About a decade ago I read a Billy Collins poem called “Advice to Writers,” where this former U.S. Poet Laureate suggests:
wash down the walls and scrub the floor
of your study before composing a syllable.
Clean the place as if the Pope were on his way.
Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration.
There’s wisdom there: it feels good to write with an uncluttered mind, unburdened by other concerns.
But taking Ajax to your literal and metaphorical surroundings could border on sterilizing. And also, silencing. Sure, Collins is at least in part joking – it’s a funny poem – but I’m sure he means it, too. The poetic voice he is suggesting his readers to summon, in a clean-pristine room, is very much a solo. People, things – out of the way! The poet is talking! (to himself, and being funny – don’t miss out!). A room with scrubbed floors, however tempting, is not where a soul lives, at least I don’t think so.
My wife and I spent 2008-2009 in Jerusalem, where I was a Dorot Fellow. It was unforgettable year, the time when, more so than ever before, I had an opportunity to write. Location was an open question. Our apartment was neater beyond anything I’ve ever encountered. We have just gotten married, and my wife Shoshana put up a valiant and edifying effort to keep it sane – despite the combination of me, guests, our belongings, and Jerusalem dust who would gang up and daily raise a mighty paw of offense. However close to Collins-compliance state, our place was too small, too removed from pulsing, yelling life that surrounded us. I had to get out.
And so, most often I’d go to a little cafe, called Nocturno, a few minutes away from the apartment. It was a tiny duplex with a winding metal staircase that at its peak managed to host as many as three dozen people, which was kind of unbelievable. Talmud, describing the miraculous occurrences of the Temple, says: “people stood close together, yet when they worshipped there was enough room for all.” It was that sort of a thing. All the space got used up: tables outside, bar stools, loners were doubled up into joint tables, and even the cement ledge that’s technically outside the perimeter had a few people sitting on it. The menu ranged from soup to cigarettes, but most importantly, they brewed great coffee. And the crowd was very colorful. With Bezalel Art School nearby students came out in droves; but there were also heavy grad school folks buried in their books; a few hip religious Jews; secular population of Jerusalem (a wonderful and underexplored breed of their own!); lots of foreigners. A few times I spotted Israeli Arabs – a fact that, in the city where divide lines run at their deepest, says a lot about the cafe and its vibe.
I sat upstairs, with my notebooks, big mugs of coffee, and watched the noise. It was visible. The noise, like the cafe itself, seemed layered, there were floors to it, and winding noise-stairs. The noise-steam rose from cups of noise-sipping noise-masters. Bringing around plates, waiters, served noise-sandwiches. It was neither grating nor even unpleasant. It was a structure. An organic structure. It felt great.
This is where my Jazz Talmud project was born. I was playing around on the page, free-associating, and within a span of a week I wrote a core of poems that became a book. The idea was to use the Talmudic rhetoric, talk the way Talmudic rabbis talked – but address things relevant to me and my life. Talmud is not what Collins would pine after, nor certainly what Joyce’d call a “clean well-lighted place.” Because there is never a single voice cutting through it. It’s like a body; it’s also like a universe. Everybody is talking to everyone – across centuries, backwards and forward, moving, chatting, chattering, agreeing and vehemently disproving, reminiscing, reconciling, recoiling, trying to bring the house down – you get the idea. The same is true for jazz. I once heard a great American poet, David Meltzer, say that jazz is the closest we’ve come to utopia. Because it is incredibly communal and people who may have never met each other before, or maybe can’t stand each other’s guts, will know how to speak to each other in the language much more real than any words we know. People are listening to each other and composing on the spot, responding not merely to one another, but also to the ghosts who’ve inspired the music they’re playing: be it their teachers, or jazz greats who’ve laid down genre’s foundations, or even people in their actual lives – because of the improvisational factor, jazz is visceral and personal, revealing even.
So then what I begun to construct is poems with many voices. With noise-structures and arguments. Here’s an example.
said Rabbi Zusha: “my mother named me Sasha but I fell into a seraphic orchestra pit, and things have not been the same” his students asked him: “what did you see in the pit?” he answered: “behold, four seraphs held a cello, like a naked, newly-formed body, and eight pushed the bow” whose cello? Adam’s whose bow? Mordechai’s, the refused bow that makes cellos of heaven sing the soul-spilling human heaviness — the essence he also said: “in every horn, their lives a family of shadadademons, a family of three or four, on the average angel Gabriel comes to blow his hot breath to let them loose into the world, their clothes flutter, their hearts beat against the four brass bars of domestication, both breaking as a result” therefore, every saxophone is a ripped cage: no, a rib cage: of an ancient being that de-composed long before names of god became the star-tallis in which hearts are wrapped/rapt taught Rabbi Akiva: behold there are names of god that got filtered by moth-screens others got lost in the loss of the hiss of the vinyl some stuck in Karl Marx’s beard some stuck between the boards of the family-table and can only be extracted with a big family knife some spilled on the mama-apron in the deep-fry-metaphysical back-kitchen but these are the 32 revealed names of god: “jehwaep. shadai-doodah woop elohadip dip papadoo dap. strata doo dampa flip clip dedam pam pa derederedere strip tzuris degatee goat boom dupa goat ratata ratata what? you askin? outer bank, jehwaep shadai doodah wap” New Orleans funk band the Meters inherited twenty crumbs of the god-name from the voodoo grandmother who plucked them at the foot of the great phallic Ethiopian Eucalyptus but some say she birthed these crumbs, each in deep pain, each deep in time, each under the brilliant lamp-lights which are the eyes of Messiah himself
When I walked down the airplane gangplank for the first time in Ben Gurion airport, I immediately noticed the baggage handlers unloading our plane. I was told they were “gruzinim”, or Georgian Jews. I had thought Israel would be filled with people who looked like my neighbors, my temple congregation, or even me. But they were totally different. I didn’t realize what an amazing variety of Jews and cultures had come from every corner of the world to make up the population of Israel.
I lived in Jerusalem and worked for the Israeli Broadcasting Authority doing illustrating and drawing animation for children’s programming. If I needed models for my work, all I had to do was to step out into the street and walk in any direction.
In the alley in Nachalot, where I lived, in a 17th century Turkish domed apartment, I befriended a Yemenite scribe, Ovadia, who had a tiny one room studio, just off the local well. There he copied the torah on vellum with quill pen and India ink. At times he would be dressed in black pants and white shirt and at other times in a flowing robe and pants. He had different hats, headdresses and turbans that he would change several times a day. It seemed to depend on who was visiting him. He made the best coffee in a small finjan on an electric grill next to his drawing table.
There were others who lived in the neighborhood from Morocco, Bukhara, India, Persia, Turkey and every European country. I’m always trying to fit them into my work. Here is a good example of the Jewish cultural types from my book, The Joyous Haggadah. Ovadia is first on the left.
This is a composite from kibbutz families I’ve known.
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.
I might be obsessed with historical figures. Maybe it’s a Jewish thing. But my two most recent books were Osama (a novel) and Jesus & The Eightfold Path (a novella) – though the one may be too early to be called historical, and the other may not be historical at all. Josephus Flavius, supposed chronicler of my novella (The Gospel According to Josephus, we learn half-way through) is our only contemporary historian to mention Jesus, but it appears quite likely the mention – a single paragraph – was inserted into the text centuries later.
Be that as it may, with a recent short story called “The Lives and Deaths of Che Guevara” (in the Solaris Rising anthology) chronicling the effect multiple clones of the legendary revolutionary had on the world’s various conflicts and wars, I think I might suffer from Historical Figure Fixation, and that just sounds like a bad Woody Allen movie (which is, basically, any Woody Allen movie after 1985. Badabing).
I keep saying my next book will have to be Mother Teresa, Gunslinger. I also like to say I never joke about future books. Though it occurs to me this might be better as a graphic novel. Certainly my planned book about a gun-slinging Walt Whitman traversing a future planet Mars accompanied by an automaton Golda Meir (in search of mysterious alien ruins, perhaps!) isn’t a joke. I’m just waiting for someone to pay me to write it.
I might be waiting a while, though.
Still, as long as you’re willing to be poorer than someone who was made redundant from McDonald’s, the writing life is a wonderful thing. You get to come up with titles like “The Were-Wizard of Oz” and sell the resultant story to an anthology (Bewere the Night, in all good bookstores!) or, indeed, re-imagine what would have happened if the three Wise Men from the East were the three companions of the Buddha (that is, Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy) from the Chinese classic A Journey to the West. The working title, needless to say, was Kung Fu Jesus.
Four Jews made an undeniable impact on 20th century culture. Freud gave us psychoanalysis. Marx gave us Marxism. Einstein gave us Relativity. And Haim Saban gave us Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.
It’s a hard act to follow.
But history’s a great thing for a writer. Otherwise it just, sort of, sits there. Doing nothing. Might as well package it. Ideally with some kung-fu.
But I think I’m getting better. I avoid the history books. Shun the History Channel. No more HFF for me. The words of my grandfather keep echoing in my ears, instead.
When, he said, when will you stop writing this weird… stuff, and write something serious for once?
I don’t know, Granddad. I don’t know.
I still don’t know how the subject of Israel came up. I was at a party, in line at the bar, when the man in front of me turned and said, “You know, I have a solution to that whole problem in the Middle East.”
I wasn’t sure I’d heard him correctly, nor did I know which problem he was referring to, until he gave me a wary look and said, “Are you Jewish?”
“I am,” I said. Clearly this man doesn’t know Jews, I thought.
“I am, too,” said the bartender, “so be careful what you say.”
The man appeared a little abashed, a little excited. Two Jews!
“Well,” he said, “I’ve been listening to all the news about the violence and bombings and everything, and I was hearing something on the radio about how in the Great Plains they’re losing population every day, all the young people are leaving, and I thought: why don’t they just move Israel to the Dakotas?”
The bartender smiled. I smiled. I was in shock. Not just because the proposal was so offensive, or because this man had the gall to share it with us, but because something similar to it had been proposed 130 years ago, by Jews in Odessa. As pogroms intensified, many Eastern European Jews were heading east, to Palestine. But this Odessa group – Am Olam, they called themselves, meaning Eternal People – decided that Jews should head to America’s West, and become farmers. From 1880 to 1920, Jewish agricultural colonies were founded across this country, in Oregon, Louisiana, Colorado and New Jersey – and, yes, in North and South Dakota.
And, I’d written a novel about it.
I mentioned this last part nonchalantly. I didn’t get into politics or history or point out to him his obvious ignorance about “the situation” in Israel. I just took my beer and walked away. But I have to admit: this man got me thinking. What if the Am Olam farmers in America had succeeded? (Most wound up back in cities and towns.) What if there was a veritable Jewish state smack in the middle of our country and Jews there played every role, as we do in Israel? Farmer, mechanic, electrician, plumber, cook, rancher. Imagine. I was reminded of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon – a similarly wild vision, of Jews taking refuge in Alaska. What if such a thing had come to pass in the lower 48? It’s not a proposal, but a re-envisioning, an expansion of my sometimes narrow assumptions about what Jews can be and do and mean in America today. This expansion has led me to question, and search. And guess what I found? There are Jewish kids learning to farm right now, in 2011, at the Jewish Farm School in upstate New York.
For a long time, I didn’t want to add historical context to the memoir, because I thought it would turn into a history book. But I kept thinking of a favorite professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism, who published memoir and narrative nonfiction books, one of them a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction. He encouraged writers to set stories in context, but I resisted until a scholarly travel writer shared his opinion that the Gulf War was a “piss in the bucket” and that Saddam Hussein never had chemical weapons.
I knew then that I had to explain the larger narrative of history and the slim slice that I’d witnessed. I had published op-eds and travel essays about my adventures in South America and Israel during the first intifada and the Gulf War in the Stamford Advocate, my hometown newspaper in Connecticut. So I already knew that moment of history intimately. But I went on a rigorous fact-finding mission, reading dozens of books and articles and documents, fleshing out context spanning World War II through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It was hard reading. Memories bubbling up in uncomfortable ways. But it was necessary for the book and, ultimately, healing for me, as I wrestled with the ghosts of my past.
I thought I was done with the book by the time I found my new agent. She told me that she didn’t want a little book deal. She wanted a Big Book Deal. So she made me write rewrite the synopsis, hoping that I could capture the essence of my story and style in 15-20 pages. I’d send her a new draft of the synopsis every few months, wait for her comments, then go back to the drawing board. She wanted more reflection. Dig, really dig.
After a year and a half of this, I asked if I was the slowest writer she’d ever worked with. She told me that she’d made an award-winning journalist work on a proposal for four years before she sold the book. I had done two Ironman triathlons, but somehow this seemed far more demanding of my endurance. And my mother’s. She asked if she could try to submit the book to independent and university presses. I wrote to the agent who said she hoped I’d find a home for the book. My mother became my agent.
She is a techie who could have been a cyber-detective, because she can dig up about anything on the internet. She put together a list of presses that publish memoir and mailed the proposal, using only a short synopsis similar to the one that appears on the published book instead of the opus I’d worked on for so long. Within three weeks, the editor-in-chief at the University of Nebraska Press read the proposal and asked for the whole memoir. She wrote a few weeks later to say that she enjoyed the book and wanted to send it out for peer review.
Both reviews asked for more reflection. I wrote a long response about how too much reflection could slow the pace and darken the tone. My editor suggested that I write a short letter, explaining how I could deepen the narrative. You want to make sure it comes through to the reader, she said. So I wrote a brief note about how I could revise the book. The editorial board approved it unanimously. I was encouraged. And terrified.
By now, I knew what the story meant, but how could I force the reader to agree, after hearing so many takes on the root of our troubles, and how could I do it without making it a heart-wrenching tale? It was delicate work, inserting a line here and a paragraph there, adding a chapter toward the beginning and expanding another at the end. The revisions were a success. The press officially accepted the book for publication, and later selected it as a promotional giveaway at BookExpo America this spring.
Black Elephants, already a bestselling title for my publisher, came out in October through the paperback imprint, Bison Books. Kirkus Reviews said it is “poetic,” “filled with idealism and adventure,” “a memorable read.” The Christian Science Monitor ran a reader recommendation in its print edition, calling the memoir “moving and thought-provoking.” Poets & Writers selected it as a New and Noteworthy Book. I signed books at my launch party at Idlewild Books and more after a talk the New York University Bookstore. Then I visited the Big Blue Marble Bookstore in Philadelphia to talk about Black Elephants with the Women of the World Book Club. A psychologist, who spent 18 months in Iraq helping soldiers, identified with my experiences and endorsed my approach to healing. Write, Pray, Swim, Bike, Run.
This was a post that previously appeared on the MyJewishLearning/Jewish Book Council blog.
Last week, the American Jewish Committee renounced a statement made by one of its staffers. The AJC’s Director on Anti-Semitism suggested that some Israel supporters are distorting the 1964 Civil Rights Act when they argue that colleges – that hire anti-Israel professors and support anti-Israel rallies – are in violation of the law. The director said that the Israel supporters went too far.
I am a college professor and a Jew – and a supporter of the State of Israel – but the issue is too complicated for me to address directly, with anything like authority. But it did remind me — as it probably does you — of dealings I’ve had with relatives. The issue is too divisive to leave many Jewish families untouched.
In my case, I have relatives who will brook no criticism of any Israeli government. (And I’m sure they’d complain that I criticize Israel too quickly.)
I feel passionately about it. I have argued that current Likud policies are unjust and what’s more – though I don’t think there shouldn’t need to be a “what’s more” – strategically bad for Israel. For this criticism I’ve been asked: “Why do you hate Israel?” “Why are you a self-hating Jew.” Neither of these things is true about me: I don’t hate Israel and I’m not a self-hating Jew. (Well, there are things about myself I dislike, but Judaism isn’t among them.) The point isn’t just that any disapproval of Israel over any issue is taken for anti-Semitism; it’s that both sides are so emotional, and disagree so heartily about this when they agree on most other things.
As for me, I understand why my arguments drive my relatives crazy. The reasons are clear. 1) The other side is worse; Arab nations and the more radical Islamists among them are unreasonable, and frightening, and undoubtedly behave worse than Israel does. 2) There is a disproportionate response in world opinion; Israel is condemned for every misdemeanor it commits, while much more serious violator nations face no public opprobrium, at all. The reason seems to be anti-Semitism. 3) Israel has been attacked by belligerent neighbors and so needs the support of its supporters at all times.
These are all true. But it’s equally true that Israeli supporters in the U.S. often have a hard time admitting that hardships were suffered by Arabs during the 1948 War of Independence: that the Palestinian grievance is real. (Ironically, Israelis have come to terms with this – and are more honest about it – than we Americans are. Read any of the Israeli “New Historians.”) And it’s also true that, on the settlements issue, there is a lot of room for disagreement. Being critical of a particular government’s particular policy does not equal abandonment.
Again, I know the other side would disagree and call me naive. What strikes me is that, if we can’t agree among ourselves about it — if American, pro-Israel Jews are so divided — is it any wonder that the problem has persisted for over 50 years?