The ProsenPeople

My Wallenberg Education in Budapest, Stockholm, and Moscow

Wednesday, May 06, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Alan Lelchuk wrote about meeting Daniel Pagliansky, Wallenberg's KGB interrogator. Lelchuk is the author of the acclaimed novels, American Mischief, Miriam at Thirty-Four, Shrinking, Miriam in Her Forties, Playing the Game, Brooklyn Boy, Ziff: a Life?, and On Home Ground. His most recent book is Searching for Wallenberg, and he will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Traveling to various destination and sites, meeting participants and witnesses, searching archives, led me to get a feel of the different cultures, and fill in the puzzle of R. Wallenberg. In Stockholm for example, I experienced the world of the proud if icy Swedes, a conservative, private people. And I felt the elegance of their orderly town, the wonderful mahogany interiors (of restaurants, municipal buildings), the curved city library, and the narrow cobblestone streets. I could see where Wallenberg had sketched some of his future architectural plans and his interest in developing the quay area. Importantly, I met in the Lindingo suburb home of a friend, a seventyish gentleman who had been in the Officer Training Corps with the young Wallenberg, who told me a story which contributed significantly to my understanding of my protagonist. When they were together in the north of Sweden for their officer camp training, the Commanding Officer disciplined a young soldier for some violation of rules, demeaning him in front of the group of twenty. When he did this, another young officer stepped forward, identified himself (Raoul Wallenberg), and said he objected to the humiliation of his fellow trainee, calling it “unprofessional.” The officer in charge was shocked at this breach of authority, stared at the young rebel, and decided to pull back from his severe punishment. “Everyone of us saw what sort of man this young officer was, not afraid of authority,” my old witness said, and how this RW was, brave, unorthodox, fearless. The small group of young officers was impressed. And for me, that characteristic of the youthful Wallenberg never left my sights as I was composing my character.

At the elegant Stockholm Municipal Building where I went to search for archive files of interest, I was given three CD’s—Raoul Wallenberg, 1945-70, Dossier P2 Eu—by the efficient archivist. These were innocuous enough documents of diplomatic notes, etc. But when I sought the more revealing and more relevant diplomatic notes between the Government of Sweden and the Soviet Union, and those between the Foreign Ambassador of Sweden and his counterparts in SU, during those crucial years of 1945-47, I was told they were off-limits still, some fifty-five years after the events. The cordial archivist shook his head, smiled sympathetically and offered, “I know, I know. One day perhaps….” So I understood that beneath the order, the elegance and the courtesy, there lurked shadows and secrets that were waiting to be disclosed if unearthed. In other words, something was rotten in the state of Sweden.

In Moscow I tried hard to get inside the intricate understanding and deep vaults of the KGB—if you walked in front of the massive concrete block named Lybianka Prison, you would get a sense of the notorious fortress, the Stalinist architecture. From my KGB guide Nikita Petrov I learned about its deepest kept secrets, wherein the real file of the Russians and Wallenberg was probably locked away securely—in the cavernous basement of the KGB archives. A basement infamous for the darkest truths and secrets buried down there, guarded so tightly that hardly any of the high agents of the current FSB or government officials were allowed down there. “Once you enter this Service,” Nikita told me, “you never leave, meaning you never tell your secrets while you live—and if you attempt to, you don’t live—or even after you die.” (Actually, before the Putin era, certain escapees did tell their tales.) And so I was back to a Secret Society again, one that I had encountered in Stockholm; by now I was expanding my naïve education in recent European Cold War history, how much of it was locked away, guarded carefully, for reasons of disclosure which could destroy reputations and persons of authority, and reveal more evil.

In Budapest, sitting at a small table in Vorosmarty Square, I was introduced to Georges L., a hefty fellow of seventy-five, and, over rich Gerbaud coffee, I heard his story. His parents had been taken away to Auschwitz, he was a boy alone, homeless, and Wallenberg found him wandering, and saved him. He hired him to do small errands, and found him places to sleep at night. “He was a Mashiach, and people came around if they heard Mr Wallenberg was there, at some place, just to see him, even touch him. He never turned any Jew away, old or young, crazy or poor. Look at me today, I am alive because of him!” He shook his head, shed tears. “Sometimes I see him at night, just before sleep, and he appears like a living ghost “

So that was the way the Jews viewed Raoul, like the true living messiah.

Could I reproduce some of that transformation in my novel, I wondered, sitting in that square filled with sunshine and people, clouded over by hovering memories.

Alan Lelchuk's short fiction has appeared in such publications as Transatlantic, The Atlantic, Modern Occasions,The Boston Globe Magazine, and Partisan Review. He is an editor at Steerforth Press and teaches at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Read more about him here.

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Radical Islamism’s War Against the Jews: Who Cares? (Part 1)

Monday, May 04, 2015 | Permalink

Michael C. Kotzin is a longtime Jewish communal professional and former professor of English Literature at Tel Aviv University. He has been an executive at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago since 1988 and is the author of the recently published On the Front Lines in a Changing Jewish World: Collected Writings 1988-2013. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Sitting at my desk at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago on October 29, 2010, I handled two urgent phone calls in short order. One was from the FBI, the other from the Department of Homeland Security. Both involved a warning following upon the interception of cargo planes with explosive-laden packages – one at the UK’s East Midlands Airport, the other at the Dubai Airport – both of them addressed to synagogues in Chicago.

Based on the intelligence information that had led to the interception of those packages, nothing more was believed to have been sent. But I was asked to be sure that security precautions were in place at our building and to notify Chicago-area synagogues to be on alert for suspicious packages, especially for ones identified as originating from Yemen or from an organization that had the word Yemen in it. It was on a Friday, with Shabbat approaching, and colleagues and I were quickly in touch with the synagogues and with other local Jewish organizations as well.

More information about that day’s threat began to emerge as the story went public. The packages contained desktop printer cartridges in which explosives had been placed and timers set so the bombs most likely would go off when the planes were at or over Chicago or another American city to the east, if the flights were running late.

Thinking back about that incident at the time of the incidents in Paris earlier this year, I was struck by a number of parallels. The packages were shipped by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemen-based terror group that later took credit for the Charlie Hebdo attack. Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born Islamic radical operating out of Yemen, who was described as being behind the earlier incident, was also regarded as an inspiration for the Charlie Hebdo terrorists, though he was killed by an American drone strike over three years before the latter incident occurred. The belief that Chicago was deliberately targeted in October 2010 was reinforced by a photo of the city’s skyline in the then-current issue of Inspire, a slick AQAP publication said to have been originally created by al-Awlaki which was first published in July 2010, and it too has been talked about in connection with the Charlie Hebdo attack.

As it happens, the addresses that were used on the 2010 packages were no longer connected with the synagogues that were named. In one case, the building continued to exist, though changing neighborhood demographics and an aging population had led the congregation itself to be dissolved before the attack. In the other case, a mostly gay and lesbian congregation had moved to another locale.

Speculation was that AQAP was working from an old listing of Chicago synagogues. But the determination of the type of target where they chose to send the packages was revealing, as were the names of the individuals to whom the packages were supposedly being directed. One package bore the name of Diego Deza, who in the fifteenth century succeeded Torquemada as Grand Inquisitor during the Spanish Inquisition. The other package named as the intended recipient was Reynald Krak, a French knight of the twelfth-century Second Crusade, also known as Reynald of Châtillon, who was beheaded by Saladin. Both were famous enemies of the Muslims in past centuries.

And both no doubt were remembered by AQAP not only for their cruelty against Muslims but also for their association with movements that denied Muslims territory that they had previously ruled over and that they believed continued to belong to them. Each of these historic figures, it could be suggested, was meant as a type of the Americans and Jews regarded as today’s foremost enemies by radical Islam. The fact that Jews as well as Muslims were the primary victims of both the Crusaders and the Inquisition is an irony that was no doubt lost upon AQAP.

The identification of their self-narrative with particular historical events; the engagement in violence in religion-based conflicts over land and sovereignty; the use of terror to inflict physical, often lethal, harm and to create fear – these are basic beliefs and tactics of not only al-Qaeda and its branches but also other Islamist extremist groups and the individuals who are inspired by them, explaining why those who addressed the packages chose such otherwise puzzling names and destinations. Furthermore, the choice of what they thought were two synagogues as the designated targets of these packages fits a pattern we have continued to see stalking the globe today. The meaning of that particular kind of targeting – and of the rhetoric that accompanies it – however, has, I believe, received little attention beyond the Jewish community and beyond analysts and reporters – many of them Jewish – with a special interest in the topic. And that lacunae is a subject that I will examine in a continuation of this blog later this week.

Check back on Wednesday for Part II of "Radical Islamism’s War Against the Jews: Who Cares?"

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Meeting Pagliansky in Moscow

Monday, May 04, 2015 | Permalink

Alan Lelchuk is the author of the acclaimed novels, American Mischief, Miriam at Thirty-Four, Shrinking, Miriam in Her Forties, Playing the Game, Brooklyn Boy, Ziff: a Life?, and On Home Ground. His most recent book is Searching for Wallenberg, and he will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Meeting Daniel Pagliansky in 2003, the KGB interrogator of Wallenberg in 1945-47, was like meeting a soul from Hades. He was a bag of bones in his late 80’s, but his eyes were fierce and his determination steely, and he banged the desk with his fist as though it were a gavel. He yelled at me when he entered the study where I was standing with my interpreter and his son, asked how dare I visit when told explicitly not to! I shivered inwardly at his mad ferocity in his advanced age, but stayed cool and said nothing, letting him beat me up verbally. I knew I was meeting history incarnate here, a Soviet Officer and KGB interrogator who had never before met with a Westerner.

I had heard about the infamous fellow from Nikita Petrov, my friend and guide from Memorial House in Moscow, who had written articles and a book about the KGB, and knew all about its history, rules, protocols. In fact he had warned me, “You will never get to meet with him, you see he won’t even meet up with the FSB who have invited him to speak with them about what went on back then, with Wallenberg, with full immunity in case he needed that.” So Nikita was quite amazed when the meeting occurred, and when I explained to him how it had happened, he nodded. (“Yes, only by crazy chance!”) Here’s what happened. My interpreter and I had called several times, and Pagliansky had politely enough refused, saying he was too ill. But ten days before my leaving Moscow, we were up at Pushkinskaya, a famous square in central Moscow, and we called again, since I knew it was a short walk from his apartment. This time his son answered and said, in Russian to my interpreter, “An American writer? Sure, come on over, Dad is having lunch with mother now, but they will be finished soon.” Rather excited, my fingers crossed, we walked the fifteen minutes to his apartment block, found the apartment, and were greeted cordially by this tall hefty fellow, Gyorgi, the son, a man of about 55. He took our coats and called out to his father in the next room that I was here, the American writer, but then his father yelled back, in Russian, “Why did you let him in! I told him not to come!” But Gyorgi only smiled to us, said father would calm down, just take it easy, and escorted us into father’s study. He asked what I wanted to talk about, I said the World War II era, I was writing a novel about it, and maybe Wallenberg. Gyorgi shook his head, “No, you mustn’t ask him about that, or he will throw you out immediately! Please.” I nodded, and was left to regard the wide oak desk with the glass top covering numerous photos underneath it, and the bookshelves, filled with books in German, Russian, and English. I was tempted to take the small photo of the youthful Pagliansky, handsome in his Soviet officer’s uniform, but instead gazed at the bookshelves, astonished to find Brooklyn leftie writers of the 1930's like Daniel Fuchs and Michel Gold, as well as Howard Fast. How and why did he collect these hard to find writers?

The interview proceeded for about an hour, with Pagliansky alternately speaking in Russian and English, alternately angry and cool. Once he calmed down after his initial tirade against me and all Americans, he answered my many questions, including that he read those Brooklyn writers to brush up on American idioms and dialogue! I learned that he and his prisoner Wallenberg had much in common: cultural interests, German poetry, architecture, chess. In fact both were budding architects; no surprise, the KGB took special care to assign an interrogator who had close affinities with the prisoner. It was a stunning hour, witnessed by the son and my interpreter.

Immediately afterward I took copious notes, and later on, when writing the novel, I included the scene just as it had happened. But I also extrapolated from it, back to the 1945-47 years, scenes of actual interrogation between Wallenberg and Pagliansky, based on the characteristics I had learned from my interview. So I would say that as I was making history, I was also ‘inventing’ history, through literature—an invented credible one based on an actual event and my perception of how it might have gone down years earlier.

Alan Lelchuk's short fiction has appeared in such publications as Transatlantic, The Atlantic, Modern Occasions, The Boston Globe Magazine, and Partisan Review. He is an editor at Steerforth Press and teaches at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Read more about him here.

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Friday, May 01, 2015 | Permalink

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Writing the Mechitzah

Friday, May 01, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Michelle Brafman wrote about water and the mikvah in Judaism as well as the tahara, Jewish burial rituals. She is the author of the debut novel Washing the Dead and has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

My tormented relationship with the mechitzah sabotaged numerous drafts of my novel Washing the Dead. This came as a surprise to me because it had been years since I'd given thought to the wooden barrier that separated the men's and women's sections in the Orthodox synagogue of my youth.

As a child the mechitzah never bothered me, perhaps because I was an unusually tall girl, and from a young age I could see over it. I liked sitting with my mother and my friends and never pondered this gender segregation, not even when my family had to join a Conservative synagogue in order for me to become a bat mitzvah.

My first semester in college, however, a fiery philosophy professor introduced me to the likes of Sandra Bartky and Andrea Dworkin, and a feminist was born. I became attuned to the myriad ways women were marginalized. I scoffed at the Orthodox rationale that women did not need to perform rituals in the synagogue because we are more spiritually evolved or that our energies are best directed toward keeping the dietary laws, educating the children, and lighting the Sabbath candles. I steered clear of mechitzahs and held on tightly to my resentment until well into writing my novel.

Washing the Dead is set in a Orthodox Milwaukee synagogue and tells the story of the main character Barbara's fierce yearning to return to this community from which she was exiled. My smart early readers all said that they didn't understand Barbara's desire to return to a world I'd been describing so critically. I couldn't locate the criticism on the page until my daughter and I attended a bar mitzvah at a shul with a mechitzah. She went off to find her friends, and I stood alone staring out into this sea of women, pretty hats covering their hair, their heads leaning into each other during conversation. Memories flooded me. The women's section was the beating heart of my childhood shul, where the regulars shared news of pregnancies, divorces, and illnesses and deaths in their families. And these women had kept track of me.

Lucette Lagnado described my sentiments beautifully in her memoir The Arrogant Years, "What I'd failed to realize was that for the women of my childhood, the world within our closed-off area was every bit as rich and vivid as the universe beyond it; and the barrier in fact fostered and intensified feelings of kinship and intimacy. Inside was a world that was remarkably collegial and embracing and kind."

After the bar mitzvah, I went home and reread my pages, and I understood how my disdain for the traditions of my former shul was insidiously embedded in the simplest descriptions. I, and perhaps the spirit of Andrea Dworkin, were talking over Barbara, inserting political commentary about the mechitzah.

Unlike Barbara, I was never exiled from my community. But in the moment of returning to the mechitzah with my daughter, I felt a pull toward a spiritual home that I'd left, a home that I do not wish to return to, but that tugs at me enough to write, with truest feeling, the longing my character felt for the mechitzah of her youth.

Michelle Brafman's essays and short stories have appeared in the Washington Post, Slate, Tablet, Lilith Magazine,the minnesota review, and elsewhere. She teaches fiction writing at the Johns Hopkins MA in Writing Program. Visit her website at www.michellebrafman.com.

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Sacred Pools

Wednesday, April 29, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Michelle Brafman wrote about the tahara, Jewish burial rituals. She is the author of the debut novel Washing the Dead and will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I often assign my creative writing students the exercise of writing about a freighted or sacred physical space in their lives. I am also in the habit of writing to my own prompts, and this is how the mikvah found its way into my novel.

Although I have friends who have submerged their bodies in these holy waters to convert to Judaism, heal from a surgery, or comply with the family purity rituals, I do not visit the mikvah. I've been fascinated with these waters, though, since I was a young girl and my friends and I would roam around our Orthodox synagogue during services, eating stale cookies set out for us in the kitchen and playing freeze tag in the alley. We were told to avoid a staircase off the side of the sanctuary at all costs. The steps led down to a sacred pool of water that the women immersed themselves in once a month. My mother did not go to the mikvah, so my limited knowledge of this ritual and my active imagination forced me to fill in the blanks.

We stopped attending shul regularly when I became a serious swimmer and replaced services with Saturday swim meets. I trained for them at our high school, which housed two pools: a shiny new one with a diving well and light flooding large glass windows, and an old narrow one with dark water and bad acoustics. We called this pool the dungeon, and we spoke of the boy who had died in these waters years ago. From that day on, I imagined the boy swimming with me when we practiced in the dungeon. Sometimes he scared me, and other times I welcomed his presence and wondered about his life before he passed.

My novel, Washing the Dead, is set in an Orthodox shul in Milwaukee. A mysterious benefactor has donated a large mansion along Lake Michigan to the community, complete with a swimming pool in the basement that the rabbi and his wife have converted to a mikvah. The book opens when the protagonist, Barbara, catches her mother smoking in the mikvah during Shabbat services, resulting in a shocking indiscretion for which the community exiles Barbara's family. Barbara spends the rest of the book trying to forgive her mother, but first, she must solve the mystery of her mother's attachment to these waters.

Water cries out to me. I've never lived more than a mile from a body of water, be it Lake Michigan, the Pacific Ocean, and now the Potomac River. In researching the mikvah and burial rituals featured in Washing the Dead, I came to understand the healing and purifying powers of water. It can hold both secrets and what is needed to repair their damage.

Michelle Brafman's essays and short stories have appeared in the Washington Post, Slate, Tablet, Lilith Magazine,the minnesota review, and elsewhere. She teaches fiction writing at the Johns Hopkins MA in Writing Program. Visit her website at www.michellebrafman.com.

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Interview: Tony Schumacher

Tuesday, April 28, 2015 | Permalink

by Elise Cooper

The Darkest Hour is an alternate history, a psychological study, and a thriller all rolled into one fantastic book. It begins with Germany having defeated Europe and now the occupier of Great Britain in 1946. The protagonist is a London police sergeant, John Henry Rossett, a highly decorated British war veteran, who is assigned to the Office of Jewish Affairs, a branch of the SS. He fools himself into believing the false propaganda that his job is to round Jews up for deportation to France as farm laborers. He is a good man who assists evil until he finds a young Jewish child, Jacob, hiding in an abandoned building. Hoping to salvage his soul and gain redemption, Rossett becomes determined to save this innocent boy. The novel takes off from here where the reader is exposed to a moralistic thread in a plot that is action-packed and gripping.

Elise Cooper: This book is a powerful reminder of how easily people will do terrible things to survive. Do you agree?

Tony Schumacher: I got the idea from a documentary on television. It showed a photograph from World War II of an English policeman in the Channel Islands, just off the coast of France, occupied by the Germans. This policeman was holding a car door open for a German officer, where both he and the German officer were smiling. It was a propaganda picture taken by the Germans to show they weren't such bad guys. When I saw the photo, I was momentarily angry with the policeman. I'd been a policeman for ten years, and to me, this officer had disgraced the uniform. But almost immediately, I realized I couldn't think like that. This guy was probably told 'Open that door and smile. If you don't, you'll get shot. So, open the door.' And to stay alive, he'd done what he was told to do. After all, he might have a family at home and wanted to live. So I began wondering what I would have done in that circumstance. Once you cross that line, it begins to recede. Each time you're told to do something abhorrent, that line moves back a bit more. You compromise your values, your integrity. And you have to weigh how much you want to stay alive against doing something you find despicable.

EC: Is Kate, your female main character, based on the above analogy?

TS: Yes. She was a double spy, who did work for the Nazis, and gave them information. Actually, I think she worked for herself. She was interested in her own situation until the boy Jacob came into her life. He affected her with his innocence and pure trust.

EC: Would you classify this as an alternate history?

TS: I did base it on reality, the German occupation of France during World War II. Many French did not rise up and went along to get along. I wanted to explore that from the English point of view. There is the main character, Rossett, saying he was just doing his job and didn’t know. I played off the statements made by many Germans after the war that said they never knew what was happening. They just pretended that they didn’t know, and lied to themselves. How could they not know, living just beyond the trees of the concentration camps?

EC: Can you discuss Rossett and Jacob’s relationship?

TS: I had a number of scenes where Jacob takes John Henry Rossett’s hand. The readers know it is “dirty,” but Jacob believes John will do the right thing by him. I get the sense readers wanted to hate John, but didn’t because of Jacob’s view of him. Jacob becomes Rossett’s guardian angel giving him some of his soul back, forcing him to explore within himself. Although Jacob is a character who does not speak a lot in the book, he is a thread through the whole story. Jacob made John recognize and confront that monster inside of himself. John carried a lot of guilt and was tortured by his own actions of doing nothing.

EC: Did you base the German SS Officer, Ernst Koehler, on anyone you knew?

TS: I had a lot of different jobs in my life. One in particular influenced me with this character. When I worked on a cruise ship in the 1960s, in the gift shop there was this Japanese guy who would come in almost every day, speaking broken English. I asked him where he learnt English and he told me he was a guard on the Burma Railway, called “The Death Railway.” The British POWs were forced to build it and were beaten, starved, and tortured. This guy poked me in the chest because I thought of him as such a nice guy. His ‘niceness’ made me think of Koehler. People might like him on the surface and think of him as charming, but in reality he is a killer, a nightmare.

EC: Did you draw upon any of your other job experiences?

TS: Being a cop was definitely one. It's easy to write about how people react to a policeman when you've been one. I dipped heavily into those experiences. I worked at a garbage dump for a while, and met an eclectic group of people there. Actually, I think I've drawn from every job I've ever had. I've had jobs that are looked down upon, and others that are respected. I've tried to take something from every one of them for my writing. The main thing is, I've tried to make my characters real people.

EC: What do you want the readers to get out of the book?

TS: Obviously good entertainment. But also, I want them to explore themselves as much as the characters in the book did, to look within. They should ask themselves what would they have done? If someone does one good action does that nullify all the bad things they have done before? Personally, I do not think so since they are still stained.

EC: Can you give a heads up about your next book?

TS: It is a sequel. The theme is what would you do for a friend even though they are evil. It is more about the struggles of individuals. A lot of questions will be answered. Unfortunately that is all I can say without giving up more of the plot of this book.

Elise Cooper lives in Los Angeles and has written numerous national security articles supporting Israel. She writes book reviews and Q and A's for many different outlets including the Military Press. She has had the pleasure to interview bestselling authors from many different genres.

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Washing the Dead: The Wonder of Ritual

Monday, April 27, 2015 | Permalink

Michelle Brafman's debut novel Washing the Dead is being published this week by Prospect Park Books. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I am a fairly observant Jew with a decent Jewish education, yet I only learned about the tahara, our burial rituals, eight years ago, when a friend casually mentioned them to me. And now, even after I've written a novel featuring the tahara, the holiness of this deed continues to reveal itself to me in waves.

The tahara is called the "good deed of truth" because tending to the dead is a favor that the recipient can neither acknowledge nor repay. I won't lie, though, my fascination with this righteous act initially stemmed from its mystery. The chevra kadisha often operates as a secret society in order to preserve the anonymity of the mitzvah, and the rites are sensual: sponge-bathing, rinsing, shrouding, placing dirt in a pine casket.

In researching the novel, I approached the head of my synagogue's chevra kadisha, and we talked for hours about the ritual. She invited me to help perform a tahara, informing me that this was the ultimate act of compassion. I understood this intellectually, I really did. When I entered the preparation room, however, my brain switched to writer mode, mentally recording every detail: the scent of the body, the canisters of toothpicks we would use to clean under the nails, the narrow width of the coffin.

In the early days of describing this book, when I told Jews and non-Jews of this ritual, I felt as though I were at a sleepover, sharing a scary, titillating ghost story. It took many drafts for me to discover the core of the book: my character Barbara's attempt to find her way back to the spiritual and emotional home torched by her mother's indiscretion. The inciting incident is when Barbara is invited back to her Orthodox community to perform a tahara on the woman who stepped in to mother her after her own mother's abandonment.

It wasn't until I read the tahara passage aloud for the first time in public that I realized performing this ritual was the only way for Barbara to loosen a brick in the wall she'd built between herself and her mother and her religious home. This tactile deed fired an atrophied muscle of her heart. In his short story "A Father's Story" Andre Dubus describes the "wonder of ritual:" "For ritual allows those who cannot will themselves out of the secular to perform the spiritual, as dancing allows the tongue-tied man a ceremony of love."

Shortly after the galleys of my book arrived, I had coffee with my chevra kadisha guide. We spoke more about the tahara and other Jewish rituals, and though I listened carefully, I knew I was also filing away some of her words, as I do an idea for a story. Later I will make meaning of these mitzvot, the doing and telling, and the gorgeous mystery of the fusion of the two.

Michelle Brafman's essays and short stories have appeared in the Washington Post, Slate, Tablet, Lilith Magazine, the minnesota review, and elsewhere. She teaches fiction writing at the Johns Hopkins MA in Writing Program. Visit her website at www.michellebrafman.com.

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Friday, April 24, 2015 | Permalink

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What the Lifetime Adaptation of Anita Diamant's The Red Tent Missed

Friday, April 24, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Michal Lemberger wrote about turning King David into a villain and Lot's wife and the other nameless women of the Bible. She is the author of the recently published book After Abel and Other Stories and has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

When I began writing the stories that make up my collection, After Abel and Other Stories, I wasn’t thinking about other fiction writers who had reimagined biblical tales. I had been steeped in biblical scholarship for so many years that my mind was filled with it as I sat down to write. Within months, though, word started leaking about a miniseries based on Anita Diamant’s beloved novel, The Red Tent. That was soon followed by advertisements, and then, of course, the movie itself.

I read the novel—about Jacob, his four wives, and in the central role, his daughter, Dinah—when it first came out but hadn’t revisited it since. The arrival of the film adaptation seemed perfect, almost like a sign that my timing was right—that I was responding to something larger happening in the realm of stories about the Bible. It also gave me a chance to reread the book and see how the people at the Lifetime channel had adapted it and to reflect on why these kinds of stories still speak to us and why they remain important.

Back in 1997, some readers were scandalized by what they saw as the book’s impiety and its frank sexual depictions, but over the years, The Red Tent has lost its shock value. Still, I was shocked by how little about The Red Tent the miniseries left intact and what the filmmakers chose to keep.

Diamant’s book attempted to give more fullness to the experience of women than the Torah affords them. What drew readers by the millions is how she filled in the lives of Rachel, Leah, Dinah, and the other women with whom they live and die. She gave each woman a distinct personality: Leah became forceful and competent; Rachel is beautiful (as in the Torah itself) but a bit self-involved; and Dinah emerges as a watchful younger child in a large family, a beloved daughter who is nonetheless expected to follow the rules of her mother’s home. Notably, the women practice their older pagan-inspired rites alongside Jacob’s belief in his father’s God. In what is perhaps the most important point made by the novel, these belief systems peacefully coexist.

The problem with the Lifetime version is how the novel’s nuance is flattened.

Dinah is somewhat passive in the novel, which allows her to be the reader’s stand-in, watching everything unfold around her. But in what passes for a strong female character in so many movies, she becomes a brash heroine in the miniseries.

Lifetime’s Rachel remains moony-eyed from start to finish, filling Dinah’s head with decidedly modern notions of romance, especially that tired trope of all-encompassing love at first sight. And, not for nothing, the women’s syncretistic belief system is now set against Jacob’s rigid, even angry, monotheism. All that’s left of Diamant’s original is the title and cast of characters.

The upshot is that we’re given a story we’ve seen so many times before, one in which there is only one plotline for women to follow—that of romantic love. Despite the bloody ending to Dinah’s romance, she is set on the same path as every other boyfriend-seeking heroine of recent rom-coms.

It’s been seventeen years since The Red Tent was published. In that time, Diamant’s vision doesn’t raise eyebrows anymore. It has become naturalized and accepted. It’s too bad that Lifetime scrapped it, because she managed to give the story, its female characters, and family life a sense of complexity that it was missing before and that has been stripped away again.

Female characters and experience can be reduced in any number of ways: Dinah becomes smugly virtuous and headstrong, which may be hackneyed, but at least has some redeeming value. But in truth, she’s one-dimensional, her stubbornness put to use only to snag the heart of a prince.

The search for romantic love is a universal theme in stories of all sorts—novels, movies, songs. It’s powerful. We do crave love. Experiencing love is rewarding. But women’s lives are so much richer—and sadder, harder, more complicated, or conflicted—than many of the most enduring and popular narratives would have us believe. We needed The Red Tent seventeen years ago. We still need to give women the texture and variety that the stories of their lives deserve.

Michal Lemberger’s nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Slate, Salon, Tablet, and other publications, and her poetry has been published in a number of print and online journals. She holds a BA in English and religion from Barnard College and a MA and PhD in English from UCLA, and she has taught the Bible as literature at UCLA and the American Jewish University. Michal lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughters. Learn more atmichallemberger.com.

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