Category Archives: Jewish fiction

Dear Geraldine Brooks,

The Secret ChordDear Geraldine Brooks, Thank you for The Secret Chord. Your retelling of the life of King David interested me because I was eager to see how you, a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist http://geraldinebrooks.com, would portray David, already the subject of many bios. My own next project will probably be a memoir, and I suspected that your treatment of David’s life had much to teach me about how to describe my own. I was right. Your use of Natan the prophet as storyteller is a brilliant way of capturing David’s exploits in words. The way you made Natan himself not only a trusted narrator but a full-fledged character in the drama of his king makes the story of David’s life credible and gripping.Natan and David

According to Natan, voicing the future in the name of God is painful and tiring work. When he is about to deliver a message from the deity he experiences crippling nausea and headaches and often loses consciousness. His body and voice are, it would seem, no longer his to control. To keep himself fit to serve his king and his god, Natan lives a life of celibacy, vigilance, and moderation. So our narrator is not a warrior or a lover or an aspiring king but rather a prophet, a teacher, a scholar and a diligent and thorough biographer. David trusts him and so did I. As I read, Natan’s voice was the one I cared about most. It occurred to me that I need a Natan to help me tell my own story! Otherwise how can I make readers heed my voice and care about me and my life which, compared to David’s, was and is uneventful.

King David

The David Natan reports on was not the one I learned about in Sunday school. That David was a sheep-herding boy-poet skilled with a lyre and a slingshot who grew up to be a fearless warrior, a gifted psalmist, and a beloved king. No. Natan tells us of a David, outcast and abused as a child, who becomes a shrewd and ruthless general, and an ambitious and wise but sometimes folly-prone human king not unlike some of the leaders we admire or deplore today.

I keep telling myself that even though I am not a warrior or a queen or a best-selling writer, I too, have lived through tumultuous times, the second half of the Twentieth Charleton Heston as MosesCentury as well as the beginning of the Twenty-first. Natan used David’s epic story to make us see what life was like for women and men in biblical times. The phrase “biblical times” once made me think of robed people in the desert either getting a tablet of instructions from Charlton Heston or being crucified. Likewise I associated the word tribalism with certain outdated cultural practices and the current United States Congress. In David’s era, each tribe was an extended patriarchal family whose men were expected to defend it from attack and attack others to extend its reach. The king’s power was absolute. He inspired rivals including his own children. Thanks to your research, I now understand how and why fratricide, incest, infanticide, rape, murder, adultery, and theft all figured in David’s life.

Such a life should not go undocumented, right? You see to it that Natan convinces David to leave behind a written account of his story and, of course, the king chooses the prophet himself to write it. You also see to it that David gives his biographer the names of people to interview about his early years and grants them permission to speak the truth. Natan takes us on these interviews and so we “see” David’s mother, his oldest brother, and his first wife, through Natan’s eyes and “hear” their stories through his ears.

BathshebaNatan also hears from David’s other wives. According to Batsheva she is not the siren I learned about in Sunday school. She bathed on her roof not to tempt the king but to escape the leers of injured veterans her husband had invited to their home and given work. David sent soldiers for her, repeatedly and brutally raped her, and tossed her aside. She lived in fear of being stoned to death should her first husband, one of David’s generals, discover that she had dishonored him. David goes so far as to have that first husband killed. Batsheva also offers insight into how self-serving Natan’s attempt to defend David is, thus making the prophet human too. After calling David a monster, she tells Natan that “…you choose to look away from the truth. You let your love for him blind you.” So much for our “reliable” narrator!

Because I am considering how to credibly present the significant people and events in my own life, I especially appreciate how you created a seemingly unbiased narrator only to expose his bias in the end and add yet another layer to your rich story. Can I be unbiased in recounting my own life story? Or, better yet, can I devise a different way or voice to reveal it? And is my comparatively mundane life worth documenting in the first place? Will it have meaning to others? Does that matter to me now?

So many questions!

Not so much. Lately scenes from my own life are replaying in my head. I usually put the characters and scenes that persist in my head into books. So now I find myself eager to capture my own memories on the page. Years ago, near the end of my teaching career, I wrote Going by the Book, a memoir about my seven year apprenticeship as a teacher. So now as my seventy-sixth birthday approaches, it seems appropriate to describe my lifelong apprenticeship as a writer. Like David, I need a plausible perspective, narrator, or voice to help me do this. And, Ms Brooks, your story reminds me of that. You made the relationship between David and Natan become part of your narrative and by doing so gave both men the depth they need to be interesting and credible. Thank you.

Pulitzer Price Winner

Pulitzer Prize Winner

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Dear Roz Chast,

617lsz642XL._AA160_Roz chastDear Roz Chast,

Thank you for your memoir Can’t we talk about something more PLEASANT? After years of savoring your cartoons in The New Yorker http://rozchast.com/index.shtml I expected to be captivated by the story your visuals tell in this book, and I was. But it wasn’t only your cartoons that I enjoyed. I was equally engrossed in the story you share in parallel with your illustrations written in your straightforward prose. While you draw for your readers what was going on in the lives of your aging parents, you also offer in plain words the perspective of their harried caregiver-daughter.

Unlike Atul Gawande, our go-to guru for advice on how to benevolently shepherd our loved ones through their final years, months, and days, you’re not a doctor. Nor are you a clergy person, a social worker, or a shrink. You’re a working artist and writer who is also a mom and wife. And an only child.  As such, you speak and draw for many of us. Like your parents, mine were often difficult and determined to survive their deaths. I too was a working mom and wife. Then, suddenly, I was a widow. And always, I was an only child. The only time I ever wished I had siblings was during the decade of my parents’ declines and deaths.

So I wasn’t surprised to meet your parents returning from the grave on the same page as the Table of Contents of your memoir. In the cartoon you have drawn, your dad is nervous about the column of titled chapters to his left. The hand he points at them trembles. It also extends beyond the frame of the panel, as if to remind us of the link between him and you. This link that was once a bond of flesh is now a figment of your memory and imagination and as such is immortalized in this book. It is here, thanks to you, that he lives on. Your mom too. Her bossiness is untamed by death and right there beside the Table of Contents they quibble their way towards a cup of tea made from a used teabag that has also survived their passing.tea-cup-23197179Roz chast

I know you have a wicked sense of humor that feeds on our foibles, frustrations, and fears. I also know that those of us who have spent as little as an hour taking care of aging parents know that there is much fodder for the satirist in this work. So I’m not surprised at how you make me smile at your mom’s proclivity for hoarding and your dad’s numerous phobias and even at the cloud of dread you draw above your own head when you hear your dad answer the phone instead of your mom.

Because you share your own take on this experience, your memoir is a record of a passage in the lives of two generations. And you document these journeys not only with your familiar cartoon drawings, but with family photos, including one of you at eleven. This picture, on page 122, is right across from cartoon versions of yourself and this juxtaposition gave this reader insight into the relationship between your drawings and the reality they spring from. Again your willingness to share your inspiration makes me trust your take on your own perilous passage through this time in your own life.

Although your journey, like that of your mom and dad, is perilous it is also not without lessons and laughs. As you escort us through your disposal of your parents’ overwhelming accumulation of stuff, you explain that this experience itself was “transformative” for you and that once we have gone through it, we will view our own stuff differently, “postmortemistically.” The objects in the brightly colored photographs of what your parents saved are both familiar and funny. These pictures document your assertion that your parents, like mine, had a hard time getting rid of things. After seeing their old sunglasses, purses, razors and other “treasures,” I began to look at my own collection of little china shoes and unopened gauze pads from the hospital more critically. As I mentioned, I’m in awe of your ability to make me laugh at your depiction of life’s least enjoyable moments, but I’m not surprised.Roz chast gauze padsil_570xN.741830684_Roz chast

Roz chast momWhat did surprise me and made this book especially meaningful to me is your ability to share your ambivalent feelings about your mom. For many the word family conjures up an almost sacred institution. And what kind of monster doesn’t love her mom, right? No matter what. So your acknowledgement of your lifelong struggle to bond with your mother is daring yet familiar and welcome. Even after she has died, you tell us that you’re “still working things out” with her and, to me, still embarked on a similar project, this book seems part of that effort.

The page titled “The Last Things” details first your attempts to liberate this terminally ill, institutionalized, and sedated very old woman, to let her know it’s okay for her to “go.” You tell her she should feel free to join her dead husband and brothers and that she’ll be taking a trip soon. Each of these clichés is illustrated by a hilarious image showing that suggestion’s absurdity. With a hospice worker’s okay you share with your mother your concerns about her running out of money because she has lived so long. You’re astonished when she cries out for her Papa, perhaps still troubled by not having loved him as much as she loved her Mama. In your last conversation with your mother, a week before she dies, you both acknowledge out loud in words your love for one another.

This same page, “The Last Things” with its nine brightly colored panels contrasts with the black and white page of text opposite detailing in no-nonsense words your mother’s body’s decay and her death. I so appreciate that all the text in this book appears in your familiar but easy to follow printing. By doing this you link the words of the “characters” in your cartoons with your words and, in this instance, it is your words that reveal the starkness of bodily decomposition and death. You animate your final bedside vigil by sketching portraits of your mom.  These are not cartoons. No, these black lines on beige are unsparing yet strangely beautiful. With no balloon of words erupting from her mouth, your dying mom appears both grim and defenseless and also utterly real.

The Chasts are Jewish although not noticeably observant. But it is, I believe, a Jewish contention that the dead live on only in the minds jewish_gravestone_wide-30f27c03a6f2bbd73536ea7e20993bf725a43408-s6-c30 roz chastand hearts of those who come after us. We live on as memories. So George and Elizabeth Chast survive in their daughter’s memory and now, in the memories of those of us with whom you have honestly and brilliantly shared their story and your own.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, Humorous fiction, Jewish fiction, Uncategorized

Dear Blog Readers,

Portland, Oregon radio host Ed Goldberg interviewed me about The Bones and the Book for Author! Author! and here’s the link: http://www.allclassical.org/author-author/jane-isenberg/

Ed’s a very skilled interviewer, so it was fun chatting with him.

I’m working hard on a new book now, so I post blogs less frequently, but you’ll see another note to a muse soon.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under feminist fiction, Historical mystery, Immigrant story, Jewish fiction, mystery, Uncategorized, Western novel

Dear Joan Leegant,

Wherever You Go

Wherever You Go

Thank you for Wherever You Go, the first selection of my synagogue’s newly formed book group. According to the book jacket your novel is about three American Jews who venture to Israel: Yona seeks forgiveness from her sister who is living on a settlement, Mark, a recovered drug dealer turned Orthodox but now losing his faith, is after spiritual renewal, and Aaron, a college dropout with serious daddy issues, yearns for acceptance. I’ve never visited Israel, so I hoped to learn a lot about that country and its place in the mental landscape of assorted American Jews, and I did.

You open the book with Yona’s arrival in Jerusalem’s airport. Your description is so vivid I can visualize the “sea of Hasidim in inky black hats as if a

Jerusalem Airport

Jerusalem Airport

flock of crows had swooped down and settled on everyone’s heads.” I can hear the loudspeakers “blaring in five languages” and the security officer’s clipped bark, “You. Miss. You.” Later with Yona as my guide, I visit one of the infamous settlements I read about in the newspapers, the ones built by Israelis in defiance of reason, peace prospects, and law. Again you make me see this immaculate and grassy oasis of gated and guarded security, an American-style suburb, a theme-park-like in-your-face place plunked down in the desert. But what Yona finds inside her sister’s house is not so idyllic. She “made out a front room stuffed with furniture and toys and

Israeli Settlement

Israeli Settlement

mounds of laundry. The shutters of the back doors had been closed against the sun. Somewhere a fan cranked loudly. The smells of garlic and cooking oil hung in the air, and then Yona picked up another odor, more pungent, human. Diapers. Unwashed. Ripening in the triple digit heat.” Although I have not yet and probably never will set foot in these places, I feel as if I know them.

And I know your characters too, especially Yona who made a big mistake years ago and seeks her sister’s forgiveness and her own redemption in Israel. She interests me because I’m researching a book in which the central character, another contemporary American Jew about Yona’s age, also made a grave mistake years ago. She has never been forgiven by the family she wronged or forgiven herself but, when the occasion arises, she sees the possibility of redemption. My as yet unnamed protagonist will leave her home as Yona does. She will travel not to Israel but to a place right here in America that, like Israel, has a certain biblical resonance, a bloody history, and its fair share of violent extremists.

So as I read your account of Yona’s quest and the characters she encounters, I paid attention to how you brought them together, how you kept me turning pages, and

Fairy Dust

Fairy Dust

how you fabricated a meaningful and satisfying ending. I also appreciated how you allowed for Yona’s maturation as she lives out her story. When we meet her she is an assistant in an art gallery fresh from a trip to St. Martin in the company of the most recent in her string of wealthy married lovers. At the end she sees the possibility of a more meaningful job and relationship. I’m not sure how realistic her new romance is, but everything else in the book is so ripped from the gritty grim headlines that I welcomed a little fairy dust in the love life department. I say Bravo! And bravo too for the meaningful names you give your characters and for reminding us just how far-reaching the consequences of poor parenting can be.

Your novel raises many significant questions. Can a democracy survive its violent extremists?  How does a country atone for a history of blood

Oklahoma City, After

Oklahoma City, After

and betrayal? Can an individual human being find redemption and forgiveness for her or his own errors of diligence and/or judgment? These are the same questions I am wrangling with in my head as I research my next book. Thank you for showing me that they can be the undertow that powers a gripping and important story.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Dear Jami Attenberg,

The Middlesteins

The Middlesteins

I pushed away a container of Trader Joe’s dark chocolate-covered almonds before I got to chapter two of your terrific novel The Middlesteins.  It’sMorbid Obesity Help! a wrenching read, an up-close and personal look at four generations of a Midwestern Jewish family, the decisions they made, and the choices that remain to them. I loved ex-attorney Edie Middlestein’s wit and warmth, and the kindness she extended to friends and the less fortunate, but I didn’t want to be her. That’s because she deals with losses─ her beloved father, her faith, her role as do-gooder, her law career, and, finally, her husband─ by bitching at said husband and overeating until, at sixty, she is a full-blown fat lady needing vascular surgery twice in one year. If this sounds like I think your book is a late-night commercial for diet pills or gastric surgery, I don’t. In this novel you join the exalted ranks of authors who chronicle the Jewish mother’s metamorphosis from overprotective immigrant Sophie Portnoy to the very American morbidly obese, diabetic Edie Middlestein.

Kale

Kale

Like a skilled tightrope walker, you go backward and forward in time, showing the reader how each of Edie’s relatives copes with her refusal to reform her eating habits. We see Edie’s adult kids struggling with her legacy of addiction and the burdens of taking care of someone in its grip. We see her daughter-in-law as another version of the modern Jewish mom, force-feeding her family kale and carrots in lieu of chicken soup. We see Edie’s husband Richard who opts for self-preservation and a search for love and life rather than for staying the course with Edie. We meet their twin grandchildren preparing for their slightly over-the-top b’nai mitzvah while their family is in chaos. We also see Edie and Richard reaching out for the love they no longer feel for one another and we know the deep satisfaction of an ending that is both unexpectedly nuanced and inevitable.

            This ending, involving, among other things, second chances, reinvention, and ethnic diversity is thoroughly American and thoroughly contemporary. And food plays

Fast Food Signs

Fast Food Signs

a big part in it as it does in the entire book. But this is not primarily a novel about food replete with lo-fat recipes. Food is only one of the lenses through which you let us look at our lives today. I say “our” lives because who among us has not struggled with addiction, either a relative’s or one’s own? And who among us has not wondered how our suburban landscape became a series of strip malls full of fast food joints pushing their poison on us and our kids? And who among us has not regretted a disastrous first marriage or career choice?  Or not looked ahead to a shortened life span with friends gone missing, a body gone creaky or worse and then felt a new appreciation for this life, however imperfect? So the story you tell is a familiar one, but the way you tell it, from the perspective of each of Edie’s relatives, young, old, alive, and dead, is what makes it both heartwarming and insightful. You make sure that we come to know these Middlesteins. And each of them is human with flaws and virtues unique to him or her and yet again, familiar to most of us. All these changes of perspective could be confusing but they aren’t. In my next book I hope to shift from one perspective to another as effectively as you do here.

Greek Chorus

Greek Chorus

There are two perspective shifts I especially enjoyed. The first is near the end when Edie and Richard’s old friends describe the b’nai mitzvah. They’re like a Greek chorus, commenting on the action from the sidelines, bearing witness to the coming of age of the youngest Middlesteins while mourning the seemingly inappropriate divorce of the oldest along with the many changes in their once beloved Edie.  The second is earlier when Robin, their alcoholic single daughter, a lapsed Jew who fears the love she feels for Daniel, her neighbor and boyfriend, reluctantly attends

Family Seder

Family Seder

a Seder at his parents’ home. It’s a fairly typical, crowded, jovial Seder with children participating, too much food, and only Manischewitz to drink. The sole sign of tension comes at the end of the evening when Robin overhears Daniel’s parents arguing loudly in the kitchen and gets upset. On the way home, Daniel reassures her that occasionally his parents fight but that their fights do not lead to divorce. His family’s benign dynamic contrasts with the fraught one of the Middlesteins.

            Part of what enables you to make this tragic story go down so easily is the conversational nature of much of your prose. Often I felt as if I were chatting with you rather than reading. This tète á tète we were having began right on page one under the chapter title, Edie, 62 pounds. “How could she not feed their daughter? Little Edie Herzon, age five: not so little. Her mother had noticed this, how could she miss it? Her arms and legs, once peachy and soft, had blossomed into something that surpassed luscious. They were disarmingly solid. A child should be squeezable. She was a cement block of flesh.” The questions and the informality of much of the grammar give your words the drama of shared confidences and, to me anyway, a trace of an inflection I associate with folks who grew up around Yiddish speakers.

            I was sad when our chat was over and I put the book down. Thanks for a great read and an important lesson in writing voices.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Dear Naomi Alderman,

The Liars' Gospel

The Liars’ Gospel

Thanks for reminding me that fiction is a pack of lies and that we fiction writers rank among the most accomplished liars out there. I loved your reimagining of the life of Jesus in The Liars’ Gospel told from the point of view of three of its central figures, Mary, Judas, and the Temple High Priest.  Your very first sentence─ This was how it happened.─ contradicts what we think we know. In other words, the life and death of Yehoshua, Hebrew for Jesus, and the rise of Christianity didn’t happen that way, the way we’ve been taught. No. It all really went down this way, the way I will lay out for you. That same understated first sentence also refers to the ongoing occupation of Judea by Roman soldiers which is the complex and bloody backdrop for Jews and early Christians alike. One of the major accomplishments of your novel is that you move this political and military reality to the front and center of the lives of all your characters.

Roman Coins

Roman Coins

What immediately follows is the ritual sacrifice of a lamb. Your description is so visceral that it could serve as an instruction manual. Such realism

The Lamb for an Offering

The Lamb for an Offering

tells me that you really know how things were done during biblical times. Then there’s an equally vivid description of a battle between Jews and Romans for the Temple treasure. Citizens of an occupied people live in a state of preoccupation with their occupiers who regulate their subjects’ activities, spy on their meetings, and punish severely those who disobey or who even appear to disobey. The fact that this occupation resonates with the state of affairs in today’s war torn Middle East adds a layer to an already resonant story.

Mary Mother of Jesus

Mary Mother of Jesus

  Once you’ve hooked your reader in this short untitled opening section, you introduce the first “liar,” Miryam, Hebrew for Mary. Unlike her familiar New Testament counterpart, this Miryam knows Yosef to be the biological father of her beloved firstborn Yehoshua as well as of his six siblings. She had hoped this oldest son would marry, beget her grandchildren, and till land nearby. But the adult Yehoshua is a big disappointment to Miryam. He leaves home to wander the hills preaching. She thinks he’s deranged even while she mourns his departure and the fact that he spurns his family of origin in favor of his new family of followers. When he claims to be the Messiah and King of the Jews, she fears for his safety

Jesus King of the Jews

Jesus King of the Jews

and, later, mourns his death at the same time that she complains about his disloyalty. Finally she lies about him to Gidon, an admirer of Yehoshua’s who has come to her to learn about his dead hero’s birth and childhood. She “filled him (Gidon) full of stories. . . .Some have a measure of truth to them. And some are things she hoped had happened, she wished had happened.” Miryam’s maternal wishful thinking becomes part of “what happened next,” part of the legacy of stories, written down in books like the Torah and the Gospels. Your Miryam, a Jewish mother abandoned by her son in favor of his disciples and divorced by her husband in favor of a trophy wife, is a woman of her time and place, living a life that has not turned out as she wished.

            I’m a humanistic secular Jew, so I have little difficulty seeing Mary as Miryam. In fact, Miryam seems entirely credible to me as do your other characters. That’s because they are all─ Jews, Romans, Christians─ recognizably human and react to things the way I’d expect real people living in Judea under Roman rule to behave. And I don’t think Yehoshua/Jesus’s teachings, particularly about loving our enemies and turning the other cheek, become less valuable and original because he does not manage to heal the lame or the blind. Likewise Iehuda/Judas’s role in his leader’s crucifixion is not less critical because it is motivated by a complexity of conflicting impressions. The Jewish High Priest’s significance is not diminished because he is preoccupied by his wife’s possible infidelity at the same time that he struggles to serve god, guard the Jews hard earned treasure, and pacify the Romans who demand it in tribute.

Your reimagining of this familiar and, to some, sacred story is arresting not only because it encourages us to question the credibility of scraps of ancient texts frequently translated and interpreted and reinterpreted but also because your prose itself is downright biblical. I don’t mean “biblical” in that you imitate the wording of any of the familiar translations of the Gospels or the Torah but rather that your words and phrases flow harmoniously with a clarity, repetitiveness, and decisiveness that make questioning them seem unnecessary even though you warn us, “Every story has an author, some teller of lies. Do not imagine that a story teller is unaware of the effect of every word she chooses. Do not suppose for a moment that an impartial observer exists.” Your title juxtaposes liars, generally thought to be a bad lot, with the word gospel which has come to be synonymous with truth, often a kind of holy truth. It’s a daring juxtaposition highlighting the questioning of conventional beliefs within.

Good news!

Good news!

On the next to last page of The Liars’ Gospel you recap your version of Jesus’s life, beginning with the familiar words, “Once upon a time there was a man . . . .” and after you tell how, not long after his death, the Romans destroyed the Temple and Jerusalem and forced the exile of the surviving Jews, you add , “And a book walked those same ways, from synagogue to synagogue at first, telling a tale of how miraculous one man had been and how evil those who rejected him were, and therefore bringing good news for some and bad for others.” The interesting image of this walking book is powerful as is the phrase “good news,” often used to describe the Gospels. When you end with a slightly different version of how you began, your words and your story come full circle and leave no doubt in this reader’s mind that your version of this moving and important story rings true. “This was how it ended. And all the sorrow that came after followed from this.”

You’re a terrific liar and I hope to read more of your lies soon. They inspire me to make up my own lies, in other words, to begin writing a new book.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Dear Art Spiegelman,

Maus I

Maus I

 If my mother and father were still alive I think your Pulitzer Prize winning Maus books recounting your father’s life before, during, and after the

Maus II

Maus II

Holocaust would astound them more than the ten-dollar movie ticket, a black president, or cell phones. It’s not your subject matter that would dumbfound them, but your chosen format. Maus I: My Father Bleeds History and Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began are what my parents disparaged as comic books and forbade me to read or buy.

Forbidden Fruit

Forbidden Fruit

My mother, a former school teacher, was sure that reading comics would instantly deplete my vocabulary and distract me from reading “real” books. My father refused to allow even one thin dime of his hard-earned money, including my allowance, to be squandered on “that trash.” Of course, my curiosity was piqued, and I devoured the adventures of Archie, Betty, Jughead, and Veronica at the home of my next-door neighbor with that furtive lust kids reserve for the forbidden.

            So why didn’t I read Maus I when it came out in 1986? It got great reviews, earned you a Pulitzer, and was responsible for the transformation of the much-maligned comic book into the graphic novel. I’m not sure what kept me from your book, but I suspect that I didn’t think I would assign it to my students, almost none of whom were Jewish or European and, after reading The Diary of Anne Frank and Sophie’s Choice, I didn’t care to read Holocaust stories. Even as an adult, I found them terrifying and depressing in spite of the fact that back in 1986, I thought anti-Semitism was over.

Jews as Mice

Jews as Mice

Now, a quarter of a century later, I know anti-Semitism lives on and I decided to read your Maus books. I found them fascinating and am so grateful to you for making the effort you describe and for being so forthcoming about your own thorny relationship with your dad. I’m also very grateful for those black-and-white drawings. You are an acclaimed visual artist and by depicting Jews as mice, Germans as cats, and Poles as pigs, you somehow condense our stereotypes of the animals and the humans and remind us of them without having to constantly reword or qualify them. You are not afraid to evoke those stereotypes either, and the fact that they’re politically incorrect does not detract from their effectiveness.

Thus your medium leaves you free to concentrate on what happens when your characters converse and what is going on in the background. Your

Yinglish Word

Yinglish Word

father’s speech with its overtones of Yiddish and Polish is familiar to me even though my parents’ English was uninflected. It becomes clear in your dad’s transactions with you that his life experiences have left their mark on his everyday acts: eating, sleeping, talking, managing money, and relating to those he loves. To be a survivor is no cakewalk. So it follows that to be, like you, the offspring of two Holocaust survivors, one of whom killed herself, isn’t either.

Although I am very glad I read Maus I and II, I am also glad it didn’t take me too long. I didn’t want to linger in those trains and trucks or at Auschwitz or even in your dad and Mala’s kitchen in Rego Park or their cabin in the Catskills. Reading your books is a little like looking at scans of one’s broken bones or a suspicious cluster of cells. One wants to know the worst and yet one doesn’t, so one looks quickly. I did not dwell on your illustrations but scanned them as I read the dialogue in the balloons and in the rectangular spaces enclosing your dad’s narrative interjections.

While reading I was very aware of your scribbling notes or taping your dad’s answers to your questions. I share with you the desire to preserve the past, especially the Jewish past, as it was actually experienced by those who lived it. That’s why I relied heavily on oral histories of Seattle Jews archived by the Washington State Jewish Historical Society at the University of Washington when researching material for The Bones and the Book.

Pulitzer Prize

Pulitzer Prize

I suspect that my parents would have to admit that by telling your father’s story so graphically, you have done us all a great service. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, Coming of age story, Immigrant story, Jewish fiction, Uncategorized

Dear Shalom Auslander,

Foreskin's Lament

Foreskin’s Lament

After reading two books by and about women who left Hasidic communities, I wanted to read a male’s account of forsaking that way of life, so I read your memoir, Foreskin’s Lament. I expected your perspective to be different not just because you had the chutzpah to title your book thusly, but also because you are a riotous humorist whose outbursts in Tablet, The New York Times, and The New Yorker have often made me grin.

I wasn’t disappointed. Your account of your introduction to God in the Orthodox Jewish community of Monsey, New York where you were raised is a

God

God

carnival ride of blasphemy. There you were taught early on by your parents and teachers that God was a strong and powerful man who liked the people only when they obeyed him. “But when we didn’t obey what he had commanded, he hated us. Some days he hated us so much he killed us; other days he let other people kill us. We call these days holidays. On Purim we remembered how the Persians tried to kill us. On Passover we remembered how the Egyptians tried to kill us. On Chanukah we remembered how the Greeks tried to kill us.”

You illustrate God’s disproportionate punishments for disobedience by reminding us that he punished Sarah, “a woman who would giggle,” by making her barren. And he severely chastised Job, because, on a bad day, the poor man dared to ask, “Why?” Then, after Moses escaped Egypt and searched the desert for forty long years to find the Promised Land, God killed him at the border because four decades ago Moses had “hit a rock.” For a smart and sensitive little boy, all this was hard to digest. What you took away from it was that the “people of Monsey were terrified of God, and they taught me to be terrified of Him too.”

Scared Child

Scared Child

Not Kosher!

Not Kosher!

You let the reader know that, since the death of his first born son, your father is perpetually pissed off, and often drunk. Even though, as a kid, you understood the underlying reasons for his rage, you were disturbed and helpless when he routinely hauled your older brother down to the basement and beat him bloody. So was your mom. To keep the peace that always threatened to disrupt Sabbath meals, you did impersonations, staged spills, and posed questions. But when a classmate’s dad died of a heart attack, you regretted that your own father was not chosen by God instead. And when the rabbi reminded your class that until a boy is thirteen, his sins are held against his father, you began to deliberately (and hilariously) violate Jewish laws in secret hoping to do in your own dad by snacking on non-kosher candy bars. Given that your God and your father both have serious anger issues, it’s no wonder that your own rage blazes through the pages of this book.

You leave Monsey with enough anger to fuel several novels. Part of your memoir’s complicated wave of humor and fury arises from the fact that although you have separated yourself from the Monsey community and moved with your wife, son, and dog, to a rural town near Woodstock, New York, you have not stopped wrangling with God. You have not become an atheist or forsworn Judaism and all Jewish customs. I find it amazing that you still believe in the existence of God even though you continue to insist he’s a “prick.” This is a theological compromise I find fascinating. It’s particularly so in your acknowledgements, amusingly entitled, Whom to Kill, where you express concern that God will kill you for writing such a blasphemous book and beg him not to kill you or your wife or son or dog, but instead to focus his homicidal wrath on those who helped you write the book! You are joking here, but throughout this coming of (r)age story, you make it clear that  you believe God exists but you can’t stand him. Likewise you can’t stand those who take the Torah literally. When, after much consideration, you and your wife have your son circumcised, but not ritually, even this most Jewish of acts strikes another blow to the wedge that distances you from your parents. Their faith may be uncompromising but their love is conditional.

The Doctor Is In

The Doctor Is In

Given all your fears, your rage, and your history, I’m glad you see a shrink. Shrinks have it in their power to re-parent us so that we can overcome some of our worst fears

Hope A Tragedy A Novel

Hope A Tragedy A Novel

and avoid repeating some of our biological parents’ worst mistakes. But don’t get too “normal” because all your fears and fury, the lousy parenting and religious mishegas you endured have forged you into a witty and insightful writer. I can’t wait to read your novel, Hope: A Tragedy: A Novel.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, Coming of age story, Humorous fiction, Jewish fiction, Memoir

Dear Gary Shteyngart,

Super Sad True Love Story

Super Sad True Love Story

You’d think I’d be angry with you for the blast of satire that begins your novel Super Sad True Love Story and forces me to face the elegiac music heralding our nation’s abrupt decline. And I was furious, for as long as it took me to read how Lenny Abramov, your 39-year-old balding and paunchy narrator, the book-loving son of hard working Russian Jewish immigrants like your parents, knows no better than to fall for adorable 24-year-old Korean-American Eunice Park. “Eunie,” whose hobby is shopping, has an abusive father and a degree from Elderberry College where she majored in Images and minored in Assertiveness. Eunie is America’s future on steroids while Lenny is our past.

Serious Shopper

Serious Shopper

I’m grateful to you for writing this offbeat immigrant love story even though it occurs in a future that makes me fear for the eventual health and safety of my five grandchildren. How will they manage in the America you foresee where the very wealthy live forever and the rest of us die young? Where “unimportant” people are wired with electronic “äppäräts’ transmitting information about everything from their innermost thoughts to their life expectancy to anybody interested? My grandkids love printed books which, in your barely literate America are obsolete.

Even the youngest of this bubbe’s babies’ babies has learned to pay his debts or face consequences if he doesn’t. What will he make of our debt to China, so huge that the Chinese refuse to wait any longer for recompense? Of the rioting of Manhattan’s ILNWs (Individuals of Lower Net Worth) during the resulting credit crisis? Of the National Guard policing the Big Apple’s streets in tanks? And how will my sweet moppets feel when they see me and Papa and their other grandparents literally kicked to the curb as “unneeded people?”

I forgave you for making me face America’s grim future when I got hooked on Lenny’s narrative voice as he shares his diary with us. I’ve written a novel partly told by an

Diary

Diary

immigrant Jewish diarist, so I know well the pitfalls an author risks by creating the sort of person driven to chronicle her/his travails and then letting that genie out of the bottle to narrate that author’s precious novel. But you knew what you were doing. Lenny’s very schlubiness makes him easy to identify with and credible too. A guy who admits right off the bat to being a balding, middle-aged man of average height and above average bmi, is both familiar and believable to me. Lenny’s message may be threatening, but as a messenger, he himself is not.

Middle Aged Guy

Middle Aged Guy

How could I be scared by a guy who elaborates on how “unnoticeable” he is? He tells us that to get the attention of the “upper society” clients he solicits for his employer, a corporation claiming to extend indefinitely the life and youth of these well-heeled clients, he “must first fire a flaming arrow into a dancing moose or be kicked in the testicles by a head of state.” Lenny is not only a reliable and unthreatening narrator, but a funny one. So when he falls hopelessly in love with a totally inappropriate woman, I’m further disarmed. His doomed romance with Eunice does indeed make for a super sad true love story.

Or Lenny is a Hamlet for our youth-obsessed and health-fetishizing times, literally deciding not to be, not to prolong his youth and forestall his death by undergoing the treatments his company hawks. Rather he opts to exist as a mortal, a regular human who will die when his time is up. It

Snake  on a Forked Stick

Snake on a Forked Stick

takes guts to embrace life which is, after all, often sad and always terminal. I am reminded of our inescapable mortality by the reams of paper that arrive in my snail mailbox every day. These missives are pleas for me to subscribe to publications endorsed by prestigious university medical schools and purport to be able to help me ward off disease and the effects of aging. There is even one promising to advise me on which modern medications are the “worst.”  These envelopes nest in my mailbox like serpents, ready to strike so their venom can activate my worst fears. It is with an imaginary forked stick that I carry these poisonous pamphlets into our garage and drop them unopened in the recycling bin. When virtual versions of these same serpents slither onto my computer screen, I delete them. I have nothing at all against modern medicine, but, like Lenny, I do not want to make a lifestyle limited to self-maintenance and the hopeless pursuit of longevity and immortality.

Super Sad True Love Story might well be titled Super Sad True Love Stories because Lenny and Eunice’s romance is not the only one you relate. You also tell of the immigrant’s love for his adopted nation and his disappointment when the safe and happy harbor that is America self-destructs and so becomes just another place to flee. Thank you for a powerful read that will stay with me as I struggle to write my own version of what happens when the melting pot that is America boils over.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, Humorous fiction, Immigrant story, Jewish fiction, Satire, Uncategorized

Dear Anouk Markovitz,

I Am Forbidden

Thank you for I Am Forbidden. It can’t have been easy for you, a born and raised Satmar Hasidic, to write this astonishing saga that spans 70 years and two continents, two worlds really. One is our modern world where, in an orgy of free will, we confront a myriad of choices about everything from what to

GuidingGoodChoices

eat, wear, read, and believe to what to teach our children. The other world is a medieval theocracy where a manipulative rabbi manufactures a convenient miracle and preys on the fears of his traumatized congregants to coerce them into unquestioning obedience to outdated laws. Unlike the critics who have praised I Am Forbidden for its evenhandedness, I see it as a beautifully written and imagined condemnation of the Satmar Hasidism for what amounts to fanaticism fostered by deceit, ignorance, and desperate longing for the families killed in Satmar, Hungary during WWII.  To me your novel is a poignant critique of fundamentalism.

But it’s more interesting than most such critiques because you turn to history to explain the origin and staying power of Satmar Hasidism. And you focus not only on how

Sperm

women suffer in this community, but also on how Satmar beliefs affect the intimate lives of men. You open your story during World War II in Satmar where a devout teenaged boy has a wet dream in spite of having lashed his hands and feet to the bed frame to prevent him from committing this sin. Semen is only for procreation  to speed the repopulation of this community decimated by the Nazis.  A rabbi has decreed that “He who emits seed deserves death.” Decades later this same taboo makes it sinful for another male character to have a test to determine the viability of his sperm after his wife has not conceived during ten years of marriage. Not content with supervising men’s emissions and women’s menstrual cycles, the rabbis mandate positions and sexual pleasure limiting the former to missionary and forbidding the latter.

You’re generous to your characters when they endure, indeed, demand this way of life because you show how most of them suffer from what,

today, we know as post-traumatic stress. You describe one little boy watching his toddler sister killed with a pitchfork inches from him and hearing his mother’s final screams as she too is killed. A little girl sees her pregnant mother shot down while trying to board a train and finds her father tied to a post and left to die after being tortured by the dreaded Iron Guard. It’s not surprising that these two orphans grow up desperate to believe that if they are very, very good, when the Messiah comes, they will be reunited with their pierced, shot, and castrated relatives who will be whole and healthy once again.  You don’t blame the survivors and this reader doesn’t either.

Well, I do, a little. The small girl, who never forgets watching her parents die at the hands of Jew haters, grows up in the Satmar community where her father arranges her marriage to the young man who recalls seeing his sister impaled and hearing his mother’s dying screams. In spite of the love these two have for one another and in spite of their faith, they run afoul of the regressive Satmar reproductive rules with predictably tragic results. It is not their faith in God that is the problem, but their faith in these rules. This misplaced faith is a kind of mass delusion brought about by the trauma of seeing their parents and community cruelly annihilated. This delusion flourishes in mandated ignorance and fears of modernity and masquerades as faith in God. The Satmar are like children who seek safety under the bed while their house burns down around them. If they don’t look at the fire, it cannot destroy them.

Another of your characters, the young daughter of the nocturnal emitter, suffers a brutal beating from her father, now a rabbi himself, for riding a bicycle on the Sabbath.

Whip

Not surprisingly she grows up to question rabbinic authority, to read forbidden books, and, when she reaches marriageable age, to leave her home, family, and the Satmar community in Paris for the United States. Here she goes to college and becomes a film maker and professor living alone in a New York studio apartment and a country home. Does she miss her family? Yes. Would she return is she were allowed? No. Can she live a rewarding and meaningful life estranged from her family of origin and childless and, perhaps, manless as well? Yes.

It’s scary to think of an entire community of PTSD sufferers just across the bridge from Manhattan and determined to remain separate from the evil influences they think are rampant only in the outside world. At a time when globalization, scientific breakthroughs, climate change, and wars waged in the name of religion are changing the way we all live, these people’s muddled medievalism is ill-timed and even dangerous. Like many other fundamentalists, the Satmar Hasids seem ill-equipped for life in the diverse democracy that took them in. I admire the courage you show in taking readers into the hearts and minds of the Satmar and then taking us out again. You make that journey memorable.

Firecracker Exploding

There is a lengthy, complicated tale I want to tell, and in I Am Forbidden you show me how to make a long, complex story quick and explosive like a firecracker going off in the reader’s head. Thank you!

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under Coming of age story, feminist fiction, Immigrant story, Jewish fiction, Uncategorized