Hold It All

Category: World Literature

The Buddha Is Hanging with the Groundlings at the Globe Theatre

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

Photo: Munindra

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Reading Roth on Writing and Reading

George Searles, editor, Conversations with Philip Roth
Literary Conversation Series
University Press of Mississippi
1992

I settled in this morning with a collection of interviews with Philip Roth, from the bright beginning of his career in  1960 t0 1991, just before he produced a steady stream of powerful books (e.g., Operation Shylock, for one), many of which I read with appreciation throughout the 90s. What follows are passages that reveal his reflections on the art of fiction and the practice of readers.

 

My work does not offer answers. I am trying to represent the experience, the confusion and toughness of certain moral problems. People always ask what’s the message. I think the worst books are the ones with messages. My fiction is about people in trouble.  2

For me, one of the strongest motives for continuing to write fiction is an increasing distrust of “positions,” my own included.  60

For everything in my fiction that connects to something I’ve known personally, there are a hundred things that have no connection, or connections of only the roughest and vaguest sort.  103

You should read my books as fiction, demanding the pleasures that fiction can yield. I have nothing to confess and no one I want to confess to. 121

My job in a work of fiction is not to offer consolation to Jewish sufferers or to mount an attack upon their persecutors or to make the Jewish case to the undecided. 129 

The difficulties  of telling a Jewish story—How should it be told? In what tone? To whom should it be told? To what end? Should it be told at all?  183 

Novels provide readers with something to read. At their best writers change the way readers read.  That seems to me the only realistic expectation. It also seems to me quite enough. Reading novels is a deep and singular pleasure, a gripping and mysterious human activity that does not require any more moral or political justification than sex.  186 Read the rest of this entry »

“Born Only Yesterday, and Already She Speaks Like a Perfect Mensch”

12.14.17

Dear Dianne,

I think this is the 4th time I’m reading Meshugah. It was originally serialized in the Yiddish Daily Forward. Because I’m reading it with you, and because Hedy is on our minds, in our hearts, I am paying more attention to the voices, the dialogue this time around. I marked the following passages, see what you think. Imagine twenty-five-year-old Hedy amidst such characters in NYC in 1949!

MA= Max Aberdam
AG = Aaron Greidinger
IS – Irka Shmelkes
M = Miriam
P = Priva

“Don’t be frightened, I haven’t come back from the Great Beyond to strangle you!” MA

“I’m alive, I’m alive.” AG
“You call this living?” MA

“My friend, I may have lost everything, but a bit of sense I still have. Though I’m in debt over my head, I owe nothing to the Almighty: as long as He keeps sending us Hitlers and Stalins, He is their God, not mine.” MA

“Where have you been all during the war?” AG
“Where have I not been? In Bialystok, in Vilna, Kovno, Shanghai, later in San Francisco. I experienced the full range of Jewish woes.” MA

“In all America you cannot get a decent cup of coffee. Hey, waiter! I ordered coffee, not dishwater!” MA

“In New York I found I was home again—they are all here, our people from Lodz and Warsaw.” MA

“I live on pills and faith—but not in God but in my own crazy luck.” MA

“Most of my clients are women, refugees from Poland who haven’t learned to count in dollars. They were driven half-mad in the ghettos and concentration camps.” MA

“The world is turning meshugah. It had to happen.” MA Read the rest of this entry »

“If the Messiah Comes, He’ll Come to This Cafeteria in Miami”

Isaac Bashevis Singer, Shadows on the Hudson
Translated by Joseph Sherman

Like Meshugah, this is another novel translated from the Yiddish and published after Singer’s death. In Shadows I was gripped by the various characters with all their quarrels and struggles over what constitutes Jewish identity in the decades after the European catastrophe and the founding of the State of Israel…

“Well, now I can hate him with a whole heart.”

“What do those holy souls think when they look down from heaven and see Jews consumed by their businesses, as though there were nothing else, as if the greatest devastation in Jewish history had never taken place?”

“He was someone who could blacken the sun.”

“A Jew without God is a gentile, even if he speaks Hebrew.”

“Scum floats to the top.”

“You won’t believe it, but the only shred of Jewishness left here resolves around the cemetery.”
“May he be the last of his line.”

“What binds them together? Not a God, not a country, not even a language. Among ourselves we speak a little ungrammatical Yiddish, but our children can’t even do that. Many of them are Communists. My own son won’t hear a word against Stalin—for him, Stalin’s murderers are sacrosanct.”

“May you never know what I’ve suffered.”

“I’m certain that if Tolstoy had lived longer, he would have turned to Judaism—that is to the prayer shawl and phylacteries and fringed ritual undergarments and the dietary laws. There is not, and cannot be, any other kind of Jewishness.” Read the rest of this entry »

After Kishinev

I’ve shared this story with hundreds of friends and students over the years.

After a pogrom in Russia in 1903, the author was invited to contribute to a literary collection to be circulated to aid those Jews who suffered attacks. The man who issued the invitation was Sholem Aleichem.

The man who contributed three stories was Leo Tolstoy. Sholem Aleichem translated the stories from Russian into Yiddish. This one is “Three Questions,” which I first read in Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Being Awake in 1982.

What is the best time to do each thing?
Who are the most important people to work with?
What is the most important thing to do at all times?

After the story, Nhat Hanh offered this thought:

“Tolstoy is a saint—what we Buddhists would call a Bodhisattva. But was the emperor himself able to see the meaning and direction of life? How can we live in the present moment, live right now with the people around us, helping to lessen their suffering and making their lives happier? How? The answer is this: We must practice mindfulness. The principle that Tolstoy gives appears easy. But if we want to put it into practice we must use the methods of mindfulness in order to seek and find the way.”

“Did You Watch the Debate?” “No, I Got Caught up in an Old Novel”

And if that wasn’t funny, there were lots of things that weren’t even funnier.

[The doctor] was a very neat, clean man whose idea of a good time was to sulk.

Fortunately, just when things were blackest, the war broke out.

The case against [him] was open and shut. The only thing missing was something to charge him with.

You know, that might be the answer — to act boastfully about something we ought to be ashamed of. That’s a trick that never seems to fail.

I don’t [believe in God]. But the God I don’t believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He’s not the mean and stupid God you make Him out to be. Read the rest of this entry »

Only Connect (and Hold It All)

Edward W. Said, Power, Politics, and Culture: Interviews
Edited by Gauri Viswanathan
Pantheon Books (2001)

With four friends (from St. Charles, Troy, and Los Angeles), I am reading and discussing  the recently published collection of Edward Said’s essays over the course of forty years.  Among the most powerful  so far are “Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Victims” and an excerpt from his 1986 work  with photographer Jean Mohr, After the Last Sky.  I’ve also been rereading a volume interviews from the 1970s on, and I have been struck by Said’s strong views on the matter of identity.  Following are some of his reflections over the years…

Musically, I am very interested in contrapuntal writing, and contrapuntal forms. The kind of complexity that is available, aesthetically, to the whole range from consonant to dissonant, the tying together of multiple voices in a kind of disciplined whole, is something that I find tremendously appealing.  99

I think the one thing that I find, I guess, the most—I wouldn’t say repellent, but I would say antagonistic—for me is identity. The whole notion of a single identity. And so multiple identity, the polyphony of many voices playing off against each other, without, as I say, the need to reconcile them, just to hold them together, is what my work is all about. More than one culture, more than one awareness, both in its negative and its positive modes. It’s a basic instinct.  99

There’s  the whole  question of the fractious quality of identity politics.  204 Read the rest of this entry »

Melting a Heart of Ice

Late in life, I got around to reading Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman
(translated by Hillel Halkin, who suggested it was “possibly the greatest of all Jewish novels”). It sounded funnily familiar….

Flogging a dead horse won’t make it run any faster 3

As long as a Jew lives and breathes in this world and hasn’t more than one leg in the grave, he mustn’t lose faith. 3

Not counting suppers, my wife and kids went hungry three times a day. 4

We’re God’s chosen people; it’s no wonder the whole world envies us. 5

The shadows of the trees were as long as the exile of the Jews. 5

With my troubles I was six feet underground already! 6

They’ll pay with back interest for everything they’ve done, except God has a long memory. 6

If you’re looking to buy something, I’m afraid I’m all out of stock, unless I can interest you in some fine hunger pains, a week’s supply of heartache, or a head full of scrambled brains. 7

“To Boiberik,” I say, “it’s not a long way at all. Only a few miles. About two or three. Maybe four. Unless it’s five.” 8

I know my way around Boiberik the way you do around your own home! 11 Read the rest of this entry »

Summer Reading List

Sholem Asch
Yankev Glatshteyn
Vasily Grossman
Malka Heifetz-Tussman
Dovid Katz
Irina Klepfisz
Koheleth
Kadia Molodovsky
Leib Rochman
Chava Rosenfarb

Envisioning Eutopia

I understand why Yiddish writers still draw on the theme of the old homeland, of the shtetl, where the people forged the treasure of their language and their lifestyle. But I believe that, no matter how strong and reassuring the news may be about the rebirth of Yiddish, especially about young people who are studying it around the world, Yiddish as a living, developing language can only exist where Jews live together in large numbers. Because only then do people use language creatively, and that gives  the artist the material from which to draw her linguistic nourishment. Then, fed by the people, the artist gives back the artworks that enrich and stimulate the people, and thus, once again, the people give inspiration to the artist. This, it seems to me, is the natural cycle in the cultural life of a people. That is why I often wish that Yiddish-speaking cities and settlements would be created all over the world, including Yiddish-speaking kibbutzim in Israel. Is this really Utopian? Perhaps; but if it does not happen, what will become of Yiddish?

Chava Rosenfarb, “Australian Notes” (1974) Read the rest of this entry »