The ProsenPeople

My Favorite Wandering Jews

Tuesday, July 15, 2014 | Permalink

Stephanie Feldman is a graduate of Barnard College. Her debut novel, The Angel of Losses, will be published by Ecco on July 29th. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I grew up assuming that the Wandering Jew was a Jewish creation, our metaphor for the Diaspora. When I began studying gothic literature in college, however, I learned that he's actually a Christian legend, a Roman who taunted Jesus and is punished with immortality.

But I loved the Wandering Jew—his mystery, his magic, his mix of danger and tragedy. I couldn't leave him behind to the more-or-less explicit anti-Semitism of 300-year-old British authors. I didn't want him to be, as my professors would say, "the Other."

I decided to write my own gothic novel with a Wandering Jew based on Jewish tradition. I studied Jewish folklore and history and found a wealth of wizards and travelers, some of whom appear in my novel, The Angel of Losses.

Here are a few of my favorite Wandering Jews:

1. Elijah

A body of Jewish folklore features the prophet Elijah, back on earth after his ascension to help pious Jews in need. He arrives as an unnamed stranger, and disappears again before anyone can guess his true identity.

2. Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph

The second-century rabbi is a famous mystic and religious scholar—"Head of all the Sages," according to the Talmud—but he was also a political figure. Akiba traveled through the Middle East encouraging Jewish communities to support the Jewish general Bar Kochba, who led a briefly successful revolt against the Romans. I prize him for his legendary journey to paradise. According to lore, Akiba brought three rabbis with him on this forbidden mission. Upon breaching paradise, one died, another went insane, and the third became an apostate. Akiba, somehow, survived unscathed.

3. Eldad Ha-Dani

In the ninth century, Eldad Ha-Dani traveled through North Africa, the Middle East, and Spain, announcing himself as a member of an independent Jewish kingdom in Africa founded by four of the ten Lost Tribes of Israel. His contemporaries accepted as truth his tales of an extraordinarily wealthy, hidden Jewish nation. Today, scholars consider him to be a fraud, but his mastery of an unusual version of Hebrew suggests that he may have indeed come from some kind of surviving isolated Jewish community in Africa.

4. Benjamin of Tudela

A twelfth-century Spanish Jew, Benjamin of Tudela traveled through Europe, North Africa, and Asia. His narrative, recognized as a precursor of Marco Polo’s, features both meticulous observations of Jewish communities and fantastic tales of Jewish magicians and enigmatic tribes.

5. and 6. Shlomo Molko and David Reubeni

Messianic fever gripped the Jewish population in the wake of the fifteenth-century Spanish expulsion. Molko, the son of conversos, rediscovered his Jewish heritage and traveled through Europe and the Middle East with self-proclaimed Messiah David Ruebeni. Molko and Reubeni’s journey speaks to the desperation and hope of their time, the sense that the reassembly of the diaspora—and the Ten Lost Tribes of legend—was imminent. Molko was burned at the stake in Italy, and his shawl is still on display in Prague.

7. Israel Cohen

Reading him when I did, I came to see Israel Cohen, who published several books about the Jewish communities of Europe, as an early twentieth-century successor to Benjamin of Tudela. I couldn’t shake one of his notes about the Vilna Jewish library, which one of my characters adds to his collection of legends of the Wandering Jew: “Beneath the Library there was a little room, on the door of which in bold letters appeared the sign of a Hebrew scribe. The door opened as I descended, and out came a hungry-looking man, with sunken, stubbly cheeks, and a dirty collar.”

8. The White Rebbe

A medieval Polish legend describes a "White Rebbe" who sends a calf into a cave. When the animal fails to return, the holy man determines he’s discovered a magical path to Jerusalem. The White Rebbe descends into the cave himself and is never seen again.

I borrowed the name “White Rebbe” for my own Wandering Jew, the hero—or anti-hero—of the mysterious fairy tales my protagonist Marjorie Burke discovers among her late grandfather’s belongings. My White Rebbe's story combines the magic, history, daring, and spiritual longing of the Jewish travelers I discovered in my research, and like the Wandering Jews of gothic literature, he refuses to remain safely in the past.

Stephanie Feldman lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and daughter. Read more about her and her work here.

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Sometimes History Throws Me A Bone

Tuesday, July 15, 2014 | Permalink
This week, Roberta Rich, the author of The Midwife of Venice and a new book, The Harem Midwife, blogs for The Postscript on the the amazing (true!) stories that one can find in history...and her inspiration for her latest book. 

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. 

To "host" Roberta at your next book club meeting, request her through JBC Live Chat

I am a truly inept plotter, not a good quality in a writer of historical fiction. But some times history smiles and throws me a bone. In the case of the Ottoman Empire, which I researched for my latest novel—many bones.

The Harem Midwife is set in Constantinople in the 16th century. My heroine, Hannah, is midwife to the harem of Murat III. History tells us that Murat suffered from a rare and dangerous disorder: although he was surrounded by the most gorgeous girls of the Ottoman Empire, he was besotted with his wife, Safiye, and could perform sexually only with her. It was widely assumed she had bewitched him.

It was a dangerous state of affairs. Murat’s only son and heir to the throne of the largest empire the world had ever known was sickly. In those days of high infant mortality, it was not enough to have one son, or even an ‘heir and a spare’ as the British say. Dozens of son were required to ensure the continuation of the sultanate.

The Valide Nurbanu, the Sultan’s mother, purchased a slave, a young Circassian girl. The Sultan had a glimpse of the girl, and she captured his fancy. She was the great Circassian hope for the Osman dynasty.

The ploy worked, unleashing the royal stud in Murad III who promptly sired 20 surplus sons—all of whom had to be strangled after his death and one, so abruptly, that the poor boy was not permitted to finish his bowl of cherries.

Thus, was born the opening chapter for my novel. I didn’t have to make up a thing.

Imperial Sofa Topkapi March 2008pano2The Topkapi Palace, home of the Sultan and his harem was a magical place of eunuchs, menageries of exotic animals, steams baths, remarkable beauty treatments, and lovely, bored young girls. Too much leisure time and too much money is always a recipe for lascivious, interesting behaviour.

I learned how eunuchs are made—a long and excruciating process. Apparently only one boy out of every nine survived the ordeal. Given what was involved, it is a wonder any survived. But in a society where men kept their wives, daughters and sisters secluded in a harem, eunuchs were vital as guards, confidants and occasionally lovers. As one eunuch famously said of his conquests:

‘They yearn for my ‘tree’ because it cannot bear fruit.”

History even provided me with special effects. The Ottomans were fond, some would say excessively fond, of theatrical contrivances. A hundred doves with orange pomanders around their necks were released from a golden cage to scent the air of the Valide’s private apartments. An army of slow-moving tortoises with candles affixed to their shells moved about the palace gardens on moonless nights.

At Prince Mehmet’s Circumcision Parade—53 days of rejoicing in the streets of Constantinople— the crowds were fed whole roasted oxen out of which raced, when they were cut open, live foxes and wolves, no doubt causing panic among the crowd.

And then there is the story of Gentile Bellini, the famous Venetian painter, and Mehmet the Conqueror who didn’t like the way Bellini portrayed the beheading of John the Baptist. To show him how it was done, Mehmet ordered a slave executed on the spot.

Could any novelist fabricate such wonderful details without being criticized for shameless exaggeration? Not I.

The Harem Midwife has become a favourite of book clubs, and I have appeared at many gatherings both literally munching Turkish mezzes and pide, and drinking wine and virtually on Skype or Face Time. Please see my JBC Live Chat profile to arrange an appearance. My website is:  www.robertarich.com.

On Trailing the Life of Helena Rubinstein

Tuesday, July 15, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Michèle Fitoussi wrote about her fascination with Helena Rubinstein and her decision to write the biography Helena Rubinstein: The Woman Who Invented Beauty. Today she discusses the sources she used to write the biography. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Helena Rubinstein wrote – or rather commissioned – two autobiographies that merely serve to perpetuate her legend, and therefore cannot really be trusted... But they are enough to get a good idea of his extraordinary woman. There are also a couple of biographies written about her, as well as the memoir of Patrick O’Higgins, her secretary during the last 20 years of her life. His words are at times rather biting – it must be said she didn’t treat him especially well – but he remains affectionate, which make this account worthwhile.

In Paris, I had access to the numerous archives of the Rubinstein company; I was able to sift through 14 boxes of memories – Dora Maar’s photos of Helena’s apartment in Paris by the Quai de Béthune, newspaper clippings, press files, transcriptions of radio interviews, reports of the branding strategy in the 1950s, and hundreds of photos.

Once in New York, I had the opportunity to visit the Foundation before it closed its doors and auctioned off its collection of paintings. She had had her portraits done by Salvador Dali, Marie Laurencin, Jacques Helleu, Christian Bérard. Helena’s son’s daughter-in-law Suzanne Slesin also had a great collection of archives which she has compiled in a beautiful book entitled Helena Rubinstein: Over the Top. I met her on several occasions and she told me about her fascinating encounter with Madame Rubinstein in the '60s, when she was only 16 years old, and how dazzled she was upon her visit to Helena’s apartment on Park Avenue. It was at once baroque and a complete mess – a little ‘over the top’ at times – but her style was unbelievably audacious, as she combined for example "Negro art" with contemporary furniture in a way no one would ever dreamed of doing at the time.

I spoke with some of her rare family members who are still alive, including a young cousin who escaped the Shoah with her mother and whom Madame took in after the war and the son of her director in France, Emmanuel Ameisen, who was also her first husband’s nephew.

Trawling through the genealogy sites online I managed to find identity papers, passports, and many newspapers of the time, both American and Australian. Her career truly began in Australia, that’s where her first interviews were conducted, her first adverts placed. One of which I found was dated back to 1903, featuring an actress praising Helena’s ‘Valaze’ cream – the true precursor to ‘Because I’m worth it.’

I would have liked to learn more about her first husband Arthur Ameisen, who went under the alias of Edward Titus, an intellectual, journalist, and art lover, who set up the bookshop on Delambre street in Montparnasse and published Kiki’s Memoirs by Kiki de Montparnasse as well as the French translation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. He too was a fascinating character. He was a prominent member of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ crowd, and influenced his wife’s artistic taste to a great extent. But what was he up to before they met in Australia and then got married in London? I had the opportunity to meet his second wife in Cannes, Erica, who was 38 years his junior, but sadly she was suffering from Alzheimer’s, and I was unable to glean much information from her.

Michèle Fitoussi was born in Tunisia to French parents, and has lived in Paris since the age of five. She worked as a journalist at Elle magazine for years, interviewing world leaders in areas as varied as politics, human sciences, sports, literature and the media. She is the author of screenplays, fiction and non-fiction, including the international bestsellersSuperwoman’s had Enough and The Prisoner. She also co-wrote Stolen Liveswith Malika Oufkir, which sold more than a million copies throughout the world and remained on the New York Times best-seller list for 25 weeks after being stamped as an “Oprah Book” by Oprah Winfrey. Her newest book, Helena Rubinstein: The Woman Who Invented Beauty, is now available. Her forthcoming book about the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai will be published in France this September.

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On Writing a Biography of Helena Rubinstein

Monday, July 14, 2014 | Permalink

Michèle Fitoussi is the author of screenplays, fiction and non-fiction, including the international bestsellers Superwoman’s had Enough and The Prisoner. She also co-wrote Stolen Lives with Malika Oufkir, which sold more than a million copies throughout the world and remained on the New York Times best-seller list for 25 weeks after being stamped as an “Oprah Book” by Oprah Winfrey. Her newest book, Helena Rubinstein: The Woman Who Invented Beauty, is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

People always ask me the same question: ‘What made you want to write about Helena Rubinstein?’ And the answer is always the same. When I began to read her autobiography – in which she does nothing but lie – it made me want to know more, and I became passionate about the romantic yet modern story of this petite ( 4’8”) woman of Polish descent, always perched on sky-high heels, who passed away 48 years ago.

I immediately understood the potential of her story, and all there was to tell. Not least starting with her solo departure to Australia; her two-month boat journey, twelve pots of cream from her mother in her suitcase. It was 1896, she was 24 years old, spoke no English, had never met her Australian family – and she was heading into the unknown with a certain amount of bravery and determination which fascinated me. She was an adventurer, and I loved that about her.

I was, and remain, fascinated by her enthusiasm, her curiosity, her bravery and her youthfulness. She was afraid of nothing and had an endless amount of energy, passion, and intelligence. She was a real heroine and, as she used to say, all the things she’d experienced could easily have filled half a dozen lives. She remains a role model and an inspiration for women all over the world.

With her we travel across the twentieth century through the medium of beauty and art, we witness the empowerment of women, the birth of consumerism, marketing and publicity. We spend time in Krakow, Paris, New York, Melbourne and London... She has lived a thousand lives, and I thought it was worth shedding more light on them.

Michèle Fitoussi was born in Tunisia to French parents, and has lived in Paris since the age of five. She worked as a journalist at Elle magazine for years, interviewing world leaders in areas as varied as politics, human sciences, sports, literature and the media.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, July 11, 2014 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

Find more of the latest reviews here.

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The Mothers' Kaddish

Friday, July 11, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

We are all still reeling from the past weeks of terror and grief over the murders of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrah, three Jewish young men whose bodies were found in a field in the West Bank after an eighteen-day search following their kidnapping, and Muhammad Abu Khdeir, a sixteen-year-old Palestinian who was burned alive in a horrifying civilian act of retaliation.

It is hard, and it hardly seems appropriate, to find inspiration in the face of such tragedy, especially as the violence, division, and hatred behind it continue to promulgate in its wake. There was no small victory for humankind in this story, no miracle—but there was progress.

“The funeral ceremonies also included a seminal moment from a religious perspective, a personal moment with far-reaching public significance,” Yair Ettinger pointed out hours after the burial of the three Jewish victims, in an essay entitled “When Rachel Fraenkel Recited the Kaddish, the Chief Rabbi Said ‘Amen’” for Haaretz. “The recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish by women is gaining momentum, particularly in Modern Orthodox communities. Although it has rabbinical approval, it has never had such great exposure as it had on Tuesday.”

Indeed, 2014-2015 JBC Network author Elana Maryles Sztokman lists cemeteries and funerals among the worst examples of public gender segregation in Israel in the opening chapter of her current book, The War on Women in Israel: How Religious Extremism is Smothering the Voice of a Nation. “One of the most painful experiences of women’s exclusion,” she writes, “takes place at the cemetery, where women are increasingly barred from their own mourning processes… For perhaps obvious reasons, women who were prevented from saying eulogies or honoring their deceased loved ones at funerals faced significant emotional struggles.”

Thankfully—and significantly—that added distress was not placed on Rachel Fraenkel, the bereft mother of Naftali, as she buried her sixteen-year-old son. She was not edged out of public view or ushered away from her son’s graveside; she stood together with her family and recited the Mourner’s Kaddish in front of Chief Rabbi David Lau, religious leaders and members of Knesset, and the thousands of Jews who assembled at the cemetery, and the only response she received was “Amen.”

“The religious feminist movement is not new,” Ettinger asserts in his article. “It has been taking shape for many years with the full cooperation of high-ranking Orthodox rabbis, but it is not every day that it gets the kind of exposure engendered by a woman’s public recitation of Kaddish.”

Several months ago, 2014-2015 JBC Network authors Michal Smart and Barbara Ashkenas received a 2013 National Jewish Book Award for their co-edited anthology, Kaddish: Women’s Voices, in which over fifty writers from around the world—including Nessa Rapaport and fellow 2014-2015 JBC Network author and 2013 National Jewish Book Award recipient Chaya R. Gorsetman, who coauthored Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools with Sztokman—share their experiences mourning as Jewish women. “I hope this book will serve as a companion to others,” Ashkenas writes in the preface, “spark many meaningful conversations, and open the possibilities for women to choose how to mourn and remember a loved one.”

Since Naftali Fraenkel , Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrah’s disappearance, the entire Jewish world has been watching—watching for developments in the case, watching the bereaved families, watching for the responses of Jewish, Arab, and world leaders, watching the citizens of Israel and the Palestinian territories. This process of waiting and, eighteen days later, confirmed grief, and later still shock and horror at the discovery of Muhammad Abu Khdeir's brutalized body—for we are all, regardless of our politics or opinions, saddened by the senseless deaths of these youths—has elicited discussion within the Jewish community, albeit a painful one. We don’t know what to talk about, and so we resort to either sitting in an unhealthy silence or reacting in ways that harm others, harm our standing as a nation in the global community, and harm our own friends and dear ones.

Yair Ettinger’s piece points us to one way in which we might create a constructive conversation, both in the immediate aftermath of this terrible event and for the months and years to follow, for our communities: a discussion of healing, of Jewish practice, of women and religion, of a way forward.

Crypto-Jews and Autobiographical Animals: Part 3 of a 3-Part Conversation

Thursday, July 10, 2014 | Permalink
This week father and son, neighbors in Brookline, Massachusetts and longtime collaborators, David Shrayer-Petrov and Maxim D. Shrayer discuss Dinner with Stalin and Other Stories in a three-part conversation conducted for the Visiting Scribes series. Read the first installment, "A Fictional Model of the Former USSR," here and the second installment, "A Jewish-Russian Writer as New Englander," here. They have been blogging here for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week.

Maxim D. Shrayer: Papa, I want to ask you about varieties of crypto-Jews—those who conceal their Judaism in order to preserve it (as in your story “White Sheep on a Green Mountain Slope” set in the Caucasus), and also, perhaps, those who conceal their Jewishness to preserve themselves (as the Holocaust survivor, the Polish Jew in “Mimicry”). Why do so many crypto-Jews populate the pages of your stories, and why are there fewer traditional Jews in them?

David Shrayer-Petrov: I think that many Jews used to want to play down their Jewishness, at least in their public conduct… and I myself was sometimes guilty of that in pre-refusenik Soviet life.

MDS: But crypto-Jewishness is also an inherent quality of your stories, your characters. That’s why I contrasted your crypto-Jews with your publically observant Jews.

DSP: Pious Jews don’t usually stray from their public image or literary stereotype. Such model Jews are a source of my great admiration, but as a fictionist I don’t have much to say about them. It’s been done before by Sholem Aleichem, Bashevis Singer… even Singer was writing about Jews who exhibited a shift of behavior.

MDS: Speaking about shifts of behavior, Jewish or otherwise, your stories carry a strong dose of sexual tension; “The Bicycle Race” alone is rife with eroticism. I keep thinking of Dinner with Stalin and of Dark Avenues, Ivan Bunin’s manifesto of the love story. Can we speak of your book as a book of love stories?

DSP: I would prefer to call it a book of stories about love. In these stories there isn’t only love for a person, but also a subtle, yet powerful love for a Jew’s homeland, for Russia. And this love for—this love of—one’s native Russian language and culture is perhaps even stronger than sexual love in my stories.

MDS: And what about the love of American culture? I remember from my earliest Moscow childhood the framed photographs of Hemingway and Robert Frost on the walls of your study.

DSP: Yes, I was fascinated by them. But they didn’t touch me the way first Chekhov and Bunin, and later Nabokov touched me. Even Hemingway doesn’t touch me this way today. I don’t know what happened… It’s also one’s age.

MDS: Perhaps it’s one’s age. Or perhaps it’s your authorial perspective mixing colors of love and irony. During a recent event at Books on the Square in Providence, in responding to a question by a journalist of Jewish Soviet descent, you stated that everything you write is autobiographical, including your animal characters, be they wild turkeys or hippos. How literally can one take these words?

DSP: Autobiographical in the sense that each bird hum or love call, each sigh or roar of the hippopotamus, each tiny vibration of my story lines has its source in me—because I’ve experienced it. And if I hadn’t literally experienced it, then I thought that I’d lived it. Believe me, in our mind we sometimes live though an imagined life that is as real as the one we experience outside of our consciousness.

MDS: You’ve written some forty-five short stories and novellas and you have also written seven novels. Going back to the secrets of Jewish story-writing, I want to ask you what distinguishes the short story from the novel—and specifically your short stories from your novels?

DSP: As a genre, the short story is more fragile and tender than the novel. The short story does not tolerate falsity or unintended ambiguity. Shortcomings are immediately exposed on the face of the short story. At the same time, the short story does not agree particularly well with overabundant continuous depiction of people and their ways—with the so-called realistic-representational mode. In a successful short story, each line gains the potential to be read and perceived mythologically. For instance, in “Behind the Zoo Fence,” the hippopotamus is mythological in his capacity to send mystical vibes of healing to a young woman fighting a lethal infection at a nearby hospital.

MDS: You speak of your short stories as possessing a fantastical quality. This is, of course, a feature of Jewish fiction, from Sholem Aleichem to Bashevis Singer to Malamud. What are some of the literary sources of your stories?

DSP: I have always been drawn to fairy tales, legends, and myths. This goes back to my childhood, when I spent three wartime years in a remote Russian village hidden in the Ural Mountains. I was drawn to these things, but not so much to what is popularly known as science fiction. In modern Russian poetry and fiction I have admired works that were simultaneously fantastical tales and stories of social fantasy. Think of the Strugatsky Brothers—those Jewish-Russian geniuses of social fantasy.

MDS: Please explain what you have in mind when you call some of your short stories “fantellas”? This is your coinage.

DSP: From the skein of prose, grounded in realistic predicaments, I grow elements of what I call fantellism. I take these elements beyond the limits of so-called real life, and I pour them into the vessels naturally equipped to contain fairy tales. I call such a story a fantella, and through translation, my fantellas have entered American literature.

MDS: But could I please ask you to be more specific about the fantellas in Dinner with Stalin.

DSP: I already mentioned “Behind the Zoo Fence” with its hippo and his healing powers. Let me also mention “Mimicry” (where it’s sometimes impossible to separate the magic kingdom of marionettes from the real lives of puppeteers) and “Where Are You, Zoya?” (with its mysterious appearances of a wild turkey who bonds with an elderly Soviet émigré, she the widow of a Jewish poet who perished in the Gulag). There are other stories to read and think about. But let me stop here because the process of summarizing a new book not only arouses one’s curiosity but also takes away from the pleasures of imagining another life.

Born in Leningrad in 1936, David Shrayer-Petrov emigrated to the United States in 1987. He is the author of twenty-three books in his native Russian and of several books in English translation, including Jonah and Sarah: Jewish Stories of Russia and  America and Autumn in Yalta: A Novel and Three Stories. His latest book is the collection Dinner with Stalin and Other Stories. Dinner with Stalin was edited by the author’s son, Maxim D. Shrayer, a writer and a professor at Boston College. Two stories in the collection were translated by Emilia Shrayer, Shrayer-Petrov’s wife of over fifty years and a former refusenik activist. The other translators include Arna Bronstein and Aleksandra Fleszar, Molly Godwin-Jones, Leon Kogan, Margarit Ordukhanyan, and Maxim D. Shrayer.

Copyright © 2014 by David Shrayer-Petrov and Maxim D. Shrayer

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Ten Questions for Joshua Fattal

Thursday, July 10, 2014 | Permalink

by Bob Goldfarb

Bob Goldfarb recently spoke to Joshua Fattal, who co-authored, alongside Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd, the recently published book A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran, in which they document their experiences.

Bob Goldfarb: How long had you known Shane before you were captured?

Joshua Fattal: We thought we were best friends. We knew each other since we were twenty and had lived together. However, after living in a prison cell with him for a few weeks, I remember reflecting that I actually didn’t know him as well as I thought. We had never seen each other weep nor did we talk emotionally like we did in those weeks.

BG: Your captors figured out from your name that you’re Jewish. And although you aren’t religious, you wrote that you "feel Jewish" What were you feeling?

JF: It’s an identity thing, which means it was about my relationship with myself. I always identified with being Jewish. I guess my parents instilled it so deep in me that I couldn’t just shake it off even though so much of the tribalistic stuff – Jews who think they are smarter than everyone else – always turned me off.

BG: For a period of time you observed the Sabbath in prison as best you could. Did it have a meaning for you there that it doesn’t have when you’re safe at home?

JF: Prison made life miserable, but it also made life meaningful. Six days of the week are for work. The Sabbath is for rest, for creativity, for re-creation. I couldn’t do any of those things. I couldn’t even work during the six days, but by celebrating Shabbat, I honored the fullness of life. It was my feeble attempt to keep life sacred under the most execrable circumstances.

BG: Sarah's emotional suffering seemed especially extreme. After an early hunger strike she is curled up in her cell and in tears, and when a young female guard enters she says "I love you" to this stranger. And there are episodes of screaming, banging her head against the bars of the cell. She feels jealousy and rage. At one point she considered converting to Islam. What made her so vulnerable?

JF: That’s her personality. She’s dramatic like that. I was in hell too, but I’m just less dramatic. As Bob Dylan says, “It’s all right ma, it’s life and life only!”

BG: Sarah also repeatedly tells herself things like “I am made of steel" and “I am determined." Was that true too? Or was she compensating for feeling the opposite?

JF: Jews try to be psychologists. Freud was Jewish. That’s why my book is great for Jews. You get to analyze all three of us.

BG: Is it ever possible to trust a prison guard? What about the empathetic one, Ehsan?

JF: No, it’s never possible, but you have to. Trusting is essential to being human. If you forget the possibility of trust, you forget part of your humanity. I trusted Ehsan’s intentions. Actually, I trusted a lot of their hearts. But I didn’t trust that they’d email my family like I begged them to. Empathy and action are different things. Self-interest is a powerful impulse. Every once in a while, the empathy I invoked translated into a small action, and it made my day. It kept me human.

BG: Everybody is probably guilty of something. Can captors and interrogators gain power over a prisoner by finding that inner guilt? Did yours?

JF: The interrogators didn’t do it. I did it to myself by trying to make sense of my environment. I searched through my life to find things I was worthy of being punished for and tortured myself. Yes, tortured. That is a big part of why solitary confinement is considered torture.

BG: Shane remarked at one point, “These ideas of acceptance, this Buddhist seduction, it’s all bullshit." He felt his life was slipping away because he accepted his situation. How do you feel about the Buddhist idea of acceptance, and negating desire, after your ordeal?

JF: This was one of the problems of being stuck with only books to explain ideas. Shane failed to understand the nuance behind the profound Buddhist concept of acceptance. He simply read the word acceptance and thought it meant submission. However, it is a profound idea that enabled me to let go of constant anger and frustration while simultaneously striving to change our conditions.

BG: All three of you relate incidents where you stood up to the guards and emerged in a stronger position. Would that have happened if you weren’t prisoners with special status? Is it a good strategy outside confinement?

JF: Definitely a good idea! If you don’t have privileged status like I did, then you take higher risks, and are required to be a hero. But that is what heroes do – they take risks. Prisoners in Guantanamo with less rights than I had continue to stand up for themselves by going on hunger strike. If they didn’t do that they’d be even more forgotten and tortured than they currently are. Resistance is a key component to any social change.

BG: In the final pages Sarah and Shane each give impassioned speeches about politics; you tell a human story about the effect of the Israeli occupation on a Palestinian family. That seems to reveal a way that you’re different from your friends.

JF: We are very different. For me the simple fight is for humanity. Orwell calls it “common decency.” Stories kept me human in prison. I remembered my first love. I remembered stories my father told me about growing up as an Iraqi refugee in Israel. In prison, I dreamt of stories: of tearing down prison walls and running, of talking sense to politicians in Iran and America, and of dancing in a sunny park with friends in springtime. Stories were all I had in there. And oddly, the stories we tell ourselves about our lives, our past, and our future are what shape the world.

Bob Goldfarb is director of marketing and audience development at The Forward and the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity. He lives in New York.


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A Jewish-Russian Writer as New Englander: Part 2 of a 3-Part Conversation

Wednesday, July 09, 2014 | Permalink

This week father and son, neighbors in Brookline, Massachusetts and longtime collaborators, David Shrayer-Petrov and Maxim D. Shrayer discuss Dinner with Stalin and Other Stories  in a three-part conversation conducted for the Visiting Scribes series. Read the first installment, "A Fictional Model of the Former USSR," here. They will be blogging here for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week. 

Maxim D. Shrayer: Papa, let’s continue with our topic. What happens after a Jewish writer emigrates from the USSR to the USA? Of the fourteen stories in Dinner with Stalin, you wrote 13 in America, as an immigrant. What has changed in your creative laboratory?

David Shrayer-Petrov: First of all both the immediate environment and the greater environment have changed. Most of these stories fashion Russian—Jewish-Russian—characters living in America. In this sense, I’ve become an American writer. Take the story “The Valley of Hinnom.” Even though much of the action is set in Moscow and in Israel, I could never have written this story without knowing that the main characters are former refuseniks living in the US.

MDS: One more “American” question, then. A number of your stories are set in New England cities and towns, in Rhode Island and Massachusetts—Providence, Little Compton, Worcester, towns on Cape Cod. And there are also European stories set in Paris, Moscow and Leningrad, and scenes of Rome and Jerusalem, composed, as it were, from memory. How have many years of living in New England influenced your stories?

DSP: I’ve lived here for almost twenty-eight years. I think that I’ve rooted myself in New England. It has become my second—now my main—habitat. If asked about it, I now respond without hesitation that I’m a New Englander, even though I lived for fifty years in Russia, in Leningrad and Moscow. I actually wonder how I was able to write, so many years later, the short story “The Bicycle Race” and set it in the Leningrad of my youth. I guess I really wanted to fish out of the depth of memory and to reconstruct the image of a very complex individual. He’s called “Shvarts” in my story, but his prototype was Eduard Chernoshvarts (nicknamed “Chyorny” which literally means “black” in Russian), a famous Soviet cyclist. He was a Jew who had risen above the masses in the 1940s, when there was a strong popular anti-Jewish sentiment. In my story he’s a great Jewish athlete, but hardly a Jew of high moral standing…

MDS: …yes and no, but to return to the question of a Jewish writer in New England… if we look analytically at your stories, it appears that you write without estrangement about today’s life in New England (as in such stories as “A Storefront Window of Miracle”) and about your youth in Russia (as in “Mimosa Flowers for Grandmother’s Grave”). Yet you write with a much greater degree of estrangement about your last three Soviet decades, especially the refusenik years.

DSP: Yes, I think it’s true. In this regard “Mimosa Flowers for Grandmother’s Grave,” the only story in Dinner with Stalin that I wrote while still living in Russia, is a case in point.

MDS: Our English translation of this story had first appeared in Commentary, and I think it tapped our shared memory of a Jewish past in Eastern Europe. A Jewish family forever broken by turbulent events, a halutz, love and longing—these are things to which Jewish-American readers might be particularly attuned.

DSP: I think that throughout his or her entire life, every Jew is haunted by some poignant detail of the past… Say, one had a great-grandmother who was a traditional Jew in the full sense of this term. And then, across countries and languages, this image of a Jewish great-grandmother was being passed on from immigrant grandmother to mother to American child. And it has thus survived.

MDS: I agree, “Mimosa Flowers for Grandmother’s Grave” is the most universally Jewish story in Dinner with Stalin. So let’s continue with questions of Jewish family and marriage. In each of your stories you observe and comment on aspects of love and marriage between Jews and non-Jews. Critics have pointed out that for you as a Jewish storyteller this is a key question. Why?

DSP: I have observed very many mixed marriages growing up. My uncle, my mother’s brother, was married to a Russian woman who was an observant Orthodox Christian. And there’s a family legend that when I was an infant, a five- or six-month old, she brought me to church. But who can now tell…. The very marriage between Russia and Jewry is, I think, a symbol that was supposed to divert the striking hand of antisemites—and at times it did do that, but at other times it did not, only nurturing false hopes.

MDS: This is a very relevant topic in today’s America, and for that reason I think the stories in Dinner with Stalin will be of interest to Jewish-American readers.

DSP: Yes, but here there’s a religious agenda to this problem as one must decide about the religion of one’s children. In the Soviet Union such decision-making was less manifest in mixed marriages. But in 1953, Stalin’s last year and the pivotal year for Soviet Jews, with genocidal scenarios in the air, there were non-Jewish spouses who, out of fear, sought to dissolve their marriages to Jews. This shameful conduct of some of the non-Jews married to Jews resembles what happened in Germany after the Nazis came to power.

MDS: Before we pause and have some tea with lemon, let me ask you what is now a fashionable question: What’s your list of 5 Jewish books which everyone must read—that is, besides Dinner with Stalin?

DSP: This is a very partial list. I would recommend: The Ugly Duchess by Feuchtwanger, Heavy Sand by Rybakov, Shosha by Bashevis Singer, Ravelstein by Bellow (and given Thomas Mann’s Jewish connections, Death in Venice), and Ilf and Petrov’s dilogy The Twelve Chairs and The Golden Calf.

MDS: May I also add a personal favorite—and may this wish soon come true— your refusenik saga Herbert and Nelly, which is being translated into English.

Check back tomorrow for Part 3: "Crypto-Jews and Autobiographical Animals"

Born in Leningrad in 1936, David Shrayer-Petrov emigrated to the United States in 1987. He is the author of twenty-three books in his native Russian and of several books in English translation, including Jonah and Sarah: Jewish Stories of Russia and America and Autumn in Yalta: A Novel and Three Stories. His latest book is the collection Dinner with Stalin and Other Stories. Dinner with Stalin was edited by the author’s son, Maxim D. Shrayer, a writer and a professor at Boston College. Two stories in the collection were translated by Emilia Shrayer, Shrayer-Petrov’s wife of over fifty years and a former refusenik activist. The other translators include Arna Bronstein and Aleksandra Fleszar, Molly Godwin-Jones, Leon Kogan, Margarit Ordukhanyan, and Maxim D. Shrayer.

Copyright © 2014 by David Shrayer-Petrov and Maxim D. Shrayer

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