Friday, February 1, 2019

Introducing: Just Outside the Eruv

In our return to New York State my family ended up living in one of the towns adjacent to the village of Kiryas Yoel. When I share this information with fellow New Yorkers and fellow Jews it triggers nods of recognition, and often furious warnings and denunciations, but it means little to anyone else, so let me explain. Kiryas Yoel was founded in the 1970s by the Satmar Hasidic Rebbe Yoel Teitelbaum, as a place where his followers could live in a more rural setting yet still be surrounded by fellow members of their sect. Though the Satmar Hasidim are the largest such group today, they are much less well-known, to either non-Hasidic Jews or to non-Jews, than Chabad-Lubavitch, so explaining who they are I might as well contrast them to Chabad. Whereas Chabad aggressively proselytizes their variety of orthodoxy to other Jews, the Satmarim grew after the Holocaust through a more restrained method of ingathering, in which they welcomed other ultra-orthodox Jews who had lost their religious and community leaders. This is not to say that there was never any chicanery: In Israel, there were some scandals provoked by the Satmarim adopting the children of impoverished Yemeni Jews from state-run orphanages. But for the most part, they focus their outreach most on those who are adult and already ideologically proximate to them. Whereas Chabad is Zionist--supporting the State of Israel, participating in its elections, and accepting its material support--the Satmarim are known for being anti-Zionist. Though it would be a mistake to presume that such opposition to Zionism as a political movement is motivated by humanitarian concern for the indigenous Palestinians. Rather, they regard Zionism as being a sin against the Jewish religion, arguments for which Rebbe Yoel Teitelbaum was known for publishing in lengthy tracts in the postwar period. Whereas Chabad will speak English, Hebrew, any language needed to proselytize, the Satmarim promoted the use of Yiddish as a means of asserting and promoting Jewish religiosity and identity--and in an effort to keep the loshen ha-kodesh of the Torah and Talmud pure of the muck of commerce and statecraft. And while Chabad-Lubavitch has become infamous for a growing messianic cult around their late Rebbe Menachem Schneerson, the Satmarim keep the veneration of their rebbes within the traditionally Judaic bounds of a cult of personality. Thus, for example, while there have been disputes over rabbinical succession in the forty years since Yoel Teitelbaum's death, to the best of my knowledge no fraction of the Satmarim have ever entertained the thought that he might return from the dead and reveal himself as the Messiah.

"Just Outside the Eruv" will be my name and tag for an occasional series of posts to this blog about experiences I have living in such close proximity to these fellow Jews, interacting with them, or with others in the area when the interactions are inflected by their presence. ("Eruv" is a Talmudic term referring to the boundaries of an area which, on the Sabbath, an orthodox Jew can treat as an extension of his or her house. To live within Kiryas Yoel is to live within an Eruv. I am just outside the Eruv--close enough that some of the more prosperous members of the Satmar community can own or rent houses and walk the short distance to services on Friday nights and Saturday mornings, but far enough that they cannot carry their keys with them.) This is the first entry in that series.

Today, my son and I paid our first visit to the Monroe Bakery. While it is not within Kiryas Yoel, it is Hasidic-owned, shomer shabbos, and has a good reputation for the quality of its challah and other baked goods. I entered the bakery a bit nervous.

Today was my first full day back home after a week-long trip to Florida, in which I briefly visited the bedside of my grandfather before his death, and comforted my mother and other relatives after it. My grandfather would have had no love and little sympathy for the Satmarim. His beliefs were no less atheistic and strongly held than my own, though not sharing the Marxist integument that holds my world view together. My grandfather was someone who through his life demonstrated that one could be ethical, upright, and consistent without any belief in a creator, though the ethics on which he acted were, too often, patriarchal and chauvinistic. His mother, whom he loved even to the point of cutting off all contact with his elder sister for what he regarded as her inadequate filial piety, was on the other hand the only one of my great-grandparents on the Jewish side of my family who adhered to any measure of orthodoxy. Thus I never met her, because she treated the day of my mother's marriage to my father as the day of her death. Given this background, it is not surprising that my grandfather had a greater impact on the beliefs of his descendants than his mother did, and so all the relatives present to remember him were about as secular as I am, and it showed in their attitudes toward my Satmar neighbors.

The attitudes of secular American Jews to the ultra-Orthodox (collectively referred to as haredim--all hasidim are haredi but not all haredim are hasidic) resemble the attitudes of elite, assimilated German Jews to the Ostjuden before the war, or of more Americanized cohorts to fresh-off-the-boat newcomers in generations past. Thus I had spent all week being the recipient of unsolicited warnings--"they're horrible people;" "they hate anyone who isn't one of them;" "they're the rudest people around, even worse than Israelis;" "greedy bastards;" "they stink;" and of course "they'll destroy the public schools around you once they get a chance."

Even if I know that these statements range from slanderously false to only partly true, having this be a recurrent coda for the week prior meant that I was on guard as I entered the bakery. I will report that the bakery smells like a bakery--delicious. The price on the chocolate babka was a bit high, but based on the smell it emitted as I cut slices for each of the kids, it is probably worth it. The challah we are saving for tonight's dinner, so I don't yet know if it is good, but the price is reasonable. The service could have been a bit nicer, but the conversation with the clerk changed tenor slightly when I took one of the three Yiddish newspapers in stock--from Der Blat, Di Tsaytung, and Der Yid, this time I decided to try Der Yid.

"You're interested in Jewish newspapers?"

"Ikh kon leyenen af yidish. I'm Jewish and I'm trying to keep my Yiddish up so I can translate things."

"That's good!"

Then I meandered into some apologetic, grammatically dubious statement in Yiddish downplaying my Jewishness, and he replied with a rabbinical saying in Hebrew that I did not recognize at first. Then he gave an English translation summing it up as, from God's standpoint, all his children are on the same level. And I thought that was a pretty decent thing to say, and not at all reflective of "hating anyone who isn't one of them."

So I left the bakery feeling pretty well disposed toward the Satmarim... until the drive home. From the bakery, the quickest way home takes me through the fringes of Kiryas Yoel. And on a Friday afternoon, drivers around there get a little frantic. After all, one must arrive home and turn off the ignition of the car before sunset, preferably well before sunset. So the driver behind me seemed a bit hurried. Let me be frank: He was riding up my ass. And then, as I approached a crosswalk where a teenage boy--still beardless--waited to cross, and where State law and basic decency dictated that I should stop to allow him to cross and finish his walk home before sunset, I did in fact stop--and the driver behind me honked, directly at me and implicitly at the pedestrian.

It left me wondering, which was the greater respect to the Sabbath? To rush home frantically honking one's horn at anyone who gets in the way? Or to yield to others in deference to their eagerness to perform a mitzvah in which one does not believe? Another way to ask this question might be: Who was the better Jew, the great-grandmother who never met or spoke to me, or the grandfather who loved me always, through all our differences?

Sunday, January 6, 2019

O Maine, addio

In the last week, I ended my seven-year sojourn in the State of Maine, a period that had, until now, been coterminous with my literary career. After several years of unemployment and underemployment, my spouse was offered a good position in her field at an institution in Poughkeepsie. This also opened the possibility of living much closer to her parents, that is, two of the beloved grandparents of my two children. (The third beloved grandparent, my mother, is in Florida, a state I avoid as much as possible.) Since my spouse's field is librarianship, I still need to find work in order to make the finances of this move work, but I have some prospects, and so, overall, it seemed worth the risk. Maine has inspired many, but not all, of my stories, and the corner of New York State in which we find ourselves has inspirations of its own. For example: right now, over my laptop screen I can look through the kitchen window, over the deck of the rental house in which we are living, and see the height of land known as Storm King. So I think we made the right choice.

In the chaos of the move, however, I lost track of publication schedules, and thus overlooked that the book Geek Out: Queer Pop Lit, Art & Ideas, ed. Sage Kalmus, is now available as an ebook or a paperback. In this book one can find my short story "O terra, addio" (quotation marks are part of the title, as it is an allusion to Verdi's Aïda). Much of the story takes place at Lincoln Center in the City, a place I will be able to visit more often now than I did during my Maine exile. I encourage you to order the book. I will, as soon as we are done unpacking our existing library.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

2018 Nebula Nominations

My literary income this year was good enough (mostly from translations) to justify rejoining SFWA, which means I can nominate things for the Nebula award. But I have not read quite as much contemporary science fiction and fantasy this year as in some recent years, and with my upcoming move I do not have much time for catch up reading, so my nomination slate is full in only one category, Short Story. Here we go:

Novel

  1. Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller
  2. The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley
  3. The Emissary by Yoko Tawada: I should note that this one, I am not 100% sure whether to classify it as a novel or a novella. It is 138 densely packed pages long.

Novella: None (unless I'm wrong about the Tawada)

Novelette

  1. "Widdam" by Vandana Singh
  2. "The Department of Happiness and Reimbursement" by Karen E. Bender

Short Story

  1. "Walking" by Der Nister: The only entry in which I have a hand, albeit as translator rather than author
  2. "The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington" by Phenderson Djèli Clark
  3. "Domestic Violence" by Madeline Ashby
  4. "A Night Out at a Nice Place" by Nick Mamatas
  5. "Hainted" by Ashley Blooms

Friday, December 14, 2018

A Paean to Bureaucracy

For the last not-quite-seven years at Bates College. The following text was composed and delivered as an address at a farewell party organized on my behalf, somewhat against my will. I ended up surprised and pleased by what I wrote, and so I share it.

I decided to prepare remarks because while, as you all know, I have no trouble with improvised public speaking, sometimes others have trouble with what I end up saying when there’s no script to guide me. I would have preferred to individually thank and praise each person in this room, and some who are not here but apologetically warned me of their inability to make it, but since I wasn’t exactly sure who would be here, that would have entailed improvisation, dangerous improvisation, in which what I intend as thanks and praise to one might be construed as cutting satire of another.

Earlier today, one of you sent me a quote from David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King that I believe perfectly encapsulates this strange job of mine, whatever one chooses to call it, whether “grants officer,” “sponsored programs professional,” “research administrator,” what have you. I’m not a fan of Wallace’s style, which I find bloated, so on the page, I’ve put ellipses where I think there should be cuts, over which I will elide in reading it out.

“I learned that the world … as it exists today is a bureaucracy. This is an obvious truth … the ignorance of which causes great suffering…. I discovered the key. This key is not efficiency, or probity, or insight, or wisdom. It is not political cunning, interpersonal skills, raw IQ, loyalty, vision, or any of the qualities that the bureaucratic world calls virtues, and tests for. The key is a certain capacity that underlies all these qualities…. The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom…. The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable…. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.”

To become immune to boredom requires the disposition (thank you, Lauren Ashwell, for that word) to find the fascinating, the novel, the thing you did not understand before about nature, history, or the given ensemble of social relationships, within the absurd origami of statute, regulation, policy, and procedure. Most academics despise bureaucracy and yet every academic organization, as far as I can tell--and I have worked in and with a good few--is one. Provided with powers and responsibilities of self-governance that are the envy of most American workers, you build infernal machines of your own devising. Then, realizing that you need more resources, you go to foundations, corporations, and yes, especially, government agencies, bureaucracies of greater refinement and power which impose further elaborations on your own native convolutions, with gestures, and paperwork, mirroring their own. You hate bureaucracy, but you need bureaucrats, and here I am, at your service.

Usually at these sorts of events, we are celebrating someone venturing forth to something that, within the careerist and meritocratic system of values common to bureaucratic organizations of all types, can be regarded as “something better.” As it stands, though, I am the proverbial “trailing spouse,” for while my wife is pursuing an opportunity at Marist College to be and, perhaps more importantly, be recognized as, one of the best damned cataloging librarians on the North American continent, no sane mind sets out with the ambition to be and be recognized as a master bureaucrat. Things are not yet settled, but the most probable outcome is that, within a month or so, I will be doing a very similar job at a very similar institution. In other words, I will be called upon, in the next few years, to do much the same sorts of things that I have accomplished at Bates over the last seven: To establish policies and procedures, identify strengths, opportunities, threats, and weaknesses, align institutional priorities and faculty expertise with sponsor missions and guidelines, design budgets ranging from four figures to seven, and to have the arrogance necessary to polish the prose of certified geniuses.

(I did imply earlier that I’ve improved David Foster Wallace’s prose, so why not yours as well?)

Don’t pity me, though, because if things work out that way, I will love it every bit as much as I have loved it here, and if I succeed, it will be as a result of all I have learned from working with--or in some cases, around and through--each of you. And if it doesn’t work out quite like that, well, there are plans B and C. Because the bureaucratic mind always has at least two backup plans.

Since the announcement went out about my departure, a number of people have said variations on, “What will Bates do without you?” And my response has always been, “Bates will be just fine.” And that is not only because Theresa is excellent at what she does and will grow into new responsibilities, or that Malcolm will put together a great job description and a search committee that will select an excellent replacement. They will. But a bureaucrat’s greatest virtue, unlisted by Wallace and which derives from the key disposition of unborability, is to be replaceable. Here I’ll quote more fully, from someone whose style and insight I like better than Wallace’s, the sociologist Max Weber, for whom “bureaucratic leadership” created a tendency toward “formalistic impersonality: … without hatred or suffering, and therefore without love or enthusiasm … ‘without regard for personality,’ formally the same for ‘everyone,’ and therefore in the same practical manner despite various given interests, the ideal [bureaucrat] carries out their duty.” (Yes, that is my own translation from the German, so it may vary a bit from what the sociologists in this room recall from their graduate seminars.) The Weber seems to be in contradiction to the Wallace, just as it may seem to contradict how I have carried out my duties at Bates. Here is my synthesis:

The ideal bureaucrat creates the conditions necessary for impersonality, for the work to be carried on one way or the other, with or without love or enthusiasm. The love or enthusiasm described by Wallace describes merely the conditions for the survivability of bureaucracy by any one individual human organism. For example, the ability to discover a neat trick for streamlining the issuance of subawards, and for one’s response to that discovery to be life-affirming excitement rather than grinding ennui. Bureaucracy as such is indifferent to whether the individual bureaucrat experiences excitement rather than boredom. What matters is that the subawards are issued, in conformity with the Uniform Guidance, on a timeline that can be defined as timely, not whether or not the individual bureaucrat enjoys or even appreciates the process; with the utterance of that statement I have divided the sheep from the goats, the bureaucrats from those who merely live through bureaucracy, based on whether or not you rolled your eyes.

So if you miss me, what you may miss will be my love or enthusiasm, whether it is for the research or teaching that animates your spirit, or for the behind-the-scenes processes that attempt, not always successfully, to minimize your administrative burdens. But if I have succeeded in what I set out to accomplish, that love and enthusiasm, whether it is replicated in a new Director of Sponsored Programs or not, will become progressively less important, as the processes take on lives of their own, shaping the office in the image of the formal, instrumental rationality that is the necessary and sufficient condition for its existence.

And so, with amore ac studio, I hope to have undone the necessity over the long term for both. And that is why I say, Bates will be just fine. Thank you all for your help over the years in making it so.

Friday, November 16, 2018

A Newly Published Story, and a Note about Awards Eligibility

My story "Simple Present" has been published at "Igxante: An Ontology / Becoming: An Anthology" (scroll down for my piece) by Kate Morgan / Human Decency Is Key. Though fictionalized, this is also the most personal piece I have published yet. It also serves as a reductio ad absurdam against Orhan Pamuk's rape-apologia in the form of a philosophical novel, The Museum of Innocence. And the person who inspired it is now 11 years old.

This is the time of year when writers of science fiction and fantasy start doing "awards eligibility" posts, with an eye toward nominations for the Nebula and Hugo prizes. "Simple Present," while it is "speculative" in the philosophical sense of the word, is not part of either of those genres of fiction, and so, even if you like it, this is not an awards eligibility post for that story, which is the only piece of my own fiction to be published to date in 2018. Another story of mine has been accepted for publication in the Geek Out! anthology forthcoming from Qommunicate Publishing, but I am not certain when it will appear, and thus do not know whether that story will be out in time for 2018 awards eligibility.

Something I did have a bit to do with, that would be eligible for awards, is the story "Walking" by Der Nister, which I translated from the Yiddish. The translation was first published in March 2018. I loved it enough to translate it; perhaps a few readers might love it enough to nominate it for some honor or another.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

A Note in Favor of Polemical Vignettes

Opposed to the philosophical novel--the bloated doorstop of prose in which two thousand years of patriarchal clichés take on the lyrical weight of a dubious story--is the polemical vignette, which peers into a corner of the universe that the novelist has deemed unworthy or uninteresting and finds there a probative counterexample to one or another grotesque generalization. Like Hamlet to Horatio, it says, here is something, from heaven or on earth, not dreamt of in your philosophy, take account! I have written a few such things, and I want to write more, but I find that they tend to be a bit hard to sell.

In any case, one such piece of writing, "Simple Present," has been accepted for publication in the project Becoming: An Anthology. As a tenacious Hegelian, I had to submit something to a project with that title! The anthology is scheduled to be published in November of this year, and if you who are reading this happen to be the sort of person who thinks and writes and thinks about writing and thinks by way of writing, then you might want to look at it carefully.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Catching Up: Der Nister, and more books

Illness, family obligations, and miscellaneous dramas have limited my time and energy for writing. Here are some quick updates:

Der Nister

The first of my Der Nister translations to be published is "Walking," my translation of the story "Geyendik." I've been able to trace the story's bibliography to the 1929 Kiev edition of Gedakht; if anyone knows of earlier appearances, please share the bibliographic information. Its appearance is thanks to the excellent Samovar project by Strange Horizons. You can read my translation here, and if you have Yiddish, here is the original text.

There is even more exciting Der Nister publication news pending, but I have to keep it embargoed for now.


Other People's Books

I have continued my project of reading books off my shelves that are as-yet-unread by me. (Some days, it was all I had the energy for.) These are the ones that I consider worth commenting on, for reasons good or bad:

Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Chabon did not come to my attention until The Yiddish Policeman's Union, which I loved. Since I read it, I have made a point of buying any copy I encounter of one of his books, even if I do not immediately have time to read it. So this is one of those books that I did not read until well after seemingly all my friends--the Jews, the lefties, the queers, the comic book nerds, and the overlapping intersections of those sets--had read it and loved it. If you are a member of any of those sets, then you will probably like it, though the strongest correlation for loving it appears to be an appreciation for comic books, which are not my thing. Chabon's loving descriptions of its evolution as an art form, through the actions of his fictional characters and the cameos of their historical counterparts, left me with more appreciation for it. The fictional comics penned by the characters that I wish were real, so I could read them, are Luna Moth, the Citizen Kane-inspired pre-war editions of The Escapist, and various works by Rose Saxon.

Paulo Coelho, The Witch of Portobello. Coelho is an author who, when I hear third-party descriptions of his works, I think, "I should read him." Fabulist, literate, etc. My delay had largely to do with the fact that Portuguese is one of my languages, and I tend to be undecided about reading works in translation when it is theoretically possible for me to read the book in the original. Apparently, I should not have worried about it, since if his other novels are anything like this one, he is a waste of time, in English or Portuguese. I'll sum up why in two words: Mystical gypsies. (Yes, that is the word he uses.)

Charles Dickens, Hard Times. Forced high school readings of Dickens' most popular books--Great Expectations, Tale of Two Cities, and, egad, Oliver Twist--ruined him for me well into my twenties. We have a fair amount of Dickens on our shelves because my wife, at an earlier time of her life, aspired to become a scholar of Victorian literature. So from time to time, I resolve to give his lesser known works a chance. Previously, with his collected short fiction, and with Bleak House, the resolution has been worth it. Bleak House, in particular, I suspect may be one of the best English-language novels of the 19th century. But Hard Times, though worth reading for its almost Engelsian depiction of "the condition of the working class in England," is not, overall, a good novel. It has a message, and every character interaction must bend before its implacability. And that message is awful. It boils down to, "Hey, um, fellow rich people--maybe we should teach the poor some feeble sentimentalism, because if they get as calculating as we are, they might decide to eat us."

Nawal El Saadawi, Woman at Point Zero. This is a painfully sharp, fact-based novella by one Egypt's best known feminists. Content warnings: FGM, CSA, rape, sex work, and murder, but the murder is the least offensive part because it's a pimp who gets killed.