The ProsenPeople

Interview with a Publisher: Fredric Price of Fig Tree Books

Monday, January 28, 2019 | Permalink

with Jamie Wendt

I recently talked with Fredric Price, founder and publisher of Fig Tree Books, to discuss his experiences in the world of American Jewish publishing. What follows is our conversation about his company, including their mission and submission process, as well as advice for Jewish writers looking to get their work published.

Jamie Wendt: Fig Tree Books was founded in 2013 as a home for Jewish books. Can you share a little bit about your mission?

Fredric Price: Our mission is straightforward and embodied in our tagline, “Publishing the best literature of the American Jewish experience.” So what do we mean by that? We typically define American as dealing with the people or institutions of the United States; this doesn’t mean that the protagonist must be a citizen or that the action must take place exclusively within our country, but the book needs to be grounded in American values, culture, or history. American readers need to be able to identify with the characters and the story.

For us, the “Jewish experience” means engaging with what it means to be a Jewish American, or how one goes about his or her life practicing (or denying) his/her Judaism, or how one copes with Jewish identity, or deals with social/political/cultural issues associated with being Jewish or interactions between/among Jews and other groups.

It’s important to note that we limit our offerings to novels and memoirs. We don’t publish books for children or young adults, science fiction, poetry, chap books, etc.

JW: What are the major challenges and benefits of running a small Jewish press?

FP: Simply stated, the biggest challenge has been to find manuscripts that meet our definition of the mission statement, and are also extremely well-written and have something new to say. The most important benefits we’ve experienced are the reception that our books have received from critics and from organizations that award prizes.

JW: Do you see any unifying elements among the books you’ve published?

FP: In both of the memoirs that we’ve published (Abigail Pogrebin’s My Jewish Year and Angela Himsel’s A River Could Be A Tree), the authors have integrated their own journeys within the context of current events, which has the effect of providing more illumination to their narrations. In essence, it has allowed them to paint on a wider canvas.

With regard to the novels we’ve published that are not reprints (David Hirshberg’s My Mother’s Son, Jessamyn Hope’s Safekeeping, Jonathan Papernick’s The Book of Stone, and Ben Nadler’s The Sea Beach Line), the stories are built upon foundations of issues that can help drive conversations about critically important concerns of Americans today.

JW: What do you do in order to ensure both a Jewish and non-Jewish audience for your books?

FP: Interestingly enough, the issues Jews face in integrating and thriving in our society mirror those that are found in most other minority groups. And with the total of these groups together being a large percentage of the American population, non-Jews can identify with our books in the same manner as Jewish readers do with books about the trials and tribulations of others. So in a sense, our messages are universal, despite being focused on Jewish protagonists. We try to make this clear in our advertising and promotional materials.

JW: Why are such a small number of submissions actually published?

FP: It’s a truism that an excellent story needs a strong beginning, middle, and end. We find that many submissions start out well but then fade in terms of the quality of the writing and the ability of the author to be convincing—sometimes this is because an author is predominantly a short story writer, and it is simply not true that a novel is just a longer version of a short story. Other times, we have found that the author has simply run out of gas and doesn’t have the wherewithal to embark on a rewrite that will elevate the book to the level that was evident at the outset. And it’s also true that occasionally, authors are thin-skinned and despite evidence of talent, do not believe their manuscripts need to be changed.

JW: When considering a manuscript for publication, do you take the author’s biography and previously published work into account?

FP: In a limited way, yes. If we’re impressed by an earlier publication, this will allow us to start the process of manuscript review with greater expectations than if we have never seen anything written from a particular author. But having said that, we make our decision to publish based solely on the quality of the manuscript at hand.

JW: What advice do you have for Jewish writers looking for a home for their work?

FP: Select unique topics; don’t mine territory that others have done well. Copycatting may actually work in some areas of publishing but the aspiring Jewish writer would be better served by staking out topics, places, events, etc. that are not shopworn by sophisticated readers. Also, don’t be afraid to address sensitive topics that might ruffle some feathers—I’m not talking about writing polemics and screeds; rather, I am suggesting that there are some topics that deserve new perspectives.

Writing a manuscript is easy. Writing an excellent manuscript is very hard, especially for Jewish audiences who have a high bar for quality.

Photo credit: Alison Sheehy

Jamie Wendt is the author of the poetry collection Fruit of the Earth, published by Main Street Rag Publishing Company (2018). She is a graduate of the University of Nebraska Omaha MFA program. Her poetry has been published in various literary journals, including Lilith, Raleigh Review, Minerva Rising, Third Wednesday, and Saranac Review. Her essays and book reviews have been published in Green Mountains Review, The Forward, Literary Mama, and others. She teaches high school English and lives in Chicago with her husband and two children.

New Reviews January 21, 2019

Monday, January 21, 2019 | Permalink

Talking with Debut Novelist Kim Sherwood

Monday, January 14, 2019 | Permalink

By Amy Spungen

Kim Sherwood’s debut novel, Testament, tells the story of a young woman whose beloved grandfather dies, triggering her quest to find the truth of his past. A Jewish native of Budapest, Joseph Silk is forever changed by the Holocaust, and the effects of his experience and the choices he makes afterward weave together themes of survival, betrayal, forgiveness, and the redemptive power of art. Sherwood recently answered some questions about her novel.

Amy Spungen: Kim, Testament focuses on the experience of Jews in Central Europe, especially Hungary, during the Holocaust. Can you tell us why you chose this geographic area? Is this story personal for you?

Kim Sherwood: My paternal grandmother is a Hungarian Jewish survivor, and she lived with us in London while I was growing up. We’ve always been very close, but she only began talking about her experiences a few years ago. I wanted some way to understand what she went through, so I began researching the Holocaust in Hungary. The novel grew from there. Though it’s not my grandmother’s story—because, of course, that’s hers to tell—writing about Hungary helped me to articulate my grief at all I was learning, and also to reconnect in a meaningful way with our heritage. I spent a lot of time in Hungary while writing the novel, and now know Budapest as well as I do London.

AS: Toward the beginning of the novel, Joseph Silk’s granddaughter, Eva, reads from what I believe is a J. C. Squire poem titled “Testament” at his funeral. The book ends with Eva reflecting on the same poem: “You wrote your name on the sands when the tide was out, knowing time would come again at the flood. I stand in the breakers.” Eva has learned a lot about her grandfather’s history since his death. Her circling back to this poem from a deeper perspective implies understanding, forgiveness, and love. Can you say something about these interwoven themes? Did you intend to leave readers with a sense of hope?

KS: It’s lovely you’ve pulled that poem out—it was written by J. C. Squire, my maternal great-grandfather, a poet and editor. My maternal grandfather, George, died in 2011, and I read the poem at his funeral. George was like a father to me, and losing him left me unmoored. That poem became a kind of compass for me: I’d return to it, imagining George saying, “Do not think, when you think of me, of a ghost that haunts the lamenting sea.” In the novel, as you said, Eva uncovers her grandfather Silk’s hidden histories, and comes to understand what exactly he left written in the sand.

Writing Testament was part of my grieving process for my grandfather. In those difficult years after his death, I thought a lot about how our relationship with someone we’ve lost doesn’t end when we lose the person. The relationship keeps growing as we grow. Memories are seen in a new light. Though I didn’t set out to end the novel on a note of hope, this feeling gave me hope nevertheless: that though loss might scar us, we heal around the scar, and it becomes part of us, just like that person’s voice and vision is part of us.

AS: In less skilled hands, Eva’s romance with Felix—uniting English Jew with German gentile—could have become a trite device symbolizing the progress of enlightenment. Instead, you portray their growing interest in each other realistically, sensitive to their personal and cultural baggage. Can you talk about how you envisioned these two characters? Did their relationship evolve as you wrote the book, or did you have a clear picture of their roles from the start?

KS: Thank you, that’s very kind. Felix took me completely by surprise. Initially, he was just the voice at the end of the phone when Eva calls the Jewish Museum Berlin to find out more about the witness testimony left by her grandfather. But I enjoyed Felix’s voice, and he made me laugh, so I thought I’d write one scene between Felix and Eva at the museum. And then he wouldn’t go away!

AS: Silk’s eyesight is forever altered by a beating. Ultimately, he turns this affliction to his advantage, creating art that brings him fame. But in another way his vision fails him—it’s difficult for him to truly empathize with others, to see things from their perspectives. What made you decide to use eyesight in both a literal and figurative sense?

KS: The initial idea came from a passage in Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, in which the protagonist is struck by the beauty of a sunset over the gulag. I began to think about perception shaped by trauma. As I started writing the novel, there was the terrible mine collapse in Chile. News reports suggested the men’s eyesight might be damaged. I was also researching the Bor mines in Serbia, where the Hungarian forced labor service used Hungarian Jews and others as slave labor. I called up the Royal National Institute for Blind People and talked with them about eyesight damage, and the ideas came together to create Silk’s eyesight. Silk emerges from the mines only able to see the color blue, which, as you say, fuels his abstract expressionism. But it’s also a metaphor, of course—he recreates his life after the Holocaust, cutting away his past. He forces those around him to become an audience to his star performance, which involves a willing blindness on his part to the pain this causes his family. But the blue of the Danube always follows him—he can’t escape his past.

AS: One of the most riveting aspects of your novel for me was your use of some of the actual questions asked of survivors by the Hungarian National Committee for Attending Deportees (DEGOB) in 1945 to guide readers into the sections of Testament. What inspired you to use these questions the way you did?

KS: I visited the Jewish Museum Berlin in 2011, and was really struck by the voids—inaccessible concrete shafts that cut through the museum. I began to think about the voids as tunnels from past to present that we can never fully traverse, just as we can’t bring the dead back—but that narrative can traverse. In my research, I discovered and was transfixed by the DEGOB questions, which reflect how much our understanding—of everything from death to history—was about to change. The interviewers first asked the survivors if they experienced or witnessed any crimes or violence, what methods were used to kill people. Then they moved from past to present tense, asking survivors where they intended to go next, how they planned to rebuild their lives. I saw the questions as a kind of ladder I could drop into the void, allowing the narrative to move between past and present. The questions divide the historical and present-day timelines, but also link them.

AS: How long did it take you to write Testament? Did you find any surprises along the way?

KS: Six years. Like a lot of people, I grew up with a generally good understanding of the Holocaust. But as I began to research deeper into the history, I found myself shocked again and again, despite everything I’d already learned. There’s a line from Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces: “Two wars, which are both the rotten part of the fruit that can’t be cut away and the fruit; that there’s nothing a man will not do to another; nothing a man will not do for another.” One thing that surprised me in regard to the UK’s relationship with the Holocaust was how deeply suspicious and xenophobic many people were towards refugees, some believing them to be German spies, some simply hating the idea of “aliens.” I was struck by how much this resonates with the UK’s relationship to refugees today. I always knew, of course, that many people didn’t want to accept any Jewish refugees to the UK. But because we hold up the Kindertransport as a totem of our accepting nature, I had been lulled into believing a larger national narrative of open arms. While doing research for the novel, I read a lot of advice pamphlets for refugees, which advised them to speak English at all times, avoid speaking of the trauma they had endured, and to become as English as possible. I was also struck by the level to which the Anglo-Jewish community funded missions to rescue and financially support refugees, forming charities and lobbying a reluctant government and population.

AS: Were any of the characters particularly challenging for you? Why?

KS: I found Eva the most challenging character to capture on the page. Her voice resisted me for a long time. I began writing her sections in third person. Traveling around Berlin and Budapest, I’d make notes from her point of view in first person, and then change them to third as I drafted the novel. I wrote about 70,000 words that way, but Eva’s voice was still resisting me. So I wrote a letter to myself from Eva about how she felt about being invented. She was furious with me. She felt like I’d brought her to life in this moment of great grief, and then left her stuck there, unable to speak for herself. It had to be in first person. So I started again.

AS: Can you tell us a bit about your next novel, set in southwestern England? When can we expect it?

KS: I’m really excited to have just received support through a grant from the Society of Authors Foundation to help me write my second novel, A True Relation. Drawing on adventure fiction, the literature of roguery, and travel and life writing, the novel explores issues of gender, genre, and place in South West England. The main thread of the novel is a subversion of the smuggling tale, intercut by century-spanning conversations between male and female writers who either visited or lived in Devon. By placing these national figures–including Celia Fiennes and Daniel Defoe, Hester Thrale and Samuel Johnson, George Eliot and Charles Dickens–in conversation, I hope to explore the portrait they paint of the UK, and the complexities they reveal about our national story. I’m going to say it will be out in 2020, and maybe that will manifest a finished draft!

Amy Spungen, a freelance editor and writer, has a BS in journalism from Virginia Commonwealth University and an MA in English from Northwestern University. She lives near Chicago in Highland Park, Illinois.

New Reviews January 14, 2019

Monday, January 14, 2019 | Permalink

New Reviews January 7, 2019

Monday, January 07, 2019 | Permalink

A Conversation with Children's Author Debbie Levy

Monday, January 07, 2019 | Permalink


Debbie Levy’s distinctive place in children’s literature has been secure for some time. Her 2017 picture book I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark won both the Sydney Taylor Award and a National Jewish Book Award. Levy collaborated with artist Vanessa Brantley-Newton on We Shall Overcome: The Story of a SongShe's written a handful of books coming out in 2019, on topics ranging from school de-segregation to Ladino music, and a graphic biography of RBG. 

I recently asked Debbie some questions about her writing process, her vision, and her Jewish identity. Her answers help explain the appeal of her books and their lasting impact on readers.

Emily Schneider: You’ve written two books for young readers about Ruth Bader Ginsburg—the award-winning I Dissent and the forthcoming Becoming RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Journey to Justice. Bader Ginsburg is an icon—to women, to Jewish Americans, and to people with progressive values. How did you approach the process of telling her life story for young readers?

Debbie Levy: When I set out to write the picture book biography, I knew that Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States and the first Jewish woman on the Court. I knew that, before she was a Supreme Court justice, she was a federal appeals court judge in Washington, D.C., and, before that, a leading lawyer in the field of equal rights for women and girls.

What I didn’t know, until I started researching more deeply, is that she has been disagreeing with unfairness and with things that are just plain wrong from the time she was a little girl. I mean, in elementary school, left-handed little “Kiki” Bader objected to being required to write with her right hand. She questioned girls’ exclusion from shop class. Later, of course, she went on to disagree, resist, object, and dissent her way into big things.

So, I realized, the story of her life offers this inspiring lesson: Disagreeing does not make you disagreeable, and important change happens one disagreement at a time. And I thought: What fine ideas for a children’s book!

For the forthcoming graphic novel-style biography, Becoming RBG, I have the space (two-hundred pages) and the older readership to bring an additional theme into focus, one inspired by something RBG has said many times: “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.” Young Ruth “Kiki” Bader wasn’t born a firebrand feminist. She didn’t learn the hard lessons of injustice and inequality in a day. Rather, step by step she evolved; step by step she became Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “flaming feminist litigator”—her words!—who has created enduring change.

And so Becoming RBG tells the story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s evolution, from childhood through young adulthood, from law student to professor to litigator to federal judge—and finally to the Supreme Court. I hope to show readers that becoming a changemaker is something a young person can grow into. Through RBG’s story, readers will see that looking outside oneself can make all the difference between being a bystander and being a pathbreaker.

ES: Your book The Year of Goodbyes: A True Story of Friendship, Family, and Farewells, a moving account of your mother’s escape from Nazi Germany, and the forthcoming This Promise of Change: One Girl’s Story in the Fight for School Equality, are both written in verse. This format seems to be increasingly popular in children’s books—see the works of Jacqueline Woodson, Kwame Alexander, and Karen Hesse, for example. Given that poetry is sometimes considered to be difficult or inaccessible, what is the appeal of a story in verse to today's young readers?

DL: To quote a hero of mine, I dissent from the notion that poetry has to be difficult or inaccessible! In some ways, I think it can be more accessible than straight prose, because poetry is compact (plenty of white space on the page), without wasted words, and its language is vivid. It can make you laugh out loud. It can make you cry. Sure, it can be esoteric, but it doesn’t have to be. Consider the three authors you mention; their novels in verse hook readers from the first page.

In The Year of Goodbyes, I used entries from my mother’s childhood poesiealbum—that’s translated as “poetry album,” and it’s like an autograph album or friendship book—as the stepping stones through her last year in Germany in 1938. Writing the narrative in free verse seemed to flow naturally from and honor the poesiealbum. Also, although people don’t walk around talking and thinking in poetry, I do think that free verse is good at capturing something essential about the way we think and react, especially under stressful conditions—and so the format conveys my mother’s experience faithfully.

This Promise of Change, written with Jo Ann Allen Boyce, tells the true story of Jo Ann’s experience in 1956, when she and eleven other African American students walked into an all-white high school in Clinton, Tennessee to desegregate it. This was a year before Little Rock. What went on in Clinton was front-page news all over the country—and yet it’s largely lost to history today. Jo Ann was a very musical girl and loved poetry, so presenting her story in verse (free verse and also some structured forms) reflects her character. Also, this is an emotional story, and we think—we hope—the emotion is served well by the verse format.

ES: How has your Jewish identity framed your work?

DL: Being Jewish is inextricably part of who I am. I am not particularly religious or observant but I was born a Jew—my identity is Jewish; my culture and my thoughts and my baked goods are Jewish. Who I am cannot help but show up in my books, whether they are on Jewish or non-Jewish themes. I do have this yearning for Jews to remind ourselves, and those who are looking at us, that Judaism stands for, and is about, ethics above all, and that (in my view) being Jewish is about treating people fairly and standing up for justice. Also, as Jews, we look up to those who seek knowledge, who value facts, and who put knowledge and facts in service of humanity—in a mensch-like way.

When it comes to books specifically with Jewish themes, of course my particular Jewish identity shapes the subjects that call to me. I do have two “Jewish books” coming out in 2019, in addition to the two we’ve mentioned so far. One is The Key From Spain: Flory Jagoda and Her Music, about a woman who is known as the “keeper of the flame” of Ladino and Sephardic music, and whose life experience illuminates the possibility of cross-cultural understanding and acceptance. The other is Yiddish Saves the Day!, an utterly silly story about a day gone wrong, but then made right, thanks to the lively words of Yiddish. Let’s not forget that other hallmark of Judaism: humor. We die without it.

ES: This Promise of Change, like your previous book, We Shall Overcome, presents aspects of the civil rights movement for a young audience. How did your Jewish identity fit into your vision for both of these books?

DL: I seem to return in my books to the theme of the Other or Outsider; surely this has roots in my Jewish identity, for Jews have been and still are so often the Other, the Outsider. But also, for me, Jewish identity is tied to the thirst and quest for justice, and so it is seamlessly tied to the themes of We Shall Overcome and This Promise.

ES: How do you see the role of Jewish authors within the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement?

DL: Jewish authors can write books that serve as mirrors of, and windows onto, Jews and the Jewish experience, just as authors of other diverse backgrounds can do the same with respect to their own communities. So Jewish kids can see themselves mirrored in different situations in books where Judaism may be front and center or may be simply a causal characteristic; and non-Jewish readers can look through the window into the varied experiences of Jews and Jewishness.

Or Jewish authors can write books that aren’t mirrors of, or windows onto, the Jewish experience. They can just write books about the subjects, themes, people, places, and ideas that call to them. This is also diversity. I don’t want any group to feel constrained to write an expected book, and I don’t want readers to think of authors as categories. Each writer is an individual—each reader, too.

Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children's books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.

Image: Slowking4 / Wikimedia Commons

Excerpt: Hitler's Pawn

Friday, January 04, 2019 | Permalink


By Stephen Koch

Everyone called him “the child.”

Whether speaking in Yiddish or German, Herschel Grynszpan’s mother and father naturally spoke of their youngest as das Kind. When das Kind was fifteen, Sendel and Rivka Grynszpan (pronounced “Greenspan”) got their son out of Hitler’s reach by sending him to live in Paris, where his Uncle Abraham and Aunt Chawa called their rescued nephew l’enfant. Two years after that, as the French police hustled this diminutive threat to European peace through a gauntlet of blazing flashbulbs and swarming press, reporters noted that the boy assassin looked closer to thirteen than seventeen. Later, Herschel’s French lawyers—antifascists vaunted as the best legal minds in France—always referred to their young client as le petit. When she formed a legal defense fund to advocate for “the little one’s” essential (albeit not literal) innocence, Dorothy Thompson, then the foremost anti-Nazi journalist in the English language, called him “this boy.” Even Adolf Eichmann himself—after interrogating Herschel in Berlin with a view to the propaganda surrounding the Holocaust—referred to him as der Knabe: the lad.

He was small, like many a pawn, and cursed with a baby face. He became famous on the cusp of maturity: In some photographs he looks like a frightened child; in others he is quite handsome, almost sultry, albeit in a boyish way. He had large, expressive, dark eyes and wore his black hair slicked back in the style of 1930s adolescence. He was frail. When he turned seventeen, he weighed just under a hundred pounds and stood a fraction of an inch taller than five feet one. His health was never good; as a child he may have had rickets. In early adolescence, there had been an appendectomy. Worst of all, he suffered from some sort of lifelong gastric problem—perhaps an ulcer—that was intermittently agonizing. Even in prison, he was a regular visitor to the infirmary.

He was clever with his hands and had a yen for sports; his main passion was for soccer, followed by Ping-Pong, which he played with the speed of an ace. According to most adults around him, he was “a gentle, self-effacing, obliging, and affectionate young man,” albeit moody. He may have been on the bipolar spectrum. He was subject to recurring depressions and sudden hot-blooded rages, even fistfights, on and off the soccer field.

But views of Herschel’s temperament vary. Among his contemporaries on the soccer field and at school, he was known as “the Hun king” because he was “dark-complected and very hot-tempered.” “Some who knew him in childhood remembered the boy as a quarreler.” Meanwhile, his brother, Mordecai, recalled his kid brother as a wit and a skilled and devastating mimic, whose imitations of pomposity could crack up a roomful of adults. There was something else: Both Mordecai and the lawyer who knew him best, Serge Weill-Goudchaux, used the same word to describe the boy. He was, they thought, fearless.

Herschel had grown up with Hitler’s consolidation of the Nazi tyranny. In 1933, when Hitler became chancellor, Herschel was eleven. In 1935, when the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws were passed, he was fourteen and a student learning Hebrew in a Zionist yeshiva in Frankfurt, hoping to emigrate to Israel. When he was fifteen, his family sent Herschel to Paris to escape an increasingly dangerous Reich. When Herschel was sixteen, Adolf Eichmann sent Hitler a memorandum arguing that mere legal persecution would never force Germany’s Jews to leave the country and surrender everything they possessed to the kleptocracy. Eichmann recommended more persuasive measures such as lawless mass terror: a nationwide pogrom. This proposal foreshadowed the Kristallnacht. When Herschel was seventeen, Hitler summarily deported more than eighteen thousand Polish Jews living in Germany—among them Herschel’s mother, father, sister, and brother—stole all their money and worldly goods, and dumped them, penniless, on the Polish border.

It was when Herschel heard about his family’s deportation that he decided what he had to do and acquired what he had never so much as touched before: a gun.

Excerpted from Hitler's Pawn: The Boy Assassin and the Holocaust, copyright © 2019 by Stephen Koch. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint Press.

Stephen Koch is the author of two novels and many books of nonfiction on subjects ranging from Andy Warhol to the Second World War. After being chairman of the Creative Writing Division in the School of the Arts at Columbia, he wrote a classic text on writing, The Modern Library Writers’ Workshop. The director of The Peter Hujar Archive, LLC., he lives with his wife in New York, and has one daughter.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

How Elie Wiesel Taught Me to Grapple with Difficult Religious Texts

Wednesday, December 26, 2018 | Permalink


By Ariel Burger

A story: The survivor of a global disaster, burdened by survivor’s guilt, drinks himself into a stupor. His youngest son comes upon him sprawled and naked on the floor. Rather than cover his father, he mocks him. The father is not completely unconscious; when he awakens, he remembers what his son did and is furious. “This is how you treat me? I’ve kept you alive, fed you, given you everything—and you do this?” He curses his son: “May you know grief from your own son, may he be a slave his whole life!”

This story might sound familiar. The father is Noah; the son, Ham; the setting, moments after the Flood has receded. And the story could have ended here, but for one thing.

A later biblical verse tells us that the accursed son’s son is the ancestor of the Ethiopians. And so it is that this story, first recounted in Genesis, became the source of the shameful Hamitic Myth, which states that Noah’s curse is the reason—a biblically-approved one—for the enslavement of black people from Ethiopia, and, by extension, elsewhere.

In the late 1800s, Southern preachers in the United States used this story to argue that slavery was God’s will and the natural order of things. Christian missionaries brought the tale with them on their travels to African countries. One such missionary, a Belgian preacher with a radio show, poisoned Rwandan society with the myth, turning Hutu against Tutsi (he used the myth to support his theory of eugenics, in which Tutsis were “closer to the white race” than Hutus). This led indirectly to the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when Hutu neighbors slaughtered between 650-800,000 of their Tutsi neighbors over several months.

When we studied this sequence of events—the Genesis story, the Belgian missionary, the radio show, the genocide—in Elie Wiesel’s class, I was distraught. How could the Bible, the urtext of my youth, the “portable homeland” of my people, be the cause, however indirect, of such horror?

How do we deal with disturbing and degrading religious texts? What do we do with textual interpretations that have caused so much harm? The question is difficult if you are a believer and cannot reject the sacred text entirely. It is much easier to argue that the texts were written by wrong-headed men in wrong-headed times, and that now, in our more enlightened age, we must relegate them to the realm of museums and curiosities. But for a believer, or a lover of sacred text, that is not an option.

Believers have two choices. They can accept the validity of even the most egregiously offensive ideas in their sacred canon, and live their lives and organize their collective policies accordingly. Or, they can engage with disciplined yet radically subversive hermeneutics. The first option was employed by Christian ministers in the southern states like Samuel How, who wrote in 1856:

Our second proof that slavery is the punishment of sin is drawn from Gen. 9:24, 25, where the sacred historian having mentioned the wickedness of Ham, the father of Canaan, says, ‘And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him. And he said, ‘Cursed be Canaan, a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.’ The term ‘servant of servants’, means a servant of the lowest and vilest kind.

A minister like How draws upon his Bible to create a world that accepts slavery. He takes the text at face value; his is a passive reading of the text, uninterested in wrestling with the conflict between text and life—or perhaps fully comfortable with the idea of slavery.

It is the other option which saved my faith.

In our weekly meeting, I asked Professor Wiesel about the terrible link between Genesis and Rwanda and the challenge of finding an ethical way to interpret holy books. “This is a problem the ancient rabbis already identified,” he said. “They taught that the Torah itself can be either an elixir of life or a poison, depending on how it is used. If it is made into a weapon, it is the worst weapon of all.”

“But if we prefer an interpretation, even for moral reasons, does that necessarily make it true? What if it contradicts the simple reading of the text? And if it is true to the text but is immoral, what are we to do?”

“If even the most authoritative teaching, the most sacred text, leads to dehumanization, to humiliation, to harm, then we must reject it. Remember, the Bible itself shows us how to do this: Abraham argues with God on behalf of Sodom. Moses breaks the tablets of law—yes, even the law must be broken when it threatens humanity. Job refuses to accept easy answers that falsely render him a sinner and God a vindictive god. We need courage in reading scripture, courage and compassion. Remember also: This is what the rabbis did with so many of the legends they taught, so many interpretations. They worked to align the text with their moral understanding. And in doing so, they gave us permission—no, an obligation—to do the same.”

Our discussion about Genesis and Rwanda continued, and I begin to understand his approach. When we encounter difficulties in the text, when we feel the distance between words on a page and our deepest moral intuitions, we allow the text to question us; perhaps our intuitions require refining. At the same time, we begin to challenge the text, to demand that it live up to our ethical instincts. When a text disappoints us with an anti-human message, we will avoid the sin of premature forgiveness, of letting the text off the hook too easily. A biblical verse seems to condone hatred? Well, it’s an old book, after all, from a different time, we might be tempted to think. But our role in reading sacred scripture is to ask two questions: “What does the text say?” and “Who may be harmed by this text?” In seeking an ethic of interpretation that remains true to the text and to our lives, we balance fidelity and conscience and attempt to make our religious traditions sources of blessing.

Adapted from WITNESS: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom by Ariel Burger. Copyright © 2018 by Ariel Burger. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Ariel Burger is a writer, artist, teacher, and rabbi whose mission is to integrate spirituality, creativity, and social change. A lifelong student of Elie Wiesel, he spent years studying great wisdom traditions, and now applies those teachings to urgent contemporary questions. When Ariel's not learning or teaching, he is creating music, art, and poetry. He lives outside of Boston with his family. Learn more at www.arielburger.com.

Image via Ian Bailey-Mortimer / Flickr

Read an Excerpt from Alice Shalvi's Memoir 'Never a Native'

Monday, December 17, 2018 | Permalink


By Alice Shalvi

We set off on a blue-gold Sunday morning with no clear destination, no defined purpose other than to escape from the sun-baked metropolis: a tightly packed carload of young people, freshly minted graduates, enjoying our last summer of freedom before settling down to income-earning responsibilities. We had no specific goal. We had bathing costumes and towels in case we reached the sea. We had an ample supply of fruit and sandwiches. We knew that wherever we went in rural England we would find a pub to quench our thirst. The South Downs came to mind. Box Hill resonated for those of us who knew Jane Austen’s Emma. Never mind, we said, we’ll see what crops up. We crossed the Thames and headed south-east, avoiding what was then, in the late 1940s, considered a highway and choosing instead the less-travelled lanes and byways lined with hedges where wild flowers grew surrounding peaceful pastures of calmly grazing sheep and cows. A perfect day for aimless ambling.

Suddenly, a signpost with the familiar emblem of the National Trust: Knole House. I gasped in excitement.

“We have to go there.”

Willy, who’d been reading some of the same books as me, at once understood. He knew the connection to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. Knole was the ancestral home of the Sackville-West family, the home of whose inheritance Virginia Woolf’s lover, Vita, had been deprived only because she was a woman. The loss had been a tragedy for her. Neither my brother nor I had possessed the essential background knowledge when we first read the novel, spellbound by the luscious prose, the twists and turns of plot, the bisexuality of the protagonist (Vita, of course). Knole was an essential part of Orlando. Now we had a chance of seeing it, of visiting it and traversing its rooms, courtyards, galleries and formal gardens.

Knole is a “calendar” house: 365 rooms, 52 staircases, 12 entrances, seven courtyards. It is surrounded by 1,000 acres of wooded land, part of it a deer-park. At its heart lies the original, oldest part of the structure, built in the middle of the 15th century, around which successive generations added layer upon layer of accommodation. The long gallery is lined with portraits of these Sackvilles. Here is, as Virginia Woolf saw, a history of England that covers four centuries and more. We came out to the park, sated: five young Jews, three of us not born in England, the others children or grandchildren of immigrants from Europe. We decided to picnic right there, in the inviting shade of an enormous oak whose ample trunk indicated it might well be as old as the house itself. I lay stomach down, my face cradled in my arms. Though it was well after lunchtime, I had no appetite. I breathed in the sweet scent of the grass. Unlike that of the London parks, it smelled fresh and untrodden. For the first time in my life, I felt intense envy.

“Who is wealthy?” asked our ethical fathers, rhetorically, replying, “He who is happy with his lot.”

It wasn’t true or at least at that moment it appeared not to be true. What we had seen was true wealth, the wealth not only of property but of continuity, of knowing not only the names of one’s great-grandparents and their forebears but knowing what they looked like, what they wore, what corridors they traversed, where they mounted their horses, danced to the sounds of the timbrel, made love; being able to visit their graves, pray in the pews in which they prayed. And us? My father had his father’s Kiddush cup. My mother lit her Shabbat candles in the candlesticks her mother had brought from Galicia. We had no photographs of the shtetls in which my parents were born. We were fugitives, constantly uprooted, forever on the move. Willy and I even had a mother tongue that was not the same as that of our parents. Indeed, what was their mother tongue? Yiddish, which their non-Jewish neighbours, born in the same country, neither spoke nor understood? Polish, to which they resorted when they didn’t want us to understand what they were saying; the language of “Pas devant les enfants”? Certainly it wasn’t English, which rapidly became my mother tongue after we left Germany, while Willy continued to count in German, to find pleasure in classic and contemporary German literature. Yet he never was and would never describe himself as German. In Germany, we were Ostjuden. From after the Second World War, when we finally attained British citizenship, we were always British, never specifically English. I mystified the guard at the border between Switzerland and Italy when I presented my passport – and no wonder. It was Polish.

Oh, for the serenity, continuity and stability of the Sackvilles and of Knole. Vita, banished from her beloved Knole, deprived of her legacy because of her gender, could fall back on property initially less beautiful and certainly of lesser personal sentimental value: Sissinghurst, a manor house at which Queen Elizabeth once spent three consecutive nights. Even older than Knole, it had not been as well maintained, because it never remained for long in the hands of one owner, but Vita and her diplomat-author husband Harold Nicolson created there what is undoubtedly the most original and beautiful of English country gardens. It seemed a fitting place to which to continue our day in the country.

The gardens were in full high-summer flower, laid out like a series of rooms, each one with a “door”, a gap in a hedge in between beds of tall flowers, through which one glimpsed a vista of a neighbouring room, as in a picture gallery. Its abundant lushness, the vast variety of colours and perfumes, the tranquility (there were few visitors) were at one and the same time paradoxically exciting and soothing. And because the creative project of reconstruction and renovation had been undertaken only some 20 years earlier, there was no evocation of a centuries-long family saga. Here was something I could cope with emotionally, though never emulate. A little garden of my own, even a small backyard, a balcony, somewhere where I could tend a few potted plants. And where I could be happy with my lot…

Image via Wikimedia Commons

From Never a Native by Alice Shalvi. Copyright © Alice Shalvi 2018. Reprinted with permission from Halban Publishers.

New Reviews December 17, 2018

Monday, December 17, 2018 | Permalink