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Author’s Interview with Magdalena Ball

Joining me today on the blog is author, Magdalena Ball.  Magdalena, or Maggie as I’ve taken the liberty to call her, is a novelist, poet, reviewer and interviewer who grew up on Lenape land (NY) in the US, and currently lives and writes on Awabakal land.

She is Managing Editor of Compulsive Reader, Vice President of Flying Island, and her work has been widely published in literary journals such as Meanjin, Cordite, and Westerly, along with many anthologies. She is the author of a number of fiction and poetry books published in Australia and overseas.

From Argentina to Israel, from across the pond to down under; what a thrill it is for me to host authors from around the world! Thank you for reaching out to me, Maggie. I was honored to receive your email and I know the audience will be delighted to learn more about you. Please tell us about your new book, Bobish.

Guest: Hi Mirta, thanks so much for inviting me to talk with you! Bobish is the story of my great-grandmother, Rebecca Lieberman Samberg, who migrated from the Pale of Settlement to NYC on her own at the age of 14. I began researching Rebecca after finding an evocative photo of her (which is now the cover) among my mother’s photos and quite frankly I found her story fascinating. My daughter was studying the Russian revolution and began asking me questions about whether my grandparents were in Russia at the time of the revolution and when I started digging to find out what the correspondences were, I began to realise (as one often does when researching personal history) how linked my family story was with the broader historical waves that were happening through the twentieth century.

Rebecca’s story is the story of the Ashkenazim – who were ring-bound into that area of the western Russian Empire—modern day Belarus, Lithuania, Eastern Poland, Western Russia and Moldova known as the Pale of Settlement – the poor shtetls made famous by Fiddler on the Roof that existed only until 1917 outside which Jews were generally not allowed to live. Unfortunately as the power of Tsar Nicholas II began to wane and after his assassination and in the lead-up to the Russian revolution, life in the shtetls was also unlivable as waves of violence (the pogroms) began to sweep through the villages and the violence, particularly in place where Rebecca lived (Grodno, which is in modern day Belarus) and also Galicia in Poland, was becoming unbearable. I don’t know what she might have witnessed before she left so young, or why she went alone—I could not find those records, but it was enough for her to go, and her story begins with her arrival in NYC, her ship arriving at the Statue of Liberty.

From there it follows her life and the information I’ve been able to get from census records, interviews, landing papers, and anything else I could find along with more general historical research, as it unfolded in the new world where, among other things, she ended up working in the ill-fated Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (she was sick on the day it burnt down), told fortunes with tea-leaves, met my grandfather (who was, by all accounts, an unpleasant and unhappy man-again, who knows what atrocities he might have seen before he took his own journey), and raised three children who all became musicians. 

Host: My own grandparents and great grandparents were immigrants from Imperial Russia. They found refuge in Argentina, thanks to Baron Maurice Hirsch and the Jewish Colonization Association. When I look at old family photographs and see the simchas, the weddings, the bar mitzvahs and ordinary birthday parties, I stop and offer a prayer of gratitude. Their very existence (and mine!) was due to their immigration. Had they remained in the Pale, it is very likely they would have died either at the hands of the Cossacks and their ilk, or from the Nazi onslaught.  I don’t believe that we acknowledge that fact often enough these days; yet, it is that particular fact that was the impetus for my research. I began learning about my family’s history at an early age, encouraged by my father who was equally curious. What intrigued you about this time period? 

Guest:  To me, it seems like this point in history is the genesis of who my family is and what they’ve become (the art, the darkness, and the spirituality) but also the point of original trauma, so it is of great personal significance but also I felt that there was much literature about the Holocaust but not so much on the pogroms and that early diaspora was massive – some 2.8 million European Jews migrated to the US during that period, with 94% coming from Eastern Europe – so it was a critical period in time, and I felt very drawn to understand more about that and what it would have felt like. 

Of course Rebecca lived through both world wars, and my book does touch briefly on how the news from those wars would have filtered through to her. For example, any family who survived the pogroms and WWI would have been killed for certain by Nazis—all surviving Jews in Grodno were rounded up and taken into the woods and shot. So I did feel the need to engage with that and how she would have been feeling through it.

Host: I wholeheartedly agree with your point on the Holocaust. It falls to us to write of other time periods and of other narratives that showcase the beauty of our faith and resilience of our people. As an independent author, I follow the age-old adage: write the book you’d like to read. As a fan of Austen, Gaskell and the Bronte sisters, I have tried to emulate that particular style while introducing Jewish characters and storylines in unique settings, such as the fictional town of Meryton or the Viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata (modern-day Argentina). How have you incorporated your facts and research with your creative side and personal preferences?

GuestMy book is a hybrid work that is both poetry and memoir. I would say that it’s historical non-fiction but I was really not able to get at everything so I used the poetic form for a number of reasons – firstly, because when you’re looking at history – it really is never simply a telling – you not only have to pick and choose what to include but there is always an element – even if you were there – of recreation.  So I wanted to lean into that complexity in a way that poetry does well, but I also wanted to bring myself into the story – to point put myself in the frame as it were. One of the key things I wanted to do was to find that point of rupture – the migration and the pain and loss – all Rebecca had to leave behind, which in her case became mental illness, and then physical illness – she died quite young – and try, by the sunlight of empathy and compassion – to heal those dark places. 

Host: Maggie, your work is truly unique and inspirational. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything like it, and yet, it is familiar. I can identify with those key factors of immigration, pain, and loss, because I myself am an immigrant. And I must say, you’ve hit the nail on the head. These nuanced and complex emotions must find an outlet; and more often than not, we see the manifestations in mental and physical illnesses. The immigrant experience is an important story to tell. As Jews, we certainly have sufficient material to draw from. Do you remember your first Jewish fiction that was non-Holocaust related?

Guest: Am I able to call Where the Wild Things Are Jewish fiction?  Certainly Sendak was Jewish and his work does seem to reckon with the idea of being ‘different’, of being an outsider, and by all accounts the Wild creatures were modelled on Sendak’s immigrant relatives who would pinch his cheeks and tell him he was so cute they could eat him up. There is a reading of this work that suggests it is a counter to the Grimms styled fairytale tropes where the otherness is evil, and instead Sendak and Max leans into that wildness and calls it beautiful.

Host:  That sounds interesting! It makes me think of two books I recently read. Rena Rossner’s The Sisters of the Winter Wood and Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver both have the magic realism vibe and Jewish mysticism that I so enjoy. Both books lean heavily on the history of Jews in Imperial Russia. I do so appreciate authors who weave accurate history throughout the storyline. While doing your research, did anything affect or move you? Did anything come as a surprise?

Guest: I knew that my great-grandfather Simon Samberg (the “Fish Smoker” in the book – a reference to his profession) was not a nice man.  He was known for his great rages, his drinking and gambling. Sometimes he would upend card tables and he was visibly cruel to Rebecca.  My grandmother Eve, who is also in the book – Rebecca’s daughter – never spoke of him, but I was able to find out more about him through interviews and records that I found.  He was, in many ways, an antagonist in the book, but what surprised me was how literate his was. He spoke some twelve languages, and apparently was an excellent nimble dancer.  The shock for me was when I realised that the musicality of his children – a musicality that has been passed through the family, and a kind of dark intelligence, came from him.  In many ways, though Rebecca is the focus of the book, what surprised me was how important it was for me to engage with him, and forgive him – to find empathy for what he would have also had to give up – to leave behind, and who he would never have seen again in the old country.  I was surprised by how clearly I was able to feel the burden that weighed and broke him.

Host: That is the beauty of writing, I think. The process of fleshing out a character forces the author to delve into the inner workings of that person. You have to truly understand the whys. I myself have found peace and healing when writing, and those poignant passages have become very near and dear to me. Did you enjoy writing a particular scene? Are there any favorite sections in your book?

Guest: I’m not sure if favourite is the right word, but some of the poems that seem to cover a lot of ground and work really well in public readings are “Empire Erased” which goes through the process of an immigrant on arrival at that time – the motion through the line, the checks, the perception and “A Careless Cigarette” which works through the day in 1911 when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burned down – a day when Rebecca, who was known to read tea leaves and had a certain prescience, did not go to work (luckily for me)! 

Host: Our families have lived through hellish times, but the key word is that they lived! It might not have always been pretty, but they always dreamt of a better tomorrow. When I write of my family’s experience, I focus on that particular strength, that daring—that audacity to believe that their children and their children’s children will have better days. Through dark days and moments of despair, we must fall back on our emunah. We must have faith. That is the lesson of the Festival of Lights we have just commemorated. That is also the lesson we must glean from our matriarchs and patriarchs. With your work, Maggie, you’ve honored your ancestors and ensured that this history is not forgotten. Is there anything else you’d like to add before we say good bye?

Guest: Thank you so much for the opportunity to engage with you in this way – it has been an absolute pleasure.  Bobish is now available on Amazon and directly from the publisher. The book is available wherever good books are sold, and if you would like to read it but cannot afford to purchase, please just go ask at your local library – libraries are wonderful places and they will often just buy in a book if you want to read it so please just ask. I would be more than happy to send out personally autographed book plates to anyone who purchases the book and am also always happy to do book club visits – by Zoom if you’re not near me. 

I am finding that poetry is very hot right now (!!) and that lots of readers and book clubs want to engage with it but aren’t quite sure how. Bobish is a really great place to start as it is memoir, and history but also poetry and so it’s pretty easy to engage with – there is a clear underlying narrative and story to follow but it also allows for that complexity and subtlety that poetry can encompass – which I think works particularly when in a memoir like this where there are gaps, and layers of experience that are in different times and places.  I can be contacted via my website

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Yiddishkeyt Porteño—Jewish Argentina

The High Holidays are upon us. In a few days, we will gather to hear the shofar blow. We will contemplate the year we are leaving behind (Baruch Hashem!) and the year that is unfolding. May it be a sweet and healthy new year for all!

Today, I have been busy baking challah— punching out air bubbles from the soft dough, smoothing the edges, and rolling out long ropes that will form the traditional crown for Rosh Hashanah. Baking my own challah is a new talent I’ve incorporated into my repertoire (thank you @JamieGeller). I’m more known for my sweet brisket and potato knishes. I also am proud of my honey lekach and apple strudel. So many traditions! My parents were not “religious,” but they passed down enough yiddishkeyt to impress upon me the importance of staying connected to our roots.

My heritage—like so many of us—is a mishmash of cultures. My grandparents were children when they immigrated from Imperial Russia to Argentina. And like so many other rusos, their food, their music, and their prayers were influenced by the local community. But these Argentine Jews were resilient! Their impact on society can’t be denied. Their influence is still felt today.

So, what is yiddishkeyt? Look up the word on the Internet. The first definition is simply: “Jewishness.” To me, the word is about the phenomenon of taking something ordinary or commonplace and incorporating a bit Jewish quality or custom into the mix. OK, so now you ask: what does porteño mean? This refers to a person from the port city of Buenos Aires, but it also can be a local tradition or cultural way of doing things. I could also write about doing a gauchada or making something criollo, but that’s another post. The point is that immigrants from various nations brought their ingenuity to their new country. For example, Italian food has long dominated Argentine cuisine. Another Italian creation is fileteado, an art form that has become synonymous with Buenos Aires (see example below). Suffice it to say that Argentines crave their Argentinismos, just like Jews crave yiddishkeit. The rusos took their Ashkenazi faith, culture, literature, theater, and film, gave them a local flair, and yiddishkeyt porteño was born!

Immigrants fleeing pogroms and persecution arrived to their new country and were soon expected to assimilate to their adoptive land. They learned to drink mate and to sing the songs of the pampas.

They were taught Argentine history and the national anthem. And when they slowly began to acclimate, these Jewish gauchos built schools, hospitals and charitable organizations. They printed newspapers, wrote novels, and staged theatrical performances.

They learned to sow wheat and corn and sunflowers too —it reminded them of their homeland. And for their efforts, they reaped doctors, lawyers, teachers and philosophers. They watched their children grow strong amongst the fertile land and new-found freedom, and waved them off as they left the inner provinces for Buenos Aires.

As I separate a piece of challah and say the appropriate prayers, it fills me with a sense of connection and a sense of peace. I think of those that came before me and know that I stand on the shoulders of some remarkable people. My ancestors brought knishes and kugel and sweet wine to make kiddush on the pampas. They wished their neighbors a gut shabbos and buen provecho. I wish you the same as well. Until next time…