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The Jewish Women Writers Who Made Their Mark on Café Culture

Thursday, May 31, 2018 | Permalink

Shachar Pinsker is writing here as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Black and white photo of Leah Goldberg smoking at an outdoor table with Yaakov Horowitz

When I did research for my previous book Literary Passports: The Making of Modernist Hebrew Fiction in Europe, I asked myself: Where did Jewish writers and intellectuals who migrated to large cities at the turn of the 20th century live and work? Where did they find inspiration and a place to meet others? The answer I kept coming to repeatedly was the coffeehouse. I discovered that not only the allure of the café was very strong, but that it became a key site for the creation of modern Jewish culture, which is how I came to write my new book, A Rich Brew.

As I have read numerous articles, memoirs, letters, stories, novels, and poems that were written in and about cafés, and collected many photographs, cartoons and artwork that portray these spaces, gender emerged as an essential aspect. In theory, coffeehouses—from their early years in the Ottoman Empire, and their spread throughout Europe—were open to everyone. This accessibility and inclusivity was one of the reasons why coffeehouses attracted so many modern Jews in various cities in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century. However, cafés, especially those that were known as “literary cafés” were mostly masculine spaces, or at least they were experienced as such. Many Jewish habitués of the café described it as a modern, secular substitute to the traditional House of Study, where the older and more established writer is like the Rabbi of yesteryear, his café table like the Rebbe’s tish, and the students who follow him gather around to listen to his words. Instead of Talmud or Midrash, this secularized rabbi and his followers would interpret, discuss and analyze a poem or a story. Not only the debates in these cafés had the flavor of the Yeshivas and houses of study, where some of the participants had spent their youth, but also the male camaraderie of traditional Jewish society was very much part of the experience.

Where were Jewish women in the coffeehouse? What was their place in café culture?

In cities like Vienna and Berlin, certain women were hostesses of salons, a competing institution to the coffeehouse, but a very different one. From the late 18th to the early 19th century, Jewish women such as Fanny von Arnstein, Rahel Levin-Verhangen, and Dorothea Mendelssohn-Schlegl (Moses Mendelssohn’s daughter) found a new role outside the patriarchal structures of their families in these salons. But these women were quite exceptional, and their Jewishness meant that their outsider status was guaranteed, as both a woman and a Jew. Nevertheless, the emergence of the “new woman” did not pass over Jewish society in eastern and central Europe, America and the Middle East, and it was felt in the coffeehouses as well. Women were sometimes owners of cafés, as part of a family business, or on their own; they were often servers, and sometimes costumers. In a few cafés, like Café Fanconi in Odessa at the beginning of the 20th century, there was something akin to a "women section,” often created ad-hoc by those who ventured into the new, alluring space. However, a woman who sat in the café alone was a rare and often a suspicious sight.

The presence of women in the café was marked by the curiosity, desire, and frustration of male habitués and writers who tried to explain and define these modern women. The same applied to the “politically radical cafés” of the Lower East Side, as Abraham H. Fromenson describes: “where the cigarette smoke is thickest and denunciation of the present forms of government loudest, there you find women!” He was referring to women like Emma Goldman, who wrote about her first day in New York City, August 15, 1889. Hillel Solotaroff, a Russian-born Jewish anarchist took the twenty-year-Old Goldman to Sachs’ Café, which, as he informed her, was “the headquarters of the East Side radicals, socialists, and anarchists, as well as of the young Yiddish writers and poets.” Goldman recalled how, for one who had just come from the provincial town of Rochester, the noise and turmoil at Sachs’ Café was intimidating. And yet, Goldman saw her initiation into Sachs’ Café as establishing her lifelong intellectual and political engagement, as “red Emma,” or “the most dangerous woman in America.”

Another extraordinary woman in New York’s cafés was the poet Rosa Lebensboym, best known by the pen name Anna Margolin. In 1913, she settled in the city and joined the staff of the Yiddish newspaper Der tog, where she wrote a weekly women’s column. When Margolin began publishing her modernist Yiddish poetry under her pen name in the 1920s, it aroused much attention with many believing that the mysterious poet must really have been a man. Reuven Iceland, who was Margolin’s lover, wrote to her: “Why people want Anna Margolin to be a man is beyond me. The general opinion, however, is that these poems are written by an experienced hand. And a woman can’t write like that…As we were talking in the café Saturday night, [the poet Mani Leib] told me how much he liked Margolin’s poem…and of course, no woman could have written such a poem. Now do you understand?” Margolin has written an exquisite cycle of poems In Kafe (“In the Café”), which starts with the line: “Now alone in the café”

In Berlin, the German-Jewish poet Else Lasker-Schüler was at the heart of Café des Westens and the expressionist circle of writers and artists there, which was nicknamed “Café Megalomania.” Her friend, the Jewish anarchist Gustav Landauer, confirmed that “she doesn’t fit anywhere and certainly not in the milieu in which you see her.” Lasker-Schüler played with her identity, crossing borders of gender by dressing up as her masculine or androgynous literary characters, such as Prince Jussuf of Thebes. As a modern Jewish woman and writer, Lasker-Schüler was both included in café culture, and yet regarded with uncertainty for crossing boundaries that tangibly existed in the café. Lasker-Schüler recorded her imagined, self-made world in vivid poems, sketches, and an epistolary novel, My Heart.

The poet and writer Leah Goldberg met the old Lasker-Schüler in Jerusalem of the 1940s, in Café Sichel. They could have met a decade before in Berlin’s Romanisches Café, but the young Goldberg arrived there as a student just before Hitler rose to power, when Lasker-Schüler withdrew from the place. Goldberg immigrated to Tel Aviv in 1935, and quickly became part of a literary and social circle that included some of the most important Hebrew writers and poets of the 1930s and 1940s that met in coffeehouses. Descriptions of Goldberg in the café emphasize a precarious presence, “like a spirit” who is only a “short-lived phenomenon.” As a woman, she was viewed as separate and different, as the editor and critic Israel Zmora wrote, “In most cases, the habitués of the café were all men. Women writers were very few. . . . Leah Goldberg was the exception. She used to go to the café almost daily, but on her own, and only occasionally mix with all of us.”

Jewish women writers like Goldberg, Margolin, and Lasker-Schüler, who wrote many poems, stories, and articles about the coffeehouse, shared the experience of exceptionality and isolation within a dominantly masculine culture. These women—writers, performers, servers, radicals—were marginalized not only due to their gender, but often also as Jewish migrants crossing borders of language, ideology, and space. Nonetheless, they made their mark on Jewish café culture, both inside and outside of the space of the coffeehouse.

Shachar Pinsker is the author of A Rich Brew: How Cafes Created Modern Jewish Culture and Literary Passports: The Making of Modernist Hebrew Fiction in Europe.  He is Associate Professor of Hebrew Literature and Culture at the University of Michigan.

A Gift

Friday, May 11, 2018 | Permalink

David Hirshberg, author of  My Mother's Son, is writing here as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.


Moments after my father would beat me, my mother would enter my room as if on cue, and go through the motions of pretending that we were still a family. “Your father doesn’t mean to hurt you,” she’d say, rubbing the top of my shoulders with her open palm, ignoring the beet-hot stain on my rear or the impression of his belt buckle on my legs. By the age of 5, I knew her speech, and I had to restrain myself from getting ahead of her lines, lest my father would reenter and wash my mouth out with soap. He tailored his punishments to my offenses—soap for what he didn’t like to hear, hitting for a rule violation, the belt for resistance. Yes, I was guilty: of not instantly jumping out of my chair to take out the garbage; of saying ‘in a minute’ to a command only to have the French door to my room kicked in with force as he bellowed out the seconds past sixty; of being, well, a kid.

He was all business when handing out corporal punishment. His face would become flushed and taut, his eyes would fix upon the target, and then his arms and legs would whirl like a windmill, powered by the gears of rage. It was only during these episodes that I received his undivided attention. While he was good with physical punishment, he was outstanding in his capability to crush my spirit with an attack upon my character, my performance or my demeanor. Most of the time this was done at the time of a triumph, in a sports contest, a school event, or an activity such as Scouts.

He had no shame. He’d explode when some hidden fuse would ignite and if it happened to be when a friend was around or another family member was present, it didn’t seem to have an effect on him. I used to dream that mirrors filled every inch of our walls and that when he’d catch a glimpse of himself in one of his rages that he’d stop, abruptly, and approach the mirror with that look of curiosity, doubt and consternation that animals do when they see their own image.

My father loved other people’s children. If we were at a restaurant, he would align his chair in such a way as to be in the direct line of sight of a kid at another table, and he would make faces, hand signals, laugh, and coo, all the while ignoring us completely. By the end of the meal, his chair would be turned completely away from us, as he basked in the compliments and smiles from the other children and their parents. On their way out, they’d invariably stop by our table to tell me how lucky I was to have a father such as this.

One day, the mother of one of my gentile friends asked me a lot of questions, about my situation⎯that’s what she called it⎯designed to tease out if my father’s behavior was typical or aberrant with ‘your people’, the delicate phrase she used that had no meaning to me at that time. Perhaps this was meant to be the start of an intervention dance; if it was, it had no second step.

During the summer of my sophomore year at college, my father came up from behind me and kicked me in the calf, yelling about something I couldn’t understand. I turned and clocked him hard on the chin. He tumbled down by the force of the blow, stunned by my reaction, and in that instant of physical superiority, I seized the moment to lean over him and to tell him, in a surprisingly clear and confident voice, that if he ever, ever, did anything like that to me again, I’d make him pay for it forever.

I saw my father only occasionally in his last forty years.

I never knew the why of it all, and wondered if it were the result of some trauma he faced as the first Jew born in the United States to parents who spoke no English or, perhaps equally likely, that the origin was something related to genetics or a random ordeal that was either real or imagined.

Upon reflection, despite the physical and mental abuse, despite never having heard a kind or loving comment from him, never having had a hug, not even a touch from him, I was, in a strange way, more fortunate than most. Oh, I didn’t think so when I was a child and even as a young man, but as an adult who is now ‘of a certain age’, I have a different perspective. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I wish other kids had a father like this. Heaven forbid. No. But if you look at it through a prism that breaks down life into its component parts, then I had the opportunity, starting at a very young age, to understand what not to do, how not to behave, how to steel myself against disappointments, how to stop and think about something and make sure that I’d do the opposite of what he’d have done. It’s an unusual gift I got and I’ve made sure that it’ll never be returned.

David Hirshberg is the pseudonym for an entrepreneur who prefers to keep his business activities separate from his writing endeavors. As an author, he adopted the first name of his father-in-law and the last name of his maternal grandfather, as a tribute to their impact on his life. Using his given name, he is an accomplished ‘C-level suite’ executive, having served in the life sciences industry as Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of four firms, Chairman of the Board of six companies and a member of the board of three other organizations. In addition, he is the founder and CEO of a publishing company. 

Florida Jews

Tuesday, May 08, 2018 | Permalink

Rebekah Frumkin is writing here as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

pastel high rises, with palm trees in foreground

Every good Jew knows there were two diasporas: the first out of Israel and the second out of New York. I was born just outside of Chicago, the child of an Ashkenazi father from New York and a gentile mother from Illinois. I didn’t consider myself a member of the Jewish community because by the halakhah I wasn’t. I didn’t go to Hebrew school, didn’t become a bat mitzvah. When my father tried to share his background with me by dressing me up in a kippah and tallit and taking me to an orthodox shul, the rabbi declared, “Women can’t wear those!” and ordered us out the front door.

Women can’t wear those,” my father intoned bitterly. Then he looked at me, eyes heavy with sadness. “You’re just a kid.”

I wasn’t Jewish except for my Jewish name, my Jewish-looking hair and face. I had inherited my father’s inability to sleep, my mother’s ability to catastrophize. I was sunny-but-nervous, the disposition of the diaspora. I was Frankenstein’s Jew, an assemblage of parts that somehow added up to a functional whole. I didn’t fit in anywhere: the two Jewish kids at my suburban school had been born into the faith in a way I hadn’t, but the many gentiles didn’t seem to understand that life was a gift in need of constant worry.

Then one summer my father and I drove down to Miami to visit his sisters. I’m not sure what I expected. My aunts smiling on a beach, their tight curls invulnerable to the wind, their cutoffs rolled up above their knees? My aunts building sandcastles while the rest of the world functioned somewhere without them? What did people do in Florida? I understood that the wealthy vacationed there, but who lived there?

The answer: Jews. I remember watching an old man amble across the beach carrying a boombox playing klezmer music. An old woman in cat-eye sunglasses and a swimsuit with a flamingo’s head on the stomach told me I was “darling” and asked my father if he knew what a delightful punim I had. Kids my age ran around with me on the beach and taught me how to curse in Yiddish.

And then there were my aunts. Aunt Hat, the world traveler, showed me a collection of currency from foreign continents. Aunt Laney, the animal rescuer, woke up at the crack of dawn every day to feed stray cats. Aunt Paula, the driver, could pilot a car for fifty hours without blinking. They were mythical to me, women who defied the logic of my suburban world. And Florida was their playground.

Like many good Jews before me, I fell in love with Florida. The sun, the beach, the community! It was like my dad’s native Queens but without all the garbage. Sure, there was garbage in Florida, but it went somewhere mysterious, somewhere out of the way. Somewhere that was not a street corner. And back in my suburban Midwest, everything moved so slowly. People were so isolated from one another: we drove cars to work and school, did what we needed to do, and came back home to eat snacks and watch TV. In Florida, everyone was outside all the time. And everyone was Jewish, and almost everyone was old. I loved old people—I knew I’d make a fine one someday—and old people loved me. Florida was everything I’d wanted from a place. It was everything I’d wanted from Judaism. The faith and the sunshine became inseparable for me.

I remember the last day of our visit. My father and I were at a seafood restaurant with my aunts: he was dousing his lobster in butter and I was making short work of a plate of salmon bits. My aunt Laney sat next to me. In between bites, I watched her eat. The restaurant was wall-less, and the setting sun formed a pink corolla around her head. I was not yet finished with my meal and I already felt sated and tired like a post-brunch retiree.

“When you rescue the cats, are they nice to you?” I asked.

Her head jolted from its corolla. The heat was pleasant, palpable.

“Not always,” she said. “Sometimes they don’t want to be rescued.”

“But it’s good for them to be rescued, right?”

Here she put her fork down and regarded me as though she were seeing me for the first time. “Yes,” she said. “I’d like to think so.”

“Can we do it for people?”

“Rescue them?” she laughed. “People don’t like to be rescued.”

I watched the palm trees arc and sway in the distance. I thought how if there really was a G-d, Floridians would be the first to know.

Rebekah Frumkin is the author of The Comedown. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Granta, McSweeney's, and Best American Nonrequired Reading, among other places. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and an MSJ from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

Getting to Know Sophie Tucker

Thursday, May 03, 2018 | Permalink

Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff is writing here as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.


I had never heard of Sophie Tucker before 2010. While redesigning a course I teach on American Popular Culture, I stumbled upon a YouTube montage of photos of the flashy, smiling Tucker. In the background played her signature ballad, “Some of These Days.” She made her way into my course as an example of a vaudeville headliner, accompanying Fanny Brice, Eva Tanguay, Al Jolson, and others.

I had just published my first book, Black Culture and The New Deal: The Quest for Civil Rights in the Roosevelt Era, and was looking for another story to tell about outsiders who achieve power in untraditional ways.

I have always been interested in people who put on disguise and cross boundaries, especially when it comes to racial identity. So, when I discovered that Sophie Tucker began her career in blackface, I was intrigued. Like her contemporaries, Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, and Fanny Brice—all who used blackface during their careers—Tucker entered the entertainment business as someone other than herself. But was this enough to warrant a full-length biography? I waffled on this predicament while I searched for materials about the performer, finding records and video clips—superficial accounts of Tucker’s entertainment engagements—reaffirming my thoughts that she was perhaps “just a singer.” The study of American culture has never been considered as “serious” as political or social history in the minds of academics, and I certainly didn’t want to further that conception.

Still, I stared at the image on my computer screen of Tucker at her 1953 Golden Jubilee. Dripping in diamonds, her blonde, shiny hair piled on her head, she was celebrating fifty years in show business. Tucker was clearly loved by the public, and I had to know why.

One of the ironies of writing history is that sometimes subjects with the richest records receive the least amount of public attention. Once I committed myself to full-scale detective work, I learned that Tucker had left hundreds of her personal scrapbooks to the New York Public Library and Brandeis University. The sheer volume of them was daunting, and when I asked other scholars who would have been likely Tucker biographers, the consensus was that they were just full of ephemera. (I heard about pages of greeting cards.) Still, I had to see them for myself.

The scrapbooks were unwieldy. They were jam-packed with articles, business cards, playbills, letters, and yes, greeting cards, all which Tucker began to collect when she started her career in 1907. The materials were literally falling into my lap; scattered pieces of articles, 100 years old, revealed their fragility. Just when I felt I had sufficient materials to understand one aspect of Tucker’s life, more carts with more scrapbooks came to greet me, unsettling my confidence. It wasn’t possible to grasp everything.

Almost sixty years of experiences were on these pages. By the time Tucker became a headliner in the 1910s, she was performing twice a day, every day, and she put all reviews, personal interactions, and programs in the scrapbooks. Eventually, she had to hire several people to manage the books, but she was as dedicated to them as she was to her repertoire. For her, the record and legacy of her stardom was as important as anything she was doing in her career. Fortunately for me, it became the basis not only for a biography of Sophie Tucker, but a larger understanding of all the mediums—vaudeville, film, radio, cabarets, Broadway, television—that she inhabited and influenced.

It turns out that she was, above all, a performer—but I was flawed in my initial thinking. She shaped the world around her, and did matter as a “serious” subject. Among her many accomplishments, she was the first female president of the American Federation of Actors, a champion for African Americans in show business, and one of the most influential philanthropists on behalf of Jews. Her acclaim was matched in Britain where she performed for decades, with three command performances for royalty. The scrapbooks not only contained correspondence from fans and show business friends like Irving Berlin and Ed Sullivan, but also from Albert Einstein, Dwight Eisenhower, and Golda Meir. She turned out to be just what I had hoped to find, an outsider—Jewish, overweight, outspoken—who became the ultimate entertainment insider.

Did I get to know the “real” Sophie Tucker? I’m not sure. I know the version she wanted people to see, and I know that the guilt she felt for abandoning her only son influenced many of her decisions. That is why the scrapbooks exist—proof that fame was a justification for living without a family. They are also proof that even though she couldn’t be part of her own family for years, she created alternative kinships—with African Americans, with other assimilated Jews, and with women who cast aside convention. Tucker’s world allowed for her success because she was an unlikely celebrity. Mama to all and mother to none, her story was worth telling.

A leading scholar of American cultural history, Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff is an associate professor of history at the University of South Carolina. She is the author of  Red Hot Mama: The Life of Sophie Tucker and Black Culture and the New Deal: The Quest for Civil Rights in the Roosevelt Era and the recipient of an NEH public scholars fellowship.

Image from Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons 

Excerpt: A Yom Kippur Scene (With Footnotes)

Tuesday, May 01, 2018 | Permalink

Excerpted from  Mourning by Eduardo Halfon, and translated by Lisa Dillman and Daniel Hahn.

detail of Maurycy Gottlieb's painting Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur

The following scene comes from that mysterious and wonderful space that lies somewhere between my memories of childhood and fiction.

I was still hungry, still1 looking up at my grandfather’s false teeth2, when the rabbi at the Plantationsynagogue stopped right in front of me. He was a handsome man, with dark skin and green eyes. He looked like he was boiling in his long white satin robe. He was holding a thin silver rod whose tip was a miniature hand, its index finger extended, pointing.4 My two grandfathers stood.

The rabbi said something to them gravely, his face bathed in sweat. I didn’t know if I should stand as well, so I remained seated, looking up at them, hearing how my grandfathers began whispering names and numbers to the rabbi. One of my grandfathers would say a name and the rabbi would repeat that name and then my grandfather would say a number and the rabbi would repeat that number. And on like that. Names and numbers. One of my grandfathers, then the other. And the rabbi was taking note of it all. Masha5, whispered my Polish grandfather, and then he said a number. Myriam6, whispered my Lebanese grandfather, and then said another number. Shmuel7, whispered my Polish grandfather, and then said another number. Bela8, whispered my Lebanese grandfather, and then said another number. I was a little frightened. I understood nothing. Perhaps because of my grandfathers’ whispering, it all seemed part of a secret or forbidden ceremony. I turned and was about to ask my father what was going on, but he shouted at me with his eyes and so I thought better of it and kept quiet. My grandparents continued standing, continued whispering names and numbers, and more names and numbers, and then, amid all that whispering, I clearly heard my Lebanese grandfather pronounce the name Salomón.9

The prayer finally ended. We all went out into the lobby, where there was a long table with crackers and cookies and orange juice and coffee, to break the fast. The kids, no longer in jackets and ties, were running all over. The adults were hardly speaking. My father told me to eat slowly, to eat very little.10 I had a powdery cookie11 in my hand and was taking small bites when I asked my father in English why my grandfathers had told the rabbi all those names. With some trouble, my father explained to me in Spanish that that was the prayer to honor the memory of the dead. Yizkor, it’s called, he said. And the numbers they were saying? I asked. Tzedakah, he said. Donations, he said. A certain amount of money for the name of each of the dead, he said, and immediately I formed a commercial idea of the entire affair, understood that each name had its price. And how do you know how much each name costs? I asked my father, but he simply made a weary face and took a sip of coffee. I kept nibbling the cookie. Names of dead family members? I asked, and after a silence he said yes, but also dead friends, and dead soldiers, and the dead six million, and that number, for a Jew, even a Jew who’s just a boy, needed no further explanation. Also the name of your brother Salomón, then, the one who drowned in the lake? I knew I was asking an illicit, even dangerous question.12 But I was thirteen now, I was all man now, I fasted now, I was now allowed to ask adults questions. My father observed me for a few seconds and I thought he was about to start crying. I don’t know what you’re talking about, he stammered, and left me alone with my cookie.

***

Still. This one word is important here. Not just hungry, but still hungry. Not just looking up at my grandfather’s false teeth, but still looking up at my grandfather’s false teeth. In the book, there’s a first part to this scene in the synagogue, before a long ellipsis of eight or ten pages, where the narrator goes on a trip to Germany and Poland. An ellipsis sparked by the sight of the grandfather’s false teeth. The word “still”, then, works as a way back for the reader after that long trip. A re-entry point to the synagogue and the hunger.

2  “It had never occurred to me that on his arrival in Guatemala in 1946, when he was barely twenty-five years old, after the war, after being prisoner in several concentration camps, my Polish grandfather had already lost all of his teeth.” Mourning, p. 89

black and white photo of man riding a bicycle in a suit

“My parents, after selling our house, had left us at my grandparents’ and traveled to the United States to find a new house, to buy furniture, to enroll us in school, to get everything there ready for the move. A temporary move, my parents insisted, just until the whole political situation here improved. What political situation? I didn’t fully understand what they meant by the whole political situation of the country, despite having become used to falling asleep to the sound of bombs and gunfire; and despite the rubble I’d seen with a friend on the land behind my grandparents’ house, rubble that had been the Spanish embassy, my friend explained, after it was burned down with white phosphorus by government forces, killing thirty-seven employees and peasants who were inside; and despite the fighting between the army and some guerillas right in front of my school, in Colonia Vista Hermosa, which kept us students locked in the gym the entire day. Nor did I fully understand how it could be a temporary move if my parents had already sold and emptied our house. It was the summer of ’81. I was about to turn ten years old.” Mourning, p. 73

Called a Yad, or Torah pointer, it ensures that the parchment of the Torah is not touched during the reading. Not required, but considered a hidur mitzvah, an embellishment of the commandment. As a child, I saw that long silver rod almost as a wand, and its wielder as a sorcerer.

My Polish grandfather’s mother. She was part of the last shipment of Jews from the Lodz ghetto. Probably killed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

black and white photograph of a woman

6  My Egyptian grandmother’s mother. Although she died in Lima, Peru, she’s buried in Jerusalem, where she was born.

My Polish grandfather’s father, a tailor by trade. He was part of the last shipment of Jews from the Lodz ghetto. Probably killed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

black and white photo of a serious-looking man

8 My Lebanese grandfather’s mother. Died suddenly during their exodus from Beirut to France, when my grandfather was a teenager. Buried somewhere in Corsica.

“His name was Salomón. He died when he was five years old, drowned in Lake Amatitlán. That’s what they told me when I was a boy, in Guatemala. That my father’s older brother, my grandparents’ firstborn, who would have been my uncle Salomón, had drowned in Lake Amatitlán in an accident, when he was the same age as me, and that they’d never found his body. We used to spend every weekend at my grandparents’ house on the lakeshore, and I couldn’t look at that water without imagining the lifeless body of Salomón suddenly appearing. I always imagined him pale and naked, and always floating facedown by the old wooden dock. My brother and I had even invented a secret prayer, which we’d whisper on the dock—and which I can still recall—before diving into the lake. As if it were a kind of magic spell. As if to banish the ghost of the boy Salomón, in case the ghost of the boy Salomón was still swimming around. I didn’t know the details of the accident, nor did I dare to ask. No one in the family talked about Salomón. No one even spoke his name.” Mourning, p. 69

10 The idea here is that, after a long fast, it’s better not to eat too much or too quickly in order to give the body time to readjust. We usually had a light snack at the synagogue, and then a heavier meal at home a few hours later.

11 These sweet, powdery Lebanese cookies are called ghraybehs. There was always a jar filled with them in my grandmother’s cupboard. They seem to punctuate and sweeten the moments and memories of my childhood. Almost like sporadic drops of rose water.

12 This is the first memory I have of intentionally wanting to know more about the death of my father’s brother, Salomón, or Solly, as my grandmother called her first-born.

black and white photo of a little boy on a bicycle, sticking his tongue out

Excerpt from Mourning. Copyright © 2018 by Eduardo Halfon, translation copyright © 2018 by Lisa Dillman and Daniel Hahn. Published by Bellevue Literary Press: www.blpress.org. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Eduardo Halfon moved from Guatemala to the United States at the age of ten and attended school in South Florida and North Carolina. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Roger Caillois Prize, and José María de Pereda Prize for the Short Novel, he is the author of two previous novels published in English: The Polish Boxer, a New York Times Editors' Choice selection and finalist for the International Latino Book Award, and Monastery, longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award.

Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur (Maurycy Gottlieb) via Wikimedia Commons

On First Drafts

Friday, April 20, 2018 | Permalink

Mark Sarvas is writing here as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.


I remember the day I sat down to read back the first draft of my second novel, Memento Park. I was in the lobby of the Jerusalem Crowne Plaza, a guest of the Jerusalem Book Festival, at the end of a four-year long journey to complete a workable first draft. (In contrast, my first novel, from idea to finished version, took three years.) Life had interfered along the way with this book, but more dramatically, I chose to write it without an outline, to allow my instincts to guide me to a story. It had taken much longer, and the process was filled with uncertainty—but the result was a stronger novel, I felt sure of it.

As an instructor of creative writing, one of the most common conversations I have with my students is about first drafts. I see so much hesitation, resistance, and uncertainty when the process should be one of joyful discovery. It’s a common complaint: “I can’t seem to move forward. I can’t really get started. I can’t get any momentum going.” Instead, beginning writers often end up forever revising the first 25 pages. At the risk of generalizing, most commonly, there are one of two things at play: control or vanity (though I suppose the two are related). In the first draft, both of these must go.

Control: Time and again, a student tells me she or he can’t make progress in the draft because they don’t know where it’s going. That’s the time I usually trot out the famous E.L. Doctorow quote: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” For some writers, sure, an outline can be a useful guide. (I used one for my own first novel, Harry, Revised.) But I increasingly hold with what Bernard Malamud said: “First drafts are for learning what your novel or story is about.” The writer who can relinquish control, who doesn’t need to know in advance, will discover all sorts of miraculous things on his or her journey. The novel that doesn’t surprise the writer will not surprise the reader; and how can the writer be surprised if all is sketched out up front? The number one writing fallacy: you have to know what it’s about to begin. Wrong. You have to trust yourself and write.

Vanity: This is even more insidious. It betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of the first draft. Hemingway famously said that “The first draft of anything is shit.” No one should see your first drafts, they are your dirty little secret. You will never have the courage to be adventurous and take risks if you’re worrying about who is going to judge it. The first draft is a blueprint, a back-of-the-napkin sketch, something never meant to be shown to anyone. I tell my students to imagine a grand chasm, the kind of thing Indiana Jones might have to get across. The first draft need be no more than a rickety rope bridge, something that just barely spans the gap, often with plenty of treacherous holes along the way. It’s just a down payment on a future, sturdier bridge that will be built up over time, layered through multiple revisions.

Years ago, when I was writing my first novel, a writer friend told me something a writer friend had told him: Write two pages a day. One page isn’t enough to develop a thought, and three can start to feel like a lot. But anyone can do two pages; that’s about the length of Doctorow’s headlights. And in six months (or four years), you can have a first draft. But don’t show a soul; now, the real work begins.

Mark Sarvas is the author of Memento Park: A Novel and Harry, Revised, which was published in more than a dozen countries. His book reviews and criticism have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Threepenny Review, Bookforum, and many others. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, PEN/America, and PEN Center USA, and teaches novel writing at the UCLA Extension Writers Program. A reformed blogger, he lives in Santa Monica, California.

My Special Needs Child, and Our Israel Story

Friday, April 20, 2018 | Permalink

Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh is writing here as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

No one could have known it from my confident smile, but I almost turned tail before my plane took off. I was about to embark on a nine-day tour of Israel with people I’d never met. That wasn’t the scary part. The scary part was separating from my four-year-old daughter.

I know lots of moms get nervous before leaving their kids for the first time. But my kid happens to have a condition that prevents her from talking or walking without assistance. And I have a condition that prevents me from acting rationally when I’m more than ten feet away from her. In seriousness, I’d had postpartum anxiety for years, and I’d gotten good at it.

Still, I’d applied for this trip, drawn by a magnetic pull toward Israel that was more powerful than even my most ornate fears. My husband had assured me that everything would be great.

Then I’d envision our daughter in her little walker, stumbling over a crack in the sidewalk, and check my trip cancellation insurance.

Let’s backtrack.

My daughter’s birth had quickly been followed by many types of therapies. Speech therapy, physical therapy, play therapy...and nearly all the therapists had come bearing books. Most of those were the “indestructible by milk teeth” variety, but a certain few were real literature that commanded hundreds of rereadings. Those were the ones, I came to learn, that included three common elements: rhyme, rhythm, and repetition. It also turns out those three are what make language easiest for the brain to process.

Being a writer, I decided to try my hand at books like those, ones that would be accessible to kids like mine. Because my daughter is half-Israeli on my husband’s side (and Jewish on both sides), I found Israel making its way into my stories.

Two years later, I sold my first children’s book, followed by my second, third, fourth and fifth. And then, the clouds parted and I received an invitation to apply for the first-ever PJ Library Author Adventure, a tour of Israel with nineteen other children’s book authors—all of whom turned out to be much more lauded and illustrious than I am. (I was fairly sure I’d been selected by accident.)

The opportunity was at once thrilling and terrifying. I was being catapulted from the very books I’d written for my daughter into a situation that would take me away from her.

Still, Israel called me. Loudly. With deadlines for, say, getting to the gate on time.

Somehow, in the days before the flight, instead of becoming more nervous, I reached a strange state of calm, not unlike in the days before giving birth. Admittedly, it could have been catatonia.

At the airport, I cried a little. But I didn’t use that trip insurance.

And then, I was on the plane with major children’s authors. In a thunderbolt moment, I realized that all those people cared about the same things I did: children, Judaism, and Israel. Almost immediately, they treated me as family. I felt honored, overwhelmed. And never more so than when one renowned author I’d just met crossed the entire airport to tell me she and some others were sitting down to dinner, and would I like to join them?

We arrived in Israel as a group, already bonded. And then another “family member” took me in: Israel, itself. I explored kibbutzes, met major Israeli authors (Meir Shalev! Etgar Keret!), dug in 2,000-year-old soil, and prayed at The Western Wall. I walked a rainwater tunnel under the City of David. I got lost, and found, between the jewelers and juice shops on Shenken Street in Tel Aviv. And, with my tribe of author friends, I breathed in, and out, stories.

I also made many FaceTime calls, during which I was assured that my daughter was very much okay (when I asked her, she blew me kisses and clapped, which is her shorthand for “Yes!”). My husband loved the opportunity to be the parent-in-charge, without my neuroses along for the ride. And somewhere between the Dead Sea and the mountains of Tzfat, I left some of those neuroses behind.

My pulse slowed. My spirit rose.

I returned home with so many stories to tell, I can’t write them fast enough. But one of my most important stories is this one: that, for all my championing of special needs kids, my child is a child first. Her story is that of a strong kid, a happy kid, and a Jewish kid.

It is not the story of a special needs kid who can’t be apart from her mom. It’s that of a child who enjoys her life, and who is becoming more independent every day.

And my story is that of a writer with a great family that supports me, a community of amazing authors, and a huge love of Israel.

I thought I’d gone abroad to gather stories. Instead, it seems I’ve had my own story edited quite neatly. And the new ending is so much happier.

Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh is a writer, editor, and author. Her children's books include Can You Hear a Coo, Coo?, and three upcoming titles from Kar-Ben Publishing: A Hoopoe Says "Oop!", Listen! Israel's All Around, and The Biggest of All.

Writing the Jewish Rust Belt

Monday, April 16, 2018 | Permalink
Allison Pitinii Davis is writing here as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.


“Falls in Love, or Reads Spinoza,” a poem from my 2017 collection Line Study of a Motel Clerk, is in conversation with H. Leivick’s cycle on Spinoza and Charles Reznikoff’s “Spinoza” (1934). It is also in the tradition of rebelling against T.S. Eliot, joining Emanuel Litvinoff’s “To T.S. Eliot” (1951), Hyam Plutzik’s “For T.S.E. Only” (1955), and Philip Levine’s decision to skip meeting Eliot at a bookstore in 1953 after spending “a sleepless night wondering what I might do if Eliot were suddenly to blurt out a racist remark.” I anticipate anti-Semitism when reading Modernists, so I was prepared for Eliot’s overtly problematic poems, but nothing prepared me for this line in “The Metaphysical Poets” (1921): “The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these experiences have nothing to do with each other…”. That is, unless, Spinoza is part of your worldview. That is, unless, you have a father who reads Spinoza relentlessly, who leaves a copy of Ethics on the back of the toilet so “the latter” might take a shit and read Spinoza, let alone fall in love. But Eliot didn’t grow up in my home. And he certainly didn’t have my father.

The kind of Judaism that shaped my collection was handed down to me by my father and uncle, who run a trucking motel in the Rust Belt. It was originally opened in 1960 by my grandfather, the eponymous “motel clerk” of my collection. To the casual onlooker, the motel isn’t Jewishly marked. The mezuzah is painted over (by accident? for safety?) and we only sell Manischewitz through the beer-and-wine drive-thru before Passover. My father’s perpetual head covering is a baseball hat, not a kippah. But the motel is where, behind spare ashtrays and wooden tire thumper, my old Jewish Studies books line the bookshelf. Where, between checking in drivers, my father wrote his address for my sister’s bat mitzvah. Where I drove to at dawn the morning of my wedding to pick up my grandma, fresh in from Deerfield Beach, and originally from Montreal, where she was raised down the street from Mordecai Richler.

Beside the motel is a roadside restaurant—the setting for my poem “The Marquee Is Empty at the Big Rig Saloon.” My father and I have been eating at the restaurant since we’ve been babies. Currently, its interior includes deer heads and a steady stream of country music and Fox News. It is perhaps not a likely place to find a man with a name that you don’t hear outside of Canadian Jewish nursing homes and his poet-daughter, but when I’m home, it’s where my father and I go after work for a drink. Whatever we talk about ends up being about the Holocaust because my father, when not reading about Spinoza, reads about the Holocaust. He reads books with titles so grim that he tapes paper over them when reading in public so people don’t give him looks. When we walk into the restaurant, truck drivers around the bar offer to buy him beers. We sit in a booth, drink Coors Lights, and then we stop passing as normal customers because we are drunk and talking too loud about Treblinka.

I wrote that poem and this essay because I suspect that there are readers like me who find nothing strange about love and Spinoza, about Coors Light and Treblinka. If there is a particular strain of Rust Belt Jewish culture, perhaps it’s in “Once” (1999) when a weary Philip Levine shows up at a restaurant in the Lower East Side and the owner exclaims, in disbelief, “They got Jews in Detroit!” It’s Murray Saul, the 1970s-era DJ in my poem “The Motel Clerk’s Son Gets Bad Reception of Cleveland 100.7 FM,” who welcomes in Shabbat stoned and gurgling with his own ferocious spit. It's mothers writing beautiful, cursive notes excusing their children from school on the High Holidays only to have the attendance workers stare at the graceful lettering in suspicion. It’s parents naming their children “Allison Davis” so we “don’t seem too ethnic.” It’s the economy never recovering from post-industrialism, the persistence of racial and class inequalities. It's everyone leaving town, and synagogues struggling to make minyans. It's knowing that Jewish culture will only survive if you shoulder part of the weight, or rather, as you’re born with the extra weight already on you, it's accepting the gravity, accepting that if you escape it will be at the expense of never feeling grounded again.

I sensed this obligation at a young age, one day in the motel office, when my uncle, after a particularly frantic series of phone calls, told me “Allison, there are two things you should never do: run a trucking motel or be the president of a synagogue.” Yet, all over the Rust Belt, countless people like my uncle are doing what it takes to keep businesses and synagogues open, because the region is our spiritual home, our diaspora once removed from the coasts. It has its own beauty and wilderness, and its authors are navigating it in all of its diversity and complexity. The rest of America can fly over the middle, but not without missing critical literature of our time.

Allison Pitinii Davis is the author of Line Study of a Motel Clerk, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award’s Berru Award for Poetry, and Poppy Seeds, winner of the Wick Poetry Chapbook Prize. She holds fellowships from Stanford University’s Wallace Stegner program, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Severinghaus Beck Fund for Study at Vilnius Yiddish Institute. Her poetry appeared in Best American Poetry 2016. She is a PhD student at The University of Tennessee.

Image via Allen/Flickr

The Star Around My Neck

Wednesday, April 11, 2018 | Permalink
Piper Weiss is writing here as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.


When I was twelve, my father gave me a necklace—a pendant with a gold wafer, etched with a Jewish star. It was the perfect length for flipping between my teeth during English class, or sucking on during the Lord’s Prayer at school assemblies.

My parents chose the all-girls private school I attended for its academic rigor and reputation. The weekly prayers ritual was simply part of the school heritage. I wasn’t required to recite the bible verses or sing the hymns; at times, though, I wanted to. A chorus of 600 girls chanting in unison was seductive. It didn’t matter what they were saying—what they were saying, to me, was that they belonged.

My father instructed me to not say the prayers. I sucked on my star in salivary resistance. The condition of being apart from the group, it seemed, was my own heritage. We were chosen, my father would trump, as if we were on a winning team. We were persecuted, I had read in my Hebrew school textbook, which made winning all the more triumphant. We were resilient, I had learned over Passover dinner and on a trip to the Jewish Museum, and in documentaries my father and I watched together—and that resistance is what kept us alive. Resistance was how I existed.

So, at age twelve, my star necklace became a symbol of team spirit—not unlike a Boston native might wear a Red Sox hat—as a stake in my own inherited identity.

“I wouldn’t wear that to school every day,” my mother said one day, pointing to the necklace. It wasn’t the right place for that, she explained, and I understood enough to remove it and return it to the box in which my father had presented it. That was no longer my team, but a symbol of straddling between two ideas: Be proud, be quiet. It was a reminder that I didn’t know where I belonged.

My parents were graduates of Forest Hills High School in Queens, where the student body in the late ‘50s was largely Jewish. But as children of immigrants, they were treated as outsiders by the world beyond their community. My father was regularly threatened because of his background (his college roommate asked to see his horns), which only emboldened his Jewish pride. My mother, no less proud, had a different reaction to anti-Semitic sentiment. She was raised to iron her hair smooth, to downplay her nose, to follow the aesthetic expectations of a culture she was expected to assimilate to rather than shape.

Together, they moved to Manhattan’s Upper East Side—a world away from their Queens upbringing—where they joined the geographical ranks of those wealthy country club members who once shunned their kind.

But belonging to such a community they didn’t inherit came with unspoken caveats. Perhaps my mother worried that it could all be taken away. Perhaps she associated wearing the Jewish star with such a risk as it had been for her own parents. Perhaps she didn’t know that in reclaiming the symbol, the reverse might be true. I didn’t know either. I just missed the simplicity of belonging to a team—the reminder of who I was or wasn’t in times of doubt.

In place of the star, I was given a Tiffany necklace, the one all the girls wore at school. The pendant was a hollow silver lima bean. When I sucked on it during prayers, it flattened out into a misshapen thing with teeth marks. 

Piper Weiss is the author of You All Grow Up and Leave Me: A Memoir of Teenage Obsession published April 10 by William Morrow.

On Jews and Communism

Friday, April 06, 2018 | Permalink
Steven J. Zipperstein is the author of Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History.


Communism retained a vague, if still somewhat sinister potency in the early ‘60s as I came of age in a densely Jewish wedge of Los Angeles a mile or two south of the Hollywood Hills. There was the Emma Lazarus Club, a greyish storefront on a stretch of Pico more Black than Jewish, a mile or so from the Jewish Pico-Robertson neighborhood. I had heard that this was a group favored by Jewish fellow travelers and found myself staring intently at the building as we drove home from my yeshiva high school. My early adolescent mind was certain of the Jacob Frank-like bacchanal going on behind its deceptively nondescript exterior. I also noted how often certain relatives and family acquaintances—their names rarely mentioned again except in whispers or exaggerated grimaces—disappeared not into the clutches of authorities but were thrust out of the clubby embrace of our landsmanschaft gatherings. What I came to understand was that those exiled still had CP membership, or at least sympathies. In my early twenties as I embraced anti-war activities, wearing my hair long and replacing the rock-heavy orthopedic shoes I had always worn with sandals—roughly at the same time I started studying Russian—my mother complained to anyone who would listen that her son was now a communist. A former schoolmate I met just a few months ago all but asked whether I was still a party member.

Thus, Communism in our family circle—which hailed back to a small town in the Lithuanian marshes just beyond Pinsk, this among the more politically inflected regions of the former Pale—was a source of mostly sequestered, if intermittently acute unease. My parents had been born in Chicago, long a CP hub, settling eventually in Los Angeles. There the Communist Party, numbering some 3,000 in the 1930s, included the country’s largest proportion of Jews: 90 percent of its members were Jewish, not including still more numerous non-party supporters. The party’s influence was felt most strongly in the Jewish enclaves of Boyle Heights and Hollywood. Nearly all of this had disappeared by the time I reached my early adolescence, though with a lingering presence—at least in the milieu in which I grew up—much like once-potent, only recently eradicated medical perils such as tuberculosis or polio.

The disinclination to look squarely at Communism’s Jewish allure as a feature of American Jewish life is obvious in its many elisions in historical writings. Barely a glimmer in Judd Teller’s 1966 portrait of Jewish cultural and intellectual life Strangers and Natives: The Evolution of the American Jew from 1921 to the Present; one citation in Charles Silberman’s bestselling 1985 portrait of contemporary Jewish life A Certain People: American Jews and Their Lives Today; no index entry in Howard M. Sacher’s more than 1,000-page A History of the Jews in America, published in 1992. True, Jewish party membership was, in terms of its actual numbers, minuscule and depleted, on and off, since the late 1920s in the wake of the Hebron riots, the Stalin-Hitler pact, mounting anti-Communist intimidation, and news of the eradication of Russia’s Yiddish intelligentsia. And although the Jewish allegiances of Jews devoted to it were, on the whole, tenuous, its resurgence amid the Soviet travails of the Second World War were widely felt and the numbers of fellow travelers, while impossible to calculate with any precision, far exceeded party membership. Communism’s rapid erasure from historical memory was—as the saying goes—anything but accidental.

Yuri Slezkine’s blitzkrieg on Jewish historiography, The Jewish Century, makes much the same point with regard to the role of Jews in the making of the Soviet Union. This is further elaborated in his recent book, The House of Government. In a fascinating tome, resembling a metropolitan telephone book (1123 pages) but reading, in no small measure, like a lengthy Jewish wedding list, Slezkine reminds us of the extent of the Jewish presence in at least the first years of Bolshevik rule: The head of state was then Sverdlov, chief negotiator at Brest-Litovsk Joffe (born a Karaite). Then there was, of course, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Trotsky alongside the now lesser known but once-famed jurist Stolts, the head of the Communist International Piatnitsky, the famed journalist Koltsov, famed foreign trade expert Karsin, famed economist Larin, Chekist Uritsky as well as Radek and Bela Kun. The belief was then rife that Lenin’s original name was Zederbaum. Heading anarchist/sometime Bolshevik-ally Makhno’s Cheka-like arm was a Jew; so was the ubiquitous translator, later financier Alex Bomberg who helped Louise Bryant and many other reporters negotiate the turbulence of 1917. Odessa Jew Steklov would be the longtime editor of Izvestiia, the Bundist Liber was among the pre-October Soviet’s most visible figures, the Menshevik Martov was widely regarded, even during his decline as an influential leader in 1917, as Marxism’s most subtle contemporary thinker. Zvi Gitelman has astutely likened the shock of Jews running the Bolshevik government between 1917 and ’21 to what it might have felt for the whites of Mississippi in 1950 to having an African-American as governor or chief of the state police.

Much the same scenario was replicated at or near the top of the U.S. Communist food chain: Longtime leader Joseph Pepper, mass agitator Max Bedacht, literary enforcers Michael Gold and Alexander Trachtenberg, political tacticians Lovestone, Shachtman and Gitlow, millionaire founder of International Publishers Heller, and Bertha and Samuel Rubin who started the party’s official publishing house the Workers Library. Probably no less than 50 percent of the cultural apparatus of the party was in the hands of Jews in the 1930s and ‘40s, with the vast majority of those engaged in interracial work, then a Party priority. “The Jewish group …later came to dominate leftwing affairs in a degree all out of proportion to its numbers,” complained Harold Cruse in the Black nationalist denunciation, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. Freiheit’s circulation in 1925 was 22,000 with the subscription base of Daily Worker no more than 17,000. Breakaway groupings headed by Shachtman and Lovestone were almost entirely Jewish. This wasn’t, to be sure, an international phenomenon: far less true for, say, England or France, but certainly the case in interwar and postwar Poland, Hungary, and Romania.

The number of Jewish party members was nearly always tiny, with the outsize presence of Jews in Soviet Russia’s Communist Party a temporal phenomenon far less disproportionate already by the mid- or late-1920s. But whatever its allure for Jews, the topic remains to this day, of course, achingly difficult to air coherently because of its presence as a crucial ingredient in the toxic arsenal used by anti-Semites to defame and attack. The belief that a penchant for both communism and, for that matter, capitalism is somehow intrinsic to Jews—these patently contradictory but sharing, as some continue to insist, reliance on a conspiratorial intelligence and on forces hidden from view—remains a stubborn fixture of contemporary life. Russian TV's new multi-part series on Trotsky as the true fountainhead of the Russian revolution provides fresh evidence that such beliefs retain potency.

Adapted from the author's keynote address delivered on November 6th at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research conference.