The ProsenPeople

Interview: Ian Buruma

Tuesday, February 02, 2016 | Permalink

with Bob Goldfarb

InTheir Promised Land, Ian Buruma tells the extraordinary story of his own grandparents: British Jews who were apart during the World Wars and stayed in touch by writing letters across the distances that separated them. His book is part history, part memoir, part love story.

Bob Goldfarb: When did your grandparents’ letters first come into your hands?

Ian Buruma: The first time I read some of them was in 1999, when I was working on Anglomania,a book about European Anglophilia in the United States. I knew where the letters were—in a family archive, in a barn, in a country house that belonged to one of my uncles. I thought for a long time that it would make a book of some kind. But it was only a year or two ago that I brought them to America.

BG: What prompted you to make this a book?

IB: I thought the material was very rich and told a story, not just about them but also about the history of the twentieth century. A novel came to mind, but I felt that would be a waste of the material, because the letters themselves are so interesting. Simply editing my grandparents’ correspondence was also not quite the way, either. So I had to feel my way towards a form, and the idea came to me around the early 2000s.

BG: You seem to have a particular interest in the world as it was just before you came into it.

IB: When you think of families of people my age, there are families where the parents had experiences of World War II. In some families it was never spoken about, partly because it was too painful for the parents, or because they children weren’t interested. For me that was never the case; I was always interested. Adults in my family would talk, from when I was a boy. So, yes, I was always interested in that. I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s because it was so frightening that a world that seemed so settled, like Europe after World War I, could suddenly erupt in a kind of nightmarish hell.

BG: Your grandparents seem to have been aggressively assimilated into the larger culture in which they lived. Can we draw conclusions today from the lives they lived then?

IB: They came from a tradition that had been assimilationist since at least the eighteenth century. So their grandparents would no longer have lived in the Judengasse in Frankfurt where the family lived originally. They had been very German already, one of those families that had a history of living in Germany longer than most so-called “native” Germans. My grandparents were following in that tradition even though they were British rather than German.

As you know, a lot of this has to do with class. The more people move up and become prosperous, the more they let go of the culture of the old country. They are very much a manifestation of that—not just them, but also their parents. To me one of the most interesting passages from Their Promised Land is the exchange between my great-uncle and Franz Rosenzweig. Rosenzweig was so impressed by the Polish Jews he met during World War I—he felt they were more at ease in their skin because they had a clearer sense of who they were.

BG: Your grandparents defined themselves largely in terms of culture, especially classical music. What was there about classical music in particular?

IB: So many German Jews loved Wagner. To worship at the shrine of Bayreuth was to take part in a kind of mystical sense of being German without having to be Christian.

The other thing is, it’s easy to see why German culture dovetailed with a certain Jewish experience. The Germans didn’t have a state of their own until very late, and they had to distinguish themselves from the rationalism of France and French philosophy. The reason that music can play such a powerful role is that it’s abstract, so you can feel you’re taking part in a high culture almost in a religious way, without converting to a faith. My grandparents were part of that tradition, where classical music defined you as a person of high culture.

BG: Did you ever feel you were intruding when you were reading their letters?

IB: Yes, of course. I would never have dreamed of doing this if they’d still been alive. But I do feel that once people are gone, and their experience—even their intimate lives—are of historical interest, then it’s legitimate to let it be known. I made very sure that my aunt, the last surviving member of my mother’s generation, read it, so that I wouldn’t do it behind their backs. My main concern was not so much what they would have thought, because they are no longer there, but rather to make sure I didn’t hurt those who are still alive.

It’s very interesting when you are writing about family, people who are close to you. It’s always very difficult, because others who felt equally close to them will have a slightly different picture. It’s very rare that you can do something like this and please one’s siblings, or people who were also close, because it’s not necessarily the image they have. The greatest skepticism has come from people who knew them—from my sister, and my father, and so on.

BG: You’re not afraid at some points to talk about events that were personal, even personally embarrassing episodes about yourself.

IB: I don’t think they were embarrassing because it was a long time ago. Once something becomes a story, it’s not like a confession—and I’m not by nature a confessional person. I’ve just finished reading a memoir written by Stephen Spender’s son about his parents, and he goes into the sex lives of his parents, and his own. I could never do that. I could never imagine wanting to do that.

BG: Do you find writing a story like this very different from writing fiction?

IB: Yes, because you don’t have to make anything up! The structure here is still slightly novelistic; it is a way of telling a story. But I do find it easier applying a certain novelistic technique to something that is factually true than to making up a story.

Bob Goldfarb is Director of Institutional Affairs at the Forward. He lives in New York.

Related Content:

The Battle for the Books

Monday, February 01, 2016 | Permalink

With the release of Stolen Words: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books, author Rabbi Mark Glickman is guest blogging all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

The battle had been rumbling for years, but on December 1, 1946, at New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel, a Jewish historian met with an American military leader and the fighting finally came to a close.

This wasn’t a bloody battle between armies; it was a conflict between Jews. And here, the battle wasn’t over land or national boundaries. Here the battle was for books.

The Nazis had looted lots of Jewish books during their twelve-year reign—millions of them. Early on, they burnt some of those volumes in spectacular bonfires, but the bonfires didn’t last very long. After they fizzled, various Nazi agencies simply held onto the books instead, storing them in castles, monasteries, and warehouses until they could be processed after the war.

The Allied Forces that discovered these looted libraries sent much of the material to an archival depot in Offenbach, Germany run by the American army. Whenever possible, the army returned the material to its original owners. But many of those owners had perished during the war—and many of the books’ owners couldn’t even be identified to begin with: often, entire communities had fled for their lives, leaving their rich collections of books behind. In the chaos of postwar Europe, where were all of the remaining books supposed to go?

Of course, different groups of Jews disagreed with one another on this question. Jews in the soon-to-be State of Israel argued that Israel was to be the international capital of the Jewish people, so the books should go there. American Jews countered that the United States now had the largest Jewish community in the world, so the books should come here. Survivors groups in Europe argued that the books should stay at home, and various other countries each weighed in with arguments as to why they should get the books instead.

At the center of the battle were three men—intellectual powerhouses who became generals in the battle for the books even before the war drew to a close.

One was an Oxford University historian named Cecil Roth (1899-1970).Roth, who was head of the Jewish Historical Society of England, and, later, the editor of the first edition of Encyclopedia Judaica, spoke about the looted books as early as 1943. There was certainly going to be a lot of unclaimed literature after the war, he predicted, and that unidentified material should be sent to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He set up a committee to begin inventorying the books and preparing them for shipment to Palestine. The committee soon dissolved, but Roth prided himself that his group was the first to deal with the issue, and he later argued that his group should therefore be in charge of determining what to do with the heirless volumes.

Another lead combatant was Rabbi Judah Leon Magnes (1877-1948),the American-born founding president of Hebrew University. When Magnes heard early proposals that the books should go to America or stay in Europe, he was beside himself. Just as Israel was taking in the lion’s share of the human survivors of the war, he argued, so too should it receive Europe’s surviving Jewish cultural treasures. How could anyone think otherwise?

Finally, there was Salo Baron (1895-1989).Galician-born and Vienna-educated, Baron had been on the faculty of Columbia University since 1929, and had played a key role in bringing Jewish studies to the secular American academy. Baron was also a rising leader in the Conference of Jewish Relations, an American group of scholars looking into anti-Semitism in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. He sent a team to Europe to catalogue the continent’s pre-war Jewish treasures, and tried to chart a course to deal with the cultural devastation that would remain at war’s end.

In time, Cecil Roth stepped into the background, leaving Baron and Magnes to duke it out between themselves. Magnes fought like a bulldog to get the books into his university’s library, but as he did, Baron built a worldwide team of Jewish historians, librarians and other scholars, and founded “Jewish Cultural Reconstruction” (JCR)—an international commission whose main purpose was to figure out what to do with the heirless Jewish books and cultural treasures after the war.

In the end, Baron’s cooperative approach won the day, and on December 1, 1946, he and a group of his lieutenants met at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel with General Lucius Clay, head of the United States Army’s occupational forces in Germany, to finalize the arrangements. As America prepared to end its occupation of Germany, the army would turn the heirless treasures over to JCR. JCR, in turn, would put the treasures into trusteeship and determine what their ultimate fate should be.

In the years that followed, JCR distributed millions of books and other looted cultural items to Jewish libraries and organizations around the world. About forty percent went to the United States, forty percent went to Israel, and the remaining twenty percent went out in smaller batches to other countries.

Salo Baron prevailed in his struggle for leadership of postwar book restitution efforts, but let’s not call him the victor. In the post-Holocaust Jewish world, loose ends could be tied up, but the possibility of victory had long since disappeared as smoke through the chimneys of Nazi destruction.

Rabbi Mark Glickman has served at congregations in Ohio, Washington State, and Colorado. He is the author of Stolen Treasure: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books and Sacred Treasure—The Cairo Genizah: The Amazing Discoveries of Forgotten Jewish History in an Egyptian Synagogue Attic.

Related Content:

Trivializing the Holocaust?

Monday, February 01, 2016 | Permalink

Helen Maryles Shankman is the author of In the Land of Armadillos, a collection of eight stories set in Wlodawa, Poland during World War II. She is guest blogging all week as a Visiting Scribe here on The ProsenPeople.

The story materialized in my head a few days before Halloween. A gang of creatures, half-human, half-animal, attack a party of SS men executing a group of Jews. I imagined a young Jewish girl stumbling over tree roots as German soldiers herded her toward a clearing in the Polish woods. I visualized a wolf standing upright, a lean, doglike head, tip-tilted gray eyes, muscular legs encased in the trousers of a Polish military uniform.

The story thumped home with a sense of rightness. Yes, this is good. Yes, this works. All the usual signs were there; the hair raising on the back of my neck, the butterflies flitting in my stomach.

But on its heels, this: Am I trivializing the Holocaust?

My parents are Polish Holocaust survivors. Growing up, I heard the stories of their survival again and again. How my mother hid as a shepherd girl with a Polish farmer. How a Polish neighbor boy who used to play at my father’s house discovered his bunker and betrayed it to the Nazis. How my grandfather made saddles, and how the German he worked for sent a wagon to bring Zaydie and his children to his castle the day before a terrible Aktzia consumed the town.

There are so many books dedicated to Holocaust literature that readers experience a kind of overload. Yes, it was tragic, they say. Yes, millions were murdered. They’ve read Anne Frank. They’ve read Night. They’ve read Maus. They know. They know.

That’s where the challenge lay. What was different about my stories? How was I going to make World War II new again?

The facts of the catastrophe—the obsessive focus on enslavement and extermination of a peaceful civilian population, nightmarish death factories, unthinkable atrocities committed by a cultured European nation—are so impossible, so bizarre, so far-fetched, that they might as well be science fiction. I’ve been to Auschwitz and Majdanek; I’ve walked through those warehouses full of shoes and eyeglasses and hair; I’ve descended into the gas chamber and out again, and even I can’t grasp that it really happened.

My mother’s stories of the Poles and Germans who risked their lives to save her family were just as unbelievable, the men and women bigger than life, transcending reality like characters in a fairy tale. An SS man who hid Jews in his castle, with the power to enchant his superiors; a woman who cooked such lovely breakfasts that they lured away the soldiers searching her barn; timid Torah scholars and Jewish school boys, transformed by the deep and ancient Polish forests into mighty resistance fighters. Throughout my childhood, these people loomed as large as giants. If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.

What made me turn to myth and magic to recount my parents’ stories? Was it the desire to control the uncontrollable? The need to believe, in a time when God’s face was hidden, that there was some guiding force behind the horror?

Art removes us to a safe distance from actual horrors, allowing us to see what we already know in a new way. Fairy tales entertain children, but they also warn them of danger. In a fable that my fictional author, Toby Rey, composes for his German protector in “In the Land of Armadillos,” he ends his allegory of a village complicit in a secret crime with this line:

“From that day forward, wherever the townspeople went, they were accompanied by the songs of birds. It filled their lives with beautiful music, but it also reminded them of what they were capable of. Remember, the songs warned them, and do not forget.”

Helen Maryles Shankman’s stories have been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and four children.

Related Content:

New Book Reviews January 31, 2016

Saturday, January 30, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

Featured Content:

There Are Never No Jewish Books

Friday, January 29, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Gavriel Savit mused on the mysticism of uncertainty, the corporeality of God, and the incongruous narrative of the Hebrew Bible. With the recent release of his debut novel, Anna and the Swallow Man, Gavriel has been guest blogging all week as a Visiting Scribe here on The ProsenPeople.

“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage.” (Peter Brook, The Empty Space)

I think conclusion is un-Jewish.

I mentioned earlier this week that I think the open space is the best place to smash together conflicting ideas and the best place to recognize the face of God. I also mentioned that these two activities are probably the same thing.

Corollary to this argument was the notion that flame helps an awful lot in the pursuit—a source of light that shifts and bounces and is anything but constant and certain. I’m sure there are those among you who thought to yourselves, “Alright—that’s all well and good, but it’s 2016, and when I flip my lightswitch, I get a lovely, flooding, reliable torrent of light that does not flicker and does not ebb. I can see every corner of the open space. There’s nothing there. Doesn’t this replace your inconstant flame-light?”

My answer to that is, resoundingly, no; no more than the period replaces the sentence.

A lot of people confuse uncertainty with ignorance. A lot of people confuse inquiry with interrogation. A lot of people confuse struggle with discontent. A lot of people confuse truth with fact. A lot of people confuse openness with emptiness. A lot of people confuse light with illumination.

I think conclusion is very much un-Jewish. There’s a reason we continually read the same book every year, cycle after cycle after cycle until it’s practically impossible to look at it anew for familiarity. Many people argue that this is because the Bible holds untold depths and nuances of meaning, and that no individual human could possibly ever derive it all.

Well, that may well be. I would argue, though, that it’s just as much a reflection of the fact that the human being is not a stagnant animal: we reread in order to reinterpret, and we must reinterpret because we do not remain the same.

The tradition holds that when God gave the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai, it was in the company of the Oral Law, a key to the interpretation of the written Torah. Throughout the generations, this oral key was passed along from generation to generation, shifting and changing, inflected by its interpreters and transmitters until it was finally codified and written down in the form of Talmud.

This transcription of the malleable oral tradition, this petrification of the fluid—this strikes me as one of the greatest feats of self-harm in the history of human culture. And profoundly un-Jewish. Of course one must reach towards knowledge in order to gain learning, but to continue on until one achieves the point of dogma is very much like eating oneself to death: you’ve exceeded the necessary, productive, even pleasurable pursuit and reached into self-destruction.

No, one must remain uncertain in order to achieve any measure of knowledge. This is true even, perhaps especially, in scientific endeavors, where the overconfident hypothesis is a leading cause of misreported data.

And so I won’t finish this week up with a dictum, with a handy take-away, with a directive. Instead, I’m going to return to the problem that provoked a lot of this thought to begin with. I’ll offer a question, a suggestion, and a bit of imaginative narration.

To recap: I encountered a used bookstore—aesthetic home, of course, to the basic spirit of Judaism—entirely devoid of Jewish books. This, of course, is a problem, a cognitive dissonance.

How is it best, then, to address it?

Of course, far and away the best option would be to decree that every single bookstore must be overflowing with Jewish books—and what's more, that they should all be books of new and compelling thought, unlike anything you’ve read before, that they be satisfyingly weighty in the hand but in no way bulky in the bag, that they should cost no more than fifty cents a piece, and that they should all give off the vague aroma of chocolate ice cream.

Barring the best option, though, this is how I think it would be good to deal with the situation:

If there are going to be no Jewish books in your bookstore (which again, I’m not condoning), then leave an open shelf. And if it’s too abstruse for you to label it Peniel, why then, “Judaism” will do just fine.

Because imagine this: you’re eight years old. You’re traveling with your family in Texas. You’re Jewish, and like many of us, you’re a reader. Your family stops into a used bookstore. You make your way back to the area in which you’ve become accustomed to finding Jewish books. There are none, but way up high, there, there’s a shelf labeled “Judaism.”

Already this is better. Already, you’ll be hoisting yourself up on a chair to get a better look—to investigate, to see for yourself if there’s not anything to be found inside. Perhaps there’s not. Perhaps there are no books in stock. But even so, you, at eight years old, know that there’s a place for them, at least.

And better yet, perhaps you’ll be moved to go and ask the clerk behind the counter if there are any Jewish books. And perhaps the clerk will say no, we have none in stock.

Or perhaps the clerk will take you around the store: Here, in Music, we have plenty on Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. You’re probably a bit young for him, but here’s a first edition of a Saul Bellow novel. How ‘bout Isaac Asimov? Or here’s a joke-book by Mel Brooks. There’s Marcel Proust, but I’m too young for him too, frankly. Or too old. Can’t really decide. There’s Chaim Potok, of course. And Ayn Rand, nebekh.

The list goes on.

An open space is never empty, really.

There are never no Jewish books.

You just have to keep peeking.

You just have to keep struggling to see.

Gavriel Savit is an actor and author from Ann Arbor, MI, and a graduate of the University of Michigan’s prestigious Musical Theatre program. He is the author of Anna and the Swallow Man (Knopf, 2016) and an emerging voice in Jewish literature.

Reconciling the Inconsistent Word of God

Thursday, January 28, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, author Gavriel Savit introduced the spiritual mysticism contained in uncertainty and pondered the corporeal existence of God. With the publication of his debut novel, Anna and the Swallow Man, Gavriel is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

Quite a while ago, my fiancée and I decided to undertake the systematic reading and study of what Western tradition refers to, absurdly (if in Greek), as THE BOOK. I had never before come to the Bible in a systematic and sustained way, reading from cover to cover, and as someone with the humble ambition of contributing to the wild, out-of-hand fracas of Western narrative art, I felt it would be in my best interest to have a bit of a cultivated familiarity with the great patriarch of that art. My fiancée, a critic and scholar of Victorian era British literature, thought it would be in her best interest to have a similar familiarity with the cornerstone of its great patriarchy.

And so we were well matched. The only problem was methodological. I, coming from a Judaic background, wanted to work on the khevruta model, reading together out loud and entering into discussion whenever something interested or troubled one of us; she, well used to the silent if disorderly decorum of the library carrel, would have preferred to read silently in parallel and then to come together for discussion after the fact. In general, I can see the appeal of this approach—it must be nice to thoroughly formulate one’s opinions before beginning the process of discussion—but the fact of the matter is that the Hebrew Bible seems explicitly designed to frustrate certainty. For a book that has so commonly been appealed to for definitive answers, it hardly seems to contain any, from a narrative perspective. No, no—no certainties to be found here, only competing, incommensurate, equivalid alternatives. It has to be discussed as it’s read.

The Book begins with two successive, irreconcilable accounts of the creation of the universe: in the first, God creates life in general, both flora and fauna, and then, only after this does God create the human being, presenting to it in all its bounty the comestible world of fruit and vegetable. Less than ten verses later, in the second account, the creation of man is related again, this time expressly predating the emergence of vegetal life. Shortly thereafter, the creation of animals will also be found, in this second account, to come after the creation of human life.

There’s nothing for it. There’s no way to reconcile the two expressly and exclusively different stories.

If you are a contemporary rationalist, this might well prove your disdain for the archaic, superstitious tome of falsehoods known as the Bible. How can it equally assert the veracity of two contradictory accounts?

If you are a philologist, you will likely interpret this conflict between texts as indicative of the presence of more than one pre-existing source. Neither, of course, could be altered in the combination because of the sacred status of each, and neither, by the same token could be excluded. As a philologist, one might easily say “Forget the cognitive dissonance, forget the conflict, forget the juxtaposition. Read each on its own merits.”

If you are an adherent of rabbinic exegesis, perhaps you will choose to interpret these two pieces of narrative as predominantly allegorical or symbolic writing. After all, when we adjourn to the hazy arena of symbolism, we need no longer consider contradiction threatening—it’s, y’know, art.

I would like to offer an alternative reading, one that I hope can extend far beyond this first section of the Hebrew Bible to encompass it entirely:

There are two stories. They are both correct and valid—equally articulated in the authoritative voice of the text. They both take place within a literal realm, and they contradict one another.

There. It’s uncomfortable. It’s difficult. It’s provocative. And I think that’s precisely the point.

It is in this state of uncertainty that one looks closely, and one sees. You begin to see the face of God in the flickering, dimly lit open space only when you stand between twin certainties—that God has absolutely no visible form, and that God absolutely does.

There’s a reason this gigantic compilation of stories opens on contradiction and uncertainty, and as a writer, I would posit that it’s a lesson in reading the rest of the book: there are two, oppositional positions. Do you smash them together, trying to make them into one? Do you look for ways to discount certain portions of each?

Or do you take one in each hand, and feel them counterbalance one another in the weight of your step?

This mode of reading might be most strongly resisted by those people who point to its essential duality—after all, we are a people of One God, and Singularity, Unity, Oneness presents itself as temptingly contradistinctive. People can so easily say, God is One, and God is mine. If you disagree with me, then God is not yours. My minhag, my family or communal custom in the observance of tradition, one might say, is exclusively correct, and all others are at best to be tolerated, and at worst, heretical. (Looking at you, here, Israeli Rabbinate…)

But this is clearly not reflective of historical Jewish tradition. The Talmud was, in some deeply critical ways, formed in the crucible of the disagreement between the twin philosophical approaches of Hillel and Shammai. Moving backwards, one could easily read an interest in dueling perspectives in the simple notion of the Oral Law, given alongside the Torah on Mount Sinai, for the purposes of elucidation and interpretation—why a separate corpus if not expressly to create distance and discrepancy between the two?

And there are all sorts of incommensurate alternatives in the Bible. David, paragon of majesty, progenitor of Messianic salvation, is, in some very real ways, a usurper of Saul’s kingship. The theme of rival claims is threaded throughout the Bible, particularly in the foundational stories of our patriarchs.

After all, who deserves primacy? Ishmael, the firstborn, or Isaac, the legitimate? The supremacy of the elder son, so axiomatic in the Ancient world, will continue to inform and enlarge the successive stories of each great patriarch—mainly in its violation. Jacob, the wily (younger), or Esau, the mighty (elder)? Joseph, the brilliant (far, far younger) or Reuben the dutiful (eldest) and his corporate brotherhood? Aaron, the priest (elder) or Moses, the leader (younger)?

In none of these cases—looking carefully, honestly—is one party clearly the preferable. It is, particularly from an antiquated perspective, always unclear.

And perhaps this is obvious. After all, we as Jews are known in the collective as the Children of Israel, Israel (“Struggles-with-God”) being the alternative name given to Jacob after he strove and fought all night against an agent of God—crucially, to an indecisive conclusion.

Neither God nor Israel prevailed. This was not the point. The struggle was the point.

The renaming of Jacob in the wake of this conflict is well-known and oft-quoted. What is less frequently repeated is that something else was renamed in the wake of the conflict: the open space in which Jacob and the Agent of God struggled.

The place was named Peniel, or “My-face-is-God.”

It is, of course, indispensable to have two well-matched and equally viable candidates in order to enter into the sort of furious, infinite, ongoing, and indecisive conflict that our narrative tradition so favors. Just as indispensable as the conflicting parties, though, is the arena in which the contest is to take place.

And this, finally, is the utility, the virtue of uncertainty.

A certainty is an insuperable obstacle. It’s solid and heavy and doesn’t move much of its own accord. Certainties, of course, have great utility of their own—they can block off dangers, you can climb up atop them, reaching for new intellectual altitudes—but if you’re looking to stage a fight, it’s hard to do so inside a block of marble.

I, like many young Jews, once visited Israel on a Birthright trip, and the entire thrust of Jewish thought and history was never so legible to me as the time we were encouraged to go off into the midnight desert for a little, quiet, solo reflection—not so far that we couldn’t still see the lights of the tent, but far enough that we could imagine we couldn’t.

The sky is so big, out there, and so full of stars. Unified and simultaneously multifarious—monotheism doesn’t seem like an innovation in the desert, it feels like an observation.

Because these are the uncertain spaces, the open (empty?) arenas in which we Jews are used to seeking for (and finding, hopefully) our God: the desert, monolith of sandgrains; the synagogue, light flickering, prayer shawls flapping, eyes covered to ward off blindness; the genealogy of our Fathers, so knotted and ambiguous that even a family tree is nothing so much as an argument.

These are our plains of Peniel, mottled and dappled by striving footprints, by wingtips dragging through the sand. This is the Face of God: the constant contest of uncertainties in an arena uncrowded by decision, unmarred by conclusion. The endlessly repeated gesture of young men peeking out from behind their father’s prayer shawls, of elders squinting through their glasses across the dimly lit space, generation after generation, of looking so closely that you start to see something in the struggle and bump, in the flicker and flash, in the dim and shade—a Single, emergent Entity.

Just don’t you dare become certain what it looks like.

Gavriel Savit is an actor and author from Ann Arbor, MI, and a graduate of the University of Michigan’s prestigious Musical Theatre program. He is the author of Anna and the Swallow Man (Knopf, 2016) and an emerging voice in Jewish literature.

Related Content:

Writing a Rabbi

Wednesday, January 27, 2016 | Permalink

Rachel Cantor is the author of the novel A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World. With the publication of her second novel, Good on Paper, she is blogging here all week as a Visiting Scribe on The ProsenPeople.

I didn’t set out to write a rabbi character when I started writing my novel Good on Paper. What do I know about rabbis? I have rabbi friends, but Benny isn’t modeled after anyone. He is a no-longer-large man who, when younger and strapped for cash, got seasonal jobs playing Santa (he was fired when he wouldn’t remove his tzittzit); now he runs through Central Park every day in his cherry-red bodysuit.

No, Benny isn’t anyone I know. He runs a bookstore on the Upper West Side known as People of the Book; it’s known for its a Great Wall of Poetry, also its pyramid of literary magazines. He can name the last title in the Nancy Drew series, both alphabetically and chronologically. His store features shelves with labels like Games People Play and All Things Green (books on the environment, money, and “envy management”). He is himself (of course) a failed poet, and editor of a failing literary magazine called Gilgul, named after the soul reborn in another body.

Though of varied interests, Benny is definitely a rabbi. He is ordained; he has parishioners, presumably through a havurah or alternative minyan; he leads High Holiday services; he presides over weddings (pocketing knishes to share with my narrator) and acts as a virtual mohel (for those who “want the celebration without the slice”). He knows his Tanakh; he wants to “learn”—i.e., study Torah—with my narrator; he automatically thinks about words in terms of their Gematria.

So why a rabbi? I wasn’t trying to make any kind of theological point. My narrator Shira is, to say the least, a secular Jew. She imagines that her mother, who abandoned her when Shira was a child, was Catholic because, when they lived in Rome she visited lots of churches. She doesn’t know for sure—frankly, she doesn’t care. Shira experiences no religious conversion or Jewish awakening as a result of [spoiler alert!] falling for Benny. I had no such agenda.

The origin of a novel’s elements are often mysterious, perhaps especially to an author. Looking back now, at the finished book, I think I was attracted by the idea of a man who is “supposed to be” certain about matters of faith, but is in fact extremely human, with all a human person’s foibles, flaws, and, yes, doubts. Benny preaches forgiveness during the Days of Awe, but he is unable himself to forgive; he yearns to set an example, but again and again he errs. At the same time, his very Jewish questing, his yearning and openness, open something in Shira. It proves to make all the difference.

Rachel Cantor's stories have appeared in magazines such as the Paris Review, One Story, Ninth Letter, Kenyon Review, and the New England Review. Rachel lives in New York, in the writerly borough of Brooklyn. She is, always, at work on another book.

Related Content:

It's Hardly Peeking If There's Nothing in the Way

Tuesday, January 26, 2016 | Permalink

With the release of his debut novel, Anna and the Swallow Man, this week author and actor Gavriel Savit guest blogs for the Jewish Book Council as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

“And He said, ‘You will not be able to see my face, for the human will not see me and live.’” (Exodus 33:20)

I was raised in Modern Orthodoxy; I have chosen to live in Modern Heterodoxy.

When I was young and living with my parents, I went to shul with my father (or about twenty minutes behind him, depending on the relative level of my adolescent pique that day) for Shabbat and holiday services. This habit has given me the surety that God smells of men’s sweaty woolen prayer shawls and the slowly disintegrating bindings of prayer books; it has also given me a tremendous bank of memories concerning traditional Judaic ritual.

One of the strongest among these is a memory that comes from a holiday service held in the basement of the University of Michigan Hillel building in Ann Arbor, where, as might be expected, the Ann Arbor Orthodox Minyan is based. No matter the season, this basement is ill-ventilated, and the hours-long occupancy of many dutifully worshipping Jewish bodies does nothing to alleviate the heat. Always, we sweat.

Nonetheless, on this particular occasion, I can clearly recall wanting to be very close to my father’s body, and, furthermore, to be covered over with a sheet of wool. It was time for the dukhening, the priestly blessing.

The tradition is such that when the Cohanim, the members of the priestly family amongst the Jews, ascend the rostrum to offer their blessing to the congregation, they are not looked upon. To this end, many men gather their children underneath their prayer shawls to receive the benediction, thus shielding their eyes from the proceedings.

For one reason or another, my father was not in this particular habit—it may be that I was too often off in the back corner with my friends to be reached in time, or it may be that his father hadn’t followed the same tradition. In any case, on this particular occasion, I sought out the barrier of my father’s talit, and I did so for a very specific reason: I wanted to peek.

It’s hardly peeking if there’s nothing in the way.

The explanation I’d always been given for the habitual aversion of the eyes during this ritual—though it seems to be folk tradition, rather than rabbinic in origin—was that when the priests bless the Jewish people, the presence of God descends and is channeled out through their hands. This can be harmful, even deadly to witness.

So of course, I wanted to see it.

(Interestingly, as an aside, there are certain conditions that render a priest inadmissible as a candidate for the performance of this particular benediction, and a deformity of the hands is one of them: the hands, are, indeed, raised as a conduit of blessing in this ritual. Another of these excluding conditions is blindness.)

On this particular holiday in my childhood, the priests were summoned to wash their hands before the benediction, and I snuggled in beside my father, seeking the covering of his talit. The cantor began to prompt the cohanim, and they began to drone their melody.

I peeked out from beneath my father’s shawl. All there was to see was a row of old Jews, tented up beneath their striped woolen prayer shawls, swaying back and forth, their hands raised in the air. Surely, I thought, with the charmingly arrogant certainty of a child—surely, this is not the presence of God.

I am no longer so certain.

In Hinduism, there is a theological concept that goes by the name of darśana. It is perhaps best described as a sort of worshipful transaction, but one that is decidedly visual: the worshiper offers praise through their visual faculty by observing the beauty of the image of the deity, and in return, he receives a sort of visual spiritual enlargement.

This might seem to be a decidedly un-Jewish concept, and in some ways it is. In other ways, I’m not so sure. Of course, it’s uncontroversially the case that we, as Jews, worship no images of God, and I would never challenge that principle. I do, however think that a fair amount of our worshipful activities as Jews involve looking for God, or trying to see God. Let me explain:

As I said, we’re used to constructing our religious identity, amongst other things, upon a foundation of non-idolatry. This is practically a founding principle, and we may, from our historical vantage point, be tempted to assume that because we worship no image, our God is also possessed of no visible image.

Much of tradition would seem to support this assumption. After all, the Thirteen Principles of Jewish Faith formulated by Maimonides and sung so frequently in our religious services under the title of Yigdal state this explicitly: אֵין לוֹ דְּמוּת הַגּוּף וְאֵינוֹ גוּף—“He has no bodily image, and he has no body.”

But as is so often the case, what comes down to us as simple orthodox tradition is, in fact, far from undisputed. There was a period during which the corporeality of God was a strongly held minority opinion amongst Jewish thinkers. Some have argued that Rashi—whose interpretations are considered so unassailable that his name has become a practical synonym for the plain meaning of Biblical text—himself believed in the corporeal existence of God.

You read that correctly. It has been compellingly argued that Rashi believed in the existence of a visible body of God.   Continue Reading »

Gavriel Savit is an actor and author from Ann Arbor, MI, and a graduate of the University of Michigan’s prestigious Musical Theatre program. He is the author of Anna and the Swallow Man (Knopf, 2016) and an emerging voice in Jewish literature.

Related Content:

Translating "Shalhevetyah"

Monday, January 25, 2016 | Permalink

Rachel Cantor is the author of the novel A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World. With the publication of her second novel, Good on Paper, she is blogging here all week as a Visiting Scribe on The ProsenPeople.

My second novel, Good on Paper, is about Shira Greene, an underachieving translator. Distrusting translation on principle, she flits from one temp job to another—a not-very-satisfying outcome for a woman with nearly a whole graduate degree who once aspired to be the world’s first singing, dancing architect! She gets a call out of the blue, however, from a Nobel Prize-winning poet who wants her to translate his latest work, a story about the love he bears for his wife. Seeing stars, Shira agrees—and then her story becomes interesting. Romei says he chose her because of a translation she’d done long ago of La Vita Nuova (“The New Life”), an early work of Dante, but when he begins faxing her sections of his work, we begin to suspect—as she does, too, eventually—that he has another agenda altogether, one that involves her personally.

To write the book, I used my intermediate-level Italian to translate bits of Vita Nuova and to convey something of her translation process and philosophy. Of course, Shira does a whole lot in the book besides stare at Italian poetry—she falls in love, for one thing, and her family, not unrelatedly, threatens to fall apart—but I had to make sure that we believe that Shira is good at what she does.

What I did not imagine was that I might also find myself translating words from Hebrew. I don’t speak Hebrew; I certainly don’t read Hebrew, much less Biblical Hebrew. What few words I know, I know from shul. But in one scene, two characters, dissatisfied with the King James version of the Song of Songs, translate parts of 8:6-7 together.

The King James version of those lines reads: … for love is as strong as death; jealousy is as cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire which hath a most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love …

Working with several English translations of the Song—notably that of Ariel and Chana Bloch, with its glorious and extensive annotations, as well as that of poet Marcia Falk, and the translation and commentary of Marvin H. Pope, I created for my characters Benny and Esther—rabbi and Midrash enthusiast, respectively—a new translation of these verses.

For the pale “strong” of King James, the Blochs suggest “fierce,” recalling that the word elsewhere modifies “lion.” My characters think “ferocious”: love is ferocious like death.

Both Falk and the Blochs also use “grave” for the Hebrew sheol, but my characters disagree: they retain sheol, for its sense of the underworld, of suffering beyond death, a sense not available in what they call the “dead-end translation of Sheol as grave.”

Benny (unwittingly) follows the Blochs in preferring the literal “sparks” to “coals” (“its sparks,” then, “sparks of fire”). In his rabbinically trained mind, sparksbring to mind the holy sparks of sixteenth-century Kabbalist Isaac Luria, who famously wrote of the holy sparks that infuse all spheres of existence and which must be separated from the kelippot (husks) and lifted up.

Then, crucially, the pair considers shalhevetyah, the “most vehement flame” of King James. The Blochs discuss a longstanding debate: does shalhevetyah (literally, they say, “enormous flame”) contain within it the name of God (otherwise absent in Song of Songs); they decide no, because more usually Yah appears as a separate word. Their solution: “a devouring flame.” Falk apparently disagrees, referring instead to a “holy blaze.” My characters, being fictional, care nothing for raging disputes. “A great God-flame!” they decide.

Thus, they now have, Love is ferocious like death, its jealousy cruel as Sheol, its sparks, sparks of fire: a great God-flame! Already a departure from the King James!

Further, King James decided that “many waters cannot quench love.” The Blochs write, “great seas cannot extinguish love,” but Marvin H. Pope’s translation notes clarifies that these “great waters” are nothing less than the great primordial waters of creation, the mayim rabbim first mentioned in the opening of Genesis. Almost giddy, enjoying their translation work almost as much as I did, I have Benny and Esther exclaim, “Not even the great waters of creation can extinguish the great God-flame which is love.

Alas, their translation is interrupted by a message that comes across the great waters of the Atlantic, a message that changes everything. To learn what that is, you’ll have to read the book!

Rachel Cantor's stories have appeared in magazines such as the Paris Review, One Story, Ninth Letter, Kenyon Review, and the New England Review. Rachel lives in New York, in the writerly borough of Brooklyn. She is, always, at work on another book.

Related Content:

The Mystical Experience of an Uncertain Space

Sunday, January 24, 2016 | Permalink

Gavriel Savit is an author and actor whose work in both fields has taken him on travels across the world. With the release of his debut novel, Anna and the Swallow Man, this week he joins the Visiting Scribe series as a guest contributor to The ProsenPeople.

“And He said, ‘You will not be able to see my face, for the human will not see me and live.’” (Exodus 33:20)

“Studying a face:
Stepping back to look at a face
leaves a little space
in the way
like a window.
But to see—
It's the only way to see.” (Stephen Sondheim, Sunday in the Park with George)

“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage.” (Peter Brook, The Empty Space)

I had the most peculiar experience the other day.

I was down in Texas with my fiancée for about half a week, in loose conjunction with a language conference there. We mostly used the trip as an excuse for the consumption of smoked meat, local beer, and lovely, idle conversation. We were traveling, though, and—from my perspective at least—certain rituals are absolutely nonnegotiable when traveling. Primary among these is the local bookshop visit.

Any bookshop is a haven to me—like a consulate or embassy, away from home—but my favorite sort to visit while traveling is the second-hand; they manage to be familiar and comforting (the smell of aging bindings is a heady thing) while providing a unique view of the location in which they’re situated. The books people choose to resell, the books people had in the first place—these are each of them clues toward the eventual grokking of a local culture.

And so we stumbled into a lovely little local Texas bookstore. My fiancée and I split off and went about the business of visiting our old friends.

In general, I like to start off perusing the first editions and rare books in their plate-glass cabinets, smirking at the posters, flipping through the table displays, a little palate teaser before I make my way over to the real goals of my visit:

Folklore & Mythology (usually one or two things here to pique the interest); Magic and the Occult (more often than not consumed in wacky mid-seventies counterculture nonsense or twentieth-century self-published conspiracy theories, but on occasion with a serious, scholarly text in the mix); and finally, the crown jewel of any used bookstore—Judaica and Jewish Studies.

Only in this bookstore, there was no such section.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: it must’ve been one of those alternatively organized places—you know, a shop that thinks it’s cute to start at the ultimate left hand side of their shelving and put everything down in order of its original publication, left to right, so you have no choice but to surreptitiously Google what the precise publication year of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Satan in Goray was—or something like that.

But no. Their organization was totally standard. And in fact, here was Eastern Philosophy, here Buddhism, here Hinduism, here Christianity.

I was unsettled. I checked, thoroughly, on the end-caps, on the opposite side of each bookshelf, but it was true—there were simply no Jewish books in the bookshop.

This was bizarre. This was incomprehensible. This was like an uncanny dream of the childhood home in which nothing is familiar. Where there are Jews (and believe it or not, there are quite a few in Texas), there are Jewish books, and, with the magnetic attraction of the agnostically secular among us, drawn back to shul on Erev Yom Kippur, these Jewish books can be counted upon to find their way back to the second-hand bookstore.

Ultimately, there are several very good possible explanations for the lack of Jewish books in this individual bookshop. It could be that this particular corner of Texas lacked the critical mass of Jews necessary to support any real trade in second-hand Jewish books, or it could be possible that the Jews in this locality dispose of their unwanted books of Jewish interest to some local synagogue or day school library. There are plenty of reasonable, non-antisemitic reasons a bookstore would lack a Jewish books section.

But over the next several days, I found myself still thinking about it. As far away as Boston, Massachusetts, an absurd, unfair, peculiar thought kept dogging me: Why couldn’t they at least have left an empty shelf?

And after having come back to this question several times, I came to this conclusion:

An empty shelf in the Religion section might have turned this Texan bookstore from one of the least Jewish places I’ve ever encountered into one of the most.

This may be difficult to understand; over the next few days in this space, I’m going to try and expand what I mean by that, but in brief, let me explain like this:

This week I publish a book called Anna and the Swallow Man which is in some ways significantly and intentionally ambiguous. At the book’s end, the reader is left with certain fertile uncertainties that I hope will provoke a particular kind of experience—something unstable, something speculative, something that allows the potential of all sorts of beautiful, contradictory, simultaneous possibilities that might otherwise have to have been discarded as irrational.

For me, there’s a sort of profound mystical experience to be found in this uncertain space. Whether or not I managed to evoke it in my book is for readers to decide, but I will say this: that uneasy, magical space of uncertainty is central to my feelings about magic, religion, and art, which—you should pardon the expression—are a sort of holy trinity for me.

And that, I think, could scarcely be more Jewish.

Gavriel Savit is an actor and author from Ann Arbor, MI, and a graduate of the University of Michigan’s prestigious Musical Theatre program. He is the author of Anna and the Swallow Man (Knopf, 2016) and an emerging voice in Jewish literature.

Related Content: