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Interview: Steve Stern

Tuesday, August 04, 2015 | Permalink

by Beth Kissileff


Award-winning author Steve Stern’s eleventh work of fiction, The Pinch: A History/A Novel, was published in June 2016 by Graywolf Press. Jewish Book Council sat down with the prolific author to discuss the role of Jewish history and Yiddish folktales in his writing, race in the South, and the power of comical writing and its significance.

Beth Kissileff: I love when authors take characters and ideas from their other books and continue to use them in different ways in newer books. The Shpinkers appear in other works of yours, and you have written about tightrope walkers in the past, too. What does it mean to you to write this way?

Steve Stern: You make me sound very ecological, recycling characters in order to create a kind of sustainable fiction. The truth is, I’ve been mining the old North Memphis neighborhood of the Pinch for stories for about three decades now, and it’s only natural that some of the narratives dovetail, causing characters who appear in one story to reappear in another. It is, after all, a finite neighborhood, though the stories are infinite; so while I might introduce new characters to the mix, they’re bound to rub shoulders with the veteran populace, and the friction of their shoulder-rubbing can be radically transformative for both old and new residents of the neighborhood.

BK: Can you talk about the interplay of history and fiction in your writing?

SS: The Pinch ends with the Angel of History: Walter Benjamin’s concept inspired by Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus in which the angel looks toward the past while being driven ever forward, perhaps catastrophically, in its flight. If you’re looking backward—toward a mythic past, toward the paradise you knew before the Angel of Forgetfulness tweaked you under the nose at birth—then history is something you blindly collide with. I suppose that’s as good a characterization of the attitude in which I write as any: history always manifests itself as an inescapable intrusion, the nightmare from which Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus was trying to awake. In their sleepwalking, my characters often try to sustain themselves on dreams, and since the dreams are frequently nourished by ancient mythologies, they may assume their own palpable reality. What happens when that reality, in which magic is a natural component, encounters the harsh truths of history is a constant theme in the stories I imagine. Though to be honest, the angel at the end of The Pinch evokes not so much Benjamin’s Angel of History as the one with the flaming sword who prohibits Adam and Eve from returning to the Garden.

BK: One of the many lovely things in the book is the honest appraisal of race relations. Can you say something about the role of race in the novel, and the particular one of Jews and blacks in the South?

SS: In my hometown of Memphis, a predominantly black city, there was an interesting symbiosis between African-Americans and Jews. Beale Street, which was the black Main Street of the South for decades, had at one end a cluster of Jewish pawnshops and discount stores. Where blacks were barred from shopping at the white-owned businesses, they were welcomed by the Jews. I won’t pretend this was without its mercenary motive, but still: Schwab’s Emporium featured hoodoo love potions and pomades; Novak’s Pawn accepted toothpicks and thimbles from the gamblers and high-rollers, confident of a considerable return on their investment. The black heritage of Memphis, the city’s richest cultural heritage, had from its early inception a lively Jewish element, and it was through an interest in that hybrid circumstance that I, somewhat ironically, came to know something about the local Jewish history. I guess that, growing up in the South, I always conceived parallels between the black and the Jewish experience, and I’ve been drawn back repeatedly to that perception since I began to write. In The Pinch, I wanted to address the city’s pivotal (even terminal?) historic moment, the garbage strike that preceded the assassination of Martin Luther King. There seemed to me a kind of inevitability in the fact that the so-called urban renewal that destroyed North Main Street coincided with the murder of Dr. King. My dream district evaporated forever with the death of the century's greatest dreamer.

BK: Can you talk a bit about your sources—folklore, midrash, Yiddish words? How did you do the research for the many worlds this book contains?

SS: I’m never really aware of research per se, since the place where I spend most of my time is in a literary latitude (my room) defined by the kinds of texts you mention. The Book is of course the Torah, whose narrative begins in timelessness before entering history. The vast literature that Torah has generated—midrash, aggadah, folklore, legend, and so much of Yiddish fiction—partakes of both worlds; these are tales that exist comfortably in both a mythic and historic dimension. Characters, such as the folk persona of the prophet Elijah, commute between these worlds with relative ease; creatures such as golems and assorted monsters, the Leviathan and the giant Ziz bird, phenomena such as dybbuks, wandering souls, hidden saints, and all the fabulous demonic and angelic denizens of Kabbalah, can enter the familiar world without substantially altering its fabric. Rabbis and fools can stumble into sitra achra, the malevolent Other Side, and return to their study house unscathed. For centuries the two worlds cohabited more or less peacefully in the Jewish universe. But in our epoch there was a rupture—i.e. a Holocaust—which separated us from the timeless realm and marooned us here under the unforgiving dominion of history. I believe, however, that stories can still retain an echo of the original source, and that the echo can sometimes toll louder than the tale at hand; that the music of that tolling can endow our historical moment with a measure of eternity. I believe a writer, according to his or her means, ought to aspire to capture that music in his or her stories.

BK: In your book, we watch a character write and control the faces of others. Can you talk about the power of writing and its effect on your own life?

SS: I gave The Pinch two endings—one a speculative conclusion in which the book that the character Muni has written plays a crucial part in the revitalization of the lost neighborhood. In the second ending—spoiler alert—Muni’s book is destroyed, and Lenny, my feckless semi-hero, who’s been living both inside and outside of Muni’s chronicle, is set free, though his emancipation is an ambiguous affair. This is what I love most about fiction: that you can have it both ways. You can rectify and redeem botched lives, dissolve the claustrophobia of routine with mad invention, realize the impossible despite the hegemony of the literal; and you can do it all without subverting the accepted wisdom. But I’m not entirely a fool; I know that there’s such a thing as normative reality and that in most lives it trumps whatever the imagination can conceive. There’s a Kafka parable that says we are free and secure citizens of the world, for we’re fettered to a chain long enough to give us the freedom of all earthly space; that we’re free and secure citizens of heaven as well, since we’re also fettered by a similarly long heavenly chain. But if we head for earth, the heavenly collar throttles us, and likewise the earthly collar if we head for heaven. Yet, says Kafka, all the possibilities are ours. Stories are perhaps an effort to break those chains, and if they ultimately fail to do so, well, the energy and passion expended in the attempt allows us to feel, if only vicariously, intensely alive.

BK: Can you talk about the sense of creation and transmission in writing, and what you hope to hand over to readers?

SS: A writer’s characters embody his obsessions, and many of mine are possessed by stories, both their own and those of others, which they’re as driven as the Ancient Mariner to exorcise themselves of. That’s certainly the case with my character Muni Pinsker. George Steiner once said of the Jews that the Book is their homeland, which is a literal truth for me, though the book in question—apostate that I am—is usually the one I’m writing, and home paradoxically the place I hope the writing will take me to. It’s less a straight-ahead voyage, however, than the efforts of a desperate survivor of shipwreck to reach dry land, my desk the lifebuoy I cling to like Ishmael (another mariner) hanging onto Queequeg’s casket. That’s the only way I know to stay afloat. A career sadsack, I nevertheless like to think that I’m essentially a comic writer. Sure, I’ve got my sober and somber themes, which I return to again and again, hammer and tongs. But in the end, though reviewers might beg to differ, my intention is to entertain. I have a religious faith in the power of laughter to clarify a spiritual vision. The old proverb says that aggadah, the narrative imagination, has a laughing face. That’s the compass by which (straddling the casket) I try to navigate my stories.

Beth Kissileff is the editor of Reading Genesis (Continuum Books, 2014) an anthology of academic writing about Genesis. Her novel Questioning Return is under review for publication and she is writing a second novel and volume of short stories. She has taught at the University of Pittsburgh, Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College.

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Discovering the Pinch: Part II; or, Animating a Literary Golem

Wednesday, July 29, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Steve Stern offered his recollections of the Memphis community in which he grew up and the Jewish mythical lore occupying it. His most recent novel, The Pinch, is now available. He teaches at Skidmore College in upstate New York. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Read Part I of "Discovering the Pinch" Here

Needless to say, this was all very exciting. I had rescued the irrational dimension of a largely sanitized tradition from obscurity and enabled the timeless realm to reenter history, restoring magic to the arid wasteland of contemporary experience. But there was a problem: because the Pinch itself had degenerated into gutted buildings and weed-choked lots, and the ghettos of Eastern Europe that had spawned the Pinch were now graveyards, their populations long since reduced to ashes. As a consequence, there was no longer a natural habitat wherein the resurrected dead belonged, to say nothing of the whole supernatural menagerie with whom they’d once lived cheek by jowl. The shoemakers, patch tailors, ritual slaughterers, and market wives found themselves without a culture in which to pursue their traditional livelihoods. By the same token, the creatures from sitra achra, the Other Side, had no communal order to invade and subvert with their time-honored mischief. Here is the place where I’m supposed to say that I reconstructed their world in my stories, replicating their vanished community, complete with poverty, disease, and the threat of pogrom to be sure, but also with mystery and romance. Isn’t that what art is? A container made in time to hold a timeless element? But my artificial containers, formed from recycled folk narratives, were never sturdy enough to confine authentic magic, which tended to crack the forms wide open. In the absence of their original milieu, the citizens of that timeless realm didn’t so much blend as collide with the contemporary world. The archetypes and modernity made strange bedfellows. The born-again mortals, feeling exposed and disoriented, scrambled to assimilate as fast as they could, pursuing get-rich-quick schemes to insulate themselves from an alien environment; while the supernaturals, feeling equally out of place in a world where they weren’t believed in, where the evil men outstripped their wildest machinations, succumbed to various petty corruptions: the wonder rebbes became spiritual hucksters, founding meditation centers that boasted celebrity followers; the golem used disproportionate force against the perceived enemies of Israel in barroom brawls. Lilith started an escort service; the dybbuks took possession of living souls with reckless abandon, and so forth. Think of a subterranean version of the anarchy unleashed on the world in Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming.” Like an ineffectual parent trying to corral his delinquent children, I endeavored to shepherd the demons and born-agains back into yet another container, which they also smashed, forcing me to repeat the process all over again, ad absurdum. This was my method, which was arduous and frustrating and aged me prematurely. It was a doomed Sisyphean enterprise, and like Blake’s eternity yearning for the productions of time, I wished for a return of the old status quo. Then lo, my prayer was answered: the boring rabbi from my reform temple turned up in his seersucker suit and, with unsuspected strength, tilted the Tree back into the ground whence it had risen, while the remnant of that refugee heritage scurried back into the gaping hole as well. The poor sapling, bare of fruit, stood once more in place of the Tree, and I returned to the synagogue and sat peacefully among the congregation, amnesiac again and wondering, “Why do they look so smug, as if they’re keeping some big secret from me?” End of story.

There’s the familiar Chasidic parable about the forest, the fire, and the prayer that describes how the Baal Shem Tov, when he needed enlightenment, went to a place in the forest, lit a fire, said a prayer, and mirabile dictu, enlightenment was granted. His nephew would go to the same place in the forest and light the fire, only to find that he’d forgotten the prayer; but it was sufficient just to be by the fire in the forest. Then the nephew’s nephew would go to the forest, where he was unable to remember the prayer or light the fire; but he was still in the forest and that was sufficient. The nephew’s nephew’s nephew, however, couldn’t even find his way into the forest, never mind light the fire or say the prayer; but he remembered the story of the forest, the fire, and the prayer, and that sufficed. But my generation has only the story of having forgotten the story, and that frankly isn’t enough. Still, I sometimes encounter some joker at a party whose tasteless shtik recalls the routines of the old badkhonim, the jesters who entertained at Jewish weddings with their bawdy repertoires; or a drooling lunatic on a subway platform might spew a stream of vitriol that could have been formulated by a dybbuk; or a child of a friend utters some gnomic wisdom beyond his years, as if his soul had endured many gilgulim, or reincarnations. In this way chords are struck; a vestige of the knowledge erased by the Angel of Forgetfulness at our birth (by his famous fillip under our nose) obtains. “We cannot renew our former strength,” said the illustrious rabbinic storyteller Nachman of Bratslav, “but we do retain an imprint of those former times, and that in itself is very great.” In the Beginning, according to the sixteenth century kabbalist Isaac Luria, God had to withdraw Himself from the universe in order to make room for creation, but the vessels in which He deposited His Light could not contain their volatile contents and cracked open. For centuries it was the mission of the Jews to retrieve—through study, good works, and prayer—the sparks of holiness scattered from those broken vessels and return them to their source, thus repairing the rift between heaven and earth and making the universe whole again. This was the Jewish MO for several centuries, until along came the Holocaust, an implosion as seismic in its destructiveness as the explosion that allowed for our creation. Since then the sparks have not been so easy to recover. Before, they were hidden in plain sight, the way a father hides the afikomen for his children at Passover; now those sparks are buried so deep under the ruins of a lost culture that their recovery requires a major excavation. The whole tradition must be uprooted—branch, trunk, root, and seed—in order to yield the least gem-sized spark, which must in turn be fanned like crazy in the hope of starting a new conflagration. Then, if you’re lucky, a demon or angel might leap out of the flame.

Over the course of several diary entries Franz Kafka, the high priest of hopelessness, began a story about a slovenly rabbi living in the squalid Prague ghetto, who is attempting to create a man from a lump of clay. But after setting the stage for an eruption of magic in that dilapidated secular atmosphere, Kafka never completed the story. Meanwhile the old ghetto was razed to the ground in the name of progress, and later on all the displaced Jews were sent to the gas chambers. Which was maybe why the story, having no real world model to draw upon for its context, was doomed from the outset. Still, for those of us helplessly drawn to the archetypes of an outworn tradition, who believe they retain some transformative power, Kafka’s uncompleted story remains a challenge: You want to describe how the rabbi rolls up his sleeves like a washerwoman and plunges his hands into the wet clay, while the curious neighbors in his reeking courtyard look on. This is of course outrageous effrontery, the idea that you can trespass where Kafka himself feared to tread. The old mystics issued caveats against such presumption: the apprentice kabbalist should be at least 40, married, and with a respectable paunch as a ballast against pursuits that might carry him away. There are many fables about the consequences of being carried away. But say that you actually succeed through much rigor in animating your literary golem. Fueled by your faith in his power, he may still resist your control; he may lay waste to your best-laid plans, kick your narrative container to pieces, and escape into a modernity that absorbs him to the point of invisibility. What’s left to you is either to content yourself with chronicling your failure, with telling the story of forgetting—or to give chase, throwing nets over the monster to drag him back into your tale, which he will break out of again world without end.

Steve Stern, winner of the National Jewish Book Award, is the author of several previous novels and story collections, including The Book of Mischief and The Frozen Rabbi. He teaches at Skidmore College in upstate New York.

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Discovering the Pinch: Part I

Monday, July 27, 2015 | Permalink

Steve Stern, winner of the National Jewish Book Award, is the author of several previous novels and story collections, including The Book of Mischief and The Frozen Rabbi. His most recent novel, The Pinch, is now available. He teaches at Skidmore College in upstate New York. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I grew up in the South during a plague of amnesia, circa 1947. Due to a recent historical trauma of cosmic proportions, no one was able to look back, and various lingering planetary threats made looking forward a dicey proposition as well. Thus, the present was a barren and hopeless affair, and the places consecrated to giving it meaning no less desolate. The synagogue in the Southern city where I was reared was as antiseptic as a Methodist church, the rabbi droning conventional wisdom in ecclesiastical robes, the choir singing vapid hymns in their loft, the congregation more or less chloroformed. There was a stale mythology of tired household tales, stories of giants and floods worn threadbare by centuries of rote narrative that inoculated the listener against authentic magic. When I was old enough to leave, I set out in search of mystery and romance, but ended by living the life of my generation, medicating myself along with my brethren against the claustrophobia of our time. Eventually I returned home empty-handed, where, in the absence of what I’d been seeking, I began to write stories that invoked my own idea of mystery and romance. The problem was that, with an imagination confined (and defined) by the infertile present, my stories tended to revolve around characters searching for mystery and romance and finding none. Because the characters were in need of some nod toward identity, however superficial, I sometimes tagged them with Jewish names, and was surprised to find that the names more or less fit. One of my characters, Lazar Malkin by name, dissatisfied with his experience on earth, nevertheless perversely refused to die. Exasperated by his obstinacy, the Angel of Death (a stock persona from the tired tales I’d been weaned on) hauled him off to heaven alive. This seemed to me an original notion: a fresh idea had sprouted in my otherwise desert environment; my sapling of a narrative had born fruit. But when I tried to pluck the fruit, a funny thing happened. When I tugged, the sapling itself came out of the ground, dragging with it a root system larger than a giant sequoia’s. The eruption from underground seemed to displace everything else on earth, overwhelming the narrow isthmus of the present with a timeless dimension. And attached to those prodigious roots was another world shaken loose by the great deracination. The roots were in fact an inverted tree that my persistent tugging had pulled upright again, and from its branches hung many versions of the story I thought I’d invented: There was the Hasidic tale of Rabbi ben Levi, another stubborn old man, who deceives Malach Hamovess, the Angel of Death, into admitting him into paradise alive; and Elijah the Prophet who ascends to heaven in a fiery chariot, only to return to earth in various disguises to meddle in the affairs of men; and Enoch, who “walked with God, and was not,” who was translated while yet alive into the archangel Metatron. Turns out I wasn’t so original after all. Accidentally I had tapped into a vast network of living myths that, once unearthed, began to dog me like creatures out of Pandora’s Box, or (to put it in a more Jewish context) from under the Foundation Stone of the Temple that King David lifted against God’s decree.

The Tree had its geographical locus on North Main Street, a blighted downtown district in my hometown of Memphis. And with the Tree’s resurrection—having as it did a genealogical as well as a mythical significance—the denizens of the once vital North Main Street ghetto community reappeared; the dead came back again. Mr. Sebranig the shoemaker came back, and Mr. Sacharin the fishmonger, Dubrovner the butcher in his bloody apron and the Widow Teitelbaum, who peddled bootleg whiskey from under the counter of her vest-pocket delicatessen. I saw my grandfather and grandmother, her puckered mouth ringed clownishly with borscht, whose wizened face I would recall as a hedge against premature ejaculation. Now her features echoed a whole culture with its traditions and superstitions, all the baggage she’d brought along with her from the Old Country, sometimes referred to as the Other Side. This included the demons and imps called sheydim and mazikim, wandering souls called dybbuks and hidden saints or lamed vov tzaddikim. There was the golem, the soulless monster the old sorcerer rabbis had fashioned out of clay, and Lilith, Adam’s first wife turned succubus, who stole babies from their cradles and visited sleeping men to embarrass them with nocturnal emissions. And there were summer nights in the Pinch, which was the name of that North Main Street ghetto, when the apartments above the shops were infernal and the whole neighborhood would sleep outside in the park under the Tree—from whose branches these mythical creatures would descend.

Check back on Wednesday for Part II of "Discovering the Pinch."

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Finding a Tradition of His Own: A Southern Outsider

Thursday, February 07, 2013 | Permalink
by Beth Kissileff

Steve Stern's most recent collection, The Book of Mischief, was published in September 2012 by Graywolf Press.

Steve Stern is, in my opinion, the best under-recognized American Jewish writer currently writing. Many, many reviewers hoped that his most recent novel, the wonderful, lyrically written, and hysterically funny The Frozen Rabbi, would do much to bring him the larger readership his writing deserves. And now, with the publication of his tenth book, new and selected stories with the spot-on title, The Book of Mischief, his literary admirers can keep hoping those who have not yet read him will run to their bookstore or electronic reader and do so. I first came across his work in 1999 when The Wedding Jester was published. Something in the review I read of it made me want to run out to buy the book; when I did I spent the next week neglecting my academic work and reading to devour the collection. At the start of a summer supposed to be dedicated to academic articles, I realized that this was what I wanted to do, write stories not articles—I lay the blame for my current writing life squarely with Stern. Since then I have read everything by Stern that I can to access his world of acrobats and jesters, Catskills hangers on, and rabbis resuscitated from the Old World come to remake the New.

Stern’s oeuvre is uniquely connected to place, from the Pinch neighborhood of Memphis of his birth to stories set in both the Lower East Side and the Catskills as well as the Europe of a past imagined by the author. I had the pleasure of meeting him to discuss the writing life and his new book at a café near where he makes his home in Brooklyn, when he is not teaching at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY. On the day we were to meet, I took the subway but was unsure if I had the right stop and had to take another bus to a stop closer to where we were meeting, and then continually ask a number of people directions to the Qathra coffee bar. The day seemed grim and I was late so I was sure the author would have given up and abandoned his post at the front of the coffee bar, hardcover in hand. However, some kind of magic worked and he was there, the sun came out and our conversation was a wonderful literary experience, transporting beyond the surroundings, as is fitting for a writer fascinated by flight and trapeze artists.

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The Real Flavor of the Streets

Thursday, September 06, 2012 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Steve Stern wrote about embarking on a quixotic journey and his decision to teach creative writing in Vilnius. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

There’s a district in Vilnius called Užupis, which has seceded from the rest of Lithuania and established its own republic. To get there you cross over a river on a bridge festooned in padlocks engraved with the names of lovers. On the riverbank below the bridge is the statue of a mermaid. It’s a bohemian neighborhood with its own whimsical constitution (“Everyone has the right to understand nothing,” “Everyone has the right to encroach upon eternity,” “A cat is not obliged to love its master, but it must help him in difficult times,” and so on) mounted on a wall in a dozen languages. There’s a café in Užupis with a terrace overlooking the little river, where I sat drinking beer with some Lithuanian poets. They were impressive company, the poets with their chiseled Slavic features, who recited their poems from memory and, unlike Americans, made no apologies for their art. The subject of conversation was Lithuanian identity and the national narrative the citizens were struggling to cobble together since gaining their independence from the Soviet Union. It was a narrative the Jewish component had been mostly edited out of.

“You people are so lucky,” I submitted. “You’ve been persecuted for centuries by the Russians, the Poles, the Germans, whereas I’ve had to punish myself all these years.”

Understand, I’m a cheap drunk, and the beer in Vilnius is very good, especially the dark Baltic variety with its tincture of caramel. Well past my limit (of a single beer) I was inclined to presumption. Also, I wasn’t especially sympathetic to the Lithuanian national identity crisis, having recently visited their Museum of Genocide Victims. This is the museum housed in the old KGB headquarters, a forbiddingly grim building where thousands of Lithuanian partisans were imprisoned, tortured, and murdered by the Soviets. With its punishment cells and execution chamber, it’s a chilling monument to inhumanity, and there’s no question that the Lithuanians suffered disproportionately at the hands of the Russians. But I was more than a little uncomfortable with calling their particular tragedy a “genocide.” I reminded the poets that the Jews had constituted nearly half the population of Vilnius before the war, that theirs had been arguably the richest Jewish culture in Europe. I called the roll of Jewish geniuses from Vilna—the Gaon and the Chazon Ish, Moishe Kulbak and Chaim Grade, the scholar-rabbis, the Yiddish authors, actors, and artists—and suggested that, if the Lithuanians were so desperate for a narrative, they could do worse than to appropriate that of the Litvak Jews. After all, while the official identity of Vilnius had long been Russian, the public life was largely Polish, and the real flavor of the streets was distinctly Jewish. The scant native Lithuanian population was, at least until recently, negligible and ghostly.

I waited for my remarks to revive some atavistic form of anti-Semitism among my listeners, who merely registered then dismissed the suggestion; my reputation as a nudge had preceded me. Lithuania, they explained, was the last nation in Europe to be converted to Christianity. In the late 14th century, when the rest of the continent was building its high gothic cathedrals, the Lithuanians, it seemed, were still worshipping trees. In their zealous quest for identity many of the young were now looking back to the mist-shrouded pagan past. Shikkered from a second beer, I recalled an item of graffiti I’d seen on a crumbling wall earlier that day. It was a more or less stick figure with a protracted middle limb and a legend chalked above it reading in English: Long Dick Boy. It struck me in retrospect that what I’d seen was a pagan scrawl from the Lithuanian Stone Age, possibly the image of some trickster god. I presented my theory to the poets, supporting it with improvised episodes from a cycle of tales about Long Dick Boy: how he stole borsht from the gods, lassoed a dragon with his schlong, etc. “And a little known fact,” I added as a postscript, “Long Dick Boy was circumcised.” I think the Lithuanians were as glad to see the back of me as I was to go home, but I cherish the souvenir hangover I brought back from my time in Vilnius.

Steve Stern is the author of several works of fiction, including A Plague of Dreamers, The Frozen Rabbi, and North of God. His honors include twoNew York TimesNotable Books, a Pushcart Writer's Choice Award, an O. Henry Prize, and the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Jewish American Fiction. Stern was born in Memphis, Tennessee and now lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.

Illusions and Remembering

Wednesday, September 05, 2012 | Permalink

Yesterday, Steve Stern wrote about his decision to teach creative writing in Vilnius. He will be blogging here for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week.

I liked to sit sipping coffee in the tall kitchen window of my apartment in Vilnius. The window overlooked the broad Town Hall Square teeming day and night with international tourists. Gold-domed churches and pastel houses with terra cotta roofs bordered the square above which loomed the red brick castle on its hill. Beyond the castle were the dense pine forests that surrounded the city like a green velvet setting for a diadem. The window coincidentally faced the corner where the Nazis had staged their so-called Great Provocation. This was the faked sniping incident they used to justify the “retaliation” that led ultimately to the extermination of the Vilna Jews. Turn left outside of my apartment and you entered the Square, with its wind-tossed fountain, linen and amber boutiques, and outdoor cafes. Turn right and you found yourself in a dreary, cavernous courtyard carved out of what had once been the small ghetto. In this area women, children, and the elderly were corralled and starved before being marched out to the killing fields of Paneriai, where they were summarily shot and tossed into open pits.

During my first week in Vilnius, whenever I left the apartment, I always turned right. I walked through the twisted streets of the former ghettos, the large and the small, and read the signs in Yiddish commemorating the slaughtered; I went to the little Holocaust Museum in the Green House and fed my revulsion on the names of both the ordinary and celebrated citizens that had perished. I made the pilgrimage out to Paneriai and tried to identify with the men assigned to burn the corpses, who might discover among the dead the body of a wife, a father, a child or two. I tried in my fashion to obey the 11th commandment: Zakhor! Remember! and its more piquant Yiddish corollary, “Zolstu krenken un gedenken,” may you sicken and remember. I believe that the Shoah diminished the whole human enterprise, that as a race we’ve been missing vital parts of ourselves ever since. So shouldn’t it be incumbent upon persons of conscience to return to the scenes of the crime in the hope of retrieving something of what was lost? Of course it’s a quixotic exercise; language and emotion are unequal to the task. Poetry, as Theodor Adorno famously pronounced, is barbaric after Auschwitz. Besides, there’s nothing to be found in such places but the stray stones placed atop the monuments by mourners. And even the Jewish graveyards of Vilnius have been removed. Meanwhile, from my kitchen window, I watched the early morning theater: young men stumbled cartoon-like from all-night benders, scattering pigeons as they soaked their sore heads in the fountain; a pair of lovers, still tipsy from their the previous evening’s carouse, performed the comic pantomime of a mating dance; a street sweeper whistled as he worked to a tune played by a solitary Gypsy accordionist. And later on, when I left the apartment, I turned left—as I did every day after that first week in Vilnius—ducking under the arch to enter the carnival atmosphere of the square.

I’m not entirely a fool. I knew that the city was largely illusion, its crooked streets and fanciful facades reconstructed after the war upon a foundation of ashes and bones. I knew that, if you walked beyond the perimeter of the precious Old Town, you immediately found yourself in a soviet wasteland, where impoverished and often suicidal alcoholics sold their daughters into slavery. I knew that, in the face of the nightmare of history, even the Deuteronomic injunction to choose life is a flimsy excuse. But the square was so full of a number of things and the city such a goddam gem.

Steve Stern is the author of several works of fiction, including A Plague of Dreamers, The Frozen Rabbi, and North of God. His honors include twoNew York TimesNotable Books, a Pushcart Writer's Choice Award, an O. Henry Prize, and the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Jewish American Fiction. Stern was born in Memphis, Tennessee and now lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.

A Yiddishist in Vilnius

Tuesday, September 04, 2012 | Permalink

Steve Stern's most recent book, The Book of Mischief, is now available. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I had fun in Vilnius, despite my low tolerance for fun. Not to mention that fun in Vilnius seemed like a betrayal of everything sacred. So what was I doing in Lithuania? A good question, and having traveled all the way to that small Eastern European nation to teach English-speaking students the same stuff (creative writing) I routinely taught at home, I asked my class at our first meeting, “What the hell are we doing in Lithuania?” But the truth was that the question was disingenuous. I knew perfectly well why I’d come. When first invited to teach there in the Summer Literary Seminars, I instantly declined. I don’t travel well; I like to hang on to my desk with my teeth—that was my default reply. Then I remembered that I am a lover of Yiddishkeit. What reputation I have is as a writer inspired by Yiddish culture and folklore, and old Vilna once boasted the mother lode of that culture before it was utterly erased. So I complained to everyone I knew that I’d had a chance to go to Lithuania and blown it. Eventually I received another email from the program, saying, “We hear by the grapevine you might be having second thoughts.” I considered my bluff called.

It’s a beautiful city, Vilnius, a hard place in which to imagine the unimaginable. Especially when you’re strolling serpentine streets flanked by blue and yellow houses, some squat as toadstools, others narrow as the spines of books, most sprouting scrollworked balconies. The baroque churches look like pink cupcakes, the hidden courtyards beckon like grottos, and the women (Sabrina, I can look) are whip-thin and sleek as cats. It was a storybook milieu, complete with an argosy of hot air balloons overhead, and it dazzled me to the point where I forgot to miss what was missing. What was missing? Only about 1000 years of the most vibrant Jewish life to be found anywhere on the planet. It was here that the Vilna Gaon sprang from the womb reciting Talmud, and the poets of Yung Vilne kept the printing presses busy until the plates were melted into bullets for the resistance. Here the shelves of the YIVO archive and the Strashun Library groaned from the gathered weight of the Diaspora, and the cauldron of conflicting ideologieHasidim vs mitnagdim, bundists vs Zionists—boiled over in the streets. Here Chaim Soutine and Jacques Lipchitz plied their visionary trade within earshot of Jascha Heifetz’s violin. All that remained of that world, however, was a handful of memorial plaques, some busts and a couple of signs informing the tourist that history was once here but had since moved on. Not that I’d expected more; though I’ll confess to a romantic hope that, if I connected my passion for Yiddish culture to its source, sparks would fly and the streets swarm again with Jews. Instead there was only a sputtering of my good intentions before the impulse fritzed out and expired. Then it was easier to brood over what was absent than to try Grande syna Vilnaand recover what was lost.

So I abandoned my role of amateur Yiddishist in exchange for professional mourner. I gave a fiction reading in an old church outside of which the first Jewish victim of the Nazi occupation (a woman) was shot. “It’s wonderful to be here in a city where you can picture a Jew hanging from every lamppost,” I quipped, embarrassing everyone. The audience, comprised of Vilnius’s tiny Jewish community come to hear a concert of Yiddish music for which I was the opening act, sat in deadly silence. When I was done, a man like a steamer trunk in a tuxedo marched to the stage and, accompanied by a classical pianist, belted a medley of Yiddish folksongs that exorcised the chapel of my sarcasm. He ended with a Kaddish that rocked the foundation of the church. Chastised, I too dropped a tear into the overflowing bucket of Jewish grief and tried to hold that thought. But the music was truly cathartic, and afterwards, exhilarated, I went off with colleagues to drink too many beers in sidewalk cafes, in cafes tucked away in vaulted catacombs, in cafes with terraces overlooking the river, where I wallowed in guilty pleasure.

Steve Stern is the author of several works of fiction, including A Plague of Dreamers, The Frozen Rabbi, and North of God. His honors include two New York Times Notable Books, a Pushcart Writer's Choice Award, an O. Henry Prize, and the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Jewish American Fiction. Stern was born in Memphis, Tennessee and now lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.

Mini Round Up: Stern and Orringer

Wednesday, August 11, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Steve Stern (Frozen Rabbicreates a playlist for the NYTimes Paper Cuts blog.

Matthue Roth takes a look at Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge for MyJewishLearning.

Steve Stern’s The Frozen Rabbi

Monday, March 01, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

This is week one of Tablet’s serialization of novelist Steve Stern’s forthcoming The Frozen Rabbi (Algonquin Books). Read today’s installment here.

Hear Stern on the decision to serialize The Frozen Rabbi, and more here.

Read more about Stern in the NYTimes here.

UPDATE: 

Day 2 here

Day 3 here

Day 4 here