Monday, January 31, 2005

The Observant Reader

Wendy Shalit writes an interesting piece in today's New York Times about the spurt, in recent years, of literature about the Haredi community. Her basic thesis is that some of the most successful books -- eg. Nathan Englander's For The Relief of Unbearable Urges , books by Tova Reich and Tova Mirvis -- are written by people who purport to be insiders, but have in fact left the fold or perhaps never even really belonged in it. As a result, they portray the community rather negatively, and without any really idealistic characters. She asks:
What is the market for this fiction? Does it simply satisfy our desire, as one of Mirvis's reviewers put it, to indulge in ''eavesdropping on a closed world''? Or is there a deeper urge: do some readers want to believe the ultra-Orthodox are crooked and hypocritical, and thus lacking any competing claim to the truth? Perhaps, on the other hand, readers are genuinely interested in traditional Judaism but don't know where to look for more nuanced portraits of this world.
Shalit contrasts this to Welcome to Heavenly Heights by Risa Miller and Seven Blessings by Ruchama King, both of which came out a couple of years ago. Writes Shalit:
Like Miller, King doesn't shy away from the problems that affect her world, but she also captures the subtlety and magic of its traditions. In particular, she convincingly describes the sublimated excitement that characterizes ultra-Orthodox dating as tiny gestures take on heightened meaning.
I think that Shalit is perhaps oversensitive here to the books being written by the Mirvises and Englanders of this world. I don't think you can read either of their books without gaining the impression that this is a world they both do -- in vastly different ways, and certainly vastly differently to the way Shalit does -- care about. (I can't comment about Tova Reich whom I've never read.)
In any case, the crux of Shalit's argument is that one portrayal is more 'real'/'authentic' than another. On this I disagree with her. As a Ba'alat Tshuva, she -- and Miller, and King -- see this community in a very different way to the way others who were either born and bred in it, or who grew up in close proximity see it. This does not mean one is 'wrong' and one is 'right.' People simply experience reality differently, and they're entitled to write about it as they see fit.
You could also ask to what extent any author portrays any community / experience 'realistically.' Does John LeCarre portray the spy world "realistically"?? Does Jilly Cooper portray the racing world "realistically"?? Did Bashevis Singer always portray the Shtetl world "realistically"?? I doubt it, and I'm not sure this is a valid criterion for measuring these books.
In any case, I should add that both Englander and Mirvis are, in my opinion, highly overrated, but Risa Miller and Ruchama King were downright awful. Their books had no real plot or tension; they were held together, barely, by the kind of 'atmosphere' which Shalit seems to laud them for. If you haven't heard of them, there's a reason for that. I'm sure there are many people out there who will happily buy more 'realistic' (and by that, Shalit means 'sympathetic') books about the Haredi world if only those which do come out were a little more gripping.

(Cross-posted to Bloghead)

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The King's Persons by Joanne Greenberg. (Henry Holt, 1963).

It is 1963. I am a 12-year-old ignoramus.
I am wandering around in a used bookstore in Brooklyn. I see a paperback with a lion and Magen David on the cover. A Jewish book!
I inhale books, especially novels and I'm always looking for somethingto read on the long Shabbos afternoons.
I plunk down 25 cents for the book. Twenty-five cents has irrevocably changed my life.
This was Joanne Greenberg's first novel. She gained some fame and a spot on the best-seller list a few years later with "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden." Practically everyone I know has read "Rose Garden" or seen the movie. I have never ever met one person who has read, much less heard of "The King's Persons."
In the Christian year of 1182, Jews held a unique position in English society. Forbidden to own property, they were "the king's persons," whose lives were under his protection, and whose fate and fortune belonged to him and him alone. To support themselves, therefore, many Jews turned to moneylending, which was illegal but tolerated by the king for its contribution to the national economy. And indeed, for a short while this arrangement worked well; in York, Christians and Jews lived together harmoniously.
When economic conditions began to deteriorate, the already overtaxed Christian nobles looked for a scapegoat. On the coronation day of Richard the Lion-Hearted, the London crowd erupted in mass attacks on Jews, which spread rapidly northward and culminated in the massacres at York.
Against this richly evoked background, the author, at the height of her powers, portrays the experiences of everyday people of the time: Baruch of York, the Jewish moneylender; his sensitive and questioning son, Abram, in love with their Christian servant, Bett; and the young monk Simon, Abram's best friend. The lives of Christian and Jew alike are twisted and changed, and we come to understand the myriad subtle forces at work as we see neighbor rise against neighbor in an irrational onslaught of hate.
But what is most powerful, apart from the historic drama, is the elegant manner in which the author exposes the motives of the human heart with such insight that only compassion and sorrow are left.
Since childhood I have been a voracious reader, but no book has evercaptured my imagination like this powerful and beautifully written novel. The fiction that is championed by the intellectual elite neverspoke to me. I read Philip Roth, Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow. Mysteriously, they are labeled Jewish novelists, but I feel nothing genuinely Jewish in their work. All I sense is an ugly nihilism that has nothing to do with the Judaism as I live and experience it; these are fashionable novelists who are blind to the rich and multilayered Yiddishkayt that has flourished in my America. Their work is stylish and so very polished — but at the core it is void of any authentic Jewish spark.
Even now, as I read "The King's Persons" I weep for Bett, perhaps the most vividly etched character in the book. A Christian child, she issold by her blunt peasant parents as a kitchen maid to Baruch of York's family. Over the years, she has learned to read and write Hebrew in a society where most women are illiterate. So thoroughly has Bett been saturated in the laws, customs, thoughts and feelings of herJewish family that no Christian man will marry her. She is alienated from her own parents. They sense that she is ... different. Living with Jews has made her too fine, too smart and too verbal.
"Bett," says her confused father, "ye thinks too much for a common female."
And, finally, when the king proclaims that no Christian will be allowed to work for a Jew, Bett realizes that the world no longerholds a place for her.
"Perhaps I, too, must be afraid," she said.
Faithfully, I sit down once a year and read "The King's Persons." I still have the same dog-eared paperback that I bought for 25 cents. I do not so much read the words as breathe them in. I continue to marvelat the perfection of language, the totality of vision. I read the novel and I look around and I understand that this book, this story,these fully realized characters changed the course of my life. And just as surely as I am who I am because of who my parents are, because of who my wife and children are — I am a screenwriter and a novelist —because more than 40 years ago, "The King's Person's" gripped my soul, set my heart and mind aflame, and allowed me to follow a path that otherwise I never would have imagined.

(Posted on behalf of Robert Avrech)

Friday, January 21, 2005

Put your mouth where our blog is....

JTA: Initiative helps U.S. libraries promote discussion of Jewish books -- the "national literary program, Let’s Talk About It: Jewish Literature, a joint venture between Nextbook and the American Library Association."

Novel Jews

What: Novel Jews Book Club introductory meeting
When: Thursday, February 24, 7pm
Where: Uncle Ming's Bar: 225 Ave. B, 2nd Floor (Bet. 13th & 14th Sts.)
Book: "Gimpel the Fool" by Isaac Bashevis Singer
Price: $5

Novel Jews book club will discuss some of the classics of Jewish literature. People of all ages, tastes and experience are welcome. Novel Jews book club is a 14th Street Y class and is facilitated by Alana Newhouse, Arts and Culture Editor at the Forward.
The book club, after the introductory session, will follow a chronological arc of Jewish literature, beginning with the Yiddish masters of the late 19th-century and ending with the current emerging stars. It meets approximately every 6 weeks, with future dates and location forthcoming.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

What makes Jewish literature so Jewish, anyway?

In response to Shawn Landres' recent post, I'm making available a paper I wrote a while back which addresses the question of what makes Jewish literature Jewish.

I spent a semester of grad school exploring a cross-section of Jewish literature, with the intent of trying to define (or at least more clearly understand) what makes a Jewish book. I read classics (some Torah, natch, plus Sholom Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Delmore Schwartz, Malka Heifetz Tussman) alongside writers of today (Francine Prose, Hal Sirowitz, and Rodger Kamenetz, among others).

Aware that my own roots give me a tendency towards Ashkenazi-centrism, and wanting to combat that, I dipped into Ilan Stavans' Jewish Latin America series. (The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas has one of the coolest titles ever.) I read secondary sources about Jewish literature (among them an excellent issue of the Pakn-Treger that happened to focus on this very question). I had a ridiculous amount of fun.


The...question I began with... [is] what makes a piece of writing Jewish. Must it be written by a Jew? If so, is the Jewishness of its author enough to make the writing itself Jewish? Conversely, what if a piece of writing (a story, a poem, a novel, a body of work) deals with Jewish characters and settings, but is not written by a Jew? What does it mean to deal with "Jewish characters and settings" in 1998, when a "Jewish character" (or a Jewish author) could as easily be a black lesbian feminist Jew-by-choice living in California as a white man of Eastern European descent living in New York city? What is a Jewish character, a Jewish author, a Jewish subject? Does language matter -- which is to say, is a piece of Yiddish fiction automatically Jewish? How about Hebrew poetry? Is there such a thing as a Jewish "essence," a Jewish neshamah, in a piece of writing -- and if so, what creates it? When I turned my eye towards this project six months ago, I dimly sensed these questions on my horizon.

The question I did not sense on my horizon, although perhaps I should have, is this: is Jewishness about looking in or looking out? Must Jewish writing be directed inwards within the Jewish community, or can it be universal?
I wound up writing roughly 7000 words on the subject. I can't claim to definitively answer the question (the more Jewish lit I read, and the more I think about what I've read, the less possible I think it is to concretely define the genre), but there's some interesting food for thought there.

The paper is available for download here:

A Question of Reading: Nu, What Makes Jewish Literature So Jewish, Anyway?

Hopefully you'll enjoy reading it a fraction as much as I enjoyed writing it!

(Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Book-blogging, book-banning....

I don't have a great deal to write as we launch this new enterprise -- since my current literary companion is Orhan Pamuk's Snow -- except to note the irony of starting a J-book blog the week of the Slifkin ban, which appears to be as much about boundary maintenance as anything else.

So, in that spirit, let me begin with four questions:
1. What makes a "Jewish book" Jewish?
2. Can a Jewish author write a "non-Jewish" book?
3. Can a non-Jewish author write a "Jewish" book?
4. Why wasn't Jewish Lights among the exhibitors at the most recent meeting of the Association for Jewish Studies?
[UPDATE, January 23: I saw Jewish Lights's Stuart Matlins tonight at a Kalsman Institute event honoring Debbie Friedman. All is well -- and it was a great evening.]
And one more for good measure: now that we're all officially Jewish book bloggers, does this mean publishers will start sending us free review copies?

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

A favorite Ostriker poem

I'm a big fan of Jewish feminist poet and midrashist Alicia Ostriker. Her nonfiction books (among them Writing Like a Woman, an exploration of female poets and their work; The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions, which explores the Torah through the twin lenses of autobiography and midrash; and Dancing at the Devil's Party, which I reviewed a few years back) have prominent place on my shelves; ditto her collections of poetry, which are pretty splendid. I've had the pleasure of writing about Ostriker for the Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature and the Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Poetry, and every time I get to reread her oeuvre, I enjoy her work more.

For kicks, here's one of my favorite Ostriker poems. It's called Everywoman Her Own Theology. Though it's not her most Judaic poem by a long shot (I'm not sure I could choose a single poem to fit that bill, though "A Meditation in Seven Days"--which explores the roles of women and images of femaleness within Jewish tradition, from Sarah to the Sabbath Queen--might come close) this poem "feels" Jewish to me in its playful approach to theology and its insistence on the importance of chesed, loving-kindness. Unlike some of Ostriker's more serious Judaic poems (as exemplified by her recent collection The Volcano Sequence, which rails against injustice with a prophet's ardor, and which speaks both to, and for, the shekhinah exiled in creation) this one approaches the anthropomorphizing of God with a sly, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor.

In the last stanza she describes her credo in stark contrast to the stone tablets Moses brought down from Sinai: these lines, unlike those, are tacked to a corkboard, written on perishable paper, small and mundane and soon to be spattered with the ordinary detritus of a life well-lived. Though third-wave feminists (myself among them) would argue that it's essentialist to declare any kind of theology entirely gendered, it's hard to escape the notion that this poem is meant to reflect a kind of woman's theology, concerned less with with halakhah than with the kitchen, with forgiveness, and with love.


Everywoman Her Own Theology

I am nailing them up to the cathedral door
Like Martin Luther. Actually, no,
I don't want to resemble that Schmutzkopf
(See Erik Erikson and N.O. Brown
On the Reformer's anal aberrations,
Not to mention his hatred of Jews and peasants),
So I am thumbtacking these ninety-five
Theses to the bulletin board in my kitchen.

My proposals, or should I say requirements,
Include at least one image of a god,
Virile, beard optional, one of a goddess,
Nubile, breast size approximating mine,
One divine baby, one lion, one lamb,
All nude as figs, all dancing wildly,
All shining. Reproducible
In marble, metal, in fact any material.

Ethically, I am looking for
An absolute endorsement of loving-kindness.
No loopholes except maybe mosquitoes.
Virtue and sin will henceforth be discouraged,
Along with suffering and martyrdom.
There will be no concept of infidels,
Consequently the faithful must entertain
Themselves some other way than killing infidels.

And so forth and so on. I understand
This piece of paper is going to be
Spattered with wine one night at a party
And covered over with newer pieces of paper.
That is how it goes with bulletin boards.
Nevertheless it will be there.
Like an invitation, a chalk pentangle,
It will emanate certain vibrations.

If something sacred wants to swoop from the universe
Through a ceiling, and materialize,
Folding its silver wings,
In a kitchen, and bump its chest against mine,
My paper will tell this being where to find me.

-- Alicia Ostriker

The Sabbatean Prophets/ Matt Goldish

This is a superb book, which has the potential of being a classic of Jewish intellectual history and of Jewish historiography. It deals with what one might term the 'expanding ripples' of Sabbateanism as destabilizing factors (and therefore enabling mechanisms) of early modern Judaism, and also is one of a number of recent books highlighting the Converso community as pivotal to the process. The real enjoyment of the book, however, is its comprehensive 'embedding' of Jewish Messianic prophecy of the period in its widest European context - showing how Sabbateanism was both a product of wider trends in Europe ("the comprehensive nexus of Enlightenment") and also, to a degree, contributed to them. It is the opposite of 'Jewish history seen backwards down a long narrow tube'. A real treat to read!

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