The ProsenPeople

New Reviews September 29, 2017

Friday, September 29, 2017 | Permalink

The Family Plot: Childhood Lessons on Death

Thursday, September 28, 2017 | Permalink

Méira Cook is the author of the recently published novel Once More With Feeling. Earlier this week, she wrote about learning to mourn for her mother. She is blogging here all week as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

In the process of writing a novel about family, I realized that all families have their secrets. I’m not referring here to the Binder family, whose secrets I became aware of while living for so long inside the pages of Once More With Feeling, but to my own family of origin whose secrets I knew so well that I had forgotten that others might find them interesting.

If, as I grew to suspect, all families have secrets, then ours was death. Although most of the older generation passed away at an early age, I never discovered how anyone had died. They died, was the reply to all my questions. How does a person die? This was always offered with a shrug and an eloquent hand gesture meant to imply resignation: Well, how does anybody die?

Ever valiant, my father once explained to my sister and me that the cause of death was when a person’s heart stopped beating. This was always the case, no exceptions. Even cancer, he said, even old age or an automobile accident. If a man jumped out of an eleventh floor building and was shot on his way past the ninth floor and choked on a pigeon as he passed the seventh floor and was decapitated by a flying hatchet as he plummeted past the fifth floor, he still died of a not-beating heart.

Disease and accident might set a person off on their mortal trajectory, he said, but it all came down to the heart in the end. The hour and minute and second hands on the old ticker stopping, for want of a better word: dead.

Once a year, during the busy, God-bothering, sociable days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, my mother would visit her family, all of whom were domiciled in the nearby Westpark Cemetery, although not in any particular section because we were not the kind of family to admit to, let alone plan for, death, by way of advance booking and family plots. She would pass the day with her uncles, her grandmother, and her mother, but it was at her father’s grave that she lingered. She missed him the most because she’d missed him the longest.

I used to ask my mother what she did in the cemetery because I wanted to know what I might be expected to do one day at my parents’ graves — although this was not a thought I could articulate, even to myself. As she had once demonstrated how to separate whites from yolks, as she had once bought me tampons and explained how to use them, I wanted her to show me how to mourn, even if the object of my mournfulness was the distant vanishing point of her someday-never disappearance from the world.

She shrugged. I just catch him up on the family, she finally said. What you and your sister are up to. A lot happens in a year, she clarified. Babies and so forth.

Does he . . . I started to ask but stopped because I couldn’t think how to finish.

Of course not, she snapped. Dead is dead, what can he say?

Dead! She had never voiced that word before and it shocked me. Dead is dead, kiddo, don’t make me spell it out! My mother’s nihilism, even—especially—in the context of her sentimental attachment to the hospitable dead would be devastating, I knew, at some future point of her not-thereness when she could no longer be questioned about mortality because, like a drop of water falling into the ocean, she had become indivisible with her death. She was an elusive silver fish, always swimming away, and water was her medium because it was fluent and mysterious and unlikely to be caught in a child’s imperfect, sieve-like understanding.

But what are the lessons of water? That it takes the shape of the vessel into which it is poured? That it rises as steam and falls as rain, its molecules in constant motion as if agitated by their own indecisiveness? That it provides the solvent for the ounce or so of human chemicals from which we are made?

When I was little I didn’t like to be separated from her, so one day my mother sat me on the kitchen counter and poured a glass of water from the faucet. Then she inserted her pinky finger in the water.

What happens when you take out the finger? she asked.

Nothing. Nothing happens.

This was how she taught me that no one is indispensable, that water closes over what has displaced it, that loss finds its own level.

Méira Cook was born in Johannesburg and worked as a journalist in South Africa. Since coming to Canada, she has published widely as a poet and fiction writer. She has won the CBC Literary Award for poetry, the Walrus Prize for poetry, and the McNally Robinson Manitoba Book of the Year Award. Cook lives in Winnipeg.

Al Chet, or The Long Confession

Wednesday, September 27, 2017 | Permalink

Manny Waks is the author of the recently published memoir Who Gave You Permission?: the memoir of a child sexual-abuse survivor who fought back

For survivors of child sexual abuse within the Jewish community, especially those abused within an institutional setting, Jewish holidays can be particularly challenging. The desire to survive this period — to literally remain alive — may be a daily, if not an hourly struggle.

Unfortunately, based on personal experience, I fully understand some of these challenges.

I was raised in an ultra-Orthodox Chabad family in Melbourne, Australia. Between the ages of around eleven to fourteen and a half — some of the most important years of a religious child, which include the venerated bat mitzvah — I was sexually abused by two different men. Some of the abuse took place inside places of religious significance, including a synagogue and a mikvah — a ritual bath.

During the period of abuse and its aftermath, I rebelled against everything I knew, not least my religion.

My experience of sexual abuse left a lasting impact on my Jewish identity: The place I feel most uncomfortable in the world is inside a synagogue. I instinctively tune out most religious discussions. I am unsure whether I believe in God.

Yet, forgiveness — as I was taught at my childhood school, Yeshivah College, the venue of some of my abuse — is a core Jewish value.

It isn’t easy to forgive, especially when the person seeking forgiveness has caused you profound pain. A mere apology, we think, cannot possibly be sufficient. But forgiveness is necessary, especially in the context of significant injustices. Moreover, it may be a powerful tool, both for the one giving the apology and its recipient.

Over the years, I have received and accepted dozens of apologies, including from those in the Orthodox community. I have sought to forgive the many who have wronged me and others: for the cover-ups, the intimidation, the inaction. My only condition has been that the apology be genuine, which has not necessarily always been easy to discern.

All those who have apologized should consider: Was that one-off apology or public statement sufficient? If you claim to follow halach — Jewish law — was your apology consistent with halachik requirements? Can you be doing any more to alleviate the pain you caused your victims?

In this context, the Australian Rabbi Moshe Gutnick’s 2013 powerful Yom Kippur apology on behalf of the Orthodox Rabbinate deserves a mention. It demonstrated that the Rabbinate was (belatedly) acknowledging some of its gravest failures. This apology had an incredibly positive impact for many around the world.

However, based on recent developments — the hiring, for example, by an orthodox Melbourne school of a rabbi who was forced to resign from his community leadership positions after his attacks on victims and their families, and the continued safe haven offered by Israeli courts to a fugitive Melbourne school principal who abused several of her students — we still have a very long way to go.

Despite the ongoing personal cost, I will continue to advocate for justice, accountability, and prevention, because I have witnessed the significant progress that is possible.

Perhaps, at some point, my fellow victims and I may finally be able to rejoin the broader community in holiday celebrations.

Manny is a consultant, advocate, and public speaker, and has extensive experience in social entrepreneurship and leadership. In 2011 Manny disclosed his experience of child sexual abuse within the Jewish community. In 2012 he established Tzedek, an Australia-based support and advocacy group for Jewish victims/survivors of child sexual abuse. He is currently the CEO of Kol v’Oz, an international organization that he established to address child sexual abuse in the global Jewish community.

Image: Flickr/adriana komura

Counting the Ways: How I Learned to Mourn for My Mother

Monday, September 25, 2017 | Permalink

Méira Cook is the author of the recently published novel Once More With Feeling. She will be blogging here all week as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Many of the characters in my novel Once More With Feeling are haunted. They are haunted by the living and the dead, and by all the usual apparitions: memory, ghosts, forgetfulness, weather, good deeds, and bad decisions. I can relate to these characters as I, too, have felt haunted all my life—but never more so than when my mother died.

This year is the sixth anniversary of my mother’s death. Her yahrzeit is the day after Shavuot, which sometimes falls in late May and sometimes falls in early June. 

My mother did not believe that a daughter could say kaddish for her parents because in the orthodox tradition in which she was raised, only men were counted as members of a quorum of ten mourners. Women don’t count, she said.

Counting is of some significance nevertheless, because Shavuot is calculated by counting off exactly seven weeks from the second night of Passover. Passover, the holiday that celebrates the emancipation of slavery, is linked to Shavuot, the holiday that commemorates the giving of the Torah, in this way establishing a connection between physical and spiritual freedom. 

The forty-nine days between Passover and Shavuot are known as the "counting of the Omer," a time of semi-mourning and a strict accounting of days. My mother fell ill shortly before Passover and died the day after Shavuot.

Because of the moon-skewered Hebrew calendar, Shavuot occurs in late May some years and early June in others. And this is true in the country where I was born, South Africa, as well as the country where I now live, Canada. Although it’s fall in one place and spring in the other, both are restless seasons of turning or budding leaves, of early or late rains, of the dying or the greening year.

What counts is time, however it is added or subtracted. What counts are the days that accumulated before she died, which were forty-nine, and all the days to follow which, I grew to understand, would be incalculable.

Even writing about my mother feels like a transgression. She kept her own counsel, was fiercely private, and did not believe in self-expression. The modern idea that feelings are dangerous when repressed, as uncomfortable and potentially explosive as wind on the stomach of a colicky baby, would never have occurred to her.

She was neither heartbroken nor heartless. But neither was she openhearted, and her most characteristic gesture was to tap her wrist, smile at me, and then slowly turn over her hand so that she could tap the inside of her wrist. The message—to me, her daughter, the divining rod of her remote moods—was clear: show the outside, conceal the inside.

She was the most dignified person I’ve ever known, dignity the spinal column that kept her upright, and secrecy what ran through her as marrow through bone. When I left her, not as daughters usually leave their mothers—which is to say when they grow up—but before I was quite grown, and for a wild adventure and a fierce man and another country—which is to say forever—she was stoic, a Spartan mother. 

But I knew what to expect; she had taught me the lesson of the turned wrist: how to transform pain into a graceful gesture, how to show only what I was willing to display, how not to break down in airports.

Dignity has a price, of course. For years I didn’t believe that I counted, either as a Jew or as a daughter. It was too painful to live within the narrow mathematical calculations of these double negatives which, since they didn’t cancel each other, seemed to cancel me. But when she died I realized that, whatever she said, my mother had always counted to me, and that I too counted because the pain I felt was more convincing than any prohibition against expressing it. 

And so I have attended synagogue on the last six anniversaries of my mother’s death and recited kaddish in her memory. It’s my way of remembering her and I hope it counts, counting being a matter of memory work in this case, and not mental arithmetic. But counting, I have learned, is not always chronological and, except for Genesis, words rarely create the world.

Sometimes it is necessary to count forward as when a mother recounts stories to waylay death, and sometimes it is necessary to count backward as when a daughter encounters these stories, these creative and wholly fruitful truths. Remembrance flows in both directions at once, like a mythic river, and like that old Greek river, cannot be the same river even once.

Every year my children accompany me to synagogue in late May or early June. Although there is no obligation to say kaddish for a grandparent, my daughter and sons stand up with me and chant the Mourner’s Kaddish. Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba. We sit together, amongst a congregation of men and women who are equal. I look at my children and hope that I am teaching them to mourn. It is, after all, a way of counting, of adding your number to a necessary quorum of mourners. It is a way of being counted upon.

Méira Cook was born in Johannesburg and worked as a journalist in South Africa. Since coming to Canada, she has published widely as a poet and fiction writer. She has won the CBC Literary Award for poetry, the Walrus Prize for poetry, and the McNally Robinson Manitoba Book of the Year Award. Cook lives in Winnipeg.

Book Cover of the Week: Madonna in a Fur Coat

Friday, September 22, 2017 | Permalink
Posted by Natalie Aflalo

It's officially fall. Season of crisp apples, good sweaters, and warm outerwear, like the plush (hopefully faux) fur the mysterious woman below is wearing. While I do take issue with the cover photo's inconsistency — the model is wearing what looks like a capelet or wrap, rather than the titular coat — I am a fan of the broad's style, and wish I could get a better look at that smoky eye. 

I was really excited to learn about this book, a Turkish classic first published in 1943 and available in English for the first time this November from Other Press. The story takes place in vibrant, interwar Berlin, where a young Turkish man meets a half-Jewish artist who "transforms him forever." (Do we have a magical Jewess on our hands?) The synopsis says the book is about new beginnings, which helpfully ties into the autumnal theme of this post, and the start of the Jewish New Year — Shana Tova to all! 

New Reviews September 22, 2017

Thursday, September 21, 2017 | Permalink

I’ll Have the Burger, Hold the Exposition: On Research for Fiction Writers

Thursday, September 21, 2017 | Permalink

Allan Appel is the author of The Book of Norman, out September 26th from Mandel Vilar Press. Earlier this week, he wrote about the careful balance fiction writers must strike between truth and story. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. "Interior, Mormon Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, Utah"

A friend of mine, a high school history teacher old enough to have learned to drive in the stick shift era, once described his preparation for teaching a course as something akin to gunning the engine and then pulling back on the choke.

By that, he meant his approach was to learn everything he could about the subject, stuffing himself with wonderful and interesting information. However, when, at the first session, the students looked up at him glassy-eyed, he started to back up; he slowed down; he offered salient points and context and sine qua nons of all the knowledge he had obtained. In other words, he refrained from, as editors warn reporters, dumping the whole notebook.

Novel writing, and specifically my experience in researching The Book of Norman, very much followed that kind of arc of erudition. When my characters began to lead me to their growing concerns about the afterlife, both the Jewish and Mormon versions, my first stop was the Mormons and I began with biographies of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and the group’s history.

I think some not-so-latent prejudice was at work in that I didn’t want to pick up a book devoted to straight Mormon theology. Why? Having in the course of a normal life cruised by Mormon visitor centers in New York and elsewhere, having looked in the window at their mannequin-evocations of the Angel Moroni and other celestial figures, I concluded there was not much here of intellectual richness.

Wrong! That was my point of view. Not the characters’.

My characters were deeply interested in the stuff, and if they were, I had to be. I found Mormonism for Dummies (yes, that yellow-and-black cover series from Wiley Publishing Company that—please don’t titter—is really immensely helpful). My Jonathan character, the younger of my two brothers, would be going, as an enthusiastic potential convert, to classes where he learned Mormonism 101, and so would I.

So I learned the distinctions between celestial, telestial, and other levels of Mormonism’s elaborate heavenly architecture. I learned that Mormonism’s Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father propagate souls on a distant planet called Kolob. Mormonism for Dummies itself is a little embarrassed about these interplanetary, science-fiction origins and it comes through in the little jokes the authors seem to make about such aspects of Mormon theophanies.

But there it was. I gathered the kinds of Mormon afterlife information I needed to be conversant in, and then not snobbery but ignorance kicked in when it came time for me to learn something of Jewish beliefs about the afterlife.

My experience growing up in a Conservative Jewish community in L.A. was such that the afterlife hadn’t played much of a part in our education or concerns. When it came down to it, I knew very little. My Norman, who was to become a reluctant defender of the faith against his brother’s increasingly sophisticated queries on Jewish afterlife beliefs, drove me to the Jewish library this time. 

I read Abba Hillel Silver’s Where Judaism Differs; I re-read Milton Steinberg’s As A Driven Leaf. I was studying with a Chasidic rabbi in Brooklyn at the time, DovBer Pinson, and I read his book on the afterlife as well as several by Conservative-trained rabbis. I got much better stuff about dybbuks and ibburs and other emanations of the Jewish soul, lots of folk beliefs, from DovBer than from the superstition-cleaned theology presented by the more “respectable” seminary trained writers. My old 1919 Kaufman Kohler-edited Jewish encyclopedia had extensive articles on Jewish angelology; who knew such things existed even where I grew up, in the City of the Angels?

So now I knew stuff and I could stuff my stuff into my characters to prove that they knew it too. Novel writers, heed the warning! Mistake. After having thrown out a first draft because I knew I was too close to the origins of the story and it went emotionally all wrong, I wrote another draft or two that were emotionally much closer to the truth, but they were obscured because I had too many Planet Kolobs and/or one too many references to how the rabbis told us to distinguish an angel—they apparently have no Adam’s apple.

My erudition was necessary but not sufficient to make the characters real. In the early drafts, they were in too many places talking heads for the author, and so I edited away and edited away. I lost interchanges that included many witty moments of intellectual dueling between nascent Mormon Jonathan and seminary dropout Norman. As the playwriting teacher tells the student, "You must learn to throw away your babies."

In short, knowledge and information are critical, but beware of using too much of it. This becomes a particular danger if you yourself grow interested in the material, as I did. I’m old enough to be thinking about the afterlife, if there is one, far more than I did when I wrote my first novels decades ago. So to the same extent that you attach to the material, you have to find it in yourself to detach in order for it to be there for the characters.

If you don’t let the research become exposition, it turns into a kind of energy that fuels the novel and it becomes a resource so the novel can slow down, or accelerate, to get back to our initial motor vehicle metaphor, or sputter, and then, with a jolt of surprise, take off. Just like life itself.

Born in Chicago and raised in Los Angeles, Allan Appel is a novelist, poet, and playwright whose books include Club Revelation, High Holiday Sutra, and The Rabbi of Casino Boulevard, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. 

Too Close for (Fictional) Comfort

Tuesday, September 19, 2017 | Permalink

Allan Appel is the author of The Book of Norman, out September 26th from Mandel Vilar Press. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Like so many of the dusty, venerable clichés about writing, one of the most stalwart, “To write what you know,” is sharply double-edged when it comes to fiction.

Here’s the problem: If all you write is a transcription of what you know, however moving or harrowing, you’re not going to come up with something that has verve or magic or that extra boost that is the sine qua non of fiction and that separates it from creative nonfiction, or even heartfelt journalism.

However, if in fear of staying too close to the nonfiction reportage, as it were, of what you know and experiencedif you filter or transform or invent too muchthere’s a danger of creating something that loses the emotional heart of your story.

In writing The Book of Norman I found this a particularly nettlesome problem to negotiate. In my first of what have to have been seven drafts of the novel, which I began writing that many years ago, I have two brothers and their families gathered at a house they are jointly renting on Cape Cod for a week in the summer. There one evening, shortly after the families watch a Masterpiece Theater version of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda on TV, out comes one brother, the Mormon convert, brandishing a piece of paper and asks the still-Jewish brother to look it over. The paper turns out to be an ordinance, an important Mormon document usually requiring a blood relative’s signature or okay to initiate the proxy baptism of the dead.

Well, that interchange pretty much happened in our real lives together in that summer house. I remember, writing that first draft, I was still seething with emotion. I was (am) the Jewish brother, and my Mormon older brother who had converted in our twenties, several decades before, was the presenter of the ordinance.

We had a huge blowup, our children had to restrain voices, and, like a kid having a tantrum, I had to have my daughter and wife sit beside me in the bedroom where I felt my heart beating double-time as I raged for hours. All that entered the draft as well, powerful for me to write at the time because it was raw.

After fifty pages of my first draft, a story too close to the actual events except for silly name changes, I knew I was in trouble. It didn’t feel quite right, but I thought I could write my way out. So I kept writing for another twenty or thirty pages. At close to a hundred pages I ran out of gas. After I had more or less transcribed the events, my characters had nothing else to do. I had created them, or rather non-created them, so close to the bone of what actually had occurred, they did not have sufficient life to make choices, to go in directions that I could not anticipate. Another old writing saw became true again: Follow the characters, back off, let them lead.

Here's the thing: If you don’t create characters with sufficient life of their own, they are going to die on the page. One of the harder things to learn is to recognize they are dying and let them go, take a deep breath, have a beer, meditate, wait some time, and go at it again.

When I did, some months later, I resolved to keep the struggle over a dead father, the emotional heart of the story, but I now knew I should insert some changes that by their nature would force true fictionalization. In my first draft, the two characters were in age just like me and my brother, I younger and he older. This time I rendered myself older, and allegedly wiser, and this made the character begin to operate more independently.

A second critical change was that I yanked the events out of the present of the actual incident and catapulted them way back into the past, in the late 1960s, roughly around the time of my brother’s conversion. That of necessity also prompted fictionalization; because I remembered little, I had to invent much.

I also deliberately created a fantasy mother. My real mom was a shy, self-effacing temple lady who went to the oneg Shabbats and swiped a lot of the brownies and danishes and other goodies to bring home to us. She rarely wore makeup. She was sweet but frowsy, very far from the independent, witty, film noir-esque deli waitress I made her in the novel. Like a true character, she started to do things that I never planned, like organize one of my favorite scenes in the novel, the Sabbath dinner.

When the characters surprise, you are on the right track, but you’re there because you’ve deliberately inserted devices to remove the story from its factual origin while retaining the emotional heart. That’s one of the true magic tricks of fiction. It doesn’t guarantee a great story, but it does guarantee story, which is the fundamental job of a fiction writer to create. It also is important, in such delicate matters as religion, conversion, and love, to have this distance if you’re sensitive to those whose encounters with you are the source of the material.

At this writing I have not yet heard how my brother or other members of his family, all still devout Mormons, responded to The Book of Norman. I hope they’ll like it and tell me so. Even better, I hope my brother will say he likes the story and add “But that didn’t happen.”

Born in Chicago and raised in Los Angeles, Allan Appel is a novelist, poet, and playwright whose books include Club Revelation, High Holiday Sutra, and The Rabbi of Casino Boulevard, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. 

New Reviews September 15, 2017

Monday, September 18, 2017 | Permalink


Naomi Alderman's "Disobedience" is Now a Film

Friday, September 15, 2017 | Permalink

Mazel tov to Naomi Alderman! Her novel Disobedience, which was a finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize and the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction, has been adapted into a film directed by Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio and starring Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams. The story is about a young woman who leaves behind her ultra-Orthodox upbringing – and the distinguished rabbinical family she was part of – to seek happiness and fulfillment elsewhere. The movie just premiered last weekend at the Toronto Film Festival, but critics have already praised it as "a beautiful, fraught, and emotionally nuanced drama" and a "respectful and immersive..portrait...of the many forms love can take."

The Rohr judges on why they loved the book: Many novels of disobedience in Jewish literature, from the beginning of the modern period on, paint the world left behind in largely or entirely unsympathetic terms; when the main character is forced, by circumstance, to return to that world, one of Alderman’s achievements is to complicate that picture by rendering it in subtle shades and its inhabitants as real people, not caricatures. Alderman’s abilities are by no means limited to ethnography, though; through a series of surprising developments, she explores how and whether change can come to a world that prides itself on holding fast against change; and how her characters’ various disobediences are themselves, if not necessary, seemingly inevitable.