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The Art of Silence

american.sun.and.windAlthough my novel, The American Sun & Wind Moving Picture Company, is set in the silent film era—it begins in 1915, in Fort Lee, New Jersey, where a a Jewish family that makes one and two reel (silent) films is making a new film on a frozen lake—its origins may lie in the spoken word. When friends ask how and why I came to write a novel about the silent film era, the first answer that comes to mind is that the novel is inspired not by my love of film, but by my childhood love of listening to stories on the radio.

During my years in high school, in Brooklyn in the early fifties, the New York City Board of Education’s radio station, WNYE-FM, regularly broadcast radio programs into elementary, junior high, and high school classrooms. And during those years I was a child/teenage actor at the radio station. I played some wonderful parts—Tom Sawyer, Hans Brinker, Willie the Whale, young Abe Lincoln, et al—and what the director of the station, Marjorie Knudsen, taught me on my first day there has stayed with me throughout my life. The most important element an actor has at his or her command for creating character, she said, were not words, but silence. The way you pause before a word, or between sentences, or after a particular phrase, or in the middle of a word—this, she said, is what makes listeners pay attention so that they can, in their imaginations, transform what they hear—and do not hear—into credible characters and scenes. The mystery of character—and the essence of what made listeners want to know what-happens-next, lay in those moments when there was no sound.

Here, then, from the first page of The American Sun & Wind Moving Picture Company, Joey Levine, a boy who plays both male and female parts in his family’s movies, and who conjures up the stories that his family turns into movies:

I could make a story out of anything back then—a nail, a glass, a shoe, a tree, a mirror, a button, a window, a wall—and for every story I made up and gave away, I also made one up that I told no one about—one I stored inside me, in the rooms where I kept my most precious memories and pictures.

What Joey is doing, I now realize (I didn’t see or understand this when I was writing the novel, which is told in his voice), is trying to conjure up the seen from the unseen—just as, when listening to the radio as a boy, I conjured up live human beings I could see in my mind’s eye, and to some degree like viewers of silent movies, who had to infer the unseen—the mysteries and complexities of character—from the seen. Viewers, that is, had to infer thoughts and feelings, not from words characters spoke (though there were often titles between scenes where snatches of dialogue were projected onto the screen), but from expressions and gestures the characters made—from closeups of eyes, for example—that told of those silent, inner worlds that were un-seen. In both radio dramas, and silent films, the greatest source of mystery and power—of our attachment and interest in fictional characters—resided in ways to make us sense what we could not see, whether what we saw came to us in images or in sound.  Continue reading

Posted on February 18, 2013

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

In a Class by Themselves: A Jewish Fiction Reading List

wantingA couple of years ago I decided to lead a group of adult learners in a class on Jewish fiction. The reason was that I wanted to share a few books I loved, and I also wanted an excuse to read some I’d never got around to. It was an amazing experience, both as a teacher and as a reader.

Re-reading some favorites – like Bruno SchulzPrimo Levi and Meir Shalev – only served to deepen my attachment to them. But the writers I’d wanted to get to know – like Clarice Lispector and Joseph Roth – were a revelation. Two or three really stand out in that category. Lispector for certain – nothing in literature is quite like her, and I urge you to read through twice before you judge. But it was Roman Gary who won my heart with his incomparable character Momo – the little Arab kid adopted by the Jewish Rosa – in a work that is simply perfection, there is no other word for it. As for sheer greatness, it has to be Yaakov Shabtai, whose Past Continuous is not only a virtuosic masterpiece, but deeply moving; also truly great is S.Y. Agnon’s Only Yesterday, which is remarkable for its breadth, its unflinching eye, and the beauty of its prose even in translation. Each one of the works I taught has a special place in my heart, and I believe you will also find them gratifying to read or re-read. Bruno Schultz is fundamental – in a class by himself. Dovid Bergelson’s short stories, only recently translated from the Yiddish, and are a mad joy. David Grossman needs no introduction, except I strongly recommend reading Schultz first. Continue reading

Posted on February 15, 2013

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

Not Feeling the Candy Hearts? Turn Around Your 50 Shades of Abysmal Gray

hot.mamalahIt’s that time of year…chocolates, flowers, jewelry. Sappy advertisements and red and pink store displays. There are reminders everywhere. It’s Valentine’s Day.

Sure, it’s a bit commercial (understatement) but it’s all good. We know that. It’s beautiful to celebrate love.

But what about if you don’t have a special someone or even your favorite chocolate already lined up for a great Thursday night? (Or perhaps you have a loving companion but you’ve somehow lost yourself in the relationship.) Whatever the reason, this day, with its cards and balloons, candy hearts and kitsch, is turning your mood fifty shades of a rather abysmal gray. Instead of bringing you a great sense of joy and intimacy, this so-called celebration feels more about absence or loss. And over the course of a day that seems to have somehow overlooked your very own precious self, you find yourself thinking, “I don’t have a valentine.”

To which we respond, what do you mean you don’t have a valentine?

Of course you have a valentine.

Walk right into the bathroom. Grab a hold of the sink and look up. Yours will be right there waiting, looking you straight in the punim. Continue reading

Posted on February 14, 2013

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

I Am Writer. Are You Chopped Liver?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIs it possible to take the ego out of writing?

I ask this question because I ask myself why I write, and why so many people write, and why writing has quite literally taken over our society – you cannot blink without someone Tweeting, Tumbling, Facebooking, blogging, Yelping, product rating, movie reviewing, book eviscerating. Just think about the last time you wanted to buy a toaster. You went on Amazon or some other site, and there, for each of the two hundred different toasters were two hundred individual comments, some many paragraphs long, by people apparently passionate enough about their toasters to write about them, and people, like me, stupid enough to read them and have them sway my judgment. (In the end, and based on countless reviews, I ended up with a toaster I hate – Calphalon 4-slot model 1779207, two stars at most!)

But were these people passionate about their toasters or simply passionate about the fact that someone might read their opinions? Are we Tweeting to say something important or to simply assert our existence?

We all know the answer. But what about those of us who write fiction – what’s in it for us? Continue reading

Posted on February 13, 2013

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 the Radical Other

wantingIn my first novel, I wrote from the point of view of a Nazi. In my new novel,The Wanting, I’ve taken on the persona of a suicide bomber from a village outside of Bethlehem. And while this character, Amir, is only one of three distinct voices in the book, his was the most painful to write and the most difficult to come to terms with. On the one hand, he murders scores of people – unconscionable and terrifying. On the other, he is also a person, not a monster. It is that person within him I was trying to access in my writing – but did I succeed? And should I have even tried?

My friend and fellow writer Jonathan Rosen (Joy Comes in the MorningThe Life of the Skies) has some doubts on this score. He wondered if I had created a moral equivalency between the victim (in this case the Russian Jewish immigrant, Roman Guttman) and the victimizer (Amir). I hope Jonathan won’t mind if I quote from his email:

“…my fear [is] that Jewish imaginative sympathy sometimes runs the risk of secretly being narcissism disguised as empathy, as we project the better angels of our nature outward in the name of human understanding and then have a dialogue with ourselves. German Jews did it with Germans, as Gershom Scholem argued so persuasively about Buber — I and Thou is sometimes Me and Me.”

This, of course, begs the question of fiction writing in general – but without addressing that (and Jonathan himself told me he genuinely thinks writers should be free to attempt anything and everything) I have to admit his misgivings give me pause. What is it we do when we write about the radical other, especially when this other has declared itself our mortal enemy and feels empowered to use any means, no matter how repugnant, to achieve its aim. Is it merely an exercise in vanity, a sort of hope against hope – wishing away the truth of the barbarity which confronts us?

I struggled with this from the onset. Just doing the research was painful in the extreme. Like poking at a sore, I had to read page after page of vitriol aimed at Jews and Israelis. The writings and rantings of mullahs and radical Islamists throughout the Muslim world frightened me, and our history reminds me it is wise to be frightened. My conversations with Palestinians and Israeli Arabs were of course less rife, but an underlying fury was never very far from the surface. I did not feel safe. Add to that the painful and inevitable realization of our own (my own) responsibility for the suffering and thwarted ambition of Palestinian people, and you can see how complex things became for me. Fear and guilt. Never a good place to write from.

So it’s not surprising that my first characterizations of Amir were flat and lifeless: in turns he was demonic, hate-crazed, and otherworldly – a kind of poet of cruelty – in others he was comic and buffoonish, a mindless machine of vengeance. I was stuck, and it was not until my Israeli reader, Michal Evron Yaniv, said, quite simply, “Just make him a person,” that I was reminded that my task as a novelist is to render all my characters with empathy – an empathy that extends throughout this awful symphony of life. And I fully admit that in the end I did perversely fall in love with Amir, because I came to see that he, too, is a victim – not so much of the Israeli occupation as of his own limited experience and the agenda of powerful forces far beyond his control or ability to understand.

I believe I’ve created a vital and living character who demands our attention and rewards our reading in a book I hope papers over nothing while attending to the thing that matters most: the human spirit.

But should there be limits to a writer’s empathy?

I welcome your comments.

Posted on February 11, 2013

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

Yiddish and Us

Hannah.PressmanThe three of us waited expectantly and somewhat nervously in the seminar room, wondering why we had been summoned by our professor. Nu, what was going on – why the special meeting?

I glanced over at my classmates. Shiri Goren had grown up in Hod Hasharon, Israel, studied at Tel Aviv University, and went on to a successful career as an editor for IDF Radio and television news. Like me, she was now pursuing doctoral work in Hebrew literature. Lara Rabinovitch grew up in Toronto and attended McGill University. She was enrolled jointly in Jewish Studies and history, and had an active side career as a food writer. I hailed from Richmond, Virginia, and had studied English and Religious Studies at UVA.

Three students from very different places, meeting weekly to debate history’s impact on Yiddish cultural expression. During our exploration of “Yiddishism in the 20th Century” in the spring of 2005, we learned about the rise of Yiddish literature, the Yiddish press, spelling reform (quite a contentious subject!), and the language’s role in Israel, America, and Cold War politics.

Finally, Professor Gennady Estraikh came into the room and revealed his reason for convening us: he wanted us to plan a graduate student conference about Yiddish, featuring the new generation of scholars in the field. The eventual conference, “Yiddish / Jewish Cultures: Literature, History, Thought in Eastern European Diasporas,” was held at NYU in late February of 2006. Attendees came from as far as Finland, Italy, Poland, Jerusalem, and Cape Town to speak on panels with names like “Performing Yiddish Identities” and “Diasporic Expressions.”

With a klezmer band serenading us at the conference’s concluding reception, we toasted our hard work. However, the end of the conference was only the beginning of a six-year process to grapple with the phenomenon of new scholarship on Yiddish.

In the ensuing years, Lara, Shiri, and I continued the debates we had begun in Professor Estraikh’s seminar, arguing about the evolution of Yiddish Studies and its contemporary meaning both in academia and in popular culture. Gradually, the NYU seminar table was replaced by Skype and conference calls; we each left New York one by one, heading to New Haven, Los Angeles, and Seattle. Marriages were made and babies were born, sometimes appearing wide-eyed on computer screens as we teleconferenced across the country. We each wrapped up our respective degrees and continued to talk (and talk, and talk) about Yiddish.

It is a conversation that I hope to continue for a very long time.

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

Posted on February 6, 2013

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

Yiddish and Me

choosing.yiddishWhen I first began studying Yiddish, I felt like I was remembering something I already knew.

It was a lovely sensation, this feeling at home in a language I was still acquiring. There I was, barely a few weeks into my first summer at YIVO Institute’s Uriel Weinreich Program, and I was able to read, write, and speak Yiddish—not perfectly, but happily. Relishing my newfound abilities, I absorbed vocabulary lists, salutations, and songs, delighted to be able to talk about the weather or kvetch (complain) about an injury in Yiddish.

Granted, I’ve always had somewhat of a knack for learning languages. Grammar and syntax just fall into place for me. I also undertook my Yiddish studies armed with fluency in Hebrew, a definite advantage when it came to the alphabet and loshn-koydesh(holy tongue) components of Yiddish.

However, I had never heard anything close to a fluent conversation in Yiddish prior to that first YIVO summer. I had heard a smattering of Yiddish words and phrases growing up, the typical exclamations about so-and-so’s marvelous punim (face) and polkes (thighs), protections against the evil eye, and of course, food-related words. These were the linguistic traces left by the heritage of my father’s family, Litvak shtetl-dwellers who migrated to southern Africa at the turn of the twentieth century.

So how did I, Hannaleh (as my Yiddish diminutive nickname went), end up choosing to study Yiddish? Part of it was simple academic necessity. I had just embarked upon doctoral work in modern Hebrew literature at NYU. Early Hebrew writers, dedicated cultural activists scattered among cities like Berlin, Odessa, Warsaw, and eventually Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, were dazzlingly multi-lingual and, in some cases, translated their own work from one language to the other. Learning Yiddish was one way I could start to understand the variegated world they inhabited.

Beyond the disciplinary usefulness of Yiddish, however, I remember having the distinct feeling that something big was happening with Yiddish in the early twenty-first century. Among my cohort in Jewish Studies at NYU, which included budding historians, anthropologists, philosophers, and literary scholars, everyone was taking Yiddish. Newspapers started reporting on the increased interest in Yiddish on college campuses. Michael Wex’s Born to Kvetch, detailing the language “in all of its moods,” was New York Times best-seller.

More broadly, in the early 00’s, the culture of Eastern Europe was having a moment. The klezmer revivalevidenced a growing fan base for the musical heritage of Eastern Europe. And the success of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated showed us, on the page (in 2002) and the silver screen (in 2005), that readers were thirsting for a back-to-the-shtetl fantasy. Foer’s book articulated our collective compulsion to return, retrace, and recreate the folkways of shtetl life—and, as this Forward article explains, actually resulted in the reconnection of people who had lived in Trochenbrod, his grandfather’s shtetl in Ukraine.

By studying Yiddish, singing songs about potatoes, immersing myself in the worldview of Yiddish speakers from bygone days, I too was part of this whatever-it-was—a trend? A movement? A renaissance?

Or maybe a homecoming, as it often felt when I opened up my notebook to write a Yiddish composition for my teacher. Little did I know, as I conjugated my first Yiddish verbs on a warm summer day in 2003, that this incredibly heimish (homey) language, which seemed to fit me like a second skin, would eventually become the focus of a major academic project—but that is a subject for another blog post.

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

Posted on February 4, 2013

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 Last Jew of Boyle Heights

tin.horse.steinbergA few weeks ago, the Los Angeles Times ran an article about the death of Eddie Goldstein, “the last Jewish man of Boyle Heights.” Goldstein, who died on January 5 at 79, was born in Boyle Heights and stayed there all his life, becoming a sort of final link with Boyle Heights of the 1920s and 30s, when it was the Jewish neighborhood in L.A.

During those years, Boyle Heights was home to some 50,000 Jews. The neighborhood, directly east of downtown, had kosher butchers and delis, including the original Canter’s, an L.A. institution. There were synagogues for the religious, workers and Yiddish societies for the secular, movie theaters, bookie joints, a pool hall, and the Ebony Room bar, a haunt of the community’s most infamous son, Mickey Cohen.

By the time I lived in L.A. in the mid-1970s, Boyle Heights was already heavily Latino. I’d never heard of it until I set out to write a novel about a Jewish woman growing up in L.A. in the 20s and 30s. I started doing research, and it was clear that my character could live in only one place: Boyle Heights.

Boyle Heights wasn’t just a Jewish neighborhood, however. While Jews were the largest group, there were also large Japanese- and Mexican-American populations. In fact, some 50 ethnicities lived there. Not that people in those days looked at the diverse community and saw an only-in-America success story. On the contrary, in the late 1930s the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corp. redlined Boyle Heights, stating that it was filled with “subversive racial elements.” (That, too, was just right for my character, since she becomes a progressive attorney.)

But, according to oral history interviews with Jews who grew up in Boyle Heights in the 20s and 30s, there was remarkable harmony among the ethnic groups. People spoke about their accidental utopian experiment with love and pride.

And although, with Eddie Goldstein’s death, there are no longer any Jews living in Boyle Heights, the diverse legacy hasn’t been forgotten. The Boyle Heights Historical Society is a multi-ethnic group. The Breed Street Shul Project, created by Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, is restoring a grand Boyle Heights synagogue; one of two buildings is now open and hosts classes and gatherings for the Latino community as well as Jewish events.

Then there’s David Kipen, a book critic and former director of reading initiatives for the NEA, some of whose family once lived in Boyle Heights. Kipen runs Libros Schmibros, a lending library-used bookstore on Mariachi Plaza. A bookstore of any kind these days—but especially one that offers books for $1—is clearly a utopian venture … and one that would appeal to the “subversive elements” who once lived in Boyle Heights.

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

Posted on February 1, 2013

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

Djewess Unchained

janice.steinbergSometime back in my childhood, I got the idea that it was “nicer” to say “I’m Jewish” than “I’m a Jew.” And preferably, in the mainly Christian suburb of Milwaukee where I grew up, one said it in a sort of mumble.

And no one ever used “Jewess,” which seemed archaic enough to ignore when encountered in 19th century novels like Ivanhoe or Daniel Deronda. (Nor was it considered pejorative then, as I learned from Daniel Krieger’s excellent article “The Rise and Fall—and Rise—of ‘Jewess.’“) But the word was disturbing in modern contexts, for instance, when Raymond Chandler in The Big Sleep describes a woman as having “the fine-drawn face of an intelligent Jewess.” What, we all have the same cheekbones? In that case, I’ll take Lauren Bacall’s. “Intelligent Jewess” so stuck in my craw that it inspired my novel, The Tin Horse, in which I imagine that “Jewess’s” story.

In recent years, various “out” groups have reclaimed language, taking words once flung at them as slurs and boldly using them to self-identify. “Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud.” The gay community has asserted ownership of “queen” and “queer,” and my favorite Gay Pride Parade participants are the motorcycle-riding “dykes on bikes.”

What linguists call “semantic reclamation” has also been happening for “Jew.” The cheeky Klezmatics put out albums titled “Rhythm and Jews” and “Jews with Horns”—and they made klezmer cool. These days we’ve got the irreverent online mags Jewniverse and Jewcy, not to mention Jewcy tee shirts.

And some young, hip Jews are trying to embrace “Jewess.” Look at the smart blogs Jewesses with Attitude and Jewess. Enter “Jewess” in Jewcy‘s search box, and you get ten pages of links. But those are niche websites, and they’re not trying to appeal to a wide audience. When I floated the working title for my book, An Intelligent Jewess, some people loved its in-your-faceness—the wonderful woman who would become my agent wrote in response to my query, “From one intelligent Jewess to another, I’d love to read your book.” Even more people, though, felt pushed away by it; non-Jews felt excluded, and it made many Jews squirm. And “Jewess” isn’t just anti-Semitic, it’s one of those sexist “ess” words like “stewardess,” a double whammy that suggests Hebraic odalisques. Nevertheless, maybe the Jewesses with Attitude are on to something, and “Jewess” will flip from pejorative to cool. I’d love to see it happen. On the other hand, are some words beyond redemption?

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

Posted on January 31, 2013

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

Hearing the Women’s Songs—in Torah and in “The Big Sleep”

song.of.the.seaAlthough I live in California, I don’t share the New Age belief that there are no coincidences. I think many things occur by chance. And that makes me all the more delighted that my novel, The Tin Horse, is being published this week, the same week in which the Torah portion includes the Song of the Sea.

Song of the Sea is the exultant outpouring by Moses and the Israelites after they’ve crossed the Sea of Reeds and escaped Pharaoh’s army. Poetry versus the prose of most of Torah, it dances down the page, three- and four-word phrases creating a choppy surface like ocean waves. It’s even chanted to a special tune, a sweet melody used for no other text.

What most fascinates me isn’t the song itself, though, but another song, a mere scrap of which appears in the Torah. Following the 18-verse song of Moses, Miriam picks up her timbrel, leads the women in dance, and sings her own song. But all of this happens in just two verses, and can that really be the whole story?

I’m not the only one who’s wondered. Theologian Dr. Judith Plaskow wrote in Standing Again at Sinai, “The dance at the Sea links Miriam with a foundational event of Israelite history, but she appears in the narrative with no introduction and no account of her rise to religious leadership. This surprising silence suggests that there were other Miriam traditions that were excluded from the Torah.”

Plaskow’s book—and her insistence on finding a place for women as “shapers of the holy”—helped me reconnect to Judaism after a long absence. So did composers Debbie Friedman z”l and Cantor Linda Hirschhorn with their stirring versions of Miriam’s song; and so do contemporary midrash writers who pick up on whispers of the divine feminine in Torah and imagine our foremothers’ voices.

Though the inspiration for my novel wasn’t sacred text, I too wanted to give voice to a woman standing in the shadows of another story: Raymond Chandler’s noir classic The Big Sleep. In one scene, the detective, Philip Marlowe questions a woman working in a bookstore. From the beginning, when we see the woman reading a law book (in a novel published in 1939), she’s intriguing; she continues to intrigue as she matches wits with Marlowe. The woman, who’s unnamed, is described as having the face of “an intelligent Jewess.” That term—and her being pegged as Jewish on sight—conveyed such a profound sense of otherness and suggested to me that, despite this moment when their paths crossed, the woman lived in a very different Los Angeles than Marlowe’s mean streets. I wanted to discover her Los Angeles. I wanted to hear her song.

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

Posted on January 30, 2013

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