Author Chat: This is Killing Your Mother

— by Hannah Lee

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 Ten Days of Repentence: Don’t Tweet it, 10Q it!


Reflect. React Renew
Life’s Biggest Questions. Answered by you.

— by Tanya Schevitz

In an era where most reflection happens publicly in 140 characters or less, the 10Q project provides a private, deeper online forum for personal reflection beyond the waffles you had for breakfast.

Timed to coincide with the Jewish New Year, traditionally a time of introspection and self-reflection, 10Q is a unique project that, started today, will email participants of all backgrounds a question a day about the year that’s past and the year to come. After the 10-day period, the answers are sent into a digital vault. A year later, the answers are returned to participants and the process begins again.

“Thanks to new technologies like texting and Twitter, people have more opportunities than ever to express themselves, but fewer than ever to express themselves well,” said 10Q co-founder Ben Greenman, a New Yorker editor. “What 10Q wants people to do is what people should want to do for themselves — to reflect on life without worrying about status updates.”

Last Thursday, 10Q partnered with the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia  on a roundtable discussion at the Museum on reflection. 10Q’s Greenman moderated a panel including the Hebrew Mamita, Vanessa Hidary, and authors Charles London and Matthue Roth.

While the 10Q project is a reinvention of the ancient ritual of reflection between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and occurs during the Jewish High Holidays, it is intended for people of all backgrounds and has attracted participation of people of many denominations, including Catholics, Episcopalians, Buddhists and Muslims. The 10Q questions are about your place on the planet, and the planet’s place within you.

And regrets are universal, so the events are intended for people to absolve themselves of everything from skipping services to that tweet you wish you never posted.

About 10Q
The 10Q website launched in 2008 and garnered more than 80,000 visitors of all backgrounds last year. Glee’s Jane Lynch, Harry Potter’s Tom Felton and Oscar winning screenwriter Diablo Cody all participated in 10Q last year, and beginning on September 28th, the first of the series of 10 questions will again be sent out to those who sign up at http://DoYou10Q.com. 10Q can also be found on Facebook and Twitter: @10_Q. 10Q is a partnership between Nicola Behrman, Ben Greenman, and Reboot’s Acting Executive Director Amelia Klein.

About Reboot.
Reboot is a catalyst to catalysts – a growing network of thought-leaders and tastemakers who work toward a common goal: to “reboot” the culture, rituals, and traditions we’ve inherited and make them vital and resonant in today’s world. In partnership with the Reboot network, we create opportunities for our peers to gather, engage, question, and self-organize with their own networks, in their own way, in their own time, using the magazines, books, films, records, local salons, gatherings, and events we develop together. Reboot has a track record of reinventing Jewishrituals for a broad audience, including the Sabbath Manifesto project that had Katie Couric telling the nation to unplug, the Sukkah City project that had New Yorkers paying attention to 12 re-imagined Sukkahs in the City’s Union Square Park and DAWN, a revision of the traditional holiday of Shavuot as a cultural arts festival at the California Academy of Science in San Francisco.

10Q 2011 Questions:

  1. Describe a significant experience that has happened in the past year. How did it affect you? Are you grateful? Relieved? Resentful? Inspired?
  2. Is there something that you wish you had done differently this past year? Alternatively, is there something you’re especially proud of from this past year?
  3. Think about a major milestone that happened with your family this past year. How has this affected you?
  4. Describe an event in the world that has impacted you this year. How? Why?
  5. Have you had any particularly spiritual experiences this past year? How has this experience affected you? “Spiritual” can be broadly defined to include secular spiritual experiences: artistic, cultural, and so forth.
  6. Describe one thing you’d like to achieve by this time next year. Why is this important to you?
  7. How would you like to improve yourself and your life next year? Is there a piece of advice or counsel you received in the past year that could guide you in this project?
  8. Is there something (a person, a cause, an idea) that you want to investigate more fully in 2011?
  9. What is a fear that you have and how has it limited you? How do you plan on letting it go or overcoming it in the coming year?
  10. When September 2011 rolls around and you receive your answers to your 10Q questions, how do you think you’ll feel? What do you think/hope might be different about your life and where you’re at as a result of thinking about and answering these questions?