The ProsenPeople

Love as Freedom, Love as Separation, in Japanese and Jewish Tales

Thursday, October 05, 2017 | Permalink

Kenny Fries is the author of the recently published memoir In the Province of the Gods. Earlier this week, he wrote about being disabled, gay, and Jewish in Germany. He is blogging here all week as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I am the only one who gets off the train at Tōno. Disabled since birth, I’ve come to this rural Japanese outpost to research disability representation in the famous folktales of the region.

The most popular character of the Tōno legends is the mischievous kappa, seen all over the town: on postboxes, in souvenir shops, and even at the koban, the police box. The kappa is somewhat frog-like and has long skinny limbs, webbed hands and feet, a sharp beak, and a hollow on the top of its head. At the Tōno City Museum, I learn about the belief that women who become pregnant with a kappa’s child give birth to deformed babies. According to the tale, passed down for generations, these babies are hacked to pieces and buried in small wine casks.

As often happened during my time in Japan, I did not expect to find what I found in Tōno. I left the city haunted by a tale unrelated to my research, which reminded me both of tales by Sholem Aleichem and the paintings of Marc Chagall.

First, the tale: A girl falls in love with her family’s horse. Day and night she visits the horse in his stable. The girl’s father becomes worried about his daughter’s attachment to the horse, but no matter what he says the girl continues to visit the horse. She is discovered spending her nights sleeping with the horse.

The father takes the horse out into the forest and kills it, hanging it from a mulberry tree. When he returns to the house, his daughter is gone; she cannot be found anywhere in or near the house.

The father returns to the forest. He stops in his tracks. He sees his daughter now hanging with the horse from the tree. Before he takes another step, the horse rears up and ascends into the sky, carrying the girl with him to the heavens.

What is it about this tale of forbidden love in the shadow of loss that connects to my Jewish soul?

This story reminds me of Tevye’s reaction to his daughters’ marriages outside the conventions of their shtetl in Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye’s Daughters. Tevye’s eldest daughter, Tzeitel, wants to marry for love rather than through the traditional matchmaking. This, Tevye figures out how to accept, allowing the marriage without compromising his values.

However, it is the love of Chava, his third daughter, for Fyedka, a Ukrainian Christian, and her conversion to Christianity, that puts Tevye to the test. In the Aleichem tale, Tevye does not pardon Chava’s defection. Tevye pronounces her dead and observes shiva, until Chava repents and returns to her Jewish home. Those familiar with the story from Fiddler on the Roof, the beloved Broadway musical, might be confused because this resolution was changed for the stage. In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye eventually accepts Chava back into the family and, as the rest of his family leave Anatevka for America, he watches his daughter depart with Fyedka to Poland.

In the Tōno tale, the father’s reaction to his daughter’s forbidden love is similar to that of Aleichem’s Tevye. But what if the father reacted more like the Tevye in Fiddler, finding his way to accept his daughter’s nontraditional love? What would have been lost? He might have saved his daughter’s, and the horse’s, life.

And what to make of the vision of the flying horse, carrying his daughter away from him, up into the heavens? For me, Chagall’s flying figures and animals, especially in “Song of Songs IV,” a 1958 illustration for the Old Testament, further illuminates the Tōno tale. In the painting, a flying horse carries a newly married couple into the sky. Nowhere in the text of the “Song of Songs” is a flying horse mentioned. Nor are upside down birds, also included in Chagall’s painting. Here, Chagall represents the spirit of the bride and groom’s marriage as spiritual ecstasy freeing them from the scene below. An angel trumpets their celestial ascension in a sky neither dawn nor sunset, with both sun and moon.

Relating Aleichem and Chagall unlocks for me deeper meanings that answer why the Tōno tale still haunts me. Love can be both a means to freedom and to separation, sometimes at the same time. In love, we can find a freedom both of and from ourselves. But it is also love that can separate us from family, friends, and the culture or society from which we come.

The price of forbidding—whether through love, or by having a body that looks different—is a theme central to many Tōno tales. Like the kappa tale, in which deformed babies are killed and buried, the forbidden love of the daughter and her horse has serious repercussions. This, too, is what becomes of breaking social barriers. At the heart of these stories are both the ecstasy of, and the price we sometimes pay, for love.

Kenny Fries’s new book is In the Province of the Gods, which received the Creative Capital literature grant. His other books include The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory and Body, Remember: A Memoir. He edited Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out. He was a Creative Arts Fellow of the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts, and twice a Fulbright Scholar (Japan and Germany). He teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing Program at Goddard College.

Images (LTR) via: Crown Publishers, Kadowaka Shoten, and WikiArt

The Nazi Trifecta

Tuesday, October 03, 2017 | Permalink

Kenny Fries is the author of the recently published memoir In the Province of the Gods. He will be blogging here all week as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.


At a dinner party soon after I moved to Berlin, a German guest recounted the story of his struggle to restore the bomb-battered grave of his grandfather at the Jewish Cemetery in Weissensee. He regaled the dinner guests, telling us about his phone call to the cemetery administrator, who told him the requirement that all new gravestones are required to quote scripture.

“But my father wasn’t a believer,” he complained to the administrator. “He wouldn’t have wanted scripture, Jewish or otherwise, on his tombstone. He was a Communist.”

“Make up your mind,” demanded the administrator. “Was your grandfather a Jew or a Communist?”

The story got a good laugh. I laughed, too. But I also thought about my own intersecting identities. I am disabled, gay, and Jewish. A former boyfriend has called me "The Nazi Trifecta."

In Berlin, where I’ve lived for the past three years, I’m often asked what it’s like to be a Jew living in Germany. In fact, after I presented my research on Aktion T4, the Nazi program to kill disabled people, at a conference of young American Fulbright student grantees, I was sought out not because the students wanted to ask about this crucial aspect of disability history, but because the Jewish students wanted to talk to another Jew.

“None of the Jews in Rostock speak English,” one student told me. “I went to the synagogue, but everyone spoke either German or Russian.” This didn’t surprise me since the second language for those who grew up in what was communist East Germany was Russian, not English.

Only in Germany have I been asked if it’s more difficult to be disabled, gay, or Jewish. And, in Germany, this is a weighted question because of the intertwined fates of those who were imprisoned, subjected to forced labor in concentration camps, and killed in extermination camps.

Beneath this question lurks not only curiosity about how a life may be lived as a disabled person, a gay man, or a Jew, alone or in combination, but also reveals that to my interlocutors all three identities are seen as pejorative. And the reason for this is because of the long history of misrepresentation and misunderstanding, as well as the criminalization, of the disabled, gays, and Jews.

Previous to living in Germany, I spent time living in Japan. Missing bones in my legs when I was born, I have become accustomed to people staring at me in public places. But when I arrived in Japan, I was surprised that I was treated as different because I was a gaijin, a foreigner, rather than because of my shorter, differently shaped legs. My walking with a limp, my use of a cane and specially molded orthopedic shoes to get around, didn’t attract much attention.

Disabled since birth, I had never considered being looked at as “other” because of anything but my disability. If I’m not seated, one look at me, and someone knows I’m disabled. This isn’t the case for all people with disabilities. There are many invisible disabilities that don’t attract attention. My other identities are not visibly noticeable. It would take more than walking down the street for someone to know I am gay or Jewish. Perhaps it is this ability to control, in certain circumstances, my gayness or Jewishness, that separates my disability from the other two major identities I claim. 

In Nazi Germany there were many assimilated Jews who didn’t “look Jewish” or “act Jewish.” Nevertheless, once revealed as Jewish by neighbors, or the Gestapo, or the requirement to register as Jews, they were subjected to the same fate as Jews who wore traditional Orthodox clothing. Similarly, many gay Germans who didn’t “look gay” or “act gay” were sent to prison and concentration camps after being snitched on, or blackmailed, or discovered in flagrante. If I had been alive during the Third Reich, all I would have had to do was walk down the street and the authorities would have known I was disabled. Perhaps my inability to pass as nondisabled would have made me an earlier target of persecution.

It is difficult to explain this on the spot to those who blithely ask me, “What’s more difficult: being disabled, gay, or Jewish?” I could tell them I think different oppressions, however similar, can’t be quantified. Or ask if they’ve considered why they’re asking this question. But after the dinner party story about the grave at the Jewish cemetery, I found a way to deflect this question.

“If only I were a Communist,” I now reply.

Kenny Fries’s new book is In the Province of the Gods, which received the Creative Capital literature grant. His other books include The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory and Body, Remember: A Memoir. He edited Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out. He was a Creative Arts Fellow of the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts, and twice a Fulbright Scholar (Japan and Germany). He teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing Program at Goddard College.

Image: Flickr/anna and liz