The ProsenPeople

New Reviews

Friday, June 08, 2012 | Permalink

This week's reviews:


Jewish People and Books

Friday, June 08, 2012 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Yehuda Kurtzer wrote about a recent Commentary article by Jack Wertheimer and the transmission of memory. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Do the Jewish People need more books? And are books the key to Jewish innovation? In the 1920s Franz Rosenzweig wrote that “It could hardly be asserted that the great urgency of the present moment is to organize the science of Judaism or to prompt both Jews and non-Jews to the endless writings of books on Jewish subjects. Books are not now the prime need of the day. But what we need more than ever, or at least as much as ever, are human beings—Jewish human beings, to use a catchword that should be cleansed of the partisan associations still clinging to it.”

Rosenzweig then, and we in the business of Jewish education now, sense that the conditions in which modern Judaism is struggling for a continuous foothold require something more than the perpetuation of Jewish knowledge for knowledge’s sake; that our seeking, studying, teaching and learning needs to focus on human outcomes. Accordingly, the trend in the so-called innovation sector focuses heavily on just the “Jewish human beings” that Rosenzweig calls for: on innovators themselves, on people with ideas who fall between the margins of the institutions.

And yet it has always seemed ironic to me that with all the advances in our knowledge of Jewish history, and the successes of Jewish Studies in the academy, that we know now more about the Jewish past than we have ever known before; but as a community, we tend to care about the past less than ever. To paraphrase Leon Wieseltier, our collective ignorance of the classical Jewish past may be the scandal of contemporary American Jewry. I am concerned that the fixation on new programs – even in the embodiment of new individuals to lead the Jewish community – is alone insufficient to make a credible claim for the legacy of what this generation of Jewish life is going to leave behind, that we are substituting program leadership for the thought-leadership that ultimately has kept intellectual history in productive parallel with actual Jewish history.

I see the classical rabbis as the paradigmatic bridge-builders between the perpetuation of ideas and the programmatic work of innovation: they were architects not only of an extraordinary literature – one that they tied to the authenticity of the Bible through an ideology of calling it a second Torah, the oral Torah – but also of systems for Jewish life to enable Judaism to change productively through a period of existential challenge.

So I am not sure that a book – even if it is not the book that Rosenzweig derides – turns the tide for the innovation sector (which is not to say I was not grateful for the philanthropic experimentation that brought it about!). But it does make me hopeful that we are remembering the legacy of the transmission of ideas that has helped define Jewish life in the past as we do the work of redefining Jewish life in the present.

Yehuda Kurtzer is the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His first book, Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past, is now available

Transmission of Memory

Wednesday, June 06, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Yehuda Kurtzer wrote about a recent Commentary article by Jack Wertheimer. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

When my son Noah was about 3 or 4, he came home from school one day and asked me, “Abba, who are the Jewish people?” Thrilled by this opportunity to really begin in earnest my son’s Jewish education, and by the depth of this question coming at such a young age, I replied, “Why, Noah – we are the Jewish people!” Whereupon he burst into tears, inconsolable. When I finally calmed him down, I asked him why he was so upset. “Because I don’t want Pharaoh to hurt me!”

I was conflicted about how to answer him. My parenting instincts inclined me to disabuse him of the myth altogether: to tell him that it was just a story from a long time ago, that he was safe, that maybe the story wasn’t even true. Goodness knows a toddler does not need to be terrified by Judaism in general, much less as a catalyst for his sense of belonging to a story he is just learning about for the first time.

At the same time, I was proud to see that he had unwittingly internalized the mandate of the Passover Haggadah: that in every generation a person is obligated to see themselves as though they left Egypt. Pharaoh was alive for him, a source of genuine terror. The non-parental, Jewish educator side of me wanted to shrug my shoulders and tell him, “Shver tsu zayn a yid.”

This is a defining question in Jewish education, as it goes to the heart of what it means to create, cultivate and transmit memory. Not facts, not history, and not just values and ideas that are critically important as part of the texture of an intellectually credible Jewish education, but memory – that sense of belonging to a narrative that precedes you and will outlast you, and a set of stories and visceral experiences in which you may not have physically participated but are part of defining the identity to which you belong. But is there a workable way to transmit the power of traumatic memory, without creating post-traumatic stress?

Yehuda Kurtzer is the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His first book, Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past, is now available.

The Future of the Past

Monday, June 04, 2012 | Permalink

Yehuda Kurtzer is the author of Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past. He will blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

In a recent Commentary article, Jack Wertheimer once again takes on the trends in American Jewry – individualism, pluralism, universalism, anti-tribalism, non-judgmentalism – to attack these modern moves as anathema to the Jewish past and the tradition that modern Jews have inherited (and implicitly rejected). Wertheimer playfully positions his critique in the literary frame of the Ten Commandments, which is a useful straw-man in making these trends into inviolable beliefs held by his (mostly) unnamed opponents. Seeing as the article came out the week of Shavuot – the holiday that marks the receiving of the Decalogue (along with the rest of the Torah) at Mount Sinai, perhaps Wertheimer was seduced by the liturgical calendar.

But in telling the story of contemporary Jewry in this way, Wertheimer makes an ironic mistake. To truly traditional Jews, the laws of Bible co-exist with an interpretive tradition – an Oral Torah – that signals the constant way in which the values of the original revelation co-exist with the changing mores and morals of the societies in which Jews attempted to live out its mandate. In positioning the truths of the past (which he likes) as rigidly opposed to the truths of the present (which he hates), Wertheimer regrettably whitewashes the interpretive processes by which American Jews have remade their essential values.

The interpretive act of authentic change – even when it only comes about because it attempts to keep up with the pace of change of what the Jewish people are actually doing – is much more essential to the enterprise of Jewishness than is the canonical code itself which is being interpreted in the process. Our tradition fundamentally doubts the written tradition alone, aware that in its fixed state it is fundamentally limited in its ability to speak to present realities. The Decalogue requires both a parallel interpretive tradition, and an eager set of interpreters who live in the world, to make it applicable to contemporary realities.

So do contemporary Jews live by new rules? Sure – just as the Judaism of the Jews of 1950s America would have been unrecognizable to the people of the 1920s. I would welcome a healthy public debate about what Judaism should be in the face of the changing realities of the present. But the notion that Judaism should not let its core values evolve in response to changing world conditions? Well, that is not Torah-true Judaism at all.

Yehuda Kurtzer is the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His first book, Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past, is now available.

Book Cover of the Week: Moving Waters

Monday, June 04, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

This week's book cover of the week is Network author Racelle Rosett's collection Moving Waters.  

Cover art is by Will Deutsch ( and the designer is Charlotte Strick (

A television producer who moonlights as a cantor, an actress who leaves her husband for their nanny and enters a mikvah to mark the transition, a young widow who gets her hair colored to prepare for the unveiling of her husband’s gravestone – In her debut collection Moving Waters, award winning writer Racelle Rosett explores the unexpected role of ancient ritual as it informs the lives of members of a Reform Jewish community in Hollywood.

Guided by the compassionate leadership of Rabbi Beth, members of the young rabbi’s congregation discover themselves, their connection to each other and to God. Set against the landscape of contemporary Los Angeles, Rosett’s stories help us to know these characters whose losses and struggles are deeply felt, in each story revealing the importance of faith in a seemingly faithless place.

Book Cover of the Week: The Old Blue Couch

Friday, June 01, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Received this little guy in the mail today and fell for the cover, paper quality, and interior page layout. It's clearly been shown some TLC from its publisher, Ronald P. Frye & Company. Unfortunately, it appears to only be available in Canada right now, but crossing fingers for an American release soon.

An old blue couch is heisted away by neighbourhood thieves; a comforter from Poland undergoes a new utilitarian transformation; a prayershawl may have ended up on the wrong shoulders; a synagogue kiddush club faces a crisis of whiskey drought — these and other situations give rise to humourous and hilarious predicaments for the characters in this collection of endearing and deliciously comic stories. The Old Blue Couch and Other Stories, for both its warmth and wit, merits an honoured place at the literary banquet table.

The Joint

Friday, June 01, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Leslie Maitland wrote about choosing an epigraph, the artist Gunter Demnig's Stolpersteine project, and reconnecting branches of her family separated by the Diaspora of the Nazi years. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I would not be writing this today but for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, nor could I have written my newly published book, Crossing the Borders of Time. Indeed, but for the dedicated mission of “the Joint” to save imperiled Jews from murder in the Holocaust, I would not be here at all. It was thanks to the Joint and cooperating agencies that my mother made an eleventh-hour escape from France in 1942 before the Nazis seized the country and sealed its ports. Like thousands of other Jewish refugees, she and her family fled to safety on ships chartered by the Joint from neutral Portugal. There were more than four hundred passengers with her on the Lipari, leaving from Marseille to Casablanca, where they transferred to a freighter, the San Thomé, for a voyage that lasted almost two months before the ship was cleared to land in Havana. 

The steamship Lipari, on which Leslie Maitland's mother sailed with her family from 
Marseille to Casablanca on March 13, 1942.

The Joint was a curious name I heard often throughout my childhood, eavesdropping on adult conversation in New York’s German-Jewish refugee community—the so-called Fourth Reich—where I was born and lived until the age of nine. (“What joint?” I remember asking, surprised to hear my very formal German grandfather speaking what sounded to me like slang.) But my understanding and appreciation of the humanitarian agency’s vital role in saving European Jews from Hitler grew exponentially as a result of my research into my mother’s story of persecution, romance in wartime, and escape.

In this I was blessed by access to the remarkable archives of the Joint, which permitted me to study in detail the challenges it combated in securing visas, ships, and funds to rescue as many Jews as possible. In a seemingly indifferent world, even the United States had so sharply restricted entry that between the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and war’s end in 1945, ninety percent of American visa quotas for would-be immigrants from Nazi-controlled countries in Europe went unfilled. Thus the Joint took on the mission of finding safe havens elsewhere for hunted people who were trapped in deadly situations.

In my mother’s case, through internal Joint reports, I would learn for the first time of dangers that threatened her family even after the agency had managed to get them out of France. They had been at sea for more than four weeks when Cuban president Fulgencio Batista abruptly revoked permission for the San Thomé passengers to land. Once again, it was the Joint that saved them. Rushing into action, the Joint provided sufficient international pressure and inducements to prevent the San Thomé from meeting the same cruel fate as the St. Louis, whose passengers—barred from landing in Cuba or the United States three years earlier—had been sent straight back to Europe to face the Nazis. 

The tourist identification card provided to Leslie’s mother, Janine Gunzburger, aboard 
the San Thomé for debarking in Cuba 

Then again, after the San Thomé refugees were allowed to disembark, the Cuban government locked them into a detention camp, Tiscornia, where they spent months inexplicably confined under terrible conditions, while forced to pay grossly inflated daily fees. Here, too, it was the Joint that fought incessantly to improve their lot, to bring them food and supplies, and ultimately to win the refugees’ release. The files of the Joint offered me eyewitness descriptions of everything that happened. Through once-confidential letters and memoranda, I sat at tables where its tireless staff negotiated strategies for overcoming obstacles and crises, as they worked to help the stricken refugees reclaim lives of freedom and normalcy. 

Once freed from the Cuban detention camp where the family spent five months, Leslie's grandfather, Samuel Sigmar Gunzburger, was required to purchase a Cuban Defense Ministry foreign registration booklet that included his fingerprints. 
According to Linda Levi, the Joint’s director of Global Archives, I was one of approximately 850 researchers—scholars, journalists, filmmakers, authors, artists, and genealogists from twenty-eight countries—who annually seek permission to delve into its records. Housed in New York City and Jerusalem, the archives represent a vast repository of information gathered since the agency’s founding in 1914 by wealthy German-Jews in America to aid impoverished communities in Palestine and Eastern Europe struggling through the First World War. Included in the archives are more than three miles of text documents; 1,100 audio recordings of oral histories, broadcasts, and historic speeches; 100,000 photographs; 1,300 video recordings; and data relating to 500,000 names.

Now, just this spring, in a gift to the general public and all researchers, the Joint has started making this material available online through its archival website: With funds donated by Dr. Georgette Bennett and Dr. Leonard Polonsky, the project has already digitized records dating from the agency’s founding up through 1932. In a telephone interview, Ms. Levi told me that the effort is continuing, and full archives covering the World War II period should be digitized by year’s end. Some of those Holocaust-era documents are expected to be online as early as this summer, she said, adding to what is already there.

Besides the professional researchers who will clearly benefit from the expanded website, Ms. Levi noted, members of the general public have consistently turned to the Joint seeking answers regarding family members, all too often dead or missing.

“Jews have questions about their pasts,” she said. “There is a hole somewhere they’re longing to fill. There is something intensely powerful about finding information about one’s family in a document in an archive. I’ve seen people burst out crying.”

Meanwhile, as the agency’s online archives grow, so too do its endeavors around the globe. Its work goes on today in more than seventy countries, where it strives to alleviate suffering, rescue endangered Jews, strengthen Jewish life, and provide relief for Jews and non-Jews who fall victim to disasters. It is my hope that through the online archives, the children and grandchildren of the people served and saved may one day learn their stories and join me in saying thank you to the Joint.

Leslie Maitland is a former award-winning reporter and national correspondent for The New York Times who specialized in legal affairs and investigative reporting. Her newest book, Crossing the Borders of Time: A True Story of War, Exile, and Love Reclaimed, is now available.

New Reviews

Friday, June 01, 2012 | Permalink

This week's reviews: 


Jews and Indians, Past and Present

Thursday, May 31, 2012 | Permalink

Andrew Tertes is the author of Jacob's Return. He is blogging here today for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Gerald Kolpan’s article “Blazing Saddles It Wasn't” brought forth little known true stories of Jews in the Wild West: those who fought Indians and those who befriended them, and in some cases, joined them.

My personal interest in Native American culture and ceremony was a major inspiration in my setting to work on Jacob’s Return, my debut novel. Jacob Goldman is the protagonist, a secular Jewish man committed to tikkun olam by way of his investigative journalism focused on social and environmental justice. From the outset, Sheila Strongblood, Jacob’s wife, was destined to be a powerful character. She is a full-blooded member of a Native American tribe in California.

When I was eight years old, I wrote my first stories about Native Americans, who lived “back then.” It was a time I yearned for but which I believed was untouchable. I spent much of my youth in the swamp behind our house, imagining I was a scout in uncharted wilderness, discovering turtles and frogs in ponds and holes of mud and water. I sledded and tobogganed each winter down Indian Hill.

In my fifth grade school picture, my skin shines dark from the sun and a thin cord of rawhide circles my neck and hangs just below my collarbones. That precious cord held against my chest two buffalo teeth alternating with colored clay beads. In my high school years, the profile of an Indian warrior adorned my soccer jersey. When I was young, I nurtured a romance with symbols instead of an experience with the actual native people of the area where I grew up.

My interest in Native America continued even when my initial break from Judaism came as an adolescent and my ambivalence toward my heritage grew as I became an adult.

In 1998 I began work on my first novel, Jacob’s Return, at a time in my life when I needed to find out about Jewishness, but not through the Conservative channel in which I grew up. In my bones I was drawn to earth-based, tribal life and ceremony. Once I moved to Oakland, California, and friends of Native American heritage invited me to participate in sweat lodge, I did so as a Jew. I faced boundaries that I hadn’t even known I’d constructed as a way to keep distant from God’s creation: I was scared of being scalded in the lodge, of my muscles hurting from long-sitting on the hard ground, of my weakness in general. I feared that I was an interloper in others’ deeply personal cultural ceremonies.

Over time, I realized that I was among those who were freely sharing their spiritual tools with me so that I might discover my own. I became grateful to be among those who deeply knew powerful earth-based ceremony, and who had beautiful appreciation of plant and animal medicine. These people took on the yoke of being stewards of God’s creation.

During these early years of earth-based practice, I entered the story of Jacob’s Return with the question of how my own ancestors, the Israelites, might have lived on the land. I believed that Sheila Strongblood Goldman’s tribe would help me understand something critical about myself. My searching led me to the San Joaquin Valley in Southern California where I connected with an active tribe, the Tachi Yokuts at the Santa Rosa Rancheria. I contacted Clarence Atwell, then Chief of the tribe. He invited me to meet with him and the tribal historian.

It was March, 2000, when I arrived. I visited a large building which housed a bingo hall and a 5-star buffet and culinary school. I went to the tribal administration building where I was ushered into a wood-paneled conference room with Chief Atwell, his assistant, the tribal security officer, the tribal historian, and a few Native teenagers. Chief was large in spirit. His black T-shirt had a bear paw print boldly on his chest. His black hair hung behind him tied in a pony tail. Chief bellowed, “What do you want?”

“I’ve been writing a book for two years,” I responded. “The two main characters are Sheila and Jacob. She’s Native American, he’s Jewish. I imagine Sheila being from this area. I’d like to learn about your people in an honorable way.” I sweat and shook inside. I worried that he would say, “Don’t write about our people.”

“Some others have written about our tribe,” he offered. “Many of us here didn’t like what they wrote. They made stuff up. They didn’t know what they were talking about.”

I didn’t know where the conversation was headed, but at least we were talking. I lifted an object wrapped in white cloth and tied with fiber.

“I brought this gift as a symbol from my people, the Jewish people.”

Chief Atwell unwrapped the mezuzah, which had been hand-carved by an Oakland artist. This was the most beautiful mezuzah I’d ever seen, carved from ebony, and with a delicate seashell set on top. I explained that it was an amulet most Jews used on their door posts to remind us of the oneness of Spirit, of God.

He did not say thank you. He did not smile. He looked at me and then at the front and back of the mezuzah. I thought, He’s probably thinking, “Who the hell is this guy?” I offered him tobacco which I’d grown in my garden and wrapped in cloth. When he took the package from me, it seemed to have shrunk to a miniscule offering. Here I was, I thought, offering nothing, but asking for tribal stories, secrets.

The others beside him also wore serious expressions. The tribal police officer sat at the end of the table to my left and went about his paperwork. Chief Atwell’s assistant looked on, giving away nothing. The cultural research director sat on my left. He was enthusiastic, but he was white, and I didn’t think that his enthusiasm was enough to encourage Chief to appreciate my earnestness.

Chief turned the mezuzah over in his hands and told me that his father had been chief when his people faced oppression during the period when Native American ceremony had been illegal in California (and the US). His relatives had been scattered throughout California and impoverished. He told me stories of the land treaties, which had been signed between representatives of the US government and his ancestors (as well as others in the valley) in the 1800's.

Chief became animated recounting tales of his childhood, about when his grandmother, who he called Kamitzee, would bring him out for the day to harvest salt grass. They’d bring an old lard can filled with their lunch. He could barely wait for her to make salt grass taffy. The way he spoke intrigued me.

“May I use words from your language in my book?” I asked.

“That’s not for me to answer,” he said. “That’s for going up on the hill.”

From my experience in the sweat lodge community, I knew that “going up on the hill” meant a 3 day and 4 night fast: no food, no water. The ritual would take place in October, nearly 6 months away. There would be other fasters, each in his own prayer lodge. He was telling me that, if I wanted to use intimate details from his people’s experience, I would need to pray in order to receive permission. . . or not. I was terrified at the prospect, so I told him I’d think about it.

A month later, I called and told Chief Atwell that I would fast in October. In the ensuing months, I was unable to reach Chief or to receive any details about the fast over the phone—time or place—from anyone else. I visited Santa Rosa Rancheria a few times that summer on days when a sweat lodge ceremony would take place, and I’d spend a few hours as the fire got going, and then would enter the lodge with men, women and children for hours of song and prayer. Chief was off fishing a few times, and no one else I talked to had information about the upcoming fast.

In September, I finally got Chief on the phone. He told me the date of the fast, about one week later. I asked him what I should bring. There was nothing to bring. I found out that the fast would coincide with Sukkot. All I knew about Sukkot was from the Cohn family during my childhood. They would build a large sukkah every year and invite families from the congregation to join them for meals.

I bought my first lulav and etrog and packed for my trip. The day before the fast, I drove to Santa Rosa Rancheria. By then, the tribe had broken ground for a casino to be built from bingo proceeds. I walked over to the tribal administration building to meet Chief and to see when we’d be leaving.

“He’s out fishing and will be back tomorrow,” I was told. I didn’t have a place to stay, so I started asking around. I met Warren, a 23-year-old from the tribe who called Chief “Uncle.” “You can stay with me tonight,” Warren said. He was a champion bull rider who had kicked alcohol and found Christ. At his apartment, I explained that my Native friends from up north had recommended that I make 405 prayer ties and circle my prayer lodge with them for spiritual protection.

“I’ll help you,” he said. We set about taking the yellow, red, black and white pieces of fabric that I’d cut into squares. We’d pinch tobacco and say a prayer for each one, for the earth, for community, for family and for self.

I’d been taught that Judaism is full of paradox, but time with Native Americans helped me understand in a real way how two opposites, or at least what appear to be opposites, could really co-exist. During the hours we engaged in this task, what I’d fantasized would take place with prayerful chanting or silence, Warren put on “Big Daddy,” an Adam Sandler movie. Warren and I laughed and prayed, and we looped string to make prayer ties. Hours later, we finished the 405th one. We went out for burritos. Warren told me he’d bring me to his relatives on Tule River Reservation.

He introduced me to an uncle of his, who immediately offered me a beer. I declined. “How about weed?” he asked. I declined, feeling that I was making a faux pas.

“He’s here for a fast with Uncle,” Warren said.

“Oh. Will you pray for my son?” He told me that his son was in trouble with the law. He handed me marijuana. I nodded and took the herb, then I walked to a tree and prayed. I’d never prayed with marijuana.

That night, thinking that we’d return to Warren’s apartment and I’d sleep in preparation for my fast, instead we hopped house to house where big vats of hamburger meat and rice were kept warm for visiting family. We ate, talked, and around midnight went out with a cousin in his ’54 Scout up into the hills and hunted deer.

By the time I returned in the morning, I found that Chief had left with the 9 fasters.

“Where did they go?” I asked the receptionist at the tribal administration building.

“I don’t know,” she said.

“Who knows?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said.

I bumped into Chief’s cousin who had run sweat lodge a couple of times I’d been there during the summer, a man whose silent manner intimidated me. “Do you know where the fast is being held?”

“Up that way,” he pointed northeast, “about an hour.” He’d said an Indian word for the place name.

“Do you know the road?” I asked.

“I think that highway,” he pointed. “Pick it up down there.”

“And then what?”

“Go north about an hour and look for cars on the side of the road.”

I felt betrayed and lost, but I didn’t think that I could afford to wallow in those feelings, because I had to get to the site. So I got in my car and drove up a highway toward the Sierra Nevadas, looking for some cars on the side of the road. I started to pray. I also tried to laugh. I knew the fast would be hard, but I had never thought that just getting to the prayer site would be tough. I drove through a town and came to a fork in the road. I chose one direction and kept going. I was racing against sunset that seemed to be less than an hour away. I came upon a ranger station. Inside were two rangers, and neither had ever heard of the place that I said I was looking for. “Maybe that’s an Indian name,” one ranger said. “I never heard of it.”

I used a payphone and called Santa Rosa Rancheria. I begged the receptionist to put someone on the phone who could guide me to the fast.

The man I spoke to earlier got on the phone. “Oh,” he said. “Maybe there’s one person.” He got the number for Rogelia in Fresno.

I called and told her my plight. “Where are you now?” she asked. I told her. “Turn back down the hill, now, and meet me in town. I’ll set you on your way.”

As I rolled into a parking lot in town, a woman in a pickup truck pulled by. “Andrew?” she asked. I nodded. “I’m Rogelia, let’s go.”

I followed her lead into the mountains. We were racing against the sun. A half hour out of town, getting into the wilderness, Rogelia pulled over, described what turn I was looking for, wished me the best, and then turned back. I headed out and, by the time I got to a high elevation and crossed a bridge, the sky was dark and there were no stars or moon shining. At some point I saw a small dirt road off to the right and I turned. I rolled along for a few minutes, doubting that I would see another living soul, or at least one that would want to see me. Then I saw a fire in a pit. I parked and turned off my headlights. After walking in the dark, I came upon some folks who I’d never seen, but who were Native American.

“Is Chief around?” I asked.

“No,” one of the others said. “He’s with the fasters in the sweat lodge.” It took all my strength not to crumple to the ground and cry. Maybe that was what I should have done.

They invited me to sit by the fire and they offered me something to eat. I sat by the fire and listened and ate, though I expected to be fasting by then. They told stories about people I didn’t know about. They joked with each other. They played cards. Harold started laughing as he mentioned that some folks were “Calling me Medicine Man. Oh, sure. I’m a Medicine Man.” He slapped his thigh and laughed. The others laughed, too.

“You a Medicine Man?” he asked the others, stressing the first syllables of the title. One of Harold’s friends gave him an empty soda can and insisted he show me what he learned in ’Nam. Harold silently put his fingers through the aluminum as easily as if it were tin foil. Then he peeled a strip in the can, poking new holes and peeling more strips. During this time, I was thinking that I wouldn’t be able to fast, that I was an outsider, and I wondered why I had come.

Later, it was time to bring the fasters to their lodges, which each faster had built during the day. I went with a group of folks who would be in camp praying for all the fasters. Each faster was brought to a lodge that he’d made that day with pepperwood poles and covered with tarps and blankets. Afterward, we returned to camp.

“You can go on the hill tomorrow,” Chief said to me. I felt myself relax a little.

That night Chief led some drumming on big drums as a way to give strength to the fasters. When he and the others weren’t drumming, there were card games, which were wagered for one frogskin, i.e. a dollar bill. Harold complained to Chief: “I hear that you’re going to midnight mass, and instead of donatin’, you’re breakin’ the bank.”

“Someone’s got to keep the white man’s money,” Chief responded, causing everyone to laugh.

We had some good food made in camp, tortillas made on the fire, not “storetillas,” and some laughter when one of the young men present poured on the Dumbass brand of hot pepper sauce as the older men nodded and winked at each other, then slapped their knees and roared when the guy couldn’t put out the fire in his mouth.

The next day brought its own trials. In the morning, most of us in base camp watched as Big Jim, dressed in orange overalls, wielded a chainsaw and cut a felled tree into big logs. I took part in carrying the logs to a pickup truck and piling them in. As I set down a log into the bed of the truck, someone else threw a log on top of it, say 50 lbs. on top of 50 lbs. My fingers felt crushed. I pulled them out and squeezed them with my full strength seeing, briefly, two deep red oval wounds. Nausea sent me to the ground as I heard voices, “Are you all right?” “What happened to him?” “He. . .”

Then I heard Harold’s voice. “He’s a faster, I can tell. Look how he’s going already.” I couldn’t laugh, though the others did. I could barely breathe. I thought, now they’re definitely not going to let me fast. Chief came to me and grabbed my fingers. Slice. Slice. With the tip of his jackknife, he cut the skin that had been hanging down.

Pyro, the firekeeper for the sweat lodge and fast came to me and asked, “You all right Two Fingers?” The nausea had subsided enough for me to laugh inside. I hadn’t come for an Indian name, but there it was.

That night I was brought into the sweat lodge and walked to my prayer lodge. By then I was only called Two Fingers. I carried my lulav and etrog into the lodge. The others covered the opening with a tarp so inside was pitch black. I sat and prayed for hours. I napped and then was up long before dawn, praying.

So began my 4 nights of fasting. I chanted the Shema. I asked God to help me know the matriarchs and patriarchs. I asked for wisdom of the earth that my ancestors had. I asked for guidance from Moshe, for wisdom of dreams from Joseph, for wisdom of drums and water from Miriam. Sometimes I heard another faster chanting in a Native American language. Sometimes I’d chant. There was something liberating about calling out the Shema with my full voice into darkness.

Other than to relieve myself, I stayed within or at the edge of my prayer lodge, my first sukkah. I looked at the clouds and imagined seeing Moses hovering over me. I looked at the crisscross of pepperwood making my dwelling. I had what felt like to be all the time in the world. I got to know my lulav, the palm, willow and myrtle branches. The etrog.

During the days, while I chanted and prayed, I realized that I had never prayed in Hebrew outside, that I had never felt safe enough to pray outside. On that particular Indian land, which had been in unbroken use by Native Americans for 10,000 years, I was finding out what it was like to pray as a Jew on the land. Each morning I succumbed to scraping the back of my finger against the tarp inside the lodge. A few drops of dew made it into my mouth.

By the last night, the other fasters were already back in base camp because they’d already spent 4 nights, I felt as if my brain had become a dried sack and was scraping against the inside of my skull. The hunger didn’t bother me anymore, but the thirst was overwhelming. My legs hurt and my head pounded.

My prayer lead me to the village where my grandfather, Meier, lived near Minsk, Tyznezitch. I had never met him. A voice in my mind told me that fear of the Russian bear infused my ancestors, and fear of the pogroms that ultimately wiped them out. There I was, on Mono Tribe land, Bear Country, where an 800 pound bear had been sited just weeks ago, in that area. My prayer brought me to my grandfather and Fear of Bears. I asked God, what did that mean? I kept asking as pain raged through my muscles and tendons around my bones. I was sensing that my pain was my own fear coiled around me.

I called to the spirits of the land, to the peoples of the land, as friends. I saw them as part of God. I growled and roared through the night. The hills and all that lived in the hills held wisdom. I prayed for God to teach me directly as well as to let the beings of the hills teach me. I was given insight into Grandpa’s way, once he made a family in the new country.

His way was to stay distant, to protect what he cherished most by not drawing the jealousy of the Russian Bear. I asked, what did that mean? I was filled with an overwhelming sense of understanding and compassion for my grandfather. If Grandpa had doted on who he loved, if he showed the world his deepest love, it could be taken from him. His intimacy would have endangered those he loved most.

Hour after hour my prayer and pain intensified. Then it struck me. Dad’s middle name in Hebrew was Dov, Bear. A smile cracked through my headache. The crack grew in size until the rope of fear began to uncoil. It felt to me that an actual, physical rope was unwinding in my legs. My legs shook with spasms over and over and over. First there were dozens of spasms, and then hundreds. Some shook my legs, and others, my torso. My head filled with gentleness. It was nearing dawn and I was no longer thirsty.

At dawn, Chief and the others came for me, and I was smiling. They raised the tarp and let the sunlight in. I stood, slowly. Someone pointed to the ground. There were bear tracks around my lodge.

In the morning sweat lodge after my fast, Chief asked, “Two Fingers, do you have anything you want to say?”

“I’m forming a new relationship with Bear,” I said. And with God, I thought.

At camp, I ate a homemade breakfast of tortillas and eggs. The others prepared an arbor, a large clearing surrounded by a wood fence and trees, where a bear dance would take place that night. Cold after the fast, I was given a wool poncho by a man named Lucky, half-Jewish and half-Indian. I watched the preparations and thought about my fast. I was grateful for these new friends who had taken in a stranger and let him pray in his newly discovered Jewish way on their ancient land.

Andrew Tertes's debut novel, Jacob's Return, is now available.

Borrowed Words

Wednesday, May 30, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Leslie Maitland wrote about artist Gunter Demnig's Stolpersteine project and reconnecting branches of her family separated by the Diaspora of the Nazi years. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I have always been fascinated by epigraphs—those borrowed words that authors choose to introduce and encapsulate the message of their books. And so, almost as soon as I started writing my own book, Crossing the Borders of Time, I found my thoughts exploring several possibilities, words whose power had won them space in my catalogue of memory.

The book involves a search to find my mother’s long-lost love, the young and handsome Frenchman she’d left behind in 1942, when—fleeing the Nazis—she was forced to board the last refugee ship to escape France before the Germans sealed its ports. She was Jewish and 18; he was Catholic and 21. “Whatever the length of our separation, our love will survive it, because it depends on us alone,” Roland had written to Janine in a farewell note before she sailed. “I give you my vow that whatever the time we must wait, you will be my wife.” But war and disapproving family had intervened, and even as she tried to build a different life than the one she had imagined, Mom shared with me her longing for the love that had been stolen from her.

The story of their star-crossed romance, culminating in my efforts to reunite the pair, first called to mind Bob Dylan’s paean to a young love that endures:

The future for me is already a thing of the past.
You were my first love and you will be my last.

Yet even in my silent reading, the gnarly twang of Dylan’s unique delivery resounded as unreservedly American. It set the wrong mood as the opener for a love story that unfolded in Europe of the war years, and its tone seemed too lighthearted for the period and the harrowing experiences I was depicting. Besides, Dylan belonged to my youth. His rebellious ballads could be interpreted as a rejection of my parents’ generation. Indeed, the disdain that he expressed was not lost on my father, who actually forbade me to play Dylan’s albums on his phonograph, as if their scathing lyrics might damage the machinery.

Next in top contention for my epigraph were favorite verses from T. S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton,” the first of his Four Quartets:

What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.

The Nobel Prize–winning poet had completely captured the spirit of my story, as he spoke to how a past, imagined yet never lived, nonetheless persists in memory. The words that echoed in my mind, entrancing and enthralling me since childhood, were all my mother’s words—her stories from a rose-garden, a lovers’ garden, an Eden from which she had been exiled. Perfect. Except for one disturbing thing. Eliot, whose philosophical poetry I adored, was a reputed anti-Semite, as exemplified most clearly in his early work.

Could I comfortably enshrine the verses of an anti-Semite on the opening pages of a volume that I had devoted in large measure to describing the plight of European Jewry in the Holocaust? I struggled with the question. To make Eliot’s voice my book’s first voice felt like treason. A betrayal of the millions who had suffered and died for no other reason than their Jewishness. And yet it grated, in banishing the artist, to have to sacrifice the art – a dilemma far from new to us. We are used to squirming as we read literary classics from times and places in which loathing for the Jewish people was a cultural prejudice quite shamelessly expressed. Surely, I argued with myself, we cannot be expected to reject all the works where Jews appear unfavorably or whose authors are anti-Semites. And what about music? Must we always close our ears to Richard Wagner?

Even now, after months of debate with myself and with others whose opinions I respect, my answers to these questions feel muddled. Before my book went to print, however, and not without regret, I relinquished T. S. Eliot and wondered whether, had I written something different—a physics text on the nature of time, for example—I might have felt more free to honor his creative voice by quoting him in my epigraph.

As it was, in place of Eliot’s verses, I finally chose a cherished line from Thomas Wolfe:

O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.

It had the virtue of calling to mind for me the loss not only of Roland, but also of my father, who had died before the lovers reunited, and of Hitler’s countless victims. Beyond that, when my son asked me whether Wolfe, as well, might have been a secret anti-Semite, I was happy to assure him that while the great novelist had visited Germany repeatedly in the 1930s, he had publicly denounced the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews. Retaliating, the Nazis had banned his books in Germany. Wolfe’s longtime lover, I suddenly remembered then, had been a Jewess named Aline Bernstein. To her, “A.B.,” he dedicated his masterpiece, Look Homeward, Angel, from which I drew my epigraph with the sense I had arrived at the right place.

Leslie Maitland is a former award-winning reporter and national correspondent for The New York Times who specialized in legal affairs and investigative reporting. Her newest book, Crossing the Borders of Time: A True Story of War, Exile, and Love Reclaimed, is now available.