The ProsenPeople

Bring on the Noise

Thursday, December 04, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Tamar Barzel wrote about defining radical Jewish music beyond klezmer. Her first book, New York Noise: Radical Jewish Music and the Downtown Scene (Indiana University Press, 2014, with a companion website with audio/video), explores the strange and compelling Jewish music that emerged from Manhattan’s downtown scene of the 1990s. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

This Thanksgiving, I had a couple of friends over. I had recently gotten back from doing research on the creative improvisation scene in Mexico City, and they wanted to hear some of the music I’d brought back with me. But avant-garde jazz, electronic noise experiments and free improvisation are not to everyone’s taste. “Are you sure?” I asked, “It’s pretty weird.” But yes, they were. So I put on something beautiful and really, to my ears, not that strange at all. I would have been happy listening to it all night, but right away, they both got pained expressions on their faces and knocked back some more wine before venturing a series of questions that amounted to “What the hell?” After a while I asked my friend to choose something else, and he put on some Fiona Apple and everyone was happy.

I love a lot of different kinds of music, including Fiona Apple. But the music that usually grabs me the hardest, and most of the music I write about, is not that easy for most people to listen to the first time around. As 1950s movies about the generation gap (“Turn down that noise!”) and reams of scholarly literature attest (Jacques Attali, Noise), both music and noise carry all kinds of emotional, cultural, even ideological baggage. Noise is disturbing, and, as I know from the experience of introducing work by Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler to students in my jazz history classes, the line between music and noise is one most people feel they can readily identify even though they can’t agree on where it is.

All this comes intensely into play in the case of Jewish music—as it would in any music, really, that is supposed to have a particular cultural valence, or even to speak, like the violin in Sholom Aleichem’s Stempenyu, in the voice of a people. While there is by now a tradition of Jewish music pairing dissonance with wrenching historical themes (Schoenberg, A Survivor from Warsaw), much of the music I write about is dissonant, noisy, or fragmented just for the sake of it. It can be harder to convince people that this kind of music is Jewishly viable or interesting. But it’s that very nature that I find compelling, both as a sounded object and in a Jewishly usable way.

Take Alvin Curran’s Shofar Rags, released on Tzadik in 2013. I’m sure that to many listeners, a few seconds of the opening of this piece, an erratically patterned sound/noise collage, followed by a long, spacious and relatively static section of exploratory blowing, might signal an affront to Jewish tradition, a confusion over Jewish identity, or a repudiation of Jewish music itself. As Curran writes in the liner notes, the first time he featured the shofar in one of his performances, along with “midi triggered samples . . . broken accordion and soprano clarinet . . . and of course my usual counterpoint of taped sounds,” he was answered by “boos and foot drumming from two irate and presumably observant Israeli composers present in the audience.” In response, he wrote the music for Shofar Rags, for which he “had no deep post-modern interest in collective memory, in lost spaces of childhood or Jewish folklore, rather than in the contemporary task of unlocking the sub-atomic particles of resonant animal gas, fusing them with my own spit and breath and hurling this damp ethereal mixture into space . . . just to see, as one does in art, what might happen.”

To me, hearing the shofar in this context is thrilling. It brings the emotionally, culturally, and physically resonant sound of the shofar—its Jewish voice, if you will—into new territory, allowing it to travel through unfamiliar landscapes and take on surprising sonic characters. And because music has that power to transform us physiologically, it brings me right along with it. Far from sounding like an affront to tradition, I hear this music as an alternative world, one that recasts one’s experiences and perceptions of time, space, and the voice of the shofar itself. “Shofar,” as Curran writes, “is a form of petrified time . . . when noise, breath, speech and music were all the same.”

I didn’t always love music that takes me to an unfamiliar place. By now, I can’t live without it. And hearing Jewishly resonant sounds woven into inventive sonic landscapes is very moving to me. In a way, listening to this music is a deeply restful experience to me, because it unifies two fundamental aspects of my identity. It’s hard to explain. But if you keep listening, you’ll know it when you hear it.

Tamar Barzel is an ethnomusicologist and lecturer at Harvard University whose research addresses the interface between creative identity, cultural heritage, and adventuresome sounds. She is currently immersed in fieldwork on the creative improvisation scene in Mexico City.

Related Content

Four Generations of Lunch, from India to Australia

Wednesday, December 03, 2014 | Permalink

Elana Benjamin is an Australian freelance writer. In 2014, her work has been published in major Australian publications including The Sydney Morning Herald and Sunday Life magazine. My Mother’s Spice Cupboard is her first book. She is blogging here today for the Jewish Book Council and is available to speak to book clubs through JBC's Live Chat program.

“Will there be leftover chapatis for me to take to school tomorrow?” my daughter asks. It’s 5:00 PM and I’m preparing dinner, hurriedly rolling dough into imperfect circles. “You can have two for your lunchbox,” I reply. But that’s not enough. She requests another chapati. Although I’m certain she could eat a third Indian flatbread, the extra one’s not for her. It’s to distribute among her closest friends.

My mother often made delicious chapatis for my brother and me when we were children. She intended them to accompany one of her bhajis – perhaps spinach, or cauliflower and potato. But neither my brother nor I had an appetite for spiced vegetables. Australian-born junglees, we preferred to devour our warm, slightly chewy chapatis doused in butter, cinnamon and sugar; our own Indian-pancake creation.

But Mum never packed chapatis for our school lunches. My lunchbox staple was a peanut butter and honey sandwich on white bread, cut into two identical triangles. It was pauper’s fare compared to the hot, hand-delivered meals which my mother feasted on thirty years earlier as a Bombay schoolgirl.

The movie The Lunchbox has been screening in cinemas around the world. It’s the story of a mistaken delivery in Mumbai’s remarkable lunchbox delivery system. But these are no lunchboxes that a Westerner might imagine.

Termed dabba in Hindi (and also known as tiffins), they are cylindrical metal canisters comprising stackable containers which clip together with a handle. Each container is filled with a different food item to make a complete meal (for example rice, meat and vegetables). The dabba is transported around Mumbai by a network of approximately 5,000 delivery men known as dabbawallahs. Every working day these dabbawallahs – most of whom are only semi-literate – transport more than 130,000 ‘lunchboxes’ all over the city.

In 1950s and 60s Bombay (now Mumbai), my grandmother spent her mornings cooking elaborate meals for her family’s lunch. Her deadline was the dabbawallah’s arrival at the entrance of her apartment building. Each day, he came to collect three dabbas: one for my grandfather in his city office, the rest to be delivered to my mother and her siblings at school.

My mother’s dabba was already waiting when she arrived at her designated seat in the lunchroom of her all-girl Catholic school - even during the heavy rains of the monsoon season. One container was always filled with rice, but my grandmother’s cuisine otherwise varied. Sometimes it was meatballs with beetroot. Other days her menu featured chicken and okra, or dhal and chapati.

When she’d finished eating, my mother packed up her dabba and left it on the table to be collected by the dabbawallah and returned to my grandmother for washing and the next day’s use.

Many of my mother’s fellow students also received dabbawallah-transported lunches. But Mum was one of only a handful of Jewish girls in a school which numbered over a thousand. Her family strictly observed Judaism’s dietary laws, so it was imperative that her meal wasn’t mixed up with another, non-kosher lunch. Yet my mother never received the wrong dabba. Indeed, a Harvard University analysis concluded that only one in a million dabbas is ever delivered to the wrong address.

My mother left this world behind when she emigrated from Bombay in 1966, eventually settling in Sydney in 1970. Busy building a new life in Australia, my parents didn’t dwell on the past. My mother never explained the significance of the metal canister with three containers which sat in the corner cupboard of our kitchen. She didn’t tell me stories of the dabbawallahs and the lunches they’d delivered to her. And yet, my parents’ native India was the invisible lodger in our Bondi home.

Despite their English mother-tongue, my parents regularly switched to Hindustani to convey secret adult messages (“bacha lok ka samne mat bat karo” – “don’t speak in front of the children”). We shopped for groceries at the local supermarket, but also made regular expeditions to ‘Eze Moses’ – one of Sydney’s earliest spice shops. In the pungent-smelling aisles, we stocked up on sacks of basmati rice, bags of lentils, jars of brinjal (eggplant) pickle, and the item I coveted most – tall bottles of hot pink, rose-flavoured syrup. Foods which were unseen and unheard of in the kitchens of other families I knew.

I quickly learned the dances of blending in and belonging. Kotmir and piala chai were for home. ‘Coriander’ (cilantro) and ‘cup of tea’ were for out. Fresh young coconuts – if my father could get track them down – were for home. Coca Cola and lemonade were for out. Like a chameleon, I commuted between my two worlds, never mentioning chapatis, rose cordial or coconut water outside the house.

I shouldn’t have felt this tension – almost all my friends were Jewish, just like us. But in many ways, they weren’t like us at all. Most were unfamiliar with the existence of light-skinned Jews from India whose ancestors were Arabic speakers from Iraq.

Yet my nine-year-old daughter has a different approach. For her, our differences are to be embraced, not concealed. Sherequests extra chapatis to share with her friends in the playground, and eagerly shows off her ability to count in Hindi.

The current generation of children are growing up with vocabularies which include ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘diversity’. Supermarkets flaunt aisles brimming with international food. And Indian movies are shown in mainstream cinemas, prompting me to tell my daughter the story of Mumbai’s remarkable dabbawallahs and their role in our family’s history. Wide-eyed, she listens intently. And finally, I am not embarrassed by my unique heritage, but deeply proud.

Elana Benjamin holds an Arts/Law degree (History major) from the University of New South Wales. She lives in Sydney with her husband and two children. Read more about her at

Related Content:

A Jewish Music Koan: What is the Sound of a Klezmer Band Not Playing?

Tuesday, December 02, 2014 | Permalink

Tamar Barzel's first book, New York Noise: Radical Jewish Music and the Downtown Scene (Indiana University Press, 2014, with a companion website with audio/video), explores the strange and compelling Jewish music that emerged from Manhattan’s downtown scene of the 1990s. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

A few nights ago, by some very circuitous means I need not go into here, an e-mail from someone famous popped up in my Inbox. Well, maybe not famous. More like well-known. More to the point, even though I had never met this person before, I had always looked to his/her work as a source of great joy, solace, and penetratingly weird truths about life. As it turns out, this person’s family was known by someone who I had recently bumped into. When she found out that I was an admirer of her famous family friend, one thing led to another and she sent him/her (the famous person) a link to my book. So this brilliant person’s e-mail appears in my Inbox. And it says, “tell her [i.e., me] that her book looks like a brilliant work of life-changing genius.” ok…I’m paraphrasing here. She did say it looked interesting, though. And then: “I loooove klezmer music.”

Now, this was interesting to me. The word “klezmer” doesn’t appear anywhere on my book cover, blurbs, or anything else that would have been available at the time. But the power of association was strong enough that the title phrase, “Radical Jewish Music,” scanned, for this person, as klezmer. And that was ironic, because I once had a long chapter about klezmer in the book, which I ultimately took out because it no longer seemed that timely. I had written the chapter in the first place because in the early 2000s, when I was doing the first research for the book, every time I told someone what I was writing about, in a no doubt very convoluted way, there would be a pause, and then a light would dawn on their faces and they would say, “Oh, you mean klezmer?” And when I said no, everyone got confused again. Klezmer, which was everywhere in those days at the height of the klezmer renaissance, was easy to assimilate. Secular Jewish music that wasn’t klezmer, that was in fact in some ways anti-klezmer, was harder. When the musicians I write about were first getting it into their heads to make what I have come to call “Jewishly usable music,” they were invariably asked the same question. And the answer, again, was no. What they were doing, in fact, was investigating how to do new Jewish music without klezmer.

I should mention that these musicians write and perform their own music. They are composer/improvisers who once inhabited the Lower East Side, during that long downtown moment that came between the influx of poor immigrants and rich yuppies. Back then, in the 1970s and 1980s and into the 1990s, there was punk rock in their scene, and free improvisation, and skronk, and avant-garde jazz, and transvestite theater and edgy performance art and some other things. Eventually, the klezmer revival came downtown too, where some musicians did some original and beautiful things with it. (Check out Don Byron’s Music of Mickey Katz, the Klezmatics, Klezmer Madness, and two non-NYC bands, Naftule’s Dream and the New Klezmer Trio, a West Coast band that predated all the rest.) So yes, there was some great neo-klezmer music that came out of Manhattan’s take-no-prisoners downtown scene in the 1990s. Someone should probably write a book about it.

Some other musicians, though, felt a bit hemmed in by the assumption that if they were going to do Jewish music, it would have to be klezmer. They’re experimentalists, and they’re iconoclasts. They wanted to make some weird new Jewish music, and they wanted to do it in their own downtownish way. (Check out Shelley Hirsch’s O Little Town of East New York, John Zorn’s Masada Live in Jerusalem, and Anthony Coleman’s The Abysmal Richness of the Infinite Proximity of the Same.) Ultimately, I came to understand that they wanted their music to do some cultural and emotional work that they felt klezmer couldn’t do. As Coleman wrote in the liner notes to one of his recordings with the band Sephardic Tinge (a reference to Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton’s famous phrase about jazz’s “Latin tinge”), “Poor klezmer! A music which most of us never heard until the mid- to late-70s has to stand for a completely hybrid and fragmented culture—New York Jewish Culture.” What did they come up with in its place…? That’s really what the book is about.

Still, I’m framing the e-mail.

Tamar Barzel is an ethnomusicologist and lecturer at Harvard University whose research addresses the interface between creative identity, cultural heritage, and adventuresome sounds. She is currently immersed in fieldwork on the creative improvisation scene in Mexico City.

Related Content:

New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, November 28, 2014 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

Related content:

New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Thursday, November 27, 2014 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

Related Content:

Notes of Forgiveness: Part Two of a Two-Part Blog

Tuesday, November 25, 2014 | Permalink

Yesterday, Maxim D. Shrayer wrote about young Jews lost in Leningrad. His latest book is Leaving Russia: A Jewish Story. He has been blogging here this week for the Visiting Scribe series about the texture of Jewish memory—about a buried Soviet past which means more to Jewish immigrants in America than it does to today's Russians in Russia.

Words—especially words of an adopted language—fail to describe how good it felt to take a short break from the turbulent life of a Moscow refusenik family and to spend time with close friends in a city-museum of history. At some point in our stroll through Leningrad we chanced upon a movie set. It must have been an episode about the 1900s revolutionary unrest in the city. We saw barricades, upturned carts and broken-off wheels, all sorts of odd pieces of antique junk, student greatcoats with rows of silver buttons, old-fashioned worker's caps, and even a whip lying on the cobblestones. The film crew must have been taking a lunch break, there was not a soul on the site, not even a security guard. We walked around without obstruction, trying to put the scene together. Had a unit of Cossacks just rushed by, charging at a group of street protesters? Had the police just carried away the bodies of injured students?

Leningrad (St. Petersburg). Photo by Maxim D. Shrayer.

The movie set was just a few blocks from the editorial offices of Aurora, one of Leningrad's monthly magazines. I left a batch of poems in the hands of an editor with bushy eyebrows, who had looked them over and promised to recommend them for publication. I was still hoping to get my poems published in Soviet magazines, but my efforts would soon come to a halt. In January, political currents would pick me up and carry me, and I wouldn't resume my publishing efforts until the summer of 1987, already in Italy, already a Jewish-Russian émigré.

In January 1987, while staying with my friend Max Mussel at a ski lodge outside Moscow, I cast the impressions of that magical December 1986 Leningrad trip into a three-part poem. I would ski in the morning and then lounge in bed in the afternoon, composing, while my friend Max read a Russian translation of Look Homeward, Angel. In writing this poem I pictured myself as an American journalist embedded with Soviet college students so as to understand their lives and gain their perspective. In the poem there was a "girl in a short coat" and a "friend in misted-over spectacles." The characters were painted from an estranged, otherworldly point of view. It was, I now understand, a poem of parting in advance of the parting itself. When I re-read this Leningrad poem today—and also try to work it out in English—I'm struck by the near-absence of either the gruesome Soviet existence or any overtly Jewish references: "games of a tame autumn deity/ we who fell for these games/ shaking the train station frenzy away/ our girl without asking she blindfolded us/ with a scrap of Leningrad mist saved under the flap of her coat." If it weren't for a mention of the streets of Leningrad and an evocation of the movie set that we had come upon, one couldn't even tell that the poem described the Soviet 1980s. As a Jewish-Russian émigré who has spent more than half of his life without Russia, I'm surprised when I hear not only notes of farewell but also notes of forgiveness in the poem I wrote in 1987. Whose forgiveness—and for what—could I possibly have in mind?

Maxim D. Shrayer is a bilingual writer and a professor at Boston College. Born in Moscow in 1967 in the family of the writer David Shrayer-Petrov, Shrayer emigrated to the United States in 1987. He has authored over ten books in English and Russian, among them the memoir Waiting for America: A Story of Emigration, the story collection Yom Kippur in Amsterdam, and the Holocaust study I SAW IT. Shrayer’s Anthology of Jewish-Russian Literature won a 2007 National Jewish Book Award, and in 2012 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship. Shrayer’s latest book is Leaving Russia: A Jewish Story, a finalist for the 2013 National Jewish Book Awards. A recent review in Jewish Book Council's literary review magazine Jewish Book World called Leaving Russia a “stunning memoir” and recommended that it “should be assigned reading for anyone interested in the Jewish experience of the twentieth century.”

Copyright © 2014 by Maxim D. Shrayer

Related Content:

Young Jews Lost in Leningrad: Part One of a Two-Part Blog

Monday, November 24, 2014 | Permalink

Maxim D. Shrayer is a bilingual writer and a professor at Boston College. Shrayer’s latest book is Leaving Russia: A Jewish Story, a finalist for the 2013 National Jewish Book Awards. This week he blogs for the Visiting Scribe series about the texture of Jewish memory—about a buried Soviet past which means more to Jewish immigrants in America than it does to today's Russians in Russia.

I felt the first pangs of this Leningrad remembrance when my daughters and their Hebrew school classmates, standing in a semicircle next to the bimah, sang “Or Zarua LaTzadik….“ Then it was Mickey Katz, a wonderful Boston cellist and the comedian’s namesake, living through every measure of Kol Nidre and reminding me so acutely of a Jewish musician I once knew in Leningrad. And finally, there were wet striations on the eastern wall of our shul’s main sanctuary, marks of recent water damage or watermarks of aged Soviet memory. I was in shul with my wife, daughters and parents, our Brookline shul with a gilded dome; I was also back in Russia, under the tall dome of Leningrad’s autumnal sky…

On a snowy Thursday in December of 1986 my best Moscow friend Max Mussel and I met up at the Leningradsky train station. Ditching Friday and Saturday classes, we went to Leningrad for the weekend. It was a familiar routine: two or three times a year during 1984–86, Max and I would go to Russia's westernmost city, where my father had been born and raised, just to get away from our inland capital. We would either take the cheapest overnight train from Moscow and ride in a car with doorless sleeper compartments, or, when money was particularly tight, we went by day train with its seats made of uncushioned wood. Our monthly university stipends were about forty to forty-five rubles, and the cheapest roundtrip student ticket to Leningrad cost about ten rubles, so with some help from our parents we could almost afford these occasional trips.

Waxing poetic about the architectural splendor of St. Petersburg, this last of the great European cities, would be like saying that Paris is romantic in the spring—equally true and trite. And while Max and I loved what was left of St. Petersburg in the Leningrad of our Soviet student years, it wasn't the Western architecture that so attracted us. Rather, going to Leningrad accorded the uplifting sensation of being at the boundary, the Gulf of Finland separating Russia from—linking it to—the West.

On that particular December visit in 1986 we took a train Thursday night, expecting to arrive in a northern city choked with snow and icy chill. Express overnight trains arrived early in the morning, and in winter, immediately upon getting off the train, Muscovites would take comfort in knowing that their climate was less severe. This time, as we walked up the long platform of Leningrad’s Moskovsky station, songs about the city of Lenin, the cradle of Revolution, booming from up on high, Max and I were surprised how unseasonably warm it felt. Buttons were undone and winter hats stuffed in our weekend duffle bags. Our best Leningrad friend Katya Tsarapkina, who met us on the platform by the entrance to the station, remarked with only a bit of irony that we both looked like "young Western authors or filmmakers" visiting her windy Soviet city.

Maxim Mussel and Maxim D. Shrayer. 1986. Photo courtesy of Maxim D. Shrayer.

Years later we would refer to that December 1986 visit to Leningrad as our "surrealist" trip. The word siur (short for the Russian “siurrealizm”) was considered chic, and we used it not always correctly or judiciously. My recollections of that visit are enveloped with a film of strangeness, and not just tinged with spellbinding illusions of loss. Such was the light, crisp and bright, with strips of azure and magenta around the edges of buildings and monuments. Such was the air our lungs gulped that morning; not the arresting air blowing from the Gulf of Finland, but a warm, southerly breeze, as though wafting in, impossibly, from the Mediterranean. And such was the mood that overtook us at the train station platform and held us, happy and serene, for the rest of the warm December day.

Leningrad (St. Petersburg). Photo by Maxim D. Shrayer.

We dropped the bags at Katya’s apartment. My father and Katya's mother, Inga Kogan, are the same age and grew up in adjacent buildings in Lesnoye, a neighborhood of Leningrad's Vyborg working-class district. And as if this connection wasn't enough, in Leningrad Katya and her parents were living in an apartment house erected next to the site of a razed eighteenth-century building where my father had grown up. When we stayed there during our visits to Leningrad, we would be carried back to the time of my father’s postwar boyhood in the siege-ravaged Leningrad, but also to the youth and Khrushchev’s Thaw that our parents had in common.

Katya, too, was blowing off classes at her Chemical-Pharmaceutical Institute. The three of us rode the metro back to the center and walked along the embankment of the undulating Griboedov Canal, heading for Leningrad's Theater Square, site of the Kirov Theater (now, again, Mariinsky) and the Leningrad Conservatory of Music. There, at the college attached to the conservatory, our friend Marina Evreison was studying piano. Marina's last name means "Jewison"; when she said her name in public, people turned around. This petite woman with perceptive eyes of Nevan grey was something of a legend in the circles of young Leningrad musicians, owing both to her talent and to the quiet dignity with which she carried her most Jewish of names. Katya, Max, and I swang by the wing of the conservatory where Marina's class was about to end. We ran down the conservatory's granite steps cracked by wartime bombardments and polished by the feet of many great musicians. We were feeling free and rebellious. All day, while it was still light out, we wandered around Leningrad, soaking in its beauty. As it turned out, this was to be my last visit to Leningrad prior to emigration, but I could hardly imagine at the time that six months later, in June 1987, I would leave Moscow for good—to become first a Jewish refugee in Italy, then a Soviet immigrant on an East Coast university campus.

Born in Moscow in 1967 in the family of the writer David Shrayer-Petrov, Maxim D. Shrayer emigrated to the United States in 1987. He has authored over ten books in English and Russian, among them the memoir Waiting for America: A Story of Emigration, the story collection Yom Kippur in Amsterdam, and the Holocaust study I SAW IT. Shrayer’s Anthology of Jewish-Russian Literature won a 2007 National Jewish Book Award, and in 2012 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship. A recent review in Jewish Book Council's literary review magazine Jewish Book World called Leaving Russia, his latest book, a “stunning memoir” and recommended that it “should be assigned reading for anyone interested in the Jewish experience of the twentieth century.”

Copyright © 2014 by Maxim D. Shrayer

Related Content:

New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, November 21, 2014 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

Related Content:

The Classic Jewish Children's Novel for Thanksgiving, Molly's Pilgrim

Friday, November 21, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Chava Lansky

With Thanksgiving approaching it’s time to pull the classic Jewish children’s novel Molly’s Pilgrim by Barbara Cohen off the shelf. This touching tale tells the story of Molly, a young girl who’s just moved with her family to the U.S. from Russia to escape anti-Semitism and winds up as the only Jewish child in her third-grade class. She’s bullied in her new school for old-world clothes and accent. But when she’s asked to make a pilgrim doll as a Thanksgiving assignment, she helps her peers to discover that Thanksgiving is really a celebration of all kinds of pilgrims.

This sweet novel for readers aged six to ten will give children a Jewish perspective on the Thanksgiving holiday while teaching them about diversity and acceptance. The perfect gift to keep the young ones busy at the Thanksgiving table.

Related Content:

The ProsenPshat: Week of November 17th

Friday, November 21, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

We’re catching up from the Jewish holiday blitz just in time for Thanksgiving next week! In case you’ve been as busy as we have, here are some highlights from the past several weeks:

Reading All the Trees of the Forest: Israel’s Woodlands from the Bible to the Forest by leading Israeli environmental activist Alon Tal, Juli Berwald recalled her childhood donations to the Jewish National Fund and questioned whether her dimes, pennies, and nickels “might have helped plant some of those misconceived pine trees” that proved flammable and destabilizing to the native ecosystems of mid-century Israel. All the Trees of the Forest provides more than just an ecological study; Tal tells the entirety of the region’s history through its forestation, razes, and agriculture.

In many ways, Tal explains, forests tell the story of human civilization. In Biblical times, deforestation was used as a military tactic, a process exacerbated by the grazing animals of the nomadic tribes that wandered the land between battles. Razing trees continued on and off through the Ottoman rule so that the land was fairly decimated by the 1920s when a massive tree planting effort began with the British takeover... “The forests of Israel constitute a grand experiment.” Tal explains. And lucky for us, the experiment continues.

Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman led an incredible discussion for Jewish twenty-somethings in New York’s Upper West Side just before kicking off her Jewish Book Month tour, addressing Israel’s gender politics and feminist activism over the past several years.

Israel has seen some progress: segregated buses are down to a third of where they were three years ago, and after a driver was heavily fined by the government for the assault of a female passenger on his bus Eged employees have made a better habit of intervening when a passenger is harassed or threatened. There have been other victories for women’s civil rights in Israel over the past couple years: grassroots campaigns and initiatives have gained firm footing in Israeli society, enabling partnerships across denominational lines and placing much-needed accountability on the government and political leaders—not just the religious ones. “The story here is about the secular government, the state apparatus, supporting religious extremism. The story is not about religious extremists, but how the secular world enables them.”

There’s also some great fiction out of Israel recently: Assaf Gavron’s newest novel The Hilltop gets inside the mind of an Israel settler, and his contemporary short story anthology co-edited with Etgar Keret , Tel Aviv Noir, features current Israeli writers whose works Gavron and Keret feel should be receiving international attention.

Can’t get enough crime writing? David Liss’s The Day of Atonement is a historical novel of an avenger exacting retribution for his parents’ execution at the hands of the Portuguese Inquisition. Converting back to his family’s long-lost religion out of spite, Sebastião Raposa’s developing Jewish faith forces him to question the morality of his vigilante mission.

Daniel Silva’s latest novel also twists through history with the mystery of a stolen Caravaggio painting. Returning art restorer and crime solver Gabriel Allon once again fights his inner demons and tears after his objective, hunting down the assets of a powerful Middle Eastern ruler in The Heist.

For a non-fiction chase through history, be sure not to miss Sarah Wildman’s outtakes from Paper Love, published in a four-part installment on The ProsenPeople. The epistolary love story between her grandfather and the woman he had to leave behind in the Second World War impelled Wildman to search for strangers and examine her own family’s survival out of Austria.

It was hard for me to leave out any of the words written by Valerie Scheftel, the woman my grandfather left behind. But there were a few that didn’t fit. And Valy’s letters—as devastating as they are—sometimes, too, ranged to the mundane, just like all the letter writers of her day included the tiny things that now make up our email feeds. Life, even in deprivation, was not always worth filling up a page about. And yet, even Valy’s shortest notes can wallop me with sadness.

Gathering lost stories from the Holocaust is also at the heart of Testimony: The Legacy of Schindler’s List and the USC Shoah Foundation:

As Testimony pushes further and further into the evolution and technicalities of amass­ing the fifty-two thousand recorded interviews that now comprise the Shoah Project archive, its pages are increasingly interrupted by transcripts of the very testimonies crunched into the numbers and facts the book presents. These excerpts range from anecdotes about life before the war to the unimaginable experiences from within the Holocaust to descriptions of how these survivors have lived since. In this, the book demonstrates its keen balance: neither under-crediting Spielberg— his vision, his savvy, and his influence, (nor allowing his prominence to overshadow the efforts of his team—down to the film extras and phone line volunteers,) Testimony serves testament to the dedication of everyone involved in one of the most monumental archival initiatives of the modern age, from Schindler’s List’s producers to its crew to its cast, from the Shoah Foundation’s visionaries to the volunteer videographers capturing interviews on their personal recording equip­ment, from Steven Spielberg to the aging, determined, brave, and frightened witnesses to the Holocaust who came forward to tell him—and through him, the world—not just what happened to them, but who they are, to the next generation inheriting these stories through the Shoah Foundation.

And to the next generation inheriting these stories directly from their grandparents? Michel Laub’s outstanding novella Diary of the Fall is “an arresting examination of the father-son relationship contending with a Holocaust legacy, staged within the insularity of Jewish Brazil.” If you haven’t had much exposure to contemporary Brazilian literature, start here.

Would it make any difference if the things I’m describing are still true more than half a century after Auschwitz, when no one can bear to hear about it anymore, when even to me it seems old-fashioned to write about it, or are those things only of importance to me because of the implications they had for the lives around me?

Chances are you’ve had plenty of exposure to the works of William Shakespeare, but you’ve never read them like this: Lois Leveen blogged about her process for writing a Jewish character into William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as this week’s Visiting Scribe on The ProsenPeople. Drawing on her experience of seeing herself in a different time period during the Passover seder and the Talmudic tradition of building a narrative out of unanswered questions, Lois transformed a negligible Shakespeare character into the Jewish protagonist of Juliet’s Nurse.

The part of me that earned a Ph.D. in literary studies might argue that the question of identity is already at the heart of Romeo and Juliet. In the most famous scene, when Juliet wonders, "wherefore art thou Romeo?" and then insists "a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet," she's plumbing how much of who Romeo is depends on who his people are – in his case, the Montagues, or as we might say, the whole mishpucha. I could draw some analogy from the question of family identity to the question of Jewish identity, particularly the dynamic combination of culture and ritual that defines what it means to be a Jew in contemporary America.

After completing the novel, Lois found herself confronting Shakespeare’s engagement with ideas of Jewishness, beyond Shylock of The Merchant of Venice. Examining passages from Two Gentleman of Verona, Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, and Henry IV, Lois mapped the experience of Jews in England during Elizabeth’s reign—and the identities of their gentile neighbors who projected the image of the Jew as expressed by the Bard.

Unlike groups defined by nationality, Jews might shift their geographic presence; but "Jewishness" also implied a different kind of potential instability. In countries under the Inquisition, suspicions persisted regarding whether conversos, Jews forced to convert, were secretly maintaining their Jewish identity and practices. In England, there was a strangely inverse fear that Catholics might be infiltrating the country by disguising themselves as Jews. And throughout Europe, as part of the immense rift begun by the Protestant Reformation, some Catholics accused Protestants of being too like Jews in their practices and beliefs—and some Protestants alleged the same about Catholics.

Four centuries later, Deborah Levy struggled with the perception of Jews during her childhood in South Africa, detailed among the essays of Things I Don’t Want to Know: On Writing. Facing discrimination during grade school pushed her to rebel through writing, as she has continued to do ever since.

Related content: