Lost islands of our lives

June 24, 2019

There are episodes that are cut off from the great river of our lives. These are weeks or months or even years with no connection to our present day. We haven’t returned to these places; we don’t tell stories about the events that took place then; we aren’t in contact — not even ersatz social media contact — with any of the people.

These episodes can feel like dreams. Like ancient cities lost in the jungle. Like islands that were once part of the mainland but then isolated by continental drift — our own personal Galapagos, where time stops and the beaches are pristine and the animals never learn to fear humans.

For me, one of these times is the spring I spent in Santa Fe in 1978.

Downtown-SantaFe

Downtown Santa Fe

I took the semester off from my East Coast college and through some random decisions ended up working as a waitress in a deli/bar on the main square. In retrospect, I was throwing things at the wall to see what might stick. Imagining myself as a writer, wanting to experience America beyond Manhattan and Cambridge, creating a life from scratch among utter strangers. I stayed for a while in a Jesus freak commune and met Vietnam vets and fended off harassing bar patrons and had a crush on a soulful-eyed, beautiful Latino construction worker who barely noticed me and drank a lot of peppermint schnapps and then one night died in a car crash on one of New Mexico’s winding mountain roads.

When spring ended, I returned to Cambridge and college. I’ve never been back to Santa Fe. I don’t remember – perhaps never knew? — the last names of any of the people I met there.

It became a Galapagos island. It stood apart; my history moved forward elsewhere. As decades passed, I thought about those months less often.

But among the encounters I had that spring was one with a marginal and short-lived literary magazine called Read Street, after one of the streets in Santa Fe. It was started by an unlikely character – a loud, crass, heavily-accented New York man who wore tinted aviator sunglasses in that late-70s “on the make” style. He was someone you’d expect to find managing an L.A. rock band, not running a little literary magazine. I think I had a short story published in it. I think he tried to pursue me and so I backed away from the magazine.

There’s nothing else I remember about that particular aspect of my Santa Fe time… except for a poem published in the magazine that stuck with me through all these decades. I had attended an event where the poet, a Native American woman, read it aloud: I was struck by her long, dark hair, her gleaming talent, and her age,  just a few years older than me.

The phrase I remembered from her poem was “cuchillo moon.”

Her name, which I have also remembered all these years, was Joy Harjo.

Last week she was declared the Poet Laureate of the United States.

And so the modern scientific research vessel – or is it a touristic cruise ship? – pulls up to my Galapagos island.  Private, dreamlike memories are abruptly anchored to  2019 news headlines. I’m not sure if something has been lost or something gained.

But… congratulations, Joy Harjo! So well deserved.

And here is that poem, which I was able to track down, thanks to Our Friend the Internet. (It’s from her 1983 collection, She Had Some Horses. Unfortunately, the blog template doesn’t allow me to reproduce the exact formatting.)

Cuchillo

By Joy Harjo

cuchillo
sky
is blood filling up my belly

cuchillo
moon
is a white horse thundering down
over the edge
of a raw red cliff

cuchillo
heart
is the one who leaves me
at midnight
for another lover

cuchillo
dog
is the noise of chains and collar
straining at the neck to bite
the smell of my ankles

cuchillo
silver
is the shell of black sky
spinning around inside
my darker eyes

cuchillo
dreams
are the living bones that want out
of this voice dangling
that calls itself
knife
(cuchillo).

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Parshat Bamidbar

June 13, 2019

One of my favorite Jewish activities is delivering a d’var Torah — commentary on the weekly Torah portion read at Shabbat services. Here’s one I wrote last week for the Bamidbar portion (or parsha in Hebrew), the opening section of the book of Numbers. I start with a basic summary of the section and then go on to some reflections about it.


Bamidbar is the first parsha in the book also named Bamidbar, or in English, Numbers. Bamidbar means “in the desert:” It speaks broadly to both the geographic status and spiritual status of the Israelites as they continue their journey from Egypt to the promised land. “Numbers” – from the Greek translation of the Bible — is a narrower title, and refers to the census that takes up the bulk of this parsha and to another census at the end of the book as the Israelites prepare to enter the promised land.

In this week’s parsha, God commands Moses to take a census of the Israelites, by tribe, which he does with the help of a designated leader from each tribe. The parsha reports the number of adult men (aged 20 through 60, basically men capable of fighting in battle) in each tribe, which adds up to a total of 603,550 adult men. The community as a whole – adding in women, children, and the elderly – probably adds up to at least 1.5 million.

Moses-census

A 19th century imagining of the census: Engraving by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux (1815–1884)

God assigns specific campsites to each tribe on the four sides of the tent of meeting, where God abides while the Israelites travel through the desert. God also assigns them specific marching spots.

God excludes the Levites from the census and gives them a special status of being in charge of setting up, dismantling and carrying all the equipment for the tent of meeting. The Levites receive this special designation as a follow-up to a condition that God set back in Egypt. When God killed all the first-born of the Egyptians, s/he told Moses that the first-born sons and cattle of the Israelites should be consecrated  to God in recompense. Here God tells Moses to have the Levites stand in as replacements for all those Jewish first-born.

Stepping back to think about this parsha, why all this attention to numbers and to organizational structure?

One way to view this census is creating order out of chaos. As the Israelites travel through the silent, empty desert, they find it a place of reflection, for hearing the voice of God, and purging old, unwanted slave ways of being, but they also find it a place of confusion, anarchy, and despair. (As we see in their frequent wails to return to Egypt and in the chaotic episode of the Golden Calf.)

It’s a place of silence and emptiness. But as humans, we need structure and order in our lives.

We need a structure to our time. Those of us with children in their 20s – or those of us who can remember our own 20s – know how disorienting it can be to finish college, the first time in our lives we are without the structure of classes and homework.

Or looking at the other end of the age spectrum, retirement. It can be disorienting, even depressing, to suddenly find oneself without the familiar structure and demands of paid work. One response is to seek out new structures – volunteer commitments, weekly babysitting for grandchildren, adult ed classes or gym routines, as a way to provide structure to all that open time.

Think about the Israelites. They came from an even more structured world than we live in — a world of slavery, where every aspect of their time and life was determined by others. And suddenly they are in the desert, no hierarchy, no structure, no knowledge of where exactly they are going or how long it will take to get there. We can only imagine how disoriented they felt, and how reassuring it must have been to know at least where in the line they were supposed to march and where they were to set up camp.

Along with the structure of time, we also crave the structure of community – feeling that we belong to something more intimate than “homo sapiens.”

On the most intimate level, that means being part of a family, a couple, or a close friendship circle. Many of us, including myself, take pleasure these days in trying to deepen our knowledge of our families through genealogy. We are doing our own kind of census, but one that goes back in time – identifying as many great-great-great grandparents and far-flung cousins as we can.

Then there are the less intimate ways that we sort ourselves into communities – we’re Jews, or Democrats and Republicans, or Warriors fans, or Grateful Dead heads, or African-Americans, or yoga practitioners, or Oakland Tech parents, or Star Trek fans.

Being part of a tribe helps us feel rooted and less alone in the desert. It gives us a sense of connection with others — shared joy at successes, shared sorrow at setbacks.

But it also has its risks. Today, our modern version of tribalism has run amok. People from the coasts talk contemptuously about flyover country. (Guilty!) People who watch Fox News disregard anything that challenges their world-view as “fake news.” Many white people refuse to acknowledge the historical pain of African-Americans. A vicious nationalism that targets minority groups like Jews and Muslims is spreading in Europe. The president of the United States reduces everything to an “us versus them” smackdown with taunts and bullying. And I don’t even want to start about the damage done by “tribal” identities in today’s Middle East. These things all represent the dark side of tribal identity.

In Bamidbar, Moses takes a census by tribe but he also records the names of each individual person.

“On the first day of the second month, they convoked the whole company, who were registered by the clans of their ancestral houses – the names of those aged twenty and over being listed head by head. As the Eternal had commanded Moses, so he listed them in the wilderness of Sinai.”

Yes, the census records just the adult men: This is yet another place in the Bible where we have to sigh and make allowances for it as a historical text from a time of unquestioned patriarchy. (I don’t quite know how Moses could have managed to record 603,000 names, but we can let that go too.)

The key thing is that in addition to recognizing tribes, he is recognizing individuals.

Think about how validating this must have been for those Israelite men – former slaves, with no rights to own property or enter legal contracts or even determine what they were going to do when they woke up in the morning, now being asked to step forward and state their name for God and the world to hear. It sent a message to the Israelites that each individual was important and autonomous and valued.

To us, it also sends a message of diversity within community. They are part of a tribe, but they are also individuals.

Take a moment and think about the tribal boxes that you mentally put people in. Nearly all of us do it – I certainly do, even if I don’t do it intentionally.

“All those Trump voters.”

“All those cops.”

“All those Arabs.”

“All those tech bro’s.”

“All those gun owners.”

Let’s stop here and think. What boxes do you lump people into?

The next time you are tempted to do that, remember they are individuals. Part of a tribe, yes, but also an individual name. Each with her or his own story – their own aspirations and loves and hidden wounds. With individual reasons for the choices they make and lives they lead.

Think of them as individuals like yourself. Don’t do this just because it’s the warm and fuzzy thing to do, but because it’s true. And it will determine the success of your interactions with others, whether those are individual conversations or political campaign strategies.

It’s how God and Moses viewed the Israelites – members of tribes but also unique individuals. Each of us should aim to do the same.

Shabbat shalom.

 

Visiting Jebenhausen and its Jewish Museum

May 13, 2019

My mother’s family came from Germany in the mid-1800s.  In the course of pursuing my genealogy addiction – oops, I mean research — I’ve identified three of their villages of origin. 

For two of those villages, Markt Erlbach and Mitwitz, I’ve found little or no information about the historic Jewish community. 

The third village – Jebenhausen, about 27 miles east of Stuttgart – is a jackpot.

Scholars have written articles and books on the Jews of Jebenhausen. The Jewish cemetery there is well preserved and documented. There is even a museum devoted to the Jews of Jebenhausen!

These resources were all easily accessible to me. I didn’t have to learn German or spend weeks sifting through dusty, hard-to-decipher handwritten archives. There are many people to thank for this, including other Jewish descendants who’ve shared their knowledge, Christian residents who restored the town’s Jewish cemetery after the Holocaust, and more. 

But the wealth of information is mostly due to the work of two men – Rabbi Aron Tänzer and Dr. Karl-Heinz Ruess.

Tänzer (1871-1937) was the last rabbi in Göppingen, a larger neighboring town that eventually subsumed the village of Jebenhausen.  Among his  many accomplishments was a 662-page history of the Jews of Jebenhausen and Göppingen, which included family trees. It’s because of Rabbi Tänzer’s charts that I’m able to trace my Jebenhausen family line back to the 1700s.

Portrait of Rabbi Aron Tänzer in the Jewish Museum

Dr. Ruess is the museum director for Göppingen, who decided to create a Jewish museum there in 1985 – a time when even big cities like Berlin and Munich didn’t yet have a Jewish museum. 

Because of Dr. Ruess’s efforts, the life and eventual destruction of Jebenhausen’s Jewish community is documented far beyond what one might expect for a town whose Jewish population never passed 600. 

Last month, my husband Sam and I traveled to Germany to visit our daughter, who was doing an artist’s residency in Berlin. It was our first time in Germany. Ten years ago, before I started doing genealogy, I’d never even heard of Jebenhausen. Now, I eagerly arranged a rental car for the day-long drive south to visit it.

Our first stop was the museum, located in a decommissioned one-room Protestant church.

The museum’s location in the church is part of its story. 

In 1777, the barons who controlled the village of Jebenhausen agreed in writing to allow a small number of Jews – initially just 20 families – to move there. In return, the Jews paid them annual “protection fees.” Over the next fifty years, the Jewish community grew to a peak of 550 people, about equal to the Christian population of 600. 

Exhibit in the Göppingen Jewish Museum showing the 1777 document that allowed Jews to settle in Jebenhausen. Note the Hebrew signatures on the right.

Then in the mid-1800s, Jews started moving out of Jebenhausen – many to America, like my ancestors, and others to larger German towns that offered more industrial infrastructure and economic opportunity. By 1900, there were so few Jews left that the synagogue was closed and the chandeliers and pews were donated to the local church.

By the 1980s, that church had also been closed and turned over to the city of Göppingen. Dr. Ruess realized that the state of Baden-Württemburg had over 1,000 museums but not a single one focused on Judaism. With the synagogue’s furnishings already in the church, he convinced city officials to turn it into the Gföppingen Jewish Museum, which opened in 1992.

Dr. Ruess met us at the museum and guided us through, which was helpful since the labels for the exhibits don’t – yet – have English translations. It includes sections on Jewish holidays and rituals, the growth of the Jebenhausen and Göppingen Jewish communities, and their destruction under Nazism, told movingly through stories and photos of some of the individuals who were killed or displaced. 

The synagogue chandeliers and pews are still there, along with portraits of the barons who first opened Jebenhausen to Jews. Among the artifacts is a colorful hanging sign of King David with a lyre that marked the King David Inn, the first of several Jebenhausen inns serving Jewish travelers in the 1800s.

Me with the King David Inn sign in the Göppingen Jewish Museum

After touring the museum, Dr. Ruess led us on a walk through what used to be the Jewish section of the village. The main street still exists – now paved and busy with automobiles, while back then it would have been dirt and horse carts. Many of the original houses still line it, although most have been updated with third floors, modern windows, new siding, etc. 

The main street of the onetime Jewish section of Jebenhausen / Photo by Ilana DeBare

To be honest, it felt less like a historic street than a modest, nondescript European suburb. It would be easy to drive down the street and not be aware of its past. But Dr. Ruess pointed out where the Jewish communal institutions used to stand – the synagogue, the school, the large house built by the Jewish community to accommodate families who were too poor to build their own houses.

The rabbi’s residence was still standing. And next door to it – also still standing, although a victim of some unfortunate remodel decisions – was the house that belonged to my ancestors.

The rabbi’s house (yellow) and the house that belonged to my Einstein ancestors (brown/grey) / Photo by Ilana DeBare
Community housing for poor families, around 1870-80
Jebenhausen synagogue, around 1890

My great-great grandparents Rosa Einstein and Salomon Wormser – the ones who brought those two silver kiddush cups with them to the U.S. – met and married in Jebenhausen in 1866. According to Tänzer’s book, the house at Poststrasse 103 was occupied by Rosa’s family members from 1842 through 1865. Rosa would probably have grown up there. 

Some of Jebenhausen’s Jewish residents took advantage of opportunities created by the start of industrial development in the early 1800s. Rosa’s family, like many others, became involved in the new, growing textile industry. Her father, Salomon Einstein, started a weaving mill together with his brother Joseph Leopold Einstein in 1842, and in 1852 the brothers opened another factory that manufactured corsets.  

Salomon Wormser wasn’t from Jebenhausen, but Tänzer says he was a partner in the corset factory. He was much younger than the Einstein brothers: In 1860, he would have been 23, while the brothers were around 60. Perhaps he boarded with the Einsteins. 

Did Salomon and Rosa fall in love in the Einstein home while he learned the corset business from her father and uncle? Or was their marriage a calculated economic move – partners cementing a business relationship, or an ambitious young man angling to marry the boss’s daughter? 

We’ll never know. But an unpublished memoir by my uncle Ira Skutch offers a glimpse of Rosa and Salomon’s relationship decades later in New York, where he became a corset importer. (Presumably developing a new market for the family business.)

As my grandmother told Ira:

“Grandma and Grandpa used to fight and bicker all the time. She didn’t use his first name or ‘Mister’ – she never called him anything but ‘Wormser.’ He had a pair of old brown shoes that he wore all the time because they were comfortable. Grandma kept at him constantly to get a new pair, until he finally couldn’t stand the nagging any more. When he returned from the store he said to Grandma, ‘All right. I have new shoes. But I’m going to keep these old ones, and I’m going to wear them to your funeral.’ And he did.”

Rosa and Salomon were hardly the only young Jews to leave Jebenhausen. Neighboring Göppingen had a river, which made it a better site for manufacturing. And America offered an escape from the anti-Semitism that was deeply ingrained in German society. 

Between 1830 and 1870, 300 Jews from Jebenhausen emigrated to the U.S. – such a dramatic exodus that one scholar wrote an article titled “From Württemburg to America: A Nineteenth Century German-Jewish Village on its Way to the New World.”

Dr. Ruess shows a chart tracking the rise and decline of the Jewish populations of Jebenhausen (left) and Goppingen / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Today the only Jewish denizens of Jebenhausen are the ones resting underground. We followed Dr. Ruess up the street, about ten minutes past the Einstein home, to the Jewish cemetery. There he directed us to the graves of Salomon and Babette Gutmann Einstein, Rosa’s parents. We also found the grave of my oldest known Jebenhausen foremother – Rifke Einstein, who was Rosa’s great-grandmother and thus my 5th great-grandmother (my great-great-great-great-great grandmother). 

Rifke was born in 1733 and died in 1817, part of the first generation of Jews to move to Jebenhausen. We don’t know her maiden name or anything else about her. She may mark the outer limits of how far I can trace my family, at least with the currently available digital resources.

One of the striking things about my Jebenhausen family history is how it mirrors the broader trends in German Jewish history, as described in Amos Elon’s excellent book, The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933.

Placing my family’s story within these broad brush strokes:

Before Napoleon’s conquest of Germany in the early 1800s, Jews were completely excluded from German society. They were barred from owning land and from entering skilled trades and professions. They were prohibited from living in many cities.

The first Jewish families who settled in Jebenhausen were cattle traders and peddlers, two of the few occupations open to Jews. Their houses were built by local Christian craftsmen, since Jews were not allowed to practice trades such as carpentry.

Until the 19thcentury, German Jews often did not have surnames and were known simply as “Isaac son of David” or “David son of Salomon.” (This poses obvious challenges for tracing family history.)

In Jebenhausen, Jews made an active decision to adopt surnames around 1818-20, earlier than in some other parts of Germany. Tänzer quotes an 1818 letter from two Jewish leaders to local officials: 

“Royal esteemed district office: There are several family fathers (heads of household) without a family surname and that has caused many disputes, and also created difficulties in recording the Jewish families in the noble books. We therefore have initiated that every Jewish Family should establish a permanent family surname. We therefore request to publicly distribute the following list of newly adopted surnames, so the nuisance of having two or three of the same name will finally stop.” 

As German Jews won more economic and social freedom through the 1800s, they increasingly identified with and assimilated into German culture. 

The gravestones of the Jebenhausen cemetery reflect this gradual assimilation of Jews into German society. The oldest stones like Rifke’s are entirely in Hebrew. Salomon Einstein’s mid-century stone is mostly Hebrew, but his name is also written in German letters. Then there are stones from the early 1900s that are entirely in German, like Christian gravestones of that time. 

The exodus of Jews from Jebenhausen to Göppingen and Stuttgart reflected the larger movement of Jews to urban areas through the 19th century, as Germany industrialized and cities dropped their restrictions on Jewish residency.

And of course the decimation of the Göppingen Jewish community during the Holocaust mirrored the fate of German Jewry overall.  Although Rosa Einstein moved to America, several of her siblings stayed behind. Some of their descendants – my distant cousins – died in concentration camps. As I wrote in an earlier blog post, one of them was Fritz Elsas, a former mayor of Berlin and part of the liberal opposition to Hitler. 

No one in my family was aware of these distant relations. I never knew until exploring my Jebenhausen roots that we had relatives who died in the Holocaust. 

There are so many factors that shape our lives – our parents’ economic class and social milieu, the values with which they raise us, the schools we attend and the friends we make. If any of those were different, I would be a different person.

But sometimes I feel that all those factors are dwarfed by a single decision made 150 years ago by people I never knew – the decision by Salomon Wormser and Rosa Einstein to move from Jebenhausen to America.

Postscript: In my last blog post, I promised to disclose my connection to that other Einstein — the one who didn’t sell corsets. Albert, who was born 38 miles away from Jebenhausen in Ulm, is apparently my fifth cousin, three times removed. Don’t ask me to detail the path. My head will explode.


IMG_3139

My daughter, me, and Dr. Ruess in front of the Göppingen Jewish Museum

I’d like to express my deep thanks to Dr. Ruess for his work on the museum and on the history of Jebenhausen’s Jews, and to other Jebenhausen descendants who have helped piece together the community’s story. 

In particular, thank you to Stephen Weil of Chicago – a descendant of Rosa Einstein’s sister Ricke and thus my fourth cousin – who recently commissioned an English translation of Rabbi Tanzer’s book that is available for free online through the Leo Baeck Institute.

Resources on the Jews of Jebenhausen

Jews in Jebenhausen and Göppingen– short online article with pictures on Edjewnet.com

History of the Jews Residing in Jebenhausen and Goppingen– English translation of the 1927 book by Rabbi Aaron Tanzer, in the archives of the Leo Baeck Institute.

From Württemburg to America: A German-Jewish Village on its Way to the New World– 1989 article by Stefan Rohrbacher in American Jewish Archives.

Göppingen Jewish Museum – hours of operation and contact information (in German)

Next blog post: The stories of some of my other recently-discovered German ancestors. They include two New World tragedies.

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The genealogy drug

May 9, 2019

I don’t smoke tobacco. I don’t patronize California’s newly-legal marijuana industry. I drink, but only a little.

I do genealogy.

Filling in my family tree has been an occasional obsession in recent years. It goes in fits and starts. When I first signed up for Ancestry.com, I wallowed in the deluge of information about past relatives, some of whom I’d barely heard of. Then I hit a point of diminishing returns and stopped. Several years later I checked back in, found new leads – Ancestry and the other genealogy web sites continually digitize new records – and re-immersed myself. 

When I’m not in one of these immersion phases, I barely think about genealogy. But when I’m “on,” it does feel a bit like a drug.

There’s a visceral thrill in adding data to the family tree – a new relative, or a new factoid about a relative. It’s the same small exhilaration as filling in a crossword clue, or finding the missing piece in a jigsaw puzzle. There’s a rush of dopamine pleasure.  You feel the rush… and you want to do it again… and again… and again… 

Screenshot of part of my tree on Ancestry.com

Of course there’s no end. For every third cousin you add to the tree, there is a spouse. There are the spouse’s parents. There are the spouse’s parents’ siblings, and their spouses, and their children, and those children’s spouses… Some of the people I ve encountered on Ancestry have family trees with 30,000 people in them. 

Thirty thousand people in your family tree! I’ll never go that far. My approach is more like driving with headlights at night: I only want to see a reasonable distance away. Still, I understand the temptation. When you’ve added every detail you can find about your great-grandmother, why not add her brothers? And then the brothers’ spouses. And then those spouses’ siblings… 

But what underlies the druggy rush? Some of it is simply a compulsion for order, like straightening my sock drawer. Ahh, every relative accounted for! Every sock paired with its mate, even if only for a day!

More existentially, it feels like pushing back a curtain of darkness. Pushing back the curtain of how much we don’t understand, and will never understand, about our world and our history. Even if we are only pushing that curtain a nano-centimeter.

Growing up, I had very little information about my ancestors. As a child I knew three of my four grandparents, all of whom were born in New York. Beyond that, I understood we were Jewish – and we came from Europe sometime in the 1800s – but that was all. There were no relatives still living overseas, no handed-down stories about “the old country.” I was 100 percent American, and might as well have sprung fully grown like Venus from a seashell. To the extent I imagined my immigrant ancestors, they were stereotypes from Hollywood – Tevye and Goldie in Fiddler on the Roof, trudging mournfully from Anatevka towards the promised land of America.

Not my family

Nothing. Darkness. My family story – and by extension the narrative I told myself about where I fit into history – began around 1890 in New York. Nothing before that.

Internal narrative is what this is about. Externally, it makes no difference: Things like race and social class are much more determinative of how the world treats me than the identity of my great-great-great-great grandparents. But internally I do tell myself a story about who my ancestors were, and what different paths my life could have taken, and by extension who I am, and it matters very much where that story begins. 

An American story that begins in 1890 is different from one that begins before the Civil War in the era of slavery.

An immigrant story that begins in sweatshop poverty is different from one that starts with middle-class tradespeople or business owners. 

A Jewish story that takes place wholly in 20th century America is different from one that has parallel narratives in America and Nazi Germany.

If you’ll indulge me, over the next several blog posts I’ll share what I’ve learned about my ancestors’ lives through this geneology addiction. My family doesn’t have any royalty or mass murderers,* but it is far more interesting and unexpected than I imagined back in the days when all I envisioned was Fiddler on the Roof.


*Spoiler: It turns out we do have a very distant connection to Albert Einstein, but that is less interesting than other things I found. 

A Tale of Two Kiddish Cups

April 15, 2019

Each Passover, I polish two silver kiddish cups from my mother’s family for our Seder table.

As a child, I never paid the cups any attention: They were just part of the fancy silverware that my mom kept in the dining room credenza. As an adult, I knew they were heirlooms but had no idea where they came from. The cups were engraved, but no one knew what the inscriptions and initials meant.

Our two heirloom kiddish cups / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Then, over the past five years, I started exploring my family history through online resources like Ancestry.com and Jewishgen.org. I discovered that the kiddush cups – and part of my family – have their roots in the Bavarian towns of Jebenhausen and Goppingen.

One line of my mother’s family – my Wormser and Einstein ancestors – emigrated from Jebenhausen to the United States in 1868.  They brought the cups with them.

Here’s what I know about their story:

On June 10, 1868, a young family made up of Salomon Wormser, Rosa (Rachle) Einstein Wormser, and their one-year-old son Max sailed out of Hamburg on a ship called the Holsatia. 

Salomon was 31 years old and Rosa was 23. They had been married two years earlier in Jebenhausen, then moved to Stuttgart where they had Max before departing for America. 

The taller silver cup bears the initials SW – which presumably refers to Salomon Wormser. I suspect it was a wedding present when he and Rosa were married. 

The smaller cup bears the inscription “Zum andenken von S. Landauer,” which is German for “a souvenir of S. Lindauer.” As I learned more about my family tree, I saw that Rosa had a sister – Sara Einstein – who married a man named Salomon Lindauer in 1861 in Jebenhausen. My guess is that this cup was a memento from that wedding: Perhaps the couple or their parents gave commemorative cups to the people closest to them.

Our Lindauer kiddush cup / Photo by Ilana DeBare

But back to the story of Salomon Wormser, Rosa, and Max. Twelve days after they set sail from Hamburg, they arrived in New York.  On July 23, 1869, they had a second son – Louis Wormser, who ultimately became my great grandfather.

In New York, Salomon ran a corset importing business – probably buying inventory from family and friends in Jebenhausen, which had an active corset manufacturing industry. He was not wealthy but not poor either. The fact that his family could buy silver kiddush cups as wedding gifts indicates they had some resources, as does the fact that Salomon emigrated together with his wife and baby son. (German Jewish men from poor families typically emigrated alone, and married or sent for their wives only after they had established some financial security in America.)

Census records list the occupation of Louis Wormser, my great grandfather, as a manufacturer of children’s clothing.  My mother knew him as “Papa Lou,” but he died long before I was born. Lou’s daughter was my grandmother Ethel. When she died, the cups were passed on to my mother and then, with my mother’s death, to me.

My great-great grandmother Rosa Wormser’s grave marker in Westchester County, New York

When Salomon and Rosa traveled across the ocean to start a new life in America, these cups must have been a precious reminder of home and the loved ones they left behind.

The tall SW cup is interesting in that the pictures encircling it are not traditional Jewish religious images. Cherubs and dragons, they’re more typical of German Romantic imagery. To me, they indicate how German Jews of the mid-1800s identified with German culture and aspired to be part of German society. They held the same ideas about beauty and art as their Christian neighbors. Yet Jewish efforts to assimilate into German society in the 19th century were consistently rebuffed: Even if they converted to Christianity, even if they served in the German military, they were not accepted as “real” Germans.

(For a masterful and readable history of German Jewry during this era, see The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933, by Amos Elon.)

Just last week, noodling around with my online family tree, I started wondering about the line of the family that stayed behind — in particular, the descendants of the “S. Lindauer” on my cup.

It turns out that Salomon Lindauer and Sara Einstein had a daughter Bertha, who married a man named Julius Elsas. They in turn had a son named Fritz Julius Elsas. Born in 1890 in Stuttgart, Fritz converted to Christianity like many Jews of that era who aspired to acceptance in Germany society. He studied politics and law and married a Christian woman of Jewish descent.

Elsas entered politics – running briefly for mayor of Stuttgart but then withdrawing because of anti-Semitic attacks. In 1931 he was elected mayor of Berlin by the city council there, but had to resign his position when the Nazis took power.

Because of his “privileged mixed marriage,” Elsas didn’t face the same persecution as other German Jews, according to an informative biographical article in Ha’aretz. He became involved in the liberal resistance to Hitler, writing secret position papers to help plan for a post-Hitler Germany.

In the wake of the 1944 failed attempt to assassinate Hitler, Elsas was rounded up with many others in the German resistance. He was executed in Sachsenhausen concentration camp in December 1945.

Elsas would have been my grandmother’s second cousin — thus my second cousin twice removed. He and my grandmother shared the same great-grandparents. But my American branch of the family long ago lost touch with the German branches. Until delving into genealogy, I never knew we had relatives who remained in Germany or who died in the Holocaust.

This spring, my daughter Becca is living in Berlin and working on a creative project that involves our family history. I polished the kiddish cups early this year, so I could send photos of them to a small Jewish museum in Jebenhausen, which we will visit when we go see her.

This Friday evening, the cups will again be placed on our Seder table — but with more levels of meaning than before. Initially a memento of my childhood, they’ve also become a connection with my German Jewish origins, with those 1860s ancestors who decided to move to America, and with the distant branch of the family that did not make such a fortunate decision.

Canon of Thrones

April 4, 2019

If George R.R. Martin rewrote the classics of English literature a la Game of Thrones…

Pride and Prejudice and Dragons

Illustration by Rebecca Schuchat

Pride and Prejudice

Elizabeth Bennett is engaged to Fitzwilliam Darcy, but Darcy’s aunt Lady Catherine de Bourgh disapproves and hires mercenaries from the Golden Company to slaughter the entire engagement party. Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte Lucas vows revenge, travels across the sea to apprentice with a cult of assassins, and decapitates Lady Catherine with a garden rake.

Mrs. Dalloway

Clarissa Dalloway is throwing a party, and her daughter’s tutor, a religious enthusiast, tells her the party will fail unless she sacrifices her daughter to the Lord of Light in a ritual bonfire. The daughter is burned at the stake in Regent’s Park but white walkers nonetheless descend upon the party, eat all the canapés, and then eat the guests. The party is not a success.

The Great Gatsby

Daisy and Gatsby, brother and sister, are happily committing incest when Daisy’s power-hungry father forces her to wed Tom. Tom is in love with Myrtle and launches an armed insurgency to defend Myrtle’s honor from Rhaegon, even though Myrtle is secretly married to Rhaegon. Myrtle and Rhaegon die but first have a secret son who ends up sleeping with Rhaegon’s baby sister. Yep, just another wild Roaring 20s party at West Egg.

Beloved

Sethe and her family are freed from slavery by Daenerys Stormborn, Mother of Dragons. But Sethe’s daughter Beloved is chopped into tiny bits by vengeful Sons of the Harpy and becomes a ghost. Sethe falls in love with Grey Worm, a eunuch who is the only other dark-skinned character in the entire universe. Together they feed the Sons of the Harpy to very large and hungry dogs.

On the Road

Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty travel across the country for kicks. On the way, they each lose a leg, an eye, an arm, and their manly parts. They eat rats. They sleep in mud. They get buboes. When they finish their journey, Sal publishes a best-selling epic poem about it, “The ’47 Cadillac of Castermere.” Dean poisons him. He dies.

To Kill A Mockingbird

When white lawyer Atticus Finch defends a black man accused of rape, his daughter Scout is ostracized and attacked. Mysterious neighbor Boo Radley summons dragons to rescue her and they incinerate Maycomb, Alabama. Everyone dies.

Catcher in the Rye

Holden Caulfield is expelled from the Night’s Watch and wanders around north of the wall with his direwolf, expressing disgust with the hypocrisy of feudal society. His sister Phoebe follows a one-eyed raven to find him, but they are ambushed by white walkers. Everyone dies.

Of Mine and Men and Dragons

Illustration by Rebecca Schuchat

Of Mice and Men

Lenny pets the puppy. It’s actually a dragon. Everyone dies.

The Road

A father and son travel through a bleak post-apocalyptic landscape. Reaching the sea, they find a fleet of tall ships heading to Westeros. The father turns out to be an ace swordsman. The son discovers a hidden talent for baiting bears. They sail away, help Daenerys Stormborn win the throne, and marry princesses. Nobody dies.

Revision superpowers

February 20, 2019

When I was a kid, I read a lot of DC superhero comics – Superman leaping tall buildings with a single bound, Batman with his masked identity, The Flash with his superhuman speed, Wonder Woman with her Amazon strength and magical accessories.

I’m currently revising a set of two novels. Revision is the least fun part of writing for me. Basically, I hate it. So sometimes I wish I had a set of Revision Superpowers:

X-ray vision

Even when we know something is a rough draft, the words assume a stubborn permanence once they’re on paper. How do we view our manuscripts with the critical insight of an outside observer? How do we get beyond what is, to what could be? X-ray vision would let us see through the black ink on the page to the better novel hidden within – to find fresher and more precise language, tighter plot lines, and undeveloped themes.

Superman-Look_Up_in_the_Sky

By Alex Ross/ DC Comics

Flight

Flying would let us hover at 10,000 feet and see our manuscript as a whole – its structure, flow, and themes. The cliché is that we get stuck “in the weeds,” but it’s less like being in ankle-high weeds than being in a 10-foot-high cornfield. You spend days tinkering with a handful of words on a single page when you should be reshaping the work as a whole. It’s hard to hold 300 to 400 pages in your field of vision from ground level. Up, up, and away!

Laser beams

I don’t care if they shoot out of my fingertips or if I have to pull a weapon out of my utility belt. But I’d like a super-sharp beam to slice away clichés and unnecessary, qualifying language. Burn away all those instances of “suddenly” and “somewhat” and “seemed to.”

Super hearing

Does the dialogue work? Does the writing flow smoothly? Reading passages out loud can help assess that, and you don’t need super hearing to do it.

Flash

Speed

When I recently needed to rename a character, I realized we have one kind of super-speed already: It’s called Search and Replace. But in a larger sense, I wish we could tear through the overall revision process like The Flash, making it a matter of weeks rather than months or years. We can’t. It sucks. Live with it.

Sidekicks

Robin saved the day when Batman was trapped. His butler Alfred made sure he had a hot meal after a bout of crimefighting. Turn to beta readers for help when you need a new perspective on your manuscript. And have an Alfred or two in your life who can nourish you and cheer you on.

ww1

Magic bracelets

Superheroes don’t hide in bunkers. You’ve got to be open to criticism of your work, even if it feels like incoming missiles. But self-doubt and self-loathing aren’t helpful. Wonder Woman used her magic bracelets to deflect gunfire; we need them to deflect those internal bullets that scream,“You’re a miserable failure, you’ll never be any good at this, go back to writing Facebook posts about your cat.”

Secret identity

Mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent didn’t have the strength to lift mountains. But in his Superman alter ego, he did it all the time. Much of the work of revision seems impossible – eliminating big chunks of plot, replacing characters, even reconsidering the basic premise of your story. When you feel daunted and powerless against the heavy lifting of revision, it’s time to assume the secret identity that allows you to Do Anything. Put on the lycra tights and flowing cape – cue the trumpets or drums – it’s Super Revision Writer!


What else? Are there other Revision Superpowers you wish you had? Or that you already possess and are putting to good use? Tell us about the secret gadgets and vehicles in your Revision Batcave.

 

Justice_League

Protecting your manuscript from the forces of evil

 

The empty nest re-fills and re-empties

February 4, 2019

The nest is empty. Again.

My daughter moved back home from New York last September, about two years after graduating college. It was a temporary although open-ended move: She wanted to live rent-free while applying for artist residencies in Germany.

I had trepidations. I write at home and rely on an empty house free of distractions. Since leaving my job last January, I’d chugged along with the first draft of my novel as steadily as a railway worker laying track. I was worried that having her around would mess that up.

But home she came. And mostly – 90 percent – it was great.

Empty birds nest

This was the first time she’d lived with us for an extended period since high school. And delightfully she was no longer a high school student! None of the surly, oppositional stance of a teenager. She was funny, talkative, interested in doing stuff with us, and good about keeping the kitchen clean and confining her mess to her own room. She cooked (excellent) dinners. She made progress on the work goals she’d set for herself – the residency applications, creating a portfolio web site, doing her creative projects etc.

BUT.

We were both working at home. All day, every day. This was more time than we have spent in each other’s presence since her first year of life, when I was on maternity leave and she hadn’t yet started day care!

My preferred routine is to get up early, go to the gym around 7 a.m., and be on my computer by 9 or 9:30. Meanwhile she’d be in bed with the cat until 11:30. It drove me nuts. Was she working? Was she watching YouTube videos? Everything she did seemed to take much longer than it would take me. I flailed around in the swamp between Trust and Verify. I tried not to constantly ask, “SO? What are you working on? Have you finished your ______?” but I did end up asking that a lot, which probably drove her nuts too.

There were pleasant distractions as well as irritating ones. She’d ask me to accompany her shopping, and of course I’d say yes. She’d want to go to the gym mid-day and I’d do that with her, even though it broke up my writing momentum. I don’t regret those interruptions – she’s only here for a short while, enjoy the time with her– but it meant I often felt less productive than I like.

There’s a kind of a worry sub-routine that runs under the other programs of my brain when she’s living with us. I suspect this is true for many parents, particularly mothers: It’s 11 p.m., is she still out with her friends? Did she write that thank-you note to her great-aunt yet? Has she made a dentist appointment?

When she was living 3,000 miles away, that sub-routine shut off. I didn’t know or care where she was at 11 p.m. I assumed she would manage her life, and she did. But then she moved home, and the sub-routine kicked back in. Unnecessary, vestigial, irrational, but there it was — stressful and distracting for me, and annoying for her.

Spending so much time around each other reminded me of when she was an infant.  We’d be home together all day, skin against skin, nursing and fussing and nursing and fussing, and sometimes by 5 p.m. I felt like we couldn’t stand to touch each other any more. Thankfully that was when Sam would show up, fresh and calm, and I could hand her off.

In any event, when she was accepted into a three-month residency program in Berlin, I was thrilled. It’s a great opportunity for her, it will allow me to reenter my lovely hermitlike work mode, and it will also give us some distance from each other. Good for everyone! By last week, I was eagerly counting the days until her flight and looking forward to having time alone with Sam again.

But then in the past few days, I started to feel separation anxiety. Was she packing everything she’ll need? Does she know what to do if someone follows her in the street? Does she have dental floss? I wanted to hover but she wanted to be left alone. I felt rejected and jagged and weepy.

Just like when we dropped her off at college six and a half years ago.

Today I dropped her at the International Terminal of SFO. Which meant it was time to:

Get all this off my chest.

Turn the sub-routine off.

Get back to work!

The art of the canvass

November 5, 2018

For many years I was a newspaper reporter and didn’t allow myself even the teensiest involvement in electoral politics. No campaign buttons, no bumper stickers, no lawn signs. I didn’t go as far as former Washington Post editor Len Downie, who famously didn’t allow himself even to vote, but I made every effort to show no bias that could be held against my newspaper and its news coverage. This was and still is standard practice in daily newspapers in the U.S., and it’s part of what is so disgusting about Trump and the right wing’s attacks on “biased mainstream media.” Every reporter I worked with over the years made scrupulous efforts to set aside their personal biases – for we all have them – and report in a fair and factual manner, even about politicans they personally found awful.

I wish I could sit down one-to-one with Fox News viewers and explain this to them. We try really, really hard to be fair. This is not a joke or a smokescreen. Journalists are individual people – people like your family, friends, neighbors – working our butts off and taking our responsibility as information providers in a democracy very seriously.

Anyway.

In 2008, I left my last newspaper job in one of the waves of news industry downsizing. I put an Obama bumper sticker on my car. Hooray! Amidst the sadness of leaving my profession, I was a citizen with a public voice again!

In 2012, I did one short round of phone banking for Obama. It was not enjoyable. It was the end of the campaign, and either people weren’t home or they didn’t want to hear from the 432nd person calling them.

In 2016, I went to Las Vegas and did a weekend of door-to-door canvassing for Clinton. It was fascinating, educational, and fun.

This fall, I’ve done a bunch of canvassing for Democratic candidates in swing districts in California’s Central Valley – four days for Josh Harder in Congressional District 10 (near Modesto) and this past weekend for T.J. Cox in CD 21 (south of Fresno).

IMG_1826

Getting ready to canvass at Josh Harder’s campaign headquarters in Modesto

Door-to-door canvassing took a little bit of attitude adjustment for me. With a graduate degree and 30+ years of experience in newspapers and nonprofits, I didn’t want to just be a “worker bee.” It felt wasteful to not be using my writing skills or organizational knowledge. But I wasn’t prepared to put in the months of time required for a higher-level role in a campaign, and what these campaigns needed was worker bees. So… off I buzzed.

If you’ve never canvassed, it can seem scary – talking to strangers! What if they disagree with you? What if they yell at you? But the scariness quickly wears off. Maybe two or three out of every ten households are actually at home. You become so happy to get a live person at the door that it almost doesn’t matter if they support the other candidate. And by and large, people are civil if not friendly. The campaign doesn’t want you wasting time on fruitless arguments with diehards for the other side: Your job is to talk to the undecided, identify supporters, and make sure those supporters fill out their mail ballots or go to the polls.

IMG_1950

Sign at T.J. Cox’s campaign office in Hanford (CD21)

Canvassing is exhausting. Like going to a zoo or a museum, you may not be covering a lot of miles, but you are on your feet all day. There is also an up-and-down rhythm of stress. You approach a door and your adrenaline rises: Will there be anyone home? Will they want to talk with me? What will I say? No one answers, and your adrenaline level plummets. Then you walk thirty feet to the next house, and the process starts all over again.

In a day of canvassing, there are usually one or two encounters that stand out and make it worthwhile. On one trip to Modesto, I managed to help a Latino voter sign up for an absentee ballot entirely in (my very poor) Spanish. On another trip, I met a single father of four who had volunteered on the Clinton campaign and who offered to volunteer on Josh Harder’s campaign. I met an elderly Filipina who gave me her absentee ballot to turn in – saving her a trip to the post office, and ensuring it wouldn’t get lost or forgotten – and who told me she was praying for Harder every day.

IMG_1925

My friends Monica and Lindsey canvassing in Modesto (CD10)

IMG_1773

Canvassing with my neighbor Leslie in Turlock (CD10)

In our trip this past weekend to CD21, my friend Beth had a string of luck meeting 18-year-olds who had never voted and weren’t yet registered. She let them know that in California, you can register all the way through election day if you go to the county elections office! They were thrilled to be able to vote – exchanged fist bumps with her – and she racked up another three or four votes for T.J. Cox.

One of the highlights for me of canvassing this year was doing it with various configurations of friends – one trip with the women in my writing group, another with my next-door neighbor, others with Jewish women friends, not all of whom knew each other before the canvass trip. Carpooling to the swing districts provided rare down-time to catch up, share life stories, and learn about each other. Navigating unfamiliar neighborhoods and working through our “turf” together was a bonding experience. On our CD21 trip, the five of us stayed at a wonderful Air B&B on an organic peach farm in Dinuba, and got a tour of the farm from owner Mike Naylor.

Consider election-season canvassing for your next “girls’ weekend” – less expensive than a getaway to a spa or to wine country, and better for the world!

Now we’re one day out from actual voting. I have no better idea than anyone else of what the outcome will be. I’m as wracked by fear and angst as any other liberal right now. But I feel less powerless than I otherwise would because of the “worker bee” canvassing I’ve done.

And I feel heartened by how many other people – both friends of mine and strangers — have been canvassing, phone banking, texting, and writing postcards as part of Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts. They’re not just whining on Facebook – they’re putting in time and doing stuff.

Fingers crossed!

In 2020, I hope to take the next step — not just canvassing for individual days/weekends, but making a commitment of weeks or months to campaign in a swing area.

Jesus in Novels

October 1, 2018

Last month I realized my novel needed a chapter from the point of view of Jesus. My initial reaction was terror: I can’t do that! 

After a suitable period of angst and paralysis, I turned to a reassuring comfort activity, something that I know how to do and that gives at least the illusion of productivity – research. I figured, See how other writers have handled this. And did a web search for novels about Jesus.

I found one that I’d expected — the classic The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, which was made into a movie by Martin Scorsese. But I also found three unexpected works by unlikely authors – D.H. Lawrence, Norman Mailer, and Phillip Pullman.

Lawrence? Mailer? Pullman? Writing from the point of view of Jesus?

I had to read these! Here’s my thumbnail summary:

D.H. Lawrence: The Man Who Died (1929)

This short novella, just 43 pages, opens with a lengthy description of a young rooster, resplendant and virile, who is tied up by his peasant owner. His body is restrained by the cord. But inside he remains unbroken. Finally the rooster breaks his cord – at the same moment that an unnamed man wakes up from death inside a stone crypt.

Lawrence

The unnamed man is of course Jesus, who remains nameless throughout the book. The rooster  — another “of course,” if you are familiar with Lawrence — also symbolizes Jesus. (He initially titled the novella The Escaped Cock.)

Lawrence’s Jesus doesn’t want to revive. His description of Jesus’s reluctance to return is wonderful.

“A deep, deep nausea stirred in him at the premonition of movement…. He had wanted to stay outside, in the place where even memory is stone dead. But now, something had returned to him, like a returned letter, and in that return he lay overcome with a sense of nausea.”

The drive to live overcomes Jesus’s reluctance. Here comes that rooster again:

“As he came out, the young cock crowed. It was a diminished, pinched cry, but there was that in the voice of the bird stronger than chagrin. It was the necessity to live, and even to cry out the triumph of life…. the everlasting resoluteness of life.”

Jesus encounters Mary Magdalene and his mother at the tomb. He realizes they want him to continue in the role of savior and prophet. But he wants something different now – he wants to live a normal human life.

“For me that life is over,” he tells Magdalene. “I have outlived my mission and know no more of it. The teacher and the saviour are dead in me; now I can go about my business, into my own single life…. Now I can live without striving to sway others any more. For my reach ends in my fingertips, and my stride is no longer than the ends of my toes.”

Magdalene is of course crushed by what he says: “The Messiah had not risen. The enthusiasm and the burning purity were done, and the rapt youth.” So she reworks the encounter in her mind into something more: “She conjured up rapture and wonder… He was risen, but not as man; as pure God, who should not be touched by flesh, and who should be rapt away into Heaven.”

Jesus, meanwhile, flees all who knew him and wanders alone. He seeks physical communion – not mere sex, but the kind of spiritualized sex that is at the center of Lawrence’s other writings.

“Now he knew that he had risen for the woman, or women, who knew the greater life of the body, not greedy to give, not greedy to take, and with whom he could mingle his body… Perhaps one evening I shall meet a woman who can lure my risen body, yet leave me my aloneness.”

Ultimately he meets a woman who is an acolyte of the Egyptian goddess Isis. (Yes, this gets more and more sacrilegious. Just wait.)

The woman worships an “Isis in Search” figure who is seeking “fragments of the dead Osiris” that she can gather and revive and that will “fecundate her womb.”

The two connect with Lawrence’s characteristic sexual transcendance. This is the stuff that left me perplexed when I read him in college: the sex I was having was never like this.

“He was absorbed and enmeshed in new sensations. The woman of Isis was lovely to him, not so much in form as in the wonderful womanly glow of her. Suns beyond suns had dipped her in mysterious fire, the mysterious fire of a potent woman… She would never know or understand what he was. Especially she would never know the death that was gone before in him. But what did it matter? She was different. She was woman: her life and her death were different from him. Only she was good to him.”

Now are you ready for more sacrilege?

“And his death and his passion of sacrifice were all as nothing to him now, he knew only the crouching fullness of the woman, there the soft white rock of life. ‘On this rock I build my life.’ The deep-folded penetrable rock of the living woman!… The woman, hiding her face. Himself bending over, powerful and new like dawn.

“He crouched to her, and he felt the blaze of his manhood and his power rise up in his loins, magnificent.

“ ‘I am risen!’ ”

Oy.

The novella ends shortly after this. The woman’s family is conspiring to kill Jesus. She has become pregnant. He flees to wander the world but promises to return. “I have sowed the seed of my life and my resurrection, and put my touch forever upon the choice woman of this day, and I carry her perfume in my flesh like the essence of roses.”

Setting aside the groan-inducing bits about “the blaze of his manhood” and his “rising,” what is remarkable is how Lawrence kidnaps the Gospels’ resurrection story to preach his own doctrine of the holiness of physical love. With language and cadence similar to his other novels, he promotes a view of men and women as fundamentally different from each other and fundamentally alone, yet able at times to bridge that aloneness with sexual connection that neither demands nor possesses.

Here is how he described the novella, in a letter to a friend:

I wrote a story of the Resurrection, where Jesus gets up and feels very sick about everything, and can’t stand the old crowd any more – so cuts out – and as he heals up, he begins to find what an astonishing place the phenomenal world is, far more marvellous than any salvation or heaven – and thanks his stars he needn’t have a ‘mission’ any more.

Norman Mailer: The Gospel According to the Son (1997)

Of course Norman Mailer, who thought he could do anything better than anyone, would have to try his hand at writing Jesus.

You’d think that with Mailer’s interest in sex and power, his personal combativeness, and his liberal-to-left political views (he co-founded the Village Voice), this would be a shocking or at least iconoclastic book.

Mailer

In fact, I found it pedestrian. Basically a very modest gloss on Jesus’s life that could have been written by a somewhat-literary theology student trying to mimic the style of the Gospels.

Jesus narrates the book, which he says is an effort to set straight the misstatements about his life in the Bible. “While I would not say that Mark’s gospel is false, it has much exaggeration,” he says on the first page.

But the ways he diverges from the Gospels are practically invisible when compared with D.H. Lawrence’s wholesale reinterpretation.

For instance, instead of a literal multiplication of loaves and fishes, Mailer portrays it as a psychological multiplication. Mailer’s Jesus takes two fishes and five loaves and cuts them up into 500 teeny-tiny pieces.

“I would lay one flake of fish and one bit of bread upon each tongue. Yet when each person had tasted these fragments, so do I believe that each morsel became enlarged within his thoughts… and so I knew that few among these hundred would say that they had not been given sufficient fish and bread. And this was a triumph of the Spirit rather than an enlargement of matter.”

Not very different, I suspect, from how many modern liberal theologians might understand that story.

Mailer provides little psychological insight and practically no detailed, sensory descriptions of landscape, people etc. In that sense it’s not much different from the Gospels themselves.

There’s some marginally interesting stuff about how Jesus views his power to do miracles, and the motivations of Judas. But none of this was developed in a consistent or compelling way.

In short, it was a slog to get through this book. I didn’t see its reason to exist. If it had been anyone else but the already-famous Mailer writing it, I doubt it would have seen the light of day.

Philip Pullman: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (2010)

Philip Pullman, author of The Golden Compass fantasy trilogy, is an outspoken atheist and critic of organized religion. So it surprised me that he had written a novel about the life of Jesus.

(Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised: I already owned an edition of Paradise Lost with his introduction and commentary.  “Christianity formed my mind,” Pullman writes in the afterword to The Good Man Jesus.)

PullmanI’ll say up front that this was by far my favorite of the three novels. Pullman builds it on a truly out-of-the-box premise – that Jesus had a twin brother, who recorded his life story and edited it in a way that created Christianity as a religion.

Pullman raises thought-provoking questions not just about Jesus’s life and the Church, but about what writers do and the distinction between factual accuracy and  “truth.” (A theme that is too relevant in today’s political universe.)

Quick synopsis: Mary bears twins, named Jesus and Christ. Jesus becomes a wandering preacher. Christ watches – supportive, but with different ideas of how to proceed.

Jesus adopts a low-key approach of delivering a message that “God loves us like a father, and his Kingdom is close at hand.” Christ tells his brother that he can  accomplish more good through miracles.

“Fine words convince the mind, but miracles speak directly to the heart and then to the soul,” Christ tells his brother. “If a simple person sees stones changed into bread, or sees sick people healed, this makes an impression on him that could change his life. He’ll believe every word you say from then on.”

Christ also argues that his preacher brother should build an organization to help make the Kingdom of God a reality – effectively, create the Church.  But Jesus rejects miracles as “conjuring tricks” and also rejects the idea of a powerful, wealthy Church.

“What you describe sounds like the work of Satan,” Jesus tells his brother. “God will bring about his Kingdom in his own way, and when he chooses. Do you think your mighty organization would even recognize the Kingdom if it arrived?”

Encouraged by a stranger who may be angel or devil, Christ goes on to record Jesus’s teachings and actions – while editing them to be more dramatic and inspirational.

“Christ wrote down every word, but he resolved to improve the story later,” Pullman writes.

Ultimately the stranger encourages Christ to betray Jesus to his death as a way to foster the spread of God’s word.

“Jesus could not be with people for ever, but the Holy Spirit can,” the angel/devil tells Christ. “What the living Jesus could not do, the dead and risen Jesus will bring about… Men and women need a sign that is outward and visible and then they will believe.”

After his death, Jesus’s life becomes more and more fictionalized, both by his disciples and by his brother. Christ believes he is spreading God’s Word but he also feels the seductive allure of telling a good story.

“I want to knot the details together to make patterns and show correspondences,” Christ says after Jesus’s death. “And if they weren’t there in life, I want to put them there in the story, for no other reason than to make a better story. The stranger would have called it letting in truth. Jesus would have called it lying.”

I love this!

The Good Man Jesus may be the most provocative literary challenge to institutional Christianity since the story of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov.

Novelizing the Bible

All three of these works function more as re-interpreted myths than as real novels. Kazantzakis is a better choice if you’re looking for a psychologically nuanced, fully drawn, naturalistic depiction of Jesus and his world.

Reading them, though, I thought about the powerful draw of novelizing the Bible – both the Old and New Testaments. The Hebrew and Christian scriptures are filled with dramatic events and characters who take world-changing actions. But they say nothing about the characters’ inner thoughts, how they grow as individuals, or what happens in-between the dramatic moments. The novelist gets to fill all this in – whether Abel suspects Cain might kill him, how Isaac feels about Abraham after his near-sacrifice, the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. What fun!

This is what has driven some recent novels based on the Tanach, such as The Red Tent by Anita Diamant (1997, about the rape of Dina) and The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks (2016, about King David).

As Philip Pullman said through his character Christ: I want to put those details in the story, for no other reason than to make a better story.

Meanwhile, what about my story?

I ordered these three novels, but even before they arrived in the mail, I went ahead and wrote my chapter with the Jesus point of view. It was reassuring simply to know that other people had done this and hadn’t been struck down by lightning.

“Just go ahead and write some stuff; don’t worry whether it’s any good; you can toss it in the trash if you hate it,” I told myself, which is always good advice when feeling intimidated or stuck.