Friday, March 23, 2018

There Are Still Jews in Russia?

I recently read and reviewed Maxim Shrayer's new book, With or Without You: The Prospect for Jews in Today's Russia, for the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles. You can read it here. It's a really interesting study, particularly because ever since the success of the Free Soviet Jewry movement of the 1960-1980s, we have heard less and less about the situation of Jews remaining in Russia.

I think we sometimes forget that not everyone left.

I used to live in the Russian Jewish area of West Hollywood, and certainly living there made it feel like all of Russia's Jews had moved to LA at some point. And then there's all of the amazing new fiction being written by Russian Jews like Boris Fishman, Lara Vapnyar, Anya Ulinich, and David Bezmozgis (some of whose works are reproduced in part in a book I co-edited with two of my favorite colleagues). The works of these writers comprise some of the best and newest American/Canadian immigrant fiction, and we hear more of these stories than those of the ones who did not, for one reason or another, leave Russia for a so-called better place. At any rate, I really enjoyed Shrayer's study because it raises some questions I hadn't thought to ask, let alone answer.

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Midrashic Impulse

The great news is that my book is out! You can see it here: The Midrashic Impulse and the Contemporary Literary Response to Trauma. The not so good news is that the book was printed with the the wrong content inside. Instead of a book about midrash and trauma it's a book (someone else's!) about the HBO series True Detective. Hilarious if it wasn't such a terrible printing error. So now we wait for the new copies...

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Power of Story

Last week I attended the Jewish American and Holocaust Literature Symposium in Miami. It's one of my favorite conferences, and I've been attending since 2004. This year one of the keynote speakers was Jewish-Guatemalan writer Eduardo Halfon, whose work I hadn't yet read, but have since been devouring.  Here's my piece on him over at the Jewish Journal.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Speaking from the Margins: Me Too

I experienced a deluge of ambiguous emotions as my Facebook newsfeed was recently filled with women's #MeToo stories and accounts of victimization. I was deeply moved and astounded by so many of the stories. I felt an initial urge to be part of this mass movement of voices, but it was an impulse that quickly retreated back into my place of observation. Like many things, I wanted to be both inside and outside of this movement.

Truthfully, I have in my personal history so many repulsive #MeToo moments that I've forgotten most of them. The hand that reached into my blouse and grabbed my breast as I walked through a crowded bar in my early twenties; the man who slapped my rear end in a club before I pushed him down and kicked him over and over (I talk about this in my most recent column); and so many stories of forceful, pushy, and threatening behavior by colleagues over the years. The ones where no one actually touched me are, in many ways, more painful because the culprits were people from whom I expected more: academics, philosophers, intellectuals.

Even academia is not immune to the behavior people are wrongly calling a Hollywood thing. And it isn't always about traditional forms of sexual harassment. For instance, what about the professor at Purdue University who, upon learning I had won a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship, said to me, "Who did you have to sleep with to get that?" He said it with a smirk that told me he hated me for refusing his request to take me to lunch a few weeks back.

Is it sexual harassment? No, not really, I guess. But what he did was to minimize my intellectual potential and suggest instead that my value is only in my appearance and sexuality. A less confident woman may have been broken by that. I was just angry.

But here's the kicker: this same professor was recently let go from Purdue University because of sexual harassment--this time an undergraduate student. So maybe it's all part of the same thing.

But I wasn't compelled to tell any of these stories. As a way to work through why I felt this way, I wrote this piece for The Jewish Journal--it's my newest column. The title is regrettable, and it's not mine. I feel it pits one experience against another, which really is the opposite of what I was doing in the piece. But so it goes.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

On Not Forgetting About What We Don't Know: Thoughts on Las Vegas

A couple of weeks ago in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, I started thinking about how quick we are to string a few "facts" together in an effort to create a story. I get it--we need to do this because we have a deep need to understand why and how things happen. But it also occurred to me that sometimes focusing entirely on a few so-called facts allow us to ignore what we don't yet know. I wanted to work through these ideas so I devoted my first column at The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles to this topic. You can read it here. The title, however, is not mine. But I can live with it.

The Complex Polarity of THE LAST RABBI

A few weeks ago I wrote a review of William Kolbrener's book The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Talmudic Tradition at The Jewish Journal. I enjoyed the book immensely, not least because it brought some of my favorite topics together: literature, midrash, trauma, and Judaism. I ended up writing a piece that was hundreds of words too long, so it had to be condensed. But here is the final version.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Interview with Israeli Writer Etgar Keret

I interviewed Israeli fiction writer (and scriptwriter!) Etgar Keret last week as part of the cover story package for this week's issue of the Jewish Journal. I'm a big fan of Keret's work and I've also taught it at Pepperdine University and UCLA, so it was super cool to get a chance to chat with him. I thought he was going to be a diva, but he was the opposite--kind, thoughtful, and generous with his time.

You can read the Jewish Journal version here.

In the interview he said he enjoys collaborating with his wife, actress and writer Shira Geffen, and I was reminded of how much I like the film Jellyfish, which they did together. I even blogged on it nearly ten years ago!

Friday, March 24, 2017

Last Laugh: Looking to Comedy as a Salve and Savior

The Last Laugh is a new film that deals with the question of whether one can or should laugh at jokes about the Holocaust. It's a fantastic film, and as part of this piece I wrote for the Jewish Journal, I got to sit down with our friend and comic Jeffrey Ross to get his thoughts on all things comedy and tragedy. Read it here!

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Modern Language Association's Proposed Boycott Against Israeli Institutions

I am, sadly, not at the MLA conference this year, but have submitted this comment to be distributed at the Town Hall Forum today where the issue will be discussed:

I am deeply saddened that we, those who love literature and all its complexities and nuances, are considering/debating an academic boycott of any kind. These kinds of boycotts hurt individuals, though they purport not to. They also cause considerable damage to the standard of scholarship and responsibility that should characterize the MLA. I want to be part of an organization that encourages, rather than forecloses, dialogue with all scholars from all countries. I want us to come together and find ways to speak across the political/cultural/geographical borders rather than excise some from our community because we don't like their government.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

The People and the Books

I wrote a review of Adam Kirsch's The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature for The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles. It's really a fantastic book, and Adam Kirsch is an excellent critic.

*I grudgingly removed all of my Oxford commas (I guess it's a thing at this publication). I hope it's still readable!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Elijah Dilemma

My essay on hating my neighbors and loving the refugees is on the cover of the Jewish Journal's next issue. You can read it here.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Against Academic Boycotts

In January, at the MLA conference in Austin, I spoke on a panel discussing the proposed academic boycott of Israel. The Chronicle of Higher Education has published a version of this talk. They chopped a few of my paragraphs off for length (including my line about Levinas!), but the spirit of the piece is intact. It's one of the most important, and polarizing, subjects I've written about. I've had a number of colleagues write to tell me they agree and to thank me for writing the piece, but many of these same colleagues also express reticence to articulate their feelings publicly. It seems that the impulse of BDS and academic boycott supporters is to demonize anyone who expresses a contrary (or more nuanced) view. It is starting to feel like bullying. I was told by more than a couple senior scholars that giving this talk publicly would mean there are many academic jobs I won't be able to get. It turns out that academia cannot always sustain the freedom of thought and respect for nuance that it has traditionally championed. Bullying, indeed.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Considering Son of Saul

I finally watched Son of Saul. My husband received the screener a number of weeks back, but we had been reluctant to watch it. For nearly fifteen years now I've been a scholar of the Holocaust, which means I've seen more Holocaust films than most can imagine. When I first started watching them, it was painful, but the more films I watched, the easier it became. I stopped crying at a certain point. My watching become mechanical, as I consistently assessed whether each film was an ethical or transgressive representation of the un-representable.

It was a few years back when I realized this--that I had stopped crying. I know that it was likely a kind of internal defense mechanism. Can the spirit handle so much without being crushed? But I felt ashamed of the stoic intellectualism that moderated my viewing of each film. I've since learned that many scholars who deal constantly with collective tragedies--the Holocaust, other genocides, 9/11, slavery, etc.--experience similar reactions after a time. It's necessary, I suppose. But, still.

But then I had a baby in December 2012. A few months later as I prepared a lecture on Babi Yar, I felt my chest tighten. It was happening again, and I couldn't control it, no matter how I steeled myself. It was one photo that did it, that re-opened everything. This photo:

His name was Gregory, and in 1941 he was taken, with many others, to a ravine outside of Kiev and murdered. I just cracked wide open when I saw this photo. I covered my face and just sobbed in a way I just don't...ever. Was it that I saw my little boy in Gregory's face? Was it the fear that one day it could be my little boy whose face a professor pastes into a powerpoint presentation? I'm not sure.

Not long after my breakdown, I was invited to a screening of German Concentration Camps Factual Survey Film (I know, it's not the greatest title, but I think giving it a creative title would be inappropriate, since it's no artistic project). It's a film comprised entirely of footage from concentration camps that has not been seen by many people until recently (though many years ago Alfred Hitchcock did try to turn some of the footage into a film). Given my long history of viewing Holocaust films and documentaries, I thought I had seen the worst of the worst. I mean, who can watch Night and Fog and wake up the same person the next day? But this film was more gruesome than anything I'd ever seen. The way naked corpses were dragged and thrown around--those images have become part of my DNA I think. And the footage of German citizens, including children, being marched through the concentration camps after liberation, ostensibly to bear witness to what had happened in their own backyard, was excruciating. I hadn't realized that was done. And yes, certainly they should have to face what they had become an accomplice to, but there was something truly terrible about watching them bear witness--something I can't quite name. I walked home from the Museum of Tolerance (yes, of course I would live in walking distance to the MOT) after the viewing, my face wet and my chest heaving.

And after this experience of something un-nameable, I stopped watching Holocaust films, and read as little as possible. I finished teaching my Holocaust Film and Literature course and admitted to myself that I might not ever be able to teach it again--that it was time for someone else to take it from me. I know that there is a direct correlation between my hyper-empathetic response and giving birth to a child. Others, including Claire Katz, have written beautifully about the role of the feminine and the maternal in the context of ethical responsibility. And it makes sense that creating one life would deepen one's value of all lives. But in reality my emotional response troubled me, as I weighed my newly charged sense of compassion for the other--my deepened sense of responsibility, as it were--against my responsibility to keep telling the stories of survivors so that they won't die.

What was for years a scholarly obsession had become something I avoided at all costs for a couple of years. But then all this talk about Son of Saul, and so many people wanting to know if I had seen it. I felt like I was ready again and so we watched it.

I don't regret it. It's a brilliant film in many ways. But I regret the existence of such an event that would inspire this film. Of course. It was terrible to watch. I was angry within minutes of the film beginning. And I was confused. In many instances I felt disoriented and didn't quite understand what was happening. I was barely with it, hardly hanging on. The dialogue is sparse, and the constant close-up shots eliminate the possibility of gathering detail from context in many moments. All one sees, really, is the face--the face of the other. Everything else is obscured. And this is how it must have been to be there, in the place that we cannot recreate or represent. The confusion and lack of clarity, the pushing and shoving, intensity and urgency, the inability to tell with certainty who it is who is speaking or screaming. It could only have been chaos, maddening chaos. And this is how the film brings us in to a deeper understanding of the camps. That Saul is a member of the Sonderkommando who makes it his mission to bury the body of a boy he takes as his symbolic son is a paradox of sorts. It makes no sense. And yet here it is--ethical responsibility materializing in a place where the ethical has come to die, ushered in by a man who is forced to burn corpses rather than bury them.

I don't know if or when I'll teach another Holocaust class. But if I do, this will be the film that I show. Today is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. And so we have to think of such things.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Past Haunts

I left Indiana and Purdue University in 2008, once I finished my PhD. I was 30 years old, and I was so happy to be going home to California after five years in the shadow of cornfields, tornadoes, and loves lost, begun, and discarded. Earlier this week, after seven years, I returned to Indiana for the first time for a conference on the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas--an annual conference that my friends and I began here at Purdue ten years ago, and which has flourished ever since. We came home for our tenth anniversary.

Nostalgia always brings us home.

Coming "home" is such a complex thing. We come happily, expectant, but we also cannot help but remember the conflicts and violences that spattered themselves across our lives. This afternoon I attended a talk by a friend and colleague who referenced the work of Edward Casey--particularly his work that deals with memory and its connection to place. I couldn't help but think of this place, where I sit now. I was 26 when I first left California to start graduate school--young, unaware, mistakenly married. There were others like me--those who had married young, before we had become who we were meant to be. The rate at which we--poets, writers, thinkers, teachers--all transformed into our selves was staggering. Many of us left someone behind in that transformation. The ones left behind lost their place in our new world. It was liberating, yes, but it was also not without the infinite sadness that always accompanies such a moving on, such a splintering. I'm so sorry. Splitting at the root aches indefinitely, even when it is necessary in order for growth to begin.

I left and found love in this place. Here, I discovered that some love is little more than obsession--intoxicating, often, but toxic always. In this place, I learned that you can love and hate someone simultaneously. Then I found love again while anchored to this place, only to uncover duplicity and betrayal.

Of course I've never forgotten any of this. It's not as if I'm remembering it for the first time, now that I'm back here briefly. But there's something about place, and how it affects the way memory materializes, the way it touches us. We leave a place, and put down roots elsewhere--we become skinned of memory. And then if we are wise or foolish enough to return to that place, to the site of trauma, it burns as the memories materialize.

But I've never minded the fire. The loves found and lost while I was here were all part of being in transit. Looking back on those years from this point in time, from a position of authentic love and happiness, is uncanny, though. It's hard to reconcile my many lives, the many drafts of myself. My impulse is to find meaning in the current shape of my memories, but it always drowns in meaningless and transgressive cliche: it all happened for a reason, it made me who I am, I am full of regret, I have no regrets, it allowed me to appreciate who I am and what I have now.

There is no meaning in these memories; I simply bear witness to them.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

My Grandmother

Her body is so slight now at 80 pounds. Bones pushing through paper skin. How is it that her eyes have grown so large while her body and mind devolve? One wonders what she sees with those once beautiful eyes, now void, desperate. Perhaps one prefers not to know. Perhaps I prefer not to know. Does she see us for who we really are? It's in all the best literature: the madwoman who sees everything, and prophesies, foretells our future. And, it's true, I think, as I stare brazenly at my grandmother: her body, memory removed and reconfigured, tells my future. At least that's what I'm afraid of--that I am seeing her the way I will one day be seen. My mother, though--her fear sinks a layer deeper into her than mine does. I see that, even though she doesn't say it.

If my grandmother's the madwoman I've found in so many narratives, I want to know what it is that she knows. Does she know that I told myself I wouldn't go see her again after the last time? Does she know how brilliantly the shame bloomed inside of me when I admitted to myself that I didn't want to go back? That I didn't want her to mistake my hand for a piece of chocolate again? That I didn't want the expression of horror, etched as deep as the bones in my face, to scare her? I remember the days right before she was taken to a home. Do we really dare to call such a place a home? My grandfather, hip shattered, lay in the hospital, and she, his wife, wandered aimlessly around my parents' home.

Daddy? Where did Daddy go?

She kept asking that question, tugging on the sleeves and pant legs of anyone close enough, fiddling anxiously with the buttons on her holiday flannel pajamas. When the wandering became too much for us, we made her sit in a wheelchair. We felt guilty. We made excuses. My brother and I broke into a fit of hysterical laughter after looking for ways to entertain her, and finally settling on a ridiculous impromptu dance routine. Grandma, do you like our dance? Laughter always hides something. Some people, some families, are better at the hiding part than others are. Horror, in this case, is what we hide.

She hasn't known us for some time now. But that night, the night we danced our ridiculous dance for her, she reached for my hand and squeezed it with her little claw-like hands and said, suddenly: don't forget about me, don't forget about me. As if she'd had the briefest moment of clarity, as if she'd caught a glimpse of what was happening. The shame bloomed inside again, because I realized that I want to forget.

He'll be back, we'd say, when she asked for "daddy" hundreds of times, over and over and over and over. Don't worry. The false reassurances we often give young children coming back to haunt us in old age, rounding out our sharp little lives in ways we'd never considered. We would like to protect her--from what we have no idea.

I keep waiting for that call, my grandfather says, a few months later as he recovers from his fall in my parents' home, while my grandmother becomes smaller and smaller in a home that isn't her own. And suddenly I can't decide which breaks my heart into more pieces: my grandmother, with her memories jumbled and fragmented; or my grandfather, severed from the woman with whom he has spent his entire adult life, his memory and mind intact enough to feel pain and fear and guilt and the threat of complete loss.

And I think to myself, I spent a good portion of my life waiting for those calls--expecting them at every turn. My mother? My father? One of my brothers or my sister? What foolishness. How vile the memory of such fears becomes when I see what it means to really wait for that call. When abstract fears become known.

My mother, then. I feel tightness in my chest when I imagine what she is experiencing, as she cares for her elderly father and his very sad heart, and also begins to grieve for a mother who is simultaneously alive and dead. This is what makes dementia and diseases of the mind so horrifying: loved ones are necessarily in a constant state of mourning. We face the loss every day that we stare into blank eyes. It faces us, taunts us. But death is yet to come so we have nothing to bury. We aren't allowed to move on just yet. We simply mourn daily; it becomes our most careful routine. I've been watching my mother mourn for quite some time now--this while she is pulled by other looming losses and struggles having nothing to do with my grandmother. Why must the universe unload on us all at once? There is no divine plan. This is life. This is our life.

I'm thinking of all this, a few days into Passover, and I realize that the sea doesn't always part. We don't always move through the water without drowning. Some of us will make it--we swim hard, or we float miraculously. But others will drown.