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How would you describe Memento Park in a tweet (280 characters)?
A man tries to recover a looted painting that appears to have belonged to his family but in order to do so he must recover the lost story of his family, reconnect with his own neglected Judaism, and repair his broken relationship with his father.
What do you have on your desk?
An action figure of Bojack Horseman, my spirit animal. A few candles. A chipped bulldog statuette from a Paris hotel. A photo of my daughter. Several to-do lists.
What are your favorite novels that center around a painting?
Top of the list would be John Banville’s “Frames” trilogy – The Book of Evidence, Ghosts, and Athena. I also love Peter Carey’s (underrated) Theft and John Berger’s A Painter of Our Time. And one cannot exclude the urtext of art novels: Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.
What are your favorite art museums?
My god, so many. MOMA in New York City is close to the top, though the crowds can be exhausting. I adore the Musee Marmottan in Paris and the Phillips Collection in DC. I recently got out to Mass MOCA for the first time and was enthralled by the place. But I also love smaller spaces like the Neue Galerie and L.A.’s own Norton Simon Museum (which features in my novel).
What are your favorite cases of artistic fakes and forgeries?
I’m pretty fascinated by the life of Eric Hebborn, a noted art forger who is believed to have made around $30 million in the eighties. He was finally exposed and wrote some remarkable books after that, including a memoir and a veritable how-to manual. I wished I could have used all that material more prominently in my book, and I suspect it’s something I will return to one day. You can watch a documentary about him here.
What is your favorite underappreciated Jewish book?
Not underappreciated, perhaps, but not read anywhere near as widely as it deserves to be is Jenny Erpenbeck’s brilliant The End of Days.
Sarvas headshot: Yanina Gotsulsky; photo of Eric Hebborn via Artnet News
Dorothea Lasky is writing here as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.
Whenever I finish a book of poems, I get a little wistful, a little romantic and sad. The book has become what it is, just like the way when something or someone dies, everything that they were becomes what it was. Books and their meanings are absolutely malleable to their future readers, but to their writers, they become a little fixed, especially right after they’ve taken their place in the world. What they could have been, when there was still time to change them, is over. They are what they are. Right now Milk is what it is.
For me, poetry is always tied up with my spirituality, which is a rotating sense of the world, the other world, and my place within these things. I am Jewish, but not exactly practicing. I was raised as a reform Jew (I was bat mitzvahed, confirmed in Sunday School, and even taught Sunday School at my temple for a while). For too many reasons to list here, I have become a bit estranged in my daily life from this background.
My mother, a brilliant and vibrant artist, was raised Jewish in Los Angeles and has spent much of her life revisiting her relationship to her own sense of the spiritual world. My father, a great man, was raised as an Orthodox Jew at the beginning of last century in St. Louis, but became reform in his adult life. We never talked too explicitly about it, but he hinted at preferring to come to his relationship to Judaism in his own way.
In my daily life now, I have come to Judaism in my own way. For me, my Judaism is so tied up with my poetry that they have become in many ways the same thing.
People often want to know what books mean, but I don’t think a poetry book has to have one strand of meaning. I think that poetry books have themes they are working with, and I think that Milk’s themes are motherhood, creativity, and the occult. Originally, Milk was going to be an occult text—a book of spells—based on the moon. I think I will write that book one day, but I knew when I was working on Milk that it wasn’t that book.
Still, in original versions of the book, I had many poems that dealt explicitly with spirituality. Here is one of them that didn’t make it in:
I used to be a witch
I used to light the candles in the hallway and say your name
Say it was what it was supposed to be
Say love me love me I used to say love me
I used to wear a long black coat
And swab my staff at everything
I used to sing and sing and it was for nobody
Except the ghouls who peered at me from under the bed
I used to kill off the dead
Until they were my lovers
I used to pin the legs above the head
Until I could have my way with the dead
I used to take your spirit out and put it my pocket
And ride a horse that did not exist
I used to go in, with a dark cat
And mix a thousand herbs together
But it was the new year
And the cats, instead of keeping still
Wanting to cry into the morning
I used to sit alone, I used to be a witch
Then you came along
I used to be only what the nighttime knew
But now you’re the witch, little thing
And on a golden broom, I’ve sent you flying
Through the stars
And the moon
The people will now look at you
And this time
The spell will only be
This poem was written to my then-newborn daughter (who was meant to be the new “good witch” at the end of the poem). In my previous books, particularly the one before Milk, I feel that I have taken up themes of spite, envy, and revenge. I wanted Milk to be quite frightening, but basically “about” love. I wrote this poem because after the birth of my daughter, life became about love for me, and the real power of it.
The poem didn’t make it in because it was explicit in some ways that I didn’t like. Although some of my spiritual practices now resemble a type of witchcraft, I didn’t like the flattening of the way I used the word in the poem. Especially because there are connotations now of the word "witch" I don’t like, that popular and internet culture has taken up in sometimes a flippant way.
As I grow older, I long for some relationship to my Jewish ancestors who I know did so much so that I could be here, writing these books and writing to you now. They were poets and witches, too. This poem is about being done with a solitary kind of spiritual practice and infusing my relationship to the other world with the idea of creativity and new life through the future iterations of the word.
These days once I have finished something, I just start thinking of the next thing I need to do, rather than celebrating what I’ve done as I probably should.
Maybe even writing that I should is a kind of celebration. Maybe it’s time now to celebrate.
So, let’s raise our glasses of whatever water now. To Poetry!
Dorothea Lasky is the author of five full-length collections of poetry: ROME (Liveright/W.W. Norton) and Milk, Thunderbird, Black Life, and AWE, all out from Wave Books. She is also the author of several chapbooks, including Poetry is Not a Project (Ugly Ducking Presse, 2010). Born in St. Louis in 1978, her poems have appeared in POETRY, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Columbia Poetry Review, and Boston Review, among others.
Professor Steven Zipperstein's new book, Pogrom, is about the massacre of Jews in Kishinev in 1903. Bob Goldfarb spoke with him recently about his findings.
Bob Goldfarb: In Pogrom, you document how Pavel Krushevan, an anti-Semitic newspaper publisher in Kishinev, fabricated the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”—and you uncovered some facts about his life that were previously unknown. It’s quite a breakthrough. What led you there?
Steven Zipperstein: It was really accidental. Many authors of the first books about the “Protocols” had no idea that the Kishinev version had even been published. Later an Italian scholar demonstrated that the word endings in the book version of the “Protocols”indicate quite clearly that it had originated in or around Bessarabia. I was able to connect that version to the pogrom. A superb German scholar, Michael Hagemeister, mentioned to me that a Moldovan Jewish journalist in Brookline, Massachusetts had something, and I was in Boston on my way to Moldova the next day. I called this man and asked him if I could come by. I’m sitting in his living room, and from a shelf in his living room, he takes a large white folder, massively packed with documents, and I begin to leaf through it. What I discovered are treasures.
BG: What was in the folder, and where did he get it?
SZ: The archive came to the journalist because he was writing a history of an insane asylum at the edge of Chisinau (Kishinev), and he had befriended a nephew of Krushevan’s. The nephew admired his uncle, and Krushevan gave the nephew his most sensitive papers, documenting financial misdeeds, shenanigans, bankruptcies. Still more surprising was his diary, written at the age of 15 or 16. He’s staying with relatives in Odessa, and he’s having joyous sex with a Cossack—they come in only one gender. And he declares that he wishes he had been born “a lady.”
BG: Did the documents shed any light on the man he became?
SZ: Krushevan is one of the great totems of anti-capitalist, homophobic, anti-Semitic attitudes. I also discovered that Krushevan’s life was spent in close proximity to Jews. His stepsister had run off with a Jew, moved to Baltimore, and is pictured in a Russian-language newspaper as an Orthodox Jew living a Jewish life with her husband. What’s more, from the age of two, Krushevan was raised by a stepmother who was Jewish.
BG: You write that there was not a lot of overt anti-Semitism in Kishinev before the pogrom, that the populations lived relatively amicably together. It calls to mind more recent cases of pogroms, or genocides, where the same was true. In Jedwabne, Poland, Jews and Poles knew one another intimately, yet the Poles savagely murdered their Jewish neighbors. In Rwanda, Hutus and Tutsis lived side by side, intermarried, and then the Hutus perpetrated genocide against the Tutsis on an incomprehensible scale. Shouldn’t familiarity bring sympathy and understanding?
SZ: In the Kishinev pogrom we have a good many instances of Jews under attack who run into the courtyard of Gentile friends, expecting their protection and not infrequently being protected. But there is a relationship between familiarity and outright ferocity, as Jan Gross argues in his book Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. That serves as a cautionary note with regard to the notion that knowing someone better—as liberalism would like to believe—moderates negative feelings.
In Kishinev, one woman was raped by a man whom she had suckled when he was an infant. A shoemaker was attacked by a man one week after the shoemaker repaired his shoes. Another sobering example is that of Minister of the Interior Vyacheslav Konstantinovich Plehve, whose hatred for Jews seems to have deepened as a young boy growing up in Warsaw in a neighborhood close to Jews. He attributes some of his animosity toward Jews to that proximity.
BG: Is there any lesson to be drawn from this?
SZ: For me, the most sobering lesson to be drawn is about what we now call “fake news.” So much of what resonated about the pogrom were myths, fictions. Myth and fiction have a kind of coherence history doesn’t have. History is full of loose seams and odd edges. With Kishinev, here’s an event that’s probably the best documented in all of Russian Jewish history, and at the same time the most mythologized. The massive amount of documentation does relatively little to unsettle the myths over the course of the last century.
BG: The Hearst newspapers played a large role in publicizing the Kishinev massacre in the United States. The Hearst newspapers also whipped up fervor in favor of a war with Spain in 1898 by fabricating atrocities. The Kishinev pogrom did happen; the Spanish atrocities did not. If a story has the same power whether it’s true or not, it gives one pause, doesn’t it?
SZ: I would go even further. The made-up stories have greater power than the actual stories. They’re fuller, more zaftig, than the news can possibly be. The so-called Plehve letter surfaced a few weeks after the pogrom, and it seemed to furnish empirical proof that the Russian government was behind the pogroms. The letter was a forgery. Yet, it had considerable impact on facilitating mass migration by Russian Jews to the U.S.
BG: Speaking of myths, you conclusively demonstrate that the “Protocols” is a fraud. It’s another great example of the persistence of myth in the face of fact.
SZ: It’s striking that the “Protocols” is really the only anti-Semitic text—among so many anti-Semitic texts that have been published—that continues to have a real life. It actually provides a voice, albeit a false voice, of the “Elder.” One reason for its success is its redundancy. You don’t need to read more than a page to get what it’s about. Somehow this text, which is profoundly localized, ends up speaking to so many different audiences in so many countries.
BG: One of the myths that helped inform the pogrom in Kishinev is that Jews drained the blood of Christian children. It seems to be another example of people believing what they want to believe, so it becomes a kind of “truth,” like the other myths we’ve been talking about.
SZ: You’re right. Disproving something that doesn’t exist is extraordinarily tough. Every time there was a ritual-murder accusation, the coroners set about testing whether the body was drained of blood. The act of disproving the murder serves to validate the notion that ritual murder exists! How do you disprove an absurdity?
BG: You talk about how Kishinev has vastly disproportionate prominence in people’s memory. Many, many more people were killed in pogroms in subsequent years. Yet, despite the hundreds of thousands of casualties in later years, Kishinev stands out. Why?
SZ: This is the first pogrom in a new century. And it’s institutionalized: in Zionist memory, in Socialist memory. It’s adopted by the now-powerful Yiddish-speaking Left in New York. It’s introduced not only into politics but also into plays, synagogue ritual, and arguably the best poem in a Jewish language in modernity, Bialik’s “City of Killing.” It inspired the very play that introduced the notion of the “melting pot.”
There’s also an interplay with the relatively small number of Jews who were killed, all of whom can be pictured in a single photograph, shrouded before their burials. It’s impossible to photograph 600 dead, let alone 200,000 dead. We’ve discovered over time that unthinkable catastrophes are best concretized in small numbers.
BG: You point out that the impact of Kishinev went well beyond the Jewish community. News of Kishinev affected Booker T. Washington, and at least indirectly led to the founding of the NAACP. It’s hard to imagine how a distant atrocity could have such impact.
SZ: In some ways it’s precisely because it’s hard to imagine it that it had the impact that it did. It dominated the headlines for weeks, and was denounced by Theodore Roosevelt. It changed the way lynching is discussed in the U.S. The outrage over Kishinev, in contrast to the lack of outrage over lynchings in the U.S., was itself felt to be outrageous and sparked a corrective on American soil.
BG: Reading history, one can’t help but look for some sort of redemptive lesson: if pogroms could bring about a movement for social change, perhaps that’s a kind of comfort. Yet the pogroms were also followed by the rapid growth of the Ku Klux Klan in the U.S., and the massacre of Armenians in 1915, so the anti-lynching movement is only part of a larger picture.
SZ: One of the most extraordinary aspects of history is its formlessness, and the way people try to create a coherence out of this formlessness; that’s what I study. I leave moral lessons to others. What came to intrigue me at the outset is how this particular episode stuck so resolutely, while others—arguably more important—have disappeared. If I’ve explicated that, I’ve done what I set out to do.
Shachar Pinsker is writing here as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.
When I did research for my previous book Literary Passports: The Making of Modernist Hebrew Fiction in Europe, I asked myself: Where did Jewish writers and intellectuals who migrated to large cities at the turn of the 20th century live and work? Where did they find inspiration and a place to meet others? The answer I kept coming to repeatedly was the coffeehouse. I discovered that not only the allure of the café was very strong, but that it became a key site for the creation of modern Jewish culture, which is how I came to write my new book, A Rich Brew.
As I have read numerous articles, memoirs, letters, stories, novels, and poems that were written in and about cafés, and collected many photographs, cartoons and artwork that portray these spaces, gender emerged as an essential aspect. In theory, coffeehouses—from their early years in the Ottoman Empire, and their spread throughout Europe—were open to everyone. This accessibility and inclusivity was one of the reasons why coffeehouses attracted so many modern Jews in various cities in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century. However, cafés, especially those that were known as “literary cafés” were mostly masculine spaces, or at least they were experienced as such. Many Jewish habitués of the café described it as a modern, secular substitute to the traditional House of Study, where the older and more established writer is like the Rabbi of yesteryear, his café table like the Rebbe’s tish, and the students who follow him gather around to listen to his words. Instead of Talmud or Midrash, this secularized rabbi and his followers would interpret, discuss and analyze a poem or a story. Not only the debates in these cafés had the flavor of the Yeshivas and houses of study, where some of the participants had spent their youth, but also the male camaraderie of traditional Jewish society was very much part of the experience.
Where were Jewish women in the coffeehouse? What was their place in café culture?
In cities like Vienna and Berlin, certain women were hostesses of salons, a competing institution to the coffeehouse, but a very different one. From the late 18th to the early 19th century, Jewish women such as Fanny von Arnstein, Rahel Levin-Verhangen, and Dorothea Mendelssohn-Schlegl (Moses Mendelssohn’s daughter) found a new role outside the patriarchal structures of their families in these salons. But these women were quite exceptional, and their Jewishness meant that their outsider status was guaranteed, as both a woman and a Jew. Nevertheless, the emergence of the “new woman” did not pass over Jewish society in eastern and central Europe, America and the Middle East, and it was felt in the coffeehouses as well. Women were sometimes owners of cafés, as part of a family business, or on their own; they were often servers, and sometimes costumers. In a few cafés, like Café Fanconi in Odessa at the beginning of the 20th century, there was something akin to a "women section,” often created ad-hoc by those who ventured into the new, alluring space. However, a woman who sat in the café alone was a rare and often a suspicious sight.
The presence of women in the café was marked by the curiosity, desire, and frustration of male habitués and writers who tried to explain and define these modern women. The same applied to the “politically radical cafés” of the Lower East Side, as Abraham H. Fromenson describes: “where the cigarette smoke is thickest and denunciation of the present forms of government loudest, there you find women!” He was referring to women like Emma Goldman, who wrote about her first day in New York City, August 15, 1889. Hillel Solotaroff, a Russian-born Jewish anarchist took the twenty-year-Old Goldman to Sachs’ Café, which, as he informed her, was “the headquarters of the East Side radicals, socialists, and anarchists, as well as of the young Yiddish writers and poets.” Goldman recalled how, for one who had just come from the provincial town of Rochester, the noise and turmoil at Sachs’ Café was intimidating. And yet, Goldman saw her initiation into Sachs’ Café as establishing her lifelong intellectual and political engagement, as “red Emma,” or “the most dangerous woman in America.”
Another extraordinary woman in New York’s cafés was the poet Rosa Lebensboym, best known by the pen name Anna Margolin. In 1913, she settled in the city and joined the staff of the Yiddish newspaper Der tog, where she wrote a weekly women’s column. When Margolin began publishing her modernist Yiddish poetry under her pen name in the 1920s, it aroused much attention with many believing that the mysterious poet must really have been a man. Reuven Iceland, who was Margolin’s lover, wrote to her: “Why people want Anna Margolin to be a man is beyond me. The general opinion, however, is that these poems are written by an experienced hand. And a woman can’t write like that…As we were talking in the café Saturday night, [the poet Mani Leib] told me how much he liked Margolin’s poem…and of course, no woman could have written such a poem. Now do you understand?” Margolin has written an exquisite cycle of poems In Kafe (“In the Café”), which starts with the line: “Now alone in the café”
In Berlin, the German-Jewish poet Else Lasker-Schüler was at the heart of Café des Westens and the expressionist circle of writers and artists there, which was nicknamed “Café Megalomania.” Her friend, the Jewish anarchist Gustav Landauer, confirmed that “she doesn’t fit anywhere and certainly not in the milieu in which you see her.” Lasker-Schüler played with her identity, crossing borders of gender by dressing up as her masculine or androgynous literary characters, such as Prince Jussuf of Thebes. As a modern Jewish woman and writer, Lasker-Schüler was both included in café culture, and yet regarded with uncertainty for crossing boundaries that tangibly existed in the café. Lasker-Schüler recorded her imagined, self-made world in vivid poems, sketches, and an epistolary novel, My Heart.
The poet and writer Leah Goldberg met the old Lasker-Schüler in Jerusalem of the 1940s, in Café Sichel. They could have met a decade before in Berlin’s Romanisches Café, but the young Goldberg arrived there as a student just before Hitler rose to power, when Lasker-Schüler withdrew from the place. Goldberg immigrated to Tel Aviv in 1935, and quickly became part of a literary and social circle that included some of the most important Hebrew writers and poets of the 1930s and 1940s that met in coffeehouses. Descriptions of Goldberg in the café emphasize a precarious presence, “like a spirit” who is only a “short-lived phenomenon.” As a woman, she was viewed as separate and different, as the editor and critic Israel Zmora wrote, “In most cases, the habitués of the café were all men. Women writers were very few. . . . Leah Goldberg was the exception. She used to go to the café almost daily, but on her own, and only occasionally mix with all of us.”
Jewish women writers like Goldberg, Margolin, and Lasker-Schüler, who wrote many poems, stories, and articles about the coffeehouse, shared the experience of exceptionality and isolation within a dominantly masculine culture. These women—writers, performers, servers, radicals—were marginalized not only due to their gender, but often also as Jewish migrants crossing borders of language, ideology, and space. Nonetheless, they made their mark on Jewish café culture, both inside and outside of the space of the coffeehouse.
Shachar Pinsker is the author of A Rich Brew: How Cafes Created Modern Jewish Culture and Literary Passports: The Making of Modernist Hebrew Fiction in Europe. He is Associate Professor of Hebrew Literature and Culture at the University of Michigan.