Monthly Archives: February 2013

Transforming the Magical

Yitzhak_HaLevi_Herzog_1945_portraitWe were sitting in an upscale café in Northern Tel Aviv waiting to meet with Knesset member Yitzchak “Bougie” Herzog. As number two in the Israeli Labor party, he was in the middle of campaigning for the upcoming elections, and we were grateful to have a few minutes of his time. The purpose of our meeting was to present him with a copy of our book,The Rarest Blue, and to thank him for the information he had provided while we were preparing it. The dedication that we had inscribed in the book included our desire “to express our inestimable appreciation for the work of your namesake, your grandfather the great Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog, whose contributions to the study of tekhelet were unparalleled.”

Tekhelet, the precious blue that, in accordance with the biblical commandment, colored one string of the tzitzit worn by Jews in ancient times, was the subject of our book and also the theme of Rabbi Herzog’s doctoral dissertation for the University of London almost a century ago. His thesis investigated all aspects of the topic in an attempt to determine why the technology of manufacturing the dye had disappeared from the world, when exactly it had been lost, and what was the mysterious source of the valuable dye. His doctorate was the beginning of a life-long passion whose ultimate goal – the restoration of the forgotten biblical commandment – would not be realized until after Rabbi Herzog’s death.

As our exploration into the Rabbi’s life and work progressed, our admiration for him grew. He was a unique sort of genius: a brilliant Talmudist, he also was thoroughly versed in diverse fields from history to law to chemistry, and was fluent in 12 languages. But Herzog was no scholar in a cloistered library. He was a man of action who felt a burning responsibility for his people. Chief Rabbi, first of Ireland (1919-1936), then of Palestine, and eventually of the State of Israel (a position he held until his death in 1959), his tenure was one that coincided with the most devastating horrors for the Jewish people as well as their greatest moments of triumph.

Rabbi Herzog’s scholarly work radically transformed the traditional Jewish perception of tekhelet. Before him, many if not most religious Jews believed that the hillazon, the sea animal that, according to the Talmud, produced the precious dye, was some kind of magical, mythical creature akin to the shamir – the legendary worm capable of boring through any material and used to hew the stone for the altar in the Temple, or the Leviathan on which it is said the righteous will feast in the World to Come. Tekhelet, most Jews thought, would be restored only when the third temple descended from Heaven, since both belonged to that miraculous realm. But Rabbi Herzog argued that tekhelet was a natural phenomenon and that the hillazon was a physical albeit elusive sea snail that could be rediscovered through intense scientific, historical, and archaeological research. And that is exactly what happened. Because of Rabbi Herzog’s paradigm shift, today hundreds of thousands of Jews around the world wear the tekhelet that had been lost for 1,300 years.

The ability to innovate that Rabbi Herzog displayed in his doctorate became a hallmark characteristic of his work throughout his life. His most significant achievements had to do with the application of Jewish law in ingenious and often daring ways in order to achieve a harmony within the complex interplay of values confronting the modern, democratic, religious state of Israel – an entity that had never been conceived of before.

Rabbi Herzog stands as a role model for all, challenging us not only to study as much as we can, not only to take action to realize our dreams, but to stretch the very boundaries of our imagination and create completely novel ways of thinking, and to transform the magical into the practical.

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

Posted on February 28, 2013

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

Can Israel Help American Jews Recall Their Own Forgotten Heroes?

louis.marshallNow that my previous blog established to everyone’s complete satisfaction that Louis Marshall ought to be considered a paramount figure in the history of America’s Jewish community, and, in fact, that his personal archive contains papers of import comparable to Newton’s apple-stained original draft of the law of universal gravitation, it behooves me to wrestle with a question that arose a few times during the drafting of my biography of Marshall. Here it is: given that Louis Marshall was the man who successfully dictated the terms of Henry Ford‘s apology for the Dearborn Independent‘s scurrilous anti-Semitic campaign, who drafted the terms for Jewish minority rights in Eastern Europe after World War I, who argued before the Supreme Court more times than any attorney in his era, who was a founder of many of American Jewry’s premier organizations and institutions, and who became (in his final crusade) a progenitor of American Jewry’s special relationship with Israel, why did it take over eighty years for som eschlemozzle to publish a full-length biography of him?

Formulated in that way, this question is a bit misleading and self-serving. Two or three books about Marshall were published in years after his death. Morton Rosenstock’s Louis Marshall: Defender of Jewish Rights is the best known. Biographical in structure though not comprehensive in intent, they are very informative and useful volumes.

Also, Marshall’s preeminent position in early 20th century American Jewish organized affairs is at least implicitly recognized by the quality of scholars who wrote noticeably extensive articles about important facets of his life, such as his campaign with the American Jewish Committee to “abrogate” America’s commercial treaty with Russia, due to Tsarist discrimination, or his part in the dispute about the formation of the American Jewish Congress, or his relations with the Forward newspaper and its socialist editor,Abraham Cahan. All readers of seminal works in Modern Jewish History will recognize the names of these scholars (Naomi Cohen, Jonathan Frankel, Lucy Dawidowicz) whose intensive probing of key episodes in Marshall’s life is suggestive of its magnetic significance.

Just as surely, the lack of a systematic biography about Louis Marshall has long been regarded a curious anomaly; and from time to time, most recently in a special spring 2008 edition of the American Jewish History journal, scholars and students have publicly scratched their heads in puzzlement about this lacuna. Continue reading

Posted on February 27, 2013

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Obsession in Blue

rarest.blueWe admit it, we are obsessed with blue. Also with seashells and snails. Our house is filled with skeins of blue threads, tufts of wool in every shade of blue imaginable, and dozens of shells of different sizes and peculiar shapes. But we weren’t always so infatuated.

We were introduced to the wonderful world of blue quite by chance. Late one Thursday night, around twenty years ago, an old high-school buddy called and asked if I would like to join him the next day to go scuba diving in the Mediterranean. He was going to help a dedicated rabbi collect some sea-snails. Not just any snails, but a particular species that had once been used to produce the fabulously expensive and stunning dye known as biblical blue, or tekhelet. In the ancient world, tekhelet had been a cornerstone commodity worth up to twenty times its weight in gold, but for centuries it had been lost and all but forgotten. Only recently had there been a revival of interest in the ancient dyeing process. I myself had only a faint knowledge of the topic of tekhelet, which is mentioned numerous times in the Bible as the main component of the priestly garments and the decorative curtains of the Temple.

The night my friend called was cold and wintery, and the next day was going to be the same or worse. Joining him would mean that I’d have to wake up before dawn in order to make it from my home in Jerusalem to the Northern coast and back before Shabbat. I had every reason to bow out, but words seemed to come out of my mouth before I could properly think them through: “Sure – see you at four.” Those words were the beginning of an adventure that would start as a curiosity, develop into a passion, and ultimately become the obsession that virtually defines my identity.
Continue reading

Posted on February 26, 2013

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Ten Percent of American Jewry’s Top 100 List

louis.marshallHere’s a thought experiment designed to show you how the Jewish world does not work today. Imagine that some extremely committed, professionally accomplished Jewish individual arose today in America, and suddenly served as lay director of key Jewish religious institutions, stewarded vital Jewish community interests on Capitol Hill, supervised American Jewish contacts with Israeli leaders, and managed campaigns for imperiled or impoverished Jewish communities around the world. You’re thinking about a Jewish Papacy that could never arise – at least never again.

Let’s expand these experimental terms, and move beyond the concerns of Modern Jewish History and think about ethnic realities in American History. When has it ever happened that the acknowledged leader of one ethnic group takes up the reins for other ethnic groups, managing and directing their courtroom and public battles against discrimination and prejudice? How many ethnic leaders in America have attended to the parochial affairs of their own group, fought for justice for other socio-religious groups, and creatively broadened conceptualizations of legal rights to afford protection to the environment?

By all these, Jewish History, American History and Ethnic History, standards, Louis Marshall’s life (1856-1929) stands out as a singular, and compellingly intriguing, event.

Reviewing items stored in his archive, at the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, I wondered how many lives could have collected so many papers that would have to be ranked with the “Top 100 documents in American Jewish History.” No matter how seriously or entertainingly one might envision such a list – whether it would include George Washington’s letter to the Jews of Newport or Sandy Koufax’s first contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers – Marshall’s collection would likely provide 10 percent, or more, of the items. Henry Ford‘s apology to the Jews (sent to, and dictated by, Marshall) is in the Cincinnati archive, as is the recently discovered “Protocol of Peace” agreement ending the great cloakmakers strike of 1910, along with cornerstone documents of the early phases of signature American Jewish organizations and institutions (the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Joint Distribution Committee). Continue reading

Posted on February 25, 2013

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

Places Never Seen

other.side.of.the.worldMy most recently published novel, The Other Side of the World, contains a 100-page novel-within-the-novel set entirely in Singapore and Borneo. The book appeared in early December, and since then readers and interviewers keep asking an obvious question: Have you ever been to Singapore and/or Borneo?

The answer: No . . .

And the response to this answer is often bewilderment, as in: How can you write about a place you’ve never seen or been to? To this point no one, including friends and reviewers who have been to Singapore and Borneo, has questioned the credibility of the Singapore and Borneo I’ve conjured up. But why should people believe that a fiction writer has to go to a place in order to write about it? An earlier novel of mine, The Stolen Jew (1981), begins in Israel, on a beach in Herzlia, and I wrote this novel before I’d ever been to Israel. The Stolen Jew also contains several sections set in the Soviet Union, both in time-present (about smuggling out a Jewish dissident), and in the nineteenth century (about a Jewish boy kidnapped to take the place of another Jewish boy for 25 year service in the Tsar’s army—the dreaded cantonist gzeyra).

I had never been to the Soviet Union.
Continue reading

Posted on February 22, 2013

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Interview: Ben Katchor and Hand-Drying in America

Eddy Portnoy sat down with Ben Katchor to discuss his newest book, Hand-Drying in America: And Other Stories, which will be published by Pantheon Books on March 5th.  

ben.katchorThe artist Ben Katchor is a master of a visual urban milieu that echoes post-war New York City, but really isn’t that at all. Populated by stocky characters who tramp about and explore an oddly familiar, yet completely invented universe, Katchor’s picture-stories (as he likes to call them) are stirring forays into the urban absurd. Awarded with Guggenheims and MacArthurs, among others, Katchor creates a kind of visual poetry comprised of everyday artifacts and activities. His ability to bring everyday objects and activities to the forefront of his visual narratives lends his work an imaginative, absurdist quality fired by light switches, peepholes, wheelchair ramps, coat check rooms and invented occupations, like spittoon pump engineers and rhumba line organizers. Katchor sees what we don’t in pedestrian objects and events and crafts short, comic narratives out of them. His books, which include Julius Knipl, Real Estate PhotographerThe Jew of New York, and The Cardboard Valise, are part of his continually expanding oeuvre, which has come to include operas based on a number of his stories.

His most recent publication, Hand-Drying in America, is a compilation of full-color, one-page picture stories that appeared in the urban design and architecture magazine, Metropolis. Like most of his work, they take place in an invented Katchoresque urban world. I sat down with Ben recently to have a meandering discussion about it.

Eddy Portnoy: Your stories are full of unusual names of people and places, are any of them real?
Ben Katchor: It’s strange when someone tells you that you’ve made a literary, or cultural, reference in a strip to someone you’ve never heard of. It’s something I made up, but then they say that’s the famous Israeli comedian. Somebody wrote a whole thesis centered around the connection between the character, Kishon, in The Jew of New York, and the Israeli writer, Ephraim Kishon, who I had never heard of. I just like the sound of the name, like a cushion or a pillow (in Yiddish). Some, like Harkavy, in The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island, are real references (in this case, to Yiddish author, Alexander Harkavy).

EP: Jewish names and references sometimes pop up in your work. Is there a Jewish component to this book?
BK: Well, only that the the author had parents who grew up in a more traditional, early twentieth century Jewish culture.
Continue reading

Posted on February 21, 2013

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A Rabbi’s Tale

news.from.the.new.american.diasporaSome years ago, when I was president of Congregation B’nai Israel, in Northampton, Massachusetts, I wrote a short story I set in my synagogue. Here, Chagall-like, are the story’s opening lines:

When the telephone rang, shortly after three a.m. on a cold, early November morning—Officer Ed Sedowski calling to say that a lost Torah had been found wandering around the local shopping mall—Rabbi Saul Gewirtz was fast asleep on his living room couch, having taken himself there some two hours before, following a fight with his wife Pauline.

I had a delightful time conjuring up an imaginary rabbi’s life—I rewrote the story several times, published it in a good literary quarterly, and several years later the story became the title story of my third collection, News from the New American Diaspora and Other Tales of Exile. The stories I gathered for this collection spanned most of the twentieth century of Jewish-American life, and in 2005, at the time of the book’s publication, I returned to Northampton to give a reading at the synagogue. (A wandering Jew myself, after 30 years of exile in New England, I had, in 1999, left Northampton and returned to my home town of New York City.)

But many years before this, when the story was a manuscript, I had shown it to our B’nai Israel rabbi, Philip Graubart, himself a marvelous novelist and short story writer. Philip and I were friends, and I asked him to take a look at it, especially because in the story I had detailed a day in Rabbi Saul Gewirtz’s life. In that single day, Rabbi Gewirtz is attacked by a man with AIDS, who spits on the rescued Torah, and accuses the rabbi of being a heartless unforgiving God and smug Jewish doctor rolled into one; he is sexually assaulted and cursed by a female congregant with whom he had once had an affair; he is harangued by a Russian Jewish emigré whose children despise him, and whose wife has left him, and who, weeping away, asks the rabbi why God plays jokes with honest men. Continue reading

Posted on February 20, 2013

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The Art of Silence

american.sun.and.windAlthough my novel, The American Sun & Wind Moving Picture Company, is set in the silent film era—it begins in 1915, in Fort Lee, New Jersey, where a a Jewish family that makes one and two reel (silent) films is making a new film on a frozen lake—its origins may lie in the spoken word. When friends ask how and why I came to write a novel about the silent film era, the first answer that comes to mind is that the novel is inspired not by my love of film, but by my childhood love of listening to stories on the radio.

During my years in high school, in Brooklyn in the early fifties, the New York City Board of Education’s radio station, WNYE-FM, regularly broadcast radio programs into elementary, junior high, and high school classrooms. And during those years I was a child/teenage actor at the radio station. I played some wonderful parts—Tom Sawyer, Hans Brinker, Willie the Whale, young Abe Lincoln, et al—and what the director of the station, Marjorie Knudsen, taught me on my first day there has stayed with me throughout my life. The most important element an actor has at his or her command for creating character, she said, were not words, but silence. The way you pause before a word, or between sentences, or after a particular phrase, or in the middle of a word—this, she said, is what makes listeners pay attention so that they can, in their imaginations, transform what they hear—and do not hear—into credible characters and scenes. The mystery of character—and the essence of what made listeners want to know what-happens-next, lay in those moments when there was no sound.

Here, then, from the first page of The American Sun & Wind Moving Picture Company, Joey Levine, a boy who plays both male and female parts in his family’s movies, and who conjures up the stories that his family turns into movies:

I could make a story out of anything back then—a nail, a glass, a shoe, a tree, a mirror, a button, a window, a wall—and for every story I made up and gave away, I also made one up that I told no one about—one I stored inside me, in the rooms where I kept my most precious memories and pictures.

What Joey is doing, I now realize (I didn’t see or understand this when I was writing the novel, which is told in his voice), is trying to conjure up the seen from the unseen—just as, when listening to the radio as a boy, I conjured up live human beings I could see in my mind’s eye, and to some degree like viewers of silent movies, who had to infer the unseen—the mysteries and complexities of character—from the seen. Viewers, that is, had to infer thoughts and feelings, not from words characters spoke (though there were often titles between scenes where snatches of dialogue were projected onto the screen), but from expressions and gestures the characters made—from closeups of eyes, for example—that told of those silent, inner worlds that were un-seen. In both radio dramas, and silent films, the greatest source of mystery and power—of our attachment and interest in fictional characters—resided in ways to make us sense what we could not see, whether what we saw came to us in images or in sound.  Continue reading

Posted on February 18, 2013

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In a Class by Themselves: A Jewish Fiction Reading List

wantingA couple of years ago I decided to lead a group of adult learners in a class on Jewish fiction. The reason was that I wanted to share a few books I loved, and I also wanted an excuse to read some I’d never got around to. It was an amazing experience, both as a teacher and as a reader.

Re-reading some favorites – like Bruno SchulzPrimo Levi and Meir Shalev – only served to deepen my attachment to them. But the writers I’d wanted to get to know – like Clarice Lispector and Joseph Roth – were a revelation. Two or three really stand out in that category. Lispector for certain – nothing in literature is quite like her, and I urge you to read through twice before you judge. But it was Roman Gary who won my heart with his incomparable character Momo – the little Arab kid adopted by the Jewish Rosa – in a work that is simply perfection, there is no other word for it. As for sheer greatness, it has to be Yaakov Shabtai, whose Past Continuous is not only a virtuosic masterpiece, but deeply moving; also truly great is S.Y. Agnon’s Only Yesterday, which is remarkable for its breadth, its unflinching eye, and the beauty of its prose even in translation. Each one of the works I taught has a special place in my heart, and I believe you will also find them gratifying to read or re-read. Bruno Schultz is fundamental – in a class by himself. Dovid Bergelson’s short stories, only recently translated from the Yiddish, and are a mad joy. David Grossman needs no introduction, except I strongly recommend reading Schultz first. Continue reading

Posted on February 15, 2013

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Not Feeling the Candy Hearts? Turn Around Your 50 Shades of Abysmal Gray

hot.mamalahIt’s that time of year…chocolates, flowers, jewelry. Sappy advertisements and red and pink store displays. There are reminders everywhere. It’s Valentine’s Day.

Sure, it’s a bit commercial (understatement) but it’s all good. We know that. It’s beautiful to celebrate love.

But what about if you don’t have a special someone or even your favorite chocolate already lined up for a great Thursday night? (Or perhaps you have a loving companion but you’ve somehow lost yourself in the relationship.) Whatever the reason, this day, with its cards and balloons, candy hearts and kitsch, is turning your mood fifty shades of a rather abysmal gray. Instead of bringing you a great sense of joy and intimacy, this so-called celebration feels more about absence or loss. And over the course of a day that seems to have somehow overlooked your very own precious self, you find yourself thinking, “I don’t have a valentine.”

To which we respond, what do you mean you don’t have a valentine?

Of course you have a valentine.

Walk right into the bathroom. Grab a hold of the sink and look up. Yours will be right there waiting, looking you straight in the punim. Continue reading

Posted on February 14, 2013

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