“So,” readers ask, “is that you on the book cover?”
The child adorning the cover of my novel The Sweetness was born years before me. There is no need to say, “But we are related,” and certainly no need to mention that, although we are second cousins, we have never met. Yet the desire to tell every single detail about the story burns within me.
The truth is, though it would take years, writing became a way of breathing life into the girl seen on the cover of TheSweetness: her face unforgettable, her eyes, in particular, haunting and as inquisitive as the persona I created for her in this novel inspired by my family’s complicated history. Her real name, Rosha, is the name I chose to give her. I saw no reason to alter that particular truth. She came into my life quite unexpectedly about fifteen years ago on a chilly, dark, December afternoon while I was visiting my great aunt’s tiny studio apartment in the Brooklyn neighborhood where she had lived for over fifty years, the last twenty as a widow.
When she could no longer travel to spend time with my family, I would try a couple of times a month to visit her and bring lunch—usually fresh bagels and smoked salmon from the city. I could almost mouth her words as soon as she took her first bite: “These are ridiculous! Too big for human consumption.” Actually, though difficult to please, she was right, and so we ate our lunch in silence, me not wishing to rattle her mood. But I somehow always knew she was glad for my company. In her younger, healthier, days, she had often joked saying she was my real mother. My aunt had married late in life and never had kids of her own.
It was after lunch on one of those visits that, instead of dozing off in her favorite tufted high-back chair in the steamy living room, my aunt reached into her linen closet and took down a round metal cookie box, which she placed smack in the center of her kitchen table. Thinking (hoping) that maybe the box contained sugar-coated butter cookies, I pried open the lid to find the box stuffed to the brim with tattered documents and letters. With her pale arms crossed against her chest, my aunt sat back and gazed out the tiny window streaked with winter’s dirt. I babbled on, quickly riffling through the floral embossed box, as if searching for the crackerjack prize, and after some minutes I selected a thick envelope yellowed from time. Inside, there was an official looking document from Riga, Latvia: a telegram addressed to my grandfather—my aunt’s older brother—from relatives announcing the birth of their baby named Rosha, who they announced was doing well. The year stamped on the document was 1931.
A sepia photograph slipped from the envelope onto the table, and suddenly there she was—a child, no longer a baby, perhaps five or six years old. I held that photo in my hands for a very long time, glancing up at my aunt whose eyes had quickly reddened. In another photo I recognized my grandmother riding in a horse and buggy and sitting alongside a woman with the little girl, who was the child’s mother. My grandmother, spiffy in a large brimmed hat looked like a sophisticated traveler totally out of her element—far from her busy life in Brooklyn with her own two children.
When my aunt said she wanted me to keep the box filled with all her documents, I felt as though she had handed me the keys to my family’s mysterious past. Of course I had lots of questions, but she said very little, and to push further I knew would have upset her. What I do remember about that day was her saying these words:
“I should have stayed. I never should have come here.”
“But if you had,” I answered, “you might have been killed.”
“So what,” she said, turning from the window, “so what!” She looked more like a belligerent teen instead of a frail, 95-year-old woman. It was as though her eighty years in America had been nothing more than a handful of seeds that never took root.
I will never forget how she looked that day; there was so much sorrow etched across her face. It wasn’t until she passed away that I began writing my story. It was Rosha’s story, which I eventually alternated with another nearly-completed narrative I had been working on separately. And it was through the merging of those two parallel tales that a theme finally became clear to me.
At the end of her life, once more, my aunt had to face all the choices she had made, each haunting regret that evolved from merely surviving. It would take me a long, long time, but through the writing of TheSweetness, I began to understand her remorse.
Sande Boritz Berger’s debut novel, The Sweetness, is available wherever books are sold. She received an MFA from Stony Brook Southampton College and lives in Bridgehampton.
It's been a great couple weeks for historical fiction, from Janis Cooke Newman's list of Top 5 Historical Novels for summer 2015 (and the release of her own historical fiction novel, A Master Plan for Rescue) to Alice Hoffman's newest book, The Marriage of Opposites—you can read the entire first chapter here!—and now the release of the book cover for Allison Amend's forthcoming work of historical fiction, Enchanted Islands:
The novel takes place in the Galapagos, exploring the world of military intelligence and espionage before World War II. It's due out in May 2016. So far that's all we know!
The Sporting Club neighborhood, the horse racing tracks beyond the tramlines. At the intersection of Rue Delta and the Corniche, by the sea, stands house number twenty-four, all seven of its stories (we used to climb up to the flat roof and shoot paper arrows down at the industrious ants running around on the sidewalk, back and forth, as if there were purpose to all this frenzy).
An Arab doorman, Badri, stands guard, squinting at the sun. His face is tan and emaciated. His little boy, Abdu, loiters at his side, helping him watch the shadows stretching over the sidewalk and the passing cars, headed toward the sea. Badri and his son welcome anyone approaching the building with an alert greeting, “Ahalan, ya sidi,” full of expectation: Will the guest give bakshish or not? If the guest does tip them, they escort him with bows all the way to the elevator door. If he doesn’t––they point lazily in the direction of the moldy duskiness.
The elevator is ancient, barred with black metal and faded gold openwork and bitten by reddish rust. The door slams with a metallic shake, and … a miracle! The elevator rises with a buzz, dragging with effort a looping tail that grows longer as the elevator ascends. Chilling stories have been told about power outages between the fourth and fifth floors; fights between neighbors, beginning in the stairwell, intensified in the gloom of the elevator, later to dissipate outside, in the subtropical sun that ridicules all human endeavors.
Second floor, that’s as far as I go. If you aren’t lazy, you could climb it by foot. A copper plate bearing the name of a Jewish family, descendant of Sephardic Jews from the era of the Spanish Expulsion (their last name is the name of their hometown with the suffix “ano”). The doorbell rings. A dark-haired and skinny servant opens the door and addresses you in lilting Mediterranean French: “Oui, missier, quisqui voulez?” and you stutter and ask: “Is this where Robert … Robby lives?”
The servant is surprised that a thirty-year-old man is interested in a ten-year-old boy, but he does not voice his opinion as long as he isn’t asked to. “Robby––there!” He signals toward the balcony, at the far end of the apartment. “Should I call him?”
“No, no! Please, there’s no need.”
The Arab servant looks at you with a hint of suspicion. “Who you, missier?” and you give him your name, Hebraized to fit Israel of the 1950s, which rejected all foreign sounds. The servant does not decipher any connection between the two names. To him the strange name could be Greek or Turkish or Italian or Maltese or Armenian or French or British or even American. Alexandria is the center of the world, a cosmopolitan city. You want to add: yes, I used to be Robert, too. Twenty years ago. I’m coming from twenty years away. I won’t interrupt, I just want to watch. I won’t interfere, God forbid. No one will notice me. I just want to tell the story of one summer, a Mediterranean summer, an Alexandrian summer.
A few months after I gave birth to our first child, my husband and I went out for that rarest of date nights: dinner and a movie. Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica bustled with people— teenagers and senior citizens and families with children of all ages. As we walked from the restaurant to the theater, one woman sitting on a bench, her hand on a stroller, caught my eye. There was something askew, something that made me wonder about her all through the movie. When the credits rolled, I told my husband we had to go back to that bench.
The Promenade was quiet and empty, but the woman and her baby sat precisely where they had been three hours earlier. There was something about her that broadcast “otherliness.” We approached and asked if she was okay, and she explained that they had outworn their welcome with friends. They would sleep in that spot. They were homeless.
Maybe it was because we had a baby of our own, maybe it was because she revealed she was Jewish so I felt a certain kinship, but we could not bear the thought of them—really, her baby—sleeping outside. But what could we do? Take them to our house? What if she was mentally ill? What if she harmed us or our baby? I didn’t think she would, but could I take that chance? I felt guilty, but knew we could not bring her home.
So we offered to take them to a motel for one night. She accepted and told us where to take her. We drove them there, prepaid, said goodbye, and went home. I could not shake the thought that our act was tantamount to nothing. The next morning at 11 AM, they would be without shelter again.
Perhaps it was guilt, or my good Jewish upbringing (one and the same thing?), but this interaction galvanized me to find and volunteer for a non-profit that helped homeless families. I met young single mothers who were getting back on their feet with the help of social workers, federally subsidized rents, job training, and their own determination.
Just as I couldn’t stop thinking about that woman and her child during the movie, over the years I couldn’t stop thinking about all of these women—their stories, their courage, their setbacks, their successes. They resided in my imagination and became an integral part of my novel, Shelter Us. Shelter Us is the story of Sarah, a suburban mother haltingly recovering from a terrible loss, who becomes obsessed with “saving” a young homeless mother she sees on the streets of Los Angeles. In the character of Josie, the homeless mother, I wanted to humanize one face of homelessness, to show the grit and resilience of the young mothers I had met.
Like so many people do when faced with intense need, Sarah struggles with how to help Josie. She considers all of the concerns that pinged through my mind so many years before. Sarah, like me, wishes the world were different, that she could take them in. But Sarah makes a starkly different choice than I did. She reaches beyond the normal conventions of do-gooding and tzedakah, busting the parameters that say don’t get too close, don’t get too involved, with potentially life-shattering consequences. As I wrote and revised, I was vexed by how to make Sarah’s outreach to Josie more plausible. I found the answer in an unlikely place: Torah study.
Growing up, my family celebrated Shabbat intermittently, and did not follow (let alone know) most Jewish law. Like many modern Jewish families, social justice was essential to who we were. It was modeled by actions, not taught as dogma: my family went to rallies and walked for causes—civil rights, environment, peace—without explicitly connecting it to religion. As far as I knew, Torah study was exclusively for yeshiva students.
But a few years ago, midway through the writing of Shelter Us, out of curiosity I began attending Torah study at my (progressive, Reconstructionist) synagogue. I was surprised to discover that I loved it, that Torah study was not about learning static rules, but was a dynamic conversation about what it means to live with meaning, purpose, and compassion. One week, as my rabbi led a conversation about one of the thirty-six parashiyot that include the directive to “take care of the stranger,” an “Aha!” moment for the novel came to me: This lesson would explain Sarah’s courage to reach out to Josie. It would be a strong connection with her late mother, a Jewish convert who had modeled this value. Her mother’s legacy would spur her on. Imagine my surprise that Torah study helped me weave together the fabric of my novel.
There is an epilogue to this story. If it came as a surprise that Torah study would play a role in solving a plot point in my novel, perhaps it should not be surprising that it subsequently played an important role in a crucial family decision. After the manuscript of Shelter Us was with the publisher, I received an email from a friend of a friend, asking if I knew anyone who might be able to foster a teenage girl who had fled her violence-plagued country and needed a home. I showed the message to my husband. Down the hall slept our child who had been an infant when we first encountered a young homeless mother. He was thirteen, and his younger brother was ten. Re-reading the email, I couldn’t shake the feeling that in writing Shelter Us I had written myself a map for this moment.
In a bigger sense, it was Torah that had written us a map. Because of the weekly conversations about Jewish values prompted by its ancient stories, I did not have to agonize, research, or debate. I had conversed with my ancestors and my community, had wrestled with it in my fiction, and although there was anxiety, I had arrived at an answer: We would welcome this stranger into our home. We would find the courage to do what we knew was right.
Laura Nicole Diamond is the editor of the anthology Deliver Me: True Confessions of Motherhood, whose proceeds benefit women and children in need. She is a Board Member of PATH (People Assisting the Homeless), and past Board Member of Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation of Pacific Palisades. A civil rights lawyer, Laura lives in Los Angeles with her family. For more, visit www.LauraNicoleDiamond.com.
Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon is a gripping historical thriller. The book’s plot takes place in Berlin four years after the end of World War II. Through an action-packed plot, readers get a glimpse of the start of the Cold War, when Stalinists replaced the Nazis. This fast-paced novel brings to life postwar Berlin, a city caught between the past atrocities of the Nazis and the harsh realities of the Soviet occupation.
Elise Cooper: Are planning a sequel to Leaving Berlin?
Joseph Kanon: I never write sequels to any of my books. When they end for me they end for me. It ended where it’s supposed to end, at least in my head.
EC: Do you think your book shows that there is no difference between the Nazis and the Soviets after World War II?
JK: Yes. Especially regarding the impact of the East German population concerning their day-to-day existence. I wondered what would it be like in a society if you were one of the decent people and had to exchange one set of gangsters for another. But, I want to make sure that the reader understands how appalling the Nazis were.
EC: Do you think the Jews sided with the Communists because they were fighting the Nazis?
JK: Yes and No. In the 1930s people were drawn to Communism as a response to Fascism. The German Communists were good at putting across their narrative: “we were the first victims, the first anti-Fascists, and the first people Hitler went after.” It is a fact that for some Hitler drew people towards the Left. Yet, let us not forget that a lot of Jews were drawn to socialist ideologies earlier in the twentieth century, before Hitler.
EC: Do you think it was hard for Alex to go back to Germany?
JK: Yes. He did not want to leave the United States and travel to the Communist sector of Berlin. Alex, like many Jews, did not want to return to Germany His parents were murdered by the Nazis. The last thing he wants is to recreate being a part of a scary and oppressive regime in Berlin, as was the case when he lived there under the Nazis. Yet, having made the deal with the CIA he must go back. Therein lies the problem.
EC: Do you think Alex was not really an ideologue?
JK: It is a fair statement that Alex does not seem to have his heart in Communism. He saw two sides, with the Nazis representing the Right and the Communists representing the Left. At one point in the novel Alex refers to having attended a Communist meeting in California. He basically went with someone who invited him, but he never becomes a party member or commits to it. I would describe him as a Socialist, partly because he never abandoned his Judaism. When he got caught up in the crosshairs of the McCarthy sweep he got into trouble because of his principled position of not naming anyone else. This ruined his life.
EC: How would you describe the doctor?
JK: I wanted to show the sides of different characters. On the one hand the doctor is an unrepentant Nazi. He is not sympathetic at all. That is why I put this quote in the book: “You don’t come to judge, but you do. Such terrible people. So now we’re all guilty.” The German doctor who said this is being self-serving and he is essentially saying ‘I don’t want anyone to judge me.’ What upsets Alex the most is that this doctor talks without any guilt or shame. But I also wanted to show that not every German was like him. I want readers to ask, what if I was caught up in that society? What would I do?
EC: Would you describe Irene as double-dealing?
JK: We must remember that the population in Berlin is dependent on the rations for their survival. There are no jobs or food except what is given out by the occupying forces. How someone answered a questionnaire is one of the ways to determine the amount of rations they received. Irene lied partly for self-preservation, partly because she was devious, and a part for survival. She is damaged by the war, wounded.
EC: You also describe how the German Jews assimilated themselves into society. Did you want to make a point about the past and present?
JK: Yes. Alex’s family are Jews who thought of themselves as Germans first. They had blindfolds on because they were prosperous and a successful part of society. Then, to their horror and surprise, they found out not everybody thought of them as Germans
EC: Herb is different than Alex in that he is a Communist who is Jewish in name only. What is he supposed to represent?
JK: He allowed me to discuss the Communist Party’s post war purges, which I moved up a year for the story. There is no question in Alex’s mind—and in mine—that these purges by Stalin had a level of anti-Semitism. Unlike Alex, Herb is a true believer and came willingly to Berlin to build the Socialist ideal. He gets swept up in one of those nets that put on show trials. I wanted to show how his wife became a pawn to save her husband. She became a spy and informant for the Stalinists. Because they were western Jews from New York they were seen as contaminated, untrustworthy, and not loyal.
EC: You discuss in Leaving Berlin how America made common cause with the Nazi scientists: “The Americans don’t care, as long as they’re not Communists.”
JK: I talk a bit how the United States employed the German scientists for expediency. This is shameful. We are talking about people who participated in war crimes and were given visas, while many Jews were turned away. Essentially what we decided is that these are very bad people unless they are useful to us, and then they are not so bad. What they did to the Jews and others is ignored.
EC: What would you like the readers to get out of the plot?
JK: An irresistible story. I hope readers are intrigued by the fact that Alex had to go back to Berlin and face the different elements of that society. The book is about the moral ambiguity of people who must tend to two sides, which will never come together.
Elise Cooper lives in Los Angeles and has written numerous national security articles supporting Israel. She writes book reviews and Q&A's for many different outlets including the Military Press. She has had the pleasure to interview bestselling authors from many different genres.
Over the years, classic Jewish literature has become less popular amongst Jewish teens. Many of the teens in today’s day and age have never even heard of the once, big hits. As you speak with people from older generations, they tend to have more knowledge on Jewish classics. Here, at the Jewish Book Council, we are very diverse in age. Becca, who is 29 years old, has heard of and read some of the Jewish classics such as The Chosen by Chaim Potok and Exodus by Leon Uris. Evie, who is 26 years old, has heard of some of the classics but has never read any of them. However, I am 15 years old and have never heard or read any of the Jewish classics. This shows how the new generation is not being exposed to Jewish classics, resulting in them being forgotten.
I am very interested in reading Jewish classic literature. Writers like S. Y. Agnon have a lot of classical Jewish traditions invested in their writings. Reading these Jewish books can teach you a lot about the culture in the author's times and how it differs from modern times. I think many teens haven’t read these books because it is hard for them to relate to it but there still is a lot to learn from these books and they can be very interesting. I'm looking forward to reading Jewish classical literature and learning about the culture of the Jewish people in the previous centuries.
Welcome back to the time machine! We are traveling twenty-one years into the past, to Israel in 1994, the setting for my debut novel Safekeeping. Last time, we marked the changes in television, cars, and the addition of Russian to many road signs. If you missed that post, you can read it here. Now for three more changes:
1. Tel Aviv
Much can be said about the city’s journey over the last two decades—from its ascension to the number two start-up center in the word, after Silicon Valley, to its newfound fame as an LGBT destination, all while coping with eighteen suicide attacks (the first in 1994). We’re going to focus on the city’s physical transformation. Let’s just say Tel Aviv already had the attitude back in the day, but now it’s got the outfit. The first morning I ever arrived in Israel, a taxi ferried me from the old Ben Gurion Airport to the Kibbutz Program Center, through a low-rise city, its old Bauhaus buildings stained and dilapidated under the pink dawn sky. Today those buildings, many gorgeously restored and housing boutique hotels and restaurants, form a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site known as the “White City.” Older neighborhoods, such as Florentin and Neve Tzedek, are abustle with shops, bars, and galleries that rival Brooklyn in their hipsterdom. Add to the changing cityscape the redesigned HaBima Theatre, the striking new addition to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, and the old train station and seaports reinvented as nighttime hotspots. In 1994, Tel Aviv’s skyline had one building over thirty floors; now it has twenty-three, and nineteen more on the way. One thing has remained the same: there’s still a staggering number of stray cats.
2. The Security Fence
And yes, in some places, such as the environs of Jerusalem, a wall. An eyesore. When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, much has happened since 1994, but too little has changed. Erection of the barrier started in 2002, a year in which terrorist attacks killed 452 Israelis on buses and in restaurants. As the barrier came up, suicide attacks went down. It is not the only barrier along a border—the U.S. has one with Mexico—but the West Bank barrier has garnered much international criticism, in part for not adhering more closely to the “green line,” effectively annexing 9.4% of the West Bank. Proponents argue it only deviates where hills and tall buildings can host snipers and that the barrier is not the final border. Whatever your thoughts on the barrier—whether it’s the reason for the reduction in suicide bombings, whether it should fall only on the green line, whether it should be built at all—it is inarguably a sad manifestation of the failed peace process, which was at its height in 1994.
3. The Kibbutz
This is a change at the heart of my novel Safekeeping: the privatization of the kibbutzim. Set on a kibbutz near Haifa, the novel shows six lives becoming entangled and changed forever over one fateful summer, the summer the kibbutz will vote on whether to end equal pay. While living on kibbutzim from 1994 to 1996, I witnessed the end of several kibbutz customs. My fellow twenty year olds, who had all been raised together in a Children’s House, now had younger siblings growing up in their parents’ homes. Members began eating dinner alone or with their families instead of in the dining hall. But at its heart, the kibbutz still operated according to the socialist ideal “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Over the following years, however, the changes grew more drastic, until the first kibbutz I had lived on divided all its assets among its members. This gave my great-uncle, a longtime member, personal ownership of his apartment. Today, more than 200 of the 270 kibbutzim have either partly or fully privatized, paying members different salaries for different work.
This list of changes in Israel could go on, with every change warranting its own essay. Or book. For a more nuanced and immersive experience of Israel in 1994, read Safekeeping.
Jessamyn Hope's short fiction and memoirs have appeared in Ploughshares, Five Points, and other literary magazines. Born and raised in Montreal, she lived in Israel before moving to New York City. Read more about her here.
Summer definitely ain't over yet: August is bringing in a hearty new crop of books to read before the kids get back from camp—including Days of Awe: A Novel by Lauren Fox, released yesterday from Knopf! And look at the beautiful book cover they snuck on there while no one was looking:
Award-winning author Steve Stern’s eleventh work of fiction, The Pinch: A History/A Novel, was published in June 2016 by Graywolf Press. Jewish Book Council sat down with the prolific author to discuss the role of Jewish history and Yiddish folktales in his writing, race in the South, and the power of comical writing and its significance.
Beth Kissileff: I love when authors take characters and ideas from their other books and continue to use them in different ways in newer books. The Shpinkers appear in other works of yours, and you have written about tightrope walkers in the past, too. What does it mean to you to write this way?
Steve Stern: You make me sound very ecological, recycling characters in order to create a kind of sustainable fiction. The truth is, I’ve been mining the old North Memphis neighborhood of the Pinch for stories for about three decades now, and it’s only natural that some of the narratives dovetail, causing characters who appear in one story to reappear in another. It is, after all, a finite neighborhood, though the stories are infinite; so while I might introduce new characters to the mix, they’re bound to rub shoulders with the veteran populace, and the friction of their shoulder-rubbing can be radically transformative for both old and new residents of the neighborhood.
BK: Can you talk about the interplay of history and fiction in your writing?
SS:The Pinch ends with the Angel of History: Walter Benjamin’s concept inspired by Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus in which the angel looks toward the past while being driven ever forward, perhaps catastrophically, in its flight. If you’re looking backward—toward a mythic past, toward the paradise you knew before the Angel of Forgetfulness tweaked you under the nose at birth—then history is something you blindly collide with. I suppose that’s as good a characterization of the attitude in which I write as any: history always manifests itself as an inescapable intrusion, the nightmare from which Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus was trying to awake. In their sleepwalking, my characters often try to sustain themselves on dreams, and since the dreams are frequently nourished by ancient mythologies, they may assume their own palpable reality. What happens when that reality, in which magic is a natural component, encounters the harsh truths of history is a constant theme in the stories I imagine. Though to be honest, the angel at the end of The Pinch evokes not so much Benjamin’s Angel of History as the one with the flaming sword who prohibits Adam and Eve from returning to the Garden.
BK: One of the many lovely things in the book is the honest appraisal of race relations. Can you say something about the role of race in the novel, and the particular one of Jews and blacks in the South?
SS: In my hometown of Memphis, a predominantly black city, there was an interesting symbiosis between African-Americans and Jews. Beale Street, which was the black Main Street of the South for decades, had at one end a cluster of Jewish pawnshops and discount stores. Where blacks were barred from shopping at the white-owned businesses, they were welcomed by the Jews. I won’t pretend this was without its mercenary motive, but still: Schwab’s Emporium featured hoodoo love potions and pomades; Novak’s Pawn accepted toothpicks and thimbles from the gamblers and high-rollers, confident of a considerable return on their investment. The black heritage of Memphis, the city’s richest cultural heritage, had from its early inception a lively Jewish element, and it was through an interest in that hybrid circumstance that I, somewhat ironically, came to know something about the local Jewish history. I guess that, growing up in the South, I always conceived parallels between the black and the Jewish experience, and I’ve been drawn back repeatedly to that perception since I began to write. In The Pinch, I wanted to address the city’s pivotal (even terminal?) historic moment, the garbage strike that preceded the assassination of Martin Luther King. There seemed to me a kind of inevitability in the fact that the so-called urban renewal that destroyed North Main Street coincided with the murder of Dr. King. My dream district evaporated forever with the death of the century's greatest dreamer.
BK: Can you talk a bit about your sources—folklore, midrash, Yiddish words? How did you do the research for the many worlds this book contains?
SS: I’m never really aware of research per se, since the place where I spend most of my time is in a literary latitude (my room) defined by the kinds of texts you mention. The Book is of course the Torah, whose narrative begins in timelessness before entering history. The vast literature that Torah has generated—midrash, aggadah, folklore, legend, and so much of Yiddish fiction—partakes of both worlds; these are tales that exist comfortably in both a mythic and historic dimension. Characters, such as the folk persona of the prophet Elijah, commute between these worlds with relative ease; creatures such as golems and assorted monsters, the Leviathan and the giant Ziz bird, phenomena such as dybbuks, wandering souls, hidden saints, and all the fabulous demonic and angelic denizens of Kabbalah, can enter the familiar world without substantially altering its fabric. Rabbis and fools can stumble into sitra achra, the malevolent Other Side, and return to their study house unscathed. For centuries the two worlds cohabited more or less peacefully in the Jewish universe. But in our epoch there was a rupture—i.e. a Holocaust—which separated us from the timeless realm and marooned us here under the unforgiving dominion of history. I believe, however, that stories can still retain an echo of the original source, and that the echo can sometimes toll louder than the tale at hand; that the music of that tolling can endow our historical moment with a measure of eternity. I believe a writer, according to his or her means, ought to aspire to capture that music in his or her stories.
BK: In your book, we watch a character write and control the faces of others. Can you talk about the power of writing and its effect on your own life?
SS: I gave The Pinch two endings—one a speculative conclusion in which the book that the character Muni has written plays a crucial part in the revitalization of the lost neighborhood. In the second ending—spoiler alert—Muni’s book is destroyed, and Lenny, my feckless semi-hero, who’s been living both inside and outside of Muni’s chronicle, is set free, though his emancipation is an ambiguous affair. This is what I love most about fiction: that you can have it both ways. You can rectify and redeem botched lives, dissolve the claustrophobia of routine with mad invention, realize the impossible despite the hegemony of the literal; and you can do it all without subverting the accepted wisdom. But I’m not entirely a fool; I know that there’s such a thing as normative reality and that in most lives it trumps whatever the imagination can conceive. There’s a Kafka parable that says we are free and secure citizens of the world, for we’re fettered to a chain long enough to give us the freedom of all earthly space; that we’re free and secure citizens of heaven as well, since we’re also fettered by a similarly long heavenly chain. But if we head for earth, the heavenly collar throttles us, and likewise the earthly collar if we head for heaven. Yet, says Kafka, all the possibilities are ours. Stories are perhaps an effort to break those chains, and if they ultimately fail to do so, well, the energy and passion expended in the attempt allows us to feel, if only vicariously, intensely alive.
BK: Can you talk about the sense of creation and transmission in writing, and what you hope to hand over to readers?
SS: A writer’s characters embody his obsessions, and many of mine are possessed by stories, both their own and those of others, which they’re as driven as the Ancient Mariner to exorcise themselves of. That’s certainly the case with my character Muni Pinsker. George Steiner once said of the Jews that the Book is their homeland, which is a literal truth for me, though the book in question—apostate that I am—is usually the one I’m writing, and home paradoxically the place I hope the writing will take me to. It’s less a straight-ahead voyage, however, than the efforts of a desperate survivor of shipwreck to reach dry land, my desk the lifebuoy I cling to like Ishmael (another mariner) hanging onto Queequeg’s casket. That’s the only way I know to stay afloat. A career sadsack, I nevertheless like to think that I’m essentially a comic writer. Sure, I’ve got my sober and somber themes, which I return to again and again, hammer and tongs. But in the end, though reviewers might beg to differ, my intention is to entertain. I have a religious faith in the power of laughter to clarify a spiritual vision. The old proverb says that aggadah, the narrative imagination, has a laughing face. That’s the compass by which (straddling the casket) I try to navigate my stories.
Beth Kissileff is the editor of Reading Genesis (Continuum Books, 2014) an anthology of academic writing about Genesis. Her novel Questioning Return is under review for publication and she is writing a second novel and volume of short stories. She has taught at the University of Pittsburgh, Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College.