The ProsenPeople

My Grandfather's Ghost

Wednesday, November 16, 2016 | Permalink

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Playing with History Like a Deck of Cards

Monday, November 14, 2016 | Permalink

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On Waiting

Friday, November 11, 2016 | Permalink

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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New Reviews November 11, 2016

Friday, November 11, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

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The Jewish Anthological Imagination

Thursday, November 10, 2016 | Permalink

by Deborah Dash Moore

Jewish books, Jewish libraries—it’s easy enough to attach the word Jewish to anything literary. But what about Jewish anthologies? If Jews, as the saying goes, are the people of the book, then Jewish anthologies must be considered. This eminently Jewish tradition, which arguably began with the Bible, may indeed be the quintessential Jewish practice: creating new Jewish literature out of old Jewish literature.

As a historian, and, now, as an anthologist myself, I’ve thought a lot about creating Jewish anthologies. It’s an enormous responsibility, an enticing but daunting challenge. As the scholar David Roskies has written, “the anthologizer gets to decide who’s in and who’s out, where to begin and where to end.” These choices, like everything Jewish, are complicated: “Before you know it, you have a story, a narrative, and every such narrative is fraught with meaning: aesthetic, ideological, political.”

Personally, I’ve found Roskies’ words both useful and relevant. After I was named co-editor, with Nurith Gertz, of a volume of The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, earlier this year I became editor-in-chief of the entire 10-volume series, covering all of Jewish history, from Biblical times to the present. I was delighted to take on this immense project in addition to my day job as a historian and professor. It has given me an opportunity to think deeply about Jewish anthologies: what they are, what they’ve been, and what they might become.

I’ll begin, as a historian must, with the past. Anthologies are a simultaneously ancient, medieval, and modern Jewish tradition. During the Jewish Middle Ages, anthologies became primary mediums for recording stories, poems, and interpretations of classical texts. They also served as a means of transmitting and preserving textual traditions across generations. When Jews sat down to their Passover Seder, they read from an anthology: the Haggadah. This Jewish text continually gets reinvented—illustrated, translated, modified—to reach new generations.

In the modern period, Jews transformed the anthology. It became into an instrument for cultural retrieval. Both Zionists and Yiddishists used anthologies to advance their intellectual and political goals. No less importantly, the anthology helped establish new fields of Jewish research. It played key roles in the study of Hebrew poetry, folklore, music, and popular culture.

Today, scholars recognize the significance of Jewish anthologies. Midrash scholar David Stern, for instance, sees anthologies everywhere in Jewish literature. Stern, who edited The Anthology in Jewish Literature, cites the Bible itself, not to mention nearly all the canonical texts of Judaism: the Mishnah, the Talmud, classical midrash, and the prayerbook. Some biblical books are anthologies—e.g. Psalms and Proverbs. Others reflect what Stern calls an “anthological habit”—a tendency to collect “discrete and sometimes conflicting stories or traditions.” Think, for example, of the two accounts of the creation of human beings presented side by side in Genesis, without comment or any effort to unify them.

As this brisk survey shows, Jewish anthologies are diverse and therefore difficult to define. Or are they? In his essay, Roskies gives a simple, sublime definition: they are a Jewish conversation extending both backward and forward in time. Backward, because the anthologists have read and judged Jewish texts from earlier eras, selecting some, rejecting others. Forward, because the anthologist seeks to create new understandings that will shape the Jewish future, contributing to an ongoing dialogue. This is the “Jewish anthological imagination,” as Roskies so elegantly puts it.

So, then, how should a modern anthologist go about their task? For starters, they should pay close attention to translations. Translating has long, distinguished Jewish history. As a means of conveying texts, sacred and secular alike, into the languages Jews speak, translation has been invaluable. It has kept Jewish traditions alive as Jews have migrated and acquired new languages. Translation is complicated, however; and converting Jewish sources into the current world’s universal language, English, is especially so. As literary scholar Anita Norich points out, yiddishkeyt doesn’t exactly mean Jewishness, and Shoah is not quite a synonym for Holocaust. To translate, as the old saying goes, is to betray, to be a traitor. And yet it is necessary.

Translation aside, there’s the question of organization: where do you place hundreds, even thousands, of documents, artifacts, and works of art? In what order? In what categories? With The Posen Library, there was no single answer to these questions. Although the Bible might be a model, none of the series’ editors even attempted to create a single, unified whole out of their selections. Instead, they embraced variety. Meanings would emerge from juxtaposition. Difficult questions like “What is Jewish art?” and “What is Jewish literature?” would be answered implicitly, through the anthologists’ choices. Genre, chronology, geography, and themes would be the reigning categories.

When all is said and done, the anthologist’s primary task is still selection: who is included, who is excluded. Once again, I can speak personally to the pleasure of solving this riddle. Among the hardest challenges facing Nurith Gertz and me was selecting works by living writers, artists, and thinkers. Sometimes these were people we knew and admired. We couldn’t include everyone, yet to my surprise, not everyone wanted to be included! Some people, for whatever reason, declined to have their work anthologized. There was also the question of granting legal permission, which revealed the political and personal choices alive in the contemporary Jewish world. This process, part of the behind-the-scenes labor of anthology-making, deserves its own separate essay.

All this history, all this complexity, all these challenges, are part of what continues to excite me about anthologies. That, and the possibility of innovation. The internet tantalizes. It holds out the opportunity to create a “living anthology,” one that could potentially expand over time. For that reason, The Posen Library volumes will be published online, extending their reach. Beyond that, The Posen Library will present new ways of thinking about Jewish culture and civilization. It promises to change our understanding of the enormous breadth and depth of Jewish creativity across many centuries. If it succeeds, it will demonstrate yet again the enduring vitality of the Jewish anthological imagination.

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The Tears in Things

Wednesday, November 09, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Leah Kaminsky considered the role and of ghosts in contemporary literature—including her own novel, The Waiting Room. Leah is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


I am a collector, a lover of junk shops, where I can spend hours sifting through old photographs and tchotchkes. Our house looks like the movie set for The Addams Family.

My mother came to Australia as a refugee after World War II, with one small suitcase in her hand. Her only treasure, a tiny marcasite butterfly brooch she had been given after liberation from Bergen-Belsen, when she worked as the secretary of the Jewish Police in the Hohne DP camp. After she died, I wore the brooch all the time. Somehow, transferring her memory by embedding it into this piece of jewelry helped in some small way to make up for the deep loss I felt.

And then one day, our house was burgled. Along with the laptops and gadgetry stolen, my mother’s brooch disappeared. I was bereft, grieving as though she had died a second time.

Lacrimae rerum, Virgil wrote in his epic poem Aeneid. “There are tears in things.” Inanimate objects hold a power to move us; we invest them with such deep emotion that they become symbolic and tangible mementos of what we have lost. Their very physicality seems to bring the dead palpably closer to us through memory, tattooed onto teacups, onto paintings and toys.

A baby innately wants her mother, or primary caregiver, to be close by at all times—but place a teddy bear in the crib and the infant will quickly learn to cling to the soft toy for comfort, a substitute for the mother’s warmth. This transition object becomes a projection of the mother’s attributes, perhaps the primal need for comfort redirected onto the toy. These kind of objects continue to play an important role for us throughout our lives. We imbue them with memory and meaning.

My teddy-bear, Tichy, was able to do headstands as well as the splits. And of course, he could talk, although it was always in the faintest of whispers only I could hear. Bun, my daughter’s rabbit, has his bottom rubbed smooth, a furless ring worn around his tail. His face is squashed to one side, his long ears shriveled, black eyes filled with years of love. He has been her companion since she was born, running laps around her cot, then falling out of the side of her bed, getting lost on escalators at the airport, skydiving out open bedroom windows, dunked in swimming pools and pegged by his ears to the washing line to dry. Those same ears listened to my daughter sing herself to sleep at night, wake in the morning laughing, shifting from one language to another as we migrated across the globe. She suffused him with a huge personality for a tiny stuffed toy. They have stuck together through summer camps, hidden at the bottom of her bag so her bunkmates wouldn’t know. Bun lay there in the dark, silently guarding her childhood from drifting away. Back home, sitting on her bed, propped up against a pillow, he watched her grow from baby into child, from girl into woman. Quietly waiting for her to leave him behind, old ragged Bun lets her go now, knowing she will return even though she doesn’t need him anymore. Sometimes, when she’s out, I tiptoe into her room and hold Bun close to my heart, breathing in his faded smell as I greedily try to hoard the past.

Love lies hidden in the memory of objects that people we have loved once held dear, or which have taken on a special significance since their death. Maybe this is why I can’t let go of the spectacles my father wore when he used to read me bedtime stories, or my mother’s old flour sifter with which she prepared her delicious apricot cakes.

Forgetting, or letting go of the presence of the dead can sometimes be more painful than holding on to their memory through transference onto an object. “I remember phone numbers of the dead,” says my 94-year-old painter friend, Yosl Bergner. He can’t cross his friends out in his little black phone book. “It’s as if they have died twice if I do; only the second time, I’ve killed them by erasing their memory.”

My novel The Waiting Room is crowded with objects: uncaptioned photographs, old shoes, a glass eyewash cup, letters in Yiddish hidden away and discovered in an old tin. Like me, its protagonist, Dina, hoards her dead parents’ indecipherable relics, hoping that one day they will reveal the stories she never wanted to listen to as a young girl. As Ray Bradbury’s grandfather once told him, “Everyone must leave something behind when he dies… Something your hand touched some waysoyoursoulhas somewhere to go... a legacy is etched into the minds of others and the stories they share about you.” In this way, the dead can still be felt amongst the living.

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

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Book Cover of the Week: Judas by Amos Oz

Tuesday, November 08, 2016 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

It’s a great day for America: not only do we get to fulfill our civic duty and wear cool stickers (and even get free doughnuts, if you know where to go), but the English edition of Amos Oz’s newest novel comes out today!

As intriguing as the book cover looks on the screen, it doesn’t fully capture the glory of the physical hardcover. That bronze color you see on the lettering for Judas? It’s actually a lustrous gold in real life, and the overall effect of this juxtapositional gilded simplicity is practically breathtaking. (And the content of the novel ain’t bad, either.) So stop in your local bookstore and grab a copy to read while you’re waiting in line at your polling place—because you are voting today, right? RIGHT???

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Talking to the Dead: The Eternal Jewish Mother

Monday, November 07, 2016 | Permalink

Leah Kaminsky is the author of the novel The Waiting Room. She will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


Ah, the dead, the unended, endlessly ending dead: how long, how rich is their story. We, the living, must find what space we can alongside them…

– Salman Rushdie, The Moor’s Last Sigh

There has been a long line of literary specters. Ghosts have appeared in fiction throughout the ages, embodying a diversity of roles and haunting a variety of characters. Some take on the form of bold and terrifying poltergeists, corybantic cadavers who rattle around demanding moral justice and vindication; others appear as mere wisps of foggy miasma, canvassing subsequent generations to bear witness to past events with little more than a whisper.

Ghosts in literary fiction are usually revealed by way of a protagonist intent on preserving their memory. By listening to and confronting the ghosts that haunt them, they are able to integrate both personal and collective pasts into their present lives, and as a result actively choose the trajectory of their own future.

Dina, the protagonist of my debut novel, The Waiting Room, is an expat Australian doctor living in Haifa during the Intifada who is haunted by her Jewish mother, a Holocaust survivor who took her own life when her daughter was only eighteen. Dina’s mother cannot rest in her grave until her daughter, a reluctant listener as a teenager, finally bears witness to her extraordinary life story. Dina is followed around by this “eternal albatross of a Jewish mother,” who kibitzes and kvetches from the wings—a bit like Samantha’s mother in the ‘60s TV series Bewitched. When the alte zachen truck comes to collect household junk, her mother nags, “The stupid dog died years ago…that rotting kennel has been sitting shiva in the corner of the stairwell ever since. Isn’t it time you stopped mourning? What are you waiting for, the dog to come back from the dead?” Theirs is a complex mother-daughter relationship, but the mother’s spectral presence ironically ends up saving her daughter’s life.

In her 2011 Boyer lectures, the wonderful Geraldine Brooks reminds readers of the dictionary definitions of the word haunt: “to be continually present in; pervade, disturb or distress.” Linguistically, it is derived from the Old Norse word heimta, “to lead home.”

Being ‘haunted’ by her mother is what eventually leads Dina to find her own psychological sense of integration, or ‘coming home.’ The moral duty of honouring the past is often fulfilled by simply passing on the story so that it will not be buried along with the dead.

In the Bible, Samuel’s ghost—conjured up by the Witch of Endor—appears before Saul to predict his demise. In Virgil’s Aenied, ghosts engage in philosophical discussion, and take a keen interest in love affairs, often rebuking their descendants for sexual shenanigans. In more contemporary literary fiction, ghosts as a representation of a protagonist’s inner, unresolved conflicts, become more prominent, such as in Anne Enright’s The Gathering, or Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution. In novels, we are able to have control over things that are uncontrollable. Within the pages of a book, the very spooks that terrify us may also be the ones that bring us an odd feeling of comfort and familiarity, as well as a sense of serenity.

When someone close to us dies there is a ghost image of that person within us, imprinted in memory. Convincing the reader that ghosts exist, by their existence in the story, is one of the magical powers of literature. Freed from the limitations of flesh, ghosts that appear in literary texts are like reflections on the other side of a mirror, telling protagonists things about themselves they did not know. Many characters embody ghosts in order to preserve the presence of those they held dear, in part so they are able to hold them close again, by denying the fact that they are truly dead. The annoying Jewish mother my protagonist Dina ran from as a young girl is the very person she is searching for as an adult. In this way, ghosts are a device or a kind of mechanism for characters to confront and deal with death and their own mortality. Margaret Atwood sums it up well: “The ghost[…] is a way of examining the self, coming to terms with the self.”

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

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  • Turning the Terrorist Attack in Buenos Aires into Popular Art

    Thursday, November 03, 2016 | Permalink

    Author Ilan Stavans has three new books out this year, and will be introducing each one to Jewish Book Council readers as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

    I want to describe how my fotonovela Once @ 9:53am: Terror in Buenos Aires came along. A version of these thoughts appear in the volume’s afterward, but I also want to respond to the controversy the experiment has generated.

    I have always felt that the terrorist attack against the AMIA, the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires, on July 18, 1994, begged to be turned into a graphic novel. The effects of the tragic event in the ethnically mix neighborhood of Once in Buenos Aires, Argentina, are still felt today, especially among Latin American Jews.

    Yet the idea didn’t materialize until I met Argentine activist and photographer Marcelo Brodsky and I met, around 2008, through a mutual friend. An admirer of his photographic work, particularly of his artistic strategies to “intervene” historical images in order to make their message more emblematic, I was eager to talk to Brodsky about my interest on the fotonovela as a popular genre in Latin America that needed to be appropriated in order to explore today’s politically-charged themes defining the region.

    During lunch we discussed an assortment of topics, after which I asked him if he had read fotonovelas in his adolescence. I preceded my question by describing my own fascinating with the form, describing my assiduous readings of it almost every weekend, when new fotonovelas arrived to the corner newsstand in my neighborhood. I even told him that my father, a prominent actor of Mexican soap-operas, to make ends meet, had sometimes done some roles in fotonovelas.

    As it happened, Brodsky was an enthusiast. A few days later, he even sent me a number of extra copies of Argentine fotonovelas in his personal collection by FedEx. That conversation—and a number of others we entertained in the next few weeks—showed not only how much we had in common but, also, that a collaboration between us was a possibility.

    I remember mentioning to him my distress at the quagmire the AMIA investigation had become over the last fifteen years or so, and the extent to which I had become a buff of the whole terrorist incident, collecting a plethora of items in my library: photos, reportage, interviews, novels, books, documentaries, interviews, etc. I then suggested that through the format of the fotonovela, should we turn the 1994 incident into our central theme, we could achieve a multiple feat: explore through fiction—a type of fiction soundly based on facts—what journalism and police investigations had failed to uncover; renew the fotonovela as a legitimate genre of aesthetic exploration; and, equally important, collaborate in ways that would allow literature and photography to become partners, exploring ways in which words and images might work together.

    I had another objective in mind: I wanted to use the fotonovela as a platform for innovative scholarship. This needs an explanation. Over my career, I have tried to approach research in non-traditional ways. I don’t like the term “creative” because traditional scholarship is creative too, yet I’m conscious that, in the Manichean paradigm used in academic circles, knowledge is often perceived along those extremes: conventional and unconventional. After the AMIA tragedy, and more so as the unfinished business of finding the culprits dragged on for a long time, I remember thinking to myself that the episode merited from me a more thorough exploration, although I didn’t know what format it should take.

    My chance encounter with Brodsky made that possibility a reality. After all, he was an insider: an Argentine with some personal knowledge of the situation, since he had found large pieces of granite from the frontispiece of the AMIA building, lying beside the River Plate, in Memory Park, a memorial to the victims of State Terror he had helped build. These pieces later became part of Brodsky’s artwork. He got in touch with survivors in order to identify the stones and get their testimonies. It is while doing this kind of research that he became friends with people that were at the AMIA that fateful day. I instead was an outsider, albeit one with a long devotion to the incident.

    The collaboration was pleasurable from beginning to end. During the next few months, I wrote a first draft. Actually, at that point the narrative I envisioned was more ambitious. It was divided into three symmetrical chapters, only the first of which deal directly with the AMIA bombing. The other two looked at different characters and plots in various parts of Buenos Aires as people struggled to make sense of the incident. We then secured funding from various foundations.

    We set a date for me to travel for the shooting and began to make arrangements with actor’s unions, dressing companies, car and prop rentals, as well as with the AMIA administration. Our production headquarters were in the building of Hebráica, a Jewish club in the Once neighborhood. We also needed to secure permission from the Buenos Aires municipality to be on location. As we set the production in motion, it became obvious to us that the storyline as it currently stood was unwieldy. It would take years to shoot it and about five times the budget we had secured to finance it.

    Reality always wins in these kinds of battles. The decision, at that point, was for me to trim it, focusing exclusively on the first chapter. My intention now was to make it cohesive, to allow it to grow organically. I subsequently made a revised draft that is quite close to the final version of the fotonovela. From that draft Brodsky commissioned a storyboard. During the production, that storyboard was simultaneously a map and a compass. It grounded us and gave us confidence.

    The principal roles were played by professional Argentine and Brazilian Jewish actors. We persuaded family and friends to take some of the other roles. For instance, the girl carrying the balloons is Brodsky’s daughter; and one of the terrorists was a member of our crew. I personally wanted some prominent figures in the Jewish community to participate. This desire came from the movie My Mexican Shiva (2007), which was based on a short story of mine, in which the director cast my father and other prominent Mexican Jewish actors. He even invited me to the shooting and asked me to have a small nonspeaking part( due to union requirements), but it was ultimately cut. With that in mind, while in Buenos Aires I called my friend Marcelo Birmajer, author of the parody Three Musketeers, who is among the most celebrated Jewish writers from Latin America today. He has a cameo in the scene where the protagonist is beaten down. Brodsky is seen having coffee with the protagonist. I myself play the Orthodox rabbi that shows up inconspicuously with several colleagues in the early part of the fotonovela and at the end announces, apocalyptically, that the end of time has come.

    I mapped out each page meticulously: the number of frames it needed, the location of text, and use of color. Brodsky used these instructions as inspiration, adapting them according to his aesthetic needs. Like in comics and graphic novels, the success of the fotonovela as a genre depends on the degree in which illustrations drive the plot forward while text goes deeper into character formation. Take pages 24 and 25, where a group of rabbis on the street in the Once neighborhood discuss an assortment of topics: the frame consistently look at them at once from afar and in close-up, allowing for gestural nuance, locating them in context, while their consuetudinary dialogue allows the reader to understand their mood, their demeanor, and what they are feeling in these crucial minutes before the terrorist attack. Or else, look at the chase sequence on pages 47 and 48, as the complicit girl runs toward the white Renault Traffic: the suspense strives from her matching with the other culprits while passersby become suspicious of their activities.

    Since the post-1994 investigations have done nothing but hide them behind innuendoes, my explicit objective was to give the terrorist a face. I used the format of the fotonovela to give them a physicality they otherwise lacked.

    Brodsky and I were always sure we wanted to conclude the story with the photograph of the tragedy used on the front page of major newspapers worldwide. Almost from the outset he worked on getting permission. I remember the moment he told me he had secured it. I felt as if the whole endeavor was now kosher. The aim was to delve into the way stereotypes are approached in the Argentine milieu, from the photographer’s gaze at femininity (as a freelancer he works for Playboy) to the representation of Jewish and Arab characters objectivized on the streets. This is the original context in which the action took place. Needless to say, each culture is comfortable in its own excesses.

    Shooting took a total of three days. Brodsky took close to ten thousand pictures. In the months that followed he organized the material and began collaboration with a designer who developed the narrative while also inserting dialogic balloons and other comic-strip devices. Brodsky sent me periodically batches of about 5 or 6 pages, to which I made all sorts of changes, fine-tuning the dialogue, exploring alternative subplots, and so on. The need emerged of inserting maps of the city. For purposes of managing the suspense, we used digital clock-numbers on strategic pages.

    The overall production took about eight months. The fotonovela was published in Spanish, in Buenos Aires, by the publishing house Asunto Impreso, whose editor Guido Indij made valuable editorial suggestions. On July, 18, 2011, in time to commemorate the anniversary of the incident, a photographic exhibit, with the storyboard, a handful of pages in various stages of development, and a video walk through the neighborhood, including interviews with the AMIA witnesses and survivors, was scheduled to accompany the release.

    Ultimately, my dream was to use the very tools of popular culture in order to produce rigorous knowledge and to disseminate that knowledge in an alternative scholarly format. I wanted it to look like a comic yet deliver a serious message about the intersection of politics and religious freedom in Latin America. I wanted to amuse and stimulate, to provoke thought and generate discussion. Mostly, I wanted to reach a diverse audience beyond the Ivory Tower.

    I was thrilled when Brodsky told me, by phone, that Once @ 9:53am: Terror in Buenos Aires was being read in Argentina by people of all backgrounds, some of whom had little previous information of either antisemitism and the terrorist attack. He also mentioned the heated reaction it generated in intellectual circles, including Jewish-Latin American ones, for turning tragedy into an illustrated narrative, as if embracing the topic through popular culture was a form of desecration.

    My response: it is precisely in the realm of popular culture where this fight needs to be fought, subverting predictable tropes, turning stereotypes upside down, and showing that art isn’t the exclusive domain of elites. After all, neither terror nor antisemitism are the prevue of only a few.

    Ilan Stavans is a Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College and the author of many books of both Jewish and nonsectarian interests.

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    A Nazi Meeting at Madison Square Garden

    Wednesday, November 02, 2016 | Permalink

    Earlier this week, Ezra Glinter wrote about the research behind his anthology Have I Got a Story for You: More Than a Century of Fiction from The Forward, released this week from W. W. Norton & Company. Ezra is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

    In the course of researching Have I Got a Story for You: More Than a Century of Fiction from The Forward, I spent hours going through old microfilm, looking for the stories to include in the anthology. During that process I also came across countless items that were equally fascinating, but that fell outside the framework of the collection. Often these were non-fiction pieces, like news reports and travelogues written by some of the most renowned writers in Yiddish literary history. Below is a translation of one such item, a report by novelist Israel Joshua Singer on a May 17, 1934 rally of some 23,000 American Nazi supporters at Madison Square Garden.

    The rally was held under the auspices of the DAWA, or the German-American Protective Alliance, an umbrella organization that had been founded with the express purpose of countering the Jewish boycott of Nazi Germany with a boycott of their own against American Jewish businesses. Both the mainstream and the Jewish press covered the event; the Jewish Telegraphic Agency deemed it “one of the strongest anti-Jewish attacks ever tolerated in this country.” The Forverts covered the rally with multiple front-page articles, including a first-person report by Singer, who had immigrated to the United the same year. Aside from the historical and cultural interest of the piece, Singer’s descriptions of the apologetic rhetoric used by the speakers at the rally, who defended themselves and their audience as true American patriots, rings eerily prescient against the backdrop of today’s political climate.

    May 18, 1934

    Nazis Defame Jews at Madison Square Garden Rally; Call to Boycott, Defend Barbarians
    I. J. Singer Describes the Nazi Rally at Madison Square Garden

    The renowned author visits the rally and describes what happened there; Nazis at the meeting are like wild beasts with muzzles on their mouths; a lady Hitler supporter wants to sell him a “DAWA” sign; she curses him when he refuses to give her a dollar for the Nazi racket; impressions of the rally.

    By I. J. Singer

    Truth be told, people warned me not to go to the local Nazi gathering at Madison Square Garden. But my interest in seeing Hitler’s Germany in the middle of New York overcame any reluctance. I bought a ticket with a swastika on it and took myself to little Berlin in New York.

    As soon as I entered I forgot that I was in New York; immediately I tumbled into a dark Nazi atmosphere. Hitler supporters in black pants, tall boots and white swastika armbands surrounded me on all sides. Women Nazis in brown outfits spread all kinds of merchandise in front of me: DAWA signs, flowers, Nazi literature.

    “How much does a DAWA sign cost?” I asked a girl.

    “One dollar,” she said.

    I didn’t buy it, of course. The Nazi girl scolded me.

    “Is that too much to support the German cause?” she asked.

    The big hall was full. Only the top rows were unoccupied. Banners in German hung on all sides: “American Germandom Awake!” “Boycott the Boycotters!” Two pillars bearing German eagles and swastikas stood onstage. An orchestra played tedious, military music. Just then a group of Nazis carrying German flags and swastikas came on, together with several Americans. The music was some Hitler song. The chairman raised his arm high in the air, the way Hitler did. Everyone raised their arms and screamed: “Heil!”

    After the whole Hitler-ish ceremony was over, speakers came on to play preacher. Who dared say that local Germans, the ones who had called today’s rally, were Nazis? A libel! A Nazi was a German national, and how could American citizens be German nationals? Therefore? They just wanted to prevent America from committing a crime. They loved America, they were America’s greatest patriots. They had to protest against those who wanted to destroy the friendly relations between America and the newly awakened Germany; they must defend themselves, protect themselves.

    This message was aimed especially at America to show that they, the local DAWA folks, were the real patriots, while the Jews—all those Untermyers, Lipskys, Rabbi Wise’s and others—were no more than Communist agents of the Third International who wanted to bring down America and usher in Communism, both in America and in the rest of the world. This was the gist of every speech.

    Along the way, of course, the speakers entertained the crowd a bit, sprinkling their talks with anti-Semitic barbs. Each time a speaker mentioned Untermyer, Lipsky, Wise and others, they made a point of drawing out the Jewish names for a bit of a Hitler-ish “joke.” This gave the crowd a great deal of pleasure. “Boo,” they jeered. “Tfoy!”

    Great joy was had at the mention of some Jew named Ginzburg.

    “Ha ha! Ginzburg!” the crowd delighted.

    Wunderbar… Tara-loo…

    It was simply astounding to listen, for several hours, to the long-winded arguments from the speakers. Not one of them would stop insisting that they were no Nazis, that they didn’t want to turn America toward German politics, that they were opposed to race hatred, that America is a free country and everyone has the right to live here, even Jews… So why did they fight so strongly for Hitler’s Germany and call for a boycott of American Jewry? On this subject they didn’t have a single rational word to say. They all told stories about how the Jews were hurting America, how the Jews were importing Communism, how the Jews wanted to bring ruin to German Americans, who comprised a quarter of the entire American population.

    Also, only the Germans stood up for America and fought against the “Communism” of Untermyer and the rest of the Jews. They wore swastikas, sang the rowdy Host Wessel Song, screamed “heil” and founded the DAWA—all to save America.

    It was just laughable to hear such arguments.

    Aside from such “winning” arguments there was also a flood of primitive Nazi phrases and patriotic “lyrics,” in which real Germans have always been great experts.

    What wasn’t heard at the rally? Germany would bring good fortune to the world, just as it had brought to itself. Hitler had brought fame and luster to the country. And the twenty-five million Germans in America, in whose veins flowed true German blood, were great idealists like Hitler, who said that “the individual is nothing and the people everything.” They shouldn’t believe the newspaper scribblers who said that Germany was barbaric. Germany was the resting place of their “fathers” and “mothers,” and how could such a land, where their “fathers” and “mothers” rested, be barbaric?

    In response to such “logical” arguments the entire hall thundered with applause. So too real Germans expired from sentimentalism when the editor of the Deutscher Zeitung took to reckoning the righteousness of the German people, who had no equal in the world. While Jews, without exception, were storekeepers and careerists without a single ideal, the Germans, whether in Germany or elsewhere, were true idealists, worthy souls and saints, who believed only in what was best for the world. In a word, angels in tall boots.

    In contrast, the Jews were just fat cats who got pleasure from paying twenty-five dollars to sit at a banquet with Einstein, the master of relativity. The Germans were pitiably poor, and therefore could only afford a single dollar for a DAWA sign.

    At that point my neighbor, a blond German woman, began to weep copious tears at the speaker’s lyricism, which reminded me of the boring, sweet, patriotic songs they gave to German soldiers at the front in 1914 so that it would be sweeter for them to die for Kaiser and Fatherland…

    I sat and listened to the tiresome falsehoods, saw the incitement of the crowd, and I understood Hitler’s power. With just those simple, foolish, purple phrases he seized hold of the small fry, of the patriotic housewives and beer-guzzlers. The engorged editor of the Deutscher Zeitung even managed to bring Moses into his “lyrical” sermon. Moses said that one must honor one’s father and mother; therefore they must honor Hitler’s Germany, where their fathers and mothers were laid to rest. Even if the whole world made a hue and cry about Germany’s murders, Germans must not take it to heart, because they must follow the instruction of the Ten Commandments and “Honor thy father and mother”…

    More than at the “lyrical” speakers, however, I looked at the faces of the crowd. Their features were filled with hate, with beastly savagery, with murder.

    Each time the Jews were mentioned, they screamed with a bestial bloodthirstiness. I once saw a wild animal that would have bit and chomped if not for a muzzle placed over her mouth. The speakers tried to present themselves as sheep, but the mob seemed like a wicked animal that roared with rage because of the muzzle it was forced to wear. The hall breathed with hatred, with medieval bloodthirstiness against anyone who was for integrity, justice and humanity.

    We must keep this muzzled beast before our eyes, and fight to prevent it from escaping its muzzle. And the only way to do so is to boycott Nazi Germany.

    With that conviction filling my body and soul I left the black Hitler nest for the free air of Broadway.

    Ezra Glinter is The Forward’s critic-at-large. His writing has appeared in The New Republic, Paris Review Daily, Bookforum, and The Walrus. His biography of the Lubavitcher Rebbe is forthcoming from Yale University Press.

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