JT Waldman co-authored and illustrated the new graphic novel Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me with writer and frequent David Letterman guest Harvey Pekar. Read more about their relationship here.
“It is true enough to say that he was the “poet laureate of Cleveland” or to describe his American Splendor as “Homeric”, but those descriptives are still inadequate. He was the perfect man for his times, straddling…everything: the underground comic revolution of the 60′s, the creation and transformation of the graphic novel, independent film, television, music (the classic jazz he championed relentlessly throughout his life).
He was famed as a “curmudgeon”, a “crank” and a “misanthrope” yet found beauty and heroism where few others even bothered to look. In a post-ironic and post-Seinfeldian universe he was the last romantic–his work sincere, heartfelt, alternately dead serious and wryly affectionate. The last man standing to wonder out loud, “what happened here?”
- Anthony Bourdain, July 13, 2010
Before Harvey Pekar self-published American Splendor in 1976, there were no publicly distributed memoir comic books. Sure, people doodled in their journals or sketchbooks, and some super-hero artists/writers included themselves in their fantastic stories, but before American Splendor, comix were synonymous with fiction and fantasy.
With Harvey Pekar’s writing, underground comix based on mundane personal realities began to flourish. From travel journals, to anthologies about true porn, the “gonzo literary comic” style of graphic memoirs has become its own cottage industry in publishing.
Here’s a sampling of the wide range of comic book creators who make comic books about their private lives: Allison Bechdel, Joe Sacco, Art Spiegelman, Josh Neufeld, Miriam Libicki, Miss Lasko Gross, Marjane Satrapi, Craig Thompson, Brian Fies, David B., Marisa Acocella Marchetto, Seth, Peter Kuper, David Small, and Guy Delisle, to name just a few.
This summer in Toronto, the Third Annual Graphic Medicine Conference will delve into the use of comix in health practices. This year, the highly focused confab will explore depictions of the Outsider or Other in the context of issues such as barriers to healthcare, the stigma of mental illness and disability, and the silent burden of caretaking.
Museums and galleries have also opened their doors to graphic memoirs. Last year, an exhibition entitled “Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women” toured the United States.
Graphic memoirs predate blogs, tweets, and Facebook statuses, but the essence and basic components of both media are the same. Today, nearly everyone shares snippets of himself or herself, telling stories to the masses through blurbs and images in sequences. Entire markets are now built around this data.
In the mid-seventies, Harvey Pekar was doing all this before it was ubiquitous and commercialized. He shared his perspective regardless of the number of followers or friends in his circles. Harvey was an archivist and a storyteller at the same time. He was the Paul Revere of graphic memoirs presaging a literary long tail before it was even in sight. He demonstrated that everyone had a voice AND could find an audience. All they had to do was find a pen and start pondering on paper.
Joshua Henkin’s new novel, The World Without You, is now available.
I want to talk a little more about my family of origin. My father, as I mentioned in an earlier post, was the son of an Orthodox rabbi who lived on the Lower East Side for fifty years and never learned English. My father himself, by contrast, eventually left the world of the yeshiva. He went to Harvard Law School, then fought in World War Two, and when he returned he made a career for himself, first at the State Department and the U.N. and then in academia—he taught at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia Law Schools for a total of fifty years. He remained Orthodox until he died, yet he had hardly any Orthodox Jewish friends, hardly any observant Jewish friends at all, and I suspect many of the people whom he spent time with didn’t know or were only dimly aware of the fact that he was observant.
There are, I believe, many reasons for this. The woman my father married, my mother, is Jewish, but she was raised in a nonobservant home, and though she compromised in raising my brothers and me (she agreed to keep a kosher home and observe the Sabbath for the sake of the family; my brothers and I were sent to Jewish day school and Jewish summer camp), she never herself became observant, and the world in which my mother lived—the secular world—became my father’s world, too, had already, in fact, become my father’s world by the time he met her. And my father was a private, modest man. He wasn’t someone to flaunt his religious observance or anything else about himself, and so when he was saying Kaddish for his father in 1973 and he convened a daily mincha minyan at his office at Columbia, I, who was only nine at the time, already understood that this was unusual for him to be so openly, publicly Jewish. My father liked to quote Moses Mendelssohn—be a Jew at home, a human being on the street—and it’s only now, looking back from my vantage point as an adult, that I find something strange, or at least noteworthy, in an Orthodox Jew using the words of the founder of Reform Judaism as his motto.
I was thinking about this a couple of weeks ago when I received an invitation to participate in an authors panel at Hunter College. I would describe my own relationship to Jewish practice as idiosyncratically observant, and among these idiosyncrasies is the fact that I don’t travel on the Sabbath but if I can get myself somewhere without traveling, I’m happy to engage in conduct that, while not technically Sabbath-violating, isn’t, as they say, shabbesdik. The panel was held on a Saturday, and shabbesdik or not, it isn’t particularly sane to walk eight miles from Park Slope to Hunter College and eight miles back, all to participate in an authors panel. But then my new book was coming out in less than two weeks, and when new your book is coming out in less than two weeks you tend to do a lot of things that are neither shabbesdik nor sane.
As I was walking through the rain to Hunter, I was put in mind of another such incident more then twenty-five years ago when I, about to become a college junior, spent the summer in Washington, DC, and one Friday night I was invited to a party somewhere in suburban Maryland, and I prevailed upon a friend of mine, herself not even Jewish, let alone Sabbath-observant, to walk with me to the party. It was a seven-mile walk if we followed the directions correctly, but we didn’t follow the directions correctly, and thanks to a wrong turn and a three-mile detour, we ended up at the party at one in the morning, where we didn’t even know the host (the party was being held by a friend of a friend), and we ended up of having to ask strangers whether we could spend the night on their living room floor.
What lesson can be drawn from this other than that I, at age twenty, was willing to go to ridiculous lengths to attend a party? Perhaps not much. But it occurs to me that in certain ways I was my father’s son — my father who never would have done what I had done (he didn’t like parties), but who was of a generation that, for better or worse, didn’t wear its Jewishness on its sleeve. My father wore a yarmulke only in synagogue, and when he clerked on the Supreme Court for Felix Frankfurter he would on Friday nights secretly sleep on Frankfurter’s office couch because he couldn’t travel home on the Sabbath. He’d acted similarly a few years earlier when, at Harvard Law School, he had a final scheduled for Shavuot, and he hired a proctor to follow him around for forty-eight hours, and then, when the holiday was over, he took the exam.
By contrast, nearly fifty years later, when I was an undergraduate at Harvard and graduation was scheduled for Shavuot, many Orthodox Jews (and a good number of non-Orthodox Jews, too) staged a protest to get the date changed. Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, who himself had been raised an Orthodox Jew, was, if I recall correctly, instrumental in the protest. When I told my father about the protest, he was mystified. Ask Harvard to change graduation because of Shavuot? You didn’t ask for special treatment. The world did as it did, and you accommodated to it. There were differences in temperament between my father and Alan Dershowitz that are too numerous to count. But one additional difference was a generational one. American Jews had been one thing then, and they were another thing now.
Joshua Henkin’s new novel, The World Without You, comes out this week.
The story goes that, in 1923, when my father, age five, arrived at Ellis Island, he refused to speak to the immigration officials, and there was some suspicion that he was a deaf mute and the family would have to be sent back to Russia. My grandfather kept trying to get him to speak, but my father refused. Finally, my grandfather decided to ask my father a math question. My father answered the question, and the family was let in.
This story gets at some core truths about my father. He was excellent at math — he would later major in it in college — and he remained a shy man until his death nearly two years ago. Yet what I remember most clearly was how he told that story — with a trace of embarrassment, it seemed to me, as if he’d committed an indiscretion. He’d answered the math question and gotten the family in, but he’d been guilty of showing off.
My father was a law professor, first at the University of Pennsylvania and then at Columbia, for over fifty years. He loved teaching, and for him teaching was also a way of expressing love. His own father, an Orthodox rabbi, certainly expressed his love through teaching, and my father inherited that from him. In the first paragraph of the Shema prayer in the Jewish liturgy come the words v’sheenantam l’vanecha — you shall teach your children—and in synagogue, whenever my father came to those words, he would reach out his prayer shawl and kiss my brothers and me.
My father was facile with language and he loved it, loved language perhaps the way only an immigrant can, a boy whose own father lived on the Lower East Side for fifty years and never learned English—he never needed to—whereas he, my father, saw English as his entry into America. He used to help my brothers and me pass the time on airplane trips by giving us word jumbles. And when I was seventeen and the SAT loomed, he started coming home from the office with a list of vocabulary words he had run across that day. Some of these words were long and hard to pronounce and others were short and easy to pronounce, but they had one thing in common, which was that they had never appeared in the history of the SAT and they would never would appear in the history of the SAT and what in the world kind of books was my father reading such that he came across these words? Quondam, for instance, which means erstwhile, which means former, and which I will forever associate with my father, just as I will forever associate with him the word incognito, which he once opened the dictionary and proved to me was in fact pronounced incahgnitto, not incogneeto, just as he proved to me that it should be kilomee-ter and not kilahmeter (I can still hear his voice: “A thermometer is a measurer of heat, but a kilahmeter isn’t a measurer of kilos.”)
I think of him, too, when I hear the word impertinent, which was the punchline of a joke he once told, a joke I was too young to understand and don’t remember any longer, a joke about an Englishman and a Frenchman arguing over which is the superior language, English or French, the punchline to which is impertinent, which doesn’t mean not pertinent, it means rude, the joke, as I recall, being on the Frenchman, or the Englishman, or both, but it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that I can’t read or say or hear the word impertinent without thinking of my father. It’s true of a hundred other words as well, and since I speak English every day, since English is the only language I speak with any measure of fluency, I’m thinking about my father all the time—can’t stop thinking about him, can’t even listen to rock music without thinking about him, my father who had no interest in rock music but who overheard me once singing the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night,” and there he was, my father, saying, “Don’t you think those young men could have come up with a better rhyme for dog than log.”
At college, we had to take expository writing freshman year, and we were asked to choose between different options—history, literature, social studies, and the like. One option was fiction, and if you enrolled in it you would write essays about fiction and you would also write some of your own short stories. When I mentioned this to my father, he said, “I wouldn’t begin to know how to write a short story.” And I thought, Aha, that’s what I’m going to do. That’s what set me on the route to becoming a fiction writer. It seemed to me a way to carve out my own path in the world. But it was also a way of following in my father’s path. Because when I hear English spoken, when I read it, when I write it, it’s my father’s voice that comes to me and will, I suspect, for the rest of my life.
What happens when the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, the Ninth of Av, which memorializes the destruction of King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, coincides with you learning about the U.S. women’s victory at the 1996 Olympics, arguably the happiest gymnastics moment in my twenty-year relationship with the sport? Should I cry for the Temple? Or flip for the Magnificent Seven?
Unfortunately, the rabbis never bothered with these (and other) questions in their responsa. I was forced to answer them on my own (I flipped and then felt guilty about it, thus covering both my Jewish and gymnastics bases).
The text above is a snippet from the introduction to Heresy on the High Beam. In it, I allude to a story that I never ended up writing out (though I did tell it at my Leotard Optional book launch party, which was just like a “black tie” event except with a lot more spandex). Since I didn’t include the anecdote in any of the essays, I’m giving it away for free here.
During the summer of 1996, I was at sleepaway camp in upstate New York. This camp, a place I attended for nine summers, had strict rules about correspondence — letters only. You weren’t allowed to receive care packages nor were you allowed to make or take phone calls from your parents. This was only feasible in a pre-cellphone, pre-internet age. I know that I’m dating myself here but I don’t mind. I’ll even do the math for you — I’m 29. (Can someone tell me how it works at camps nowadays? Do kids check in on Foursquare when they arrive at the dining hall? And what does the mayor of the mess get? An extra cup of bug juice?)
Anyway, back then I was 13 and was quite sad to be missing the broadcast of theSummer Olympics from Atlanta. The 1996 Olympic Team was my Dream Team, comprised of athletes I had followed ever since I started doing gymnastics at age 8, including Shannon Miller, Dominique Dawes and Kerri Strug. I demanded regular letter updates from my mother back in Brooklyn to know what was going on in the gymnastics competition. She also sent me information about the platform diving since it was similar enough to gymnastics to merit my attention.
During the waning hours of the Ninth of Av, which for Jews is the saddest day on the calendar because it is when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, I was summoned to the camp office. Weak from fasting, I trudged over. “You’ve got a phone call,” I was told. “It’s your mother. She said she needs to talk to you about your scoliosis.”
I took the phone, utterly confused. Though my scoliosis had already been diagnosed, my mother and I were both under the impression that it was minor. (In a few months, however, we’d discover that it was severe and would require spinal fusion surgery. But I digress.) Why would she be calling me about that, I wondered.
“Mom?” I said.
“They won!” my mother practically shouted into the phone.
“The Americans! They won the gold medal!” she yelled.
In the background, I could hear my older sister add her two cents. “Tell her about Kerri Strug on the vault!”
This, as many of you probably recall, was the famous vault on a sprained ankle that the squeaky-voiced (and Jewish) Strug did to the bellowing chants of “You can do it!” from her Romanian coach, Bela Karolyi. She vaulted, stuck it and then had to be carried off the podium, helping clinch the first ever team gold medal for the U.S. (Actually, it turned out that they didn’t need her score after all of the numbers were crunched. They would’ve defeated the Russians even if they needed to count a fall from Dominique Moceanu. But forget I mentioned that. Math ruins stories.)
“I wanted to tell you myself,” my mom said, explaining her deception in gettingme to the phone, which I obviously couldn’t openly signal in any way since a campadministrator was watching me carefully. I thanked her tonelessly and hung up.
There was still an hour left to the fast and I had been taught at camp that I should feel sad because the Temple was still burning, at least in a historical sense, and would be for several hours, even after we’d been given the OK to eat.
But as I walked along the path back to my bunk, I wasn’t remotely sad. I was happy, jubilant even. My earlier lethargy had been replaced by joy. I started to skip. Then I stopped. Then I started again. I couldn’t help it. My gymnastics idols had won the gold!
I tried a few more times to rein my feelings in and feel sad for something that happened over two thousand years prior but I couldn’t, not when something so wonderful happened less than 24 hours earlier. And I was so touched that my mother, who used to complain endlessly about driving me to and from gymnastics practice, had gone so far as to lie to tell me about the gold medal as soon as possible.That, I thought, is what family is all about.
And, two days later, the entire newspaper arrived in the mail.
As a writer, I’ve paid scant attention to the images that accompany my work. I’m usually too preoccupied with the phrasing and timing of jokes to fret over the all-important. That’s why one of my websites looks like this. (I hope you didn’t just die of purple.)
I’m not at all trying to downplay the importance of art in storytelling. I’m simply admitting to my own deficit in this department. And I would’ve probably gone on not caring about the visual component to my work had it not been for Margarita Korol, the urban pop artist that who created the vibrant cover to my new book, Heresy on the High Beam.
Allow me to backtrack for a moment. I met Margarita while I was an intern at Tablet, where she creates illustrations that accompany many of the articles. Almost right away, I decided I liked her when I realized she wore earrings as big as mine. Yes, a big pair of hoops is all it takes to secure my friendship.
After my internship was over we met up for coffee at my behest. I had an ideaI wanted to discuss with her and needed her visual expertise. I had just been called “The Anti-Girlfriend” by a guy, a former flame, to which I responded, “Because just like the antichrist, I’m Jewish and I have curly hair?” Next, I did exactly what anyone in my shoes would’ve done—bought the domain and resolved to create a website by the same name.
Well, you might be wondering, what’s art got to do with it? I was wondering thesame thing myself. For some reason, the notion that this site should have a strong visual storytelling component got stuck in my head. It might’ve had something to do with all the graphic novels I was reading at the time.
Thankfully, Margarita was game and we started working on dating comics for the site. I would send her dialogue sets and she would return with comics that far exceeded anything I had imagined when I jotted my thoughts down. She didn’t merely illustrate—she improved the stories with her visuals and sometimes edited my words for the better.
Plus, the collaboration was fun. As a freelance writer, you spend so much time working alone with little input from others that it was wonderful to pool my ideas with another creative person who possesses similar sensibilities.
Obviously, Margarita was the natural choice to create the cover for my essay collection. When asked what went into creating the vibrant image that introduced the text, she responded, “Heresy on the High Beam channeled some of my favorite things: a strong female lead, ethnic struggle, and a Lisa Frank palette.”
She forgot to mention big earrings. I guess that’ll have to wait until our next collaboration.
When you tell someone that you used to do gymnastics, she frequently answers that she, too, did it. When she was seven. And hadn’t thought about it in years. The implication is clear — gymnastics is the sort of sport you’re supposed to outgrow. In most instances, you start doing it before you know how to sign your own name and it’s over by your first adolescent growth spurt, joining the childhood hobby trash heap, which in my case includes rollerblading and playing with Barbie dolls.
But in my case, I couldn’t seem to shake the sport unlike the rest of my practice peers, who ended their involvement with gymnastics by the end of high school. There I was, about to start grad school in Creative Nonfiction at twenty-three, still checking the online message boards devoted to the sport daily in order to learn which Romanian gymnast had a new vault or who was injured and or who quit and so on. (The gymnastics community, both online and in real life, is especially tight knit for the same reasons that Jews tend to cluster together — there are so few of us who give a damn.)
As I was trying to figure out the topic for the first essay I wanted to write for my workshop, my mind drifted to the sport, which I hadn’t really written about much (even if I talked about it ad nauseum and watched YouTube videos of competitions from two decades prior merely to admire the way a particular Soviet pointed her toes). Hey, I said to myself, I’m still as obsessed with gymnastics in my 20s as I was at seven. In a very Seinfeldian way, I wondered — What’s that about?
So I wrote my first essay exploring the role of the sport in my life. Like Genesis, I started at the beginning, or at least what I thought was the beginning — my seemingly coming-out-of-nowhere obsession with gymnastics. In those earliest examinations, it seemed like I had woken up one day and decided that I must learn how to flip over my hands. It was a pretty unsophisticated piece, both in writing and insight, and thankfully none of it made its way into any formally published work.
But even in those early efforts, what was becoming very clear was the role that my family’s strict observance of Orthodox Jewish rules was playing in my participation in the sport and how it added fuel to the fire of my obsession. There was the fact that I couldn’t go to a real competitive gym because their afterschool classes started too early for someone with the longer hours of a yeshiva student. Or that leotards posed a religious problem to someone who wore only skirts and longer sleeved skirts outside of the gym. And nearly all competitions took place on Shabbos. When it came to the lower level ones, I simply wasn’t allowed to compete. As for the elite, televised ones—I had to learn how to program the VCR so I could eventually watch them after the stars came out on Saturday night. All of these limitations imposed by Judaism simply made me want to do and think about the sport even more. I like to imagine that if I had been totally unfettered by religious doctrine, I probably would’ve left the sport behind when it became apparent that I simply wasn’t any
good at it.
During one after class drinking sessions at a local bar, my workshop professor, who had been subjected to a semester-long barrage of gymnastics, tipsily looked me in the eye and said, “You’ve got this whole Potok thing going on. Except with a weird thing about gymnastics.”
While my personal essay collection, Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess, bears little resemblance to Potok’s novels—fiction vs. nonfiction, male vs. female protagonists, different eras—I’d like to think that perhaps had Potok been enamored with gymnastics instead of the national pastime then maybe Reuven Malter, the main character in The Chosen, would’ve hit his head on the balance beam instead of getting nailed in the eye by a baseball. That would’ve been cool.
Moshe Kasher is a stand-up comedian and the author of Kasher In The Rye: The True Tale Of A White Boy From Oakland Who Became A Drug Addict, Criminal, Mental Patient…And Then Turned Sixteen This is a story of a Passover miracle. Or something. Readers should be advised of strong language and total immaturity…although it’s got a pretty great ending.
It is said that whoever finds the afikomen on Passover is granted a wish that cannot be refused by the master of the house. That wish, no matter how extravagant or unusual, must be fulfilled and until the lucky discoverer is satisfied that his wish has been granted, the seder cannot continue. This is the story of the night that went quite wrong.
It was the first night of Pesach and Shmulie slumped down at the head of his Seder table with a great relieved sigh. The week was finally over. He’d been running around all week, shopping for matzah and matzah meal and matzah-based beverages and other assorted constipation aids. Shmulie was exhausted.
“Why are you sitting down!?!” Pessy yelled from the kitchen, “Get the door!”
How his wife even knew he had just sat down was beyond Shmulie’s grasp. Pessy had a kind of second sight that tuned right into Shmulie’s attempts at rest. Anytime he took a deep breath she would yell, “Don’t breathe!” He didn’t know how to comply.
Pessy was the boss, always had been. Mostly, Shmulie accepted it, as she seemed able to know all of the things that he didn’t quite know how to do. She was his queen and it didn’t matter to him if she only rarely treated him like a prince. For her, he would be a pauper — he would be a page.
“GET THE DOOR!!!” Pessy shrieked from the kitchen.
“Pessy, no one is at the door!” Shmulie tried to sound reasonable.
Just then the door bell rang. How had she known!?!
Shmulie ended his one-breath-long vacation and got himself up and sauntered into the hall to welcome the Pesach guests. One step at a time the plastic runner in the hall buckled beneath his big feet. He made his way to the door.
One by one the guests trickled in. Shmulie didn’t know any of them, but he greeted each of them with a big fake smile and a warm “Chag Sameach!”
He’d done this before. This was the seventh year in a row they’d hosted a seder for the neighborhood. A sea of strangers washed into their dining room and ate as much as they could then leaked out into the streets. Shmulie hated it. He hated strangers and it was odd to him that some of the people Pessy invited were non-Jews. Why would they be invited to Passover? Sure the Hagaddah says “Let all who are hungry , come and eat!” but they couldn’t have meant let all who are hungry, right? Hungry goys too?
Oh well, Pessy knew best. Shmulie repeated this to himself for the ten thousandth time and got to the business of beginning the seder. At the far end of the table was a Laotian family who clearly didn’t even know what they were doing there. Confused looks were exchanged when Shmulie dipped the parsley into the salt water and splashed the water on his face to show them that they were tears.
“Tears get it? Like boo hoo?”
“Why are they tears?” Bok, the youngest Laotian boy, asked.
“ Because we remember the tears our people shed in the desert , toiling for the Egyptians in the hot sun,” Shmulie recited, as if from a script.
“ In Laos, we cried too… do you want to know why?” Bok asked.
“Not really, no.” Shmulie just wanted to get through this meal.
“Shmulie! Don’t be rude.” Pessy turned to the seder guests. “Sorry about him, he’s been emotionally off lately. We think its gluten. Thank goodness for Passover, the original lo-carb diet!” She shrieked disgustingly and turned to Bok and said, “ We’d love to know why you cried.” Pessy’s face scrunched up in compassion in that singular way that only white women sympathizing with brown people can manage.
Bok spoke, “In Laos we cried because we didn’t have a floor. Our hut was lined with dirt…”
“Well that’s horrible, sorry about that Bok, back to Passover…” Shmulie couldn’t stand stuff like this.
“I’M NOT FINISHED! We ate worms and grubs. We had one well, but it was filthy and we had to drink it anyway. My father died of dysentery.”
“Is that everything?” Shmulie was losing his patience here. He hadn’t signed on for an address at the United Nations. He just wanted to eat that f–king afikomen and be done with this thing.
“No. It is not everything.” Bok then began a 45 minute speech about that hardships of life in Laos that was so painful to listen to that Shmulie imagined he now knew exactly how it felt to be a slave in Egypt, or in fact, a boy in Laos.
Eventually Pessy gave up on the ritual aspects of the meal altogether and just started serving the food in between Bok’s exaggerated sobs, never once betraying any annoyance or a lack of interest in hearing Bok’s tale of woe which was superseding what was supposed to have been the tale of the woe of the Jewish people. Goddamn it, this Laotian kid was stealing Passover with his sad little life. Shmulie had had about enough of this.
“Ok, that’s it. We are doing Afikomen now.” Shmulie’s voice was terse and annoyed.
“Shmulie! We have to finish hearing Bok’s story!” Pessy snapped back.
“I’m almost done.” Bok smiled.
“No! No, I’m putting my foot down. I’m sorry Bok, I am. Laos sounds sh-tty. I’m sorry your father is dead and I’m sorry you had dirt floors and I’m sorry there is a sauce in Laos made of cow shit. It really sounds bad but right now, it’s Passover. And it’s midnight and we are moving on to the afikomen and then I’m going to bed and then I am going to have sex with my wife!”
“No you aren’t,” Pessy sneered.
“Then I’ll have sex with myself!” Shmulie had never spoken to Pessy like this. It felt really, really good.
Bok frowned, sad. “Alright. I’m sorry. I apologize. I didn’t mean to ruin your holiday with my sad story. Lets move onto the Afi…what did you call it?”
“Komen. THE AFI-KOMEN. Let’s do.”
Shmulie cut the awkwardness in the air with an uninspired speech about the Afikomen and the rewards it wrought. Then he screamed “Go!” and began the hunt. Nobody moved.
Slowly, at the end of the table, Bok stood up and calmly walked directly over to the spot where Shmulie had hidden the Afikomen earlier, underneath a copy of Bob Marley’s album, “Exodus” which Shmulie had felt to be a great joke but , watching Bok flip it over and grab the Afikomen without emotion or recognition had taken all the joy out of it. Bok lifted the Afikomen up.
“Great Bok, you win. You got the Afikomen. What the hell do you want for it.”
Shmulie knew. He got it then. Anger surged into him. This was a set up. A con to peel a couple grand from him. Somehow Bok knew all about the Afikomen and had set this up to ruin his Passover. All the joy he’d felt when he’d stood up to Pessy was now gone. He looked over at her, frowning, her glare accusing him – HIM! – of ruining the seder. At that moment, Shmulie knew one more thing- he hated his wife.
“What do you want? Let me guess a grand? Five thousand bucks? Just say it and let’s end this fucking night.”
All the guests got silent and shifted uncomfortably. Everyone wanted to leave.
Bok looked up, smiled and said quietly, “I want your life.”
Shmulie looked back, confused.
“And,” Bok continued, “I want you to have mine.”
And that was how Shmulie and Pessy Bornstein moved to Laos. Since then, Shmulie has made his living repairing old sneakers at the market in town and Pessy caught tarantulas in traps she made and set in the woods. She would sun-dry them and sprinkle garlic, soy and MSG on them and sell them on sticks to travelers.
Their home was small, and the floors were dirt and when the rains came, they hoped that the leaks wouldn’t make too much mud. They’d tried to have kids but something in the drinking water seemed to have turned Pessy’s womb. But mostly, they were happy. Pessy had softened. Shmulie had found his voice. When the afternoon suns came and the pale streams of light stole through the lattice of the hut they lived in and shone on her brow, she glowed, radiant, pure and perfect. And, one afternoon as that Laotian sun danced on her face, Shmulie looked over and realized that he loved his wife. He loved her very much. Crowned with a crown of pure sun, once again, she was his queen.
At that very moment of realization, the postman came, squeaking down the dirt road that led to their village on a bike so creaky and rusty – it defied the laws of logic to see it’s wheels turn. The postman, Chantos, handed Shmulie a letter. The letter , thick papered and tied down the middle with a single red ribbon, held in place with a red wax seal, sat , heavy in Shmulie’s hands. It seemed to vibrate there, singing with an invisible music. Shmulie realized his hand was trembling when he broke that seal and he called Pessy into the hut as he opened the letter. It read, in a simple script:
You can have your life back now.
Elijah The Prophet
The other day I had a discussion with a group of girls about their ideal bat mitzvah (the celebration that marks female coming of age at 12 or 13 among Jews and sometimes of adults who missed the opportunity as adolescents).
Several of the girls said that that their ideal was to celebrate away from home. A few wanted to go to Israel, specifically the Western Wall or Masada. Other ideas were more surprising: “Germany, because it has great technology,” “Japan, because I love anime,” and “France, so I can see a real fashion runway.” One Massachusetts girl actually had her wish for an overseas bat mitzvah come true. She and her family celebrated in Amsterdam “because it is the midpoint between my relatives in the U.S. and Israel, and because of Anne Frank.”
We’ve all heard of destination weddings and birthday parties. But what about destination bat mitzvahs? Our book, Today I am a Woman: Stories of Bat Mitzvah around the World, includes the amazing example of two American sisters whose joint bat mitzvah took place in a Tunisian desert town, complete with camel rides, drummers, and a religious service under the stars in honor of the father’s Tunisian heritage.
Imagine taking your daughter to Split, Croatia where there is a small Jewish community led by a woman I’ve met who surely would welcome the idea. Or, if it still exists, imagine a bat mitzvah in the town where a grandparent was born. A few North American boys actually have celebrated a bar mitzvah in Uganda, where a Jewish community has existed for five generations. As far as I know, there have been no bat mitzvah ceremonies for non-Ugandan girls in the modest synagogue. Such a ceremony would be eye-opening for guests and bridge-building with the community there.
Bringing the bat mitzvah girl to a place where the Jewish community is small and out of the mainstream would enhance the part of bat mitzvah that is mitzvah – the religious good deed/obligation, the core element of the event. How wonderful it would be to be able to share the joy with a newfound community someplace else in the world! Now if the stock market would only rise so we could afford it!
– Shulamit Reinharz
Yesterday, I put out a Twitter call: What should I write about? The always-dependable dlevy asked, in reply, “have you talked about responses to your work from non Jewish readers?” I haven’t, not yet — but I also haven’t really talked about my response from Jewish readers. (And, sort of on that subject, I could also puzzle why I’ve gotten such amazing Amazon reviews from readers I don’t know — because, as you know, all Jews know each other — but the one review that I know is from a friend is, well, nice, but so short.)
Weirdly, if you want to keep a scorecard, I’ve written two books that are about Orthodox Jews, my first two, and then two books (and a movie) that have nothing to do with Orthodox Jews. I say it’s weird because, as I’ve become more and more fundamentalistly Hasidic, I seem to be writing less overtly about Jews.
What does it mean? And why does my new book Automatic straddle the boundary, telling stories about me in high school, back when I had no idea I’d ever become Orthodox, but sticking in a blurb or two of wisdom from the Vilna Gaon and kabbalah? Here, let me show you:
Every day I remember I’m alive I feel guilty. Some days I sleepwalk through the day and don’t even remember that much. There are kids starving in Africa. There are kids starving a couple blocks from where I live.
The Vilna Gaon says that, if humans weren’t blessed with the power to forget, we would learn all there is to know in two or three years, and there would be no further reason for us to remain alive.
I’d like to think, in my self-assured way, that everyone (Orthodox people, non-Orthodox people, non-Jews) can float with my weird, Paulo Coelho-like digressions, and that they still understand what I’m saying in the first place. Back when I was going to poetry slams every night, people thought of me as “the Jewish guy,” even though this was Berkeley and half the room was Jewish — because I was the one who did poems about being Jewish. I talked about Judaism like the black kids talked about being black, and the Sri Lankan kids talked about being Sri Lankan, and the Palestinian kids talked about being Palestinian. And all my most popular poems were the ones that included the most weird things about religion, and the most Yiddish words:
One night I said to this gay Arab poet, who’d had to leave his country because they wanted to kill him, that we were both in exile, and he said back, Baby, the whole WORLD is in exile. It was the most Jewish thing I’d ever heard. And one of the truest.
Maybe that’s the meaning behind Automatic — it’s my little book about my friendship with my Christian best friend, and how Jewish the whole thing was. Or how Irish Catholic it was. Or maybe we’re all just talking about the same feelings, and using different metaphors to drive it home. And by “metaphors,” I don’t mean in that puzzling poetry way. I mean languages. And gods. And ways to digest the whole thing of our lives.
As a glutton for torture (and as a recent parent, which is kind of the same thing), I’ve been taking advantage of early mornings. My kids wake up at 6:30 or so, and I leave for the day-job at 8:00ish — so if I’ve ever dreamed of getting anything done before I leave (ha ha, I said dreamed), I’d better be doing it early.
I often get asked what my best writing times are. Usually I go on for hours — I’m either the best or worst interview you’ve had, if, you know, you’re an interviewer — but that question is simple. Late at night or early in the morning. Partly, it’s because no one else is around to distract you. Partly, I think, it’s that those are the times that are closest to sleep, when your mind is most open and your memories are all jumbled up and free-associating and fictionalizing themselves. Those are the times I started writing Automatic. It’s a book where a lot of things blend together, the people I grew up with and growing up Jewish and working-class and my best friend dying and the music that we were listening to as it was all happening.
Those times are when our inhibitions are at their lowest, too. When you can sort of force yourself to write about all those things that you wouldn’t write about otherwise, unless you were drunk or feeling really intense.
Earliness is in our genes. Abraham was an early riser. He used to pray at the moment the sun rises, and there’s still a tradition that, at the moment the sun clears the horizon, the gates of Heaven are open to any prayer sent their way. One of my favorite bits of Jewish historical apocrypha is this: The first minyan of the morning used to be called the “thieves’ minyan,” since they had to be out early to lie in wait for unsuspecting travelers to pass…and even if you were going to be a thief, you still had to pray.
I remember reading that both Michael Chabon and Salman Rushdie work from 10-3. (I also remember thinking, when I read that, really? They’re both amazing writers, and both masters of the craft, but in my too-hardcore-fanboy estimation, both have gotten a little soft and overconfident with their storytelling. The Chabon who wrote the breathtaking, pulse-stopping first scene of Wonder Boys, I don’t think that could ever have happened at 10:30, between cups of coffee. Same with the page-long description of Saleem Sinai’s nose in Midnight’s Children–which, by the way, I strongly feel should be a mission statement for Jewish writers. Or Jews in general.)
I’m probably venting. Also, I have the luxury of having a day-job and a job writing. Normally, it’s an insane balancing act. But it’s that same stress that keeps my passion intact, I hope. The same way TV shows inevitably go downhill once the two forbidden characters consummate their untouchable lust for each other (Moonlighting, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), great writers always seem to write their greatest books before they get discovered.* I’m not claiming to be a great writer (although I think I’m a pretty good one). But I hope that, relative to the stories I’ve written before, I still have some of my best stuff yet to be written.
*–Or, admittedly, maybe we just claim those books as great, and when they try something else, we inevitably have to compare it, to the new work’s detriment. But all love has to spring from somewhere.