Prelude to a Poem

When my great-grandfather, Kaufmann Dreifus, was living and working in a tiny German village a century ago he could not possibly have imagined the event taking place this weekend: the Bat Mitzvah ceremony of one of his great-great-grandchildren in Columbus, Ohio. (I suspect he would have found the very concept of a “Bat Mitzvah” just as alien as a mention of “Columbus, Ohio.”)

I know little about Kaufmann Dreifus since he died when his children (my grandfather and his older sister [the Bat Mitzvah girl’s great-grandmother], by a first marriage, and Grandpa’s younger brother by the second), were still quite young, and my grandfather did not speak much about him. The good thing, if there can be a good thing about Kaufmann’s early death, is that he missed the 1930s altogether.

Had he lived, Kaufmann Dreifus would have seen all three of his children (fortunately) leave Germany before the end of that decade. He would have learned of marriages in new homelands to other German-Jewish refugees, and, eventually, of grandchildren born in what was then called Palestine, in New York, and in Iowa (another place I’m not sure he ever knew about). He might have lived long enough to know that he had 17 great-grandchildren, though it’s doubtful that he would have seen the following generation–the one including the Bat Mitzvah girl–arrive and grow up.

My grandfather’s parents and their mysterious histories have already inspired a short story (forthcoming in TriQuarterly this winter). This weekend, I sense that their descendants will prove just as inspirational. This time, I think I’ll be writing a poem. I already have the title in mind. The rest will come in Columbus.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

I don’t live very far from The Jewish Museum, and yesterday, a gloriously sunny early autumn Saturday, I finally made my way over to see two exhibits: Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Lower East Side: Photographs by Bruce Davidson, and Camille Pissarro: Impressions of City and Country.

What a terrific way to spend part of my Saturday.

Especially in the immediate aftermath of the latest Nobel literature award, I appreciated the chance to learn more about Singer (1904-91), who won that prize back in 1978. “His” exhibit occupies just one large room filled with Davidson’s photographs, with a corner reserved for screening a film on which Singer collaborated, Isaac Singer’s Nightmare and Mrs. Pupko’s Beard.

The black-and-white photographs capture a world of which Singer was very much a part, but Davidson found subjects beyond the writer as well. One of the most affecting pictures shows an elderly rabbi, tefillin wrapped around his arm and only partially concealing the numbers tattooed there.

As for the Pissarro (1830-1903) exhibit, I had only dimly realized, if at all, the artist’s singular status as “the Jewish Impressionist.” Most of the works I associated with him came from his decidedly Impressionist approach; I hadn’t realized how much he had stretched himself with “newer” styles that reminded me more of Seurat or Van Gogh than Renoir or Monet. And much as I’ve studied the Dreyfus Affair (and believe me, with a Ph.D. in Modern French history, I have studied it), I didn’t realize how anti-Dreyfusard some of Pissarro’s fellow artists turned out to be, and how some of his friendships suffered at that time.

Taken together, the two exhibits also made me think of a recurrent question (see this post for some background): How do we define “Jewish” artists/writers? Singer quite clearly wrote of Jewish characters and Jewish settings; Pissarro’s work, at least what I’ve seen of it, reveals no such focus. And yet there they are, featured together on the second floor of The Jewish Museum. Pissarro died when Singer was two; together, their lives spanned 171 years of history.

There’s still time to see both exhibits–they’re both around until February 3, 2008. (If you can’t get to New York, you can take a virtual tour of the Pissarro show here.) But do try to catch them!

Yes, It Was a Genocide

I was really troubled when I read on CNN.com yesterday that the White House was lobbying against a House resolution that would label the murders of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey during World War I a “genocide.” Fortunately, the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved the resolution anyway.

Anyone who has any doubts about the relevance of the term “genocide” in this case should read Peter Balakian’s Black Dog of Fate, which I remember buying–and devouring–in Iowa City the summer it was published. It’s a powerful, powerful book. And I certainly thought about it yesterday.

TBR: Exit Ghost (and The Ghost Writer)

If you keep up with new books, you’re probably noticing a wave of critical attention being given to Philip Roth’s latest novel, Exit Ghost. I’m just going to point you to one review, by James Wood in this week’s New Yorker. But I will suggest that you spend additional reading time reading (or re-reading, as the case may be), Roth’s The Ghost Writer, which launched the Zuckerman series and, based on the reviews of the new work that I’ve seen thus far, is very much connected with Exit Ghost in a way that I’m not sure the other Zuckerman novels may be. (I admit I haven’t read them all [yet!].)

Hebrew Literature in Translation

A few years ago, when I had the good fortune to discover the works of Israeli writer Orly Castel-Bloom, I had the corresponding luck to find a terrific resource for information on other Israeli authors, too: the “Hebrew Authors” directory on the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature Web site. Check it out the next time you want to learn more about books originally published in Hebrew (or if you want to start such an exploration). I use it, for example, to check when I’ll be able to locate Castel-Bloom’s new work in translation, as well as to deepen my acquaintance with other authors I come across.