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December 14, 2007

Dreams of the Father


In 1990, Rodger Kamenetz traveled to Tibet with a group of American Jews to meet the Dalai Lama. On that trip, which he describes in The Jew in the Lotus, he happened to learn that some Buddhists meditate within their dreams. He began to wonder how dreams had been understood in Jewish texts and found that, while they had once been considered a source of revelation, dreams had been all but exiled from the tradition because they were deemed too disturbing or difficult to understand. As Kamenetz went deeper into his own dreams, which he calls “the oldest spiritual technology on the planet,” he found that they did not have any explicitly Jewish content. But in their own strange way—as he recounts in his new book A History of Last Night’s Dream—they did, over the years, begin to lead him back to something like God.

You say that dreams have been exiled from Judaism since Genesis.

There is a twin tradition. One is of the dream as direct revelation that requires no interpretation. That’s embodied in the dreams of Joseph as a boy, and in Jacob’s dream of a ladder between earth and heaven. And then there is the whole tradition of interpretation which actually begins with Joseph’s brothers, who have been quite correctly identified as the first dream interpreters. Their interpretation is full of anxiety and rage.

And you see that same mistrust reflected in the Talmud?

To give them credit, I think the rabbis were concerned for the average person who may not want to take a mystical venture into dreams, or who may not be equipped, or who may be fearful. They also wanted to assert that the Torah is the primary spiritual guide. They limit the scope of the dream very severely based on a passage in Deuteronomy essentially saying that no dream can contradict the Torah.

How has this affected the way we understand dreams now?

Our own response to dreams is often that they’re painful or that they are difficult. They bring up feelings we don’t want to face and we call out for an interpreter who will remove the sting of the dream and soothe us. One can find this not only in the rabbinic project but in the Freudian project, which says that the real meaning of the dream is hidden. But in my view the real meaning of the dream is right on the surface.

You once dreamed of an enormous book that was keeping you from writing.

I walk into my study and I have this feeling I’m going to write something. But in front of the computer monitor is this very large blue book with the letters “K de G” on the cover. The author is the Rabbi K de G, which seems to stand for “Kamenetz on Genesis.” The book reads from back to front and it appears to be a commentary on Genesis. As the dream ends, I’m thumbing through the pages from back to front and have completely missed the fact that behind the book, at a distance, was my father who had given it to me.

So the problem wasn’t so much that this holy book was keeping you from writing, but that it was standing between you and your father?

The book was a gift from my father that could have brought me closer to him. A few years ago I had a dream where my house is falling down and I just call my dad and ask for help. And he comes with a bunch of painters and carpenters and suddenly the house is repaired. It was just the first in a series of dreams that helped to lead me closer to him. One of the great gifts for me was to have this different relationship with my father in the last years of his life.

And what was coming between you and your father in waking life?

My pride. There’s another dream where we’re sitting at a kind of Talmud study. My father knows what a certain word means and I don’t. But I don't ask him; I think I can figure it all out for myself. I don’t want to be the vulnerable son who needs help. But at a deeper level, this was not just about my relationship to my father, but about my relationship to the Father.

You hear people talk that way in church, but not as often in synagogue.

My answer would be two words: Avinu Malkeinu. Our Father, our King. Obviously Jesus said stuff like that because he also went to Rosh Hashanah services. There’s a whole Yiddish tradition of referring to God as tateynu, as “dear Father.” Our ancestors were very comfortable with the idea that God was a father and a king and a shepherd. But now if we have an emotional relationship to God, that’s immediately seen as goyish. We have drained the feeling level out of our liturgy and then we wonder why people can’t connect. They’re not just words. If God is a father, then I must be like a child.

So how does God appear to you in your dreams?

At the end of the book, I describe a dream where an orphan boy is being visited by his father. The father shows him his hand and says, “My hand is the same as yours.” Then the father leaves and the boy starts sobbing and looks in the mirror. And he’s me: I see my face. That sadness of having lost the Father, in this case not my father but the Father, that yearning to reconnect, not to be an orphan but to be his son—that’s the quest. It’s rather like what Rabbi Nachman said: You have to connect to God from your broken heart. The dream reawakened the feeling of loss, the pain of the separation from God. It’s a tremendous gift to feel that.

You’ve been studying under Marc Bregman, a self-styled "dreamworker" in Vermont.

Marc Bregman grew up as a Jewish kid in Philadelphia in a kind of anti-Semitic environment. He had a strict Jewish father and he rebelled in the 1960s. After he moved to Vermont he was working in the post office by day and seeing clients about their dreams at night. He’s certainly not a traditional Jew or even a nontraditional one. But I know that he is a man of God.

And you have your own clients now. How do you work with their dreams?

We meet once a week for an hour. We try to find the feelings in the dream, the belly button, as Marc calls it. Then we have homework, which is to visualize a moment from one of the dreams that needs change. There’s a rhythm back and forth from night dream to daydream and from daydream to actual life. Usually people come with a problem they’re trying to wrestle with but the dreams often point to some underlying predicament. It could be other people’s expectations. It could be family obligations, guilt, or a sense of duty. We just keep going deeper and over time there’s a shift. The dream becomes a live rehearsal. The changes you make in dreams can change how you behave.

In what sense is this approach to dreams Jewish?

When you’re taking a dream seriously it becomes a spiritual practice. How does that connect to what’s offered by this tradition we belong to where we have Torah and commentary and rabbinic authority and services and holidays and all of that? We struggle with a feeling of loss of connection to God. Religion tries to give us intellectual or ritual answers. People often outsource their spiritual struggles to the experts. Hence the tremendous pressure on rabbinic figures in our community. If we don’t have a personal feeling of a quest, at least if some of us don’t, then it makes the rabbi’s job very, very hard.

Could you have understood your dreams without coming to them from a Jewish angle?

It seemed necessary for me to go through the books, to go through Genesis, to go through the rabbis. And yet it’s true that having done that, it no longer seems quite as relevant. You can find the gift of the dream without Genesis. But it’s promised there.

You had a series of dreams in which men kept trying to feed you meat.

I had alternated between various dietary restrictions from semi-kosher to vegetarian and wasn’t too faithful to any of them. And all of a sudden these guys are showing up in my dreams serving meat. It started as hors d’oeuvres and ended with giant hunks of beef thrown on a grill by bare-chested Mexican chefs. It was obvious that these were good guys and that they were challenging me with a kind of a male generosity of spirit.

What did you dream last night?

Recently I dreamed I woke up and went to the window. I looked outside and the ground was covered with snow and I felt such joy. It took me back to being a kid in Baltimore thinking, I’m going to spend the whole day playing and I won't have to go to school. You worry and you plan, you try to make yourself happy, you try to make other people happy and then the snow just falls, you know? It falls on its own.

Jascha Hoffman is on the editorial staff of The New York Review of Books.

October 3, 2008

Israel from the Inside

Inside Stories:
Rutu Modan’s devastating, understated comics

By Jascha Hoffman

“Reality is more grotesque and strange than anything you can invent,” says the Israeli cartoonist Rutu Modan. “Sometimes life is too much, you have to tone it down to make art.” Modan’s own work has evolved over the past fifteen years from rather strange and grotesque fables into some of the strongest graphic fiction on the planet. Like the novelists David Grossman and A. B. Yehoshua, and young filmmakers such as Hilla Medalia, Modan has found ways to tell stories that use the flood of bad news in Israel as the backdrop to subtle stories about ordinary people learning how to live.

Modan, who moved to England last year when her husband accepted a post-doc position there, has recently been cultivating an international following. Last year her graphic novel Exit Wounds was released in English to widespread acclaim. This year she drew two very different series of comics for The New York Times. Her memoir blog, “Mixed Emotions,” ventured into the realm of autobiography with illustrated stories about her family, such as the fallout from her youngest son’s obsession with a pink tutu, in an ingenious vertical format that would have been cumbersome on paper but worked perfectly online. Her serial mystery “The Murder of the Terminal Patient,” which follows an underemployed Russian doctor as he navigates the hierarchy of an Israeli hospital to investigate a suspicious death, is one of the best comics to have appeared in The New York Times Magazine.

Modan’s visual style may at first appear somewhat plain, but she has a masterful skill for pacing and perspective, a keen eye for postures and facial expressions, and a command of composition and color that rivals the old masters of Sunday comics. Her illustrations recall the whimsical work of Little Nemo creator Winsor McKay, or, as Douglas Wolk has suggested, the “clear line” style of Tintin creator Hergé, where simple characters stand out against finely drawn landscapes to make for an oddly affecting sense of reality. One might wonder how such talent was incubated. Part of the answer arrives this month in the form of Jamilti and Other Stories, a collection of Modan’s early comics released by the Canadian publisher Drawn & Quarterly. Over a decade’s worth of genre experiments veering from fairy tales to crime fiction, Modan emerges in its pages as a storyteller of rare insight and restraint.

Born in Tel Aviv in 1966, Modan’s career has run parallel to the rise of a serious independent comics scene in Israel, which in the past fifteen years has grown large enough to provide a decent market for domestic graphic fiction. Months after first seeing Art Spiegelman’s outlandish magazine RAW as a student at the Belazel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, Modan began to publish comic strips that ranged from the absurd to the macabre in local papers. “Since there was no comics tradition” in Israel at the time, she says, “I could do anything I wanted.” In 1993 she was hired to edit the Israeli edition of MAD magazine, along with artist Uri Pinkus. When it folded, Modan and Pinkus decided to start their own comics collective. “If we were going to lose money, better to do exactly what we like,” she says.

The first meeting of the Actus Tragicus collective was convened, as chance would have it, on the evening in 1995 that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. The group stayed up all night concocting conspiracy theories in which Rabin survived the shooting. It would be too simple, though, to conclude that this founding trauma set the artists on a path to darker or more cynical work. “This event didn’t change our art,” Modan says. “Israeli reality gives you so many opportunities to be macabre.” Her story-length comics, published in a series of Actus anthologies over the past decade, appeared to seize as many of these opportunities as possible. An early one reminiscent of the Brothers Grimm features a forlorn plastic surgeon who tries to rearrange his patients’ faces in the image of his lost love. In a later story, as hardboiled as it is preposterous, a series of dead bodies turn up bearing the signature of a new serial killer: a pair of panties on the head.

In recent years Modan’s work has become more understated and more revealing as she has grown to engage more fully with contemporary life in Israel. Refusing to shy away from the catastrophes in the headlines, she also refrains from commenting directly on pressing issues like war and terrorism. Instead, Modan tells stories about ordinary people who are confronting their own emotional weaknesses, even as they project strong exteriors to the rest of the world. “In Israel we try to live like political events have no influence on our lives, and most of the time we succeed,” Modan explains. “But it’s a delusion, even if we are not at the center of the drama.”

How thick a skin must you have when you live in a society under siege? This question lies at the heart of Exit Wounds. It follows a bitter young taxi driver as he searches for his deadbeat father, with the help of his father’s wealthy, estranged girlfriend. Its earth tones and mellow pace have a lulling effect on the reader, even as the prickly dialogue reveals enough emotional damage to leave a metal tinge in the throat. The book draws much of its power from the particularly Israeli confusions that drive the story. Was the father tragically ripped away from his son by a suicide bomber before they could reconcile, as it might first appear? Or does the bombing merely give him an alibi to escape from the demands of his own loved ones? In refusing to uncover the truth about what became of his father, is the son succumbing to the fantasy that his life is immune from political events? Or is he simply refusing to give in to the terror-induced hysteria around him? The book offers no clear answers.

The threat of suicide bombings, and the unexpected ways they can twist the mind and the heart, are also central to a pair of the most haunting stories in Modan’s collection. Both are based on real events. In “Jamilti,” the new collection’s title story, an Israeli woman, on the eve of her wedding, rushes to the aid of a man wounded in a suicide bombing. She later learns that the handsome man to whom she gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation was the bomber himself, his own sole victim. Though the plot may sound contrived, Modan has adapted it from a true story, in which a medic found himself questioning his conservative beliefs after reviving a man who turned out to be terrorist.

“The real situation was too political,” Modan says. “I wanted to turn it into something more personal and less clear, without a message.” The reader comes away from the story with a strong sense of the heroine’s confusion, and the anger and pity—perhaps even intimacy— she feels for a man who moments earlier would have been willing to kill her. It is a feeling that is both sobering and dizzying. Although the moral question of whether it was right to revive the bomber is in the background of the story, she says, “my heroine doesn’t think about it. When she kissed this guy, she felt the possibility of a connection with a human being—and she cannot erase it because she found he is a terrorist. Confusing? I think it should be.”

Such retrospective games of conscience continue in her story “Homecoming,” in which a small airplane begins to circle around the shore near a northern kibbutz. Since the pilot does not identify himself, the crowd that gathers cannot know whether he is an airborne suicide bomber or a missing soldier coming home. Their hunches reveal their own needs: the father of the missing solider is sure his son has returned, while the suitor of the soldier’s girlfriend is confident that the pilot must be a terrorist.

When the plane is finally shot down by the air force, leaving an unidentifiable corpse on the beach, the bystanders swap positions instantaneously. The father clings to hope by proclaiming that the dead man was not his son, while the suitor asserts that he probably was the soldier coming home after all. The tone is wry, but the message is unsettling. As a demonstration of the idea that, as Modan puts it, “everyone has their own self-serving reasons for their political beliefs,” the story does its job. But there is also a rich irony in the fact that, from the ground, one cannot tell the difference between a murderer and a prodigal son. And the confusion is mutual: a Palestinian militant might consider his aerial mission to be a perverse sort of homecoming.

In the years since she drew these fables of war-torn Israeli life, Modan’s focus has shifted from the moral to the psychological. Since Exit Wounds, her stories have tended to home in on smaller accounts of ordinary Israelis at war with themselves. “Your Number One Fan,” the only comic in the collection that was published after Exit Wounds, deals with a smug Israeli rock musician invited on his first international tour, which turns out to be nothing more than a pitiful slot at the social hall of a small synagogue in Sheffield, England. The visual style is crisper than ever, but the plot itself might seem rather slight, a step down from the dramatic turmoil of her previous subjects. From this tale of small-time narcissistic delusion, though, Modan has brought out truths about the Israeli artist abroad: the inflated expectations of international fame, coupled with a love-hate relationship with the diasporic Jewish communities (often the most loyal foreign public for Israeli culture).

Cultural criticism aside, “Your Number One Fan” is ultimately the story of a man who goes looking for swarms of admirers but unintentionally finds something more rare and valuable: a single person who likes his music enough to accept him despite his indecent behavior. As the story ends, it is not clear whether he will ever realize the importance of this, perhaps because that lone admirer is a middle-aged British divorcee without a shred of indie credibility.

In the not-so-gentle downshifting of one wannabe’s artistic expectations from the stadium to the kitchen table, the story might also say something about Modan’s own recent shift from addressing major events to describing more intimate ones. She is surely capable of harnessing her talent in pursuit of an epic that would reveal something profound about what it means to be an Israeli. Instead, she’s stubbornly trying to understand her characters in a personal way, making the point that their dramas are not disconnected from the fraught context in which they’re set.

Jascha Hoffman has written for Nature and The New York Times. He lives in Brooklyn.

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