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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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My friends Monica and Lindsey canvassing in Modesto (CD10)

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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.

Vacationing alone in the Lake District

August 11, 2018

I spent the past week by myself on vacation – or “on holiday,” as they’d say in England’s Lake District, which is where I was.

This was the first time I’d ever taken a full-on vacation by myself. I’ve traveled alone for reporting assignments and book promotion, moved to new cities alone (a long time ago), and spent two days alone in Puerto Vallarta last year when Sam had to return earlier than I did from a trip. But this was my first full week in a foreign place with no reason to be there other than enjoying myself.

I was a little nervous beforehand. But it was great!

England was an easy place to be a solo American traveler. We share a language (despite the occasionally confounding accents). It’s got reliable train schedules, comfortable hotels etc., and unlike some other parts of the world, a woman alone is not viewed as a target.

And the Lake District – the mountainous area in the northwest of England made famous by Wordsworth – was particularly welcoming. The region basically lives off of tourism. It has well-marked hiking paths that are easy to navigate. It has a great bus system that allows you to reach almost any trailhead or cultural site without a car. And its beautiful walks draw a variety of visitors – studly young rock climbers, multi-generational families, older couples who have been walking the fells (hills) together for decades, and a surprising number of single hikers like me.

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View of Derwentwater from top of Cat Bells footpath. Photo by Ilana DeBare

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Steady stream of hikers climbing up Cat Bells. Note view of two lakes. Photo by Ilana DeBare

My home base was the Lairbeck Hotel, a small family-run inn in a spacious 19th century home on the outskirts of Keswick in the northern Lake District. Keswick swarms with tourists in the summer months, but it’s outdoor-oriented tourists, not the “file-out-of-the-tour-bus-and-take-a-selfie” packaged-tour crowds. It feels like Truckee or Banff: Everyone is wearing hiking boots, and there are more stores selling outdoor gear than you can count. No one dresses for dinner. People ask each other where they hiked that day. I felt very much at home.

Sam was backpacking in the Sierra while I was gone – hauling thirty pounds in his pack, sleeping under the stars, totally away from civilization for five days. The Lake District is a different kind of outdoor experience. I’m not sure there’s anywhere you could hike and camp for five full days without running into roads or towns. Instead, you do day hikes – between picturesque stone villages, or loops up and down the fells. You can easily get away from people by choosing the right path, but England is too small and has been settled for too long to have the vast amounts of wilderness we enjoy in the western United States.

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View of farmland from a ridge. Photo by Ilana DeBare

What England does have is an amazing network of public footpaths. Many of these paths have existed for centuries or even millennia, and private landowners are required to maintain the public right of way. (As opposed to the U.S., where landowners will shoot or sue anyone who sets foot on their property.) My hikes took me through sheep pastures, across wheat fields, down farm driveways, along a “coffin path” formerly used to carry the deceased to the nearby churchyard, and through countless wooden gates with an equally countless variety of latching devices.

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England’s public footpaths are usually well marked.  Photo by Ilana DeBare

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Footpath up the Latrigg fell that, like many others, goes through sheep pastures. Photo by Ilana DeBare

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Derwentwater in the morning fog. Photo by Ilana DeBare

The paths offer stunning views from the tops of the fells – of lakes, farmland, villages, and clouds sweeping over the surrounding peaks.

And then at the end of your hike, you return to your comfy hotel or bed-and-breakfast or rental cottage. With a tall pint of ale in the nearby pub! With all due love and respect for my husband, I’ll take this kind of hiking vacation over a backpack trip any day.

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Pub near my inn.  Photo by Ilana DeBare

Before my solo week in the Lake District, I’d spent a similar week walking in the Cotswolds to the south with my friend Sue. By the time I reached Keswick, I’d realized that my “sweet spot” for hiking is six to eight miles, or about three to four hours of actual walking.

My time on the trails was longer than those three to four hours, though, because I stopped a lot. And that was one unexpected benefit of spending this vacation alone – I got to set my own pace, not just for the walking, but for everything.

Traveling with even one very compatible partner entails a constant calibration. Are they bored at a viewpoint and ready to get moving? Do they want to spend more time in the antiques shop? Like a good marriage, they accommodate you and you accommodate them, and it all works well.

But traveling alone, you’re only responsible to yourself — which forces you to pay more attention to your desires. So I spent a full hour sitting on top of the Cat Bells trail, just looking down at the dueling vistas of a farm valley and Derwentwater lake, while other hikers stopped to picnic and moved on. So I noodled around the edges of the Castlerigg stone circle in the drizzle, thinking about the 5,000-year history of those stones, for much longer than I would have with a companion.

I stopped to look at birds. I stopped to look at really nondescript birds!

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Visitors photograph a “druid” at Castlerigg stone circle. Photo by Ilana DeBare

This was “slow travel.” And I realized I wanted to get even slower. Next time, I would bring a small notebook or sketch pad with me. I wanted to interact with the landscapes in a more active way than taking a cellphone photo. Often we arrive at a beautiful or fascinating place, glance at it, click the camera to capture it, and move on. We lazily count on that photo to be the memory rather than trying to remember it ourselves. I wanted to feel the contours, remember the lines, articulate the feelings and thoughts evoked by the scene.

Two mornings, I stayed at the inn and worked on my novel on my laptop before going out to hike in the afternoon. The Lairbeck Hotel has a lovely, quiet garden, and one of those late afternoons after hiking I sat in the garden with a glass of wine.

I realized that was my ideal travel day – half the day writing, the other half out actively exploring. With a garden and a glass of wine at the end!

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The garden and house at Lairbeck Hotel. Photo by Ilana DeBare

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View of Skiddaw fell from my room at the Lairbeck Hotel. Photo by Ilana DeBare

It’s hard to achieve that kind of balance without a deliberate effort. When visiting a new place, there’s always so much to see. The temptation is to run from sight to sight, and then collapse at dinnertime. It’s even harder to carve out quiet time for writing, sketching, or reflecting when you’re traveling with a companion.

One of the benefits of this solo trip was I’m now more aware of what I want from my travel experiences. If I don’t get to every highlight listed in the guidebook, that’s okay: I’ll see fewer but spend more time at each, and more time on reflection.

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Sheep, sheep, and more sheep / Photo by Ilana DeBare

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Oops, not sheep! / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Trust yourself as an artist

February 27, 2018

I’ve returned to the writing life!

After six years working for Golden Gate Audubon Society, I returned to full-time work on a novel on January 1st. After a three-week family trip in January and early February, I truly settled down to full-time writing about two weeks ago.

Now – without bird-related blog posts, newsletters, and social media to write for Audubon – I have the time and drive to resume my own blog posts. My apologies for the long absence, and I hope you are still with me!

Let’s start with a few thoughts on trusting oneself as an artist.

This is a more complex novel than I’ve tried before – speculative fiction set in a world that I am creating, inhabited by characters from varied regions and time periods on Earth. I already have a draft of one volume that needs some significant revisions, and am working on a second volume that will follow up some of the loose ends from volume one.

One challenge is that, sitting down to work, I feel pulled in multiple directions:

  • Go back to revise volume 1, or lay new track in volume 2?
  • Finish mapping out the “grand scheme” of the plot and the cosmology of this imagined universe, or take it chapter by chapter?
  • Flesh out my secondary characters or focus on my main character?
  • If I work on the secondary characters, should I start with the 1920s Chinese communist, the 11th century Damascus merchant, the 4th century Hun, or the 21st century Brooklyn grandmother?
  • Or should I work on sections about my fun, non-human “magical creatures?”
  • Research? Or write?

I need to do all these things eventually; the question is where to begin and what to do on any given day.

My first reaction to the incredible privilege of writing full-time was – of course – despair. “This is overwhelming.” “I can’t do this.” “I don’t have the skills or knowledge or abilities.” And so on.

I dealt with that by shifting into familiar, comfortable research mode. Off to the wonderful underground stacks of the Doe Library at U.C. Berkeley, one of my “happy places.” I love the sleek spaciousness of this newish facility, and how the bookshelves move frictionlessly, magically, on tracks when you turn a giant handle. I love how as a UCB alumna I can check out up to 20 books at a time from one of the best research libraries in the world.

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Rotunda in the underground Gardner stacks at Doe Library

But most of all I love how visiting the library transforms the quest for information from an intellectual journey into a physical journey.

Rather than a serious of Google clicks, I descend staircases and wander through aisles of bookshelves. It’s like a treasure hunt. I start with my list of target books. When I reach the book I’m seeking, there are often related books adjacent to it that I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. I reemerge into the sunlit outdoor world with arms full of books – more than I can comfortably carry – and feel triumph at my “haul.”

It’s so much more tangible than online research! And it provides the fulfilling sense of having accomplished something.

Even if that accomplishment is illusory – often the books don’t provide the information I need – it’s still a good way to generate momentum and confidence.

So I started with research. I now know a lot more about communists in 1920s Shanghai than I did two weeks ago. (For whatever that’s worth.) Then it was on to 11th century Damascus. Read books, take notes, think about my characters.

This morning I felt like it was time to write. Something had quietly shifted inside me – from “I don’t know enough about this character to write him,” to “I want to start writing him.” It wasn’t a deliberative decision, just a shift in what felt possible or even necessary.

So that’s where the trust comes in. I opted to follow that feeling and start writing one of the characters, even though I’m still waiting to get another book or two about his era. And in order to write him, I decided to start a chapter or two before he comes on stage. That meant focusing on a different character who is there when he arrives.

It wasn’t a rational process. But it felt right, and I got about 1,000 words down. It was a starting point, past the “I can’t do this” hurdle, and now I can just keep going.

So: Listen to that quiet inner voice that tells you, as a creator, what you need to do next!

Even if it is a little bit out of order and not part of a rational “battle plan.”

I hate thinking

July 23, 2015

There! Doesn’t that headline sound like the beginning of a condescending rant about Republicans?

(Republican friends: Please don’t take offense. Just substitute the word “Democrats” and keep reading.)

But I’m not talking about politics. I’m talking about the writing process.

I love days when I can sit down and write. I sit at my computer, I start writing, hours pass, and I have a bunch of new pages. Then I feel like I’ve accomplished something. i can blow the factory whistle, stop work, head home (even if “home” just means leaving my study for the living room), and do something completely unrelated with a light heart.

Happy-Writer

But then there are days — weeks — where instead I have to think.

Maybe I’ve written a character into a corner and have no idea how to get her out. Maybe I have to re-conceptualize an entire character. Research the religion or medical condition or historical background of a character. Figure out a new sub-plot. Figure out the entire main plot!

This is different from what people talk about as “writer’s block.”  When I think of writer’s block, I picture sitting down and having no ideas, nothing to say. Or paralyzing oneself with fear. It’s a mind-numbing fog.

What I’m talking about is not a fog. It’s having some very specific problems with a manuscript that need to be thought through or, occasionally, researched. But the thinking does not happen in a controlled, manageable, linear fashion. I wish it were like writing a news story or a fundraising letter, where I could say, “Okay, I’m going to sit down at 2 p.m. and have this done by 5 p.m.” But it’s not.

Instead, my mind wanders. I play Facebook Scrabble. I move the laundry. I write out page after page of notes and outlines that look organized but basically just re-state the problem. Even if I focus on trying to find the answer, it doesn’t come.

And I want to write! I don’t want to sit around thinking. I want motion, action, progress. I want to look at my computer and see “1,269 words” at the bottom of that Microsoft Word window. I feel like someone in the driver’s seat, bags are packed and loaded in the trunk, key in the ignition, the open road stretching ahead, and the damn car isn’t moving.

car

I want to have everything figured out so I can blast forward putting it on paper.  After all, this process is all about the writing, right? We call ourselves “writers.” We go to “writers’ retreats” and “writers” conferences.” We buy books on writing and join writing groups.

Nobody says “I’m joining a thinking group.”

But maybe we should.

My rational self — the self that is not tearing its hair out and wanting to blast forward — knows that thinking is an essential part of this process. That’s especially true at the stage I’m at with this current novel — first draft just finished, ready to start revising and improving.

I need to think about what works and what doesn’t work, what I want to add, and where I want to take this manuscript. That’s just as important as getting all those pages of the first draft down on paper. And it doesn’t happen on command or on schedule. Maybe for some people it does, but not me.

I need to calm down and give it time.

That’s my rational self talking. But what I really want is: motion, action, progress.

Pages.

In praise of fava beans

July 12, 2015

When I was growing up in the 1960s, I could have counted all the vegetables I knew on two hands. Carrots, peas, broccoli, string beans, celery, lettuce…. My mom was probably on the adventurous side because she made fresh artichokes for us even though we lived 3,000 miles from any artichoke fields.

Now of course the American palate has expanded. Kale is so trendy that it is just about passé! Safeway sells baby arugula. People have learned to roast brussel sprouts in olive oil rather than boiling them to odoriferous pulp.

Still, we all get stuck in food ruts, cooking the same familiar things over and over. I was bumped out of my rut last year when we joined a CSA food box program. That stands for Community Supported Agriculture, where people support nearby organic farmers by ordering a box of produce each week, a kind of vegetable version of the Book-of-the-Month Club.

You don’t get to choose what comes in your box. You get whatever is seasonal. So in the past few months, I’ve learned to cook and like watermelon radishes and kohlrabi. Now I even buy watermelon radishes at the store!  (Note: They are large beet-sized radishes with very pretty circles of pink, white, and light green. I dice them and roast them with beets, cauliflower, and butternut squash.)

I got another bump this week when our neighbors went on vacation and ordered us to eat whatever was ripe in their garden. This gave a whole new meaning to the phrase farm-to-table, since their garden is about six feet from my kitchen table.

Among other things, they were growing fava beans. Now, fava beans were something I’ve never had interest in buying or growing. I’d eaten them in paella, where they were big and brown and tasteless and mushy. You get three or four beans to a pod, and not too many pods on a plant, and they seemed like a whole lot of work for… just beans.

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Fava bean plant — look for the protruding bean pods / Photo by Ilana DeBare

But God forbid anything should go to waste. So I picked a bunch of our neighbor’s beans and perused various web sites to figure out what to do with them. I decided to blanche them and serve them with olive oil and salt, like tapas.

They were awesome!

Preparing them was half the fun. It takes more time than throwing a head of broccoli in a pot, but it’s much more interesting and sensual.

First you shell the beans. I was amazed to open up a fava pod and find the beans cocooned in a kind of fleece lining, a soft, wispy white fuzz covering the inside of the pod. It was like a sleeping bag for beans. This is a plant that knows how to take care of its babies! (Hint: score the seam of the pod with a knife to shell them more easily.)

A fava bean pod / Photo by Ilana DeBare

A fava bean pod / Photo by Ilana DeBare

The white fleece inside of the pod, with beans removed / Photo by Ilana DeBare

The white fleece inside of the pod, with beans removed / Photo by Ilana DeBare

The beans themselves were smooth and flawless. I thought of bars of new soap. I thought of round stones that had been smoothed by a million years of running water. Apple could have stolen the clean lines and minimalist chic of its iPhone from a fava bean.

Next comes the hull protecting each bean. Some people peel the hulls and then eat the beans raw; others pop them into their mouth and eat them with the hull. I tried both ways and they were both good — would be a great TV snack. But for tapas, I wanted a large quantity of peeled beans.

Fava beans, shelled but not yet peeled / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Fava beans, shelled but not yet peeled / Photo by Ilana DeBare

I brought a pot of water to a boil, blanched the beans for three minutes, then spooned them into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Boiling loosened their hulls and it was easy to slide the skin off. There’s something sensual about the frictionless ease with which the beans slide out of their cases in your fingers.

Removing the bean from its hull / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Removing the bean from its hull / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Voila! Fava beans, ready for olive oil and salt. The taste is starchy but also sweet, with a hint of nut or chestnut. Simple yet fresh.

I would feel bad about eating all of our neighbors’ fava beans, but they’re in Italy.

I suspect they are eating even better over there.

Fava beans with olive oil and salt / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Fava beans with olive oil and salt / Photo by Ilana DeBare