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Two Old Jews at the Christian Gala
Sometimes age is socially useful.
We were replacement attendees at a Christian Gala recently. Our host had a couple drop out at the last minute and asked us to come. Heck, I thought. I’ve never been to a gala of this scale. We love our hosts, Mr. X and Miss Y, and don’t get to see them enough. What an interesting evening it was going to be!
There were 400 people, 50 tables of 8. Our table came at a cost of $12,000. It was next to the guest of honor’s table, up front by the stage set up for the speeches and videos. The cause of the evening was the building out of a Christian high school that might complement the Christian elementary/middle school where children or grandchildren of the attendees study. This being the South, there were many gorgeous women in beautiful, classy ball gowns. A smattering of us wore cocktail dresses instead of gowns.
Now, I can’t wear high heels anymore or I tend to tip over. I thought about trying and took a few pair of elegantly heeled shoes out of the closet, but I expected a lot of standing around (guests of the VIP tables got a photo with the keynote speaker, ex-quarterback and outspoken Christian, Tim Tebow. There’d be a wait in line). I settled on some sparkly low heels. My dress was navy blue and when I put on a pair of hose I had hanging around, they looked pretty good but it’s been years since I’d worn stockings and I found them scratchy. So I took ’em off and wore black cotton tights instead. Cardinal rule for old folks: comfort first.
I looked like a navy-blue popsicle sticking out of a black stick. I had intended to go hatless. This has significance because I haven’t gone out hatless since my last squamous cell scalp surgery which left me with a discernible scar and small dent. All my friends tell me it’s not so bad, it doesn’t really show, and that night, I thought I might have the confidence to go bareheaded. But in the end, I decided I’d look less like a popsicle if I added this black velvet hat I have. When I get the tilt right, it resembles Cesare Borgia’s hat in that famous portrait by Altobello Meloni where his hands look tiny. (No wonder he needed a strangler in his employ – hands like that would never get the job done.) I put it on. Added an assortment of silver and diamond jewelry because that’s what old ladies do. Supplement.
Stephen took a photo of me before we left. I was going to post it but no. It’s horrendous. I looked like a short, dumpy troll. In a hat.
Now, aging is also about embracing the you you’ve got rather than the you you used to be. I decided here I am, this is the Mary Glickman they’re getting, and if I look odd, I can always play the eccentric author. It makes a pretty good cover.
The Gala was black tie optional and rather than his tux, Stephen wore a hand stitched black three piece suit, a crisp white dress shirt, and a speckled white against black silk tie. He looked fabulous.
Our host, Mr. X, is a fashionista. A very conscious dresser. He looked even more fabulous than Stephen in a London suit (not Saville Row but delicious) a patterned grey and white shirt, and the most sleek bowtie I’ve ever seen with bands of faded colors. Even his shoes tied in. They had a narrow strip around the heels in a pattern harmonious to the bow tie. Just what you’d expect of a fine chef, restauranteur, real estate developer, bee keeper. Monsieur Elegante.
His always beautiful wife, Miss Y, was in navy blue too, only her dress was bare shouldered, ball length, and featured an understated flamenco skirt with a single flounce along a thigh high slit. Her legs looked great. Another of the school mothers wore the same dress in a strikingly different color and a slightly different neckline. Miss Y wore it better. Her earrings were impeccable.
We met a couple of other people while milling about in line for our photo with Tim Tebow, including our state Representative, Nancy Mace. We all had wine and everybody stood around being charming and witty, and Nancy was most convivial even though I confused her with her defeated opponent, Katie Harrington. What happened was when I turned around and there she was, I said to Stephen: “Look, honey, it’s Katie Harrington,” and shook her hand. “No, that’s the other one,” she said. “I’m Nancy Mace. I beat her.” She forgave us right away when we apologized.
We used the old age excuse for that too. Old age and Covid brain.
Tim Tebow cost the gala a motza and had to be booked 18 months in advance. You’ll remember, he became a thing when he played for the Broncos in 2011 and took a knee in prayer after winning the game. The media made so much of it, imitators followed and a neoglogism was created, “Tebowing”, which means to reproduce Tebow’s posture while kneeling in a football field. He self-describes as a passionate Christian and was born in the Philippines to Christian missionaries. He is married to a South African model, a former Ms Universe.
Thirty-five, dark haired (an unassuming mohawk out of a dystopia movie), good-looking and exceptionally fit, he wore tight black pants, white sneakers, a black shirt with buttons that sparkled on stage and over it, a snug black suit jacket, its shawl collar edged in a band of white like a carnival barker’s.
Stephen had me read aloud from Tebow’s wiki entry on the way to the Gaillard. We discovered he was a highly vocal abortion opponent. (Me to Stephen: “This is where we’ll probably get bombed or shot, not next week at the rabbi’s oneg shabbat.”). Tebow’s spoken to groups as large as 20,000, has a wildly successful podcast and is quite adept at raising money for spreading the good word. But he walks the walk. He built and supports a children’s hospital in Mindanao, 30 beds that specializes in orthopedics. In addition to club foot, they treat hydrocephalus, burns. He funds organizations that work to stop human trafficking. Wiki sets his net worth at $5 million which leads me to believe his speaking fees go to his charities not his pocket.
By the time we got to our photo-op, my feet already hurt. I looked down at his and remarked, “If I’d known I could have worn sneakers. . .” and he said, “I know, right?” and eye-rolled me. Very personable guy.
The first part of his speech came while we were seated before being served dinner. A video of children from the elementary and middle Christian school were featured coming up to a camera to ask Tim Tebow a question. After each question, the video would stop and he’d answer it live. The kids queries ranged from: “Do you like to be famous?” to “What is your favorite thing that Jesus said?” It was a very sweet, very charming presentation and just long enough.
We ate. Nice meal, salad, beautifully conceived salmon, short ribs, eggplant option, tartlets for dessert. I had the ribs. Fall apart on the fork tender. Excellent. The smoked cheddar grits were cold. I ate mine anyway. Mr. X didn’t eat his. Everything was flawlessly served by a fleet of wait staff that floated noiselessly through the room, guided by uniformed men stationed in the aisles who whispered into headset microphones.
Stephen sat to my left and to my right, Chef Robert Dickson of Robert’s of Charleston, for 30 plus years one of the highlights of Charleston dining. Retired now. Robert was famous for producing a set menu of many courses amid luxe old Charleston surroundings. He sang arias for his customers while they dined. Apparently he did more show tunes towards the end, but he was known in town as The Singing Chef for a very long time.
The oddest part was that I, an opera buff for much of my youth, always wanted to go to Robert’s of Charleston but the courses he presented were full of things we don’t eat, like pork, and shrimp, and crab. So we never went. I told him it was a sadness to me.
“I offered kosher when asked,” he said. “I accommodated lots of diets, even. . .” he raised his eyes to heaven and side-nodded his head a little, “. . .gluten-free.”
Now I find out.
His wife Pam was from Oklahoma. Stephen told her she had to read my Cherokee removal novel and mentioned our research trip to Oklahoma City. It was obvious I’d forgotten key elements of a novel I’d written eight or nine years ago, but they are our age and understood. Then, suddenly, Robert belts out the first few notes of “Oklahoma!” and I, of course, join him. Soon both of us are in full voice with gestures. We clashed a little a couple of times but most of it was great! We either entertained or horrified at least three tables around us.
Robert had heard “the author is coming” and was anxious to tell to me about the book he’s writing. It’s a memoir based on his decades long correspondence with Julia Child. I told him my publisher’s founder, Jane Friedman, who discovered me, was in the recent HBO documentary about the great chef. They’d been good friends. I’m not sure, but it’s possible when Jane was CEO at Harper Collins Worldwide, she was steward of Julia’s books.
Just before desert, the minister of the elementary/middle school and its headmistress spoke briefly. The minister seemed a happy, well adjusted man who wished everyone joy in life. During her pitch, the headmistress listed the extracurricular programs the school offered. “Archery . . .shooting. . .” Short pause. “And yes, we do give our students guns. . .” That line got a reasonably audible round of applause.
Tim got on stage for his main address. He was lithe, energetic, every inch a professional speaker. He had enthusiasm, grace as he shifted left to right across the stage or leaned forward from the waist into the crowd. His voice was emotive, his humor wry. His main messages were about educating children. He spoke about teaching them to value themselves (you are not here by accident, there is a purpose to you, a plan for you), teaching Christian values of generosity and kindness. He advocated for parents’ rights in the content of their children’s education to enthusiastic applause. He mentioned the sanctity of life, but the word abortion was not spoken. He exhorted us to live a life where God came first, where one kept one’s sacred purpose in mind and did not abandon it for the transient things of the world. There was nothing objectionable to me about anything he said. If you took the personal anecdotes and the Jesus out of it, it sounded faith-based generic in a way. His root philosophies were nothing a rabbi, or Buddhist monk wouldn’t agree with or encourage in their own.
After Tebow ended his speech and left the building, Chef Robert turned to me and said: “Do you believe in Jesus?” Me: “I believe Jesus was a good man and a brilliant leader.” “Huh,” he said and turned away. He seemed a little disappointed. Later on, I made sure to tell him I liked religious people and respected religious education greatly because children need a moral center wherever they can find it. They certainly weren’t going to find it on TikTok. He appreciated that. We said goodbye exchanging contacts and sang a few lines of ‘I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No’ together.
In all, an innocuous and really rather sweet, entertaining evening. Since it was only about nine when it ended, Stephen suggested we drop over Tommy Condon’s to hear Christian shred the violin and sing an Irish rebel song with Dave. I protested at first. My feet were killing me. “Just for one drink,” he said, “since we’re downtown already and everything.” He had a point. Since Covid, it’s hard for a lot of older people to get downtown. It’s changed. Gotten younger.
Of course, afterwards I was very glad we went to the pub because a night with The Bograts is always transformative. But I was also very glad to get home that night and take off my damn shoes.
(Mary Phagan, 1913)
It’s day 4 since my new novel, By the Rivers of Babylon, launched. What a strange time. The first time I wrote this novel was two years ago. I re- wrote it with an editor in January 2022 and I had covid while I wrote. I stuck a thousand pins in it with the copy editor. During the process, I must have gone through that novel seven or more times.
When a book comes out, authors tend to withdraw a little bit. Your kid is out in the world. Only it’s not yours anymore. It belongs to the people who chose to read it. They will make of it things you never saw which will sometimes delight, sometimes perplex. It’s their right. You need to let that novel go.
Babylon came from my heart. My love of the South is right up there, front and center. So is my love for music. (It can save lives, you know.) I wrote it because in recent years my South has suffered so much slander and misapprehension. I wanted to redeem it. I think it does its job. It’s got several love stories, a lust story, and a murder investigation. There’s plenty there for a reader to get excited about. But I need to let it go.
What excites me now is my next novel, the second of a two book contract. I finished it last September. If I say so myself, it comes at you straight ahead like a freight train. As much as I loved By the Rivers of Babylon before I let it go, I love this one more. It’s not been seen by an editor yet. Until then, I don’t know what its flaws might be. But I think I know what its strengths are.
Working title: Aint No Grave. It’s parked in my wheelhouse, Southern Jewish history. It has gravitas. It’s about the lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager in Atlanta, who was charged and convicted in the rape murder of a 13-year-old Irish girl working in his factory. The case rocked the world in 1913. It fueled the anti-child labor movement. It exploited racial and ethnic tensions.
I tell my story through the lens of stringers and reporters for newspapers all over the country, who devoured each break in the case, large and small. 22 real life characters in Grave played principal roles in the trial, becoming senators and governors long after the novel’s end. One became a celebrated journalist and member of the Algonquin Table.
Like Babylon, Leo Frank was a labor of love, but it demanded a lot from me intellectually – getting the history right, getting those 22 real people right, getting the trial right.
The lynching I knew I could do. But the trial intimidated me. I considered avoiding it all together. I asked my husband, “Maybe I can write around the trial and not do the trial itself?” Stephen couldn’t look at me. “If you’re not going to do the fucking trial, then you might as well not write the fucking book.” (He’s from New Jersey.)
He was right. I bit into it. It came out great. Thanks, hon.
The Last Night of Hanukkah, Christmas Day
It’s bitter cold outside. It feels more like Boston in January than the lowcountry in December. All of nature has stopped in its tracks. No crows hop about in the street. There are no humans. No dogs. No birds. Even the anoles are hunkered down somewhere. So are the alligators, bobcats, coyote and deer. But there must be something out there. The cats are sitting at the top of their indoor tree, staring out. They never sit alert, staring for this long. I stared with them for a while, trying to figure what transfixed them but I didn’t find it.
The two Zachs of Ohio are coming to last night of Hanukkah dinner. It’s also Christmas Day and they are single, Christian men who live far from home. I’ve never liked the practice of turning Hanukkah into Little Christmas, but I realize I’m cooking a more elaborate meal in honor of my guests’ holiday. Normally, I’d light the final night’s candles and eat a simple meal. Tonight will be a feast. We’ll light the menorah when they arrive then I’ll grill steaks outdoors where it’ll be 20-something degrees. I might mangle the job. But the marinade is so great it will be tasty regardless. We’ll start with caprese and good bread. Latkes and asparagus with the steaks. All the sweets people have been sending us for dessert. As my mother would say, it’ll be grand.
I had to argue with Stephen about the time. He finds dining before 8 pm barbarous. I tried to tell him people expect Christmas Dinner in the early or middle afternoon. Since first Zach is a blues musician who sleeps as late as my night owl husband does, Stephen insisted he would agree to a late hour. When Zach was asked about it, he was gracious and gave Stephen free reign. I made him compromise on 6 pm. Second Zach we met when first Zach’s band was playing Prohibition late on Tuesday nights before covid. Second Zach always stopped by our table to say hello. We like second Zach.
The thing of it is that Christmas is a curious dilemma for many Jews. Its traditional customs, feasting and gift-giving are attractive. What’s not to like about gift-giving and feasting? Expressions of kindness and warmth are appreciated by everyone. Even the non-secular part, the celebration of a savior’s birth, that calling upon the Christ in gratitude and adoration is pleasant to observe when it is sincere, innocuous when it’s not.
We even have a Christmas tradition at home. Stephen never got over his experience of being taken to midnight mass by a girl he romanced in Italy in 1965. He insists on watching C-span’s broadcast of the Vatican’s midnight mass every Christmas Eve, usually to my objections. Not because I object to his fondness for the memory of Carmen Pucci and their midnight mass, which comes shrouded in distant romance. As a student of the Rennaisance, he also loves hearing the names of the Italian nobles. He loves seeing them in their pews beneath the eye of the Pope, the Orsinis and Colonna at last sitting together in peace. I object because it’s boring. Within minutes, I fall asleep.
So what of this holiday is a curious dilemma? Most Jews are magnanimous when it comes to rendering to Ceasar. The Torah instructs Jews to respect the customs of the land in which they reside. It’s a small feeling. But it nags. It rubs.
It reminds me of another feeling from the first time Stephen and I lived in South Carolina on the island. 1988-1989, when I learned to ride my horse, and where I made beloved friends that remain beloved friends. It was the year of my fortieth birthday and I casually told all my sparkling new friends I didn’t want a to do. I didn’t even want a call of congrats. I would appreciate being ignored for the day.
And they did. They ignored me. It was a lonely birthday and there was no one to blame but me.
Christmas makes me feel the same. I’m standing outside of it. By my own choice, that’s true. But here I am, on the outside nonetheless, while the whole world revels within.
That birthday, I made Stephen jump through hoops to make up for things, but that’s another story.
The cats have stirred. They’re in full stretch and about to sleep. I better get downstairs and chop some garlic. The lads are coming. It’s going to be a great night.
I Don’t Want To Talk About It
I know and you know I haven’t posted here for nearly 7 years.
Outrageous. Disrespectful. Lazy.
I cop to all of that along with Internet fatigue, covid, whatever else you’ve got. I need to correct myself. But I think I need to slow walk.
So may I introduce shepherd.com, an ingenious service for people looking for their next read. Anybody who wants to curate their tastes and interests to help them choose a book, should try it. I did something for their Five Best Books section. My topic: The Five Best Southern Themed Books You Never Heard Of (Maybe). Here it is.
Meantime, I’ll be back soon!!
Dancing with Ghosts
(This article first appeared at https://medium.com/@OpenRoadMedia/dancing-with-ghosts-2a94eba3a17d#.3pb8bkqlv)
As far as revenge and survival porn go, Revenant is brilliant. The savagery of both nature and man are eloquently, if unrelentingly, presented. Were it not for the ten minutes or so devoted to a Pawnee who turns over his desire for retribution to his Higher Power and our hero’s collateral liberation of a kidnap/rape victim while avenging the Pawnee’s murder, there would be no relief from constant amoral brutality writ large in bold gorgeous color.
Over the top? Not really. Take it from me – I’ve spent years researching Native American culture and relations with the United States in the early 19th century. Inarittu’s vision is realistic. From bears to wolf packs to raging waters to the frigid grip of snow and ice, frontier life just didn’t give a guy a break. Throw in the greed of men, territorial war, and general racist contempt, you’ve got nonstop blood and guts. But there are two elements that strike at the heart of me in watching Revenant’s parade of violence.
One is the vast, incredible bounty of its locale, apparently Montana and South Dakota. You get a sense of the enormity of the American wilderness, the endless landscape of opportunity, huge, begging for exploitation. In a place so rich with resource, so immense, it seems natural that 19th century European minds – who saw ownership as a matter of building towns, cultivating land, erecting fences and walls, and wide open space as up for grabs – would think: “Why are these pesky Natives so bothered by our trapping and fort building? There’s so much to go around! More over, bud, there’s lots more bison, beaver, and deer over there a piece.” Business as usual during an era that saw the Indian Removal Act forcibly expel 100,000 souls from land their ancestors inhabited for thousands of years and the horrific genocide known as the Trail of Tears. Cue more blood and guts.
The other is that the only sweet, peaceful moments of the film are given to a Native American ghost, the tenderly beckoning, softly-speaking-of-wisdom dead wife of our hero. There are indications of pure love between the hero and his soon-to-be dead son, both in life and after, but these are expressed in extremis and their intent feels different than that gentle hovering ghost breathing love and smiles. She always appears to the hero when he is at his worst, about to give up, and she sustains him.
So I pondered what the director is doing besides giving us a sacred victim and savage invader. It hit me like a snowy avalanche hurtling down from some Black Hills peak: Inarittu is talking out of both sides of his mouth. From one side, he is H. Rap Brown*: violence is as American as cherry pie. Inarutti reminds us the golden American myth of the brave pioneer conquering the west, that myth we so revere as knit into our character, is painted with oceans of blood and littered with body parts. Violence is us and we are it. Not exactly a new idea. But from the other side? What was the meaning of that ghost wife? What else but that our myths, hovering over us, shielding us, ever beckoning, are what keep us going, are the very vital key to our survival, and we would be dead, defeated, gone without them.
A noteworthy message as far as it went. But it could have gone much farther. Inarutti covered the settler, trader, pioneer side pretty well but kept, as always film seems to do, the Native American’s at arm’s length. Here we had the Euro-American way West in all its glory of heroic survival and brutality. But what of the Native American’s side? Did no mythic future lay ahead for that murdered Pawnee beyond defeat and degradation? Who were the ghosts that appeared to him as he gasped his last? What did they whisper?
This article first appeared in the Hufffington Post
Devolution, or backward evolution, is the notion that species can revert into more primitive forms (Wikipedia)
Did Cherokee women in the 17th Century “have it all”? Centuries before Lean In, there was a thriving Cherokee culture of women leaders, mentors, and matriarchs comfortable in their own skins and minds, exercising remarkable independence and tribal power. Her status was one a woman today might envy, Ann Marie Slaughter included.
In the General Councils, her opinions mattered as much as any man’s. During the winter, when the men travelled great distances to hunt scarce game, she was the one who kept the tribe whole and fed through her cultivation skills, her conservation, and economy. Her social role was essential to keep the people alive. Respect flowed from that place. She held primary rights to property. All inheritance passed through her to her daughters or closest female relative.
Her children by a non Cherokee were citizens of the Nation, while her brother’s children with a non Cherokee were stateless.
She could choose her own mate, marry if she wanted and divorce at will. Though not common, adultery was not considered a great sin. Rape and domestic abuse were rare. While a man would be very unlikely to choose cultivation of the fields over the manly arts of hunting and the responsibilities of warrior, she could tend her squash and beans and corn in the morning then ride in the afternoon with a war party if she felt moved to do so. Not a few did. What’s more, she could walk naked without harassment or interference into a living stream to purify herself with a seven fold immersion before battle and after it, too. Sexual congress was seen as natural, an activity to be enjoyed, not regulated beyond the rules of desire.
I like to imagine that the origins of the Cherokee woman’s empowerment reach back as far as the Mississippian period more than a thousand years BCE when she developed a new strain of maize, or flint corn, that increased the crop yield significantly. With ample food supply, complex, densely populated villages might flourish, and this success inspired in a hunter’s community a new spiritual focus on the harvest exemplified by The Green Corn Dance, a ritual of sacred importance. It makes sense to me that a people might revere the gender that enabled such bounty.
It’s reported that when the first of the King’s men, their feet still wet from the crossing, entered into negotiations on trade and land rights with the Cherokee, they were astonished that women were among the tribal leaders deciding the terms. For their part, the astonished Cherokee asked the Brits where their women were. Was something keeping them? Should they wait?
Deals were made. Euro-American settlements established. Unfortunately for the Cherokee, they succeeded. A tidal wave of immigration from Europe crashed upon the Eastern shores and washed over the land. Native land mass shrunk while Euro-American land mass swelled. As we all know, First Peoples fought back to no avail. The white man kept coming, avarice like a sharpened bone between his teeth.
What I know for certain is that at the dawn of the Colonial period, a great devolution occurred that changed Cherokee woman’s role, debased it, ground it into the dust of time. When white men appeared in her mountains, her days of female empowerment were in decline, although she didn’t know it. It happened the moment the interlopers ventured into the Piedmont of Appalachia to trade gunpowder for deer skin.
Does it always happen? The if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them moment? After a century of sporadic war and wearying, incremental defeat, it happened for the Cherokee. A “civilization” movement swept the hills and by the mid-18th century, tribal leaders acknowledged their very survival depended on being seen by the invaders as civilized. They abandoned their old gods and became Christians. Their men abandoned the hunt and the cult of the warrior to become farmers while their women retired to the hearth and the spinning wheel. They purchased black slaves. From a traditional perspective, the old gender roles became perverse. A matriarchal society morphed disastrously into a patriarchal one.
White men of the era liked their women at home. White women could not take part in public life, nor could they fight wars or control their children. By 1827, the Cherokee Constitution outlawed the suffrage of Cherokee women. She could no longer vote or hold public office. The laws of matriarchal descent were significantly weakened as around the same time the half-blood children of males were allowed citizenship and males began to enjoy inheritance rights. Her culture, in which she once held a vital, honored position, was, over time, decimated.
The irony was that the “civilization” program did not have the desired effect. It did not preserve the people. Instead, the movement ended in the genocide of the Trail of Tears, the poverty of the reservation system. Cherokee women in the modern era have had to fight for their civil rights, their autonomy along with their white sisters. I like to think everything will switch around some day. That one day, men will wake up, see the light, and all women will enjoy the power and respect of the traditional Cherokee woman. We’ve had the devolution. I guess what we’re waiting for is the leap forward. Although many might agree with Ann Marie Slaughter that women today can’t have it all, Cherokee cultural history proves we once came close. Maybe we can again.
The Historical Me
(these blogs were first published in the Visiting Scribe series of the Jewish Book Council’s Prosen People. bit.ly/1Kmyx0r and bit.ly/20f0Cjx)
Over the course of publication of four novels, I have become aware of a personal truth that eluded me in the previous thirty odd years of writing seven unpublished ones. Hold your breath. Here it comes.
I write historical fiction. That is, historical fiction is my métier. I am it and it is me.
When I look back on my writing career – battle-scarred veteran that I am – I can see that whenever I wrote novels of the present era or ventured into the more rarefied territory of allegory, there was something missing, at the very least from the marketing point of view. But there may have been deeper flaws than market. It may be that my sensibilities are most harmonious with cultural tropes gone by. It may be that my gut finds indigestible modernist poses, especially about things Jewish, the current antipathy towards all things Israeli, for example, or the general lack of respect for the pious life, one I fail at living but greatly admire. Or it may be something entirely different.
I have always been enchanted by the past. I grew up on a diet of music, books, and film from my parents and grandparents eras, their libraries and oral traditions. Long before I knew something of Rashi, my spiritual guides were Frank Capra, Verdi and Puccini, Dickens, the Brontes, Hugo, and Balzac. Enshrined in their work were icons of virtue, blessing, and tragedy: The Working Stiff, The Fallen Woman, The Mother, The Child, The Drunken Poet, The Kindly Grandfather, The Tortured One, and The Villain, who could take many forms including The Fat Cat, The Overseer, The Seducer, The Strong Arm. I also learned from the same sources that each of these icons could contain bits and pieces of its opposite, that nothing was as simple as it seemed in a manner very different from both melodrama and postmodern cynicism. There was always a universal humanity, classic set pieces of contradiction, in my childhood icons. They had resonance for me, even as a precocious child absorbing stories above her grade level. Sixty years later, I admit I still find them the truest models I know of real life.
But on whom were they modeled? One need look no further than the Tanakh to find the most glorious array of human archtypes ever gathered in one place. Take human frailty for example. Where in all of literature are there better examples than an angry Moses, a lustful David, a jealous Cain, a drunken Noah? I don’t think it’s an accident that before Dickens, before the Brontes, my first childhood books were picture books of Bible stories, stories and characters that consumed my imagination even then.
At present, we live in a world where the common wisdom has it that truth is elusive and personal, good is defined by political desires, evil judged nonexistent, at least in the traditional sense. No small wonder then that a writer of my proclivities needs to travel back in time to exercise her favored images of heroes and heroines, antagonists and forces of nature in which the Voice of God bellows warning into deaf, unwilling ears. Back then, I am home. My historical people can breathe, walk, love, sin, expiate, and sacrifice. In the present, they might only be objects of fun. But when they are set in the past, readers find resonance, recognition, and are moved.
In the cannon of Christian philosophy, it is clear that both Thomas Aquinas and Augustine described the Jews as “witnesses to history”. These men considered Jewish existence a vital part of God’s plan. They viewed Jews as eternal outliers, dispersed throughout the world, functioning as sacred historians, designed to suffer, digest, and report on the adventures and misadventures of both Christian and pagan narratives. As a Jew, a Jew who writes historical fiction, their thesis works for me. But there’s another, a more Jewish take on history and memory.
The public memory is exceedingly short. I’ve mentioned in the past on these very pages that it astonishes me that people are forgetful of history as recent as fifty years in the past, let alone one hundred. I’ve met Jewish and gentile individuals who are vigilant, intense on the issue of American racism who have never heard of the White Citizens Councils of the ‘50s. I’m talking about Southerners whose parents lived through the civil rights terror in ways Northerners could never imagine, even those brave souls who spent a few weeks of their summers as voter registration workers during their student years. Non-Jews especially are poorly informed of old world pogroms and of the pre-Nazi, millennia-long flight of stateless Jews murdered en masse or hounded from country to country by state sponsored anti-Semites.
In my most recent novel, An Undisturbed Peace, I emphasize a curious correspondence between the Jewish and Native American Experience, obvious to any who know and compare the history of both peoples. Unfortunately, the catalogue of events afflicting Native Americans before The Trail of Tears is as obscured in modern memory as the two thousand years of Jewish Exile and oppression before World War II. I’ve been told over and over by advance readers of the novel “I never knew about that” or “Surely, you made this part up” when all I’ve done is take fleshed out characters and plopped them into the seamy caldron of historical fact.
Many of my fellow authors have chosen the Holocaust as subject, in the honorable and necessary effort to make sure the world never forgets. I find I cannot go there. The idea intimidates. The Holocaust is a most holy literary ground and I fear I may be too profane an author to render it properly. I leave works on the Holocaust to those with a deep familial connection or some other hook embedded inside their souls that pulls them into that dark, horrific time. I respect any creative mind taking up the challenge.
For now, I prefer to never forget, to witness the forces that shaped the world that allowed the Holocaust to happen. Why was America so slow to enter World War II? People knew or at the very least strongly suspected what was happening to the Jews of Europe, no matter how they covered their tracks or rationalized later on. Was it a hardness of national heart fostered by a history of slavery, racial oppression, rapacious settlers, Native American land grab and death march? These things are also matters we must never forget. As Aquinas and Augustine knew, there were Jewish witnesses all along the way. I plan to do my part in delivering their reports.
Which Is To Be Master?
Apparently, I am the cleaning lady of writers.
I was asked recently to join a forum at Goodreads discussing the whys and wherefores, maybe even the hows of writing. I admire and respect the forum leader, author Sharman Russell who writes award-winning nature and citizen science non-fiction as well as gloriously imaginative historic fiction, so I joined the group out of amity, without knowing what I’d have to offer.
Soon others initiated a community dialogue. What struck me most about the commentaries was that there was an excitement, a palpable energy to what was being said about the act of writing. There was reverence, even love.
And then I entered the fray. Me, the killjoy. I told the others I don’t seem to have the excitement they have about writing. I don’t know when it was that it became less of a metaphysical or spiritual or even consciously self-expressive activity for me. I suffered more than three decades of rejection before enjoying a measure of success. (It’s all about luck. Out of seven rejected novels, only one was truly bad. The rest were pretty good!) Somewhere along the way, writing became an occupation I neither reveled in nor approached mystically.
Too much rejection will do that.
Once a dear friend of mine replied when I was complaining of working too hard, “But your writing is not your work! It’s your passion!” I was offended although because I love her, I kept my mouth shut. It may be that my characters are full of passion for persons and ideas, but the me who writes them regards them with a colder eye. I don’t think of my writing as a passion at all. Writing is simply what I do, what I can not help doing. A compulsion, if you will. Often as much curse as blessing.
As author Peter Riva said in the forum, the pleasure is in the work. I agree there. It’s my conviction though that’s only because our minds need something to do. Minds wither without work. Souls, if you want to go there, do too. Simple as that. After all, is writing any different from many kinds of labor? You get up in the morning, you do it, applying your best energies, and hope for the best. You change direction, consider market, reject market when you have to, embrace it whenever you can. Sometimes you burn out. All forms of work require a degree of creativity when done well.
I’ve never felt a character possess me, or step away from me, or motivate itself, although my mind sometimes surprises me with a direction I hadn’t consciously anticipated. I’ve never understood what authors mean when they speak of characters who take over their work. That pose resembles schizophrenia to me. Or at the very least, recalls Lewis Carroll. Remember this exchange?
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’
I prefer to be master.
Of all the arts, I find writing most like music. When I’m intensely focused on my words, it’s their rhythm that most enthralls me, I think. I’m told by a friend/reader who is a professional musician that my prose has a distinct cadence, something involving triads. I haven’t a clue what that means to my process, or even if it’s true, but ever since he said it, I try to chop up my internal series of threes, just to be ornery, I guess. They crop up often. And ornery or not, I let many go rather than butcher them.
So, perhaps being self contradictory here, I believe there is an unconscious element in writing, unconscious in the Jungian sense. It may be neurotic, I don’t know, but it’s part of the pleasure and part of the compulsion both. Regardless, it’s the conscious shaping of that element that makes the work sing. Otherwise, it’s cacophony. It’s vital that the creator never lose control of the work, or the sound is like an orchestra playing on its own without a conductor. Banal, unshaped, unruly, dull.
I don’t think about why I write anymore. Or even how. Like everybody else who gets up and goes to work, I have a job to do. I get up. I do it. It gets done. Sometimes it’s a pleasure. Sometimes it’s drudgery. It’s work.
And work is good. Work is healthy. It doesn’t have to be anything else
The Dreaded Writing Process Blog
I am ashamed. I am very ashamed. I made a promise I have not kept. I’m now eleven days late in keeping it. I’ve resolved to keep it now, right here, but if I’ve lost the faith of those to whom I promised, I shall have to bear it, bowing my neck under all that bloody shame.
What was it that led me down this rocky road of broken vows and regret? The dreaded Writing Process Blog. I’ve done the Writing Process Blog before. It’s the one where authors tag each other, one after another, like toes in a morgue gone frantic post disaster or plague. You promise an author friend to answer four easy-peasy questions and to tag three other authors who will also do the same. You figure when solicited “Hey! It’s a snap. It’s good publicity for whatever I’m working on or just completed. I can do that. I can knock it off in a half hour! People will notice and look forward to the fascinating project I’ve described while being wowed by my uniquely brilliant process technique. Plus, I know I can find a few suckers willing to be tagged without hardly breaking a sweat.” You probably like the author who’s asked if they can tag you, as I do Debra Ann Pawlak, Hollywood historian extraordinaire, (www.debraannpawlak.com). You don’t want to disappoint. First you do the simple part – press author friends into the act. Then the four questions sit on your desk. And sit. And sit.
They sit for every author for different reasons. Some are busy promoting a new book in a dozen spheres at once. Some are having trouble finding that third author who’s willing to put his/her head – or is it toe? – in this particular noose. Some are stumped by the fourth question – What is your writing process? because they aren’t really sure they have one. They just write. My excuse? I’ve been too obsessed with my novel-in-progress to devote even a fraction of my precious writing energy to anything else. I’m pretty far along and I just want it done. Every ounce of verbal energy I have goes into it. I hate being taken away from it. I’ve written a tiny fraction of emails than my ‘normal’ lately. I’m surprised my friends haven’t written to ask if everything’s ok. I’ve pretty much stopped posting on Facebook.
Lots of my nonverbal energy is going into the new novel, too. You should see my house. Bedlam! I’ve even come to resent my Sabbath a little, which is a great sin and adds to my shame, because the one thing I refuse to do on Shabbos is write and of course, on Shabbos, my idle thoughts always turn to the most startling, fantastic ideas for my new novel which torments me. I’m admitting this during Selichot, I’ll have you know. (Non Jews will just have to take on faith that this is really, really significant. If I try to get into explaining Selichot, this blog will turn into a book.) Shame always brings out ugly truths.
So before Rosh HaShanah gets underway, I’ve got to get this one under my belt. I’ve already apologized (sort of since I was never really wrong) to my brother and knelt at the clay feet of a friend. It’s all part of preparing for the holidays and ensuring that Ha-Shem enscribes me – and my new novel – for a good year coming up. Agggh. It always boils down to selfish ambition in the end, no?
But enough explication. Here are my answers to the four questions of the Writing Process Blog.
l. What are you working on? How to explain? It’s an historical novel but character driven more than history driven. Sort of. It’s focus is the Cherokee Nation in the years leading up to and including the Trail of Tears after the Indian Removal Act of 1830, one of the great racist or imperialist (are they the same?) sins of the USofA. My characters include a beautiful Cherokee woman who is beloved by both a newly immigrated Jewish peddler and a black slave, so of course it’s a triangulated love story as well. Its working title is 25 Lashes which was the punishment under an 1824 law for a Cherokee woman who marries a black slave. Catchy no?
2. How does your work differ from others in its genre? Ok, I’m not sure what its genre is. My ego tells me it’s literary and all literary novels are different or they wouldn’t be such. My publisher’s marketers will probably say its Historical, Jewish, African American, and Native American. All I can say about that is it certainly covers a lot of bases.
3. Why do you write what you do? Damned if I know. I just need to write. After 45 years, I don’t question it. It’s just what I do. As to 25 Lashes, my agent, the oh so delightfully brilliant Peter Riva, suggested the Trail of Tears as a subject to me after my last novel, Marching to Zion, about Deep South racism and antisemitism in the 1920s-1930s won his heart. He thought I could handle the subject with extraordinary sensitivity and drama. From his mouth to God’s ear.
4. What is your writing process? Oh my dear. I get up in the morning and sit down at the desk. I listen to the voice. I pound at the keyboard. That’s about it.
So now the dreaded blog is done. Hopefully sometime before I light my candles for Rosh HaShanah, Debra Ann Pawlak will forgive me for taking so long. All I’ve got left to do is tag my authors and here they are:
Susan Morse, http://www.susanmorse.me, bestselling author of The Habit and the recently released, The Dog Stays in the Picture: Lessons Learned from a Rescue Greyhound. Read her. She’s touching, funny, and informative all at once.
Sonia Taitz, http://www.soniataitz.com, author of bestselling The Watchmaker’s Daughter, In The King’s Arms, Mothering Heights, and the soon to be released, Down Under, a story of first love and second chances. One of the smartest women I know.
Susan Blumberg Kason, http://www.susanblumbergkason.com, debut author of the riveting memoir, Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong. Here’s one you should keep an eye on. The woman’s going places.
So take it away, ladies! The Writing Process Blog is your problem now!