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On Thursday, May 23, a discerning crowd of literature-lovers gathered at The Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture to celebrate the publication of three new works from Blue Thread, the book imprint of Jewish Currents. Editor Lawrence Bush hosted the event, which featured wine, cheese, and many other nosheray, all enjoyed amidst lively banter and good cheer.
Joel Shatzky tickled those assembled by reading from his satiric new novel, Option Three: A Novel about the University. Shatzky taught dramatic literature in the English Department at SUNY Cortland for 37 years and his experiences there clearly inform this darkly comic romp through academia. What he chose to read prompted many knowing chuckles. In the chapter that explains the book’s title, Professor L. Circassian receives two contradictory letters about his employment and rushes to find a dean who can explain why “Option Three” involves a 35% reduction in his salary. Dean Lean complies:
“Option One is that you are an invaluable member of the faculty that has to be let go. Option Two is that you are a superfluous member of the faculty that can’t be let go. . . . Option Three was devised by Central Administration several months ago and what it means is that we don’t have the funds to keep you but we can’t let you go because you’re too valuable.”
“But I can’t survive on this salary cut. I’m just surviving on this miserable salary I’ve been getting as an Acting Visiting . . .” said Circassian, but Dean Lean cut him off.
“Of course. We understand that. That’s why this is called ‘Option Three.’ It’s a combination of two unacceptable solutions to a problem.”
Light moments were less in evidence – but not completely absent – from Helen Engelhardt’s riveting readings from The Longest Night, her account of the death of her husband, Tony Hawkins, aboard Pan Am 103 in the terrorist incident widely known as the Lockerbie bombing. The bombing occurred on December 21, 1988 (“the longest night of the year”) and Engelhardt’s book interweaves scenes from the twelve months after the bombing with vignettes from the first seven months and the final four months of her 17-year marriage to Hawkins. In one moving passage, she describes the relief and joy she felt upon receiving a letter from Cardinal John O’Connor inviting her to a Sunday mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for a “Day of Prayer for the victims of the tragedy.”
At last I would see their faces! What I had been unable to do on my own, to pry loose the names and addresses of the other families from Pan Am, the Cardinal has accomplished for me. Each of us, isolated in our private desolation, was to be assembled in one place at one time. We could begin to know one another, perhaps to help one another.
Engelhardt described being surprised at how moving she found the Cardinal’s homily -– how he seemed to speak directly to her in empathizing with her grief; that is, until he added that “Christ was killed by terrorists. . . . No! I thought. He’s wrong. Terrorists kill anonymously and don’t care who their victims are. I resented the Cardinal for appropriating what had happened to us and applying it to the religion he represented.”
That initial meeting would lead to 100 relatives organizing into The Victims of Pan Am Flight 103 and, among its many achievements, The Longest Night chronicles their efforts to lobby the government to investigate the bombing and to improve airline security.
Joel Schechter, the author of the third book, Radical Yiddish: Essays and Comic Strips, teaches at San Francisco State University and was unable to attend, so Lawrence Bush pinch hit and read two charming pieces from the eclectic collection of writings (and cartoons) on Yiddish theatre, literature, and culture. The first, “Celia Adler’s Advice to the Players,” is a gem that marries theatrical and labor history and was the subject of a recent Jewdayo post.
The second piece, “Nit Gedayget: From Summer Camp to Mad Magazine” seemed to conjure memories from many of the listeners. Yiddish for “don’t worry, “Nit Gedayget,” Schechter points out, was the name of a “Mid-Hudson Valley summer camp that included among its cultural activities the staging of Yiddish plays that celebrated the labor movement and called for social justice.” Famous campers who attended Camp Nitgedayget include the poet Allen Ginsburg and Mad Magazine satirist Harvey Kurtzman, who often referred to it in Mad comic strips. Schechter emphasizes that the phrase should not be confused with Bobby McFerrin’s well-known tune “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” because the camp and the phrase were always much more about “the continuing struggle for justice” than “light-hearted hymns to happiness.” The full article appeared in the May 2008 issue of Jewish Currents and can be found here.
All three books are now available for sale in the Jewish Currents Pushcart,