Over the years, classic Jewish literature has become less popular amongst Jewish teens. Many of the teens in today’s day and age have never even heard of the once, big hits. As you speak with people from older generations, they tend to have more knowledge on Jewish classics. Here, at the Jewish Book Council, we are very diverse in age. Becca, who is 29 years old, has heard of and read some of the Jewish classics such as The Chosen by Chaim Potok and Exodus by Leon Uris. Evie, who is 26 years old, has heard of some of the classics but has never read any of them. However, I am 15 years old and have never heard or read any of the Jewish classics. This shows how the new generation is not being exposed to Jewish classics, resulting in them being forgotten.
I am very interested in reading Jewish classic literature. Writers like S. Y. Agnon have a lot of classical Jewish traditions invested in their writings. Reading these Jewish books can teach you a lot about the culture in the author's times and how it differs from modern times. I think many teens haven’t read these books because it is hard for them to relate to it but there still is a lot to learn from these books and they can be very interesting. I'm looking forward to reading Jewish classical literature and learning about the culture of the Jewish people in the previous centuries.
Welcome back to the time machine! We are traveling twenty-one years into the past, to Israel in 1994, the setting for my debut novel Safekeeping. Last time, we marked the changes in television, cars, and the addition of Russian to many road signs. If you missed that post, you can read it here. Now for three more changes:
1. Tel Aviv
Much can be said about the city’s journey over the last two decades—from its ascension to the number two start-up center in the word, after Silicon Valley, to its newfound fame as an LGBT destination, all while coping with eighteen suicide attacks (the first in 1994). We’re going to focus on the city’s physical transformation. Let’s just say Tel Aviv already had the attitude back in the day, but now it’s got the outfit. The first morning I ever arrived in Israel, a taxi ferried me from the old Ben Gurion Airport to the Kibbutz Program Center, through a low-rise city, its old Bauhaus buildings stained and dilapidated under the pink dawn sky. Today those buildings, many gorgeously restored and housing boutique hotels and restaurants, form a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site known as the “White City.” Older neighborhoods, such as Florentin and Neve Tzedek, are abustle with shops, bars, and galleries that rival Brooklyn in their hipsterdom. Add to the changing cityscape the redesigned HaBima Theatre, the striking new addition to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, and the old train station and seaports reinvented as nighttime hotspots. In 1994, Tel Aviv’s skyline had one building over thirty floors; now it has twenty-three, and nineteen more on the way. One thing has remained the same: there’s still a staggering number of stray cats.
2. The Security Fence
And yes, in some places, such as the environs of Jerusalem, a wall. An eyesore. When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, much has happened since 1994, but too little has changed. Erection of the barrier started in 2002, a year in which terrorist attacks killed 452 Israelis on buses and in restaurants. As the barrier came up, suicide attacks went down. It is not the only barrier along a border—the U.S. has one with Mexico—but the West Bank barrier has garnered much international criticism, in part for not adhering more closely to the “green line,” effectively annexing 9.4% of the West Bank. Proponents argue it only deviates where hills and tall buildings can host snipers and that the barrier is not the final border. Whatever your thoughts on the barrier—whether it’s the reason for the reduction in suicide bombings, whether it should fall only on the green line, whether it should be built at all—it is inarguably a sad manifestation of the failed peace process, which was at its height in 1994.
3. The Kibbutz
This is a change at the heart of my novel Safekeeping: the privatization of the kibbutzim. Set on a kibbutz near Haifa, the novel shows six lives becoming entangled and changed forever over one fateful summer, the summer the kibbutz will vote on whether to end equal pay. While living on kibbutzim from 1994 to 1996, I witnessed the end of several kibbutz customs. My fellow twenty year olds, who had all been raised together in a Children’s House, now had younger siblings growing up in their parents’ homes. Members began eating dinner alone or with their families instead of in the dining hall. But at its heart, the kibbutz still operated according to the socialist ideal “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Over the following years, however, the changes grew more drastic, until the first kibbutz I had lived on divided all its assets among its members. This gave my great-uncle, a longtime member, personal ownership of his apartment. Today, more than 200 of the 270 kibbutzim have either partly or fully privatized, paying members different salaries for different work.
This list of changes in Israel could go on, with every change warranting its own essay. Or book. For a more nuanced and immersive experience of Israel in 1994, read Safekeeping.
Jessamyn Hope's short fiction and memoirs have appeared in Ploughshares, Five Points, and other literary magazines. Born and raised in Montreal, she lived in Israel before moving to New York City. Read more about her here.
Summer definitely ain't over yet: August is bringing in a hearty new crop of books to read before the kids get back from camp—including Days of Awe: A Novel by Lauren Fox, released yesterday from Knopf! And look at the beautiful book cover they snuck on there while no one was looking:
Award-winning author Steve Stern’s eleventh work of fiction, The Pinch: A History/A Novel, was published in June 2016 by Graywolf Press. Jewish Book Council sat down with the prolific author to discuss the role of Jewish history and Yiddish folktales in his writing, race in the South, and the power of comical writing and its significance.
Beth Kissileff: I love when authors take characters and ideas from their other books and continue to use them in different ways in newer books. The Shpinkers appear in other works of yours, and you have written about tightrope walkers in the past, too. What does it mean to you to write this way?
Steve Stern: You make me sound very ecological, recycling characters in order to create a kind of sustainable fiction. The truth is, I’ve been mining the old North Memphis neighborhood of the Pinch for stories for about three decades now, and it’s only natural that some of the narratives dovetail, causing characters who appear in one story to reappear in another. It is, after all, a finite neighborhood, though the stories are infinite; so while I might introduce new characters to the mix, they’re bound to rub shoulders with the veteran populace, and the friction of their shoulder-rubbing can be radically transformative for both old and new residents of the neighborhood.
BK: Can you talk about the interplay of history and fiction in your writing?
SS:The Pinch ends with the Angel of History: Walter Benjamin’s concept inspired by Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus in which the angel looks toward the past while being driven ever forward, perhaps catastrophically, in its flight. If you’re looking backward—toward a mythic past, toward the paradise you knew before the Angel of Forgetfulness tweaked you under the nose at birth—then history is something you blindly collide with. I suppose that’s as good a characterization of the attitude in which I write as any: history always manifests itself as an inescapable intrusion, the nightmare from which Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus was trying to awake. In their sleepwalking, my characters often try to sustain themselves on dreams, and since the dreams are frequently nourished by ancient mythologies, they may assume their own palpable reality. What happens when that reality, in which magic is a natural component, encounters the harsh truths of history is a constant theme in the stories I imagine. Though to be honest, the angel at the end of The Pinch evokes not so much Benjamin’s Angel of History as the one with the flaming sword who prohibits Adam and Eve from returning to the Garden.
BK: One of the many lovely things in the book is the honest appraisal of race relations. Can you say something about the role of race in the novel, and the particular one of Jews and blacks in the South?
SS: In my hometown of Memphis, a predominantly black city, there was an interesting symbiosis between African-Americans and Jews. Beale Street, which was the black Main Street of the South for decades, had at one end a cluster of Jewish pawnshops and discount stores. Where blacks were barred from shopping at the white-owned businesses, they were welcomed by the Jews. I won’t pretend this was without its mercenary motive, but still: Schwab’s Emporium featured hoodoo love potions and pomades; Novak’s Pawn accepted toothpicks and thimbles from the gamblers and high-rollers, confident of a considerable return on their investment. The black heritage of Memphis, the city’s richest cultural heritage, had from its early inception a lively Jewish element, and it was through an interest in that hybrid circumstance that I, somewhat ironically, came to know something about the local Jewish history. I guess that, growing up in the South, I always conceived parallels between the black and the Jewish experience, and I’ve been drawn back repeatedly to that perception since I began to write. In The Pinch, I wanted to address the city’s pivotal (even terminal?) historic moment, the garbage strike that preceded the assassination of Martin Luther King. There seemed to me a kind of inevitability in the fact that the so-called urban renewal that destroyed North Main Street coincided with the murder of Dr. King. My dream district evaporated forever with the death of the century's greatest dreamer.
BK: Can you talk a bit about your sources—folklore, midrash, Yiddish words? How did you do the research for the many worlds this book contains?
SS: I’m never really aware of research per se, since the place where I spend most of my time is in a literary latitude (my room) defined by the kinds of texts you mention. The Book is of course the Torah, whose narrative begins in timelessness before entering history. The vast literature that Torah has generated—midrash, aggadah, folklore, legend, and so much of Yiddish fiction—partakes of both worlds; these are tales that exist comfortably in both a mythic and historic dimension. Characters, such as the folk persona of the prophet Elijah, commute between these worlds with relative ease; creatures such as golems and assorted monsters, the Leviathan and the giant Ziz bird, phenomena such as dybbuks, wandering souls, hidden saints, and all the fabulous demonic and angelic denizens of Kabbalah, can enter the familiar world without substantially altering its fabric. Rabbis and fools can stumble into sitra achra, the malevolent Other Side, and return to their study house unscathed. For centuries the two worlds cohabited more or less peacefully in the Jewish universe. But in our epoch there was a rupture—i.e. a Holocaust—which separated us from the timeless realm and marooned us here under the unforgiving dominion of history. I believe, however, that stories can still retain an echo of the original source, and that the echo can sometimes toll louder than the tale at hand; that the music of that tolling can endow our historical moment with a measure of eternity. I believe a writer, according to his or her means, ought to aspire to capture that music in his or her stories.
BK: In your book, we watch a character write and control the faces of others. Can you talk about the power of writing and its effect on your own life?
SS: I gave The Pinch two endings—one a speculative conclusion in which the book that the character Muni has written plays a crucial part in the revitalization of the lost neighborhood. In the second ending—spoiler alert—Muni’s book is destroyed, and Lenny, my feckless semi-hero, who’s been living both inside and outside of Muni’s chronicle, is set free, though his emancipation is an ambiguous affair. This is what I love most about fiction: that you can have it both ways. You can rectify and redeem botched lives, dissolve the claustrophobia of routine with mad invention, realize the impossible despite the hegemony of the literal; and you can do it all without subverting the accepted wisdom. But I’m not entirely a fool; I know that there’s such a thing as normative reality and that in most lives it trumps whatever the imagination can conceive. There’s a Kafka parable that says we are free and secure citizens of the world, for we’re fettered to a chain long enough to give us the freedom of all earthly space; that we’re free and secure citizens of heaven as well, since we’re also fettered by a similarly long heavenly chain. But if we head for earth, the heavenly collar throttles us, and likewise the earthly collar if we head for heaven. Yet, says Kafka, all the possibilities are ours. Stories are perhaps an effort to break those chains, and if they ultimately fail to do so, well, the energy and passion expended in the attempt allows us to feel, if only vicariously, intensely alive.
BK: Can you talk about the sense of creation and transmission in writing, and what you hope to hand over to readers?
SS: A writer’s characters embody his obsessions, and many of mine are possessed by stories, both their own and those of others, which they’re as driven as the Ancient Mariner to exorcise themselves of. That’s certainly the case with my character Muni Pinsker. George Steiner once said of the Jews that the Book is their homeland, which is a literal truth for me, though the book in question—apostate that I am—is usually the one I’m writing, and home paradoxically the place I hope the writing will take me to. It’s less a straight-ahead voyage, however, than the efforts of a desperate survivor of shipwreck to reach dry land, my desk the lifebuoy I cling to like Ishmael (another mariner) hanging onto Queequeg’s casket. That’s the only way I know to stay afloat. A career sadsack, I nevertheless like to think that I’m essentially a comic writer. Sure, I’ve got my sober and somber themes, which I return to again and again, hammer and tongs. But in the end, though reviewers might beg to differ, my intention is to entertain. I have a religious faith in the power of laughter to clarify a spiritual vision. The old proverb says that aggadah, the narrative imagination, has a laughing face. That’s the compass by which (straddling the casket) I try to navigate my stories.
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.
I always left my window open at night, despite the warnings I'd been given. I rarely did as I was told. According to my mother, this had been my response to life ever since my birth, for it took three days for me to arrive in the world. As a child I did not sleep through the night, and I certainly didn't follow any rules. But I was a girl who knew what I wanted.
Other people shivered when the rains came and were chilled to the bone, but I longed for cold weather. Nights on our island were pitch dark, the air fragrant and heavy, perfect for dreaming. As soon as the light began to fade it was possible to hear the swift footsteps of lizards rattling through the leaves and the hum of the gnats as they came through the windows. Inside our stucco houses, we slept within tents made of thick white netting, meant to keep mosquitoes away. In rain barrels of drinking water we kept small fish that would eat the eggs these pests laid atop the water's surface so there would be fewer of them to plague us. All the same, huge clouds of insects drifted through the heat, especially at dusk, bringing a fever that could burn a man alive. Clouds of bats descended upon our garden, flitting through the still air to drink the nectar of our flowers, until even they disappeared, settling into the branches of the trees. When they were gone there was only the quiet and the heat and the night. Heat was at the core of our lives, a shapeshifter that never was too far from the door. It made me want to step out of my clothes and dive into another life, one where there were linden trees and green lawns, where women wore black silk dresses and crinolines that rustled when they walked, a country where the moon rose like a silver disc into a cold, clear sky.
I knew where such a place could be found. Once, it had been the country of my grandparents. They had come to the New World from France, carrying with them an apple tree to remind them of the orchards they'd once owned. Our very name, Pomie, came from the fruit that they tended. My father told me that our ancestors had searched for freedom, first in Spain, then in Portugal, then in Bordeaux, the only region in France that accepted people of our faith at that time. Yet freedom was fleeting in France; our people were jailed, then murdered and burned. Those who escaped journeyed across the ocean to Mexico and Brazil, many aided by the Marrano navigator Fernando de Noronha, who hid his faith from those in power. Even Columbus, who called our island Heaven-on-earth upon spying it, was said to be one of us, searching for new land and liberty.
In 1492 Queen Isabella expelled our people from Spain on the Ninth of Av, the worse day in the history of our people. It was on this date when the first Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by Babylonia and the second Temple was destroyed by Rome. It was on this very day, in the year 1290, that all Jews had been expelled from England. Thousands of our children were baptized and shipped to the island of St. Tome off the coast of Africa, then sold as slaves. In the year 1506 four thousand were massacred in Spain during Passover. Many converted, continuing to practice their religion underground. I pitied those who had stayed behind, forced to take on Christianity. My father had told me that in time even that sacrifice wasn’t good enough; such persons were called Conversos, and were looked down upon and degraded, their property and rights taken from them. Those who survived were the ones who knew when to flee.
The Inquisition followed our people across the ocean where they were once again murdered and cast out in Mexico and Brazil. My grandfather was among those who found themselves on the island of St. Dominique, and it was there both my parents were raised. But there was no peace in societies where sugar cane was king and people were enslaved. In 1754 the King of Denmark had passed an edict that proclaimed that all men could practice their religions freely on St. Thomas; he outlawed new slavery and gave Jews the civil rights of other men, even granting them admission to associations such as they brotherhood of Masons, which allowed our people to do business with non-Jews. My parents came, then, to the island of the turtles, for more free people could be found here then anywhere in the new world, and people of our faith were accepted as Danish citizens, in 1814. Nearly everyone spoke English or French, but all were grateful for the Danish rule. In 1789 there were fewer than ten Jewish households listed in the tax registers, but in 1795, the year I was born, there were 75 people, with more settling on our shores each year.
Once he arrived my father swore that he would never again travel. He brought along the apple tree, and my mother, and the one man who was loyal to him.
Our island was small speck of land, twenty-eight square miles set in the blue-green sea. The original population had all vanished now, destroyed by disease and murder. The native people, called the Caribs, believed their ancestors journeyed to this island from the moon; having seen the dull earth they'd come to give it light, travelling through the clouds, drenching our island with color, so that shades of orange and blue and red were scattered everywhere. But the Caribs' ancestors were trapped here by storms and had no choice but to stay in a place where they never belonged. They wound their long, black hair into plaits of mourning both for themselves and for our world. They were right to mourn, for until the Danes brought freedom here, the island's history was one of injustice and sorrow, a society built by convicts and slaves.
As it turned out, the fruit of our name did not grow well in tropical weather. It was far better suited for cooler climates. My grandparents' apple tree, planted in a large ceramic pot in the courtyard, never grew any bigger. When I watered it during the dry season it was so thirsty, it could never drink enough. Its brown leaves crinkled and sounded like moths as they fell to the ground. The fruit it bore was hard, the skin more green than red. Still this was our heritage, the fruit of France. I ate every apple I could find, no matter how bitter, until my mother found me out and slapped my face. My mother's full name was Madame Sara Monsanto Pomie, and she was a force few people would dare to go up against. Her anger was a quiet, terrifying thing.
"These apples were meant for your father," she told me when she found me gathering fruit that had fallen onto the patio. I walked away from my mother and from the tree without a word. Unlike other people, I had no fear of her. I knew she wasn't as strong as she seemed for I'd heard her weeping late into the night. I told myself I would be in Paris when I next ate the fruit of our name. Though I'd been born here, I'd always believed it was not my true home. I was trapped on this island much like the people who had come across the sky and could do nothing more than stare at the moon through the vast distance. But unlike them, I would reach my destination.
Jessamyn Hope is the author of Safekeeping, which has received critical acclaim from The Boston Globe, The Globe and Mail, and Tablet Magazine. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.
My debut novel Safekeeping takes place on a kibbutz in northern Israel over the summer of 1994. The world has changed a lot since then, and Israel, being such a young country with unique socio-political challenges, transforms at a particularly quick rate. Some of the changes that have come to Israel over the last two decades mirror those found in other countries: the sea change that came with the Internet; cellphones stowed in pockets instead of asimonim (phone tokens) or telecards; and no more smoking while browsing clothes in the Dizengoff Center. Many changes, though, have been distinct to Israel. Over the coming week, this blog will explore six of them. Here are the first three:
When I was a volunteer in 1994 on my great-uncle’s kibbutz, I watched television only rarely on his fuzzy tube TV. The viewing options were slim. All the antenna caught were three choices: a staticky Arab soap opera coming from nearby Lebanon, and the only two Israeli stations at the time, both government owned—the Israeli Broadcasting Authority and the aptly named Channel Two. Television came late to Israel, in 1966, and only then as an educational tool for schools; and although cable came to the country in 1990, the vast majority of homes still did not have it in 1994. Now Israel digitally broadcasts over ninety national channels, and Israeli television is in midst of a golden era, with shows like Hatufim and BeTipul being adapted in the United States as Homeland and In Treatment.
While an ulpanist on another relative’s kibbutz near Haifa, I had a crush on a young kibbutznik who would take me on day trips by signing out one of the kibbutz’s white Subarus. Nearly every car in the kibbutz lot, and seemingly every car speeding down the roads of Israel, was either a white Subaru hatchback or a white Subaru mini-truck. Why all the white Subarus? For many decades, the League of Arab States boycotted any company that did business with Israel. Since the Arab market was much larger than the Israeli one—today it’s 450 million people versus 8 million—many companies, such as Pepsi and McDonald’s, agreed not to sell their products in Israel. And this was the case for all Japanese cars except the Subaru. Since the mid-nineties, a majority of Arab countries have abandoned the boycott, and today Israelis drive cars of various brands, and only a quarter of them are white.
3. Road Signs
In 1994, road signs and other government notices in Israel were written in Hebrew and Arabic (the two official languages) and English. Today, they often include a fourth language: Russian. In 1989, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev allowed Jews to leave the USSR, and soon afterward the United States ceased accepting them as refugees. Over the next decade, 1.1 million people flooded from the Soviet Union into Israel, a country with a population under five million. At the time, people compared it to the United States absorbing the entire population of France. Temporary caravans to house the immigrants popped up all over. Now 15% of Israelis claim Russian as their mother tongue, and their influence is marked not only on road signs, but in Israeli politics, literature, music, theater, science, and technology. By 1998, the number of professional orchestras in Israel quadrupled; by 2004, half of Israel’s Olympic athletes were immigrants from the former Soviet Union; and by 2009, one in four staff members at Israeli universities was a native Russian-speaker.
Want more time travel? Tune in to the next post. Or if you can’t wait, travel to 1994 Israel with my novel Safekeeping.
Jessamyn Hope's short fiction and memoirs have appeared in Ploughshares, Five Points, and other literary magazines. Born and raised in Montreal, she lived in Israel before moving to New York City. Read more about her here.
It was an interesting experience for me, as a writer who is Jewish, to write from the point of view of Calvinist New Englanders for whom fixed attitudes about Jews were an accepted part of the culture. The character of the Reverend Hedge was inspired by an eccentric polymath parson named Jonathan Fisher, who lived and preached in Blue Hill, Maine in the early part of the 19th century. He knew many languages but had a special reverence for Hebrew as the language of Holy Scripture, even enshrining the Hebrew letters in an Alphabetical Bestiary of the Bible, similar to the one I gave to Hedge. Yet, one of his few surviving sermons rails against the Jews. This paradox was very common at the time. Hedge can effuse to Gideon about the sensuality of the Hebrew letters, their “heft,” their “shapeliness,” while still piously opining about the burden he bears for the Jews, how he prays for them, “but without much hope.”
Gideon, as a member of this society though not truly of it, still has to confront the caricatures he grew up with: the “two tribes who lived side by side in him,” the Hebrews in the stories and the Jews, who, in his mother’s words, “kept to themselves.” When he first learns that Leander is Jewish, he sees him through the scrim of all the clichés, comparing his friend, whom he has begun to love, to the common perceptions about Jews, and then “looked this leering caricature full in the face, and, with a single shaky breath, dismissed it.” As he goes through this process, he is aware that Leander is watching him, “registering each stage of his thought as it made its lurching pilgrimage from common wisdom to fable .” Leander has been through this before. If he has become a shape-shifter,” pitching his tent in other men’s minds,” it is to escape this relentless categorizing, and he is waiting to see whether Gideon will change toward him now that he knows the “one fact.” It’s not that Leander himself is a caricature, but that he has a long history of being seen as one.
Leander and Gideon are drawn to the experiment in the greenhouse for different reasons. Gideon believes he is fulfilling his vision. Leander is convinced he has found his tribe. Each, in his own way, believes he’s starting new, leaving a corrupt old world for a purer one. When Leander chooses to set up a household with Sophy and Gideon, he is taking the risk of staying put for the first time since leaving the German Jewish society that his father represented. Sophy perceives his interest in them as cold and calculating—and to some extent she’s right—but he’s also genuinely taken with them, and invested in Sophy’s pregnancy and the child to come, the “little man” who will perhaps replace the son he lost in his old life. “We are a small tribe,” he says to Gideon, “but we are increasing.”
Which brings us to The Shylock Moment. I was surprised asked why I hadn’t given Leander one because, for me, this happens very clearly when the parson warns them that vicious gossip has begun to circulate in the village—classic slanders such as using the baby’s blood “to season our soups. To add flavor to our bread.” Leander recognizes them as Gideon and Sophy do not, and begins to laugh hysterically. “One expects such barbarities in Europe, but that the tentacles reach to our artless little village . . .” He sees that there is no refuge from hatred in their isolated enclave. The prejudice he knew in Europe will follow him. However high he builds his wall, the stones will be used to shatter the glass walls of their fragile Eden.
There are a lot of undertones in the scene when Sophy catches Leander in the glasshouse looking at the secret sides of her paintings and confronts him. Leander’s self-mockery is evident: “I’ve heard of Jews with horns, but wings? An innovation!” He defends himself from her accusations, insisting he hasn’t destroyed their family, but preserved it by creating a new one, and talks objectively about Gideon’s obsession and how he is putting his friend’s gift “to practical use.” He’s particularly defensive about Aleph, whom he claims to love: “Do you think a man like me—a worldly man, as you quaintly put it—has no tender feelings?” He never discusses his Jewishness with Sophy, but in the emphasis he puts on “worldly,” implies that he interprets the word as a euphemism. Later, he betrays his need for her, making an overture and speaking of their like natures, and she is swayed for a moment before keeping him at bay by asking about his mother’s fortune and whether it has supported them all these months. It’s only then that he reverts to type, speculating that her paintings might be “worth something.”
Though Leander has the place of the serpent in the novel, he’s hardly an unalloyed villain. He’s a progressive man, ahead of his time in many ways, and, for all his wiles and manipulations, there is a lot of good in him. As a schoolmaster, he treats his pupils like human beings and disciplines them without the rod. He takes Sophy’s art seriously when no one else does—a fact that she acknowledges at the end. He disappears after the fire, but the implication is that he’s rescued Gideon and saved Sophy’s paintings. He haunts her long after he is gone. I intended him to be a complex character, one not easily categorized. As a writer, I have great fondness for him because he sparked the novel for me when I had reached a difficult point. I heard his voice distinctly and he was a pure pleasure to get on the page.
Finally, Jewish Book Council asked why I had chosen Kassel as Leander’s birthplace. Though the choice was arbitrary—long ago I’d taken care of an elderly Jewish woman who came from there and had fled to the states just before the war—I did do some research about the city. I don’t have time to corral my notes, but I’m pretty certain that I investigated Jewish life there and determined that there was an Orthodox synagogue in Kassel during that era. (I honestly didn’t know about the Brothers Grimm’s Jewish caricatures, though I’m not surprised they exist.)
Read the original interview with Barbara Klein Moss here.
For many American Jews, summer camp was a crucial experience of childhood, coming of age, and early employment. Regardless of which particular camp you called home for those first weeks away from your parents, you'll laugh and relate to the characters and customs in the following flicks:
Wet Hot American Summer (2001)
Yes, obviously. The myriad oblique references to Camp Firewood’s religious affiliation are largely to credit for the movie’s cult appeal. (That and an all-star comedic cast including Amy Poehler, Michael Ian Black, Bradley Cooper, Michael Showalter, Paul Rudd, Molly Shannon, Ken Marino, Joe Lo Truglio, Christopher Meloni, and David Hyde Pierce.) Set in 1981, Wet Hot American Summer follows the Firewood staff’s Hail Mary attempts to find love, carnal pleasures, or amusement on the last day of camp.
Another Jewish summer camp flick set before its time, A Walk on the Moon also features a stellar cast you would never know collaborated on a Jewish movie: Diane Lane, Liev Schreiber, Anna Paquin, Viggo Mortenseten. So basically you have Martha Kent (Superman), Sabretooth and Rogue (X-Men), and Aragorn (The Lord of the Rings) all running around a Jewish family retreat camp just outside of Woodstock in the summer of 1969.
What sets A Walk on the Moon apart—other than the absence of comedic hijinks or spectacular dance numbers—is the breadth it covers of both personal narrative—a young Jewish mother whose children have outgrown her life’s purpose; a father driving overnight each way for to spend his one day off of work for the week with his family; a girl with a lakeshore summer’s outlet for the rebellions and temptations of adolescence; a heretofore untethered drifter; a grandmother left with her daughter-in-law, watching her son’s family fall apart in his absence—and Jewish American history, culture, and experience: a euphoric mazel tov from a father to his daughter on the arrival of her first period, delivered over the camp P.A. system in the middle of morning announcements; encounters and even friendships with the Orthodox vacationers on the same beach; huddles of Jackie O bobs and cateye glasses cackling around picnic tables covered in mah jongg tiles.
Dirty Dancing (1987)
You can’t really bring up Jewish family vacation camps without at least mentioning Dirty Dancing. A Jewish American Princess falls for Kellerman’s Mountain House’s dance instructor and his limber community—both of which her father strictly disapproves.
I know a high school teacher who screens the movie in class every time she teaches a course on modern Jewish history. But that might just be her excuse to watch the film.
Ah, what to say about Gorp. Dated, slapstick, and extremely problematic—half of our heroes’ antics are variations of sleep rape—but still essential to the canon. It’s basically Animal House set in an upstate Jewish summer camp, where two fast-talking mess hall waiters lead their shack of colleagues through a repeat summer of pranks, pursuit, and flouting the rules. Featuring an almost unrecognizably young Dennis Quaid as “Mad” Grossman and Fran Drescher at the start of her career, Gorp slips a few insider jokes in between the raunchy humor, largely at the expense of the camp rabbi’s poorly attended sermons.
The movie is unquestionably distasteful and offensive to modern sensibilities, but it is also perhaps the first—and possibly still the most blatant—to claim Jewish summer camp as its home.
Commie Camp (2013)
Commie Camp explores the establishment, legacy, and current culture of a Jewish socialist children’s summer camp in the Berkshires. Founded in 1923 by immigrant Jewish laborers as a means to get their offspring out New York City’s tenements for the season, Camp Kinderland continues to collect and inculcate an annual crop of creative and quirky kids each summer. You really can’t understand the world of Jewish summer camp in its entirety until you’ve at least glimpsed its socialist outposts.
Four Seasons Lodge (2006)
A New York Times series of articles on aging Holocaust survivors retreating to the Catskills inspired the reporter writing them to commission a filmed record of this dwindling summer community with the co-creator of Grey Gardens behind the camera. The documentary enters the Four Seasons Lodge as its octo- and nonagenarian summer denizens enjoy their 26th season at the colony, enjoying the entertainment, food, and opportunities to socialize and dance as they have together over the past quarter-century, without hint or mention of the dark past left in Nazi-occupied Poland—until the cameras start rolling.
A beautiful, unusually subtle piece of testimony, Four Seasons Lodge is a reminder of the restorative value of a summer retreat at any age, with any story.
Needless to say, this was all very exciting. I had rescued the irrational dimension of a largely sanitized tradition from obscurity and enabled the timeless realm to reenter history, restoring magic to the arid wasteland of contemporary experience. But there was a problem: because the Pinch itself had degenerated into gutted buildings and weed-choked lots, and the ghettos of Eastern Europe that had spawned the Pinch were now graveyards, their populations long since reduced to ashes. As a consequence, there was no longer a natural habitat wherein the resurrected dead belonged, to say nothing of the whole supernatural menagerie with whom they’d once lived cheek by jowl. The shoemakers, patch tailors, ritual slaughterers, and market wives found themselves without a culture in which to pursue their traditional livelihoods. By the same token, the creatures from sitra achra, the Other Side, had no communal order to invade and subvert with their time-honored mischief. Here is the place where I’m supposed to say that I reconstructed their world in my stories, replicating their vanished community, complete with poverty, disease, and the threat of pogrom to be sure, but also with mystery and romance. Isn’t that what art is? A container made in time to hold a timeless element? But my artificial containers, formed from recycled folk narratives, were never sturdy enough to confine authentic magic, which tended to crack the forms wide open. In the absence of their original milieu, the citizens of that timeless realm didn’t so much blend as collide with the contemporary world. The archetypes and modernity made strange bedfellows. The born-again mortals, feeling exposed and disoriented, scrambled to assimilate as fast as they could, pursuing get-rich-quick schemes to insulate themselves from an alien environment; while the supernaturals, feeling equally out of place in a world where they weren’t believed in, where the evil men outstripped their wildest machinations, succumbed to various petty corruptions: the wonder rebbes became spiritual hucksters, founding meditation centers that boasted celebrity followers; the golem used disproportionate force against the perceived enemies of Israel in barroom brawls. Lilith started an escort service; the dybbuks took possession of living souls with reckless abandon, and so forth. Think of a subterranean version of the anarchy unleashed on the world in Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming.” Like an ineffectual parent trying to corral his delinquent children, I endeavored to shepherd the demons and born-agains back into yet another container, which they also smashed, forcing me to repeat the process all over again, ad absurdum. This was my method, which was arduous and frustrating and aged me prematurely. It was a doomed Sisyphean enterprise, and like Blake’s eternity yearning for the productions of time, I wished for a return of the old status quo. Then lo, my prayer was answered: the boring rabbi from my reform temple turned up in his seersucker suit and, with unsuspected strength, tilted the Tree back into the ground whence it had risen, while the remnant of that refugee heritage scurried back into the gaping hole as well. The poor sapling, bare of fruit, stood once more in place of the Tree, and I returned to the synagogue and sat peacefully among the congregation, amnesiac again and wondering, “Why do they look so smug, as if they’re keeping some big secret from me?” End of story.
There’s the familiar Chasidic parable about the forest, the fire, and the prayer that describes how the Baal Shem Tov, when he needed enlightenment, went to a place in the forest, lit a fire, said a prayer, and mirabile dictu, enlightenment was granted. His nephew would go to the same place in the forest and light the fire, only to find that he’d forgotten the prayer; but it was sufficient just to be by the fire in the forest. Then the nephew’s nephew would go to the forest, where he was unable to remember the prayer or light the fire; but he was still in the forest and that was sufficient. The nephew’s nephew’s nephew, however, couldn’t even find his way into the forest, never mind light the fire or say the prayer; but he remembered the story of the forest, the fire, and the prayer, and that sufficed. But my generation has only the story of having forgotten the story, and that frankly isn’t enough. Still, I sometimes encounter some joker at a party whose tasteless shtik recalls the routines of the old badkhonim, the jesters who entertained at Jewish weddings with their bawdy repertoires; or a drooling lunatic on a subway platform might spew a stream of vitriol that could have been formulated by a dybbuk; or a child of a friend utters some gnomic wisdom beyond his years, as if his soul had endured many gilgulim, or reincarnations. In this way chords are struck; a vestige of the knowledge erased by the Angel of Forgetfulness at our birth (by his famous fillip under our nose) obtains. “We cannot renew our former strength,” said the illustrious rabbinic storyteller Nachman of Bratslav, “but we do retain an imprint of those former times, and that in itself is very great.” In the Beginning, according to the sixteenth century kabbalist Isaac Luria, God had to withdraw Himself from the universe in order to make room for creation, but the vessels in which He deposited His Light could not contain their volatile contents and cracked open. For centuries it was the mission of the Jews to retrieve—through study, good works, and prayer—the sparks of holiness scattered from those broken vessels and return them to their source, thus repairing the rift between heaven and earth and making the universe whole again. This was the Jewish MO for several centuries, until along came the Holocaust, an implosion as seismic in its destructiveness as the explosion that allowed for our creation. Since then the sparks have not been so easy to recover. Before, they were hidden in plain sight, the way a father hides the afikomen for his children at Passover; now those sparks are buried so deep under the ruins of a lost culture that their recovery requires a major excavation. The whole tradition must be uprooted—branch, trunk, root, and seed—in order to yield the least gem-sized spark, which must in turn be fanned like crazy in the hope of starting a new conflagration. Then, if you’re lucky, a demon or angel might leap out of the flame.
Over the course of several diary entries Franz Kafka, the high priest of hopelessness, began a story about a slovenly rabbi living in the squalid Prague ghetto, who is attempting to create a man from a lump of clay. But after setting the stage for an eruption of magic in that dilapidated secular atmosphere, Kafka never completed the story. Meanwhile the old ghetto was razed to the ground in the name of progress, and later on all the displaced Jews were sent to the gas chambers. Which was maybe why the story, having no real world model to draw upon for its context, was doomed from the outset. Still, for those of us helplessly drawn to the archetypes of an outworn tradition, who believe they retain some transformative power, Kafka’s uncompleted story remains a challenge: You want to describe how the rabbi rolls up his sleeves like a washerwoman and plunges his hands into the wet clay, while the curious neighbors in his reeking courtyard look on. This is of course outrageous effrontery, the idea that you can trespass where Kafka himself feared to tread. The old mystics issued caveats against such presumption: the apprentice kabbalist should be at least 40, married, and with a respectable paunch as a ballast against pursuits that might carry him away. There are many fables about the consequences of being carried away. But say that you actually succeed through much rigor in animating your literary golem. Fueled by your faith in his power, he may still resist your control; he may lay waste to your best-laid plans, kick your narrative container to pieces, and escape into a modernity that absorbs him to the point of invisibility. What’s left to you is either to content yourself with chronicling your failure, with telling the story of forgetting—or to give chase, throwing nets over the monster to drag him back into your tale, which he will break out of again world without end.
Steve Stern, winner of the National Jewish Book Award, is the author of several previous novels and story collections, including The Book of Mischief and The Frozen Rabbi. He teaches at Skidmore College in upstate New York.