Earlier this week, Baruch and Judy Sterman wrote about their obsession with blue. Their blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
We were sitting in an upscale café in Northern Tel Aviv waiting to meet with Knesset member Yitzchak “Bougie” Herzog. As number two in the Israeli Labor party, he was in the middle of campaigning for the upcoming elections, and we were grateful to have a few minutes of his time. The purpose of our meeting was to present him with a copy of our book, “The Rarest Blue,” and to thank him for the information he had provided while we were preparing it. The dedication that we had inscribed in the book included our desire “to express our inestimable appreciation for the work of your namesake, your grandfather the great Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog, whose contributions to the study of tekhelet were unparalleled.”
Tekhelet, the precious blue that, in accordance with the biblical commandment, colored one string of the tzitzit worn by Jews in ancient times, was the subject of our book and also the theme of Rabbi Herzog’s doctoral dissertation for the University of London almost a century ago. His thesis investigated all aspects of the topic in an attempt to determine why the technology of manufacturing the dye had disappeared from the world, when exactly it had been lost, and what was the mysterious source of the valuable dye. His doctorate was the beginning of a life-long passion whose ultimate goal — the restoration of the forgotten biblical commandment — would not be realized until after Rabbi Herzog’s death.
Earlier this week, M. M. Silver wrote about the riches in Louis Marshall’s archive. His blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
Now that my previous blog post established to everyone’s complete satisfaction that Louis Marshall ought to be considered a paramount figure in the history of America’s Jewish community, and, in fact, that his personal archive contains papers of import comparable to Newton’s apple-stained original draft of the law of universal gravitation, it behooves me to wrestle with a question that arose a few times during the drafting of my biography of Marshall. Here it is: given that Louis Marshall was the man who successfully dictated the terms of Henry Ford’s apology for the Dearborn Independent’s scurrilous anti-Semitic campaign, who drafted the terms for Jewish minority rights in Eastern Europe after World War I, who argued before the Supreme Court more times than any attorney in his era, who was a founder of many of American Jewry’s premier organizations and institutions, and who became (in his final crusade) a progenitor of American Jewry’s special relationship with Israel, why did it take over 80 years for some shlimazel to publish a full-length biography of him?
Formulated in that way, this question is a bit misleading and self-serving. Two or three books about Marshall were published in years after his death. Morton Rosenstock’s “Louis Marshall, Defender of Jewish Rights” is the best known. Biographical in structure though not comprehensive in intent, they are very informative and useful volumes.
Baruch and Judy Sterman’s “The Rarest Blue: The Remarkable Story of an Ancient Color Lost to History and Rediscovered” is now available. Their blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
We admit it, we are obsessed with blue. Also with seashells and snails. Our house is filled with skeins of blue threads, tufts of wool in every shade of blue imaginable, and dozens of shells of different sizes and peculiar shapes. But we weren’t always so infatuated.
We were introduced to the wonderful world of blue quite by chance. Late one Thursday night, around 20 years ago, an old high-school buddy called and asked if I would like to join him the next day to go scuba diving in the Mediterranean. He was going to help a dedicated rabbi collect some sea-snails. Not just any snails, but a particular species that had once been used to produce the fabulously expensive and stunning dye known as biblical blue, or tekhelet. In the ancient world, tekhelet had been a cornerstone commodity worth up to 20 times its weight in gold, but for centuries it had been lost and all but forgotten. Only recently had there been a revival of interest in the ancient dyeing process. I myself had only a faint knowledge of the topic of tekhelet, which is mentioned numerous times in the Bible as the main component of the priestly garments and the decorative curtains of the Temple.
M. M. Silver is a modern Jewish history scholar at Max Stern College of Emek Yezreel in Israel. His newest book, “Louis Marshall and the Rise of Jewish Ethnicity in America: A Biography,” is now available. His blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
Here’s a thought experiment designed to show you how the Jewish world does not work today. Imagine that some extremely committed, professionally accomplished Jewish individual arose today in America, and suddenly served as lay director of key Jewish religious institutions, stewarded vital Jewish community interests on Capitol Hill, supervised American Jewish contacts with Israeli leaders, and managed campaigns for imperiled or impoverished Jewish communities around the world. You’re thinking about a Jewish Papacy that could never arise — at least never again.
Let’s expand these experimental terms, and move beyond the concerns of Modern Jewish History and think about ethnic realities in American History. When has it ever happened that the acknowledged leader of one ethnic group takes up the reins for other ethnic groups, managing and directing their courtroom and public battles against discrimination and prejudice? How many ethnic leaders in America have attended to the parochial affairs of their own group, fought for justice for other socio-religious groups, and creatively broadened conceptualizations of legal rights to afford protection to the environment?
Earlier this week, Jay Neugeboren wrote about the title story of his third collection and the art of silence. His blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
My most recently published novel, “The Other Side of the World,” contains a 100-page novel-within-the-novel set entirely in Singapore and Borneo. The book appeared in early December, and since then readers and interviewers keep asking an obvious question: Have you ever been to Singapore and/or Borneo?
The answer: No …
And the response to this answer is often bewilderment, as in: How can you write about a place you’ve never seen or been to? To this point no one, including friends and reviewers who have been to Singapore and Borneo, has questioned the credibility of the Singapore and Borneo I’ve conjured up. But why should people believe that a fiction writer has to go to a place in order to write about it? An earlier novel of mine, “The Stolen Jew” (1981), begins in Israel, on a beach in Herzlia, and I wrote this novel before I’d ever been to Israel. The Stolen Jew also contains several sections set in the Soviet Union, both in time-present (about smuggling out a Jewish dissident), and in the19th century (about a Jewish boy kidnapped to take the place of another Jewish boy for 25 year service in the Tsar’s army — the dreaded cantonist gzeyra).
I had never been to the Soviet Union.
In today’s installment of the Visiting Scribe, Eddy Portnoy sat down with Ben Katchor to discuss his newest book, “Hand-Drying in America: And Other Stories,” which will be published by Pantheon Books on March 5. Their blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
The artist Ben Katchor is a master of a visual urban milieu that echoes post-war New York City, but really isn’t that at all. Populated by stocky characters who tramp about and explore an oddly familiar, yet completely invented universe, Katchor’s picture-stories (as he likes to call them) are stirring forays into the urban absurd. Awarded with Guggenheims and MacArthurs, among other prizes, Katchor creates a kind of visual poetry comprised of everyday artifacts and activities. His ability to bring everyday objects and activities to the forefront of his visual narratives lends his work an imaginative, absurdist quality fired by light switches, peepholes, wheelchair ramps, coat check rooms and invented occupations, like spittoon pump engineers and rhumba line organizers. Katchor sees what we don’t in pedestrian objects and events and crafts short, comic narratives out of them. His books, which include “Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer,” “The Jew of New York,” and “The Cardboard Valise,” are part of his continually expanding oeuvre, which has come to include operas based on a number of his stories.
His most recent publication, “Hand-Drying in America,” is a compilation of full-color, one-page picture stories that appeared in the urban design and architecture magazine, Metropolis. Like most of his work, they take place in an invented Katchoresque urban world. I sat down with Ben recently to have a meandering discussion about it.
Eddy Portnoy: Your stories are full of unusual names of people and places. Are any of them real?
Earlier, Jay Neugeboren wrote about the art of silence. His blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
Some years ago, when I was president of Congregation B’nai Israel, in Northampton, Massachusetts, I wrote a short story I set in my synagogue. Here, Chagall-like, are the story’s opening lines:
When the telephone rang, shortly after three a.m. on a cold, early November morning—Officer Ed Sedowski calling to say that a lost Torah had been found wandering around the local shopping mall—Rabbi Saul Gewirtz was fast asleep on his living room couch, having taken himself there some two hours before, following a fight with his wife Pauline.
I had a delightful time conjuring up an imaginary rabbi’s life — I rewrote the story several times, published it in a good literary quarterly, and several years later the story became the title story of my third collection, “News from the New American Diaspora and Other Tales of Exile.” The stories I gathered for this collection spanned most of the 20th century of Jewish-American life, and in 2005, at the time of the book’s publication, I returned to Northampton to give a reading at the synagogue. (A wandering Jew myself, after 30 years of exile in New England, I had, in 1999, left Northampton and returned to my home town of New York City.)
Jay Neugeboren is the author of 20 books, including two prize winning novels, two prize-winning non-fiction books, and four collections of award-winning stories. His most recent books are “The American Sun & Wind Moving Picture Company” (March 2013) and “The Other Side of the World” (December 2012). His blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
Although my novel, “The American Sun & Wind Moving Picture Company,” is set in the silent film era — it begins in 1915, in Fort Lee, New Jersey, where a Jewish family that makes one and two reel (silent) films is making a new film on a frozen lake — its origins may lie in the spoken word. When friends ask how and why I came to write a novel about the silent film era, the first answer that comes to mind is that the novel is inspired not by my love of film, but by my childhood love of listening to stories on the radio.
During my years in high school, in Brooklyn in the early ’50s, the New York City Board of Education’s radio station, WNYE-FM, regularly broadcast radio programs into elementary, junior high, and high school classrooms. And during those years I was a child/teenage actor at the radio station. I played some wonderful parts — Tom Sawyer, Hans Brinker, Willie the Whale, young Abe Lincoln, et al — and what the director of the station, Marjorie Knudsen, taught me on my first day there has stayed with me throughout my life. The most important element an actor has at his or her command for creating character, she said, were not words, but silence. The way you pause before a word, or between sentences, or after a particular phrase, or in the middle of a word — this, she said, is what makes listeners pay attention so that they can, in their imaginations, transform what they hear — and do not hear — into credible characters and scenes. The mystery of character — and the essence of what made listeners want to know what-happens-next, lay in those moments when there was no sound.
Earlier this week, Michael Lavigne wrote about writing the “Radical Other” and wondered if a writer can take the ego out of writing. His blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
A couple of years ago I decided to lead a group of adult learners in a class on Jewish fiction. The reason was that I wanted to share a few books I loved, and I also wanted an excuse to read some I’d never got around to. It was an amazing experience, both as a teacher and as a reader.
Re-reading some favorites — like Bruno Schulz, Primo Levi and Meir Shalev — only served to deepen my attachment to them. But the writers I’d wanted to get to know — like Clarice Lispector and Joseph Roth — were a revelation.
Two or three really stand out in that category. Lispector for certain — nothing in literature is quite like her, and I urge you to read through twice before you judge. But it was Roman Gary who won my heart with his incomparable character Momo — the little Arab kid adopted by the Jewish Rosa — in a work that is simply perfection, there is no other word for it.
Earlier this week, Michael Lavigne wrote about writing the “Radical Other.” His blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
Is it possible to take the ego out of writing?
I ask this question because I ask myself why I write, and why so many people write, and why writing has quite literally taken over our society — you cannot blink without someone Tweeting, Tumbling, Facebooking, blogging, Yelping, product rating, movie reviewing, book eviscerating. Just think about the last time you wanted to buy a toaster. You went on Amazon or some other site, and there, for each of the two hundred different toasters were two hundred individual comments, some many paragraphs long, by people apparently passionate enough about their toasters to write about them, and people, like me, stupid enough to read them and have them sway my judgment. (In the end, and based on countless reviews, I ended up with a toaster I hate — Calphalon 4-slot model 1779207, two stars at most!)
But were these people passionate about their toasters or simply passionate about the fact that someone might read their opinions? Are we Tweeting to say something important or to simply assert our existence?
Michael Lavigne’s first novel, “Not Me,” was the recipient of the Sami Rohr Prize Choice Award. His newest novel, “The Wanting,” will be published by Schocken Books on February 26. Win a free copy of “The Wanting” here, visit Michael on Facebook, and visit his official website here. His blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
In my first novel, I wrote from the point of view of a Nazi. In my new novel, “The Wanting,” I’ve taken on the persona of a suicide bomber from a village outside of Bethlehem. And while this character, Amir, is only one of three distinct voices in the book, his was the most painful to write and the most difficult to come to terms with. On the one hand, he murders scores of people — unconscionable and terrifying. On the other, he is also a person, not a monster. It is that person within him I was trying to access in my writing — but did I succeed? And should I have even tried?
My friend and fellow writer Jonathan Rosen (“Joy Comes in the Morning,” “The Life of the Skies”) has some doubts on this score. He wondered if I had created a moral equivalency between the victim (in this case the Russian Jewish immigrant, Roman Guttman) and the victimizer (Amir). I hope Jonathan won’t mind if I quote from his email:
…my fear [is] that Jewish imaginative sympathy sometimes runs the risk of secretly being narcissism disguised as empathy, as we project the better angels of our nature outward in the name of human understanding and then have a dialogue with ourselves. German Jews did it with Germans, as Gershom Scholem argued so persuasively about Buber — I and Thou is sometimes Me and Me.
Earlier, Hannah S. Pressman wrote about the idea behind “Choosing Yiddish: New Frontiers of Language and Culture” and when she first began to study Yiddish. Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
Zi kholmt — she dreams.
In Irena Klepfisz’s remarkable poem, “Etlekhe verter oyf mame-loshn / A few words in the mother tongue,” the speaker presents different female identities in the form of a Yiddish vocabulary list. The poem toggles seamlessly between Yiddish and English, but gradually, the bilingualism of the middle stanzas gives way to a series of incantations solely in the mame-loshn of Yiddish.
Here is Klepfisz’s haunting final refrain:
She dreams / she dreams / she dreams. What strikes me about these verses? The insistent female pronoun, zi; the fact that the poem has shifted irrevocably into Yiddish; the notion that a poem all about language ends with a verb not indicating speaking or singing, but rather, dreaming.
Earlier this week, Hannah S. Pressman wrote about when she first began to study Yiddish. Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
The three of us waited expectantly and somewhat nervously in the seminar room, wondering why we had been summoned by our professor. Nu, what was going on — why the special meeting?
I glanced over at my classmates. Shiri Goren had grown up in Hod Hasharon, Israel, studied at Tel Aviv University, and went on to a successful career as an editor for IDF Radio and television news. Like me, she was now pursuing doctoral work in Hebrew literature. Lara Rabinovitch grew up in Toronto and attended McGill University. She was enrolled jointly in Jewish Studies and history, and had an active side career as a food writer. I hailed from Richmond, Virginia, and had studied English and Religious Studies at UVA.
Three students from very different places, meeting weekly to debate history’s impact on Yiddish cultural expression. During our exploration of “Yiddishism in the 20th Century” in the spring of 2005, we learned about the rise of Yiddish literature, the Yiddish press, spelling reform (quite a contentious subject!), and the language’s role in Israel, America and Cold War politics.
Hannah S. Pressman is the co-editor, with Lara Rabinovitch and Shiri Goren, of “Choosing Yiddish: New Frontiers of Language and Culture.” She is the editor of stroumjewishstudies.org and affiliate faculty for the University of Washington’s Stroum Jewish Studies Program. Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
When I first began studying Yiddish, I felt like I was remembering something I already knew.
It was a lovely sensation, this feeling at home in a language I was still acquiring. There I was, barely a few weeks into my first summer at YIVO Institute’s Uriel Weinreich Program, and I was able to read, write, and speak Yiddish — not perfectly, but happily. Relishing my newfound abilities, I absorbed vocabulary lists, salutations and songs, delighted to be able to talk about the weather or kvetch (complain) about an injury in Yiddish.
Granted, I’ve always had somewhat of a knack for learning languages. Grammar and syntax just fall into place for me. I also undertook my Yiddish studies armed with fluency in Hebrew, a definite advantage when it came to the alphabet and loshn-koydesh (holy tongue) components of Yiddish.
Earlier this week, Janice Steinberg wrote about “Djewess Unchained,” the Song of the Sea, and Yiddish inflected English and the audiobook version of her novel “The Tin Horse.” Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
A few weeks ago, the Los Angeles Times ran an article about the death of Eddie Goldstein, “the last Jewish man of Boyle Heights.” Goldstein, who died on January 5 at age 79, was born in Boyle Heights and stayed there all his life, becoming a sort of final link with Boyle Heights of the 1920s and ’30s, when it was the Jewish neighborhood in L.A.
During those years, Boyle Heights was home to some 50,000 Jews. The neighborhood, directly east of downtown, had kosher butchers and delis, including the original Canter’s, an L.A. institution. There were synagogues for the religious, workers and Yiddish societies for the secular, movie theaters, bookie joints, a pool hall, and the Ebony Room bar, a haunt of the community’s most infamous son, Mickey Cohen.
By the time I lived in L.A. in the mid-1970s, Boyle Heights was already heavily Latino. I’d never heard of it until I set out to write a novel about a Jewish woman growing up in L.A. in the ’20s and ’30s. I started doing research, and it was clear that my character could live in only one place: Boyle Heights.
Earlier this week, Janice Steinberg wrote about the Song of the Sea and Yiddish inflected English and the audiobook version of her novel “The Tin Horse.” Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
Sometime back in my childhood, I got the idea that it was “nicer” to say “I’m Jewish” than “I’m a Jew.” And preferably, in the mainly Christian suburb of Milwaukee where I grew up, one said it in a sort of mumble.
And no one ever used “Jewess,” which seemed archaic enough to ignore when encountered in 19th-century novels like “Ivanhoe” or “Daniel Deronda.” (Nor was it considered pejorative then, as I learned from Daniel Krieger’s excellent article “The Rise and Fall — and Rise — of ‘Jewess.’”) But the word was disturbing in modern contexts, for instance, when Raymond Chandler in “The Big Sleep” describes a woman as having “the fine-drawn face of an intelligent Jewess.” What, we all have the same cheekbones? In that case, I’ll take Lauren Bacall’s. “Intelligent Jewess” so stuck in my craw that it inspired my novel, “The Tin Horse,” in which I imagine that “Jewess’s” story.
In recent years, various “out” groups have reclaimed language, taking words once flung at them as slurs and boldly using them to self-identify. “Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud.” The gay community has asserted ownership of “queen” and “queer,” and my favorite Gay Pride Parade participants are the motorcycle-riding “dykes on bikes.”
Yesterday, Janice Steinberg wrote about Yiddish inflected English and the audiobook version of her novel, “The Tin Horse.” Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
Although I live in California, I don’t share the New Age belief that there are no coincidences. I think many things occur by chance. And that makes me all the more delighted that my novel, “The Tin Horse,” is being published this week, the same week in which the Torah portion includes the Song of the Sea.
Song of the Sea is the exultant outpouring by Moses and the Israelites after they’ve crossed the Sea of Reeds and escaped Pharaoh’s army. Poetry versus the prose of most of Torah, it dances down the page, three- and four-word phrases creating a choppy surface like ocean waves. It’s even chanted to a special tune, a sweet melody used for no other text.
What most fascinates me isn’t the song itself, though, but another song, a mere scrap of which appears in the Torah. Following the 18-verse song of Moses, Miriam picks up her timbrel, leads the women in dance, and sings her own song. But all of this happens in just two verses, and can that really be the whole story?
Janice Steinberg’s most recent book, “The Tin Horse,” is now available. Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
I thought I had entered completely into the world of my novel: Boyle Heights in the 1920s and ’30s, when the Los Angeles neighborhood was home to some 50,000 Jews and a center for Jewish life. Then I started getting questions from Tony.
Tony is Tony Hudz, the charming man who directed the audiobook of “The Tin Horse.” And he needed to know how to pronounce every word — for instance, should Danny Berlov’s last name be Bear-lov or Bear-lohf? My first response was, “Neither;” my mental voice had always said Ber-lov. But Danny is a new immigrant when he enters the story in 1926. And Tony’s query made me realize I was hearing Danny’s last name as it would have evolved a generation later, when its Yiddish inflections had been absorbed into English.
Earlier this week, Ilie Ruby wrote about the idea of bashert. Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
I always begin like this, with Irv, my grandfather, and then I describe him, “An angel on Earth, never another like him.” I repeat this as I have been told, though he died long before I was born. I used to think about his life as a tree with roots reaching far into the future and encircling the past. Irv is my namesake, a hard act to follow. I can still hear my grandmother telling me at night, “May you live as he did and be just as blessed. May you see those who are unseen, and hear those who don’t speak.”
What she meant, I learned later, were the stories of my grandfather, and more, of the people he knew. I’m told that when my relatives sat shiva for Irv, who died suddenly at 46, leaving a young wife and two daughters who would mourn him forever, strangers came from near and far to share untold memories of him — the gifts he bestowed, the countless lives he saved, the support he’d offered through money, counsel, friendship, always without judgment and without any fanfare. He was not rich, but comfortable. As a child, I thought him a saint, before his frailty and humanness appeared to me. Still, there was a divinity about his connectedness — to the wanderers and those who found themselves caught in moments of fracture. Today, I think about how difficult this must have been for him to embrace it all, given his own complicated and pressured life.
Ilie Ruby is the author of “The Salt God’s Daughter” and “The Language of Trees.” Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
One of the things that I find most compelling about Judaism is the idea of bashert. It fills me with joy when someone says our meeting was bashert, our friendship is meant to be, when a new connection seems predestined. From the time I was a child, raised slightly less traditionally than my Conservative grandparents, this paradoxical sense of destiny, elusive yet certain, made of equal parts fate and faith, resonated with me.
Perhaps it’s the ethereal aspect of bashert, the assertion that some things are meant to be while others are not meant to be, which skeptics undoubtedly dismiss as merely a lens through which to impose order on chaos. And yet, the promises of bashert are vast. Those who were lucky enough to find their bashert, well, it seemed somehow the divine favored them. They’d passed the test, were deemed worthy, and had been chosen.
No matter what else happened, they could claim this: They found theirs in this lifetime.
How many basherts did you deserve? And when would you run out of chances? What happened if you never found your bashert?
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