Reading Between the Lines: Literature in the New Year

The Hairy Call was the final exclamation point in a Bookfest panel that had spontaneously turned into a Jewfest.

September 28, 2006 12:42
3 minute read.
Reading Between the Lines: Literature in the New Year

septimus 88. (photo credit: )


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The Brooklyn Bookfest, held two week's ago at the county's Borough Hall, attracted legions of readers from the New York area, many already familiar with the visiting writers. After a panel featuring authors Jonathan Ames, Gary Shteyngart and Ben Greenman, an Ames fan requested that the writer indulge those present with a "Hairy Call." "I'll do three Hairy Calls," Ames said. "For those Jews in the room, it might sound like a shofar." Ames lifted his hands and produced the equivalent of a Hairy Call shevarim, three guttural cries, described by another writer as the sound a walrus might make if a hairball was caught in its throat. (Ames also explained the origin of the Hairy Call: it was a childhood warning cry performed when his more physically and socially adept peers were threatening to attack.) The Hairy Call was the final exclamation point in a Bookfest panel that had spontaneously turned into a Jewfest. Standing before a religiously and ethnically diverse New York crowd, both Ames and Shteyngart read pieces that explicitly addressed Jewish experiences. Ames read a passage from his novel Wake Up, Sir!(Scribner, 2004), in which his character comically ponders anti-Semitism and the Jewish response to it. "[B]ut maybe we just have to accept that we're hated, like they advocate in AA - that you have to accept you're alcoholic. So we Jews have to accept that we're hated and move on... I wonder if there's a twelve step group for Jews to help us work on this, though I guess that's what the synagogue is for, which makes sense since most AA meetings are held in churches. So Jewish AA, which, I guess, is just Judaism, is held in synagogues and instead of twelve steps you have Ten Commandments." Shteyngart read an excerpt from Absurdistan(Random House, 2006) in which his Russian-Jewish protagonist is collected from the airport by a group of Hassidim who plan to circumcise him despite his advanced age. The hilarious and cringe-worthy selection features Misha Vainberg's pre-cut party, where the cultural and educational differences between him and his co-religionists are accented. "The hum gradually resolved itself into a chorus of male voices singing what sounded like: 'A hummus tov, a tsimmus tov, a mazel tov, a tsimmus tov, a hummus tov, a mazel tov, a hummus tov, a tsimmus tov, hey hey, Yisroel.' Several terms I recognized: mazel tov is a form of congratulation, tsimmus is a dish of sugary crushed carrots, and Yisroel is a small, heavily Jewish country on the Mediterranean coast. What all these words were doing together, I couldn't begin to fathom." The shofar is meant to inspire introspection, and in that week before Rosh Hashana, Ames's Hairy Call accomplished a similar end, provoking me to revisit my thoughts about the relationship between Jewish life and literature. Since beginning to write this column a year and a half ago, I've struggled to identify the proper intersection between Judaism and literature. To some extent, privileging a book's non-literary aspect (i.e. it's Jewishness) seems like an inappropriate fetishization - the equivalent of literary idolatry. I've tried, therefore, to only write about books that would be comment-worthy if they had no Jewish content at all. But I've still felt insecure about the process. No more. Clearly, the readings Shteyngart and Ames gave could have more resonance and meaning for Members of the Tribe, but in the end, good writing is good writing. So if Jonathan Ames and Gary Shteyngart can read words dipped in schmaltz at a secular temple like the Brooklyn Bookfest, I need not apologize. I'll continue to write about worthy books only, and if some appeal more to those with Jewish interests too, well what the heck, a hummus tov - and a tsimmus tov, too.

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