The ProsenPeople

New Reviews November 12, 2018

Monday, November 12, 2018 | Permalink

Help Us Find the World's Best Jewish Bookstores

Wednesday, November 07, 2018 | Permalink

More and more, Jewish bookstores (like so many brick and mortar shops) are either moving online or shutting down. But we know that some gems remain—shops where you can find religious texts next to contemporary literary novels, or where yahrtzeit candles and menorahs mingle with books of poetry. We want to compile a resource of the best remaining Jewish bookstores. Share your favorites in the form below, and we'll share the best responses we receive in a future article. If you have a high-quality photo, even better! Send it along to with the subject line "Jewish Bookstore."

In World War II-Era North Carolina, A Haven for German Jewish Artists and Academics

Tuesday, November 06, 2018 | Permalink

By Charles Darwent

Interviewed in 1967, Josef Albers, nearing eighty, was asked why he had spent nearly two decades at a small liberal arts school in North Carolina, having previously been a Meister at the Bauhaus (and would later become head of the design department at Yale). After a measured pause, Albers replied, “My gratitude to Black Mountain, [that] they had saved us from the Nazis.” His wife, Anni, added quietly, “In fact, we had to leave because of my background.” On both counts, they were not alone.

Set up by a group of offbeat U.S. academics in 1933, Black Mountain College would offer a safe haven to fifty-two refugees from Nazi Germany, almost all of them Jews. One of these was Anni Albers. Her mother, Toni, was born into the powerful Ullstein publishing dynasty. Like her daughter, she was baptized a Protestant; such assimilative niceties were lost on the Nazis, however. Within weeks of Hitler taking power in January 1933, Germans of Jewish ancestry were banned from academia and the professions. The country’s avant-garde, too, came under attack. In April 1933, teachers at the Bauhaus arrived to find its gates locked and buildings taken over by the Gestapo. In July, the school’s director, Mies van der Rohe, closed it down. Four weeks later, Black Mountain College opened its doors in a wooden antebellum mansion outside Asheville, North Carolina.

The timing could not have been more perfect. As Ted Dreier, one of the school’s founders, recalled, Black Mountain was short an art teacher. He turned for advice to the architect Philip Johnson, then at the Museum of Modern Art. Johnson had visited an earlier iteration of the Bauhaus, at Dessau in Saxony. Aware of what was happening under Hitler, he suggested Dreier write to Josef Albers. Desperate to leave Germany, the ex-Bauhaus Meister and his weaver wife leapt at the offer of jobs at a school that was far away, poor, and tenuous. Neither had heard of North Carolina. Anni hazarded that it might be in the Philippines; Josef spoke no English. Nonetheless, on December 5, the pair stepped from a train to be picked up by the Dreiers in their Model A Ford. “GERMANS TO TEACH ART NEAR HERE,” announced an astonished Asheville Citizen.

At first, the Albers wondered what they had come to. A year earlier, another college had opened in Asheville: called Galahad, this preached the mystical Fascism of its founder, William Dudley Pelley, who agitated for Jews to be rounded up in ghettos. Black Mountain, seventeen miles from Asheville, kept its distance. So, too, from the mainstream of American academia. Jewish academics arriving at other U.S. institutions found their reception less than warm: the Classicist and philosopher Ernst Manasse recalled meeting with as much anti-Semitism in American universities as he had in German ones. Realizing their luck at having come to Black Mountain, the Albers set about getting their friends there: first, in 1935, the psychiatrists Fritz and Anna Moellenhoff, for whose Berlin flat Josef had designed furniture; then, in 1936, the dramatist and ex-Bauhausler Xanti Schawinsky. Jewish organizations took note of Black Mountain’s open door, and pressed it to take more refugees.

It obliged. In 1938 came the phenomenologist Erwin Straus, along with the former conductor of the Cologne opera, Heinrich Jalowetz, and his wife and daughter. They were joined by musicologist Edward Lowinsky and his violinist wife, Gretel; then by Fritz Cohen, founder of the Jooss Ballet company, and his wife, the dancer Elsa Kahl. In 1944, via Norway, Siberia and Japan, came noted mathematician Max Dehn. By the end of the Second World War, Black Mountain’s sixty students were matched, more or less head for head, by Jewish émigré teachers and their spouses and families. They made up what may have been the densest concentration of intellect in the United States.

It wasn’t only the staff’s eminence that made it extraordinary. So small were the college’s numbers and shallow its pockets that teachers were forced to double up on subjects: thus Max Dehn taught not just mathematics but Latin and Greek. This early experiment in what would later be called interdisciplinarity came to define Black Mountain. Staff as well as students benefited: Josef Albers sat in on Dehn’s math lessons, Dehn took Albers’s art course. After the war, American-born academics and artists would embrace Black Mountain’s blurring of boundaries: John Cage’s dance/art/drama Theatre Piece No. 1, considered to be the first Happening, was staged in the dining hall in 1952. By then, Dehn and Jalowetz were dead, buried in the college’s woods; the Albers had moved on to Yale, Schawinsky to Chicago. The German-Jewish colony in the Blue Ridge Mountains was ended, but not its significance.

Charles Darwent is an art critic and reviewer and author of the biography Josef Albers: Life and Work, published by Thames & Hudson (November 2018). He contributes regularly to the Guardian, the Art Newspaper and ArtReview. He appeared in the Netflix series, Raiders of the Lost Art, from 2014 to 2016. His publications include Mondrian in London and The Drawing Book: A Survey of Drawing.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

New Reviews November 5, 2018

Monday, November 05, 2018 | Permalink

Only We Can Save Us: A Brief History of Jewish Superheroes, Real and Fictional

Thursday, November 01, 2018 | Permalink

By Adam Nemett

As I was finishing my debut novel, We Can Save Us All—about a group of Ivy Leaguers who respond to apocalyptic indicators by forming a student movement inspired by superheroes—my editor asked me why Jewish writers, from the scribes of the Old Testament to Michael Chabon, are so often called to the superhero genre.

I prepared a knee-jerk response—something about tikkun olam, perhaps, the Jewish notion of repairing the world. My real answer is: Jews have no choice but to reckon with notions of strength versus weakness, with the potential for progress versus history repeating itself, with good versus evil. In good times we can distract ourselves from such concerns, but they’re always there, like the Hulk rage monster bottled inside nerdy Bruce Banner. And in times of rising white supremacy and anti-Semitism, like now, it becomes necessary to deal with them head-on.

The first Superman was evil. In the 1933 comic, “The Reign of the Superman,” two Cleveland Jews, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, envisioned their initial Superman as a bum plucked from the breadline and transformed into a telepathic supervillain. But, according to Siegel, once he saw the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany, he decided he wanted to “help the despairing masses, somehow." So, Superman was transformed from an evil tyrant to a savior. Born with the distinctly Jewish-sounding name Kal-El, he was sent into space from dying Krypton as part of a planetary pogrom and adopted by kindly Midwesterners—Moses in the reeds. By February 1940, Superman was dragging Hitler and Stalin to the international courts, with a feature in LOOK magazine depicting the two “power-mad scoundrels” being convicted of “modern history’s greatest crime—unprovoked aggression against defenseless countries.”

From the beginning, we’ve been conditioned to expect Superman to come, a messiah who can rid a “defenseless” Jewry of this never-ending cruelty. There are antecedents and descendants, heroes who came before and after Superman: There were mythical Jewish strongmen like Samson. There was the Golem, that Frankenstein-like monster of incredible strength, made animate from a mass of clay, sent to protect the Jews of Prague. And there were real-life heroes. One of these was the “Iron King,” the “Strongest Man in the World," the “Superman of the Ages”: Siegmund Breitbart.

A Yiddish-speaking Polish Jew, Siegmund “Zishe” Breitbart became one of Vienna’s most popular stars of circus and stage amid the rising anti-Semitism of 1920s Austria. He was similarly famous around the globe (on his North American tour of 1923, he even came to Cleveland, possibly influencing Siegel and Shuster). He demonstrated superhuman feats of strength, performing in the costumes of earlier heroes: cowboy; gladiator; Tarzan; even Shimon bar Kokhba, the Judean revolutionary who rose up against Roman rule in 132 CE (Though his rebellion was ultimately crushed, many believed Bar Kokhba was the messiah who'd come to deliver victory for them. Bar Kokhba was a humanist, however, and explicitly relied on his own powers when entering into battle).

After Breitbart and Superman came the Golden Age of Comics, and its lineage of crime fighters, saviors, superheroes, and mutants—mostly created by Jews.

There’s the cast of Marvel characters co-created by Stanley Lieber (Stan Lee): Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, Doctor Strange, the Fantastic Four, Black Panther, the X-Men, Ant-Man, Iron Man and Thor. Before Marvel was The Spirit, a middle-class vigilante in a domino mask, created by Will Eisner; Batman, the upper-class caped crusader created by Robert Kahn (Bob Kane) and Milton Finger (Bill Finger); and Captain America, the working-class super-soldier created by Hymie Simon (Joe Simon) and Jacob Kurtzberg (Jack Kirby). Captain America’s debut in 1941 showed him socking Hitler in the jaw, a confident intro before America had even entered the war.

What are we to do with this genealogy, this legacy of icons that have dominated global popular culture for decades, only rising in prominence due to the recent slate of DC and Marvel blockbusters? From Bar Kokhba to Captain America, Jews are drawn to the promise of an intervening hero who can, in the words of historian Arnold L. Goldsmith in his study The Golem Remembered, “mitigate their suffering and lead them to the messianic redemption their religion taught them to expect.”

But what if we stopped looking, stopped waiting, stopped crying out for someone else to lead us to salvation? What if we instead found superpowers within, a way to catalyze a new future rather than replaying the past?

Last weekend, a hate-filled lunatic massacred eleven Jews in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue. Last year, eleven days after my daughter was born, Nazis invaded my town, picked fights in our streets, cracked a black man’s skull in the garage next to the police station, weaponized a car to kill an innocent woman.

It wasn’t some superhuman mud monster, and it certainly wasn’t the government or police who battled white supremacists in Charlottesville on August 11–12, 2017; it was a committed and heroic group of ordinary people, many of them among the most vulnerable to attacks from the alt-right: women, people of color, the LGBTQ community.

Our collective faith and individual relationships with the Divine are undoubtedly part of why our culture has survived and thrived. But Jews can't afford to wait for our latest messianic savior, real or fictional. We must work together and as part of a multiracial coalition against white supremacy. We must be our own saviors. 

And that can mean many things.

It doesn’t have to entail fighting with fists or militarizing our synagogues, but it certainly doesn’t mean waiting or hoping or praying that someone else will swoop in and save the day. It means doing something, taking action, tapping into whatever powers you have and cultivating them. It means deploying humor and art and knowledge and bravery. It means mutating beyond our collective history, recalling the heroism inborn and discovered in Jewish communities. It means being unified.

It means developing new skills, too, and remembering old ones. Over the last two thousand years, Jews have undoubtedly been oppressed and denied access to rights and professions, but—as some research suggests—we have also proactively prioritized certain forms of education over others.

When faced with the realities of escalating climate change and civilization breakdown, the mortal, scared student superheroes in my novel complement their vital liberal arts and STEM education with practical trades and survival skills: farming, hunting, construction, self-defense. Together, they form a united collective of highly humanistic individuals—tapped into a higher spiritual force but, like Bar Kokhba, reliant only on their own powers when the shit hits the fan.

This fictional movement inevitably and hypocritically has to contend with the presence of a charismatic and messianic figure, but I hope the message remains. It may not be a popular message in devout circles, but it’s one that may be increasingly relevant for Jews in our time: no magical superhero is coming to save us.

But maybe we can save us all.

Adam Nemett is the author of We Can Save Us All, a debut novel published by The Unnamed Press (November 2018). He is the creative lead at History Factory, the writer-director of the independent feature film The Instrument, and co-founder of the educational nonprofit MIMA Music. Adam graduated from Princeton University, received his MFA from California College of the Arts, and now lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. Find him at and @NemoAuthor.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Combating Anti-Semitism: A Reading List

Tuesday, October 30, 2018 | Permalink

The following is an excerpt from the 2019 issue of Paper Brigade, the Jewish Book Council's annual literary journal. You can pre-order the issue here.

Amid the recent upsurge of anti-Semitism, we asked prominent authors of recent or forthcoming nonfiction to recommend a book for this list. The breadth of topics and time periods covered by the works below attests to the insidiousness of anti-Semitism, but also to the impressive range of scholarship devoted to examining and overcoming it. Even the spelling of "anti-Semitism"/"antisemitism" is currently under scrutiny; to reflect this, the recommenders’ chosen spellings of the word have been left intact.

Henry Ford's War on Jews and the Legal Battle Against Hate Speech by Victoria Saker Woeste

We live in a new era of antisemitic hate speech and we have no idea what to do about it. Should Jewish organizations police hate speech in the media and sue antisemites? Or does that only fan the flames of antisemitism and stifle free expression? One place to look for answers is in legal historian Victoria Saker Woeste’s wonderful 2012 book, Henry Ford's War on Jews and the Legal Battle Against Hate Speech. Woeste deftly reconstructs the first major episode of antisemitic hate speech in American society, the publication of Henry Ford’s newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, and how Jewish lawyers debated the proper way to combat it.

—James Loeffler, author of Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century (2018)

Contemporary Left Antisemitism by David Hirsh

This is an incisive, hard-hitting, and very readable examination of antisemitism coming from the left. Hirsh’s focus is primarily on Britain and the Labour party. It is written with a scholar’s insight and balance and with a tinge of sadness as Hirsh, a longtime Labour supporter, ponders what has happened to the party that has been his political home for all his adult life.

—Deborah E. Lipstadt, author of Antisemitism: Here and Now (2019)

A Convenient Hatred: The History of Antisemitism by Phyllis Goldstein

Any book that starts with a slaughter of Jews in ancient Alexandria is not going to be a light, easy read. But as I was writing my most recent book, Goldstein's sweeping compendium became my grounding. The book is exhaustive; I can't imagine too many flare-ups of the ancient hate missed her gaze. But in reading the sweep of anti-Semitism in ancient to modern history, I was able to put this moment into perspective—for better, and, sadly, for worse as well.

—Jonathan Weisman, author of (((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump (2018)

Jews, Judaism and Anti-Judaism: Reading the New Testament After the Holocaust edited by Paula Fredriksen and Adele Reinhartz

One of the earliest and most enduring sources of antisemitism is the interpretation of the New Testament; works like the Gospel of John continue to play a role in fostering misunderstanding and suspicion of Jews today. In Jews, Judaism and Anti-Judaism, two leading scholars of early Christianity aim to help readers better understand some of the key canonical texts that have long fueled Christian hostility to Jews and Judaism. This is by no means the only book to address the role of the New Testament in the history of antisemitism. What distinguishes it is the editors’ effort to include a range of divergent scholarly perspectives—in addition to their own essays, the volume includes contributions by three other major authorities in the field, E. P. Sanders, John Gager, and Amy-Jill Levine, along with a bibliography of additional readings. Slim and accessible, the book is a good entry point for those wishing to know more about the beginnings of Christian hostility to Jews, and makes a case for deeper historical understanding of the New Testament as the best way to overcome its role as a catalyst for Christian anti-Judaism.

—Steven Weitzman, author of The Origin of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age (2017)

On Modern Jewish Politics by Ezra Mendelsohn

This book explores the different approaches taken by East European and American Jews toward anti-Semitism in the early twentieth century. Writing in a lively style full of telling anecdotes, Mendelsohn divides Jewish political groups into integrationists, who believed anti-Semitism was a manageable problem; and separatists/nationalists, who believed it was not. The rub was with Jewish socialist movements, which had a foot in both camps. An added benefit is Mendelsohn’s comparison with early twentieth-century African American politics.

—David E. Fishman, author of The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis (2017)

Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion by Norman Cohn

Originally published in 1967 and reissued several times, this is a classic historiography of antisemitism. It traces the origins of one of the most infamous and dangerous books of the twentieth century, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion,which claimed the existence of a Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world. Despite being a demonstrated forgery, Protocols was used to justify anti-Jewish persecution—including the Holocaust. Cohn identifies a number of political and literary texts that were used to build this narrative of a secret design of world conquest and domination by Jews. Although Protocols was most likely drafted at the beginning of the last century in czarist Russia, several of the works that inspired them were French; at the turn of the twentieth century, France was, in fact, one of the headquarters of modern political antisemitism (as exemplified by the Dreyfus affair). In an age of fake news, Warrant for Genocide shows how false anti-Jewish accusations were built and spread through an ambiguous and frightening text, which became the justification for hatred and murderous violence.

—Simon Levis Sullam, author of The Italian Executioners: The Genocide of the Jews of Italy (2018)

When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation by Paula Fredriksen

Increasing recognition that Jesus was a Jew and should be understood within the history of Judaism has played a major role in tackling Christian antisemitism over recent decades. Still, few Christians are fully aware of the Jewishness of Paul and most others in the early Church. With empathy and scholarly precision, Fredriksen tells the gripping story of the early Jewish followers of Jesus, tracing their changing perspectives as they awaited the end-time, and as events unfolded in ways they did not anticipate.

—Martin Goodman, author of A History of Judaism (2018)

New Reviews October 29, 2018

Monday, October 29, 2018 | Permalink

What the Torah Tells Us About God's Gender

Tuesday, October 23, 2018 | Permalink

By Joy Ladin

My family wasn't religious, but it didn't take me long to learn that everyone, Jews and non-Jews alike, referred to God as male. Even though the Torah tells us that God has no face or form, in prayer books, Bibles, sermons, and in conversations with Jehovah's Witnesses who occasionally rang our doorbell, God was always “He”—a pronoun that proclaimed that God, like everyone else, was defined by our system of binary gender. Even atheists referred to the God they didn't believe in with pronouns that implied that God, though non-existent, nonetheless was male: “What evidence do you have that He exists?” they'd ask, or, if they were particularly pugnacious, “If God can do anything, can He create a weight that He cannot lift?”

To some extent, the habit of referring to God as male made sense to me. Apart from me, binary gender was (and still is) everywhere: In my family, in my neighborhood, at school, in books and on TV, everyone was either male or female—and it was assumed that anyone in a position of power, as God was supposed to be, was male. As a transgender child terrified that others might discover I wasn't the boy I was pretending to be, I knew that to have a place in this world, everyone, even God, had to accept being seen as one or the other.

But even so, I found the gendering of God confusing. I was seen as male because I was born in a physically male body. God had never been born and, as everyone seemed to agree, didn't have a body. That gave me a sense of kinship, of closeness, with God. God was the only other person I knew who didn't fit binary gender categories. Like me, hidden inside my male exterior, God didn't have a body to make God visible. And like me, the real me who identified as female, God's lack of a body seemed to make it very hard for others to know that God was there.

For most of my life, I kept my ideas about God as hidden as my transgender identity. But once I began living as myself—that is, as someone who identifies as female despite my male birth and upbringing—I found that when I wrote or spoke about my journey as a transgender person, I often ended up talking about my relationship with God. When I received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, I decided to write a book, The Soul of the Stranger, about how being transgender had shaped my understanding of God. Because I was writing about the Torah and not just my personal experience, I had to confront questions I had until then avoided, like: Does the Torah portray God as male?

What I found is that, aside from its use of male pronouns (and in Hebrew, male verb forms), the Torah does not consistently portray God as male; in fact, God usually isn't gendered at all. For example, the second verse of Genesis portrays God as a “spirit hovering [or “sweeping”] over the water.” No gender there, or in any of God's other actions during the creation of the universe. In the next chapter, God forms a man, Adam, from earth, and a woman, Eve, from Adam's flesh, but neither those actions, nor God's interactions with Eve and Adam, identify God as male. If anything, creating life is generally associated with women, not men. Before God expels Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, God sews garments for them and clothes them, hardly stereotypically male behavior. In fact, nowhere in Genesis is God portrayed as male, except for the beginning of chapter 18, where the Torah tells us that when God appears, Abraham sees three men. But there's no reason to think the Torah here is telling us that God is male. In fact, it tells us that Abraham doesn't recognize God in this form, even though Abraham has always recognized God before.

Other books of the Torah do refer to God in terms of male roles, such as king, or father, or man or warrior. But these are descriptions of God's relationships with human beings, not portrayals of God. And those male metaphors share space, and sometimes even verses, with female and non-gendered terms for God—as when God is called a “rock” by Moses, or, by Isaiah, “my strength and my song.’ For me, Isaiah conclusively answers the question of whether the Torah portrays God as male in two verses in chapter 42. After referring to God as a male warrior in verse 13, the next verse portrays God as saying, “now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant.”

When we look past the pronouns to the many ways the Torah portrays God, it's clear that the Torah not only does not tell us God is male, but summons us to recognize that God is not defined, and cannot be defined, in terms of human gender.

Joy Ladin, Gottesman Professor of English at Yeshiva University, is the first openly transgender employee of an Orthodox Jewish institution. She is a Fulbright Scholar and author of seven books including Through the Door of Life, a National Jewish Book Award finalist, and six poetry collections.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

An Interview with Jake Marmer

Tuesday, October 23, 2018 | Permalink

by Lucy Biederman
I recently spoke with Jake Marmer about his excellent new volume of poetry, The Neighbor Out of Sound.  We talked about form, his immigration experience, poetic and linguistic inspirations, and working life.

Lucy Biederman: There are so many different forms in this book—the opening section plays on the idea of the nigun (“a traditional Hasidic chant, usually wordless,” as you explain). There are prose poems, very short poems, long poems, prayers, sermons . . . Do you think of yourself as a formal poet? How does form operate in your poetics?

Jake Marmer: I think of poetic forms as alternative dimensions, or mind-spaces. Spaces to go into and listen to the language echoing within. I am a somewhat different person when I sing a nigun. A different person when I listen to my kids talk. A new state of emotional attention and concentration gets activated, and with it, its own vocabulary. A poet I admire, Hank Lazer, once called it “inhabiting a form”, and that really speaks to me. The word “Shekhinah," a Jewish name for the feminine Divine Presence, etymologically has something to do with “dwelling” or “inhabiting,” and I think the urge to discern forms, to dwell within them, is a spiritual urge.

Modernist poets thought of form as fluid and intuitive, and that tradition is important to me, and so I don’t think of myself as a “formal poet.” On the other hand, reading various contemporary experimental poets really helped me see how poetic practice can lurk in all these different discourse forms. I’ve been writing riddle-poems lately, tongue-twisters, and poems in which I try to translate a single word. Those are forms, too, and I’ve learned to seek them out and linger in them.

LB: In the prose passages at the beginning of each section, you write about immigrating, working, parenting in ways that both foreground the ensuing poems and give your readers a richer sense of your world. Have you written longer works in prose? Have you considered, or attempted—or written—a memoir?

JM: I owe a debt of gratitude to Jerome Rothenberg for those prose pieces. I wrote to him some years ago about my nigun poems you’ve mentioned, and asked if he thought I should footnote to explain what nigunim are. I needed some contextual explanation, but thought that footnoting my own poems was too boring and self-important. Jerry suggested writing a preface note that would also “serve as a kind of poetics.” I loved that. His own prefaces are often statements of poetics and are gorgeous poetry that look like prose. They’ve been really formative to my own thinking and writing.

As far as memoirs go, the odd thing is that I always have trouble getting at my own memories directly. It's only when I start writing about literature or music of others that I can then broach my own life—as it exists in the encounter with the work of others. As if I am most alive, most provoked in these encounters. For me, this kind of writing takes the shape of essays, usually for Tablet Magazine, and I recently had a piece in the Jewish Review of Books that was very autobiographical, even if it was, on the surface, about the new Isaac Babel translations.

LB: As you explain in the book, you didn’t know you were Jewish until you were eight years old, after your father heard you singing an anti-Semitic song you picked up at the school you attended in Russia. When you immigrated to America as a teenager, you wrote, “Yiddishkeit became alive to me as a poetics.” Can you talk about your relationship with Jewishness? How has it influenced and affected your understanding of language?

JM: I once asked a similar question while interviewing David Meltzer and he said: “What are you doing for the next six hours?” It’s a big question, the answer to which will necessitate many tactical evasions, hand gestures, tangents, self-contradictions, and swallowing of printed text, so I think we should save it for a different occasion.

I’ll just say that I see poetry and mythology as intertwined, and that Judaism’s mythology is the one I chose to live with and within, a lot of the time, and I find myself embodying it, whether intentionally or not. That, too, can be seen as a form of poetics, no?

LB: Despite the variety of the three epigraphs to your book (poet Emily Dickinson, experimentalist Jerome Rothenberg, philosopher Jacques Derrida), they seem to speak in concert, and quite directly, about your themes. Who are some other writers and thinkers who have inspired your work?

JM: Both of my grandmothers. One of them was a teacher of Russian language and literature, and she really encouraged me to memorize and recite poems. The other grandmother, to help me memorize poems, would invent these weird hand gestures that went along with specific images. Like semi-raised drooping hands to signify snow on the branch, or something like that. I think this alive and wonky and performative and old-school approach to poetry influenced me a lot.

Also, my wife, Shoshana Olidort, is definitely a writer and thinker who inspires me a great deal. I read nearly everything she writes, and vice versa. A lot of pontification and brainstorming happens on our couch at home. There’s nourishment in that.

In general, I find myself most profoundly affected by the artistic presence—the actual people, in conjunction with their art—rather than art alone. I’m lucky to be connected to, deeply, to a dozen of musicians and poets whose art inspires me in a way that’s very intense and direct.

And then there’s free jazz—music itself and the discourse around it, big deal Russian writers, experimental sci-fi, Yiddish writers and poets, the Talmud, Transcendentalists, Kafka, Gertrude Stein. And, always, Amiri Baraka and Allen Ginsberg.

LB: The final section of your book focuses on office life, its isolation, and its weird (infrequent) beauty. You write lyrically, heartbreakingly, about other peoples’ desks, doing nothing all day long, eavesdropping on coworkers without meaning or wanting to. I think some readers might be surprised to see office poems alongside poems about spiritual and family life, language, country, and self. But having worked in offices myself for many years, I’m delighted to see these poems about what the mind feels like at work—“the boredom and the horror and the glory,” as Eliot wrote; it’s all there in the workplace! Can you talk about writing about office life? What made you decide to include these poems in this volume?

JM: These jobs are very much a part of my story, my immigrant story. I was fifteen when I came to the U.S., without my parents, and from sixteen and onward I lived on my own and supported myself in every way. I didn’t have a leisurely liberal arts education, didn’t intern for hip literary publications. I worked, often a few jobs at once, and though I was cognizant of the privilege of having these jobs, I also saw them as onerous dues an immigrant has to pay to be a part of this society. My corporate desk jobs were soul-crushing at times, and I wrote the poems you’re referring to so as to redeem that experience, in an almost mystical kind of way.

Four and a half years ago, I finally took a leap and started working as a high school teacher—I now teach poetry, and also Jewish Studies. It’s a profoundly fulfilling, and bank-breaking experience I would both recommend and counsel people away from. I haven’t written a whole lot about it—perhaps because I’m in the thick of the experience. But also because my goal is for teaching itself to be a form of poetic performance, a spontaneous composition threaded between me and the students. When it’s like that, it’s a really good day.

Lucy Biederman is an assistant professor of creative writing at Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio. Her first book, The Walmart Book of the Dead, won the 2017 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Award.

Author photo credit: Cookie Segelstein

Fictionalizing Am Olam, The Little-Known Movement of Midwestern Jewish Farmers

Monday, October 22, 2018 | Permalink

By Rosellen Brown

My husband and I were recently attacking our overburdened shelves to pry loose some contributions for an annual book sale. When I give away books I like to remove all signs of previous ownership, so I pulled out yellowing bookmarks and ancient press releases; here and there a letter fluttered out. That was how, having retrieved a note from a friend dated 1987, I discovered to my astonishment that, though I have published four books since then, my just-published novel, The Lake on Fire, was already gestating almost thirty years ago. Ted S, in a hastily scrawled footnote, had asked “Are you still pursuing those Jewish New Jersey chicken farmers?”

As it happens, I had never pursued exactly those long-gone Yiddishe peasants, of whom, years ago, there had been many. But apparently I’d been mentioning to my friends that I was intrigued by another unlikely population of Jewish farmers, the brave, hapless, defeated representatives of a movement called Am Olam, “friends of the world,” or, if you prefer, “The Eternal People.” With noble intentions, Baron de Hirsch and others funded a few agricultural societies, and with the romantic lure of a return to the soil (of which Jews were prevented ownership in Russia), the achievement of a “livelihood . . . by the diligent and useful labor of their hands,” they sent off, meagerly endowed, hundreds to the Dakotas, to Louisiana and Wisconsin, Michigan and, yes, to New Jersey.

I had never heard of Am Olam and I haven’t met many who have (though those chicken farmers seem to have a lot of descendants). I happened upon the history in a lively and exhaustive book by Ande Manners called Poor Cousins, whose subtitle is “The 3 million ‘other Jews’ from beyond the Pale—and how the elite of ‘Our Crowd’ tried to Americanize them.”

Scant though it was, the book lays out evidence that every outpost of Am Olam was ultimately blighted and, finally, defeated: the farm in Sicily Island, Louisiana was inundated by the flooding Mississippi and its families died in great numbers of yellow fever. The other cohorts, so hopeful but so inexperienced and lacking much functional English, suffered what we can assume were the same natural plagues that we read about in Giants in the Earth  and My Antonia: grasshoppers, ill-timed rain, and possibly from hard dealing with local vendors who knew an easy mark when they saw one. Even the New Jersey farmers—though they fared better perhaps because they were exempt from the harshness of life on the plains—ended up having to take factory jobs and farm on the side.

What an invitation to speculate about what it must have been like to have been promised so much gain and to have harvested so little! I dreamed up a little world of strivers from Zhitomir and dropped them in New Hampshire, to which I have a connection going back more than forty years. I gave my young protagonist the uncompromising name Chaya-Libbe and attached to her a bizarrely precocious little brother, Asher, and I multiplied with relish the details of their family’s disappointments.

Reader, the book did not work. The sad farm, the nasty New England winters, a plot so lean of substance that I can’t remember it . . . Perhaps mercifully, I cannot find the manuscript, but I know that, when I showed it to my then-agent, she was (this is an understatement) not encouraging. Reluctantly, I put the book aside.

But as I said at the outset, it’s been a long time since the idea was a gleam in my writerly eye. In the meantime, entirely by accident, I moved to Chicago. And every writer knows, I think, that it takes more than an initial impulse to make a story; for me it has always taken two impulses that, in sudden encounter, light a metaphoric match: Pfffft! And in that confrontation comes the drama otherwise incomplete.

Fortunately, I live a few blocks from the glorious Lake Michigan and every morning before I go to my desk I walk along its shore. One day, instead, I detoured around the Museum of Science and Industry, a huge building apparently held up by four stone caryatids in Grecian robes and a good many other imposing pillars. I knew that this is the only remaining building from the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893; the rest were intended to be extremely impermanent—the Fair lived for six months. And, though this was more of a poet’s than a fiction writer’s bit of reverie, I found myself walking the green but empty grounds thinking, “It was here, an incredible construction, and it’s gone, almost totally gone”—and, needless to say, I saw the parallel with our own brief lives.

So, its complication suddenly visible, located, there was my story. I moved my farmers to nearby Wisconsin, delivered Chaya and Asher to a failing farm not coincidentally near the town that Sister Carrie (of Theodore Dreiser’s novel of the same name) abandoned for the big city just south—Chicago!—and brought them here as well, to face unimagined complications and possibilities. Provoked by another book, I Belong to the Working Class, the biography of an immigrant, journalist and social justice activist named Rose Pastor Stokes, I found a heroine on whom to base my Chaya as she puzzles out a way to live a useful life in a city both beautiful—the Exposition was a glory!—and desperately cruel to its teeming poor. And there is a man in the mix: Both Stokes and Chaya are forced to ask themselves whether marrying into wealth is a betrayal of their class. Asher sees himself as a mini Robin Hood and wreaks havoc in the name of morality. Once again, good intentions gone awry.

It is no coincidence that Dreiser’s Sister Carrie boarded the train on which she escaped her stunted life in a town (probably named for the occasion) called Columbia City, and so does Chaya-Libbe. Though it is a masterpiece, Dreiser’s book is stylistically ungainly and stolid, but there is one brilliant line in it that I considered using as an epigraph:

“When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse.”

120 years ago, Dreiser could have been speaking about The Lake on Fire.

Rosellen Brown is the author of the novels Civil Wars, Half a Heart, Tender Mercies, Before and After, and six other books. Her stories have appeared frequently in O. Henry Prize Stories, Best American Short Stories and Best Short Stories of the Century. She now teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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