The ProsenPeople

An Interview with Jake Marmer

Tuesday, October 23, 2018 | Permalink
 

by Lucy Biederman
 
I recently spoke with Jake Marmer about his excellent new volume of poetry, The Neighbor Out of Sound.  We talked about form, his immigration experience, poetic and linguistic inspirations, and working life.

Lucy Biederman: There are so many different forms in this book—the opening section plays on the idea of the nigun (“a traditional Hasidic chant, usually wordless,” as you explain). There are prose poems, very short poems, long poems, prayers, sermons . . . Do you think of yourself as a formal poet? How does form operate in your poetics?

Jake Marmer: I think of poetic forms as alternative dimensions, or mind-spaces. Spaces to go into and listen to the language echoing within. I am a somewhat different person when I sing a nigun. A different person when I listen to my kids talk. A new state of emotional attention and concentration gets activated, and with it, its own vocabulary. A poet I admire, Hank Lazer, once called it “inhabiting a form”, and that really speaks to me. The word “Shekhinah," a Jewish name for the feminine Divine Presence, etymologically has something to do with “dwelling” or “inhabiting,” and I think the urge to discern forms, to dwell within them, is a spiritual urge.

Modernist poets thought of form as fluid and intuitive, and that tradition is important to me, and so I don’t think of myself as a “formal poet.” On the other hand, reading various contemporary experimental poets really helped me see how poetic practice can lurk in all these different discourse forms. I’ve been writing riddle-poems lately, tongue-twisters, and poems in which I try to translate a single word. Those are forms, too, and I’ve learned to seek them out and linger in them.

LB: In the prose passages at the beginning of each section, you write about immigrating, working, parenting in ways that both foreground the ensuing poems and give your readers a richer sense of your world. Have you written longer works in prose? Have you considered, or attempted—or written—a memoir?

JM: I owe a debt of gratitude to Jerome Rothenberg for those prose pieces. I wrote to him some years ago about my nigun poems you’ve mentioned, and asked if he thought I should footnote to explain what nigunim are. I needed some contextual explanation, but thought that footnoting my own poems was too boring and self-important. Jerry suggested writing a preface note that would also “serve as a kind of poetics.” I loved that. His own prefaces are often statements of poetics and are gorgeous poetry that look like prose. They’ve been really formative to my own thinking and writing.

As far as memoirs go, the odd thing is that I always have trouble getting at my own memories directly. It's only when I start writing about literature or music of others that I can then broach my own life—as it exists in the encounter with the work of others. As if I am most alive, most provoked in these encounters. For me, this kind of writing takes the shape of essays, usually for Tablet Magazine, and I recently had a piece in the Jewish Review of Books that was very autobiographical, even if it was, on the surface, about the new Isaac Babel translations.

LB: As you explain in the book, you didn’t know you were Jewish until you were eight years old, after your father heard you singing an anti-Semitic song you picked up at the school you attended in Russia. When you immigrated to America as a teenager, you wrote, “Yiddishkeit became alive to me as a poetics.” Can you talk about your relationship with Jewishness? How has it influenced and affected your understanding of language?

JM: I once asked a similar question while interviewing David Meltzer and he said: “What are you doing for the next six hours?” It’s a big question, the answer to which will necessitate many tactical evasions, hand gestures, tangents, self-contradictions, and swallowing of printed text, so I think we should save it for a different occasion.

I’ll just say that I see poetry and mythology as intertwined, and that Judaism’s mythology is the one I chose to live with and within, a lot of the time, and I find myself embodying it, whether intentionally or not. That, too, can be seen as a form of poetics, no?

LB: Despite the variety of the three epigraphs to your book (poet Emily Dickinson, experimentalist Jerome Rothenberg, philosopher Jacques Derrida), they seem to speak in concert, and quite directly, about your themes. Who are some other writers and thinkers who have inspired your work?

JM: Both of my grandmothers. One of them was a teacher of Russian language and literature, and she really encouraged me to memorize and recite poems. The other grandmother, to help me memorize poems, would invent these weird hand gestures that went along with specific images. Like semi-raised drooping hands to signify snow on the branch, or something like that. I think this alive and wonky and performative and old-school approach to poetry influenced me a lot.

Also, my wife, Shoshana Olidort, is definitely a writer and thinker who inspires me a great deal. I read nearly everything she writes, and vice versa. A lot of pontification and brainstorming happens on our couch at home. There’s nourishment in that.

In general, I find myself most profoundly affected by the artistic presence—the actual people, in conjunction with their art—rather than art alone. I’m lucky to be connected to, deeply, to a dozen of musicians and poets whose art inspires me in a way that’s very intense and direct.

And then there’s free jazz—music itself and the discourse around it, big deal Russian writers, experimental sci-fi, Yiddish writers and poets, the Talmud, Transcendentalists, Kafka, Gertrude Stein. And, always, Amiri Baraka and Allen Ginsberg.

LB: The final section of your book focuses on office life, its isolation, and its weird (infrequent) beauty. You write lyrically, heartbreakingly, about other peoples’ desks, doing nothing all day long, eavesdropping on coworkers without meaning or wanting to. I think some readers might be surprised to see office poems alongside poems about spiritual and family life, language, country, and self. But having worked in offices myself for many years, I’m delighted to see these poems about what the mind feels like at work—“the boredom and the horror and the glory,” as Eliot wrote; it’s all there in the workplace! Can you talk about writing about office life? What made you decide to include these poems in this volume?

JM: These jobs are very much a part of my story, my immigrant story. I was fifteen when I came to the U.S., without my parents, and from sixteen and onward I lived on my own and supported myself in every way. I didn’t have a leisurely liberal arts education, didn’t intern for hip literary publications. I worked, often a few jobs at once, and though I was cognizant of the privilege of having these jobs, I also saw them as onerous dues an immigrant has to pay to be a part of this society. My corporate desk jobs were soul-crushing at times, and I wrote the poems you’re referring to so as to redeem that experience, in an almost mystical kind of way.

Four and a half years ago, I finally took a leap and started working as a high school teacher—I now teach poetry, and also Jewish Studies. It’s a profoundly fulfilling, and bank-breaking experience I would both recommend and counsel people away from. I haven’t written a whole lot about it—perhaps because I’m in the thick of the experience. But also because my goal is for teaching itself to be a form of poetic performance, a spontaneous composition threaded between me and the students. When it’s like that, it’s a really good day.

Lucy Biederman is an assistant professor of creative writing at Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio. Her first book, The Walmart Book of the Dead, won the 2017 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Award.

Author photo credit: Cookie Segelstein

An Interview with James Loeffler

Thursday, October 18, 2018 | Permalink


James Loeffler’s recent book, Rooted Cosmopolitans, compares two leading strategies of twentieth-century Jewish activism: one emphasizes collective rights for Jews as a minority group; the other focuses on advancing human rights for all in order to best protect the rights of Jews. Bob Goldfarb spoke with Loeffler about the implications of those strategies today.

Bob Goldfarb: It seems that there’s always been a tension between the view that there needs to be a Jewish state, and the idea that it’s possible to secure the rights of Jews as a minority in the countries where they live.

James Loeffler: I would put it differently. Among Jewish socialists and others, there was a strong desire to integrate, and the sense that Zionism marked us as “too different.” But for the people in the story I’ve told, Zionism wasn’t either/or. It wasn’t either “we stay here” or “we go.” These leaders in Eastern Europe felt that we needed to protect ourselves as individuals and as a people in the Diaspora—and also wanted to have a homeland like other nations. They felt that if we don’t have a country of our own, we can’t advocate for rights in the countries where we live.

BG: At the beginning of [minority rights advocate] Jacob Robinson’s career, in Lithuania, he defended the importance of minority rights for Jews, and at the same time said he was a proud citizen of Lithuania. It seems similar to the way American Jews describe themselves. But then he left Lithuania. Did his point of view change?

JL: It didn’t change that much. He left Lithuania, but it was because the Soviets invaded. More than he was concerned about Lithuanian anti-Semitism, which was very real, he was especially concerned with the Communist threat to Jews, and to everyone in that part of the world. He stayed in Lithuania, even after he moved his family abroad, to help the Jews who had fled Poland in 1939, and also because he was still friends with many people in the Lithuanian government. He was hyper-rational, and he always said we need to view the world as clearly as possible in terms of what’s going to happen.

BG: In present-day Poland, the ruling Law and Justice Party isn’t so friendly to Jews. What do you think Jacob Robinson’s take, or lesson, would be?

JL: Jacob Robinson felt that the Jews of Europe were not making enough use of the rights they had. Many Jews were afraid that speaking out would trigger another wave of anti-Semitism, and accusations that they were disloyal. They felt they should keep their heads down and hope it would all pass. Robinson, on the other hand, felt that the anti-Semites would think what they were going to think anyway.

As anti-Semitism comes more into the open in Poland today, his lesson would be that Jews should use every means at their disposal, and not be afraid to make claims against the country where they live—and to seek solidarity with Jews elsewhere. Another lesson is that we should be accepted for who we are, and not feel that being religiously, culturally, and linguistically different is somehow wrong.

BG: You used the word “solidarity.” That’s very different from the approach of Jacob Blaustein of the American Jewish Committee, isn’t it? He didn’t talk about solidarity, but rather the human rights of individuals.

JL: That tradition was also about solidarity, but much more about “let’s find solidarity with other groups in American society. Let’s build a partnership with them, not emphasizing how we may be different from other minority groups.” So it is a very different approach, an American liberal approach that was not comfortable with too much Jewishness—too much ethnic Jewishness, too much Jewish religiosity.

I don’t think they were assimilationist. They were proud of their Jewishness; they just weren’t comfortable with the idea that Jews should be seen as so different.

BG: Does that spring from a kind of anxiety about difference?

JL: I think it absolutely does. They felt that the more Jews seem like other Americans, especially other white Americans, the easier it will be for Jews. The American Jewish Committee was deeply committed to civil rights and to American liberalism. They also felt that Jews should not stick out too much; we shouldn’t appear too tribal.

BG: It seems as though the American experience is similar in some ways to that of German Jews, who famously called themselves “German citizens of the Jewish faith.”

JL: I think so. It’s striking, when you look back at why Blaustein and the American Jewish Committee were ambivalent about or even hostile to Zionism, that they spent very little time talking about conflicts between Jews and Arabs. They had a fear that if they talked about themselves as a nation—if they said we’re something more than just a religious faith—then we would be triggering more anti-Semitism, drawing more accusations of disloyalty. That was something they shared with the German Jews.

BG: Has that attitude made its way to American Jews today? Do you think most American Jews are no longer apprehensive about difference, or is there a large segment that still holds onto the idea that we shouldn’t be too different?

JL: I think it’s very much there. I think we can draw a line between that earlier period and a certain American Jewish mentality today. In spite of a greater self-confidence, there’s still a strain of Jewish thinking which is hesitant to foreground Jewish identity. There’s still a certain segment that is less comfortable with the thicker forms of ethnic, cultural, or national Jewish identification, and resist the idea that they’re part of a “Jewish nation.”

BG: How does that square with the stance of a lot of American Jews in favor of activism on behalf of other self-identified groups—African-Americans, Palestinians, LGBT people? They don’t categorically reject bold group identity, just in the case of Jews.

JL: It comes from the kind of early mid-century position taken by the American Jewish Committee, and other groups like the American Jewish Congress, which says that when we advocate for others we are protecting everyone. We’re ensuring the fate of democracy, we’re making democracy more inclusive, and this will benefit us.

The critique of that is that it can lead to an imbalance in how we think about who we care about. We’re at a point now, because of the politicization of human rights and the polarization that has taken place, that these things seem in tension with one another in a way that they weren’t before.

BG: Is there any sort of paradox in the stance of a group like Jewish Voice for Peace, which identifies as Jewish while advocating for Palestinians?

JL: I think there is a paradox, and I try to expose it in the book I wrote. That very quest for human rights and justice has deep Zionist roots. To pretend that this activism comes from a rejection of the Jewish experience, and an embrace of the other, is to inflict a certain violence on history and on what really happened. It’s pretending that Jews became cosmopolitan, and that required them to check their Jewishness at the door. There’s an amnesia there.

There’s an ethical problem, too. The people I’ve studied understood that you can best advocate for these concerns by recognizing your membership in this collective experience we call the Jewish people. That way you’re actually better able to understand the needs of the Other.

The first rule of the Middle East is that you have to come as who you are. That means you can’t sidestep the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You have to work through the framework of being part of the Jewish people—pushing, if you want, for the Jewish people to change. If you want Israel to change its policies, work through Israel rather than trying to delegitimize Israel and treat it as an entity that you have no relationship to. You don’t get to simply join up with the Palestinians.

BG: Was Peter Benenson [founder of Amnesty International] a precursor to the Jewish Voice for Peace point of view? His goal was to be universalist and enforce human rights. At the same time, Amnesty was criticized for being particularly interested in alleged human rights abuses by Israel, while it declined to investigate other countries in the Middle East in the same way. It seems to be an extension of universalism to take that next step.

JL: I think that’s true, and it’s an interesting genealogy. Just as now, there was a lot of diversity, a lot of Jewish pathways. Benenson’s story shows you can cut yourself off from the Jewish religion, and you can dream, but the Jewishness in the politics of it doesn’t go away. Benenson tried to reject all national and tribal identity, becoming a Catholic to do it. I think that’s part of the explanation of why human rights, as it chased more and more after universalist ideals, came to focus on Israel. It saw Israel as a fundamental obstacle to those goals.

It also has to do with what we could call a political theology: human rights as a kind of religion. It can replace other religions and other kinds of political commitments. Something of Amnesty International’s origins, and its explicit rejection of Zionism, colors its attitudes, and its determination to finally resolve the Israeli conflict through its own intervention.

Amnesty had a vigorous internal debate about exactly these questions. Some members felt it was wrong to focus on the Palestinian conflict, because “we don’t work in war zones, and that’s not our expertise, and we don’t support prisoners who endorse violence.” Others said, “No, we have to do this.” It’s important to recapture that complexity.

BG: In the epilogue to the book, you wrote: “The professional human-rights community speaks the language of long-distance solidarity, and cosmopolitanism. It sees injustice, crisis, and atrocity, and favors networks and crowds instead of nations and states.” If power is decoupled from idealism, and if politics are made irrelevant to the project of human rights, then human rights activists would become practitioners of rhetoric and symbolism rather than achieving actual results. Is that what you meant by human rights becoming a religion? Is there an implicit belief that faith in human rights will itself bring salvation and redemption?

JL: I do think there’s a crisis for human rights. If it’s only about rhetoric, or norms, and you have powerful states which ignore them and become completely resistant, you can call them names, but that doesn’t force them to change. Then human rights doesn’t have the power that it would aspire to have.

That’s a message that might be surprising, especially in the Jewish sphere. About those involved with Israeli activism who criticize and try to delegitimize Israel, I believe that it doesn’t actually have the power to change what the Israeli government is going to do. For those people who deeply care about the Palestinians, human rights activism is not going to make up for what the Palestinians don’t have, which is a state. Human rights can’t replace citizenship.

It also can’t stop something like Syria. We see now that outrage about Syria on the internet can’t stop the war there. It can’t be stopped by people signing petitions or talking about the atrocities that are being done. The war will be stopped when governments decide to intervene. I think human rights activism is waking up to that.

Bob Goldfarb is the president of Jewish Creativity International, and a blogger at jewishjournal.com.

An Interview with Spencer Wise

Wednesday, August 22, 2018 | Permalink

Spencer Wise headshot and cover of his novel The Emperor of Shoes

Spencer Wise’s debut novel The Emperor of Shoes is the story of a young Jewish shoemaking heir who starts to question the ethics of his family business, which makes its shoes using Chinese labor. The book’s protagonist, Alex, falls in love with a Chinese labor organizer named Ivy, who gets him to think more deeply about himself, his father, and capitalism. I chatted with Spencer about the intersections between his book and his own life; how he approaches writing fiction versus nonfiction; the intricacies of writing dialogue for non-native speakers of English; and Jewish identity, whiteness, and Otherness.

Emily Heiden: Your book largely deals with the issue of identity. At one point, Alex says that perhaps the reason he came to China is to be in a place where he’s so different that he finally belongs: “I pictured myself at peace, in a place where I stood out so goddamn bad that I finally fit in." Can you talk about that moment, about the role of the outsider, and Alex’s search for identity?

Spencer Wise: Well, there is the sense that being Jewish is no longer “different”—and that used to be such a big part of our identity, that we were this unique group. Less than 100 years ago, Jews weren’t considered white. We were completely Other and different. In our rush to assimilate to America—to succeed—that changed. I mean, my parents named me Spencer. It’s an absurdly non-Jewish name.

In Judaism there’s been this sense of self-loathing, the sense that “I’m different and there’s something marking me as Other.” Unlike other minority populations, I think we were able to blend in to the point that we were no longer considered Other. But Alex is longing to be Other again. There’s a self in Otherness; it’s like “I’m somebody now, I’m unique.”

EH: Continuing with this theme of identity, it’s interesting to me that when Alex goes to meet the labor organizer, Zhang, he imagines the lizard on the floor cocking his head as if to say “What’s with the Jew, bub?” instead of “What’s with the white guy?” or something along those lines. Alex himself, on the next page, tells Zhang “the Jewish part is just stories, traditions handed down. For me.”

SW:  In your heart you know what marks you. That’s what comes out when the lizard looks at Alex. I think that, throughout the book, Alex says things that don’t necessarily reflect what he really is. He’s in denial at times. So with the lizard, he has this almost paranoid flash of a moment where he feels like the lizard sees straight through him into his Jewish soul—this very soul that he’s trying to disavow to Zhang as “merely stories and traditions.” So, he’s conflicted. As readers we get that. We almost understand more about Alex than he understands about himself. That’s the dramatic irony that’s fun with a first-person narrator; if they know everything, it’s really boring. So, at times, Alex is proud of his heritage; other times he shuns it. Isn’t that life? It’s not so straightforward. We’re full of contradictions. In fiction, as in life, if you’re going to go into someone’s heart it’s going to be full of hypocrisy, and it’s messy. I guess I don’t see that as a bad thing. I find that interesting and very human.

EH: In the scene where Alex meets Zhang, Ivy is uncharacteristically quiet. Can you talk about the choice to have these two men discussing the best plan for a potential uprising in the factory, when Ivy has been such a key figure in the planning?

SW: I think it’s Zhang’s turn; he needs his time on stage. And Ivy is the only one who can bring the two guys together. She’s on the sidelines for this scene, but we’re supposed to understand she’s vital to the uprising. And, you know, I would love to read a book from Ivy’s point of view, but you really don’t want a white dude writing that book. That would really be a reach for a white Jewish guy from Boston.

EH: Let’s talk about the character of Ivy. Her personality is really charming, really open; she feels fully fleshed-out—and her dialogue is a large part of that. How do you write dialogue? Does writing dialogue for a character who’s a non-native speaker of English change things? How did you handle that during the writing process?

SW: It was so hard. I was so conscious of that. One thing I did to get my dialogue to feel real was I interviewed tons of Chinese people and I recorded it. I also read tons of oral histories, which were really just transcribed interviews. That was immensely time-consuming.

The Chinese characters in my book can’t speak in American colloquialisms. Ivy can’t be like “What’s up dude?” But I chose to make the Chinese characters speak mostly decent English. I worried that if my Chinese characters spoke really broken English  they could end up saying these profound things, but it might be less understandable or sound less intelligent. Also Americans have a stereotype of what “Chinese-English” sounds like from TV and pop culture. I didn’t want to go there at all. So the reader is going to have to suspend their belief and just accept that everyone in the book speaks English pretty fluently.

EH: Fedor, the father in the novel, is a major figure. He’s believable but not necessarily likeable; the book essentially ends with his own son ousting him. What has been your father’s response to the book, as a lot of the book reads as autobiographical?

SW: He’s been the number-one supporter and champion of me becoming a writer. At no point in my life did he envision me getting into the shoe business. He wanted me to get out of it. And of course I picked a really crazy thing to do. 

Although the book is critical of capitalism and global capitalism, one thing that it also does is pay homage to the shoemaking industry, and that’s a huge part of my heritage and my tradition. I think my dad sees it as honoring our family—five generations deep of shoemakers, going all the way back to a shtetl in Russia. When my great grandfather came over on the SS Carmania, he was illiterate, and he had three cents in his pocket. Writing this book was a chance to go into that legacy.

Also, the unlikeable parts of the father in the book are not like my dad at all. I was worried when he saw it on the page that he wouldn’t like it, that he would think it was him. I was thinking “Oh my God, he’s going to disown me and be so pissed.” And then it got published and I think he was just proud. I had bigger problems with other family members who just couldn’t separate the character of Fedor from my dad. It’s not him. He’s the opposite of Fedor. I mean, nothing in the book actually happened. I’m not Alex. Fedor’s not my dad.

EH: NOTHING in the book actually happened? Not even the poison ivy scene?

SW: The poison ivy scene is true. It happened, but I didn’t tell anyone. A lot of what I do in my writing is I embellish it. So: I got poison ivy while making out with a girl in the woods, but no one examined me. But I thought, “Wouldn’t that be hilarious if that happened to me?” That’s taking something from real life and stretching it until it becomes funny.

EH: Okay, so some of it’s based on reality. I confess, when I was reading it, I was looking for those moments in the book that felt like they might be autobiographical. Personally, as a nonfiction writer, I have no interest in or compulsion toward invention, so I’m always reading for the real. But you’re saying you made most of it up? How do you navigate that?

SW: Nonfiction is amazing but I sort of know the plot before I start. When I sat down to write the essay about the time I met Rod Stewart, I knew Rod was going to walk in, act crazy, and I was going to have an existential meltdown because I had no idea what the hell I was doing with my life at the time. With fiction, the plot isn’t there. You have to dream it and it’s hard because there are endless possibilities. So, I sort of let myself imagine all of them and then see which one feels right.

Traveling around China is different from the West in many ways. It’s sensory overload. Like at a tannery, every single sense is bombarded, and there’s a man squatting by the splitting machine and he looks at you with these bloodshot eyes, and it’s all pretty intense. So I tried to just stay open to all the different possibilities of what could happen to my narrator at that tannery.

Objectively, moments and events don’t really count until we make them count. We read into things. We make them matter. So in fiction I’m experiencing the moment, walking through this tannery, and I’m trying to feel for those scenes that matter intensely to my narrator, that challenge, change, or reinvent him. The scenes that count. The things that feel like they were meant to happen.

EH: To go back to the idea of people or events based in the real, what about the character of Alex’s mother? There are some moments that work to create a really believable, emotionally powerful caricature of her. There are also some unflattering moments that reveal the rough edges of the mother and father’s relationship. Does embarking on a project that potentially reveals such sides of a family member’s character ever hold you back from beginning?

SW: It did hold me back for a while, but I think it was Philip Roth who said to write a book your mother will hate. Meaning write so close to the bone, about what is so urgent and intimate and honest and troubling about your conflicted sense of self and identity, that you have to tell it.

Eventually, you go so deep into the rabbit hole that you think, “I don’t even know what’s going on anymore, I don’t know if this will ever get published,” and then finally you’re like, “Let me just create a work of art I’m proud of, that engages the kind of urgent questions I wanted to ask.” And if that resonates with someone, awesome. I wrote it because I had to write it.

Also, about unflattering portraits: some people have told me that what we need are books that depict Jews only in an angelic or heroic light. But that’s not the world, nor is it the business world. People don’t want to think about where their shoes come from, where their things come from. We can’t just tell ourselves hero stories all day long—we have to take responsibility for our place in the world, and that’s part of what my novel is about. As Jews, activism is part of our legacy, but capitalism is also part of our legacy. The Jewish experience is really diverse and complex.

EH: At the book’s end, Alex says he loves Ivy, but she’s told him that he’s not really at home in the revolution. Pages later, you write “She’s gone." Are we to read this as an end to their relationship, or is it meant to be more ambiguous?

SW: I think it’s the end of the relationship. Ivy’s going to lead a revolution for a Democratic China.

A lot of the book is about how awesome China is, and Ivy’s profound sense of losing that. It’s about her losing her own sense of identity and her past in this hyper-capitalist China. And Alex’s sense of losing himself. The question becomes: How far can we drift from the center before we lose every sense of who we are? What Ivy goes to do is for her country. It’s a hopeful ending—not for them, but for China.

Interview: Mark Sarvas

Thursday, July 05, 2018 | Permalink


How would you describe Memento Park in a tweet (280 characters)?

A man tries to recover a looted painting that appears to have belonged to his family but in order to do so he must recover the lost story of his family, reconnect with his own neglected Judaism, and repair his broken relationship with his father.

What do you have on your desk?

An action figure of Bojack Horseman, my spirit animal. A few candles. A chipped bulldog statuette from a Paris hotel. A photo of my daughter. Several to-do lists.

What are your favorite novels that center around a painting?


Top of the list would be John Banville’s “Frames” trilogy – The Book of Evidence, Ghosts, and Athena. I also love Peter Carey’s (underrated) Theft and John Berger’s A Painter of Our Time. And one cannot exclude the urtext of art novels: Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.

What are your favorite art museums?

  

My god, so many. MOMA in New York City is close to the top, though the crowds can be exhausting. I adore the Musee Marmottan in Paris and the Phillips Collection in DC. I recently got out to Mass MOCA for the first time and was enthralled by the place. But I also love smaller spaces like the Neue Galerie and L.A.’s own Norton Simon Museum (which features in my novel).

What are your favorite cases of artistic fakes and forgeries?

I’m pretty fascinated by the life of Eric Hebborn, a noted art forger who is believed to have made around $30 million in the eighties. He was finally exposed and wrote some remarkable books after that, including a memoir and a veritable how-to manual. I wished I could have used all that material more prominently in my book, and I suspect it’s something I will return to one day. You can watch a documentary about him here.

What is your favorite underappreciated Jewish book?

Not underappreciated, perhaps, but not read anywhere near as widely as it deserves to be is Jenny Erpenbeck’s brilliant The End of Days.

Sarvas headshot: Yanina Gotsulsky; photo of Eric Hebborn via Artnet News

Creating Coherence Out of Formlessness

Thursday, June 07, 2018 | Permalink

Steven Zipperstein author photo and the cover of his book, Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History

Professor Steven Zipperstein's new book, Pogrom, is about the massacre of Jews in Kishinev in 1903. Bob Goldfarb spoke with him recently about his findings.

Bob Goldfarb: In Pogrom, you document how Pavel Krushevan, an anti-Semitic newspaper publisher in Kishinev, fabricated the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”—and you uncovered some facts about his life that were previously unknown. It’s quite a breakthrough. What led you there?

Steven Zipperstein: It was really accidental. Many authors of the first books about the “Protocols” had no idea that the Kishinev version had even been published. Later an Italian scholar demonstrated that the word endings in the book version of the “Protocols”indicate quite clearly that it had originated in or around Bessarabia. I was able to connect that version to the pogrom. A superb German scholar, Michael Hagemeister, mentioned to me that a Moldovan Jewish journalist in Brookline, Massachusetts had something, and I was in Boston on my way to Moldova the next day. I called this man and asked him if I could come by. I’m sitting in his living room, and from a shelf in his living room, he takes a large white folder, massively packed with documents, and I begin to leaf through it. What I discovered are treasures.

BG: What was in the folder, and where did he get it?

SZ: The archive came to the journalist because he was writing a history of an insane asylum at the edge of Chisinau (Kishinev), and he had befriended a nephew of Krushevan’s. The nephew admired his uncle, and Krushevan gave the nephew his most sensitive papers, documenting financial misdeeds, shenanigans, bankruptcies. Still more surprising was his diary, written at the age of 15 or 16. He’s staying with relatives in Odessa, and he’s having joyous sex with a Cossack—they come in only one gender. And he declares that he wishes he had been born “a lady.”

BG: Did the documents shed any light on the man he became?

SZ: Krushevan is one of the great totems of anti-capitalist, homophobic, anti-Semitic attitudes. I also discovered that Krushevan’s life was spent in close proximity to Jews. His stepsister had run off with a Jew, moved to Baltimore, and is pictured in a Russian-language newspaper as an Orthodox Jew living a Jewish life with her husband. What’s more, from the age of two, Krushevan was raised by a stepmother who was Jewish.

BG: You write that there was not a lot of overt anti-Semitism in Kishinev before the pogrom, that the populations lived relatively amicably together. It calls to mind more recent cases of pogroms, or genocides, where the same was true. In Jedwabne, Poland, Jews and Poles knew one another intimately, yet the Poles savagely murdered their Jewish neighbors. In Rwanda, Hutus and Tutsis lived side by side, intermarried, and then the Hutus perpetrated genocide against the Tutsis on an incomprehensible scale. Shouldn’t familiarity bring sympathy and understanding?

SZ: In the Kishinev pogrom we have a good many instances of Jews under attack who run into the courtyard of Gentile friends, expecting their protection and not infrequently being protected. But there is a relationship between familiarity and outright ferocity, as Jan Gross argues in his book Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. That serves as a cautionary note with regard to the notion that knowing someone better—as liberalism would like to believe—moderates negative feelings.

In Kishinev, one woman was raped by a man whom she had suckled when he was an infant. A shoemaker was attacked by a man one week after the shoemaker repaired his shoes. Another sobering example is that of Minister of the Interior Vyacheslav Konstantinovich Plehve, whose hatred for Jews seems to have deepened as a young boy growing up in Warsaw in a neighborhood close to Jews. He attributes some of his animosity toward Jews to that proximity.

BG: Is there any lesson to be drawn from this?

SZ: For me, the most sobering lesson to be drawn is about what we now call “fake news.” So much of what resonated about the pogrom were myths, fictions. Myth and fiction have a kind of coherence history doesn’t have. History is full of loose seams and odd edges. With Kishinev, here’s an event that’s probably the best documented in all of Russian Jewish history, and at the same time the most mythologized. The massive amount of documentation does relatively little to unsettle the myths over the course of the last century.

BG: The Hearst newspapers played a large role in publicizing the Kishinev massacre in the United States. The Hearst newspapers also whipped up fervor in favor of a war with Spain in 1898 by fabricating atrocities. The Kishinev pogrom did happen; the Spanish atrocities did not. If a story has the same power whether it’s true or not, it gives one pause, doesn’t it?

SZ: I would go even further. The made-up stories have greater power than the actual stories. They’re fuller, more zaftig, than the news can possibly be. The so-called Plehve letter surfaced a few weeks after the pogrom, and it seemed to furnish empirical proof that the Russian government was behind the pogroms. The letter was a forgery. Yet, it had considerable impact on facilitating mass migration by Russian Jews to the U.S.

BG: Speaking of myths, you conclusively demonstrate that the “Protocols” is a fraud. It’s another great example of the persistence of myth in the face of fact.

SZ: It’s striking that the “Protocols” is really the only anti-Semitic text—among so many anti-Semitic texts that have been published—that continues to have a real life. It actually provides a voice, albeit a false voice, of the “Elder.” One reason for its success is its redundancy. You don’t need to read more than a page to get what it’s about. Somehow this text, which is profoundly localized, ends up speaking to so many different audiences in so many countries.

BG: One of the myths that helped inform the pogrom in Kishinev is that Jews drained the blood of Christian children. It seems to be another example of people believing what they want to believe, so it becomes a kind of “truth,” like the other myths we’ve been talking about.

SZ: You’re right. Disproving something that doesn’t exist is extraordinarily tough. Every time there was a ritual-murder accusation, the coroners set about testing whether the body was drained of blood. The act of disproving the murder serves to validate the notion that ritual murder exists! How do you disprove an absurdity?

BG: You talk about how Kishinev has vastly disproportionate prominence in people’s memory. Many, many more people were killed in pogroms in subsequent years. Yet, despite the hundreds of thousands of casualties in later years, Kishinev stands out. Why?

SZ: This is the first pogrom in a new century. And it’s institutionalized: in Zionist memory, in Socialist memory. It’s adopted by the now-powerful Yiddish-speaking Left in New York. It’s introduced not only into politics but also into plays, synagogue ritual, and arguably the best poem in a Jewish language in modernity, Bialik’s “City of Killing.” It inspired the very play that introduced the notion of the “melting pot.”

There’s also an interplay with the relatively small number of Jews who were killed, all of whom can be pictured in a single photograph, shrouded before their burials. It’s impossible to photograph 600 dead, let alone 200,000 dead. We’ve discovered over time that unthinkable catastrophes are best concretized in small numbers.

BG: You point out that the impact of Kishinev went well beyond the Jewish community. News of Kishinev affected Booker T. Washington, and at least indirectly led to the founding of the NAACP. It’s hard to imagine how a distant atrocity could have such impact.

SZ: In some ways it’s precisely because it’s hard to imagine it that it had the impact that it did. It dominated the headlines for weeks, and was denounced by Theodore Roosevelt. It changed the way lynching is discussed in the U.S. The outrage over Kishinev, in contrast to the lack of outrage over lynchings in the U.S., was itself felt to be outrageous and sparked a corrective on American soil.

BG: Reading history, one can’t help but look for some sort of redemptive lesson: if pogroms could bring about a movement for social change, perhaps that’s a kind of comfort. Yet the pogroms were also followed by the rapid growth of the Ku Klux Klan in the U.S., and the massacre of Armenians in 1915, so the anti-lynching movement is only part of a larger picture.

SZ: One of the most extraordinary aspects of history is its formlessness, and the way people try to create a coherence out of this formlessness; that’s what I study. I leave moral lessons to others. What came to intrigue me at the outset is how this particular episode stuck so resolutely, while others—arguably more important—have disappeared. If I’ve explicated that, I’ve done what I set out to do.

Author photo: Tony Rinaldo

Joe Shuster's Artistic Legacy

Thursday, April 26, 2018 | Permalink

With AJ Frost

Black and white photo of Thomas Campi and cover of the book he illustrated, The Joe Shuster Story

This month marks the eightieth anniversary of Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics #1. What was meant to be ephemeral and cheap entertainment for a nation starved of dreams soon became one of the greatest popular cultural behemoths in history. But justice and the American way never truly caught up for Superman’s creators, two Jewish boys from Cleveland named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Although the legacy of their creation endures stronger than ever, Jerry and Joe themselves were forced into penury, lawsuits, and near-obscurity.

While the story of Superman is well-known throughout the world, the true story of his creators and their plights hasn’t received as much popular scrutiny. A forthcoming comic focusing on the life and travails of Shuster aims to remedy this imbalance. The Joe Shuster Story: The Artist Behind Superman, written by Julian Voloj (Ghetto Brother) with art by Thomas Campi (Magritte: This Is Not a Biography), is not only an authoritative account of Shuster’s life growing up as a poor kid in Cleveland, but also a riveting play-by-play of the early years of American comic books.

AJ Frost chatted with the author and illustrator before the book’s release. In this installment, illustrator Thomas Campi discusses his early influences, the challenges of working on a book while moving continents (a Superman-ish feat!), and the legacy that Joe Shuster left for artists today.

Click here to read AJ’s interview with author Julian Voloj.

AJ Frost: Thomas, thanks for taking the time to chat. I wanted to start with your background for a moment. Superheroes are such an ingrained part of the American psyche, but they might not translate as well elsewhere. Growing up in Italy, what was your attitude towards superhero comics, or comics in general? What was the cultural attitude towards them?

Thomas Campi: I started reading comics when I was fourteen years old. A friend lent me Dylan Dog, a black-and-white series that came out monthly. Dylan Dog was horror, but it had so many different genres in it as well: philosophy, humor, love—it was just brilliant. I didn't really read superhero comics even though I knew about them; my interest was limited to Dylan Dog at the beginning. My attitude was simply that of a kid being amazed by drawings and words that made my mind dream, and let me live adventures by sitting down in silence in my room or in a park. In Italy at the time—it was the ’90s—like in the US, comics were popular but seen as something childish, not really recognized as a form of art. But even this . . . it was a concept I understood and realized years later.

AJF: When did you first come across Superman and the work of Joe Shuster? Superman is so symbolic of American aspiration that I'm curious as to how he's perceived in a non-American context.

TC: The first memory I have about Superman is from when I was probably five or six. I went to a newsagent with my dad and I wanted him to buy me something (no memory of what). Among all the children’s magazines, there were a few superhero comics. My dad pointed at Superman and said: “That's Superman.” (But you know what he was called when I was a kid in Italy? “Nembo Kid.”) But at the time, I was more into cartoons like Scooby Doo or The Flintstones. It wasn’t until I watched the first Superman movie with Christopher Reeve that I actually got to know and understand Superman. Joe Shuster’s artwork was a late discovery.

AJF: The Italian comic tradition is very different from the American one. Would it be fair to say that the work of Romano Scarpa or Luciano Bottaro, or any of the major Disney artists, is more well-known than, say, the work of anything from the Big 2?

TC: Actually, I wouldn't say that. American comics are popular in Italy as well. We do have our own Big 2: Disney and Sergio Bonelli Editore. When I got into comics—as a reader and a fan—I met a lot of people with different interests: those devoted to Disney, the superhero fans, the manga fans, and so on. With that said, Scarpa, Bottaro, and Giorgio Cavazzano are masters for anyone who understands something about comics.

AJF: As an artist, what was your first sense of Shuster's work? Was there something to it that seemed special, or did it seem more like a relic of an earlier time of illustration?

TC: A little bit of both. I thought it was special because Shuster was just a kid when he did the first drawings. And it was in the ’30s, so I pictured him in those times: the cars, the suits with large pants, suspenders, wooden nib pens, big pieces of paper; it’s all fascinating. He made history. The artwork can seem naïve if seen through the eyes of somebody working digitally or simply used to modern aesthetics. I myself think it’s great if you put it in context. I've studied and reproduced a few of his drawings for the book. The inking, and even the way he simplified anatomy, were pretty impressive for someone of his age who didn't have the amount of comics and references we have nowadays. Personally, I'm a big fan of those old-school styles.

AJF: Let's talk about The Joe Shuster Story for a moment. What was the process of collaborating with Julian like? When I chatted with him, he mentioned that you were moving from China to Australia while working on the book. How much of a challenge was it to keep up with all that at the same time?

TC: It was challenging. When I was approached by our agent about the Joe Shuster story, I was living in Hangzhou, China. But I said yes right away. At the time, I had just received my talent visa and I was about to move to Sydney. Another challenge was that I was still working on Macaroni! for my French publisher. And one more thing—and it's something people don't talk about too much—is that as an illustrator or author, you get paid with advances and then royalties, but the advances aren't enough to pay bills, so I had to squeeze in Magritte: This Is Not A Biography for a few months to cover the expenses. It's the life of a freelancer, and I love it!

I also felt some pressure at the beginning. Working on such a popular story about the two artists who created the first superhero and basically helped the birth of the American comics industry was intimidating. But the more I got to know about Joe and Jerry and their genuine passion for telling stories and for comics, the more I felt close to them and confident (if that’s possible when making comics) in approaching the 160 pages I had to storyboard and draw. Julian’s narration is full of emotion and based on solid research. It’s also written with no specifications of panels and page numbers. He trusted my storytelling skills, which brought an inspiring freedom to my creativity and the approach I took in telling the story.

I began reading and annotating the script during nights and weekends since, at the time I received it, I was still working on another book. I broke down Julian’s script into panels and wrote descriptions of how I imagined each particular scene. Regarding the artwork, I didn’t want to define everything with a line, not even in the first steps of the creation of the page. That’s why, after I sketched the storyboards, I simply painted over them without penciling, trying to give a more painterly feeling to the final page—something that could suggest a particular mood, describe a moment without using too many details that would have filled the page but not added any emotion. Basically, both Julian's and my main concern was the story.

AJF: What was it like recreating Depression-era America from your vantage point as an expat in Australia? That must have been its own unique challenge. Did you do any independent research?

TC: The beauty of comics is that you can do whatever you want by yourself in your studio. You don't need the budget you would for a movie or a big team of people. I've done several books set in France and Belgium while living in China and Australia. I think the most important thing is to be honest and passionate about the story you're telling. In comics, in my opinion, there's no need to represent everything in detail, or to be incredibly realistic in anatomy, perspective, background, or lighting. I think the most important thing is to give an “impression," like Impressionists did in their paintings.

During my life, I’ve watched many old American movies, read American novels and comics. But when you're creating something, you can't just trust that kind of knowledge—it can only be the starting point. I did my own research about Joe Shuster, Jerry Siegel, and Depression-era America. I gathered photos of every kind, watched videos from those times, and then I tried to recreate, with my own filter, an impression of that era—which I guess was from a European point of view, even though I'd like to think of it as just a personal, creative one.

AJ F: What do you think the legacy of Shuster is—not just for comics creators or comics readers, but for artists and dreamers? And what did you personally walk away with—emotionally, artistically, or personally—after working on this comic?

TC: What Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel did (in part) is the dream of every artist: creating something that will make you live forever, a legacy. But what actually impressed me was their tenacity, perseverance, and, most of all, their passion. They had fire inside, that fire that makes you sit down in your studio for months—alone in most cases—trying to create something that you can be proud of and that people will enjoy and hopefully remember. I believe that any kind of artist—whether a comic book artist, musician, filmmaker—should have that kind of fire. It’s what makes you an artist, the compulsive need to create. I believe that is Joe Shuster’s legacy.

Telling the Joe Shuster Story

Tuesday, April 24, 2018 | Permalink



 

This month celebrates the eightieth anniversary of Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics #1. What was meant to be ephemeral and cheap entertainment for a nation starved of dreams soon became one of the greatest popular cultural behemoths in history. But justice and the American way never truly caught up for Superman’s creators—two Jewish boys from Cleveland named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Although the legacy of their creation endures stronger than ever, Jerry and Joe were forced into penury, lawsuits, and near-obscurity.

While the story of Superman is well-known throughout the world, the true story of his creators and their plights hasn’t received as much popular scrutiny. A forthcoming comic focusing on the life and travails of Shuster aims to remedy this imbalance. The Joe Shuster Story: The Artist Behind Superman, written by Julian Voloj (Ghetto Brother) with art by Thomas Campi (Magritte: This Is Not a Biography), is not only an authoritative account of Shuster’s life growing up as a poor kid in Cleveland, but also a riveting play-by-play of the early years of American comic books.

AJ Frost chatted with the author and illustrator before the book’s release. In this installment, author Julian Voloj shares some thoughts about writing and collaborating on the book with illustrator Thomas Campi.

___

AJ Frost: Hi, Julian. I’ve been anticipating this book since it was first announced a while ago. Where did the idea to tell the story of Joe Shuster originate?

Julian Voloj: I feel like there are many people who vaguely know about Joe Shuster, but don’t know the whole story. A graphic novel is the perfect medium to tell that story in an entertaining way that can reach a lot of people. I come from a journalistic and academic background. Three years ago, I released Ghetto Brother —my first graphic novel—but before that I had written close to twenty books on academic topics. I knew the comic book history, but I delved into it much more after reading Gerard Jones’s books, like Men of Tomorrow; I really tried to study as much of the story as I could.

I’ve been waiting for someone to do such a book, because it’s a great story. I couldn’t believe that nobody came up with the idea to tell it as a comic book. If you’re a fan of comics, at least in the United States, you probably know the story, but most comic book fans abroad are probably not aware of it. [Ed. note: The book is being released in around ten countries this year.) But, you know, while Americans are aware of the story, they’re not necessarily going to read a 300-page academic book on the subject. A graphic novel makes the story of Shuster so much more accessible.

 

AJF: What was the research like when you were starting this book? You were always interested in the “real-life” story. Was there ever a point when you thought your book would be more like a fictionalized retelling à la Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay?

JV: It’s not that I’m specifically writing nonfiction graphic novels. My interest is nonfiction stories. I come from an academic background and from journalism…that’s what I’m trained in. I really wanted to tell this story, and I was concerned about really documenting every scene; every scene in the book is based on something that I’ve found, be it in academic books, legal documents, or interviews. Everything is based on something. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s all true, because people have different versions of memories, and this version is written from the perspective—or the imagined perspective—of Joe Shuster. But it was pretty clear that it should be a nonfiction book, which, in theory, has a smaller market, but I think that if it’s well done, readers will appreciate it.

AJF: It was interesting, while reading the book, to see so many prominent figures from comics history featured, including people who are still alive. For example, you feature the legendary comics figure Neil Adams later in the book, as well as the more insider-y Jay Emmett, who passed away a few years ago, unfortunately. What was it like hearing those first-hand stories?

JV: In a way, it was a little too late, because a lot of the key people had already passed, so it was pretty much just reading interviews with them. But also it was perfect timing because, thanks to the internet, there are now so many resources available: interviews, videos, Superman audio, the radio show, and all 17 episodes of the [1941-43 Fleischer Studios Superman] cartoons. So you actually could access a lot of the stuff for free, which was amazing.

One cool thing, for example: Jerry Siegel was invited on a radio show, and you can hear his voice; he had such a squeaky, boyish voice, but he was already successful, and this was at the height of his popularity. I wouldn’t have had access to these amazing resources ten years ago. So even though all of these people passed a long time ago, you actually have a lot of these things you can pull from, which is great.

AJF: What was it about Joe Shuster’s story that really resonated with you? Did your perception of him change while you were researching and writing the book?

JV: In 2013, my wife and I were in Detroit with our two kids and my in-laws offered to babysit while we were there. We decided to go for a weekend getaway from Detroit (without the kids). And we went to Cleveland, because it’s around the corner, and I was interested in the Superman story. I’m also a photographer, so I’ve always been interested in these former Jewish neighborhoods. Glenville, which is where Siegel and Schuster met for the first time, is the same kind of place. The majority of the people there were Jewish, and now it’s predominantly an African-American neighborhood. So one morning, I decided to explore Glenville. I saw some former synagogues, and the place where Siegel’s house still stands, and the place where the Shuster residence once stood. I thought I would be more inspired by it, but it’s just a rundown neighborhood, which is unfortunate, because I think it could be such a tourist attraction. I love neighborhoods like this, and I’m always curious, so I spoke with some locals, who I think were surprised that I was white, but also surprised that I decided to park my car and just walk from the old Shuster residence to the Siegel residence. It’s less than a mile. I just wanted to experience the walk that they took every time they went to see each other. Around the same time, I spoke with my agent about how I really wanted to do a graphic novel on this. Half a year later, Columbia University got a donation of letters written by Joe Shuster. They gave me access to this box of letters even before it was cataloged, which was amazing. It was just sitting there, not even in Columbia’s system yet.

These letters…they were heartbreaking. There was stuff about the time Shuster had medical bills he couldn’t pay, his mom was dying; he even writes about Superman generating $50 million and not getting one cent of it. He writes letters to friends—I think all of them were Jewish—and he writes about when he had money that he was donating to Jewish charities. Really, it was just heartbreaking. And reading it in his voice, too. I mean, you think about how at the same time, people were making millions from Superman even before the movie came out, and meanwhile this guy can’t even pay his medical bills. And so, for me, it was clear that I wanted to write from his perspective, because in the duo of Siegel and Shuster, Siegel was definitely the spokesperson. He was the one negotiating the deals, he was the one going on talk shows, he was the one pushing for the trials and the legal claims. He was the dominant one in this relationship. I think Joe Shuster was more of a tragic figure. He also has a bit more of the unknown factor. I feel like often with illustrators, especially with graphic novels, they’re doing the majority of the work but they’re often in the background. Even for this book, it took me a few years to write the text, but it also took Thomas Campi a few years to illustrate it.

Reading those letters, I felt that there were things people actually got wrong. In one of the boxes of Shuster’s letters, there was a copy of the playbill from the Superman Broadway show [It's a Bird...It's a Plane...It's Superman which debuted in 1966], and everybody wrote that he was too poor to go see it in the theater, but I found that he actually was invited to the party and met the actors. And this was at the time when they were trying to come to terms with DC Comics. He even writes that they treated him well, and nobody knew about this because it just came out of this box.

There were just these little things that most of us got wrong because there were no interviews with Joe Shuster—he was more of a shy guy. And so, in a way, I give him a voice with this book. And where it’s possible, I’m using some interviews, and it’s really the way he would speak. In a way, I feel like it’s elevating a marginalized voice who’s not known as much as Jerry Siegel. There are just more interviews with Jerry Siegel. Even when they had interviews together, Jerry was the one talking.

AJF: How was the aesthetic sense of the book informed by your writing, and how much of it was Thomas taking what you wrote and just going with it?

JV: When I was writing it, and pitching it to my editor, he sent me a lot of portfolios. And there were really a whole range of possibilities. Some looked very American, even like a superhero comic, and I felt like I didn’t want it to be like that. My agent met Thomas in China, which is crazy because he’s Italian, and told me he met this guy and thought I’d like what he’s doing. The moment I saw his portfolio I knew he was it. It was this Americana feel to it; it really was a perfect fit. I was joking with Thomas, because we both love the show Mad Men, so we were saying that this is the Mad Men of comics. Some of the aesthetics are really like Mad Men, so I feel like the style perfectly fits.

We did things like Skype, and Dropbox, and we transferred things over the internet. It’s a lot of stuff he got from me to work with online. The funny thing is that while he was working on it, he was moving from China to Australia, so the time difference was a challenge too. If we had done this book ten or fifteen years ago, we probably wouldn’t have found each other. The fact that I can work with an Italian artist in Australia worked perfectly. I think it’s really like a fine art book. It’s definitely strongly his style, but it also fits perfectly with my vision.

AJF: How and why does the sub-genre of biographical comics speak to you as a reader, writer, and academic?

JV: I write frequently for a Swiss Jewish magazine, so I’m interested in Jewish culture stories and Jewish contribution to culture. I find stories that fascinate me, real stories, and tell them in a journalistic form. So the fascination with real life stories and Jewish history definitely was part of it. And I feel like there is a growing demand for it. I feel like telling the real story is my way to honor the pioneers. The first generation of comic book artists are stories of a lot of broken hearts, people who were screwed over by publishers. Telling stories like this is important, to honor those people who can’t tell their stories anymore. Even if it’s just a story about the Superman creators, I put it in the wider context of the comic book industry. That’s why a lot of people are also honored in it, and have guest appearances, and can sort of tell their own stories. It’s history.

AJF: You said it’s Jewish history?

JV: It is. The comic book industry was 90 percent Jewish. And even the trials in the ’50s [The Kefauver committee hearings, which linked comic book reading to juvenile delinquency] had some anti-Semitic undertones. So, yeah, it’s a fascinating piece of Americana, but also of Jewish history.

AJF: Okay, last question: What does the story of Superman and Joe Shuster mean to you as a lover and writer of comics?

JV: Superman is really just a part of American folklore now, and in a way, the Siegel and Shuster story and the bad deal they made is almost like the original sin, in a way, of the comic book industry. So, I think it should be told not to forget where it comes from. Hopefully with my book, the original sin of the comic book industry will be more known, and the creators more appreciated. I feel like it’s something that is contemporary. A lot of people think that the comic book industry is just these two big companies, but of course there are many people who want to do their own thing, and there’s a growing market for independent artists. Hopefully people will appreciate the independent artists and give them a chance when they go to a convention and see things that are not like the characters that you see everywhere, but artists trying to figure out things that are not in the mainstream.

Nathan Devir on Emerging Jewish Communities

Thursday, April 19, 2018 | Permalink

with Adam Rovner

A world expert on African Jewish communities, Nathan Devir is assistant professor of Jewish Studies and director of the Middle East Center at the University of Utah. His acclaimed first book, New Children of Israel: Emerging Jewish Communities in an Era of Globalization, describes groups who are claiming—or reclaiming—their Jewish identity in the developing world. Devir’s readable scholarship takes readers on a fascinating journey of discovery to Jewish communities across Africa and the Indian subcontinent.

Adam Rovner: Your book focuses on “emerging Jewish communities.” Can you explain what that means?

Nathan Devir: “Emerging” is an imperfect term, sometimes used alongside qualifiers such as “Judaizing” or “neo-Jewish.” These words indicate that a community is not part of a conventionally-recognized sector of klal yisrael, the worldwide Jewish people. Because Jews are such good record keepers, and because correspondence between divergent communities about matters of halacha has been part and parcel of post-exilic Jewish life, we have a pretty good idea about where Jews have settled. But it’s the communities that fall outside of that rubric—whether they claim to be part of the Ten Lost Tribes or of other “vanished” communities, or whether they’ve only recently adopted the Jewish faith—that are frequently labeled as “emerging.” I don’t intend any denigration whatsoever of these communities’ histories or validity by the use of such terms. I only employ them to demarcate the lines between communities that are conventionally accepted and known about, and those that are not.

AR: In what ways are the “Judaizing” communities in your book different from mainstream Jewish communities in the diaspora?

ND: It depends. Many communities claim that they’ve been missing from the fold since 722 BCE, when the Ten Lost Tribes were supposedly scattered. These groups have a Jewish worldview that is pre-rabbinic, and often based on a literalist interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures. So, in addition to the standard customs that Jews the world over follow, such as circumcision, food and hygiene taboos, and Saturday Sabbath, they often practice things that are considered bizarre to modern Jews: polygamy, animal sacrifice, Levirate marriage, or libation-pouring. Almost without exception, they no longer have any knowledge of Hebrew. They’re often closer to Samaritans or to Karaites than they are to any normative Jewish denomination. The trend seems to be that when they become aware of how rabbinic Judaism works, they wish to follow that stream since it’s the norm for the Jewish world now. Interestingly, there’s no casual “ethnocultural” or secular identification with one’s Jewish roots among such communities. They want to follow the Law to the letter, and they can’t understand how Jews in Israel or the West could ever lead secular lifestyles and still call themselves Jewish.

AR: What attracted you to the phenomenon of self-identified Jewish groups in the developing world?

ND: As early as the 1990s, when I was living in Israel, I was fascinated by the stories of my Ethiopian friends who had recently arrived there. I got to know a lot about them, but I never thought I’d use any of that knowledge in my professional life. Then, before I finished my PhD, I discovered the work of Tudor Parfitt, who was the first Western academic to seriously investigate the heritage narratives and claims of Judaizing groups in Africa. His groundbreaking work on history, religion, and culture captured my imagination and inspired me to follow his lead.

AR: As a scholar originally of Jewish literature, why did you move from the study of texts to the study of culture?

ND: As much as I love literature, I needed more on-the-ground interaction with people than literary studies afforded me. Books and archives are great, but traveling to new and exciting places, and meeting new people who are eager to share their stories—that’s just so much more rewarding for me. Also, it enables me to interact with academics from other disciplines that I find fascinating—sociology, anthropology, religious studies, folklore, political science. I feel like this move created a sea change in my intellectual perspectives on a whole range of subjects, and I’m grateful to my colleagues for allowing me the flexibility.

AR: What lessons might emerging Jewish communities hold for established Jewish communities in the diaspora?

ND: I think it’s moving to see what so many of these people are ready to give up in order to lead Jewish lives. For those of us who live in developed and relatively stable countries, we can live as Jews without having to draw much unwanted attention to ourselves, or without having to sacrifice major components of our livelihoods—the occasional anti-Semitic instance notwithstanding. But for someone who lives in a developing country where eking out a living is a constant struggle, being willing to give up a day’s wages because one won’t work on a Saturday represents a sacrifice that most of us are no longer faced with. Not to mention, of course, the danger of self-identifying as Jewish in locales where Islamist terror cells are present, or where European-derived anti-Semitic blood libels are rife. So, I think the commitment among emerging communities to preserving their identity can galvanize those of us in established countries to reflect on what kind of privileges we’ve been afforded.

AR: How might Jewish communities in North America support the “new children of Israel” your book describes?

ND: There are several key ways. First, I would recommend getting to know about the activities of the organization called Kulanu, which supports isolated and emerging Jewish communities around the world. Kulanu has many educational and volunteer opportunities that can be meaningful for those who wish to support these “new children of Israel.” Second, I would suggest that synagogues, Jewish community centers, Hillel groups, and other Jewish venues consider hosting someone from an emerging community, whether as a speaker, as a scholar-in-residence, or just as a guest. Such face-to-face encounters challenge pre-existing perspectives and create lifelong connections that can be transformative. Anyone who wishes to do this should let me know—I’d be more than happy to make the shidduch!

AR: Are you willing to hazard a prediction about how mainstream Jewry in the diaspora will receive emerging Jewish communities a generation from now?

ND: Yes, most definitely. I think that in countries such as the U.S. and Canada, where the vast majority of Jews hold principles of inclusion and progressive values dear, there will be continued efforts to engage members of emerging Jewish communities. Many Jews in North America are frustrated that they seem to be excluded from certain liberal agendas because of the perception on the left that one cannot be a Zionist and a progressive at the same time. And so, engaging with underrepresented populations with an eye toward bolstering Jewish diversity, doing work that highlights social justice and economic advancement, and broadening one’s intellectual and cultural knowledge at the same time—these are things that many Jews in the diaspora want as part of their projects of tikkun olam.

AR: And what about in Israel?

ND: With regard to Israel, I think it could go one of two ways. There are many in Israel who are in favor of engaging such groups—indeed, even of encouraging them to settle there—whether that stems from a wish to help Israel maintain its Jewish demographics and character, or whether it’s related to messianic expectations about the “ingathering of the exiles.” On the other hand, there are many who fear an influx of economically disadvantaged people whose Jewishness is in question. Such opponents will therefore take measures to keep out even those who have legitimately converted. But whether or not Israel decides to embrace this trend is ultimately a moot point in my view. Because there are millions of people from the developing world who are claiming, or reclaiming, their Jewish roots (quite likely many more than the estimated 15 million or so conventionally-accepted Jews), what Israel does or doesn’t do will not make much difference. A generation from now there will be so much interaction because of globalization, international migration, and racial diversity, that this notion of “emerging” might even be passé. It will simply be the new face of global Jewry.

Interview: Moriel Rothman-Zecher

Tuesday, March 20, 2018 | Permalink

with Ranen Omer-Sherman

Moriel Rothman-Zecher's debut novel, Sadness Is a White Bird, is about a young man preparing to serve in the Israeli army while also trying to reconcile his close relationship to two Palestinian siblings with his deeply ingrained loyalties to family and country.

Ranen Omer-Sherman: You transport us from a military jail cell to a fairly sheltered Jewish American childhood, to the Palestinian experience of the Nakba, and the destruction of the vibrant Jewish community of Salonica in the days leading up to the Holocaust. In the hands of a less assured writer, such ambitious leaps would be insurmountable, yet you somehow pull it off brilliantly. How long did it take all those monumental elements to cohere in your imagination? Did you revise any major plot developments along the way, or was it always clear to you where you were going?

Moriel Rothman-Zecher: Thank you for this wonderful question. It is such a privilege for me to get to discuss this process with you, Ranen. Was it clear to me where I was going? Absolutely not. Growing up, I read a lot of fiction, and certainly harbored some dreams about writing a novel myself some day, but I assumed, as a young reader, that I’d need to figure my whole book out — the characters, the plot, the order, the arc, the meanings — before starting to write. Thank God, that didn’t turn out to be the case. If I’d tried to map out this book before starting, I think I would have been paralyzed, and am not sure I would have been able to start at all. In other words, if I’d consciously set out to write a book that would center around both Israeli and Palestinian protagonists and grapple with the histories of both the Holocaust and the Nakba, I think I might have been overwhelmed by the burden of parsing out the parallels and the lack thereof, the similarities and the imbalances, the impossibility of summarizing the Holocaust or synopsizing the Nakba, and certainly the impossibility of doing both in the same work. Instead, I started writing with very little clarity, and very few plans. I knew that I wanted to write about Jonathan, an American-Israeli IDF soldier who speaks Arabic, and I knew that at some point in the narrative, Jonathan would end up in military jail. That’s all. Everything else — the characters, the plot, the details, the histories — unfolded as I wrote, and shifted and morphed as I revised. I can’t say with any certainty why Salonica and Kufr Qanut (a lightly fictionalized version of Kufr Qassem) became the loci of familial history and familial trauma for Jonathan and for Laith and Nimreen, respectively. I was only certain that I needed to delve more into the family backgrounds of the three main characters, because as this book unfolded, I understood that the novel was going to be about history and its claws and its echoes as much as it would be about the modern/“present” era in which the vast majority of the narrative takes place.

ROS: The main protagonist, Jonathan, is a young man comfortable with his own sexual fluidity. His ease in crossing sexual boundaries seems to strongly relate to his ability to cross other boundaries. Do you see his fluidity as more of an asset, or dangerous irresolution on his part—another factor leading to his crisis in the novel’s climax?

MRZ: I think Jonathan’s relative fluidity — nationally, linguistically and sexually — is an important part of his individuality and his loveliness (I do not see Jonathan a self-portrait, but I do think that I would have been very good friends with him had we met at age 17, and I love him very much). And I also think it is a source of danger and provides him with a powerful opportunity for self-delusion; Jonathan’s narrative, throughout much of the story, is that as long as he remains fluid and open — friends with Israelis and Palestinians, speaking Arabic and Hebrew, in love with Arab women and Jewish men, and Jewish women and Arab men — then he can remain largely sideless, and can ignore the ways in which “sidelessness” does not exist in Israel-Palestine (or, probably, anywhere in the world). On page 89-90, Jonathan explains to Laith: “[M]aybe I tricked myself into believing that if I kept the worlds separate, then I’d never have to choose between the two.” (I will add that I think his failure to recognize the significance of his “sidedness” was far more dangerous and delusional nationally than sexually, and in the latter case, I do think I see his disregard for binary sidedness as far less fraught).

ROS: I was impressed by the richly immersive ways that Hebrew and Arabic dialogue transport the reader in your novel. How fluent is your Arabic? As you studied the language at Middlebury College, did that immersion change your sense of Israeliness in any particular way? And did the language hold any surprises for you, then or later?

MRZ: My Arabic is very good, and I feel very fortunate that that is the case. I studied Modern Standard Arabic every semester during my four years at Middlebury, including a stunning Modern Arabic Poetry Senior Seminar taught by Professor Huda Fakhreddine in which I first encountered Darwish’s poems in Arabic (among them “A Soldier Dreams of White Lilies,” from which the title of my novel was drawn, and which plays an important role in the story itself). During two separate summer breaks from college, I lived with a family in Al-Bi’neh, a Palestinian village inside Israel, and was fully immersed for those few months in spoken Palestinian Arabic, and in the parts of Palestinian culture and history and identity that I think can only be encountered in Arabic (similar to the parts of Israeli culture, history and identity that I believe can only fully be grasped in Hebrew). In the years after I moved back to Jerusalem in 2011, I used my spoken Arabic all the time, in visits to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, translating for various groups and visitors, getting to know families and activists, connecting with friends. I am now very comfortable in spoken Palestinian Arabic, and my written/formal Arabic has grown extremely rusty. It was very important to me that this novel, which is written in English, my only writing language, include significant chunks of my two other fluently-spoken languages. Even for a reader who doesn’t speak a word of Arabic or Hebrew, I think the sounds of each language hold significance in and of themselves, and I wanted to make sure to weave a good amount of Arabic and Hebrew transliteration, and not only translation, into the book.

ROS: How did your time in Al-Bi’na, a predominantly Muslim Arab town in northern Israel, impact you? Were your characters directly influenced by anyone you spent time with? And have you received any responses from Palestinian readers of the novel yet?

MRZ: I spent part of the summers of 2008 and 2010 living with Rihan and Maryam Titi and their family in Al-Bi’na (and ostensibly teaching English in the nearby Deir al-Assad, though I’m not sure how much English I actually succeeded in teaching, or how much that was really the point, for any of us involved). These two summers had an enormous impact on my life — as I mentioned before, this was when Arabic came alive for me, jumping from the pages on which I’d studied it in classrooms, into the fabric of the entire world surrounding me for these few months. As my spoken Arabic improved, my understandings of the nuances of Palestinian culture and daily life and humor and history all did as well; and more than that, I encountered Palestinians, for the first time, on their own terms and in their own contexts and in their own language, and through this, forged connections that remain important to me to this day. 

In terms of the intersections between the novel’s characters and the actual people I met during those summers: Laith and Nimreen are not direct portraits of specific individuals, but certainly draw parts of their senses of identity and politics and humor from a collage of many younger Palestinian citizens of Israel I met then, and later, in various dialogue programs. I have received a few responses from Palestinian readers which have been very moving, including from Amani Rohana, a dear friend of mine who I met in one of the aforementioned programs in Colorado, who was an early reader of this book in its half-baked manuscript form, and from a few other Palestinian Americans who have enjoyed and appreciated the book as well.

ROS: There is a well-known confessional mode of Israeli writing, often critically derided as yorim ve bochim, literally “shooting and crying,” in which the leftist soldier eloquently laments their participation in the horrors of the Occupation. Some argue this rhetoric clears their conscience and affirms the beauty of their sensitive souls, while avoiding taking direct responsibility for their actions or taking practical steps to significantly challenge the status quo. Do you see your novel responding to that tradition in any way?

MRZ: This is a great question. The yorim ve bochim trope was very much present in my mind as I wended my way through this story, in which the Israeli soldier-narrator ultimately both yoreh ve boche, both shoots and weeps. I am reticent to write too much about this particular subject, as I am conscious of the “spoilers” doing so would necessarily entail, and I think that the novel’s full force depends on a few particular surprises and plot developments, and the unknownness and opacity contained within the zigzagging narrative arc. I will say that I think a lot of the story unfolds from deep within a yorim ve bochim paradigm, and then, toward the end, veers very sharply away from it. In my reading of the novel, no conscience is cleared, nothing is solved or resolved, and the bechi, the weeping, that follows the yeri, the shooting, is neither cathartic nor cleansing. It is simply a physical manifestation of uncontainable grief, vertiginous confusion, and staggering pain.

ROS: Though you are in your 20s and I recently turned 60, it seems that fiction by writers like Leon Uris profoundly influenced both of our early dreams of moving to Israel and serving in the IDF. (I served in the Paratroopers but that was before two Intifadas, two Gaza wars and two Lebanon wars; facing the painful enormity of all that today I might very well have embraced your principled decision not to serve.) Just thinking about Uris’ Exodus today makes me cringe with embarrassment at how dangerously naïve I was in 1975. Happily we both seem to have moved on to other influences! Your heartfelt homages to two “national” poets, Yehuda Amichai and especially Mahmoud Darwish, constitute some of the novel’s many haunting moments. Are there any other Israeli or Palestinian writers that have had an important impact on your moral imagination, or that you similarly cherish?

MRZ: It is really wonderful to be in conversation with you, Ranen. Just as you think that you might have decided not to serve today, it is clear to me — as much as such an autobiographical and historical counterfactual can be clear — that I would have served (and likely in the Paratroopers!) had I moved to Israel 30 years earlier. On the subject of Exodus, I reread that novel in the early period of writing this one, and while there were certainly many cringe-inducing sections, I was also surprised at how compelling parts of it remained, insofar as I was able to suspend what I have come to know about history and reality and allow myself to re-tumble into the fictional world, with its fantastical interpretations of facts and politics, that Uris created. In terms of other Israeli and Palestinian writers who have impacted my moral imagination and whose writing I cherish, there are two in particular who immediately come to mind: S. Yizhar and Ghassan Kanafani. S. Yizhar’s 1949 novel Khirbet Khizeh about an Israeli soldier ordered to expel the unarmed residents of a Palestinian village during the 1948 War of Independence/Nakba had a profound impact on my political development and my understanding of history; Ghassan Kanafani’s 1969 novella, Returning to Haifa, did as well, though it was harder for me to read than Yizhar’s work, perhaps because the indictment contained in Khirbet Khizeh felt more singularly “historical,” while Kanafani’s novella asks the reader — and, I think, especially the Jewish Israeli reader — to grapple with the ways in which history never ends, and the extent to which the past remains interwoven with the present. (I read both of these works in a brilliant seminar on Zionism with Professor Robert Schine at Middlebury College, along with nonfiction writings by Martin Buber and Edward Said, which also had profound impacts on my thinking, my writing, and my beliefs). Two other works of Israel-Palestine-based fiction that impacted me profoundly and that I will mention briefly were David Grossman’s To The End of the Land and Sayed Kashua’s Let it Be Morning. I also love the poetry of Sami Shalom Shitrit and Taha Muhammad Ali...The list goes on.

ROS: I teach a course on both Israeli and Palestinian writers in translation, and one of the things that always interests students is the way one side imagines or portrays “the other.” Reading the stirring Afterword to Sadness, I was impressed by the deep background you acquired in Darwish’s poetry, and was especially struck by a moment where you quote his impressions of Yehuda Amichai: “We compete over who is more in love with this country, who writes about it more beautifully…When I read him, I read myself.” I had never seen that before, and others I’ve shared it with have also been surprised and very moved by that almost brotherly expression of grace and humility. Can you add anything else about Darwish’s attention to or affinity for Israeli literary culture, or how he stirred your own thinking in other ways?

MRZ: I was also immensely moved by Darwish’s description of Amichai in that interview with Adam Schatz; significantly, that quote is from the same interview in which Darwish talks about his friendship with Yossi, the “soldier who dreamed of white lilies.” Darwish’s discussion of Amichai’s work and his poem about Yossi both struck me as profoundly, startlingly generous. In general, I think it is the generosity of Darwish’s poetry that allowed it to have such a profound impact on my life. If Darwish had written beautifully about Palestinian life and Palestinian suffering, but had included only caricatures of grotesque, brutish Israelis in his writing, as is the case with some nationalist writers (and as is significantly not the case with the aforementioned Kanafani, though he was a strident nationalist and spokesperson for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), I don’t think I would have believed his poetry in the visceral way in which I did, in which I do. Which isn’t to say I would have disbelieved that Palestinians experience beauty and pain as deeply as Israelis, or doubted that their suffering is genuine and profound. But the image in “Identity Card,” for example, in which Darwish writes “If I become hungry, I will eat the flesh of my usurper” — that sort of fury would have been easier for me to write off as overstated or as wholly illegitimate had it not been written by the same poet who writes of an Israeli soldier: “He dreamed of white lilies, an olive branch, her breasts in evening blossom.” This coupling, I think, forced me to confront certain questions on a deeper level — namely, what sort of humiliation and oppression and torture must be inflicted in order to push someone, even on a literary level, to the point of threatening to eat the flesh of his usurper who he views and recognizes as fully and entirely human.

ROS: You were invited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman to help edit the acclaimed anthology Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation, published just last year. Before that, you had already led the participating writers on tours of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. In those intense days spent with foreign writers seeing the conflict through their eyes, did anything shift in your own perception of the conditions of the occupation?

MRZ: I don’t know that seeing the situation through the eyes of the participating writers (and often alongside them as they saw what they saw) shifted my macro-perception of the conditions, as such, but it certainly shifted something in my heart. For example, I knew, intellectually, about the horrific levels of oppression faced by residents of the Shuafat Refugee Camp in East Jerusalem — who are surrounded by a concrete wall that essentially functions as a cage; who receive virtually no services from the Israeli authorities who control their lives, except in the form of regular, violent raids to arrest and sometimes wound and sometimes kill people suspected of crimes ranging from violent attacks against Israelis, to throwing stones at the checkpoint separating the camp from the rest of Jerusalem. I knew all of that on an intellectual level — I’d read the Haaretz articles, and the Ir Amim reports, and had been in the camp a few times in the context of political tours and visits. But during the course of the Kingdom of Olives and Ash project, I accompanied Rachel Kushner into the camp to translate for her and to spend a good part of a weekend with one of the most decent, brave, astonishing people I’ve met in my whole life, Baha Nababta, and his friends and family. Baha was murdered by an unidentified assailant two weeks after Rachel and I met him; the Israeli police to this day have not arrested the perpetrator, and most likely will never do so — his beautiful, vibrant life mattered so little to the state. Rachel’s essay, which was first published in The New York Times Magazine in December 2016, is a beautiful tribute to Baha. I remain deeply shaken and devastated by his murder to this day. I think, in retrospect, the seeds that would ultimately push me to want to leave Jerusalem and leave Israel-Palestine, at least for a long period, were planted the moment I got the phone call from a friend telling me Baha had been killed.

ROS: While you seem to be someone very much at ease in a variety of cultures, you recently resettled in the small town of Yellow Springs, Ohio, which for better or for worse sounds to me just about as remote as one might get from the Middle East. Do you envision ever returning to live permanently in Israel or has life there become untenable for you — and if so, why?

MRZ: I don’t know if I’ll return to live permanently in Israel or not. Life is strange, and winding, and there are so many factors at play. If you’d asked me three years ago where I’d be living in 2018, there’s almost no chance I would have said Yellow Springs, Ohio. My partner, Kayla, and I are expecting our first child, a daughter, this spring; I am both heartbroken to think about her growing up so far away from Jerusalem (I’d long imagined that we’d send all of our kids to the Bilingual School in Jerusalem, that they’d speak Hebrew and Arabic and English fluently from the time they were tiny. Maybe that will still happen. Maybe not) and also immensely relieved to think about our child growing up far away from Jerusalem. This split between Israel-Palestine and America has been a constant, dialectical back-and-forth, physically and spiritually, in my life. Given my own background (Israel-Palestine ages 0-5, America ages 6-16; Israel-Palestine ages 16-17; America ages 18-21; Israel-Palestine ages 22-28; America once again), and Kayla’s (America ages 0-14; Israel-Palestine ages 14-29; America once again), I imagine there will be a good deal of back-and-forth in our family’s future as well, but as of this moment, we have no immediate plans to return, except to visit after our baby is born.

ROS: Long before I finished Sadness, I found myself lifting the page after a wrenching revelation or gripping episode, and thinking what a revelation Jewish Israelis and Palestinians might find it. Are there any prospects for a Hebrew or Arabic edition? I know that few Israeli-authored works are ever translated to Arabic, but I couldn’t help wondering.

MRZ: There are no current plans for translation into any other language, but it is certainly my hope that that will change soon. It is very important to me that this book is eventually translated into Hebrew, and I’d like to work closely with the translator — but I wouldn’t want to translate it on my own. My written Hebrew is fine, but I don’t have access to the deepest levels of poetic resonance in the language, nor the linguistic confidence I have in English; and language, to me, is such an important part of this book — more important even, I think, than its plot, or what it is “about.” As for Arabic? I really hope so, too. As you noted, very few Israeli Jewish authors are ever translated into Arabic (in the aforementioned Darwish interview, Darwish noted that most Palestinian intellectuals who had read Amichai read him in English — I wonder, now that I think about it, whether Darwish himself read Amichai in Hebrew or in English?); but it does happen, sometimes, and it would mean a lot to me if it were to happen for this book.

Interview: Jonathan Weisman

Wednesday, March 14, 2018 | Permalink

with Michael Dobkowski

In (((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump, Jonathan Weisman explores the disconnect between his own sense of Jewish identity and the expectations of his detractors and supporters. He delves into the rise of the alt-right, their roots in older anti-Semitic organizations, the odd ancientness of their grievances―cloaked as they are in contemporary, techy hipsterism―and their aims―to spread hate in a palatable way through a political structure that has so suddenly become tolerant of their views.
 

Michael Dobkowski: In many ways your book is about Jewish identity and experience in the Trump era. How has the American Jewish experience changedgenerally, and for you, personally?

Jonathan Weisman: I grew up in a very Reform household. Although I was raised to identify as Jewish, I—like many Jews of my generation—drifted away, in part because Jews had become entirely comfortable in a pluralistic, liberal democracy that seemed to be progressing inexorably toward tolerance and acceptance. I thought of anti-Semitism as an issue of the past. Then came the Trump campaign and the emergence of swarms of white nationalists who pressed for Mr. Trump’s election. I became a target of the alt-right’s attack, forcing me to reconsider my identity in light of how the bigots were identifying me.I could embrace Judaism as a system of beliefs, a culture, and a religion or I could shun it. But I could no longer ignore it. And so I embraced my Judaism. I fear that too many Jews have rationalized away the threat of white nationalist hate to justify political and social views that were formed before the emergence of this changed reality.

MD: Do you think these changes are temporary and reversible or have we reached a tipping point?

JW: It is difficult to know whether we are living in a temporary era of intolerance that will be seen as a brief interruption in the post-World War II progression toward pluralism and democracy—or whether that post-war progression was, in fact, the historical aberration. It is not just the rise of hate and intolerance. Democracies and fledgling democracies like Hungary and Russia have slipped back into crony authoritarianism. Intolerant nationalism is rising around the world. I still have faith that Americans love our institutions and traditions, and that we can save what makes us Americans. But I am less sure by the day.

MD: Much has been written about the so-called “new anti-Semitism." Do you think the threats posed by the alt-right and their allies are fundamentally different from earlier expressions and manifestations of American anti-Semitism?

JW: The alt-right’s anti-Semitic beliefs and tropes are oddly anachronistic. They are precisely the aspersions that I learned about as a child in Sunday school: Jews are both rapacious, greedy capitalists and dangerous, left wing anarchists; they are at once all-powerful puppet masters and sniveling weaklings; they control the media and through it, they have corrupted popular culture with their decadence—yet they are forever foreigners, never truly Americans, never truly part of American culture. It makes no sense, but those contradictions have shown remarkable staying power, and in that sense, the “new anti-Semitism” is centuries old. What distinguishes the alt-right from its predecessors is its method of organization, its technological savvy, its sarcasm and irony, and its ability to at least seem ubiquitous. By spreading its ideology on Twitter, Reddit, YouTube comment sections, 4Chan and 8Chan, the alt-right has become unavoidable for my children’s generation. It is not an invisible subculture, talking to itself on its own websites, segregated from the wider World Wide Web. The alt-right is disseminating its ideology. Most young people reject it, but there will always be disaffected searchers who will be drawn to the sophistry of hate.

MD: Are racism and anti-Semitism becoming normalized in certain segments of American society—and if so, what does it mean to normalize these social pathologies?

JW: Racism and anti-Semitism have always been normal in certain segments of American society. But when the president of the United States says “very fine people” marched in Charlottesville on both sides, has so much difficulty condemning the bigots who love him, and presses policies that are seen by racists and anti-Semites as dog whistles that ratify their beliefs, we are all at risk. Expressions of intolerance are no doubt more tolerated now than they were two years ago. We are learning that pluralism and diversity are not as valued as we once thought.

MD: You are not afraid in this book to talk about things that happened to you, your family, and other Jewish journalists. Why do you feel it is so important to tell this story?

JW: I wanted this book to be personal, to not be abstract or theoretical. And I believe that my background—a not-particularly observant Jew who struggled through a mixed marriage and tried, not very well, to impart a Jewish identity to my children—would be recognizable to a lot of Jews of my generation and younger, and to non-Jews who wrestle with their own identities in an atomized society. For someone so assimilated as myself to be singled out and attacked by anti-Semites should have resonance beyond observant communities, but that resonance would emerge only if I was willing to delve into the personal.

MD: Who are some of the writers and scholars who helped you understand the state of American society today? The state of American Jewish society?

JW: I read Bernard-Henri Lévy, Hannah Arendt, Timothy Snyder, and Melissa Fay Greene, but this book was shaped more by the rabbis, activists, and victims I spoke to: Rabbi Francine Roston and Tanya Gersh in Whitefish, Montana, who suffered through anti-Semitic attacks far, far worse than anything I saw; Rabbi Daniel Zemel of Temple Micah in Washington, who taught me to apply Jewish law to shape a response to bigotry; Rabbis Jonah Pesner and David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, who helped me put the current moment into modern history; Ken Stern of the Justus and Karin Rosenberg Foundation who was frank and honest about his time at the American Jewish Committee; and Zoe Quinn, who showed me the technological roots of the alt-right and the nuts and bolts of a technological response.

MD: Since you finished writing the book, are there any developments that would lead you to modify your argument, or even strengthen it?

JW: I had just about finished this book when Charlottesville, Virginia erupted in chants of “Jews will not replace us” and bigoted violence, and the Internet hordes of the alt-right jumped into visceral reality. I was able to lace the book with references to Charlottesville, but the progression of bigotry has not stopped. Since Charlottesville, some have said the alt-right has retreated. And it is true that after the book was finished, the symbols of nationalist intolerance within the White House lost their purchase. Steve Bannon quit, and then with the publication of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury he was excommunicated from the president’s inner circle. Sebastian Gorka finally left the administration, though he remains a public cheerleader. The leaders of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville vowed that they would return, again and again. They haven’t. But the president called African nations “shithole countries,” ended protected status for Haitian and Salvadoran refugees, and provoked a showdown over young, undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children. Paul Nehlen, a Wisconsin businessman from the Tea Party right who has challenged House Speaker Paul Ryan, has openly embraced anti-Semitism as an organizing principle for his campaign. The question of what kind of a country we want is still front and center.

MD: You write with such ease, passion, and energy. Was this a particularly challenging book to write or a project you felt almost a mission to complete?

JW: It was remarkably easy. My first book was a novel, No. 4 Imperial Lane. It took about three years to write. I have another novel that is three-quarters finished and doesn’t seem to be progressing at all. This one just spilled out. I conceived of five chapters, wrote the most rudimentary of outlines, and then filled it in. I guess I just had to get it off my chest. I also wanted it published as soon as possible.

MD: Who do you consider the ideal audience for your book? What are the most important ideas you would like readers to come away with?

JW: This book is pretty tough on American Jews, too many of whom have subverted the interests of our community and the broader nation for the comfort of their present. I make note that the obsession of American Jews with Israel—especially major American Jewish institutions—has atrophied attention on current events in the U.S. There are progressive Jewish institutions, conservative Jewish institutions, and moderate Jewish institutions, and they all argue over Israel. This obsession blinded American Jewry to the rise of the alt-right. So I would say the ideal audience is the complacent Jew who has not reflected on the Jewish community’s place in America and the importance of democratic pluralism to the security of Judaism itself. But I do not want the audience to be—nor do I think they will be—solely Jewish. All Americans should be vigilant about the erosion of democratic institutions and the rise of intolerance. That is what I hope readers will take away from the book.

MD: If you could require the president to read one book in addition to your own, what would it be?

JW: The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, but if that is too challenging, Timothy Snyder’s brief, eloquent On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century will do.

MD: Toward the end of the book you say that institutions matter, they need to be defended, and they do not survive on their own. Do you, like Timothy Snyder and other scholars, fear that we may be sliding toward an American authoritarianism?

JW: That is my biggest fear, yes. I would never wish economic hard times on this country, but the strong economy, low unemployment, surging stock market and new tax cuts have made me far more worried that voters will overlook the affronts to our Constitution and democratic principles and decide against a change of course. Short-term economic gain is a powerful anesthetic.

MD: Are you sanguine or worried about whether we have the adequate institutional and constitutional protections to prevent this?

JW: As I wrote in the book, Americans do not seem to be marching as sheep into some authoritarian future. The public sphere crackles with dissent. There is joy in rebellion. We do believe in our institutions, and thus far, the courts appear to be maintaining their independence and the free press is reveling in its freedom. That said, Congress—the first branch of Constitutional democracy—has been remarkably docile. Oversight is almost nonexistent. Even Democrats have been unable to articulate a principled stand for pluralistic democracy, worried that any elevation in rhetoric could drown out the search for lunch-pail issues that could win back white working class voters who drifted to Trump. It really is up to the American people to stand firm. Their representatives in Washington won’t.