The ProsenPeople

The Real Flavor of the Streets

Thursday, September 06, 2012 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Steve Stern wrote about embarking on a quixotic journey and his decision to teach creative writing in Vilnius. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

There’s a district in Vilnius called Užupis, which has seceded from the rest of Lithuania and established its own republic. To get there you cross over a river on a bridge festooned in padlocks engraved with the names of lovers. On the riverbank below the bridge is the statue of a mermaid. It’s a bohemian neighborhood with its own whimsical constitution (“Everyone has the right to understand nothing,” “Everyone has the right to encroach upon eternity,” “A cat is not obliged to love its master, but it must help him in difficult times,” and so on) mounted on a wall in a dozen languages. There’s a café in Užupis with a terrace overlooking the little river, where I sat drinking beer with some Lithuanian poets. They were impressive company, the poets with their chiseled Slavic features, who recited their poems from memory and, unlike Americans, made no apologies for their art. The subject of conversation was Lithuanian identity and the national narrative the citizens were struggling to cobble together since gaining their independence from the Soviet Union. It was a narrative the Jewish component had been mostly edited out of.

“You people are so lucky,” I submitted. “You’ve been persecuted for centuries by the Russians, the Poles, the Germans, whereas I’ve had to punish myself all these years.”

Understand, I’m a cheap drunk, and the beer in Vilnius is very good, especially the dark Baltic variety with its tincture of caramel. Well past my limit (of a single beer) I was inclined to presumption. Also, I wasn’t especially sympathetic to the Lithuanian national identity crisis, having recently visited their Museum of Genocide Victims. This is the museum housed in the old KGB headquarters, a forbiddingly grim building where thousands of Lithuanian partisans were imprisoned, tortured, and murdered by the Soviets. With its punishment cells and execution chamber, it’s a chilling monument to inhumanity, and there’s no question that the Lithuanians suffered disproportionately at the hands of the Russians. But I was more than a little uncomfortable with calling their particular tragedy a “genocide.” I reminded the poets that the Jews had constituted nearly half the population of Vilnius before the war, that theirs had been arguably the richest Jewish culture in Europe. I called the roll of Jewish geniuses from Vilna—the Gaon and the Chazon Ish, Moishe Kulbak and Chaim Grade, the scholar-rabbis, the Yiddish authors, actors, and artists—and suggested that, if the Lithuanians were so desperate for a narrative, they could do worse than to appropriate that of the Litvak Jews. After all, while the official identity of Vilnius had long been Russian, the public life was largely Polish, and the real flavor of the streets was distinctly Jewish. The scant native Lithuanian population was, at least until recently, negligible and ghostly.

I waited for my remarks to revive some atavistic form of anti-Semitism among my listeners, who merely registered then dismissed the suggestion; my reputation as a nudge had preceded me. Lithuania, they explained, was the last nation in Europe to be converted to Christianity. In the late 14th century, when the rest of the continent was building its high gothic cathedrals, the Lithuanians, it seemed, were still worshipping trees. In their zealous quest for identity many of the young were now looking back to the mist-shrouded pagan past. Shikkered from a second beer, I recalled an item of graffiti I’d seen on a crumbling wall earlier that day. It was a more or less stick figure with a protracted middle limb and a legend chalked above it reading in English: Long Dick Boy. It struck me in retrospect that what I’d seen was a pagan scrawl from the Lithuanian Stone Age, possibly the image of some trickster god. I presented my theory to the poets, supporting it with improvised episodes from a cycle of tales about Long Dick Boy: how he stole borsht from the gods, lassoed a dragon with his schlong, etc. “And a little known fact,” I added as a postscript, “Long Dick Boy was circumcised.” I think the Lithuanians were as glad to see the back of me as I was to go home, but I cherish the souvenir hangover I brought back from my time in Vilnius.

Steve Stern is the author of several works of fiction, including A Plague of Dreamers, The Frozen Rabbi, and North of God. His honors include twoNew York TimesNotable Books, a Pushcart Writer's Choice Award, an O. Henry Prize, and the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Jewish American Fiction. Stern was born in Memphis, Tennessee and now lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.

Book Cover of the Week: Approaching You in English

Wednesday, September 05, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Approaching You in English, the first book to appear in English by noted Israeli poet Admiel Kosman, was published last year by Zephyr Press:

Read a review in Words Without Borders here.

Listen to an interview with Admiel Kosman over at the Forward here.

Illusions and Remembering

Wednesday, September 05, 2012 | Permalink

Yesterday, Steve Stern wrote about his decision to teach creative writing in Vilnius. He will be blogging here for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week.

I liked to sit sipping coffee in the tall kitchen window of my apartment in Vilnius. The window overlooked the broad Town Hall Square teeming day and night with international tourists. Gold-domed churches and pastel houses with terra cotta roofs bordered the square above which loomed the red brick castle on its hill. Beyond the castle were the dense pine forests that surrounded the city like a green velvet setting for a diadem. The window coincidentally faced the corner where the Nazis had staged their so-called Great Provocation. This was the faked sniping incident they used to justify the “retaliation” that led ultimately to the extermination of the Vilna Jews. Turn left outside of my apartment and you entered the Square, with its wind-tossed fountain, linen and amber boutiques, and outdoor cafes. Turn right and you found yourself in a dreary, cavernous courtyard carved out of what had once been the small ghetto. In this area women, children, and the elderly were corralled and starved before being marched out to the killing fields of Paneriai, where they were summarily shot and tossed into open pits.

During my first week in Vilnius, whenever I left the apartment, I always turned right. I walked through the twisted streets of the former ghettos, the large and the small, and read the signs in Yiddish commemorating the slaughtered; I went to the little Holocaust Museum in the Green House and fed my revulsion on the names of both the ordinary and celebrated citizens that had perished. I made the pilgrimage out to Paneriai and tried to identify with the men assigned to burn the corpses, who might discover among the dead the body of a wife, a father, a child or two. I tried in my fashion to obey the 11th commandment: Zakhor! Remember! and its more piquant Yiddish corollary, “Zolstu krenken un gedenken,” may you sicken and remember. I believe that the Shoah diminished the whole human enterprise, that as a race we’ve been missing vital parts of ourselves ever since. So shouldn’t it be incumbent upon persons of conscience to return to the scenes of the crime in the hope of retrieving something of what was lost? Of course it’s a quixotic exercise; language and emotion are unequal to the task. Poetry, as Theodor Adorno famously pronounced, is barbaric after Auschwitz. Besides, there’s nothing to be found in such places but the stray stones placed atop the monuments by mourners. And even the Jewish graveyards of Vilnius have been removed. Meanwhile, from my kitchen window, I watched the early morning theater: young men stumbled cartoon-like from all-night benders, scattering pigeons as they soaked their sore heads in the fountain; a pair of lovers, still tipsy from their the previous evening’s carouse, performed the comic pantomime of a mating dance; a street sweeper whistled as he worked to a tune played by a solitary Gypsy accordionist. And later on, when I left the apartment, I turned left—as I did every day after that first week in Vilnius—ducking under the arch to enter the carnival atmosphere of the square.

I’m not entirely a fool. I knew that the city was largely illusion, its crooked streets and fanciful facades reconstructed after the war upon a foundation of ashes and bones. I knew that, if you walked beyond the perimeter of the precious Old Town, you immediately found yourself in a soviet wasteland, where impoverished and often suicidal alcoholics sold their daughters into slavery. I knew that, in the face of the nightmare of history, even the Deuteronomic injunction to choose life is a flimsy excuse. But the square was so full of a number of things and the city such a goddam gem.

Steve Stern is the author of several works of fiction, including A Plague of Dreamers, The Frozen Rabbi, and North of God. His honors include twoNew York TimesNotable Books, a Pushcart Writer's Choice Award, an O. Henry Prize, and the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Jewish American Fiction. Stern was born in Memphis, Tennessee and now lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.

A Yiddishist in Vilnius

Tuesday, September 04, 2012 | Permalink

Steve Stern's most recent book, The Book of Mischief, is now available. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I had fun in Vilnius, despite my low tolerance for fun. Not to mention that fun in Vilnius seemed like a betrayal of everything sacred. So what was I doing in Lithuania? A good question, and having traveled all the way to that small Eastern European nation to teach English-speaking students the same stuff (creative writing) I routinely taught at home, I asked my class at our first meeting, “What the hell are we doing in Lithuania?” But the truth was that the question was disingenuous. I knew perfectly well why I’d come. When first invited to teach there in the Summer Literary Seminars, I instantly declined. I don’t travel well; I like to hang on to my desk with my teeth—that was my default reply. Then I remembered that I am a lover of Yiddishkeit. What reputation I have is as a writer inspired by Yiddish culture and folklore, and old Vilna once boasted the mother lode of that culture before it was utterly erased. So I complained to everyone I knew that I’d had a chance to go to Lithuania and blown it. Eventually I received another email from the program, saying, “We hear by the grapevine you might be having second thoughts.” I considered my bluff called.

It’s a beautiful city, Vilnius, a hard place in which to imagine the unimaginable. Especially when you’re strolling serpentine streets flanked by blue and yellow houses, some squat as toadstools, others narrow as the spines of books, most sprouting scrollworked balconies. The baroque churches look like pink cupcakes, the hidden courtyards beckon like grottos, and the women (Sabrina, I can look) are whip-thin and sleek as cats. It was a storybook milieu, complete with an argosy of hot air balloons overhead, and it dazzled me to the point where I forgot to miss what was missing. What was missing? Only about 1000 years of the most vibrant Jewish life to be found anywhere on the planet. It was here that the Vilna Gaon sprang from the womb reciting Talmud, and the poets of Yung Vilne kept the printing presses busy until the plates were melted into bullets for the resistance. Here the shelves of the YIVO archive and the Strashun Library groaned from the gathered weight of the Diaspora, and the cauldron of conflicting ideologieHasidim vs mitnagdim, bundists vs Zionists—boiled over in the streets. Here Chaim Soutine and Jacques Lipchitz plied their visionary trade within earshot of Jascha Heifetz’s violin. All that remained of that world, however, was a handful of memorial plaques, some busts and a couple of signs informing the tourist that history was once here but had since moved on. Not that I’d expected more; though I’ll confess to a romantic hope that, if I connected my passion for Yiddish culture to its source, sparks would fly and the streets swarm again with Jews. Instead there was only a sputtering of my good intentions before the impulse fritzed out and expired. Then it was easier to brood over what was absent than to try Grande syna Vilnaand recover what was lost.

So I abandoned my role of amateur Yiddishist in exchange for professional mourner. I gave a fiction reading in an old church outside of which the first Jewish victim of the Nazi occupation (a woman) was shot. “It’s wonderful to be here in a city where you can picture a Jew hanging from every lamppost,” I quipped, embarrassing everyone. The audience, comprised of Vilnius’s tiny Jewish community come to hear a concert of Yiddish music for which I was the opening act, sat in deadly silence. When I was done, a man like a steamer trunk in a tuxedo marched to the stage and, accompanied by a classical pianist, belted a medley of Yiddish folksongs that exorcised the chapel of my sarcasm. He ended with a Kaddish that rocked the foundation of the church. Chastised, I too dropped a tear into the overflowing bucket of Jewish grief and tried to hold that thought. But the music was truly cathartic, and afterwards, exhilarated, I went off with colleagues to drink too many beers in sidewalk cafes, in cafes tucked away in vaulted catacombs, in cafes with terraces overlooking the river, where I wallowed in guilty pleasure.

Steve Stern is the author of several works of fiction, including A Plague of Dreamers, The Frozen Rabbi, and North of God. His honors include two New York Times Notable Books, a Pushcart Writer's Choice Award, an O. Henry Prize, and the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Jewish American Fiction. Stern was born in Memphis, Tennessee and now lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.

High Holiday Reading

Tuesday, September 04, 2012 | Permalink

The High Holidays are right around the corner. Check out JBC's book recommendations and articles here.

The Presence of the Past

Friday, August 31, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Kati Marton wrote about the French Jewish family the Camondos and Paris's black marble plaques. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Now that I live part-time in Paris, I explore the city’s complex and sometimes disturbing relationship to toward its Jewish citizens—which given my own Jewish heritage, feels personal to me. In Paris: A Love Story, I probe this aspect of the city which most tourists miss.

In my Paris neighborhood, I am discovering France’s historic fear of outsiders. Indifference to the fate of those not inside their circle is the underside of the French passion for privacy, for la discretion. A country that has experienced multiple invasions and a catastrophic loss of life in World War I has low expectations of humanity – and an understandable fear of les etrangers – strangers. “C’est normale,” accompanied by a gallic shrug, is an expression I hear often. Even death in mid-life is deemed “normale,” something to accept and live with. In New York, death is not “normale.” It is a shocking intrusion into life - a failure. No one in hyperactive Manhattan wants to be reminded of mortality.

Here in Paris, every block tells a tale, and cautions the visitor against undue optimism. The past – and death - is so present in Paris because every neighborhood has some sort of a monument to the two million men – two out of every nine – lost in World War I. Every step forward is followed by one backward – the ancient stones of my neighborhood seem to say. I am reminded of that as I sit in Le Café Metro, on the place Maubert. Léon Blum, elected Prime Minister in 1936 was the first Jew to hold that office. He was driving through place Maubert, where I am sipping my café au lait, when a group of right wing thugs tried to overturn his car. Did anyone sitting on this terrace move to intercede? Blum was arrested by the Gestapo. He survived Auschwitz, but his brother René did not.

What would have happened to Paris had its citizens resisted the Germans more forcefully? Would it have shared Budapest’s fate – with every major building and monument bombed? It’s a devastating thought: Notre Dame pulverized like Coventry’s cathedral? Still, Vichy is a name uttered with shame and as rarely as possible by the French.

My reverie is interrupted by a young man with a shaved head who leans over from the next table at the Café Metro to ask, “Can you recommend a good sushi place nearby?” He has an unmistakable Hungarian accent, so I answer in Hungarian. Again, I circle back to the scene a Parc Monceau. Will this exposure to the Other—a Hungarian skinhead looking for sushi in Paris—be enough to douse the next eruption of hate?

Kati Marton is a Hungarian-American author and journalist. Her newest book, Paris: A Love Story, is now available.

New Reviews

Thursday, August 30, 2012 | Permalink
This week's reviews:
 

Book Cover of the Week: An Uncommon Education

Wednesday, August 29, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Elizabeth Percer's debut novel, An Uncommon Education, was published this past May by Harper:

Afraid of losing her parents at a young age—her father with his weak heart, her deeply depressed mother—Naomi Feinstein prepared single-mindedly for a prestigious future as a doctor. An outcast at school, Naomi loses herself in books, and daydreams of Wellesley College. But when Teddy, her confidant and only friend, abruptly departs from her life, it's the first devastating loss from which Naomi is not sure she can ever recover, even after her long-awaited acceptance letter to Wellesley arrives.

Naomi soon learns that college isn't the bastion of solidarity and security she had imagined. Amid hundreds of other young women, she is consumed by loneliness—until the day she sees a girl fall into the freezing waters of a lake.

The event marks Naomi's introduction to Wellesley's oldest honor society, the mysterious Shakespeare Society, defined by secret rituals and filled with unconventional, passionate students. Naomi finally begins to detach from the past and so much of what defines her, immersing herself in this exciting and liberating new world and learning the value of friendship. But her happiness is soon compromised by a scandal that brings irrevocable consequences. Naomi has always tried to save the ones she loves, but part of growing up is learning that sometimes saving others is a matter of saving yourself.

Ten Questions for Joshua Cohen

Wednesday, August 29, 2012 | Permalink

In its review of Four New Messages the New York Times said of Joshua Cohen, “he’ll make you want to be an angel investor in his stuff. What’s a book but a public offering? You’ll want to be in on the ground floor.” Jewish Book World’s Bob Goldfarb asked him about his work.

Bob Goldfarb: You’ve been compared to David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon. Can a contemporary writer avoid the anxiety of influence?
Joshua Cohen: Pynchon I thought a lot about in my late-ish teens; Wallace, though, never gave me “the howling fantods”—I was too young (b. 1980) to know to cheer the ’90s revolt against literary blankness and, by the time I began reading him, in the early oughts, I was living in Europe and more susceptible to that education. Wallace was always much too direct, too straight, for me (the concerns, not the style). He never talked out of the side of his mouth. His irony was not mine—was too goyisher, to put it bluntly. … No one has ever evaded influence, or anxiety—in or out of books.

BG: Is that harder for a writer who is also a critic?
JC: Criticism just pays the bills, but fiction remains indebted – to both fiction AND criticism.

BG: You sometimes write in a very vernacular voice. How much of that is ventriloquism or social critique or satire, and how much is it an extension of your own personality?
JC: Why can’t my own personality be one of ventriloquism/social critique? The more voices I write, the less I’m sure I exist at all.

BG: You also deploy an enormous vocabulary with lots of words never heard in conversation. How do you picture your readers reacting to them?
JC: I don’t consider a reader’s reaction to anything—I consider my own. When I encounter an unfamiliar word, I follow the advice of Reb Spiegel, fifth grade, Hebrew Academy of Atlantic County: “Dick. Shun. Airy” (the class loved that gag, he loved that the class loved it). I might point out that dickshunairies are more available, and more useful, than they were in 1990.

Continue reading.

Remembering the Camondos

Wednesday, August 29, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Kati Marton wrote about Paris's black marble plaques and the subject of race in France. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Now that I live part-time in Paris, I explore the city’s complex and sometimes disturbing relationship to toward its Jewish citizens—which given my own Jewish heritage, feels personal to me. In Paris: A Love Story, I probe this aspect of the city which most tourists miss.

One morning as I continue my Parisian ramble, I enter a hyperrefined Proustian world furnished with the carpets, tapestries and bibelots of the reigns of Louis XV and XVI. I picture glittering soirees in the dining room where the table is permanently set – as if awaiting Proust, Herzl, and the other great figures of the day. It is hard to conjure a more quintessentially French décor than this ode to the 18th Century, the Age of Reason. But the host and his children and grandchildren are missing. The patriarch, Moïse de Camondo, built this temple to French civilization and left precise instructions that it would all remain untouched, as they left it – the Jewish Camondos’ gift to the French nation. Moïses's son Nissim, after whom he named his museum, gave his life for France. His plane went down in flames during World War I , when he was shot photographing German military installations from the air.

Nissim’s sister, Beatrice, converted to Catholicism, no doubt assuming that would protect her during the Age of Hate. In her family’s mansion, with its priceless French treasures and its vast collection of Impressionist paintings – all gifts to the French Republic as spelled out in her father’s will – Beatrice may have felt safe. Her father had been awarded the Legion d’Honneur. He was a founding member of the Friends of the Paris Opera. Marcel Proust, the greatest French writer of the day, was a habitué –a regular—of their salon. Why leave? So Beatrice did not heed the warning signs, as French police under SS supervision began rounding up less well placed Jews, from their schools and homes. She continued to ride her beautiful horse in the Bois de Boulogne, sometimes accompanied by a German officer. Until the summer of 1942, when the same people who seized eight children from the Ecole Maternelle in my neighborhood, arrived at her splendid house. Parisian officers packed Beatrice and her children into a wagon bound for Drancy. She and her children, Fanny and Bertrand, spent the next nine months in that grotesque antechamber to the Auschwitz bound trains. (Drancy is just a station en route to the airport now—but an ugly stop in any weather.)

On the morning of March 10, 1943, Beatrice and her children arrived at Auschwitz – from where they never returned. They were the last of the Camondos.

Visit on Friday for Kati Marton's final post for the Visiting Scribe.