The ProsenPeople

I’m Telling Everyone

Monday, March 16, 2015 | Permalink

Judith Claire Mitchell, the author of A Reunion of Ghosts and The Last Day of the War, is an English professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing. She is blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

In 1996, shortly before I left the East Coast for the Midwest, a transplanted Iowan told me how much I was going to love his home state. “The people there are so nice,” he said. “You’ll make new friends in no time. Just don’t tell anyone you’re Jewish.”

“Excuse me?” I said.

“Well, they don’t like Jews,” he said. “But other than that, you’ll love it there.”

I did love Iowa. I also ignored his advice. I’m not sure who my acquaintance hung out with when he lived here, but I’ve now lived in the Midwest for about twenty years—after two years in Iowa, I moved to Wisconsin—and I haven’t found it all that different from anywhere else in terms of anti-Semitism. In fact, when I arrived in Iowa two decades ago, the first time I told a new acquaintance I was Jewish, I didn’t get the cold shoulder, I got invited to a Seder.

I suppose if it were a matter of life or death I’d lie about my background, but even then I know I’d have a hard time. Being Jewish is such an intrinsic part of who I am that sooner or later I always find myself waving my flag.

It’s sort of like the old joke about the elderly Jewish man who enters a confessional and tells the priest he’s just had sex with a young and beautiful woman. “But you’re Jewish,” the priest says. “Why tell me?” “Are you kidding?” the old man exults. “I’m telling everyone.”

That’s my strong preference when it comes to being Jewish: to tell everyone.

But often, in my work, my characters are more reticent. Take, for example, eighteen-year-old Yael Weiss, one of the main characters in my first novel The Last Day of the War, which is set in the aftermath of World War I. Because the U.S. government has appointed the sectarian YMCA to run its military canteens in Europe, Yael changes her name to Yale White and claims she’s Methodist. She thinks she’s just being practical, doing what it takes to enroll in an organization restricted to Trinitarian Christians. If lying and passing and giving up a part of one’s self is what’s required, she’ll lie and pass and become who she’s implicitly urged to be. This being literature, repercussions ensue.

In my new novel, A Reunion of Ghosts, there’s another character who sloughs off his Jewishness, in his case by converting. This character, Lenz Alter, is based on the German-Jewish chemist Fritz Haber, whose work in the early years of the twentieth century led to the development of both nitrogen fertilizer and the first poison gases of World War I. A Nobel Prize winner (for the fertilizer) and a feted German war hero (for the gas), Haber’s conversion was not atypical in an era when many non-practicing Jews identified more as German than Jew. Conversion, of course, was no protection a few decades later, and with the passage of 1933’s Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, which essentially threw Jews out of their jobs, Haber left his beloved Germany, heartbroken and blindsided. He died a few months later in a Swiss hotel. Many believe he’d been on his way to Palestine.

I sometimes wonder whether my literary exploration of Jews who, for one reason or another, find their Jewishness an impediment to be brushed aside has to do with the fact that people don’t always realize I’m Jewish, which means, I suppose, that I might be able to pass if I wanted to. Once (and not in the Midwest, but in a big liberal city on the East Coast), I was buttonholed by a woman who was railing against Jewish lawyers. As she carried on, I was very aware that, in the event she should run out of breath and actually allow me to speak, I’d have a choice to make. I could simply change the subject. Lovely weather we’re having. How’s about those Mets?

Instead, when I was able to get a word in, I said, “Yes, I’ve had experience dealing with Jewish lawyers, too. My brother, for example.”

It took her a moment to do the math. Then she reddened, which I first took to be embarrassment, but, no, it turned out to be umbrage. “Well, how was I supposed to know,” she snapped as if I’d done something sneaky and, therefore, typical. “You don’t have a big nose.”

Whether or not I have a big nose may be up for debate. But what I definitely don’t have is a Jewish last name. That, rather than my features, is what I think throws people off—as, indeed, it was meant to. Long before I was born, my father and his brother, children of Orthodox Jews from the Ukraine, believed they weren’t finding work in their fields due to their surnames. They legally adopted the nondescript Mitchell, and—nu!—jobs for everyone!

I get why my father changed his name. His suspicions about his industry were hardly unfounded. And “Americanizing” one’s name (the word seems to mean the complete opposite of what it's supposed to) was done more frequently back in the 1950s. Tony Curtis. Burt Lancaster. Judith Mitchell.

Mitchell has been my last name since birth, and I’m not planning on changing it back to my paternal grandparents’ name at this point in my life. Still, for an “I’m telling everyone” Jew, going by Mitchell can make me feel a lot like a “don’t tell anyone” Jew.

Given all this, I guess it’s no surprise that when I was a kid, I was fond of a song by Jacques Brel that included this lyric:

If we only have love,
we can reach those in pain;
we can heal all our wounds;
we can use our own names.

Fiction has given me the opportunity to explore the outsider status that too many of us—Jews, yes, but hardly Jews alone—struggle with. After all, fiction is essentially a means of artful truth-telling, and there is no more important truth for each of us than “this is who I am—and I’m telling everyone.”

A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, Judith Claire Mitchell has received fellowships from the James Michener/Copernicus Society, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the Arts Institute of the University of Wisconsin, and elsewhere. She currently lives in Madison with her husband, the artist Don Friedlich.

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The Art of Religious Tradition: The Backstory to The Myth of the Cultural Jew

Monday, March 16, 2015 | Permalink

Roberta Rosenthal Kwall is the Raymond P. Niro Professor of Law at DePaul University College of Law. Her newest book, The Myth of the Cultural Jew: Culture and Law in Jewish Tradition, is now available. She is blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I have always viewed human artistic creativity as a spiritual type of enterprise, even before the time I began to write about this idea on a more formal basis. I believe that any creative artistic work, be it literature, music, or visual art, is the product of the author’s personal story as shaped by her own experience and her reaction to her surrounding environment. I became an advocate for author’s rights in my role as a legal academic, and much of my legal scholarship has focused on an author’s right to receive attribution and to safeguard her work from unauthorized changes that compromise its message and meaning.

My legal research led me to an important book written by historian Daniel Boorstin entitled The Creators, in which he observes that the Torah’s language that “God created man in His image…” furnishes a path leading man to regard himself as a potential creator. I confess that I had never thought about this insight before, despite having read the Biblical text many times. Around the time I encountered Boorstin’s book, I had begun to reconnect with Jewish learning, which had occupied a large part of my adolescent and college years. It suddenly occurred to me that the Jewish tradition is very much like a work of art that has been composed jointly by its many human authors, and based (at least in my view) on its Divine origin. As such, the tradition can be understood as reflecting the personal and environmental circumstances of many of its authors, both the rabbis and lay people. Therefore, both the laws promulgated by the rabbis and the practices of the people have a basis in the cultures that have surrounded the tradition’s authors.

After this realization, it was not a particularly difficult stretch for me to see that so many of the issues I had written about with respect artistic works could also be asked about the Jewish tradition. Specifically, how much can a work (or a tradition) undergo modification and still be considered representative of its original meaning and message? What does society lose when a given work (tradition) loses its essential character and becomes something completely different? Further, who gets to make these changes and pursuant to what type of authority? At base, these questions are all concerned with “authenticity.” In a post-modern age where it is expected that the audience will interpret texts and forge new meaning, these issues loom large in the world of art, especially in our digital era. With respect to the Jewish tradition specifically, many would also argue that it should be subject to new interpretations, especially given the challenges of modernity.

There is a value to changes in any cultural tradition, particularly in more liberal pockets of the community. Still, changes that are not grounded in the fabric of the cultural tradition can compromise important values unique to the tradition. This concern with loss of value and dilution of the tradition’s authenticity justifies a perspective that embraces a degree of selectivity with respect to implementing changes in the tradition. This concern is particularly relevant to the Jewish tradition, and the issue of how much change and evolution it can tolerate and yet retain its authenticity is one that has occupied much of the discourse in certain circles of Jewish thought since the inception of the Enlightenment.

Based on this perspective, I believe that Judaism is not a science but rather a form of art—a cultural product composed of law, wisdom, and narrative, all of which have been shaped by social forces over time and diverse geographic space. My passion for Judaism ignited my work on The Myth of the Cultural Jew. And my desire to transmit this passion to my children served as the impetus for its completion.

Roberta Rosenthal Kwall earned her law degree from the University of Pennsylvania and received her undergraduate degree from Brown University. Currently she is completing a Master's Degree in Jewish Studies.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, March 13, 2015 | Permalink

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Book Cover of the Week: Thresholds

Friday, March 13, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Jewish Book Council is delighted to be working once again with Rabbi Sherre Hirsch, the first female rabbi of Sinai Temple Los Angeles and a frequent contributor and speaker on spiritual life and musings. We thought you'd like a sneak peak at the book cover for her forthcoming book, Thresholds:

Focusing on the "hallways" of life rather than the rooms of our homes, Rabbi Hirsch seeks to mentor readers in facing the transitions they might not even be aware they have or are about to come across.

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Julia Dahl's Reading List for Writing an Ultra-Orthodox Mystery Novel

Tuesday, March 10, 2015 | Permalink

This week, Julia Dahl—the author of Invisible City, available in paperback today blogs for The Postscript on her recommended reads for exploring the world of her novel.

The Postscript series is a special peek "behind the scenes" of a book. It's a juicy little extra something to add to a book club's discussion and a reader's understanding of how the book came together. 

As a Reform Jew growing up in Fresno, Calif., I had no exposure to the world of the haredi, or ultra-Orthodox. It wasn’t until moving to New York City in 1999 that I even realized so-called “black hat” Jews existed in the United States. I was fascinated by the idea that the men and women I saw on the subway wearing peyos and sheitels were Jewish, like me, and yet so unlike me. That fascination turned to curiosityand when writers get curious, we write.

But before I began writing, I began reading. Below are recommendations for books, articles and radio reports that helped me research my first novel, Invisible City, and its upcoming sequel, Run You Down. I hope they deepen your enjoyment of my books, spur discussion, and contribute to better understanding your fellow Jews.

The first book I read about this community was Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels by Hella Winston, an intrepid, award-winning journalist and sociologist. The book tells the stories of several men and women trying to leave their cloistered world. It is full of funny, strange, and heartbreaking details about people living inside America’s great melting pot and struggling to understand the non-Jewish world around them.

I also recommend the novel, Hush. Originally published under the pen name Eishes Chayil (which translates to a Woman of Valor), the author was later revealed to be a woman from Brooklyn named Judy Brown. Brown based the book on her childhood in Borough Park and the death of a close friend.

Last year, The New Yorker’s Rachel Aviv investigated the aftermath of an ugly sexual abuse trial in Borough Park—and the injustice that befell the man who pushed for a conviction.

The New York Times recently published two interesting articles about the haredi. The first is a profile of a sex therapist who counsels ultra-Orthodox women (one telling quote: “We have an intake form to fill out, and they get to ‘orgasm’ and go to the receptionist and ask, ‘What is this?'”); the second focuses on haredi men who make their living begging in Lakewood, New Jersey.

This investigation into substandard education at some Brooklyn yeshivas by Sonja Sharp of DNA Info tackles the thorny issue of how the state regulates—or fails to regulate—religious education.

As more haredi move from liberal, diverse New York City to the rural and suburban counties outside the city, the tension created by their large families, private yeshivas, and apparent lack of interest in forming meaningful connection with their new neighbors, is causing great distress. New York Magazine’s Benjamin Wallace-Wells reports.

A compliment to Wallace-Wells’s reporting is this 2014 episode from public radio’s This American Life, which focuses on the battle between the haredim and their neighbors over control of the East Ramapo School District.

I recommend two articles related to the issue of parents leaving the ultra-Orthodox and subsequently losing custody of (and connection with) their children. This 2008 New York Magazine article by Mark Jacobson and this essay by Shulem Deen in Tablet. Deen is the editor of Unpious.com and the author of the must-read upcoming memoir All Who Go Do Not Return (out March 23 from Greywolf Press).

I also recommend reading almost anything by Frimet Goldberger, a writer who frequently contributes to the Jewish Daily Forward. Goldberger was raised in the strict Satmar Hasidic community of Kiryas Joel in Orange County, N.Y., and she writes about her attempts to live a more modern – but still Jewish – life. The columns on learning to drive and the anniversary of the last time she shaved her head are particularly interesting.

Finally, I recommend this report from WNYC’s Arun Venugopal, which reveals an interesting upside to life in a homogeneous community like Borough Park: an honor system that allows financially strapped members of the community to bring home groceries without having to pay immediately.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, March 06, 2015 | Permalink

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Interview: Mark Polizzotti on Translating the Work of Patrick Modiano

Friday, March 06, 2015 | Permalink

by Beth Kissileff

Patrick Modiano, who won the 2014 Nobel Prize for literature, has recently seen a flurry of attention here in the U.S., where he had been relatively unknown until the announcement of his Nobel win. Modiano’s first book, La Place de l'Étoile, was published in May, 1968, the time of the famous student protests in Paris and a year before the seminal 1969 French Holocaust film The Sorrow and the Pity by Marcel Ophuls came out and jolted France into consciousness of what had happened during World War II and the extent of the collaboration by the Vichy government. Modiano’s other works involve grappling – directly and indirectly – with the after effects of that time both on individuals and the city of Paris itself.

Modiano's work continues to be an important lens through which we view Paris and French Jewish life and culture. In the aftermath of the murders of Jews both at Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket in Paris in January, 2015, looking back at what The New Yorker had to say about Modiano in October, 2014 is eerily significant: “It will not have escaped the attention of the Nobel committee that Modiano’s win comes at a time when anti-Semitism in France is on the rise, as is the rate of French Jews’ emigration to Israel. The fear that French Jews are not safe in their own land, that French Jewish culture may vanish, is once again palpable, and real.” 

While a new novel, So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood, will be published later this year by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (published in France in 2014), and Modiano's Dora Bruder was recently published by University of California Press, we turn our attention to Suspended Sentences, a volume of novellas published by Yale University Press this past November. Specifically, though, we turn to the translator of the volume, Mark Polizzotti, who is also currently translating Modiano's memoir Pedigree, to learn more about his decision to translate Modiano and his thoughts on Modiano and his work. 

Beth Kissileff: You’ve translated over 40 books - why did you choose to be involved with this?

Mark Polizzotti: I am drawn to writers with a gift for spareness, who say a lot with a little. Modiano’s books are so short, so few words. But one can tell so much in a sentence with these little impressionistic touches. It is like a Monet—if you look too closely it’s just daubs of paint, but when you stand back, you can see a cathedral.

Translating him is a wonderful exercise; one has to bring all of one’s linguistic abilities to bear. There is a real beauty and loveliness to his prose that I tried hard to convey in English. It takes real talent to say something in few words, as he does, to give each word resonance and weight.

I was surprised when he won the Nobel. On the surface, he seems lightweight even – so indirect, such lightness of tone. But in reality he is dealing with some of the weightiest issues of the twentieth century. It’s just that he doesn’t beat his chest about it the way some writers do.

BK: Why did Modiano come to prominence now?

MP: Modiano is part of the first generation to ask questions about what really happened during the war. Despite the national myth promoted by De Gaulle, people in France did collaborate, actively or passively.

When Modiano’s first book [La Place de l'Étoile, not yet in English, the name alluding to both the star Jews had to wear and an actual location in Paris ] came out in 1968, a year before The Sorrow and the Pity, that national myth was beginning to crumble.

The first-person narrator of that book is a self-hating Jew. The whole question about Judaism and anti-Semitism, hatred and self hatred, is pulled into one character. Modiano’s two great influences for La Place de l'Étoile were Proust and Céllne, who between them embody all the contradictions and complexities of France’s relationship to Judaism.

BK: Have you met him? Any anecdotes to share?

MP: I have not met him. I’m told he is very gracious, very shy, retiring. On the one hand, I’m sure he’s delighted by the Nobel Prize, but he probably does not like being a public figure. When I was working on the translation I sent him a query about some personal references, to make sure I translated them correctly. He wrote me a letter – apparently, he doesn’t do email, this was all handwritten - with a vast amount of information, even more than I had asked.

To me, this letter is very much in keeping with the voice that comes out of the books, an indicator of authenticity. There are some writers who are wonderful on the page but are wretched human beings. In Modiano’s case, I felt this was a confirmation, that the generosity I sensed on the page was true to its author.

BK: What is the role of his own personal history in his writing?

MP: In his own personal history, his mother was constantly disappearing, on tour as an actress, and his father always seemed to want to keep him away, by sending him to boarding school, the army, and so on.

He rarely mentions this, but his younger brother died when he was ten, I believe of meningitis. Modiano was not there when it happened, but rather away at boarding school.

One day his father showed up at school to take him home, and on the way back, he told him “Your brother died.” Modiano was twelve at the time and he seems never to have gotten over it.

He talks about it in his memoir, Pedigree, which I’m translating now.

BK: Why is so little of Modiano’s work translated until now? Why is it so hard to get American readers to read in translation?

MP: American publishing has the sense that American readers prefer to read Americans. When a foreign author breaks through, like Bolaño or Knausgaard, it’s considered a fluke. Will the Nobel bring Modiano lasting recognition in this country? We’ll see.

BK: In the novella Flowers of Ruin, Modiano writes, “Why bother chasing ghosts and trying to solve insoluble mysteries when life was there in all its simplicity beneath the sun?” Is this also characteristic of him?

MP: There are moments of great lightness in his work, and of great consolation.

BK: The best way to understand this writer is to end with a quote. This is from the novella Afterimage: “And so, feeling helpless, he’d taken those photos so that the place where his friend and his friend’s loved ones had lived would at least be preserved on film. But the courtyard, the square, and the deserted buildings under the sun made their absence even more irremediable.”

Mark Polizzotti is an accomplished author, editor, reviewer, and head of the publications program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Beth Kissileff is the editor of Reading Genesis (Continuum Books, 2014) an anthology of academic writing about Genesis. Her novel Questioning Return is under review for publication and she is writing a second novel and volume of short stories. She has taught at the University of Pittsburgh, Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College.

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Making My Own MFA

Thursday, March 05, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Shulem Deen wrote about "New Happy And Worldly Hasidim." He is the author of All Who Go Do Not Return, a memoir about growing up in and then leaving the Hasidic Jewish world. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I don’t remember precisely when it began, but at some point, about a decade ago, as a 30-year-old living among one of the U.S.’s most insular Hasidic sects, I had this fantasy: I wanted to go away to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and earn an MFA in creative writing.

How exactly did I learn about Iowa, or MFAs, or writing workshops? I can no longer recall. Just a few years earlier, at age 25, I barely knew the difference between a bachelor’s degree and a master’s, or even what a “major” was. The idea of getting a college degree seemed as remote as meeting the Pope on the Monsey Trails bus. But at some point I learned that the Iowa Writer’s Workshop was where people went to become writers. And I wanted to be a writer.

At age 33, I left the Hasidic world. I had learned a lot by then—I knew what a major was, and the difference between a bachelor’s and a master’s. But I never did get to Iowa, or any other creative writing program. Or even any old bachelor’s degree. Life got in the way, and I lost my romantic notions of American higher education. But when an opportunity came to write a book, I knew that it meant committing not only to writing but also to teaching myself how to write.

The Iowa Writer’s Workshop had been a dream because the program was legendary—one of the first such programs in the country—but when I began to lay out the first draft of my book, I realized why I really needed it, or something like it; I needed a basic understanding of literary craft, an immersive environment in which I could experiment with form and technique, and an opportunity to spend time with other students as well as with seasoned writers who had already produced bodies of work from whom to learn. But such an environment was not an option at that point—I’d committed to the book and had looming deadlines. I had no choice, I realized, but to create my own MFA writing program.

Read, read, read—this is every seasoned writer’s advice to novice writers.

I was poorly read. Secular books are scarce within most Hasidic communities, and formal education—aside from religious studies—is meager. I’d had only spotty exposure to English language books, and I’d never given myself to the task of reading anything of quality. As much reading as I had done over the years, I’d done none of the required reading of a high school or college student. And so I knew that I’d have to start my writing education by reading more widely.

Not knowing any better, I took to the classics, American authors in particular: Melville, Twain, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Salinger. Reading these was important, but they were not particularly instructive about writing. The reading often felt tedious, at least on the first read; I would never have picked these books out of a pile—and so it was hard for me to see what made them great. I had neither my own developed aesthetic nor anyone else’s measure for greatness. I had only one measure: Am I enjoying this? And the answer for much of it was: not really.

I broadened my selections, tried tackling some of the other greats—the Russians, the French—but my reading was haphazard, disorganized, with no natural progression that might’ve helped me learn anything. I slogged through Dostoyevsky with little appreciation for either the prose style or its themes, then took up Joyce and Faulkner and understood next to nothing at all.

As I was to learn, not all reading leads directly to better writing. Reading intelligently takes skill, and before such skill is cultivated, reading indiscriminately and without guidance can be frustrating and counter-productive and it can leave you trying to imitate writers you have no business imitating. It took a while for me to learn the difference between good books and books to learn writing from. The classics, I realized, as important as they are, are particularly clunky as elementary writing instruction—especially when you’re your own instructor.

I did eventually find my footing, both as a reader and a writer. I realized that a book has to resonate in a certain way before it can be instructive. You don’t necessarily have to like the book, but you have to get a feel for what it is attempting to do, both as a whole and in its parts.

It’s hard to say at what point and with which books I began to feel that necessary resonance, but at some point I began to notice things—a page that held me captive, a turn of phrase particularly elegant, a metaphor that did exactly what it was supposed to—and I would go back and see how it was done. I began to see more clearly when a work had something for me to learn from and when it was something only to marvel at, be inspired by, but to know that it was a different sort of writing from my own, and that some voices stand only to be admired—a do-not-try-this-at-home kind of writing, best left to seasoned literary stuntmen. (Henry Miller is for me the best example of this.)

In the end, it wasn’t the classics that taught me most, but contemporaries. Frank Conroy and Tobias Wolff taught me about setting up scenes, and making good use of dialogue. Mary Carr and Rick Bragg were inspiring for their exhilarating language, even if I could never hope to mimic such fluidly exquisite prose. James Baldwin's beautifully winding narrative essays, with its vivid descriptions of grit and racial despair rendered in language so effortlessly mesmerizing, put me on the lookout for artifice in my own writing, forced me to more strenuously weed out clunk, and to let my paragraphs flow with a more natural rhythm.

I also read books on writing, and some of them would prove indispensable. John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction remains an invaluable manual on essential narrative techniques. Stephen King’s On Writing, with its unique blend of guide and memoir, is both instructive and inspiring. Sometimes, all I needed to get me going was the image of a writer at work, or a master’s thoughts on writing, and for those, the many long form interviews in The Paris Review were both a treat and an impetus for getting to work.

Most importantly, after reading many dozens of works—novels, memoirs, short story collections, and essays—I learned that to write compelling prose I'd have to empty my mind and find my own voice, which would be markedly different from any author I’ve read—and that this is what makes writing good, not the other way around.

I had many crises of confidence while writing. There were times when I thought the whole undertaking to have been folly. I’d berate myself for thinking that an ex-Hasid with little formal education could teach himself, while nearing middle age, what others pay exorbitant sums of money to learn. If only I’d gotten that MFA, I would think, I’d know how to set this scene, perfect that awkward transition, replace a clunky metaphor with a stream of effortlessly breathtaking prose.

A crisis of confidence does nothing to make a deadline go away, though, and I had no choice but to go on. My book took four years to write, and the dual task of teaching myself as I went made much of the process tormenting. By the time I submitted that final draft to my publisher in February 2014 I had very nearly exhausted myself. But it also remains the most exhilarating work I’ve done in my 40 years of life. I would gladly do it all over again.

Shulem Deen is the founding editor of Unpious, an online journal for voices on the Hasidic fringe. His work has appeared in Salon, The Brooklyn Rail, Tablet MagazineThe Jewish Daily Forward, and elsewhere. He serves as a board member at Footsteps, a New York City-based organization that offers assistance and support to those who have left the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Anivut

Tuesday, March 03, 2015 | Permalink

Mort Zachter is the author of the recently published book Gil Hodges: A Hall of Fame Life. Today he writes for the Jewish Book Council about why he, a Jewish man, chose to write about a devout Catholic.

I’m often asked why I wrote a biography of Gil Hodges. Why not someone Jewish?

“I grew up in Brooklyn, just a couple of blocks from where Hodges lived on Bedford Avenue. He was my childhood hero.”

But that’s just a sound bite. The real answer, the one that sustained me through the many years it took me to see the project through from inception to publication, this I can tell you in one word: anivut.

In the Torah it is written, Ve’ha-ish Mosheh anav me’od mi-kol ha-adam asher al p’nei ha-adamah, “And the man Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth.”

The Hebrew word anav refers to anivut or humility. For Moses, the word did not necessarily mean self-deprecation, but rather self-restraint. Rabbi Chaim Volozhin the founder of one of the most influential yeshivas in Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century, wrote that to be anivut, “does not mean an untruthful lack of appreciation of one’s self and one’s attainments, but rather a lack of arrogance. To be anav means to recognize your true worth, but not to impose the consequences upon your friends and neighbors. It means to appreciate your own talents, neither over-emphasizing nor underselling them, but at the same time refraining from making others aware of your virtues at all times.”

In 1964, Gil Hodges was the manager of Washington Senators. They lost 100 games that year. Their roster was largely composed of mediocre players who rarely, if ever, had a moment of glory in which their accomplishments brought them accolades. But on June 8, 1964, a journeyman outfielder named Jim King had the game of his life. Although the Senators lost that day, King hit three home runs in that one game, an unusual feat accomplished by only a few hundred players in baseball history.

After the game, the press flocked to King. Photos showed him smiling broadly, enjoying his moment in the sun. After a Senators’ game, the press normally converged upon Hodges. As a former star player, he was the face of the team. But that day, Hodges was an afterthought. After the game, someone asked Hodges if he ever hit three home runs in one game? He simply said he was “not in the record books” for that one. And he didn’t say anything more.

Washington Post writer Bob Addie overheard Hodges and decided to do some research. In his column the next day, Addie wrote that he learned that fewer than ten major league players had ever hit four home runs in a single nine-inning game. The list included some of games’ all-time greats, Lou Gehrig, Willie Mays, and the man that brought Addie to the list in the first place, a man who was not Jewish, but who was anivut, Gil Hodges.

Mort Zachter was a struggling tax attorney /CPA and adjunct tax professor until he discovered the fodder for his first book, Dough: A Memoir. Based on a shocking family secret—that he was a second generation millionaire—the story won him the 2006 AWP Prize for Creative Nonfiction and was published in 2007. Zachter’s new book is focused not on his childhood experiences, but on a childhood hero of his and so many other Brooklyn natives: Gil Hodges: A Hall of Fame Life (University of Nebraska Press). Zachter lives in Princeton, NJ. Learn more at www.mortzachter.com.

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Hasidim

Monday, March 02, 2015 | Permalink

Shulem Deen is the author of All Who Go Do Not Return, a memoir about growing up in and then leaving the Hasidic Jewish world. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I was raised within New York’s Hasidic community, where I spent the first 33 years of my life before rejecting the Hasidic worldview and leaving it for a mainstream secular life. Over recent years, however, I have been discovering that the world contains other types of Hasidim, completely different from the Hasid I had been. I call them the New Happy And Worldly Hasidim. (Or “NHAW Hasidim,” for short.)

Hasidic, for most of my life, meant something very specific and defined.

Hasidic meant speaking Yiddish. And shunning secular education. And men wearing shtreimels and sidecurls and speaking really bad English. And women keeping their heads shorn under their wigs and kerchiefs, and speaking slightly better English.

Hasidic meant arranged marriages, and meeting your future spouse for only half an hour before getting engaged, and knowing nothing about sex, or birth control.

Hasidic meant not only that you don't watch TV or movies, but you barely know those things exist.

Hasidic also meant not only a certain kind of practice but a certain mindset, a determined detachment from the broader world, shunning all secular influences, and studiously avoiding engagement with outsiders.

Of course, Hasidim, the people, are different from Hasidism, the movement and the teachings that gave this society its name. The former are a group of people who form a particular culture. The latter is a set of ideas, which are accessible to anyone who can read the books. But it’s the people and how they live, rather than the ideas in the abstract, that, to me, give meaning to the term: Hasidic.

I remember first hearing about Matisyahu, the “Hasidic reggae superstar.” I was intrigued, but also baffled: why does he call himself “Hasidic” if he’s a “reggae superstar”? How was that even possible?


Matisyahu and Roots Tonic, 2007

Several years ago, a woman named Chaya wrote a widely-shared article on the website xoJane in which she claimed to be a Hasidic woman, and also, in her words, "a media professional with a degree in Women's Studies from a large, very liberal university."

In recent years, we’ve been hearing about an "all-female Hasidic rock band,” which has been playing to sold-out crowds at New York City clubs.

Not long ago, a friend recommended that I read the books of a self-described “Hasid” who writes about his love for the band R.E.M. This writer’s blog, I happened to notice, features a nifty drawing of a naked human butt drawn by one Pablo Picasso—something that could easily get you kicked out of every Hasidic shul I’ve attended.

In the Hasidic community that I have known, secular-influenced music is expressly forbidden. I’d never heard of Elvis Presley or the Beatles until well into my 20s. In my book—All Who Go Do Not Return—I describe how I had to sneak behind my then-wife's back to listen to the radio in secret. And here was a “Hasidic reggae superstar.” And a “Hasid” writing about his love for R.E.M. And an all-female “Hasidic rock band” playing music that is clearly secular in its aesthetic, if not in its message.

In the Hasidic community I am from, attending college is anathema, let alone studying concepts like feminism. And here was a “Hasidic” woman with a degree in Women's Studies.

And so, my first reaction to hearing about all these people was a kind of unease. Calling themselves “Hasidic” seemed dishonest. It also suggested a kind of smugness, as if denying the experiences of so many Hasidim—the vast majority, perhaps—who are raised with a rejectionist ideology: rejection of modernity, rejection of freedom, rejection of science and art and any passion that isn’t for God or the Torah; a rejection of our physical bodies, of any spiritual focus not rooted in our own traditions; a rejection of the rest of the world’s intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and creative contributions.

But the New Happy And Worldly Hasidim rejected none of those things.

So what made them Hasidim?

“We follow Hasidic teachings,” they say. I know they say this because I’ve had conversations with some of them. “We follow the Baal Shem Tov!” they tell me. “And there’s nothing in the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings about rejecting modernity.”

They have a point. Hasidism is a philosophy without strict markers, a movement that split into different streams and sects and was further subject to ideological waves engulfing some segments due to various historical processes, but not others.

It might be helpful to get straight this point of socio-historical arcana: there is little about the majority of Hasidic communities today that reflects the teachings of the early Hasidic movement. This cannot be said more plainly: the people we generally refer to as Hasidic, its insular core—the Satmars, the Belzers, the Svkerers, the Vizhnitzers, and others—are shaped as much by the nineteenth century anti-Maskilic opposition to religious innovation than by the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement.

Hasidism, in its earliest incarnation, was not only spiritually and philosophically innovative but encouraged a rejection of conformism. There are tales of early Hasidim who danced naked in the streets and performed somersaults in the public square as a form of self-abnegation and a rejection of the ego. Some of these tales are probably apocryphal, but it’s fair to say they reflect a world in which “Hasidic” meant something entirely different from what it means today. No one’s doing naked somersaults on the streets of Borough Park.

There are historical explanations for the movement’s shift, but ignoring this fact seems like an attempt to sugarcoat some of the uglier realities of the present-day Hasidic world. And there’s something glib about those who choose an identifier while behaving in ways that are anathema to the mainstream known by it—or, at best, only permitted on the fringes.

The truth is, though, I like these New Happy And Worldly Hasidim, and I wish there were more like them. I love that there are people who can envision a “Hasidic” society that is open to the world, embraces creativity and a more expansive form of spirituality and a more progressive worldview. I wish that they—the New Happy And Worldly Hasidim—were the Hasidim who mattered in most Hasidic communities today. But they don’t; as things are now, the Hasidic world—its insular core—is deeply problematic. Right now, in Borough Park and Williamsburg and Monsey and New Square and Kiryas Joel—the largest Hasidic communities in the United States—there are few of these New Happy And Wordly Hasidim; and those who choose to be like them are bound to suffer real consequences.

I am not an identity purist, and I am happy to call anyone a “Hasid” if he or she self-identifies as such. But I also think that language matters, and we need to be specific about terms we use. I love the NHAW Hasidim who seem to be doing wonderful things in their own way. But they’ll have to forgive me if I choose to qualify the term “Hasid” before applying it to them. And New, Happy, and Worldly are good qualifiers to have, I think.

Shulem Deen is the founding editor of Unpious, an online journal for voices on the Hasidic fringe. His work has appeared in Salon, The Brooklyn Rail, Tablet MagazineThe Jewish Daily Forward, and elsewhere. He serves as a board member at Footsteps, a New York City-based organization that offers assistance and support to those who have left the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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