The ProsenPeople

American Jewish Writers and Israel

Friday, May 08, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Michael C. Kotzin wrote a two-part series on radical Islamism’s war against the Jews. You can find part one here and part two here. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

In the summer of 2011, after having been an executive at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago since 1988, I cut back my hours and changed my title from Executive Vice President to Senior Counselor to the President. Though throughout my tenure as a Jewish communal professional I had done a good deal of writing, those pieces were mostly on subjects closely related to my work. With the time that was freed up by the reduction in my Federation workload, I returned to involvement with literature of the sort that had defined my earlier career engagement when, with a Ph.D. in English from the University of Minnesota, I served on the faculty of Tel Aviv University for 11 years.

Happily accepting an invitation to become a Visiting Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the spring of 2013, I taught a senior seminar on a topic I devised called “Reflections on Zion: American Jewish Writers and Israel.” It was an approach that brought together both of my professional careers, and I much enjoyed my return to the classroom while finding the students delightful and engaging.

Along with the teaching, as I dug into the texts I had selected I found myself once more preparing publications on literary subjects. I wrote an article on I.F. Stone’s 1946 Underground to Palestine demonstrating the manner in which that icon of the left was sympathetic to the Zionist dream, and I was invited to prepare a piece on In Search, the 1950 autobiography by the novelist Meyer Levin. (That essay is scheduled to appear shortly in Hebrew translation in a special issue of an Israeli journal focusing on Diaspora, Exile, and Sovereignty.)

The curriculum for the course consisted of essays by Louis Brandeis and Marie Syrkin, along with Saul Bellow’s To Jerusalem and Back and a number of fictional works. When papers were invited for a session on “Zionism and the Novel” for the January 2015 meeting of the Modern Language Association that took place in Vancouver. I contemplated returning to Victorian Literature, my earlier area of specialization, to write about George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. But another paper had already been submitted on that topic and I decided to return to works from my class. The result was a presentation in which I talked about Zionist elements in Leon Uris’ Exodus (1958), Philip Roth’s The Counterlife (1986), and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007).

Written in very different times and circumstances by authors who themselves were different in many ways, the books, with differing purposes as well, nevertheless can be seen to treat parallel Zionist themes. Especially notable in this regard are their disparate yet overlapping portrayals of the basic Zionist concept regarding the creation of a “new Jew.”

For Leon Uris, in his iconic bestseller, the epitome of that type is Ari Ben-Canaan, a rugged Sabra fighter. In a contemporary talk, Philip Roth expressed no patience with the Jew as tough guy. But later, in his own complex, dazzling novel, the figure of the new Jew again has a gun while now being split into Henry Zuckerman, a dentist from New Jersey who finds his Jewish identity by going to Israel, and Mordecai Lippman, a zealous settler leader who picks up the fighter image.

For Michael Chabon, writing still later, when America’s – and American Jewry’s – relationship with Israel had become even more complicated, the treatment of these and related themes takes a further turn. While the book is sometimes regarded as offering a post-Zionist perspective, I’m more inclined to see it as set in an alternative “pre-Zionist” world, where Yiddish is the lingua franca; where there is no Israel (the state having been destroyed almost immediately after its creation); and where Jews are shown living in a condition of permanent exile.

This book’s Jew with a gun is a detective out of a noir novel of the 1920s and ‘30s who is involved not with the collective redemption of the Jewish people in their homeland, as was the case with Exodus, nor with an individual’s new life in a communal setting in that land, as in The Counterlife, but with personal redemption in exile and the achievement of “union” only with his former wife.

The course I taught ended by focusing on two short stories by Nathan Englander and on Yosef Yerushalmi’s lone, posthumous work of fiction. Englander’s stories, we observed, show a familiarity with Israel as it has become for those American Jews for whom it remains a central part of their identity. In the story by Yerushalmi, a highly regarded New York-based scholar of an earlier generation, many of the themes of traditional Zionist thought are recapitulated in a striking fashion.

All in all, this course’s foray into the treatment of Israel by select American Jewish writers over the last century, while hardly comprehensive, showed me and my students that there is richness to be mined by exploring the topic and its evolution. While not one of the most widespread subjects treated by American Jewish authors, the subject of Zionism, Israel, and their meaning to American Jews has been significantly drawn upon by a range of such writers, a matter meriting further examination.

Michael C. Kotzin is a longtime Jewish communal professional and former professor of English Literature at Tel Aviv University. He has been an executive at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago since 1988 and is the author of the recently published On the Front Lines in a Changing Jewish World: Collected Writings 1988-2013.

Related Content:

New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, May 08, 2015 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

Related Content:

The “Docu-Novel “ and My Wallenberg Hybrid-Novel

Friday, May 08, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Alan Lelchuk wrote about researching Raoul Wallenberg across the world and meeting Daniel Pagliansky, Wallenberg's KGB interrogator. Lelchuk is the author of the acclaimed novels, American Mischief, Miriam at Thirty-Four, Shrinking, Miriam in Her Forties,Playing the Game, Brooklyn Boy, Ziff: a Life?, and On Home Ground. His most recent book is Searching for Wallenberg, and he has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

In 1956 Meyer Levin wrote Compulsion, a novel about two young thrill killers in Chicago, based on the real life murderers Leopold and Loeb. Levin knew the local story well of the two young men, and observed the trial as a journalist. A popular movie was made from the novel, and Compulsion became the first of what we have named “docu-novels.” This was followed in 1966 by the even more popular In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote, which the author considered a non-fiction novel. (Again another Hollywood movie was made from the very realistic book.) This concerned a quadruple murder in Kansas by two killers, and Capote went out to Kansas (with Harper Lee) where they conducted long research, and produced a true crime story that was emphatically fact-based. Next, in 1979, came Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song about Gary Gilmore, a murderer in Utah, a work of some 900 pages based on a some 15,000 interviews done with Gilmore in the last 9 months of his stay on Death Row. Here, very often Mailer employed Gilmore’s actual words from those interviews for his novel. In those books, the facts ruled the day.

Searching for Wallenberg has some of the docu in the novel, but I would prefer to call it a hybrid work. Yes, there is actual documentation it, and also some of Wallenberg’s own words from his writings. The several known historical facts here are documented clearly, based on the reality, as we know it, of chaotic Budapest 1944-45, and Lybianka Prison, Moscow 1945-47. And yes, too, I researched much of the era, especially the climate surrounding the figure of Wallenberg. But what remained, always at the center, was mystery—as in the gaps of history, the gaps in Raoul the man. Hence much of my novelistic journey was consumed by filling in those gaps with a credible, imagined reality. With scenes that were constructed from a known basis, a context of empirical reality—such as, Wallenberg coming from a very rich Swedish family, Wallenberg saving approximately 17,000 thousands Jews directly in Budapest in 1944-45, Wallenberg the Russian prisoner for two whole years in Moscow’s Lybianka prison, Wallenberg the man having no record of any real girlfriends in Michigan or Budapest, or Stockholm for that matter. So therefore my task was to invent scenes that revealed the possible truths behind the facts that we did have, and to create and dramatize the history that we didn’t have. From the empirical to the imagined. Whereas in the docu-novels cited above, the task was to fictionalize those facts in order to bring out the known facts more emphatically, mine was a bit more risky, I’d say, but for different and necessary reasons. And let me add to the hybrid nature by pointing to the making of history itself by my seeing the interrogator Pagliansky and recording that scene in the novel.

So what we have here is layer upon layer of material, both real and imagined, in the service of …one mystery on top of another. No need for me to tidy it all up for the reader, but rather only present the layers for him or her to judge, interpret, value. In the end, I hoped for an internal organic mystery, enticing and rewarding, which the reader might investigate alongside me, and my fictional counterpart Emmanuel Gellerman, a partner detective, you might say, in the long and unfinished and unfolding journey.

Alan Lelchuk's short fiction has appeared in such publications as Transatlantic, The Atlantic, Modern Occasions,The Boston Globe Magazine, and Partisan Review. He is an editor at Steerforth Press and teaches at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Read more about him here.

Searching for Wallenberg: A Novel

Related Content:

Radical Islamism’s War Against the Jews: Who Cares? (Part 2)

Wednesday, May 06, 2015 | Permalink

In part one of "Radical Islamism’s War Against the Jews: Who Cares?" Michael C. Kotzin wrote about radical Islam and the Jewish community. Today read part two of this two-part series and check back on Friday for Kotzin's final post for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

The Houthi rebels of Yemen have been receiving considerable media notice since their rebellion against that country’s government caught fire. Yet their slogan – “Death to America, Death to Israel, Damnation to the Jews” – has attracted relatively little attention. That may be understandable since their main current activity is as a key player in Yemen’s Civil War, in which they have been linked to Iran even as the Saudis have been increasingly involved on the other side. Still, there is something revealing and typical in the fact that we have now been introduced to one more group of Islamist fighters for whom hatred of Israel and of the Jewish people is a central tenet, and in the fact that the Western media pays little attention to that reality.

On January 17, the New York Times ran a lengthy story on “Chérif and Saïd Kouachi’s Path to Paris Attack at Charlie Hebdo” which traced the jihadist radicalization of these two brothers and went on to talk about their connections with Amedy Coulibaly, who killed a French police officer the following day and then murdered four Jewish shoppers at the Hyper Cache Market the day after that.

The article tells its readers that a court transcript on another charge revealed that as early as September and October of 2004, “Chérif never stopped talking about the Jewish shops, of attacking them in the street in order to kill them.” Never in this lengthy article did the Times try to answer the question as to where such violent hatred of Jews came from. Was it part of the culture of the community in which Chérif grew up and lived? Was it taught by the jihadist mentor he had first learned from? Did he pick it up from the Internet or from satellite broadcasts emanating from the Muslim world? Why would Chérif and others be so receptive to such messages?

Clearly the attitudes are not unique to these brothers. Indeed, it was Coulibaly who, as he said in a recorded message released after he was killed, “went after the Jews” during the three-day terrorist spree. As has been reported in a piece in Tablet, last August Coulibaly and Hayat Boumedienne were recorded by a surveillance camera in front of a Jewish school, and after they had entered the school, he asked a security guard if “it was true that there were Jews inside of the building.”

On the day of the supermarket incident, the car he was driving had maps marked to show the designations of various Jewish schools in Paris, one of which was said to be near the spot where he killed a police officer on Thursday of that bloody week, leading to speculation, recently verified, that such a school was his intended target that day. It has also been speculated that he may also have been looking for a Jewish school on the following day, with the Hyper Cache, identifiably Jewish as a kosher market, then emerging as a target of opportunity. In any event, it clearly was living Jews, such as those he murdered and wounded in the market, not the building per se, that Coulibaly was after.

There have been a string of lethal Islamism-linked attacks on Jewish sites around the world in recent years. Those include the murderous shooting at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France, two years before the Paris attack; the murders at the Jewish Museum in Brussels last May; and more recently, the Copenhagen killings that included a Jewish civilian security guard outside of a synagogue where a Bat Mitzvah was being celebrated. These targets were not chosen by accident, nor was the motivation of the killers unrelated to the Islamist ideology of hate.

For all of that, little has been said to account for or even acknowledge the anti-Semitic loathing behind such activity, even as Islamist violence in general has garnered increased attention since the Paris incidents. Indeed, even regarding that case there were many in the Jewish community who doubted that the Hyper Cache killings would have evoked nearly as much of a response if they hadn’t been linked to the Charlie Hebdo massacre, which certainly got the lion’s share of the attention during the subsequent massive unity march in Paris. And while governments in several Western European countries have stepped up protection for Jewish institutions, neither their spokesmen nor community leaders have demonstrated full comprehension of this element of the problem.

Is there simply an understood expectation that the Jewish people, persecuted by so many through the ages, are an inevitable and natural target of today’s hatred and violence? Might there even be, in some quarters, an underlying assumption that the Jews have it coming?

While some commentators may automatically link anti-Jewish sentiment and behavior to feelings about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, and while that might be an aggravating circumstance in some cases, it is a far too easy and superficial way to account for all of what is happening.

Not that there is no connection with Israel. Surely the establishment of a Jewish, democratic, Western-style state in what they regard as the heart of “their” territory is an affront that many Arabs and Muslims have never gotten over, and the Jews of the world by extension are identified as the enemy. But the hatred I am talking about preceded the establishment of the State of Israel and transcends it. Indeed, the attribution of today’s anti-Semitism to the existence of Israel and whatever acts it may carry out might in many cases be seen as an excuse for that hatred rather than a reason for it.

In a 1950 autobiography called In Search the Chicago-born author Meyer Levin wrote about the Arab riots that took place in Palestine in 1929, when he was there living on a kibbutz. He noted that the Jewish victims of the Hebron massacre of that time were not recently-arrived nationalistic pioneers but religious scholars who had been there for generations, and he observed that the murderers had been provoked by incendiary sermons in their local mosques.

As relative disinterest in the implications of the singling out of the Jews by radical Islam continues even while the global thrust and threat of that danger grows, it becomes increasingly difficult not to think that there may be a willful blindness at work, something that perhaps itself reflects a residue of anti-Semitism. Where else can refusal to face the facts come from? Might it all go back to an urge to get free from lingering guilt about the Holocaust, which come to think of it was pretty much played down in its own time?

Could it be that to acknowledge what is happening and what it echoes would upend the belief that many hold about who currently wears the mantle of victimhood – at a time and in an ideological culture where the title of chief victim is coveted? In any event, the degree of silence that exists about the verbal and physical targeting of the Jews by today’s violent Islamist extremists says more about western society and its media than it does about the Jews. And that can’t be a healthy matter.

Michael C. Kotzin is a longtime Jewish communal professional and former professor of English Literature at Tel Aviv University. He has been an executive at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago since 1988 and is the author of the recently published On the Front Lines in a Changing Jewish World: Collected Writings 1988-2013

On the front lines in a changing Jewish world: collected writings, 1988-2013

Related Content:

My Wallenberg Education in Budapest, Stockholm, and Moscow

Wednesday, May 06, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Alan Lelchuk wrote about meeting Daniel Pagliansky, Wallenberg's KGB interrogator. Lelchuk is the author of the acclaimed novels, American Mischief, Miriam at Thirty-Four, Shrinking, Miriam in Her Forties, Playing the Game, Brooklyn Boy, Ziff: a Life?, and On Home Ground. His most recent book is Searching for Wallenberg, and he will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Traveling to various destination and sites, meeting participants and witnesses, searching archives, led me to get a feel of the different cultures, and fill in the puzzle of R. Wallenberg. In Stockholm for example, I experienced the world of the proud if icy Swedes, a conservative, private people. And I felt the elegance of their orderly town, the wonderful mahogany interiors (of restaurants, municipal buildings), the curved city library, and the narrow cobblestone streets. I could see where Wallenberg had sketched some of his future architectural plans and his interest in developing the quay area. Importantly, I met in the Lindingo suburb home of a friend, a seventyish gentleman who had been in the Officer Training Corps with the young Wallenberg, who told me a story which contributed significantly to my understanding of my protagonist. When they were together in the north of Sweden for their officer camp training, the Commanding Officer disciplined a young soldier for some violation of rules, demeaning him in front of the group of twenty. When he did this, another young officer stepped forward, identified himself (Raoul Wallenberg), and said he objected to the humiliation of his fellow trainee, calling it “unprofessional.” The officer in charge was shocked at this breach of authority, stared at the young rebel, and decided to pull back from his severe punishment. “Everyone of us saw what sort of man this young officer was, not afraid of authority,” my old witness said, and how this RW was, brave, unorthodox, fearless. The small group of young officers was impressed. And for me, that characteristic of the youthful Wallenberg never left my sights as I was composing my character.

At the elegant Stockholm Municipal Building where I went to search for archive files of interest, I was given three CD’s—Raoul Wallenberg, 1945-70, Dossier P2 Eu—by the efficient archivist. These were innocuous enough documents of diplomatic notes, etc. But when I sought the more revealing and more relevant diplomatic notes between the Government of Sweden and the Soviet Union, and those between the Foreign Ambassador of Sweden and his counterparts in SU, during those crucial years of 1945-47, I was told they were off-limits still, some fifty-five years after the events. The cordial archivist shook his head, smiled sympathetically and offered, “I know, I know. One day perhaps….” So I understood that beneath the order, the elegance and the courtesy, there lurked shadows and secrets that were waiting to be disclosed if unearthed. In other words, something was rotten in the state of Sweden.

In Moscow I tried hard to get inside the intricate understanding and deep vaults of the KGB—if you walked in front of the massive concrete block named Lybianka Prison, you would get a sense of the notorious fortress, the Stalinist architecture. From my KGB guide Nikita Petrov I learned about its deepest kept secrets, wherein the real file of the Russians and Wallenberg was probably locked away securely—in the cavernous basement of the KGB archives. A basement infamous for the darkest truths and secrets buried down there, guarded so tightly that hardly any of the high agents of the current FSB or government officials were allowed down there. “Once you enter this Service,” Nikita told me, “you never leave, meaning you never tell your secrets while you live—and if you attempt to, you don’t live—or even after you die.” (Actually, before the Putin era, certain escapees did tell their tales.) And so I was back to a Secret Society again, one that I had encountered in Stockholm; by now I was expanding my naïve education in recent European Cold War history, how much of it was locked away, guarded carefully, for reasons of disclosure which could destroy reputations and persons of authority, and reveal more evil.

In Budapest, sitting at a small table in Vorosmarty Square, I was introduced to Georges L., a hefty fellow of seventy-five, and, over rich Gerbaud coffee, I heard his story. His parents had been taken away to Auschwitz, he was a boy alone, homeless, and Wallenberg found him wandering, and saved him. He hired him to do small errands, and found him places to sleep at night. “He was a Mashiach, and people came around if they heard Mr Wallenberg was there, at some place, just to see him, even touch him. He never turned any Jew away, old or young, crazy or poor. Look at me today, I am alive because of him!” He shook his head, shed tears. “Sometimes I see him at night, just before sleep, and he appears like a living ghost “

So that was the way the Jews viewed Raoul, like the true living messiah.

Could I reproduce some of that transformation in my novel, I wondered, sitting in that square filled with sunshine and people, clouded over by hovering memories.

Alan Lelchuk's short fiction has appeared in such publications as Transatlantic, The Atlantic, Modern Occasions,The Boston Globe Magazine, and Partisan Review. He is an editor at Steerforth Press and teaches at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Read more about him here.

Related Content:

Radical Islamism’s War Against the Jews: Who Cares? (Part 1)

Monday, May 04, 2015 | Permalink

Michael C. Kotzin is a longtime Jewish communal professional and former professor of English Literature at Tel Aviv University. He has been an executive at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago since 1988 and is the author of the recently published On the Front Lines in a Changing Jewish World: Collected Writings 1988-2013. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Sitting at my desk at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago on October 29, 2010, I handled two urgent phone calls in short order. One was from the FBI, the other from the Department of Homeland Security. Both involved a warning following upon the interception of cargo planes with explosive-laden packages – one at the UK’s East Midlands Airport, the other at the Dubai Airport – both of them addressed to synagogues in Chicago.

Based on the intelligence information that had led to the interception of those packages, nothing more was believed to have been sent. But I was asked to be sure that security precautions were in place at our building and to notify Chicago-area synagogues to be on alert for suspicious packages, especially for ones identified as originating from Yemen or from an organization that had the word Yemen in it. It was on a Friday, with Shabbat approaching, and colleagues and I were quickly in touch with the synagogues and with other local Jewish organizations as well.

More information about that day’s threat began to emerge as the story went public. The packages contained desktop printer cartridges in which explosives had been placed and timers set so the bombs most likely would go off when the planes were at or over Chicago or another American city to the east, if the flights were running late.

Thinking back about that incident at the time of the incidents in Paris earlier this year, I was struck by a number of parallels. The packages were shipped by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemen-based terror group that later took credit for the Charlie Hebdo attack. Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born Islamic radical operating out of Yemen, who was described as being behind the earlier incident, was also regarded as an inspiration for the Charlie Hebdo terrorists, though he was killed by an American drone strike over three years before the latter incident occurred. The belief that Chicago was deliberately targeted in October 2010 was reinforced by a photo of the city’s skyline in the then-current issue of Inspire, a slick AQAP publication said to have been originally created by al-Awlaki which was first published in July 2010, and it too has been talked about in connection with the Charlie Hebdo attack.

As it happens, the addresses that were used on the 2010 packages were no longer connected with the synagogues that were named. In one case, the building continued to exist, though changing neighborhood demographics and an aging population had led the congregation itself to be dissolved before the attack. In the other case, a mostly gay and lesbian congregation had moved to another locale.

Speculation was that AQAP was working from an old listing of Chicago synagogues. But the determination of the type of target where they chose to send the packages was revealing, as were the names of the individuals to whom the packages were supposedly being directed. One package bore the name of Diego Deza, who in the fifteenth century succeeded Torquemada as Grand Inquisitor during the Spanish Inquisition. The other package named as the intended recipient was Reynald Krak, a French knight of the twelfth-century Second Crusade, also known as Reynald of Châtillon, who was beheaded by Saladin. Both were famous enemies of the Muslims in past centuries.

And both no doubt were remembered by AQAP not only for their cruelty against Muslims but also for their association with movements that denied Muslims territory that they had previously ruled over and that they believed continued to belong to them. Each of these historic figures, it could be suggested, was meant as a type of the Americans and Jews regarded as today’s foremost enemies by radical Islam. The fact that Jews as well as Muslims were the primary victims of both the Crusaders and the Inquisition is an irony that was no doubt lost upon AQAP.

The identification of their self-narrative with particular historical events; the engagement in violence in religion-based conflicts over land and sovereignty; the use of terror to inflict physical, often lethal, harm and to create fear – these are basic beliefs and tactics of not only al-Qaeda and its branches but also other Islamist extremist groups and the individuals who are inspired by them, explaining why those who addressed the packages chose such otherwise puzzling names and destinations. Furthermore, the choice of what they thought were two synagogues as the designated targets of these packages fits a pattern we have continued to see stalking the globe today. The meaning of that particular kind of targeting – and of the rhetoric that accompanies it – however, has, I believe, received little attention beyond the Jewish community and beyond analysts and reporters – many of them Jewish – with a special interest in the topic. And that lacunae is a subject that I will examine in a continuation of this blog later this week.

Check back on Wednesday for Part II of "Radical Islamism’s War Against the Jews: Who Cares?"

Related Content:

Meeting Pagliansky in Moscow

Monday, May 04, 2015 | Permalink

Alan Lelchuk is the author of the acclaimed novels, American Mischief, Miriam at Thirty-Four, Shrinking, Miriam in Her Forties, Playing the Game, Brooklyn Boy, Ziff: a Life?, and On Home Ground. His most recent book is Searching for Wallenberg, and he will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Meeting Daniel Pagliansky in 2003, the KGB interrogator of Wallenberg in 1945-47, was like meeting a soul from Hades. He was a bag of bones in his late 80’s, but his eyes were fierce and his determination steely, and he banged the desk with his fist as though it were a gavel. He yelled at me when he entered the study where I was standing with my interpreter and his son, asked how dare I visit when told explicitly not to! I shivered inwardly at his mad ferocity in his advanced age, but stayed cool and said nothing, letting him beat me up verbally. I knew I was meeting history incarnate here, a Soviet Officer and KGB interrogator who had never before met with a Westerner.

I had heard about the infamous fellow from Nikita Petrov, my friend and guide from Memorial House in Moscow, who had written articles and a book about the KGB, and knew all about its history, rules, protocols. In fact he had warned me, “You will never get to meet with him, you see he won’t even meet up with the FSB who have invited him to speak with them about what went on back then, with Wallenberg, with full immunity in case he needed that.” So Nikita was quite amazed when the meeting occurred, and when I explained to him how it had happened, he nodded. (“Yes, only by crazy chance!”) Here’s what happened. My interpreter and I had called several times, and Pagliansky had politely enough refused, saying he was too ill. But ten days before my leaving Moscow, we were up at Pushkinskaya, a famous square in central Moscow, and we called again, since I knew it was a short walk from his apartment. This time his son answered and said, in Russian to my interpreter, “An American writer? Sure, come on over, Dad is having lunch with mother now, but they will be finished soon.” Rather excited, my fingers crossed, we walked the fifteen minutes to his apartment block, found the apartment, and were greeted cordially by this tall hefty fellow, Gyorgi, the son, a man of about 55. He took our coats and called out to his father in the next room that I was here, the American writer, but then his father yelled back, in Russian, “Why did you let him in! I told him not to come!” But Gyorgi only smiled to us, said father would calm down, just take it easy, and escorted us into father’s study. He asked what I wanted to talk about, I said the World War II era, I was writing a novel about it, and maybe Wallenberg. Gyorgi shook his head, “No, you mustn’t ask him about that, or he will throw you out immediately! Please.” I nodded, and was left to regard the wide oak desk with the glass top covering numerous photos underneath it, and the bookshelves, filled with books in German, Russian, and English. I was tempted to take the small photo of the youthful Pagliansky, handsome in his Soviet officer’s uniform, but instead gazed at the bookshelves, astonished to find Brooklyn leftie writers of the 1930's like Daniel Fuchs and Michel Gold, as well as Howard Fast. How and why did he collect these hard to find writers?

The interview proceeded for about an hour, with Pagliansky alternately speaking in Russian and English, alternately angry and cool. Once he calmed down after his initial tirade against me and all Americans, he answered my many questions, including that he read those Brooklyn writers to brush up on American idioms and dialogue! I learned that he and his prisoner Wallenberg had much in common: cultural interests, German poetry, architecture, chess. In fact both were budding architects; no surprise, the KGB took special care to assign an interrogator who had close affinities with the prisoner. It was a stunning hour, witnessed by the son and my interpreter.

Immediately afterward I took copious notes, and later on, when writing the novel, I included the scene just as it had happened. But I also extrapolated from it, back to the 1945-47 years, scenes of actual interrogation between Wallenberg and Pagliansky, based on the characteristics I had learned from my interview. So I would say that as I was making history, I was also ‘inventing’ history, through literature—an invented credible one based on an actual event and my perception of how it might have gone down years earlier.

Alan Lelchuk's short fiction has appeared in such publications as Transatlantic, The Atlantic, Modern Occasions, The Boston Globe Magazine, and Partisan Review. He is an editor at Steerforth Press and teaches at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Read more about him here.

Related Content:

New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, May 01, 2015 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

Related Content:

Writing the Mechitzah

Friday, May 01, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Michelle Brafman wrote about water and the mikvah in Judaism as well as the tahara, Jewish burial rituals. She is the author of the debut novel Washing the Dead and has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

My tormented relationship with the mechitzah sabotaged numerous drafts of my novel Washing the Dead. This came as a surprise to me because it had been years since I'd given thought to the wooden barrier that separated the men's and women's sections in the Orthodox synagogue of my youth.

As a child the mechitzah never bothered me, perhaps because I was an unusually tall girl, and from a young age I could see over it. I liked sitting with my mother and my friends and never pondered this gender segregation, not even when my family had to join a Conservative synagogue in order for me to become a bat mitzvah.

My first semester in college, however, a fiery philosophy professor introduced me to the likes of Sandra Bartky and Andrea Dworkin, and a feminist was born. I became attuned to the myriad ways women were marginalized. I scoffed at the Orthodox rationale that women did not need to perform rituals in the synagogue because we are more spiritually evolved or that our energies are best directed toward keeping the dietary laws, educating the children, and lighting the Sabbath candles. I steered clear of mechitzahs and held on tightly to my resentment until well into writing my novel.

Washing the Dead is set in a Orthodox Milwaukee synagogue and tells the story of the main character Barbara's fierce yearning to return to this community from which she was exiled. My smart early readers all said that they didn't understand Barbara's desire to return to a world I'd been describing so critically. I couldn't locate the criticism on the page until my daughter and I attended a bar mitzvah at a shul with a mechitzah. She went off to find her friends, and I stood alone staring out into this sea of women, pretty hats covering their hair, their heads leaning into each other during conversation. Memories flooded me. The women's section was the beating heart of my childhood shul, where the regulars shared news of pregnancies, divorces, and illnesses and deaths in their families. And these women had kept track of me.

Lucette Lagnado described my sentiments beautifully in her memoir The Arrogant Years, "What I'd failed to realize was that for the women of my childhood, the world within our closed-off area was every bit as rich and vivid as the universe beyond it; and the barrier in fact fostered and intensified feelings of kinship and intimacy. Inside was a world that was remarkably collegial and embracing and kind."

After the bar mitzvah, I went home and reread my pages, and I understood how my disdain for the traditions of my former shul was insidiously embedded in the simplest descriptions. I, and perhaps the spirit of Andrea Dworkin, were talking over Barbara, inserting political commentary about the mechitzah.

Unlike Barbara, I was never exiled from my community. But in the moment of returning to the mechitzah with my daughter, I felt a pull toward a spiritual home that I'd left, a home that I do not wish to return to, but that tugs at me enough to write, with truest feeling, the longing my character felt for the mechitzah of her youth.

Michelle Brafman's essays and short stories have appeared in the Washington Post, Slate, Tablet, Lilith Magazine,the minnesota review, and elsewhere. She teaches fiction writing at the Johns Hopkins MA in Writing Program. Visit her website at www.michellebrafman.com.

Related Content:

Sacred Pools

Wednesday, April 29, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Michelle Brafman wrote about the tahara, Jewish burial rituals. She is the author of the debut novel Washing the Dead and will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I often assign my creative writing students the exercise of writing about a freighted or sacred physical space in their lives. I am also in the habit of writing to my own prompts, and this is how the mikvah found its way into my novel.

Although I have friends who have submerged their bodies in these holy waters to convert to Judaism, heal from a surgery, or comply with the family purity rituals, I do not visit the mikvah. I've been fascinated with these waters, though, since I was a young girl and my friends and I would roam around our Orthodox synagogue during services, eating stale cookies set out for us in the kitchen and playing freeze tag in the alley. We were told to avoid a staircase off the side of the sanctuary at all costs. The steps led down to a sacred pool of water that the women immersed themselves in once a month. My mother did not go to the mikvah, so my limited knowledge of this ritual and my active imagination forced me to fill in the blanks.

We stopped attending shul regularly when I became a serious swimmer and replaced services with Saturday swim meets. I trained for them at our high school, which housed two pools: a shiny new one with a diving well and light flooding large glass windows, and an old narrow one with dark water and bad acoustics. We called this pool the dungeon, and we spoke of the boy who had died in these waters years ago. From that day on, I imagined the boy swimming with me when we practiced in the dungeon. Sometimes he scared me, and other times I welcomed his presence and wondered about his life before he passed.

My novel, Washing the Dead, is set in an Orthodox shul in Milwaukee. A mysterious benefactor has donated a large mansion along Lake Michigan to the community, complete with a swimming pool in the basement that the rabbi and his wife have converted to a mikvah. The book opens when the protagonist, Barbara, catches her mother smoking in the mikvah during Shabbat services, resulting in a shocking indiscretion for which the community exiles Barbara's family. Barbara spends the rest of the book trying to forgive her mother, but first, she must solve the mystery of her mother's attachment to these waters.

Water cries out to me. I've never lived more than a mile from a body of water, be it Lake Michigan, the Pacific Ocean, and now the Potomac River. In researching the mikvah and burial rituals featured in Washing the Dead, I came to understand the healing and purifying powers of water. It can hold both secrets and what is needed to repair their damage.

Michelle Brafman's essays and short stories have appeared in the Washington Post, Slate, Tablet, Lilith Magazine,the minnesota review, and elsewhere. She teaches fiction writing at the Johns Hopkins MA in Writing Program. Visit her website at www.michellebrafman.com.

Related Content: