The ProsenPeople

The Mothers' Kaddish

Friday, July 11, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

We are all still reeling from the past weeks of terror and grief over the murders of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrah, three Jewish young men whose bodies were found in a field in the West Bank after an eighteen-day search following their kidnapping, and Muhammad Abu Khdeir, a sixteen-year-old Palestinian who was burned alive in a horrifying civilian act of retaliation.

It is hard, and it hardly seems appropriate, to find inspiration in the face of such tragedy, especially as the violence, division, and hatred behind it continue to promulgate in its wake. There was no small victory for humankind in this story, no miracle—but there was progress.

“The funeral ceremonies also included a seminal moment from a religious perspective, a personal moment with far-reaching public significance,” Yair Ettinger pointed out hours after the burial of the three Jewish victims, in an essay entitled “When Rachel Fraenkel Recited the Kaddish, the Chief Rabbi Said ‘Amen’” for Haaretz. “The recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish by women is gaining momentum, particularly in Modern Orthodox communities. Although it has rabbinical approval, it has never had such great exposure as it had on Tuesday.”

Indeed, 2014-2015 JBC Network author Elana Maryles Sztokman lists cemeteries and funerals among the worst examples of public gender segregation in Israel in the opening chapter of her current book, The War on Women in Israel: How Religious Extremism is Smothering the Voice of a Nation. “One of the most painful experiences of women’s exclusion,” she writes, “takes place at the cemetery, where women are increasingly barred from their own mourning processes… For perhaps obvious reasons, women who were prevented from saying eulogies or honoring their deceased loved ones at funerals faced significant emotional struggles.”

Thankfully—and significantly—that added distress was not placed on Rachel Fraenkel, the bereft mother of Naftali, as she buried her sixteen-year-old son. She was not edged out of public view or ushered away from her son’s graveside; she stood together with her family and recited the Mourner’s Kaddish in front of Chief Rabbi David Lau, religious leaders and members of Knesset, and the thousands of Jews who assembled at the cemetery, and the only response she received was “Amen.”

“The religious feminist movement is not new,” Ettinger asserts in his article. “It has been taking shape for many years with the full cooperation of high-ranking Orthodox rabbis, but it is not every day that it gets the kind of exposure engendered by a woman’s public recitation of Kaddish.”

Several months ago, 2014-2015 JBC Network authors Michal Smart and Barbara Ashkenas received a 2013 National Jewish Book Award for their co-edited anthology, Kaddish: Women’s Voices, in which over fifty writers from around the world—including Nessa Rapaport and fellow 2014-2015 JBC Network author and 2013 National Jewish Book Award recipient Chaya R. Gorsetman, who coauthored Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools with Sztokman—share their experiences mourning as Jewish women. “I hope this book will serve as a companion to others,” Ashkenas writes in the preface, “spark many meaningful conversations, and open the possibilities for women to choose how to mourn and remember a loved one.”

Since Naftali Fraenkel , Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrah’s disappearance, the entire Jewish world has been watching—watching for developments in the case, watching the bereaved families, watching for the responses of Jewish, Arab, and world leaders, watching the citizens of Israel and the Palestinian territories. This process of waiting and, eighteen days later, confirmed grief, and later still shock and horror at the discovery of Muhammad Abu Khdeir's brutalized body—for we are all, regardless of our politics or opinions, saddened by the senseless deaths of these youths—has elicited discussion within the Jewish community, albeit a painful one. We don’t know what to talk about, and so we resort to either sitting in an unhealthy silence or reacting in ways that harm others, harm our standing as a nation in the global community, and harm our own friends and dear ones.

Yair Ettinger’s piece points us to one way in which we might create a constructive conversation, both in the immediate aftermath of this terrible event and for the months and years to follow, for our communities: a discussion of healing, of Jewish practice, of women and religion, of a way forward.

Crypto-Jews and Autobiographical Animals: Part 3 of a 3-Part Conversation

Thursday, July 10, 2014 | Permalink
This week father and son, neighbors in Brookline, Massachusetts and longtime collaborators, David Shrayer-Petrov and Maxim D. Shrayer discuss Dinner with Stalin and Other Stories in a three-part conversation conducted for the Visiting Scribes series. Read the first installment, "A Fictional Model of the Former USSR," here and the second installment, "A Jewish-Russian Writer as New Englander," here. They have been blogging here for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week.

Maxim D. Shrayer: Papa, I want to ask you about varieties of crypto-Jews—those who conceal their Judaism in order to preserve it (as in your story “White Sheep on a Green Mountain Slope” set in the Caucasus), and also, perhaps, those who conceal their Jewishness to preserve themselves (as the Holocaust survivor, the Polish Jew in “Mimicry”). Why do so many crypto-Jews populate the pages of your stories, and why are there fewer traditional Jews in them?

David Shrayer-Petrov: I think that many Jews used to want to play down their Jewishness, at least in their public conduct… and I myself was sometimes guilty of that in pre-refusenik Soviet life.

MDS: But crypto-Jewishness is also an inherent quality of your stories, your characters. That’s why I contrasted your crypto-Jews with your publically observant Jews.

DSP: Pious Jews don’t usually stray from their public image or literary stereotype. Such model Jews are a source of my great admiration, but as a fictionist I don’t have much to say about them. It’s been done before by Sholem Aleichem, Bashevis Singer… even Singer was writing about Jews who exhibited a shift of behavior.

MDS: Speaking about shifts of behavior, Jewish or otherwise, your stories carry a strong dose of sexual tension; “The Bicycle Race” alone is rife with eroticism. I keep thinking of Dinner with Stalin and of Dark Avenues, Ivan Bunin’s manifesto of the love story. Can we speak of your book as a book of love stories?

DSP: I would prefer to call it a book of stories about love. In these stories there isn’t only love for a person, but also a subtle, yet powerful love for a Jew’s homeland, for Russia. And this love for—this love of—one’s native Russian language and culture is perhaps even stronger than sexual love in my stories.

MDS: And what about the love of American culture? I remember from my earliest Moscow childhood the framed photographs of Hemingway and Robert Frost on the walls of your study.

DSP: Yes, I was fascinated by them. But they didn’t touch me the way first Chekhov and Bunin, and later Nabokov touched me. Even Hemingway doesn’t touch me this way today. I don’t know what happened… It’s also one’s age.

MDS: Perhaps it’s one’s age. Or perhaps it’s your authorial perspective mixing colors of love and irony. During a recent event at Books on the Square in Providence, in responding to a question by a journalist of Jewish Soviet descent, you stated that everything you write is autobiographical, including your animal characters, be they wild turkeys or hippos. How literally can one take these words?

DSP: Autobiographical in the sense that each bird hum or love call, each sigh or roar of the hippopotamus, each tiny vibration of my story lines has its source in me—because I’ve experienced it. And if I hadn’t literally experienced it, then I thought that I’d lived it. Believe me, in our mind we sometimes live though an imagined life that is as real as the one we experience outside of our consciousness.

MDS: You’ve written some forty-five short stories and novellas and you have also written seven novels. Going back to the secrets of Jewish story-writing, I want to ask you what distinguishes the short story from the novel—and specifically your short stories from your novels?

DSP: As a genre, the short story is more fragile and tender than the novel. The short story does not tolerate falsity or unintended ambiguity. Shortcomings are immediately exposed on the face of the short story. At the same time, the short story does not agree particularly well with overabundant continuous depiction of people and their ways—with the so-called realistic-representational mode. In a successful short story, each line gains the potential to be read and perceived mythologically. For instance, in “Behind the Zoo Fence,” the hippopotamus is mythological in his capacity to send mystical vibes of healing to a young woman fighting a lethal infection at a nearby hospital.

MDS: You speak of your short stories as possessing a fantastical quality. This is, of course, a feature of Jewish fiction, from Sholem Aleichem to Bashevis Singer to Malamud. What are some of the literary sources of your stories?

DSP: I have always been drawn to fairy tales, legends, and myths. This goes back to my childhood, when I spent three wartime years in a remote Russian village hidden in the Ural Mountains. I was drawn to these things, but not so much to what is popularly known as science fiction. In modern Russian poetry and fiction I have admired works that were simultaneously fantastical tales and stories of social fantasy. Think of the Strugatsky Brothers—those Jewish-Russian geniuses of social fantasy.

MDS: Please explain what you have in mind when you call some of your short stories “fantellas”? This is your coinage.

DSP: From the skein of prose, grounded in realistic predicaments, I grow elements of what I call fantellism. I take these elements beyond the limits of so-called real life, and I pour them into the vessels naturally equipped to contain fairy tales. I call such a story a fantella, and through translation, my fantellas have entered American literature.

MDS: But could I please ask you to be more specific about the fantellas in Dinner with Stalin.

DSP: I already mentioned “Behind the Zoo Fence” with its hippo and his healing powers. Let me also mention “Mimicry” (where it’s sometimes impossible to separate the magic kingdom of marionettes from the real lives of puppeteers) and “Where Are You, Zoya?” (with its mysterious appearances of a wild turkey who bonds with an elderly Soviet émigré, she the widow of a Jewish poet who perished in the Gulag). There are other stories to read and think about. But let me stop here because the process of summarizing a new book not only arouses one’s curiosity but also takes away from the pleasures of imagining another life.

Born in Leningrad in 1936, David Shrayer-Petrov emigrated to the United States in 1987. He is the author of twenty-three books in his native Russian and of several books in English translation, including Jonah and Sarah: Jewish Stories of Russia and  America and Autumn in Yalta: A Novel and Three Stories. His latest book is the collection Dinner with Stalin and Other Stories. Dinner with Stalin was edited by the author’s son, Maxim D. Shrayer, a writer and a professor at Boston College. Two stories in the collection were translated by Emilia Shrayer, Shrayer-Petrov’s wife of over fifty years and a former refusenik activist. The other translators include Arna Bronstein and Aleksandra Fleszar, Molly Godwin-Jones, Leon Kogan, Margarit Ordukhanyan, and Maxim D. Shrayer.

Copyright © 2014 by David Shrayer-Petrov and Maxim D. Shrayer

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Ten Questions for Joshua Fattal

Thursday, July 10, 2014 | Permalink

by Bob Goldfarb

Bob Goldfarb recently spoke to Joshua Fattal, who co-authored, alongside Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd, the recently published book A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran, in which they document their experiences.

Bob Goldfarb: How long had you known Shane before you were captured?

Joshua Fattal: We thought we were best friends. We knew each other since we were twenty and had lived together. However, after living in a prison cell with him for a few weeks, I remember reflecting that I actually didn’t know him as well as I thought. We had never seen each other weep nor did we talk emotionally like we did in those weeks.

BG: Your captors figured out from your name that you’re Jewish. And although you aren’t religious, you wrote that you "feel Jewish" What were you feeling?

JF: It’s an identity thing, which means it was about my relationship with myself. I always identified with being Jewish. I guess my parents instilled it so deep in me that I couldn’t just shake it off even though so much of the tribalistic stuff – Jews who think they are smarter than everyone else – always turned me off.

BG: For a period of time you observed the Sabbath in prison as best you could. Did it have a meaning for you there that it doesn’t have when you’re safe at home?

JF: Prison made life miserable, but it also made life meaningful. Six days of the week are for work. The Sabbath is for rest, for creativity, for re-creation. I couldn’t do any of those things. I couldn’t even work during the six days, but by celebrating Shabbat, I honored the fullness of life. It was my feeble attempt to keep life sacred under the most execrable circumstances.

BG: Sarah's emotional suffering seemed especially extreme. After an early hunger strike she is curled up in her cell and in tears, and when a young female guard enters she says "I love you" to this stranger. And there are episodes of screaming, banging her head against the bars of the cell. She feels jealousy and rage. At one point she considered converting to Islam. What made her so vulnerable?

JF: That’s her personality. She’s dramatic like that. I was in hell too, but I’m just less dramatic. As Bob Dylan says, “It’s all right ma, it’s life and life only!”

BG: Sarah also repeatedly tells herself things like “I am made of steel" and “I am determined." Was that true too? Or was she compensating for feeling the opposite?

JF: Jews try to be psychologists. Freud was Jewish. That’s why my book is great for Jews. You get to analyze all three of us.

BG: Is it ever possible to trust a prison guard? What about the empathetic one, Ehsan?

JF: No, it’s never possible, but you have to. Trusting is essential to being human. If you forget the possibility of trust, you forget part of your humanity. I trusted Ehsan’s intentions. Actually, I trusted a lot of their hearts. But I didn’t trust that they’d email my family like I begged them to. Empathy and action are different things. Self-interest is a powerful impulse. Every once in a while, the empathy I invoked translated into a small action, and it made my day. It kept me human.

BG: Everybody is probably guilty of something. Can captors and interrogators gain power over a prisoner by finding that inner guilt? Did yours?

JF: The interrogators didn’t do it. I did it to myself by trying to make sense of my environment. I searched through my life to find things I was worthy of being punished for and tortured myself. Yes, tortured. That is a big part of why solitary confinement is considered torture.

BG: Shane remarked at one point, “These ideas of acceptance, this Buddhist seduction, it’s all bullshit." He felt his life was slipping away because he accepted his situation. How do you feel about the Buddhist idea of acceptance, and negating desire, after your ordeal?

JF: This was one of the problems of being stuck with only books to explain ideas. Shane failed to understand the nuance behind the profound Buddhist concept of acceptance. He simply read the word acceptance and thought it meant submission. However, it is a profound idea that enabled me to let go of constant anger and frustration while simultaneously striving to change our conditions.

BG: All three of you relate incidents where you stood up to the guards and emerged in a stronger position. Would that have happened if you weren’t prisoners with special status? Is it a good strategy outside confinement?

JF: Definitely a good idea! If you don’t have privileged status like I did, then you take higher risks, and are required to be a hero. But that is what heroes do – they take risks. Prisoners in Guantanamo with less rights than I had continue to stand up for themselves by going on hunger strike. If they didn’t do that they’d be even more forgotten and tortured than they currently are. Resistance is a key component to any social change.

BG: In the final pages Sarah and Shane each give impassioned speeches about politics; you tell a human story about the effect of the Israeli occupation on a Palestinian family. That seems to reveal a way that you’re different from your friends.

JF: We are very different. For me the simple fight is for humanity. Orwell calls it “common decency.” Stories kept me human in prison. I remembered my first love. I remembered stories my father told me about growing up as an Iraqi refugee in Israel. In prison, I dreamt of stories: of tearing down prison walls and running, of talking sense to politicians in Iran and America, and of dancing in a sunny park with friends in springtime. Stories were all I had in there. And oddly, the stories we tell ourselves about our lives, our past, and our future are what shape the world.

Bob Goldfarb is director of marketing and audience development at The Forward and the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity. He lives in New York.


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A Jewish-Russian Writer as New Englander: Part 2 of a 3-Part Conversation

Wednesday, July 09, 2014 | Permalink

This week father and son, neighbors in Brookline, Massachusetts and longtime collaborators, David Shrayer-Petrov and Maxim D. Shrayer discuss Dinner with Stalin and Other Stories  in a three-part conversation conducted for the Visiting Scribes series. Read the first installment, "A Fictional Model of the Former USSR," here. They will be blogging here for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week. 

Maxim D. Shrayer: Papa, let’s continue with our topic. What happens after a Jewish writer emigrates from the USSR to the USA? Of the fourteen stories in Dinner with Stalin, you wrote 13 in America, as an immigrant. What has changed in your creative laboratory?

David Shrayer-Petrov: First of all both the immediate environment and the greater environment have changed. Most of these stories fashion Russian—Jewish-Russian—characters living in America. In this sense, I’ve become an American writer. Take the story “The Valley of Hinnom.” Even though much of the action is set in Moscow and in Israel, I could never have written this story without knowing that the main characters are former refuseniks living in the US.

MDS: One more “American” question, then. A number of your stories are set in New England cities and towns, in Rhode Island and Massachusetts—Providence, Little Compton, Worcester, towns on Cape Cod. And there are also European stories set in Paris, Moscow and Leningrad, and scenes of Rome and Jerusalem, composed, as it were, from memory. How have many years of living in New England influenced your stories?

DSP: I’ve lived here for almost twenty-eight years. I think that I’ve rooted myself in New England. It has become my second—now my main—habitat. If asked about it, I now respond without hesitation that I’m a New Englander, even though I lived for fifty years in Russia, in Leningrad and Moscow. I actually wonder how I was able to write, so many years later, the short story “The Bicycle Race” and set it in the Leningrad of my youth. I guess I really wanted to fish out of the depth of memory and to reconstruct the image of a very complex individual. He’s called “Shvarts” in my story, but his prototype was Eduard Chernoshvarts (nicknamed “Chyorny” which literally means “black” in Russian), a famous Soviet cyclist. He was a Jew who had risen above the masses in the 1940s, when there was a strong popular anti-Jewish sentiment. In my story he’s a great Jewish athlete, but hardly a Jew of high moral standing…

MDS: …yes and no, but to return to the question of a Jewish writer in New England… if we look analytically at your stories, it appears that you write without estrangement about today’s life in New England (as in such stories as “A Storefront Window of Miracle”) and about your youth in Russia (as in “Mimosa Flowers for Grandmother’s Grave”). Yet you write with a much greater degree of estrangement about your last three Soviet decades, especially the refusenik years.

DSP: Yes, I think it’s true. In this regard “Mimosa Flowers for Grandmother’s Grave,” the only story in Dinner with Stalin that I wrote while still living in Russia, is a case in point.

MDS: Our English translation of this story had first appeared in Commentary, and I think it tapped our shared memory of a Jewish past in Eastern Europe. A Jewish family forever broken by turbulent events, a halutz, love and longing—these are things to which Jewish-American readers might be particularly attuned.

DSP: I think that throughout his or her entire life, every Jew is haunted by some poignant detail of the past… Say, one had a great-grandmother who was a traditional Jew in the full sense of this term. And then, across countries and languages, this image of a Jewish great-grandmother was being passed on from immigrant grandmother to mother to American child. And it has thus survived.

MDS: I agree, “Mimosa Flowers for Grandmother’s Grave” is the most universally Jewish story in Dinner with Stalin. So let’s continue with questions of Jewish family and marriage. In each of your stories you observe and comment on aspects of love and marriage between Jews and non-Jews. Critics have pointed out that for you as a Jewish storyteller this is a key question. Why?

DSP: I have observed very many mixed marriages growing up. My uncle, my mother’s brother, was married to a Russian woman who was an observant Orthodox Christian. And there’s a family legend that when I was an infant, a five- or six-month old, she brought me to church. But who can now tell…. The very marriage between Russia and Jewry is, I think, a symbol that was supposed to divert the striking hand of antisemites—and at times it did do that, but at other times it did not, only nurturing false hopes.

MDS: This is a very relevant topic in today’s America, and for that reason I think the stories in Dinner with Stalin will be of interest to Jewish-American readers.

DSP: Yes, but here there’s a religious agenda to this problem as one must decide about the religion of one’s children. In the Soviet Union such decision-making was less manifest in mixed marriages. But in 1953, Stalin’s last year and the pivotal year for Soviet Jews, with genocidal scenarios in the air, there were non-Jewish spouses who, out of fear, sought to dissolve their marriages to Jews. This shameful conduct of some of the non-Jews married to Jews resembles what happened in Germany after the Nazis came to power.

MDS: Before we pause and have some tea with lemon, let me ask you what is now a fashionable question: What’s your list of 5 Jewish books which everyone must read—that is, besides Dinner with Stalin?

DSP: This is a very partial list. I would recommend: The Ugly Duchess by Feuchtwanger, Heavy Sand by Rybakov, Shosha by Bashevis Singer, Ravelstein by Bellow (and given Thomas Mann’s Jewish connections, Death in Venice), and Ilf and Petrov’s dilogy The Twelve Chairs and The Golden Calf.

MDS: May I also add a personal favorite—and may this wish soon come true— your refusenik saga Herbert and Nelly, which is being translated into English.

Check back tomorrow for Part 3: "Crypto-Jews and Autobiographical Animals"

Born in Leningrad in 1936, David Shrayer-Petrov emigrated to the United States in 1987. He is the author of twenty-three books in his native Russian and of several books in English translation, including Jonah and Sarah: Jewish Stories of Russia and America and Autumn in Yalta: A Novel and Three Stories. His latest book is the collection Dinner with Stalin and Other Stories. Dinner with Stalin was edited by the author’s son, Maxim D. Shrayer, a writer and a professor at Boston College. Two stories in the collection were translated by Emilia Shrayer, Shrayer-Petrov’s wife of over fifty years and a former refusenik activist. The other translators include Arna Bronstein and Aleksandra Fleszar, Molly Godwin-Jones, Leon Kogan, Margarit Ordukhanyan, and Maxim D. Shrayer.

Copyright © 2014 by David Shrayer-Petrov and Maxim D. Shrayer

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Book Cover of the Week: On Bittersweet Place

Tuesday, July 08, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Chava Lansky

The floating house on the cover of Ronna Wineberg's new novel, On Bitterwsweet Place shows the struggle and the lack of belonging that protagonist Lena Czernitski feels as a Russian Jewish immigrant in Chicago during the Jazz Age. The cover's backdrop is a photo of Bittersweet Place, a street on the Northwest side of Chicago, once home to the iconic Burdick Enamel Sign Company.

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My Name is Yusha

Tuesday, July 08, 2014 | Permalink

Josh Weil, author of the recently published The Great Glass Sea, is blogging here today for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Any run-in with a Russian bathhouse is bound to shock: men chugging bottles of beer-like kvass, felt hats helping them sweat, sweat flying from birch branches as they beat their naked flesh. But what sticks with me most is this: stepping into the sudden heat, seeing them perched all around me, their privates dangling at my eye height. Feeling their stares. Realizing they are all uncircumcised.

I’ve never been much of a Jew: can’t speak Hebrew, wasn’t bar-mitzvahed, don’t believe in God. In Williamsburg I feel aligned with hipsters more than Chasids. I like mayonnaise on my pastrami. My grandmother shakes her head. Though she’s accepted my goyish ways, calls my wife “sweetheart” when, surely, her grandmother would have said “shiksa” instead.

Still, my father’s parents fled Germany just before the Holocaust, his grandfather was sent to a concentration camp, and, though, miraculously, he made it out, I know I have great aunts and uncles who did not. My mother’s grandfather was forced from his shtetl into the Russian army—for a Jew, near-certain death. In my family, the story of his flight is legend. I believe it, the way I’ve never questioned my father’s stint on a kibbutz. Though for a long time I couldn’t comprehend how his sister could move to Israel, trade Montana’s mountains for Tel-Aviv.

I’ve never wanted to visit there, not even when, for nearly a year, I lived a mere three hundred miles away. In Egypt, walking the fields around the village where I lived, I’d have this conversation, almost every day, nearly verbatim:

Egyptian Farmer (waving me over): “What’s your name?”

Me: “Josh.” (The Arabic, Yusha, would mark me as a Jew, so I used English.)

Farmer: “George? Like Bush?”

Me: “Yes, but I hate him.”

(Grins all around.)

Farmer: “Are you a Muslim?”

Me: “No.”

Farmer: “Christian?”

Me: “Yes.”

The suggestion that I read the Quran always followed this. I’d answer that I had. Which would stun him silent. To have read it and yet still not believe was nearly as incomprehensible as the concept of an atheist would have been. Though still better than a Jew.

Farmer: “Do you support Israel?”

Me (always): “I don’t know anything about it.”

Though I was beginning to. On Rosh Hashanah, I joined Cairo’s last handful of Jews at the city’s last working synagogue. It was surrounded by cops with AKs, special forces behind riot shields; inside, beyond the dogs and metal detectors, the main hall was patrolled by Mossad agents, staff from the Israeli embassy in the pews. To anyone who might try to sneak a weapon in, or plant a bomb, or simply throw a stone, I was the same as them. And, after the service, sharing fresh figs and honeyed sweets, I felt it was true.

Kugel, matzo-brei, my grandmother’s pickled herring: this has always been my comfort food. The sound of Yiddish makes me smile. Klezmer makes me want to dance. Study, self-betterment, responsibility to the wider world, the stress and guilt and workaholic unhappiness that come with it: sometimes, meeting strangers, we smell it on each other, a kind of a kinship; if we had tails, they’d wag.

But in Oradea—another synagogue, another year—all was still. Outside the walls I could hear the Romanian dogs who’d rushed me, the shushing of the caretaker who’d beat them with a blackjack. He slept in the entrance, paid by one of the many Jews long gone. Ceausescu, the Iron Guard, the pogroms: whoever had survived had left. Inside, it was beautiful—huge domed roof, hints of gold—but silent. A rustling: the ripped remains of a curtain. A creak: plaster hanging from a cracked wall. And then the shock of my own crying.

Back in the banya—shoulders beaten, skin scrubbed—my Russian friend gestured awkwardly at my crotch. Oleg is a sweet man, but I remembered my first trip to his country, how I’d heard someone outside railing against the Jews, a clanging against a wall, the cat I’d found that morning, its chest ruptured by an iron pole.

“Because,” I told him, “I am a Jew.”

As I write this my wife is pregnant with a boy. When he is born we’ll have him circumcised. To do otherwise would mark him just as surely, except as someone he is not. Not because of his blood—I don’t believe in that any more than I do God—but for the same reason that I will one day take him to Dachau, to Russia, to the town where his great-great grandfather was from, and, if they have a banya, I will want him to know why people stare. Almost as much as I hope that he won’t have to.

Josh Weil was awarded the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for his debut collection, The New Valley. A National Book Award "Five Under Thirty-Five" author, he has received fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, Columbia University, the MacDowell Colony, Bread Loaf, and Sewanee. His fiction has appeared in Granta, Esquire, One Story, and Agni. Read more about him and his work here.

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A Fictional Model of the Former USSR: Part 1 of a 3-Part Conversation

Tuesday, July 08, 2014 | Permalink

This week father and son, neighbors in Brookline, Massachusetts and longtime collaborators, David Shrayer-Petrov and Maxim D. Shrayer discuss Dinner with Stalin and Other Stories in a three-part conversation conducted for the Visiting Scribe series. They will be blogging here for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week. 

Maxim D. Shrayer: Papa, let’s start with a basic question. What are the stories gathered in Dinner with Stalin about?

David Shrayer-Petrov: Above all else, Dinner with Stalin is about Russian Jews who found themselves abroad, first emigrating and later grafting themselves onto American soil. My characters perceive themselves, especially when overseas, as Americans—even though at home in the US they may think of themselves as Russians. But if you pressed them on the subject, “You’re Russian?” they would answer, “Yes, we’re Russian. Russian Jews.” As a writer I weave the fabric of my stories from different balls of yarn: my characters appear as Americans at work, as Russians at home, while in fact they have Jewish souls.

MDS: If we take the title story, “Dinner with Stalin,” as a symbol of the whole collection, how does it express the essence of your book?

DSP: The title story doesn’t only encapsulate the Jewish question. This group of émigré friends is visited by Stalin who has come from the other world. It’s actually an actor who masterfully plays Stalin, bringing the whole thing to the point of absurdity; the audience begins to believe him—the way they temporarily believe the actor playing Hitler in Ray Bradbury’s “Darling Adolf.” Present among this motley group are representatives of a number of nationalities of the former USSR, including Armenians, Azeris, Ukrainians, Russians, and Jews. Here Jews enjoy parity, and the émigré protagonist and his wife, Mira, end up asking Stalin the most blunt questions about Soviet and Jewish history.

MDS: So in fact “Dinner with Stalin” is a fictional model of the former Soviet Union?

DSP: …yes, that’s right. And also a model of a United Nations session…

MDS: …convening in post-Soviet times…

DSP: …exactly. At this session representatives of different post-Soviet nations testify about Stalinism and other harrowing aspects of the past.

MDS: Let’s digress for a moment and talk about your path as both a writer of fiction and a Jewish author. You started out as a poet, and you hadn’t become a writer of stories until the 1980s, having already written three novels and two books of non-fiction. The short story became one of your chosen forms. Why do you think you embraced the short story later in your career?

DSP: I believe this had to do with what I demanded of myself. I had been regarding the short story as a gem that not every writer gets to cut and polish. For me the stories of Zweig, Thomas Mann, Bunin, Nabokov— Chekhov above all—and of the early Soviet writers such as Olesha and Babel—represented the highest mastery of the craft. As a younger writer I had stories to tell, but I hadn’t fathomed how to compose short stories until I became a Jewish refusenik and was living in isolation from the official Soviet culture. And already as a refusenik I understood that there is a magic device of fiction-making, which one needs to realize in order to compose a story—to conjure it up rather than copy it from so-called real life. This magic fictional quality—an inimitable vibration of feeling—is something Chekhov’s stories exhibit in the fullest sense.

MDS: You had a very early piece of short prose titled “The Sun Fell into the Mine Shaft” from the early 1960s, which was about a young Jew’s realization that he could never be fully integrated into the Russian mainstream. I find it very intriguing that you hadn’t begun to write short stories until you became a refusenik.

DSP: The Jewish question had been a source of much trepidation. As you can imagine, by the early 1960s, I had already lived through a lot. The Doctors’ Plot [of 1952-1953], when Jews had again experienced a nearing abyss, occurred during my senior year in high school. The Jewish theme had stung me. But before we applied for exit visas, I had been distancing myself from writing fiction about Jews. I had been tying my own Jewish hands. But I couldn’t suppress these urges.

MDS: Your stories, almost all of them, feature Jewish characters. Is writing almost exclusively about Jewish characters what makes a writer-Jew a Jewish writer?

DSP: I think that’s important. At least there’s a Jewish calculus at work. If you’re a writer of Jewish origin but you never write about Jews… hmm…I don’t know.

MDS: And if this is not only a matter of Jewish themes or characters but something else, can one then speak of a Jewish poetics—or specifically of the Jewish short story? What is that Jewish something else in writing?

DSP: It’s a secret, and I don’t think you can isolate it the way scientists isolate a gene. Otherwise one could take this Jewish something and transfer it onto any material. Luckily, it doesn't work this way. Each writer has his or her own Jewish secret. Babel has his own, and we immediately feel it. Or take Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov and their classic novels The Twelve Chairs and The Golden Calf. Even though most of the characters aren’t Jewish, the authorial grin is very Jewish. Or consider Grossman’s Life and Fate… the way the author mourns the Jewish fate as he sets it against the backdrop of the entire country’s devastating fate.

MDS: Yes, but I think that in Grossman there’s also a distinctly Jewish intellectual commentary. I was actually wondering: To what extent is a Jewish writer a child of Judaic civilization and to what extent is he a product of his own epoch and language?

DSP: I’m not a great fan of the notion of genetic Jewish memory. There are universal human genes, and there are genes highly prevalent in the Jewish genotype, but I don’t think this has much to do with Jewish writing. What does matter is that writers grew up in a Jewish family—even in post-revolutionary Russia—where they were exposed to Jewish conversations.

Check back tomorrow for Part 2: "A Jewish-Russian Writer as New Englander"

Born in Leningrad in 1936, David Shrayer-Petrov emigrated to the United States in 1987. He is the author of twenty-three books in his native Russian and of several books in English translation, including Jonah and Sarah: Jewish Stories of Russia and America and Autumn in Yalta: A Novel and Three Stories. His latest book is the collection Dinner with Stalin and Other Stories. Dinner with Stalin was edited by the author's son, Maxim D. Shrayer, a writer and a professor at Boston College. Two stories in the collection were translated by Emilia Shrayer, Shrayer-Petrov's wife of over fifty years and a former refusenik activist. The other translators include Arna Bronstein and Aleksandra Fleszar, Molly Godwin-Jones, Leon Kogan, Margarit Ordukhanyan, and Maxim D. Shrayer.

Copyright © 2014 by David Shrayer-Petrov and Maxim D. Shrayer

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Friday, July 04, 2014 | Permalink

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Book Cover of the Week: Tomorrow There Will be Apricots

Tuesday, July 01, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Chava Lansky

In Tomorrow There Will be Apricots Jessica Soffer tells the story of two women adrift in New York City: one an almost orphan and the second a widowed Iraqi Jewish immigrant, who together find solace and direction through the cooking of cardamom pistachio cookies, baklava, kubba, and more. The title is based on the Arabic adage which goes, "tomorrow, apricots may bloom," and Melissa Lofty's simple cover design juxtaposed with a colorfully patterned spine evokes the same sense of hope and serenity.

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Interview with Judith Frank

Tuesday, July 01, 2014 | Permalink

By Elise Cooper

Elise Cooper recently sat down with Judith Frank to discuss her recently published novel All I Love and Know.

Elise Cooper: Were there autobiographical parts to this book?

Judith Frank: Elements are there. I have a twin sister who is alive and married to an Israeli man. My family moved to Israel when I was seventeen. I was in a country where I did not speak the language so my humor and intelligence could not be conveyed. Also, my twin children were born while I was in the middle of writing this novel. I understood what it was like to change your life to accommodate the children. There was also the experience of marrying out of my religion since my partner is not Jewish.

EC: Is one of the powerful themes of the book how to handle grief?

JF: I am writing about characters that are deeply traumatized. Grief is a horrible thing and people grieve in different ways. Daniel feels he is catapulted back into adolescence. He shut down while he was grieving because he had survivor guilt and ambivalence. He survived and gets to flourish instead of his brother. I wanted to show how all the family members are not at their best and feel threatened by their loss. I had Matt’s best friend die of AIDS because I wanted to intertwine the question about someone who dies from AIDS: Is it as meaningful as someone dying from a terrorist attack? Which death counts?

EC: Did you ever have to personally deal with grief?

JF: My father committed suicide when I was twelve. My mother died while this book was in proof. My sister had breast cancer in 2000. I remember the threat of my sister dying and that was very potent for me. Twin losses are among the greatest losses anyone can experience.

EC: You have the grieving families feel that they lost a part of themselves, including the quote about Daniel feeling he was leaving his dead brother behind. Please explain.

JF: The quote about being buried on different continents came out of my feeling that my identical twin sister and I will be buried separately. That thought just kills me.

EC: Did you compare the relationship between the twins, Daniel and Joel?

JF: To differentiate from each other twins tend to show different personalities. My sister was verbally aggressive while I receded. I would refer to Joel as the outgoing brother and Daniel as the submissive one. But that has to do with their dynamics. He has guilt because he is now able to step forward due to his brother’s death.

EC: There is a scene in the book about social workers who are part of the Israeli government. Their job is to handle grieving families of terrorist attacks. Is that true?

JF: Yes. My sister who is a social worker introduced me to several women who handle grieving families. They have support systems for themselves and rotate in and out of this job. My sister thanked me for the portrayal of social workers. I thought about their job and was drawn to them. Those scenes affected me deeply.

EC: You included among the grieving families Holocaust survivors. Why?

JF: I thought how these people have gone through so much and now had to deal with the loss of their daughter. I am friends with children whose parents are Holocaust survivors. I also included it because I thought it was compelling that the children might stay in Israel to live with their grandparents who had suffered so much.

EC: You also explore the relationship of having a Jew and a non-Jew as partners. Can you explain?

JF: My children call themselves half-Jewish. What is important to us as a family is to have a sense of community, which I tried to convey through Matt and Daniel. When my mother died we had two Jewish communities helping us, setting up Shiva. That was very moving for us. Even though we are pretty secular it was really nice to be surrounded by Jewish people who were willing to take care of us. One of the jokes about Matt is that he really loves Jews and has always been attracted to Jewish men.

EC: You included the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as part of the theme of the book. Do you think you were even-handed?

JF: I think a lot of Jewish people might not think I was even handed, although I did. I put the Israelis traumatized by terror and the social worker scenes into the book. Because of Daniel’s political position it made it a lot harder for him to grieve. If he could feel rage or if he could feel the war on terror was a righteous one it would have been easier. His political views are wrapped up in his sense of justice and empathy. What happens if you lose someone to a terrorist attack and do not buy into the cultural script?

EC: You had quotes from your characters that leaned heavily toward the Palestinian point of view. For example, the tradition in a Jewish wedding of breaking the glass, “to symbolize the shattering of their lives when Joel and Ilana died, and the continued shattering of Palestinian lives.”

JF: American Jews must question their relationship with Israel and what kind of criticism can we level towards Israel. We are at a moment with a lot of Jewish Americans at a turbulent transitional phase about Israel. I am sure some people will be thrilled and some will be angry.

EC: Why did you put this quote in since you never explained its context? “If a Palestinian living in Jerusalem marries someone from the West Bank, they can’t live legally together in either place.”

JF: This is a novel, not history. A lot of gay people wrestle with the institution of marriage. Daniel starts to think about marriage for everybody. He is thinking about himself and sees this as a tragedy of Jewish history. The Jews have suffered such persecution; yet, they have succeeded in building their homeland through the oppression of others. I really wanted to intertwine the lives of the Palestinian and gay people.

EC: What do you want readers to get out of the book?

JF: I wanted to write about a person struggling with his sense of identity and justice. This entire novel is about the consciousness of Jews and Israelis. You can love Israel and deplore its policies. I also hope the readers were moved by a family suffering from incredible grief and sorrow.

Elise Cooper lives in Los Angeles and has written numerous national security articles supporting Israel. She writes book reviews and Q and A's for many different outlets including the Military Press. She has had the pleasure to interview bestselling authors from many different genres.

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