Monthly Archives: June 2012

Arthur Mourant: It’s All In the Blood

If being Jewish were in the blood, then what better way to find the markers of Jewishness then by studying blood itself? In his 1977 book The Genetics of the Jews, Arthur Mourant, one of the foremost cataloguers of blood groups during the 20th century, explained the advantages to this approach, “In popular anthropology since time immemorial…the visible and physically measurable body characteristics preceded the hereditary blood characteristics as the principal human taxonomic markers. Because of the precisely known mode of inheritance of blood characters, the latter have now superseded them… The hereditary diseases are, in general, too rare to be of value in studies of limited population samples…” So measuring blood groups is more precise than measuring heads and easier than identifying rare genetic diseases.

Mourant’s journey to Jewish population genetics was long. As an Oxford-trained geologist, he joined the Geological Survey of Great Britain during the 1920s to catalog the coal deposits in Lancashire. Unable to obtain an academic post in geology in Depression-era Britain, he returned to his native island of Jersey and set up a laboratory offering
medical tests. But running that laboratory was not satisfying, so in 1939, he entered St. Bartholomew’s Medical College in London. Upon his graduation with a medical degree in 1943, he became a Medical Officer in the National Blood Transfusion Service. The demand for blood products was great during the war and Mourant became a leader in the field.

After the war, he directed the UK Medical Research Council’s newly established Blood Group Reference Laboratory, the international standard for the World Health Organization.

A blood group is determined by the presence or absence of certain sugars, proteins, or fats on the surfaces of blood cells and other types of cells. Differences in blood groups limit the possibilities for blood transfusions — blood can be transfused only for a compatible type. Transfusions among individuals of noncompatible types result in transfusion reactions in which antibodies in the recipient’s blood break down the transfused red cells.

The presence of these antibodies was recognized first in 1901 by Karl Landsteiner, a Viennese pathologist. As he noted later in his Nobel Prize lecture of 1930, “My experiment consisted of causing the blood serum and erythrocytes (red blood cells) of different human subjects to react with one another. The result was only to some extent as expected. With many samples there was no perceptible alteration, in other words the result was exactly the same as if the blood cells had been mixed with their own serum, but frequently a phenomenon known as agglutination – in which the serum causes the cells of the alien individual to group into clusters – occurred.” Following Landsteiner’s lead, serum banks were created that collected serum from individuals of known blood groups and used these sera to test new individuals to determine their types. It was just such a laboratory that Mourant headed after the Second World War.

In the ABO system, there are four genetically encoded blood groups: A, B, AB, and O — O represents the absence of A or B. People with the O group are also known as “universal donors,” because they can give blood to anyone. The study of ABO blood groups made it immediately clear that there are different frequencies among different peoples. In Europe, the average frequency is 40 percent O, 40 percent A, 15 percent B, and 5 percent AB. In other populations, the balance changes.

Mourant was among the first to appreciate the utility of using blood groups as population genetic markers and the first to apply these to Jews. His catalog had varying data for the different blood groups and for other genetic marker systems (including G6PD). He concluded that the blood group data correlated with the known facts of Jewish history – although population geneticists at the time and today would agree that it is hard to draw major conclusions from a single genetic marker system.

The major Jewish communities were relatively homogeneous, yet distinct from one another. Each of the communities bore some resemblance to the local, non-Jewish population. In Mourant’s words, “Each major Jewish community as a whole bears some
resemblance to indigenous peoples of the region where it first developed.” Recent studies in Jewish population genetics have drawn upon analysis of the whole genome and have tended to confirm what Mourant observed – relative homogeneity within Jewish groups, distinctiveness between Jewish groups and some resemblance with local, non-Jewish populations. But Mourant was the first to study what was in the blood.

Posted on June 29, 2012

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Sarah’s Key, Mary’s Secrets, and Truth That’s Stranger Than Fiction

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. But it can be hard to tell.

I did an enormous amount of research for my book The Secrets of Mary Bowser. The novel is based on the true story of a woman born into slavery who was freed and educated in the North, and then became a spy for the Union army by posing as a slave in the Confederate White House. Historical fiction can be a powerful way to learn about the past. Thanks to Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosenay, readers around the world have learned about the 1942 Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup. Bowser’s bravery, like the horrors enacted at Vel’ d’Hiv, should be more broadly remembered. But for authors, blurring the lines between history and fiction can still feel risky.

Quite a few of the facts that I incorporated into The Secrets of Mary Bowser—particularly the actions of Bet Van Lew, a pro-Union white Richmonder whose wartime escapades including digging up and reburying the body of a Union officer killed by the Confederates—were so bizarre, I feared readers would find them too implausible, even though they were true.

What concerned me most, however, was not that the true parts of the novel wouldn’t be believed. It’s that the parts I invented would be mistaken for fact. Knowing the historical record provides such scant documentation of Mary Bowser’s life that I couldn’t possibly write a biography, I authored the novel as a way to commemorate Bowser’s achievements and to guide readers’ understanding of what slavery was like in urban, industrialized Richmond, and what free black life was like in antebellum Philadelphia.

Despite a detailed historical note included in the book, though, a surprising number of online reviews of The Secrets of Mary Bowser attribute biographical details to the historical Bowser that were entirely my own invention. As I’ve taken to saying, just because you read something in a book about a real person who played an important role in the Civil War, doesn’t mean everything in the book was true.

As it turns out, the first person to fictionalize Bowser’s life story was Bowser herself. “The Black Slave in the Confederate White House,” an article I wrote for The New York Times, documents her continuing self-reinvention, before, during, and after the Civil War. Bowser likely made a good spy precisely because slaves live lives of surreptition and concealment. The strategies that enabled her to survive enslavement also facilitated her espionage. It shouldn’t surprise us that even after the war was over, Bowser continued her cagey—and effective—habit of constructing a series of public identities to serve different purposes.

Like many published authors, I didn’t choose my book’s final title. But I’ve come to relish the irony it implies. While Sarah’s Key suggests that once we find the key we can unlock all of history, The Secrets of Mary Bowser entices us to search out what we can learn about the past, while reminding us that there is much that may always remain hidden.

Posted on June 28, 2012

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Chaim Sheba

In Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People, Harry Ostrer wrote about a series of scientists who contributed to our contemporary understanding of Jewishness. This week, he provides a series of short vignettes that describe their contributions about what it means to be a Jew.

jewish genesChaim Sheba, a surgeon general of the Israeli army and later the director general of the Israeli Ministry of Health, was also a colorful, pioneering Israeli geneticist. Early in his career, Sheba stumbled into human genetics in the process of preparing to practice medicine in his adopted country. Born in Austria, he left for Palestine with a “still wet” medical school diploma from the University of Vienna expecting to “dry the uninhabited swamps.” Drying the swamps was a way to eliminate malaria, a disease common not only in Palestine, but throughout the coastal Mediterranean basin. While on the boat to Palestine, Sheba read a book about tropical diseases and learned that one of the major complications of malaria was blackwater fever. Typically, the “black water” urine of individuals with red blood cells disrupted by malarial parasites contained the dark-colored breakdown products of the oxygen-carrying protein, hemoglobin.

When Sheba arrived in Palestine, he learned about an unexpected springtime occurrence of blackwater fever caused by eating fava beans, a popular Mediterranean delicacy. Favism had been known in ancient Greek times with Pythagoras, Diogenes and Plutarch all warning about the dangers of eating fava beans. Eating the beans or even smelling the pollen caused a sudden illness of abdominal pains and vomiting, followed by pallor, jaundice and brown-colored urine – all resulting from the rapid breakdown of red blood cells. During the 1930s, all of the patients that Sheba observed with favism were Jewish males of Iraqi, Yemenite, or Kurdish origin. During World War II, while serving as a surgeon in the British Army, Sheba observed men who experienced severe breakdown of red blood cells resulting from ingestion of the newly developed antibiotic and anti-malarial drugs. These reactions occurred primarily among Iraqi, Turkish, Greek, Yemenite, and Kurdish Jewish soldiers, and were also common among non-Jewish Greek and Cypriot soldiers, and Italian prisoners of war. To Sheba, it was striking that Ashkenazi Jews did not share these sensitivities that were prevalent among their co-religionists.

The reason for this difference between the Ashkenazi and other Jews became apparent after the war — an inability to repair damage to red blood cells that resulted from exposure to agents that were non-toxic to the majority of the population. This inability occurred in individuals who are deficient for the enzyme, glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD). As its name would suggest, G6PD normally breaks down the sugar, glucose, and, in the process, generates an antioxidant that repairs red blood cells. Although G6PD is produced and used by all of the cells of the body, only red blood cells are sensitive to the effects of oxidizing agents. The enzyme is encoded by a gene on the X chromosome and men who carry a mutant gene on their single X chromosome are susceptible to these exposures. Women who have two copies of the X chromosome are relatively resistant to this condition when one of their X chromosomes carries a mutant G6PD gene.

Over time, Sheba recognized that other genetic diseases (Tay-Sachs, Gaucher, familial Mediterranean fever) were found almost exclusively within certain Jewish groups, reflecting the unique history of those groups. He assumed that these diseases were caused by transmission of a mutant gene that occurred sometime in the distant past, and then transmitted by a group of “founders” who migrated to that site of the Jewish Diaspora. This phenomenon has come to be known as a “founder effect.” Sheba was fond of using Biblical genealogies and spoke of conditions being transmitted by the descendents of the sons of Noah or other, later Biblical characters. Thus, Sheba established the notion that these diseases serve as genetic markers for the populations in which they occurred. Although not all of the members of the population carried these mutant genes, enough do to recognize a shared genetic legacy.

Posted on June 27, 2012

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Funny, You Don’t Book Jewish

Lois Leveen’s newest novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, is now available.

There’s a novel I first read years ago that rang true in deep ways for me: Immigrant parents work hard, and, as a measure of success, move to the suburbs—where their older daughter thrives in school, while the younger daughter struggles socially, especially with her ethnic identity. Introduced to a charismatic, and most certainly unorthodox, rabbi, this younger daughter immerses herself in Jewish learning to steady her passage through the throes of adolescence. Her deepening involvement in the synagogue youth group imbues her with a sense of social justice, and greater confidence about who she is and what she wants. What could be a better example of Jewish-American literature?

Except, the novel in question, Mona in the Promised Land, is about a Chinese-American family. Its author, Gish Jen, is herself the daughter of Chinese immigrants. Jen grew up in Scarsdale, a community she portrays with an amazing mix of accuracy, acerbity, and affection in Mona. Raised in a similar suburban community and only thirteen or so years younger than Jen and her protagonist, I’ve joked that I don’t need to write a novel about my childhood, because Jen already did it for me.

Jen’s novel reminds us that “Jewish” is an identity that is less bound by race or culture than we might initially assume—Mona, after all, converts, making her no less Jewish than any other Jew, even as she integrates Chinese culture with her burgeoning religious identity. But does a book count as Jewish-American literature just because it features Jewish characters? Does it matter if its author (unlike her convert protagonist) isn’t Jewish?

Compare Mona in the Promised Land with The Secrets of Mary Bowser, a novel based on the true story of an African American slave. After being freed and educated in the North, Mary Bowser returned to the South and became a Union spy during the Civil War, by posing as a slave in the Confederate White House. From the first page of this fictionalized telling of her story, Mary’s mother regularly converses with Jesus about Mary’s future. Although somewhat skeptical about her mother’s insistence that Jesus has a plan for her, Mary eagerly attends prayer meetings with her parents, and later, when she moves away from her family, seeks solace both at Philadelphia’s Mother Bethel, the founding African Methodist Episcopal church, and at a Quaker meeting. One particularly moving Baptist sermon motivates her to give up her own freedom and return to the South. Later, she articulates her horror at the war’s devastation by doubting whether her participation in such wide-scale violence could really be Jesus’ plan. Not a very Jewish story.

Unless you define the Jewishness of a novel by who wrote it: me.

There’s no doubt I’m a Jew. I’ve got the name, the nose, and the siddur presented to me by my childhood synagogue on the occasion of my bat mitzvah to prove it. I’ve even got a string of writing credits for Jewish publications, from Bridges: A Jewish Feminist Journal to The Jew and The Carrot, where I served as “the Shmethicist,” an ethical food advice columnist. Surely I’m a Jewish American writer. But does that mean my novel—about an African American raised as a Christian—is best understood as Jewish American literature?

Maybe it’s a sign of my Jewishness that I see the answer as, like so much in Judaism, a matter of textual explication. In creating the character of Mary’s mother, I invoked the Christian faith that sustained many enslaved blacks. But when I read the galleys of The Secrets of Mary Bowser I realized that, quite unconsciously, I also invoked my own Jewish sensibility. Mary’s trajectory is an exploration of what it means to be chosen, in ways that are directly related to my Jewish understanding of that concept as implying a responsibility to serve some greater good. Mary’s relinquishing of her own freedom to serve her community implies a belief in the individual’s responsibility to serve the community through tikkum olam. It places her in a tradition of chosen individuals that includes MosesDanielEsther—even the reluctant JonahThe Secrets of Mary Bowser is an adult novel, but it draws as much on the girl-heroes of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit or The Endless Steppe, the Jewish-themed books I devoured as a child, as it does on the slave narratives and historical accounts of American slavery I studied as an adult.

When I read from The Secrets of Mary Bowser at Oregon Jewish Voices, a program at the Oregon Jewish Museum, the poet Willa Schneberg compared the novel to Storytelling in Cambodia, her book about the Cambodian genocide. The comparison underscored that for both of us, being Jewish writers doesn’t mean writing only about Jewish experience. It means drawing on our Jewish experience to reflect on themes of injustice and social action in myriad contexts.

Read more about Lois Leveen here.

 

Posted on June 26, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Joseph Jacobs: Fighting Anti-Semitism, Genetically

In Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People, Harry Ostrer wrote about a series of scientists who contributed to our contemporary understanding of Jewishness. This week, he provides a series of short vignettes that describe their contributions about what it means to be a Jew.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Australian-English polymath Joseph Jacobs laid the framework for modern scholarship about all things Jewish, including Jewish population genetics. Born in Sydney, Australia, Jacobs went to England in 1872, intent on studying law at Cambridge University. Instead, he became interested in literature and anthropology, as well as mathematics, history and philosophy.

Upon graduating in 1876, he went to London to become a writer. While there, his professional development was transformed by two books. The first was George Eliot’s novel Daniel Deronda. Following publication, Eliot was derided by the English critics for turning an English gentleman into a Jew. She knew of the risk that she ran writing this novel, because she told Harriet Beecher Stowe that she wanted, “to rouse the imagination of [English] men and women to a vision of human claims in those races of their fellow men who differ from them in customs and beliefs.” Daniel’s self-discovery was life-changing not only for the character in the novel, but also for Jacobs. He wrote, “It is difficult for those who have not lived through it to understand the influence that George Elliot had upon those of us who came to our intellectual majority in the Seventies. George Elliot’s novels were regarded by us not so much as novels, but rather as applications of Darwinism to life
and art.”

The second transformative book was Francis Galton’s Hereditary Genius, a treatise in which the formulator of the concept of Nature versus Nurture observed that superior intelligence tended to be transmitted within families. Francis Galton, himself a famous polymath, was Charles Darwin’s cousin and Joseph Jacobs’ Darwinian mentor. Galton taught Jacobs that all human attributes could be measured – heads, heights, intelligence. Following this lead, Jacobs assessed Jewish accomplishment and wrote Jewish Genius. He applied Galton’s methods to measuring Jews and wrote Jewish Statistics: Social, Vital and
Anthropometric
. Jacobs concluded that the low historical rates of intermarriage and proselytism and the physical resemblance among Jews favored the idea of a Jewish race. In his article in the Jewish Encyclopedia on ‘Anthropology’, he wrote, “The remarkable unity of resemblance among Jews, even in different climes, seems to imply a common descent.” When Mendel’s laws were rediscovered in 1901, Jacobs suggested that there was a genetic basis to Jewishness.

In 1906, Jacobs came to New York to edit the Jewish Encyclopedia, the major source of Jewish information at the turn of the last century. Jacobs felt that a study of Jewish history, when combined with an analysis of Jewish racial characteristics, would provide a powerful arsenal in the battle against anti-Semitism. He regarded it as his duty to fight anti-Semites of his day by pointing out Jewish contributions to civilization.

Posted on June 25, 2012

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Sleeping on Felix Frankfurter’s Couch

Joshua Henkin’s new novel, The World Without Youis now available.

I want to talk a little more about my family of origin. My father, as I mentioned in an earlier post, was the son of an Orthodox rabbi who lived on the Lower East Side for fifty years and never learned English. My father himself, by contrast, eventually left the world of the yeshiva. He went to Harvard Law School, then fought in World War Two, and when he returned he made a career for himself, first at the State Department and the U.N. and then in academia—he taught at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia Law Schools for a total of fifty years. He remained Orthodox until he died, yet he had hardly any Orthodox Jewish friends, hardly any observant Jewish friends at all, and I suspect many of the people whom he spent time with didn’t know or were only dimly aware of the fact that he was observant.

There are, I believe, many reasons for this. The woman my father married, my mother, is Jewish, but she was raised in a nonobservant home, and though she compromised in raising my brothers and me (she agreed to keep a kosher home and observe the Sabbath for the sake of the family; my brothers and I were sent to Jewish day school and Jewish summer camp), she never herself became observant, and the world in which my mother lived—the secular world—became my father’s world, too, had already, in fact, become my father’s world by the time he met her. And my father was a private, modest man. He wasn’t someone to flaunt his religious observance or anything else about himself, and so when he was saying Kaddish for his father in 1973 and he convened a daily mincha minyan at his office at Columbia, I, who was only nine at the time, already understood that this was unusual for him to be so openly, publicly Jewish. My father liked to quote Moses Mendelssohn—be a Jew at home, a human being on the street—and it’s only now, looking back from my vantage point as an adult, that I find something strange, or at least noteworthy, in an Orthodox Jew using the words of the founder of Reform Judaism as his motto.

I was thinking about this a couple of weeks ago when I received an invitation to participate in an authors panel at Hunter College. I would describe my own relationship to Jewish practice as idiosyncratically observant, and among these idiosyncrasies is the fact that I don’t travel on the Sabbath but if I can get myself somewhere without traveling, I’m happy to engage in conduct that, while not technically Sabbath-violating, isn’t, as they say, shabbesdik. The panel was held on a Saturday, and shabbesdik or not, it isn’t particularly sane to walk eight miles from Park Slope to Hunter College and eight miles back, all to participate in an authors panel. But then my new book was coming out in less than two weeks, and when new your book is coming out in less than two weeks you tend to do a lot of things that are neither shabbesdik nor sane.

As I was walking through the rain to Hunter, I was put in mind of another such incident more then twenty-five years ago when I, about to become a college junior, spent the summer in Washington, DC, and one Friday night I was invited to a party somewhere in suburban Maryland, and I prevailed upon a friend of mine, herself not even Jewish, let alone Sabbath-observant, to walk with me to the party. It was a seven-mile walk if we followed the directions correctly, but we didn’t follow the directions correctly, and thanks to a wrong turn and a three-mile detour, we ended up at the party at one in the morning, where we didn’t even know the host (the party was being held by a friend of a friend), and we ended up of having to ask strangers whether we could spend the night on their living room floor.

What lesson can be drawn from this other than that I, at age twenty, was willing to go to ridiculous lengths to attend a party? Perhaps not much. But it occurs to me that in certain ways I was my father’s son — my father who never would have done what I had done (he didn’t like parties), but who was of a generation that, for better or worse, didn’t wear its Jewishness on its sleeve. My father wore a yarmulke only in synagogue, and when he clerked on the Supreme Court for Felix Frankfurter he would on Friday nights secretly sleep on Frankfurter’s office couch because he couldn’t travel home on the Sabbath. He’d acted similarly a few years earlier when, at Harvard Law School, he had a final scheduled for Shavuot, and he hired a proctor to follow him around for forty-eight hours, and then, when the holiday was over, he took the exam.

By contrast, nearly fifty years later, when I was an undergraduate at Harvard and graduation was scheduled for Shavuot, many Orthodox Jews (and a good number of non-Orthodox Jews, too) staged a protest to get the date changed. Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, who himself had been raised an Orthodox Jew, was, if I recall correctly, instrumental in the protest. When I told my father about the protest, he was mystified. Ask Harvard to change graduation because of Shavuot? You didn’t ask for special treatment. The world did as it did, and you accommodated to it. There were differences in temperament between my father and Alan Dershowitz that are too numerous to count. But one additional difference was a generational one. American Jews had been one thing then, and they were another thing now.

Posted on June 22, 2012

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How Did I End up Doing This?

Joshua Henkin’s new novel, The World Without Youis now available.

For a long time I wanted to be a fiction writer, but then for a long time I also wanted to be a basketball player, and at a certain point you realize you’re neither good enough nor tall enough. That’s how I felt about fiction writing. It seemed to me a delusion, a dream. So despite dipping my toes in fiction writing, I studied mostly political theory in college and planned after I graduated to get a Ph.D. in political theory. But first I decided to take a year off, and I moved out to Berkeley and got a job at a magazine, where one of my tasks was to be the first reader of fiction manuscripts. And I was struck by how terrible most of them were. I didn’t necessarily think I could do any better, but I was impressed by the number of people who were willing to try and risk failure. I found it oddly inspiring. I thought I should be willing to try and risk failure, too. So I started to take some workshops, ended up moving to Ann Arbor get my MFA, and the rest, as they say, is history.

But the fact of trying and risking failure hasn’t changed. Richard Ford came to Ann Arbor when I was there. This was around the time that he won the Pulitzer Prize for Independence Day, and so he’d had a lot of success, but what he told the graduate students, and I really think this is true, is that when he sits down to write the page is just as blank as it is for anyone. Just because you’ve done it once doesn’t mean you can do it again. And it’s that fact—and the terror that accompanies it—that makes fiction writing both a challenge and a pleasure. Writing fiction is about creating something out of nothing, which is another of its pleasures. And I’m a gossip, which I believe most fiction writers are. We’re interested in people, and what better way to feed your interest in people than to make them up? My mother tells a story that when I was a toddler and she would walk with me down Broadway, she couldn’t get anywhere because I insisted on being picked up so that I could look into every store window. I wanted to see everything and everyone. To me, that’s what a fiction writer is—someone who wants to look into every store window, who’s always hoping to discover something.

My new novel, The World Without You, takes place over a single July 4th holiday. Leo Frankel was a journalist killed in Iraq, and a year later his parents, his three sisters, his widow, and his young son descend on the family’s country house in the Berkshires for his memorial. People often ask me where the idea for the book came from, and while I don’t believe in “ideas” when it comes to fiction (I start with a character, or a situation; ideas are for politicians, or sociologist, or rabbis), the book grew out of the following memory. I had a first cousin who died of Hodgkin’s disease when he was in his late twenties. I was only a toddler at the time, but his death hung over my extended family for years. Every year on Purim my father’s side of the family gets together to read the Megillah, and one Purim, nearly thirty years later, my aunt, updating everyone on what was happening in her life, began by saying, “I have two sons….” Well, she’d once had two sons, but her older son had been dead for thirty years at that point. It was clear to everyone in that room that the pain was still raw for her and that it would continue to be raw for her for the rest of her life. By contrast, my cousin’s widow eventually remarried and had a family. This got me thinking how when someone loses a spouse, as awful as that is, the surviving spouse eventually moves on; but when a parent loses a child they almost never move on. That idea was the seed from which The World Without You grew. Although there are many tensions in the novel (between siblings, between couples, between parents and children), the original tension was between mother-in-law and daughter-in law, caused by the gulf between their two losses, by the different ways they grieve.

Posted on June 21, 2012

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From Grandfather to Father to Son

Joshua Henkin’s new novel, The World Without You, comes out this week.

The story goes that, in 1923, when my father, age five, arrived at Ellis Island, he refused to speak to the immigration officials, and there was some suspicion that he was a deaf mute and the family would have to be sent back to Russia. My grandfather kept trying to get him to speak, but my father refused. Finally, my grandfather decided to ask my father a math question. My father answered the question, and the family was let in.

world without youThis story gets at some core truths about my father. He was excellent at math — he would later major in it in college — and he remained a shy man until his death nearly two years ago. Yet what I remember most clearly was how he told that story — with a trace of embarrassment, it seemed to me, as if he’d committed an indiscretion. He’d answered the math question and gotten the family in, but he’d been guilty of showing off.

My father was a law professor, first at the University of Pennsylvania and then at Columbia, for over fifty years. He loved teaching, and for him teaching was also a way of expressing love. His own father, an Orthodox rabbi, certainly expressed his love through teaching, and my father inherited that from him. In the first paragraph of the Shema prayer in the Jewish liturgy come the words v’sheenantam l’vanecha — you shall teach your children—and in synagogue, whenever my father came to those words, he would reach out his prayer shawl and kiss my brothers and me.

My father was facile with language and he loved it, loved language perhaps the way only an immigrant can, a boy whose own father lived on the Lower East Side for fifty years and never learned English—he never needed to—whereas he, my father, saw English as his entry into America. He used to help my brothers and me pass the time on airplane trips by giving us word jumbles. And when I was seventeen and the SAT loomed, he started coming home from the office with a list of vocabulary words he had run across that day. Some of these words were long and hard to pronounce and others were short and easy to pronounce, but they had one thing in common, which was that they had never appeared in the history of the SAT and they would never would appear in the history of the SAT and what in the world kind of books was my father reading such that he came across these words? Quondam, for instance, which means erstwhile, which means former, and which I will forever associate with my father, just as I will forever associate with him the word incognito, which he once opened the dictionary and proved to me was in fact pronounced incahgnitto, not incogneeto, just as he proved to me that it should be kilomee-ter and not kilahmeter (I can still hear his voice: “A thermometer is a measurer of heat, but a kilahmeter isn’t a measurer of kilos.”)

I think of him, too, when I hear the word impertinent, which was the punchline of a joke he once told, a joke I was too young to understand and don’t remember any longer, a joke about an Englishman and a Frenchman arguing over which is the superior language, English or French, the punchline to which is impertinent, which doesn’t mean not pertinent, it means rude, the joke, as I recall, being on the Frenchman, or the Englishman, or both, but it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that I can’t read or say or hear the word impertinent without thinking of my father. It’s true of a hundred other words as well, and since I speak English every day, since English is the only language I speak with any measure of fluency, I’m thinking about my father all the time—can’t stop thinking about him, can’t even listen to rock music without thinking about him, my father who had no interest in rock music but who overheard me once singing the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night,” and there he was, my father, saying, “Don’t you think those young men could have come up with a better rhyme for dog than log.”

At college, we had to take expository writing freshman year, and we were asked to choose between different options—history, literature, social studies, and the like. One option was fiction, and if you enrolled in it you would write essays about fiction and you would also write some of your own short stories. When I mentioned this to my father, he said, “I wouldn’t begin to know how to write a short story.” And I thought, Aha, that’s what I’m going to do. That’s what set me on the route to becoming a fiction writer. It seemed to me a way to carve out my own path in the world. But it was also a way of following in my father’s path. Because when I hear English spoken, when I read it, when I write it, it’s my father’s voice that comes to me and will, I suspect, for the rest of my life.

Posted on June 20, 2012

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Are You a Jewish Writer?

First of all, I want to open up my week of blogging by saying how happy I am to be here and have you all be the ones who are helping me shepherd my new novel, The World Without You, to publication tomorrow.  And if any of you live in New York or are inclined to get yourself there, the launch party for the book is tomorrow night, June 19th,  at 7PM, at Bookcourt in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.  Please join me for cheap wine and cheddar cubes and lots of merriment.  And if you are one of the few people left on this earth who still believe that Manhattan is the superior borough and you want to skip the wine and the cheddar cubes and focus solely on the merriment, I’m also reading at Barnes and Noble on 82nd Street and Broadway on Thursday evening, June 21, at 7PM.

Are you a Jewish writer? This is a question that Moment Magazine asked a number of writers recently, and it’s a question I often get asked, and by and large most writers I know who get asked this question end up bridling or being flummoxed or acting generally tongue-tied.  I know I do.  That’s because I’m not sure what the question means.  I’m a Jew, and I’m proud to be one, so on some level by definition I’m a Jewish writer, just as I’m a Jewish father, a Jewish New Yorker, a Jewish eldest child, a Jewish basketball fan, and a Jewish watcher of The Daily Show.

But I’m not generally asked whether I’m a Jewish eldest child or a Jewish watcher of The Daily Show, and I think therein lies the rub.  Because when a writer gets asked the Jewish writer question, something more seems to be going on, something having to do with the writer’s own relationship to Judaism or whether the book he has written qualifies as Jewish based on the number of Yiddish phrases contained therein or the amount of whitefish consumed by his characters.  And this is where things start to feel reductive.

To take my own work as a case in point, my first novel, Swimming Across the Hudson, had lots of Jewish subject matter; my second novel, Matrimony, had very little Jewish subject matter; and now The World Without You has lots of Jewish subject matter again.  Does that mean I was more of a Jewish writer for the first novel, less of a Jewish writer for the second novel, and more of a Jewish writer again for the third novel?  That’s just silly.  I’d also add that these kinds of questions serve to ghettoize a writer when good fiction is good fiction and should reach as broad an audience as possible.  No one asked Cheever whether he considered himself a male writer.  No one asked Updike whether he considered himself a WASP writer.

And now, in good Jewish tradition, I’m going to contradict myself.  I’m very interested in time in fiction, and I think this interest comes in large part from my own relationship to Judaism.  My last novel, Matrimony, took place over the course of twenty years, and when I started to write The World Without You I wanted to write a book with a very different relationship to time, so I set the book in compressed time, over the course of seventy-two hours.

Might I have been interested in doing this if I weren’t Jewish?  Of course.  But I do know that my own interest in time is directly connected to what time was like for me as a child–Shabbat starts at 6:32 this week, it ends at 7:35, there are two Adars this year so Passover is later, that kind of thing.  The story goes that when I was about five and we were moving the clock forward for Daylight Savings Time, I said to my parents, “Do non-Jews switch their clocks forward, too?”

Posted on June 18, 2012

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Rising to the Top

Pnina Jacobson and Judy Kempler are the authors of One Egg Is A Fortune.

Food has always been central to Jewish life – it holds both biblical and historical significance and often reflects our Jewish heritage. One Egg Is A Fortune shows that food is a great equaliser and, while considered a “Jewish” cookbook, appeals to the broader community all over. That being said, with thousands of books published annually, it’s sometimes difficult to rise to the top. Wikipedia quotes that in 2009 the U.S. alone published 288,355 new titles and editions. There are also a prolific number of cookbooks published with the popularity of cooking TV shows.

Book competitions are a way to promote awareness and sales. As self-publishers we entered some international competitions to increase the potential for a successful product. And it worked! One Egg Is A Fortune has been recognised on the world stage. It has won 3 awards:

  • Winner at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in the Australia/Pacific fundraising category (Paris, March 2012)
  • A silver medal in the cookbook category in the “World’s Largest Book Awards Contest” for independent authors and publishers in the United States (May 2012)
  • An Indie Excellence Award also in the United States (May 2012)

To be among the multi-award Jewish cookbook winners, including Gil Marks, Claudia Roden, Joan Nathan, Ruth Reichl, Marlena Spieler and Faye Levy, is humbling.

Equally humbling: being acknowledged by our non-Jewish community. Irina Dunn, who runs the Australian Writers Network, wrote: “this is without doubt the most beautiful and original recipe book I have ever laid my eyes on…remarkable in its conception, perfect in its production, beautiful in its execution.”

Zechariah Mehler, a widely published food writer who specializes in kosher cuisine wrote: “A buffet of stories and recipes benefit elder care … one of the most innovative cookbooks to be released in the kosher world.”

We’ll leave you now with a summer recipe:

Watermelon Salad

1 medium seedless watermelon
1 small white onion, very finely sliced
1 tablespoon fresh mint, finely chopped

Remove the skin and any seeds from the watermelon and cut into 2cm cubes.

Toss watermelon and onion lightly together in a large bowl and chill well. Sprinkle with fresh mint before serving.

(Serves 8–10)

Posted on June 15, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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