The ProsenPeople

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.

Interview: Howard Jacobson on "The Swag Man"

Friday, July 19, 2013 | Permalink

by Tahneer Oksman

Howard Jacobson is a Manchester-born author and the recent recipient of the Man Booker Prize, as well as two Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prizes for comic writing. His books often center around Jewish characters and themes, and he has referred to himself as “a Jewish Jane Austen.”

The Swag Man” is a story recently released as an Amazon Kindle Single, and published by Tablet MagazineBased on his life, Jacobson’s story follows Frankie Cohen, a young and impudent salesman who sells “swag” (or, basically, cheap trinkets) for Jacobson’s father in the rough-and-tumble marketplaces of Northern England. Cohen grows up to become an art dealer, brushing elbows with the elite but never fully letting go of his Yiddishkeit roots.

In “The Swag Man,” using rich and elegant prose, Jacobson examines postwar Jewish assimilation through the triangulation of three characters—a father, a son, and Frankie—who react to a changing world in different ways. This intergenerational narrative is a thoughtful meditation on what it means to remain consciously connected to and haunted by the past.

Tahneer Oksman: What compelled you to write "The Swag Man?"

Howard Jacobson: The simple answer is that it was commissioned, or if you like suggested, by Tablet Magazine, an online publication I admire - the challenge being to write a shortish, stand-alone piece about a contemporary Jewish figure who interests me.

I also chose to tell this tale about my father the market man, and the art collector Frank Cohen who once worked for him, because I enormously relish remembering the world in which they met, in which I met Frank, the world we both left, and yet to which we still somehow belong. It is funny, and touching, in ways I cannot stop exploring. That I should have come out of it to be a novelist, and Frank to be an art collector, reflects on it fascinatingly to me.

TO: Your piece deals quite explicitly—and beautifully, I thought—with the melancholy of postwar Jewish assimilation. Do you see this as a common theme in contemporary British Jewish writing?

HJ: There hasn't been enough British writing of the sort you describe. We have been too quiet here. Too discreet. Maybe too frightened of drawing attention to ourselves. When I first began, several Jews told me to my face that they regretted my writing about being Jewish at all. They felt I was a nestbeschmutzer. Though when I won the Man Booker Prize with The Finkler Question, there was more pride than anything else that the British Jewish experience had finally been acknowledged by the literary establishment - which might be a touch optimistic.

TO: Are there others who have written on the Jewish experience who have inspired you? As I read your descriptions of the marketplace early on in "The Swag Man," for example, I kept thinking of Alfred Kazin's descriptions of Brownsville in A Walker in the City.

HJ: I haven't read the Kazin. And indeed I didn't read much literature about Jews as I was learning to write myself. I knew Louis Golding's Magnolia Street, but didn't want to go in that direction; it felt too provincial, and a fear of the parochial is another reason British Jews have avoided the subject of themselves - British Jewish life doesn't have the grand resonance of American Jewish life.

But I wasn't, early on, steeped in the American Jewish writers either. I had read some Bellow and Heller, but only began to read Roth and Singer later. I didn't learn how to write about Jews from them. My models, as a novelist, were Dickens, Jane Austen, Lawrence, Henry James, George Eliot - not a Jew among them. Jewishness I got from the Manchester I grew up in and which I celebrate in "The Swag Man." I only got going as a writer - I was only able to begin to write at all - when I saw that I needed to put the two together. How to combine my dad with Henry James, that was the problem I had to solve.

TO: I read the story as autobiographical. Did you intend it that way?

HJ: You're right that it's not strictly speaking fiction, though I'd say that everything I write is fiction really. I'm not sure I believe in autobiography: the minute one writes, one changes - I don't say falsifies but recolours, de-emphasises, exaggerates, pauses, gallops, overleaps, etc. This is inevitable, because the minute you choose a form, or a shape, you give to life an order that it never had.

But while I say there is no clear difference between fiction and autobiography as I write it, there is one, and it's important. In fiction which doesn't for a moment offer to be anything else, you have no obligation to be true to anyone real, because there is no real anyone behind the work. In a piece like this there is. So it is not quite as free. One cannot run as wild; on the other hand, it is a challenge to work within the inhibitions of the real. Fancy is on a rein, but how far can you go without slipping that rein?

TO: Did you have a particular audience in mind while you were writing? I read the piece as a kind of ode to your father's memory, and I wonder if that was how it felt to you.

HJ: Yes, you are right to see it as that. I do feel an obligation to my father's memory - I should say that my mother is still alive, which in a sense leaves me free, temporarily, to concentrate my sense of obligation on him. Over and above the obligation that any son owes his father, I feel a writer's obligation.

How to explain this? He was a vivid man, as I hope I have succeeded in evoking in the piece, a lover of life, but not educated and not articulate. Partly, I feel I owe him the words he didn't have. Partly, I am making recompense for valuing my words above his wordlessness, for wanting to put him, as a man who didn't read, behind me, for any shame I felt as the son of a market-man/taxi driver, for the time it took me to see how much of what I could do, and what I valued, I owed to him. It was always easier to feel a debt to my mother who was a reader. If my mother led me into literature, and so, in very direct ways, made me a writer, it was the intensity with which my father took life on - his love of laughter, his raucous relish of the world around him - that made me the kind of writer I am.

But you ask if I have a particular audience. I don't. I don't, for example, write to my father. He wouldn't have been able to read me. But I write for him.

Tahneer Oksman recently received her PhD in English Literature at the Graduate Center at CUNY. She is currently at work on a manuscript on Jewish women’s identity in contemporary graphic memoirs.

Win a Copy of Howard Jacobson's Kindle Single

Thursday, June 27, 2013 | Permalink
Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Click below enter to win a copy of Howard Jacobson's new Kindle Single for Tablet Magazine, "The Swag Man." Read an excerpt here.

Browse through Jewish Book Council reviews of Howard Jacobson titles here.

JBC Bookshelf: From B(ible) to Z(oo)

Thursday, May 17, 2012 | Permalink
Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

JBC-land is buzzing from all of the new authors and books coming out this year. We have over 250 authors signed up to tour through the Jewish Book Network, which means our offices are jammed with books we're eager to read (Network authors--can't wait to meet you in June!).  The full-list of authors will be made public in August, but in the meantime look for the Jewish Book Network badge when browsing through our new reviews.  On another note, in the coming weeks be on the lookout for an announcement about a new book club initiative launching in August. We're really excited about it and think you will be too. 

Finally, with Shavuot around the corner, it's a good time to check out our Shavuot reading list. Find it here. Now, onto the shelf...

The Guttenberg Bible: A Memoir, Steve Guttenberg (May 2012, Thomas Dunne Books)
You had us at Three Men and a Baby...

Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940, Stephen Brown and Richard R. Brettell (May 2012, Yale University Press)
New Yorkers: Check out The Jewish Museum's Edouard Vuillard exhibition running from May 4-September 23

Doreen Carvajal's search to recover her Catholic family's hidden Sephardic roots 

The Promise of Israel: Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness Is Actually Its Greatest Strength, Daniel Gordis (August 2012, Wiley)
Read reviews of Daniel Gordis's books on the JBC website

One Last Thing Before I Go, Jonathan Tropper (August 2012, Dutton)
Our Book Cover of the Week this week

Zoo Time: A Novel, Howard Jacobson (October 2012, Bloomsbury USA)
Read reviews of Howard Jacobson's books on the JBC website

NYC Event: Howard Jacobson at NYPL (Discount Code)

Friday, March 25, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

LIVE from the NYPL presents

Howard Jacobson in conversation with Paul Holdengraber

Friday, April 1st at 7PM in the Celeste Bartos Forum of The New York Public Library

$25 General Admission
ENTER DISCOUNT CODE: LAUGH to purchase tickets for just $15

1.888.71.TICKETS (1.888.718.4253)

When Howard Jacobson won the Man Booker prize for The Finkler Question last autumn it was hailed as a victory for the comic novel. ‘Except that I write tragic novels,’ Jacobson declared. But he is nonetheless gratified that Jonathan Safran Foer said of him ‘I don’t know a funnier writer alive.’ Being funny should go without saying if you’re a novelist, Jacobson insists. In conversation with Paul Holdengräber, Harold Jacobson will discuss why any novelist who doesn’t make you laugh is short-changing you.

So what makes Howard Jacobson laugh?

· Ping pong, for a start but that doesn’t mean I don’t take it
· Ditto being Jewish.
· Ditto being English and Jewish.
· Ditto masochistic sex.
· The novel that preceded The Finkler Question is about a man who wants his wife to be unfaithful to him, and the hero of The Mighty Walzer plays ping pong to lose. But then we don’t read or write novels, Jacobson argues, if we aren’t half in love with losing.

HOWARD JACOBSON is the author of eight novels, including The Mighty Walzer which won the 1999 Everyman Wodehouse Award for comic writing and The Finkler Question which won the Man Booker Prize last autumn.

PAUL HOLDENGRABER is the Director of LIVE from the NYPL.

Howard Jacobson Wins Booker Prize!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

A big congratulations from the JBC to Howard Jacobson (The Finkler Question) on winning this year’s Man Booker Prize for Fiction.

Read more about the win on Tablet, The New York Times, and in The Guardian.

More on The Finkler Question:

Julian Treslove, a professionally unspectacular and disappointed BBC worker, and Sam Finkler, a popular Jewish philosopher, writer and television personality, are old school friends. Despite a prickly relationship and very different lives, they’ve never quite lost touch with each other – or with their former teacher, Libor Sevick, a Czechoslovakian always more concerned with the wider world than with exam results.

Now, both Libor and Finkler are recently widowed, and with Treslove, his chequered and unsuccessful record with women rendering him an honorary third widower, they dine at Libor’s grand, central London apartment.

It’s a sweetly painful evening of reminiscence in which all three remove themselves to a time before they had loved and lost; a time before they had fathered children, before the devastation of separations, before they had prized anything greatly enough to fear the loss of it. Better, perhaps, to go through life without knowing happiness at all because that way you had less to mourn? Treslove finds he has tears enough for the unbearable sadness of both his friends’ losses.

And it’s that very evening, at exactly 11:30pm, as Treslove hesitates a moment outside the window of the oldest violin dealer in the country as he walks home, that he is attacked. After this, his whole sense of who and what he is will slowly and ineluctably change.