The ProsenPeople

Borges's Philo-Semitism

Tuesday, November 01, 2016 | Permalink

Author Ilan Stavans has three new books out this year, and will be introducing each one to Jewish Book Council readers as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Arguably the most accomplished of all Jewish Latin American writers—of all Latin American writers, period!—wasn’t Jewish: it was Jorge Luis Borges.

Reading Borges, teaching him, exploring the roots of his worldview, is one of my life’s joys. I have memorized entire passages. Introducing it to new readers brings me enormous joy. In essays, stories, and poems, he dissected the conundrum of Jewishness throughout the twentieth century. A handful of those pieces—“Emma Zunz,” “The Secret Miracle,” “Baruch Spinoza,” “The Golem,” “Death and the Compass,” and “Deutches Requiem,” among them—are superb. True, his view tends toward the allegorical. Jews, for Borges, are vessels of memory. They are at once insiders and outsiders in culture, at once witnesses and participants. Their devotion to languages and the intellectual is the result of a transient journey through a labyrinthine diaspora.

He spoke against Nazism during the Second World War, when few in Argentina dared to; he visited Israel and eulogized the small dessert nation; he was a friend of Alberto Gerchunoff and other figures in his country’s Jewish community; he was among the first in the Spanish-speaking world to promote Franz Kafka; he pursued the study of Kabbalah and was fascinated with Hassidic stories; he befriended Gershom Scholem and wrote about S. Y. Agnon; and he stood up to antisemitism.

In 1933, Borges was accused of loving Jewishness too much, and of being Jewish himself. He responded swiftly: “Borges Acevedo is my name. Ramos Mejía, in a note to the fifth chapter of Rosas and His time, lists the family names in Buenos Aires at that time in order to demonstrate that all, or almost all, ‘come from Judeo-Portuguese stock.’ ‘Acevedo’ is included in the list.” He added: “Scythians, Babylonians, Persians, Egyptians, Huns, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Ethiopians, Illyrians, Paphlagonians, Sarmatians, Medes, Ottomans, Berbers, Britons, Libyians, Cyclopes, or Lapiths. The nights of Alexandria, of Babylon, of Carthage, of Memphis, never succeeded in engendering a single grandfather; it was only to the tribes of the bituminous Dead Sea that this gift was granted.”

The Talmud (Tractate Sotah, 44a) states that a man should built a house, plant a vineyard, and marry a wife. The order seems skewed. At any rate, at fifty-five I have done two of the three, and am happy. Planting a vineyard isn’t in my prevue. For years I dreamed of another option, or else two: write a book about Don Quixote and another on Borges.

My book Quixote: The Novel and the Worldappeared last year. Borges, the Jew (SUNY) is just out. I’m at peace. Well, with one exception: I would love to edit a volume of all, or almost all, his Philo-Semitic writing. That’s a bonus, though.

At the end of Borges, the Jew, I include a section called “Borges y yo,” in which I compare various translations of his mini-essay “Borges and I,” including one of my own. Then I quote a passage of my autobiography, On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language:

When I began to write, Borges had a decisive influence. His pure, precise, almost mathematical style; his intelligent plots; his abhorrence of verborrea—the overflow of words without end or reason, still a common malady in Spanish literature today. He, more than anyone before (including the modernista poet from Nicaragua, Rubén Darío), had taught a lesson: literature ought to be a conduit for ideas. But his lesson was hard to absorb, if only because Hispanic civilization is so unconcerned with ideas, so irritable about debate, so disinterested in systematic inquiry. Life is too rough, too unfinished to be wasted on philosophical disquisition. It is not by chance, of course, that Borges was an Argentine. It couldn’t have been otherwise, for Argentina perceives itself—or rather, it used to perceive itself—as a European enclave in the Southern Hemisphere. Buenos Aires, its citizens would tell you in the 1940s, is the capital of the world, with Paris as a provincial second best.

As soon as I discovered Borges, I realized, much as others have, that I had to own him. I acquired every edition I could put my hands on, not only in Spanish but in their French, English, Italian, German, and Hebrew translations, as well as copies of the Argentine monthly Sur, were his best work was originally featured, and interviews in journals. My collection began to grow as I embarked on my own first experiences in literature: tight descriptions, brief stories, passionless literary essays. Rather quickly the influence he exerted on me became obvious. In consolation, I would paraphrase for myself the famous line from “Decalogue of the Perfect Storyteller”—in Spanish its title is infinitely better: “Decálogo del perfecto cuentista”—by Horacio Quiroga, a celebrated if tragic turn-of-the-century Uruguayan author: to be born, a young writer should imitate his beloved masters as much as possible. The maxim, I realize today, is not without dangerous implications; it has encouraged derivativeness and perhaps even plagiarism in Latin American letters. But I was blind to such views. My only hope as a litteratuer was not to be like Borges, but to be Borges. How absurd that sounds now!

Influence turned into anxiety, and anxiety into discomfort. Would I ever have my own voice? One desperate afternoon, incapable of drafting a single line I could call my own, I brought down all the Borges titles I owned, piled them in the garage, poured gasoline over them, and set them on fire. It was a form of revenge, a sacramental act of desperation: the struggle to be born, to own a place of one’s own, to be like no one else—or, at least, unlike Borges. The flames shot up at first, and eventually, slowly, died down. I saw the volumes, between fifty and seventy in total, turn bright, then brown, then become ash. I smiled, thinking, in embarrassment, of Hitler’s Germany, Pinochet’s Chile, and Mao’s China. I thought of Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-Fé and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I thought of scores of prayer books, Talmuds, and other rabbinical works burnt by the Holy Inquisition in Spain and the New World, in places not far from my home. And I also invoked Borges’ own essay, “The Wall and the Books,” about Shih Huang Ti, the first emperor of China, a contemporary of Hannibal, whose reign was marked by the construction of the Wall of China, and also by the campaign to urn all history books. Shih Huang Ti saw himself as a new beginning. History needed to start over.

In Borges, the Jew, I conclude by saying that it might be ironic that a non-Jew would teach a Jew to recognize his own heritage. But isn’t that what we Jews have always done, shaping our sense of self according to the needs of the environment? (Jean-Paul Sartre’s slim book Anti-Semite and Jew comes to mind, in which the French philosopher argues, polemically, that Jews need antisemites to be themselves and vice versa.)

Borges was my rabbinical master in a yeshiva the size of the globe, and I his tentative pupil.

Ilan Stavans is a Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College and the author of many books of both Jewish and nonsectarian interests.

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What Is Jewish in Modern Latin American Literature?

Monday, October 31, 2016 | Permalink

Author Ilan Stavans has three new books out this year, and will be introducing each one to Jewish Book Council readers as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

I am not being facetious: perhaps the first piece ever written from a Jewish perspective in what we call today Latin America are Columbus’s diaries. I don’t want to jump into the debate on his Jewish ancestry; still, his approach at describing the landscape, his utopian vision of the inhabitants of the newly discovered lands as he looked for a new route to the Indies, distill a Jewish sensibility. At any rate, less debatable are the scores of crypto-Jewish poems, essays, memoirs, and inquisitorial testimonies written in Peru, Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, Cuba, and other places during the colonial period.

This has been an area of passionate research for me. I am in the midst of completing a travel book through the region, due out from Norton next year. In it there is a distinct way of looking at things, what the Germans call a weltanschauung. I know about it because I was born in Mexico. But I didn’t become a Latin American until I left home, to live first in the Middle East, then in Europe, and eventually in the United States. Becoming part of the whole redefined me.

The Jewish component of Latin America, both visible and invisible, is enormous. Of an overall population of 450 million, less than half a million identifies itself as Jewish, a minuscule number. Still, the impact on thought, commerce, politics, culture, and religion is significant. In the United States there are another 60 million people whose roots are traced back to the Hispanic world. Last year I saw a statistic, unreliable in my eyes, arguing that 200,000 of them are Jewish. The cipher must be considerably smaller. Still, the suggestion is tangible proof that Jewish-Latin American influence north of the Rio Grande is growing substantially.

At any rate, I hope a place to appreciate such influence is Oy, Caramba! An Anthology of Jewish Stories from Latin America. The focus is literature, specifically the modern period, from the early twentieth century to the present. Yet literature is life. In other words, no aspect of Jewish life in Latin America is alien to these tales. Just as in its English-, Portuguese-, Yiddish-, and Hebrew-language counterparts, there are tangible genealogical lines in Jewish-Latin American letters: a grandparent figure, a parent, and so on. The founder is Alberto Gerhunoff from Argentina, author of The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas. His work, in part, is about immigrant, just like that of Abraham Cahan. Moacyr Scliar from Brazil, author of The Centaur in the Garden, is a delicious humorist, a kind of Sholem Aleichem. Isaac Goldemberg from Peru, published The Fragmented Life of Don Jacobo Lerner, about ethnic and theological mixing, what is known as mestizaje. Clarise Lispector, also from Brazil, is an astonishing stylist better than Virginia Woolf. Other authors are equally memorable: Marcos Aguinis, Angelina Muniz-Huberman, Eduardo Halfon, Marcelo Birmajer, Rosa Nissán, and Ariel Dorfman, among them. And I am only talking of those largely devoted to fiction.

There are Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi authors, as well as descendants of crypto-Jews. Plus, there are myriad non-Jewish writers in Latin America with a lasting interest in Jewish themes. Carlos Fuentes, for example, wrote novels about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, José Emilio Pacheco about the Nazis in Mexico, Mario Vargas Llosa about Jewish-indigenous relations, and Leonardo Padura about the Holy Office. A puzzling chapter in Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectivestakes place in Tel-Aviv. Nazism is a ubiquitous topic. There is Jorge Volpi’s In Search of Klingson and also Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas, an encyclopedia of nonexistent books on the topics.

Editing Oy, Caramba! was a joy. It includes stories originally written in Yiddish, Spanish, Portuguese, and English. (The volume is an expansion of Tropical Synagogues [Holmes and Meier], which appeared in 1994. This was the first anthology I ever published in English.) When I look at its contents, I wished it could have been at least twice the size. This is unavoidable. Anthologies, as everyone knows, are made of hors d'oeuvre: one of their objectives is to whet one’s appetite. But when they do their job well, they accomplish much more: they offer context, allowing readers to see beyond the surface; and they build bridges across authors, countries, and periods. Think of all the anthologies whose influence is decisive, from the Bible to The Arabian Nights. Mine is comparatively modest: to show that Columbus’s sensibility, complex as it is, lives on.

Ilan Stavans is a Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College and the author of many books of both Jewish and nonsectarian interests.

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  • The Beauty of a Biographical Dictionary

    Monday, October 31, 2016 | Permalink

    Ezra Glinter is the editor of the new story anthology Have I Got a Story for You: More Than a Century of Fiction from The Forward, out tomorrow from W. W. Norton & Company. With the release of the book, Ezra is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

    How do you go about putting together an anthology of fiction from the pages of a newspaper that’s been in continuous publication for almost 120 years? The Forward, as with other newspapers, once published literature every day: short stories, serialized novels, poetry, and much else. With so much material to choose from, where do you start?

    That was the problem I faced when I began researching Have I Got a Story for You: More Than a Century of Fiction from The Forward. Fortunately, someone had already created the tool that I needed: a leksikon.

    A leksikon, in Yiddish, is a biographical dictionary, often about writers or other literary subjects. Yiddish isn’t the only language to boast such publications — Japanese has the Biographical Dictionary of Japanese Literature, for example, while in English there’s the Dictionary of Literary Biography, which is some 375 volumes long. Yiddish Leksikonen aren’t quite so voluminous, but they have a venerable history.

    The first major leksikon in Yiddish was the Leksikon fun der yidisher literatur un prese (Biographical Dictionary of Yiddish Literature and Press), a project spearheaded by the writer and editor Zalmen Reyzen. (Reyzen’s even more prolific brother, Avrom Reyzen, is one of the writers included in Have I Got a Story for You.) As Avraham Novershtern writes in the YIVO Encyclopedia, Reyzen’s leksikon was “a groundbreaking endeavor to present and systematize previously uncollected materials on Yiddish writers.” First published in 1914, the Reyzen’s leksikon was eventually expanded into the Leksikon fun der yiddisher literature, prese un filologye (Biographical Dictionary of Yiddish Literature, Press and Philology), which was published in four volumes between 1926 and 1929.

    Yiddish literature didn’t stop then, however, and neither did its leksinonen. Between 1956 and 1981 the Congress for Jewish Culture published the Leksikon fun der nayer yiddisher literatur (Biographical Dictionary of Modern Yiddish Literature), a project that stretched to eight volumes and at least 7,000 entries. Melech Ravitch, a Yiddish writer and poet from Poland who eventually settled in Montreal, wrote his own leksikon, in which he offered appreciations of many writers he had known personally.

    Leksikonen weren’t just about literature. One of the most important is the Leksikon fun der yiddisher teater (Biographical Dictionary of the Yiddish Theater), edited by Zalmen Zylbercweig between 1931 and 1969. That project stretched to six volumes (with a still-unpublished seventh) and some 2,800 entries, making it an indispensible resource for anyone studying the Yiddish theater.

    Nearly all of these leksikonen were useful to me. But my first guide to researching Have I Got a Story for You was the Forverts leksikon — a leksikon devoted specifically to Forward writers.

    Published in 1987, the Forverts leksikon was edited by Dr. Elias Shulman, a Yiddish critic and essayist, and Shimon Weber, the editor of the Forverts until his retirement, and then death, that year. Given its limited scope, the Forverts leksikon is a much smaller publication than some of its predecessors, reaching only 100 pages. But for me it was an indispensible resource. Before beginning any other work on the anthology the first thing I did was read the Forverts leksikon in its entirety.

    From the leksikon I learned about many obscure writers who might not have come to my attention otherwise. It taught me about Rokhl Brokhes, whose story “Golde’s Lament” is the very first one in the collection. Other writers I first learned about from the leksikon include Roshelle Weprinsky, Yente Serdatsky, Lyala Kaufman and Miriam Raskin. While I was already aware of the big-name Forverts contributors, the leksikon made me conscious of their less celebrated but no less worthy colleagues.

    The leksikon also gave me important tips about these writers’ careers—which works of theirs were considered the best, and when they were published. When it came towards the end of my work on the project, the leksikon provided valuable biographical information that helped me write the mini-biographies and notes.

    While the Forverts leksikon is one of the more recent Yiddish biographical dictionaries, it is not the only new addition to the field. In 2011 the Congress for Jewish Culture published an additional volume to its previous leksikon of modern Yiddish literature. Edited by former Forverts editor Boris Sandler along with Chaim Beider and Gennady Estraikh, it focuses on Yiddish writers from the Former Soviet Union.

    There have also been efforts to translate the many leksikonen. The leksikon of Yiddish theater is being made available in English at the Museum of Family History website, while the leksikon of modern Yiddish literature is being translated and posted online at yleksikon.blogspot.ca by Josh Fogel, a professor of Chinese and Japanese history at York University. (You can read an interview with Fogel about his efforts at In Geveb.)

    Today the idea of compiling a biographical dictionary seems old-fashioned: All you have to do to research a writer’s life and work is Google them, or read their Wikipedia page. But as my research for Have I Got a Story for You taught me, leksikonen are still invaluable for researchers, especially when it comes to more obscure writers and subjects. Without them, I wouldn’t have known where to start.

    Ezra Glinter is The Forward’s critic-at-large. His writing has appeared in The New Republic, Paris Review Daily, Bookforum, and The Walrus. His biography of the Lubavitcher Rebbe is forthcoming from Yale University Press.

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    What Does It Really Take to Write a Dissertation?

    Wednesday, October 26, 2016 | Permalink

    Earlier this week, Beth Kissileff mused on the final Biblical commandment—to write. With the release of her novel Questioning Return, Beth is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

    When I finished writing my dissertation, I decided that I would get down to writing what I really wanted to write: a novel. I had the discipline of being able to sit and write; at least in those pre-Internet days, I was pretty good at not getting distracted. While paying for child care, I had to use my time productively, since I hated thinking of spending money to do chores and errands I could do when my daughter was home. I knew I had the focus and the ideas to write a novel, since I’d already completed a longer piece of writing. All I had to do was put my behind in a chair, turn my computer on, and sit for long enough to type it all out.

    The topic of my novel was obvious to me: since I had just finished writing a dissertation, naturally I wanted to write about someone writing her dissertation, the process of writing it, how it interacted with the other things happening in her life. I didn’t need to write the actual dissertation itself, though the topic would certainly be part of the story. With what personal meaning did she imbue this material of academic study, why it was something she personally needed to do? I would be getting at the subterranean channels of emotion that ran beneath the ostensibly objective words in a dissertation, which was what I was after all along. My character would learn that she wanted to write about Jews who become more religious in Israel because the topic of Judaism actually held meaning for her, beyond this work as her entrée into the profession.

    People in graduate school tend to define themselves by the nature of their fields, what they find important in a sub-field, who their mentors are and working scholars they most admire. My character needed to come to the point of realizing that her dissertation and professional life do not define every aspect of herself, that she needs—and wants—to develop as a human being, not just a future academic.

    The difference between a novel and a dissertation is not just in the reading and research that go into each text. For a novel, I did read many books on topics related to religious returnees; Jerusalem and its history, architecture, and archaeology; American religious studies; and anthropological fieldwork and interviewing techniques. I think the difference lies in the value placed on emotions , exposing and expressing them in a novel, bringing points of tension between characters and resolving them or not. A dissertation needs to have a speaking self that appears without expressing bias; a novel needs a character shot through with passion and fervency so the reader keeps wanting to know more.

    What was going on in my life in the months when I started writing was that after being four months pregnant with my second child, when we went for the 16-week appointment, there was no heartbeat. My pregnant-appearing belly was not holding a live baby but a corpse that would never be introduced to the world.

    Was I responsible for my unborn child’s death? Had I done something, like drinking too much coffee, that was harmful to my baby, even endangered it? These are the questions I needed to explore, for myself, what kind of mother and professional I was going to be, how I could continue in the face of sadness and grief. My character faces a death that she may or may not have responsibility for at the midpoint of my novel. Letting her grapple with these questions was a way of struggling with my own dilemmas, which are the type that are not ever wholly resolved , just coped with. In fact the process I thought would be so simple of writing a novel over a summer turned into a process of many years. But the thought and struggle that informed my writing complicated my character and matured her, just as I too managed my own life.

    Beth Kissileff is a writer and journalist with a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Pennsylvania. She has taught in various fields of English and Jewish Studies at Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College.

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    It's No Accident the Final Commandment Is to Write

    Sunday, October 23, 2016 | Permalink

    Beth Kissileff is the author of Reading Genesis and a new novel, Questioning Return. She is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


    It is no accident that the last Commandment in the Torah involves writing. This is the very last thing enjoined on Jews, just as our book of instruction is ending.

    As a writer, I feel particularly poised to discuss why this is so important, why this directive to write is what should remain with us as we end the reading of the Torah each year. Of course, the command is not to write just anything; the command is that each Jew should write a book of the Torah for themselves. I want to say a bit about both this writing and the obligation for each Israelite to write a Torah, to explain what the act of writing can do both for us collectively and as individuals.

    According to a medieval comependium of what the 613 Commandments are, the verse that compels Jews to each write their own copy of the Torah reads: “And now, write for yourselves this song, and teach it in to the children of Israel”(Deuteronomy 31:19). This copying over is something each Jew must do. In the Talmud, Rabbah states, “Even if one's parents have left him a Torah scroll, it is proper that he should write one of his own”(Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 21b).

    A few chapters earlier in Deuteronomy, there is an injunction on a king not to have an “upraised” or “haughty heart”(Deut 17:20). The antidote to this arrogance? For the king himself to take the text of this Torah and copy one for himself, to immerse himself in this text, to understand it, to make it a living thing for himself by giving it another life in his own writing. Copying over this book—making his own copy and not relying on one made by his forefathers, as the Babylonian Talmud dictates in Sanhedrin 21b—will enable the king to connect with teachings that will effect his life and behavior.

    It is the process of writing, in reliving and experiencing the ideas and feeling in the text, that will itself give the king the emotional state he needs to serve his people and to govern. The juxtaposition of these texts teaches that the best king is one who can achieve a state of empathy in both his subjects and himself; the laws they contain teach that writing itself, the actual physical process of taking a pen and copying over a text, has value.

    The verse about each person writing a Torah for themself calls the Torah a shira, a song or poem (Deut 31:19). To me as a writer, this is very important, because poetry—as well as prose—can get at and express emotions that cannot otherwise be explored directly. When there is an important event or commemoration, we often wish to turn to a poet to express it, just as the Torah itself does in Exodus 15 with the Song at the Sea or in Deuteronomy 32, the final blessings of Moses to the people.

    In a way, by asking us not to tread the paths walked by others, the Torah declares that the life of each individual be a personal Torah scroll. For myself, writing allows me to live my life more fully by accessing, working out, and thinking through emotions that will enable me to live my life well and have empathy for others. Both the king copying over the text of the Torah and the individual Jew replicating the text of her ancestors in her own hand as a modern writer are participating in the act of creating our own songs of instruction for ourselves and others as our ideas go out into the world.

    After all, the Torah itself instructs us that we must write something new, recopy the text ourselves in every generation in order to be faithful to its message. Happy Simchat Torah!

    Beth Kissileff is s a writer and journalist with a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Pennsylvania. She has taught in various fields of English and Jewish Studies at Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College.

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    The Pitch Process

    Friday, October 21, 2016 | Permalink

    Earlier this week, Miriam Libicki wrote about the artistic process and progression in her most recent collection of graphic essays, Toward a Hot Jew, which will be featured in Jewish Book Council’s upcoming event, Ink Bleeds History: Reclaiming and Redrawing the Jewish Image in Comics. Miriam is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

    The two questions most dreaded by people who finish their first book are probably, “So what’s it about, in one sentence?” and “Who is the audience for this?”

    Because of the long path of Toward a Hot Jew to publication, I’m actually pretty comfortable with the first question. This book is comprised of seven “drawn essays,” which is my term for creative nonfiction that combines words and pictures, but not always in the same way that comics do. I’m not anti-comics, though: I grew my pitches by selling these essays individually at comic-cons for the past ten years. At a con, I have to pitch each essay zine dozens of times a day at passersby, over the course of two to five days. I‘d print up a new pamphlet right before con, then test my pitch, changing words, adding or subtracting, until I got a sentence or two that made people stop and at least flip through the pages. By the end of con, I’d have my pitch.

    My first drawn essay was Towards a Hot Jew, the (almost) title essay of this volume. I was back from four years living in Israel, working through some leftover romanticization of the country and fascinated by the hidden meanings in the way the IDF was reported on in North America. It’s deliberately provocative, but in the end, questioning and ambiguous. “This piece, I call it a drawn essay,” I say to the older couple in matching Batman shirts. “It’s about like the image of Israeli soldiers—” here I fan through the pages to show that although the subtitle includes “fetish object,” the book isn’t porn—“and what that image means to different people, and how it’s used.”

    Who Wants to Be an Art Star was based on a project I did earlier, in undergrad, which I re-painted. The original assignment had been to “have an art experience” and write about it. My experience was to interview my classmates about theirs, and then draw it as a comic. “This is my least Jewy essay,” I say to the distracted girl with a portfolio, looking for her favourite pro artist. “It’s more about being a painting major, and interviewing other painting majors about their painting major adventures.”

    Ceasefire was my first attempt at something like journalism comics. “It’s about the second Lebanon war in 2006,” I tell the dad dressed as Doctor Who holding his two Stone Angel daughters’ hands. “I happened to be visiting family in Israel right at the end, and I was trying to describe the atmosphere there, away from the front lines.”

    This one was commissioned for an academic anthology (The Jewish Graphic Novel: Critical Approaches, ed. Samantha Baskind and Ranen Omer-Sherman). They said to me, “We liked Towards a Hot Jew. Can you do another one like that? Maybe about how you started making comics?”

    “This one,” I say to two women in such impeccable business attire I can’t tell if they’re cosplaying or not, “is about the history and aesthetics of the auto-bio comix genre, and the Jewish influences on that.”

    This is a sequel to Ceasefire, two years later. “It’s about going back to Israel,” I say to the couple dressed in beachwear. “After I hadn’t lived there for six years, and talking to Israelis about where the country was at, at that time.”

    “This one is about the Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel,” I tell the man in the telltale olive un-logo-ed shirt and solid forearms of a soldier on leave, “and how they were first welcomed, but weren’t given visas to work, so they’re like a shadow underclass in Tel Aviv. And in May 2012, the government started inciting against them, and there were riots... I was home in Canada with my newborn baby, and just trying to figure it out from afar.” I’m rambling on and I’m rambling and probably getting too emotional, but he’s still with me.

    My last essay is the latest, longest, and definitely the hardest to write and to explain. I spent all my pregnancy with my first child doing research, and didn’t finish the art until my second child was six months old. “It's about the changes in the global ‘meanings’ of Blackness and Jewishness, the historical relationship between African Americans and American Jews, the Ethiopian-Israeli community, and... other stuff.” I wrote to the founder of America’s oldest literary comics publisher. A bit awkward, but this one’s never been seen at a con yet.

    As to the second question, who is my audience? Well, the easiest thing is to say “Jews,” but from experience at cons (and for the future of my career), it’s gotta be broader than that. I’m still figuring it out, though. Hopefully it includes you.

    Miriam Libicki is a graphic novelist living in Vancouver, Canada. Her 2008 memoir jobnik! has been a required text in over ten university courses, and her short comics have been published by Alternate History Comics, Rutgers University Press, and the Journal of Jewish Identities. Libicki is a recipient of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture International Fellowship and the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Research Grant.

    Hear Miriam Libicki speak about her work together with fellow graphic storytellers Eli Valley, Amy Kurzweil, and Rocket Chair Media at Ink Bleeds History: Reclaiming and Redrawing the Jewish Image in Comics Thursday, November 3, 2016 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Register online for free admission!

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    Miriam Libicki's Artistic Progression

    Thursday, October 20, 2016 | Permalink

    Miriam Libicki is a comic book author and artist whose most recent collection of graphic essays, Toward a Hot Jew, will be featured in Jewish Book Council’s upcoming event, Ink Bleeds History: Reclaiming and Redrawing the Jewish Image in Comics. Miriam is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

    The biggest transition from being an art student to being an independent artist was what to do about colour. I had been a drawing and painting major. I made oil paintings with layers of colourful glazes, none of them smaller than three feet on a side. Then came graduation, and with it the end of giant, well ventilated and stocked painting studios.

    I couldn’t be a painter anymore, if no one was buying my paintings. I could be a cartoonist, though, if enough people shelled out $3.00 for a xeroxed copy of my drawn thoughts. My first comix essay was drawn on watercolour paper, in graphite. It was nice and cheap to print, and the texture of the original paper still gave a nice arty quality. But something was missing.

    By the time of my second drawn essay, I was a year out of art school, and missing painting. I decided to try to teach myself watercolours. It was a really steep learning curve. Oils comprise of layers and layers. Oil paint is endlessly correctable. Watercolours are like golf: whoever can get to complete in the fewest strokes wins. Afraid of ruining any good strokes, I pre-mixed colours and left well enough alone as much as possible.

    My third essay was commissioned for an academic anthology. For some reason, printing in colour in a university-press book is even more expensive than in a regular book. Pages with colour are called “plates” and they all huddle together at the middle of the book. Anyway, I was back to black-and-white. I used graphite on paper again, but this had to be smoother paper cause the art was going to be shrunk smaller and I had so dang many words.

    My second watercolour essay was a sequel, of sorts, to the first. I can see my increasing confidence with layering colours to get more subtle colours. I even drew some low-light environments, the hardest thing (for me) in watercolours. You can layer opposite hues to get rich neutrals like human skin, but too many layers and the results get muddy. I felt that I was achieving naturalism, but at the expense of vibrancy or strong points of focus.

    When I came to tackle photo-based watercolours again, I decided to take the theory of complementary colours (blue-orange, red-green, yellow-purple) and just run with it. Instead of mixing colours, I could let them hang out and call attention to themselves. The result was decidedly non-naturalistic, but hopefully it echoed my writing, in using heightened emotion to get at truth.

    By the seventh essay, I was thinking I could compile all my work up until then into a book. And a book, of course, would be most attractive in colour. But this essay was one I’d been planning for a long time. It was research and theory heavy, and I really wanted to get it into an academic journal. Which means back to pencils, right? UNLESS!

    Could I do monochrome and bright at the same time?? I found an orange lacquer ink that was really fun to play with. It had red tones when it was dark, and yellow tones when it was light, and allowed for a lot of range in between. But scan it in grey, and none of the distinctions were lost.

    I like how, in this collection, people who know how to look can see the evolution of my artistic skill over the course of the essay, and how form follows function follows format. (Try saying that five times fast.)

    Miriam Libicki is a graphic novelist living in Vancouver, Canada. Her 2008 memoir jobnik! has been a required text in over ten university courses, and her short comics have been published by Alternate History Comics, Rutgers University Press, and the Journal of Jewish Identities. Libicki is a recipient of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture International Fellowship and the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Research Grant.

    Hear Miriam Libicki speak about her work together with fellow graphic storytellers Eli Valley, Amy Kurzweil, and Rocket Chair Media at Ink Bleeds History: Reclaiming and Redrawing the Jewish Image in Comics Thursday, November 3, 2016 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Register online for free admission!

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    B-Sides from The Borscht Belt

    Thursday, October 13, 2016 | Permalink

    Earlier this week, Marisa Scheinfeld reflected on how the themes of the Jewish High Holidays relate to her book, The Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of America’s Jewish Vacationland, a collection of photography capturing the remains of onetime Jewish resorts in upstate New York. Marisa is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


    From the beginning of this project, my intention for this photographic series was to be published as a book containing three essays and over 100 images. I am so happy that five years later, this goal has come to fruition.

    The Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of America’s Jewish Vacationland begins with postcards of the Borscht Belt era in its prime and then delves into the photographic series at large. The first pages of it reveal an external view of an overgrown entrance to Grossinger’s and then by the third or fourth photograph the viewer is led inside. Then, like a journey, one is led into a lobby, through a showroom and outside to an Olympic sized swimming pool, revisiting the vestiges of a paradise that is now long gone. Other photographs convey the cycle of life or current activity occurring in the spaces such as a bird living in a guestroom, stacked pots and pans in a kitchen, a flight of steps supporting a combination of AstroTurf and moss, or a rotary phone lying a bed, off the hook. Each scenario is exactly how I found it, arranged not by myself but by time and chance.

    Upon making various trips to my photograph the region notably known as the Borscht Belt in each season, I ended up with hundreds if not thousands of photographs. In the end, I had to make some crucial edits. Edits, with regard to photographs, shape an overall narrative and lead a viewer’s eyes through a curated selection of imagery. The book and series was edited over a period of about three months and is intended to flow like a voyage of sorts, traversing the abandoned hotels and bungalow colonies of the area just as I did, revealing relics and remnants both close-up and from a distance.

    The book is comprised of exactly 129 photographs of 40 resorts, hotels and bungalow colonies. There are many photographs that I had to let go of on the cutting room floor. Sometimes, it was very difficult. It wasn’t that the photograph was bad per se, it was just to avoid redundancy, or for space constraints. Much of the ephemera did not make it into the book, either—I amassed a large collection of original ephemera from the era in the form of postcards, brochures, matchbooks, and 2-D and 3-D objects that are arranged on various pages of text in the book. I weeded out multiple postcards of pools and merciless cut out photographs of my family members at a specific hotel.

    The Borscht Belt was a tremendously impactful era. We know from hearing about it or its marker in the cannons of Jewish American history that it provided entertainment, leisure and fun to so many people, particularly Jews; it also, was places where social bonds were formed, many that continue to this day. I hope this era is never forgotten. Sentimental as it might seem, I operate from the most personal of places because the Borscht Belt is the place where I grew up and the location I will always call my home. I am hopeful for the region to witness another transition, one that will fuel its economy and bring an influx of foot traffic back into the region. I look forward to see what time delivers. While the images contain pathos for what once was, within the photographs I see much room for contemplation about the present and the future. To that end, I present to you a selection of images that did not make the final cut. I am glad that at least here they’ll find a place to reside…

    Click on any image below to browse the full gallery of outtakes from the book:

    Marisa Scheinfeld's photography has been exhibited nationally and internationally and is among the collections of The Center for Jewish History, The National Yiddish Book Center, The Simon Wiesenthal Center, The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life and The Edmund and Nancy K. Dubois Library at the Museum of Photographic Arts

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    Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and a Bit of Borscht

    Monday, October 10, 2016 | Permalink

    Marisa Scheinfeld is the author of The Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of America’s Jewish Vacationland, a collection of photography capturing the remains of onetime Jewish resorts in upstate New York. Marisa is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


    As Jews we’re all quite familiar with the tastes, sounds and actions of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—honey on apples, the roaring of the shofar, and heading to a body of water to symbolically cast away our sins. Whether deeply religious or mildly observant, when we collectively take a moment to stop to think about the messages behind the Jewish New Year and the period of introspection that follows it, measures of heart-searching and self-examination can be quite poignant.

    According to rabbinic tradition, on Rosh Hashanah the destiny of the righteous and the wicked are sealed into the Book of Life or the Book of the Dead. During this period we embark upon the task of examining our lives and repenting for any of last years wrongs. We are encouraged to make amends, to reflect, and to make plans for improving ourselves in the coming year. While Rosh Hashanah concerns tragic themes of life and death, it is also a holiday filled with hope. When considered from this perspective, Rosh Hashana is about making peace with our communities, ourselves, and striving to be a better person.

    In many ways my new and first book, The Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of America’s Jewish Vacationland, echoes with much of these themes. For the past five years I have been surveying, studying and photographing my hometown region known as the Borscht Belt. Colossal names such as Grossingers and the Concord are instantly recognizable to American Jews from the east coast, as are the many entertainers and acts that graced their stages.

    Growing up in Monticello, New York in the 1980s, the Borscht Belt heyday was always recalled to me through a nostalgic lens; whether by a stranger, a friend, or by my own family members. Once an internationally known tourism mecca, the region was an epicenter for Jewish culture, connection and leisure. On a regional scale, the Borscht Belt brought commerce, culture and fueled the local economy.

    I began to consider the Borscht Belt during a time of transition as a graduate student in California. During my downtime, I made repeated trips home to Sullivan County, New York. I saw the abandoned structures of deserted hotels and bungalows scattered across the landscape in a new light. These structures had become eyesores, symbols of stagnation and failure. Broken apart by the hands of time or people, these historic spaces and their skeletal remains captivated me. These were each paradise lost, places where people once had the times of their lives. Visiting over 40 former hotel, resort and bungalow locations conjured up immense personal reflections on time, change, and nature.

    Though the original colors of the Borscht Belt have faded, the transformed figures, shades and textures that I found among its remnants signaled a new sense of vigor. No longer are these spaces being used as places of leisure as originally intended—dining rooms have become paint ball war zones, local kids have turned showrooms into skate parks, and wild birds live in the guest rooms.

    For those who spent time in these hotels, the photographs in this series often evoke waves of nostalgia and feelings of loss. But these are always followed by the most enlivening stories of how they met someone in that lobby, or saw so and so on that stage, or what happened that one summer. The duality, the yin and yang of it all, is quite fascinating to me. In looking beyond the decay and pathos, there is much beauty and life that still remains. There is simultaneously tragedy and hope.

    Just as the Jewish New Year asks us to reflect on the past—this book is a rumination on the past of my home region. In creating this series, I feel as if I’ve returned closer to the soul of a collective history. My feelings on this project align closely with themes of the Jewish New Year: somber consideration of the past in preparation for facing the future with positivity and hope.

    Click on any image below to browse the full gallery of ephemera Marisa Scheinfeld collected in her research for the book:

    Marisa Scheinfeld's photography has been exhibited nationally and internationally and is among the collections of The Center for Jewish History, The National Yiddish Book Center, The Simon Wiesenthal Center, The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life and The Edmund and Nancy K. Dubois Library at the Museum of Photographic Arts

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    New Reviews October 7, 2016

    Friday, October 07, 2016 | Permalink

    This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

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