Thursday, October 31, 2013

On Place and Cara Hoffman

Writer Cara Hoffman has taken shots at her former home town before.

In an Ithaca Times article she took its citizens to task for not supporting the last, privately owned bookstore in town.  She holds us to a standard that counters irreversible current trends: people are more and more reading books in electronic formats.  The traditional bookshop is no longer very relative.   

Hoffman then relates how she was active in saving St. Marks Books in New York City, and if she could, she would pick up Colophon Books in Ithaca and “move it to Avenue B.”  For Hoffman, New York City can save her most treasured ideals despite stark economic realities.

In the most recent post on her blog, an elegy to Lou Reed, Hoffman's New York and Ithaca divide gets even wider.  She calls Ithaca, or the Ithaca region, a “hellhole in the middle of nowhere” and has Lou Reed, mimicking her own sentiments, deriding Trumansburg as a place to get out of at all costs --- as if his off the cuff comments are words of prophecy.  A sign.

It is a shame that Hoffman, a talented writer who can put together really great prose, has to propel her art  with a long smoldering hatred for a place which in many respects was kind to her.  There are people in Ithaca and Trumansburg who helped her as an artist and friend, supported her in good and bad times, and provided a community of like-minded artists and writers she could support and in turn, find support.

I suppose she is mimicking the long tradition of the writer who has fled a ‘backwater’ town for the stimulation of the big city.  This well-worn cliché puts both New York City and Ithaca in less than genuinely illuminating light.

New York City, Ithaca, and Trumansburg (I have lived in and around all three) are neither heaven nor hell.  Our all too human perspective on what a place gives and takes from us as people and writers is provided by a cloudy lens.  To mistake this grimy view for ultimate or even collective reality is a grave mistake. 

Yet Hoffman does this all too often.  She mixes place with individual identity, as if that is the only marker of a person's true being, art with reality, as if art, even great art, can encompass the explosive power of existence, and transmutes a relative view of  a people, their place,  and their culture, into a stony absolute.  She does all this in insulting tones. 

Very many people, myself included, love Tru-mans-burg  --- Lou Reed and Cara Hoffman’s posturing aside.  I feel no need to flee.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Crossing the Narrow Bridge: A Practice Guide to Rebbe Nachman’s Teachings

Crossing the Narrow Bridge: A Practice Guide to Rebbe Nachman’s Teachings, sets out to be a primer for Bresolver thought and practice, explaining to the novice their unique Hasidic viewpoint. 

In this mission the book is extremely successful.  The editor has taken various topics, like “Joy” and culled selections from different places in Rebbe Nacham’s corpus, embedding them in his own vision of what joy means to a Brastlaver.  This model continues throughout the book, on such topics as Torah Study and Prayer, Making a Living, and such unique Bratslav innovations as hitbodedut.

For anyone who wants a gentle dive into Braslav, this is a fine book.   The prose can  at times lack inspiration (and it is a pity, for so much of Bratslav is inspirational), but beyond that, it is a good key into this unique world.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Yiddish Civilization: The Rise and Fall of a Forgotten Nation

Paul Kriwaczek’s Yiddish Civilization: The Rise and Fall of a Forgotten Nation is an admirable attempt to trace the history of Ashkenazi Jews from their early origins to their near destruction by the Nazis and continued growth in the New World.

Unfortunately, Kriwacek seems a bit out of his element at times.  He wants there to be an entity such as a Yiddish nation, somehow divorced from the Jewish religion, self-governing and internally consistent, but then goes on to explain how complex the story actually is, as provides gives counter examples to this thesis.  

This exposes yet another flaw in the book: it is so far ranging, often veering off the topic of Yiddish speaking Jews entirely, that even for its length, the book does not appear to cover the topic adequately.  Readers may be left wondering such crucial questions as: what is the origin of the Yiddish language?  What is the origin of this unique people?  How did the language change over time?

Indeed, Kriwaczek covers these topics, but not in depth.  They are buried  by the weight of other, less important details.
In the end, the book is unsatisfying.  The reader is left with too many unanswered questions in a book purportedly written to answer them.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Last Resort - Alison Lurie

Alison Lurie was a long time professor in the Department of English at Cornell.  As I work at Cornell, I always meant to read her.  So, I picked up “The Last Resort” to see if her fame, which seems to be part of Cornell but also transcends it, is justified.

Not surprisingly, "The Last Resort" deals with academics, or former academics, trying to find meaning in their later years (as this is one of her later novels) in the face of deteriorating  reputations, ill-health, and just plain old existential angst.  As a writer who spent most of her time in academia, that she should write about academics is surprise (after all, most writers these days are academics of some sort). 

What saves "The Last Resort" from the banalities of these themes is that Lurie can genuinely write.  She uses language in creative and intelligent ways, taking a look at old topics and giving them new life.  She is able to capture character in all its confusing glory, and wrestle with plot as an organizing element to keep character, description and flow alive.

This is a pleasantly surprising novel:  a deep rumination on life, aging, and thinking for a living.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Street of Crocodiles

Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles has become a retrospective Jewish classic. Part of the reason is Schulz’s biography. A Jew living in Poland and writing in Polish, he lived in an unfortunate nexus where Polish nationalist anti-Semitism and the Nazi invasion of Poland met. The result is a legend, a missing novel, promising artist cut down as his best work was underway.

The fiction is a mix of paranoid and morbid fantasies, strange and diverse excursions into incomplete, unsatisfying words. The stories are connected with a strong father fixation, and Schulz connects them by intertwining characters and stories to make a sort of novel in stories.

All in all, Schulz presents a strange world and strange reading. The excursions into the bizarre can become bizarre. This is not reading that is grounded on this earth at all.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible

The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible, by Matti Friedman, is an compelling story of the fate of the oldest bible, the Aleppo Codex, and its vicissitudes through the ages.

Despite The Da Vinci Code type salaciousness of the title, Friedman is telling a true story, with an interesting cast of characters who span continents, languages and motivations. In places, Friedman appears to push the mysterious angle a bit much, but in this publishing climate, who can blame him.

It is difficult to write a book about a book and hold the public's sustained interest. Friedman has done an excellent job at both.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Along for the Ride: The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel

Babel's fiction is very time bound, and can be confusing to people without an inside glimpse of his world and the events which surrounded him. Take ha group of stories within the Collected Stories called The Odessa Tales. Here his first collection of stories is filled with colorful characters from the full spectrum of Jewish life at the turn of the century Odessa.

There are gangsters, police, rabbis, prostitutes, illegal enterprises of all kinds. This is shown quite naturally and without introduction. Babel presumes his audience knows that kind of city Odessa was at the turn of the century. Most of us do not. Odessa was a relatively "new" Russian city, where classes, religions, and ethnicities mixed freely. Money was king in this Odessa, which thrived on international trade from its excellent warm water port.

So, you need to bring a lot to Babel's fiction to get a complete understanding. Of course, you can ignore this. His descriptive abilities are masterful; his sense of character and timing impeccable. If you are a patient reader, you can just let Babel unfold the story and go along for the ride.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Alter's Divorce, xi, The End

After a year, no child was born.  Alter continued to do his duty, but without even a small measure of joy.  When Sarai had her time, he felt relieved.  He was an old man, and the stamina of marital relations was sapping his strength.   
He longed for Safed, its winding allies, the snow covered hills, his study with the tiny stove and his precious holy books.  But no one would let him be.  No one could forget that his return was a miracle, and it seemed to Alter that miracles were often came with a portion of punishment.  This miracle, he thought,  may put him in his grave in misery.  He could not even find a copy of The Zohar in the whole province.  He tried to write out passages he remembered, but as soon as they were in his mind, he forgot them as pen was laid to paper.  Alter felt the spool of his live unraveling.  I do not have long for this world, he lamented. 

Alter often hoped that he would not be able to perform when he slept with Sarai.  But deep within him the evil impulse stirred.  Despite himself, he was able to act.  Every time Sarai entered the bed, he felt that he would be unable to perform.  Then they could get in the carriage and head to Podloz and in good conscience be divorced.   
But each and every time Alter was a fit husband.  Then one day he failed, but Sarai took him in her hand  and then her mouth, and they performed the deed.  Another time he was too exhausted to take command, so Sarai climbed atop him, and Alter was mortified: it was well know that such a position bred weak and crippled offspring.  But what could he do?   
Except for his member, he felt as if his body was loaded down with lead.  It was as if only the evil impulse, the sexual urge, was keeping him alive.  If only it would depart from him, he could rest. 

But it did not end that way for Alter.  He died one night beneath Sarai, and in the dark of the night and she did not discover he had stopped breathing for a long time.  She ran screaming to the Burial Society.   
No one in the village had ever heard of such a thing.  It seemed that Alter and Sarai were touched by some special fate, but no one knew if it was good or bad.   
Alter was buried the next day before nightfall.  After the proscribed period of mourning Sarai married the foreman of her cobbler’s shop; after nine months she gave birth to a child, and tongue’s wagged from the village all the way to Podloz.  Sarai had borne a child!  For many years people imagined she was the source of the problem.  Now the Jews of the village were left wondering about Alter, as if he was to blame.  No one could solve the puzzle, despite the hours and hours of talk and gossip.

After a spell, everyone forgot about Alter Ashkenaz.  Babies were born, old people died.  Life continued on its wayward path.  And then they began to come, at first without announcing themselves, and then more openly.  Men made the trip to Alter’s grave to pray for his intercession with the failure of their intimate functions.  Alter’s grave was trampled down by the feet of hundreds of pilgrims.  His tombstone was garlanded with a thousand piles of pebbles.  Small notes were crammed into the cracks beneath the stone pillars, asking for his intercession.

Even in his grave, Alter found no peace.  His posterity revived him; men said to their sons who misbehaved, guard your tongue, lest you suffer the affliction of Alter Askenaz…

Monday, October 21, 2013

Alter's Divorce, x


             The next Friday, Sarai entered Alter’s room.  She had gone to the ritual bath, and returned.  She had removed her kerchief, and her hair, usually in pleats, hung down around her shoulders.  Alter dreaded her arrival.  For more than twenty years, he hardly looked at a woman, and now he was supposed to perform his duties as a husband.   
             He blushed like a yeshivah boy on his wedding night when Sarai entered the room.  He felt as if he had just wed, and been told, in hushed tones outside the bridal chamber, what was expected of him.  Only now with the bride had forgotten every word.  He did not know what to do.
            Sarai came and lay next to him in the bed.  They maintained a respectful silence.  Alter wracked his brain for instructions.  He had denied the body for so many years, he had forgotten its natural dictates.   
            All that came into his head where snippets of The Zohar, odds and ends about the Celestial Union, the Divine Seed, the Coupling that takes place on High, all bereft of practical significance.   
            Then some words of Maimonides from the Mishnah Torah sprang into his head:  “A husband and wife may have intercourse in whatever way they desire; he may kiss any organ of her body he wishes, and he may have intercourse with her naturally or unnaturally, provided he does not expend semen to no purpose…”
            So Alter followed the holy Rambam’s advice to the letter.  He began to kiss Sarai all over he body, including her intimate parts.  Her breathing increased.  Her body squirmed beneath him.  Her hands moved around Alter’s body.   
           When he was ready, Alter began to make love to Sarai.  They rocked back and forth together, their bodies finding a mutual harmony.  There was a feeling of lightness and heaviness, like water moving to and fro, and once again, snippets of The Zohar floated through Alter’s brain; and as he reached his peak, he saw the King and Queen in their Heavenly Chamber, conjoined, mirroring the work of human men and woman. 
Then Alter lay down next to his wife and fell into a lasting sleep, knowing he had performed God’s command.