The ProsenPeople

Jews and Anxiety

Friday, July 27, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Daniel Smith, whose newest book, Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety, is now available, wrote about hearing voices and coping with anxiety. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

This past May I published an essay in The New York Times titled “Do the Jews Own Anxiety?” Not long afterward, I received an email from a reader I will call David C. David C. began his email by quoting my essay — “We, the Jews, have encouraged the world to think of us as anxious” — and proceeded over the course of 240 headlong words to berate me for being one of those “self-absorbed, highly neurotic” American Jews who are “quick to internalize the inferiority cast upon them by the gentiles.” The email ended in a particularly indignant fashion with the following lines: “With Jews like you, who needs anti-Semites? Kol tuv, boychik.”

I attended Hebrew school and was Bar Mitzvahed. I went to Brandeis, which has a prominent and esteemed Hebrew department. I have been to Israel. Yet I have no knowledge of the Hebrew language beyond a smattering of common words. I had no idea what kol tuv meant. I had to Google it.

All the best.

Kol tuv, boychik: All the best, young man.

David C. correspondent was sneering at me.

It wasn’t a pleasant email to receive, but I wasn’t surprised. I’d been expecting a note like this sooner or later. In fact, I was almost glad to receive it. David C.’s resentment was its own sort of Bar Mitzvah, its own coming of age. I had already been initiated, up there on the bimah twenty-one years ago, into the tribe of Jewish men. Now I had been initiated into the tribe of Jewish writers who get in trouble for discussing what is commonly referred to as “Jewish neurosis.”

The main reason I wasn’t surprised is that when I was in my late teens and twenties, I developed a passion for the work of Philip Roth. I had read, in the basement of the Brandeis library, Roth’s precocious 1959 debut, Goodbye, Columbus, and later his memoir The Facts, which he subtitled “A Novelist’s Autobiography.”

Roth was only twenty-six, an austere and brilliant literary novitiate, when he published Goodbye, Columbus. He was happy, no doubt, for the praise and adulation lavished on his book, but he was wholly unprepared for the angry criticism that came in the wake of success. In The Facts he tells the story of the “most bruising public exchange” of his life. He was appearing alongside Ralph Ellison and the novelist Pietro Di Donato on a panel at Yeshiva University when the audience turned antagonistic, then threatening. How, they insisted, could he have written about such unsavory, conniving, unethical Jewish characters? (They were especially upset about his short story “Defender of the Faith.”) Where was his tact? His compassion? His self-love? Where was his loyalty? As Roth tried to leave the hall, the most hostile of the audience members began to surround him and shout. Roth writes:

I listened to the final verdict against me, as harsh a judgment as I ever hope to hear in this or any other world. I only began to shout, 'Clear away, step back - I'm getting out of here,' after somebody, shaking a fist in my face began to holler, 'You were brought up on anti-Semitic literature!' 'Yes,' I hollered back, 'and what is that?' - curiously wanting to know what he meant. 'English literature!' he cried. 'English Literature is anti-Semitic literature.'"

In short, Roth had been trained in self-loathing. His critics deemed him a “self-hating” Jew. Or as my correspondent David C. asked: “With Jews like you, who needs anti-Semites?”

I don’t intend to compare myself to Philip Roth. (Perish the thought, sweet as it is.) I mean only to say that when one is a Jew who writes about his tribesmen in a way that can, in even a small way, be construed as undignified or unsavory, one has to be prepared for anger and insults — and sneering. David C.’s was only the first such response. I don’t expect it will be the last.

Visit Daniel Smith's official website here.

Book Cover of the Week: The Jump Artist

Thursday, July 26, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Sami Rohr Prize Winner Austin Ratner's The Jump Artist is now available in the UK, with this beauty of a cover: 


Review in Daily Telegraph, "David Annand enjoys a deftly constructed portrait of an artist’s extraordinary life":

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/fictionreviews/9398362/The-Jump-Artist-by-Austin-Ratner-review.html

Feature in the Guardian mentioning Sami Rohr prize:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/jul/15/austin-ratner-jump-artist-halsman?newsfeed=true

An article Austin Ratner wrote on Halsman made the cover of the Sunday Express:

http://www.express.co.uk/posts/view/334530/A-quantum-leap-in-photography

Two BBC interviews with Austin Ratner:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p00vc0gc/The_Strand_16_07_2012/
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01kjtdy

Focusing Under Pressure

Wednesday, July 25, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Daniel Smith, whose newest book, Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety, is now available, wrote about hearing voices. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

In my last post, I described the technical difficulties that occurred when I appeared on Talk of the Nation earlier this month. Instead of the regular broadcasting configuration — a single interviewee responding to the questions of a single interviewer — I was forced to contend with a welter of voices and noises created by wonky technology, all while trying to sound poised, normal, and more or less intelligent.

When the problem first occurred, I experienced a very familiar and unpleasant sensation: anxiety. My muscles tightened, my heart sped up, my brow started to sweat, and I felt a growing constriction in my chest muscles. Worse, because it threatened the proceedings, my thoughts began to race, first and briefly with questions about my sanity (“Where is all this noise coming from!?”) and then with questions about my abilities to handle the situation (“I’m going to lose on air! I’m never going to get through this”).

But then another feeling took over, also familiar but this time much more comforting: focus. Once the host started to ask his questions — he was unaware that I could scarcely hear him through the din — all my worries burned off in the heat of what needed to be done. I was here. I was speaking live on national radio. I had no choice but to go forward.

I have a job to do, dammit!

This is a reaction for which I have become, throughout the years, very, very grateful. Not all anxiety sufferers do well under pressure. Does that sound like an odd formulation, given that anxiety is generally thought to be all about being bad under pressure? Well, it isn’t. Anxiety is more often about being bad with the consideration of pressure. Anxiety feeds off of uncertainty, contingency, and doubt. But high-pressured situations don’t necessarily contain these elements. As often as not, high-pressured situations wipe uncertainty, contingency, and doubt right off the table. And what is left in place of these things is ... necessity. Purpose. The need for action. In short, the present moment and nothing but the present moment.

It is for these reasons that in my adult life I have often yearned for a more publicly performative job than writing. Writing is not only solitary, it is a deferment of performance. At the writing desk, one can always look back at what was already written and forward to what has not yet been written. This is a sure formula for anxiety. Performers, people who work on stage in front of live audiences, don’t have the luxury of this looking around. They are forced by conditions of immediacy to deal only with what is in front of them: this line, this reaction, this emotion, this idea.

Oh, to have that pressure more frequently! I’m in Los Angeles at the moment, talking about my book and seeing some friends. Maybe it’s time to go on a few auditions.

Visit Daniel Smith's official website here.

Hearing Voices

Monday, July 23, 2012 | Permalink

Daniel Smith's newest book, Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety, is now available. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I know a little something about hearing voices. My first book, Muses, Madmen, and Prophets, was about auditory hallucinations — specifically, about how the experience transformed, over the course of centuries, from something that had spiritual and religious connotations to something that suggested madness and nothing more.

During the time of Moses, the Hebrew prophets, Jesus, St. Augustine, St. Teresa, right on up to the Enlightenment, hearing voices meant that you could, conceivably, be receiving messages from a divine source. People still might spit on you, humiliate you, exile you, or burn you at the stake. But there was a chance that they wouldn’t, and that you would be honored for your abilities. Then, sometime around the early nineteenth century, the medical establishment grabbed hold of hallucinations and hearing voices entered the realm of pathology. This was a shame not because people who hear voices are never mentally ill but because not everyone who hears voices is mentally ill. It’s the syllogism — if you hear voices, then you are psychotic — that’s incorrect and unfair. Many more people hear voices than need psychiatric help.

I mention all this because when I started to hear voices, a couple of weeks ago, I should have realized at once that I wasn’t going crazy.

My second book, Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety, had just been published and I was in a Manhattan studio about to be interviewed for the Washington, D.C.-based NPR show Talk of the Nation. The setup was already disorienting: for someone who’s not used to it, having to talk to someone you can’t see but can only hear through a set of enormous headphones — through which you can also hear, amplified several times over, your own voice — is very strange indeed. But the whole setup became more disorienting by far when I realized that I could hear not only my interviewer — the journalist John Donvan — but several other voices besides. At first I had no idea what was going on, and I became frightened. I have never heard voices before in my life, but my father heard voices, and so did his father. So far as I know, both began to hear voices early on, in childhood. I’m in my thirties; I figured I was safe, that the trait had skipped my generation. Could I have been wrong? Could I be experiencing a flourishing of hallucinations right at the start of an appearance on a nationally syndicated interview show?

Luckily, the problem wasn’t psychiatric but technical. Somewhere, somehow, wires had gotten crossed. For a half hour, I had to struggle to pick out John Donvan’s questions from a welter of other noises: crackles, static, another interview piped in from another show, and whatever conversations were going on in the sound booth in the adjacent room. It wasn’t insanity, and it wasn’t genetic destiny. It was just radio.

Visit Daniel Smith's official website here.

The Dangers of Nice

Friday, July 20, 2012 | Permalink
Earlier this week Matti Friedman, a reporter in Jerusalem for the Times of Israel, and author of The Aleppo Codex, wrote about the codex vs. the Kindle and provided a mini-lesson on Jews from Arab Lands. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Aleppo Codex (Deut)

When I set out to write the story of the Aleppo Codex, I imagined that I would be writing an uplifting narrative about how a sacred book was rescued and returned home from the Diaspora to Jerusalem. It was, judging from the information I had at my disposal at the outset, a nice story. But that turned out not to be the case; the existing information was scant, ridden with omissions and often purposely misleading. The reasons for this turned out to be linked to important events in the codex’s recent past, and are, I believe, interesting and instructive for readers of history, and especially of Jewish history.

In 2008, when I started my own project after happening upon the codex at the Israel Museum, only one book had been written about this manuscript, the most important in Judaism and one of the most important in the world. This book was in Hebrew, and had been published in the 1980s by the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem, the academic body that is the manuscript’s official custodian. While I was working on my book, a second came out, this one in English, written by two American scholars and published by the venerable Jewish Publication Society.

The official story of the Aleppo Codex’s fascinating and tangled history in the twentieth century posited that it had been damaged around the time of an anti-Jewish riot in Aleppo in 1947, leading to the disappearance of 200 of its priceless pages; was hidden in Syria for ten years; and was then smuggled to Israel on the orders of the rabbis of Aleppo’s Jewish community and given to Israel’s second president, Itzhak Ben-Zvi, whose academic institute is still in charge of the manuscript to this day. This is the narrative I knew at the beginning.

In truth, I found in several years of research, very little of this was true. The codex ended up in the hands of the state of Israel through a series of complicated maneuvers by state authorities – the codex was effectively seized using agents who intercepted a Syrian courier in Turkey. The state protected itself by putting forward a false version of events at a subsequent trial in Jerusalem, records of which were then suppressed. And the striking damage to the codex – some 40 percent of it is missing, including the Torah itself – does not date to the 1947 riot, as the official version would have us believe. The codex was seen whole much later. In fact, there is no evidence that anything significant was missing when it reached Israel in 1957, a fact that was highly awkward and was thus covered up.

The professors at the prestigious, government-funded Ben-Zvi Institute could not publish that story, because it would embarrass the state and because the institute also had to hide a rather shocking and long-concealed scandal in its manuscript collection. The historians were torn between two roles – they were academic scholars whose job it was to tell the truth, of course, but they were also protectors of Israel’s official narrative, of its institutions and leaders. In the story of the codex these roles could not be reconciled, so they chose the latter. The writer they employed to author their book about the codex was, perhaps tellingly, a novelist, a sweet-tempered man who lacked a journalist’s nose for dirt and who was then ably manipulated and censored by the academics who controlled the codex and its story.

A reader of that book will find no indication that anyone did anything untoward or was less than entirely honest. There are no agents in Turkey, no lies, no theft, and only the briefest references to a trial. It was a kind of Jewish history acceptable to those who need to be reassured that everyone, especially in Israel, is quite decent and that things are fairly straightforward; the acrobatic exertions that were necessary to turn the true story of the Aleppo Codex into a nice one are evident to an informed reader. As an example of historical writing, it was a travesty.

The key figure in the seizure of the Aleppo Codex by the state of Israel was an Aleppo Jew, Murad Faham, a cheese merchant who risked his life to smuggle the manuscript out of Syria in 1957. Documents and transcripts of the time make clear that Faham had been instructed to take the manuscript to a specific Aleppo-born rabbi in Israel; the Aleppo Jews would never have dreamed of letting it out of their community and did not think the state of Israel had any claim to it. Instead, Faham turned it over to Israeli state authorities and then gave a different version of his original instructions in court. The documentary record on this key part of the story is conclusive.

Yet the second book on the codex, the Jewish Publication Society’s 2010 version in English, gives a version of these events that does not tell that story. The one it does tell is contradicted by the court transcripts and other documents. Inconvenient details are glossed over or omitted altogether. The reason for this is not complicated: Though it does not say this explicitly anywhere, the authors were given money by Faham’s family, and the family, in turn, was given a veto over the content. (One of the authors and the donor told me this in separate interviews.) The result, as in the first book, was a kind of history that had been airbrushed in order to offend the minimum number of people.

And so it happened that in the year 2012, the incredible, uncomfortable story of Judaism’s most important book had never been told before – it had fallen victim to a Jewish weakness for telling nice stories about ourselves.

I have two thoughts on this. First, I must admit, I’m glad – all of this left me, quite unexpectedly, with the kind of story every reporter dreams of stumbling on. And second, it has made me a more suspicious reader of history, and especially of Jewish history. What else, I now find myself wondering, do I not know?

Visit Matti Friedman's official website here and read more about the Aleppo Codex here.

New Reviews

Friday, July 20, 2012 | Permalink
This week's reviews:
 

AMIA: Three Weeks Reflection

Thursday, July 19, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Amalia Safran

Yesterday marked the 18th anniversary of the bombing of the AMIA in the Once neighborhood of Buenos Aires. After living in Once for five months, commemorating the day was important to me. I was living in a residencia for my junior year semester abroad just blocks from where the attack took place on July 18, 1994. Only passing the building once—a plain, boxy-gray structure with a large black plaque filled with the 85 names in graffiti-writing of the people who diedI still felt a strong inclination to think about the tragedy at some point during my day as a way of commemoration.

What is interesting about this time of year, the three weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av, is that it is also a time of commemoration—a time to remember and mourn the events leading up to the destruction of the temples, which took place on the last day of the three weeks. I had only just learned about the AMIA tragedy this year and the coincidence that it fell during the three weeks. So, with the anniversary of the AMIA bombing and the “three weeks of sorrow,” how do we remember and commemorate tragedy during our busy, often over-planned, summer lives?

Incorporating the “three weeks of sorrow” into my daily life has proven to be a challenge, as was my personal commemoration of the AMIA bombing. Between work and its consistently chaotic commute, catching up with friends who I hadn’t seen in months, walking with my family to get ice cream on warm summer nights, hopping on trains to get away for the weekends, and of course basking in air conditioning while catching up on television, it becomes difficult to put summer aside and reflect on past tragedies. Not to say my list of summer chores is more important or a higher priority in my life than commemoration and reflection, but along with summertime comes a care-free attitude that makes us sometimes forget the reality, or forget past impactful events.

So between work, friends, family, food, travel, and television, I found time to reflect yesterday. I read a few articles about the AMIA and the memorial service that took place in Buenos Aires, along with some literature about the three weeks. It put me in a different state of mind—one that wasn’t contemplating ice cream flavors or what to pack for the weekend, but instead a state of mind that made me think, really think, about the tragedies that happened this time of year. I thought about my time in Buenos Aires, my time living in the Orthodox Jewish community of Once, my time walking past the AMIA, my past summers at conservative Jewish camp, my experiences hearing Eichah from campers, my usual singing of Hatikvah at the closing of Tisha B’av, my summer in Israel, my time spent at the Western Wall—these all came into my mind as a way of reflection and remembrance. It was brief. It didn’t follow any sort of order or rules, but it was for me.

Commemoration can be a difficult thing. The “three weeks of sorrow” consists of fasts, Torah readings, and refraining from joyous events in order to retain a somber and sorrowful state. My time during the three weeks hasn’t been like that; I have enjoyed people’s company, parties, traveling—I have enjoyed summer. But along with the enjoyment of summer, I still wanted and was able to find a way to commemorate on my own, a way that let me take time from the chaos to remember and mourn in a meaningful way.

Amalia is a student at Lehigh University and an intern at the Jewish Book Council.

JLit Links

Thursday, July 19, 2012 | Permalink
Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

A Hidden History

Wednesday, July 18, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week Matti Friedmana reporter in Jerusalem for the Times of Israel, and author of The Aleppo Codex, wrote about the codex vs. the Kindle. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Having just spent four years on a book about the biblical manuscript known as the Aleppo Codex, I can say with some certainty that some of the most important things I learned had nothing to do with the codex at all, but rather with the people who guarded it. I came to think of this as a hidden history behind events in the Middle East.

The Jewish community of Aleppo, a trading city in northern Syria where this manuscript was kept in a synagogue for six centuries, was one of the communities we sometimes think of – to the extent that we think of them at all – as belonging to the lands of Islam. But Islam came to those places only long after the Jews were already there; the Aleppo Jews, for example, were in the city roughly a millennium before Muhammad preached in Arabia and before his adherents arrived in Syria. In Aleppo, and in many cities throughout the Middle East, the Jews were natives in a way that those of us of European descent, with our transient ancestors, can hardly imagine.

On November 30, 1947, mobs in Aleppo incensed by the UN vote to partition Palestine the previous day attacked the city’s Jews. I interviewed people who remembered the rioters torching synagogues, making piles of Hebrew manuscripts, prayer shawls and phylacteries and setting them alight. Like a different wave of riots in Europe nine years before, this one was a harbinger of the end for a Jewish way of life: Today, Jewish Aleppo has vanished; its residents were among the 850,000 Jews forced out of their ancestral homes in Islamic countries.

Two Jewish worlds came to an end in the 1940s. We are familiar with the first, which many of us think of simply as the Jewish world: Jewish humor, Jewish cuisine, Jewish writing – all of these terms apply, in North American parlance, to the Jews of Europe. The Jewish world of the Middle East included fewer people and ended in less cataclysmic circumstances. But it was just as Jewish and just as important, and it is just as gone.

In discussing the modern state of Israel, the Jews of the Middle East are often mentioned as a kind of curiosity, an aside in what we tell as Aleppo-Jewish201914a European story – pogroms, Herzl, Zionism, the Holocaust. In this story, Jews and Arabs first encountered each other in the late nineteenth century; we imagine the Russian-born pioneer encountering the Arab fellah on the rocky soil of Palestine. But that isn’t true, and the Jews who had always lived in the Middle East are not a footnote.

When Islam began in Arabia, Jews were there, and when the first Muslims began spreading to cities across the Mideast, they found Jews there as well. Jews were recognized by Islam as a protected, second-class ethnic group, dhimmi, sometimes persecuted, sometimes tolerated. They were generally considered to be effete and without honor. In recent years it has become common to speak of the Muslim Middle East as a haven in which Jews thrived, but this is nonsense; the Islamic world owes its good reputation in this regard to Europeans, who set a standard for mistreatment that is impossible to match.

Jews had existed in the Muslim imagination for many centuries by the time the first Zionists arrived in the Middle East, and the place they occupied in that imagination made the Zionist project problematic in ways that are still playing out. Jews were inferior to Muslims by definition. They were weak, a subject community, and that made their success in Palestine impossible to accept: Being beaten and outsmarted by a powerful empire like Britain or France was one thing. Being beaten and dominated by Jews – as Arabs were, again and again, before 1948 and in subsequent wars – was a humiliation that simply could not be accepted. It was like being beaten by a girl. The depth of this humiliation, which lies at the root of today’s conflict, is something Israel and its supporters have too often failed to appreciate.

The dissonance between the very old Muslim perception of the Jew and the reality of the twentieth century came to be explained in the Arab world by turning to conspiracy theories. Jews could not have beaten Muslims fairly; they were nefarious, and here Europeans had plenty of material they were happy to share, and which was translated into Arabic and still enthusiastically circulates across the Middle East. (I have encountered the Protocols of the Elders of Zion at otherwise normal bookstores in Istanbul and Cairo and in an academic bookstore adjacent to the prestigious American University of Beirut.)

YemeniJewBy the 1950s, most of the Jews of the Middle East were concentrated in Israel, and they played a central role in forging the national life of the country. And yet it has been convenient for all parties, Israelis included, to describe Israel as a European enclave. For Israelis, this claim allows them a sense of superiority. For the Arabs, it allows the erasure of the fate of their own Jewish communities and enables them to portray Israel as a Western invader. It has become cliché, for example, to note that hummus and falafel and other Middle Eastern foods that Israelis consider to be Israeli are in fact a native cuisine appropriated by newcomers. This only makes sense if you don’t understand that fully 50 percent of Israel’s Jews are the people who were kicked out of Islamic countries or their descendants – the cuisine of the Mideast, of course, belongs to them and their countrymen as much as it does to anyone else. When we look at Israel and its neighbors, and at the last Jewish century, we would benefit by restoring this missing history to its place – right at the center of the story.

Visit Matti Friedman's official website here and read more about the Aleppo Codex here.

S. Y. Agnon

Tuesday, July 17, 2012 | Permalink

July 17th is the birthday of S. Y. Agnon, in honor of which we have assembled some publications of his work. But let's begin with an excerpt from Barbara Andrew's article on Agnon from the Jewish Book World archives:

His writings are reminiscent of a literary Chagall. They portray a life in a world that no longer exists but yet exists in a dream-like state, neither real nor imaginary, but somewhere in between.

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