Happy Purim!

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Since Purim begins this Saturday night, I thought I’d feature a Purim-themed excerpt. Chapter 3, “Happy Purim,” of the book formerly known as The Very Next, takes place on 4 March 1939 (also a Saturday). It’s interspersed with public domain photos of illuminated Megillot (scrolls of the Book of Esther) and a few vintage photographs. Sadly, it’s very hard to find vintage greeting cards for any Jewish holiday except Rosh Hashanah.

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That evening, Sparky reached into Cinni’s closet for her Purim costume, a Gypsy outfit she’d put together with Cinni’s help.  The dress was peacock-green, with long, flowing sleeves, a floor-length skirt, and a modest neckline.  To transform it from just an ordinary but fancy dress into a real costume, Sparky wrapped herself in a deep blue silk scarf, wrapped her hair in a dark orange velvet scarf, and exchanged her French hook ruby earrings for huge gold hoops she’d picked up at an indoor flea market last month.

“Now why are you perfectly okay with wearing a costume for this holiday, but you felt wrong for wearing a Halloween costume?” Cinni asked. “It’s exactly the same, just for a different holiday.”

“They’re completely different holidays,” Sparky said. “Purim is a Jewish holiday, and Halloween is a pagan holiday.  They’re celebrated for totally different reasons, and have completely different origins.  There are no Purim costumes with stuff like pumpkins, bats, spiders, and witches.  Even the treats we give out are different.”

“So you’re going trick-or-treating after you do your thing at synagogue?”

“We don’t trick-or-treat.  We exchange gift baskets with stuff like money and hamentaschen.  None of the gift baskets have stuff like chocolate bars, caramels, and whatever else you got on Halloween.”

“You get treats for doing nothing?”

“It ain’t nothing.  You wouldn’t get treats unless you were a member of the synagogue, or we knew you.  It ain’t a mitzvah to give Gentiles mishloach manot, but we’ll give you one ‘cause we love you so much.”

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Sparky finished changing into her costume and headed downstairs to join her family.  Cinni sat at the top of the stairs and watched them heading off to synagogue.  Mr. and Mrs. Small were dressed rather boringly, as an Army officer and flapper.  Cinni wondered where Mr. Small had found the vintage military uniform with all the medals and insignia.  He’d been too young to serve in the Great War, and since it was an American uniform, it obviously hadn’t belonged to any of his ancestors or older relatives.  Gary, just turned fifteen, was dressed just as boringly, as a sailor.

Of all their costumes, Cinni liked best Sparky’s Gypsy costume and Barry’s toreador costume.  It reminded her of Rudolph Valentino’s suit of lights in Blood and Sand, in one of the vintage movie advertisements of her namesake which she’d collected over the years.  If Barry were this beautiful from a distance, she could only imagine how much more dashing he’d look when he came back later tonight and she’d be able to see him up-close and from the front.

***

Cinni spent the next few hours listening to the radio and reading movie magazines, ignoring her small pile of homework.  She almost always saved homework for the very last moment, as many times as her mother begged her to do it immediately instead of the night or morning before.  Only the Nobodies liked homework and did it right away.

Cinni didn’t have particularly hard homework, nothing more than a few worksheets with math problems or vocabulary lists in English, French, Italian, and Portuguese.  This was nothing that needed lots of time to complete, like a twenty-page research paper or complicated trigonometry problems.  Life should be about having fun, particularly now that the wolf had been chased away from the door.  She’d had enough hard times in the first few years of the decade, hardships enough to last for the rest of her life.

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Near the time the Smalls were expected to come home, Cinni left her amusements and went downstairs to wait on the davenport.  Lucinda was on one of the other cushions, bent over the spring dresses she’d begun making for her nieces and daughter several weeks ago.  Every year, Lucinda made the girls special spring dresses from repurposed materials found around the house.  Last year, they’d been made from quilts, and this year, they were being fashioned from curtains.

The materials in prior years had included pillowcases, lightweight blankets, bedsheets, silk shawls from London, scarves from Los Angeles, pillow shams, satin bonnets from Amsterdam, and cloth shower curtains.  Before the Stock Market Crash, the family’s spring wardrobe had come from expensive catalogues and upscale department stores.  It amazed Cinni how Lucinda could be frugal and ingenious in this way, but otherwise waste so much money on fancy house embellishments and overpriced clothes for herself.

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“You want a change of scenery from that boring little sewing room?” Cinni asked. “It musta been hard to lug that big old sewing machine here.”

Lucinda sighed. “How can I concentrate in there anymore, now that I have a roommate?  Samantha shows no signs of moving out, though I don’t know how she can bear to sleep on that little cot.  Your father told her she could share the attic with you and Sparky, but she likes my sewing room more.  Maybe she thinks she’s being some holy Christian martyr by depriving herself of a real bed.”

“Martyr, nothing!” Urma shouted from across the room. “My girl ain’t gonna share her sleeping quarters with some Yid!  Bad enough we have to share living quarters with five of ‘em indefinitely.  If she were younger, I’d insist she sleep in the bed Mortez and I got.  But a sewing room cot is still a bed, however pathetic.”

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“I’m going to need my sewing room back eventually.  I can handle a few days of being displaced, but I can’t keep sewing in other rooms, without any privacy.  Perhaps you and your daughter don’t understand that room is my castle, my special place all my own in this house.  I’ve always been happy to live with my dear sister’s family, but it’s nice to have a small room all my own, where I can go to be alone with my thoughts and not be bothered or distracted by anyone or anything else.”

“It’s true,” Cinni says. “Aunt Lucinda is constantly holed up in that precious sewing room of hers.  It’s her special place, and not very nice to intrude upon it.  I hope Sam ain’t gonna steal nothing from it, though it ain’t like Aunt Lucinda generally sews with fancy stuff like golden thread and silk cloth.”

“Stealing is against the Bible!” Urma thundered “My girl would never steal anything!  And why do you have such awful grammar?  I don’t want words like ‘ain’t’ and double negatives to rub off on my girl.  That’s not how proper, civilized people speak.”

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“It’s how my niece talks,” Lucinda said protectively, putting her arm around Cinni. “Most of the people in this neighborhood talk like that, even the rich people.  We live in a very strange neighborhood.  It’s hardly a crime to not speak the King’s English.  Cinni’s not hurting anyone by saying ‘ain’t’ or using double negatives most of the time.  She does use proper English sometimes, so it’s not like she’s ignorant of the existence of more refined grammar.  It’s the same way with how she speaks Russian with her father’s mother, and how my sister and I speak Polish with our parents.  You speak differently depending upon your audience.”

Urma screamed and made a hex sign. “You mean to say I’m not only sharing living space with five Yids, but also with sub-human Slavs?  I had no idea Mortez’s friend had a Pollack wife and was part Russian.”

“Yes, my sister and I are almost entirely of Polish blood, and damn proud of it.  Our maiden name is Radulski, and our birth names are Łucja and Katarzyna.  We’ve been in this country for a very long time, since the early days of Polish immigration.  H.G.’s mother is Russian, and he was born in St. Petersburg.  Since he came to America when he was only twelve, he doesn’t have a Russian accent anymore.”

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Urma was weeping. “I don’t want to live in this house anymore.  This is such a nightmare Mortez sprung on me.  I want to go back to D.C.  My sister Ursula would take us in, even if she’s got seven kids.  There’d only be eleven people in her home, as compared to seventeen here.”

“Well, it’s too late to move now,” Mortez spoke up softly. “I’m already looking for jobs here, and I’ve gotten attached to this city in the last few days.  It’s much less crowded and fast-paced than Washington.  Don’t make me move when I’ve barely started to get settled into a new place.  I’m happy here so far, and I wasn’t very happy in Washington.  This is one issue you can’t push me around regarding.  We’re staying in Atlantic City.”

Urma growled and stalked out of the room.

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“Why do you let your wife railroad over you so much?” Cinni asked after she was positive Urma was well out of earshot. “She’s even worse than the wives in Laurel and Hardy’s movies.  That’s just make-believe, and those wives ain’t really bullies or mean.  Your wife is a whole different type of henpecker.”

“She is who she is.  I can’t change that.  Sometimes we fall in love with a person with a really bad character flaw, and we have to ignore it because we love the person so much otherwise.”

“That’s more than just a character flaw like always being late or being a bad cook.  She’s outright mean, and a religious fanatic.”

“I agree, but I can’t do anything about it.  She wasn’t a fanatic when we were growing up.  That only happened after Samantha was born.  An intolerant fanatic wouldn’t have had a child out of wedlock, let alone gotten in the family way at just fifteen.”

“You can say ‘pregnant’ around me, Mr. Smart.  I ain’t some little glass flower who’s never heard that word before.  No matter what my mom thinks, I don’t consider words like ‘pregnant’ and ‘uterus’ dirty.  There are some words I refuse to say or write, but I don’t mind the milder, more basic words for adult things.”

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Mortez stared at her. “Aren’t you a young spitfire.  You remind me a bit of what Urma was like before that damned Minister Hodges corrupted her mind against reality and normalcy.  By the way, you don’t have to call me Mr. Smart.  My wife and I prefer to be called by our first names, even if it’s not considered proper etiquette.  It just feels so strange to go by titles when we’re not even thirty yet.  My father is Mr. Smart, but I’m just Mortez.”

“So, can I ask where your first name came from?  I’ve never heard that name before.  It sounds a little Spanish, but you can’t be Spanish with a last name like Smart.”

“My parents are of German descent, but not completely knowledgeable about the language.  They wanted to call me Moritz, but misremembered the name.  It was too late by the time they realized they’d made an embarrassing mistake.”

“That’s kinda like my name.  I know my name isn’t spelt properly, but I’m so used to the way my mom spelt it, the so-called real spelling looks odd to me.  The pronunciation is a lot more obvious with my so-called misspelling.  I’m glad my daddy’s mom didn’t get her way and name me Alexa, ‘cause that’d be too confusing in my circle of friends.  We already have an Alexandria Kate, and we couldn’t both have the same nicknames.” Cinni leapt up at the sound of the doorbell.

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To Cinni’s great delight, Barry was the first person behind the door.  He looked just as beautiful in the suit of lights as she suspected he would.  Best of all, he had a big smile for her, and what she almost thought were a special look in his eyes.

“This is yours,” Barry said, extending a large basket. “I’ve never given mishloach manot to Gentiles before, but everyone in your family deserves one for being so good to us.  Without your father, we’d still be in Europe, with God knows what kind of future.”

Cinni returned the smile and eagerly took the basket.  She headed back to the davenport with it, and delightedly discovered oranges, hamentaschen, saltwater taffy, gumdrops, chocolate-covered peanuts, a bottle of grape pop, and five silver dollars.

“I packed that one just for you,” Barry said, smiling at her again. “I know what a sweet tooth you have.  You’d never be happy with the mishloach manot we made for your parents and siblings.”

“Thank you very much.  You’re really swell to be so nice to someone your kid sister’s age.  I still can’t believe you let me be a guest of honor at your bar mitzvah.”

“I don’t care how young you are.  You’re a nice girl, and that’s all that matters.”

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Cinni looked through the contents of the basket over and over again, daydreaming about being old enough for a boyfriend in a few years and doing boy-girl things with Barry.  Forget about her fantasy crush on John.  Almost every girl in town had a crush on John, and at eighteen, he was far too old for her.  Even if Cinni were eighteen herself, she’d still think the age difference were too large, never mind that her belovèd father had been twenty-five to her mother’s eighteen at their wedding.  That was different and special, and had happened in another generation besides.  But Barry wasn’t that much older than she was.  Their age difference was large enough to be exciting, but not so large it would be inappropriate once their ages leveled out a bit more.  Only time could tell if her dream would come true someday.

“Happy Purim, Barry,” she said with a smile.

Writing a pre-Vatican II or traditionalist Catholic character

If you’re writing historical fiction set before the Second Vatican Council of 1962–65, your characters will pretty much be old-school Catholics by default. My Laura (whom I initially based on a very religious Catholic friend of mine), whose dream is to be the first female Pope and who gets bounced from her church for her radical ideas, is the exception, not the norm.

Contemporary Catholics who don’t accept the liberalizing changes of Vatican II prefer to call themselves simply Catholics, but the term “traditionalist Catholic” is used to distinguish them from Catholics with a more modern outlook.

So what would be going on in such a character’s world?

Latin Mass! This is probably one of the best-known changes of Vatican II. The sermon would’ve been delivered in the vernacular, but the Mass itself was all in Latin.

The priest didn’t face his congregation. Again, he would’ve faced them for the sermon, but during the actual Mass, he faced towards the altar.

Nuns and monks wore full habits. The particulars differed by order, but you wouldn’t have found them going about in street clothes or abbreviated habits. I’ve always loved and admired nuns, and feel kind of sad most no longer wear any sort of habit.

There were junior seminaries for teenagers who wanted to join religious life, and many teens went right from their parents’ homes to the convent or monastery upon high school graduation. As compared to today, it wasn’t uncommon for many nun and priest novices to be all of 18 years old.

Going to Catholic school was much more common. My character Laura and her four siblings are so liberal for their era in large part because their family is too poor to afford Catholic school. In public school, they absorb all kinds of ideas and interact with different types of people, instead of only seeing the world through a very Catholic lens. Some schools didn’t charge tuition for church members, but others did.

The Eucharist was taken with closed eyes, kneeling, and not chewed. The priest would put it in the person’s open mouth, and it would be dissolved. Today, it’s not uncommon for people to stand up, keep their eyes open, take it with their hands, and chew it.

Much larger families! I don’t think I need to explain the traditional Catholic prohibition against any sort of birth control. Unless there were fertility issues, or a priest approved a hysterectomy for something like very aggressive cancer or pelvic TB, a family would have a lot of kids.

Limbo of Infants, while never official Catholic doctrine, was more widely-believed. Some people (both theologians and laypeople) speculated unbaptized babies went to Limbo.

More of an us against them feeling, both in regards to other faiths and the world at large. Obviously, this sentiment wasn’t unique to Catholics, as interfaith relations 50+ years ago weren’t exactly what they are today.

Not eating meat on Fridays, except for feast days like Christmas and Easter. Today, it’s more common to only abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent.

Women and girls covered their heads in church, with either hats or beautiful lace veils.

Going to Confession more frequently.

Fasting for at least three hours before taking Communion.

As for the Greek Catholic churches, there’s been much less resistance to the Vatican II changes. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has had the most problems with the changes.

Taking everything in the Bible literally.

Ascribing much more to Papal infallibility, with much less personal dissent on issues like birth control, abortion, euthanasia, premarital sex, and divorce.

Mass took place on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. Since Vatican II, many churches have begun holding Mass on Saturday evenings and the evening before a Holy Day of Obligation. However, Mass still isn’t celebrated on Good Friday (though pre-blessed Communion is available).

Let me know if I missed anything important! If you’re Catholic, are you a traditionalist or more liberal? Have you ever written any Catholic characters?

WeWriWa—Csilla’s surprise

Happy heavenly 98th birthday to my favorite writer, Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn!

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8 sentences from a book or WIP. This week’s snippet comes a few lines after last week’s, when Imre asked Csilla if she’d like to light a chanukiyah too. Csilla thinks he’s bought her one as a present, but her guess is only half-right.

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Chanukah 1945, DP camp in Fürstenfeldbruck, Germany (Source)

The chanukiyah she withdrew from the bag was none other than her family’s old chanukiyah, which her mother had bought from an upscale shop when she was away at university in Budapest in 1911.  It was made of fused glass of a rainbow of colors resembling a patchwork quilt, with sterling silver candle holders.  Some wax from Chanukah 1943 was still on it, an eternal reminder of what once had been.

Csilla couldn’t help but wonder if Hungarian Jewry would’ve made it to the end of the war still as intact as possible had Horthy not decided to break his alliance with Germany.  It would probably be a forever unanswered question, just as she sometimes wondered what might’ve happened had the Allies bombed the train tracks and the camps.

“Now I like you more than before.” Csilla put her free arm around him. “I’d prefer if you hadn’t risked your life and liberty to break into the house and dig up those valuables, but I’m so happy you were able to recover some of my things.  There’s less of a hole in my heart now.”

Csilla set the chanukiyah on the table and filled the holders with orange candles.

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One of many fused glass chanukiyot made by legendary Judaica artist Tamara Baskin

Imre and his sister Júlia weren’t smuggled out of Soviet-controlled Hungary with the others because Imre was determined to dig up Csilla’s valuables and take revenge on the gendarme who tortured her and moved into her house after her family were deported.

Imre found the valuables, along with a sled in a dark corner, but he also ran into a lot of trouble with the gendarme. Though Imre has always been a lover instead of a fighter, he couldn’t control himself for long, and began violently beating the gendarme in a white-hot rage. During the altercation, he accidentally punched a brick wall with his left hand (his dominant hand), and broke every bone in that hand and wrist.

Imre has been giving her back her recovered valuables one at a time, so Csilla will have many more surprises to look forward to. She doesn’t yet know he indeed found everything on the list she gave him.

WeWriWa—Candles and food

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8 sentences from a book or WIP. This week’s snippet comes a few lines after last week’s, when a most exquisite Italian Chanukah feast was being prepared. Enough food was made to last the entire holiday.

A few of my characters were able to recover possessions after the war, and so have chanukiyot to light.

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Chanukah during the Yom Kippur War, 1973, Copyright Matanya (Flickr), Source

Once the table was set with chicken, stuffed mushrooms, kugel, fried eggplant, deep-fried artichokes, eggplant salad, and both kinds of latkes, Caterina filled the little bowls of her chanukiyah with olive oil, Eszter set red candles in hers, Jákob set green candles in Rebeka’s chanukiyah, Klaudia set white candles in Lea’s chanukiyah, and Aranka set purple candles in her chanukiyah.

There was melted, hardened wax on Lea and Rebeka’s chanukiyot, a wordless reminder of how their owners had been alive last Chanukah.  So much had changed in that one year.  Last year at this time, many more of their friends had still been alive too, no matter under which kind of bestial circumstances.  A life of suffering was still a life.

Imre disappeared into his room and came back with the orange gift bag. “Would you like to light too, Csicsi?” He smiled at her, his puppy dog eyes soft and warm.

“With what chanukiyah, something you bought me as a present?” Csilla took the bag and pulled out the object that felt like a chanukiyah.

Deep-fried artichoke, Copyright Signor DeFazio, Source Flickr

Italy’s first feature film

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I had the privilege of adding Italy’s first feature film, L’Inferno, to my list of silents seen as #1,117. I can’t believe I’d never had a chance to see it before, given how famous and important it is, and how in love with Dante I am. I went back and forth with a few versions before finally settling on the Tangerine Dream soundtrack. It seemed the most appropriate, as jarring as it was to occasionally hear singing.

Released 10 March 1911 by the Teatro Mercandante in Napoli (Naples), this film was over three years in the making and a huge international success. In the U.S. alone, it made over two million dollars. Since it was over an hour long, theatre owners felt justified in raising ticket prices.

L’Inferno is not only widely considered the first true blockbuster of film history, but the finest film adaptation of any of Dante’s writings ever. I wish they’d gone all the way and done Purgatorio and Paradiso as well!

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1910s films have always been kind of hit-or-miss for me. They remind me of a gangly preteen or teenager with growing pains, in process of finding an established place in the world. Films had evolved beyond short snippets and one-reelers, but the medium couldn’t jump right into fully-blown perfect features and longer short subjects. Everyone was still learning how to tell stories via moving pictures, and that included acting techniques, camera movement and angles, and scripts.

This excellent 105-year-old film isn’t one of those 1910s films which disappointed me. It does such a wonderful job of bringing Dante’s otherworldly journey to life. The scenes and characters are based upon the famous 19th century woodcut illustrations by Gustave Doré, which were very familiar internationally.

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If you’ve read The Divine Comedy, you’re probably familiar with the general outline of the story. On Good Friday in the year 1300, Dante wakes up in the Wood of Error, no idea how he got there or how he lost the way so badly. He takes heart from the rising Sun, and begins climbing the Delectable Mountain.

Dante is ambushed by a leopard (lust), a lion (pride), and a female wolf (avarice). He turns back in terror and encounters his idol, the great Roman poet Virgil. Here the film takes a turn from the book by showing Beatrice summoning Virgil to rescue Dante.

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The film does such a wonderful job at bringing Dante’s rich imagination to life, and depicting each Circle and Ring of Hell. Along the way, several famous stories are told in flashback, such as the stories of murdered lovers Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, and the unfortunate Count Ugolino. Some scenes from the book are left out, and some of the geography is altered, but overall, it’s really faithful to the source material.

Some arrogant modern-day folks who can’t think outside of CGI might mock the special effects and otherworldly creatures as lame and outdated, but I really loved them. There was so much effort put into making this film, and Doré’s illustrations really are brought to stunning life.

Some of the creatures are still just as terrifying in the modern era, like Bertram de Born holding his own severed head, the giant head of Lucifer eating a person, and thieves transmogrifying into snakes.

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L’Inferno contains one of film’s rare few depictions of Prophet Mohammed. His chest gapes open and his entrails hang out. Dante, like most Medieval Christians, was under the false impression that Prophet Mohammed was a schismatic, though he was never Christian to begin with!

I’ll have a future post discussing how to handle and express discomfort with things like this when reviewing older books and films.

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There’s really no substitute for reading the book (all the way through, not just Part I!), but the film does a masterful job at showing many of the scenes and conveying the essence of this great work of literature. However, since film technology wasn’t yet equipped to film in the dark, we don’t get to see the stars Dante and Virgil behold again when they climb out of Hell at the end.

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It’s hard to put into words just how very, very much Dante means to me, how much I love and admire him. He represents the best the human race is capable of, a beautiful antidote against all the evil, ignorance, and cruelty that exists. No matter how far we might fall, how badly we’re lost, there’s always hope of finding our way back.