Monthly Archives: July 2014

Jewish History and Jewish Memory

feldman-stephanie (1)On the first day of “The History of the Jews in Eastern Europe,” my college professor explained the tension between our family stories—our oral history—and the recorded facts. His example: almost all families from the Pale of Settlement (the Jewish region of Imperial Russia) claim an ancestor who fled Europe to escape conscription in the Czar’s army. History, however, tells us that Jews were rarely, if ever, drafted.

I know very little about my own Eastern European forebears—a big reason why I was taking this class—but one of our only family legends describes my great-grandfather leaving Ukraine to avoid service in the Russian army. I immediately told my grandmother, his daughter, that his story is a common myth. I expected she would share my academic interest: Why would he pass off this story as truth? Why did so many men like him do the same?

Just as my professor warned, my grandmother only became angry. Her father didn’t lie. The historians must be wrong.

I was sorry to have upset her. I agreed it was possible my great-grandfather was one of the few threatened with conscription, or at least believed he was under threat. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but believe my professor, and I was disappointed. I felt like I had lost one of my few family stories from Europe.

But I had to stop thinking like a twenty-first-century American college student, and start thinking like the Jewish ancestors for whom I was searching. I began this journey when that same professor assigned the works of eminent historian Yosef Yerushalmi.

Yerushalmi argued that traditional Jewish history has little to do with facts and dates (or what the Czar’s army said to my great-grandfather). Instead, it’s an exercise in memory and performance that captures our experience. It’s inextricably linked to the calendar; think of how Jews relive their entire history each year, one holiday and weekly Torah portion at a time. From the Middle Ages through the nineteenth century, European Jews interpreted current events using the framework of traditional stories. Regional Jewish perils and clashes with authority were understood as Purims, with chroniclers even renaming their enemies Haman; the Napoleonic Wars were interpreted using the Old-Testament terms Gog and Magog.

Storytelling-as-history is a powerful idea—one that I returned to while writing my novel, The Angel of Losses—but it’s not an easy answer. As a Jewish person living after the Holocaust, I’m not persuaded that legend can entirely compensate for lost history. Sometimes, though, the legends are all that’s left, and Jews are particularly ready to find meaning in them. I don’t know if my great-grandfather was nearly drafted into the Russian army, but his tale was, at the least, a kind of truth; a part of his history, and mine.

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 July 22, 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

My Favorite Episodes in Helena Rubinstein’s Biography

Head of Helena Rubinstein with egret feathersIt’s difficult to choose only one—she led such an amazing life! The first that springs to mind, though, is the way in which she played the Lehman brothers—all-powerful businessmen at the time—who had purchased her company for an astronomical amount in 1928, selling it back to her for next to nothing in 1930. The crash had been and gone, and Helena Rubinstein had understood how to profit from it…

I also love her exile in Australia, sent away on a boat at the age of 24. Leaving Europe alone, without a chaperone, was extremely brave for any woman, let alone one so young.

And then there’s her purchase of the entire apartment block on Park Avenue in 1941, because the landlords refused to house a Jewish tenant.

And simply that way of rolling up her sleeves after the war, when she was more than 70 years old, in order to re-build her beauty salon and laboratory in France, both of which had been heavily bombed by the Germans. She was a millionaire, she could have delegated the work, instead she preferred to deal with it herself.

And, of course, her great intelligence and long-term vision, this woman lacked neither courage nor panache, which is why I liked her straightaway.

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 July 21, 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

My Favorite Wandering Jews

angel-of-lossesI grew up assuming that the Wandering Jew was a Jewish creation, our metaphor for the Diaspora. When I began studying gothic literature in college, however, I learned that he’s actually a Christian legend, a Roman who taunted Jesus and is punished with immortality.

But I loved the Wandering Jew—his mystery, his magic, his mix of danger and tragedy. I couldn’t leave him behind to the more-or-less explicit anti-Semitism of 300-year-old British authors. I didn’t want him to be, as my professors would say, “the Other.”

I decided to write my own gothic novel with a Wandering Jew based on Jewish tradition. I studied Jewish folklore and history and found a wealth of wizards and travelers, some of whom appear in my novel, The Angel of Losses.

Here are a few of my favorite Wandering Jews:

1. Elijah

A body of Jewish folklore features the prophet Elijah, back on earth after his ascension to help pious Jews in need. He arrives as an unnamed stranger, and disappears again before anyone can guess his true identity.

2. Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph

The second-century rabbi is a famous mystic and religious scholar—”Head of all the Sages,” according to the Talmud—but he was also a political figure. Akiba traveled through the Middle East encouraging Jewish communities to support the Jewish general Bar Kochba, who led a briefly successful revolt against the Romans. I prize him for his legendary journey to paradise. According to lore, Akiba brought three rabbis with him on this forbidden mission. Upon breaching paradise, one died, another went insane, and the third became an apostate. Akiba, somehow, survived unscathed.

3. Eldad Ha-Dani

In the ninth century, Eldad Ha-Dani traveled through North Africa, the Middle East, and Spain, announcing himself as a member of an independent Jewish kingdom in Africa founded by four of the ten Lost Tribes of Israel. His contemporaries accepted as truth his tales of an extraordinarily wealthy, hidden Jewish nation. Today, scholars consider him to be a fraud, but his mastery of an unusual version of Hebrew suggests that he may have indeed come from some kind of surviving isolated Jewish community in Africa.

4. Benjamin of Tudela

A twelfth-century Spanish Jew, Benjamin of Tudela traveled through Europe, North Africa, and Asia. His narrative, recognized as a precursor of Marco Polo’s, features both meticulous observations of Jewish communities and fantastic tales of Jewish magicians and enigmatic tribes.

5. and 6. Shlomo Molko and David Reubeni

Messianic fever gripped the Jewish population in the wake of the fifteenth-century Spanish expulsion. Molko, the son of conversos, rediscovered his Jewish heritage and traveled through Europe and the Middle East with self-proclaimed Messiah David Ruebeni. Molko and Reubeni’s journey speaks to the desperation and hope of their time, the sense that the reassembly of the diaspora—and the Ten Lost Tribes of legend—was imminent. Molko was burned at the stake in Italy, and his shawl is still on display in Prague.

7. Israel Cohen

Reading him when I did, I came to see Israel Cohen, who published several books about the Jewish communities of Europe, as an early twentieth-century successor to Benjamin of Tudela. I couldn’t shake one of his notes about the Vilna Jewish library, which one of my characters adds to his collection of legends of the Wandering Jew: “Beneath the Library there was a little room, on the door of which in bold letters appeared the sign of a Hebrew scribe. The door opened as I descended, and out came a hungry-looking man, with sunken, stubbly cheeks, and a dirty collar.”

8. The White Rebbe

A medieval Polish legend describes a “White Rebbe” who sends a calf into a cave. When the animal fails to return, the holy man determines he’s discovered a magical path to Jerusalem. The White Rebbe descends into the cave himself and is never seen again.

I borrowed the name “White Rebbe” for my own Wandering Jew, the hero—or anti-hero—of the mysterious fairy tales my protagonist Marjorie Burke discovers among her late grandfather’s belongings. My White Rebbe’s story combines the magic, history, daring, and spiritual longing of the Jewish travelers I discovered in my research, and like the Wandering Jews of gothic literature, he refuses to remain safely in the past.

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 July 21, 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 Trailing the Life of Helena Rubinstein

helena-rubinsteinHelena Rubinstein wrote—or rather commissioned—two autobiographies that merely serve to perpetuate her legend, and therefore cannot really be trusted… But they are enough to get a good idea of his extraordinary woman. There are also a couple of biographies written about her, as well as the memoir of Patrick O’Higgins, her secretary during the last 20 years of her life. His words are at times rather biting—it must be said she didn’t treat him especially well—but he remains affectionate, which make this account worthwhile.

In Paris, I had access to the numerous archives of the Rubinstein company; I was able to sift through 14 boxes of memories—Dora Maar’s photos of Helena’s apartment in Paris by the Quai de Béthune, newspaper clippings, press files, transcriptions of radio interviews, reports of the branding strategy in the 1950s, and hundreds of photos.

Once in New York, I had the opportunity to visit the Foundation before it closed its doors and auctioned off its collection of paintings. She had had her portraits done by Salvador Dali, Marie Laurencin, Jacques Helleu, Christian Bérard. Helena’s son’s daughter-in-law Suzanne Slesin also had a great collection of archives which she has compiled in a beautiful book entitled Helena Rubinstein: Over the Top. I met her on several occasions and she told me about her fascinating encounter with Madame Rubinstein in the ’60s, when she was only 16 years old, and how dazzled she was upon her visit to Helena’s apartment on Park Avenue. It was at once baroque and a complete mess—a little “over the top” at times—but her style was unbelievably audacious, as she combined for example “Negro art” with contemporary furniture in a way no one would ever dreamed of doing at the time.

I spoke with some of her rare family members who are still alive, including a young cousin who escaped the Shoah with her mother and whom Madame took in after the war and the son of her director in France, Emmanuel Ameisen, who was also her first husband’s nephew.

Trawling through the genealogy sites online I managed to find identity papers, passports, and many newspapers of the time, both American and Australian. Her career truly began in Australia, that’s where her first interviews were conducted, her first adverts placed. One of which I found was dated back to 1903, featuring an actress praising Helena’s “Valaze” cream—the true precursor to “Because I’m worth it.”

I would have liked to learn more about her first husband Arthur Ameisen, who went under the alias of Edward Titus, an intellectual, journalist, and art lover, who set up the bookshop on Delambre street in Montparnasse and published Kiki’s Memoirs by Kiki de Montparnasse as well as the French translation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. He too was a fascinating character. He was a prominent member of the “Roaring Twenties” crowd, and influenced his wife’s artistic taste to a great extent. But what was he up to before they met in Australia and then got married in London? I had the opportunity to meet his second wife in Cannes, Erica, who was 38 years his junior, but sadly she was suffering from Alzheimer’s, and I was unable to glean much information from her.

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 July 18, 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 Writing a Biography of Helena Rubinstein

helena-rubinstein (1)People always ask me the same question: “What made you want to write about Helena Rubinstein?” And the answer is always the same. When I began to read her autobiography—in which she does nothing but lie—it made me want to know more, and I became passionate about the romantic yet modern story of this petite ( 4’8”) woman of Polish descent, always perched on sky-high heels, who passed away 48 years ago.

I immediately understood the potential of her story, and all there was to tell. Not least starting with her solo departure to Australia; her two-month boat journey, twelve pots of cream from her mother in her suitcase. It was 1896, she was 24 years old, spoke no English, had never met her Australian family—and she was heading into the unknown with a certain amount of bravery and determination which fascinated me. She was an adventurer, and I loved that about her.

I was, and remain, fascinated by her enthusiasm, her curiosity, her bravery and her youthfulness. She was afraid of nothing and had an endless amount of energy, passion, and intelligence. She was a real heroine and, as she used to say, all the things she’d experienced could easily have filled half a dozen lives. She remains a role model and an inspiration for women all over the world.

With her we travel across the twentieth century through the medium of beauty and art, we witness the empowerment of women, the birth of consumerism, marketing and publicity. We spend time in Krakow, Paris, New York, Melbourne and London… She has lived a thousand lives, and I thought it was worth shedding more light on them.

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 July 17, 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

Crypto-Jews and Autobiographical Animals

shrayers-conversationMaxim D. Shrayer: Papa, I want to ask you about varieties of crypto-Jews—those who conceal their Judaism in order to preserve it (as in your story “White Sheep on a Green Mountain Slope” set in the Caucasus), and also, perhaps, those who conceal their Jewishness to preserve themselves (as the Holocaust survivor, the Polish Jew in “Mimicry”). Why do so many crypto-Jews populate the pages of your stories, and why are there fewer traditional Jews in them?

David Shrayer-Petrov: I think that many Jews used to want to play down their Jewishness, at least in their public conduct… and I myself was sometimes guilty of that in pre-refusenik Soviet life. Continue reading

Posted on July 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

My Name is Yusha

josh-weilAny run-in with a Russian bathhouse is bound to shock: men chugging bottles of beer-like kvass, felt hats helping them sweat, sweat flying from birch branches as they beat their naked flesh. But what sticks with me most is this: stepping into the sudden heat, seeing them perched all around me, their privates dangling at my eye height. Feeling their stares. Realizing they are all uncircumcised.

I’ve never been much of a Jew: can’t speak Hebrew, wasn’t bar-mitzvahed, don’t believe in God. In Williamsburg I feel aligned with hipsters more than Chasids. I like mayonnaise on my pastrami. My grandmother shakes her head. Though she’s accepted my goyish ways, calls my wife “sweetheart” when, surely, her grandmother would have said “shiksa” instead.

Still, my father’s parents fled Germany just before the Holocaust, his grandfather was sent to a concentration camp, and, though, miraculously, he made it out, I know I have great aunts and uncles who did not. My mother’s grandfather was forced from his shtetl into the Russian army—for a Jew, near-certain death. In my family, the story of his flight is legend. I believe it, the way I’ve never questioned my father’s stint on a kibbutz. Though for a long time I couldn’t comprehend how his sister could move to Israel, trade Montana’s mountains for Tel-Aviv. Continue reading

Posted on July 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

A Jewish-Russian Writer as New Englander

shrayer-family-moscow-1985Maxim D. Shrayer: Papa, let’s continue with our topic. What happens after a Jewish writer emigrates from the USSR to the USA? Of the fourteen stories in Dinner with Stalin, you wrote 13 in America, as an immigrant. What has changed in your creative laboratory?

David Shrayer-Petrov: First of all both the immediate environment and the greater environment have changed. Most of these stories fashion Russian—Jewish-Russian—characters living in America. In this sense, I’ve become an American writer. Take the story “The Valley of Hinnom.” Even though much of the action is set in Moscow and in Israel, I could never have written this story without knowing that the main characters are former refuseniks living in the US. Continue reading

Posted on July 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

A Fictional Model of the Former USSR

maxim-and-david-shrayer (1)Maxim D. Shrayer: Papa, let’s start with a basic question. What are the stories gathered in Dinner with Stalin about?

David Shrayer-Petrov: Above all else, Dinner with Stalin is about Russian Jews who found themselves abroad, first emigrating and later grafting themselves onto American soil. My characters perceive themselves, especially when overseas, as Americans—even though at home in the US they may think of themselves as Russians. But if you pressed them on the subject, “You’re Russian?” they would answer, “Yes, we’re Russian. Russian Jews.” As a writer I weave the fabric of my stories from different balls of yarn: my characters appear as Americans at work, as Russians at home, while in fact they have Jewish souls.

MDS: If we take the title story, “Dinner with Stalin,” as a symbol of the whole collection, how does it express the essence of your book?

DSP: The title story doesn’t only encapsulate the Jewish question. This group of émigré friends is visited by Stalin who has come from the other world. It’s actually an actor who masterfully plays Stalin, bringing the whole thing to the point of absurdity; the audience begins to believe him—the way they temporarily believe the actor playing Hitler in Ray Bradbury’s “Darling Adolf.” Present among this motley group are representatives of a number of nationalities of the former USSR, including Armenians, Azeris, Ukrainians, Russians, and Jews. Here Jews enjoy parity, and the émigré protagonist and his wife, Mira, end up asking Stalin the most blunt questions about Soviet and Jewish history.

MDS: So in fact “Dinner with Stalin” is a fictional model of the former Soviet Union? Continue reading

Posted on July 8, 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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