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Interview: The Worlds of Dalia Rosenfeld

Sunday, June 04, 2017 | Permalink

with Adam Rovner

Dalia Rosenfeld, a graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop, moved to Israel two years ago to reinvent her life. And though she has been publishing sharply observed literary fiction in American journals and magazines for two decades, The Worlds We Think We Know (Milkweed Editions) is her first collection. The wait for these twenty new stories has been worth it.

Adam Rovner: The Worlds We Think We Know has already garnered praise from major American writers, including Adam Johnson, Cynthia Ozick, and Gary Shteyngart. Shteyngart has called your work “very funny, Jewish and wise.” Are you conscious of being a “Jewish writer?” What does that mean to you?

Dalia Rosenfeld: I wish I knew! I was hoping I was far enough removed from the immigrant experience to be unqualified to answer that question, but here I am, suddenly the holder of a second passport, a new immigrant to Israel. But that doesn’t help much either, because the days of linking “Jewish writer” to immigrant status are pretty much over now. If the question implies loyalty to a people, I feel that strongly outside the context of writing, but on the page my loyalty is to language. Jews owe their survival to the power of the written word—you can’t take your land with you into exile, but you can take your stories—which is not to suggest that focusing on language alone makes one a Jewish writer, but feeling at home in language constitutes a major part of the Jewish experience.

AR: Your prose certainly demonstrates that you feel at home in English, but can you really use a non-Jewish language to convey Jewish sensibility?

DR: I don’t know if such a thing as a “Jewish sensibility” exists. What I do know is that there are certain states of mind or being that I associate with Jews, and that my Jewish characters often possess. For one thing, they are conscious of a collective past, but rather than this past functioning as a unifying force, my characters find it hard to feel rooted in the present. It gives me great pleasure to reference the Jewish past because doing so connects me with what is familiar and offers a sense of comfort and continuity: a poppy seed cake burning in the oven, a Yiddish phrase, a story from the Torah that a bar mitzvah student couldn’t care less about. Maybe it’s this seeking a conversation with the past that makes one a Jewish writer?

AR: The collective past in the guise of the Holocaust appears in your title story and several other standouts. Can you speak about why the Holocaust’s long shadow enters your work?

DR: Until recently, the Holocaust shaped my identity more than any other chapter in Jewish history. My father is a Holocaust scholar, and I grew up in a house in which the entire living room was given over to books on this subject. While my friends were reading Jane Eyre, I was reading about the Jews of Vienna being forced to clean the sidewalks with toothbrushes. What’s interesting is that I never felt burdened by this history; haunted, yes. Absolutely. Because it wasn’t just the books: it was also listening to the stories of survivors who came to see my father. When you relive your own memories, it’s traumatic, but when you experience another person’s, it’s something abnormal, unsettling. And it’s those haunted echoes that appear in my stories, sometimes just with a single image, such as a survivor reusing a tea bag until it resembles a shriveled walnut. Since moving to Israel, my preoccupation with how Jews died has shifted somewhat to how they live.

AR: Who are some of the writers who help you understand how Jews lived yesterday and how they live today?

DR: A partial list in no particular order would include Israeli authors Yaakov Shabtai, Yoel Hoffman, A. B. Yehoshua; American writers Rivka Galchen, Cynthia Ozick, Bellow, Malamud, Nicole Krauss, Jamaica Kincaid; Europeans such as Bruno Schulz, Kafka, Leo Perutz—a now obscure Austrian novelist (not to be confused with Yiddish writer I. L. Peretz)—and both I. B. and I. J. Singer.

AR: I can see the affinity your collection has with many of these writers. What I mean is that your stories often depict a sense of displacement. Sometimes it’s geographic—Americans in Israel, Russians in America, cosmopolitans in small towns. Why are uprooted characters so common in your stories?

DR: I’m drawn to characters whose actions are informed by an inner logic they themselves are not aware of, and that is guided—as you put it—by a state of displacement, sometimes forced, sometimes self-imposed, in which fixed boundaries fall away to give the characters a chance to redefine themselves. But they often squander the opportunity by engaging in a series of missteps, or self-sabotage, such as in my story “Swan Street,” where Misha, the protagonist, moves to America only to end up in a kind of voluntary exile, avoiding situations that would allow him to settle into his adoptive homeland. At the end of a story, I always discover the same thing: that human behavior is inscrutable—but still fun to write about.

AR: That comedy of human inscrutability comes across in your stories, many of which possess a wry sense of humor. Is humor difficult for you to write?

DR: I honestly wasn’t aware of this wry humor people keep pointing out until they started pointing it out. There’s no doubt that it’s healthier to find the humor in horrible situations than to stew in your own juice—something that I tend to do in real life. One of the purposes humor serves is to highlight our vulnerabilities without being held hostage by them.

AR: Many of your characters are women who reveal their vulnerabilities while at the same time demonstrating resiliency. Are you conscious of writing resilient female characters?

DR: I think a lot of writing happens on an unconscious level. The craft part is a conscious thing, but what motivates the characters to do what they do—they’re just like us, acting on impulses, intuition, instinct, feelings, all those things that can’t be explained rationally but that ultimately make us human. While I don’t divide the world into male/female, I find it hard to argue with a phrase I recently came across describing men as “expressively economical” with their emotions. This implies that women are not—that women are something else. And it is this “something else” that makes it hard to speak the same language, to enter into a realm of closeness that both sides desire, but in different ways. The resilience of a character comes when the love she seeks isn’t within her grasp, but still she can find beauty in the world.

AR: Your characters often seem lonely to me. Is writing a lonely activity for you?

DR: No! Writing is an antidote to loneliness. It’s what connects me with the world and helps me understand it better. Especially since I write in cafes, and in Israel people never leave you alone. For the last week, the same man has come up to me every morning and said, “Did you change that part of your story I told you to change?” He had shared some Persian proverb with me months ago, which I liked but altered a bit, and he was of the conviction that I should leave it the way it has been for the last five hundred years. I probably shouldn’t have showed him what I did with the proverb, but at the time I wanted to thank him. This morning he abbreviated his question to a single word: “Nu?”

AR: Nu? So what are you working on now?

DR: I thought I was working on a novel called The Physics of Time Travel in which an American woman moves to Israel and imagines parallels between her personal life and the trajectory of her adopted country. When I read the first chapter, I realized it was a stand-alone story and my interest in the theme had been exhausted, but in a good way. In a way that allowed me to write a second story about something totally different, and without feeling guilty about it. I’m now fifty pages into a second collection called The Physics of Time Travel.

Dalia Rosenfeld is the author of The Worlds We Think We Know a collection of short stories called “A profound debut from a writer of great talent” by Adam Johnson. She teaches writing at Bar Ilan University and lives with her three children in Tel Aviv.

Adam Rovner is Associate Professor of English and Jewish Literature at the University of Denver. He is the author of In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands before Israel (NYU Press), a narrative history of efforts to establish Jewish homelands across the globe.

5 Alternate Histories of Zion

Friday, December 12, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Adam Rovner wrote about what he thinks would have been the most viable Zion outside of Israel and top five alternative Jewish homelands that he didn't explore in his new book, In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands before Israel, out this week from NYU Press. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands before Israel presents a narrative history of modern proposals to create autonomous Jewish territories beyond the borders of Israel. I’ve referred to my book as a “shadow history” of Zionism—an effort to bring to light the forgotten struggles of a failed branch of Jewish nationalism called territorialism. Territorialism’s adherents believed in the necessity of establishing a Jewish home somewhere in the world other than the land of Israel. While researching and writing my book, I came across a number of works of fiction that imaginatively engaged with territorialist what-if scenarios. Here’s a list of five alternate histories of Zion in English and Hebrew:

Number 5—Herzl Amar (2011)

Israeli author Yoav Avni’s novel considers what might have happened had a Jewish state been established in East Africa. The plot follows two friends who plan a trip to Palestine after their compulsory military service in a counterfactual African Israel. This clever and often satiric vision of contemporary Israel owes a debt to the historical proposal advanced by Theodor Herzl in 1903 to create a “New Judea” in what is today western Kenya. A chapter of my book is devoted to the so-called Uganda Plan and the crises it engendered, including a rupture at the heart of the Zionist Organization and an assassination attempt against Herzl’s lieutenant. An excerpt appeared in English last year in

Number 4—IsraIsland (2005)

Nava Semel’s genre-bending Hebrew novel imagines in one of its three sections what might have happened had Mordecai Manuel Noah’s planned Jewish micronation of Ararat developed into a city-state in the Niagara River. Ararat, in Semel’s vision, becomes a force in American politics and succeeds so wildly that Jews can barely recall their biblical homeland. In my book, I describe Noah’s urgent call to European Jewry to resettle in America following the notorious Hep-Hep Riots of 1819. No one came, and Noah himself was ridiculed by religious leaders in France and England, and by the press in the United States.

Number 3—“Noah’s Ark” (1899)

British author and early Zionist leader Israel Zangwill published “Noah’s Ark” during a period of close collaboration with Herzl. The story imagines that Noah’s call for immigration is answered by a German Jew, Peloni, a name derived from the Hebrew word for an anonymous “someone.” Fired by inspiration, Peloni sails for the New World intending to make Noah’s Ararat his home. He soon settles upon the site of the planned Jewish sanctuary near Buffalo, New York, but he remains the sole occupant of Noah’s utopian project and is condemned to loneliness and despair.

Number 2—“The Last Jew” (1946)

This compelling and bizarre short story was penned by Jacob Weinshall, a doctor, author, and supporter of Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s right-wing Revisionist party. In the story, the Nazis have emerged victorious from World War II and exterminated every last Jew, except for a single survivor living in Madagascar. He is eventually discovered and condemned to death by a technocratic Nazi regime. Some Hebrew readers consider “The Last Jew” to be the first literary work to imagine a Nazi victory, now a staple plot in the alternate history genre. My book examines Jewish efforts to create a refugee colony in Madagascar, and how that plan was ultimately perverted by the Nazis. Though doubts remain, my research leads me to believe that Jabotinsky himself supported limited Jewish relocation to Madagascar, a fact which may help explain Weinshall’s hallucinatory tale.

Number 1—The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007)

Michael Chabon’s clever novel may be the most familiar example of a territorialist what-if. Chabon makes use of the detective genre to explore the fictional world of a Yiddish-speaking Jewish territory in Sitka, Alaska. The premise derives from a real proposal to channel Jewish immigrants to Alaska that was supported by Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, in 1938. Chabon, however, revealed to me that his fantasy also has its origins in his long-standing fascination with Mordecai Manuel Noah’s plan for Ararat.

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Where Should We Have Gone?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Adam Rovner wrote about the top five alternative Jewish homelands that he didn't explore in his new book, In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands before Israel, out this week from NYU Press. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I often describe my book, In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands before Israel, as the biography of an idea: the modern idea that Jews needed a national home somewhere—anywhere—except the biblical land of Israel. This Jewish nationalist ideology was known as territorialism and is nearly forgotten today. But in some eras it was more popular than Zionism. My book explores six territorialist projects in a variety of far-flung locations: upstate New York, western Kenya (the “Uganda Plan”), Angola’s fertile plateaus, the central highlands of Madagascar, extreme southwestern Tasmania, and the lush tropics of Suriname. I traveled to each of these sites of territorialist aspiration, and whenever I speak about my research, audiences ask me which location would have been best for the establishment of an autonomous Jewish colony.

That’s a good question, and a hard one to answer. It’s far easier to cross off places from the list. Certainly Angola, with its centuries of colonial exploitation at the hands of the Portuguese, doesn’t seem as if it would have been a promising promised land. Kenya, too, would have been a site fraught with ethnic, tribal, and decolonization struggles. Nonetheless, the regions under consideration in both Angola and Kenya are extraordinarily fertile and would have been agriculturally superior to much of the soil in Ottoman Palestine. The expense of settling remote areas lacking infrastructure, like Madagascar and Tasmania, would have been immense. In the case of Tasmania, the area proposed for settlement would have been nearly impossible to cultivate due to climate and environment.

That leaves upstate New York and Suriname as the two most reliable contenders. There’s little doubt that Grand Island in the Niagara River near Buffalo would have prospered. Located at the terminus of the Erie Canal, Grand Island might have become a commercial center in the 1820s as Mordecai Manuel Noah had prophesied. But the temporal distance of Noah’s plan renders it difficult to compare to the other proposals, all of which were put forward in the twentieth century. And so, I think Suriname, the smallest independent country in South America, would have been the most viable alternative Zion.

Suriname, formerly Dutch Guiana, possesses the oldest continual Jewish presence in the New World, which dates back to the first half of the seventeenth century. In the late-eighteenth century, residents of Jodensavanne, a Jewish community of sugar planters and mercantilists located along the Suriname River, boasted a level of autonomy unheard of at that time—and for long after. By the time the Dutch colony was considered as a potential sanctuary for Jewish refugees from Europe in the late 1930s, much of the population of Suriname claimed some Jewish heritage. I imagine that this rich history would have smoothed the path for Jewish immigrants.

Likewise, Suriname’s rich natural resources, generally healthy climate, fertile soil, sparse population, and proximity to the U.S. and major shipping routes might have sped the pace of agro-industrial development and economic growth. But that’s all just a boring rationale. Really, I like to imagine what a Yiddish-speaking community of pineapple farmers living at the edge of a rainforest would look like.

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Top 5 Promised Lands I Didn’t Explore

Monday, December 08, 2014 | Permalink

Adam Rovner is the author of In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands before Israel out this week from NYU Press. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

My book, In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands before Israel, details six modern efforts to create Jewish homelands beyond the borders of biblical Israel. Most of these plans were advanced by territorialists—Jewish nationalists who sought to settle a land other than Eretz Israel. While conducting archival research, I visited each of the potential territories my work describes: Angola, Kenya, Madagascar, upstate New York, Suriname, and Tasmania. But there were several other plans for Jewish states I didn’t examine, either because they never advanced far enough to be considered serious proposals, or because I didn’t want get myself killed. Here’s a list of alternate Zions for that sequel I’ll never write:

Number 5—Arctic Ocean Islands (1931)

The famed Graf Zeppelin, fresh from its historic flight over the Holy Land, departed on a mission to map the polar regions of northernmost Europe in 1931. On board was a young journalist, Arthur Koestler, who had lived in British Mandate Palestine and become an ardent Zionist frustrated with British policies. Koestler plotted to drop “blue-and-white [flags] with the shield of David in gold in the center” from the hatches of the Zeppelin over undiscovered Arctic islands. The hot-headed reporter believed that by doing so, he could claim land in the name of the Jewish people. The concept of ownerless land—terra nullis—was frequently invoked in the era of exploration, and so Koestler’s idea was not as harebrained as might be thought. The expedition did indeed discover uncharted islands, but Koestler never dropped any flags. Unfortunately, I was unable to find a grant generous enough to allow me to charter a dirigible to the Arctic. Does the MacArthur Foundation read this?

Number 4—New Caledonia (1936)

This French territory consists of several islands in the Coral Sea and lies about 800 miles from the eastern coast of Australia. Photographs show it to be a paradise of white sand beaches and palm trees reflected in clear blue water. In November 1936, the Paris branch of the Freeland League for Jewish Colonization—the major territorialist organization at the time—pushed for mass emigration from Europe to French possessions. Representatives met with the French Colonial Minister to disclose their plans for establishing a “new Jewish center” for refugees fleeing European anti-Semitism. The Minister was sympathetic to the cause and seriously considered the Freeland League’s call to investigate opportunities in New Caledonia, French Guiana, and Madagascar. After studying their proposals, the Minister announced that Madagascar presented the most favorable option for a Jewish colony. New Caledonia dropped from the territorialist agenda as the Freelanders turned their attention to Madagascar. I examine the Madagascar Plan in my book, and sometimes I still dream about a Jewish State with lemurs.

Number 3—Baja California (1933)

In the early 1930s, American rabbi and Zionist George Richter struck up a friendship with the powerful press magnate William Randolph Hearst. At the time, Hearst possessed large land holdings along the Baja Peninsula south of California. Richter, concerned about Hitler’s rise to power, worked to convince Hearst to create settlements for Jewish refugees on his lands. Richter raised funds and promoted the plan with the help of American Zionists and territorialists. But the Mexican government had no interest in ceding control over its territory to impoverished Jewish refugees, even if they had Hearst’s tacit support. Likewise, at least according to one historian, American powerbroker Rabbi Stephen Wise opposed the scheme in the mistaken belief that Hitler would soon fall from power. I ended up traveling to Baja while writing In the Shadow of Zion, but that was for the book photographer’s bachelor party in Los Cabos. No archival research ensued.

Number 2—Guyana (1938)

Just two days after Kristallnacht, America’s Ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph P. Kennedy—yes, that one—went to Downing Street to discuss the crisis with Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. The idea of settling Jewish refugees in British Guiana (now independent Guyana) originated with Kennedy. The Ambassador sought a way to help Chamberlain salvage “peace in our time” and also aid his patron, President Roosevelt, whose advisors had spent months debating what to do with the waves of emigrants fleeing the Reich. American, British, and Yiddish newspapers got wind of their efforts and reported on the Anglo-American proposal to settle 50,000 Jews in British Guiana. Chaim Weizmann opposed the plan, but momentum gathered and in January 1939 an expedition was dispatched to the South American colony. Their report was cautiously optimistic about settling Guyana’s teeming jungles, but there was little enthusiasm for the scheme and no funds were forthcoming. I did make it to Guyana for a few days of preliminary research and I’m happy to report that they have excellent, and potent, rum.

Number 1—Libya (1908)

In 1905, after the 7th Zionist Congress rejected the idea of an African Zion in “Uganda” (actually today’s Kenya), British author and prominent Zionist Israel Zangwill formed a rival movement, the Jewish Territorial Organization (ITO). Zangwill’s ITO rejected the idea of creating a Jewish national home in Ottoman Palestine as impractical. ITO supporters examined a host of other territories, including Australia, Mesopotamia (Iraq), and Libya, specifically the eastern coastal region of Cyrenaica. In 1908, the ITO sent a scientific commission to explore Cyrenaica and consult with local Ottoman authorities. They traveled by camel over the course of several weeks from the eastern city of Derna west to Benghazi. Their report was disappointing: the land was both less fertile and more populated than had been thought. And so, the plan was stillborn. I had originally hoped to trace the route of the 1908 expedition for my book despite having two strikes against me: I’m a dual American-Israeli citizen. What would have been unwise in 2010 became suicidal after Libya plunged into chaos in 2011. Perhaps one day I’ll get there. Maybe if the photographer for my next book throws a bachelor party in Benghazi.

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