I don’t speak Hebrew and, despite a few semi-earnest attempts to learn my aleph-bet, I don’t read it either. I recognize enough spoken words of biblical Hebrew that I can more or less follow an English translation when someone reads Torah, but that’s about it. And while I’ve studied some Kabbalah, I am no scholar: I know that individual Hebrew letters are associated with specific mystical qualities, but I cannot tell you what they are. Still, I am fascinated by the aleph.
Toward the end my novel, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World, the thirteenth-century Jewish mystic Abraham Abulafia appears before my hero, the hapless Leonard, in the old medieval basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome. Known for his meditative work combining Hebrew letters, Abulafia hovers over Leonard (literally: his feet do not touch the ground), juggling Hebrew letters in fantastic, unfollowable patterns. He wants to impress Leonard with his message, and he does. But unbeknownst to him, he drops an aleph as he dematerializes. The remainder of the book hinges on this aleph. Leonard can exchange it for something he badly needs (his seven-year-old nephew Felix!). It also, not incidentally, allows him to save the world. Phew!
The aleph! I know of it what you probably know: first letter, no sound, the beginning of the words echad, referring to divine unity; ein sof, the infinite which is the divine source of all manifestation; and emet, or truth. Powerful! But if I must be truthful, it was not my rabbi teachers who drew me to the letter, it was the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges.
Borges may or may not have been descended from Portuguese Jews, but his interest in Jewish texts, symbols, and ideas defined a sizeable portion of his life and work: he translated Kafka, loved Buber’s Hassidic tales, and lectured on the Kabbalah; he wrote stories with Kabbalistic and other Jewish themes, and searched his ancestry (in vain, apparently) for Jewish forebears. Whatever his “pedigree,” I love his work and, in particular, his 1945 story “The Aleph.”
In this story, a horrendously pedantic poet by the name of Carlos Argentino Daneri is writing an epic poem that seeks, basically, to describe everything on the planet, or maybe even the universe. He is aided, it turns out, by an aleph in his basement, which, he explains to the story’s narrator, is a point in space that contains all other points. Looking into it, one can see everything that is—clearly and at the same moment. The narrator is allowed a glimpse; he describes the resulting vision necessarily as a succession of images, though of course he sees them all simultaneously. What follows is a beautiful paragraph listing some of these images, both enormous and minutely specific (deserts and each of their grains of sand, his own bowels, horses on the shore of the Caspian Sea, the obscene letters his beloved had written to this pedantic poet …).
One of my favorite writing exercises when I taught for one brief year was to assign students this story and ask them to write such a list of images—just the list: they didn’t have to create a story about or around it. I guessed that freed from the rigors and constraints of narrative they too would write astonishing paragraphs—and they did! I startled them by asking to keep those lists (at a time when teachers still received hard copies of student work!)—they were that good. I have them still.
In my book, the aleph (which, naturally, quivers and vibrates) is more focused: it does not allow viewers to see the entire universe from every conceivable angle; rather, it enables them to see scenes from their own lives, past and future; this, in turn, helps them understand and embrace their destinies. The vision is no less transformative, however. A variation of Reb Borges’ aleph, to be sure, but a heartfelt homage nonetheless!
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“Many artists are ‘underground’,” a writing instructor of mine once remarked, “but no one is more underground than writers.” To that I would add that no one is more underground than writers who don’t write in the language of the place they live. It amounts to a sort of double life. On the outside, you function in the same language as everyone around you. But then you have this other world, where you think and create in the tongue of a stranger. Your boss, the next-door neighbors, the mother of your child’s best friend and Moshe from the makolet might be aware that you are working on a novel, but you know, from the very first word you write, that they will probably never read it.
While I was writing The Wayward Moon, a novel which takes place in the 9th century Middle East, the situation was even more confusing. I was constantly alert to the fact that rather than Hebrew or English, my characters would have spoken something that sounds like Ha lachma anya di achalu avtania, and dizabin abah bitrei zuzei. If, like me, these phrases from the Haggadah are all the Aramaic you know, then you understand the difficulty. As I wrote the novel, I realized very early on that I could never really know how Rahel Bat Yair, the story’s heroine, really spoke. All I could do was try to imagine her “voice,” not only the sound of it, but the “music” of it, its point of view, its inherent assumptions and ways of seeing the world. It wasn’t a matter of getting it “right” or “wrong,” because due to the absence of Jewish women’s voices in the few documents that have come down to us from that time, it was impossible to know exactly what idioms she would have used to express herself. All I could do was read the limited material that is available (e.g., letters from the Cairo Geniza, writings by men of her time) and listen to the tones, attitudes and modes of expression as they play out in the folk tales, songs, films, and poetry of people who have lived their lives in the lands of Islam.
While this sort of linguistic alienation is challenging for a writer, it can nonetheless be conducive to writing. The sense of being isolated, of having to wrestle alone with the voices in your head, enacts something existential. Writing becomes a sort of refuge, a place where you can sink into the words and phrases and fully inhabit your state of aloneness.
Having said that, if any Israeli publishers are reading this, Moshe from the makolet is still waiting.
When my ten year old daughter heads to sleep-away camp this summer she will follow a family tradition that began the summer after World War II. Fearing an outbreak of polio in New York City, my grandparents shipped my father off to Massad, a Hebrew-speaking camp in the Poconos. He was only five years old. My grandmother kept the postcards he mailed home. My dad was just learning to print and his penmanship was atrocious. Still, they weren’t difficult to decipher, and all were virtually identical: “I don’t like it here,” his postcards wailed. “Take me home!”
As a former camp counselor I know that dad’s homesickness was hardly anomalous. But by-and-large, his peers who attended Jewish overnight camps have very fond memories of their summers. Dr. Josh Perelman, the deputy Director of Programming and Museum Historian at the National Museum of American Jewish History recently told me that the section of the museum’s permanent exhibit dedicated to summer camping is easily one of the biggest draws. A section of the museum’s website is devoted to Jewish summer camps and guests are invited to upload their own camp photos and share memories.
When I was researching the origins of Jewish culture camping for The Benderly Boys I was struck by the central role that overnight camps played in the Jewish identity formation of my informants. Decades after the closure of Cejwin Camps, the oldest Jewish culture camp, hundreds of alumni remain connected through an online discussion group and social media. A Camp Massad Facebook group has almost 600 participants. Another venerable overnight camp, Modin, which still thrives in Belgrade, Maine, recently held a 90th anniversary reunion gala at a swanky Manhattan venue with over 500 former campers in attendance. And a 1998 reunion of the oldest Yiddish-speaking camp, Boiberik, drew 450 alums and merited an article in theNew York Times.
I suppose my father’s memories of camp were not all bad. The summer I turned ten, he and my mom signed me up for a month at Camp Massad. I spent three glorious seasons at Massad Bet and would have returned. But dwindling enrollment compelled the camp to close, in 1979, the same year that the Boiberik campgrounds, in Rhinebeck, New York, was sold to a meditation center. Cejwin, which paved the way for camps like Massad, was shuttered a little over a decade later, in 1991.
Various reasons have been given for these camps’ decline. My guess is that the phenomenon can largely be explained by their failure to keep pace with the rapid socio-economic advancement of the Jewish community. As much as I loved Massad, the truth is that the camp facilities were terribly outdated by the 1970s. I doubt that they were ever in mint condition. But whereas an earlier generation was willing to write off overgrown playing fields, dilapidated communal shower houses and leeches in the lake as symptomatic of the camp’s rugged charms, such blemishes could not be overlooked by middle class kids thoroughly acclimated to the creature comforts of suburbia. Certainly not when there were other well-manicured, flashier alternatives competing for the same clientele.
Moreover, the ideological core of these camps — their devotion to Zionism, Hebrew or Yiddish language and culture — did not tug as deeply at the heartstrings of the third generation. By and large, their parents left their immigrant ideologies in Brownsville and Roxbury when they moved to Great Neck and Newton.
My hypothesis is borne out by the opposing fates of Cejwin and Modin. Established within a few years of one another (1919 and 1922, respectively) and sharing some of the same founders, the former catered to a working class clientele and placed Jewish culture front and center, while the latter attracted the children of professionals and businessmen, enticing them with bourgeois activities like horseback riding and (later) waterskiing. In the 1940s and 50s, Cejwin was teeming with campers and seemed to be in permanent expansion mode. But in the long run, Modin’s formula had greater longevity. The same summer that Cejwin closed, the current owners of Modin relocated their high end camp to a first class facility on the picturesque Belgrade Lakes with a state-of-the-art fitness center and recreation pavilion. The 2011 brochure features panoramic views and happy children of privilege, sailing, windsurfing, white water rafting and wall climbing.
Even Orthodox Judaism had gone bourgeois by the 1970s. In the 1980s I worked at Camp Raleigh, the “sports camp in a Torah environment.” Raleigh boasted private showers in each bunk, a gleaming swimming pool, and a pastry chef who’s creations could rival anything one might find at the nearby Grossinger’s resort hotel. A colleague and fellow member of the Massad Diaspora mockingly referred to Raleigh as “Camp Fress,” from the Yiddish word for pigging out. But camps like Raleigh and Seneca Lake embodied the American Jewish zeitgeist of the late twentieth century, the Age of Fress.
Twenty years later, there is a new trend in Jewish camping: the boutique or niche camp. In 2010, the Foundation for Jewish Camp created a camp incubator that facilitated the launching of five non-profit specialty camps, with names like Adamah Adventures and 92Y Passport NYC. The incubator experiment was so successful that plans for a second incubator are well underway. According to the American Camp Association, the Jewish interest in specialty camps mirrors a larger trend in American camping. Rabbi Eve Rudin, a veteran Reform Jewish camp leader and former Director of the Department of Camp Excellence and Advancement at the Foundation for Jewish Camp is positively bullish on the new specialty camps: “Before specialty camps, young people had to chose between their area of interest and their Jewish interests. Too often, they chose to opt out of the Jewish community in order the gain the skills and mentoring they desired. In these new settings, young people can lead Jewish lives, have Jewish experiences and still receive the sophisticated training and opportunities in their areas of interest.”
Individual Jewish summer camps may come and go and the trappings and programs of these camps may adapt to changing times. But the idea of Jewish camping is as fresh and as full of promise for Jewish identity building and personal growth today as it was when the first Jewish culture camps were founded almost a century ago. My daughter will be attending one of the new specialty camps, Eden Village, a religiously pluralistic camp in Putnam Valley, New York, focusing on Jewish environmentalism and organic farming. Like her counterparts twenty, fifty and ninety years ago, she is breathlessly counting the days until summer.
Michael Weingrad made something of a splash last year in writing “Why There is no Jewish Narnia” at the Jewish Review of Books. Of course, Weingrad misunderstands Narnia. To explain the seven novels succinctly, let us refer to the following equation:
Jesus was Jewish (therefore) Aslan was Jewish (therefore) Narnia = Jewish Autonomous Oblast (and) The White Witch = Christianity/Rome. QED.
But before you give me the combined Nobel Prize for Physics and Literature, let’s think about that seeming paradox. The fields of both science fiction and fantasy are filled with Jewish writers, from Isaac Asimov (can you get more Jewish than that?) to, erm, William Shatner. (Yes, he wrote TekWar! No, the Federation is not proud). Why, then, do so few genre works deal with Jewish universes? Where are the vampires who laugh at a crucifix, the Space Navy with Stars of David proudly painted on the hull of the ships? Imagine the ending for 2001: A Space Odyssey: “My God! It’s full of Jews!”
Or the Jewish immigrants passing en masse through the wardrobe to get to the safe-haven of Narnia, kicking some holy lion butt in the process. No?
Yes and no.
Joel Rosenberg’s novel Not For Glory (1988) features a galactic corps of Israeli mercenaries from the planet of Metzada (no, really, it does!). And one of the most obscure of science fiction’s Jewish masterpieces (its only one?) is the unjustly neglected The Tsaddik of the Seven Wonders, by Isidore Haiblum, concerning the comic adventures of two galactic operators trapped in Jewish history, and turning to the eponymous Tsaddik (and his travel maven Greenberg) for help. If Rosenberg’s novel is, how shall we say, not so great, Tsaddik is a true classic, one I return to with joy every time (appropriately enough, I have both the English and Hebrew editions, both long out of print).
Israel is enjoying something of an awakening in terms of Jewish fantasy and science fiction. Recently it has produced the first true masterpiece of Israeli SF – the novel Kfor by Shimon Adaf. It is an astonishing novel, following the lives of several characters in the Jewish city/country of Tel Aviv in five hundred years’ time, and combining science fiction, detective fiction, poetry and absolutely wonderful, heart-breakingly beautiful writing. It is unlikely to ever be translated.
Another novel by Adaf, however – the massive Sunburnt Faces – will be published in English next year by PS Publishing in the UK, the same small publisher that had taken such a chance on my own Osama. Small publishers can afford to take risks larger ones can’t, and to me this is nothing less than an event, an opportunity for a new audience to appreciate, for the first time, Adaf’s unique talent.
Do we need Narnia? This is what we ask ourselves after a couple of pints at the pub. What’s the real estate value on Cair Paravel? And just which law firm represents the White Witch’s interest? We picture Maurice Levy from The Wire as he defends yet another faun or centaur caught in the deadly world of illicit Turkish Delight wholesaling.
Let them have their Narnia, I say. We have the Tsaddik of the Seven Wonders, and we now have Shimon Adaf.
And we’ll always have Shatner.