The ProsenPeople

Why Do Talented People Do Bad Things?

Monday, November 28, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Drs. Michelle Friedman and Rachel Yehuda wrote about the Thanksgiving concerns all rabbis must address with their congregants and the backstory behind the book they wrote, The Art of Jewish Pastoral Counseling: A Guide for All Faiths. Rachel and Michelle have been guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council together as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Recently, prominent Israeli journalist, Ari Shavit, was suspended from his Hillel International speaking tour and then resigned from Ha’artez following accusations of sexual harassment of fellow journalists.

A few years ago, Rabbi Barry Freundel, a noted scholar and Washington, D.C. community leader, was found to have violated the trust of female congregants by abusing potential converts and indulging his voyeuristic inclinations by placing cameras in the changing area of the ritual bathhouse.

A few decades ago, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, an internationally famous composer of religious music, was surrounded by stories of inappropriate groping and sexual misconduct with adoring congregants.

There is no shortage of such accounts. They each touch the same raw nerve and evoke the same questions: Why do people who have earned our respect and admiration, to whom we look for inspiration and guidance, show such poor judgement, and worse, exploit their power in morally repugnant ways? How much does this type of unacceptable behavior on the part of leaders invalidate their artistic, academic, and spiritual productions? Should we be reading My Promised Land, studying Freundel’s religious insights, or praying to Carlebach tunes? How should we think about these issues?

The first question requires a brief discussion of narcissism. While a robust sense of personal esteem is important to self-worth, narcissism can hypertrophy in highly successful people. People who achieve positions of power and leadership may succumb to poor judgment that leads to crass behavior as a result of inflated self-esteem. Pathological narcissists have an hyper-exaggerated belief in their own self-importance, as well as a bottomless need for admiration. Such people feel that they have unlimited power, wisdom, and entitlement, and are prone to boundary-crossing, particularly in the arena of sexual exploitation. Pathological narcissists resort to serial sexual conquest to pump up their fragile egos and prevent themselves from facing their own deep insecurities. The narcissist is not concerned with damage caused by these seductions, and may feel that their talent or elevated status places them above conventions designed for ordinary people. The narcissist may feel that bestowing a sexual touch is a gift to admiring fans.

An attendant issue is the devastating impact that revelation of inappropriate behavior has on the public. Some members of the affected community feel shock, outrage and disgust while others rise to defend their inspirational leader, either minimizing, excuse or just plain denying his offenses.

Mental health has a good model for describing personality disorders, such as pathological narcissism, but does not always have the moral answers to help us understand what our reaction to their legitimate contributions should be. Ethicists have debated whether science should utilize findings gleaned from horrific Nazi experiments. But does this extreme comparison help answer the question of whether people should allow themselves to enjoy, learn from, and even be inspired by the creativity of charismatic figures who also exploited their power in demeaning and hurtful but not lethal ways? Can we throw out the bathwater and keep the baby?

Here is where communities encounter some of their strongest divisions. Some people feel that the sins of the artist carry over and besmirch the product; they will no longer read Shavit’s works or listen to Carlebach songs. Others feel that the artistic merits of the work stand separate from the flaws of their creators. Perhaps such folks will include a disclaimer at a conference on Carlebach’s life, but they unabashedly dance at weddings to his tunes.

Jewish spiritual leaders such as rabbis and educators confront both of these questions on a regular basis. Congregants, students, and colleagues turn to them for guidance with this dilemma. At best, the guidance should acknowledge that this moral struggle is a positive one. Our rabbis, teachers, and lay leaders need to encourage and facilitate respectful dialogue on such matters. They must institute checks and balances and set up policies and procedures to address allegations of corruption, abuses of power, and misconduct. While resolution of each case will differ depending on community culture and individual needs, the fact that we struggle with these issues enlarges our moral sensitivities and makes us capable of the right choice.

Michelle Friedman and Rachel Yehuda are the co-authors of The Art of Jewish Pastoral Counseling: A Guide for All Faiths and professors at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Along with their independent positions and distinctions, both authors teach pastoral counseling at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School (YCT) in Riverdale, New York.

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Rewriting My Family Memoir as a Work of Fiction

Monday, November 28, 2016 | Permalink

Andrea Simon’s novel Esfir Is Alive was published earlier this month. She will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

During the research for my memoir, Bashert: A Granddaughter’s Holocaust Quest, my cousin Barbara sent me an envelope affixed with a Post-It, writing, “Hope these help toward closure.” Inside were six postcard-sized, sepia-toned photos, most with names or other identifiers in Yiddish, one stamped with the photographer’s place of business: Visoke, the nearest town to my ancestral village of Volchin in present-day Belarus. My heart sank. These were the photos of the Midler family, my lost relatives killed in the Holocaust. Finally, I could put faces to the people I had been writing about.

As I assembled the photos across my desk, it struck me that these people were well-dressed, stylish even, so like my relatives spread across the United States; I had expected characters out of Fiddler on the Roof in raggedy clothes, lugging overloaded bundles. In my research I not only discovered more about life in the nearby towns and villages, but living people who actually knew the Midlers. These Jews read multiple daily newspapers, joined Zionist and socialist movements, acted in Shakespearean productions, studied Yiddish and Hebrew literature, and argued about the latest psychological and educational theories. They were modern people, not stereotypical facsimiles.

Over the next ten years following the publication of my memoir, I thought about the issues that I was not able to fully cover—particularly the daily life of Jews during the interwar years, a time of great intellectual flux. I wanted to write more about the Midlers. And there was also the story that did not seem to go away: the massacres of 50,000 Jews at the forest site of Brona Gora, culminating in the incredible testimony of the only recorded survivor, a twelve-year-old girl, Esfir Manevich. How could such a young person survive this ordeal?

The more pressing question for me as an author was how I could integrate these topics into a single volume. Would it be another memoir or a work of fiction? How could I include Esfir in the story when I didn’t know if she was still alive to offer corroboration? How could I introduce Esfir to my relatives when they were from different places?

I pondered these challenges over a long time, though I was not aware that various pathways had been germinating in my unconscious. Then it came to me: what if I began a fictional story in 1936, when the real Esfir would have been seven years old? My cousin Ida Midler would have been around fourteen. What if I send Esfir to Brest, the city where Ida attended the Tarbut Hebrew Gymnasium? I thought of my grandmother, who had run a boardinghouse in New York’s Catskill Mountains. Before I knew it, my grandmother morphed into Esfir’s fictional Aunt Perl, proprietor of a boardinghouse in Brest. Because of grave antisemitism at Esfir’s school in her hometown, I would send Esfir to live at Perl’s boardinghouse where she would become roommates with Ida, the counterpart of my real-life cousin. And thus the novel was born.

From the original photos and eyewitness testimony I had collected for my memoir, plus my subsequent research, I reconstructed the village of Volchin. Then I constructed Brest and the area around the boardinghouse. My childhood friends, twin girls, became Ida’s classmates. Now I had the setting and the characters. For a while they were on their own.

As I changed genres, my focus tightened from revelatory wide angle to exploratory close-up. I switched the point of view from the memoir’s first-person observer to the novel’s first-person actor. I tried to avoid the danger of telling a story by showing Esfir living through trauma, keeping in mind that she was also a witness plodding her way through history. At this point, I decided to pretend that Esfir would be recalling her life as an adult. I was gratified by the reaction of early readers who thought that the novel was nonfiction, an actual memoir written by the real Esfir. So my original memoir found new life in a fictional one.

Now when I look at the Midler photos, I no longer see a pleasant middle-class family. I see the eldest daughter, Ida, as an idealistic young woman who loved literature; I see my uncle Iser, a handsome man of prominence in his village who also yanked his slacks over his belly. I often wonder what they would think of me, their long-lost relative, poking around in their lives, making up conversations, creating scenarios out of slight resemblances. I like to think they would be proud of me, happy that they were transformed into fully developed lives, to be cherished on the page.

Andrea Simon is the author of the memoir Bashert: A Granddaughter’s Holocaust Quest, the new novel Esfir Is Alive, and several stories and essays. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the City College of New York and lives in New York City.

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30 Days, 30 Authors: Elizabeth Poliner

Friday, November 25, 2016 | Permalink

Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! JBC invited an author to share thoughts on #JewLit every day for the next 30 days. Watch, enjoy, and discover new books to read!


Elizabeth Poliner is the author of the recently published novel, As Close to Us as Breathing (Lee Boudreaux Books / Little Brown), which is an Amazon “Best Books of 2016 So Far” for fiction/literature. She has also published a novel-in-stories, Mutual Life & Casualty, and a poetry collection, What You Know in Your Hands. Her stories and poems have appeared in numerous literary journals, including the Kenyon Review, Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, and Colorado Review. A recipient of seven individual artist grants from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, she has also received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Wurlitzer Foundation. She teaches in the MFA program at Hollins University.



New Reviews November 25, 2016

Friday, November 25, 2016 | Permalink

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30 Days, 30 Authors: Adam Kirsch

Thursday, November 24, 2016 | Permalink

Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! JBC invited an author to share thoughts on #JewLit every day for the next 30 days. Watch, enjoy, and discover new books to read!


Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic. He is the author of nine books, including Benjamin Disraeli, Why Trilling Matters, and most recently The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature. He is director of the master's program in Jewish Studies at Columbia University and a regular contributor to Tablet, the New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books.



Writing a Guide to Jewish Pastoral Counseling

Tuesday, November 22, 2016 | Permalink

Drs. Michelle Friedman and Rachel Yehuda are the co-authors of The Art of Jewish Pastoral Counseling: A Guide for All Faiths. With the holiday season approaching, they will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council together as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

How did a nice psychiatrist/psychoanalyst, not to mention a neuroscientist, get mixed up with the world of rabbis and wind up writing a book on pastoral counseling? Aren’t mental health professionals and clergy like oil and water—do they not embody the gulf between science and faith, between non-judgmental exploration and directed guidance?

We believe that the two fields can coexist and even nourish each other. Perhaps blending the rigorous methodology and principals of mental health treatment with the wisdom of religion can create a healing experience that combines the best of both worlds—the yin and yang of a spiritually and psychologically satisfying response. Our odyssey started two decades ago when Michelle had the opportunity to bridge her professional and personal passions by organizing a conference on Jewish responses to anxiety and depression. This led to an invitation to be the pastoral counseling expert at four-day rabbinic conference. She was in for a big surprise.

Perhaps the serene wooded setting of the retreat center encouraged trust and openness. As the days passed, participants increasingly shared painful and sometimes shocking vignettes that congregants disclosed to them on a regular basis. While these well-meaning, good rabbis did the best they could, they were often overwhelmed by their own anxiety and simply did not know what to do. Whether early on in their careers or many years out, these clergy felt alone and unsupported out there in the field. Their seminary years had prepared them to answer questions about Jewish ritual but not on how to listen and respond to stories of loss, betrayal, and confusion. Unlike mental health professionals, whose training includes supervision and encourages personal therapy, rabbis rarely share pastoral challenges with their peers.

Michelle left that retreat chastened. Clergy are first responders to the messy needs of their congregants. She started doing one-off programs here and there for rabbinic alumni groups and other organizations. When Rabbi Avi Weiss called her out of the blue in 1999 and asked if she was interested in heading up pastoral counseling at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), the rabbinical seminary he was starting for Orthodox rabbis, it sounded like an intriguing adventure. Michelle had no idea of what a pastoral counseling program was, so she borrowed from her own psychiatric and psychoanalytic training programs and brainstormed with the few people she could find who were engaged in similar work.

One of the people she called was Rachel. Rachel is a psychologist and neuroscient who had by then developed several successful clinical treatment programs for trauma-related illness like posttraumatic stress disorder at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, which included modules for training young residents and interns. These programs included the Specialized Clinic for Holocaust Survivors and their families. Rachel was by then serving on the Board of Directors of YCT. Michelle asked Rachel to teach rabbinical students how to deal with congregants in the aftermath of trauma and disaster.

The years rolled by, and the pastoral counseling program at YCT flourished. One of the major teaching techniques to emerge was role-playing, in which rabbinical students are given scenarios to play-act: one student would act the part of the congregant while the other played the part of the rabbi. Another was process group, where students met every week with a mental health facilitator and, in a confidential setting, talk through feelings and issues that emerge in their training. Other seminaries strengthened their own programs, and mental health awareness grew across the denominations. Both Michelle and Rachel were invited to speak at Jewish community programs across the denominational spectrum on postpartum depression, psychiatric medications, sexual abuse, and how to respond to individual and communal trauma. Emails and calls came from around the country from rabbis who sought consultation on tough pastoral situations.

It was time to write a book. The goal was not to create yet another informative but dry, academic piece with a formulaic review of the literature, data charts, and copious footnotes, not another compilation of chapters about topics pertaining to mental illness that do not exactly provide guidance about how to navigate specific situations. There were enough of those. It felt important to write a book that explored the feeling experience of the person who sat in the pastoral counselor’s seat and confronted human drama and raw need. To write for the rabbi who listens to people dealing with loneliness or marginalization, parents struggling to connect to their children, spouses whose marriages are falling apart, elders confronting frailty, and for the school principal or camp director who sees the boy or girl struggling with a difficult family, with sexuality, with Jewish identity. The goal was to share what had been gleaned over these decades of delivering mental health services on the one hand, and teaching rabbis at YCT.

So that’s what we did. We created four fictional characters who go through almost 70 different scenarios culled from our combined logs of practice and supervision. We crafted expositions on each scenario that explain basic principles of pastoral counseling from a Jewish perspective. Toward the end of the process, we read the book out loud to each other to pick up on awkward or confusing sentences. It feels great to offer this book that can help people in positions of spiritual authority listen wisely and well.

Michelle Friedman and Rachel Yehuda are the co-authors of The Art of Jewish Pastoral Counseling: A Guide for All Faiths and professors at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Along with their independent positions and distinctions, both authors teach pastoral counseling at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School (YCT) in Riverdale, New York.

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The Active Listening Skills Every Rabbi Should Prepare for Thanksgiving

Monday, November 21, 2016 | Permalink

Drs. Michelle Friedman and Rachel Yehuda are the co-authors of The Art of Jewish Pastoral Counseling: A Guide for All Faiths. With the holiday season approaching, they will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council together as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

“Rabbi, Thanksgiving is coming up, and after the way my brother behaved last time I can’t bring myself to ever spend the holiday with him like we have always done. What should I do?”

Rabbis get questions like this all the time and especially before holidays.

People turn to clergy and other Jewish professionals for pastoral counseling because they hope to glean wisdom and support that connects them to Jewish tradition. But how are rabbis supposed to get that wisdom and how do rabbis learn how to provide the kind of support warranted by the specific situation?

The wisdom and experience comes from learning how to listen in a specific way. This is harder than it sounds. It is the kind of listening where the rabbi resists the impulse to jump in with a similar vignette from their own life, refrains from giving quick advice, and hears out the story. While listening, the rabbi quietly stays in touch with the anxiety, anger, or sadness stirred up within themself while listening to a painful, deeply human story.

Sometimes, a rabbi may worry that non-judgmental listening implies tacit acceptance of actions that contradict Jewish tradition. But when a caring listener finds a sliver of alliance with the teller of an offensive story, they generate trust; not necessarily approval. In fact, a Jewish pastoral counselor must find some point of connection in order to point out where behavior runs into conflict with Jewish and other values or might even lead to danger.

One way for the rabbi to listen is to ask questions. In the opening vignette, it is not clear whether the sibling got drunk, was missing in action during a family member’s critical illness, questioned Mom about the will, or suggested conversion therapy for a gay family member. The simple direction, “Tell me more,” coupled with quiet attention encourages the most turbulent souls to open up. As the rabbi listens, they can think of questions and generate hypotheses as to what is going on. The congregant fills in the story: “We needed financial help and my sister wouldn’t help;” “My brother was staying with us during his separation and made a pass at the nanny;” “I was going through a rough time and they didn’t bother to check in on how I was doing.”

The rabbi listening might wonder if these slights started long ago or whether they result from something that the congregant did that provoked alienation. They may recall similar painful situations in their own family. Sometimes there was resolution, other times not. Getting in touch with one’s own emotional pulse allows one to empathize with the congregant’s distress while also being clear that their life experiences and reactions are different. The rabbi might ask a few questions to clarify the picture and formulate a hierarchy of goals.

Sometimes people ask for a specifically religious answer: “Rabbi, what does Jewish tradition say about families?” or “Isn’t it against the Torah to embarrass someone?” Jewish tradition has much to say about family relationships and family conflict, about rupture and repair. The rabbi’s sense of tact and timing will determine whether offering a text feels formulaic or supportive. Often the congregant’s question is rhetorical, in the sense that they are not seeking a true Torah ruling but instead trying to get some heavy-duty support for their own feelings and opinions.

There is no one right answer to any of the above questions. A guiding principle for rabbis and pastoral figures might be to try and circumscribe the problem to the present moment and give the congregant permission to make a decision just for the immediate situation at hand. “I understand your relationship with your brother has been difficult for quite a while. I find it’s more helpful to avoid words like ‘never’ and ‘ever’—at this time you need to make a decision about this one Thanksgiving. After that, you can think about how that felt and what you want to do next.” This kind of response allows for a kind of pause after Thanksgiving, time in which to metabolize whatever behaviors and feelings come up over the holiday.

Few people listen well. The goal of pastoral counseling is to help those going through regular life events as well as crises. The enduring legacy of such support connects Jews to the richness of tradition over the longer arc of time.

Michelle Friedman and Rachel Yehuda are the co-authors of The Art of Jewish Pastoral Counseling: A Guide for All Faiths and professors at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Along with their independent positions and distinctions, both authors teach pastoral counseling at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School (YCT) in Riverdale, New York.

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My Grandfather's Ghost

Wednesday, November 16, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Nava Semel wrote about creating an alternative Jewish history for her novel Isra-Isle. Nava is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

For my bat mitzvah I received a gift. It was a collection of Incredible Stories in Jewish History. I recall reading about a Jew who created a homeland, not the one I knew so well, but another one—in America.

I was sure it was a fairy tale, pure fiction. How wrong I was.

In the 1990s my family and I lived America. My husband Noam was Israel's consul for cultural affairs. One stormy day, I went to seek refuge at the New York Public Library, where I came across a footnote in an article. It mentioned Mordechai Emanuel Noah and his vision for a Jewish homeland named Ararat situated near Niagara Falls. The old fairy tale resurfaced and came back to life. I immediately knew I hit the jackpot, discovered lost treasure.

I had to write a book about this place. I felt so connected. September 15th, Ararat’s inauguration date, is my birthday, too. I was born in Jaffa-Tel Aviv, yet I could have easily been an American kid. My grandfather was an American, living most of his life in New York. What if he had not left my grandmother and my father, who was then a small baby? What if he had not emigrated to America? My fate would be completely different.

Grandpa left in 1921, when the small Jewish shtetls all over Europe were rife with rumors that the sidewalks of New York were paved with gold—the Goldene Medina, as America as called in Yiddish. He promised to send tickets for his wife and child as soon as he was settled.

He indeed got settled, but the tickets were never sent.

Grandma remained an abandoned wife. According to Jewish religious law, a woman who has not been granted a divorce by her husband cannot remarry. But this did not prevent Grandpa from maintaining a relationship, progressive for its time, with another woman. They lived in separate apartments on the Lower East Side for over thirty years. Every morning he came to his mistress for coffee and a bagel and then went to the New York Stock Exchange. Although he did not pluck gold from the sidewalks, he became an expert in stocks and shares, which for him epitomized the essence of his exciting new world.

In 1946, after the Holocaust, my father, as a young Zionist activist, was interviewed at a conference in Paris by a journalist from an American-Jewish newspaper. One New York morning, over his cup of coffee, my grandfather suddenly recognized his son in the article: that’s how he discovered my father was even still alive. Perhaps Grandpa was assailed by pangs of conscience for not doing enough to rescue his wife and son from the horrors of the Nazi occupation. He contacted the newspaper and asked for information to contact them.

Three years later the family was reunited at the circumcision of my older brother in a kibbutz. Grandpa came to Israel to meet his first grandson and his son—two for the price of one.

No happy ending awaited them. Grandpa and his abandoned family did not get along, nor did he harbor any love for the State of Israel either. He saw it as a godforsaken place that didn’t stand a chance in the Middle East, surrounded by hostile neighbors. He loathed the kibbutz, regarding it as the “stronghold of Communism,” and viewed Zionism as an absurdly misguided and dangerous adventure. He gave my father an ultimatum: “Either you come with me to America, or I’m leaving for good.”

My father, of course, refused. Although the sidewalks in Israel were not paved with gold, nor was the land flowing with milk and honey, it was the only place for him and my mother, an Auschwitz survivor. I was born after Grandpa left, but when I was five he came again. Blind and abandoned, my father took him in. My small task was to take Grandpa on daily tours. I cunningly used his blindness to describe an imaginary Tel Aviv, one that could compete with his beloved New York. Now it was my turn to tell fairy tales. He taught me English, told me about Lady Liberty and the Empire State Building. He showed me how to draw the Star-Spangled Banner and sing about “the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.” He was an American patriot until his last breath—and I was his headstrong opponent, an Israeli to the very core of my being.

Isra-Isle echoes my old arguments with my grandfather. What if he had sent for my grandmother and their son back then in 1921? For starters, I would write in English, not Hebrew. In Isra-Isle I'm still trying to prove to Grandpa’s ghost that Israel is the one and only place for us. After all, that's where he found his final resting place—not in his beloved America. Listen to me, Grandpa, wherever you are: Your offspring live in Hebrew, love in Hebrew, and they will die in Hebrew.

Nava Semel holds an MA in Art History from Tel Aviv University and teaches creative writing at the Tel Aviv Public Library. Her previous books have been translated into 12 languages and received literary distinctions including a National Jewish Book Award for Children’s Literature in 1991.

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Playing with History Like a Deck of Cards

Monday, November 14, 2016 | Permalink

Nava Semel is an Israeli writer, translator, and creative writing instructor. With the release of her new book, Isra-Isle, earlier this month from Mandel Vilar Press, Nava will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

What if Jews had lived in greener pastures, on an idyllic, peaceful island, far away from the Middle-East? Perhaps we would have been the most docile of peoples, known around the globe for our tranquil nature, good manners, like the Biblical phrase—A Light Among the Nations.

In my novel Isra-Isle I recreated a Jewish state, inspired by the preceding Zion established by Mordechai Emanuel Noah, not Theodor Herzl. Noah was an earlier visionary who had bought "Grand Island" near Niagara Falls, financing the deal of his own pocket. In September 1825 he declared it a safe haven for the Jewish people and, since he was Noah, the name "Ararat" would be perfectly suitable. But his call was not answered; the Jews never came. This non-existing, imaginary Israel is my focus, a parallel universe where I can explore our alternative identity and ask a question that only authors are allowed to: “What if?”

In order to do that I had to obliterate the three components that are at the core of the Israeli identity, including mine. In this story, the Holocaust never happened to the Jews, because a fleet of rescue ships came from America to save them; the Palestinian conflict doesn't exist, because there was no Zionist movement to encourage the Jews to go to their ancient biblical homeland in the Middle-East and get into trouble with the Arabs. And the third and—in my opinion—most important identity factor is the Hebrew language. In Isra-Isle it was never revived. The Jews on Isra-Isle speak English, Yiddish and Ladino—the Jewish language of the Diaspora. Hebrew is only taught in the Distinct Languages Department at the Ararat Niagara University.

So if these components are gone, what's left? What kind of Isra-Islanders would we have been?

The destiny of any people is a direct outcome not only of their history but the place where they reside. Living for over 190 years under cloudy sky, cold weather, surplus of water, engulfed by green, eventually would have created a different kind of people, wrapped in furs and chasing turkeys, eating a cuisine concocted out of local ingredients such as pumpkin, fish, and berries. In my imagination, a bar mitzvah in Isra-Isle is sending each youth inducted into the Jewish nation sailing in a canoe towards the Great Falls, covered with a prayer shawl, decorated by feathers.

In reality, Mordechai Emanuel Noah never set foot on the new homeland he chose for his people. How, then, dare he think he could determine Jewish destiny without scouting the location first? Herzl at least, visited Palestine. But his novel Altneuland is as much an unrealistic prophecy as my novel.

How wonderful it is to play around with history, like a deck of cards, not necessarily placed in the right order. Is there a right order? Can we fix history and take responsibility of our fate, regardless of where we are?

I'm a product of Israel, for better or for worse. My identity was carved by a place chosen by my ardently Zionist parents who followed Herzl to a dangerous yellow desert, far away from Europe, where they were born. Hebrew is my true homeland, my cradle, my comfort, the language in which I dream and make love. How strange, even bizarre, it is to wipe it out from a book written in it. But perhaps such paradoxes are the only way for an artist to put their fingers on the things that often escape them and point to some hidden truth.

“I hope it won’t be an anti-Zionist book,” my late father said before he passed away. Rest assure, Dad, I wrote a hymn to the Israel I love.

Nava Semel holds an MA in Art History from Tel Aviv University and teaches creative writing at the Tel Aviv Public Library. Her previous books have been translated into 12 languages and received literary distinctions including a National Jewish Book Award for Children’s Literature in 1991.

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On Waiting

Friday, November 11, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Leah Kaminsky considered the power of inanimate objects and speaking to ghosts in contemporary literature—as in her own novel, The Waiting Room. Leah has been guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

I hate waiting. I’m that person at checkout in the supermarket who hops from line to line impatiently, emerging at the other end eventually, having taken twice as long to get through. If my dentist is running more than fifteen minutes late, I pace around glowering at the poor receptionist, silently furious that no one called me to say he was behind schedule. I get annoyed if my flight has been delayed, resorting to Twitter to vent my frustration against the airline. I can never understand how the people around me appear so calm, lounging around on chairs, deeply engrossed in reading a book, or phlegmatically playing Candy Crush on their phone. If the postponement of gratification is a sign of maturity, then when it comes to waiting I am that toddler in the aisle having a meltdown. Not only do I hate having my time sucked from me, but the demoralizing uncertainty of not knowing how long I will need to wait has me on shpilkes.

How ironic then that someone as impatient as I should take ten (make that thirty) years to write her debut novel. I have imbued my main character, Dina, with my own traits of waiting-angst. She is an ex-pat who visits Israel on a whim: “As soon as she set foot in Ben Gurion airport for the first time, she felt oddly enfolded in familiarity… the line inside passport control reminded her of a crowd of Melbourne Jews waiting for bagels at Glicks Bakery on Carlisle Street every Sunday morning; not really a line, more a schmear of generic impatience.” She fantasizes about having “plastic strap-on elbows to push her way through the strangely endearing organized chaos.” She falls in love, and ends up staying.

The Waiting Room resisted being corralled inside the confines of a book jacket for a very long time. The idea for the novel came to me soon after my mother died. I wanted to write about her extraordinary experiences as a survivor of Bergen-Belsen. She was twenty-one years old when she was liberated, the sole survivor of her entire family. Arriving in Australia as a refugee, she went on to rebuild her life, working, marrying, and raising a family, wrapping us all in a protective shield of love. Yet when I started writing about her after her death, much to my shame, I could only remember snippets of her stories. I had been a reluctant listener as a teenager, running from her haunted past.

It took almost twenty years before I had the courage to tackle the book again. I was already a doctor; I had met my husband and moved to Israel, where we were bringing up three young children. As I struggled to adjust to my new home, a new language, and the demands of day-to-day life, the only writing I managed was scribbling notes in a journal. Many of these observations would become the bedrock from which my novel sprouted—still inspired by my mother’s story, but also by my new experiences as an immigrant.

After a few years I had a pile of scenes, but no overarching narrative or structure to pin them on. Being such an impatient person, I began to feel very frustrated. I met the wonderful author David Grossman after reading his powerful novel See Under: Love. I shared my angst about the book with him. He explained that when he sets out to write a novel he knows almost nothing about it and it is only in the final stages that the story starts to congeal. “I need the story to surprise me, betray me, take me to places I’m afraid to go usually,” he said. In his experience, a novel-in-progress often behaves like a cunning carpet-merchant: “It unrolls and unfolds dozens of colorful carpets, and I’m tempted very easily.”

Grossman’s process intrigued me. At the time, though, I did not realize that I am also the sort of writer who needs to write in order to find out what I am writing, so The Waiting Room limped along at a painstakingly slow pace.

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way,” E.L. Doctorow once wrote. I persevered in my writing, trying out various structures, but was still totally lost in the narrative woods. The story spanned three continents, three eras, and had a dozen characters. Just as I was ready to give up, a friend encouraged me to apply for an MFA at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. I was paired with an advisor in the second half of the program, Clint McCown, who was a brilliant, softly spoken Southern writer. He accurately diagnosed me of a “fear of finishing”—this novel had been with me for so many years that I almost didn’t want to let go of it. McCown soon became the perfect antidote to my angst-ridden, impatient inner critic, and I started to find my writing mojo again. He encouraged me to develop the ghostly presence of my protagonist’s mother, who eventually grew into a major character in the novel. From there, it didn’t take long then to tame the manuscript into the shape of a novel. After another year of careful editing, under the guidance of my American agent Todd Shuster, I finally felt ready to show it to publishers. Then, within a couple of weeks, after all those years as a work-in-progress, The Waiting Room finally found a home. The wait was finally over.

Leah Kaminsky is a physician and author, whose books include We’re All Going to Die, Writer MD, and Cracking the Code. She is the poetry editor for the Medical Journal of Australia.

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