Monthly Archives: February 2014

Six Degrees of Kevin’s Bacon: Who’s Jewish in Hollywood?

did-jew-know-stars-of-davidWhile some stars look Jewish or publicly identify as Jewish, supporting Israel—you go, Scar Jo!— or record Chanukah songs that even gentiles love to love, others mask their heritage like a traveling salesman with a toupee; only, no matter how many times you comb it over, transplant it or blow it out, everyone knows it’s a rug, especially in high-def. Meantime, some stars kinda look ethnic (read Jewish) but aren’t. It’s a conundrum.

In my house growing up, a stronghold of secular but devoted cultural Judaism, as soon as anyone’s name was introduced, famous or otherwise, my mother would immediately and inevitably punctuate the mention with the modifier “JEWISH!” or “NOT JEWISH!” While this particular brand of Yiddishkeit echolalia may not have been unique to our household alone, it is unique to the Jews to think about who is and isn’t Jewish, more than, say, the goyim. Walker Laird Gaffney and Turfer Throop probably do not yell out the word “JEWISH!” mere seconds after you tell them you just had lunch with Manny Howard or Jessi Burger. Nor do they gleefully tell you that Kate Hudson is, in fact, a member of the Tribe and exactly how and why (maternal grandmother).

What’s interesting here, or perhaps troubling—more than the commonplace self-identification practices of the Tribe via name recognition—is who among those in Hollywood chooses to maintain a public Jewish identity and who decides to go lo pro, even though, let’s face it, we all know what’s up. And I’m not talking about who’s a Zionist—that’s a whole other blog—or about depictions of Jewish characters in movies or in TV—don’t get me started—but who is a big ol’ ethnic Jewy the Jew all the livelong day in looks and name and life besides Madonna and Britney Spears! O Red String and Yehuda Berg (JEWISH!), thank you for all you have done. Hot gentiles dressed like bunnies at Purim parties? It’s a world gone mad.

While there’s a certain pride in Jewish identity in the world of letters, Hollywood generally shies away from wholly embracing Jewish identity, with the exception of the yearly smattering of Holocaust films or the Goldbergs and Krusty the Clown. This is remarkable especially when you think about the fact that Tinsel Town continues to be presided over by its forefathers, almost all of whom still seem to prefer an anemic version of what I like to call “blow-out Judaism,” where everyone either looks like Courtney Cox at a slut cotillion or is a fax of a fax of a fax of pre-bad-for-the-Jews Woody Allen.

In other words, whether or not you believe in your heart of hearts that America is a Christian Nation, its goysichelook is defined and imposed by a bunch of schleppy desert nomads whose last names end in –stein, –berg, –sky and –witz. And these now wildly successful American nomads, no matter how Jewish they themselves may look, do not, I repeat do NOT want to look at frizzy hair, nor back TV series about life in Borough Park. It’s everything a Jewish boy from Brooklyn or the Bronx would live to avoid. Still and all, my mother and I are not fooled! And when big, dark curly hair comes back with a vengeance, which it will, believe Jew me, we are ready and have been since the 1980s. Come back to the Dry Bar, Harvey Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein.

So the next time you’re settling in for your next Netflix marathon, and the credits are rolling, or Kevin Bacon (NOT JEWISH!) enters the frame, play a rousing round or six of Jewish/Not Jewish and let your neighbors keep score. It’s not just a game; it’s a matter of national nachas.

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 February 27, 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

A Miraculous Baseball Team

charles-sherman“Spring training” has just opened up. America’s favorite past-time signals warm weather, longer days, family outings, the good times. T-ball, little league, sandlot, at one time we all have engaged the crack of the bat, the excitement of rounding the bases.

When my son, Eyal, who is quadriplegic and vent dependent, was growing up, he played on a baseball team, called The Challengers. Summer evenings, a couple of times a week, our family would pile into our specially-equipped van and drive a half hour or so to a baseball field in North Syracuse. It’s clear the name of the team was coined because each player faces serious challenges. My son, “Big Al,” (does not every serious ball player have a nickname?) played third base.

When you watch these kids play baseball, at first there is a sense of disbelief and even restlessness. When the ball is hit, children are lifted and hoisted from wheelchairs and shuttled around the bases as family members and friends clap and cheer. In this league, ingenuity and imagination are the name of the game. For a girl who is blind, there is a special baseball that produces a beeping sound. A young boy smacks the ball using his crutch as a baseball bat. And all the time, parents and siblings are facilitating, enabling and empowering. You don’t have to watch for long to realize something very special is taking place on this baseball diamond, and it has very little to do with the game of baseball itself. It has to do with relationships, cooperation, perseverance and possibility. Whenever these kids play, I am witness to miracles as awe-inspiring as the splitting of the Red Sea. Previously, my understanding of a miracle was more “Bible stuff.” The expected lightning and thunder, mountains that shudder, now we’re talking miracles. But a miracle is nine kids on a baseball team, some of them cannot see, others cannot talk, and still others cannot even move. And they play baseball three nights a week in North Syracuse. Now that’s a miracle to write home about.

I’m reminded of this special baseball team whenever I visit the Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, not far from my home. On the second floor, there is a theater that has been constructed to simulate an old-time major league baseball park. It allows you to sit in bleacher chairs, right up close to the action, you can even hear the voices of the ball players and those of the concessionaires, hawking programs, peanuts and cracker jacks. In this nostalgic environment, there is a seven-minute film clip, a young major leaguer walloping a baseball, a winning runner crossing home plate, hands held high. Candid shots, of modern major leaguers to little leaguers. And it all ends with the voices of children playing baseball in some cow pasture. And this voiceover:

“Baseball is a part of the very fabric of America. And at whatever level we experience it… whether we play it… or watch it … from backyard to major league stadium… it is a game that speaks to us of more than box scores and starting line-ups. It is a game that reflects:

Triumph…and defeat,

the strength at the beginning…the wisdom near the end,

the bad days…and the good”

Baseball approaches myth because it is a celebration of life. As author Roger Angell wrote, “Since baseball is measured only in outs, all you have to do is succeed utterly, keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young.”

Okay, “Big Al,” Eyal, get ready champ. You’re on deck. Batter Up!

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 February 26, 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

The Ellipsis

broken-and-the-wholeNo thunder, bolts of lightning, heavenly voices, not even a friendly angel. Nonetheless, a transforming life experience, frozen in time and space.

In 1986, I was 41 years old, and life was pretty good. I had it all: professionally satisfied, rabbi of a very large congregation, a terrific wife, four young children, two girls, two boys, expecting our fifth in three months. In my business, “the rabbi business” some 13 years post-ordination, I was convinced I had seen it all: the continuum, life, death and everything in between. And as a “Good Rabbi” I was instructed in what to say and even how to say it, dispensing traditional wisdom, comfort, and perspective. For whatever reason, I was insulated and protected from life’s bad stuff, again life was better than good.

But then – and I guess in the story of life there is always a “but then.” Our older son, four-year-old Eyal, is in serious respiratory distress. The medical opinion is a deep-seated lesion on his brainstem, a death sentence, at most several weeks. The specifics of the narrative are not necessary, suffice to say, after surgery Eyal suffers an incapacitating brain stem stroke leaving him a total quadriplegic. All his necessary human functions are artificially maintained. But Eyal persists and perseveres, defying his doctors and their harsh prognosis and everyone else who has reminded him of what he cannot do. Now 32, Eyal lives with my wife and me. He had a Bar Mitzvah, he graduated high school and college.

Being a parent of a child so physically broken, so dependent on others, changed me. It was as if a new life started for me the day of Eyal’s stroke. I wish I could have learned these important life lessons taking a class, studying a book, hearing others’ stories. But I learned the painful and at times inspiring lessons firsthand.

It has taken me years to get it right. To distinguish between the essential and the irrelevant. I may not always act on my belief system. Like a lot of folks, there remains a divide between creed and deed. But I find myself much more accepting, tolerant, and inclusive, preferring to err on the side of forgiveness than righteous indignation. I’ve learned about context and perspective. I’ve learned a new definition of community. There are certain things like poverty, illness, and vulnerability that do not distinguish between class, gender, race, national origin, or faith. And I’ve learned about random acts of generosity and kindness in the most unexpected places from the most unexpected people.

Looking at Eyal, so physically broken, I sometimes wonder if I knew then, March 1986, what I know now, that I would have to redefine my goals and ambitions, both personal and professional, the quality of my relationships, the definition of friendship and authenticity. I am not so sure I would have had the wisdom, faith, confidence, temperament, and persistence to handle what some suggest as impossible challenges. But I did do it, discovering strength and even a faith reaffirmed that I never thought possible. I used to think the punctuation of life begins and ends with an exclamation point. But what I’ve learned is that the punctuation of life is more like the ellipsis … you see the story never ends.

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 February 25, 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

Jew Need to Know: Phys Ed

did-jew-knowIt’s no small secret that the Chosen tribe has had an enormous impact on the intellectual arena. Not to mention there is a disproportionate number of Jewish Nobel Laureates and scientists who have changed (and continue to change) the face of medical history and made the world a safer, calmer, less painful place to be. Not to mention giving it better skin, hair, and nails. As my brother Daniel would say, “Known fact.” But the sports arena . . . maybe not so much.

While the field of nuclear physics became known as the Jewish science, Jewish team sports are pretty much relegated to the math, debate, and chess teams. Of course there are exceptions to this rule, such as boxing and college and professional basketball in the United States— both sports that started out as unregulated practices (such as usury) that were open to Jews. What’s more, both sports rose to prominence during the first half of the twentieth century because of—you guessed it—the Jews.

Since basketball evolved from urban areas often populated by Jewish immigrants, it became yet another ad hoc niche market (unlike college football) where a cerebral but scrappy Jew might thrive. According to basketball historian Ari Sclar, Jewish players such as Barney Sedran, Ira Streusand, and Harry Brill honed their skills at City College and then went on to play in the various professional leagues available to them in eastern cities. Meantime, Yale University got wicked vocal about ending discriminatory practices against Jewish basketball players so that the Bulldogs could win win win. Jew better believe that there was a point in time when sports (and not math) helped Jews find acceptance at schools where ye olde campus quotas kept many Jews out.

Point shaving scandals aside, the burbs were basically the downfall of Jews in semi-professional and professional basketball. As more and more jobs were opened to Jews, playing sports became less important and the point spread became the Sunday spread became the tuchus spread and the science club was won.

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 February 24, 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

Rambam and Medicine

maimonidesMaimonides, popularly known as Rambam, was born on March 30, 1135. Maimonides is best known as a philosopher, prolific author and jurist: the foremost intellect of Medieval Judaism. Although his chapter on health in his Mishneh Torah is still popular and studied today, most people are unaware that Maimonides actually wrote 10 medical works.

His fame as a physician spread rapidly in his later years. He became the court physician to the famous Sultan Saladin, and later to his son Al-Afḍal. In 1477, only a few years after the invention of printing, a Latin edition of his “Regimen of Health” was published in Florence. It was the first medical book to appear in print there. Prof. Waldmer Schweiseheimer, a mid-twentieth century historian, said of Maimonides’ medical writings: “Maimonides’ medical teachings are not antiquated at all. His writings are astonishingly modern in tone and content.” Mr. David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, and after him Prof. Albert Einstein, requested that Maimonides’ medical writings be published. As Sir William Osler so aptly put it, “Maimonides was Prince of Physicians.”

My journey began when I researched and wrote a book called The Life-Transforming Diet, published by Feldheim. This book is based on Maimonides’ nutritional and psychological advice found in his philosophical and legal works, especially his medical writings. The book was well received and is currently in its seventh printing. It has been translated into Hebrew. The Life-Transforming Diet has already produced dramatic life-changing results for thousands of people worldwide.

After the book was published, I pursued my interest in the herbal aspect of Rambam’s writings. Besides writing about nutritional and lifestyle habits, Rambam details herbal remedies extensively in his medical works. In fact, he has one dedicated thick volume about drug names and descriptions. I was especially fascinated by Maimonides’ favorite stress relief formula, which he describes: “This should be taken regularly, at all times. Its effects are that sadness and anxieties disappear. This is a remedy of which no equal can be found in gladdening, strengthening and invigorating the psyche. It should always be found in your possession.” (Maimonides Medical Writings)

At the same time, I researched the best herbal ingredients for an appetite suppressant based on Maimonides’ nutritional suggestions and the most current herbal scientific research.

My first concern was to ensure that the herbal ingredients and formulations found in Maimonides’ works were being translated accurately. In general, many translations of ancient texts are not accurate. In fact, some of the better-known translations of Maimonides’ medical works, which were originally written in Arabic, are not precise and this becomes an important issue especially regarding locating and defining the exact herbal ingredients. The first step was to find the most exact translation. I utilized all three main translations of his medical works and after months of searching, I succeeded in communicating with the most renowned expert in the translation of Maimonides’ works from the original Arabic and other manuscripts of that era. He is affiliated with Brigham Young University in the USA and proficient in classical and Semitic languages.

My next step was to actually travel to India, which I did twice. I went to New Delhi and Mumbai in order to meet current day experts in Unani Medicine. I provided them with the original Arabic manuscripts and they confirmed the exact translation of the various herbal ingredients.

I wanted to further confirm my findings in India and so I got research scientists and current day herbalists to test and confirm the ingredients and formulations.

The next step was to ensure that the formulations could be made kosher. This was actually a much bigger challenge then it seems. It took two years to make this a possibility. To make the formulations kosher one needs the actual ingredients to be sourced kosher and the actual encapsulation needs to be supervised.

I traveled to China to the CPHI conference, which hosts 2,200 exhibitors and 29,000 attendees from over 133 countries. It is the market leader for the global pharmaceutical ingredients industry. I also visited various facilities in Shanghai and India—New Delhi, Mumbai and Ahmedabad.

After much research, I concluded that the best location for ensuring quality and strict kosher supervision of the production line was to have the products made in the USA. Since all products are also Kosher Star K certified, there is additional assurance of quality and third party substantiation of included ingredients and encapsulation.

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 February 19, 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

Publishing the Unpublishable

shlepping-the-exileIt took me more than three years to finish Shlepping the Exile. I had a job as a researcher in pediatric neurosurgery to go to and a dissertation on the Middle English Pearl to try to avoid, and more than disappointed, I was positively crestfallen to discover that nobody in the exciting, high stakes worlds of commercial and small press publishing really cared. I sent queries, unagented and unsolicited, to various publishers, submitted selections to every literary magazine whose address I could find. The encouraging rejections usually included a Yiddish word or two—le-chaim at the end instead of yours truly, or “Mazl tov on a stunning achievement, but it’s not for us at this time.” The less friendly ones tended to come from editors who’d received my manuscript from one of their writers. To many of them, I was an anti-Semite; to a few others, a disgrace to my people—”Would you let your parents read this?” Virtually all of them saw the use of Yiddish as an anachronistic drawback. The only thing that might have interested them about my adult characters was their experiences during World War II: “You can clearly write,” one of them told me, “give us more Holocaust.” After letters like that, I was almost happy to have the manuscript called “pornography in dialect,” a put-down that didn’t really sting, though I’d have been even happier if the woman who’d handwritten it on the title page put “pornography mit a heksent” instead.

After two or three years of this, I was starting to get desperate. I forgot about publishing and took the book back to its origins, presenting self-contained excerpts in comedy clubs, storytelling venues, theatres, anywhere where I could get onto a stage. I’d done enough storytelling and stand-up that finding places to appear wasn’t much of a problem, especially because I only held a piece of paper in my hand if the event was called a reading. Otherwise, I gave performances of material from the book, selling photocopied, perfect-bound copies of the texts wherever sales were allowed.

They moved surprisingly briskly, even though they didn’t look like much, and proved beyond any doubt that the suspicions I’d been nursing for so long were true. Jews liked the stuff, gentiles liked the stuff; English-speaking Francophones really liked the stuff. Young people, old people, women and men. Everybody liked it except people who worked in publishing. I like to think of it as the dawn of a tradition.

Five years after I finished the book, I performed part of it at a party in honor of the great Chilean poet and artist, Ludwig Zeller, who was living in Toronto at the time. After I’d finished, his Canadian publisher came up to me and asked if I had any of it written down. “All of it,” I told him, and explained what I was up to. He told me to send him a copy; I did. Two years later, it came out. There was no line-editing, no copy-editing; aside from typos, it was the text as submitted, but it took two years to come out.

If he’d ever sent me any money, it might not be coming out again, corrected and plumped up, a good forty pages longer than it used to be. People ask me how you fit new stuff into the midst of material up to thirty years old. The answer deserves a book of its own.

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 February 14, 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

Normal English and the Novel

michael-wexPlot was the last thing on my mind when I sat down to make a novel out of the stories about Jews in Alberta that I’d written for A Night in Odessa. I didn’t want to capture a landscape or a moment; I was after a sound, the breathless, slightly strangulated blast of dissatisfaction and unsublimated pain that was the aural blanket in which I’d been swaddled. A jumble of demotic English and storm-tossed Yiddish that flowed in and out of each other with utter indifference, it was a world away from the quaint and cutesy Yinglish of satire and dialect jokes. This was the argot of thoroughly bilingual people who knew that they were never at home.

I was damned if I was going to let it disappear, so I made it the book’s setting, its subject and leading character. The people in the book might live in Alberta, but the space inside the walls of this non-Phil Spector sound is its real locus. I wasn’t terribly interested in foreign accents or mangled syntax; I wanted to portray a way of thinking that didn’t want to squeeze into the patterns of proper English any more than it had wanted to fit those of the German from which Yiddish arose in the first place. I was a huge fan of Ishmael Reed’s early novels, especially The Free-Lance Pallbearers and Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, both of them tours-de-force of African-American English, and I wanted to do something similar with the non-standard English that I was supposed to have been educated out of. It was the next best thing to writing Yiddish.

I wanted to talk about people who were using Yiddish in places where they weren’t supposed to be, post-War lower middle- and working-class people living thousands of miles from anything that could called a major Jewish community, and—in the case of the protagonist and his family—retaining their commitment to Orthodoxy. Anyone who has spent ten minutes as an Orthodox Jew knows that it’s a twenty-four hour a day job, and I wanted to show people of unshakable Orthodoxy trying to make their way in a world in which Jewish law is a joke to everyone else—and doing almost nothing about it. I was aiming for an anti—bildungsroman. If people change, it’s because they’ve aged, but no one learns a thing.

I should have learned something from the storyteller who disapproved so strongly of the original sketch. While non-Jews seemed to like the stuff no less than the Orthodox Jews who got all the jokes, a surprising number of people who don’t keep shabbes or worry about kashrus found it offensive: “Religious people don’t behave that way.” Thirty years of klezmer bands and increasing interest in all aspects of Yiddish culture (not to mention recent scandals in the Orthodox community and the popularity of off-the-derekh memoirs) have gone a fair way to familiarize the general reader, Jewish and non-, with ritual behavior so deeply ingrained that it can be practiced in circumstances that would seem to make it absurd. When a teenage boy sends his Jewish girlfriend to the mikveh, it isn’t offensive, it’s merely consistent.

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 February 12, 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

Beginning a Literary Career

shlepping-the-exileAlthough St. Martin’s Press would probably prefer me not to mention it, Shlepping the Exile, which comes out next week and would seem to be my newest book, is really my oldest; the first version was published in Canada–with fewer pages and many more typos–in 1993. I can understand why a publisher might not want to call attention to a new book’s having been available as an import for twenty years; what scares me is having a book begun before the writer was thirty judged as the work of a man about to turn sixty. People might read a young man’s book as an old man’s–and in this kind of novel, it makes a difference. If I were starting it today, I’d write from the narrator’s parents’ point of view.

But I started it in 1983, after being invited to take part in a storytelling show called A Night in Odessa. Ninety percent of what I knew about Odessa, I knew from Isaac Babel, and Babel, I was told, was already covered; the other storyteller on the show had called dibs. What they wanted from me was forty-five minutes of material “in Babel’s spirit,” but not necessarily his neighborhood. They were more interested in psychic than physical ambiance–and in something new, if at all possible.

“So you want, like, original material?” Forty-five minutes of it, breezy and slightly transgressive.

Had my parents’ English been better, Breezy-and-Slightly-Transgressive might well have replaced Yisruel as my middle name, but even for the breeziest, forty-five minutes of new material isn’t something you leave to chance, especially when there’s nowhere to run it in front of an audience before the show goes up. I decided to write the whole thing down, contrary to my usual practice, if only to have a map of where I was going and how to get there.

I came up with an early version of what eventually became the first forty pages of Shlepping, a faux-autobiographical piece about a teenage boy ten years my senior living in circumstances similar to my own, but in the mid-50s, when I was a toddler, not a teen. I gave the other storyteller a copy–a carbon fresh from my typewriter–and he called me that night to tell me that he wouldn’t cross the threshold of any building where such filth was being presented, let alone allow it on the same stage with him. “I threw it in the garbage and took the bag outside. It offends me as a man, as a Jew, and as a human being.”

“And how do you tell the difference?”

The other storyteller hung up.

Much to my chagrin, management took his side. “It’s a bit strong, Michael.”

“Jewish gangsters killing people are less offensive than frustrated teens and lusty old men?”

“Can’t you just give us a folktale or something? Something a little more heartwarming ?”

I guess they’d forgotten about breezy and transgressive. I sat down and wrote the silliest fake folktale I could come up with–”They want folktales, I’ll give them flanken folktales”–about a potato kugel that talks. It, too, became part of Shlepping the Exile and has been anthologized a number of times.

I guess that’s what they mean by “having to eat humble pie.”

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 February 10, 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

On Edith Pearlman

molly-antopolI imagine many of us can remember exactly where we were when we encountered a favorite book—when we felt our lives had been irrevocably changed by a story. I had just graduated college and was living in Jerusalem when I came upon Edith Pearlman’s first book, Vaquita and Other Stories, in a used bookstore on Yoel Solomon Street (the store unfortunately no longer exists). Later that day, sitting on the grass in Independence Park, I fell in love with her characters: passionate and courageous, self-aware and sometimes solitary. The stories oftentimes examined what it meant to live in the postwar diaspora, bringing us into the lives of people in settings as disparate as Jerusalem, Boston and Central America. The story I loved most was the title story, in which a Polish-Jewish doctor serves as minister of health under a dictatorship in an unnamed Latin American country. The year I read Vaquita was the year I first started writing—and over the next decade, while I worked away on my own stories, I consistently turned to Pearlman’s other collections for inspiration: How to FallLove Among the Greatsand published a few years ago, a gorgeous anthology of her selected works, Binocular Vision.

At this point in my life, I’ve only lived in the world as someone’s daughter (rather than someone’s mother) and many of the writers I’ve often felt the deepest kinship with—Grace Paley, Alice Munro, Cynthia Ozick, Natalia Ginzburg, to list a few—write so intimately and compassionately about motherhood. I feel this about Edith Pearlman in spades. I’ve never met Pearlman, but I’ve looked to her stories in the same way I might have turned to a beloved and trusted relative for advice. Many of the most important things I’ve learned about writing I gleaned from reading Pearlman: that some of the best, and most satisfying, story collections aren’t woven together by character or by a particular place, but by something as ephemeral as theme—displacement, heartbreak, the secrets we keep from the people closest to us. That stories can be as expansive, complicated and emotionally messy as real life—and that it is immensely satisfying to read about that messiness when it’s depicted through lean, precise prose; meaningful sentences that are poetically compressed. And most of all, that while stories remind us that life is filled with both hope and heartbreak, my task as a writer is to make sense of the most painful and complicated parts, controlling that pain through language and shaping it into a narrative, rather than letting it consume me.

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 February 6, 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

On Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen”

chosen-potokWhen I first read Chaim Potok’s The Chosen I wasn’t yet trying to be a writer myself, and was blissfully unaware of all things writing-related. Reading was, at that point in my life, a completely personal and haphazard experience: I stumbled upon Potok’s novel in my middle school library, simply because the cover spoke to me: a young, timid-looking man clutching a book, staring nervously at something outside the reader’s view. Even before I opened the book, I knew I’d identify with that boy. That day in the library, I fell in love with The Chosen: with the friendship between two boys, Reuven and Danny, both coming of age in 1940s Brooklyn against the backdrop of World War II, and the wrench that’s thrown into their relationship because of their wildly different approaches to observance. Potok’s world came alive to me, and the themes his characters grappled with—friendship, family and loyalty—have deeply resonated with me since.

More than anything, though, The Chosen stayed with me all these years because it was the first time I really experienced male relationships. For my earliest years it was just my mother and me, and it took me a long time to learn how to act around men. They felt like a foreign species that spoke a language I didn’t understand—not only older men, but the boys in my class: I always had a circle of close female friends, but I was at a loss as to how to communicate with the other gender. The Chosen helped me edge out of my shyness, simply because I cared about the fraught and complex friendship between Reuven and Danny with as much focus and intensity as I did my own relationships. Reading Potok’s novel was like having this unknowable thing—the psyche of a boy—cracked wide open, finally giving me the chance to peer inside.

Lately, a few people have commented on how “un-biographical” my story collection seems—that there are no stories about women my age, living in San Francisco—and have asked whether it was intentional that half the stories are narrated by men. And it was intentional. It was really important to me to write from the perspectives of both women and men, young and old, American, East European and Israeli. I wouldn’t let myself see the book as finished until I felt I’d written convincingly from all those points of view—in a collection that looks at how people are shaped by large historical moments, I knew I needed to explore those events from a variety of perspectives. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but I see now it was The Chosen that led me to set that as a goal for myself: that writing should be an exercise in empathy, getting myself—and hopefully my readers—to care about people with experiences wildly different from our own.

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

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Posted on February 4, 2014

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