This past May I published an essay in The New York Times titled “Do the Jews Own Anxiety?” Not long afterward, I received an email from a reader I will call David C. David C. began his email by quoting my essay — “We, the Jews, have encouraged the world to think of us as anxious” — and proceeded over the course of 240 headlong words to berate me for being one of those “self-absorbed, highly neurotic” American Jews who are “quick to internalize the inferiority cast upon them by the gentiles.” The email ended in a particularly indignant fashion with the following lines: “With Jews like you, who needs anti-Semites? Kol tuv, boychik.”
I attended Hebrew school and was Bar Mitzvahed. I went to Brandeis, which has a prominent and esteemed Hebrew department. I have been to Israel. Yet I have no knowledge of the Hebrew language beyond a smattering of common words. I had no idea what kol tuv meant. I had to Google it.
All the best.
Kol tuv, boychik: All the best, young man.
David C. correspondent was sneering at me.
It wasn’t a pleasant email to receive, but I wasn’t surprised. I’d been expecting a note like this sooner or later. In fact, I was almost glad to receive it. David C.’s resentment was its own sort of Bar Mitzvah, its own coming of age. I had already been initiated, up there on the bimah twenty-one years ago, into the tribe of Jewish men. Now I had been initiated into the tribe of Jewish writers who get in trouble for discussing what is commonly referred to as “Jewish neurosis.”
The main reason I wasn’t surprised is that when I was in my late teens and twenties, I developed a passion for the work of Philip Roth. I had read, in the basement of the Brandeis library, Roth’s precocious 1959 debut, Goodbye, Columbus, and later his memoir The Facts, which he subtitled “A Novelist’s Autobiography.”
Roth was only twenty-six, an austere and brilliant literary novitiate, when he published Goodbye, Columbus. He was happy, no doubt, for the praise and adulation lavished on his book, but he was wholly unprepared for the angry criticism that came in the wake of success. In The Facts he tells the story of the “most bruising public exchange” of his life. He was appearing alongside Ralph Ellison and the novelist Pietro Di Donato on a panel at Yeshiva University when the audience turned antagonistic, then threatening. How, they insisted, could he have written about such unsavory, conniving, unethical Jewish characters? (They were especially upset about his short story “Defender of the Faith.”) Where was his tact? His compassion? His self-love? Where was his loyalty? As Roth tried to leave the hall, the most hostile of the audience members began to surround him and shout. Roth writes:
“I listened to the final verdict against me, as harsh a judgment as I ever hope to hear in this or any other world. I only began to shout, ‘Clear away, step back – I’m getting out of here,’ after somebody, shaking a fist in my face began to holler, ‘You were brought up on anti-Semitic literature!’ ‘Yes,’ I hollered back, ‘and what is that?’ – curiously wanting to know what he meant. ‘English literature!’ he cried. ‘English Literature is anti-Semitic literature.’”
In short, Roth had been trained in self-loathing. His critics deemed him a “self-hating” Jew. Or as my correspondent David C. asked: “With Jews like you, who needs anti-Semites?”
I don’t intend to compare myself to Philip Roth. (Perish the thought, sweet as it is.) I mean only to say that when one is a Jew who writes about his tribesmen in a way that can, in even a small way, be construed as undignified or unsavory, one has to be prepared for anger and insults — and sneering. David C.’s was only the first such response. I don’t expect it will be the last.
In my last post, I described the technical difficulties that occurred when I appeared on Talk of the Nation earlier this month. Instead of the regular broadcasting configuration — a single interviewee responding to the questions of a single interviewer — I was forced to contend with a welter of voices and noises created by wonky technology, all while trying to sound poised, normal, and more or less intelligent.
When the problem first occurred, I experienced a very familiar and unpleasant sensation: anxiety. My muscles tightened, my heart sped up, my brow started to sweat, and I felt a growing constriction in my chest muscles. Worse, because it threatened the proceedings, my thoughts began to race, first and briefly with questions about my sanity (“Where is all this noise coming from!?”) and then with questions about my abilities to handle the situation (“I’m going to lose it on air! I’m never going to get through this”).
But then another feeling took over, also familiar but this time much more comforting: focus. Once the host started to ask his questions — he was unaware that I could scarcely hear him through the din — all my worries burned off in the heat of what needed to be done. I was here. I was speaking live on national radio. I had no choice but to go forward.
I have a job to do, dammit!
This is a reaction for which I have become, throughout the years, very, very grateful. Not all anxiety sufferers do well under pressure. Does that sound like an odd formulation, given that anxiety is generally thought to be all about being bad under pressure? Well, it isn’t. Anxiety is more often about being bad with the consideration of pressure. Anxiety feeds off of uncertainty, contingency, and doubt. But high-pressured situations don’t necessarily contain these elements. As often as not, high-pressured situations wipe uncertainty, contingency, and doubt right off the table. And what is left in place of these things is … necessity. Purpose. The need for action. In short, the present moment and nothing but the present moment.
It is for these reasons that in my adult life I have often yearned for a more publicly performative job than writing. Writing is not only solitary, it is a deferment of performance. At the writing desk, one can always look back at what was already written and forward to what has not yet been written. This is a sure formula for anxiety. Performers, people who work on stage in front of live audiences, don’t have the luxury of this looking around. They are forced by conditions of immediacy to deal only with what is in front of them: this line, this reaction, this emotion, this idea.
Oh, to have that pressure more frequently! I’m in Los Angeles at the moment, talking about my book and seeing some friends. Maybe it’s time to go on a few auditions.
I know a little something about hearing voices. My first book, Muses, Madmen, and Prophets, was about auditory hallucinations — specifically, about how the experience transformed, over the course of centuries, from something that had spiritual and religious connotations to something that suggested madness and nothing more.
During the time of Moses, the Hebrew prophets, Jesus, St. Augustine, St. Teresa, right on up to the Enlightenment, hearing voices meant that you could, conceivably, be receiving messages from a divine source. People still might spit on you, humiliate you, exile you, or burn you at the stake. But there was a chance that they wouldn’t, and that you would be honored for your abilities. Then, sometime around the early nineteenth century, the medical establishment grabbed hold of hallucinations and hearing voices entered the realm of pathology. This was a shame not because people who hear voices are never mentally ill but because not everyone who hears voices is mentally ill. It’s the syllogism — if you hear voices, then you are psychotic — that’s incorrect and unfair. Many more people hear voices than need psychiatric help.
I mention all this because when I started to hear voices, a couple of weeks ago, I should have realized at once that I wasn’t going crazy.
My second book, Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety, had just been published and I was in a Manhattan studio about to be interviewed for the Washington, D.C.-based NPR show Talk of the Nation. The setup was already disorienting: for someone who’s not used to it, having to talk to someone you can’t see but can only hear through a set of enormous headphones — through which you can also hear, amplified several times over, your own voice — is very strange indeed. But the whole setup became more disorienting by far when I realized that I could hear not only my interviewer — the journalist John Donvan — but several other voices besides. At first I had no idea what was going on, and I became frightened. I have never heard voices before in my life, but my father heard voices, and so did his father. So far as I know, both began to hear voices early on, in childhood. I’m in my thirties; I figured I was safe, that the trait had skipped my generation. Could I have been wrong? Could I be experiencing a flourishing of hallucinations right at the start of an appearance on a nationally syndicated interview show?
Luckily, the problem wasn’t psychiatric but technical. Somewhere, somehow, wires had gotten crossed. For a half hour, I had to struggle to pick out John Donvan’s questions from a welter of other noises: crackles, static, another interview piped in from another show, and whatever conversations were going on in the sound booth in the adjacent room. It wasn’t insanity, and it wasn’t genetic destiny. It was just radio.
When I set out to write the story of the Aleppo Codex, I imagined that I would be writing an uplifting narrative about how a sacred book was rescued and returned home from the Diaspora to Jerusalem. It was, judging from the information I had at my disposal at the outset, a nice story. But that turned out not to be the case; the existing information was scant, ridden with omissions and often purposely misleading. The reasons for this turned out to be linked to important events in the codex’s recent past, and are, I believe, interesting and instructive for readers of history, and especially of Jewish history.
In 2008, when I started my own project after happening upon the codex at the Israel Museum, only one book had been written about this manuscript, the most important in Judaism and one of the most important in the world. This book was in Hebrew, and had been published in the 1980s by the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem, the academic body that is the manuscript’s official custodian. While I was working on my book, a second came out, this one in English, written by two American scholars and published by the venerable Jewish Publication Society.
The official story of the Aleppo Codex’s fascinating and tangled history in the twentieth century posited that it had been damaged around the time of an anti-Jewish riot in Aleppo in 1947, leading to the disappearance of 200 of its priceless pages; was hidden in Syria for ten years; and was then smuggled to Israel on the orders of the rabbis of Aleppo’s Jewish community and given to Israel’s second president, Itzhak Ben-Zvi, whose academic institute is still in charge of the manuscript to this day. This is the narrative I knew at the beginning.
In truth, I found in several years of research, very little of this was true. The codex ended up in the hands of the state of Israel through a series of complicated maneuvers by state authorities – the codex was effectively seized using agents who intercepted a Syrian courier in Turkey. The state protected itself by putting forward a false version of events at a subsequent trial in Jerusalem, records of which were then suppressed. And the striking damage to the codex – some 40 percent of it is missing, including the Torah itself – does not date to the 1947 riot, as the official version would have us believe. The codex was seen whole much later. In fact, there is no evidence that anything significant was missing when it reached Israel in 1957, a fact that was highly awkward and was thus covered up.
The professors at the prestigious, government-funded Ben-Zvi Institute could not publish that story, because it would embarrass the state and because the institute also had to hide a rather shocking and long-concealed scandal in its manuscript collection. The historians were torn between two roles – they were academic scholars whose job it was to tell the truth, of course, but they were also protectors of Israel’s official narrative, of its institutions and leaders. In the story of the codex these roles could not be reconciled, so they chose the latter. The writer they employed to author their book about the codex was, perhaps tellingly, a novelist, a sweet-tempered man who lacked a journalist’s nose for dirt and who was then ably manipulated and censored by the academics who controlled the codex and its story. Continue reading
Having just spent four years on a book about the biblical manuscript known as the Aleppo Codex, I can say with some certainty that some of the most important things I learned had nothing to do with the codex at all, but rather with the people who guarded it. I came to think of this as a hidden history behind events in the Middle East.
The Jewish community of Aleppo, a trading city in northern Syria where this manuscript was kept in a synagogue for six centuries, was one of the communities we sometimes think of – to the extent that we think of them at all – as belonging to the lands of Islam. But Islam came to those places only long after the Jews were already there; the Aleppo Jews, for example, were in the city roughly a millennium before Muhammad preached in Arabia and before his adherents arrived in Syria. In Aleppo, and in many cities throughout the Middle East, the Jews were natives in a way that those of us of European descent, with our transient ancestors, can hardly imagine.
On November 30, 1947, mobs in Aleppo incensed by the UN vote to partition Palestine the previous day attacked the city’s Jews. I interviewed people who remembered the rioters torching synagogues, making piles of Hebrew manuscripts, prayer shawls and phylacteries and setting them alight. Like a different wave of riots in Europe nine years before, this one was a harbinger of the end for a Jewish way of life: Today, Jewish Aleppo has vanished; its residents were among the 850,000 Jews forced out of their ancestral homes in Islamic countries.
Two Jewish worlds came to an end in the 1940s. We are familiar with the first, which many of us think of simply as the Jewish world: Jewish humor, Jewish cuisine, Jewish writing – all of these terms apply, in North American parlance, to the Jews of Europe. The Jewish world of the Middle East included fewer people and ended in less cataclysmic circumstances. But it was just as Jewish and just as important, and it is just as gone.
In discussing the modern state of Israel, the Jews of the Middle East are often mentioned as a kind of curiosity, an aside in what we tell as a European story – pogroms, Herzl, Zionism, the Holocaust. In this story, Jews and Arabs first encountered each other in the late nineteenth century; we imagine the Russian-born pioneer encountering the Arab fellah on the rocky soil of Palestine. But that isn’t true, and the Jews who had always lived in the Middle East are not a footnote.
When Islam began in Arabia, Jews were there, and when the first Muslims began spreading to cities across the Mideast, they found Jews there as well. Jews were recognized by Islam as a protected, second-class ethnic group, dhimmi, sometimes persecuted, sometimes tolerated. They were generally considered to be effete and without honor. In recent years it has become common to speak of the Muslim Middle East as a haven in which Jews thrived, but this is nonsense; the Islamic world owes its good reputation in this regard to Europeans, who set a standard for mistreatment that is impossible to match. Continue reading
Although it fell, in retrospect, at the mid-point between the launch of the Kindle and the Kindle 2, I don’t think I had more than a vague notion of what a Kindle was on the day in the summer of 2008 when I first descended into a dark room at Israel’s national museum in Jerusalem and, standing in front of a dimly lit display case, encountered its exact opposite.
I spent much of the next four years writing the story of the object I found in the museum, a manuscript known as the Aleppo Codex – a millennium-old bundle of animal skins that is the oldest and most accurate copy of the entire Hebrew Bible. In these years I was not cut off entirely from the march of technology. I acquired an iPod, and learned to send e-mail from my cellphone. But I never purchased a Kindle or any of its cousins, nor did I fully understand what they augured.
The Aleppo Codex is a book, one of the most important on earth. I wrote a book about this book. These things seemed clear to me, but when my deadline passed and I finally looked up to find myself staring into the dead electronic eye of the Kindle Fire, I saw that the meaning of “book” had been altered and that I had just spent these years of revolution engrossed in a mirror image of the present.
To prepare the Aleppo Codex, tanners scrubbed, stretched and cut animal hides into folios that were stitched together by craftsmen. Someone scored a grid of lines onto the pages with a sharp instrument, and a scribe, Shlomo Ben-Buya’a, from the town of Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee, used iron gall ink to write the Bible’s more than 300,000 Hebrew words one by one. Its completion around 930 A.D. after years of work represented the final condensation of the Hebrew Bible from an ancient oral tradition to a codified text in black ink on parchment – a book. The codex crowned centuries of scholarship and was meant to be the perfect version of the twenty-four books that made up the Bible, a kind of physical incarnation of the heavenly text in a single manuscript.
For Jews, every letter and vowel sound in the Hebrew text is crucial – according to one tradition, the entire Torah is one long version of God’s name, which is another way of saying you do not want to get anything wrong. The codex sanctified, even fetishized, the act of reading: above and below the letters were tiny hooks, lines and circles denoting vowels, punctuation and the precise notes to which the words were to be chanted in synagogue. It was an object of nearly unimaginable value to the people who revered it.
An electronic book exists in an infinite number of copies; there is no original. The Aleppo Codex, on the other hand, existed only in its original five-hundred-page manuscript. There were no copies at all, and for this reason its physical safety was always paramount. In 1099, it was held in a Jerusalem synagogue when the First Crusade arrived under Duke Godfrey of Bouillon and Raymond, Count of Toulouse. The crusaders sacked the city, massacred its inhabitants, and seized property. According to a Muslim historian, they burned a synagogue with Jews inside, but historical records also inform us that the Christians saved hundreds of Jewish books to hold for ransom.
The Jews’ weakness in this regard was well known, and in some of the correspondences of the time it seems their concern for the stolen books was so great that it rivaled their concern for human captives. The books, each one painstakingly copied, like the codex, by hand, contained priceless and sometimes irreplaceable information. After Jerusalem fell, the Jewish community in Fustat, next to Cairo, raised money and sent 123 dinars with an emissary and instructions to “redeem the Scrolls of the Torah and to [attend to] the ransoming of the people of God, who are in the captivity of the Kingdom of Evil, may God destroy it.” The books, in that sentence, came first. Continue reading
It was several years ago when my mother went for a flu shot to our family doctor, an avuncular, bearded South African whose medical practice comfortably services at least half of north-west London’s Jewry. It is a position that requires front-line heroism when one considers the demographic; the armchair physicians and proxy-hypochondriacs and tirelessly frantic Jewish mothers. His desk is a confusion of stuffed animals and rubber chew toys, brightly coloured and easily disinfected, the armoury of the family practitioner. Dr Winter oversaw the removal of almost half the tonsils in my junior school classroom, and has attended to the food poisonings and holiday vaccinations and slipped discs of most of our synagogue. My family has been going to him since 1985. And so, a flu shot for Mrs Segal. But the doctor was conscious of a far more serious threat to her well-being.
‘Nu?’ he demanded, settling back for a chat. ‘Why isn’t she married?’
At the time I was twenty-seven.
‘Never mind, I have someone. Nice boy. Older. Westminster and Oxford, like Francesca. He’ll call her. Leave it with me.’
And so my mother left, inoculated against both flu and, it was hoped, social disgrace, clutching the prescription for a son-in-law.
A lot about north-west London is embodied in that anecdote. No one involved is remotely religious. My parents, unlike many of the neighbours, couldn’t have cared less than I hadn’t married young; they were proud I was doing well at work, and only gave my romantic status a moment’s anxiety when someone else drew their attention to it. But the community here is small and tightly-knit and has remained socially conservative, even as religious practice falls away in favour of tradition. Everyone knows everyone, and can probably name the whereabouts of all kindergarten classmates. There are simply not enough of us to render the shidduch defunct; that charming man you met at a dinner party is, statistically, unlikely to be in the tribe. It’s a lovely place to grow up, but in early adulthood in particular, the warmth can border on claustrophobia.
Despite the Crossing Delancey parochialism of our introduction, I actually spent six rather tempestuous months with the doctor’s prescribed gentleman. He was handsome, and it therefore took a little while to realise that he was also, as the endlessly applicable saying goes, Not That Into Me. But if nothing else, the whole episode illustrated the strength and vigour of the north-west London grapevine, nourished as it is by the fertile soil of local gossip, because less than a week after we broke up, Dr Winter was on the phone to my mother.
‘Did it work?’ he demanded. This was mere feint; fifteen patients that morning had no doubt already told him that it hadn’t. ‘No? Never mind, I have a backup.’
This time, valiantly, my mother tried to fend him off. Dr Winter would not accept her refusal. But I must thank him because it was the backup, in many ways, who defined my fate.
‘Dr Winter has called and given me your number. I am very flattered,’ read his email, as if I had been declaiming sonnets beneath his window when, in fact, this email was the first I’d heard of him, ‘but I’m sorry to tell you that I have just started seeing someone. If it doesn’t work out with her then I will certainly get in touch in the future. PS. Did you go to King Alfred’s School? I think my sister knows you.’
It was shortly after that email (which I did not answer, lest you were concerned) that I decided to move to New York. And it was shortly after moving to New York – safely buffered from home by the Atlantic – that I decided to write a novel set back home. North-west London and I have made up now, and these days I spend most of my time there. But two years away afforded me a fantastic perspective – and the opportunity to remember all its strengths, as well as to smile at its foibles with fondness.
It’s amazing how many North Londoners have taken me aside in a furtive, conspiratorial kind of manner, in order to ask me for the truth. ‘Go on,’ a new acquaintance might urge, within moments of our meeting, ‘you can tell me. Who is it based on? Who are they really? I won’t tell anyone.’ Many people share the conviction that fiction must draw its cast members, if not its story lines, from the writer’s own life, and that conviction seems to be redoubled when the fiction in question takes place in a specific, familiar world. I grew up in Golders Green, a small Jewish suburb in North London, and my novel The Innocents is set nearby, in Hampstead Garden Suburb. Perhaps it was therefore inevitable.
The truth, however, is less scandalous. My fiction is just that – fiction – as are my characters. I have lived in north-west London for almost my whole life, during which I have had more than three decades to make a fond, if sometimes exasperated study of its nuances, its climate, its residents. North London and I are old, old friends. And so Adam and Rachel are truly based on no one in particular, because each is based on a hundred people – just as they are formed, like any character in fiction, from who-knows-what preoccupations dredged from the murky bottom of my psyche. Rather than simply to create portraits of people one knows in real life, the fantastic joy and liberation of writing is to spend time in the company of the new people one has invented, and to discover what will happen to them.
Francesca Segal’s novel The Innocents is now available.
I would never have set out to recast a classic, Pulitzer-winning American novel– it seemed the height of chutzpah. But once the idea took up residence in my mind it proved impossible to dislodge. I was living in New York when I read it – far away from the Jewish community in north-west London in which I have lived for most of my life. And, reading a novel set in 1870’s haute New York society, I felt such an unexpected, urgent, vivid sense of recognition that I could no longer imagine writing another word until I had written this. The trappings were different but the social concerns, the pressures, the closeness and longevity of friendships, the judgement, the parochialism, and the paramount importance of What Everybody Thinks – it was just the same. Golden Age New York to Golders Green. The central dilemmas remain essential and unresolved.
Wharton’s novel provided a vehicle; a means to explore certain questions that intrigued me. What is it that makes a good marriage? Is it friendship and common interest, or is it passion? Is romantic love the cornerstone of a happy life? Are there other loves – parental, familial, communal – that can be equally fulfilling, or do they remain hollow without a driving passion for one soul beside you? I have heard both cases put with eloquence and conviction, and I wanted to examine these, amongst other ideas. I would never presume to tell a reader how to interpret my novel – I adore the conflicting emails I’ve had from readers – equally impassioned messages of either joy or outrage on discovering the choice that Adam ultimately makes between Rachel and Ellie; between safety and freedom; between family and passion.
You can join Francesca Segal and Jewish Book Council on July 16th for a Twitter Book Club conversation.
As a public speaker and comic book educator, people often ask me to recommend comic books or graphic novels of Jewish interest.
Of course, I have to recommend my own graphic novel, Not The Israel My Parents Promised Me, which is just being released. However, all self-promotion aside, I thought I would also take a look at other Israel-themed comix. (Point of clarification: “comix”= comic books, graphic novels, webcomics, zines, etc.)
Some readers might be well versed in this literary nook of novel stories, memoirs, and editorial essays. Joe Sacco’s work with Palestine and Footnotes From Gaza , Miriam Libicki’s Jobnik!, and Sarah Glidden’s How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less are well regarded examples of personal accounts of Israel. However, I wanted to share some comix that continue in that vein but also veer into other territories.
Best of Enemies:A History of US and Middle East Relations, Part One: 1783-1953
By Jean-Pierre Filiu and David B. Abrams Books
For a straightforward narrative that also includes some amazing illustration, check out this book. David B. is the artist that brought you Epileptic and his work is amazing. If books like this existed while you were in history class, all those wars, treaties and dead politicians would have made a lot more sense, or at least have more personality. A great book for inquisitive teens interested in history and social critique.
This one is the most intimate and powerful of the bunch. Farm 54 is composed of three semi-autobiographical vignettes that chart an Israeli girl’s growth as an adolescent to young soldier amid the realities of death and war. The book is written and drawn by a brother and sister creative team from Israel. The illustrations are evocative of print making by using a single color offset. The result is simple and stunning sequences that create a visual language that is unique and almost haunting. =”#1″>A great read for open-minded teenage girls and boys.
By Guy Delisle
This book is great for people who have lived in Israel at one point in their lives. I’m not sure if current residents would look so nostalgically at the quirky way that Jerusalem is depicted in this enthralling travel journal by acclaimed Canadian artist/scribe, Guy Delisle. I found the small observations about playgrounds in East and West Jerusalem and the way Israelis treated North Americans who are not Jewish to be fascinating. The book is beautifully crafted and just won big at Angouleme 2012. It might be too dense for most teens, but great for wandering Jews that love to travel.
By Dorit Maya Gur
Created by an Israeli illustrator to defy clichéd depictions of heroes in Israeli culture, Falafel Man is part action and part political satire. With the ability to shoot sizzling hot falafel at his enemies, this super-hero is reminiscent of The Tick and Aqua Teen Hunger Force. The female author attains an impressive level of pubescent crassness usually reserved for thirteen-year old boys. This comic is currently available only in Hebrew. It will be hard to find unless you can get to the great comic book store, Comics and Vegetables in Tel Aviv.
Shirley: A Sex Comedy
By Noa Abarbanel and Amitai Sandy
Part of the Israeli hipster comix collective Dimona, artists Abarbanel and Sandy create a fun and equally bizarre tale that is definitely NSFW and not for kids under 16. However, if you’re the type of parent who is looking for frank and non-exploitive depictions of sexuality and dating dos-and-don’ts, this book is actually quite appropriate. It’s like that TV show Girls, but set in Israel. Versions in English and Hebrew are in print.