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ELI BROMBERG ORAL HISTORY
SAUL HANKIN:This is Saul Hankin, and today is February 7th, 2014. I am here atthe Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, with Eli Bromberg, and we are going to record an interview as part of the Yiddish Book Center's Wexler Oral History Project. Eli, do I have your permission to record this interview?
ELI BROMBERG:Yes, you do.
SH:Thank you. To start off, can you tell me briefly what you know about yourfamily background?
EB:Sure. Let's see, my family background. So, my great-grandfather was BaruchCharney Vladeck. And he -- that was on my father's mother's father's side. He was very involved with the "Forward," as was my other great-grandfather on that 1:00side, my father's father's father, who is named Emil Bromberg, who also worked at the "Forward" as their machinist. On my mother's side, my grandparents -- I only met one, but I believe he was from way back in Poland, in terms of where his family came from. But I know less about that side of the family. My grandmother on my mom's side was from Bessarabia. And both she and my grandfather on my mom's side were both born here in the States. On my father's side, my father's father was born in I think what is now Austria and lived for a 2:00few years in Italy before coming to the States, and then my grandmother was also born -- Baruch's daughter was born here in the States. The fun thing about my grandfather having come from Eastern Europe and then through Italy is that, as I understand it, he came here speaking Yiddish but also Italian -- which must have been interesting, kind of hanging out in Coney Island, doing that, so --
SH:And you have a few stories, I believe, about your ancestors who worked at the "Forward"?
EB:Yes. You hear a lot of stories growing up about family members. Mygreat-grandfather was the business manager there and worked there for several years. The stories that I heard -- and maybe it's just what you remember, but they're often the funny stories. So growing up, I would hear various things about him, but what stuck were the fact that he shot someone, and some 3:00interesting stories about my other great-grandfather and the politics of labor in a business. And for the first one, involving the "Forward" shooting, involved a point in time where there were often apparently thefts that were going on around the building -- the "Forward" building. And so as the business manager, it was decided -- or he decided -- that it would be good for him to carry a gun. So he began having a gun -- I don't think he really wanted to -- and he kept it in his office. But on one occasion, I think it was his secretary who asked to see the gun, and when he presented it to her, it went off. She got shot in the leg. And those were the kind of stories that as a kid you hear and you retain. 4:00And it's a very small part of my great-grandfather's legacy, but that's one of the things that always comes to my mind when I think about him. The other story that I might have mentioned was -- so my other great-grandfather, Emil, who was the machinist at the "Forward" and did a lot of work with getting the papers printed and then shipped out, he was -- the "Forward" worked with the "Daily News," I think, in close conjunction about certain things when it came to the printing, and there was a period where that newspaper -- I believe it was the "Daily News" -- was on strike. And when this happened, they would contact other 5:00papers to print for them -- or the people that were doing their shipping and et cetera were on strike. Obviously, the "Forward" has a strong pro-labor socialist history, and so for folks working there, the idea of crossing a picket line was not something that they would have wanted to do. But there was also that business element, and to take on that job would have meant the "Forward" would have gotten some capital that they could have used. So my great-grandfather stood by his assertion that he would not break a picket line. And the workaround, as I understand it, was that they set up a cot for him in the "Forward" offices, so he would not have to literally -- no, no -- I think they kind of moved him into the offices that he'd be working on at the "Daily News" -- but in any event, they set it up where he would not need to leave the building, and because he would not need to leave the building, he was assured he was not breaking any picket lines again. So he did what the "Forward" asked him 6:00to do and printed those newspaper editions.
SH:And you're connected also to the Yiddish writer Shmuel Niger?
SH:Any stories you have about him?
EB:Shmuel was my great-grandfather's brother. And I didn't hear as many storiesabout him growing up. And it was interesting -- as I became interested in Yiddish and came to the Book Center and began studying Yiddish -- how often Shmuel's name came up. And one of the documents that I actually brought with me, though, is a letter from Abe Cahan to my great-grandfather, basically politely stating that while Cahan appreciated the offer that my great-grandfather made to inquire with Shmuel to write for the "Forward," that Cahan wanted to decline -- 7:00on account of, among other things, the notion that Shmuel's Yiddish language and rhetoric was a little bit too -- I think "hifaluten" is the Yiddish term -- I'm not positive if that's Yiddish or not, but -- that it wasn't exactly the language for the masses that Cahan envisioned. And this is a letter from 1914. And it's interesting to me both in terms of -- this letter that is written by Cahan, who's -- you know, I began to read some of his writing, and -- but just seeing it as this moment where a sibling was trying to get work for a sibling not long after they'd arrived stateside.
SH:Let's turn now to your own family, your own upbringing. Can you tell me who8:00were the people in your own home when you were growing up?
EB:My father, my mother, I have two brothers and a younger sister.
SH:And you were born in Tarrytown, New York?
EB:Tarrytown, New York. Yes. And that house has actually seen five generations.So my great-grandfather Emil lived in the house for a period before he passed away, and my nephew lived in that house for I think maybe just a year or two before my brother and his wife moved into a house, so -- my math is terrible, but I believe that's five generations. So Emil was an inventor. He was also a machinist, as I mentioned, but one of his inventions was a big contraption that folded newspapers into the nice, neat, folded things that we get delivered into 9:00our driveways. And the prototype for that machine -- one of them was located in the basement of that house. So I never saw that, but my father reports that the only time that he saw his father cry was when that machine was broken down and taken out of the house after Emil passed away.
SH:Would you say you grew up in a Jewish home?
SH:And what about your home felt Jewish?
EB:My father worked for a number of Jewish organizations -- Jewish civil rightsorganizations. When I was in high school and middle school, for period there, he worked for the ADL. He'd worked for NACRAC before that. He worked for Meretz USA towards the end of the time I was in high school and then when I was in college. And I'm missing several other Jewish acronym organizations in addition. But he 10:00was very involved with organizations that were not necessarily religiously oriented, but more oriented towards the civic experience, perhaps, of Jews in the US, and through Meretz in Israel. And we also went to a Conservative synagogue growing up. My mother was very involved with the temple and the learning institute at the temple. We went to Hebrew school. After we went to public school during the day, we'd go there maybe three times a week in the evenings and on Sundays.
SH:Going back to your father, can you say just a little more about what areNACRAC and Meretz USA?
EB:I know more about Meretz, certainly -- that's the work he did recently, I11:00think -- I was much younger when he was with the other organizations. But the work he's done with Meretz has involved, I think, articulating the element of the Israeli population and political alliance that believes firmly in a two-state solution -- very much a left-of-center party. And the Meretz USA -- I think -- work was something that he felt was very dear to his heart, in terms of trying to create a voice and facilitate that kind of perspective about Israel and the relationship with Palestinians and the Palestinian territories that was, 12:00I think, very important to him -- to provide a voice to the immediacy and importance of finding a two-state solution to that issue.
SH:And how important would you say that religion and religious observance wereto your family?
EB:Religion and religious observance in my family. It was -- I think it was veryimportant that we grew up -- for my parents, I think it was very important that we grew up with a sense of being Jewish. And I think what was tricky and complicated was, well, what did that mean? And in terms of religion, we went to religious school, we learned about the Bible, we studied Hebrew, we kept a kosher home. But, I think, there was also a lot of allowance for conversation 13:00about, well, how does our identity hinge upon the religious element versus hinge on the cultural identification and such? So religion was something that was a part of our Jewish identity, but it was not the central or driving part of our Jewish identity. And as I study and learn more, you recognize that that's not necessarily something that is always a given. But in our household, we -- you know, we'd go to services on the High Holidays and certainly other holidays, as 14:00well, and we would hold a seder at my house during Passover. But it was one part of kind of a larger sense of what it meant to be Jewish.
SH:Can you say more about the more cultural components that you practiced?
EB:I can try to. There was a talk -- class I went to last summer where JustinCammy, who teaches at Smith College, was talking about the various messianic threads of Jews. And then he was characterizing the religious -- the actual messianic and religious element as being one part, but he also mentioned, if I remember correctly, the socialistic tradition as being also kind of a way of 15:00thinking about a messianic impulse within the Jewish community. And I think he also put in there psychoanalysis, Freud and that sort of thing. And I'm trying to remember if there was one other -- I think Zionism, perhaps, as well. So there are all these kind of overlapping ideas, some of which are more associated with Jewishness or Judaism than others. But in addition to my great-grandfather, he -- the stories about him were not about his religious inclinations so much as his socialistic impulses, his very left-of-center beliefs about how society needed to serve everyone and not just cater to those with means. And he was also 16:00someone who worked at the "Forward." And so you associate "Forward" with Jewishness, but not that religious piece. So there's all these contradictions in terms of, you know, how do you come up with a Jewish tradition in a socialist tradition that is not necessarily very hospitable in any way whatsoever to religion per se. So that was one way in which this functioned. My father's father -- my paternal grandfather -- was a Freudian psychologist, and so there was that kind of strain, as well. And I think that there was also this sense that there were -- I think there was also this sense that, you know, you didn't 17:00just look at the Bible for the justification for how to live a moral life, but you also look at the history of the Jewish people -- and that that provides, perhaps, a subtly different perspective in terms of how you think about ethics and justice and things along those lines.
SH:Was there anything you did together as a family on a regular basis?
EB:We ate dinner together growing up. My oldest brother is six years older thanme, my younger sister is two years younger, so there was a stretch where we were all in the house, but more of my formative memories are when at least one if not both of my brothers were out at college. But we did hang out together a good 18:00amount. I remember we would watch TV together -- we watched "The Simpsons" together. And one very important memory I hold is watching an episode from the first or second season involving Krusty the Clown's father, who is a rabbi -- Krustofski, right? And so we're watching this episode where Rabbi Krustofski and Krusty are at an impasse and Bart and Lisa help them to reconcile, and my father's laughing hysterically on the couch -- he's really enjoying it. But after the episode -- maybe it's during the episode -- at some point, he laments how -- this is when he works at the ADL -- the phone calls he's going to get the next day from people who are saying, Did you see this awful anti-Semitic caricature of the Jewish community? -- when he was loving the satire and what 19:00was going on there. So that's -- you know, we would hang out, we would watch TV together sometimes, certainly eat and talk around the dinner table.
SH:What languages were spoken in your family?
EB:Growing up in the house, English. And this is actually something I thought alot about this last summer, because I have this box that my father gave me of all these documents that my grandma kept from her father -- so all these Yiddish documents and letters. And I actually started to try to translate a couple over the summer, which is difficult, because the handwriting is hard to read, not to mention, Yiddish is hard to translate. But in the house growing up, there really wasn't that much Yiddish -- and to the extent that we would refer to "bagels and cream cheese," but not to "bagels and schmear." And I've kind of thought about 20:00that and wondered why that was, and I'm not altogether sure of the reasons for that, but one thing I've thought about is the extent to which we grew up aware of, at some level -- my parents were really aware of the very important role that Yiddish had for my great-grandfather and his siblings and that generation. And there is some amount of commodification of Yiddish, and I think there was maybe some ambivalence about that -- that, you know, we -- no one in the house spoke -- could speak the language, but we knew that our grandparents did -- but by the time they were getting on in years, not so much at that point, perhaps. 21:00So for whatever reason, there was not Yiddish spoken in the house, there were not that many kind of Yiddish phrases -- there were some, but not very many, that might have been thrown around.
SH:Can you describe your neighborhood and your community growing up?
EB:So I grew up in Tarrytown, New York. And Tarrytown is in the suburbs. It isjust a little bit north of Yonkers. And the town -- both Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow, which is where the high school I went to was located -- it was a very diverse town. General Motors had one of its plants in Sleepy Hollow. And it's no longer there -- you can actually see a vast portion of land on the Hudson with the -- what are they called? -- the kind of iron -- what used to be the skeleton 22:00of the building -- kind of where it got cut off. So it's what used to be a plant, but there's no longer a plant. And it's kind of sat there -- I think they're working on putting something there. But there were a lot of folks in the town that worked at that plant who had emigrated from various parts of Latin America. And so the high school that I went to, Spanish would have been more useful than Yiddish in terms of communicating with folks at the school there. And it was interesting, because there was a certain amount of white flight from the school system that had to do with, I think, the very unfortunate ways that 23:00certain folks would respond to that diversity and that population at the high school. And I remember that being something that would be discussed at the dinner table growing up, and, again, something that would connect in with my parents' own sense of what government's role was -- and that public education was vital and crucial. So certainly, it was a pretty diverse school, a diverse community, relative to other pockets of Westchester where perhaps that was not as much the case.
SH:Who were your friends?
EB:My two best friends in high school were Greg Clark and Fabrizzio Torres. And24:00we would hang out and talk about "Seinfeld" a lot. Actually, no, there actually was a good amount of Yiddish at my high school because Yiddish was a language that you could curse in and not get reprimanded, so you would hear "schmuck" and "putz" yelled around the hallways because that was not anything anybody would get in much trouble for. "Seinfeld" was big at that time. But actually, I should mention -- one funny story on that note -- Greg's mother is Russian -- or of Russian descent. And he threw a graduation party and we went to his house. And while we were hanging out -- the kids were hanging out -- his mother -- just a lovely woman -- Laurie was giving a tour of the house. And my father was on the tour of the house. And at one point, she motions above the fireplace, there are 25:00the family coat of arms, and she says that those were the coat of arms of her ancestors back in Russia. And Vladeck's family was from Dukor -- before he went to Vilna. But my father made the comment, "I think that your ancestors chased my ancestors with those swords." It did not go over well. (laughs) And I heard about it later, actually -- that the comment was not well appreciated.
SH:We spoke already briefly about your family's connections to Jewish culture.Were there aspects of Jewish culture particularly important to you personally growing up?
EB:Yes. I think for me -- it's interesting, because going to Hebrew school, I26:00never really at the time felt like I enjoyed going to Hebrew school -- it was something that I was told to do and have ambivalence about. And we would -- it was not uncommon -- leaving -- you know, my father or mother picked me up and drove me back from Hebrew school, or leaving services -- that we would talk about sermons or what was discussed in class that day. And there would be contestation of certain points. And so I think the piece that I was always most drawn to and invested in was the idea that there was this license to disagree and to not just go with what you're told -- with the orthodoxy, or something 27:00along those lines -- that you could actually contest and debate, and things along those lines. So that was something that I witnessed in terms of seeing my parents talk about how they felt about what the rabbi said at that particular service, or things like that. And that was something that I associated very much with the Jewish identity that they were trying to instill in me and that I was trying to kind of cultivate in myself.
SH:Outside of synagogue and your father's civic activities, what sorts oforganizations was your family involved in?
EB:Outside of synagogue and the organizations that my father worked for, whatkind of other organizations did we get involved with? Let's see. My mom was involved with the PTA a little bit and my grandmother was involved with the PTA 28:00-- that stands for Parent Teacher Association, I think, right? Yeah. And outside of that, nothing's coming to mind too much right now. We didn't really, to my memory, involve ourselves with too many other organizations outside of those that either were where my father worked or the temple itself. But I'll keep on thinking about that if something else comes up.
SH:Can you speak briefly about Three Arrows?
EB:Oh, Three Arrows. Yeah, there we go, Three Arrows. (laughs) Thank you. ThreeArrows is a community that began as a socialist cooperative back in the, I think, late '30s or so. That's where my parents met. And it was, I think, at the 29:00beginning just about exclusively Jewish. It was a kind of summer retreat area where folks were able to kind of go out of the city at a time when it was relatively affordable, I think, to get out of the city and do that. So the initial structures that were built at Three Arrows -- many of which, but not all of them, remain to this day -- are all the exact same square footage, because that was part of what was the socialist ideal of the cooperative. So they would go up there in the summers -- they would refer to it as "camp." And both of my grandparents were members there from early on. And that's how the families got 30:00to know each other and how my parents first met -- at a square dance, by the way, which was called by a guy named Slim Sterling who was still calling square dances when I was in high school.
SH:Can you briefly tell me a little more about your education -- public and Jewish?
EB:Yeah. I went to the public schools of the Tarrytowns. I graduated from SleepyHollow High School in 1998. I then matriculated to Amherst College, where I studied until 2002. I had an interdisciplinary major -- it combined elements of Black Studies, History, and Sociology -- and I wrote my thesis on the cultural collective memory of Martin Luther King. After I graduated from Amherst, I spent one year living in Japan, where I taught English and served as an Amherst 31:00representative at Amherst's sister school, and learned a good amount of Japanese there. And then I worked in college admission for several years before coming back to graduate school -- first through a school called Bread Loaf, which is an English master's program offered by Middlebury which I did in the summers while working. And then last year, I began my PhD in American Studies at UMass, right down the street.
SH:While you were doing your undergrad at Amherst, did you take any JewishStudies courses?
EB:I did not. While I was at Amherst, most of the classes I took were actuallyinvolved with exploring issues of race and racism in the States. And while certainly there were courses that touched on aspects of the Jewish experience -- 32:00and one course, in particular, called "Traumatic Events" that had a good focus on the Holocaust and the memory of the Holocaust -- most of the classes that I took involved trying to explore and figure out how whiteness and white privileged -- white privilege, rather, functioned in American society. So the Jewish Studies focus and Jewish American literature focus that I'm working with now are more recent developments than undergraduate.
SH:How would you describe the Jewish life on campus at Amherst?
EB:Jewish life on campus at Amherst. It was -- you know, I went to Hillel --Friday night services and things like that on a few occasions. I went to High Holiday services and a few other services while I was an undergrad. One of the 33:00benefits of the five-college system is that it's not just the Amherst Jewish life but it really is kind of a five-college community. So there were services that I would attend at Smith, and other students from other colleges would come to Amherst as well. But my sense was that it was something very much present, and I didn't engage in it to a huge degree. But it was always there and very welcoming on those moments when I would swing by.
SH:And I'd like to turn now to your year in Japan. How was it that you becameinvolved with this Amherst program there?
EB:I believe the first Japanese individual who graduated from an American34:00college was a man Joseph Neesima, who graduated from Amherst -- I used to know the date -- a long time ago, sometime in the nineteenth century. And this led to a sister school relationship with the University of Doshisha that Joseph Neesima founded when he returned to Japan. So I applied for a fellowship my senior year that allowed me the opportunity to stay in Japan for a year -- and studied for one year -- Japanese -- while at Amherst, so I was able to speak Japanese really poorly -- the professors at Amherst are fantastic, but I wasn't a great student, and one year is just not enough to really integrate linguistically into the society. But it got better while I was there. Actually, on the High Holidays, I went to a synagogue in Kobe -- there was a synagogue, it had been there for quite some time, and that was quite an experience. Probably, it was in -- I 35:00don't know if was an Orthodox synagogue or if it just catered to the Orthodox community that was there, but certainly there were divisions in terms of gender with regard to who was sitting where. I got lost going there, and I ran into somebody -- a Japanese American -- he was Japanese, he had grown up in Southern California, so the English he spoke had a slight Southern California, almost Chicano, accent -- and he was really into Kabbalah. And so we were talking about that and Madonna as he kind of just walked me to the synagogue and then asked if it would be okay if he stayed for services. And it wasn't my place to invite him, but I invited him, so we kind of sat together during services -- just a 36:00very interesting and kind of unexpected moment on that particular High Holiday in Kobe.
SH:Can you say more about your daily life in Japan?
EB:I taught an English class at Doshisha -- I think it was twice a week? Once aweek or twice a week -- and did English language lunch sessions with staff at Doshisha to help people that worked at the university in administration to improve their English speaking skills. And outside of that, I did not have too many structured commitments. On occasion, I'd have to be an Amherst representative at something. But I used that time to explore Kyoto, to travel within Japan a lot, and did a lot of reading. And it was a really wonderful 37:00experience. I hadn't lived outside of the US before -- I had never done study abroad -- and while I had been abroad on a couple of occasions, to really be able to live somewhere for a long stretch like that -- it's just a wonderful experience. I learned a lot about Japanese society there, but also about myself. And had the wonderful opportunity to be able to go back a few times since -- through work and such. I love Kyoto. It's a beautiful city. I was very privileged to get to live there for a year.
SH:Do you have any particular stories from Kyoto?
EB:Let's see. I'm trying to think of the appropriate ones to share. I wastwenty-one. (laughs) But let's see. I lived in a dormitory with undergraduates 38:00at Doshisha, and so I was able to get to know folks from various parts of Japan, but also kids that were my age. And that was something that helped my language improve, helped me get to know, I think, elements of Japanese society a little better, perhaps, than I might have if I were living in a dorm just with other international or American students. One day I remember coming home to the dorm and a friend of mine was sitting in the lounge, and there was just a huge fish on the table. And it had been sliced into several times. And as I looked on, confused, I saw my friend kind of take a knife, cut off a piece of fish, and eat 39:00it. And I asked him, "Why is there a fish on the table?" And he explained that it was -- saba is the name of the fish, it was in season in Kyushu, where he's from, that when these fish come in season, there's nothing better in the world than to eat the fresh saba. And so his mother had express shipped on ice a fish that she got in the market to him -- but he had to eat it quickly, because they don't keep. So basically, first myself and then other folks from the dorm just kind of showed up and we just spent the afternoon talking, hanging out, and just kind of chopping off small pieces of the fish and eating it. So that was a treat. And I also remember, when the -- Japanese high school baseball is huge, and there's a tournament that kind of shuts down society -- it's kind of the equivalent of March Madness here, but in Japan, it's high school baseball. So I 40:00remember watching that with some of my friends. And Yu Darvish, who is in the major leagues right now -- and quite good -- was, I think, maybe a high school sophomore or junior at that time, and I remember watching Yu Darvish and talking about his own -- it was interesting at that time, he's Japanese and also, I think, Persian -- I'm not positive, but I believe so -- and had interesting conversations about what it meant for this icon of this very Japanese high school baseball tournament to be somebody that was not, as they would describe him, a hundred percent Japanese -- even though he grew up and was from there.
SH:I'd like to turn now to the Bread Loaf School. Can you start by justdescribing what this program is?
EB:Yeah. The Bread Loaf School -- it is a summer English master's program that41:00is designed primarily for teachers -- so folks that are teaching English during the year, but because they're high school teachers, they have the summers off. And so they come up to Bread Loaf, they take classes for the summer, and over the course of five summers -- two classes per summer -- you can get your master's.
SH:And did you have a particular focus in the program?
EB:When I first decided to go -- my first year there -- I was very interested increative writing and getting to write down some of the stories I collected from years of -- I guess at that point, the four or five years I worked in college admission, but in particular, in international admission, where I traveled abroad and got malaria at one point, and got yelled at at the Israeli-Palestinian border. So I wanted to get guidance in writing these stories 42:00down, so I went the first summer and took a couple of more creatively inclined programs, but really loved it -- it was a wonderful community, and I realized that being able to study English with people that teach English is just a wonderful chance. And so I kept with it, and over the next few years, I ended up taking many more courses that were involving literary analysis and things along those lines.
SH:What became of any of your stories?
EB:Absolutely nothing. They are saved on my laptop. But it was a fun thing toshare them with those folks.
SH:Let's talk now about your work in admissions -- in that field. How was itthat you became involved in that field?
EB:I spent one summer as an undergraduate working as a tour guide and kind ofdoing data entry, things along those lines at the admission office at Amherst, 43:00and enjoyed the summer and really enjoyed the office -- the people there were incredibly warm and supportive and I was very interested in the work that they did -- in terms of how they went about creating a class of diverse, interesting people. And after I graduated, I spent that one year in Japan, but I was able to apply for a fellowship to come back at Amherst and be what they called a "green dean" -- someone that would read applications for a year or two and then kind of go off and do their own thing after that. I got that opportunity about half a year after I came back from Japan, and I really enjoyed it. And because I had the Japanese language experience and because I didn't know any better, I asked my boss at one point -- I think it was my first year there -- whether I could go 44:00on a trip to Japan or East Asia or Asia for the college. And the woman that was in charge of that at the time -- who was fantastic -- she also had two very young kids, and so it's more difficult to go on long trips when you have little kids, and so I was actually given that opportunity pretty early on. And I had a wonderful time on the trip and enjoyed it, and I think was able to use some of the skills I'd had in Japan and traveling around Asia, as I had a little bit while I was at Doshisha, to be a good traveling partner for the people I traveled with. And so I got the opportunity to kind of stick with that, and so did that for just under six years at Amherst and then for about two years at Columbia.
SH:And you touched on, it sounded like, a few noteworthy stories from your45:00admissions career?
EB:Yes. So I was given -- when I went to Africa for the first time, I -- youhave to go and get a number of different shots to make sure that you are inoculated against some of the various ailments that you might be vulnerable to when you travel to a different place. And I actually ended up in a very fascinating conversation -- I wasn't fascinated; the person I was talking to was fascinated -- about matzo ball soup at the travel center where I was supposed to be getting these shots. And the woman who I was speaking with was really, I think, fascinated with Jewish food and Jewish culture and so she really wanted to talk about these things, and we kind of hastily went through some of the 46:00shots that I should or shouldn't be getting. And when she had asked me about where I'd be traveling and whether I'd be in cities or out in the country and how that would affect whether I'd get certain pills or shots, she said that, "Well, for malaria, it sounds like you're gonna be in cities and you're gonna be there in the winter, so it's probably not going to be an issue -- if you don't want to take the pills, you're good, you don't need to." And I'd heard bad things about the pills, because they're supposed to give you hallucinations or things along these lines -- or just be uncomfortable, provoke nausea. So I was like, Oh, that's great. If I don't have to take the pills, I won't take the pills. The problem is that then you end up getting malaria, which I did -- which is awful. I don't recommend it at all. And I had a couple of -- you know, it's -- I was in Swaziland when I came down with the effects of it -- the worst. So 47:00the way it works is that you get sick and then your antibodies fight it off, but then the parasite explodes in your liver and takes you over, and after a certain point, your body can't really continue to fight it. So I was in Swaziland when this kind of hit very hard, and I had to give a presentation. I didn't even know what was wrong with me at that point yet -- I just figured I had food poisoning -- so I tried to be a good soldier and give the presentation. And I remember beginning my presentation by gesticulating, which I often do, and at one point, when I was going like this, I looked down, and either I saw or I thought -- I think it was that I felt like my arms had turned into loaves of bread. And needless to say, the presentation did not go very well. (laughs) We did not get very many applications from that school. But I then flew back to Johannesburg 48:00after being diagnosed and given some medication in Swaziland. That medication didn't work very well. I remember being in a hotel room watching WWE wrestling and finding it very emotional and captivating, probably because of my own state at that point. And eventually, I was hospitalized, given quinine -- which is what you need to be given at a certain point -- and was lucky enough to recover and then fly back home.
SH:And you mentioned an Israel trip, as well.
EB:Yes. So -- (drinks) sorry -- there was an Amherst alum who had traveled tothe area pretty regularly and had expressed interest in the office of bringing somebody with him to recruit from the Middle East, where we didn't really get 49:00very many applications. And so I went with him. And before going with him, we kind of came up with a travel plan together. We were going to visit Jordan, where he had some familial connections. His wife was Palestinian, and I believe her father was involved at some level with the Palestinian police force or government organization at that time -- or had previously been, perhaps. But some of the family was in Jordan, so we go to Jordan. Before Jordan, I actually went to Cairo for a couple of days. Then we went from Jordan into the West Bank, and then to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, I can't remember which order. And I think that's where we finished the trip. But in conversations with him and just 50:00thinking about, you know, at that point in time, being an admission officer, traveling around, knowing a little bit but not much about where you can go with certain stamps on your passport. And the information that I had gotten indicated that, well, if you get an Israeli stamp in your passport, it might be difficult for you to -- you need to get a new passport to go to other parts of the Middle East, in the event you travel there for work. Since that event, in conversations with other folks, there are folks who have indicated that that might not have been as much of an issue as it was presented to be, given where I might have ended up traveling to. But I ended up not getting my passport stamped, which was a point of not particularly comfortable conversation when I was going into 51:00Israel and certainly at the checkpoints, when my passport was flipped through looking for the stamp. So that ended up being one of the stories that I brought to Bread Loaf. But it was an eye-opening experience for me. I had been to Israel before as maybe an eleven- or twelve-year-old -- my brother was studying at Hebrew University. But going to Israel, such that initially I was in -- coming from Jordan, going through the West Bank, and going through the checkpoints a lot -- was a very different experience and, I think, contributed a lot to my 52:00thinking about the relationship between Israel and the Palestinian territories and contributes to how I think about the various ways in which occupation functions and the -- you know, what it means to have to pull up multiple times to what looks like a tollbooth but where it's a lot of individuals who are, with very large guns, checking your documentation and such. So that was a very much educational experience. But that was at a time when I wasn't really engaged as much in studying this stuff. So it's been, I think, really helpful and interesting for me now, being in graduate school, being able to learn more about some of these issues from more of an academic perspective. 53:00
SH:On that note, can you talk about the decision to pursue your PhD?
EB:So the decision to pursue the PhD was something that I had thought about forseveral years. I wasn't certain that it was the right thing to do for several years, and I was nervous about not working full-time and earning a salary and things along these lines, and there were always reasons to not do it. But at a certain point -- especially as I was at Bread Loaf and really enjoying the classes I was taking there -- I began thinking, Well, it's a risk, but life is full of risks, and you might enjoy it very much. And I began thinking that I really would. My wife was very encouraging about my doing this, as well, which was important in being able to say, "I can do this. I can give this a shot." So 54:00I had read a book by Henry Roth called "Call It Sleep" the year after I got back from Japan at the recommendation of a professor of mine, and I loved it -- and it spoke to me more than anything I'd read by a Jewish American author before. His way of articulating what it was growing up at first in a Jewish part of New York but then moving away from that into a less Jewish part of the city -- and what that meant for his Jewish identity -- was something that I could identify with growing up in Tarrytown, where -- I mentioned there was a large Latino population there, but there weren't very many other Jewish kids at my high school. So I really enjoyed that book. And then I mentioned to my father how much I loved this book, have you read it? He said no. But he said, "I've read 55:00this other book by him, 'Mercy of a Rude Stream,' and it's wonderful, and it made me really understand my father." So I was like, All right, that's a good reason to read this other book by him. I loved the first one, my father said this was meaningful to him. And the second book, which he wrote fifty years later, is four volumes long. It's a pretty amazing autobiographical novel. But in the second volume, there is the big reveal that the protagonist, who is based on the actual author, was having a sexual relationship with his sister for many years as an adolescent. So I remember getting to that point and thinking, Wait a minute -- this made my father understand his father? Uh-oh. What does that mean? What that book -- and then those conversations -- led to was a real interest in 56:00Roth and his writing, a real sense of -- a desire to make sense out of why he was writing these things, what was the difference between autobiography and fiction in terms of what purpose he felt in telling these stories, you know, what sense to make of having one volume of the novel seem to show a relatively typical Jewish protagonist immigrant kid in a particular light, and then in the next volume, you have this evidence of really transgressive behavior come to light. So Roth brought me to grad school. He was someone I felt like, All right, I need to figure this stuff out -- or at least try to. I don't know if I ever 57:00will, but I knew I wanted to try to. And that's what really kind of was the final push in saying, "All right, let me give this a shot, I'm going to grad school."
SH:And what did you settle on for your dissertation topic?
EB:So for my dissertation topic, one of the things you learn early on is thateveryone's like, Great, you like Henry Roth. You can't do a dissertation on Henry Roth. That's not how it works anymore. You have to come up with some broader theme, a set of questions, that you are going to address. And he can be a part, and he can be a chapter, he can be part of a chapter, but you've got to get bigger than that. And the part of the book that I found most interesting was the juxtaposition of the sibling incest with the relationship that the protagonist also has with a first cousin, and the juxtaposition of those relationships with the non-Jewish woman that he eventually marries. And so the 58:00project that I'm hoping to pursue -- I mean, the process I'm pursuing, actually -- involves trying to, I think, situate not just endogamy and exogamy -- marrying in and marrying out -- but also those things along the spectrum that also includes incest, whether that is a theme in literature or a story or an actual instance of -- how these stories are then received by a broader general public when they are released either through a book or through a scandal breaking. So the project that I have in mind is something that's going to explore Roth, it's going to explore the manner in which the scandal from twenty 59:00years ago involving Woody Allen and his nontraditional family structure at that point, and what's been very much in the news lately about his then-seven-year-old adopted daughter kind of re-confirming or re-alleging the abuse at his hands. So right now I'm in the process of getting ready for comps, so it's reading a lot of Jewish American literature where there's a lot of discussion of exogamy and intermarriage and the figure of the non-Jewish other, as well as broadly looking at more of an American canonical set of texts that involve incest and how that is approached by different American groups and in different time periods.
SH:Have there been any particular mentors that you've encountered in your60:00academic career?
EB:Yes. A number, who I rely on hugely. Here at the Book Center, Josh Lamberthas been a tremendous resource. I was very lucky to meet him early on when I started last year, and I spent a lot of time with him in the spring last semester with an independent study looking at Jewish American literature -- talking about a book a week or so, and various secondary texts as well. He's been supportive of my pursuing Yiddish here at the Book Center last summer, and he's on my committee for comprehensives as well. In addition to Josh, Don Weber, who teaches down at Mount Holyoke, has been a wonderful resource. At UMass, I've been able to take a class with James Young, who works with -- a lot of work with 61:00memory and trauma, which is very, I think, important to this kind of project; Laura Briggs, who is in their Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies department; and Randall Knoper in the Latin American Studies department.
SH:Does the Yiddish language play any role in your research?
EB:It does to some extent -- I'm hoping to a greater extent as I am able toimprove in Yiddish. And I should mention -- I feel awful not to have done it already -- Bob Rothstein, who I've been studying Yiddish with for the past year at UMass and continue to work with -- where we've been able to look at some short stories and poetry, but as my Yiddish gets better, trying to think about how -- specifically, maybe, in translation, the way that exogamy is discussed. 62:00You know, when is the Yiddish word "shikse" translated to the English italicized word "shiksa"? Or, when is it not -- when is it translated in some other way? Is there any reason to analyze that? Is that meaningful? Or is it just a matter of how recognizable that word might have been in the 1940s versus the 1990s for a non-Jewish readership? But the hope right now is to be able to kind of look at how some of these same issues -- not just exogamy but also endogamy and, you know, what are the rules for who you can or cannot partner with and what you do when there's a relationship that occurs between individuals that are not 63:00supposed to be partnering. My hope is that Yiddish texts can kind of also be a resource for me in the original at some point.
SH:I'd like to turn now to any formative Jewish experiences in your life, and soI'll start by asking, have there been any experiences or maybe historical events that you would consider formative in your Jewish identity?
EB:Formative experiences in my Jewish identity? You know, it's interesting. Thefirst thing that came to mind -- I feel like it should have been bar mitzvah, but it wasn't. The first thing that came to mind was a moment in the playground in -- I'm not sure if it was fourth grade, third -- it must have been third grade, actually -- where I had gotten into some kind of argument -- who knows about what -- like, literally, at recess, right? And a young woman -- a girl -- 64:00I was a boy, she was a girl -- was angry at me. And the epithet that she used -- it was not really an epithet -- it was used as epithet, but it was just, "Jew!" And I remember that well -- I remember being very upset by that and I remember a friend of mine taking me aside and saying, "Don't worry about her, it's -- she's" -- you know, just kind of comforting me. And that is probably -- I think it's indicative of this status that being white and Jewish has in the US, where you are certainly aware of it and to some extent processed as different than, 65:00but there's also an extent to which you have more privilege -- because of, if you are white and Jewish, appearance and such -- than might otherwise be the case. So that's certainly one thing that I do remember quite well, in terms of formative experience.
SH:Would you say that learning about the Holocaust has had an impact on yoursense of Jewish history and what it means to be Jewish?
EB:Yes. One of the things I've been trying to remember is when that happened --at what age that happened. So I've got nieces and nephews now, and there are these conversations that I'll hear -- you know, from my parents, or they're talking with my siblings -- about, well, when can you introduce that? So my 66:00niece is ten. She is a -- loves to read. And I was getting her a birthday present last year. And there was some discussion of, like, well, what if this book touches on that? Is that okay or not? At one point does that end up being something that kids are emotionally mature enough to process? Can you ever be emotionally mature enough? Do they know -- they pick up on it through their own means, no matter what our best intentions are? But I can't remember a point at which I didn't know about the Holocaust. I remember moments where I learned more about it. I remember being at Hebrew school and listening to a survivor who came by to talk about his experience. But I don't remember the moment of first learning about it -- I just remember moments of learning more about it.
SH:We touched on Israel already, but have you been to any other sites of Jewish importance?67:00
EB:Katz's. Sorry. Let me think -- other sites of Jewish importance. You know, I-- in -- I think of places like Workmen's Circle camp. Let's see. (pause) You know, I'm not -- I'm drawing a little bit of a blank right now in terms of particular places. I remember when I was in Israel looking for particular 68:00landmarks in the Old City and not being able to find them and coming across other things, as well, so I've -- particular places are in some ways less important to me than being able to kind of explore and find things. I lived in Brooklyn for two years in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and I remember going on a walk one day towards Crown Heights and coming across churches with Hebrew lettering in the façades and making the sense after the fact of how neighborhoods shift -- and so it was built as a synagogue when it was a Jewish neighborhood, then became a church -- but they would put crosses up along the façade, but keep some of the Jewish iconography as well. So I think it's most interesting when you come upon places that hold significance when you're not looking for them necessarily. I've always found that to be a meaningful, interesting experience. 69:00
SH:It's time now to turn to languages -- like the Yiddish language. So let'sstart with how and where you first learned your Yiddish.
EB:Let's see. The first bit of Yiddish learning I did was with ProfessorRothstein last year in the spring. I had emailed with him. He was very encouraging of my coming by and starting off with him. And that was where it started -- looking at the alphabet and distinguishing it from the Hebrew alphabet, which I had studied when I was younger, starting with poems and now kind of looking at some short stories and chapters and such.
SH:And can you talk about the Steiner Program here at the Book Center?
EB:The Steiner Program was fantastic. I studied with Yuri Vendenyapin? Is that70:00the -- yeah, I believe that -- I'm sure I'm pronouncing it wrong, actually. But Yuri was an amazing teacher, and that was the first experience where it was actually orally -- hearing and being expected to speak. So prior to that, it was just reading with Professor Rothstein and trying to translate. But being in the classroom for three hours every morning where all the language was in Yiddish was absolutely terrifying and overwhelming and wonderful. And I think the first week was hard, because I was not getting much -- I don't think many of us were getting a huge amount, necessarily -- but that's the only way to really steepen that learning curve, so that you are -- you know, by the end of the summer I was able to hold and fairly well, understanding conversations that were happening 71:00around me in Yiddish. So there's a lot of work still to be done, but the Steiner Program -- it's a wonderful setup they have in terms of letting the students engage in the language study in the morning, but then in the afternoon, working with different scholars and professors that come in to talk about some of the cultural elements that I've been speaking very inarticulately about that are kind of wrapped up so much with the language and its history.
SH:You've studied both Yiddish and Hebrew. Where was it that you learned your Hebrew?
EB:Hebrew, Temple Israel Center in White Plains, New York. And from a young age-- I'm not sure how young -- I went to Hebrew school. And I think I went until junior year, which is when, I think, it stopped -- I graduated. You know, Hebrew 72:00-- I studied for a while, it got to a point where -- I could read it okay, but I wasn't at a point as a kid where I was very engaged with how wonderful an opportunity it was to be able to learn a language. I think I saw it more as a burden. And one of the things that I'm hopeful to do at some point is to be able to kind of improve those language skills as well. But there is first a long way to go with Yiddish, certainly.
SH:How would you describe the role or the importance of Yiddish versus Hebrew inyour research or just your Jewish identity?
EB:I think that Yiddish -- Yiddish is a language that my grandparents andgreat-grandparents and, you know, the generation before that spoke on a 73:00day-to-day basis -- either throughout their entire lives or for the early portions of their lives. And so when I began studying Yiddish with Professor Rothstein and with Yuri this summer at the Center, there was this sense of -- it's strange, because on the one hand, reconnection, but I never had a connection with Yiddish before starting to study -- it was just something that I knew that previous generations of my family had spoken. But it felt very meaningful to be able to learn -- even as slowly as I do -- elements of the language, and then being able to read poems or letters that were written to or by family members. My great-grandfather's brother Dunya -- so not Shmuel, but 74:00Dunya -- was a poet, and there are books in the Center of his poetry. So I remember being able to pull a book off the shelf and, with the help of the dictionary, make some sense of one of the poems. And that was just a very exciting moment. The other anecdote I should share is -- I showed you one of the bins, but my father gave me this box of old yellowed sheets of paper and documents -- things that my grandmother never threw out -- that were letters written to her father, to Baruch. And I went through it and I found a couple of letters with the idea that maybe Yuri would be able to help me work on translating them. And there was one letter I found that was written by Shmuel to my grandmother. And this was in, I think, the early 1940s or late '30s. And I'm thinking, Wow, I wonder what this is about. It was this connection between these 75:00figures who I had heard stories of but never knew and my grandmother, who I knew only for a few years -- I think she passed when I was nine or ten or so -- but I remember her. And it was really exciting to see this letter as this link. And so I brought it into the Center. And Yuri was great, he was really excited. He said, "This is wonderful. Do you mind if we share this with your classmates?" So we Xeroxed it, and we spent that morning translating it as a group. And what we learned -- the letter was a Yiddish lesson. So Shmuel was writing my grandmother in response to a request she had made that he might help her practice her Yiddish. And the letter basically consists of him writing, I think, in a clear 76:00and simple fashion that she, without as much Yiddish, could understand it -- but also, complimenting her on, "Your Yiddish is very good! You shouldn't say that you're not good at it. It's quite impressive!" And what was so meaningful about that is the age that my grandma was when she received that letter -- I did the math, and she was thirty-two or thirty-three -- so, about the same age that I was last summer in the program. And it felt like, Wow, I -- at my age, my grandmother was asking for help learning Yiddish -- even though she was able to clearly read this letter that I had no hope of doing alone -- and I'm at the same age starting this. So it felt close to my grandmother to be able to have that experience -- and also very close to the other folks in the Steiner Program, where it was with their help -- they're kind of poring over this letter 77:00from members of my family to help me understand this piece of my own history that was deeply meaningful -- and one of the most meaningful memories I have from that wonderful summer.
SH:Now, despite the recent resurgence of interest in Yiddish, there are stillsome who say that Yiddish is a dead or a dying language. What do you think?
EB:We've had conversations about that at Steiner last year, and -- you know,it's spoken. It might not be spoken by a huge number of individuals, but it's spoken. It's written. There are so many books where you can engage and read and encounter it, so -- especially given how much fun some of these books are. And if you're -- I'm reading "Motl" right now, and I crack up laughing while 78:00translating it, because it's funny. And so the idea about language that can crack you up as being a dead language -- at some level it just doesn't make sense or compute to me. The notion that a certain number of people need to be speaking it or that there is some moral obligation to speak the language -- I'm not sure that I feel that. I think that it's there, and there are a lot of folks who, I think, pursue it because they love pursuing it. And while that's happening, I don't think -- personally, I don't feel like the -- the notion of it being dead or dying or any of these things are too crucially important points 79:00to kind of waste too much time worrying about.
SH:And overall, how would you say the connection that you've made to Yiddish andYiddishkayt -- how does that fit into your broader sense of your broader sense of Jewish identity?
EB:I think the most meaningful part is being able to read some of the letters,some of the books, poems, things along those lines, and make sense of family history, Jewish American history, Jewish history. We would do -- there would be moments last summer where we'd get together and we'd sing, and it was a lot of fun. I'm a terrible singer, so I -- for me, the Yiddishkayt piece -- there's 80:00meaning there, and there's a wonderful sense of community -- to be able to engage in those activities. But at heart, what's most, I think, rewarding for me is being able to kind of make sense of and uncover some of what's out there that I'm interested in -- and being able to make sense of it, translate it, and understand some of what's been written.
SH:Well, we're nearing the end of our time, so I'd like to ask if there'sanything more you'd like to talk about that we missed during the interview.
EB:I think we've covered a lot of things, right? (laughs) Were there other81:00things that I had mentioned on the questionnaire that I didn't get to or bring up?
SH:Nothing comes to mind.
EB:Nothing comes to mind. Yeah. No. This has been fun. I hope it comes throughas sensical on the video.
SH:I have a couple last questions if that's okay.
SH:First, do you have a favorite Yiddish word?
EB:Do I have a favorite Yiddish word? This is very James Lipton right now,right? Um -- anything that starts with "oys [out]." I like saying "oys."
SH:Any particular reason?
SH:Well, can you say, what does "oys" mean?
EB:Out. I think it's -- I think "oysnveynik" I learned recently, which is "byheart." Is that right? I'm probably wrong. But -- it's funny, but there are just some -- I guess is it a diphthong, if you do the "oys"? I think it's a diphthong. I like the word "smock," which is an English word. I like the way it 82:00sounds. I have no affinity for smocks, but for me, it's probably more just the sound of certain words that I find fun.
SH:And what advice do you have for people interested in learning about theYiddish language or Jewish culture?
EB:To never feel like it's too late to start exploring and learning -- I thinkthat's something that -- being a little older when I got into this, that was a concern of mine, but there are so many folks out there that are truly interested in helping folks to learn and to engage in the language and in the culture that -- that would be my biggest advice there.
SH:Well, Eli, on behalf of the Wexler Oral History Project at the Yiddish BookCenter, I want to thank you for sharing your story with our project. And I want to personally thank you for sharing some very entertaining and also wise and 83:00insightful stories. Thank you very much.
EB:Thank you so much. My pleasure.
[END OF INTERVIEW]