A different taste

Last Saturday night, my husband and I were invited, along with many others — most of whom didn’t know each other — to the home of Lorin and Linda Fife. The occasion was not a party, but rather a “Taste of Limmud,” a precursor to something called LimmudLA. The Presidents’ Day weekend conference will be volunteer-led, and organizers expect it to bring together hundreds of local Jews of all denominations for three days of conversation and learning.

The Limmud model of cross-fertilization has become wildly popular in various countries around the world — including England, Australia, France and, in the United States, New York — but is new to Los Angeles, and getting the word out for the upcoming event began months ago. This evening was not the first “Taste” — designed to build excitement — and it may not be the last: It takes some nudging to get Angelenos out of their homes, out of their neighborhoods and out of their habits to try something that’s somewhat hard to describe.

Inside the Fife home was a world set up for willing learners. The house had been transformed into a conference hall, with folding chairs for the dozens of guests. Everywhere there were elegant platters of kosher treats (sufganiyot included).

After some mingling — during which strangers and friends alike admitted to one another that we didn’t really know what we were in for — Shep Rosenman, who along with Linda Fife is co-chairing LimmudLA, introduced the program. Strict rules: two 20-minute sessions, timed with no give. Four choices for each session, which all would be led by volunteers. Different rooms for each. Choose what interests you and go learn. It is the model for the weekend-long format in February, but then the days’ sessions, we were told, would extend from the crack of dawn until 2 a.m.

I was reminded of Yom Kippur afternoon at my synagogue, Temple Israel of Hollywood, when we’re given choices of learning opportunities, all of them led by fellow members. Hearing people’s personal journeys is always my preference, so I decided to check out comedian/TV actor Elan Gold, who spoke under the title “Not-So Orthodox in Hollywood.” My husband took a more serious track in choosing to listen to Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, a human rights group that monitors — guess what. His topic was “Israel at the UN: A Nation that Dwells Alone.”

While I’d like to say that our lives and visions of the world were changed by these talks, they weren’t. Both men were generously informative — particularly as they were talking here for free, and each can command considerable speakers’ fees. (Gold was off to play the Laugh Factory later that evening). But their topics were engaging, weighty, and very familiar — the struggle to be an observant Jew in a secular society, the fight for Israel to get its fair share.

Only when the second session started did I begin to get what is so extraordinary and delightful about Limmud.

I found myself in a room full of people, about half of whom were quite evidently Orthodox, the other half indefinable (most likely a mix of denominations), listening to a man named Yehuda Frischman, a Chasid and licensed acupuncturist. Frischman spoke about his philosophy of intermingling Chinese medicine, Jewish belief and his own brand of metaphysical healing.

Three men in this room, including Frischman, were wearing shtreimels, and I realized as I chatted with two of them, that this was the first time I’d ever had a chance to speak so comfortably to members of the ultra-Orthodox community. We cross paths regularly on the street and, professionally, through the pages of our publications, but we rarely personally interact. Yet, here, I was with them and with others more like me (including my husband) learning from Frischman — who opened his heart to us about the lives he’s had the opportunity to heal and the way that his beliefs have allowed him to take alternative medicine to a different realm.

I realized that there was a little bit of magic happening — not just in this room, but throughout the evening — as we moved outside the familiar to get a closer view of one another. And the surprise was not so much in the substance of what anyone said, but the feeling of approaching one another with open hearts and, hopefully, open minds. As Jews we are such a divided group — and even for those of us who spend our days in the Jewish world, as I do, it’s hard to move beyond our friends, our denominations, our own congregations and our comfort level.

It was a simple idea, really — just the hospitable Fifes, a set-up of chairs and those generous volunteers willing to lead us in conversation. The Limmud program on Presidents’ Day weekend (Feb. 15-18) will be designed for all ages, for families and individuals, because the goal is to link us up as one large community, to get us to move outside the pockets of our separate neighborhoods.

So, I’m going to LimmudLA. Are you?

Rob Eshman will return next week.

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Firsthand accounts bring WWII London ‘Blitz’ to life

There is no shortage of books, historical and fictional, on the bombing of London during World War II. Peter Stansky’s new book, “The First Day of the Blitz,” combines history, political commentary and firsthand testimony in a compelling account.

The “Blitz,” misnamed for its expected quick knockout blow to Britain, officially started at 5 p.m. on Sept. 7, 1940. The bombing was extensive and lasted for 56 of the next 57 days. Over the course of the war, 40 percent of London’s housing stock was made uninhabitable.

Stansky’s book focuses on the first day, when the complacency of the Phony War (a preceding time of relative calm and frequently ignored air raid sirens) was replaced by shock, then terror, then resolve.

One of the first accounts details a recurring theme, the importance of afternoon tea:

“It must have been about 4 o’clock, because my mother had made afternoon tea … in the little silver-edged tray, complete with cups and saucers, a small matching china jug with milk and a teapot under its cosy.”

When the bombing started, they took refuge in a cupboard under the stairs.

“The air of the parlour condensed and became opaque as if turned instantaneously to a red-brown fog, the floor heaved unbelievably, the [wall] leaned and rocked as though it had become flexible and … the slates from the roof came pouring down, crashing through the roof of the glass conservatory with huge clatter, smashing all the glass and piling brokenly into the room….

“[As the bombing subsided], everything was covered with a heavy brown dust, which lay so thickly on the floor that it concealed the carpet. The little china milk jug was lying on its side, and the spilt milk lay in a rivulet dripping over the edge of the table to a white pool in that thick layer of dust below.

“My mother made an instinctive movement to pick up the jug and staunch the flow of milk, but realised how useless it was. What normally would have been a serious accident spoiling the carpet, was tiny in this new scale of destruction.”

At the Anti-Defamation League, we have many programs designed to teach about the Holocaust, and we know how well personal testimony and artifacts — a survivor’s story, an excerpted diary, a single shoe — attest to the human condition and bring history lessons to life. For me, Stansky’s book was especially close to home, as my mother and father lived through the Blitz, and their stories were part of the fabric of my childhood.

Reading Stansky’s book brought back memories of my mother’s experiences, both sad and funny — seeing a postman blown into the air; spending an air raid crouched under the heavy dining room table, where her older relatives sat telling jokes and playing cards, and just getting on with everyday life. I pored through the stories of this book as I would read my mother’s own diary. I was so eager to get to the next firsthand account, I often had to stop and re-read Stansky’s historic conclusions.

Stansky gives conflicting evidence of Britain’s preparedness, noting on one hand, the remarkable volunteer efforts of the air raid wardens, and on the other, the misplaced micromanagement of the British government (distributing postcards so people could write relatives of their safety and free up telephone lines, yet withholding blankets so people would not be “tempted to stay too long” in the shelters).

Stansky addresses the “myth of the Blitz” — that the British people behaved calmly, the country was unified by patriotism, and the experience led to a vast expansion of social services from “cradle to grave” in post-war times. There was truth to the myth, but it was an oversimplification.

The British resolved not to dwell on the situation (those who did were called “bomb bores”), but there was a nationalist strain to their patriotism. “[T]hey had little interest in including all who might claim to be British. This was most notable, ironically, in the case of Jews, some of whom were as badly blitzed as anyone.”

Stansky makes note of the presence of anti-Semitism, quoting rumors that Jews were hoarding prime space in the shelters, and including a report that anti-Semitism arose “not so much on account of a marked difference between Jews and Cockneys, but because the latter, seeking a scapegoat as an outlet for emotional disturbances, pick on the traditional and nearest one.”

Finally, Stansky draws parallels to modern terrorism, equating the qualities of Londoners in the days following Sept. 7, 1940, to those of New Yorkers in the days following Sept. 11, 2001. “Both days, 61 years apart, were marked by death and destruction, but they also provided evidence of our ability to survive as human beings.”

Not everyone will have the personal draw to the material that I did, but any student of history will enjoy “The First Day of the Blitz” as much for its social and political commentary as its compilation of great stories. I recommend it with a cup of afternoon tea.

Amanda Susskind is regional director of the Pacific Southwest Region of the Anti-Defamation League.

On the tricky question of ‘who is a Jew[ish writer]?’

I do not know who qualifies as a Jewish writer.

If you wish to count the non-Jewish John Updike because he created a Jewish protagonist (Henry Bech) or if you include genetically Jewish Muriel Spark (who converted to Catholicism and wouldn’t know a box of tefillin or a bag of knishes if it bit her on her now late, lamented nose) it is OK with me.

You may choose to call William Styron a Jewish writer for penning “Sophie’s Choice,” and not Harold Pinter, because his Judaism consists in reviling anything Jewish.

There are some clear cases — I. B. Singer in, David Foster Wallace out — but otherwise, I’m going to leave canonization to the anthologists.

Having avoided writing an essay that has been written too many times, I am free to create my own categories. I hope I can convince you that if Judaism and literature are close to your heart, you should engage in the same exercise.

First category, hosannas for a new and wonderful group: Jewishly literate women. They are very different in feel, but writers like Dara Horn, Tova Mirvis, Allegra Goodman, Nicole Krauss, Ruchama King, Rebecca Goldstein and many others share a knowledge of Judaism without an apparent resentment of it. They are not uncritical, but they are also not beleaguered. This is a relatively new combination in most American Jewish literature, excepting the wondrous Cynthia Ozick. These women are not pushing against the tradition because they do not live in a society where the tradition is pushing against them. Their prose can be coolly witty (Goodman), mystically charged (Horn), elegantly cerebral (Goldstein), and all the while their stories weave in and out of Jewish contexts. I note the parallel, more finicky and double-edged development in England of whom Naomi Alderman and Charlotte Mendelson are the outstanding examples.

Not only are the books unangry (why is that not a word?) but the Judaism in them points beyond itself. Myla Goldberg’s popular “Bee Season” used kabbalah to suggest something that would not be easily earned without the propulsion of tradition. Here is a phenomenon that the Chaim Potok generation never knew — Judaism as liberation. Danny Saunders, the haunted Chasidic progeny of “The Chosen,” had to see a sculpture to know rapture. Today his sister would get an aliyah.

There is a certain liberation in writing as a Jewish woman because the tradition is not so imposing. When you read a modern male counterpart, gesturing rudely behind his back are Saul Bellow, the Roths (Philip and Henry), Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud and on and on. Augie March, Bellow’s wide-eyed lover of the close and far, explorer of his fresh-faced country, is a marvelous creation, but you cannot recreate him. March’s eagle’s feathers have long since molted and turned into Art Speigelman’s “Maus.” Too much pain, too much historical experience and too little societal friction against the artist. The novelist with an immigrant voice, like Gary Shteyngart, can also use the excess of wonderment that Bellow shares with earlier Jewish writers like Stanley Elkin and Mordecai Richler and, for that matter, S.J. Perelman. But that is the prose of exhalation, hard to create if your breathing was never confined in the first place.

A lot of writing has turned intensely personal and memoiristic because with such an open country, the only unfair chafing that the artist receives is at the hands of parents when young. Tales of abuse have little larger message. What constrains the Jew in America? During the Cold War, Philip Roth quipped that in the West everything goes and nothing matters, while in the East nothing goes and everything matters. Perhaps the intense solipsism of much of Roth’s writing is explicable not as a character defect, or not that alone, but also as a reaction to a world in which he cannot struggle against the bonds that would limit him as an artist.

A result of this damnable freedom, some major Jewish writers, as Sylvia Barack Fishman has pointed out, choose other settings to create the story. Michael Chabon creates a fictional Alaska where constraints still apply. Nathan Englander goes to Argentina, where threats are still real. Jonathan Safran Foer goes to an Eastern Europe where the ghosts still reign. For many writers, perhaps for all, the Houdini principle applies: In order for one’s art to reach maximum potency, it has to begin in chains.

So modern Jewish literature is afflicted by category confusion, following the pattern of Ring Lardner’s horseman, who jumped on his steed and rode off in all directions. Much of it draws on the power of the past; Nicole Krauss’ “History of Love” is a palmipsest, where the modern love story is charged with the electricity of what came before. Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” uses the immigrant experience and so does Ozick’s “Heir to the Glimmering World.” The writing of Thane Rosenbaum and Melvin Bukiet reprises Holocaust themes, often to powerful effect. But who brings news of today? Is there news to bring? Sept. 11 looms increasingly as a modern catastrophe with ever unfolding consequences, and the turn to Sept. 11 novels is an indication of how powerful the need for a scaffolding of historical consequence to build an enduring novel.

When Allegra Goodman writes about scientific fraud in “Intuition” we witness a talented novelist writing a competent novel about material she has mastered but which is not her own. (To see an instructive contrast, read C.P. Snow’s “The Affair” on the same question a generation before. Snow was a scientist, but paradoxically, although there is less science in the novel, the psychology is more subtle and acute.) When Goodman writes “Kaaterskill Falls” there is something at stake and the result is incrementally more moving. Goodman’s passion for things Jewish lights up her characters and enlivens the story. The question is: Where and when does the Jewish novelist still have something at stake?

Long ago, the doyenne of American Jewish letters, Ozick, issued a call for a “new Yiddish.” There is still a playful, buoyant and exuberant strain in many Jewish writers that recalls a sort of highbrow Borsht Belt. Safran Foer’s Alex would sneer at a sentence by Raymond Carver or Anne Beattie if it tiptoed up to him all well-behaved and full of WASP-like angst; the result would be like having Mork visit Walton’s Mountain. Still, style is not enough. And with the prosperity of American Jews, the post-idealized age of Israel and the ironic flippancy that rides sidesaddle on any statement of commitment, what is an American Jewish writer supposed to love?