Author Archives: Rachel Cantor

Rachel Cantor

About Rachel Cantor

Rachel Cantor is the author of the novel A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World (Melville House). Her stories have appeared in magazines such as the Paris Review, One Story, Ninth Letter, Kenyon Review, and the New England Review. In addition to writing fiction, she freelances as a writer for nonprofits that work in developing countries. Rachel lives in New York, in the writerly borough of Brooklyn. She is, always, at work on another book.

Passover in Pakistan

Rachel CantorIn 1990, I worked with Afghan refugees in Peshawar, Pakistan, then the site of the largest refugee population in the world. Specifically, I worked with a program that theoretically hoped to prepare Afghan women to work in “public administration,” perhaps in that longed-for time after they were able to return home. Our actual aims were more modest: we taught mostly “business” English and basic computer skills to women, who in their homeland might have been doctors or lawyers, so they could find receptionist-type jobs with the only workplaces that would take them, which is to say, other refugee-assistance agencies. It is a measure of their extremely limited opportunities and their love of learning that our students (it still hurts to call these grown women “students”) were thrilled to be there.

As was I, despite the difficulties of living in Peshawar, and of working with Afghan women, who were viewed by the more conservative elements of the refugee population as belonging at home. A housing program was destroyed because someone believed the widow “beneficiaries” of that program were being corrupted. The van that brought us to work was swept for explosives each day before we could enter our work compound; our program was shut down for a not-inconsiderable amount of time because of death threats; female Afghan staff were evacuated to Europe for that same reason. Expatriate aid workers did not receive such threats, to the best of my knowledge, but our movements were highly restricted: we could not go to many public places (the movies, for example) for fear of bombs; we had to be driven everywhere; there was no chance we might simply take a walk around the neighborhood. I dressed in modest shalwar kameez when at work or in the community. More subtly, I think we were always on edge, our behavior as largely unwelcome expatriates always scrutinized. The environment in Peshawar was considered so hostile that it was, if memory serves, one of only two locations in the world (the other being Sudan) where non-embassy staff could join the American Club, an embassy-run bar where we could drink, play darts, compare notes about jobs we’d held (well, which my colleagues had held) around the world, and relax.

Complicating this already challenging milieu was a steady tone of official anti-Semitism. I still have a clipping from the local English-language newspaper about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, presented as description of fact! There was anti-Christian sentiment as well (a favorite feature of that same English-language newspaper was stories about Christian Pakistanis who’d converted to Islam), but those stories were celebratory, not virulent, not (to me, anyway) frightening. And there was the ever-present sadness—the sadness of our Afghan colleagues, our Afghan students—as they mourned their lost homes. It seemed their exile would last forever.

It was in this charged environment that I experienced one of my first Passover seders. My family had never celebrated Pesach, not even in watered-down form. I had gone to a seder once in high school—this one in Peshawar could easily have been my second. I don’t remember where the matzoh came from, or even if we had any. All I remember was that the seder was led by an American man who was widely believed a spy (a not unreasonable conclusion in those days), and that there were many, many people there. And that I felt a sense of belonging, and relief, in their company—surpassing that which I had felt even in the privacy of our shared staff houses, or when we let our hair down at the American Club. We sang songs I didn’t recognize; I assume we tasted bitter herbs. Did we talk about freedom, and the return of the exiled? I like to think we did.

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 16, 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 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