Archive for the Los Angeles Category

Dreaming in Russian

Posted in ALOUD, Art and Culture, Family History, Literature, Los Angeles with tags , , , , on March 12, 2014 by Louise Steinman

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[drawing: Vlada Ralko]

News from Ukraine trickles into my weekend haven in Ojai Valley. I peel an orange fresh from the tree, exulting in the scent. A woman in Maidan grates beets for borscht for weary protesters, her fingers stained blood red. The crisis keeps Russia in the headlines and the nerves on alert.

It’s both the crisis in Ukraine and my anticipation of Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen coming to ALOUD (tonight!) that explains my gravitation over the past month to memoirs about Russia, both Soviet and post-Soviet. Gary Shteyngart’s Little Failure, Colin McCann’s Dancer; Anya Von Bremzen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking; Emmanuel Carrere’s startling My Life as a Russian Novel ; Geoff Dyer’s ZONA, an inventive meditation on Tarkovsky’s film “Stalker.”

It’s Gessen’s brilliant new book on Pussy Riot [Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot] that brings her to L.A. tonight; but I also reread her beautiful memoir, Ester and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler’s War and Stalin’s Peace. Gessen stresses the ways people under those regimes, in order to live, were forced to make moral compromises—in ways most of us have not had to face. “Each of my grandmothers was burdened with a conscience, which meant that both of them at crucial points in their lives tried to find a way to make an honest peace with the system. They had vastly different ways of doing it…”

Reading so many books about Russia may explain why, in a recent dream, in a vast warehouse in a small town, every door I opened (and there were many) lead to the Russian River. And after all, though my father forgot his childhood Russian (he was six when he emigrated from Ukraine, during the Russian Civil War) he told me he still sometimes dreamed in Russian.

Today’s NYTimes features a video of Ukrainian troops in the Crimean city of Sevastopol (famous in my childhood from Pete Seeger’s version) facing off with Putin’s soldiers. The Russians have rifles at the ready, and their captain yells, “Come no further!” but the canny Ukrainians are holding aloft both their own blue and yellow flag as well as a red flag bearing (what the voiceover calls) “Russian symbolics “(apparently hammer and sickle is still in vogue)… “because they know the Russians won’t fire on their own banner.”

This stand-off brought back the memory from 1962, sitting in the den of our house in Culver City with my father, worriedly watching the Cuban missile crisis unfold on TV. I stomp off and return to the table with envelope and stamps and begin writing: “Dear Mr. Khruschchev, I don’t want to die.” I’m not sure what the U.S. Post office did with it; but I dropped it in the mailbox with an eleven year old’s sense of personal urgency.
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In the meantime, during the current stand-off, I console myself with a recent delight– the divine DAKHKA BRAKHA, whose voices and songs fill my ears and heart. They call themselves a “Ukrainian ethno-chaos” band. Eastern Europe meets the full force of global sound. A free and fair trade.

Being Heard

Posted in ALOUD, Art and Culture, Crooked Mirror, Los Angeles, Poland, reconciliation, The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father's War with tags , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2013 by Louise Steinman

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It’s been an emotional and gratifying week, giving my first book talk on The Crooked Mirror, being interviewed by the wonderful Jack Miles at ALOUD (video, podcast to be posted soon) and receiving two deeply thoughtful and beautifully written reviews– one by poet Piotr Florzck in the Los Angeles Review of Books (and thank God for LARB and the possibility of the existence, these days, of a long review) and the other by Rabbi Haim Beliak– a mover and shaker in the cause of Jewish renewal in Poland– in the Jewish Journal

So here are links to both reviews. Here’s giving thanks to those who’ve already attended a reading or a talk… I’ve been buoyed by the response, the sense of a community eager to hear and talk about this work. There is so much need for reconciliation in so many parts of this planet, so many parts of our lives. I remember when “The Souvenir” came out in 2001, after 9/11, and when a young film development person told my agent, “No one wants to hear stories about reconciliation — we’re at war.” Well, I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now.

photo: Misterium: Poem of the Place, Lublin, TeatrNN

A Translator Remains Faithful

Posted in Art and Culture, Literature, Los Angeles, Poetry, translation with tags , , , , , , , on October 3, 2012 by Louise Steinman

As a tribute to my dear colleague Michael Henry Heim, I post an article I wrote about him for the Los Angeles Times, which appeared 10 years ago to the day of his passing on Sept 30, 2012. Michael was a world-renowned translator, a passionate advocate for literature, an inspired teacher, and a generous friend (he and his wonderful wife Priscilla always brought bags of compost from their garden and gave them to me and Lloyd at our annual Institute for Humanities spring parties.) My deepest condolences to his family. He will be deeply missed. Below, also a link to a video of Michael speaking in 4 languages!

September 30, 2001|LOUISE STEINMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES
Imagine a world without the benefit of translation–the Bible is available only in Greek, Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” only in Spanish. You could read Dante’s “Inferno” if you knew Italian, or Kafka’s “The Trial” with a sure command of German.

Today, if you wanted to read a recent novel by an Afghan writer, and you didn’t happen to know either Pashto or Dari, the main languages of Afghanistan, itwould be a world without translation. There aren’t any contemporary Afghan novels in our public libraries or bookstores; none listed on Amazon. None have been translated into English, says S. Wally Ahmadi, editor of Critique and Vision, a journal of Afghan culture and history. Nor will any be translated soon, he says.

“All of a sudden we want to know about Afghanistan, and we know precious little. We haven’t prepared enough translators,” says Michael Henry Heim, one of the nation’s most respected literary translators. “It could take 10 years to train proper translators for Pashto and Dari.” Heim fears the quick fix. “The government will send people to language schools. They’ll start with first-year Arabic. We’ll have instant scholars and instant experts. But this is reaction rather than the constant steady flow of knowledge.”

Chairman of Slavic languages and literature at UCLA, Heim remembers another time when events in the news piqued the country’s interest in knowing more about foreign cultures. “It was Aug. 21, 1968, and the Soviets had invaded Czechoslovakia. Suddenly, everyone was interested in Czech literature.”

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the national curiosity about Slavic languages waned. “As soon as a country goes out of the news, the interest flags,” he says. “Russia is no longer the Evil Empire, just a future Third World country. There are fewer students studying Russian because there are less fellowships available, fewer jobs. The State Department is not as interested in hiring Russian translators.” Heim says with a sigh, “It just seems to me that in a country of 250 million, we’re rich enough to afford to study all these cultures.”

Heim, 58, has been a translator for 30 years. As an undergraduate, he studied at Columbia University with the great translator Gregory Rabassa, acclaimed for his translation of Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”

Heim obtained his PhD in Slavic languages from Harvard. Among his many notable translations are Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” from the Czech, Vassily Aksyonov’s “In Search of Melancholy Baby” from the Russian; Danilo Kis’ “Encyclopedia of the Dead,” from the Serb; and Gnter Grass’ Nobel Prize-winning novel, “My Century,” from the German.

Heim is fluent in six languages (Czech, French, German, Italian, Russian and Serbo/Croatian), with a reading knowledge of six more. Asked about his very first job, he lights up with pleasure at the recollection: “I began with Chekhov’s letters. I was the most lucky young translator!”

Though Heim has agreed to an interview, he’s skeptical that many will find the subject of translation to be of much interest. “I’m pessimistic about the general mood,” he admits. “As a friend of mine says, there are 3,000 people in any country who are interested in reading ‘good’ books, by which he means difficult books. No matter what size the country, you have the same 3,000. And since my friend is Dutch, the 3,000 people in his country are proportionally a much larger group than ours, but it’s still 3,000 people.”

Heim may be a skeptical host, but he’s a gracious one. He pours coffee and serves up a plate of dark red Romanian tomatoes to his guest, then settles his lanky frame into a chair. Butterflies dart through the luscious tangle of the flower and vegetable garden behind the comfortable Westwood home he shares with his wife, Priscilla, for many years a teacher of high school Latin and Greek.

Most mornings when he’s not teaching, Heim can be found in front of his laptop in his home office, deep in concentration. Within easy reach on the cluttered shelves above his desk are the tools of the translator’s trade, among them a four-volume Russian dictionary compiled in the 1930s (“many consider it still unsurpassed,” he comments), the Oxford Russian-English Dictionary, the Random House Russian-English Dictionary of Idioms, Webster’s Third, the Oxford Concise, the Longman Dictionary of English Idioms and Rodale’s Synonym Finder.

In all probability, you’ll find translated literary works on the bookshelves of many Americans. The Bible is a ubiquitous example. Yet there is little public awareness or understanding of the demanding art of translation. Translation is an art form that takes place “behind the scenes” of the literary life.

In his 1998 polemic, “The Scandals of Translation,” Lawrence Venuti, professor of English at Temple University, lays it out: “Translation is stigmatized as a form of authorship, discouraged by copyright law, deprecated by the academy, exploited by publishers and corporations, governments and religious organizations.”

It’s not uncommon for a book critic, in reviewing a book, to neglect to mention that the book is a translation, a fact that once prompted novelist Joyce Carol Oates to complain in a letter to the New York Times: “Those who imagine that foreign-language works are transposed into English by a mysterious chemical process, without the efforts of gifted translators, are kin to those who imagine that film actors speak their own lines, without the benefit of screenwriters.”

The traditional view holds that the translator should be “invisible,” merely a conduit for the work. “There’s a new ideological ‘take’ on that nowadays,” Heim comments. “The postmodern stance is that the translator creates a new work. That’s where I disagree. I believe that the translator is a creator, but I’m not so sure that I’d want to create a new work. I would like to create, as much as possible, the same work.”

Is creating the same work even an option? Heim smiles patiently. “‘As much as possible’ is what I said.” As one might expect from a man whose job is to find the right phrase, Heim chooses his words with care. “It’s possible enough so that a good translation will allow a person who has read the work in the original and a person who has read the work in translation to have an intelligent conversation about it. I think that’s the most that we can hope for.

“The reader must believe he or she is reading a work in French or Japanese and yet be reading it in English. That’s the real paradox. It’s a scam, if you like. A feat of legerdemain. But I think it can be done.”

There are those who argue that there are too many differences among cultures for a translation to ever be “true.” Say “bread” ” to one person, and she’ll conjure up a package of plastic-wrapped white bread. Say “bread” to another and she’ll imagine a crusty baguette. The oft-used pun about translation is tradduttore, traditore, literally, “the translator is a traitor.” The translator is unfaithful.

In a 1985 essay titled “Taking Fidelity Philosophically,” Barbara Johnson suggests a more apt metaphor: “The translator ought … to be considered not as a duteous spouse but as a faithful bigamist, with loyalties split between a native language and a foreign tongue.”

What attracts Heim to a particular work is an author’s interesting use of language. “I don’t think I’d translate an incendiary piece that goes against my beliefs, no matter how beautiful the language was. However, I have translated authors with whom I haven’t agreed 100%.” Milan Kundera comes to mind. “Kundera’s language is very pristine, and that’s what attracted me to it. I was also attracted by his ideas, even though I didn’t agree with all of them. And yet Kundera introduced a number of ways of looking at things that were completely new to his audience at the time.”

Heim is diplomatic when discussing Kundera, a writer notorious for stormy relationships with his translators. In an oft-cited essay published in the journal Lingua Franca (October 1999), Caleb Crain chronicles Kundera’s decade-and-a-half crusade against “unfaithful translations.” Some in the literary world have characterized the novelist’s crusade (which has included public condemnation of his translators, including Heim) as an obsession.

In his own defense, Kundera has replied, “An undue obsession? I can’t say. My books lived their lives as translations. As translations they were read, criticized, judged, accepted or rejected. I was unable not to care about translation.”

Gunter Grass provides a quite different example of the kind of relationship an author can have with his translator. For his most recent work, “My Century,” Grass brought together 15 of his translators from all over the world for a seminar in his publisher’s offices in Gottingen, Germany, spending 15 hours a day for three days with them. “Grass told us what he had in mind. He asked us what we had in mind. He asked us our advice, as the novel wasn’t finished when we began work translating it.”

Heim recalls a long debate between the Danish translator and Grass about the East Berlin workers’ uprising in 1953. “In the end,” Heim chuckles, “Grass won the argument.”

For the last five years, Heim has been translating the diaries of Kornei Chukovski from the Russian. “Chukovski was a children’s book writer, a critic and a translator–which puts the fear of God into me. He translated Mark Twain, among others.”

Chukovski knew most of the great writers of his time–Isaac Babel, Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak–and his diaries, which run from 1901 to 1969, “are a wonderful testimony to his own attempt to remain honest throughout the period, a period that almost required dishonesty,” says Heim. His long labor nearly done (Yale University Press will publish the diaries in 2002), Heim must soon decide what to take on next. “It’s a real problem. You don’t want to take on the wrong project, because you’re with it for so long.” He pauses a beat. “It makes me anxious.” As if to amplify his sentiment, the phone rings in Heim’s office. It’s the American publisher of an Eastern European novel, eager to know if his book is next on Heim’s agenda. Heim explains that he can’t commit yet and soothes the caller with suggestions of other possible translators.

Heim worries that American readers are afraid of tackling literature in translation. “An editor once told me that he resented the assumption on the part of foreign writers who don’t get translated that Americans are not interested in what goes on outside their borders. He said, ‘Americans are as interested as any other people, but they just don’t trust those damn foreigners to tell them about it.’ So they’re more likely to read James Clavell about Japan, but they won’t read Kenzaburo Oe, who’s a Nobel Prize-winning author.”

Fear of the unfamiliar, and mistrust of the translator, are factors in those choices, Heim says, and he regards teachers and librarians as crucial allies in the struggle to break down barriers. “Teachers because they can show you while you’re still learning–that these barriers don’t need to exist. Librarians–and booksellers–because they can help you at the time when you’re choosing the book.”

Every two years Heim teaches a workshop at UCLA in literary translation. “Out of each workshop has come one or two professional translators,” he says with justifiable pride. He considers it scandalous that American universities (including UCLA) require only one year of a foreign language. “We need people to study languages for our own sophistication as a country, for our own broad-mindedness, for our own awareness of what language per se is. Not for practical purposes–English is the world language. Americans who go abroad will not need to order coffee in Urdu.”

He notes that America is less hungry for works from other cultures than are other countries. English language works are by far the most translated literature into every other foreign language.

By comparison, little foreign literature is translated into English. Increasingly in this country, the publishing of literature in translation falls to academic presses. Among the few major American publishing houses still committed to publishing literature in translation is Farrar Straus & Giroux. When reached for comment in New York, gutsy co-founder Roger Straus said, “You can’t call yourself a proper publisher unless you publish world literature!”

“While it’s true that that Anglo American literature is extremely vibrant,” says Heim, “it doesn’t mean that nothing else of interest is being written. We ignore what else is being written at our own peril. To our detriment. We’re missing a lot.”
http://www.international.ucla.edu/videos/article.asp?parentid=121775

My English Teacher: Lorraine Schulmeister (1918-2012), In Memoriam

Posted in Art and Culture, Life and What about It, Literature, Los Angeles, Poetry with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2012 by Louise Steinman

(This piece is part of an ongoing series of writers’ profiles of influential teachers published July 10, 2012 in the Los Angeles Review of Books.)

An autumn afternoon on the sunny Great Lawn at Westlake School for Girls. Lorraine Schulmeister, my English teacher, and I read aloud from Emily Dickinson: “I dared not meet the Daffodils, / For fear their Yellow Gown / Would pierce me with a fashion / So foreign to my own.” We read aloud from Blake: “If I worship one thing more than another it shall be the / spread of my own body, or any part of it.” It’s 1967. I’m in the tenth grade, my first year as a scholarship student at this exclusive school tucked into Beverly Glen canyon north of Sunset Blvd. It sounds idyllic — it was.

I picture her pacing in front of the blackboard: high Nordic cheekbones flushed, excited hands mid-gesture. Like the poet Theodore Roethke, her own mentor, she had mastered the art of appearing to see the work for the first time. She introduced us to the poetry of Muriel Rukeyser, Ted Berrigan, Robert Lowell, Denise Levertov, to the possibilities of writer-as-activist. It was a stance with immediate resonance as the Vietnam War raged abroad and protests raged at home.

After school, I’d trade pastel shirtwaist uniform for torn blue jeans and sandals and hike down to the Resistance office in Westwood Village to pick up leaflets to hand out at draft boards. My high school boyfriend, almost 18, refused to register. Instead, he chained himself to the altar of a church in Watts. U.S. Marshals obligingly hauled him away to court, from there to federal prison.
Lorraine taught at Marlborough School (our cross-town rival) before teaching at Westlake, but resigned when the administration there questioned her “Americanism.” There’d been complaints from parents: when she taught Whitman, she actually spoke about “sex” in the classroom.

In her eloquent resignation letter, dated February 29, 1964, she wrote: “I have presented American Literature as a great and living force, as a body of work that is loving and critical at one and the same time. Like Frost, most writers have had a ’lover’s quarrel with the world.’ Literature is most of all concerned with life; sex is an important part of life. I presented Walt Whitman as I have always presented him: as poet of the body as of the soul; as the great revolutionary and innovator that he was.”

She was born Lorraine Breckheimer in 1918, in Mankato, Minnesota. It was the year the Great War ended, as she noted in The Making of a Teacher or The Last of the School Ma’ams, her astute self-published chapbook. Mankato was a small town “far from the currents of the world.” No movie theaters. No television. A quiet, peaceful life—walks, berry-picking, window-shopping, band concerts, school plays, church. A trip to the library was an adventure. “No one we knew had had a divorce. Only teachers traveled to far off places.”

In the crash of 1929, her family fell “from the middle class to no class.” Her father’s farm implement business failed, he lost everything. The family moved to a dairy farm in northern Minnesota classified as “suitable only for subsistence living.” Living in this rural isolation, from age 11 to 17, Lorraine turned inward, books were her companions.

She received a full scholarship to Carleton College, but had no money for room and board. Disappointed, she opted for a state teachers college closer to home. An advisor discouraged her from seeking a PhD to teach at the college level. He told her she’d just be asked to teach remedial courses, not literature. “I recognize the truth of Karl Marx’s economic interpretation of history,” she wrote. “Economics has ruled my life.”

Her career included a stint teaching elementary school in a rural two-room school, where she was successful, for the most part, in awakening her students to the importance of reading and the pleasure of literary study. “Only one parent objected to my reading list. The offensive book was Steinbeck’s Cannery Row”. During World War II she served as a WAC at an air base in Ogden, Utah, and, courtesy of the GI Bill, studied American Literature at the University of Washington with Theodore Roethke.

Lorraine and I re-discovered each other in 2001 and remained fast friends until she died this past spring, at age 94. At least twice a year, I’d drive up to San Luis Obispo from L.A. We’d go out for dinner, a glass or two of good wine. She always brought a list of things to discuss; wanting to make good use of our precious time together.

Her home for the last decades was a small studio apartment in an assisted living facility. A painful and economically disastrous divorce (she kept his surname, Schulmeister, which described her chosen profession) in her early fifties severed her from her teaching career. She’d wanted but had no children, though a number of former students stayed in close touch. We were, she said, “the daughters she never had.” She worried about outliving her modest savings, and she almost did.

We stayed in touch by writing letters. Envelopes in Lorraine’s clear cursive arrived at least twice a month, and I wrote back almost as often. We sent each other books. Who else would gift me Henri Troyat’s massive biography of Tolstoy for my birthday? (As good as she said it was, all 800 pages.) She insisted I read President Obama’s memoir; she admired him, worried about him. She loved Hazel Rowley’s bio of Sartre and De Beauvoir and marveled at Yiyun Li’s short stories. Her responses to Manning Marable’s biography of Malcolm X, Susan Jacoby’s An Age of Unreason, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (she read it twice) fill pages handwritten front and back. She re-read the classics — Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Her unequivocal vote for greatest American novel was Moby Dick (she loved it more after each of her eight readings).

Of all the books I sent, her favorite was Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars. She considered his skillful narrative of those advocating for peace amidst the carnage of World War I to be one of the most significant history books ever written.

I wrote to her about my own writing life, my own struggles and joys. She reminded me of my great good fortune to live in a creative community, to meet great writers, to travel, to observe. She adored my husband.

Among the many books I treasured receiving from Lorraine was Robert D. Richardson’s study of Emerson and the creative process (First We Read, Then We Write). Last year I made a pilgrimage to Concord, Mass to swam in Walden Pond, place pencils on Thoreau’s grave in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, and visit Emerson’s home. I sent Lorraine a postcard– an image of Emerson’s study– featuring the round oak table where the master read and wrote every day. Emerson’s belief that creative reading was essential to creative writing was one that Lorraine instilled in all her students. She concurred with Emerson’s dictum, “While you are reading, you are the book’s book.”

Reading kept her mind young even as her body failed her. Historian Tony Judt’s final book, Thinking the Twentieth Century, thrilled her and she zeroed in on his chapter about American nationalism. “In a global world,” she wrote me, “we are so provincial. Witness our current politics. We are anti-intellectual as a people. More so than others.”

This she found as true in 2012 as when she had resigned from Marlborough nearly fifty years earlier. She ended her resignation letter with a ringing admonition:

“Everyone should read President Kennedy’s speech at Harvard, dedicated to Robert Frost, published in the February issue of The Atlantic Monthly called ‘Power and Poetry.’ He expresses better than I the challenge America faces: Can we have poetry and power? Athens did for a brief moment in history. It seems unfair that I should have been asked to remain at home so that a student could attend class without contamination from an accused teacher; why should the teacher be more expendable than the student? I do not at this point know the real charge against me, but I do recognize the forces that are greater than myself. I represent poetry; they represent power.”

On the day Lorraine died, one of her former students, Judy Munzig, was able to spend several hours sitting at her bedside stroking her hand, telling her how much we all loved her. Lorraine’s eyes were closed, but she could still hear.

Judy wrote afterwards: “Her reading glasses were on her nightstand on top of a paperback of Iris Murdoch’s The Bell with a bookmark from Chaucer’s Bookstore. A young man who works at the hospice said that Lorraine had been reading passages aloud to him and when he told her he didn’t understand it, she would explain it to him. ‘Now I’ll have to read it myself,’ he said.”

END

Woke Into Heron

Posted in ALOUD, Art and Culture, Family History, Literature, Los Angeles, Poetry with tags , , , on May 19, 2012 by Louise Steinman


(heron dream drawing by Beth Thielen, c. 2012)

Matilija poppies are blooming along the L.A. River… bright yellow and white, like fried eggs. I’m grateful to have an hour to ride my bike in what’s left of the morning overcast, to let my thoughts whir with my wheels while I inhale the unique salvia-sewage tang of the river. I think about Terry Tempest Williams, naturalist and poet, whom I had the honor of interviewing recently at ALOUD.

The title of her new book, WHEN WOMEN WERE BIRDS, came to Terry in a dream.

There’s a great blue heron on my left, and another. A pair of cormorants, a crow chasing an avocet, stalking egrets, a swallow alighting on a fence railing. The Seventh Day Adventists are strolling adjacent Frogtown, briefcases in hand. A father in a white shirt and tie speaks tenderly to his son. Last night on my way home from downtown, I peered into the open door of the Pentecostal church on Glendale Blvd, where white-scarved women were clapping tambourines and praising the Lord to the beat of an bass guitar. Birds are singers of life, not of death, as naturalist Loren Eisley reminds us, as Terry reminds us “that the world is meant to be celebrated.

Terry Tempest Williams inherited her mother’s journals after her mother died. Or rather, her mother bequeathed those journals to her, after extracting a promise that she wouldn’t open them until after she was gone. Terry’s mother left too soon, even younger than my mother, who left too soon. Cancer claimed both our beautiful mothers.

Terry opened the first journal on the shelf and to her astonishment, found that it was blank. As was the next and the next and the next. What was her mother’s intention in leaving her daughter these empty pages? Terry’s stunning and unclassifiable book is an inquiry into the power of absence. It is the creation story of her own sensibility as an artist, naturalist, activist. It is a dialectic between silence and voice. (The subtitle is: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice). It is about censure and erasure and about daring to speak up.

Birds wing through many pages of the book, through Terry’s family life. Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds was the first book Terry took to bed at night. It was her grandmother Mimi who helped her learn the songs of birds. Redtail hawks circled high above my first wedding on the Oregon coast, on a cliff above Cape Foulweather in 1971. Some of the guests wondered at the lack of an officiant, but my Russian grandmother Rebecca, wrapped in a pink blanket, nodded sagely and said, “I understand, the ocean is marrying you.”

Blue heron stalks the shallows of the river, waiting, watching. Was the heron once a woman? Could I join the mockingbird outside my window in song? Might I someday wake into heron like the girl in this Swampy Cree poem?

Woke Into Heron

She was tall, you could see her
in the distance before anyone.

Once, in late summer,
she stood so long at the edge
of the swamp
we thought she was ready
to leave with the herons.

You could see her standing
Very still.

The day the herons left
she stayed. The next day she woke as a girl
all right, but she began being a HERON!
She took long steps, slowly, as if she was
walking in water, hunting in water.
This is true, and she did this
making heron noises.

AND had thin sticks
tied out from her feet
to make heron tracks.

This went away
the next morning. Everyone
was happy she would no longer
go sleep in the water reeds.

This was the first time we saw someone
do this, so we named her
not to forget it.

(from, “Woke Into Heron” published in The Wishing Bone Cycle: Narrative Poems from the Swampy Cree Indians, gathered and translated by Howard A. Norman, Stonehill Publishing, 1976)

Heron Dream Drawing by Beth Thielen, c.2012

blue heron in flight, LA River, May 2012
photo: L. Steinman

Why Is This Night Different?

Posted in Crooked Mirror, Family History, Los Angeles, Theater with tags , , , on April 17, 2011 by Louise Steinman

I was on a bus to Jerusalem in 1975 when I opened and read a letter from a friend in Los Angeles informing me that Herschel Lymon, my childhood rabbi, had committed suicide. What could be more shocking? I loved Herschel. He bar mitzvahed my brother Larry, visited my Sunday School classes at Temple Akiba in Culver City. I have an inscribed copy of Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning he gave to my parents, his good friends, and an inscribed copy of Martin Buber’s The Way of Man he gave me for my high school graduation.

Rabbi Lymon with Temple Akiba students, Culver City 1958

Herschel’s death haunted me for years. It still does. He was such a gentle, wise man. He was a searcher, a deep thinker. After he left the rabbinate, he had a show for years on Pacifica Radio called, “The Wounded Healer.”

I began creating a solo theater piece, “Lents Passage,” in the fall of 1978. My starting place was my anguish over Herschel’s death. I interviewed people who knew him, trying to understand why he would have taken his life. I learned that Herschel suffered from manic depression. He tried all kinds of therapy– rolfing, Reichian, LSD. He filled his prescriptions for anti-depressants at my father’s pharmacy in Culver City.

While I was working on the piece, news broke about the Jim Jones mass suicide. Another shock wave. How could this be? Why did all these people drink cyanide-laced koolaid on command? Why did they follow this madman from the Bay Area to the jungles of Guyana? These unfathomable stories still roiled my psyche as fall became winter became spring and it was time for Passover, when we tell the story of the exodus from Egypt, plagues of frogs and hail, the Israelites following a magician who transformed sticks into serpents across the Red Sea into the desolate Sinai desert.

I structured the play on the form of a Passover seder, which itself means “order.” My sound score was edited from years of recording Steinman family seders. The voice of the patriarch (my father) proclaimed: “This is the bread of affliction which our forefathers ate in the land of Egypt.” My niece Jennifer, then eight, read the Four Questions in a high-pitched voice: “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

“Lents Passage” had its San Francisco premiere at Project Artaud, in San Francisco. My mother was planning to come see it. A few weeks before opening night she called with a surprising announcement: “I bought you a body stocking.” Why? Yes, it was true there was a naked scene in the piece. But so what! This was art! There was a pause. Then my mother repeated, “I bought you a body stocking.” Another pause, then, “…your father’s coming.” Of course, my stubborn younger self did not take wise counsel, would not compromise.

Passover is a brilliant holiday– telling a story through the ritual consumption of food. We eat unleavened matzoh at the Passover seder to remind us of the haste with which our ancestors left Egypt. During the meal, the leader of the Seder hides a piece of matzoh… the children scramble around to find it, demanding a reward for its return. It’s a great device for keeping the children attentive through the long meal, ensuring that they hear the whole story. At the (untraditional) seder I attended this year, the Hagadah explained the symbolism of the afikomen thus: “When the afikomen is found it will remind us that what is broken off is not really lost to our people, as long as every generation remembers and searches.”

I hid the afikomen as part of my performance of “Lents Passage.” I taped a piece of matzoh under a random seat and informed the audience the performance could not continue until someone found it. At first no one believed me. No one budged. Then there was a general shuffling around and then a gasp… from my father. He stood up and we faced each other. It was a moment of recognition like you might have in a bad dream– I was standing naked in front of my father in public– and he was offering me a piece of matzoh.

“You weren’t kidding,” he repeated. “No,” I said slowly, “I wasn’t kidding.” I accepted the matzoh from my father’s outstretched hand. And then I continued the play.

The seder with Howdy Doody

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