The ProsenPeople

Ideas Do Matter

Wednesday, August 22, 2012 | Permalink
In his last post, Daniel Gordis wrote about the discourse surrounding Israel as a conflict of ideas about the nation-state. Daniel is blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

In my previous blog, I wrote that I hoped that The Promise of Israel might give new shape and direction to the conversation we’re all having about Zionism. That seems like a tall order for a book, I know. But we’ve become too cynical about power of books and ideas to change the world. The Promise of Israel probably will not change the world; of that, I’m pretty sure. But books have done that in the past, and ideas are still formidable weapons. Our community of writers and readers ought to remember that.

In an era of nuclear weapons that can destroy the planet several times over, the notion that ideas are the most formidable weapon we have in our possession may sound strange. But it is true. Many of the world’s most important revolutions were spurred by a book or its central idea. Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto in 1848; by 1905, Russia was rocked by revolutions that peaked in 1917 and overthrew the Czar. Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote his Social Contract in 1762; the French Revolution followed a mere twenty-seven years later. John Locke wrote Two Treatises of Government in 1690; less than a century later, the American Revolution changed the course of modern history. Theodor Herzl wrote The Jewish State in 1896, and fifty-two years later, David Ben-Gurion stood in Tel Aviv on May 14, 1948 and declared Israel’s independence. And all that those people did, essentially, was to write books and disseminate ideas.

Ideas do matter. They shape history. It is ideas, even more than territory or money, over which people go to war. Witness the conflict between radical Islam and the Western world today. That conflict, one of the gravest dangers facing our world, is really about ideas. Islamic fundamentalists and terrorists do not seek the West’s wealth. What they are doing is attacking the West’s culture and ideas.

Israel, I wanted my book to argue, can be our way of fighting back. For Israel is not just about borders or an army, great universities and world class medical care. It’s a story, and even more than that, Israel is the platform from which the Jewish People says something to the world about the ideas that we have been cultivating for millennia.

Jews have never bought into post-ethnic, post-identity ethos so in vogue in today’s discourse. We’ve always believed it was good that people were different, that we could learn from each other precisely because we were not the same. Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote in Émile, more than a century before Theodor Herzl began his campaign for a Jewish State, “I will never believe that I have heard what it is that the Jews have to say until they have a state of their own.” Well, now we have that state. Our responsibility, I think, is to make sure that we’re speaking not only about borders and security, but about the very ideas that lie at the core of Israel, and that hopefully, the world will come to understand that it needs to hear.

Check back on Friday for Daniel Gordis's final post for the Visiting Scribe.

The Nation-State

Monday, August 20, 2012 | Permalink
Daniel Gordis, recipient of the National Jewish Book Award and Senior Vice President and the Koret Distinguished Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, discusses his forthcoming book The Promise of Israel: Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness Is Actually Its Greatest Strength in his contributions to the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning shared blogging project this week.

People sometimes ask: What would you like your book to accomplish? In this case, my answer is easy: I would be thrilled if The Promise of Israel changed the conversation that we’re having about Zionism.

The Promise of Israel makes an audacious and seemingly odd claim. It suggests that what now divides Israel and the international community is an idea: the idea of the ethnic nation-state— a country created around a shared cultural heritage. Yes, it is true that the Israelis and the Palestinians are still tragically locked in an intractable and painful conflict; but that, I believe, is not the primary reason for Israel’s unprecedented fall from international grace.

Israel is marginalized and reviled because of a battle over the idea of the nation-state. Israel, the quintessential modern example of the ethnic nation-state, came on the scene just as most of the Western world had decided that the time had come to be rid of the nation-state. Today, Europe’s elites wish to move in one direction, while Israel suggests that humanity should be doing precisely the opposite. The conflict in the Middle East is about borders and statehood, but the conflict about the Middle East is over universalism versus particularism, over competing conceptions of how human beings ought to organize themselves.

So I decided that what we really need to be speaking about is how the conflict over the nation-state developed, how Israel got caught in it, and, most importantly, to demonstrate that a world bereft of the idea that Israel represents would be an impoverished one. Yes, I knew it would sound hyperbolic, but I wanted to argue that what is at stake in the current battle over Israel’s legitimacy is not simply the idea on which Israel is based, but, quite possibly, human freedom as we know it.

The very notion that the future of human freedom might depend on a small country like Israel is very counter-intuitive, to put it mildly. The very idea sounds crazy, I know. But that’s the conversation I wanted to get started. Imagine a world in which Jews, when talking about Israel, focused not on borders and checkpoints, occupation and conflict, but about the idea that the Jewish state is critical not just for Jews, but for freedom-loving people everywhere. It would be a new conversation, a new Zionist discourse. We need that, desperately. If The Promise of Israel contributes to that conversation in even a small way, I’ll be very gratified.

Check back on Wednesday for Daniel Gordis's next post for the Visiting Scribe.

Genetic Memory: Feeling Jewish

Friday, August 17, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Doreen Carvajal wrote about trying to recover her family's secret identity and how to unlock and preserve memories. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Earlier this summer, I mingled among a group of amateur and professional genealogists at an international Paris conference exploring the study of Jewish roots. A fascinating question emerged: is the history of all our ancestors somehow a part of us? Does genetic memory exist?

There are scientific studies exploring what we inherit in unexpected ways through epigenetics, a chemical network in our cells that controls genes, switching them on and off. At the core of this field is the notion that genes have a memory and that the lives of our great grandparents – what they breathed, saw and ate – can directly affect us decades later. Ongoing studies in Sweden are examining statistics about famine and abundant harvests to determine the impact on the health of descendants four generations later. Researchers, for instance, found a statistical link between the increased longevity of the descendants of paternal grandfathers who had lived through a period of famine while young.

I'm intrigued by the notion that generations pass on particular survival skills and, perhaps, an unconscious sense of identity that stands the test of centuries. In the case of my own Catholic Carvajal family, I wonder what prompted them to guard the secret of their Sephardic Jewish identity for generations long after the Spanish Inquisition that prompted them to flee to Costa Rica in Central America.

In the 1990’s, Jerusalem psychotherapist Dina Wardi worked with children of Holocaust survivors and developed the theory that survivor parents typically designated certain children as “memorial candles” who took on the mission of serving as a link to preserve the past and connect the future. The children of survivors who actively struggled against the Nazis, she found, had a strong compulsive ambition to achieve.

A similar strategy existed among the Anusim, Hebrew for the forced ones who converted to Christianity to survive during the Inquisition. Usually elder women took the role of passing on information about their secret identity to particular younger family members. In our family, the historian was my great Aunt Luz – which means light in Spanish.

At one seminar on genealogy, a speaker, Jonina Duker, talked about a phenomenon of "the blood calls" among Anusim to describe how they find their way back to the mainstream of Jewish people.

Recently, a Spaniard named Fernando Carvajal Acebal contacted me from Madrid after reading something I had written and spotting our shared Sephardic Jewish name, Carvajal. He tried to explain the feeling that he said has lingered with him since he was a young Catholic. His mother told him he started insisting he was Jewish when he was about six years old.

"Nobody transmitted this feeling to me," he told me. "I could have felt I was a Muslim, but I always felt profoundly that I was Jewish. I would say this intimate feeling is almost genetic, an emotion that tells me, yes, you are a Catholic, but do not forget that you are Jewish. I have a deep Christian faith and I pray every day. I do not know the Jewish rites, their customs, or roots. But it does not stop me from feeling Jewish."

Visit Doreen Carvajal's official website here.

New Reviews

Friday, August 17, 2012 | Permalink

This week's reviews:



 

Unlocking Memories

Wednesday, August 15, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Doreen Carvajal wrote about trying to recover her family's secret identity. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Most everyone has a family tree. But how do you turn a dry chart of birth and death dates into something more vibrant that can be shared for generations? Turn into a reporter. And then preserve the story in a compelling way.

By writing about my own family mystery with my first book, The Forgetting River, I wanted to share the story of the secret Sephardic Jewish identity of the Catholic Carvajals in a way that could introduce ancestors to descendants.

I'm a journalist by trade, but I made many mistakes along my own journey to explore my family. A basic lesson I learned was to start early to interview relatives about personal family history. By the time I began to probe our past, key relatives with vital information had died.

But one of the most crucial mistakes I made was that I lost my own journalistic skepticism when I questioned family members about delicate subjects. I didn't gather much information when I asked directly if we were the descendants of Marranos, forced Christian converts who maintained a dual identity to escape persecution during the Spanish Inquisition. To probe sensitive family history, I realized belatedly that it's best to work from the edges. Think. Watch. Observe. I asked benign questions and searched for records that allowed information to seep out about customs, household rituals, job patterns, prayers. I found that the older generation sometimes confided more in their grandchildren and nieces than their own children. From this strategy, I learned about a hidden menorah kept in a bedroom dresser or fourth cousins marrying fourth cousins, an almost tribal habit of trusted secret Marrano families intermarrying and maintaining the appearance of being Catholics.

Lately, I've been thinking about other strategies that families can exploit to start conversations and unlock memories. An acquaintance organized a family reunion for a large black family on the East Coast with some painful history dating back to slavery. Some relatives were reluctant to remember those times, but they settled on the idea of creating a griot cookbook, asking relatives for family recipes along with submissions of personal memories evoked by the dishes. The griot is a reference to a traditional West African storyteller.

Once conversations start flowing, seize the opportunity. Make a recording. The StoryCorps is a non-profit organization that offers advice about preserving personal history, down to suggested conversation openers (What is your earliest memory? What are the most important lessons you've learned in life?).

For the finale – and a gift to future generations – make a digital slide show with a soundtrack that mixes music and their words. There are many iPad applications that allow amateur genealogists to turn into multi-media producers. Make sure the slide is show is about two minutes and focus on a time or a story that can lead to more conversations.

Visit Doreen Carvajal's official website here.

Hunting Family Ghosts

Monday, August 13, 2012 | Permalink

Doreen Carvajal's first book, The Forgetting River, is about her search to recover her Catholic family's hidden Sephardic Jewish roots in a mystical white pueblo on Spain's southern frontier in Andalusia. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

The moment the cardboard box from New York arrived, I felt a strange mixture of elation and melancholy. The package was stacked with copies of my first book, a memoir, The Forgetting River.

I examined the hardcover like checking a new baby, counting the pages, smoothing the cover, reading the tribute and rereading my first sentences that I think I must have rewritten more than 100 times since I started my quest. It's a universal story of personal discovery, my journey to reclaim the secret Sephardic Jewish identity of my Catholic Carvajal family in a white pueblo on a high ridge in the southern frontier of Spain.

Everyone has a mystery in the family tree and this was mine. Now I feel wistful as a I look over the last chapter because I long to keep adding new information. Unbeknownst to me, my older cousin, Rosie, revealed a few days ago that she had questioned my great aunt Luz in San Jose, Costa Rica at a family gathering before she died in 1998. Aunt Luz, which literally means the light, was the careful historian of family lore, typical of Anusim – Hebrew for forced Christian converts dating back to the Spanish Inquisition. The Anusim or Marranos – which in Spanish literally means pigs – typically relied on elder women to pass on their secrets.

“Luz told me that our family came from Spain,” Rosie wrote to me. “She asked me: ‘Has your mother ever told you that we are Sefarditos?' Of course when I brought it up to my mother, she refused to talk. Come to think of it, I actually took a small tape recorder and without their knowledge recorded our conversation.”

When I read those words, I felt chills. One of my biggest regrets about trying to recover my family’s secret identity is that for years I missed numerous opportunities to gather information from older generations because I was simply not curious about our past. To bring life to a chart of a family tree, I realized belatedly that conversations have to happen to tell a vivid story to pass on to new generations. Indirect approaches need to be pursued to tackle delicate subjects. I discovered all this by making many mistakes.

Rosie’s late mother – my aunt and godmother – had always been interested in my book research. I had asked her several times about our family history and secret Jewish background, but she told me politely that she knew nothing. “My mother knew, but was too diplomatic with you to say she didn’t want to talk,” Rosie said. “When I brought it up, she absolutely refused to comment. I knew that she knew something.”

Today I’m preparing to mail copies of my new book to relatives in California and Costa Rica – too late to write another chapter with tape recorded quotes of a voice from the grave.

Visit Doreen Carvajal's official website here.

Self-Surveillance

Friday, August 10, 2012 | Permalink
In this week's installment of the Visiting Scribe, Joshua Cohen and Justin Taylor exchanged ideas around book promotion, materials of writing, and the devolution of the author. Read Part I here and Part II here. They have been blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

 

Justin,

I like this idea of the computer being an “extension of [your] bedroom.” But I’m not sure it’s extended enough. Because for me it’s an extension of my bedroom as well, and of yours also, which is to say of Amanda’s too—sorry if that’s creepster.

What I mean is, I’m going to hold you to your Hendrix promise. He deserves more than 45 min.

I can only say that I wish I shared the options of your optimism with regard to the (other) options available. I would like to say the computer has enlarged my world in a positive way, but that would mean my assent to the idea that enlargement-of-world (TK Heideggerian German compound) is or could be positive. Rather to bastardize Wittgenstein I’m convinced that the opposite, not the world, is everything that is the case. I am too much the information addict, too much the hoarder. My head’s an uptown brownstone tenanted by the bros. Collyer, who’ve recently stopped paying rent.

My only hope, I tell myself, is surveillance, self-surveillance. So much of my life is lived under the sign of this limitation, this autorestriction. In the same way I can’t be around drugs, because I’ll take them. All of them. I’ll never keep a firearm in the house (the apartment, I mean, not the Collyer cortex). This is one feature of my personality it’s painful to admit to my parents/siblings/romantic partners and friends/myself, but !unsurprisingly! less painful to admit in an email to be posted on a blog to be read by googolions, including, I’d assume, my parents/siblings/romantic partners and friends. Myself. One way I have of explaining this unsurprise is through fiction: If I write it, then it can’t be true, ergo it is not true. Another way is through nonfiction: By writing it, I have freed myself to live a fiction (denial). Regardless, it’s a fact that there’s never been an access I haven’t advantaged. It’s also a fact that I derive a certain pleasure from the intropunitive. I feel like, lamb spines aside, I should be paying you by the hour.

It’s out of this regulatory impulse that I wrote Four New Messages—what I told you on that drive up to that crazy Jewish bookery outside Amherst still holds (I was being “honest”). These messages were meant to be instructional, exemplary: “Emission” telling you to be careful about what you say, anything and everything will be held against you not in the divine court/congregation/community marketplace, but everywhere—even by strangers, who are the freshest gods. “McDonald’s” exchanges a sacred fear of words—the Tetragrammaton, for instance—for a profane fear of being labeled “the type of guy who lunches at/writes fiction using the word McDonald’s.” It’s an exercise in typing—not with the keyboard but with the mind: typology. “The College Borough” warns against exogenous ambition: beware of challenging the world. “Sent” warns against endogenous ambition: beware of challenging one’s self. It’s a depressing msg, further burdened with a don’t mistake the real for the virtual sermon straight out of Antiquity, whose transmission was also “wireless.” A crude summation, but at your request and, again, I can’t help myself.

I’ve always loved “the cautionary tale”—stories wherein a hero’s felled by worst weaknesses in a fashion so schematic as to put the lie to art. From Aesop to Belloc’s travesties, to Der Struwwelpeter (my father’s favorite book growing up) to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (one of my own childhood favs), these are moral works not just because they contain morals but because of why they were written, or what they were written for/instead of (their justification) (raison d’êtiolation): implicit in all of them, in their very bound being, is this auxiliary lesson that it’s good to make good art, but it’s even better to save a soul. That’s why I chose the title, which rings to me like a companion to How Much Land Does a Man Need? or What Is To Be Done?

Of course I understand how deep my tongue is in everyone’s cheek with all this didactic pedantic pedagogical ethical shit. Obviously too I believe in art, good words (gospels) in good sentences, and haven’t yet discalced the Nikes to go a’begging. But the impulse remains: I needed rules for myself, I wanted rules, and these are they—narratized only because it was never the blank prose of the NJ criminal law code that kept me out of trouble, but the case histories of strangers, acquaintances, friends.

I’d like to conclude by noting that writing itself developed this way (the Book Council will appreciate this, trust me): the ten commandments appear only in the second book of the Bible, condensing a Genesis that less efficiently, but more effectively, formulates/dramatizes what happens when you take a life, lie, cheat, covet.

We’ll sacrifice our lambs on the morrow and dedicate all but their spines to yud hey vuv hey,

j

Joshua Cohen is the author of Witz, A Heaven of Others, Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto and, most recently, Four New Messages (Graywolf Press). He is the New Books critic forHarper's Magazine.

Justin Taylor is the author of the story collection Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever and the novel The Gospel of Anarchy. He lives in Brooklyn and teaches at the Pratt Institute.

New Reviews

Friday, August 10, 2012 | Permalink

This week's reviews:



 

Book Cover of the Week: In Beauty Bright

Thursday, August 09, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

National Jewish Book Award Winner Gerald Stern's latest collection of poetry will be published next month by W. W. Norton:

Love & Death: Greatest Hits

Wednesday, August 08, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Love & Death: Greatest Hits, which was published by Tres Chicas Books in 2011, is a collaboration between "co-conspirators, friends for over twenty-five years, and founders of Tres Chicas Books Renée Gregorio, Joan Logghe, and Miriam Sagan." The trio write about love, death, and friendship and aim to "create not just a book but a sense of community."

Love & Death: Greatest Hits is a winner of a 2011 New Mexico Book Award in Poetry.

What follows is a selected poem from the collection, written by Joan Logghe, Santa Fe's Poet Laureate.

Dark Train Pulling

You, I haven’t seen since the turn of the century.
There was a train then, always about to depart.
Or a letter traveling across Europe by rail.
A boat full of people who all looked forward
towards a better life of tailor shops and diamonds,
away from the small villages of Estonia.

In the old country, you lived in Hungary
But you weren’t Hungarian. Russia,
But you weren’t Russian. You were only a Jew
And not allowed to purchase land.
I want you like my people wanted soil.
That was the trick, my wanting and your no.

Denial works to wed a past to longing.
And now, like a promised land, you arrive.
Startling horizon, your suitcase,
something foreign stamped on the side.
A message I’ve needed all my life,
“Lose everything,” it says, “You know how.”

You arrived from the other country,
the past, dark train pulling, sparks over coal.
At death, there’s another tunnel.
Of all the faces and the bright light,
yours will still beckon towards a bliss.
My dark hair, your dark hair, an America.