This week's reviews:
That was the subject of an intriguing discussion I led yesterday at a session of a course in Hebrew literature in translation taught by my friend Adam Rovner at Denver University. (Adam has a vested interest in Hebrew literature in translation since his wife, Jessica Cohen, is responsible for many of the finest translations of Israeli literature available to the English-speaking public.) In preparation for the class, the students read two texts. The first was Etgar Keret’s short story “Cocked and Locked,” about an Israeli soldier being mocked by a Palestinian rebel at a guard post. The second was “Wimps,” Chapter Five of Company C, my memoir of my service over nearly two decades in an Israeli infantry unit.
“Wimps,” like Keret’s story, portrays Israeli soldiers facing off against Palestinians in the territories. In the case of my chapter, it’s the height of the First Intifada in 1988. As well as chronicling how my unit coped with the challenges and moral issues presented by the Palestinian uprising, my chapter explores the relationship between army service and masculinity.
In Keret’s story, a young Palestinian man taunts an Israeli soldier by portraying him as a sexual object used by his sergeant. The goading indeed drives the soldier into an unexpected response, but perhaps not for the reasons that an American reader might presume.
The men in Company C are tough and determined, but they are also family men and civilians serving in the army for a couple months a year. They’ve been through wars but most of them have children. Two of them are gay, a fact that the other soldiers accept matter-of-factly and without feeling that their masculinity is threatened. And remember, this is at a time when homosexuality was forbidden in the US army, on the grounds that the presence of gay soldiers in a military unit would play havoc with “unit cohesion” and destroy it as a fighting force.
Comic relief in “Wimps” is provided by Marcel Levy, a French immigrant and paparazzo photographer who boasts of sleeping with every single one of the celebrity actresses he manages to snap in various states of undress. The other men think he’s totally off the wall. Levy’s braggadocio about his purported military exploits is one reason; another is that sexual conquest is not something that these men see as particularly masculine behavior. Both the attitudes toward gay men and toward casual sex show, in my mind, that there are important differences between Israeli and American concepts of masculinity. I don’t mean to say that Israeli men aren’t macho in their own and often infuriating way, but it’s important to understand the contrasts.
After pointing this out, I asked the students what they thought bugged the soldier in Keret’s story and what caused him to take the dramatic action he takes at the end. I suspect that before our discussion the students might have assumed that the soldier felt that his masculinity was threatened—that he was infuriated because a Palestinian guy his own age was accusing him of being queer.
One of the students hit it on the head, in my opinion. “I think he’s upset,” she suggested, “because the Palestinian is perverting the soldier’s relationship with his sergeant.” In other words, he’s suggesting that the soldier’s love for his sergeant is a sexual love rather than the love that prevails among soldiers who fight side by side.
Does that make Israeli soldiers wimps? You might want to read the Company C to find out. An electronic edition, for Kindle, Ipad, and other platforms, will be available very soon. The same goes for my book on the Jordan Rift valley, Israel’s eastern boundary land, A Crack in the Earth. Watch my Facebook page and website for the official announcement, or write to me at email@example.com and I’ll send you an e-mail notice when the books are out.
Visit Haim Watzman's official website here.
On Tuesday, Gerald Sorin wrote about ambivalence toward the genre of biography. Today, he considers the question: Can the biographer or their readers really know the subject fully? He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.
Can biographers really know their subjects fully? Was Mark Twain right when he said that “a man’s real life is led in his head, and is known to none but himself?” And what about Freud who went even further: “Whoever turns biographer commits himself to lies, to concealment, to hypocrisy, to embellishment, and even to dissembling his own lack of understanding, for biographical truth is not to be had.”
Well, if biographical truth is not to be had, if a self is actually unknowable, can we at least analyze the work of the artist or the writer or the activist as a clue to the meaning of the life? Here a biographer is challenged by the postmodernists or deconstructionists who argue for “the death of the author,” and who see texts and even behavior as totally independent entities, neither of which tells us anything about their human creators. Not surprisingly, I take a somewhat different position. I acknowledge the existence of authors. Of course, the writing of any particular author may not be – and very often is not – autobiographical. Indeed, biographers, or general readers for that matter, who concentrate on ferreting out the self-referential, often miss the satisfaction of immersing themselves in the creative imagination of the writer. In any case, for me, authors are neither absent nor entirely inscrutable. Why otherwise would I have undertaken a biography of so prolific a writer as Fast, whose early writings seemed to have moved an entire generation of Jews in the direction of political liberalism, or of Irving Howe, who in his literary criticism and teaching fought fiercely against the “death of the author” school?
Of course, all of us remain partially hidden and variegated, and in cases like Howe or Fast, perhaps even more complexly so. In writing about these men then, I make no claim to definitiveness nor do I use a narrative strategy that projects a unified persona. Fast, for example, presents a case of extraordinary social mobility, a man who became wealthy writing more than 150 stories, 20 screenplays, and nearly 100 books, several selling in the tens of millions of copies; but he also forever carried within himself characteristics and memories of having been a poor street urchin. Moreover, Fast was not only a writer, but a brother, father, husband, son of immigrants, a Jew, a Communist, an “unfriendly witness,” a prisoner, and a Hollywood personality.
Many selves, many roles – several of which led Fast into inconsistency and even apparent contradiction. Still, the historian as biographer, at least this one, believes that human beings are not just a Babel of voices, and that there are such things as individuals who are knowable, at least in part. Even playwright Samuel Beckett, the prince of obscurity and ambiguity, eventually wrote, “In the place where I have always found myself… it is no longer wholly dark or wholly silent.”
Gerald Sorin's most recent book, Howard Fast: Life and Literature in the Left Lane, is now available. Gerald won the 2003 National Jewish Book Award in History for Irving Howe: A Life of Passionate Dissent.
Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter
If you're looking for a theme for your book club, this is a great one! See below for a few of our translated recommendations as well as a few articles on the process itself. Find the complete list here.
The Hebrew Translator on Translation by Jessica Cohen
The Tower of Babel and Crisis of Translation by Ellen Frankel
The Act of Self-Translation by Michael Idov
How to Succeed in Academics Without Doing Any Research by Haim Watzman
“Are you a professor?” asked the woman sitting next to me on the plane from Israel to New York. She’d been eyeing my laptop screen on and off for most of the flight, as I did a final polish on my translation of Israel and the Cold War, a punctiliously-researched tome by Joseph Heller of the Hebrew University. Heller’s the professor, I’m the translator. He spent years sifting through the dark corners of archives around the world to gather the material in his book. I get the glory of being thought a historian without having looked at a single document.
Yes, I write my own books, but try buying groceries with that. My family gets fed thanks to books that other people write, people who need my help to present their ideas to the public. Sometimes I translate in the simple sense of the word—that is, recast a Hebrew work in English. But the specific niche I’ve developed over the years is that of translator/editor, or perhaps bilingual book doctor would be a better term. That means I don’t just transfer prose from one language to another but also help the author rewrite the book.
Of course, the substance remains that of the scholar. But substance needs presentation. I feel privileged to have helped bring the work of Israeli scholars before the English-speaking world while making them more reader-friendly books than they would otherwise have been.
While it’s hardly ideal, the pressures are such that I often work on two or three book translations or edits at the same time, alongside my own writing. Right now I’m translating a book on the Mossad by Ronen Bergman of the newspaper Yediot Aharonot, and a book about Eliezer Gruenbaum, a Jewish Communist who became a kapo at Auschwitz, by the historian Tuvia Friling.
On top of that, I’m editing the English version of one of the Israeli publication phenomena of the past year. Yuval Noah Harari’s history of the world, from humankind’s evolution in Africa to the present day, has been a bestseller in Hebrew. It’s based on the survey course he teaches, which has become one of the university’s most popular classes.
Harari’s book covers a lot of ground that I’ve written about in my career as a journalist covering research and science, so as I edit I disagree, debate, and argue points with him. Like most of my clients, Harari appreciates this deep involvement in his work. I am, of course, an amateur scholar, not a real one, so it’s the client who makes the final decisions about the book’s ideas and arguments. But it’s a real pleasure to engage in disputations with my authors.
And, of course, I learn a great deal in the process. Almost enough to be taken for a professor myself.
Visit Haim Watzman's official website here.
For historians, writing biography presents a number of challenges. One of the more important comes from scholars who tend to classify biography as “an inferior type of history.” For example, three years ago the American Historical Society staged a roundtable on “biography as history,” invitations to which included the following : “For a long time historians have been ambivalent about the genre of biography…. Many are skeptical of the capacity of biography to convey the kind of analytically sophisticated interpretation of the past that academics have long expected.”
But we biographers, even those such as myself who want to write cross-over books accessible to the educated lay public, don’t simply chart the course of a life from womb to tomb; we examine our subjects in dialectical relationship to the multiple worlds they inhabit, social, political, and cultural. My two subjects, Howard Fast and Irving Howe, for example, rose from immigrant poverty to eminence and wealth, and in Fast’s case immense wealth. Both were also political activists, and literary figures. And both bore the privileges, burdens, and complexities of being Jewish. Both were also involved, directly and indirectly, with events important to shaping the world of the twentieth century. It would have been next to impossible to neglect social context in biographies of these men.
Biographers are also often accused of voyeurism and sensationalism. Indeed, perhaps as acts of self-defense, several women and men of note have written their own biographies or memoirs – Howe wrote at least one, depending how you count; Fast, two – conceivably as a way of making one’s own case before a prosecutorial or gossip-mongering historian/biographer might appear on the scene. Elsa Morante, the Italian writer and wife of novelist Alberto Moravia, left a warning for biographers: To expose “the private life of a writer is gossip,” she said, “and gossip no matter about whom offends me.” Janet Malcolm, the controversial American journalist goes further, characterizing biographers as burglars, parasites, and obsessive stalkers who trespass and injure.
But there is no escape from the "private" for anyone involved in the biographical process, which by necessity is an act of conscious psychological intrusion. From my reading of Fast’s personal correspondence and my questioning of his family members I learned, for example, that the prolific novelist was disliked for his insensitivity and arrogance by many relatives, including his children; that he had an enormous ego which, as his grand-daughter said, made it clear that he “could be the only star in the room;” and that though married to his first wife Bette for 57 years, Fast had had several affairs, some with actresses when he was a screenwriter in Hollywood in the 1970s. I also discovered that Fast could be quite generous. He quietly supported his older sister for most of her life; he helped his brother financially from time to time; he gifted his house to his daughter and her husband when he moved into a larger one, and without hesitation he took in friends in trouble or neighbors in danger.
One might ask whether this kind of information ought to be included in a biography of a man whose central story was neither his generosity, nor his tendency to alienate those around him, nor his imitation of Don Juan, but his rise from neglected street kid to world-renowned writer worth many millions of dollars—and who in the midst of his remarkable journey not only became a Marxist, but by the late 1940s, had become the public face of the Communist Party in America – a transformation which had momentous consequences for his life, his writing, and his sense of identity.
For some historians Fast’s arrogance and infidelities might be irrelevant. For me, a historian who is also a biographer, the information is important not so much because there are links, even if indirect, between Fast’s personal life and his politics and his writing—but even more importantly, because his private behavior (or anyone else’s for that matter) is a significant part of his identity, and so belongs in what anthropologist Clifford Geertz calls “thick description” – an attempt at explanation which makes the subject’s behavior more fully meaningful to readers who don’t have the same or similar experiences.
Which brings me to yet another challenge: can the biographer or their readers really know the subject fully?
Check back here on Thursday for Part 2.
JBC reviewer Jeff Bogursky talks with the former Ambassador to the EU about Israel, Jewish continuity, and the role being Jewish has played in his career as a public servant.
Jeff Bogursky: I noticed the names of your seven grandchildren in the book. Five of them have Hebrew names, and two of them have American names. Is this due to the location that your two sons have chosen to live, or the lifestyle they’ve chosen?
Stuart Eizenstat: Well, the five who have Hebrew names, Menachem, Bracha, Eliezer, Michal, and Yitzchak are from our oldest son, who is a baal teshuva and orthodox, and the other two are from our son in New York who is Conservative. One thing that has given me a powerful sense of identification is that both my grandfather, who made Aliya at the age of eighty-something from Atlanta after having arrived there from Russia in 1904, and my great grandfather, are buried to the public cemetery in Petach Tikva, only one row apart. We have many other relatives and friends in Israel, but to have your grandfather and great grandfather buried there creates a very powerful bond.
JHB: You were the chief domestic advisor to President Carter in 1976. You are a lawyer, but you have done so many things over many years of public service. Talking to young people, how does one start a career such as yours?
SE: I started in 1963, when I was selected as a Congressional intern while attending the University of North Carolina. I got the bug from there, came back in 1964 to work on the Johnson presidential campaign. I went to Harvard Law School. Right after that I went to work in the Johnson White House for a year, serving as his Research Director. When he decided not to run, I went back to Atlanta and clerked with a Federal judge, then became a Policy Director for Jimmy Carter’s gubernatorial campaign, and then four years later for his presidential campaign.
JHB: When you think of yourself, do you see yourself in any way playing the role of the Shtadtlan, or Court Jew?
SE: No, I strongly reject that designation. If that’s what I was, or that’s how I was perceived, I could never have had the influence that I did. Everyone knew I was Jewish, knew I had Jewish values and Jewish concerns, but I was not the Jewish advisor to Carter, I was the domestic policy advisor. I was not the Jewish Ambassador to the European Union, I was the Ambassador to the European Union who was Jewish. I was not Under Secretary of Commerce, or Under Secretary of State, or Deputy Treasury Secretary as the Jew; I was there because of my ability and competence. Now, I brought Jewish values and that’s what led me to push the Holocaust Restitution to the forefront during the Clinton administration, and to recommend that President Carter create the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, and to create a special visa category to save Christians, Bahai’s, and Jews from the Iranian Revolution. In other words, I brought with me Jewish perspectives and insights, but I was always perceived, because I was, essentially an American, who was a policy expert with political skills. Everyone knew I had a perspective that was sustained by Judaism, but I was absolutely not the Court Jew or I would have been just a figurehead.
Haim Watzman is a Jerusalem-based writer, journalist, and translator. He is the author of Company C: An American’s Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel and A Crack in the Earth: A Journey Up Israel’s Rift Valley, which will be available as ebooks this week. Haim was a 2008 finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. He will blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.
My Dad and I never watched the Superbowl together. Nor the NBA championships, the World Cup, or the World Series. In my family, the only person who watched sports on television was my grandmother, who never missed an Indians or Browns game. So I grew up with a warped sense of manhood. Watching guys throw balls around was for old ladies. My Dad and I did our small-screen-mediated male bonding on election night.
So I’m happy to report that when this post appears I’ll be on my way from Jerusalem to Denver to spend my first election night with Dad in more than three decades. Tuesday night he and I will be munching pizza and popcorn as we watch the returns come in and tally electoral votes and Senate seats.
Dad, a longtime newspaper reporter, was my first coach in political analysis, as well as in writing. His politics are liberal Democrat; his style is terse, simple, and to the point (he would disapprove of the previous semicolon and these parentheses). So it’s not surprising that I occasionally try my hand at political satire. At its best, it’s a genre that forces readers think about their beliefs in a new way. Furthermore, it can help those of us jaded by the horserace coverage that all too often passes for political journalism to remember that politics is as much a necessary part of our lives as love is, and that it’s important that we get both right.
That’s what I tried to do in my latest “Necessary Stories” piece, published in the current issue of the Jerusalem Report. Called “Persuasion,” it’s a love story in the style of Jane Austen, set in the run-up to the current election.
The Jerusalem Report has given me a platform that few writers enjoy and for which I’m extremely grateful (especially to Eetta Price-Gibson, who offered me the perch during her tenure as editor of the magazine). Once each month I get three pages where I can write whatever I want—memoir, satire, or short story. As I’ve transitioned in recent years from writing journalism and non-fiction into writing fiction, it’s given me a place to experiment with subjects and techniques. Some of my Necessary Stories are funny, some sad, some wistful. By arrangement with the magazine, they are also available in full on my blog, South Jerusalem.
If you like the latest one, you might also sample “Plane Story,” about an encounter with strangers and storytelling on a Delta flight, and “Bananas,” a tale from the immigrant camp that used to occupy the part of Holon where some of my in-laws live. I also recommend “Winter” and “Spring,” the first two installments in a quartet of army stories collectively called Duties of the Heart. “Summer” and “Autumn” are too long for my three pages in the Report and are currently seeking homes elsewhere.
Don’t tell Dad about all those ridiculously long sentences in “Persuasion.” He’d give me a stern lecture on style and we might miss some key returns and projections.
Visit Haim Watzman's official website here.
Soon after learning my late grandmother’s family lived in Nachlaot, I accepted an invitation for Shabbat dinner from sweet friends, Mottle and Batya Wolfe. Spending Shabbat in Nachlaot definitely felt like the most fitting way to honor my newly discovered roots. When I shared how much I wanted to spend more time where my grandmother grew up, the Wolfes seemed to read my mind and invited me to their seder. I was so touched by their invitation, but Passover was four months away. I was still touring for Cool Jew in what was fast becoming the Energizer Bunny of book tours. It just kept going and going... Could I really return so soon?
At my next stop, Limmud UK, the answer effortlessly appeared. Several participants suggested I present at Limmud Berlin and Limmud Amsterdam, both slated for May. I could fly early to Europe, add on a trip to Israel for Passover and return in time for both conferences. I would barely be home between now and then but I was used to that (!) and Passover in Nachlaot was clearly where I was meant to be... It just kept getting validated. Was it the luck of Cool Jew, my grandmother's orchestrations on high or something else at work?
The time flew by. Finally, I landed at Mottle and Batya’s seder. They urged me to share my story again with their guests. I had long known my grandmother was born in Israel but I didn’t know she grew up in Nachlaot, near Ohel Moshe Street, where it meets Rehov Aryeh Levin, named for the great tzaddik of Jerusalem. The story kept growing...
In two weeks, it would be the 28th of Nissan, designated by the Hebrew letters kaf-chet, which form the word koach/strength. The day is the anniversary of my father’s liberation day from Buchenwald, the yahrzeit of my grandmother whose portrait I found displayed in Nachlaot and my Hebrew birthday. I planned to sponsor a Shabbat kiddush in memory of my grandmother, in honor of my father and as act of gratitude on my birthday. I had no idea where, but the less I planned, it seemed, the more the Universe provided.
One afternoon during Passover, I went to Gan Sacher to meet friends. When they called to cancel, I realized I was so close to Nachlaot, I thought I’d "visit" my family's portrait in the same ways others visit graves. I navigated Nachlaot's twists and turns, delighted when I found it. I stayed for a few moments, marveling, again, over the discovery, realizing she and my great-grandparents and many other relatives had stood here, too, long before images were ever embedded in these stone walls. As I was leaving, I was stunned to find the gate of an adjacent synagogue slightly open. Without hesitation, I wandered through the gate and climbed the stairs, then stood silent on a landing. Through a glass door, I could see a group of men engaged in study. One stood up, approached the door and gave up a thumbs up, motioning me upstairs. I nodded. I wanted to see what I could find out about the portraits, but if mincha, the afternoon prayers, were part of the plan, "Okay," I thought, "I'll roll with it."
We climbed a narrow set of stairs outdoors to a heavy door he unlocked. I continued alone, up another narrow set of stairs indoors to the ezrat nashim. The women’s balcony offered a spectacular view of an elaborate Sefardi sanctuary. The magnificent ceiling was painted blue with gold stars. It was so close I could practically touch it. The imaginary sky met graceful renderings of the twelve tribes. Oriental rugs surrounded a raised bima and variations on an elaborate parochet, an embroidered velvet curtain, covered several spots along the walls. My favorite decoration of all was the large red neon crown adorned with the four letters of the tetragrammaton. I laughed. It was Imperial margarine meets Cool Jew.
Within a few minutes, prayers began in the Mizrachi nusach; eventually two women and young girl joined me. Through the window behind us, the sun set over Jerusalem. Finally, after maariv, I retraced my path downstairs and cautiously waited until someone motioned me through the glass doors. I asked in Hebrew for the rabbi. His name was Rav Moshe and he was delighted to hear I was related to those "embedded in the walls." When I explained I wanted to commemorate my grandmother’s yahrzeit on an upcoming Shabbat, he corrected me with the correct Sefardi terminology. He invited me sponsor the azkara on the appropriate weekday. This charming shul, the Great Synagogue of Ohel Moshe, was the only house of worship with a section for woman during my grandmother’s childhood. So this, he said, was it: her shul. I was so moved and so surprised. Like a new stanza of "Dayenu," I wouldn't have been there if my friends hadn't canceled, or if I hadn't arrived in time for services, or returned for Passover, or gone to Limmud, or found the portrait on display, or opened David's email, or met him at Jewlicious, or written Cool Jew...
Days later, in nearby Mahane Yehuda, I shopped for traditional items served at an hazkara. Mezonot/grains (crackers and cookies), pri haetz/fruit of the tree (dates), pri haadama/fruit of the ground (peanuts) and sh’hakol, which loosely translates as "everything"not covered by another blessing (drinks). That day, Rav Yitzchak, who searched with me for the image of the unknown Alcalays and many other dear friends showed up.
We davened mincha and maariv and read chapters of the Zohar to elevate the soul of my grandmother, Yehudit bat Yitzchak. Afterwards, the shul regulars and my friends, said blessings over the refreshments and we drank l'chaim to my grandmother's memory, my father's long life, everyone present and my birthday. I retold, once again, the story of discovering my grandmother’s roots in the neighborhood and the unusual unification of my Sefardi grandmother, my Ashkenazi father and my own entry into this world.
I felt then, as now, grateful for the Providence of marking that moment in Jerusalem, for our connections to each other and Above, and by the abundance of personal validation, hasgacha pratit, that continues to unfold... It's there. Always. Sometimes, it is so openly revealed. And sometimes, we see it only when we remember to look.
Lisa Alcalay Klug (lisaklug.com) is an award-winning journalist, author, speaker and media coach. She is currently at work on a memoir. This post is a part of a blog tour celebrating the release of her new book, Hot Mamalah: The Ultimate Guide for Every Woman of the Tribe. Learn more about the blog tour at https://www.facebook.com/events/505196389498488/. Join her Smokin' Hot Mamalah Book Launch Giveaway valued at $300 at www.ModernTribe.com/mamalah.