Tag Archives: orthodox

Normal English and the Novel

michael-wexPlot was the last thing on my mind when I sat down to make a novel out of the stories about Jews in Alberta that I’d written for A Night in Odessa. I didn’t want to capture a landscape or a moment; I was after a sound, the breathless, slightly strangulated blast of dissatisfaction and unsublimated pain that was the aural blanket in which I’d been swaddled. A jumble of demotic English and storm-tossed Yiddish that flowed in and out of each other with utter indifference, it was a world away from the quaint and cutesy Yinglish of satire and dialect jokes. This was the argot of thoroughly bilingual people who knew that they were never at home.

I was damned if I was going to let it disappear, so I made it the book’s setting, its subject and leading character. The people in the book might live in Alberta, but the space inside the walls of this non-Phil Spector sound is its real locus. I wasn’t terribly interested in foreign accents or mangled syntax; I wanted to portray a way of thinking that didn’t want to squeeze into the patterns of proper English any more than it had wanted to fit those of the German from which Yiddish arose in the first place. I was a huge fan of Ishmael Reed’s early novels, especially The Free-Lance Pallbearers and Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, both of them tours-de-force of African-American English, and I wanted to do something similar with the non-standard English that I was supposed to have been educated out of. It was the next best thing to writing Yiddish.

I wanted to talk about people who were using Yiddish in places where they weren’t supposed to be, post-War lower middle- and working-class people living thousands of miles from anything that could called a major Jewish community, and—in the case of the protagonist and his family—retaining their commitment to Orthodoxy. Anyone who has spent ten minutes as an Orthodox Jew knows that it’s a twenty-four hour a day job, and I wanted to show people of unshakable Orthodoxy trying to make their way in a world in which Jewish law is a joke to everyone else—and doing almost nothing about it. I was aiming for an anti—bildungsroman. If people change, it’s because they’ve aged, but no one learns a thing.

I should have learned something from the storyteller who disapproved so strongly of the original sketch. While non-Jews seemed to like the stuff no less than the Orthodox Jews who got all the jokes, a surprising number of people who don’t keep shabbes or worry about kashrus found it offensive: “Religious people don’t behave that way.” Thirty years of klezmer bands and increasing interest in all aspects of Yiddish culture (not to mention recent scandals in the Orthodox community and the popularity of off-the-derekh memoirs) have gone a fair way to familiarize the general reader, Jewish and non-, with ritual behavior so deeply ingrained that it can be practiced in circumstances that would seem to make it absurd. When a teenage boy sends his Jewish girlfriend to the mikveh, it isn’t offensive, it’s merely consistent.

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

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Posted on February 12, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Follow the Talmud or a Jewish Sharia?

lawrence.malkinNo American Jew could have experienced a more inspiring introduction to Israel that I did upon arriving in darkness aboard the first plane from London after the start of the Six-Day War. Within hours I was in Jerusalem watching the Battle for the Old City from the terrace of the King David Hotel. In the morning we drove a rented Volkswagen along the tank tracks to avoid mines and soon came upon soldiers celebrating their historic conquest by praying at the Western Wall. Never observant, I joined in prayers with this elite brigade of Jewish paratroopers, recruited mainly from secular kibbutzim. Their tribune was no less than Israel’s chief rabbi blowing the shofar—a ram’s horn blast that stirred Jewish souls around the world.

I remained for several weeks to report on the problems facing the victorious nation, most notably the unforeseen conquest of the West Bank from Jordan. It was during that assignment that I first met and befriended Yuval Elizur, then the Jerusalem correspondent of The Washington Post and now the co-author of our book, The War Within. I endured the baleful stares in the Mea Shearim, a dozen blocks set aside for ultra-Orthodox, then a tourist curiosity because it was widely believed that this anachronistic sect would wither away in modern Israel. How wrong we were. Years later, they have become a powerful minority determined to set the tone for society in the Holy City, and the leaders of American Jewry have tread carefully to avoid antagonizing them.

Although the majority of American Jews belong to Reform and Conservative congregations, the American Jewish establishment has maintained connections with the Israeli parties representing the Orthodox, which until now were an essential part of the nation’s coalition governments. For example, within days of the military conquest of the holiest place of worship for all Jews, the Orthodox rabbinate took control of the Western Wall, banned Reformist devotions, and literally walled off women who came to pray. Even when the women were given access to a small sector, there was no serious criticism by major American Jewish organizations lest it be seen as an attack on the government that would give comfort to Israel’s enemies.

war.withinAmerican defenders of the Orthodox argue that there are “many shades of black.” But the deepest shade have long had the most political influence and in consequence enjoy the most egregious privileges, the largest subsidies, and the greatest isolation from Israeli society. No American Jew outside the Orthodox enclaves in Brooklyn and around New York City—sects with respected elders recently convicted of fraud and sexual abuses—would agree to a public subsidy of sixty per cent of ultra-Orthodox males who are unemployed, or almost one hundred thousand able-bodied and subsidized yeshiva students who escape military service while they study nothing but sacred texts and learned commentary.

Jews have thrived and won acceptance as both Jews and Americans by adapting our religious observance and culture to the customs of the country. Whenever permitted by local rulers, Jews have always done so. That is a fundamental theme of the Talmud: how does a Jew in a strange land live as a Jew? Of course it is easier in a country of religious tolerance like ours, but surely Jewish survival does not depend on literal adherence to 613 biblical commandments dating back several thousand years: it depends on adapting those rules to modern life—and certainly not on re-creating the Jewish ghettoes that we have spent centuries trying to escape. That is a formula for alienation, irrelevance, rejection, and eventually the disappearance of all Jews, and it applies with equal force to the embattled nation of Israel, which has succeeded against all odds by adopting modernity as its culture

It is an axiom of warfare that the longer one faces an enemy, the more each side has to adopt the other’s tactics to survive and thus willy-nilly start to resemble the other. Israel will not be strengthened by falling into the same fundamentalist trap as proponents of Muslim sharia in their own countries; on the contrary, both sides risk falling back into the past by refusing to embrace the present.

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

Posted on March 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

The Other

Growing up in Orthodox Brooklyn, all that was forbidden to us was, by its nature, exotic. We did not have much exposure to those other than us, and by others I mean anyone not Modern Orthodox, not even to many Conservative and Reform Jews, except for a sprinkling of relatives who fell into those camps. Someone who was not Jewish at all, one of the “goyim,” took on immense fascination. Tina Bonetti (not her real name) was the mother of the only Italian family on the block and therefore the designated Shabbos goy for an entire street. I would need to wander over to her house on an occasional Friday night, for example, if my mother had forgotten to turn down the oven.

“The oven is extremely hot,” I would say, or “the lights in the basement won’t go off,” never asking explicitly on the off chance that, unbeknownst to us, she was Jewish and I was therefore asking her to perform a transgression. She would open the door in jeans, her blond frosted hair in curlers, and greet me warmly, ready to serve. I had not up to that point seen a middle aged woman in jeans and she fascinated me. My experience, by virtue of the Orthodox exclusivity where I was growing up, rendered those I had little contact with “the other” much as it was supposed to. Even products advertised on TV that were forbidden to us seemed exotic and bit strange. Twinkies, for example and anything Sara Lee.

My young adult life found me in Israel for five years where “the other” became Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. As a 19-year-old student at Hebrew University, I patrolled the perimeter of the French Hill dorms with an Israeli. He wielded the gun, I the flashlight. There was little interaction in those days between the Palestinian and Israeli students at Hebrew U. The only Palestinians we knew were those who hung out at the famous left wing cafe in the center of town, Ta’amon and at Beit Haomanim, the Jerusalem Artists’ House. An Israeli friend was dating a Palestinian but they could not find a place to live comfortably and were equally harassed in Israeli apartment buildings and Arab villages. In Israel, I distinctly experienced what it was to be part of the majority. Continue reading

Posted on November 21, 2012

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

Double Vision

Perhaps after I was born, someone sneaked into the hospital nursery and instead of snatching me, stood above me and whispered, “May You Have an Interesting Life.” The motives of this person would not have been clear, nor their intention – blessing or curse. But “interesting” is pretty much a guarantee for anyone who understands early in their life that they have been born into a world that is not their world; that they will need to exit and go forth from what they have known into the babel of many other tongues, satchel on their back, at any given moment looking both forward and back. We who have done so will forever have the understanding, the language of the insider while willingly – no desperately – at all costs – wanting to be outside.

I have not yet read Jeanette Winterson’s recent memoir but when I first read her novel, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, certainly inspired by her strange and interesting life of having been adopted into a family of evangelical Christians, I felt that I had found my sister. The extraordinary writer, Kate Wheeler, whose past includes a stint as a Buddhist nun in Burma, has a magnificent short story collection entitled Not Where I Started From. That would be an apt title for a memoir, should I ever decide to write one.

Like Shalom Auslander and Nathan Englander, I emerged from an Orthodox upbringing and am, in fact, the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi. Emerging and carving my own path was certainly fraught and difficult and cost a villa in the south of France worth of therapy, but it has also provided me a certain literacy in multiple points of view and in worlds that don’t typically meet and if they do, they are not always friendly.

For starters, we were Ashkenazic and my father was rabbi of a Sephardic shul. And so I grew up with a foot in each world and the very different values and priorities of those two worlds played out in my life in various ways. As a child, I knew Meir Kahana personally (he was married to my mother’s first cousin) but only a few years into adulthood, in Israel, ended up working for a left wing member of Knesset. I found myself coming to feel strongly about territorial compromise and a two-state solution while being intimate with the world of settlers. Three years ago, when my son was sixteen, I took him to Israel for his first time. I didn’t relish a trip to the West Bank, where my relatives lived, and so my sister-in-law, whom I love and respect very much despite our divergent views, concocted a five-day trip through the north of Israel. I should stop here and let you know that my brother was killed in the first week of the second Intifada and that my sister-in-law has spent the years since single-handedly raising seven kids. She told me that all of the kids, including my two married nieces’ husbands, would be coming. I assured her that I had brought my most modest bathing suit.

“Bathing suit?” she said and laughed.

The first day of our trip, my relatives made a point of finding banks of the Kinneret that were deserted, and hidden pools and parts of the Jordan river where we could pretty much be on our own. In blazing heat by the Kinneret I watched as she and all the girls meandered into the water in their clothes. (There was apparently no such restriction on the men!!!) There was no choice. I could remain outside and bake or cool off in my skirt and top. After three days of swimming in my clothes (I will state what some of you are thinking – yes there is an absurdity as clinging wet clothes are not exactly modest), I got used to it. One day a secular couple wandered into the area where we were swimming. The woman was pale and in a bikini and it stopped me. All that skin suddenly seemed superfluous. Distracting.

While I glibly tossed around story titles in my head like “My Vacation with Extremists,” on another level, what I was coming to understand was the embarrassment of riches I’ve been given in terms of a passport to cross the borders of such radically divergent worlds.

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

Posted on November 20, 2012

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Sleeping on Felix Frankfurter’s Couch

Joshua Henkin’s new novel, The World Without Youis 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.

Posted on June 22, 2012

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Day Schools and the End of the Melting Pot

I met Peter Beinart in 1999 when he was writing an article for The Atlantic on Jewish community day schools. This was long before he became the bête noire of an anxious American Jewish establishment. He was sitting in the front office of The New Jewish High School (now Gann Academy) waiting to speak with the school’s headmaster, Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, and we struck up a brief conversation.

I was familiar with his byline from The New Republic where he wrote mostly about American politics and foreign policy. Jewish education was well outside his bailiwick, and I was interested in what his angle would be. When the article was published a few weeks later it was clear that he was conflicted. He described the school’s environment as vibrant, intellectually exciting and mildly subversive (which was meant as a compliment).

school

His diagnosis of the reasons behind the rising support for day school education among the non-Orthodox (a trend that has since leveled off) reflected the conventional wisdom in a community that had long ago ended its unconditional love affair with the public schools and was struggling to respond to assimilation, a byproduct of the exceptionally hospitable American environment, where Jewishness was increasingly a non-issue.

Continue reading

Posted on May 25, 2012

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

Tisha B’Av and the Olympic Games

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.

“What?”

“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.

Posted on May 18, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

A Nice Jewish Girl on the Balance Beam

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.

Posted on May 14, 2012

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Seeking Fact, Finding the Unknowable

Debra Spark is the author of The Pretty Girl, a collection of stories about art and deception.

In literature, as in life, you may go looking for one thing, only to find another. Several years ago, I decided to go to London to do research for a novel I was planning to write. I had written a short story about Victorian toy theatres — it’s in my most recent book, The Pretty Girl — and I didn’t think I was quite through with the subject. I had an idea of writing a novel that was set, at least partially, in Victorian times and focused on a Jewish engraver of plates for the toy theatre. I felt, from the start, that I was in over my head. What did I know about Victorian London? Much less, Jews in that time period? As part of my research, I engaged a tour guide who took me on a daylong tour of Jewish London. By the end of the day, I felt unequal to the task of my novel. There was too much I didn’t know. The last stop on the tour was an Orthodox synagogue. My female tour guide and I arrived during services and crept upstairs. We were the only women in the balcony and from the looks of things, there hadn’t been any other women up there in decades. In one back corner of the balcony, there was, of all things, a clothes rack on which hung racy pieces of women’s lingerie. Downstairs, men davened seriously, muttering their Hebrew so quickly that I couldn’t make out a word. At one point, a man whipped out a cell phone, though he continued to pray, and I thought perhaps he was putting in a call to the Big Guy at that very moment.

I loved this strange scene, but didn’t know what I could take from my day beyond my pleasure. I was dispirited. I felt I’d have to do a Ph.D. in history, before I could write the book I intended. I was also anxious to get back to the Marriott in Swiss Cottage where I was staying. My mother and young son were waiting for me, and I knew my son would be impatient for my return. He was not, at that point in his life, good with an extended separation.

It was late in the day when I finally got to the hotel. On the way up to my floor in the elevator, I saw a man in a yarmulke holding a clipboard. I almost had an urge to tell him about my day, as if all Jews were bound to be interested by my dip into history. I saw the words Adin Steinsaltz on the man’s clipboard. Now I had another reason I felt like speaking. “He wrote my favorite book,” I said, pointing.

“What’s that?” the man said, interested.

The Thirteen Petalled Rose.”

“Do you understand that book?” the man said abruptly.

I had actually studied the book, which attempts to explain the Jewish mystical system that is kabbalah, fairly seriously at one point, so I gave him a longer answer than he might have liked. “I feel like if there are 100 levels on which to get that book, after reading it twice, I managed to get to level two.” The book had meant a lot to me, because it opened up a way to think about Judaism that made me feel what I do in the world, my actions, whether kindly or not, influence the structure of the universe. I liked the notion that if you do a good act, you put more good in the universe, and similarly with a bad act. Thus, each day man has the potential to create the world as a better or worse place.

“Well, I tell the rabbi, I don’t get that book,” the man said, and he introduced himself. He was Steinsaltz’s personal assistant.

I was shocked. The Steinsaltz book—and other books by Steinsaltz—had once been so important to me that I had named my son, Aidan, after Adin. Or that’s not quite right. My husband, who isn’t Jewish, had found the name Aidan in a baby book. He liked it. I did, too, but then thought it was strange to give a boy whom we were going to raise as Jewish such an Irish name. Somehow “Adin,” though I knew it was pronounced differently, made me think it would be OK after all.

It turned out that the Rabbi, who is known perhaps best for his translation of the Talmud, was speaking that night. To a sold out crowd. But the assistant said he could get me in. As exciting as this prospect sounded, I had to say no. I couldn’t leave my son any longer with my mother. So the assistant offered something else. I could come up the next day to the Rabbi’s hotel suite and have coffee with him.

I could barely sleep that night. I was so excited. Later, I told Steve Stern, a Jewish writer friend in New York, about this encounter, and he gasped, “He’s a holy man!”

My meeting was brief. I was embarrassed by my secular self in front of the rabbi. I should have counted on not feeling quite frum enough to be meeting with him. I felt I should have a question for him, but I hadn’t prepared a question. I didn’t know what to say. He was gentle and kind, but I struggled to hear him, as his voice is soft, and my hearing isn’t so great. I ended up deciding to ask him about the end of the Book of Esther. The end of the book had troubled me, since I reread it in preparation for taking my son to his firstPurim celebration. Like most Jews, I knew that Haman, the bad guy, gets his just desserts, that he is hung on the gallows that he intended for Mordecai, the hero. But I didn’t know (till I reread the book) that afterward, the Jews go out and kill 75,000 additional men. I asked the rabbi about it. The lack of clarity in the Book of Esther bothered me. Thanks to an edict that the king has signed, the Persians have permission to attack Jews on a certain date, even though Haman is dead. But it is not clear they are taking advantage of that permission, when the day comes.

“Well, you’ve never been beaten,” the rabbi said.

“What?”

“If you were beaten, you’d understand.”

It seemed to me that we were talking about contemporary Israel and Palestine and not ancient Jews and Persians. Later I realized we probably were. I discovered that the rabbi’s politics were far to the right of my own. The other thing the rabbi said, though I can’t remember what we were talking about that led him to these words, is that he liked children, because they weren’t ruined yet. It didn’t seem the sort of wisdom that you’d get from a great man. It didn’t even seem true, though I love children myself.

Why am I telling these stories?

Because the meeting with the Rabbi redirected me, though not in the way I thought it would, when I was up all night, anticipating my morning coffee with the rabbi.

When we talk about fact and fiction in novel writing, I think we are frequently talking about direct borrowings from one’s own autobiography. For me, fact works in a more complex way in my fiction.

I never wrote that book about toy theatres, the one I planned to write when I went to London. Instead, I wrote a novel, called Good for the Jews, that is a loose retelling of the Book of Esther and makes explicit use of the Rabbi’s words about being beaten. I also wrote a story for my subsequent book, The Pretty Girl, called “A Wedding Story.” In it, a rabbi says what Steinsaltz said about children, and the character who hears his words stumbles on them; they are not what she wants out of a sage.

I couldn’t understand enough about the facts of the Victorian world, so I couldn’t write the novel I intended to. I couldn’t understand the Rabbi’s thinking, and so I found a story I did feel I could write. Stupidity, you could say, stopped me, and stupidity led me forward. Different kinds of stupidity. To write about something, you need to know about the things that are knowable. If there are facts to be had, you need to have the facts. But you don’t need to know about what is unknowable. You just need to be present to it.

Posted on April 23, 2012

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Bageling

Have you ever been ‘bageled’?

Bageling” is:

the conscious act – or speech – of a non-obviously looking Jewish individual to an obviously looking Jew intended to indicate that he or she is also Jewish; or, the conscious act of a non-Jew towards a Jew to indicate his or her affinity with the Jewish people.

An example of the former is when I was on the plane back from Denver and a bare-headed Jew came over to me and said Shalom. He was ‘bageling’ me. He was attempting to indicate with the word Shalom that he too is one of the tribe.

I am sure that many of us have been bageled before. Often all of us have been approached by individuals –Jewish and non-Jews- and befriended or just greeted in order to inform us that the person standing before us would like to connect with us.

In the latter case of a non-Jew, the act of being bageled can be as innocent as the non-Jew also saying Shalomor sometimes – as happened to me at the airport in Denver- much weightier and significant.

So sit back, relax and listen to one more tale of the ‘travels of Rabbi Eisenman’.

My least favorite part of flying is the security check point. Believe it or not- I enjoy the actual flight. After all, I have hours of uninterruptible time by myself; what could be better?

However, the security check point is always uncomfortable for me. I do my best to empty everything in my pockets, hoping that the metal detector alarm will not sound, as I do not want everyone seeing ‘the rabbi’ having to undergo the ‘wand’ treatment.

As I was approaching the security machine in Denver I was quite conscious of the fact that I was the most obviously looking Jew in the airport at the time. I emptied my pockets and waited for the guard on the other side of the metal detector to signal me to begin the shoe-less, belt-less, cell phone-less stroll through the metal detector doorway to the freedom of the plane.

The officer on the other side of the detector was big. He was about six feet three and trim, fit and very stern looking. As I waited to be instructed to begin my walk, I wondered silently if he was physically capable of smiling.

He slowly lifted his fingers ever so slightly and indicated that I was now to proceed through the invisible aura which sees all.

I walked through and looked up at my protector expecting and hoping for ‘the nod’ which would allow me to proceed without further delay.

However, it was not to be.

Officer Cheerful-face indicated that I must approach him.

I slowly neared my ‘defender of the homeland’ with both trepidation and nervousness.

“Will I be whisked off to Gitmo, never to be seen again?

Will I become the next poster child for the Agudah?

Will prayer rallies be held on my behalf?

Will the very same ‘please forward to everyone you know’ emails that I have preciously railed against now be splashed all over the virtual world for my quick and immediate release?

Will the young girls in Bais Ya’akovs all across the globe know my Hebrew name by heart as their pristine and sinless lips fervidly say Tehillim for my redemption?

Will I now write books from the inside of a prison cell in Guantanamo Bay?”

I was now face to face with the law.

He slowly looked me in the eye and then, in a move which no doubt would strike fear in the hearts of the mightiest of men, he motioned to me to come very, very close to him. He then began to look from side to side.

“What is going to happen to me now?

If the person who is supposed to be my protector is now making sure no one else is looking and that no one else can hear us, what is he planning to do?

Could it be that he is secretly related to a choleric and cross congregant who still bears a grudge against the rabbi for his not getting ‘Shlishi’ last Shabbos?

Could it be that he is really a secret admirer of Osama Bin Laden and he has mistaken me as a fellow Taliban?’

Finally, after his being convinced that no one else could hear us, he began his murmured divulgence:

“America must support Israel! The only hope for America is when we and Israel are totally in sync and when there is no difference between our interests and that of Israel. That is the only hope for our country. I just wanted you to know this!”

I nodded and, as quickly as my little legs could transport me, I proceeded to the plane.

Friends, I was just super bageled–with cream cheese and lox as well!

Posted on April 12, 2012

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