We’ve been given marching orders, but I can’t bring myself to do it.
In between classes I duck into the library to appraise the situation. It’s bad. The building has succumbed to decay. A stone’s throw from where I sleep, the library—aka the Sifriya (ספרייה) because everything here has a Hebrew name, as well as an abbreviation: The Sif—stinks with no fans or functional windows. Forget about that glorious mountain breeze endemic to Camp Ramah in the Poconos, the room smells like 50-year-old carpet, like tube socks, lake scum, fallen pines. But the fug and must are a comfort. This is the smell of my childhood. I am no longer a child and yet still I’m here, working at camp. A psychology for another day: my choices steeped in nostalgia, arrested development, a pressing hunger for vicarious joys. But the practical answer is teaching has become an affordable way to bring my kids here for the summer. I’m an adjunct. Over the years, I’ve come to view this month upstate as my own rustic residency: I teach by day and write at night. It may be no Yaddo, but time moves at a slower place, allowing for deeper concentration without the pull of city life or the buzz of social media.
Narrow in scope, modest in size, it’s remarkable we have a library at all. We have one because this is not a sports camp or an arts camp but an educational camp, a Jewish educational camp, and, as the story goes, we people of the Book have been known to geek out on the written word.
A familiar fantasy: If you build it they will come. When the building was erected in the ’70s, the stacks were filled floor to ceiling with donations from synagogues, existing libraries, day schools, generous readers. When I was a camper we called the Sif “the new building.” We unfurled sleeping bags and watched the Raid on Entebbe every summer on that rust-colored rug. And yet: Even back when the place was new, the books inside were already old.
A longstanding librarian once sat behind the desk though I’ve never seen a person check out a book. I don’t know what she did—read the occasional picture book to younger children, stories about latkes run amok, or the Golem of Prague—but at least during her tenure there was some pretense of order: benches straight, wrappers in the trash. Without oversight, the place has fallen into chaos.
“Clear it out,” we’ve been told. “Everything must go.” For days, I do this: I visit the library. Before lunch, during rest hour. The shelves are mossed in dust and mouse droppings and dead flies. I vanish in the stacks, remove a book. Paperbacks crumble in my hand, pages thin as insect wings. Cloth covers separate from hardbacks, glue breaking from spines, unraveling threads of dried tack. I open them anyway. I say hello to Sholem Aleichem, to Isaac Babel and Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Wise Men of Helm. I touch the sordid remains of Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Maybe I pocket one or three.
Past summers I’ve stolen Herzog, Call It Sleep, The Mind-Body Problem. I am a thief, but I prefer to imagine my actions as redemptive. Whatever I take is not missed. Better with me, I tell myself. Better to cherish these titles in the comfort of my home then to let them rot, up here, exposed to the elements, suffer more damage, sustain another unloved and lonely winter.
How can we possibly get rid of them all?
Initially, I possess an impulse to open my arms and rescue the entire shabby library, some kind of foster mother of orphaned literature, to squirrel it away to my cabin, filling every surface with text, and suffocate a romantic death from vellichor, from the hopelessly wistful longing of worlds lived through used books.
But I’m fooling myself. For one, there are practical matters: I hardly have room for a bed in my bunk much less a library. How could I drive my spoils back to Brooklyn? As it is, either child or duffel may need to be strapped to the car’s roof. There are also health issues: These books are coated in forty years of death and bat shit.
Rodents, insects, cobwebs thick as surgical gauge. This is to be expected. It is camp. We are not versed in archival preservation. Books sit out on the shelves untreated season after season.
The bats are a more recent development. Apparently, the library’s infested. There is nocturnal video footage to prove it. A colony has been living in the ceiling for god knows how long. Bats flit through the stacks, raining midnight urine and feces. The brittle bodies of Night (of which there are nine copies) splashed in a sickly yellow film.
“What’s that disease you can get from bats?” I ask? My co-worker hands me gloves and a mask.
We are the education staff so it is only natural that the task falls to us. We have been summoned to break down the library. To eliminate the problem.
This is our fate. And so it becomes our crime.
I warn everyone. The arts and craft staff, the counselors. I tell the campers I teach, I tell my own kids: They’re emptying the library. This is your last chance.
No one comes. My kids look at me like, Mom, why are you talking? Two minutes, I beg, and they comply to avoid further embarrassment. My daughter finds a battered Marjorie Morningstar, my son The Magic Barrel.
That leaves thousands of books to go.
Some of my colleagues are more efficient. They get down to business, try to lessen the blow by keeping the banter bubbly, a warm bath of memories. Oh how I loved The Bread Givers! C’mon, has anyone actually read S.Y. Agnon?
At first we make piles, like that home improvement show: Trash, Donate, Keep. We fill crates with those in decent condition; those with enough relevancy and staying power to be transferred. The hope: If not here, perhaps on shinier shelves they may be plucked, handled, loved, read.
Because we aren’t getting rid of a library altogether. After it’s torn down it will be rebuilt. We remind ourselves this to feel less terrible about what we’re doing. We’re not Philistines, Romans trashing the Second Temple, whose destruction we’d commemorated on Tisha B’Av only days before.
We all tell stories in order to live with ourselves.
There will still be a library: new and improved.
Other questions arise: Why does the library house 98 percent Jewish, Hebrew, or religious texts? Had the limited catalogue been born 40 years ago upon the notion that it should reflect the camp’s ideological focus? Or was the content far less intentionally curated? Could it be this is merely the inventory received upon a call for donation? I don’t know. Perhaps this is why the books have sat largely untouched for almost half a century. Wouldn’t everyone benefit from a collection that is broader, more pluralistic in scope? Does a Jewish camp need a strictly Jewish library?
In grad school, I wrote a thesis on Jewish American literature, pitting the tenets of iconic authors: Roth, Bellow, Kafka, Malamud against concerns of contemporaries: Judy Budnitz, Nathan Englander, Myla Goldberg, Ethan Canin. This was in 2002. In interviews, we talked about the dangers and merits of labels. Could there be a unifying ethos, or was this thinking inherently reductive? The grappling felt necessary, however fraught.
Then, as now: Is the category still relevant, or have principles of “Jewish American” been subsumed into the mainstream? Can classification ever be useful or is it solely problematic? To what extent can outsider status be claimed in the face of widespread assimilation? Against the evergreen backdrop of anti-Semitism?
Of course, it’s personal. These are the books I grew up on. Women, too: Cynthia Ozick, Grace Paley, but overwhelmingly, men. Theirs are the cadent voices in my head, followed by the murmurings of the siddur, the desert wanderings of the five books of Moses. They fuel my passion, frustrations, and rage.
All my life, in some way or another I’ve been writing toward or against this canon. These are the contradictions I carry: The push/pull of tradition, the identification with custom and rejection of law, the foundational wrestling with patriarchy. Classic themes: anxiety, alienation, annihilation, guilt, expectation, desire. Who am I? A Jewish writer, a female writer, a mother writer, an American writer, an East Coast writer, a writer of a certain age, and so on. I recognize the enormous privilege of being able to embrace and slough labels, to see identity as expansive and not limiting. To be this and this. All of these are what make me.
Roth is dead two months. I find a honeyed clipping inside the pages of a book from a local Philadelphia newspaper. The date: 1981. Zuckerman Unbound had just come out. Here he is in the photo, wide slab of forehead, hair dark and thick, bushy at the ears. He looks stern but ironic, young and not, the way fathers look like fathers even when they are just people hanging a coat, cracking jokes through tears, trying to eke out an imperfect life.
The “keep” crate fills quickly. We can save one Malamud, but we don’t need five paperbacks of The Fixer. We probably don’t even need one, if we’re honest. One copy of The Chosen, for old time’s sake. After all, Potok is another famous alum. Where would I be without Seize the Day? But how much Bellow can we possibly hold onto? When is it time to let go?
Donate, we decide. Donate, Donate. Now the donate bins are bursting because we are—I am—being sentimental. Remember: books are losing pages, pulp dissolving to dust, covers defiled in waste. Who would want them?
The Salvation Army in Honesdale has no demand for literature of this ilk. To donate would be more burden than gift. We are in the boondocks. An ugly reality: No one is coming for them. Crates marked “donate” devolve into recycle. We are not ready to call them trash, even as we drag out the industry-strength garbage bags, stuff them with sexism, electric prose. Oh the campfire we could build on Roth alone!
In this way we yield to our directive. We kill, destroy. We throw out the Jewish canon.
There is a heat wave and our bodies are slick with sweat, with filth, our fingers blackened. We cough on dust, on lousy air. Israeli staffers are summoned to address the secular Hebrew catalogue, to sift through Amos Oz in his native tongue, to salvage Curtis Sittenfeld’s translated Prep from the tragic heap.
Then there are the rabbis. The rabbis have a duty unique from the lay staff. They must weed out religious texts: prayer books, Torah, the shelves upon shelves of commentary. But they can’t simply toss the tattered and torn. A law prohibits Jews from destroying God’s name when it is written out in full, not abbreviated. Four Hebrew letters: Yud. Hey. Vav. Heh.
Instead, the holy word is buried in a special place called a Genizah, which means “hiding,” or “to put away.” Rabbis designate volumes to this repository. Later, they’ll be transferred to a ritualistic resting place. There is a small burial spot on boys’ campus. Every year the ground is opened to receive these sacred pages. This year, there is so much; we can’t possibly accommodate it all. Some will be shipped to a cemetery off-site.
In the afternoon, our director visits. He understands what he’s asked of us. He is an academic and a reader and he has no slim grasp of history. The purge continues. We’ve dragged a fortress of garbage bags onto the porch and are racing against the clock. Soon, it will be dusk. Another day, then Sabbath, and all work will stop.
The director brings us Fanta and Chipwiches from the canteen as a reward for our efforts. We crack cans on the porch, our lips blazing orange, and for a minute we are not callous educators and rabbis, but children, hopped up on sugar. We close our eyes and tilt our faces toward the sun.
Finally, the trucks arrive. We sling bags onto flatbeds with fresh gusto, steel-toned plastic stretched to breaking. We set up an operation chain. Pass, hurl. Drivers make trips. We’re told the books are headed to recycling dumpsters located across the road. From there, they’ll be recycled, returned to pulp, made into paper, they’ll turn into books once again. I do not challenge this. I don’t rush to the camp’s dusty edges to inspect their final destination nor do I investigate the recycling system of Wayne County, Pennsylvania.
There is no Kaddish. There are only girls laughing, headed up for dinner.
Maybe it’s less about loss but about what remains. I try to picture future generations walking this tired earth, churning up the fields. What will they find? Time capsules of scrunchies, mixed tapes, putty. Will there still be a camp here, a library in 50 years? Will people dig up buried prayers? Or will the worms have gotten to them, turning the sacred to soil?
As the sun sets behind the dining hall, I arrive at an uncertain peace. Everywhere is an infinite mourning. All we can do is cast our hope on those who’ll follow into these woods: their thoughts and discoveries, what they’ll do and make, the new books they’ll write onto shelves, how they’ll bristle against all the difficult living questions whose answers I may never know.
This interview was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.
The Jewish immigrant tale has become a popular American creation myth, especially for readers who came of age in the second half of the last century. It comes fully imbued with hope, bravery, and a retrospective level of assimilative success, not to mention its own handsome national monument — Ellis Island.
The story is well established from a New York perspective. Thanks to a rich written history, from Henry Roth to Chaim Potok to Isaac Bashevis Singer to Betty Smith, most people know at least a portion of the Ellis Island/Lower East Side narrative. But Jews settled in other parts of the country as well: Massachusetts, California, and the Midwest, with a particularly vibrant community forming in Chicago.
Yet this piece of the story is still underrepresented in American arts and letters. The names of so many New York born-and-bred Jewish writers are canonical by now: Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, E.L. Doctorow, Cynthia Ozick come to mind without much thought at all; given another minute I could name two dozen more. Coming up with the names of literary Jews who identify their stories of origin with the rest of the United States — particularly the Midwest — isn’t so easy. Even Chicago’s favorite maggid, Saul Bellow, was born in Canada.
Ronna Wineberg’s recent debut novel, On Bittersweet Place (Relegation Books, 2014), which was excerpted at Bloom this past Monday, takes a familiar narrative — a large Jewish family flees post-October Revolution Russia to make a better life in America — and roots it firmly in 1920s Chicago. The story of the Czernitski family, as seen through the eyes of teenage narrator Lena, is both recognizable and slightly strange. There is no Lower East Side, no Garment District. Rather Lena, her brother, Simon, her parents, and her numerous aunts and uncles play out their stories against the backdrop of Michigan Avenue, Independence Boulevard, Bittersweet Place (a real street in the heart of Chicago), the Art Institute of Chicago, the shores of Lake Michigan. Their world is subtly — but importantly — different from the one many of us have encountered before in literature. It gives us fresh eyes on a story we think we may have seen before. On Bittersweet Place is as much the coming-of-age story of the Midwest as a diverse and thriving urban center as it is Lena’s. I caught up with Ronna Wineberg to talk about the novel, the history behind it, and, of course, Chicago.
Lisa Peet: Aside from having lived there as a child yourself, why did you set Lena’s story in Chicago? Are you familiar with the actual street, Bittersweet Place, or did you pick it for the name?
Ronna Wineberg: Most fiction about Jewish immigrants takes place in New York. I wanted to explore a different setting. The Midwest has a specific sensibility, softer than that of New York. I imagined Chicago would be a less harsh place for Lena and her family. And Chicago is a beautiful city. Lake Michigan and the beach are easy to access; I thought they could become part of the story. Also, my mother’s family came to Chicago from Russia. She was the first child born in America. Her parents, older siblings, aunts, and uncles arrived at Ellis Island and made their way to the Midwest. Because of this, it seemed natural to set an immigrant novel in Chicago.
An aunt and uncle of mine lived on Bittersweet Place before I was born. I’d heard the name of the street many times and I’d been there; the image stayed with me. When I began writing the novel, I immediately thought of Bittersweet Place as the street where Lena and her family could live.
LP: Is there actually a Belilovka, the Russian town Lena’s family escapes from?
RW: Belilovka is a real place. My grandfather was born there. However, the events in my family’s history didn’t happen there. I chose Belilovka because of the rhythmic sound of the name.
LP: What do you know about your own family’s history? How did it influence or inform On Bittersweet Place?
RW: The house where I grew up was filled with visitors, relatives who spoke with thick accents. Although I’m a second-generation American, I felt as if I had a foot in each world. I wasn’t quite comfortable with my family’s immigrant past, and I didn’t quite belong in the world of my American friends either. I knew I wanted to write about this, and once I found Lena’s voice, she led the way.
For years, I didn’t know much about my family’s background. When I was in college, some of my cousins and I talked with my mother’s family about Russia. We sat in the living room of my parents’ house and asked questions of our grandparents, aunts, and uncles. We were riveted by their stories and decided to record the conversations on cassette tapes. We interviewed relatives on other occasions, too. The discussions were lively; people disagreed about what had happened in the past. My great-grandfather had been murdered in Russia. My great uncle, a man in his late 60s, described the murder to us and as he did, he cried. That moment stayed with me.
The family did flee from Russia, and my grandparents were separated for years because of World War I. I never learned the details of their relationship, but I was struck by the circumstances. The Russian portions of On Bittersweet Place are loosely based on family history.
LP: How is the Jewish immigrant story different in the Midwest, and Chicago in particular? How did regional differences shape the trajectory of assimilation?
RW: In 1927, over a million and a half Jews lived in New York City. In contrast, the Jewish population of Chicago was 300,000 in 1933, nine percent of the total population. And by 1930, Russian immigrants made up 80 percent of Chicago’s Jewish residents. I imagine that Chicago was an easier place to live than New York, a less aggressive and less overwhelming city. People traveled there, like the characters in On Bittersweet Place, because friends or relatives lived in the city and because economic opportunities were considered good. There were neighborhoods in Chicago with a high concentration of Jewish immigrants, but nothing as densely populated as the Lower East Side.
In New York, immigrants lived in many areas, including the Bronx and Brooklyn. There were fewer choices in Chicago. But I imagine impoverished immigrants faced similar challenges in both places — learning the language, finding work, dealing with prejudice. Established, economically comfortable Jews in Chicago (like those in New York) created institutions to help: Michael Reese Hospital, an old age home, The Society for the Burial of the Dead. Chicago had a thriving community, regional newspapers, theaters, synagogues, and an institute with classrooms, gyms, a library, a synagogue, and a clubroom, where immigrants could learn English.
LP: I didn’t know that about Michael Reese Hospital, and I was born there! Writing the Jewish immigrant story has such a strong New York tradition as well. Who are some of the writers who inspired or instructed you? Anyone particular to Chicago or the Midwest?
RW: Many of the writers who inspired me set their fiction in New York. I was inspired by Anzia Yezierska’s novel Bread Givers. Also by Bernard Malamud’s wonderful short stories. Isaac Bashevis Singer’s work inspired me, especially Shadows on the Hudson, a novel about immigrants who come to New York after the Holocaust, and also his short stories. I admire Grace Paley and Tillie Olsen, their focus on women and ordinary experiences. David Milofsky’s Eternal People influenced me, too. His novel about Jewish immigrants who settle in Wisconsin gave me a sense of the scope of relocation and ways people tried to assimilate or not
LP: Lena’s art is a strong vehicle carrying her through her adolescence — were there any particular artists you had in mind while writing the novel? Or artists’ narratives? (My Name Is Asher Lev comes to mind for me, a huge favorite of mine as a teenager.)
RW: My Name is Asher Lev was a favorite of mine, too. I didn’t have a particular artist or narrative in mind while writing On Bittersweet Place. I admire visual artists and have a kind of wonder at what they create. I loved to draw as a child. I wanted to be an artist then, to take art classes on weekends or after school, but this wasn’t possible. I took drawing classes in college and oil painting classes later as an adult. I draw cartoons now and would like to paint again. My interest in art rose to the surface as I wrote the book. Lena’s connection to art deepened with each draft, became an important part of her character, and a vehicle to save her from the difficulties she faced.
LP: You started writing when you were working as a legal defender, and now you’re an editor at Bellevue Literary Review. Aside from the knowledge that comes with time and experience, how has that career shift changed the way you feel about your own writing?
RW: I’ve become more serious about writing. Law is an unforgiving profession in terms of time. When I was a public defender, I didn’t have time to write in a consistent way. The work was demanding (and very interesting). I couldn’t steal time from a case to write; I couldn’t shortchange a client. My work at the Bellevue Literary Review has helped me become more committed to writing, too. The work has broadened my awareness of the subjects people write and care about and broadened the type of fiction I’ve read. I’ve learned from editing at the journal that writing is truly re-writing and revision shapes a story. And working with the other editors, who are also writers, has encouraged me to think more deeply about the importance of the written word.
LP: Bellevue Literary Review is interested in the intersection of medicine and literary language. There is a lot of pathology in On Bittersweet Place—mental and physical illness, cancer, the grandmother’s gradual wasting away, an uncle’s mysterious (but definitely not unearned) death, but the family is very much outside the orbit of modern medicine. Can you comment a bit on that, and do you feel that your work with has BLR influenced the way you look at illness/medicine as a writer?
RW: [Lena’s mother] Reesa views doctors with distrust. She doesn’t want her niece to consult a doctor. The family is superstitious: if you don’t go to a doctor, you won’t need one. So much of the characters’ energy goes into surviving and learning about the new culture; medicine and doctors are peripheral unless there’s a crisis. There is pathology in the book, but I view that as the stuff of life, events a child may encounter and try to understand.
The BLR has influenced how I look at illness and medicine as a writer. I’ve read lots of stories about the medical world. I’m more aware now of medicine’s triumphs, limitations, and disappointments, of the randomness of life. And I’ve learned that a medical experience or illness in itself isn’t enough to drive a piece of fiction.
LP: Do any of the characters from your short fiction collection, Second Language, make an appearance in On Bittersweet Place (disguised or otherwise)?
RW: That’s an interesting question. There is a connection between characters in Second Language and On Bittersweet Place. Saul Chernoff, from “The Coin Collector,” was born in Russia. He would have been a friend of Simon’s and played basketball with him. He might even, disguised, be Simon (they both have auburn/reddish hair), but Simon wouldn’t have Saul’s harshness. In the story, “Second Language,” Fay Minskacoff and her husband, Max — not the same as [Lena’s boyfriend] Max from the novel — were friends with Lena and Simon when they were young. The story, “The Doctor” has overlap as well. When Mel Hempill was a boy, he and his family struggled and lived in a boarding house. I imagine he grew up in Chicago, possibly near Lena’s family.
LP: The novel left me with so many questions about the characters’ futures — I found I was really invested in them. Where do Lena and Max go from here? What will her family do with their slightly-tainted-but-very-much-needed insurance money? How will her father wrestle with his conscience? What will become of her uncle and aunt, Abie and Ida, who move to Poland at the novel’s end? (This last one breaks my heart a little.) When you finished, were you glad to say goodbye to this family, or do you still think about what will happen to them outside the covers of the book?
RW: I’m happy you were invested in the characters. When I finished the novel, I was very sorry to say goodbye to them. Originally, I wrote an epilogue for the book, but decided not to include it. Unfortunately, you are right about Abie and Ida and the two children they will have in Poland. I still think of what will happen to all the characters outside the covers of the book. I imagine dialogue and scenes. For example, Max would have given Lena more of a musical education and told her with exuberance: “Chicago is the jazz capital of America.” I imagine what happens to the characters as the years pass — where people end up, who dies when — and also what happens to the city of Chicago. Everything changes.
Click here to read an excerpt from Ronna Wineberg’s On Bittersweet Place.