Wednesday, March 29
Tonight it’s sex, drugs and a night at the Writers Bloc. Authors and cultural icons Erica Jong (“Fear of Flying”) and Jerry Stahl (“Permanent Midnight”) converse about writing at the Skirball.
7:30 p.m. $20. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>
Step inside to view the Getty Garden — as photographed by Becky Cohen — at the Persimmon gallery. Lovely permanent pigment prints from transparencies Cohen shot for the book “Robert Irwin Getty Garden” are on view through April 22.
310 N. Flores St., Los Angeles. (323) 951-9540.
Friday, March 31
“Methodfest,” the only film festival “dedicated to the actor,” opens tonight and continues through April 7. Count on panels, tributes, workshops, galas and plenty of self-importance. But you can also catch a few intriguing indie flicks, including tonight’s opening coming-of-age film, “Dreamland,” starring Agnes Bruckner, John Corbett and Gina Gershon, among others.
Woodland Hills and Calabasas. Prices vary. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>
Nathan Takes a Bite Out of Boring Fare
“The New American Cooking” by Joan Nathan (Knopf, $35).
A tempeh Reuben sandwich and guacamole made with mayonnaise may sound like sacrilege to food purists, but not to food journalist Joan Nathan. The author of 10 cookbooks, including the award-winning “Jewish Cooking in America” (Knopf, 1994), Nathan’s latest is “The New American Cooking,” which offers recipes for the way Americans eat today.
“I never think of food as something that’s stationary,” Nathan said on a recent book tour stop in Los Angeles. “Things change, neighborhoods change, food changes, we get new ingredients, people get ideas. And when you come to a country you adapt what you knew to that country.”
Nathan makes no judgments on those adaptations, what matters to her is how it tastes. Her openness is expressed through the variety of the 280 recipes she includes in the book, which contains many cross-cultural meldings. She offers up four dishes for public consumption, some new and some old, at a special dinner at the Skirball Cultural Center this week. The diverse menu will include Roasted Squash Soup With Coconut Milk; Georgian Spinach Salad With Pomegranates; Horseradish-Crusted Bass With Borscht Broth, Garlic Mashed Potatoes and Ragout of Wild Mushrooms With Shallots and Thyme; and a Chocolate Torte for dessert. For fans of Nathan, what is perhaps most striking about her newest book is that the word “Jewish” does not appear in the title.
Nathan was raised in Providence, R.I., and after getting her master’s degree in French literature from Harvard, she went to work as foreign press officer to Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek. The experience inspired her to write her first cookbook, “The Flavor of Jerusalem,” and today she is mostly known for her Jewish recipes, with eight of her previous collections focusing on Jewish or Israeli cuisine.
Although this new, broader American focus might seem like a departure for her, Nathan sees it more as a logical extension of her previous work, specifically “An American Folklife Cookbook” (Schocken, 1984) (her only other non-Jewish title) and “Jewish Cooking in America.”
“The Jewish cookbook was one ethnic group, but within that one ethnic group there is so much diversification,” she said. “Look at the Persian Jews here and the Sephardic Jews and the Israeli Jews. There are all kinds within the Jewish population, and it probably made me more aware of other people around America. And I’m American, so I thought it would be interesting to look at the whole country.”
What she was looking for in particular, she said, were the changes American cooking has undergone in the last 40 years.
She found her answers through the recipes of a range of professional and home kitchens across America, from food stands and restaurants to heirloom family favorites.
The dishes are coupled with stories about their origins, so that what emerges is a sort of travel book and cookbook in one, a text that is as much about who Americans are, as it is about what they eat.
Nathan sees America today as a country changed by technological advances like the Cuisinart, the growth of organics and sustainable agriculture, the integration of ethnic foods and ingredients into the somewhat bland American palate of her 1950s youth, and the rise of the celebrity chef.
But Nathan is aware that not everything in today’s American cuisine is positive.
“I’m not sort of Polyanna-ish,” she said. “I know that supermarkets all over the country have all processed food and apples that look like each other and terrible tomatoes. But I’m not looking at that. I’m looking at what people are doing to make changes. I’m looking at farmers markets, at individuals, and I think these small individuals will get bigger.”
Many of the small individuals Nathan mentions in her book are Jewish, including two trailblazing Southern California women. Along with a recipe for Pomegranate, Mango, and Papaya Fruit Salad with Lime, she includes the story of Lynda Resnick, creator of the pomegranate and pomegranate juice company POM Wonderful. Alongside a recipe for Sugar Snap Peas with Red Pepper, Nathan pays tribute to Frieda Caplan, creator of the company Frieda’s Finest, who first brought kiwis and sugar snap peas to the American public.
And her new American cooking is also still influenced by Jewish recipes, like challah and matzah balls and dishes like the Cuban Jewish casserole Plantains with Picadillo.
Nathan said the number of Jewish contributions in her book has little to do with her own roots. She said Jews play a huge role in the food industry.
But it’s not only that.
“There are a lot of good home-cooked recipes in a lot of Jewish families, especially ethnic ones,” Nathan said, “like that Plantains Picadillo, and the date and nut cake with orange. That’s delicious.”
Joan Nathan hosts “Dinner With Joan Nathan: Jewish Cooking in America,” on Thursday, Dec. 15 at 7:30 p.m. $65-$85 (ticket sales end Dec. 12). Book signing follows. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (866) 468-3399.
The New ‘King’ of KROQ
Jewish Writing: A Renaissance Awaits
What is Jewish writing, and what is a Jewish writer? The question has so many answers that it has almost become tedious.
Those who have ventured into the literary world know that if even a page of their work touches upon anything remotely Jewish, they will be sentenced to a lifetime of sitting on panels during which they will be asked the question, "Do you consider yourself a Jewish writer?"
In fact, it could be said that in America today, we have a new definition of a Jewish writer: A Jewish writer is one who is asked to participate in a panel during which she will be asked the question, "Do you consider yourself a Jewish writer?"
It may be a joke, but this reality reflects a certain consensus about what Jewish literature in America has become. The truth is that "Jewish writing" now refers to any work in which either the writer or the characters are Jewish or both. That’s pretty much it. You can write a story that has no connection whatsoever to Judaism or anything in Jewish culture, but if it’s about someone named Goldberg who once ate a bagel — poof, you have become a Jewish writer.
But today, as we mark 350 years of Jewish life in America, and as we celebrate the 100th birthday of Isaac Bashevis Singer, it is worth taking a look behind us to see what Jewish writing used to be, and what it might still become.
A century ago, Jewish writers didn’t go around wondering whether they were Jewish writers, not because they were more "traditional" — far from it. But even with all of their doubts about their heritage, the vast majority of these writers were Jewish writers for one very specific reason: They were writing in a Jewish language — Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic or any number of others.
In fact, the only way to say "Jewish writer" in Yiddish is to say "Yiddish writer." The word for the language and the identity is the same, and the intentional confusion between them reveals the enormity of what language once meant to a Jewish writer’s identity.
It wasn’t just that these writers’ words were written in Hebrew letters. It was that everything about the way the words were used was somehow layered upon 4,000 years’ worth of stories that were also written in Hebrew letters.
When you know that your audience is familiar with the Torah, metaphors and references from the Torah are the ones you use, just as English-language writers today might make references to movies or TV.
A Yiddish writer like Sholem Aleichem could describe an insurance fire by saying a character was "lighting Sabbath candles in the middle of the week" and could be confident that all of his readers would get the joke. Isaac Bashevis Singer could title a novel "Der Baal-Teshuvah" (literally "the Master of Return") and be certain that all of his readers knew exactly the sort of religious conversion he was talking about — a very particular "return" to Jewish life that the "translated" English title, "The Penitent," simply cannot capture.
That is what Jewish writing was: not a subject but a language. Specifically, it was a language built on the foundations of a world where writing was a sacred act, where the easy diluting of the profane with the sacred was not an act of rebellion but a side effect of a deep intimacy with holiness.
Today in America, virtually none of our Jewish writers are writing in Jewish languages. They are writing in English. And they are writing for an audience whose familiarity with Jewish culture can no longer be assumed.
So are we doomed to 350 more years of writing about people named Goldberg eating bagels? Surprisingly, the answer is no. Jewish writers today have the power to change the way their audiences read — and when I say writers, I don’t mean just big-name novelists, but everyone, including writers for local Jewish newspapers.
If it sounds impossible, it has happened before. In 1897, journalist Abraham Cahan founded a Yiddish newspaper in New York City, The Forward, with a very specific goal: to turn the thousands of Jewish immigrants descending upon New York into Americans. Everything about the newspaper served this purpose. The advice column, A Bintl Briv (A Bundle of Letters), for instance, with the alluring melodrama of readers’ letters, was largely aimed at tutoring clueless immigrants in the American way of life. But the real way Cahan transformed his Jewish readers into Americans was more subtle: by changing the language of the paper itself. English words and syntax were mixed into the text at every opportunity.
Of course, American Jews’ Yiddish, including that of the reporters, was naturally influenced by English at the time. But the editors, ostensibly running a Yiddish publication, clearly made no effort to apply copy editing standards when thousands of Englishisms appeared in print. The heavy dose of English served the paper’s goal of converting Yiddish speakers into English speakers. It succeeded all too well. Within a generation, readership evaporated.
Is it possible to reverse the work of Cahan? That is, to turn English into a Jewish language, to invert the attempt to turn Jews into Americans into a new process — to turn Americans into Jews?
I think the possibility is there. But how?
Jewish languages always incorporate Hebrew. By that I don’t only mean the Hebrew alphabet or even just Hebrew words, but rather references to Hebrew literature and particularly, the vast legacy of the Hebrew Bible and the commentaries built upon it. Imagine if Jewish literature in English could bring back to life the Jewish linguistic tradition of the prooftext — the endless echo chamber of ideas that allows even a simple idea to reverberate with centuries of meaning.
This isn’t nearly as difficult or obscure as it sounds. I was once asked to write an article for a Jewish magazine about Jewish teenagers in public high schools and their connection to Jewish life. After some investigation, I determined that most didn’t have one. But they were intrigued whenever the subject came up; many wanted to know more but had no clue where to look. Stuck with what seemed to be a nonstory (and a deadline), I considered that these teenagers were mostly fourth-generation Americans — and then I thought of the four sons of the haggadah.
These teenagers’ great-grandparents had come to America with a knowledge of Judaism, which their grandparents, the second sons, had consciously rejected. Their parents, the third sons, had a simple awareness of the potential of Jewish life, but these teenagers had become the sons who did not even know how to ask. Suddenly, the story made sense, and the article appeared with the title, "The Fourth Son."
That’s a recognizable enough reference; probably even the most secular Jewish reader has been to a seder once or twice. But what about all of the writers who don’t have the background to dig deeper?
For those with passion, I will make a recommendation that has probably never been made in an English-language Jewish paper before: Read the Torah. I say this not to impose religion on Jewish writers but rather to alert them to the enormous cultural resources awaiting them. There are stories, characters and turns of phrase in the vast gold mine we have inherited that resonate with almost any situation a writer could possibly invent.
Unfortunately, Jewish history tends to repeat. As each generation passes, another new one is born in the wilderness, standing at Sinai whether they like it or not. We’ve seen many Pharaohs, many Hamans and we have thousands of years of writing to draw from whenever we find ourselves needing to write about them again. And when we include the vast resources of post-biblical works like the Talmud, the riches only expand.
Rabbi Tarfon’s description of the world could apply to any writer, Jewish or otherwise: "The day is short and the task is huge and the workers are lazy and the reward is great and the boss is insistent."
The reward is indeed great. Imagine if this connection to the past really was a part of secular American Jewish writing. The writing would deepen but so would the audience, as each echo of language became gradually more familiar until a common cultural vocabulary was restored. Writing that draws on such a legacy has the potential not only to inform but to enrich, to enliven, to nourish, to revive the dead.
In recent years, I and many others have come to rely more on Jewish writing in all its forms — novels, newspapers, Internet, everything — to discover what our community is thinking and caring about, especially today, when Jewish communities around the world have fallen under siege.
But at 350 years old, ours is one of the few that hasn’t. And if one looks at the enormous revival of interest and passion among young people today, it becomes clear that we are sitting on the edge of an American Jewish renaissance.
All of us, writers and readers, have the power to make it happen. As a famous Jewish writer once wrote: "If not now, when?"
Dara Horn’s first novel, "In the Image" (W.W. Norton), received a 2003 National Jewish Book Award. She lives in New York City.
Journalists Behaving Badly
New Writers Lack Roth Shock Value
"Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction From the Edge" edited by Paul Zakrzewski (Perennial, $14.95).
It’s official. American Jews are now the People of the Book Festival.
Not so long ago, in a simpler America, there were Jewish-themed books and there were people who read them. Reading was an intimate enterprise, and authors spent long years of their careers as hard-working nobodies. Nowadays, literature in general — and Jewish literature in particular — have become much more public entertainments. Every season brings new book-world celebrities, book fairs, book clubs, book cruises and all manner of literary happenings.
What does this phenomenon mean for Jewish literature? For one thing, it makes possible the profession of "literary event curator," which is how Paul Zakrzewski, editor of a new anthology called "Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction From the Edge," defines his job as coordinator of book-related programs for the JCC in Manhattan. Zakrzewski assumes similar curatorial duties in "Lost Tribe," assembling a collection of 25 short stories by new-ish authors, hoping to "gather together the provocative fiction of a new breed of Jewish writer — and showcase tomorrow’s great Jewish writers today."
In his introduction, Zakrzewski describes this new breed as the "post-Roth generation," by which he means contemporary writers who are attempting to shock readers as Philip Roth shocked his audience with "Portnoy’s Complaint" back in 1969. It’s silly, though, to designate a generation as "post-Roth" when Roth himself is still very much in the game. In fact, he offered the best writing of his career in the 1990s, when many of these young writers were themselves getting their start, and for all we know he’s now at work on something even better.
It must be said also that, while some of the stories in "Lost Tribe" are undeniably distasteful, sprinkled with the occasional Nazi fetish and a smattering of lackluster violence, none of them can be called shocking in the way that "Portnoy’s Complaint" managed to be. The reasons for this are too complex to examine here, but it’s safe to say that a fictional world’s ability to shock has declined in direct proportion to the multiple shocks administered these days by real-life current events.
What, then, is the "edge" on which this new Jewish fiction is purportedly teetering? Interestingly, it’s the edgier stories here that are the least compelling. "Knitting One," by Suzan Sherman, is the banal assessment of a Jewish girl’s obsession with WASPy men, while Gabriel Brownstein’s "Bachelor Party" is a vague, lazy story about a Jewish young man’s affair with his ex-Nazi mentor’s daughter. Meanwhile, Binnie Kirshenbaum’s "Who Knows Kaddish" takes a smug look at an assimilated daughter who takes up with an older German man while deploring her inability to mourn for her dead mother.
Less edgy but far more diverting are the harmless middlebrow entertainments on offer, including Tova Mirvis’s "A Poland, A Lithuania, a Galicia," about a 19-year-old New Jersey boy’s conversion to ultra-Orthodoxy, and Ben Schrank’s "Consent," in which a perpetual graduate student wrestles with divorce, new love and Jewish mysticism. The truly dreadful rears its head here also, in the form of Simone Zelitch’s kitschy historical melodrama, "Ten Plagues," about which the less said the better.
Book-club enthusiasts may be discouraged to find that many of the better selections here are far from new. Novelists Myla Goldberg, Jonathan Safran Foer and Dara Horn, for instance, offer passages from their popular first novels "Bee Season" (2000), "Everything is Illuminated" (2002), and "In the Image" (2002).
Similarly, Nathan Englander, Aimee Bender and Judy Budnitz weigh in with excellent stories that are by now quite familiar, having appeared in their much-ballyhooed debut collections, "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges" (1999), "The Girl in the Flammable Skirt" (1998), and "Flying Leap" (1997). For his part, Gary Shteyngart delivers "Several Anecdotes About My Wife," a witty variation on the immigration-comedy shtick he dispensed so hilariously in his novel "The Russian Debutante’s Handbook" (2002).
Other remarkable stories here include "Ordinary Pain" by Michael Lowenthal, a small but effective tale about a 13-year-old who invents a Holocaust story about his grandfather in order to gain popularity at school; Rachel Kadish’s "The Argument," in which a memory-haunted old man resents his rabbi’s enviable slide into dementia; and Joan Leegant’s "Seekers in the Holy Land," the lyrical account of a young American in Safed who becomes consumed by a less than benevolent mystical experience.
Talented as these young writers are, however, the only real edge that this Jewish fiction exhibits is a marketing edge. "Lost Tribe" is a volume whose real reasons for existing are to endorse the careers of its editor and contributors, and to join the noisy pageant of book festivals, readings and other promotions. The anthology itself doesn’t answer many questions about the future of Jewish literature. The more relevant question for these "post-Roth" aspirants is this: will they, 40 years down the line, be able to say they fulfilled their early promise with a career as consistently dazzling as that of Philip Roth?
How the Other Half Lives
Jewish Wizard Takes Flight in New Potter Book
Are there Jews at Hogwarts? The world’s most famous School of Witchcraft and Wizardry might be muggle-free, but it is possible that it has an equal-opportunity policy for Jewish wizards.
In "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," the fifth of seven books in J.K. Rowling’s insanely popular children’s series, readers are introduced to one Anthony Goldstein.
The book doesn’t tell us much about Anthony, but we can ascertain certain things. He is in Ravenclaw, which means he is of "the sharpest mind" according to the "sorting hat." Because Anthony is a prefect, he is a considered to be a leader among his classmates. We know that he is one of the good guys, because he joins "Dumbledore’s Army," the defense against the dark arts class that Harry teaches after the unctuous professor Dolores Umbridge removes anything remotely practical from their defense lessons.
Representatives at Scholastic Books, the publisher of the Harry Potter series, said they had "no idea" if Anthony is Jewish or not, and Rowling was unavailable for comment. However, Dr. Raymond Jones, a professor of English at the University of Alberta, who teaches literature courses in "Harry Potter," said that is was highly probable that Anthony is Jewish.
"One of the things that is happening here is that Rowling is making the school contemporary," Jones said. "The school seems quite old-fashioned — they use quills and not computers — but, by populating her school with a variety of ethnic backgrounds, she is admitting to the reality of modern England and modern America."
But even if Anthony and others are Jewish, don’t expect them to start lighting the menorah too soon; according to Jones, religion plays no role of any kind in Harry Potter — where the only miracles are ones done by the wizarding community.
Peace No Joke To Comics
Spinning a Jewish Web
When preschool teacher Sylvia Rouss noticed a lack of children’s literature about Judaism, she did something about it: she wrote the books herself. Rouss, who teaches at Stephen S. Wise Temple, is the author of the popular "Sammy Spider" series, which are widely used in Jewish schools around the country.
"I use the spider as a vehicle to teach young children about Jewish holidays and Israel," said the Tarzana resident. In her latest book, "Sammy Spider’s First Trip to Israel" ($6.95, Kar-Ben Publishing), which was released in July, Sammy tags along when the family he lives with makes a special trip to the Holy Land. "It is very hard to find any books for young children on topic of Israel," Rouss said. "We try to teach [children about Israel] every year because it is so important at a Jewish school."
Earlier, when Rouss completed "Sammy Spider’s First Hanukkah" (Kar-Ben Publishing, 1993) she was asked to create a series around her crawling character. It wasn’t long before the young spider experienced Passover (1995), Rosh Hashana (1996), Shabbat (1998), Tu B’Shevat (2000) and Purim (2000). While "Sammy Spider’s First Trip to Israel," is the arachnid’s seventh adventure, Rouss has written numerous other books as well as two anthologies and two activity books.
Having traveled to the Jewish homeland every year for the last 27 years, Rouss has developed a strong connection to the country. As such, she just wrote a new book for older children called "Tali’s Jerusalem Scrapbook," which is about a young girl living in Israel. The story deals with terrorism through the eyes of a child. Rouss is quick to point out the importance of going to Israel during times like these. "When someone’s sick, you make a point of visiting them," she noted.
In addition to the "Sammy" books, Rouss recently released a preschool rhyming book called "The Littlest Candlesticks" ($14.95, Pitspopany Press).
Meet Sylvia Rouss as she gives public readings of her three most recent works on Sunday, Oct. 27 at 10 a.m. at Temple Beth Israel, 3033 N. Towne Ave., Pomona, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel & Pomona Valleys, (626) 967-3656; and Sunday, Nov. 24, 11:30 a.m. at Pages Books for Children, 18399 Ventura Blvd., No. 15, Tarzana, (818) 342-6657.
Magnolias and Menorahs
Still Got ‘Game’
Like Budd Schulberg’s “What Makes Sammy Run?” Phillip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint” and other milestones of Jewish American literature, Will Eisner’s “Name of the Game” explores the depths of Jewish self-loathing and assimilation. But what separates “Name” — a tale chronicling two immigrant families that merge through marriage for social advancement and then suffer destructive consequences — from the others, is that Eisner’s work is a comic book.
Make that a “graphic novel” — the term attributed to ambitious comics with mature themes and a traditional bound format. Graphic novels have become a multimillion-dollar cash cow. Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” revolutionized comics in 1986 with its brooding, cynical interpretation of Batman. Art Spiegelman’s nonfiction Holocaust opus, “Maus,” won the Pulitzer Prize.
“I was frankly enthused when Spiegelman got the Pulitzer,” Eisner told The Journal from his Florida studio, “because it gave the medium the credit it deserves.”
Eisner’s latest is a 160-page saga in which the destinies of two social-climbing immigrant families collide. It’s a stunning study of disconnect, in which characters choose money over love, practice infidelity in the bedroom and in the boardroom, and embrace assimilation over identity. “Name” comments on the American Dream, and the lengths some will go to deny themselves in their quest to obtain and maintain it. It was inspired by folk tales, as channeled through the prism of Eisner’s Jewish American experience.
“Jewish and Russian folk literature, they had a similar thread to all of them,” said Eisner, married to wife Ann for 52 years. “Everybody succeeded in elevating themselves, and that’s through marriage — certainly in Yiddish folklore. Nobody succeeds in fairy tales unless they marry the prince or the princess.”
Eisner, who has been writing and drawing graphic novels since the 1970s, actually created this genre. The first graphic novel, his landmark “A Contract with God,” was originally published by Baronet Books in 1978. The Jewish-themed, Bronx-set story depicted protagonist Frimmer Hirsh’s relationship with his Maker.
Eisner also authored a seminal textbook, “Comics and Sequential Art and Graphic Storytelling,” and taught popular cartoonists such as Drew Friedman and Pat McDonnnell at New York’s School of Visual Arts. Since 1988, the Eisner Awards, named in his honor and held annually in San Diego, have become the industry’s Academy Awards.
However, his major contribution to his industry is his classic strip “The Spirit.”
Conceived in 1939 for a newspaper comics supplement, “The Spirit” told the tale of Denny Colt, a policeman reborn as a Stetson-wearing masked detective superhero. Eisner used the strip to redefine the medium by employing cinematic compositions and pacing, noir design sensibilities and a cartoon realism unseen in comics back then. His storytelling style reflected the moviemaking of his day — Fritz Lang, Jacques Tourneur, bringing to comics what Orson Welles brought to movies with “Citizen Kane”: sophistication.
Both “The Spirit” and its creator were a product of what is now called the Golden Age of Comics — a time when New York Jews ruled an industry that was beneath most non-Jews; the same era explored in 2000 by Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” for which Eisner was a consultant.
Since 1978, Eisner has explored his most personal art through his graphic novel format, works that capture facets of his upbringing as the son of Jewish immigrants in 1920s-30s New York. “The Heart of the Storm,” for example, tells his parents’ story — his father was a fine artist from Vienna; his mother of Czech descent.
The Jewishness of Eisner’s tale was never an issue for his publisher.
“They were very supportive and never attempted to make editorial content,” Eisner said, singling out his longtime DC editor Dave Shriner.
Unlike DC’s flagship characters “Superman” and “Batman,” “The Spirit” never materialized in Hollywood, save for an unaired 1984 TV pilot produced by DC’s parent company, Warner Bros. Eisner doesn’t believe “The Spirit” translates to other mediums.
Nor does he even want to return to his iconic character in his own medium. His list of upcoming project ideas has grown too long for him to look back.
“There would only be two reasons I would revisit ‘The Spirit,'” Eisner said. “To prove that I could still run a quarter mile and to make money. I don’t need either.”
Learn more about Will Eisner at www.willeisner.com.
7 Days in Arts
Anxiety about Jewish Literature
As long as the Jewish people lives, it will generate a living culture, and as long as that culture values the written word, Jews will write books.
Individual genius notwithstanding, these books will reflect the Jewish culture of their time. The Talmud was argued and codified when the Jewish elites concentrated on interpreting Jewish law, and the New York intellectuals generated Commentary and Partisan Review when American Jewish elites began "arguing the world." In between, Jews of Spain took up poetry, and Jews of Poland created hagiography about their rebbes, each in creative response to their religious communities. The diarists of the ghettos during World War II raised the pen against the swastika in an appeal to history that was as absolute and passionate as their forefathers’ appeals to God.
Our present anxiety about Jewish literature derives not from a slump in contemporary Jewish writing, but from the insufficiencies of American Jewish life. An ignorant Jewry inhibits even the knowledgeable Jewish writer.
Sholom Aleichem, at the turn of the 20th century, assumed that his main readers would be familiar with the Jewish prayers, though they might no longer be observing the commandments. Thus, when he wanted to create an "ordinary Jew," he imagined a dairyman so saturated with liturgy and Bible that he could improvise riffs on the psalms as he guided his horse over a country road.
But when Tova Mirvis writes in the first-person plural about "the ladies auxiliary" of an Orthodox synagogue, she feels obliged to explain one Jewish ritual per chapter to educate a potential readership of Jews who may know as little as gentiles about their religion. Her self-consciousness about what earlier writers could take for granted — intimacy with Jewish languages, texts and way of life — saps the energy from her voice, which could just as easily belong to the Methodist down the block. Some Yiddish words used to draw a laugh in the general culture as reminders of the immigrant condition that American Jews had outgrown. Nowadays, every manifestation of Jewish observance is played for comedy.
Add indifference to the ignorance, and Jewishness becomes silly putty. Say what you will about the Jews who wrote in German, even Heinrich Heine and Karl Kraus — who accepted baptism as their passport to European civilization — but they never lost their awe or dread of the religion they no longer practiced.
Judaism throbs in their works as pulsating conscience and threat. They registered the high cost of being a Jew. There is no such tension in authors such as E.L. Doctorow or Grace Paley, who treat Jewishness as whatever they wish it to be. Because of the benignity of American democracy, conversion to American liberalism requires no ceremony. Modern Jews don’t have to acknowledge that they are switching allegiances as they substitute leftist pieties for the tough Jewish discipline: They can pretend that they have never defected at all. If American Jews judge Judaism by the standards of The New York Times rather than judging The Times by the standards of Judaism, those writers who dream of being reviewed by The Times will reflect its values instead of God’s.
Cowardice is the third and most serious hindrance to the quality of the Jewish book in America. I wonder whether there has ever been in the history of the Jewish people a generation as craven as the one in whose midst we live. The single Columbia University professor Edward Said — who falsified his biography so that he could blame the Jews for losses inflicted on him by the Egyptians — managed to cow thousands of his Jewish fellow academics into apologizing for the existence of the Jewish State. In the 53 years since the Arab countries launched against Israel the longest and most protean war in modern history, the Jews of America have been beating a steady retreat from defense of the Jewish homeland. Most American Jews don’t even have the grit to speak out for what other Jews daily defend with their lives. No wonder Mark Helprin looks for heroes in World War I, and Michael Chabon in the comic book supermen of World War II. They would be hard put to find models of heroism among the Jewish elites of Los Angeles or New York.
The Jewish book reflects this moral collapse, and our best books are those that tell of it most honestly. Saul Bellow’s "Bellarosa Connection" registers the consequence of forgetting and neglecting what is sacred and significant. Midge Decter wrote "Liberal Parents, Radical Children," and Philip Roth adapted it as the superb novel "American Pastoral." Cynthia Ozick is our toughest naysayer, refusing the placebos of a homogenized culture. Those books are the truest that expose the ignorance, the indifference and the cowardice, reminding us through negative, if not yet positive, representation of what the Jewish people could yet become.
A New L.A. Shtibl
Several people huddle around the Shtibl Minyan’s scarf-covered bima, rolling the Torah scroll to the day’s special maftir. There is some down time threatening to break the momentum, so Rachel Sheer grabs someone’s child to balance on her hip as she circles the room urging others to join her in a niggun, a catchy, wordless melody.
It’s not too difficult to get a niggun going in the Shtibl Minyan. After all, that is why the Shtibl Minyan, with between 20 and 60 people every Shabbat, was founded more than a year ago.
“There was a group of people who wanted a place to daven that had Chasidic davening and was egalitarian in a community that was politically committed and Jewishly learned, and saw all those things as being tied together,” said Aryeh Cohen, a professor of rabbinic literature at the University of Judaism, who founded the minyan.
The first minyan in January 2000 drew 40 people to the rented room in the Workmen’s Circle building on Robertson Boulevard, just south of Pico Boulevard. The next week saw 60 people. The numbers — way beyond anyone’s expectations — proved something that Cohen had long felt: There were many like him who were looking for a spirited, traditional and egalitarian service in a community dedicated to social action and Torah study.
The Shtibl Minyan is one of a few small traditional egalitarian prayer groups that have emerged in the mostly Orthodox Pico-Robertson area during the past few years. The Shivyon Minyan meets once a month at a local hotel, and a small Friday night service meets at someone’s home. Most recently, the Neshama Minyan, which like the Shtibl Minyan uses the tunes and style of the late Reb Shlomo Carlebach, started to meet Friday nights at Temple Beth Am last November and now has 80 to 90 people every week.
Daniel Greyber, a University of Judaism rabbinic student who founded the Neshama Minyan, believes there is a growing group that is looking for the “passion and spirituality of the Carlebach minyanim, but who want an egalitarian setting where they don’t feel like they are compromising their principles, where they feel like everybody is participating fully in the experience,” said Greyber, who is a rabbinic intern at Temple Beth Am.
The Shtibl Minyan is entirely lay led, with a core group of about 25. Most of the members are in their 20’s or 30’s, both singles and families.
At this young stage, the members of the Shtibl Minyan are able to mold the ambience and content to their desires.
For instance, it was important to founders that children not be sequestered in another room, so they are able to float freely between the A Shenere Velt Gallery where the minyan meets and the library adjacent to it, where a rotation of parents keeps an eye on the kids.
“It’s a place that my daughter really likes,” Sarah Lansill said of 4-year-old Hannah. “Sometimes I like a more quiet, meditative experience, but it’s more important for me to have a place where I can daven with my family and where Hannah sees adults engaged in prayer,” added Lansill, who also davens at Metivta: A Center for Contemplative Judaism.
Like many other children who attend, Hannah joins in for the songs and dances.
And the singing is plentiful. Members take turns leading the davening in the Carlebach style, which leaves ample room for spontaneous participation and community singing. Taking the Torah in and out of the ark is usually a 20-minute affair with dance and song.
“In most shuls, if you chant a niggun for more than one round, it’s considered inappropriate,” said Philip Shakhnis, who was among the founding members. “I wanted something where there would be freer emotional expression, where the real love of the melodies could be expressed without any sort of embarrassment.”
It is also important to Shakhnis, who like many other Shtibl members attended or still attends Temple Beth Am’s Library Minyan, that there is opportunity for a full silent amidah and that the full Torah portion is read every week.
Shtibl members are also averse to the institutional bureaucracy that stifles innovation in many big congregations.
The Shtibl Minyan has no rabbi, no building and no dues.
“We have a constantly evolving notion of what it means to belong,” Cohen said. “Our notion of what would normally be called membership includes doing things for the Shtibl — laining, davening, setting up the chairs, going to the homeless shelter to prepare food, hosting Shabbat lunch, teaching class, taking a class — that is how we define belonging.”
Cohen teaches a Talmud class and gives most of the d’var Torahs, though others are welcome to.
“There’s a real absence of theatricality and rabbi-speak that can happen in big congregations,” Lansill said.
“We’re not about a building fund. That is the last thing that any of us would ever want to put our energies into,” Shakhnis said.
He added that members would rather put their money and time into other causes, such as supporting the janitors’ strike last year, when Shtibl members brought over bagged lunches and contributed to the janitor’s living-expense funds.
Every Thursday minyaneers are at P.A.T.H. (People Assisting the Homeless), cooking and serving dinner and tutoring homeless people. They visit Briarwood Terrace convalescent hospital, and last summer they demonstrated at the Democratic National Convention.
“We see all of that as an integral part of what it means to be a davening and learning community,” Cohen said.
Even the art gallery where the minyan meets happens to be decorated with an art installation about homeless people.
“The partnership with the Workmen’s Circle has been wonderful,” Cohen said, “though the irony of a Chasidic minyan meeting at a an organization founded by anti-religious socialists is not lost on anyone.”
The small room with the checkered floor also has the haimish, informal quality that gives the minyan the intimacy of a shtibl — one of the small shuls that populated Eastern European villages.
While too much growth isn’t a problem yet, Cohen said he’d like to see the minyan stay small. In fact, he said, he’d rather see spin-off minyanim than a bloated Shtibl Minyan.
Minyan members seem to agree, treasuring the ambience a small group allows.
“There is a feeling in the room that happens when people are really engaged in prayer,” Lansill said. “And that happens there.”
The Shtibl Minyan meets Saturdays at 9:15 a.m. at the
Workmen’s Circle, 1525 S. Robertson Blvd. For more information on the Shtibl
Minyan, visit www.shtibl.com or e-mail email@example.com .
The Neshama Minyan meets Friday evenings at Temple Beth
Am, 1039 S. La Cienega Ave. Through the summer mincha is at 5:45 p.m., Kabbalat
Shabbat and maariv 6-7:15 p.m. For more information call (310) 652-7353 or
e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org .
Oil Loses Round
Imagine the possibility of having restricted access to your own religion and culture without even realizing it, whether you attend synagogue and study sessions faithfully or not. Such a phenomenon actually exists, and it’s doing its disturbing work in our own Jewish community. I am referring to the inability to read and interpret the Hebrew language – the original mode of communication of the Torah, rabbis, biblical scholars and personas, and thousands of years of Judaism. I call this disability Hebrew/Jewish illiteracy.
The term illiteracy most often conjures up those stereotypical images of people far outside the walls of our own community. Prima facie, no one would associate this handicap with the People of the Book. Yet it is a fact that most Jewish Americans do not possess the bilingual skills necessary in which to truly live up to their name. Yes, being a fully expressed Jew actually does have something to do with the Hebrew language. Generally speaking, Jewish Americans, due to a language barrier, are incapable of fully connecting with the bread and butter of their faith – biblical and rabbinic texts. These repositories of our collective ancient wisdom and spirituality remain, for most, largely unapproachable, and yet they form the basis of what it means to be Jewish. And whereas the concept of Jewish literacy means much more than just reading and writing in a particular language, on the most fundamental level it certainly must start there.
You can’t just take somebody else’s word for what thousands of years of Judaism have to say. The availability of the many excellent English translations of classical Jewish writings simply does not do the job. First of all, for every English language Torah book, there remain thousands still available only in the original Hebrew. Buyer demand has created a steady supply of English Bibles, prayer books, Talmuds, philosophical guides, Rashis, etc. But try getting your hands on a sufficient number of the layers upon layers of classical commentaries in English that make the aforementioned works user-friendly and truly accessible. Commentaries, whose job is to elucidate, create access to the primary evidence they are interpreting. Lose the commentaries, and you lose real touch with the source material. Certainly, there are numerous modern scholars who offer valuable thoughts in English on the Bible, liturgy and Jewish law. But no collection of modern theories and formulas can take the place of centuries of Jewish thought and scholarship. At the current pace, we might never see the finish of the massive job of translating the necessary books of ages past.
Moreover, English translations are often, though not always, misleading, emphasizing a conceptual understanding rather than a literal one. The final product ends up being a processed explanation rather than a true and careful translation, so you end up studying the translator and not the original author. In addition, even if a given translation is extremely precise, each Hebrew word can mean different things to the various classical scholars. Since it is rare to find a complete consensus, a typical English Bible, let us say, will have to resort to something like offering one scholar’s view in its translation of one word and another sage’s opinion for a different term. Technically, such renditions, when viewed as a whole, do not satisfy any one opinion of those original biblical exegetes; instead they are a hodgepodge of them all. Only upon learning the Hebrew language can we effectively sift through all the evidence and see how Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi, Rabbi David Kimchi, and the Maharal of Prague would each independently translate that same Bible.Finally, only a small percentage of the English-language Jewish books in publication today are dedicated to the task of translation at all. New-age authors have their own valuable ideas to communicate. Yet, somehow, year after year, Rabbi Jacob ben Asher’s 14th century magnum opus – the Tur, a compendium of Jewish law and the actual precursor to the monumental Shulchan Aruch – remains a mystery for the masses due to an ever-present language barrier.
The problem of Hebrew/Jewish illiteracy is by no means new, but it is particularly virulent in its modern form due to the dynamics of today’s Jewish landscape. The incredible availability of certain excellent Jewish works in English is really both a blessing and a curse in its propensity to solve one problem and exacerbate another. Fifty years ago, most of these books weren’t even available in English. Now we have little incentive to actually master the fundamentals of the Hebrew language. We are undoubtedly the first generation in history to produce individuals who have studied the entire Talmud and who cannot translate a single word of it. Today’s synagogues and Jewish institutions largely add to the problem by simply not acknowledging it – most rabbis, from Orthodox to Reform, give sound-bite oriented lectures, which demand zero textual skills on the part of their audiences. Jewish organizations continue to boast of their large constituencies who remain virtual outsiders when faced with the basic task of praying in Hebrew. (I make no attempt to use this phenomenon to measure anyone’s spirituality; I am addressing our potential for complete Jewish literacy.) And so it continues to be a world of haves and have-nots: Jewish children quickly surpass their own parents’ Hebrew ability, and Jewish adults continue to stare at the letters of the alef-bet as if it were hieroglyphics.
There is a viable solution. We need to adopt a more proactive attitude by demanding more opportunities for Hebrew language empowerment. We need to study Judaism more efficiently and learn how to learn. We, instead of the teacher, must be seated in the driver’s seat with an open book in front of us armed with the mission of improving our textual skills. For some, the answer may be as simple as signing up for an ulpan or a Hebrew grammar course; others may prefer the time-proven method of poring over the material with an advanced study partner (chavruta). All of this may seem hard at first, but as with any other skill, the reward is commensurate with the effort; the Talmudic giant Rabbi Akiba began his Hebrew linguistic adventure at age 40. I truly believe that Mark Twain’s words put many of these issues in proper perspective: “Don’t explain your author; read him right, and he explains himself.”
Free Hebrew Courses
North Valley JCC, the Jewish Home for the Aging, Westwood Kehilla and Jewish Learning Exchange are just a few of the Southland locations that will host a free Hebrew class during November for the Third Annual Read Hebrew America, a program organized by the National Jewish Outreach Program (NJOP).The classes, designed for Jews with little or no background in Hebrew, will concentrate on the Hebrew alphabet and basic reading skills. A level-two program will be available for those interested in advancing their Hebrew reading and comprehension skills.
NJOP’s primer, “Hebrew Reading Crash Courses,” will be available in English, Russian and Spanish, and a French version will be published next year. As a bonus, students who complete this year’s course will receive a mezuzah designed by world-renowned artist Yaacov Agam.
NJOP, which also spearheads Shabbat Across America, estimates that more than 15,000 unaffiliated and marginally affiliated Jews will participate in this year’s classes nationwide. Since 1987, NJOP has taught more than 215,000 North American Jews to read Hebrew.
To find the location and date of the class nearest you, visit the NJOP Web site at www.njop.org or call (800) 44-HEBREW. – Staff Report
Why Moshie Can’t Read
People of the Book Festival
Jewish books are hot these days.
Jonathan Fass should know; he’s directing the People of the Book – Jewish Book Festival, a program of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles, which turns four years old this week. The emergence of the festival is part and parcel of the Jewish book renaissance that’s been sweeping the nation recently.
At a time when Jewish continuity is in, Holocaust memoirs are everywhere and Jewish-themed tomes grace the book reviews of major daily newspapers, the festival has prospered. Several thousand Angelenos attended the 1999 fest. And at this year’s event, Nov. 12-16, you can catch Myla Goldberg (“Bee Season”) and Nomi Eve (“The Family Orchard”) whose stunning debut novels have gleaned national attention (see sidebars). Author Rich Cohen, who’ll read from his partisan saga, “The Avengers” (see story below), had lengthy excerpts of his book published in Newsweek.
Significantly, it’s not an exclusively Jewish shop that is providing the 250 tomes for festival “bookstores” at the West Valley and Westside JCC’s. Rather, it’s the upscale Century City Brentano’s.
Fass has a theory about the explosion of Jewish books. “Jews are the People of the Book, so if there’s a reinvigorating of Jewish identity, it follows there’s a reinvigorating of Jewish literature,” he says.
The festival has come a long way since it was whipped up from scratch by the JCC’s Seville Porush in 1997. The 2000 fest is smaller and more focused than in years past, so it’s more polished, and events aren’t competing against themselves to draw patrons in the megalopolis. “We’ve been learning what works and what doesn’t in a huge city like L.A.,” Fass explains. “We’ve also been trying to reach out to audiences we haven’t targeted before.”
For the first time ever, there’s a singles event, co-sponsored by JDate.com, featuring Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein, himself a single guy. Goldstein will talk about his book, “God at the Edge: Searching for the Divine in Uncomfortable and Unexpected Places,” chronicling how he set out to find God in tough, scary situations like dog sledding in the Arctic.
Also debuting is a panel discussion highlighting the lesbian Jewish experience, where you can hear Zsa Zsa Gershick, editor of “Gay Old Girls,” profiling lesbian pioneers of the gay liberation movement.
The 10 festival programs, moreover, include children’s storytelling events; Tova Mirvis reading from her book, “The Ladies’ Auxiliary,” set in the Orthodox Jewish community of Memphis, Tenn.; and a mystery night with “A Conspiracy of Paper,” David Liss’ tale of an 18th century London Jew investigating the mysterious death of his estranged father. Richard Krevolin’s monologue “Boychick,” starring Richard Kline, is another tribute to a misunderstood father by a son out of touch with his Jewish roots. (“Boychick” will run Nov. 18 and 19, but the Nov. 16 performance has been canceled. Advance reservations are necessary to guarantee the festival admission price of $6 per person.)
The goal of the festival is simple. “We wanted to present as wide a range of Jewish literature as possible,” Fass explains.
And while the fest does not yet break even from ticket sales, that’s not the point, adds Fass, the JCCs’ Jewish education specialist. “We lose money,” he says, candidly. “But the goal of Jewish education is not to turn a profit. It’s to help Jews grow Jewishly.”
All festival events are $6 except children’s programs, which are free. A $24 pass allows admission to all events. For more information and to obtain a festival brochure, call (323) 938-2531, ext. 2207.
Reflections of War
ArtsThe Year’s Best Jewish Children’s Books
Last month,the Association of Jewish Libraries announced the winners of its Sydney Taylor Award for this year’s most distinguished contributions to Jewish children’s literature. AJL’s award committee chose a holiday story and a mesmerizing collection of legends as the finest of the 70 books submitted by Jewish and secular publishers in the 1997 publishing season. Winners are the picture book, “When Zaydeh Danced on Eldridge Street” in the younger reader division and the anthology, “The Mysterious Visitor” in the older reader division. Honor books are “When Jessie Came Across the Sea” and “I Have Lived A Thousand Years”. Author Barbara Diamond Goldin won the Body of Work award.
The annual awards include a cash prize from the estate of popular children’s author Sydney Taylor of All-of-a-kind-Family series fame. Publishers add a gold foil winner’s seal to the book jacket. Winning authors and illustrators will receive their awards on June 23rd in Philadelphia at AJL’s national convention banquet.
“When Zaydeh Danced On Eldridge Street,” written by Elsa Rael, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman, is a Simchat Torah story about the tension between a bright little girl and her fearsomely stern grandfather.
“The Mysterious Visitor: Stories of the Prophet Elijah” by Nina Jaffe, illustrated by Elivia Savadier, Jaffe chose Elijah legends from a wide range of geographical origins. Her charming versions brim with the oral quality expected in folklore.
Two honors reflect the diversity in Jewish children’s literature. “When Jessie Came Across the Sea,” by Amy Hest, illustrated by P.J. Lynch and published by Candlewick Press, recounts how a Jewish orphan maid makes her way in the wide world from shtetl to America.
The older reader’s honor book is “I Have Lived A Thousand Years: Growing Up in the Holocaust” by Livia Bitton-Jackson, published by Simon & Schuster. Vivid laughter describes a searing personal experience during the gory final year of the Holocaust when Bitton-Jackson, a Czechoslovakian Jew, was sent to concentration camps.
Barbara Diamond Goldin won the Body of Work Award for significant contribution to Jewish juvenile literature. Her primary picture books include original holiday tales which range from humorous to bittersweet and her older children’s books encourage understanding of observance and ethics. She won a 1991 Sydney Taylor Award for her Purim picture book, “Cakes and Miracles.” Goldin’s consistently commendable and recommendable books combine talented writing, solid research, personal commitment and deep caring about young Jewish readers.
These books are available at your synagogue, religious or day school libraries. For more information, contact Awards Chair Ellen Cole at Temple Isaiah’s Levine Library or Abigail Yasgur, director of the Jewish Community Library. — Staff Report
When Zaydeh Danced On Eldridge Street, written by Elsa Rael and illustrated by Marjorie Priceman, is the winner of the Sydney Taylor Award in the younger reader division.