With gratitude to HaShem, mazel tov to Shmuel Hart (King David High School Class of 2016) and Reut Rappoport on their joyous and spirited wedding at Sakoya Gardens (just outside Jerusalem) on June 15, 2021. Elated parents – Alexander Hart and Kathryn Selby of Vancouver, and Rabbi Jason and Meira Rappoport of Alon Shvut, Gush Etzion, Israel – are so very proud of the newlyweds. The couple resides in Jerusalem, Israel, and both are currently studying at Hebrew University.
* * *
Now in its seventh year, the Canadian Jewish Literary Awards recognizes and rewards the finest Canadian writing on Jewish themes and subjects. This year, the awards ceremony, which took place on Oct. 17, was presented on Zoom and is available for viewing on the Canadian Jewish Literary Awards YouTube channel.
The winner in the fiction category was Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted: The Ballad of Motl the Cowboy by Gary Barwin (Random House Canada). It follows a wannabe cowboy, Motl, as he and his mother flee Vilna and the Nazis’ massacre of the Jews. The ensuing events, characters and horror are met by Motl with humorous absurdity in the face of tragedy.
Plunder: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) by Menachem Kaiser, which tells the story of the author’s quest to reclaim a residential building his family owned in Poland before the Shoah, won for best biography.
Lisa Richter won the poetry prize for Nautilus and Bone (Frontenac House). A reimagining of the unconventional life of Yiddish poet Anna Margolin, this collection also won the 2020 National Jewish Book Award for Poetry, the first time a Canadian poet has ever received the American honour.
For children and youth literature, the winner was Osnat and Her Dove (Levine Querido) by Sigal Samuel, with illustrations by Vali Mintzi. It is based on a true story. Although girls in 15th-century Mosul were told, “Reading is for boys,” Osnat convinces her rabbi father to teach her to read. As she grows older, she asks her father to seek a groom who will allow her to study Torah, and she helps run her father’s religious school while raising her own children. After her father’s death and, later, her husband’s, Osnat becomes the school’s leader, making her the world’s first female rabbi.
For scholarship, the awardee was Survivors: Children’s Lives After the Holocaust by Rebecca Clifford (Yale University Press), which is an exploration of the life trajectories of 100 children who were 10 years old or younger at the time of their liberation in 1945. Through archives found in 12 countries, including Canada, and through personal interviews, the author follows the impact the events of the Holocaust had on their lives, and on those who educated them.
In the category of writing about the Holocaust, the winner was In the Lights of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos (William Morrow) by Judy Batalion. The book points out the lack of recognition and the misrepresentation of women’s roles during the war, the actions they took to fight, as well as their crucial importance.
The Canadian Jewish Literary Awards jury for 2021 was Edward Trapunski, Pierre Anctil, Rona Arato, Miriam Borden, Rita Davies, Alain Goldschläger and Adam Sol.
Fourteen new buildings have been added to the student village at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) in Israel. It will allow more than 1,000 students options from studio apartments to married student housing.
“The student village lets them choose their living quarters in accordance with their personal preference,” said BGU president Prof. Daniel Chamovitz, “while everything they could need is nearby: the north campus and the conference centre, which are in development, a hotel for visiting students and faculty, stores and coffee shops … and the high-tech park, the train station and the university’s country club are just a short walk away.”
The student village offers apartments suitable for religious students and those with disabilities. Any registered student is eligible to apply for a room. The rooms come fully furnished with a smart TV, beds, closets, desks, a full kitchen, a sitting area and a solar water heater. Full maintenance service is offered, as is 24/7 security, a 24-hour service hotline, bicycle rooms, laundry rooms, and more.
“Situated in the country’s southern region, the university is known to be a destination institution,” said Mark Mendelson, chief executive officer of Canadian Associates of BGU. “This means that students who attend the university also live either on campus or in the communities in and around the university, including the city of Be’er Sheva. In addition, almost 60% of the undergraduate student body volunteers in their respective neighbourhoods, which is really something very unique to BGU and has brought outstanding community involvement to the citizens of Be’er Sheva.”
University of Victoria’s Prof. Dan Russek spoke about Jewish writers in Argentina and Mexico, as well as Jorge Luis Borges’ Jewish-related writings. (photo from Dan Russek)
Dan Russek spoke on 20th-century Latin American writers, both Jewish and those who have been influenced by Jewish themes, at a Jan. 10 Zoom event organized by Congregation Emanu-El in Victoria.
Entitled The Golem Dances the Tango, the talk began with discussion of four Jewish authors – Alberto Gerchunoff and Ana Maria Shua of Argentina and Margo Glantz and Myriam Moscona of Mexico – before examining Argentine Jorge Luis Borges’ Jewish-related writings.
Gerchunoff (1883-1950) painted an idealized version of Jewish life in the Argentine countryside in his writings, with religious Jews as peasant farmers in a new land, explained Russek, an associate professor in the University of Victoria’s department of Hispanic and Italian studies.
In his best-known work, The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas, a series of vignettes, “Gerchunoff was keen to find parallels between peasant life in Argentina and the Bible, and explore the interaction between Jews and the local residents,” Russek said. In one story, El Episodio de Myriam, a Jewish girl from a pious family elopes with a non-Jewish boy, causing uproar in the community.
Shua represents a more modern writer, less attached to traditions, said Russek. In her 1994 novel The Book of Memories, an anonymous narrator tells the story of the Rimetka family. “Gossip reigns supreme in this fictionalized account of a family. One feels as though we are witnessing a family dinner, perhaps a seder,” Russek explained. The narrator presents different and sometimes contradictory accounts, he said, creating a “series of foibles and misadventures with no end.”
Mexico’s Glantz incorporates much of her family story into her most-recognized book, The Genealogies, published in 1981. The daughter of immigrants from Ukraine, her father, Jacobo Glantz, was a promoter of Jewish intellectual life in Mexico, and once penned a poem about Christopher Columbus in Yiddish.
The Genealogies “is a form of literature as transcription and personal document,” Russek said. “It is a family story centred on her parents and her own coming of age. In Glantz, we see an adoption of Jewish culture but not of Jewish faith nor a strong sense of belonging.”
Moscona, a poet, journalist and translator, was the most contemporary writer of the four. Born in Mexico City to Ladino-speaking Bulgarian immigrants, her autobiographic novel Tela de sevoya explores her quest to find her cultural and linguistic heritage.
Russek then discussed Borges, a Judeophile who had several Jewish friends, from his time studying in Geneva, as well as literary mentors, such as Baruch Spinoza and Franz Kafka. Borges credited his English Protestant grandmother for providing a passion for Israel through a love of the Bible, and recognized Judaism as a pillar of Western Civilization.
In 1934, early in his literary life, Borges wrote an article called “I, A Jew,” which was a defence against an attack from a fascist magazine accusing him of hiding his Jewishness. In it, Borges says he would not mind at all being Jewish.
Borges lauded Israel in his poetry. In his 1969 collection In Praise of Darkness, he views Israel as a place that transcends Jewish history and the stereotypes associated with Jews. Two of the poems were written after the Six Day War and herald Israeli heroism on the battlefield.
In “Israel, 1969,” Borges writes, “You shall forget your parents’ tongue and learn the tongue of Paradise. / You shall be an Israeli. / You shall be a soldier. / You shall build the homeland with swamps, you shall erect it in deserts.”
Jewish characters and themes appear in “The Secret Miracle” and “The Death and the Compass.” And Borges had an abiding interest in kabbalah, which is documented in his essays and lectures. About his story El Aleph, Borges wrote: “In the kabbalah, that letter [aleph] signifies the En Soph, the pure and unlimited godhead; it has also been said that its shape is that of a man pointing to the sky and the earth, to indicate that the lower world is the map and mirror of the higher.”
Russek concluded with Borges’ poem “The Golem,” from the 1964 book El otro, el mismo. “Despite the logical structure of the poem, the theme deals with magic, myth and religion. The main philosophical/theological subject is the relationship between the creator and its creatures,” Russek said.
Russek is the author of Textual Exposures: Photography in 20th-Century Latin American Narrative Fiction and the upcoming Exercises in Urban Mysticism, a book of illustrated poetic prose. He coordinates Victoria’s annual Latin American and Spanish Film Week at Cinecinta.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
Bonnie Nish, executive director of Word Vancouver. (photo by Andrew Bagoly)
“We believe that Word Vancouver is a vehicle for community connection. It is important on so many levels right now to provide a space for collaboration, discourse, and a safe and accessible platform for people to share their stories,” festival executive director Bonnie Nish told the Independent.
Normally, the annual event takes place in Downtown Vancouver and people drop in to see author talks and participate in other activities. This year’s festival will be online, running Sept. 19-27.
“Like most organizations, we knew we had to either cancel or pivot by late March,” explained Nish about the impact of COVID-19. “Our festival takes place in September, so we had more time than others to make this decision.
“Word Vancouver’s mission,” she said, “is to bring readers and writers together to celebrate literary arts. The question was could we make the change from an in-person festival to an online festival and still serve this mission. We decided that, yes, we could, and, in doing so, we might even extend our reach with the in-person barrier removed. We could now seamlessly collaborate with national partners like Word On the Street Toronto and authors who were not physically in Vancouver, while keeping our main focus on local authors.”
Several changes had to be made.
“We needed to get prepared for the new online delivery format,” said Nish. “With the live in-person festival, we would not have any pre-registrations, as people would just walk into the events as they happened at the Vancouver Public Library. Now, we have a complex communications plan, along with a registration system, so our audience can secure their place and be given step-by-step instructions on how and when to participate.”
On the down side, she said, “We were working with a great site management team last year and we are sad we aren’t able to have them on our team for this festival.”
There have been other challenges, as well.
“We have had to prepare for the decrease of revenue from the exhibitor booths by reducing our staffing substantially,” said Nish. “Our board is very supportive of our new situation but they are also very risk averse, as they should be. We have found the most amazing volunteers and, for that, we are truly grateful. Programming is reduced somewhat, but we still have managed to book 140 authors and schedule over 50 events. Our community collaborations are stronger than ever. We have reinvented the exhibitor platform and now offer online exposure both on our website and during the events. It is a hard sell to some, but we honestly think the reach and return for exhibitors will be close to on par with the in-person version.”
Of the 140 authors participating this year, many are members of the Jewish community, and the Independent was able to speak with two of them – Alex Leslie and Rhea Tregebov – in advance of the festival.
Leslie writes poetry and short fiction, but is working on her first novel. Her latest collection is Vancouver for Beginners (Book*hug, 2019), and its poems are filled with powerful imagery and strong views about her beloved city, where she was born and raised. Leslie’s unique use of language, infused with obvious passion for her subject matter, is energizing to read. Every one of these poems is political in that they call on readers to think about the way in which they inhabit the world, how they think of ownership, place, community and many other concepts. Most of the entries are short narratives (or microfictions) that, in a page, encapsulate the feeling of being in a certain neighbourhood; what we lose when we normalize poverty alongside great wealth; the opportunities we miss when we forget our past, or the misery in our present.
JI: Could you share a bit about your background, both as it pertains to writing, and to your involvement with the Jewish community?
AL: I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a very young child. In my early 20s, I started taking short fiction more seriously as a writer and trying to publish in literary journals. It took awhile to place my first story, through a long period of reading, frustration, rejection and editing. From there, I published stories until I had enough to put together a manuscript, and that book, People Who Disappear, came out in my late 20s. I’ve essentially continued in the same way – working on material for long periods of time, attending readings, drilling away at projects around the time I spend on my paid work in the mental health field. I’ve always been a wanderer between fiction and poetry communities.
I’m a member of Or Shalom synagogue in Vancouver and co-curate a storytelling series there…. The Jewish side of my family is originally Ashkenazi, from shtetls in Ukraine, in the regions around Lvov and Odessa (when they immigrated they wrote down they were “Russian”). We’re what is called diasporic, as the communities we came from were lost to the Shoah (Holocaust).
JI: Jewish characters have appeared in your writings. What are some of the ways in which our Jewishness informs your political, cultural or other views/actions?
AL: Yes, my book of stories that came out in 2018, We All Need to Eat, centred around a young Jewish woman named Soma, and Jewish identity is a backbone of that book, as she processes the current rise of the alt-right and her family history that’s bound up in fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe.
For me, a core Jewish value is tikkun olam, which translates roughly to “repair of the world/universe.” Tikkun olam influences my work in the mental health field, as there is the prerogative there of contribution and not turning away from difficult areas of the mind and the concept that energy and goodness can be found in dark places. Persistence and dark humour – humour where others may not find humour! – are practices I’ve taken from Jewishness as well.
JI: Do you still co-curate Koreh at Or Shalom? Why is it important for people to have a platform to publicly read their work?
AL: Yes! Our next Koreh is on Saturday, Sept. 12, for Selichot. We have 10 readers! I curate this with Or Shalom’s Rabbi Hannah Dresner. This Koreh is centred on the idea of the pandemic as a crossing or transformation and everyone is welcome to be part of our audience. Here is the link with the Zoom information: orshalom.ca/event/leil-selichot-a-koreh-event-with-high-holiday-melodies.
This is our third year of curating Koreh. I feel it’s a special space for people who may not consider themselves “writers” to share stories, poems and reflections on their experiences and how they relate to the world. We’ve had Korehs focused on the natural world, on repose/restoration, on sanctuary. Rabbi Hannah asked me to co-curate it with her when we started it up. It was really her concept in the beginning and it’s been a pleasure to get to know so many writers and listeners adjacent to Koreh.
JI: What compels you to write and publish?
AL: My love of writing coincided with my love of reading. I’ve honestly wanted to be a writer since kindergarten. I remember writing stories about our neighbours, and my mother copying them out again in her handwriting. As I got older and wrote more and more, publishing emerged as a natural goal.
I read constantly and loved that I could see the world precisely from another person’s emotional perspective. I suppose that I wanted to replicate that experience, and share in it. Also, for me, it was about language, and using and manipulating language as a medium. Selecting, ordering and controlling words is a fascination for me, the way I suppose a mathematician may feel about algebra, or an investor might feel about predicting stocks. It’s a system.
JI: What is the importance to you of words?
AL: I think that words can put you in another person’s mind, so the power here would be empathy, radical transportation. Words also have a power of deep-layered description – so the power would be complex evocation, mixing emotional and physical parts of reality, making something 2-D into something 3-D, like a life-giving power.
Words can also move us to action. During the pandemic, I have been reading a lot. Endless online stuff is tiring and alienating after a long period of time. I’ve read a few extraordinary novels during this time – two are Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami and Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli. I also read Norman Doidge’s two books about neuroplasticity. I’m grateful for how these books moved me and took me out of this moment and showed me something I couldn’t have imagined on my own.
* * *
Born in Saskatoon and raised in Winnipeg, Tregebov moved to Vancouver from Toronto in 2004 to teach in the creative writing program at the University of British Columbia. Though she retired in 2017, she holds the position of associate professor emerita and continues to teach a bit. She has written several children’s books and is working on her eighth collection of poetry. Rue des Rosiers (Wolsak & Wynn, 2019) is her second novel.
Based on events leading to the 1982 terrorist attack in Paris on Goldenberg’s Deli, which killed six people and injured many more, Rue des Rosiers is a poignant and lyrical story about two women with vastly different backgrounds but both trying to figure out who they are and their place in the world. Canadian Sarah Levine makes decisions by flipping a penny that she carries with her and, at 25, she is decidedly lost, for a number of reasons. When she has a chance to go to Paris, she does and, while there, her story crosses over with that of Laila, an Arab immigrant living in one of the city’s slum neighbourhoods. In the author’s notes, Tregebov writes that she hopes her novel will “act as a memorial to the six people who died in the attack.” It does that, and more.
JI: Rue des Rosiers has so many layers and motifs, tightly woven, not a phrase seems superfluous. Can you share some of your creative process, from the idea of the novel to its publication last year?
RT: The novel began with two impulses: to explore the relationships among sisters and to understand the impact of terrorism on perpetrators as well as victims. Both are rooted in personal experience. I am one of three sisters, and I was living in Paris in 1982 very near where the attack on Rue des Rosiers occurred. Working through these issues was a long, sometimes joyous, sometimes exhausting process.
JI: Could you speak a bit about how Judaism or Jewish community infuse your work and/or life?
RT: I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust and the moral issues the Holocaust raises are core. I also grew up in a vital Winnipeg community that modeled ethical commitment and progressive values that I still find of immense value.
JI: Coteau Books, which initially published your novel, has closed. What are some of your thoughts on the future of publishing?
RT: Small presses like Wolsak & Wynn (who, happily, have picked up the novel) are a mainstay of literary publishing. We still have an infrastructure of support that allows these smaller presses. I’m concerned that the consolidation that characterizes the larger presses may contribute to a narrowing of available voices and perspectives.
JI: In an interview, you say, “I’ve said that the book is trying to ascertain the humanity in inhumanity.” Are there any risks in doing this, in finding the humanity in inhumanity?
RT: It can be difficult to attempt to empathically understand behaviour that is anathema to one’s own moral schema. I didn’t want to justify or validate acts or attitudes that dehumanize the Other. But, as one of the characters in the book says, “I’m interested in goodness, the mystery of goodness.” And, to examine goodness, one has to examine evil as its corollary.
JI: In another interview, you mention being “intrigued by the problem-solving involved in writing a novel.” Can you flesh out that idea?
RT: These large projects are so complex and absorbing. In the early stages, you have to hold a world that isn’t yet fully formed in your head. I’ve joked that it felt like wearing a giant hat! I (mostly) love the cut and paste and revision aspects of writing, how solving one small element sometimes acts to realign the entire book in a positive way.
JI: I’m always intrigued by imagery that enriches the storytelling, but is not technically needed for the story to be told. In Rue des Rosiers, you write sentences like, “A scraggly American elm sapling is handcuffed to a post as if it’s committed some crime”; “A gardener in blue coveralls sweeps the sand path, wiping away the traces of pigeon footprints”; “Light is a wave and a particle and so are the bees.” When or how do these types of flourishes enter your writing process?
RT: I think they’re a natural product of my life as a poet. Much of my writing is about looking, and I process looking through words. So having imagery present in the narrative is integral in world-building.
* * *
Word Vancouver is completely free and some events are already full, so visit wordvancouver.ca sooner than later. The festival is welcoming financial support via donations, its Adopt an Author and silent auction programs, information about which also can be found on their website.
In the play Birds of a Kind by Wajdi Mouawad, the character of Eitan, injured in a terrorist attack in Jerusalem, lies in a coma. As his estranged parents and his grandmother hope for his recovery, they bitterly dig ever deeper into their familial dysfunction. At one point, the doctor tells them about Eitan, “What matters is the voices of those dear to him. His parents, his friends.”
His father responds, “His friends are in Berlin.” His mother, “Or New York.” His grandmother, “But his fiancée is here.” (The Palestinian fiancée that his parents cannot fathom and regarding whom they are nasty, based on a mix of racism, fear, guilt, concern over their own identity, secrets they have kept and more.) The doctor tells the trio, “The stronger the emotional attachment, the quicker the brain responds. We reconstruct ourselves through affection.” Godspeed to Eitan, then.
Birds of a Kind is a fascinating, if somewhat predictable, story and Mouawad’s exposition of complex and hyper-relevant topics, such as group identity versus individual choice, is nuanced and poetic; he uses language beautifully. It is no wonder that Montreal-based translator Linda Gaboriau earned the play its 2019 Governor General’s Literary Award for translation (from French to English).
Also faring well in last year’s awards was Calgary writer Naomi K. Lewis, whose Tiny Lights for Travellers was a finalist in the non-fiction category of the prize, which is funded and administered by the Canada Council for the Arts.
Lewis is extremely candid and self-critical in this travel memoir. Readers learn about her family, her struggle with developmental topographical disorientation (which means she can’t envision a map in her head and, therefore, often gets lost), the complicated messages about Judaism she received growing up, her insecurities about being Jewish (including a botched nose job when she was a teen) and her failed marriage, among other things. We follow her on her literal and metaphorical journeys to self-discovery, -understanding and -acceptance, as her personal story is interwoven with her retracing of the route her grandfather took in 1942 to escape from Nazi-occupied Netherlands to southern France, from where he then traveled through Spain and Portugal to get to London, England.
While Tiny Lights for Travellers includes excerpts from Lewis’s grandfather’s journal of his escape, it is mostly about Lewis and her exploration of identity, family history and the Holocaust. As Lewis notes well into her book, “the journal seemed a tease, so withholding, the anomalous 30-page confession of someone who otherwise lived inside his own experience with no desire to make himself known to anyone.”
Lewis may have set out with a goal of learning more about her grandfather, of connecting to her past, “trying to find what made me,” but there are not clear links from the past to the present. The journey is revealing in the end, just not about her grandfather or exactly how she came to be who she now is, but rather in coming to terms with who that person is.
Musician Myrna Rabinowitz, left, and Jewish Senior Alliance’s Shanie Levin. (photo from JSA)
The theme of this year’s Jewish Seniors Alliance-Snider Foundation Empowerment Series is “Be inspired!” and the first of four sessions was called Be Inspired through Story and Song.
Held at the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture on Nov. 29, Gyda Chud, co-president of the JSA, introduced the two presenters, referring to each as “a gift to our community”: storyteller Shanie Levin, who is a member of JSA’s executive board and on the editorial board of JSA’s Senior Line magazine, and singer-songwriter and guitarist Myrna Rabinowitz.
Rabinowitz opened with the Yiddish song “Abi Gezunt” (“As Long as You’re Well”) and the audience echoed enthusiastically the refrain, “As long as you’re well, you can be happy.”
Levin followed with a story by Kadya Molodowsky, the first lady of Yiddish poetry. A House with Seven Windows is about a proud, strong heroine in the mid-19th century who embraced the dream of “normalizing” Jewish life through a return and settlement in the land of Israel.
Other songs by Rabinowitz included the Yiddish translation of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” as well as “Sleep Little Boy,” a Yiddish song that she wrote eight years ago for her first grandson. She ended with the Yiddish rendition of “Sunrise Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof (Tog Ayn Tog Oys).
Tall Tamara by Abraham Karpinowitz, both sympathetically comic and painfully tragic, was another inspiring story of Vilna’s poor and the unexpected dignity available to one woman through a chance contact with Yiddish literary culture.
Levin also shared Ted Allan’s Lies My Father Told Me, about the relationship between a 6-year-old child and his grandfather that transcends the differences in ages with deep connection. This story was made into a Golden Globe-winning film of the same name.
The last story Levin read – If Not Higher by I.L. Peretz – was about a rabbi who demonstrates that doing good deeds on earth may be a more exalted activity than doing God’s will in heaven.
Chud thanked the performers and urged the audience to attend upcoming JSA events, the next one being the screening of the movie Music of the Heart, starring Meryl Streep, at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver on Jan. 15.
Marilyn Berger, who initiated the Light One Candle project and designed a card to help JSA celebrate Chanukah, encouraged the audience to spread the light and make a special donation to help JSA continue its peer support program, as well as its advocacy work.
What strange quirk brought it about that what may be one of the greatest and most Jewish of Jewish novels should be written not by a Diaspora Jew, nor an Israeli Jew, nor a Diaspora Jew who had made aliyah, but rather an Israeli who relocated to New York?
Further stymying expectations, Ruby Namdar did not write this novel in English, but in Hebrew (it was recently translated by Hillel Halkin). “For who?” asked an audience member at the Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival event on Nov. 26, when I had the pleasure of interviewing Namdar in front of a small gathering. If Namdar wanted his novel, which he acknowledged to be soundly in the lineage of Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, to be read by New Yorkers, why write it in Hebrew? If he wanted the novel to make sense to Israelis, why write it about a rootless Diaspora Jew with no connection to Israel?
“I don’t know what I was thinking,” said Namdar, “I don’t know who I was writing for, I just wrote.”
The Ruined House is not just a great Jewish novel or a great novel in modern Hebrew. It possesses a structure that is at once talmudic and kabbalistic, a structure that is deep and intricate yet carried off with such a sense of understatement and naturalness, effortlessly unfolding within Namdar’s lucid, lyrical and vivid prose, that most English-language reviewers thus far have not fully noticed it. This structure is what gives the novel its profoundly Jewish resonance, which is at once modern and ancient, rootless and anchored in the archetypal depths of Jewish experience and textuality.
The Ruined House is divided into seven books, with its seventh book being the culmination of an obviously Jewish numerical pattern. Each book follows the anti-hero, Andrew P. Cohen, over the course of one year of his life, as he enters what seems to be a midlife crisis from hell (or perhaps from heaven).
Cohen is a successful and wealthy professor of comparative culture, who lives in an idyllic Manhattan high-rise with a view of the river, a pristine Apollonian realm in the skies. He has a beautiful young lover, Ann Lee, and an adoring group of followers and acolytes. He cherishes his controlled, harmonious and detached existence, which he has gained through leaving his wife and two daughters years before.
At the end of the first six sections of the novel are a few pages of text designed to look like a blat Gemara, a page of Talmud. The central text in these inserts tells the story of a high priest preparing and executing the Yom Kippur sacrifices. While he does so, he is watched by Obadiah, a humble Levite who wonders whether the priest is truly pious or just a functionary in league with the elite. Encircling the narrative are passages from the Talmud, Mishnah and Tanakh, which describe the laws, folklore and spiritual significance of the high priest’s duty. They also feature key excerpts from Shaarei Gilgulim (The Gate of Reincarnation), a kabbalist text written by Chaim Vital (1542-1620) to expound the cosmology of his master, the Ari HaKodesh, Isaac Luria (1534-1572).
The insertion of these texts is deliberate and precise. Just as the narrative in the inserts is flanked by canonical Jewish sources, the narrative of the novel is surrounded by ancient Jewish forces. As the hidden, broken nature of Cohen’s life begins to surface, he begins to have intense, waking visions of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. His dreams turn nightmarish, alternating between repressed guilt at his betrayal of his family and dreadful tableaus of the rape of Jerusalem by the Romans and the murder of Jews by the Nazis.
The structure of the story and the inserts are not the only mirrors in the book: Cohen’s life is cast as priest-like. His elite status; the pure harmonious realm in which he lives; his having separated from his wife like Moses to live in the skies; even the elaborate meat dinners he cooks up for his dinner guests alone in his perfect kitchen all point to it. His name, of course, highlights both the substance and the irony of his life as priestly metaphor. At one point, his daughter, Rachel, disgustedly mocks people who think that Jews named Cohen are descended from the priestly lineage: “Everyone knows they just gave out those names randomly at Ellis Island.”
As Cohen descends into apparent madness, a grotesque version of the priestly sensibility gets stronger in him. He becomes morbidly obsessed with the impure and averse to the physical, the decaying and the dead. He finds himself horrified by menstrual blood and semen. The explanation of this growing claustrophobic sensibility lies in the paragraphs of Shaarei Gilgulim, which are included in Namdar’s inserts.
Shaarei Gilgulim describes the way that some souls, during the process of reincarnation, unite with other souls in order to complete their own tikkun (repair). In the first pages of The Ruined House, “one shining soul, the figure of a high priest” is suddenly visible above New York among the celestial machinations momentarily revealed as the veil is briefly sundered. The key to the priest’s identity lies in the kabbalist doctrine of ibbur, or impregnation, where a soul from beyond enters into an earthly person in order to help them, to complete their own mission, or some combination of the two. In Cohen’s case, as suggested in a last talmudic insert, he has been “impregnated” by the soul of the high priest in need of tikkun for feeling himself superior to Obadiah, the humble Levite. The high priest and Cohen share a sin in common: arrogance. Their collective confrontation and reckoning with it will be psychically violent and cathartic and come close to doing Cohen in.
Critique of Diaspora?
Some reviewers have read The Ruined House as a critique of the Diaspora Jew, viewing the narrative as a kind of punishment of Cohen, enacted on him by the rising tide of archaic Jewish intrusions into his life. Namdar said this is a moralistic distortion of his ambivalent, questioning text. Instead, Namdar pointed to the shatterings of the illusion of wholeness and perfection that happen in the book. “Where things are broken, there, seeds can take root and grow,” he said.
For example, Cohen’s harmonious life is an illusion that is shattered in the course of the book, leaving a “ruined house.” Yet the figure of the ruined house (bayit asher necharev in the original Hebrew, a phrase that comes from a poem by Yehuda Amichai) is also an allusion to another ruined house, that of the Beit Hamikdash, the Jerusalem Temple, whose pristine world of order and control, Namdar suggests, also was illusory.
The third ruined house is suggested by the timing of the events in the novel. The story begins in the Hebrew month of Elul (signifying its theme of repentance), on Sept. 6, 2000. After the narrative comes to a head on Tisha b’Av, the date of the destruction of the Temple, it jumps from Aug. 1, 2001, to Sept. 18, 2001, leaving a lacuna where Sept. 11, 2001, and the destruction of the Twin Towers, resides.
“I did not want Sept. 11 to appear in the narrative, thus making the novel reducible to being about that event,” said Namdar when I asked him about this. “Rather, I wanted the trajectory to point to its occurrence outside the frame.”
There is much more to talk about in this remarkable novel, which manages at once to be so Jewish, so Israeli, so American and so human. I did not touch here on the attention Namdar lavishes on the details of Cohen’s daily life or Namdar’s subversion of the lineage of Malamud, Bellow and Roth in his intense empathy with the female characters of the novel, and his unsparing deconstruction of Cohen’s narcissistic masculinity. I did not examine his vivid and hilarious slow-motion evocation of a grossly excessive bar mitzvah, or his brilliant parody of the Zionist clichés of a Birthright-like propaganda tour of Israel, and many other delights. I hope this introduction is enough to invite you to step into Namdar’s mesmerizing fusion of a talmudic-esoteric structure with an incandescent evocation of life in Manhattan, and discover what else he has hidden there, of which, I promise you on good authority, there is much.
Matthew Gindinis a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He writes regularly for the Forward and All That Is Interesting, and has been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Tikkun and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.
This academic year marks the second session of Writing Lives, a two-semester project at Langara College, coordinated by instructor Dr. Rachel Mines. Writing Lives is a partnership between Langara, the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre and the Azrieli Foundation. This fall, students are learning about the Holocaust by studying literary and historical texts. In January, students will begin interviewing local Holocaust survivors and will write their memoirs on the basis of the interviews. Students are keeping journals of their personal reflections on their experiences as Writing Lives participants. Many students used their most recent journal entry to reflect on the value of literature in transmitting Holocaust memory. Here are a few excerpts.
The role of literature in preserving history is controversial but important. Understandably, there are people who are reluctant or even vehemently opposed to recording the Holocaust through the lens of art, concerned that the act of rewriting events in a fictional context may undermine the significance of the tragedy. Others may worry that historical inaccuracies are inevitable in these artistic works, thus doing a disservice to the victims and betraying their memories.
I would argue otherwise: that literature and historical facts can and should build upon one another, used to educate and not obscure. For me, reading our history textbook this semester has not always been easy, but reading the short story A Ghetto Dog by Isaiah Spiegel took the experience to a different level. Such is the power of narrative. As Menachem Kaiser wrote in his article “The Holocaust’s uneasy relationship with literature” (The Atlantic, Dec. 28, 2010), “literature affects us in ways that even the most brutal history cannot.” Literature makes the event close, immediate and personal. It’s hard for me to imagine being a Jew in Second World War Europe, but personal accounts and narratives come close to letting us immerse ourselves in the tragedy.
– Athina Leung
In his article “The Holocaust’s uneasy relationship with literature,” Kaiser argues that Holocaust literature is an important part of history. It can provide the emotional connection that reading facts cannot. It is a window to understand what people felt without having to experience the ordeal that the characters or author went through. Literature has the power to move the human heart. Facts are important, but they do not give the reader the ability to connect with history in ways that a more emotional and personal experience can provide.
– Tina Macaspac
I found the assigned reading, “The Holocaust’s uneasy relationship with literature,” to be incredibly relevant and thought-provoking. This article discusses the various difficulties associated with Holocaust literature, including the opinion by some historians that the only valid way to recount the Holocaust is through historical facts and memoirs. I agree that acquiring factual knowledge about the Holocaust is integral, and that reading historical documents is essential. However, I find myself disagreeing with the perspective that Holocaust literature is distasteful or discrediting to the Holocaust. Rather, literature provides an alternative, more emotional perspective that one cannot acquire from reading a fact-based history textbook. This week, for example, we read the short story A Ghetto Dog, which narrates the tale of the Jewish widow Anna and her dog Nicky. While I was aware of the facts (in this case, Jews being rounded up by Nazi troops) from a historical perspective, the story emphasized the feelings of helplessness and exhaustion that Holocaust victims and survivors felt. It touched a part of me in a way that facts and statistics could not.
– Emma Proctor
In A Ghetto Dog, the widow Anna and her dog Nicky are persecuted under the Nazi regime and forced to move into a ghetto. It is very clear from the beginning that Nicky is extremely important to Anna, and that he is her last remaining tie, not only to her deceased husband, but to her home.
The Nazis took livestock and any useful animals away from the Jewish people in order to make a profit. The livestock had value, which is why they were kept alive. People’s dogs, however, were not valuable to the Nazis, and that is one reason the dogs were killed.
Another reason was psychological. To the Nazis, it was important to wound people emotionally in order to conquer them. In the story, there were Jewish children dragging their dogs on ropes and leashes, bringing their pets, beloved family members, to be put to death. Dogs were part of a support system and, as with Anna, were reminders of home. To kill these dogs was to kill hope of return. The deaths of dogs were a stern reminder that just as easily as they could kill animals, Nazis could kill humans.
Adeena Karasick has donated her archive to the Collection of Contemporary Literature at Simon Fraser University’s Bennett Library. (photo from Adeena Karasick)
Critically acclaimed poet and Vancouver native Adeena Karasick was in her hometown last month to celebrate the donation of her archive to Simon Fraser University.
The Collection of Contemporary Literature at SFU’s Bennett Library contains one of the biggest selections of avant-garde poetry in North America. “The collection has been building since 1965,” said Tony Power, the librarian-curator who oversaw the addition of Karasick’s works. “The collection features many of the poets whose tradition Karasick is associated with, such as Michael McClure and Robin Blaser. Karasick was influenced by her teacher, Warren Tallman, who also influenced, for example, Fred Wah, George Bowering and Daphne Marlatt. These are all poets who are featured in the Bennett Library collection.
“Karasick has a very high profile for a poet,” Powers added, “and a certain amount of notoriety for her more daring works.”
Karasick told the Jewish Independent that the Feb. 23 event, in which her personal notebooks became, in effect, public artifacts, was “surreal.”
“I was honoured to be included in this collection, one of the greatest collections in North America of contemporary poets and avant-garde renegades, provocateurs and risk-taking challengers of esthetics,” she said.
Karasick, whose work has been called “beautiful linguistic carnage” by Word Magazine, specializes in non-narrative, intimate works that are most concerned with the play of language itself.
“I am interested in using language to create different effects of meaning production, highlighting language as a physical, material, construct. Play, jouissance [delight], as Jew-essence,” she explained with a smile.
Karasick regularly plays with Jewish themes in her work, whether it’s the invocation of the Kotel (a wall made of words in more ways than one) at the heart of Dyssemia Sleaze, or the Hebrew letter mem, which inspires Mêmewars.
“In the kabbalah, the world is created through language,” she said. “That’s also the way I view things.”
Karasick’s speech is peppered with words like “intervention,” “transgression,” “disruption,” “nomadicism” and “vagrancy.” She aims, she explained, to “destabilize and subvert linguistic power structures with the hope of instigating new ways of seeing. My poetry uses playfulness and celebrates a sense of creative homelessness, a mashing up of poetry, critical theory and visuality.”
Asked how she felt about being a postmodern artist whose work has been called “an impressive deconstruction of language and meaning” by Canadian Literature, in an age where the American president, it could be said, was much maligned for engaging in similar activity, she pointed to Jewish postmodern philosopher Emanuel Levinas (1906-1995).
“I’m not saying there’s no truth. There is truth. There is what happened,” she said. “The search for the truth cannot be solitary or uniperspectival though, and cannot be an imposition of ‘the truth’ on others in a totalitarian way. Levinas said that truth itself arises out of discourse … it rests in the ethical relation between people, where a search for the truth can take place. Truth requires humility and multiplicity.”
Born in Winnipeg, Karasick’s family moved to Vancouver when she was six months old, and she grew up here. She had her bat mitzvah at Congregation Beth Israel and was very much a part of the local Jewish community. She went to the University of British Columbia for her undergraduate degree, did her master’s at York in Toronto and her doctorate at Concordia, in Montreal, in “French feminist post-structural theory and kabbalistic hermeneutics.”
Karasick now teaches at Pratt Institute in New York and is enjoying a growing distinction as one of the premier avant-garde poets of her generation. She is becoming known for her innovative use of video as well as the printed page.
In 2018, Karasick will release a new book, Alephville, a poem composed of faux Facebook updates. “I was un-nerved by the timing,” she said, referencing the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, “by the fact that it is basically a poem composed of ‘alternative facts.’”
Also next year, Karasick will debut her “spoken-word opera” Salomé: Woman of Valour, a feminist reinterpretation of the biblical character. She co-wrote the piece with Grammy Award-winning musician Frank London of the Klezmatics. They met through KlezKanada, an annual klezmer camp that has been meeting in the Laurentians for 20 years, the poetry division of which Karasick has been director for the last six years.
Karasick wrote the libretto for Salomé: Woman of Valour and London composed the music, an original score that blends Arabic, klezmer, jazz and bhangra. The nomadic and subversive piece will première at next year’s Chutzpah! Festival.
Matthew Gindinis a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He writes regularly for the Forward and All That Is Interesting, and has been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Tikkun and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.
Author Jamaica Kincaid is among the Dan David Prize winners this year. (photo from TAU via Ashernet)
Tel Aviv University (TAU) has announced the winners of this year’s Dan David Prize, which will be awarded at a ceremony at TAU on May 21. Sometimes referred to as “Israel’s Nobel Prize,” this year’s recipients are Swedish biologist Prof. Svante Pääbo, American geneticist Prof. David Reich, American author Jamaica Kincaid, Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua, American astrophysicists Prof. Neil Gehrels and Prof. Shrinivas Kulkarni, and Polish astronomer and astrophysicist Prof. Andrzej Udalski.
The prize is named after the late Dan David, an international businessman and philanthropist.
Born in Romania in 1929, David worked for Romanian TV and later became a press photographer. In 1960, he settled in Israel. A year later, he traveled to Europe. With a loan from a cousin, he won the franchise for the Photo-Me automated photography booths in certain countries, and opened branches in several European countries, as well as in Israel, and eventually took over the company.
In 2000, he founded the Dan David Foundation with a $100 million endowment. The first time the annual prize was awarded was in 2002. David’s aim was to reward those who have made a lasting impact on society and to help young students and entrepreneurs become the leaders and scholars of the future.