The ProsenPeople

A Tale of Two Cities: From London to New York

Wednesday, May 29, 2013 | Permalink
We prompted this year's Sami Rohr Prize awardees to write about "how they came to write their book." Over the past several weeks, we shared their responses:

Today, Francesca Segal, the winner of this year's Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, discusses how she came to write her award-winning novel The Innocents (Voice).

With the twentieth century vivid in our collective memory, it is perhaps unsurprising that we in the European Jewish communities can be more cautious about drawing attention to ourselves. And so for a Jewish writer, to come from that climate to this one is an elixir. To breathe the air in New York is instantly to become braver, and once it is deep in your lungs, it inoculates for life against that old, old fear. To write honestly— to write social satire, even—does not arm our enemies against us, it merely says the obvious: that in our struggles and strengths we are human, just like everybody else. The UK’s Jewish cultural scene is burgeoning, too—our first ever JCC will open soon, and Jewish Book Week has become a hugely impressive landmark in literary London. But there’s still a lot of catching up to do. I am a British-American hybrid and until recently I believed that I was equally familiar with Jewish life on both sides of the Atlantic, but after the publication of my first novel, The Innocents, I began to understand that I had completely underestimated one extraordinary facet of Jewish-American life—that here there is a broad, deep support for and an appreciation of contemporary Jewish fiction. It is both humbling and inspiring, and the very existence of the Jewish Book Council is a testament to its impressive scale. Everywhere you look, there’s dialogue. There’s disagreement. There’s vibrancy. Like Judaism itself, Jewish literary life is a very broad tent. Texts; stories; debating our conflicting narratives; these are the ways in which the Jews have always asked our questions, how we’ve always argued, how we’ve solved our problems, but it is nonetheless an art that needs nurturing—and with the support of unique prizes like the Sami Rohr Prize it is nurtured in America, and it is nurtured openly. I do not take that for granted. 

But in my late twenties, New York offered me something else that I found equally seductive. It offered anonymity, a draw with which my native London simply couldn’t compete. I left behind a warm, loving, supportive, and often somewhat claustrophobic community. Jewish life in England offers a great deal, but I needed to breathe. I needed perspective. I needed to live in a city, for a while, in which I didn’t bump into someone who knew me, or a member of my family, every time I left the house to buy a pint of milk. And I needed space from north-west London in order to be able to write freely about north-west London. 

And so it is perhaps no surprise that The Innocents was written during a period in which I was living in America, though it is, to its core, a very English novel. Set in the Jewish suburbs of contemporary north-west London, it explores the pressures and the expectations of life within that community. Adam Newman is newly engaged to Rachel Gilbert, who has been his girlfriend for more than a decade. Their lives and their families are entirely intertwined. Adam works for Rachel’s father, and has been going to the soccer with him since he was a teenager. And everything is easy and safe and settled and stable until Rachel’s cousin, Ellie, moves back to London from New York. If Rachel represents the values and climate of north-west London, Ellie embodies its antithesis—she is independent, promiscuous, vulnerable, palpably lonely, and Adam finds her deeply unsettling. She challenges him—but he also begins to understand the allure of everything she represents. She offers him a way out of the strictures, the judgment, and the increasing suffocation of everything he’d never thought to question. 

It will not take the reader long to anticipate an impossible love triangle; beyond that, perhaps also to recognize that I have used the structure of Edith Wharton’s glorious, vicious, nostalgic novel The Age of Innocence as the foundation on which to build my own. It offered the perfect matrix on which to build a loving, honest, nuanced, and most importantly clear-eyed portrait of a world—a very specific world that I know inside-out, but which I was also certain would represent many others. With all its strengths, with all its foibles and weaknesses and rich, unexpected comedy, I believe the community in this novel could be almost any community, anywhere in the twenty-first century Diaspora. Anywhere there are Jewish parents trying to inculcate their children with Jewish values there will be Jewish sons struggling to live up to them; anywhere there is a Jewish life enfolded within a wider, secular city, there will be young people struggling to navigate a path between the security within, and the freedom without. Anywhere families build life-long friendships, there will be young adults who chafe against the restraints that that imposes, unable to define or redefine themselves before the knowing eyes of people who first met them in diapers. I wanted to write a novel that would resonate beyond the confines of the world that it depicts, and The Innocents was the result.

Francesca Segal was born in London in 1980. Brought up between the UK and America, she studied at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, before becoming a journalist and writer. Her work has appeared in Granta, Newsweek, theGuardian, the Financial Times, and Vogue UK and US, amongst many others. She has been a features writer atTatler, and for three years wrote the Debut Fiction column in the Observer.

Detective Fiction and the Zionist Cultural Revolution

Wednesday, May 29, 2013 | Permalink
Today on the Visiting Scribe, D. A. Mishani continues with his series "The Mystery of the Hebrew Detective," where he has been investigating why it's so difficult to write a detective in Israel. Read installment one here and installment two here. His first detective novel, The Missing File, was published by Harper. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Editor's Note: Below, D. A. Mishani continues where he left off yesterday: wondering about the evolution of popular literary genres in Israel and why powerful people didn't want "the detective" written at all. 

Here is, for example, an important piece of evidence I found during my investigation: a fierce article written on detective fiction in a Hebrew newspaper in Palestine in the 1930's, when the first translations of detective fiction to Hebrew were made (mainly to Sherlock Holmes stories) and the first original detective stories in Hebrew were written:

"Who is it that poisons the soul of our children with this so-called literature – arouses in them the most savage and hideous feelings? All over the Diaspora, songs are being sung for the children of the Land of Israel (Palestine) and their complete, healthy souls – and who is this that dares to damage them, to damage the pure and the innocent within them? And why isn't there any public punishment for them? Aren't we going to finally put an end to this filthy commerce, commerce in the souls of our children?"

The critic's emphasis on the word "commerce" here is not innocent. I think it refers to the stereotypes of "Old" and "New" Jew – the first, the supposedly uprooted diasporic Jew, being concerned with money making, whilst the second, the new Palestinian Jew, the Hebrew, is concerned with curing the nation, physically as well as spiritually. By that time, in the early 1920's, popular literature in general and detective fiction in particular were already wide-spread in Yiddish. In this sense, the translations of detective stories into Hebrew in Palestine were perceived as a threat to the purity of the Zionist Cultural Revolution.

It's interesting to see that the defenders of detective fiction in this debate, whilst rejecting the arguments against the genre, used the same national terminology in order to promote it. Their argumentation relied on the contribution of detective fiction to the national project. Their main argument for introducing detective fiction into Hebrew literature referred to the genre's possible contribution to the revival of modern Hebrew language. They noticed the popularity of detective fiction among Jewish readers in Yiddish and argued that in order to persuade Jewish youth to learn Hebrew, it was crucial to develop Hebrew detective fiction that would attract readers.

These arguments have marked the condition of detective fiction written or translated into Hebrew from that moment on, and maybe until this very day. This is the reason for the relatively few translations of foreign crime fiction, at least until recent years, and why I found myself, at the age of 11 or 12, in front of empty library shelves.

This is also the answer to the question I asked myself: How did I come to read The Hound of the Baskervilles at the age of 8 or 9? Detective fiction, even when it was translated, was classified as children's fiction. Thus, until recently, Arthur Conan Doyle's novels and short stories were published in Hebrew editions aimed at children – and most of the original detective fiction in Hebrew from the 1930's until the late 1980's was written for children or was considered children's literature.

In fact, it was only in the late 1980's that detective fiction really appeared in Hebrew adult fiction, namely in the form of two serial detective-novels written by two female authors, Batya Gur and Shulamit Lapid. Gur's A Saturday Morning Murder, introducing police inspector Michael Ohayon, was first published in 1988, and Lapid's Local Paper, introducing amateur sleuth Lizi Badihi, was first published in 1989. Both gained commercial success and some critical appreciation and both revealed the second problem of writing a detective novel in Israel – that is, the problem of the Mizrahi (or Sepharadi) protagonist.

Read the fourth installment of D. A. Mishani's "The Mystery of the Hebrew Detective" here.

The Mystery of the Hebrew Detective: The Investigation Begins

Tuesday, May 28, 2013 | Permalink

Yesterday, D. A. Mishani wondered why it's so difficult to write a detective in Hebrew. His first detective novel, The Missing File, was published by Harper. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

So why is it so difficult to write a detective novel in Israel? Aren't we supposed to be a literary culture that appreciates a sharp character who knows how to solve a riddle? And didn't we produce one of the first recorded murder cases (that of Cain and Abel) and one of the first thrillers about an attempted murder prevented at the last moment (that of the Akeda)? As all detectives do, in order to solve the mystery I had to turn to history for some answers. And, in this case, it was the history of modern Hebrew literature.

I knew that modern Hebrew literature (i.e., literature in the modern and European sense, written not within liturgical or other religious contexts) began in the 18th century, in central and eastern Europe, mainly in what is today Germany, Poland, Ukraine and Russia. During the 19th century many of the newly-born modern European literary forms immigrated into Hebrew literary writing. And, although from its beginnings it understood and described itself as a national literature—like the German or the French—modern Hebrew literature has developed under unique circumstances, unfamiliar to most other national literatures.

First and foremost, it developed out of an unspoken language, meaning a language that was not used for daily purposes and communication. Jews in Central and Eastern Europe in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century mainly used local languages and the different local versions of Yiddish, the language of European Jewish Diaspora. Hebrew was the sacred language of the Bible and some of the Talmudic texts, a language of Midrash (study) and of prayer, and therefore a language known to a limited social stratum.

Secondly, and partly because of this unique linguistic condition, modern Hebrew literature has developed in special economical circumstances. Hebrew readership, meaning the number of readers who could read Hebrew and were also interested in modern or "enlightened" Hebrew literature, consisted of just a few thousands of readers. 

Thirdly, the development of modern Hebrew literature can not be understood separately from the Jewish national project, meaning from the birth and evolution of Zionist thought and action.

Those unique conditions, within which modern Hebrew literature has evolved, had considerable effects on the evolution of popular literary genres in Hebrew, notably on the detective story. Hebrew literature—defining itself as cultural and ideological avant-garde, against the popular and not always Zionist literary writing in Yiddish language—has rejected any form of writing that wasn't national as unimportant and sometimes even destructive.

And the fate of the detective wasn't different. Very powerful people didn't want it written at all.

Read the third installment of D. A. Mishani's "The Mystery of the Hebrew Detective" here.

When 50 Happens to Good People: Part One

Tuesday, May 28, 2013 | Permalink
Actress, author, and activist Annabelle Gurwitch is the author of two booksYou Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up and Fired!—and the e-book single Autumn Leaves (available from Zola Books), a chapter from her comedic memoir for Blue Rider imprint at Penguin, to be published in Spring 2014. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I turned 50. It wasn’t supposed to happen to me. I do yoga. I moisturize. I still fit into the same jeans I’ve had for the last 15 years, though they do sit differently, but you can’t escape it, no matter how Vitamin D you’re taking (even though some studies say it doesn’t do anything of significance). As an actress, I always played roles sometimes even a decade younger than myself. This was before IMDB made it impossible to lie about your age. I’d told so many people so many different ages over the years I’d even convinced myself that my driver’s license might not even be accurate. There is precedence for this in my family. My father’s mother, Rebecca, shaved a few years off when she arrived in Alabama as a teenager around 1919 from Russia—I can only assume to make her self more attractive marriage material—but then she tried to have it corrected to collect her Social Security earlier many years later. We’re Southern, so a bit of Blanche Dubois tends to seep in from time to time.

In my 20s, I was an erstwhile punk. I was ahead of my time. No need for a New York Times Magazine cover to convince me of how germs are good for you. On a sunny September morning in 1981, I picked up a tattered black leather motorcycle jacket for 25 dollars from a guy under the Cube on Astor Place, put in on and didn’t take it off again for the next 3-7 years; it was the 80’s, so who can remember the exact number. I furnished my entire apartment with items I found in dumpsters. Ok, the entire place was only about 200 square feet. But still. Now, time has caught up with me. It’s not like this happened overnight, but as the days approached leading up to my 50th birthday, I was waking up at night, well, at 4am, the witching hour for all hormonally challenged women, thinking there’s been a mistake. The math is wrong! I’m just not ready for that number yet. That number is so huge; but when you start experiencing your youth like it was yesterday, never mind that 30 years have come in between me and the time when a jacket could symbolize a life choice, well, that’s a sure sign that the math is right, a big birthday is afoot. That was also the last time in my life when I thought there were good people and bad people. Now I know there’s just people and I’ve done things that anyone could easily label bad, just ask my son; he’s got an entire list of my transgressions.

At the same time as I was speeding toward 50, my son was reaching a milestone age as well. 13. Again, this had to be a mistake. My sonwho used to regularly spout adorable esoteric insights as children are want to do, like at age 7 when he announced, “When I was younger, Mom, I wasn’t sure life was going to be so great, but it’s so much better than I expected”was now becoming my biggest critic. He’s Ben Brantley to my Alec Baldwin. For instance, I was on The Oprah Winfrey show giving millions of viewers a tour of a landfill, thinking I was serving a greater good, and hoping to make my son proud, but no, even this was not to his liking. “Mom, you picked up a volleyball in that pit and you called it a soccer ball! Who would ever listen to anything you say now? You suck.” My cooking, my clothing, my comments, everything was just horrible now to him.

That was just one of reasons why I decided he just had to have a Bar Mitzvah. It would be a way of bringing us together.

There was also a practical consideration. Both my husband and I are atheists and secular Jews. We came to the conclusion that if he’s inherited even a smidgeon of my opinionated personality, he should at least have a working knowledge of what he might later want to rebel against. I’m not proud of it, but it is a passion of mine to argue against things I know very little about. Movies, books, and people I haven’t met are some of my favorite targets, but I aspire for my son to be a more informed critic. All things considered, I told myself, it was a good thing I’d done some time in the Women’s Correctional Facility in Chino.

To be continued…

Read Part Two of "When 50 Happens to Good People" here.

Read more about Annabelle Gurwitch here.

D. A. Mishani and the Mystery of the Hebrew Detective

Monday, May 27, 2013 | Permalink

D. A. Mishani is an Israeli crime writer, editor, and literary scholar, specializing in the history of detective fiction. His first detective novel, The Missing File, was published in by Harper. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

How I came to read The Hound of the Baskervilles when I was only 8

My fascination with detectives started very early on.

I remember that one of my strongest reading experiences as a child—when I was maybe 8 or 9 years oldwas discovering with growing terror and amazement The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle. I was reading at night, in bed, under the blanket, and I knew I was intimidated by this strange character, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, even more than I was by the monstrous giant dog he was chasing.

And there's another experience I remember very strongly:

I was 11 or 12 years old and I had already finished all the Agatha Christie novels available in the adult section of the municipal library in my home town, Holon, an urban suburb of Tel Aviv. I was standing in front of the library shelves that offered almost no other detective novels and asked myself: And now what? Are there really no other detectives in the world for me to read?

Many years later, as a young literary scholar pretending to write a PhD thesis on the detective novel, I found myself going back to these two important moments in my personal history of reading. This time I could ask myself the questions I couldn't formulate as a child: How did I come to read the terribly horrifying story of the hound of the Baskervilles when I was only 8 years old? And why was it that the shelves in the municipal library in Holon offered no other detective novels after having finished all of Hercule Poirot's investigations?

I understood then, that my own intimate history of reading, as a child in Israel in the 1980's couldn’t be separated from the bigger social history of reading in Modern Hebrew. I was facing the mystery of the Hebrew detective, or the mystery of the detective in Hebrew: Why is it so difficult to write a detective in Hebrew?

And for me, at that moment in life, it wasn't just a theoretical question, but a very personal one, almost a question of life and death, because secretly, without anybody knowing, I wasn't going to finish my PhD thesis on the genre; instead, I was planning to write my own detective, in Hebrew. I was going to write the first investigation of police inspector Avraham Avraham.

Read the second installment of D. A. Mishani's "The Mystery of the Hebrew Detective" here.


Joanna Hershon on Assimilation and Romanticizing the Past

Friday, May 24, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Joanna Hershon wrote about an insult and a memorial service she attended for a friend's father. Her new novel, A Dual Inheritance, was published earlier this month by Ballantine Books. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

My paternal grandparents lived across from a canal in Long Beach on Long Island. We went to their house every weekend and—at least in the confusing palace of memory—I spent much of my childhood sitting on their porch, rocking back and forth on a glider in the shade. I remember my grandmother’s pliant arms, her strong opinions, my grandfather’s worry, his strength, his pale blue eyes. I could have listened to them telling stories for hours, and often did.

Because my grandfather was religious, it’s him that I think of first when I think of being Jewish: his broad back in his gray suit and his quiet sense of bearing the weight of the world. I often think that if he were a foul-tempered man instead of gentle and beloved, I might have had negative associations with Judaism. But my grandfather trudging off to temple is linked for me to how he was a landlord who could never bring himself to collect rent if the tenant’s child played a musical instrument; it’s linked to the poetic stories he told me about how the bluebird became blue. His Jewishness is linked with his goodness, and I see him in every talis, every yarmulke.

We tend to romanticize the past, the older generation. They sang Passover songs with so much more feeling, with more gusto than my parents. Now my parents are the eldest and they sing with more gusto than me. In that house by the canal, there were so many great aunts and uncles: dashing and troubled, sweet-tempered and oddly formal, fat and funny and weary. We miss our elders, their less polished style; their more (how, exactly?) obviously Jewish voices. We miss their more direct line to the old country—whichever country, the borders were always changing—somewhere in Eastern Europe. We miss them but we are not like them. We are more like everyone else.

Read more about Joanna Hershon here.

New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, May 24, 2013 | Permalink
This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

Find more of the latest reviews here.
 

The Jews of Poland: Recollections and Recipes by Edouard de Pomiane

Thursday, May 23, 2013 | Permalink
Last week, Rebecca Miller wrote about Gluckel of Hameln. She has been sharing texts that shed light on the history of Jewish life in France, the setting of her new novel, Jacob's Folly (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning's Visiting Scribe series. 

When I was researching my last novel, my friend Michael Rohatyn found a book at the Strand he thought I might like: The Jews of Poland: Recollections and Recipes, by Edouard de Pomiane. De Pomiane (1875-1964), a physician, was also one of the most famous chefs and cookery writers of his day. Born Eduard Pozerski, he was born into the Polish aristocracy, brought up poor but refined. Both his parents were Polish patriots who fought against Russian domination of their homeland; his mother fled to France with the young Eduard when his father was deported to Siberia for insurrection against the Russians. Coming of age within the close-knit community of Polish exiles in Paris, he was sympathetic to liberal causes and was a proponent of the Dreyfus cause.

His ethnographic book about Polish Jewish culture and cooking, written in 1928, was originally entitled Cuisine Juive; Ghetto Modernes (Jewish Cooking; Modern Ghettos). It is, perhaps, the weirdest book I have ever read. A tantalizingly vague recipe for Carpe a la Juive (“Take a large, live carp. Kill it…”) follows a horrifying description of a pogrom, relayed to de Pomiane by a museum guide who had survived the massacre by hiding under a heap of hay in which his sister suffocated overnight: “A corpse, belly ripped open, lay with its guts wrapped around its neck…A child wandered aimlessly, haggard, mute, crazed, its body beaten to a pulp.”

In de Pomiane’s writing, appreciative paragraphs about the accomplishment of certain refined Jews rubs shoulders with unwittingly racist pseudo-science. “I observed as a biologist…wrote as a scientist,” claims de Pomiane, as he cheerfully divides all male Jews into three types:

1. “The dark-haired Jew, with a long beard and a delicate, aquiline nose. His lips are often thin, his ears lie flat against his head. His eyes are deep, almost mystical. He is less excitable than the others. It could be said that he belongs to an ethnic aristocracy. He has an Egyptian profile.”

2. “This type is also dark-haired, and much more common. His beard is black, shorter, his eyes are bulging and bloodshot, his nose is squat, his lips are thick and very red, and he enormous, flat eats. This is the excitable Jewish type. When he laughs, he sniggers. The face, overall, has a cruel and bestial appearance. Certainly this type of Jew would frighten a child in France, even if that child were himself Jewish.”

3. “A third, and rarer, type is completely red-headed. The beard is shorter and divided in two. He has the same negroid facial charactersitics as the preceeding type. The lips look even thicker and frame the teeth with two red borders of eaqual sixe. Although they are red, the peissy look brown from being rolled, twisted, and curled between fingers that are constantly being licked.”

Having provided us with this helpful diagram of Jewish types, he takes us on a tour of Jewish Poland, beginning with Kazimierz, the Jewish Ghetto in Crakow since the Middle Ages:

“The whole place seems fairly, and in some places, extremely, poverty-stricken. The more so since the population is dirty and strange. In Kazimierz, everyone dresses in black, everyone rushes about in a hurry, they all bustle about irritably, pushing, shouting, arguing. One would think the whole city were in the grip of some nervous disease.”

FrenchJews1

De Pomiane believes that these poor, nervous Jews give us a sense of what the tribes of Israel must have been like, “these people who when settled among us became the educated and refined individuals with whom we are familiar.” So, De Pomiane argues, the less “Jew-y” the Jews are, the more European, the more refined they are—and hence, it seems, equal to non-Jews. Unfortunately in only a few years there was no refinement that could save a Jew in Poland, or indeed, France: being Jewish was considered a racial fact, not a cultural subtlety. But de Pomiane’s distinctions are fascinating because they are being spouted by a man who was actually sympathetic to Jewish culture.

De Pomiane’s observations are strikingly detailed. Describing the typical kaftan, he states, “they wear a long black cloth gown which descends to their feet. It is not waisted like an overcoat, but is slightly fuller. Two rows of buttons secure it over the chest. This kaftan is quite high-necked.”

And then, he describes a head-covering that can be found in contemporary Williamsburg: “Older Jews wear black hats of brushed felt. These head-coverings are worn very far forward, a little over the eyes, because on the crown of the head, under the hat, they wear a little black scull-cap.”

He speaks of prostitution: “Just as in the Orient, one sees in the streets of Cracow and Warsaw, Jews attempting to draw in the passerby to admire a supposed daughter or niece.”

And the book is not short of anecdotes: a friend of de Pomiane’s was tempted by an old man who spoke of a girl “as beautiful and fresh as a mountain stream.” Tantalized, he followed the old man into an ancient house and through a rather dark and very smelly courtyard. “The Jew opened a door; my friend entered a room which was quite clean and saw a young girl in profile.” She was a perfect beauty. Then she turned to face him and he saw that one of her eyes had been gouged out. When he left in a panic, the old man cried, “It wasn’t for an eye that you followed me here!”

De Pomiane takes us to a stylish health resort called Zakopane. There, de Pomiane finds a lot of rich Jews. “What is so surprising?” he asks. “They alone…engage in trade. They alone are rich, and they alone can afford to vacation in Zakopane.”

Spending time with these wealthy, assimilated Jews, Pomiane is amazed at their patriotism. A doctor he met “defended both Zakopane and the whole of Poland…he was a proud Polish nationalist. There are men like these among Jewish intellectuals who have achieved a certain status in life… having left the kaftan and the ghetto behind…they have almost forgotten Yiddish, replacing it with very good German. They call themselves Polish.”

De Pomiane the ethnographer paints a fascinating portrait of a class divide amongst the assimilated versus the unassimilated Jews:

“Try and imagine a Jew in his worn, shiny, discolored kaftan, with his beard and side-locks on his temples. Imagine him strolling down the Avenue Henri-Martin in Paris, which is inhabited almost exclusively by wealthy French Jews. Would he be welcomed as a compatriot by those elegant ladies getting out of their automobiles, whose children speak English to their nannies? Definitely not. These “Israelites” [a term favored at the time by assimilated Jews as more politically correct than ‘Jew’] avoid the Polish Jew, whom they have dubbed ‘Polak’.”

The book encapsulates contradictions and subtleties within the Polish Jewish population between the wars, but also within the writer himself, a Polish Francophile exile who loved food and had an abiding interest in Jewish cuisine. Beef Bouillon with Sauerkraut, Chicken Soup with Almonds, Goose Soup with Barley, Carp a la Juive—these recipes and many more are all lovingly preserved for the curious gourmand in this most curious of books.

Read more about Jacob's Folly and Rebecca Miller here.

Joanna Hershon, an Insult, and a Very Jewish Conversation

Wednesday, May 22, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Joanna Hershon wrote about a memorial service she attended for a friend's father. Her new novel, A Dual Inheritance, was published earlier this month by Ballantine Books. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

When I was twenty, I met a charming elderly man on a train in Greece who told me I looked like an angel. He insisted on escorting me to my destination. At some point during our time together, during the man’s patient explanation of Greek history, he explained to me that the Jews were evil.

I looked him in the eyes and said: But I’m Jewish.

No, he said, no, no. As if I was merely confused.

Yes, I assured him. I’m a Jew. This was one hundred percent true and my family (as far as we know) is one hundred percent Jewish. There was nothing complicated about that fact.

And I was raised by my parents to marry someone Jewish. There was no ambivalence there, no liberal-minded wiggle room.

When I met my husband in my mid-twenties, he was living in a small town at the bottom of the Baja Peninsula. He is neither Mexican nor is he Jewish. We fell madly in love and that was that. Though he is not a fan of organized religion, he agreed to raise our future children Jewish, but this was going to be my responsibility. How, I wondered, was I going to nurture a religious identity, when my own life didn’t include much in the way of religious ritual?

Before our twin boys were born, I tried to articulate what I wanted in terms of passing on Jewish tradition, and I usually returned to this: I want them to feel Jewish.

But they will, my husband always calmly explained. You’ll make sure they do, because it’s important to you.

But is it? I wondered.

It is, he assured me.

We’ve always spent most of our winters living in Mexico, and this was the fourth winter our boys have gone to school there. We have an international community of friends and it’s a life we treasure. This past winter one of my seven-year-old sons came home from school and he looked upset.

What’s the matter? I asked.

He told me how a boy had announced that Christians were better than Jews. And that hurt my feelings, my son said, because I’m a Jew.

It was obviously a distressing moment, but I admit I felt a tiny twist of relief. Because despite having lived a largely secular life, despite being part of a family tree that is one half gentile, there was no question that my son felt personally insulted. And though of course I don’t want my child to feel insulted, I was also grateful to know he felt this sense of Jewish belonging. What followed, that afternoon, was a discussion about identity and religion and bigotry. We asked each other questions, my son and I. We each went on at length. It was—I realized—a very Jewish conversation.

Read more about Joanna Hershon here.

Joanna Hershon and the Memorial

Monday, May 20, 2013 | Permalink
Joanna Hershon's most recent novel, A Dual Inheritance, was published earlier this month by Ballantine Books. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I recently attended my friend’s father’s memorial. It was held at the Faculty House of Columbia University in a perfectly lovely nondescript room with a bar. An elegant man with an appealingly mysterious accent led the service. I imagined he’d been a student of my friend’s father, who was a playwright and professor, or perhaps he worked for the University in some capacity. As the memorial unfolded, three things immediately came to mind: the deceased was roughly the age of the two protagonists in my new novel, A Dual Inheritance; like my protagonists, he’d gone to Harvard, and—though I knew my friend’s father was Jewish—there was no reference to it here. It was an entirely secular experience.

I thought of how my mother always says that there’s something cold and empty when an official service has no religious framework, and as so many friends and family paid loving and witty tribute to this obviously talented, stubborn, erudite, caring man, I carried on a mental argument with my mother, whose Judaism is expressed differently—more politically, more conservatively, less fraught—than mine is. I argued in my head for secularism. Here was a great example, I reasoned; here was a deep tribute without being defined by a religion into which my friend’s father happened to be born. He’d been orphaned fairly young, had a massive heart attack as a young man, had never thought he’d live past forty. He’d also been widowed young and had raised a daughter—my friend—who was now happily living in Berlin, raising a German-speaking son with a non-Jewish husband. You see, I told my mother in my silent protest, life can be so much bigger than religion.

At the end of the evening, after many remembrances, the man who’d led the service stood. He introduced himself as not only a friend of the deceased, but his rabbi. Though my friend’s father hadn’t led a religious life, he’d evidently been interested—especially toward the end—in questions of faith. The rabbi then introduced the deceased’s friend from Harvard, a man as not-Jewish as one can possibly be, an opera singer who stated it was his friend’s request that he sing this particular song, a song he imagined his dear friend enjoyed assigning because it was one that the opera singer didn’t know. I think he also knew how much I’d enjoy learning it, he said.

Then he sang.

It was the Mourner’s Kaddish.

And—despite all of those (deeply held!) mental arguments with my mother—that’s when I finally started to cry.

Read more about Joanna Hershon here.