Monthly Archives: January 2014

The Power of the Aleph

A highly unlikley scenarioI don’t speak Hebrew and, despite a few semi-earnest attempts to learn my aleph-bet, I don’t read it either. I recognize enough spoken words of biblical Hebrew that I can more or less follow an English translation when someone reads Torah, but that’s about it. And while I’ve studied some Kabbalah, I am no scholar: I know that individual Hebrew letters are associated with specific mystical qualities, but I cannot tell you what they are. Still, I am fascinated by the aleph.

Toward the end my novel, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World, the thirteenth-century Jewish mystic Abraham Abulafia appears before my hero, the hapless Leonard, in the old medieval basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome. Known for his meditative work combining Hebrew letters, Abulafia hovers over Leonard (literally: his feet do not touch the ground), juggling Hebrew letters in fantastic, unfollowable patterns. He wants to impress Leonard with his message, and he does. But unbeknownst to him, he drops an aleph as he dematerializes. The remainder of the book hinges on this aleph. Leonard can exchange it for something he badly needs (his seven-year-old nephew Felix!). It also, not incidentally, allows him to save the world. Phew!

The aleph! I know of it what you probably know: first letter, no sound, the beginning of the words echad, referring to divine unity; ein sof, the infinite which is the divine source of all manifestation; and emet, or truth. Powerful! But if I must be truthful, it was not my rabbi teachers who drew me to the letter, it was the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges.

Borges may or may not have been descended from Portuguese Jews, but his interest in Jewish texts, symbols, and ideas defined a sizeable portion of his life and work: he translated Kafka, loved Buber’s Hassidic tales, and lectured on the Kabbalah; he wrote stories with Kabbalistic and other Jewish themes, and searched his ancestry (in vain, apparently) for Jewish forebears. Whatever his “pedigree,” I love his work and, in particular, his 1945 story “The Aleph.”

In this story, a horrendously pedantic poet by the name of Carlos Argentino Daneri is writing an epic poem that seeks, basically, to describe everything on the planet, or maybe even the universe. He is aided, it turns out, by an aleph in his basement, which, he explains to the story’s narrator, is a point in space that contains all other points. Looking into it, one can see everything that is—clearly and at the same moment. The narrator is allowed a glimpse; he describes the resulting vision necessarily as a succession of images, though of course he sees them all simultaneously. What follows is a beautiful paragraph listing some of these images, both enormous and minutely specific (deserts and each of their grains of sand, his own bowels, horses on the shore of the Caspian Sea, the obscene letters his beloved had written to this pedantic poet …).

One of my favorite writing exercises when I taught for one brief year was to assign students this story and ask them to write such a list of images—just the list: they didn’t have to create a story about or around it. I guessed that freed from the rigors and constraints of narrative they too would write astonishing paragraphs—and they did! I startled them by asking to keep those lists (at a time when teachers still received hard copies of student work!)—they were that good. I have them still.

In my book, the aleph (which, naturally, quivers and vibrates) is more focused: it does not allow viewers to see the entire universe from every conceivable angle; rather, it enables them to see scenes from their own lives, past and future; this, in turn, helps them understand and embrace their destinies. The vision is no less transformative, however. A variation of Reb Borges’ aleph, to be sure, but a heartfelt homage nonetheless!

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

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on January 13, 2014

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

Jewish Mother vs Bad Mother

lara-vapnyarThere were two models for motherhood in my sprawling family: my great-great-aunt Riva and my great-grandmother Clara.

My great-great-aunt Riva was praised for being a true Jewish mother. There were many stories about her, but here is the most famous one. Once, at a dinner party, she brought in her infant son Abrasha to show him off to the guests. Little Abrasha promptly peed in her soup. She ate the soup.

“Riva ate that soup! That’s how much she loved her son!” my grandmother commented.

Needless to say, Abrasha grew up a mama’s boy. Never married. Never moved out from home.

My great-grandmother Clara on the other hand had many flaws. The biggest flaw was her selfishness. She would sneak out of the house, go to a farmer’s market, buy a quarter pound of cottage cheese and a few strawberries (an expensive delicacy in Russia) and indulge in them alone while sitting on a park bench.

“She ate them alone!” my grandmother lamented.

Ever since I was a small child I wondered which kind of mother I would become. I aspired to be a self-sacrificing Riva, but I worried that I’d end up like Clara. (I just loved good food too much.)

I think I became a mix of two. I’m very involved with my children (sometimes to the point of smothering), but I also have a life of my own, and I do indulge in sneaky pleasures. I still haven’t figured out the right amount of Rivaness or Claraness that would make an exceptionally good mother, but I tend to experiment with that in my fiction.

I create characters who follow either Riva’s or Clara’s model, push them to the brink of bad motherhood and see what happens. Let them figure it out. Nobody will suffer, except for their fictional children.

How much pleasure was allowed? Wasn’t too much sacrifice suffocating to the child? I certainly wasn’t a true Jewish mother by my family standards. And even though I denounced them in my head, I still felt a lot of guilt in my heart. I was uncomfortable and confused.

Then I came up with a solution. In my novel The Scent of Pine, the main character is an unhappily married mother of two. She loves her children, but she is longing to find love.

Let her figure it out.

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

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on January 9, 2014

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

Home Away

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scent of pineI look for locations for my stories on CyberRentals and HomeAway. I find the houses described on these websites far more interesting than anything that my imagination can supply.

For my latest novel, The Scent of Pine, I needed a cabin in Maine, where my two main characters would have a torrid, three-day-long affair. I wanted it to be small, deep in the woods, preferably close to the lake. So I typed in: “Maine” “Acadia region” “Waterfront” “Sleeps two people.” The search returned several houses and I picked the perfect one. It was a tiny cabin—just one room. On a lake. Far away from everything. With no electricity or running water. No internet. No shower. No heat. I spent months reading the description of the house, staring at the photos provided by the owner, imagining my character occupying that space.

If I were to create a cabin from my imagination, I would’ve never thought of one without a shower or toilet. But this detail made the situation all the more intimate and romantic. My characters have to run out and plunge into the cold lake instead of banal showering. They warm themselves by the little woodstove. They cook their food at a campfire. The campfire inspires them to share stirring and bizarre stories from their past. The absence of phone connection allows them to feel free. The absence of internet makes them truly concentrate on each other. The strangeness and intimacy of the entire setting makes them fall in love.

I owe half of my plot to that house.

I think I’ll visit it one day.

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

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on January 7, 2014

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

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