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.


Sunday, March 23, 2014

One More Year

Guilt is fashioned in so many forms. No one is immune to it, of course. I often suspect that those who talk most about living "guilt-free" are the ones who feel most consistently culpable.

I keep staring at this slowly sinking pit in the top of my hand, where my bone has disintegrated like quick sand. And I feel guilty. I feel guilty for being the type of person who would spend as much time as I have this past month googling images of wildly expensive high-top sneakers. I can't stop running my fingers over the hole in my hand, thinking of how I joked about it, laughing nervously at first, and then hysterically to myself. The embarrassment of jokes falling flat.




I've never seen anything like this. That's what the endocrinologist said. And the look on his face. . .

I'm fine--nothing more than the universe offering me another opportunity to be pointlessly afraid. Useless fear. But I thought: what if I wasn't okay? What if the doctor's suspicions grew long spindly legs and walked right into my reality?

The hole in my hand: lacuna. And suddenly the black hole renders everything clear. It's hard to know what's important on some days. I often feel that living in Los Angeles is one of the most difficult--if thrilling--endeavors. Everything is opaque here.

But what if I wasn't okay?

The answer is made simple via the space in my hand. I inevitably started to consider worst-case scenarios. One year. That's it, give or take a few weeks. What would I do? And this is where the high-top sneakers came bounding in. They were immediately the source of my guilt, a symbol of my shallowness. I have thought incessantly about high-top sneakers--in between agonizing about European anti-Semitism and suppressing anxiety about unfinished essays--while trying to fall asleep on some nights.

My fingers, dipping down into the hole in my hand. And I realize how much time and energy I waste on things that are meaningless, all while complaining that I don't have the time to pursue what matters most. What if I had only one year--how would I live? What parts of my life would I discard or abandon? Would I write? Would I teach? It's an ideal exercise in deciphering what matters most.

I don't know if I would keep teaching. Maybe just in small doses. I do know that I would finish my "it's nearly finished" book on the midrashic impulse in art and literature. I didn't have to think twice about that. I also know that I would write letters to my son every day. I would write love letters to my husband too. I would travel. I would linger more carefully in front of my favorite paintings. I would drink just as much wine, but I would do it with the friends and family I love, rather than alone and in front of the blank screen of a computer.

I would not google high-top sneakers. Or any other sneakers. It wouldn't even occur to me.

I suppose there's no reason why I can't behave as if there's just one more year.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Born to Fear



I keep coming back to fear.

Teaching post-9/11 fiction puts me in a position to discover fear written all over the face of literature and to think about why that is. E.L. Doctorow once said that doubt is the greatest stabilizer of humanity, and I loved that. But if doubt is what stabilizes us, it must be fear that destabilizes.

Until a few years ago, fear was the catalyst for most decisions I made. It was the internal mechanism that became the shaper of some of the most intricate parts of my identity. School, career, fashion, and even relationship choices were little more than sediment rising to the top of my constant trepidation. From dyeing my blonde hair brown when I interviewed at an Ivy League institution because I feared my intellectual capacity would be measured by the shade of my locks, to pressing my hand to the outside of each airplane I boarded while saying a quick prayer for God's protection over the plane--my distress over things I could never possibly control became the common denominator for nearly every life decision made. I consistently settled into relationships where I was certain that I loved my partner less than he loved me, thereby mitigating the fear of losing someone I could not live without.

It takes many years to realize that each decision made with fear slices away pieces of one's life. Living without fear, on the other hand, is liberating. Of course I'm not the first to recognize this. But the first time I felt it, it was like the world had come undone in a way that made it mine.

They can all go fuck themselves.

And suddenly I was me, perhaps for the first time. I've lived, over the last so many years, fearlessly for the most part. My decisions have been rooted in the part of me that is brazen and undisguised. But the past year a new kind of fear has taken root. Every other breath I take is cut short by a sensation of fear that has become my new normal.

No one told me it was going to be like this.

This: being a mother. The sensation of fierce and primal love for my son. The fear that an imperfect world might put its claws into him. The fear that I could one day lose him. The persistent threat of his absence. The fear is new and untapped. Vigorous. It reveals itself in tears in some moments. I could not have known the vulnerability that would necessarily accompany the moments, days, and years following childbirth. A woman's strongest moment gives birth to her deepest vulnerabilities.

Is this what my mother felt each time she gave birth? Vulnerabilities multiplying exponentially? 

And I cannot help thinking: I was so strong before this. I could afford to be reckless. I have much to learn about being a mother. But the biggest challenge, I suspect, will be to protect my son from my trepidation. Fear is learned. We pass it down to each subsequent generation, a most resilient heirloom. As much as it hurts, I'd like to keep this for myself. My son, empty-handed in this regard--it would give me joy.

*Image Above: Kandinsky, "Dunaberg" (1909)

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

A Culture of Fear: On Women and Pregnancy

My post on women, pregnancy, and a culture of fear can be found here (at The Forward's Sisterhood blog).

Monday, March 25, 2013

Women, the Exodus, and Haggadot.com



Just in time for Pesach, here's my piece on women, the Exodus, and Haggadot.com over at The Forward's Sisterhood blog.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Sex and Jews

I wrote a short piece over at The Forward on the launch of Jewrotica.org and the question of whether diasporic Jews have absorbed a Christian understanding of sex. Read it here.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Women and the Pregnant Body

Check out my latest post over at The Forward (Sisterhood blog):


These days, news of a woman’s pregnancy elicits all sorts of shameless demands from people with voyeuristic drives to see her naked stomach. I should know; I’m pregnant...

Read more: http://blogs.forward.com/sisterhood-blog/165961/being-pregnant-doesnt-mean-baring-all/#ixzz2C7nM1naZ

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

No Apologies

I wrote a Yom Kippur piece for the Sisterhood blog over at The Forward a few days ago--it's about women apologizing too much, and often for things about which they don't need to be sorry. Yesterday morning I found myself doing exactly what I warn against in this piece. I was paying for some candy at an amazing new candy store at The Grove in Los Angeles. I had already given my debit card to the cashier so I began to search for something else in my wallet, only to look up a few second later and realize that the cashier had been holding my card out to me. "Oh, I'm so sorry," I said. "You're not forgiven," she replied, with a look of feigned contempt, "because that is a totally egregious error." I laughed to myself,  thinking about my piece about refraining from squandering apologies, which had been posted earlier the same day. "You know," I said, "I'm really not sorry."