Tour Puts Kosher Boy Scout in Limelight


 

As a kid growing up in Philadelphia, Edward Schwarzschild did a stint as a Kosher Boy Scout and hated it.

“Carrying two sets of dishes into the wilderness was a real turn-off for me,” he said.

Now 40, Schwarzschild hails from a venerable tradition of writers who have mined their formative Jewish experiences for literary purposes. This makes sense, considering that his first novel, “Responsible Men” (Algonquin) due out April 8, revolves around a Jewish family in Philadelphia faced with the challenge of understanding their past and improving their present.

“I never intended to write a book about my father,” Schwarzschild said. “But it’s clear to me that I wrote this book as a way to understand him.”

Schwarzschild will read from his book at the Café Club Fais Do Do in Mid-City on April 12, along with three other debut novelists selected for the 2005 spring First Fiction Tour. Founded last year by Cindy Dach, a manager of Changing Hands bookstore in Tempe, Ariz., the tour promotes like rock stars first-time authors by arranging a cross-country itinerary of readings in bars and clubs.

In addition, Schwarzschild has received his fair share of advance praise from a number of writers. Ha Jin, the award-winning author of “Waiting,” calls it a “marvelous novel and moving, impressive debut.”

“Responsible Men” revolves around Max Wolinsky, a salesman turned con man, who returns from his escapist life in Florida to attend his son’s bar mitzvah in Philadelphia. Back in his hometown, he must face his ex-wife and her new boyfriend, reconnect with his son and attend to the needs of his aging father and ailing uncle.

Although the novel begins with Max performing one of his real estate scams on a nice elderly couple, Schwarzschild has made him likeable, along with a supporting cast of flawed-yet-endearing characters. And yes, while the main characters in the novel grow into more evolved individuals (Max gives up conning and meets a good woman. Nathan, his son, forgives his parents and winds up loving the Kosher Boy Scouts), Schwarzschild does not tie up every loose end and consequently creates a story that resonates as truer to life.

Antonia Fusco, Schwarzschild’s editor at Alongquin, says she “was drawn to Ed’s work because of the honest and gentle way in which he writes about the lives of men. It’s unusual to come across a domestic story written from the male point of view,” she said. “Ed’s wry sense of humor and the joy he brings to his writing made me care for his characters, even when they’re not responsible.”

Schwarzschild, an assistant professor of American literature and creative writing at University at Albany, SUNY, describes his upbringing as classic Jewish American. While his grandmother grew up in a kosher home, he didn’t. Raised Reform, he said his “transformative” Jewish experiences of his youth included his bar mitzvah and Boy Scout troop. Not until college did he discover that he could passionately engage his heritage through literature.

“It was such an awakening to read writers like Phillip Roth and Grace Paley,” he said. “These writers spoke to me in a voice that was true to my world, my experiences and hinted at what I had yet to experience.”

As the eldest son and the child of a salesman, Schwarzschild grew up with the deeply ingrained notion that he would become a doctor, majoring in pre-med and cramming for classes at Cornell University.

“I was convinced I could be a writer on the side, that I could just fax over my stories to The New Yorker,” he said.

Schwarzschild eventually struck a compromise with the familial expectations. He would become a writer but earn a doctorate in the process.

“I took the responsible track,” he said. “Sometimes I wonder what if I was that person who just went to live in New York City and write a novel. But in the end, I can see that I chose the right path.”

After receiving his doctorate from Washington University, Schwarzschild continued on to Boston University’s MFA creative writing program, a fellowship at Stanford and the pursuit of publishing short stories in literary journals. One of these stories won a prize in the journal StoryQuarterly, and agents began to call. Schwarzschild said that “was the one time in the publishing process when being the son of a salesman helped. I chose the agent who struck me as the best salesman.”

After traveling with the First Fiction Tour, Schwarzschild hopes to finish up a collection of short stories and start work on a new novel. “That’s the healthiest thing for me to do, as opposed to becoming obsessed over what reviews I might get,” he said.

Above all, Schwarzschild hopes that readers of his book “will come away with a sense of recognition about their relationships with their parents or children. Whatever I’ve learned about writing a book, I know that it’s not about instruction but about sharing experiences.”

Schwarzschild reads with Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, Matthew Carnahan and Marya Hornbacher on April 12, 7:30 p.m. at Café Club Fais Do Do, 5257 W. Adams Blvd., Los Angeles. The event is sponsored by Book Soup in conjunction with the First Fiction Tour. For more information, call (310) 659-3110 or visit www.faisdodo.com.

 

Foreign Siblings Return for Torah Study


 

After spending the summer at Lishma, an intensive yeshiva-style program for young adults at Camp Ramah in Ojai, sisters Olga and Anna Dramchuk expected to be teaching Torah to fellow university students at Hillel in Novosibirsk, Siberia. Instead, they’re back in Los Angeles in search of more Jewish life and learning.

“Lishma was one of the best experiences we ever had as Jews, but it was only the beginning,” said Anna Dramchuk, 18.

Derived from the Hebrew phrase Torah lishma, or Torah studied for its own sake, Lishma was co-founded in 1999 by Rabbi Daniel Greyber, executive director of Camp Ramah, and is co-sponsored by the camp and the University of Judaism’s (UJ) Zeigler School of Rabbinic Studies. Last summer, 13 students took part in the fully funded four-week program.

“People who come to Lishma have a spiritual hunger,” Greyber said.

That includes the Dramchuk sisters, who along with Anna Dramchuk’s friend Irina Kononova, 19, also from Novosibirsk, were the first foreign students to take part in the program. Lisham has graduated a total of 80 students, a quarter of whom are involved in rabbinic studies or other Jewish learning.

“The assumption is that if you’re spending 24 hours a day, seven days a week studying Torah and living in a Jewish environment, it should change you as a person,” Greyber said.

But for the Dramchuks, the change was so dramatic that, after returning to Novosibirsk on July 19, they felt they could no longer stay.

“I was crying every day. When I woke up in the morning, the tears were alive,” said Olga Dramchuk, 20.

“I never had such a feeling before, the feeling that I’m in the wrong place,” Anna Dramchuk added.

They tried to do Shabbat at home, but it wasn’t the same, and they had no place to socialize with other Jews. The Hillel, where for the last two and a half years they had taught twice-weekly programs for the elderly, called Beit Midrash, celebrating holidays and sharing reflections from the Torah, was closed for the summer.

They had planned to start a second Beit Midrash program for university students and to continue their own education. Olga Dramchuk was to start her fourth year at the Siberian Independent University, where she was studying linguistics. Anna Dramchuk was to begin her second year at the Novosibirsk State Academy of Economics and Management, with the goal of pursuing a diplomatic career.

But they felt another destiny calling them. And so, after debating whether to go to Israel or return to the United States, they procured a visa and money for tickets and, with their parents’ blessing, returned to Los Angeles on Aug. 13. “We felt like someone, or some supernatural power, was helping us because we did everything so quickly,” Anna Dramchuk said.

But now they are doing everything themselves. Olga Dramchuk is living on her own and working. She hopes eventually to attend the UJ and especially wants to learn more Hebrew.

And Anna Dramchuk has married a young man she met last summer, Truman Weatherly, whose grandmother is Jewish and who is interested in learning more about Judaism. She plans to work and to return to school, ideally to the UJ. In the meantime, she is looking for a volunteer job that involves Jewish teenagers.

Their friend Irina, meanwhile, also took a detour. In September, following a love of music, she auditioned for “Superstar KZ,”, a Kazakhstan version of “American Idol,” where she was one of 18 contestants selected to participate. She credits her Lishma experience with helping her realize this passion and giving her the courage to pursue it. “Right now I hope my dream of being a singer will come true, but I will always live my Jewish life,” she wrote from Russia.

The Dramchuk sisters grew up in Kazakhstan, where they had some exposure to Jewish traditions through their father and grandmother, who observed Shabbat and holidays. Four years ago, the family moved to Novosibirsk, though their grandmother remained in Kazakhstan.

In Novosibirsk, with its Jewish community of 20,000, the young women discovered what Olga Dramchuk calls “a second family.” Their Jewish life centered on the Hillel organization, which in Russia is communal, attracting students from a variety of universities as well as a contingent of elderly.

But the Lishma program changed their perceptions. Coming from Novosibirsk, where many Jews are not really religious and there’s no place for women to learn Torah, they were immersed for the first time in a vibrant, cohesive, egalitarian and observant Jewish community. They lived, prayed, studied and socialized with other Lishma students — from Texas, Minnesota, Washington, Colorado and California — and staff. They also interacted on a daily basis with the Camp Ramah campers and administrators.

“What happens at camp is so magical and so beautiful. The question is, how do you recreate it?” asked Greyber, who is not actively recruiting foreign students for next summer’s Lishma program. He has, however, been invited to a conference in Lithuania to discuss a possible partnership between Camp Ramah and the Lithuanian Jewish community.

And for these young women, it’s not only the experience at camp but also the experience in America that is both magical and beautiful. And while they search for answers, concentrating on working and seeking to continue their Jewish studies, Novosibirsk remains deep in their hearts.

Anna Dramchuk, after establishing herself and earning enough money, hopes to return with her husband and help build something in the Jewish community, which lacks funds as well as knowledgeable and interested Jews.

“It’s my natural place,” she said.

And Olga Dramchuk dreams of creating a Lishma-like program in Los Angeles for young Jewish adults from the former Soviet Union to study and explore Jewish life. “I want them to be able to feel what I feel,” she said. “You never know what life will bring. Look how drastically our lives changed in this one year.”

For more information about Lishma, visit www.ramah.org/lishma.html or contact lishma@ramah.org.

 

‘Almost’ a Beginning in Paris


Most boy-meets-girl movies end when the happy pair stands under the chuppah. After all, it’s not terribly dramatic what happens when they pick up the routine of daily married life.

It’s a bit like that with Holocaust films: The protagonists are either killed or liberated, but if they survive, we do not see how they get back to "normalcy" and cope anew with everyday life.

The modest, low-key French import "Almost Peaceful" ("Un Monde Presque Paisible") remedies this omission.

The year is 1946 and the setting is the old Jewish quarter of Paris, where Monsieur Albert and his wife Lea have re-established their pre-war ladies tailor shop.

They employ seven men and women, all scarred in one way or another by the war years and the Holocaust, but almost content with their steady jobs and harmonious workplace.

At first, the talk about customers and problems with the kids is quite normal, laced with a few Yiddish expressions. Only occasionally is there an almost inadvertent allusion to past experiences.

Leon, who is studying to become an actor, remembers that on the day Paris was liberated, he heard among the jubilation a few French patriots yelling, "Kill the Jews."

"The fascists are still here," Leon remarks, and young Joseph, the official shlimazel of the shop, confirms the observation when he goes to the police for a residence permit. He recognizes the inspector, as imperious as ever, as the same man who arrested and deported his parents.

The most deeply wounded worker is Charles (superbly portrayed by veteran actor Dennis Podalydes), who is still hoping for the return of his wife and children from concentration camps.

When a woman declares her love for him, Charles can only say, "Love is dead. It can no longer be spoken or experienced."

Director Michel Deville concludes the film with a picnic for all of Albert’s employees and their spouses and children, complete with sack races, laughter and much feasting.

The scene is as rustic and carefree as a Monet painting, but on the side sits a little boy obsessively playing with a vest pocket watch. Explains a guest, "That’s the watch his father left him when he was deported."

"Almost Peaceful" opens Oct. 1 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills. For information, call (310) 274-6869.

For the Kids


Watch Your Words

In this week’s Torah portion, which tells the story of King Balak, the sorcerer Bilam and Bilam’s talking donkey, we learn two important lessons:

1. Words are very powerful. Be careful about what comes out of your mouth. If it is a put-down or is mean-spirited, think many times about what you are saying and why you are saying it. Turn your negative words into encouraging ones.

2. Animals often sense things humans can’t. The donkey saw an angel of God that Bilam could not see.

Flower-
Power
Flag

Create a beautiful American flag. Find red, white and blue flowers (roses, tulips, camellias, gardenias, gentians, forget-me-nots or any other flowers of those colors you can find at the flower shop).
Use a large cookie sheet as your canvas on which to create your stars and stripes. It will make a great centerpiece for your family barbecue.

Kids Page


Somewhere New

Are you traveling to new places this summer?
Maybe you’re exploring the desert like the Israelites are in this week’s Torah portion — Chukat. They’re getting closer and closer to Israel, but they have to pass through the lands of many different tribes.
Maybe you will be visiting Israel, too.
If you do, please write to us about your experiences there.

Healing the ‘wounds’


When rabbi and author Jan Goldstein was suddenly faced with the news that his 12-year marriage was ending — leaving him with primary custody of his three children — he felt his life was ruined, until he learned to make sense of his pain.

In his new book, "Sacred Wounds: Succeeding Because of Life’s Pain" (Regan Books, $24.95) Goldstein recounts his personal journey of self-actualization and offers a nine-step process toward transforming pain into empowerment.

"The pain is not going away. But it’s going to serve a purpose in our lives if we let it," said Goldstein, an award-winning poet, playwright and screenwriter, who is now happily remarried.

In addition to being instructional, each chapter includes a story about someone who has taken one of Goldstein’s nine steps. In "Step One: Acknowledging the Wound," Goldstein tells the story of Debrah Constance, a woman who overcame the obstacles of her three failed marriages, alcoholism, cancer and a near-death car accident, and used her own experiences to establish A Place Called Home, a safe house that today provides a nurturing environment to several hundred 9- to 20-year-olds in South Central Los Angeles. In the book, Constance says, "Coming to terms with my wounds has meant acknowledging and believing in myself. It has also meant learning to believe in others."

Goldstein said that while the book is always relevant, it is especially applicable in today’s time of war.

"The images and losses have an impact on all of us … and what they ought to be doing is reminding us what’s really important," he said.

Jan Goldstein will discuss and sign "Sacred Wounds: Succeeding Because of Life’s Pain" on Tuesday, April 22 at 8 p.m. at Barnes & Noble, 111 W. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. (626) 585-0362.

Old Canon Gets New Look


"The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey Through Language and Culture" by Ruth R. Wisse (The Free Press, $28).

The Hebrew Bible is a canon of 24 books, written in the same language, collected by a people living in a single nation, compiled at a time of belief in an all-powerful Authority speaking through that canon.

Three millennia later the people survive, but they are dispersed in numerous countries throughout the world, speaking many diverse languages, and living at a time when authority (including religious authority) is more likely to be defied than followed.

In such a time, can there be such a thing as a "Modern Jewish Canon" — a set of commonly accepted books that authoritatively express the experiences and values of a modern Jewish people?

In this remarkable book, Ruth Wisse, professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard University, argues there is. In a series of essays written with extraordinary erudition, Wisse discusses books by authors who wrote in nine different languages, and concludes that in the 20th century, the Jewish people generated "a multilingual literature unlike that of any other modern nation."

It is a literature created under the most trying conditions. Jews in the 20th century wrote in a time of "decline of religious faith, the disintegration of cohesive communities, the weakening of ethnic ties" — reflected in the myriad languages Jews spoke — that made a communal literature unlikely at best.

Moreover, the mass extermination of European Jews took with it the language that an entire culture had created over hundreds of years. A century that began with approximately 10 million Jews speaking Yiddish — more Jews than had ever before simultaneously spoken a common language — ended with a large part of those people, the ones who spoke the language, gone.

The Holocaust was followed by the mass assimilation of American Jews. With their immigration to the United States, American Jews "dropped Yiddish so precipitously that they lost the whole record of their encounter with modernity that had been forged in that language."

But amid the forces of linguistic and cultural destruction that marked the 20th century, Jewish writers, living in diverse countries, writing in diverse languages, generated a series of books of exceptional merit with moral and cultural links to Jewish tradition.

The books Wisse has selected for her "Modern Jewish Canon" are those that "derive so powerfully from a particular cultural community that they make a special claim on the members of that community to be reabsorbed by them in a cycle of creative renewal." She devotes entire chapters to Yiddish literature, the literature of the Russian Revolution, Holocaust testimonials, American immigrant literature and Israeli literature (which she sees as the dominant branch of modern Jewish literature).

It is her demonstration of the connections between these diverse writings — the argument that they form a modern canon — that is perhaps the most stimulating part of the book. She demonstrates how Jewish tradition strove to survive social and political revolution in Sholom Aleichem’s "Tevye the Dairyman" — and then connects that book to Saul Bellow’s "Mr. Sammler’s Planet" (the "definitive novel about the 1960s"). She next connects Bellow’s book to Philip Roth’s "American Pastoral," and argues convincingly that Roth’s book, with its stunning portrayal of the collapse of Jewish parental authority, is his "masterpiece."

Her book is also interesting for the writers she leaves out. It is not enough to be Jewish and famous, or else Norman Mailer would be included. Nor is it enough to be Jewish and great, or else Proust would make the list.

What Wisse is after is something closer to what Cynthia Ozick, writing more than 30 years ago, referred to as a "liturgical" literature. Ozick wrote that the only Diaspora literature that would survive would be one that was "centrally Jewish" — by which she meant a literature not necessarily religious, but one that had "a choral voice, a communal voice, the echo of the voice of the Lord of History." She predicted that Mailer — then at the height of his fame — would one day "become a small gentile footnote, about the size of H.L. Mencken."

Wisse’s modern canon is a set of books that transcend the momentary attraction of most modern literature, with its over-emphasis on the individual to the exclusion of the community, and on values that are self-actualized rather than passed on through tradition. Her choices are not ones that necessarily portray Jews positively ("Of course," Wisse writes, "no book is ever going to portray the Jews in a worse light than the Bible"). But they are books that will not fade into footnotes, because they build on traditions centuries old, applied in new times.

In his monumental recovery of the history and traditions of the "Kaddish," Leon Wieseltier wrote that tradition "is not reproduced. It is thrown, and it is caught. It lives a long time in the air." The remarkable achievement of Wisse is that she has produced, in a single volume, an appreciation of the moral richness of 20th century Jewish literature, with its preservation of Jewish tradition in the midst of the extraordinary challenges of that century, and has thrown it into the air. It is now there for us to catch.

Ruth Wisse will be a scholar-in-residence at Sinai Temple from Nov. 16 to 18. For more information call (310) 474-1518.