fortunes had taken a radical turn for the worse.

His modest pension, taken when he retired after he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, was nearly worthless in the hyperinflation that plagued the defeated and disintegrating Austro-Hungarian Empire in the wake of World War I. It is clear that Kafka was a depressed and often anxious man. Never a risk taker, he suffered from feelings of inferiority that arose from the high standards to which he held himself as a writer. Frustrated that his reach continued to exceed his grasp, at the end of his life he struggled with despair.

There is an odd and, yes, Kafkaesque postscript to Brod’s denial of Kafka’s request. Brod brought many of Kafka’s papers with him to Jerusalem in 1939. No one knows exactly what this cache contained, although reputedly there were letters, diaries, and manuscripts. On his death in 1968, Brod left these papers to his secretary and presumed mistress, Esther Hoffe.

But was she intended to be the executor or the beneficiary? Brod’s will is ambiguous, since it also provides that his literary estate be given to a “public archive in Israel or abroad.” In any event, Hoffe retained possession of the Kafka papers until her death in 2007, at which time they passed to her daughters in accordance with her will. Possession of these papers is the subject of a lawsuit in Israel, unresolved as we write this. It is likely, however, that in the near future, Kafka readers and scholars will have access to a trove of Kafka’s previously unseen writing.

Perhaps they will help us unravel some of the contradictions that still puzzle readers of this literary genius.

John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly will be blogging here all week.

Destination Bat Mitzvahs

Friday, January 13, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Shulamit Reinharz and Barbara Vinick wrote about the history of the bat mizvah and Barbara Vinick shared her own story. Today, Shulamit Reinharz writes about meaningful celebrations away from home.

The other day I had a discussion with a group of girls about their ideal bat mitzvah (the celebration that marks female coming of age at 12 or 13 among Jews and sometimes of adults who missed the opportunity as adolescents). Several of the girls said that that their ideal was to celebrate away from home. A few wanted to go to Israel, specifically the Western Wall or Masada. Other ideas were more surprising: “Germany, because it has great technology,” “Japan, because I love anime,” and “France, so I can see a real fashion runway.” One Massachusetts girl actually had her wish for an overseas bat mitzvah come true. She and her family celebrated in Amsterdam “because it is the midpoint between my relatives in the U.S. and Israel, and because of Anne Frank.” 

We’ve all heard of destination weddings and birthday parties. But what about destination bat mitzvahs? Our book, Today I am a Woman: Stories of Bat Mitzvah around the World, includes the amazing example of two American sisters whose joint bat mitzvah took place in a Tunisian desert town, complete with camel rides, drummers, and a religious service under the stars in honor of the father's Tunisian heritage. 

Imagine taking your daughter to Split, Croatia where there is a small Jewish community led by a woman I've met who surely would welcome the idea. Or, if it still exists, imagine a bat mitzvah in the town where a grandparent was born. A few North American boys actually have celebrated a bar mitzvah in Uganda, where a Jewish community has existed for five generations. As far as I know, there have been no bat mitzvah ceremonies for non-Ugandan girls in the modest synagogue. Such a ceremony would be eye-opening for guests and bridge-building with the community there.

Bringing the bat mitzvah girl to a place where the Jewish community is small and out of the mainstream would enhance the part of bat mitzvah that is mitzvah - the religious good deed/obligation, the core element of the event. How wonderful it would be to be able to share the joy with a newfound community someplace else in the world! Now if the stock market would only rise so we could afford it! 

Shulamit Reinharz and Barbara Vinick have been blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week.

JLit Links

Thursday, January 12, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter



The Sisterhood of Bat Mitzvah

Wednesday, January 11, 2012 | Permalink

On Monday, Shulamit Reinharz and Barbara Vinick wrote about the history of the bat mitzvah for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning. Today, Barbara Vinick writes about her own experiences. 

I didn’t have a bat mitzvah, the ceremony that marks the coming of age of Jewish girls. When I reached 13 in the 1950s, girls who attended three-day-a-week Hebrew School at our suburban Conservative synagogue north of Boston did not have that option. In those post-World War II years before the second wave of feminism, a public coming of age ceremony at Temple Beth El was strictly the realm of the boys. I didn’t really mind being excluded. After all, who wanted to go to special practice sessions with the cantor all year?

Not me. And the thought of chanting Hebrew and giving a speech in front of an audience of my parents' friends gave me chills. Ditto for a party with boys; I'd rather read a book. So I was relieved, even if I had to forgo the presents.

Fast forward about 50 years. Bat mitzvah has taken hold as a standard life cycle event for Jewish girls not only in the United States, but in every branch of Judaism all over the world. That’s what I discovered when I took on a project to collect stories for a book about bat mitzvah. The majority of the women and girls who wrote the entries had found their bat mitzvah ceremonies extremely meaningful and memorable, representing in some communities hard-won victories for religious freedom and egalitarianism. And some women like me had celebrated a bat mitzvah after studying as an adult many years later.

So now, after so much time has passed, I have begun to rethink my reticence. Why not now? I missed a golden opportunity last year when an adult bat mitzvah class began at my synagogue. Ironically, I thought I was too busy with my work for the impending publication of the bat mitzvah book. I'm still ambivalent. Performing in front of an audience still makes me nervous and, at 65+, my singing voice isn't as clear as it once was. But I'm slowly getting used to the idea. When bat mitzvah has meant so much to women around the world, who am I to resist joining their sisterhood? Stay tuned.

Barbara Vinick and Shulamit Reinharz have been blogging here all week.

Book Cover of the Week: HHhH

Tuesday, January 10, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Thanks for the tip on this one, Erika! Coming in April from FSG

Today I Am a Woman

Monday, January 09, 2012 | Permalink
Shulamit Reinharz and Barbara Vinick are the editors of the recently published Today I Am a Woman: Stories of Bat Mitzvah around the World. They will be blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

In the few months since our book was published, women of different ages have come up to us with stories of their own experiences of bat mitzvah - the ceremony that marks a Jewish girl's coming of age at 12 or 13. These stories have brought home to us in a personal way the trajectory of Jewish women's experience in the last half-century in the United States.

Grandmothers of today's bat mitzvah girls tell us that bat mitzvah was not available to them when they were girls. Some resented the discrimination against them, as their brothers and male classmates celebrated bar mitzvah as a highlight of the Jewish lifecycle; others didn’t particularly care.  Although the first bat mitzvah in the U.S. took place in 1924 in New York City, it took the women’s movement that re-emerged in the 1960s and '70s to enable women to look at their status anew, to try to create change, and to popularize the concept of a women's coming of age ceremony.

But bat mitzvah still wasn't analogous to boys' ceremonies. Middle-aged mothers tell us that they had their bat mitzvah ceremonies at the synagogue on Friday night, a time when a boy's bar mitzvah would rarely be held. In this way, the girl could chant the "Haftorah," a reading from the Prophets, and not from the Torah, the holy scroll that contains the five books of Moses, a lesser kind of honor. In fact, sometimes the reading  was known mistakenly as the “half” Torah. 

Nowadays, girls and their mothers in Progressive branches of Judaism take it for granted that the bat mitzvah  will be virtually the same as a boy's bar mitzvah. Girls learn how to read from the Torah - not an easy task - and some wear a prayer shawl (tallit) during the ceremony, until recently a male-only prerogative. Religious transition is rarely so tangibly or so swiftly demonstrated as the generational change in bat mitzvah observance from grandmothers  to mothers to today's bat mitzvah girls.

Check back here all week to read more from Shulamit Reinharz and Barbara Vinick.

Generations of the Shoah International Book Discussion

Friday, January 06, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Generations of the Shoah Interational (GSI) is celebrating its 10th year, and to honor the occasion they created a Facebook group to highlight the talents of some of the members of their Holocaust survivor community. The Facebook group will create an ongoing conversation between the readers of books (and viewers of films) and the people who created these works.  Every month they will alternate between books and films. The list of featured guests for 2012 can be found here.

This month's author is Helen Epstein, who wrote Children of the Holocaust. Next month's filmmaker (and author!) is Gerda Weissmann Klein. And, in May lookout for Martin Fletcher (The List).

Read more about the GSI and the Facebook project here.