Posted Ian Shulman
Bel Kaufman is more than just another example of a writer who’s success did not depend on a legendary relative. While her grandfather Sholem Aleichem dedicated his work to the life of poor Russian shtetl Jews at the turn of the twentieth century, Bel’s main concern was the social situation in the American high schools of the 1960s. Still, family ties are not the only thing that unite a 101-year old best-selling author with classic Yiddish literature. We got a chance to talk with Bel Kaufman about Jewish humour, literary inheritance, Tevye the Milkman and many things more.
- In Eastern Europe and Russia, the places where Sholem Aleichem and his characters lived, a lot of people know you and know and love your books, but the first thing which comes to their minds when thinking about you is the fact that you are the granddaughter of Sholem Aleichem.
- I’m the only one in the whole world alive who knew him. I remember sitting and holding his hand, I remember his laugh. I was very little when he died. He died in 1916, and I was born in 1911. But he had an enormous influence on my childhood, my writing and my life.
- How exactly did he influence your writing? What are the things you can say you have inherited from him?
- I don’t know if you could inherit a talent. But you could inherit the background, the desire, the wish. When my first book, ‘Up The Down Staircase’ came out, I was told that the critics were very kind. They wrote ‘the same humour and compassion’, ‘she wears the mantel well’. In other words, they gave me the permission to be a writer. How can i write when my grandfather was a legend? How dare I? So the critics permitted me. I’ve heard the voice saying ‘Allright, Bellochka, you can also write’.
First it was just notes, not a book. Finally, The Saturday Review published it. The editor asked me: ‘Can you expand these three pages into a book?’ I said: ‘No, no, I’m not a novelist. I’m a teacher’ - I said it with pride, - A teacher of English. I write short stories for the magazines, but not novels’. They gave me an advance and I spent it. What could I do? I had to write a book.
- But was the book still based on your notes? On the real stories which happened to you?
- Fiction. And the best compliment I get from critics was that they think I just copied everything.
- I noticed that you and your grandfather have a similar sense of humor. It often seems that this kind of humor is something from the past. Do you think it can also exist now, or is it exclusively connected with those Jewish people from Eastern Europe?
- It’s hard to say. I gave a course last summer in Hunter College on Jewish humour, and we discovered that most of the comedians, humorist writers, stand up comics in this country are Jewish. Why? Well, from the ghetto Jews had so little. All they had was communication. They didn’t have food, they didn’t have health, they didn’t have money. They communicated. My grandfather heard their communication and loved it. He loved the Yiddish language and he decided to write in it, although he wrote very well in Hebrew and in Russian. He corresponded with Chekhov and with Gorky in beautiful Russian, and we talked only in Russian in our family. Yiddish was the language of the kitchen, illiterate women. He raised it to the level of literature, and that’s his great contribution.
- Do you know why Sholem Aleichem only spoke Russian at home?
- Because we lived in Russia!
- But Jews in Russia were primarily speaking Yiddish in those days…
- If you live in a country that has its own language, you should speak this language. When I spent a summer in France, I spoke French. So we spoke Russian. We understood Yiddish, my grandfather used to read his stories to us, and the children used to fight to sit near him. We understood his stories, we were his first audience.
- Sholem Aleichem wrote about Jews and Jewish life. Did you ever have an idea to write on such topics?
- I wasn’t brought up in a shtetl, was not brought up in a Jewish town. I always lived in large cities. I was born in Berlin, lived in Odessa, in Kiev, in Moscow. Everywhere I spoke the language of the city.
- When I was reading ‘Up The Down Staircase’, I was keeping in mind that you were a teacher and the novel was based on the stories from your teacher life. The novel is all about problem children, which are extremely hard to teach and communicate with. Did you have such experience yourself?
- You raise an interesting point. Sholem Aleichem is considered a great humorist. What did he write about? The poverty, the need, the sickness of the Jewish people in the shtetl. But the stories were funny. He was able to see the tragedy with a humorous eye. I wrote ‘Up The Down Staircase’, my first book, and people think it’s very funny. It is - they laugh. I described the terrible situation in public high schools, lack of communication, the ignorance of the directors, but I was making it funny. That what he did. I didn’t realize until the book was published - that what he does! Interesting.
- I didn’t think of that. That’s actually the answer to my first question, about the inheritance. It’s probably this humor, ability to view sad things from the humorous point of view.
- I don’t know whether it’s inherited or acquired. But the fact is that everybody in my family wrote. My father, although he was a doctor, was a poet, a translator, a writer, a painter, a sculptor. He made little sculptures out of Russian bread, and I had it for 90 years - I brought it from Russia. He turned it to the consistency of clay, he baked them, painted them - they are still here. His proud moment was when he needed to get a special permission from the Soviet government to export his ‘works of art’.
- How do young American Jews perceive Shalom-Aleichem? Things and culture he wrote about are something they hardly know.
- We had an interesting weekend a few days ago in Washington D.C. I was invited to three days of the Sholem Aleichem festival. We talked about Sholem Aleichem and I gave a talk about my book. Young people loved him. Not the way I love Nabokov or Dostoevsky, but rather like a close member of a Jewish family. I once gave a talk about him in Montreal, Canada. At the end an old man was wheeled up to the stage by a nurse. He said: I live in an old people’s home. I’m blind, I cannot see you. I’m deaf, I cannot hear you. But when I learned Sholem Aleichem’s granddaughter was here, I insisted they bring me so that I could touch my hand. He touched my hand. I never forgot it. So you mention Sholem-Aleichem to a Jew and his face lights up. He was loved. He died young from tuberculosis, which was incurable in those days. Once in Baranovichi, a little town where he was giving a talk, he felt very sick. He was lying in a bed coughing with blood. A young man from that town spent hours covering a cobbled-stone street under his window so the passing horse carriage wouldn’t disturb him. That’s love.
- Can non-Jewish people perceive his books in the same way Jewish people do?
Not in the same way probably. But many people love his translations and certainly one of the most popular American musical, ‘The Fiddler On The Roof’ done by Sheldon Harnick. When we went to see the opening night, my mother was alive then, she kept saying to me: ‘It’s papa? It’s not papa!’ ‘Mama, it’s not papa, but it’s a beautiful American musical show.’
But do you know there was a real Tevye? You see that painting? It’s an interesting story. My husband and I were walking down the Madison Avenue, we saw this painting in the window. I said: ‘You know, it smells like spring. Let’s go and see what it is’. We walked in the gallery. The man said ‘Oh, that’s Tevye. Tevye The Milkman, by a Russian painter called Shenker’. So we bargained about the price and I bought it. He called the artist, and I’ve heard him talking on the phone to his mother in Brooklyn saying: ‘Mama, guess who bought my Tevye!’
Tevye was a very short skinny man with a funny black beard, which he grew out of his neck, not his chin. He used to deliver milk, cheese and eggs to Sholem Aleichem’s family in the countryside where they lived. Sholem Aleichem enjoyed talking with him, so he began writing in a local newspaper stories about Tevye The Milkman and his seven daughters. The ‘Fiddler’ had only five. Tevye The Milkman became a local celebrity. His customers used to say: ‘Come in, Reb Tevye, have a glass of tea, Reb Tevye’. He had no daughters at all, but Sholem Aleichem invented them. I never met Tevye, but my family had. When ‘Fiddler On The Roof’ was played in Japan, a Japanese actor played Tevye. When he was interviewed, he said: ‘Do you Americans actually understand this play? This is a Japanese play! It has all the things we value: tradition, family feeling…’
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May 19, 2012 | 5:01 am
Posted Linda Katz
The need for Jewish Literacy was discussed at a Plenary Session during AJC’s ACCESS conference. Jewish literacy (likely) includes the need to understand Judaism and what it means to be Jewish. The speaker encouraged each of us to seek the path of self-education, implying the challenge as first learning enough to ask questions. And answers always raise more questions.
Different sessions at the conference all suggested the same thing:Jewish literacy is founded in knowledge, action, and willingness to dance to any and all music. It’s a foundation that expands into world Jewry, something I discovered as I chatted with attendees from around the U.S. and Europe. Learning that Macedonia’s Jewish population totals to 150, I revisited a personal and persistent question about Jewish identity—what does it mean to be Jewish?
World Jewry surely holds secrets about Jewish Literacy. I was lucky to attend the conference with the Jewrnalism delegation, a group of young Jews reporting on Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe. Discussing these issues with them uncovered thoughts – and – ‘secrets’.
Some shared secrets:
Small and growing communities exist in Holocaust ravaged countries.
Eastern European Jewish history (and literacy) extends beyond the six years of the Holocaust;
Poland was the center of Jewish life for hundreds (?) of years, and, Polish Jews are NOT anti-Poland (unlike many Americans and Israeli’s);
Jewish life extends beyond the shtetl, and, places like Vilna and Krakow are hip, modern cities;
Israeli’s ‘Birthright’ experience of visiting concentration camps misses the mark on an important volume of Jewish Literacy by NOT visiting the living Jewish souls who live (here.)
Faced with assimilation and competition with time and energy in a secular world, defining and promoting Jewish Literacy seems increasingly important. Opportunities for self-education with AJC and groups like Jewrnalism can teach both where we have been as a people and where we are going.
May 14, 2012 | 1:21 pm
Posted Itamar Treves-Tchelet
The two brown horses gallop lightly on the famous Viennese Ringstrasse. They remain calm, even when cars drive by from left and right. “This part is called Karl-Lueger-Ring, after the former Mayor, who happened to be a big Anti-Semite. Last week I heard that the city is going to rename it – and justified”, the carter explains, surprisingly in Hebrew! Well, not an academic Hebrew, “but good enough for the kitchen”, he admits.
His name is Rupert Adensamer. He’s 34, studied the history of the Middle East, originally Viennese. Most of his life, he has spent among his horses. For the last three years he was occupied with conveying the story of the Austrian Capital through the most authentic method: on the carriage. But one thing separates him from his other jealous comrades: Rupert has a connection to Israel; such as only the ones who rode across it on a horse’s back could understand.
Rupert Adensamer first came to Israel at the age of 22, for the purpose of a national service, instead of going to the Austrian military.“ I worked for the remedial community ‘Kfar Rafael’ in Beer Sheva. There I lived exactly like in a Kibbutz”, he remembers, “as the time went by, I learned the language from the residents.” The mission ended after 6 months, but Adensamer continued coming every few months during his vacation from the university. “It was the time of the second Intifada, and rockets started falling in southern Israel. Since there was a difficulty with recruiting more volunteers from Europe, they kept on calling me. I was always very happy to come.”
Eventually, it was a relationship with an Israeli ‘Kibbutz-Girl’ that led to a new passion: Horse Breeding in Israel. “My girlfriend’s dad sympathized Shagya Arabian horses, exactly the same type that my family has been breeding for the last 40 years. So I offered that we open up a stable in the Kibbutz. We started out with 3 horses that my family gave us. Today I have 11 horses together with other Israeli partners.”
Sounds like a successful business.
“From the beginning I said that it won’t turn into a business. It’s about vision, family, about love to the horses that brings people together despite their differences. And in the middle-eastern reality – this is a very important asset. Although, we do specialize the horses to compete in ‘Endurance’ competitions for distances of 120km and more. These contests are very popular in the Arabian countries, like in Jordan where even Israeli groups take part in.”
Is there a difference between owning horses in Israel and in Europe?
“The big difference is that in Europe, you could actually make a living out of it. In Israel there is a very young tradition in this field. Israelis tend to focus too much on the final goal, not on enjoying the road to it, and in the meanwhile they complain that the horses are not fast enough. Also historically, Jews had never the image of horsemen. Besides that, I’m always worried about thefts. Last week, somebody tried to steal my horses in Israel. You need to understand, that each time a horse gets stolen, there goes also his genetics. This genetics is crucial for the race’s breeding. That is why I keep my horses in different stables. The positive side is that in the northern Israel you have the ideal conditions for the horses. I think that I would be happy to be a carter along the beach of Tel Aviv.”
At a certain point, the carriage turns away from the Ringstrasse and enters the old city of Vienna. “This was the Emperor’s residence during the winter”, Adensamer says while maneuvering between hundreds of curious tourists, and then he asks: “do you see this balcony? It was installed by order of the Baron Wilsczeck so it will turn directly to Sissi’s room window.”
How do you adjust the content of your tours to the different tourists?
“Sometimes the people I take with me are not interested in history. In case they do, I try to put up a comedy show while adjusting the content to the nationality: the Argentineans are interested in Sigmond Freud’s old house, the Japanese want to know everything about Mozart. The Arabs are more interested in Shopping. The Israelis are the noisiest, but they also have the best mood. They always think that I try to fool them, but once I start to talk in Hebrew, they already feel like at home and I become a part of the family.”
So you’re addicted to the Middle East.
“Look, everything that happened in my life regarding this region was a coincident. I wanted to study history, and if you keep your eyes open, there’s no way that you miss this tensed topic. I think that Israel is, without its fault, too much in the focus of the international media. Like there aren’t any other disasters in the world. I also noticed that we in Europe are much more stressed about the possible war with Iran than Israel. Because you have bunkers.”
Do you see how the world politics also affect the world of horse breeding?
“Through horse breeding you can save entire races that almost disappeared due to the world wars. The Lipizzaner, which are so beloved by the Austrians, were almost extinct after WW1. The devotion of one man saved them. Or for instance: in the 18th century, the horses back then were considered to be too heavy for their role in the postal service and in the military. So Arabian horses were brought from the Middle East to Europe. The horses became then lighter and more human friendly. A real “Arabization”. It came to the situation in which the Bedouins have sold their entire species. Only in 1994 they managed to save their horses from extinction. Thanks to the water distribution agreement during the peace treaty with Israel.“
And there is probably a lot of politics in the world of carters.
“Everybody here are equal. If there is someone who has a wrong attitude, the things will be addressed directly. Women have it much easier in this job. Carters have also a bad image in the Austrian society: either we are gamblers and alcoholic, or we are technology deniers. Which is sometimes true. Each and any one of us has also a nickname. Mine is ‘Herr Magister’, after my academic degree. When they want to hurt me, they call me ‘Judenschwein’ (Pig-Jew). It started when I tried to help an Israeli lady during an argument she had with one of my colleagues. After I spoke to her in Hebrew, the other carter became angry since he thought that I tried to arrange something behind his back. Some of the carters here do not understand that the fact that I speak Hebrew and lived in Israel, does not make me Jewish. But they don’t care. It made me understand how deep the Anti-Semitism is rooted in some Viennese. And they never even met a Jew in their live. Even as my friends in Israel told me how common the Anti-Semitism in Austria is, I couldn’t believe it. Until I experienced it by myself. For this kind of people I’ll be a Jew on purpose.”
Why did you choose this job, even though you’re academic?
“First, I earn here much more than in the academy. Second, after many years of travelling, I had to stabilize my life. I reached the conclusion that I prefer to be with my family and my horses, especially when they eat and I can relax with them. And indeed, I managed to build my own urban Kibbutz in the middle of Vienna: I don’t need my phone because everybody know where I am, I don’t have traffic problems, I don’t need a parking lot. I have the perfect balance between city and nature. But still, this job takes over your life. When everybody are on vacation, I need to work. When they are at work, I need to take care of the horses. Either you are a carter for life, or none.”
May 14, 2012 | 1:18 pm
Posted Ewa Popowska
When on July 24th,1944 the movie crew entered the area of the concentration camp in Majdanek, the blood was still running down the stairs, discarded by the Nazis, who in the last few hours of being stationed there before the escape, did everything within their means to destroy as much as they could. At that time, the camp at Auschwitz still had not been liberated. The material recorded by cameraman, Stanisław Wohl, used in the first documentary film about the Nazi camp, Majdanek - cmentarzysko Europy (1944), is an authentic witness of history.
It was literally a matter of hours before the prisoners of this death camp were to be set free by the Polish and Russian Army, approaching from the East. Few survived those last moments of the camp activity. A large part of the camp was blown up by the escaping soldiers and hundreds of victims were shot in the very last minutes before the liberation.
Simple narration, emphatically commentated with voice over, shows the interiors of the camp, still in a state of ruin, with fresh signs of Nazis’ crimes, when the information about German death camps was being spread around the world but still not in a concrete form. Bodies laying around the place in chaos are cruelly real. So are the tears of the people coming there to find their friends and relatives, just realizing what had been happening behind the wall. Those prisoners, from different parts of Europe, who survived the horror of Majdanek, are saying to the camera what they went through during the war. Their words answer the camp descriptions made by captured German soldiers. The documentary includes authentic statements from both sides. Of those beaten, and those who did the beating.
This is what one of the pioneers’ of cinema theory, Bolesław Matuszewski, defined as a purpose of the cinema itself - to be a source of history. First of all, Majdanek… is a priceless testimony to the past. Nevertheless, it is necessary to know the context of its production, namely that the movie is not independent from the Soviet propaganda. Majdanek is being called ‘a new Hitlerite Katyń’, since it was made and censored by a group of filmmakers strongly connected with the Red Army. It was not enough to just expose the enemy’s fault, but to manipulate the movie viewers into having a positive image of Soviet politics.
Although Majdanek… is signed by Aleksander Ford, a highly controversial character in the history of Polish cinema, he is said to not have even appeared on the movie set, which was the territory of the camp. Although he never admitted that in public, Ford was from Jewish descent, which was not a secret. As a Jew, he probably did not want to see something which so easily, could have happened to him, if at a certain point in his life he had found himself in different circumstances. In the end, his main input into the final effect was during the montage of the material.
Watching the documentary now, almost seventy years after it was made, is still thrilling and appalling. Footage which ruthlessly shows corpses, the blood and bones of victims, which were so close to being freed, stays in the mind forever. Drastically authentic material was being used so often in non-fiction about the Holocaust and World War II. Nevertheless, let’s not forget the fact that using those recordings not only as evidence, but also as a subjective propaganda, is hard to forgive considering such a difficult and delicate case.
May 14, 2012 | 1:14 pm
Posted Linda Katz
Innovation is often born from necessity. Israel’s environmental partnership began long before climate change became an ‘issue’, allowing the country to grow and thrive. Israel learned to produce food (in the desert) and conserve water, two resources needed for life, yet overshadowed in perceived value by oil and gemstones. Promoting Israel as a leader and teacher is vital as discussed in the Science and Environment session during AJC’s Access conference.
The facts: Kibbutzniks, as early as 1910, turned arid (then) Palestine into a land of milk and honey to feed a growing populous. The irony being many of these early farmers coming from Eastern Europe were prohibited from owning land, prohibited from farming. Drip irrigation, ‘Israeli-style’, may feed expanding world populations on an increasingly dry planet. Israel is number one in water reclamation, recycling 75% of its sewage and wastewater. For perspective, Spain is second, reclaiming 25%. Draught is igniting wars in Africa.
It’s not much of a stretch to say (most) wars and genocides are waged over resources such as oil, water, land, diamonds, and, of course power. Countries such as Cypress, Brazil, Argentina and Uganda are already learning about water management from Israel. A lesson most nations will need to master for survival, and, peace. Our AJC session declared the need to spread the word on campuses and beyond about Israel’s ability to lead in water management. Two Canadian women created the brilliant slogan: Water ISaRAEL Issue. Our group, led by Ruth Renert of MEKOROT, Israel’s National Water Company called for a day of action on March 22nd, International Water Day.
We can spread the word by taking actions large and small. Necessity: Building relationships, nations must work together to save life through water. Innovation: These same nations putting aside hate and anti-Israel/Semitism to survive. The need is real. We must help share Israel’s strengths.
May 14, 2012 | 1:06 pm
Posted Mendelssohn X
Article taken from: http://www.jewdyssee.com
Yesterday I posted the Ynet-article about the extremist group „Lehava“ who currently runs „Jewish Girls – Don´t date Non-Jews“-campaigns in Israel.
Interestingly, many decent people told me in private that those issues should be silenced because they could cause bad PR for Israel in these harsh times. The thing is just that as most Jews in the post-holocaust era, I have a good nose for Antisemitism, but additionally, as a German Jew I smell Nazism like a police dog smells drug particles.
And Nazism doesn´t start at the entrance door of Auschwitz, Nazism starts when someone like Hitler writes in 1923 about his anger of seeing blond German girls date Jewish men. It may be news to some people, but yes, „getting drunk“ and „being drunk“ are interrelated.
In the comments below the article some readers defended it by saying: Yes, this is important, because intermarriage is a silent holocaust.
I am serious, that is what they said.
I once wrote a text about this, which I didn’t publish because of bad timing, but I think right here, right now, is the right place to publish it. But before I do, I want to make it clear that I am not like those people who made the „ad“:
Everyone is free to choose his/her partner according to their own rules, and if observant religion is your top priority, you might wanna look for a similar partner, that´s fine. As we say: Find out what interests you and be as good as you can. But this is a highly confidential and personal decision. And if people make anti-Arab campaigns comparable to “Kauft nicht bei Juden”, it is a declaration of war against everything which is good about the Judaism I grew up with.
The creation of Israel, the Jewish State is a true miracle. So many utopias of the 19th and 20th centuries have failed, even the Soviet Union ceased to exist – only Israel, only Zionism managed to maintain this tiny state based on an idea. And world Jewry needed it. We, who were born after all the big wars, what do we know about being Jewish after the holocaust but before the Six-Day-War? After all, the viciousness of the Nazis was so beyond anything imaginable, so it is understandable that people have fears when being in countries with non-Jewish majorities. To me it is obvious that the lesson from history is that we need both a strong Jewish state and strong cosmopolitan Judaism worldwide. Ministers from Netanyahu´s coalition have described intermarriage in the diaspora as a „silent holocaust“. This is a very vicious way of holocaust denial. As if there is no difference between non-Jews trying to kill Jews, and non-Jews who are marrying Jews. So in official ads you hear slogans like „Intermarriage is Hitler´s victory“. Anyone who didn´t learn history from Groupthink motivations, but is willing to understand what actually happened between 1933 and 1945, knows that it is exactly the other way around. If Jews had remained in the Shtetl, orthodox and only among themselves, Hitler would have probably given them minor importance. He didn’t hate the Jew for keeping Jewish traditions. Don´t mix him up with the Greeks you know from Hanukkah. He hated them for entering and destroying his illusion of a racially pure Germanic tradition. He didn´t hate the Rebbe, he hated the cosmopolitan Jewish artists and activists, who gave young readers dreams about a better world, an international world, against the narrow-mindedness which Hitler thought to be the ideal. Hitler didn´t hate Jewish prayers as much as he hated articles like the one you are reading right now. And some Jewish leaders like Jabotinsky would have supported him in this, as also revisionist Zionism thought that the biggest problem of the Jewish nation is their prophetic dream of having the lamb sleep next to the wolf. Moral restraints were viewed as a sickness of the diaspora that rooted from political weakness. Hitler said the same thing with different words: The Jews have invented the conscience and moral guilt. Having the Likud Party, that comes from this revisionist Zionism, ruling in Israel, and me existing in Berlin, I guess you can tell what my answer would be to the question of who defeats Hitler more and who keeps his spirit alive not knowing the facts on the ground.
We need to free ourselves from the burden of defining our identity in a negative way. It cannot be that the only thing that keeps us together is that we were persecuted together. This seems like a strong answer, but it is a weakness as it is a self-impression based on the reactions of other people. Freedom, Jewish freedom, is what we gain when we make our agenda, because it comes from the innermost part of our hearts. And this needs to be defended against all threats from the outside as well as the inside. A people of 13 million with such a history and an amount of attention as if it were 500 million can only sustain if it has a special mission. If Hitler thinks that we invented morality we shouldn´t act like Jabotinsky who responds „Yes, you are right, sorry about that.“ Rather, we should be proud that we know what the next steps of humankind ought to be, even if this is too much for some Austrian idiot to understand. For this mission, we need our supreme ability to remember. Therefore we have to remember much darkness, such as the Holocaust. But the question remains, what do we do with the memories? Do we instrumentalize them or do we truly mourn? Every culture has something to offer to the world. The Hebrew prophets with their holy sermons against the oppressor but also for the widow and the orphan, is a gift to the world of such beauty—a world that should be a source of a self-conscious and humble pride. After seeing pogroms and mass murder it is understandable that some of us thought the solution is doing whatever it takes in order to become a normal nation just like other people. As Ben Gurion said: There should also be Jewish prostitutes.
But the only problem in this equation is that people don´t want to be LIKE other people. They simply are other people. So let our lesson from the Holocaust not be that we have to construct ourselves as separate from the world as Hitler and the Halachah want us to be. Let´s defeat Hitler by being proud of the fact that we stand for everything that he hated, and that we are still around, flourishing, with so many good people from NY to Berlin and Haifa to Eilat.