The ProsenPeople

Inside the Pigeonhole

Sunday, August 10, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Thursday evening Stephanie Feldman, Liana Finck, and Boris Fishman sat down with a microphone and a moderator at Greenlight Bookstore for a panel discussion on Jewish Life and Literature. Author and journalist Carmela Ciuraru facilitated the event, prompting the authors with questions of identity, community, and the writing process.

Stephanie, Liana, and Boris are all participating authors in the 2014-2015 JBC Network, a Jewish Book Council program that connects current writers and Jewish community organizations as a means of furthering Jewish book fairs and literary events throughout North America. Having embraced this particular market in promoting their respective works—A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York, Liana’s graphic novel rendering of Abraham Cahan’s famous column in Forverts; The Angel of Losses, a novel by Stephanie exploring the legend of the White Rebbe; A Replacement Life, Boris’s debut novel about a young man embroiled in the Holocaust retribution cases of his grandparents’ generation—the three authors in conversation named a number of enduring questions and quandaries about themselves as writers, as artists, and as Jews.

Asked how she feels about being a “Jewish writer,” Liana described the changing landscape of the literary and artistic world, and her personal transition within it: “I’m in a place where I love niche—I feel like it’s become this whole postmodern thing,” she observed. “There’s a lot you can do as a niche writer that you can’t do as a 5’10” white man.” The audience, Liana feels, for labeled writing has also changed rapidly between generations. “The people reading pigeonholed books are a lot smarter, and it’s going to become an honor to be a pigeonhole author,” she predicts.

“Readers respond to what you give them,” Boris followed up. He added emphatically that “craft goes beyond classification,” that readers will remember a book in its own right—independent of marketing labels—if the writing is good and the story is well-told.

The story must be also be well-researched. Liana described her struggles with depicting historically accurate fashions and facial expressions in the artwork for A Bintel Brief, noting that the most informative and most enjoyable piece of the process was reading Abraham Cahan’s biography, “one of the greatest American stories ever written—second only, maybe, to Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography.” Stephanie shared her initial inspiration for The Angel of Losses, how she had intended to follow the Gothic tradition of the Wandering Jew—only to discover that the lore is a strictly Christian narrative, with no Jewish basis or context. (For a full account of how Stephanie expanded her search of sojourning sages in Jewish history and mythology, read her 8 Favorite Wandering Jews blog post on The ProsenPeople Visiting Scribe series.)

Boris’s research process hit much closer to home, involving frequent and difficult interviews with his grandparents. On top of the generational divide and reticence to talk about the past, Boris articulated his struggle to spend the necessary time in his immigrant grandparents’ company: “In ex-Soviet families—Jewish ex-Soviet families, especially—there’s this idea that your children are supposed to be your friends, which is impossible, because you’ve brought them to a country that’s made them completely different people from you.” The expectation of tacit intergenerational connection placed a heavy strain on Boris’s visits, but perhaps nothing was as challenging as the discomfort faced as soon as the research reached its end, with no objective remaining to drive Boris to his grandparents’ home.

The relationship between the authors and their upbringing held particular interest to their audience at Greenlight Bookstore—and to the authors themselves. The first question from the audience raised the role of rebellion in the three novels and their composition. Liana acknowledged the “literary tradition that a character rebels against the religion they were raised in,” but experienced her own religious trajectory as more of a placid progression from the Judaism instilled in her childhood; Stephanie “started the novel on the idea that rebellion is impossible—how frightening it is when you can’t rebel.” Boris, however, pointed out that writing is itself an act of rebellion, especially in his case: “If you are going to write about the Holocaust, you need to find new forms; those forms have to be by definition rebellious because reverence alone for the Holocaust doesn’t work anymore.”

Just before the panel discussion came to an end, the authors turned the conversation back to their audience. “Can you be a narrowly cultural Jew—can there be a strictly cultural Judaism—without a religious context?” Boris pondered. The crowd chimed in, sharing a diverse array of opinions, experiences, and anecdotes on Jewish identity, religious practice, and community participation. Stephanie reflected on the response to her colleague’s question, concluding the event with an observation on the vast and differing customs and traditions between Jews across the world: “The thing that is universal about Judaism is this idea that Jewish identity and religious practice can be separate. How we structure identity is so vital in Judaism, and as a novelist I think that Judaism will consequently continue to inspire and influence me—even if the story isn’t Jewish, the character isn’t ‘Jewish.’”

Related content:

  • Internal Dialogue blog series
  • Essays by Boris Fishman
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  • Essays by Stephanie Feldman
  • New Jewish Book Council Reviews

    Friday, August 08, 2014 | Permalink

    This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

    Find more of the latest reviews here.

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    Naomi, Ruth, and the South

    Friday, August 08, 2014 | Permalink

    Earlier this week, Lenore Weiss wrote about Rabbi Levi Selwyn and Torah "Koshering" and asked Rabbi Selwyn a few question about the process. Her most recent collection,Two Places, is now available. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

    When I moved to Sterlington, Louisiana, the first question any person meeting me asked was, why did I move from California? After a certain time had passed, I began to ask that same question. The immediate answer was obvious: I had packed up my books and bags because I had fallen deeply in love and believed my mate and I could make a life together. I continue to believe that, but I’m not sure you can remove a city girl from everything she knows. Maybe I had to give up too much. It wasn’t a slam-dunk decision either. It had taken me two years to decide to move south. My friends and family watched me agonize: to move or not to move? It’s true. I’ve always had difficulty making transitions. During my elementary school years, just starting a new grade fanned me into nausea and cold sweats. So why should I expect this move to be any different?

    I reflect upon Ruth and Naomi. While there isn’t a real parallel here, there are enough—both my mate and I met after we had already been seasoned by difficult marriages, enough to recognize our heart’s desire. But at issue is the question of devoted loyalty. After Naomi entreats Ruth to return to her own family in Bethlehem, Ruth tells her, “entreat me not to leave thee [or] to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge…”

    I’ve often wondered what allowed Ruth to make that unequivocal declaration. Was it devotion to her deceased husband, Mahlon that allowed her to stand by her mother-in-law? Did she not wish to return to an unsupportive family where she knew she would languish and die? Or was she just young, wanting to see more of the world and knew she could do that at Naomi’s side? Whatever the reason, she did. Maybe she didn’t even have to think about it.

    Which leads me to my own question. Can I love without nurturing who I am, and leave behind the multitude of flowers that the butterfly of my soul needs to drink? There’s always a chance I will discover something I never could imagine on the threshing floor of life by remaining at the side of a person who brings me joy.

    Maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way—maybe there’s a chance of creating a new amalgam. Because when it comes down to it, I’m not sure if G-d placed me south so I could confront myself and my writing without the distractions of city life—something I could put off doing as long as there was somewhere else to go. Or maybe this was not meant to be a long-term assignment.

    Or just maybe I need a new Bible story.

    I drove to the mall today, not one of my favorite pastimes. I wanted to be around people and didn’t know what else to do with myself.

    I hear my girlfriends talking in my head.

    Read more of Lenore Weiss's work here.

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    Book Cover of the Week: What We Brought Back

    Thursday, August 07, 2014 | Permalink

    Posted by Nat Bernstein

    As summer programs and, God willing, this summer's war between Israel and Hamas draw to a close, one has to wonder at the experiences of the Jewish teenagers, college students, and young professionals who traveled to and within Israel through Taglit Birthright, study abroad, or other opportunities over the past few weeks. Facebook flooded with updates and op-eds; Instagram housed a gallery of "bomb shelter selfies" with new friends; emails home detailed each day's travel log and security considerations. How will these young people reflect on their (first, for many) time in Israel?

    The image of the Old City inside a shaken souvenir snow globe seems rife with symbolism, especially now.

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  • Torah Koshering: Take Two

    Wednesday, August 06, 2014 | Permalink

    Earlier this week, Lenore Weiss wrote about Rabbi Levi Selwyn and Torah "Koshering." Her most recent collection, Two Places, is now available. She is blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

    I was moved by Rabbi Selwyn’s explanation of Torah “Koshering” at Temple B’nai Israel in Monroe, Louisiana, and followed up with several questions.

     

    Lenore Weiss: It must be a wondrous experience to repair the living words of the Torah. I see you as a “computer tech” who knows how the system operates and fits together. You understand the entire “motherboard,” working to repair parchment, letters, whatever the Torah asks of you.

    Rabbi Levi Selwyn: That's a great analogy. Physically—yes. However the depth to the meaning of the Torah is infinite, so that’s a work in progress.

    LW: I’m wondering how you approach each Torah, unscrolling the parchment for that first time to evaluate what it needs. Does the scroll speak to you in some way?

    RLS: When I get to a place I am always excited to see what this Torah is going to have for me that day. Many times I open up the Torah I gasp—oh, I love this Torah, and that is usually when the script of the Torah is beautiful. Some of the very old Torahs have such beautiful writing. As I look through the Torahs I really take notice of all the details from the type of parchment to the stitching at the back of it and the re-enforced parchment behind the stitching. I browse through and try to notice how the letters are holding up and what they might need to keep them from deteriorating and by the time I get to the end or rather the beginning—I feel like I know this Torah and I am ready to repair it and make it good and Kosher.

    LW: How does it feel to be the conservator of these scrolls?

    RLS: I know that before I leave a Torah, it has to be in the best shape possible and that all my repairs must be done according to the laws of Safrut. It takes many hours of concentrated work. When I’m back on the plane I go through my head many times to be sure that I did not leave anything out.

    LW: How many states/synagogues have you helped in this way?

    RLS: I've been to about ten states and many congregations in each state. I couldn't give you a precise number unless I beat through my calendar. However, between us here at Sofer On Site, we have probably done the entire states a few times over and in a few countries.

    Read more of Lenore Weiss's work here.

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    A Job for a Sofer

    Monday, August 04, 2014 | Permalink

    Lenore Weiss's most recent collection,Two Places, is now available. She is blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

    With a ready smile, Rabbi Levi Selwyn stood behind a Torah that is spread open on a long bridge table at Temple B’nai Israel in Monroe, Louisiana. Congregants and community members faced him on the opposite side of the table as he discussed the repair of two Torahs belonging to this northeastern Louisiana synagogue of approximately seventy-five families.

    A member of Sofer On Site based in Miami, Florida, Rabbi Selwyn was born in London and has served as director of youth programs in the United States and as the Chief Rabbi of the Newtown Synagogue in Sydney, Australia.

    He explained how he “Koshers” Torah scrolls—it’s not unusual for scrolls to have traveled across climates and borders to reach their current homes, he said. Some can be more than a hundred years old. Scrolls can be neglected; especially if a congregation is lucky enough to have several Torahs, but reserve a few for special occasions. Over time, parchment can deteriorate, become hardened, discolored, and letters can crack. That’s a job for Rabbi Selwyn who evaluates the condition of each Torah and takes his cues from there.

    The basic Torah repair kit consists of parchment (cowhide), ink, and sinews that are used to sew together each section. Suppliers sell these specialized materials and are based in Miami and Israel. Inks are of a certain consistency; their mixture can include iron sulfate, gum Arabic and sometimes honey. Like a secret sauce, approximately four to five families hold the recipe and have been providing these inks for generations. As prescribed by the Torah, the color must be black.

    Rabbi Selwyn brought along a collection of quills that he uses to repair the letters, white feathers from domesticated turkeys (they tend to be larger), and also chicken feathers. Each quill is cut by hand to absorb enough (but not too much) ink, allowing the sofer (scribe) to form Hebrew letters, and match them to the original Torah. Rabbi Selwyn explained how Torahs employ different styles of writing, which include Beit Yosef, often used by Ashkenazi communities, AriZal, Kabbalist in its origin, and Vellish, often used by Sephardic communities.

    Frequently, a sofer will need to scrape the parchment to allow for letters to be rewritten or reformed correctly. Older Torahs, he explained, are glazed on their unwritten side. As a result, material can rub off onto the letters. For this purpose, he keeps a high polymer eraser handy and an Exacto knife for scraping parchment. Elmer’s glue also plays a role, especially when a sofer needs to cut and paste an entire word or section. Rabbi Selwyn shares that once he found a tic-tac-toe board written in the margins of a Torah. Of course, it had to be scraped.

    There are thousands of laws governing the scraping and writing and about everything else concerning the repair of Torah. A certain amount of white space must surround each letter. Letters are repaired based upon the ability of the reader to see them from an appropriate distance, although a magnifying glass may be employed to reform the writing of YWVH’s name. Four empty lines separate each book, and in case you’re wondering, the Torah contains a total of 304,805 letters, letters that originally spoke everything into existence in white and black flames.

    Read more of Lenore Weiss's work here.

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    New Jewish Book Council Reviews

    Friday, August 01, 2014 | Permalink

    This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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    Jews and Slavery: Isaac Cardozo and Lydia Weston

    Friday, August 01, 2014 | Permalink

    Earlier this week, Sabra Waldfogel wrote about Raphael Moses, one of the most eminent Jews in Georgia in the nineteenth century, and Clara Solomon, a Jewish girl who lived in mid-nineteenth century New Orleans. She has recently published Slave and Sister, a novel about Jews and slavery in antebellum Georgia, and has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council.

    Between 1828 and 1838, Lydia Weston and Isaac Cardozo of Charleston had six children together. They were like husband and wife, and like a family. But they were not. Isaac Cardozo was a Sephardic Jew. Lydia Weston was a former slave.

    A white man of Charleston might love a black woman and their children all his life; he might install her as his “housekeeper”; he might even—scandalously so!—let her preside over his table and his guests. But he could never marry her. Isaac remained a bachelor all his life, staying at home with his long-lived parents. He would never bring Lydia or their children to the Cardozo Sabbath table.

    Lydia Weston was connected with two of Charleston’s most eminent families—the Westons, white and black. Lydia’s master, Plowden Weston, was one of the richest planters in South Carolina. When Lydia was twenty-one, Weston granted her freedom. Many freed slaves were the children of their masters, but Lydia was not. Weston owned her a debt of gratitude for nursing him when he was ill. She took his surname, which acknowledged her connection with the white Weston family.

    Plowden Weston had children by at least two slave women. One of them, called Toney, was freed at the same time as Lydia. The black Westons became substantial members of Charleston’s community of free persons of color. They were proud of their lineage, prosperous through business or skilled trade, and brown of skin. They held themselves apart from their black and enslaved brethren.

    As a Weston, and as the companion of Isaac Cardozo, Lydia Weston was established as a free woman. In the 1840s, she paid the capitation tax levied on free blacks. In 1852, she bought property—she owned her own house. And most astonishingly, she owned slaves. In 1830, there was a girl under ten in her household who was enslaved, and in 1840, a woman over fifty-five.

    Lydia Weston’s children would never be considered Jews, but they reaped the advantages of being free persons of color. All of them—her daughters Lydia and Eslanda, her sons Henry, Jacob, Francis, and Thomas—were prepared for life with education and a trade. Eslanda and Francis attended a local school for free blacks; Francis was prepared enough to attend the University of Glasgow after he left Charleston. Henry, the eldest son, was erudite enough to join the Clionian Debating Society, a group dedicated to education and intellectual improvement for the brown men of Charleston. The youngest son, Thomas, was also well-educated; he began his career as a teacher.

    All of them learned a trade, too. Both of Lydia’s daughters were trained as seamstresses and Henry learned tailoring. Francis was apprenticed to a carpenter.

    Did Isaac Cardozo pay his children’s school fees? Did the black Westons, tailors and millwrights, teach Lydia’s children a trade?

    As the 1850s dawned, the fate of Lydia and her children changed. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 put every black person in the United States, free or not, at risk, and the secession fervor of the 1850s, so strong in South Carolina, had free people of color justifiably worried about re-enslavement. After Isaac Cardozo died in 1855, Lydia and her children left Charleston. Francis went to Scotland to study, Thomas to New York to teach, and the rest of the family moved to Cincinnati to make a living.

    During Reconstruction, two of Isaac’s sons rose to prominence. Francis served as South Carolina’s Secretary of State between 1868 and 1872, the first black person to hold public office in the state. Thomas was Mississippi’s State Superintendent of Education between 1873 and 1876.

    They are known to history by the name of the father who could never claim them as his sons. They are Cardozos.

    Sources on Charleston’s antebellum free black community:

    No Chariot Let Down: Charleston’s Free People of Color on the Eve of the Civil War, edited by Michael Johnson and James L. Roark (W. W. Norton & Co, 1986), and Marina Wikramanayake's A World in Shadow: the Free Black in Antebellum South Carolina (University of South Carolina Press, 1989).

    Sabra Waldfogel grew up in Minneapolis and received her Ph.D. in American History from the University of Minnesota. Her short fiction has appeared in Sixfold Literary Magazine. Read more about her and her work at www.sabrawaldfogel.com.

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    Internal Dialogue: Portraits of Intermarriage

    Thursday, July 31, 2014 | Permalink

    Posted by Nat Bernstein

    The findings of the Pew Research Center survey of United States Jews published last fall indicated a rise in Jewish intermarriage that perhaps did not surprise but certainly alarmed Jewish leaders, thinkers, and bubbes. In response to the ensuing hand-wringing, a new outlook emerged: Interfaith families might not be “bad for the Jews.” The Pew Research Center’s FactTank observed an increasing Jewish affiliation between generations of multi-religious offspring: “Among Americans age 65 and older who say they had one Jewish parent, 25% are Jewish today. By contrast, among adults under 30 with one Jewish parent, 59% are Jewish today. In this sense, intermarriage may be transmitting Jewish identity to a growing number of Americans.” Community organizers also point to the incredible resources progressive Jewish institutions provide specifically for interfaith and conversionary families to help foster enriched and educated Jewish engagement at home—classes, support groups, family events—that remain largely unmatched for “inmarried” constituents. And such concerted efforts to retain intermarried couples and their children in the Jewish American world seem to have made a good deal of traction, according to the Pew survey.

    “When those interviewed were asked why they joined one congregation over another, the rabbi’s response to their intermarriage and the word ‘welcoming’ were repeated over and over again,” Keren R. McGinity reports in Marrying Out: Jewish Men, Intermarriage, and Fatherhood. These men expressed a relieved sense of inclusion not only of their families but of their own experiences, needs, and values in the community discourse—an ongoing conversation that would benefit greatly from projects like Marrying Out and Intermarried, a book of Yael Ben-Zion's photography project on interfaith and interracial couples in America.

    Intermarried began as a project “triggered by a media campaign of the State of Israel that targeted Jews outside of Israel who were ‘lost’ to intermarriage,” an internet and television crusade to “dissuade Jews from marrying outside of their faith.” Bookending the project as Intermarriage reached its completion, Yael notes, was the Cheerios ad in the United States that drew hateful comments for depicting an interracial family.

    “One motivation for Ben-Zion’s project was to juxtapose interfaith and interracial marriages ‘to make viewers rethink their own preconceptions’ about the two,” Maurice Berger writes in the opening essay to the book. Both race and religion, Berger observes, are “subject to how we perceive ourselves and are perceived by others. And just as assuredly as religion, [race] can appeal to our tribalism, our tendency to view it as sacrosanct and immutable… Whether we admit it or not, intermarriage has blurred the identities of almost every one of us—rendering race, like faith, a state of mind, and not just a physical state.”

    Yael photographs and records statements by new parents of “mixed” families of all kinds: couples whose backgrounds differ in nationality, in ethnicity, in race, in religion, in culture. Admitted to a glimpse of their daily lives in the most intimate spaces of their homes, the subjects share the struggles they face—from the outside world, rather than from within—over how their families are perceived by relatives, friends, and passers-by. Among the Jewish narratives are scenes and snippets from Yael’s own home: the amalgam of Christian and Jewish holidays, French and Hebrew editions of the same children’s books, progressive television cartoons Yael and her husband, Ugo, both watched from different parts of the world in their youth.

    “Although we have these different backgrounds, I don’t really feel that we are a mixed couple. If we are a couple it is because, like any other couple I assume, we are sharing the same ideas and views on what really matters to us, on what defines us as human beings, our core values, so it is hard to feel mixed.”

    The subjects portrayed in Intermarried a wide representation of the Jewish intermarried experience. Kari and David received emotional support from the people around them; Jeff and Ilana’s respective Catholic and Jewish families opposed their marriage until the arrival of their daughter, Annabel, whom they are raising to be educated in both faiths: “After all, one’s religion is just an accident of birth. And her birth did not accidentally give her just one religion.”

    As David and Sarah began planning their family, David grew increasingly attached to his Jewish identity and heritage. Their story is related predominantly through Sarah, who shares the difficulties she encounters as a convert to Judaism—the feeling of constant scrutiny among other Jews, the puzzlement or disapproval of friends from her past.

    “Statistically, more women convert to the religion of husbands than husbands convert to the religion of wives.” In the introduction to Marrying Out, Keren McGinity points out that studies of interfaith and conversionary couples tend to focus mostly if not exclusively on the woman’s experience, and intermarried Jewish men in particular have been relegated to “the subjects of interest to sociologists, celebrity biographers, journalists, and mass media producers.”


    Researching for the book required Keren to confront and constrain the widespread gender prejudices coloring her initial attitudes regarding her subjects. “Although intermarried Jewish men have not been banned from participating in organized Jewish life, prevailing assumptions—that their Judaism is not particularly important to them and that they play little role in shaping their families’ spiritual lives—likewise threaten to silence their actual experiences.” These dominant perceptions of fatherhood and male religious engagement, Keren found, did not hold water with the subjects of her study. In her interviews with intermarried Jewish men ranging “from secular to Orthodox” in background and practice in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Keren discovered how differently her subjects saw themselves in relation to their families, their community, their faith, and their religion from the roles to which both Jewish-American and the larger American culture ascribes them. “I came to realize that it is much harder to be an intermarried Jewish man than an intermarried Jewish woman,” Keren asserts, “because ethnic gender ascriptions assigns descent to women while simultaneously distancing men from their own heritage.”

    Projects like Intermarried and Marrying Out present opportunities to address that distancing and marginalization. Through the camera lens and the written word, these two books paint a more nuanced picture of Jewish and American culture and its constituents, broadening our understanding of what a portrait is, what it can transmit, and what it can achieve by simply appearing before the viewer. Yael and Keren's respective work unearths the subtler narratives among us, opening the discussion of identity and participation to the overlooked, the quieted, and the disregarded, opening a forum in which leaders, members, and outliers of American Jewish communities should—or even must—engage.

    Interested in bringing Intermarried, Marrying Out, or other interfaith family programming to your community? Please visit the Jewish Outreach Institute Directory of Outreach Programs, the Union for Reform Judaism's online Supporting Interfaith resource center, and www.interfaithfamily.com.

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  • Book Cover of the Week: Mrs. Wheelbarrow's Practical Pantry

    Wednesday, July 30, 2014 | Permalink

    Posted by Nat Bernstein

    This week at the farmers market I marveled at the fresh currants currently in season: spherical crimson and blush-colored jewels on delicate, tiny green vines—as photographed for Mrs. Wheelbarrow's Practical Pantry: Recipes and Techniques for Year-Round Preserving by Cathy Barrow:

    Yes, the book is an excellent resource for any season, but there's something about canning summer fruits at the end of July, isn't there?

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