Showing posts with label Liz Zelvin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Liz Zelvin. Show all posts

06 April 2020

The Older I Get, The More I Like Passover


The eight days of Passover begin at sundown on Wednesday, during the same week as Easter this year and four weeks since the World Health Organization (WHO) pronounced the coronavirus crisis a pandemic.

Passover is one of the few rituals my New York secular Jewish family observed. As I've aged, more and more layers have accreted to my understanding of the holiday and its observance.

When I was a kid, Passover was all about family. My father read the Haggadah in Hebrew at the Seder, the feast celebrating the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt, and knew all the traditional songs. My mother made the pot roast. I still use her recipe and the thick Wagner Ware pot that by divine alchemy produces gravy without any water at all. (The secret is in the onions, but you need the magic pot.) All the aunts and uncles and cousins on both sides gathered at my parents' table.

My 1978 poem, "Passover," describes a Seder that took place at my parents' house when I was in my thirties but is imbued with nostalgia for those childhood Seders.
my father revels in his role of patriarch
in velvet skullcap and white turtleneck
he looks, by some irony, like the Pope:
He works for one of our boys, says my father

this is his night in this house of women
who snub patriarchy on all occasions
whose strength overflows the crucible
of faith and family
it is his night to make it sing
we break unleavened bread together
without politics

he is telling it for all of us
the only grandchild
Do I have to listen to the boring part?
my mother, the proud Hungarian
with her doctorate and law degree
for whom even the prayer over the candles
—women’s work—remains a mystery
for me, who never went to synagogue
who never suffered as a Jew
for my Irish lover, here for the first time
to whom I am serving up my childhood
on the Pesach plates
for Aunt Hilda, who married out
and Uncle Bud, who was my friend who isn’t Jewish
thirty years ago

at 79 my father has forgotten stories
muffs the accent, sometimes the punchline
no longer knows the name of every lawyer in New York
but tonight he is clear as wine, fresh as a photograph
confident and plump as the turkey itself
awaiting its turn in the kitchen
tonight he is the raconteur I remember
as cherished and familiar as the books, the cloth, the china
the Hebrew words I cannot understand
the melody I miss at anybody else’s Seder
that my father and Aunt Anna with her trained soprano
learned in Hebrew school as children
all I have traveled back, back to see and hear

measuring his audience
expanding in the warm room like love
my father pours the wine
skips the prosy rabbis arguing
and tells instead the illustrated Bible story:
Moses in the bulrushes, cruel Pharaoh, the Red Sea parting
Let my people go
or I’ll give you what for
says my father
"Passover" first appeared in Elizabeth Zelvin, I Am the Daughter (1981) New Rivers

When it fell to me to keep the tradition going, progressive secular Jews were rewriting the Haggadah to suit the changing times and current political and cultural ideas. For a number of years, we read a passage from something called the Egalitarian Haggadah that couched the story in the language of labor and liberation movements. To tell the truth, I thought it was hilarious.
"Pharaoh was... unwilling to give up his power over the slaves. ... It was not enough to present reasonable demands. ... The oppressor had to be brought to his knees. ...[But Pharaoh finally] told the Jews to leave. Our ancestors ...collected back wages in goods from the Egyptians for 400 years of unpaid labor. Then they mobilized according to plan and marched out."
An Egalitarian Hagada, © Aviva Cantor 1982
A couple of decades later, a lot of Jewish women started putting an orange on the Seder plate along with the traditional ritual lamb shank, roasted egg, bitter herbs, spring greens, and charoseth. The orange represents marginalized Jews, rejecting sexism and homophobia in Jewish tradition. I put an orange on my Seder plate every year. And we discuss it, so my granddaughters will understand.

Now my family is a multicultural family. It includes my Irish husband (forty-plus years since the poem), my Filipino daughter-in-law, my gorgeous granddaughters (half Jewish, raised Catholic), my cousin the son of Aunt Hilda and Uncle Bud, and said cousin's two kids (25% Jewish). My son and I have the only 100% Jewish DNA at the table. When friends are invited to join us, their origins tend to be an ethnic, religious, and national potpourri.

When the girls were very little, with the attention span of fleas, I wrote a very short Haggadah they could relate to.
"Once upon a time in Egypt, there was a king called Pharaoh who was very mean to the Jews... The princess found the baby in the basket and decided to adopt him. But Moses's mother got a job in the palace as a nanny, so she got to take care of her baby Moses too."
On one level, the story of Moses is a classic folk tale.
"Moses kept trying to get Pharaoh to let the Jews go home. He kept saying, 'Let my people go!' But Pharaoh kept saying, 'No!' Bad things happened to the Egyptians, like thousands of frogs that suddenly appeared and hopped around all over them. And Moses said, 'Now will you let my people go?' And Pharaoh said, 'No!'"
This year, we're having a virtual Seder via Zoom. I've written an entirely different flash Seder for my granddaughters, now 16 and 13.
"This year we are experiencing a plague of our own, the coronavirus. Like the plagues that God visited on the Egyptians, it came without warning, it has spread rapidly, and it has fallen on many innocent people. It has affected not just one group or nation, but the whole world. We don't believe that the coronavirus is a punishment from God. But there are certainly selfish and greedy people in power who have made it harder to deal with this plague and heal the world."
We'll get back to that "healing the world."

In our house, the four sons in the traditional Haggadah have long since become four children. Traditionally, one child is wise, one rude, one "simple," and one doesn't even know to ask a question.
"We don't have any children who are rude or not very smart or no good at asking questions, so let's take a couple of minutes to ask our wise children what they think about three things: (1) God visiting plagues on the Egyptians so the Jews could get away; (2) the connection, if there is one, between the coronavirus and the kind of leadership we have right now in America; and (3) if your personal experience of living with our own "plague" has made you think or feel differently about the story of the Exodus."
My Jewish historical series, the Mendoza Family Saga, started with the Jews' expulsion from Spain on the day Columbus set sail. But until I started doing research, I had never heard of the lost children of São Tomé, two thousand Jewish children who were abducted by the King of Portugal in 1493 and sent into slavery on a pestilential island off the coast of West Africa. Their story became a major plot line in my novel Journey of Strangers. In general, the research I've done for the Mendoza books and stories has heightened my awareness of why and what we remember every year and can't afford to forget.

The concept of tikkun olam, repairing or healing the world, is fundamental to Jewish ethics. We are obligated to have a social conscience. The Seder ritual of dipping a finger in a cup of wine as we recite the plagues, one drop for each plague, symbolizes that our cup of happiness can never be completely full as long as one person still suffers, even our worst enemy.

So it's not surprising, perhaps, that the traditional ending of the Seder bothered me. After the meal, after the songs, after the final glass of wine and the final blessing, everyone is supposed to shout joyously, "Next year in Jerusalem!" L'shana haba'ah b'Yerushalayim.

In terms of modern global politics, I found this embarrassing. To the ancient Hebrews, Jerusalem was the Promised Land, the homeland that God had set aside for them. After leaving Egypt, they wandered in the desert for forty years until they were deemed worthy of it. Then they had no problem moving in. But—a big "but," in my opinion—another tribe, the Canaanites, already lived there. Oops.

So here it is, thousands of years later, and everyone still wants Jerusalem. And what a lot of trouble it still causes the world! I didn't think I had the right to throw out the punch line of the whole Haggadah. But I wanted to make "Next year in Jerusalem" mean something more inclusive than, "Let's throw the other fellows out."

So I wrote this song, with which my family now ends the Seder every year.


Prayer (Next Year in Jerusalem)
From album Outrageous Older Woman 2012 ℗ & © Liz Zelvin
Elizabeth Zelvin is the author of the Bruce Kohler Mysteries and the Mendoza Family Saga and editor of the anthologies Me Too Short Stories and Where Crime Never Sleeps. Her story "Reunion" will appear in the May/June issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and a story in Jewish Noir 2 in September. Three of Liz's stories have just been accepted for future issues of Black Cat Mystery Magazine.

12 September 2019

Pentecost - Burning Up Every Wrong


by Eve Fisher

A month ago, I read Miriam Towes' Women Talking, a novel about the unbelievable but horrifically true story of a group of Mennonite men in the Manitoba Colony of Bolivia who "went around spraying an animal anesthetic into neighboring houses at night, rendering everyone unconscious, and raping all the women (infant, elderly and relatives included)".  At first the men in the colony denied that it happened.  Then they accused the women of everything from adultery to demonic possession.  But then some were caught.  Not that things got better for the women:  after arrests and confessions were made, psychological support was offered to the rape survivors by Mennonite missionaries, but the Bishop of Manitoba rejected it. He said, "Why would they need counselling if they weren't even awake when it happened?"  And the victims were and are being pressured to forgive the rapists, under threat of losing their eternal salvation if they don't.  (Manitoba case

Once again, proof that 99% of sex crimes are NOT about sexual desire, sexual desirability, or even lust.  They're about power.

In an authoritarian world, the real definition of power - unprettied, unsoftened - is the ability to do whatever you want and get away with it.  And one of the absolute proofs of power, to sociopaths, psychopaths, and pack mobs, is the ability to do anything you want to someone subordinate/inferior to you and get away with it.  Especially sexual dominance.  And if someone actually decides to rebel against the pecking order and resist and report?

DENIAL:
It never happened!  It wasn't like that!  It was consensual!  Demons must have done this!  S/he's lying!  What did s/he do to lure him on?
DEFLECTION:
Roy Cohn.jpg
Roy Cohn
Roger Stone on Roy Cohn:  "Roy was not gay. He was a man who liked having sex with men."  (Source)
DEFENSE!  DEFENSE!
Alan Dershowitz:  A john “who occasionally seeks to taste the forbidden fruit of sex for hire...  Prostitutes know what they’re doing—they should be prosecuted. But you shouldn’t ruin the john’s life over that."  (New Yorker
And as for rape, well - A young boy's life shouldn't be ruined over "20 minutes of action." (Brock Turner)
DISTRACTION:
Look!  Squirrel!  Someone else is worse!  They did that!  What was she wearing?  What was she drinking?  Why did she go there?  Why didn't they report it sooner?  What are they trying to get out of it by reporting it now?
DISTRACTION AND DENIAL:
Of course it never happened, s/he's not my type!  Who'd want to **** her [him]?
And we're back to the age-old "excuse" that sexual assault is based on the desirability of the victim, rather than an exercise of power.  But the truth is, rapists rape and abusers abuse the same way pigeons poop and bank robbers rob - that's what they do.  There's almost nothing you can do except lock yourself up in your house and wear body armor, and even then - well, read something about the Boston Strangler.  No, I'll take that back:  what you can do is avoid sociopaths, psychopaths, cult leaders, war zones, riots, authoritarians, and pack mobs.

The trouble is, that's hard to do.  Always has been.

My story in Liz Zelvin's Me Too Short Stories:  An Anthology is "Pentecost".  It's 1990, and Darla Koenig is the first female pastor in Laskin, South Dakota.  Not everyone is welcoming.  Nothing personal, just general principles, you know?  Not sure that women should be preaching from the pulpit.  Things might have to change.  Everything's fine the way it is.  Darla should be grateful that she's even allowed in.  And no one wants to deal with an old predator, even if he is still predatory.  So Darla has to, even though she knows that doing it herself could be one of the most dangerous things that she will ever do, for herself, her career, and the young girls of Laskin. 

A lot went into "Pentecost."  The Hutterite colonies throughout the Midwest.  They are hardworking religious communes that are also deeply, profoundly, completely patriarchal and capitalist.   They're also hard-drinking.  Sometimes things happen.  Sometimes someone talks about them.

WaPo
The sexual abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Church, and other Evangelical churches. Again, patriarchal societies in which women are not allowed any leadership or pastoral roles, and are expected to "graciously submit to the leadership of her husband".  In which the perpetrators were protected, hidden, and - if everything came tumbling out - were quickly, publicly forgiven, while victims were silenced, ignored, told they had to forgive and forget to maintain their salvation, sometimes even made to confess their "guilt" in rape and abuse.  (Evangelical Church Sexual Abuse; SBC Church Sexual Abuse)

The new church group in the South Dakota small town that - in 2015!!!! - wanted to use the community room in the apartment building Allan & I lived in, and assured the owner of said building that "In our church, women know their place."  (They didn't get the room.)

An incident from my childhood.  Another, on-going incident from those days, when every child in my Southern California neighborhood knew that the guy on the corner was molesting his foster children.  But it was the 1960s, and we didn't dare say anything, because we knew that, as children, to even know what sexual molestation was meant that somehow we'd lost our innocence - and that meant something was wrong with us.  How could we know that without being corrupted?  And we would end up punished.

Darla runs headlong into this issue.  When she makes a couple of suggestions to at least rein in the predator she's told, "The town might be embarrassed."  When she suggests that the victims band together to pull him down, the janitor, Portia Davison, tells her:
"I don't know many women in this town who'd be willing to admit that something like that happened to them.  And we don't have any proof.  He's a lawyer.  His dad was mayor.  He hangs out with Judge Dunn and everyone on the City Commission.  To them, Davisons like me are trailer trash, and you're not from around here, not any more.  Nobody's going to listen.  And people might get hurt.  Especially the girls."
Portia was right.  To speak up would mean that every ballet student for the last 20 years, but especially the ones right now, would be pointed out, whispered about, objects of pity but also of suspicion, sullied...  To speak up and be doubted would ruin Darla's image, if not her reputation.  Darla would be called a troublemaker and a feminazi and every other misygynistic slur, and it would be another ten years at least before there would be another woman pastor in Laskin. 
And it wouldn't even matter whether they were believed or not.  Even if they were, Darla would be hated for opening the can of worms, and the girls would still be held somehow at fault.
It wasn't fair, it wasn't fair, it wasn't fair.
Don't worry.  Darla finds a way through the dilemma.  A very effective way. 

Check out how she pulls it off - and many other wonderfully satisfying stories - in Me Too Short Stories:  An Anthology, available on Amazon.com HERE,, at Barnes & Noble HERE.

And for those of you in NYC, there will be a launch party at the Mysterious Bookshop in the Big Apple on Tuesday September 24!

Me Too Short Stories: An Anthology by [Zelvin, Elizabeth]

07 May 2017

Meet the Mendozas: A Family of Cultural Relativists in An Age of Absolutism


 Family Fortnight +  Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the ninth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!
by Elizabeth Zelvin

Diego Mendoza, a nice Jewish boy from Seville, was born knocking on the inside of my head one night, demanding that I tell his story: he sailed with Columbus on the voyage of discovery on the very day in 1492 that the Jews were expelled from Spain. Why did Columbus take him on? (I have my reasons for not believing the theory that Columbus himself was Jewish.) Diego's dad was shipwrecked with Columbus off the coast of Portugal in their youth (the shipwreck is historical fact), and he'd remained a friend of the family. Young Columbus also had a crush on Diego's mother, though that didn't come out till Journey of Strangers, the second novel, as a piece of ancient family history.

So Diego had a father, did he? Diego escaped to what turned out to be "the Indies." Where did the rest of the family go? In "The Green Cross," the first of two Diego stories about the first voyage that appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, I sent Diego's "parents and sisters" to Italy, where many Spanish Jews fled at the beginning of the Sephardic diaspora. Diego sprang to such vivid life that I decided he deserved a novel, which presented new challenges.

I needed women characters, so I created Diego's sister Rachel, a spirited and endearing girl of 13 who had been sent away to a convent school in Barcelona for safety's sake and left behind due to the ruthless speed of the expulsion. Her only protector was an aunt, Doña Marina Mendes y Torres, a true converso rather than a marrano who secretly practiced Judaism. I intended Doña Marina to be stern and forbidding, but the lady surprised me, eventually becoming a staunch protector to her niece and nephew and putting up with a fair amount of discomfort and shenanigans. The first half of Voyage of Strangers takes place in Spain, where Columbus is received at the court of Ferdinand and Isabella and charged with outfitting a fleet for the second voyage. Rachel is burning to go along, and in the end, Diego and Columbus combined fail to stop her.

In the second half of Voyage of Strangers, Diego and Rachel meet and fall in love with the gentle, generous Taino, the indigenous population of Quisqueya (Hispaniola) and are powerless to prevent its destruction by the Spaniards. We get to know more about their parents and their upbringing via the principles instilled in them, which allow them to embrace a culture very different from their own. As Jews, they have always been outsiders in the Christian mainstream culture of Europe. This has made cultural relativism their natural point of view. For example, the Taino teach Diego and Rachel batey, a game not unlike soccer.
We both became skilled at batey. In such perilous times, one might think that sport would be abandoned. But batey was a religious observance, the game a ceremony like the Christian Mass or, in Judaism, carrying the Torah. In troubled times, spiritual practice is a necessity. My father had told me so, and the Taino understood this as well.
Both Papa and Mama Mendoza are revealed as counselors whose wisdom their children cling to in difficult situations, since they are far from home and have no one to rely on but each other. In one historically accurate scene, Diego and Rachel are forced to listen to the sounds of a young Taino girl being beaten and raped by a childhood friend of Columbus. The man himself wrote an account of it when he returned to Europe. The story survived because historians quoted it as a comical anecdote as late as 1942. That's right: Samuel Eliot Morison, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Columbus, thought the rape of an Indian maiden, with a beating to make her compliant, was funny.
“Diego!” Rachel cried. “What is he doing to her?”

I took her hand and pulled her down beside me on a coil of rope.

“Do you know what is meant to happen between a man and a woman?”

“Yes,” she said. “Elvira told me.”

“What did she tell you?” I asked. Our eldest sister loved to hoard information and spring it on us at the moment when it would most devastate or embarrass us, and she did not always pause to verify her facts.

“She said a man and a woman do the same as when a bull is set to a cow, so she will bear a calf and furnish milk. And that is how human folk make a baby.”

“And what do you think of that?” I asked. I expected her to say that she found it hard to believe of our parents, who both had a full measure of dignity.

“I know it is true,” she said, “for I asked Mama. She said there is pleasure in it too, when it is done correctly.”

Papa had said the same. I would not admit to Rachel that I had had no opportunity yet to investigate the matter for myself. So I simply nodded, hoping my little sister thought me wiser than I was.

“Mama told me about rape too,” Rachel said. “That is what Cuneo is doing, is it not?”

“Yes, but—Mama told you?”

“She knew it was a danger, sending me to Barcelona when things were getting worse,” Rachel said, “and none knew what the King and Queen would do about the Jews. She said I must have this knowledge so that if I were taken, at least I would not be taken by surprise.”
For Journey of Strangers, I had to do some serious research on the Sephardic diaspora so I could address the issue of what had become of the rest of the Mendoza family. I quickly found out that the Mendoza family could not have stayed in Firenze (Florence), where I had so blithely put them, under the protection of Lorenzo di Medici. First, Lorenzo died in January 1492. Second, his successor, along with the Jews who had sought refuge there, fled the city in November 1494, when King Charles VIII conquered it. Many of them ended up in Istanbul, where Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II welcomed them, although the famous one-liner, still quoted– "You venture to call Ferdinand a wise ruler, he who has impoverished his own country and enriched mine!" –was made up by a writer, who else, in 1523. So the Mendozas settled in Istanbul, and I got to develop the characters of Papa and Mama, along with older sisters Elvira and Susanna and their fianćes, later husbands, and in-laws.

The complex rules governing the lives of Jews in Istanbul in the late 1490s; the trauma of their travels; the pressure on the Jewish community to marry their children young and have them reproduce as many Jews as possible--very much like the situation of Jews after the Holocaust--all of these challenge Papa and Mama Mendoza to show what stuff they're made of. Into this situation come their long-lost children, who have befriended naked Taino and helped Moorish slaves escape. Their best friend is Hutia, a lone Taino survivor, and Rachel is determined to marry him. They've been running around the Caribbean half-naked and fighting their way through Europe living by their wits. How are you going to box them into a nice Jewish marriage and a job in Papa's business?

Rachel, with Mama's help, finds herself a job as a personal shopper to the ladies of the Sultan's harem. Diego goes into partnership with a Muslim ship's captain and former pirate. The plot thickens as Hutia must decide whether conversion to Judaism or to Islam is more likely to win him Rachel's hand in marriage. No spoilers. Read the books! Both are available as trade paperbacks and e-books. Instead, I'll give you the final lines of the homecoming scene (the end of Chapter 23 in Journey of Strangers, when Diego, Rachel, and Hutia finally arrive in Istanbul). I confess that I cried not only the first three times I read it over, but also while I was writing it.
Someone must be coming to the door. It swung open. A young man I did not recognize, wearing a tallit, peered out at us, squinting as if nearsighted.

“Yes?”

Then I heard my sister Elvira’s voice call out, “Akiva? Who is it?”

A girl with a mop of hair as unruly as Rachel’s came flying out of an inner room, shrieking, “It’s them! It’s them!”

My sister Susanna flung herself upon me, arms tight around my neck and legs clinging to my waist.

“Mama! Papa! Come quickly! Diego and Rachel have come home!”

And then Rachel was sobbing in Mama’s arms, and Papa was lifting Susanna down so he could hug me himself, his beard wet with tears as it brushed against my cheek, or maybe the tears were mine.

“My boy, my boy!” Papa said. “Baruch Ha’shem! Thank God you’re home!”
After I'd finished writing Journey, I realized that not only did Papa and Mama Mendoza represent an idealized version of my own parents and a blueprint for the aspects of family that I would have liked and hadn't had, but they also reminded me of the March parents in Little Women, who in turn were Louisa May Alcott's idealized portrait of her own parents, the high-minded but impractical philosopher Bronson Alcott and her beloved mother, immortalized as the March sisters' Marmee. Wise, kind, ethical, loving, principled without being the slightest bit dogmatic, fiercely loyal to family, flexible, open-minded on a deeply intelligent level, and utterly reliable. Cultural relativists. Who wouldn't want such parents? My own being long gone, I'd go home with them in a flash.

Elizabeth Zelvin, a once and forever SleuthSayer, is the author of the historical novels Voyage of Strangers and Journey of Strangers, the Bruce Kohler mystery series beginning with Death Will Get You Sober, and numerous short stories. Her stories have been nominated twice for the Derringer Award and three times for the Agatha Award.

Liz is currently editing the fourth Murder New York Style anthology for the New York chapter of Sisters in Crime. You can find her on Amazon's Elizabeth Zelvin page, on her website at elizabethzelvin.com, and on Facebook as Elizabeth Zelvin.