The ProsenPeople

Writing a Rabbi

Wednesday, January 27, 2016 | Permalink

Rachel Cantor is the author of the novel A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World. With the publication of her second novel, Good on Paper, she is blogging here all week as a Visiting Scribe on The ProsenPeople.

I didn’t set out to write a rabbi character when I started writing my novel Good on Paper. What do I know about rabbis? I have rabbi friends, but Benny isn’t modeled after anyone. He is a no-longer-large man who, when younger and strapped for cash, got seasonal jobs playing Santa (he was fired when he wouldn’t remove his tzittzit); now he runs through Central Park every day in his cherry-red bodysuit.

No, Benny isn’t anyone I know. He runs a bookstore on the Upper West Side known as People of the Book; it’s known for its a Great Wall of Poetry, also its pyramid of literary magazines. He can name the last title in the Nancy Drew series, both alphabetically and chronologically. His store features shelves with labels like Games People Play and All Things Green (books on the environment, money, and “envy management”). He is himself (of course) a failed poet, and editor of a failing literary magazine called Gilgul, named after the soul reborn in another body.

Though of varied interests, Benny is definitely a rabbi. He is ordained; he has parishioners, presumably through a havurah or alternative minyan; he leads High Holiday services; he presides over weddings (pocketing knishes to share with my narrator) and acts as a virtual mohel (for those who “want the celebration without the slice”). He knows his Tanakh; he wants to “learn”—i.e., study Torah—with my narrator; he automatically thinks about words in terms of their Gematria.

So why a rabbi? I wasn’t trying to make any kind of theological point. My narrator Shira is, to say the least, a secular Jew. She imagines that her mother, who abandoned her when Shira was a child, was Catholic because, when they lived in Rome she visited lots of churches. She doesn’t know for sure—frankly, she doesn’t care. Shira experiences no religious conversion or Jewish awakening as a result of [spoiler alert!] falling for Benny. I had no such agenda.

The origin of a novel’s elements are often mysterious, perhaps especially to an author. Looking back now, at the finished book, I think I was attracted by the idea of a man who is “supposed to be” certain about matters of faith, but is in fact extremely human, with all a human person’s foibles, flaws, and, yes, doubts. Benny preaches forgiveness during the Days of Awe, but he is unable himself to forgive; he yearns to set an example, but again and again he errs. At the same time, his very Jewish questing, his yearning and openness, open something in Shira. It proves to make all the difference.

Rachel Cantor's stories have appeared in magazines such as the Paris Review, One Story, Ninth Letter, Kenyon Review, and the New England Review. Rachel lives in New York, in the writerly borough of Brooklyn. She is, always, at work on another book.

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Translating "Shalhevetyah"

Monday, January 25, 2016 | Permalink

Rachel Cantor is the author of the novel A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World. With the publication of her second novel, Good on Paper, she is blogging here all week as a Visiting Scribe on The ProsenPeople.

My second novel, Good on Paper, is about Shira Greene, an underachieving translator. Distrusting translation on principle, she flits from one temp job to another—a not-very-satisfying outcome for a woman with nearly a whole graduate degree who once aspired to be the world’s first singing, dancing architect! She gets a call out of the blue, however, from a Nobel Prize-winning poet who wants her to translate his latest work, a story about the love he bears for his wife. Seeing stars, Shira agrees—and then her story becomes interesting. Romei says he chose her because of a translation she’d done long ago of La Vita Nuova (“The New Life”), an early work of Dante, but when he begins faxing her sections of his work, we begin to suspect—as she does, too, eventually—that he has another agenda altogether, one that involves her personally.

To write the book, I used my intermediate-level Italian to translate bits of Vita Nuova and to convey something of her translation process and philosophy. Of course, Shira does a whole lot in the book besides stare at Italian poetry—she falls in love, for one thing, and her family, not unrelatedly, threatens to fall apart—but I had to make sure that we believe that Shira is good at what she does.

What I did not imagine was that I might also find myself translating words from Hebrew. I don’t speak Hebrew; I certainly don’t read Hebrew, much less Biblical Hebrew. What few words I know, I know from shul. But in one scene, two characters, dissatisfied with the King James version of the Song of Songs, translate parts of 8:6-7 together.

The King James version of those lines reads: … for love is as strong as death; jealousy is as cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire which hath a most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love …

Working with several English translations of the Song—notably that of Ariel and Chana Bloch, with its glorious and extensive annotations, as well as that of poet Marcia Falk, and the translation and commentary of Marvin H. Pope, I created for my characters Benny and Esther—rabbi and Midrash enthusiast, respectively—a new translation of these verses.

For the pale “strong” of King James, the Blochs suggest “fierce,” recalling that the word elsewhere modifies “lion.” My characters think “ferocious”: love is ferocious like death.

Both Falk and the Blochs also use “grave” for the Hebrew sheol, but my characters disagree: they retain sheol, for its sense of the underworld, of suffering beyond death, a sense not available in what they call the “dead-end translation of Sheol as grave.”

Benny (unwittingly) follows the Blochs in preferring the literal “sparks” to “coals” (“its sparks,” then, “sparks of fire”). In his rabbinically trained mind, sparksbring to mind the holy sparks of sixteenth-century Kabbalist Isaac Luria, who famously wrote of the holy sparks that infuse all spheres of existence and which must be separated from the kelippot (husks) and lifted up.

Then, crucially, the pair considers shalhevetyah, the “most vehement flame” of King James. The Blochs discuss a longstanding debate: does shalhevetyah (literally, they say, “enormous flame”) contain within it the name of God (otherwise absent in Song of Songs); they decide no, because more usually Yah appears as a separate word. Their solution: “a devouring flame.” Falk apparently disagrees, referring instead to a “holy blaze.” My characters, being fictional, care nothing for raging disputes. “A great God-flame!” they decide.

Thus, they now have, Love is ferocious like death, its jealousy cruel as Sheol, its sparks, sparks of fire: a great God-flame! Already a departure from the King James!

Further, King James decided that “many waters cannot quench love.” The Blochs write, “great seas cannot extinguish love,” but Marvin H. Pope’s translation notes clarifies that these “great waters” are nothing less than the great primordial waters of creation, the mayim rabbim first mentioned in the opening of Genesis. Almost giddy, enjoying their translation work almost as much as I did, I have Benny and Esther exclaim, “Not even the great waters of creation can extinguish the great God-flame which is love.

Alas, their translation is interrupted by a message that comes across the great waters of the Atlantic, a message that changes everything. To learn what that is, you’ll have to read the book!

Rachel Cantor's stories have appeared in magazines such as the Paris Review, One Story, Ninth Letter, Kenyon Review, and the New England Review. Rachel lives in New York, in the writerly borough of Brooklyn. She is, always, at work on another book.

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Interview: Rachel Cantor

Tuesday, December 29, 2015 | Permalink

with Elise Cooper

Fans of A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World: A Novel will recognize Rachel Cantor's signature penchant for tales of love, unconventional families, search of self, and the mysteries of language in Good on Paper, a story about a lost writer inexplicably invited by a renowned, Nobel Prize-winning scholar to translate his new manuscript—which may not be all that it seems.

Elise Cooper: You have written short stories in the past, why write Good on Paper as a novel?

Rachel Cantor: I enjoy writing short stories. In this case, I thought about a plot involving a group of expatriate friends who grew up in Rome together, and I was writing their story it just got bigger and bigger. It became so large it turned into a novel. At first I felt I was not up to writing a novel and saw myself solely as a short story author: I kept referring to the book as an “N.”!

EC: This is the first novel you wrote, but not the first one you published. Correct?

RC: When I sold my two books to the publisher, they chose to publish the more recent manuscript ahead of Good on Paper which I had written earlier. A Highly Unlikely Scenario does not have much in common with Good on Paper. It is a lighthearted fantasy about Jewish mystics and takes place in current times.

EC: What would you say are the key themes to Good on Paper?

RC: It touches a lot of different questions: mother-daughter ties, friendships, forgiveness, how to love, and can someone reinvent themselves? I guess if I had to boil it down to one issue I would choose relationships.

EC: You write about three locations, New York, Rome, and India. Why?

RC: Mainly because I was very impressionable when I was young! I lived in Rome between the ages of ten and fifteen, in New York when I was around the age of twenty-two, and in India in my twenties. Likewise, I have Good on Paper’s main character, Shira, living in Rome as an expatriate, traveling to India, and residing in New York. These three settings always reappear in my fiction, because they are an essential part of my imagination.

EC: What did you mean by the following powerful quote from the novel: “Yes, I’m sad, but I’m going to give that person I love another chance, a chance to explain themselves, to do better.”

RC: Forgiveness is central to my book. There is a part of the book about the idea that innocence can be damaged but also recovered. My understanding of the Jewish concept of teshuvah is about returning to one’s innocent self, although some call it repentance. Shira is going through such a journey. She must be courageous and allow people to be a part of her life again. Can she love again without shutting people out? Now, in her mid-forties, can she allow herself to forgive those who have hurt her even if it means being sad while doing so?

EC: What would you like readers to get out of this book?

RC: I hope they get caught up in the mystery of why she was chosen to be the translator for this Nobel Prize winning author, Romei. He ends up spurring Shira’s journey, contributing to changing her life. I hope they go on this journey with Shira and cheer her on as she decides to give the people she loves another chance, as she struggles to overcome the will to shut down and shut out those who have done her wrong.

Elise Cooper lives in Los Angeles and has written numerous national security articles supporting Israel. She writes book reviews and interviews for many different outlets including the Military Press.

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Passover in Pakistan

Thursday, January 16, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Rachel Cantor wrote about the power of the Aleph. Her novel, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World (Melville House), is now available. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

In 1990, I worked with Afghan refugees in Peshawar, Pakistan, then the site of the largest refugee population in the world. Specifically, I worked with a program that theoretically hoped to prepare Afghan women to work in “public administration,” perhaps in that longed-for time after they were able to return home. Our actual aims were more modest: we taught mostly “business” English and basic computer skills to women, who in their homeland might have been doctors or lawyers, so they could find receptionist-type jobs with the only workplaces that would take them, which is to say, other refugee-assistance agencies. It is a measure of their extremely limited opportunities and their love of learning that our students (it still hurts to call these grown women “students”) were thrilled to be there.

As was I, despite the difficulties of living in Peshawar, and of working with Afghan women, who were viewed by the more conservative elements of the refugee population as belonging at home. A housing program was destroyed because someone believed the widow “beneficiaries” of that program were being corrupted. The van that brought us to work was swept for explosives each day before we could enter our work compound; our program was shut down for a not-inconsiderable amount of time because of death threats; female Afghan staff were evacuated to Europe for that same reason. Expatriate aid workers did not receive such threats, to the best of my knowledge, but our movements were highly restricted: we could not go to many public places (the movies, for example) for fear of bombs; we had to be driven everywhere; there was no chance we might simply take a walk around the neighborhood. I dressed in modest shalwar kameez when at work or in the community. More subtly, I think we were always on edge, our behavior as largely unwelcome expatriates always scrutinized. The environment in Peshawar was considered so hostile that it was, if memory serves, one of only two locations in the world (the other being Sudan) where non-embassy staff could join the American Club, an embassy-run bar where we could drink, play darts, compare notes about jobs we’d held (well, which my colleagues had held) around the world, and relax.

Complicating this already challenging milieu was a steady tone of official anti-Semitism. I still have a clipping from the local English-language newspaper about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, presented as description of fact! There was anti-Christian sentiment as well (a favorite feature of that same English-language newspaper was stories about Christian Pakistanis who’d converted to Islam), but those stories were celebratory, not virulent, not (to me, anyway) frightening. And there was the ever-present sadness—the sadness of our Afghan colleagues, our Afghan students—as they mourned their lost homes. It seemed their exile would last forever.

It was in this charged environment that I experienced one of my first Passover seders. My family had never celebrated Pesach, not even in watered-down form. I had gone to a seder once in high school—this one in Peshawar could easily have been my second. I don’t remember where the matzoh came from, or even if we had any. All I remember was that the seder was led by an American man who was widely believed a spy (a not unreasonable conclusion in those days), and that there were many, many people there. And that I felt a sense of belonging, and relief, in their company—surpassing that which I had felt even in the privacy of our shared staff houses, or when we let our hair down at the American Club. We sang songs I didn’t recognize; I assume we tasted bitter herbs. Did we talk about freedom, and the return of the exiled? I like to think we did.

Rachel Cantor is the author of the novel A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World (Melville House). Her stories have appeared in magazines such as the Paris Review, One StoryNinth Letter, Kenyon Review, and the New England Review. In addition to writing fiction, she freelances as a writer for nonprofits that work in developing countries. Rachel lives in New York, in the writerly borough of Brooklyn. She is, always, at work on another book. Read more about Rachel and her work here.

The Power of the Aleph

Monday, January 13, 2014 | Permalink

Rachel Cantor is the author of the novel A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World (Melville House). In addition to writing fiction, she freelances as a writer for nonprofits that work in developing countries. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I don’t speak Hebrew and, despite a few semi-earnest attempts to learn my aleph-bet, I don’t read it either. I recognize enough spoken words of biblical Hebrew that I can more or less follow an English translation when someone reads Torah, but that’s about it. And while I’ve studied some Kabbalah, I am no scholar: I know that individual Hebrew letters are associated with specific mystical qualities, but I cannot tell you what they are. Still, I am fascinated by the aleph.

Toward the end my novel, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World, the thirteenth-century Jewish mystic Abraham Abulafia appears before my hero, the hapless Leonard, in the old medieval basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome. Known for his meditative work combining Hebrew letters, Abulafia hovers over Leonard (literally: his feet do not touch the ground), juggling Hebrew letters in fantastic, unfollowable patterns. He wants to impress Leonard with his message, and he does. But unbeknownst to him, he drops an aleph as he dematerializes. The remainder of the book hinges on this aleph. Leonard can exchange it for something he badly needs (his seven-year-old nephew Felix!). It also, not incidentally, allows him to save the world. Phew!

The aleph! I know of it what you probably know: first letter, no sound, the beginning of the words echad, referring to divine unity; ein sof, the infinite which is the divine source of all manifestation; and emet, or truth. Powerful! But if I must be truthful, it was not my rabbi teachers who drew me to the letter, it was the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges.

Borges may or may not have been descended from Portuguese Jews, but his interest in Jewish texts, symbols, and ideas defined a sizeable portion of his life and work: he translated Kafka, loved Buber’s Hassidic tales, and lectured on the Kabbalah; he wrote stories with Kabbalistic and other Jewish themes, and searched his ancestry (in vain, apparently) for Jewish forebears. Whatever his “pedigree,” I love his work and, in particular, his 1945 story “The Aleph.”

In this story, a horrendously pedantic poet by the name of Carlos Argentino Daneri is writing an epic poem that seeks, basically, to describe everything on the planet, or maybe even the universe. He is aided, it turns out, by an aleph in his basement, which, he explains to the story’s narrator, is a point in space that contains all other points. Looking into it, one can see everything that is—clearly and at the same moment. The narrator is allowed a glimpse; he describes the resulting vision necessarily as a succession of images, though of course he sees them all simultaneously. What follows is a beautiful paragraph listing some of these images, both enormous and minutely specific (deserts and each of their grains of sand, his own bowels, horses on the shore of the Caspian Sea, the obscene letters his beloved had written to this pedantic poet …).

One of my favorite writing exercises when I taught for one brief year was to assign students this story and ask them to write such a list of images—just the list: they didn’t have to create a story about or around it. I guessed that freed from the rigors and constraints of narrative they too would write astonishing paragraphs—and they did! I startled them by asking to keep those lists (at a time when teachers still received hard copies of student work!)—they were that good. I have them still.

In my book, the aleph (which, naturally, quivers and vibrates) is more focused: it does not allow viewers to see the entire universe from every conceivable angle; rather, it enables them to see scenes from their own lives, past and future; this, in turn, helps them understand and embrace their destinies. The vision is no less transformative, however. A variation of Reb Borges’ aleph, to be sure, but a heartfelt homage nonetheless!

Rachel Cantor's stories have appeared in magazines such as the Paris Review, One Story, Ninth Letter, Kenyon Review, and the New England Review. Rachel lives in New York, in the writerly borough of Brooklyn. She is, always, at work on another book. Read more about her here.