The ProsenPeople

The Creative Process and the Jewish Arts

Wednesday, May 04, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Nora Gold shared her discovery of Jewish music and its influence on her latest novel, The Dead Man. Nora is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the creative process, because my new novel, The Dead Man, is about a composer of Jewish sacred music who is unable to compose. The creative process is a complicated and mysterious thing, not only to my protagonist Eve, but in general. There is a mountain of literature about the creative process, including tens of thousands of interviews with artists (writers, musicians, dancers, and visual artists) about what is enabling for them in their acts of artistic creation. Yet there is much about this process that remains elusive.

What is far less elusive, though, is our understanding of what impedes, damages, or stunts the creative process. An artist’s work is profoundly affected not only by their inner life, but also by the social context in which they live—including the classism, sexism, racism, and heterosexism inherent in this place. So social reality plays a significant role in the creative process.

I encountered this fact forcefully about a decade ago when the publishing industry was already deeply in crisis due to the advent of digital technology, and when consequently it was becoming much harder for authors to find publishers for their work. Several writers of my acquaintance, after years of failed efforts to find a publisher for their work, had become discouraged, depressed, and unproductive. A few of them had even decided to “take a break from writing” and do other things for a while.

Obviously there are internal factors, not just external ones, at play in these decisions. There are intrapsychic variables that influence an artist’s capacity to engage in creative work. But what I heard from these writers really drove home for me how powerfully one’s cultural and artistic environment can affect an individual’s creative process.

I realized back then that, although all writers were being affected by the crisis in the publishing industry, Jewish writers seemed to be taking a particularly hard hit. Much Jewish-themed fiction was (and still is) considered “niche” literature, which means it has a relatively small market and is therefore less desirable to publishers, and a lot of very good Jewish fiction was not finding a publishing home. So in 2010, I started the free online literary journal JewishFiction.net. Now, six years later, we have published 280 first-rate works of fiction that had never previously published in English, with readers in 140 countries. We’ve published some of the most well-known Jewish writers living today, but our primary goal is, and has always been, to create a space for publishing and showcasing new Jewish writing that otherwise might be lost.

For those who care about fostering Jewish creativity, any individual can play a genuinely helpful role in enabling Jewish creativity. Many people, though, don’t seem to know or believe that they can have a real impact on Jewish artists. Perhaps this is because of the widespread and romanticized myths and misconceptions about artists and their creative process as a mystical, otherworldly experience untouched by the real world, a matter of sitting around and waiting for inspiration to strike, like a bolt of lightning. In reality, however, none of this is true.

When it comes to creating a fertile context for Jewish creativity, even a few small acts on the part of an individual can make a significant difference to local Jewish artists and to the cultural life of a community. Invite a Jewish artist to your home to come speak about her work with a group of your friends. Buy Jewish books and music recordings. Go see Jewish plays, concerts, and dance performances. Visit Jewish art exhibits. And if you like something you’ve read, seen or heard, shout it out as loudly as you can to everyone you know, via phone, email, and social media.

You really can make a difference to the lives and creative outcomes of today’s Jewish artists. Which means, in essence, that you can help shape the cultural future of our people.

Nora Gold is the author of The Dead Man, Fields of Exile, and Marrow and Other Stories. She is the editor of the online journal JewishFiction.net and the Writer-in-Residence at the Centre for Women's Studies of OISE/University of Toronto.

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The Power of Jewish Music

Monday, May 02, 2016 | Permalink

Nora Gold’s latest book, The Dead Man, follows the story of a composer of Jewish sacred music and a music therapist with an unconquerable obsession. Nora is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

What is it about music? It can affect us like nothing else in the world. It has the power to move us to tears, fill us with joy, or set our fingers tapping and our legs dancing. In his book Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks shows that music can animate people with Parkinson’s disease who cannot otherwise move, give words to stroke patients who cannot otherwise speak, and calm and organize people whose memories are ravaged by Alzheimer’s or amnesia: “Listening to music is not just auditory and emotional, it is motoric as well: ‘We listen to music with our muscles,’ as Nietzsche said.”

I have always loved music and it has always been an important part of my life. So perhaps it is no coincidence that my new novel, The Dead Man, is about a woman who is a composer of Jewish sacred music and also a music therapist.

I did not grow up with Jewish music. I heard the shofar once a year at shul, and on the holidays we sang a few songs, but mainly the music I heard at home was classical. Jewish music is something I discovered on my own in adolescence, and I’ve been hooked on it ever since.

I have heard Jewish music from most Jewish traditions and genres, and I love almost every kind. The type I listen to the most, though, is Jewish-themed art (or classical) music. I first encountered this sort of music as a young adult after I moved to Toronto, the home of the composer, Srul Irving Glick. His music blew me away. I didn’t know anything like this existed and it opened up a whole world to me. I’d been familiar, of course, with the music of Mendelssohn, and I knew he was Jewish. But just as not all fiction authored by Jews is Jewish fiction, not all music written by Jewish composers is Jewish music. So Glick’s music was a revelation for me. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Glick’s music shows up in my novel, including his brilliant “Music for Passover,” parts of which my family sang a few weeks ago at our Passover seder.

Another composer whose work I love is Salamone Rossi, the extraordinary sixteenth-century Italian composer who wrote the first Jewish-themed classical music. I was introduced to Rossi at a concert performed by the Jewish choir Lachan. That concert offered a chronological sampling of Jewish choral music, one piece per century, starting with Rossi. I was so bowled over by this piece by him that I didn’t hear anything the choir sang after that. Needless to say, Rossi’s music—like Glick’s—makes an appearance in The Dead Man.

Music can serve many functions: emotional, social, and cultural. Jewish music not only gives us Jews pleasure and catharsis; it plays a role in binding us together as a community. Singing with other people, for example, is a transformative experience, communally and individually. I can’t even imagine contemporary Jewish life without music in it—at shul, at home, with friends. In my view, nothing could be more conducive to community- and identity-building than music.

Furthermore, Jewish music binds us to our shared historical past: one project I’m very excited about, for example, is the ARC Ensemble’s "Music in Exile" initiative, where they research, unearth, perform, and record the suppressed music of Jewish composers who were forced to flee Germany in the 1930s. Their work is an immeasurably precious gift to our people, restoring to us a missing piece from our musical past.

As for our musical future, what lies ahead for Jewish music? A few weeks ago I saw Steve Reich in concert and heard the performance of his masterpiece, Tehillim. This was a remarkable experience, and not necessarily an easy one: it challenged some of my most basic assumptions about music. Reich, an observant Jew, has pushed the boundaries of Jewish music, and music in general, quite a few inches, or maybe even miles, from where it was before. His Tehillim is different Jewish music from anything you’ve ever heard.

How exciting it is! I cannot wait to see what happens next with Jewish music.

Nora Gold is the author of The Dead Man, Fields of Exile, and Marrow and Other Stories. She is the editor of the online journal JewishFiction.net and the Writer-in-Residence at the Centre for Women's Studies of OISE/University of Toronto.

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Feeding Other Writers, and Myself

Tuesday, June 03, 2014 | Permalink

Yesterday, Nora Gold wrote about Leah Goldberg, poetry, and the title for her newest book, Fields of Exile. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

A few days ago my novel, Fields of Exile, was published in the USA, and this month marks exactly four years since I started the free online literary journal that I created and edit, JewishFiction.net. The convergence of these two events has got me thinking about solitariness and community in the lives of writers.

I feel very fortunate to be both a writer and the editor of JewishFiction.net. Writing is a solitary activity, and this journal provides me with a kind of community since producing it occurs in communal, social space. In our first four years, JewishFiction.net has published 186 first-rate works of fiction (stories or novel excerpts) that had never previously been published in English, and that were originally written in eleven languages and on five continents. We’re honoured to have published some of the most well-known Jewish writers living today, as well as many fine writers who are not yet well-known.

I’m often asked why I started JewishFiction.net, and the answer is that — in light of the crisis in the publishing industry — I was concerned that a lot of the great Jewish fiction being written now around the world would get lost. Recently, though, reflecting on the upcoming fourth birthday of Jewish Fiction.net, I recognized another, subtler antecedent to the birth of this journal.

My paternal grandmother, Leah Shteinman Gold, strongly believed that she (and everyone else) had an obligation to support Jewish writers and artists. I heard her say more than once, “We have to feed our poets.” She meant this not only figuratively — she was generous in her encouragement and appreciation for their work — but also literally. In the world she lived in, Yiddish-speaking Montreal, her home was a haven for struggling poets, writers, and intellectuals, and she often fed them actual meals. Some of my less charitable relatives referred to these people as “shnorrers,” but my grandmother stoutly rejected this characterization. “They are our writers,” she’d say. “We have to support them. They’re the future of our culture.”

She also helped these writers by always trying to find work for them. One result of this was that my father learned his bar mitzvah portion from the great poet Yud Yud Segal, and one of my brothers and I got weekly lessons in Yiddish language and literature from Sholem Shtern, another fine poet. I remember how, whenever Lerer (Teacher) Shtern came to our home for a lesson, first of all he’d receive a cup of coffee coffee and a bagel. For me, therefore, food and literature became intimately intertwined. One fed a Yiddish poet and he fed you Yiddish poetry.

As I reminisce about this now, perhaps it’s not surprising that I started a journal to help Jewish writers. Maybe this impulse runs in my blood. But here’s what’s surprising about it. In giving JewishFiction.net to the international Jewish literary community, I got something back. In feeding other writers, I’ve been fed, too. Through bringing together writers from around the world and introducing them to each other, and introducing all these writers to our journal’s large readership, I’ve met many interesting, delightful writers from Australia, Serbia, Argentina, Israel, Russia, Romania, Spain, Poland, France, Croatia, Iraq, the UK, and of course North America.

What I have been given — what I have received — from JewishFiction.net is something incomparably precious: a literary community, maybe even a literary home. And what greater gift could there be to any writer, struggling alone in solitariness, than to know that one’s work is being — even if invisibly — supported, cherished, and appreciated, and that in our solitary writing lives, we are not alone?

Nora Gold’s book, Fields of Exile, is the first novel about anti-Israelism on campus. Gold is also the author of the acclaimed Marrow and Other Stories, the creator and editor of the prestigious online literary journal JewishFiction.net, a blogger for “The Jewish Thinker” at Haaretz, the Writer-in-Residence and an Associate Scholar at CSWE/OISE/University of Toronto, the organizer of the Wonderful Women Writers Series, and a community activist. Gold can be contacted through her website here.

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Leah Goldberg, Me, and the Search for a Title for my New Book

Monday, June 02, 2014 | Permalink

Nora Gold’s book, Fields of Exile, is the first novel about anti-Israelism on campus. It was picked by The Forward as one of “The 5 Jewish Books To Read in 2014,″ and has received enthusiastic advance praise from Phyllis Chesler, Thane Rosenbaum, Irwin Cotler, Steve Stern, Nava Semel, Naim Kattan, Alice Shalvi, and Ann Birstein. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

There’s a Jewish story you may know that includes the refrain: “You never know.” In one section of it, a young Jewish man living in czarist Russia falls off his horse, breaks his leg, and tells his father, “What bad luck I have.” His father merely replies, “You never know.” The next day the czar’s men arrive in this family’s village to round up young men to serve in the czar’s army but, because of this young man’s broken leg, they don’t take him. “What good luck!” he happily tells his father. But his father merely replies, “You never know.” And so on.

I thought of this story recently in connection with the process I went through to find a title for my new book, which is the first novel about anti–Israelism on campus, and came out last week in the USA. When my publisher, Dundurn Press, first offered to publish this novel, I already had a title for it: Exile. I loved this title and was very committed to it. I’d been calling my novel Exile for years, ever since I’d started writing it, and just as one talks to one’s baby using a specific name even while it’s still in utero, I was certain that Exile was my novel’s true name.

A little while later, though, Dundurn informed me that I’d have to change this title because they’d just published another book called Exile. I was distressed, and sure that I’d never find another title so perfect. Exile captured the essence of my novel: its protagonist is a young woman living in Toronto and experiencing herself as being “in exile” because she longs to be back in Jerusalem.

Having no choice, though, I began to consider alternative titles. After discarding numerous unsatisfactory options, I started reading Hebrew and Yiddish poetry on the theme of exile (both in the original and in translation), as well as essays about this kind of poetry. I eventually came across a book chapter from 1998, “Modernism and Exile: A View from the Margins” by Michael Gluzman, which contained Gluzman’s own translation of a then almost unknown Hebrew poem, written by Leah Goldberg at around age ten, called “Exile.” Here’s how it begins:

Exile
How difficult the word how many memories
of hatred and slavery
and because of it we have shed so many tears
exile
and yet, I’ll rejoice in the fields of exile...

As soon as I read the words fields of exile, I knew I had my title. I had a physical reaction to these words: something electric ran through my body.

The poem continues:

which are filled with oats and flax
the hot day and the cool evening
and the dead silence of night

the pale spring and the melting snow
the season which is neither summer nor autumn
when, in the garden, by some miracle
the green turns to gold.

I did not know at that time why I was so affected by the words and yet, I’ll rejoice in the fields of exile. In the subsequent weeks, though, it became clearer. According to Gluzman, Goldberg was rare among her contemporaries for refusing to conform to the simplistic negation of exile that was a central component of classic Zionist ideology. As Gluzman points out, although Goldberg’s poem “Exile” begins with a classic Zionist rejection of exile, it moves on to assert that even in exile there is beauty, and that this beauty can engender happiness.

The honesty of this poem and the stance that it represents resonated, and continues to resonate, profoundly with me. When I made aliya in the 1970s, willing, even eager, to adopt the “negation of exile” ideology surrounding me, one thing I could never quite negate - and the only thing I never stopped missing about the place I came from - was Canada’s natural landscape: its beautiful forests, rivers and lakes, which felt to me like home. Ever since then, wherever I’ve lived, the complexity of the concepts of “home” and “exile” has preoccupied me, and this complexity is central to my novel, Fields of Exile.

So what initially seemed like a piece of bad luck with my book’s title turned out to be just the opposite. Thanks to Leah Goldberg (and Michael Gluzman), I’ve ended up with a much more beautiful and evocative title - and a richer and more meaningful one - than I had before. As that wise old story says, You never know...

Nora Gold is also the author of the acclaimed Marrow and Other Stories, the creator and editor of the prestigious online literary journal Jewish Fiction.net, a blogger for “The Jewish Thinker” at Haaretz, the Writer-in-Residence and an Associate Scholar at CSWE/OISE/University of Toronto, the organizer of the Wonderful Women Writers Series, and a community activist. Gold can be contacted through her website here.

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