Monthly Archives: November 2012

Writing About Writing

The period immediately after your book comes out is a wonderful and strange time. On the one hand, the work you’ve done—which for most of its existence just hung out on the hard drive of your computer, feeling not quite real—is now in front of you, in a very concrete form, between two covers. Your work is a book, a thing with mass and substance, an object that other folks can find and get and read—maybe even folks you don’t know! In that way it’s the joyous culmination of perhaps years of work and efforts to get the work published.

On the other hand, it’s definitely a weird time. The main weirdness is that, when your book comes out, suddenly you’re probably doing all kinds of unusual things to help the book succeed: you may be giving readings, driving from one bookstore to another, sitting on panels, Googling yourself way too much and checking your Amazon Rank (please don’t, if you can help it)—and also perhaps doing what I’m doing here, which is writing about writing. Every one of these activities is the result of very good fortune—you couldn’t be doing them if you hadn’t gotten that book into print—and they’re generally a lot of fun (aside from Googling and Amazon Ranking, the dangers of which I cannot stress enough). Yet you’ll notice that there’s one thing missing from that list of activities: aside from writing about writing, you may not be doing very much writing at all—not the kind that probably led to the actual book you’re now holding in your hands.

It can sneak up on you. If you’re anything like me, spending too much time away from writing means getting more and more irritable, and getting on your loved ones’ nerves. Often it’s my wife who, finally fed up with me, demands that I find some time to write or else. In those moments, it’s even possible to get a little resentful of your own good fortune—I would be writing if only it wasn’t for all this author stuff! But I don’t recommend embracing that resentment. These author activities are not only fun, not only the fruits of tremendous good fortune—they can also be an important part of the creative cycle.

Writing about writing (like I’m doing right now) is a great example of that. When I’m in the midst of writing short stories or poems, I’m not thinking a lot about what I’m doing. First drafts come out in a sort of unplanned, raw way, and even revision involves some specific strategizing, but not much thought about big questions, like Why do I write? or Why am I writing in this particular form? or What’s the best way to get work done? or any of a variety of other possibilities. The time after a book gets published is actually a rare and valuable time to sit back and get some perspective on what you do. It can add layers of meaning to your work, and it can make you a better and more purposeful writer.

For example, this fall, my writing about writing has helped me to: finally understand the basic difference between a novelist and a short story writer; to get clear on how a short story collection comes together successfully; to really appreciate the fact that I use writing to understand things that initially confuse me; to explore the Jewishness of my work and my process; and—right here—to value the very writing about writing that I’m doing now. It has also helped me participate in a larger conversation between writers and readers—a conversation I first encountered as a little boy learning to read. I want to be a part of that, and I’m glad that I get to be.

Of course, none of this replaces the real writing, the stuff that you’re most passionate about. And it makes sense to get a little agitated if it’s been a while since the last story or poem, and it makes sense to get back to it as soon as you can. But in the meantime it’s probably worthwhile to pay close attention to all you’re doing as an author, because, even in the middle of all the strangeness, you have an enormous opportunity to grow as a writer.

And really—just leave those Amazon rankings alone.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

Posted on November 30, 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

What Makes a Creative Process Jewish?

Is my fiction Jewish? In my last blog post I came to a firm conclusion: yes—and no. Well, I think I can make the same bold claim for the creative process I go through when I’m writing. On the one hand, I have to do the things all writers do, whatever their background: I have to start with some promising, mysterious, uncertain thing (a line, a character, a mood), and work with it until something more whole develops, and keep things open so that I can revise and revise and revise, as drastically as is required, until I have a piece that I can comfortably call done. Again, this is what all writers do. Yet, when I look at it more closely, I have to say that I do those things pretty Jewishly.

What do I mean? Well, the creative process is a basically dead thing if it’s just a bunch of pre-ordained steps that you follow from start to finish. Creativity becomes powerful when it’s infused with purpose and meaning and direction—the distinct purpose, meaning, and direction brought to the work by each author—and that infusion, in my case, comes from the wisdom of Judaism.

There’s an old, old story (we’ve got some very old stories) that suggests that, when God was figuring out how to make the universe, God read the Torah for instructions. I love that. I also love the old wisdom of the Pirkei Avot, which says of the Torah, Turn it, turn it, for everything is in it. What all that tells me is that artists—folks who boldly engage in the act of creation—could get a lot out of that foundational text of ours.

As a matter of fact, one of my big recent projects was a book called The Artist’s Torah (Cascade Books), an attempt to take on the Torah, portion by portion, to see if each weekly reading had something—insight, reassurance, even instruction—to offer artists. I pretty much expected the project to fail. And yet it didn’t; portion after portion I found valuable ideas, images, and stories that were immensely relevant to my work as a writer. I found insights about the ties between creation and destruction; about how abundant inspiration and also the lack of it are both part of the process; about speaking out and silence; about the need to appeal to the senses in our work; about why we bother to create at all; about the dangerous attractions of publication and fame; about the close relationship between content and form; about fearlessly taking on difficult material; and so on.

I mean, the Torah is a rich and complicated book; you might be able to write something called The Lawyer’s Torah or The Parent’s Torah just as easily. (Take those ideas and run with them, someone.) So I’m not saying that the Torah is secretly just a message to artists, and that all other interpretations are misinterpretations. What I’m saying is just that artists have every reason to turn to some of our oldest sources of wisdom for aid and understanding in our own lives and work. One of the telling things was that I was simultaneously reading a lot of biographies—Jewish painters, choreographers, writers, etc.—and I saw them echoing the very things I was uncovering in the Torah, so I threw them in alongside the more ancient words and let the echoes speak for themselves.

I’ll make an example of the story that stands out the most for me: Adam and Eve. Not as traumatic a tale for us as for Christians, but still—it’s kind of a big deal when they eat the fruit and get kicked out of the garden. But why do they get kicked out? Because, so goes the story, they’ve eaten of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And what do they do right after they set up a new camp? They “know” each other and make a baby. In other words, as soon as they know the full range of potential in the world—good and evil both—they right away get started on the very first act of human creation. Which means our creativity might be fueled by the same kind of knowledge.

I carry that tale with me. As a Jewish writer, I think my job is, first and foremost, to come to know that full range of good and evil, beauty and brokenness, creation and destruction—to see it and to know it, and to start writing.

And that’s just the beginning.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

Posted on November 28, 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

What Makes a Short Story Jewish?

I think most Jewish writers, at one time or another, face the question of what makes them Jewish writers, as opposed to just writers. For example, consider Joshua Henkin’s blog post, “Are You A Jewish Writer?” posted on this very site, back in June. I personally run into this kind of question in panels at just about every literary conference I go to, during question-and-answer sessions at readings, in interviews, and so on. And I think it makes sense; ours is a history of, on the one hand, segregation from non-Jews, which tends to make a people very aware of its identity, and, on the other, it’s a history of needing to hang onto that identity across an enormous diversity of time and place. Without a doubt all of this tends to produce a mindset that wants to ask, “But is it Jewish?” It also tends to produce literature full of Jewish characters doing clearly Jewish stuff, super-Jewishly: rabbis, bar mitzvahsbagels, and so on.

But a writer can get tired of the question. As Henkin pointed out, “No one asked Updike whether he considered himself a WASP writer.” Indeed. In America in the 21st century, we Jews are still a somewhat identifiable community, with our rabbis and bar mitzvahs and the like, but let’s face it: a day in a (non-Orthodox) Jewish life is largely the same as a gentile life. We don’t spend all day saying: Oh, my G-d, I’m Jewish! I’m taking a Jewish shower! I’m doing my Jewish walk to work! What a Jewish day I’m having! For that reason, a lot of the stories (and poems, for that matter) I write are just intended to be stories, and not particularly Jewish stories. In other words, we live in a situation where we have the option of writing past our labels. And yet….

First of all, I do sometimes write really obviously Jewish stories. In “Jewish Day,” one of the stories from my new collection, Into the Wilderness, a family goes to a baseball game on “Jewish Heritage Day,” and the situation does bring up all kinds of identity issues for the characters. And even when my stories aren’t so obviously tied to my heritage, I think that heritage still matters. I think it does for all Jewish authors. Our history, our upbringing, our life cycle events, all come together to shape who we are, and we write out of that. (The same could probably be said for writers who are Hindu, Mormon, and so on.) Even when our characters are not Jewish, it matters that we are; it means that, instead of talking about our own community, we’re reaching out toward another one. In my story, “Is Any Thing Too Hard for the Lord?” there are two Christian characters praying to Jesus in a car; this is necessarily more an exercise in empathy than an exploration of my own identity.

When the characters are Jewish, we’re doing something else. For example, my story “Person of Interest” concerns a couple with a baby, staying in a shady rent-by-the-week building for the summer; one day, officers from the Department of Homeland Security stop by to arrest one of their neighbors, a young man from the United Arab Emirates. Now, anybody could have rented the apartment next to this guy, and you could argue that my characters just happened to be Jewish. (There are a few signs of their Jewishness, here and there, though it’s not trumpeted from the rooftops.) And so the story isn’t about Jewishness—yet I have to admit that their Jewishness does affect the story. First of all, the narrator’s sense of dislocation in the Midwest reflects the coastal urban origin of a significant number of Jews. More importantly, this incident involving an Arab man is more charged, because of the ongoing Middle-East conflict. It’s more significant. It changes what the events mean to the narrator, and to me. In these senses it is a Jewish story; Jewishness matters. And yet I insist: it’s also just a story, where I’m taking on broader concerns of security and purpose and responsibility.

And so, for me as an author, Jewishness does not have to be the question, or even a question, in every story. I ask any question my fiction leads me to ask. But I also recognize that, when I do so, I’m doing it sort of Jewishly. Bagels or no bagels.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

Posted on November 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

The Other

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

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

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

Posted on November 21, 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

Double Vision

Perhaps after I was born, someone sneaked into the hospital nursery and instead of snatching me, stood above me and whispered, “May You Have an Interesting Life.” The motives of this person would not have been clear, nor their intention – blessing or curse. But “interesting” is pretty much a guarantee for anyone who understands early in their life that they have been born into a world that is not their world; that they will need to exit and go forth from what they have known into the babel of many other tongues, satchel on their back, at any given moment looking both forward and back. We who have done so will forever have the understanding, the language of the insider while willingly – no desperately – at all costs – wanting to be outside.

I have not yet read Jeanette Winterson’s recent memoir but when I first read her novel, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, certainly inspired by her strange and interesting life of having been adopted into a family of evangelical Christians, I felt that I had found my sister. The extraordinary writer, Kate Wheeler, whose past includes a stint as a Buddhist nun in Burma, has a magnificent short story collection entitled Not Where I Started From. That would be an apt title for a memoir, should I ever decide to write one.

Like Shalom Auslander and Nathan Englander, I emerged from an Orthodox upbringing and am, in fact, the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi. Emerging and carving my own path was certainly fraught and difficult and cost a villa in the south of France worth of therapy, but it has also provided me a certain literacy in multiple points of view and in worlds that don’t typically meet and if they do, they are not always friendly.

For starters, we were Ashkenazic and my father was rabbi of a Sephardic shul. And so I grew up with a foot in each world and the very different values and priorities of those two worlds played out in my life in various ways. As a child, I knew Meir Kahana personally (he was married to my mother’s first cousin) but only a few years into adulthood, in Israel, ended up working for a left wing member of Knesset. I found myself coming to feel strongly about territorial compromise and a two-state solution while being intimate with the world of settlers. Three years ago, when my son was sixteen, I took him to Israel for his first time. I didn’t relish a trip to the West Bank, where my relatives lived, and so my sister-in-law, whom I love and respect very much despite our divergent views, concocted a five-day trip through the north of Israel. I should stop here and let you know that my brother was killed in the first week of the second Intifada and that my sister-in-law has spent the years since single-handedly raising seven kids. She told me that all of the kids, including my two married nieces’ husbands, would be coming. I assured her that I had brought my most modest bathing suit.

“Bathing suit?” she said and laughed.

The first day of our trip, my relatives made a point of finding banks of the Kinneret that were deserted, and hidden pools and parts of the Jordan river where we could pretty much be on our own. In blazing heat by the Kinneret I watched as she and all the girls meandered into the water in their clothes. (There was apparently no such restriction on the men!!!) There was no choice. I could remain outside and bake or cool off in my skirt and top. After three days of swimming in my clothes (I will state what some of you are thinking – yes there is an absurdity as clinging wet clothes are not exactly modest), I got used to it. One day a secular couple wandered into the area where we were swimming. The woman was pale and in a bikini and it stopped me. All that skin suddenly seemed superfluous. Distracting.

While I glibly tossed around story titles in my head like “My Vacation with Extremists,” on another level, what I was coming to understand was the embarrassment of riches I’ve been given in terms of a passport to cross the borders of such radically divergent worlds.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

Posted on November 20, 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

When a Story is Born Form First

Most of my stories begin with an image or a line that arrives whole and I follow it into the dark, as if with a headlamp and supplies for a long trek, seeking to illuminate what lies in front of it, to the sides, or in the way of back story, behind.

But two stories announced their form first. One of these was “Cul de Sac,” which came to me as a theme with several variations. I imagined it as a collection of stories that loosely shared a theme, only in miniature, and envisioned these miniature narratives all woven into one short story. The relationships between the characters and the various story lines, which involved betrayal and loss, would emerge with the writing. Instead of bridges or a chorus, the pieces would be tied together in a Coda. I knew this early on.

The other, “Waltz on East 6th Street,” arrived as a Triptych and hence its three panels. While I knew the general questions I wanted to tackle, I had no idea at the outset what each “panel” would comprise.

Once I accepted and grew comfortable with the fact that for this story, the form was an important element, there was a much deeper challenge. I found myself, as I’m sure other writers and artists have, asking myself if I had a right to write this story, to even touch Holocaust material.

I am not a child of survivors. I did however grow up with many – perhaps a third to a half of my friends were children of survivors, as were many of our Jewish day school teachers. Sixth grade Talmud class would cease mid-discussion as, without any warning, something would suddenly trigger our teacher to begin a story of what he’d endured. Though we barely talked about it amongst ourselves, we all knew there was a profound difference between the parents of our American born friends and the survivors, and consequently there was a difference between us.

Those of us born to American parents seemed innocent, naive, tabula rasa. Where the stakes were high in terms of how we did in school, which spouse or profession we chose, it was clear that they were not quite as high as for our friends who were children of survivors. The Holocaust was extremely present in our day school education, from the guest speakers to the many films we were shown from the early grades on. And so it would seem that there was nothing left to wonder about. But there was everything to wonder about.

Except in the case of our sixth grade teacher, it was in whispers and innuendo that we learned of people’s histories. And one never knew where the kernels of truth lay. The true stories of the people around us were not always discussed. We might know some salient detail: “So and so can never eat blended food because of the rations in the camps” or “so and so was the sole survivor in his family.”

It was later, when I read books by survivors themselves, Ilona Karmel’s An Estate of Memory and books by Primo Levi, that the details began to take shape, and as any writer or reader knows, it is the details that bring a story to life.

It was when those details became vivid that a question began to take shape for me in a new way: How did one survive? And I don’t mean the logistics or details of what they might have had to do to survive – which was, to my mind, quite beyond my ability or right to judge, but rather how did the spirit survive in the face of such multiple trauma? And then an associated question – Did we have a right to ask our questions? Did survivors who chose to remain silent not have a right to their silence? Did we want to risk an unraveling of the very weave that enabled them to continue?

These are the questions that animate “Waltz on East Sixth Street.”

As writers we often don’t know what we know until it’s on the page. Similarly it was only when looking back at this story and at “Cul de Sac,” that I understood that, of all my stories, perhaps it was these two that had declared their form first because the material they contained was so painful, I had to be sure of its containment before I could begin.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

Posted on November 19, 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

Semitic Squads

Each of our 50 essays focuses on an individual figure. (The closest there is to an exception is Deborah Lipstadt‘s moving piece, which is a memorial to the 11 Israeli athletes murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Summer Games in Munich; it focuses on the wrestler Yossef Romano.) Which got me thinking: if we were going to write a book called Jewish Teams—or, to keep the alliteration, Semitic Squads—which would make the cut?

Baseball: This one seems more difficult than it is. The Chicago Cubs’ perennial underdog status seems to reflect the Jewish ethos; the Boston Red Sox’ almost messianic redemption seems to reflect the Jewish story (unless it too closely reflects the Christian one!). The Detroit Tigers had Hank Greenberg, the Milwaukee Brewers have Ryan Braun. The San Francisco Giants trace their route back to New York City, and the New York Mets have claimed the mantle of New York teams departed. Which is to say nothing of the Yankees. However, talk of New York of course leads us to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Had this merely been the franchise that hosted Sandy Koufax, dayenu. But, of course, this was the last professional franchise to call Brooklyn home until the Brooklyn Nets debuted a couple of weeks ago. (In fact, for the first couple years of his career, Koufax played home games at Ebbets Field, about five miles from the Bensonhurst neighborhood where he’d grown up.) So, Dodgers it is.

Basketball: After New York, Philadelphia was the hotbed of Jewish basketball: Eddie Gottlieb managed the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association squad (the SPHAs) before becoming coach and then owner of the NBA’s Philadelphia Warriors. After they skipped town for San Francisco (they now play in Oakland and are known as the Golden State Warriors), the great Dolph Schayes’ Syracuse Nationals moved down to become the 76ers. Of course, the key phrase here is “after New York.” It was New York Jews who developed the game; Ossie Schechtman who scored the first basket in NBA history while playing for the New York Knickerbockers; and Red Holzman, profiled in our book by Todd Gitlin, who coached the Knicks to two championships 25 years later. Also, Woody Allen is a Knicks fan. This one isn’t even close.

Football: It would be simple to give this to the New York (football) Giants. They won the second-ever NFL championship when five-foot equipment manager Abe Cohen secured them special shoes to play on the iced-over Polo Grounds. They were quarterback Benny Friedman’s team. Even today, they are half-owned by film producer Steve Tisch. But enough with New York, right? Let’s give this to Al Davis’ team, the Oakland Raiders, now owned by his son. The real question is: are the Raiders a point of pride, or a shanda fur de goyim?

Hockey: In Jewish Jocks, Grantland writer Jonah Keri—whose professional focus is baseball—makes a case for his hometown Montreal Canadiens in the course of profiling defender Mathieu Schneider, and it’s a convincing one. The Canadiens have won more championships than any team in any other major sport except for the Yankees—but have not done so for nearly two decades, and these days (especially as a cancelled NHL season looms), they are as much an exercise in nostalgia as anything else. Sound familiar? Besides, hockey is like smoked meat to basketball’s pastrami, right?

Soccer: If we were restricting ourselves to the English Premier League, this would be the Tottenham Hotspurs, whose fans call them “Yids”—in a good way—in part due to their North London environs. But as Simon Kuper makes clear in his Jewish Jocks essay on Bennie Muller, it’s the Dutch squad Ajax that is undeniably the world’s most Jewish soccer club. It’s so Jewish that even non-Jewish players like superstar Johan Cruijff were assumed to be of the Tribe.

Olympics: On the one hand, there is a more or less official Jewish country. (More or less: I don’t mean to start any arguments here.) On the other hand, a different country has, by far, sent the most Jewish medal-winners to various Games. Our pick? The United States of America.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

Posted on November 18, 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

We Missed These Jewish Jocks. Do You Know Them?

In the movie Airplane, a passenger asks for some “light” reading and is offered “this leaflet, ‘Famous Jewish Sports Legends.'” But actually, we have 50 essays and could have easily assigned that many more. (Well, maybe not easily, but they’re out there.)

How well do you know Jewish Jocks? Below is a list of ten of them, none of whom made it into our volume, along with brief descriptions of who they were and are. Can you match the names and the descriptions? Let this quiz serve as proof that there is more than a leaflet to this subject.

1. Amy Alcott
2. Ryan Braun
3. Rod Carew
4. Sid Gilman
5. Fred Lebow
6. Red Klotz
7. Lip Pike
8. Steve Sabol
9. Abe Saperstein
10. Dara Torres

a. As head coach of the San Diego Chargers, developed a pass-heavy offense that serves as the template for contemporary football’s downfield attack.
b. Winner of five golf majors.
c. The impresario behind the Harlem Globetrotters, from its beginnings as a team that genuinely played to compete to the lovable bunch of pranksters you know today.
d. The only non-Jew on this list.
e. A 12-time Olympic gold-medalist swimmer.
f. Longtime head of NFL Films, whose gridiron documentaries shaped the mythological lens through which many see professional football.
g. The first professional baseball player–that is, the first person who was ever compensated for services rendered on the diamond.
h. To this day, the coach of the Washington Generals, the basketball team that ritualistically gets defeated by the Harlem Globetrotters.
i. Founder of the New York City Marathon.
j. Last season’s National League Most Valuable Player.

Answers can be found here. No Googling!

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

Posted on November 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

Sports Is Like Hollywood: They’re Both Jewish!

In Operation Shylock, Philip Roth wrote a passage that, had he not written it, we would have needed to invent:

The radio was playing ‘Easter Parade’ and I thought, But this is Jewish genius on a par with the Ten Commandments. God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and then He gave to Irving Berlin ‘Easter Parade’ and ‘White Christmas.’ The two holidays that celebrate the divinity of Christ—the divinity that’s the very heart of the Jewish rejection of Christianity—and what does Irving Berlin brilliantly do? He de-Christs them both! Easter he turns into a fashion show and Christmas into a holiday about snow.

It is old hat to point out that the story of America is of the melting pot, and that the tension is between the assimilators and those who cling to their old identities. But as Roth describes above, the Jewish story in America has represented a distinctive twist on that. Yes, there has been plenty of overcompensating gestures toward Americanness, as all of those Jewish babies named Norman, Lionel, and indeed Irving testify. But just as frequently, and more prominently, Jews have stepped in and changed the culture—have moved the mountain to themselves rather than moving to the mountain—and did so in such exciting and obviously appealing ways that everyone else followed their lead.

In music, Berlin de-Christed ChristmasGeorge Gershwin jazzed up the joint; and the musical was practically invented by Rodgers, Hart, and Hammerstein, and brought to glorious fruition in the work of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. Many non-Jews have made astounding contributions to American popular music, too, of course, but they worked in a rubric devised by these Jews.

Hollywood, famously, was “An Empire of Their Own,” to quote the title of Neil Gabler’s book, a dream-factory created by German Jewish moguls and nurtured into an art form by a group of emigre auteurs who fused Weimar-era seriousness with Yiddish humor. It is amazing to think that 1920s filmgoers who rushed to see The Jazz Singer, the first sound picture ever, saw Al Jolson (born Asa Yoelson) singing “Kol Nidre” at the climax.

In literature, Saul Bellow created the template for a brash new voice, with Norman Mailer and Philip Roth close behind. Roth himself once identified the swaggering tone of Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March with “the same sort of assertive gusto that the musical sons of immigrant Jews—Irving Berlin, Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Jerome Kern, Leonard Bernstein—brought to America’s radios, theatres, and concert halls by staking their claim to America (as subject, as inspiration, as audience).” When John Updike—a great novelist who is as not-Jewish as they come—wanted to create a sort of alter ego for himself, he created Henry Bech, because obviously his fictional Great American Novelist would have to be a Jew.

What Franklin Foer and I learned in the course of editing Jewish Jocks is that sports, too, is a realm in which Jewish innovations ended up influencing everyone else. The no-look passes and backdoor cuts of basketball trace their lineage to turn-of-the-century New York City, where smaller Jews devised ingenious strategems to defeat squads representing more physically endowed ethnicities; as Rebecca Newberger Goldstein notes in her essay on Barney Sedran (the shortest player in the Basketball Hall of Fame), Coach Harry Baum imported some of those commonplace concepts from lacrosse. In football, Benny Friedman and Sid Luckman (profiled by Rich Cohen in our book) invented the modern quarterback position as we know it; Howard Cosell (whom David Remnick wrote about) was the reason many fans tuned into Monday Night Football, which helped make that sport the massive spectacle it is today; and as Jonathan Mahler notes in our book, Daniel Okrent, by inventing fantasy sports, turned us into a nation of number-crunching Jewish sports fans. Cue the closing strains of “Rhapsody in Blue.”

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

Posted on November 13, 2012

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Wimps

Are Israeli guys real men? Yes, I mean the tank commanders and pilots and infantry sergeants. The ones who are viewed in so many places as the type specimens of the tough macho Jew.

That was the subject of an intriguing discussion I led yesterday at a session of a course in Hebrew literature in translation taught by my friend Adam Rovner at Denver University. (Adam has a vested interest in Hebrew literature in translation since his wife, Jessica Cohen, is responsible for many of the finest translations of Israeli literature available to the English-speaking public.) In preparation for the class, the students read two texts. The first was Etgar Keret‘s short story “Cocked and Locked,”about an Israeli soldier being mocked by a Palestinian rebel at a guard post. The second was “Wimps,” Chapter Five of Company C, my memoir of my service over nearly two decades in an Israeli infantry unit.

“Wimps,” like Keret’s story, portrays Israeli soldiers facing off against Palestinians in the territories. In the case of my chapter, it’s the height of the First Intifada in 1988. As well as chronicling how my unit coped with the challenges and moral issues presented by the Palestinian uprising, my chapter explores the relationship between army service and masculinity. Continue reading

Posted on November 9, 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