The ProsenPeople

I Am Writer. Are You Chopped Liver?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Michael Lavigne wrote about writing the "Radical Other ."He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Is it possible to take the ego out of writing?

I ask this question because I ask myself why I write, and why so many people write, and why writing has quite literally taken over our society – you cannot blink without someone Tweeting, Tumbling, Facebooking, blogging, Yelping, product rating, movie reviewing, book eviscerating. Just think about the last time you wanted to buy a toaster. You went on Amazon or some other site, and there, for each of the two hundred different toasters were two hundred individual comments, some many paragraphs long, by people apparently passionate enough about their toasters to write about them, and people, like me, stupid enough to read them and have them sway my judgment. (In the end, and based on countless reviews, I ended up with a toaster I hate – Calphalon 4-slot model 1779207, two stars at most!)

But were these people passionate about their toasters or simply passionate about the fact that someone might read their opinions? Are we Tweeting to say something important or to simply assert our existence?

We all know the answer. But what about those of us who write fiction – what’s in it for us?

If I were to sit down and write without ego, that would mean first, that I don’t care about publication, and second, that I care only for the text itself and not how it reflects on me. I might wish someone to read it, but I wouldn't write it with any reader in mind. In a sense, I would be daring someone to read it: this is what it is, take it or leave it – not only do I not care about your opinion, but you should in fact have no opinion.

Hah.

(Of course, I actually do hope you have an opinion of my new novel, The Wanting — 4 stars would be nice).

And yet there are moments in writing when the ego does flee. I began The Wanting by writing a story within a story within a story – it wasn't a conscious decision, it just happened that one story would suggest another, time would shift back and forth, and the whole thing felt like an onion unraveling and re-raveling – and I loved it. I wrote fairy tales and back-stories and short stories and fantastical voyages of the mind. In one case I had someone remembering a scene from childhood in which he was remembering something from earlier childhood in which he was remembering something from even earlier childhood. It was wonderful.

And then I gave it to an editor.

Her response was succinct: “Huh?” To which she added, “Can’t follow it. Too many digressions. Where’s the plot? By the time I got back to the action I’d forgotten where I was.”

I should have screamed, “So what?” That is what the real writer would do.

But what I actually did was edit the book.

Built up the plot, cut back on the complications (“self indulgences” are what writing instructors call them), and in general began taking my audience seriously.

You might say that this is the act of someone without a lot of self-regard – to place the reader first is an act of submission. But that is not so. Publication, successful publication in which you reach a large, intelligent readership and having a meaningful affect on that readership – these are worthy outcomes, yes, but they are also certainly the goals of ego.

I’m not saying anything’s wrong with that. We can only communicate using language people can understand.

But isn't something lost? Something pure and powerful and difficult and terrifying?

I honestly do think my book is better for all the rewriting and rethinking and re-imagining that happened after that first (600 page!) draft. Much better.

And it’s still not a simple read – at least I hope not.

But oh how I miss sharing with you the story about Ekim Efiv and the Bird Sorcerer, the tale of How X Escaped the Gulag and Ended Up in Our Backyard, and the memory within the memory within the memory that stood time on its head for a few dozen pages of my life.

Although who knows, maybe I’ll post them on Facebook.

Michael Lavigne's first novel, Not Me, was the recipient of the Sami Rohr Prize Choice Award. His newest novel, The Wanting, will be published by Schocken Books on February 26th. Visit Michael on Facebook and visit his official website here.

Book Cover of the Week: The Girl With a Brave Heart

Tuesday, February 12, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Originally published in Hebrew in Israel in 2010, The Girl With a Brave Heart: A Tale from Tehran (Rita Jahanforuz; Vali Mintzi, illus.) tells the story of a young girl growing up in Tehran. Barefoot Books will publish the title in English in March.

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

Remembering Rabbi David Hartman

Monday, February 11, 2013 | Permalink

Jewish Book Council mourns the loss of Rabbi David Hartman who died Sunday following a long illness. Rabbi Hartman won two National Jewish Book Awards. The first in 1977 for his work Maimonides: Torah and Philosophic Quest and the second in 1986 for A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism.

Read more about Rabbi Hartman's work:


 

Writing the Radical Other

Monday, February 11, 2013 | Permalink

Michael Lavigne's first novel, Not Me, was the recipient of the Sami Rohr Prize Choice Award. His newest novel, The Wanting, will be published by Schocken Books on February 26th. Visit Michael on Facebook and visit his official website here. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

In my first novel, I wrote from the point of view of a Nazi. In my new novel, The Wanting, I’ve taken on the persona of a suicide bomber from a village outside of Bethlehem. And while this character, Amir, is only one of three distinct voices in the book, his was the most painful to write and the most difficult to come to terms with. On the one hand, he murders scores of people – unconscionable and terrifying. On the other, he is also a person, not a monster. It is that person within him I was trying to access in my writing – but did I succeed? And should I have even tried?

My friend and fellow writer Jonathan Rosen (Joy Comes in the Morning, The Life of the Skies) has some doubts on this score. He wondered if I had created a moral equivalency between the victim (in this case the Russian Jewish immigrant, Roman Guttman) and the victimizer (Amir). I hope Jonathan won’t mind if I quote from his email:

“…my fear [is] that Jewish imaginative sympathy sometimes runs the risk of secretly being narcissism disguised as empathy, as we project the better angels of our nature outward in the name of human understanding and then have a dialogue with ourselves. German Jews did it with Germans, as Gershom Scholem argued so persuasively about Buber — I and Thou is sometimes Me and Me.”

This, of course, begs the question of fiction writing in general – but without addressing that (and Jonathan himself told me he genuinely thinks writers should be free to attempt anything and everything) I have to admit his misgivings give me pause. What is it we do when we write about the radical other, especially when this other has declared itself our mortal enemy and feels empowered to use any means, no matter how repugnant, to achieve its aim. Is it merely an exercise in vanity, a sort of hope against hope – wishing away the truth of the barbarity which confronts us?

I struggled with this from the onset. Just doing the research was painful in the extreme. Like poking at a sore, I had to read page after page of vitriol aimed at Jews and Israelis. The writings and rantings of mullahs and radical Islamists throughout the Muslim world frightened me, and our history reminds me it is wise to be frightened. My conversations with Palestinians and Israeli Arabs were of course less rife, but an underlying fury was never very far from the surface. I did not feel safe. Add to that the painful and inevitable realization of our own (my own) responsibility for the suffering and thwarted ambition of Palestinian people, and you can see how complex things became for me. Fear and guilt. Never a good place to write from.

So it’s not surprising that my first characterizations of Amir were flat and lifeless: in turns he was demonic, hate-crazed, and otherworldly – a kind of poet of cruelty – in others he was comic and buffoonish, a mindless machine of vengeance. I was stuck, and it was not until my Israeli reader, Michal Evron Yaniv, said, quite simply, “Just make him a person,” that I was reminded that my task as a novelist is to render all my characters with empathy – an empathy that extends throughout this awful symphony of life. And I fully admit that in the end I did perversely fall in love with Amir, because I came to see that he, too, is a victim – not so much of the Israeli occupation as of his own limited experience and the agenda of powerful forces far beyond his control or ability to understand.

I believe I’ve created a vital and living character who demands our attention and rewards our reading in a book I hope papers over nothing while attending to the thing that matters most: the human spirit.

But should there be limits to a writer’s empathy?

I welcome your comments.

Check back all week for more posts by Michael Lavigne.

Dreaming in Mother Tongues

Friday, February 08, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Dr. Hannah S. Pressman wrote about the idea behind Choosing Yiddish: New Frontiers of Language and Culture and when she first began to study Yiddish. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Zi kholmt – she dreams.

In Irena Klepfisz’s remarkable poem, “Etlekhe verter oyf mame-loshn / A few words in the mother tongue,” the speaker presents different female identities in the form of a Yiddish vocabulary list. The poem toggles seamlessly between Yiddish and English, but gradually, the bilingualism of the middle stanzas gives way to a series of incantations solely in the mame-loshn of Yiddish.

Here is Klepfisz’s haunting final refrain:
zi kholmt
zi kholmt
zi kholmt

She dreams / she dreams / she dreams. What strikes me about these verses? The insistent female pronoun, zi; the fact that the poem has shifted irrevocably into Yiddish; the notion that a poem all about language ends with a verb not indicating speaking or singing, but rather, dreaming.

When I have been most immersed in learning a language, I have begun to dream in that tongue. It happened to me in Israel when I was studying Hebrew intensively, and when I was taking Hebrew-only grad seminars. And it happened to me during my YIVO summers, too. These dreams were vivid and surprising. I recall myself speaking and hearing others speak, and being quite conscious within the dream of the linguistic situation. Never, to my knowledge, did I break the spell and begin to talk in English instead.

Languages permeate our beings, our psyches, our worldviews. Cognitive psychologists and sociolinguists tell us that languages directly impact how we construct reality. The way we perceive and remember our lives can be linked to the grammar of our mother tongues.

And somehow, through a complex combination of synapses, signals, and syntax, languages can shape the hyper-reality of dream space, too.

To sleep: perchance to dream . . . in Yiddish.

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.

New Reviews

Friday, February 08, 2013 | Permalink

This week's reviews:



 

Finding a Tradition of His Own: A Southern Outsider

Thursday, February 07, 2013 | Permalink
by Beth Kissileff

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.

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Yiddish and Us

Wednesday, February 06, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Dr. Hannah S. Pressman wrote about when she first began to study Yiddish. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

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.

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.

Book Cover of the Week: The Force of Things

Wednesday, February 06, 2013 | Permalink

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.

Yiddish and Me

Monday, February 04, 2013 | Permalink

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.