Back in the early 1980s, the Russians were coming. Not the Cold Warriors, but the Jewish children, with names like Yana and Inna and Igor. Each child seemed impossibly pale — pale hair, pale eyes, pale skin, pale lips, pale hand clutching the hand of his or her mother, a woman, in contrast, impossibly bright — garish makeup, colorful clothing, aflame in gold and diamonds, awash in heady perfume. The Russian child (for we didn’t distinguish then between Russians and Ukrainians, Ukrainians and Latvians) arrived at our classroom door, silent, in clothes of Soviet gray: ill-fitting gray sweaters, and gray pants, pulled too high, cut too short. The mother stood in line for financial aid, chatting away with the Russian mother in front of her and the Russian mother behind her: a line of peacocks speaking in a foreign tongue, a sight and a sound not soon forgotten.
Only later did those sounds take on meaning as those children, a blond boy named David among them, taught us to repeat key ones: “Dasvidaniya,” “Pajalusta,” and “Yob tuvyu mat.”
In his short story “Natasha,” David Bezmozgis lingers in the land of Soviet children I remembered: those who had arrived in Canada, had to learn a new language, and a new Judaism. Similarly, in his film “Victoria Day,” Bezmozgis explores a young, Canadian, Jewish immigrant world through the story of one of our own who was lost to us, back in 1988: Benjy Hayward, who, like the film’s Jordan Chapman, went to a Pink Floyd concert one night and never returned.
Marina Blitshteyn is the author of the new poetry chapbook “Russian for Lovers.” In her earlier post, she wrote about the origin of Russian for Lovers. Her blog posts are being featured this week 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 confession about my writing/editing process: I have none. Which is to say, I wish I could say something about how regimented I’d been with this project, working a select number of days on select letters, sending drafts to my editor for proofing, receiving feedback, editing, sending them back. The truth is this was my first real long thing up for publication, so I’m surprised it’s even finished, let alone published.
As soon as I get an idea, I obsess over it, work on it religiously for a while, then come to a point that resembles a crossroads. Then I don’t know where to go. So ordinarily I put it aside until one fine day I figure it will come to me. Because Liz, my dear friend and editor at Argos Books, got invested in the project, I couldn’t put it aside for too long. I vowed to myself that I’d work on it last summer, but of course that didn’t happen.
Marina Biltshteyn is the author of the new poetry chapbook “Russian for Lovers.” Her blog posts are being featured this week 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:
It was my first semester in the MFA program and I was having a hard time, as can be the case. I was in the shower one day and it occurred to me I wanted to write an alphabet book to help my American lover learn Russian faster.
He’d been expressing interest in the language, picking up some words and phrases here and there, so I figured I could work out a little side-project from all the MFA work I was supposed to be doing. I planned on going letter by letter, making each poem revolve around the sound of that letter so he could learn it better.
A.B. Yehoshua’s new novel was inspired by a painting of a woman breast-feeding her father. The 74-year-old literary luminary, who has published some 15 books, does not retreat from the provocative or the perverse.
Yehoshua calls “Spanish Charity” a probing of the creative process, and Haaretz saw it as a retrospective of the author’s own work. English readers will have to wait to judge the novel’s contents, as it is currently only available in Hebrew. Yehoshua told me the English title, which likely won’t be available until late 2012, might change to something more suggestive, perhaps simply, “The Picture.”
Yehoshua appeared at the New York Public Library in conversation with Paul Holdengräber on March 28, and reminded his audience that he is of the rare breed of writer who relishes speaking his mind, even if it means upsetting people. In 2006, for example, at a meeting of the American Jewish Committee, he suggested that a Jew could not live a completely Jewish life outside of Israel, and he still believes this.
“It’s a shanda (outrage)!” exclaimed Bruce A. Phillips of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles Campus. He was reacting to the cessation of the American Jewish Year Book after a successful run of more than a century by the American Jewish Committee.
The Yearbook — a handy compendium of demographic and historical trends, global statistics on Jewry, obituaries, and exhaustive listings of Jewish organizations and publications — has lined the bookshelves of major Jewish community executives for decades, immediately recognizable by its candy color-striped covers. The last volume was published in 2008.
But new hope for the publication came in December at the Association for Jewish Studies conference in Washington, D.C., when Ira Sheskin, a University of Miami professor, declared that he and colleague Arnold Dashefsky, a professor of sociology and Judaic studies at the University of Connecticut, were in discussions with the German-founded Springer publishing company to resurrect the Year Book.
The Yiddish poet Yirmiye (Jeremiah) Hesheles died on October 16, 2010. When he celebrated his 100th birthday a group of dedicated Yiddishists, myself included, celebrated the occasion by paying him a visit at the New York State Veterans Home in St. Albans, Queens. A herd of geese, as if out of an Eastern European legend, greeted us in the parking lot. The building was big, its corridors cold. Veterans were rolling around in their wheelchairs or lying quietly in bed. We were looking for the last great Yiddish modernist alive. We found him asleep in one of the geriatric wards. The nurse did not let us see him. Showing her a picture of the young Hescheles did not help.
What do Yiddish pilgrims do when they are denied access to the object of their desire? They go see the Lubavitcher Rebbe in the nearby Montefiore cemetery. Maybe it was the spirit of the dead Rebbe who helped us, but back in the hospital we negotiated with a weary social worker and were granted permission for a short visit. Hescheles was lying in bed wearing a hospital uniform. When he saw us he sighed and said (in English): “Oh no. This is not a good day. I have a heart condition and I am 100 years old.”
Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree
There aren’t too many novels that can lay claim to a second, much less a third, lease on life as both a film and a play, especially when the subject at hand has to do with religion and faith. But “The Chosen,” Chaim Potok’s novel of Orthodox Jewish life in Brooklyn during the waning years of the 1940s, has, of late, scored a home run.
These days, it takes the form of a critically acclaimed play which, thanks to a creative partnership between Theater J and Arena Stage, can be seen at the latter’s 800-seat Fichandler Theatre downtown.
Mirka Hershberg is a normal 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl. She attends school, polishes the candlesticks for Shabbat, does her homework, gives tzedakah, fights trolls and dreams of slaying dragons.
Well, maybe not your typical 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl.
Written by illustrator Barry Deutsch, “Hereville” is the story of Mirka’s quest for a dragon-slaying sword. Originally drawn as a comic strip on Girlamatic.com, Deutsch recently developed it into a graphic novel.
Raised in the remote village of Hereville, Mirka lives with her father, stepmother, and eight siblings. Though her stepmother tries to instruct her in the “womanly arts,” including knitting and crocheting, Mirka has bigger dreams for herself that don’t include domesticity.
She wants to fight dragons.
Earlier this week, Reyna Simnegar, the author of “Persian Food from the Non-persian Bride: And Other Sephardic Kosher Recipes You Will Love,” wrote about Miss Venezela Material and Sephardim Strike Back! Her blog posts are being featured this week 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:
It was a regular morning at my home, dishes to wash, laundry to fold, when I got a phone call from my husband. “Reyna, I am coming this afternoon with Reza Pahlavi.” Thinking it was a work colleague, I casually asked him, “At what time? Do you guys want to have dinner here?” That’s when he finally explained to me this “Reza Pahlavi” was not any “Pahlavi,” he was His Imperial Highness Crowned Prince Reza Pahlavi of Iran!
The Prince was visiting Boston and somehow my husband (if you know him, you know this is right up his alley) had convinced His Imperial Highness to come have dessert and tea at our house! My legs were shaking. “The crowned prince — here? In this messy house? I am going to kill Sammy!” I immediately recruited a cleaning lady and set off for a hunt to buy Persian desserts. As I was pulling off the driveway, I noticed the secret service searching the vicinity of my house making sure it was a safe place for the prince.
On Monday, Reyna Simnegar, the author of “Persian Food from the Non-persian Bride: And Other Sephardic Kosher Recipes You Will Love,” wrote about Sephardim Strike Back! Her blog posts are being featured this week 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:
It had been nine years since I had not seen my beautiful cousin Isha. She lives a busy life in Florida working in the restaurant industry and going to school. It was my turn to feed her, and I decided to invite her for Shabbat dinner. After all, is there a better time than Shabbat to impress anyone with delectable dishes?
Isha is half Venezuelan and half American. She is the perfect combination of Latin American charm and American beauty. As we were reminiscing about the past (over a slice of my favorite dessert, Persian Roulade), it was impossible not to talk about how much we suffered starving together in the name of our modeling careers. You see, both Isha and I were part of a Venezuelan modeling agency that recruited girls for the Miss Venezuela beauty pageant.
Before the telephone and the Internet, those separated from each other by great distances depended on letters to communicate. Although gifted writers have brought the form to the level of high art, for many people, the letter served more essential purposes. With it, they shared ideas, expressed feelings, collaborated on plans, and communicated information both trivial and vital.
In “36 Letters: One Family’s Story,” Author Joan Sohn describes finding one such bag of letters from her grandparents, their families and their friends. When she had them translated, mostly from Yiddish, Sohn discovered the people behind her childhood memories and old photographs. The book is based on 36 of these letters, many dating from 1904 to 1906, and centers around the courtship and immigration of her grandparents, Yente and Chaim, or as she knew them, Yetta and Hyman Korman.
Crossposted from Haaretz
Moshe Sakal lived for six years in France, where he learned to speak fluent French with a Parisian accent, but when he talked to his Egyptian-born, French-speaking grandmother back home in Israel - she would give him a haughty look.
“She spoke like Dalida,” he said, referring to the popular multilingual Egyptian singer. “For her, an Egyptian accent was the real thing, authentic and beautiful, while my Parisian accent was a sort of jargon, a contemptible dialect. Not only did she look down on it, she also corrected me, and at some stage stopped understanding: I would be speaking the fluent French of someone who lived for years in Paris and she would just look at me, roll her eyes and say, ‘I don’t know what you’re saying.’”
In his new book “Yolanda” (published by Keter in Hebrew), which is autobiographical in a sort of misleading way, Sakal depicts the protagonist’s Egyptian-born grandmother, who immigrated to Israel in 1948, but preserves Cairo within her; a Zionist, she speaks basic Hebrew, reads only in French, and never leaves Israel’s borders.
Reyna Simnegar is the author of the recently published “Persian Food from the Non-persian Bride: And Other Sephardic Kosher Recipes You Will Love.” Her blog posts are being featured this week 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:
Sephardic Jews are really something to ponder. According to Rabbi Chaim Amsellem, “The Sephardic way is a paradox: to keep tradition but to stay open. The Torah is not there to put handcuffs on you. We try to find solutions. We put unity first.” I am including under Sephardic all Jews that come from Middle Eastern Countries (although these are actually Mizrahi Jews) and Jews from Spain Italy and some other countries in Europe.
I was waiting to receive Rabbi Haim Levy at Logan Airport. I have been to the airport many times to receive prominent Rabbis…but never a prominent Sephardic Rabbi. I was so excited to finally meet the author of what apparently is the book that has revolutionized Sephardic Halacha (laws) and finally brought it to the hands of the regular people like me: Anshei Chayil.
On March 11, “Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World),” the first museum exhibition devoted to New York illustrator and author Maira Kalman, opens at the Jewish Museum. The show, which debuted in Philadelphia last summer and then traveled to the West Coast, gives Kalman’s fans a rare opportunity to see the original artwork behind her blogs, books, and magazines spreads, as well as some of the quirky objects that inspire her. The Arty Semite sat down with Kalman recently to talk about her homecoming, her process, and why being funny is important.
Jillian Steinhauer: How does it feel to have a museum exhibition?
Maira Kalman: It’s really nice, because I don’t think of it as a show but as rooms that happen to have my work in them. It’s lovely — it’s in a museum on Fifth Avenue, the windows are huge, and the trees are going from winter to summer. Yes, there are drawings sprinkled there, and yes, there are ladders and buckets and suitcases, but it’s the same in my living room, so it feels very natural.
Just several feet away from where people are immersed in the digital worlds of their laptops, iPhones, and Kindles, Ido Agassi’s hand-designed, individually printed and bound books calmly look on from a display case in the lobby of the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, California. Those who take time to observe Agassi’s “Books as Works of Art,” on view until March 31, are reminded that text need not be a flickering image on a screen, and that words can possess beauty beyond their meaning.
The blending of sculpture, graphic design and bookbinding has been part of the 34-year-old Israeli artist’s personal landscape since 1994, when his father, Uzi Agassi, founded Even Hoshen, the family’s letterpress and intaglio publishing house in Ra’anana. An autodidact, the younger Agassi is a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to handcrafting books, boxes and slipcases. Over the years, he has studied bookbinding, restoration, box making, letterpress printing, typesetting, typography, calligraphy, gold finishing, printing and carpentry.
Earlier this week, Aaron Roller, an editor of Mima’amakim, wrote about the Jewish Austin Powers and the Jewish poetry conspiracy. His blog posts are being featured this week 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 knew something exciting was afoot when an e-mail from the poet Jake Marmer popped up in my inbox with the subject header, “Won’t you be my Tosafot?” Jake Marmer is a longtime editor with Mima’amakim who performs improvisatory jazz poetry with the hippest downtown avant gardists. The Tosfos were a group of Talmudic commentators centered mostly in medieval Provence whose work of dense and brilliant legal exposition is compiled in the margins of the Talmud. As many a teacher of Talmud might ask, “So, nu, what’s the connection?”
On Monday, Aaron Roller, an editor of Mima’amakim, wrote about the Jewish poetry conspiracy. His blog posts are being featured this week 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:
Of all the poets whose work I’ve come across while reviewing submissions for Mima’amakim, Samuel Thrope is probably the most mysterious. I don’t know Samuel, though I hope our paths will cross some day soon. For the past two years, Mima’amakim has published poems by Thrope that encompass the unpredictable sweep of the Jewish past, while playing some serious postmodern tricks.
Last year, Thrope submitted a short, translated excerpt from the “Dabestan-e Mazaheb” or “School of Religious Doctrines,” a 17th-century book that documents and compares Asian religions. The portion of the Dabestan that pertains to Judaism was taken from the anonymous author’s encounter with a Jewish convert to Islam named Sarmad. Sarmad, himself a poet, traveled to India, whereupon he fell in love with a Hindu boy and renounced everything, becoming a wandering ascetic.
We Jews like to pride ourselves on the many things we’ve invented: the ballpoint pen, blue jeans, and the atomic bomb, to name a few. (How about the theory of relativity — does that count?) We’ve also had a strong hand in shaping the world of modern entertainment, helping to build Hollywood, create the modern sitcom, and, not least important, invent that beloved American lowbrow figure, the comic book superhero. Whether you consider it a feat or a flaw, Jews dreamed up Superman, the Fantastic Four, Spider Man, Iron Man, the Hulk, the X-Men — in other words, nearly every big-name character that came to life during the Golden (late 1930s–1940s) and Silver (late 1950s–1970) Ages of comics.
Captain Marvel — the “World’s Mightiest Mortal,” as his creators billed him — is an exception, wildly popular in his day but not called into existence by Jack Kirby, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Will Eisner, or any other of the Jewish comics greats. Instead it was a magazine publisher named Roscoe Fawcett who, two years after Siegel and Shuster’s Superman first appeared in DC Comics in 1938, allegedly told his company’s art director he wanted a comparable character whose alternate identity would be a young boy rather than a grown man. Thus Captain Marvel was born, and proceeded to outsell Superman throughout the following decade, sometimes by as many as 14 millions copies a month. He met a premature demise, however, at the hands of DC, who sued Fawcett Comics for copyright infringement. After three trials, a financially beleaguered Fawcett settled in 1952, agreeing never to publish Captain Marvel again.
Crossposted from Haaretz
Though the Jerusalem International Book Fair continues through tomorrow morning, it’s possible that last night marked the festival’s climax, as two literary titans — A.B. Yehoshua and Umberto Eco — met and put on a performance for an enthusiastic, overflowing crowd. Even 20 minutes before the event’s scheduled start, fans were being turned away, and the air had that electrified sense of anticipation that precedes historical events.
History was certainly something that infused the entire hour-long conversation between the Italian novelist and his Israeli interviewer, as Yehoshua acknowledged that “The Name of the Rose,” Eco’s 1980 murder mystery set in a 14th-century Italian monastery, inspired him to write his 1997 historical novel “A Journey to the End of the Millennium,” set in Paris in the 10th century.
Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree
Princeton’s Cotsen Children’s Library is justly celebrated for the range of its holdings, the imaginative reach of its curators and its stimulating conferences, like the one I had the good fortune to attend just the other day, which explored the ephemera — the stuff — of childhood.
From its title, “Enduring Trifles,” to the fascinating constellation of its presentations, which encompassed such “trifles” as toy theater, writing sheets, paper and rag dolls, grammar books, Girl Guide badges and Moses action figures (my contribution to the proceedings), I knew I was in for a treat.
What I didn’t anticipate was the degree to which references to the Jews would surface time and again — and in the most curious ways, leaving me feeling a bit like Alice in Wonderland.
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