Jewish mothers, especially immigrant mothers, have particular preferences for their children and their chosen careers. Creative artists have a particularly hard time convincing their families of the validity of their choices. Nadia Kalman, a fellow of the National Endowment of the Arts and the author of the novel, The Cosmopolitans, which won the Emerging Writer Award from Moment magazine and was a finalist for the Rohr Prize in Jewish Literature, tried to follow in the engineering footsteps of the rest of her Russian émigré family.
More after the jump.
She dutifully applied and was accepted to MIT, but at the reception for women and minorities, she bolted, realizing that science was not in her future. She went on to earn degrees in Russian and English literature at Yale, but she still tried to ignore her creative yearnings. After years as a teacher and assistant principal in the New York City public schools, she finally began her full-fledged novel. Kalman was invited to speak on Wednesday to students of Drexel’s Judaic Studies Program and the Department of English and Philosophy. Her topic was: “This is Killing Your Mother: How Nice Jewish Boys (and Girls) Decide to Disappoint Everyone and Become Writers.”
Kalman highlighted the diverse experiences of several writers, some better known to the audience than others. Osip Mandelstam had a unique story, one in which his mother featured prominently. In 1909, at age 18, his mother hauled him before the editor of the best magazine of the day in St. Petersburg, Apollon, and asked for his opinion of her son’s poetry. The editor, Sergei Makovsky, thought it was drek (worthless trash) , but was softened by the young man’s “intense, agonized beseeching,” face, so he lied and said that the young man had great potential. Alas, the editor was then compelled to publish Osip’s poetry!
Philip Roth has said that he went through a series of potential careers, from lawyer to English professor , and “never dreamed of being a writer.” Kalman does not believe his protestations. More likely, she said, Roth thought he shouldn’t be a writer, so he didn’t initially thought of it as a serious career choice. She herself had thought of becoming an English professor, but she was not good at writing academic papers.
Women writers have more to contend with, said Kalman, not just husbands “laying down the law,” but from other women and their expectations of normal womanhood. Erica Jong in Fear of Flying wrote of familial censure: “There’s nothing fiercer than a failed artist and nothing more cruel, more vain…” Kalman added, “If you’re not a genius, not earning all the prizes, then it’s not worthwhile.”
After a person chooses to become a writer, then there’s the choice of topic, which also often un-nerves the family. Roth was a master of writing against parental wishes. Kalman points to his fictional alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman in The Ghost Writer whose father chastised him, saying, “You certainly didn’t leave anything out.” Nathan’s story was “not good for the Jews.” Another character, Judge Leopold Wapter, posed 10 questions to Nathan on what would be acceptable literature for the mainstream public. Number 10 was: “Can you honestly say that there is anything in your short story that would not warm the heart of a Julius Streicher or a Joseph Goebbels?”
The dualism of Jewish realism, or what others might term Jewish paranoia, also applied to the prolific poet and activist Emma Lazarus. She dealt with the persistence of anti-Semitism by vigorously and clumsily opposing the common Jewish stereotypes. Lazarus’s father’s championship of her choice of work gave her the chutzpah to seek out the great writers of her time and solicit their advice, which she then often ignored. She was not shy, not modest, but after her death in 1887, her sisters compiled an anthology of her poems for publication that was different from Emma’s own choices. They chose poems that conveyed their Victorian ideals of womanhood.
In 1974, Grace Paley in A Conversation With My Father, wrote that her father asked her to write like Chekhov and de Maupassant. But they are so tragic, so melodramatic! Yes, Paley’s father liked the tragic, but Kalman considers a writer’s responsibility is to her character, her creation and one that “trumps her responsibility to her family.”
Kalman’s grandmother offered to translate The Cosmopolitans into Russian, but she thought there was room for improvement. So, in one scene in which the character Yana derisively refers to her sister, Milla, as “the Guardian of the Vagina,” Kalman’s grandmother translated it as “the Guardian of the Hearth.” Never, joked Kalman, would that translation see the light of day!
Rebelling against expectations, she said, was as good for the soul of the writer as it is for teenagers. She then quoted Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman, in The Ghost Writer, that “literary history was in part the history of novelists infuriating fellow countrymen, family, and friends.”
Asked about immigrant literature, she said, “that many of the characters in my novel — including those who have been in America for several generations — still do not feel completely at home.” To Kalman, a sense of not fully belonging is a part of the human experience — not reserved solely for immigrants. Immigrants nowadays are more proud of their heritage, compared to those who arrived earlier who tried so desperately to fit into American society. Some parents — not Kalman’s! — forbade their children from speaking their native tongue. Times have changed, and people now seek a connection.
Writing is a lonely craft, even after one is published. Are people reading out there? How did she maintain her faith in herself? Kalman keeps a file of letters of encouragement from her friends and, on the dismal days, she takes them out to remind herself that she’s writing because she wishes to write.
“The Submission” by Amy Waldman, reviewed by Rabbi Jack Riemer
Do you remember what happened a few years ago when a group of Moslems wanted to build a mosque &mdash well, it was not exactly a mosque; it was more like a Jewish Community Center with a gym and classrooms as well as a place of prayer — at Ground Zero — well, it was not exactly at Ground Center, but it was meant to be built a few blocks away? The country went berserk. How dare they desecrate the sacred ground on which Moslems killed several thousand people and destroyed one of America’s iconic symbols? True, the Constitution provides freedom of religion for all, but so what? Does that justify this kind of an insult? Don’t the feelings of the families of those that died on 9/11 have priority over the Constitution?
For weeks, insults flew back and forth, as zealots on both sides called each other names, and the politicians tried to stake out a position that would straddle the conflicting claims of the public with the principle of freedom of religion.
The issue seems to have calmed down, at least for a while, since the people who were planning to build this mosque-or center-or whatever they will end up calling it if they ever build it — turned out not to be able to raise the money for it-at least not yet-and as the media turned its attention to other matters.
Amy Waldman wrote most of this novel before this bruha took place, but it raises the same kind of questions; Are American born Moslems entitled to their civil rights, or are they all to be stereotyped as terrorists out to kill us? Do those who lost loved ones on 9/11 have special claims on the memorial which is being built there, or are professional architects and artists the only ones who are capable of making aesthetic decisions? Are Jews entitled to suspect Moslems, in view of the fact that they have been the special targets of violence by Moslems in many countries, or should Jews be the defenders of civil rights for Moslems, because their own place in this country depends upon civil rights?
These are some of the questions that Amy Waldman deals with in this novel. She gives no easy answers. Her characters are complex and ambivalent on these questions.
More after the jump.
The central character is Mo Kahn — short for Mohammed — an assimilated architect whose parents came from India. He submits his proposal for a Memorial Garden to be built at Ground Zero, and, in a contest in which no names are allowed to accompany the submissions, he wins. And then he must justify his claim that his work is simply a work of art, and that it is not motivated by any desire to glorify the killers of 9/11 or even to pay tribute to Moslem Art.
As the issue heats up, Mo gradually changes his own attitude to his work and to this country. He starts out as an urbane, sophisticated liberal, who has no interest in, and no commitment to, Islam, but he is deeply offended that his work is being judged as Moslem propaganda when he believes deeply that he designed it with no such motive in mind. Little by little, in response to the attacks on him and on his work from the zealots, he begins to reconsider his heritage, and to insist on his right to be a Moslem American and on his right to be an architect who draws of many sources including Medieval Moslem Art, if he so wishes. He even goes to a mosque to pray, something that he has almost never done before in his life, perhaps to help determine for himself who he really is, or perhaps in order to defy those who are reviling him.
Another character in this novel is Claire Burwell, who is a wealthy woman, with some knowledge of art, whose husband died in the Twin Towers. She is the one who champions his submission in the first place, and she is the one who gradually persuades the others on the panel to choosing it. But the more she sees the anger and the hysteria that the choice arouses, the more she is tempted to back down and take away the prize and given it to someone less controversial.
There is Paul Rubin, the politician, who only wants to make the furor go away so that it will not inflame the city and effect the next election. There is Sean Gallagher, a frustrated and angry man, whose brother died in the Twin Towers, and who sets out to lead a rebellion against the choice, so that he may have acquire and some importance for himself. And there is Asma Anwar, an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh, whose husband died on 9/11, and who only wants to stay in this country, and to be inconspicuous so that she will not be sent back, but who gets caught in the center of the controversy..
Amy Waldman brings these different characters, with their different agendas, together in this novel. They bounce against each other like billiard balls ricocheting. Sometimes they attack each other; sometimes they influence each other, and sometimes they seem like people caught in a tinderbox of conflicting emotions and intentions.
Ms. Waldman pits these characters, not only against each other, but also against their own inner drives and emotions. Each one reveals layer after layer of feeling, as the story spins out of control. At the end, we come away simply sick at the ugliness, the instability, and the chaos that manifested itself within so many of us in reaction to what happened on September 11th. We become aware through this novel of how angry, how unstable, how shocked and how vengeful we all felt in the aftermath of the events of that day. And we are forced to wonder and to worry about the question: Ten years after the calamity, have we healed yet, and if not, what will it take to restore sanity and stability, patience and calm, to us?
Novels do not usually set out to raise moral questions, but this one does. And the answer to these questions of have we recovered and have we purged ourselves from the trauma and the anger that 9/11 did to our souls,will come from what reactions this novel arouses. It is a gripping story, but it is meant to be more than just that. What kind of a country America will be will be determined, in some part, by how we come to terms with the trauma of this horrible event, whose tenth anniversary has now arrived. I hope that it does not take ten more years for us to calm down and to think rationally, instead of striking out in all directions, hurting the innocent, chasing the guilty, and injuring ourselves most of all. And I think that this book may help us in this task.
Rabbi Jack Riemer is a frequent reviewer of books of Jewish and General interest in America and abroad. He is the co editor of So That Your Values Live on: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them, and the editor of the three volumes of the The World of the High Holy Days.
I am honored to join the Jewish Voice as the new Arts and Culture Editor. I welcome you to send me any news you might have regarding the vibrant arts and culture scene here in Philadelphia. If you have books to review, theatre productions, music, museum exhibits please feel free to contact me at [email protected].
I moved to Philadelphia from Manhattan four years ago to work at Temple University where I am an Assistant Professor in English. I teach creative writing in poetry and literature. I grew up in Long Island and always dreamed of moving to New York City, but to quote short story writer, Anne Beattie, “I became disenchanted with New York when I realized that I felt as if I had accomplished something when I picked up the laundry, and got the Times and a quart of milk.” In Philadelphia, it’s just easier to get things done — a walkable, beautiful city brimming with culture and art.
Lisa Grunberger is the author of an illustrated humor book, Yiddish Yoga: Ruthie’s Adventures of Love, Loss and the Lotus Position (Newmarket Press, 2009) which she has adapted into a musical (stay tuned!). She teaches yoga and writing classes in Philadelphia.