Novels and the Art of the Mauritshuis

Last night, I had the great honor of reading from my new novel, The Anatomy Lesson (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday) inside the museum that holds the 1632 Rembrandt masterpiece that inspired it: “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.”

anatomy-lesson-rembrandt
The occasion was the opening of the renovated Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery in The Hague, a jewel-box museum with a small (with just 800 artworks) but extraordinary collection of Dutch and Flemish Golden Age paintings. Its holdings also include Vermeer’s “The Girl With The Pearl Earring” and Carel Fabritius’ “The Goldfinch,” two paintings that have been the inspiration for two highly successful novels.

Lately, a lot of people have been asking me why one museum contains so many works of art that have been explored through recent works of literature. It’s a good question, and one I’ve been mulling for a while.

First, a disclaimer: Until I first visited the Mauritshuis in 2006 to start doing research for my own novel, I didn’t know that “The Girl With The Pearl Earring” was housed in the same museum, even though I was aware of Tracy Chevalier’s novel of the same name. And I didn’t hear about Donna Tartt’s novel, The Goldfinch, until my agent was shopping my book and her publisher rejected mine on the grounds that “two such deserving novels shouldn’t be competing on the same list.” I took that as a great compliment – and it’s one of my favorite rejection letters ever.

No, back in 2006, I used to visit the Mauritshuis about once a month, traveling down to the Hague from Amsterdam, sitting with the painting for about an hour a time, looking, thinking, listening to art patrons and docents talk about the painting, scribbling notes in a small Rembrandt notebook I’d bought in the gift shop downstairs – basically just soaking in the work. It was a work I loved before I came here, of course, and I had been looking at it in reproduction for a long time. My father purchased a 9×11 inch poster in the same gift shop downstairs in 1965, just after he finished medical school, and he hung it in his study. That’s where, as I child, I looked at it quite often.

Seeing the real work in person was something else entirely. First, I was awed by the size of it – nine figures on a canvas, all life-size. In that intimate gallery setting, you really feel as if you’re in the dissection chamber, in and among the surgeons. Looking at a dead body that’s right there before you. The faces of the live men are vivid, colorful, ruddy-cheeked. The dead man is pale, but fleshy, a human being too.

anatomy-lessonSecond, I was amazed by how much I could discover by just sitting with it in that gallery, observing. It’s the kind of painting that’s almost like a great jazz recording, which you can listen to again and again and always discover something new. I found inspiration sitting there, sometimes when I was carrying around emotions and thoughts from my own life, a few times in moments when I was too tired to even look anymore.

One morning, I was particularly sad because a man I’d fallen in love with in Amsterdam was going off to travel, and was leaving me. I looked at the dead man in the painting, stripped almost bare, his body pallid and naked, and I thought: someone loved that man, too, and he left her. First, he left her through wandering – he was a thief and a vagabond – and then he left her for good. It was the start of one of the key narratives of my book.

For the last two years, the Mauritshuis has been closed for expansion and renovation, and in the meantime “my” painting has been exhibited at various museums, including the Gemeentemuseum, another gorgeous museum also in The Hague. I went to visit it there two months ago, and felt like it was a bit far away from me, although I could still walk up to it and see it up close. The gallery spaces were just much larger, and in the broader context with many more works surrounding it, it just felt less intimate.

Last night, before I read from my novel, I snuck back upstairs to the gallery to see “my” painting in the room where I’d visited with it so many times before. It felt like visiting a dear friend. It occurred to me then that perhaps the reason the Mauritshuis’ collection has inspired works of literature is that when you’re in the museum you feel a kind of personal intimacy with the paintings that’s rare in larger museums – perhaps Chevalier and Tartt felt that too.

For me, that moment of being alone in the room with “The Anatomy Lesson,” eight years later, now with the novel finished, was a kind of homecoming, the circle finally complete.

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 June 30, 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

Asher Lev as a Model for Rembrandt

my-name-is-asher-levAfter reading the penultimate draft of my latest novel, The Anatomy Lesson (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday), a trusted reader and one of my closest friends from the Iowa Writers Workshop, author Josh Rolnick, suggested I take a moment to read Chaim Potok’s novel My Name is Asher Lev.

At first, I couldn’t quite imagine how a novel about a Hasidic Jew in twentieth century New York City would relate to my story, which centers around the creation of Rembrandt’s first masterpiece, “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp,” set on a single day in Amsterdam in 1632. But Josh has never steered me wrong in the past, so I followed his advice.

Potok’s 1972 novel tells the life story of a young Orthodox Jew with prodigious artistic talent growing up in a cloistered Hasidic community in Brooklyn, who finds himself torn between his family’s expectations and his artistic calling. The more he follows the path that seems to be his destiny, the more he finds himself in serious conflict with his father and alienated from his community. In the end, Lev paints an image that makes it impossible for him to ever return home again: a crucifixion.

After reading the book, I could see certain immediate parallels with my own novel. In Potok’s novel, Lev invokes Christian iconography to explore a non-Christian theme: Jewish suffering in general, and in particular the suffering of his own mother, Rivkeh, who has been at the center of the emotional tug-of-war between father and son. (Marc Chagall also painted a crucifixion scene, by the way, “White Crucifixion” (1938), which is widely regarded as a representation of the suffering of the Jewish people). In my novel, Rembrandt brings Christian iconography into a totally secular setting: the intellectual and medical arena of the anatomy theater.

Rather than a crucifixion scene, Rembrandt painted a secular group portrait of surgeons, barbers, and apprentices at a dissection as though they were disciples standing around the dead Jesus. That’s one interpretation, of course. It’s also possible to read the dead man in Rembrandt’s masterpiece as a kind of Lazarus in the tomb. Scholars over the years have suggested both. In either case, Rembrandt has employed biblical imagery in a context where it would’ve been considered highly provocative, if not scandalous.

Rembrandt doesn’t appear to have been much of a churchgoer, but he was clearly a reader of the bible, and he painted scenes out of both the Old and New Testaments. More importantly, like Asher Lev, he was a student of art history, and western painting begins, of course, with Christian imagery: crucifixion, Madonna-and-child, last suppers, ascensions, descents from the cross… A painter can’t be a master, even today, unless he or she is familiar with this imagery. For Rembrandt in the seventeenth century and for a painter worth his salt in twentieth century New York, invoking classical western art traditions in this way was more about painting than religion.

But this may not have been the main reason Josh suggested I read My Name is Asher Lev. What he was offering me, by way of Potok, was a model for a narrative arc that would help me take my novel to the next, and higher level. That is to say, a way to have the novel explore how a man comes to break through his personal and cultural barriers to create a work of art that is both of himself and beyond himself – i.e., in some way universal.

That was the fundamental shift that my novel needed to contain, and after reading Asher Lev I was able to go back to The Anatomy Lesson with fresh eyes, and a clearer perspective on the larger narrative arc that my novel needed to take. I was grateful to Josh for the suggestion, and to Chaim Potok for showing me the way.

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 June 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

On Being Jewish in Amsterdam

anatomy-lessonRecently, a journalist who was interviewing me asked me to describe what it felt like to be a Jewish New Yorker living in Amsterdam. She put it this way: “Is it okay for you there?” As it happens, the interviewer was a Dutch Jewish woman who had moved to New York, where, she confessed to me, she felt a lot more “at home.” “It’s hard to be Jewish in Amsterdam,” she said.

It was interesting to me that she put it that way. So many of the Dutch people I’ve met here are always saying what an open, tolerant, international city Amsterdam is, and how Jews have always been so welcome here. But the truth is, I’ve never been able to say that I’ve felt “at home” as a Jewish person in Amsterdam, though I have been living here for the last eight years and in many other ways I do feel at home.

I came here in 2006 to begin research for my second novel, The Anatomy Lesson (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2014), which takes place in this city on way day in 1632, and tells the imagined story behind Rembrandt’s first masterpiece. I rented my first apartment in the part of the city where Rembrandt used to live, which is known as the Jodenbuurt, or Jewish quarter. The Rembrandt House Museum, in Rembrandt’s former home, is on the Jodenbreestraat, or Jewish Broadway.

Ever since the sixteenth century this quarter of the city, outside of the Centrum, had been a sanctuary for Jews fleeing persecution first from Portugal and Spain, and later from Central and Eastern Europe. For a long time, scholars used to insist that Rembrandt was a friend to the Jews because he lived in this neighborhood and painted portraits of a famous Amsterdam rabbi and several Old Testament scenes here, but more recently that history has been called into question.

This is the neighborhood where Baruch Spinoza lived and worked. There are five synagogues in that neighborhood on a single block, including the awe-inspiring seventeenth-century Portuguese Synagogue, and four other synagogues that now comprise the Amsterdam Jewish Museum, a temple to a tragic history.

Amsterdam was indeed once known as city that was welcoming to Jews, who were granted citizenship as early as 1616; for years the city was known as “Mokum” the Hebrew word for “place.” And of course everyone knows the story of Anne Frank, Amsterdam’s most famous Jew, who was also a German Jew whose family moved here to get away from the Nazis – unsuccessfully, of course.

Some people still call it Mokum, and the Dutch national soccer team, Ajax, is still (in rather poor taste I think) still known as “the Jews.” But most of the Jews are gone now. About 90 percent of the Jewish population of the Netherlands perished in WWII, the highest percentage loss of a national population in all of Europe, according to the Columbia Guide to the Holocaust.

The Jewish community, such as it is, is now centered in the southern part of the city, and walking through Rembrandt’s old neighborhood feels like walking through a ghost town, with many of the Jewish buildings denuded of their former cultural purpose, or turned to memorials. Lots of the buildings in the district are new, too, and that’s because after the Jewish families were rounded up here, their homes were looted and ransacked to the extent that even the lumber was stripped from their walls and floors by desperate Amsterdammers during the Hunger Winter of 1944 and 45. They were in such a bad state that they had to be torn down.

Strangely, the experience of living and working in that neighborhood made me feel more Jewish than I had ever felt growing up in New York and Great Neck, in two very busy Jewish communities, surrounded by Jews. I have always called myself a “secular, cultural Jew,” who feels connected to Jewish life, but doesn’t practice any form of observance. I have no Dutch ancestry, as far as I know, but my mother’s side of the family was from Hungary and Ukraine. Most of my mother’s relatives in Hungary died in Auschwitz; my grandfather survived three concentration camps, and was liberated from Mauthausen. Those were the two camps where most of the Dutch Jews were killed as well.

Surrounded by a completely destroyed Jewish community, I started to feel the power and weight of an absence I had only ever imagined or read about in books. In place of a vibrant Jewish community holding services in the beautiful local temples, there were historical artifacts documenting those disappeared customs and people. Where there used to be a lively Jewish theater, filled with actors, musicians and laughter, there is now an empty shell of a building filled with a memorial wall and a single burning flame.

Over time, being in the Jodenbuurt engendered in me a deep sense of longing for a community I never knew. It made me long, too, for the community of easy Jewishness that I’d left behind in New York, where there were still people simply being alive, being Jews.

In answer to the interviewer’s question, I had to confess that somehow being here in Amsterdam helped me connect with some part of the reality of being a Jewish person. Not to connect to the culture that I had come to know as Jewish culture, but to come into contact with the element of our history that is absence, disappearance, and devastation. That is still very real here in Amsterdam, as it is in other parts of Europe, too, even if there are few people who want to talk about it anymore today.

None of that made it into the Rembrandt novel, but it will be part of my next book, a project I’m beginning to embark on now.

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 June 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

A Legacy of Fear

devan-sipherI was biking recently in the foothills of the San Jacinto mountains in southern California, and I found myself far more uncomfortable on the descent than I was on the way up. I realized that I’m used to making extra effort. It’s the easy things that scare me.

It’s no accident I’m a writer. Or Jewish.

My great-grandmother Sophie fled the Cossacks as a teenager, and that’s pretty much all I or anyone in my family knows about her. I remember asking where she came from, and the answer was uniformly, “She had a hard life.” I remember asking if she had brothers or sisters, and the answer was the same, “She had a hard life.”

I should note that it was said with pride. My great-grandmother struggled, and through her struggle she survived. Fleeing the Cossacks was both a cross to bear and a badge of honor.

Now I don’t want to generalize, but I think that Jews sometimes have a hard time getting over adverse events. I mean it’s been three thousand years and we’re still trying to get closure about being slaves in Egypt.

The thing about fleeing Cossacks or Nazis, or ancient Egyptians for that matter, is that you never entirely stop fleeing. I believe it can become part of your identity—and part of your legacy. And it can become what you pass down to your children, like candlesticks and kiddush cups.

I was raised to believe Cossacks could appear at any moment. But there aren’t a lot of Cossacks in suburban Michigan. So my family worried instead about things like salmonella, Radon gas, and poorly wrapped Halloween candy.

Fear was considered a virtue. Fear makes you careful. Fear keeps you safe. And safety was the number one concern. As it probably has been for millennia.

My book The Scenic Route is about someone who places safety above all other concerns. The protagonist is a Detroit doctor determined to make safe and prudent choices in life. But in a world where hospitals—and even cities—can go bankrupt, is there such a thing as a safe choice?

It seems doubtful. Hard work doesn’t guarantee health and happiness. Continuous vigilance can be exhausting. The moral of The Scenic Route is that life is what happens on the way to where you’re going, and I firmly believe that. Yet I continue to put in extra effort fighting uphill battles in everything from my writing to my exercise regimen. I guess I’m scared not to.

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 June 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

The Path of a Wandering Jew

scenic-route-devan-sipherI never intended to write novels.

I also never intended to write for The New York Times. When I was 17, I was accepted to medical school. And my parents are still trying to figure out what went wrong.

After being a medical student, I was briefly a rabbinical student. I have also been a presidential campaign coordinator, an entertainment news show producer, an information technology consultant, a computer graphics artist, a book editor, a bookkeeper, a playwright, and an advertising copywriter along the way. In short, my career trajectory resembles the path of a drunken sailor—or perhaps a wandering Jew.

So it’s appropriate that my second novel, The Scenic Route, is about people taking the long way around. And I would argue that taking the long way is a Jewish tradition. After all, we spent forty years in the desert.

Traveling is a key part of the biblical narrative, central to canonical stories from Noah to Jonah to Joseph. However, travel is also unpredictable, and the patriarchs (and matriarchs) often end up in destinations far from where they had intended to be. (Joseph never planned to go to Egypt, and Jonah was dragged to Nineveh kicking and screaming.)

In The Scenic Route, life is what happens on the way to where you’re going. And I believe one could argue that’s also a message of the bible, as story after story illustrates people tackling unexpected challenges and changing the course of human history in the process.

Nowhere is this more true than in the momentous but little known verses about “the woman of Gibeah,” who wasn’t even from Gibeah, a town in ancient Israel inhabited by the tribe of Benjamin. The woman is the wife or concubine (the bible is unclear) of a Levite priest who is traveling from Bethlehem to a northern city.

The Levite and the woman stop for the night in Gibeah and are offered food and shelter in the home of an elderly man. But the home is besieged by townsmen angered by the presence of the foreigner in their midst, and demand he be handed over to them. His host refuses, but instead offers the woman.

The next morning the Levite finds the ravaged woman on the doorstep and (for reasons that must have made more sense in biblical times), he carves her into 12 pieces, sending one piece to each tribe—as evidence of the wrong done to him.

The result is a war between the tribes, which ends with the near-decimation of the tribe of Benjamin. And it is largely because of that devastating civil war that the twelve tribes decide they need a king, which leads to the anointment of the first king of Israel, King Saul, who, for the sake of reconciliation, was chosen from the tribe of Benjamin.

Everything that follows: the kingdom of David and Solomon, the rise and fall of the two temples, and all of Judeo-Christian history. It is all the aftermath of a war, a rape, and a travel story that goes terribly wrong.

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 June 23, 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

Writing About The Holocaust

running-from-giantsIt was a day like any other. I was absorbed in the details of my life, answering an overflowing stack of emails and worrying about trivial things, when the phone rang.

“We’re done translating Grandpa’s notes,” said my dad. “Would you, by some chance, be willing to go over them and turn them into a book?”

“Of course!” I replied right away. It sounded like no more than a thorough editing job. It struck me that my dad was surprised by my quick reply.

He sent the notes over. Grandpa Srulik spent a couple of months writing about his life. Then, my brother and father translated his notes from Russian to English.

I printed the translation and read over the notes in minutes; ten pages to summarize the life of a man who had had suffered enough heartache to fill a thousand lifetimes. As I read, I recalled him speaking about his life. I could see his muscles tense at some particularly difficult parts of his story. Reading other sections, I could hear him let out a hearty laugh as he tried to lighten the load on both the listener and himself by finding bits of humor in his infinitely painful life. Continue reading

Posted on June 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

Holocaust Education: The Missing Piece

margareta-ackermanIn my many years of schooling across three continents, I’ve attended many Holocaust classes. Yet, during each lesson and every lecture, I felt that something was missing.

In high-school, we read The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, a beautifully written firsthand account – rightfully a must-read if there ever was one. But, as most of us know, Anne’s diary ends before her story does, saving the reader the worst of the Nazi atrocities. To my surprise, my high-school class covered little about the Holocaust other than Anne’s diary. And while the university courses on the subject went much further, there was still something missing.

Although, thankfully, the Holocaust ended many years ago, it was still much more real to me than any other historical subject I studied. If one were to guess who among all my family members had survived the Holocaust, no one would have suspected my grandpa. Nothing about him brought to mind the horrors of the Holocaust. He had an unassuming, easy-going demeanor, combined with an exceptional sense of humor. Whenever I think of him, I always remember him with a smile on his face. Most incredible, however, is that he was, without a doubt, the happiest person that I’d ever met.

For many years, I couldn’t reconcile my grandfather’s personality with all of the horrors that he and others suffered at the hands of the Nazis. Hope came when, many years later, I was asked to help put together his memoir. Of course, I was honored and agreed right away. Among the many reasons that I wanted to help with this important project was my hope to finally discover how Grandpa managed to survive so wholly.

Don’t we break down from much smaller problems? Don’t people in times of peace and plenty disintegrate and lose the will to live from problems that cannot even be compared with the atrocities such as the Shoah? What made my own grandfather so much more resilient?

There are two ways to look at Grandpa’s reaction to all that he had endured. The first, is that he had managed to be happy despite all that happened to him. He would have been a happy person no matter what. Had he lived a simple life in the Polish village of Nowosiolki where he was born, he still would have been an exceptionally happy guy. Having survived the Holocaust, and still retaining such contagious joy for life, suggests that he would have been a happy person no matter what would have happened to him.

The other perspective, expressed by some of my readers, is that Grandpa was happy precisely because of what he had endured. Seeing into the depth of darkness enabled him to gain a profound appreciation for all that is good in life. Indeed, I was delighted to learn that there were other survivors who had the same response as my grandpa. In contrast to what they have already been through, the trials and tribulations of normal life seem trivial. Instead of focusing on the negative, they are eternally grateful for what is good, appreciate the small things, and are glad to be alive. This is why, a small number of survivors are exceptionally happy people.

Which of these theories is true? One of these, or some combination of both? That’s the classroom discussion that I could have used. A discussion, a lecture, or a class that would proclaim to the world that there were people who the Nazis could not break. There were those who, against all odds, managed to survive the Holocaust both physically and emotionally, and went on to live vibrant, joyful lives.

Perhaps it makes a difference to know that there was a ten-year-old boy named Srulik Ackerman, who went on to live a life full of happiness despite all the horrors that he endured at the hands of the Nazis. After everything that he has been through, he must have laughed and smiled more than a dozen men in a single lifetime.

I hope that learning about Srulik and others like him will make it easier for students to digest this difficult material. Maybe this lesson on the strength of the human spirit will encourage teachers to cover Holocaust history more completely, instead of omitting the truly difficult, but essential parts of this dark spot in our history. Maybe, realizing humanity’s potential for resilience, and our capacity for joy and happiness no matter what comes our way, will help students find strength in their own lives.

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 June 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

6 Things I Learned Writing About Weddings For The New York Times

wedding.beatMy first novel, The Wedding Beat, was loosely based on my experience as a single Jewish guy writing the Vows wedding column at The New York Times.(“Always the wedding columnist and never the groom,” is how the New York Observer described me.) There are a lot of things I learned that didn’t make it into the book, and here are a few of them:

1. MEN ARE ALSO FROM VENUS

Beneath the stubble and the SportsCenter addiction, most men are as confused, vulnerable, and romantic as women when it comes to falling in love.

I’m not sure where people got the idea that romance is primarily a female thing. When it comes to grand romantic gestures, from sweeping someone away for a weekend in Paris to getting down on one knee on a white sand beach, there’s usually a guy involved.

2. A RECEPTION IS A RECEPTION IS A RECEPTION

If you’re in the midst of planning a wedding party, trust me when I say no one will remember the color of the napkins.

Every wedding ceremony has a personal element unique to the bond of the two people getting married, but receptions tend to blend together. Some are fancier. Some are quirkier. But once the jackets are off and the guests are boogying down on the dance floor, the Rockefellers don’t look much different from the Rubinsteins. And I can say that with assurance because I covered two Rockefeller weddings—and one of them married a Rubinstein.

3. THERE’S A BIG DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ATTENDING A WEDDING AND WORKING AT ONE

The New York Times has a strict policy about accepting anything that could be construed as a gift. So when I go to a wedding I don’t eat. I don’t drink. Bill Cunningham, the iconic Times photographer (and the subject of the documentary film Bill Cunningham New York) has said he doesn’t even accept water.

Working at a party is precisely that. Working. Watching other people enjoy a gourmet meal is a fat-free and frisson-free experience. As an added bonus, when guests see me with a pen and pad in my hand, they often mistake me for a waiter and give me their drink orders.

4. SAYING “I DO” ISN’T WRITTEN IN STONE – OR NECESSARILY EVEN IN INK

Oddly, a lot of people who make submissions to The New York Times wedding section aren’t having a legal marriage ceremony. And I’m not talking about gay weddings. In some cases, the bridal couple has previously eloped and never told anyone. In other cases, they’re interested solely in the party, but they haven’t yet decided if they want to make a legal commitment to each other. (This really happens.)

There are also numerous couples who want their ceremony performed by someone who isn’t legally sanctioned to marry them, but these couples don’t want the hassle of a separate civil ceremony at City Hall to make the marriage legal. This is what divorce lawyers’ dreams are made of.

5. GREAT LOVE IS NOT PERFECT LOVE

I find the healthiest relationships are the ones based on mutual respect—not just for each other’s virtues but also for each other’s flaws. Couples that can acknowledge (and laugh) about their partner’s imperfections (and their own) seem to have the strongest foundation.

Love stories that are too good to be true usually are, and when I hear someone describe their mate as “perfect,” it’s a red flag. “Perfect” is not an option in politics or marriage. A truly happy bride isn’t someone in a state of bliss but rather someone looking forward to what’s coming next.

6. HAPPINESS IS A CHOICE

I think people like reading Vows columns for the same reason I like writing them. They affirm life by showing that love can happen at any time, at any place and at any age.

So many things belong to youth: such as time, health, and Justin Bieber hair. But it turns out that love isn’t one of them. Happiness is always possible. As long as you’re alive, there’s always hope that something new and exciting is around the corner.

Falling in love is a little like writing a book. You can feel a spark about a person or an idea. The trick is paying attention to that spark and choosing to pursue it.

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 June 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

A Jew in a Plexiglas Box

nicholas-kulishA Jew on display in a Plexiglas box, in Germany of all places, stands as a flagrant provocation. But there he was, surrounded by curious onlookers and a considerable contingent of reporters, photographers and camera crews. Bill Glucroft sat on the white bench with the hot pink cushion in a clear enclosure fielding questions, a living exhibit at Berlin’s Jewish Museum.

It was one of many controversies that I covered in my six years as Berlin bureau chief for The New York Times. There was the effort to ban circumcision, beaten back by the German Parliament after a similar uproar. Günter Grass wrote his controversial poem attacking Israel and then there was the Jew in a Box.

The display was always meant to be provocative, as were advertisements for the show that played off of anti-Semitic rants, one with a picture of a pothole and the words, “The Jews are to blame for everything.” The motivation by the Jewish curators was obvious: Their exhibition about the everyday lives of Jews, about kosher food and skullcaps, was not the kind of Holocaust-related exhibitions that packed museums.

But it was of the moment and significant in its own way. During my time in Berlin the vibrancy of new Jewish life in Central Europe was surprising and encouraging. When I was researching my book on the concentration camp doctor Aribert Heim at Simon Wiesenthal’s old office in Vienna I stayed in the old Second District, which was filled with Orthodox Jewish families, kosher stores and restaurants. Berlin’s tech scene and electronic dance music clubs lured young American Jews and Israelis to the city. In Poland university students were rediscovering Jewish roots buried during the decades of Communist rule.

I had the chance to cover the opening of a new Jewish museum in Warsaw, part of a broader-based movement there to restore the important role that Jews had played in Polish history and the large role that Poland’s enormous population played in Jewish culture writ large. Museums are moving further from static commemoration toward promoting active dialogue and understanding. Such a move is not without risks in a world still filled with hate.

That’s what makes the fatal shooting at the Jewish Museum in Brussels last month so chilling. Police have arrested a man who they believe fought with radical Islamists in Syria. The shooter killed an Israeli couple, a Frenchwoman who worked at the museum, and a 24-year-old who was a receptionist at the museum. But he was also aiming at something larger: The notion that Jews can live openly and without fear as part of the larger community in Europe.

In Hungary I watched the rapid rise of the extreme right party known as Jobbik up close. The recent European Parliament election only added to the sense of anxiety, to the fear that we could be sliding back toward an uglier, more dangerous period. It was encouraging, at least, to see that Germany, where the most effort has been made at education and reconciliation, the voices of extremism were barely heeded.

Writers like Yascha Mounk have spoken eloquently about growing up “German, Jewish and Neither,” experiencing a strange blend of anti-Semitism, philo-Semitism and plain old ignorance. Leeor Engländer, a journalist who spent an afternoon in the Berlin Jewish Museum’s Plexiglas box said that the exhibit turned the figurative into the literal. “As a Jew in Germany you live like an animal at the zoo,” he wrote in his article about the experience.

Mr. Glucroft chose to handle the issue with humor and cheer. Encouraged, the museumgoers began asking more and more questions. The foreignness seemed to dissipate, and with it some of the otherness. Provocative, maybe even inappropriate, but the longer I stood in that museum, the more I realized that it was effective. I hope that the next generation of young Jews born in Europe will find no contradiction between their religion and their nationality.

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 June 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

What’s a Nazi?

eternal-nazi“What’s a Nazis?” It was a question I had never heard before or even considered possible but there the man stood, asking me in total seriousness what Nazis were.

In retrospect it made perfect sense. I was in one of the most isolated places on earth, deep in South Sudan’s Jonglei State. There was no electricity and no running water. In the rainy season, which was just beginning, the roads were flooded and the dirt landing strips often too muddy for even small airplanes to land. Other than the occasional United Nations helicopter the people here were completely cut off.

I was six years old when Raiders of the Lost Ark, with its Nazi villains, made everyone I knew want to be an archaeologist with a bullwhip. We read The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank in junior high. Schindler’s List came out my freshman year of college and I went to see it with my parents when I was home on winter break, while Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel were prominently featured on the syllabus.

Studying German, the Holocaust was ever present. One of the first lines of poetry you learn is Paul Celan’s “Der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland,” death is a master from Germany. Unfortunately for the people of South Sudan or the Central African Republic, the master’s disciples still roam the earth.

I arrived in Nairobi a year ago to work as the East Africa correspondent for The New York Times but I hadn’t quite finished working on The Eternal Nazi, a book that grew out of my work as the newspaper’s Berlin bureau chief. That was how I found myself sitting in a plastic chair, under a tree trying to rewrite the epilogue. The young South Sudanese man approached, wanting to know what I was doing on my MacBook.

“I’m working on a book,” I said.

“What’s it about?” he asked. His English was quite good because, as a refugee, he had gone to school in Kenya.

“Nazis,” I said, prompting the question that so disarmed me. “They were really bad and they killed lots of people.”

For the people of South Sudan, after decades of war with terrible atrocities against civilians committed by all sides, that described a lot of people.

“Like how many?” he asked skeptically. I thought about the six million killed in the Holocaust, the Soviet soldiers and civilians, the people buried in the London blitz or drowned in ships sunk by U-boats.

“Millions,” I said. “Tens of millions.”

“Oh,” he said, nodding, finding the number sufficient. “That really is a lot.” He paused then asked me, “What were they called again?”

“Nazis,” I said.

“I’ll remember that,” he said, then left me alone to write for as long as my battery lasted or until I could find a generator.

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 June 11, 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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