The ProsenPeople

Shades of Privilege and Deprivation

Wednesday, January 02, 2013 | Permalink

Justine Hope Blau, a writer of screenplays and books, has an MFA from Columbia University's School of the Arts. Her memoir Scattered: A Mostly True Memoir is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

People would often underestimate me if they knew that my parents hadn't taken good care of me, so I used to be covert about the six years my family was chronically homeless and the years I spent in placement with the Jewish Child Care Association. People assumed I couldn't drive, or had never been to Fire Island or didn't know French—that kind of thing. And I’d get touchy because people who grew up underprivileged tend to be thin-skinned.

Now I've written a childhood memoir, Scattered, so my story is out. And while most people give me a lot of credit for transcending such challenges, friend-of-my-youth Jacqueline Heagle is quick to give me perspective.

“You are a spoiled brat,” she reminds me.

Jacki thinks my experiences with my family roaming around public spaces like libraries, the Automat and Central Park, wandering around the United Nations and midtown Manhattan, having older brothers who went to college and told me stories, reflects a world of privilege. She quips that I’m showing off.

Jacki and I met at the Pleasantville Cottage School when we were 11. I was an emergency case, placed in the same 5th grade class with her on June 17th, 1967, two weeks before the end of school. A few months later she was sent to a group residence in Westchester, but we were reunited in a group residence for teenage girls in Rego Park, Queens, when we were 14. We lived together there for three years.

Jacki found it painful to read Scattered because it made her feel jealous. She grew up rarely leaving her Brooklyn neighborhood and apartment overlooking the noisy elevated subway line; her family was on welfare and the big treat was to get pizza when the check arrived. She has written eloquently about how she eagerly awaited being sent to “The School” and finally got to go when she was eight. Jacki felt that she was reborn when she arrived at Pleasantville. She remembers the first day she got there, how she climbed her first tree and ate her first fresh apple. She hardly ever went home or saw her parents after that.

The Jewish Child Care Association provided that safety net for Jacki, and for me. After Jacki left the residence, she was on her own, but still the JCCA helped her pay for college. And when she decided to leave college, they helped her pay for beauty school. She earned her living for decades as a hair stylist and raised her two sons with far more advantages than she had.

The Jewish Child Care Association didn't get everything right. Corporal punishment was accepted, and there are stories I hear, and believe, of a few cottage parents sexually preying on children. But most of us feel that Pleasantville provided a feeling of safety and security for us.

So how do I feel about being exposed by the book I felt driven to write? Is the world made by colliding classes, power structures and degrees of respectability, or do I see it that way because of how I got here? It’s so confusing, my past, and where it has brought me. I’ve been trying to sort out the confusion for a long time. When a child is torn from her world, and forcibly placed in another, she is likely to learn fast to observe who’s got power, who doesn't and how to manage in the new system. So I've spent a lot of time either being resentful of my disadvantages, or feeling guilty because of my privilege, and somehow both.

I think the extreme worlds of my childhood, between the U.N., the libraries and cheap hotels, a mother with grandiose notions but neglectful habits, gave me a unique ability to read society and the social world around me.

Visit Justine Hope Blau's website here.

Your Graphic Novel and Mine

Friday, December 28, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Ilan Stavans wrote about the problem with academic writing and asked: Is there a Jewish literary renaissance? He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I’m a passionate lover of the graphic novel.

I grew up in Mexico City. As an adolescent, my weekly literary diet included comics of all types. There were the usual suspects from the United States: superheroes of various calibers, such as Superman and Batman, as well as funny characters like Archie and Sabrina. But the comics I cherished the most were locally made or imported from other parts of Latin America: Kalimán, La familia Burrón, Condorito, Mafalda… Like other readers, I saw my own social, political, and historical dilemmas reflected in them.

Recently I traveled from one book fair to another promoting El Iluminado, a graphic novel I wrote (with Steve Sheinkin), set among the crypto-Jews of the Southwest. Scores of writer friends I met were surprised I had accepted to experiment in this field. “Isn't it for younger people?” one of them asked. “Theirs is the generation of the moving pictures…” I laughed, telling him about my uncured devotion to comic strips as well as mammoth narratives. “The readers of Don Quixote are always young, aren't they? And Cervantes’s imagination was quite cinematic. Were he alive, I’m sure he would be a fan of graphic novels.”

“Did you like Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay?” another inquired. Not really, I said, it is both long and longwinded. The message was clear to me, though: Why hadn’t I written a straight book about my comic-book education?

The answer is straightforward: I’m interested in the graphic novel for its fresh yet ancient combination of image and word. They are at their best when addressing a historical issue head on, like the ones created by Will Eisner, Art Spigelman, and Joe Secco. The genre is still in its infancy. In the last few years it has thrived precisely because of the experimental drive of its practitioners.

Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. His most recent books are the collection of essays Singer’s Typewriter and Mine: Reflections on Jewish Culture (University of Nebraska Press, 2002) and the graphic novel El Iluminado (Basic Books, with Steve Sheinkin).

Academic Freedom Is Wasted on Academics

Wednesday, December 26, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Ilan Stavans asked: Is there a Jewish literary renaissance? He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Sometimes when I’m congratulated for writing well, the praise comes with a sense of theft, as if someone like me who has spent decades in academia—I started teaching when I was just out of college—should be expected to say things in muddy, incomprehensible ways.

I understand the qualm. Academics are known for their pedantic style. This is particularly the case in the humanities, where, given the universal topics, one would expect the opposite. Scholars for the most part write obscurely for a small audience—minuscule, really: less than half a dozen peers. To show off, they become convinced that arguments need to be labyrinthine and the language unintelligible.

This awful mode is learned in graduate school. Unfortunately, judging by the sample of the latest crop of scholars, there doesn't appear to be an end to this education to obfuscate.

Truth is, it isn’t a matter of style. The problem, in my opinion, is the fear to be honest, to say what one thinks elegantly and persuasively when the occasion prompts. In other words, this handicap is related to the fear of speaking one’s mind. Graduate school, again in the humanities, is a hindrance: it teaches future teachers to hide behind cumbersome theoretical frameworks. The pleasure to read, to write, to think is sabotaged by the obligation to align oneself behind a doctrine.

Yes, I’m convinced academics are timorous people, I’m not sure if more or less than everyone else, but in our case it shows because of the privileged position in which we find ourselves. Given the extraordinary opportunity to speak out, they burry their head underground. Academic freedom is wasted on academics.

Feeling suffocated, I have sought role models outside academia as well as in the liminal zone where the classroom and the outside world meet: Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe, Henry Luis Gates, Jr., Morris Dickstein… That is, I have tried to follow figures capable of simultaneously speaking to two audiences, the one within and the one outside campus.

Each of them has responded to the needs of his time. What they’ve shown—to me, at least—is that the dividing line between insiders and outsiders is nothing if not artificial. The two audiences exist only in our mind. When we exile them from there, these become one.

To write well is to express oneself with clarity, precision, and conviction. And to be humble: one must irrevocably assume the reader—all readers—to be our equals. To think otherwise is an exercise in solipsism.

Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. His most recent books are the collection of essays Singer’s Typewriter and Mine: Reflections on Jewish Culture (University of Nebraska Press, 2002) and the graphic novel El Iluminado (Basic Books, with Steve Sheinkin).

New Reviews

Tuesday, December 25, 2012 | Permalink

This week's reviews:


 

Is There a Jewish Literary Renaissance?

Monday, December 24, 2012 | Permalink

Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. His most recent books are the collection of essays Singer’s Typewriter and Mine: Reflections on Jewish Culture (University of Nebraska Press, 2002) and the graphic novel El Iluminado (Basic Books, with Steve Sheinkin). He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I hear repeatedly that Jewish literature is undergoing a renaissance. The statement puzzles me.

I can’t think of a period over our last 3,000 years of history—yes, since the Bible began to take shape as a compendium of folktales—when Jews haven’t been part of a literary renaissance. We’re always dying…and leave a record of our near extinction. Indeed, Jewish literature thrives because it is constantly said to be on its last stand.

We write the apocalypse: no sooner does someone announce our demise, we do everything possible to prove it wrong.

Ours, no doubt, are apocalyptic times. Not since 1945 has anti-Semitism been more noxious than it is now. All of us Jews are seen as parasites in countless places. The hatred against us wasn’t cured after the Holocaust; it simply went commando.

We’ll unquestionably survive the current climate of animosity, although not without casualties: we’ll be again be physically decimated, not to say psychologically bruised. It has taken us a long time to think ourselves out of the Holocaust. Our next survival will also require enormous stamina.

That’s the eternal cycle in which we’re actors. The theme of Jewish history—and its literature—is the dialectic between creation and destruction.

We’re textual creatures: our primary relationship with the world isn't material but textual. We’re simultaneously authors and characters in a larger-than-life narrative. And texts connote languages. Every chapter in our history is delivered in another language. I don't see a literary renaissance today in Spanish, French, Portuguese, Polish, Russian… Our current mode, our lengua franca, is English. In fact, English is
what Yiddish was a century ago: our portable homeland.

That habitat isn’t eternal; it will perish, just as others did before.

What puzzles me about the present-day literary renaissance is its hubris: American Jews believe they their sheer drive can overcome anything. Yet no diaspora in Jewish history has been more insular, and more monolingual too. Our literature is a testament to our arrogance.

A measured life is defined by the awareness of its own shortcomings.

Check back on Wednesday for Ilan Stavan's next post for the Visiting Scribe.

A Jewish Thanksgiving in Avalon

Friday, December 21, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Harry Brod wrote about Jews not have a "middle range," speaking backwards, a couple of sayings with which he disagrees and why he always has a valid passport. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Every Thanksgiving I think of the Thanksgiving scene in the 1990 film Avalon, one of Barry Levinson’s semi-autobiographical Baltimore films. Avalon tells a multi-generational tale of a Jewish family, ranging from the immigrant generation who arrived at the start of the twentieth century to the Americanized generation of mid-century.

At the large family Thanksgiving gathering a feud develops between the two brothers of the central, transitional generation because they start the meal before the arrival of the older brother. The family tries unsuccessfully to soothe him by explaining that they waited but couldn’t delay the meal any further because the young kids were getting hungry. The two brothers end up not speaking because the older brother remains so deeply offended that they carved the turkey without him.

As I watched the movie I realized that the scene makes no sense. In this Jewish immigrant family, how on earth did Thanksgiving, and the question of who carves the turkey, attain such monumental significance that it splits apart a family who have managed to stay together through so many difficulties? And why is the kids’ hunger such a problem? Thanksgiving dinner is usually earlier than standard dinner time, so why are they so hungry? And if they are hungry, just feed them. What’s the big problem?

Then it hit me. My family didn’t look like that at Thanksgiving. My family looked like that at Passover, right down to the kids table added at the foot of the long dinner table at which the adults sat.

Now I understood the scene. It wasn’t about a turkey. The offending insult was that they had started the seder without waiting for the head of the family. And the seder ritual was why you had to start on time so the kids wouldn’t be too hungry. They’d have to sit there, bored and with food right in front of them, but not being allowed to eat until interminably long prayers were over. They’d be miserable, and if the kids are miserable, then so too are the adults taking care of them. So they had to start the seder on time.

By de-Jewifying the scene, transplanting it from Passover to Thanksgiving to make it more “universal,” they’d rendered the story incoherent. It annoys me no less now than it did then.

Harry Brod is a professor of philosophy and humanities at the University of Northern Iowa and the author of Superman is Jewish?: How Comic Book Superheroes Came to Serve Truth, Justice, and the Jewish-American Way (Free Press; November 2012).


New Reviews

Friday, December 21, 2012 | Permalink

This week's reviews:


 

No Middle Range

Thursday, December 20, 2012 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Harry Brod wrote about speaking backwardsa couple of sayings with which he disagrees and why he always has a valid passport. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

“Jews don’t have a middle range,” I said to my friend and colleague.

He was telling me about his experience teaching a new course at our university. Faculty from very different fields had come together to develop a common core of readings and topics for a course designed to introduce first year students to college life. Each professor would teach their own section but the students would receive a common experience. The format meant that every instructor would be out of their area of expertise and comfort zone for at least part of the course, most likely for most of it.

“So there I was,” he told me, “standing in front of these new students as an experienced teacher, not just nervous but terrified.”

“Yeah,” I said, “Jews don’t have a middle range. We go right from a little bit scared to absolutely terrified.”

It’s a legacy of the Holocaust, with roots further back in our history. The flames of the Holocaust have singed all of our imaginations, leaving behind their psychological scars. And scar tissue isn't flexible. So we end up not having a whole lot of flexibility when we feel threatened. We tend to operate in all-or-nothing mode. When we get scared, even just a bit, we start to see Nazis.

We’re not the only ones who suffer from a scarred imagination in dealing with anti-Semitism. It’s a principal reason why anti-Semitism remains set apart, so often unintegrated with the other “isms” people are trying to address: racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, etc. At least for some of us, when someone raises a question about whether we have acted in some way that is sexist, racist, etc., we understand that there may be subtle issues of unintended prejudice involved, and we might be willing to examine our actions and beliefs to at least some extent. We don’t react as if we’re being called serial rapists or members of the KKK. But raise a question about anti-Semitism possibly being at work, and people react like they’re being called Nazis. The Nazi terror continues to impact people in a way that make it practically impossible to discuss more subtle forms of anti-Semitism short of genocide. Jews aren’t the only ones with no middle range when it comes to anti-Semitism.

Harry Brod is a professor of philosophy and humanities at the University of Northern Iowa and the author of Superman is Jewish?: How Comic Book Superheroes Came to Serve Truth, Justice, and the Jewish-American Way (Free Press; November 2012).

Fate Knocking at the Door: An Interview with Ilan Stavans

Wednesday, December 19, 2012 | Permalink

by Philip K. Jason

Philip K. Jason: What binds your interest in comic strips and graphic novels on the one hand and more traditional critical explorations on the other?
Ilan Stavans: Storytelling is a form of midrash. I love telling stories, analyzing them, seeing them in context. I grew up in a culture that juxtaposed the word and the image. As a writer, I don’t see one as superior to the other. I also don't see the distinction between highbrow and popular readerships. The capacity to enthrall knows no boundary.

PKJ: Prof. Stavans, as a character in your graphic novel El Iluminado (Basic Books, 2012), is directly involved in a real world adventure. What do you say to those who feel that people in academic life somehow have removed themselves from real world experiences?
IS: For me the noun academic is derogatory: it denotes affectation, posturing, pretense. Academic life is shamefully aloof, removed from the nuts-and-bolts affairs of daily Americans. I feel uncomfortable with such elitism: I prefer to get my hands dirty, to delve into the frying pan.

PJK: Tell me something about the background of the family name.
IS: In vain I’ve sought my roots in nineteenth-century Europe. My consolation is the knowledge that my ancestors have roots in the Pale of Settlements, although I don't know how deep those roots are. My full name (oy gevalt!) is Ilan Kalmen Stavchansky Slomianski Altchuler Eisenberg. Stavchansky probably refers to Stavchany, in the Ukraine. My father, Abraham Stavans, a stage and soap-opera actor in Mexico, shortened the name for artistic reasons, although he never made the move to change it officially. I chose Ilan Stavans to emphasize my debt to him. I discuss this debt in my memoir On Borrowed Words (Penguin, 2002).

Continue Reading

Speaking Backwards

Wednesday, December 19, 2012 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Harry Brod wrote about a couple of sayings with which he disagrees and why he always has a valid passport. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I’ve been told that students in my college courses sometimes have trouble following what I’m saying because I speak backwards.

The problem is the order in which I put words in a sentence. Having grown up in a Yiddish and German speaking household, I seem to think in the structure of those languages even when I’m speaking English. Maybe if I looked like Yoda they’d get into it, but as a New York Jew in Iowa, I’m just strange.

I think of Cynthia Ozick, who has said that she writes Yiddish sentences in English. Some years ago I was invited to deliver a lecture on Ozick’s wonderful paired short story and novella The Shawl and Rosa. I made this point by reading a few words from one of the first sentences in Rosa: “Her meals she had elsewhere.” That, I pointed out, is not standard English prose. In English one would normally say “She had her meals elsewhere.” Standard Yiddish sentence construction is what it is.

I've learned that my students don’t have the patience to try to understand different accents or speech patterns. When I've sent them to hear guest speakers on campus, if the speaker has a noticeable accent many of them come back reporting that the speaker was very difficult or impossible to understand. But it’s not true. With pretty minimal effort the ear adjusts. It’s that they were unwilling to make the effort.

A few years ago some students organized a panel discussion where they invited several faculty members to speak about our various identities and how they interacted with each other (the academic term for this is “intersectionality,” a topic they wished to explore further than they had done in their classes). One of the identities I claimed is that English is not my first language. I was born in Berlin and came to the US with my parents at age two. I told the students that I was always impressed by how well those among them who were monolingual were doing with that handicap. I expressed my admiration for how with only one set of idioms and word choices in which to express themselves they seemed to be managing quite well, and apparently had come up with creative ways to keep themselves from being bored. As I spoke I was enjoying watching the two Asian students sitting up front having a great time with it.

After a couple of years in Iowa I noticed that I was thinking in Yiddish and German more than I used to. I was tempted to attribute it to my regressing back to a sort of second childhood as I age, but I think there’s more to it than that. Having grown up in New York City and then having lived for many years in Southern California, I’m used to being surrounded by the varying sounds of different tongues. Here in the plain Plains, I miss it, relatively surrounded as I am by linguistic monolithic monotony. So I think I've internally recreated that diversity for myself. It’s one way to handle a diasporic existence.

Harry Brod is a professor of philosophy and humanities at the University of Northern Iowa and the author of Superman is Jewish?: How Comic Book Superheroes Came to Serve Truth, Justice, and the Jewish-American Way (Free Press; November 2012).