So everybody knows that Hanukkah is all about miracles, right? I think when it comes to miracles we’re each entitled to our own, so I’d like to nominate my personal best modern day miracle: stepping on the scale after Hanukkah and noting that the number is lower than it was before the holiday.
This year, we’re combining our Thanksgiving feast with Hanukkah treats. That’s right. I know Hanukkah is “supposed” to happen at the end of December, but this year the Hebrew date falls in November, on Turkey Day! It’s all about crossing lunar calendars with solar calendars and somehow this year we wind up making latkes out of yams and tying paper dreidels to roasted drumsticks. I just know we’re going to waddle away from that table, fully stuffed, prayin’ for a really big mama miracle.
Somehow we’ll have to stagger through the next seven days and nights too. But we can handle it. Really. Strategy is important, as well as a few simple rules. Continue reading
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
Books have always fascinated me, even from the very earliest days of my childhood. As the child of Jewish intellectuals I imbibed with my mother’s milk the concept that literature is nourishment for the soul; no other activity merits greater respect or in fact deserves more affectionate devotion from us.
I lived in Hungary for the first decade of my life, back when the country was held in the steely grip of the Communist Party and the truths of the authorities could never be brought into question. The media were controlled by the state, and journalists were accomplished liars about everything except the scores of soccer matches, which were impossible to falsify. Seekers after truth had to resort to works of literature, even though the official censors kept a close watch on such publications.
In search of the few available crumbs of truth, my parents bought copies of all new novels and poetry collections published in the country. Our home was like a library, piled high with books. Perhaps that’s why I’m always astounded when I encounter people who haven’t the slightest interest in literature.
My first vivid experiences of the world of books were purely sensual delights: the smell of paper and printer’s ink, the nuanced colors of the book jackets. Later, once I’d learned to read, I traveled, powered by the fuel of the alphabet, to inner and outer worlds, down into the depths of history, sometimes into the future, toward the vast riches of life that extended farther than any eye could see. I spent time with people who had lived long before me in places I would never be able to visit; perhaps those places had never existed at all. I often curled up under the covers to read, living in a boundless world of dreams, full of adventures.
For a long time my favorite book was A Thousand and One Nights, that perpetually enchanting cocktail filled to the brim with the most delicious ingredients of the Middle Eastern storyteller’s art, spiced with liberal doses of invention and humor, sensuality and cruelty. Sometimes I would skip school, preferring the company of Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sinbad the sailor. One time I was caught and as my mother seized me by the ear, I couldn’t help exclaiming, “I wish I was grown up already and could spend all my time just reading, reading and reading!” Perhaps that episode was influential in my decision ten years later to dedicate myself fulltime to a life in the world of books.
My next tumultuous literary experience came in my late teens when I read The Trial. It was earth-shaking for me. With just the first few pages I realized that I adored Kafka, especially the tension between dazzling light and absolute depths of darkness that characterized his prose. More than anything else I was impressed by his conversational style, recognizable for its simplicity and crystal clear transparency. And I took his motto for my own: “Correctly comprehending a thing is no guarantee that one hasn’t failed to understand it at the same time.”
Kafka the strict moralist became my guide, one who pointed out the right path but never disclosed the goal. That great prophet of ambiguities taught me to look at the world with fresh eyes and without illusions. Reading Kafka gave me insight into myself; I discovered that I’m a complicated, eclectic and urban Jew, one who believes in no God but still has spiritual needs, and, I hope, has a moral dimension: a man who accepts uncertainty as the only constant and change as the only certainty.
Others who have enriched my world are the great writers of Latin America. Gabriel García Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa have taught me that within a work of the imagination everything can exist simultaneously and on the same level, outside our familiar sense of chronology, with no distinctions drawn between the realistic and the fantastic or between reality and myth. Their approach allows one to create a world complete in itself, a landscape in which everything leaps into view as if lit by a flash of lightning.
I’ve lived my whole life surrounded by novels, works of the imagination and invented stories. The question therefore presents itself: Why, exactly, do I read and I write?
As far as I’m concerned, reading and writing serve the same purpose. They help me to come to grips with myself and with the world around me. I read and write so as to see more clearly, so as to fully develop and exactly express my feelings and thoughts. I do this above all in order to explore and to encounter—not things that I already know, but instead those that still remain obscure to me, half intuited and virtually unknown. For I aim to push my way into that hidden reality and perceive things in new ways. In such an endeavor, not even cutting-edge psychological research can come close to what poetry can achieve.
I am never alone when I read or write, even though a casual observer would see these activities as a profession practiced entirely solo. In a different sense, however, they provide one with an ample and rewarding circle of acquaintances. When I read, I enter a world conceived by another person, and when I write, I am reaching out to my fellow human beings. These tasks sustain and uplift my spirit by extending its worlds of fantasy, feeling and play. In literature nothing is sacred. Its works are the products of dreams, thoughts, feelings and fantasies that never petrify into dogma. Literature is the eternal conversation of the human race.
Some folks are born with the balabusta gene and others are not. It’s that simple. If you didn’t happen to grow up where the term balabusta was freely thrown about, let me try to define it for you. I say “try” because Yiddish is a language that requires paragraphs of explanation for one tiny word. Nu, let’s give it a go.
In the glossary of my first cookbook I define a balabusta as the perfect homemaker. She cooks, she cleans, she bakes, she owns the best spice rack. And she does it all with grace, donating her spare time to local charities.
My grandparents were blessed with the balabusta gene (like most everyone from the old country), which comes along with natural cooking instincts that sense exactly what’s needed to make a dish sing. Yet, like twins, it skipped a generation or two and I was born clearly defective in this area. As my grandfather would say to anyone that would listen, “she’s no balabusta.”
For most of my life, it didn’t matter. As far as my mother was concerned, I was destined to become the first Jewish woman president of the United States, and I would have a squad of chefs preparing my state dinners anyway. My dad would kinda show me on the sly how to scramble an egg and how to turn on a stove, skills he deemed useful in emergencies. (That and how to replace a carburetor.) But the lessons (both kitchen and car) didn’t take.
I did my best to learn once it became important to me. That’s code for “I got married and Hubby asked me ‘what’s for supper?’” Funny, he never mentioned he’d be expecting dinner on our dates.
He was in for some inedible awakenings. But I saw how important it was to him, so it became important to me. I was gonna become the balabusta of the century, come hell or high water.
So I experimented and Hubby choked down every morsel. After a couple of years I had this thing under my belt (and on my hips). At last, I crowned myself a “Balabusta” (well no one else was gonna make me kitchen royalty).
But neither Hubby nor I was ready for the sudden emergence of Extreme Balabusta. I’m sure it was the result of one of those hormonal domestic frenzies; it happened just before I had a baby. Like a culinary Madame Curie, I spent ten straight hours making 60 quarts of chicken soup and froze them in individual 2-quart containers. Then I made 120 carrot muffins and froze them in bags of 8-10. Next I produced 4 challah kugels, and a huge brisket (frozen in 3 separate portions), and 90 meatballs (frozen 10 to a container), and 10 pounds of mashed potatoes (also portioned and frozen). We’re talkin’ really hormonal. My mother-in-law looked on in disbelief as I had humongous pots (almost as big as my humongous belly) bubbling on all 5 burners. There was 12-quart vat in which I was mixing my muffin batter, and enough ground beef to compete with Kosher Castle (that’s the Jewish Burger King).
So I had a freezer full of homemade goodies that lasted well into the year. But by the time the baby was three months old, I had to reactivate that balabusta mechanism which had gone dormant. I actually had to cook dinner.
And as Yogi Berra famously said, “It was déjà vu all over again.” I discovered that I had not endowed myself with a genuine balabusta gene; I had simply copied it by artificial means. I had to drag myself back into that kitchen, with Hubby prodding me along as my ever-hopeful cheerleader.
It was time to start over.
I’ll confess right off that this is not my most embarrassing culinary moment, because I actually air the worst ones in my cookbooks. Like “Brisket: A Love Story,” “Chicken Soup: A Disaster Story,” and “Chocolate Mousse: A Scary Story.” Although all could be simply classified as epic kitchen tragedies. Dunno why exactly I always tell all. Must be that I feel taking the humiliation to an uber-public level will serve as penance of some kind. But that’s just a guess, after all I am a cookbook author, not a psychotherapist.
You see, I was not a “born cook.” (But boy was I born to eat!) So when I had to cook up my very first Shabbat meal as a married lady, every course was a different form of disaster. You wouldn’t think there are so many ways to ruin good food.
My potato kugel was a perfect example. Sitting at our Shabbat table was Hubby, my mommy, my granddaddy and my dear sis. They had all come to “help” this inexperienced cook, not to snicker. At least that’s what they said. When it came time to serve the kugel, even I knew that it didn’t even resemble one. It looked more like an off-color giant latka that had been run over by a truck. I cried, and I decided not to serve it.
But I couldn’t fool Hubby. He knew I had labored over it because potato kugel is one of his favorite Shabbat foods. So he asked about it. I shook my head, wide-eyed. “Come, on, I know you prepared it,” he prodded gently. I shook my head again, searching his face desperately for understanding. Finally, staring at my shoes, I whispered that I was too embarrassed to bring it out. He sweetly, calmly and lovingly told me that I should never be embarrassed about my food, that I had worked hard on it for him and he wanted to have his new wife’s first potato kugel. (He scored extra points from the family with that speech.) So head hung, I brought it out. A suppressed gasp gripped the table. Hubby smiled weakly. Everyone else looked over their shoulders at the wall, the ceiling, the floor. But he gallantly cut himself a piece and sent it down, as I watched in horror. Ever the noble prince, he actually ate another piece. Then he announced his verdict. “Perfect,” he paused, “for a Passover cake!”
That’s his secret: when I want to cry, he makes me laugh. When I want to scream, he makes me laugh. So I laughed through my tears, everyone relaxed, and the kugel mysteriously disappeared from the table.