This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:
Find more of the latest reviews here.
This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:
Find more of the latest reviews here.
Lisa Barr is the author of the award-winning debut novel, Fugitive Colors (Arcade), a suspenseful tale of an artist’s revenge on the “eve” of WWII. Today, she chimes in on the on-going conversation about Hitler, the Holocaust, and art for Jewish Book Council.
In 1991, I was serving as the managing editor of a women’s magazine based in Chicago. I was sent on an assignment to cover the "Degenerate Art" Exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. Entering the museum, I literally stopped in my tracks – I had found my story. Even as a daughter of a Holocaust survivor, I never knew about the Nazis relentless mission to destroy the avant-garde – particularly painters. Hitler and his henchmen went after the German Expressionists with a vengeance never seen before, and I was blown away by what I discovered.
At the time, I was already 150 pages into writing my first manuscript about young terrorists, but after that exhibit, I simply stopped writing that novel. I couldn’t sleep. I remember staying up all night, staring out the window – thinking who were those artists whose works were stolen, whose hands were tied, and whose canvases were destroyed and confiscated?
What if someone had stolen my computer, smashed my printer, took all my research, forbade me from entering bookstores, and destroyed all my past work, as though I never existed?
What if someone decided that my passion had to be quashed, or else?
No sleep morphed into even less sleep, as I began to outline a story. I wanted to take this unknown part of Holocaust history and somehow bring it alive through fiction; to usher in the hard history through the back door. As a writer, I love to teach, but first I knew I had to learn.
I needed to go back and really get a feel for what it was like to be a young artist in the early ‘30s, living in the whirlwind of German Expressionism.
Expressionism is not about painting the subject, rather it’s about painting how the subject makes you feel. It was a touchy-feely movement of art – chaotic, wild, colorful, fantasy-like – a movement that went against the Aryan grain of organization and control, but one that was taking the world by storm.
I delved into past interviews, historical accounts, books, personal histories, documents, paintings – I am a writer, not a painter but in order for my work to be real I needed to actually feel, smell, touch a canvas, as though I, too, were there. I needed to write this through the eyes of a young artist whose paintings were being stolen out from under him, and experience what that was really like.
The hardest part of being a writer or an artist is having the inclination but not the talent. Rejection, as we writers know all too well, is the deepest of all artistic pain, and this is where Hitler came in.
For Hitler, his mission to destroy the avant-garde was not political – it was personal. Yes, Hitler before he became "Hitler" was a painter. He had been rejected twice from the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. He resorted to selling painted postcards on the street and later house painting – his dream of living as a celebrated painter never being realized. He had been told repeatedly that he was not good enough, and to go find another trade to survive.
One wonders how things might have been, had he been “accepted.”
I truly believe that these early rejections set the stage for what would come later...the rape of Europe’s masterpieces, and the destruction of artists who didn’t play by Hitler’s rules. Once real power was in Hitler’s hands, he decided what was good enough, what was considered art.
It was no secret in Germany that Hitler despised the avant-garde – particularly Cubists, Dadaists, and Surrealists, and especially his homegrown German Expressionists, who fell into two groups of artists – Die Brucke (The Bridge) and Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) – originating from Berlin, Dresden and Munich – and labeled them “Degenerate artists.” Among the name “Degenerates” were Beckmann, Kirchner, Marc, Dix, Nolde, and Heckel. Supplies stores were shut down, galleries were boarded up, museums were closed down, artists who did not comply with the Aryan rule book were forbidden to exhibit and sell their art. Artists were forced to hide; others fled, many committed suicide, and many others were imprisoned and murdered.
Hitler’s war began with the destruction of the avant-garde, and now ironically, 70 years later, this is the piece of Holocaust history still making front-page news.
This past November, Germany dropped its looted art bombshell: a cache of 1,500 masterpieces (Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, among them) worth more than $1 billion was discovered in a German apartment. Prior to that, in October, it was announced that Dutch museums had uncovered 139 artworks “likely” looted by the Nazis. Last month, Canada announced the “hunt” was on for looted art hiding in its museums and private collections. And just a few days later, Austria announced that a house in Salzburg is being “probed” for stolen art (coincidentally owned by the Gurlitt family, the very same owners of the art-looted apartment in Germany). A week ago, France returned over 100 stolen paintings.
One wonders if the critically-panned Clooney-led production of The Monuments Men had anything to do with the recent “outings.” Despite its Hogan’s Heroes-ish treasure hunt theme, the film did succeed in bringing this part of Holocaust history to the masses and further expose the world’s dirty little secret: The Nazis were not the only bad guys in town.
One thing is clear: This country-by-country exposure will soon travel from Europe to our own doorstep – where similar murky “unknown” histories of beloved artworks hanging in major museum and private collections will surely be unveiled.
Like everything else, it’s all just a matter of time.
While we are busy uncovering the lost histories of paintings worth millions still residing in the slippery hands of “The Alleged and The Guilty” – let us not forget the plight of the artists themselves. Paintings have a canvas, but passion has a face. Behind every “surviving” Picasso, were also scores of young, aspiring artists whose potential brilliance – whose expression – will never see the light of a canvas.
Read more about Fugitive Colors here.
Earlier this week, NY Times best-selling author Sara Davidson wrote about she came to write her memoir The December Project (HarperOne), which is based on her conversations with Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi about how getting “up close with mortality” quickens our ability to relish every day. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.
I’d recently moved my 94-year-old mother to a care home for people with Alzheimer’s. She’d made funeral arrangements years before, but she never spoke about the elephant in the room—her approaching death. I wanted to know what she was experiencing. Was she in denial or at peace? What could I do to help her meet the inevitable with grace and love? I couldn’t just blurt, “Mom, you’re dying. How does it feel?”
Reb Zalman raised his hands as if to say, stop. “You don’t have to tell her she’s dying. Just sit with her quietly and think about it. She’ll be going to a different place and you’ll be missing her. You want to make the parting good for her and good for you. The message will seep in. Not everything has to be verbal.”
We had this talk during one of what I called my “Fridays with Reb Zalman,” when we met every week to discuss "The December Project." Reb Zalman had written the book, From Age-ing to Sage-ing, in his sixties—the September of his years. Now, he said, it’s December, and one of his priorities is to help people caring for elders understand what they’re going through and what they need.
“The most important thing to realize is: this is not about you. It’s their life, their passing, and you need to find out how they want to do it, not how you think would be best,” he said.
It’s also time to let them fulfill their wishes. “If people want to eat a frankfurter and it has nitrates, so? It’s gonna kill them? If they want to cuddle or have sex with someone in the old age home, what’s the worry? They’re going to get pregnant?”
If people aren’t able to express what they want, he suggested giving them some choices and following their cues.
His own father, he said, wouldn’t tell him what he wanted done with his remains. Whenever Zalman broached the subject, his father would say, “Nu, you can’t wait for me to die already?!”
So Zalman told him what he wanted for himself. At the time, he was considering being cremated and having his ashes scattered at Auschwitz, to join the ashes of his uncle and cousins who’d been burned at the camp, as an act of solidarity. His father reacted instantly. “That’s not good. You should do something else.”
“What have you got in mind?” Zalman said.
His father told him he’d bought a plot in Israel and wants his remains buried there and maybe Zalman should do the same. “I had to flip him into telling me, by speaking first about my own wishes and thoughts,” Zalman said.
He took a different tack when a friend was dying of cancer. “She was able to talk openly, and said she wanted to go to Hawaii because she knew the cancer was incurable,” Zalman said. “Her children wouldn’t let her go because her doctor insisted that she do more chemotherapy to prolong her time.” That had made Reb Zalman sad. He wished her children had considered, “How would I feel if I were in my mother’s place and I wanted to go to a sunny island while I still could?”
The woman was in great pain during the final days and told Reb Zalman she was afraid it would never end. He said she would not feel pain after her transition. “You will not always be in that physical body. You will slough it off and be free. Everything will be calm.” He said that people who’ve had near-death experiences report that they felt “enfolded in unconditional love—love that was stronger than anything they’d known, so strong that they didn’t want to come back to the living world.” For this woman, Reb Zalman said, “hearing that brought her comfort.”
I asked Reb Zalman what he would want in his own final days. “Ha! Remember what Woody Allen said, ‘I don’t mind dying as long as I don’t have to be there?’ I’m the opposite. I want to be awake and present. I want to watch the last breath going out and whisper the Shema.”
He’s asked his wife, Eve, who’s 24 years younger, to be with him because “I’d like to feel a loving touch,” but he told her, “When it’s my time, I’d like you to please let me go.”
She agreed, on one condition: “that you take me with you as far as you can.”
They have a deal.
To read more about The December Project, click here.
In addition to The December Project, Sara Davidson is the author of Leap!: What Will We Do with the Rest of Our Lives?, Loose Change: Three Women of the Sixties, Cowboy: A Novel, Joan: Forty Years of Life, Loss, and Friendship with Joan Didion.
As the daughter of an artist, I learned at an early age not only how to mix colors on a palette board, but also how important it was to shift one’s perspective. My mother believed you couldn’t fully appreciate a piece of sculpture unless you actually walked around it. She was known to take my childhood drawings and turn them upside down, encouraging me to see how everything changed when you simply altered the view.
I have often returned to these lessons when crafting one of my novels. When I’m in the midst of researching a book, I try to explore the subject matter from different angles. I find it fascinating to write from alternating characters’ perspectives, so I can explore how two different people might experience the same moment in different ways. I also try to examine how a character changes when placed in the various differing roles and responsibilities they have in a lifetime. For example, the heroine, Lenka, in The Lost Wife is not just an artist. She’s also a daughter, a sister, a young bride, and a friend. In all of those roles, she reveals another part of herself. In my new novel, The Garden of Letters, Elodie is a cellist, a daughter, then a secret messenger for the Italian resistance during WWII, and ultimately a fugitive seeking shelter. As an author, I try to turn each character around — to encourage my readers to see them from all sides — so they are not one dimensional, but rather spherical, continually revealing another aspect of themselves as the novel unfolds.
By writing through the lens of an artist, light and shadow also have a tremendous interplay in my work. I constantly challenge myself to pierce eras of great historical darkness with personal episodes of beauty and light. In The Garden of Letters, I explore not only the turmoil the Italian nation experienced during times of great political and social upheaval, but also how my characters use their art to communicate with each other, both to transmit codes for the Resistance as well as to channel their emotions.
At the end of the day, the process of writing is similar to the way an artist creates a painting or a composer invents a score. I search to understand the world around me, to carve something beautiful out of the darkness. And many of the tools I use are ones I learned when I was in the company of my mother, clutching a tiny paintbrush in my young hand. In the end, it was she who told me to open my eyes and take in the entire world around me — to never see it only from one direction, but always from several shifting points of view.
Related Content: Allegra Goodman's post on artists and writers
by Elise Cooper
A conversation with Slavko Goldstein about recently published book, 1941: The Year That Keeps Returning (New York Review of Books).
Elise Cooper: Do you think that in 1941 an ethnic war was being fought in Croatia, as in the 1990s?
Slavko Goldstein: I would not describe it as an ethnic war but a war where there was a fascist side and an anti-fascist side. I think the majority of the Croatians were on the anti-fascist side against the puppet government. The resistance was the anti-fascists, led by the Communists. On the other side were the occupiers: the Germans, the collaborators, and the fascist puppet government.
EC: Can you describe the treatment of the Jews in 1941?
SG: In the beginning the Ustasha, the pro-fascist nationalists, were only a small group, maybe ten to fifteen percent of the population. In April, men began to be arrested. The regime was not as brutal in the beginning. The first month after my father’s arrest we were able to visit him twice a week. Later we were allowed to visit only once a week. For the first three or four months Jews were not killed. In July, women were then arrested. After six or seven months, in autumn, whole families were arrested. There were 39,000 Jews living in the territory at the beginning of 1941. Only 9,000 survived, mainly because of the Partisans or because they went to the Italian zone.
EC: Why didn’t your father try to escape?
SG: No one expected it here, that it would come so fast. It took five years from when the Nazis came to power in Germany until they started the persecutions. My father thought there was time to organize, but unfortunately he was arrested the morning after the puppet government was established. Some of the Jews in our town realized almost immediately what was happening and left, saving their lives.
EC: Can you describe your escape?
SG: I escaped to a town in Croatia, which had a small village. I was hidden with my brother for seven days and no one in the village reported us. A Croatian family paid for false papers for us to use, including my mother, who by then was out of prison. This shows that we should not make generalizations about the feelings of any particular people. In the North there were anti-Semites but not so much in the South. It was in the South where the resistance grew.
EC: Why did you write your book?
SG: I wrote the book to tell my personal story. I did a lot of research on what happened. I want people to understand how the Italians controlled the Southern part of my country and did not kill the Jews. I wrote it for the next generation so they will have a description of what happened. I wanted to show that 1941 was the year where the roots of the persecution began.
Elise Cooper lives in Los Angeles and has written numerous national security articles supporting Israel. She writes book reviews and Q and A's for many different outlets including the Military Press. She has had the pleasure to interview bestselling authors from many different genres.
Related Content: Read more author interviews here
In 2009, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi asked N.Y. Times best-selling author Sara Davidson to talk with him about "The December Project." He wanted to help people not freak out about dying, and show how getting “up close with mortality” quickens our ability to relish every day. Davidson’s memoir of the two years they spent meeting every week, The December Project, will be published March 25 by HarperOne. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.
In the spring of 2009, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi spoke at the Boulder Book Store to a jammed and eager audience. I was sitting on the floor, so charmed by his singing and story telling that when I greeted him afterward, I impulsively said, “I’m between writing projects, so if there’s anything I could do to support your work, let me know.”
I did not expect to hear from him. We’d met in the 1970s, when I was revisiting the Jewish tradition I’d walked away from at seventeen. Reb Zalman, who turns 90 this year, had escaped the Nazis as a child, been ordained a Hasidic rabbi in Brooklyn, then began looking for wisdom outside his community. Breaking with the orthodox, he founded the Jewish Renewal Movement to infuse Judaism with spirit and relevance, and encourage people to have a direct experience of God.
As a reporter, I’d often called him for a quote over the years—I could count on him to say something colorful or outrageous—but we’d never really come to know each other. So I was startled, after our meeting at the bookstore, when he called at eight the next morning. He said he wanted to have a series of talks with me about “what it feels like when you’re in the December of your years. What is the spiritual work of this time, and how do we prepare for the mystery? It could lead to an article or a book, I don’t know.”
I jumped at the chance to spend time with him. I’d long feared that death would be a complete annihilation while Reb Zalman felt certain that “something continues.” He said he didn’t want to convince me of anything. “What I want is to loosen your mind.”
For two years, we met every Friday morning, recording our sessions. From the beginning, he wandered so far from the stated topic that I began to lose hope that I’d ever find a way to shape and tame our interactions into a narrative. But we both looked forward to our talks, and despite his constant straying from the subject, there would always come an unexpected zing—a discovery, an insight, or a new thought that shone like a jewel.
In March of 2011, I rented a studio on the ocean in Hawaii for a month to determine: could I find a way to construct a book out of what seemed a sprawling mass? If not, it was time to move on. I went into total immersion, shutting off the phone, listening to the recordings and going over all my notes. By the third week, I realized I had a lion by the tail. A rare capture of Reb Zalman’s stories and memories, his earthy knowledge and dazzling flights.
An outline quickly emerged, and I wrote the first chapters in a few hours. The book moves forward on three tracks: our conversations, his life story, and my story during the years I spent with him. During that time I was nearly killed by a suicide bomb in Kabul, and Reb Zalman suffered a steep decline in health. We created strategies to deal with pain and memory loss and to cultivate fearlessness and joy—at any age.
Most important for me was the bond that grew between us. Every Friday, no matter how troubled or distracted we were when we sat down to talk, at some point a current of warmth and appreciation would move between us. We sang and laughed. We expressed our most vulnerable feelings and received from the other unconditional acceptance. At one such moment, Reb Zalman looked at me and smiled. “Who said that people only make love with their bodies?”
To read more about the December Project, click here.
Related Content: Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi Reading List
This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:
Find more of the latest reviews here.
Earlier this week, Joshua Fattal wrote about remembering Hebrew School while a prisoner in Iran and being a Jew celebrating Christmas in Iranian prison. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning about his experiences as a Jew held in captivity in Iran.
In 1951 my family left the region in which they had lived since Nebuchadnezzar II took a bunch of Jews captive and brought them to Babylon in 587 BCE. My father was a toddler but my grandfather took part in the underground Zionist organization in Basra, Iraq that tried to convince people to leave their ancient homeland for another ancient homeland. It must have been difficult to convince a strong-rooted community to relocate to Israel/Palestine where Ashkenazim didn’t speak their language nor share their culture. The disturbances in 1941 scared many Jews into relocating. But two hundred deaths are not enough to account for a mass exodus of 125,000 people ten years after the incident.
Now, when I visit my Iraqi-Israeli family in a suburb of Tel Aviv, the memories of Mesopotamia are thin. Only aunt Frida’s pickled mangos, classical Arabic music, and foggy stories of a dead generation survived the twenty-three centuries between the Tigris and the Euphrates.
When I crossed the Tigris in 2009, I expected to cross back over in a few days. I posted on Facebook that “I was exploring my roots.” I felt jitters at the idea of being in Iraq: the place of my father’s birth; the cradle of civilization; the site of the war that I protested against in America. But my Facebook post was more metaphorical than real. I traveled to Kurdistan – a region untouched by the war – and my father was born in the opposite part of the country. Many Kurds don’t even speak my father’s native Arabic.
My first steps onto Iraqi soil were at night. I exited the taxi that took me over the border from Turkey into Iraqi Kurdistan into a hotel. The stairwell reeked of pickled mangos like aunt Frida’s dinner table.
A jovial hotel owner about my father’s age greeted my friends and I from the couch in the lobby. We sat down and chatted in English. Soon enough, he slapped my inner thigh – like only my father does – and told me his political opinions: George Bush was his hero for killing Saddam Hussein, and he admired the military might of Israel. What would have happened if Jews continued in Iraq for the last sixty years? We’ll never know.
Since Jews emigrated from Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Morocco en masse, the only country in the Middle East with a sizeable Jews community (besides Israel) is Iran. That’s where I ended up because I took a hike beyond a waterfall located too near the Iranian border and ended up in Iranian prison under suspicion of espionage.
In Psalms the captives lament the detention of Nebuchadnezzar II and yearn for home. “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” Fifty years later the Persians conquered Babylonia and the Persians freed some Jews to return to their homeland.
It took me twenty-six months to make it out of Persian prison, but my family doesn’t have a homeland. My family has lived in Iraq, Israel, and in various corners of America. Yet, I recently received a little clue, which I cling to as if it were my destiny. When I recently moved to Brooklyn, the apartment I moved into – I learned after renting it – had belonged to my great grandmother for several decades. I’ll take any clue I can get.
Joshua Fattal, Shane Bauer, and Sarah Shourd were imprisoned in Iran in 2009. Shourd was released one year later and worked to secure Bauer and Fattal’s return in 2011. Since then, the three have pursued careers as writers. Their memoir, A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran, was published this week by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Read more about Joshua Fattal here.
I keep thinking about a scene from one of my favorite childhood novels, The Road Disappears Into the Distance by Alexandra Brushtein. The novel, set in pre-Revolutionary Russia, is about a young Jewish girl, Sashenka Yanovskaya. In the scene in question, nine-year-old Sashenka is sitting the entrance exams at the Institute for Young Ladies. Each girl is asked to read a short passage from a textbook and to diagram a simple sentence. Sashenka, who is waiting her turn, is relieved to find the questions so easy. One by one the girls are called to the front of the class, but not Sashenka. A recess is announced, at which point only seven girls remain. Each one is a Jew.
After the break, these girls – Sashenka included – are subjected to a rather different exam: complex passages from the classical works of literature, follow-up questions that test their knowledge of geography and history. The girls perform admirably; they’ve been prepared well. But Sashenka doesn’t understand why they are being singled out. Later, as she is leaving the Institute lobby, she is accosted by an acquaintance, a daughter of non-Jewish family friends. “None of you Yids will be admitted,” the girl says to her.
In this dramatic manner, the heroine of Alexandra Brushtein’s novel learns what it means to be a Jew in the Russia of 1894. I read Brushtein’s book, in 1986, almost a hundred years later. Growing up in the Soviet Russia, I had done my own share of learning, though it had been more gradual. Some name-calling out in the streets or in the classroom. Some hints of the troubles during the Stalin’s times. Most of all, though, it was my parents’ insistence that I had to study twice as hard as my peers, because I would be judged twice as strictly.
In pre-Revolutionary Russia, quotas for Jews were a law. But in the Soviet Russia they were more insidious. We were all supposed to be equal, weren’t we? All those nationalities. All those republics. Our songs celebrated the friendship of the people, and there was always some regional folk dancing on TV.
My parents knew better, of course. And so did my teachers. My sixth-grade literature teacher read to us The Road Disappears Into the Distance in short installments, whenever we had a bit of time left at the end of the class. She was a great teacher; she could make you fall in love with a book. But when I told her I wanted to be a writer – a journalist maybe? – she said no, it couldn’t be done. She was Jewish, like me and my parents, and she knew what she was talking about.
Colleges had quotas – that’s what it all came down to. Good colleges and mediocre colleges alike. A few were safe bets, like the Institute of Auto Industry or the Institute of Petrochemical Engineering. Some never accepted Jews at all. There was nothing official, no laws you could point toward. You had to rely on hearsay and common knowledge. A neighbor my father met while walking our dog said they never accepted Jews at the well-known institute where he worked. “They all have poor vision,” he said, by way of explanation.
In the summer of 1990, I was sitting the entrance exams at the Moscow Institute of Electronics and Mathematics. I’d studied hard. I’d had tutors. My lovely physics tutor used to point out all the Jewish physicists in my textbook. He was convinced I would succeed. But my math tutor, who actually taught at the Institute, said the outcome would depend on the Party directives they were about to receive. On the day of my physics exam, I sat in a large classroom and waited for my name to be called. More than a hundred years had passed since the events of The Road Disappears Into the Distance, and I wasn’t sure whether anything has changed at all.
Ellen Litman is the author of Mannequin Girl: A Novel and the story collection The Last Chicken in America, a finalist for the Los Angeles TimesFirst Fiction Award and for the Young Lions Fiction Award. She has been the recipient of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award, and her work has appeared in Best New American Voices, Best of Tin House, American Odysseys: Writing by New Americans, Dossier, Triquarter
Find the full list of the latest children's book reviews here.