Summary: This is Vox Tablet, the weekly podcast of Tablet Magazine, the online Jewish arts and culture magazine that used to be known as Nextbook.org. Our archive of podcasts is available on our site, tablet2015.wpengine.com. Vox Tablet, hosted by Sara Ivry, varies widely in subject matter and sound -- one week it's a conversation with novelist Michael Chabon, theater critic Alisa Solomon, or anthropologist Ruth Behar. Another week brings the listener to "the etrog man" hocking his wares at a fruit-juice stand in a Jersualem market. Or into the hotel room with poet and rock musician David Berman an hour before he and his band, Silver Jews, head over to their next gig. Recent guests include Alex Ross, Shalom Auslander, Aline K. Crumb, Howard Jacobson, and the late Norman Mailer.
In 2008, at the age of 23, Luzer Twersky left his wife, his children, and the Hasidic community in Borough Park, Brooklyn, to try to make a new life for himself. He was tired of pretending to feel and believe things he no longer felt or believed. Since then, Twersky has gone on to become an actor; he now lives in Los Angeles, and has a leading part in Felix and Meira, Canada’s submission for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, as well as a small part in the second season of the Amazon TV series Transparent. But before all that, back when Twersky had just begun life on his own, radio and television producer Josh Gleason followed him around for most of his first year on his own. Here’s Gleason’s audio portrait of that year.
As Christmas 1963 approaches, a statue of the baby Jesus goes missing from the town manger in Skokie, Illinois. Its theft causes great distress to nearly everyone, including 9-year-old, flaxen-haired Suzie Louise Anderson. In the hopes of becoming her hero and solidifying their love, Suzie Louise’s young boyfriend, a Jew, cobbles together a posse to try to recover the stolen figure, and to restore joy and peace to the girl’s life. Read by Ken Marks, ‘For the Love of Suzie Louise’ is adapted from the novel My Surburban Shtetl, by Robert Rand. Sound design is by Jonathan Groubert.
The antithesis of nearly every Holocaust movie ever made, the Hungarian film Son of Saul is slim on happy endings. Directed by László Nemes, it tells the story of a member of the Sonderkommando, the Jews who ushered their co-religionists off the trains into the showers and who, after the gassings, cleared those showers out to ready them for the next batch of victims. Saul, portrayed by Géza Röhrig, is shaken out of his numbness and despair by the body of a child who survives the gassing and suddenly, amid the true-life rebellion of the Sonderkommando in October 1944, engages in his own form of resistance. With a camera that rarely takes its lens off of Röhrig’s face, Son of Saul won the Grand Prix at Cannes this year and is Hungary’s entry for the Oscars. Röhrig, a poet, would-be rabbi, and former kindergarten teacher, speaks with Vox Tablet’s Sara Ivry about the responsibility of carrying the story in his eyes, about why he returned to acting after a decades-long hiatus for this particular project, and about how he found God on his own visit, at age 19, to Auschwitz.
The steady stream of people currently fleeing Syria for Europe is a sobering sight, but it’s not a new one. The plight of refugees all over the world is age-old. Cynthia Kaplan Shamash was a child refugee in 1972, when her family—among Iraq’s last Jews—tried to flee their homeland. Their first attempt was thwarted, and the family landed in jail. A second attempt was a success; Cynthia is now a dentist in the United States, but the family’s itinerancy came with great personal losses. In The Strangers We Became: Lessons in Exile From One of Iraq’s Last Jews, Shamash details her family’s exile from Iraq to Israel to the Netherlands. She joins Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry to discuss her mother’s bravery in the face of Iraqi police, her father’s sense of dishonor once exiled, and what she feels when she sees news of desperate refugees coming out of the Middle East now.
Mimi Stillman is a world-renowned flutist heralded by the New York Times as “a consummate and charismatic performer.” Stillman is the founder and artistic director of the Dolce Suono Ensemble, a Philadelphia-based chamber group. Also a historian, she brings both interests—history and music—to bear on her latest release, an album called Freedom. Freedom features compositions by Richard Danielpour, David Finko, and the late Mieczyslaw Weinberg. All three draw on political upheavals and the personal tolls they took in Iran and Europe. In particular they considered the impact such tumult had on members of the Jewish community. Stillman joins Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry from a rehearsal room at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where she studied as a child, to discuss how the Holocaust, the Cold War, and recent uprisings in Iran affected the lives and works of the composers she interprets; the serendipity that led her to the little-known works of Mieczyslaw Weinberg; and what it was like to be a musical prodigy.
Best known for his seven-volume masterpiece A La Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time), French writer Marcel Proust is considered to be one of the finest novelists of the 20th century. Though born into upper-class society—his Catholic father was a doctor and his Jewish mother came from a well-known Jewish family—Proust did not show much ambition or aptitude as a young man. Indeed, he was a dilettante and man about town who spent his time having love affairs and squandering an inheritance. As biographer Benjamin Taylor makes clear in Proust: The Search, all that seemed to changed in the wake of a series of devastating events, culminating in his mother’s death, when he was in his 30s. Taylor joins Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry to discuss what his writerly about-face meant for the history of literature, why Swann’s Way—the first volume in this epic work—spoke to Taylor so personally as a youngster, and what Proust has or hasn’t in common with the multi-volume storytellers of our day—Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard.
A genizah is an area in a synagogue or Jewish cemetery where sacred texts that are in disuse are stored. Traditionally, a text is considered sacred if it’s got the name of God written on it, whether in a liturgical form or simply in a greeting like “Praise Be to the Almighty” written at the top of a letter. The most famous genizah was in Cairo at the Ben Ezra synagogue. It held documents dating to the 9th century; those documents helped scholars piece together what life was like for Jews in the middle ages. Until fairly recently, people who studied genizah fragments mostly looked at the Hebrew or Aramaic, piecing together documents to figure out what they could about the Jewish community. Marina Rustow instead has been looking at the long-neglected Arabic scribblings in the margins and on the backs of such documents. Rustow, a professor of history and Near Eastern Studies at Princeton, had a hunch that deciphering the Arabic bits and pieces would reveal something about what life was like under the rule of the Fatimid Empire, a dynasty whose archives, such as they were, did not survive the centuries intact. Her painstaking efforts have paid off—not just in terms of scholarly discovery, but also in terms of professional accolades. Just two weeks ago, Rustow was named a MacArthur Fellow, which brings with it an award of $625,000. She joins Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry from her home in Philadelphia to discuss the unique skill set that makes her good at her job, the correspondence that has given a sense of personality to particular historical figures, and what she plans to do with her windfall.
The name Guggenheim is synonymous with modern art. That’s thanks to Solomon Guggenheim and his famous museum on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Credit also goes to his niece Peggy, who championed icons like Jackson Pollock and Wassily Kandinsky and established influential galleries in New York, London, and Venice, where she eventually settled. Guggenheim also lived a unique personal life; she was twice married—once to the painter Max Ernst—and claimed in her memoirs to have had a thousand lovers, including Samuel Beckett. How did she become a key figure in the modern art landscape? What personal demons did fight along the way? What is her legacy? These are questions writer Francine Prose tackles in Peggy Guggenheim: The Shock of the Modern. Prose joins Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry to talk about it.
Poet and writer Rita Gabis grew up surrounded by grandparents with accents—Russian, Yiddish, Lithuanian. That makes it sound like a familiar Jewish immigrant tale, but it was far from that. While Gabis’s father came from a family of Russian Jews who immigrated to the United States well before WWII, her mother was born in Lithuania. She and her family emigrated in the 1950s. And they were Catholic. As a child, Gabis was vaguely aware that these two different family backgrounds were at odds with each other. It was as an adult, however, that she came to understand that the divide went much deeper, and that her mother’s father, her beloved Senelis as she called him, had been the chief of security police under the Gestapo in a Lithuanian region that was the site of two massacres—one of Jews and one of Poles. In A Guest at the Shooter’s Banquet, Rita Gabis describes her search to understand her grandfather’s role in the war. It was a journey that took her to Lithuania, Poland, and Israel. She joins Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry to discuss what piqued her curiosity about her grandfather’s past, the conflicting messages she got as a child about her identity, and why it was important to break the silence about her grandfather’s past.
For the past nine years, at this time of year, Andy Bachman, a favorite Vox Tablet guest, would be gathering his thoughts in order to lead High Holiday services at Brooklyn’s Congregation Beth Elohim. Bachman was the head rabbi there. It’s a synagogue with a reputation for community engagement and social activism, and claims among its congregants a host of outspoken and influential personalities (Sen. Charles Schumer and Jonathan Safran Foer are among them). This year is different. Bachman stepped down from the pulpit earlier this summer and is therefore now preparing to have a much more intimate holiday season. That doesn’t mean, though, that the concerns and fate of the Jews no longer interest him or that he has lost interest in spirituality and leadership responsibilities. He joined Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry to discuss his view on life after professional rabbihood, why Jewish continuity is not something to fret over, and the reason he’ll miss poring over Beth Elohim’s archive of Manischewitz-stained, worn, and tattered photos, newsletters, and kiddush invitations.
There are roughly three weeks until the summer clock unofficially runs down. How will you spend these last lazy days? Maybe you’ll be under an umbrella by the sea or in a hammock next to a green meadow or flopped on a big, soft couch in your very own living room. Wherever you are, you’ll want a good book by your side. To help you figure out exactly what that good book will be, Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry asked some experts what they’ve enjoyed reading this summer and what they’re still yearning to dive into. Music for this week’s podcast comes from Podington Bear. *** Book Recommendations: André Aciman, essayist and novelist A Brief Stop on the Road From Auschwitz, Göran Rosenberg Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë Persuasion, Jane Austen Agnes Grey, Anne Brontë Nat Bernstein, Jewish Book Council Network Coordinator The Sunlit Night, Rebecca Dinerstein Book of Numbers, Joshua Cohen Amelia Kahaney, YA novelist and short-story writer Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng The Beautiful Bureaucrat, Helen Phillips The Unfortunates, Sophie McManus The Story of the Lost Child, Elena Ferrante [forthcoming, Sept 2015] Sarah Wildman, author and journalist My Salinger Year, Joanna Rakoff The Boston Girl, Anita Diamant The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, George Prochnik Kathe: I’ve Always Been Here, Espen Søbye [Fall, 2015] The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West, Michelle Goldberg Marjorie Ingall, Tablet columnist and author of a forthcoming book on Jewish mothers Some Girls Are, Courtney Summers In the Unlikely Event, Judy Blume Dietland, Sarai Walker
First there was Vox Tablet. Then there was Israel Story. Now, we are excited to present Unorthodox, Tablet’s newest podcast and part of Slate’s Panoply network. Hosted by Tablet Editor-at-Large Mark Oppenheimer and featuring Deputy Editor Stephanie Butnick and Senior Writer Liel Leibovitz, the weekly show includes fresh, fun, and “disturbingly honest” (says Oppenheimer) discussion of the latest Jewish news and culture, plus interviews with two guests—one Jewish, the other not. In the first episode, which you can listen to below or by subscribing to Unorthodox on iTunes, after a weighty disquisition on the place of Adam Sandler and Andy Samberg in contemporary Jewish culture, the panelists chat with New York Times best-selling author A.J. Jacobs, who discusses his latest project: hosting the world’s largest family reunion. (Our longtime listeners will remember this interview with him about the year he spent trying to follow every single rule in the Bible as closely as possible.) Then, writer and This American Life contributor Elna Baker joins the fray to talk about similarities and differences between Jews and Mormons. Baker chronicled the experience of leaving the Mormon church in her memoir, The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance. Listen, and then let us know what you think! Click here to listen to more Unorthodox.
For many Jews, the fact that Albert Einstein was Jewish is a point of pride. But what do we know about his Jewish self-identification? And how many folks out there could claim to have a basic understanding of his General Theory of Relativity? In Einstein: His Space and Time, biographer Steven Gimbel tackles these and other fundamental aspects of Einstein’s life and work. Gimbel is chairman of the philosophy department at Gettysburg College. He spoke with Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry about Einstein’s religious period (it came to an abrupt end when he discovered geometry at age 10), his clashes with all forms of authority, and his love of Israel, which fit uneasily with his profound distrust of nationalism. Gimbel also lays out the basic tenets of Einstein’s achievements in physics in terms that will make even science-phobes comfortable.
Photo: Jessica Fechtor Jessica Fechtor was just 28 years old when a blood vessel in her brain burst while she was exercising on a treadmill. Newly married, she was pursuing a Ph.D. in Jewish literature at Harvard, and she and her husband had just started thinking about having a baby. Now, suddenly, she was facing a long and difficult recovery–one that got even harder when complications arose after an initial surgery. Before she was even out of the hospital, Jessica started making lists. Not to-do lists, but grocery lists. She’d always loved cooking, and suddenly, the act of mixing ingredients to produce something delicious for herself and for the people around her felt more important than ever. She describes what happened in a new book that’s two parts memoir and one part cookbook. It’s called Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home, and Fechtor (who now blogs about food) joins Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry to talk about why she couldn’t fathom telling her story of trauma without talking about food, a favorite butter almond cake (find the recipe here), and what she hopes her daughters eventually take away from the book about their mother’s near-death experience.
During his political career, Léon Blum—who served three short terms as French prime minister between 1936 and 1947—was derided by his detractors as “a woman,” a “weak Jew,” and even a traitor. Meanwhile, he was worshiped by many French workers, grateful to him for introducing the 40-hour work week, vacation time, and other legislation from his Socialist agenda. According to sociologist Pierre Birnbaum, author of the new biography Léon Blum: Prime Minister, Socialist, Zionist, none of these characterizations captures the complexity of this under-appreciated figure. In an interview with Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry, Birnbaum describes Blum as a remarkably brave, intelligent, and unflappable leader, an early Zionist, a prescient anti-Communist, and proud Jew.