Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction and Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel and post Colonial Asian Fiction, Yiddish Literature, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality historical novels are some of my Literary Interests

Thursday, September 20, 2018

“A Gentile Girl” - A Short Story by Ephraim Kaganovski - Translated from Yiddish by Bracha Weingrod

Ephraim Kaganowski 

1893 Born in Warsaw

He publishes his first short story at 16, catching the eye of L. J. Peretz 

He moved about Europe, spending seven years in post Revolutionary Russia, returned to Poland before finally settling in Paris.

The stories in the collection from which “The Gentile Girl” is taken was first published in 1928. After New York City, Poland at that time had the largest Jewish population of any city with a vibrant Yiddish Press and Theatre. 

There are twenty stories in the collection, I will talk more about the career of Kaganovski and Yiddish culture in Poland in subsequent posts.

In her very well done introduction Bracha Weingrod tells us that some of his stories have O. Henry style surprise endings.  “The Gentile Girl” for sure does. (I will disclose the ending, contrary to my normal practice.  How it plays out is a lot of fun and their are nineteen other stories.)

As I read this story I was at once brought to mind an episode on one of my favourite American TV series, Seinfeld.  From Season Seven, “Serenity Now” focuses on Elaine’s, a non-Jewish woman, tremendous appeal to three Jewish men.  George explains to her that this is known as “The Shiska Appeal”, Jewish men attracted to a woman unlike their mothers.  In the program even a Rabbi says he will renounce his faith for her.  Kaganowski could have written this script!

As “The Gentile Girl” opens a group of friends are listening to one of the guys talk about this Gentile girl he is seeing.  This was outside of cultural norms and for sure his mother would have something to say.  

“It first began with a hasty word and a wink. The young people gathered more closely together, and grasped each bit of news as one would relish a good cigarette that someone had brought. “A shikse (gentile girl).” “A real shikse?” “A real shikse.” Among the circle of friends, who gathered almost every evening in the café around the same table, there spread a current of curiosity. One demanded of another, “So where is this shikse? When will we finally see her?” The girls and women in the circle were quick to voice their opinion. Fraulein Ola, the prettiest of the group, reasoned with some regret, “So what if she is a shikse? What is a shikse, a different person? Herein lies the weakness of Jewish men - for a non-Jewish woman they would go through fire! I have been hearing about the shikse for several days and simply don’t understand what causes this excitement. Sounds to me like a very provincial demeaning expression.” Whereupon there continued a long discussion about Jewish and non-Jewish women regarding beauty and honesty. The men agreed that the non-Jewish woman was simpler, more practical and more emotional. This caused a quarrel between the young Leiberman couple, and she angrily moved away from him. “Go, so take yourself off to the shikse.”

More and more she becomes part of the group, then the surprise is sprung.  The Leiberman’s are having a big birthday party and have invited some guests not part of the group.  The guests want to meet the shiska everybody is talking about.

“Madam Leiberman entered the room with her old friend. Naturally she wanted her to see the shiksl, which was rather difficult because she was encircled by people. “And this is our shiksl!” she said to her friend. “Come and meet her.” The friend opened her eyes wide and covered her mouth quickly, as though she were coughing, although no one could tell whether she was coughing or laughing. Suddenly they all heard her shrill voice, “Since when have you become a shikse, Yadzshe?” It became strangely quiet and tense in the room. In all corners words were whispered and exchanged. The details flew like lightening from corner to corner: that her father was a khosid (pious Jew), that they owned a store selling kosher canvas, linen and tailors’ goods. This friend, who had lived in the same courtyard as the family for years, told of her father who sat in the Sukkah singing zmires (rabbinical tunes). No one came forward to admonish her, but all were angry. Not so much angry as regretful. Accusations were made to Edward, and mostly by the men, warnings of an unclear betrayal, of a deceived illusion. The Jewish sense of equality and love between strangers, between Jews and Gentiles, remained an illusion.”

This story was a lot of fun to read. I look forward to reading the other nineteen stories. 

Bracha B. Weingrod was born in Winnipeg, Canada, studied in Boston, Mass, where she received a B.Sc (Psychology) from Northwestern and a M.Ed. from Boston University. She came to live in Israel in 1974. She is an educator and lover of Yiddish and good traditional food. From her early days as a teacher in Yiddish in Winnipeg, she has since 1974 taught at Yellin Teachers College in Jerusalem, Israel. She founded and ran the Israel Dyslexia Association, the Kohl Teachers’ Center in Jerusalem, and has written and lectured extensively on Hebrew/English learning disabilities. She is retired and lives in Jerusalem with her husband Alex.

The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - 2093

Shirley Hazzard on The Reading Life

My thanks to Max u for The Amazon Gift Card that allowed me to acquire this work. 
 Winner U.S.A National Book Award for Fiction, 2003

Born 1931. Sydney, Australia

Died 2016, New York City, U.S.A 

The Great Fire is the first novel by Shirley Hazzard I have had the pleasure of experiencing.  Last month I read and posted on one of her short stories, “Cliffs of Fall”.

The great fire refers, among other things, to the destruction of the traditional culture of Japan in their defeat in World War Two.  Set in 1947, mostly in Japan and Australia, the people in the novel are trying to get on with their lives now that the war is over.  Some of the men were badly wounded, all suffer mental trauma, parents struggle to understand why their son had to die.  The great fire is also, mentioned several times, a symbolic representation of the bombing of Hiroshima.

One of the certral characters, Alfred Leith, 32, is in Japan to write about impact defeat had on Japanese society.  He is involved in a romance with a woman of 17, the daughter of an Australian Brigadier General.

The characters are all readers, my kind of people!  

The characters are quite subtly developed.  The conversations are very interesting.  The prose is old fashionedly exquiste. The sentences are marvelous.

I enjoyed this novel a lot.  I read a review that compared her style to Elizabeth Bowen, a writer I have read extensively.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

“The Yom Kippur Cantor—Someone to Envy” - A Short Story by Sholem Aleichem - translated from Yiddish by Curt Leviant

Click Here to Read The Story

The Official Sholem Aleichem Website - Your First Resource

Sholem Aleichem on The Reading  Life 

In October of 2012 Yale University Press very generously gave me a complete set of The Yale Yiddish Library, nine volumes of the consensus greatest works of Yiddish literature, novels, plays, poems, essays and lots of short stories.  My first reaction, aside from delight and gratitude, was “where do I start?”

One of first works I read was an epistolary novel by Sholem Aleichem, The Letters of Menalham Mendi and Sheyne Sheyndi (ok not catchiest title but they did not have marketing departments in publishing houses in 1905).  This turned out to be a great delight, hilarious, realistic and the characters ring true. Here are parts of my thoughts from October 22, 2012:

“The letters that make up the novel are between a man and wife in early 20th century Ukraine.   It is just so funny I laughed out loud as I read it.   The man has left home to make money to send home for the support of his long 

suffering wife and their many children.   The woman is a conservative stay at home grounded in folk wisdom and the family wife and mother where the husband is bolder and though he probably loves his wife, finds his home life a bit boring.  He ,tries six different occupations from stock broker, writer,real estate sales, loan factoring and insurance sales man to match maker.  He starts each new occupation with a letter to his wife saying how he was cheated in his previous occupation but the new venture he had undertaken will bring the family riches. His wife writes back, with each letter starting with a loving greeting, and tells him how terrible things are at home, how her mother tells her she married a fool, and how he is an idiot with a bloated ego.  As I read this I could not help but see myself getting letters like this had this been me and my wife.  I felt it  when she kept calling him "your highness".  I found the ending terribly sad.”

Today’s story takes place on Yom Kippur Day, The Day of Atonement in the Jewish Liturgical Calender.  We are at a synagogue.  A highly talented cantor is preforming the closing prayer.  Sadly,he dies in mid-preformance.  Of 

course his wife is in shock as is everyone else.  We then learn that anyone who dies on  Yom Kippur days is given, at the expense of the community, a first class funeral all envy.

A simple story that I enjoyed reading.  

Sholom Aleichem is by far the most now known Yiddish writer.  Most identify him as the creator of the characters on which Fiddler on The Roof is based.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston by Valerie Boyd, 2004, with an added PostScript 2016, 528 Pages


1891 Born in Alabama

1960 Dies Fort Pierce, Florida

1937 - Published Their Eyes Were Watching God - her acknowledged Master Work

Zora Neale Hurston was a novelist, a master of the short story, an anthropologist, focusing mostly on the culture of African Americans in central Florida and on the influence of Voodoo on the religious and spiritual views of those in this area.  Her short stories are world class cultural treasures. She studied anthropology with Franz Boaz, mentor to Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict. She was extremely well read and highly educated.  Tragically she died in poverty and obscurity.  Her work is vital to students of Florida history.

An Autodidactic Corner Selection.

Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston by Valerie Boyd Is everything we hope a literary biography will be.  My exposure to Hurston began with her short stories (my posts include links to a few of the stories) and so far culminates in her acknowledged by all master work Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Before I read Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston I had a vague idea of the life history of Hurston.  Boyd has brought her to life for me.  I don’t wish to repeat more of her life history than below, instead I will just talk a bit about some of the things I took away from this wonderful biography.

1891 Born in Alabama

1894 moves, with her family to Eatonville, Florida, near Orlando, which 
was one of the first self-governing municipalities in the country with a nearly all African American population. She was one of eight children.

1960 Dies Fort Pierce, Florida

1937 - Published Their Eyes Were Watching God - her acknowledged Master Work

Zora Neale Hurston was a novelist, a master of the short story, an anthropologist, focusing mostly on the culture of African Americans in central Florida and on the influence of Voodoo on the religious and spiritual views of those in this area.  Her short stories are world class cultural treasures. She studied anthropology with Franz Boaz, mentor to Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict. She was extremely well read and highly educated.  Tragically she died in poverty and obscurity.  Her work is vital to students of Florida history.

The story and the stories of Hurston begins in Eatonville, Florida.  Many of the characters that populate her fiction are modelled on residents of Eatonville. The speech patterns of people from the town are replicated in her work.  The standard white stereotyping of her time suggested the speech patterns are a mark of ignorance and low intelligence.  When Boyd explained that these speech patterns were learned from whites in the colonial south, not obviously brought from Africa, it opened my mind up to how much prejudice based on speech patterns still permeates American society.  

In the public mind, Hurston is somehow seen as a tragic figure with a sad life.  She did have issues, who does not, but she also had a very rich, interesting life.  Being super intelligent she intrigued white liberals who, often with quite patronising undertones, helped her with cash subsidies. From Boyd I learned of a very wealthy older white widow from New York who gave subsidies to what she saw as promising African American writers and Artists.  She insisted those she help call her “Godmother”. For years she was Hurston’s primary financial life line.  There was a catch.  She insisted Hurston do reports on the customs, religion and speech patterns of African Americans from Florida.  She also had control over what Hurston could publish. She also supported Langston Hughes, a long time friend of Hurston until a falling out.  Boyd makes even the minor figures real.  

Hurston traveled, often by herself, throughout the south in a time when few hotels would accept African American guests.
 She dealt with racial ignorance with a shrug of her shoulder.

Hurston was a contradiction.  In someways she was very independent, marrying three times in relationships that did not last. Hurston needed her freedom to work while on the other hand being very dependent on white generosity.  We see her very much begging for money from her Godmother, applying for grants for research, borrowing from friends and relatives.

It was very exciting to go along with her to Honduras to do
studies there.  She was a student of a very important anthropologist, Francis Boas, and used his methods.  We see this same pattern of dependence in this relationship.  Hurston was fascinated by Voodoo.  She took instruction from Voodoo priests in New Orleans.  She analysed the faith as a blending of Catholic beliefs with West  African.  It was wonderful when Boyd took us along to Haiti. 

Boyd goes into a good bit of detail on traditional Black colleges of The period.  Later in Life she was often the only African American in attendance at Elite colleges.

Boyd gives a very detailed account of Hurston’s publishing history, both as to content and as a business.  Hurston wanted to live from her writings and her grants but this was so hard.  Boyd shows us how the Great American Depression of the 1930s impacted Harlem, where Hurston lived on and off and how it dried up the money that funded the Harlem Renaissance.  

Hurston seemed happiest living in rural central Florida, where she often returned.  Maybe she seemed a bit lonely.  She was probably so smart she scared most people.  Maybe her troubled relationship with her father made it hard for her to enter into lasting marriages.  Her relationships with Gay men like Langston Hughes lasted much longer than her three marriages.

There is much more in this great biography.  Hurston had a powerful Joie de vivre.  (I wished so much she could have lived to become rich from movies made from her works and buy an elegant apartment in Paris and a mansion on the Suwannee River.). 

There is a tremendous amount anyone into Florida history will love in this book. I can personally vouch for the fact you did not learn this history in school.

There is a comprehensive list of her copious publications and a bibliography of related works. There are lots on interesting pictures.

Boyd does a profound job of letting us ponder the well springs of creativity that gave rise to the work Hurston.

On a side note.  I bought the Kindle edition for the extreme bargain price of $0.95 on one day only flash sale I lucked into.  It is now back up to $14.95.

This book is very well written. Boyd gives us a full person. Hurston was a deep 
reader and was educated by her travels.  Whereever she went, she always carried some books.

I liked this book very much.  All teachers of American Literature should read this, all into Florida history and really anyone who loves a fine literary biography  love this book.

Valerie Boyd is the author of Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston and the forthcoming Spirits in the Dark: The Untold Story of Black Women in Hollywood.

She is an Associate Professor and the Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer in Residence at the Grady College of Journalism at the University of Georgia, where she teaches magazine writing, arts reviewing and narrative nonfiction. 

She has taught creative nonfiction in the graduate writing program at Antioch University in Los Angeles.
Valerie earned a bachelor’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 1985 and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing from Goucher College in 1999.
An accomplished journalist and cultural critic, Valerie is the former arts editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and she has been published in numerous anthologies, magazines and newspapers. Her articles, essays and reviews have appeared in Step Into a World: A Global Anthology of the New Black Literature, Ms. magazine, Paste, The Oxford American, Book magazine, Essence, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Creative Nonfiction, African American Review, The Scholar and Feminist Online and other publications.
She founded EightRock, a cutting-edge journal of black arts and culture, in 1990. In 1992, she co-founded HealthQuest, the first nationally distributed magazine focusing on African-American health.
Wrapped in Rainbows—the first biography of Zora Neale Hurston in 25 years—was published to wide critical acclaim. It was hailed by Alice Walker as “magnificent” and “extraordinary”; by The Washington Post as  “definitive”; by the Boston Globe as “elegant and exhilarating”; and by the Denver Post as “a rich, rich read.”
For her work on Wrapped in Rainbows, Valerie received the Georgia Author of the Year Award in nonfiction as well as an American Library Association Notable Book Award. The Georgia Center for the Book named Wrapped in Rainbows one of the “25 Books That All Georgians Should Read,” and the Southern Book Critics Circle honored it with the 2003 Southern Book Award for best nonfiction of the year.
Valerie is currently finishing her next book, Spirits in the Dark: The Untold Story of Black Women in Hollywood, which will be published by Knopf. She lives in Atlanta.

From author’s website.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

“Ne’ilah” — A Short Story by Rosa Palatnik —Translated from Yiddish by Jessica Kirzan

Very well done bio from The Jewish Women’s Archive Encyclopedia

“Ne’ilah” refers to the closing portion of the liturgy for Yom Kippur

Today’s story is about a deeply rooted cultural divide, the forbidden relationship of a young Jewish woman, the daughter of a rabbi and a goy.

Mariam is the daughter of the rabbi of the shtetl, every young man’s dream.  Kendre is the secretary of local magistrate, handsome and rich if only he were not a goy.

Without ever speaking to Mariam, he is deeply in love.  All he wants is to hear voice.  Palatnik builds an exquiste very visual scene when they at least begin to meet privately.

“Kendre smelled of fresh jasmine and other exhilarating spices. His tight riding pants were rolled above his knees and white calves, and he carried his blue jacket by the collar so that it blew rakishly in the wind. He pierced Miriam’s blushing face with his burning eyes. They were two young, beautiful people amid the budding trees. The stream murmured the deep secrets of creation. Nothing more. She was the rabbi’s daughter, Miriam, and he was a goy, the magistrate’s secretary. But here, among the fragrant grass and fresh hay, under the expansive sky, they were just two warm, beating hearts. Two dream worlds. Nothing more . . .
Miriam was clever, intelligent, and above all enchantingly beautiful. Her collected thoughts were rabbinic pilpul. Her gentle demeanor was modest. Her lyrical voice was like music. Kendre heeded with all of his senses the quietly flowing symphony of her language: “Speak, Miriam, translate with your sweet voice the thoughts of rabbis. For weeks, for months I have dreamed, hoped, waited for this moment. Don’t run away from me now. Come back tomorrow, and the day after. Come back here always. Come, sit here. You can sit as far away as you please. I will just look at you and listen to your melodious voice. Nothing more. Absolutely nothing . . .”
But the beys-medresh students, who loved to hear Miriam’s
sweet voice no less than Kendre did, took notice. They realized that her bewitching voice had been vanishing every day, and they looked for her. The beys-medresh students figured it out. Seek, and you shall find .”

Mariam knows this relationship is a sin to even contemplate.  It comes to a very moving close on Yom Kippur, the highest Holy Day, the day of atonement.

I will leave close untold.  I found it very moving.

I have access to one more of her stories and hope to read it soon.

Rosa Palatnik (1904-1981) was born near Lublin. In 1927 she emigrated to Paris, where she contributed to Yiddish newspapers Di handls-tsaytung and Der parizer paynt. In 1936 she settled in Rio de Janeiro, where she published widely in international Yiddish organs, including Di yidishe prese of Rio, Der nayer moment of São Paolo, Der shpigl of Buenos Aires, Der kontinent and Der veg of Mexico City, Di fraye arbeter-shtime and Morgn-zhurnal of New York and Di goldene keyt of Tel Aviv, composing roughly two hundred short stories.  Some of these stories were later published in her four short-story collections, three of which are available in the Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library. She was awarded the Fishl Bimko Prize in 1954.

The translator, Jessica Kirzane, is a 2017 Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellow.  

from Yiddish Book Center 

Friday, September 14, 2018

“PACHYSANDRA” - A Short Story by Blume Lempel -first published in Yiddish in 1981, translated in 2016 by Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub

Yesterday as I was looking through a collection of Short Stories by Blume Lempel (pictured above).  I found a  story with the mysterious title of “Pachysandra”. I wonder what in Ashkenazi culture does this mean.  Does it go way back to

the Babylonian disporsa?  Is it a reference to an event in  
medieval Belarus?  

I was as far off in my expectations as i could be.  Set maybe in the 1930s in America, Pachsyandra is an African American woman.  It reads as if it might have been written by Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, or Zora Neale Hurston.  

She has deeply retreated into the scriptures, taking refuge in her faith from a deep guilt she feels over having sworn on her faith to a lie to prevent her adult son from murdering his wife by telling him falsely that she was not an adultress. He was ready to kill his wife and the lie his mother told prevented this.

The pain of this has hurt her so much.  She talks to herself, speaking Biblical verses:

“As soon as she opened her eyes in the morning and remembered who and where she was, her lips began to move —not just with any words, but with verses from the Bible. The first verse that came to mind and fully penetrated her consciousness would stay with her all day long, to be recited over and over from morning to night. Pachysandra did not select her own material. Biblical texts and images flooded her imagination, adapting themselves to her moods, which shifted in reaction to the weather, or to an argument with her son Tom, or to some distant pagan source whose origins she did not know and did not want to know. Pachysandra believed in the holy patriarchs of the Old Testament. She knew they were looking after her because they came without premeditation or prayer. They arose from the depths of her spirit, filling every corner of her room, settling on the bed, giving her advice on what to cook and what to eat. When she laughed, they laughed with her; when she cried, they cried, too.”

She sees her self as like Sarah, Abraham’s wife,  in The Old Testament:

“Pachysandra saw parallels between Sarah’s fortunes and her own. She too had rescued her only son from the butcher knife that he himself had sharpened. She too had crossed the river into a foreign land —and not just one river, but many rivers, many seas, until the very last wandering that brought her from South Carolina to cold, alien Brooklyn. Pachysandra yearned for South Carolina. She missed the wide open universe, as wide and open as God had created it. Every morning when she went shopping for her son Tom, she made a detour through Prospect Park so that she could luxuriate in the scent of the grass, the trees, the water.”

She moved from her home in South Carolina to Brooklyn to live with her son.  Maybe in the mass migrations of African Americans from the south, where their ancestors were slaves, there is a parallel to the escape of Jews from Egypt. In Pachysandra’s speaking verses from the bible the recitation of passages from the Torah.

This is a wonderful story, showing great insight and empathy.

Blume Lempel

Born 1907 in The Ukraine

Moved to Paris in 1929, to be near her brother who lived there.

While in Paris she worked as a furrier and attended night school.

1939- having married and had two children, her Family moved to New York State, out of concern over rising anti-Semiticism.  Many in her extended Family died in The Holocaust as would she and her Family had they not left.  In 1942 French authorities in a compromise with the Germans, agree to arrest and turn over to the Germans all foreign born Jews. 

1943- begins to publish with a Short Story, all her writings were in Yiddish.  In part this was her way of defying those who wanted the magnifcient Yiddish Cultural tradition destroyed.

In 1950 the Family locates permanently in Long Island.

1999 passes away.