The ProsenPeople

Hearing the Women's Songs—in Torah and in "The Big Sleep"

Wednesday, January 30, 2013 | Permalink

Yesterday, Janice Steinberg wrote about Yiddish inflected English and the audiobook version of her novel The Tin Horse. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Although I live in California, I don't share the New Age belief that there are no coincidences. I think many things occur by chance. And that makes me all the more delighted that my novel, The Tin Horse, is being published this week, the same week in which the Torah portion includes the Song of the Sea.

Song of the Sea is the exultant outpouring by Moses and the Israelites after they've crossed the Sea of Reeds and escaped Pharaoh's army. Poetry versus the prose of most of Torah, it dances down the page, three- and four-word phrases creating a choppy surface like ocean waves. It's even chanted to a special tune, a sweet melody used for no other text.

What most fascinates me isn't the song itself, though, but another song, a mere scrap of which appears in the Torah. Following the 18-verse song of Moses, Miriam picks up her timbrel, leads the women in dance, and sings her own song. But all of this happens in just two verses, and can that really be the whole story?

I'm not the only one who's wondered. Theologian Dr. Judith Plaskow wrote in Standing Again at Sinai, "The dance at the Sea links Miriam with a foundational event of Israelite history, but she appears in the narrative with no introduction and no account of her rise to religious leadership. This surprising silence suggests that there were other Miriam traditions that were excluded from the Torah."

Plaskow's book—and her insistence on finding a place for women as "shapers of the holy"—helped me reconnect to Judaism after a long absence. So did composers Debbie Friedman z''l and Cantor Linda Hirschhorn with their stirring versions of Miriam's song; and so do contemporary midrash writers who pick up on whispers of the divine feminine in Torah and imagine our foremothers' voices.

Though the inspiration for my novel wasn't sacred text, I too wanted to give voice to a woman standing in the shadows of another story: Raymond Chandler's noir classic The Big Sleep. In one scene, the detective, Philip Marlowe questions a woman working in a bookstore. From the beginning, when we see the woman reading a law book (in a novel published in 1939), she's intriguing; she continues to intrigue as she matches wits with Marlowe. The woman, who's unnamed, is described as having the face of "an intelligent Jewess." That term—and her being pegged as Jewish on sight—conveyed such a profound sense of otherness and suggested to me that, despite this moment when their paths crossed, the woman lived in a very different Los Angeles than Marlowe's mean streets. I wanted to discover her Los Angeles. I wanted to hear her song.

Visit the official website for The Tin Horse here.

The Beauty of Broken English

Tuesday, January 29, 2013 | Permalink

Janice Steinberg's most recent book, The Tin Horse, is now available. She will be blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week.

I thought I had entered completely into the world of my novel: Boyle Heights in the 1920s and 30s, when the Los Angeles neighborhood was home to some 50,000 Jews and a center for Jewish life. Then I started getting questions from Tony.

Tony is Tony Hudz, the charming man who directed the audiobook of The Tin Horse. And he needed to know how to pronounce every word—for instance, should Danny Berlov's last name be Bear-lov or Bear-lohf? My first response was, "Neither;" my mental voice had always said Ber-lov. But Danny is a new immigrant when he enters the story in 1926. And Tony's query made me realize I was hearing Danny's last name as it would have evolved a generation later, when its Yiddish inflections had been absorbed into English.

In my novel, Yiddish phrases often make their way into English conversation. But Tony ramped up my awareness of how the whole soup of language would contain the pronunciations, stresses, and rhythms of Yiddish. And that the English heard by Elaine Greenstein, my main character, would take multiple forms: the standard American of native speakers like her father or her teachers, and the Yiddish-flavored English of her immigrant mother, grandfather, and many of the adults in her world. Broken English.

I'm aware of love that immigrants feel for their native tongue and the emotional impact of leaving it behind. A friend who emigrated from Argentina says her son is gentler when he speaks Spanish. A psychologist who grew up in Cuba tells me that immigrant clients can access the deepest childhood memories only in their mother tongue. Eva Hoffman, who left Poland as a child, titles her beautiful memoir Lost in Translation.

Broken English, however, has no such fond associations. Rather, it's a source of shame, the American-born child cringing as Mama or Papa massacres pronunciation and syntax. But as Tony led me to think more deeply about the English in Elaine's world, I wondered if there was also a sweetness to hearing this broken tongue, this English cracked open to reveal a Yiddish soul.

Visit the official website for The Tin Horse here.

New Reviews

Friday, January 25, 2013 | Permalink
This week's reviews:


Book Cover of the Week: In the Land of the Living

Friday, January 25, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Okay, time to get excited people. We're only two months away from the pub date of Sami Rohr Prize Winner Austin Ratner's new novel In the Land of the Living. You'll hear a lot more about this title (and Austin!) over the next few months...

Related: Austin Ratner on the Visiting Scribe and on excavating moral psychology

View past "Book Cover of the Week" posts here.

How Some Jews Live

Thursday, January 24, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Ilie Ruby wrote about the idea of b'shert. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I always begin like this, with Irv, my grandfather, and then I describe him, An angel on Earth, never another like him. I repeat this as I have been told, though he died long before I was born. I used to think about his life as a tree with roots reaching far into the future and encircling the past. Irv is my namesake, a hard act to follow. I can still hear my grandmother telling me at night, May you live as he did and be just as blessed. May you see those who are unseen, and hear those who don't speak.

What she meant, I learned later, were the stories of my grandfather, and more, of the people he knew. I'm told that when my relatives sat shiva for Irv, who died suddenly at 46, leaving a young wife and two daughters who would mourn him forever, strangers came from near and far to share untold memories of him—the gifts he bestowed, the countless lives he saved, the support he’d offered through money, counsel, friendship, always without judgment and without any fanfare. He was not rich, but comfortable. As a child, I thought him a saint, before his frailty and humanness appeared to me. Still, there was a divinity about his connectedness—to the wanderers and those who found themselves caught in moments of fracture. Today, I think about how difficult this must have been for him to embrace it all, given his own complicated and pressured life.

Because of his capacity, I think about the expansiveness of Judaism, about hands that pray over candles in the most traditional and unconventional of places. Blessings fill a home as prayers are sung, wherever that home may be, however it is made, regardless of its trappings or its architecture or its abundance or its lack. Whether those who pray are down on their luck, or up on it, whether they are the bestowers or receivers of gifts.

When visiting book groups, I am often asked about this unconventional Jewish family in my newest novel, a single mother and her two daughters who are homeless in Southern California, who find solace in the reflection of the female face of God, the Shekhina—perhaps an uncommon path. They wander through the desert, their enchanted landscape rife with Jewish ritual and magical realism. When I began the story, I wanted to know these wanderers, these complex and compelling souls I imagined my grandfather would have embraced. As I wrote I thought about the confluence of tradition and spirituality, of the way ancestry is passed down through both stories and inherited memory, of lives pieced together like a quilt, with colors of raw survival and mistakes and compassion and personal mythology. I wanted to write a book about a Jewish family navigating life on the fringes of contemporary society. Mostly I wanted to write about people stepping out from behind their circumstances and claiming their voices.

Perhaps Irv was the man he was because of of our Hungarian-Russian ancestry, comprised of many wanderers. There are familiar stories of pogroms. Of the Holocaust where countless relatives were lost. Of immigration. Of homelessness and of splendor. My own journey took me from Boston to Jerusalem, through the Mea Shearim, and into the lives of the kibbutzim. Climbing mountains near the Dead Sea and plunging hands into the mud below, clearing vines in a vineyard at dawn as if trying to unmask a collective Jewish unconscious are experiences I will treasure. I think about those who wander mostly inside their hearts and minds, too, about the warmth of my brilliant and curious grandmother’s kitchen, about her insights, and how her Yiddish still resonates within me like music. I think often about lively discussions where elbows bear down on worn tablecloths, where explorers and healers and naysayers and matriarchs refine and redefine how Jewish people live. Today, as I raise my own family I find solace in a prayer group of expansive thinkers. I think about the divinity that ignites in the space of creating, when a sense of rightness directs conversation, when moral compasses find their true North in integrity and forgiveness. My grandfather lived the way Jewish people live, and so did all the wanderers he knew. This knowledge, his legacy, is why I begin with him.

Visit Ilie's official website here. 

Reading Lists

Wednesday, January 23, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Need a good book, but don't know where to start? Check out our reading lists here.

What's Meant to Be

Tuesday, January 22, 2013 | Permalink
Ilie Ruby is the author of The Salt God’s Daughter and the critically-acclaimed novel, The Language of Trees. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning. 

One of the things that I find most compelling about Judaism is the idea of b’shert. It fills me with joy when someone says our meeting was b'shert, our friendship is meant to be, when a new connection seems predestined. From the time I was a child, raised slightly less traditionally than my Conservative grandparents, this paradoxical sense of destiny, elusive yet certain, made of equal parts fate and faith, resonated with me.

Perhaps it's the ethereal aspect of b’shert, the assertion that some things are meant to be while others are not meant to be, which skeptics undoubtedly dismiss as merely a lens through which to impose order on chaos. And yet, the promises of b'shert are vast. Those who were lucky enough to find their b'shert, well, it seemed somehow the divine favored them. They'd passed the test, were deemed worthy, and had been chosen.

No matter what else happened, they could claim this: they found theirs in this lifetime.

How many b’sherts did you deserve? And when would you run out of chances? What happened if you never found your b'shert?

My siblings and I were raised on the idea of b’shert, on its promise, told we would find ours—that it had been written. We honed our independence, but hoped to find our b'shert, too, just like the women in my novel, The Salt God’s Daughter do. My main character, Ruthie, yearns for true love, the sort that transcends time, space, and the barriers of her wild oceanic wilderness. But perhaps no one longs for it more than her mother, Diana, whose search for her own b’shert is all-consuming, and comes at great cost to her family.

The truth is that in books, as in life, some find their b'shert; others don’t. It seems there is little rhyme or reason as to why some search a lifetime to no avail. And others not only find it once, but twice, like my own grandmother, who was as deserving as anyone, and found it first as a young woman, and again, as a young widow. Two b’sherts in one lifetime, both mensches. Somehow her daughters never found theirs.

My grandparents were the only two people I knew who were a living testimony of b'shert, so when I'd visit as a teenager, I was an investigator of b'shert. I studied their relationship so as to recognize b'shert if it found me. I noted how their hands touched as they passed each other in the hallway. Watched how they discussed dinner during breakfast. Watched how he massaged her arthritic hands after Hadassah meetings, how she championed his work at B'nai B'rith, how they adored and argued and how they curled up at night while she knit afghans for the grandchildren while watching Wheel of Fortune. Watched how my grandfather carried his b’shert to the silvery-blue recliner after she became ill. Watched him shake his head with amusement and relief during our visits when my grandmother and I would sit close on the couch, arms wrapped around each other, and we'd converse in a made up language only the two of us understood—a blend of Yiddish and gibberish, which made her laugh until tears streamed down her wrinkled cheeks and her joy seemed powerful enough to heal her. And that last time, before she died, how my grandfather put on her favorite record and danced in the living room to entertain her, and she, too weak to move, beamed with pure love.

Second chances are always a theme in my writing. I’m fascinated by restoration, by lives redeemed after losses or mistakes, and by rebirth. In The Salt God’s Daughter I wrote about Mr. and Mrs. Green, whose marriage was b’shert. I wrote of Mrs. Green losing him after decades. About shiva, and the strangers who showed up to tell their untold stories of him. Of how a new circle of soulmates appeared after b’shert had disappeared, but hope did not.

All things have a beginning, a middle and an ending, even those things that seem predestined. And yet, what blossoms in the absence of what's meant to be offers rich territory for exploration, and remains as beautiful and wondrous.

Visit Ilie's official website here.

What Do We Have in Our Pockets?

Sunday, January 20, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

A most unusual love story unravels when the objects in a young man's pockets come to life. 
Written and Directed by Goran Dukic, based on the short story by Etgar Keret.

Created by launching Literature into the 21st century.

New Reviews

Friday, January 18, 2013 | Permalink
This week's reviews:


Tu Bishvat Reading

Friday, January 18, 2013 | Permalink
Find the full list of JBC's Tu Bishvat reads here.