Ilan Stavans reads a few pages of the Talmud every night before he goes to sleep. He is also the editor of the recently released, And We Came Outside and We saw the Stars Again, an anthology that contains writing about the authors’ experiences with the new state of the world under coronavirus from 52 contributors from 34 countries. Their contributions include a variety of prose styles, poetry, photographs, and chronicles in drawings. A number of the contributors are Jewish and Jewish themes make their way into many of the essays.
But what is perhaps most Jewish about the book is the form itself: the anthology. The Talmud itself is, in a sense, an anthology: a compendium and compilation of rabbinic thought, a gathering of recipes and folk remedies, an exploration of how to use pi and how to demarcate public and private space for carrying on the Sabbath; in short it is a gathering of information and stories of all kinds. Stavans’ anthology is similarly capacious, giving readers a sense of how those in places around the world fare. As he explained, the idea originated in an editorial meeting of Restless Books, the publishing company he co-founded in 2013.
Some, like Giacomo Sartori from Paris, writing “My Seclusion” see it as a challenge, saying, ” I remain conspicuously confined to my very small apartment, where many other people would surely suffer. However, I’m the son of a mountain climber, and when I was a boy I loved the books my father read about the mountains, where the challenge was to endure extreme conditions and minuscule tents, and indeed this was a way to confront your own limits and improve yourself.”
Others talk about the heartbreak. Daniel Alarcon, writing from New York City, says that when he was growing up, his Peruvian-born mother would tell him “more was lost in the war” to minimize whatever childhood grievance he had at the moment. Now, Alarcon has to tell his own son of the ambulances that never stop, in contrast to the construction that used to be unceasing.
There are nine writers that I could identify as Jewish among the writers, though there may be others, and Jewish notions are expressed in a number of the essays, as when Javier Sinai of Buenos Aires writes that he attended “a reading of Megillat Hashoah, a symbol of Jewish solidarity in times of crisis” or when Stavans himself discusses how the Sabbath rituals of Friday night keep the evening from feeling “anodyne.”
What follows is an edited and condensed version of my conversation with Stavans ( by Zoom), in September 2020.
BK: Why was it important to do this?
IS: It was important to do this both as a writer and as a scholar and as a publisher, to give here a platform for firsthand accounts not by reporters and journalists. Writers were able to open windows into their own experiences to really tackle the scope and immensity of what we are all going through.
BK: How is this of a piece with your Jewish identity?
IS: My conscience, my mission, my obligation, as a Jew is to remember what is happening right now and to articulate it in words for future generations.
BK: Can you talk a bit about the anthology as a form?
IS: All important books are anthologies. An anthology is a portable library, an invitation to see life from multiple perspectives at the same time. The anthology is a double approach – creates its own double – in terms of what went in and what is left out. As an editor, I create movement between the pieces.
BK: You say in your essay that you read a few pages of Talmud before you go to sleep at night. Can you talk about why you started doing this?
IS: For me, there is a kind of yoga quality about reading Talmud before bed. It brings peace, helps me relax at the end of the day with a topic that has little to do with you. It’s ahistorical.
BK: How does Judaism help or hinder in constructing a narrative, addressing the issue of coronavirus?
IS: The answer to that wonderful question is that everything that I do is so deeply defined by my Judaism and by the Jewish narrative that enwraps me and in which I am embedded. It is impossible to extricate (something particular). Everything I think and respond to is in the context of the Jewish narrative. The idea of a teleological story that progresses in a particular way, of mitzvot, of text as part of the narrative itself.
Like the Talmudic aspect of artificial contemporaneity, I feel more and more there is not present tense. I am 59 and reaching 60, and this sequence of past, present, and future that we are taught is a convenience, an easy tool.
We as Jews in constant conversation with the dead and the unborn, generations before and yet to come. The older I get, the less interested I am in reading about contemporary life.
Whenever I have time, I teach about old and older books that have survived and keep on opening themselves to interpretation and varieties.
Don Quixote is a lifelong friend. Whenever I open it, I am different and the book is different.
Nothing is more Jewish than the trail into a text that appears to surrender its meaning to you. In the act of deciphering, really you decipher yourself.
BK: We are having this discussion at an incredibly liminal time, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when the fate of the year hangs in the balance. Any advice?
IS: I used to make fun of Bashevis Singer, all these ghosts and goblins in these 10 days, living and dead, real and unreal, sin and repentance. It feels like you are walking on a knife’s edge, and I am very happy that this appeared right now and that we are talking about this now. I feel it is a precarious time in general, this day, forces of light and darkness, forces of awake and asleep sick and healthy…. so of the present.
I think we Jews do carry a burden for humankind to be witnesses.
BK: Why should a reader read this anthology?
IS: Literature. We have been expecting the death of literature for a long time. Everybody watches Netflix, digital things one way or another; nothing can replace literature. The printed word on a white page can unlock something so personal, so private, so unique. Readers get that experience. No Netflix series can allow you to discover what you will discover here.
Beth Kissileff is the co-editor of the anthology Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy, author of the novel Questioning Return and the editor of the anthology Reading Genesis. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Michigan Quarterly Review, New York Times, Tablet, the Forward, 929English and Haaretz, among others. Visit her online at www.bethkissileff.com.