The ProsenPeople

Interview: Jonathan Weisman

Wednesday, March 14, 2018 | Permalink

with Michael Dobkowski

In (((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump, Jonathan Weisman explores the disconnect between his own sense of Jewish identity and the expectations of his detractors and supporters. He delves into the rise of the alt-right, their roots in older anti-Semitic organizations, the odd ancientness of their grievances―cloaked as they are in contemporary, techy hipsterism―and their aims―to spread hate in a palatable way through a political structure that has so suddenly become tolerant of their views.

Michael Dobkowski: In many ways your book is about Jewish identity and experience in the Trump era. How has the American Jewish experience changedgenerally, and for you, personally?

Jonathan Weisman: I grew up in a very Reform household. Although I was raised to identify as Jewish, I—like many Jews of my generation—drifted away, in part because Jews had become entirely comfortable in a pluralistic, liberal democracy that seemed to be progressing inexorably toward tolerance and acceptance. I thought of anti-Semitism as an issue of the past. Then came the Trump campaign and the emergence of swarms of white nationalists who pressed for Mr. Trump’s election. I became a target of the alt-right’s attack, forcing me to reconsider my identity in light of how the bigots were identifying me.I could embrace Judaism as a system of beliefs, a culture, and a religion or I could shun it. But I could no longer ignore it. And so I embraced my Judaism. I fear that too many Jews have rationalized away the threat of white nationalist hate to justify political and social views that were formed before the emergence of this changed reality.

MD: Do you think these changes are temporary and reversible or have we reached a tipping point?

JW: It is difficult to know whether we are living in a temporary era of intolerance that will be seen as a brief interruption in the post-World War II progression toward pluralism and democracy—or whether that post-war progression was, in fact, the historical aberration. It is not just the rise of hate and intolerance. Democracies and fledgling democracies like Hungary and Russia have slipped back into crony authoritarianism. Intolerant nationalism is rising around the world. I still have faith that Americans love our institutions and traditions, and that we can save what makes us Americans. But I am less sure by the day.

MD: Much has been written about the so-called “new anti-Semitism." Do you think the threats posed by the alt-right and their allies are fundamentally different from earlier expressions and manifestations of American anti-Semitism?

JW: The alt-right’s anti-Semitic beliefs and tropes are oddly anachronistic. They are precisely the aspersions that I learned about as a child in Sunday school: Jews are both rapacious, greedy capitalists and dangerous, left wing anarchists; they are at once all-powerful puppet masters and sniveling weaklings; they control the media and through it, they have corrupted popular culture with their decadence—yet they are forever foreigners, never truly Americans, never truly part of American culture. It makes no sense, but those contradictions have shown remarkable staying power, and in that sense, the “new anti-Semitism” is centuries old. What distinguishes the alt-right from its predecessors is its method of organization, its technological savvy, its sarcasm and irony, and its ability to at least seem ubiquitous. By spreading its ideology on Twitter, Reddit, YouTube comment sections, 4Chan and 8Chan, the alt-right has become unavoidable for my children’s generation. It is not an invisible subculture, talking to itself on its own websites, segregated from the wider World Wide Web. The alt-right is disseminating its ideology. Most young people reject it, but there will always be disaffected searchers who will be drawn to the sophistry of hate.

MD: Are racism and anti-Semitism becoming normalized in certain segments of American society—and if so, what does it mean to normalize these social pathologies?

JW: Racism and anti-Semitism have always been normal in certain segments of American society. But when the president of the United States says “very fine people” marched in Charlottesville on both sides, has so much difficulty condemning the bigots who love him, and presses policies that are seen by racists and anti-Semites as dog whistles that ratify their beliefs, we are all at risk. Expressions of intolerance are no doubt more tolerated now than they were two years ago. We are learning that pluralism and diversity are not as valued as we once thought.

MD: You are not afraid in this book to talk about things that happened to you, your family, and other Jewish journalists. Why do you feel it is so important to tell this story?

JW: I wanted this book to be personal, to not be abstract or theoretical. And I believe that my background—a not-particularly observant Jew who struggled through a mixed marriage and tried, not very well, to impart a Jewish identity to my children—would be recognizable to a lot of Jews of my generation and younger, and to non-Jews who wrestle with their own identities in an atomized society. For someone so assimilated as myself to be singled out and attacked by anti-Semites should have resonance beyond observant communities, but that resonance would emerge only if I was willing to delve into the personal.

MD: Who are some of the writers and scholars who helped you understand the state of American society today? The state of American Jewish society?

JW: I read Bernard-Henri Lévy, Hannah Arendt, Timothy Snyder, and Melissa Fay Greene, but this book was shaped more by the rabbis, activists, and victims I spoke to: Rabbi Francine Roston and Tanya Gersh in Whitefish, Montana, who suffered through anti-Semitic attacks far, far worse than anything I saw; Rabbi Daniel Zemel of Temple Micah in Washington, who taught me to apply Jewish law to shape a response to bigotry; Rabbis Jonah Pesner and David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, who helped me put the current moment into modern history; Ken Stern of the Justus and Karin Rosenberg Foundation who was frank and honest about his time at the American Jewish Committee; and Zoe Quinn, who showed me the technological roots of the alt-right and the nuts and bolts of a technological response.

MD: Since you finished writing the book, are there any developments that would lead you to modify your argument, or even strengthen it?

JW: I had just about finished this book when Charlottesville, Virginia erupted in chants of “Jews will not replace us” and bigoted violence, and the Internet hordes of the alt-right jumped into visceral reality. I was able to lace the book with references to Charlottesville, but the progression of bigotry has not stopped. Since Charlottesville, some have said the alt-right has retreated. And it is true that after the book was finished, the symbols of nationalist intolerance within the White House lost their purchase. Steve Bannon quit, and then with the publication of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury he was excommunicated from the president’s inner circle. Sebastian Gorka finally left the administration, though he remains a public cheerleader. The leaders of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville vowed that they would return, again and again. They haven’t. But the president called African nations “shithole countries,” ended protected status for Haitian and Salvadoran refugees, and provoked a showdown over young, undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children. Paul Nehlen, a Wisconsin businessman from the Tea Party right who has challenged House Speaker Paul Ryan, has openly embraced anti-Semitism as an organizing principle for his campaign. The question of what kind of a country we want is still front and center.

MD: You write with such ease, passion, and energy. Was this a particularly challenging book to write or a project you felt almost a mission to complete?

JW: It was remarkably easy. My first book was a novel, No. 4 Imperial Lane. It took about three years to write. I have another novel that is three-quarters finished and doesn’t seem to be progressing at all. This one just spilled out. I conceived of five chapters, wrote the most rudimentary of outlines, and then filled it in. I guess I just had to get it off my chest. I also wanted it published as soon as possible.

MD: Who do you consider the ideal audience for your book? What are the most important ideas you would like readers to come away with?

JW: This book is pretty tough on American Jews, too many of whom have subverted the interests of our community and the broader nation for the comfort of their present. I make note that the obsession of American Jews with Israel—especially major American Jewish institutions—has atrophied attention on current events in the U.S. There are progressive Jewish institutions, conservative Jewish institutions, and moderate Jewish institutions, and they all argue over Israel. This obsession blinded American Jewry to the rise of the alt-right. So I would say the ideal audience is the complacent Jew who has not reflected on the Jewish community’s place in America and the importance of democratic pluralism to the security of Judaism itself. But I do not want the audience to be—nor do I think they will be—solely Jewish. All Americans should be vigilant about the erosion of democratic institutions and the rise of intolerance. That is what I hope readers will take away from the book.

MD: If you could require the president to read one book in addition to your own, what would it be?

JW: The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, but if that is too challenging, Timothy Snyder’s brief, eloquent On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century will do.

MD: Toward the end of the book you say that institutions matter, they need to be defended, and they do not survive on their own. Do you, like Timothy Snyder and other scholars, fear that we may be sliding toward an American authoritarianism?

JW: That is my biggest fear, yes. I would never wish economic hard times on this country, but the strong economy, low unemployment, surging stock market and new tax cuts have made me far more worried that voters will overlook the affronts to our Constitution and democratic principles and decide against a change of course. Short-term economic gain is a powerful anesthetic.

MD: Are you sanguine or worried about whether we have the adequate institutional and constitutional protections to prevent this?

JW: As I wrote in the book, Americans do not seem to be marching as sheep into some authoritarian future. The public sphere crackles with dissent. There is joy in rebellion. We do believe in our institutions, and thus far, the courts appear to be maintaining their independence and the free press is reveling in its freedom. That said, Congress—the first branch of Constitutional democracy—has been remarkably docile. Oversight is almost nonexistent. Even Democrats have been unable to articulate a principled stand for pluralistic democracy, worried that any elevation in rhetoric could drown out the search for lunch-pail issues that could win back white working class voters who drifted to Trump. It really is up to the American people to stand firm. Their representatives in Washington won’t.

Why I Write in Yiddish

Monday, March 12, 2018 | Permalink

Yermiyahu Ahron Taub is the author of two recent books of poetry, The Education of a Daffodil: Prose Poems/Di bildung fun a geln nartsis: prozelider and A moyz tsvishn vakldike volkn-kratsers: geklibene Yidishe lider/A Mouse Among Tottering Skyscrapers: Selected Yiddish Poems. He is blogging here as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Someone recently asked me why I write in Yiddish. This is a question I receive with some regularity. Of course, it’s something that’s asked of those who engage in any prolonged way with the language. When I was a student in the Uriel Weinreich Program in Yiddish Language, Literature, and Culture at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, my Yiddish grammar teacher, the eminent linguist Mordkhe Schaecter, said something along the lines of that he never asked a student why s/he was studying Yiddish. Would a student of French be asked why s/he were studying French? The question implies that there is a need to justify the study of this language, the lingua franca for East European Jews for centuries and a cultural repository for so much that is Jewish, as evidenced by the language’s very name, which, after all, means “Jewish.” Aren’t these characteristics alone sufficient reason? I wondered if Dr. Schaechter wanted to turn the question on its head: Why don’t more people study Yiddish?

The question has added poignancy of late due to the publication of my most recent book, A moyz tsvishn vakldike volkn-kraters: geklibene Yidishe lider/A Mouse Among Tottering Skyscrapers: Selected Yiddish Poems. As its subtitle suggests, the book is entirely in Yiddish. In fact, it is my first one to be only in Yiddish. It includes the Yiddish poems from my previous books as well as uncollected others. When I told a poet friend about this, she asked, “Who will read it?” I assured her there are indeed Yiddish readers left. I wasn’t satisfied with my response to that question. A more appropriate one might have been that the question of readership is separate from the question of writing. But neither was I satisfied with the answer I gave in real time to the question raised at the outset of this essay.

I write in Yiddish because I refuse to be denied my cultural heritage. Yiddish was a crucial element in the ultra-Orthodox yeshiva world in which I was raised. Yiddish words and expressions peppered speech. The teachers and the officials of the yeshiva spoke Yiddish. My parents spoke Yiddish. I speak Yiddish today with my father. And yet growing up, I never read or even heard of the works of the canonical Yiddish troika of Mendele Mokher Sefarim, Isaac Leib Peretz, and Sholem Aleichem, let alone the works of more recent Yiddish masters such as David Bergelson, Jacob Glatstein, Itzik Manger, or Blume Lempel, an innovative writer whose work Ellen Cassedy and I spent many years translating.

When I read Yiddish literature today, I’m immersing myself in a world that’s familiar and also alien. That world is familiar because of the religious life cycle that figures prominently in many Yiddish texts, and alien because of how far we are from the world not only of the East European shtetlakh but also of cities such as Łodz, Warsaw, and Vilnius. And it’s distant because I have no memories of studying this literature in my youth the way someone raised in a secular Yiddishist environment, who attended a Workmen’s Circle school or a Yiddish school, would have.

When I write in Yiddish, I’m placing my own small flag, however tattered, however imperfect, in the realm of new Yiddish literature. I’m staking a claim for Yiddish as a current, dynamic, ever-evolving language for literary creation and my own tiny tent within it. In Yiddish, I can exist in the beys-medresh disputing Talmudic minutiae or studying ethical texts and at rallies and demonstrations fighting for justice. I can be in the butcher shop and the grocery store, perusing Paskesz candy offerings and in the salons sampling the latest literary releases. I can be singing Askinu sudose at the third Sabbath meal and “Harbstlid” by the Yiddish poet Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman. I can … Well, you get the idea. All of that and more—past, present, and future—is simultaneously available to me.

And when I write in Yiddish, I don’t have to think about a glossary or about how to make the religious and other terms and expressions in my work accessible to readers. Readers of Yiddish will know the meaning of words like Shvues or havdole or shadkhonim. Nor do I have to think about the transliteration system I am going to use and whether I should transliterate words Yiddishly or Hebraically and what transliteration system I should use. My readers won’t need that guidance.

And yet, Yiddish is not my first language. I have to look many English words up in the dictionary—not only to determine their parallels in Yiddish, but also their genders. I have to think about the case of a particular linguistic context. I have to consider whether what I’ve written works idiomatically in Yiddish. I have to find someone to proofread. That person has to have both a profound knowledge of Yiddish and a proofreader’s sensibility. Once a manuscript is ready, I have to find a publisher willing to work with Hebrew fonts. This person usually doesn’t know Hebrew or Yiddish, which causes numerous design and layout challenges. I am extremely fortunate that I have found individuals who sustained my Yiddish work in so many ways at each stage of the creative process.

I am therefore constantly reminded of the audacity needed to create literary work in a language that is not one’s first. Some might call it folly. But this tension between comfort and struggle, between familiarity and distance, is ever present. Sometimes it feels like outright paradox: that which sets me free also weighs me down. The very tool used to explore my own heritage limits the essential freedom needed by the writer. Simply put, I can’t let Yiddish go.

Even if I don’t ask myself “Why do I write in Yiddish?” the question of “Will I continue?” is ever present. My commitment to writing in Yiddish is never a given for me; it requires constant renewal. The added layer of work entailed requires a self-interrogation: Will this project also entail Yiddish? To this point, the answer has been “yes.”

Of course, writers want readers. We want our work to be considered, absorbed, and savored. We want it to bring understanding, pleasure, or beauty into the cosmos of readers. But we also write for specific reasons, some of which have to do with our own histories and backgrounds, while others have to do with specific contingencies of the moment. Yiddish literature is replete with examples of those who didn’t start writing in Yiddish or who wrote in multiple languages. Arguably the national poet of Israel, Hayyim Nahman Bialik wrote Yiddish poems. Rachel H. Korn first published in Polish. Vladimir Medem, the Bundist theoretician, wrote in Russian first. And there were so many others. These writers had a range of approaches vis-a-vis multi-linguality. Some turned to Yiddish from other languages. Some turned away from Yiddish. Others wrote in multiple languages. Of course, there was a considerably more vibrant Yiddish context in their days, but my point is that my path is hardly a new one. And the examples of multilingual writers outside of Yiddish literature are vast. Think of Samuel Beckett, Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov, to name but a few.

My work takes place in the context of ongoing Yiddish literary activity around the world today. Contemporary Yiddish writers include Velvl Chernin and Michael Felsenbaum, the Israel-based publishers of my most recent book and central forces behind the Library of Contemporary Yiddish literature; poets of the Yugntruf Yiddish writing circle in New York, and many others, from Melbourne to Los Angeles and Indiana. Many of these writers purposely create in several languages. I take heart from the multilingual example of these forebears and contemporaries as well as sustenance from their enduring creativity. I find meaning in moving between languages, in communicating with readers through these different means. Perhaps Dr. Schaechter would be pleased.

Yermiyahu Ahron Taub is the author of six books of poetry. Tsugreytndik zikh tsu tantsn: naye Yidishe lider/Preparing to Dance: New Yiddish songs, a CD of nine of his Yiddish poems set to music, was released in 2014. He was honored by the Museum of Jewish Heritage as one of New York’s best emerging Jewish artists and has been nominated four times for a Pushcart Prize and twice for a Best of the Net award.

Image via Library of Congress

New Reviews March 12, 2018

Monday, March 12, 2018 | Permalink

Notes from a Formerly Terrible Jew

Thursday, March 08, 2018 | Permalink

Mark Sarvas is the author of  Memento Park: A Novel. He is blogging here as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

"I’m a terrible Jew," I used to say—by which I meant that I was wholly ignorant of tradition, taking a sort of perverse pleasure in the shock value of the comment. I was raised by postwar, secular European parents who decided they’d had enough of religion. I didn’t know Sukkot from Shavuot, and we grew up with Christmas trees and Easter eggs. Researching this essay, I learned that into her teens, my younger sister thought one of our parents was Catholic and one was Jewish. I remember being asked to sign the ketubah at her wedding (her husband was observant), and looking blankly at the rabbi when he asked me my Jewish name. He ended up coaching me, with some reproach, through a hastily imitated Hebrew “Moishe.”

So when it came time to write my second novel, which deals with the recovery of stolen Nazi art, I realized I was trying to send my protagonist on a journey of Jewish self-discovery that I had not experienced for myself. I confided my difficulties to Rabbi David Wolpe, who directed me to the American Jewish University’s eighteen-week “Introduction to Judaism” course, largely designed for people looking to convert for marriage.

I signed up at once, and was the only Jew in my class. The other students would look at me from time to time with a combination of what I took to be pity and mystification. They were trying to gain admittance but I was already in; what was I doing there? Over eighteen Tuesdays, I received a remarkable education and made some lasting friendships. The highlight was my engagement with the idea of the Sabbath (about which, more presently); the nadir was my benighted attempts at reading Hebrew, which eluded me as thoroughly as it had at my sister’s wedding.

I enjoyed the class, especially the historical perspectives, but I was aware that too often I was experiencing it almost clinically, with an intellectual detachment. Yet, I was drawn back again and again to Sabbath. (I’d already read and been deeply moved by Judith Shulevitz’s The Sabbath World.) I loved this notion of sanctified space and time; in the incessant hurly-burly of the internet age, a slice of time preserved for quiet contemplation seemed a gift from God, even to an atheist like me.

Yet I’d never been to a proper Sabbath dinner. At some point, I confessed this to the young rabbi who taught my course, hoping for an invitation, which is precisely what he offered. I remember how nervous I felt as I arrived early, bearing flowers, certain I would be seen as the dilettante, the fraud I knew myself to be.

It was a small family gathering with a few other friends present. I explained that I was writing a novel and was there to watch and learn. They indulged me, even incorporated me into the evening’s routine, but I could never fully shake off feeling on the outside. I didn’t know the prayers; I didn’t know what to do. I thought of my Hungarian maternal grandfather, who was observant. When he visited America in my early childhood, I would go to temple with him on Friday nights, but that was the extent of my Jewish education. I wondered what he’d make of this tableau—of his grandson, tentatively returning to the fold. (My parents and sister remained resolutely but respectfully irreligious; no such stirrings of a Jewish awakening seems to have stirred in them.) Would he be pleased, or disappointed that I’d been gone so long?

I watched my rabbi and his friends and family lapse into easy, friendly discussion after prayers, and I envied them. I have experienced it before and since, when I’m in a synagogue or anywhere with a large number of Jews; I have also felt outside of this warm, welcoming rapport, denied something by my religion-free upbringing.

And yet. At the same time, there is something in those rooms I always recognize, something I cannot help but feel a part of. Eventually, my spasms of resentment toward my parents’ choices fade, and although I often find myself feeling that I’m too far gone, too old, that it’s too late for a fully realized Jewish self, I can at least see that I’m not a terrible Jew, not anymore.

Mark Sarvas is the author of the novel  Harry, Revised, which was published in more than a dozen countries. His book reviews and criticism have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Threepenny Review,  Bookforum, and many others. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, PEN/America, and PEN Center USA, and teaches novel writing at the UCLA Extension Writers Program. A reformed blogger, he lives in Santa Monica, California.

The Forgotten Jewish Element of the Women's Liberation Movement

Wednesday, March 07, 2018 | Permalink

Joyce Antler is the author of  Jewish Radical Feminism: Voices from the Women's Liberation Movement, forthcoming from NYU Press. 

Jewish women were a prominent presence in the radical wing of the feminist movement of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s—only no one knew it. Participants in this fiery and transformative movement known as women's liberation talked about every aspect of social and sexual life as they raised consciousness together; but in some women's groups, although many members were Jewish, there was one subject they never addressed—their Jewish backgrounds. “We never talked about it,” said Naomi Weisstein of Chicago's West Side Group, the first women's liberation group in the country. Neither did historians.

In good part, this omission was due to the fact that Jewish women participated in the movement not as Jews—as members of an ethnic minority—but as universalists promoting a common sisterhood. “Why would we identify ourselves as Jews when we wanted to promote a vision of internationalism and interfaith and interracial solidarity? asks Vivian Rothstein, another West Side member.

Despite historical inattention to Jewish women in radical feminism, in some women's liberation collectives in such cities as New York, Boston, and Chicago, perhaps two-thirds to three-quarters of members were Jewish. Jewish women's articles and books became classics of the movement, providing influential ideas and models for radical change. Even a partial honor roll of Jewish women’s liberation pioneers needs to include such figures as Shulamith Firestone, Ellen Willis, Robin Morgan, Alix Kates Shulman, Naomi Weisstein, Heather Booth, Susan Brownmiller, Rosalyn Baxandall, Marilyn Webb, Meredith Tax, Linda Gordon, Ellen DuBois, and Ann Snitow. These women’s visions and actions helped generate widespread revolts against sexism that ultimately became a mass movement.

My interviews with dozens of pioneer women's liberationists reveal that Jewish backgrounds and Judaism's ethical imperatives played a major part in shaping Jewish women's feminist activism. The women grew up in Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and even Orthodox congregations, attending synagogues, Hebrew school classes, Jewish summer camps and community centers. Others went to Yiddish shules. They were inspired by parents, other relatives, and immigrant ancestors (including Socialist and Communist Party members). Family and community members' direct experience and historical memories of the Holocaust deeply affected them.

Within a few years, other Jewish women, more openly identified with Jewish religion and culture, began to rebel against inequities in Jewish life. In 1972, a religious women's study group, Ezrat Nashim, disrupted the Annual Meeting of the Rabbinical Assembly with demands for more equal treatment of women. Assertively Jewish, they opened the door to a new kind of identity politics. Other Jewish-identified feminists challenged assimilation, asserting the need for Jewish women to proclaim their distinctiveness rather than trying to “pass.” For some women alienated from their pasts and interested in exploring woman/woman relationships, lesbianism became a channel into a deepening Jewishness; becoming visible as both Jews and as lesbians were linked processes. Although efforts to meld feminist ideas with Jewish identities could entail considerable struggle, Jewish feminists successfully brought feminism to the Jewish mainstream and Jewish feminism to the Left.

The complex identities of both Jewish women's liberationists and identified Jewish feminists should be recognized as important parts of the histories of feminism and Judaism. Today, when the politics of identity are frequently derided as diversionary or labeled deleterious groupthink, the legacy of these pioneering feminists is instructive. Their contributions show that activism rooted in ethnic or faith traditions can instigate broad-based social change. Rather than fragmentation, these women's politics embody goals shared within and across social groups.

The Jewish legacy that helped to spur these women’s activism was a product of the universalism embedded in the Jewish credo, an ethos that regarded Jewish values as universal truths and positive social norms. In its concern for ethical values and consciousness of human commonalities, this Jewish vision harmonized well with the pluralist politics of the 1960s and 70s. In the social movements of those decades, Jewish participants projected the racial liberalism of colorblindness and empathy toward the oppressed, values that their families had taught them and which found roots in Jewish thought and experiences.

The revolutions started by women’s liberationists and Jewish feminists provided a touchstone for the next generations’ attempts to come to grips with the sometimes-confounding elements of their own Jewish identities. Connections to roots provided powerful incentives for social action. So inspired, the women created change for the entire world.

Joyce Antler is the Samuel J. Lane Professor Emerita of American Jewish History and Culture and Professor Emerita of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Brandeis University. She is the author of  You Never Call! You Never Write! A History of the Jewish Mother (2007) and The Journey Home: How Jewish Women Shaped Modern America (1997) and is the author or editor of many other books on American Jewish history and women’s history.

Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan and Billie Jean King Accompany Torch Relay Runners into Houston, 1977 via National Archives

Interview: Jessica Keener

Tuesday, March 06, 2018 | Permalink

with Jonathan Arlan

Jonathan Arlan recently spoke to Jessica Keener about her moody and captivating novel, Strangers in Budapest.

Jonathan Arlan: Annie and Will are Americans living in Budapest in the 1990s, not long after the fall of Communism. They are idealistic and hopeful about starting a new life in the city, and about the possibilities that could open up to them—there seems to be a boom happening all around, culturally and financially. Yet it remains just out of reach. What was it about putting these people in this very particular place and moment in time that appealed to you?

Jessica Keener: The mid-1990s were a unique time in Hungary. Because Communism was no longer the organizing structure for the country, there was a tremendous sense of freedom and release, but also of uncertainty and fear. When old structures are dismantled, what will replace them? When old ways are no longer the norm, what is the norm? My characters, Annie and Will Gordon, are also attempting to dismantle something in their lives and reach for something new and untried. They quickly learn that change is not so easy—it takes time and it’s evolutionary. Budapest, with its confluence of conflicting and opposing impulses, perfectly mirrored externally what I was trying to capture and reveal internally about my characters.

JA: You spent time in Hungary in the 1990s. What were your initial impressions of the city? How do you think those memories informed Annie and Will’s experience in the novel?

JK: I’m a Boston native, and when I visited Budapest for the first time, I was smitten by the similarities between the two places—the architecture of the buildings, the streetcar systems, the rivers that run through each city. Budapest has the Danube. Boston has the Charles. There are even paths that cut through the hills of my town in Brookline (which is just outside Boston) that are very similar to the ones in Buda, the hilly side of Budapest. When I was living in Budapest, many of the buildings were riddled with bullet holes. It was a constant reminder of human destruction. I visited the Jewish district and was haunted by the old synagogue that was empty and in disrepair. (It has since been renovated.) At the time, no one talked about the Jews or how the country sent 800,000 Jews to death and work camps. This haunted me for many reasons, but foremost because my father fought in World War II and his army division helped liberate Dachau. I created Annie and Will to explore one way in which people manage their lives after experiencing or witnessing violence.

JA: Have you been back to Budapest since?

JK: No. But, now that my novel is finished and out in the world, I would love to return. It’s a beautiful city. The synagogue has been restored. There’s a memorial on the Danube that honors the lives of Jews slaughtered on the riverbanks of the river during World War II. I want to see those changes and more. At the same time, I’m concerned about the political shifts going on there. Humanity is messy.

JA: The Jewish underground movement is a fascinating chapter in the long history of Jews in Hungary. In the novel, two Hungarian friends of Annie and Will had been involved in the movement during World War II and are now living in the United States.How did you first learn about the underground? Why was it important to incorporate this piece of history into the book?

JK: When I was living in Atlanta, I met an older Jewish woman, Hannah Weinstein Entell, who had worked for the underground, providing food for prisoners of war. Hannah was born in Vienna and escaped Austria in the 1930s. I was taken by Hannah’s zest for life, her positive energy, her interest in people, and her fortitude. She also introduced me to George Friedmann, a Hungarian Jew who escaped the Germans during World War II. He, too, had an amazing life force that inspired me. In my novel, there is a minor character, Rose, who once worked for the underground and sets things in motion for Will and Annie. I incorporated this aspect of history into my novel as a reminder that people are complicated and not what they appear to be on the surface. People who have lived through unthinkable struggles and walk by us every day. As a Jew, I feel an acute awareness surrounding this idea of hidden stories.

As I wrote, I thought about all the immigrants who have come to America to escape oppression. My grandfather came through Ellis Island in order to escape the Russian Czar, and I exist because of this decision my grandfather made. It takes enormous courage to speak up, to risk your life and flee. My character Edward Weiss is a fighter for justice. He is in pursuit of the truth. I wanted readers to encounter someone like Edward in my book and think about how difficult it is to actually stand up and take action against wrongdoing.

JA: The relationship between Annie and Edward is both tender and, in some ways, tragic. What do you think they see in each other?

JK: Recently, at an author event, a person in the audience observed that both Annie and Edward drink a lot of water in the novel. (My novel takes place in the summer and heat is a factor.) The person commented that she thought Annie and Edward were both thirsting for life. Without giving away plot points, I think Annie is drawn to Edward because he’s able to tap into her life force—her most authentic self—something she found hard to do. Edward is drawn to Annie because there is something about her that reminds him of his dead daughter. Getting to know Annie is Edward’s second chance to love his daughter with more empathy and compassion, something he failed to do when she was alive.

JA: At one point, you draw an interesting comparison between Vienna and Budapest—both former capitals of the Austro-Hungarian empire. You write, “In Austria, remnants of greatness left imprints like fossils.” In contrast, Budapest is messy, worn-down, and full of energy—it is taking risks. Was the novel always set in Budapest? How different do you think it would have been if you’d set it in Vienna?

JK: The novel was always set in Budapest and truthfully I could not envision my story set anywhere else—certainly not Vienna. This is because Vienna is a much different place. It has immense wealth. It dominated Europe at one point. Austrians speak German, not an uncommon language globally. Hungary is much more insular because of is language, which most people don’t know. Budapest is like the poor country cousin to Vienna. It has to prove more to the world in order to be heard and recognized. At the same time, Budapest is more mysterious, intriguing, and haunting—that word again. This is the atmosphere I wanted to capture in my novel.

JA: I’m curious about Annie and Will, Edward, and Stephen. They are very different people, from completely different backgrounds—different generations, different countries. But they’re thrown together in this story in a way that feels organic and almost inevitable. How did these characters come together for you?

JK: I’m glad you asked this question. I wanted my story to be multigenerational, to encompass the life cycle from young to old. It’s why I also have a baby in the story (Annie and Will’s infant son). I wanted to show that history is something that is passed on in our personal, domestic lives as well as our cultural and social lives. I’m also interested in what people can learn from each other despite differences in age, religion, or experience. Often we learn the most when we meet someone we think is very different than who we are. Usually, we find the common denominator through a meeting of the heart. My characters are different on the outside, yet they are each pushing hard to come to terms with who they really are.

JA: What are you working on next?

JK: A novel set in Boston, in present time, which deals with spirituality, marriage, and love.

New Reviews March 5, 2018

Monday, March 05, 2018 | Permalink

Excerpt: The Last Watchman of Old Cairo

Thursday, March 01, 2018 | Permalink

The following chapter is from Michael David Lukas's The Last Watchman of Old Cairo. Here, we are introduced to the remarkable, real life twin sisters Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson. Born in Scotland in 1843, they were world-renowned scholars and adventurers at a time when women could not attend Cambridge University. After being both widowed at an early age, they spent much of their time (and a good portion of their considerable wealth) studying Semitic languages, traveling around the Middle East, and procuring ancient manuscripts. Their trip to Cairo in 1896 sparked a turn of events that would result in the “discovery” of the Cairo Geniza in the attic of a synagogue in the old city. The following chapter details the twins' return to Cairo in January 1897, after realizing the importance of their find. 


Mrs. Agnes Lewis and Mrs. Margaret Gibson arrived in Cairo on the Two-fifteen Express from Alexandria. This was how their timetable referred to it, the Two-fifteen Express. Although in actuality the train was rather ponderous. When they finally pulled into Cairo Station—having been delayed by high winds, flooding, a faulty track switch, and a fugitive cow ruminating in the middle of the tracks—it was already well past dusk. Agnes’s pocket watch showed 7:25, more than three hours behind schedule.

Taken alone, the travails of the Two-fifteen Express would not have been especially irritating. But the twins had been traveling for six days straight, without proper rest or sanitation, and they were both feeling rather crabby. Fifteen years ago, they might have reveled in the adventure of it all—the Channel passage, the train across France, the boat trip from Marseilles. Fifteen years ago they might have overlooked the fleas and the damp and the motion sickness. They might have brushed all that aside as soon as the looming hulk of the Citadel came into view. But this was not fifteen years ago. It was the first month in the year of our Lord 1897. They had turned fifty-four just a few weeks earlier, and felt every aching year of it. No matter what might happen, whether they found their documents or not, this would most likely be their last trip to Egypt.

Agnes alighted first, followed by Margaret, and they stood side by side at the edge of the platform. From a distance they were indistinguishable, both women of distinction, both wrapped in furs, both squat and sharp-eyed with stringy gray-brown hair wrapped in a loose bun. Closer scrutiny would reveal Margaret’s mole, the creakiness of Agnes’s gait, and a slightly different shade of green in the eyes. For all intents and purposes, however, they were perfect replicas of each other, an august pair of British widows fringed with the scorch of Presbyterianism.

Undisturbed by the tumult of the platform, Agnes and Margaret took in the arc of the station’s new steel ceiling and the useless clack of the arrival board. Green-turbaned pashas brushed past half-naked stevedores and dusty fellaheen laden with great bags of cotton. Two or three dark-veiled women haunted the edges of the crowd, slipping through a brigade of British tourists tromping, no doubt, to Shepheard’s Hotel, lunch at the Gezira Club, and a steam packet down the Nile. With a subtle tilt of her chin, Agnes indicated an old Nubian porter smoking a cigarette next to the newsstand, and they crossed the platform toward him.

“Excuse us,” Margaret said, using her most mellifluous Arabic. “We have ten trunks on the Two-fifteen from Alexandria, all marked with the names Lewis and Gibson. We would be exceedingly gratified if you were to convey them to our carriage outside.”

The man hesitated for a moment to examine them more closely. Then he extinguished his cigarette on the bottom of his sandal and set off to collect their things.

“They’re fragile,” Agnes called after him, but he did not appear to hear.

Once their trunks were loaded and the porter paid, the carriage driver set off down Clot Bey Street toward the Hotel d’Angleterre. He took the long way, as Margaret requested, through the Ezbekiyya Gardens.

“It is a slight detour,” she said, in anticipation of her sister’s objections, “but so much more pleasant. Don’t you agree?”

“Yes,” Agnes said, softening into her seat. “I do.”

For there was nothing quite like riding through the gardens at twilight. The shadow of overhanging palms, the warm night air, the scrape of carriage wheels on gravel, it all brought back that same girlish excitement they had felt on their first visit to Cairo so many years ago. Under the yellow flicker of gas lamps, the old city appeared to be nothing more than an outline, a quaint sprinkling of minarets against the darkness. And when their hotel appeared, rising up between a hedgerow and the gently arched frond of a palm, it looked like an enormous pink cake.

This was not their first stay at the Hotel d’Angleterre, but in the past few years its decor had changed considerably. The lobby had been draped in heavy teal curtains and someone had seen fit to adorn the room with paintings of typical Egyptian scenes, as if to imply that the Nile, the pyramids, Mount Sinai, and the Colossus of Abu Simbel were all waiting there on the other side of the wall. As they followed the bellhop across the lobby, the sisters both glanced at a party of package tourists huddled around the grand fireplace, drinking cordials and talking excitedly about the high quality of perfume to be found in the Khan el-Khalili. Margaret gave them a quick smile, pleasant almost to the point of inviting conversation, but not quite.

“Your room, please,” the bellhop said, after leading them up the staircase. Agnes stepped up to the threshold of Room 327 and leaned in to get a better look.

“Your room,” the bellhop offered again, stiffening his arm to indicate that they should enter before him. The sisters exchanged a glance and Agnes stepped back into the hallway.

“Unfortunately,” she explained in Arabic, “this is not our room. We asked for a north-facing room with two queen-sized beds and a bath. This room faces south and, I may be mistaken, but I do not see a bath.”

The boy looked to Margaret, who nodded her agreement.

“Please,” he said in English and, holding up his index finger, rushed back down to the lobby.

A few minutes later, he returned with the concierge, a large man with the aspect of an overripe and somewhat bruised tropical fruit. Arriving at the threshold of Room 327, he wiped his forehead with a handkerchief and looked inside.

“The ladies’ room is not to their liking?”

“The room is nice enough,” said Agnes. “Unfortunately, it is not the ladies’.”

While Margaret explained that they had requested a room with a north-facing view, two queen-sized beds, and a bath, the concierge sucked at his mustache and watched his fingers walk around a circle of prayer beads.

“There is one room I can offer,” he said, “on this floor, very large, facing north, with two queen beds.”

Room 322 was across the hall. And indeed, it was quite a bit larger than 327, with a north-facing view, two queen-sized beds, and a claw-foot tub in the bathroom.

“Of course,” the concierge said, when he saw that the ladies found their new room to be satisfactory, “this room is somewhat more expensive.”

“Of course,” Margaret agreed, placing a hand on her sister’s forearm.

Traveling throughout the Near East, often without the fortification of male companionship, Agnes and Margaret had, over the years, developed a nose for swindlers and a stomach for bargaining that matched even the most tenacious of shopkeepers in the Khan el-Khalili. Not that they needed to be frugal. Their dear father had left them enough money to be happily fleeced for the rest of their lives, and then some. For the twins, thrift was a point of pride. And moreover, every pound saved was another pound they could give to charity. In a very real sense, this smarmy concierge was attempting to divert funds away from the assistance of war orphans, the rescue of ancient documents, and the establishment of a new Presbyterian Synod in Cambridge.

“We will gladly pay the price we agreed to last month,” Margaret said. Reaching into her handbag, she produced a letter from the owner of the hotel, detailing the terms of their agreement. “Seventy piastres a night, I believe.”

“Yes,” the concierge said, without looking at the letter, “seventy piastres a night, plus taxes and tips.”

◆     ◆     

After their trunks had been brought up and a round of baksheesh dispensed to everyone the least bit involved with the endeavor, Agnes lay down for a moment while Margaret busied herself making certain all their luggage had arrived in good condition. Between them, the twins had ten steamer trunks. Four were filled with various dresses, petticoats, shoes, furs, hats, and other sartorial items required for a journey that would take them from the dining room of Shepheard’s Hotel to the wilds of the Sinai Desert. Two trunks were crammed with dictionaries, Bibles, lexicons, travel accounts, and sundry other books essential to the identification of ancient manuscripts. One trunk contained all the foodstuffs and medicines they knew they could not procure in Cairo. Another held their tripod, two hundred photographic plates, and the camera itself, a traveling half-plate from Fallowfield. There was a trunk filled with the chemical reagents and other conservation equipment they would need for their trip to St. Catherine’s. And the final trunk contained those items that Mrs. Schechter had asked them to deliver to her husband: a respirator, its attendant spare parts, quinine, and a large magnifying glass.

Once certain everything was in good condition, Margaret unpacked their chess set from the second library trunk and began arranging the board on a small side table. She was nearly finished setting up her own pieces when the bellhop knocked and slid a note under the door.

“A letter?” Agnes asked, raising her head from the pillow to see what Margaret was holding.

“From Dr. Schechter,” Margaret confirmed.

The twins had come to Cairo to assist Dr. Schechter in obtaining a cache of documents currently housed in the attic of a synagogue in the old city. They had originally planned to travel with him. However, at the last minute they had been detained in Cambridge by an urgent piece of business related to the establishment of the Presbyterian Synod, and everyone agreed that it would be best for Dr. Schechter to go ahead without them, so that he might begin securing the necessary permissions from the Jewish community. Given the exigencies of travel and the sorry state of the postal system in Egypt, they hadn’t heard from him since he left Cambridge, nearly a month earlier, and they were eager for his news.

“Will you read it?” Agnes asked.

Margaret glanced over the note, written in Dr. Schechter’s broad and rather hasty scrawl, then seated herself on the edge of the bed and began reading aloud.

After the requisite salutations, welcoming them to Cairo and asking after their journey, Dr. Schechter informed the twins that they would be very happy to hear of his progress with Rabbi Ben Shimon. He was looking forward to discussing these matters in detail that following evening, when he hoped they would be able to join himself and Miss de Witt for dinner.

“One supposes that Rabbi Ben Shimon is the Chief Rabbi of Cairo,” Agnes said, once her sister was finished, “but who on earth is Miss de Witt?”

“I have no idea,” Margaret said, “though it does appear that Dr. Schechter has been rather busy.”

“Not surprising.”

“Not at all.”

Agnes and Margaret had known Dr. Schechter for years. They were of the same set in Cambridge and often saw each other at Dr. Taylor’s house. In addition to their shared interest in biblical scholarship, there was another unspoken bond between them as well: the somewhat bitter knowledge that, in spite of their many scholarly accomplishments, the three of them would always be relegated to the outskirts of Dr. Taylor’s circle and none of them would ever be allowed to join the permanent faculty at Cambridge, Dr. Schechter because of his religion and the twins because of their sex. This knowledge did not encourage a deeper relationship, however. If anything, it did the opposite. Occasionally, the twins had Dr. and Mrs. Schechter over for tea, as part of a larger group, but their connection with him had never progressed much beyond this initial stage of congeniality and shared resentment, at least not until recently.

One afternoon that past spring, Agnes and Margaret had invited Dr. Schechter over to look through a pile of documents brought back from a previous trip to Egypt. In their initial perusal they had found more than a few intriguing manuscripts, including a fifteenth-century prayer book and a clump of what looked to be ancient incantations of some sort. When they had described the documents to him a few days earlier at Dr. Taylor’s house, Dr. Schechter had been rather excited. Seeing them for himself, however, he seemed unimpressed. Shuffling through the general hodgepodge of ancient letters and business contracts, he paused here and there to smile politely or read a few words aloud. His gaze didn’t rest on any item for more than a moment until, at the bottom of the pile, he came upon a seemingly unremarkable leaf from an early Hebrew codex. After staring down at it for a full three minutes, Dr. Schechter asked whether he might remove the fragment for further inspection. When he returned, later that afternoon, he was in a state of what could only be described as hysteria. The fragment, he had said, once he was able to calm himself, appeared to be a leaf from the original Hebrew version of Ecclesiasticus.

The sisters exchanged a glance.

“The original Hebrew?”

“I believe so,” Dr. Schechter said.

The implications were tremendous. If authenticated, the fragment would establish a reliable source text for Ecclesiasticus and might even prove Dr. Schechter’s theory about the language of its composition. But what excited him most was the idea that there might be more where this had come from. The condition of the fragment, its size, and the paper on which it was written, all these things led Dr. Schechter to suspect that this leaf from Ecclesiasticus was, as he had put it, but a single petal in a great field of wildflowers. Hands trembling so much he could barely drink his tea, Dr. Schechter had tried unsuccessfully to explain the Jewish prohibition against discarding Torah scrolls, prayer books, and any other papers that might contain the name of God, how most congregations buried these documents in a special section of the graveyard, but some chose to gather their godly texts in an attic or storeroom, known as a geniza, until they could be disposed of properly.

Despite his incoherence, the reason for his excitement was clear. Somewhere in Old Cairo there was a synagogue, the attic of which was filled with ancient manuscripts that hadn’t seen the light of day in hundreds of years. If they were able to secure these documents and bring them back to Cambridge, it would be among the most significant discoveries of the past twenty years, with profound effects on liturgy, linguistics, and biblical scholarship. But they needed to act quickly. For if Agnes and Margaret had been able to purchase this fragment from a common manuscript dealer, it meant that others would be able to buy them, too. Someone with access to the synagogue—a member of the Jewish community, or perhaps one of its employees—was selling the documents on the black market and, without their speedy intercession, this treasure trove of manuscripts would soon be dispersed to the four winds.

Agnes and Margaret had reason to believe that the synagogue might also contain an even greater treasure: the Ezra Scroll. That very morning in fact, on their journey from Alexandria to Cairo, Margaret had stumbled upon a passage in a seventeenth-century travel account, suggesting that the ark of the Ibn Ezra Synagogue possessed a recess containing a copy of the Mosaic law, written in the very hand of Ezra the Scribe himself, of happy memory. Upon reading those words, she had let out a small yelp of joy and showed the passage to her sister, who responded in a similar manner. The very notion of the Ezra Scroll—a perfect copy of the Hebrew Scriptures written thousands of years ago by the prophet Ezra—was enough to make one’s skin goose with anticipation. If it truly existed, if they found it, if they were able to bring it back to Cambridge, the implications truly could not be greater. It was an idea almost too delicious to ponder. An indisputable source text for the Old Testament, without hint of error or innovation, the Ezra Scroll would be the greatest archaeological discovery of the century, if not the millennium. Their names—Mrs. Agnes Lewis and Mrs. Margaret Gibson—would be known to history for years to come and, more importantly, the scroll would serve to establish the true word of God, a perfect and unimpeachable copy of the Hebrew Bible without intermediary or innovation.

And so there they were, in Room 322 at the Hotel d’Angleterre, tired and somewhat irritable, their bones aching from nearly a week of travel. They were both rather anxious to begin the search, but at the moment their exhaustion took precedence.

“Are you hungry?” Agnes asked, and Margaret shook her head.

“Not especially.”

“Then I can see no reason why we shouldn’t avail ourselves of sleep.”

“No,” Margaret agreed, “neither can I.”

After finishing their nightly exercises, they washed up and changed into their sleeping gowns.

“Would you mind, Meggie?” Agnes asked as she rolled onto her stomach.

“Of course not, Nestor.”

In the trunk devoted to foodstuffs and medicines, Margaret found a small bottle of the specially formulated ointment that, although smelling of opium and chili peppers, did a great deal toward alleviating the pain of her sister’s rheumatism. Rubbing the ointment into her palms, she unbuttoned her sister’s gown and began applying a coat of it to her naked back.

It was just the two of them, and so it had been for some time. Margaret’s beloved husband, Mr. James Gibson, had passed away after only three years of marriage, and Agnes’s dear Samuel had died less than five years later. This wasn’t the life they had imagined for themselves—no husbands, no children, no domestic interests—but it was a life well lived, in the pursuit of knowledge and the general well-being, and they both took some comfort in knowing that their husbands would have been proud of their accomplishments. They had their causes, supported their church, wrote letters to The Times, and, when they weren’t traveling around the Near East, searching for ancient manuscripts that might shed light on the origins of their faith, they spent most of their days in quiet contentment, reading or studying Arabic grammar in the parlor. Like any partnership, theirs was a negotiation, a carefully constructed edifice of favors and moods. They had disagreements, of course, but in large part they got on remarkably well. For each knew the other’s thinking as well as her own.

At that particular moment—Agnes lying on her stomach and Margaret rubbing the ointment into her sister’s back—they were thinking, as they often did, of their beloved father. He had been dead now for years, but they could both very clearly recall him, bent over his writing desk, rebuking them for an excessive display of pride, praising a well-wrought translation.

Where would they be without the guidance of his steady and sometimes chastising hand? It was he who had given them the gift of a proper education, he who had sparked the light of their faith, he who had instilled in them the importance of hard work and a curiosity about the world beyond Glasgow, Edinburgh, and London. For although he disapproved of female education in general, he had seen their promise early and resolved to school them himself, beginning when they were five with Latin and Greek, then moving on to Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic. Six days a week, from breakfast until dinner, Agnes and Margaret had worked side by side, diligently translating Cicero, Exodus, and Ibn Sina. Their dinner conversations were primarily of an instructional nature, but every night after the table was cleared and the dishes washed, their father would read aloud to them from the Odyssey or the Arabian Nights. And as they drifted off to sleep, the sound of his voice filled their dreams with wooden ships, great marble palaces, magic lamps, and dark caves overflowing with treasure.

That following evening—after a mostly pleasant day spent reading, strolling through the gardens, and making inquiries with their friends at the antique book market—Agnes and Margaret took a carriage to Dr. Schechter’s hotel.

“So good to see you,” he said, leaping up from his chair as they entered the lobby.

With his wild hair and his great silver beard, Dr. Schechter looked as if he would be more at home among the monks of Mount Sinai than the tourists milling about the lobby of a modern hotel.

“It is so very good to see you both,” he went on. “I must apologize for not writing earlier. But we have been having quite a bit of excitement here. I have been making great strides with Rabbi Ben Shimon, great strides.”

For the past six months, the already somewhat frantic Dr. Schechter had been a man possessed, muttering to himself on King’s Parade or in the stacks of the Cambridge University Library, unwashed and disheveled, looking for all the world like a madman. Being in Cairo apparently hadn’t done much to calm his nerves, though it did look as if he had bought himself a new suit.

“We have some exciting news,” he told the twins, “very exciting.”

“We?” Agnes glanced at the rather pretty young lady with whom Dr. Schechter had been sitting.

“Excuse me,” he said with a slight blush. “Please allow me to introduce Miss Emily de Witt, from Girton College. Did I not mention I had a student along to help with the transcriptions?”

“I can’t say I remember anything about a student,” Agnes said. “But then again, I can hardly remember the name of my own dog.”

Margaret smiled for her sister.

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Miss de Witt.”

“The pleasure is all mine,” she said, and gave a slight, but very winning, curtsey.

“We have some exciting news,” Dr. Schechter repeated as he led them into the dining room of the hotel. “I have been making great strides with Rabbi Ben Shimon.”

It was slightly vexing how Dr. Schechter spoke about the project. Over the past few months, he had assumed de facto ownership over the expedition, referring to the documents as “my find” and repeatedly thanking the sisters for their assistance. Of course, they had enjoyed more than their share of accolades a few years earlier, after their discovery of the codex at St. Catherine’s Monastery. Agnes had been invited to address the Royal Asiatic Society, and Margaret’s account of the discovery was praised in newspapers around the world. Many said it was one of the most significant such finds since the Codex Sinaiticus. But fame was only a by-product. If their experience—uncovering the codex, bringing it home, having their names briefly trumpeted about—had taught them anything, it was to remind them of what their father had often said. The text was what mattered, not the author. The true purpose of their work, of any scholarly endeavor, was not recognition. It was the steady accumulation of knowledge, the illumination of an ancient textual variant, the revelation curled upon itself in a dusty palimpsest.

“Great strides,” Dr. Schechter said again.

Unable to contain himself any longer, he dove into a dramatic account of his time in Cairo, detailing a series of meetings with the Chief Rabbi and other notable members of the Jewish community. There was a Mr. Bechor, a Mr. Mosseri, and three or four others who, along with Rabbi Ben Shimon, constituted an informal governing council. Knowing something of the Oriental character, Dr. Schechter had invested most of the past two weeks in fraternization, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, and touring around the city. At times, he had to admit, it all seemed like nothing more than a grand diversion. Then, three days ago, his hard work had paid its dividend. Rabbi Ben Shimon had granted them full access to the geniza and intimated that he would support the idea of safekeeping the entirety of the collection at the Cambridge University Library.

“What does he want in exchange?” Agnes asked.

Having dealt with all manner of Egyptians, from Bedouin camel traders to Coptic patriarchs, she had a difficult time believing that Rabbi Ben Shimon would give up such a valuable cache of documents without compensation.

“Nothing,” Dr. Schechter said, “at least not as far as I can tell. Rabbi Ben Shimon understands the great scholarly value of the geniza documents and I have been able to convince him that they will be well looked after in Cambridge. He is a lovely man and very learned. When you meet him, I am sure you will agree.”

“I am sure we will,” Margaret said, though she shared her sister’s suspicions. In their experience, the shrewdest of characters were often those who seemed, at first, to lack an ulterior motive.

“I’ve visited the synagogue twice,” Dr. Schechter said, redirecting the course of conversation. “And truly, the geniza is beyond anything I could have imagined.”

Pausing to cough while the waiter served their dinner—beef Wellington for the ladies and, for the gentleman, a kosher meal provided through the generosity of the governing council—Dr. Schechter went on to describe a vast battlefield of paper, books, and letters, dust everywhere and all of it mashed together without any order whatsoever. Most of the documents held little scholarly interest—business and marriage contracts, deeds, the proceedings of the religious court—but there were gems to be found amidst the rubble, gems of a most astonishing nature. In just two visits he had already uncovered a number of invaluable documents: a page from a fourteenth-century Passover Haggadah and the first half of a letter written by the great poet and scholar Samuel ha-Nagid.

“Samuel ha-Nagid,” Agnes marveled, but before she could formulate a question about the letter, Dr. Schechter was overcome by another fit of coughing.

“It’s the geniza,” he said. “I’ve never seen such dust.”

He continued coughing until Miss de Witt handed him a glass of water.

“We left your respirator at the front desk,” Margaret offered. “If we had known the need was so urgent, we would have brought it with us.”

Agnes glanced at Miss de Witt, who was watching Dr. Schechter with a concern that bordered on excessive familiarity.

“Mrs. Schechter sent along a few other things as well.”

“Thank you,” Dr. Schechter said and, recovering himself, steered the conversation back to the geniza. “All that filth, it makes one feel less like a scholar than a housemaid, dusting out the attic of History.”

“We are eager to help in whatever capacity you deem most useful,” Margaret said. “As you know, my sister and I are not above dusting, and our Arabic is quite passable.”

“It’s quite good, really,” Dr. Schechter said, missing her irony entirely. “But first, we must secure Rabbi Ben Shimon’s permission to remove the documents. He has agreed in principle, but such things take time.”

“If you think it would be at all possible,” Agnes put in, “we would be thrilled to visit the synagogue.”

They were both rather curious to see the geniza for themselves. They had come halfway around the world. And, after hearing Dr. Schechter describe its contents, they felt an even greater urgency to get on with their work, securing the geniza and protecting these invaluable documents from whoever was selling them off.

“Yes, of course,” Dr. Schechter said. He paused for a moment and tapped the side of his head, like a schoolboy trying to recall the exact wording of a difficult recitation. “The only trouble is, Mr. Bechor offered to take us all out on a tour of the city tomorrow. He is an important member of the governing council. Perhaps we can visit the synagogue the following afternoon?”

As much as they wanted to get on with their work—and as little as they wanted to be led around on a tour of a city they had visited nearly a dozen times—the twins knew better than to refuse an invitation from an important member of the governing council. So they agreed, reluctantly, to meet that next morning in the lobby of their hotel.

After dessert, the twins bade Dr. Schechter and Miss de Witt a good evening and took an open carriage back to their hotel. It was a dark night, clear and cold, and the stars shone like inflamed grains of sand.

“She is rather pretty,” Margaret said after a few minutes of silence.

“Certainly not who I imagined when Dr. Schechter said he was bringing along a research assistant.”

“Maybe she has some Hebrew.”

“I doubt she has much of anything, apart from her charms.” Margaret let this bit of nastiness dissipate before she spoke again.

“And Rabbi Ben Shimon,” she asked, “what do you suppose he wants?”

“Money,” Agnes said, troubling a loose flap of the seat next to her. “It’s usually money, isn’t it?”

“Nine times out of ten.”

“Or maybe a political favor, protection from the vagaries of Abbas II.”

“Perhaps he doesn’t care about the documents at all,” Margaret speculated. “Perhaps he thinks they’re nothing but rubbish and we’re fools for chasing after them.”

“Or maybe he does care, very much, and truly believes they will be better cared for in Cambridge.”

“Which they will be.”

“It doesn’t really matter, does it? So long as he’s willing to grant us the necessary permissions.”

“And soon,” Margaret added.

“And soon.”

They were silent for the remainder of the ride, thinking about Rabbi Ben Shimon and Mr. Bechor, the possibility of the Ezra Scroll and Dr. Schechter’s unfortunate willingness to trust in the good intentions of others. Being granted access to the geniza was certainly something, but there was still a great deal of work to be done. The twins were both quite certain now that there was a leak in the geniza. Someone was selling off the documents piece by piece and whoever it was—a member of the governing council, the synagogue watchman, Rabbi Ben Shimon, or someone else entirely—the twins wouldn’t stop until the documents were removed to a safer location. Until then, until the proverbial bird was in their hands, the geniza would continue to be parceled out and sold in the stalls of the antique book market. One of the greatest discoveries of the century, thousands of potentially invaluable documents, would be dispersed among the curiosity cabinets of pleasure tourists who couldn’t tell the difference between Syriac and Aramaic.

Excerpted from The Last Watchman of Old Cairo by Michael David Lukas. Published by Spiegel & Grau. Copyright © 2018 by Michael David Lukas. All rights reserved.

Image of Al-Hakim Mosque via Wikimedia Commons. Postcard of Cairo at night via the British Museum.

In Music, Salvation

Tuesday, February 27, 2018 | Permalink

Vesper Stamper is the author and illustrator of What the Night Sings. She is blogging here as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

My grandparents were my first and most important musical influences. My grandfather was always singing, doing little jigs around the house. He had a rich baritone that I can still hear now, even fifteen years after cancer took his voice out of the world. My grandmother, too, was a very forward alto who could (magically, to a little girl) whistle through her teeth. WQXR, the classical station in New York, was always on in their house. When I was far younger than you’d expect a little kid to sit still, my grandfather would take me to see the New York Philharmonic. I was mesmerized by the music, and the spell never left me. My childhood was quite troubled, but my grandparents were a salvific presence, and so was their music. Music, for me, has always been associated with hope.

I attended LaGuardia High School of the Arts in Manhattan, where I was positively immersed in classical music, not from some distant stage, but from my fellow teenaged friends, in the hallways and classrooms. Even though I was an art major, I managed to sneak into the Senior and Gospel Choirs. I couldn’t imagine doing only art and not music. I doubled down on my very lousy piano playing, teaching myself some satisfying Bach, Beethoven and Mozart pieces—for my own enjoyment, never for an audience. At fifteen, I picked up the guitar and never looked back, going on to become a touring and recording singer-songwriter alongside my career as an illustrator.

I’m not sure when the character of Gerta first revealed herself to me as a musician, but she had to be a singer, a lover of the great German-language operatic tradition that stemmed from Hildegard von Bingen (whose 12th century Ordo Virtuum could, some argue, be considered the first opera), flowed through Bach’s heavenly oratorios, and blossomed into Mozart’s masterpieces and beyond. Before she and her father are deported from the musical town of Würzburg, Gerta does not know she is Jewish. Thanks to an elaborate and necessary ruse by her father, she believes herself to be thoroughly German, and is preparing for her operatic debut, the aria Erbarme Dich from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.

A complex and lengthy work, the St. Matthew Passion is full of pathos and tragedy. It recounts, in both narrative detail and reflective mediation, the last hours of the life of Jesus. What strikes me about the meditative movements within St. Matthew is that they do not directly reflect the story, but are expressions of grief and loss that stand on their own and apply to all of us.

The St. Matthew Passion begins with the words Kommt, ihr Tröchter, helft mir klagen: "Come, O daughters, help me lament."  Even several years since I began work on What the Night Sings, I cannot get through the first measure of that chorale without weeping. The story of the Passion, after all, is a closeup on the story of the ancient Roman persecution of the Jewish people—one of many catalytic events that culminated in the fall of Jerusalem, resulting in the Diaspora to Europe. The Diaspora has been characterized, as I point out in the book, by roughly 70-100 year cycles of Jewish persecution, right up to the present day. It is a reality we have not been able to shed in two thousand years.

One of the many things that punctuates the insanity of the Holocaust is the fact that the same German culture that gave us Bach and Schumann also produced the gas chambers and Mengele. It was important to me, therefore, to juxtapose the greatness of Bach with the depravity of Auschwitz, and to have that serve as a mirror to Gerta’s struggle with her own recently discovered Jewish identity, and her reemergence into herself as a woman of agency, a young adult, and an artist. She wrestles with the subject of her identity throughout the book. The fact is that within each of us lies this tension. The human being is itself a paradox—created in the image of God and therefore imbued with great dignity and capacity for goodness, yet easily tempted toward self-interest, tribalism, and evil. This echoes historian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s assertion in The Gulag Archipelago that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

Music is a transcendent force. It can be hijacked for propaganda; it can be painfully associative. But it can be potent in its ability to heal, to lift people out of the hell they may be experiencing at that very moment, if only for a moment. Music exists, in a sense, in a reality above good and evil. As Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, a cellist in the Auschwitz Women’s Orchestra, says in this interview: “[Mengele]…did not spoil Schumann or the Träumerei for me.”

Vesper has a BFA degree in Illustration with Honors from Parsons School of Design and an MFA in Illustration as Visual Essay from School of Visual Arts, NYC. She lives near her native New York City with her husband and their two children.

New Reviews February 26, 2018

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