When I’m back in London there’s a building I like to visit. If you’re an art lover and you’ve been to London you may know the place. It’s the Whitechapel Gallery in London’s East End. But it’s not the art that I go for, it’s the building itself or rather its new-old addition – the former Whitechapel Library.
The original gallery building opened in in London’s East End in 1901. It seemed like an odd location. The neighbourhood was dodgy. Outsiders were scared to set foot in the area. In his book People of the Abyss, the writer Jack London tells of the horrified reactions of people when, in 1902, he told them he was planning on living there for a while. “You don’t want to live down there!” they said alarmed.” London fared no better with the good folks at Thomas Cook and Son, an English travel company that sent intrepid travelers all over the world and refused to take him a stone’s throw away to the East End. You can’t do it you know,” they told him “It is so – ahem – unusual. Consult the police.”
Fortunately this was also the age of philanthropists with the winning combination of a zeal for social reform and deep pockets. Samuel Augustus Barnett, a social reformer and clergyman who’d moved to the East End, believed that the poor folks, native born and immigrants, in the crowded Whitechapel tenements deserved a library no less than Londoners in wealthier areas. He persuaded John Passmore Edwards, another social reformer, to dig into his wallet and fund a library for the residents of Whitechapel. The library opened in 1892. And what a library it was.
They called it The University of the Ghetto and it acquired legendary status. The area was home to vast numbers of poor Jewish immigrants with a thirst for knowledge. Because of Jewish borrowers the library built up the largest collection of Jewish and Yiddish literature in any British library. It was a refuge and meeting place for all-sorts: radical thinkers, school children, dockers, office workers and down and outs. They browsed the shelves and sat at the wooden tables in the reading room. And the list of writers and artists who got their start at number 77 Whitechapel High Street was long.
But times change. When it came time for me to join the library it was the late 1960s and the writing was already on the wall for the Jewish East End. The Jews had started moving on to pastures suburban. The generation of writers, artists, scholars, scientists, doctors and lawyers who’d got their start at the library had made their way in the world. At age five I knew nothing of the legions of readers that had gone before me. But the day I stepped over the threshold of number 77 Whitechapel High St and walked past the glazed tile picture of the old Whitechapel Haymarket, the library worked its magic. Number 77 became my second home. I asked to be taken to the library at every opportunity. When I was old enough I disappeared there for hours. You name it, I’ve read it. My favourite was Jewish literature. Like thousands before me, I sat at the wooden tables alongside all sorts.
Back home one university vacation, I returned to the library only to discover that Jewish literature had disappeared. The dwindling Jewish community had taken its toll and the books had been moved to the basement. “Not much call for them anymore I’m afraid,” the librarian told me. “Would you like to see them?” she asked. Of course I did. The caretaker opened a door and led me down dark stairs into the library basement. It was a Jewish bibliophile’s paradise. I wandered the shelves of books and yellowing old newspapers in Yiddish and English. Many I’d read, some I’d been meaning to read, some held no real interest and others were in Yiddish which I barely read, but still each book was somebody’s world. How many worlds were dumped here underneath the feet of the pedestrians of Whitechapel High St?
From time to time I would visit my books. It was wonderful down there in the basement. Just me and my books. Occasionally a member of the library staff would pop their heads in to check on me. In time, the library sold off the books to university libraries. I bought some. Today they sit on my shelves. Occasionally, when I have writers’ block I’ll open one, just the smell of the old paper with its patina of thumbprints of generations of Jewish immigrants is enough to ignite the imagination again.
In August 2005, Whitechapel Library closed its doors after 113 years. It reopened a tube station away as the Idea Store, a fabulous 4 storey building with thousands more books, a café, free internet, a crèche and even a dance studio. I do believe Passmore Edwards would have approved.
The old building was bought by the Whitechapel Gallery next door. In 2009 it reopened as part of the Gallery after a massive renovation. Not long after, I went to check on the old girl. The Haymarket was gone. The original stair case and balustrade up to the reading room remained. There was not a trace of the old dark basement. Instead of books, you’ll find brightly lit toilets and a baby changing room. Up the in old reading room, the doors and windows looked just the same. And those old wooden tables were just as I remembered. I got chatting to the young woman at the front desk. I mentioned I’d come to see the old library. “Funny, we’ve had a few people like you wanting to see the old library. Must have been a special place.”
I popped in again last month. Up in the old reading room on the first floor I shared my memories with the Gallery archivist. He told me: “Some people come here and say they just want to stroke the tables.” Makes sense to me.
Check back all week for more posts from Gloria Spielman. Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime just received a silver medal in the 2011 Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards.
Besides being one of our our favorite guest bloggers, Lavie Tidhar is a great science fiction author. His books hop the realm between thoughtfully philosophical and totally bizarre. He also captures — maddeningly, hilariously well — a provocative secular Israeli‘s take on religious culture (did I mention he was Israeli?). And, with a little bit of the science fiction, a little bit of the irreverent, and more than a little tongue-in-cheekness, Mr. Tidhar just sent us the cover to his latest book, Jesus and the Eightfold Path:
I kind of can’t believe this actually exists. That it’s a book (with words inside! pages! chapters!) and not a joke. Or maybe it’s that, too. But it’s just been released, and apparently, it is real. Wow. That’s all I can say. And, maybe, “Jesus!”
Or, as we should say, we’re among the best. MyJewishLearning is excited to share the news that we’ve been named one of the nation’s 50 most innovative Jewish nonprofits in Slingshot ’11-’12, a resource guide for Jewish innovation.
Slingshot is an organization that’s devoted to identifying trailblazing organizations that grapple with concerns in Jewish life such as identity, community, and tradition. This year marks the third year in a row that MyJewishLearning was chosen for Slingshot. Kveller.com, MyJewishLearning’s parenting website, which launched in September 2010, was also highlighted in the official Slingshot entry.
So thank you, Slingshot, for featuring us, and thank you folks for visiting and reading and engaging with us! We’ve got more great stuff planned. Keep checking out MyJewishLearning.com, and keep letting us know what you think — you’re the reason we’re here!
Thank you to everyone who entered our High Holiday Photo contest. We were on the hunt for great pictures of Jews celebrating the holidays, and we got some amazing entries. Almost all of the entries will be featured in MyJewishLearning and Kveller articles in the next few weeks, so keep your eyes peeled for pictures of real Jewish families enjoying the holidays.
In the meantime, we have two winning photos taken by the same photographer. Congratulations LenzKap! Email firstname.lastname@example.org so we can award you your prize.
Thanks again to all our amazing entrants!
Last month I flew to Seattle to attend the first GeekGirlCon (but not the last!). GeekGirlCon is for the Rest of Us; maybe not 99%, but definitely 52%, the women who have for so long been shut out of a male-dominated comics industry, and all the related male-dominated industries, like computers and gaming. It’s for us geeky girls who spent our high school years as outsiders, never cheerleaders, never dating the football team (often never dating at all!), but with our noses buried in science fiction or fantasy books or comics. All those geeky girls have grown up into enthusiastic and talented young women who are making great clothes and jewelry, creating wonderful new comics — and with not a superhero in the bunch. The energy level in the rooms was high and optimistic.
Instead of complaining about the insultingly gigantic-breasted women in the mainstream, male-oriented comics, the GeekGirls are drawing comics for themselves, which means for us. They’re telling stories that we GeekGirls (and as the oldest person at that convention, I’m still a GeekGirl) can read and identify with, and drawing them beautifully. I was on a panel devoted to Womanthology, a new women’s anthology project that raised their goal of $25,000 in production funds via Kickstarter in under 20 hours. By the end of the fundraising period a month later, they had raised $109,301, making Womanthology the most-funded comics project to date. I’m honored to be one of the contributors. I told the audience about my Lily Renee graphic novel, and one woman said to me after the panel that she was moved to tears just learning about Lily’s story.
The week before I left for Seattle, the Occupy Wall Street movement had already spread to other cities: Portland,Seattle, Los Angeles, and my city, San Francisco. But I’d been too busy meeting my deadlines to visit to their encampment. Finally this past weekend, I found the time. I brought with me a bag filled with the stuff hotels give you: shampoos, lotions, toothbrushes, hairbrushes, mending kits, little bottles and packages I always tossed into a drawer upon returning home from my travels, figuring I’d have a use for them one day. So I finally had a use for them; I donated them to the red cross tent. Then my partner and I toured the encampment. It was neat and clean — as neat as a tent city could be — and they had even put up a library tent. So the next day, my partner and I returned, this time with a carton of comics for the library tent. Our visit this time coincided with a march to the Occupy encampment from the people of Glide Memorial Church, one of the most prominently liberal churches inAmerica, led by the Reverend Cecil Williams. They had come to offer solidarity to the people of the Occupy movement.
With the exception of a few seriously decrepit old hippies (for a change I was NOT the oldest person!), the people of the Occupy encampment were, like the women at GeekGirlCon, young and enthusiastic, and like GeekGirlCon, the energy level was high and optimistic. Somehow active, caring, optimistic young people skipped a generation, if not several. There was very little in the way of real political activity in the 90s, and less in the first decade of the 21st Century. America seemed listless and depressed. But now young people are back in action, and I can see them making changes. I marched my last march in the early 90s, for abortion rights. I’m too old to camp out on concrete. But I can do what I can to help and cheer on the young change-makers. This world is yours!
Trina Robbins is the author of the just-released Lily Renee: Escape Artist.
So a few weeks ago I stumbled across this weird video. It’s a fashion show from the ’80s, a Jean-Paul Gaultier collection featuring hot bored-looking chicks dressed up as Hasidic Jewish men.
I was basically compelled to feature it in a Jewniverse, which I did (it’s out next week–subscribe right now to get it!). Then I wrote it. Then I thought that was the end of it.
Today I’m wearing a white button-down shirt. It’s a far cry from the punk-rock t-shirts of my choice, the vaguely hip blazers of my wife’s selection, but it’s what I’ve been wearing more often lately. Like Gaultier, I might be going through a phase of my own — albeit, less fashionably. And, uh, less revealingly.
I have to say, I kind of like it. I feel more serious — about work, about myself, and about little things. (My posture is improving dramatically.) It’s a little more distinguished. And when I walk down the streets of my own relatively ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Brooklyn, I get this whole stare of respect and/or identification with a group of people whose respect or comradeship I never thought I’d be after. Which is to say, the old guys. I always wondered why the bulk of retired people didn’t just wear t-shirts and Bermuda shorts. Now I think I know.
Anyway. A few weeks ago, the online show Rew and Who did a feature on 1/20, the movie I wrote. It’s filmed in the East Village, in a studio in the back of a bar called Otto’s Shrunken Head, and it’s every bit as punk and alterna-something as you think it is. I was invited in for an interview along with one of the stars. Heading out of the office, I shed my starched and Jewish shirt and changed into a more-suitable Mumm-Ra t-shirt (which you might think is related to Mamre, where Abraham pitched his famous tent, but is actually the bad guy on ThunderCats) and ran downtown.
So that was how I filmed the first interview:
We got invited back today — we’re appearing with Alan Merill, who wrote “I Love Rock ‘n Roll.” And again, I’m wearing a white shirt. This time, I’m not taking it off. After all, there’s nothing more punk than not looking very punk in the first place. This might not be all of who I am, but it’s a part of who I am.
Even if they mistake me for Jean-Paul Gaultier.
Today I’m recovering from my annual Worst Cold Ever, trying to take it easy with a book and hot chai — and I’m angry. The book I’m reading is Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, written in pencil in tiny cramped handwriting on the pages of a worn notebook while she was hiding from the Nazis in 1942. Nemirovsky was already a famous and successful author, but that didn’t matter to the Nazis, who eventually found her, arrested her, and murdered her in Auschwitz. Her two young daughters spent the war years in hiding, first in a convent, then moving from house to house. When they fled from the Vichy gendarmes Denise, the older daughter, took Nemirovsky’s notebook with her, not because she knew what was in it, but because it was something of her mother’s that she could keep. It was many years before the sisters could bring themselves to read the contents of the notebook, but when they did they realized that they had been carrying around their mother’s last novel, about Parisians fleeing the 1940 Nazi invasion.
“Suite Francaise” was finally published 64 years after her death.
Earlier this month I went to the San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum to see a selection of Charlotte Salomon’s exquisite art from her opus, “Life? Or Theater?” (The entire work, at over one thousand pages, would have been impossible to exhibit.) There has recently been much talk about Jewish women artists drawing autobiographical comics (there has been a traveling exhibition on the subject) and, told sequentially. Although each picture is on a separate page rather than being contained within panel borders, “Life? Or Theater?” is clearly the first graphic novel autobiography by a Jewish woman artist.
Pregnant and 25 years old, Salomon and her husband were arrested by the Gestapo in 1943, and like Nemirovsky, taken to Auschwitz and there murdered. I’m beyond angry. Two young and vibrant, immensely talented beautiful women murdered by creatures that don’t even deserve to be called human. How many others were there, who never got to write their novels, draw their stories?
Which brings us to Lily Renee and my graphic novel, Lily Renee: Escape Artist. If Lily’s story had not had a happy ending, I would not have been able to bring myself to tell it. If the Jewish teenager, Lily Renee Wilheim, had not been able to escape Nazi-occupied Vienna on one of the last Kindertransport trains to England, but instead had become one of the 1.5 million children murdered by the Nazis, there would have been no Lily to grow up and draw comics in America, to become one of the best and most famous women comics artists of the 1940s. How many others were there?
In the histories I’ve written about early 20th century women cartoonists, I’ve always devoted as much space as possible to the artist who drew Nazi-fighting women like aviatrix Jane Martin and glamorous counterspy Senorita Rio, and signed her comics with the sexually ambiguous name “L. Renee.” But that wasn’t much space because I didn’t know anything about Lily, until one day I received an email that began, “I am Lily Renee’s daughter…” I found out that Lily Renee Wilheim Philips was alive and well and living in New York City, and when I met this elegant, cultured, and gracious lady and learned her harrowing story, I knew I had to tell it.
As I said, this story has a happy ending. When England went to war with Germany, Lily lost touch with the parents she’d had to leave behind in Vienna, and didn’t know that they had escaped to America. But they found her, and Lily sailed to America, where, after living the hand-to-mouth existence of poor refugees, Lily eventually found work drawing comics for the comic book publisher, Fiction House. At last, on paper, she was able to beat the Nazis!
So yeah, Lily Renee: Escape Artist is a comic by a Jewish woman about a Jewish woman who drew comics. And it’s for Charlotte Salomon and Irene Nemirovsky, and the 1.5 million kids who never had the chance to grow up and produce comics or novels or graphic novels.
Lily Renee: Escape Artist is a graphic novel for younger readers, but that only means that there’s no cursing and no sex in the book. I write my graphic novels for young readers exactly as I would wish to read them; I never write down. For interested New Yorkers, Lily and I will be talking about and signing the graphic novel at the Museum of Comics and Cartoon Art (MOCCA) on November 3, from 7-9 P.M. and on November 6, at Books of Wonder, 18 West 18th Street, from 3-5 P.M. If you live in San Francisco like me, I’ll be presenting a talk and PowerPoint slide show at the main branch of the San Francisco public library (alas, without Lily) on November 29.
Trina Robbins will be blogging all week. Check out her new book, Lily Renee: Escape Artist.
Today’s Jewniverse is about a translation of the Shema prayer — only, it’s not the prayer as you’ve ever heard it. Rabbi Darby Jared Leigh talks about the word-to-word translation, asking whether “Israel” refers to the place or the people Israel — and why would you start a prayer off “Hear O Israel” when you can’t hear?
Rabbi Leigh’s thoughts on the matter are pretty incredible. And he seems like a pretty blow-away guy as well — check out his author page on MJL, and this hilarious video of the heavy metal band Twisted Sister playing during his rabbinical ordination. But really, check out his version of the Shema. And then check out your own. And see how thinking about his version changes yours.
Here’s the way it’s usually said:
And here’s Rabbi Leigh’s version, and his explanation:
Tonight starts Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, the final round of Jewish holidays — for this month, anyway! Here’s a little mix that I stumbled into putting together, song by song.
This morning at synagogue I was getting ready for Shemini Atzeret, which starts tonight, looking ahead in the prayerbook — you know, like peeking at the ending. One thing I always forget is the Prayer for Rain, Tefilat Geshem, which is the beginning of the rainy season in Israel. Which immediately stuck this song in my head. It’s not exactly a part of the traditional liturgy, but I’ve been singing this song longer than I’ve been praying:
And the celebration kept coming, and so did the songs. The new Y-Love video, the first song from his upcoming album, is out today. (And the album has a shout-out to my book! And it features Andy Milonakis, who’s the weirdest and most original thing on MTV right now.
And, just to tie everything together, our house guest just wandered through the room and heard the song. “Oh!” he said. “Is that the new Drake video?”
I had no idea what he was talking about. “I thought you’d know,” he said. Apparently, the platinum-selling hip-hop artist Drake has a new single, too, and in the video, he and his companions are drinking Bartenura Moscato D’Asti — which my older daughter calls “blue wine” and which is the only kind of wine my mother drinks. It’s bubbly and sweet and basically like alcoholic soda. It makes family meals tons more fun…and is there any wonder that it’s the beverage of choice among Jewish soul singers?
Once again, here’s the money shot:
Happy Shemini Atzeret!
We are living in a moment of Jewish historic significance, one which embodies the blessing: “Thank you God for helping us arrive at this day.” This Simchat Torah, we express joy not only as we complete the reading of the Torah, but as we come to the end of a five year struggle to achieve the freedom of one Israeli soldier: Gilad Shalit. I will now put away his dog tags that have been near my Shabbat candles, helping me think of him when bringing extra light into my own home. I wonder at how he has changed these past years and how excruciating it must be to leave one painful world and enter another realm entirely, one full of heroic expectations.
Throughout the difficult moral debates of the past weeks, the Jewish unity that people expected has broken down into understandable fractiousness. I have gone back in my mind to one of the most well-known statements in the Mishna: “If a person saves a single human being, Scripture considers it as if he saved the world” (BT Sanhedrin 4:5). We hear this used in all kinds of metaphoric contexts, but now the situation is real and the question is painful. Should we do anything to save one human life? As we read the long list of prisoner names who have and who will be released, we cannot ignore the heinous crimes of most and the fear we have that years in Israeli prisons has only toughened their determination to return to terror. Will kidnapping soldiers become the ticket to prisoner freedom in the future?
There is another Talmudic principle that comes to mind: “If confronted with a certainty and a doubt, the certainty is preferable.” We do not know how to answer the above questions. They are all part of a future landscape we can only imagine but one which has not been actualized. We know for certain now that this lone Israeli soldier is alive and can be freed and so, in our Jewish tradition of redeeming captives as the most important collective commandment we can perform, we will go with that certainty and forgo the doubt for now.
But these decisions are political ones, not Talmudic ones. They were made under great national pressure but also with the overwhelming support of the Knesset and Israel’s security services. They were made when a small window of opportunity opened in a Middle East collapsing with anarchy. And if Gilad were allowed to languish in captivity to prevent this kind of leveraging, would any parent of sound mind be prepared to send a child into an army that is not committed to returning their children, whenever possible, home safely?
I have found my response in a muted, complex happiness and in a prayer found on a piece of wrapping paper in the Ravensbruck concentration camp:
O Lord, remember not only the men and women of goodwill but also those of ill will. But do not remember the suffering they have inflicted upon us; remember the fruits we brought thanks to this suffering: our comradeship, out loyalty, our humility, the courage, the generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of this; and when they come to judgment, let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.
I will think of the thousands of kindnesses that have led to this moment in time, the fruits we have brought to the altar of suffering, the fruits that sometimes can only come from suffering. I will pray that those who are freed will use their freedom responsibly and that we can create a universe where God will redeem suffering because we do.
In the past 54 years, Israel has exchanged 13,509 prisoners for 16 soldiers. Gilad is not the first, and he probably won’t be the last. And if this is the craziest thing we do as a people to show what the value of one life means to the rest of the world, so be it. We are crazy about survival – the survival of each and every one of our people. And we’ve survived longer than most because of this almost fanatical – meshugena - commitment to what life means. And to an enemy that blows up its own and calls them martyrs we say loudly, “Not us. To us, every single life is a treasure.” It doesn’t get more Jewish than this.