The ProsenPeople

Interview: Ruchama King Feuerman

Wednesday, October 29, 2014 | Permalink

by Miriam Bradman Abrahams

Ruchama King Feuerman’s latest novel, In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist, has been praised by the Wall Street Journal among many other publications, and was a finalist in National Jewish Book Award’s fiction category. Ruchama spoke to me as sincerely and passionately as to a friend. Her passion for Israel, for writing and research, and for her work helping to develop other writers shone throughout our phone conversation.

Miriam Bradman Abrahams: To which characters do you relate in your stories?

Ruchama King Feuerman: There are pieces of me in all the characters. Isaac reminds me of my father, while Mustafa also reminds me of him, since they each had a deformity. [Feuerman’s father lost an ear in a childhood accident.] I share ideological frustrations with my character Beth from Seven Blessings, though there are many differences between us.

MBA: Where does your obsession with kabbalists come from?

RKF: I lived in Jerusalem for ten years and befriended “wise women” who all sought out kabbalists. I was obsessed with anyone who is wise and holy, including assistants to kabbalists.

It was recommended that I meet the Rav Usher Freund and while waiting many hours for my chance to speak with him, I felt joy at seeing all different types of people waiting in his courtyard; it was a humbling experience. The kabbalist’s assistant blew me away with his insight and intensity and eventually, after many hours waiting and now running out of time, I had just one minute face to face with the kabbalist whose granddaughter was beside him. I told Rav Usher Freund my name, and he told me his. There erupted between us a magical laughter which has stayed with me to this day.

MBA: It’s easy to see your love for Jerusalem in your writing. Why did you make aliyah and why did you leave?

RKF: Moving there was a natural extension of my background. My father shared stories about his spiritual journey. I took my father’s dream of going to Israel and ran with it. I arrived at age seventeen, and was open to many types of communities, but felt not completely part of one. I thought I couldn’t fall in love and make a life for myself in Israel. I left at twenty-seven to pursue an MFA in fiction writing at Brooklyn Col­lege. As the daughter of a Southern “born-again Jew” and a Moroccan mother from Casablanca, I grew up with a Jewish education and prac­tice. With my unique identity, to my “FFB” (frum-from-birth [born into a religiously observant background]) friends I’m a “BT” (baal teshuva [newly religiously observant]), and to my “BT” friends I’m an “FFB.”

MBA: How was your trip back to Israel this summer?

RKF: I hadn’t been to Israel since a short visit in 2002 and wanted to return there with my husband and children. I felt the sweetness of life and the sense of humor with which people live there, especially during wartime. Upon returning to the U.S. I felt a sense of flatness, a “vanilla existence” here. Going back to visit Israel was like waking up from a coma. I spent some time in Tzfat, which I love, and in Raanana, where my mom lives.

MBA: How do you write descriptions of Jerusalem that read like a photograph?

RKF: I’ve been writing since fifth grade, and published a few articles in my twenties. I kept a journal during my decade in Israel which refreshes my memory with details. Things make a visceral impression on me and I try to capture them. After years away from Israel I was afraid my im­pressions may have been diluted, so I use the power of invention.

MBA: Do you consider this book a political novel since you’re dealing with the question of ownership of antiquities found on the Temple Mount?

RKF: A political novel is polarizing. I want to bring people in to experience true-life 3D characters, not politics with a capital “P.” I’m not shutting people out. I want the reader to experience a

“Black Hat” religious Jew, to have immersion, to care for different types of people, to experience things you haven’t before, using imagination to experience what’s out of your realm. If there are political echoes then let them be.

MBA: Are you making a feminist point with all your strong independent women? Tamar, Rebbetzin Shaindel Bracha, and, in Seven Bless­ings, the young Orthodox women taking upon themselves the study of holy texts (traditionally reserved for men), questioning, probing and developing themselves in the process?

RKF: I don’t think I was making a feminist pitch. I simply recalled a lot of the powerful, wise women with tons of Torah knowledge I met when I lived in Jerusalem. Not only famous teachers and rebbetzins but regular women, next-door-neighbors whom you’d randomly meet while taking out the garbage or people you’d go to for Shabbos. But I must say, the idea of a female kabbalist excites me. It feels like a way of claiming our Biblical past, which was replete with female prophets.

MBA: Who are your influences?

RKF: Bernard Malamud, Rohinton Mistry, Monica Ali’s novel Brick Lane, Graham Greene, Chaim Grade.

MBA: What are you working on next?

RKF: I’m working on making a living as a col­umnist and my one-on-one work with clients is growing. I love writing short stories and want to get beyond Israel. I have an idea for two differ­ent novels, but it’s a commitment. A novel is like a marriage, a real commitment for many years, not an easy thing. I have no discipline while in the midst of writing; everything else falls to the wayside. Getting out the first draft is like having an itch on the brain.

MBA: What does your book tour look like?

RKF: I’m making 10-15 stops in the next five months!

Miriam Bradman Abrahams is Cuban born, Brooklyn bred, lives in Woodmere, NY, Hadassah Nassau Region's One Book chairlady and liaison to the Jewish Book Network, Hewlett Hadassah Herald editor, retired book fair chairlady, certified yoga instructor.

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Paperless Love: A Short Reading List from Sarah Wildman

Wednesday, October 29, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Sarah Wildman shared an interesting letter that didn't make it into her book, Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

When I set out to research the life of the woman, Valy, who wrote to my grandfather for years after he fled Vienna in the fall of 1938, I began one leg of my search by looking for other Jewish letter writers trapped in the Reich during the same time period. Two such writers – both with a tremendous body of work, mostly letters written to children – have had books published of their letters and these lingered with me long after I put them down. Both were women, and both were married to, and then divorced from, Aryan men – this meant their children had a privileged status, and also stayed in touch with them far longer than Valy was able to stay in touch with my grandfather. Their words give depth and texture to the incremental horror, a day-by-day account of what Jews were experiencing as the Nazi vise closed tighter and tighter around the community. And their voices give a crucial, and clear, eye-witness account of life in Germany during the heart of terror. At first I thought I would write more on these letters in my book; in the end, Valy’s words were so prolific, and so powerful, these books became contextual for me, rather than central.

The first is called Before Deportation: Letters from a Mother to her Daughters January 1939-December 1942. These are the collected letters of Hertha Feiner, a Berlin based schoolteacher whose two girls were spirited out of Germany to Switzerland by their non-Jewish father. Feiner’s ex-husband marries a Nazi, and though their divorce had been amicable (and not due, for example, to the pressure many mixed marriages faced to dissolve in the face of racial laws) eventually that relationship sours. Feiner’s letters to her daughters, like those of Valy, are increasingly desperate until she grasps at the one thing she believes will save her: the presence of her Aryan children. She wants them to come back to Berlin for her. It sounds insane, doesn’t it? But for a time their very existence had helped her – it gave her, as she writes them, a “special status.” They don’t return to their mother – in part because their father forbids it; in part because their school does; in part because it is unclear it would have helped. But their mother’s last letter just destroys me every time I read it. It was penned in December of 1942. “Christmas is coming, the celebration of love. Let’s hope that peace will come and all people who love one another will be reunited. ... Please be very kind to each other, and think now and then of me.”

Feiner was – like Valy and her mother – employed by the Jewish community. She was tasked with the terrible task of preparing deportation lists. She writes to her girls of the fate facing those in the Jewish community that they know, and what they are going through, their factory work, their impoverishment. Feiner was deported on March 12, 1943 to Auschwitz, but as she had been made privy to the deprivations, or worse, awaiting her, she committed suicide en route.

The second book is the one I recommend most often - My Wounded Heart: The Life of Lilli Jahn, 1900-1944. This book, fuller than the first, and the story is all the more devastating as Lilli’s husband divorced her during the teeth of the Nazi era, at a time when he surely knew that so-doing would be a potential death sentence for his wife. Like Valy, Lilli Jahn was a physician – as was her husband. He has an affair with another doctor, a Nazi, who convinces him to leave his wife, though Lilli and her husband had five children together.

My Wounded Heart is built around both the story of Lilli’s life and the letters she writes to her children when she is eventually incarcerated in the Bretenau labor camp at the outskirts of Kassel. (Her “crime” – beyond her Jewishness – was that she had failed to post the name “Sarah” after her own, on a shingle she hung outside her office door, advertising her medical services.) What is remarkable here is that the children’s letters themselves have also – almost in their entirety – been preserved as well, as their mother smuggled them out of the camp in 1944, before she herself was sent to Auschwitz. Before that terrible day, Lilli begs her children to implore their father to intercede on her behalf. His silence, his inaction, his cowardice is as brutal as Lilli’s fate.

This book is more than a collection of letters, it is a story of entire family, a micro story within the macro, with commentary and material built in around each letter, a means of winnowing into the tragedy of a single family.

Sarah Wildman has reported across Europe and the Middle East for The New York Times, Slate, and The New Yorker, among other publications, and is a former New Republic staffer. She is the recipient of the Peter R. Weitz Prize from the German Marshall Fund of the United States, “for excellence and originality in reporting on Europe and the transatlantic relationship,” for the series in Slate where here book Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind originated. Wildman lives in Washington, D.C. 

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Digging Deeper Into the New Anthology Tel Aviv Noir

Monday, October 27, 2014 | Permalink

by Beth Kissileff

The anthology Tel Aviv Noir is the newest in a series of noir crime books pub­lished by Akashic set in cities all over the world: Delhi, Venice, Mexico City, Helsinki and Wall Street are among the destinations writers explore through stories of the illicit. Tel Aviv Noir is the first Israeli volume; a Jerusalem Noir is in the works too. If you are interested in great writing by the younger genera­tion of Israeli writers (Gadi Taub, 49, and Shimon Adaf, 42, are among the old­est writers in the book, down to Gon Ben Ari, who is not yet 30), this volume will reward you. Jewish Book World had the chance to catch up with co-editors Etgar Keret and Assaf Gavron by phone recently. Here are pieces of our con­versation with each of them about the volume and Tel Aviv.

Beth Kissileff: How did you decide which writers to include in the an­thology? What were your criteria? 

Assaf Gavron: We wanted to give Israeli writers who are not yet trans­lated into English an opportunity to publish in the U.S., people like Gadi Taub, Matan Hermoni, Shimon Adaf, whose work has appeared in the UK but not in the U.S.

The main theme is noir, and we expanded on that theme. The stories are not all classic noir. Akashic—the publisher—said that most collec­tions in the series are a handful of classic detective stories, and a dark element of the city. That was the direction.

We worked out within each section a nice balance, a progress, from first to last. We started with lighter stuff and put the bodies at the end.

BK: What does it mean to be grouped with Teheran Noir and other cities?

AG: It is nice. I think Tel Aviv deserves its status as an interesting city, with culture and literature and with noir as well as everywhere in the world. I like to be grouped with other cities in the world, and not in the usual context that Israel is given.

BK: A question about your story, “Center.” If the people in the company need proof that the guy is dead, why do they hide the body?

AG: They are not professional detectives or murderers. By the time they figure out what to do, they get caught.

I like the location of Dizengoff Center, since it is full of different parts that are distinct. There is a commercial part with an office building, there are shops, a car park, and bath and water and clubs, a whole world in one or two buildings. I like the idea of an amateur detective, who does things out of his own curiosity.

BK: Etgar, how did you get involved in doing Tel Aviv Noir?

Etgar Keret: I met Johnny Temple from Akashic, and he suggested to me that I edit Jerusalem Noir. I said, ‘I don’t live in Jerusalem, I don’t know it, call me if you do Tel Aviv Noir.‘

From the beginning, this was not a genre book. It is meant to reach writers who were not translated into English. It was very rewarding for us as editors.

BK: What has the reaction been?

EK: The anthology just came out in Israel, and what I liked about it is that everyone has different favorites; as somebody who had published short story collections that is a good thing. There is something about an anthology when it works. There is an amazing synergy, creating a greater whole.

To be honest, when we worked on this, we looked at it as a collection of stories by young Israeli writers to be published in the States, and we thought about the American reader. That was the prime goal and as a bonus it was published in Israel. The best case is if people reading it will catapult these writers and get them published in the States.

BK: How can we get more Israeli writers, and a variety of them, to be known better in English?

EK: Well, what I think is that it is not a uniquely Israeli problem. There are many great writers, and getting translated is difficult. I can talk to foreign publishers, and see how they just met five other writers from five other countries who recommend other writers.

Literary fiction is not extremely commercial anywhere.

BK: Tell me about your sense of Tel Aviv?

EK: I’ve traveled and seen other cities, and Tel Aviv contains all the qualities and advantages of a big city with those of a small town.

In Tel Aviv, if you go to the old bus center station early on Sunday morn­ing, you see many well-dressed African families going to church. You feel like you are in a different place, people speak a different language, and there’s a different social structure, like in Deakla Kaydar’s story.

If you don’t look for this, or find yourself in one of these places by accident, this life exists in this place you feel you know like the back of your hand. For instance, Allenby Street; my son and I know it well, and go there tons of times. I know stores and shop owners, but after 11 PM, it is a totally different city, different drives, different motivations, almost like a parallel place that exists under your nose.

Beth Kissileff is the editor of Reading Genesis (Continuum Books, 2014) an anthology of academic writing about Genesis. Her novel Question­ing Return is under review for publication and she is writing a second novel and volume of short stories. She has taught at the University of Pittsburgh, Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College.

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Paperless Love: An Unsettling Departure

Monday, October 27, 2014 | Permalink

Sarah Wildman has reported across Europe and the Middle East for The New York Times, Slate, and The New Yorker, among other publications, and is a former New Republic staffer. She is the recipient of the Peter R. Weitz Prize from the German Marshall Fund of the United States, “for excellence and originality in reporting on Europe and the transatlantic relationship,” for the series in Slate where here book Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind originated. Wildman lives in Washington, D.C. She will be blogging here this week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I am obsessed with letters. The only means of communication for so many in my grandfather’s world, his preserved letters from friends and family enabled me to tap into his experience, and that of those he left behind, when he fled Europe in the fall of 1938. But of course I couldn’t publish every letter I found – I couldn’t even begin to untangle the stories each one opened up. Yet – here in these blogging spaces – I want to go into both letters I didn’t use – the collection of my grandfather’s was so vast, and encompassed so many people it was impossible to publish them all – and those of others who allowed me to give context and color to the stories my grandfather and his friends told from 1938 through the early 1950s.

One thing that stood out early, as I read through the letters sent from 1938 through 1941 when America entered the war, was that, immediately, the idea of escape from Europe was not necessarily immediately ‘happy’ let alone an ‘ending’ – lives were still very much in the balance, and especially for those who made it only as far as another European city – Bucharest or Budapest or even Paris. In fact, even news from those who made it to Palestine doesn’t seem all that much better than those who remained in Europe. This letter, written by one of my grandfather’s closest friends, was eventually cut from the book, but highlights the anxiety of life on the run – for Jews who made it as far as China, and for Jews who made it as far as Tel Aviv:

July 22, 1939

Dear Dr. Wildman

As you probably already know, my parents have arrived in Shanghai.

While I am happy that they flew "the nest", I do worry a lot about their future. According to newspaper reports, Shanghai is again a theater of war. Hopefully, I shall be able to bring them to Erez [Yisrael] very soon.

Now I have to share some very sad news with you. I feel terrible having to write about this, but I also think it is my duty to do so. Ovenstein and Rotfeld have shed their blood for our homeland. Both lived in one of the most dangerous settlements of the country, - one of the settlements that were used to their daily "evening concert" of shots.

Ovenstein got there with an enormous plan for a harbor. The plan, in and of itself, was excellent and, and he was asked to realize the project "A Jewish fishery Harbor on Lake Tiberias." Rotfeld worked as physician in the area, cut off from the world: Water in front, 2000 m high mountains in back, and located almost outside the rightful borders of Palestine.

One evening, an ferocious Arab attack happened that, however, as usual was pushed back. During the early hours of the following morning they went to work in the fields, as though nothing had happened. They went to work for Jewish land and Jewish life.

They were attacked from an ambush. Ovenstein died on the spot, Rotfeld survived for a short while.

The country was in shock - two such important people, in Erez only for a few months, and already joined the ranks of those who fought and lost their lives for the thousands of the Jewish people, without shelter and without solace.

Willy Ritter held a stirring speech on the day they were buried.

This is the bond of Jewish reconstruction, that arose from servitude, with the will to re-build. Two have fallen, the third stands by the grave. Maybe, he, too, will be felled - maybe me, too, and maybe thousands of others.

One man falls, and the next one takes his place. An eternal bond that never shall be broken because it was forged by our iron will.

Enough for today!

Kind regards from your grateful disciple


Read more about Sarah Wildman here.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, October 24, 2014 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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Learning the True Value of My Thoughts

Thursday, October 23, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Carla Naumburg wrote about mindfulness, parenting, and her first book Parenting in the Present Moment. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

So, I’m Jewish. And I’ve got a Jewish grandfather who was a classically trained psychoanalyst who looked not unlike Freud. (Actually, he was once analyzed by someone who was analyzed by Freud. In certain circles, that’s a very big deal. Apparently.) I’m also the child of a difficult divorce who grew up to be a clinical social worker, which means I’ve spent more than my fair share of time on both sides of the therapy office. As an academic, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and then writing about what I was thinking and then getting feedback about my thoughts, which I then thought about some more.

What all of this means is that my culture, my genetics, and everything I’ve learned over the years have instilled in me a deeply held belief that my thoughts are terribly important, and that they matter deeply. I have moved through most of my life believing that the ideas bouncing around inside my head truly define me, and that they tell me, and those around me, who I am, where I come from, where I’m headed, what I’m capable of, and how I understand the world and my role in it.

My thoughts are, apparently, so important that they’re worth paying large amounts of money to therapists so we can spend an hour discussing and exploring and analyzing every single one of them.

And so when I stand at my kitchen sink and look out the window at the vines growing over the chain-link fence and think that all I want to do is run away from the tantrums and the whining and the dinners left uneaten on divided plastic plates, it must mean that I am a terrible mother. Good mothers don’t fantasize about leaving their children, do they?

A couple of years ago, in a desperate attempt to become a good mother, I started studying mindfulness. One of the first ideas I learned in my mindfulness-based stress reduction course is that thoughts are just thoughts. That’s it. They’re not reality or anything even close to it. We’ve all got theories about where they come from, but no one really knows. (If you look up “thought” on Google, the first definition that pops up says, “an idea or opinion produced by thinking or occurring suddenly in the mind.” Um. Thanks. That clears up everything.)

Perhaps our thoughts are the result of the random firings of neurons. Maybe they’re just the repetition of phrases our parents used to mutter under their breath when they thought we couldn’t hear, or they’re ideas that we’ve had over and over again through the years for no apparent reason. Every once in awhile, they might even be a stroke of divine inspiration. Who knows?

The point is that despite what my grandfather and my education have taught me, my thoughts aren’t necessarily worthy of my attention, and I can actually choose how much time and energy I want to spend on any given one.

That thought (ahem) literally changed my life.

Now, when I stand over my kitchen sink, shoveling chocolate in my mouth and wondering how I ever got myself into this mess (both literal and figurative), I don’t immediately assume that I should hand my kids over to DSS. I try, whenever I can, to remember that it’s just a thought, and I can choose to let it go so I can calm down and get a little perspective.

Let it go. It’s as simple as that, but it’s not necessarily easy. I have over three decades of experience getting all wrapped up in my thoughts as if they were God’s word inserted directly into my mind. But I’m working on it, because the better I get at noticing, and dismissing, my frequently unhelpful thoughts, the more I can stay focused on what really matters.

The thing is, I can’t figure out what that is until I let go of all the ramblings in my brain that don’t matter.

Carla Naumburg, Ph.D., is a clinical social worker, writer, and mother. She is the mindful parenting blogger for and a contributing editor at Carla's writing has been featured inThe New York Times, The Huffington Post, and, among other places. Her first book, Parenting in the Present Moment: How to Stay Focused on What Really Matters, is now available. Carla currently lives outside of Boston with her husband and two young daughters.

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A Bracelet, a Necklace, and a Book Tour

Tuesday, October 21, 2014 | Permalink

Carla Naumburg, Ph.D., is a clinical social worker, writer, and mother. She is the mindful parenting blogger for and a contributing editor at Her first book, Parenting in the Present Moment: How to Stay Focused on What Really Matters, is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I’m getting ready to head out on my book tour, and I’m trying to decide what to wear. In addition to the clothes my sister will pick out for me, I’ll be wearing a thick cream-colored bangle bracelet with large black letters that read, “Because I said so.”

The bracelet might seem like an odd choice for someone who just wrote a parenting book, so I’ll start by explaining the necklace I’ll be wearing, a small silver pendant with just one word engraved on it: STAY.

I first heard that word—really heard it—during an eight week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) course I took a couple of years ago. I was learning the basics of mindfulness, meditation, and yoga, and a few weeks in, our instructor read us the following quote by the Buddhist Nun Pema Chödrön:

The pith instruction is, Stay. . . stay. . . just stay. Learning to stay with ourselves in meditation is like training a dog. If we train a dog by beating it, we’ll end up with an obedient but very inflexible and rather terrified dog. The dog may obey when we say "Stay!" "Come!" "Roll over!" and "Sit up!" but he will also be neurotic and confused. By contrast, training with kindness results in someone who is flexible and confident, who doesn’t become upset when situations are unpredictable and insecure .

Although Chödrön was talking about meditation, I immediately thought of parenting, and the ways in which I was “training” my daughters by yelling at them. My desire to stop yelling so often was the reason I had signed up for the mindfulness course in the first place; nothing else had worked. In that moment, when I heard those words, I got a little clarity on why I had developed such a temper (I was never much of a yeller before my daughters were born), and what I might do about it.

I realized that I had no ability to stay present in the difficult, irritating, boring, exhausting, situations that inevitably come up in the work of child rearing. When those hard moments happened, again and again, I just wanted to run away. When I couldn’t do that, I sought refuge in my smartphone or I lost my temper. I needed to learn to stay, and I needed to train myself to do so with kindness, which I had been sorely lacking. I started practicing mindfulness and meditation. It helped. A lot.

And so I wear the necklace, a small and subtle reminder to myself that the work of parenting calls on me to stay connected, stay grounded, and stay as present as possible and as calm as possible when I’m feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, confused, and off-track with my kids.

And I will also wear my bracelet, the bangle that says “Because I said so.” Just to be clear, these four words (which, yes, I have said to my children on more than one occasion, and which I am sure I will say again) are the verbal equivalent of shutting the door on them; pretty much the opposite of staying present.

A traditional Hasidic teaching tells us that we should keep a piece of paper in each of our pockets. One should read something along the lines of, “For my sake the world was created,” and the other should read, “I am but dust and ashes.” We are told to read the first note when we’re feeling hopeless or depressed, and the second when we’re feeling overly brazen or proud. The purpose behind these notes is to remind us not to take ourselves so damn seriously. That doesn’t mean that our ideas and attitudes aren’t important, it just means we don’t benefit from getting overly wrapped up in our own thoughts and feelings and wishes and disappointments. And I feel the exact same way about parenting.

Yes, I wrote a parenting book, and it’s all about learning to stay focused on what really matters. And when I head out to talk about it over the next few months, I’ll be wearing a necklace that reminds me of what’s most important in my relationship with my daughters, and I’ll also be wearing a bracelet that reminds me that sometimes the best I can offer them is “Because I said so.” And that’s OK too.

Carla's writing has been featured in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and, among other places. She currently lives outside of Boston with her husband and two young daughters.

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Ask Big Questions: Who Represents You?

Monday, October 20, 2014 | Permalink

The Jewish Book Council is delighted to launch a new blog series in partnership with Ask Big Questions, an initiative out of Hillel International aimed at getting people to talk about issues of heart, soul and community. Each month, Ask Big Questions will feature a JBC author on their blog, shared here on the JBC ProsenPeople blog page, and in campus programming reaching over 10,000 college and graduate students.

Miriam Karmel is an award-winning short story writer. She is currently touring through the 2014-2015 JBC Network with her first novel, Being Esther.

Recently, my town’s Selectmen gave a small-time developer the go-ahead to build a very large gas station on a pristine piece of land.

The land abuts a rocky river at the southern gateway to the Berkshires. Tourists flock to the Berkshires for the woods, the hills, the clean air, the small town charm. The place is a haven for city folk, a balm for the spirit when the city becomes too much. Now, the Selectmen, all three of them, have let the city in. Coming soon: a round-the-clock gas station with eight pumps, a separate fueling area for diesel trucks, plus a Subway on the side. Or perhaps a Dunkin Donuts. Welcome to the Berkshires!

The Selectmen are elected to represent our town’s citizens. To represent means to speak or act for another. Yet when they voted to allow a developer to set up shop in our wilderness, they did not speak or act for me. “Tax dollars,” they said, to those who protested. “We need a gas station.” Both may be true. The town is strapped for money. Yet why does this feel like selling one’s soul to the Devil? And we haven’t had a gas station since a runaway truck took out the single pump that had been here forever. The truck destroyed the adjacent country store, too.

There must be a name for this phenomenon, for the feeling that your elected representatives do not represent you. Let’s call it helplessness. It’s the feeling you get when you see the train wreck coming and there isn’t a thing you can do to stop it. I did what I could. I wrote opinion pieces for our local paper condemning the plan. I spoke up at town meetings. It was like howling in the wind.

Our town will survive. Yes, the landscape will be altered, though perhaps not forever. Detroit, I have read, is becoming a haven for foxes. The critters are moving into downtown Detroit, into places where people once lived. Woodland and prairie are blooming where houses once stood. “Nature heals the cuts that we’ve made,” a fox researcher said. I should take heart in that.

Still, I feel helpless. I dread the coming of the mega-station. The fast food joint.

Lately, at times like this, I find myself turning to Esther Lustig and wondering: What would Esther do? Esther is an 85-year-old widow who lives alone in an apartment in Chicago. She is the protagonist of my novel Being Esther.

Esther has good reason to feel helpless. She is active and bright. Her life is full. Yet her daughter Ceely wants her to move to Cedar Shores, an assisted living residence.

After Marty died, Ceely started placing glossy brochures on Esther’s coffee table, her nightstand, and even tucked between the pages of her latest book. The other day, she held one open and pointed to the pictures. “Look, Ma. You’ll have your own room.”

Disparagingly, Esther calls the place Bingoville. Esther intends to stay put.

“Thank you very much,” she told Ceely, as she handed back the brochure. “I’m happy just where I am.

Ceely is relentless. She is her mother’s self-appointed representative. She buys groceries for her mother, though Esther has explained how much she enjoys her outings to the supermarket. Ceely buys the wrong things. At one point, deaf to Esther’s preference for Lucky Charms, Ceely pulls a box of All-Bran from a grocery bag, as delighted as a magician plucking a rabbit from a hat.

Ceely pours the All-Bran into Esther’s favorite blue bowl, and as she slices banana on top she lectures her mother on the benefits of potassium.

Then she sets the bowl in front of her mother. After Ceely leaves, Esther dumps the cereal into the garbage and rinses out the bowl.

This is a small act of defiance. Yet in it Esther has asserted control over her life. Though she does not say so in the book, I can hear her telling Ceely: Thank you very much, but I can represent myself.

Some things, though, are beyond our control. I can’t stop the gas station. And Esther can’t stop the aging process. At some point she may end up at Cedar Shores.

So what would Esther say? She might say that as long as we are alive, we can represent ourselves by waging small acts of defiance. For Esther, that means staying in her own apartment. It means chucking the All-Bran and eating Lucky Charms.

Me? I’ll continue to speak out. And I’ll be on the lookout for moments of grace. For now, that includes finding comfort in the image of foxes taking up residence in a hollowed-out city. I’m holding on to the notion that nature heals the cuts we make.

Miriam Karmel's writing has appeared in numerous publications including Bellevue Literary Review, The Talking Stick, Pearl, Dust & Fire, Passager, Jewish Women's Literary Annual, and Water~Stone Review. She is the recipient of Minnesota Monthly's 2002 Tamarack Award, the Kate Braverman Short Story Prize, and the Arthur Edelstein Prize for Short Fiction. Her story "The King of Marvin Gardens" was anthologized in Milkweed Edition's Fiction on a Stick. Being Esther is her first novel.

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