The ProsenPeople

Excerpt: A Yom Kippur Scene (With Footnotes)

Tuesday, May 01, 2018 | Permalink

Excerpted from  Mourning by Eduardo Halfon, and translated by Lisa Dillman and Daniel Hahn.

detail of Maurycy Gottlieb's painting Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur

The following scene comes from that mysterious and wonderful space that lies somewhere between my memories of childhood and fiction.

I was still hungry, still1 looking up at my grandfather’s false teeth2, when the rabbi at the Plantationsynagogue stopped right in front of me. He was a handsome man, with dark skin and green eyes. He looked like he was boiling in his long white satin robe. He was holding a thin silver rod whose tip was a miniature hand, its index finger extended, pointing.4 My two grandfathers stood.

The rabbi said something to them gravely, his face bathed in sweat. I didn’t know if I should stand as well, so I remained seated, looking up at them, hearing how my grandfathers began whispering names and numbers to the rabbi. One of my grandfathers would say a name and the rabbi would repeat that name and then my grandfather would say a number and the rabbi would repeat that number. And on like that. Names and numbers. One of my grandfathers, then the other. And the rabbi was taking note of it all. Masha5, whispered my Polish grandfather, and then he said a number. Myriam6, whispered my Lebanese grandfather, and then said another number. Shmuel7, whispered my Polish grandfather, and then said another number. Bela8, whispered my Lebanese grandfather, and then said another number. I was a little frightened. I understood nothing. Perhaps because of my grandfathers’ whispering, it all seemed part of a secret or forbidden ceremony. I turned and was about to ask my father what was going on, but he shouted at me with his eyes and so I thought better of it and kept quiet. My grandparents continued standing, continued whispering names and numbers, and more names and numbers, and then, amid all that whispering, I clearly heard my Lebanese grandfather pronounce the name Salomón.9

The prayer finally ended. We all went out into the lobby, where there was a long table with crackers and cookies and orange juice and coffee, to break the fast. The kids, no longer in jackets and ties, were running all over. The adults were hardly speaking. My father told me to eat slowly, to eat very little.10 I had a powdery cookie11 in my hand and was taking small bites when I asked my father in English why my grandfathers had told the rabbi all those names. With some trouble, my father explained to me in Spanish that that was the prayer to honor the memory of the dead. Yizkor, it’s called, he said. And the numbers they were saying? I asked. Tzedakah, he said. Donations, he said. A certain amount of money for the name of each of the dead, he said, and immediately I formed a commercial idea of the entire affair, understood that each name had its price. And how do you know how much each name costs? I asked my father, but he simply made a weary face and took a sip of coffee. I kept nibbling the cookie. Names of dead family members? I asked, and after a silence he said yes, but also dead friends, and dead soldiers, and the dead six million, and that number, for a Jew, even a Jew who’s just a boy, needed no further explanation. Also the name of your brother Salomón, then, the one who drowned in the lake? I knew I was asking an illicit, even dangerous question.12 But I was thirteen now, I was all man now, I fasted now, I was now allowed to ask adults questions. My father observed me for a few seconds and I thought he was about to start crying. I don’t know what you’re talking about, he stammered, and left me alone with my cookie.

***

Still. This one word is important here. Not just hungry, but still hungry. Not just looking up at my grandfather’s false teeth, but still looking up at my grandfather’s false teeth. In the book, there’s a first part to this scene in the synagogue, before a long ellipsis of eight or ten pages, where the narrator goes on a trip to Germany and Poland. An ellipsis sparked by the sight of the grandfather’s false teeth. The word “still”, then, works as a way back for the reader after that long trip. A re-entry point to the synagogue and the hunger.

2  “It had never occurred to me that on his arrival in Guatemala in 1946, when he was barely twenty-five years old, after the war, after being prisoner in several concentration camps, my Polish grandfather had already lost all of his teeth.” Mourning, p. 89

black and white photo of man riding a bicycle in a suit

“My parents, after selling our house, had left us at my grandparents’ and traveled to the United States to find a new house, to buy furniture, to enroll us in school, to get everything there ready for the move. A temporary move, my parents insisted, just until the whole political situation here improved. What political situation? I didn’t fully understand what they meant by the whole political situation of the country, despite having become used to falling asleep to the sound of bombs and gunfire; and despite the rubble I’d seen with a friend on the land behind my grandparents’ house, rubble that had been the Spanish embassy, my friend explained, after it was burned down with white phosphorus by government forces, killing thirty-seven employees and peasants who were inside; and despite the fighting between the army and some guerillas right in front of my school, in Colonia Vista Hermosa, which kept us students locked in the gym the entire day. Nor did I fully understand how it could be a temporary move if my parents had already sold and emptied our house. It was the summer of ’81. I was about to turn ten years old.” Mourning, p. 73

Called a Yad, or Torah pointer, it ensures that the parchment of the Torah is not touched during the reading. Not required, but considered a hidur mitzvah, an embellishment of the commandment. As a child, I saw that long silver rod almost as a wand, and its wielder as a sorcerer.

My Polish grandfather’s mother. She was part of the last shipment of Jews from the Lodz ghetto. Probably killed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

black and white photograph of a woman

6  My Egyptian grandmother’s mother. Although she died in Lima, Peru, she’s buried in Jerusalem, where she was born.

My Polish grandfather’s father, a tailor by trade. He was part of the last shipment of Jews from the Lodz ghetto. Probably killed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

black and white photo of a serious-looking man

8 My Lebanese grandfather’s mother. Died suddenly during their exodus from Beirut to France, when my grandfather was a teenager. Buried somewhere in Corsica.

“His name was Salomón. He died when he was five years old, drowned in Lake Amatitlán. That’s what they told me when I was a boy, in Guatemala. That my father’s older brother, my grandparents’ firstborn, who would have been my uncle Salomón, had drowned in Lake Amatitlán in an accident, when he was the same age as me, and that they’d never found his body. We used to spend every weekend at my grandparents’ house on the lakeshore, and I couldn’t look at that water without imagining the lifeless body of Salomón suddenly appearing. I always imagined him pale and naked, and always floating facedown by the old wooden dock. My brother and I had even invented a secret prayer, which we’d whisper on the dock—and which I can still recall—before diving into the lake. As if it were a kind of magic spell. As if to banish the ghost of the boy Salomón, in case the ghost of the boy Salomón was still swimming around. I didn’t know the details of the accident, nor did I dare to ask. No one in the family talked about Salomón. No one even spoke his name.” Mourning, p. 69

10 The idea here is that, after a long fast, it’s better not to eat too much or too quickly in order to give the body time to readjust. We usually had a light snack at the synagogue, and then a heavier meal at home a few hours later.

11 These sweet, powdery Lebanese cookies are called ghraybehs. There was always a jar filled with them in my grandmother’s cupboard. They seem to punctuate and sweeten the moments and memories of my childhood. Almost like sporadic drops of rose water.

12 This is the first memory I have of intentionally wanting to know more about the death of my father’s brother, Salomón, or Solly, as my grandmother called her first-born.

black and white photo of a little boy on a bicycle, sticking his tongue out

Excerpt from Mourning. Copyright © 2018 by Eduardo Halfon, translation copyright © 2018 by Lisa Dillman and Daniel Hahn. Published by Bellevue Literary Press: www.blpress.org. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Eduardo Halfon moved from Guatemala to the United States at the age of ten and attended school in South Florida and North Carolina. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Roger Caillois Prize, and José María de Pereda Prize for the Short Novel, he is the author of two previous novels published in English: The Polish Boxer, a New York Times Editors' Choice selection and finalist for the International Latino Book Award, and Monastery, longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award.

Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur (Maurycy Gottlieb) via Wikimedia Commons

Excerpt: The Last Watchman of Old Cairo

Thursday, March 01, 2018 | Permalink

The following chapter is from Michael David Lukas's The Last Watchman of Old Cairo. Here, we are introduced to the remarkable, real life twin sisters Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson. Born in Scotland in 1843, they were world-renowned scholars and adventurers at a time when women could not attend Cambridge University. After being both widowed at an early age, they spent much of their time (and a good portion of their considerable wealth) studying Semitic languages, traveling around the Middle East, and procuring ancient manuscripts. Their trip to Cairo in 1896 sparked a turn of events that would result in the “discovery” of the Cairo Geniza in the attic of a synagogue in the old city. The following chapter details the twins' return to Cairo in January 1897, after realizing the importance of their find. 

 

Mrs. Agnes Lewis and Mrs. Margaret Gibson arrived in Cairo on the Two-fifteen Express from Alexandria. This was how their timetable referred to it, the Two-fifteen Express. Although in actuality the train was rather ponderous. When they finally pulled into Cairo Station—having been delayed by high winds, flooding, a faulty track switch, and a fugitive cow ruminating in the middle of the tracks—it was already well past dusk. Agnes’s pocket watch showed 7:25, more than three hours behind schedule.

Taken alone, the travails of the Two-fifteen Express would not have been especially irritating. But the twins had been traveling for six days straight, without proper rest or sanitation, and they were both feeling rather crabby. Fifteen years ago, they might have reveled in the adventure of it all—the Channel passage, the train across France, the boat trip from Marseilles. Fifteen years ago they might have overlooked the fleas and the damp and the motion sickness. They might have brushed all that aside as soon as the looming hulk of the Citadel came into view. But this was not fifteen years ago. It was the first month in the year of our Lord 1897. They had turned fifty-four just a few weeks earlier, and felt every aching year of it. No matter what might happen, whether they found their documents or not, this would most likely be their last trip to Egypt.

Agnes alighted first, followed by Margaret, and they stood side by side at the edge of the platform. From a distance they were indistinguishable, both women of distinction, both wrapped in furs, both squat and sharp-eyed with stringy gray-brown hair wrapped in a loose bun. Closer scrutiny would reveal Margaret’s mole, the creakiness of Agnes’s gait, and a slightly different shade of green in the eyes. For all intents and purposes, however, they were perfect replicas of each other, an august pair of British widows fringed with the scorch of Presbyterianism.

Undisturbed by the tumult of the platform, Agnes and Margaret took in the arc of the station’s new steel ceiling and the useless clack of the arrival board. Green-turbaned pashas brushed past half-naked stevedores and dusty fellaheen laden with great bags of cotton. Two or three dark-veiled women haunted the edges of the crowd, slipping through a brigade of British tourists tromping, no doubt, to Shepheard’s Hotel, lunch at the Gezira Club, and a steam packet down the Nile. With a subtle tilt of her chin, Agnes indicated an old Nubian porter smoking a cigarette next to the newsstand, and they crossed the platform toward him.

“Excuse us,” Margaret said, using her most mellifluous Arabic. “We have ten trunks on the Two-fifteen from Alexandria, all marked with the names Lewis and Gibson. We would be exceedingly gratified if you were to convey them to our carriage outside.”

The man hesitated for a moment to examine them more closely. Then he extinguished his cigarette on the bottom of his sandal and set off to collect their things.

“They’re fragile,” Agnes called after him, but he did not appear to hear.

Once their trunks were loaded and the porter paid, the carriage driver set off down Clot Bey Street toward the Hotel d’Angleterre. He took the long way, as Margaret requested, through the Ezbekiyya Gardens.

“It is a slight detour,” she said, in anticipation of her sister’s objections, “but so much more pleasant. Don’t you agree?”

“Yes,” Agnes said, softening into her seat. “I do.”

For there was nothing quite like riding through the gardens at twilight. The shadow of overhanging palms, the warm night air, the scrape of carriage wheels on gravel, it all brought back that same girlish excitement they had felt on their first visit to Cairo so many years ago. Under the yellow flicker of gas lamps, the old city appeared to be nothing more than an outline, a quaint sprinkling of minarets against the darkness. And when their hotel appeared, rising up between a hedgerow and the gently arched frond of a palm, it looked like an enormous pink cake.

This was not their first stay at the Hotel d’Angleterre, but in the past few years its decor had changed considerably. The lobby had been draped in heavy teal curtains and someone had seen fit to adorn the room with paintings of typical Egyptian scenes, as if to imply that the Nile, the pyramids, Mount Sinai, and the Colossus of Abu Simbel were all waiting there on the other side of the wall. As they followed the bellhop across the lobby, the sisters both glanced at a party of package tourists huddled around the grand fireplace, drinking cordials and talking excitedly about the high quality of perfume to be found in the Khan el-Khalili. Margaret gave them a quick smile, pleasant almost to the point of inviting conversation, but not quite.

“Your room, please,” the bellhop said, after leading them up the staircase. Agnes stepped up to the threshold of Room 327 and leaned in to get a better look.

“Your room,” the bellhop offered again, stiffening his arm to indicate that they should enter before him. The sisters exchanged a glance and Agnes stepped back into the hallway.

“Unfortunately,” she explained in Arabic, “this is not our room. We asked for a north-facing room with two queen-sized beds and a bath. This room faces south and, I may be mistaken, but I do not see a bath.”

The boy looked to Margaret, who nodded her agreement.

“Please,” he said in English and, holding up his index finger, rushed back down to the lobby.

A few minutes later, he returned with the concierge, a large man with the aspect of an overripe and somewhat bruised tropical fruit. Arriving at the threshold of Room 327, he wiped his forehead with a handkerchief and looked inside.

“The ladies’ room is not to their liking?”

“The room is nice enough,” said Agnes. “Unfortunately, it is not the ladies’.”

While Margaret explained that they had requested a room with a north-facing view, two queen-sized beds, and a bath, the concierge sucked at his mustache and watched his fingers walk around a circle of prayer beads.

“There is one room I can offer,” he said, “on this floor, very large, facing north, with two queen beds.”

Room 322 was across the hall. And indeed, it was quite a bit larger than 327, with a north-facing view, two queen-sized beds, and a claw-foot tub in the bathroom.

“Of course,” the concierge said, when he saw that the ladies found their new room to be satisfactory, “this room is somewhat more expensive.”

“Of course,” Margaret agreed, placing a hand on her sister’s forearm.

Traveling throughout the Near East, often without the fortification of male companionship, Agnes and Margaret had, over the years, developed a nose for swindlers and a stomach for bargaining that matched even the most tenacious of shopkeepers in the Khan el-Khalili. Not that they needed to be frugal. Their dear father had left them enough money to be happily fleeced for the rest of their lives, and then some. For the twins, thrift was a point of pride. And moreover, every pound saved was another pound they could give to charity. In a very real sense, this smarmy concierge was attempting to divert funds away from the assistance of war orphans, the rescue of ancient documents, and the establishment of a new Presbyterian Synod in Cambridge.

“We will gladly pay the price we agreed to last month,” Margaret said. Reaching into her handbag, she produced a letter from the owner of the hotel, detailing the terms of their agreement. “Seventy piastres a night, I believe.”

“Yes,” the concierge said, without looking at the letter, “seventy piastres a night, plus taxes and tips.”

◆     ◆     

After their trunks had been brought up and a round of baksheesh dispensed to everyone the least bit involved with the endeavor, Agnes lay down for a moment while Margaret busied herself making certain all their luggage had arrived in good condition. Between them, the twins had ten steamer trunks. Four were filled with various dresses, petticoats, shoes, furs, hats, and other sartorial items required for a journey that would take them from the dining room of Shepheard’s Hotel to the wilds of the Sinai Desert. Two trunks were crammed with dictionaries, Bibles, lexicons, travel accounts, and sundry other books essential to the identification of ancient manuscripts. One trunk contained all the foodstuffs and medicines they knew they could not procure in Cairo. Another held their tripod, two hundred photographic plates, and the camera itself, a traveling half-plate from Fallowfield. There was a trunk filled with the chemical reagents and other conservation equipment they would need for their trip to St. Catherine’s. And the final trunk contained those items that Mrs. Schechter had asked them to deliver to her husband: a respirator, its attendant spare parts, quinine, and a large magnifying glass.

Once certain everything was in good condition, Margaret unpacked their chess set from the second library trunk and began arranging the board on a small side table. She was nearly finished setting up her own pieces when the bellhop knocked and slid a note under the door.

“A letter?” Agnes asked, raising her head from the pillow to see what Margaret was holding.

“From Dr. Schechter,” Margaret confirmed.

The twins had come to Cairo to assist Dr. Schechter in obtaining a cache of documents currently housed in the attic of a synagogue in the old city. They had originally planned to travel with him. However, at the last minute they had been detained in Cambridge by an urgent piece of business related to the establishment of the Presbyterian Synod, and everyone agreed that it would be best for Dr. Schechter to go ahead without them, so that he might begin securing the necessary permissions from the Jewish community. Given the exigencies of travel and the sorry state of the postal system in Egypt, they hadn’t heard from him since he left Cambridge, nearly a month earlier, and they were eager for his news.

“Will you read it?” Agnes asked.

Margaret glanced over the note, written in Dr. Schechter’s broad and rather hasty scrawl, then seated herself on the edge of the bed and began reading aloud.

After the requisite salutations, welcoming them to Cairo and asking after their journey, Dr. Schechter informed the twins that they would be very happy to hear of his progress with Rabbi Ben Shimon. He was looking forward to discussing these matters in detail that following evening, when he hoped they would be able to join himself and Miss de Witt for dinner.

“One supposes that Rabbi Ben Shimon is the Chief Rabbi of Cairo,” Agnes said, once her sister was finished, “but who on earth is Miss de Witt?”

“I have no idea,” Margaret said, “though it does appear that Dr. Schechter has been rather busy.”

“Not surprising.”

“Not at all.”

Agnes and Margaret had known Dr. Schechter for years. They were of the same set in Cambridge and often saw each other at Dr. Taylor’s house. In addition to their shared interest in biblical scholarship, there was another unspoken bond between them as well: the somewhat bitter knowledge that, in spite of their many scholarly accomplishments, the three of them would always be relegated to the outskirts of Dr. Taylor’s circle and none of them would ever be allowed to join the permanent faculty at Cambridge, Dr. Schechter because of his religion and the twins because of their sex. This knowledge did not encourage a deeper relationship, however. If anything, it did the opposite. Occasionally, the twins had Dr. and Mrs. Schechter over for tea, as part of a larger group, but their connection with him had never progressed much beyond this initial stage of congeniality and shared resentment, at least not until recently.

One afternoon that past spring, Agnes and Margaret had invited Dr. Schechter over to look through a pile of documents brought back from a previous trip to Egypt. In their initial perusal they had found more than a few intriguing manuscripts, including a fifteenth-century prayer book and a clump of what looked to be ancient incantations of some sort. When they had described the documents to him a few days earlier at Dr. Taylor’s house, Dr. Schechter had been rather excited. Seeing them for himself, however, he seemed unimpressed. Shuffling through the general hodgepodge of ancient letters and business contracts, he paused here and there to smile politely or read a few words aloud. His gaze didn’t rest on any item for more than a moment until, at the bottom of the pile, he came upon a seemingly unremarkable leaf from an early Hebrew codex. After staring down at it for a full three minutes, Dr. Schechter asked whether he might remove the fragment for further inspection. When he returned, later that afternoon, he was in a state of what could only be described as hysteria. The fragment, he had said, once he was able to calm himself, appeared to be a leaf from the original Hebrew version of Ecclesiasticus.

The sisters exchanged a glance.

“The original Hebrew?”

“I believe so,” Dr. Schechter said.

The implications were tremendous. If authenticated, the fragment would establish a reliable source text for Ecclesiasticus and might even prove Dr. Schechter’s theory about the language of its composition. But what excited him most was the idea that there might be more where this had come from. The condition of the fragment, its size, and the paper on which it was written, all these things led Dr. Schechter to suspect that this leaf from Ecclesiasticus was, as he had put it, but a single petal in a great field of wildflowers. Hands trembling so much he could barely drink his tea, Dr. Schechter had tried unsuccessfully to explain the Jewish prohibition against discarding Torah scrolls, prayer books, and any other papers that might contain the name of God, how most congregations buried these documents in a special section of the graveyard, but some chose to gather their godly texts in an attic or storeroom, known as a geniza, until they could be disposed of properly.

Despite his incoherence, the reason for his excitement was clear. Somewhere in Old Cairo there was a synagogue, the attic of which was filled with ancient manuscripts that hadn’t seen the light of day in hundreds of years. If they were able to secure these documents and bring them back to Cambridge, it would be among the most significant discoveries of the past twenty years, with profound effects on liturgy, linguistics, and biblical scholarship. But they needed to act quickly. For if Agnes and Margaret had been able to purchase this fragment from a common manuscript dealer, it meant that others would be able to buy them, too. Someone with access to the synagogue—a member of the Jewish community, or perhaps one of its employees—was selling the documents on the black market and, without their speedy intercession, this treasure trove of manuscripts would soon be dispersed to the four winds.

Agnes and Margaret had reason to believe that the synagogue might also contain an even greater treasure: the Ezra Scroll. That very morning in fact, on their journey from Alexandria to Cairo, Margaret had stumbled upon a passage in a seventeenth-century travel account, suggesting that the ark of the Ibn Ezra Synagogue possessed a recess containing a copy of the Mosaic law, written in the very hand of Ezra the Scribe himself, of happy memory. Upon reading those words, she had let out a small yelp of joy and showed the passage to her sister, who responded in a similar manner. The very notion of the Ezra Scroll—a perfect copy of the Hebrew Scriptures written thousands of years ago by the prophet Ezra—was enough to make one’s skin goose with anticipation. If it truly existed, if they found it, if they were able to bring it back to Cambridge, the implications truly could not be greater. It was an idea almost too delicious to ponder. An indisputable source text for the Old Testament, without hint of error or innovation, the Ezra Scroll would be the greatest archaeological discovery of the century, if not the millennium. Their names—Mrs. Agnes Lewis and Mrs. Margaret Gibson—would be known to history for years to come and, more importantly, the scroll would serve to establish the true word of God, a perfect and unimpeachable copy of the Hebrew Bible without intermediary or innovation.

And so there they were, in Room 322 at the Hotel d’Angleterre, tired and somewhat irritable, their bones aching from nearly a week of travel. They were both rather anxious to begin the search, but at the moment their exhaustion took precedence.

“Are you hungry?” Agnes asked, and Margaret shook her head.

“Not especially.”

“Then I can see no reason why we shouldn’t avail ourselves of sleep.”

“No,” Margaret agreed, “neither can I.”

After finishing their nightly exercises, they washed up and changed into their sleeping gowns.

“Would you mind, Meggie?” Agnes asked as she rolled onto her stomach.

“Of course not, Nestor.”

In the trunk devoted to foodstuffs and medicines, Margaret found a small bottle of the specially formulated ointment that, although smelling of opium and chili peppers, did a great deal toward alleviating the pain of her sister’s rheumatism. Rubbing the ointment into her palms, she unbuttoned her sister’s gown and began applying a coat of it to her naked back.

It was just the two of them, and so it had been for some time. Margaret’s beloved husband, Mr. James Gibson, had passed away after only three years of marriage, and Agnes’s dear Samuel had died less than five years later. This wasn’t the life they had imagined for themselves—no husbands, no children, no domestic interests—but it was a life well lived, in the pursuit of knowledge and the general well-being, and they both took some comfort in knowing that their husbands would have been proud of their accomplishments. They had their causes, supported their church, wrote letters to The Times, and, when they weren’t traveling around the Near East, searching for ancient manuscripts that might shed light on the origins of their faith, they spent most of their days in quiet contentment, reading or studying Arabic grammar in the parlor. Like any partnership, theirs was a negotiation, a carefully constructed edifice of favors and moods. They had disagreements, of course, but in large part they got on remarkably well. For each knew the other’s thinking as well as her own.

At that particular moment—Agnes lying on her stomach and Margaret rubbing the ointment into her sister’s back—they were thinking, as they often did, of their beloved father. He had been dead now for years, but they could both very clearly recall him, bent over his writing desk, rebuking them for an excessive display of pride, praising a well-wrought translation.

Where would they be without the guidance of his steady and sometimes chastising hand? It was he who had given them the gift of a proper education, he who had sparked the light of their faith, he who had instilled in them the importance of hard work and a curiosity about the world beyond Glasgow, Edinburgh, and London. For although he disapproved of female education in general, he had seen their promise early and resolved to school them himself, beginning when they were five with Latin and Greek, then moving on to Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic. Six days a week, from breakfast until dinner, Agnes and Margaret had worked side by side, diligently translating Cicero, Exodus, and Ibn Sina. Their dinner conversations were primarily of an instructional nature, but every night after the table was cleared and the dishes washed, their father would read aloud to them from the Odyssey or the Arabian Nights. And as they drifted off to sleep, the sound of his voice filled their dreams with wooden ships, great marble palaces, magic lamps, and dark caves overflowing with treasure.

That following evening—after a mostly pleasant day spent reading, strolling through the gardens, and making inquiries with their friends at the antique book market—Agnes and Margaret took a carriage to Dr. Schechter’s hotel.

“So good to see you,” he said, leaping up from his chair as they entered the lobby.

With his wild hair and his great silver beard, Dr. Schechter looked as if he would be more at home among the monks of Mount Sinai than the tourists milling about the lobby of a modern hotel.

“It is so very good to see you both,” he went on. “I must apologize for not writing earlier. But we have been having quite a bit of excitement here. I have been making great strides with Rabbi Ben Shimon, great strides.”

For the past six months, the already somewhat frantic Dr. Schechter had been a man possessed, muttering to himself on King’s Parade or in the stacks of the Cambridge University Library, unwashed and disheveled, looking for all the world like a madman. Being in Cairo apparently hadn’t done much to calm his nerves, though it did look as if he had bought himself a new suit.

“We have some exciting news,” he told the twins, “very exciting.”

“We?” Agnes glanced at the rather pretty young lady with whom Dr. Schechter had been sitting.

“Excuse me,” he said with a slight blush. “Please allow me to introduce Miss Emily de Witt, from Girton College. Did I not mention I had a student along to help with the transcriptions?”

“I can’t say I remember anything about a student,” Agnes said. “But then again, I can hardly remember the name of my own dog.”

Margaret smiled for her sister.

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Miss de Witt.”

“The pleasure is all mine,” she said, and gave a slight, but very winning, curtsey.

“We have some exciting news,” Dr. Schechter repeated as he led them into the dining room of the hotel. “I have been making great strides with Rabbi Ben Shimon.”

It was slightly vexing how Dr. Schechter spoke about the project. Over the past few months, he had assumed de facto ownership over the expedition, referring to the documents as “my find” and repeatedly thanking the sisters for their assistance. Of course, they had enjoyed more than their share of accolades a few years earlier, after their discovery of the codex at St. Catherine’s Monastery. Agnes had been invited to address the Royal Asiatic Society, and Margaret’s account of the discovery was praised in newspapers around the world. Many said it was one of the most significant such finds since the Codex Sinaiticus. But fame was only a by-product. If their experience—uncovering the codex, bringing it home, having their names briefly trumpeted about—had taught them anything, it was to remind them of what their father had often said. The text was what mattered, not the author. The true purpose of their work, of any scholarly endeavor, was not recognition. It was the steady accumulation of knowledge, the illumination of an ancient textual variant, the revelation curled upon itself in a dusty palimpsest.

“Great strides,” Dr. Schechter said again.

Unable to contain himself any longer, he dove into a dramatic account of his time in Cairo, detailing a series of meetings with the Chief Rabbi and other notable members of the Jewish community. There was a Mr. Bechor, a Mr. Mosseri, and three or four others who, along with Rabbi Ben Shimon, constituted an informal governing council. Knowing something of the Oriental character, Dr. Schechter had invested most of the past two weeks in fraternization, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, and touring around the city. At times, he had to admit, it all seemed like nothing more than a grand diversion. Then, three days ago, his hard work had paid its dividend. Rabbi Ben Shimon had granted them full access to the geniza and intimated that he would support the idea of safekeeping the entirety of the collection at the Cambridge University Library.

“What does he want in exchange?” Agnes asked.

Having dealt with all manner of Egyptians, from Bedouin camel traders to Coptic patriarchs, she had a difficult time believing that Rabbi Ben Shimon would give up such a valuable cache of documents without compensation.

“Nothing,” Dr. Schechter said, “at least not as far as I can tell. Rabbi Ben Shimon understands the great scholarly value of the geniza documents and I have been able to convince him that they will be well looked after in Cambridge. He is a lovely man and very learned. When you meet him, I am sure you will agree.”

“I am sure we will,” Margaret said, though she shared her sister’s suspicions. In their experience, the shrewdest of characters were often those who seemed, at first, to lack an ulterior motive.

“I’ve visited the synagogue twice,” Dr. Schechter said, redirecting the course of conversation. “And truly, the geniza is beyond anything I could have imagined.”

Pausing to cough while the waiter served their dinner—beef Wellington for the ladies and, for the gentleman, a kosher meal provided through the generosity of the governing council—Dr. Schechter went on to describe a vast battlefield of paper, books, and letters, dust everywhere and all of it mashed together without any order whatsoever. Most of the documents held little scholarly interest—business and marriage contracts, deeds, the proceedings of the religious court—but there were gems to be found amidst the rubble, gems of a most astonishing nature. In just two visits he had already uncovered a number of invaluable documents: a page from a fourteenth-century Passover Haggadah and the first half of a letter written by the great poet and scholar Samuel ha-Nagid.

“Samuel ha-Nagid,” Agnes marveled, but before she could formulate a question about the letter, Dr. Schechter was overcome by another fit of coughing.

“It’s the geniza,” he said. “I’ve never seen such dust.”

He continued coughing until Miss de Witt handed him a glass of water.

“We left your respirator at the front desk,” Margaret offered. “If we had known the need was so urgent, we would have brought it with us.”

Agnes glanced at Miss de Witt, who was watching Dr. Schechter with a concern that bordered on excessive familiarity.

“Mrs. Schechter sent along a few other things as well.”

“Thank you,” Dr. Schechter said and, recovering himself, steered the conversation back to the geniza. “All that filth, it makes one feel less like a scholar than a housemaid, dusting out the attic of History.”

“We are eager to help in whatever capacity you deem most useful,” Margaret said. “As you know, my sister and I are not above dusting, and our Arabic is quite passable.”

“It’s quite good, really,” Dr. Schechter said, missing her irony entirely. “But first, we must secure Rabbi Ben Shimon’s permission to remove the documents. He has agreed in principle, but such things take time.”

“If you think it would be at all possible,” Agnes put in, “we would be thrilled to visit the synagogue.”

They were both rather curious to see the geniza for themselves. They had come halfway around the world. And, after hearing Dr. Schechter describe its contents, they felt an even greater urgency to get on with their work, securing the geniza and protecting these invaluable documents from whoever was selling them off.

“Yes, of course,” Dr. Schechter said. He paused for a moment and tapped the side of his head, like a schoolboy trying to recall the exact wording of a difficult recitation. “The only trouble is, Mr. Bechor offered to take us all out on a tour of the city tomorrow. He is an important member of the governing council. Perhaps we can visit the synagogue the following afternoon?”

As much as they wanted to get on with their work—and as little as they wanted to be led around on a tour of a city they had visited nearly a dozen times—the twins knew better than to refuse an invitation from an important member of the governing council. So they agreed, reluctantly, to meet that next morning in the lobby of their hotel.

After dessert, the twins bade Dr. Schechter and Miss de Witt a good evening and took an open carriage back to their hotel. It was a dark night, clear and cold, and the stars shone like inflamed grains of sand.

“She is rather pretty,” Margaret said after a few minutes of silence.

“Certainly not who I imagined when Dr. Schechter said he was bringing along a research assistant.”

“Maybe she has some Hebrew.”

“I doubt she has much of anything, apart from her charms.” Margaret let this bit of nastiness dissipate before she spoke again.

“And Rabbi Ben Shimon,” she asked, “what do you suppose he wants?”

“Money,” Agnes said, troubling a loose flap of the seat next to her. “It’s usually money, isn’t it?”

“Nine times out of ten.”

“Or maybe a political favor, protection from the vagaries of Abbas II.”

“Perhaps he doesn’t care about the documents at all,” Margaret speculated. “Perhaps he thinks they’re nothing but rubbish and we’re fools for chasing after them.”

“Or maybe he does care, very much, and truly believes they will be better cared for in Cambridge.”

“Which they will be.”

“It doesn’t really matter, does it? So long as he’s willing to grant us the necessary permissions.”

“And soon,” Margaret added.

“And soon.”

They were silent for the remainder of the ride, thinking about Rabbi Ben Shimon and Mr. Bechor, the possibility of the Ezra Scroll and Dr. Schechter’s unfortunate willingness to trust in the good intentions of others. Being granted access to the geniza was certainly something, but there was still a great deal of work to be done. The twins were both quite certain now that there was a leak in the geniza. Someone was selling off the documents piece by piece and whoever it was—a member of the governing council, the synagogue watchman, Rabbi Ben Shimon, or someone else entirely—the twins wouldn’t stop until the documents were removed to a safer location. Until then, until the proverbial bird was in their hands, the geniza would continue to be parceled out and sold in the stalls of the antique book market. One of the greatest discoveries of the century, thousands of potentially invaluable documents, would be dispersed among the curiosity cabinets of pleasure tourists who couldn’t tell the difference between Syriac and Aramaic.

Excerpted from The Last Watchman of Old Cairo by Michael David Lukas. Published by Spiegel & Grau. Copyright © 2018 by Michael David Lukas. All rights reserved.

Image of Al-Hakim Mosque via Wikimedia Commons. Postcard of Cairo at night via the British Museum.

Excerpt: The Château

Monday, February 12, 2018 | Permalink

The following is from Paul Goldberg's novel, The Château. Goldberg's debut novel The Yid was published in 2016 to widespread acclaim and named a finalist for both the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the National Jewish Book Award's Goldberg Prize for Debut Fiction.

 
 

Bill passes the security gate at 6:17 a.m.

He is not the first inhabitant of the Château to step out into darkness.

Three others—sad-faced men circa seventy-five, plus/minus ten—stand outside the building, waiting patiently as their little white dogs contemplate emptying their tiny bladders and bowels.

There is a joke about such men:

Why do Jewish men die before their wives? Because they want to.

It’s possible that these men are goyim, but the joke still stands. Goyim are people. This is about dogs. These dogs aren’t dogs. All three—no, wait, there are four . . . All four are well under the weight limit of fifteen pounds specified in the condo “dos and don’ts” Bill noticed on the Web site. He happened to click on “pets”; he has no idea why.

These dogs don’t apprehend tiny bad guys, they don’t sniff out little explosives or baby cadavers, but they do have a mission: they substitute for the grandchildren who don’t come to visit.

They aren’t especially good at breathing, which is why they sometimes ride in baby strollers. They spend their days listening to complaints, about “mommy,” about “daddy,” about the sadly deteriorating physical and (allegedly) mental health of both, about doctors who overcharge while failing to acknowledge the obvious signs of mini-strokes and myelodysplastic syndrome, about Obamacare, about unappreciative, rude family members, and, of course, about crooked condo boards. Svolochi . . .

The dogs listen and they wheeze. If they could kill themselves, they would. When you are smaller than a cat and lack opposable thumbs, it’s hard to pull the trigger.

Why do these dogs get Prozac? Because they need it.


Bill runs past the silent, scooper-wielding sentries at the Château’s gates and heads north on Ocean Drive.

It seems all the buildings around him are shedding their balconies. Steel rebar protrudes from their sides, awaiting encasement in concrete.

Imagine replacing all the balconies on one of these forty-year-old high-rises. You don’t do it through competitive bids. You do it pursuant to local customs. Deals are concluded on chartered boats 12.1 miles offshore, outside U.S. territorial waters.

Bill has done his homework. He has enhanced his considerable prior knowledge with assistance from Messrs. Google and Kozachok. He has read up on local business practices and, what do you know, Melsor’s stories check out. Out there, in open sea, with only Flipper as their witness, contractors harmonize to make a $2 million job into a $6 million job with another $3.7 million hiding in change orders. You can make a lot on the main job, but don’t neglect the change orders. You don’t bid out those; they are a layer of cream on the pasteurized dullness of milk.

New balconies that have replaced the old shine with chrome and glass—airborne aquaria. The logistics and, for that matter, economics—and let’s not forget political economy—of balcony replacement are transparency itself.

You knock down the old balcony, you jackhammer the floor inside the apartment to bury new rebar, you leave it up to the folks inside to refloor—if that’s a word. The windows get pitched. Time to refenestrate. The storm screens get shit-canned, too. Half of them don’t work anyway. With this simple maneuver, you have just spent $80,000 on the balcony and forced the poor bastards in every apartment to spend at least another $40,000 on floors and windows.

With the subprime credit line the condo board took out (without anyone’s approval) from a friend at a local bank, the out-of- pocket for each apartment is $150,000, depending on how long the board decides to keep the credit line gushing—and how much it wants to spew out.

With all the multipliers accounted for, with all the line items considered, Bill has just run past a couple billion dollars’ worth of economic activity spread over less than a linear mile of Ocean Drive.

Let’s say you devoted your life to screwing other people. You break no more laws than you have to. You avoid being disgorged. You build up a goodly stash. You move to Florida. You get fucked by your condo’s BOD. Your stash gets drawn down. You try a new fraud, but it fails. The world is changing; you are losing your touch. You move on to a lesser place, or you start whacking people across their backs with your crooked cane until Dzhuyka carts you away. You might die in the middle of it. You might want to.

You will make room for fresh, idealistic sixty-seven-year-olds to take their turn at the good life by the sea.


Sunrise this morning makes the ocean purple. It’s orderly, well-behaved, a good boy, waiting in its proper place, separated from the Broadwalk by one hundred feet of sand.

A tractor drags a sand plow to groom the beach much like one brushes the little white dogs Bill just saw ambulating, wheezing. The Broadwalk lies a foot above sea level, maybe two. One big wave and this Hollywood Health Spa, which happens to be a Russian bathhouse; this Hollywood Grill, an Armenian restaurant that actually looks intriguing; and this Italian joint called Sapore di Mare, will wash away into said mare.

Bill tries not to blame the glum-faced people around him for having triggered a host of political disasters, the most recent of which is the rise of King Donal’d I, who tomorrow will be crowned. Forget xenophobia, forget the wall, forget making fun of the handicapped, forget the FSB prostitutes, forget the golden showers, whether or not they flowed! Here is the biggest incongruence: Floridians voting for a climate change denier are akin to concentration camp inmates embracing the ideal of racial hygiene. At least that’s what Bill thinks, and his beliefs and his speech are protected by the First Amendment.

Massive towers are rising along the oceanfront, some bearing the Trump name. Twenty-story buildings like the Château were once thought to be tall; now, forty floors is about right. These towers contain apartments costing tens of millions, money that seems disposable to so many people. Do they recognize that they are building in the path of something far more ominous than the biblical flood?

That flood came and went. This one will come and stay.

There was a story Bill read in The New Yorker a bit more than a year earlier, in December 2015. The point: Florida is Ground Zero of global flooding. It sits as low as Kansas—about six feet above sea level. A drained swamp, it is cursed with a high water table. Its buildings, big and small, sit atop water-soaked limestone, and it takes pumps to keep this territory from drowning.

Bill read this piece in Washington. He read it the way most of his elitist friends read it, all of whom reached the same conclusion: let the fucker sink. With their chads hanging, they gave us George W. Bush, who gave us the invasion of Iraq in search of imaginary weapons of mass destruction. That was before this thing, this Donal’d F. Tramp. Let the waters come down, God, flood the place at your earliest. Maybe swimming with the fishes will make these kakers realize what they have done. Make sure you extract proper repentances before they drown. Oh Lord!

But now Bill is here, in Hollywood, running on this preposterously named Broadwalk. Should he hate the people who are starting to show up in this under-caffeinated darkness? Can he hate the red-haired grandmother who shouts in Russian into her cell phone? That word again: “Svolochi!” It’s omnipresent. Might as well make it English.

Can Bill hate this life-battered, middle-aged couple emerging from the place Melsor calls Margarita Will? They were born Caucasian, presumably, but their skin has acquired the texture of distressed cordovan leather. They stand silently, staring at the ocean, dragging on their Camels, getting their early-morning pick-me-up, saying nothing. They are a bit older than Bill, or at least they seem to be. Theirs was a one-night stand or a thirty-five-year marriage; either way, nothing to talk about. If they couldn’t drink, they would all go insane.

And here comes an overweight gentleman on a rusted, squeaking, folding bike with little wheels!

In the past, people came to Florida to die. They still do, but now they insist on stuffing the planet into the coffin with them. If death is boring, the end of the world is the most boring thing imaginable.

Bill is unable to blame these people for getting distracted by something else, anything else, even this Donal’d Tramp.

Excerpted from The Château: A Novel by Paul Goldberg. Published by Picador. Copyright © 2018 by Paul Goldberg. All rights reserved.

Excerpt: The Missing Family Jewels

Friday, December 15, 2017 | Permalink

Gil Hovav, Israel's leading culinary journalist and a popular TV personality, recently had his autobiographical story collection Candies from Heaven translated into English by Ira Moskowitz. Below, read an excerpt from the book, "The Missing Family Jewels," a comical piece about a family myth.

Illustration from the cover of "Candies from Heaven"

Sometime back in the 19th century, a Yemenite man awoke from his sleep on the outskirts of the garbage dump in Sana’a and decided that the time had come to go up to the Land of Israel. Somehow, that Yemenite man was my relative and, of course, related to King David too (because all Yemenites claim there was a family tree in the synagogue in Yemen that documented their pedigree, directly connecting them to Rabbi Shalom Shabazi and all the way back through the generations to King David, but that unfortunately this documentation was lost during the travails of wandering through the Arabian Peninsula on the way to Zion). We weren’t big shots in Yemen – not the most highly educated in the world and not even goldsmiths. We were, in fact, among the world’s poorest. The only solid information my father had about the founders of the Mahboub family was that his great-grandfather’s uncle was a blacksmith who was blind in one eye.

In any case, on that morning in the 19th century, the Yemenite man gathered his belongings, his wife (assuming he had only one) or wives (a more realistic assumption), and of course his children too, and started walking to the northwest, on a path that was supposed to lead them to Jerusalem. All that on foot, of course. They had a donkey, but it carried the father, not their belongings, which were left for the women to bear.

After long wanderings, my ancestors reached Jerusalem and discovered that it was impoverished and run-down, exactly like Sana’a – but here no one was awaiting them, not even on the outskirts of the garbage dump. They settled in the village of Silwan, site of the biblical pools of Shiloach. Later, throughout the years and generations, they married, were fruitful and multiplied, wandered the land and always, but always, made sure to remain dirt poor.

The main branch of the family made its home in the Givat Shaul neighborhood of Jerusalem because the Frumin Biscuit Company was located there. Broken biscuits could be salvaged from the factory’s trash bins and these comprised a key part of the Yemenite menu of those lean years. They weren’t sad – the days were harsh, nearly everyone was poor and, in any case, Yemenites were accustomed to living on a menu made up entirely of carbohydrates. And besides, the main thing was that they were in the Land of Israel.

When Grandpa Chaim Mahboub married Grandma Mazal (née Hoter), they made their home in a tiny apartment consisting of a room and a nook in the Bukharim neighborhood, with a communal bathroom and kitchen in the courtyard. They remained dirt poor because my grandfather, who had studied at the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts, didn’t really manage to provide a livelihood for his wife and seven children from his (occasional) work as a Torah scribe. Therefore, my grandmother and Aunt Elisheva, the eldest daughter, also pitched in to support the family: Elisheva worked as a nanny at a wealthy family in the Rehavia neighborhood, and my grandmother worked as a janitor at the Gymnasia Rehavia high school, which soon made her one of the only Yemenites in the country (and in the world) who spoke fluent Yiddish.

Forty years later, when the Gymnasia’s principal refused to accept me at the prestigious high school, claiming that my math grades were too low, my father banged his fist on the table and informed him that every tile and stone in the building cries out the name of Mazal Mahboub. The shocked principal immediately reversed his decision and accepted me at the school, apologizing and confessing “I wasn’t aware of the pedigree.” And so, I got into high school – not by virtue of my great-grandfather Eliezer Ben-Yehuda or because my father managed the national radio station, but thanks to the smell of bleach that wafted from my family tree.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s go back to the 1960s and 1970s. The seven sons and daughters of Mazal and Chaim Mahboub grew up and married (all of them to Ashkenazi Jews, by the way, except for my father), and all of them did well. No one became wealthy, but all of them worked, supported themselves and their family in dignity, and were content with their lot in life. My father, Uncle Ami and Aunt Gulit lived in Jerusalem. Aunt Elisheva lived in Los Angeles. Aunt Reumah lived at the Wingate Institute, but also kept a home in Jerusalem (“where I hide from my husband David”). Aunt Hadassah the Cossack changed addresses at a torrid pace: Revivim, Ramatayim, Sheffield, London and finally Migdal, near Aunt Chava, who lived in Tiberias.Author photo of Gil Hovav

And here we come to an economic turning point in the story. Despite the fact that none of the members of the original Mahboub (later Hebraized to Hovav) family became rich or even aspired to wealth, we had a distant relative in Tiberias, a very distant relative – the type that Mooma would define as “my grandmother and your grandmother hung laundry under the same sun.” They called him Uncle Shalom Hoter, though he wasn’t really an uncle. We never met him, mainly because he died when my father was a child, but he had (trumpets, please) a private synagogue of his own in lower Tiberias, adjacent to the old cemetery.

As noted, none of us knew Uncle Shalom Hoter, but we considered him one of us – and this included a deep sense of affinity toward the property he had apparently left behind. We didn’t really know how we were related, “but a Hoter is a Hoter,” Dad declared, “and all of us are Hoters, of the Hoter family.” In this way, Uncle Shalom Hoter filled the role of the rich uncle we all dreamed we had in America. His property continued to grow over the years, if not in reality then at least in our Oriental fantasies, and the synagogue on the outskirts of the cemetery became a private beach on the Sea of Galilee. Later, we would refer to the late uncle as “Uncle Shalom, who owned half of Tiberias.”

The problem was that while Uncle Shalom Hoter may have been rich, he was most definitely dead. Everyone knew that Aunt Chava, who as a resident of the city held the Tiberias portfolio in the family, had an old and dusty suitcase containing documents pertaining to Uncle Shalom Hoter. (Aunt Reumah imagined that the suitcase contained “a Turkish deed for all of the lands in Poria!” while Aunt Hadassah modestly added, “I actually heard that the Arbel1 is listed in his name in the Land Registry.”) But Chava didn’t appreciate this talk about our late Uncle Shalom Hoter. Every time someone mentioned the story of the suitcase, when the entire family gathered at the home of Chava and Amos to celebrate the Passover seder, she found various excuses to avoid pulling it down from the storage area. She would always claim: “There aren’t so many documents there, just one envelope with a document I’ve never read, and the seder night is not the time to dwell on our rich late uncle.”

And thus the years passed, and the presumed holdings of our late Uncle Shalom Hoter continued to inflate. There was already talk of houses in Safed and, of course, the complete Crusader wall in Tiberias, homesteads in the Galilee and even entire commercial streets in Jerusalem. Sometimes when we were walking in the city center, my father would stop next to a particularly beautiful building and say: “Do you see this house? This house would be fitting for Uncle Shalom Hoter to own. Who knows, who knows. We really need to check with Aunt Chava.”

We all believed we were closet Rothschilds except for Mooma, who pooh-poohed the whole story of the deeds and Land Registry, asserting: “That dark-skinned father of yours, when he married your mother, could barely scrape together enough money to pay the rabbi. His father would eat biscuits from the trash and his mother was a janitor at the Gymnasia. Listen to me, kudilo – there is no money there. And if there were, it was hidden so well that it will never be found.”

In the end, left with no alternative (I was a 24-year-old student, poor as a church mouse in the best Sana’a tradition), I pressed my father to travel with me to Tiberias, to Chava and the mysterious suitcase, and finally, once and for all, claim the lands to which we’re legally entitled. Chava was happy to host us, but avoided the matter of the suitcase, as usual. “I don’t remember where it is anymore,” Chava said. “It might have completely disintegrated.” Then she claimed that only a crazy person would climb into the storage area and that it was dangerous. I could see that Aunt Chava was just trying to cling to a dream, but I was more greedy than sensitive. So, on our second day in Tiberias, while Chava was busy preparing refreshments (ja’aleh) – tea, dried fruits and nuts, I snuck into the attic, took down a round and dusty leather suitcase, and presented it to my father.


Chava turned pale. “Our late Uncle Shalom Hoter’s document!” she exclaimed, and my father added: “And, of course, the deeds to the lands and houses in Safed.”

“And the private beach at the Sea of Galilee,” I chimed in.

“And the slope of Poria,” Chava said, swept up in the excitement.

With trembling hands, my father opened the suitcase and the envelope inside it. He had a wonderful voice, my father, and it plays in my ears to this day, reading the following words:

Death Certificate

We, Yaakov Azuelos and Yehiel Alfendari, hereby testify that we washed the corpse of the late tzadik Shalom Hoter, and when we did this, we saw with our own eyes that he had only one testicle.

“What does this mean?” I breathlessly asked my father and his sister, who both looked completely in shock. “It means that there is no property,” Chava stated. “Because it proves that he was infertile and had no heirs, and then, if there’s no last will and testament, the property goes to the state,” my father explained.

“Oh well,” I said. “So we’ll remain poor. We’re already used to it. Why are you two so upset?”

“The synagogue by the cemetery is not so important to me,” my father admitted. “But it’s a shame about the houses in Jerusalem.”

“I’m annoyed by something else,” Chava said. “It annoys me that I know – yes, I’m simply sure Gili – that you’ll take this story about one beytza and use it to give a receipt for haminados eggs in one of those awful stories of yours.

“Chava,” I exclaimed, pained to the depths of my soul. “Is that really what you think of me?!”

Poria and Mount Arbel are hilltop sites overlooking Tiberias.

Righteous person

The same Hebrew word – beytza – can mean both egg and testicle.


Slow-Cooked Eggs (Huevos Haminados)

Originally, this involved eggs cooked in a pot with cholent or kubana. They would remain all night in the oven and emerge brown and fragrant. In Israel’s very hot climate, there are few opportunities to prepare cholent and, considering the (unfortunate) fact that most of the population is not Yemenite, kubana is also not a common baked good. Therefore, here is a simple recipe for fake haminados eggs.

Ingredients:

eggs

3 teabags

water

1 tsp salt

1. Fill a pot with water and add the salt. Place the eggs inside and hang the teabags with their tags on the edge of the pot so that the bags will be immersed in the water but won’t fall inside.

2. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and cover. When the water is really brown, you can dispose of the teabags.

3. Continue to simmer over a very low flame for at least 5 hours (8 if possible, and even 10).

4. Peel, cut into halves and serve.

From Candies from Heaven by Gil Hovav, published by Toad Publishing. Copyright ©Gil Hovav 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Excerpt: Start Without Me

Tuesday, November 21, 2017 | Permalink

The following is from Joshua Max Feldman's novel Start Without Me. The author of the critically acclaimed The Book of Jonah explores questions of love and choice, disappointment and hope in the lives of two strangers who meet by chance in this mesmerizing tale that unfolds over one Thanksgiving Day.


Adam looked up at the basement ceiling, not sure how long he’d been awake. There was no clock in the basement—never had been, for as long as he could remember. He pushed himself up on his elbows. Weak grey light filled the line of slender windows at the top of the wall. He’d been dreaming; something had woken him up. Then he heard the gurgle of a toilet flushing. A child appeared in the doorway in a corner across from the couch: a boy, five or six, in blue underpants and a Spider-Man T-shirt, dark hair matted on one side, a sour, suspicious look on his face. “Who are you?” the boy demanded.

“I’m Adam,” Adam said. “Uncle Adam,” he clarified.

The boy shook his head solemnly. “My uncle’s Travis. He lives in Texas.”

“I’m your other uncle. Your dad’s brother.”

“Why are you on the couch?”

“Kristen’s—your cousins are sleeping in my room. My old room. What used to be my room.” The boy scowled, as though none of this added up, and Adam had to admit it didn’t sound very convincing.

“Uncle Adam,” he repeated. “You don’t remember me?”

The boy’s eyes narrowed. “Are you the uncle who smashed the piñata?”

“Jesus, that’s what you remember?” Did he actually owe apologies to the kids, too?

“The candy went all in the—”

“It was a piñata, it was meant to get smashed. And if they didn’t want me to smash it, they shouldn’t have given me a turn.”

The boy made a slow movement of his thumb beneath his chin, which, in the mental squint of just waking, looked to Adam downright menacing, like a mafioso’s throat-slitting gesture. “Nobody’s allowed to download mods on my dad’s computer,” the boy intoned.

This nonsense alerted Adam to the absurdity of the conversation: The kid didn’t even know he was awake. “It’s okay, man, go back to sleep,” he said—would have preferred to use something more personal than “man,” but he wasn’t entirely, entirely sure whether this was Toby or Sam. Still, the child wordlessly obliged. He leaned his shoulder against the wall, padded back into the bedroom, leaving the door open—a gesture Adam found unreasonably touching, as though it were proof the boy didn’t hate him, didn’t fear him, after all.

He lay back down and stared up at the pocked tiles above him. The basement had a lurking, familiar odor: plaster and lavender air freshener locked in combat with something vaguely musty. He remembered what he’d been dreaming of: Music. Playing. Some sense of the sound still filled the corners of his memory: taut, sharp notes, like from a harpsichord, tripping down a thrumming baseline: a half song, half-remembered.

Once upon a time, he’d have made the effort to recall it, tried to reach into the cracks between sleep and waking to pull the chimerical sound out—sing it into a voicemail, the way you fixed a butterfly to a board with a pin. Occasionally, what he’d listen to an hour or so later wasn’t even half-bad. More often, though, what he heard was nonsense, and even before he stopped playing he’d concluded that it was a waste of time. He wasn’t actually dreaming of music—he was only dreaming of playing it: the texture and resistance of the keys under his fingertips, the beer residue in the metal mesh of the mic on his lips, the bass rumble from the stage through his torso, and more and more lately that rarest feeling, of getting picked up and carried by the music itself: no more distinction between him and the keyboard, between him and those he played with, between crowd and band, all of them racing along with the same roar—the communion of that, the freedom.

The paisley sheet his mother had made up the couch with had gotten tangled around his thighs in the night. He yanked it up toward his chin, but without much hope of getting back to sleep. The stillness of the house was deafening somehow—like all the sleeping people were vibrating at a frequency only he could hear: his family, ringing in his ears.

He kicked off the sheet and sat up, grabbed his jeans, crumpled on top of his duffel bag, and took out a sweatshirt. He climbed the carpeted stairs as he pushed his arms through the sleeves. Above the rail to his right were taped a dozen or more crayon drawings on white paper: houses and suns, oceans and triangle-sailed boats, violent inchoate swirls that resembled things he’d seen when he dropped acid in the Mall of America before a show in St. Paul. “The fridge just isn’t big enough when we all get together!” his mother had exclaimed as she’d led him down the night before—as though he were some kind of stranger, as though she were a tour guide, explaining to a foreigner what it was like when “they” were together. But he reminded himself: If he’d been absent for so long, he had only himself to blame. Fixed on the door at the top of the stairs was more kid art: brown, hand-shaped cutouts of different sizes, with glued-on elaborations (yellow feet, red-orange waddles, plastic googly eyes) to establish that these were turkeys. “Happy Thanksgiving!” one of his nieces or nephews had written in careful elementary school cursive on a piece of construction paper, masking taped above the doorknob. For some reason, it struck him like an ultimatum.

He opened the door a crack, listened: more tinnitus quiet, no one else was up. He moved as softly as he could down the corridor toward the front hall. When he was a teenager he’d snuck out so often, and apparently so needfully, he’d been able to make this trip without turning on a single light: the twelve stairs up from the basement, left and down this hall to the front door, his hand reaching the knob in the dark by pure muscle memory. Then he’d get into his father’s car, put it in neutral, and roll down to the end of the driveway, only then turning on the engine. And from there it was off to some friend’s or to some agreed-upon clearing in the woods, bottle caps and butts littering the ground like pine needles, or if there was nothing going on he and his friends would drive around the campus of the local state college, hoping to stumble on a party, smoking weed and listening to cassettes of Mudhoney, Guster, Pearl Jam, NWA. He knew he shouldn’t look back on those nights quite so fondly. But he couldn’t help it. Yes, it was drugs-and-alcohol- laden fun—but it was still fun.

He carefully opened the coat closet; the old ski jacket that his mother had pulled from somewhere was hanging next to the blue peacoat he’d worn from San Francisco. Within sixty seconds of his walking in, his mother had declared the peacoat “too nice” for the game of touch football planned for the following afternoon, and bustled around upstairs until she produced the ancient jacket. He’d tried to tell her he’d bought the peacoat for forty bucks at a thrift store almost a decade ago, and anyway, there was no reason to find an alternative at eleven o’clock at night. But she ignored him, and when she held out the ski jacket, of course he took it, of course he tried it on, and though the synthetic fabric was so stiff with age it was almost sharp, he declared that it was perfect, and thanked her, and thanked her some more. Why? Because he wanted to be agreeable—amenable, he thought as he took his cigarettes from the pocket of the peacoat, zipped up the ski jacket to his throat.

His pair of ratty Converse was on the drip tray amid a double line of neatly ordered Velcros and snow boots. He tied his laces and pulled open the door. And the instant the door parted from the jamb, the cat appeared out of nowhere and slid outside. “Fuck!” Adam said, making a flailing attempt to grab the animal by its tail as it darted out. He lost his balance and fell on his hip, knocking over the drip tray, one arm stuck outside.

He sat there for a moment, waiting for the whole house to wake up: doors flying open, shouts of alarm. As the quiet continued, he tried to assess what key of crisis, major or minor, this cat situation represented. Was it an outdoor cat or an indoor cat? Had it ever been to the house before? If so, was it allowed to roam the yard? It was Kristen’s family’s cat. Adam could imagine her twin daughters wailing when they heard; he imagined spending the whole day searching the neighborhood for the animal, only to discover its bloody corpse fresh from the maw of some displaced mountain lion or overzealous rottweiler or whatever. In short, the day ruined, and all his fault.

The open door was letting the cold air in; that had to be against the rules. He pulled himself up, went outside and shut the door behind him. With what the cigarette had cost him, he figured he might as well smoke it. And as he lit it and sat down on the top step, there was the cat—perched erect and expectant at his feet, swishing its tail, regarding him as though it were on to him, too: He didn’t know what he was doing. He didn’t know how to be an uncle or a son or a brother—not here, not anymore. Not without a drink. The cat sauntered up the steps; Adam opened the door and it vanished inside. “Asshole,” Adam muttered after it.

And then he smiled, because it was funny he’d called the cat an asshole. The whole thing was kind of funny, if you looked at it the right way: Uncle Adam, freaking out about the cat getting out, but the cat spent lots of time outside! It knew when to go out and come back in. Maybe proving he belonged wasn’t so much a matter of mastering every last rule for who slept where, when the cat was allowed to go out, what to do with the surplus crayon drawings, but rather knowing what it was okay to laugh about. “You’ll never believe what happened with me and that fucking cat!” he could tell them over breakfast. He took another pull on the cigarette, blew the smoke upward to try to warm the tip of his nose. The spruce trees at the end of the yard, planted by his parents when he was a kid to block the sight of Parr Street and the McReedys’ garage, were so still in the cold they appeared frozen solid. A bright layer of frost had settled over the grass of the lawn and over the slope of blacktop where the cars were parked:

Kristen and her husband Dan’s minivan; Jack and his wife Lizzy’s Tahoe; and last in line the cobalt blue Chevy Adam had rented in Hartford, because he hadn’t wanted anybody to have to come and get him from the airport. They’d offered, everybody’d offered; but again, he’d been trying to be amenable—so amenable they’d hardly notice he was there.

He smacked his fingers against his palms, finally fixed the cigarette at the corner of his mouth and stuck his hands under his armpits. Smoking without your hands was one of the easier things you could learn to do at a piano. He should’ve found a pair of gloves in the closet, though. Even when they weren’t squeezed in his armpits on a freezing New England November morning, the joints of his fingers ached when he first woke up. He’d met an older jazz guy in Miami who’d had to stop playing altogether because of the arthritis. All things considered, though, you had to have a pretty lucky career for arthritis to force you out, and not the mile-below-the-poverty-line money, or the burnout from the road, or the booze and the bars, not to mention all the harder stuff you could get with as little as a mutter to the right promoter, hanger-on, somebody-on-the-bill’s girlfriend. He remembered at a party after a Kiss and Kill show in New Orleans, in some sweltering shotgun crash-house, he’d wandered into a back room and stumbled on a shirtless, comically mulleted guy poking at the thighs of a glassy-eyed redhead, her jeans around her ankles. It took Adam a moment to register the syringe clasped between the dude’s teeth. He looked up at Adam and grinned around the syringe like the fucking Cheshire cat.

“What about you, amigo?” he asked, taking the syringe from his mouth. “You’re in the band, you want one on the house?”

Earlier in the night, he’d introduced himself as a friend of Johanna’s. And maybe he was. You could never guess who her friends would be—where they came from, what they wanted. Adam couldn’t say whether he’d been too smart, or too scared, or simply plain lucky to have refused that offer—that and the thousand others like it, escaped all those choices even worse than the ones he’d made to make it back here: the steps of his parents’ house, on Thanksgiving morning. The juxtaposition of the two moments—heroin in the back room, the sleepy home on Thanksgiving day—somehow made both of them seem ridiculous, maybe made him seem ridiculous, too, with the clumsily stitched-together persona he’d carried on with for so many years: the rock keyboardist, the nice suburban kid from western Massachusetts.

But what did he care if he’d turned out to be ridiculous? He ought to be thrilled to be nothing worse than ridiculous! And he wished he could explain something like that to Jack, or to his dad, or to any of them—that he was grateful, grateful almost to tears, to be here: sober for nine months and four days (as of this morning), invited back for a family holiday. From the moment they closed the door behind him, though, it’d been awkward. His mother giggled painfully after she asked him if he wanted anything to drink. His father kept announcing how glad he was to see Adam while clasping his hands together and shaking them in front of his chest, like a politician pleading for racial harmony. The only other person who’d waited up was Jack, and Adam couldn’t help wondering whether his older brother had stayed up on the chance Adam would show up blotto, and they’d need to throw him out. When Adam said after five minutes he was exhausted and just wanted to get some sleep, he could tell they were all relieved.

He put the cigarette out on the bottom of his shoe, slid the butt into the pocket of his jeans. As he opened the door, he saw above it was hammered a strip of sanded wood with the words “The Warshaws” painted in blocky purple letters. The loneliness he felt looking at that sign was at once so predictable and so unaccountable all he could do was stand there. Then he went back inside.

He took off his sneakers, righted the drip tray and the scattered shoes, hung up the ski jacket, and went into the kitchen. The table was already set up as the children’s table: orange paper tablecloth, paper plates with cartoon Pilgrims, the centerpiece a fan-tailed, leering paper turkey. He surveyed the family photos on the shelves above the sink, images spanning from his and his siblings’ childhoods to the birth of Kristen’s twins. There were a few photos of him playing: a recital when he was six, looking freakishly tiny at the keys of a six-foot grand; the time Kiss and Kill played Late Night in the Conan era. (His mother must have cut the photo to leave Johanna out; pretty tactful, he had to admit.) The most recent photo of him was maybe five years old, some solo show he’d done: his back bent, his face down near the keys, eyes shut, lips curled in concentration—the Artist at Work, or trying to look that way. He’d lost weight since then—his face at thirty-five narrower, the angles of chin and cheek sharper. He had an impulse to hide his pictures behind the others, but his mother being his mother would notice, and he’d have to explain what he’d done. Why should he feel humiliated? she’d want to know. She had the pictures out because they were proud of him (which, of course, was the most humiliating part of all).

He dropped the cigarette butt into the trash can under the sink, and shook the can so the butt jiggled under a banana peel. He pulled opened the refrigerator, looking for he wasn’t sure what. The shelves were stacked with casseroles and tin-foil-covered pots, ready to be reheated. A couple green glass bottles sat wedged in the door: sparkling cider, he saw from the labels. He had a hunch they’d even gotten rid of the cough syrup.

He imagined making himself useful—tidying up, putting away. But everything was spotless: the countertops wiped down, the cereal boxes on top of the fridge lined in descending order. A piece of yellow legal paper was taped to the handle of the dishwasher, on which one of the kids had written “Clean!” Adam lifted the paper. On the back was “Dirty!” with some comically grubby plates and glasses, flies buzzing around them in the air. He smiled again. He loved these kids.

He didn’t know which one had made the sign, so he felt his love for all of them collectively—felt it as a form of relief. He switched the sign over to “Dirty!” and opened the dishwasher. But as he took out the first pair of clean plates, he realized he didn’t know where anything went. There was a coffee pot in the top rack; the coffee maker was plugged in on the counter. Okay, this he could do. He could make them coffee. He could fill the house with the smell of freshly brewed coffee in the morning. Who could object to that?

He took the glass coffee pot from the dishwasher and set it on the counter by the coffee maker, took out the plastic lid and the filter basket. He opened some cupboards, got lucky and found the filters. The coffee was right there in the freezer, like he’d guessed. So far, so good. He slid the filter in the basket, spooned in the coffee grounds, snapped the basket into the coffee maker, and poured in the water. He even imagined himself doing it all with a certain finesse—the practiced grace of his hands. And maybe this idea made him careless, or maybe it was something else, but as he tried to snap the pegs of the lid into the holes of the pot, the pot slipped from his hands. It made a balletic turn on the counter and spun off the edge.

He didn’t even bother to watch whether it broke, only listened, with hope that bordered on prayer. Silence followed the shattering sound. Then he heard from somewhere in the house, “Dad!” And then the same voice, more desperately, “Moooom!” And he heard doors opening. He knew he ought to pick up the larger pieces of glass, find a broom and a dust pan, be there to warn anyone who appeared about the shards and apologize for depriving them all of coffee on a holiday morning. He ought to do a thousand things that real members of a family would do without thinking. But he found he lacked the will to do any of them. He went back to the closet, put on his peacoat, and went outside. Sunlight was slanting through the needles of the spruce trees. Maybe he should go out and get coffee—that would make up for all of it. “Don’t worry, Uncle Adam got coffee from town!” Someone would clean up the glass; surely, no barefooted child would step on the pile of glass, need stitches—shit, for all he knew, lose the foot.

This was called catastrophic thinking, he’d been taught at Stone Manor, the Maine rehab he’d been through at the beginning of the year: His mind had a compulsion to seek out the worst possible outcomes. Why did it do that? Harder to say. But the point was, he shouldn’t trust his fear that breaking the coffee pot would lead to one his nephews losing a foot. He could have another cigarette, and in a minute he’d go back inside and clean up the glass—and explain.

But that was the part he couldn’t summon the energy for: the explanations. Having to say, over and over and over—to Jack and his mother and father and Kristen and Dan and Lizzy and Emma and Carrie and Toby and Sam and the baby whose name he forgot, and hell, to the cat while he was at it—tell them all about his meager hopes of making them coffee, and how with his graceful hands, he’d fucked it up.

No, he couldn’t do it. Not after one cigarette, not after a hundred. Not sober. He dug in the pockets of his peacoat and found the keys to his rental car. He walked across the lawn and got in, put the car in neutral, rolled down the drive, stopped at the bottom of the hill, and started the engine.

From Start Without Me. Used with permission of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © 2017 by Joshua Max Feldman.

Excerpt: Food & Drink

Thursday, October 19, 2017 | Permalink

This essay, by Sarah Rich, is excerpted from Leave Me Alone with the Recipes: The Life, Art, and Cookbook of Cipe Pineles. Cipe (pronounced “C. P.”) was one of the most influential graphic designers of the twentieth century, and the first female art director at Condé Nast. The following piece is about the innovative magazine, called Food & Drink, that she planned to launch in the 1960s.


In the early 1960s, Cipe decided to more formally and fully incorporate her love of food into her magazine work by launching a new publication entitled Food & Drink. At the time, Gourmet Magazine had been in print for twenty years, but it, along with the few other titles in the same category, targeted female homemakers. In contrast, Food & Drink would be for both men and women; it would not only be instructional but investigative and intellectual, looking at gastronomy through the eyes of some of the greatest writers of that era. The list of planned contributors included Marianne Moore, Eudora Welty, Pierre Salinger, Clifton Fadiman, and Erich Fromm in addition to food greats like M.F.K. Fisher, Elizabeth David, and Craig Claiborne. The editorial team was to be led by James Beard, along with Helen McCully, who had been the food editor at McCall’s and House Beautiful; Tracy Samuels, a Better Living magazine editor and playwright; and Cipe, whose credits at that point included Seventeen, Charm, Mademoiselle, Vogue, and others.

The team had the support of Richard V. Benson, a wealthy directmail advertising magnate who had founded American Heritage magazine and helped start Smithsonian. His introductory letter to Food & Drink began, “Dear Bon Vivants . . . From our ancestors’ primitive foraging for nuts and berries and wild boar, gastronomy has become one of man’s most fascinating and complex occupations. Yet, until now, there has never been a magazine which examined this field regularly, comprehensively, engagingly.”

The editorial team made an extra effort to emphasize men’s potential interest in the magazine, since it could be taken for granted that women would gravitate toward it. Another teaser for the publication, written by Beard, began, “We men like to read about food and drink as much as women do. Maybe more. But we haven’t exactly been encouraged to take a good romp through fine eating territory on the printed page. Most of the material published in magazines seems to be aimed exclusively at women. And only at certain kinds of women, at that. It’s coy and cute. Or frilly. Or dull. Or long-winded. Or meandering, with recipes as leaven for otherwise flighty essays. High time all that was changed, in our opinion. And changed it is, with the first issue of Food & Drink, the new magazine for the inner man.”

Cipe’s archives, housed at the Rochester Institute of Technology, include typed and hand-sketched pages for the first few issues of the magazine. Volume 1 was set to include a piece from mystery writer Rex Stout entitled “Nero Wolfe Cooks an Orchid” (Wolfe being the fictional protagonist of Stout’s many detective novels). Another essay asked, “Is Speed Killing Our Cuisine?” and was to be assigned to M.F.K. Fisher. “Dinner Party at our Embassy in Gabon,” would be written by Mrs. Charles Darlington, the wife of a diplomat stationed in central Africa in the 1960s. To keep things culinary, Julia Child would contribute “The Endless Possibilities of a Properly Poached Chicken,” and Craig Claiborne, the famed New York Times food writer, was writing “Chefs Don’t Eat What You Eat.” In the “service” section, the list of pieces included “Is Your Blender Sitting on Its Hands?”, “The Hot Banana,” and “Sour Cream: The Suave Touch.”

If Food & Drink had been born in the late 2000s, it almost certainly would have been Lucky Peach—a masculine-leaning, irreverent, bold-voiced magazine. Like Lucky Peach, it wanted to win its audience by running counter to what was expected of a publication in its sector. But it was the 1960s, and for whatever reason, a concept that seemed so smart, edgy, and broadly appealing never took off. Perhaps it was due to Benson’s plan to keep the magazine off newsstands and available only by mail to subscribers. Perhaps it was something else. In Cipe’s archives, there is a single-page typed letter from Food & Drink’s president and publisher, James B. Horton, addressed to the magazine’s investors. “Food & Drink, Inc., having no assets, is now considered an abandoned Corporation,” he wrote, “You will notice that we had a cash balance of $109.79 in 1963. This amount has been expended during the year 1964 on legal fees.”

With that tiny financial consideration accounted for, the promising venture dissolved, its amazing potential stored in a time capsule in Cipe’s files. Horton went on to launch Food & Wine magazine in the 1970s while acting as VP at Playboy Enterprises, but as we know, it fell in line as a magazine primarily for women, home cooks, and entertainers. Today we have a few other titles that conjure the spirit of Food & Drink, but one can only imagine what that publication would be now, had it come to life and endured for the next half century.

Sarah Rich is a writer based in Oakland, California. She is the co-editor of Leave Me Alone with the Recipes: The Life, Art, and Cookbook of Cipe Pineles. She is a former editor at Dwell, Smithsonian, and Medium; and co-founder of Longshot Magazine and the Foodprint Project.

Header image via Flickr/Paul Townsend

Excerpt: There Was a Rabbi of Kiev

Tuesday, July 25, 2017 | Permalink

British writer Howard Jacobson's most recent collection of essays, The Dog's Last Walk (and Other Pieces), was published last week by Bloomsbury Publishing. Below's excerpt from the book, "There Was a Rabbi in Kiev," offers a Yom Kippur tale. 

Now that another Yom Kippur has been and gone without my being struck down for my sins – the biggest of them, in some eyes, being my failure to honour the Day of Atonement in the way a Jew is supposed to – I will unfold to you a tale. Call it an expiation for not adequately expiating.

There was a rabbi . . . Jewish parables always begin that way, and as often as not situate the rabbi in Kiev. So: there was a rabbi of Kiev, only he was not a rabbi in the conventional sense, he was rabbi of Radical Scepticism employed by the City Duma’s Department of Rationalism to keep an eye out for irrationalism of a specifically Jewish variety. Though known to his friends as Viktor, he always jumped when someone shouted: ‘Abram!’ This was because Abram was the name his parents had given him. Whenever this happened, Viktor – who had bestowed that name upon himself – fell into a fit of guilt about his parents and prayed for forgiveness from the God in whom they had believed but he did not. Immediately he had finished praying he castigated himself for showing such disrespect to his own non-belief. Viktor did not keep Shabbes, took no notice of any of Jewish festivals and ate whatever took his fancy. Because lapwing was high on the list of foods proscribed in Leviticus, he would have tucked into lapwing with gusto had he known where to buy it. Food was scarce in Kiev, so it was difficult enough to find ossifrage, let alone lapwing. Snails, however, were a delicacy he indulged. Hare, whether grilled or in a pie, likewise. And as for the bacon he fried in butter every morning, as an accompaniment to blood pudding – so many slices, fried for just the right number of minutes, a little salt, a little pepper, a dash of oyster sauce – why it was almost a religious ritual to him.

But he was troubled by an inconsistency. If he could dine on bacon without a qualm, and pork sausage, and ham hock, and chitterlings – and there was even one dish he adored of which the chief ingredient was pig’s rectum – why couldn’t he ever eat pork belly? If he saw pork belly on a menu, he needed to drink a glass of water. If he sat next to someone eating pork belly, he had to fight himself from retching. Once, when one of his colleagues ordered pork belly, Viktor announced he would have to leave the table while the food was being consumed.

‘Viktor, you must be able to explain this inconsistency,’ his colleague demanded. But Viktor was unable to. It wasn’t what the pork belly looked or tasted like that was the problem. It was the pairing of the words, the concatenation of sounds – pork and belly. Pork on its own – fine. He loved a pork sandwich with apple sauce. Belly, too, as a discrete entity, presented no problems. He had once eaten yak’s belly on a visit to Moldavia and loved it. But put pork and belly together and he was disgusted. It was a foreignness – a transgression even – too far.

So what was it a transgression against? Viktor was damned if he knew.

And thus it was, inversely, with Yom Kippur, that’s to say thus it was when it came to ignoring it. Hanukkah, Pesach, Purim – Viktor respected none of them. He saw his co-religionists – except that he was no longer a religionist himself – spruced up for synagogue and shook his head over them. Slaves to custom and superstition! Drones of blind faith! On festivals where it was necessary to be solemn, Viktor took pains to be seen laughing. Where it was necessary to laugh, Viktor wore his longest face. On Yom Kippur, however, he kept out of the way. He saw no reason to apologise for his sins since he was always apologising for his sins. Why set aside a single day to atone for your guilt when you’ve been atoning for it all year? Indeed, if he had a besetting sin it was being over-conscious of sinning. So he certainly wasn’t going to fast. But – and this he knew to be illogical – he wasn’t going to be seen not fasting either. No ostentatious banquets at his favourite restaurants on this day. No public retching over another diner’s pork belly.

On the Day of Atonement the sun happened to be shining and Viktor decided on a walk. He nodded at some of the Jews he knew – more pallid than ever on account of doing without food – and suddenly, despite having enjoyed a hearty breakfast, he felt hungry. A snack was all he needed. A biscuit or chocolate. He wandered down a side street and found a tobacconist and confectioner’s. Here he bought a bar of chocolate. But he hesitated before breaking into it. On this day of all others, he thought, couldn’t I at least have done without chocolate?

But that was a superstitious thought and he put it from him. He ate a piece of chocolate, was disappointed in the taste and decided to throw the rest away. What made him decide to throw it in the Dnieper when he could have tossed it over any fence he didn’t know. But when he got to the river, he realised he couldn’t do it. It looked too much like tashlich, or casting your sins upon the water, a ritual Viktor scorned. As though you could drown a sin! He walked on but knew he had to get rid of the remaining chocolate. Why? Did he think he could half atone for half a sin? Did he think he might be half forgiven?

It would seem, he admitted to himself, that I am half superstitious.

Once he got back to his department offices he confessed his recidivism and offered to half resign. At a hurriedly convened meeting of councillors he was fired altogether. You have to make your mind up in this institution, they told him.

There is no moral to this story. But as someone who recently bought a bar of chocolate on Yom Kippur I can vouch for its essential truth.

From The Dog’s Last Walk, by Howard Jacobson, published by Bloomsbury Publishing. Copyright ©Howard Jacobson 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Excerpt: All Our Wrong Todays

Wednesday, June 21, 2017 | Permalink

Excerpted from All Our Wrong Todays, Elan Mastai's latest science fiction novel.


1

So, the thing is, I come from the world we were supposed to have.

That means nothing to you, obviously, because you live here, in the crappy world we do have. But it never should’ve turned out like this. And it’s all my fault-well, me and to a lesser extent my father and, yeah, I guess a little bit Penelope.

It’s hard to know how to start telling this story. But, okay, you know the future that people in the 1950s imagined we’d have? Flying cars, robot maids, food pills, teleportation, jet packs, moving sidewalks, ray guns, hover boards, space vacations, and moon bases. All that dazzling, transformative technology our grandparents were certain was right around the corner. The stuff of world’s fairs and pulp science-fiction magazines with titles like Fantastic Future Tales and The Amazing World of Tomorrow. Can you picture it?

Well, it happened.

It all happened, more or less exactly as envisioned. I’m not talking about the future. I’m talking about the present. Today, in the year 2016, humanity lives in a techno-utopian paradise of abundance, purpose, and wonder.

Except we don’t. Of course we don’t. We live in a world where, sure, there are iPhones and 3D printers and, I don’t know, drone strikes or whatever. But it hardly looks like The Jetsons. Except it should. And it did. Until it didn’t. But it would have, if I hadn’t done what I did. Or, no, hold on, what I will have done.

I’m sorry, despite receiving the best education available to a citizen of the World of Tomorrow, the grammar of this situation is a bit complicated.

Maybe the first person is the wrong way to tell this story. Maybe if I take refuge in the third person I’ll find some sort of distance or insight or at least peace of mind. It’s worth a try.

2

Tom Barren wakes up into his own dream.

Every night, neural scanners map his dreams while he sleeps so that both his conscious and unconscious thought patterns can be effectively modeled. Every morning, the neural scanners transmit the current dream-state data into a program that generates a real-time virtual projection into which he seamlessly rouses. The dream’s scattershot plot is made increasingly linear and lucid until a psychologically pleasing resolution is achieved at the moment of full consciousness...

I’m sorry-I can’t write like this. It’s fake. It’s safe.

The third person is comforting because it’s in control, which feels really nice when relating events that were often so out of control. It’s like a scientist describing a biological sample seen through a microscope. But I’m not the microscope. I’m the thing on the slide. And I’m not writing this to make myself comfortable. If I wanted comfort, I’d write fiction.

In fiction, you cohere all these evocative, telling details into a portrait of the world. But in everyday life, you hardly notice any of the little things. You can’t. Your brain swoops past it all, especially when it’s your own home, a place that feels barely separate from the inside of your mind or the outside of your body.

When you wake up from a real dream into a virtual one, it’s like you’re on a raft darting this way and that according to the blurry, impenetrable currents of your unconscious, until you find yourself gliding onto a wide, calm, shallow lake, and the slippery, fraught weirdness dissolves into serene, reassuring clarity. The story wraps up the way it feels like it must, and no matter how unsettling the content, you wake with the rejuvenating solidity of order restored. And that’s when you realize you’re lying in bed, ready to start the day, with none of that sticky subconscious gristle caught in the cramped folds of your mind.

It might be what I miss most about where I come from. Because in this world waking up sucks.

Here, it’s like nobody has considered using even the most rudimentary technology to improve the process. Mattresses don’t subtly vibrate to keep your muscles loose. Targeted steam valves don’t clean your body in slumber. I mean, blankets are made from tufts of plant fiber spun into thread and occasionally stuffed with feathers. Feathers. Like from actual birds. Waking up should be the best moment of your day, your unconscious and conscious minds synchronized and harmonious.

Getting dressed involves an automated device that cuts and stitches a new outfit every morning, indexed to your personal style and body type. The fabric is made from laser-hardened strands of a light-sensitive liquid polymer that’s recycled nightly for daily reuse. For breakfast, a similar system outputs whatever meal you feel like from a nutrient gel mixed with color, flavor, and texture protocols. And if that sounds gross to you, in practice it’s indistinguishable from what you think of as real food, except that it’s uniquely gauged to your tongue’s sensory receptors so it tastes and feels ideal every time. You know that sinking feeling you get when you cut into an avocado, only to find that it’s either hard and underripe or brown and bruised under its skin? Well, I didn’t know that could even happen until I came here. Every avocado I ever ate was perfect.

It’s weird to be nostalgic for experiences that both did and didn’t exist. Like waking up every morning completely refreshed. Something I didn’t even realize I could take for granted because it was simply the way things were. But that’s the point, of course-the way things were . . . never was.

What I’m not nostalgic for is that every morning when I woke up and got dressed and ate breakfast in this glittering technological utopia, I was alone.

3

On July 11, 1965, Lionel Goettreider invented the future.

Obviously you’ve never heard of him. But where I come from, Lionel Goettreider is the most famous, beloved, and respected human on the planet. Every city has dozens of things named after him: streets, buildings, parks, whatever. Every kid knows how to spell his name using the catchy mnemonic tune that goes G-O-E-T-T-R-E-I-D-E-R.

You have no idea what I’m talking about. But if you were from where I’m from, it’d be as familiar to you as A-B-C.

Fifty-one years ago, Lionel Goettreider invented a revolutionary way to generate unlimited, robust, absolutely clean energy. His device came to be called the Goettreider Engine. July 11, 1965, was the day he turned it on for the very first time. It made everything possible.

Imagine that the last five decades happened with no restrictions on energy. No need to dig deeper and deeper into the ground and make the skies dirtier and dirtier. Nuclear became unnecessarily tempestuous. Coal and oil pointlessly murky. Solar and wind and even hydropower became quaint low-fidelity alternatives that nobody bothered with unless they were peculiarly determined to live off the main grid.

So, how did the Goettreider Engine work?

How does electricity work? How does a microwave oven work? How does your cell phone or television or remote control work? Do you actually understand on, like, a concrete technical level? If those technologies disappeared, could you reconceive, redesign, and rebuild them from scratch? And, if not, why not? You only use these things pretty much every single day.

But of course you don’t know. Because unless your job’s in a related field you don’t need to know. They just work, effortlessly, as they were intended to.

Where I come from, that’s how it is with the Goettreider Engine. It was important enough to make Goettreider as recognizable a name as Einstein or Newton or Darwin. But how it functioned, like, technically? I really couldn’t tell you.

Basically, you know how a dam produces energy? Turbines harness the natural propulsion of water flowing downward via gravity to generate electricity. To be clear, that’s more or less all I understand about hydroelectric power. Gravity pulls water down, so if you stick a turbine in its path, the water spins it around and somehow makes energy.

The Goettreider Engine does that with the planet. You know that the Earth spins on its axis and also revolves around the Sun, while the Sun itself moves endlessly through the solar system. Like water through a turbine, the Goettreider Engine harnesses the constant rotation of the planet to create boundless energy. It has something to do with magnetism and gravity and . . . honestly, I don’t know-any more than I genuinely understand an alkaline battery or a combustion engine or an incandescent light bulb. They just work.

So does the Goettreider Engine. It just works.

Or it did. Before, you know, me.

4

I am not a genius. If you’ve read this far, you’re already aware of that fact.

But my father is a legitimate full-blown genius of the highest order. After finishing his third PhD, Victor Barren spent a few crucial years working in long-range teleportation before founding his own lab to pursue his specific niche field-time travel.

Even where I come from, time travel was considered more or less impossible. Not because of time, actually, but because of space.

Here’s why every time-travel movie you’ve ever seen is total bullshit: because the Earth moves.

You know this. Plus I mentioned it last chapter. The Earth spins all the way around once a day, revolves around the Sun once a year, while the Sun is on its own cosmic route through the solar system, which is itself hurtling through a galaxy that’s wandering an epic path through the universe.

The ground under you is moving, really fast. Along the equator, the Earth rotates at over 1,000 miles per hour, twenty-four hours a day, while orbiting the Sun at a little over 67,000 miles per hour. That’s 1,600,000 miles per day. Meanwhile our solar system is in motion relative to the Milky Way galaxy at more than 1,300,000 miles per hour, covering just shy of 32,000,000 miles per day. And so on.

If you were to travel back in time to yesterday, the Earth would be in a different place in space. Even if you travel back in time one second, the Earth below your feet can move nearly half a kilometer. In one second.

The reason every movie about time travel is nonsense is that the Earth moves, constantly, always. You travel back one day, you don’t end up in the same location-you end up in the gaping vacuum of outer space.

Marty McFly didn’t appear thirty years earlier in his hometown of Hill Valley, California. His tricked-out DeLorean materialized in the endless empty blackness of the cosmos with the Earth approximately 350,000,000,000 miles away. Assuming he didn’t immediately lose consciousness from the lack of oxygen, the absence of air pressure would cause all the fluids in his body to bubble, partially evaporate, and freeze. He would be dead in less than a minute.

The Terminator would probably survive in space because it’s an unstoppable robot killing machine, but traveling from 2029 to 1984 would’ve given Sarah Connor a 525,000,000,000-mile head start.

Time travel doesn’t just require traveling back in time. It also requires traveling back to a pinpoint-specific location in space. Otherwise, just like with regular old everyday teleportation, you could end up stuck inside something.

Think about where you’re sitting right now. Let’s say on an olive-green couch. A white ceramic bowl of fake green pears and real brown pinecones propped next to your feet on the teak coffee table. A brushed-steel floor lamp glows over your shoulder. A coarse rug over reclaimed barn-board elm floors that cost too much but look pretty great . . .

If you were to teleport even a few inches in any direction, your body would be embedded in a solid object. One inch, you’re wounded. Two inches, you’re maimed. Three inches, you’re dead.

Every second of the day, we’re all three inches from being dead.

Which is why teleportation is safe and effective only if it’s between dedicated sites on an exactingly calibrated system.

My father’s early work in teleportation was so important because it helped him understand the mechanics of disincorporating and reincorporating a human body between discrete locations. It’s what stymied all previous time-travel initiatives. Reversing the flow of time isn’t even that complex. What’s outrageously complex is instantaneous space travel with absolute accuracy across potentially billions of miles.

My father’s genius wasn’t just about solving both the theoretical and logistic challenges of time travel. It was about recognizing that in this, as in so many other aspects of everyday life, our savior was Lionel Goettreider.

5

The first Goettreider Engine was turned on once and never turned off-it’s been running without interruption since 2:03 p.m. on Sunday, July 11, 1965.

Goettreider’s original device wasn’t designed to harness and emit large-scale amounts of energy. It was an experimental prototype that performed beyond its inventor’s most grandiose expectations. But the whole point of a Goettreider Engine is that it never has to be deactivated, just as the planet never stops moving. So, the prototype was left running in the same spot where it was first switched on, in front of a small crowd of sixteen observers in a basement laboratory in section B7 of the San Francisco State Science and Technology Center.

Where I come from, every schoolkid knows the names and faces of the Sixteen Witnesses. Numerous books have been written about every single one of them, with their presence at this ultimate hinge in history shoved into the chronology of their individual lives as the defining event, whether or not it was factually true.

Countless works of art have depicted The Activation of the Goettreider Engine. It’s The Last Supper of the modern world, those sixteen faces, each with its own codified reaction. Skeptical. Awed. Distracted. Amused. Jealous. Angry. Thoughtful. Frightened. Detached. Concerned. Excited. Nonchalant. Harried. There’s three more. Damn it, I should know this . . .

When the prototype Engine was first turned on, Goettreider just wanted to verify his calculations and prove his theory wasn’t completely misguided-all it had to do was actually work. And it did work, but it had a major defect. It emitted a unique radiation signature, what was later called tau radiation, a nod to how physics uses the Greek capital letter T to represent proper time in relativity equations.

As the Engine’s miraculous energy-generating capacities expanded to power the whole world, the tau radiation signature was eliminated from the large-scale industrial models. But the prototype was left to run, theoretically forever, in Goettreider’s lab in San Francisco-now among the most visited museums on the planet-out of respect, nostalgia, and a legally rigid clause in Goettreider’s last will and testament.

From the book All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai. Reprinted by arrangement with DUTTON, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Copyright © Elan Mastai, 2017.

Going Tribal

Tuesday, June 06, 2017 | Permalink

Excerpted from Wherever You Go, There They Are: Stories About My Family You Might Relate To (Blue Rider Press, April, 2017) the latest collection of essays by New York Times Bestselling author Annabelle Gurwitch that Oprah's Magazine calls a "vivacious, hilarious, madcap memoir."

When it was time to find “the next place” for my parents, my mother decided she wanted to go tribal.

My mother wants to return to “her people,” only she doesn’t mean our family. Between cherished long-​standing grudges and more recent perceived slights, she is on speaking terms with only a handful of family members. No, she’s making the great leap backward, aligning herself with our ancestors.

My grandfather’s family, the Maisels, were teachers and rabbis. We would like to believe that the namesake of the Maisel Synagogue in Prague, a mayor who held office during the sixteenth century in the Jewish ghetto, was a relative. That’s about as much as we know about them, but we do know a lot about my grandmother Frances’s lineage.

Menasha Lidinsky, later Anglicized to Moshe, and then Morris Laden, my grandmother’s father, fled the Ukraine with his wife, Sarah, when my grandmother Frances was five years old. Fleeing the pogroms, they came over on the Prinz Oscar, having made their way to Germany from Russia in 1913. Moshe’s profession was listed as dry goods salesman. My great-​grandfather was what villagers referred to as a “swaybacked-​mule junk dealer,” or peddler, trudging from town to town earning a meager living selling goods off of an ancient animal’s back. If we had a family crest it would feature a donkey, a potato, the one pot we had to piss in, and the family motto: “My feet are killing me!” (Moshe and I actually have a lot in common, as the day‑to‑day life of a swaybacked-​mule junk dealer is much like being an author on a book tour. I’ve sold books from the trunk of my car.)

Bubbie Sarah and Zayda Moshe opened a dry goods store across the street from the famous Jewish Exponent newspaper on Pine Street in downtown Philadelphia. They had an apartment above their store, like many shopkeepers at the time. They never ventured far from their community, spoke mostly Yiddish, and lived in fear of that multitasking God who had enough time to concern himself with not only the workings of the entire universe but with whether a tiny subset of a single species on a spinning blue ball in the outer suburbs of the Milky Way dared to defy his grand plans by mixing dairy and meat.

This is why the Tel Aviv Gardens is on our list of senior living facilities to visit this weekend. It’s on a twenty-​five-​acre campus with housing options that range from independent-​living apartments to hospice care. My mother imagines that her mother, Frances, our nanny, would have felt at home there.

Nanny never spoke of spirituality, but she did believe that Jews were a kind of chosen people— the tribe entrusted with the responsibility of keeping the planet spic-​and-​span. Cleanliness was not just next to godliness for her, it was a devout calling. In the same way that nuns see themselves as brides of Christ, Nanny pledged herself to Ajax, lord of germs, whose dominion covered the expanse of surfaces in her home and the domiciles of her offspring. Her idea of keeping a kosher kitchen entailed producing flavor-​free food; at least that’s how it seemed to us grandchildren.

A typical meal at Nanny’s might include iceberg lettuce, meat, and a starchy vegetable. Lettuce was scoured and scrubbed with so much vigor that each lifeless leaf emerged from these interrogation sessions virtually translucent. These were the years when lima beans were the most exotic item offered on dinner tables in suburban America. Not only was it a punishment to eat them, Frances seemed to want the beans to suffer for their own failure to be more appetizing. The legumes would be liberated from a can, only to be subjected to a pressurized moisture-​extraction process that included several rounds of squeeze-​drying in layers of paper towels. Chalky and granular; eating them sucked the moisture from your mouth.

Beef was purchased only from a kosher butcher, but you could never trust people entirely, so it was subjected to repeated rinsing and salting and then would be secreted into paper towels for additional dehydration. Biting into it was like gnawing on particleboard. The number of trees sacrificed for meals prepared in Nanny’s kitchen is unfathomable. I hope those quarters we collected in the ubiquitous tree-​planting campaigns for Israel in the 1970s added to the aggregate number of trees in the world enough to balance it out.

My mother never showed any interest in keeping kosher, but she’s pining for Nanny, whose personality she experienced as exacting. Death has conferred an almost saintly quality on her memory. My mother has adopted Nanny’s mercurial housekeeping habits and is reaching further back to Bubbie’s dutiful observation of holidays. My mother wants to attend the weekly religious services at the Gardens. She has started lighting Sabbath candles. She pictures her grandmother’s hands gently resting over her own as she mouths the words to the prayers recited in a language that she herself never bothered to learn.

She’s also taken to needlepointing mezuzah covers and prayer shawl holders, which in my secular household become makeup bags. I have so many of these that my makeup bags have their own makeup bags. During my childhood, she crafted intricate Japanese designs, but her lotus flowers and white cranes have given way to mournful scenes of Eastern European village life. It’s all Chagall, all the time. The way she churns these things out, you’d think she was commissioned by an army of nomadic zealots who need carrying cases for their talismans. I tried to convince my son to take his lunch to school in a sack decorated with a forlorn goat wrapped in a prayer shawl playing the violin. For the record, why wouldn’t that goat look pained? Inner monologue of Chagall goat: Why do I have to play the violin and wear this schmata? The Bible is like a goat genocide, can’t I catch a break? It’s really hard for a goat to keep a scarf on. My son looked at me like I’d suggested he pack his sandwich in a moldy sneaker.

Mom rarely attended services during her childhood, and although my parents insisted on a Jewish education for us, after my sister and I left home, neither she nor my dad went back to temple. Not even once. Suddenly, forty years of secular life are immaterial to her newfound identification.

Actress and New York Times Bestselling author Annabelle Gurwitch's new collection of essays, Wherever You Go, There They Are: Stories about My Family You Might Relate To, is one of Oprah's May book picks. You can read about it in, "Shalom Y'all, bittersweet family tales from the Deep South" in the J Weekly of Northern California.

You Have to Have Been a Refugee Yourself

Thursday, September 29, 2016 | Permalink

Excerpted from Asylum: A Survivor's Flight from Nazi-Occupied Vienna Through Wartime France by Moriz Scheyer


I know that I will provoke the criticism in some quarters that I talk too much about Jewish refugees—as though nobody else existed, as though others had not suffered too.

It is absolutely true that others—innumerable others—were made to suffer, no less than we. And I have not failed to make mention of that. I myself happen to be both a refugee and a Jew; and one who bears witness must bear witness to his own personal experiences. But there is another point, too; and that is that whatever those others were made to suffer at least had some connection—direct or indirect—with the War. Their treatment at the hands of Germany was unprecedented and absolutely without justification. But, for all that they suffered, at least it was not the case that their freedom, their existence, their lives, were forfeit—forfeit from the very outset—simply by virtue of their birth. Even Hitler did not have the audacity to question whether they were actually human beings.

Whereas Goebbels, Hitler’s official cultural spokesman, stated quite baldly in a speech immediately after the ‘Advent’ of the Third Reich: ‘If I am asked whether the Jews are not also human beings, I can only reply: are not bugs also animals?’

What was perpetrated against the Jews, moreover, had nothing to do with the War. The project was undertaken long before the War, and would have been carried out systematically—in accordance with a clearly laid-out programme of extermination—even if there had been no War. And it was perpetrated against unarmed, defenceless people, who were unable to mobilise themselves, unable to resist. Perpetrated against powerless victims, who had already been deprived of their rights, despised, insulted, and humiliated in both body and soul. Perpetrated as a result of the impetuosity—as cowardly as it was crazy—of a madman, with the willing, happy participation of his ‘Comrades of the People’.

It was perpetrated, too, without the civilised world daring to demand that it be stopped, or at least daring to make clear its abhorrence. Only later, much later—only when it was already far too late—did we begin to get all those fi ne expressions of solidarity, which came in the context of general war propaganda. And, while it was being perpetrated, states which had every opportunity to do so, and could have done so without cost, failed in their duty to open their gates to the persecuted. The granting of a visa was a process invariably attended with all manner of obstacles, restrictions, provisos and caveats, before—through a grate in the wall, reluctantly, like alms to a troublesome beggar—the document was finally dispensed. Or not dispensed, as the case might be. The lowliest consular official was suddenly a god.

No: others had to undergo all kinds of trials, certainly. But our journey of spiritual misery—to speak of nothing else—was without parallel. You have to have been a refugee yourself, to have lived as a Jew under the sign of the Swastika, to know what that really meant. And whatever anyone might say with regard to that... it would still be too little.

How could it all have happened? We survivors—we who went through it—we, surely, have the right to keep asking that question. While at the same time bearing witness—in our name, and in that of the silenced six million. The martyrs: men, women and children, whom the ‘Führer’—the Leader of his murderous Germany—hounded to their deaths.

From the book Asylum: A Survivor's Flight from Nazi-Occupied Vienna Through Wartime France by Moriz Scheyer. Copyright © 2016 by Moriz Scheyer, translated and with an epilogue by P.N. Singer. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.

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