One of the hardest things to get used to in writing a novel is cutting material to speed up the pacing and tightening the plot. It’s like casting out a beloved child into the street. You hate to see it go, but it in the end, it’s probably for the best.
In my novel, The Paris Architect, I had to do some chopping—but one scene was particularly hard to edit. The book is about a gentile architect who designs hiding places for Jews in occupied Paris; many of the people the protagonist helps have been hiding in the most horrendous places, based on the historical realities of the time. Their friends have turned their backs on them, and the Parisian Jews must find any refuge no matter how squalid.
One of these places, I reluctantly cut out. Some Jews during World War II hid in false graves in cemeteries. For an exorbitant fee, cemetery caretakers would hide people: The grave would be dug out a little deeper and larger then boards would be placed over the opening and dirt mounded over so it looked like a real grave. A gravestone would be put in place and flowers set in front for a realistic touch. A pipe extending a couple of inches above the ground was placed at the rear to provide air for the occupants. One of the boards could be removed to drop food and water into the grave.
One would think that a grave could hold but one person, but the times were so desperate that three or four people could make do down there. Living in Stygian darkness, the people just sat there day after agonizing day with only a candle for light. Some were family members and some were complete strangers to each other. It would be just endless excruciating boredom mixed with the fear of being discovered at any minute.
Your existence depended solely on the honesty and integrity of the caretaker. Some were kind and others abandoned their charges. Because the dirt was mounded on top of the boards, it was no easy task to escape.
My character was a bachelor chemist in his forties. When he fled, he couldn’t bear to part with his pet rabbit so he took it down into the grave. It was the only comfort he had down there. But the other famished inhabitants of the grave began imagining his rabbit as a very delicious meal. The chemist swore he’d kill anyone who touched his pet as though it were his child. I hated to see him go.
The following is a “lost” introduction from a previous iteration of the Jews of Today project. It is much different in tone from the published work, but sheds light on the why and how of my art and research on Hasidism.
Hasidism is a revival movement within Judaism. Its chief intention is to restore and safeguard Jewish pride in all its dimensions, and creatively embraces mythical, linguistic, and cultural material from a wide array of sources to further this goal. Moreover, as much as it may appear a closed system of thought, Hasidism is and has always been a highly permeable ideology. As contexts and conditions change, Hasidism absorbs diverse doctrines from its surroundings that shape its internal structure as well as its external posture. As a result, Hasidism is dynamic and polyglot. It is not synonymous with the Jewish past, but like a fishing trawler gathers the detritus of history as it wanders in search of a living. The purpose of this project is to sort through the muck caught in the trawler’s net to give some accounting of those gems of its haul that have most sustained Hasidism up until now.
Many descriptions of Hasidism follow what Walter Benjamin might have called a historicist model. It reduces the history of the movement to a kind of flow-chart. In it, each stage of Hasidism’s development is subordinated to the scholar’s idea of immediate context, consisting of the active figures and important events of any given time, often very narrowly and arbitrarily conceived.
While this format is safe, resting as it does on the idea of historical progress, it risks missing important ways that Hasidism defies this model. Hasidism collapses time and place, miraculous and mundane. As it changes, as all movements do, it follows a messianic logic that should not be dismissed just because it can and often does mask realpolitik. Gilgul, the transmigration of souls, is a valued concept in Hasidism, negating a linear conception of time. The Kabbalah exhorts Hasidim to seek and recover nitzotz (divine sparks) scattered among the goyim, subverting purely endogenous theories of Hasidism’s development. Even the Jewish concept of family lineage, yihus, is so suffused with cult meaning in Hasidism that Mendelian heredity becomes an afterthought to the imaginative, often metaphorical interpretation of one’s descent within the biblical genealogical system.
Although it will take these concepts seriously insofar as they might structure Hasidic thought, this study will not take Hasidism at face value. It will make no attempt to conceal or mitigate embarrassing episodes, nor to patch up the fractiousness of the Hasidic system. What it will do is make use of the logic of hagiography to construct meaning out of mystery. This means permitting the unexplained to coexist with the reasonable.
R’Shlomo of Radomsk once said, “whoever believes all the miracle stories about the Baal Shem Tov recorded in the Shivei ha-Besht is a fool, but whoever denies that he could have done them is a heretic.” With this warning as a guide, this project will search Hasidic legends, the history of the Jews and the lands they have inhabited, and the utterances of Hasidic sages for ways to alert the reader’s imagination to a trove of possibilities, each of which in some big or small way reflects the truth of Hasidism. The result will be neither to flatter nor to smear the subject, but to disaggregate it from the familiar categories and associations that have somehow allowed such a vibrantly imaginative and deeply mysterious tradition to seem at all mundane.
Everyone likes lists, right? Who doesn’t like lists? Okay, fine, you in the back, maybe. But I like lists. And Buzzfeed seems to be doing pretty well by them. So in that spirit, I’ve decided to provide, as a public service, a list of ten of the top stories Sholem Aleichem ever wrote.
The one problem is that picking ten stories out of the dazzling range of works by this remarkably talented and hugely prolific writer is bound to create discord and disagreement among the Sholem Aleichem cognoscenti. Sure, over a thirty-plus year period of writing you’re bound to come up with some dogs – and Sholem Aleichem’s pace, born of (at various points) financial necessity, ideological enthusiasm, youthful exuberance, or family and personal stress, didn’t render him immune to the more-than-every-once-in-a-while bow-wow – but there are so many fantastic stories, so many tales you envy someone a first reading, that it’s hard to know where to begin. But here are ten corkers, anyway.
1. “Chava.” The finest of the Tevye stories, which are the finest stories of Sholem Aleichem’s whole oeuvre.
2. “The Enchanted Tailor.” It’s not a folk tale; it’s not a ghost story; but it’s not not those things, either.
3. “On Account of a Hat” See the previous blog post.
4. “Londons.” Our first encounter with Menakhem-Mendl, the notoriously optimistic (and inexpert) businessman, and one of Sholem Aleichem’s most famous creations. His wife Sheyne-Sheyndl has equally good lines, if not better.
5. “The Man from Buenos Aires.” A nasty little encounter on a railroad with a man who is not who he seems to be…or maybe he is.
6. “Dreyfus in Kasrilevke.” How do Jews talk politics? This is one way.
7. From the Fair. Sholem Aleichem never completed his autobiography; but what we do have is a now-largely hidden treasure (which is, not entirely coincidentally, a leading motif in lots of his works, including this one).
8. “The Guest.” A holiday story and a story about children – two of Sholem Aleichem’s specialties – wrapped in one. A third specialty: the twist ending.
9. “A Tale of A Thousand and One Nights.” Set not in some fantasy land, but in Jewish Eastern Europe in the throes of World War I, the tales of survival the story’s Scheherazade relates chill to the bone.
10. “Haman and Mordechai.” A bizarre little effort about what happens when the two Biblical characters – the real ones – appear in Yiddishland.
All of these, except the last, are available in translation. Happy reading!
So my biography of Sholem Aleichem – the great Jewish writer, perhaps the greatest in modern Jewish history, the man who created Tevye, the person who can lay as good a claim as any to inventing modern Jewish humor – comes out today, and, as you can imagine, I’m pretty happy about the whole thing. Schocken, Nextbook Press, and Random House produced a beautiful volume; the reviews so far have been very kind; I got mentioned in a Huffington Post listicle; and thanks to the JBC Network, I get to go to a whole bunch of places and talk to people about how the man’s life was just as remarkable, in its own way, as his remarkable work. I leave for DC tomorrow; and Baltimore, Charleston, Philadelphia, Detroit, Houston, Miami, and others aren’t far behind.
So naturally my thoughts are turning to Sholem Aleichem’s experiences on tour: since he was, at different times in the course of his career, a prodigious traveler, heading from city to city to give readings to make money to support his family. (Why was such an enormously popular author, a massive seller, in such financial straits? It’s a long story; the answer’s in the book. But he was.) It was the age of the railroad, and Sholem Aleichem became deeply familiar with the train routes that criss-crossed Eastern Europe – although he had his share of mishaps, which included getting lost, oversleeping, and confusing himself for a high-ranking non-Jewish official with whom he had exchanged hats.
Okay, that last one didn’t happen to him; it was a fate that befell one of his characters, the protagonist of “On Account of a Hat,” one of Sholem Aleichem’s finest stories. It’s a brilliant tale, born of an old joke and transformed, through authorial artistry, into a meditation on the underlying uncertainties of modern Jewish life. For the purposes of this post, it’s enough to say that it’s not the only time, or place, where travel becomes an inspiration for Sholem Aleichem’s literary artistry. In his series of “Railroad Stories,” the most exciting thing about the train is that it’s a source of narrative inspiration. Travel is where you meet your next stories, where you find your inspirations.
And so I’m excited to get on the road; who knows what I’ll learn.
I just hope I don’t oversleep.
I’ve often been asked both by journalists and by my readers why my novel The Elixir of Immortality tells the story of the family of Baruch Spinoza. My usual reply is that it’s simply because of my lifelong interest in that Jewish philosopher who lived in seventeenth-century Holland.
I don’t really remember how I first became aware ofSpinoza. I do know that I ran across him at a fairly early age, probably because of my curiosity about philosophy in general and my teenage tendency to ponder existential issues.
No one who has read Bertrand Russell’s great work A History of Western Philosophy (1946) could fail to be impressed by the opening words of the Englishman’s chapter about him: “Spinoza is the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers. Intellectually, some others have surpassed him but ethically he is supreme.”
Russell’s work showed me that important philosophers tended to come into conflict with the theological or ecclesiastical establishments and, more often than not, with the political authorities as well. Spinoza was no exception. One might suppose that the very word ‘philosophy’ was tantamount to the struggle for independent thought as opposed to the passive acceptance of dogma. A true philosopher always takes risks that endanger his own life and security. Spinoza learned that lesson the hard way. The Jewish community of Amsterdam excommunicated and expelled him, and even today Orthodox Jews regard him with suspicion. Continue reading
Falling in love is the most intense encounter in life. One perceives one’s true profile and gains authentication through other human beings. Someone else understands who you are, and this fact opens to you the possibility of understanding your own potential and your limitations. The face of that other person approaches yours, intimate and familiar. One’s world is always represented by another person.
We married. And we had children: three boys. The decade that followed, a time of genuine happiness, flew by all too quickly; we were hardly aware that beyond the circle of our little family a complex and constantly changing world still existed. I was overjoyed no longer to be engaged in public debate and publishing commentaries. The existence I shared with our children gave me wings; I soared high above the earth where I was freer and more open than ever before. I learned that everything is possible and that only our self-imposed constraints hold us prisoner.
Then one day a letter appeared in the mailbox. It came from my wife’s uncle, an elderly aristocrat living in a fortified ancestral manor and dedicating himself to the study of family genealogy. He had sent us a family tree outlining 350 years of Cappelen family history in Norway in the tiny county of Telemark. He was asking my wife to add our names and birthdates to it. I was astonished. I knew that the lineages of purebred dogs and racehorses were carefully recorded. But I’d never seen anything of the kind for human beings. Continue reading