Mincha: Gazing out a Window

Benjamin Zeiger, this year’s Nobel Prize laureate in Literature, gave his first interview with the press in over forty years to Sybil Gruenberge of the Warsaw Jewish Daily, on June 30th, at the Center for Diaspora Studies, in a small reading room off of the main library, looking out on the Vistula River.
Sybil Gruenberg: You’ve often been compared to Marcel Proust, and to the
American writer J.D. Salinger, also recluses. We’re honored that you’ve chosen us for this interview. And yet, unlike Salinger, one aspect of your personal history is widely known. Shall we begin by talking about the fact that you come from a noted literary family.
Benjamin Zeiger: [Laughing.] Even at my advanced age, I haven’t left that legacy behind. Another man might be depressed. But unlike several of my sisters, I’ve been graced with a sense of humor about the fact that all of our lives, and ultimately my career, were shaped by Sholem Aleichem, who turned us into the characters in his stories about Tevye the Dairyman.
SG: In your Nobel acceptance speech you said that you’ve lived your life in a zone where fringe and center wed. Were you referring to that legacy in particular?
BZ: In part. My family comes from an obscure shtetl in what used to be the Pale of Settlement, and we probably would all have remained there, or fled and been forgotten, were it not for my father’s chance meeting with Sholem Rabinowitz, who the world knows as Sholem Aleichem. He and his family vacationed for several summers in our region, which is where he met my father, who was, just as the stories tell, the local dairyman.
SG: In what ways did your father resemble the Tevye that we all know?
BZ: Tevye the character and Mendel, my father, are near twins, closer than Esau and Jacob. To this day, when I go back to the stories, I always cry. They bring Papa back to life. Like the Tevye of literature, my father was constantly invoking Torah and Talmud. And just like Tevye he was a bumbling mangler of sacred texts, a great misadventurer, a Jewish Sancho Panza and Don Quixote rolled into one. It’s Rabinowitz’ characterization of our mother Ruchel that was off. In the Tevye stories she comes across as a simple but pious, superstitious shrew. In fact she was tender, devoted, and a loyal and patient spouse to a man who could be trying on his best days. And, she was funny in her own right. Funnier than Papa. People assume my sense of humor came from him. It didn’t.
SG: I understand that your father, unlike the fictional Tevye, ultimately made it to Palestine, and died there, in 1950.
BZ: Yes. My mother died in 1934, and the years that followed were difficult for all of us. Tevye had seven daughters. My parents had five. Just as the stories tell, my eldest sister defied convention and married for love, as did our next oldest sister, who, like her literary counterpart, followed a Marxist husband to Siberia, to Birobidzhan, where she eventually became the Minister of Education. My next sister married a non-
Jew, which was painful for us to find written about. But what tore us apart was the death of my next sister, Bluma, a suicide. And when Rabinowitz’ story came out soon after her tragic death, we were horrified that Papa’s “old friend,” as he always called him, would make public our private pain. For years Rabinowitz sent us money, which my father always sent back after Bluma’s death. And he’d tear up and burn Rabinowitz’ letters without reading them. An accidental meeting years later led to an awkward reconciliation and to several more stories about us, but for my father it was never the same between them. Rabinowitz was a charming and wonderful man. I remember as a little girl sitting on his lap while he told me stories, looking up at his big mustache, goatee, and hairless cheeks, so different from the long thick full beards of my father and uncles. But for all his charm, like many writers, he was a user of people, and an opportunist about his own career. He loved being called the Jewish Mark Twain. And worked just as hard in public to cultivate an image of himself that would endear him to the world as he worked at his desk.
SG: Might we say that some of your choices as a writer were made in opposition to the life of Sholem Aleichem?
BZ: Precisely. I’ve always felt that the work is about itself, not about its source.
SG: But might we also say that his life in many ways was an inspiration?
BZ: Yes.
SB: Mr. Zeiger, as the first transgender recipient of a Nobel Prize, in your life and in your work, you have redefined our conventional ideas about gender and sexuality. In your speech in Stockholm you said that you accepted the award on behalf of all marginal peoples. Your first published novel, Prize of Scalpel, is about Martin Weissman, a small-town boy who transitions into a still-tormented girl. And in…
BZ: Remember, I set that book in 1935, just before Adolph Hitler was assassinated in Hamburg, when it looked like all of Europe’s Jews were in danger. Critics have always assumed that Martin’s despair is about his personal fate, but how could anyone in that time, Jew or non-Jew, with any kind of decency, not have listened to the rantings of Hitler and his cronies, without feeling a sense of hopeless despair? I shudder to think what might have happened if Hitler had lived, if the Weimar Republic hadn’t survived. I was fortunate enough to have met and studied with Magnus Hirschfeld, the German Jew who first used the word “transgendered.” When he founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee in 1897, it was the first organization that supported the rights of people like me in the world, we modern-day eunuchs in search of ourselves.
SG: Did your parents know about your transition?BZ: No. My mother died after I left home, but before my full transition, and I was estranged from my father before he died, as were several of my sisters. Not because of their marriages or because of my gender choice, but because we’d left the world of Orthodoxy, which was the only world he knew.
SG: You also dealt with a transgendered theme in Burnt Letters, when Emil Steinberg flees to Paris, to escape the confines of his family. It’s been compared to the work of Franz Kafka….
BZ: Whom I met in Prague a year before he died. Yes. Some of my early work was influenced by his. And by his torment.
SG: In those years, I understand, you were living in Warsaw, passing as a man. 2
BZ: [Laughs.] To call it passing is to miss the reality of the situation. For myself, for other people like me, living on the edges of convention, although we may struggle, there’s always an island of inner calm, a place that knows and says – this is me. Just as Adam was called by God to name all the animals, I always knew what my true name was, not the Breina my parents saw but the Benjamin I knew myself to be. The little girl who sat on a famous writer’s lap was always a little boy to himself. My sisters were always shy, it not terrified, of Rabinowitz, especially when they were older and found out who he was. I, the youngest, was never afraid. I was pluckish and willful, and although this kind of gendered talk was considered suspect two or three decades ago, when gender was said to be a social creation, every little boy living inside a girl’s body will affirm for you that boys and girls are not the same. If they were, no one but a total masochist or fool would endure repeated surgery and undergo lifelong hormone treatment.
SG: Literary critics and historians have called your father, or Sholem Aleichem’s rendering of him, a portrait of the quintessential Jew of the past. The suffering, despair, the odd mixture of wisdom and absurdity, add up to what Freud called the Old Jew.
BZ: Although I’ve been for many years a recluse, my path has crossed that of several noted men. I spent a year in Vienna, in analysis with Dr. Freud. It was he who encouraged me to take the next step in my journey of self-creation.
SG: But…
BZ: I’m sidestepping your question. I don’t want to become an icon for the New Jew. I don’t want to be an icon for anything. Ours is an anti-iconic tradition. You ought to know that. We are forbidden to make images.
SG: Instead we just talk about them. Endlessly.
BZ: Touché, Madame. So, let us say that I am the icon for the New Jew. The big- nosed shuffling caricature that Hitler’s cronies so loved to draw, has been replaced in the second half of the 20th century by this New Jew that we hear so much about. And I am its best representative, a surgically altered creature, parts divided, re-formed, and made new. Well, I don’t buy it. This New Jew is old, he’s Spinoza, she’s Gluckl of Hameln. And that Old Jew, the scapegoat of hundreds of years of anti-Semitic rantings, was also an invention, no more real than Tevye and his daughters. A distorted mirror in a funhouse.
SG: Your sisters…
BZ: Are all dead.
SG: But did they feel the same way that you do?
BZ: Tevye and his daughters were always a joke. We were real human beings. Tevye and his daughters were comic, tragi-comic. But my sister Dvora buried her husband, then went back to school to support her children, and became a social worker, in the Jewish slums of Warsaw. Bluma took her own life. Leah left us for the gentile world. And Rivkeh became a Minister of Education in Birobidzhan.
SG: Where she promoted the work of the very man who…
BZ: I know, I know. It’s ironic, isn’t it? Promoted the work of the very man we all loved – and resented. But as artificial as it is, the Jewish homeland in Siberia continues to uphold the works of the fine Yiddish writers of the past, while we in the West turn our backs on them and call ourselves modern. But Peretz was always my sister’s favorite writer, not our old friend. And now that all of my sisters are all dead, their children and grandchildren are far enough removed from the past that the attention they get is always rewarding for them. And I am close enough to death that the past 3
seems more real in some ways than the present. And now I can talk about our old friend as if he were just one more character, in someone else’s novel.
SG: I understand that you never met Peretz, although your stories that take place in heaven seem to have been inspired by several of his?
BZ: I arrived in Warsaw in 1918, three years after his death. I’d completed my brief analysis with Freud, was living as a man although surgery didn’t exist yet. But I decided it was time to return home, to the Yiddish-speaking world I was born in, to Warsaw, where a hundred Jewish presses and twelve Jewish daily papers shone like stars in their constellations, calling out to me. My struggle before that had been to understand who I was. The Vienna years clarified that, and it was time to get on with my life. My life has been Warsaw, the capital of the Jewish world in our time. The capital of Jewish scholarship and literature. I was drawn to it, like a moth. No. Enough death imagery. I turned toward Warsaw like a sunflower turns toward the afternoon sun, in adoration.
SG: Your first short story was published a year after you arrived here. How does that early work look to you now?
BZ: There are stories I like and stories I don’t like. Now that I’ve been noticed by the world, my agent tells me several publishers have approached her with offers to bring out my collected works. The same publishers who barely kept in print the few they still made money from.
SG: Several years ago I interviewed German filmmaker Anne Frank, who’s turned several of your stories into movies, as she’s done with a number of other Jewish writers. I remember her saying that you’re the only writer she’s ever known who could go back to an unfinished story, take up with it mid-sentence, right where you left off, and finish it two decades later. Is this true?
BZ: [Smiling.] My favorite of the three films Frank made from stories of mine is My Life in Pajamas. It’s taken from a story, “He Was a Very Smart Girl,” which I began in 1938 or ‘39. I never finished it. In fact, I forgot all about it. It turned up in 1951, in an old file folder that I discovered when my wife and I were moving to a new apartment. And I did take up with it right where I left off. But that’s the only time I’ve ever done that.
SG: I understand that you’ve only met Frank twice.
BZ: We speak on the phone from time to time.
SG: Your work has always been called cinematic.
BZ: From an early age I was captivated by motion pictures. It never occurred to me that I could make one, but I began to write the films I saw in my mind. Those were my very first stories.
SG: Your late wife Vera Schpilberg was a photographer. Did her work influence yours?
BZ: Greatly. There were several long stretches of time when we lived apart. She did much of her work in Palestine. Her work with the Bedouins is probably what she’ll be remembered for. But Warsaw has been my home for all of my adult life. Even when we were apart, we were sharing our work with each other. She was a great fan of Martin Buber’s, and she used to joke that our work was in a constant I-Thou conversation, even when we weren’t. She’d take pictures of things that I was writing about, and I’d dream about places she was photographing. 4
SG: In Moscow Calling, your own most comic work, you created a world in which the telephone was invented long before it actually was, and you transcribed the intimate conversations that Anna Karenina and her lover Vronksy were having.
BZ: You’re being very diplomatic. Vera was married when we met. She left her husband to be with me, just as Anna left her tedious husband, and yes, our conversations were the inspiration for that story. I’ve always admired Anna, a woman who defied convention, and I was always sorry that she killed herself. In the old days deviants always had to commit suicide, and I never liked that. Well, one evening Vera called me from Tel Aviv and we had a very painful conversation. After we hung up, I remember fuming at her, pacing back and forth in my study, deciding that it was time for us to get a divorce. I was reading, rereading, Anna Karenina, when she called. The volume sat spine up on my desk as I was pacing. Then the phone rang again. It was Vera, and the second conversation took us off in such an intimate direction that when we got off, as I sat with a cup of tea and turned back to Tolstoy, I had the inspiration for the story. If we’d had to depend upon letters, our marriage would have ended. But we had the phone to connect us, and if Anna had had a phone, she and Vronsky would have sorted things out.
SG: At this stage in your life, are there still things you’re sorting out?
BZ: I lived long enough to have my marriage blessed by the Chief Rabbi of Poland, and to see my work lauded by the very Jewish papers, yours included, that used to pan it as mystical and nostalgic, or comic and post-modern. I never could figure out how it could be all of those things.
SG: What are we to make of your most widely read work, The Five Books of Mona?
BZ: Mona outshines my best book, Eden on Fifty Shekels a Day, but it’s still a book I’m proud of. Obviously, it was inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses. Every writer in Europe, and every Jewish writer after the Great War, did their best to write their own Ulysses.
SG: Instead of Joyce’s half-Jewish Leopold Bloom, you gave the world Morris Fishbein, a half Jewish, half Zulu office worker who is fired from his job in Johannesburg when he starts going to work in women’s clothing.
BZ: It’s embarrassingly derivative. Now. At the time that it was published it was a big success. I still get letters from fans who’ve read it, from all over the world. Some of them I have to get translated. Chinese. Gujarati.
SG: Were you ever in South Africa?
BZ: My South Africa is like Kafka’s Amerika. And what I’m most pleased with in the book is how Morris-become-Mona lives out every story in the Torah, just as Bloom lived out Odysseus’s journey.
SG: But that’s what the rabbis condemned it for.
BZ: Mockery and satire aren’t the same thing. And no book, no work of art, comes from nowhere. Every story has its own fertile soil, and every outsider has to use the dirt of the past, the work of the past, to anchor its roots in. I was my father’s child, and I used what I knew best, the Torah. Just as Joyce used what he knew best. Greek myths.
SG: There’s a story about you meeting Joyce, in Paris.
BZ: It’s apocryphal. I didn’t go to Paris until several years after his death. People confuse it with the story about the only time that Joyce and Proust met. They had nothing to say to each other, I’ve heard. Two of the greatest writers of the century.
SG: Neither of whom won a Nobel.
BZ: But Virginia Woolf did. And she turned down Ulysses but published the first English translations of Freud’s and my work.
SG: I’ve heard that you maintained a long correspondence with Woolf.
BZ: Wrong again. It was with her long-time partner Doris Lefkowitz, who was my wife’s second cousin.
SG: I didn’t know that.
BZ: Good.
SG: Flaubert said that he was Madame Bovary. Are you Mona?
BZ: I was fired from the Warsaw Jewish Library in 1924, when they found out about me.
SG: Is there comfort in winning this award?
BZ: I feel like Job. God took everything away from him, his possessions, his wife, his children. And then later he was given a new wife, new children, new possessions. Only, Job was grateful.
[It was late in the afternoon. The sun was low in the sky. Zeiger turned to gaze out the window, out across the river. If he were an observant Jew he would be heading toward synagogue for the evening service now. Instead, Zeiger sat motionless and remained silent until the sun had dropped behind the buildings on the horizon. Then he reached across the table and turned off my tape recorder.]