Ear­li­er this week, Tehi­la Lieber­man wrote about cross­ing the bor­ders of rad­i­cal­ly diver­gent worlds and two of the short sto­ries from her col­lec­tion Venus in the After­noon. She will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

Grow­ing up in Ortho­dox Brook­lyn, all that was for­bid­den to us was, by its nature, exot­ic. We did not have much expo­sure to those oth­er than us, and by oth­ers I mean any­one not Mod­ern Ortho­dox, not even to many Con­ser­v­a­tive and Reform Jews, except for a sprin­kling of rel­a­tives who fell into those camps. Some­one who was not Jew­ish at all, one of the goy­im,” took on immense fas­ci­na­tion. Tina Bonet­ti (not her real name) was the moth­er of the only Ital­ian fam­i­ly on the block and there­fore the des­ig­nat­ed Shab­bos goy for an entire street. I would need to wan­der over to her house on an occa­sion­al Fri­day night, for exam­ple, if my moth­er had for­got­ten to turn down the oven. 

The oven is extreme­ly hot,” I would say, or the lights in the base­ment won’t go off,” nev­er ask­ing explic­it­ly on the off chance that, unbe­knownst to us, she was Jew­ish and I was there­fore ask­ing her to per­form a trans­gres­sion. She would open the door in jeans, her blond frost­ed hair in curlers, and greet me warm­ly, ready to serve. I had not up to that point seen a mid­dle aged woman in jeans and she fas­ci­nat­ed me. My expe­ri­ence, by virtue of the Ortho­dox exclu­siv­i­ty where I was grow­ing up, ren­dered those I had lit­tle con­tact with the oth­er” much as it was sup­posed to. Even prod­ucts adver­tised on TV that were for­bid­den to us seemed exot­ic and bit strange. Twinkies, for exam­ple and any­thing Sara Lee.

My young adult life found me in Israel for five years where the oth­er” became Israeli Arabs and Pales­tini­ans. As a 19-year-old stu­dent at Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty, I patrolled the perime­ter of the French Hill dorms with an Israeli. He wield­ed the gun, I the flash­light. There was lit­tle inter­ac­tion in those days between the Pales­tin­ian and Israeli stu­dents at Hebrew U. The only Pales­tini­ans we knew were those who hung out at the famous left wing café in the cen­ter of town, Ta’a­mon and at Beit Hao­man­im, the Jerusalem Artists’ House. An Israeli friend was dat­ing a Pales­tin­ian but they could not find a place to live com­fort­ably and were equal­ly harassed in Israeli apart­ment build­ings and Arab vil­lages. In Israel, I dis­tinct­ly expe­ri­enced what it was to be part of the majority.

When I moved to New Eng­land, I was cer­tain­ly not a mem­ber of the major­i­ty cul­ture, but was oth­er” in a very qui­et, under­stat­ed way. It was not until I trav­eled to Chile for the first time with my hus­band in 1987, that I had my first true expe­ri­ence of being the oth­er.” Chile, like many oth­er South Amer­i­can coun­tries, is pro­found­ly Catholic and its mid­dle class par­tic­i­pates in a social Catholi­cism irre­spec­tive of per­son­al beliefs. Cross­es were every­where. Jesus stared down at me from walls and paint­ings, stat­ues and restau­rant art. The many roads that twist­ed in and out of the foothills of the Andes were pierced with cross­es and the names of those who had died in the aggres­sive sport of Chilean dri­ving. (I received snick­ers when, years lat­er, I would strap my child into his seat when­ev­er we were on the road.) On pub­lic bus­es, many Chileans would cross them­selves rapid­ly when the bus drove by a Church. There I was, amid the throngs of peo­ple in Down­town San­ti­a­go, on the ver­tig­i­nous hills of Val­paraiso, and in a dry and evoca­tive desert that, as the Sinai, bor­dered the sea (but this time with the sea on the oth­er side), for the first time, very much the other.” 

While there is a sig­nif­i­cant Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion in San­ti­a­go, and its denizens are spo­ken about with respect — main­ly, I per­ceived, for their suc­cess­es in the cir­cles in which I found myself on that first trip — there was lit­tle inte­gra­tion except for pro­fes­sion­al acquain­tances. I encoun­tered curios­i­ty, stereo­typ­ing, hurt­ful humor (it should be said that Chileans are wit­ti­ly cru­el in their humor and do not spare any cul­ture or dis­abil­i­ty) and a good deal of igno­rance. I began to sur­mise that in this coun­try, Jews had nev­er been let off the hook for the killing of Christ. I sug­gest­ed this and my hus­band dis­agreed. A month lat­er, to decide the con­test, a good friend of ours began to stop peo­ple on the streets of San­ti­a­go and asked if they would agree to a short inter­view. Sev­er­al did and he posed the ques­tion, Who killed Christ?” In his small ran­dom sam­ple of Chileans, we were indict­ed again and again.

It was this expe­ri­ence, many years lat­er, that was still thrum­ming beneath the sur­face as the char­ac­ters and themes of Into the Ata­ca­ma” began to emerge. 

Vis­it Tehi­la’s offi­cial web­site here.

Tehi­la Lieber­man has received the Kather­ine Anne Porter Short Fic­tion Prize, the Stan­ley Elkin Memo­r­i­al Prize, and the Rick DiMari­nis Short Fic­tion Prize and her fic­tion has appeared in many lit­er­ary jour­nals. Her non-fic­tion has appeared on Salon​.com, and in Israel’s Eretz Acheret. The daugh­ter of an Ashke­naz­ic Rab­bi in a Sephardic con­gre­ga­tion, Lieber­man often explores a wide range of worlds and themes.