The New Conversational Anarchist
September 10, 2009
This article comes from the local newspaper when the Bentley University Police Department visited my son's class at school. He is clearly the star of this article and impressively articulate for such a little tyke. May he continue to get positive press!
I can't figure out how to make the link work, so I'm pasting the article below. Welcome to Google Zevi!
By Joyce Kelly/Daily News staff
Daily News Tribune
Linked together by a colored cloth chain, 20 kids marched outside the YMCA to the parking lot, and squealed in delight, "I see it! I see it!"
They had spotted Bentley University police Sgt. Robert Lynn's cruiser, and got even more excited when its blue lights started flashing.
Lynn visited the class of 2- to 4-year-olds as part of the YMCA's community helpers program, which features people in professions that help others, said preschool teacher Kelley DeCola.
Kids were tickled as Lynn hammed it up, ordering them, "Put your hands up!" and demanding to know, "Who did that?"
They giggled, then screamed and quickly covered their ears at the sound of the cruiser's horn.
Lynn explained what police officers do and how they help people - such as helping an elderly woman find her car. He showed them the various tools on his belt used to control "bad people," including handcuffs, pepper spray, and a baton.
Kids got to explore the cruiser, and received a badge at the end of the visit.
The general consensus among the kids: "He was funny!"
"I liked sitting in the police officer's car," said Zev Papernick, age 3.
Charlotte Assencio, clutching a bag of fish-shaped crackers, said she too, liked sitting in his car. She held her fingers up to indicate that she is "number thwee" years old.
Amanda Snaden, also 3, said Lynn was funny and she liked the sirens and flashing lights.
Pointing to the cruiser, Papernick exclaimed, "I liked that thing!"
DeCola said the presentation "went great" and will continue with a visit from a doctor today, and firefighters next week.
"The kids had a lot of fun with it, and Rob was great, very bubbly," said DeCola.
September 2, 2009
Eleven of us met to talk about Jon Papernick’s unsettling collection of short stories. Several noted the author’s powerful and unique writing style; just about everyone experienced a sense of hopelessness and distress while reading about the characters. Such darkness isn’t surprising considering that all of the tales take place in Israel, the focus of a great deal of distressing and seemingly hopeless news stories over the years. However DJ, DS & JS were frustrated with the unrelentingly disturbing tone of Papernick’s stories, longing for acknowledgment of the great number of thoughtful Israelis that don’t engage in extreme and bizarre behavior.
Papernick’s stories spurred lively discussion about and tales of members’ travels in Israel. DJ told us about the dramatic differences in her experiences walking through Jerusalem, depending on her company - Jewish, Arab, or walking solo. BC reviewed the history of the creation of the state of Israel, pointing out the colonialism, war, and displacement of peoples that have contributed to the apparently unresolvable conflict over the land that exists today. He felt the stories would be more meaningful to those who are familiar with the history of the Middle East.
This reader was stunned by the story of “An Unwelcome Guest.” A young Jewish settler plays a deadly game of backgammon with an old Arab who mysteriously appears in his kitchen late at night with family in tow. JW felt this story should be required reading at the United Nations.
Those who wished for more hope and wit in the tales will be interested to know that Papernick’s latest work is full of humor. A Waltham resident, Papernick read from his as yet unpublished novel, Sharpy, at the Library on June 25th. In the chapter he read to us, the main character, a con artist on the run, meets his girlfriend’s intimidating parents when she brings him to their home to stay for a while. His writing is as fine as ever, and he had us laughing out loud.
September 2, 2009
SUNDAY, DECEMBER 7, 2008
I know it's been a while since I have posted anything. But I have been busy with my little ones, changing approximately 7,321 diapers since July.
Now for the good news.
My second collection of short stories, There is no Other will be published by Exile Editions in 2010.
More details to come later.
September 2, 2009
FRIDAY, JUNE 13, 2008
Interview in the New Vilna Review
An Interview With Novelist Jon Papernick
June 12, 2008
Boston-based Novelist Jon Papernick recently took some time to answer a few questions via email for the New Vilna Review. He is the author of The Ascent of Eli Israel and the novel Who by Fire, Who by Blood and recently completed his second collection of short stories. He also working on adapting Who by Fire into a graphic novel with artist Sandy Jimenez. His website may be viewed at www.jonpapernick.com
NVR: Jewish themes are obviously dominant in your work, can you tell us a little about your own Jewish experience growing up and how that influenced you as a writer?
Interestingly, my Jewish experience growing up was minimal and slightly negative. I really wasn't connected to the Jewish community in any way except for the fact that many of my friends were Jewish. However, I flunked out of Hebrew school in first grade, and hated Sunday school, [which, strangely was on Saturday]. I did, however have a bar mitzvah and there is unfortunately videotape floating around somewhere. I felt some sort of shame at being Jewish and did not want to be persecuted for something I did not believe in. Interestingly, I've never really faced anti-Semitism in any major way, but my antennae have always been up and are very sensitive. t wasn't until I went to Israel when I was 22, almost by chance, that I suddenly found a sense of pride in myself as a Jew. I also found that I was part of a tradition and have been working my way slowly through that with my writing. Strangely, in many ways my religious education has come through the writing of my stories. I sit in debate with myself in front of my computer and work out solutions to my puzzling questions.
NVR: Do you feel that you background in journalism informs your approach to fiction? And if so, how?
I don't think that my background in journalism informs my approach to fiction at all. In fact, even when I was working as a journalist, I always saw myself as a fiction writer, and that is the way that I see the world. In some ways, I look at the world as I would retell it. I thought that journalism would be a nice way to feed into my fiction writing, but it really exhausted my desire to write altogether.
NVR: In your fiction there are many different kinds of Jews and Jewish worlds interacting, and at times, colliding. Is this kind of connectivity and interactivity something that consciously informs your writing?
I'm not sure I fully understand this question, but I certainly believe as a fiction writer and as a thinker that collisions of opposing forces are fascinating, and often lead to startling revelations.
NVR: In addition to being a working writer, you have also taught creative writing. Do you enjoy the teaching process? Do you find that there is any connection between the work you do on the page and that which you do in the classroom?
I very much enjoy teaching creative writing. I enjoy the teaching process and for the most part I enjoy my students. I take pride in what I do in the same way that I take pride in my writing. I find the teaching allows me to keep the writing dialogue going on a daily basis when I'm not writing. I access the same parts of my brain when teaching writing that I do when I'm writing, so I find that it helps keep me sharp. Of course, I'd rather not have 18 students in each class, because that can be very demanding. Ideally one day I’d like to be able to take on a smaller teaching load and still be able to support my writing addiction.
NVR: What are you working on at the moment?
I recently sent out my second collection of short stories to publishers, and am still waiting for a response. In the meantime, I'm working on my second novel which I don't want to talk about in any detail right now. All I will say is that it should be a lot more fun and fast paced than Who by Fire, Who by Blood, which was amazingly difficult for me to write. The darkness that I felt when I was writing that novel seems to have lifted, and I'm enjoying the process of creating this world. I have no idea when it will be finished, but for now I'm not that concerned about it.
September 2, 2009
THURSDAY, MARCH 6, 2008
Jerusalem Report review of Who by Fire, Who by Blood
Jerusalem Report, March 18, 2008
by Hinda Mandell
A confused young man seeks personal redemption by joining a violent Jewish organization, with deadly consequences.
Who by Fire, Who by Blood is "frightening because it's driven by the powerful impulses of characters traumatized by death and their proximity to death in Israel...
Who by Fire presents a finely drawn picture of a human being unraveling... an individual who suffers from so much self-inflicted emotional and physical pain that his turn to the dark side seems inevitable...a fast-paced thriller, with a terrifying moment when Matthew [the narrator] realizes the magnitude of what he has done."
September 2, 2009
WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 16, 2008
From the archive: I'm Hot, My Wife's Not
This article appeared on Jewcy.com in April 2007--in honor of the birth of my new son, I thought I'd drag this one out of the archives. Enjoy!
It might come as no surprise that I spent the better part of my twenties trying, with limited success, to get laid. Sure, there were flashes of passion, excitement, the humming thrill in my private places; a drunken kiss in a dim stairwell, a feverish grope in the back of a northbound bus, making out with a woman twice my age who called herself "Jane Smith." Mostly though, when it came to women, I was the Invisible Man.
Now, smiling women are stopping me on the street, as they gurgle and coo at the adorable baby strapped to my chest.Brad had the right idea: Then again, it's not like he needed the extra helpBrad had the right idea: Then again, it's not like he needed the extra help
At first, I thought it was just my newborn son that drew their interest, but I soon realized from their light touches and lingering looks that they were also interested in the man schlepping him around and taking care of his every need.
My wife first noticed this sea-change at a reading I gave at Smith College when she was eight months pregnant. Afterwards, she was mobbed by a group of coeds, who, upon finding out that she was my wife, dreamily intoned, "You're so lucky."
I laughed at this novelty, because I'd been greeted by silence at dozens of readings and had gone to graduate school at a certain small liberal arts college where the female student body had shunned me.
This changing dynamic only accelerated after my wife gave birth. At the pediatrician's office, a receptionist admiring our urban sleek diaper bag said, "Nice bag. Does that dad come with it?" With my son in tow, waitresses flirt with me, laugh at my jokes and make sure to get my order exactly right. Then, turning to my wife, they ask: "And what does mom want?”
We all know that motherhood can be sexy. It sure hasn’t hurt Angelina Jolie or Madonna. But my wife feels she faces an uphill battle on the road to Milf-dom, and a return to that sex kitten she was before giving birth. She has not been hit on since she started showing in her fifth month of pregnancy. What was once an annoyance, she looks at with a sort of nostalgia as younger men speak to her with a deference usually reserved for schoolteachers of a bygone era.
The Ultimate MILF: Post-pregnancy, looking this good is harder than it appears.The Ultimate MILF: Post-pregnancy, looking this good is harder than it appears. Colleagues, acquaintances and even some strangers publicly ask my wife whether her nipples are sore, if she feels like a Holstein when she pumps, and how much weight she has gained. Then there are the uncouth ones; they feel entitled to know whether she suffers from hemorrhoids. Motherhood has brought my wife to a land beyond etiquette and manners where people are unafraid to tell her how tired and pale she looks.
Fatherhood, on the other hand, has restored my long-lost boyishness and a new playfulness has re-emerged after years on ice. I can go days without shaving, forget to put on deodorant, dress in tattered jean-shorts, and my wife's coworkers suddenly tell me how cute and adorable I look, as long as the baby is strapped to my chest. For a father, a baby is a wonderful accessory, with or without his black CBGB onesie. Case in point: spit-up stains on a father's T-shirt are viewed as a sign of dedication, a mark of providing loving care for a helpless infant; the same stain on a mother suggests she has given up the ghost, beaten a haggard retreat from her youth, when she held the whip hand, dictating which suitor would have the privilege of buying her a drink.
It is ironic: now that I have started a family, I find that doors are opening for me that I could not have kicked down before. If only I had had a baby to tote around with me when I was single; it is the ultimate ice-breaker to initiate conversation, and I would not even have had to break a sweat crossing the bar. But of course, a baby was the last thing I wanted when I was single.
Perhaps it is the sheer virility of helping bring life into this world that now makes me attractive, or maybe it is the fact that I am now called "Dad," with all of its comforting, homey connotations. Or maybe it is simply the ass-backward reality that I am obviously unavailable, and therefore not prone to misread signals sent out across the battlefield of the war of the sexes. I think it is no coincidence that my upstairs neighbor now speaks to me at length when meeting me in the stairwell, while previously she had barely uttered a curt hello.
The fact is: I am safe.
Sharing Time: Oedipal anxiety runs both ways People tell my wife that she "looks good for having just given birth." That statement is meant to be a compliment, but my wife collapses into a jelly of insecurity, a perpetual reminder that she is no longer the same person she once was even if she is wearing her stiletto heels.
And that is the problem. In our household, it sometimes feels that my star is in its ascendancy, while my wife's is burning out, that she has lost a part of herself and I have gained an heir. We have had our moments and I can't wait for the doctor to give us the green light to start slamming again, simply for the fun of it this time with no other agendas, no counting days, no pillows propped awkwardly to facilitate a better drip. Problem is my newfound hotness is going to waste; when I roll over in bed ready to go, we hear our son's unsexy little voice over the monitor, reminding me, that for now, when it comes to my wife's body, I have to share, like it or not.
September 2, 2009
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 12, 2007
The 1,001 Book Project: A True Story
When my first collection of short stories, The Ascent of Eli Israel, was published in the summer of 2002, I felt that my writing career was finally ready to bloom. The stories received a glowing full-page review in the New York Times, and elsewhere the press compared (more…)
September 2, 2009
SUNDAY, DECEMBER 16, 2007
Why I'm Not Famous: Part Six
Disrespecting my elders.
When I was a student and a very young writer I somehow found myself with an invitation to a book launch party in Margaret Atwood's backyard for the release of her husband's new novel.
I was clearly out of place, the youngest person present by at least 30 years and I drank as much free wine that the mime bartenders would pour for me. The aboriginal native playwright was there, and so was the alcoholic novelist , the aging short story writer with the publicity photo from her thirties, and the geological poet, each preening in their own way, all world famous in Canada.
Eventually I had the opportunity to speak with Canada's most famous writer. My father said that he had gone to camp with her years back and that I should send his regards. She had no idea who my father was. I told her that I too was a writer. She laughed and asked if I had my manuscript with me, (which I did, since I was coming from work, and I carried it with me everywhere because I wrote whenever I had the chance.) That only made her gathered writer friends laugh more.
It was not funny.
Full of wine, and a touch of humiliation, I excused myself to the bathroom. I don't remember much about the interior of her house, but I do remember her cat's litter box sitting tantalizingly close to the toilet. I unleashed a whole evening's worth of insecurity, humiliation, and arrogance into the litter box of the most acclaimed Canadian writer of her generation. Obviously I was pissed.
Needless to say, I never spoke with Margaret Atwood again.
September 2, 2009
THURSDAY, DECEMBER 6, 2007
Why I'm Not Famous: Part Five
No sexy biography.
I wasn't born in Afghanistan chasing kites as a child, I never lived through a war, have never known crushing deprivation. I was never raped as a young girl by a stranger or a family member. I have never been a prostitute. I have never chased whales to the ends of the earth, nor have I traveled to the heart of darkness. I've never hunted big game in Africa, and I have never killed myself. I have never written with my left foot, or in blood. I've never been to prison.
I've never been an alcoholic or drug addict. I have never gambled or philandered. I'm not gay, bi or lesbian and I'm not transgender. I didn't grow up in the American South, haunted by its timeless ghosts. I didn't grow up in the inner city. I'm not black, brown or other.
I'm Jewish. But, I didn't witness the Holocaust and live to write about it. I never turned my back on my religious upbringing to write bitter attacks on my benighted elders. I didn't grow up under the Russian boot. I was never a refusenik. I don't speak Yiddish, and I never became a Ba'al Tschuva.
I grew up, went to school, published two books and here I am. I wonder why a writer's biography is so important to so many people. I always tell my students that it doesn't matter who they are, what matters is the content of their writing, their ability to create human characters, and vivid worlds. What matters is their ability to touch us in a place that we are rarely touched.
September 2, 2009
WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 28, 2007
Why I'm Not Famous: Part Four
Nothing sells books like a good old-fashioned 13th century fatwa. I remember working at my local bookstore watching as the Satanic Verses flew off the shelves in the weeks and months after the Ayatollah Khomeini put a price on Salman Rushdie's head--that price being death--all because he wrote a book that offended the tender sensibilities of radical Islam.
When my first collection of short stories was published in 2002 I heard not a word of condemnation from Islamic clerics despite the fact that my seven stories set in Israel during the collapse of the Oslo Peace Accords feature such brutal acts as a young Arab man aborting a Jewish baby with a broken bottle, a 12 year old Arab boy being shot dead and carried around as penance through the wilderness by a Jewish settler, and a riot-starting poster of a pig dressed up as Mohammed.
This certainly came a long time before the Dutch/Mohammed cartoon fiasco a couple years back, but nobody seemed bothered by any of this. Sadly, I think it has more to do with the fact that my book never got into enough people's hands to really reach a critical mass.
Of course, it is not my wish be targeted by Islamic militants the world over because of a few short stories. And the fact that my new novel Who by Fire, Who by Blood which deals with a Jewish terrorist plot to blow up Arabs in the heart of Brooklyn, is likely to be ignored by these benighted few, does not break my heart. But I am concerned, that this novel too will not find the readership that I feel it deserves.
I've been an equal opportunity offender in my stories; I have pilloried Christian missionaries, Jewish mystics, opportunistic Baptist preachers, God-fearing rabbis. Still, nothing except one man at a synagogue in Puerto Rico who accused me of being a Jew for Jesus. His reaction was wrongheaded, but it was a reaction, and I appreciate that.
The fact is, for whatever reason I am not a name brand, and it takes a lot for readers these days to take a chance on someone who doesn't have name recognition, that you can drop at a cocktail party.
The title story of my new collection There is No Other features a young boy dressed up as Mohammed wrapped in a suicide bomb belt for a school Purim party. I think is my best story yet.
If people actually read this story, I think they'll understand that words can shatter and stir, no matter what your name is.
September 2, 2009
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 25, 2007
Why I'm Not Famous: Part Three
I've never written about a Bengal Tiger spending months at sea on a lifeboat with a young boy, nor have I ever written about a young girl who was raped and murdered yet "survives" to tell her narrative from the comforts of "her heaven." I've never written a novel in the voice of a Ukrainian translator whose tortured English makes you laugh out loud and I have never written a novel that supposed that Charles Lindbergh defeated FDR in a presidential election and made peace with Adolf Hitler.
I've never written a bestseller.
The aforementioned bestsellers all have one thing in common: a high concept, played out over several hundred pages. It seems, the more ridiculous and absurd the better when it comes to the publishing world.
I've got a few high concept ideas that I'd like to share that I think will undoubtedly make me a bestseller.
1. Giacomo's First 30 Days. A Joycean epic told from the point of view of a newborn, providing every millisecond of the first 30 days of his life. It may weigh in at 2,000 pages, but the language and its precision will bring readers back to that safe place they have been longing to return to all their lives.
2. [Untitled so far. Suggestions?] An orphan is forced to live up a tree in the Bronx with the last surviving elephant from the Bronx zoo, after the Five Boroughs have been flooded due to global warming.
3. This one is a sequel to Giacomo's First 30 Days. After the death of his wife, [who was his nanny from birth to age of 6] the narrator finds the fountain of youth and reflects back on the first eighty years of his life.
Those of you who have purchased my recently published novel Who by Fire, Who by Blood, will undoubtedly be disappointed by my lack of creativity, cleverness and wit. Please return your copy of WBF and I will be more than happy to exchange that novel for a first edition copy of Giacomo's First 30 Days.
September 2, 2009
TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 20, 2007
Why I'm Not Famous: Part Two
I was born Jonathan Papernick, but somehow I was felt that I was a Jon living in the body of a Jonathan. When I was nine or 10 years old, I decided, partially due to my poor penmanship to shorten my name from Jonathan to Jon, and from there on out only my mother and grandmother referred to me as Jonathan.
Maybe I made a mistake.
Look at all the writers named Jonathan who have made a name for themselves, starting with Jonathan Swift all the way up to Jonathan Safran Foer. Of course there is also Oprah Winfrey's buddy Jonathan Franzen, and Brooklyn's own Jonathan Lethem. There's also Jonathan Wilson, and Jonathan Rosen, both of whom I've met, and both of whom had never heard of me when I met them.
I wonder if things might be different if we shared the same name.
Or perhaps, I just spelled my name wrong. Off the top of my head, I can't think of any writers named Jon without the 'h', (aside from a former student of mine who posted an anti-Semitic screed about me on his blog.)
Of course there is John Le Carre, and John Fowles, and John Barth, and John Cheever and John Gardner and John dos Passos...the list goes on.
But I guess it's too late to change now.
September 2, 2009
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 15, 2007
Why I'm Not Famous: Part One
When it comes to fame, everything is relative. I can't imagine anybody ever wanting the fame that Salman Rushdie achieved after writing the Satanic Verses, but it is that rare sort of fame for a writer that transcends the literary world. Norman Mailer had it too; CNN reported his death last week during a regular news report, as if he were a regular celebrity.
When almost every single one of my writing students at Emerson College has never heard of Philip Roth, I realize that I am in trouble. The very constituents that may know about me and read my work have no idea who the greatest living American writer is.
So, maybe I'm talking about relative fame, cocktail party fame, book group fame etc., something I still have yet to achieve.
Here's one reason why:
When potential readers arrive a bookshelf to purchase my books [if they are there at all] I'm surrounded alphabetically by revered fiction masters such as Amos Oz, Cynthia Ozick, Grace Paley, Orhan Pamuk, and Boris Pasternak, even best-selling Chuck Palahniuk, whose writing I abhor. What chance can I possibly have residing beside the author of Dr. Zhivago, a Nobel prize winner and the author of some of the best short American short fiction of the 20th century?
Perhaps I need to change my last name, so that I'm surrounded by less successful writers on the bookshelves. Any suggestions?
September 2, 2009
TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 13, 2007
No, my novel is not about you!
Fiction is dead. At least in the circles I been traveling and lately people seem to think that whatever is written between the pages of my new novel comes directly from my life. I understand the desire to want to know the genesis of the story, but to assume that I'm writing about you or my mother or father is simply wrong.
At a reading I gave recently in Toronto, a lawyer colleague of my father approached him shaking her head saying that she had no idea that my feelings about him were so strong. She was referring to a character in my novel who is a corrupt New York Supreme Court judge with strong right wing Zionist views and blood on his hands. If only my dad was that interesting!
My sister-in-law, God bless her, who read my novel in two sittings, and loved it, and is doing her best to arm twist and cajole all of her friends and colleagues to buy my book wanted to know whether the main character was based on her, and which character was supposed to be my wife. She should consider herself lucky that she did not appear in this novel, which does not always show the bright side of human nature.
Again in Toronto, an acquaintance of my mother's pulled her aside after a reading I gave saying that he didn't like the reading because of how she was portrayed. I'm not sure which part of "fiction" people don't understand. My mother was not in my novel either overtly or covertly. The character in the novel did happen to have a mother like most of us, but she was not my mother and certainly not your mother or the mother of my child.
So, in case you were wondering, no my novel is not about you or anyone that you know, and if you see any similarities to yourself, then perhaps you need to take a long look in the mirror and figure out why you think you see yourself in my writing.
September 2, 2009
MONDAY, NOVEMBER 5, 2007
I recently received the first review of my novel Who by Fire, Who by Blood and it was by all accounts a very good review. Of course, the reviewer included the obligatory minor negatives. He wrote, "..the pendulous breasts of Matthew's girlfriend..." which did not bother me, considering the rest of the review.
A teacher of mine at graduate school warned the class that when our work finally gets published and is reviewed by critics, undoubtedly the worst, most tin-eared sentence in the book will be singled out by reviewers, and exposed to the harsh light of day.
I wrote to the reviewer, thanking him for his thoughtful review, which I think really got to the essence of the book, and mentioned jokingly, "Of course, who can resist pendulous breasts?"
The reviewer responded:
Who can resist "pendulous breasts"? Any writer who knows that that particular choice of words is not up to your usual high standard. Next time--and there will be a next time, I hope--find your delete button and use it.
I quickly realized that the reviewer was not paraphrasing, but actually felt he was quoting directly. As a writer, and teacher of writing, I certainly would never use the term "pendulous breasts," and I quickly scanned the PDF of my complete manuscript to make sure that I hadn't done the unthinkable.
Yes, the word "breasts" does appear 13 times in my 352 page manuscript, referring to three different women, and a poem, but the word "pendulous," never appears in my manuscript.
I wonder how the reviewer came to that conclusion. It's difficult enough to avoid having your worst writing nailed in public, but what is to be done when something ridiculous you haven't written is attributed to you?
September 2, 2009
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 1, 2007
Who By Fire, Who By Blood
by Jon Papernick, Exile Editions, 352 pages, $29.95
by Sanford Pinsker
an emeritus professor at Franklin and Marshall College. He now lives in south Florida, where he writes about Jewish literature and culture on cloudy days
Jon Papernick made his debut as a fiction writer with The Ascent of Eli Israel, a collection of short stories set in Israel that reconfigure his experience as a journalist. What one notices first of all is a feeling for everything that is unnerving, even disorienting, about daily life in contemporary Israel. As a line from the late poet Yehuda Amichai would have it, the three languages of the Holy City are Hebrew, Arabic, and death. In The Ascent Papernick gives all three an evenhanded consideration as he charts the stories of American Jews who have made aliya and who now find themselves intermingled with Israelis and Palestinians — each group with a separate but equal sense of Israel's blood-soaked history.
Who by Blood, Who by Fire will only increase an already widespread feeling that Papernick is one of the few Jewish-American writers able to write about Jewish extremism as it is fueled by religious fervor and Zionism's ultra-right wing. The novel's title comes from Ze'ev Jabotinsky (1880-1940), founder of the Jewish Legion and, later, the militant Irgun, who wrote that "Judea fell in blood and fire, and in blood and fire Judea will rise again." Blood and history are what energize this disturbing novel, as its protagonist, Matthew Stone, an alienated young man, gradually comes to terms with a grandfather who was a hit man for Meyer Lansky and who, like Lansky, donated considerable sums of money to the militant Irgun; a father who dishonored himself as a judge but who also heavily funded the activities of Jewish terrorists; and finally Judaism itself.
Papernick turns what might have been a dry-as-dust "novel of ideas" into a page-turner — part thriller, part love story, part psychological profile. Granted, there are sections that ring hollow (Papernick writes about blacks with a heavy hand and a leaden ear) and there will surely be those who will take him to task for obsessing about the pendulous breasts of Matthew's girlfriend, but when it comes to describing yeshiva boys in the grips of chillingly right-wing Zionism:
"It is our duty and obligation to history" — the rabbi intones in his Rosh Hashana sermon — "to fight those who seek our destruction. We have a blood tie to the land and cannot give up one grain of sand, one blade of grass, as we stand on the threshold of Redemption. The secular government seeks instant Redemption in the eyes of the worldâ€¦but this sort of capitulation will ultimately bring tragedy and death not seen since the dark days of Auschwitz."
When Matthew's father dies, he honors his memory by reciting Kaddish, poring over boxes of his books, and wearing his judicial robes:
"He realized that his guilt fell away as he came closer to his father. He wore the Judge's robe, draped lightly over his skin, and as he read, he felt the unusual sensation of channeling the very spirit of his fatherâ€¦. He discovered, as he read, that his father had been tracking the pattern of victimization that brought tragedy and ruin to the Jews throughout their tortured history. And as he read, he realized that his father was prescribing solutions posthumously to the tragic events that had already occurred: a savior out of step and out of time."
The result of Matthew's meditations draws him into a search for the missing numbers that will unlock a hidden bank account (gematria, Jewish number theory, and bingo eventually do the trick) and, later, into a plot to assassinate dozens of Palestinian leaders at a Brooklyn rally.
Papernick proves himself a masterful storyteller as his complicated plot plays itself out in ways that balance religious faith with religious zealotry. No doubt a journalist would write an opinion piece sharply condemning those who rationalize the murder of political opponents along with innocent bystanders. But Papernick is a novelist; his job is to put believable characters into motion and to observe how things turn out. My hunch is that he is as appalled as are most of us by the prospect of Jewish terrorism, but as a journalist who worked in Israel for some years, he knows that it has happened before, and that it is, alas, likely to happen again.
September 2, 2009
TUESDAY, OCTOBER 9, 2007
The Perfect Jew--Final Installment
The Perfect Jew: Say a Little Prayer
In my short story “There is No Other,” a child dressed up as Mohammed for a school Purim party sings The Aleinu with otherworldly precision as the class gapes at the live dynamite strapped to his chest. It is a provocative story, and I think one of my best, but I'm ashamed to say that even as this seventh grader upbraids his classmates for not knowing the words to this central prayer, I had to search the book Judaism For Dummies to find the its meaning. The fact is, my fictional doppelgängers know how to pray, but I do not. But I’ve decided to change that, if not for the sake of my soul, then at least to satisfy my intellectual curiosity.
Going to synagogue has always felt vaguely punitive to me, like being sent to after-school detention and forced to wear a dunce cap at the same time; I knew I was being punished in my confinement, and especially on those rare times that I wore the silly rummage-bin nylon kippa noting so-and-so's bar mitzvah, I felt that everyone knew I was a fraudulent Jew. I didn't know the prayers, I did know the music, I didn't know when to sit or when to stand. I was lost among my own people.
In all seven stories in my first collection, characters engage in prayer; the title of my novel Who by Fire, Who by Blood, references the unetanah tokef, a prayer central to the High Holiday liturgy; even my recently completed second collection of short stories borrows the last line of the Aleinu for its title. The old aphorism says you should write what you know, but some deep-seated yearning within myself, it seems, has had me write what I want to know.
I sought the counsel of Rabbi Jeffrey Foust (pronounced like the literary Faust who made a deal with the devil), part-time rabbi at Waltham's traditional egalitarian Temple Beth Israel, and asked him how I might benefit from praying. He responded that "prayer helps us become more fully actualized human beings; it's about opening ourselves to the wisdom of the universe."
I wondered how something so abstract could help one realize such a lofty goal. By praying, Rabbi Foust added, “you are linking into the prayers and yearnings of the Jewish people going back millennia,” becoming part of the historical continuum. You can visit a synagogue anywhere in the world and the prayers are the same; you are part of a larger family.
Some prayers are about "thanksgiving and taking stock," continued Rabbi Foust, who serves as spiritual advisor to Jewish students at Bentley College. "Others are about yearnings of the soul and hopes for ourselves and our loved ones, about linking with our community, sensing the holiness and awesomeness of life, asking for healing and about connecting with the Divine and carrying that with us in our daily lives. So we are doing our work with a sense of being a partner with God.”
Now that he had laid out the conceptual basis for prayer, he added that I needed to come services and try it out for myself to make it meaningful in the practical sense.
I arrived at the small chapel at Temple Beth Israel for morning minyan with my 13-month-old cradled in one arm, a borrowed tallit and tefillin set in the other. It was five minutes before seven in the morning and his daycare didn't begin until 8:30, so he was going to join me in synagogue, like it or not. The three or four faithful already gathered smiled at the presence of a child nearly an entire lifetime younger than they were, and I realized immediately that our attendance at this small gathering was somehow life-affirming and an acknowledgment that their little prayer group could continue beyond their lives.
The leather straps of the tefillin had always reminded me of outré bondage wear, or a junkie tying off his next fix. I had only worn them a few times in my life, when I had been waylaid by mitzvah-counting Lubavitchers in the streets of New York and Jerusalem. But now, as I tried to wind the straps around my arm I could not recall Rabbi Foust's instruction as to how to do it correctly.
I was assisted by Morris Hollender, a grandfatherly Old World elder who led services most days with his thick Yiddish accent. As he wound the straps around my left arm, I noticed the faintly blurred blue tattoo on his own left arm, and I was reminded of Rabbi Foust's words about how the tightly wrapped tefillin leaves an afterglow on the skin, a reminder for an hour or two after prayer of connection with the Divine, and how Morris Hollender's afterglow of horror would forever be a reminder of the concentration camps he had survived as a youth.
I read Hebrew at a strictly remedial level, and I found that by the time I had worked my way to the second line of each prayer, the others had moved on to the next page. But I wasn't disturbed by this; the tefillin served as a concrete reminder to remain present, and I focused as best I could, interchanging between reading the Hebrew and English texts.
As each day went by, I realized that I was picking up just a little bit more, and that the tunes became familiar and that I missed going to services on the Tuesday when minyan wasn't held. At the back of my coat closet I found my long forgotten tallit that I had not worn since my bar mitzvah, and I draped it over my shoulders with a sense of pride that I could not have imagined even a year ago.
I don't know if I felt any sort of spiritual connection as I struggled through the prayers, but I did feel a connection on a deeply human level as my son and I were greeted each morning by Morris and the others, and when I was asked whether I would come the next day to mark the yahrzeit of Morris' wife's family. My presence counted in a way that it never had at larger synagogues. Most days we didn't even have a minyan, and others I served as the 10th man, allowing us to open the ark and remove the Torah. And yes, I did return the next morning and I stumbled through the kaddish as best I could as Mrs. Hollender wiped away tears.
But it was the presence of my son, who wouldn't count as part of the minyan for another twelve years, who brought smiles to the face of Morris and the others as he quietly played beside the bima.
As Morris downed a shot of slivovitz at the kiddush after services one morning, and my son spilled grape juice down the front of his shirt, Morris told me that he had survived the tortures of Auschwitz, paralysis and tuberculosis. He and his wife had never had children. I was reminded of the words from Deuteronomy found inside the tefillin box, "and you shall teach [these words] to your children," and I realized that in some way, every Jewish child who carried on the traditions would honor Morris Hollender's past, and that my son Zev, little “Velveleh” was his hope.
One morning during services, Morris Hollender knelt down in the nearly empty chapel next to my son, found a tefillin case on the seat behind him and placed it on Zev's forehead between his eyes. "It looks good," Morris smiled sadly. "Too bad he isn't thirteen."
I had only intended to attend morning services for a week or two as an experiment, but I found that as time went on, and as I learned just a little bit more, that I felt a deep connection, if not with God or some divine spirit up beyond the stars, then with the people that had kept this little minyan alive from generation to generation.