The ProsenPeople

There Are Never No Jewish Books

Friday, January 29, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Gavriel Savit mused on the mysticism of uncertainty, the corporeality of God, and the incongruous narrative of the Hebrew Bible. With the recent release of his debut novel, Anna and the Swallow Man, Gavriel has been guest blogging all week as a Visiting Scribe here on The ProsenPeople.

“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage.” (Peter Brook, The Empty Space)

I think conclusion is un-Jewish.

I mentioned earlier this week that I think the open space is the best place to smash together conflicting ideas and the best place to recognize the face of God. I also mentioned that these two activities are probably the same thing.

Corollary to this argument was the notion that flame helps an awful lot in the pursuit—a source of light that shifts and bounces and is anything but constant and certain. I’m sure there are those among you who thought to yourselves, “Alright—that’s all well and good, but it’s 2016, and when I flip my lightswitch, I get a lovely, flooding, reliable torrent of light that does not flicker and does not ebb. I can see every corner of the open space. There’s nothing there. Doesn’t this replace your inconstant flame-light?”

My answer to that is, resoundingly, no; no more than the period replaces the sentence.

A lot of people confuse uncertainty with ignorance. A lot of people confuse inquiry with interrogation. A lot of people confuse struggle with discontent. A lot of people confuse truth with fact. A lot of people confuse openness with emptiness. A lot of people confuse light with illumination.

I think conclusion is very much un-Jewish. There’s a reason we continually read the same book every year, cycle after cycle after cycle until it’s practically impossible to look at it anew for familiarity. Many people argue that this is because the Bible holds untold depths and nuances of meaning, and that no individual human could possibly ever derive it all.

Well, that may well be. I would argue, though, that it’s just as much a reflection of the fact that the human being is not a stagnant animal: we reread in order to reinterpret, and we must reinterpret because we do not remain the same.

The tradition holds that when God gave the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai, it was in the company of the Oral Law, a key to the interpretation of the written Torah. Throughout the generations, this oral key was passed along from generation to generation, shifting and changing, inflected by its interpreters and transmitters until it was finally codified and written down in the form of Talmud.

This transcription of the malleable oral tradition, this petrification of the fluid—this strikes me as one of the greatest feats of self-harm in the history of human culture. And profoundly un-Jewish. Of course one must reach towards knowledge in order to gain learning, but to continue on until one achieves the point of dogma is very much like eating oneself to death: you’ve exceeded the necessary, productive, even pleasurable pursuit and reached into self-destruction.

No, one must remain uncertain in order to achieve any measure of knowledge. This is true even, perhaps especially, in scientific endeavors, where the overconfident hypothesis is a leading cause of misreported data.

And so I won’t finish this week up with a dictum, with a handy take-away, with a directive. Instead, I’m going to return to the problem that provoked a lot of this thought to begin with. I’ll offer a question, a suggestion, and a bit of imaginative narration.

To recap: I encountered a used bookstore—aesthetic home, of course, to the basic spirit of Judaism—entirely devoid of Jewish books. This, of course, is a problem, a cognitive dissonance.

How is it best, then, to address it?

Of course, far and away the best option would be to decree that every single bookstore must be overflowing with Jewish books—and what's more, that they should all be books of new and compelling thought, unlike anything you’ve read before, that they be satisfyingly weighty in the hand but in no way bulky in the bag, that they should cost no more than fifty cents a piece, and that they should all give off the vague aroma of chocolate ice cream.

Barring the best option, though, this is how I think it would be good to deal with the situation:

If there are going to be no Jewish books in your bookstore (which again, I’m not condoning), then leave an open shelf. And if it’s too abstruse for you to label it Peniel, why then, “Judaism” will do just fine.

Because imagine this: you’re eight years old. You’re traveling with your family in Texas. You’re Jewish, and like many of us, you’re a reader. Your family stops into a used bookstore. You make your way back to the area in which you’ve become accustomed to finding Jewish books. There are none, but way up high, there, there’s a shelf labeled “Judaism.”

Already this is better. Already, you’ll be hoisting yourself up on a chair to get a better look—to investigate, to see for yourself if there’s not anything to be found inside. Perhaps there’s not. Perhaps there are no books in stock. But even so, you, at eight years old, know that there’s a place for them, at least.

And better yet, perhaps you’ll be moved to go and ask the clerk behind the counter if there are any Jewish books. And perhaps the clerk will say no, we have none in stock.

Or perhaps the clerk will take you around the store: Here, in Music, we have plenty on Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. You’re probably a bit young for him, but here’s a first edition of a Saul Bellow novel. How ‘bout Isaac Asimov? Or here’s a joke-book by Mel Brooks. There’s Marcel Proust, but I’m too young for him too, frankly. Or too old. Can’t really decide. There’s Chaim Potok, of course. And Ayn Rand, nebekh.

The list goes on.

An open space is never empty, really.

There are never no Jewish books.

You just have to keep peeking.

You just have to keep struggling to see.

Gavriel Savit is an actor and author from Ann Arbor, MI, and a graduate of the University of Michigan’s prestigious Musical Theatre program. He is the author of Anna and the Swallow Man (Knopf, 2016) and an emerging voice in Jewish literature.

Reconciling the Inconsistent Word of God

Thursday, January 28, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, author Gavriel Savit introduced the spiritual mysticism contained in uncertainty and pondered the corporeal existence of God. With the publication of his debut novel, Anna and the Swallow Man, Gavriel is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

Quite a while ago, my fiancée and I decided to undertake the systematic reading and study of what Western tradition refers to, absurdly (if in Greek), as THE BOOK. I had never before come to the Bible in a systematic and sustained way, reading from cover to cover, and as someone with the humble ambition of contributing to the wild, out-of-hand fracas of Western narrative art, I felt it would be in my best interest to have a bit of a cultivated familiarity with the great patriarch of that art. My fiancée, a critic and scholar of Victorian era British literature, thought it would be in her best interest to have a similar familiarity with the cornerstone of its great patriarchy.

And so we were well matched. The only problem was methodological. I, coming from a Judaic background, wanted to work on the khevruta model, reading together out loud and entering into discussion whenever something interested or troubled one of us; she, well used to the silent if disorderly decorum of the library carrel, would have preferred to read silently in parallel and then to come together for discussion after the fact. In general, I can see the appeal of this approach—it must be nice to thoroughly formulate one’s opinions before beginning the process of discussion—but the fact of the matter is that the Hebrew Bible seems explicitly designed to frustrate certainty. For a book that has so commonly been appealed to for definitive answers, it hardly seems to contain any, from a narrative perspective. No, no—no certainties to be found here, only competing, incommensurate, equivalid alternatives. It has to be discussed as it’s read.

The Book begins with two successive, irreconcilable accounts of the creation of the universe: in the first, God creates life in general, both flora and fauna, and then, only after this does God create the human being, presenting to it in all its bounty the comestible world of fruit and vegetable. Less than ten verses later, in the second account, the creation of man is related again, this time expressly predating the emergence of vegetal life. Shortly thereafter, the creation of animals will also be found, in this second account, to come after the creation of human life.

There’s nothing for it. There’s no way to reconcile the two expressly and exclusively different stories.

If you are a contemporary rationalist, this might well prove your disdain for the archaic, superstitious tome of falsehoods known as the Bible. How can it equally assert the veracity of two contradictory accounts?

If you are a philologist, you will likely interpret this conflict between texts as indicative of the presence of more than one pre-existing source. Neither, of course, could be altered in the combination because of the sacred status of each, and neither, by the same token could be excluded. As a philologist, one might easily say “Forget the cognitive dissonance, forget the conflict, forget the juxtaposition. Read each on its own merits.”

If you are an adherent of rabbinic exegesis, perhaps you will choose to interpret these two pieces of narrative as predominantly allegorical or symbolic writing. After all, when we adjourn to the hazy arena of symbolism, we need no longer consider contradiction threatening—it’s, y’know, art.

I would like to offer an alternative reading, one that I hope can extend far beyond this first section of the Hebrew Bible to encompass it entirely:

There are two stories. They are both correct and valid—equally articulated in the authoritative voice of the text. They both take place within a literal realm, and they contradict one another.

There. It’s uncomfortable. It’s difficult. It’s provocative. And I think that’s precisely the point.

It is in this state of uncertainty that one looks closely, and one sees. You begin to see the face of God in the flickering, dimly lit open space only when you stand between twin certainties—that God has absolutely no visible form, and that God absolutely does.

There’s a reason this gigantic compilation of stories opens on contradiction and uncertainty, and as a writer, I would posit that it’s a lesson in reading the rest of the book: there are two, oppositional positions. Do you smash them together, trying to make them into one? Do you look for ways to discount certain portions of each?

Or do you take one in each hand, and feel them counterbalance one another in the weight of your step?

This mode of reading might be most strongly resisted by those people who point to its essential duality—after all, we are a people of One God, and Singularity, Unity, Oneness presents itself as temptingly contradistinctive. People can so easily say, God is One, and God is mine. If you disagree with me, then God is not yours. My minhag, my family or communal custom in the observance of tradition, one might say, is exclusively correct, and all others are at best to be tolerated, and at worst, heretical. (Looking at you, here, Israeli Rabbinate…)

But this is clearly not reflective of historical Jewish tradition. The Talmud was, in some deeply critical ways, formed in the crucible of the disagreement between the twin philosophical approaches of Hillel and Shammai. Moving backwards, one could easily read an interest in dueling perspectives in the simple notion of the Oral Law, given alongside the Torah on Mount Sinai, for the purposes of elucidation and interpretation—why a separate corpus if not expressly to create distance and discrepancy between the two?

And there are all sorts of incommensurate alternatives in the Bible. David, paragon of majesty, progenitor of Messianic salvation, is, in some very real ways, a usurper of Saul’s kingship. The theme of rival claims is threaded throughout the Bible, particularly in the foundational stories of our patriarchs.

After all, who deserves primacy? Ishmael, the firstborn, or Isaac, the legitimate? The supremacy of the elder son, so axiomatic in the Ancient world, will continue to inform and enlarge the successive stories of each great patriarch—mainly in its violation. Jacob, the wily (younger), or Esau, the mighty (elder)? Joseph, the brilliant (far, far younger) or Reuben the dutiful (eldest) and his corporate brotherhood? Aaron, the priest (elder) or Moses, the leader (younger)?

In none of these cases—looking carefully, honestly—is one party clearly the preferable. It is, particularly from an antiquated perspective, always unclear.

And perhaps this is obvious. After all, we as Jews are known in the collective as the Children of Israel, Israel (“Struggles-with-God”) being the alternative name given to Jacob after he strove and fought all night against an agent of God—crucially, to an indecisive conclusion.

Neither God nor Israel prevailed. This was not the point. The struggle was the point.

The renaming of Jacob in the wake of this conflict is well-known and oft-quoted. What is less frequently repeated is that something else was renamed in the wake of the conflict: the open space in which Jacob and the Agent of God struggled.

The place was named Peniel, or “My-face-is-God.”

It is, of course, indispensable to have two well-matched and equally viable candidates in order to enter into the sort of furious, infinite, ongoing, and indecisive conflict that our narrative tradition so favors. Just as indispensable as the conflicting parties, though, is the arena in which the contest is to take place.

And this, finally, is the utility, the virtue of uncertainty.

A certainty is an insuperable obstacle. It’s solid and heavy and doesn’t move much of its own accord. Certainties, of course, have great utility of their own—they can block off dangers, you can climb up atop them, reaching for new intellectual altitudes—but if you’re looking to stage a fight, it’s hard to do so inside a block of marble.

I, like many young Jews, once visited Israel on a Birthright trip, and the entire thrust of Jewish thought and history was never so legible to me as the time we were encouraged to go off into the midnight desert for a little, quiet, solo reflection—not so far that we couldn’t still see the lights of the tent, but far enough that we could imagine we couldn’t.

The sky is so big, out there, and so full of stars. Unified and simultaneously multifarious—monotheism doesn’t seem like an innovation in the desert, it feels like an observation.

Because these are the uncertain spaces, the open (empty?) arenas in which we Jews are used to seeking for (and finding, hopefully) our God: the desert, monolith of sandgrains; the synagogue, light flickering, prayer shawls flapping, eyes covered to ward off blindness; the genealogy of our Fathers, so knotted and ambiguous that even a family tree is nothing so much as an argument.

These are our plains of Peniel, mottled and dappled by striving footprints, by wingtips dragging through the sand. This is the Face of God: the constant contest of uncertainties in an arena uncrowded by decision, unmarred by conclusion. The endlessly repeated gesture of young men peeking out from behind their father’s prayer shawls, of elders squinting through their glasses across the dimly lit space, generation after generation, of looking so closely that you start to see something in the struggle and bump, in the flicker and flash, in the dim and shade—a Single, emergent Entity.

Just don’t you dare become certain what it looks like.

Gavriel Savit is an actor and author from Ann Arbor, MI, and a graduate of the University of Michigan’s prestigious Musical Theatre program. He is the author of Anna and the Swallow Man (Knopf, 2016) and an emerging voice in Jewish literature.

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It's Hardly Peeking If There's Nothing in the Way

Tuesday, January 26, 2016 | Permalink

With the release of his debut novel, Anna and the Swallow Man, this week author and actor Gavriel Savit guest blogs for the Jewish Book Council as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

“And He said, ‘You will not be able to see my face, for the human will not see me and live.’” (Exodus 33:20)

I was raised in Modern Orthodoxy; I have chosen to live in Modern Heterodoxy.

When I was young and living with my parents, I went to shul with my father (or about twenty minutes behind him, depending on the relative level of my adolescent pique that day) for Shabbat and holiday services. This habit has given me the surety that God smells of men’s sweaty woolen prayer shawls and the slowly disintegrating bindings of prayer books; it has also given me a tremendous bank of memories concerning traditional Judaic ritual.

One of the strongest among these is a memory that comes from a holiday service held in the basement of the University of Michigan Hillel building in Ann Arbor, where, as might be expected, the Ann Arbor Orthodox Minyan is based. No matter the season, this basement is ill-ventilated, and the hours-long occupancy of many dutifully worshipping Jewish bodies does nothing to alleviate the heat. Always, we sweat.

Nonetheless, on this particular occasion, I can clearly recall wanting to be very close to my father’s body, and, furthermore, to be covered over with a sheet of wool. It was time for the dukhening, the priestly blessing.

The tradition is such that when the Cohanim, the members of the priestly family amongst the Jews, ascend the rostrum to offer their blessing to the congregation, they are not looked upon. To this end, many men gather their children underneath their prayer shawls to receive the benediction, thus shielding their eyes from the proceedings.

For one reason or another, my father was not in this particular habit—it may be that I was too often off in the back corner with my friends to be reached in time, or it may be that his father hadn’t followed the same tradition. In any case, on this particular occasion, I sought out the barrier of my father’s talit, and I did so for a very specific reason: I wanted to peek.

It’s hardly peeking if there’s nothing in the way.

The explanation I’d always been given for the habitual aversion of the eyes during this ritual—though it seems to be folk tradition, rather than rabbinic in origin—was that when the priests bless the Jewish people, the presence of God descends and is channeled out through their hands. This can be harmful, even deadly to witness.

So of course, I wanted to see it.

(Interestingly, as an aside, there are certain conditions that render a priest inadmissible as a candidate for the performance of this particular benediction, and a deformity of the hands is one of them: the hands, are, indeed, raised as a conduit of blessing in this ritual. Another of these excluding conditions is blindness.)

On this particular holiday in my childhood, the priests were summoned to wash their hands before the benediction, and I snuggled in beside my father, seeking the covering of his talit. The cantor began to prompt the cohanim, and they began to drone their melody.

I peeked out from beneath my father’s shawl. All there was to see was a row of old Jews, tented up beneath their striped woolen prayer shawls, swaying back and forth, their hands raised in the air. Surely, I thought, with the charmingly arrogant certainty of a child—surely, this is not the presence of God.

I am no longer so certain.

In Hinduism, there is a theological concept that goes by the name of darśana. It is perhaps best described as a sort of worshipful transaction, but one that is decidedly visual: the worshiper offers praise through their visual faculty by observing the beauty of the image of the deity, and in return, he receives a sort of visual spiritual enlargement.

This might seem to be a decidedly un-Jewish concept, and in some ways it is. In other ways, I’m not so sure. Of course, it’s uncontroversially the case that we, as Jews, worship no images of God, and I would never challenge that principle. I do, however think that a fair amount of our worshipful activities as Jews involve looking for God, or trying to see God. Let me explain:

As I said, we’re used to constructing our religious identity, amongst other things, upon a foundation of non-idolatry. This is practically a founding principle, and we may, from our historical vantage point, be tempted to assume that because we worship no image, our God is also possessed of no visible image.

Much of tradition would seem to support this assumption. After all, the Thirteen Principles of Jewish Faith formulated by Maimonides and sung so frequently in our religious services under the title of Yigdal state this explicitly: אֵין לוֹ דְּמוּת הַגּוּף וְאֵינוֹ גוּף—“He has no bodily image, and he has no body.”

But as is so often the case, what comes down to us as simple orthodox tradition is, in fact, far from undisputed. There was a period during which the corporeality of God was a strongly held minority opinion amongst Jewish thinkers. Some have argued that Rashi—whose interpretations are considered so unassailable that his name has become a practical synonym for the plain meaning of Biblical text—himself believed in the corporeal existence of God.

You read that correctly. It has been compellingly argued that Rashi believed in the existence of a visible body of God.   Continue Reading »

Gavriel Savit is an actor and author from Ann Arbor, MI, and a graduate of the University of Michigan’s prestigious Musical Theatre program. He is the author of Anna and the Swallow Man (Knopf, 2016) and an emerging voice in Jewish literature.

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The Mystical Experience of an Uncertain Space

Sunday, January 24, 2016 | Permalink

Gavriel Savit is an author and actor whose work in both fields has taken him on travels across the world. With the release of his debut novel, Anna and the Swallow Man, this week he joins the Visiting Scribe series as a guest contributor to The ProsenPeople.

“And He said, ‘You will not be able to see my face, for the human will not see me and live.’” (Exodus 33:20)

“Studying a face:
Stepping back to look at a face
leaves a little space
in the way
like a window.
But to see—
It's the only way to see.” (Stephen Sondheim, Sunday in the Park with George)

“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage.” (Peter Brook, The Empty Space)

I had the most peculiar experience the other day.

I was down in Texas with my fiancée for about half a week, in loose conjunction with a language conference there. We mostly used the trip as an excuse for the consumption of smoked meat, local beer, and lovely, idle conversation. We were traveling, though, and—from my perspective at least—certain rituals are absolutely nonnegotiable when traveling. Primary among these is the local bookshop visit.

Any bookshop is a haven to me—like a consulate or embassy, away from home—but my favorite sort to visit while traveling is the second-hand; they manage to be familiar and comforting (the smell of aging bindings is a heady thing) while providing a unique view of the location in which they’re situated. The books people choose to resell, the books people had in the first place—these are each of them clues toward the eventual grokking of a local culture.

And so we stumbled into a lovely little local Texas bookstore. My fiancée and I split off and went about the business of visiting our old friends.

In general, I like to start off perusing the first editions and rare books in their plate-glass cabinets, smirking at the posters, flipping through the table displays, a little palate teaser before I make my way over to the real goals of my visit:

Folklore & Mythology (usually one or two things here to pique the interest); Magic and the Occult (more often than not consumed in wacky mid-seventies counterculture nonsense or twentieth-century self-published conspiracy theories, but on occasion with a serious, scholarly text in the mix); and finally, the crown jewel of any used bookstore—Judaica and Jewish Studies.

Only in this bookstore, there was no such section.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: it must’ve been one of those alternatively organized places—you know, a shop that thinks it’s cute to start at the ultimate left hand side of their shelving and put everything down in order of its original publication, left to right, so you have no choice but to surreptitiously Google what the precise publication year of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Satan in Goray was—or something like that.

But no. Their organization was totally standard. And in fact, here was Eastern Philosophy, here Buddhism, here Hinduism, here Christianity.

I was unsettled. I checked, thoroughly, on the end-caps, on the opposite side of each bookshelf, but it was true—there were simply no Jewish books in the bookshop.

This was bizarre. This was incomprehensible. This was like an uncanny dream of the childhood home in which nothing is familiar. Where there are Jews (and believe it or not, there are quite a few in Texas), there are Jewish books, and, with the magnetic attraction of the agnostically secular among us, drawn back to shul on Erev Yom Kippur, these Jewish books can be counted upon to find their way back to the second-hand bookstore.

Ultimately, there are several very good possible explanations for the lack of Jewish books in this individual bookshop. It could be that this particular corner of Texas lacked the critical mass of Jews necessary to support any real trade in second-hand Jewish books, or it could be possible that the Jews in this locality dispose of their unwanted books of Jewish interest to some local synagogue or day school library. There are plenty of reasonable, non-antisemitic reasons a bookstore would lack a Jewish books section.

But over the next several days, I found myself still thinking about it. As far away as Boston, Massachusetts, an absurd, unfair, peculiar thought kept dogging me: Why couldn’t they at least have left an empty shelf?

And after having come back to this question several times, I came to this conclusion:

An empty shelf in the Religion section might have turned this Texan bookstore from one of the least Jewish places I’ve ever encountered into one of the most.

This may be difficult to understand; over the next few days in this space, I’m going to try and expand what I mean by that, but in brief, let me explain like this:

This week I publish a book called Anna and the Swallow Man which is in some ways significantly and intentionally ambiguous. At the book’s end, the reader is left with certain fertile uncertainties that I hope will provoke a particular kind of experience—something unstable, something speculative, something that allows the potential of all sorts of beautiful, contradictory, simultaneous possibilities that might otherwise have to have been discarded as irrational.

For me, there’s a sort of profound mystical experience to be found in this uncertain space. Whether or not I managed to evoke it in my book is for readers to decide, but I will say this: that uneasy, magical space of uncertainty is central to my feelings about magic, religion, and art, which—you should pardon the expression—are a sort of holy trinity for me.

And that, I think, could scarcely be more Jewish.

Gavriel Savit is an actor and author from Ann Arbor, MI, and a graduate of the University of Michigan’s prestigious Musical Theatre program. He is the author of Anna and the Swallow Man (Knopf, 2016) and an emerging voice in Jewish literature.

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Interview: Gavriel Savit

Thursday, January 21, 2016 | Permalink

with Shira Schindel

Jewish Book Council sat down with Gavriel Savit to discuss his debut novel, Anna and the Swallow Man, the velvety mind of Borges, Holocaust fatigue, and the beauty of not knowing. Much like the experience of reading his compact and inspiring book, in talking with the author we learned a lot in a short amount of time.

Shira Schindel: I personally loved Anna and the Swallow Man, and can’t wait to pass it on to friends and family. Have you been surprised by adults' interest in this book, which is billed as being for young readers?

Gavriel Savit: It’s interesting how when you write a story that’s centered around a young woman, it gets received as being on the more juvenile side, and that’s an unfortunate reality of the way we think of women’s narratives in the world right now. But, it also sort of opened up the book. I didn’t immediately think of it as a child’s narrative, but I do think it’s fundamentally a story about a magical time and mindset in childhood, the immediacy of which a lot of us forget as we get older.

I also think we are very fortunate right now that what has traditionally been considered generic fiction—speculative, detective, children’s—is falling by the wayside. Young adult narratives are en vogue. There’s no shame in reading a book we enjoy.

SS: What about Holocaust narratives? There are many out there who say we’ve published enough books on the subject matter.

GS: I admit I also have a degree of Holocaust fatigue. There is so much out there that seems to tread the same ground over and over again. A lot of it, for me, devolves into misery porn and I don’t want that.

There is a book I read by Yan Martel, Beatrice and Virgil, that deals with the difficulty of introducing art and story into the space of World War II and Holocaust narratives. There is so much art created about the Holocaust, and a lot of it seems to be very concerned with portraying horror. Which is obviously real, and I would never want to minimize the horror of that time and place.

It seems to me, however, that human beings live full lives even in the most atrocious of situations, and it’s somewhat regrettable that it’s not always possible to see the nuance in human experience within these terrible situations. That, I feel, is one of the most fascinating things: How do you grow up surrounded by this horrible danger?

But maybe the answer is simply: What is the alternative?

SS: In what ways has your Jewish upbringing influenced you as a writer?

GS: My Judaism is narrative, which was true from a very young age. I think that, in very strong ways, those of us who had the privilege of a Jewish education when we were young also received textual ambiguity from that age. At this moment of discovering what story, narrative, and literature is I was simultaneously receiving some of the most complex, multifarious stories in the Western Cannon.

I seem to have trouble not incorporating Jewish characters, or Judaism, into the things I write. I started with the Swallow Man and Anna and everything else grew out of them—Reb Hirschl was a wonderful surprise: he is the kind of person who cultivated thinkers are likely to dismiss off the bat, but he’s a smart guy. I love that he carries that around, and doesn’t need to show it to you outright.

SS: Names, or the forfeiting of one’s given name, play a key role in the book. Does the Swallow Man have a name other than the one you gave him?

GS: The Swallow Man does have a name, and I suspect his name sounds very much like other people’s names. He has not told me precisely what it is, and I’m not going to ask him, because I think that would be a mistake.

SS: It must be very exciting to be a debut author. Is there anything you’re particularly excited about, besides hearing how readers respond to your book?

GS: I’m excited to talk to librarians about the book, and speak about it in schools in general. When I was a kid, I read a lot of the Redwall series by Brian Jacques. I remember discovering that there was this person behind the books, the author. One of the things you’re always taught is that there’s “title by author.” That’s the formula, but I don’t think I really understood what it meant until I was deep in the universe of this guy’s books—there was one dude writing all of this! I finally looked up Brian Jacques on the (then terribly slow) Internet, and there he was. There’s something wonderfully wizardly about discovering that. I’m looking forward to seeing it from the other side.

SS: What do you hope readers will learn from the book that they may not have known before?

GS: For me, the book—insofar as it’s about anything that is reducible to a phrase—is about not knowing, and the ways in which that is magical. I know uncertainty is an uncomfortable state for a lot of people, but if someone can get to the end of the book and understand the tantalizing glory of not quite knowing something I know, I think the book will have been a success.

SS: So you won’t give us any reveals as to what happens next to these characters?

GS: I’m not sure there are any satisfying answers. At the end of the book, you already know the answers, and if I tell you it would take away the answer you already know.

The hardest part of this book to write was the ending. It’s a delicate thing and it’s hard to know what should be articulated and what shouldn’t be. I went through a few drafts of the ending that more explicitly told what happened to Anna later in life, so I have some ideas about what I think she might have done or lived through. But I don’t imagine that living through something like that is likely to dispose you to talk very much about it. I think if there are people who you do talk to about it, they are few in number and very select.

SS: Your editor, Erin Clarke, declares that Anna sits “at the intersection of magic realism and fairy tale.” How have fairy tales influenced your writing?

GS: I love the aesthetic of fairy tales and the way they feel. That’s something I’ve carried into adulthood from childhood. Fairy tales all seem to take place in this amorphous world in which there has recently been a war and people are in danger. It occurred to me that the moving around that is precipitated by that kind of danger and uncertainty also happened in Europe seventy years ago.

In some ways World War II is the perfect backdrop for a new fairy tale. A lot of people feel like telling stories that are related to World War II and the Holocaust in any way other than realism, or journalism, is irresponsible. Obviously, documenting and remembering is important across the board, but that’s not exclusive of art. What is horrific about the Holocaust is not that there were unthinking human beings, but rather that real people who thought, and felt, and worried, committed atrocities. I hope that the book is successful in exploring that territory, and that it doesn’t upset people who are more committed to the factual history. That said, my philosophy is that if any story is worth telling, it’s probably going to upset somebody.

SS: Are there any books or writers that particularly inspired you in writing your novel?

GS: My magical realism patron saint is Jorge Luis Borges. I love his brain. It’s so much fun and so enchanting. It’s got this wonderful, dark red velvet texture that I like to wrap around myself. It’s fantastic.

Obviously also Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief; people would be insane not to read it.

Most of my influence has come from diverse directions. I’m attracted to historically and culturally relevant magical realism. It’s a bizarre suggestion, but Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke imagines what it would be like if magic existed at the turn of the nineteenth century in England. It’s a great book and feels to me like the sort of thing that exists in the world and implicates things that don’t exist in the world.

SS: The following passage from your book particularly stood out to me; what did this moment in the book mean to you?

“What makes it special?” said the Swallow Man. “It’s a bird. A bird that flies and sings. And if the wolves and bears have their way, no one will ever fly or sing in precisely the same way that it does. Never again. Does it need to be more special than that?”

GS: That particular section is something that I continue to think about. It’s really kind of a morally and emotionally complex thing that human beings have this deeply conservative tendency. We like things to be the way that they were before. It’s interesting to look at it in the context of endangered species. On a fundamental level—and I do not advocate anything destructive in our natural environment—evolution works: entities compete, the more successful continue to survive, the less successful fall by the wayside and when the environment cannot continue to bear a flourishing or more successful entity eventually they begin to die off. That’s the sort of fail-safe of evolution and environmental activity. But we as human beings have this beautifully and terribly irrational nostalgia for things that we have seen before. So we have certainly created an aberrant natural environment where a lot of creatures that were around when we were less powerful cannot exist. It’s a shame, but that’s the way it is. We still have this strongly irrational urge to keep them around, even if they are naturally unsuited to continue to exist.

I think rational thought and reasoning are a tremendously useful tool. But that urge humans have to keep the beautiful bird, the one that flies like no other, speaks very highly of human irrationality. I’m afraid of a world that contains a fundamental imbalance between human rationality and irrationality, in either direction. I’d like to see the most rational people embrace a measure of irrationality, and vice versa.

In the meantime, I’ll probably just watch the birds fly around.

SS: You write in the book that “A question holds all the potential of the living universe within it.”Are there any questions you’d like to leave us with now?

GS: Yes.

SS: Is that it?

GS: Yes.

Shira Schindel is the Director of Business Development & Author Engagement at Litographs and formerly the head of Content and Acquisitions at Qlovi, an education technology startup accelerating literacy in K-12 classrooms. Before that she worked in the literary department at ICM Partners, and studied Creative Writing at Columbia University.

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