The ProsenPeople

A New Look at the Prophets

Friday, March 23, 2018 | Permalink

Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz is the author of Path of the Prophets: The Ethics-Driven Life. He is writing here as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

In an interview shortly before his death, the great theologian and activist Abraham Joshua Heschel was asked if he was a prophet. Heschel demurred and replied, “Let us hope and pray that I am worthy of being a child of the prophets.” In doing so, Heschel was reflecting Hillel’s classic teaching “But leave it to Israel: if they are not prophets, yet they are the children of prophets.” (Pesachim 66a)

The question of who is a prophet is no small preoccupation in Jewish thought. The Torah ends with the caution, “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses—whom the Lord singled out, face to face.” (Deut. 34:10) The Book of Deuteronomy also warns about false prophets, as does Jeremiah: ”They are deluding you…they speak from their own minds” (23:16), and Ezekiel: “My hand will be against the prophets who prophesy falsehood and utter lying divination” (13:9).

Yet, the prophets play an outside role in biblical Judaism. The most common Hebrew word for prophet, navi, is found in the Bible over three hundred times. Scholars link this word to the Akkadian nabu, “to call,” and signifies, in the words of biblical scholar Nachum Sarna, “one who receives the (divine call) or one who proclaims, a spokesman. The prophet is the spokesman for God to man; but intercession before God in favor of man is also an indispensable aspect of his function.” This is the classical definition of the prophet (which has little to do with predicting the future—a more modern usage of the word). Indeed, the prophets who fit this definition, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, and Hosea, are often referred to as the “classical” prophets.

However, there are other expressions in the Bible that point to people who possess prophet-like qualities. These include ro-eh (seer), khozeh (visionary), and ish-Elohim (man of God). Readers of the Bible will also encounter other people who are not explicitly called prophets but are described as bearing God’s spirit. Caleb is one of my favorite examples. While Caleb never formally communicates God’s message, his words and actions certainly do. He is called “My servant” and is said to possess “a different spirit.”

Other biblical figures may not be prophets in the classical sense, but are exemplars of the Bible’s highest ethical ideals. My broad definition of a prophet includes all who illuminate the ethics-driven life and thus walk the prophetic path. That is why I believe we should include, for example, Judah (the path of repentance), Joseph (the path of forgiveness), and Caleb (the path of faith). It is also why we should include the prophetic voices of often overlooked women in the Bible, from Shiprah and Puah (the path of civil disobedience), and Miriam (the path of joy), to Hannah (the path of prayer) and Ruth (the path of kindness). With this new, broader definition of prophet, we can much more readily identify with a diverse group of men and women who experienced a calling or moment that changed lives—and might inspire ours. This is what I do in my book, Path of the Prophets: The Ethics-Driven Life, which looks at the prophetic moment in the lives of eighteen biblical figures.

My goal is to have us personally connect with these audacious men and women who spoke truth to power. As Rabbi Shai Held writes in his new book, The Heart of Torah, “The Torah wants us to know that it is not just prophets who must step forward; what is true of Abraham and Moses ought to be true of us as well. Even the children of the prophets…must argue for justice and plead for mercy.” The prophetic spirit lives on in those who, as Heschel so aptly put it in his final interview, express “a very deep love, a powerful dissent, a painful rebuke, with unwavering hope.” In the process, we too become worthy of being called children of the prophets.

​Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz is director of The Jewish Publication Society and rabbi of Congregation Adas Emuno, Leonia, New Jersey. He is the author of Judaism’s Great Debates: Timeless Controversies from Abraham to Herzl and Jewish Heroes, Jewish Values, among other volumes.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

A Pediatric Oncologist's Account of a Tibetan Sky Burial

Thursday, March 22, 2018 | Permalink

Elisha Waldman is the author of This Narrow Space: A Pediatric Oncologist, His Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Patients, and a Hospital in Jerusalem. He is writing here as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.


It’s a bitingly cold morning on a barren plain in Western Sichuan province. Though technically part of China, this is an ethnically Tibetan area sitting on the eastern reaches of the Tibetan plateau. A friend and I have been slowly making our way across the province on a prolonged backpacking adventure—a long vacation for me wedged in between the past five years that I’ve been working as a pediatric oncologist in Jerusalem, and the next year in which I’ll be doing advanced training in pediatric palliative care in Boston. The book I would come to write, This Narrow Space, which revolves heavily around cultural attitudes to illness, loss, and healing, was still just a seed of an idea waiting to be coaxed into existence.

The previous afternoon, at our nearby village guesthouse, the receptionist had asked whether we might be interested in seeing a Tibetan sky burial. Without even asking exactly what that was, we jumped at the chance to get a close-up view of some local culture. The name alone sounded so cool—who wouldn’t want to see that? I had spent much of my professional life exposed to death and mourning; though most children with cancer do survive, my chosen area of subspecialty often meant that I worked with a higher proportion of children facing end of life. Having been present through the decline of so many patients, I was already intimately familiar with the dying process, but this was an opportunity to get a window into a totally different cultural approach to that process.

Reading up in my guidebook that night, I learned that the sky burial was a ritual born of necessity—an adaptation of religious practice to the physical realities of life at high altitude. Up here, not enough wood grows to make cremation feasible, and the earth is frozen pretty much year-round, making burial impractical. So the locals, who practice Bon, a form of Buddhism mixed with ancient animist beliefs, developed the sky burial, whereby the body is returned to nature.

The ritual begins at home, as a person is dying. Throughout the dying process (and several days beyond what we would in the West identify as “time of death”), prayers are continuously chanted over the body. By the end of that period, the spirit is believed to have moved on, and the body represents just earthly flesh. At that point Buddhist monks remove the body and bring it to whatever local spot has been set aside for the “burial.” Family typically do not attend, but remain at home praying with their community.

And that’s how I end up standing in the middle of nowhere, at dawn, one November morning. The plains and low hills stretch out to the horizon—endless gray sky above; hard, frozen earth under my feet, the cold coming up through my boots, and only the small town, still visible a couple of miles away, attesting to any human presence.

After standing around for a while wondering whether we’d been duped for taxi fare, a small tractor crests the adjacent hill, towing behind it a small wagon with what is clearly, from the feet sticking out, a body wrapped in a tarp. The tractor stops, and the monks carry the body down the hillside, closer to where I am standing. They carefully lay it out, cutting away the clothes and setting them aside in a bag, which will be burned afterwards. The body is then secured by tying its outstretched arms to a stake in the ground. At this point, it’s hard to ignore the vultures gathering just a few dozen meters up the hill. There are so many of them—multiplying by the minute—and they’re huge, beyond anything I’d imagined. Their animal physicality and raw energy in such proximity to a dead human is jarring. Their numbers grow until there seems to be just one giant, pulsating mass of feathers, beaks, and claws as the animals jostle for position.

One of the monks takes out a long knife and begins carving long, deep cuts into the body. I know that the flesh at this point is stiffened by rigor mortis, the blood congealed, so it doesn’t surprise me that there is no bleeding, that the flesh doesn’t just pull away. And yet, the scene is shocking. Typically, after one of my patients in Jerusalem dies, I help the nurses wash the body and gently remove any tubes or wires left over from our treatments, preparing the body for final moments with loved ones before the burial society takes it away for funeral preparations. In the West, what I am seeing here would be a desecration, a violation.

Just as I’m digesting this matter of the cutting of the bodies, the monk takes a few steps back and in one fell swoop, all of the vultures descend in one feathered cloud onto the body. Where just a second ago there was a human body now is just a frantic horde of birds. After about fifteen minutes the monk approaches again, shooing away the vultures. They quickly retreat to the crest of the hill. All that is left behind is a skeleton with a few loose strips of tendon and connective tissue. The monk gathers these remnants and sits next to a flat stone. He takes out a small hatchet and places a bag of barley meal at his side. He then uses the head of the hatchet to methodically pulverize the remains, crushing them on the stone. As each piece is reduced to pulp, he pauses to mix it with barley meal, making a sort of patty which he then tosses to the waiting vultures. Soon, nothing is left of the body. Nothing. The spirit has moved on and the flesh has returned to nature.

Compared to everything I've ever experienced around death and burial, this is so different, so particular to this environment and culture. I think back to my grandfather’s funeral, the first I ever attended. The first dull “thunk” of earth sliding from my shovel onto the pine box. The manicured green lawns and carefully pruned hedges of the suburban Long Island cemetery. How far from all that I am now. I wonder what the people here would think if they had seen that funeral. Would they have reacted with the same alien wonder, amazed that a culture could show such disrespect for a body, throwing dirt on it and leaving it to decompose? And yet, as I take it all in, despite all of the elements that seem so unique to this particular place and culture, there are universal elements that resonate. The solemnity surrounding the recognition of a person’s passing. The recognition that the flesh, impermanent as it is, returns to nature. The hope that the spirit or soul survives in some form. I see similarities between the Jewish tradition of shemira, or watching over the body between death and funeral, and the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of praying over the body for several days. In both customs there is the recognition that death is a process, a passage to be marked by ritual, and not just a fixed moment in time. Particular, but universal.

We hike back into town where a local, who was also at the burial, points out the home of the family of the deceased. A large metal door set into a stone wall is ajar, revealing a courtyard crowded with people sitting and chanting prayers. Someone beckons us in. A few people slide over on a bench to make room for us. We sit there for a long time, two Westerners among a crowd of ethnic Tibetans, feeling the thrum of prayers and prayer wheels around us. Like the Kaddish declaration of God’s mercy in the face of sorrow, the ceaselessly spinning prayer wheels seem to attest to the possibility of renewal, even growth, in the face of loss.

Elisha Waldman is Associate Chief, Division of Pediatric Palliative Care, at the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago. He was formerly Medical Director of Pediatric Palliative Care at the Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital at Columbia University Medical Center in New York. He received his BA from Yale University and his medical degree from the Sackler School of Medicine in Tel Aviv. He also trained at Mount Sinai Medical Center and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, and at Boston Children’s Hospital. His writing has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, The Hill, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Time. He lives in Chicago.

Image via Tsemdo Thar/Flickr

The Linzertorte Story

Wednesday, March 21, 2018 | Permalink

Mimi Schwartz is the author of When History Is Personal. She is writing here as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

When I was doing research in the late 1990s for my book Good Neighbors, Bad Times, everyone I met from my father’s village seemed to serve me linzertorte. Not the fancy cakes of Vienna and Berlin, intricate and airy—but solid, earthy ones made by the descendants of farmers’ wives and cattle dealers, who lived on the edge of a German forest so thick it looks almost black. Hence the name Schwarzwald, or Black Forest.

I ate this Black Forest Linzertorte in scores of living rooms and kitchens on three continents—served by village Jews who fled the Nazis, and by their former Christian neighbors, still in the village today.

When my father was a boy in the early 1900s, Jews made up half of his village of 1,200. Sixty years after Hitler, the one Jewish family were new arrivals from Russia, and they served me chocolate-covered prunes. The Kurdish family living in my uncle’s former house served Turkish coffee with baklava. All delicious—but without a shared history.

Only in the homes of those who remembered life before Hitler did food became the bridge to the good memories that my father invoked in Queens, New York—to where he fled, and I grew up. He talked about how he’d go to the fields with “a book in one pocket, and a slice of linzertorte in the other” and how “everyone got along before Hitler.” Years later, I heard his echo in Washington Heights, as eighty-six year-old Sophie Mark, my father’s classmate, apologized for not baking a linzertorte (“arthritic hands”) and reminisced about their village where “Each knew each. The whole town, the Gentiles too. It was very nice. Then Hitler came.”

When I visited the village in 1995, food became the way we traveled into that former world. The farmer’s daughter, a Catholic who refused to join Hitler’s youth group, conjured up “the Jewish matzoh with its flat brown bumps. It was like poetry.” And the former mayor’s wife remembered berches, the bread that everyone prepared at home: “We Christians made it with milk. They used water, something about no milk and meat. But we all had it baked by Otto, the baker, in his oven on the village’s one street.”

Distinctions of “we” and “they” made my American guard go up: Did everyone really get along? Was this nostalgia for a past that never was? But then out came the linzertorte, some say the oldest cake in Europe, and it was home-baked and served with a smile. I bit into the familiar wall of ground almonds, flour, cocoa, with a hint of cloves, cinnamon and lemon, and reached the raspberry jam. I never had to fake my pleasure. Here was the linzertorte I grew up loving in Queens, baked by my mother and aunts with the family recipe that had crossed oceans. And somehow, long after Hitler, in homes of Christian strangers in the Schwarzwald, I tasted continuity and caring.

With each bite, I listened more carefully, with less skepticism, as those who had been good neighbors (none from the Nazi Party) remembered their shared lives, side by side for generations. Like my father’s next-door neighbor who pointed out the window where, as he remembered it, his mother and my grandmother sat in the garden together, knitting and drinking a kaffee on a warm summer day. It all seemed possible, even what Sophie and others said about their friends: What could they do? They were helpless like us!

My friend Suzanne, from pre-war Vienna, liked to say, “But this is not a linzertorte served in the great cafes I knew as a child.” No, this is the recipe of village women with no time for the elegance of a dozen perfect strips of dough for latticework, no access to exotic spices, no inclination to waste egg yolks for whipped egg whites only. But they did measure and stir something reliably delicious and share it with “we” and “they,” as if the pleasure of eating together really mattered. As if how else can we go on?

The recipe is simple and foolproof—and I bake it often. It has never failed me.

Black Forest Linzertorte - serves 8 to 10

Cooking Implements:

  • 1 ten-inch springform pan
  • Waxed paper

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp. grated lemon peel
  • 2 eggs
  • 1½ cup sifted flour (start with two cups)
  • 1 cup unblanched almonds, ground
  • ½ tsp. powdered cinnamon
  • ½ tsp. powdered cloves
  • 1 tsp. cocoa
  • ¼ tsp. salt
  • 12-13 oz. raspberry preserves (I like Bonne Maman)
  • A sprinkle of confectioners sugar

Directions:

1. Beat butter and sugar together until creamy.

2. Add lemon peel.

3. Beat in eggs, one at a time.

4. Gradually add flour, almonds, spices, cocoa, and salt.

5. Beat until thoroughly blended and smooth. Note: If dough is very soft, chill for 20-30 minutes.

6. Separate ¼ of dough for lattice on top.

7. Roll the rest into a ¼ inch thickness between sheets of waxed paper.

8. Line the pie dish with the dough. If your pan is not no-stick, rub a little butter around first. Note: If it doesn't roll perfectly, no problem. I often do it piecemeal, especially on the walls.

9. Add raspberry jam and spread out evenly.

10. Make strips from the remaining dough and lay them across the torte. I usually do a pinwheel, but any design will work.

11. Bake in the oven at 300 degrees for about an hour.

12. Sprinkle with a little confectioners sugar for effect.

Mimi Schwartz is a professor emerita in the writing program at Stockton University. She is the award-winning author of  Good Neighbors, Bad Times: Echoes of My Father’s German Village and Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed, and is the coauthor of Writing True: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction. Her essays have been widely anthologized, and ten of them have been listed as Notables in the Best American Series.

Image via Alpha/Flickr

Interview: Moriel Rothman-Zecher

Tuesday, March 20, 2018 | Permalink

with Ranen Omer-Sherman

Moriel Rothman-Zecher's debut novel, Sadness Is a White Bird, is about a young man preparing to serve in the Israeli army while also trying to reconcile his close relationship to two Palestinian siblings with his deeply ingrained loyalties to family and country.

Ranen Omer-Sherman: You transport us from a military jail cell to a fairly sheltered Jewish American childhood, to the Palestinian experience of the Nakba, and the destruction of the vibrant Jewish community of Salonica in the days leading up to the Holocaust. In the hands of a less assured writer, such ambitious leaps would be insurmountable, yet you somehow pull it off brilliantly. How long did it take all those monumental elements to cohere in your imagination? Did you revise any major plot developments along the way, or was it always clear to you where you were going?

Moriel Rothman-Zecher: Thank you for this wonderful question. It is such a privilege for me to get to discuss this process with you, Ranen. Was it clear to me where I was going? Absolutely not. Growing up, I read a lot of fiction, and certainly harbored some dreams about writing a novel myself some day, but I assumed, as a young reader, that I’d need to figure my whole book out — the characters, the plot, the order, the arc, the meanings — before starting to write. Thank God, that didn’t turn out to be the case. If I’d tried to map out this book before starting, I think I would have been paralyzed, and am not sure I would have been able to start at all. In other words, if I’d consciously set out to write a book that would center around both Israeli and Palestinian protagonists and grapple with the histories of both the Holocaust and the Nakba, I think I might have been overwhelmed by the burden of parsing out the parallels and the lack thereof, the similarities and the imbalances, the impossibility of summarizing the Holocaust or synopsizing the Nakba, and certainly the impossibility of doing both in the same work. Instead, I started writing with very little clarity, and very few plans. I knew that I wanted to write about Jonathan, an American-Israeli IDF soldier who speaks Arabic, and I knew that at some point in the narrative, Jonathan would end up in military jail. That’s all. Everything else — the characters, the plot, the details, the histories — unfolded as I wrote, and shifted and morphed as I revised. I can’t say with any certainty why Salonica and Kufr Qanut (a lightly fictionalized version of Kufr Qassem) became the loci of familial history and familial trauma for Jonathan and for Laith and Nimreen, respectively. I was only certain that I needed to delve more into the family backgrounds of the three main characters, because as this book unfolded, I understood that the novel was going to be about history and its claws and its echoes as much as it would be about the modern/“present” era in which the vast majority of the narrative takes place.

ROS: The main protagonist, Jonathan, is a young man comfortable with his own sexual fluidity. His ease in crossing sexual boundaries seems to strongly relate to his ability to cross other boundaries. Do you see his fluidity as more of an asset, or dangerous irresolution on his part—another factor leading to his crisis in the novel’s climax?

MRZ: I think Jonathan’s relative fluidity — nationally, linguistically and sexually — is an important part of his individuality and his loveliness (I do not see Jonathan a self-portrait, but I do think that I would have been very good friends with him had we met at age 17, and I love him very much). And I also think it is a source of danger and provides him with a powerful opportunity for self-delusion; Jonathan’s narrative, throughout much of the story, is that as long as he remains fluid and open — friends with Israelis and Palestinians, speaking Arabic and Hebrew, in love with Arab women and Jewish men, and Jewish women and Arab men — then he can remain largely sideless, and can ignore the ways in which “sidelessness” does not exist in Israel-Palestine (or, probably, anywhere in the world). On page 89-90, Jonathan explains to Laith: “[M]aybe I tricked myself into believing that if I kept the worlds separate, then I’d never have to choose between the two.” (I will add that I think his failure to recognize the significance of his “sidedness” was far more dangerous and delusional nationally than sexually, and in the latter case, I do think I see his disregard for binary sidedness as far less fraught).

ROS: I was impressed by the richly immersive ways that Hebrew and Arabic dialogue transport the reader in your novel. How fluent is your Arabic? As you studied the language at Middlebury College, did that immersion change your sense of Israeliness in any particular way? And did the language hold any surprises for you, then or later?

MRZ: My Arabic is very good, and I feel very fortunate that that is the case. I studied Modern Standard Arabic every semester during my four years at Middlebury, including a stunning Modern Arabic Poetry Senior Seminar taught by Professor Huda Fakhreddine in which I first encountered Darwish’s poems in Arabic (among them “A Soldier Dreams of White Lilies,” from which the title of my novel was drawn, and which plays an important role in the story itself). During two separate summer breaks from college, I lived with a family in Al-Bi’neh, a Palestinian village inside Israel, and was fully immersed for those few months in spoken Palestinian Arabic, and in the parts of Palestinian culture and history and identity that I think can only be encountered in Arabic (similar to the parts of Israeli culture, history and identity that I believe can only fully be grasped in Hebrew). In the years after I moved back to Jerusalem in 2011, I used my spoken Arabic all the time, in visits to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, translating for various groups and visitors, getting to know families and activists, connecting with friends. I am now very comfortable in spoken Palestinian Arabic, and my written/formal Arabic has grown extremely rusty. It was very important to me that this novel, which is written in English, my only writing language, include significant chunks of my two other fluently-spoken languages. Even for a reader who doesn’t speak a word of Arabic or Hebrew, I think the sounds of each language hold significance in and of themselves, and I wanted to make sure to weave a good amount of Arabic and Hebrew transliteration, and not only translation, into the book.

ROS: How did your time in Al-Bi’na, a predominantly Muslim Arab town in northern Israel, impact you? Were your characters directly influenced by anyone you spent time with? And have you received any responses from Palestinian readers of the novel yet?

MRZ: I spent part of the summers of 2008 and 2010 living with Rihan and Maryam Titi and their family in Al-Bi’na (and ostensibly teaching English in the nearby Deir al-Assad, though I’m not sure how much English I actually succeeded in teaching, or how much that was really the point, for any of us involved). These two summers had an enormous impact on my life — as I mentioned before, this was when Arabic came alive for me, jumping from the pages on which I’d studied it in classrooms, into the fabric of the entire world surrounding me for these few months. As my spoken Arabic improved, my understandings of the nuances of Palestinian culture and daily life and humor and history all did as well; and more than that, I encountered Palestinians, for the first time, on their own terms and in their own contexts and in their own language, and through this, forged connections that remain important to me to this day. 

In terms of the intersections between the novel’s characters and the actual people I met during those summers: Laith and Nimreen are not direct portraits of specific individuals, but certainly draw parts of their senses of identity and politics and humor from a collage of many younger Palestinian citizens of Israel I met then, and later, in various dialogue programs. I have received a few responses from Palestinian readers which have been very moving, including from Amani Rohana, a dear friend of mine who I met in one of the aforementioned programs in Colorado, who was an early reader of this book in its half-baked manuscript form, and from a few other Palestinian Americans who have enjoyed and appreciated the book as well.

ROS: There is a well-known confessional mode of Israeli writing, often critically derided as yorim ve bochim, literally “shooting and crying,” in which the leftist soldier eloquently laments their participation in the horrors of the Occupation. Some argue this rhetoric clears their conscience and affirms the beauty of their sensitive souls, while avoiding taking direct responsibility for their actions or taking practical steps to significantly challenge the status quo. Do you see your novel responding to that tradition in any way?

MRZ: This is a great question. The yorim ve bochim trope was very much present in my mind as I wended my way through this story, in which the Israeli soldier-narrator ultimately both yoreh ve boche, both shoots and weeps. I am reticent to write too much about this particular subject, as I am conscious of the “spoilers” doing so would necessarily entail, and I think that the novel’s full force depends on a few particular surprises and plot developments, and the unknownness and opacity contained within the zigzagging narrative arc. I will say that I think a lot of the story unfolds from deep within a yorim ve bochim paradigm, and then, toward the end, veers very sharply away from it. In my reading of the novel, no conscience is cleared, nothing is solved or resolved, and the bechi, the weeping, that follows the yeri, the shooting, is neither cathartic nor cleansing. It is simply a physical manifestation of uncontainable grief, vertiginous confusion, and staggering pain.

ROS: Though you are in your 20s and I recently turned 60, it seems that fiction by writers like Leon Uris profoundly influenced both of our early dreams of moving to Israel and serving in the IDF. (I served in the Paratroopers but that was before two Intifadas, two Gaza wars and two Lebanon wars; facing the painful enormity of all that today I might very well have embraced your principled decision not to serve.) Just thinking about Uris’ Exodus today makes me cringe with embarrassment at how dangerously naïve I was in 1975. Happily we both seem to have moved on to other influences! Your heartfelt homages to two “national” poets, Yehuda Amichai and especially Mahmoud Darwish, constitute some of the novel’s many haunting moments. Are there any other Israeli or Palestinian writers that have had an important impact on your moral imagination, or that you similarly cherish?

MRZ: It is really wonderful to be in conversation with you, Ranen. Just as you think that you might have decided not to serve today, it is clear to me — as much as such an autobiographical and historical counterfactual can be clear — that I would have served (and likely in the Paratroopers!) had I moved to Israel 30 years earlier. On the subject of Exodus, I reread that novel in the early period of writing this one, and while there were certainly many cringe-inducing sections, I was also surprised at how compelling parts of it remained, insofar as I was able to suspend what I have come to know about history and reality and allow myself to re-tumble into the fictional world, with its fantastical interpretations of facts and politics, that Uris created. In terms of other Israeli and Palestinian writers who have impacted my moral imagination and whose writing I cherish, there are two in particular who immediately come to mind: S. Yizhar and Ghassan Kanafani. S. Yizhar’s 1949 novel Khirbet Khizeh about an Israeli soldier ordered to expel the unarmed residents of a Palestinian village during the 1948 War of Independence/Nakba had a profound impact on my political development and my understanding of history; Ghassan Kanafani’s 1969 novella, Returning to Haifa, did as well, though it was harder for me to read than Yizhar’s work, perhaps because the indictment contained in Khirbet Khizeh felt more singularly “historical,” while Kanafani’s novella asks the reader — and, I think, especially the Jewish Israeli reader — to grapple with the ways in which history never ends, and the extent to which the past remains interwoven with the present. (I read both of these works in a brilliant seminar on Zionism with Professor Robert Schine at Middlebury College, along with nonfiction writings by Martin Buber and Edward Said, which also had profound impacts on my thinking, my writing, and my beliefs). Two other works of Israel-Palestine-based fiction that impacted me profoundly and that I will mention briefly were David Grossman’s To The End of the Land and Sayed Kashua’s Let it Be Morning. I also love the poetry of Sami Shalom Shitrit and Taha Muhammad Ali...The list goes on.

ROS: I teach a course on both Israeli and Palestinian writers in translation, and one of the things that always interests students is the way one side imagines or portrays “the other.” Reading the stirring Afterword to Sadness, I was impressed by the deep background you acquired in Darwish’s poetry, and was especially struck by a moment where you quote his impressions of Yehuda Amichai: “We compete over who is more in love with this country, who writes about it more beautifully…When I read him, I read myself.” I had never seen that before, and others I’ve shared it with have also been surprised and very moved by that almost brotherly expression of grace and humility. Can you add anything else about Darwish’s attention to or affinity for Israeli literary culture, or how he stirred your own thinking in other ways?

MRZ: I was also immensely moved by Darwish’s description of Amichai in that interview with Adam Schatz; significantly, that quote is from the same interview in which Darwish talks about his friendship with Yossi, the “soldier who dreamed of white lilies.” Darwish’s discussion of Amichai’s work and his poem about Yossi both struck me as profoundly, startlingly generous. In general, I think it is the generosity of Darwish’s poetry that allowed it to have such a profound impact on my life. If Darwish had written beautifully about Palestinian life and Palestinian suffering, but had included only caricatures of grotesque, brutish Israelis in his writing, as is the case with some nationalist writers (and as is significantly not the case with the aforementioned Kanafani, though he was a strident nationalist and spokesperson for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), I don’t think I would have believed his poetry in the visceral way in which I did, in which I do. Which isn’t to say I would have disbelieved that Palestinians experience beauty and pain as deeply as Israelis, or doubted that their suffering is genuine and profound. But the image in “Identity Card,” for example, in which Darwish writes “If I become hungry, I will eat the flesh of my usurper” — that sort of fury would have been easier for me to write off as overstated or as wholly illegitimate had it not been written by the same poet who writes of an Israeli soldier: “He dreamed of white lilies, an olive branch, her breasts in evening blossom.” This coupling, I think, forced me to confront certain questions on a deeper level — namely, what sort of humiliation and oppression and torture must be inflicted in order to push someone, even on a literary level, to the point of threatening to eat the flesh of his usurper who he views and recognizes as fully and entirely human.

ROS: You were invited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman to help edit the acclaimed anthology Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation, published just last year. Before that, you had already led the participating writers on tours of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. In those intense days spent with foreign writers seeing the conflict through their eyes, did anything shift in your own perception of the conditions of the occupation?

MRZ: I don’t know that seeing the situation through the eyes of the participating writers (and often alongside them as they saw what they saw) shifted my macro-perception of the conditions, as such, but it certainly shifted something in my heart. For example, I knew, intellectually, about the horrific levels of oppression faced by residents of the Shuafat Refugee Camp in East Jerusalem — who are surrounded by a concrete wall that essentially functions as a cage; who receive virtually no services from the Israeli authorities who control their lives, except in the form of regular, violent raids to arrest and sometimes wound and sometimes kill people suspected of crimes ranging from violent attacks against Israelis, to throwing stones at the checkpoint separating the camp from the rest of Jerusalem. I knew all of that on an intellectual level — I’d read the Haaretz articles, and the Ir Amim reports, and had been in the camp a few times in the context of political tours and visits. But during the course of the Kingdom of Olives and Ash project, I accompanied Rachel Kushner into the camp to translate for her and to spend a good part of a weekend with one of the most decent, brave, astonishing people I’ve met in my whole life, Baha Nababta, and his friends and family. Baha was murdered by an unidentified assailant two weeks after Rachel and I met him; the Israeli police to this day have not arrested the perpetrator, and most likely will never do so — his beautiful, vibrant life mattered so little to the state. Rachel’s essay, which was first published in The New York Times Magazine in December 2016, is a beautiful tribute to Baha. I remain deeply shaken and devastated by his murder to this day. I think, in retrospect, the seeds that would ultimately push me to want to leave Jerusalem and leave Israel-Palestine, at least for a long period, were planted the moment I got the phone call from a friend telling me Baha had been killed.

ROS: While you seem to be someone very much at ease in a variety of cultures, you recently resettled in the small town of Yellow Springs, Ohio, which for better or for worse sounds to me just about as remote as one might get from the Middle East. Do you envision ever returning to live permanently in Israel or has life there become untenable for you — and if so, why?

MRZ: I don’t know if I’ll return to live permanently in Israel or not. Life is strange, and winding, and there are so many factors at play. If you’d asked me three years ago where I’d be living in 2018, there’s almost no chance I would have said Yellow Springs, Ohio. My partner, Kayla, and I are expecting our first child, a daughter, this spring; I am both heartbroken to think about her growing up so far away from Jerusalem (I’d long imagined that we’d send all of our kids to the Bilingual School in Jerusalem, that they’d speak Hebrew and Arabic and English fluently from the time they were tiny. Maybe that will still happen. Maybe not) and also immensely relieved to think about our child growing up far away from Jerusalem. This split between Israel-Palestine and America has been a constant, dialectical back-and-forth, physically and spiritually, in my life. Given my own background (Israel-Palestine ages 0-5, America ages 6-16; Israel-Palestine ages 16-17; America ages 18-21; Israel-Palestine ages 22-28; America once again), and Kayla’s (America ages 0-14; Israel-Palestine ages 14-29; America once again), I imagine there will be a good deal of back-and-forth in our family’s future as well, but as of this moment, we have no immediate plans to return, except to visit after our baby is born.

ROS: Long before I finished Sadness, I found myself lifting the page after a wrenching revelation or gripping episode, and thinking what a revelation Jewish Israelis and Palestinians might find it. Are there any prospects for a Hebrew or Arabic edition? I know that few Israeli-authored works are ever translated to Arabic, but I couldn’t help wondering.

MRZ: There are no current plans for translation into any other language, but it is certainly my hope that that will change soon. It is very important to me that this book is eventually translated into Hebrew, and I’d like to work closely with the translator — but I wouldn’t want to translate it on my own. My written Hebrew is fine, but I don’t have access to the deepest levels of poetic resonance in the language, nor the linguistic confidence I have in English; and language, to me, is such an important part of this book — more important even, I think, than its plot, or what it is “about.” As for Arabic? I really hope so, too. As you noted, very few Israeli Jewish authors are ever translated into Arabic (in the aforementioned Darwish interview, Darwish noted that most Palestinian intellectuals who had read Amichai read him in English — I wonder, now that I think about it, whether Darwish himself read Amichai in Hebrew or in English?); but it does happen, sometimes, and it would mean a lot to me if it were to happen for this book.

New Reviews March 19, 2018

Monday, March 19, 2018 | Permalink

Interview: Jonathan Weisman

Wednesday, March 14, 2018 | Permalink

with Michael Dobkowski

In (((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump, Jonathan Weisman explores the disconnect between his own sense of Jewish identity and the expectations of his detractors and supporters. He delves into the rise of the alt-right, their roots in older anti-Semitic organizations, the odd ancientness of their grievances―cloaked as they are in contemporary, techy hipsterism―and their aims―to spread hate in a palatable way through a political structure that has so suddenly become tolerant of their views.
 

Michael Dobkowski: In many ways your book is about Jewish identity and experience in the Trump era. How has the American Jewish experience changedgenerally, and for you, personally?

Jonathan Weisman: I grew up in a very Reform household. Although I was raised to identify as Jewish, I—like many Jews of my generation—drifted away, in part because Jews had become entirely comfortable in a pluralistic, liberal democracy that seemed to be progressing inexorably toward tolerance and acceptance. I thought of anti-Semitism as an issue of the past. Then came the Trump campaign and the emergence of swarms of white nationalists who pressed for Mr. Trump’s election. I became a target of the alt-right’s attack, forcing me to reconsider my identity in light of how the bigots were identifying me.I could embrace Judaism as a system of beliefs, a culture, and a religion or I could shun it. But I could no longer ignore it. And so I embraced my Judaism. I fear that too many Jews have rationalized away the threat of white nationalist hate to justify political and social views that were formed before the emergence of this changed reality.

MD: Do you think these changes are temporary and reversible or have we reached a tipping point?

JW: It is difficult to know whether we are living in a temporary era of intolerance that will be seen as a brief interruption in the post-World War II progression toward pluralism and democracy—or whether that post-war progression was, in fact, the historical aberration. It is not just the rise of hate and intolerance. Democracies and fledgling democracies like Hungary and Russia have slipped back into crony authoritarianism. Intolerant nationalism is rising around the world. I still have faith that Americans love our institutions and traditions, and that we can save what makes us Americans. But I am less sure by the day.

MD: Much has been written about the so-called “new anti-Semitism." Do you think the threats posed by the alt-right and their allies are fundamentally different from earlier expressions and manifestations of American anti-Semitism?

JW: The alt-right’s anti-Semitic beliefs and tropes are oddly anachronistic. They are precisely the aspersions that I learned about as a child in Sunday school: Jews are both rapacious, greedy capitalists and dangerous, left wing anarchists; they are at once all-powerful puppet masters and sniveling weaklings; they control the media and through it, they have corrupted popular culture with their decadence—yet they are forever foreigners, never truly Americans, never truly part of American culture. It makes no sense, but those contradictions have shown remarkable staying power, and in that sense, the “new anti-Semitism” is centuries old. What distinguishes the alt-right from its predecessors is its method of organization, its technological savvy, its sarcasm and irony, and its ability to at least seem ubiquitous. By spreading its ideology on Twitter, Reddit, YouTube comment sections, 4Chan and 8Chan, the alt-right has become unavoidable for my children’s generation. It is not an invisible subculture, talking to itself on its own websites, segregated from the wider World Wide Web. The alt-right is disseminating its ideology. Most young people reject it, but there will always be disaffected searchers who will be drawn to the sophistry of hate.

MD: Are racism and anti-Semitism becoming normalized in certain segments of American society—and if so, what does it mean to normalize these social pathologies?

JW: Racism and anti-Semitism have always been normal in certain segments of American society. But when the president of the United States says “very fine people” marched in Charlottesville on both sides, has so much difficulty condemning the bigots who love him, and presses policies that are seen by racists and anti-Semites as dog whistles that ratify their beliefs, we are all at risk. Expressions of intolerance are no doubt more tolerated now than they were two years ago. We are learning that pluralism and diversity are not as valued as we once thought.

MD: You are not afraid in this book to talk about things that happened to you, your family, and other Jewish journalists. Why do you feel it is so important to tell this story?

JW: I wanted this book to be personal, to not be abstract or theoretical. And I believe that my background—a not-particularly observant Jew who struggled through a mixed marriage and tried, not very well, to impart a Jewish identity to my children—would be recognizable to a lot of Jews of my generation and younger, and to non-Jews who wrestle with their own identities in an atomized society. For someone so assimilated as myself to be singled out and attacked by anti-Semites should have resonance beyond observant communities, but that resonance would emerge only if I was willing to delve into the personal.

MD: Who are some of the writers and scholars who helped you understand the state of American society today? The state of American Jewish society?

JW: I read Bernard-Henri Lévy, Hannah Arendt, Timothy Snyder, and Melissa Fay Greene, but this book was shaped more by the rabbis, activists, and victims I spoke to: Rabbi Francine Roston and Tanya Gersh in Whitefish, Montana, who suffered through anti-Semitic attacks far, far worse than anything I saw; Rabbi Daniel Zemel of Temple Micah in Washington, who taught me to apply Jewish law to shape a response to bigotry; Rabbis Jonah Pesner and David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, who helped me put the current moment into modern history; Ken Stern of the Justus and Karin Rosenberg Foundation who was frank and honest about his time at the American Jewish Committee; and Zoe Quinn, who showed me the technological roots of the alt-right and the nuts and bolts of a technological response.

MD: Since you finished writing the book, are there any developments that would lead you to modify your argument, or even strengthen it?

JW: I had just about finished this book when Charlottesville, Virginia erupted in chants of “Jews will not replace us” and bigoted violence, and the Internet hordes of the alt-right jumped into visceral reality. I was able to lace the book with references to Charlottesville, but the progression of bigotry has not stopped. Since Charlottesville, some have said the alt-right has retreated. And it is true that after the book was finished, the symbols of nationalist intolerance within the White House lost their purchase. Steve Bannon quit, and then with the publication of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury he was excommunicated from the president’s inner circle. Sebastian Gorka finally left the administration, though he remains a public cheerleader. The leaders of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville vowed that they would return, again and again. They haven’t. But the president called African nations “shithole countries,” ended protected status for Haitian and Salvadoran refugees, and provoked a showdown over young, undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children. Paul Nehlen, a Wisconsin businessman from the Tea Party right who has challenged House Speaker Paul Ryan, has openly embraced anti-Semitism as an organizing principle for his campaign. The question of what kind of a country we want is still front and center.

MD: You write with such ease, passion, and energy. Was this a particularly challenging book to write or a project you felt almost a mission to complete?

JW: It was remarkably easy. My first book was a novel, No. 4 Imperial Lane. It took about three years to write. I have another novel that is three-quarters finished and doesn’t seem to be progressing at all. This one just spilled out. I conceived of five chapters, wrote the most rudimentary of outlines, and then filled it in. I guess I just had to get it off my chest. I also wanted it published as soon as possible.

MD: Who do you consider the ideal audience for your book? What are the most important ideas you would like readers to come away with?

JW: This book is pretty tough on American Jews, too many of whom have subverted the interests of our community and the broader nation for the comfort of their present. I make note that the obsession of American Jews with Israel—especially major American Jewish institutions—has atrophied attention on current events in the U.S. There are progressive Jewish institutions, conservative Jewish institutions, and moderate Jewish institutions, and they all argue over Israel. This obsession blinded American Jewry to the rise of the alt-right. So I would say the ideal audience is the complacent Jew who has not reflected on the Jewish community’s place in America and the importance of democratic pluralism to the security of Judaism itself. But I do not want the audience to be—nor do I think they will be—solely Jewish. All Americans should be vigilant about the erosion of democratic institutions and the rise of intolerance. That is what I hope readers will take away from the book.

MD: If you could require the president to read one book in addition to your own, what would it be?

JW: The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, but if that is too challenging, Timothy Snyder’s brief, eloquent On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century will do.

MD: Toward the end of the book you say that institutions matter, they need to be defended, and they do not survive on their own. Do you, like Timothy Snyder and other scholars, fear that we may be sliding toward an American authoritarianism?

JW: That is my biggest fear, yes. I would never wish economic hard times on this country, but the strong economy, low unemployment, surging stock market and new tax cuts have made me far more worried that voters will overlook the affronts to our Constitution and democratic principles and decide against a change of course. Short-term economic gain is a powerful anesthetic.

MD: Are you sanguine or worried about whether we have the adequate institutional and constitutional protections to prevent this?

JW: As I wrote in the book, Americans do not seem to be marching as sheep into some authoritarian future. The public sphere crackles with dissent. There is joy in rebellion. We do believe in our institutions, and thus far, the courts appear to be maintaining their independence and the free press is reveling in its freedom. That said, Congress—the first branch of Constitutional democracy—has been remarkably docile. Oversight is almost nonexistent. Even Democrats have been unable to articulate a principled stand for pluralistic democracy, worried that any elevation in rhetoric could drown out the search for lunch-pail issues that could win back white working class voters who drifted to Trump. It really is up to the American people to stand firm. Their representatives in Washington won’t.

Learning from Mothering

Tuesday, March 13, 2018 | Permalink

Marjorie Lehman is writing here as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

In collecting the essays that make up Mothers in the Jewish Cultural Imagination, my co-editors and I sought to enhance the visibility of mothers and call attention to them as an analytic category essential for narrating Jewishness. Working to disentangle motherhood from idealized notions of the Jewish family and stereotypes of the Jewish mother, this collection of essays was designed to show how Jews use motherhood across time and place as a way to construct and comprehend their culture. Our goal was not to offer a perspective on Jewish mothering or a definition of the Jewish mother, but to use “mother” as a site of academic study. Part of the motivation emerged from the fact that we recognized a gap in scholarly work in Jewish Studies regarding focused studies on the “mother.” Viewed often as outside the structures of power, relegated to the inside—to the home—we sought authors who brought complexity and nuance to our understanding of “mother.” As Joyce Antler argues in You Never Call, You Never Write, if there was ever a successful cultural template working to disempower women, it is that of the mother. As academics and feminist scholars we were propelled forward by a desire to give the category of “mother,” and more specifically, the “Jewish mother,” its own voice. In the process we realized that there was much to be said about the ways in which mothers shape Jewish culture and are shaped by it. Writers, activists, rabbis, artists, book printers and poets have projected, created, engaged, and contested Jewish culture by relying on the trope of “the Jewish mother,” often breaking from biological conceptions of motherhood. The time had arrived, we believed, to intervene in the study of Jewish culture with a focus on “mother.”

However, inasmuch as publishing a book on mothers became for us an important scholarly undertaking, we wanted this book to incite greater discourse about mothers and motherhood in general, even beyond the academy. For example, Mary Beard, in her book Women and Power: A Manifesto stresses the degree to which women have been silenced and asks us to think about how to “resuscitate women on the inside of power.” She begins the book reminding us of the interchange between Telemachus and his mother Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey. Mother, he says, “Go back into your quarters, and take up your work, the loom and the distaff…speech will be the business of men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.” Penelope then acknowledges her son’s power and goes back upstairs. Rabbinic sources express similar sentiments, defining women’s knowledge as merely that of the spindle, their voices useful only to share gossip when weaving together, but never to share words of Torah, disempowering them. Indeed, as Beard argues, we have no template for what a powerful woman looks like. Or do we? And so I pose the question: What if we turn to the mother? Is there a way to get to the core of what mothering is so that we can think with it to redefine power? Can thinking about mothering offer us new ways of living in the world, not as mothers necessarily, but as people?

Sara Ruddick argues in Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace, that motherhood offers us an alternative power model, one that is nurturing and that emerges from a commitment to protect and preserve one another. Indeed, in mothering we find a model that teaches us, even requires us, to give voice to the less powerful—the child—all the while giving the one in power, the one mothering, a voice as well. Mothering is an act of power, but also one of recognized powerlessness, for mothering requires the protection and preservation of a child for the purposes of enabling that child to achieve independence. And so an acknowledged powerlessness takes over where power once lied. For Ruddick, to adopt mothering as a model is to imagine a world of maternal thinkers, and in so doing, to imagine a world at peace.

And so when I think about the joke that still draws laughter from audiences today—“What’s the difference between a Jewish Mother and a vulture? The vulture waits until you are dead to eat your heart out”—I think about the power of mothering that such a joke reveals, naming it only to sideline mothering in fear of the power that comes with it, ignoring what it can do in its ideal form. So it is up to us, I propose, to think as Sara Ruddick does, and to take on the mission posed by Mary Beard—to think about a new power model for our world that is grounded in what comes naturally to so many of us, mothering and the thinking associated with it.

Marjorie Lehman is the co-editor of National Jewish Book Award finalist  Mothers in the Jewish Cultural Imagination. She is associate professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at The Jewish Theological Seminary.

Why I Write in Yiddish

Monday, March 12, 2018 | Permalink

Yermiyahu Ahron Taub is the author of two recent books of poetry, The Education of a Daffodil: Prose Poems/Di bildung fun a geln nartsis: prozelider and A moyz tsvishn vakldike volkn-kratsers: geklibene Yidishe lider/A Mouse Among Tottering Skyscrapers: Selected Yiddish Poems. He is blogging here as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Someone recently asked me why I write in Yiddish. This is a question I receive with some regularity. Of course, it’s something that’s asked of those who engage in any prolonged way with the language. When I was a student in the Uriel Weinreich Program in Yiddish Language, Literature, and Culture at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, my Yiddish grammar teacher, the eminent linguist Mordkhe Schaecter, said something along the lines of that he never asked a student why s/he was studying Yiddish. Would a student of French be asked why s/he were studying French? The question implies that there is a need to justify the study of this language, the lingua franca for East European Jews for centuries and a cultural repository for so much that is Jewish, as evidenced by the language’s very name, which, after all, means “Jewish.” Aren’t these characteristics alone sufficient reason? I wondered if Dr. Schaechter wanted to turn the question on its head: Why don’t more people study Yiddish?

The question has added poignancy of late due to the publication of my most recent book, A moyz tsvishn vakldike volkn-kraters: geklibene Yidishe lider/A Mouse Among Tottering Skyscrapers: Selected Yiddish Poems. As its subtitle suggests, the book is entirely in Yiddish. In fact, it is my first one to be only in Yiddish. It includes the Yiddish poems from my previous books as well as uncollected others. When I told a poet friend about this, she asked, “Who will read it?” I assured her there are indeed Yiddish readers left. I wasn’t satisfied with my response to that question. A more appropriate one might have been that the question of readership is separate from the question of writing. But neither was I satisfied with the answer I gave in real time to the question raised at the outset of this essay.

I write in Yiddish because I refuse to be denied my cultural heritage. Yiddish was a crucial element in the ultra-Orthodox yeshiva world in which I was raised. Yiddish words and expressions peppered speech. The teachers and the officials of the yeshiva spoke Yiddish. My parents spoke Yiddish. I speak Yiddish today with my father. And yet growing up, I never read or even heard of the works of the canonical Yiddish troika of Mendele Mokher Sefarim, Isaac Leib Peretz, and Sholem Aleichem, let alone the works of more recent Yiddish masters such as David Bergelson, Jacob Glatstein, Itzik Manger, or Blume Lempel, an innovative writer whose work Ellen Cassedy and I spent many years translating.

When I read Yiddish literature today, I’m immersing myself in a world that’s familiar and also alien. That world is familiar because of the religious life cycle that figures prominently in many Yiddish texts, and alien because of how far we are from the world not only of the East European shtetlakh but also of cities such as Łodz, Warsaw, and Vilnius. And it’s distant because I have no memories of studying this literature in my youth the way someone raised in a secular Yiddishist environment, who attended a Workmen’s Circle school or a Yiddish school, would have.

When I write in Yiddish, I’m placing my own small flag, however tattered, however imperfect, in the realm of new Yiddish literature. I’m staking a claim for Yiddish as a current, dynamic, ever-evolving language for literary creation and my own tiny tent within it. In Yiddish, I can exist in the beys-medresh disputing Talmudic minutiae or studying ethical texts and at rallies and demonstrations fighting for justice. I can be in the butcher shop and the grocery store, perusing Paskesz candy offerings and in the salons sampling the latest literary releases. I can be singing Askinu sudose at the third Sabbath meal and “Harbstlid” by the Yiddish poet Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman. I can … Well, you get the idea. All of that and more—past, present, and future—is simultaneously available to me.

And when I write in Yiddish, I don’t have to think about a glossary or about how to make the religious and other terms and expressions in my work accessible to readers. Readers of Yiddish will know the meaning of words like Shvues or havdole or shadkhonim. Nor do I have to think about the transliteration system I am going to use and whether I should transliterate words Yiddishly or Hebraically and what transliteration system I should use. My readers won’t need that guidance.

And yet, Yiddish is not my first language. I have to look many English words up in the dictionary—not only to determine their parallels in Yiddish, but also their genders. I have to think about the case of a particular linguistic context. I have to consider whether what I’ve written works idiomatically in Yiddish. I have to find someone to proofread. That person has to have both a profound knowledge of Yiddish and a proofreader’s sensibility. Once a manuscript is ready, I have to find a publisher willing to work with Hebrew fonts. This person usually doesn’t know Hebrew or Yiddish, which causes numerous design and layout challenges. I am extremely fortunate that I have found individuals who sustained my Yiddish work in so many ways at each stage of the creative process.

I am therefore constantly reminded of the audacity needed to create literary work in a language that is not one’s first. Some might call it folly. But this tension between comfort and struggle, between familiarity and distance, is ever present. Sometimes it feels like outright paradox: that which sets me free also weighs me down. The very tool used to explore my own heritage limits the essential freedom needed by the writer. Simply put, I can’t let Yiddish go.

Even if I don’t ask myself “Why do I write in Yiddish?” the question of “Will I continue?” is ever present. My commitment to writing in Yiddish is never a given for me; it requires constant renewal. The added layer of work entailed requires a self-interrogation: Will this project also entail Yiddish? To this point, the answer has been “yes.”

Of course, writers want readers. We want our work to be considered, absorbed, and savored. We want it to bring understanding, pleasure, or beauty into the cosmos of readers. But we also write for specific reasons, some of which have to do with our own histories and backgrounds, while others have to do with specific contingencies of the moment. Yiddish literature is replete with examples of those who didn’t start writing in Yiddish or who wrote in multiple languages. Arguably the national poet of Israel, Hayyim Nahman Bialik wrote Yiddish poems. Rachel H. Korn first published in Polish. Vladimir Medem, the Bundist theoretician, wrote in Russian first. And there were so many others. These writers had a range of approaches vis-a-vis multi-linguality. Some turned to Yiddish from other languages. Some turned away from Yiddish. Others wrote in multiple languages. Of course, there was a considerably more vibrant Yiddish context in their days, but my point is that my path is hardly a new one. And the examples of multilingual writers outside of Yiddish literature are vast. Think of Samuel Beckett, Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov, to name but a few.

My work takes place in the context of ongoing Yiddish literary activity around the world today. Contemporary Yiddish writers include Velvl Chernin and Michael Felsenbaum, the Israel-based publishers of my most recent book and central forces behind the Library of Contemporary Yiddish literature; poets of the Yugntruf Yiddish writing circle in New York, and many others, from Melbourne to Los Angeles and Indiana. Many of these writers purposely create in several languages. I take heart from the multilingual example of these forebears and contemporaries as well as sustenance from their enduring creativity. I find meaning in moving between languages, in communicating with readers through these different means. Perhaps Dr. Schaechter would be pleased.

Yermiyahu Ahron Taub is the author of six books of poetry. Tsugreytndik zikh tsu tantsn: naye Yidishe lider/Preparing to Dance: New Yiddish songs, a CD of nine of his Yiddish poems set to music, was released in 2014. He was honored by the Museum of Jewish Heritage as one of New York’s best emerging Jewish artists and has been nominated four times for a Pushcart Prize and twice for a Best of the Net award.

Image via Library of Congress

New Reviews March 12, 2018

Monday, March 12, 2018 | Permalink

Notes from a Formerly Terrible Jew

Thursday, March 08, 2018 | Permalink

Mark Sarvas is the author of  Memento Park: A Novel. He is blogging here as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.




"I’m a terrible Jew," I used to say—by which I meant that I was wholly ignorant of tradition, taking a sort of perverse pleasure in the shock value of the comment. I was raised by postwar, secular European parents who decided they’d had enough of religion. I didn’t know Sukkot from Shavuot, and we grew up with Christmas trees and Easter eggs. Researching this essay, I learned that into her teens, my younger sister thought one of our parents was Catholic and one was Jewish. I remember being asked to sign the ketubah at her wedding (her husband was observant), and looking blankly at the rabbi when he asked me my Jewish name. He ended up coaching me, with some reproach, through a hastily imitated Hebrew “Moishe.”

So when it came time to write my second novel, which deals with the recovery of stolen Nazi art, I realized I was trying to send my protagonist on a journey of Jewish self-discovery that I had not experienced for myself. I confided my difficulties to Rabbi David Wolpe, who directed me to the American Jewish University’s eighteen-week “Introduction to Judaism” course, largely designed for people looking to convert for marriage.

I signed up at once, and was the only Jew in my class. The other students would look at me from time to time with a combination of what I took to be pity and mystification. They were trying to gain admittance but I was already in; what was I doing there? Over eighteen Tuesdays, I received a remarkable education and made some lasting friendships. The highlight was my engagement with the idea of the Sabbath (about which, more presently); the nadir was my benighted attempts at reading Hebrew, which eluded me as thoroughly as it had at my sister’s wedding.

I enjoyed the class, especially the historical perspectives, but I was aware that too often I was experiencing it almost clinically, with an intellectual detachment. Yet, I was drawn back again and again to Sabbath. (I’d already read and been deeply moved by Judith Shulevitz’s The Sabbath World.) I loved this notion of sanctified space and time; in the incessant hurly-burly of the internet age, a slice of time preserved for quiet contemplation seemed a gift from God, even to an atheist like me.

Yet I’d never been to a proper Sabbath dinner. At some point, I confessed this to the young rabbi who taught my course, hoping for an invitation, which is precisely what he offered. I remember how nervous I felt as I arrived early, bearing flowers, certain I would be seen as the dilettante, the fraud I knew myself to be.

It was a small family gathering with a few other friends present. I explained that I was writing a novel and was there to watch and learn. They indulged me, even incorporated me into the evening’s routine, but I could never fully shake off feeling on the outside. I didn’t know the prayers; I didn’t know what to do. I thought of my Hungarian maternal grandfather, who was observant. When he visited America in my early childhood, I would go to temple with him on Friday nights, but that was the extent of my Jewish education. I wondered what he’d make of this tableau—of his grandson, tentatively returning to the fold. (My parents and sister remained resolutely but respectfully irreligious; no such stirrings of a Jewish awakening seems to have stirred in them.) Would he be pleased, or disappointed that I’d been gone so long?

I watched my rabbi and his friends and family lapse into easy, friendly discussion after prayers, and I envied them. I have experienced it before and since, when I’m in a synagogue or anywhere with a large number of Jews; I have also felt outside of this warm, welcoming rapport, denied something by my religion-free upbringing.

And yet. At the same time, there is something in those rooms I always recognize, something I cannot help but feel a part of. Eventually, my spasms of resentment toward my parents’ choices fade, and although I often find myself feeling that I’m too far gone, too old, that it’s too late for a fully realized Jewish self, I can at least see that I’m not a terrible Jew, not anymore.

Mark Sarvas is the author of the novel  Harry, Revised, which was published in more than a dozen countries. His book reviews and criticism have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Threepenny Review,  Bookforum, and many others. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, PEN/America, and PEN Center USA, and teaches novel writing at the UCLA Extension Writers Program. A reformed blogger, he lives in Santa Monica, California.