The ProsenPeople

Jewish Through and Through…

Friday, June 05, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Talia Carner defined tzedakah and wrote about growing up as a a seventh-generation sabra among the Second Generation of Holocaust survivors in Israel, thereby inheriting a piece of their legacy of remembrance. She is the author of four novels, including the recently published Hotel Moscow, and has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council'sVisiting Scribe series.

My last two novels feature strong Jewish themes. Yet readers are often surprised that not only am I not religious, but I do not even attend synagogue services, yet my writing testifies to being “very Jewish.”

Indeed I am very Jewish, but in Israeli fashion: I was born in Tel Aviv to a secular family that, like most Israelis, did not practice religion. My parents played Canasta on Yom Kippur. My grandfather, who studied at his synagogue for two hours morning and two hours in evening, did not wear a yarmulke, nor was my grandparents’ kitchen kosher.

We never doubted our Jewishness because the country possessed then—and still does—an unmistakably Jewish culture, where even minor holidays are celebrated: On Shavuot, an agrarian holiday rooted in the history of the Temple destroyed 2,000 years ago, people get together for a festive dairy meal of blintzes. The mitzvah of inviting people for a Passover seder who do not have one became a national mission when, in the 1990s, one million Russian Jews arrived. Tens of thousands of Israeli families opened their homes to introduce the newcomers to this most celebrated holiday, complete with the reading of the Hagadah—in Hebrew, of course. In the shopping mall, every store sports a mezuzah on the threshold. Upon finishing combat leadership training, the IDF gifts a bible to the each new commander.

I studied that Bible all of my twelve years at school, mandatory by the secular state curriculum. I loved its richness of language and poetic rhythm in the book of exquisite literature that was never presented as the word of God, even as He was present on every page. The Bible was a compilation of living history, vividly recalled when I dined at a restaurant at the port of Jaffa, from where Jonah had tried to escape God’s mission, or when I drove through the Elah Valley, where David had defeated Goliath. In sixth grade I won a Jeopardy-like bible contest, yet, when visiting France at seventeen and asked about prayers, I knew none. I was unaware that the dozens of passages I could cite in my sleep were prayers, because I had never been to a synagogue.

My friends’ parents who were Holocaust survivors claimed that “God died in Auschwitz.” And while the Nazis were slaughtering our brethrens, my Sabra grandparents’ and parents’ generations created the miracle of the State of Israel. How could we take kindly to the Orthodox sector that gave God all the credit? No. This was our Jewish country, rich with our new culture of a revived language and of new songs celebrating every Zionist milestone, starting with the first swiveling sprinkle head that brought water to the desert. Our new humor was nourished by the stumbling nascent bureaucracy, by the experience of idiosyncratic military service, and by the dozens of accents immigrants spoke Hebrew. In the absence of Hebrew curses, we borrowed them from Arabic, Russian, and Polish. We baked under the hot Israeli sun in our shorts, took juicy bites from our home-grown oranges, and defended our new country with our lives for ourselves and for world Jewry.

My New Yorker protagonist in Hotel Moscow, Brooke Fielding, doesn’t have all that to create Jewish identity, not unlike many secular American Jews I’ve met. Having grown up in a sad home of Holocaust survivors, Jewish history for her had no depth before the 1940s. When Brooke visits a synagogue on Yom Kippur she is uninspired by the praising of God and His justice or fear of His wrath. She is all too familiar with both His justice and His wrath. New Age spiritualism—shamanism, “sacred” scarves, Goddess Earth ceremonies, or mystical stones—seemed pagan to her. It is only in Moscow, where Brooke encounters unabashed anti-Semitism, that she finds an answer, not in faith so much as in her Jewish values.

When Golda Meir was asked if she believed in God she responded, "I believe in the Jewish people, and the Jewish people believe in God.”

I, too, believe in the Jewish people, and am committed to their future while preserving their past. I am “very Jewish.”

Talia Carner’s fourth novel, Hotel Moscow, was just released by HarperCollins. It is the story of an American woman who travels to Russia shortly after the fall of Communism, becomes embroiled in investigating a business crime, and when facing anti-Semitism, comes to terms with her parents’ Holocaust legacy and her own Jewish identity. For more about the author and the book, please visit www.TaliaCarner.com.

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What Is Tzedakah?

Wednesday, June 03, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Talia Carner wrote about growing up as a a seventh-generation sabra among the Second Generation of Holocaust survivors in Israel, thereby inheriting a piece of their legacy of remembrance. She is the author of four novels, including the recently published Hotel Moscow, and will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

As we raise our children to be aware of the world around them, to think of others, and to be generous, we try to instill in them the practice of tzedaka.

“But what is tzedaka?” my daughter once asked me.

Saying “be good to others,” didn’t cut it for me, as I know the Hebrew root word tzedek means “justice.” The directive to do good was more than merely the notion of giving or even correcting a wrong. The value of tzedaka is woven throughout the Bible, Jewish wisdom and culture, and encompasses the meaning of the intentions behind benevolent actions. After some research, I was able to better explain tzedaka:

  • “Pursue justice.” Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof translates as: “Justice, justice, you shall pursue.” Righteousness is not passive, but rather an act one must “pursue” it. This value requires us not only to respond to injustice and suffering when we see it, but to actively search for opportunities to act in righteous ways.
  • "Love thy neighbor" means that we should treat others as well as we treat ourselves. It is a commandment to care for others through direct action.
  • Pe’ah, helping the poor while making sure they keep their dignity: In ancient Israelite society, a landowner had to leave a corner, or pe’ah, of his field or orchard unharvested so that the poor could pick choice fresh food, not rotten leftovers.
  • Gemilut chasadim means “to bestow loving kindnesses.” Unlike charity, which awaits the cry of distress, benevolence anticipates it. It comes from within, from a compassionate heart, and involves active goodwill of sharing whatever one has with another who is deprived.
  • Protect the Earth: "Earth is the Lord's" expresses the idea that we live in a world that we did not create and nothing in it really belongs to us. All things are on loan to us, for safekeeping.
  • Tikun olam means that, since the world we live in is imperfect, each of us must find opportunities to actively participate in improving some part it.

The breaking down of tzedaka to smaller components helped my daughter notice her own behavior. It helped her become mindful of situations and take action—from stopping bullying to preserving a receiver’s dignity. It helped her become a better Jew and a better person.

Talia Carner’s fourth novel, Hotel Moscow, was just released by HarperCollins. It is the story of an American woman who travels to Russia shortly after the fall of Communism, becomes embroiled in investigating a business crime, and when facing anti-Semitism, comes to terms with her parents’ Holocaust legacy and her own Jewish identity. For more about the author and the book, please visit www.TaliaCarner.com

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“Second-Generation” Forever

Monday, June 01, 2015 | Permalink

Talia Carner’s fourth novel, Hotel Moscow, was just released by HarperCollins. It is the story of an American woman who travels to Russia shortly after the fall of communism, becomes embroiled in investigating a business crime, and when facing anti-Semitism, comes to terms with her parents’ Holocaust legacy and her own Jewish identity. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

A seventh-generation Sabra, I grew up in Tel-Aviv among the "Second Generation," children of Holocaust survivors. My friends’ parents were a decade older than mine and spoke German, Czech, Polish, Russian or Hungarian at home. They had survived the war’s degradations and losses, then crawled out of the ashes and created a second family, producing one child who rarely had grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins. That child became a stand-in for all the dead relatives, and I described her in my short story, Empty Chairs.

In these homes, the Holocaust hung in the air in sepia-colored photographs, foreign language, food hoarding of the formerly starved, European cloths unsuitable for the hot Israeli summers, or stooped shoulders. The children lived what someone once described as “undecipherable childhood.” It was not the absence of an extended family, but rather in the existence of that extended family—as ghosts. Whether the dead were discussed or were shrouded in silence, they forever existed as cutouts around the family table.

We were rambunctious Sabras—in the street. At home, Second-Generation children were polite toward their parents who had suffered so much. How could a teenager gripe about pimples when her mother, at her age, saw her brother shot in the street? They knew that their parents’ victory over the Nazis was in their success. They practiced the violin and excelled in school—or they fell apart under the lifelong mourning. Our friend Elyahu slid into a life of drugs and drinking; I can still visualize his wounded parents, walking together to work—always silent, never smiling—and returning late to their dark apartment, still silent, people hollowed out and incapable of giving love to their one, lonely son.

My generation, born after the Holocaust, was assigned the mission “to remember.” When I was ten, our class visited the nascent Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. In a dark cave we were shown lamp shades made out of Jewish skin and soap made of body fat. There was no sparing of the horrors for our young souls. No, we were to bear witness to history. More vividly, we witnessed it through our neighborhood’s meshuggenehs, who roamed our streets, picking shreds of paper, mumbling to themselves or shrieking to high heaven. The code word “Auschwitz” was whispered to explain everything that happened “there.” “There” was different from “abroad,” which was where my parents traveled on vacation.

The older I became, the less I understood the Holocaust. But in December 1992, at the Holocaust museum in Sydney, Australia, I broke down, hysterical. Afterward, I was “Holocausted-out.” I could no longer bear the pain of such hatred.

That’s when the character of Brooke Fielding, the protagonist of my new novel, Hotel Moscow, emerged. She embodied my Second-Generation childhood friends along with the many Second-Generation American Jews I'd met since moving to New York. They would often confide in me that their parents’ agony is never far from their minds and hearts; the visions are as vivid as if they’d been “there” themselves, forever following them like a bubble of air they are breathing.

Unlike the friends in my neighborhood that shared that same past, Brooke’s friends are clueless about that part of her. She seeks Jewish identity undefined by the Holocaust, but for her, Jewish history had no real depth beyond the 1940s: the Holocaust was a starting point. Faith? Her mother had refused to talk to God until “He apologized for what he did to us.”

It is there in Moscow, when facing unabashed anti-Semitism, that Brooke comes to terms with who she is. Her years of running away from her legacy “to remember” are over when she feels the pride when being accused of having “a Jewish gene” and she flaunts her Star-of-David necklace.

My Sabra-Jewish genes go back to an ancestor who built the first synagogue in Jerusalem after the Temple had been destroyed. But while I can’t claim a tragic loss or a traumatic Holocaust past, I can claim belonging to the Second Generation, because I was conditioned “to remember,” and remember I do.

For more about the author and the book, please check www.TaliaCarner.com.

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