The Arty Semite

Author Blog: Writing in a Foreign Language

By Shani Boianjiu

Earlier this week, Shani Boianjiu explored the book of Jonah. 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 was born and raised in Israel, and my novel, “The People of Forever Are Not Afraid,” takes place in Israel. Because of that, many people wonder why I wrote my book in English. Someone asked me if I had something against the Hebrew language. One Israeli person speculated online that I chose to write in English because I was looking for a shortcut into getting published widely.

That’s not at all true, but the question of why I chose to write in English is a valid one.

The truth is — it happened by accident. I wrote my first book while I was studying at a U.S. college. That’s the only reason I wrote it in English. It wasn’t really a conscious choice, and I never expected the book to get published, so I didn’t give the decision to write in English too much thought.

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Author Blog: The Book of Jonah

By Shani Boianjiu

Shani Boianjiu’s debut novel, “The People of Forever Are Not Afraid,” 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:


The characters in my novel, “The People of Forever Are Not Afraid,” are Israeli. Because of that, my writing will undoubtedly be considered to be Jewish fiction. Yet the truth is there are only a few instances in which Judaism as a religion is a topic in the novel. The most significant instance involves the book of Jonah.

Religious feelings, if we narrow religion to mean having something to do with God, are perhaps not a large part of my novel because they haven’t been a big part of my life. For me, being Jewish had nothing to do with God or even the Bible. All of my friends at school were Jewish. Nearly all the people in my town were Jewish. I have fasted on Yom Kippur since I was in second grade and observed Passover, but never once went to temple while I was growing up. In my house, we never once discussed the existence of God, or the meaning of the Bible.

At my secular school, as in all Israeli schools, Bible was a required subject. Yet our teachers never stressed theological issues, and the Bible was taught just as literature was taught — the focus was on the bible as stories. The emphasis was placed on understanding what a parable meant, or on learning to understand biblical grammar and vocabulary.

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Author Blog: The Real Flavor of the Streets

By Steve Stern

Earlier this week, Steve Stern wrote about embarking on a quixotic journey and his decision to teach creative writing in Vilnius. 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:


There’s a district in Vilnius called Užupis, which has seceded from the rest of Lithuania and established its own republic. To get there you cross over a river on a bridge festooned in padlocks engraved with the names of lovers. On the riverbank below the bridge is the statue of a mermaid. It’s a bohemian neighborhood with its own whimsical constitution (“Everyone has the right to understand nothing,” “Everyone has the right to encroach upon eternity,” “A cat is not obliged to love its master, but it must help him in difficult times,” and so on) mounted on a wall in a dozen languages.

There’s a café in Užupis with a terrace overlooking the little river, where I sat drinking beer with some Lithuanian poets. They were impressive company, the poets with their chiseled Slavic features, who recited their poems from memory and, unlike Americans, made no apologies for their art. The subject of conversation was Lithuanian identity and the national narrative the citizens were struggling to cobble together since gaining their independence from the Soviet Union. It was a narrative the Jewish component had been mostly edited out of.

“You people are so lucky,” I submitted. “You’ve been persecuted for centuries by the Russians, the Poles, the Germans, whereas I’ve had to punish myself all these years.”

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Author Blog: Illusions and Remembering

By Steve Stern

Yesterday, Steve Stern wrote about his decision to teach creative writing in Vilnius. 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:


I liked to sit sipping coffee in the tall kitchen window of my apartment in Vilnius. The window overlooked the broad Town Hall Square teeming day and night with international tourists. Gold-domed churches and pastel houses with terra cotta roofs bordered the square, above which loomed the red brick castle on its hill. Beyond the castle were the dense pine forests that surrounded the city like a green velvet setting for a diadem. The window coincidentally faced the corner where the Nazis had staged their so-called Great Provocation. This was the faked sniping incident they used to justify the “retaliation” that led ultimately to the extermination of the Vilna Jews.

Turn left outside of my apartment and you entered the Square, with its wind-tossed fountain, linen and amber boutiques, and outdoor cafes. Turn right and you found yourself in a dreary, cavernous courtyard carved out of what had once been the small ghetto. In this area women, children, and the elderly were corralled and starved before being marched out to the killing fields of Paneriai, where they were summarily shot and tossed into open pits.

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Author Blog: A Yiddishist in Vilnius

By Steve Stern

Steve Stern’s most recent book, “The Book of Mischief,” 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:


I had fun in Vilnius, despite my low tolerance for fun. Not to mention that fun in Vilnius seemed like a betrayal of everything sacred. So what was I doing in Lithuania? A good question, and having traveled all the way to that small Eastern European nation to teach English-speaking students the same stuff (creative writing) I routinely taught at home, I asked my class at our first meeting, “What the hell are we doing in Lithuania?” But the truth was that the question was disingenuous. I knew perfectly well why I’d come. When first invited to teach there in the Summer Literary Seminars, I instantly declined. I don’t travel well; I like to hang on to my desk with my teeth — that was my default reply.

Then I remembered that I am a lover of Yiddishkeit. What reputation I have is as a writer inspired by Yiddish culture and folklore, and old Vilna once boasted the mother lode of that culture before it was utterly erased. So I complained to everyone I knew that I’d had a chance to go to Lithuania and blown it. Eventually I received another email from the program, saying, “We hear by the grapevine you might be having second thoughts.” I considered my bluff called.

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Author Blog: The Presence of the Past

By Kati Marton

Earlier this week, Kati Marton wrote about the French Jewish family the Camondos and Paris’s black marble plaques. 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:


Now that I live part-time in Paris, I explore the city’s complex and sometimes disturbing relationship to toward its Jewish citizens — which given my own Jewish heritage, feels personal to me. In “Paris: A Love Story,” I probe this aspect of the city which most tourists miss.

In my Paris neighborhood, I am discovering France’s historic fear of outsiders. Indifference to the fate of those not inside their circle is the underside of the French passion for privacy, for la discretion. A country that has experienced multiple invasions and a catastrophic loss of life in World War I has low expectations of humanity — and an understandable fear of les etrangers — strangers. “C’est normale,” accompanied by a gallic shrug, is an expression I hear often. Even death in mid-life is deemed “normale,” something to accept and live with. In New York, death is not “normale.” It is a shocking intrusion into life — a failure. No one in hyperactive Manhattan wants to be reminded of mortality.

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Author Blog: Remembering the Camondos

By Kati Marton

Earlier this week, Kati Marton wrote about Paris’s black marble plaques and the subject of race in France. 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:


Now that I live part-time in Paris, I explore the city’s complex and sometimes disturbing relationship to toward its Jewish citizens — which, given my own Jewish heritage, feels personal to me. In “Paris: A Love Story” I probe this aspect of the city which most tourists miss.

One morning as I continue my Parisian ramble, I enter a hyperrefined Proustian world furnished with the carpets, tapestries and bibelots of the reigns of Louis XV and XVI. I picture glittering soirees in the dining room where the table is permanently set — as if awaiting Proust, Herzl and the other great figures of the day. It is hard to conjure a more quintessentially French décor than this ode to the 18th century, the Age of Reason. But the host and his children and grandchildren are missing. The patriarch, Moïse de Camondo, built this temple to French civilization and left precise instructions that it would all remain untouched, as they left it — the Jewish Camondos’ gift to the French nation. Moïses’s son Nissim, after whom he named his museum, gave his life for France. His plane went down in flames during World War I, when he was shot photographing German military installations from the air.

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Author Blog: Facing Paris's Black Marble Plaques

By Kati Marton

Kati Marton’s most recent book, “Paris: A Love Story,” 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:


Now that I live part-time in Paris, I explore the city’s complex and sometimes disturbing relationship toward its Jewish citizens — which given my own Jewish heritage, feels personal to me. In “Paris: A Love Story,” I probe this aspect of the city which most tourists miss.

In Paris, life and death, beauty and violence are forever colliding. I take the rue de Poissy, a picturesque, cobblestoned street with stunning windowboxes that spill over with geraniums, toward my home. At number 5, I pass the Ecole Maternelle. Like all French schools, it flies the French flag. But this nursery school also features a gold lettered, black marble tablet, which stops me in my tracks. “To the memory of the children — students of this school,” it states, “deported from 1942-1944 because they were born Jewish. Victims of the Nazi barbarity with the active complicity of the Vichy government. They were exterminated in the death camps. Let us never forget them. October 5, 2002.”

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Author Blog: An Intentional Detour

By Daniel Gordis

In his last post, Daniel Gordis wrote about how ideas and the books in which they are expressed change history. 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 last few blogs, I wrote of my hope that The Promise of Israel can help foster a new kind of conversation about Israel, a conversation rooted in ideas and not focused on the conflict. Israel’s importance to the world, I suggest throughout the book, is its central idea: the Jewish State is a reminder of the dangers of unfettered universalism, a call to arms urging us to celebrate our differences.

But during the course of writing the book, it became clear that I needed to make an intentional detour in the argument. For as I spoke about the manuscript in front of audiences, it became clear to me: there’s a sense among many American Jews, particularly among the younger generation, that they really don’t need Israel any longer. American Jews feel completely secure, entirely accepted. They love Israel, but, they argue, they don’t really need Israel.

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Author Blog: Ideas Do Matter

By Daniel Gordis

In his last post, Daniel Gordis wrote about the discourse surrounding Israel as a conflict of ideas about the nation-state. 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 previous blog, I wrote that I hoped that “The Promise of Israel” might give new shape and direction to the conversation we’re all having about Zionism. That seems like a tall order for a book, I know. But we’ve become too cynical about the power of books and ideas to change the world. The Promise of Israel probably will not change the world; of that, I’m pretty sure. But books have done that in the past, and ideas are still formidable weapons. Our community of writers and readers ought to remember that.

In an era of nuclear weapons that can destroy the planet several times over, the notion that ideas are the most formidable weapon we have in our possession may sound strange. But it is true. Many of the world’s most important revolutions were spurred by a book or its central idea. Karl Marx wrote “The Communist Manifesto” in 1848; by 1905, Russia was rocked by revolutions that peaked in 1917 and overthrew the Czar. Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote his “Social Contract” in 1762; the French Revolution followed a mere 27 years later. John Locke wrote “Two Treatises of Government” in 1690; less than a century later, the American Revolution changed the course of modern history. Theodor Herzl wrote “The Jewish State” in 1896, and 52 years later, David Ben-Gurion stood in Tel Aviv on May 14, 1948 and declared Israel’s independence. And all that those people did, essentially, was to write books and disseminate ideas.

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Author Blog: The Nation-State

By Daniel Gordis

Daniel Gordis, recipient of the National Jewish Book Award and Senior Vice President and the Koret Distinguished Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, discusses his forthcoming book “The Promise of Israel: Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness Is Actually Its Greatest Strength.” 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:


People sometimes ask: What would you like your book to accomplish? In this case, my answer is easy: I would be thrilled if “The Promise of Israel” changed the conversation that we’re having about Zionism.

“The Promise of Israel” makes an audacious and seemingly odd claim. It suggests that what now divides Israel and the international community is an idea: the idea of the ethnic nation-state — a country created around a shared cultural heritage. Yes, it is true that the Israelis and the Palestinians are still tragically locked in an intractable and painful conflict; but that, I believe, is not the primary reason for Israel’s unprecedented fall from international grace.

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Author Blog: Genetic Memory

By Doreen Carvajal

Earlier this week, Doreen Carvajal wrote about trying to recover her family’s secret identity and how to unlock and preserve memories. 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:


Earlier this summer, I mingled among a group of amateur and professional genealogists at an international Paris conference exploring the study of Jewish roots. A fascinating question emerged: is the history of all our ancestors somehow a part of us? Does genetic memory exist?

There are scientific studies exploring what we inherit in unexpected ways through epigenetics, a chemical network in our cells that controls genes, switching them on and off. At the core of this field is the notion that genes have a memory and that the lives of our great grandparents — what they breathed, saw and ate — can directly affect us decades later. Ongoing studies in Sweden are examining statistics about famine and abundant harvests to determine the impact on the health of descendants four generations later. Researchers, for instance, found a statistical link between the increased longevity of the descendants of paternal grandfathers who had lived through a period of famine while young.

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Author Blog: Unlocking Memories

By Doreen Carvajal

Earlier this week, Doreen Carvajal wrote about trying to recover her family’s secret identity. 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:


Most everyone has a family tree. But how do you turn a dry chart of birth and death dates into something more vibrant that can be shared for generations? Turn into a reporter. And then preserve the story in a compelling way.

By writing about my own family mystery with my first book, “The Forgetting River,” I wanted to share the story of the secret Sephardic Jewish identity of the Catholic Carvajals in a way that could introduce ancestors to descendants.

I’m a journalist by trade, but I made many mistakes along my own journey to explore my family. A basic lesson I learned was to start early to interview relatives about personal family history. By the time I began to probe our past, key relatives with vital information had died.

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Author Blog: Hunting Family Ghosts

By Doreen Carvajal

Doreen Carvajal’s first book, “The Forgetting River,” is about her search to recover her Catholic family’s hidden Sephardic Jewish roots in a mystical white pueblo on Spain’s southern frontier in Andalusia. 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 moment the cardboard box from New York arrived, I felt a strange mixture of elation and melancholy. The package was stacked with copies of my first book, a memoir, “The Forgetting River.”

I examined the hardcover like checking a new baby, counting the pages, smoothing the cover, reading the tribute and rereading my first sentences that I think I must have rewritten more than 100 times since I started my quest. It’s a universal story of personal discovery, my journey to reclaim the secret Sephardic Jewish identity of my Catholic Carvajal family in a white pueblo on a high ridge in the southern frontier of Spain.

Everyone has a mystery in the family tree and this was mine. Now I feel wistful as a I look over the last chapter because I long to keep adding new information. Unbeknownst to me, my older cousin, Rosie, revealed a few days ago that she had questioned my great aunt Luz in San Jose, Costa Rica at a family gathering before she died in 1998. Aunt Luz, which literally means the light, was the careful historian of family lore, typical of Anusim — Hebrew for forced Christian converts dating back to the Spanish Inquisition. The Anusim or Marranos — which in Spanish literally means pigs — typically relied on elder women to pass on their secrets.

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Author Blog: Self-Surveillance

By Justin Taylor and Joshua Cohen

In this week’s installment of the Visiting Scribe, Joshua Cohen and Justin Taylor exchanged ideas around book promotion, materials of writing, and the devolution of the author. Read Part I here and Part II here.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:


Joshua Cohen to Justin Taylor:

Justin,

I like this idea of the computer being an “extension of [your] bedroom.” But I’m not sure it’s extended enough. Because for me it’s an extension of my bedroom as well, and of yours also, which is to say of Amanda’s too—sorry if that’s creepster.

What I mean is, I’m going to hold you to your Hendrix promise. He deserves more than 45 min.

I can only say that I wish I shared the options of your optimism with regard to the (other) options available. I would like to say the computer has enlarged my world in a positive way, but that would mean my assent to the idea that enlargement-of-world (TK Heideggerian German compound) is or could be positive. Rather to bastardize Wittgenstein I’m convinced that the opposite, not the world, is everything that is the case. I am too much the information addict, too much the hoarder. My head’s an uptown brownstone tenanted by the bros. Collyer, who’ve recently stopped paying rent.

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Author Blog: Quality Grumbling

By Justin Taylor and Joshua Cohen

In this installment of the Visiting Scribe,Joshua Cohen and Justin Taylor exchange ideas around book promotion, materials of writing, and the devolution of the author. Read Part One of their exchange here. 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:


Joshua Cohen to Justin Taylor:

Justin,

This is what I’ve come to expect from you — this level trust of gut. It’s one of your best qualities — both as a writer and a friend. And it’s a quality I frankly covet for myself. When you write that it doesn’t bother you to “use the same computer to type [your] fictions as [you] do to write [me] a note about where to lunch on Sunday,” my commonsense alert goes off and I get depressed and crawl into a corner where I smoke and drink icewater and lament my preciosity. (Both you and I know I could have used the word “preciousness.”)

So I’m chastened, but still some quivering gelatinous part of me — say, my knee — wants to maintain that there’s an element of computerwriting that somehow eludes analogizing with writers of the past using the same pen to draft both a shopping list and War and Peace Redux. The computer, for me, has always had a business aspect, or, better, what the MBAs might call an opportunity cost. It seems to professionalize me in ways that disgust. It does this by insisting, by its boxy gray existence alone, the concept that my writing might, will, one day be public. Now my conscious mind knows this, my conscious mind craves this, but I’m not sure that the conscious mind is the best of all minds, for me, to be writing with. I need to fool myself to write. To tell myself nothing matters, no one cares, I don’t care. That the desk and chair I’m describing has nothing to do not only with the desk and chair I’m occupying but with all possible desks (escritoires) and all possible chairs (Aerons) I might access online.

Not that the escritoires and Aerons haven’t helped me, but the computer compels me toward that help.

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Author Blog: A Necessary Evil

By Joshua Cohen and Justin Taylor

In this installment of the Visiting Scribe, Joshua Cohen and Justin Taylor exchange ideas around book promotion, materials of writing, and the devolution of the author. 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:


Joshua Cohen to Justin Taylor:

Justin,

I hope you’re doing well. I’m looking forward to the lamb spines, certainly. Sunday would be good. They’re on me, of course, of course. I owe you as much plus drinks for your help with this — this — I don’t know what this is. The Jewish Book Council has apparently read and enjoyed this new book of mine, Four New Messages — now that, after Citizens United v. FEC, a for-profit corporation can be considered a person, I feel comfortable saying that a nonprofit corporation can at least read my fiction and enjoy it enough to ask me to write a series of posts for their blog, gratis. Rather the recompense is contained in the idea that these emails-to-blogposts — a medium perhaps appropriate for the book, because the book is set, partially, on the Internet — would help publicize the book, would help sell the book to the Jewish bookbuying public (who buys books? Jews, women, Jewish women). I didn’t know what to write, so I roped you out of Park Slope and into public.

Which will be, essentially, our subject.

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Jews and Anxiety

By Daniel Smith

Earlier this week, Daniel Smith, whose newest book, “Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety,” is now available, wrote about hearing voices and coping with anxiety. 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:


This past May I published an essay in The New York Times titled “Do the Jews Own Anxiety?” Not long afterward, I received an email from a reader I will call David C. David C. began his email by quoting my essay — “We, the Jews, have encouraged the world to think of us as anxious” — and proceeded over the course of 240 headlong words to berate me for being one of those “self-absorbed, highly neurotic” American Jews who are “quick to internalize the inferiority cast upon them by the gentiles.” The email ended in a particularly indignant fashion with the following lines: “With Jews like you, who needs anti-Semites? Kol tuv, boychik.”

I attended Hebrew school and was bar mitzvahed. I went to Brandeis, which has a prominent and esteemed Hebrew department. I have been to Israel. Yet I have no knowledge of the Hebrew language beyond a smattering of common words. I had no idea what kol tuv meant. I had to Google it.

All the best.

Kol tuv, boychik: All the best, young man.

David C. correspondent was sneering at me.

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Author Blog: Focusing Under Pressure

By Daniel Smith

Earlier this week, Daniel Smith, whose newest book, “Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety,” is now available, wrote about hearing voices. 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 last post, I described the technical difficulties that occurred when I appeared on Talk of the Nation earlier this month. Instead of the regular broadcasting configuration — a single interviewee responding to the questions of a single interviewer — I was forced to contend with a welter of voices and noises created by wonky technology, all while trying to sound poised, normal, and more or less intelligent.

When the problem first occurred, I experienced a very familiar and unpleasant sensation: anxiety. My muscles tightened, my heart sped up, my brow started to sweat, and I felt a growing constriction in my chest muscles. Worse, because it threatened the proceedings, my thoughts began to race, first and briefly with questions about my sanity (“Where is all this noise coming from!?”) and then with questions about my abilities to handle the situation (“I’m going to lose on air! I’m never going to get through this”).

But then another feeling took over, also familiar but this time much more comforting: focus. Once the host started to ask his questions — he was unaware that I could scarcely hear him through the din — all my worries burned off in the heat of what needed to be done. I was here. I was speaking live on national radio. I had no choice but to go forward.

I have a job to do, dammit!

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Author Blog: Hearing Voices

By Daniel Smith

Daniel Smith’s newest book, “Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety,” 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:


I know a little something about hearing voices. My first book, “Muses, Madmen, and Prophets,” was about auditory hallucinations — specifically, about how the experience transformed, over the course of centuries, from something that had spiritual and religious connotations to something that suggested madness and nothing more.

During the time of Moses, the Hebrew prophets, Jesus, St. Augustine, St. Teresa, right on up to the Enlightenment, hearing voices meant that you could, conceivably, be receiving messages from a divine source. People still might spit on you, humiliate you, exile you, or burn you at the stake. But there was a chance that they wouldn’t, and that you would be honored for your abilities. Then, sometime around the early 19th century, the medical establishment grabbed hold of hallucinations and hearing voices entered the realm of pathology. This was a shame not because people who hear voices are never mentally ill but because not everyone who hears voices is mentally ill. It’s the syllogism — if you hear voices, then you are psychotic — that’s incorrect and unfair. Many more people hear voices than need psychiatric help.

I mention all this because when I started to hear voices, a couple of weeks ago, I should have realized at once that I wasn’t going crazy.

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