The Arty Semite

Behind the Scenes With The New Yorker's Fiction Maven

By Anne Joseph

Photo courtesy Jewish Book Week London

As fiction editor of The New Yorker, Deborah Treisman’s job is one of the most enviable in the literary world. It is certainly one of the most influential. In fact, The New York Times described it as a job that carries the literary clout equivalent of St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. On March 1, Treisman was at Jewish Book Week in London, in conversation with Guardian columnist and feature writer Hadley Freeman, discussing the merits and challenges of the job she has held since 2003.

Treisman was born in Oxford and moved to Vancouver at the age of 8. She comes from academic stock — both her parents and siblings are renowned professors and her stepfather, Daniel Kahneman, shared a Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. Instead of academia, she decided to go into publishing. After graduating in Comparative Literature at University of California, Berkeley, Treisman worked at the literary magazine, The Threepenny Review and then moved to New York to intern at Harper’s Magazine. This period was followed by a year at The New York Review of Books and subsequently four years as editor at Grand Street. Treisman was deputy fiction editor for five years at The New Yorker before becoming the magazine’s first female fiction editor since Katherine White in 1925.

Treisman admitted that she had probably not written a story herself since she was 11, telling the packed audience that she had submitted it to The New Yorker, only for it to be rejected. But anyone hoping to have the definitive answer to how the magazine picks its stories would have been disappointed. There is no “one thing,” and there is no trademark piece, according to Treisman. The range is extreme and Treisman stressed that what is important is that a published story must “achieve on its own terms.” The styles and approaches can be different but for a story to be effective it “must do what it set out to do.”

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Daniel Menaker on The New Yorker and Making Mistakes

By Anna Goldenberg

Katherine Bouton

Five years after Daniel Menaker started working at The New Yorker in 1968 — first as a fact checker, then as a copy editor — he was told by the executive editor to look for another job. A lack of diligence, and because Menaker had criticized the content of a piece, something that was considered out of line for a copy editor, almost derailed his career at The New Yorker.

Menaker stayed another 26 years, and eventually became the magazine’s fiction editor, editing submissions by Alice Munro, David Foster Wallace and others before moving on to becoming editor-in-chief of Random House. He left the post in 2007 to undergo treatment for lung cancer. A New York City native born to a Jewish father and a Protestant mother, Menaker, now 72, wrote his memoir, “My Mistake,” which was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on November 19. He spoke to the Forward about the omnipresence of Woody Allen’s humor and what he thought the Bible might look like in 2,000 years.

Anna Goldenberg: At the end of your book, you describe how you sift through your personal archives, look at the old New Yorker issues and look at your books. As you do that, what sort of thoughts go through your head?

Daniel Menaker: The first thought that goes through my head is, “How could I have made such a mess of my papers?” I guess the second thing that occurs to me was how fortunate I have been in my life and my background, despite its problems and despite its tragedy. Even though there were dark periods, in a way even they turned out to make my life fuller, even if sadder. I don’t believe in being thankful to any deity, but I do believe in being grateful to randomness.

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Lunching With New Yorker Cartoonists

By Eitan Kensky

Courtesy BJFF

Every frame in Rachel Loube’s “Every Tuesday: A Portrait of the New Yorker Cartoonists,” now screening at the Boston Jewish Film Festival, together with “The Art of Spiegelman,” threatens to dissolve into cliché. There is the premise itself: Every Tuesday, New Yorker cartoonists, young and old, submit their work, and then go for lunch. It is a beautiful, invisible New York tradition, the kind that Gay Talese would have celebrated in luxurious prose, the kind that the media is intent on reminding us no longer exist. The restaurant is appropriately shabby. The food scenes are all set to jazz.

There is no question that if “Every Tuesday” were any longer it would become unbearably familiar and impossible to watch. But at 20 minutes, it’s perfect. The cartoonists come alive in short bursts. Zachary Kanin, a Harvard Lampoon alumnus, is legitimately hilarious. Their very different apartments and workspaces quickly tell us about their different styles and approach to the craft. We watch some cartoonists revise and edit their work on imposing Apple Monitors, and others retrace their cartoons on top of a light box. Some aim for perfection, while others have started to embrace artistic imperfection. Wouldn’t it be better if a rectangle weren’t so rectangular?

“Every Tuesday” is everything you want in a short film: It brings you into a unique world, gives you enough information to make you feel like you understand the key issues, and leaves you absolutely wanting more.

Watch a teaser for ‘Every Tuesday’:

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Bringing Slavic Soul to Rikers Island

By Keith Meatto

Slavic Soul Party!

As their name implies, Slavic Soul Party! updates traditional Eastern European sounds with a festive, contemporary feel. Their instrumental music conjures carnivals and circuses, pep bands and klezmer bands, James Brown and James Bond. Brooklyn music aficionados may know Slavic Soul Party! from their weekly Tuesday gigs at Barbès; uptowners may have caught them at Carnegie Hall. Like Johnny Cash and B.B. King, the band also plays prisons, with a show on November 19 at Sing Sing Correctional Facility and October 5 at Rikers Island.

There are no vocals in Slavic Soul Party!, which sets them apart from their fellow Gypsy Punk travelers Balkan Beat Box and Gogol Bordello. Instead, they are all about the music. On “Taketron,” their fifth and most recent album on the Barbès label, Slavic Soul Party! unleashes jazz jams over gypsy grooves and military marches. These 13 tunes feature horns, drums, and accordion that play with precision at a punk rock pace, and the volume that makes brass instruments an orchestra’s loudest bunch. If you have a migraine, this isn’t the record for you. But if you want to dance and sweat like you’re at a Baltic bash, then go ahead and press play.

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Q & A: New Yorker Writer Lawrence Wright on Bringing Gaza to the Stage

By Zohar Tirosh-Polk

Getty Images
Lawrence Wright at the premier of ‘My Trip to Al Qaeda.’

With his film “My Trip To Al-Qaeda” on HBO in September and his one-man show, “The Human Scale,” about to open in New York City, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and The New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright has a lot going on. During a short window between memorizing his lines and beginning rehearsals, he found time to answer a few questions about “The Human Scale,” which is based on his experiences in Israel and the Gaza Strip last year. Directed by Oskar Eustis of the Public Theater, the play opens on October 2 at The New Yorker Festival and will continue its run at 3LD Arts and Technology Center until October 31.

Zohar Tirosh-Polk: How did this play come about?

Lawrence Wright: I had a done a one-man play before, “My Trip to Al Qaeda.” That was anomalous to start with, and I thought I would never do that again. Then I went to Gaza for The New Yorker in July 2009, and when I came back Karen Greenberg at the Center on Law and Security asked me to give a speech about Gaza. The more I thought about it, I realized it was very familiar to the people of that region, but here people are so unacquainted with it. I thought maybe I would try another one-man presentation, so we assembled all this video and we did a reading last December at the 3-Legged Dog theater, and it was during that time that Oskar Eustis at the Public got interested.

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A Historical Goose Chase for the Real Jewish Jesus

By Jenny Hendrix

Wikimedia Commons
Detail from “The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple” by William Holman Hunt, 1860.

It seems obvious to note that Jesus — like Don Juan, Oedipus and Count Dracula — has a cultural life having little to do with his original narrative. Although it is now widely believed that he did exist, Jesus is so buried in centuries of Christian tradition that in 1906 Albert Schweitzer declared the search for a historical Jesus dead. Every scholar, Schweitzer wrote, merely produces a Jesus in his own image. Geza Vermes, a one-time Catholic priest, Emeritus Professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford, and author of such books as “Jesus the Jew,” pointedly disagrees. As the title of his latest book suggests, he claims to have located the “Real Jesus” beneath the many guises of Christ.

“The Real Jesus: Then and Now” (Augsburg Fortress) collects many short pieces on subjects surrounding early Judeo-Christian history. Though the collection would have been better served by a stricter edit, Vermes’s scholarship remains impressive. His Jesus is a Galilean Jewish mystic, a charismatic healer, exorcist and miracle worker, who preached a Kingdom of Heaven that would arrive in his lifetime. He recruited 12 apostles and 70 disciples, and was crucified as a rebel by the government of Pontius Pilate, with the cooperation the religious authorities, after causing a scene at the Temple of Jerusalem.

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Preferring SS Officers to Beach Boys: George Steiner versus Emil Cioran

By Benjamin Ivry

Isaías González
Looking Forward: A portrait of Emil Cioran in heroic pose.

Gallimard has just published, in Paris, George Steiner’s “Lectures. Chroniques du New Yorker,” a translation of the 2009 New Directions collection, “George Steiner at The New Yorker.”

Steiner is notorious for his rabid anti-Zionism and his peculiar 1981 novella “The Portage to San Cristobal of A. H.,” a portrait of Adolf Hitler which some call “strangely sympathetic.”

In a recent Libération article, Steiner praises a novel by the antisemitic French propagandist Lucien Rebatet, adding bizarrely: “Anyway, I prefer a cultivated SS officer to a Beach Boy.”

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