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Interview: Dina Elenbogen

Wednesday, August 19, 2015 | Permalink

by Howard Schwartz

Jewish Book Council sat down with Dina Elenbogen, poet and author of Drawn from Water: An American Poet, An Ethiopian Family, An Israeli Story, to talk about her experience of writing the book, living in Israel, and witnessing history.

Howard Schwartz: You kept a detailed journal for many years. At what point did you decide to write Drawn from Water, and how many years did it take?

Dina Elenbogen: It is difficult to say how long it took, because in between visits to Israel and drafts of the book I was also writing other things, teaching, raising children, and waiting for my next return. I had been keeping a journal for a long time, particularly while living in Israel, when I was constantly inspired by daily life and writing down my impressions of and encounters with the Ethiopian community. I had received a grant to return to Israel to see how the community was faring five years after Operation Moses, and my assignment was to report on my findings, so on all of my return visits I was both reporting and writing personal impressions. It wasn't until the Nineties, the aftermath of Operation Solomon, that I realized that my personal relationship with Israel, poetry, and the Ethiopian Jewish community were meant to be part of the same narrative.

HS: As a poet, you naturally brought a poet's perspective to your experiences. How did this impact your life in Ma'alot?

DE: I felt everything deeply. I saw both the beauty and the ugliness. I listened to people's words and silences. I understood the nuances. I also struggled with the fact that I was a poet and not an anthropologist: there were times when I wanted to be more of an anthropologist, to have a more objective and theoretical understanding of the absorption process. It wasn't until I was far into the book that I came to peace with the fact that what I had to offer was the story as told from a poet. When I found an editor who asked me to revise with my poet's hat on, I knew my task was almost complete.

HS: What was your impression of most Israeli’s attitude towards the Ethiopians? Did the immigrants feel welcome, despite their difficulties?

DE: There was and continues to be a mixed response to the Ethiopian community in Israel. In the aftermath of Operation Solomon in 1991, Israelis of all kinds were so moved by the sight of 15,000 Jews brought to Israel over one Shabbat in such a heroic effort. Though many of these new citizens proved to be good soldiers, workers, and students, Operation Solomon coincided with a huge aliyah—a wave immigration to Israel—from Russia, as well as the aftermath of the Gulf War, and Israelis were faced with the challenges of all of these events all at once. There were many who welcomed them, brought clothes and goods and tried to make them feel at home; but there are those who feared and discriminated against them, and continue to now.

HS: Drawn from Water not only chronicles the Ethiopian aliyah, but also the changes you experienced. How did your romantic view of Israel evolve into a more realistic attitude?

DE: I witnessed the evolution of racism against Ethiopian Israelis. I was there at the beginning and saw the potential of this community to contribute so much to Israeli society. At first it seemed that Israeli children throwing stones and adults referring to them as barbaric would pass. However, some of the racist attitudes have become institutionalized: teachers give up on Ethiopian students for being behind and don't look for creative ways to help them; the more recent offenses of police brutality are incomprehensible, extremely concerning and disillusioning. I try to hold onto the dream to a certain degree, but I have become more of an advocate than a dreamer. Fortunately this next generation of Ethiopian Jews, born in Israel, is standing up for itself, protesting in a louder voice. Hopefully it will be heard.

HS: You made the difficult decision not to make aliyah and to return to your life in the United States. Do you ever wonder about your alternate destiny if you had remained in Israel?

DE: I do. I would have to have made aliyah when I was still young and idealistic. The country has changed profoundly over the past thirty years and I have become less tolerant of Israel, particularly current policies. I have built a wonderful life with my family in America. Yet even now, when I walk for a day on Israeli soil, visit with my friends throughout the country—particularly with the Ethiopian families I befriended—something is still moved in me. The dreamer returns and I remember what I love about the country and how in some inexplicable way it feels more like home to me than anywhere else in the world.

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Interview: Howard Schwartz

Tuesday, March 04, 2014 | Permalink

by Grace Stansbery

Howard Schwartz, three time winner of a National Jewish Book Award, has recently published his fifth volume of poetry, The Library of Dreams.

"There is so much good work here. Howard Schwartz has done the work, and his poems rise out of Jewish learning and of course from his heart, a heart schooled and matured in all that amazing lore." –Philip Levine

Grace Stansbery: Throughout the book, you develop relationships with long dead authors, specifically Jorge Luis Borges and Franz Kafka. Ignoring the obvious ice-breaker question, "If you could have dinner with anyone from history…" I wonder which two authors you would set up to observe having dinner together.

Howard Schwartz: I’ve come to realize that I’m one of those people who has heroes. When I was a child, it was Alexander the Great. As an adolescent, I was obsessed with J. D. Salinger. Since my twenties, I’ve focused on Kafka and Borges. As I mention in the notes to The Library of Dreams, "Borges has become, like Franz Kafka, a mythic figure in our time, and a presence in my dreams." Borges has acknowledged his immense debt to Kafka, saying that if not for Kafka he couldn’t have written anything. One of the thrills of my life was spending time with Borges when he came through St. Louis, Missouri in 1967. I also have poet heroes, of course, especially Theodore Roethke and James Wright. When I was in New York in the late 70s I called up James Wright and he invited me to visit him. That was truly a wonderful, memorable visit.

GS: The poems in The Library of Dreams seem to be derived from very different places thematically and stylistically; For example, "Before You Were Born" comes from one of your children’s books. Do you find that your poetry lends itself better to one audience over another? Have you encountered unexpected success writing for certain groups or in certain genres?

HS: Keep in mind that The Library of Dreams covers 48 years—I changed, of course, and so did my style. My friend Michael Castro teased me by saying, "It took you forty years to figure out how to write a poem, but you finally did!" I started out convinced that images are the building blocks of poems. I still believe that, but now my language is closer to my voice and my poems don’t consist entirely of images, as they did in my first book, Vessels. Consider this poem, "Reckoning":

For every dark cloud, a red warning.
For every blade brighter than the sun,
an animal clawing
the darkness.
For every wounded tree,
a dark sun dropping out of the sky.

I wanted to write poems that appealed directly to the emotions, gut to gut. Later I came to appreciate retaining the human context out of which they emerged. Take, for example, "Weighing Gold":

Knowing my father
wouldn’t live long enough
to see my first book,
I showed him a book
of the same size,
and he closed his eyes,
weighing it in his hand,
the way he weighed gold.
I never felt closer to him.

You asked about audiences. In 1983 I published Elijah’s Violin & Other Jewish Fairy Tales. I had always loved fairy tales, and I felt strongly about my Jewish tradition. I loved working on that book. The response to it and I decided to write stories intended for children. I’ve now published a dozen children’s books, and many readers aren’t aware that I also write for adults! But the truth is that I didn’t have to make a lot of changes in my approach to write for children. I just tried to tell the stories as clearly and simply as I could, and that worked.

GS: I have always believed in the nobility of literary dedications, of which you have many. Can you talk a little bit about the decisions you make when dedicating a work of art to another person? Do you write with the individual in mind or dedicate once the poem is finished? How have the people in your life reacted to such dedications?

HS: Well, sometimes the poems started out to be elegies for close friends, such as Don Finkel, my teacher, (“The Last Reading”) or Yehuda Amichai, a friend for 25 years (“Yehudah Amichai in the Heavenly Jerusalem”). In other cases, the poem came first, and then I realized that it was really intended for one of my friends, such as “A Palace of Bird Beaks.” That’s dedicated to my good friend and fellow poet Dan Jaffe, who was one of the first to support my poetry. He was thrilled with the poem, and understood completely that it was not only an Ars Poetica, but also my gift of thanks to him.

GS: Your poem "People of the Stories" emphasizes the tradition of storytelling within the Jewish religion and culture—what is more is that many of the poems in The Library of Dreams depict stories from the Bible and the Talmud. What is the importance of storytelling in spiritual cultures? Does the same storytelling continue to fill a unique void in global culture today?

HS: It seems indisputable that the most memorable portions of the Bible are the stories—of the creation, the Garden of Eden, Cain and Able, Noah and the ark, Abraham and the binding of Isaac, Jacob’s dream, Joseph’s rise to power in Egypt, the whole incredible Exodus narrative, etc. Because it was believed that there were two Torahs, a written one God dictated to Moses during the day, and an oral one God gave him at night, explaining the written one, the floodgates of Jewish stories were opened. Thousands of stories emerged, claiming to be part of that oral tradition. I spent a year in Israel in 1977- 1978 studying these post-biblical texts—the Talmud, the midrashic collections, the kabbalistic and Hasidic texts, and I’ve been drawing on those wonderful resources ever since. They’re part of me. Later I came to focus on Jewish folklore, inspired by Professor Dov Noy of Hebrew university, the world’s foremost Jewish folklorist, and that turned out to be my destiny. I followed Elijah’s Violin with three other large collections of Jewish folktales, each focused on a separate genre—fairy tales, folktales, supernatural tales and mystical tales. Finally I felt I knew enough to take on my biggest challenge, proving that there is a Jewish mythology. Twelve years later I finished Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism, almost certainly my most important book. It was after I finished this book that I turned back to writing poetry full time, and the past few years have been the most productive of my life.

GS: I have heard that the more often a person focuses on his or her dreams, the more vivid they become. How has your dream journal changed over time? Was it interrupted or strengthened by this particular book of poetry?

HS: I’ve kept a dream journal since 1967. New Letters published a chunk of it a few years back. Now it’s a file on my computer 200 pages long. I guess I’m fortunate that my muse likes to express herself in my dreams. It fits my view that we must be in touch with our unconscious, which is a source of great inspiration. I found confirmation of this view years ago, when I studied Jung, and I still consider myself a Jungian. The images and narratives I drew from my dreams resonated with me, even if I didn’t fully understand them. So it’s true that many of the poems in The Library of Dreams started out as dreams, or I drew on dream images in writing them. Take, for example, "Listening":

In the dream
I watched her
as she listened to Coltrane—
eyes closed,
lips parted, descending
into the music
and further,
into the one creating it.
There was a moment
when they took a breath
even though he was no longer

GS: One motif in particular caught my attention. Lilith floats in and out of your poetry in Library of Dreams—I find, though, that you don’t write about a Queen of Demons, rather something much less evil. Do you care to explain this decision?

HS: I sometimes think I owe my career to Lilith. Jewish feminists sought to make her a role model in the '60s, because of her independence and especially her sexual independence. But I knew from my studies that in Jewish folklore she was a dangerous demoness, the incarnation of lust and a child-strangling witch. I had several enjoyable debates with Jewish feminists about Lilith, and I’ve recounted her story about how she was Adam’s first wife, fought with him and escaped from the Garden of Eden and became the Queen of Demons dozens of times. I was astonished at what a powerful impact her story made, especially on women. When I was a student in the 60’s I met three young women who believed, for a few months, that they were Lilith. I saw how powerful a mythic figure could be, and later this convinced me that there was, indeed, a Jewish mythology. So I’m grateful to Lilith and it’s no surprise that she turns up in my poetry. She has been a vivid figure in my life.

GS: How often does your writing process rely on your responses to other types of art (whether it is a quote from a religious text or a solo violin sonata)? Does your writing attempt to capture the themes of these works or react to them?

HS: Well, I think that most everything I write is a response to something—a person, a tree, a dream, a book, a piece of music. Isn’t responding to the world what poets do?

Grace Stansbery is an English graduate from Truman State University and lives in St. Louis, MO.

Recalling Professor Dov Noy: World's Foremost Jewish Folklorist

Tuesday, February 25, 2014 | Permalink

by Howard Schwartz

No one would deny that Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem are colossal figures in the fields of Hasidism and Kabbalah. But not everyone realizes that there was another colossus who also taught at Hebrew University. That was Professor Dov Noy (1920-2013), who single-handedly established the study of Jewish Folklore in Israel, and established the Israel Folktale Archives (IFA) in Haifa, which today has collected more than 25,000 stories orally from every ethnic community in Israel, representing every Jewish community in the world. (Dov's brother, Meir Noy, established a Jewish music archives in Tel Aviv).

When still a young man, Dov Noy, himself an immigrant from Kolo­miya in Poland, realized that the immigrants who came to Israel from Eastern Europe and the Middle East brought their stories with them. But they knew these stories in their native languages, primarily Yiddish and Arabic. Their children spoke Hebrew, making it much more difficult to transmit their rich folktale tradition to them. Dov Noy understood that somehow the stories must be saved before those who knew them all died out.

Noy prepared himself for this epic undertaking by studying Folklore at Indiana University in Bloomington. He was fortunate to have Stith Thompson, the founder of the modern study of folklore, as his teacher. Thompson later commented that Noy was his finest pupil. Along with the Finnish scholar Antti Aarne, Thompson published Types of the Folktale, identifying hundreds of plots that appeared in traditional folklore. Dov Noy and his students, especially Heda Jason, expanded these categories by inserting specific Jewish tale types. This made it possible to classify and analyze the various types of Jewish folktales, discerning their uniquely Jewish aspects as well as universal tale types. Today Dov Noy's students, such as Dan Ben-Amos, Aliza Shenhar, Eli Yassif, Tamar Alexander, Haya Bar-Itzhak and Galit Hasan-Rokem, teach Jewish Folklore at major universities in Israel, the United States, and other countries. Dan Ben-Amos has dedicated himself for the past decade to editing a multi-volume collection of folktales collected by the IFA, Folktales of the Jews.

Dov Noy had an astounding memory. Wherever he went, he remem­bered the names of his hosts and their family, remembered whatever they had discussed, and somehow managed to stay in touch with everyone. Whenever anyone needed to know something that no one else knew, they were always sent to Dov Noy, who inevitably knew the answer. In 1977 I was on sabbatical in Israel editing an anthology of modern Jewish poets. I wanted to include an Ethiopian poet, but when­ever I asked if anyone knew of one, they always replied, "Ask Dov Noy." So I called up Professor Noy and asked to meet with him. He told me to come to his home at 9 PM on Monday night. When I arrived, his small apartment was completely full, with at least fifty people. It turned out he had told everyone to meet him at the same time. He had us squeeze into his living room and introduce ourselves. I met artists, musicians, folklorists, scholars and very interesting visitors from many lands. When I was able to speak to Noy for a moment, I told him about my quest for an Ethiopian poet, and he promised me that such a poet would be there next week. And he was. By then I was hooked on these unpredictable Monday night gatherings, and for the rest of my year in Israel I came as often as I could.

Dov Noy also had a wonderful sense of humor. Among the types of stories he collected were jokes, and he often told them. Once, when I was driving with him, I asked, "Dov, what makes a Jewish story Jewish?" His reply: "If a Jew tells it, it's a Jewish story!" But he was actually more discerning. In one important essay, he explained that there are four characteristics of a Jewish folktale and as long as it had one of these characteristics, it could be considered a Jewish story: 1) Is it set at a Jewish time, such as Shabbat or one of the holidays? 2) Is it set in a Jewish place, such as a synagogue, or sukkah or in the Land of Israel? 3) Does it have Jewish characters, such as Elijah, or King Solomon or the demoness Lilith? 4) Or does it have a Jewish meaning? As long as it had a Jewish message, it didn't matter if there were explicit references to Jewish time, place, or character.

Dov often told me stories about his adventures and those of his students in collecting Jewish folktales. Once he told me that he received a letter from one of his students, who was collecting tales in a nursing home from an old man who knew a great many tales. She wrote that he was an exceptional storyteller, but whenever he would tell a fairy tale, he would skip the wedding—normally the highlight of the story. Noy wrote back that the old man must be getting tired, and to let him rest up after telling a tale. The student then wrote that she was certain that wasn't the problem, and he needed to come there and see for himself. So Dov took the bus to that town and met with the old man and asked him to tell a fairytale. And he did, in great detail, but when it was time for the wedding, he skipped it. Dov said to him, "You're a wonderful storyteller. I know that story. In fact, we have collected a hundred variants of it. But why didn't you include the wedding at the end of the story?" The old man said, "My mother gave birth to me when she was 16, and she never married. I never married. I only tell stories about things I know. Since I never had a wedding, I can't speak about it." In this anecdote Dov taught me that every storyteller adds a bit of himself to the tale, which is why the tale is never told the same way twice. I think that anyone who has told a tale recognizes this. And for Dov Noy, it wasn't a flaw, it was a sign of the teller's humanity and of the folk process, which he held in awe.

There is no doubt that the vast archives of the IFA are Dov Noy's greatest accomplishment. Israel recognized this when he received the Bialik Prize in 2002 and the Israel Prize in 2004. I feel certain that in time the IFA will come to be seen as important as the YIVO archives collected in Eastern Europe during the expeditions of S. Ansky, the first modern Jewish folklorist. Together YIVO and the IFA form a kind of Oral Torah, saving precious folk traditions, especially folktales, just as the rabbis preserved the Oral Torah in the Gemara of both Talmuds. You see, Dov Noy was a short, modest man, generous with everyone, a Polish gentle­man, but he was also a colossus, who created an army of folklorists who sought out storytellers among the many ethnic communities in Israel, and gathered their tales, saving them.


In Memory of Dov Noy

you brought back the merchants trading tales,
the grandmothers whispering buba mayses,
brought back so many fairy tales
told by the stove,
warming so many generations.
If all the storytellers are silent,
who can blame them?

Even now,
the wonder child sheds tears in her sleep—
how will the prince vault over the silence
and recover the shining jewel
that could save her?
And the boy awaiting the bird of happiness
is still stranded in the desert,
with no hint of how to find his way
to Jerusalem.

the princess trapped in the golden mountain
needs the spell
you learned from a magic oud,
the winds need someone who knows their language,
the storytellers are parched for the waters
of eternal life.
It was you who recovered the golden dove
we lost in the desert,
and now we have lost you.

Howard Schwartz's most recent collection of Jewish folktales is Leaves from the Garden of Eden: One Hundred Classic Jewish Tales. His book, Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism, won The National Jewish Book Award in 2005.

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Part II: Cartoon Book Reviews are FINALLY here!

Monday, December 22, 2008 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

And let the trend begin! From, Rabbi Harvey reviews…Leaves from the Garden of Eden (Howard Schwartz). Click here to view.