The ProsenPeople

Discovering the Power of Jewish Books in Ottumwa, Iowa

Monday, March 27, 2017 | Permalink

Debbie Bornstein Holinstat is the co-author of Survivors Club, an account of her father’s early childhood at Auschwitz. Debbie is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


You know you’ve moved to a town where you’re in the minority when even the handful of Jewish people you meet are surprised you’re Jewish—after you’ve introduced yourself with the last name Bornstein. In Ottumwa, Iowa, there aren’t even enough Jews for anyone to recognize patterns in last names. I lived in that small Iowa hamlet for one year of my life, reporting for the local ABC affiliate; my first job out of college. I was there to hone my journalism chops, but I ended up learning just as much about Judaism and the need for connection as I did about information gathering and linear edits.

The biggest lesson came on Yom Kippur, in a moment that left me horrified and saddened, but it also woke me up.

A soft-voiced, aged Rabbi welcomed about ten congregants and me. I had hoped to return home for the holiday but my work schedule didn’t jive with the flight schedule so here I was, entering Ottumwa’s modest synagogue for the first time. “We see you on TV every morning! You’re Jewish? Really?” I signed off every news report with my name, first and last. I was floored no one guessed that a “Debbie Bornstein” was Jewish. The group was mostly seniors, their children all grown, and I was touched that they invited me to a break-fast dinner at one congregant’s home later that evening.

The morning service was longer than I’m accustomed to, but lovely. When it ended everyone filed out to their cars in the desolate parking lot. I noticed that one woman stayed back. She was sitting alone in a bench and seemed to be settling in with a book. “Do you need a ride?” I asked. She told me she stayed until mincha, the afternoon service. “That’s silly!” I said. “I’ll bring you home and pick you back up for mincha. There’s no reason to sit here all day.”

The woman, whose name I can’t remember but whose story I’ll never forget, told me that every year, on the High Holidays, her husband drops her off at the synagogue very early. Then he picks her up after sundown. He didn’t want anyone to know that she was Jewish. It embarrassed him. Even this woman’s own children didn’t know she was Jewish—or that they are Jewish, too.

I thought about opening my mouth. I thought about telling her to march proudly out of the synagogue in broad daylight, to tell her husband she’s never going to hide her religion, to call her kids and tell them they are among God’s “Chosen People”. Oh, I had plenty of thoughts running through my meddlesome mind. But I didn’t say a word. My face might have spoken for me, but my lips were zipped. At the age of 22, I didn’t feel it was my place to interfere in a person’s private family dynamic. I just sat with her a while instead. After some time, it was clear she was enjoying her book and her silence so I shuffled home, stomach growling, mind swirling.

I’d like to tell you that the woman I left behind at synagogue that fall of 1996 was reading Midrash or Talmudic analysis or even Judaism for Dummies. I think it might have been a Danielle Steele novel. My takeaway remains the same though. There are people living right here in this diverse country who still have obstacles connecting to Jewish life. Few things can change that in a town where there are more eggs in a carton, than there are Jews at High Holiday services.

But Jewish books can fix that. If someone never has the opportunity to learn how to prepare a proper Passover Seder, she can learn about it in books. If an elderly man fears that no one in his community will know to arrange shiva, the Jewish mourning ritual, when he passes, he can learn more about the significance of shiva and share it with friends—through books. Jewish philosophy on life and love, parenting and passing are all available these days with a swipe of a button on mobile phones or a quick stop at the bookstore, and if someone has never had the opportunity to hear firsthand accounts of the Holocaust from a living survivor, they can still read their stories.

I am immensely proud to know that someone in Ottumwa, Iowa, or a town like it, may now be able to pick up Survivors Club andlearn about the atrocities of Auschwitz from my dad’s story, and about the faith that endured from Auschwitz to America. There is infinite value in Jewish connection, and if we have written a book that adds one more link, then I am a happy former Ottumwa resident.

Debbie Bornstein Holinstat is the third of Michael Holinstat’s four children. A producer for NBC and MSNBC News, she works with her father to arrange school visits and help research and write his memoir.

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How Does the "Justice System" Work for You?

Monday, March 27, 2017 | Permalink

Julia Dahl is the author of the Rebekah Roberts novels, the latest of which, Conviction, comes out this week. Julia is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

It probably won't surprise you to learn that I've never been arrested. It probably won't even surprise you to learn that for the first two decades of my life I'd never known anyone who'd been arrested, either. Likely, you can same the same thing. But not having to personally contend with the justice system doesn't mean I've been an angel. It just means I've been lucky—or, maybe more accurately, privileged.

In high school, I had friends who sold drugs. One guy I hung out with carried a wooden box with mushrooms and pot and coke in it almost everywhere he went—including school— in a duffle bag. And during my senior year, I got caught smoking pot with some friends in a hotel room in Bakersfield while we were in town for a debate tournament (no, I’m not kidding). We got suspended, but, as far as I know, no one even considered calling the police.

Was it because it was 1994? Was it because most of us were good kids otherwise? Was it because we were white? Some combination? I won’t ever know. What I do know is that I was—we were—very lucky. But I barely felt lucky. At the time, it didn’t occur to me to be afraid of the justice system. Obviously, the police were to be avoided when smoking pot, but otherwise they were your friends. The courts, the prisons—they were distant entities, but generally, if you had asked back then, I would have said they kept the “bad guys” away.

And the “bad guys” I had knowledge of were undoubtedly bad. My freshman year in high school, a wealthy local family was murdered in their home. Mom, dad, sister all shot to death over Easter weekend. Turns out, the college-age son, Dana Ewell, hired a classmate to murder them, apparently, for the family’s $8 million fortune.

It took police a while to flip the gunman, as I remember, and before the son was arrested he came to see my dad, who was a local estate attorney, to inquire about representation. My dad and his firm didn’t take him on, and a few years later, when the Ewell murders came up in conversation, my dad got quiet. Without revealing anything about what was said, he told us that when Dana Ewell came to see him, he immediately became frightened.

“It was like cold walked into the room,” said my dad. “He had shark eyes—dead and black.”

With Dana Ewell, “the system” had done its job and justice, as far as that goes, was served. I figured pretty much everyone in prison was probably like Dana: dangerous and unfit to live among us. At the very least they were guilty.

It didn’t occur to me that “the system” might not work as well for everyone until I met Tyeisha Martin in 2004. Tyeisha was 19 years old and had lived her whole life in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. When the hurricane came she lost her home and was separated from her child. I met her at a church in Henry County, Georgia, where I was living at the time. She and several hundred “refugees” had been bused there and were awaiting federal assistance to get in touch with family and find new places to live.

Long story short, my editor at Seventeen magazine knew I was in the South and asked me to find a teenager who’d survived the hurricane to profile for the next issue. I found Tyeisha. After a couple days together, I dropped her off at the bus station in Atlanta in August, and the next March her sister, Quiana, called to tell me Tyeisha had been murdered. Shot and left in a ditch in Fort Bend County. Her daughter, Quiana said, might have seen it.

Twelve years later, there is no justice for Tyeisha and her family, and the only real attention the case got was because of my Seventeen article. Quiana and I communicate occasionally. She sends me pictures of Daniesha before a school dance, or at birthdays; I sent her a picture when I gave birth to my son.

Tyeisha’s death invited me to look under the hood of the justice system, and what I found there was often disquieting. Suddenly I learned things like the fact that if you are murdered in this country there is good chance that whoever killed you will never see the inside of a prison cell. One-third of homicide cases are never cleared—and even “clearance” doesn’t mean someone gets convicted and incarcerated. Clearance means an arrest, or the suspect is identified but unable to be arrested for some reason.

And it’s not just homicide. Look too close at the way sexual assault is investigated and prosecuted (or, more often, not investigated or prosecuted) and you’ll see a system that too often intimidates and traumatizes victims while letting evidence languish and perpetrators reoffend. Look at who gets convicted of low-level drug crimes, and at how youthful mistakes can burden certain segments of our society and leave others (like mine) unscathed.

All this was in my head when I started writing my latest novel, Conviction. Every few weeks, it seemed, I was reading about (mostly) black men being exonerated after serving decades in prison for crimes we now know they did not commit. Can you even imagine? What more egregious miscarriage of justice than you imprison the wrong person for a murder? And what sort of machinations could create such a circumstance? I decided I needed to try to imagine it.

Julia Dahl writes about crime and criminal justice for CBSNews.com.

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New Reviews March 26, 2017

Sunday, March 26, 2017 | Permalink

Featured Content


When Gershom Scholem Discovered Zionism
By the time he was 20 years old, Gerhard Scholem had decided that Jewish history in Europe was finished. Biographer George Prochnik explores the “lofty, blurry agenda” of Scholem’s youthful Zionism.

Why I Wrote You Say to Brick
In writing a biography of Louis Kahn, Wendy Lesser seeks “to explain things in non-technical terms to other people like me, people who don't have a degree in architecture but still find its works and processes entrancing.”

When Gershom Scholem Discovered Kabballah
“There is such a thing as a treasure hunt within tradition, which creates a living relationship to which much of what is best in current Jewish self-awareness is indebted.”

How Jewish Was Louis Kahn?
No one in Louis Kahn's immigrant family knew whether his first name was supposed to be pronounced "Lewis" or "Louie". So everyone just called him Lou.

The Continuous Transformations of Judaism
Almost as soon as Gershom Scholem arrived in Palestine in 1923, his initial, largely utopian vision of what Zionism might accomplish began to darken.

Could Zionism Be Our Jewish Practice in the Modern Age?
“The problem of how to live a resonant, secular Jewish life, we thought, might be solved just by creating the life of our choice in the place where Judaism began. In retrospect, I’m stunned by the political ignorance with which we embarked on our new life in Jerusalem.”

The Biographer and the Architect
Why did he turn out to be Louis Kahn and the rest of us didn't?

For the Love of the Land
What if the deep mystical notion of Tikkun Olam today were taken as an injunction to literally “repair” or heal the earth—for the sake of the survival of the physical place?

For the Love of the Land

Friday, March 24, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, George Prochnik wrote about when Gershom Scholem discovered Zionism, when Gershom Scholem discovered Kabbalah, and navigating the continuous transformations of Judaism and claiming Zionism as Jewish spiritual practice. With the release of his new book Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem in Jerusalem, George is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

After leaving Jerusalem it was nearly ten years before I returned. Memories of the life I’d tried to build there were too raw and painful. But when I finally did make the journey, just to see friends, and take a few walks through my old haunts I had no real expectations. Perhaps because I had so harshly suppressed all thoughts of Jerusalem in the intervening years, the place struck me with a profound, sensual force when I returned. I couldn’t believe how beautiful the physical nature of the place was. This recognition was immediate, and didn’t at first change my thinking about the city. But for years afterward I went back and back, trying in effect to understand what it was that kept pulling me to return. I spoke with people in young progressive political movements and arts groups, Israeli and Palestinian. I visited libraries—at the Dome of the Rock as well as in West Jerusalem. I went to religious neighborhoods and services. All of it was interesting, but none of it got to the heart of my response to the place.

On each of these trips back to the land, it became my habit to take a walk in one of the parks or nature reserves around Jerusalem with an old friend who is both a naturalist and a person of the theater, a director, puppet maker, and clown. We would talk a little about the abiding problems in the country, but mostly about the land itself that we were walking through: the plants we saw, the animals, the deeper geology and visible landscape, the smells, the sounds. Gradually the recognition began to draw on me that this in fact more than anything else was what had made living in Jerusalem so powerful: the pressing imminence of an extraordinary natural world from which different religions and even historical movements had taken inspiration. Ironically, the inspiration taken from the nature of Jerusalem invariably ended up turning Jerusalem itself first into a kind of stage-set background, then into a theological or ideological abstraction. But what would it mean to take what had been background and switch that into the forefront of thinking about the city? What would it mean to take hints from Gershom Scholem’s own writing that the poetry of Walt Whitman (an unexpected, deep passion of Scholem’s), with his naturalistic pantheism, might hold clues both to a new lexicon of kabbalistic symbolism and a fresh political approach to the Land? What if the endless invocations of the Land by the mystics were taken out of the metaphorical realm and read as a guide to treating the physical place as a sacred charge? What if the deep mystical notion of tikkun olam today were taken as an injunction to literally “repair” or heal the earth—not for the sake of making the land yield a livelihood, but for the sake of the survival of the physical place?

For decades we’ve been hearing that the last moment for the two-state solution may have come and gone. At this point, it could be that this option has truly expired, and no state can survive any length of time in this place that does not fully enfranchise all its inhabitants. Perhaps the only hope at a moment when the effects of climate change have already begun playing out aggressively in the region—and the two peoples are already coexisting and sometimes even “co-resisting” in the land, if in a crazy, inequitable patchwork—is to re-frame the political debate so that the focus turns to the land as a common trust.

Scholem always maintained that Judaism has no fixed essence—that it consists of whatever Jews say it is. If Zionism was the next phase of Kabbalah, perhaps an ecological pluralism rising out of Jerusalem must became the next chapter of Zionism.

George Prochnik is the editor-at-large for Cabinet magazine and the author of The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam, and the Purpose of American Psychology, and Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem in Jerusalem.

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The Biographer and the Architect

Friday, March 24, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Wendy Lesser wrote about Louis Kahn’s Jewish identity why she chose to write You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn. Wendy is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Early on in my interviewing for the book that would become You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn, I talked to a Philadelphia architect, David Slovic, who had been both a student and an employee of Kahn's. “Here’s what I want to know,” Slovic mused toward the end of our conversation. “We all went to the same schools. We all had the same training. Why did he turn out to be Louis Kahn and the rest of us didn't?"”

“That's what I'm hoping to answer in my book,” I said.

But when you write a biography of an artist—any artist—the effort to find the sources of their inspiration or the key to their work is only part of what you are doing. You are also trying to understand a human being as a fellow human, though in ways that are utterly different from what you might apply to the people around you. I know both more and less about “Lou” than I will ever know about my best friend, my husband, or my own child. I never met Kahn, but I would recognize his voice, his handwriting, perhaps even his style of sketching or his way of putting words together. I probably know more about his fears and dreams and desires than I know about my own; I certainly know more about his death (which was, in its own way, quite mysterious) than I will ever know of my own. And though some of the information I painstakingly gathered helped me to understand his buildings, a great deal of it was just interesting for what it told me about him as a person.

I think now of three key moments in the research process, moments that made me feel I was drawing especially close to the man behind the architect. One was a four-page letter written to Lou in 1945 by his younger brother, Oscar Kahn, when they were both in their early forties. (I learned about the letter from Nathaniel Kahn, who told me to look it up in the Architectural Archives at Penn.) I won’t reproduce the letter here—it appears in full in my book—but suffice to say it gives the clearest, most incisive analysis of Lou's personality I have yet come across.

The second item was a series of test results that came out of a study run at UC Berkeley in the late 1950s, a “creativity study” in which Kahn was one of the participating architects. No restrictions were ever put on this material, so the kindly people at the Institute for Personality and Social Research—the inheritor of this research—gave me Lou's Rorschach results, his Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, his Thematic Apperception Test, his psychological interview transcripts, and a whole host of other materials he never imagined would see the light of day. Some of it was uninterpretable garbage, but amid the rubbish were a number of deep and incisive revelations, including key observations about his childhood, his parents, and his relationship to his own work.

And then there was the dream Lou scribbled on the back of his BOAC boarding pass during one of his final visits to Bangladesh in January of 1973. His older daughter, Sue Ann Kahn, handed it to me with a bunch of family papers she had accumulated but not necessarily read. It was written in microscopic handwriting I had to decipher with the aid of a magnifying glass. Again, I can't really go into the dream and its meaning in this brief space, but what I remember is the uncanny sensation I had when first reading it—almost as if I were touching Kahn's mind with my hand.

Still, all the personal insights I’ve gained do not really explain why Louis Kahn became the great architect he did. There is always a gap between individual personality and artistic achievement, and with an architect the gap is even greater than usual, because so many factors beyond his own character (collaborators, clients, money, the site itself, various social and historical forces, the state of technological development, etc.) influence the outcome of his work. So I can't make a case that my biography will fully reveal, for David Slovic or anyone else, the true sources of Kahn’s architecture.

What I can say is that there was a moment in the process when I suddenly became aware of a felt connection between the individual man—that unusual person who carried on all those intense, unconventional love affairs—and the marvelous buildings he produced. When I visited the home of his younger daughter, Alexandra Tyng, she showed me a picture of Lou that hung on her wall, a photograph taken in 1936 of him shooting a bow and arrow at the Brookwood Labor College. As I looked at him standing there in his skimpy archery costume, with his well-muscled body and his confident stance, I thought, Yes: that is the feeling his architecture gives us, the sense that we are fully inhabiting our bodies. His buildings make us feel we are contained within a vast space, at once tenderly embraced and freed into a kind of elevated exaltation, as if the massive environment is lifting us up and making us larger even as it protectively acknowledges our merely human size.

Wendy Lesser is a member of American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the founding editor of The Threepenny Review. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, the Dedalus Foundation, and the New York Public Library's Cullman Center for Scholars.

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Recapitulating a Move Gershom Scholem Hypothesized Long Ago

Thursday, March 23, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, George Prochnik wrote about when Gershom Scholem discovered Zionism, when Gershom Scholem discovered Kabbalah, and navigating the continuous transformations of Judaism. With the release of his new book Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem in Jerusalem, George is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

I first traveled to Jerusalem almost by chance, knowing next to nothing about the place, and having no expectations for the trip. But the city got under my skin immediately. If I’d been asked why it affected us so strongly at the time, I think I would have stuttered out something about the intense compression of peoples, faiths and histories—combined with the dramatic built structures and landscapes. I’d come there casually; but there is nothing casual about Jerusalem. The city grabs your attention, and won’t gently release it. Jerusalem’s sheer physical presence—ancient and new, vibrant and ghost-ridden; shot through with dazzling vistas of shattered stones and twisting olive trees—is arresting.

After my wife and I returned to America, scenes from our visit kept coming back to us. We found that our former frustrations had been chafed raw by that experience of a world where everyone we met seemed consumed by ideas and arguments over ultimate questions of good, evil, life, death, and ultimate meaning. We began thinking about returning immediately and soon enrolled in a program run by the Jewish Theological Seminary that would enable us to study in Jerusalem for a year. By the time we actually got back to the city, my wife was pregnant and the experience of having a child in a place that values the idea of family before all else was powerful enough that we became enthralled by the possibility of remaining there. Jerusalem’s reputation is violent and spiritually hyperventilated, but after New York, day-to-day life there seemed almost tranquil, simpler, more pure, and physically beautiful.

Gershom Scholem’s Kabbalah had been inspiring, but we weren’t interested in trying to literally enact kabbalistic exercises. Normative synagogue life held no pull for us. Without even realizing that we were recapitulating a move Scholem had hypothesized long ago, we began to wonder whether the next phase in our own fascination with Judaism in general and Jewish mysticism in particular, might be Zionism. We told ourselves that by living in Jerusalem as Jews, even if technically secular—as writers pursuing our own imaginative visions—we might be fulfilling a more meaningful role in Judaism than we could attain through any degree of ritual observance elsewhere. The problem of how to live a resonant Jewish life outside the law might be solved just by creating the life of our choice in the place where Judaism began.

In retrospect, I’m stunned by the political ignorance with which we embarked on our new life in Jerusalem. Or, more accurately, I’m amazed that we assumed we could come to Israel with our existing set of liberal values and transfer them wholesale to the life we would build in this new world.

For all practical purposes we really hadn’t given any more thought to the Palestinians before arriving than Scholem had devoted to the Arabs. We felt that the Palestinians should have a state of their own and should share equally in any benefits accruing to other populations of the State. We deplored the thought of Palestinians being mistreated by the security forces and we understood that Palestinian society suffered from unjust economic disadvantages.

But these attitudes are so broad and vague that they can hardly be said to constitute a political position. It was a facile liberal perspective that accepted everything and demanded no sacrifices. Just as Scholem had no intention of equating the Zionist movement with the acquisition of political power, but became party to that evolution in purpose by virtue of being enmeshed in the historical circumstances that turned the project toward territorial sovereignty, we had no intention of supporting the more reactionary elements in the State but became implicated in their ascension by virtue of not doing more to fight against them. We effectively resigned ourselves to the Occupation by becoming so preoccupied with the exigencies of raising our own little family. Politically speaking, the Land was an abstraction to us no less than it had been to Scholem envisioning it from early twentieth century bourgeois Berlin. We were fine, theoretically, with whatever the negotiators decided about how the country got cut up to bring peace, knowing that our own home corner of West Jerusalem would never be surrendered. And meanwhile our home life, our nest in verdant, floral Rehavia in a modest but charming apartment overlooking a courtyard garden in which our growing children played idyllically with other children from the surrounding low buildings, was humanly rich and spiritually enlivening.

I went to graduate school in English and American literature at Hebrew University. Soon I was teaching there. The economics of our existence were always a struggle, but our life still continued to seem fulfilling so long as our Jerusalem world could be decontextualized from the larger dilemmas we were gradually becoming more conscious of.

However, the First Intifada began not long after we arrived. And as we came to understand something of what brought this popular revolt about, and the reasons why it had stirred the passions of so large a part of the Palestinian population, the contradictions between our ideals and the political reality of the land became increasingly jarring. The relationships between Palestinians and the Jews, the injustices and mutual antipathies—which had been far in the background of our thinking about what it meant to settle in Jerusalem—were pushed toward the foreground of consciousness.

Gershom Scholem had lived through the rise and fall of the idealistic Brit Shalom movement, with its dream of a binational solution to the governance of Palestine. Between 1923 and 1933, he witnessed the rise of the right wing Revisionist Movement that threatened to dominate the whole Zionist project and bore heavy responsibility for the bloody riots of 1929, along with the ensuing Jewish-Arab violence in the 1930s. As immigration from Russia surged, Scholem saw Zionism itself transforming into a nationalistic endeavor bent on taking control of all of Greater Israel.

Between 1988, when I came to Israel, and 1996, when our own plans to leave Israel were set in motion, we saw the Intifada, the rise and fall of the Oslo Peace Agreement, a huge new wave of Jewish emigration from Russia, and a surge in a new kind of religious nationalism that led to the settler protests and riots of the early 1990s—which culminated with the assassination of Rabin—and the election of the expediently demagogic, reactionary Bibi Netanyahu.

Our life in Israel began to take on a darker cast within a short time of arriving. There were many ups and downs over the ensuing years, and we felt a persistent enchantment with Jerusalem itself, but any hazy Zionist ideals we might once have harbored were destroyed by the double-blow of Rabin’s death and Netanyahu’s empowerment. We no longer knew what we were doing in Israel. And we could no longer even fantasize that we were contributing to anything positive in Jewish history by the mere fact of living in Jerusalem. If anything, the reverse was true.

We wrenched our life up and out of Jerusalem, (now with three children), and returned to New York. But our family had been born in the spirit of those ideals that first brought us to Jerusalem. As it turned out when those ideals crashed and we turned away from them, our family crumbled as well. My wife and I divorced, and for many years it was as if our whole life in Jerusalem had been a dream.

George Prochnik is the editor-at-large for Cabinet magazine and the author of The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam, and the Purpose of American Psychology, and Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem in Jerusalem.

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  • Continuous Transformations

    Wednesday, March 22, 2017 | Permalink

    Earlier this week, George Prochnik wrote about when Gershom Scholem discovered Zionism and when Gershom Scholem discovered Kabbalah. With the release of his new book Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem in Jerusalem, George is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

    For all their radicalism, the Kabbalists had avoided being consigned by more traditional rabbis to the status of heretics because they continued to accept the Revelation at Sinai and to observe the letter of the law. Just as Scholem’s own resistance on these points prevented his living as an Orthodox Jew, he felt that it was impossible for anyone to become a true kabbalist without faith in the irrefutable, Divine origins of Torah. In the absence of that authority, people had become “religious anarchists,” Scholem declared.

    However, because Scholem’s view of Judaism was dynamically metamorphic, he did not see the end of formal Kabbalah shutting off the energy that had enabled Jewish mysticism to play its crucial role in Jewish history. Instead, he suggested that this same catalytic power might now be channeled into new forms of Jewish self-expression. Kabbalah could be understood as a potent, mythological dramatization of the experience of Jewish exile. But Zionism sought to achieve the physical end of exile. In this sense, one might say that Zionism sought to accomplish on the ground what Kabbalah had tried to conceptualize on the cosmic plane. Thus Zionist action might be thought of as the next iteration of the Kabbalistic strain in Jewish history. If the career of the seventeenth-century false messiah (which Scholem saw as the last substantive interlude of formal Jewish mysticism) had helped catalyze Jewish emancipation in Europe, the Zionist pioneers would free the Jews from Europe. Once the Jews got to Jerusalem, the possibilities for Judaism as such to reveal new, as yet unimaginable, modes of creative expression would be actualized.

    Almost as soon as Scholem arrived in Palestine in 1923, his initial, largely utopian vision of what Zionism might accomplish began to darken. Over the next decade, as worsening conditions in Europe brought increasing Jewish immigration to the land, and reactionary forces under the leadership of Vladimir Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Party gained power in the political arena—contributing also to the ideology of the Labor Party program—Scholem’s Zionist idealism underwent an almost total eclipse. To his horror, Scholem saw the same kind of jingoistic, bourgeois society forming around him in Jerusalem that he’d fled Germany to escape. In the midst of intensifying friction with the Arabs, Scholem helped form a group that worked to promote a binational solution in Palestine. But by 1932 this idealistic collective, too, had collapsed. Scholem’s original utopian Zionism became largely masked in his official identity as an internationally renowned humanist scholar, even while it continued to energize that project in a manner that echoed some of his thinking about what occurred to Kabbalah itself in mainstream Jewish history. He continued to elaborate on Kabbalah, on German-Jewish relations, and on the meaning of Israel relative to the Diaspora in ambitious books and essays for the remainder of his career. Striving to identify the integral, distinguishing character of Judaism he concentrated more and more on its boundless, protean quality. “Judaism cannot be defined according to its essence, since it has no essence,” he declared in one late essay. Moreover, he added, if Judaism couldn’t be defined in any dogmatic way, one could “not assume that it possesses any a priori qualities that are intrinsic to it or might emerge in it; indeed, as an enduring and evolving historic force, Judaism undergoes continuous transformations.” In the future, he concluded, it would be “necessary to rethink Judaism in broader terms, and in much broader terms than those of halakhic Judaism… How will a Judaism that evolves in a society of Jews work without taking refuge in traditional forms of ritual or of theology? I am not a prophet, but I welcome the struggle… because it will call forth the productive powers—whatever they are—of Jews.”

    For many years, both consciously and unconsciously, my own life followed a kind of shadow-arc of Scholem’s path into Kabbalah and Zionism. Coming of age in America in the 1970s and ‘80s, I balked at what I saw as the culture’s dominant consumerist materialism, which the bellicose nationalism and merciless free market capitalism of the Reagan years only aggravated. My father, who escaped Austria after the Anschluss, had largely abandoned his Judaism to assimilate to life in the United States, which had given him refuge. But my own experience of the American suburbs left me with a lingering sense of absence—historical and spiritual. After moving to New York City in my early twenties, I began attending synagogue, learning Hebrew and studying the canon of Jewish sacred literature in pursuit of a spiritual counterpoint to that materialist vacuum. This deepening exploration of traditional Judaism occurred in tandem with the first years of my marriage, when my wife and I were thinking about starting our own family and about the sacred responsibility of bringing children into this world. What would we tell our children about God, faith and the meaning of existence we wondered.

    We spent a number of years exploring different synagogues and different branches of Judaism; but never found in ritual observance the kind of intense, spiritual engagement we longed for. Early on in this process, I discovered the work of Gershom Scholem, whose name I’d become familiar with through reading about Walter Benjamin. Scholem’s interpretation of Kabbalah supplied exactly the jolt of intellectual excitement and sense of imaginative fecundity that had been lacking from my experiences of formal Jewish practice. Kabbalah’s boldness as an audacious, sometimes sublime reading of Jewish sacred texts and history was inspiring to me as a writer, since Jewish mysticism made the magical power of language the active vehicle of God’s own creative principle.

    Exploring Scholem’s work and maintaining a loose involvement with a synagogue in Brooklyn, my wife Anne and I felt more and more inspired by Judaism. But we were no more able than Scholem had been to accept the absolute authority of the Revelation at Sinai. Orthodox practice still seemed foreign and stultifying.

    The question of how exactly we would take our Judaism to the next level began to haunt us. We wanted more from the religion in line with the dynamic principles Scholem elaborated from kabbalistic texts, but we knew we couldn’t actually become kabbalists, so where did that leave us?

    George Prochnik is the editor-at-large for Cabinet magazine and the author of The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam, and the Purpose of American Psychology, and Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem in Jerusalem.

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    How Jewish Was Louis Kahn?

    Wednesday, March 22, 2017 | Permalink

    Earlier this week, Wendy Lesser wrote about why she chose to write You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn. Wendy is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

    Louis Kahn’s Jewish parents, Beila-Rebeckah Mendelowitsch and Leib Schmulowsky, were married in 1900 in Livonia, the Russian-held province that before World War I encompassed Latvia and southern Estonia. Less than year later, in February of 1901, the future American architect was born there, either on a Baltic island or on the mainland nearby, under the name Leiser-Itze Schmulowsky. According to the rabbinical record, kept in both Russian and Hebrew—as all Jews had to be registered in that time and place—he was circumcised seven days after the birth. Upon his arrival five years later in Philadelphia, he was given a new name, Louis Isadore Kahn. While the new name retained the Jewish associations of his original Eastern European name, it made him sound classier and German-Jewish.

    It is not clear whether his first name was intended to be pronounced "Lewis" or "Louie"; from childhood onward he was known simply as Lou, and that was what everyone called him, including his colleagues, his employees, his relatives, and his lovers.

    Lou spent a total of one day in religious school (his mother snatched him out, apparently, after the teacher smacked him) and he was never bar mitzvahed. When he grew up, he married a Jewish girl, Esther Israeli, from a highly assimilated Philadelphia family. Their wedding was conducted by a rabbi, though Esther always insisted this was done solely for Kahn’s parents, since she would have preferred a secular wedding.

    Of Kahn’s three children, one was born to Esther and one each to two separate non-Jewish women with whom he carried on long-term love affairs: the architect Anne Tyng and the landscape architect Harriet Pattison, both of whom worked with him. (All three women knew about one another, as did all three children. The fact that Kahn had three families was a widely shared secret in the small-town Philadelphia of his time.) An additional significant love affair—though one that did not result in a pregnancy—was with another architect who worked for him, Marie Kuo; she was not Jewish, either.

    Some of his male friends were Jewish (though many were not); his favorite client was Jonas Salk, who, like him, was the child of Eastern European Jews. Kahn had what many people think of as a Jewish sense of humor: self-deprecating, ironic, intimate. Despite the severe scarring of his hands and face that resulted from a childhood accident, he carried himself confidently, as if he were comfortable in his own skin, and people—especially women—found him attractive. Some of this self-confidence can perhaps be attributed to his mother (now renamed Bertha Kahn), who in typical Jewish-mother fashion lavished a great deal of attention on her brilliant oldest son. Like many immigrant mothers, she husbanded the family's limited resources, but what she could spend, she spent on Lou. In somewhat less typical fashion, Bertha left him alone to find his own way through the poverty-stricken world of Philadelphia's Northern Liberties district. In later life, Kahn credited her with having "absolute confidence" in him.

    Kahn worked on several synagogue commissions in the course of his life, but his two greatest synagogue designs, Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia and the Hurva in Jerusalem, were never built. Two of his most successful projects were a church (First Unitarian in Rochester) and a mosque (part of the National Assembly Building of Bangladesh). When he was hired to design the Memorial to the Six Million Jewish Martyrs in Battery Park, he labeled its central glass pillar a "chapel"; the memorial was voted down by a committee of fifty prominent Jews. When working on the Mikveh Israel commission, Kahn wrote "Kaddish" and "kiddush" in the margins of one of his plans to remind himself of the different Hebrew terms; again, the synagogue membership ultimately rejected his plans. He apparently viewed all religions as essentially one, and though he was frequently described as a person of great spiritual depth, he did not practice any religion himself. He joined the Rabindranath Tagore Society in Philadelphia before embarking on major work on the Indian subcontinent, and he studied Islamic architecture before building the government center in Bangladesh.

    As an adult, Kahn never celebrated Jewish holidays, but he and Esther donated small sums, intermittently, to various Jewish causes; they also donated $1,000 to the Unitarians in 1961, when he was working on the church. His extended family, included Esther's sisters and cousins, celebrated Christmas every year at Kahn’s house.

    When he died suddenly in 1974, a rabbi he had never met was hired to conduct his funeral service—a decision made without his own involvement. Since his parents had both been buried by rabbis, people assumed he would have wanted that, too.

    Wendy Lesser is a member of American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the founding editor of The Threepenny Review. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, the Dedalus Foundation, and the New York Public Library's Cullman Center for Scholars.

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  • When Gershom Scholem Discovered Kabbalah

    Tuesday, March 21, 2017 | Permalink

    Earlier this week, George Prochnik wrote about when Gershom Scholem discovered Zionism. With the release of his new book Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem in Jerusalem, George is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

    Not long after embracing the embryonic Zionist movement, Gershom Scholem discovered the Zohar, often considered the core text of Jewish mysticism. Kabbalah proved to be a kind of revelation for Scholem—one that grew in intensity as he went deeper in his exploration of mystical writings. This revelation was twofold.

    First, in Scholem’s estimation, unlike the arbiters of mainstream Judaism, the authors of the great works of Kabbalah had undertaken a profound, creative engagement with the historical tragedies of Jewish history in exile. Kabbalah, from his perspective, was, indeed, nothing less thana kind of mythological key to understanding human misery in general, and the Jewish expulsion from Jerusalem and then Spain in particular. By creating a powerful symbolic language that resonated with the struggles of ordinary men and women, the Kabbalists gave meaning and purpose to the anguish of historical trauma.

    To make sense of the human predicament, Kabbalah had dramatically expanded the concept of evil, projecting it beyond the human failing of sin into the very structure of the cosmos. Aspects of God Himself took on the character of evil when they were thrown out of balance by events in the primordial universe that predated the creation of humanity. Not only did Kabbalah provide a kind of visionary explanation for why the exile had occurred and why Jewish suffering persisted, the Kabbalah intertwined the roles of God and man so that humanity was assigned a dynamic role in rectifying what had gone awry in reality. Through prayer, ritual and a home life conducted with the profound ethical attention enjoined by Torah, man could now help God “fix” creation. The term popularized in Kabbalah, tikkun olam, meaning repairing or healing the world, became shorthand for the cosmic mission humankind was charged with.

    Second, along with its strictly intellectual contributions, Scholem saw mysticism as a stage in the evolution of Jewish self-consciousness that made political action in the here and now appear possible. From Scholem’s perspective, mainstream Judaism and nineteenth century historiography alike were essentially quiescent projects, concerned with the conservation of the people’s age-old spiritual legacy. Whatever revolutionary principles might be enshrined in the idea of the Messiah’s advent, for all practical purposes the Messiah’s arrival was permanently on hold.

    For several hundred years after the birth of those schools of mystical thought in early medieval France that Scholem designated as the first centers of Kabbalah proper, the Kabbalists, no less than their non-mystical brethren, lived quiet lives of study, prayer and writing. Their radicalism was a thought experiment, not an action. While they might have declared that their prayers were part of a titanic battle to wrest the sparks of holiness away from the realm of evil and so trigger the start of a larger cosmic revolution that would also end the Jews’ exile, an outsider observing the kabbalists in their famous sixteenth century center of Safed would have found little discernible difference between their behavior and that of other Orthodox Jews.

    But in the mid-seventeenth century, a mystical false messiah by the name of Sabbatai Sevi arose in the Ottoman Empire and became a seismic phenomenon, galvanizing Jewish congregations across the Levant and huge swaths of Europe. Entire Jewish communities in far-flung towns and villages began the process of uprooting themselves to follow Sevi and help actualize the prophecy he delivered of restoring Jewish sovereignty over the Holy Land and ushering in the era of salvation.

    Scholem argued that the ideas of liberation fueling Sabbatai Sevi’s movement, combined with the communal effort to wrest physical control of Jewish fate by becoming active participants in the messianic revolution, planted the seeds for the Jews’ entry into modernity. Although Sabbatai Sevi’s movement unraveled with his conversion to Islam under pressure from the Ottoman Sultan, it succeeded in propelling the dream of the Jews gaining agency over their own destiny from the theoretical plane into the concrete realm of history. Scholem saw the legacy of Sabbatai Sevi embodied in certain figures from Jewish backgrounds who played important roles in the French Revolution—a number of whom were literal descendants of the Sabbateans—as well as in the rise of the Reform movement, which had likewise been partly conceived by influential figures in Sevi’s theological lineage.

    Ultimately, Scholem felt that in Kabbalah he’d identified a neglected, explosive element in Jewish theology that could inspire new kinds of real-world ambitions for the Jewish people. As he wrote in one essay, “There is such a thing as a treasure hunt within tradition, which creates a living relationship to which much of what is best in current Jewish self-awareness is indebted.”

    Jewish history retold in the light of Kabbalah could potentially empower Jews to act on their Judaism as a living principle.

    George Prochnik is the editor-at-large for Cabinet magazine and the author of The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam, and the Purpose of American Psychology, and Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem in Jerusalem.

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    Why I Wrote 'You Say to Brick'

    Monday, March 20, 2017 | Permalink

    Wendy Lesser is the author of You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn. Wendy is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

    As usual with my books, there is a long story and a short story. The long story begins many decades ago, when I was in high school and a family friend, an architect, made me think that architecture was a great career. Gradually this morphed into an interest in city planning, and by the end of high school I was working for a city planner's office in San Francisco.

    In college my focus shifted to literature, but I was still sufficiently interested in the earlier topic to write my undergraduate thesis on a turn-of-the-century Scottish city planner named Patrick Geddes. Like Louis Kahn, the subject of my biography You Say to Brick, Geddes was a visionary, a man way ahead of his time, who spoke in his own peculiar language about things that mattered deeply.

    Fast forward to 2003, when Nathaniel Kahn's wonderful movie, My Architect, came out. Though by this time I had seen and admired the two art galleries Kahn designed at Yale, I hadn't really focused on the architect himself until I saw Nathaniel's film about his father. It is a terrific documentary, deservedly nominated for an Academy Award. I loved it for what it did with the essay-film form, but I also found myself attracted to the subject himself. Kahn's personal life was fascinating—he had three different children with three different women, even as he remained married to the mother of the oldest—and so were the glimpses of his architecture the film offered. I saw the movie twice in the year it came out (no easy thing to do, in those pre-streaming years), but still it never occurred to me that I might someday write about Louis Kahn myself.

    Now for the short story. I was casting about for a new book idea, and in November of 2012, on a casual Sunday walk, I happened to visit the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island in New York. The minute I set foot on the monument—designed by Kahn in 1973, but left unfinished when he died in 1974 and not completed until 2012, nearly four decades later—I realized I had a new subject. The structure spoke directly to me about openness and containment, about freedom and restraint, with the kind of expressive but non-verbal communication one can find in arts like architecture, painting, music, and dance. I had known from Nathaniel's movie that his father led an unusual life—excellent material for a biography—but what really got me interested in writing the book was my fortuitous encounter with one of Kahn's masterworks.

    As my research wore on, I discovered so many interesting new facts about Kahn's life that at times I joked, "Maybe I should ignore the architecture and just write about the life." And I did, in the end, manage to fit most of those intriguing discoveries into the book. Through it all, my admiration for the architecture continued to grow. I visited all the sites of his masterpieces—from the Salk Institute in La Jolla to the National Assembly Building of Bangladesh in Dhaka—and the more of Kahn's work I saw, the more I loved it—and the happier I was to write about it.

    A skeptic might interrupt me at this point to question: what does a literary person know about architecture? How did you ever have the chutzpah to write about a technical field like that?

    Well, I do have a lot of chutzpah. Previous books of mine have been about a lawyer handling a death-penalty case, a theater director's methods, and a composer's life—and I probably know less about law, drama, and music than I do about architecture. (That's true of all of us, I would guess, since we all live in and surrounded by architecture, using it every day.) But my real justification for venturing onto this ground is to try to explain things in non-technical terms to other people like me, people who don't have a degree in architecture but still find its works and processes entrancing. So, for instance, when I met with Kahn's concrete consultant, Fred Langford, or his engineer, Nick Gianopulos, to find out how they contributed to the collaborative enterprise, I would say, "Wait, Fred, tell me that about that form construction again, but in language I can understand," or, "Hold on, Nick, what do you mean by 'parallel canted joists'?" In each case, I would be rendering into English—my language, our language—the technical secrets that lay behind Kahn's magnificent works.

    Oh, and the weird title? It comes from a story Kahn often used to tell: "You say to brick, What do you want, brick? And brick says: I like an arch. And you say: But I could put in a concrete lintel and it would be much cheaper. What do you think of that, brick? And brick says: I like an arch." That sense of resistance to outside advice, of remaining true to one's essence in the face of all obstacles, was what I found not only in the materials Louis Kahn lovingly used, but in the man himself.

    Wendy Lesser is a member of American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the founding editor of The Threepenny Review. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, the Dedalus Foundation, and the New York Public Library's Cullman Center for Scholars.

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