One of the strange things about having your first book come out is that you think you’ve written one thing, and then everyone decides you’ve written something else. I guess I don’t mean en masse, but I did think I had written kind of a sad, quiet novel, and now I’m getting pegged as the funny girl.
You know who was really the funny girl?
If you said Fanny Brice you’d be right.
I grew up on musical theater the way other people grow up on sports (some of my greatest triumphs were in competitive opera singing), and watched Barbra Streisand movies like an acolyte. Forget Julie Andrews (who I’m sure is very nice)—I loved Barbra: her voice, the twinkle in her eye, her nose. I’m not exaggerating when I say that watching her sing “I’m the Greatest Star” in Funny Girl changed my life.
Funny Girl is based on the life of Fanny Brice, who sang for the Ziegfeld Follies, acted on Broadway and in film, and played Baby Snooks on the radio for years. She made a life and career out of contradictions—a Yiddish “dialectician” who never knew more than a hundred words of the language, a skinny girl who couldn’t dance and yet sang for the glamorous Follies, an independent woman who married three times.
In his biography of the performer, Herbert G. Goldman quotes Fanny on her dual nature: “Self-aware and self-perceptive, Fanny once said she had always been aware of ‘two people within me. Almost like a mother and child. I have felt like I was my own mother, and when I would think about Fanny, I would always think about myself as a child.’”
What makes Fanny such a great talent is exactly this duality, between mother and child, serious and playful. Barbra has it too, on film. Maybe it’s a Jewish thing. Although critics wrote mainly about Fanny as a comedienne, one of her greatest hits was “My Man,” which she always sang with her eyes closed, no doubt imagining her first husband, Nick Arnstein. It sounds soulful to me when I listen to it again now, and I think I know why Fanny sang torch songs—because those were the moments when she got to stop playing the funny girl.
When I was a kid, I got sent to a sports camp outside of Philadelphia. Which was sort of the ultimate nightmare for a Jewish nerd. This summer, our friend and MJL writer Josh Lambert (and author of JPS’s American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide) is running a weeklong program at the Yiddish Book Center for high-school juniors and seniors who want to
read, discuss, argue about, and fall in love with some of the most powerful and enduring works of modern Jewish literature. Participants will study with some of the nation’s most respected literary scholars, meet prominent contemporary authors, and connect with other teens from across the country.
Oh: And, thanks to philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, it’s free. If this sounds to you like the coolest thing ever, then you just might be right for it. Go here to get more information and apply. Oh, and — if you see the ghost of my teenage self, looking happier than he’s ever been, say hi for me.
This is the first page of a comic book I’m working on. It’s based on the Bintel Brief, a popular Yiddish advice column published in the Forvertz Newspaper beginning in 1906. It was the brainchild of Abraham Cahan, the man behind the huge success and sophistication of the Forvertz newspaper and the mastermind of the Bintel Brief.
About this page: Jacob Zemsner is a fictional character, and this myth about the tears is fictional too, but Abraham Cahan is one of my favorite real characters ever, a self-made American. His face really was vaguely heart-shaped, and he was cross-eyed and terribly embarrassed about that. More facts: he loved Charles Dickens. He was a humanist from a distance, a misanthropist close-up. He was an anarchist (he had to flee Eastern Europe at twenty-two because he was involved with the group that had assassinated the Czar), then a socialist, but not enough of a purist to satisfy any die-hard idealogues. He kept remaking himself. I completely recommend his autobiography, the Education of Abraham Cahan. A page-turner. Also his novel, The Rise of David Levinsky, which is slightly dated but no less wonderful because of that. And easier to find in a library than the autobiography is.
Seven of the ten stories I made are adapted from Bintel Brief letters that hadn’t been translated into English yet, and lifted the other three stories from the collection of Bintel Brief letters in English, owned by most grandparents.The book is not finished yet, and I’m often asked why I chose to make it. I’m not sure. I was raised in Jewish circles but never could kindle much of a feeling of belonging to any group. And why comics? I had to start forcing myself to learn about comics a couple of years after deciding (late) that comics would be the easiest artform for me to squeeze my interests (drawing, telling stories) into. So I’m not a Jew in the traditional sense, and not a comics artist either, but the one thing I feel strongly about is that honesty is not something you can aim for.
In art you have to painstakingly build a story (first you have to painstakingly build a self to tell it). Once your house is complete, down to the artificial windows, real light will shine through. I hope something will shine through these stories, in the lines and letters. Whatever the outcome, I’ll make comics for the rest of my life. Time is a good tool for art.
Here’s the first page of the first story. This story is based on the actual first letter that was written to Cahan. Cahan wrote about the letter in his autobiography.
In my grandparents’ homes, as in the shtetlach from whence they came, the food was sweet and sour – just as life itself was sweet and sour. For me, a grandchild of immigrants growing up between two worlds in 1950s America, sweet and sour came to symbolize both the contrasts and convergences of my multifaceted existence.
Sour was during the week. It was school and afternoon heder for me, jobs that took my father and grandfather away from before I woke up until after I had my supper; and for my mother and grandmothers, shopping, cleaning, child-rearing and all the other things stay-at-home wives did back then.
Sour was a pickle or sour tomato for a snack, a piece of sour rye bread slathered with schmaltz and topped with a slice of onion, a lunch of sour cream, farmer cheese and chopped radish, scallion and cucumber; or maybe a glass of ruby red borscht and sour cream, or shchav (sorrel soup) with a raw egg stirred in and chopped scallions on top. Sour was Grandma Annie stirring a spoonful of sour cream into a pot of warm milk, then pouring it into a tray full of patterned yortzeit glasses and leaving it to sour over the pilot light on her white enamel stove.
Sour was the taste of the shtetl, where a piece of sour black rye bread, a bowl of the fermented beet water called rosl and perhaps a dollop of sour cream was a day’s nourishment. After all, what could be cheaper, easier and more provident for the inevitable times of scarcity than a crock filled with sliced beets, left to ferment by the wild yeasts that fill the air? Sour was the sum of their existence.
Weekends were sweet, and so were our holidays. Sweet was the saucer of honey, the sweet-sticky teyglach and cloves-fragrant carrot tsimmes at Rosh Hashanah, and the sweet gefilte fish and oloptzes (stuffed cabbage), for Shabbes. The challah was sweet and pale yellow, with a shiny brown crust that crackled when Grandpa cut it; the prune and apricot compote was sweet (but with a touch of lemon, to remind us of the week past and the week yet to come). Sour held no place of honor at my grandma’s Shabbes table.
Sweet was spending Saturday and Sunday with my parents and extended family, cookies and rugelach from Grandma and Bubbie, cracking pecans and hazelnuts with my cousins after a big holiday meal, visits to the bakery with my father and bringing home cookies and pastries in white cardboard boxes tied with string striped like a barber pole. Sweet was going to the Saturday matinee (20 cents for a double feature, serial, newsreel and 5 color cartoons 5) with my best friend Richie and eating Black Crows, Jujubes and Sugar Daddy bars. Sweet was being allowed to stay up late so my brother and I could sit in front of the TV with our parents, watching Uncle Miltie, Sid Caesar, Groucho Marx and Dragnet.
As I grew older, my life grew sweeter, more American. Instead of a giant sour pickle bought for a nickel out of a barrel of brine, my afternoon snack morphed into a stack of cookies and a glass of milk. Living in the suburbs, away from my grandmothers, we succumbed to the enticements of the mainstream and there we chose to spend our lives, eating sweet and eschewing sour, except as an occasional culinary grace note. Weeks and weekends merged into unremitting sweetness.
Now, in my 60s, I’ve come back to sour with a deeper appreciation of both its taste and meaning. Still, there is one dish, one taste memory, that haunts me: my bubbie’s marnat – chilled sweet and sour whitefish, simmered slow and long with slices of carrot and onion in a peppery-vinegary-sugary marinade that congealed into an aspic and overwhelmed my taste buds even as the fish dissolved in my mouth. Whenever I went to see her in her Brooklyn brownstone, that was the dish I always asked her to make. And to this day, try as I might, I’ve never come close to duplicating it, perhaps because I will never truly know, as all my grandparents knew, the sorrows and joys of sweet-and sour.
Not too long ago, during a radio interview centered on Inside the Jewish Bakery, the host asked me, “What is a Jewish bakery?” I have to confess, I was stunned: no one had ever asked me that question, nor, indeed, had I ever asked it of myself. In my world, everyone knows what a Jewish bakery is – a bakery that sells Jewish baked goods.
But here’s where it gets complicated. What exactly are “Jewish baked goods?” The ones that come first to mind – bagels, rugelach, onion rolls, challah – appear to be no-brainers, but in fact all can be traced back through their Yiddish forebears to the gentile Central and Eastern European societies in which the Jews found themselves living at various times.
Take bagels, for instance. In America, we think of them as a Jewish food that made good, rising to the pinnacle of the American mainstream and assimilating away their “Jewishness.” But boiled/baked ring breads made of double-helix dough strands, called obwarzanki, are the signature street food of Kraków, Poland, and have been for centuries. And lest anyone argue that “Jewish” bagels don’t feature that ropelike twist, I would point out that a 1936 photo in the collection of the New York Public Library shows a Jewish New York City bagel peddler selling what clearly are twisted obwarzanki. At the same time, a 1938 photo in the YIVO collection shows a bagel seller in Lithuania selling the untwisted bagels we’re all familiar with. Go figure.
So how about challah? Nothing more Jewish than that, right? Well, although the term “challah” is derived from the Torah, the bread itself was a loan from 14th and 15th century German Christians, who honored their Sabbath with braided loaves, according to Jewish foodways historian John Cooper. On top of that (and on top of the loaves), the custom of decorating breads with symbols of faith such as birds, hands, keys and ladders – also often thought of as uniquely Jewish – also can be traced back to the Christians of Central Europe. Even the term “koyletch,” an alternative name for challah throughout Yiddish Europe, is of Slavic origin. And to bring things full circle, a braided, egg-glazed sweet bread called chałka is a staple offering in the bakeries of today’s Poland.
The same is true of knishes, babkas, rolls (bulkes), rye breads – you name it and the gentile host cultures had it before the Jews. Even most modern favorites come from someplace else, most obviously rainbow cookies, whose horizontal layers of red, yellow and green reprise the Italian flag and trumpet their origin.
So if everything in the Jewish bakery came from someplace else, what, after all is a “Jewish bakery?”
In my view, nothing less than the history of a people’s wanderings from place to place – from Eretz Yisrael to the Roman Empire, from Rome northward into the Rhine Valley, then west into France and England and east into Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, Lithuania, Poland and Russia. At every stop, the Jews found the foods of their gentile neighbors and adapted them to the laws of Kashrut. And when it came time to move again, they took those foods with them and added to their repertoire the foods of their next home, again adapted to Kashrut.
And so the Jewish bakery is really a time capsule, a distillation of a thousand years of Diaspora, come to rest in a row of glass-fronted display cases and shelves full of bread and rolls behind the counter. Every bread and roll, every pastry, cake and cookie, reflects a specific time and place in our communal history and connects us tangibly (and edibly) to our shared experience. And you thought it was only a bakery!
Today, the world’s food culture is rapidly homogenizing. You can find U.S. fast-food franchises in Tokyo, Beijing and Moscow; Japanese ramen-chain outlets in New York, Los Angeles and London. And bagels are everywhere. TV food porn, as my daughter likes to call it, has universalized once-obscure ingredients and globalized technique and plating to the point where cooking has morphed from the deepest, most visceral (pun intended) expression of a culture rooted in time and place to a media-driven vehicle for individual creativity.
And while I do appreciate the pure sensual pleasures of sculpturally composed, artfully conceived and executed coups de table, I’m also very much aware that even the best of them lack the authentic Yiddish tam of my grandmother’s kroyt borscht, a long-simmered soup – a stew, really – made from beef flanken and an abundance of winter vegetables – cabbage, beets, turnips, carrots, potatoes and onions.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, the mass-market processed food industry is wreaking its own Holocaust on family-run, made-from-scratch restaurants and bakeries, and in the process, severing the connection between people and their personal and communal histories. And sadly, as those restaurants and bakeries die, so too, dies a piece of our cultural history that most of us barely recognize, let alone miss, until it’s gone.
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.