24. May 2018 · Comments Off on Philip Roth and the end of the influence of Jewish literature on American culture · Categories: Olio

Children are usually oblivious to the uniqueness of their culture. You can live in the strangest of times or places and to you it’s just plain normal. My father grew up in Volyn, a place in Eastern Europe dominated by Ukrainians, and didn’t think it at all strange that Poland controlled his province. He thought it would be part of Poland for eternity. Stalin and Ukrainians had a different opinion.

I grew up in a far more stable part of the world (at least for now): Wisconsin. There was nothing strange or unusual about it except maybe the fact that everyone seemed to prefer brandy over other hard liquor.

But when it came to art it was an unusual time. The literary novel was a dominant art form. That wasn’t always true in America, I’m told. Historically, Americans weren’t big readers except on the East Coast. Bookstores weren’t common. Macy’s was a major retailer of books. The rise of the novel in American culture was a post-WWII phenomenon. I didn’t know that. I assumed America had been reading and paying major attention to literary novels for at least one hundred years.

What was even more unusual during my youth was that many leading writers of literary fiction were Jewish. The big three – Bellow, Malamud, and Roth – wrote bestsellers that were widely admired and imitated. I didn’t know that this was unusual either. Seemed normal to me.

Their writing was unambiguously connected to nineteenth and early twentieth century Yiddish writers from the Jewish Pale of Settlement. An essential part of being raised in Jewish Pale culture is to learn that you never hide your intellect. Even if you make people feel uncomfortable with your intellectual intensity, you don’t ever let up on the gas. That aspect of Jewish Pale culture is the first thing I think about when I try to describe Philip Roth. He was intellectually intense in public and probably in private as well.

He was not close to being a favorite writer of mine, but Roth was someone I admired. He worked like a demon. He thought hard. He had his finger on the pulse of American culture for decades. His writing became better as he got older.

My “normal” of literary fiction being a dominant art form that was dominated by Jewish writers wasn’t normal at all. It was bound to come to an end and it has. Literary fiction still has a following, but it’s a small one nowadays. Devoted, but small. Other art forms, typically visual, have become dominant. Other genres of novel writing have become dominant as well. My daughter began to read when science fiction and fantasy was on the ascent. Fifty years from now, the new normal will favor another genre, no doubt.

And what of Jewish literary fiction? It’s no longer widely read outside of Jewish circles. I note that my debut novel was fairly widely read, but maybe that was the result of its math and Russian culture focus. With the death of Philip Roth, the era of American Jewish literary fiction having major impact socially and artistically has come to a close. Roth was a unique voice in American literature. Brash. Outlandish. Not at all fussy in style.

Why aren’t Jewish writers read widely today? It’s not because they don’t have interesting things to say. It’s not because they don’t have talent. One reason is that literary fiction, as already noted above, has lost its primacy in American culture. But there is another factor that I think is at work. American readers tend to be hungry to learn about new and exotic cultures. In the sixties anti-Semitism was on the wane and it became not only socially acceptable to read about Jews, but fashionable. Fashion, by definition, has a finite lifespan.

After thirty or forty years of reading about Jews, Americans wanted to move on and find something fresh. They wanted to read about the Asian immigrant experience, about the African immigrant experience. There is nothing wrong and everything right about wanting something new. I tip my hat to writers from other cultures who were ignored for decades and are being read today.

13. April 2018 · Comments Off on Hungarian film, 1945, gets US national distribution · Categories: Olio

The post-Holocaust Hungarian movie, 1945, is starting to get distributed nationally in the US. It’s quite good. Unique. Saw it at a film festival last year. Had a memorable lunch with the director and an adorable little dog that only understood Hungarian commands. Well worth seeing (the movie; you can’t see the dog, who lives half the year in Palm Springs and half the year in Budapest). Description below. Link to distributor here.

A Hungarian village, Jew free after the war ends, falls into chaos when two Jews arrive via train with two large trunks that they say contain perfume. Filmed like a John Ford Western, 1945 is highly stylized, mythic and intentionally unrealistic. The two Jews in black are kind of like gunslingers whose entrance scares all the town’s citizens. Not much dialogue, but the movie is chock full of action (and by that I don’t mean car chases and shoot ’em up scenes). 3.87 on the Stumeter.

10. March 2018 · Comments Off on First two minutes of me talking about my family in Yiddish · Categories: Olio

There are 101 minutes more of this stuff! Yiddish gets better as I go on. I’m rusty, have only spoken Yiddish with my cat over the last 20 years. But I love that accent, pure Galitzianer. My dad would have been pleased, but he would have also said I needed a haircut.

Thank you, Yiddish Book Center and Christa Whitney, for coming to my home and making this so easy and fun.

24. February 2018 · Comments Off on Sometimes you win · Categories: Olio

Seven years ago I got my wife new tires, not because their tread was worn, but because her tires were so old that they were cracking. She drives maybe 2000 miles a year. Her car is a heap. She likes it that way.

My neighbor hates my wife’s heap. Views it as a blight on the neighborhood. My neighbor is polite about it, but one day she blurted out that she actually dreamt I bought my wife a new car. I chuckled. “Talk to my wife,” I said. “Maybe you can convince her and make your dream come true.”

Anyway, my wife got a flat yesterday at work. I drove to her parking lot. I pumped up the flat with my bike pump and quickly drove to the place where I bought the tires. At the time I bought them I paid eight bucks extra for tire insurance.

The expression on the car dude’s face as he checked out the tires on the heap was priceless. He looked like a rabbi being asked to certify a pig as kosher. Bottom line. They patched the tire. No cost.

Sometimes you win.

23. February 2018 · Comments Off on Another joyful aspect of writing fiction · Categories: Olio

In my new novel there’s a bad prof who does evil stuff based on what a Princeton prof did in the 1960s. In draft after draft, he has been a fictional Princeton prof. But Princeton always has been nice to me. Its administration always has been helpful and open to my questions. Its bookstore prominently featured my first book and probably sold more copies of the thing than anyplace else. My Ph.D. advisor, a brilliant and inspiring dude, was a Princeton grad.

In contrast, Yale always has been mean to me. Snotty to me. Won’t give me data, no way, no how. My old Duke president – a slippery, ethically and morally challenged dude – was a Yale grad and former Yale dean.

This morning I woke up thinking about Princeton and Yale. I knew just what to do. Today I went through the book and made the evil prof an Eli. Ahh. It felt so sweet. The book is, I swear, 2000% better.

13. January 2018 · Comments Off on On the occasion of our 39th anniversary · Categories: Olio

My Not-So-Modern Kalooki Love

I was thirteen, short the way a lot of thirteen year old boys are. Shy around girls, but interested, the way a lot of thirteen year old boys are. I was also unhappy. We’d moved to the suburbs when I was eleven and I hated it. We’d overstretched and couldn’t afford to live there the first few years. Money was a tense issue in the family. Plus I’d had my niche in the city. I was the good student – the top student in my class in Milwaukee’s lone brainy kid school – who could also take and throw a hard punch. When I wasn’t wrestling with and slugging kids in my neighborhood, I was helping them with their homework.

In the suburbs, that all got undone. I spent the first six months sitting on my hands in school, waiting for them to catch up to me. I was told explicitly by my mom and dad that in the suburbs I couldn’t slug other kids, that I had to settle differences by talking. I was too shy and laconic to do that effectively. What’s Dirty Harry without his .44 Magnum? There were no immigrants like us, no Orthodox Jews like us. If we’d been living in Roswell, NM, we’d have been taken as proof of alien life.

I did manage to find a few friends. I also managed to find pot to self-medicate my unhappiness. I was high on New Year’s Eve. My friends and I had nothing to do. One of us knew that there were some parties in the neighborhood with girls. We decided to crash a few. This effort hadn’t gone well. The friend with the party knowledge mentioned one outside our neighborhood and we biked there. This party was good. Lots of girls and they were high school freshmen, not middle school kids like us. Older women! That sounded hot to me.

It turned out the girls at this party were brainy, too. One of them, petite, was showing three of the others how to play a card game with two decks of cards. Kalooki. Probably every Jewish kid with Polish war survivor parents knows how to play this game. It’s what you played on Shabbas, even though you’re not supposed to play cards, to pass the time. How did this petite girl with big hazel eyes know how to play a game that no one in the suburbs played? The pot I was on enhanced the mystery of this girl.

I wanted to stay and talk to the kalooki girl, but my friends were intimidated being around “older women” so we left. We smoked more pot. I was so high biking home that I crashed into a flashing barrier and ended up with the front wheel of my bike in a six foot deep pit before I managed to stop. Whoa! I decided I needed to avoid biking when I was high.

I didn’t forget the kalooki girl. We met the next year in high school choir. She’d learned how to play kalooki from her grandmother. She could understand Yiddish fairly well, but couldn’t speak it. We became pretty good friends, but then I left high school a year early because I was miserable, bored and wanted adventure. I travelled. First I hitchhiked across Canada. I went to Israel to help out during the Yom Kippur War. I wanted to leave my memories of the suburbs behind and that included all my friends from that time. I even wrote a letter to one of them explaining this desire and saying good bye forever. That severing included the kalooki girl.

I’d go out with girls when I could overcome my shyness. One of them was, like me, a child of survivors. I liked the fact that we shared an upbringing, but when I found out that her father had proposed to my mom in Germany after the war, I got spooked. That was too close for me, almost like incest as far as I was concerned. I was off Jewish women for a couple of years.

My older brother was living with a non-Jewish girl off campus at the University of Wisconsin. He was desperately trying to get my parents and grandparents to accept the love of his life. I’d watch the mighty battles between them. I knew my family was never going to accept this girl.

I never brought a non-Jewish girl to my parents’ home. It was more than fear of their anger. I felt that none of the girls I went out with would understand what my parents were about. What would have happened if I had brought a girl home who wasn’t Jewish or was Jewish but wasn’t well-versed in immigrant culture? My parents would have spoken in a mix of English, Yiddish and Polish at dinner because that’s what they always did. My parents wouldn’t ever come to you, you had to come to them. Plus I was never in love with these girls. What was the point of bringing them home?

I met another child of survivors in college. It felt comforting to be with a girl with that shared experience again. Plus this one’s father hadn’t proposed to my mother in Europe. Much better! My father hadn’t proposed to her mother. Even better! But I felt she was getting too serious and I wasn’t ready to be serious with anyone.

The kalooki girl went to my college as well. I’d run into her now and then and we’d have pleasant words on the street. Then she disappeared. I didn’t know she’d left college and gone to travel around Europe on her own. I saw her on the street about nine months later. She seemed like a different person. More confident. Still shy like me, but self-assured like she never was before. I was smitten.

We went out a few times. I’d never been so at ease around a girl. We’d talk for hours on end. I was in love for the first time. One winter night we talked so much that before I knew it, it was two AM. I was hungry. We walked to a donut shop that was already making donuts for the next morning. The donuts, still warm, were delicious. Then I started to walk her home, but it was icy on the sidewalks and she was wearing slippery-soled boots. She kept falling down. I kept picking her up off the ground. Finally, I figured out that if I just held her close every step of the way, she wouldn’t fall down anymore. I walked her to my house instead of hers. We moved in together a year later.

Early in our living together I invited my parents, who lived an hour and a half away, to our place for dinner. My girlfriend announced that she was going to make borscht. This idea sounded crazy. Serving my Polish Jewish mother borscht was bringing coals to Newcastle. My girlfriend insisted. Borscht. OK, I said.

My parents sat down at our dinner table. My girlfriend served the borscht. I saw the look of indignation on my mother’s face. This girl is serving the queen of borscht, borscht? Who does she think she is? But then my mother got hold of her emotions. She took a sip with a spoon. She tasted it. “It’s good,” she said. She sounded surprised about this fact. But she was doing more than commenting about the soup, I knew. She was giving her approval of my girlfriend. My parents spoke in a mixture of Yiddish and English at the table. My girlfriend understood almost every word.

We’ve been together for over forty years, married for thirty nine years. I haven’t played kalooki with my wife or anyone else in over twenty years. But it’s a game I remember fondly.

20. December 2017 · Comments Off on An unforgettable night, transcripts from The Stueys · Categories: Olio

The 2017 Stueys
Denny’s Ballroom, Redwood City (climate best by government test), CA

What a night! It’s an evening overflowing with glamour. The electricity in the air is palpable. Our host is the always elegant, always intelligent, always charming, Liberacha.

(Meryl Streep walks by)

Liberacha: Ms. Streep, we know you’re the greatest actress of our age, but you’re not even nominated this year. Why are you here?

Streep: Dahling, there must be some sort of mistake.

Liberacha: We’re not like those Awards That Shall Not Be Named. The Stueys don’t ever make mistakes. Ms. Streep, you’re not even on our guest list. Ruldofo, show Ms. Streep the door!

(Rudolfo picks up Ms. Streep like she’s a toothpick and carries her, kicking and screaming, away)

Liberacha: Sorry about that. And now it’s time for the Stuey awards!

Best use of pop music: Baby Driver
Accepting the award for Baby Driver, Paul Simon

Simon: I really didn’t have anything to do with this movie. Why am I here?

Liberacha: Two words. Kevin Spacey.

Simon: Ohhhh.

Best comedy: Get Out
Accepting the award for Get Out, Jordan Peele

Peele: This movie isn’t a comedy! It’s a serious movie.

Liberacha: It was serious until you were forced to tack on a new ending to keep white people like me from getting nervous and depressed. That ending was hilarious although the original ending was right on the nose. Do you want us to give this award to The Big Sick instead? That one was pretty good.

Peele: Nooo. I want to thank The Stueys for this prestigious award.

Most beautiful to watch: The Shape of Water
Accepting the award, the aquatic creature from The Shape of Water

Creature (signs his speech): This award is kind of cool, but do you have any eggs? I’m hungry!

Best supporting actor, Bill Nighy, Their Finest
(this is Bill Nighy’s first nomination and first Stuey)
Accepting the award, Bill Nighy

Nighy: Thanks, but why am I being put up in a Motel 6?

Liberacha: The Fairmont was overbooked. Sorrrry.

Best foreign film: One Week and a Day (Israel)
Accepting the award for One Week and a Day, Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda

Kore-eda: I liked this movie, too, but what am I, chopped sashimi?

Liberacha: Baby, we love your movies, too. That’s why we invited you. You’re the perpetual foreign film runner up in the Stueys. Chances are you’ll win a prestigious Stuey next year.

Kore-eda: Really? (breaks down in tears of joy)

Best score: The Shape of Water
Accepting the award for The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro

del Toro: So are we going to win all the technical stuff this year and get shut out of the big awards?

Liberacha: You’ll have to stick around to find out.

Best supporting actress, Holly Hunter, The Big Sick
Accepting the award, Holly Hunter

Hunter: I can’t even get arrested in Hollywood and here I am winning a prestigious Stuey. Don’t you think I deserve to get more good acting gigs like this one?

Liberacha: Definitely.

Best director: Aisling Walsh, Maudie
Accepting the award, Aisling Walsh

Walsh: Thank you! But how did you even know about our movie? It came and went faster than Trump’s love affair with Chuck and Nancy.

Liberacha: Baby, your movie is a huge, big budget blockbuster success by Stuey standards. Most of the movies we screen for awards have box office revenues lower than the cost of a trailer home in Kearney, Nebraska.

Best documentary: My Love, Don’t Cross That River

Liberacha: We’re going to be mailing this award to the movie’s Korean producers. Somehow they didn’t believe us when we said the Stueys were prestigious. They’d never even heard of the Stueys. Amazing, huh.

Best actor, Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MO
Accepting the award, Sam Rockwell

Rockwell: Shouldn’t I be winning the award for Best Supporting Actor?

Liberacha: You’ve been promoted!

Best Wise Negro: Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water
Accepting the award, Octavia Spencer

Liberacha: You’re very talented. Aren’t you getting tired of being typecast in what, by definition, are racist roles? Don’t you want to spread your wings and fly always?

Spencer: Aren’t you nosy and holier than thou? It pays the bills, Baby.

Best actress: Sally Hawkins, Maudie
Accepting the award, Sally Hawkins

Hawkins: Thank you so much for this prestigious award. I was fabulous, wasn’t I?

Liberacha: You were, indeed. You made me sob like a baby and smile like I’d just won the lottery. I’m so happy to see that your terrible arthritis has vanished. A miracle!

Hawkins: I was acting, Dearie.

Liberacha: Oh. And now for the final award. Stay right here, Ms. Hawkins.

Best drama: Maudie

(the actors, producers and director of Maudie all storm the stage, grab their Stuey, and run to catch a Lyft to the airport just in case PricewaterhouseCoopers blew the envelope handoff like they did at last year’s Awards That Shall Not Be Named)

Liberacha: We ran a little long, as per usual, but it was worth it. I can’t wait to see you again in 2018. In the meantime, pleasant viewing!

08. November 2017 · Comments Off on Back from my hike · Categories: Olio

Last month I walked across Spain on the Camino de Santiago. Actually, I walked across about half of Spain. I took time off to rest my feet and see Bilbao. A week later I took some time off to see some art and listen to music in Madrid. But the rest of the time I was walking between 25 and 30 km a day.

It isn’t a pretty hike. It’s supposed to be a spiritual journey, especially so for Catholics. You walk, more or less, the same route that pilgrims began to take a thousand years ago to visit Santiago de Compostela’s shrine to St. James. Much of the time you walk on pavement or on gravel paths adjoining roads. You spend quite a bit of time dodging cars and inhaling diesel exhaust. About a third of the time, though, you get relief from the ugliness and experience some pleasant scenery or a soft path. The Basque countryside and towns and much of Galicia are particularly appealing.

300,000 people a year take this hike. I wouldn’t do it again and am hesitant to recommend it to others, but I’m glad I went. You spend a month at something completely outside your normal activity. If you’re artistically inclined like me, you take time off to see some outstanding art in both Bilbao and Madrid. It’s not a particularly hard hike, but it is mentally demanding because you do it day after day.

I’m not at all spiritual, but all that walking did put me in a contemplative mood. As I walked, I thought more about myself and my place in the world than any time since I was a teenager. I also found out that I can still be a decent hiker even at my advanced age. I can hike 35 km in a day if need be. The Camino made me excited about taking other hikes in the future, which I’ll make sure are consistently filled with pretty scenery.

I greatly enjoyed the food, wine and beer along the way. I ate and drank an enormous amount and somehow dropped 4 pounds over the month. I also was impressed with the vibrancy, good cheer and helpfulness of the Spanish people. They made me want to visit again, which I hope to do soon.

18. May 2017 · Comments Off on Advice from Uncle Stuey · Categories: Olio, Uncategorized

When Watergate started I was hitch hiking across Canada. Then I went to Israel. It was still going on. Then I hitch hiked around Europe. It was still going on. Then I went to Israel to help out during the Yom Kippur War. It was still going on. Then I went back home to keep my dad from going crazy while my mom had breast surgery (benign). It was still going on. Then I went to college for a semester to make my mom happy. It was still going on. Then I drove out to the Canadian Rockies and dodged grizzlies in the wilderness. It was still going on. Then I stopped in Wall SD to get some food and drink on the way home. Nixon resigned while I had a beer. That’s how I remember it.

Now we wait for the Trump impeachment. Go hitch hike somewhere. Dodge grizzlies in the wilderness. Be a mercenary in an overseas war. It’s going to be a while.

13. April 2017 · Comments Off on From the music vault, It’s Not Paranoia (If It’s Real) · Categories: Olio

I’m cleaning up files that migrated to my new computer and found this ditty. Must have been recorded somewhere around 2009. Change the bridge and it could apply even more today.