Tag Archives: Jewish in Seattle

Magda Szabó’s THE DOOR

28 Jun

I’m so glad I finally read Magda Szabó’s The Door (trans. Len Rix), which Michael has been urging me to read for years. Set in Hungary after World War II, The Door is a rich exploration of the complicated friendship between Magda, a writer, and her formidable housekeeper Emerence. The mysteries that surround Emerence and her past give her a witchy quality. She almost never allows anyone inside her home where there are nine cats and, Magda guesses at one point, furniture and china looted from a Jewish family during the war. Here is Emerence bottling cherries for winter as she and Magda discuss the recent suicide of Emerence’s friend Polett:

The stream of cherries tumbled into the cauldron. By now, we were in the world of myth—the pitted cherries separating out, the juice beginning to flow like blood from a wound, and Emerence, calmness personified, standing over the cauldron in her black apron, her eyes in the shadow under the hooded headscarf.

The slow revelation of Emerence’s life before and during the war is balanced with a clash of personalities as Emerence foists her ways upon Magda’s life, such as throwing a bit of hot mulled wine at Magda to get her to drink it when she is distraught over her husband’s surgery. She is an infuriating, fascinating character, one of the most complex I’ve encountered in recent memory.

There is something about Emerence’s strong personality and guarded history that reminds me of my great-grandmother from Budapest, who I didn’t know very well and who I wrote about in my piece “Threads of Memory” in Jewish in Seattle. There is something about the metaphor of the door that has me scrabbling at it, anxious to understand so much that I never will. It’s the sort of anxiety that fills novels; one day when it is safe to travel to Budapest I will do so, if only to be physically in that city, to be closer to that which I can never fully understand.

Notes from #AWP18, Part I: “Difficult History,” a panel on Jewish fiction

15 Mar

Flowers in Delray Beach

Flowers in Delray Beach

I’m back home after a whirlwind book tour that ended with AWP in Tampa. Michael and I drove up from Delray Beach through the Everglades, hoping to spot alligators, and though there were none, pelicans abounded.

We arrived in time for me to catch one panel Thursday afternoon, “Difficult History: Jewish Fiction in the Alt-Right World,” which began with brief readings from each panelist. Emily Barton read from The Book of Esther, an alternate history in which a Turkic Jewish warrior state that disappeared in the Middle Ages existed into August 1942. Simone Zelitch read from her novel Judenstaat, another alternate history, this one set in 1980 in the Jewish sovereign state established in the province of Saxony in 1948. Amy Brill read from Hotel Havana, about Jewish refugees in Havana in the 1930s and ’40s, highlighting the fresh pain German Jews felt compared to Polish Jews, since Polish Jews had always been considered Jewish rather than Polish, whereas German Jews had thought of themselves as German. And Irina Reyn read from a work-in-progress ending on this note: “A Russian woman doesn’t wait. A Russian woman acts.”

On the question of what is Jewish fiction, Zelitch quoted a character of hers: “We don’t bow down. We cross borders. We remember.” Reyn recalled her unhappy Jewish day school experience as a Russian immigrant who never felt she belonged (I totally related to this, being neither a “real” American or Israeli at my elementary school); she said, “Jewish fiction is constant negotiation: where do you belong?”

Brill remarked that as a reform Jew who went to Sunday school and never really understood her bat mitzvah asked: how do you handle writing a character that is either less than or more than your own religiosity? Barton said that for The Book of Esther she generated 90 questions and found a rabbi willing to discuss them all with her; then she showed the finished manuscript to another rabbi. She said that after revision and publication she still got things weirdly wrong. Oy! On the question of how much to explicate for the reader, Barton said she wants Christian Americans to know what’s like to be a religious minority: “I looked up pentecost; you can look up havdallah.”

Barton also made a point I feel strongly about (and have written about in Salon and Jewish in Seattle): it is important to revisit history and re-enliven it. Alternate history, she suggested, is one way to get around Holocaust fatigue. Zelitch added, “Judaism has to be more than the Holocaust and Israel,” that we should look to the international Jewish experience and the refugee crisis. Reyn then touched on “diasporic anxiety,” the need to be more Jewish than you really are in order to connect with Jews in a new place (again, something I totally relate to since moving to Seattle from New York, and touched on in an essay for The Rumpus). Zelitch added that today dystopian fiction seems like a cop out and the challenge is to write engaging utopian fiction, that we need to see powerless people taking power and people need to lose themselves in this kind of story. Before opening up the discussion to audience questions, Brill said: “The arc of justice is not necessarily moving on its own. We need to push it.”

It was certainly an invigorating panel! One or two more posts to come…

Bright Spots of 2016

21 Dec

della_tramutatione_metallica_sogni_tre-a184

From Della tramutatione metallica sogni tre by Gio. Battista Nazari, 1571

Dang it. Despite world affairs being horrendous, I’m going to relish some good things that happened in 2016. First, I achieved my goal of obtaining 100 rejections (106!). If you’re not getting rejecting 90% of the time, you’re not aiming high enough–so goes the wisdom from Creative Capital. The fruits of this labor paid off with eight publications. Here they are, plus other goodness. (Find the zoetrope!)

 

My plans for the holidays including gorging myself on kreplach, cholent, pizza, and rainbow cookies and devouring Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters. Happy winter solstice!

“Art After Auschwitz” in Jewish in Seattle’s April / May issue

8 Apr

“I wish people would just stop writing about the Holocaust,” a woman said to me at a national writing conference. Thus begins “Art After Auschwitz,” my feature article for Jewish in Seattle‘s history issue.

It’s such a big topic. I’d love to explore it further. I learned about so many artists, such as Israeli Maya Zack, who’s working on a film about Paul Celan, and Seattleite Leah Warshawski, whose documentary Big Sonia follows a larger-than-life survivor running a tailor shop in a dying mall outside Kansas City. I came across Ann Lipscombe, a young artist whose surreal drawing “What We Talk About When We Talk About My Jewish Nose,” stopped me in my tracks at the Jewish Art Salon’s “The Jew as Other” show in New York last December, and miniaturist Tine Kindermann, whose “Hummel Midrash” project explores the danger of kitsch and who curated “The Jew as Other” with Yona Verwer.

“Threads of Memory” in Jewish in Seattle

4 Feb

I wrangled some complicated family history into “Threads of Memory,” a short personal essay for the February/March issue of Jewish in Seattle. The opportunity to write about my family’s immigration story and relationship with Judaism brought up a lot more material than a single piece can contain, so stay tuned for more!

Here’s how the piece begins:

Family lore says my great-grandmother Margaret — we called her Mami — survived the Holocaust by hiding under a pile of bodies. She was not known for her pleasant demeanor but for her steeliness. continue reading

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