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The Jewish People Are Like a Symphony!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Roberta Rosenthal Kwall shared the backstory behind her newest book, The Myth of the Cultural Jew: Culture and Law in Jewish Tradition. Roberta is the Raymond P. Niro Professor of Law at DePaul University College of Law. She is blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Many years ago, one of my students—an Orthodox Jew—told me that his grandfather used to say that the Jewish people are like a symphony: all parts are needed for the whole to function well. I cherish that sentiment and strongly believe in its truth. A pluralistic approach to Judaism does not merely tolerate differences, but embraces them as vital to the continuity and health of the Jewish people—indeed, differences of opinion are the backbone of Talmudic discourse. Today, the left end of the spectrum attempts to push the boundaries by incorporating what it sees as needed change; the right end counters this tendency by pushing back against innovation to ensure continued authenticity; and the middle seeks to navigate between these approaches. When all sectors appreciate the good-faith function of the each position, the Jewish people are at their strongest and maintain a sense of unity without uniformity. In short, pluralism does not see Judaism in black-and white-terms; rather, it values different perspectives within the discourse and understands that a multiplicity of perspectives strengthens (and does not diminish) the whole.

Throughout the time I was working on The Myth of the Cultural Jew, I had the good fortune to be co-directing a center for Jewish law and Judaic Studies at DePaul. The aspect of my work with the center that I most enjoyed was planning the center’s annual interdenominational program. This program typically featured a panel of Jewish clergy or professional leaders representing a spectrum of thought, discussing issues of interest to a wide range of Jews. The first program, for example, focused on the seminal issue of “who is a Jew” and featured a Reform and Conservative rabbi discussing their movements’ respective positions concerning whether a child’s status as a Jew should be determined according to only the mother’s religion rather than that of either parent. Subsequent programs included panels of rabbis from all major Jewish movements, and one program even featured an all-female lineup of clergy and spiritual advisors. The Jewish professionals who participated in this unique initiative provided me with tremendous insight and inspiration throughout the course of my work.

I am also grateful for many friends and acquaintances spanning the spectrum of Jewish practice and thinking. Not only has my work benefitted from their diverse perspectives, but I have grown personally from my ability to engage with people representing a wide variety of Jewish viewpoints. It is unfortunate that all too often, Jews tend to associate on a social basis mostly with other Jews from their own section of the orchestra, even if they have contact with a wider range of players professionally. As an academic, I feel blessed to share my love of the Jewish tradition with a wide audience of people through my teaching and writing; I am also very grateful that in my personal life, I count as good friends members of all Jewish and unaffiliated identities.

Roberta Rosenthal Kwall earned her law degree from the University of Pennsylvania and received her undergraduate degree from Brown University. Currently she is completing a Master's Degree in Jewish Studies. Check back later this week for her suggestions on Jewish education that may facilitate the Jewish people continuing to make beautiful music together!

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Interview: Alexis Landau

Tuesday, March 17, 2015 | Permalink

by Becca Kantor

Jewish Book Council's inaugural Unpacking the Book: Jewish Writers in Conversation event featuring debut authors was an excellent opportunity to talk with Alexis Landau, author of The Empire of the Senses, about writing, researching, and possibly extending a fictional Holocaust novel.

Becca Kantor: You recently completed your Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Southern California. Could you tell me more about your research, and how your critical examination of interwar literature influenced your novel?

Alexis Landau: There were two starting points for the research. In 2007 the Met had an exhibit called Glitter and Doom, which centered on the artists who were working in Berlin in the '20s and '30s, such as Otto Dix and Max Beckmann. That was always my favorite period in art history. I just loved it. At this exhibit, they had all the paintings collected in one place, and information about the characters and the people who influ­enced the painters. I got so swept up in it and thought, “I have to write a novel about this time and some of these people and some of these artists.” That idea was always in my mind since then.

During my Ph.D., my professors kept pressing me: “What’s going to be your critical field of interest?” At that point I was writing short stories and working on a first novel that never got published. I became more and more interested in the idea of Jewish identity and assimilation before the Holocaust, in the interwar period. I remember very clearly meeting with my advisor. I didn’t even know if it would be allowed for me to focus on the interwar period, because it didn’t feel as though it were a real category or genre. He was really supportive and said: “Yes! You can do that. That sounds amazing.”

So I started delving into the work of writers of that time and I ended up focusing on Irène Némirovsky, the author of Suite Française. No one had heard of her, even in my department, which was another reason why I wanted to write about her. Her circumstances in terms of being Jewish and in terms of being highly assimilated and well off—a lot of the cultural trappings were similar to Lev’s. The way he would think about his Jewishness was also similar. So that was where a lot of the crossover came.

BK: So much has been written about the Holocaust. You made a more unusual—and very intriguing—choice by focusing on World War I and the political and social climate that led up to World War II. Was this only because of the interests you mentioned before, or were you consciously trying to do something new?

AL: I think it was a combination of both. I definitely started off being more interested in the time period of the '20s because of the art. That was when the artists were most productive, and by the time Hitler came to power a lot of the art was being banned. I also wanted to focus on World War I because to me that was the starting point for everything unraveling.

As I was writing, of course I could have chosen to fast-forward to the 1930s. But I didn’t want to because it’s such a vast and huge undertak­ing to write about the Nazi years. I didn’t feel like I wanted to try to do that. Frankly it’s pretty frightening to write about the Holocaust—the­matically, but also from a personal standpoint. Like, what can I bring that is new to the table, to what’s already been said?

BK: Each of your characters has a distinct perception of Jewish identity. What were your models for these different attitudes?

AL: Lev is kind of a composite of other writers who were Jewish and writing at that time, like Joseph Roth and Irène Némirovsky. They definitely identified as being Jewish but they weren’t religious, they were very secular. They wanted to be assimilated and were assimilated to a certain extent, but not completely, of course. There was always this sense of not belonging fully, which I think I also have experienced in different ways. And so maybe that is some reflection on my own upbringing.

In terms of how Josephine looks at Jewishness, not being Jewish herself, I read accounts of how the Christian majority would view Jews. Obviously she was more sympathetic than a lot of others because she married one. But in terms of the prejudice in her family—in some circles it was more spoken than in others, but it was always there. So I wanted to capture that with her family.

In some ways Franz’s inability to be fully himself in terms of his sexuality was also a metaphor for him not being able to be himself in terms of his Jewishness. There was a lot of writing at that time in which these racial theories were starting to develop. There was a theorist, Otto Weininger, who wrote a very popular book at the time called Sex and Character in 1903. It equated femininity with Jewishness and with weakness, and not with being strong and masculine. So those kinds of preconceptions were floating around. I wanted Franz to kind of grab on to them and feel ashamed of his Jewishness because he thought it was femi­nine, or because he thought it wasn’t the male, German way of being.

Vicki is kind of similar to Lev. She would have been more similar, but because of who she falls in love with, she becomes much more on the Zionist track in terms of her identity. Still, she’s pretty conflicted even up until the end in terms of how much she really believes in that project.

BK: Do any of the characters reflect your own relationship with Judaism?

AL: For the first seven years of my life, my parents raised me without a lot of awareness of being Jewish. I don’t really think I fully knew I was Jewish even though my mom is Jewish and my dad is half-Jewish. My mom didn’t identify herself as Jewish. We had a Christmas tree, we weren’t religious in any sense, and the idea of being Jewish was just not in my consciousness.

Then my parents got a divorce, and my dad started dating an Ortho­dox Jewish woman. She was like: “You’re Jewish, and your daughter is Jewish! She doesn’t know she’s Jewish, what’s going on here?” She started taking me to temple and we would walk there because of the Sabbath; we would have to turn the lights off before the Sabbath; we had kosher plates…All this stuff that I didn’t know about was suddenly in my life and suddenly part of my identity, or supposed to be. My mom still said: “Oh yeah, well, we’re Jewish, but it doesn’t really mean anything to me.” So I grew up with all these ideas floating around about what it means to be Jewish: why you wouldn’t want to be Jewish from my mom’s standpoint, and my dad embracing it much more than he had. I think that informed me to start thinking about Jewish identity— maybe more than other people who might have had a more straightfor­ward type of situation.

BK: What were the challenges in portraying characters with mindsets that are very much of their time while still conveying your contempo­rary insight into the period? Were some perspectives harder to evoke than others?

AL: One of my best friends, who is an editor, told me: “The most important thing is tone, and getting the tone right, and not having your contemporary voice barge in.” When I was writing, especially in the beginning, I was really conscious of that. I can’t write well unless I understand every aspect of a person. Not just what they’re experienc­ing psychologically, but also their body in time and space. Otherwise the writing becomes too disembodied, and not real. I would fall into the whirlpools of research where I might spend half a day looking at men’s fashion in the 1920s. But a certain amount of those details really fed my ability to keep going. Otherwise you’re writing in a vacuum, and then I don’t have the necessary confidence. I had to get certain things down to feel that I could move forward.

Making it feel real or feel relatable in terms of readers now, in terms of contemporary issues or even concerns, was one of my main con­cerns. I didn’t want to float into abstraction, such as Franz is representa­tive of the rising Fascist movement, or Josephine is representative of changing sexual mores at the time. That is just not interesting. What makes it interesting is the humanness of the story, the emotion. Love, death, having children, being married. And those things don’t change, really, over time.

BK: Do you have any ideas of themes you might want to explore in the future?

AL: Yes, I do! Of course, writers generally freak out whenever they have to talk about their next project, but…I have this sense that The Empire of the Senses might become a trilogy. That wasn’t what I set out to do at first. But then I finished it and some time passed, and I thought, “Oh, I don’t feel like I’m done with this story.” And so the next book is probably going to be from the point of view of the son that Lev had with Leah, whom we never met. He moved with Leah to New York when he was about seven. He actually ends up fighting in World War II, because he would have been about twenty, but the focus is going to start in 1946, after the war. The book is probably going to be set in the late '40s and early '50s Hollywood. A lot of German artists and exiles lived here in L.A. So I think I’m heading in that direction with my next book, but we’ll see!

Alexis Landau received her MFA from Emerson College and her Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Southern California. She currently teaches writing at USC and lives in Los Angeles. The Empire of the Senses is her first novel.

Becca Kantor received her B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and her M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. She has lived in Estonia, England, and Germany. Currently she lives and writes in her native Philadelphia.

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I’m Telling Everyone

Monday, March 16, 2015 | Permalink

Judith Claire Mitchell, the author of A Reunion of Ghosts and The Last Day of the War, is an English professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing. She is blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

In 1996, shortly before I left the East Coast for the Midwest, a transplanted Iowan told me how much I was going to love his home state. “The people there are so nice,” he said. “You’ll make new friends in no time. Just don’t tell anyone you’re Jewish.”

“Excuse me?” I said.

“Well, they don’t like Jews,” he said. “But other than that, you’ll love it there.”

I did love Iowa. I also ignored his advice. I’m not sure who my acquaintance hung out with when he lived here, but I’ve now lived in the Midwest for about twenty years—after two years in Iowa, I moved to Wisconsin—and I haven’t found it all that different from anywhere else in terms of anti-Semitism. In fact, when I arrived in Iowa two decades ago, the first time I told a new acquaintance I was Jewish, I didn’t get the cold shoulder, I got invited to a Seder.

I suppose if it were a matter of life or death I’d lie about my background, but even then I know I’d have a hard time. Being Jewish is such an intrinsic part of who I am that sooner or later I always find myself waving my flag.

It’s sort of like the old joke about the elderly Jewish man who enters a confessional and tells the priest he’s just had sex with a young and beautiful woman. “But you’re Jewish,” the priest says. “Why tell me?” “Are you kidding?” the old man exults. “I’m telling everyone.”

That’s my strong preference when it comes to being Jewish: to tell everyone.

But often, in my work, my characters are more reticent. Take, for example, eighteen-year-old Yael Weiss, one of the main characters in my first novel The Last Day of the War, which is set in the aftermath of World War I. Because the U.S. government has appointed the sectarian YMCA to run its military canteens in Europe, Yael changes her name to Yale White and claims she’s Methodist. She thinks she’s just being practical, doing what it takes to enroll in an organization restricted to Trinitarian Christians. If lying and passing and giving up a part of one’s self is what’s required, she’ll lie and pass and become who she’s implicitly urged to be. This being literature, repercussions ensue.

In my new novel, A Reunion of Ghosts, there’s another character who sloughs off his Jewishness, in his case by converting. This character, Lenz Alter, is based on the German-Jewish chemist Fritz Haber, whose work in the early years of the twentieth century led to the development of both nitrogen fertilizer and the first poison gases of World War I. A Nobel Prize winner (for the fertilizer) and a feted German war hero (for the gas), Haber’s conversion was not atypical in an era when many non-practicing Jews identified more as German than Jew. Conversion, of course, was no protection a few decades later, and with the passage of 1933’s Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, which essentially threw Jews out of their jobs, Haber left his beloved Germany, heartbroken and blindsided. He died a few months later in a Swiss hotel. Many believe he’d been on his way to Palestine.

I sometimes wonder whether my literary exploration of Jews who, for one reason or another, find their Jewishness an impediment to be brushed aside has to do with the fact that people don’t always realize I’m Jewish, which means, I suppose, that I might be able to pass if I wanted to. Once (and not in the Midwest, but in a big liberal city on the East Coast), I was buttonholed by a woman who was railing against Jewish lawyers. As she carried on, I was very aware that, in the event she should run out of breath and actually allow me to speak, I’d have a choice to make. I could simply change the subject. Lovely weather we’re having. How’s about those Mets?

Instead, when I was able to get a word in, I said, “Yes, I’ve had experience dealing with Jewish lawyers, too. My brother, for example.”

It took her a moment to do the math. Then she reddened, which I first took to be embarrassment, but, no, it turned out to be umbrage. “Well, how was I supposed to know,” she snapped as if I’d done something sneaky and, therefore, typical. “You don’t have a big nose.”

Whether or not I have a big nose may be up for debate. But what I definitely don’t have is a Jewish last name. That, rather than my features, is what I think throws people off—as, indeed, it was meant to. Long before I was born, my father and his brother, children of Orthodox Jews from the Ukraine, believed they weren’t finding work in their fields due to their surnames. They legally adopted the nondescript Mitchell, and—nu!—jobs for everyone!

I get why my father changed his name. His suspicions about his industry were hardly unfounded. And “Americanizing” one’s name (the word seems to mean the complete opposite of what it's supposed to) was done more frequently back in the 1950s. Tony Curtis. Burt Lancaster. Judith Mitchell.

Mitchell has been my last name since birth, and I’m not planning on changing it back to my paternal grandparents’ name at this point in my life. Still, for an “I’m telling everyone” Jew, going by Mitchell can make me feel a lot like a “don’t tell anyone” Jew.

Given all this, I guess it’s no surprise that when I was a kid, I was fond of a song by Jacques Brel that included this lyric:

If we only have love,
we can reach those in pain;
we can heal all our wounds;
we can use our own names.

Fiction has given me the opportunity to explore the outsider status that too many of us—Jews, yes, but hardly Jews alone—struggle with. After all, fiction is essentially a means of artful truth-telling, and there is no more important truth for each of us than “this is who I am—and I’m telling everyone.”

A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, Judith Claire Mitchell has received fellowships from the James Michener/Copernicus Society, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the Arts Institute of the University of Wisconsin, and elsewhere. She currently lives in Madison with her husband, the artist Don Friedlich.

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The Art of Religious Tradition: The Backstory to The Myth of the Cultural Jew

Monday, March 16, 2015 | Permalink

Roberta Rosenthal Kwall is the Raymond P. Niro Professor of Law at DePaul University College of Law. Her newest book, The Myth of the Cultural Jew: Culture and Law in Jewish Tradition, is now available. She is blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I have always viewed human artistic creativity as a spiritual type of enterprise, even before the time I began to write about this idea on a more formal basis. I believe that any creative artistic work, be it literature, music, or visual art, is the product of the author’s personal story as shaped by her own experience and her reaction to her surrounding environment. I became an advocate for author’s rights in my role as a legal academic, and much of my legal scholarship has focused on an author’s right to receive attribution and to safeguard her work from unauthorized changes that compromise its message and meaning.

My legal research led me to an important book written by historian Daniel Boorstin entitled The Creators, in which he observes that the Torah’s language that “God created man in His image…” furnishes a path leading man to regard himself as a potential creator. I confess that I had never thought about this insight before, despite having read the Biblical text many times. Around the time I encountered Boorstin’s book, I had begun to reconnect with Jewish learning, which had occupied a large part of my adolescent and college years. It suddenly occurred to me that the Jewish tradition is very much like a work of art that has been composed jointly by its many human authors, and based (at least in my view) on its Divine origin. As such, the tradition can be understood as reflecting the personal and environmental circumstances of many of its authors, both the rabbis and lay people. Therefore, both the laws promulgated by the rabbis and the practices of the people have a basis in the cultures that have surrounded the tradition’s authors.

After this realization, it was not a particularly difficult stretch for me to see that so many of the issues I had written about with respect artistic works could also be asked about the Jewish tradition. Specifically, how much can a work (or a tradition) undergo modification and still be considered representative of its original meaning and message? What does society lose when a given work (tradition) loses its essential character and becomes something completely different? Further, who gets to make these changes and pursuant to what type of authority? At base, these questions are all concerned with “authenticity.” In a post-modern age where it is expected that the audience will interpret texts and forge new meaning, these issues loom large in the world of art, especially in our digital era. With respect to the Jewish tradition specifically, many would also argue that it should be subject to new interpretations, especially given the challenges of modernity.

There is a value to changes in any cultural tradition, particularly in more liberal pockets of the community. Still, changes that are not grounded in the fabric of the cultural tradition can compromise important values unique to the tradition. This concern with loss of value and dilution of the tradition’s authenticity justifies a perspective that embraces a degree of selectivity with respect to implementing changes in the tradition. This concern is particularly relevant to the Jewish tradition, and the issue of how much change and evolution it can tolerate and yet retain its authenticity is one that has occupied much of the discourse in certain circles of Jewish thought since the inception of the Enlightenment.

Based on this perspective, I believe that Judaism is not a science but rather a form of art—a cultural product composed of law, wisdom, and narrative, all of which have been shaped by social forces over time and diverse geographic space. My passion for Judaism ignited my work on The Myth of the Cultural Jew. And my desire to transmit this passion to my children served as the impetus for its completion.

Roberta Rosenthal Kwall earned her law degree from the University of Pennsylvania and received her undergraduate degree from Brown University. Currently she is completing a Master's Degree in Jewish Studies.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, March 13, 2015 | Permalink

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Book Cover of the Week: Thresholds

Friday, March 13, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Jewish Book Council is delighted to be working once again with Rabbi Sherre Hirsch, the first female rabbi of Sinai Temple Los Angeles and a frequent contributor and speaker on spiritual life and musings. We thought you'd like a sneak peak at the book cover for her forthcoming book, Thresholds:

Focusing on the "hallways" of life rather than the rooms of our homes, Rabbi Hirsch seeks to mentor readers in facing the transitions they might not even be aware they have or are about to come across.

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Julia Dahl's Reading List for Writing an Ultra-Orthodox Mystery Novel

Tuesday, March 10, 2015 | Permalink

This week, Julia Dahl—the author of Invisible City, available in paperback today blogs for The Postscript on her recommended reads for exploring the world of her novel.

The Postscript series is a special peek "behind the scenes" of a book. It's a juicy little extra something to add to a book club's discussion and a reader's understanding of how the book came together. 

As a Reform Jew growing up in Fresno, Calif., I had no exposure to the world of the haredi, or ultra-Orthodox. It wasn’t until moving to New York City in 1999 that I even realized so-called “black hat” Jews existed in the United States. I was fascinated by the idea that the men and women I saw on the subway wearing peyos and sheitels were Jewish, like me, and yet so unlike me. That fascination turned to curiosityand when writers get curious, we write.

But before I began writing, I began reading. Below are recommendations for books, articles and radio reports that helped me research my first novel, Invisible City, and its upcoming sequel, Run You Down. I hope they deepen your enjoyment of my books, spur discussion, and contribute to better understanding your fellow Jews.

The first book I read about this community was Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels by Hella Winston, an intrepid, award-winning journalist and sociologist. The book tells the stories of several men and women trying to leave their cloistered world. It is full of funny, strange, and heartbreaking details about people living inside America’s great melting pot and struggling to understand the non-Jewish world around them.

I also recommend the novel, Hush. Originally published under the pen name Eishes Chayil (which translates to a Woman of Valor), the author was later revealed to be a woman from Brooklyn named Judy Brown. Brown based the book on her childhood in Borough Park and the death of a close friend.

Last year, The New Yorker’s Rachel Aviv investigated the aftermath of an ugly sexual abuse trial in Borough Park—and the injustice that befell the man who pushed for a conviction.

The New York Times recently published two interesting articles about the haredi. The first is a profile of a sex therapist who counsels ultra-Orthodox women (one telling quote: “We have an intake form to fill out, and they get to ‘orgasm’ and go to the receptionist and ask, ‘What is this?'”); the second focuses on haredi men who make their living begging in Lakewood, New Jersey.

This investigation into substandard education at some Brooklyn yeshivas by Sonja Sharp of DNA Info tackles the thorny issue of how the state regulates—or fails to regulate—religious education.

As more haredi move from liberal, diverse New York City to the rural and suburban counties outside the city, the tension created by their large families, private yeshivas, and apparent lack of interest in forming meaningful connection with their new neighbors, is causing great distress. New York Magazine’s Benjamin Wallace-Wells reports.

A compliment to Wallace-Wells’s reporting is this 2014 episode from public radio’s This American Life, which focuses on the battle between the haredim and their neighbors over control of the East Ramapo School District.

I recommend two articles related to the issue of parents leaving the ultra-Orthodox and subsequently losing custody of (and connection with) their children. This 2008 New York Magazine article by Mark Jacobson and this essay by Shulem Deen in Tablet. Deen is the editor of Unpious.com and the author of the must-read upcoming memoir All Who Go Do Not Return (out March 23 from Greywolf Press).

I also recommend reading almost anything by Frimet Goldberger, a writer who frequently contributes to the Jewish Daily Forward. Goldberger was raised in the strict Satmar Hasidic community of Kiryas Joel in Orange County, N.Y., and she writes about her attempts to live a more modern – but still Jewish – life. The columns on learning to drive and the anniversary of the last time she shaved her head are particularly interesting.

Finally, I recommend this report from WNYC’s Arun Venugopal, which reveals an interesting upside to life in a homogeneous community like Borough Park: an honor system that allows financially strapped members of the community to bring home groceries without having to pay immediately.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, March 06, 2015 | Permalink

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Interview: Mark Polizzotti on Translating the Work of Patrick Modiano

Friday, March 06, 2015 | Permalink

by Beth Kissileff

Patrick Modiano, who won the 2014 Nobel Prize for literature, has recently seen a flurry of attention here in the U.S., where he had been relatively unknown until the announcement of his Nobel win. Modiano’s first book, La Place de l'Étoile, was published in May, 1968, the time of the famous student protests in Paris and a year before the seminal 1969 French Holocaust film The Sorrow and the Pity by Marcel Ophuls came out and jolted France into consciousness of what had happened during World War II and the extent of the collaboration by the Vichy government. Modiano’s other works involve grappling – directly and indirectly – with the after effects of that time both on individuals and the city of Paris itself.

Modiano's work continues to be an important lens through which we view Paris and French Jewish life and culture. In the aftermath of the murders of Jews both at Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket in Paris in January, 2015, looking back at what The New Yorker had to say about Modiano in October, 2014 is eerily significant: “It will not have escaped the attention of the Nobel committee that Modiano’s win comes at a time when anti-Semitism in France is on the rise, as is the rate of French Jews’ emigration to Israel. The fear that French Jews are not safe in their own land, that French Jewish culture may vanish, is once again palpable, and real.” 

While a new novel, So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood, will be published later this year by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (published in France in 2014), and Modiano's Dora Bruder was recently published by University of California Press, we turn our attention to Suspended Sentences, a volume of novellas published by Yale University Press this past November. Specifically, though, we turn to the translator of the volume, Mark Polizzotti, who is also currently translating Modiano's memoir Pedigree, to learn more about his decision to translate Modiano and his thoughts on Modiano and his work. 

Beth Kissileff: You’ve translated over 40 books - why did you choose to be involved with this?

Mark Polizzotti: I am drawn to writers with a gift for spareness, who say a lot with a little. Modiano’s books are so short, so few words. But one can tell so much in a sentence with these little impressionistic touches. It is like a Monet—if you look too closely it’s just daubs of paint, but when you stand back, you can see a cathedral.

Translating him is a wonderful exercise; one has to bring all of one’s linguistic abilities to bear. There is a real beauty and loveliness to his prose that I tried hard to convey in English. It takes real talent to say something in few words, as he does, to give each word resonance and weight.

I was surprised when he won the Nobel. On the surface, he seems lightweight even – so indirect, such lightness of tone. But in reality he is dealing with some of the weightiest issues of the twentieth century. It’s just that he doesn’t beat his chest about it the way some writers do.

BK: Why did Modiano come to prominence now?

MP: Modiano is part of the first generation to ask questions about what really happened during the war. Despite the national myth promoted by De Gaulle, people in France did collaborate, actively or passively.

When Modiano’s first book [La Place de l'Étoile, not yet in English, the name alluding to both the star Jews had to wear and an actual location in Paris ] came out in 1968, a year before The Sorrow and the Pity, that national myth was beginning to crumble.

The first-person narrator of that book is a self-hating Jew. The whole question about Judaism and anti-Semitism, hatred and self hatred, is pulled into one character. Modiano’s two great influences for La Place de l'Étoile were Proust and Céllne, who between them embody all the contradictions and complexities of France’s relationship to Judaism.

BK: Have you met him? Any anecdotes to share?

MP: I have not met him. I’m told he is very gracious, very shy, retiring. On the one hand, I’m sure he’s delighted by the Nobel Prize, but he probably does not like being a public figure. When I was working on the translation I sent him a query about some personal references, to make sure I translated them correctly. He wrote me a letter – apparently, he doesn’t do email, this was all handwritten - with a vast amount of information, even more than I had asked.

To me, this letter is very much in keeping with the voice that comes out of the books, an indicator of authenticity. There are some writers who are wonderful on the page but are wretched human beings. In Modiano’s case, I felt this was a confirmation, that the generosity I sensed on the page was true to its author.

BK: What is the role of his own personal history in his writing?

MP: In his own personal history, his mother was constantly disappearing, on tour as an actress, and his father always seemed to want to keep him away, by sending him to boarding school, the army, and so on.

He rarely mentions this, but his younger brother died when he was ten, I believe of meningitis. Modiano was not there when it happened, but rather away at boarding school.

One day his father showed up at school to take him home, and on the way back, he told him “Your brother died.” Modiano was twelve at the time and he seems never to have gotten over it.

He talks about it in his memoir, Pedigree, which I’m translating now.

BK: Why is so little of Modiano’s work translated until now? Why is it so hard to get American readers to read in translation?

MP: American publishing has the sense that American readers prefer to read Americans. When a foreign author breaks through, like Bolaño or Knausgaard, it’s considered a fluke. Will the Nobel bring Modiano lasting recognition in this country? We’ll see.

BK: In the novella Flowers of Ruin, Modiano writes, “Why bother chasing ghosts and trying to solve insoluble mysteries when life was there in all its simplicity beneath the sun?” Is this also characteristic of him?

MP: There are moments of great lightness in his work, and of great consolation.

BK: The best way to understand this writer is to end with a quote. This is from the novella Afterimage: “And so, feeling helpless, he’d taken those photos so that the place where his friend and his friend’s loved ones had lived would at least be preserved on film. But the courtyard, the square, and the deserted buildings under the sun made their absence even more irremediable.”

Mark Polizzotti is an accomplished author, editor, reviewer, and head of the publications program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

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

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Making My Own MFA

Thursday, March 05, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Shulem Deen wrote about "New Happy And Worldly Hasidim." He is the author of All Who Go Do Not Return, a memoir about growing up in and then leaving the Hasidic Jewish world. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I don’t remember precisely when it began, but at some point, about a decade ago, as a 30-year-old living among one of the U.S.’s most insular Hasidic sects, I had this fantasy: I wanted to go away to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and earn an MFA in creative writing.

How exactly did I learn about Iowa, or MFAs, or writing workshops? I can no longer recall. Just a few years earlier, at age 25, I barely knew the difference between a bachelor’s degree and a master’s, or even what a “major” was. The idea of getting a college degree seemed as remote as meeting the Pope on the Monsey Trails bus. But at some point I learned that the Iowa Writer’s Workshop was where people went to become writers. And I wanted to be a writer.

At age 33, I left the Hasidic world. I had learned a lot by then—I knew what a major was, and the difference between a bachelor’s and a master’s. But I never did get to Iowa, or any other creative writing program. Or even any old bachelor’s degree. Life got in the way, and I lost my romantic notions of American higher education. But when an opportunity came to write a book, I knew that it meant committing not only to writing but also to teaching myself how to write.

The Iowa Writer’s Workshop had been a dream because the program was legendary—one of the first such programs in the country—but when I began to lay out the first draft of my book, I realized why I really needed it, or something like it; I needed a basic understanding of literary craft, an immersive environment in which I could experiment with form and technique, and an opportunity to spend time with other students as well as with seasoned writers who had already produced bodies of work from whom to learn. But such an environment was not an option at that point—I’d committed to the book and had looming deadlines. I had no choice, I realized, but to create my own MFA writing program.

Read, read, read—this is every seasoned writer’s advice to novice writers.

I was poorly read. Secular books are scarce within most Hasidic communities, and formal education—aside from religious studies—is meager. I’d had only spotty exposure to English language books, and I’d never given myself to the task of reading anything of quality. As much reading as I had done over the years, I’d done none of the required reading of a high school or college student. And so I knew that I’d have to start my writing education by reading more widely.

Not knowing any better, I took to the classics, American authors in particular: Melville, Twain, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Salinger. Reading these was important, but they were not particularly instructive about writing. The reading often felt tedious, at least on the first read; I would never have picked these books out of a pile—and so it was hard for me to see what made them great. I had neither my own developed aesthetic nor anyone else’s measure for greatness. I had only one measure: Am I enjoying this? And the answer for much of it was: not really.

I broadened my selections, tried tackling some of the other greats—the Russians, the French—but my reading was haphazard, disorganized, with no natural progression that might’ve helped me learn anything. I slogged through Dostoyevsky with little appreciation for either the prose style or its themes, then took up Joyce and Faulkner and understood next to nothing at all.

As I was to learn, not all reading leads directly to better writing. Reading intelligently takes skill, and before such skill is cultivated, reading indiscriminately and without guidance can be frustrating and counter-productive and it can leave you trying to imitate writers you have no business imitating. It took a while for me to learn the difference between good books and books to learn writing from. The classics, I realized, as important as they are, are particularly clunky as elementary writing instruction—especially when you’re your own instructor.

I did eventually find my footing, both as a reader and a writer. I realized that a book has to resonate in a certain way before it can be instructive. You don’t necessarily have to like the book, but you have to get a feel for what it is attempting to do, both as a whole and in its parts.

It’s hard to say at what point and with which books I began to feel that necessary resonance, but at some point I began to notice things—a page that held me captive, a turn of phrase particularly elegant, a metaphor that did exactly what it was supposed to—and I would go back and see how it was done. I began to see more clearly when a work had something for me to learn from and when it was something only to marvel at, be inspired by, but to know that it was a different sort of writing from my own, and that some voices stand only to be admired—a do-not-try-this-at-home kind of writing, best left to seasoned literary stuntmen. (Henry Miller is for me the best example of this.)

In the end, it wasn’t the classics that taught me most, but contemporaries. Frank Conroy and Tobias Wolff taught me about setting up scenes, and making good use of dialogue. Mary Carr and Rick Bragg were inspiring for their exhilarating language, even if I could never hope to mimic such fluidly exquisite prose. James Baldwin's beautifully winding narrative essays, with its vivid descriptions of grit and racial despair rendered in language so effortlessly mesmerizing, put me on the lookout for artifice in my own writing, forced me to more strenuously weed out clunk, and to let my paragraphs flow with a more natural rhythm.

I also read books on writing, and some of them would prove indispensable. John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction remains an invaluable manual on essential narrative techniques. Stephen King’s On Writing, with its unique blend of guide and memoir, is both instructive and inspiring. Sometimes, all I needed to get me going was the image of a writer at work, or a master’s thoughts on writing, and for those, the many long form interviews in The Paris Review were both a treat and an impetus for getting to work.

Most importantly, after reading many dozens of works—novels, memoirs, short story collections, and essays—I learned that to write compelling prose I'd have to empty my mind and find my own voice, which would be markedly different from any author I’ve read—and that this is what makes writing good, not the other way around.

I had many crises of confidence while writing. There were times when I thought the whole undertaking to have been folly. I’d berate myself for thinking that an ex-Hasid with little formal education could teach himself, while nearing middle age, what others pay exorbitant sums of money to learn. If only I’d gotten that MFA, I would think, I’d know how to set this scene, perfect that awkward transition, replace a clunky metaphor with a stream of effortlessly breathtaking prose.

A crisis of confidence does nothing to make a deadline go away, though, and I had no choice but to go on. My book took four years to write, and the dual task of teaching myself as I went made much of the process tormenting. By the time I submitted that final draft to my publisher in February 2014 I had very nearly exhausted myself. But it also remains the most exhilarating work I’ve done in my 40 years of life. I would gladly do it all over again.

Shulem Deen is the founding editor of Unpious, an online journal for voices on the Hasidic fringe. His work has appeared in Salon, The Brooklyn Rail, Tablet MagazineThe Jewish Daily Forward, and elsewhere. He serves as a board member at Footsteps, a New York City-based organization that offers assistance and support to those who have left the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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