Quite recently, someone asked me about my “process.” This someone wasn’t asking about the creative parts—the meandering through the dark, schlepping a bag full of puzzle pieces and seeking out the elusive slots where they might fit—but quite literally about what I do during my waking hours, which hours those might be, and when and if I stop for snacks. She was asking about the nuts and bolts.
What I wanted to say is that I know nothing (and that of course I stop for snacks). I’m just winging it. I’m still waiting to be found out. Still, I wrote 336 pages that will be printed and bound and on (some) shelves in just a few weeks, which is something one teensy bit better than nothing.
1. Get dressed every day (except when you feel like the very heart of what you’re writing is delicately wound into the fiber of your socks and robe)
2. Stop and move for food (except when you must, just must, have your fingers centimeters from your computer at all times)
3. Exercise in any form: stand up, walk, run, go to a yoga class (except when all the jostling around risks dispersing your very precious thoughts, and then stay put, very very put)
4. Get by with a little help from your friends (except when talking to anyone at all about anything at all will sully everything, make you forget or derailed or soft or sleepy)
5. Find inspiration in art, music, literature (except when they might be toxic to your work and undo all your efforts to find voice)
There you have it. Fool’s gold.
In the end, I think, anything you can do is my actual answer.
Also: do the best you can, however you can, every day that you can. Take care of your body, your wrists, knees and eyes. Take care of your computer, and back up what matters. Take care of your bills because Verizon doesn’t care that you’re writing the Next Great American Novel. Take care of the people that love you. They will be there when you pick your head up, but only if you play your cards right.
The process is long, there is no end to it—at least, not really—so don’t be dramatic and pull eight all-nighters just to show us that you can. Or do, if you can. Do.
I needed something. Everyone was dying. Or at least a lot of people were dying and it felt like everyone might, including me, die at the drop of a hat. I was having panic attacks on the subway. I was avoiding elevators and scaffolding and spinach and caffeine and planes and hospitals and graveyards.
I couldn’t breathe.
My parents are not religious. Someone told me to try yoga.
I was a gymnast for the great majority of my childhood. Yoga came easily. I breezed through the ranks.
I ended up in an Ashtanga class in Amagansett and had no idea what I was in for.
Ashtanga doesn’t bill itself as the “yoga of forced breathing,” but it might as well. It’s the same series, “system” of movements done (or supposed to be done) every morning, every day. It is strenuous and sequential and smart. At the core of it is the notion of synchronizing breath with movement. For every movement, a breath, which sounds nice enough but is challenging. Very. Because of the intensity of the poses, most people sweat. A lot. It’s different from Bikram in that the heat you create is from the inside out. It’s all you. Ujjayi breathing, or “victorious breath,” consists of steady inhales and exhales through the nose, equal in duration, accompanied by the “ocean sound” made by constricting the throat as one does to whisper. Ujjayi’s purpose: improve endurance, decrease distractions, release tension, warm the blood, which improves circulation and cleanses toxins and regulates heat. Too, and most importantly to me, Ujjayi calms the mind. Breath becomes a rhythm, a lullaby. In and out and in and out and in and out.
My first Ashtanga class nearly killed me—and got me completely hooked. My first Ashtanga teacher has been my only one really, or at least the only one that’s really mattered. She’s a die-hard. If she cannot hear your “ocean sound,” she says so. If she sees your mouth open, she says so. And if you cannot breathe, in and out and in and out and in and out, you cannot. You just cannot. It took me many months to get a place where I was comfortable with the poses, and then even longer to a place where the breath was as crucial as the positions. But eventually it was. So much so. In and out and in and out and in and out.
At first, I stopped thinking about dying because I was focused on the movements, on not messing up. After a while, I stopped thinking about dying because I was trying to do the movements better. When I became halfway decent, I stopped thinking because I was focused on the breath. On better breath.
I am aware that I said “better,” regarding yoga. Kill me. I am no longer afraid. On a plane, in turbulent moments, I practice Ujjayi. Elevators don’t paralyze me. Bring on the spinach. I am better.
In Ashtanga, I didn’t find God. I did, however, learn to breathe. I breathed like I meant it and then I breathed because I had to. You have to. In and out and in and out and in and out. And by breathing I realized that I wasn’t dead yet. Just the opposite. I was all breath.
I am bored to death, dying of starvation and on the brink of losing my mind at Passover dinner at my father’s sister’s house on Long Island. I’m four, maybe five. My mother has refilled my grape juice many more than four times but it’s not cutting it. She has a look on her face like she would have made a PB&J if she’d known what she was in for—what we were both in for—but she didn’t. There are many more relatives visiting from Israel than usual, which means, apparently, that there is no goofing around and no snacking. Who knew? We didn’t. I will die of starvation, I think to myself. They will find me in a puddle of grape juice with the yarmulke I’ve demanded to wear over my face, dead.
But I don’t die. Instead, I put my head into my mother’s lap and quickly fall into a deep sleep. Eventually, she nudges me awake. I sit up. Why am I awake? Same stuff, different blessing. But then I see. From across the table, my father is giving me the eye. I look around, everyone is engrossed in the text and so I slink under the table, lift up a bit of tablecloth to let in light. There are twenty sets of adult shoes and I have the urge to untie every one. But I’ve got bigger fish to fry. My father’s got a handful of romaine lettuce from who knows where and I snatch it up, scarf it down, barely chewing. I’m a rabbit on speed. I yank on his pant leg for more. What else you got? He lifts his index finger. One second. He can do better, I’m thinking. I know he can do better. I pray like they do in the movies. It’s Passover, after all. Moments later, the whitecap curl of a hardboiled egg has arrived. I’ve willed it here, I think. I should pray more often. I nearly skin my father’s fingers with my teeth. I wonder why I don’t eat eggs at every moment of every day. They are heaven. Nothing better. But I’m still hungry. I’m dying again. I wait. Is that it? I start untying my father’s shoes. He catches my drift. Another egg. Untying. Then another. Now, I’m over eggs. I never want to see an egg again.
Still, I wait.
Just before I lose hope, die not of starvation but egg overdose, my father’s palm is open and flat in front of me, as if revealing the tiniest baby bird. But it’s better than that. It’s a raft of matzo, a cluster of haroset balancing on top, shimmering and precious like something stolen from the Hall of Minerals and Gems at the Museum of Natural History. I treat it as he did, lift it from his hand into mine with care. Ever so gently. Little tiny nibbles. The sweetest. The most amazing. This is the best thing I’ve ever eaten. Why don’t I eat this every moment of every day? I savor it.
My father claps his hands without making a sound. Show’s over, folks, and just in time. I make my way back to my seat, my mother brushing a crumb off my bottom lip, the parsley is being passed around and I’m up. “No,” I say but my mother ignores me, puts a pile of it on my plate. “I’m full,” I begin to say but she covers my mouth with her hand, and smiles graciously at the crowd. “She’s starving,” she says and I know to nod.
Of all the representatives of the religious parties in Israel’s Knesset, none have been more powerful or outspoken than Moshe Gafni, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who served as Chairman of the Finance Committee in the last parliament. In this key fiscal position, the rabbi was a master at diverting funds to haredi causes, especially yeshiva subsidies to the separate school system devoted mainly to teaching and debating the Torah—the religious academies that some secular Jews have angrily characterized as Jewish madrassas.
Now that secular representatives are in the ascendant following January’s national elections, Gafni has turned angrily on Benjamin Netanyahu, accusing his former political ally of betrayal. But in order to form a coalition Netanyahu needs the votes of two new parties, one the tribune of religious nationalists and the other of secular Israelis. Both refuse to serve in any government that includes ultras like Rabbi Gafni, largely because his supporters demand continued exemption from military service.
In the snake pit of Israeli politics, it could be payback time for Bibi for abandoning his ultra-Orthodox supporters in order to stay in power as prime minister, and this could have international repercussions far beyond the local problems of the yeshivot. The rabbi has warned that Netanyahu will soon “be sorry” for deceiving him and the other representatives of the ultras by “shamefully” leaving them out of power.
In an article in the popular daily Yedioth Aharonot, Rabbi Gafni admitted that although in his former capacity as Finance Committee chairman he was supposed to oversee the expenditures formally approved by the Knesset, almost every day money was dispensed “under the radar”—his words—for the benefit of Netanyahu’s Likud party, then the dominant parliamentary group. Since Gafni now has blown the whistle on what are politely called “unofficial” budgets, that almost certainly means the end of such disbursements, not only for the religious parties but for the parties that will serve in government when the new coalition is formed, probably later this month.
What disturbs Gafni and his religious colleagues most are the warnings expressed not only by the politicians but above all by the technicians and experts of the Ministry of Finance. They were, of course, fully aware of the tricks used to pad budgets and transfer government money off the books, but they dared not clash with any Likud finance minister or with Gafni’s own Knesset Finance Committee.
That leaves Gafni holding a powerful hand that could embarrass Netanyahu if he shows it. The rabbi made it clear that through the years he had accumulated substantial information about how to tamper with the budget and would have no hesitation in using it against the ruling parties that are willing to shut him out of government and probably will succeed. His most powerful trump most likely would be disclosing payments believed to have been funneled through Bibi’s former government to support illegal West Bank settlements, for example the ones that put down a few armed families in trailers atop Palestinian hilltops and then spread, seeking official recognition.
The establishment and expansion of these and other more organized settlements is viewed by the Obama administration as a principal barrier to any peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, and Netanyahu has always insisted they do not have the support of his government. It is not hard to imagine how it would put him at a disadvantage if all this comes out while he is dealing with Washington.
Some academics have observed that young Jewish writers do not mine their personal lives for material in the same way that Jewish writers did a generation ago. In my own case, this is and isn’t true. My first novel, The Jump Artist, was based on someone else’s life and took place in lands and days disparate from my own. My second novel, In the Land of the Living, which is being released by Little Brown this week, draws on my own personal experiences and on events in the history of my own family. It’s first and foremost about loss at a tender age, and finding your way out from under the pall of grief, back to the land of the living, and to all that makes life worth living. (Why am I not on Oprah’s book list?)
If a book gets its license to exist from a fresh or unique subject, then my book’s claim would lie in its manner of depicting early childhood. Most novels do not incorporate early childhood into their storylines or into their characters at all, except in metaphorical ways. Mary Shelley and Toni Morrison are two writers who invented rather ingenious novelistic contraptions to represent early childhood: Shelley did it by writing of a human man made from scratch and educated (and abused) like a child, Morrison by turning a dead child into an adult ghost in Beloved. In his autobiographical novel Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, Tolstoy wrote about his mother’s death, which happened when he was two, but he revised his age to something like eight to make the scenes more artistically manageable. James Joyce writes directly of early childhood in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but he does so impressionistically and does not draw any firm connections between those opening early childhood scenes and later ones. I have taken a different approach by depicting early childhood experiences directly and carrying through their implications in every other scene of the book.
Having said that, there is something suspicious to me in the notion that a novel needs “uniqueness” in order to be valuable. “Uniqueness” sounds a lot like “competitive advantage”—a phrase from the world of commerce, not literature. A writer sets out to portray what is true to him or her, and also, usually, what is beautiful. New styles, new philosophies, new insights into character, forays into unknown subject matter—these things come about automatically when new voices do a good job examining the same old world on a cutting edge that is provided to them by time itself: another day.
No American Jew could have experienced a more inspiring introduction to Israel that I did upon arriving in darkness aboard the first plane from London after the start of the Six-Day War. Within hours I was in Jerusalem watching the Battle for the Old City from the terrace of the King David Hotel. In the morning we drove a rented Volkswagen along the tank tracks to avoid mines and soon came upon soldiers celebrating their historic conquest by praying at the Western Wall. Never observant, I joined in prayers with this elite brigade of Jewish paratroopers, recruited mainly from secular kibbutzim. Their tribune was no less than Israel’s chief rabbi blowing the shofar—a ram’s horn blast that stirred Jewish souls around the world.
I remained for several weeks to report on the problems facing the victorious nation, most notably the unforeseen conquest of the West Bank from Jordan. It was during that assignment that I first met and befriended Yuval Elizur, then the Jerusalem correspondent of The Washington Post and now the co-author of our book, The War Within. I endured the baleful stares in the Mea Shearim, a dozen blocks set aside for ultra-Orthodox, then a tourist curiosity because it was widely believed that this anachronistic sect would wither away in modern Israel. How wrong we were. Years later, they have become a powerful minority determined to set the tone for society in the Holy City, and the leaders of American Jewry have tread carefully to avoid antagonizing them.
Although the majority of American Jews belong to Reform and Conservative congregations, the American Jewish establishment has maintained connections with the Israeli parties representing the Orthodox, which until now were an essential part of the nation’s coalition governments. For example, within days of the military conquest of the holiest place of worship for all Jews, the Orthodox rabbinate took control of the Western Wall, banned Reformist devotions, and literally walled off women who came to pray. Even when the women were given access to a small sector, there was no serious criticism by major American Jewish organizations lest it be seen as an attack on the government that would give comfort to Israel’s enemies.
American defenders of the Orthodox argue that there are “many shades of black.” But the deepest shade have long had the most political influence and in consequence enjoy the most egregious privileges, the largest subsidies, and the greatest isolation from Israeli society. No American Jew outside the Orthodox enclaves in Brooklyn and around New York City—sects with respected elders recently convicted of fraud and sexual abuses—would agree to a public subsidy of sixty per cent of ultra-Orthodox males who are unemployed, or almost one hundred thousand able-bodied and subsidized yeshiva students who escape military service while they study nothing but sacred texts and learned commentary.
Jews have thrived and won acceptance as both Jews and Americans by adapting our religious observance and culture to the customs of the country. Whenever permitted by local rulers, Jews have always done so. That is a fundamental theme of the Talmud: how does a Jew in a strange land live as a Jew? Of course it is easier in a country of religious tolerance like ours, but surely Jewish survival does not depend on literal adherence to 613 biblical commandments dating back several thousand years: it depends on adapting those rules to modern life—and certainly not on re-creating the Jewish ghettoes that we have spent centuries trying to escape. That is a formula for alienation, irrelevance, rejection, and eventually the disappearance of all Jews, and it applies with equal force to the embattled nation of Israel, which has succeeded against all odds by adopting modernity as its culture
It is an axiom of warfare that the longer one faces an enemy, the more each side has to adopt the other’s tactics to survive and thus willy-nilly start to resemble the other. Israel will not be strengthened by falling into the same fundamentalist trap as proponents of Muslim sharia in their own countries; on the contrary, both sides risk falling back into the past by refusing to embrace the present.
Remember Mandy Patinkin’s character Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride? When Montoya was a child, the story goes, the six-fingered man killed his father. He also slashed Montoya’s face, leaving him with scars on both cheeks. Montoya spends the rest of his life training to exact vengeance on his father’s killer. He practices not only his swordsmanship but just what he’ll say when he finally finds and confronts the six-fingered man: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
The main character in my second novel In the Land of the Living is a boy like that, a boy with a dead father, a boy bent on recompense and committed to its pursuit for as long as it takes. His problem is that there is no six-fingered man to kill.
Instead, he attempts to resurrect his father in a manner of speaking—by hewing to certain superhuman ideals in order to safeguard his father’s legacy from the oblivion of the grave. He will brook no failure in his career or his personal life and strives to excel everybody at everything (with the exception of phys ed). Anyone and everyone who gets in his way is the six-fingered man.
William Goldman, the screenwriter of The Princess Bride, has a cynical streak. It’s evident in his first novel Temple of Gold and it’s evident in the way he wreathes so many ironies into the sentimentality of The Princess Bride. A little of that cynicism comes out when Inigo Montoya actually does confront the six-fingered man. His lifelong search has come to an end at last, and Montoya delivers his practiced line, “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” He battles his enemy by sword as planned, but the six-fingered man appears to defeat him. Montoya slumps backward, mortally wounded, and gives up with a line that still sucks the air from my lungs: “Sorry, Father. I tried.” It doesn’t seem to be Inigo Montoya the man that’s defeated then; it’s the boy who took on a task that was much too big for him out of love for the father that should have been there to help him.
Being a feel-good Hollywood movie, Montoya of course fights back from the edge of defeat. But in a way, what follows is even more cynical. The six-fingered man begs for his life. He promises Montoya anything he wants in exchange for mercy and Montoya answers, “I want my father back, you son of a bitch,” and he kills the six-fingered man.
He doesn’t fail his father after all, but because he can’t have the one thing he wants—for his father to be alive—he does in a sense fail himself. He asks his friend what he ought to do with his life now that his quest is over, and when his friend suggests he become a pirate, it seems ridiculous even according to the unreal, comedic laws of Hollywood fantasy. With his face alone, Mandy Patinkin smuggles into the scene a look of haunting ennui before the comedy-romance carries on with its merry business.
My book, In the Land of the Living, is a pretty funny book—it needs to be, to balance out the tragedy at the core of it—but it’s no Hollywood comedy. It’s a realist novel, and its protagonist doesn’t have the option of sailing away as the Dread Pirate Roberts, much as he’d like to. The land of the living is a less forgiving place than the land of The Princess Bride. Neither the death of the six-fingered man nor suicide solve the problem of grief. The only way forward is to figure out how to live a good life. And that is where my main character’s odyssey begins. Off he goes through graveyards and hospitals, loving and losing, traveling with his brother from L.A. to Cleveland in search of an answer to the question of how to live.
I think of it as a modern-day Don Quixote. In Part I, I used chapter titles that satirize medieval romance just as Cervantes did. It’s a novel that purposely dwells in an unstable region between comedy and tragedy, dream and reality, which is to say that it dwells in the real world, where the laws of nature are unyielding, and the human heart unflagging.
For many years the political power of Israel’s Orthodox minority spread as if it would never reach a limit. While their number of seats in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, remained small in relation to their power and also remarkably stable, the Orthodox rabbis and their political representatives influenced government policy by offering to vote as a bloc to sustain any ruling coalition. There was a price, of course: exemption from military service and subsidies for strict religious education and the welfare of the yeshiva students. These and their other favorite projects expanded after each election campaign. No wonder that an increasing number of Israeli intellectuals, including a noted sociology professor at Hebrew University, warned that Israel might soon become a theocratic state not unlike Iran.
But finally came a pushback in the decades-long battle between State and Synagogue. The results of this January’s elections proved that a good part of the political strength of the Orthodox may have been a myth. It finally may be receding toward a reality more representative of Israeli society, which is predominantly secular in practice although committed to Judaism as a religion.
It all began in 1948 during the first Israeli government when Prime Minister David Ben Gurion excused a mere 400 Orthodox yeshiva students from serving in the army and ceded to the rabbinical courts total jurisdiction over marriage and divorce of Jewish women in the new state. This set the pattern for the small religious parties’ clever manipulation of the ruling parties, which needed their parliamentary votes to hold power –whether the leftist Labor governments of the early days of the state or the rightist governments of recent years.
To the surprise of many Israelis, the elections demonstrated that religious parties can be a serious political liability and no longer an asset purchased by budgets and political concessions. For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu they have become a menacing factor that are literally stuck in his throat as he struggles to form a new coalition. For more than a month since the January 22nd elections, the leader of Israel’s largest political party, Halikud Beitenu, has been unable to form a government without antagonizing the religious parties. According to Israeli law, Netanyahu has until mid-March to form a government. If he can’t, President Shimon Peres must declare new elections.
Trying to work out deals under this sword of Damocles, it seems likely that Netanyahu will somehow succeed in forming a government with or without the votes of the religious parties. Yet there is a lesson to be learned from the present debacle: The political leverage of the religious parties has been dramatically reduced. From now on, both right- and left-wing leaders will try to form governments on their own from the nation’s handful of parties and perhaps even reform Israel’s political system without the need to depend on the support of the religious parties by kowtowing to them.
Let one thing be clear: all this political maneuvering has very little to do with the influence of religion on life in Israel. That will continue to be substantial. Even with the religious parties in the opposition, Israel will be still a country where most yeshiva students will not serve in the army, the Sabbath will be an officially enforced day of rest, and only kosher food will still be served in the army. There will still be rabbinical marriages although civil marriages may finally be possible through a series of interim arrangements.
But whatever the shape – and stability – of the ruling coalition that finally emerges, the veto power of the rabbis has been blunted and may finally be broken.
Many people have asked why I included a biblical map in The Bronfman Haggadah. Well, for starters, I love maps and I guess I assume that other people love them as well.
As a kid, I spent a lot of time poring over maps. Growing up in New Orleans, maps helped me figure out where I was in relation to the world. I wanted to know, for instance, where I was in relation to Europe. Where was Paris?
I also loved the colors of maps, as maps are very beautiful. Indeed, I think they are beautiful for a reason: so that we may enjoy and admire them as we investigate the world and place ourselves within a certain universe.
For that reason, I thought it would be useful and important to be able to turn to a page in the Haggadah and see the part of the world that we’re talking about. I also realized that I’d never seen a map in a Haggadah—and I have looked at countless illustrated Haggadot. And so, I decided that a map would indeed be a very interesting, unique, and informative detail.
This led to many days of research about biblical geography, and that’s when things got complicated. There’s an open-endedness about our story and it is nearly impossible to pinpoint specifics. It turns out that there are five possible sites for Mount Sinai, and there are at least three possible routes taken by the Jews—there were established trade routes, important cities flourishing, and various tribes settled among the land.
I know that I am not alone in loving maps, so I hope that including one in The Bronfman Haggadah will not only entertain and inform readers, but also open their eyes to a new aspect of the Passover story.
A few weeks ago I was asked to provide a blurb for an about-to-be-published collection of short stories, The Best Place on Earth, by a young Israeli born writer named Ayelet Tsabari. Set against a backdrop of war, conflict and the army service, with underlying themes of displacement, the quest for ‘home,’ love and loss, the stories in this collection pulse with raw energy as they unfurl along the fault lines within Israeli society. The author stretches herself to write from a broad variety of perspectives, and while not every story works perfectly she captures the particular intensity, urgency and ambivalence of the young Israelis she depicts, and there is a compelling urgency to each of the stories and to the collection as a whole that reflects the multifaceted society she brings to life.
Tsabari is an Israeli of Yemeni descent, and her stories are all told from the perspective of Mizrahi Israelis. I realized as I was reading it how rarely I have seen that sector of Israeli society represented in fiction and how hungry I am for more fiction about the lives of non-Ashkenazi Israelis. A recent visit to Ethiopia intensified that interest, so if anyone can recommend fiction by Mizrahi and/or Ethiopian Israelis that has been translated into English I would really appreciate it. (I wish I didn’t have to rely on English translations or books written in English as Tsabari’s is but, alas, my Hebrew is not up to the task) You can write to me at email@example.com.