The ProsenPeople

How Jerusalem Infiltrated My Fantasy Novel

Monday, February 29, 2016 | Permalink

Ilana C. Myer is the author of the fantasy novel Last Song Before Night. She is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

The cover of Last Song Before Night was always going to be a cityscape, of the city of Tamryllin where much of the book takes place. When my editor—who generously involved me in the process—asked if I had any tips for my cover artist, I enthusiastically typed, “I envision it as a combination of Paris and Jerusalem”—and it was like a light bulb went on.

Until then I hadn’t considered with any seriousness the impact of Jerusalem on this novel. The setting was inspired by research of medieval France and landscapes of Ireland and Scotland, the latter of which I’d visited in the year I began writing. That I was living in Jerusalem for the entirety of the writing period just seemed like circumstance. That is, until I found myself giving directions to the cover artist, Stephan Martiniere. So it came to be that this fantasy novel inspired by the troubadours of France and the Celtic poets has much of Jerusalem in it. It is all in the city, where much of the novel’s action takes place; outside the city has more a flavor of Ireland’s Ring of Kerry and a tiny island in the Scottish lowlands, near Loch Lomond.

And there are aspects of Provence, for there was something about the Mediterranean abundance of that place that I wanted for my capital city of Tamryllin, where arts, culture, and beauty flourish alongside brutality. So when I wrote lovingly of pale stone and jasmine scents and red wine, these seemed appropriate for the Mediterranean sort of atmosphere I wanted. But the atmosphere and aesthetic are closer to the city I was living in at the time, a place that has always been precious to me even as my relationship with it is complex. (Is there is anyone whose relationship with Jerusalem is not complex?)

One scene was consciously modeled on the Jerusalem cityscape—I knew it at the time. It was one of those writing experiences that comes rarely in a lifetime, when everything feels right. It was a hot summer night in Jerusalem, one of the hottest on record; we’d regularly had days of 105 degrees Fahrenheit, which is not normal for Jerusalem, and it didn’t cool down at night. One night I found that I couldn’t sleep. At 3: 00 AM I found myself on our third-floor porch on Emek Refaim, laptop balanced on my knees as I sat in a rickety chair left behind by a previous tenant. It was exquisitely quiet and I could see the dark treeline of the hills beyond the city. And it just so happened to be when I was writing a character who was wandering at exactly that time of day, the earliest hours of the morning, cutting through narrow, winding streets and scrambling across rooftops. I was imagining the Old City, where I’d taken such shortcuts at night. Into those particular pages I poured my experience of Jerusalem.

The rest was absorbed as if by osmosis, and I was not to realize until years later, when at last my book was to be published by Tor/Macmillan and we were discussing cover art. Sometimes when we write we’re not aware of the ways in which what we take in is expressed on the page. Now Last Song Before Night stands not only as a testimony to a certain time in my life, but also to a place that matters to the world and, in very real ways, matters to me.

Ilana C. Myer has written about books for The Globe and Mail, The Huffington Post, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Salon. Previously she was a journalist in Jerusalem.

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New Book Reviews February 26, 2016

Friday, February 26, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

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The Catharsis of Dwelling on Death

Thursday, February 25, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Piece of Mind author Michelle Adelman wrote a case for a Jewish belief in ghosts. With the novel’s debut, Michelle is guest blogging as a Visiting Scribe all week here on The ProsenPeople.

When a character dies suddenly in Piece of Mind, the family is forced to quickly make arrangements in order to move forward. In the process, the concept of sitting shiva largely gets lost. Although they don’t dwell on it in the novel, it would be easy to argue that these characters don’t give themselves enough time to mourn, and thus struggle to move forward in a healthy way.

I never thought much about shiva until my father passed suddenly a few years ago. I had paid shiva calls out of respect for others through the years, but I didn’t truly understand the importance of the custom until it was time to mourn in a personal way. Of course my father was the most observant Jew in our family, and he would’ve been the one to guide us through the process if he weren’t the one who had passed. On a surface level, it was gratifying to acknowledge that we could pull the whole thing together without him. We wanted to honor him, and fulfilling his wishes was a part of that. But once we were actually engaged in the ritual, I realized the point of shiva extended far beyond obligation. The forced period of mourning was necessary to process the loss.

Through the whole funeral, I suspect much of the family, like me, was in a daze from the shock of my father’s death. He hadn’t been ill; neither his health nor his behavior had given us any warning signs. I cried when I heard the news, devastated that I’d never get the chance to say goodbye, but I didn’t cry through the funeral, or in the first couple of days at all. There was too much going on to weep.

Then the process of shiva kicked in. We weren’t allowed to go back to work. We weren’t supposed to worry about making food or making other people feel comfortable in our home. We didn’t have to think about what to wear or how to entertain ourselves. We couldn’t focus on anything except the loss. As a result, we focused our mental energy on our father. And eventually, I began to listen, to finally hear the stories—all of the nice things people had to say about him—and I began to understand how important and cathartic it was.

My characters didn’t know what they were missing by not properly honoring the tradition. They decided they didn’t have a choice due to other obligations they deemed more pressing. But in the event that anything tragic happens again (and I hope it doesn’t for a very long time), I’ll know the importance of maintaining the custom—not only to honor the person who has passed, but to begin to help cope with the loss.

Michelle Adelman received her MFA in writing from Columbia University and her MS and BS in journalism from Northwestern University. Her journalism has appeared in Time Out New York and elsewhere. She lives in the Bay Area.

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Do (Jewish) Ghosts Exist?

Monday, February 22, 2016 | Permalink

Michelle Adelman’s debut novel Piece of Mind is told from the perspective of a young woman with a brain injury forced to contend with the difficulties of surviving without her parents. With the release of the novel this week, Michelle is guest blogging as a Visiting Scribe all week here on The ProsenPeople.

One of the main characters in my novel, Piece of Mind, is dead for the duration of the story on a physical level. But on a spiritual level, she’s very much alive—as a ghost.

I never doubted this was her function in the story, a mother that the protagonist needs in any form, but because this family is Jewish in the book—and because I, too, am Jewish—it raised some interesting questions in my mind about the concept of the afterlife in Judaism. Where’s the line between organized religion and spirituality? Between documented beliefs and wishful thinking?

As a child, I remember watching movies and television shows that depicted shots of sermons from preachers talking about fearing hell and hoping for heaven, and wondering how those concepts applied to us. In the Jewish day school I attended through middle school, we didn’t frequently have conversations that touched on these topics.

I do remember once being told a famous Midrash imagining an afterlife in which everyone sits around a gigantic banquet table. No one at this table can move their elbows, so it’s a challenge to figure out how to eat. As it turns out, the people who are fundamentally bad, the ones who are in ‘hell,’ starve because they can’t think beyond themselves. But the ones who are fundamentally good, who are in some version of ‘heaven,’ get to feast forever without a care because they’re able to feed each other. The simplicity of the description did leave me longing for more (where were the white-winged angels and golden harps and puffy clouds?), but I appreciated the idea of the story—that you had a chance to prove who you truly were at this final test; the concept stayed with me.

I also remembered being told on at least one other occasion that if you’re good, you can dream about getting resurrected one day by the Messiah and going to Olam Ha-Ba, the World to Come. But that raised all kinds of questions related to the connection between the soul and mind and body, questions that most of our elementary school teachers didn’t care to delve into. Mostly what I think of when I recall learning Jewish behaviors and good moral foundations relates to Olam Ha-Zeh, or this world. Don’t worry about what happens after you die, they essentially told us, because every action counts for today.

So where does that leave ghosts in Judaism?

It turns out they’re not an entirely foreign concept. The Talmud has all kinds of references to spirits, and many Jews openly believed in them in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Dybbuk, a popular play written by S. Ansky, chronicles the story of a woman possessed by a spirit who takes over a living body, and the Kabbalah has references to demons and specters in many forms.

Still, today, talk of ghosts often leads to talk of superstition and fantasy. Maybe even mental illness. But plenty of people can recount vivid experiences with apparitions they swear are real. At least for me, it’s a comfort to recognize that being Jewish doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have the ability to see a ghost, or perhaps even become one.

Michelle Adelman received her MFA in writing from Columbia University and her MS and BS in journalism from Northwestern University. Her journalism has appeared in Time Out New York and elsewhere. She lives in the Bay Area.

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Interview: Devra Lehmann

Sunday, February 21, 2016 | Permalink

with Michal Hoschander Malen

Devra Lehmann is the author of Spinoza: The Outcast Thinker, winner of the 2014 National Jewish Book Award in the category of Children’s and Young Adult Literature.

Michal Hoschander Malen: Why did you choose Spinoza as the subject for your young adult biography?

Devra Lehmann: A long time ago, I was captivated by what I heard about Spinoza in my Jewish history class at an Orthodox girls’ high school. Actually, most of what I recall is my teacher’s hushed and obvi­ously uneasy tone, which reminded me of the way my older relatives would whisper about cancer. It took a long time for me to follow up on Spinoza, but when I did, I was hooked. If you don’t take Spinoza’s genius into consideration, I have a lot in common with him. My forebears, like Spinoza’s, underwent horrific suffering because of their Jewish identity, and I grew up, like Spinoza, in a community that triumphantly asserted its religion and culture in a more hospitable, but foreign land.

Most importantly, in the questions that Spinoza raised about religion I found many of my own struggles. Even setting aside the content of those questions, which Spinoza presents in the Theological-Political Treatise far better than I can—I was intrigued simply by his having asked them and by the way they were received during his lifetime. One of our earliest sources describes how Spinoza, as a teenager in his communi­ty’s religious school, quickly discovered his rabbi’s inability or unwilling­ness to address his questions. As a result, Spinoza simply stopped saying anything in class but kept a record of his questions to pursue on his own. Perhaps because I have spent almost all my life in classrooms, that description resonated with me. Although I have mostly fond memories of my religious schooling, I distinctly remember that same feeling of futility when I tried to raise concerns with some of my teachers. And I frequently saw the same thing happening many years later, when I was observing classes and conducting interviews with students and teachers as part of my doctoral research in Jewish education.

So it was really my sense of a personal connection that got me interested in writing about Spinoza. The young adult bit came later. My original goal, in fact, had been to write a play based on Spinoza’s life after his excommunication, and I first undertook a young adult biography as a kind of warm-up exercise, a way to pull my research and my ideas together. But then that little warm-up took on a life of its own, and I’m happy with where it has led me.

MHM: You did a remarkable job translating the complexities of Spino­za’s life and philosophies into language that young people can access and understand. What are some of the issues you faced in meeting that challenge?

DL: Thank you for the compliment. This is where my not being a genius is a distinct asset. Even before sitting down to write, I had to translate Spinoza’s ideas into simple, direct language just so that I could make sense of what I was reading. This was true as well for those Big Ideas that I’d often heard about—and perhaps, I’ll confess, even written about in college papers with all the appropriate jargon—without ever really grasping. Just why, for example, was Descartes’s mind-body split so very critical in the history of Western thought? (And why should I care?) Once I began spelling out answers to these sorts of questions just for my own understanding, it wasn’t so hard to create a written text suitable for young adults.

It was where I sensed a divide between myself and my audience that I had the most difficulty. For instance, I didn’t always know the degree to which I could assume a young reader’s familiarity with some of the background—the Spanish Inquisition, the Reformation, Galileo, Descartes. On the one hand, I didn’t want to belabor issues that my readers would know well, but on the other hand, I didn’t want to leave out information that my readers would lack but need to know. Often my students and my children helped me figure out the balance. For the most part I aimed for a friendly “hi, there—I’m here to jog your memory, because you’ve probably already heard of this” approach. I’m sure I didn’t always hit it right. But it isn’t a terrible thing to review what you already know, and there’s always Wikipedia for material I left out.

Another major issue was the flow of my narrative. When you’re deal­ing with sources that are obviously tendentious, potentially unreliable, or simply silent about entire periods in a subject’s life, it is artificial and academically misleading to tell a smooth story. If you’re writing a biography for adults, you’ll generally incorporate into your narrative nu­merous comments about the biases or limitations of your sources; you might even get into a lengthy discussion about why you have chosen to rely on one source rather than another. But for a younger audience, all that creaky commentary can become a huge turn-off. In an early draft, I discussed the nature of my sources as I used them, and I couldn’t get my own children to read the whole thing. My compromise was to keep the narrative flowing and to leave the more scholarly commentary for my notes section at the back of the book. This means that readers who don’t bother reading the notes will come away with a more simplistic view of Spinoza’s life than I might like, but at least they’ve learned something along the way.

MHM: Spinoza’s story was full of drama, particularly his relationships with his family and with the Jewish community. Was there any part which intrigued you most?

DL: Absolutely. I’m both fascinated and horrified by what Jorge Luis Borges captures in his poem “Spinoza”: “Free from metaphor and myth / He works a hard crystal.” Spinoza literally worked hard crystal as a lens grinder, but his life and his thought were in themselves a kind of hard crystal. Spinoza had a precise, mathematical mind, and he had such confidence in reason that he viewed absolutely everything through its lens. In the Ethics, he attempted to analyze all human emotion and behavior as if they are no different from the “lines, planes, and bodies” whose features and interactions a physicist might chart out. It’s a rather me­chanical worldview—and an unsettlingly cold one, especially when you consider that it dismissed romantic love as an obstacle to true happi­ness. Spinoza’s true happiness can be achieved only by individuals who free themselves from dependence on things beyond their control, and that class of things most certainly includes someone with whom you are in love. Spinoza didn’t make any allowances for the mysterious poetry, Borges’s metaphor and myth, that makes life worthwhile for many of us.

Ultimately Spinoza just didn’t seem to need others in the way that I think (or hope) most people do. I think that this frostiness helps to explain the ease with which he left his family and community behind. Of course, we don’t know what was really going on inside him, either then or later in his life, and we do know that his excommunication prohibited members of the Jewish community from staying in contact with him. But Spinoza’s utter break was entirely in keeping with his rarified per­sonality. In all fairness, I should add that the friends that Spinoza made outside the Jewish community were deeply devoted to him, and that he seems to have had lovely relationships with his landlords. It’s actually this hot-and-cold split in his personality, against the backdrop of his vilification by traditional Europe, that I was hoping to explore in my play.

MHM: Tell us a bit about your research process.

I’m reminded of what my father told me when I turned forty, after I’d already spent much of my life immersed in books. “Congratulations,” he said. “Now you’ll begin to understand the things you are reading.” Whenever I approach a new topic, I feel as though I’m in my pre-forty years as my father characterized them. I read extensively, maybe even a bit indiscriminately, based on a reading list I develop by poking around on the Internet, asking knowledgeable friends, and paying attention to references in material I already have. I plow through the material, but I really don’t understand a lot because I’m unfamiliar with the assump­tions and terminology of the subject. So when I’m done with that first round, I read everything all over again from the beginning. And that’s when I turn forty and begin to understand what I’m reading.

That process gives me the overview that I need in order to plan, in the broadest way, where I’ll want to go with my writing. Then, as I work on each chapter, I hone in on the relevant material I’ve already encoun­tered, and I discover all sorts of issues that require further research. Sometimes that filling in of gaps takes the most time. Because of the breezy style in which young adult nonfiction has to be written, at least in comparison with academic work for adults, I doubt that many people would guess how much research goes into it. I can easily spend an entire day studying the material that I distill into a single sentence. It’s especially at this point that I find the Internet indispensable, and I thank my lucky stars for the good fortune to live in this era. I’m old enough to have used a typewriter in college, so I find resources like the Internet Archive nothing short of miraculous.

MHM: Do you think the young people of today have a hunger for or are receptive to additional nonfiction topics like this, areas of history that they may not be familiar with or figures from the past whose names may sound familiar but whose stories they have not heard? There really haven’t been that many published in the past few years. Do you think the success of this book will help open that world up a bit and perhaps make topics such as history and philosophy seem less daunting to this age group?

DL: Like any group of people, “the young people of today” are a varied bunch. Look, we all know that serious young adult nonfiction will never have the mass appeal of Twilight or The Hunger Games. But I’ve worked with kids for almost thirty years in all kinds of educational settings, and I’ve never found a group of kids that won’t go wild over a thought-pro­voking question. (Is there a point to our existence? Can a law firm tell an employee not to wear a yarmulke or hijab to work? Can we ever truly understand another human being? Should a twenty-year-old from an abusive family be held responsible for his or her crimes?) When those sorts of issues arise in my classes, it reminds me of nothing more than a pack of dogs fighting over a juicy steak.

So yes, I think that there is a huge interest in a lot of nonfiction topics, and especially in the kinds of questions that philosophers ask. Of course, only a small minority will pick up a book about such things of their own volition; perhaps a slightly larger group will pick it up because it relates to a school assignment. But there are definitely kids out there who prefer nonfiction to fiction, and there are certainly many more whose taste for nonfiction can be nurtured. And both groups are completely underserved by what’s now available. The body of young adult nonfiction has grown in the last decade, but it is shockingly small compared to what’s available for younger kids and for adults. I can’t tell you how often I’ve struggled to find accessible material for high school students who are interested in studying a specific topic. The intellectual historian Jonathan Israel was kind enough to read my book and to remark, “If I were a young person reading this it would come as a revelation to me.” I am obviously flattered by the comment, but as a teacher, I also find it haunting. Because of the dearth of nonfiction for young adults, how many budding thinkers are missing out on such revelations?

DL: Since many of your readers have influence in the publishing world and others are educators or parents or just people who worry about the next generation, maybe I should mention the desolation I faced when I first tried to get my manuscript published. I knew that getting a book published is a rocky and uncertain affair, and I was prepared to hear that huge swaths of my manuscript needed revision. But nothing prepared me for how thoroughly indifferent my topic would appear to literary agents and publishers. I quickly discovered that the words “young adult nonfiction” in my query letters were like the crosses that were once painted on doors to mark the homes of plague victims. No one even bothered to look at what I had written. I was simply told again and again, by both agents and editors, that there was no market for such a thing. I don’t know what I would have done had I not chanced upon Karen Klockner, my editor, and the rest of the idealistic folk at namelos, whose business model allows them to take on projects like mine. But there aren’t enough nameloses out there. When bottom-line profits consistently trump educational or cultural value, we are all impoverished.

MHM: What are you planning to write next? Can you give us any hints? More biographies? Other genres? What can we look forward to reading?

DL: I’m excited about the idea of writing intellectual history for young adults, and I think that biography is a particularly good way to go about it for my age group. The life of a specific individual provides a coherent and engaging storyline, and it gives me a springboard for leaps into the larger cultural and political scene. I’m in the middle of a biography of Socrates, and I’m thinking about Saint Augustine next. I also have on hold a few chapters that I’ve written for a biography of Doña Gracia Nasi, the sixteenth-century banker who used her considerable wealth and international influence to help fellow Jews escape the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. And I still haven’t forgotten that play I wanted to write!

Michal Hoschander Malen is a librarian and editor of reference books. She is the children’s and young adult section editor at Jewish Book Council.

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The Rabbi Whisperer Ponders the Sermon

Friday, February 19, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Amy Gottlieb wrote about how the works of I. B. Singer and the “beautiful, perceptive” women around her mother’s kitchen table individually inspired The Beautiful Possible as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

For fourteen years I worked as director of publications for The Rabbinical Assembly, editing theology, sermons, scholarship, and liturgy. This dream job appealed to my intellectual and religious curiosity, while offering me a unique role. I wasn’t a rabbi or a congregant, but an iconoclastic Jewish seeker who was a stand-in for a rabbi’s most challenging layperson. In many ways, I represented the Haggadah’s Four Children—wise, rebellious, simple, and curious—in the guise of a hard-working editor armed with a red pen, Chicago Manual of Style, and a patient typesetter on speed-dial. Over the years, this livelihood morphed into a sequence of freelance gigs: I edited sermon collections, consulted on sermon writing, and revised countless words written for spiritual seekers. I even moonlighted as a spirituality ghostwriter and was hired to write accounts of Ayahuasca-inspired mystical visions. A friend jokingly labeled me "the rabbi whisperer," a motif that made its way into The Beautiful Possible.

Sermons—empty, flawed, inspiring, ghostwritten— are excerpted throughout my novel. As a lifelong sporadic synagogue-goer, I’ve heard many varieties of sermon-speak, and I tend to listen to these oral, pastoral essays as if I’m at a poetry reading, imagining the rabbi as a poet wearing a frayed sweater in a smoky coffeehouse, shuffling a stack of wrinkled pages. As a poet, I’ve learned that there’s no meaning without cadence, no art without nuance. The rabbis I know who compose the most lyrical sermons are well versed in English and world literature; a good sermonizer knows Shakespeare and Rumi, along with the words of the prophets and the Baal Shem Tov. And a little Mary Oliver, Jack Gilbert, and Louise Gluck won’t hurt either.

But what is a sermon in the first place? A prose poem smeared with a message? A textual analysis shaped into a digestible sound-byte? The art of the sermon is filled with contradiction; the audience wants some kind of takeaway, but without nuanced language words become insufferably clobbering and flat. Yet on the other side, too much subtlety threatens to disappoint the congregant who doesn’t want to leave the sanctuary empty-handed. Veer too far in any direction, and you’ve fallen off the map.

Both poets and clergy are in the business of working with language to express a deep love of the world in all of its wild and mysterious permutations. Both need to crack open the human heart in some way, to awaken the spirit. Yet poetry is invited to dance with silence, with doubt, with uncertainty and surprise. Metaphorically, the sermonizer takes on the persona of the rabble-rousing prophet, while the poet is the prophet’s little sister, rowing her flimsy yellow kayak across a lake. The prophet gathers the tribe, imparts a lesson, feeds the hungry; his little sister tunes into the music of the spheres, catching the cadences of the lived world. But when the prophet ignores his kid sister and underestimates the power of her flimsy kayak, his message is imperiled.

Throughout The Beautiful Possible, I weave in quotes by Heschel, Tagore, Rumi, and Dickinson that invite readers to experience the possibilities of poetic language. The character of Walter stakes his claim in the poetic, the between, the uncertain. Rosalie and Sol are drawn to his sensibility, and poetry has the last word, as I believe it ought to. In the words of Grace Paley, master kayaker of the lived world: “I’m not full of prayers. I’m full of language.”

Amy Gottlieb's fiction and poetry have been published in many literary journals and anthologies. She has received a Literary Fellowship and Residency from the Bronx Council on the Arts, and an Arts Fellowship from the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education. She lives in New York City.

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New Book Reviews February 19, 2016

Friday, February 19, 2016 | Permalink

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Po-wer-ful: Fashioning the Character of Joseph Stalin

Thursday, February 18, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, author Paul Goldberg wrote about the family stories that sparked The Yid and the popularity of King Lear in midcentury Moscow and Yiddish theater. With the release of his first novel, Paul has been guest blogging as a Visiting Scribe all week here on The ProsenPeople.

My novel The Yid is about a plot to assassinate Iosif Stalin before he launches the largest purge of his 29-year rule.

Stalin absolutely had to figure in my novel directly. I needed his physicality, his spiritual being. I had to get inside his skull, to taste his paranoia, his dementia. This task was an anathema of historical research. It’s impressionistic, existential. I was grasping for telling details that provided windows into the tyrant’s final hours. Does he believe the end is near? Does he believe that there can be no such thing as the world without Stalin? How does it feel to experience his brand of dementia, his brand of paranoia?

I scoured many volumes, looking for details, finally making a surprising finding: telling details are largely determined by the teller. For example, in a book called The Unquiet Ghost, Adam Hochschild describes traveling through Gorbachev’s Russia as it struggles to reconcile with its Stalin-era past. Hochschild asks the same questions I ask as a novelist, looking for the same insight into the tyrant’s mind.

At Stalin’s dacha in Sochi, Hochschild describes the beautifully restrained Art Deco décor. Stalin’s other dacha in Kuntsevo, outside Moscow, is similarly elegant. Stalin-era architecture projects opulence. There are colossal sculptures, big columns. It’s the opposite of the modernist structures of the twenties and thirties and is eerily reminiscent of the Nazi Gothic style of architecture. From Hochschild’s reliable depictions, I was able to pick up on this strange inconsistency and the question it demands:

Why does this brigand choose to live in an environment so clearly inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright? Stalin’s interiors look like the sort of places where an American captain of industry—I am thinking of Nelson Rockefeller—would have been quite at home. Could it be that he is not as uncouth as we would like to believe? Does this choice of architecture come from within this man or does it just happen?

Another telling detail came from Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana. In her memoir 20 Letters to a Friend she recalls discovering that the old man hung photos of children on the wall of his study, cutouts from Soviet magazines. Svetlana attributes this to Stalin’s efforts to substitute fictional children for the grandchildren with whom he had no contact.

I trust Svetlana’s story, but not her explanation. What if the children are a part of the old man’s dementia? What if they are the nucleus of the world as he experiences it in the winter of 1953? What if they are the inspiration for his plans? Stalin doesn’t sleep much. He waits for children to step off the illustrations pinned to the walnut panels of Frank Lloyd Wright-esque rooms. How will the world exist without Stalin? The old man hates doctors, negates the very existence of disease. Will children come to his defense? Are they his guardians or harbingers of his death?

Images tell the story, too. Stalin is a little man with a crooked left arm. The arm has petrified, turned into granite, hard as a statue, which would be fitting, except the fingers curl. If you can part them with your right hand, a cigarette can be inserted. Or part them further and fold in a pipe. The elbow moves forward, then back again, but not the arm. It hangs at an obtuse angle. And pain is close, lurking in the left shoulder.

I had the set and Stalin’s physical characteristics.

From there, it would have been a cop-out to describe a demonic presence. I needed to know from someone I trusted what it was like to converse with the man.

Here, I made use of the memoir of the Jugoslav Communist Milovan Djilas. It’s titled Conversations with Stalin and tells the story of his three brief meetings with Stalin. It works so well because the narrator doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive or objective. Svetlana isn’t separate enough from her father to provide the sort of telling details I needed as a novelist. (Nikita Khruschev, another notable memoirist, was a part of the same stratum.) By contrast, Djilas is an outsider, an intellectual, and he stays in the frame at all times, providing one telling detail after another.

In one of these meetings, a scene that “might be found only in Shakespeare’s plays,” Djilas registers a complaint about Red Army soldiers raping and murdering women in areas they had liberated. The comment infuriates Stalin: The Red Army has fought for thousands of kilometers before marching into Belgrade in 1944, he objects, “And such an army was insulted by no one else by Djilas! Djilas, of whom I could least have expected such a thing, a man whom I received so well!” Stalin rages. “And an army which didn’t spare its blood for you! Does Djilas, who is himself a writer, not know what human suffering and the human heart are? Can’t he understand it if a soldier who has crossed thousands of kilometers through blood and death has fun with a woman or takes some trifle?”

Later in the feast, Stalin kisses Djilas’s wife, noting that he made this loving gesture at the risk of being charged with rape.

Dijlas’s final meeting with Stalin portends the latter man’s advancing dementia. “There was something both tragic and ugly in his senility,” Djilas observes. “The tragic was invisible—these were the reflections in my head regarding the inevitability of decline in even so great a personality. The ugly kept cropping up all the time. Though he had always enjoyed eating well, Stalin now exhibited gluttony, as though he feared that there would not be enough of the desired food left for him. On the other hand, he drank less…

“He laughed at inanities and shallow jokes… In one thing, though, he was the Stalin of old: stubborn, sharp, suspicious whenever anyone disagreed with him.”

At one point in this last conversation, Stalin opines about the atom bomb: “That is a powerful thing, pow-er-ful!” I don’t know the precise Russian words, but I think they would be: “Moschnaya shtuka, moshch-na-ya!”

This is the “mountain man of the Kremlin” described by Mandelshtam:

His fat fingers are blacker than worms,
His words weighing a pood—16-kilo.
Roach mustache emits a thick laugh,
And a glow emanates from his boots.

This is the Stalin I wanted my conspirators to encounter on March 1, 1953: crass, taunting, inane, demented, yet still as “pow-er-ful” as the weapons of hellish destruction he has in his arsenal.

Paul Goldberg has written two books about the Soviet human rights movement, and has co-authored (with Otis Brawley) the book How We Do Harm, an exposé of the American healthcare system. He is the editor and publisher of The Cancer Letter, a publication focused on the business and politics of cancer. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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I. B. Singer and the Hidden Afikomen

Wednesday, February 17, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Amy Gottlieb described the “beautiful, perceptive” women around her mother’s kitchen table who inspired The Beautiful Possible. Amy is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

I arrived in Manhattan in 1982, fresh from a master’s program in comparative literature for which I had written a thesis on ice as a metaphor for the written word in One Hundred Years of Solitude. As a young writer, I was inspired by Garcia Márquez’s epic masterpiece: the Buendia family of Macondo suggested the crazy logic of my own Jewish family. I had a grandmother who forgot the meaning of words, a grandfather whose homemade borscht turned a mystical shade of red, and a cousin who predicted the exact moment I would arrive at her village in southern France, unannounced; in one of our more surreal episodes, my father hid the afikomen at a Passover seder nine months before he died, and it fell out of the fireplace on a Yom Kippur afternoon two years later. I set out to write a Jewish version of Macondo based on my family’s implausible stories, and the mentor I identified was Isaac Bashevis Singer.

I was living in a furnished room on West 86th Street, a few blocks from Singer’s apartment. I began to write him a note of introduction, fantasizing about sharing a vegetarian meal at the Famous Dairy Restaurant, when I read an interview in which he said, “If Tolstoy lived down the street I wouldn’t try to go see him. I would rather read what he writes.” I took this as a sign, tore up the note, and kept reading his work.

In 1991 I was newly married, living in Berkeley, and spent a month off-the-grid at an artists colony in the southern California desert. At night I would lie awake in my cabin, listening to the coyotes howl in the canyon, and during the day I worked furiously on my first novel, which began in a shtetl and centered on a love affair between distant cousins—based loosely on a what-if story in my family’s history. When my retreat was over, I made my way to the airport and picked up a newspaper with the headline: “I. B. Singer, Narrator of Jewish Folkways, Dies.” I mourned him on the plane and then wrote three words in my journal: Your turn now.

A few years later, my first son was born, and I decided to put my flawed first novel in a drawer, convinced I could do better. I began to make a living as a Judaica editor, which gave me a foundation in Jewish texts. At the same time, I adopted many other literary mentors: Toni Morrison, Grace Paley, Michael Ondaatje, Virginia Woolf, Marilynne Robinson, J.M. Coetzee, Anne Michaels, Amos Oz—and my reading bloomed in a thousand directions, cross-pollinating genres, jumping from the ancient to the modern.

Two weeks before the publication of The Beautiful Possible, I invited my Rosh Chodesh group to serve as its first book club.The conversation veered in many surprising directions, landing on how Rosalie’s conflict isn’t expressed in ways that seem aligned with conventional notions of postwar Jewish-American guilt, and suggests a commonality with works of modern Yiddish literature. This comment prompted me to revisit I. B. Singer’s fiction. I picked up Enemies: A Love Story and short stories I hadn’t thought about in decades. I returned to In My Father’s Court and noted the parallels between Singer’s early years eavesdropping on the adults who sought rabbinic counsel from his father and my own memories of listening to my mother and her friends at our kitchen table. I began to unravel the Hasidic threads in Singer’s work, as expressed by characters wrestling with existential doubt and physical desire.

Singer’s influence was alive in my novel, after all. My mentor had returned to me, hidden for a time, and then revealed—just like the afikomen that slipped out of the fireplace that Yom Kippur afternoon.

Amy Gottlieb's fiction and poetry have been published in many literary journals and anthologies. She has received a Literary Fellowship and Residency from the Bronx Council on the Arts, and an Arts Fellowship from the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education. She lives in New York City.

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We Don't Get to Choose Our Material

Tuesday, February 16, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, author Paul Goldberg wrote about the popularity of King Lear in midcentury Moscow and Yiddish theater. With the release of his novel The Yid, Paul is guest blogging as a Visiting Scribe all week here on The ProsenPeople.

As a journalist, I separate fact from fable. As a novelist, I go through the same process, but keep the fable. You need facts to ground a story; you need fables make it soar.

The Yid is a continuation of my dialogue with my grandfather. His name was Moisey Semyonovich Rabinovich. He served in the Red Army during the civil war and was a pharmacist at field hospitals during World War II.

He was an accomplished professional and a heroic character in his own right, but for my entertainment, he made up stories of fighting Nazis in the woods of Belarus and marching to Berlin, even blasting through the walls of Hitler’s bunker. These tales were all fictional, but all these years later I remember them better than his true stories.

My grandfather turned me into a collector of legends, and I thank him in The Yid by making him into a fictional character. He is the fierce Rabinovich, the Bundist who is not through with combat—the sort of guy you want on your side.

I was born in 1959, six years after Stalin’s death. To make this story real, I needed to create the set for the novel. I started with my parents’ apartment, a communal cold-water flat in central Moscow. My principal character, Solomon Shimonovich Levinson, set up residence in what was once our room—the single compartment that housed all three of us.

Levinson’s sidekick, Kogan, resides not far from Levinson, in a building overlooking my school. The dacha that my conspirators use to dump bodies actually belonged to my grandmother. I used real addresses. In the tightly-braided world that is Moscow, Shmuel Halkin—the poet who translated King Lear into Yiddish—lived across the street from my grandmother. Several of Halkin’s plays, and indeed Halkin himself, figure in The Yid, and as I write this an autographed copy of his book lies in front of me.

Visually, the streets of Moscow of my childhood haven’t changed much since 1953. In The Yid, I wanted to speak about that time and my city in an entirely different way. The biggest challenge was to keep the novel from sounding like homage to Bulgakov, who so brilliantly captured the soul of Moscow and, for that matter, Stalinism. In addition to strangling my inner Bulgakov, I refrained from reading writers who explored the same world. I wanted The Yid to be different.

My grandfather’s stories laid down the foundation of the book. His friends expanded this narrative. These were old Jews, mostly Bolsheviks who had been through the twentieth century’s biggest bonfires. They sat on benches at the Bauman Garden in central Moscow, telling stories of heroism in World War II. Most of them carried rolled up copies of the Red Star, Krasnaya Zvezda, the newspaper of the Soviet military.

I listened. I don’t remember their names, but their stories feed the narrative I wrote. We don’t get to choose our material, and this is mine:

Since childhood, I knew that in 1953 Stalin was preparing to deport all Jews to settlements and prison camps, and that residential offices were preparing lists of Jews for deportation. By extension, this meant that the names of everyone I knew—including my parents and grandparents—were on these lists.

I also knew that there was once a Yiddish theater in Moscow. I asked my aunt, Ulyana Dobrushina, to tell me about going to performances there, about spending the war years with the Yiddish theater as it waited out the war in Uzbekistan, about Solomon Mikhoels, and about her uncle, Eliel Dobrushin, a playwright at the theater and a member of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. I also spoke with Ludmilla Alexeyeva, a longtime human rights activist, and benefitted tremendously from understanding her intellectual journey, which begins in Moscow of the 1930s.

One of the characters, Dr. Kogan, the surgeon, starts to feel a spiritual connection with the body parts he sees floating in formaldehyde, waiting to be dissected by medical students. He had seen many a corpse and was a few steps removed from becoming a cadaver. I could never have made this story up. I heard it from my friend Janusz Bardach, a former Soviet political prisoner, who became a world-renowned maxillofacial surgeon, ultimately at the University of Iowa. He and I became friends after I reviewed his memoir in The New York Times. As I wrote The Yid, I imagined this medical luminary cursing, bickering, and, above all, hurting.

Janusz thought my plan to write a novel about Stalin’s death was insane and the early pages he saw scared him.

“You are writing a comedy about tragic events,” he objected.

I concurred.

Yet, Janusz, who is now gone, would have been a perfect recruit into the band of conspirators in The Yid—and, in a way, he is in it, fighting tyranny shoulder-to-shoulder with my heroic grandfather and his Red Star-toting Bolshevik friends.

Paul Goldberg has written two books about the Soviet human rights movement, and has co-authored (with Otis Brawley) the book How We Do Harm, an exposé of the American healthcare system. He is the editor and publisher of The Cancer Letter, a publication focused on the business and politics of cancer. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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