The ProsenPeople

The Creative Process and the Jewish Arts

Wednesday, May 04, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Nora Gold shared her discovery of Jewish music and its influence on her latest novel, The Dead Man. Nora is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the creative process, because my new novel, The Dead Man, is about a composer of Jewish sacred music who is unable to compose. The creative process is a complicated and mysterious thing, not only to my protagonist Eve, but in general. There is a mountain of literature about the creative process, including tens of thousands of interviews with artists (writers, musicians, dancers, and visual artists) about what is enabling for them in their acts of artistic creation. Yet there is much about this process that remains elusive.

What is far less elusive, though, is our understanding of what impedes, damages, or stunts the creative process. An artist’s work is profoundly affected not only by their inner life, but also by the social context in which they live—including the classism, sexism, racism, and heterosexism inherent in this place. So social reality plays a significant role in the creative process.

I encountered this fact forcefully about a decade ago when the publishing industry was already deeply in crisis due to the advent of digital technology, and when consequently it was becoming much harder for authors to find publishers for their work. Several writers of my acquaintance, after years of failed efforts to find a publisher for their work, had become discouraged, depressed, and unproductive. A few of them had even decided to “take a break from writing” and do other things for a while.

Obviously there are internal factors, not just external ones, at play in these decisions. There are intrapsychic variables that influence an artist’s capacity to engage in creative work. But what I heard from these writers really drove home for me how powerfully one’s cultural and artistic environment can affect an individual’s creative process.

I realized back then that, although all writers were being affected by the crisis in the publishing industry, Jewish writers seemed to be taking a particularly hard hit. Much Jewish-themed fiction was (and still is) considered “niche” literature, which means it has a relatively small market and is therefore less desirable to publishers, and a lot of very good Jewish fiction was not finding a publishing home. So in 2010, I started the free online literary journal Now, six years later, we have published 280 first-rate works of fiction that had never previously published in English, with readers in 140 countries. We’ve published some of the most well-known Jewish writers living today, but our primary goal is, and has always been, to create a space for publishing and showcasing new Jewish writing that otherwise might be lost.

For those who care about fostering Jewish creativity, any individual can play a genuinely helpful role in enabling Jewish creativity. Many people, though, don’t seem to know or believe that they can have a real impact on Jewish artists. Perhaps this is because of the widespread and romanticized myths and misconceptions about artists and their creative process as a mystical, otherworldly experience untouched by the real world, a matter of sitting around and waiting for inspiration to strike, like a bolt of lightning. In reality, however, none of this is true.

When it comes to creating a fertile context for Jewish creativity, even a few small acts on the part of an individual can make a significant difference to local Jewish artists and to the cultural life of a community. Invite a Jewish artist to your home to come speak about her work with a group of your friends. Buy Jewish books and music recordings. Go see Jewish plays, concerts, and dance performances. Visit Jewish art exhibits. And if you like something you’ve read, seen or heard, shout it out as loudly as you can to everyone you know, via phone, email, and social media.

You really can make a difference to the lives and creative outcomes of today’s Jewish artists. Which means, in essence, that you can help shape the cultural future of our people.

Nora Gold is the author of The Dead Man, Fields of Exile, and Marrow and Other Stories. She is the editor of the online journal and the Writer-in-Residence at the Centre for Women's Studies of OISE/University of Toronto.

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In the Clearing Stands a (Jewish) Boxer

Tuesday, May 03, 2016 | Permalink

Mike Silver is a boxing historian whose second book, Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing: A Photographic History, comes out this week. Mike is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

In writing my second book, Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing: A Photographic History, I had the opportunity to combine two of my passions: boxing and Judaism. A strange combination, you say? Well, not really.

It would surprise most people to learn that more Jewish athletes have competed as boxers (estimates are in the low thousands) than all other professional sports combined. In fact, during the first half of the twentieth century, golden age for the sport, Jewish boxers, promoters, trainers, gym owners, magazine publishers, and equipment manufacturers were all major players. In the same way they helped to create and develop the entertainment and garment industries, Jews in the boxing world—both in and outside of the ring—set standards for the sport as an art, science, and business.

Up until the midcentury, boxing was a major spectator sport, rivaling baseball in popularity. Jewish champions such as Benny Leonard, Al Singer Jackie “Kid” Berg, and Barney Ross were elevated to hero status in poor urban communities. They were looked up to and admired by a generation of immigrants, and their children and were a source of inspiration, pride, and hope to a population struggling to break free of poverty and enter the mainstream. It is one of the most unique and colorful chapters of the Jewish immigrant experience in America.

Between 1901 and 1939, just under thirty Jewish boxers were recognized as world champions, and over 160 were ranked among the top ten title challengers in their respective weight divisions. By 1928 Jewish boxers comprised the largest ethnic group among title contenders in the ten weight divisions. In fact, the most famous Jewish person in America during the 1920s was the peerless lightweight champion of the world, Benny Leonard. One would think this history would be widely known, at least among the Jewish people. But the reality, as I found out, is quite different.

Before, during, and after writing my book, I would go around asking people to name a Jewish boxing champion. Most often the response (especially from people under 40) was a blank stare, or sometimes even laughter. When told there were a total of 34 Jewish world champions, the reaction was usually a combination of surprise, curiosity, and confusion—as if there was something just too incongruous in putting the words Jewish and boxing together.

I found it very frustrating that this rich history appeared to be all but forgotten. It was that reaction and lack of knowledge that I hoped my book would change. I realized that the story deserved an epic retelling to fill that gap and reclaim the historical legacy these amazing athletes and personalities deserved. My goal was to accomplish this with a richly illustrated “coffee table” book that would be informative, entertaining and encyclopedic. I wanted to make this remarkable story come alive and be available to a much larger audience by rediscovering a significant aspect of Jewish history—a history that should be a source of pride for the Jewish people, and a source of information for the general public as well—especially those who have accepted Jewish stereotypes.

It was also very important to me to put the stories of the 166 boxers I profile in historical context, which is why I include introductory chapters and sidebars that explain what was happening not just in the boxing world, but amid the greater society in which the sport functioned. As the book took form I realized it was becoming not just a boxing book, but a valuable document focusing on a neglected but significant aspect of Jewish history.

The book took about three years to complete. After finishing my first book, The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science, I thought I would never write another book, because the effort was far more difficult than I had imagined. Nevertheless, I started on my second book soon after, and it turned into a labor of love. Even though I have researched and written about boxing for almost 40 years, I discovered so much that I did not know.

From the beginning I felt my story about the Jewish boxers of the Golden Age was very personal. I owed it to these men, who gave us so much to be proud of, to produce a quality product that would make them proud. Their praise for the book is the most gratifying part of this whole venture.

Mike Silver’s work has appeared in The New York Times, Ring magazine, Boxing Monthly, and elsewhere. He has served as an historical consultant for 19 documentaries and curator for the 2004 exhibit "Sting Like a Maccabee: The Golden Age of the American Jewish Boxer" at the National Museum of American Jewish History.

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The Power of Jewish Music

Monday, May 02, 2016 | Permalink

Nora Gold’s latest book, The Dead Man, follows the story of a composer of Jewish sacred music and a music therapist with an unconquerable obsession. Nora is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

What is it about music? It can affect us like nothing else in the world. It has the power to move us to tears, fill us with joy, or set our fingers tapping and our legs dancing. In his book Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks shows that music can animate people with Parkinson’s disease who cannot otherwise move, give words to stroke patients who cannot otherwise speak, and calm and organize people whose memories are ravaged by Alzheimer’s or amnesia: “Listening to music is not just auditory and emotional, it is motoric as well: ‘We listen to music with our muscles,’ as Nietzsche said.”

I have always loved music and it has always been an important part of my life. So perhaps it is no coincidence that my new novel, The Dead Man, is about a woman who is a composer of Jewish sacred music and also a music therapist.

I did not grow up with Jewish music. I heard the shofar once a year at shul, and on the holidays we sang a few songs, but mainly the music I heard at home was classical. Jewish music is something I discovered on my own in adolescence, and I’ve been hooked on it ever since.

I have heard Jewish music from most Jewish traditions and genres, and I love almost every kind. The type I listen to the most, though, is Jewish-themed art (or classical) music. I first encountered this sort of music as a young adult after I moved to Toronto, the home of the composer, Srul Irving Glick. His music blew me away. I didn’t know anything like this existed and it opened up a whole world to me. I’d been familiar, of course, with the music of Mendelssohn, and I knew he was Jewish. But just as not all fiction authored by Jews is Jewish fiction, not all music written by Jewish composers is Jewish music. So Glick’s music was a revelation for me. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Glick’s music shows up in my novel, including his brilliant “Music for Passover,” parts of which my family sang a few weeks ago at our Passover seder.

Another composer whose work I love is Salamone Rossi, the extraordinary sixteenth-century Italian composer who wrote the first Jewish-themed classical music. I was introduced to Rossi at a concert performed by the Jewish choir Lachan. That concert offered a chronological sampling of Jewish choral music, one piece per century, starting with Rossi. I was so bowled over by this piece by him that I didn’t hear anything the choir sang after that. Needless to say, Rossi’s music—like Glick’s—makes an appearance in The Dead Man.

Music can serve many functions: emotional, social, and cultural. Jewish music not only gives us Jews pleasure and catharsis; it plays a role in binding us together as a community. Singing with other people, for example, is a transformative experience, communally and individually. I can’t even imagine contemporary Jewish life without music in it—at shul, at home, with friends. In my view, nothing could be more conducive to community- and identity-building than music.

Furthermore, Jewish music binds us to our shared historical past: one project I’m very excited about, for example, is the ARC Ensemble’s "Music in Exile" initiative, where they research, unearth, perform, and record the suppressed music of Jewish composers who were forced to flee Germany in the 1930s. Their work is an immeasurably precious gift to our people, restoring to us a missing piece from our musical past.

As for our musical future, what lies ahead for Jewish music? A few weeks ago I saw Steve Reich in concert and heard the performance of his masterpiece, Tehillim. This was a remarkable experience, and not necessarily an easy one: it challenged some of my most basic assumptions about music. Reich, an observant Jew, has pushed the boundaries of Jewish music, and music in general, quite a few inches, or maybe even miles, from where it was before. His Tehillim is different Jewish music from anything you’ve ever heard.

How exciting it is! I cannot wait to see what happens next with Jewish music.

Nora Gold is the author of The Dead Man, Fields of Exile, and Marrow and Other Stories. She is the editor of the online journal and the Writer-in-Residence at the Centre for Women's Studies of OISE/University of Toronto.

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New Book Reviews May 1, 2016

Sunday, May 01, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

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Everything Is Fresh and New

Friday, April 29, 2016 | Permalink

Barbara Kreiger is the author of The Dead Sea and the Jordan River, a chronicle of the natural and human history of two of the Middle East’s most iconic bodies of water. Barbara is guest blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

When students ask me what to write about or how to start, I tell them never to underestimate what’s interesting, because the truth is that any subject can potentially engage a reader’s attention. If you have an instinct, no matter what it is, try writing a couple of pages, I suggest, and then see if those pages become three, then four.

I recommend research as a way of learning more. If you ask older family members what it was like when they were young: that’s research. If you visit the town where your parents grew up: that’s research. If you look online or in a library to find out what might have been on your grandparents’ dinner table or what games kids played back then, that’s research. Research reflects our curiosity and is how we find answers to our questions. It’s about “being there,” in our subject, both literally and imaginatively.

When I started writing my book about the Dead Sea, the first thing I did was to hike in the region and get a feel for the landscape. I was fortunate that I was able to spend several weeks in Israel, and with a friend who knew the region intimately, I was able to learn far more than I would have on my own. I talked to all kinds of people—outdoor enthusiasts, nature lovers, scientists, kibbutzniks—and heard how precious the environment was to all of them.

At one point, I came upon a particular feature along the shore. It was a rock that was marked with incised letters. It turned out that the rock had a history of some eighty years and was connected to early exploration of the Dead Sea region, and I made it my mission to dig into that history. After a few months of investigating, I had written the first ten pages of what would be my book. I didn’t know it then, but what’s interesting is that those ten pages ended up as the conclusion to a later chapter.

What that taught me, and which I try to pass on to beginning writers who are wondering how to start, is that it doesn’t matter where you start, but that you start. I explain that unlike a potter, the writer has no clay to begin fashioning into a bowl or jug: our “clay” is not the thoughts in our heads, because they come and go, and we can’t turn them over in our hands to see if we want to alter the shape, add to it, remove excess. For a writer, words on paper are what we have to work with. Then we can develop a kind of relationship with what we’ve written and test it for its truth or beauty: Do I like what I said? Have I said it well? Have I said what I meant? And—most importantly, to my mind—do I know yet what I meant to say? For to me, writing is a process of exploration and discovery, and while it causes some uncertainty when we don’t fully know what we want to express, it’s also quite exciting that the very process of writing brings us to greater understanding of our subject.

There is no such thing as objectivity in writing. Even when we try, we can’t leave ourselves out entirely. Our writing reflects who we are, and rather than try to hide that, we can use that awareness responsibly and creatively. That’s not to say that when I wrote about the Dead Sea I wrote about what it means to me. Rather, it’s to suggest that implicitly I conveyed my appreciation for this unique body of water in the way I described it and considered its significance.

My final advice: everything is fresh and new. No one has yet said the things you want to say in the way that you’d say it. It’s your opportunity and your privilege to find the words to express yourself.

Barbara Kreiger is adjunct associate professor and chair of creative writing in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program at Dartmouth College.

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Voices Within the Ark: The Modern Jewish Poets

Thursday, April 28, 2016 | Permalink

Voices Within the Ark: The Modern Jewish Poets

Howard Schwartz reflects on Voices Within the Ark: The Modern Jewish Poets, published in 1980. Voices in a collection of over 400 modern Jewish poets from over 40 nations.

In 1980--thirty-six years ago--Anthony Rudolf and I published Voices Within the Ark: The Modern Jewish Poets. It's a hefty book arranged in four sections--Hebrew, Yiddish, English and Other Language poets, 400 of them, in 1200 pages. It was the first and last book of its kind since the 1920s. Voices demonstrates the rich tradition of Jewish poets writing in the modern era. Our goal was always to be inclusive. (I remember wandering through the streets of Jerusalem, asking if anyone knew of an Ethiopian Jewish poet. Eventually I found him.) We were greatly assisted by the Hebrew poets Shlomo Vinner and Gabriel Preil, who directed us to the most important Hebrew and Yiddish poets, many of whom they knew personally. Shlomo Vinner, a math professor at Hebrew University, is also a deeply committed poet. Estonian-born Preil, one of the most beloved Hebrew poets, wrote in Hebrew but lived in the Bronx. He was largely unknown there, but was treated like a hero when he managed to travel to Israel.

Looking back, we managed to include many poets who have since gained worldwide stature, not only Nobel Prize winning poets such as Nelly Sachs and Joseph Brodsky, but many others such as Yehuda Amichai, Paul Celan, Osip Mandelstam, Allen Ginsberg, Muriel Rukeyser, Karl Shapiro, Delmore Schwartz, Philip Levine, Donald Finkel, David Meltzer, Jerome Rothenberg, Dan Jaffe and David Ignatow. Unfortunately, we inevitably omitted many fine poets who later established themselves, such as Gerald Stern, Alicia Ostriker, Michael Heller, Jane O. Wayne, and Ruth Stone, whose work was only starting to emerge at that time. Many of the young poets we included fulfilled their early promise, such as Linda Zisquit, Rose Drachler, Rodger Kamenetz, Jacqueline Osherow, Philip Schultz, Laya Firestone Seghi, and Michael Castro. There have also been many exceptional younger poets who have published since 1980, such as Jeff Friedman, Richard Chess, Dina Elenbogen and Carol Rose, whose work was unknown to us at that time. Tony Rudolf and I are well aware of poets we wish we had included. We sincerely apologize to the poets we overlooked. Still, the book is bursting with original poets for whom Judaism is an integral part of their vision.

There are an astonishing number of exceptional Hebrew poets. Of the older generation, there are Hayim Nachman Bialik, Nathan Alterman, and Uri Zvi Greenberg. Their work was largely formal, but in the next generation Yehuda Amichai used modern, colloquial Hebrew rather than biblical Hebrew as the language of his poems, and created a revolution in modern Hebrew poetry. Amichai towers above the all other contemporary Hebrew poets, but the tradition is greatly enhanced by poets such as Yona Wallach, Dan Pagis, Dalia Ravikovitch, Haim Guri, Natan Zach, Amir Gilboa, Natan Zach, Leah Goldberg, Rachel and Zelda.

There were also many celebrated Yiddish poets. Some, such as Jacob Glatstein, Abraham Sutskever, Aaron Zeitlin (who wrote the song Dona Dona), and Itzik Manger (who wrote the utterly hilarious midrashic parody, The Book of Paradise) have international reputations. Among other distinguished Yiddish poets are Moishe Leib Halpern, Moishe Kulbak, H. Leivick, Rachel Korn and Melech Ravitz. Remarkably, despite the near-extinction of Yiddish, there are contemporary Yiddish poets such as Malka Heifetz Tussman and Asya.

Perhaps the most remarkable fact about Voices were the far-flung poets we discovered, such as Nissim Ezekiel of India, the Dutch poet Judith Herzberg, the French-Egyptian poet Edmond Jabes, the French poet Claude Vigee, the German poet Else Lasker-Schuler, the Hungarian poet Miklos Radnoti, the Greek poet Joseph Eliyia, the Ethiopian poet Yosef Damana ben Yeshaq, the Italian poet Primo Levi, the British poet Isaac Rosenberg, the Argentine poet Alexandra Pizarnik (often compared to Sylvia Plath), the Peruvian poet Isaac Goldemberg, and the Turkish poet Musa Moris Farhi, demonstrating a world wide community of Jewish poets.

The unsung heroes of Voices are the translators, who managed to represent these poets in the best possible way, in translations that were fine poems in themselves. Linda Zisquit provided wonderful translations of Yona Wallach; Shirley Kaufman, an American poet who lived in Israel for many years, translated the Holocaust survivor Aba Kovner; the poet Marcia Falk brought the Yiddish poems of Malka Heifetz Tussman and Zelda to life; Joachim Neugroschel, (whose father was the Yiddish poet Mendel Neugroschel) did exceptional translations of the cryptic poems of Paul Celan. And, of course, many others.

The most moving story we encountered was that about the Hungarian poet Miklos Radnoti. He was shot while on a forced march and buried in a mass grave. On exhumation seven poems were found that he had written on picture postcards, the last of them only seconds before he was executed: “I fell beside him. His body turned over,/already taut as a string about to snap.” Another very interesting story is that of Jiri Langer. He was Franz Kafka's Hebrew teacher in Prague. When he was 18 he decided to become a Hasid, and he took a train to Belz and joined the Belz Hasidim, who were famous for their storytelling. Langer, who loved stories like his friend Kafka, wrote those stories down. After five years in Belz he came back to Prague and published Nine Gates to the Hasidic Mysteries, relating the tales he had heard in Belz. At the time of the Holocaust he took a boat to Israel, escaping the Nazis. However, he had filled his suitcases with books and manuscripts, not clothes, during a harsh winter, and his health never recovered. He died two years after arriving in Israel, having published a slim volume of beautiful Hebrew poems.

We tried our best not to be a Beit Din. If a poet considered himself or herself Jewish, we accepted that. While David Meltzer, one of the leading California poets, had a Jewish father but not a Jewish mother, it is perfectly clear from his poetry that he is deeply immersed in Jewish tradition. Naturally we included him. As for Joseph Brodsky, who was born Jewish but converted to Christianity, we wrote him and asked if he wanted to be included in an anthology of Jewish poets. He replied empathically that he did want to be included, and he is.

A confession--I wanted to include several songs of Bob Dylan, which are in fact beautiful poems. Dylan gave us permission to include masterpieces such as "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Shelter from the Storm." But it was exactly at that time that he announced his conversion to Christianity. Overreacting, I dropped all of Dylan's songs from the book, and I've regretted it ever since. We did include Leonard Cohen's haunting song, "Isaac."

We also discovered some great scholars and rabbis who wrote poems, such as Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem, and Rav Kook. We would have liked to include the early Yiddish poems of Abraham Joshua Heschel, but were not given permission to do so.

Voices Within the Ark has been out of print a long time, but somehow most Jewish poets seem to have a copy. I know that the poets included were happy to be part of this family of poets. We hope that a younger editor will take up where we left off.

Please read our final poem featured for Jewish Poetry Month, Howard Schwartz's "Yehuda Amichai in the Heavenly Jerusalem," from his book of poetry, Breathing in the Dark, 2011.

On earth,
in his beloved Jerusalem,
he could often be found in that tiny café
on King George,
sipping black coffee.
Everyone knew who he was,
but they all left him alone.
Later, he would shop in the shuk
like everyone else,
take a seat in the back of the bus,
put down his bags of fruits and vegetables,
and dream a little
till the bus reached his stop.
Everyone else was asleep
when he rose at four in the morning
to jot down the poems hidden in the corners
of his city.
This was his secret life.

On his seventieth birthday he whispered,
I’m tired of giving birth,
and it seemed to be true.
His face was tired,

even his eyes,
and yet something continued to burn.
I’ve learned the secret
of fertilizing myself,
he told me.
I supply both egg and seed.
But I’m tired of giving birth

At seventy-six
he took leave of this world
as one would expect of such a modest man.
Presidents and prime ministers spoke at his funeral;
thousands gathered to pay their respects.
When he reached heaven,
he was greeted by his heroes,
King David and Shmuel ha-Nagid,
along with hundreds of his poems,
their flying letters swirling around him.
The angels, delighted to welcome him,
offered him a pair of wings,
but he declined, saying,
It’s enough if my words have wings.
Tell me, where are the cafés

Other souls
wander the streets of Paradise like tourists,
staring at the heavenly temple
or taking a seat at the back of Rashi’s class.
Not Yehuda.
He’s still longing for the ruins
of the earthly temple,
for the ancient stones of his earthly city,
for all the sheets hung out to dry,
flapping like sails in the wind.

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Gerald Stern's The Name

Wednesday, April 27, 2016 | Permalink

Gerald Stern is an American poet, essayist and educator. The author of twenty collections of poetry and four books of essays, Stern has taught literature and creative writing at Temple University, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Raritan Valley Community College, and Iowa Writers' Workshop. Since 2009, Stern has been distinguished poet-in-residence and a member of the faculty of Drew University's graduate programme for a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in poetry.

Stern is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and Columbia University and has attended the University of Paris for post-graduate study. He received the National Book Award for Poetry in 1998 for This Time: New and Selected Poems, and was named as a finalist in 1991 for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for Leaving Another Kingdom: Selected Poems. In 2000, New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman appointed Stern as the state's first poet laureate.

The Name by Gerald Stern

Having outlived Allen I am the one who
has to suffer New York all by myself and
eat my soup alone in Poland although
sometimes I sit with Linda he met in Berkeley
or San Francisco when he met Jack, the bread
thin and wasted, and not too salty the way the
Chinese further down sometimes make them, the
name still on my mind whatever the reason for
mystery, or avoidance, though rat Netanyahu
and pig that swings from a needle or lives in some
huge incubator, they do darkness where there
was light, the name hates them, the name
in hiding, the name with a beard, and Linda she
loves the name though she invokes her Christ
as Jack her lover and tormentor did and
taught her to do though it is too easy, that,
it troubles me but what can I say, what should I
say while we walk north on the right hand side,
past the pork store and the hardware store, me lecturing
on Logos (my God) and what not Hebrews and Greeks
where Allen and I once kissed, Jack in the sun now.

Originally published in Poetry (October 2011), reprinted with permission from Gerald Stern.

Click here to see all the books of poetry featured for Jewish Poetry Month.

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Beautiful Because It Simply Is

Wednesday, April 27, 2016 | Permalink

Barbara Kreiger is the author of The Dead Sea and the Jordan River, a chronicle of the natural and human history of two of the Middle East’s most iconic bodies of water. Barbara is guest blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

I was raised in a multi-generational Jewish family with firm roots in southern Connecticut, to where my great-grandfather Abraham had immigrated from Russia with his wife, fittingly named Sarah, at the start of the twentieth century. My earliest memories are of living in his home with him, a house he had built on a small street in Shelton. We were three children by then; my great-grandmother had just died, and Abraham asked my parents to move in with him. My grandparents lived next door, making my childhood very cozy and fulfilling, and very Jewish.

There weren’t many Jewish families in the small towns of the Naugatuck Valley between New Haven and Bridgeport, and we Jews were a tight community. There were two Orthodox shuls, one in Derby and one in Ansonia, and in the mid-1950s the two congregations merged. I remember the groundbreaking, when we kids ran around with our little shovels to participate in the ceremony. Before long, the building was ready for us, and my life from that point through high school was focused on Beth Israel Synagogue Center, the yellow brick structure in Derby. Friday night services, Hebrew school twice a week, Sunday school for history, culture, and Israel, and a long string of bar and bat mitzvahs, then confirmation, all served as the glue that kept each class together until we went our separate ways to college.

It’s an understatement to say that it was a rich and intensely meaningful experience, growing up in a small town amid generations who were committed on behalf of the community itself, Jews worldwide, and Israel. It has served all my life as a template for fulfillment. These days it’s impossible to replicate that model, with generations scattered, aspirations divergent, and identification so individual rather than communal. But those years taught me what I needed to know about what it means to be a Jew.

To be a Jew is to value our particular way of living because we love it, not because we have to. We love it because it’s beautiful, and it holds certain truths for us. In my family we spoke always about fair play, rooting for the underdog, loyalty, responsibility to those who have less than we did. It’s beautiful because the Shabbat table was set with a white tablecloth, our best china and crystal glasses, the brass candlesticks my great-grandmother had brought from Russia, the shiny silver wine cup a bar mitzvah gift to my father, the challah tucked under my grandmother’s satin cover; beautiful to hear my grandfather with his Ashkenazi Hebrew chant Jonah on Yom Kippur; beautiful to hear the old folks speaking Yiddish; beautiful because it simply was.

But our particularism never obscured a larger worldview where we were taught to embrace a universal system of values based on justice and fair play. To be a Jew is to be inclusive, to understand that once we were strangers in Egypt, and millennia later in America, and that it was our obligation to treat the real or metaphorical stranger with compassion. To be a Jew meant to question the status quo and never take our comfort for granted. To be a Jew meant that when we opened the door at our seder, it was not a mere symbolic gesture but would be fulfilled in our sensitivity to others.

So when I think about my connection to Jewish life, I don’t see it as something I created but rather as a birthright, part of my genetic make-up you could even say. I admire those who create a sense of Jewishness for themselves and their families. But I can’t take credit for myself. To be Jewish was to be human, was one of the wonderful ways to be human. And with that understanding, I was sent out into the world.

Barbara Kreiger is adjunct associate professor and chair of creative writing in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program at Dartmouth College.

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Mort, May 1947

Tuesday, April 26, 2016 | Permalink

Excerpted from The Two-Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman

The domestic, feminine scene unfolding before Mort did nothing to improve his spirits. Upstairs, in his brother’s apartment, substantial preparations were being made. Not just the brushing of hair and the tying of sashes. Serious words were being spoken from man to man, from father to son. Mort pushed away his breakfast plate and frowned.

Thirty minutes before they were supposed to leave, there was a thudding of footsteps down the stairs and a quick knock on the door. “Got to go! See you there!” Abe’s voice rang with excitement. Mort had assumed they would all walk over to the synagogue together. “What do they need to get there so early for?” he grumbled at his wife. Knowing better than to defend her brother-in-law, Rose shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know,” she answered.

Mort had been dreading this day, the day of his nephew’s bar mitzvah, for months. In the weeks leading up to it, the increased noise and activity of his brother’s family overhead agitated him. He found himself imagining different scenarios to go with every thud and thump he heard. Was Abe’s wife, Helen, testing out a new cake recipe? Was his nephew Harry trying on his new suit? What were the other boys laughing about? Mort tortured himself in this manner for several weeks. He was a sharp, thin man, and in the month before the bar mitzvah he had lost at least ten pounds. His increasingly angular appearance alarmed his wife, but everyone else was too busy to notice.

Rose had been up earlier than usual that morning to make sure the girls were ready on time. Hair ribbons were neatened and his three daughters, clad in matching yellow dresses, were lined up in front of him after breakfast. “They’re like a row of spring daffodils,” Rose entreated. “Don’t you think so?”

Mort looked up, but he was an unappreciative audience. Judith was almost twelve and seemed too old for matching dresses. She was fidgeting in the line, anxious to get back to the book she had been forced to leave on the kitchen table. Every week, Mort insisted that Judith present him with her chosen pile of library books for approval. Every week, Judith asked Mort if he wanted to read one of her books too, so they could discuss it. Every week, he declined.

Mimi, the prettiest of the three, was the most comfortable on display. She was only eight, but already she carried herself with a stylish grace that Mort found unfamiliar. Mort thought she looked the most like Rose. Mimi was forever making cards for friends and family members with pencils and crayons that she left all over the house. Last year, she found her father’s card in the kitchen trash pail the morning after his birthday. She ran crying to him with it, waving it in her hand and asking why he had thrown it away. “My birthday is over,” he explained. “I don’t need it anymore.”

Dinah, the baby of the family, had the most trouble keeping quiet during Mort’s inspection. She was only five, and though she had been taught not to ask her father too many questions, she couldn’t seem to help herself. “What’s your favorite color?” she blurted out, eyes wide with anticipation. Mimi, hoping the answer might give her some insight regarding the design of next year’s birthday card, seemed eager for the reply. But the response was of no help. “I don’t have one,” Mort said.

After Mort nodded his silent endorsement of the girls’ appearance, the family was ready to go. He usually took the lead during outings like these, leaving everyone else struggling to match his quick strides. The girls knew better than to try to walk alongside him. Even Dinah had stopped trying to hold his hand years ago. Instead, they had taken to walking single file on family outings, like unhappy ducks in a storybook, with Rose bringing up the rear.

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Copyright © 2015 by Lynda Cohen Loigman. Reprinted with permission from St. Martin's Press.

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Discovering the Dead Sea from a Different, Not-So-Distant Shore

Monday, April 25, 2016 | Permalink

Barbara Kreiger is the author of The Dead Sea and the Jordan River, a chronicle of the natural and human history of two of the Middle East’s most iconic bodies of water. Barbara is guest blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

When I started writing my book about the Dead Sea, I was somewhat tentative in my approach because the subject was so large and there were so many possible ways to begin. Yet, mesmerized as I was by the landscape and history, I knew it was what I wanted to do. I was awed by the beauty and uniqueness of this strange landscape, where the barren cliffs towered above a long and narrow lake. I was intrigued by the fact that the Dead Sea was shared by Israel and Jordan, two nations that were then in a state of war. I looked out at the crisp blue water, salt crystals sparkling along the shore, and I wondered how it could be that an international border was somehow demarcated. Who could tell where 50% ended and enemy territory began? I looked at my map, where a soft lavender line, painted in a pleasing curve, indicated the border. It was not at all intimidating.

To start the project, I spent several weeks in Israel, where I divided my time between the Rockefeller Library in East Jerusalem and hiking around the Dead Sea to become better acquainted with the surroundings. One day as I was exploring the shore, I happened to meet a team of scientists who were going out in a boat to gather samples of water and sediment to bring back to their laboratories. When they heard I was writing about the Dead Sea, they invited me to join them for the day. It was an unprecedented opportunity. I gathered my notebook and camera, quickly packed my backpack, and jumped aboard.

It was a very exciting day. I was out on a forbidden lake, and looking first to the Israeli side, then to the Jordanian, I was struck by the contrast between the tranquility of the scene and the turmoil of the political world. At the same time, I was with a group of scientists whose work knew no borders and who were committed to one thing only: a greater understanding of this corner of the natural world.

I instinctively knew that on both sides, on all sides, were people with shared goals and a passionate attachment to the region. Indeed, later I became acquainted with a trilateral organization consisting of Israelis, Jordanians, and Palestinians whose focus was their shared environment. Working together to promote regional cooperation as they strive to protect their collective resources, EcoPeace/Middle East inspired me with their commitment to education and cross-border initiatives. Undaunted by political obstacles, they continue to draw support from all sides and internationally. Of course I couldn’t help but be drawn in by their devotion to social and environmental teamwork.

So when I speak about my influences, I think about the dedication of all the people I eventually met—Israelis, Jordanians, Palestinians; the scientists on the boat, the nature lovers whose careers were devoted to protecting the fragile environment, the hikers who trekked across the desert for a view of the Dead Sea from the heights—in other words, all who feel drawn to this unique landscape and compelled to keep returning. I considered myself very fortunate to have become aware of this network as I started out: their devotion inspired me, and my own commitment, which was to do justice to theirs, had to be expressed in a book worthy of their collective contributions. I felt I had to write as engaging and evocative a book as possible, to attract an audience with a huge variety of reasons for wanting to read my narrative, to highlight the work that so many others had done in various fields over the years, and to find for myself a quiet intersection between my values and the natural world, too often threatened, but, we hope, resilient and enduring.

Barbara Kreiger is adjunct associate professor and chair of creative writing in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program at Dartmouth College.

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