We admit it, we are obsessed with blue. Also with seashells and snails. Our house is filled with skeins of blue threads, tufts of wool in every shade of blue imaginable, and dozens of shells of different sizes and peculiar shapes. But we weren’t always so infatuated.
We were introduced to the wonderful world of blue quite by chance. Late one Thursday night, around twenty years ago, an old high-school buddy called and asked if I would like to join him the next day to go scuba diving in the Mediterranean. He was going to help a dedicated rabbi collect some sea-snails. Not just any snails, but a particular species that had once been used to produce the fabulously expensive and stunning dye known as biblical blue, or tekhelet. In the ancient world, tekhelet had been a cornerstone commodity worth up to twenty times its weight in gold, but for centuries it had been lost and all but forgotten. Only recently had there been a revival of interest in the ancient dyeing process. I myself had only a faint knowledge of the topic of tekhelet, which is mentioned numerous times in the Bible as the main component of the priestly garments and the decorative curtains of the Temple.
The night my friend called was cold and wintery, and the next day was going to be the same or worse. Joining him would mean that I’d have to wake up before dawn in order to make it from my home in Jerusalem to the Northern coast and back before Shabbat. I had every reason to bow out, but words seemed to come out of my mouth before I could properly think them through: “Sure – see you at four.” Those words were the beginning of an adventure that would start as a curiosity, develop into a passion, and ultimately become the obsession that virtually defines my identity.
We realize, of course, that not everyone sees the world through blue colored glasses, though we are continually surprised by how many people – from rabbis to chemists, from painters and numismatists to scholars specializing in magic and superstition – have in fact devoted their lives to researching all areas relating to this ancient dye. Indeed, hunting for snails and performing micro-surgery to extract a tiny gland in order to obtain a fraction of a gram of dye might appear to be an arcane activity of little relevance to modern sensibilities.
But these lowly snails have a world to teach us. And in many ways, that is itself the most important lesson that we have learned from our involvement in the tekhelet story. We have seen, over and over again, how when you start to dig deeply into a topic, regardless of how small and insignificant it seems at first glance, you soon begin to realize the interconnectivity of all knowledge. One thing leads to another; one aspect of research sheds light on a vastly different area of investigation, and in some cases can lead to new ideas, and even fundamental reevaluation of accepted notions. Dig deep enough into any small region of human endeavor, and you will eventually reach the spring of wisdom below – everything is related, and each well taps into a different part of the underlying whole.
The principles of molecular spectroscopy that I had encountered during my studies towards a doctorate in laser physics help explain why the molecule produced by our snails is unique as virtually the only natural occurrence of a lasting blue dye. The power of blue was the motivation behind one German artist’s choice to explore the effects of pressing snail glands onto a canvas to produce mesmerizing swirls of blue, and the psychological effects of blue studied by scientists prompted the Japanese transit authority’s decision to replace all their subway lighting with blue LEDs. (They say the calming effects of the color blue have reduced the spate of suicides in the train stations).
Isaac Newton compared himself to a young child “playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” We are all playing on the shores of the very same endless sea, and sometimes even seemingly insignificant shells may turn out to be, in the Bible’s words, “treasures hidden in the sand.” Uncovering these treasures, one by one, adds to man’s understanding of the world around him. And each person’s passion contributes to our collective knowledge, ever growing and increasing… if only at a snail’s pace.
We admit it, we are obsessed with blue. Also with seashells and snails. Our house is filled with skeins of blue threads, tufts of wool in every shade of blue imaginable, and dozens of shells of different sizes and peculiar shapes. But we weren’t always so infatuated.
Christine Maasdam: Diane, you certainly have an impressive background—Brown, Georgetown, a decade of practicing law, and raising a family. When did you find the time to write? What was your motivation to move into a writing career, especially with a focus on children? Do you recall that special moment when you said to yourself that this was something that you must do?
Diane Heiman: I have always loved words—reading, writing and talking! As a child, I especially loved to read. Books transported me to far away places, distant time periods and enticing experiences. Some of my favorite childhood friends lived inside books—such as the five sisters in Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family series. Even as a young girl, I hoped to become a children’s book writer. Once, in seventh grade, I went to a bar mitzvah party and a fortuneteller looked at my palm and predicted I would write and illustrate children’s books. How did she know my secret dream? I guess at least one of her prophecies came true.
CM: The Mitzvah Project Book has brought tremendously meaningful experiences to thousands of Bar and Bat Mitzvah young adults since its publication. Can you tell us about the spark that ignited you and Liz to create that particular book?
DH: Washington Hebrew Congregation's Mitzvah Day (my family's synagogue in Washington, DC) inspired The Mitzvah Project Book (MPB). On Mitzvah Day, the entire congregation comes together to volunteer for the greater community through a myriad of activities. Liz and I wanted bar and bat mitzvah students to learn about the myriad of great mitzvah projects, large and small, that their peers are doing all across our country. We saw our own kids struggle to find meaningful mitzvah projects. So we focused the book around kids’ interests--computers, animals, sports, art, music, Israel and more. MPB would have been a much-appreciated resource in our own homes.
CM: Was It's a…It's a...It's a Mitzvah in your mind while working on The Mitzvah Project Book?
DH: It’s a…It’s a…It’s a Mitzvah was a natural next book after MPB. We realized younger children participate in good deeds too. And we wanted to reinforce that doing goods deeds is an integral part of Jewish life, not just part of a bar or bat mitzvah year. By highlighting daily acts of loving kindness and other mitzvot in an upbeat manner, we hopefully connect young children to this concept.
CM: How did The Mitzvah Project Book bring It's a …It's a...It's a Mitzvah to life? At what moment, did you realize that the acts of mitzvah needed to and could be addressed even earlier in the lives of children?
DH: We wrote It’s a…It’s a...It’s a Mitzvah to inspire young children in multiple ways. Each scenario illustrates a different good deed. The children who hear our words and smile at our pictures experience the power they have within themselves to make the world a better place. Mitzvah Meerkat reminds us that sharing food with someone who is hungry, visiting someone who is sick, and celebrating Shabbat are mitzvot. Parents, grandparents, teachers and caregivers who read this book aloud can use it as a springboard for talking about tikkun olam (repairing the world). It can be read before collecting tzedakah. The book can also spark discussion about other mitzvot. And reading it just for fun is fun too. Kids love to repeat the refrain, “It’s a… It’s a… It’s a mitzvah!”
CM: Jews have had a history of teaching mitzvah—it is at the core of our beliefs. It's a …It's a...It's a Mitzvah makes it a universal concept for everyone. Do you see the book as a bridge across various religions and cultures?
DH: My coauthor, Liz Suneby, and I knew that the concept of doing good deeds transcends cultures and religions. But we didn’t expect that It’s a...It’s a...It’s a Mitzvah would become a bridge across religions. We were thrilled to learn that The Lutheran, the magazine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America included It’s a…It’s a…It’s a Mitzvah in its September 2012 column called, “The Best.” Also, a non-sectarian website, spiritualityandpractice.com, awarded It’s a…It’s a…It’s a Mitzvah one of the fifty best spiritual books of 2012.
CM: How much fun was it to create these endearing creatures? They are so filled with emotion and wonderment, that a child gravitates to them instantaneously. Did Laurel Molk surprise you with the characters or did you both collaborate on their creation? Why the Mitzvah Meerkat? Does he hold a special spot in either of your hearts?
DH: Liz and I wanted the narrator of our picture book to be an appealing creature with an “m” for alliteration with mitzvah. How did we choose a meerkat? My kids adored the Travel Channel’s wildly (pun intended!) popular documentary series filmed in the Kalahari Desert, “Meerkat Manor.” Meerkats live in family groups, stand up on their hind legs, use their front paws and are very cute. We also hoped that a meerkat would bring a “fresh face” to our children’s picture book. Laurel Molk, the book’s illustrator, sprinkled a wonderful layer of inventiveness onto our cast of characters. She created the trio of mice that appear in each spread. The warmth and delight expressed in her watercolors is contagious!
CM: Each of you live mitzvah throughout your daily lives. I sense that It's a…It's a...It's a Mitzvah was a very personal journey for you. Your work with the Equal Justice Foundation, Take Our Daughters & Sons to Work Day, and the upcoming event for Prevention of Blindness Society speak volumes. Any thoughts that you would like to share on future mitzvahs or developing interests?
DH: In today’s world, anyone can connect with friends and even global strangers in an instant. Electronic communications make all kinds of information so accessible. The great need for mitzvot in our own communities and far beyond is very present. Liz and I are grateful to Jewish Lights Publishing for helping us communicate to young people that they each have the power to make a difference. As writers, Liz and I hope to continue to focus on the theme of good deeds.
Diane, thank you for this interview and the joy of mitzvot you and Liz have brought to a new generation.
Christine Maasdam holds a Masters in Humanities, certifications in Museum Studies and Cultural Property Protection. She is currently completing her M.L.I.S. Her interests are philosophy and the impact of art and technology on culture.
M. M. Silver is a modern Jewish history scholar at Max Stern College of Emek Yezreel in Israel. His newest book, Louis Marshall and the Rise of Jewish Ethnicity in America: A Biography, is now available. He will be blogging here this week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.
Here's a thought experiment designed to show you how the Jewish world does not work today. Imagine that some extremely committed, professionally accomplished Jewish individual arose today in America, and suddenly served as lay director of key Jewish religious institutions, stewarded vital Jewish community interests on Capitol Hill, supervised American Jewish contacts with Israeli leaders, and managed campaigns for imperiled or impoverished Jewish communities around the world. You're thinking about a Jewish Papacy that could never arise – at least never again.
Let's expand these experimental terms, and move beyond the concerns of Modern Jewish History and think about ethnic realities in American History. When has it ever happened that the acknowledged leader of one ethnic group takes up the reins for other ethnic groups, managing and directing their courtroom and public battles against discrimination and prejudice? How many ethnic leaders in America have attended to the parochial affairs of their own group, fought for justice for other socio-religious groups, and creatively broadened conceptualizations of legal rights to afford protection to the environment?
By all these, Jewish History, American History and Ethnic History, standards, Louis Marshall's life (1856-1929) stands out as a singular, and compellingly intriguing, event.
Reviewing items stored in his archive, at the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, I wondered how many lives could have collected so many papers that would have to be ranked with the "Top 100 documents in American Jewish History." No matter how seriously or entertainingly one might envision such a list – whether it would include George Washington's letter to the Jews of Newport or Sandy Koufax's first contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers – Marshall's collection would likely provide 10 percent, or more, of the items. Henry Ford's apology to the Jews (sent to, and dictated by, Marshall) is in the Cincinnati archive, as is the recently discovered "Protocol of Peace" agreement ending the great cloakmakers strike of 1910, along with cornerstone documents of the early phases of signature American Jewish organizations and institutions (the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Joint Distribution Committee).
Any search for primary documentation attesting to American Jewry's relations with world Zionism in the decade after the Balfour Declaration and the British conquest of Eretz Israel would begin and end in Louis Marshall's archive. The same could be said about American Jewry's relations generally with overseas Jewish groups during the first half of the interwar period.
Have you ever wondered how American Jews responded to aspersions about Jewish bootleggers and "wine rabbis" during Prohibition? Or what they had to say about the Ku Klux Klan when that hate group's membership soared to include several million members, during its second wave of activity in the 1920s? You can go find the essential documents in Marshall's archive.
I'm not sure exactly where each of these would rank on the "Top 100" list. Ahead of the purchase receipt for Monica Lewinsky's dress but behind Woody Allen's script for Annie Hall? Ahead or behind Mordecai Noah's 1825 proclamation for the "reestablishment of Hebrew government" at Ararat? Nestled somewhere between the maps of General Grant's number 11 expulsion order and Groucho and Chico Marx's search for the "why a duck" viaduct on the Florida peninsula?
Insofar as they point to the difficulty of prioritizing experiences and events in the Jews' (or anyone else's) history, these questions are not entirely facetious. Ultimately, what counts as important in a national/ethnic/religious group's experience is whatever makes its members' hearts throb in fear or excitement, and whatever pries open a grin or grimace on their faces.
By such down-to-earth standards, along with the far more sententiously formulated measurements relied on by those of us who, for better or worse, received professional training in Jewish History, Louis Marshall ranks as an overwhelmingly important figure in American Jewish History. His archive has as many heart throbs, grins and grimaces as that of any other prominent activist or leader in the community's history. I wrote a big book about him out of the feeling that collected within his life is as much evidence about what American Jewish life has really been about as could possibly be found in any biography.
Join M. M. Silver for the Louis Marshall and the Rise of Jewish Ethnicity in America: A Biography book launch on March 12th at Congregation Emanu-El in NYC. More information about this event can be found here
My most recently published novel, The Other Side of the World, contains a 100-page novel-within-the-novel set entirely in Singapore and Borneo. The book appeared in early December, and since then readers and interviewers keep asking an obvious question: Have you ever been to Singapore and/or Borneo?
The answer: No . . .
And the response to this answer is often bewilderment, as in: How can you write about a place you’ve never seen or been to? To this point no one, including friends and reviewers who have been to Singapore and Borneo, has questioned the credibility of the Singapore and Borneo I’ve conjured up. But why should people believe that a fiction writer has to go to a place in order to write about it? An earlier novel of mine, The Stolen Jew (1981), begins in Israel, on a beach in Herzlia, and I wrote this novel before I’d ever been to Israel. The Stolen Jew also contains several sections set in the Soviet Union, both in time-present (about smuggling out a Jewish dissident), and in the nineteenth century (about a Jewish boy kidnapped to take the place of another Jewish boy for 25 year service in the Tsar’s army—the dreaded cantonist gzeyra).
I had never been to the Soviet Union.
The list of writers who have written about places they’ve never been to is long and impressive, beginning with Shakespeare (his many plays set in Italy: Othello, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Romeo and Juliet, and The Merchant of Venice, etc.), and includes, for starters, Saul Bellow (Henderson the Rain King, set in Africa, which Bellow had never visited), Franz Kafka (Amerika, set on our shores, which Kafka never saw), Italo Calvino (Invisible Cities, an imaginary dialogue set in China between Kublai Kahn and Marco Polo). And Shakespeare, I note, never met a Jew, for they were banished from England during his lifetime, yet he created Shylock.
William Saroyan, a splendid novelist and story writer, once did a travel piece for Esquire magazine about Mexico City. After the article appeared, his editor at Esquire called to tell him that several readers had written to the magazine saying they could not find some of the places Saroyan mentioned in the article. Had Saroyan visited them? “You asked me to write about Mexico City,” Saroyan replied. “You didn’t say I had to go there.” And of course there are the thousands of historical novels—novels that try to portray historical periods and figures by fictionalizing them—as opposed to what writers like Bellow, Calvino, Shakespeare, McMurtry, Charyn, Chabon, Laxness, Dickens, and others have done, which is to re-imagine historical periods and figures.
But why, in novels and stories, should writing about a place you’ve never been to be any different than writing about imaginary people you’ve never known? Or about historical figures you’ve never met (e.g., E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, Colm Toibin’s The Master, Mark Twain’s Joan of Arc)?
The great joy for me as a writer of fiction is to be able to go anywhere in time and place, and to be anyone. In my next novel, The American Sun & Wind Moving Picture Company (March 2013), I’ll start out as a twelve-year-old boy in the year 1915 who, on a frozen lake in Fort Lee, New Jersey, is about to play the part of a young girl in a (silent) film his family is making. And the novel I am at work on now is told by a black man, born in Louisiana at the beginning of the twentieth century, who becomes close friend and “Man Friday” to the heavyweight champion, Max Baer, who famously, and in my novel, strode into the ring at Yankee Stadium on August 6, 1933, proudly wearing a Star of David on his boxing trunks, and proceeded to knock out a former heavyweight champion of the world, “Hitler’s Boxer,” Max Schmeling. And after that, I’ll probably be . . .
Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter
In Sam Lipsyte's newest collection, The Fun Parts (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), he brings to life a reality-brandishing monster preying on a boy's fantasy realm, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, who makes the most shocking leap imaginable to save her soul, a doomsday hustler, and a grizzled male birth doula, among others. The Fun Parts will be published on March 5th.here.
In today's installment of the Visiting Scribe for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning, Eddy Portnoy sat down with Ben Katchor to discuss his newest book, Hand-Drying in America: And Other Stories, which will be published by Pantheon Books on March 5th.
The artist Ben Katchor is a master of a visual urban milieu that echoes post-war New York City, but really isn't that at all. Populated by stocky characters who tramp about and explore an oddly familiar, yet completely invented universe, Katchor’s picture-stories (as he likes to call them) are stirring forays into the urban absurd. The recipient of Guggenheim and MacArthur awards, among others, Katchor creates a kind of visual poetry comprised of everyday artifacts and activities. His ability to bring everyday objects and activities to the forefront of his visual narratives lends his work an imaginative, absurdist quality fired by light switches, peepholes, wheelchair ramps, coat check rooms and invented occupations, like spittoon pump engineers and rhumba line organizers. Katchor sees what we don’t in pedestrian objects and events and crafts short, comic narratives out of them. His books, which include Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer; The Jew of New York, and The Cardboard Valise, are part of his continually expanding oeuvre, which has come to include operas based on a number of his stories.
His most recent publication, Hand-Drying in America, is a compilation of full-color, one-page picture stories that appeared in the urban design and architecture magazine, Metropolis. Like most of his work, they take place in an invented Katchoresque urban world. I sat down with Ben recently to have a meandering discussion about it.
Eddy Portnoy: Your stories are full of unusual names of people and places, are any of them real?
Ben Katchor: It’s strange when someone tells you that you've made a literary, or cultural, reference in a strip to someone you’ve never heard of. It’s something I made up, but then they say that’s the famous Israeli comedian. Somebody wrote a whole thesis centered around the connection between the character, Kishon, in The Jew of New York, and the Israeli writer, Ephraim Kishon, who I had never heard of. I just like the sound of the name, like a cushion or a pillow (in Yiddish). Some, like Harkavy, in The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island, are real references (in this case, to Yiddish author, Alexander Harkavy).
EP: Jewish names and references sometimes pop up in your work. Is there a Jewish component to this book?
BK: Well, only that the the author had parents who grew up in a more traditional, early twentieth century Jewish culture.
EP: Is that reflected in the book? Some of your works have Yiddish references. Are there any here?
BK: I don’t know. A lot of Yiddish words have come into English. I just wanted more to come. It’s a way to introduce new Yiddish words into the English language. Not that I define them, but...well, maybe there’s nothing Jewish anymore in the world.
EP: I think there probably is.
BK: I don’t know. I think it’s a pretty nebulous term. Even historically.
EP: What role did Yiddish play when you were growing up?
BK: It was my father’s language. We lived in Bed-Stuy and most of his friends were Yiddish speakers. There were always Yiddish papers, like the Freiheit in the house. He took me to all these Yiddish cultural events, concerts, lectures, plays, all before the first grade. Those years were a whole life, an eternity. That’s a long time for a little kid, all these incredible events. He would drag me along on errands to the Lower East Side, I used to like to go along. He wanted me to be able to function in Yiddish, but not so much that he forced me to study it. I didn’t really use it, I always spoke English.
EP: Was it a religious household?
BK: No, my father had no interest in organized religion. He was an atheist, a utopian socialist who subscribed to the Freiheit, the Yiddish-language Communist daily paper.
EP: So it was just the secular cultural Jewishness.
BK: Just!? Maybe that’s all there is to it. I think that was an enormous world of cultural activity. I could hear all this Yiddish music, I grew up listening to Yiddish records and we had a library of Yiddish books, and we told jokes from the humor column in the Freiheit.
EP: What role does the city you grew up in play in your work?
BK: Well, Knipl takes place in an imaginary large East Coast city. It may be filled with Jews, but also disciples of a countless cultures and religions of my own invention . . . I guess you could analyze the source of these things in the real world and determine that they could only have been invented by someone who grew up in New York urban circa 1950 to the 1970s. There's an old Knipl strip about a guy playing with the elastic band of his underpants who lives in a union housing project. A good historian could look at that and figure out exactly which union in New York inspired that story. He could analyze the brands of men's underwear available during that period, the hair patterns on the character's body as a sign of a particular ethnicity, and so on. You could probably go into every one of these stories and analyze the details asking, what did Katchor know, what could Katchor know, growing up and how is that unique to his socio-cultural background or milieu. In such an exercise the chances of error are great.
My strips reflect a particular kind of dislocated urban environment. And maybe in a hundred years, you’ll have to annotate these things. After they get rid of all the unions, they’ll say, “what do you mean, ‘The Men’s Underpants Union.’ What does that mean, a ‘union?’”
EP: But a lot of it is also invented.
BK: The kinds of things that have never been recorded in history have to be made up. History only records very narrow slices of what goes on in the world. Nobody wrote about the guy who came to Mordecai Noah's Ararat and was disappointed by the failed scheme. That’s what inspired me to write and draw The Jew of New York. It's so-called historical fiction.
EP: Would you like to conclude by saying something about Hand-Drying in America?
BK: It’s a compilation of fifteen years of short stories about the built world. As I've lived all my life in cities, I can't help but try to find some sense in the way things have been arranged. It's a form of appreciation for a failed world.
Some years ago, when I was president of Congregation B’nai Israel, in Northampton, Massachusetts, I wrote a short story I set in my synagogue. Here, Chagall-like, are the story’s opening lines:
When the telephone rang, shortly after three a.m. on a cold, early November morning—Officer Ed Sedowski calling to say that a lost Torah had been found wandering around the local shopping mall—Rabbi Saul Gewirtz was fast asleep on his living room couch, having taken himself there some two hours before, following a fight with his wife Pauline.
I had a delightful time conjuring up an imaginary rabbi’s life—I rewrote the story several times, published it in a good literary quarterly, and several years later the story became the title story of my third collection, News from the New American Diaspora and Other Tales of Exile. The stories I gathered for this collection spanned most of the twentieth century of Jewish-American life, and in 2005, at the time of the book’s publication, I returned to Northampton to give a reading at the synagogue. (A wandering Jew myself, after 30 years of exile in New England, I had, in 1999, left Northampton and returned to my home town of New York City.)
But many years before this, when the story was a manuscript, I had shown it to our B’nai Israel rabbi, Philip Graubart, himself a marvelous novelist and short story writer. Philip and I were friends, and I asked him to take a look at it, especially because in the story I had detailed a day in Rabbi Saul Gewirtz’s life. In that single day, Rabbi Gewirtz is attacked by a man with AIDS, who spits on the rescued Torah, and accuses the rabbi of being a heartless unforgiving God and smug Jewish doctor rolled into one; he is sexually assaulted and cursed by a female congregant with whom he had once had an affair; he is harangued by a Russian Jewish emigré whose children despise him, and whose wife has left him, and who, weeping away, asks the rabbi why God plays jokes with honest men.
They came and they went: a lesbian couple whose adopted daughter, not yet a year old, was afflicted with leukemia; an Israeli man of seventy-eight whose divorced wife was dying in Israel and who wanted to go there and ask her forgiveness, but was terrified of flying and fearful that his ex-wife would die before he arrived; a fifty-year-old stockbroker, whose father, eighty-three years old and a survivor of Buchenwald, had Alzheimer’s, was perpetually incontinent, refused to wear diapers or to live in a nursing home, and so was sitting day and night in his own piss and shit in the son’s home; a brother and sister, fourteen and fifteen years old, who, victims of a joint custody arrangement in which they stayed in a house that their mother and father took turns visiting, had begun having sex with one another . . .
And on and on it went.
Rabbi Graubart called me a few days later, and suggested we have lunch together. I was nervous—worried he had taken the story personally, and had been offended—but when, at lunch, I asked him what he thought of the story, he said he loved it. When I asked him what he thought of the rabbi’s day, and of the people who came and went from the rabbi’s study, he smiled.
“It seemed like a typical day in my life,” he said.
And then he laughed.Jay's newest book, The American Sun & Wind Moving Picture Company, will be published in March. Visit Jay's official website here.
Although my novel, The American Sun & Wind Moving Picture Company, is set in the silent film era—it begins in 1915, in Fort Lee, New Jersey, where a a Jewish family that makes one and two reel (silent) films is making a new film on a frozen lake—its origins may lie in the spoken word. When friends ask how and why I came to write a novel about the silent film era, the first answer that comes to mind is that the novel is inspired not by my love of film, but by my childhood love of listening to stories on the radio.
During my years in high school, in Brooklyn in the early fifties, the New York City Board of Education’s radio station, WNYE-FM, regularly broadcast radio programs into elementary, junior high, and high school classrooms. And during those years I was a child/teenage actor at the radio station. I played some wonderful parts—Tom Sawyer, Hans Brinker, Willie the Whale, young Abe Lincoln, et al—and what the director of the station, Marjorie Knudsen, taught me on my first day there has stayed with me throughout my life. The most important element an actor has at his or her command for creating character, she said, were not words, but silence. The way you pause before a word, or between sentences, or after a particular phrase, or in the middle of a word—this, she said, is what makes listeners pay attention so that they can, in their imaginations, transform what they hear—and do not hear—into credible characters and scenes. The mystery of character—and the essence of what made listeners want to know what-happens-next, lay in those moments when there was no sound.
Here, then, from the first page of The American Sun & Wind Moving Picture Company, Joey Levine, a boy who plays both male and female parts in his family’s movies, and who conjures up the stories that his family turns into movies:
I could make a story out of anything back then—a nail, a glass, a shoe, a tree, a mirror, a button, a window, a wall—and for every story I made up and gave away, I also made one up that I told no one about—one I stored inside me, in the rooms where I kept my most precious memories and pictures.
What Joey is doing, I now realize (I didn’t see or understand this when I was writing the novel, which is told in his voice), is trying to conjure up the seen from the unseen—just as, when listening to the radio as a boy, I conjured up live human beings I could see in my mind’s eye, and to some degree like viewers of silent movies, who had to infer the unseen—the mysteries and complexities of character—from the seen. Viewers, that is, had to infer thoughts and feelings, not from words characters spoke (though there were often titles between scenes where snatches of dialogue were projected onto the screen), but from expressions and gestures the characters made—from closeups of eyes, for example—that told of those silent, inner worlds that were un-seen. In both radio dramas, and silent films, the greatest source of mystery and power—of our attachment and interest in fictional characters—resided in ways to make us sense what we could not see, whether what we saw came to us in images or in sound.
In The American Sun & Wind Moving Picture Company, Joey is forced into exile, and we follow his cross-country adventures in both time and space—from New Jersey to Wisconsin to California, and from 1915 to 1930. He arrives in Los Angeles at a time when silent movies are giving way to ‘talkies,’ and where his uncle Karl, who directed the family’s movies when Joey was a boy, has become a major producer and director in Hollywood. In the novel’s final chapter, Joey and Joey and Karl sit on a mountain top and look down at a desert that has been the setting for a great battle the day before for the uncle’s cast-of-thouands production of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. And what do these two men do when they look down upon a scene of horrific devastation? It is the end of the Sabbath, and they talk about the sermon they heard in synagogue that morning—they talk about King David and King Solomon, and about God’s ways, and about why it is the rabbis say that on the day the Temple was destroyed, the Messiah was born.
Visit Jay Neugeboren's official website here.
A couple of years ago I decided to lead a group of adult learners in a class on Jewish fiction. The reason was that I wanted to share a few books I loved, and I also wanted an excuse to read some I’d never got around to. It was an amazing experience, both as a teacher and as a reader.
Re-reading some favorites – like Bruno Schulz, Primo Levi and Meir Shalev – only served to deepen my attachment to them. But the writers I’d wanted to get to know – like Clarice Lispector and Joseph Roth – were a revelation. Two or three really stand out in that category. Lispector for certain – nothing in literature is quite like her, and I urge you to read through twice before you judge. But it was Roman Gary who won my heart with his incomparable character Momo – the little Arab kid adopted by the Jewish Rosa – in a work that is simply perfection, there is no other word for it. As for sheer greatness, it has to be Yaakov Shabtai, whose Past Continuous is not only a virtuosic masterpiece, but deeply moving; also truly great is S.Y. Agnon’s Only Yesterday, which is remarkable for its breadth, its unflinching eye, and the beauty of its prose even in translation. Each one of the works I taught has a special place in my heart, and I believe you will also find them gratifying to read or re-read. Bruno Schultz is fundamental – in a class by himself. Dovid Bergelson’s short stories, only recently translated from the Yiddish, and are a mad joy. David Grossman needs no introduction, except I strongly recommend reading Schultz first.
One note. Late in the course, I included Paul Celan, the poet, whose work is soul-wrenching and beyond beautiful. Obviously he is not writing fiction, but I can think of nothing that reflects the transformative nature of the Jewish literary experience better. I recommend the German/English side-by-side edition by Michael Hamburger.
And if you ever want to chat about any of these, I’d be delighted.
Dovid Bergelson, The Shadows of Berlin
Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles
David Grossman, See Under: Love
Aharon Appelfeld, Badenheim 1939
Meir Shalev, The Pigeon and the Boy
Clarice Lispector, Hour of the Star
Roman Gary, The Life Before You (Madame Rosa)
Arnon Grunberg, Phantom Pain
Nathan Englander, The Ministry of Special Cases
Der Nister, The Family Mashber*
Yaakov Shabtai, Past Continuous
Moacyr Scliar, The Centaur in the Garden
Primo Levi, The Periodic Table
Italo Svevo, Zeno's Conscience
S.Y Agnon, Only Yesterday
Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March
Sayed Kashua, Dancing Arabs *
Orly Castel-Bloom, Human Parts
Franz Kafka, The Complete Stories
Paul Celan, Poems of Paul Celan
*Sessions on these two works were led by Igael Gurin-Malous.
Michael Lavigne's first novel, Not Me, was the recipient of the Sami Rohr Prize Choice Award. His newest novel, The Wanting, will be published by Schocken Books on February 26th. Visit Michael on Facebook and visit his official website here.